Arcadia

Villages have edgelands too. Rural ‘non-places’ that, like Brogden’s urban wasteland sites, are deprived of our attention, regard and affection (Brogden, 2019). These are marginal, interstitial spaces. Forgotten and taken for granted (Warnes, 2018), they are rarely destinations in their own right. Blink and we miss them — as we hurry on, eyes fixed on sites more privileged, more valued. Sites that plead the badge of heritage and tradition.

But in our edgelands there is meaning, myth and memory too. Look carefully though. For nothing is really as it seems. Arcadia and artefact embrace and confound. Edge and boundary twitch and coalesce — where does foliage end and machine begin?  The dance between the two is random and sporadic; the tune that leads them comes and goes. So listen carefully and you might hear. Take time to look and you might see.

And meaning here has to be won. For there is, as Mark Fisher suggests of the Marie Celeste and the statues on Easter Island, an eerie absence of presence (Fisher, 2016). Questions proliferate: who abandoned the cultivator and trailer and why? Will they ever be resurrected? What does the abandoned drum on the bridge signify? Who maintains the pylon and sub-station (for they are never seen)?

If you sense the answers, welcome. For you have glimpsed the true Arcadia.

 

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bridge

 

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wire

 

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cultivator

 

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pylon

 

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trailer

 

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tank

 

Brogden , J. (2019) Photography and the non-place: the cultural erasure of the city. Palgrave Macmillan.

Fisher, M. (2016) The weird and the eerie. Repeater.

Warnes, S. (2018) ‘Managing tensions in an English cathedral – an embodied spatial perspective’, in Kingma, S.F., Dale, K. and Wasserman, V. (eds.) Organizational space and beyond: the significance of Henri Lefebvre for organization studies. Routledge.

All illustrations, Ian Rodwell. South Norfolk, July 2019. Holga 120.

 

 

Macabre

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Ghost signs, as we have seen, haunt the margins of many zones. Here, fixed categories blur before our eyes. These faded imprints, inked or carved on shop face or wall, elide past, present, future, materiality, insubstantiality, presence and absence. To those that care to listen, they murmur of long-forgotten brands — cigarettes, flour, razors — or whisper stories of former use and occupancy: grocer, ironmonger, tripe dresser.

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In their susurration, half-heard above the squeal and thrum of brake and engine, we learn that all things must pass: brands, products, services, companies. For we are complacent in our organisations — comforted by the diurnal rhythm of the work we do. But ghost signs teach us that the firms and institutions (and the buildings that enclose them) rise and fall. Products and brands come and go. We are eternally poised on the limens — the threshold to oblivion.

The ghost sign reveals the past speaking in the present to remind us of our transience and disclosing the future to show the decay and dissolution that awaits us all. And such dialogues connect us to older dialogue and these signs to older signs. For these contemporary memento-mori have spectral ancestors who still walk silently beside us today.

What I am, they were, and they are, I will be

The admonitory advice of the ghost sign can be summarised in the words of St Bernard of Clairvaux, quoted by Paul Binski in Medieval death: ritual and representation (1996). Binski argues that the theme of the transience of the world was deeply rooted in Judaeo-Christian tradition and that the Christian notion of the body as a sign was implicated in the emergence of the macabre — a period of European art that lasted for 300 years between 14th and 16th centuries.

And there is one motif within the macabre that pre-figures later ghost signs and provides resonance and context for what was to follow. It too warns against complacency, emphasises the ineluctability of change, stresses the criticality of remedial action and, in its physical manifestations, materialises and embodies the rise and fall of organisations. Yet this sign is also ambiguous.

The motif is that of the Three Living and the Three Dead and the story is a simple one. Three young men, often depicted as kings, are out hunting, dressed in their finery (the splendour of which indicates their social status and importance). These Three Living then meet three cadavers in various stages of decomposition. A dialogue ensues in which the living express fear and mortification while the dead exhort them to improve their ways and to reflect on the transience of their lives and the foolishness of their behaviour.

So to explore further, let me take you to a remote Norfolk church. It is late on a smoky, damp Autumn afternoon. Saturday perhaps. Dusk is falling and the only sound is that of crow in yew and foot on gravel path. We open the wire-door to the porch and fumble with the lock on the centuries old door to the nave. We step inside and this is what we see.

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The encounter is a dialogue — and a dialogue by means of a doubled self. Mark Fisher, in The Weird and the Eerie, argues that the weird is the presence of something that should not be there. It is a ‘signal that the concepts and frameworks which we have previously employed are now obsolete’ (Fisher, 2016). And three decaying doppelgangers are not what our hunting kings expect to encounter.

And this unsettling, this disorientation, continues.

Binski explains how the image is ternary: it implicates us a viewer. We, as well as the three living are the recipients of the message. We are both inside and outside the scene, suspended in a hall of mirrors.

And this liminality proliferates. We see confusion of the animate and inanimate — and the reversal of initiative and agency as the regal hunters become the hunted.

We are also caught in a moment of instability between three temporal realms: as with ghost signs, the past imposes on the present to warn us of the future.

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The scene depicted is topographically liminal. The forest is represented by bare, lifeless, skeletal trees. This bleak landscape echoes to the past and to the future. Back to the ‘marches…heath…and the desolate’ fens in which the ‘grim demon’ Grendel dwelt in Beowulf.  And, in its withered starkness, forward perhaps to the shattered fields of Flanders. This is  ‘no-man’s land’: a contested geography inhabited by the both the living and the dead but to which neither can lay ultimate claim.

Even the wall painting’s physicality is liminal as time, concealment, damp and neglect ‘transform the qualities of matter’ (DeSilvey and Edensor 2013). Such processes of decay mock any compulsion for order (Edensor, 2001). Where does bare wall end and image begin? Corruption erodes the boundariness of objects: they become something else. Like all liminal artefacts, they are betwixt and between.

This wall painting also — though its very materiality — speaks of organisational change.

Many wall paintings were destroyed by puritan reformers or, as with Seething and Wickhampton, whitewashed over.

The zeal of the puritans is also visible in the rood panel scene of the Dance Macabre at nearby Sparham church. The eyes of the skeletal bride and bridegroom have been gouged out — a treatment usually afforded to icons of the saints.

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You could argue that this material disfigurement — like the effacement of the wall paintings — both embodies and reflects organisational transition. A mature and established market incumbent, the Church of Rome, has fallen victim to a hostile takeover by a brash young start-up: Reformation plc. The image’s vandalised materiality serves as a memento mori of the transience of organisational power and dominant market share.

But the message these ghosts bring is potentially more nuanced; more ambiguous.

This is an excerpt from the 15th century poem, The Three Kings — a retelling of the Three Living and the Three Dead — by John Audelay (translated by Giles Watson). The scene is vividly set:

And out of the grove, three men came into view:

Shadowy phantoms, fated to show,

With legs long and lean, and limbs all askew,

Their livers and lights all foetid…

The first king is cringing, his heart overcast,

For he recognises the cross on a rotting king’s shroud…

“Fiends? Demons? Nay! You’re mistaken!

We’re you’re fathers – salt of the earth – soon forgotten’

These dead are not just random ghosts. As the title suggests, they too were kings which makes them ancestors of the living Kings. And the first living king cringes because he recognises the heraldic sign on his ancestor’s rotting shroud. In a semiotic twist, the king’s identity has withered to a decaying sign. This connection is amplified by the second dead’s king assertion: we are not fiends, we are your fathers.

So, intertwined with the theme of transition and change is that of continuity. And the warning here, as Ashby Kinch identifies, is: do not ignore or debase one’s lineage (Kinch, 2008).

Consequently, dissolution may not prove inevitable. And, of course, some of the ghost signs we see relate to products and companies that have survived.

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This ghost is still very much alive – the lineal line persists (‘any time, any place, any where’ perhaps). And the message to its organisational descendants is ‘remember your brand legacy’. By paying heed and respect to tradition, corporate identity (‘the cross on a rotting king’s shroud’) may endure and survive. But to do so requires agency and intercessory action and, if we fail in our duties, then purgatory — or something worse —awaits.

So, the lesson the macabre teaches us is that ghosts (and the signs they haunt) speak not just of decay and negation but of continuity too. And, in this ambiguity, the ambivalence of the message, they are, of course, truly liminal.

(Adapted from a paper – ‘A warning to the curious: ghost signs as liminal memento-mori‘ presented at the Standing Conference on Organisational Symbolism 2019, held in York, 9-11 July)

Binski, P. (1996) Medieval death: ritual and representation. Cornell University Press

DeSilvey, C. and Edensor, T. (2013) ‘Reckoning with ruins’, Progress in Human Geography, 37(4), pp. 465–485.

Edensor, T. (2001) ‘Haunting in the ruins: matter and immateriality’, Space and Culture, 11/12, pp. 42-51.

Heaney, S. (translation) (1999) Beowulf. Faber and Faber.

Fisher, M. (2016) The weird and the eerie. Repeater.

Kinch, A. (2008) ‘Image, ideology, and form: the middle english“Three Dead Kings” in its iconographic context’, The Chaucer Review, 43(1), pp. 48-81.

Illustrations.

Rodwell, I. (2019) Sparham Church, Norfolk

Rodwell, I. (2019) York

Rodwell, I. (2019) Seething Church, Norfolk

Rodwell, I. (2019) Seething Church, Norfolk

Rodwell, I. (2019) Sparham Church, Norfolk

Rodwell, I. (2011) Bar-Sur-Loup, Nice, France

 

Marsh

Marsh, mire, fen, bog, slough, morass and wetland. These are liminal landscapes. Places of making and unmaking where water cedes to land and land to water. The world here is never topographically still. Waterlands are ‘fungible’ and ‘highly motile spaces’ (Leyshon, pp.155-156). And this terrain is not to be trusted. It demands caution, respect and propitiation. Among the sedge, reed and rush, we hear the trickster’s laugh; for the ground underfoot is literally (and materially) ‘shifty’.

IMG_0968In the wetlands, nothing is what it seems. While investigating the Hound of the Baskervilles, Dr Watson comments that Dartmoor’s Grimpen Mire looks a rare place for a gallop. It takes the minatory Stapleton to caution that ‘a false step yonder means death to man or beast’ (Conan Doyle, p.82). For this is not a passive land. This bog is alive, infused with agency and vengeful will – it possesses a ‘tenacious grip’ wielded by a ‘malignant hand’ (p. 179). This potency is recognised by Daisy Johnson in the short story Starver where the eels caught on the draining of the fens refuse to eat: ‘it was a calling down of something upon the draining’ and some said they ‘heard words coming from the ground as the water was pumped away’ (Johnson, loc 39).

IMG_0039.jpegFolklore too recognises the spiteful malevolence of the wetlands. Those of the marsh tell stories of Will o’ the Wisp, Jack o’ Lantern, Spunkie, Pinket or Ignis Fatuus. This dangerous fairy takes delight in making unwary travellers lose their way – or their lives. Shifting its shape to promise beauty or riches, it tempts the foolish and gullible to flounder in the hungry, sucking bog.

The marsh is a ‘thin place’ between the natural and the supernatural. Here votive offerings are made and chthonic gods placated. Shield, sword, helmet and torc are relinquished to water. These are the links that solder the living to the dead. And darker gifts are also tendered. In Denmark, more than 500 bog bodies have been found – sacrificial victims that are remarkably intact, preserved by the peat in which they were interred. In the liminal, ritual space of the wetlands, time too is not what it seems. These bodies slip their temporal constraints. Mummified flesh and bone make the Iron Age contemporary. Feature and expression vivid, startling – as if disturbed from yesterday’s sleep. And the past inhabits the present in other ways. In a series of poems inspired by the bog people, Seamus Heaney draws connections between ‘sacrifices to the Mother Goddess of Earth and the violent history of Northern Ireland’ (Morrison, p.47).

Out there in Jutland

In the old man killing parishes

I will feel lost,

Unhappy and at home

The Tollund Man

Fluxed between the material and immaterial, the past and the present, marsh, mire and estuary are border territories. And these ‘borders do not correspond to national boundaries, and papers and documents are unrequired at them’ (Macfarlane, p.78). Caught in this betwixt and between world, it is easy to lose your sense of what is and is not. The Broomway which, like Grimpen Mire, is only navigable by remembering ‘certain complex landmarks’, heads out to sea for three miles from the Essex coast before making landfall at Foulness Island. Swept ‘clean of the trace of passage twice daily’, this is a path that is no path (Macfarlane, p.61). In walking it, Robert Macfarlane experiences a ‘strange disorder of perception’: scale and distance twist and weld as ‘sand mimicked water, water mimicked sand, and the air duplicated the textures of both’ (Macfarlane, p.75).

IMG_1564In this ‘unbiddable and ‘unmappable’ physical terrain’ (Roberts, p.42), the expertise of one ‘whose knowledge is ambulatory’ (Andrews and Roberts, p.9) is required. Traversing the ambiguous and potentially dangerous Broomway, Macfarlane is aided by a guide; just as those crossing the ‘uncertain and treacherous topography of Morecombe Bay’ (Andrews and Roberts, p.7) seek the help of the Sand Pilot. Like initiates in a rite of passage, they ‘put their trust in an elder or master of ceremonies who ‘can ensure safe navigation and transit(ion)’ (p.8).

And the consequences of unaided passage are severe. In 2004, twenty-three Chinese migrant workers were drowned while harvesting cockles on the sand and mud-flats of Morecombe Bay. This is the liminal compounded in on itself. For, as Roberts soberly observes, migrant workers are themselves liminal, occupying a ghostly ‘zone on the social and geographic margins of the nation; caught in the interstices of transnational space’ (Roberts, p.41).

The wetlands attract those, less innocent than the cockle pickers, but caught too in the shadows of the edgelands and margins. It is in the ‘dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates’ that Pip first encounters the escaped convict, Magwitch in Great Expectations (Dickens, p.35). Magwitch bears corporeal witness to the agency of this bleak marsh: he is ‘soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars’ (p.36). This is land that always exacts payment.

Magwitch’s crimes alert us that that this is also a place for transgression. Not far from where I write, you will find (although it may prove harder than you think) The Locks Inn in Geldeston. Marooned in the Waveney marshlands that separate Suffolk from Norfolk, this was (formerly) a site of cross-country smuggling and illegal prize-fighting.

The wetlands, like other liminal spaces, ‘fall outside of the geographic grid’ (Iedema et al). As Roberts note, the cultural and literary imaginaries of marsh, mire and estuary hold these as marginal and socially ‘empty’ spaces (Roberts, p.216). They feature the featureless which is why, in representations of the Norfolk Broads, the drainage mill and wherry have played such an important role ‘in the symbolic construction of place in a landscape otherwise characterised in terms of its flatness and lack of prominent (natural) topographic features’ (Roberts, p.217). These are the visual and cognitive equivalents of the firm sand, grass or moss that ensure confident navigation through quicksand and bog.

These spaces are also ‘empty’ in a utilitarian sense. They are ‘denuded of a rationalised function’ (Roberts, p.217). What are the wetlands for? And we see echoes of this in our own liminal, organisational spaces – the corporate shadows of marsh, mire and estuaries. In their study of how a bulge in a hospital corridor became a site of instruction and knowledge exchange, Iedema et al note that it ‘lacked functional definition’; it did not ‘embody strong indications to staff about what is to take place’ there (Iedema et al, p.53). Corridors, toilets, store-rooms, lifts, stairwells, kitchens, photocopier rooms – these are all spaces that do ‘not seem to serve a productive function’ from a rational, calculative perspective (Warnes, p.46). They embody, in a sense, ‘space out of space’ (Van Marrewijk and Yanow, p.10). Yet, like the wetlands they metaphorically reflect, these too are spaces of potency and energy – spaces for story, creativity, interaction, learning and transformation. Spaces too where we can lose ourselves but, unlike Grimpen Mire, always guarantee a safe return.

Andrews, H. and Robert, L. (2012) ‘Re-mapping liminality’, in Andrews, H. and Robert, L. (eds.) Liminal landscapes: travel, experiences and spaces in between. Routledge.

Conan Doyle, A. (1902), The hound of the Baskervilles. Pan.

Dickens, C. (1861), Great expectations. Penguin.

Heaney, S. (1980), ‘The Tollund Man’, in Selected poems: 1965-1975. Faber.

Iedema, R, Long, D and Carroll, K. (2010) ‘Corridor communication, spatial design and patient safety: enacting and managing complexities’, in van Marrewijk, A. and Yanow, D. (eds.) Organisational spaces: dematerialising the workaday world. Edward Elgar.

Leyshon, C. (2018), ‘Finding the coast: environmental governance and the characterisation of land and sea’, Area, 50(2), pp. 150-158.

Macfarlane, R. (2012), The old ways: a journey on foot. Hamish Hamilton.

Morrison, B. (1982), Seamus Heaney. Metheun.

Roberts, L. (2018), Spatial anthropology: excursions in liminal space. Rowman & Littlefield.

Van Marrewijk, A. and Yanow, D. (2010) ‘Introduction: the spatial turn in organizational studies’, in van Marrewijk, A. and Yanow, D. (eds.) Organizational spaces; rematerializing the workaday world. Edward Elgar.

Warnes, S. (2015) Exploring the lived dimension of organizational space: an ethonographic study of an English Cathedral. PhD thesis, University of Essex, UK.

 

 

 

 

Road

It goes something like this.

You’re driving. It’s night – let’s say late October. A country road, moon bleached behind threadbare clouds.

You pass the crossroads and see a figure in the rear-view mirror. Strange. You could swear it wasn’t there before.

And then you see the outstretched hand; the extended thumb. You take pity for tonight, of all nights, is not a time to be hitch-hiking alone. You come to a halt and open the passenger door. But the figure – a girl, slight, her face shadowed by the hood of her coat – slips into the back of the car. She whispers the name of the next village along the road before shrinking into silence. You drive on.

*  * * * * * * * * *

For Marc Augé, the autoroute is a non-place. It ‘avoids, for functional reasons, all the principal places to which it takes us’ (Auge, p.79). The only connectors are the road-signs alerting the driver to nearby sites of interest. The symbols and ideograms signify vineyards, hill-top villages, lakes and canyons – yet our only pleasure is the mere knowledge of their proximity rather than the experience itself. As Malcolm Andrews observes, they are a ‘constant reminder of what we might be missing by choosing to travel in this way’ (Andrews, p.63). On the motorway, we are there but never there. The road is always skirting, avoiding, bypassing. A liminal track forever on the margins.

IMG_7223And there are margins to the margins. The hard-shoulder, the lay-by, the aire. Yet are these liminal spaces entirely what they seem? In a quest to recreate both Robinson Crusoe and JG Ballard’s Concrete Island, Les Roberts marooned himself on a motorway traffic island on the M53 – a ‘liminal space of oblivion par excellence’ in which ‘memory afforded ‘little in the way of traction’ (Roberts, p.572). By exploring the ‘rhythms and cadences’ of this shielded patch of scrub and woodland, he sought the ‘negation of the negation of place’ (p.570) and to reinvent the liminal as ‘a launch pad of the imagination’ (Roberts, p.596).

This revelatory reading of the motorway is echoed by Tim Edensor who, countering Augé’s ‘dystopian assumptions’, finds it ‘rich in mundane comfort and sensation, replete with small pleasures and diverting incidents and thoughts’ (Edensor, p.151). This is an enchanted place of myth and sly magic where the tarmac peels to release ‘memories of other journeys, those of the past and those still to be completed’ (Edensor, p.164). For the landmarks we pass are invested with our own symbolic resonances that shimmer with memory and association. I recall the excitement when, as a child from the East Anglian flatlands, we passed the first cooling towers on the long journey north to Scotland – for this was a sign of difference, an index of alterity. Transport café, Little Chef (where the pancake, vanilla ice cream and maple syrup were richer in association than any Proustian madeleine) and the roadside gibbet at Caxton. These were sanctuaries of the imagination imbuing the unknown with familiarity. And with each journey, the memories accrete as the ‘elsewheres, pasts and futures’ enfold and elide (Edensor, p.153).

The negation of the negation even embraces the service areas. Simon Armitage’s poem Gymnasium concludes a list of the emblems of loneliness – the life guard ‘two years without a shout’, ‘Christmas for one’, ‘shower blocks and spent soap’ – with ‘The drive. The motorway service station/as a destination in its own right’.

IMG_7210But even this bland sign of sterile mundanity reveals a past of nuance and faded enchantment. When first built, they were ‘glamorous, semi-touristic’ places’ (Moran, p.108) with bridge restaurants where diners, treated to silver service, liveried waiters and seven course meals, could watch the passing traffic. Such was their exotic allure, eager visitors could buy postcards to enthral envious friends. These, and similar postcards from the 1960s and 1970s depicting shopping precincts, caravan parks and holiday camps, are collected in Martin Parr’s Boring Postcards. With their ‘overprocessed colour, clumsy tinting and cheap lithography’ (Moran, p.124), they appear eerie, unnatural. Our disorientation is enhanced by a tendency to picture these spaces without cars or people ‘so that they seem almost like ancient ruins, opened up to questions of memory and history’ (Moran, p.125). This cadence of dissolution is echoed by Martin Chell who senses the ‘bittersweet nostalgia of a future ruin’ in the now abandoned Forton Tower.  As it presides ‘like a doomed sentinel over a sclerotic M6’ (Chell, p.13), we hauntologically glimpse a future that never was.

And, like all liminal spaces, this is a place of ludic transgression. The early service stations suffered from theft and vandalism with motorists stealing cutlery, lavatory seats, toilet-roll holders, mirrors and coat-hooks (Moran, p.109). Meanwhile night at the service station exposes ‘another world…beneath the sheen’ (Lawrence, p.85). And this world is one where ‘disorder beckons’: a site of crime, sex and violence.

Our expectations are subverted in other ways too. For Augé, it is ‘anthropological space’ – the antithesis to the non-place – where ‘a story can be made out’ (Merriman, p.148). But the liminal has other ideas. When commemorating the 600th anniversary of the death of Geoffrey Chaucer, BBC Radio decided that an M1 service area would serve as the ideal meeting place for the travellers to recite their tales. These are ‘in between places, unconnected in many ways to their surroundings’ (Quoted in Merriman, p.160) and the in-between is always a storied space. It was in service stations that motor-cycle groups congregated to ‘share stories’ and bands, criss-crossing the country in battered Transits met to ‘exchange news and knowledge’ (Lawrence, p.86). Intriguingly, Liminal Residency – ‘an alternative writers’ retreat which takes place in a range of neglected and unusual spaces’ – held its first event at Peterborough Services Area. For ‘there is every chance that you have been here without ever even knowing it’.

But roads, motorways and service stations are not just sites for storytelling but the very subject itself. Listen carefully and you will hear these stories told by ‘commercial travellers and sales personnel, lorry drivers, maintenance staff, traffic police, motorway service workers, and coach drivers’: motoring experiences exchanged as ‘gossip and tale-telling’ (Edensor, p.164). And one mythic thread that runs through this folklore of the road is that of the hitch-hiker. The ‘unpredictable…potentially dangerous…often uncanny other…who haunts the verges and slip roads’ (Edensor, p.164).

So let us end at the beginning.

* * * * * * * * * * *

You drive for several miles, glancing at your silent companion huddled in the back. The car is cold and you turn up the heating but it seems to have little effect.

As you drive into the village, you ask whether the destination is nearby. There is no response, so you repeat the question. Again, there is silence so you glance in the mirror and see…nothing.

Of course, the narrative – familiar yet ever mutable in its telling – demands you stop the car and search with desperation, puzzlement, disbelief. The story ends, as it always has, with you alone on star-starved lane, as the wind scatters the leaves in the nearby churchyard.

 

And the diamonds on my windshield

And these tears from heaven

Well I’m pulling into town on the interstate

I got me a steel train in the rain

And the wind bites my cheek through the wing

Late nights and freeway flying

Always makes me sing

It always makes me sing.

Tom Waits, ‘Diamonds on My Windshield’

 

Andrews, M. (2012) ‘The autoroute and the picturesque’, Corkish, A. (ed.) In the company of ghosts: the poetics of the motorway. erbacce-press.

Armitage, S. (2010) ‘Gymnasium’, in The motorway service station as a destination in its own right. Smith/Doorstep Books.

Augé, M. (2008), Non-places: an introduction to supermodernity. Verso

Chell, E. (2012) ‘Foreward’, in Corkish, A. (ed.) In the company of ghosts: the poetics of the motorway. erbacce-press.

Edensor, T. (2003) ‘Defamiliarizing the mundane roadscape’, Space and Culture, 6(2), pp.

Lawrence, D. (2012) ‘When A to B is not the point…’, in Corkish, A. (ed.) In the company of ghosts: the poetics of the motorway. erbacce-press.

Moran, J. (2005), Reading the everyday. Routledge

Merriman, P. (2004) ‘Driving places’, Theory, Culture & Society, 21(4–5), pp. 145–167.

Parr, M. (1999), Boring postcards. Phaidon.

Roberts, L. (2015) ‘The rhythm of non-places: marooning the embodied self in depthless space’, Humanities, 4(4), pp.569-599.

The Liminal Residency. (2018) ‘Peterborough Services Area’, 23 February 2018. Available at: https://www.liminalresidency.co.uk/portfolio/peterborough-service-area/.

Bus Stop

We rarely see them. Or rather, we see but fail to acknowledge. They inhabit a shadowland of the banal, the unremarkable, the unnoticed. Concealed in their own mundanity, they gently erase themselves from view. Yet in Christopher Herwig’s remarkable Soviet Bus Stops, these drab artefacts of lane and street are re-invented, as Jonathan Meades observes in his foreward, as ‘components of some unimaginably vast pyritic bauble’ (Herwig, p.5). Exuberant, modernistic, audacious, these ‘cubistic concrete tents’ resemble the bunkers described by A Year in the Country as ‘artefacts from an almost science fictionesque future that never was, a form of hauntology possibly.’

IMG_1257This elision of time, a never realised past imagining of the future in the present, marks their liminality – as does their gentle ruination. For ruins pose a constant negotiation between glory and dissolution; success and failure; substance and nothingness. They ’embody a set of temporal and historical paradoxes’ (Dillon, p.11). And these liminalities compound. Meades notes how, ‘deserted and neglected’, these bus stops were ‘cut off’, ‘not close to villages or even hamlets’ (Herwig, p.5). Designed for a purpose, this purpose is now absent. They function without function. The effect is puzzlement and curiosity. And maybe a sense of the eerie too? As we view the photographs, there is disconnect between the often barren landscapes and the exotic bus-stops in the foreground. They should not be there but they are. For Mark Fisher, the eerie is ‘constituted by a failure of absence or by a failure of presence…where there is something present where there should be nothing.’ (Fisher, 2016, p.61).

This sense of disappearance and appearance manifests in the taxi drivers, who ferrying Herwig across Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, speed past the bus stops ‘as if they were invisible’ (Herwig, p.9). Yet, occasionally, one would develop ‘an appreciation for something he had forgotten existed’. For them, the banal is re-enchanted; the lost are resurrected. Inspired by Herwig’s quest, the taxi drivers see with new eyes. Like their liminal cousins, the beach, these bus stops function as a ‘space of defamiliarization’ (Burleigh and Jung, p.246).

And, as we have seen, the liminal attracts the social. Meades is struck by two men meeting at an isolated bus stop to open cans of beer and ‘put the world to rights’ (Herwig, p.5). These are ‘drop-in centres’, a ‘place to hang out’ which function as an ‘adhoc social service’. As Kavalkova-Halvarsson notes, ‘every day the same people met at the same bus stop, talking, exchanging ideas, arriving and departing’ (Herwig, p.11).

IMG_1255This communality suggests another way to view the bus stop. In a study of chiropody clinics, Karen Pettigrew introduces the concept of the ‘information ground: an ‘environment temporarily created by the behaviour of people who have come together to perform a given task, but from which emerges a social atmosphere that fosters the spontaneous and serendipitous sharing of information’ (Pettigrew, p.811). In later research (writing as Fisher), she identifies the ‘ambient role of place’ and the ‘specific effects of social settings on information flow’. These include places of worships, restaurants, cafes and ‘hostage phenomena such as self-service laundries, stores queues and, yes, bus stops (Fisher, Landry and Naumer, 2007).

We might also conceptualise these bus stops as an example of Oldenburg’s third place: a neutral ground that hosts the ‘regular, voluntary, informal…gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work’ (Oldenburg, Loc 760) and where the primary activity is conversation (via which, no doubt, information and stories flow).

But what is it about the bus stop or shelter that nurtures this eruption of sociality? From a study of photocopying rooms, Fayard argues that settings must have the ‘correct propinquity, privacy and social designation to afford formal interaction’ (Fayard, p.611). And these elements are influenced by architecture, geography and function. For the two men, sitting alone at their bus shelter in Kazakhstan, cans of beer in the plastic bag at their feet, the ‘concrete tent’ affords an element of privacy – or, at least – separation from the environment around. The open aspect also enables surveillance. It is private because those approaching can be easily seen – they are subject to the gaze.

Propinquity manifests in the functional centrality of the bus stop. This is the place to go if you want to catch a bus (if the buses still run). Or, if the spatial function is more that of ‘drop in centre’, this is the place to go if you want to drink, converse and simply hang out. These affordances are bolstered by the bus stop’s social designation: a ‘set of imperfectly shared expectations and understandings about what was appropriate and normal there’ (Fayard, p.624). What strikes Meades as noteworthy and dissonant is, for the actors themselves, an unremarkable ritual in the daily round.

IMG_1253And for those in rural England, we need not look as far as the former Soviet Republics to appreciate such spatial affordances. For the village bus stop is not solely reserved for those desiring to travel. As dusk falls, this becomes the haunt of more youthful phantasms. The detritus of cans, broken cigarette and runic scribblings on the brick walls marks their presence. For this is also a youth club, congregation point and playground. A ‘third place’ for the young and spatially dispossessed with its perfectly imbricated blend of privacy, propinquity and social designation. It also conceals a sly subversion of power. Applying a Lefebvrian lens, the conceived space of the architect and planners – which designates the actions and behaviours to be carried out there – is resisted and contested. Our phantasms have appropriated it for other uses: their routines and behaviours (perceived space) belie the sanctioned use (Lefebvre, 1974/1991).

So just as every village has its physical bus stop, perhaps every organisation has its metaphoric bus-stops too. Those reclaimed spaces where the symbolic kinsfolk to Meades’ old men gather with their lumpen bag of beer cans. Or where the youthful whisper behind cupped hands and mark their tribal allegiances and enmities in paint can and marker pen. Harriet Shortt tells of hairdressers reclaiming towel rooms and fire escapes as spaces to share information, build relationships and construct a sense of identity. While, Sarah Warnes, in a fascinating study of the staff in an English cathedral, shows how corridors and pathways – spaces of transit and movement – are ‘manipulated’ by one employee’s slow walking pace to create a social space to ‘mingle and linger’ And such lingering creates opportunities to ‘share problems with colleagues, together forming resolutions and therefore increasing productivity at work’ (Warnes, p.199).

So, as we close the pages of Soviet Bus Stops, let’s open our eyes to these elusive, liminal spaces which hide, modestly of course, in plain view: recognisable to all but visible to few. Let’s celebrate their unremarkable uniqueness and the quiet joy they instil in those who inhabit them. For beige, I hear, is this year’s black. And, as we have seen, beige is rarely quite what we expect it to be.

A Year in the Country. (2016) ‘Paul Virgilio’s bunker archaeology and accidental utilitarian art’, A Year in the Country, 18 August 2016. Available at: http://ayearinthecountry.co.uk/week-3352-bunker-archives-4-paul-virilios-bunker-archaeology-accidental-utilitarian-art/ (Accessed: 21 October, 2017)

Burleigh, P. and Jung, S. (2010) ‘The beach as a space of defamiliarisation’, Journal of Visual Art Practice, 9(3), pp. 245–257.

Fayard, A.L. and Weeks, J. (2007) ‘Photocopiers and water-coolers: the affordances of informal interaction’, Organization Studies, 28(5), pp. 605–634.

Fisher, K.E., Landry, C.F. and Naumer, C. (2007) ‘Social spaces, casual interactions, meaningful exchanges: ‘information ground’ characteristics based on the college student experience’, Information Research, 12(2). Available at: http://www.informationr.net/ir/12-2/paper291.html (Accessed: 16 August, 2018)

Fisher, M. (2016), The weird and the eerie. Repeater Books.

Herwig, C. (2015), Soviet Bus Stops: Fuel.

Lefebvre, H. (1974/1991), The Production of Space: Blackwell Publishing.

Oldenburg, R. (1999), The great good place: cafes, coffee shops, bookstores, bars, hair salons, and other hangouts at the heart of a community: Da Capo Press.

Pettigrew, K.E. (1999) ‘Waiting for chiropody: contextual results from an ethnographic study of the information behaviour among attendees at community clinics’, Information Processing and Management, 35, pp. 801-817.

Shortt, H. (2015) ‘Liminality, space and the importance of ‘transitory dwelling places’ at work’, Human Relations, 68(684), pp. 633-658.

Warnes, S. (2015) Exploring the lived dimension of organisational space: an ethnographic study of an English Cathedral. PhD thesis, University of Essex, UK.

Illustrations

Rodwell, I. (2018) Bus Stop, Tivetshall, Norfolk

Rodwell, I. (2018) Bus Shelter, Eye, Suffolk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hedge

The hedge is threshold, boundary land. It delineates, marks and divides. Poised between field and field or meadow and lane, it signifies the boundary it simultaneous enacts.

These are ‘landscapes of semiotic uncertainty’ (Kaczmarczyk, p.53). Look carefully at the tangle of bramble and leaf. For the hedgerow is a topological trickster. At times, fecund, green, abundant. At others, bare, barren, denuded. Caught in the twist of seasons, the hedge is home to both green man and ghost. It shifts shape at will.

IMG_1013And ambiguities multiply and enfold. For some, the hedge is a space of nest and burrow. A refuge from predator and storm where it is safe to roost and sleep. Yet this is also a place of danger – for concealment carries both blessing and curse. The eyes that spark in the undergrowth; the rank tang of fox or weasel. In the slanting dusk, the silhouettes of blackthorn and dog-rose invite the unknown. They are ‘uncanny artefacts’ that trouble and disturb (Kaczmarczyk, p.55). Perhaps all hedgerows intimate the zone rouge: this now fertile no-man’s land which bears its stain – and its dark bounty of bone and bullet – through the decades. For every Prince that finds his Sleeping Beauty, lie many others pierced and bleeding on the thorns.

Remember too that for the small and wily, the hedge is porous; a permeable barrier though which ancestral paths, the well-marked smeuses, form the old ways through bramble, branch and thistle. Yet, to the large and unseeing, the thorn and briar are as unpassable as the castle wall. But here, as Kaczmarczyk suggests is another ambiguity. For this is not a barrier of stone and mortar but one of fragile stalk and leaf. And there is tension in this contrast (Kaczmarczyk, p.57).

One final duality. By the spinney and at the end of the loke, I find hedges that proclaim their vegetal exuberance. But others, those that border my local lanes, are bushwhacked to a bristly conformity. Yet this will not last. For this is a liminal phase between growth and regrowth. And, in the land of the liminal, the blade only secures temporary control.

Yet there was a time when the blade and digger carried out more potent work. Since 1950 more than half our hedgerows have vanished, condemned ‘as old-fashioned relics that shaded crops, sheltered vermin, wasted space’ (Clifford and King, p.223). And life was lost: the birds flew, the animals retreated. This is, perhaps, a lesson our organisations have failed to learn. Hurdley talks of the ‘increasingly vulnerable position’ of corridors in traditional buildings (Hurdley, p.46). These ‘hedges’ in the office landscape  are under threat.

IMG_1015Elsewhere, the devastation has been unleashed. According to Dale and Burrell, seven miles of internal walls in the UK Treasury were removed, ‘literally dismantling the ‘corridors of power’’ (Dale and Burrell, 2010). To justify this destruction, those arguments of productivity and enhanced yield emerge from their 1950’s winding sheet. But here the grain and seed so eagerly sought are those of ‘interactive, complex, open-ended teamwork’ and the diminution of ‘hierarchies or status’ (Hirst and Humphreys, p.1506).

In Hirst and Humphrey’s study of ‘dehedging’ at a UK local authority’s new HQ, there are plaintive echoes of more literal counterparts. As part of the move, ‘de-cluttering’ was encouraged, with sanctions for those ‘who failed to leave their workspace entirely clear of all paperwork and personal items’ (Hirst and Humphreys, p.1516). You can almost hear the bushwhacker’s whine and roar. Yet, three years after this pruning and scraping, ‘many staff had ‘nested’’, their belongings defiantly on display. It is a suggestive metaphor – the domesticity of home and security once more restored to the open, wind-blasted ‘field’.

Elsewhere, the benefits of the prairie office plain are equally elusive. In a new study of food and eating in the workplace, Harriet Shortt observes how, in an open plan office ‘designed with collaboration, togetherness and teamwork in mind’ (Shortt, p.11), one interviewee talked of the loneliness and sense of exclusion such an environment engenders. It is the cake and pastries brought from home and shared ‘on desks and on locker tops’, that bring people back together and reconnect conversations – like birds noisily congregating around the hedgerow’s larder of haws, hips and sloes.

As we have seen, the hedgeless field offers exposure and threat: all who cross or linger are open to the gaze of others. In a recent paper, Hirst and Schwabenland reveal that in a newly configured office, visibility meant that ‘being observed was a constant possibility’ (Hirst and Schwabenland, p.170). For some women this visibility was ‘perceived as uncomfortable or oppressive’ with attendees for job interviews being ‘marked’ for their attractiveness by men in the team (Hirst and Schwabenland, p.170). Similarly, Kingma, in a study of the effects of ‘new ways of working’ in a Dutch insurance company, quoted employees who felt they were ‘constantly being watched’ (Kingma, p.16).

In an echo of this, Shortt notes how several women working flexible arrangements found the hot-desking arrangements exclusionary. They described themselves as ‘nomads’, ‘wandering around the office to find a desk’ – rootless travellers deprived of a home base or shelter from the workplace storm.

IMG_1011 2So maybe we should campaign for the return of our metaphoric organisational hedges. Allen identified ‘washrooms, copying machines, coffeepots, cafeterias’ as ‘interaction-promoting facilities’ that draw people to them increasing the occurrence of chance encounters and unintended communication (Allen, p.248). And these ‘hedgerow rendezvous’ have value: they are the ‘prime vehicle for transmitting ideas, concepts, and other information necessary for ensuring effective work performance’ (Allen, p.269).

Hillier stresses the importance of the ‘weak ties’ generated by buildings. These connections to ‘people that one does not know one needs to talk to’ are more likely to break the boundaries of knowledge that solidify when projects, functions and departments are localised (Quoted in Kornberger and Clegg, p.1105). The ‘generative buildings’ that result evoke ‘chaotic, ambiguous, and incomplete space’.  It is in these margins – where people who are ‘normally separated exchange ideas and concepts’ – that ‘creative organising and positive power happens’ (Kornberger and Clegg, p.1106). This is fluid, liquid, organic space or, if you prefer, the organisational hedgerows which shelter chance, promise and threat.

For, in these peculiarly liquid times of flux and change, it is important ‘to move quickly and easily across the team boundary’ (Dibble and Gibson, p.926). Contract workers, consultants, fledgling, entrepreneurial ventures all require borders that are permeable and porous. And, like the variety of flora and fauna engendered by the hedgerow, these organisational boundaries can be similarly diverse. Their form may be social, cultural, physical while the flow can involve people, information, resources and status (Dibble and Gibson, p.929).

So, if you hear the bushwhacker’s roar, remember the power of elder, dogwood, hazel and sweet briar. For it in these interlacing boundaries, fertile, pliable and everlastingly liminal, that the inventive and cunning will find the shaded gaps that lead to invention and, maybe, salvation.

Now the hedgerow is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom/Of Snow, a bloom more sudden/Than that of summer

Allen, Thomas J. (1977), Managing the flow of information. MIT Press.

Clifford, S. and King, A. (2006), England in particular: a celebration of the commonplace, the local, the vernacular and the distinctive. Hodder & Stoughton.

Dale, K. and Burrell, G. (2010) ‘All together, altogether better’: the ideal of ‘community’ in the spatial reorganization of the workplace’, in van Marrewijk, A. and Yanow, D. (eds.) Organizational spaces: dematerialising the workaday world. Edward Elgar.

Dibble, R. and Gibson, C. B. (2018) ‘Crossing team boundaries: a theoretical model of team boundary permeability and a discussion of why it matters’, Human Relations, 71(7), pp. 925–950.

Eliot, T.S. (1944) ‘Little Gidding’, in Four Quartets. Faber.

Hirst, A. and Humphreys, M. (2013) ‘Putting power in its place: the centrality of edgelands’, Organization Studies, 34(10), pp. 1505–1527.

Hirst, A. and Schwabenland, C. (2018) ‘Doing gender in the “new office”’, Gender, Work and Organization, 25(2), pp. 159–176.

Hurdley, R. (2010) ‘The power of corridors: connecting doors, mobilising materials, plotting openness’, The Sociological Review, 58(1), pp. 45–64.

Kaczmarczyk, K. and Salvoni, M. (2016) ‘Hedge mazes and landscape gardens as cultural boundary objects’, Sign Systems Studies, 44(12), pp. 53–68.

Kingma, S. (2018) ‘New ways of working (NWW): work space and cultural change in virtualizing organizations’, Culture and Organization, (Online), pp. 1-24.

Kornberger, M. and Clegg, S. R. (2004) ‘Bringing space back in: organizing the generative building’, Organization Studies, 25(7), pp. 1095–1114.

Macfarlane, R. (2015), Landmarks. Hamish Hamilton

Shortt, H. (2018) ‘Cake and the open plan office: a foodscape of work through a Lefebvrian lens’, in: Kingma, S., Dale, K. and Wasserman, V., eds. (2018) Organizational space and beyond: The significance of Henri Lefebvre for organizational studies. Routledge [In Press].

 

 

 

Ghost Sign

They are there. And you have seen them. Perhaps from a train as it lurches and jolts over the points and junctions outside a city terminus. A glance through the window and they emerge into view. Or, perhaps, on a busy street, you raise your eyes from pavement and shopfront to glimpse what you have never noticed before. Faded, translucent; pallid imprints on brick and stone. Maybe an advert, no longer shouting but whispering about a long-forgotten brand – clothing, cigarettes, flour, razors. Or a sign that tells of former use and occupancy: grocer, hostel, furrier. These are ‘vestiges of spaces and places, industries and individuals’ that tell stories of ‘history, identity, cultural memory, desire, nostalgia, and erasure’ (Shep, p.209).

The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps (Italo Calvino, quoted in Shep, p.210)

IMG_0974These signs – material and metaphoric – ‘both reveal and hide their identity’ (Shep, p.209). They exist in plain view yet their meaning has to be negotiated via erosion, neglect and decay. Like Baudelaire’s flaneur detective, we need to decipher and deduce (Benjamin, p.37). For these signs exist at the liminal convergence of topography, typography and temporality (Shep, p.210). They inhabit multiple margins; permeate many thresholds. And this very materiality is, of course, liminal. As scouring wind, rain and pollution ‘transform the qualities of matter’ (DeSilvey and Edensor, p.477), their journey of transition is constant: as ‘palimpsests, they register change over time’ (Shep, p.209).

These signs are also ghosts. And ghosts, we know, are spectres of the liminal. They are the ‘non-object, this non-present present, this being-there of an absent or departed one’ (Derrida, quoted in Orr, p.1055). They show us ‘that which appeared to be not there’ (Edensor, p.159). A brand of beer last drunk in the 1950s; a business whose final invoice predated the dot-matrix printer.

FullSizeRender 6And there is something both poignant and heroic about these ghost signs. Even though their purpose – their signified is absent – they continue to signify to an intended audience that, in all probability, are ghosts now too. It brings to mind an abandoned turntable endlessly playing the same track to a long-departed listener. For these ‘names and slogans…were not meant for our contemporary eyes’ (Roberts and Marshall, p.3). And this, maybe, is what captures our gaze from train and street. This prickling of curiosity; a glimpse of something we can’t immediately comprehend yet sense, in some way, to be important. The sudden sound of static that interrupts our car radio on a moonless country road: significant but unknowable.

IMG_0966Such ghosts ‘haunt the present in such a way as to suddenly animate the past’ (Edensor, p.159). As I walk up the lane towards the sign of the former Chequers pub, I am conscious that my steps echo those of villagers who, for many years, would have tramped the same route after a day working the fields. And their embodied practices and daily rituals are now re-enacted by those now drawn by the sign.  The past is reinvented and reimagined with each step. As Edensor notes, we ‘perform the past by putting our bodies into its flow’ and, in so doing, ‘it ceases to be pure memory; it is lived in the present’ (Edensor, pp. 150-151). And these experiences, these micro-narratives we co-create through such embodied empathy, although fragmentary and seemingly incoherent, ‘offer opportunities for constructing alternative versions of the past, and for recouping untold and marginalized stories’ (DeSilvey and Edensor, p.471). The ‘enigmatic traces’ of the Chequers pub invites me to ‘fill in the blanks’ (Edensor, p.162). My imagination – via stories – aims to ‘impose a formal coherence on what is otherwise a flowing soup’ (Weick, p.128).

And confronted by ghost signs, maybe we too become liminal.  In Stefan Schutt’s account of ghost sign hunting through the streets of Adelaide, he speaks of an ‘initial sense of estrangement and disconnection’ (Schutt, p.55). It as if, gently shifted from our usual, habitual way of perceiving the world we become more attentive to those ‘talking walls’ (Shep, p.209). And, in becoming attuned to these new frequencies, this unfamiliar language, we are, momentarily, disorientated. Our senses are truly betwixt and between. Schutt reflects that in searching for old signs, ‘elements of serendipity and arbitrariness break down invisible barriers formed by habits of use, letting the walker see their environment in new ways’ (Schutt, p.54). This quest on foot is also a ‘space of enunciation’ that ‘affirms, suspects, tries out, transgresses, respects, etc., the trajectories it ‘speaks”(de Certeau, p.99). Here we find estrangement, enlightenment and transgression: the liminal experiences that our search for ghost signs engenders.

As a final reflection, we should not forget that in reanimating the past, urban ephemera also serve ‘to illuminate and transform the present’ (Massey, quoted in Schutt, p.57). For these signs gift us a warning. We are complacent in our organisations – comforted by the demand for products we make and services we offer – yet, if we glance in the shadows, the memento mori gather. Edensor identifies the mirthless irony of ghost signs faded to indecipherability – a bitter way to  mock ‘the energy expended on fixed meaning through branding and advertising’ (Edensor, p.162). Like the ochre and yellow wall paintings of the three living and the three dead uncovered from the peeling plaster of a medieval church, our ghost signs have an admonitory message: such as I was you are, and such as I am you will be. Organisations and institutions rise and fall. Products and brands come and go. Are we any different?

But maybe dissolution is not inevitable. Yesterday, I went searching for a particular ghost sign in Clerkenwell. However, this sign advertising the now vanished Black Cat Cigarettes brand has, itself, vanished. Completely hidden by a new residential block which has erased it from view.  But perhaps not erased from existence. Although hidden, it merely sleeps: suspended between past, present and future; revelation and enclosure; communication and silence. And, as fashions change, perhaps the new apartments that conceal it will, in their turn, succumb to the demolition notice. Then, as the wrecking ball strikes, the Black Cat – a typographical Sleeping Beauty – will wake again. And just as some deceased brands – like East Anglian beers, Lacons and Bullards (but alas not Morgans) – have risen like Lazarus from their corporate graves, so others may emerge blinking in the light. For, in the final reckoning, our signs are indeed ghosts; but ghosts who speak not only of decay and negation but of resurrection too.

Benjamin, W. (1983). Charles Baudelaire: a lyric poet in the era of high capitalism.Verso

De Certeau, M. (1984), The practice of everyday life: University of California Press.

DeSilvey, C. and Edensor, T. (2013) ‘Reckoning with ruins’, Progress in Human Geography, 37(4), pp. 465–485.

Edensor, T. (2005). Industrial ruins: spaces, aesthetics and materiality. Berg.

Orr, K. (2014) ‘Local government chief executives’ everyday hauntings : towards a theory of organizational ghosts’, Organization Studies, 35(7), pp. 1041–1061.

Roberts, S. and Marshall, G. (2017) ‘What is a ghost sign?’, in Schutt, S., Roberts, S. and White, L. (eds.) Advertising and public memory: social, cultural and historical perspectives on ghost signs. Routledge.

Roberts, S. and Groes, S. (2007) ‘Ghost signs: London’s fading spectacle of history’, Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, 5(2). Available at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/september2007/robertsgroes.html (Accessed: 27 April, 2018)

 

Schutt, S. (2017) ‘Rewriting the book of the city: on old signs, new technologies, and reinventing Adelaide’, Urban Geography, 38(1), pp. 47–65.

Shep, S. J. (2015) ‘Urban palimpsests and contending signs’, Social Semiotics, 25(2), pp. 209–216.

Weick, K.E. (1995). Sense making in organisations. Sage.

Illustrations

Rodwell, I. (2018) Clerkenwell, London

Rodwell, I. (2018) Spitalfields, London

Rodwell, I. (2018) A loke, Norfolk