edgeland

They are there; but we rarely see them. Or, rather, we see them but they fail to take root in mind, memory or heart. A soft flicker on the retina while our thoughts are held by other concerns. Yet glance through the windscreen or out of the elevated train window and, chances are, at some stage on our journey we will encounter them. But it is an encounter we are unlikely to recall.

Edgeland_PylonThese edge lands – where ‘urban and rural negotiate their borders’ (Farley and Roberts, loc 183) – seem no more than ‘repositories for functions we prefer not to think about’ (Shoard, p.75).  Gasometers, electricity sub-stations, security lit business parks, car pounds, sewage works, pylons, razor-tipped fencing and marshalling yards. They circle our towns and cities: uneasy crossing places haunted by ‘the neglected, the disposed of, and the repressed’ (Edensor, p.833). But, if we look carefully and without prejudice, we can recast these ‘unobserved parts of our share landscape as places of possibility, mystery, beauty’ (Farley and Roberts loc 198).

Edgeland_wallFor look beyond the abandoned pallets and rusty JCBs, and vitality, energy and creativity emerge. What more could we expect in the marginal and liminal? Marion Shoard argues how edgelands are rich in plant and wildlife diversity: protected, forgotten and free of monoculture, pesticides and our compulsion to trim and prune. Similarly, Richard Mabey tells how rosebay willow herb and other ‘weed tenantry – ‘green and golden fennel and ragwort, coltsfoot, purple loosestrife’ – proliferated in the bombed out City warehouses and offices of the Blitz (Mabey, p.216). Glimpses of these ruderal fireweeds can still be found. By the ruins of St Alban’s church in Aldersgate, the broken walls of Roman fort and merchants’ houses shelter over 80 different plants with bee-hives too (maintained, fittingly enough, by the Worshipful Company of Wax Chandlers). Not just ruins, these are ancient edgelands for the original London Wall lies just yards away.

These are also places of ludic potential where ‘dereliction stimulates the imagination’ (Shoard, p.84). In Melanie Manchot’s stunning video installation Tracer (2013), parcour runners move through a series of shifting Gateshead edgelands. De-populated, framed at sunset and snowfall, these spaces of pylon, allotment, bridge, underpass, factory and escalator attract not the passivity of the flaneur nor the shielded gaze of the passer-by but a vivacity of movement and possibility that transforms the marginal to the magical.

Yet these edgelands with their invitation to subversion and transgression also conceal admonitory stories. I come from a generation who may recall – often with a shudder – a series of terrifying Public Information Films that frequently revealed the edgelands as a dangerous zone where injury, disfigurement and death were a mere moment of inattention away.  In The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water, ‘the unwary, the show off and the fool’ drown in waters fringed by rubbish dump and quarry while the figure of Death watches gleefully on.  The bleached colour gives the quality of a sun-faded instamatic print and this queasy nostalgia has been referenced by musicians such as The Advisory Circle and Belbury Poly. With samples of PIFs, library music and forgotten segments of tv Programmes for Schools they create their own eerie sonic edgelands.

These films are fairy stories for a modern age. But for our 1970s Hansel and Gretel, it is not the forest they should be wary of but the gravel pit, the pylon (‘please don’t fly your kite there, Hansel’) and the train track.  And here the foe of witch and ogre take more elemental form: water, energy, power. These truly are fairy stories as written by Futurists.

But perhaps the liminality of the edgelands exerts its influence in other ways. We focus on the victims – but what of those left behind? For them, this is surely a rite of passage albeit one that is undesired. Scarred by what they have witnessed, these edgelands are spaces where innocence turns to experience. They carry both the curse and gift of knowledge.

And our places of work have their edgelands too. Hirst and Humphrey describe how a local authority consigned its paper storage unit to the edgelands of a business park: both an operational and physical marginality. This is becoming commonplace. Finance, IT, shared services are increasingly relocated to the edgelands of a town, country or continent. But, in doing this, we should heed Shoard’s warning. She hints that we place our ‘mundane’ activities in the edgelands because we do not esteem them but we:

might all be better off if we both understood better and respected more the apparently mundane yet vital activities which make our society work

Such respect should accord to every function and operation of the organisations of which we are part. We may forget our edgelands; but they will rarely forget – or forgive – us.

Edgeland_DissEven in one building though, we can locate edgelands. Think of lifts, basements, the maintenance workshop or, indeed, the humble photocopier room. Utilitarian in design and decor, it seldom provides a home to the artwork that decorates other walls or offers panoramic views of tower and sky. But, as wasteland attracts the detritus we casually discard there – fridges, tyres, thieved and ransacked slot machines – so here we find the box of Christmas decorations and a rag-tag of superseded office equipment. And, as we know from apocryphal tales of office parties, these humble backwaters generate their own transgressive stories.

Other stories surface too. In my first job, I worked in a university library. Delivering a trolley of books across the campus, I was forced to use an open, trellised goods lift. As we pulled at the stiff and unyielding doors, my experienced colleague told me of a student who, using the lift one October evening when everyone else in the building had gone home, became trapped in the metalwork and bled to death between floors. His ghost, my colleague solemnly confided, was occasionally sensed, especially ‘when the evenings draw in’.

We might read this story in various ways. Perhaps it served as a rite of passage – an initiation to the community. If I accepted the tale with amused equanimity, the test had been passed. Or, perhaps, it served as my own Public Information Film. An admonitory narrative that provided both a warning against inattention and insight to the culture of the university: health and safety is treated seriously here and transgression carries sanctions. It also, perhaps, hints at the ambiguity that infuses all edgelands. For this is an environment where both the rational and the irrational co-exist.

And, as I sense this is a question you might well ask: even today, when faced by one of those old, open, trellised lifts, I prefer to take the stairs. Especially in October, ‘when the evenings draw in’.

Edensor, T. (2005) ‘The Ghosts of Industrial Ruins: Ordering and Disordering Memory in Excessive Space’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 23(6), pp. 829–849.

Farley, P. and Roberts, M.S. (2011), Edgelands. Jonathan Cape

Hirst, A. and Humphreys, M. (2013) ‘Putting Power in its Place: The Centrality of Edgelands’, Organization Studies, 34(10), pp. 1505–1527.

Mabey, R. (2010), Weeds: the story of outlaw plants. Profile Books

Shoard, M. (2000) ‘Edgelands of promise’, Landscapes, 2(August), pp. 74–93.

 

 

Taxi!

We step off the pavement, one hand waving uncertainly. We want attention – the attention of the taxi driver – but, as we are modest, we fear the attention of the pedestrians, cyclists and drivers around us. For our hesitant hand sends a signal. A gesture that semiotically conveys  – or so we believe – our privilege, wealth and exclusivity. Here is someone who rejects more demotic forms of transport. Not for us the perilous thrill of the railway carriage. We require (we demand!) a private space. And so we oscillate painfully between shame and desire; wanting and not wanting; resolution and denial. That one gesture reveals our emotional ambiguity. We hold our liminality within us.

hansom-cab-1600Our signalling is successful. A black London cab executes a perfect U-turn – a masterclass in precision and confidence – that attracts notice and does little to sate our desire for anonymity. We state our destination, open the door and step inside.

And now the stories can begin. For this small, thoughtfully designed and comfortable cabin coaxes and nurtures stories. Maybe, as in the railway carriage, we are beguiled by movement from one locale to another while remaining in one unchanging place. But here this movement is not determined. With a train, the path is fixed, the rails demand one trajectory and one trajectory alone. In a taxi, although our destination is known, our route is not wholly ours to decide. We follow the mercurial whims of our driver. She or he is our flâneur who ‘can progress at their own pace and change their route at their own whim’ (Dale and Burrell, p.72). Of course this freedom is not unconstrained. Choices of speed, route and style of driving are controlled by road conditions, the Highway Code and the desires of passengers. But free of these contingencies, the ‘spatial order organizes an ensemble of possibilities’ (De Certeau, p.98). And maybe memory, the unrecognised preference for one street over another can ‘orient the magnetic field of trajectories just as they can haunt dreams’ (De Certeau, p.104). We are at the mercy of our driver’s dream-play. The shops, thoroughfares, offices and wharves unreel outside our window like as stop-start movie offering suggestions, possibilities, connections.

Our taxi experience is also liminal in other ways. Maybe we are travelling to a meeting. The space around us is infused with business concerns and demands. Yet it carries other resonances. For this is a space we experience on our way to the playhouse, the cinema or, who knows, an illicit assignation (for like the railway carriage, these are spaces of transgression). The meanings fog and coalesce – this is Lefebvre’s ‘lived space’ where ‘phenomenologically experienced space’ is ‘overlaid with ‘imaginary spaces’ whereby the material and the cultural are fused’ (Dale and Burrell, p.10). Like the business dinners analysed by Sturdy, the taxi is a place where the boundaries between ‘work time and leisure time, friendliness and professionalism are blurred further’ (Sturdy, p.929).

And maybe it is this enfolded liminality that encourages stories. For there are many of them. Travelling with colleagues, I have heard stories of clients, past leaders, rival firms and, indeed, our world outside work. Each story seems to begat another. And as we listen we learn: knowledge that is rarely encoded elsewhere is embodied and exchanged.

That such a space – this enclosed taxi cabin – engenders a willingness to narrate and, consequently, to reveal should perhaps not be so surprising. Look around you – as we sit on our compact seats, we are divided by a screen from a silent other. The other hears our stories while their face remains concealed. Maybe this explains our compulsion to tell our stories. For alone with a confessor, what else can we do?

So maybe we should satisfy our desire and banish our shame. For a taxi journey is not an extravagance. It is a liminal opportunity that helps us know our fellow travellers and the world around them better. Rather than view taxis as ephemeral non-places that underpin the ‘fixed instability involved in sticky mobile lives’ (Costas, p.1480), let us celebrate their potential. For without them, our stories, revelations and confessions would be far fewer –  and far poorer.

Costas, J. (2013) ‘Problematizing Mobility: A Metaphor of Stickiness, Non-Places and the Kinetic Elite’, Organization Studies, 34(10), pp. 1467–1485.

Dale, K. and Burrell, G. (2008), The Spaces of Organisation & the Organisation of Space: Palsgrave Macmillan.

De Certeau, M. (1984), The Practice of Everyday Life: University of California Press.

Sturdy, A. (2006) ‘Guess who’s coming to dinner? Structures and uses of liminality in strategic management consultancy’, Human Relations, 59(7), pp. 929–960.

Illustrations

Forestier, A. (1890) ‘A hansom cab drove to the offices of the very respectable firm of solicitors’. Available at: https://www.oldbookillustrations.com/illustrations/hansom-cab/

Window

Window

In her introduction to the excellent anthology of essays – Thinking on thresholds: the poetics of transitive spaces – Subha Mukerji refers to the ‘mesmeric quality of the threshold’ (Mukerji, p. xxi) and the ‘elusive but crucial experiences at a variety of boundaries’ (p. xix).  Later in the book  the theme is developed by Gillian Beer in her thoughtful analysis of windows and their uses and meanings in literature.  They are a ‘liminal connection between inner and outer’ (Beer, p.3). Windows link and separate; provide access yet exclude; are both medium and barrier.  Incidentally, they are also places of concealment and Beer evokes the image of a spy mounting surveillance on the world beyond.  Or a voyeur perhaps – which suggests our flaneur, peering through the shop windows in a Parisian arcade: detached and distant, the spy without.

It made me think how office buildings often reflect rather than reveal.  They are more looking glass than window.  What you see is where you are rather than where you want to be. The organisation within is secluded and the story it might tell literally a closed book.

But more disturbing than the window as looking glass is the room deprived of windows.  In reference to new office buildings, Beer notes how windows are often ‘done away with’ and how ‘rooms entirely without windows have been traditionally understood as sinister or subjected…the presence of windows brings the light of the outside world to bear on what is happening in the room’ (p.6).  How many meetings have you sat through and how many training sessions endured in cell like chambers?  How can ideas, imagination, creativity flourish if the light of the outside world (or rather, enlightenment) is denied.  If we see the threshold as ‘mesmeric’, a place of liminal connection and transformation, then it is surely perverse to plasterboard it over.  How ironic that in exhorting our colleagues to – and it’s a ghastly phrase I know – ‘think outside the box’, we encourage this by placing them in the very box their imaginations are required to escape from.

But office windows can be creative in other ways too.  As you wander the corridors – an organisational flaneur perhaps? – you may peek through the windows of the offices you pass.  The door is closed; figures gather around a table and a phone; their looks may tell of frustration, excitement, anxiety.  What’s going on?  If the combination of figures is puzzling – so why are x and y meeting up? – then our irresistible urge to spin a narrative takes hold once more.  We formulate a plot, a causal and temporal chain of connection that explains these vexing stimuli.  We are excluded yet involved and perhaps it is this ambiguous, liminal state that stimulates our imaginations.

In her analysis of Yeats’s poem ‘Ego Domimus Tuus’, Beer deconstructs the image of the poet Keats ‘with face and nose pressed to a sweet-shop window’.  But it is this ‘gap between nose and the sweets, the cold glass between’ that stimulates ‘Luxuriant song’ (p. 8).  It is the threshold that excites poetry.

And so too in our offices.  We may view our windows as organisational prose – boring, formulaic, transparent (in more ways than one) – but are they also not coated with a thin film of poetry? Not just windows but Keats’s very own ‘Charm’d magic casements’ that open on our ‘faery lands forlorn’ (Gittings, p.126)?

Beer, G. (2011) ‘Windows: Looking In, Looking Out, Breaking Through’, in Mukerji, S. (ed.)  Thinking on Thresholds: the Poetics of Transitive Spaces.  Anthem Press.

Gittings, R. (ed.) (1966) Selected Poems and Letters of John Keats. Heinemann.

Mukerji, S. (2011) ‘Introduction: Thinking on Thresholds’, in Mukerji, S. (ed.)  Thinking on Thresholds: the Poetics of Transitive Spaces.  Anthem Press.

flâneur

FullSizeRender 2

In airport, we looked at how Augé’s non-places are maybe not so ‘non’.  They are places not merely of circulation, communication and consumption but creativity too.  This suggests perhaps a further liminal characteristic of non-places – their identity is not merely singular but multiple; and these identities blur.  It is a view proposed by Peter Merriman in his exploration of the geographies of the M1 motorway.  He views these landscapes – airports, shopping malls, service stations – as “more complex, heterogeneous and multiplicitous” than Augé suggests (Merriman, p. 160).   For an example, in an airport frequent flyers, flight crews, air traffic controllers, baggage handlers, first-time flyers are likely to have “different experiences of movement, dwelling, familiarity and belonging” (Merriman, p.152).

But how do stories relate to these non or non-non places?  Imagine you are passing through an airport or railway terminus (which, by the way, seem increasingly happy to erase their history – their existence as anthropological space – by assuming a shopping mall identity).  Do you ever wonder about the travellers you see?  Who they are, where they have come from, where they are going?  You may spot clues, clothing for example.  Shorts in January suggests Dubai rather than Finland.  As you board the railway carriage, you see a passenger manoeuvring a suitcase with the baggage label still attached.  Are ever you tempted to take a peek?

Snatches of conversation provide other evidence.  Marooned at Singapore airport for several hours, I amused myself by trying to work out a narrative to explain the American family who, in an obvious hurry, joined the cafe table next to me.  They barely had time to devour the food they had purchased, before the mother, anxious not to miss a connecting flight, herded her protesting husband and children down the corridor, cups spilling on the abandoned table and half-consumed wraps stuffed into pockets and rucksacks.

Karl Weick notes how stories “impose a formal coherence on what is otherwise a flowing soup” (Weick, p.128).  They gather strands of experience into a “plot that produces an outcome” and such “sequence is the source of sense”.  By imposing a temporal frame of past, future and present we can comprehend the random, multiple and puzzling.  The stories we create to explain our fellow travellers is a way to contain this ‘soup’.

In doing so, perhaps we also become contemporary flâneurs.  This stroller among the crowds of 19th century Paris was “a figure keenly aware of the bustle of modern life” (Shaya, p.47).  Their natural habitat was, as Walter Benjamin described, “the arcades…glass-covered, marble-panelled passageways…lighted from above…lined with the most elegant shops…so that such an arcade is a city, even a world, in miniature” (pp.36-37).  Rather like a modern airport perhaps?  In Benjamin’s study of the poet Baudelaire he observes that, for the flâneur, “the joy of watching is triumphant…the result is the amateur detective.”  He highlights Baudelaire’s translation of the Edgar Allan Poe story The Man of the Crowd, where the narrator, installed the behind a window of a London coffee-house watches the passing throng.  From here, he makes deductions, mini-narratives, from the details he observes: a man whose ears stick out indicates he must be a clerk who stores his pen behind his ears.  And what does a detective do but turn “equivocal happenings into meaningful stories characterized by a distinctive plot” (Patriotta, p. 369)?

So, as we sip our espresso in the ‘open air’ cafe of a shopping mall; tap away at our laptop in an airport lounge or wait on the concourse for our invariably delayed train to arrive – we are not just ‘customers’, ‘passengers’, ‘commuters’ but also the true and noble descendants of the frock-coated, top-hatted flâneur.  Observing, watching, making our deductions and spinning our stories to explain the passing, random and confusing bustle around us.

Benjamin, W. (1983). Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism. Verso

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

Patriotta, G. (2003) ‘Sensemaking on the Shop Floor: Narratives of Knowledge in Organizations’, Journal of Management Studies. 40(2), pp. 349–375.

Shaya, G. (2004) ‘The Flaneur, the Badaud, and the Making of a Mass Public in France, circa 1860-1910’, The American Historical Review, 109(1), pp. 41–77.

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