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/.

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

Crossroads

Imagine a country crossroads. It is dusk on a late Autumn afternoon. You are alone – or so you think. There is a grassy triangle where the road divides. A leaning sign – not unlike, in this fading light, a gallows – offers direction. Maybe you are lost and the sense of adventure you earlier felt is now compromised by creeping concern. There is relief that these ways are trodden; but confusion as to which path to take.

IMG_0805 2But then, this should not surprise us. For the crossroads is a place of contradictions. A liminal space caught between borders and possibilities. It is a ‘real place between imaginary places – points of departure and arrival’ (Komunyakaa, p.5). We stand poised between where we have been and where we might, in the future, find ourselves. This is the ‘intersection of the timeless moment’ (Eliot, p.42). Opportunity, danger, enchantment, despair, salvation and damnation insinuate themselves, like a twilight mist, around our lonely fingerpost.

Some folklorists claim the crossroads is ‘the most magical spot in popular tradition’ (Davidson, p.9). In Suffolk, a cure for ague relied on the sufferer going at midnight to a crossroads, turning around three times and then driving a tenpenny nail up to its head in the ground (Ewart Evan, p.86). The potency of iron entwined with the potency of place. Such enchantment may also blur temporal boundaries. Puhvel describes the custom of scattering hemp-seeds at a cross-roads then whispering an incantation. The prize? A glimpse of your future lover (Puhvel, p.170).

Urban settings are not immune from this magic. Ghassem-Fachandi explores how, in the Indian city of Ahmedabad, the magical remains from exorcisms are placed at busy crossroads. Such ‘interstitial spaces, city fords and thresholds, it is said, confuse the evil spirits and ghosts, and they cannot find their way back to their bearer’ (Ghassem-Fachandi, p.24).

Other traditions reinforce such crossings between the living and the dead. In Richardson’s study of thresholds and boundaries in British funeral customs, she notes how, in Wales, the burial procession paused at each crossroads for prayers to be offered (Richardson, p.97). Was this because the cruciform shape suggested a safe and hallowed place; or to confuse the restless spirit and deter it from returning home?  Or, maybe, the crossroads acted as stepping stones for the spirit – a physical enactment of the perilous post-mortem journey described in the ancient Lyke Wake Dirge.

From Brig o’ Dread when thou may’st pass,
Every nighte and alle,
To Purgatory fire thou com’st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

IMG_0878The ambiguity of the crossroads is also seen in the tradition of burying of suicides. Halliday notes that although the law in England stipulated that a suicide should be buried in the King’s highway, the chosen site was often a crossroad by a parish boundary (Halliday, p.82).  I frequently pass one such site. In 1785, Richard Knobbs, a brickmaker in the Norfolk village of Hempnall, was suspected of murdering his son and hanged himself from a tree.  The junction where he is buried is still known as Nobb’s Corner. Halliday argues that such interment acted as a deterrent. Excluded from the community of a churchyard, burial in a ‘remote, anonymous grave without a funeral was a casting-out; the person no longer belonged to society’ (Halliday p.82). Yet, maybe, such a place provided comfort too: the topographical cross bestowing some remnant of sanctity on the lost and, in every way, marginalised.

So here, at the crossroads, the borders are not just physical but metaphysical. This is where we transgress boundaries to contract with higher powers. Think of a young bluesman meeting the devil at a Mississippi crossroads to seal his own Faustian pact. Yet listen carefully to Robert Johnson’s Cross Roads Blues and there are intimations of more tangible threats. Here, at the rural intersection, cars slow down offering the hitchhiker the promise of a welcome lift – ‘standing at the crossroads, tried to flag a ride’. This is a place of opportunity bearing the gift of progress or return.  But with the sun going down, the singer’s plea for salvation – ‘Asked the Lord above “have mercy, now save poor Bob, if you please”‘ – suggests this is also a place of danger. The fear is not, necessarily, that of eternal damnation but one that faced any young black man of that time, alone and far from home: vagrancy charges or, even, lynching (‘Cross Road Blues’, 2018). The crossroads is not a safe place to linger.

So what, you may think, has the liminality of crossroads to do with the organisations in which we work. For surely these are places devoid of such magic, enchantment and old traditions? Yet, look carefully enough, and you will find ghosts, tricksters and graveyards. And, of course, our buildings have physical crossroads (of sorts). Let me describe one to you.

On the fourth floor of a corporate HQ, there is a long, open corridor that leads past a café and then forms a ‘crossroads’ with passages that continue to the restaurant and meeting spaces. At the junction, there is a widening of the corridor – often used for displays – but, always occupied by small groups, talking, chatting, laughing. These constellations – formed by serendipitous encounters – reshape and reform with random regularity. So, where we expect transit, we counter-intuitivly encounter stasis. In Dale and Burrell’s study of space and community, they distinguish two types of spatial formation. Socio-petal arrangements ‘produce spaces where people are encouraged to gather together’ (Dale and Burrell, p.26). In contrast, socio-fugal spaces encourage people to move on and through. But our crossroads here is betwixt and between both socio-petal and socio-fungal. It brings people into constant contact yet then provokes them to linger and commune.

Like the Mississippi cross-roads, this may invoke threat and anxiety.  Just who might you bump into? (For the devil can be found anywhere!). Yet there is also the promise of opportunity and fulfilment. Allen notes how organisational traffic patterns directly influence communication by promoting chance encounters and aiding ‘the accomplishment of intended contacts’ (Allen, p.248).  This underpins the flow of information and the exchange of problems and experiences. Similarly, Iedema explores how a spatial bulge in a hospital corridor ‘drew people into it’ (Iedema et al, p.43) and, by providing a space where professional boundaries and organisational rules could be suspended, enabled clinical staff to ‘connect formal knowledge to the complexity of in situ work’ (p.52).

So perhaps there is little to distinguish our smart, open plan office intersection from our rural grassy triangle. Just as the latter are ecologically acclaimed as places where ‘a small nature reserve flourishes’ (Clifford and King, p.205), so the former are equally fertile: seeding communication and harvesting knowledge, insight and experience. And like any fragile and threatened ecology, these are valuable spaces we need to recognise and protect.

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.

‘Cross Road Blues’ (2018) Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cross_Road_Blues (Accessed: 30 March, 2018).

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.

Davidson, H.E. (1993) ‘Introduction’, in Davidson, H.E. (ed.) Boundaries & thresholds. The Thimble Press.

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

Evans, G.E. (1966), The pattern under the plough: aspects of the folk-lore of East Anglia. Faber.

Ghassem-Fachandi, P. (2012) ‘The city threshold: mushroom temples and magic remains in Ahmedabad’, Ethnography, 13(1), pp. 12–27.

Halliday, R. (2010) ‘The roadside burial of suicides: an East Anglian study’, Folklore, 121  (April), pp. 81–93.

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.) Organizational spaces: dematerialising the workaday world. Edward Elgar.

Komunyakaa, Y. (1997) ‘Crossroads’, Ploughshares, 23(1), pp. 5-6.

Puhvel, M. (1976) ‘The mystery of the cross-roads’, Folklore, 87(2), pp. 167–177.

Richardson, R. (1993) ‘Death’s door: thresholds and boundaries in British funeral customs’, in Davidson, H.E. (ed.) Boundaries & thresholds. The Thimble Press.

Illustrations

Rodwell, I. (2018) Nobb’s Corner, Hempnall, Norfolk

Rodwell, I. (2018) Fingerpost, Norfolk

 

Beach

Let us return, one year on, to the beach. This is a ‘place of strong magic (Preston-Whyte, p.349); a trickster margin between land and sea, eternally shifting shape as the tides contest, claim and reclaim. Perhaps it is the ‘archetypal liminal landscape’ (Thomassen, p.21) – an alchemical strand poised on multiple ambiguities. For, as Meethan notes, it is rarely inhabited but often used; a space of play and a place of work; a scene of recreation yet one where hazard and peril grimly lurk; a haunt for the solitary and a magnet for the rowdy throng (Meethan, p.70).

Beach2And, like all liminal spaces, the beach offers promises of transformation. In Rob Shields’ fascinating analysis of Brighton’s cultural positioning, he argues how the Prince Regent, later George IV, popularised the ‘reputedly restorative powers of sea-bathing’ (Shield, p.75). For the sick and valetudinarian, this was a pilgrimage covenanting physical renewal. And the reward for the devoted traveller was the ‘Cure’: a programme of prescribed sea-dippings (the rites of the liminal phase) officiated by ‘Dippers’. These ‘priests’ carefully (or forcefully) assisted their charges from the bathing machines: ‘mediaries between two worlds, civilised land and the undisciplined waves’ (Shields, p.84).

But where there is transformation, there is often transgression. For, in the liminal, in the ‘gap between ordered worlds almost anything may happen’. (Turner, p.13). As the Regency sea-water pilgrims gave way to the mass holidaymakers of the later 19th century, Shields identifies the emergence of Bakhtin’s carnivalesque: ‘a temporary suspension…of hierarchical rank…permitting no distance between those who came in contact with each other and liberating them from the norms of etiquette and decency imposed at other times.’ (Bakhtin, p.10). Here, betwixt work and home identities, the crowds of holidaymakers were free to imbibe, flirt and play. Liberated on the seashore, the adult became child –  ‘expected to fool around, build sandcastles…and perform other “childlike acts”‘ (Baldacchino, quoted in Andrews, p.153).

This ‘aliveness’ of the carnivalesque, Shields argues, was reflected in the mass market success of the comic postcards. Here, authority was inverted as policemen, vicars and colonels became the victims of innuendo, embarrassment or lewd slips of the tongue. Yet there was a limit to this transgression: for ‘if they wink at such practices they also exert a kind of governing influence by playing so much on the breaking or bending of taboo’ (Shields, p.98).

IMG_2708Remember though – the beach of summer becomes the beach of winter. And this brings more caliginous meanings. The borderlands and margins are ‘also places of anxiety replete with darker images of threat and danger.’ (Preston-Whyte, p.350). These ‘placeless places’ of No Man’s Land and crossroads – where the gibbet stands and the graves of suicides and witches lie –  invite the liminal’s shadow (see Trubshaw, 1996). In M.R. James’ A Warning to the Curious and Oh, Whistle, and I’ll come to you, My Lad, the landscape of the beach reflects a ‘temporal instability’ where an artefact from the past has the power to exact a dreadful vengeance in the present.

wide-open sands with their wind-bent trees transport the viewer to a place out of time, where the omnipresent past is felt only in the ganglia or seen from the corner of the eye. (Easterbrook, quoted in Scovell, p.45)

And the beach’s multiple, symbolic meanings resonate in our worklives too. Historically, the seaside was the traditional locale of the works’ outing. Indeed, in my first job, an orders clerk in a Battersea warehouse, our reward for the fulfilment of a particularly onerous order was a day trip – on a coach, or charabanc if you romantically prefer – to, inevitably, Brighton. Here, our liminal day unfolded. Our dress reflected our holiday status and suggested no boundary between packer and managing director. We were liberated from the ‘normative practices and performance codes of mundane life’ (Shields, p.84) and true to liminal form, we embraced the carnivalesque: sun, drink and a somewhat frank exchange of views with senior management on the increasingly hungover return leg along the South Circular.

But these are more sophisticated times. Yet perhaps the ubiquitous awaydays, offsites, retreats and conferences we enjoy (or endure) are the beach’s close, metaphorical cousins. Rina Arya, in an investigation of the awayday involving a solicitor’s firm and a retail chain, identified the ‘opportunities it provides to have fun – to socialise, dress down and to enjoy treats courtesy of the employer’ (Arya, p.24). Indeed, as one of the interviewees commented: “it felt like a mini break”.  Or, a day trip to Brighton, in all but name. With the boundaries loosened between work and family life, some experienced the away day as an opportunity to define their identity, to reflect, to ‘take stock of things’ and, on returning to the workplace, ‘felt more uplifted and fulfilled’ (Arya, p.27).  Such spiritual and psychological revival mirrors the physical rejuvenation of our ancestors seeking the ‘Cure’. And perhaps we too have our contemporary ‘dippers’. Although here we call them facilitators or trainers guiding their initiates through the rites of workshop and breakout session and bearing the sacramental vessels of post-its, flip charts and PowerPoint.

We can also distinguish elements of the carnivalesque as hierarchies are relaxed and the lines between roles, functions and structures blur and coalesce. Elsewhere, transgression may come to the fore. In a study of hotels as liminal sites, Pritchard and Morgan observe how conferences and conventions ‘create opportunities for illicit sexual encounters’. They see this as a consequence of the very liminality of hotels – ‘as crossing points into the unknown, as places of transition and anonymity, hidden from familiar scrutiny’ (Pritchard and Morgan, p.769).

And, for some, the awayday will always be the ‘placeless place’: a source of anxiety or frustration where there is pressure to ‘act a part, to conform, to perform even’ (Arya, p.30). Here identity is constrained not liberated and the guiding hand of management suspected and distrusted.

So, as you plan your next awayday, reflect on the multiple meanings and symbolic resonances that your carefully scheduled event subtly invokes. Remember the dippers, the blushing vicars in McGill’s comic postcards and M.R. James’ vengeful revenants.  Which ones do you wish to invite? Whose stories do you wish to hear? And, as always, be careful in your choice.

 

Andrews, H. (2012) ‘Another place or just another space? Liminality and Crosby Beach’, in Andrews, H. and Roberts, L. (eds.) Liminal landscapes: travel, experience and spaces in-between. Routledge.

Arya, R. (2011) ‘Transitional spaces: the phenomenology of the awayday’, Tamara Journal for Critical Organization Inquiry, 9(3/4), pp. 23–33.

Bakhtin, M.M. (1984), Rabelais and his world. Indiana University Press

Meethan, K. (2012) ‘Walking the edges: towards a visual ethnography of beachscapes’, in Andrews, H. and Roberts, L. (eds.) Liminal landscapes: travel, experience and spaces in-between. Routledge.

Preston-Whyte, R. (2004) ‘The beach as a liminal space’, in Lew, A, Hall, C.M. and Williams, A (eds.) The Blackwell’s tourism companion. Blackwell.

Pritchard, A. and Morgan, N. (2006) ‘Hotel Babylon? Exploring hotels as liminal sites of transition and transgression’, Tourism Management, 27(5), pp. 762–772.

Scovell, A. (2017), Folk horror: hours dreadful and things strange. Auteur Publishing.

Shields, R. (1991), Places on the margin: alternative geographies of modernity. Routledge.

Thomassen, B. (2012) ‘Revisiting liminality: the danger of empty space’, in Andrews, H. and Roberts, L. (eds.) Liminal landscapes: travel, experience and spaces in-between. Routledge.

Trubshaw, B. (1996). Why Christopher Robin wouldn’t walk in the cracks: an introduction  to the liminality of place and space. http://www.indigogroup.co.uk/edge/liminal.htm (accused 17 February, 2018)

Turner, V. (1974), Dramas, fields and metaphors: symbolic action in human society. Cornell University Press.

 

 

 

graveyard

As we peer in through the railings or seek shelter in the lych-gate, escaping the rain that drips impassively from yew and ivy, we are poised by a threshold space.  The graveyard navigates many borders.  It is ‘marginal or liminal (in both social and geographic terms)’ (Young and Light, p.64) and, drawing on Maddrell and Sideways’s definition of deathscapes, can ‘intersect and interact with other moments and topographies, including those of sovereignty…memory…and work, life and beauty’ (quoted in Young and Light, p.63). This is a place of multiple meanings. As Clements observes, ‘it may be a gateway to heaven (for Christians), the end of life (for atheists), and a taboo place for the superstitious’ (Clements, p.471).

Grave1Strolling along the well-tended gravel paths or clambering over crumbling, bindweed ensnared masonry, we can easily slip between multiple worlds. In their considered and sensitive study of roadside memorials, Clark and Franzmann note how these sites challenge ideas about what is public/private or secular/sacred space: they blur the ‘somewhere that  is nowhere in particular rather than a special place, and something that is passed by rather than permanently set aside as a place of pilgrimage’ (p.586). As we stroll or clamber, are we visitor, pilgrim, the transitory or the purposeful?

Yet, at its very heart, this is hallowed ground where ‘the terrain of the living meets with the terrain of the dead’. (Miller and Rivera, p.348). Such communion shapes a place of rite and ritual – from the scattering of earth and roses to the wreath at Christmas gently laid. Here, absence become presence and we, the living, both commune with the past and glimpse our own futures. These are foci – our memento mori – for grief, loss, remembering and meditation.

However, this relationship between living and dead has, historically, been one in flux. Situated next to the church, graveyards were, until the late eighteenth century, at the heart (both geographically and metaphorically) of the community: there was ‘familiarity and spatial intimacy between the living and the dead’. (Johnson, 2008, p.780). Then, as space became scarce and fear of contagion grew, the dead were relocated to the margins. New cemeteries were built on the edge of towns surrounded by walls, hedges or railings: physically and symbolically ‘sequestering the dead from the living’ (Rugg, p.262). These were ‘other’ spaces ‘clearly differentiated from the ‘everyday’ spaces of the living’. (Young and Light, p.64).

By the later nineteenth century, the role and purpose of cemeteries received another twist. Now enclosed by the towns they once delineated, they were ‘increasingly conceived as places to be visited and incorporated into everyday practice’ (Young and Light, p.65). Today, they are not only sites for remembering but for dog-walking, eating lunch, tracing family history or, for realising less innocent purposes: drink, drug-taking and sexual encounters. As we saw with the Victorian railways, liminal sites often attract transgression. A re-assertion of life perhaps in the midst of death?

Grave2For Foucault, the cemetery is an example of a heterotopia: sites which ‘mirror and at the same time distort, unsettle or invert other spaces’ (Johnson, 2013, p.790-791).  It is a place ‘unlike other cultural spaces’ (Foucault, p.4) yet which is connected with all sites as ‘each individual each family has relatives in the cemetery’. As Johnson notes, cemeteries incorporate many of the characteristics of heterotopias that Foucault identified. They are ‘privileged or sacred’ sites reserved for a critical rite of passage; they ‘contain multiple meanings; and they are both utterly mundane and extraordinary’ (Johnson, 2013, p.799). Intriguingly, they also begin ‘to function at full capacity when men arrive at a sort of absolute break with their traditional time’ (Foucault, p.6). The graveyard elides ‘slices of time’ since ‘the dead are outside of time, relegated to what Foucault terms a quasi éternité‘ (Gandy, p.733).

The churchyard as a site where time warps and folds in on itself is beautifully captured in David Gladwell’s 1976 experimental film Requiem for a Village. A dark and poetic meditation on change, loss, belief and tradition, it elegaically melts the ‘barriers of logic, physics and time’ (Scovell, p.81). An old man tending the graves in a Suffolk churchyard – himself out of time in a world of estate development and already decaying shopping centres – recollects episodes from his past: casting witchbones as a folk-cure for horses, the day of his marriage, working on the harvest. As the narrative inflects past, present and future, memory becomes tangible as the dead companions from the old man’s youth literally rise from their grave and form a procession into the church where he joins them for his wedding vows. This temporal dislocation is playfully caught when the grave tender addresses an anecdote to an unseen companion he calls ‘David’. We assume this may – in the style of a documentary – be the film-maker; until the camera cuts to show the inscription on the grave being tended. The body it contains is that of ‘David’.

Grave3So before we leave our graveyard, let us take a final look around. We may see toys, flowers, photographs, candles and other personal artefacts placed carefully around the graves. They reassure the absent (and, of course, those that remain) and ‘link the tangible present to an intangible past (and future) of imaginary times and spaces’ (Clements, p.476). They also invite stories; and, with the epitaphs and inscriptions, offer clues and plot-lines that we craft into narratives breathing life into those that lie beneath us.

But graveyards can be found in our organisations too. Perhaps as a metaphor: ‘it’s like a graveyard around here’; or ‘welcome to the graveyard of good ideas’. Yet look carefully and they have a more pervasive, almost tangible presence. As we saw in Ghost, photographs of former business school deans – a ‘picture book of the dead’ (Orr, p.1047) – or a former colleague’s chair are memorials as potent as any funerary urn. They console, challenge, intrigue, inspire. Beyond that the very warp and weft of organisational life are testament to those that have gone: the buildings we work in; the strategies we execute; the processes we follow; the cultures we engender. Former hands and minds have played their part in shaping these and it is incurious of us – and perhaps dangerous –  to overlook the memorials that surround us. Our gaze is often too fixed on the future: we forecast, we plan, we scour the horizon for opportunity and threat. But, as Requiem for a Village darkly reminds us, the past has power. It also has wisdom and knowledge – and we neglect this at our peril. And each fading photo, each duty chair is our own memento mori – our presence is but transitory and we too shall pass. What is the memorial we leave behind; what communions shall we have with the living? For by ignoring the elegiac, we perhaps compose our own and final elegy.

Clark, J. and Franzmann, M. (2006) ‘Authority from grief, presence and place in the making of roadside memorials’, Death Studies, (30) pp. 579-599.

Clements, P. (2017) ‘Highgate Cemetery Heterotopia: A Creative Counterpublic Space’, Space and Culture, 20(4), pp. 470–484.

Foucault, M. (1984) [1967] Des espaces autre. [Of other spaces] Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité 5, pp. 1-9.

Gandy, M. (2012) ‘Queer ecology: Nature, sexuality, and heterotopic alliances’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, (30) pp. 727-747.

Johnson, P. (2008) ‘The modern cemetery: A design for life’, Social and Cultural Geography, 9(7), pp. 777–790.

Johnson, P. (2013) ‘The geographies of heterotopia’, Geography Compass, 7(11), pp. 790–803.

Miller, D. S. and Rivera, J. D. (2006) ‘Hallowed Ground, Place, and Culture’, Space and Culture, 9(4), pp. 334–350.

Orr, K. (2014) ‘Local Government Chief Executives ’ Everyday Hauntings : Towards a Theory of Organizational Ghosts’, Organization Studies, 35(7), pp. 1041–1061.

Rugg, J. (2000) ‘Defining the place of burial: What makes a cemetery a cemetery?’, Mortality, 5(3), pp. 259-275.

Scovell, A. (2017), Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange. Auteur Publishing.

Young, C. and Light, D. (2016) ‘Interrogating spaces of and for the dead as “alternative space”: cemeteries, corpses and sites of Dark Tourism.’, International Review of Social Research, 6(2), pp. 61-72.

 

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.