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.

 

 

Ruin

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). The abandoned warehouse or the tumbledown barn reveal a memory of the past and simultaneously a projection of our own futures. In the medieval motif of The four living and the four dead, four young nobles, hunting with hawk and hound, are confronted by four cadavers. Their hoarse and emphysemic breath utters the warning ‘As you are, so once were we…as we are now, so you will be’. Ruins provide a mirror on our own decay while hinting at their own survival: a ‘fragment with a future’ (p.11) which will outlive us.

SmithfieldBut these suggestive, liminal ruins are betwixt and between in other ways. Their journey of transition is constant as agents such as wind, rain, lichen, moss, birds and insects recast their identities and ‘transform the qualities of matter’ (DeSilvey and Edensor, p.477). This is not necessarily a cruel or pitiless destruction.  Looking into a marble fountain,there is ‘intimacy in the contact’ between stone and water that ‘here produces a gleaming surface veined with unsuspected colours, here magnifies fossil or granular structure’ (Stokes, p.26). Ruination can be gentle, caressive, revelatory.

A place for ruins is also a site for the uncanny – Das Unheimlich – where ‘the familiar and homely suddenly become strange’ (Edensor, 2005, p.835). Let us, for example, walk through the ruined church of Tivetshall St Mary in Norfolk. As we stand in the open nave with the sky above and incomplete walls around us, we sense a familiar space. We orientate ourselves around the chancel and mound where a tower once stood; the piscina full of dust a recognisable feature. Yet the customary is subverted. The floor is surreally experienced as a meadow – for grass grows where flagstone and marble are expected. The flint and mortar that line the nave are not cool to the touch but warmed by the sun high above us. Our perceptions and senses are tilted.

St MarysFor this is a place where the visual is less privileged and where, unlike the usual tourist spaces, ‘the tactile, auditory and aromatic qualities of materiality’ are enhanced (Edensor, 2007, p.219). We are keen to the sound of the strimmer in the overgrown churchyard; the smell of the cut grass in the porch; the feel of the twig that bends underfoot as we navigate around fallen gravestones.  This is Lefebvre’s perceived space – the ‘phenomenologically experienced spaces, that may be taken for granted through the habits of the body’ (Dale and Burrell, p.8). Note how we stoop past the shrub overhanging the south door – an automatic, reflex action.

And, as we might expect, this is also a site for stories. The official narrative – how the church was destroyed by a sonic boom in 1949 following years of neglect and increasing dereliction – can be found on a noticeboard by the entrance.  Such histories ‘seamlessly banish ambiguity and the multiplicity of the past’ (Edensor, 2005, p.831) but ruins ‘offer opportunities for constructing alternative versions of the past, and for recouping untold and marginalized stories’ (DeSilvey and Edensor, p.471).  Like ghosts, ‘involuntary memories come upon us, rekindling the past through unexpected confrontations with sounds, ‘atmospheres’, and particularly smells’ (Edensor, 2005, p.837). And one such story springs to mind, prompted by the sound (and fresh wheat aroma) of harvesting on a neighbouring field. A story of how a farmer, ploughing late on a winter’s evening, saw something in the churchyard illuminated in the sweep of his tractor’s lights as it rounded the headland.  Whatever it was (he never said), it was enough to make him flee, the tractor engine found still running the next morning.  This reminds us too that liminal spaces are sites of transgression – albeit often more ludic than demonic: children playing on the fallen houses of the Blitz or, strangely, beachcombers seeking illicit liaisons with a a statue…(Andrews, p.163)!

Ruins infiltrate our organisations too. Some are physical: our own spatial edgelands or dark terrains.  In Hirst and Humphrey’s study of spatial redesign in a local authority, they contrast the new central office –  ‘a very large, bright space, with light flooding through the glass roof and walls and reflecting off the pale, polished limestone floor’ (p.1513) – with the paper storage unit located in an out-of-town business park. Placed close to wasteland, a sewage works and a derelict railway, the conditions of this unit are ‘austere, with several discomforts, such as artificial light, dust and cold.’ (p.1518). I am sure we know similar ruins – the less privileged parts of our buildings where transient teams seek shelter: the desks scuffed, the IT antiquated and the chairs threadbare.

But, if we look carefully, other more ethereal ruins emerge: the rubbled remains of past initiatives, projects, ways of working.  Some were, like half-finished tower blocks, prematurely suspended, victims to changes in strategy, new technology or structural re-organisation. Others were completed but lie superseded by new priorities. Sometimes such ruins are manifested through physical traces: the forgotten folder of past business plans or the office directory with faded photographs from years past.  Like any ‘bare, ruin’d choir’ these are stimuli for involuntary memory and story – ‘Goodness, there’s a photo of X – do you remember that occasion when…’. But often such archaeology is virtual: excavating document management systems for spreadsheets and emails (where the recipients, once so urgently cc’d, are now often ghosts – long departed, absent, forgotten).

And like St Mary’s destruction by the sonic boom, such ruins carry official narratives to explain their failure or demise. Promulgated via the established channels, these stories serve as our guidebook and exhibit caption. Yet, as we know, ruins carry ghosts that are hard to exorcise. Unofficial stories – traded in corridors, cafes and the other liminal spaces we inhabit – are the mischeivous revenants that playfully subvert grand narratives.  However, are stories but ruins themselves?  Like the marble fountain, they are sculpted and worn – not by water but through memory, caprice and intent. For the stories we tell are not necessarily the same as the stories we hear. So, maybe, in the sharp (artificial) light of day, ghosts are not to be believed in after all.

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.

Dale, K. and Burrell, G. (2008), The spaces of organisation & the organisation of space: power, identity & materiality at work. Palgrave Macmillan.

Dillon, B. (2011) ‘Introduction: a short history of decay’, in Dillon, B. (ed.) Ruins: documents of contemporary art. Whitechapel Gallery and the MIT Press.

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

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.

Edensor, T. (2007) ‘Sensing the ruin’, The Senses and Society, 2(2), pp. 217–232.

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

Stokes, A. (2011) ‘The pleasures of limestone’, in Dillon, B. (ed.) Ruins: documents of contemporary art. Whitechapel Gallery and the MIT Press.

Ghost

Our organisations are haunted places. They swarm with ghosts. Maybe not ghosts in a conventional sense; but ghosts nevertheless. If you wait long enough, you may discern the ‘sense of a presence of those who are not physically there’. In offices, factories, call-centres, shops and salons,  we ‘constitute a place in large measure by the ghosts we sense inhabit and possess it’ (Bell, p.813).

GhostAnd, as we have intimated before, these ghosts are creatures of the liminal. For Derrida, they are this ‘non-object, this non-present present, this being-there of an absent or departed one’ (Orr, p.1055). Immaterial themselves, their power is to make the space around them immaterial too; their liminality infects.  They can ‘elide the distance between the actual and the imagined’ so that ‘frail and cherished distinctions collapse’ (Beer, quoted by Jackson, p.69).

Think of an upmarket City meeting room. Let’s call it room 148. For your guest, experiencing this space for the first time, it is like any other meeting room: neutral in its ubiquity.  Subdued colours, art work on the wall, maybe coffee and pastries arranged on the table. For you, however, the experience is different. It is enhanced, tinted (or maybe tainted?) by all the other meetings you have attended there. The spectral voices and faces of those you previously met haunt the room. These presences are many. The room is a palimpsest of recalled conversations, arguments, emotions and the tone of those meetings (productive, boring, confrontational) now begins to affect your mood.  You too are haunted.  The room, familiar, comfortable, known, is infiltrated by the uncanny – das Unheimlich – infusing it, albeit momentarily, with the unfamiliar, the strange, the alien.  You sense a ‘feeling of estrangement, of being not ‘at home’ in the world’ (Jackson, p.65).

Ghosts appear in other guises. At a business school I know, the portraits of past deans frequent a corridor. They are sombre, besuited, the ties and haircuts indicative of past decades.  I wonder to what extent this ‘picture book of the dead’ (Orr, p.1047) troubles the current dean. Do these ghosts – for that is what they are – act as vengeful revenants forever comparing the shortcomings of the present to the glories of the past; or are they more comforting spirits offering inspiration, wisdom and succour.

TivetshallSuch ghosts possess other objects too. A long time ago, I asked a colleague to identify an artefact that encapsulated our then organisation. After a pause, he spoke fondly of the chair that his former boss had left behind on retirement. Each time he saw it, he took strength from the memory of his mentor, guide and protector.  It had what Weber called the ‘charisma’ of the object’ and Walter Benjamin, ‘the aura of the original’ (Bell, p.817).  That chair was not just any chair; it contained a ‘kind of life’.

We also talk to our organisational dead. Think of the role models, those presences from the past that you turn to in times of uncertainty.  You ask what they would have done; how they would have reacted; what guidance from beyond can they proffer? In short, we are accustomed to communing with our role model spirits.

And where there are ghosts, there are ghost stories. I have heard many such narratives in every organisation I have known. Tales of role models, heroic (and tragic) leaders, tricksters and fools. This cast of ghosts is conjured again each time the story is told. They are never exorcised. And with each raising of the dead, we re-assess our current actions. We think and sense anew.  These ‘inheritances of the past haunt the relations and struggles of the present’ (Orr, p.1041).

In one of the most famous ghost stories, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, the ‘ghosts’ are only perceived within the liminal – the ‘tops of towers, the roof of houses, the outside of windows, the further edge of pools’ (Klapcsik, p.5). So look again at your organisation. Those corridors, meeting rooms, staircases and lifts – are they really what they seem? For if you look carefully enough, you might – beyond the posters, filing cabinets and workstations –  glimpse the symbolic equivalent of shorelines, the gibbet on the cross-roads, and the decaying mansion on the hill.

Bell, M. M. (1997) ‘The Ghosts of Place’, Theory and Society, 26, pp. 813–836.

Jackson, J. (1981). Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion. Methuen.

Klapcsik, S. (2012). Liminality in Fantastic Fiction: A Poststructuralist Approach. McFarland & Company.

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

Illustrations

Cruikshank, G. (1842) ‘The Dead Drummer’.  Available at: https://www.oldbookillustrations.com/illustrations/dead-drummer/

Rodwell, I. (2016) St Mary’s Church, Tivetshall St Mary, Norfolk