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/.

flâneur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Airport

Airport2

In an endlessly fascinating essay – Non-places: an introduction to super modernity –  Marc Augé contrasts anthropological place (any space bearing the inscriptions of the social bond or collective history, such as churches, market places and town halls) with non-places.  Described as spaces of circulation, consumption and communication, they are the places we inhabit when we “are driving down the motorway, wandering through the supermarket or siting in an airport waiting for the next flight to London or Marseille” (Augé, p.77).

As a reasonably regular traveller, the airport as non-place strikes a distinct and suitably muzak tinged chord.  For Augé, one of the characteristic features of non-places is their ability to dislocate identity.   So let’s consider our arrival at Heathrow departures.  It is not our intelligence, our wit, our skill to strip a motor engine, paint a watercolour or craft a 50 metre cross-field pass that ensures our safe transit via the various contractual crossing points that confront us: check-in desk, security, passport control, final airline  check before boarding the plane.

Such negotiation is only ensured by reducing our identity to its essence.  A passport (bearing a photo, a number, a code) that then secures us a secondary identity: the boarding pass.  Picking up Augé’s argument, the traveller is “relieved of his usual determinants” (Augé, p.83).  He assumes a temporary identity yet one that echoes those of other travellers.  We respond to the “same code as others…the same messages…the same entreaties” –  proceed to gate 4, rows 5-8 boarding now.  It is a state of both “solitude and similitude”.

This reduction in identity relates to Victor Turner’s analysis of the liminal stage in rites of passage.  The neophytes undergoing this transition are reduced to nothing – they are stripped of their property, insignia, rank and kinship position.  There is “nothing to demarcate them structurally from their fellows” (Turner, pp. 98-99).  So, maybe a non-place is also a liminal place.  Or, as Kociatkiewicz and Kostera note, a “transitional space” –  the space “waiting for liminality to happen” (Kociatkiewicz and Kostera, p.7).

This highlights a further feature of non-places.  Augé observes that the relative anonymity afforded by the temporary identity assumed in non-places can be felt as a liberation.  For Augé, this is a negative liberation consisting merely of the power to refrain from making decisions, to submit to order and control.  Yet maybe there is genuine liberation here.  The liminality described by Turner is not only a condition of ambiguity and paradox; but also one of growth and transformation.  For there are some – myself included – who experience the anonymity of the airport as conducive to thought, reflection, insight.  I find them stimulating places to work – freed from the the everyday, the burden of multiple identities and responsibility.  The mind relaxes and opens itself to possibilities. So, perhaps heretically, non-places are not merely spaces of circulation, communication and consumption but refuge also to another ‘C’; that of creativity.

Augé, M. (2008), Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. Verso.

Kociatkiewicz, J., Kostera, K, (2011) ‘Transitional Space’, Tamara Journal for Critical Organisation Inquiry, 9(3-4), pp. 7-9.

Turner, V. (1967), The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Cornell University Press.