church, going*

But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,
A shape less recognisable each week,
A purpose more obscure.

Philip Larkin, Church Going (1954)

Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky

Given that Christianity seemed to be – in the sense of being a kind of shared societal glue – on its way out in the 1950s, and was undermined further by the social revolutions of the 1960s and 70s, it’s surprising in a way that churches are still standing at all. But what Larkin, for all of his humanist cynicism didn’t foresee, is what seems the obvious fate of churches in the 21st century: they won’t be allowed to peacefully moulder into dust and neglect like the menhirs and cairns of previous eras – they get sold instead.

At the time of writing, the Church of Scotland has seventeen churches for sale, among other kinds of properties and plots of land. The same thing isn’t happening with Catholic churches, Mosques, Synagogues or Mormon temples or whatever it is that Scientologists have – not because of anything inherently superior about those religions or the quality of their followers’ faith, but because, at the time when these churches were built – mostly in the 19th century, but some even earlier – the Church of Scotland was something you had to opt out of, not something you had to join. And therefore, in a way – although not of course a legally binding way – the Church of Scotland is selling off something which belongs to the people of Scotland.



The idea that money is more important to the Church of Scotland than the buildings that were at the centre of the spiritual and social lives of generations of people (and also, the place that God lived, I guess) seems grotesque, but there it is. It’s just bricks (or stone) and mortar, after all; or that, presumably is the logic, because God doesn’t actually live in a stone building but in either heaven or the hearts of believers etc, etc. And yet, if it’s just a building, how come people can only vandalise houses or schools or barns, but they can “desecrate” churches? “De-consecration” – what the church does in order to render its buildings saleable – is just a non-inflammatory way of saying desecration. De-consecrating the church doesn’t affect the material of the building, but it does remove its purpose – but what it can’t do is remove its history. So if you buy a church, what is it that are you actually buying? In a book I liked as a teenager, Terry Brooks’s Magic Kingdom For Sale – Sold! (1986), a depressed lawyer called Ben Holiday buys what turns out to be something like Narnia or Middle Earth, from a catalogue (nowadays it would be from a website). If Mr Holiday bought a church, he wouldn’t be mystically transported to an otherworldly realm, but he would – and the buyers of these buildings do – become the owner of a place where thousands of people were, in a meaningful way, transported to a place where, whatever the privations and terrors of their daily lives might be, things made some sort of black-and-white sense. Somewhere that virtue was rewarded with eternal paradise, vice  was punished with eternal damnation and the person in the pulpit had the correct answers to whatever questions life was throwing at you. You don’t have to believe in any of that to realise that it was (and to some extent I suppose still is) important.

Like, I’m sure, many convinced lifelong atheists (and I’m a very un-spiritual one at that), I love churches. The architecture, the fixtures and fittings, the solemn atmosphere. The idea of building on top of (Native American) Indian burial grounds was enough to fuel horror fiction and urban legend for a century; will turning churches into houses, flats and offices do something similar? Probably not; although some of the churches for sale do indeed still have graveyards attached, the churches themselves, whether used or not, are utterly familiar to the local people. Like the Indian burial grounds, they have, for these people, always been there, but unlike them, they have always been visible, and have far more mundane connotations. They aren’t, or weren’t just the places people got married or had funeral services, they are places where, very recently, a few times a year you trooped along with your primary school classmates to hear about the less commercial, less fun aspects of Easter or Christmas and to sing a few hymns. In short, even now churches aren’t, or are rarely “other” in the way that (to non-indigenous settlers and their descendants) Indian burial grounds are. But, after generations will they still be familiar in that way, or will they become just funny-shaped houses? Who knows, but it’s sad to think so.

However much one does or doesn’t believe in the mythology that put them there, churches, just as local landmarks, bear the weight of memory, just as schools, war memorials, statues and monuments do. Although a valuable and significant thing, it’s a personal, private and unknowable kind of value; nostalgia, in its original, Greek meaning of ‘homecoming pain’ can be evoked in all of its intense complexity by almost anything, and in your own private iconography a road sign or piece of weed-strewn wasteland is likely to be as potent as, or even more potent than the more obvious celestial symbolism of the heaven-pointed steeple and arched windows. But the fact remains that the hopes, beliefs, dreams, grief and pain of generations was directed towards the church like lightning towards the weather vane that surmounts it; there is a kind of power just in that.

So what should be done with churches? You can’t keep everything forever, after all, and the Church of Scotland is, strange though it is to say it, a business. The people used to belong to it; it never belonged to the people and its churches are not public property in anything but the spiritual sense. But perhaps they should be: granted, they only reflect one strand of what is now a multicultural (and what was always a multi-faith) nation, but it’s a strand that informs attitudes and ways of life that contribute, both negatively and positively to the character of the country and its culture to this day. And although I don’t personally believe in the idea that buildings and land absorb a kind of psychic residue that manifests itself in the ghosts, hauntings and folklore beloved of digital TV channels, I feel like they should.

Those fundamental life events; christenings, marriages, funerals, wars, disasters – all of those lost people and all of that vanished emotion, should have some kind of monument or repository – and what better place than a church? Still; maintaining empty buildings purely for the sake of their history is an expensive, ethically dubious business and hardly an indicator of cultural good health. Finding new uses for these kinds of buildings that somehow respects their history is no easy task either. Personally, I’d like the government to buy them and use them to display the large percentage of publicly owned art that is currently languishing in the storerooms of galleries and museums, fulfilling in some ways at least, the National Galleries of Scotland’s strategic plan: “we will make the national collection accessible to all and inspire curiosity across the world. We want to connect with our audiences and with each other in new, collaborative and involving ways.” It would be appropriate in a way; human beings create art as god is supposed to have created people after all, and people with or without gods make art; it expresses many of the same fundamental impulses and emotions as religion. But it’s hardly an idea that’s likely to capture the public imagination, except in the negative sense that ambitious government spending on the arts – not that there has been much of that – always invites manufactured outrage. Ah well, it’s probably best to just make them into flats.

* I realise the double meaning was already implied in the title of Larkin’s poem, but why not render it completely unsubtle with a comma?


cycle; woods and fields and little rivers


With apologies to Paul Gorman, whose beautifully written accounts of bike rides partly influenced this article, although Paul actually knows about cycling and I don’t; this is essentially a surrogate fast walk.

setting off

I thought I’d take to the roads early (just before 7.30 am) because it was a beautiful morning that was forecast not to become a beautiful day, and because, even in 2021 there’s not much traffic on the road early on a Sunday morning. A recent bout of not atypical heavy rain and not unprecedented (one of the overused words of the last 18 months of so) but still definitely unusual-in-May extreme hailstorms left the roads shining in the morning sun and the fences strung with light-catching water droplets; it was very pretty.
Once out of the village, the landscape here is so flat as to look almost Dutch, aside from the Lomond Hills; still half buried in morning mist. In fact, despite living here most of my life, this was really the first time I had considered that this must be what is meant by the ‘Howe of Fife’ and indeed a quick googling confirmed it; “The term ‘howe’ is derived from an old Scots word meaning a hollow, valley or flat tract of land.” The Lomonds themselves, and Bishop Hill on the far end (not visible from my viewpoint) are really not particularly big, but almost give the impression of mountains from the vantage point of the plain below.

the Howe of Fife looking towards East Lomond

The nice thing about rural cycling is that, although much faster than walking, it doesn’t disturb anything much around you, and on a quiet morning (on my 8-10 mile cycle I was passed by one car, one proper cyclist and rode past one dog walker and a jogger) like this, nature seems not to pay much attention to you. It turns out that this area is infested (not the right connotations, but there were so many of them) with Yellowhammers, looking almost canary-like in the spring sunshine, plus innumerable sparrows, blackbirds and the odd village idiot-like pheasant shouting in the middle of a field.
The natural landscape is pretty enough on its own, but because, presumably, of the sort of person I am, I love the unexpected moments of geometry caused by human interference (ploughed furrows deep in shadow in one field, strips of plastic sheeting over rows of berries* in another) and of course the semi-wildlife, like a paddock with three huge, but mellow looking bulls that made me think of the work of Rosa Bonheur.

local bull

Although her work – and her life – is 19th century in almost every respect, Bonheur is a potent figure for the 21st century. Brought up in an egalitarian Christian-Socialist sect by Jewish parents, Bonheur was a troublesome child who developed a love for animals and for painting and as a young woman studied animal anatomy (in abattoirs) and dissected animals at a veterinary school as well as studying live animals. She was openly lesbian at a time when it was, if not illegal, certainly frowned upon by the French government; so much so that she had to request permission from the police to wear trousers, as cross-dressing for women was forbidden by law (until 2013!) Her official reason was that it was better clothing for attending sheep and cattle markets, where she made studies, but although that was certainly true, she was generally known among her friends for her masculine clothing and short hair; both very much against the conventions of the time. Nevertheless, she went on to become a mainstream success and in her own way an establishment figure, both in France and (especially) in the UK, where she met Queen Victoria and painted some anachronistic Highland scenes; she may have been revolutionary by nature and personality, but she seems to have been quite conservative by taste and inclination; never underestimate the complexity of people.

*I mean, maybe berries? Despite growing up in the countryside and actually on farms for a fair bit of childhood, I’m none the wiser about that

Rosa Bonheur – Ploughing in the Nivernais (1849)
geometry imposed on nature
and again; with plastic

Looking at the scenery, the wildlife, the roads, you have to wonder; why would anyone not care about this? I don’t mean the Howe of Fife, or Fife, or Scotland, or Britain, or Europe, or the world (although those too); just wherever you happen to be; place. Landscapes should and must change, as we change; not just the geometries and geographies we impose on them, like the furrows and plastic (though it would be nice to do away with the plastic itself), but everything. 500 years ago the Howe of Fife was covered in forest and the monarchs of Scotland hunted wild boar here. A thousand years ago, a Scotland that was different in shape, size and culture was being ruled by Alexander I, then near the end of his life, having recently lost his wife Sybilla of Normandy, the French child of Henry I of England; Alexander would be succeeded by his brother David, then Prince of the Cumbrians; by James’s time all of these details would seem strange. Two thousand years ago, the Howe of Fife was part of southern Caledonia, that is the land to the north of the river Forth; at least the Romans, still fifty years from their attempted conquest, called it Caledonia, whether the inhabitants of Caledonia had any name for the landmass in general, as opposed to their own local chiefdoms, isn’t recorded.

These back roads are quiet, but although nature is everywhere, it’s deceptive, hardly a natural landscape at all. It has been shaped by generations of human beings, by agriculture and the politics of land ownership, no less in King James’s day, when forests belonged to the King and had their own laws, than now. It reminds me both of my childhood love of Tolkien and of a line from The Fellowship of the Ring; where Bilbo says “I want to see the wild country again before I die, and the Mountains; but he [Frodo] is still in love with the Shire, with woods and fields and little rivers.” Tolkien loved both the wilderness and the smaller, more familiar (Oxfordshire-like) scenery of the Shire, but in his landscapes change is almost always bad; both on the larger scale of the desolation that evil brings to Mordor and the fiery chasms opened in the earth when the Dwarves delve ‘too deep’, and on the local level where the Shire is ruined by the arrival of industry. Michael Moorcock writes perceptively in his I think overly scathing (“The Lord of the Rings is a pernicious confirmation of the values of a morally bankrupt middle-class ‘Epic Pooh’, in Wizardry and Wild Romance, Gollancz, 1987, p.125), but often right and always funny essay about Tolkien, Epic Pooh (1987) about the essential conservatism of much of heroic fantasy fiction, and the points he makes are even more relevant today. The climate emergency will – regardless of the political will to do so – at some point need to be dealt with, as the pace of change outstrips the ways in which our society functions, and it’s important that the necessity to move forward doesn’t become an attempt to turn the clock back; always attractive in ever-nostalgic Britain. What Tolkien only reluctantly accepts – or accepts in a tragic way that fits with the more fatalistic (and Christian) aspects of his vision – is that change is inevitable. In Moorcock’s own heroic fantasy fiction, he not only takes change for granted, it becomes the backdrop against which his series of heroes who make up ‘the Eternal Champion’ fight their never-ending battle for equilibrium in a multiverse where change – in itself neutral – is the only constant:

“Then the earth grew old, its landscapes mellowing and showing signs of age, its ways becoming whimsical and strange in the manner of a man in his last years – The High History of the Runestaff”

(quoted from Count Brass, 1973, but appears lots of other places too)

the Lomond Hills after the mist burned off

The landscape of the Howe of Fife is not yet – the odd wind turbine aside – whimsical and strange, but there was a certain surreal quality in the way the beautiful spring morning (which felt more like early spring than early May) followed days of hailstorms and thunder. Surreal anyway to someone old enough to remember when seasons seemed to have a set pattern. In another twenty or thirty years will British Christmas cards still have snow scenes on them, even though most of the heavy snowfall seems to happen now in March or even April? Human culture is perhaps slow to catch up with the changes it creates; bearing in mind that the traffic on the roads today is light because even after decades of change there’s a convention that people don’t work on a Sunday, for the most archaic of reasons – but I’m still glad of it. These kinds of thoughts, and Rosa Bonheur too, were partly on my mind because this week there were elections which, although not regime-changing, were important. The results were locally, fairly positive, nationally (Scotland) pretty much as expected and extra-nationally (UK: not quite international, yet at least) a bit disappointing. The collapse of any real kind of left-wing movement has been happening over a long period of time and I suppose at this point all you can say is that people in general don’t want one; or not enough of them to make it happen. On the other hand a general liberalisation has taken place that possibly just makes it seem unnecessary to large numbers of people. And of course, the left eats itself, as always; yesterday I saw online a list of “people that socialism needs more of” (working class people essentially) and “people it needs less of” (non-working class people, basically), whereas surely the whole point is, it needs all people, if it’s going to work. But whatever.

the remains of yesterday’s rain

A nice thing about cycling is that, aside from looking around, you can’t really do very much. It clears the mind in a way that car travel, with its technical aspects and its music or radio, doesn’t usually do. It would be possible to listen to the radio while cycling, but probably not very sensible; and in an election week the lack of human noise is very welcome. After watching/listening to/reading political propaganda and analysis before and after an election it becomes clear just how versatile “the media” seems to be. This week I’ve seen people criticise it essentially to suit their own viewpoint; it’s too right/left wing, too politically correct, too reactionary, too critical, not critical enough. Which makes it seem as though the UK media is pretty good at covering all bases. But TV, radio and the newspapers are a distorting mirror at best. Witness the way that the ‘working class’ – whether positively or negatively – is treated as a monolith. The viewpoint of the media (understandably, given most of its staff and ownership) is middle class; and therefore on TV, on the radio and in newspapers the middle class becomes the norm from which everything and everyone else (both working class and upper class) are observed and commented upon. “Reality TV” features the rich or the poor as something other, something to be looked at and entertained by. But it’s a norm that ignores the facts. The working class, insofar as there is still such a thing (I am of it and I’m not even really sure) is technically the norm, in the sense that it’s the majority, just as it always has been. The UK is (albeit in a less precise way than a century ago) a pyramidal structure, with monarchy and government at the top, the middle class – bigger and both richer and poorer than before, but still identifiable – in (yep) the middle, and the working class as the wide base, incorporating a layer of underclass which fluctuates depending on which government is at the top (it’s bigger now than it was a decade ago). How do you change that false picture the media presents? You don’t really; not without changing the society. Marx and Engels wanted the means of production to belong to the workers; in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that stood for something real and meaningful, but while its egalitarian spirit is eternally relevant, in the 21st century the statement itself needs so many qualifications as to be almost meaningless. What are the means of production? Producing what? Who are the workers? The working class of Marx’s day would barely recognise the working class of today – and they might well look at our lifestyle and be encouraged that the struggle wasn’t in vain. And of course it wasn’t, but that doesn’t mean that the post-industrial 21st century is really much more fair than in the industrial age, certainly capitalism is even more rapacious and entrenched than ever before, and as callous too. The more things change, the more they stay the same, as the tedious saying goes.

the flatness of the Howe

People of course do want change; the right kind of change anyway. And elections are one way of securing it. But this week people who were asked on TV for their reasons for voting gave ‘change’ as a reason for voting for parties who have been in power for 14 years (Scotland) and 9 years (UK) – which seems at best like wishful thinking or at least suggests a lack of exciting or convincing alternatives, to say the least. Arguably of course, a vote for the SNP in Scotland is a vote for a bigger change than just who currently sits in parliament, but familiarity breeds indifference and at this point it’s probably good for their cause that they are no longer the only party in favour of an independent Scotland. And in a depressing kind of way, circumstances have aided them too. In 2014 it was easy, personally speaking, to vote against independence on several grounds; a disliking of Nationalism as a principle, so closely related as it is to xenophobia and intolerance. As someone who was very happy to belong to the EU too, independence seemed (laughably in retrospect, though still not wrongly) to endanger Scotland’s membership, since the UK and not Scotland was the member. And there were niggles about the economy, not because Scotland couldn’t function outside of the UK – one of the most irritating arguments for the status quo; I think it’s pretty obvious that it could and can – but because the Salmond leadership seemed to be saying (ie he was saying) that he wanted nothing to change regarding the currency etc. Which would seem to put Scotland in the surreal position of being a supposedly independent nation which has its economy regulated by the Bank of England. Why the Bank of England would accept that, or anyone on either side of the border would want it is mysterious, to say the least. But anyway, here we are in 2021; nationalism and xenophobia look like being worse and more virulent in the UK than outside of it. We are already out of the EU and, while an independent Scotland being a member state is far from a foregone conclusion, the UK rejoining is definitely not about to happen anytime soon. And Covid-19 has given the economy a beating that will take a lot of recovering from, whatever we do. So why not independence? I would of course prefer to have a democratic socialist party in charge of it, but not having a rabidly inept right-wing one would be a step in the right direction.

apparent rural idyll

Without wishing to get bogged down even more in the minutiae of British politics, the story of the Labour Party (it’s probably not quite dead yet; it always has a far more cyclical life than the Conservative Party) is an instructive one. There’s always been a tug of war between the left and centre elements of the party, but since the 90s there’s always been the dubious argument that veering to the right is the way to win votes and power. But although New Labour was definitely uncomfortably right-wing for a supposedly socialist party, that wasn’t what brought it success. It was the ‘new’ part; drawing a line under history and saying ‘the past ends here and this is what we stand for’ was a big, optimistic step at a time when British politics – as now- had become stagnant and unappealing. The Corbyn left managed something similar, with a younger demographic, but for all its radical ideas, it was immediately familiar to anyone over a certain age. Much as Blair and co’s propaganda looks vapid and empty in retrospect (because it essentially was), not invoking Marx or even socialism was a key to their success, not because of where they or their supporters sat on the political spectrum (I think it’s true that the majority of the British public probably don’t think of themselves being especially political), but simply because people will, every now and then, give new ideas a chance, if they look exciting enough and if they’re bored or disgusted enough with the status quo; It’s worth bearing in mind. None of which has nothing obvious to do with this road on this morning, with the patches of bluebells under the trees, which might be left over from the great forest of King James’s time; where wild boar hid, evading the men and the dogs, before they were hunted to extinction.



sleepwalking through geography – doodling and the automatic muse


a cat?
a cry for help from the depths of the classroom

There are relatively few times in life when it’s possible to switch off your mind and enter a trance-like state without going out of your way to do so; but sitting in a classroom for a period (or better yet, a double period) of whatever subject it is that engages you least is one of those times. When the conditions are right – a sleepy winter afternoon in an overly warm room maybe, with darkness and heavy rain or snow outside and the classroom lights yellow and warm, the smell of damp coats hung over radiators and a particularly boring teacher – the effect can be very little short of hypnotic. The subject will be a matter of taste, for me the obvious one I detested was Maths, but I think that something like Geography or ‘Modern Studies’ (strangely vague subject name), where I wasn’t concerned so much with not understanding and/or hating it, would be the optimum ‘trance class’.

I think every school jotter i had between the ages of 5 and 18 had this on the back, and it never went un-altered
fragments of the Metallica logo. and ???

There’s nothing like school for making you examine the apparently stable nature of time; if, as logic (and the clock) states, the 60 or so minutes of hearing about ‘scarp-and-vale topography’ really was about the same length of time as our always-too-short lunch hour, or even as was spent running around the rugby pitch, then clearly logic isn’t everything, as far as the perception of human experience is concerned.

Darth Vader, axes, spears…

But it would not be true to say that I did nothing during these long, barren stretches of unleavened non-learning. Mostly, I doodled on my school books. Sometimes this was a conscious act, like the altering of maps with tippex to create fun new supercontinents, or the inevitable (in fact, almost ritualistic, after 7 years of Primary school) amending of the fire safety rules that were printed on the back of every jotter produced by The Fife Regional Council Education Committee. Often these were just nonsensical, but even so, favourite patterns emerged. I had a soft spot for “ire! ire! ire! anger! anger! anger!” (in the interests of transparency I should probably point out that I was almost certainly unaware at the time that ire means anger), and the more abstract “fir! fir fir! Dang! Dang! Dang!” (see?), but some things like ‘Remember Eire hunts – Eire kills’ were fairly universal. But also, there was the whiling (or willing) away of time by just doodling, in margins, on covers, or if the books didn’t have to be handed in at the end of the class, just anywhere; band logos and Eddies* and cartoon characters. Later, towards the end of my high school career, there’s a particularly detailed and baroque drawing of a train going over a bridge (something I wouldn’t have had much patience for drawing in an actual art class) which immediately summons up the vivid memory of a particularly long Geography class, and even which pen – a fine felt tip I liked but couldn’t write neatly with** – that I drew it with.

possibly not fully engaged with learning – but I do remember that this was a Geography lesson

*Eddie = ‘Eddie the head’, Iron Maiden’s beloved zombie mascot, created – and painted best – by Derek Riggs

**i.e. ‘I wrote even less neatly than usual with’

adventures in abstract art
a scowling Eddie face, a strange man and some kind of tornadoes

If I could recall the things I was supposed to learn in classes this well I would have done much better at school. But the point of doodling is that it’s whatever it is your hand draws when your brain isn’t engaged; or, as André Breton put it, drawings that are ‘dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.’*
This is in fact from his definition of what surrealism is; ‘psychic automatism in its pure state’ and later, in The Automatic Message (1933) Breton went further, influenced by his reading of Freud, specifically referencing what would later become known as art brut or ‘outsider art’ – drawings by the mentally ill, visionaries, mediums and children – as ‘surrealist automatism’. Although it might seem to – well, it definitely does – give too much dignity and importance to the time-wasting scrawls of teenagers to consider them anything but ephemeral, the strange faces, swords, cubes, eyes, tornadoes and goats that littered my school books aged 12-14 or so do seem to preserve, not just the kind of pantheon almost every child/teenager has – made up of favourite bands, TV shows, cartoon characters etc – but  a kind of landscape of enigmatic symbolism that comes from who-knows-where and perhaps represents nothing more than the imagination crying for help from the heart of a particularly stimulus-free desert. But in the end, that’s still something.

boredom made flesh(y)


*André Breton, Manifesto of Surrealism 1924, published in Manifestoes of Surrealism, Ann Arbor paperbacks, tr. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, 1972, p.26


Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere; notes on the margins of everywhere

This piece of writing was originally supposed to be posted in September, then at Halloween, but now that it’s finally finished maybe November is the right time after all. It’s about those nameless places that are nowhere, or even the ‘middle of nowhere’, and maybe places feel most like nowhere – or, nowhere feels most itself – in November, when as Ted Hughes wrote:

“… After long rain the land
Was sodden as the bed of an ancient lake,
Treed with iron and birdless”
Ted Hughes, ‘November’ from Lupercal (1960) Faber & Faber, p.49 (my copy is from 1985)

This was, pompously, to be a ‘photo essay’, but the photos are – necessarily I think and not unintentionally – a bit drab and nothingy, so I wrote this too. Firstly, I should explain what I mean by ‘nowhere’ and concede straightaway that by now there probably isn’t a place in the world truly deserving that non-name, let alone in a land mass as small and populated as Britain, where if nothing else, the places I have photographed could be described as being a part of Fife, a part of Scotland, etc, etc. But still; these are places that have no name that I know of (not the same as having no name I realise), that are no longer maintained or used for anything (by human beings at least) and that don’t have any special landmarks or signs to say what they are, were, or who if anyone owns them.

the gate to nowhere

So, for instance; this is nowhere, there’s not much to see. This particular nowhere has clearly not always existed; it’s the evidence of people having once been here that makes it feel like nowhere, an abandoned place, a place that perhaps used to be somewhere, but isn’t anymore; absence rather than simple emptiness. Unique in its details and at the same time interchangeable with other nowheres, like the nowheres of your childhood; places that writers (especially horror writers) call ‘vacant lots’ or ‘disused yards’, although if you’re there to see them they can’t be all that vacant and if kids play there they aren’t actually disused, so much as re-used.

What was this place? It would probably be relatively easy to find out, but finding out would make it somewhere, even if the name that denoted the place was a dead, ghost name. I remember playing in ‘the factory’ as a child, but ‘the factory’ was just cracked concrete floors and crumbled remains of walls; which means that it wasn’t a factory. Pedantic, yes (always), but while the names of places like the factory are often just words: ‘gates’ or ‘ports’ that once existed or nominally ‘new’ places that are very actually very old (“The New Forest”), there are other names we use for places that are in themselves an admission that we don’t know what they are, or were.

the crumbling pavements of nowhere

Maps mark places of significance with both of these kinds of words; the ones that mean they are somewhere we know something about (tumulus, castle, church) but also the ones that fill gaps in communal memory with blunt, easy to understand descriptions designed to keep ‘nowhere’ at bay like ruin or better yet, standing stone.
These substitute names can themselves become names through the lack of anything better; like Stonehenge, a name that literally means something like ‘stone prehistoric structure’ but, more broadly means ‘this place was important to people once’.

The fragment of path leading nowhere (see picture) doesn’t have a lot in common with Stonehenge, except that human beings made it, presumably used it, and then abandoned it*. Usually, I don’t have much time for Keats’s “negative capability”, whatever way you describe it (he famously wrote “that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason“) because it amounts at times to ‘ignorance is bliss’ and personally, I find the poetry of the rainbow in no way reduced by knowledge of how it ‘works’ (quite the opposite, when you consider that human beings apparently see brighter, more colourful rainbows than other creatures. Just the idea that reality is that subjective, that the number of actual colours depends on who is seeing them, feels like a metaphor waiting to happen, as well as raising the logical idea of other ‘prime colours’ that are beyond the human eye’s ability to see. I remember as a child trying to picture another colour as unrelated to blue, red and yellow as they are to each other, but mainly ‘seeing’ purple or brown; another metaphor-in-waiting maybe.

* or, more poetically, Wrætlic is þes wealstan, wyrde gebræcon/burgstede burston, brosnað enta geweorc.

plants that no-one would plant, growing in a place where no-one would plant them

The appeal of nowhere, when it is noticed enough to have an appeal, can be the determination to see the beauty in ordinary things, like Edward Thomas’s beautifully understated/drab Tall Nettles:

Tall nettles cover up, as they have done
These many springs, the rusty harrow, the plough
Long worn out, and the roller made of stone:
Only the elm-butt tops the nettles now.

Edward Thomas, ‘Tall Nettles’ (c.1916), Selected Poems of Edward Thomas, Faber & Faber, 1964 p.35

Nowhere also has the appeal of escape, not just the escape from familiar surroundings into somewhere unknown, but maybe the actual evasion of people and consequences, as in Tom Waits’s songs about hair-raising characters dwelling on the margins of society, of which the classic example may be ’16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought-Six’ from Swordfishtrombones (1983):

Plugged sixteen shells from a thirty-ought six
And a black crow snuck through a hole in the sky
And I spent all my buttons on an old pack mule
And I made me a ladder from a pawn shop marimba
I leaned it all up against a dandelion tree…

…Now I slept in the holler of a dry creek bed
And I tore out the buckets from a red corvette

this used to be somewhere

A more gothic, elaborate version of this kind of nowhere appears in Nick Cave’s early work with The Birthday Party, and is taken to a poetic extreme in his first novel And The Ass Saw The Angel (1989) set in a fantasy version of America’s Deep South.  At the opposite end of the spectrum is the Thomas Hardy’s projection of how he hoped to be remembered in anthology favourite Afterwards with its accumulation of beautifully-observed everyday minutiae (“when, like an eyelid’s
soundless blink/The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight
Upon the wind-warped upland thorn”) and its near-refrain “He was a man who used to notice such things.”

Although indebted to the poetry-is-everywhere writing of Thomas Hardy and far removed from the dramatic, lawless nowheres of Tom Waits and Nick Cave. Philip Larkin takes ‘nowhere as escape’ to its logical conclusion in poems like ‘High Windows’ (1967) with its ambivalently yearning ending:

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

Philip Larkin, ‘High Windows’ Collected Poems, Faber & Faber, 1988, p.165

stairway to nowhere

Even on a far less drastic level than Larkin’s biophobia,  
‘not knowing’ is a key part of the enjoyment of being in the middle of nowhere.  I write ‘not knowing’ rather than ‘mystery’, because mystery suggests a sense of excitement entirely alien to Edward Thomas’s nameless place of nettles, or this blocked off stairway (left). The pleasure of not knowing (and not wanting to know) needn’t be exciting enough to warrant being called a mystery. There’s an odd building in the local area, on a path that connects a small town with a nearby village, a couple of miles of muddy track over a hill, through woodlands and alongside some fields. The building is one room, the size of a small shed, the side walls close enough to touch with (my) outstretched hands when standing inside. It has a mangled, rusted metal door in the front; so far, so twentieth century. It’s made of (I think) concrete but, crucially, it’s shaped like a pointed arch; that seems odd. What is it? Why is it where it is, on a hill, in some woods, outside a market town? It doesn’t seem like a useful situation for anything or, anyway, a useful building beyond the sense that any shed is useful. It doesn’t seem to be connected with the farmland that surrounds it, though it could be part of an estate that no longer exists. It’s not eerie exactly (concrete, no windows; it feels more like a portaloo than a cell). But still, that odd, ecclesiastical shape. It was new once, and used for something. But now it’s in the middle of nowhere and its abandonment creates an odd pang of feeling for people and things long since lost to time; a feeling all the stronger for not being known. So in this case maybe mystery after all.

the middle of nowhere?

I don’t feel like that (not so much anyway) about just any building with a ‘to let’ sign on it, so why should it be easier to feel some kind of human kinship with the unknown builders of unused paths or the erectors of giant stones whose meaning is lost? Well firstly and obviously because those humans are absent and therefore not annoying; ‘human beings’ yes, but not ones with agendas, attitudes or personalities that we can know about.

And also perhaps because they aren’t around to tell us about their buildings and constructions and more importantly, to mind us looking at them.

the boundary of nowhere?

Because the ridiculous fact remains that while this place (right) is nowhere, it probably isn’t nobody’s – but ownership of places is a strange and slippery thing. When King Lear finds himself on the heath, a place between places; not a palace, not a hovel, not even a grave, which is at least something:

Thou wert better in a grave than to answer with thy uncovered body this extremity of the skies… Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art”

William Shakespeare, King Lear, Act III, Scene IV, Penguin Books, 1972, p.125

he is reduced (I think the right word for what Shakespeare does, though not a concept one necessarily agrees with) to the condition of an animal, albeit a more anguished one than, say, a rabbit seems to be. But crucially, up until the earlier events of the play, the King, presumably, owned this same bleak and inhospitable heath: whatever that ownership means. If a person can own a place (and clearly they can) what they can’t own, is what Shakespeare describes; someone’s experience of a place. The piece of land owned by this developer or that corporation isn’t *the same* as this piece of land with its enigmatic fragments of structures and their allusive, suggestive qualities.

Self-aggrandising perhaps, but if your life is an adventure, or at least a sequence of events in which (as Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson would have it) YOU are the hero, then the fact remains that, whether you have deep roots in an area and a family tree stretching back to the dark ages, or you don’t even know who your own parents are, the experience of standing here, in the middle of nowhere, perceiving things with your senses and processing them with your brain, is something no-one else has ever done, and no-one else will ever do, even if everybody knows this is nowhere.

the sun shining on nowhere
peering through the bars at nowhere
the earth reclaiming somewhere to make it nowhere again