Monday, August 04, 2008

A sense of place

The August sun is currently softened by a cool Northerly breeze, taking the daytime temperature below thirty degrees and providing a chill at night. The summer has been dry, yet, though the grass is scorched brown and some trees show signs of stress, this time of year always has a sense of abundance. Wildlife is busily active, everywhere accompanied by the incessant racket of cicadas. Trees and bushes are laden with ripening fruit. I love being here.

People often ask me if I feel at home when I come to Greece. The answer is no. How could I? My Greek is rudimentary, I know little of the customs and culture, my history is academic not personal, my local gossip is second-hand and translated, my knowledge of local and national politics is sketchy. No, I do not feel at home; I feel happy.

For some reason, simply existing in this place and at this time gives me pleasure. Why? The house is gorgeous. There is the exuberance and the extravagant beauty of the mountains, forests and the sea. I like the people and the food and, of particular significance to the sun-starved, eternally damp English, there is the weather. This doesn't satisfy as an explanation though, there has to be more; a simple sense of place that pleases.

The relationship between people and place shapes us, often in a profound way. For Patrick Geddes, the radical Scottish polymath, human social evolution was integrally linked to the local environment. And that environment was more than physical, it was historical, the sum of our collective experiences of our material world. George Szirtes has also explored this relationship by discussing the distinct nature of a Central European liberal left in a series of posts starting here, an outlook he shares despite having lived most of his life in Britain. History is the key,

The instincts are different, as is the history. Their history, my history, the history that becomes consciousness: it is history that makes the difference.

Terry Glavin too, in an essay on the Fraser River, sees landscape as a palimpsest on which is written the lives and struggles of successive generations, narrated through stories:

As soon as a story is told to make sense of things, it is a rare thing for it to vanish out of the world entirely. Once you hear these stories, you will never see the river we know in quite the same way, nor the cosmopolis that has grown up along its banks, and those stories will echo in everything you hear for as long as you may live.

His approach is strongly reminiscent of Geddes' view of the city as being "more than a place in space, it is a drama in time."

This is a small place and the stories are of the everyday dramas of life - rivalries, enmities, friendships and, these days, the comings and goings of us peculiar foreigners. Occasionally, a darker past will make itself known. This house was once intended to be the property of someone who went to war and did not return, his death never accepted. A fruitless wait in grief and hope was his bequest. Go to the bakers' in Argalasti and the badly painted picture over the counter is of the burning of Smyrna, a family memory of massacre and exile, never forgotten. Until the 1970's Twentieth Century Greek history was marked by dictatorship, occupation and civil war. Today's peace and democracy are gifts to be relished. The stories that are being created now are miniatures, humdrum but significant in their own way.

There were those that thought we could build a new world on the rubble of the old, but that rubble often provides the foundations for something eerily similar. A better present, the past of the future, depends on our understanding and making the best of our history, rather than eradicating it. History matters. It matters very much indeed.

2 comments:

Anton Deque said...

You astound me! I had no idea you cared!

I too am an enthusiast for a 'sense of place' in locating ourselves. This does not have to be exceptional. In this I have been guided by Ian Nairn (1930-1983) who wrote architectural reviews for The Observer when I was just a lad. Nairn was passionate about what the world of the built and informal environment meant to us, what it had to tell us.

I am championing my own 'place' through a blog which I will give here if you will allow.

http://battlefieldthebeautiful.blogspot.com/

Nice post Peter and have a good holiday.

(a.k.a "Larkers")

Transmontanus said...

"Occasionally, a darker past will make itself known. This house was once intended to be the property of someone who went to war and did not return, his death never accepted. A fruitless wait in grief and hope was his bequest. Go to the bakers' in Argalasti and the badly painted picture over the counter is of the burning of Smyrna, a family memory of massacre and exile, never forgotten. . ."

See?

Fucking lovely. We'll get a book out of you yet, Peter.