22 November 2014

What is Place?

“Why do we react so strongly to certain places? Why do layers of story and meaning build up around particular features in the landscape?”

These two questions are posed on the flyleaf of Philip Marsden’s most recent book, Rising Ground. His book also lent its title to an interesting event which I attended at the London Review Bookshop last Tuesday. Rising Ground – Place Writing Now brought together Philip Marsden and two other writers, Ken Worpole, and my friend, Julian Hoffman, in a discussion chaired by the Whitechapel Gallery’s Film Curator, Gareth Evans, to unfold the question – what is place?

“Writing about place,” is, according to the event blurb, “a sub-genre of travel writing that subverts it by being about staying put, rather than moving.” It was a fascinating evening which certainly helped broaden the horizons of the mind. Each of the three writers was in agreement that the idea of place is intrinsically linked to perception. In using the framing device of place there is a clear distinction between knowledge and experience. We might know a particular landscape as intimately as another person in the detailed terms of its geography, its topography, its history, or how it might have changed or been changed over time, but that other person may well have had a radically divergent experience of that same place to our own.

As Julian Hoffman writes in his book, The Small Heart of Things --- “Place has a profound bearing upon our lives, from the countries we are born into, or end up inhabiting, to the light, landscape, and weather peculiar to our home regions. Each has a say in shaping our cultures and souls.” Our relationships to the places we inhabit or simply pass through can be deepened through ‘an equality of perception’ if we only stop ourselves and take a moment to examine it – perceptions small and fleeting can be just as significant to us as grand vistas and imposing, centuries old scenery. Awareness is the key, as Hoffman goes on to recount: “One autumn, while putting the shopping in the bed of our truck, I watched a kestrel arrow low over the supermarket car park, snatch a small mammal from an abandoned lot piled high with rubble and debris, and settle on a hummock of broken concrete beneath a streetlamp to feed. It was so close that I could make out the black fretwork on its cinnamon back, and our eyes locked together when its head suddenly swivelled. Shoppers pushed their trolleys past me, and I could hear the slam of closing doors, but I was so caught up in the eyes of the kestrel that I just stood there with a bag dangling from my hand.”

Each of the three writers spoke about particular places they have come to know and explored intimately, which they have then gone on to write about. For each, the motivations and modes of perception may have been different yet all three were deeply rooted in the concept of being at home. In this context, Hoffman’s favourite idea expressed in the words of the poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, that “everything beckons us to perceive it,” was frequently quoted and referred back to by each of the writers in relation to their own work and experiences with regard to place. For Marsden it is a personal search for the spirit of place; for Hoffman it is about being at home in a beckoning world; and, for Worpole it is about questioning received opinions, and, in so doing, forming our own ‘re-representations’ of what a particular landscape is, or represents, to us personally.  

Philip Marsden’s most recent book, Rising Ground, very interestingly for me (although I’ve yet to read the whole book) explores the wider locales around his home in Cornwall. Leafing through the book I can see many references to places both widely known and more obscure which are very well known to me having grown up during long childhood summers spent in that particular county. It will be interesting to see how different or coincident my experiences of these places will measure against his own. Julian Hoffman’s wonderfully lyrical book looks at his adopted home in Greece by the Prespa Lakes, located in a transnational boundary park whose shores are also shared by Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – with all the complicated cultural history and diversity that such human imposed national boundaries have brought to bear on the everyday lives of those people sharing a home and a personal heritage in that locale. Ken Worpole’s most recent book, The New English Landscape, is a collaboration with the photographer, Joseph Orton, which proposes a new paradigm for topographical beauty based on the post-industrial landscape of the Thames estuary, another part of the world closely connected to me as I now live only a few yards away from the banks of this great river.

There are many ways to experience and to describe place. Personal response is one means; another might be through the stories of other people, of which the writings of Rachel Lichtenstein were cited as a foremost example. Indeed, her Rodinsky’s Room (written with Iain Sinclair) is a fascinating book – mysterious and moving by turns, in the narrative arc of her investigations into the remnant world of one man’s vacant home, still filled after many undisturbed years with all his abandoned possessions. A thoughtful exploration, forlorn but ultimately uplifting in its sifting through the accumulated layers of perception, projection, and the consequent misconceptions which seemed to have accrued through time, until person and place are ultimately, in several senses of the word, – relocated.

As Philip Marsden noted there can be ‘a cacophony of interpretation’ which builds through time in relation to particular landscapes. These can be both positive and negative. Whether it be a depressive dismissal of a decaying post-industrial landscape, or the idealised projections through which an unknowable Neolithic landscape might evocatively enter and captivate our imagination, or vice versa – these surmises probably say more about us and the nature of ourselves than the true essence of such a landscape itself.

Writing about place can be a means of ‘digging in and putting down roots,’ or it can be about looking back after displacement and viewing the place from which we’ve come with eyes renewed; our reflections become refracted, lingering resonances reverberating in unexpected ways – we may even end up feeling closer to the place we’ve left simply because we’ve left it. In this sense, opening yourself to a new way of perceiving somewhere – ‘unfolding place’ – is a renewed way of experiencing it. As Ken Worpole observed, accepting a ‘cookie cut’ notion of what a place is like merely on the say-so of other people is simply a way of denying ourselves our own experiences, and thereby depriving ourselves of our own intuitive responses, which – if we stopped to examine them – may well be surprisingly different to those of the hive mind. Rural and urban spaces need not necessarily be seen in opposition or viewed as enemies of one another. They may even be closer (physically) and more closely interlinked (on multiple levels) than we realise; by putting ourselves (physically and mentally) in motion we can exchange one for the other more completely than we might otherwise have assumed. 


Just as those living transient lifestyles in a constant state of motion – such as hunter-gatherer communities, or nomadic shepherds, who continually relocate and renew their home-bases, and so are seen to be idyllic, happy, and at ease in their landscapes, whereas sedentary farmers are said to hate the land which they feel chained to – so we can see how perceptions of place drawn from outside and inside can differ and perhaps are not so clearly cut after all. Just as landscapes can bleed gradually, one into another, so too can our perceptions of place, as well as other people, and our own individual and collective locations within these landscapes which we have shaped into being as the places which we inhabit – the world around us, which we call our own whilst simultaneously sharing it with others.


Rising Ground – Place Writing Now at the London Review Bookshop, well attended with many thoughtful questions and observations from the audience, was a thought provoking and enjoyable evening. One which certainly made me see the world rather differently than I perhaps had done so before. I’m sure the thoughts and ideas which this evening inspired in me, and which I’ve tried to capture here, will linger long in mulling, and so permeate into my own perceptions of place renewed. 


See 'Person & Place' for my review of a similarly themed event on 'Capturing a Sense of Place' with the writers Mahesh Rao, Colin Thubron & Tracy Chevalier at Daunt Books earlier this year.

17 November 2014

Peter Hopkirk - Historian of 'The Great Game'

The journalist and historian, Peter Hopkirk, who sadly passed away on August 22nd at the age of 83, was one of my favourite writers. Like many people interested in the history of Western Imperialist incursions into Central Asia his books were really the first to open up this fascinating area of history in a way which was deeply engaging. Reading his books I found his enthusiasm and empathy for the historical figures he wrote about truly infectious.

I first came across his books in the bookshop of Shanghai Museum, whilst I was working there on an exhibition, in the summer of 2006. During that time I found myself avidly racing through the pages of his Trespassers on the Roof of the World (1982), and, the wonderfully titled, Foreign Devils on the Silk Road (1980) – which I think is possibly one of the most enticing history book titles I’ve ever come across! Hopkirk’s books are those rare things, they are both eloquent and pacy, gripping and informed, page-turners with a true purpose – they convey a wealth of historical detail and are genuinely hard to put down ... If you’ve not read any of Peter Hopkirk’s books yet, stop reading me and pick up one of his books immediately!

Finding his books at that particular time and place was a wonderful example of happenstance. I’d already begun to contemplate the idea of seriously researching the life of Louis Magrath King, and here were a couple of books which seemed to tie in to that very same past world. Having worked in museums for a number of years already, my interest in collectors and their collections – the often untold or even unknown stories of how certain objects from isolated and relatively inaccessible parts of the world began their journeys towards today’s museum showcases – was something which already fascinated me deeply. And happily I found that these two books by Peter Hopkirk were a treasure trove of such tales and anecdotes.

Interestingly enough, it was the story of the Bower manuscript, which Hopkirk recounts in both Foreign Devils on the Silk Road and Trespassers on the Roof of the World, which initially caught my interest the most. I’d already begun efforts to piece together Louis King’s family tree and I knew he had forbears on his father’s side who had the surname Bowers, and, naturally enough, I wondered if there might perhaps be some connection there. I’ve not yet found a direct family connection between Louis King and Hamilton Bower (if there was any connection that Louis himself had known of, I’m sure he would almost certainly have made mention of it), yet there is a connection of a different sort – in that Tibetan artefacts collected by both men sit alongside each other in the showcases of the present Asia Gallery in the British Museum.

I’m not sure I really knew at the time that I was first reading Hopkirk’s books whilst staying in Shanghai, but the connections to Louis King are certainly there – in the first sentence of the first page of his first book in fact, which begins with a direct quote from Louis’s close friend and colleague, Sir Eric Teichman. Like Louis, Teichman had been stationed for a time at Tachienlu and had also travelled extensively in the surrounding region of East Tibet known as Kham. As my researches progressed I constantly found myself looking back to Hopkirk’s books as other prominent ‘players’ in the history of the Great Game, which Hopkirk chronicles so well, were contemporaries who would have known and been known to Louis himself – people such as Sir Charles Bell, Captain Eric Bailey, General George Pereira, Alexandra David-Neel, and, even Lord Curzon.

More than this though, Hopkirk’s books seemed to link with my own world, as in the years that followed I made numerous journeys of my own to Asia. And during these travels I’ve often found my mind wandering back to certain passages or images which were first conjured in the pages of his books. I remember watching a beautiful sunset over the Taklamakan desert from the window of a cargo plane when I was on my way back to Shanghai once again in 2008. I remember looking down at the Taklamakan and thinking of Sven Hedin and Marc Aurel Stein.

Our plane had spent five hours on the ground at Baku in Azerbaijan, where my travelling companion and I hadn’t been allowed to get off the plane. Not content with following the Silk Road by air from one of its many starting points in the West, my feet itched to get out here and continue our journey overland instead. Soon after we soared off the runway and headed out over the glittering waters of the Caspian Sea I was sat up in the cockpit, poring over the pilot’s maps, trying to work out what the ground features were below. We were passing over places with familiar names: Bokhara, Samarkand, Tashkent, Kokand, Fergana, Kashgar, and Dunhuang. Hopkirk’s books undoubtedly added a heady dose of historical spice to my travels and inspired me to delve ever deeper into a growing interest which soon became a genuine passion. For a long time I’d been pondering which area of history I wanted to return to university and pursue, and it was probably the coincidence of my family connection to Louis King, and my frequent work trips to related parts of Asia, both lit by the spark of Hopkirk’s books, which finally helped me to narrow down and channel my focus into a study of Western adventurers in Central and East Asia.

If you look at the traditional short author’s biography at the start of each of his books you’ll get a brief, tantalising glimpse into Peter Hopkirk’s own life; which, evidently, was no less adventurous than some of the historical persons he writes about. Recent obituary articles written in memory of him give a little more detail, hinting that a life of Hopkirk would most likely be a fascinating book to read. For more than twenty years he worked as a foreign correspondent in the great days of the Fleet Street newspapers, most notably for The Times. As a journalist and traveller he was certainly intrepid, finding himself twice flung into jail in Cuba and in the Middle East; and even surviving the hijacking of a plane travelling out of Beirut in 1974, in which he very courageously mediated with the Palestinian hijackers when the plane landed in Amsterdam, successfully persuading them to lay down their weapons. Before becoming a journalist he’d served in the British Army in the King’s African Rifles, in the same battalion as the young Idi Amin, who later became the infamous Ugandan tyrant.

In 1999 he was awarded the Sir Percy Sykes Memorial Medal for his writings and travels by the Royal Society for Asian Affairs. Of all his books, perhaps his most personal is the last – Quest for Kim: In Search of Kipling’s Great Game (1996). Part personal travelogue and part literary detective work, he recounts how he went in search of traces of Kipling’s original inspiration for the real locations and historical characters on which Kipling had based his famous and much loved novel. Reading Quest for Kim over the last month, as well as dipping back into his other books, this final work really shines with all of Hopkirk’s personal passions: the immersive joys of historical research; getting lost in libraries and emerging to follow up various leads and loose ends; tracing the shadowy, long forgotten dealings of imperial espionage; unearthing accounts of personal endurance and adventure; reflecting on his love of language and the written word; and, not least, acknowledging his deep rooted captivation by all the classic ingredients of a first rate ‘Boy’s Own’ storyline – something which clearly remained with him all his life from his early boyhood days when he’d first discovered John Buchan's 'Richard Hannay' novels, and, of course, Kipling’s Kim. Happily for us, Hopkirk’s own books are just as captivating and enjoyable as these greats which he loved.


List of Works by Peter Hopkirk (1930-2014)

Foreign Devils on the Silk Road: The Search for the Lost Treasures of Central Asia (John Murray, 1980)

Trespassers on the Roof of the World: The Secret Exploration of Tibet (John Murray, 1982)

Setting the East Ablaze: Lenin’s Dream of an Empire in Asia (John Murray, 1984)

The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia (John Murray, 1990)

On Secret Service East of Constantinople: The Great Game and the Great War (John Murray, 1994)

Quest for Kim: In Search of Kipling’s Great Game (John Murray, 1996)