Friday, April 18, 2008

The Spirit of Place

from Jacqueline

I bet you think I've been missing in action this past few weeks. But here I am, the old book tour campaigner, back at base and trying to get back to normal - though seeing as "situation normal" has eluded me for most of my life, there's probably no good reason to find it now! So, sorry for last week's non appearance. I arrived back from the UK on Thursday night and was in the help-me-out-of-the-fog stage of jet-lag for a good 48 hours, listing to starboard around the house with one cup of tea or another, the trouble being that I kept putting that cup of tea down and forgetting where I left it, so had to make "another."

Travel brings me to thoughts of place, and one thing that has always fascinated me is the way in which the people who have been in that place - who have loved or hated that place - leave something of themselves behind. I think that's something we try to communicate as writers, not only the look and feel of a place, but the essence. Because my books are set in an historic time period, when I am in London, I try to shut out the teeming city it is today, and try to imagine the teeming city it was years ago. But I do the same thing in New York or New Orleans. In fact, I've done it all my life, looked for the spirit, tried to hear the ghosts who linger, as if asking them to tell me their story so that I can hear their voices rattling down the corridor that leads up from past.

Two well-known places come to mind as examples of the past being a place to which we can pilgrimage with our imaginations. I first visited Ellis Island about eight years ago. My friend, Corinne, and I made it down to the ferry as early as we could and were the first people stepping onto the island on that cool April morning. Most of the passengers were going to the Statue of Liberty first, so there was hardly a soul around - except the ghosts, of course. The interesting thing was the impact that the place had on me, I think because I am an immigrant to this country, and Ellis Island is a metaphor for all the hopes and dreams that we, the immigrants, hope for when we come to America, whether that journey is via Air New Zealand or with a coyote crossing the border. Today the average immigration building is like a cross between a DMV and Stassi Headquarters, and you don't get a bowl of porridge to keep you going.

As we walked around the building, almost alone, stepping in and out of interview rooms, the rooms where medical inspections took place, you could touch those walls where immigrants past etched their names while they waited with a sickness of fear in the gut, and you can feel the emotion just seeping out, as if there was so much hope, so much exhaustion, so much worry inside them that their human frame was too small a container, so it just leeched into the plaster, the tiles and the concrete. I remember touching a wall and feeling that ache of hope brush against my fingertips.

The Imperial War Museum, where I spend a lot of time when I am in London, is housed in a building that was once the Bethlem Lunatic Asylum, the oldest psychiatric hospital in the world, though it wasn't always on the Lambeth site. You've heard of "Bedlam" haven't you? That's where the word comes from, because Bethlem was spoken as Bedlam in the local dialect. As I often say, a former lunatic asylum is a perfect place for a museum of war. For the most part, the museum holds no great sense of the madness that was once incarcerated within the walls, except when you go up to the reading room, which is only available by appointment. I have been there many times, sitting at my wooden desk in silence while reading through letters sent from the western front during the war to end all wars - reading about a kind of madness, if you like. But the reading room is situated in a dome that once housed the chapel, and still has the ten commandments on wooden plaques high on the walls. I have closed my eyes in that room and almost heard the prayers echoing down the years, and felt, again, some sort of hope that came forth from those who knelt in that place, their hands pressed together as they petitioned God to deliver them from their plight.

As writers we endeavor to touch that spirit of place. Whether we are walking the streets of Miami, of Los Angeles, of New York, London, or a deserted old oil town somewhere in the desert, we are reaching out with our senses and, ultimately, our words so that ghosts can echo down the years. Even if our story is set in the here and now, and not the deep or more recent past, our understanding comes through between the lines, enabling the reader to see more than simply words on a page.

Have a lovely weekend, all.


  1. Jackie, I've often said that I can't write about a place until I'm at a distance from it. Only then can I identify its heart and soul, tell the story it wanted me to tell, but I wasn't listening yet.

    Your post today proves the opposite is true, as well.

    Thanks for the lovely (poignant) images and descriptions.

  2. Glad you're back Jackie...not to worry, it's still S N A F U......
    it's always good to read your posts which help us think and reflect.


  3. from Jacqueline

    Louise, you've made a good point - and one that works for me. You see, I need that distance, however, I also need the memory, the impression deep inside, that I've taken from visiting a certain place. Frankly, I don't think I could write about 1930's London if I lived in London today - the present demographic, the way of life, everything about it would distract me. I am not distracted by California because it is so obviously not London - I can separate the two.

    And Jon - thank you for your comment. It's always nice to be welcomed home!

  4. Hi Jacqueline, we missed you. :-D

    You've always had a way with words and feelings, and this post is no different. I think you've put into a very big nutshell how I feel about some places - the crowded and the deserted. I'm not sure I could have done it half so well. But the times I've been profoundly moved by a place is when I've been on my own. I can't feel through the morass of humanity that often fills museums and old places that I want to visit, and it isn't just the 'overpopulated tourist areas' either. Those kinds of places just make me numb - both emotionally and mentally.

    Profound experiences include: wandering around the Australian War Memorial for several hours on my own; and staying with my aunt when I was a teenager, when she and my uncle were caretakers of the deserted Richmond Main Colliery refinery and mine way out in the Aussie bush. I still remember running my fingers over the tops of abandoned files in old fashioned wooden drawers, climbing over abandoned formations and equipment, wandering around the huge, airy double story old house - and all the time wondering at the stories it had to tell. The silence out there was absolute.

    A more recent one was sitting in the 1000 year old church at Cockington Village near Torquay in England last year and wondering at the human tragedies and joys it could relate. :-D

    Thanks again for an absolutely beautiful post, Our J., as well as your unerring insights on humanity.

    PS: Does anyone get the same feel when they pick up an old, old book and wonder what stories it had to tell? I do sometimes. :-D

  5. Welcome back, Jackie. We missed you.

    As always, you have a wonderful, wordly way with what others might offer as commonplace verbiage. Thank you for your smoothly flowing prose.

    I always sense the soul of an old place when I come upon it, old bits and neglected remnants of the past that offer some shadow of what once was and almost is...

    Yes, Maisie Dobbs is next to my bed.

  6. from Jacqueline

    "Neglected remnants of the past." That's a wonderful line, Jeff and brings to mind so many places - I an envisage moss-covered ruins and rust-edged photographs of days gone by. Thank you for that!

    And Marianne - thank you for your recollections, as always. I have always found much to inspire my curiosity in abandoned places. When I was a child, I was once caught in the old railway station not far from our home. I was rifling through a desk to see what I could discover, putting bits and pieces, old tickets and pens, in a bag at the time. How was I to know the railway police still looked in on the place every now and then?

  7. Old abandoned railway stations... damn, just got goosebumps. :-D There's so much residual emotion around railway stations. Tears, laughter, joy, heartwrenching hellos and goodbyes, lasting words, last looks...all snapshots in time, absorbed by the stones and wood, and reflecting them back on the world. But so few know how to listen to or see them anymore...

    During our next to last trip to Japan, we purchased a stunningly beautiful book of photography: all images of abandoned places, that must have been beautiful and/or useful at some time in the past. Mesmerising. I kind of wished that I'd also purchased the photography book on the abandoned mansions of cuba - like aging grande dames of frail grace, still wearing faded and tatty finery.

    But abandoned railway stations and terminals speak to the archetype within us all of journeys... sometimes scary ones.
    Anyone see the British paranormal tv series, 'Sapphire and Steel'? The episode of the abandoned railway station is just as spooky as hell and also mesmerising. :-D

    Sometimes you've just got to know how to listen. :-)

    Be well,

  8. Oh dear, Our J. - you got caught 'collecting'? Oops. Hope it wasn't too traumatic for you. Wince...


  9. good to see you back, jackie!
    last month we took a short trip to paris. this time we decided to go on a historical sightseeing tour. what an eyeopener that was. we got to the arc de triomphe just in time to witness a ceremony for the last surviving veteran of ww1 who had just died at the age of 104. i could feel the heart of this city and felt like singing "allons enfants de la patrie, le jour de gloire est arrivé". i like to spend a weekend there now and then, but carrying a big chip on my german shoulders, never really felt at ease. however, this time i could open myself and found a warm and caring place and love it even more now.
    "marchons, marchons,
    qu'um sang impur abreuve nos sillons"
    pardon my french.


  10. Sybille - lovely to hear from you! Oh, I don't know, you never really had a big chip on those German shoulders. The Paris trip sounds great, and that ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe must have been so moving.

  11. yes it was, jackie.

    despite all the hustle and bustle of the friday-night-rush-hour there was still a calm in the air that was almost tangible.

    oh, and the veteran was 107 and not 104.