street/library

by Steve

elevator buttons - "STREET" and "LIBRARY"

There is a library I visit which is in the bowels of a big corporate building. You have to go down several flights of stairs, or take the lift, to enter. Libraries feel like an escape from the real world at the best of times. Heading underground makes that escape feel even more pronounced. Then there are the books to take you even further away. I’m sure the library sitting under a temple of commerce and capitalism says something too, but I wonder if it might be a little too trite or tidy to point that out too explicitly. We can all make our own conclusions there.

A while ago I read a blog post about Keith Arnatt’s photographic work, Areas of Outstanding Beauty. There are a series of photographs where the human has encroached on the natural, or vice versa – the dustbins in the countryside or the flowers in the car park. I’ve been walking the streets around work trying to find nature amid the urban. The city is obviously alienating, strange, planned, deeply unnatural. Just seeing a leaf on the pavement, or a weed growing through the cracks suggests something more. Something that was here once and may once be here again. I remember the old maps of London where there are still fields outside the City. I wonder when they will return.

I amble about, looking for clues. Seeing if I can spot where nature is fighting back, or where it has never left. There are the parks, obviously. The trees. Birds. But not so many. I try looking for weeds, patches of moss. Maybe it is the wrong time of year, but I don’t find as much as I thought I would.

Outside the entrance to the library there are some flower boxes, professionally planted and maintained. A simulation of the natural, but there is still some kind of weird hope in the wayward flower, the twisted leaf. The refusal of nature to bend to our will.

weed growing through crack in pavement

There is an old interview with W.G. Sebald on the Amazon website, of all places. I guess there was a simpler time when that website sold books and had the space to speak to authors. Perhaps they still do, but it is hard to read your way through Amazon today.

Sebald talks of a “faultline between nature and civilisation”. This feels like a starting point rather than a conclusion. There is something in it that takes a lot of unpacking. It may be in tension between town and country, but it feels like something more local too. Something in Arnatt’s photographs. Something in the isolation we feel when overwhelmed by either nature or civilisation. It feels timely despite being spoken about several years ago.

I sat in the library and picked up a collection of Kafka’s writings. I flicked through the book until I reached some of his aphorisms. My lunch hour was nearly over, and I was feeling tired and felt like being a lazy reader, so a series of short, pithy statements seemed ideal. I could read Kafka without the effort. I settled on one aphorism in particular.

“From a certain point on there is no return. This is the point to reach.”

It felt pertinent. I couldn’t quite tell, from the vantage point of 2016, if this was advice or a warning. I suppose it is both. I am aware that in many ways – politically, ecologically, socially – we may have reached that point and it is terrifying. In other ways – in terms of completely devoting yourself to what you want or need from life, to escaping the interminable oblivion of an ever-shifting now – perhaps I should reach that point, should reach the point of no return to all that, but won’t, can’t, and that is terrifying too.

That I see one form of no return as the public, and something I want to avoid, and the other form of no return as personal, and probably in some ways selfish, says something about me too.

Although I may well have missed the point.

ivy in hanging basket

Another day I picked up a book called The Postmodern Reader, which seemed apt, and again suited my lazy, tired mood. Postmodern concepts chopped up and served in easy portions for those of us unwilling to do the hard work.

I read some Baudrillard. I’m not sure I understood it either.

“We are, then, unable to dream of a past or a future state of things. Things are in a state which is literally definitive – neither finished, nor infinite, nor definite, but de-finitive, that is deprived of its end.”

Not an encouraging thought. But it made me think of those voting for an end, to something, anything. That when you’re in a loop, or a (vicious) circle, you’ll gamble on destroying everything if there’s a chance that building something up from the ruins might offer you a better deal. That you might as well smash everything up if it is all broken anyway. If that is a genuine sentiment I understand it, even if I don’t think it works. I can see how people are sold that. Sold the point of no return. Sold “the end”.

Yet there isn’t that escape. But a point of no return is appealing. Finally an option. Finally an answer. Even if it is a terrifying one.

It isn’t that simple. There isn’t that escape and sometimes it is hard to even define from where we can escape. It is a political or social situation? A city or the country? Ourselves? Or that state without end? The point of no return, or the point before that? Maybe the cosy lies of nostalgia and nationalism trick us into thinking there is a point of return, or something to return to.

Steps and leaves

And should we try to read our way out of this? I think we can learn from history, philosophy, literature. But it is also a bit of a luxury, and potentially a dead-end. Books won’t feed people, or stop discrimination, or prejudice, but they might show us what we should be thinking about, and the mistakes we must not make again. It is easy to hide in books, or any distraction, the point is to be aware of that. I use distraction, escapism as a coping mechanism. But it can’t be all there is.

So should we take to the streets? And to what end? And in what form? I’m not sure marching to the palace or manning the barricades is right either. But perhaps reaching out of our little circles wouldn’t hurt. And I don’t mean like in one of those lazy How I Got To Know Real People And Acknowledged Their Very Real Concerns think pieces that the more liberal broadsheets attempt. This isn’t anthropology. And we shouldn’t always condone what is being said out there. But it isn’t healthy to view people as an abstraction, either.

So I keep walking the streets, keep looking for nature, looking for clues. I keep heading down to the library, keep reading, keep looking for clues. And perhaps working out if all of this fits together in some way, or if that approach is just too tidy, too convenient. Follow the formula and find something reassuring and empty. I have no idea.

I will just keeping looking and keep trying to be decent human being. When we move from December to January things won’t just get better. 2016 was just the start of something. There’s a long way to go yet. I’ve been writing this post for weeks and I’m no nearer an end and I’m not even sure what I’m saying. I guess that is about right.

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