No One Is British

No one is British

On an island that has only existed

Eight millennia,


In a world that was born

Over four and a half

Billion years ago.


No one is British

In a land with a muddy,

Rain sodden history

Of raiders and invaders,

Of settlers and leavers


Rome took a chance

And Rome took charge

Then Rome retreated.


Not the first

And not the last

To dip a toe

In this archipelago.


Picti and Scotti and Attacotti

Preyed upon the shores.

Ravaged and rampaged

Looted and left.


In need of a place

To replace

Lost homes, Saxons and Angles

and Jutes showed up.

Desperately colonising

A nation of future colonialists.


No one is British.

On an island that has only existed

Eight millennia.


Keep your racism.

Keep your hate.


No one is British,

Not even you.


Sex, the charmed circle and disability

Note: This is almost 4000 words long… just thought you should have a heads up!  I was going to split it but it didn’t feel right…

What is the charmed circle?

In 1984, Gayle Rubin argued that we should view sex as a vector of oppression – we shun what we don’t understand and human sexuality is so varied that we inevitably don’t understand all of it so we do consider some acts as lesser or as abnormal. As such, we then end up oppressing people who carry out those acts and society creates a hierarchy of sex.

“Like gender, sexuality is political. It is organized into systems of power, which reward and encourage some individuals and activities, while punishing and suppressing others.”
– Rubin

A significant consequence of a hierarchy of sex is the creation of moral panic.  Historically we have seen panic and moral outrage in response to different sexual behaviour, eg sex outside of marriage, same sex sex, prostitution and obscene material.  The theme they share is always that they are outside the privileged, or charmed, circle of behaviour.  One reason these panics create such out roar is because the behaviour and activity is seen, ultimately, as a threat to civilisation.  If ‘bad’ types of sex are allowed to become mainstream then even ‘worse’ behaviours will follow. We see this when fear of children being molested is brought up in arguments about allowing same sex marriage.

Time and place are important when looking at what is and isn’t acceptable.  Sexual behaviours have changed rapidly in the last century and this speed has created confusion about what is ‘normal’ when it comes to sex.

“Regarding sexual normalcy from a social perspective, the individual accepts societal norms for choice of sexual object and activities.  Within a given society, sexual norms may differ according to a subgroup’s religion, education, political beliefs, or socioeconomic status.”
– Leslie R Schover and Soren Buus Jensen

To try and illustrate the concept that certain sexual behaviours are considered privileged over others, Rubin developed the charmed circle.  Sexual activities which are judged by society as being good or natural are set up within a binary where the flip side is then unnatural and bad.  The inner circle is where good sex takes place and the outer therefore is where deviant sex is place.  This diagram shows how different values are used to judge the acceptability of different types of sexual behaviours and demarcates the line between normal and abnormal.

In setting up a binary of good and bad behaviour the charmed circle, by extension, creates good and bad people.  In reality of course, we are all complex layers of differing, and sometimes competing, identities and this matrix of interaction can balance out certain sexual behaviours or come together to emphasis the prejudice that is cast on a person’s sexual identity.  It is important to note that making the ‘right’ decisions about sexual behaviour can result in our belonging to, or not, a particular group, to having citizen ship of a particular society.

As a disabled person who is interested in disability and sexuality, I shall be viewing the charmed circle through a disability lens.  Having said that, I don’t feel I can truly step away from my other identities and hence this will not be an unbiased look at the charmed circle.  In addition to being disabled, I feel it is important to note here that I am also bisexual, feminist, single and cannot have penetrative sex. These are all parts of my identity and as such they will affect how I view the charmed circle.

What is sex?

As I mentioned above, I cannot have penetrative sex.  This obviously skews my concept of what is and isn’t sex, but despite this, for so long I had internalised the dominant discourse that penis in vagina sex is the only legitimate type of sex, or certainly that it is top of the hierarchy.  It works well in our culture of black and white thinking as it is a clear cut act.  We set people up as virgins or sexual and whilst we don’t value these labels as strongly as Victorian society did, we do still feel the need to have a specific, defining moment where you move from one to the other.  This is why penis in vagina sex is so useful in defining sex – it is a very precise moment when you transition from virgin to not and I think we still find ourselves with internalised ideas about what this means as part of maturing.

However, penis in vagina sex is not available to us all.  Not everyone is attracted to someone with different genitalia, not everyone has a functioning penis or vagina and even if you do, it doesn’t mean that penis in vagina sex is what you enjoy.  This also sets up a goal orientated vision of sex instead of one that focuses on pleasure throughout.  How many times do we see male orgasm portrayed in the media as the aim of sex?  What about female orgasm?  And what about non penetrative acts that are not purely for foreplay?  I have problems with that word – foreplay – because it implicitly sets up the idea of a destination and privileges the goal over the journey.  I haven’t read magazines which talk about sex for a while now because they frustrate me but they did, and I assume still do, portray foreplay as incidental.  As a detour to get to the (male) orgasm.

Margrit Shildrick discusses these ideas and how historical and religious ideas still shape our understanding and definition of sex today.

But for my purposes here, I’m going with the idea of self definition.  Sex is what the person or people engaging in it consider it to be.

How do disability and sex interact?

Note, different people experience disability very differently and will also experience being disabled and sexual in vary different ways.  This makes it very hard to discuss this area comprehensively and yet concisely, as such, please note that some ideas will not apply to some disabled people and there will be other aspects that I haven’t been able to cover.

Earlier I mentioned that sexual activity can be related to someone’s ability to be a citizen of a society and Cashelle Dunn argues that disabled women are denied full citizenship simply by virtue of being a disabled woman.

When it comes to disability, people are reduced to things, objects to be pitied, to be looked after.  There is a prevailing view that the disabled person is childlike, especially if they are perceived as being dependant, and this is a barrier to seeing disabled people as sexual.  Society wants to prevent disabled people from having sex in the same way they do children.

Two thirds (67%) of the British public feel uncomfortable talking to disabled people.

Over three quarters (76%) think of disabled people as needing to be cared for, and 13% think of disabled people as getting in the way some or most of the time

Just a third (33%) of British people said that they would feel comfortable talking to disabled people, with many worried that they will seem patronising or say the wrong thing

– 2014 report from Scope

44% of people in a Guardian poll said they had never had sex with someone with a physical disability and probably wouldn’t.

These are not sexy ways to view people.  And thus, these attitudes taint society’s view of disabled people having sex.  If 67% of people are uncomfortable talking to me, how are they going to feel about having sex with me or even thinking of me as a sexual being?

Disability, sex and the charmed circle

“I am aware that, for many, sex and disability at times seem not so much intersectional as incongruous: “What exactly do you do?” is about as frequent a question for disabled people, in relation to sex, as it historically has been for many queers. The motivation behind the question, however, has usually been different. Although stereotypes of the oversexed disabled person engaged in unspeakable acts do exist, disabled people are more commonly positioned as asexual— incapable of or uninterested in sex.”
– Robert McRuer

Whilst disability is not one of the segments in Rubin’s charmed circle, I would argue that it is implicit in many people’s view of acceptable and unacceptable sexual behaviour.  However, because the majority of the population assume disabled people to be asexual, it has possibly not crossed many minds to even include it in the circle.  I am positing that for many people, disabled people are outside the circle entirely.

“There is an unspoken taboo about relationships and disabled people.  Disabled people’s sexual and emotional needs are rarely included in any discussion or representation in everyday life.  This reinforces the public’s attitudes and expectations towards disabled people as seeing them as ‘sick and sexless’ rather than participating in full sexual and family relationships.  It is perhaps one of the most pernicious ways in which society has blanked out disabled people from a fundamental area of social life.”
– Lamb and Layzell, 1994

Echoing Rubin’s discussion, Shildrick notes that there is a “cultural imaginary that fears nonnormative sexuality as being a potential point of societal breakdown.”

 “Where disabled people are seen as sexual, this is in terms of deviant sexuality, for example, inappropriate sexual display or masturbation.  Derogatory stereotypes, concerning for example blindness, are typical of this tendency.”
– Tom Shakespeare

I, obviously, advocate for the inclusion of disability within the circle and whilst I do not believe in a hierarchy of disability or that certain types of disability are acceptable when it comes to sex, I do know that some people, consciously or unconsciously, feel this way.  What I mean by this is that, for example, people with invisible disabilities are considered to be potential sexual partners and that it is acceptable in the minds of others for that person to be engaging in sex, with the confines of the other aspects of the charmed circle.  On the other hand, a person with no bodily control is seen by the majority as not just not acceptable sexual participants, but as not even in the game.  Some of these distinctions become clearer when we consider the other binaries that are featured in Rubin’s charmed circle.

Note: just as I was posting this, I stumbled across a paper which has used the charmed circle model to illustrate a hierarchy of ability.  I haven’t read it yet but about 2/3rds the way you can find an image of this.  It doesn’t fully illustrate the point I make in the previous paragraph but it does show that the more disabilities you have, the more unacceptable you are seen as being.

Additionally, if we accept, as we should, that disabled people are sexual beings, we must then decide where they fit in terms of the charmed circle.  In Rubin’s model, it seems we would tend towards the outer limits simply because of how sex plays out given our particular disability.


According to a variety of different reports from the last 50 odd years, disabled women are less likely to be married than non-disabled women.  Interestingly this divide is smaller when it comes to men.  From the point of view of having charmed sex, this means disabled women would have to wait longer, or forever, to have sex.  There is also evidence that in heterosexual relationships, disabled men are more likely to maintain their relationships whereas disabled women tend to find their partner leaves them.

Returning again to the 44% of people who haven’t had sex with someone with a physical disability and probably wouldn’t, we are left with just over half the population to consider relationships with, and if you are heterosexual that figure roughly halves, if you are of a sexual minority then you’re really limited, especially given some of those people will already be in relationships.  And if you manage to find that needle in a haystack, not only do you have to date them, you have to both want to marry each other as well before the sex is considered acceptable.

Couples only

For Rubin, this excludes masturbation.  As we saw with marriage, this could leave disabled women in particular unable to have any form of acceptable sexual experience.  There is also the consideration of facilitated sex:

“Where sociocultural mores and the law broadly support a normative image of sexuality as heterosexual, private, ideally reproductive, and above all autonomous, facilitated sex—which by definition cannot be wholly private or self-directed—all too clearly draws attention to the difference of anomalous bodies. If the public discussion of sex and, more particularly, sexual variation is still a strong taboo in many Western societies, then the very notion of such hands-on involvement is even more disturbing.”
– Shildrick

This also brings up some legal aspects which Shildrick expands on:

“Although consensual acts of homosexuality are no longer always a crime in many Western jurisdictions, a homosexual act remains illegal under the Sexual Offences (Amendment). Act 2000 in the United Kingdom, for example, if it takes place in a situation deemed to be not private. Given that the presence of any third person or persons is understood to break that privacy condition, then clearly gay disabled sex is, strictly speaking, illegal if it is facilitated by a personal assistant whose physical presence is required.”


This assumes that all people are fertile, would make good parents and want children.  I want to be clear here that disabled people can be parents and can make amazing parents, that is a stigma which would be an entire discussion on its own.  But not everyone can be.  I can’t dress myself, let alone a baby and I certainly couldn’t life one or safely hold it.  I also don’t want to pass on my genetic condition.  These are choices I have made due to living with my particular disability.

I would also argue that many people assume that disabled people are not having procreative sex but I have lost the research I read about perceptions around disability and parenting…

To privilege procreative sex also turns sex into a goal orientated activity.  One which is phallocentric and by necessity requires male orgasm and penis in vagina sex.  Extending this idea of goal orientated sex, one which is prevalent in our society where the goals is penetration or (normally male) orgasm, the idea of sex as a destination is one that troubles me and seems to take away pleasure.  Penetration as goal rules out anyone who can’t penetrate or be penetrated and there are so many reasons why disabled and non disabled people could find themselves in that situation, whether as a one off or ongoing.  It also dismisses other pleasurable parts of sex and also, a lot of penis in vagina positions are physically demanding in a way that other activities might not be.

Bodies only

Sex toys and things like sex swings and positioning aids are all ways in which disabled, and non disabled, people can have a satisfying sex life and the stigma around them has lessened since Rubin’s writing in 1984.  But there is still some stigma and reluctance to discuss sex toys which impacts on those of us more reliant on them.  If you have hands which don’t function well or you can’t get an erection or need help positioning yourself then sex toys can come to your rescue.  Whilst non disabled people use sex toys, for some disabled people they can be the difference between sex and no sex but again place the disabled person in the realm of unacceptable sex, at least in the 80s.

In private

This requires that you do not live in a group home or sheltered housing or anywhere were you have limited privacy.  Deinstitutionalisation has made it more likely that a disabled person has a home space but having carers and other types of support can limit your privacy, even within your own home.  It also pulls in ideas we saw when we looked at couples only.

Disabled people often feel an additional pressure to play out all intimacy within a private sphere. I have heard time after time stories of disabled people being out in public with their partner and being assumed that they are actually a paid for carer.  Further, if the couple hold hands or kiss, the common narrative either feels pity for the non disabled partner, congratulates them for being an amazing person or pressurises the disabled partner to feel grateful that they are loved.

“Whilst law may allow women with disability to participate in sexual activity, society tolerates it only if it remains in the private sphere.”
– Dunn


This is a more controversial area and not one I want to go into right now but some people who have disabilities have argued for the right to use sex workers to meet their needs.  When society is set up in such a way that disabled people are not seen as sexual it can be difficult to find someone who wants to have sex for free.

Disability Now conducted a survey in 2005 which revealed that 22 per cent of disabled male respondents (compared to an estimated 10 per cent if you look at the whole male population) reported having paid for sexual services compared to just 1 per cent of disabled women. Similarly, just 16 per cent of disabled women had considered paying for sex compared to nearly 38 per cent of disabled men.

Alternative charmed circles

If we accept the idea that some types of sex are privileged over others then the charmed circle could be considered as a model for this, although I do find the use of binaries objectionable.  One could consider instead an array of spectrums, for example marriage being highly privileged by our society, couples who live together coming next followed by long term relationships followed by short term relationships and sex with strangers featured at the other end of the spectrum.

If society is set up so that one of the binaries in the charmed circle is able bodied and disabled, then I would argue that in reality there is again a spectrum.  Someone who has an invisible disability is privileged over someone who has a visible disability.  And someone who can still partake in ‘traditional’ sex would be privileged over someone who, for example, has very limited bodily control.

NB, I am not advocating for a spectrum here, I am noting that in my experience and hearing from others, that this spectrum exists and to ignore it would be to great too large a generalisation about what it means to be disabled and sexually active.

An interesting alternative I found was from Meg-John Barker who flipped the circle so that narrower ideas about acceptable sex where on the outer circle.  This is reached by reasoning that people who have less mainstream sexual identities and behaviours often have more fluid and more diverse ideas around sex.

From an anecdotal and common sense perspective I would argue that the same is true for many people with disabilities.  The nature of having sex with a disability often means increased communication is necessary.  There are also, by virtues of different bodies, a greater number of ideas about what sex is and what sex can be and similarly the use of sex toys and accessories may play a bigger role in sexual activity.

“Some women feel liberated from social expectation as a result of impairment, some men feel doubly inferior.”
– Tom Shakespeare

Having a disability can take you outside of certain societal pressures.  If you are treated as though you are invisible and cannot be beautiful because of your disability, it makes it easier to shun society’s expectations when it comes to appearance.  Being seen through a genderless role, reduces the pressure to perform to your gender.  Of course, these ideas aren’t going to be true for every disabled person and some people may feel even greater pressure to conform to society’s expectations.  If you do defy convention then this may extend to your sex life.  Personally, not being able to have penetrative sex has created space for pleasure-centric not goal-centric sex.

Non acceptable approaches to sex and disability

Flowing through all of the above is the idea that sex and disability should be viewed as acceptable, as good and not stigmatised.  Having set that up, I do want to highlight areas where behaviours are unacceptable as I think this is one of the flaws of Rubin’s model.  She has set up a value based model around how we view sexual behaviours and yet has failed to include consent, rape and objectification which are surely crucial elements of any acceptable/non acceptable model.


Disabled people are significantly more vulnerable to abuse, including sexual abuse.  For some people there is something inherent in their disability which makes them vulnerable – a lack of understanding about what’s happening, a physical inability to defend oneself – and having carers and other professionals in your home does create increased possibility for abuse.  In fact a 2014 study found that more than 40% of women with disabilities had been victims of violent sexual encounters.

The 1995 British Crime Survey found that disabled women were twice as likely to experience domestic violence as non-disabled women.  In 2008, Women’s Aid confirmed this was still the case and additionally:

  • “Women with learning difficulties are even more likely to be at risk and the level of violence that they experience is also likely to be higher.  The more dependent they are and the more complex their needs, the more likely it is that they will be at risk, as are women with mental health problems.”
  • “More than 70% of women with learning difficulties are sexually assaulted, a rate that is twice as high as for those in the general population.”

(quotes from Scapegoat by Katharine Quarmby)


I’ve written before about disability devotees, that is people who are attracted to the disability or related equipment but just to touch on the subject, Tom Shakespeare sums up the issue quite well:

“Some non-disabled people are seeking disabled partners for reasons we can only be described as exploitative… Disabled people very commonly find themselves the focus of sexual interest from people who find their particular impairment titillating… the person is being treated as an object, and this implies that the relationship is unequal and potentially oppressive: they become a means to the sexual gratification of others, rather than an equal partner and someone whose own pleasure is valued.”
– Tom Shakespeare


Leaving and returning: Travel and place

“Everyone wants to travel, but no one wants to be a tourist.”
– Bani Amor

This post is a bit of a hotch potch of thoughts about travel and place.  Surface level observations and ideas which feels appropriate given you can never know a place deeply if you are only passing through.  So follow me as we pass through a few topics about travel, tourism and place.

The journey

I could have chosen to include a cheesy image with some words about it’s the journey not the destination superimposed but I trust in the power of your imagination!

Obviously when we are thinking about travel, we are thinking about journeys, literal and metaphorical and these journeys change us.  The expose us to new places with new sights, new sounds, new ways of seeing and being in the world and these inevitably transform us in some way, however small.

Buying sense of place

“Tourism is about the consumption of place.  Like every other form of consumption, it is dependant upon brands… Majorca ad Amsterdam and Hawaii and New Zealand are brands, as much as Levi’s or Calvin Klein.”
– Scott Hamilton

One way of leaning into this idea of tourism as consumption of place is to consider spiritual tourism which, according to Amor, is “what happens when you take cultural appropriation on the road and call it a self-care journey.”  The tourism she is talking of is white, rich, westerners travelling to south American to partake in ayahuasca or retreats to Thailand to engage in yoga or even “spiritual cruises” which seem to offer everything and nothing.  Instead of colonising place, we are colonising ritual, beliefs and sacred practices.  Picking and choosing what takes our fancy instead of committing to a particular path.

Just as consumption of ayahuasca or engaging in yoga in Bali are consumed as shortcuts to mystical experience, sublime spirituality or another life changing event, some versions of tourism are consumed as shortcuts to finding sense of place.  You’ll note I say “consumed as”.  I am not saying these are shortcuts.  I don’t think there can be shortcuts in either case.  But as we’re talking about place, it’s important to note that you build a relationship with place, it is not something that can be crossed off a checklist in a second.  Without the work that the short cut evades, there can be no relationship, there can be no deep connection or understanding.  Even if you buy into tours that offer a more authentic experience of place, you still cannot truly have that.  It is not something available for tourists to consume as they pass through a place.

Travelling expands how we see and understand the world, ourselves and each other.  And if we visit a place without learning about or leaning into the culture and the way of life of the inhabitants, can we really say we’ve visited?  To visit without this, are we not just travelling around a museum of landscape and architecture?  Moving from placeless space to placeless space?  This is something that is particularly on my mind when I think of sites such as the pyramids, the taj mahal, anne franks house.  These are often semi-museumified spaces, wrapped in cotton wool and kept frozen in time.

And the increased globalisation and uniformity of the world makes it easy to travel without engaging.  You can go to a unique wondrous tourist site and pop into McDonalds afterwards.  It is easy to see the sites without making much attempt at feeling the sense of a place.  We will never, as passers through, get much of a sense of place, but it is worth the effort.  The reward is that you feel you’ve known somewhere, even if it is just a little.

When I take photos, I try and get a glimpse of a different angle.  Everyone else is taking a picture of the minster?  Well, you’ll find me round the back looking at bricks or statues.  This gives me a more intimate sense of the place, a more unique and personal experience.  When I was at Angkor Wat before sunrise (not by choice), everyone was hustling and bustling to retake the iconic picture and in doing that they were missing the experience of being there. Knowing I couldn’t create that image any better than the million already online, I sat and watched the sun rise instead and then took my own, more personal photographs:

DSC_0198 e

By happy coincidence, in today’s National Geographic newsletter there was an article about a photographer who takes the reverse photo at landmarks.

Looking back on my own travels, the places I’ve felt most connected to and enjoyed the most are those where I have spent more time and which have been smaller.  I’ve been able to explore more thoroughly and had more time to sit and watch and talk and get to know the idiosyncrasies of the place.

Travel and belonging

We often think of travel as fun, enjoyable and something to aspire to, but for some people, travel is a way of escaping death.  In a conversation between Porochista Khakpour and Alexander Chee in Bitch Magazine, they discuss forced travel.

“Your story of exile makes me wonder how we’re shaped by the trips we don’t get to choose.”
– Chee

Both are writers who have travelled and the article is looking at how travel has made them into the writers, and people, they are.  They talk of trips which transformed them as well as trips taken with the intent of transformation and trips that didn’t really turn out the way they’d anticipated.  The idea of travelling to figure out where we belong and how we fit into the world is another common theme.

“There are some trips that are actually about travelling inside, a journey you need to make in your own life that you can’t make if you stay in the place you live.  The physical boundaries of our lives are also the emotional ones.”
– Chee

Alongside the idea of forced travel is the less dangerous but still unsettling travel that occurs without having a home base.  To have somewhere to return to, to call home, offers stability and anchors travel.  To travel without a home can leave us feeling untethered and insecure.  There is a novelty in this but humans often crave both the adventure and the stable.

Leaving and returning

As humans, we are driven, in part, by a need to escape and paradoxically a need to belong.  Exploration and novelty sit uncomfortably with our desire to know and feel comfortable.

“Amongst the great struggles of man, there is also this mighty conflict between the fantasy of Home and the fantasy of Away, the dream of roots and the mirage of the journey.”
– Salman Rushdie

“The lure of escape and wanderlust is just as deeply implanted as its polar opposite, the desire to anchor oneself in a particular place, to know and care for somewhere that isn’t just anywhere.”
– Alastair Bonnett

To know a place, it can be argued, we must leave.  If we only ever know one place, how can we know what makes it unique, special, distinctive?

Feeling into the character of a different place highlights similarities and differences with the place we call home.  Think about it in terms of people – we don’t do well if we have just one relationship, instead we have different people in our lives who fulfil us in different ways.  We appreciate our sister’s kindness more because we’ve experienced our manager’s cruelty.  It is like the concept that without light there cannot be dark.  Can you have home if you have never left?

Travel gives us a break from our home ground and if you are lucky, when you return, you will refind and reappreciate those things that make it special to you.  It is not quite the same, but having spent a while in hospital in the past year, coming back to my flat was so much more powerful than I could have expected. I’d forgotten how much I love my home, how great my bed is, how nice it is to have lampshades and tea in my favourite mug.  All things I take for granted when I’m here day in day out.  To leave and return reopens your eyes.

“You are here”

Terra firma.
Rock solid.
Feet on the ground.

Unreal islands litter maps,
decoy towns, sacrificed
places, abandoned in trauma.

Demolition crumbles
memories fall.

Terra firma?

Reshaped coastlines,
islands (dis)appearing.

Place creation.
Place destruction.

The Aral Sea, now desert, deserted.

Places lost to preservation,

Decay, disease, disaster.

Rock solid?

From Here Be Dragons
to No Man’s Land,
the inbetween;
limbo or liminal?

Nameless zones. Blank space. Urban void. Terrain vagueness. Gapscape. Waste ground.

Places beyond grasping
clawing feet. Not
unreachable, but unhumanable.


Empty cities. Empty streets. Empty schools.
Empty museams wait
for events to record.
Ghost towns without ghosts.
No feet on the ground.

War torn

Failed and fallen places,
air brushed from google maps.

Neglected. Discarded. Destroyed.

Lost. Invisible. Killed.

Terra firma?
Rock solid?
Feet on the ground?

You are (w)here?

“You are here”: The controversial nature of mapping

“While most conventional charts, plans and diagrams claim to offer an accurate, even objective picture of the world, each one is bound by the specific agendas of its creators and users… Cartographies can be altered endlessly to reflect different priorities, hierarchies, experiences, points of view, and destinations.”
Hans Ulrich Obrist

How we map the world reflects and influences how we see the world.  Mapping is often about ownership and boundaries, they privilege particular aspects of the landscape.  Open up an OS map and you’ll find the pubs and post offices and roads marked.  You won’t find the rock where your ancestors gathered together or the plain where marriages and funerals took place.  The dip that was known by a name which told a story has since had its meaning twisted and lost and is no longer considered map worthy.

What do we learn when we discover a road is called the A1?  Not much, but call it the Great North Road and we’re already getting some information about orientation and length.  In York, the A1036 is made up of roads which include Tadcaster Road, Nunnery Lane, Blossom Street, Malton Road, Tower Street, Barbican Road and Foss Islands Road.  Without knowing anything about York, you can start to create an image.  There is a high possibility there is, or was, a tower, some blossoming trees and a barbican, and by extension a castle or something in need of defending.  You know that you’re headed to Tadcaster in one direction and Malton in another.  You have a much better sense of where you are and what this place might be like than if you just know it’s the A1036.

“Conventional maps do not tell us what it means to be somewhere – the details of the landscapes we live in, the sounds of the trees and the birds, the long histories…”
Adam Loften and Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee

North does not have to be at the top.  Scale is not always necessary.  Where are the stories of the land?  The places that anchor us?  The history that shapes the world?  Why are most maps 2-d?

Maps do not show the life giving spring as more powerful than the pub, both are reduced to symbols and are stripped of their history.  But it isn’t always this way, in Australia there are the song lines and in America a Zuni farmer is working with Zuni artists to recreate maps that return the indigenous voice and perspective to the land.

“Modern maps don’t have a memory”
Jim Enote

Google maps, or the less popular hold in your hands version of the AA Road Map of Great Britain, have their uses, don’t get me wrong, I could happily play with maps all day.  But to  forget other ways of mapping is to forget other ways of knowing place.  The AA map clearly centres itself around roads, google maps could be said to be more focused on businesses, both are potentially mapping placeless spaces.  So with this in mind, we must also find other maps, maps which show us sense of place, show us memories and stories and sacred areas.  Maps which show us tribal boundaries instead of colonialist ones.

When I was in Ghana, years ago, the village I was staying in was part of a tribe which had been artificially split in half when the Ghana-Togo boundary was enforced by colonialists.  This boundary was inevitably ignored by the people who could walk, unchallenged, through mountain and jungle, to meet their kin.  We went with them once, to a funeral.  Hiked up a mountain, dense with vegetation and biting ants.  Lots and lots of biting ants.  We passed a small stone, less than the size of a piece of A4 paper, with an etched marking on it.  This was the boundary.  An arbitrary spot on the side of a mountain.

“A conventional map takes you to places – it will tell you how many miles and the fastest route.  But the Zuni maps show these significant places that only a Zuni would know.”
Ronnie Cachini

Maps are assumed to be factual, to be the truth.  But this is far from the case.  They portray a particular view of the land, one with particular markings and one with particular names.  As the Spanish and British invaded the Americas, we changed place names and meaning was lost, and yet it is the colonial names which survive and are marked on the maps.  Similarly, in Australia, place names were lost and replaced by those which honour murderous white men and their violent acts.

Maps are a none neutral reflection of their creators and in turn, the maps themselves create and perpetuate a way of viewing the world.  To unpick this further, you could try creating a map of your local area from memory and then comparing it to google maps.  What have you included that isn’t on google’s version?  What have you left out or consciously excluded?  Perhaps ask a friend to do this as well and compare your maps as a way of seeing through another person’s eyes.

Building a relationship with place

So we’ve defined sense of place, we’ve looked at what makes it and now I want to consider how do we, on a personal level, foster an intimate relationship with the part of the world we find ourselves in.

How we exist in time and place is an ever evolving dance between us and what is around us and seeing ourselves in nature, as opposed to apart from nature, is an important aspect in building a relationship with place.

Writing about a time 12,000 years ago, Nicholas Crane notes:

“Killing an animal was a process of transformation; the cosmos was indivisible from self.  People co-existed with the plants and the animals they foraged and managed.  They related to the pattern of the stars, to the stutter of capercaillie and to the glare of the elk.  The wild was them.”

“When talking about “humans and nature” it’s easy to forget that humans are nature.  Our bodies are the closest, most intimate experience of the natural world we can possibly have.”

Without ourselves, place does not exist as a concept.  Place is space which has human imbued meaning and so we are inseparable from place, just as we are inseparable from nature.

“All the places in which we find ourselves, along with the living and non-living entities within these places, are all connected…. ”
– Anja Claus

To build a relationship with place, you must get to know your place.

Be in your place.  Walk, or wheel, around with a deep awareness.  Get off the beaten track if you can and feel called to.  Take advice from Jeff Grygny about How to Walk on the Earth.  Be quiet.  Slow down.  Pause.  Sit.  Blend in.

Repeat and repeat.

Be patient, this is a long term process, there is no destination here.  You are building a relationship and just as you don’t go from first date to marriage, you don’t go from first visit to being at home.

Pay attention with all of your senses, do not rely on your sight.  Stop, close your eyes, pay attention to what else you can feel.

“Paradoxically, narrowing down our attention to immediate sensations opens our senses to appreciate details of things that are always there, but usually recede into the background in the press and push of our busy lives.”
– Grygny

Smell. Taste. Touch. Hear. Speak.

Engage with place through writing or art, read stories and look at paintings and photographs.  Seek out history, myths, legends, nursery rhymes and folklore.

Write a letter to your place.

Eat local, seasonal food.  Go foraging.  If there is clean, safe to drink water do that.

Offer something of yourself – relationships are two way.  Tell your hopes to the wind.  Water a flower.  Move a beetle out of harms way.  This is how you show your place your respect, this is how you honour your place.

Listen without expectation to the trees and the birds and the stories that each little blade of grass has to offer.  Think microscopic and treasure hunt for details.  This is how you know a place.

Repeat and repeat for you are both, eternally, evolving.

Place in literature

Note, I’m looking at poetry separately

Having struggled to find many examples of insects in literature last month, this time my struggle is to know what to include as so much will have to be omitted.

Place has long inspired writers as well as being described, created, represented and invented by writers and I’m going to look separately at place as inspiration and place as literary tool.

Place as inspiration

One of the aspects of place and literature I find fascinating is the eternally circular nature of it. Place inspires writers and artists and in turn, writing and art shape how we see and interact with our environment which has the consequence of altering the land. One example that springs to mind is the landscape which inspired Tarka the Otter and which now features a Tarka trail and train line. In celebrating the land that was captured in literature, we have very clearly changed the land.

I think we would all agree and understand why place has inspired so many creative endeavours for so many years so I am not going to attempt to unpick that, I think that is probably a question that belongs to philosophers and psychologists, not me. Instead I want to share a few quotes from writers about place:

“Frequently I have noticed that whatever a writer’s subject, landscape often features in the process or the product. Childhood environments, the natural world, place and memory are all part of the rich compost of prose and poetry…. Most of [the biographers Dunbar has spoken to] have said that they need to explore the personal landscapes of their subjects. Without knowing the places that have mattered to them, they can’t form a complete sense of their biographees.”
– Kay Dunbar

“The Greeks call it Artemis: the feeling of sanctity in that place you love, deep in the woods. Find a place where its spirit and yours are in tune, and you will be abundantly creative. You will have reached your homeland…The more I dig into the earth here to uncover the stories and voices, the more I find I belong to this place… I am made to see again and again what really matters – a feeling of belonging to a particular landscape, a feeling of belonging to the natural world.”
– Rosalind Brady

“The landscape means different things to different people. As a writer and landscape poet I have always been fascinated by the way that we interpret and exploit the landscape, and indeed how the term ‘landscape’ itself evolved linguistically ad culturally…. The term ‘landskip’ originated in Holland as a painter’s term to differentiate between ‘land scapes’, portraits and ‘sea scapes’… What is also interesting is the word ‘scape’ linked to the Old English word ‘gesceap’ that means to create or form, or in old Teutonic ordain. These meanings recognise that land could be made or ordained… Landscape is therefore an integral part of our language and culture. And yet is is very personal.”
– James Crowden

“The places where we make our lives, and the ways in which these spaces themselves change, impacts us irreversibly. All work is written from someplace.”
Sara Perez

Place as a literary tool

There are very few novels or stories which don’t involve place, without it there is no stage for the characters to move about in. Some literature clearly has a much stronger sense of place than others but I am struggling to think of any books which lack place all together. However place can be used differently by different authors in different novels.

Place can act as an anchor for stories, a way of holding them in the world and making them recognisable. Edward Casey noted that being is synonymous with being somewhere, being in place, and “it is by our bodies that we belong to the place-world”. Therefore, by extension, our characters must belong to a place-world, real or imagined, in order to convey the feeling of their existing to the reader. This is echoed by Dunbar above when she talks of the need to know the relationship between person and place when she is writing biographies.

Place affects interactions as well as the experiences and actions of characters. To include a walk in the woods would be very different if a character was placed in England to Africa, for example. Just by knowing location, we move our minds from a gentle, leisurely stroll to a dangerous, tense narrative.

“Place, then, has the most delicate control over character too: by confining character it defines it”
– Eudora Welty

The characteristics of a place chosen by the author limit and restrict what actions the characters can take. A character in a landlocked mountain region has very different options to one at sea. An interesting exercise to explore place in literature would be to take a familiar book and try to see what would have happened in a contrasting place. Take Heidi out to sea and put Ishmael from Moby Dick in the desert.

Landscape and place do not exist in isolation. They are mediated by culture and events and as such can be used to create a short cut for the writer and reader, as in the example of the walk in the woods. Embedded with meaning, use of place can make a novel feel more real and give the reader a more powerful experience.

“Landscape is a strong character in a lot of British literature”
– Robert MacFarlane

As well as being a character, place also shows up in the language that is used by characters and by narrator. Regional dialogue can add depth to characters as well as reiterate the sense of place. Language and words tune us into the particularity of the environment we are in.

Place has been so important in literature that we have a language for it. We talk of the sublime; the experience of being overwhelmed by something powerful, being made to feel insignificant in the shadow of something great. Some of Wordsworth’s poetry (although I did say poetry was for another post…) speaks to this. Other writers, such as Jane Austen in Northhanger Abbey, focus on the beauty, the aesthetic appeal of place and the picturesque, idealised landscape. Similarly, we have pastoral writing which is nostalgic for the unreal simplicity and joy of rural life.

In sharp contrast is the gothic style, more associated with urban areas due to its architectural link, this is often focused on a more cultural nostalgia – idealising chivalry, the antique, the supernatural. In gothic literature we find ruin, decay, haunted houses, abbeys, castles, places abandoned by humans and taken over by spirits. There is a yearning for a past that never was and setting, as well as weather, are important to constructing the atmosphere.

Interestingly I’ve just finished reading an issue of Mslexia which had an article about crime novels:

“Great crime writing leaves readers with a tangible sense of the place in which the crime played out: we feel we have walked the streets of Colin Dexter’s Oxford, Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles… A powerful evocation of place is key to strong crime fiction but a new trend in thrillers has pitted women against their environment.”

Place as character could be about to get a whole lot scarier…! Either way, I think it’s definitely clear that place in literature is a lot more than just a backdrop.