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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Sunday, November 05, 2006
    Doreen Massey and the art of Slow Travel

    Well, hardly a manifesto, she's too sussed to fall for that. Doreen gave us far more. Essentially challenging the conventional mores which tell us that we live in a speeded-up, shrinking, virtual world all of which heralds the end of geography and the irrelevance of place. Her latest book is called For Space and that's because she is: for space to be taken seriously as a physical entity which purposively exists; for space to be considered as the arena where the social really happens.

    Massey challenges the assumption that we all move faster these days. That depends who 'we' are and where we're moving between, she simply but radically asserts. Yes, 'we' move faster and more frequently westwards - eg between London and New York. But consider booking a journey the same distance eastwards - to somewhere in central Russia - and see how taxing your Travel Agents find that challenge. And if you live on the Pitcairn Islands then you're likely to find it harder to move now than you may have done a century ago, because whilst many aircraft pass - without stopping - overhead, now fewer ships than ever cross the Pacific.

    Many travel the allegedly diminishing distance between China and Britain these days, Massey agrees. But she asks us to consider the difference between the journeys taken by businessmen developing their Far East markets, and the cockle pickers of Morecambe Bay. And in the week when climate change rose to become a priority on our government's agenda she asks us to contemplate the connection between that and the journey of the Emma Maersk - the ship as wide as a motorway delivering 45,000 tonnes of consumer goods from China.

    She challenges the idea that we live in a 'virtual world', an era of 'friction-free capitalism' unconstrained by distance or matter. That's impossible, says Massey. Cyberspace industries and The City are deeply wedded to physical places - iconic settlements such as Canary Wharf, sites of economic opportunism such as call centres (ever relocating in exploitation of the cheapest workforce).

    She affirms those local movements where what is distinctive is being reaffirmed in the face of globalisation - a current example being the renaming of Bangalore to Bengaluru. But, refreshingly, she challenges the anti-capitalist assumpton that the global rebranding of every high street heralds the end of cultural diversity. That, she says, reduces culture to mere consumerism, and it's far more than that. It's a hopeless task trying to defend the local against the global, she says. A more creative response would be to recognise that places exist at the intersection between commerce and culture, and to rethink our identity of place recognising that we are globally connected - and always have been. So in Liverpool a responsible debate has taken place about our former role in the global slave trade; now we should be looking critically at our locality's current and future roles in global trade. Other places have embraced their responsibilities to dispute the 'inevitabilities' of globalisation, and become Fair Trade towns, etc.

    All of this is very, very stimulating. But best of all for me, Doreen Massey talks about the pleasures of movement which the theorists of speed neglect. Her example was of being moved to a seat at the back of a plane for refusing to close the blinds on her window: the stewardess wanted to ease the other passengers' ability to watch the in-filght movie whilst Doreen wanted to gaze down over the Sahara. Distance is not a friction, nor a problem, she says. She didn't use this word to describe what it is, but I will: it's a gift. Doreen thinks that travel - gently paced - can and ought to be contemplative and enjoyable, and suggests we ought to start up a 'slow travel' movement. Well, next year I'm traversing the M62 at a pace of roughly two miles per day. I'll be writing to her about that.