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

    Friday, March 18, 2005
    Revisiting the ur-place

    The title gives you Edward Casey's rationale. It's called Getting Back into Place, and he reckons we ought to be. That is, we ought to be seeking to uphold place as that which defines us, as much as - perhaps more than - those modernist favourites time and space. Today, I only read the preface and next thing I found myself on the Lancashire edge of the Irish Sea.

    This is because of a term Casey coins in the preface: the ur-place. It's a great expression and it refers to the place of origin, the childhood home, any other place which has had significant influence on our lives.

    "Where are you from?" we ask a stranger whom we have just met, not reflecting on how acutely probing such a mundane question can be and how deeply revealing the answers to it often are. ... Many human beings are enthusiastic or nostalgic, at home in the world or out of sorts there, in relation to just such an ur-place. To lack a primal place is to be "homeless" indeed, not only in the literal sense of having no permanent sheltering structure but also as being without any effective means of orientation in a complex and confusing world.

    When I orientate myself the base-line is that strip of coast from the throat of the Mersey in the south to the Ribble's mouth in the north. I grew up playing on its beaches, above the Liverpool docks and below Formby Point. Casey's words made me feel like heading seawards today. So I did, though not to the most familiar points, rather to the vast marshes above Southport, where barely above sea level farmers work presumably sandy soil, looking across wide Marshside Sands to the southern stretch of the Fylde coast.

    Standing on the seven-metre high embankment which keeps the sea out of the fields the view is dominated at one end by Blackpool Tower, seeming to shimmer in the sea-haze; and at the other end by the sheds of BAE Warton - supplier of military aircraft to Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Zimbabwe, unmarked on the OS map. A place where I sometimes stand with others in silent vigil.

    Out in the Irish Sea - though not far out - sits the Lennox oil/gas rig, unmanned satellite of the Douglas Complex, producing oil known as 'Liverpool Blend', a light paraffinic crude with low sulphur content, and gas which flows from Douglas' rigs to the Point of Ayr terminal near Prestatyn, sold on to the Powergen station at Connah's Quay. This afternoon the coast seemed so sleepy, as if the military-industrial machine was covertly sapping all its energy.

    Meanwhile the marshes rang with birdsong and their edges shone with the cars of twitchers, out for the afternoon with binoculars looking for the winter's last pink-footed geese, wigeons, black-tailed godwits and golden plovers, or the first lapwings and redshanks of spring. I know nothing about their obsession except that it seems a gentle pursuit; I watched birds hover and ride the sea air, and that was enough to content me.

    Despite the costly character of an accelerated life, it remains the case that where we are - the place we occupy, however briefly - has everything to do with what and who we are (and finally, that we are). This is so at the present moment: where you are right now is not a matter of indifference but affects the kind of person you are...

    Standing at that bleak point today, I was very aware of Casey's words. And also reawakened to these old words: And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time. I'm increasingly sure that T.S. Eliot has it right; increasingly happy about that, too. Wandered back through Southport thinking, I could have my holidays here, why not ...