In the last few years, I have spent a lot of time on buses travelling down to the south – Oxford, in the main, as well as London and its environs – to conduct research. Transit is a strange thing, for it often occurs early in the morning, whilst you’re tired and dozy, watching the sun rise, or late at night, when you watch the lights of streetlamps dissolve in water-streaked coach windows. Travel also means spending a lot of time at interstitial places, sites where you switch between transport vehicles. One such place was Milton Keynes Interim Bus Service Station.
Last week, I talked about place as the product of meaningful interpretation. But Milton Keynes Interim Bus Service Station is exemplary of a very particular kind of ‘place’: a strange inbetween sort of site, which exists only by virtue of where it isn’t.
Such spaces are perhaps a kind of heterotopia*, a real site outside of other real sites, in which those everyday locales are represented, contested and inverted. Whilst I do not agree that such heterotopic sites are outside of reality (I might suggest instead that they serve a different “shadow” function within it, and are the means by which that reality exists in the form we know), I do agree that there are places whose function is to reflect and challenge the mundane.
Milton Keynes Interim Bus Service Station represented reality by echoing the motif of travel, and having leaflets about the places you could travel to. It was, in that sense, intertextual and hypertextual, resting on a bed of other places which allowed it to exist: and the station itself allowed for their imagining, and, in actuality, their possibility.
It contested reality by forcing you to think about the nature of travel, and the other places to which you might go. At that set of tin sheds on Silbury Boulevard, you had to consider what your particular journey meant, and what travel more generally actually is and means. It also contested the idea of a bus station itself, for it was never intended to be in any way permanent. In fact, it was in operation for more than two years. As the New Town of Milton Keynes demands an answer to the question, ‘What is an old town?’ – and indeed, what is a town – the Interim Station required an ontological consideration of stopping places, service stations, and permanent bus interchanges.
It inverted reality by opposing the idea of travel and movement, in its state as a place of waiting and stasis. In Milton Keynes Interim Bus Service Station, you couldn’t move. You could walk around, of course, but you couldn’t continue the journey you were on. As in all stations, you were held at the whim of the transport timetable.
Marc Augé would probably understand Milton Keynes Interim Bus Service Station as a non-place, somewhere not relational, historical, or concerned with identity.** But I would argue for its thorough emplacement: for me, it was related intimately to the places to which I was headed, to the buses on which I was travelling, to the places I was coming from, and to Milton Keynes itself. It was a moment in historical time – a middle period, certainly, between the demise of old and the rising of the new station – and provide a set of moments in my own personal history. It was a place, too, that was concerned with its own identity, and that of Milton Keynes – for it made that town seem even more interstitial and uncanny. And it was part of my own identity building, for it fed my interest in spaces, places, and what they mean.
Milton Keynes Interim Bus Service Station doesn’t exist anymore. It was replaced with the new Bus Station in December 2010. I never took any photographs of it, so it now exists, as far as I know, only in my head, and in the heads of those who passed through it. But because it still colours the way I think about space, location, and embodiment, it still means. It may now be a paratext only, but it is still, very definitively, a place.
*Michel Foucault and Jay Miskowiec, ‘Of Other Spaces’, Diacritics, 16(1), 1986, p.24
**Marc Augé, Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity, Verso, Londom and New York, 2008 (1995), p.63