A Town Called Solitude

Berlin_Ghost_TownMy previous posts in this series have focussed on physical space, albeit dealing with certain more abstract qualities which spring from it. This post, however, will focus on a space which is not tied to specific physical surroundings, but which is portable: a kind of virtual space – a town called Solitude.

It can easily be argued that solitude is not a place, but a state of being. Yet, it has many of the features of place which have appeared previously on this blog. The intention here is to explore solitude as virtual locale, something which is both deliberately sought and which arises unbidden.

Virtual is an interesting word. It means that which is not physical, that which is simulated in an abstract sense. It also means a product of the mind, existing in imagination. Finally, it means something almost: perhaps the ghost of a thing, not existing in actual form. Any state of being, then, including solitude, can be said to be intensely, and inherently, virtual. And there are, of course, examples of virtual space, virtual in the sense of almost, of non-physical, simulated. I do not mean the internet. I mean the page, the space of writing, the spaces of literature. In Lines, Tim Ingold notes how, historically, the written word was seen as a kind of map, the audience ‘wayfarers’ through its plots and signposts.* This kind of thought continues to exist – from Perec’s Species of Spaces,** to the ‘Spatial Turn‘ which has been taken in the contemporary humanities. There is also a strong tradition of the imaginative aspect of space – the investment that the phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard made in the role of the imagination and emotion in the production of space is perhaps the origin and exemplar of this tradition.***

Yet, how might Solitude specifically be understood as place?

Geographically and Ecologically

States of being, like places, have hills and ravines, have different climates. Sometimes, solitude is lonely, sad and dark. Sometimes, solitude is peaceful and blissful. A valley, or a mountain. The environments of solitude are diverse and subtlety varied. I cannot describe them all, here or anywhere.

Whilst solitude is not dependent on the precise and specialised qualities of particular physical situations and sites, it is not independent of them. The climate of the town called Solitude relies upon the events around it: the hurricanes of people blowing around outside, or the temporary quiet of the desert. Solitude can materialise when we are not physically alone, and in that case is very much is an imaginary place.


The type and understanding of solitude then, is also socially constructed. This month, an article by Sarah Maitland appeared in the paper which exemplifies the sociality of solitude, and the opinions that people have upon it: and how they are not always positive.

Strange, that, because, despite being extremely social animals, we are in a very logical and real sense, always alone. And some forms of solitude arise precisely from this saudade, this hiraeth: I can be sad because I cannot know all of another, and because another can never know all of me. I can see and understand something of you, but I can only know you through my own coloured and biased eyes. We are all always detached.


Place is made through meaning, as I have discussed previously. The meaningful nature of solitude is created internally and externally – the latter, we have seen above. The internal creation of solitude, however, can be both a physical and imaginative process: the taking away of self to a quiet place – whether that be an actual site, or a book, a song, a film. To surround oneself with quiet or with fiction is to make a space outside the real world and whilst, in the case of literature or a film, it might provide some avatar of the social, it is a device which cossets us from the everyday. So, we provoke and revel in different kinds of solitude – the active kind, the passive kind, the lonely kind, the alone kind, the worldly and unworldly kind.

Interstitial Solitude

There is a detachment which comes with solitude – detachment from other people, from the outside world, and even from the very physical ground on which we are ensconced. In that sense, Solitude is interstitial, an edgeland: a frontier town between corporeality and imagination. There is a privacy to it – it is somewhere between sleep, and active interaction. In a way, it is a heterotopia – a place where we can represent, contest and invert the things we think, the things we’ve seen, and the things we imagine we know.

That is the town called Solitude. But does it’s placefulness suggest that place is a state of being, or that states of being are places? Both are true. Because places are social and imagined, they are inherently ways of being. States of being, however, are thoroughly emplaced, attached to the reality of the internal and external world. The virtuality of place does not negate its reality.

I focus on solitude not because I am alone, or lonely, or sad. No, it is because solitude is almost the logical outcome of some, and the converse of other, posts in this blog series. Because, at times, I love to be alone in the town called Solitude. And because, sometimes, I love to be alone in the town called Solitude next to someone else.

*Tim Ingold, Lines: A Brief History, (London and New York: Routledge, 2007), p.16

**George Perec, Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, (London: Penguin Classics, 2008), p.11

***Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. by Maria Jolas, Boston: Beacon Press, 1994, 1964 


St_Andrews_Castle_ScotlandI studied for my undergraduate degree at St Andrews, a town on the north-east coast of Fife. It was a windy, salty, grey place – tenement style houses made of dark Scottish granite, and cliffs that plunged to a cold, cold sea. Short days in the winter and, in summer, a sun which never set. For part of my time there, I lived in a Victorian folly – a building called Wardlaw, which looked unabashedly like a miniature laird’s castle. It had stained glass, a Steinway grand piano, and a water heating system from the 1840s. Three showers and a couple of creepy bathrooms were shared between 48 girls.

St Andrews has a ruined abbey and a castle too. Until monks arrived in the 12th century, it was an unknown fishing village called Kilrymont, but rapidly became the primary bishopric of Scotland. The university grew out of those monastic traditions, and was the third to be built in the British Isles after Oxford and Cambridge. It still has many peculiar old traditions, and students wear a gown made out of orange blanket. I loved it there.

The view from my kitchen windowI did my MA in Leicester, a completely different kind of place. Its easterly location is perhaps the only thing it holds in common with my Alma mater. Thoroughly landlocked and, by comparison, a mere baby, it is also far more urban with a greater social and cultural mix. I lived in a hall of residence built sometime in the 1980s or early 90s, and which has recently been redeveloped. My room was small, but the bathrooms were shared amongst fewer people, and the kitchens were immeasurably more functional than the two-ringed Baby Belling hobs we had in Wardlaw.

The MA cohort I was in was huge in comparison to that of my undergrad – probably eight times the size, with almost 90 participants. There were so many people around, such an active social scene, and a city with actual nightclubs. For someone raised in the rural end of the south of Birmingham, who’d decided to go to university in a fishing village, this was the most buzzing metropolis I had ever found myself in. I loved it – and I stayed there to do my PhD, moving to a flat in an old hosiery factory in the city centre.

I still live in the environs of Leicester, and still regularly see people from my old doctoral department. But somehow, something has changed – and this is one other thing which Leicester shares with St Andrews. When I think of them both, I experience what I can only describe as a sense of hiraeth.

Hiraeth is a Welsh word, with no direct English analogue. It means a kind of homesickness, a wistful yearning, a desire for a land which is no longer there, and for a past which might never have been. Its closest relative is probably the Portuguese saudades, a word referring to a kind of intense missing, a structural incompleteness in identity.* In The Paris Review, Pamela Petro wrote that you don’t have to leave a place to experience hiraeth for it: that, in fact, you feel it more acutely when you’re there.**

Places are made partly by people. In the case of Leicester, the faces have changed around me a good few times now, and when I return to my old department, I sometimes feel like a ghost – a legend in my own living room, if you will. And I see the ghosts of my old friends all around me. It’s a familiar place, but also full of incredible distance and dissonance. It isn’t my place any more, because the time is past when I was a student there. The world has turned, and so have I.

I haven’t been back to St. Andrews since I left in 2007. I don’t know how I’d feel to return. I suspect time would have done its work, and I’d not feel half so much of that dissonance. And yet, I miss those friends I made there – and I would feel odd to be there without them. Friends from my first year in particular – that was a formative 12 months for me.

Places, then, are social. They are not just bricks and stone and sky and soil. They’re people and experiences too. So places are never the same from one moment to the next. Their apparent permanence belies a change which is not purely historic, but continual. Place is relational – virtual, perhaps. Because places are filled with time – they are not just  landscapes, but ‘timescapes’, built from change and interaction.*** Space is not just physical – it is emotional, social and temporal too.

We don’t always really want what we miss. Fernando Pessoa, probably the iconic exponent of literary saudades, wrote: ‘But if the Dream Kings were mine, what would I have to dream about? If I possessed the impossible landscapes, what would remain of the impossible?’**** I’m so lucky to be able to point to the moments I miss, and have to remember them to turn to the future. But they are part of my past, and I cannot  live there. Those lost things are the reason I have the present and potential futures I have, after all.

This post is dedicated to the people who, for a while, made those places my places. Mae hiraeth arna amdanot ti. I have hiraeth on me for you.

*Leal, J.,2000 ‘The making of saudade National identity and ethnic psychology in Portugal ‘, in Dekker, T., Helsloot, J., Wijers, C., (eds.) Roots and Rituals: The Construction of Ethnic Identities, (Amsterdam: Het Spinhuis ), p.268

**Petro, P., 2012, ‘Dreaming in Welsh’, The Paris Review, http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2012/09/18/dreaming-in-welsh/, as of 07/01/2014

***Adam, B., 1998, Timescapes of Modernity: The Environment and Invisible Hazards, (London: Routledge), p.10

****Fernando Pessoa, 1991, The Book of Disquiet, (London, Serpent’s Tail Classics), p.20

Hearing What You Want to Hear

The_Earth_seen_from_Apollo_17Earlier this week, Will bought Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. Yesterday, I was listening to it as I was attempting to do some work. Actually, I was thinking about the stars. I’ve been binging on science-fiction and it’s friend Cosmos recently, and as a result, I’m frustrated by my 21st century earthbound existence. When I was little, I used to sit watching the computer screen-saver with the stars rushing past, and pretend that I was at the helm of some craft – whether it was an x-wing fighter or a constitution class exploration vessel altered from day to day.* I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s done this. And I haven’t changed much. When the ISS passed overhead a few months ago, with a Russian supply vessel zipping behind it, I cried, a little bit, at the thought of all those people up there, seeing another Earth than the one I know.

It seems unfair that I’ll probably never get to see the stars close up, or the Earth from far away – a fact I became more acutely aware of after learning of Project Orion. But I do have a telescope at hand, and I can see through it planets and constellations. Funny things, constellations – the way humans configure them into patterns and pictures says as much – more, really – about them, and their romances, as it does about the fundamental nature of the universe.

So does listening to feedback. Which is precisely what Metal Machine Music is. So perhaps it is unsurprising that as I sat there, I could hear in its tangled loops Luke’s Theme, the Rebel Fanfare, bits of Vangelis’ Score for Blade Runner, and Superman’s March.

Strange that, given that Metal Machine Music was released two earth years before the earliest of these. Film history and imagined futures got jammed together in the mind of someone listening to a genre of music which didn’t even know what it was yet.

You hear what you want to hear, I suppose.

*The screensaver in question was called ‘Warp’, and it was produced by After Dark. Damn, I miss that screensaver.