I 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.
I 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