There are several things I don’t want my Blog to be or become. One is a political Blog, another is a memoir Blog. Nevertheless, occasionally (as I also did last week) I find myself slipping back to my personal past for a particular reference or to allude to something that I have obviously been aware of and thinking about for decades.
I grew up on a near-identical and almost brand-new housing estate, built in the late 1950s over lands that previously belonged to a more aristocratic ‘estate’ and farmlands. As such, the estate, in itself, had zero history. No-one famous had ever come from there and it wasn’t particularly promising or auspicious despite the fact that the architects had strived to provide all the prescribed facilities of modern living for the kind of low-income families -like my own – who would inevitably populate the estate.
As a morphing, mercurial teenager I used to wander those housing estate streets and try to glean something of value from the long concrete avenues, all named after faraway rivers and species of trees that I’d never seen. But just as often, as a child and as a teen, myself and my playful peers would find our fun in what we called ‘wastelands’ or nearby woods and abandoned quarries, places that the designers of the estate didn’t factor-in to their perfect picture of modern living.
As I reached adolescence, a yearning to leave the estate began to grow, partly inspired, I believe, by late night art movies -sometimes French and with subtitles- that I watched alone when everyone else had gone to bed, and which seemed to promise that another, wider, more different world was out there and could perhaps even be reached.
One of the things that drove me to want to leave the estate was its uniformity. Almost every house was just about identical. So, when I find myself wandering the streets of the city in which I now live, not necessarily going anywhere particular or special, I always appreciate the fact that I am enjoying the city’s differences, above and beyond everything else.
I’ve lived in the same city for decades now and often wonder is there any city in the world that can boast as many parks, gardens and enormous open green spaces as this one? I sometimes think that all this greenery, grass, plants, shrubs, trees and accompanying sense of openness is the reason why this country hasn’t experienced as much revolutionary fervour as many others have done. Despite terrible inequalities of wealth, opportunity, education etc. here, the green spaces to which I am referring tend to be free and open to all and may therefore act as a kind of ‘pressure-release valve’ for a complex and dynamic society.
The country in which I live is also famous for its private gardens, and it’s true that, even if you simply walk the streets of this city, you can be entertained by other people’s gardens, by all the careful decisions they have made to cultivate this or that form or colour and bring all of this into carefully composed relationships. Again, no-one charges you for the privilege of witnessing this. In addition you can also enjoy a rich array of architectural styles, periods, eccentricities, and one-off design gambits which, altogether, make the city both a living museum and a world full of experiments in housing.
Furthermore, the city can’t disguise its underlying topography, the prehistoric hills and dales that lie beneath its tarmacadamed streets, which were once, of course, wild, untamed lands, probably covered in forest. So, to simply go for a walk in this city, and perhaps in your own city too, we have all of this to look forward to. I have always enjoyed it, but I also wonder why, and exactly what kind of enjoyment this is.
The gentle hills of the city’s streets give my ankles, calves and knees something to work on, and we can all take some small pride from climbing any hill, however large, small, steep or not so steep. Meanwhile, the gardens – once again however large or small, even the occasional exuberant window box – entertain my eyes with shapes and colours that implicate and allude to the sense of infinite possibility that nature provides.
Even if the street is a terrace of near-identical houses, there’s something reassuring about the ways in which each inhabitant might make their mark of difference, on or to a given proposition. Perhaps it’s difference that we truly love; difference in time and change and renewal, difference in people, places and cultures, difference in shape and sound and gesture. Even when difference in the form of change means that we lose or fall, we also have a human facility to grieve, or to lick our wounds, that is capable of mixing a certain beauty with our bitterness and sadness while acknowledging that difference and change are inexorable.
As artists it might also be difference that we pursue and difference that we ultimately produce. The pleasure, to me, of being involved in the arts, is not so much the pleasure of making something ‘new’ as the pleasure of simply making a difference. That can be a huge difference – a blockbuster exhibition installed in an enormous public space – or a tiny difference – simply folding, perhaps with an unusual degree of care and attention, a single piece of paper, and of course contemplating and reflecting on the difference we might have made.