Postcards from a PhD
A disappointing start to my weekend; an email informing me that I hadn’t been successful in my application for AHRC funding (again). Little did I know when I was claiming my £37 a week income support while doing my A-levels that it was the closest to being a ‘proper’ funded student I’d ever get and I’d be spending the next two and a half decades, on and off, attempting to juggle work and study. Lucky, then, that I had something to take my mind off the injustices of access to higher education: the Spirits of Place symposium which took place on Saturday at Calderstones Park in Liverpool.
The phrase ‘spirit of place’ is a literal translation of the Roman term ‘Genius loci’. It’s a broad term that deals with the emotional response to physical places, so is relevant to a range of disciplines; urban planning, archaeology and heritage studies, mythology and storytelling and much in-between. I was drawn to the symposium through a longstanding interest in psychogeography and because spirit of place is very present in hauntological music; the English countryside and its ancient rites, rituals and monuments (real and imagined) are all recurrent motifs. It was also a good opportunity for me to find out more about Liverpool, the city in which I study but don’t live and, as such, haven’t formed a strong bond with yet.
An inauspicious start to the day found me in the middle of Calderstones Park in moderate drizzle peering through the windows of a dilapidated 1950s greenhouse. Housed inside are the eponymous Calderstones, six Neolithic sandstones of various sizes arranged in a circle. Carvings are visible on the stones, but the early morning light and the raindrops on my glasses left them difficult to make out, so I retreated to the Mansion House to learn about them from those that have had more opportunity to get up close and personal with the slightly underwhelming rocks.
The event was carefully curated by John Reppion, comic and horror author and local lad, assisted by his partner Leah Moore. John explained some of the context for the stones during his introduction and they were a leitmotif throughout the day, finally discussed in depth during Richard MacDonald’s talk on the past, present and future of the monuments. Working in a community engagement capacity at the park, MacDonald is unsurprisingly a champion of improving access to the Calderstones, less interested in the speculation about their historical purpose and more in the role they can place in the local community in the years to come. This echoed a great talk by Kenneth Brophy, aka The Urban Prehistorian, whose academic interest is prehistoric monuments that now exist in urban environments. Brophy is a staunch advocate of ‘freeing’ megaliths, critical of the way in which monuments are fenced off or worse, reburied, in the name of preservation, preventing interaction with them.
I’m reading Raphael Samuel’s Theatres of Memory at the moment, and that Marxist ethos of history being created by everyone, belonging to everyone, is something that seemed to permeate Spirits of Place. Gary Budden and David Southwell both spoke on the concept of landscape punk, an approach that challenges the validity of official, academic, sanctified histories of places, and champions personal experience, stories and connections. Adam Scovell’s talk took a similar theme, a personal topography of the Wirral, illustrating how we form a relationship to our landscape by creating links to the things we are drawn to. In this case an interest in folk horror was seemingly strengthened by being able to relate it to features of his childhood environment; local stories, filming locations and ambience colliding in seeming synchronicity.
Synchronicity and acausal connections in relation to the development of hauntology are something I’m particularly interested in, specifically in the context of identity construction and the creation of meaning. With this in mind, it was nice to be reminded of Liverpool’s Jung connection in Ian ‘Cat’ Vincent’s talk, the final of the day. I’d first read about it in John Higg’s excellent book on the KLF but had completely forgotten about it; if you’re not familiar with the story this book a great place to start. Vincent’s talk was on that most psychogeographical concept, liminality, and the magic of ‘in-between’ places. It was a fascinating, again very personal, talk and one which means I will never overlook a buddleia – the hardy shrub that often grows in these places – again.
From the Spirits of Place programme (and to be honest from the poster, which features a lot of Gaelic font) I was unsure how new-agey the day was going to be, how the balance between official history and mythology might be struck. It turned out actually to be hugely factual, each speaker incredibly knowledgeable about their subject areas, yet at the same time clearly very emotional connected to what they were talking about: Gill Hoffs fiercely angry about the events which led to the sinking of the RMS Tayleur 150 years ago, Ron Cowell from the Museum of Liverpool, on the eve of retirement, misty eyed about new archaeological discoveries on the wetlands of Northern England.
Spirits of Place closed with question and answer session with acclaimed horror writer Ramsey Campbell, who was charming and engaging and provided a real high point on which to end the day. Campbell couldn’t have reiterated the themes of the event more than when he spoke of how local stories and his own had now become so interwoven in his books he no longer knew which parts were true and which he’d made up. Mythology in action.
It wasn’t quite the end of the day for me though. As Calderstones park is located just off Menlove Avenue it seemed an opportune time to check out a little more local mythology and visit Strawberry Field and John Lennon’s childhood home just up the road. It was a timely reminder of the fluidity of engagement with place. Ten minutes away the Calderstones, which drew people to them for thousands of years, lay hidden away in a tatty glasshouse, usurped now in visitor terms by a suburban semi that a man lived in once. And where to from there to round off the day? Where else but Mathew Street to stand on the manhole cover, to channel Bill Drummond’s leylines and admire Jung’s bust. Not the only bust on show as it happens. Psychogeographers with a better knowledge of Liverpool might have known to avoid derives down Mathew Street after dark on Saturday night. A lively end to the day.