On writing nostalgically and being in place

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Manchester Oxford Rd train station (because apparently this is the only picture of Manchester I've taken)

Manchester Oxford Rd train station (because apparently this is the only picture of Manchester I’ve taken)

Two weeks ago I spent a few days back in the UK. I thought I’d probably end up writing a blog post about it, because I expected it to be a noteworthy experience. In a lot of ways it was, but not in the ways I expected it to be. I had expected to feel as though I was back in the UK, to feel a sense of having returned. I expected reverse culture shock.

I did notice a few differences. Oddly, one thing that really stood out to me is that people in the UK look, well, kind of miserable. Though perhaps that’s not so odd considering that Dutch children are the happiest in the world¬†(UK children rank 16th), whilst the Netherlands was ranked 4th in the 2013 UN World Happiness Report. But on the whole, I didn’t really feel a sense of being back in the UK.

I’m reading Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage by Tim Robinson at the moment and a line from it struck me as appropriate. Robinson is visiting Dun Aonghasa, a stone fort on the cliffs of Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands:

I usually glance around Dun Aonghasa with a slight sense of exasperation on leaving it… because once again I have failed adequately to be in this strange place, this knot of stone from which the sky has broken out.

Cliffs of Inishmore, the Aran Islands

Cliffs of Inishmore, the Aran Islands

I can identify with Robinson’s struggle to be in a place. I visited Inishmore in 2011 as part of my MA course and I struggled with this feeling, as Robinson did – despite the fact that Robinson also calls Inishmore¬†the place to write about place. Whilst on Inishmore, I visited Dun Duchathair, another of the island’s ancient stone forts and I wrote in my journal at the time: I couldn’t seem to make any connection with the place. I thought, I’m here, now what?¬†

And yet, by the end of my time there, when I had only just got back to Galway, I was writing:

Before Inishmore I liked Galway, with its brightly painted pubs and the Corrib flowing through it. Now it just feels out of kilter with reality. I can’t hear birdsong or the sea, I can’t see the sky from one horizon to the other, and there are no fields full of wild flowers.

A year after my visit, I wrote a very nostalgic blog post about my time on Inishmore. I also wrote an equally nostlagic blog post last week about my visit to the UK and saying goodbye to my childhood home. I think nostalgia and memory of a place play a large role in my writings about place. Although immediate impressions are important and I probably wouldn’t attempt to write about a place solely from memory, it seems to take a while for a place to really sink in and seep through to somewhere deeper than the retina. I prefer writing that is osseous – felt in the bones.

Oudegracht, Utrecht

Oudegracht, Utrecht

And yet, sometimes it seems as though the opposite is true. Last weekend, I visited the city of Utrecht. It was a hot, clear-skied day and as we walked along the Oudegracht – a tree lined canal in the heart of the city – I felt instantly intoxicated by the place. So much so that I haven’t really been able to write about it. I haven’t yet found that ‘tranquillity’ that Wordsworth so famously spoke about.


0 thoughts on “On writing nostalgically and being in place”

  1. Naomi,

    Don’t know if this helps with the disconnected-ness. I think sometimes there is a pressure if you write or take pictures or both to document the ‘genius loci’ of a location as perfectly as possible just in case you can’t get back for another go.

    If the place is one of those that have culturally agreed significance for people like us in our part of the blogosphere and we can’t connect despite striving we can begin to think in terms of Me Not Being Able To- ness.

    You have communicated Oudegracht very well though. Pic shouts out interesting canal, bridge that goes from somewhere to somewhere, trees, and possibly a great cafe/bar. You have made what is ineffable for you clear to the reader.


    ps I always enjoy reading your posts!! Keep doing what you are doing it works well!

    1. Thank you! Yes, I find myself writing a lot about not be able to connect to places – which is, in and of itself, a very fascinating topic (and the fact that even such an esteemed writer of place as Tim Robinson suffers from it is certainly comforting).

      That’s an interesting point you make about the picture – I sometimes worry that I rely too much on pictures to convey the sense and look of a place, rather than actually writing about it!

  2. Naomi,

    The writerly urge to tell the story is very odd and disconcerting. I find sometimes I don’t understand a place or a mood until I’ve written or pictured it into being. That’s strange because the same eyes/brain are involved.

    Going back to look at the place and the writing/pictures later is always fascinating. I can see myself more clearly as a result of the passage of time and mood. The passage of time lets me look at stuff from more angles.

    A good friend who is a fear-free explorer of underwater caverns and not usually prone to being poetic said “we take the mood with us (on journeys/to places) but moods pass by like clouds…”


    1. What a lovely quote! Thank you for that one.

      I agree, it is strange – and I often wonder how different the place I evoke for the reader is to the “actual” place – whatever that might mean.

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