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There's a place for us - shadows of echoes of memories of songs — LiveJournal
j4
j4
There's a place for us
Yesterday's word of the day was "quotationipotent", which I mention mainly because it's so rare that anybody offers me a 6-syllable compliment. However it does also lead conveniently to today's word of the day, which is "commonplace-book". The gloss given is as follows
Formerly “book of common places”. A book in which “commonplaces” or passages important for reference were collected, usually under general heads; hence, a book in which one records passages or matters to be especially remembered or referred to, with or without arrangement [1500s-1800s] ... Commonplace, to enter in a commonplace-book.
      - Sir James Murray's New English Dictionary, 1893
Commonplace was a term used in old rhetoric to represent testimonies or pithy sentences of good authors which might be used for strengthening or adorning a discourse.
      - Albert Hyamson's Dictionary of English Phrases, 1922

It's only really the first sentence of the definition which interests me: the idea of a book of common places.

Words, as little Dorothy Gale discovered, have the power to transport us to different places. All we have to do is say there's no place like home and we're back in the safety of wherever it is that we call "home" at the moment, wondering why on earth we ever thought we wanted to leave it. Of course, Dorothy's experiences in Oz, like Alice's adventures in Wonderland, are nothing but a dream: a palimpsest of half-remembered names and faces, words and images, built up like papier-mache into something approximating to a real location...

Ah yes, a real location. How easy it is to take it for granted that while the glorious technicolor Oz is nothing but the imaginings of a fevered mind, Kansas is real -- Dorothy's Kansas and our own. But I have never been to Kansas; my own Kansas, Kansas-as-I-experience-it, is barely more real than the dream of a fictional character: it's a patchwork of L. Frank Baum's Kansas, Geoff Ryman's Kansas, the lines and colours that make up Kansas in my atlas, and so on, and so forth.

So let's take a place closer to home. I've had my base-station in Cambridge for nearly 4 years now; I've driven around it, walked through it, raised my blood-pressure by attempting to cycle through it; for four years I've been living, working, playing, shopping, dreaming, reading, drinking, and all the rest here. It's real to me, and it seems to be real to the other people who live, work, etc. here (and there's a lot of et cetera goes on in Cambridge). But is it a common place, a place we actively share?

We've all had the experience where somebody else's reaction to a place we know and love is so completely antithetical to our own that we're left thinking Are we talking about the same place? -- particularly true with places whose physical location and configuration is probably not their most important aspect: for example, few people see a school as just a collection of buildings. Holiday destinations, too, are places to which we take so many preconceptions and expectations (often packed in our bags without our knowledge, despite our innocent belief that we have rien à declarer) that our respective experiences of the place might differ as much as those of the fabled blind men encountering an elephant.

There is, however, an unspoken trust in the independent existence of an elephant; that is, we assume that there is one objective truth and our different perceptions are just that: the same thing viewed from different angles. But is that necessarily the case? To what extent do places as we experience them exist anywhere but in our own minds?

And where do commonplace books come into all this metaphysical tourism?

Most of us spend most of our time somewhere other than home. Some of us aren't even sure where to call home. We are tourists wandering in a landscape and a mindscape which, to some extent, we must experience in isolation; walking through Cambridge I have no way of knowing what the other passers-by feel when they see the rain-soaked streets. Is this place home? A place to work? A place they want to leave, a place they're delighted to have come to? The fact that I see them as "passers-by" highlights the problem: to them, I am the passer-by. We are all merely passing through each other's lives.

Words have the power to transport us to a mental 'place' -- sometimes the mental place correlates with a physical place, but that's a second order effect, at least for me. (But then, I'm words all the way down, like a big sugary stick of Brighton rock.) To happen across a shared text -- a point of shared cultural reference -- is to suddenly hear somebody speaking your native language in a country where everything seems alien. The words that you heard when you were young will always stay; but when you discover that somebody else has treasured the same words all these years, it's like meeting an old friend when you're far from home.

A commonplace-book is a photo album of the places you've been: the restless nights in one-night cheap hotels; the coastal town that they forgot to close down; the motel that you pull into to shower off the dust; the vast tracts of unenclosed wild; the dark towns that heap up on the horizon; the bluesilver places where the boundary's undefined; the still point of the turning world.

When you meet somebody else in one of these common places, for a moment somebody shares your space, shares your thoughts, stands together with you in a place that can seem more real than any physical landscape or building. When somebody else knows the shape of a phrase that you've worn like a talisman, knows the response to a cry that you've uttered time and time again, knows the words to the soundtrack to your life, they can reach into your heart and mind and -- even if only for an instant -- see the world through your eyes.
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lnr From: lnr Date: October 15th, 2004 04:49 pm (UTC) (Link)
From: minnesattva Date: October 15th, 2004 05:09 pm (UTC) (Link)
I love this.

Where are you getting such interesting words-of-the-day?
j4 From: j4 Date: October 15th, 2004 05:18 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm getting my words from the "Forgotten English" desk calendar. They've come out every year for the last few years -- available in a bookshop near you (Borders/Waterstones/etc. usually do it). Or in fact Amazon: buy next year's calendar now, or just buy the book! (At least, I'm assuming it's the book of the same thing - seems to be by the same person, anyway.)
From: minnesattva Date: October 15th, 2004 05:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
Cool. I remember getting a calendar-with-words for Christmas last year, actually, from one of my roommates. But it was full of stupid words. :-) It's probably at home now, with my other junk from college, but I haven't thought about it in months.

Oh, the other thing I was going to ask: can I post your entry in readers_list?
bluedevi From: bluedevi Date: October 15th, 2004 05:18 pm (UTC) (Link)
I've been to and loved many of the places in your photo album, even if only in poetry and songs, and recognise them with affection.

I hope to some day live at the still point of the turning world.
juggzy From: juggzy Date: October 16th, 2004 12:53 am (UTC) (Link)
To what extent do places as we experience them exist anywhere but in our own minds?

In the sense that we share a common language - there appears to be a consensus on the meaning of a core number of sounds - I think we can can say that there is a core agreement about what exists in this place or thatplace. So, not truth by elephant, but reality as a result of popular opinion. I'm fairly certain that there's potential for an RTV series here.

I'm very wary of the concept of absolute concepts.

I think the detail of the places that exist do, yes, exist only in our own minds.
verlaine From: verlaine Date: October 16th, 2004 02:54 am (UTC) (Link)
This post is possibly the reason the "add to memories" button was invented.

I'd like one day to visit the world through your eyes.
d_floorlandmine From: d_floorlandmine Date: October 16th, 2004 03:40 am (UTC) (Link)
The words that you heard when you were young will always stay

the coastal town that they forgot to close down

Indeed. And there appears to be some "frame-of-reference" crossover.
martling From: martling Date: October 16th, 2004 05:08 am (UTC) (Link)
That was a lovely read. Thankyou.

I suppose I could describe one of the things I like about Edinburgh this way; that despite being as much a collage of different places to different people, it's small enough that everyone's place seems to overlap at least somewhere with everyone elses, whilst big enough to supply continual variety.

London does provide the latter, but whilst there's always overlap in the bits I've happened to connect with I'm always overwhelmed by the seemingly infinite, alien remainder.

I don't know where you'd put Cambridge in that scale.

I'm reminded, also, of that passage from Michael Marshall Smith's Only Forward which wintrmute quoted from the other day.

"How many times have you tried to talk to someone about something that matters to you, tried to get them to see it the way you do? And how many of those times have ended with you feeling bitter, resenting them for making you feel like your pain doesn't have any substance after all?
Like when you've split up with someone, and you try to communicate the way you feel, because you need to say the words, need to feel that somebody understands just how pissed off and frightened you feel. The problem is, they never do. 'Plenty more fish in the sea,' they'll say, or 'You're better off without them,' or 'Do you want some of these potato chips?' They never really understand, because they haven't been there, every day, every hour. They don't know the way things have been, the way that it's made you, the way it has structured your world. They'll never realise that someone who makes you feel bad may be the person you need most in the world. They don't understand the history, the background, don't know the pillars of memory that hold you up. Ultimately they don't know you well enough, and they never can. Everyone's alone in their world, because everybody's life is different. You can send people letters, and show them photos, but they can never come to visit where you live."

(I've left off the last line, which detracts from the piece for me).
sion_a From: sion_a Date: October 17th, 2004 04:53 pm (UTC) (Link)
I was thinking more along the bit from Only Forward along the lines of "You know how sometimes you walk along a street, then you turn around, and it seems like it isn't the same street? Well, it isn't." Which I suppose may be the same thing.
addedentry From: addedentry Date: October 17th, 2004 05:53 am (UTC) (Link)
I want to live in common places with you.
anat0010 From: anat0010 Date: October 18th, 2004 01:18 am (UTC) (Link)

Cambridge is

As a student - a wonderous place of tradition, magic, interesting different people, fun and stimulation.

As a toursit - a quaint place of old spiky buildings and olde traditions.

As an inhabitant - a wet dismal place of near constant drizzle full of f***ing students, with only Ely and Bury St Edumunds within easy escaping distance.

I'd guess that anyone you see or pass in Cambridge is having an experience that can be defined as a mix of anyone of those three thoughts in various amounts.
j4 From: j4 Date: October 18th, 2004 01:31 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Cambridge is

I think there's all of those thoughts, definitely, but there's so many more as well! For me there's the feeling of being part of the university yet at the same time shut out of it - not knowing which college is which, looking through those gates into worlds that I feel I half-know from Oxford yet which are also alien; there's the fact that it's a place that I moved to for the sake of a love that changed (as love does) into something else, and remembering that leaves traces of sadness in the city for me; on the other hand there's the fact that it's the first place I lived as an independent adult, not with family or in student house-shares, but renting a flat like a real grown-up ... they're not feelings that one could only have in Cambridge, but for me the feelings become bound up in the place, they're as real to me as the river running through the city.

Also, I'm amazed that the only "student" experience you suggest is a positive one. What about all the students for whom (at least at some point in their student life) it's a place that drains their intellectual confidence; a place that's full of people they daren't try to get to know; a place where they realise that this was the wrong path for them to take but they can't bear to 'fail' in their own eyes, their family's eyes, their tutors' eyes, so they struggle on without really knowing why; a place where they gradually lose touch with their friends from home; a place where they're confronted by so many possible identities and futures that they feel they no longer know who they are...
anat0010 From: anat0010 Date: October 18th, 2004 06:26 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Cambridge is

Then the students become ... townies, hating the place.

Personally, I was born there and have wonderful memories of Cambridge as a child. We moved away just before my 6th birthday. I went back as a graduate student and absolutely hated the place. The people were interesting but way too self absorbed. Cambridge is *small* in all senses of the world. I found I couldn't escape from the 'university'. I hated the college politics, the petty one-up manship, the ambition, the show-offs. Above all I hated being a penniless graduate student trying to support myself and unemployed girlfriend (now wife).

The lowest moment of my entire life, and goodness knows there have been some, was standing in a frosty phone box and looking enviously at the light in a crappy flat above the Co-Op on Milton Road and desiring nothing more than to be able to live there.

I found the place strangely souless. Like some kind of film set. Beautiful facades hiding a gaping nothingness behind, with everyone over trying to compensate for their own insecurities.

Nice things -
Fluffy ducklings.
The graduate center.
May bumps.
ummm thats about it really.
rysmiel From: rysmiel Date: October 18th, 2004 10:53 am (UTC) (Link)
This is really gorgeous. *hug*
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