City Space And Chorlton Meadows Thursday December 15, 2011

There are different kinds of geographic and cultural space. Private space of the home, public space of the street, and intermediary space of various kinds. After working in Manchester libraries for nearly three years, I am struck by the nature of such an intermediary space: that it is contested, with conflicting agendas between staff, other staff, and the public. I was once confronted for example with an irate relative concerning the misbehaviour of a young boy. He was well known for problematic and disturbed behaviour and the occasion was a further example of it, prompting a disciplinary response. She conveyed a peculiarly alternate narrative that “I obviously had something against him” because there was further misbehaviour that evening: about which she knew nothing, which did not concern me directly (or her), was impossible to control (it concerned a large group) and had no bearing on the child I had dealt with. Additionally, she told me the child had behavioural problems using that as an excuse, implying it should be allowed. She was oblivious to the behavioural rules of a library which enforce little more than basic civility. I saw an identical pattern in the other children I dealt with: they did not recognise the parameters of the library and it was a constant battle to repeatedly enforce them: they walked from home to street to library and saw no distinction. In another situation a child would undertake some homework, go home for her tea, and come back to the library in her pyjamas to play games. Rather sweet. But then she resisted homework, complained to her parents about my disciplinary response, and I had to deal with more nonsense.

In this respect, the situation of a public library is similar to the space of a street. I’ve since encountered multiple examples of abusive and anti social behaviour from adults, which on one occasion involved a serious physical threat I referred to the police. Adults know how society works, that you don’t go around threatening people or swearing at them without repercussions. And yet anti social and abusive behaviour is a constant feature of Manchester libraries. Some years ago, before I worked in them, I witnessed an altercation between a member of the public and a librarian which involved him reaching for a pen and another member of the public then wrestling him to the ground. The police were called. I didn’t see the incident unfold but witnessed the final moment in its entirety. Altercations with the public are constant. As I write, there were two incidents yesterday: one customer was abusive to others for no reason so we had to intervene, and another was aggressive towards me. Such behaviour is contrary to council policy. However this fact is not parallel to the other fact, that such behaviour is constant. Librarians work, politically speaking, in a contested space which is partly articulated in Working Below The Surface: The Emotional Life Of Contemporary Organizations (Clare Huffington 2004) as follows:

1) Normative primary task: that which people in an organisation ought to pursue according to its ethos and ideals

2) Existential primary task: that which they believe they are carrying out

3) Phenomenal primary task: that which it is hypothesised of which they are engaged in and which they may not be consciously aware

Huffington says:

The optimum position in an organisation would be when the normative primary task and the existential primary task are in alignment. In other words, the task that staff are being told to pursue by people in authority is in alignment with the task that people believe they should carry out. In contrast, when the normative and existential primary tasks are out of alignment, then the resulting behaviour is the phenomenal primary task, which could be resistant behaviour. In this way the existential primary task can be seen as a source of resistance to change (97).

The implications of such analysis are far reaching and profound. They account for the shocking and horrific cases of inept organisational practice which were, effectively, the reason for the recent cases of Victoria Climbie and Peter Connelly – Baby P. It’s only since I’ve worked in a council corporation that I’ve come to understand the forces of stasis, denial, deferred responsibility and what might be called “half communication” – which result in such situations. By “half communication” I mean dialogue which represents an unconscious process which is inconsistent with corporation ethos but which everyone accepts, because it is extraordinarily difficult to challenge. It is the normative medium of exchange and you are, as it were, Winston Smith or Josef K if you speak up about it. Victoria Climbie and Peter Connelly were, so to speak, Winston Smith and Josef F: all of them the same example of victimisation and powerlessness struggling within an Orwellian social scheme.

According to Professor Mark Stein:

The service encounter is best understood if we postulate that a boundary region exists between frontline workers and customers. While the long-established concept of a boundary is a valuable one in organization studies…it is supplemented here by the idea of a boundary region because this indicates more clearly the notion of a space shared by customers and employees alike, one that acquires its character by virtue of being so shared. This boundary region is governed by implicitly agreed norms specific to the employee–customer relationship. Further, while being influenced by geographic space and the design of work, the boundary region refers essentially to a phenomenological, experiential dimension…boundaries … aren’t drawn on a company’s organizational chart but in minds….and this applies equally well to the notion of boundary regions.

The nature of this boundary region – part theatre, part ‘prostitution’ whereby your identity is ‘bought’ for the purposes of the transaction – is that of argument: the boundary space is constantly contested. There are behavioural parameters which constitute a legal agreement whenever a customer enters the library building, but they are rarely enforced in a direct overt manner. The theory is thus that anti social behaviour is unacceptable and staff do not have to tolerate it but the reality is, as a colleague said to me, “you are paid to put up with it.” Suggesting otherwise is a fiction inconsistent with facts, constituting organisational propaganda: we know it happens, but we won’t admit it. Within this area of psychological transaction frontline staff resolve tensions and frustrations with jokes, banter, and cathartic expression familiar to millions of people in customer service industries.

The library, as an intermediary public space, is where you additionally find sociological and psychological issues get dumped from the immediate social environment. The description ‘front line staff’ parallels the use of the term in a military context. One colleague said he wanted a stab vest. Another was assaulted and hit back in self defence, culminating in court. Another colleague had to testify in court about another incident, suffering that situation in addition to the library occurrence. Another colleague conveyed to me an incident where a gang member disputed a fine of a few pounds, backing it up with a snarling “do you know who I am?” He didn’t, and probably felt as I would which is I don’t care who you are: you owe the library three pounds. A further colleague intervened and waived the fine to avoid violent repercussions against staff or property. As an English teacher in a library I’d advise the thug to read Sun Tsu, Machiavelli, or watch The Godfather – the library probably has a copy. If you want to be a gangster you should pick your fights according to their worth. Such a violent response over three pounds would be laughable if it were not serious. The issue was not three pounds as such but what lowlife refer to as “respect”, which actually means intimidation, which rests on a damaged outlook whereby minor disagreement is like a declaration of war.

One way of understanding this is in terms of territory, which concerns space. One of the above colleagues also conveyed to me a story of a friend in a pub, conversing with a woman, being told to “move away”. When he protested he was told “move away” again, as the man pulled back his jacket to reveal a gun. I encountered the same dynamic in the same area – Moss Side – when I once stopped off at a cafe for a snack. Two attractive females were inside, being propositioned by two predatory youths. I read the menu and the females noticed me and pretended to know me, as a pretend diversion. They weren’t threatened by the situation but found it amusing. The youths turned their attention to me first saying “do you know them” and then saying “have you got the time” which is ritualistic behaviour setting you up for violence. Former bouncer and self defence teacher Geoff Thompson describes this street scenario at some length in his books. The vast majority of assaults begin, he says, with posturing or disarming dialogue: who are you looking at, do you want some, have you got the time or a light etc engage the brain of a potential victim allowing an opening for attack. Thugs do it instinctively; Thompson experienced it many times and learned to understand it. I felt, at that moment, that it was deception and power play: asking me a question was a means of controlling my behaviour and gaining an advantage. He did not want to know the time. And I literally felt his malevolence, as his companion thug positioned himself on my other side. He wanted me to look at my watch, thereby controlling me. I was not prepared to give them that power and simply walked away. In hindsight they could still have knifed me in the back but I hadn’t given them very much reason to do it which is what they were seeking, like dogs. If an assault wasn’t imminent, further unpleasantness certainly was after they asked for the time. It was a territorial dispute: it concerned the Moss Side space which has been cut up and contested with gangs, guns, and drug wars. There’s also been a large influx of immigrants into the area, many of whom appear to be from Somalia so I assume many are asylum seekers. I think the youths were Somalian, or African of some kind. One must conclude this was behaviour transplanted from another country into Manchester: they hadn’t learnt it here. Plenty of indigenous Brits do this kind of thing also; but the observation is pertinent in regard to understanding the incident in context.

Space – geographic and personal space – is in the final analysis that which gets contested in problematic public environments and the street. Three pounds (above) was not really the issue. The issue was, the thug wanted to get his own way, i.e. exert control over that environment. When I was physically threatened in the library the thug was ranting illogically about “you think you’re better than me” substituting, as did the boy’s irate sister, an alternate narrative onto a public library where I was enforcing civility. When these situations kick off they are not, as Geoff Thompson says, logical or sensible: they make no sense at all and rest on an animal-like dispute over territory. “Have you got the time” was a territorial argument over – ridiculously – two women in a street space, neither of whom were interested in the thugs or me. The youths felt the women were their property, like we were animals in a mating contest. People on the street have strange alternate narratives, and they bring them into public libraries.

As much as weather and free time allows, I like to walk in the mountains to escape such nonsense. Mountains, unlike the library or the street, are not contested. You won’t find a thug on top of Scafell Pike saying “ooo yoo lookin at? yoo want some? yeah? yeah?” – if you do hear that it will be pleasantly modulated, the ‘who’ will refer to Pillar, Grasmoor or Great Gable and he or she will be offering you some of their food, as happened to me once on Maiden Moor.

Thus – it was a beautiful snow clad day and I stopped to converse with a few people, discussing the prospect of proceeding to Dale Head. The problem, I said, was it was late in the day and I didn’t have enough food. My plan had been a brief exploration of the ridge but when I got there it was so spectacular I went a little further, then a little further, knowing it wasn’t wise to continue but I found it irresistible. I’ve done this many times. I don’t recommend it, but some will understand. I asked the people where they’d come from (Dale Head) having set off in the morning, and how long it might take to get there. It would be getting dark when I arrived and I had no head torch, but I decided to chance it. The final two hours were rather grim as I made my way down the icy ridge and even the final valley roads were treacherous in a silent, black, cold afternoon with no people around. There was some moonlight however, without which the situation would have been serious. I had moonlight – and the party I’d spoken to had given me a little snack from their own supplies.

In the hills, people are friendly and we usually greet each other. The French are even better at it than we are: bonjour! bonjour! bonjour! fill Pyrenean days like music. I enjoy the way women in particular say it: bon- jooour with a rising emphatic expression and of course the children can be adorable with their different emphasis: bon jour! they say, with a sort of jolly innocent heartiness, and from my limited experience of France the children appear to be less feral over there.

With adults, I was once enjoyably confused eating dinner in a Pyrenean refuge when, in the course of table introductions, a woman replied with enchante! when I told her my name. Then I realised she wasn’t proposing a romance, such was the lovely elegance of her remark, but rather this was normal dialogue for the French similar to but far more pleasing than “pleased to meet you”. If I’m very tired or exhausted with the bonjours I avert my eyes, but I always feel guilty. In Britain I do the same occasionally, sometimes because the social exchanges interrupt the feeling of retreat, quiet, and peace. But apart from the occasional encounter like that any hill walker will tell you there’s a great friendliness in the hills, a comradeship, and an instinctive reaction to say hello to people. It’s not a contested space, it’s a natural space.

Unfortunately I don’t get to the hills enough. British weather is the problem and it grieves me when I see the space of the Pyrenees and other parts of France, or Spain, or California, digitally reproduced over a web cam. The sun’s still here – there it is – it’s just that we can’t see it in Britain. I’m constantly monitoring mountain weather forecasts, hoping for a break in dreary British grey.

I have however found some local interest in Chorlton Meadows, which I can enjoy in a brief spell of light for an hour or two. I go there repeatedly and it’s become a pleasant habit, from which this photographic project has evolved. Chorlton Water Park, Sale Water Park and the Mersey Valley are close to me. Chorlton Ees used to be a sewage area and it’s a remarkable transformation to see the trees, grasses, and snaking little paths. I particularly enjoy the grasses and the changing colours and light. People go there too. But these people, unlike (many of) the people of the street or the library, are strolling for relaxation and smile and say hello. In the Didsbury Mersey Valley area, I recently had a long conversation with a chap which started with him noticing my camera bag and me replying with some comment about my interest. It was the grasses I liked, I said, but it needed exceptional light for what was otherwise uninteresting. We discussed Tai Chi, Pa Kua (although he’d never heard of it), music, tango, salsa (he’d taken lessons from a library colleague who teaches it), poetry, local cultural festivals, and family relationships. He’d recently lost his mother and I reciprocated with reference to my Dad, referring to the effect such trauma has. I was immediately concerned all this was a homosexual proposition – it’s happened to me before – but in fact it was a startlingly interesting conversation in regard to its random unexpected quality.

Such encounters do happen in libraries. I’ve had lovely exchanges where people reveal their lives – and then what frustrates me is not the person, but the strictures of the job. A nice lady came in wanting to use a computer. She’d lost her husband, and was looking for a job. Asda, apparently, offer their vacancies on the internet. She showed me her reference – a little letter from her Conservative Club – and told me, twice, with a little smile on her face, “that’s my reference”. I wanted to give her a hug, make her a cup of tea, sit down with her at a computer, and find her a job. I couldn’t do any of that. I couldn’t even let her use a computer because library policy is we need to see proof of address for that, when we register customers. I reasoned it was not a serious matter; she said she would return with proof of address and no doubt proceed with her plans within perhaps a day or two.

I have a catalogue of such moments, from working in libraries. But the issue, in regard to public space, is how libraries constantly attract problematic behaviour. “They’re drawn to us”, a colleague once said, which in effect is true. Abuse, violence and foul bad manners don’t occur in the hills and it’s a spatial distinction pertaining to the quality, sociological density, and character of the space. Libraries are there, right in the heart (sometimes) of problematic areas. Anyone can walk in, and they do. Drunk and threatening (one of those too), a religious type who implied his values were superior to council/secular values when he made a formal complaint about a book “offending” him as if the library were only for his kind. And large numbers of young people who – apart from issues of physical threat – can be the worst. I once had a two hour conversation with a police officer, on a Sunday morning, in regard to crap I was experiencing. She confirmed that youths were the worst problem on her patch. They present a boredom they don’t understand which appears alleviated when they are abusive and disruptive and thereby get attention. As a colleague said, they are “feral”.

In Scotland earlier this year, I was advised about even more remote places than Glen Shiel and twice given an account of two walks beyond my capacity in the area. The first chap had set off around six in the morning from one direction, the second had started with the Forcan Ridge in the other direction, far beyond my itinerary and stamina. We smiled, we chatted. On Skye, I spoke with two nice girls telling me about the Cuillins. I went there the next day. One time in the Lakes I exchanged details with two chaps, one of whom posted me a book about lightweight camping and some insulating material he fashions into pot cosies: he was a builder. Another time in Wales, a woman told me she divorced a year ago and was taking a year off to walk around and clear her head. She said she preferred Wales to the Lakes which, she said, was “too much”. I remember such things. I found it an odd and alien idea because – the point is – the beauty of the Lakes is natural: it’s not garden landscaping. More recently I’ve had some sympathy with that idea. A few weeks ago, at the summit of Great Gable, I spoke with a chap who lived in Wales, had been desperate to get to the hills as had I, and had spontaneously left the day before, as had I, when he saw an indication of half decent weather. “Very nice talking to you”, he said, because our circumstances had pleasantly coincided.

In the Pyrenees it’s even more fun when you exchange international details about where you live and negotiate your cultural and linguistic difference – always, with your common interest in mountains as backdrop to social exchange. In the Pyrenees two climbers smiled and shook my hand after we discussed the mountains and I told them I was British and alone. I’ve encountered the same in the Lakes, surprised to see a Frenchman attracted to our modest hills. In fact I think a trip from abroad would be delightful: the Lakes are modest but with a beauty out of proportion to their compact scale. Another time, lovely Spanish girls on top of Posets whose body language was like they wanted to hug me, for companionship at a happy but remote moment. Jose, who gave me a lift up a boring track with his lovely wife and new baby, who told me he liked winter best and living about two hours from both the Pyrenees and the sea, also enjoyed the beach. But, he said, the beach wasn’t friendly and no one spoke to you there: it’s another kind of geographic and social space. At the top of the track we spoke for an hour, Jose giving me some extensive Pyrenean advice. Smiles all round, then a warm hand shake.

In the film Crocodile Dundee, Mick greets people in the streets of New York as he is used to doing in rural Australia. He remarks that New Yorkers must be exceptionally friendly people to want to crowd together in the city. He charms people with his rough straightforward nature, with neither pretence nor tiresome sophistication: he doesn’t understand the rituals of an Italian restaurant, and punches the man who takes the piss out of him. When he’s shown a television in his hotel room he says “Yep that’s what I saw before”, referring to the lighted screen and not the hallucinations of its content. Mick Dundee lives in the space of the outback and is ‘out of place’ in the city. The film ends as he prepares to go walkabout in the USA but Sue, desperate to catch him before he disappears forever, tells him she loves him in a crowded subway. Trapped, but finding a way to overcome city space, he climbs across the shoulders of the crowd to reciprocate. Paul Hogan and Linda Kozlowski married. I guess it was hard to resist an emotional involvement at moments like this:

My photographic project, images of Chorlton Meadows, began with random wandering: Chorlton Water Park, then beyond to the River Mersey and its path, then Sale Water Park, and the woods and fields of this area. I discovered the place slowly, over several years, and eventually found myself focussing on Chorlton Meadows, recognising both its classic photographic potential and the more subtle theme of people walking here and how to capture it. The tiny, pretty people, submerged in grasses and wandering little paths, reconfigure the normal relationship to space found in the city. Chorlton Meadows is not a mountain. And yet, people smile and say hello to you here, corresponding to how they feel in the space. People walk here quietly, alone, with a partner, or in small groups. They walk dogs, they wear heavy hiking boots, and they relax.

There was a tent hidden under a tree which I was tempted to investigate, but I didn’t know what I’d find: a violent lunatic, an unpleasant thug, another ‘what are you doing here’ and ‘oo do u fink u r?’ encounter. I was aware of it for some months: possibly just an eccentric, a birdwatcher, or thrill seeking youths. When the leaves dropped after autumn and the concealing tree was bare, the tent disappeared. I concluded it must have been a homeless person and thus someone whose life was difficult enough without seeing me challenging him which my presence would involve. What would make someone live in a tent with all its discomforts? In parts of Wales you could easily live in a tent and have access to water in public toilets and a river for washing, but he wasn’t doing that. I had to examine my feelings on the matter. I felt indignant because it invaded the natural space with the stamp of the city but when the tent was gone I surveyed the little patch and there was no trace of his presence: no damage done. The issues were that living there invaded the leisure space and damaged it. He was living there. I subsequently spoke with two regular visitors, one of whom walks at Chorlton Meadows every day, and ascertained that homeless people do live there.

England is the sixth most densely populated country in the world. This is an extraordinary and problematic fact, when immigration has been largely unchecked and the previous Labour government encouraged it for political reasons. And there is the further issue of type of person, many of whom have a different or incompatible cultural background. It’s a volatile subject, but with logical issues which can be stated objectively. We have many immigrants who effectively represent, for example, the geographic and cultural space of Pakistan transported to Britain. Pakistan is a substantially different country where theological ideas become incompatible customs. The BBC recently reported – and it’s the first time such a statistic has been publicised – nearly three thousand cases of ‘honour’ violence in the last year. In Pakistan I’ve heard at least one ‘honour’ killing occurs every day, and the “blasphemy” laws are reminiscent of how it was with Christianity hundreds of years ago. In the last six months there’s been four cases of Muslim pimp, rape and paedophile gangs targeting vulnerable young white girls. It occurred in Sheffield, Derby, Blackpool and Manchester where the gang was about twelve in number. In the area where the man complained about a library book, there have been multiple terrorist arrests and the police spoke with community leaders after Bin Laden was killed to prevent unrest: there appears to be a community sympathy for terrorism well known to Manchester police. A few years ago in another part of Manchester, terrorists were arrested living next door to a shop where I’d bought a computer. It was a strange and unpleasant experience going to the shop and seeing the police cordon alongside it. This is one corollary of ‘multiculturalism’ – what we find in distant countries is transplanted here in its entirety, for good and bad. Prime Minister Cameron recently acknowledged that ‘multiculturalism’ has failed. We have substantial problems which repudiate its cosy unexamined ethos. No one was consulted about multiculturalism, and the damage has now been done.

More fundamentally, England is full up: which is another reason to walk in Wales or Scotland. We are burdened and overflowing because public services and housing will have to accommodate, for example, a quarter of a million immigrants recently recorded for 2011. The government has recently announced plans to start building on so called brown field sites. ‘Unused’ areas where we could enjoy trees, grasses, birds and peaceful release from the compressive effects of city space – are now under threat. Our cities contain so many people we have to expand them into adjoining unused areas, such as Chorlton Meadows once was. But this is a geographic rather than a political response to overcrowding. It may be too late. But the political factors need expressing.

My own interest, however, is not ultimately political because I have no respect for that system of intellectual process which constantly slides down into nonsensical mud. Rather, as Thoreau said:

I wish to speak a word for nature, for absolute Freedom and Wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and Culture merely civil, — to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society. I wish to make an extreme statement, if so I may make a emphatic one, for there are enough champions of civilization; the minister, and the school-committee, and every one of you will take care of that

My photo project depicts the phenomenological relationship we have with spaces such as Chorlton Meadows, representing the wider significance of nature and the human need for space – space which is unconfined and not circumscribed with buildings and roads. I photograph grasses, trees and people, not trapped in the confines of street space or library space, but a space of open land where strangers greet you. Powerful as our technological presence is on the planet we do not control nature, and pollution and global warming testify to a dangerous hubris in this regard. Ecological philosophy is emerging as the primary issue for the future of humanity: the earth itself and how organic life is sustained of which we are a living part. This concerns different kinds of space – city space in relation to nature – and the different meanings they have. Much damage has already been done and the situation is unsustainable.

Chorlton Meadows is a Mancunian breathing space, a retreat and escape from the city and city concerns. I have, on occasion, curiously pined for the space as I have with the Lake District. The two areas are utterly different, one just a rough place of grasses and paths and trees adjoining – if you choose to notice it – houses and roads. And yet, in phenomenological terms, they are a similar form of space in regard to the feelings they evoke and it’s a certain kind of feeling I pine for.

Cartier-Bresson coined the term ‘decisive moment’ indicative of a unique aspect of photography: we see it, capture it, then it’s gone. He used the term in regard to street space photography when composition and human drama combine. It also applies in natural space environments such as Chorlton Meadows where decisive moments represent not the tensions of city space or the interest of human interaction: but standing and staring at nature, without care, and considering our place on the earth.

I stand, at least, waiting with my camera for some beautiful light and for tiny people, walking.

Chorlton Meadows