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Place Writing | Joanna Walsh

I’m one of those people that doesn’t have a hometown. I grew up in different places, every few years a new map to be measured out in steps, new streets to be learned on foot. I learned with my feet, and with my eyes and with all my senses, and, being pre-internet, the guide I used was a little dry book that soon became worn with walking. Within weeks I had routes that were habitual, routes that were not; routes that were familiar and routes that took me out of my way, whatever way I wanted to walk. These routes weren’t marked by street signs or postcodes; they were mapped by corners, by mood, by experience, by sensation, by memory.

Where did I really live? When I was smallest I lived in the cracks in the pavement, between the rails of fences, mostly on the ground in the feel of concrete, grass, mud. Big events? The difficulty of crossing the large pebbles on the beach; skinning my hand when I fell on gravel; folding my legs under me on wet grass. There were places where it was easy to walk, to climb, and places where it wasn’t. And it wasn’t always the easy places I liked best.

A bit older and I mapped my routes by the spraypaint tags on the walls of all the roads that led to school, by the tiny plants that sprouted from their cracks, by the smell of used books that breathed out of the door to the library along with a small noise of hush disturbed, by streets where they liked me and streets where they did not.

And now I live between two cities, always one city waiting to be solved while I’m busy with the other. What sort of puzzle is that? There’s always a point in the current between the two where one story’s overtaken by the other. In loving the place I miss I find I forget how to love the one I’m in.

Finding I’d forgotten how to be moved, once I started moving, I wanted to keep on. Now I am here, which is also there, I need to get out, to go out to prove that—here I am! I need to spread myself all over the town; spread it all over me. Now I have journeyed for long enough to like it, the journey’s never long enough. Arriving at the docks, how beautiful it is to approach a thought by sea!

Landing, the city springs up around me as I think my way through it; reaches out to meet me, becomes part of me, prints its patterns on my eyes, casts its mortar into my synapses so that I carry it with me now, evocable with all the other cities, its networks turned on by the noise of a tap, the opening of a door, a shadow, a light. The city calls and I respond, calling it up again. I call it up and it picks up, sometimes when least expected. It answers.

Here kids still play in the streets like in old photos (is that all over town or just this neighborhood?). The sound of horses hooves on cobbles is home now again. And when I hear it I am there, which is also here. In this city there is perpetually the sound of birds, the frantic sound birds make in cages, or I imagine they would. I can’t see any birds in the trees here, and I can’t see any cages. Perhaps they are really the noises of the street. Yes there’s violence to place too—as no city is free of railings. And there are gaps in the city; grey areas, parts of the city that are not mine, that never will be.

Having forgot my glasses I can no longer see the detail in the windows across a wide street. Any shop, now, promises wonderful things. I looked for the shops to be open, but they were all closing. Women standing by the doors with keys. I like it. Going down the shops. For where is style if there is no street? And I like having an errand to give the city purpose, to split and re-make it as new cities with different purposes. In the last few years I’ve spent time in how many cities? Eight, ten? In different cities I have shopped, drunk, worked, flirted, protested. From all of these, could I make a city of flirting, a city of protest? Is there a city where the turn of the corner of the same street is different each time, according to different intent? If you took all my corners and strung them in a line you’d have some streets. If you tetris’d them together you’d have some districts. If you jigsawed the districts you’d have a city.

Despite forgetting my glasses I see:

  • This morning, a bride dressed to take up as much room as possible on the street, on the wedding photos: narrow people pass her by on the pavement. 
  • This afternoon, an avenue of PLEASE TAKE. On this street, would you like—people helplessly offer—a chest of drawers with one drawer missing?
  • On this street the sun sets, making music come up pink from the nearby houses.

When is my hometown? Is it yet? Was it always? Is it more when I’m on the streets or off them? During repetitive activities I helplessly conjure the corners of streets. I am visited by them, standing at the sink, while chopping onions, washing, weeding, going somewhere routine. I remember walking down the street as I walk down it; turning a corner by a particular building as I am about to pass it or have passed it by. Or rather, the streets remember me. The city creates me as I recreate it. I am a city person. I am a person made of cities, and I make cities to be myself in.

What part of this story am I?
What part of the story will I have been?

I investigate what my city is and find it is made of what I’m ready to remember. What do I remember? Not what I’m told to. I don’t go by the street signs: my city is made of words but has no names. If, for example, I’m navigating by one of those maps so many of us have in our pockets, how will I find my way? How will I fasten the lines on my screen to what I’m going through. I open my mouth to take the city in. I breath it out through words, which run out of my fingers more frequently than my tongue. I cannot claim to be a native of the place where I feel at home in but, walking, I speak so rarely that no one notices. Being made of words, the city gives me the freedom to map its streets. The first step is setting out to walk or to write.

Telling a city is something about turning. It’s something about going in and going out. It’s the hinge creaking on the door to the shop, the library, the school. It is waiting at the traffic lights, about to take a step. It is crossing from sun to shade, from the curb to the road. It is the change of texture, the change of direction, the change of light, it’s the act of turning a corner. The city is the gaps between the houses and the gaps between my words. At dusk the city pauses like a sentence.

Moving through the city is an act of desire: touching old places with my eyes, running them over new, noticing difference, noticing repetition. Hungry for newness, hungry for assimilating this newness without diminishment to what nourishes me. I am greedy for the city streets. still.

If the city sets my desire a puzzle, I alone am not the answer.
The puzzle’s solved by walking.

Even walking the streets by myself I am never alone. Walking to meet you (or to shop, to visit, work) the streets are made of purpose! To walk the streets with you is to pay a particular kind of attention. To walk the streets without you is not to have to pay any particular kind of attention, to attend completely freely, to be spoken to by my own mind, by the streets and by my own mind. To walk the streets, to pay attention to you or not to you: the tension between these two attentions—even if paid at different times—produces its own pleasures.

To make a self within a city, notice things that are not yourself.
Keep noticing.

Living in a small street, I go into my yard and breathe smoke just exhaled in the garden next door. Being nothing without the city, I am, like the city, nothing without its citizens. Whatever has happened to us this year, the streets are still there. But they are nothing without us. What makes a city but the streets? Who makes the street but the people on it? Now that place has shrunk to four walls, sometimes not even that, how can we bring the city back into existence? How many of us will it take, and how long? If a city can be reconstructed from memory it will be built from memories shared. It will be a mobile city you can walk through on your mobile. If you can’t walk it with your feet you can walk it in words. And, as the people make the city, the city makes the people. As they walk along its streets at a virtual distance they construct one another as virtual citizens, virtual neighbours, virtual friends.

I step out of my front door. Virtually.

To make a virtual city requires words. No, not words, conversation. With friends. With neighbours. With strangers.

To walk through the city is a conversation.

To preserve the freedom to walk, keep talking.



© Joanna Walsh, 2020

Joanna Walsh is a writer and artist. She has written seven books including Break.up, HotelVertigo and Worlds from the Word’s End.  You can find out more about Joanna here and find her on Twitter @badaude.