CONVERSATION AND PLACE – DAVID FRANCIS
Posted 1 year ago by Catherine Colwell
In the opening gambits of any conversation ‘where do you come from yourself?’ would be up there in popularity with the Ruy Lopez in the game which supplies the metaphor. It isn’t hard to see why. Just as you can’t not be in a place in the present, you can’t not be from a place some time in the past. It is a universal that we all share, no matter who we are. Once the question is asked it opens up multiple avenues for conversation, just as the opening moves in chess open up possibilities without end.
But a game of chess is a poor metaphor for conversation, or at least the best kind of conversation, which far from being an edgy tit-for-tat in the quest for dominance, should, with no particular end point in mind, ebb and flow, give and take, twist and turn. That word ‘turn’ is key, supplying via its Latin root the vers in con-vers-ation, the act of turning round a topic with (con) one other person or more. The topic itself can be turned and examined from every angle or the conversants can turn round it, approaching it from many different avenues.
So it is that, once the place of origin has been determined, the search begins for some kind of commonality. Have we been there? Do we know someone there? Do we both know someone there? Or better still, do we both come from there? In that case we can get down to specifics, the details that make up the texture of a place, now perhaps obliterated except in memory, or still extant, taken for granted perhaps by the locals but the very things that confer distinctiveness. Or perhaps we might bemoan the changes that have left our place looking wearisomely like a lot of other places, where the detail has been electronically designed in some distant office, moulded and stamped out in some far-off factory: shop-fronts, street furniture, retail experiences.
I had one such conversation recently about my home town which in a few short decades has relinquished the ironmongers and butchers, shoe-shops and toy-shops, grocers and fishmongers from its centre in favour of the baleful, carbon-copy boxes that ring so many towns. What underlies that type of conversation is not nostalgia but a bone-felt conviction that the variety and the distinctiveness that comes from slow organic growth in response to climatic, geological, historical particularity – a conversation between a place and its circumstances - is something that nourishes our sense of self in a way that imposed uniformity can never do.
Such concerns might carry the charge of parochialism, an indictment which provokes sensitivities for many, particularly artists, and particularly those who are looking to have their work considered in terms of its own contexts and necessities and not those of the metropolis. Perhaps it is time to reclaim and reassess the concept of parochialism. The origin of the word is Greek – para, ‘beside’ and oikos, ‘the dwelling’, indicating that area within reach and close to home. Somehow that has been give a negative connotation. In Scotland we have even given the idea of ‘close to home’ a particular name - ‘the kailyard’, association with which puts the fear of its taint into those of a metropolitan outlook. However, ‘ecology’ and ‘economy’ also come from the same root, concepts of large scope which suggest that the idea of the parish need not be inward-looking and bounded.
Some of us in the world of what are known as the traditional arts of music, dance and storytelling are working with the idea of the parish in order to propose a kind of creative account of Scotland in the 21st century, similar to the old Statistical Account. Over two hundred years ago, at the close of the eighteenth century, Ministers of Religion were asked to write the story of their parish for what has become a rich and invaluable source of knowledge of how we once lived, albeit from one perspective. What we are proposing is a widespread conversation of people with the cultural traditions and grassroots history of their place, with the results of those conversations distilled into a creative statement of the community’s – the parish’s – view of itself, made to itself and to the world at large. William Blake invites us to ‘see a world in a grain of sand’, and in that sense the life of the parish can refract and distil wider concerns. The initiative is called the People’s Parish, and in every case the process will begin, and be nourished by conversation.