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Monday, 14 July 2014


I can’t afford a ticket on an old Dakota Airplane
I gotta jump a ride on a cattle-trucking slow train
I guess it doesn’t matter
As long as I can get my head down in the sun

Ah, the Quo, the mighty, perennial Status Quo who, like poverty and prostitution, will surely be with us for all time, quite possibly until the day of judgement.
Who’d have thought I’d have managed to insert the twelve bar heroes into another doctoral missive? I can’t help thinking there’s a more than a hint of Catholicity to Status Quo, one that goes beyond the obvious connotations of the band’s name (though we might discount the fact that when I was an impressionable thirteen year-old I did think Rick Parfitt was some sort of blond, be-denimed messiah).
The Quo, like the Catholic Church, are timeless: little-changing – though not unchanging – with an adherence to their gospel of three chords and the truth. The same old song, again and again; it’s not unlike the Holy Mass, all litany and ritual. And, like the Church, both the band and its followers are growing older and older. The young have found better things to listen to, they don’t believe any more.
Status Quo’s lyrics came to mind as I sat on the 09:05 Oviedo to Santander train, meandering through Asturias and Cantabria at a pace as leisurely as that of a Sunday afternoon cyclist after a particularly generous lunch. So slow that I had no chance of making my connection to Bilbao but what the hell: no tenía prisa – I wasn’t in a hurry. Indeed. I hadn’t been in a hurry since I’d boarded the 10:30 from Bristol to London Paddington three weeks previously and I had no intention of rushing my return.
The slow train from Oviedo to Santander isn’t just slow (four and three quarter hours compared to two and a half on the bus), it’s intimate; takes you into parts of the landscape – rural and urban – other forms of mechanised travel can’t or won’t. Pasture and orchard, the ever-changing reaches of sinuous and sensuous rivers; the private spaces of back-gardens and backyards; the derelict and the dilapidated.
And then the mesmeric thadakh-thadakh of the slow train weaves its enchantment, enters the carriage and lulls the willing passenger into its spell. Thadakh-thadakh and the morning sun flickering through the glades and glittering on the rippling water; your imagination slips free from its shackles and starts to play tricks with your perceptive faculties. The experiences and emotions accumulated during the long, solo hours on the camino begin to filter into daydreams and reverie.
The notion of the ‘geographical imagination’ was much in my mind during my perambulations in Spain, in as much as it relates to the role of landscape in influencing the imaginations of those who journey through it: the relationship between (slow) motion and emotion. In the introductory chapter to ‘Travel and Imagination’, Garth Lean, Russell Staiff and Emma Waterton argue that ‘rather than being treated as a surreptitious and peripheral component of the physical travel experience, the imagination is a facet of travel that warrants careful examination in its own right’ (Lean, Staiff & Waterton 2014:11).
It’s an idea that, like Geographies of Emotion, is going to upset a lot of the old school; geographers weaned on the quantitative ‘revolution’, the lingering impact of which blighted my geography degree in the early nineteen-eighties. ‘The imagination?!’ you can hear them cry, raising their heads from their dreaded Burgess, Von Thünen and Christaller models (an isotropic plain? I’ve never been able to get my head round that).
You might be inclined to agree with them, even the editors of ‘Travel and Imagination’ concede that the imagination is ‘slippery, complex and impossible to understand’ (Lean, Staiff & Waterton 2014:10). In the margin I scribbled ‘so why bother trying?’, as if everything in Geography had, like Christaller’s Central Place Theory, to be quantified and subjected to rigorous rational analysis.
But one of the great pleasures of returning to geography – I mean academically, it never really left me – has been this radical shift away from the quantitative and a willingness to accept ‘messiness’ and complexity; to try to make sense of them without dissecting them out of context. The walker or pilgrim, engaged and immersed corporeally and emotionally in their landscape, moving through space and time, is also partaking in an ‘inner’ journey that is fired by the imagination and, in turn, fires the imagination. So the question becomes, not ‘what is the geographical imagination?’ or ‘how can we define it?’ – that’s something we can never tie down, neither should we attempt to – but ‘how does it manifest itself?’ and ‘how can we represent it?’.
The slow train from Oviedo to Santander provides the perfect context for the imagination to assert itself, to emerge from the shadows: a fermentation of landscape, experience and memory. Not that you need a slow train to let imagination have its say, just that the thadakh-thadakh of the train and the morning sun flickering through the glades and glittering on the rippling water create a different kind of imagination, one that might be quite different to that experienced by the traveller on foot – the pilgrim imagination – or the airline passenger. In each case, ‘while the physical journey may be somewhat easy to map, the mental voyage is a rather unpredictable and unbounded affair’ (Lean, Staiff & Waterton 2014:9).
The ‘unpredictable’ and the ‘unbounded’: the messy, tangled and often chaotic assemblage of place and imagination, ‘conjuring the absent, rediscovering the known’, ‘transcending clock-time’ and ‘transfiguring the habitual’ (Lean, Staiff & Waterton 2014:14). Imagination is political and ideological, liberates the landscape from the quotidian. It passes beyond the arbitrary divide between fiction and reality, dwelling in ‘that blurry place where various things converge’. A mythical landscape, shaped by our imagination, as ‘authentic’ as the contours on a map.
Slow travel is, of course, relative. I took the bus from Santander to Bilbao (relatively speedy and efficient) then, after a quick dash across Bilbao, the Euskotren to Irun on the French border (slow but relatively efficient). The next morning I caught the morning TGV service to Paris (not as fast as I remembered it, probably because it was a Saturday), the Eurostar to London (too fast and efficient, at Paris Gare du Nord I felt like I was sitting in an airport departure lounge) and, late in the evening, the penultimate train to Bristol (enlivened by the presence of late night revellers returning to the bucolic vales of Swindon and Chippenham). It was imperative I didn’t fly; not for any ecological reasons but because it would have broken the ‘spell’; it was travel for the sake of travel itself (a bit like my PhD is education for the sake of education); travel as performance and ritual, as another way of being in and moving through the landscape which, crucially, kept me in the landscape.
And there is, of course, an element of inverted snobbery about it. But then again, I’ve always thought that in a world of banality and mediocrity, snobbery has a whiff of the subversive about it. 

Garth Lean, Russell Staiff and Emma Waterton (eds): 'Travel and Imagination’, Ashgate (2014)

1 comment:

  1. A hugely enjoyable read. Here's to the unpredictable, unbounded and transfiguring the habitual. And welcome back to Blighty!