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In her recently published autobiography Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Jeanette Winterson writes, “Where you are born – what you are born into, the place, the history of that place, how that history mates with your own – stamps who you are, whatever the pundits of globalisation say.”  For Winterson, it’s Manchester, the rawness of the world’s first industrial city.  For me, it’s Sydney, that sprawling urban tart just up the road.

But what is it, this city where I came into being?  What is the history that, as Winterson says, mates with me?

I was born and raised on Sydney’s North Shore, amongst towering gums and argyle apples, the screech of rainbow lorikeets never far away, and possums in the roof – one time a pint-sized sugar-glider landed on the handlebars of the mower.  Summer weekends at Freshwater Beach, boogie-boarding with my older brothers, on the return home Midnight Oil’s first album screaming out of the car stereo.  Going into the city to meet friends, hooking up in Oxford Street, which back then I figured was just another inner-city through-way.  Regular family holidays up into the Blue Mountains, where I imagined that dinosaurs lurked just around the corner.  Trips down to Bowral in the Southern Highlands to visit my mother’s parents; the house was barely furnished, which wouldn’t do these days, would it.

So, the way I think about it, I was – we were – always leaving, always getting out.  And who could blame us?  Despite the gloss and glam and glitter, Sydney has the darkest of hearts, a twisted soul.  It’s a city formed on the hardship of convicts, the majority male, many professional criminals.  Famine caused by frequently failed agriculture.  Disease: small pox, chicken pox, venereal disease, measles; one of these wiped out 90 percent of the local Aboriginal people so that their bodies could be seen floating in the harbour.

It’s said that Sydney was to be called New Albion.  Albion: that poetic nickname for Britain.  It’s a name that may have been inspired by a story about the 50 daughters of Syria’s king, who all got married on the same day and murdered their husbands on their wedding night; as punishment, they were set adrift in a ship before landing at Britain where they shacked up with the locals.

Sydney: she sure does stamp me out.

And there are days when I wish she wouldn’t.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 2 June 2012.)

In Tasmania recently I gave a series of workshops on writing about place.  Doing the workshops was a joy, quite frankly – I’ve taught in the university context before but I’d not previously given writing workshops to the broader community.  After each session I’d return to the Gatekeeper’s Cottage where I was staying, shove in a pair of mp3-player headphones into my ears (that month I was on a steady aural diet of Frightened Rabbit, The XX, Four Tet, Sigur Ros, and Phil Retrospector) and then walk for hours along the Tamar River with a real bounce in my step and smile on my face.

To provide a bit of inspiration for ways of thinking about place I put together a series of quotes and prepared them as a hand-out.  I reckon I’ve been thinking about place since I was knee-high to a grasshopper, and it’s one of those elements of living that really turns my crank (check out those delicious mixed metaphors!).  I thought I’d share the list of quotes with you.  You’ll notice that a bloke called Edward Relph gets quite mention.  A specialist in human geography, Relph is one of the legends amongst ‘place thinkers’, and his Place and Placelessness text is a real cracker.

Do feel free to add to the list as you see fit.

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‘To be human is to live in a world that is filled with significant places: to be human is to have and know your place.’  (Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness, 1976)

‘A key test of sense of place rests with the degree to which a place in its physical form and the activities it facilitates reflects the culture who use it.’  (Francis Violich, Towards Revealing the Sense of Place, 1985)

‘We are not connected to the land, we are not connected to God, we are not really connected to one another.  You can’t keep severing all these connections, leaving people to float around without a sense of history, without a sense of story.  I think it leads to psychosis and I do wonder whether there isn’t a collective nervous breakdown.’  (Jeanette Winterson, as quoted by Helen Trinca in ‘A Particular Kind of Woman’, an article published in The Australian Magazine, July 25, 1994)’

‘The meaning of places may be routed in the physical setting and objects, but they are not a property of them – rather they are a property of human intentions and experiences.’  (Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness, 1976)

‘To have a sense of place is not to own, but rather to be owned by the places we inhabit; it is to ‘own up’ to the complexity and mutuality of both place and human being.’  (Jeff Malpas, from his article ‘Place and Human Being’, published in Making Sense of Place: Exploring Concepts and Expressions of Place Through Different Senses and Lenses, 2008)

‘A deep human need exists for associations with significant places.  If we choose to ignore that need, and to allow the forces of placelessness to continue unchallenged, then the future can only hold an environment in which places simply do not matter.  If, on the other hand, we choose to respond to that need and to transcend placelessness, then the potential exists for the development of an environment in which places are for man, reflecting and enhancing the variety of human experience.  Which of these two possibilities is most probable, or whether there are possibilities, is far from certain.  But one thing at least is clear – whether the world we live in has a placeless geography or a geography of significant places, the responsibility for it is ours alone.’  (Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness, 1976)

‘The crucial point about the connection between place and experience is not… that place is properly something only encountered ‘in’ experience, but rather that place is integral to the very structure and possibility of experience.’  (Jeff Malpas, Place and Experience: A Philosophical Topography, 1999)

‘The essence of place lies in the largely unselfconscious intentionality that defines place as profound centres of human existence.’  (Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness, 1976)

‘Place identity is closely linked to personal identity. ‘I am’ is supported by ‘I am here’.’  (Kevin Lynch, A Theory of Good City Form, 1985)

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