Saturday, 28 March 2015

Abroad

What provokes the desire that motivates travel?

One must first have a conception of ‘elsewhere’. With the formation of personal identity, one realises that there is more than just ‘here’, there is also ‘there’- where things are done more or less differently, by degrees. The knowledge of ‘there’ comes through experience, education, things in the culture more generally. Before the internet age, when everything is seemingly available and accessible all the time, these cultural products were sometimes frustratingly, obstinately hard to find, and, although I do not want to labour this theme too much, it is an important one.

In 2013 I travelled from London to St Petersburg by train. Documenting the journey through photography, I took notes but could not find a way in, a framework to write about it. The route of that journey was determined by a travel grant that my partner had received. In the spring of 2015, with my partner based in Stockholm, I wrote an unsuccessful grant application to fund travel there by rail. The reason for doing so was the fact that I could realistically plot a route which would stop at Wuppertal and Hamburg - and the train onwards from Hamburg takes to one of the remaining train ferries to Denmark. Twenty years earlier, when researching the films of Wim Wenders for a cultural studies essay, I watched Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire, the two films that the library had, on VHS. Searching the library database returned three articles on Wim Wenders, including one from Sight and Sound from 1984, by John Pym, titled the ‘The Road From Wuppertal’. Although I did not reference this article in my essay, its description of Alice In The Cities, and then reading about Wenders’ working methods for his film in The Logic Of Images left an impression that would have to wait a decade to be realised. Oddly, perhaps, it was this very frustration (and the intensity of youth) that lent a force to these impressions then. Recently feeling like I had lost something - not youth exactly - but something that went along with youth, I realised as I wrote my grant application that a large part of it would became an investigation into autobiography.

There is a formative part of my identity linked to the events in my youth when Europe opened up: I was 14 in 1989, 17 in 1992, and 19 when the Channel Tunnel rail services began. Aspiring to feel European and connected to Europe, it seems recent right-wing shifts in the political landscape have stressed other, narrower, identities. The grant application attempted to reclaim a sense of youthful hopefulness by tracing the culture that made me want to be in Europe, identifying it primarily through European cinema, through films that I saw twenty years ago: notable cases being Kieslowski's Three Colours trilogy, Edgar Reitz's Die Zweite Heimat, and particularly Wim Wenders' films. However, it was the knowledge or idea of the films that I could not see then - especially Alice In The Cities, Kings Of The Road and The American Friend - that inspired the feeling best expressed through the German word Sehnsucht that I’d learned from Edgar Reitz.

The Man Of The Crowd

“Not long ago, about the closing in of an evening in autumn, I sat at the large bow window of the D——- Coffee-House in London. For some months I had been ill in health, but was now convalescent, and, with returning strength, found myself in one of those happy moods which are so precisely the converse of ennui—moods of the keenest appetency, when the film from the mental vision departs—the achlus os prin epeen—and the intellect, electrified, surpasses as greatly its every-day condition, as does the vivid yet candid reason of Leibnitz, the mad and flimsy rhetoric of Gorgias. Merely to breathe was enjoyment; and I derived positive pleasure even from many of the legitimate sources of pain. I felt a calm but inquisitive interest in every thing. With a cigar in my mouth and a newspaper in my lap, I had been amusing myself for the greater part of the afternoon, now in poring over advertisements, now in observing the promiscuous company in the room, and now in peering through the smoky panes into the street.”
 Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Man Of The Crowd’

After six days in hospital last Autumn, the second paragraph of The Man Of The Crowd felt apposite. Hospital provided plenty of time for reading, and, although I had read Poe many years ago, the quote came up in Patrick Keiller’s The View From the Train, in the essay ‘The Poetic Experience of Townscape and Landscape’. Knowing that my partner would be in Stockholm in the spring and that I would travel there, this future promised a possibility of the experience that Keiller writes about, achieved more readily when unencumbered by the concerns of everyday life, and, perhaps, by the experience of the novel over the familiar; while in hospital there seemed to only be an ever expanding present - although six days is not long, it felt that way, with the lack of sleep and every new test and the wait for each test result - there would be a future again when I got out. Convalescence and depressed feelings related to the ill health that had put me in hospital prompted the longing for some hazily defined point in the future that would excite me again. Moreover, being confined in the hospital provoked the desire to escape one’s immediate surroundings, beyond hospital itself, as if the daily experience of home and work had been given the taint of sickness.