Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Space We (or Someone) Loved: Reflections on Denbigh

For many years, I have photographed, and sometimes researched, elements of the built environment that seemed in danger of disappearing. Since my childhood in the 1960s these have included canals, and some railways, and, since the 1970s, local buildings, mostly in my home town. Since the advent of digital photography, with no effective marginal cost, almost anything that seems of interest has become a potential subject. Sometimes this is out of interest, for the record, but it is often to cover my increasingly failing memory of places. I have even recorded parts of my house, so that parts laid out with my first wife, but now modified, will no longer require the uncertainty of recall, and the multiple struggles for memory that that can involve

I recently published an academic essay on my feelings about my home for a volume which embodied various perspectives on domestic space. One theme in this volume was the work of an obscure French philosopher, Gaston Bachelard, whose work was often similarly obscure, but full of scattered (and unresolved) insights into the human experience of space and place. In The Poetics of Space, he wrote about felicitious space, “the space we love”, and I related this concept to my house. During the formal launch of the book, I attempted to develop the idea that there are places and spaces that we relate to emotionally, but that these do not have to be domestic or even places that we have personally shaped. Such spaces could include, to present a random list, other people’s houses, libraries, schools, universities, holiday places, cafes and restaurants, pubs and nightclubs, dance halls, cinemas, theatres, shops, railway stations and transport places generally, general townscapes, amusement parks, public parks, churches, and even workplaces. I feel that there is a large potential agenda here for academic research, into a subject that many might not feel even exists. It would relate space and place to questions of identity and loss and to the difficult concept of love, not just for self or other people but for the inanimate.

In September, my wife and I spent Sunday touring historic buildings and structures in Denbigh, as part of a Heritage Open Day. Having photographed numerous buildings and landscapes within the centre, I suggested that we might as well take the opportunity to photograph the North Wales Hospital, which stands in parkland outside the town. This was long popularly known as Denbigh Mental Hospital, and my family had known one or two people who had been “sent to Denbigh”, or “sent to Deva” (the latter near Chester, later renamed)or "sent to Rainhill". Their exact experience inside the walls of these total institutions was never known, but during the 1980s and early 1990s the North Wales Hospital was emptied out, as were many asylums. Its inmates were mostly assigned to “care in the community”, which in some cases meant elderly people with Alzheimers being re-incarcerated in private nursing homes. By 1995 the main buildings were vacant, and acquired at auction by property interests who had never viewed the premises. While proposals continue to be considered, aiming to cherry pick the most profitable parts of the very large site, most of the buildings are now in severely vandalized condition, but still standing, with the future uncertain.

On our visit, the buildings stood in the distance across walled parkland (with iron railings to reinforce the walls), and from that distance they looked reasonably intact, only the boarding up of some windows betraying their disuse. Looking more closely through the front gates, their true condition was much clearer, with almost every window in the front elevations of this Gothic Victorian complex broken. It is a place that, even in decay, makes me shudder, with the thought that people were drugged, and subject to electro-convulsive treatment there – and that in later, more enlightened times, when they were lucky enough to have conditions deemed treatable. Others may well have lived out pointless monotonous lives with no hope and chaotic and unacknowledged feelings, often behind locked doors. At best they were probably treated by management and staff with care and compassion, but at worst mistreated by staff brutalized by endless close contact with people who had fading identities, no rights, no voice and no recourse to complaint. An initial reaction is to shudder, to endorse the reasons for the closure of such asylums (mooted as long ago as 1960, by the late Enoch Powell, then Minister of Health), and to wish such buildings to be removed as surely as the workhouses, as institutions, have been erased from the modern world. Standing outside, I felt a greater respect for the late Ronald D Laing, who at least felt outrage and drew attention to the inhumanity with which those classified as mentally ill were treated in the 1950s and 1960s. Wondering about the fate of many who would qualify for admission if this kind of institution was still running, I commented to my wife that at least such people would be insulated from the attacks and ignorance of those in the “community” outside, that at least the asylum protected them from those who would be disturbed by their behaviour, and might well persecute them. In that sense, and certainly in intention, the asylum provided a “safe house”.

When I returned home I looked online for sites that might feature the hospital at Denbigh, and soon located many photographs taken by “urban explorers” who had made their way inside the buildings. The photographs depicted a very heavy level of vandalism and looting, with leaking roofs leading to vegetation growing inside strewn rooms and corridors. I had scarcely heard of “urban explorers”, but learnt that they have deposited a great deal of interesting material on the internet about abandoned places. Photographs of abandonment can be curious and disturbing, but also display a strange attractiveness, the attractiveness of decay. I began to look at photographs of various other abandoned buildings, many of them hospitals, and especially asylums. I remain surprised at my emotional reaction to these, a creeping and then rapidly growing awareness of loss. I had forgotten that these grim places were also homes, not only for the inmates, but also for staff who lived on site and others who experienced the kind of qualities of “home” that such a workplace can become. The photographs invoked feelings of desecration and violation. Appalling though it might seem to outsiders, the patients’ living rooms, the theatre, the chapel and the grounds were the only home that many inmates knew, and one that they rarely left. Indeed many probably lived there longer than most of us in homes outside, and certainly spent much more of each day there. To see the consequences of fittings torn out, the effects of leaking roofs, smashed windows and arson, among the tattered remains of furniture, effects and decorations, can be as distressing as seeing someone’s home trashed. I had similar responses to the many other abandoned buildings, the lost meanings and sense of outrage at destruction, which became cumulative as I looked at view after view.

I am still considering my reactions to the unexpected consequences of a casual visit to photograph yet another interesting historic structure. The places like Denbigh were like terminally ill people, steadily fading away towards oblivion but still, somehow, still there, showing some sort of continuing meaning, albeit confused and confusing, that challenges the view of them when they were fully functioning and well. One of my preliminary responses has been to ponder the nature of love and loss, its irrationality, its traps, even its retrospective nature, referring to Laing’s phrase about “the lies of love”. “You never know what you’ve got until it’s gone” is as true as the rush of emotion when tributes are paid to someone almost forgotten who is dying or dead. What also seems true is that such feelings, attachments to space, place and objects as well as to people, can change in time; they too can fade or die. It is possible to feel nostalgia for a place we never knew, to wish ourselves able to experience the positive aspects of that space, and to feel bereft when that is no longer possible. Home often seems to be a place you can never return to, and Bachelard’s evocations of loved spaces related to places he had known in childhood, not those experienced in later realities. And, however bizarre it may seem, when we are separated forever from special spaces and places, it is possible to mourn, to endure processes of grieving and to transform that love into positive commemoration rather than overwhelming and unrequited longing.
26-9-06 revised 6-10-06 and 30-10-06, and 5 Nov 2006

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