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Places that tell stories

‘You see, there is something called the spirit of a place.’ Peter Ackroyd.

A photo of the abandoned factory. I think I see a man's face, watching us from a broken window. Looking closer, he's reflected the wing mirror of the rusting bus, bearded, scowling, becoming uncanny. I have the sense that I could rationalise him into light and shade. But, weeks after I refused to enter the place, I'm still freaked out by it, by the sense that only bad stuff happens there.

I hold Peter Ackroyd partly responsible. His novels* convinced me, when I hadn’t been around much, that certain streets or parishes have a character, the fundamentals of which go unchanged through the centuries, be they painted over or rebuilt upon. If an area is murderous, or magical, or celestially influenced, it remains so. The cast of a place affects people, they're more likely to behave in sympathy with it, their sympathetic endeavours are more likely to succeed.

This idea of fate-shaping place is strong in folklore and fairy tales, in their haunted castles, accursed moors and unlucky forests. They tell us that the history of a place describes its inhabitant's present and probable future.

Already fascinated by this idea, I started travelling around a bit more, and of course found loads of evidence for it. I practiced place diagnosis, using the obviously reliable instruments of my instincts and imagination. The results inevitably felt accurate.

Like people, it is the places with the strongest personalities, admirable qualities, or notable quirks, that make the biggest impression. My sense of these big characters is utterly personal.

I love old Brighton, but deep down she’s a gal of low ambitions and fluid morality, perfumed but with questionable personal hygiene, who makes splendid promises but whose greatest pleasure is to draw you into dissolution, drag you down to her level.

Wasdale, in the Western Fells, looks majestic, but he’s profoundly introverted, an angry aesthetic, who despises company. He is indifferent about how you leave; your deaths, if the quickest option, could happen easily between cliffs and scree. There are bodies in the depths of Wastwater that have never been found.

The abandoned cement factory is a pocked predator, a sado-voyeuristic host to risk-takers, thrill seekers and their meetings with the too-curious. If it can, this place will hurt you.

Because such strong impressions are so very personal, they pack a powerful creative punch. These places, being characters, suggest possibilities, dilemmas and problems. They start stories. I ask myself who might end up here, whether or not they belong, how they arrived, what they know and feel and believe about this place, and how this affects what they want and what they do next. And then I ask myself what the place will do next. Places with personalities are not just backdrops for somebody else's story. They can influence a protagonist's will or mood, they might tempt, exhaust or obstruct her. They misbehave.

And so I wonder whose reflection it is in the photograph, who watched me and Mr G without being seen. I wonder what he might have done if I hadn't chickened out, and we'd gone into the factory.

Thanks to the intrepid Tony Gaitskell for the pic.

*favourite Peter Ackroyd novels:


The House of Doctor Dee

Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem

The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde

First Light

The Plato Papers

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