Alleyways - Boundaries, Belonging & Disappeared Maps
Transitory Bodies // The Physicality of Wheelie Bins
CW: child neglect and death, right at the very end under the Angelou quote. Next week's will be lighter, about allotments and eating the edgelands (hopefully, unless I change my mind again)
During the day, alleyways are for getting somewhere quicker, convenient and sometimes promising shortcuts toward people, places and things - transitory places that we never stop and stand still in. At night they can seem (to me) to close in, become darker - both literally and figuratively. Part of this comes from the 'stranger danger' panic that was particularly prevalent in my 80s childhood and has never dislodged from my psyche since, and part of it from how my body feels within them - how 'close' the edges of them are to my own edges, how sometimes I have the urge to lay down and do a starfish just to see if I can reach the perimeters.
They're very often on the edge of something else: an estate, a row of shops, a churchyard, a park, a school, a petrol garage, a fly-tipping site. I have always used alleyways to give me a sense of place and space and anchor my body, as when I know the warrens of my neighbourhood I feel a stronger sense of belonging; if my body can navigate the undulating pathways with my eyes closed then I have control over my environment simply by knowing it inside out. I also know where to run, if I need to. I moved house a lot as a teenager, and memorising alleyways was how I created a sense of spatial awareness and safety.
In Hemel Hempstead - a post-war 'New Town' (itself a barren edgeland till a bombed-out London needed overspill housing) with a central roundabout system so nightmarish that a popular dare when I was living there was to down a bottle of cider and then leg it across without getting killed or nicked - was a neighbourhood called Grove Hill, in which I was fostered for around a year. It was one of those places where you can literally feel the hodge-podgity of the town planning in how your body absorbs and interprets the environment - it is a clanging feeling, like someone is playing drums too close to your chest and wobbling your head at the same time. Disorienting. Hemel is dual carriageway next to estate, shopping arcades with flyovers and tall office buildings inside and across them, leisure parks next to brownfield sites, messy alleyway and underpass systems connecting it all up, and traveller settlements dotted all around in the grassy gaps. It is a town that sprang up as ungracefully as a broken Transformer toy with parts missing, and because of this, one I loved and explored in awe. I wandered round it in an equally ungraceful, teenage way that matched me with my environment, even though as a fostered kid, I was only transitory within it and never destined to stop there for long.
Business parks, distribution depots and housing estates also spring up in the interface, often around the bypasses and motorway interchanges that it provides. Here they sit cheek-by-jowl with the uses we have expelled to the interface because we consider them unsuited to more polite environments - gypsy encampments, rubbish tips, recycling centres, mental hospitals, sewage works and telecommunications masts.
From Edgelands, by Marion Shoard - in Remaking the Landscape: the Changing Face of Britain
What is a 'physicality of wheelie bins'? What I really mean is the physicality of memories. How a smell or a sight can transport you back physically, your body grinding to a halt and swaying as the memory pulls you in, your breath catching, and your thoughts totally and utterly suspended. Pure silence. You walk through that memory again for a little while, losing track of time, remapping routes through your histories in an old world. One of my chores in the Hemel house was to take the bins out, which of course I did with all the aforementioned grace, and not at all resentfully. Some quarter of a century later in 2022, when I found a photo of a black wheelie bin with the Dacorum Council crest stamped onto it in white, my body stopped remembering to breath for just a few moments.
Something interesting happened when I tried to navigate my old walking routes on Google Maps, though. There was an alleyway down the side of the local Grove Hill shops, but Google Maps just didn't have it. It simply wasn't there, and I couldn’t navigate via Google Earth either. A traumatised mind will always ask, 'am I remembering this right? Did that really happen?' and when the literal, geographical absence of an alleyway on a map materialised in front of me (or, to be accurate, didn't) - I felt that familiar pull towards challenging my own reality and history. Sometimes watching memories back can seem like I'm watching a reel of someone else's life; it is a really disorienting feeling when a memory is threatened by what you think is reality - when a 'computer says no' to a part of your life.
Before I walked away from my desk though, I decided to try a different mapping system - this time I just put my old road name straight into DuckDuckGo, my preferred search engine, which took me to Apple Maps. And there it was, clear as day. For just a moment, my very being, my history, my story, was defined by a corporate mapping app, which I felt mildly resentful and simultaneously overjoyed about. I live in a body that has been brutalised by power structures, a corporal state exploited by corporateness, authorities and controlling, faceless people, and in this context specifically I was both resisting being defined by a map and embracing it, at once.
Ultimately, I felt like if I could prove to myself that the alleyway existed, I could prove to myself that my life happened. That my younger years were not just all a dream or a long hallucination. Apple Maps told me I am real, I exist, and I existed then too, as a different person in a different world.
Walking is mapping with your feet. It helps you piece a city together, connecting up neighbourhoods that might otherwise have remained discrete entities, different planets bound to each other, sustained yet remote. I like seeing how in fact they blend into one another, I like noticing the boundaries between them. Walking helps me feel at home. There’s a small pleasure in seeing how well I’ve come to know the city through my wanderings on foot, crossing through different neighbourhoods of the city, some I used to know quite well, others I may not have seen in a while, like getting reacquainted with someone I once met at a party.
Extract from Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London by Lauren Elkin
Years later I found myself living in the East End somehow, which has now become my home. When you know your city, or your corner of it at least, very well - you start to notice smaller details because the act of finding your way becomes automatic - your body leads from muscle memory, not your mind. This is why when rents go through the roof unchecked, long-term communities cannot form because they're always being priced out of the area, and long-term networks of care cannot form either. When we know an area - when it is in our bodies and under our skin - when we belong somewhere and know our neighbours and don't have to constantly be finding our way, we have more space for effectively noticing and caring for each other. Now when I walk, I look at people instead of street signs or maps.
I was walking down an alleyway next to a museum in Bethnal Green one late evening, when a woman walked past me crying. There is something about alleyways and crying - shadows and vulnerability. I've done it myself: you wait till you're off the main road, less visible, and with less potential eyes on you, before you let it out. I offered her a hug, and as she came into me I said she didn't have to tell me what was wrong and I'd go as soon as we'd hugged (because even with all good intentions I was still a complete stranger in an alleyway), but promised if she just kept breathing it would pass, whatever it was. Really, I made a fragile promise I couldn't definitely keep, as I did not know her life. But weighing that risk up with the potential comfort those words could bring, I decided to say them anyhow. In the whole encounter, which only lasted about eight seconds, we didn't meet eyes once, as she was too curled into herself to raise her face to mine. There was a strip of shadow down the left edge of the alley that the old Victorian lampposts didn't illuminate and as we parted, she stuck to that, because sadness sometimes feels like shame. I have written before about grief while transitory, how moving the body can dislodge pain, and about the ways in which we comfort and show love for strangers.
Love crosses borders and boundaries; it makes new cultural rules; it cares for the stranger. Love turns strangers into friends. Fierce love is rule-breaking, border-crossing, ferocious, and extravagant kindness that increases our tribe.
Alleyways can offer refuge and escape routes, but also cause the fear that leads to the need to escape. And we are often frightened of breaking the rules, crossing lines we’re told we shouldn’t, loving in ways that are not yet mappable or normative.
And it is very funny to me that out of all the things to throw me back into the memoryscapes and dreamscapes of my old landscapes, it was a photograph of a wheelie bin.
I belong wherever I walk, we all do, where we go we belong and there is no private land - that is a fallacy and a fantasy created by men of quills and parchment and ideas of excess power. The land is ours. Alleyways are borders that we cross in defiance of the rigged systems of human movement that are built by those who seek to control.
You only are free when you realise you belong no place — you belong every place.
Finally, a dedication. I have only one other source of proof that my Hemel chapter was real: a drawing my little foster brother did for me one evening when, crippled with fear that came from the trauma of intense neglect, he was scared of me going out for my usual wanderings. So I stayed in that night and we drew instead. We'll call him Tommy, though that was not his real name - when social services deemed his mother fit to receive him back he left our house, only for her to murder him less than four weeks later. He never made the news, and there are thousands like him. I have kept it for almost a quarter of a century, and it has travelled to many different towns with me. This is for all the Tommy’s.