Liminality, character and identity in 2020

Blackpool prom tide out

For the past year, I have been chipping away at a novel I am writing, and after a while of dissecting my subject I realised one of the major themes I wanted to explore is liminal spaces. A subject which seems as relevant for discussion now as ever.

“A liminal space is the time between the ‘what was’ and the ‘next.’ It is a place of transition, a season of waiting, and not knowing. Liminal space is where all transformation takes place, if we learn to wait and let it form us.” (1)

Liminality crops up a lot in critical theory because so many artists are obsessed with those gaps between definitions. It can be a source of immense creativity; think androgyny, fluid boundaries of sexuality, time, space and the carnivalesque. It is the intersection of tradition; the space where expression is free, if we let it be. As such, it’s a great place to play.

The liminal space I explore in my story is the town I grew up in: Blackpool. To me, our seaside town is the ultimate liminal space. Before the pandemic, it was a town of stag and hen dos; the place which not so long ago had the highest teenage pregnancy rate; a town of rich entertainment history which has largely been forgotten as those generations become muted.

Before that, it was a resort hugely popular for working class holidays during Lancashire Wakes Weeks. And prior to that it was the place where Victorians came to take in the sea air. But it was something before that too and before that and before that. However, we have scant history to work from because its identity really came to the fore thanks to the industrial revolution and rise of the railways.

I have heard Blackpool discussed in so many guises, but they are all so extreme: faded grandeur, ailing seaside resort, area of deprivation. These are terms the locals are all too familiar with. To the point that they don’t just become identifiers of the place; they become by extension part of your identity too. But the problem with all this layering of labels, especially during the past forty years since the town’s decline has been especially marked, is that no one on the inside is sure what its identity is.

You could say, it occupies a liminal space.

This becomes more self-explanatory when you understand its unusual context.

In my opinion, even the most obvious icons of Blackpool’s culture continually occupy a liminal space. Fairground rides that suspend you in the air. Entertainment that traverses the fine line between tragedy and comedy. Clowns that wear two faces. Fortune tellers who stand between the present and the future. Piers stretching out into the sea that are onshore yet off. Rocks that lie in the littoral zone purporting to be of a lost town or civilisation.

We are also the place that caters to political party conferences one week and the world’s largest magic convention the next. The place where pigeon fanciers and punks convene. We have always attracted the people on the fringes, the transient population, and I think that is because we are both a physical extremity (out on a limb at the end of the M55) and a place of mythical status. We can be whatever you want us to be, all things to all people. Our identity is fluid.

Elements of this used to bother me. I didn’t understand where the council’s plans for regeneration fit with the history I knew and the way I experienced the town for myself. But now I think I’m starting to understand. I suppose I was worried that throwing up the kinds of glass and aluminium structures you find in any town or city would rob us of our ‘identity’. That it would change us by overwriting some previous definition of ourselves. But I see it’s probably not even possible, for better or worse, because Blackpool is the archetypal liminal space. The more it evolves, the more its identity becomes muddled, which is probably what makes it a place of richness. Let’s not forget the most interesting identities are the ones which defy definition.I think that’s why we find it such a magical place too. Many people from all walks stored their dreams here, even if they didn’t always deliver.

In my story, the physical liminal space I am seeking to step into isn’t just the town itself, it is, more specifically, the geographical littoral zone between the highest water mark and the furthest reaches of the tide. The place where two groups of rocks are situated: Pennystone Rock and Carlin Rock.

But as with any hero’s journey, the liminal space for novelists and readers also exists within the self; that which was previously unknown, unseen or unacknowledged about the protagonist’s character is drawn out through the story’s developments. In actual fact, novel writing or any kind of story occupies a liminal space in itself: the uncomfortable in-between stage before what author and readers will know can be known.

This past year has been crucially interesting because Blackpool will have to redefine itself once again. But beyond that, leaping from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic, you could say 2020 itself is the archetypal liminal space:

“During liminal periods of all kinds, social hierarchies may be reversed or temporarily dissolved, continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt. The dissolution of order during liminality creates a fluid, malleable situation that enables new institutions and customs to become established.” (2)

We have seen those members of society who were once operating at the fringes – undervalued – become the key workers upon whom we depend. Delivery personnel, care givers (largely women), supermarket workers… By inversion (a classic trope of the liminal space), those we once placed more highly as a society became redundant overnight. Personalities, celebrities, the higher classes. They have had to reinvent themselves to survive in this the ultimate year of liminality: 2020.

No doubt we have all also undergone our own hero’s journeys over the past year, perhaps triggered by this momentous event on a global scale. I know I have. However, my journey into the unknown began in Autumn 2019, before anyone knew about the pandemic. But even at that point I knew I was standing at the edge of a threshold. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I knew my scenery, while being exactly the same, had shifted. I believe we know when we are on the edge of the precipice even if we can’t see it. We can feel the updraft of the gulf of change beneath our feet.

Of course, the liminal space is supposed to be uncomfortable. That’s because it is a waiting, a transition that will ultimately leave you changed. But perhaps we can also find liminal spaces sources of relief. It’s during periods in my life such as these that I look to learn more about the inherent disorder of life, and increasingly quantum physics, whose beautiful chaos is a revitalising example of the liminality of something we often view as unchangeable and fixed: science. The potential for alternate realities, of something being and not being at the same time, grants, I suppose, a sweetness that nothing can ever be known with any kind of certainty:

“Like Quantum Mechanics, liminal reality is also characterized by ‘spooky action’ that defies rationality. And yet, somewhere deep in the mysterious code of it all, the chaotic seeds of what comes next are present and operating.” (3)

Sources:

(1) https://inaliminalspace.org/about-us/what-is-a-liminal-space/

(2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liminality

(3) https://theliminalityproject.org/2019/11/07/liminality-and-heisenbergs-uncertainty-principle-nick-childers/

Between authorship and readership: the British Library’s Harry Potter exhibition

It’s fair to say the Harry Potter books were something of a success. And what greater honour to be attributed them than to be the subject of an exhibition at the British Library – next door to the inspiration for Platform 9 ¾, and within one mile of the publishing house that finally gave one JK Rowling a shot. When you think about it, it all seems the natural conclusion to a most spectacular story.

Despite it being two decades since Potter first made waves, wandering (or rather crawling, as is the pace set by the hordes of visitors) round the exhibition brings the magic to life once again, more than ten years after the publication of the final instalment.

What made it all the more real for me was that the exhibition seemed not just an indulgence of the series’ many fans but a more holistic exploration of the book’s origins and evolution. Some of the most illuminating aspects were how this exhibition exposed not just the writer’s process but the book’s assumption to a station wholly distinct from reader and author’s influence.

Greeting the visitors on arrival is the typed synopsis – a piece in which the vacancy of expectation is palpable. It is pared back and somewhat mundane, and brings home that feeling of a writer’s worst nightmare – having to translate into cold, hard seriffed characters the work of five years’ worth of dreaming, slog and ‘snatched’ hours, as Rowling later tells it.

Any writer who has ever pursued a book deal knows the agony of writing a synopsis – the condensed, marketable form of the very thing you’ve spent years crafting just as it is. For a writer, the aim is to make a novel good enough to sell itself. Still, for the time-poor publisher that handy introduction is a necessary evil. And you can feel a kind of absence – or naivety – in Rowling’s.

The synopsis is one of the most telling pieces from the collection for me and it beautifully bookends the exhibit along with one of the very last pieces on display – the annotated first edition of the Philosopher’s Stone which was auctioned off for charity.

On the very first page of this edition, Rowling makes it clear that, try as she might, she will never be able to explain the real magic that came about in the penning of this novel. It’s a neat way of closing the exhibition and speaks volumes about the writing process. That no matter how momentous a book, no matter how many readers’ lives it touches, a part of it remains always with the author.

In her biro’d notes she writes that for all the memories she can insert in between the lines, the act is in the end futile because the story of the book’s creation is actually written into every page, yet legible only to her. This solitary piece of possession, or retention, is perhaps important for her to assert when it comes to a book that has been subject to so many adaptations, imaginings, illustrations and interpretations. The truly bewitching thing about memory and writing, after all, is that it reveals itself in different guises over and over. With every turn of the page no doubt a new recollection is uncovered.

Curiously, on the morning of my visit to the exhibition, an interesting discussion was taking place on Radio 4’s Start the Week as I gathered my belongings in the basement of the King’s Cross Travelodge. As the show’s guests delved into the nuances of the brain and personality, they spoke about how the process of recollection is really only a recall of the last time we remembered that specific event. And that with each visit to the memory vaults we shape our recollections once more before filing them away again. Memories are also considered to have a stronger, longer lasting impact when they’re first lived as emotional experiences.

No doubt the upheaval of plotting and writing a series as big as Harry Potter culminated in many emotional memories for Rowling, not least as she battled through 12 rejection slips, living in penury, raising a young family and the death of her mother. But by this token, even the history of its writing, those indelible memories etched into the page and visible only to her, are changeable shapeshifters. At the end of the day, the only thing which endures is that set out in black ink on recycled wood pulp.

After I first read a Harry Potter book I was enchanted, like most. But I was never one of the most ardent fans. I found it enjoyable, more so as the series gathered in intensity, and it proved to be a communal point of interest amongst friends.

Journeying through the exhibition, however, I appreciated the books so much more. The richness of Rowling’s reservoir of inspiration was awe-inspiring, and it taught me far more about magic in the wider context of literature and culture, not to mention the depth of research she put into the books, than I could have known before.

The inclusion of a few original MS attempts that dead-ended (such as the alternative beginning and many cut scenes) only served to magnify how distanced the reader will always be from the author’s process. In terms of understanding the process of story concept to magnum opus, it’s the equivalent of shining a laser beam on the Sistine Chapel.

And, then again, vice versa.

As the annotations on the first page of that private lender’s copy show, the author doesn’t hold all the cards and, for most writers, it is mere fluke knowing what will or won’t strike a chord with the readership. As Rowling points out, most people tell her they didn’t like the first chapter, and that they had to persevere with it to get to the real meat of the story. It turns out, even the things we most want to share can be the hardest hurdles to clear. But it isn’t impossible. It’s difficult to remember whether I was in that boat when I first cracked the spine on the Philosopher’s Stone way back in the late 90s. But then again, I was reluctant to enjoy the books at all and eventually read them just to quiet a friend. But, somehow, something magical happened…

War of words: what The Reformation taught us about language

War of words what The Reformation taught us about language - Wendy Woodhead copywriter

Those of us who work with words for a living often overlook the battering this tool has taken through the ages. The way it has been honed and crafted by the upheavals of man. All for us to use as a handy medium for selling whatever it is we have to trade on: information, stories, ideology, dreams…

This weekend I decided to retrace the footsteps of my postgraduate study in late medieval literature. Back in 2012, I had finally saved enough to take a year out and study at Manchester for the pure enjoyment of it. My area of interest was religious texts, specifically personal books of devotion and manuals for living and dying by which had come to take on huge import.

So, with the John Rylands Library still practically on my doorstep, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to see their current display on The Reformation.

For anyone in the vicinity of Manchester, there’s still chance to catch this modest exhibit which runs until 4 March. It takes you through some defining texts of a moment in history that was shaped by the written word. After German monk Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses against Catholic indulgences on the door of the Wittenberg Castle church, nothing would be the same.

A literature and not a linguistic student at heart, what I loved studying during my masters was the relationship between the incorporeal construct of language and its physical, corporeal entity. Both on the level of transmuting God’s word into a written text, but also the doctrine that the Word of God was made flesh in the body of Christ.

By extension, it seemed to me that there was an acceptable and unacceptable way that language should be used in the middle ages, especially when it came to communicating scripture. The written word and, moreover, the act of writing straddled the boundary between piety and sin.

However, as any writer, marketer, journalist and politician know, one of the biggest problems with language is that it is unfixed, changeable, open to interpretation. So to try to impose a correct and incorrect way to use it is clearly going to be fraught with tension.

Today, we’ve grown quite used to the fact that language is there to be moulded – that it is a way of assessing the cultural and political changes happening around us daily. We forgive Presidents their covfefes, while text-speak long ago normalised abbreviations.

Emojis? They go one step further. In fact, even Luther acknowledged the use of images to say more than words. He recommended illustrations be used alongside biblical passages, adding yet another layer of interpretation, easily understood across literacy and language barriers.

You see, back in the middle ages, a standardised Queen’s English as we think of it today didn’t exist. The bible was in Latin and had undergone various translations, a process which had, it came to be considered, introduced various errors. Few laypersons except the aristocracy and scholars understood Latin, and as such the priest’s role was an intermediary between the layperson and God. This meant that the system was open to abuse – which Luther railed against in his initial attack on indulgences.

Indulgences, such as the one included in the exhibition, were a type of written pardon for the sins of one still living or believed to be trapped in purgatory. Priests sold these documents of salvation for a pretty penny. Hence, Luther’s distrust. He believed this was a corruption of the Catholic faith for extortion – that no one can intercede on behalf of another, certainly not in exchange for money, and that the only contract worth valuing is that between individual and God. For which in our secular, modern world we could read as the relationship our readers establish first-hand with our words.

As a consequence, Luther believed heads of state should be head of their country’s faith, which is where Henry VIII comes in. Though he initially decried the idea of translating the bible into a common language, he did like the idea of being above the law of Rome. Although many had to die first, including William Tyndale who is credited with first translating the bible into early modern English, Henry eventually authorised The Great Bible, published in 1539. A copy was placed in every church.

Today, we take for granted how being able to read something for ourselves is a massive leap towards independence. And it’s little wonder that this marked a major shift in literature towards an emphasis on what is known as the empirical self, or the subjective narrator.

However, it’s a political gamble too. Can anyone deny the power of words? This reminds me of that Arthur Scargill quote, “My father still reads the dictionary every day. He says your life depends on your power to master words.”

In short: knowledge is power (not such a coincidence that this humanist sentiment is attributed to the Renaissance statesman Francis Bacon).

What happens when you allow for the possibility that there is more than one truth or interpretation is that power is gradually stripped from those who hitherto held it. Thus, conflict inevitably ensues.

Who hasn’t experienced that moment when your intended meaning is misconstrued, whether through a lapse in body language, or a neglected comma in a piece of prose. When you lose some control over your authorship. It’s not uncommon for politicians or even marketers to use the ‘wrong’ choice of words and later be punished by their audience for it.

While nowadays the words we use are less likely to cause civil division as in the early 16th century, its more pressing concern is what it leads to in its immediacy – such as a lost customer or less invested reader – and on a personal level, what it reveals about us. After all, language is one of the most defining tools of humankind, and over the years we have sought to use it to express ourselves in one form or another. And it is considered to subconsciously unveil our own unspoken or unrealised beliefs too.

When we write, we often forget that language is not only borne of personal ideology, it is also subject to it. We cannot control what happens when we unleash our words into the world. The Reformation exhibition at the Rylands is an artful case in point.

Prefaced with a letter from Luther to a friend in Germany, he confides his personal struggles with a bout of depression, which almost led him to despair. And bookending the close of the exhibition sits the tome of The Great Bible – a literal manifestation of Luther’s revolutionary ideology made flesh. The Word of God piecing itself back together after having torn itself apart.

At any one time, the impact of our words can range from weak and unconvincing to persuasive and destructive. But language as a whole is also regenerative, and as resilient as we who constructed it.