By Mindy Lim
A new narrative
“The very thought of you
And I forget to do
The little ordinary things
That everyone ought to do.”
It was just another Wednesday night when I felt hungry and had to walk to the convenience store. London seemed rather quiet that night. I put on my earphones and began to retreat into my own private space. As soon as I hit the ‘play’ button, the smoky vocal of Nat King Cole took effect. Without being completely isolated from my surroundings, I began to embark on a journey beyond the physical world. It was then that an ephemeral cinematic experience began to elevate.
I dare say that many, if not most of us often find ourselves in a similar position. In solitary moments like this, we emerge as the protagonists. Our playlist become our soundtracks. The storyline revolves around us, and nothing goes wrong in the picture. Our imagination is so intricate that only we could comprehend it.
This was the time when music filled the void of my world; something that the surrounding sounds could not provide.
As if the world fast-forwarded itself, I was instantly shifted back to reality. I made my way home. From a distance, I was able to discern a wooded fence. Climbing its way over the surface of the fence is a particular type of climbing plant. It was as if the plant is embracing the man-made obstacle as a friend. From another point of view, it could have been fighting for survival. Either way, it occurred to me how fascinating it is that nature could co-exist with man-made structures, after all that was taken away from it in the name of progress and development.
Growing up in the suburbs of Ipoh in Malaysia, I was fortunate enough to live in a developed town with an abundance of nature. I have never failed to see rain trees lining up the streets and limestone hills adorning the land from a distance. At eighteen, I left home to further my education at the capital city of Kuala Lumpur. Like any other teenagers, I experienced an overwhelming wave of culture shock. There they were; the magnificent skyscrapers and man-made luxuries under quirky, sophisticated brand names. It did not take me long to enter the black hole of the metropolis. I began to seek monetary gratification more than I ever did before. My senses were exhausted by mediated stimuli, and I began to feel indifferent or blasé, as Georg Simmel calls it. It suddenly dawned on me that I have always taken my hometown for granted. My visits back home became more frequent than ever. I supposed that was how I kept myself rooted to sanity.
In 2012, I arrived in London; once again braving the perils of a huge city. The city was equally overwhelming as the previous one. Unfortunately, this time, home was beyond my reach. There were no familiar places for me to escape the city. It was then that I decided to search for a suburb that mirrors my hometown. It may not be entirely similar, but it was worth finding out.
A slower pace
Bus 113 towards Edgware.
I didn’t know exactly where I was heading, but I figured the final destination of this bus route should be a good place to start. However, my journey on the bus was less than pleasant. It was difficult to take in my surroundings when every sighting was interrupted by the vehicle’s motion. After two interchanges, I came upon a rather quiet neighbourhood. I had a feeling that this was my starting point. And I was glad that I could finally move on a comfortable pace. I walked away from the bus stop and saw a street sign:
With a smart phone in my hand, I found out that I was in Borehamwood, a town located in southern Hertfordshire. To be frank, I was quite impressed that I managed to veer off course by sheer coincidence. I looked around, and there weren’t any high-street retail shops, at least not within my vicinity. There were hardly any billboards that scream ‘YOU KNOW YOU WANT TO BUY THIS’ at my face. The best part was that everyone was walking in a moderately slow pace. If I were to walk at this speed in London, five pedestrians would probably overtake me, as if I am a living obstacle. They could be silently judging me with the notion that I have no life to be walking this slowly. Sometimes, it is stressful to walk in the city, especially London. Nobody gives you a chance to slow down. You just have to walk fast for no reason, even if you are not rushing to anywhere. Although this may not be true, but I would like to think that London pedestrians often treat walking speed as a measurement for urgency. It is nothing to me but an unwritten rule.
As I walked, I thought about the climbing plant on the wooded fence again; man and nature, past and future. There was something about Borehamwood that resembled home; developed residences, light traffic and an abundance of nature. Along the way, there was a house; made of red bricks that have been aged by weather, with thick green vines blanketing its bare wall. It looked a little deliberate. Well, it was deliberate. But I would like to think that it started off unintentionally and was left that way. And that worked out pretty well. House by house I passed by, and this journey began to open doors to more findings like this. There were trimmed hedges acting as natural fences. Plants seemed to grow so naturally to fill in the gaps formed by man-made structures. It was hard to not notice how inseparable man and nature are. Perhaps, the only way to contemplate their existence is to embrace the way they complement each other.
Becoming one another
I discerned a path among a row of consistently planted trees that led towards a residential area. However, the path was neither of stone nor cement. I imagined it to be a result of being frequented by people who live there. There was a noticeable gap between the trees and grass, making it ever more distinguishable as a path created instead of built. This is an example of the potential of nature turning into something that man can make, and vice versa. There was no denying to what I had just assumed. As I walked past a hair salon nearby, I noticed that its entrance was adorned with two fake spherical plants. As we know, we often find replicated nature-like objects in many places, be it plants or animals. We see them in shopping malls, corporate buildings and even at the doorsteps of domestic households. That little path and those well-trimmed hedges demonstrated the capability of nature in serving the same purpose as man-made creations. This tells me that man and nature do not only complement each other, but they also overlap.
I came to a street named Elmwood Avenue. In the middle of the road was a white large circle surrounded by three arrows. We all recognised this as a roundabout. It is inanimate, yet it has the power to impose a certain kind of traffic rule. Despite all that, how many people do we know who truly acknowledge it? I would say close to zero. Of course, there is no doubt that we do what the roundabout says, but other than that it seems like it doesn’t mean anything to us. As far as I am concerned, a roundabout is only a transit point. It is what anthropologist Marc Augé called a non-place. A non-place is nothing more than “a place with no history, relations or identity.” It is simply a transit point that we often inhabit in oblivion.
There was a small park near where the roundabout is. It has a rusty bench with traces of grey paint and a garbage bin that looked as worn out as the bench. The grass growing on it was unkempt. It wasn’t as welcoming as parks are supposed to be. A young man whom I assumed was walking home from the supermarket, stopped at the park and placed his heavy groceries on the bench. Then, he lit up a cigarette and sat beside the bulky plastic bags, inhaling and exhaling in an inconsistent rhythm. A place like this, which was initially designed for leisure, had become so neutral. To that young man, it was merely a place of transgression, a rest stop before he resumed his journey back home.
But it was not fair for me to negate a place like that. In fact, my conclusions were rather generic. If we think carefully, there are many places we can casually categorise as non-places, but they may not appear so to others. It occurred to me when I saw a brightly-coloured barricade surrounding a hole, right in front of a row of houses at Oakwood Avenue. The sign read ‘Morrison Utility Services’. To most of us, this space is just something that we catch a glimpse of and move on. We get the message, but no emotions or thoughts could possibly be evoked. But do they appear that way to everyone, or only to those who do not have personal experiences with it? Have we considered what it could have meant to the families who reside here or the workers who were assigned to fix it? Surely it must affect them, no?
My question about non-place is; will its presence forever remain as hollow as their current state? Or could it be that there is never a definite non-place to begin with; that every place at least means something to somebody?
The time capsule
It has been almost 2 hours since my arrival at this neighbourhood. I was about to end this rather eventful trip when I stumbled upon a small shop tucked away at the corner. There was nothing attractive about the exterior; instead I was intrigued by its name which was displayed subtly at the door:
Elstree and Boreham Wood Museum.
A man about his 50’s came to greet me. I regretted not knowing his name but let’s just call him Mr. T. Two of his colleagues who were inside the office turned towards me and gave me the warmest smile.
“So what brings you here?” asked Mr. T.
“I suppose by chance.” I answered.
He began with a large aerial map of the town and explained a few key details to me. He pointed to me where the famous Borehamwood Studios is, which is also known as the Hollywood of England. He was soft-spoken, but I could tell that he was pleased to have visitors.
“Look, Angie! Our fourth visitor today.” he said to his colleague.
He gestured me to look at the rest of the little museum by myself. There were files neatly arranged on top of display cases, which consisted of photographs depicting notable individuals of the town. In the middle of the room is a display case with mini replicas of local buses depicting the number ‘411’. Oddly, this brief visit felt rather nostalgic. I know this is cliché, since that is sort of what museums do to people. But the thing is I have zero knowledge about Borehamwood. Perhaps it was because of how modest this museum was. The room was filled with not only history, but also the characters of the people who own this place. The age of the staff made me think that they must have been around long enough to dedicate themselves in preserving the presumably dying history of this town. I couldn’t have framed this thought better than Mumford himself:
“Layer upon layer, past times preserve themselves in the city until life itself is finally threatened with suffocation: then in sheer defense, modern man invents the museum.”
I signed the guestbook and bid farewell to Mr. T and his colleagues.
Back to square one
I realised that my journey is all over the place, although I must say it turned out more enriching than I expected. The thing is I wasn’t trying to achieve some out-of-the-world epiphanies. It would be great, no doubt. It’s just that I could not wish for a more humble place to search for the overlooked. Sure, we hardly take our time to take in the wonders of the city. But we must understand that with so much going on, it is not surprising at all that we care so little. To know that even small towns like Borehamwood were being overlooked, shows that the city is not the only place that we often take for granted. If I was able to find wonders in a place that I barely knew, I wonder if there would be greater breakthroughs for me if I were to visit a familiar place.
Undeniably this could be my life’s finest paradox.
I left home in pursuit of opportunity,
and I might just end up finding it at my point of origin.