Tag Archives: place

Where we come from: Place and Colour


‘I know where you are coming from’.

If I hear this is a group therapy context, I’m expecting it to be followed up either by a version of – let me tell you about my own experience – or – but I think you’ve got it wrong here. It’s a statement of solidarity and a permission to disagree at the same time, which could be seen as another version of family: People who know the most about you, who can be on your side and also oppose you.

Our language is awash with geographical metaphors used to convey often complex emotions and interactions. I’m increasingly pondering the “geographical’ in that sentence, having spent years of talking and writing about internal landscapes. I’ve always been focused on the emotional content, but now I’m taking the actual physical terrain more seriously.

I’m wondering about our earliest experiences of place, and the ways in which we attach to/detach from this place. There’s no easy correlation, as in people born by the sea always want to get to the coast, or those whose first years were spent in high rise flats love climbing mountains. But I believe that there are influences; that the impact of place is never erased, however subtle or hidden. Perhaps rather than attach to a location that can be described in terms of contours and features, we resonate with the mood of a place? So how  do we ascribe a mood to a place ?

Colour and light immediately come to mind. Beyond any simplistic associations – cheerful yellows, angry reds, gloomy greys and so forth – colour plays upon, expresses and creates emotion. In a recent tribute to Howard Hodgkin, Colm Toibin writes,

 ‘There was no colour in his work, he emphasised, for its own sake; he was not involved in making decoration. Nor did he allow colour to stand for some generalised set of emotions or experiences. He always thought of himself as a representational painter. The paintings arose from precise occasions, precise emotions, from a memory, something very specific and personal.’ (The Guardian 11.03.17 )

 Colour is for serious artists.  I describe myself as someone who is ‘not good with colour’, but that is a sentence, like the one that precedes it, which is too glib for comfort. I like greys – and blue-greys, green- greys, brown-greys and even yellow-greys. Why?

There are many possible factors, but the one that I am thinking about here is childhood landscapes of the Thames estuary. I remember it as muted, overcast, and yes, mainly grey! I’m not sure if it is a landscape that I am ‘attached’ to, but I do feel that its colours have seeped into me somehow. In my sketches I have periods where I consciously try to use vibrant, noisy colour – but I always either blot it away or just don’t like the end result. Colour and place are entwined. I’m not at home in hot vibrant noisy places any more than I am drawn to hot vibrant colour.

Psychotherapy enables us to go beyond our early programming, but reminds us that certain aspects of ourselves are foundational. I’m thinking that also applies to the way we respond to and use colour. It can connect us to the geography of our lives and that of our preceding generations, and it can introduce us to new ways of appreciating the current places that we and others inhabit. So to challenge the idea that I am forever entranced by greys, here are a few of my latest lino prints. You may know where I’m coming from, but look where I’ve got to!











A sense of place – falling in love with a boatyard

What makes somewhere feel comfortable? Why do we feel at home in certain places, and out of sorts in others? We can fall in love with places just as well as with people, and some of the processes are the same, I think.

I’ve been thinking about this, both as part of the ‘Home’ project that  Jo Roberts and I are working on, and through reading more about psychogeography . But the major impetus comes from a recent encounter with a boat yard. I’m involved, in a small way, with the restoration of a narrowboat, and have spent a few weekends sanding, scraping and sketching near Saul Junction, on the Gloucester and Sharpness canal.

This enormous old engine cheerfully guards the entrance from the car park.

This enormous old engine cheerfully guards the entrance from the car park.

There I am surrounded by boats of all sorts in various stages between construction and disintegration; rows of engines, from shiny to rusted beyond use; planks, cans, tools, ropes, gangways, drums, rags; an amazing jumble of ‘stuff ‘– in ordered piles or collapsing heaps where nettles and oil have reached a stand off. IMG_0018

This is a land of projects, overseen by an enormous crane routinely swinging a boat or an engine overhead. The most visible projects include the ‘pirate café’, rising to daring heights on the base of a river boat, with a life-size pirate at the helm and the ice cream refrigerator leading the way below decks; a former RNLI lifeboat, now being repainted in ‘rescue orange’: the restoration of various elderly narrowboats, motor cruisers, and something that looks to me like a small trawler.


Then there are the less visible – boats shrouded in plastic, mysterious tents under which men disappear for hours, or the business of boatbuilding itself in large industrial sheds.; and all around, the routine maintenance of canal life – hull surveys, jet washing, and blacking boat bottoms . It took me a while to realise that the plastic garden chairs with sawn down legs, spattered in bitumen, were a vital part of the action!

At first sight it appears unruly, unkempt and chaotic, but no – there are men who know what is happening in every corner, who are chatting with owners, assessing damage, planning repairs, organising, advising, bantering. They are the business, these men who know about engines, gearboxes, welding, tools, boats – craftsmen and experts in their trade.

It is another country, but one that I have visited in the past. There are no iPads or laptops, very few mobile phones, no shops, cafes, restaurants, or retail outlets. There is nothing to do but get on with the project, joke about others’, watch the passing traffic on the canal or admire the resident dog as it climbs ladders that it can’t get down. There is a great sense of relief to leave behind 2015 and the world of David Cameron et al.



There is a degree of shouting and swearing, mainly at the apprentice, but it feels ritual rather than aggressive. Most of the time the conversations are about engines, boats, boaters and sport. The swearing might be toned down in deference to the presence of any ‘ladies’, but this too feels familiar – the stuff of my childhood, ‘normal’ and unthreatening, where men held doors open for women who accepted it as their due.

The more I thought about, the more I realised that how much this other country echoed my past. I was fortunate in that the ‘menfolk’ of my childhood were in my eyes protective rather than persecutory or aggressive; the fixers, the craftsmen, the main wage earners,the respectable working class. It was only later that another, less benign side of all this became clear. I suspect another side would probably emerge in the boatyard too, if I spent more than a brief time there! But for now I love it!

I’ve written before about ‘resonance’ in our relationships – that very complex process whereby we recognise, or think we do, unspoken affinities or aversions; a map, only partly conscious, that guides our choices of who we stand next to at a function, who we avoid on the bus, who we want to spend time with, or who we fall in love with. The map is constructed through time from the experiences and materials of our personal and physical environments; we recognise familiar scenes and scents in some deep recess of our being way before we come to understand our responses.

Just as there is always more to discover in our relationships to people, our reactions to places can teach us a thing or two as well!