by JJ Marsh
When someone dies, we often comfort ourselves with the thought they will live on in our memories. Can we do the same with a building? Or is an assemblage of brick, wood, doorways and windows nothing more than the experience of people who fill it?
Displacement is on my mind.
My childhood home was—I must now use the past tense—a small Welsh pub called The Drum and Monkey. The name comes from the quarry above. The gunpowder was packed into a drum and the hapless lad who lit the fuse was the powder monkey, so legend goes. Built on top of a network of caves, clinging onto the side of a valley, this higgledy-piggledy set of rooms with low ceilings, crooked doorways and open fires was the heart of village life and my family home.
This week it was demolished as part of a road-widening scheme. We all knew it would happen. We could only sigh and share memories of that ramshackle hotch-potch of four-hundred year old walls. Recollections rippled outwards from my family to friends, staff and regulars. Yet none of us was prepared for that sucker punch to the gut on seeing an aerial shot of the rubble. The Drunken Monkey, an apt mishearing by my sister, was no more.
Sadness moved closer to my current home when I learnt the fate of Zürich’s English Bookshop. (See Susan Platt’s wonderful love letter to the place here.) Bookshops are magical buildings, where every shelf contains a hundred doorways. As a new, lonely arrival in 2004, an English bookshop was a sanctuary. Not to mention a hub for literary activities, cultural events and well-read people. I met many of my friends, allies and fellow authors on that famous blue carpet. When the bookshop closes, the building may remain but its soul will depart. I can only hope the team and their passion for books will find a new wolf-cave elsewhere. Their loyal pack will follow.
Books drew my attention to a further-flung place in the news this month. JD Smith, whose historical novels detail the life of Queen Zenobia in 3rd century Syria, sets her work around the city of Palmyra. After the Islamic State took over this UNESCO World Heritage Centre, concerns rose over the fate of its incredible ancient edifices and artefacts. Today, footage shows the temple of Baal Shamin blown up and reduced to rubble. Yet another atrocity and a grievous loss for the Syrian people and the world’s history.
Grief has different hues. Mourning those you loved can leach all colour and drape your world in black. While nostalgia for a period of time is sepia or monochrome, occasionally rose-tinted. Revulsion at terrorist murders or cultural destruction is tinted by the colour of fear.
The loss of a building is an absence, like an empty picture frame. It quite simply disappears, to be replaced by nothing. No magic, no history, no culture, no communal spirit, no charm, no life.
It is up to us who shared those times and those stories to fill the canvas with rainbows and fireworks. We must cherish and celebrate the places and spaces that house our memories. A building is so much more than glass, concrete and stone.
Thank you to David Byrne
Images courtesy of Creative Commons