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Solastalgia

By Bernie Bell

I’m still reading ‘Underland’ by Robert MacFarlane – it’s not the kind of book that you rush through!   Mr. Mac mentions solastalgia, which he describes as “The unhappiness of people whose landscapes are being transformed about them by forces beyond their control”.  The term was coined by  Glenn Albrecht in 2003 to refer to a “form of psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change”, but I prefer Mr. Mac’s description – it’s more ….human.

Solastalgia – so, there’s a word for it. It happens, and has been happening for enough time for someone to take notice and make a word for it.  Though, as Mr. Mac says, it’s been happening, in one way or another, for a long-time.  It’s just that our more recent methods of change and destruction are more efficient and damaging, long term.

I’m going to tell you a story – it’s not exactly about Solastalgia, but is something akin to it.

Where do I begin?  I was born and grew up in Bradford, Yorkshire.  I left to go to Uni in 1974. Returned sometimes to visit. I grew up in the Manningham area, around Lister Park – literally around Lister Park – living by one side of it, then along the bottom of it. To get to the pub I frequented with my friends, I went up, through Heaton, at the top of it, then there was Oak Lane, at the other side of it, with the shop where we bought our lunchtime sandwiches, from school, which was also nearby.

Mike was a student at Bradford Uni. for 3 years, and he and his friends went to a pub on Oak Lane. So, all that area was very familiar territory to both of us.

Fast forward to the year 2000. One of my oldest friends, Mick, was a builder by trade.  He ‘did a Tim Finnegan’ (  https://genius.com/Clancy-brothers-tim-finnegans-wake-lyrics ) – fell off a ladder and broke his skull.

Mike and I headed up from Suffolk, for his funeral, which was at  Nab Wood Crematorium.  We gave ourselves plenty of time, and, remember, we both knew Bradford, and, in particular, the area we’d be travelling through, very well. But, we got lost, hopelessly lost.  It wasn’t that a few buildings had been knocked down, or put up, it was that a whole area had been …..re-arranged. The whole lay-out of the roads – obliterated, and a whole new road system and set of buildings put in its place.

It took us a while to work out that this was what had happened. Once we did so, we thought hard, and decided that if we headed in a fixed direction, rather than going round and round within the puzzle of new roads, we’d be bound to hit on familiar roads again.  Which we did, and got to the funeral, just in time to say ‘goodbye’ to Mick, who I still miss, badly.

My friend was gone, and, as it turned out, a lot of the townscape containing the memories of my early life, lived in that area, had gone, too.  Un-settling, doesn’t cover it.

That was how I felt about it, but – imagine what it was like for the people actually living in that area, as it changed, unrecognizably, around them.

After the funeral, we thought we’d go and sit by the lake in Lister Park, and have a quiet time, before heading home.

And this is where something steps in – where the change, and loss, shifted to the presence of the familiar.

We went to park the car on the street where I used to live, before I left home, and there, outside the house where my family had lived, on the wall, was painted the words ‘NO PAKING’  My Dad had painted that, decades before. The Sixth Form boys from Bradford Boys Grammar School, used to park their cars in front of our house ( rich kids), so Dad would often have no room to park his car.  He spoke with them about it, they took no notice, so he painted the sign on the wall.

The miss-spelling?  Well, have you never written a notice of some kind, and either not left room for all the letters, or missed out a letter, only realising, when it was too late?  Especially if, as in Dad’s case, you were angry!

It had been decades before, and was very faded, but it was still there. And, to me, it was my Dad, a very familiar presence, smelling his smell of working man’s sweat and Woodbines, making his presence felt, through my loss of my friend and my confusion about the loss of the townscape of my youth.

I felt a lot better for that.  We went and sat by the park lake. The park was much the same, smartened up a bit, but much the same.  Thank God, they can’t wipe out a park and Art Gallery, as easily as they replace a whole area of roads and buildings.

We went home, and that was the last time I visited Bradford.  No-one there for me now – friends and family either dead or dispersed. Not the place I grew up in, really.  So it goes.

And when I came to write this, on August 7th, I got out the card for Mick’s funeral, and realised that he passed from this life on August 4th.

Was this some kind of memory synchronicity, connected to my reading of Solastalgia in Mr. Mac’s book?

We are complex creatures, us humans, for good or ill.

drawing by Bernie Bell

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