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  • Matthew Warren

No Place

Prizewinning essay, originally published in The St Mary's College Society Newsletter in 2019

‘There’s no place like home.’ It’s a wish for solace in turbulent times. It cries out to be taken away from the disturbing shifting sands of whatever upheaval we are living through and begs for the solid earth of a place of comfort and stability; a place where troubles are left at the door as the familiarity of the smell of home cooking welcomes us over the threshold. It is a plea for sanctuary in a world whose wanton persecutions seem senseless and unjust. It is a place where neither tornadoes, nor wicked witches may harm us; a place which time will not weather nor the revolutions of the world over-run; a place whose inhabitants will neither age nor die. There is no place like it.

Given the importance of our early attachments in fostering healthy and resilient minds, it is little surprise that this idealisation is such a ubiquitous utopia. When life is hard and consists of continuous struggle, who can say they have not wished for the rapids to give way to still waters? This attachment comes with a corresponding bereavement that is brought about by changes to that home. Moving house, family upheaval, or leaving home oneself all trespass on the sanctuary of the ideal, unvarying home. The challenge is how we deal with this loss of home.

Consider our ambitions. Amongst the desires to do well academically, get a good job and make a difference to the world, one also finds the ambition to start a home, and often a family. We dream of a return to our sanctuary, of establishing a place of safety populated by those we love and by whom we are loved constantly. In other words, home is not just that from which the tornado uprooted us, it is what we dream of for the future - it is why we follow the yellow brick road - and it is the mantra “there’s no place like home.”

A curious thing is that there is actually a No Place. Go down to North Road, to the bus station, and climb aboard the number 16 bus to Stanley. From there, just six stops on the number 8 towards Sunderland. Or cycle out through Pity Me to Beamish and then just a few minutes further and you will find five streets of terraced houses. It is only by the sign at the roundabout coming out of Beamish that one would know its name: No Place.

The word “utopia” was coined by Thomas More in his 1516 fictitious description of the fictional society of Utopia. “Utopia” has an ambiguous derivation, played upon by More, translating from the Greek as either “good place” or “no place”. The work illustrates an idea of a good society - wealthy, just and egalitarian - but it is also a fiction, a no place. In literary utopias, characters go on some sort of journey to find Utopia - in Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone, this involves a flight in a chariot pulled by “moon geese”. In each case, we don’t find Utopia coming to us; instead, we have to step towards it, motivated by the desire to find a better way of living. We will never make it, but that’s in the nature of a utopia; it is a no place, an intention, a bearing. It is something to navigate by.

Communities that are often called utopian - those that seek to radically reimagine the organisation of society - are also known as “intentional communities”. Here, the imagining of a utopia can replace the ad hoc development of society through the winds and currents of social and economic forces with an intention to move in a particular direction. It gives the helmsman sight and knowledge of the stars. And yet, utopia is so often a dirty word, seen as synonymous with a naiveté that excludes the values expressed from consideration.

The idealised home, as I've have said, is a prevalent utopia. If things could be just so, and always stay that way, all would be well. That would be a good place. And the utopia of Home is not a bad thing per se; a solid foundation of healthily stable attachments allow us the resilience to cope with a turbulent world. However, when “home” becomes a fetishised vision based on the comfort of a well trodden path, we risk refusing to contemplate change. In a world which is facing threats of unimaginable scale, our concept of home cannot stay in the past; it must look to what it will mean to live in the future in which we will make those homes. As individuals and as a society, we should not simply fall back to the ideal of home that provides the easiest, most visceral reassurance of an eternal sanctuary based on what we have lost; as new challenges come, and as we face up to old injustices, home cannot look the way it did. Instead, we must make our home in a No Place and then put our hearts where that home is.

The threats we face are not so often dangers of malicious action so much as sleep-walking into crisis. It is a lack of intention rather than ill-intention that allows us to pillage the natural world, to drift into climate crisis, to propagate widening inequality, to fall into conflict. In the fight for intention, there is no adversary. Instead we have to find it in ourselves to imagine the good society and pursue it, not allowing ourselves to be perturbed by the accusation of utopianism. If we refuse to make our communities intentional, then we extinguish the utopian guiding star from our thinking and leave ourselves with no bearing.

So let’s leave home. Step out of the front door, and push our imaginations out of the comfort of familiar surroundings. Get your bike, take a bus, harness a moon-goose and we’ll tap our heels together and whisper a wish: “Let’s find a home like No Place”.


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