This train is ready to depart. Please stand back from the closing doors – mind the doors. It’s as well to take heed, because on Central Line trains the doors arch inwards from shoulder height, and if you don’t duck you risk a dizzying blow to the head.
I am setting off from east London, where I live and work, to the home of ‘The Imagination Acts’ in Ascot. As I wait on a crowded platform I will hear the ‘Mind the doors’ announcement at least five or six times, because so many packed trains will have to depart before there is any chance at all of forcing myself into a carriage, shoving, squeezing, and being careful not to touch anyone in a way they might misconstrue, before we all plunge into the tunnel towards Bethnal Green, Liverpool Street and beyond. If livestock were subjected to these conditions there would be an outcry. For humans, apparently, it’s not such a problem.
The experience is a reminder that in London and many other places, space is a scarce and valuable commodity. The literal truth of this is of course reflected in grotesque property prices, talked about endlessly in both private and public conversations, but here I am thinking about space in a different sense, and in particular, its relationship with place.
Space and place: what is the difference? More precisely, what makes somewhere a place rather than just a space? Many answers are possible, but in his recent book ‘Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City’, the planner-scholar Richard Sennett makes the distinction neatly: ‘You move through a space,’ he says, ‘and you dwell in a place’.
The tube train hurtling towards the next station is an image of lives lived on the move, with an eye on the future rather than the present. There is nothing wrong with that, because intention, hope, anticipation, aspiration, planning are all important as we make our way in the world. Also necessary, though, is the occasional resting place where we can pause to take stock, assess where we have got to on the journey, and answer (or at least, recognise) our own questions. Walking in the woods it feels right sometimes to stop, perch on a fallen tree and survey the scene. The circle from which The Circle Works takes its name is that kind of place. In the past it was a circle of children in the classroom: nowadays, of adults. Either way, it’s a ‘place’ where people can pause to reflect together on their experiences. It holds us while we come to know our own minds.
‘Darren’ illustrates the point. Darren was the kind of child who these days would attract a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). As my school counsellor colleague Jeannette Weaver wrote at the time, ‘Darren is seven, and always running’. It was noticeable, though, that when his class gathered in a circle he did manage to stay still and take part, albeit with Jeannette sitting firmly beside him.
In subsequent one-to-one sessions, even months after the circle had ended, Jeannette was struck by how accurately and clearly this usually chaotic child could still act out the games and rituals of the circle, which seemed to have provided him with a mental anchor. Jeannette wrote, ‘The circle made it possible for Darren to take risks. He could be confronted there – which he was, on numerous occasions – and still feel safe. The form of the circle was very important to Darren. It helped him to know who he was in relation to a wider community. When we performed introductions round the circle, he would be able to say, ‘This is Mahroon, I’m Darren, this is Ting Ting’: he would know who was on his left, and who was on his right. He belonged. The circle was a place from which to go out into the world, and a place to go back to: a home, a point of reference.’
The journey that began with the struggle through a crowd of train passengers ends in peace and beauty. Anne and David Yarwood’s generosity in opening the doors of their Ascot home makes it possible for me and many others to cease hurtling towards the future and, find space to be ‘present to the present’ and focus our thoughts: it is no surprise that the meaning of focus in Latin is ‘hearth’. Here, the arrival, the greeting, the welcome, the hospitality – and later, as we go our separate ways, the goodbyes, benedictions, departures – are all markers of a ‘place’. As I begin the journey back to London I know that I have been changed, in ways I may never understand, by dwelling for a while in ‘a place from which to go out into the world, and a place to go back to’.