People experience the same place in dramatically different ways. And how they document their experience also varies.[1]

Expressive and explorative writing is really a process of deep listening, attending to some of the many aspects of the self habitually blanketed during waking lives.[2]

For me, writing is all about boundaries: about experiencing the points at which time, space and perception shift, erasing and reconfiguring themselves even as they are recorded. It is about that permeable but distinct boundary between bodily experience and cerebral response, memory and presence, layered selves. This is, perhaps, not a particularly profound realisation, but it is one that has become clear through process and practice, rather than any awareness of pre-conceived intention. I can trace, over the past twenty years, a broad tendency within my writing that has moved from restless physical movement, through more psychologically resonant conceptions of the journey, to the exploration of psychological and temporal shift within the still moment. The process crystallised with the passing of my mother in November 2015, following which I found myself spending three weeks alone in the house in which I was born, and in which I lived for the first 21 years of my life, sorting possessions accumulated by three generations as I cleared the house – bought for £1,725 in 1955 – before its sale. In the process, as well as compulsively filling pages in my ever-present notebook, I took photographs of details that had survived unchanged since my childhood: a door handle, a patch of linoleum on the floor of a built-in cupboard, my initials in a cement path, and so on. Some of these I posted, along with memories relating to them, on Facebook, and I was amazed at the number of people who were touched by these very personal vignettes which had no particular intrinsic value. Some friends of a similar age who had recently gone through bereavement and its material accompaniments responded on a deeply emotional level, but there were many for whom the trivial minutiae of about half a century ago provoked a quite different relay of associations and memory. In one of the discussions that these posts prompted, I described what I was doing with these fragments as ‘building a ghost house’ – an ephemeral construction that occupies a point between material evidence and memory, between shifting coordinates of an unstable past and an ever-evolving present, between unverifiable facts and interpretations, and, it became apparent, between autobiography and shared psychological experience. Both the photographs and the poems that have grown out of my notes are thus captured images of points that are – and/or were and will be – moving in any number of directions simultaneously, born of individual perception of place through time, and brought into being through that process of ‘deep listening’ discussed by Gillie Bolton. In the present article, I shall focus upon a succession of freely-associated recollections in order to trace the fine distinctions between the intensely personal and the universal.

These scattered images and anecdotes perhaps have traceable foundations, and these are the ‘facts’: I was born in Plymouth, a city by the sea that was still deeply scarred by World War II, but in a time – 1960 – during which death was a stylised fall on a black and white television, in comics, or on bubble gum cards; clean and contained, a thing of pure imagination that I and my peers experienced daily in the school playground. I was born in a house that dated from the national ‘construction frenzy’ of the mid 1930s,[3] in a room with a large circular mirror against the window, which was surrounded by a glow that I would later associate with Pink Floyd’s Mr Screen, their iconic projection screen that ‘could be retracted behind the stage when not required, and was tilted horizontally with its peripheral lights focused onto the stage into a single spotlight during the final guitar solo in “Comfortably Numb.”’[4] I was of the first generation born into rock & roll, whose childhood and adolescence would be mirrored in the lyrics and rhythms of popular song. Somewhere in the years between, though, when I was aged maybe eight, I stood in front of that mirror, crying because I’d realised I was ugly. Though it is now becoming accepted that, ‘despite public perception, body image issues … are not exclusively female problems,’[5] in the mid-1960s it was simply not recognised:

So, to punish it, she held it up to the Looking-glass, that it might see how sulky it was, “—and if you’re not good directly,” she added, “I’ll put you through into Looking-glass House. How would you like that?[6]

I instinctively recoiled from what I saw, consciously but clumsily – and irreversibly – separating my sense of self from that red-eyed shape. It was only in retrospect that I realised that at the same time as I was becoming alienated from my corporeal form, the blurred vision of these tears had admitted me into a house within a house: a Looking-glass House of reflections and distortions within which I have since dwelt. However, although I now know that houses have been employed as figurative symbols for probably as long as there have been houses, and my adult rationalism can accept that ‘the house can … represent different layers of the psyche and the inside/outside and vertical dimensions of space symbolism associated with symbolism of the psyche,’[7] my pre-teen mind expressed the then indefinable change in my experience of the domestic environment by beginning to search elsewhere within and beneath the visible fabric of the house. Consequently, as I became consciously attached to the idea of ‘home,’ the building itself became implicit personal metaphor, seeding the then-unconscious creative practice to which Paul Scraton refers to in the quotation at the head of this essay: the unique personal experience which is as much – perhaps more – in the experience and, later, the expression, than in the material environment.

Experience, memory, and interpretation/imagination merge the figurative and the ‘real.’ As Arthur Machen notes, ‘the essence of this art is that it must be an adventure into the unknown, and perhaps it may be found that this, at last, is the matter of all the arts.’[8] Beyond this, time, too, adds further degrees of complexity:

The mind is a kind of maze, isn’t it? Sometimes it’s possible to get lost in it. That’s what’s tricky about memory. Am I right?[9]

To take the bathroom, for example: next to the door, on the left as one walked in, a medicine cupboard, where Dad kept his shaving gear and Tiger Balm, was set into the wall – ‘a feature,’ the estate agent would say more than half a century later, with a profound insensitivity of which she could not possibly have been aware – disrupting planes and space, and leading me to believe that there were rooms and passages behind the ceramic tiles, regardless of the fact that the wall was only five inches thick.[10] Over weeks, I picked at a chip in the grout surrounding one of the tiles, drawn by darkness and hollowness behind. I eventually accidentally broke the corner off the tile, for which I made up an excuse that I can no longer remember. Layers build on layers. When the new owners strip off the 1980s woodchip, they will find 1930s tiles, one with a repaired crack. If I were them, I’d replace it and return the room to its original black and white trickle-down Art Deco for the working classes, but we all add our layers according to our individual aesthetics, and mine were formed in the checkerboard friezes and geometric window leadings of this house as much as in the neo-Pre-Raphaelitism/Art Nouveau of 60s pop culture. As I scraped away with the edge of a wardrobe key – which at that time still bristled with Narnian possibilities[11] – it didn’t matter to me that the physical gap between tile and wall was mere millimetres:[12] the important point was that the space had conceptually opened into stone steps and tunnels reminiscent of Piranesi’s Imaginary Prisons (1749-50 and 1761), incorporating the house’s ‘cellar’ (an earth-floored crawl-space where Dad kept the brushes for sweeping the chimneys, and which I think I only entered twice) and the attic (a largely unboarded forbidden space that could be reached after loosening the fittings on the vent above the bunk bed), but which otherwise shifted dimensions constantly in the manner of The Navidson Record.[13] As Danielewski notes of the occurrence of such paradoxical architectural phenomena:

The impossible is one thing when considered as a purely intellectual conceit. After all, it is not so large a problem when one can puzzle over an Escher print and then close the book. It is quite another thing when one faces a physical reality the mind and body cannot accept.[14]

Looking back, it is in these ‘impossible’ spaces thus opened up that my writing began to occur, exploring the unstable architectural palimpsest, listening to movements and echoes – and their sympathetic vibrations within myself – and mapping them in words.  

There was a bomb in the cellar, cold and silent,
nothing like the cartoons, with a sparkler fuse
or a clock to stop at the last crazy minute.[15]

Again, what we do as poets, artists, writers – look with double vision at what we see to be there and what we know to be there (whether we can pinpoint which is which or not) – first occurs long before we consciously tune into it. To return to the matter of death: although its representation remained resolutely bloodless and largely consequence-free – even the most purportedly realist representations in mainstream popular culture were positively postmodern in their knowing simulation – its shadow grew both long and dark in the imagination of the post-war generation. While bombed buildings made exciting playgrounds, and spent ordnance could still be found and traded with friends, live ordnance was also quite frequently uncovered or washed ashore in the city and surrounding area.[16] Bank Holiday bus trips to the beach with Dad’s works in the late 1960s could easily be tinged with disappointment, the sand being cordoned off due to an unexploded mine. Indeed, in 1976, some school friends and I undertook some voluntary work at a local schools television company after our O levels, from which I can mainly remember messing about and pub lunches. But when the site of the studio was being redeveloped in 2010, a 75kg unexploded bomb – probably dating from 1941 – was discovered beneath the building. It was exploded safely at sea.[17]

On the back of such occurrences rode the still darker fears of the imminent future. In an age of CND, Aldermaston and The War Game,[18] for those living in the proximity of major military installations – in our case Devonport Dockyard – the chill of the Cold War gnawed constantly at one’s bones. Households were issued with potassium iodate tablets and instruction leaflets, and the nuclear alarm siren was tested at 11.30 every Monday morning. Though regular distribution of the tablets has now been discontinued, the leaflets, which are still delivered, outline details of the procedure for collecting them if circumstances dictate their necessity. And the siren is still tested on Monday mornings. Talking to my mother in 2014, she said that, although she had lived within its sound for nearly 60 years, it still gave her a moment of panic every time she heard it, bringing to mind the air raids she recalled from World War II, having been 13 when she experienced the Manchester Blitz at first hand. Since the 1980s, the dockyard has become a bare skeleton of its former self, but in December 2015, in the period immediately following my mother’s death, during which I was sifting the sediments of three generations prior to selling the family home, boards advertising the local paper, The Herald, proclaimed: ‘HUGE NUCLEAR SUB ARRIVES IN CITY.’ Like my mother and the siren, I expect that reminders of the Cold War and its continuing repercussions will, for me, always elicit a flush of fear and an intense experience of personal mortality. Yet there is something of triumph comingled with this fear as, growing up, I and my friends, with our CND badges and protest songs, hardly expected to live much beyond twenty, if that. The legacy for me of this palpable cultural fog of nuclear paranoia, thick with implied inevitability, is a very conscious concern with the permanence of the inscribed word when set against the fleeting transience of human life: perhaps this is a way that I can claim to subscribe wholeheartedly to much-vaunted ‘Anglo-Saxon values.’[19]

On one occasion in the late 1960s, drawn like any child to the places in which I had no business being, I found a rolled photograph in one of the tall, built-in cupboards at the top of the stairs, amongst the sparse material fragments from my father’s naval career, which showed the towering mushroom cloud following a nuclear detonation at Christmas Island from Operation Grapple (1956-58), at which he had been present. The bomb became the hare on the hearthstone,[20] the uncanny at the heart of the domestic sphere. In 1968, my sister and I temporarily converted a shelf in the same cupboard into a disco for our Trolls,[21] decorating it with gummed paper shapes of records and stars. When I emptied the cupboard in December 2015, the photograph had been moved, but most of these shapes were still there: a nuclear-powered time machine built from wood, paper, and a Monkees soundtrack. The spectre of imminent, indiscriminate annihilation coexisting with the daily routine still haunts the same spaces:

1  You should go and indoors stay there
Staying inside is the most important safety advice.
You should go inside and stay there as levels of radiation are likely to be higher outside.[22]

The sheltering nature of the house/home – familiar from sentimental songs on my grandparents’ wireless, and so emphatic in official nuclear safety documents – has always been both physical and figurative,[23] its reassuring solidity juxtaposed with the omnipresent invisible threat against which the optimistic closing of doors and windows has always seemed scant protection. As I revise this essay on 30 August 2017, the news is showing phone footage of a missile alert in Japan, and the world turns back thirty, forty, fifty years and more.

I shall leave it to theoretical physicists and the Gawain poet to debate the linearity and/or circularity of time but, either way, our courses through or with it, as perceived, are anything but steady. To take the central image of Jethro Tull’s rock radio staple, ‘Locomotive Breath,’ a song that I probably first heard via one of my sister’s friends in about 1972, and which has subsequently remained a part of my life’s soundtrack,[24] the train sometimes does stop, it sometimes does slow down: it may also backtrack, rest in sidings, or stop in the scrubland outside stations with no announcements, no buffet car, and the lavatories out of order. Replacement bus services may be required. If I may twist the image still further out of shape, the train also has a snowplough fitted, instantly pushing most perceptions and memories aside whilst, at the same time, collecting and compacting others which, frequently without rhyme or reason, are pushed or dragged along with us. A less natural – and considerably less neat – scribe than Hughes’ ‘Thought Fox,’ the train rewrites the lines of tracks in the obscuring snow: the same broad outlines, but with every subtle detail radically different almost to the point of unrecognisability. Though of the right generation, I didn’t particularly want to be a train driver when I grew up, but I did have a Hornby train set, the pieces of which I found stored in a cardboard box in that very same cupboard, on the shelf where green- and purple-haired Trolls had danced all those years before. After a fairly brief glance, I closed the box and left it for the auction house to clear – how do we decide what to keep and what to let go? – but in those few feet it travelled from, and back into, the cupboard, I finished my journey with it, as it disgorged its countless passengers at my terminal – the smell of the transformer; the farm we made following instructions from Blue Peter, with the plastic pigs I had (for reasons I can’t remember) in my waistcoat pocket at my first ever photography class; the dizzying proximity of unrequited love in a college darkroom; backstage passes and album covers; my first nervous exhibition; playing bass through campfire smoke in a Glastonbury dawn, then returning to my daily commute through the North Yorkshire countryside, close to where my mother was born – each struggling under its own straggle of baggage, pulsing with a radioactive glow, and shifting shape and size as they all swarmed around me, ignoring the ticket barriers and crowding the empty house until the walls burst, fragments spinning into the brittle November night, leaving no barriers at all. There were no announcements, and the Dockyard siren remained silent.

Lithium probably works by changing boundaries inside – altering responses, changing tracks – but it also shifts perception of the body’s borders, separating layered selves, making you unsure of movement through time or space. Life becomes a dream state, a sleeper carriage, a half-life, ‘Comfortably Numb’. Even under the best possible circumstances, hands shake when you write. On 19 November 2015, after we’d exchanged our customary texts, Mum went to bed and passed away unexpectedly, two years after Dad, in the same room in which I was born, with that same circular mirror against the window. It’s difficult to go through your parents’ bedroom: it can’t help but feel intrusive. As I did, time concertinaed once more: all those excited Christmases with stuffed spotty pillowcases, all that comfort from nightmares and, yes, that unending moment crying in front of the mirror, all compacted on itself in my medicated haze of loss. The inscribed boundaries of childhood, the consent and prohibition, both fluid and rigid, that coexist within the space described by four walls, refused to break down completely, and I felt like a trespasser in the room of my birth. In a drawer, I found that terrifying, beautiful photograph from Christmas Island that has haunted me for half a century, and I filled notebooks with words that wrote new maps through memories that wouldn’t keep still. William Burroughs describes the Process thus:

There is only one thing a writer can write about: what is in front of his senses at the moment of writing … I am a recording instrument … I do not presume to impose “story” “plot” “continuity” … Insofar as I succeed in Direct recording of certain areas of psychic process I  may have limited function … I am not an entertainer …[25]

The claim is, of course, disingenuous: the mind always sifts, sorts, and arranges.[26] And as for being an entertainer: perhaps, as the 2016 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature once observed of himself, we are, at root, all just song and dance men (or women).

After the seemingly endless process of settling even the simplest of estates, the house in which three generations of my family lived, in which I was born, learned to write, discovered the world-building properties of language and the boundary-dissolving properties of literature, learned to love music and not do it too much disservice on a bass guitar, and laid the foundations for subsequent decades, and in which my mother died, was sold to a developer. A couple of months later my sister mentioned that it was listed on a property website and so, after a certain amount of internal debate and emotional shuffling, I looked it up.[27]  Cut loose from the collective will of my parents, my grandparents, my sister and me, the shifting walls only I had seen as a child had bulbed in the curving distortion of wide-angle photographs that bent space into unrecognisable shapes; each room was a blank white page, void of all the scripts, smudges, alterations and erasures of sixty years. There was no mirror at the front bedroom window: there were no reflections, only light flooding in. I would, in truth, not have recognised it, if it weren’t for those familiar cupboards at the top of the stairs, from which I can still hear music, the background crackle of radiation. The front of the house looked more-or-less the same, though I could list endless small changes. The back, though, was largely transformed. If you knew where to look, you could still make out the outline on the wall by the (replaced) gate where my grandfather’s greenhouse had once stood, giddying with the smell of tomato plants and paraffin heaters, but there was only gravel where my sister and I once pitched a grey canvas tipi and drank from dolls’ cups, and where the bay tree I bought for my parents’ golden wedding anniversary had thrived. However, in the corner of the picture, I could see that the path had not been touched, so that my initials, set into concrete in small metal letters by my father in the early 70s, would still be there, a tiny inscription on a space almost beyond recognition.[28] The house – its physical shape(s), all that has happened there, and all that it means – remains in me and is, even now, the conceptual space within which I negotiate life’s boundaries and transitions, both new and retrospective, and in which my writing takes shape.

A final anecdote: I was an inveterate sleepwalker, and one summer night around 1971 or 1972, I woke up sat on the windowsill of what was then my grandparents’ bedroom (and would later be mine). I could only have arrived there by climbing out of the open bathroom window, supporting myself by holding a drainpipe, and stepping across a couple of feet of empty air, perhaps 14 or so feet above the concrete yard.[29] I told no-one at the time, but it has remained with me as a key moment. As Paul Magrs notes, we have to ‘get past the anecdote and recover the exact feeling of (a) time.’[30] In my own writing, I am still doing this: stepping across boundaries I can’t see, finding myself somewhere unexpected, only seeing how I got there afterwards.[31] And it always connects with elements of that timeless, shifting house, built of bricks, breath, wood, words, slates, and a fragile security. This is of course what we all do, whether consciously or not, experiencing place – in this case a particular house, though it could be anywhere – as a nexus for countless stimuli in a way that is unique to us; and it is in listening deeply to the stories it tells us, and documenting the intensely personal in our own ways, that we paradoxically go beyond the personal and apprehend something that hints at a shared process of being.

And in the Ghost House, all that remains
loses its shape, dust sheets flutter, and candles
snuff out in a breath, like a birthday cake
marking Year Zero.[32]

I recently looked again at the estate agent’s website, but it had gone. The boundaries shift again.



[1] Scraton, P 2015 ‘An Interview with Stuart Fowkes – Cities and Memory’ in Elsewhere: A Journal of Place 2, 18.

[2] Bolton, G 2011 Write Yourself: Creative Writing and Personal Development, London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley, p.18

[3] (accessed 4 November 2016). This article notes that almost three million houses were built in the 1930s, with construction rates peaking in 1936.

[4] (accessed 21 October 2016).

[5] Adams, R 2014 ‘It’s Not Just Girls. Boys Struggle With Body Image, Too,’ Huffington Post, 17 September (accessed 29 October 2016).

[6] Carroll, L 1998 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass: Centenary Edition (ed. Hugh Haughton) London: Penguin, p.125.

[7] (accessed 21 October 2016).

[8] Machen, A 1988 Things Near and Far, in The Collected Arthur Machen, (ed. Christopher Palmer), London: Duckworth, p.323.

[9] Moorcock, M 2015 The Whispering Swarm, London: Gollancz, p. 273.

[10] In spite of apparent precision, this is pure guesswork. I have always been poor at judging measurements.

[11] Our house held more people than it was designed for, so folding beds were a constant feature until my sister married and left home in 1977. For a number of years in the late 1960s/early 1970s, I had a bed that folded into a cabinet that looked like a wardrobe: more spatial anomalies. I did not actually fold it, but used a recess designed to accommodate the end of the sprung base when packed away to store my most personal possessions, including my earliest focused attempts at poetry, lyrics, and fiction: words within hidden, mutable spaces.

[12] This being the early/mid 1960, I’m almost sure that I had never heard of the metric system, but for some reason measurements in fractions of inches seem to me to be more specific than millimetres. See n. 5.

[13] See Danielewski, M Z 2000 House of Leaves, London: Doubleday, for full discussion.

[14] Ibid., p.30.

[15] Hardwick, O 2016 ‘Lacuna,’ Stride Magazine, 27 October, at (accessed 1 November 2016). This is also included in O Hardwick 2017 The House of Ghosts and Mirrors, Scarborough: Valley Press.

[16] It is estimated that around 250,000 explosive devices were dropped on the city in the 31 separate raids of Spring 1941 alone. In spite of 70 years of rebuilding, many scars can still be seen, and rarely a week passes without reference in the local newspaper, such is the lasting physical and psychological effect. Further information can be found at the National Archives Bomb Census: (accessed 4 November 2016).

[17] (accessed 31 October 2016).

[18] Dir. Peter Watkins 1965. Although the intended 1-hour version of this documentary-style depiction of the effects of nuclear war in a Kent town was withdrawn by the BBC, the surrounding debate brought the subject to the very forefront of the nation’s consciousness.

[19] On the prominence of the theme of transience in the literature of the Anglo-Saxons, see Fell, C 1991 ‘Perceptions of Transience’ in M Godden and M Lapidge (eds) The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 172-89.

[20] As the early fourteenth-century poem Wynnere and Wastoure puts it, in the late Middle Ages, a hare on the hearthstone was considered as a sign that ‘dredful domesdaye … draweth neghe aftir’ (l.16). The motif is discussed at length in Hardwick, P 2007-2008 ‘“Hares on the Hearthstones” in Medieval England’ Reinardus 20, 29-39.

[21] Dam Trolls were particularly popular toys at this period. For all things Troll related, see (accessed 1 November 2016).

[22] 2008 What you should do if there is a NUCLEAR EMERGENCY at the Devonport Site, Plymouth: HM Naval Base, p.5.

[23] Until my grandfather’s death in December 1978, my parents used the front room of the house as a living room, whilst my maternal grandparents used the back room. My sister spent more time with my parents, but I drifted between the two. My grandfather – an autodidact former agricultural worker with a passion for Burns, the Lake Poets, and Scottish traditional dance music, who wrote poetry, drew, and was self-taught on melodeon and mouth organ – had a profound influence on my pre-teen development. As a young child, I would listen to the wireless with him and my grandmother, a particular favourite of theirs being Sing Something Simple on The Light Programme, which oozed cosy sentimentality. The accordion playing of the great Jack Emblow, whose quartet accompanied The Cliff Adams Singers, still fills me with the free-floating nostalgia that I experienced way before I could understand or describe it. Both my grandmother and grandfather passed away in that room.

[24] The track originally appeared on the band’s Aqualung album (Chrysalis/Island, 1971). It has subsequently been featured in the majority of Jethro Tull or Ian Anderson live performances, and several live versions have been released.

[25] Burroughs, W S 2015 Naked Lunch: The Restored Text (ed. Grauerhotz and B Miles), London: Penguin, p.184.

[26] On Burroughs’ editorial process, in which he was aided by Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, chance and circumstance, see ibid., pp.233-48.

[27] I here adopt the language of the estate agent, of the developer. When did a house become a ‘property’? Perhaps, though, it is appropriate: with Proudhon’s famous maxim that ‘all property is theft’ in mind, it is an apposite reflection on the fact that there are few areas of life in which deception and mis-selling are so deeply ingrained.  

[28] The initials are P H, Paul Hardwick. In the early 1970s, a popular children’s television programme, Ace of Wands, featured an Ozymandias Owl. It was time at which I started wearing glasses, so the short-lived nickname was a gift to classmates. On starting at art college in 1978, there were simply too many Pauls – graffiti in a favourite basement café proclaimed ‘You get a hell of a lot of Pauls in here’ – so I resurrected the name and didn’t use Paul again until my first academic job. I kept these selves separate but, since developing the Creative Writing provision at Leeds Trinity University, there has been a lot of slippage. What the hell – I gave up on expecting any sort of integration years ago.

[29] See n.10.

[30] Magrs, P 2001 Introduction to ‘Autobiography,’ in J Bell and P Magrs (eds) The Creative Writing Coursebook, London: Macmillan, p.70.

[31] This is what Maureen Freely terms ‘salvage writing’ – that is ‘when you go over the walls you built yourself to shield yourself from the past’ – although in my own case any therapeutic value, while not unwelcome, is a by-product of the creative urge, rather than vice-versa. Freely, M 2004 ‘Writing as Therapeutic Practice: Students, Teachers, Writers’ in F Sampson (ed.) Creative Writing in Health and Social Care, London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, p.81.

[32] Hardwick, O 2017 ‘The Ghost House,’ from The House of Ghosts and Mirrors, Scarborough: Valley Press,  p.68. The book was published on 22 September, which would have been my mother’s 90th birthday.