They Weren’t Places For Me

I grew up on an estate. Because of the way we tend to use language round here, you’re probably picturing some run-down, decaying remnant of nineteen-sixties dynamism and expectation; or the grey, forbidding blocks of inner-city flats that stand as memorial to a hopeful future never realised.

This is the other kind. The lucky kind. This was an estate spread around and centred on a large countryside mansion house. I didn’t live in the house, just the estate.

It was almost certainly not this one. This one mostly doesn’t exist any more.
But as an illustration it’s… well, an illustration.

I didn’t appreciate living on that estate.

Well, I liked it. It was home. It was familiar. The inhabitants knew me, and I knew them. It was my place. I may not have lived in the big house, but it was my place nonetheless. When you’re young, there’s a very blurry line between what’s yours and what just happens to be available to you. And I’d wander those grounds, the woods, the ornamental gardens, the parkland, as freely as if they were actually my own. None of the inhabitants seemed to mind. They’d greet me; I’d greet them. We’d go on our way. I don’t recall ever being told, “You shouldn’t be here” – but then, I wasn’t entirely without sense. As proprietorial as I might’ve felt about the place, I knew there were some lines I wasn’t supposed to cross, and by and large I stuck to the rules.

I’ve always stuck to rules. It’s one of my failings, I suppose. If, for any reason, I’m ever chasing you through a maze, you could reliably evade me by placing a sign in my way that says something like, “DO NOT READ THIS SIGN”; or maybe, “TURN LEFT”, but with an arrow pointing right.

Rules are my thing. I follow them where I can; where I understand them, at least (or where there’s no pressing political reason to engage in civil disobedience). Where I don’t fully uderstand them, I’ll do my best, and probably get it wrong. Not to say I never break rules – sometimes I creep over the speed limit; and the other day I drove through a tiny short bit of bus lane I really shouldn’t have been in. Generally this sort of thing only happens by accident, though. Only a week or two ago, I went through a red traffic light to… well, not exactly through the light, but at least past the sign that says ‘Wait Here’, because I was following the guy in front who was turning left when…

I may have got distracted here.

The point is, I knew the rules. There were places you didn’t go – especially in the house – unless you were the lord or lady, or their servants, or others they’d authorised into those places. I wasn’t important, so they weren’t places for me. But all the rest of it was mine.

And I liked it. But I didn’t appreciate it.

It’s easy, when you’re young, when you’ve no experience of what’s beyond the world you know, to take things for granted. You can have everything you could possibly want, but not realise that it won’t last – that you’ll one day be separated from it and thrown into a new world that doesn’t make sense and doesn’t follow the rules you’ve always known.

So I didn’t take time to fully appreciate what I had. Which I regret, if I don’t think about it too much. If I do, then I can say that as a young ‘un, living in that place, I probably wouldn’t have had the sense of perspective that would enable me to fully appreciate it. Back there – where a summer goes on for a hundred years and a day is a world of adventurous opportunity – I had no adequate frame of reference. Now, though, summers are short; winters long; and days provided in finite number. Then, I likely just wouldn’t have been able to appreciate what I’d got. Now I appreciate what I had.

It’s always the way, I suppose. I’m sure every human alive could tell a similar sort of story.

There was a funny thing about that place, though. An oddity I’ve never really been able to settle in my mind, and something I’ve never noticed anywhere else.

You’ll have seen those optical illusions – I believe they’re called ‘ambiguous images’ – where the thing you’re shown can be one thing or the other, but not at the same time. A couple of examples courtesy of Wikipedia:

Look only at the centre section on the right-hand black-and-white
image: would this be a vase, or two faces?
Is this a picture of an elderly woman with a hook nose and prominent chin?
Or is it a young woman with a feathery hat, a necklace and a firm jawline?

Your brain can interpret the images in one of two ways – it’s a vase or it’s two faces; it’s an old crone or a young strump… I mean, it’s one of two artistic representations of one or more perfectly respectable women at different stages in life. You can generally choose which of the two possibilities to recognise, and therefore ‘see’, at any given time – but you can’t see both at once. At best, the brain will flick rapidly between them. You’ll have a ‘default’ setting – the version you first recognised when shown the image, even if you immediately noticed the other one straight afterwards; and some people will always find it easier to recognise one image than the other.

Living on my estate, though, I noticed a similar effect on a particular area of land. I don’t know precisely how big the area was, or what shape, but you could probably walk across it in, say, ten minutes? At a gentle stroll. Not huge, then – and in fact it was the contained nature of it that interested me. In that bit of land, I could see things in two different ways. It’s not that anything was substantially different: the buildings, walls, plants, pathways and drive were all there, and all looked the same; and there was no discontinuity with the landscape: no matter which version of that patch I was looking at, it still fitted perfectly into the surroundings.

It wasn’t that the things were different, then. It was more to do with the proportions between them. No – it was the angles. No, not angles… No, it was something about the perspective; the… Well, that’s the problem: everything about that place looked the same, whichever way I looked at it. Nothing was different. It just looked different. It was like a sense of… direction?

The best way I can do it is like this:

Imagine a landscape that’s very familiar to you. Imagine the landscape at a certain time of day – for simplicity, let’s say the sun’s at 45° elevation. It’s sort of mid-morning (I’m not doing astronomy here). Now take the sun and shift it around the landscape 180°, so it’s shining down at the same 45° angle, but from the other side of sky. So it’s now mid-afternoon.

Okay, now shift the landscape around 180°, too. So now the sun’s shining down from 45°, but…

You’re just going to say that makes it morning again, aren’t you? You’re probably right, too.

All right, try this one: when the sun climbs towards its zenith as seen from the northern hemisphere, it’s approaching that point from the east, but also just slightly south of it. So imagine it’s the same time of day, the sun’s getting near the zenith, approaching from the east, but just slightly north instead. Imagine how a day might look just ever so slightly different without you being able – at least straight away – to put your finger on quite why.

“So observe the shadows, and you’ll see!”

I know! I know. But without noticing the shadows, you might well not notice the shadows, and…

It’s too hard. I can’t work out how to explain something I could see (and feel, for that matter) without being able to show it to you. It’s like trying to describe blue, without referencing anything blue. A… what do they call it? Thanks, Google: it’s a ‘quale‘.

I can’t demonstrate it to you (so yes, I know it’s not scientific); I can only tell you it was there. I noticed it as a kid, but oddly, as much as I might try, I’ve never been able to make the same effect happen anywhere else – and not even elsewhere on that estate did I notice the same thing, except just within that one sizeable area.

The thing is, I’ve always wondered whether there was something substantial about that place. Or, perhaps, ‘those places’? I’ve wondered, in idle moments, whether – had I been able to fix one image or the other consistently in my perception – it might have made some measurable difference to the world around me. Because the world never has made a deal of sense to me, and it feels like it should’ve. So sometimes, like when I’m drunk, or in the deep dark of night, or both, I suspect that things might’ve made more sense if I’d just chosen to settle on the other one. Perhaps then I wouldn’t be bound up in a tangle of weird, complex rules and mechanisms and principles that I don’t understand and don’t feel right however much I might try to obey them. Perhaps, instead, I’d have been in a place that looks the same, but where where things worked the way they’re obviously supposed to.

Or maybe I should just get a grip and try dealing with the world I’m in, rather than lamenting the one I’m locked out of.

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