Bridges – building and burning

Another oldie for ya, wrote this in August last year…when I finished all my interviews! Madbrilliantwildlongtimeago. Anyway, it’s a musing on the presence of bridges in the interviews I did with the women, which I thought was quite interesting but won’t be a huge part of my thesis. That’s the great thing about blogs, is you can write whole posts about things which you don’t have the word count space to do in your thesis – hurray! Anyway. Enjoy!

Hello! So it’s been a while. I’ve been deep in the depths of ‘deep hanging-out’, as anthropologist Clifford Geertz calls ethnography.

I officially finished my 20 interviews yesterday, which is bananas and amazing and thrilling. I would never have thought this time last year…that I’d have completed this thing and would be moving into analysis and working on chapter plans…

in one year I’ve moved house (twice), started going to groups, developed relationships with the amazing women who attend these groups (in a weird researcher not quite fully fledged friend capacity which I’ve found very hard to negotiate at times), done all of the interviews I hoped to do, presented at two conferences, had an existential crisis, moved in with two major babes, started violin lessons, and a thousand other things in between of varying sizes of significance.

I just wanted to take a moment to reflect on what I’ve learnt over the last 12 months, and use this space to take stock as I move gently into the next year, the autumn, winter, and this long year of writing which I now face.

As I have begun analysis, which I did tentatively during September, I was struck by the presence of bridges in the photographs some of the women had taken.

Now, we know that bridges are important because they help you to cross rivers. They help you to move from one place to another, which would otherwise be impassable. They sometimes are still impassable though; I remember a radio programme about Byker in Newcastle, which interviewed people from Byker, and some folk talked about how they had never crossed a bridge which would take them out of Byker into the town centre (the details are hazy, so folk from Newcastle please correct me if I’ve made this bridge up!), and so sometimes bridges can act as physical markers of separation.

They can be burnt, arch over troubled water, built. Water can flow under then, carrying with it harsh words and past grievances.

But they matter, both physically and symbolically. As I now bridge the gap between beginning this journey and ending it, brick by brick (or beam by beam, depending on the material I use to build it) I am moving towards the other side of the river.

“Oh so this is the bridge…I like this bridge, and if I have guests visiting Glasgow I will take them, so again it’s familiar, I recognise it, even when I lived in Shawlands or now when I live here you go on a bus you pass it, so again the familiarity and the fact that I liked it…I think I told you about it? That it’s not so special, but… it is not so beautiful… but for some reason it’s special for me.

…It’s a wee bit different. I saw a documentary and erm…homeless people apparently, they used to sleep on that bridge somehow it’s quite dangerous…so again like…it’s very pretty, but then it also has it’s own problems; homelessness. It’s very Glasgow. Like, again, beautiful but not extremely beautiful so…it just makes me…This bridge is Glasgow. Pretty but not like, stunning. But…homelessness that’s Glasgow also but for some reason it’s lovely, so you know that’s Glasgow charms and Glasgow being special.”

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“Why did you want to be in a picture as well? Because…I guess because it emphasises that idea that it’s me being in these places that makes me feel at home, not the fact that they exist per se. You know, just spending time out there. Looking out into the river or whatever.”

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“This is the bridge. Different kind of bridge when you move. Different kind. Glasgow when I came…many many building demolished and now new building. My brother here since 1970. This why he said, when you come in that time, you say ‘small village’ as if, this nothing. I like the bridges old and new.This bridge is old. Remind me of Iraqi bridges also we have it. A lot of things here in Glasgow remind me in my country. 

Is that important?
Very, very important.”

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Bridges for these women, in these examples, are symbols. Of other places, other times, of Glasgow, of feelings, of memories. Physical places become imbued with memory and meaning, and become metaphorically that which they materially are; bridges. They act as a symbolic bridge between places and times, as symbols of the character of the city they are in; it’s very pretty, but then it also has it’s own problems; homelessness. It’s very Glasgow.” 

Physical places and objects connect us with people, places, times which are or may be absent.

People can bridge us between other people, giving us the tools we need to build bridges to parts of the city and people within it we may not have previously had. Without these tools, we are islands surrounded by other islands which are connected to each other. There is no way for us to cross to them and see what’s going on in those islands, what help might be on offer, what activities might be taking place there, what potential for friendship there is.

There are many things which might make accessing these tools difficult. Without a shared language it can be hard for us to explain what we need, but fortunately some people are good at working hard to understand what it is you need even if you can’t explain using words; there are lots of ways to communicate our needs. Simply not knowing where to go to get the tools is a huge barrier. You might even be really familiar with the tools you need, but if you don’t know which shops sell bridge building materials or where they might be, and you also perhaps don’t speak the local language, it can be very difficult to start building a foundation of places you know where to go to get what you need. This is why if you have a few folk on the other islands who you can call on who do know, then you can start to build a picture of the resources available to you.

(NB. Not sure this analogy works, as it suggest everyone’s on their own island, and a) as we know: “no man [/person] is an island” and b) the idea is that everyone is in the SAME place, but with different access…we’ll go with it for now…”I’ve started so I’ll finish…”)

Even when you get the tools, you might not know how to use them. Again, this can be a language issue, but it can also just be an issue of never having needed to use these tools before, and so it is a process of learning from scratch, which for some people can take a long time. Sometimes there might be barriers to you actually getting access to the tools. Some people might actively really not want you to get the tools, because they don’t want ‘just ANYBODY’ learning how to build bridges, so it might be difficult for that reason.

BUT: once some of these tools are yours, it gets easier to find out where to get the rest of the equipment you need, and bridges get slowly easier to build. (Although, there are still some people *cough* the Home Office *cough* who will try and make it as hard as they can for you to fill your toolkit for various reasons which I personally disagree with, but that’s for another time. Let’s just say for now that ‘inhospitable environment legislation’ is all pretty gross and scary for anyone wanting to build bridges.)

All this to say, bridges are important. Without them, we can’t connect ourselves to other people, times, places…it becomes hard to make sense of who we are, where we are now, where we are going, the bridges built by those who went before us which have led us here, the bridges that we’ve crossed and the bridges we might want to build for others. We need bridges to keep moving, otherwise water gets in the way and we are stuck. Keeping moving doesn’t always mean on to entirely new places, it can be a really small bridge between you and another person, or you and another place you are interested in learning more about and getting to know better.

But without them, making somewhere feel like home is a hugely difficult task.

Feel free to let me know your thoughts on this slightly dubious analogy, or how you’ve struggled to or gone about building your own bridges in places you’ve moved to, I’m always curious to hear more stories!

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