A Tale of Three Cities

cropped-cropped-dsc_0807.jpgSo that was 2013. A funny one to say the least. Holly Pike reflected before Christmas on the transient nature of her life as a PhD student, and my word, it resonated with me. I began the year living in Sheffield (where my PhD is based), but commuting to Manchester for work and research at least twice a week. I then moved to Manchester as my workload there became heavier, instead commuting back to Sheffield when necessary. The eventual plan was to move to London on finishing my fieldwork – and job – at the Manchester International Festival, to conduct my third year primarily from the British Library. The plan went awry. I ended up living out in the countryside with my parents for two months, transcribing interviews with a view of the South Downs. Then I packed my life up once again and drove to Cardiff, where I am now sitting, a fugitive in another university’s Geography and Planning department.

My movements and upheavals have been insignificant compared to many – my geographical area of research was only an hour away from my university, and whilst I may have moved to a Whole Other Country, it is still the UK after all. I haven’t moved back and forth between Sheffield and Palestine, Brazil, Taiwan or Mexico like some of my Town and Regional Planning colleagues. Yet it’s a strange position to be in, to be paid to do a job where you can just tell your boss (ok, supervisor) that you’re moving to Wales because you think you’ll be happier and more productive there. Feeling simultaneously stranded or placeless, and yet also incredibly privileged to be able to work from anywhere. A major relationship breakdown and the imminent homelessness it presents is certainly daunting; but to then have the freedom to think ‘where do I want to be right now?’, ‘where can I find a new but supportive environment to live and work?’ – now that’s a position I’ve never been in before, and it’s a position that I’ve come to appreciate hugely (especially living with a scientist who never would have been able to do the same during his PhD due to the need for the lab). To an extent I’ve been very lucky, with supervisors putting me in touch with academic acquaintances in my new home, and an accommodating research community who don’t seem to be bothered by this impostor in their midst.

And what of these three cities? They’re all different. They’re all home. To feel that way about all of them is quite a powerful experience. It’s made me think more than ever about what I value in a place, and what it is about a sense of a city’s identity that either resonates with you, or just doesn’t click. I suppose it’s this inquisitiveness around urban dwelling that led me to my area of research: having grown up in the countryside, cities have always held a level of wonder and fascination for me, they do now more than ever, and now I have a whole new city to further develop a relationship with, a relationship which was previously limited to visiting once or twice a year. And of the rural-dwelling portion of the year? Well, much as a colleague here (gently) accused Eric Swyngedouw of in a recent lecture, it seems I privilege the urban. Because it’s hard to feel isolated for long when your work environment can be yours or another’s university department, the library, the countless coffee shops and bars. Until I attempted to continue my research in an incredibly rural setting, I don’t think I had an appreciation of this.

As for 2014, I’ve entered it with more certainty than I did for 2013. I’ll attempt to find the unknown more thrilling than daunting. And I’ll write this damn thesis if it’s the last thing I do.

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