Last week was not easy and I found myself feeling very stressed a lot of the time. Then, walking into town on Friday to do some shopping, I suddenly came upon a completely empty car park. There were buildings on the horizon, seeming further away than they actually were. The lines of the buildings and the ground seemed perfectly aligned. The sky was full of the promise of rain. Everything was so very quiet.
It might sound strange, but suddenly I felt calm and at peace. It would all be okay. I was out of the anxiety trap, at least for a while.
Empty spaces have always comforted me. There is something inherently freeing about them. A reminder perhaps that there are infinite possibilities. Some people love crowds and react to difficult times by wanting to be inside with as many people as possible. I want the opposite. When things are tough, I crave the freedom of unfilled, undefined space.
You can find it in the country of course. But there is something reassuring about finding unoccupied space in the middle of the city. Somehow it isn’t what we expect. A place suddenly liberated from its function. I find it interesting that all manner of post apocalyptic fiction from Day of the Triffids to The Walking Dead feature abandoned urban areas which the lucky survivors find new uses for. The writer Brian Aldis – himself no stranger to dark fiction – suggested that there was an element of wish fulfilment in these narratives and I suspect he was right. The gaming world seems to have picked up on this theme very successfully – it’s ironic that the most resolutely indoor of activities often betrays such an urge to get outside.
Perhaps the ultimate undefined urban space is wasteland; caught between the fall of the old and the rise of the new and so often a playground for the young and for outsiders. The economic collapse of the 2008 has left many such playgrounds. They are as much a history lesson as the remains of the industrial revolution.
One of my favourite short stories on the search for space is JG Ballard’s The Concentration City. Anyone with an interest in apocalyptic and speculative fiction should check out Ballard’s work. It is both chilling and enticing, daring to describe rather than condemn. His short stories are amongst the best I’ve ever read. The Concentration City is a particularly strong example. It describes life in a vastly overcrowded metropolis where space has begun to fold back on itself. The two main characters embark on a quest to find the free space that they dream of. It’s a powerful story and one that, like so much of Ballard’s work, feels prescient of the concerns and anxieties of the 21st century.
I hope you’ll want to read Ballard’s work and let me know your thoughts on it. And I also hope you’ll find empty spaces of your own in the concentration city of our lives.