When I was 18 I read War and Peace. I had left school the previous year with few qualifications and was fortunate to find an employment home with ‘The Gas Board’ with whom I, remarkably badly, performed general clerical duties in the Transport department at the local depot in Stockport. Stockport is a relatively small industrial conurbation just south of Manchester. The surrounding suburbs expose the eco- nomic extremes of wealth and opportunity that typify the divided state of life in the UK. I was born and grew up in one of the more wealthy areas but subsequently moved to a poorer part of town when I was 9. It is clearly possible that this experi- ence rather than Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel instilled in me a sense that I was a square peg in a round hole. All I can say is that after reading the book I felt at odds with both my colleagues at ‘the gas’ and the lads I drank beer, threw darts and played Sunday league football with. I was, at that point, in a place I did not feel I belonged. I don’t ever think I was made to feel this way by those around me and my burgeon- ing sense of unease did not prevent me from fitting in as well as anyone else. I was expanding my horizons but from the same constricted view.
As a white working class man in the UK there are few situations in which I might find myself feeling excluded and unwelcome as say a black man from the same so- cial standing might. There were occasions though and they were, ironically, when I was in the company of some of my closest friends. Whilst I was experiencing my personal enlightenment via the Penguin Classics section of Waterstones my friends were loading the family Volvo estate with their hi-fi separates and collection of Genesis LPs to go away to be university students.
I used to visit them for the weekend and these trips would invariably include a visit to a local pub. It is fair to say there was rarely a warm welcome when we com- mandeered a large section of the hostelry and indulged ourselves in a raucous ses- sion of ‘Cardinal Puff’ or some other such drinking game. We would sing songs and behave in a generally boyish-middle-class-rugby-player manner that I was not alto- gether comfortable with. In truth, I felt a greater affinity to the local people than my mates but to them I was presented as just another student. I felt I ought to stake my case but it was a bit like watching your team score when you are sat with the op- posing fans – you want to show your support but worried you will be exposed as an interloper.
If I felt out of place there it was nothing compared to how I felt in somewhere like the Student Union bar or elsewhere on campus. For some students leaving home and going to university is their first encounter with people outside of their social group. In a way life on a student campus has similarities with attending a mu- sic festival. Hakim Bey has coined the term Temporary Autonomous Zones (TAZ) as a way to describe how festivals function on a certain level. The normal rules of life simply do not apply any more. You must adopt a new way of interacting with your fellow festival goers to maximise everyone’s enjoyment of the event. No one owns this space, no one gets to decide who belongs and who doesn’t – no one belongs there, it’s that simple. A music festival lasts for 3-5 days. University life is longer and there is more structure to it but is broken down into manageable units (terms) after which you return to the real world. During the terms though you are able to (re)define yourself, you arrive there with few expectations or preconceptions of who you are. The point is these are temporary spaces. We can exist in a space where no one belongs for only so long, we cannot stay there permanently. While we are there in that nowhere – utopia, we learn a lot more about ourselves than anywhere else.
Growing up at home I felt that I didn’t belong and in order deal with that I had to negotiate compromises with myself in order for me to go on living there. Visiting my friends at university I was made to feel I didn’t belong by identifying with the students whose behaviour excluded them from those around them. I wasn’t a stu- dent, I wasn’t one of them but no-one knew that as I acted like I was and this led to some of the best weekends of my life.
The drive to connect, the need to root ourselves in the place in which we live and build attachments to the people with whom we share that space is compelling – it is how we belong and yet some of the most formative experiences of my life have been spent in space in which I clearly did not.
The challenge is in taking our positive experiences of not belonging – our TAZ times – communal creativity and concern for the well being of each and every parti- cipant, and transfer that to the permanent communities in which we live. We need to identify and create neutral space, common ground that respects the shared tra- ditions of the past but attempts to translate those into a sharable future where be- longing is determined not by your heritage but by your willingness to truly find your self in those around you.
By Steve Priest