Not only do I write a ‘Pavement graffiti’ blog, but I will soon be launching a website called ‘Pavement appreciation’. This is all connected with a postgraduate research project I have undertaken on ‘Reading the pavement’. If it all sounds like some sort of obsession then I’m afraid it is. I was recently forced to speculate that I must have had a revelatory encounter with asphalt as a small child.
This is not as silly as it sounds. The surfaces of roadways and footpaths are such an ordinary part of our everyday lives that we tend to ignore them through familiarity. But we could probably all look back to memorable moments that involved asphalt or concrete pavements and the marks upon them – scabby knees and other gravel-rash injuries, arrow chases through suburban streets, jumping over the cracks in the footpath so as not to be eaten by bears, sweaty handball games on courts painted on the school playground, mastering the art of drawing a hopscotch the right size and shape. Some Sydney people will remember being puzzled as a child at seeing ‘Eternity’ chalked on the pavement in the city.
When Marcel Proust (À la recherche du temps perdu) describes impressions in the present that revive similar sensations from the past he mentions not only the taste of the madeleine, but the unevenness of the paving-stones. Occasionally you find childhood recollections of the pavement in the works of other writers as well. Clive James, for example, in his Unreliable Memoirs describes daredevil feats in his pram-wheeled billycart and the ‘slide of the back wheels which got me round the corner unscathed, leaving black smoking trails of burnt rubber’. And in her essay Earthworm Small, Barbara Hanrahan tells how her family moved to a better part of Adelaide in the 1950s, but ‘I kept on wanting the old suburb. Cracked asphalt, corrugated iron stamped with the trademark of a royal crown, lavatory creeper and morning glory …’.
I wrote about some of my experiences with chalk and pavement in a journal article a few years ago (Eternal City). This nostalgia carries over into my present project, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. I am vindicated by British academic Elizabeth Wilson, who writes in her article Looking backward: nostalgia and the city, ‘Although the practice of academic research is meant to be an objective activity, one part of the ‘postmodernisation’ of such work has been a greater recognition of our subjective investment in it. The anthropologist and psychoanalyst, George Devereux, once wrote that all research is autobiographical, and this seems particularly clear in recent writings about urban space and cities’.