When the tide comes in – how we impose meaning on the world

I grew up in a town called Morecambe on the Lancashire coast. In my early teens like many other boys, I had a bicycle which I loved to ride and I spent many hours exploring the town. In those days there wasn’t so much traffic on the roads and it was regarded as a safe pass-time for a child. In my late teens I learned to drive. Everyone in the town who wanted to knew the route for the driving test so I drove around that route many times in preparation for the test. It included one roundabout and no traffic lights – it was a small town. By the time I was an adult I had a pretty thorough knowledge of the road system in Morecambe. It became a structure in my mind and a template for understanding all the other road systems I have encountered in my life – or are they all one road system?

A road system is a means by which people impose a structure on the landscape so that they can use it. Without the roads we would not be able to move through the landscape, of course. But, on reflection, that isn’t quite true. Without roads you can move through a landscape it is just that you are breaking a fresh path each time you go anywhere so the roads make it easier. But, on further reflection, roads are not just about movement. Roads are boundaries as well as thoroughfares. They mark the boundaries of land use and land ownership.

One of the things which I noticed about the town from a very young age was that it was socially highly stratified. Of course, one street, or neighbourhood would contain better housing than another and the value of the properties would be reflected in this difference. But the quality of the property was only part of the story. One street in a particular neighbourhood might have exactly the same type of properties as another street in another neighbourhood yet the properties would be worth slightly more and you could sense that the ‘tone’ of the street was better. How you could sense this tone was something of a mystery, perhaps there were subtle clues, like the choices made in the colour of the paintwork, the way the gardens were kept and so on but I could never pin it down. Since then I have lived in many towns and cities in different parts of the world and they have all been the same.

When I began to drive, especially after I had passed my test, I felt a strong sense of freedom. I could get into my car and go anywhere that I wanted, whenever I wanted. I was able to explore the roads further afield deep into the countryside of north Lancashire, the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District.

The road system is a means by which people impose order on the chaos of the reality with which we are confronted. We take it for granted as though it were part of nature but it is merely a human made system. It also meshes with many other systems of meaning such as ownership of land and social stratification. The sense of freedom which I felt was, of course, illusory. You cannot go anywhere you want in a car; you can only use the road system with all its rules and prohibitions. In fact, driving is much more to do with following a rigid set of rules about how you control the car and how you use the road than it is about freedom.

The road system, then, is not just a system of meanings created through differences like a discourse, the road system is itself discursive, a system of signs which have meaning through difference.

Morecambe stands on the south side of Morecambe Bay and has, in my opinion, the best views in the world. Morecambe Bay has the biggest difference between the water level at low tide and the water level at high tide that it is possible to have. The mudflats of the Bay slope very gently out to sea so that from the town the sea disappears to the horizon at low tide and waves smash against the seafront at high tide.

Discourse creates meaning but it has no easy relationship with reality. Its relationship with reality is loose and constantly shifting like the sea. It allows us to ignore facts which may be inconvenient such as the divisions between neighbourhoods but it also simplifies things so that we are not overwhelmed by the complexity of reality. For example, I can watch a car coming into a filling station. It follows a well-worn route from the street onto the forecourt. The car stops, is filled with petrol and then it goes out of the filling station also following a well-known route. Now we know that the tide comes in and the tide goes out but we forget that this is just a metaphor. We think that the tide comes in and goes out like the car comes into the filling station and then goes out again but it doesn’t and people have drowned because they mistook the metaphor for reality.

You can walk out onto the mudflats in Morecambe Bay while the tide is out and feel perfectly safe. The sea is long way away over there. Between you and the higher ground of the promenade is a short walk. No problem. Then the tide starts to ‘come in’. It is still a long way away so you don’t worry about it. It will be a long time before it gets here. Then you find that you are some way from the permanent shore line and that the sea is in front of you as well as behind you. How did that happen? The sea was behind you and now it is in front of you. You thought you were being sensible and watched the progress of the tide as it ‘comes in’ but it has caught you out. In fact, the tide doesn’t come in like a car coming into a filling station. The tide is a body of water flowing from a higher level to a lower level. The mudflats are not flat but undulate subtly and are crossed with deep channels. The tide doesn’t follow a linear route like a car; it is a moving fluid flowing from a higher to a lower level wherever that may be. It has happened to me. In my case there were no serious consequences, just wet feet, but if I had been further out I may not have made it home like other people who have drowned.

Discourse is the means by which we know things, by which we shape our world and how we understand our world. By being aware that discourse is doing this we can interrogate it, understand things better and create new possibilities.