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Katrina Navickas

A Self-Portrait

Lucy's factory
Lucy's factory, Jericho, Oxford

I think I have synaesthesia but I'm never quite sure. I see colours when certain notes or chords are played. It's why I like listening to music so much, especially at live gigs. Post-rock in particular arouses purples, dark blues, sparks of yellow in my eyes. Do I like post-rock because I can hear colours, or is it that when I hear my favourite music I see colours? Certain letters and numbers have colours as well - the letter 'e' is green, the number '2' is canary yellow as is the note C on a stave, the word 'three' is orangey-brown. I don't know whether this is just an engrained memory of coloured alphabet wallcharts at school or if it is really synaesthesia. I remember envisioning dates and the school calendar as a continuous bumpy line when I was younger as well, though I can't do it now.

I suppose my possible synaesthesia sums up a lot about me. Have I really got it or do I wish I had it? I'm sometimes described as being deliberately contrary. I like to go against the grain but often I'm doing it self-consciously. Am I really eccentric? Or, because I know I'm asking myself this question, I know I'm not eccentric and do it deliberately. Hence I don't follow fashion too much, wear brightly coloured hats, won't have a mobile phone on purpose.

Perhaps it comes from me being a northerner in a town full of southerners and tourists. A conscious northerner at that. When I arrived here over six years ago I felt like I was the only person with a North West accent. But I didn't fade into a sloaney drawl; I rather kept my distinctive voice. Some would find that annoying or pretentious, but it's not. I'm proud of my accent because without regional accents Britain would be a very dull place. As a historian of regional culture, I'm conscious that regional accents are fading all the time, merging into one another in the towns and losing dialect. I like the Oxfordshire accent, the slightly West Country tinge about it, but it is mainly the accent of the working class and inhabitants of the villages.

My search for a 'sense of place' motivates a lot of what I do and think. My historical research is based on analysing people's reactions to changes in their physical environment and ideas of geographical identity. Yet I spend a lot of time thinking about my own experiences. Am I still a northerner now I've lived in Oxford for six years? Is it significant that a lot of my friends here are northerners themselves? I still have the strongest accent among them, however, apart from a Liverpudlian. Yet I'm half Lithuanian. I speak Lithuanian with my family. My grandparents definitely still think of themselves as Lithuanians, even though they have lived in Britain for sixty years. I'll probably have to move somewhere else next year in search of a job - I could end up anywhere - what will I feel then? I know I'll miss Oxford, but in a way I want to leave so I can miss it.

I'll miss the canal - I love walking down the towpath to Kidlington. It's the best place in Oxford to see the change of seasons in nature. I'll miss the fact you can set off from the centre of the city and within fifteen minutes of walking you can be in the middle of countryside. I've spent a lot of time outside whilst I've been here.

No, I probably can never be an Oxonian, however much time I spend here. Oxonians still have the southern trait of subtlety, call it subterfuge if you like. It's a cliché, but Northerners are straight-talking. I'm thus often mistaken for being rude, or putting my foot in it, when I'm only stating the obvious or being realistic. It hurts me when that happens. I don't like people thinking I'm rude or uncaring. I don't like it when people think anything bad of me at all. I haven't got a thick skin.

I travel around but not in the usual sense when you ask people 'Where've you travelled to?' I was never allowed to go very far when I lived with my family, so if I did go somewhere, I'd make it into a big imaginative journey. Then I got taken to Lithuania a few months after the country achieved independence. Totally to the unknown, I didn't expect anything but I got a strange mixture of soviet relics - both in architecture and in the people - and huge forests, empty motorways, wooden houses in the villages, more forests, old people, a glimpse of sculpture. It's all westernised now, lots of signs of conspicuous wealth, but I haven't been to this changed Lithuania. The previous experience had traumatised me, mainly because of family conflicts while we were there, seeing the bitterness of my grandparents against those who betrayed them and stayed during the occupation; and vice-versa.

Although I've been to some places abroad such as France and Spain while at university, the best journeys are the small ones. I delight in seeing subtle changes in small things. As I said before, I love going back to the canal every now and then to watch the seasons change, the apples get bigger on the trees overhanging the water, then rotting away during winter. The bright green of the willows when they start growing again in spring. I travel a lot on the trains up to the North West. I like the view going past the Reebock stadium on the outskirts of Bolton, with Rivington Pike towering over it on the other side. I like watching out for Wolvercote on the train back to Oxford, looking for the boats and the pubs there.

I've become interested in psychogeography, probably as a consequence of my journeys. I've always wandered around, exploring where streets go to and what lies behind corners. Old factories and derelict houses are fascinating - I always try to imagine what they used to be like when inhabited and what was there before they were built. Hence again my love of the canal, especially the Lucy factory, now sitting there gradually emptying and waiting to be transformed into posh flats. I know I'll miss it as it is now. I did what's called a 'dérive' around Manchester a few years ago without knowing anything about psychogeography - I wandered along the streets without a map or aim, looking at the beautiful Victorian gothic architecture. The experience filled me with an overwhelming sense of premonition, sadness and other feelings I still can't explain. It stayed with me for a whole week and was a powerful turning point in my life. It was only a few months ago I realised that my wanders had an intellectual theory behind them and were related to other parts of my life experience. People often do dérives in Manchester and if I go to live there I would like to take part in them. I'm an email member of Manchester Area Psychogeographic society - I'd like to join them in person.

It's hard to do psychogeography in Oxford. I've tried, filming my route with a super8 camera, but it didn't amount to much. There are various reasons. Firstly, the city centre is smaller than most towns: there are not enough alternative routes. Parts of Jericho are interesting, such as the path to St. Bartholomew's cemetery round the back of Lucy's. The routes between the old villages of Headington to Marston can also be imaginative. On the other hand, most of the other routes you can take are not particularly unusual. Secondly, I bet there's people doing psychogeography around Oxford to be pretentious. They're probably the ones who chalk situationist slogans on the walls of houses on Holywell Street. I don't want to join them. I said before that I often do things just because they are contrary. Psychogeography is not one of these things - I'm interested in it for what it is.

I feel most comfortable in small gig venues. It was horrible when the Point on the Plain closed because it was the one place that made me feel at the heart of Oxford. When I was an undergraduate, one of the things I used to look forward to the most about coming back to Oxford after the holidays was being able to go there. It was more than just a gig venue. You felt as if there was a whole community of like-minded people there and that it was a place where young bands could test the water, where it wasn't just about making money but mainly about inspiring people. I saw some great gigs there and the last night was very emotional. I still miss the Point, although Mac and the regulars there have carried on, putting on gigs in the other venues in the city. They're some of the nicest and most genuine people I've met, who really care about music and what they do. There's nowhere solely dedicated to new bands like the Point in Oxford now.

Feeling comfortable somewhere is a case of knowing the rituals - what to wear, what to do, what to expect. Hence people 'feel out of place' when they are somewhere new or in a place inhabited by different society. I felt slightly out of place when I first came to Oxford and had to do all the college pomp and circumstance, but it's easier to fit in if you bend the rules slightly. It's easier for me to feel at home in Temple Cowley precinct than South Parade, but I'm not working class, just used to more normal shops and less pretension.

Cultivating friendship is a hard thing for me. Apart from my boyfriend, no-one really knows my real thoughts and feelings that well. Hopefully this self-portrait will give them an insight. Sometimes I think people don't know me because I don't try hard enough - I know that becoming really good friends with people is not just about shared experiences but more about what you can give, timewise and emotionally. I don't have the charm to make instant friends and however hard I try to become close to my friends, I never seem to cross that invisible boundary into them relying on me. Maybe it's because I don't have a phone, which seems to be the only way of communicating now. In many social occasions I do feel like an outside observer, watching my friends acting out relationships and situations without taking part in them. Partly, it's because I don't like intruding in people's lives, so when something affects them and I do try to help, I'm always on the outer circle. I'm working on it, but it's still very hard. Occasionally I think it's because I don't know the rituals, the right things to say and do, whereas these things all come naturally to me in more anonymous settings such as gig venues where you know you can talk to people about music and they'll be passionate about it. Confidence in myself keeps me going, as does music.

My ambition is to become a good academic historian. It's not looking promising at the moment because it is very hard to get a first job, especially in the humanities. I expect job insecurity and having to move round the country for at least the next ten years. I've had it easy until now, being at Oxford, getting a grant to do postgraduate research. Now I enter the world of everyone else: job applications and rejections, instability and the possibility I won't have an income next year. I'm not too scared yet but if I keep getting refused even an interview, then I soon will be. I'd love to have a book on the bookshop shelf, not for the money but for the prestige. Writing the book and getting a willing publisher is problematic. At this moment in time, therefore, I'm at a slow turning point. It could go either way, to success or anonymity, but I'll keep on trying.


December 2004