In Search of the Essence of Place

Petr Král. First published as ‘Enquête sur des lieux’ (Flammarion, 2007); translated by Christopher Moncrieff (Pushkin Press, 2012)

Recommended by Jon Stevens

Petr Král was a Czech writer, who died in 2020. ‘In Search of the Essence of Place’ was one of his last books, published in 2007. Král was born in German occupied Prague and grew up under Communism. After the ‘Prague Spring’, like many writers and intellectuals, he fled to Paris where he spent the next thirty years, apart from a short period in North America. He returned to Prague in 2006.

‘In Search of the Essence of Place’ is an elliptical and fragmented journey through Král’s life. It is a tale of exile and of displacement, in which primacy is given to the places he experienced rather than the people he met.  Král was a member of the Czech surrealist movement and, on his first visit to Paris, he wanders the streets searching for the home of André Breton (who he refers to obliquely as ‘the prophet’). Following the example of Breton’s autofiction Nadja, Král’s text is interspersed with commonplace black and white photographs; and like Breton he is preoccupied by the ‘strangeness of things and places’.

The most unsettling aspect of places is their lack of clear boundaries…even their frontiers are hidden from our eyes by their deceptive drifting motion…(as in) the distinctive way in which the decoration of the most ornate palaces breathes in and out…and then suddenly ceases, when we study it too closely, leaving us with an inanimate lump of masonry.

Mr Roscoe’s Garden

Jyll Bradley (Liverpool University Press, 2008)

Recommended by Martin Stott

I came to this book as a photographer. But it is much more than a photo book.  Published as part of Liverpool’s Capital of Culture celebration in 2008 it is a book about a place, Mr Roscoe’s garden in Liverpool, that no longer exists. Through words and pictures Bradley recreates the garden, and charts its life and afterlife, from its foundation in 1802 through its time as a public Botanic Garden from the 1840s to its eventual destruction in 1984 when it closed, the victim of a political storm that mirrored the cataclysmic decline of Liverpool itself. Told through the eyes of a skilled photographer, and the words and memories of Liverpool’s gardening community, the ‘garden’ almost defies definition: does its specialness lie in the plants, the gardeners, the sites, or the greatest orchid collection ever amassed in municipal Britain and rediscovered intact despite the vicissitudes of time? Drawing on history, memory, politics and place, it is a book about why we need gardens and what gardens mean.



Martin Stott

Martin Stott

Martin Stott

Sustainability campaigner, photographer, local champion, Oxford

I have worked on sustainable development and regeneration issues in my career in local government, having graduated from Oxford in geography and LSE in town and country planning. I am now a writer and photographer documenting the granular and quotidian characteristics of small spaces and the people who live in them – particularly in east Oxford, where I have lived for the past 40 years. My book The Cowley Road Cookbook: culinary tales and recipes from Oxford’s most eclectic street (Signal Books, 2015) documents the social and cultural history of one street through food, from the twelfth century to the present day. I blog as ‘Lord Muck’ in a fairly light-hearted manner on gardening, growing, cooking, composting and other aspects of our interaction with the natural world.

I have explored William Morris’s experience of, response to, and continuing impact on Iceland in ‘What came we forth for to see that our hearts are so hot with desire: Morris and Iceland’ in The Routledge Companion to William Morris (ed. Florence Boos; Routledge, 2021).

I have been working since mid-2018 on a project to record every household on the street I have lived on for the past 33 years, in the Divinity Road Photo Project.  The street is very long, very diverse and very transient, and has been identified as the street with the widest range of household incomes in England. The COVID-19 pandemic has reframed and refocussed the project in a context where our understanding of neighbourhoods has become ever more important.

“Divinity Road has been identified as the street with the widest range of household incomes in England”

Explore Martin’s Work

Portrait of man at bay window
Martin Stott, Mallard Haye with his Arum Lilies, from The Divinity Road Photo Project, 2018

The Divinity Road Photo Project

The Routledge Companion to William Morris

Cookbook cover

The Cowley Road Cookbook: culinary tales and recipes from Oxford’s most eclectic street (Signal Books, 2015)