Place as Person – Gillian Polack

Today we hear from Gillian Polack about Place – and a magical one it is, too.  If you like your places, or even certain household objects imbued with a very distinct Personality, I recommend reading Gillian’s ‘Life Through Cellophane.’ 


Places to me are people. I care about their bodies and their crowded possessions and the damage they endure and the patterns of their lives.

When I was younger, I was scolded by one of my sisters. “Why do you name so many things?” It upset her that the inanimate world around me was full of personalities. Even rugs and rooms had character. Perceval (my late father’s disarticulated skull) and Kai (my antique rug) and Sylvester (a teddy-bear a friend made me, for I lacked one as a child) are not complete in and of themselves. They belong together in my home. They are aspects of place. I don’t always name aspects of place, but naming is one of the routes I take into understanding a place or a situation.

My work-in-progress is mostly set in the small French town of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, so I’ll use that to show you what how I see places and objects now that I’m older, wiser and less set on annoying my siblings. It’s the friend I’m living with at this moment, the same way the characters of the novel are my friends.

Some places and some characters make better housemates than others ? Saint-Guilhem has turned out to be particularly delightful. This is just as well, because there are a couple of people in the novel itself who I really don’t like. Saint-Guilhem’s optimism and holiness and gentle chatter makes up for those few idiots.

Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert’s bones are of limestone, since it is in karst country. That limestone is used by the townsfolk for terracing and for houses and for the amazing abbey. Karst doesn’t produce a wealth of agriculture (mainly grapes and olives) but everywhere I look are exquisite lines and warm colours. The eye is always drawn up and along and down and around. In looks, Saint-Guilhem is greatly blessed.

Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert is an older woman, a bit past middle age, where the bones show and the grace of time reflects her underlying personality. Her personality is just as gracious as her looks.

At her heart is the abbey. Without that religious centre, there would be no town. It was founded by William, Charlemagne’s hero-cousin, the duke of Aquitaine and one of my longtime favourite epic heroes. I fell in love with him when I was twenty and read of his wife banning him and his army from the town when he appeared to love war more than he loved her. “I don’t know you,” she declared. “My husband has been away for so long, how could I know if you are he?”  He won her back. Of course he won her back.

The reality of the man is just as fascinating as the story. William retired to a little cleft in the hills of Languedoc and founded a monastery just a few miles away from that of a close friend. Aniane became prosperous and Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert became special, reflecting the nature of their founding fathers. Places have parents, and Saint-Guilhem’s sometimes-mythical father was a man who thought nothing of ripping the hind leg off a donkey to defend himself against thieves and then replacing it again when the thieves were vanquished. The donkey lived to a ripe old age, it is said, but the bones of the thieves lie somewhere in the chasms near Saint-Guilhem.

Because Saint-Guilhem is over 1200 years old, she has many stories. Because she’s no longer young and was never famous, most of the stories have been forgotten. Just walk up the stone streets, however and the tales whisper in your ear. The limestone is full of echoes and caves and the wind has memories. The stream that runs through has anecdotes and so does the river than crosses just below the fortified church. They will all talk, if you stop to listen.

Like many no-longer-young people who the world doesn’t quite respect sufficiently, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert won’t chat with just anyone. The tourist busses disgorge chattering crowds and they eat icecream and drink water from the pilgrim fountains and shout at each other in six languages “Take this shot, dear, it’s very pretty.”

A moment of silence and a gentle stroll, alone, and Saint-Guilhem’s whispers start. They’re not the same as the whispers near the fountain at Vaucluse, or the ugly sorrow that informs the air near Clifford’s Tower in York. There’s not the sense of absolute peace you will encounter if you visit the medieval mikvah in Montpellier or the frail and near-forgotten age of the ruins in Baux-de-Provence. Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert has many moods, and many thoughts, and they are all unique to her.

All my novels start with a place. Sometimes it’s a house and sometimes it’s a town. Each of those places has its own story and plot arc, because each of those places has its own history. I can’t imagine writing without giving places the same dignity as people. For me, living in a landscape that has no depth is living in a hollow landscape and creates a hollow story.

I’ve always been like this. In my childhood (everything returns to my childhood, eventually) I was fascinated to find that our house was built on old market gardens, and, in one place, on a bit of a rubbish dump near a stream. The stream went under the house and when the foundations needed fixing, they kept filling with water. No place is without a story and without a character. Some are harder to find than others.

I don’t always tell the story of the place in my novels, but I discover it before I start telling the tale and the character and the history of the place is there, in my mind, when I’m writing. The chatter of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert informs my time travel novel, from the moment the time travellers arrive nearby until they return home to the twenty-first century. I wouldn’t have it any other way.


Gillian has a doctorate in Medieval history from the University of Sydney. She researches food history, designs the Conflux banquets etc. ‘Etc’ includes emotional cruelty to ants and being thrown off a morris dance side, the organisers citing ‘incompetence at dance.’ She is the proud owner of a violin, a disarticulated skull named Perceval, and 6,000 books.

Gillian Polack’s most recent publications are a novel (‘Life through Cellophane’, Eneit Press, 2009), and two anthologies (‘Baggage’, Eneit Press and ‘Masques’, CSfG Publishing, co-edited with Scott Hopkins). Find out more about her on


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18 Responses to Place as Person – Gillian Polack

  1. Now I have the itch to travel…

  2. Johanna Knox says:

    I absolutely love this post. I’m sorry I don’t have anything more insightful to add! I am just soaking it in.

  3. Cat Sheely says:

    I recognise the pictures and have heard you speak of the place with enjoyment, excitement and love. That’s truly reflected here.

  4. Helen Lowe says:

    What a tremendous post, Gillian. Thank you for introducing us to the charming and interesting Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert and your approach, not just to palce in literature but ‘place as person.’

    • Gillian says:

      Thank you for reading it :). And it was fair return for the places you’ve given me. Right now I’m still dreaming of a hundred year olf forest, after all.

  5. Pingback: No, I Didn’t Forget … » Helen Lowe

  6. Helen Lowe says:

    Ah, that forest, well I do think it’s a wee bit special, but then I would … and as you yourself expressed so succinctly, it’s nice to have the ‘itch to travel …and not always to places that exist!’ And for others to offer us the travel brochure, du temps en temps. 🙂

  7. Helen Lowe says:

    I agree: opening the covers to books is the key to both ‘other countries’ and other worlds. Go the book.

  8. Bahiyyih says:

    Wonderful idea for a story: someone “offering travel brochures” to lands that don’t exist. Again and again I keep thinking Alberto Manguel ought to be reading this post; his ‘Dictionary of Imaginary Places’ is so relevant… Thank you Gillian and all the rest of you for these glimpses into the magical workings of your minds.

    • Gillian says:

      A library I visited once did tourist brochures for the places in books, when I was a teenager. It was the most wonderful thing to shuffle through them and think “Today I’ll visit Middle Earth, but tomorrow, it’s 19th century Russia, for certain.”

  9. Kim Falconer says:

    This is beautiful, Gillian. ‘No place is without a story and without a character. Some are harder to find than others.’ I love that! Thank you for the post!

    • Gillian says:

      Thank you! Now I stop to think (I only stop sometimes and think even more seldom) You’re very careful about the sense of place in your novels. Your different realities are distinct and have their own character.

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