I first encountered Doreen Massey through her work as a feminist. For my PhD on gender power relations in the Caribbean in the 1980s and early 1990s, I was reading and absorbing any geographical work I could find with a feminist approach. I was inspired by ‘A Woman’s Place’, the piece she co-authored with Linda McDowell in Geography Matters! A Reader. The key principles of the piece remain with me to this day. Differential economic development and concomitant employment practices across a region or a nation impact on and are impacted by gender. Combined, they create the conditions for different formations of male dominance. As I consider employment practices in Singapore (both for Singaporeans and the million plus foreign workers) in my own work, this 1984 essay—with its insights into gender and spatial inequalities within workplaces and employment structures—continues to make profound sense.
Later, in my first lectureship at Nottingham Trent University, Doreen’s work saved me as I was tasked to teach a Bachelor’s of Education module on social and economic geography. The social I could cover; the economic geography, however, was new territory. I read her co-edited book, The Economy in Question, and was amazed I could understand all of it. It was also rewardingly political and allowed me to make sense of, and heavily critique, Thatcherism and related economic practices such as restructuring. What I had known instinctively through living in the UK was presented and analysed in a way that put all the pieces together—the economic, the social, and the political. I was able to translate her economic geography to my students with enthusiasm and personal insights. We were learning together and really understanding how an economy works (or doesn’t) for different groups of people. I continued to read other works by Doreen and was always struck by her clarity of writing and determination to integrate the political. The politics of critique and social justice were and remain important in my research and writing; in Doreen, I had discovered a mentor and kindred spirit.
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There are some people in this world who should never leave us because what they do and what they contribute is so important and positive for so many. For me, Doreen was one of those people. She made her work and writing valuable for others, within academia and well beyond. She could see and articulate different ways of thinking and doing. She loved her work and the people she met through it.
The first time I met Doreen was at the Institute of British Geographers Annual Conference held at Nottingham University in 1994, the conference when the Sexuality and Space network organised its inaugural full day session of papers. I didn’t actually know what Doreen looked like then, but a colleague pointed her out to me. She had a bob haircut, not the short, stylish crop we have come to associate her with. She was in the audience for the entire day.
I really wanted to have the chance to talk to her. I wanted to invite her to the ‘alternative’ Royal Geographical Society annual dinner I had organized as newsletter editor of the Women and Geography Study Group (WGSG). But I was shy around famous academics; I couldn’t summon the courage to invite her. I felt sure she would be off with her generation of geography scholars, with the leaders of our field. However, Julia Cream (then at UCL) encouraged me to be brave. I went over to Doreen at the end of the daylong sessions, introduced myself, and asked if she wanted to come to the dinner, not for one moment thinking she would. “I’d love to, where is it, and what do I have to do to get there?” she asked. I was surprised and delighted. The WGSG, at that time mostly comprised of early career scholars, was honoured. I told her that I would drive her myself along with some others. ‘Doreen Massey!’ I thought. ‘In my car!’
There were about sixteen of us at dinner. Doreen sat opposite me but engaged with everyone. When she and I did get chance to talk, we bonded over our shared stories of growing up in poor working class households; loving school; reading and maps; council estate dwelling; and the elation and shock of passing the Oxford entrance examination and encountering class privilege that we couldn’t have imagined, but we both sought, in different ways, to change. It was an ongoing conversation that we would pick up, again and again. How, we asked, can social and political change be made?
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In July 2007 I relocated to Singapore to start the job I still have. I was to teach a new graduate module on Geography and Social Theory beginning in August. I decided I wanted to make Doreen’s work on theorisations of space and place central. I began to read For Space. It was an extraordinary experience for me. I had no idea what to expect from Singapore and none of it really made sense to me. It was a shock to recognise I had moved to a highly urbanized tropical environment that was a constant building site. Massey’s key three propositions for space were now my reality (here I quote from the International Encyclopedia of Human Geography entry I wrote on Doreen and her work).
First is to understand space as a product of interrelations where relations are embedded practices that are constructed through politics, identity and spatialities. Second, to imagine space as a sphere of possibility for the existence of multiplicity and heterogeneity which means the recognizing the non-inevitability of certain trajectories and universalizations of how the world is, and will be…The third key proposition is that space is always in process, always becoming, it is an open system. Such openness is a requirement for possible futures in which politics can make a difference (2009: 499).
These prepositions have been central to helping me understand Singapore but also, particularly through my teaching in Geography, to bring a politics to bear that resists the intense normativity and power relations of the city-state. Massey provides a conceptualisation and vocabulary that space can be a ‘simultaneity-of-stories-so-far-‘ which allows Singaporean students to engage with a possibility of something else, a politics in a different form, alternative trajectories, and a different way of making space and place. Many geography graduates go into teaching or urban planning; some of them share these concepts and ideas with others. Doreen’s work of political possibility has always had a wide geography.
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AAG, Tampa 2014. The wonderful aspect about this encounter was how many people were also part of it, sharing her fantastic keynote lecture and having the chance to hang out with her in the fresh sunlight of a Florida spring. The room where Doreen presented was packed—not a spare chair anywhere, people sitting on the floor and spilling in through the doorways. Eric Sheppard (as AAG past president) and the Environment and Planning A forum hosted Doreen to present After Neoliberalism? The Kilburn Manifesto. It was Doreen at her best, talking without notes, witty, politically passionate, articulate, inspiring, intellectually rigorous, and challenging.
Before the talk I took the chance to walk to the front to speak to Doreen. She saw me and immediately walked over and hugged me. We were grinning and laughing and I wished her good luck. She was excited to be speaking. I also sat with her awhile on a sun terrace of the hotel the day after. I had no idea it would be the last time I saw her.
In her discussant comments, Victoria Lawson, invoked a Leonard Cohen song lyric from Anthem, and it made such sense to me then and even more so now that Doreen has gone: there is a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in. Doreen Massey believed in cracks, niches, chinks in the negative power people wield. Her life, politics, and scholarship were light and Doreen shone with care, passion, and intellect.
Tracey Skelton, Department of Geography, National University of Singapore. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Skelton T 2009 Doreen Massey. In: R Kitchen and N Thrift (eds) International Encyclopedia of Human Geography. El Sevier Science, 1st edition.