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The there everywhere

"There's no there there" has become a popular phrase in the media just as a kind of offbeat way of saying 'nothing to see here'. The original meaning is honestly kind of unclear, but one suggestion is that it's saying a place has no sense of place - no identity, nothing distinct about it.

There are no places like that.

Here's Hamad International Airport, in Doha.

Airports really can feel the same: that orangey shade of yellow on all the signs, the giant Toblerones, the rows of uncomfortable seats. They are, of all places, the places most designed not to have any identity. And yet here is a giant bear, or mouse, or something, under a lamp. Is this very Qatari? Not in any obvious sense. (If you Google 'Qatari bear', you will find this beast, but nothing else.) But nobody anywhere else thought to invite an artist to put a giant soft toy in the middle of the terminal to remind people of their childhood.

Pavilion Mall, Kuala Lumpur:

You have to look pretty hard to see anything typically or distinctively Malaysian in this picture. You can do it. Even apart from that - there's no snow in Malaysia, certainly not in December, and not many people very interested in the putative birth of Jesus. So what's going on? This is paradigm 'no there there' material - this could be anywhere - except that it couldn't, and the point of this mall isn't that it could be anywhere but that it could be some very specific, rich, Western places. And doesn't it tell you something about Kuala Lumpur that there's this giant, popular place, trying to be that?

Doesn't it tell you something how they go about it?

I really liked Kuala Lumpur, and I want to go back. Not to see Pavilion, which was not close to my favourite thing about the place. But if you can walk through that mall and think it's just like being anywhere, like it doesn't tell you anything about the place - you're not paying attention.

Looking now at the Magnum shop, with its air of prestige, reminds me of something about Paris - high fashion on la Rue Montaigne, lined with vast, empty stores that employ people to stand by their entrances, ready to hold open the door for customers who don't ever seem to arrive. Probably nobody's ever accused Paris of not having a local identity. There's part of it: the haughty, the expensive. And from there you skip past the kind of chic you find in Melbourne or London, straight to something a bit more gritty.

Here's the small bit of country Australia that I know. (Actually, one of these is just a petrol station by the freeway.)

These could be somewhere else, but not many places. 

Here's Oxford, on a rare day of blue sky - 

- but it's not really the same sky, is it? And did you know that you can't see the Southern Cross in England? You probably knew that. It feels stupid to write. But it's pretty surprising when you look up and realise, because stars are just stars, and they're so far away, and how could that be different?

Anyway, the point is not all the places I've been. And the thing about new places - old places too - is there's always something to them, and if they're trying to hide it, that's something too. Even in Melbourne I've lived a lot of different places, and I've moved from there, and I'll probably keep moving. I've never yet found somewhere that didn't feel like a place.