GENERATION and regeneration

I spent a lot of time this summer and autumn at the GENERATION exhibitions celebrating art made in Scotland over the last 25 years. Sometimes I was working, as a freelancer in the NGS education department, sometimes working on my own material, and others being a tourist at other exhibitions in the series around the country.

In the RSA building on the Mound in Edinburgh there were seven rooms devoted to the work of seven different artists. To my own surprise, my personal favourite grew to be Martin Boyce’s installation of a park at dusk. This comprised skeletal steel benches, bed-frames and off-kilter bins in primary colours, was divided into sections by black mesh fences placed at oblique angles, and lit by fluorescent tubes representing trees. Originally designed for Glasgow’s Tramway, a larger, more industrial space than this, the biggest room in Robert Playfair’s RSA building, it appeared to be (re)creating a sense of urban decay and fostering a feeling of menace. I’d ask my tour groups how optiimistic it made them feel on  a scale of 1-10; most responses were between 3 and 5. The work’s apparently incongruous title,  Our Love is like the Flowers, the Rain, the Sea and the Hours is the chorus of the song ‘The Village’ in  New Order’s 1983 album  Power, Corruption & Lies.

Music, it strikes me,  is possibly more ‘generational’ than any other artform. Members of my tour groups tended to be either too young or too old to know  much about the post-punk and ‘industrial’ sounds, often emanating from Manchester, that became the soundtrack to the lives of students in another post-industrial city.  Boyce and a number of other artists in the exhibition studied on the Environmental Art course set up at Glasgow School of Art in the 80s. The course is credited, in the Generation Reader, a collection of essays published to  accompany the exhibition catalogue, and in a BBC documentary made about the exhibition, with being responsible for  the artist-led energy that produced such a diverse body of work during this time. Both stress how great emphasis was placed on socialising. I wondered what happened if you were an introvert with different tastes in music – what happened to the artist as outsider? – but maybe you just (just!) studied painting.

Anyway, after three months I’d settled on the Boyce room as the one most conducive to writing, low light levels notwithstanding, and I started to find it uplifting. At twenty-minute intervals, a  plangent soundtrack, specially composed for the installation, played as text slowly formed, then dissolved, on one of the walls. It was hard to read – Boyce devises his own fonts to blur the boundary between text and image – but seemed to say this place is dreaming. For a time I thought it read ‘this place is breathing’.

It occurs to me now that Boyce’s text could also be a reference to the phrase terribilis ist locus iste.  Originally from the Vulgate version of Genesis 28.17, and most often found inscribed on door lintels,  this was Jacob’s response to his vision of a ladder leading to heaven. Terribilis has been variously translated as ‘dreadful’ (King James) and ‘fearsome’ (New English); it means ‘awesome’ in the sense of sublime, terror-inducing.

This place is not terrible to me. I have partly measured out my adult life in the exhibitions I’ve seen in these rooms; sought them – and found comfort – in times of distress, shared memorable afternoons in them with friends, and been privileged to work in them.  This year, Boyce’s soundtrack and text and manufactured gloaming worked against the urban harshness of his physical materials in a way that allowed memories and imaginings to float free. This place was breathing and dreaming because it was immersive, real and unreal simultaneously, a creative and potential space. Also . . .  the portable gallery seats unintentionally referenced the steel and chain-link of the fencing and bed-frame components of the installation and, with a person seated on them,  became a temporary part of it. (These paragraphs are in the past tense because the exhibition closed on 2 November. Our Love was de-installed and returned to homes in various collections, including Tate.)

The open thresholds between the rooms gave sight-lines to works by other artists. From Our Love you could glimpse the gorgeous purples of Callum Innes‘ Exposed Painting series, or the black and white palate of a space made over to woodcut prints and ceramic works by David Shrigley that  playfully questioned the limits of black-and-white thinking. I’ve written in the company of Innes’ slow-burning paintings before, and it’s easy to find in them a meditative quality. More surprising was the  effect of sitting amidst Shrigley’s army (or pantomime cast?) of torso-less boots on plinths – boots that we are figuratively invited to fill, and that Shrigley will fill when his work is sited on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square in 2016.

Over at the Portrait Gallery, Luke Fowler‘s 61- minute film The Poor Stockinger, the Luddite Cropper and the Deluded Followers of Joanna Southcott loosens the memory in a manner different to Boyce’s parkscape. Shot in 21st Century West Yorkshire, it features footage from the 1950s of Marxist historian E P Thompson, and an original soundtrack which includes a setting of Blake’s ‘London’. A voiceover (sterner in tone than that of the charismatic Thompson himself) reads from Thompson’s reports on the WEA classes in Social History and Literature in eleven West Riding towns. As well as a portrait of a man, he’s created on 16mm film a narrative of a place where industrial and rural landscapes are held in balance. Fowler’s image-assemblage maybe even works a bit like memory itself. He shows where habitation has spilled up hillsides, like a reverse landslide.  A lorry passes between gritstone walls at the pace of a horse and cart as smoke from a chimney in a field merges with cloud. Skies are punctuated with pylons and factory chimneys that look like Venetian campaniles.  Fields, olive from their gritstone underlay, are overlaid with snow. At night the moving lights of cars weave amongst the still ones from buildings, creating illuminated  townscapes where neon, sodium, street, factory and domestic lighting co-exist in a painterly fashion.  The time it takes a car to pass across the frame seems longer than if you were standing on the pavement yourself. Fowler cuts from the shot of a  factory, chimney and tower block warmed by a sunlight that makes of them a Mediterranean composition, to a close-up of the chimney’s top showing, not a cloud-capped tower, but one crowned with scaffolding. He revisits a frame from earlier in the film, but now the soundtrack has moved on.  And he dwells, too, on the details: the interiors of educational institutions, from stained-glass crests in windows opening onto more West Riding masonry, in both its hewn and unhewn states, to corridors and functional seating. (This paragraph is in the present tense because the film exists even when it isn’t being watched.)

I had a four-day interlude in the West Riding myself at half term. I visited the Hepworth Wakefield for the first time and Yorkshire Sculpture Park for the umpteenth, but  it retains its power to seep onto my soul. One of the other reasons for my visit was to look at and try to write about the horizon – the elongated concave  profile of Saddleworth Moor, the skyline as seen from the Calder valley. I was prevented from achieving this by a mist which pressed down into the valley, amplifying the hoot of the Transpennine train, and on the upland spur where I was staying accentuating underfoot textures – flag, cobble, pebble, brick, grit, leaf, mud – on by-ways with names like Beaumont’s Bolt and Pudding Lane. It insinuated itself round the midriff of Emley Moor television mast, and chilled through several layers of clothing in the  mornings, as I stood at an exposed hilltop bus stop where a big vista of high moor and industrial valley appears in clear weather. By midday sun had squeezed enough heat through the mist and onto the land for lunch to be taken outdoors at a village pub. It obfuscated plans, but it assisted memory – being up here on winter nights, high above the conurbation lights – and enabled the creation of new narratives, such as the fit between Luke Fowler’s vision of the location and my own experience if it.

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During this period the wonderful Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival  was running, this year with the theme ‘The Power to Communicate’. South Side Writers generated the text for a great wee exhibition at the Southside Centre. I attended a screening of Regeneration at Craiglockhart campus, formerly the war hospital where Wilfred Owen met Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon, who acted as poetic mentor to the younger Owen, was treated by the psychiatrist WHR Rivers, pioneer of psychotherapeutic methods used with ptsd today, and surely one of the great heroes of WW1. Rivers also worked on the regeneration of damaged nerve tissue. In the film of Pat Barker’s novel, adapted to give more of a  narrative arc (I don’t recall having any problem with the book’s narrative geometry), he is shown to experience secondary trauma. In the novels, if my memory is accurate, his own neuroses are attributed to his experiences working as an anthropologist in Melanesia in the Pacific, and a relatively minor childhood worry – one doesn’t need to have been to war to be beset by hard to-shift-demons. If one has been to war. . . well, thank the goodness that remains for Rivers and his legacy.

Afterwards there was a panel discussion involving the screen writer Allan Scott, an Afghanistan veteran and two psychotherapists from the Rivers Centre for traumatic stress at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital – where, in addition to medication and talking therapies, it seems they offer art therapy but not creative writing. Of course, there are many situations where the non-linguistic nature of art, or music, is what is needed –  but wouldn’t it be a highly appropriate tribute to Rivers and his most famous patient if, as more research is conducted into the efficacy of the ‘writing cure’, this were to be adopted in the clinic named for him?

Pat Barker, unable to attend, sent a generous message, which included a phrase that went something like: ‘while you work on the material, the material works on you’. This is an excellent encapsulation of the therapeutic benefits of creative writing. To put it another way: you generate the material; it regenerates you.

stanza 13: legacy and place

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Photo: Stephanie Green

StAnza Poetry Festival, St Andrews, Scotland, 6-10 March 2013

One of the festival themes was ‘Legacy & Place’.

It was like a Hebridean holiday: you bumped the same people several times a day. Andrew the drystane-dyker poet; Enid who wrote so movingly in your workshop; Annie the young journalist; Rebecca whose poems graced the walls of the room used for workshops,  complementing paintings of the peripheral made by her collaborator Anna. People you knew from Edinburgh; Canadian writers you just met for the first time; cheerful StAnza staff.

Weather enclosed and defamiliarised the Fife town and seemed to intensify and brew the creative and social activity.  The wynd where  I took shelter  from the landfall of an Orcadian wind suddenly felt like a Stromness pend, and was filled with kent faces. I was happily disorientated. When the visibility improved a little on Saturday, I walked along The Scores to the West Sands to ground and assimilate the many wonderful words I’d heard over the previous three days, from the voices of Gillian Clarke, George Szirtes, Ken Babstock, Chris Whyte, Erin Moure, Mark Doty, Jean Atkin and more. Offshore, in parallel, waves broke endlessly, uniformly, companionably from the still-near horizon. Up at the cathedral, I stepped over the remnants of low walls and was reminded of the cloistral ruins on the tidal island of Birsay, and every bit as cut off from the quotidian. The wind intensified; drove in a tide of Shetland vowels. Time to return to the warmth of StAnza’s replacement hub, the Town Hall, made resplendent with words, sounds, images and tactile textual objects, to see  the collaboration between Fife poets and Shetland craft makers, Farlin. Time to hear Walt Whitman and Marina Tsvetaeva echoing down the generations and across continents.

It wasn’t  unexpected that, meteorologically enabled or not, sounds and other senses from  the northern and western isles  found their way along the wind and waves and into my experience of the venues in St Andrews. It did however come as a surprise to me to be taken back to the Lake District. When Gillian Clarke spoke of childhood fear as a foundation for poetry in her compelling exploration of  Brythonic verse and the Welsh alliterative pattern cynghanedd,  she cited Heaney’s testament to the pervading power of early terrors.   I was reminded of Wordsworth’s assertion near the beginning of The Prelude that he was ‘fostered alike by beauty and by fear’, before embarking on his incomparable blank verse catalogue of childhood adventures and misdemeanours. When Erin Moure, in a dynamic workshop on revision, commented that ‘language can do more than we know’, I searched my memory for the source of his line ‘we feel that we are greater than we know’. And then Jean Atkin, appearing with Zoe Skoulding in the highly atmospheric vaulted undercroft at St John’s, read her poem about the old coffin path that connects Ambleside and Grasmere. I was back in my graduate school days, trying to impress American delegates at the Wordsworth Summer Conference whilst walking that same path on a visit to Rydal Mount, the Wordsworths’ home between 1813 and 1850. Or  earnestly studying early MS. drafts towards The Prelude at Dove Cottage, but waiting for the weather to clear so I could climb Helvellyn (a Cumbric place-name, incidentally, closely related to Brythonic). My supervisor was the late Robert Woof, director of the Wordsworth Trust, who tended to be there, rather than doing his day job across the pennines at Newcastle University. Since that time, the Trust, like the universities, has recognised the benefits of welcoming creatives alongside academics. Time to pay a return visit, perhaps.

But for now, thank you, Eleanor Livingstone and all the StAnza team and participants.

all points north: the poetics of peace and armitage

Simon Armitage’s 1999 essay collection All Points North was re-issued by Penguin to accompany his newer memoir, Gig, last year. I  read it just as the debate  reignited about whether the proposed high-speed train link from London to Manchester and Leeds  would heal or exacerbate the north-south divide.  All Points  is a generically eclectic mixture of ideas of north, innovative on a number of  appealing counts.

It’s largely written in the second person, the better to accentuate the difference between narrator (Armitage, or his literary persona, or a prose-writing variant thereof) from protagonist (his younger selves, including youth growing up amidst trans-Pennine rivalry, and probation officer in Manchester). ‘You were thirteen when you first went to Old Trafford’; ‘Your mum taps you on the back’. From the onset, he lets us know that his version of events, or anyone’s, isn’t necessarily to be believed, when he  follows up an urban myth in circulation amongst the probation service with another professional  anecdote, then concludes ‘that story isn’t true either’. It’s therefore entirely possible that a smattering of examples of good old-fashioned northern sexism, sometimes attributed to ‘your mate’, are made up too, to make a point – albeit an unclear one. That times have changed? That they haven’t?  Various other sorts of fiction are skilfully alluded to: he writes the the script of an imaginary northern-nostalgia TV drama; when  Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration is being filmed, he visits the  set for the Craiglockhart War Hospital, not on location in Edinburgh, but  in a Glasgow studio. His phrase ‘the Leeds of the mind’ reminds us that Armitage’s accounts of, for example, Harvey Nicks, or the DSS HQ Quarry House, are subjective versions of place, recognisble, but different to what say, Tony Harrison’s, or mine, would be; parallel to the Edinburghs of Scott’s or Stevenson’s or Ian Rankin’s minds.

Rather than appearing as stand-alone essays, chapters and fragments are thematically linked into a continuous narrative. So  ‘Jerusalem’, the invented Calderdale soap, follows a critique of the region’s status as prime location for television drama. There are transcripts of real TV films and radio features made by Armitage, too, with his poetry interpolated – on homelessness in Manchester; Saturday night in Leeds; the Humber Bridge. Finally there’s a stunning soundscape/voice collage, ‘Points of Reference – North’ (1996-97), which features the printed voices of a range of experts including Patrick Moore, Ian McCaskill when he was a weatherman, and Rowan Williams before he was an archbishop.

Accounts of print and broadcast news items trigger either personal memories or  a deadpan retelling of the same-everywhere provinciality of local news. Forays to London, Brazil, Iceland, or 1920  are punctuated with six refrains of ‘Over the Top to Manchester’, accounts of Pennine crossings for business or pleasure experienced as ritual re-enactments of a route.  A number of the travel sections start with the preposition ‘to’, a  shortcut to the place in question which becomes a form of literary shorthand: To Portsmouth.  To Rochdale. To Hull. Riffs on identity, mistaken and otherwise, abound, Armitage exploiting his generic northern surname. On page 118, no less, there is a sequence called ‘Directory Enquiries’, where Direct Line threaten to increase his insurance premium because poet is held to be a higher-risk occupation than probation officer.

In 1999 when All Points was first published, my own points of reference  and station stops were a bit further north still.  I was  preoccupied with matters such as  Ossian, and the post-Enlightenment development of the Highlands as a tourist destination. I would quite like to reclaim the term ‘North Britain’, coined after the Union to ensure the Scots knew their place. In many ways – linguistic, topographical, culinary – the northern English and lowland Scots have more in common with each other than the northern and southern English do, or the lowland and highland Scots. I like, too, the idea of being ‘northumbrian’, from (anywhere) north of the Humber.

Since the the turn of the century, my focus has been re-directed south (of the Scottish Lowlands) again. I started to re-read Harrison and Hughes and the Brontes, and seek out literary versions of the region new to me. A preoccupation with grimupnorthness was satisfied but not sated by David Peace’s Red Riding quartet: Nineteen Seventy Four, Nineteen Seventy Seven, Nineteen Eighty and Nineteen Eighty Three, some of my formative years, written between 1999 and 2002 with a sparse lyricism.

Channel 4’s 2009 film of the novels, compressed into a trilogy, was full of   slowburning menace and menacing abstraction. Only the police beatings that regularly punctuated the action had an unfortunate ring of comedy: maybe because they  were performed by uniformed functionaries, they were a bit too much  Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition dressed up as Dixon of Dock Green. The real  nightmare for me was in the architecture, the concrete jungle: the road tunnel  under Leeds city centre,  and the gargantuan cooling towers of Ferrybridge Power Station.  We drove through the tunnel most weekends when I was young: it was the conduit to the other side of the city and what lay beyond – the Dales, the A1- and therefore a means of escape.

Red Riding and All Points North actually have an architectural feature, or location, in common: the Redbeck Cafe outside Wakefield, a no-place where police did bad things to journalists, fugitive sleuths holed up to sort out child murders and their own demons, and an am-dram troupe en route to a convention in Bridlington stopped for refreshments.

Peace, like Armitage, melds fact and fiction. But the former finds no Romantic redemption in landscape. His poetry lies in the cadences of the minimalist dialogue with which he tells of the  Yorkshire Ripper murders, child abduction, organised crime and police corruption. As for the legion of reporters who covered the ‘abduction’ of schoolgirl Shannon Matthews  in 2009, scenery only exists for Peace as metaphor for  social depravation. When his attention is directed  west of the Yorkshire conurbation, it’s towards the legacy of moors murderers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, rather than  the remains of Elmet evoked in poems and photography by Ted Hughes and Fay Godwin. Yet there’s also something libretto-like in Peace’s minimalism. He has   a Wagnerian grasp of theme, and ability to reprise it by flashback and in different voices. The Quartet could be a Ring Cycle for the end of the twentieth century, except that its geometry seems squarely cuboid as opposed to  circular. I’m envious of the scope of Peace’s vision, but not its content. Both Red Riding and All Points sent me back to Armitage’s poetry; to  Barbara Hepworth’s statements about the sculptural forms of the West Riding Hills, and to my own unabashed nostalgia for gritstone wall and flat vowel.

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