I’m not a huge fan of anniversaries and commemorations (though I have recently contributed to an anthology for the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath, and two years ago it was important for me to mark the centenary of Wilfred Owen’s stay at Craiglockhart, just down the road from here). 7 April 2020 was the 250th birthday of the pre-20thC poet who has probably influenced me more than any other.
I had a back operation when I was nineteen, after my first year at Newcastle University. Recovering a couple of days later I started on Wordsworth’s verse autobiography, The Prelude, from the 2nd year reading list (such girlyswottiness then was to contribute to other health problems later on, and I’d actually attempted to read Dryden the day before, but never mind). It was one of those transformative moments, an epiphany, or what Wordsworth would’ve called a ‘spot of time’ – even though for him, as for me normally, these tended to happen in quiet, outdoors, upland places. I went on to write a PhD on Wordsworth, Autobiography and 18th-century Psychology, and then to study Dorothy and Mary Wordsworth.
My thesis was supervised by the late Robert Woof, former director of The Wordsworth Trust, and I was lucky enough to be able to study the manuscripts of The Prelude, and later the Scottish and Continental travel journals of Dorothy and Mary Wordsworth, in the Wordsworth Library, Grasmere. The re-opening of Dove Cottage (where Wordswoth lived from 1799-1808, the home with which he is most readily associated), and the anniversary celebrations scheduled for 7 April in Grasmere are currently postponed due to the Corona virus pandemic.
En route to Romanticism & Revolution conference, Lancaster University, ?1989, photo by John Goodridge
Three and a half decades on from a hospital bed in Huddersfield, it’s easy for me to understand the effect that discovering Wordsworth had on a child of Northern England who had been scholarly and feral in equal measures. I can see how well the Romantic poet vocalised and lineated so much of her own experience – of the rural and seasonal, of the workings of memory and of attempts to record, represent and draw conclusions from that experience (though the specifics may have altered: she didn’t steal boats or rob nests, and she wasn’t orphaned at an early age). She was, too, lacking in role models from the women writers who were shortly to become more widely taught.
I’d read some of the Brontes – not a great deal was made of their local significance – and Jane Austen at school, but had been rather more excited by my discovery of the WW1 poets and the virtuosic style of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Then I read Woolf’s To The Lighthouse and was stunned by what was possible in prose (and I’ve since grown to hugely respect Austen’s syntax and to be more impressed by the Bronte novels’ connectedness to a locality), but I still hadn’t read any women poets at that stage. My first year at uni featured a lot of drama written by men; and Anglo-Saxon, also to become a great love and influence.
My own early attempts creative writing, after I moved to Scotland in 1995, were too much influenced by extensive reading of Wordsworth and Coleridge – far too much verbal solitary wandering above seas of mist. In the last couple of decades I haven’t read much from the Romantic period at all. Wordsworth exhorted readers to let nature be their teacher, but still spoke with the authority of the dominant-species lyric ‘I’. Thanks to the work of Jonathan Bate (especially Romantic Ecology) and others who have rehabilitated him as an eco-poet he is proving to be an important poet again in the time of climate emergency. He may be an important poet for lockdown. Certainly his work on the healing powers of nature and our relationship to our thoughts looks prescient of 21stC therapeutic techniques including Mindfulness and CBT. For the past week he’s the poet I’ve been reading on my permitted daily exercise in the hills I’m lucky enough to call home (with sincere apologies to RLS), walking to the beat of that most measured of blank verse; reading aloud, facing southwest towards a locked-down Lake District, those unsurpassed recollections of childhood adventures and fears.
I.m. Jeffrey Boden, 28 April 1927 – 18 August 2008
‘We can walk between two places and in so doing establish a link between them, bring them into a warmth of contact’, Thomas A Clark, In Praise of Walking
The Scenic Route
I’ve just returned to Edinburgh from a minor road trip, or minor-road trip, or narrow road trip to the North of England. Or, perhaps, a Sentimental Journey to places from my past. I started driving again a couple of years ago, aware that there are already too many cars on roads not designed for them in such great numbers, on a planet not at all designed for them – having passed my test at the age of 18, but never built up much practice or experience. My friend Gill, who knew that I wanted to be able to take myself to places off the bus route, and no longer carry all my luggage / in bad weather, offered me the use of her late mother’s Micra. I wasn’t certain I could re-acquire what seemed to be skills more complex than those needed for anything else I do. With the help of several friends, most of whom were professional educators of some description – it sure is a transferable skill – my extreme nervousness dissipated and I started to gain confidence. Last year I was able to drive down to the Borders for work and walks and short breaks, and contemplate some day moving out of the city. I took over ownership of the car. On a couple of occasions I crossed briefly over the border into England. I became very interested in the idea of The Border itself – which will be the subject of another post, and some poems.
This August I planned my first proper self-drive holiday, to Yorkshire, where I grew up. Three years ago another good friend, former Newcastle flat-mate Lesley, told me that her sister, who now lived in Malhamdale, wanted a cat-sitter in the summer holidays. I’d been looking for ways to spend more time in Yorkshire, where I no longer have close family, on a budget, so this was a perfect opportunity. I travelled down by public transport in 2016 – blog post here, with better weather! – and 2017 and had an amazing time exploring again the limestone scenery that was the destination of regular childhood trips from the (gritstone) edge of the West Riding Pennines where we lived.
From Limestone Pavement to Malhamdale
So far I still don’t drive on motorways and the larger trunk roads. You can, however, get from Edinburgh to the north of England without the A1 or M6 if you allow enough time. The plan was to use the A7 and A68 through the Borders for the first and last stages, then get off the big roads, and wander down to Malhamdale and back via places I haven’t seen since I was a child in the 70s (Kielder), since I was a student in Newcastle in the 80s (Hadrian’s Wall, the North Pennines), since I met up with elderly parents for short breaks in the first decade – their last – of this century (Kirkby Stephen, Ribblehead, Swaledale, Arkengarthdale). Plus some regular favourites, familiar from youth and the more recent cat-sitting trips (Gordale Scar, Malham Tarn), and some completely new locations.
Of course some familiar places have changed quite a lot – popular sites now necessarily have more car parks and visitor centres. As when abroad and in places like Orkney, I prefer the charm of visiting the lesser-visited. (And yes, as with the actual driving, I am aware of the irony if not hypocrisy of so doing. But I do contribute to the local economy, buying home-made and home-cooked, or items from which the profit goes back into local organisations, whenever I can).
The backroads and byways were subject to several closures and diversions, and not just where the well-publicised recent Yorkshire floods had occurred. Journeys were also repeatedly lengthened due to driver error. I generally have a good sense of direction, and can judge distances well when walking and cycling – or as passenger-seat map reader. Driving alone without satnav, however, I took wrong turnings with comic regularity – for example when avoiding bigger roads after crossing the North Pennines and descending to the Eden Valley from Hartside. (So many bikers! So many seats commemorating bikers’ deaths! So many memories of trips to the Lake District from Newcastle!)
Hartside, Cumbria: edge of North Pennines / Eden Valley, looking West
Below the Pennines between Melmerby and Kirkby Stephen, I drove through many pretty red sandstone villages with big well-tended greens and inviting pubs – to which I declined the invitation and persisted on my quite tiring way. I did need to cross the A66 trunk road at some point, and just before this I found myself driving through a strange, deserted MoD landscape that wasn’t even shown on my road-map. I started to wonder if I was imagining it even while I was there.
The core of the trip was my cat-sitting stay in Airton, Malhamdale. The village is just south of the Mid Craven Fault’s limestone showstoppers Malham Cove and Gordale Scar, connected to them on a section of the Pennine Way by a lovely hour’s walk upstream beside the young River Aire (strong enough though to merit its second mill en route to Skipton and Leeds by the time it reaches Airton, just two miles south of its source). Walking these riverbank paths to Malham has become established as a contemplative ritual, of unwinding and arriving and then preparing to depart, over my three recent visits.
Approaching Airehead from Scalegill; Gordale ahead
The destination, the furthest point south, the cat sitting, were important – but so were the stages en route, and the route itself, including all the ‘wrong’ turns, and all the country lanes which driving provided the opportunity to explore. I travelled widdershins, south from Newcastleton, after an evening excursion to Kielder and stopover in Liddesdale, and walked a short stretch of the Roman wall near Gilsland. On the return I planned a more easterly journey through Northumberland to Jedburgh.
Hadrian’s Wall near Gilsland
Airbnb makes booking stopovers easier and more enjoyable than it used to be, though I’m accustomed to the high quality and comparatively low-price, high-availability of the Scottish Borders: finding suitable places on the right dates in the Yorkshire Dales National Park was bit harder. So I stayed in the rather lovely Eden Valley village of Crosby Garrett on the way down. A beck runs through it, with (slow) lanes on either bank, and there’s a viaduct on the Settle-Carlisle line at the head of the village. A farm track passes under this and up onto the hillside, where on a humid Saturday evening I started to orient myself in relation to familiar North Pennine and Dales landmarks (Cross Fell, Ingleborough).
The two consecutive nights that I wanted in family favourite Swaledale on the start of the journey back north weren’t available either, so I stayed for one in the next dale south, Wensleydale, where my host persuaded me to try the early bird menu at the local Michelin / gastropub along the road, rather than the local pub grub with real ale round the corner that I’d have been happy with. Never been anywhere that serves an amuse-bouche when travelling alone before, but it was all so lovely that I also had pudding (lavender – apparently now A Thing in Yorks – pannacotta with strawberries several ways) after the (relatively) cheap two-course menu. I am not someone who photographs my food, in restaurants or at home, but:
Honesty, Tea & Cakes
It was an appropriate celebration of having come so far, but no more enjoyable than seeing a Cakes for Sale sign at a farmhouse gate when driving over to Ribblehead on the way down to Airton. I’d been hoping for some Eggs for Sale, common in rural areas, but this would do very well too.
In two places I encountered the phenomenon of the ‘honesty tea shop’. The first was in the hamlet of Halton Gill at the head of Littondale, after a steep descent of Penyghent Ghyll (named for being at the foot of the most shapely of Yorkshire’s Three Peaks). I gather this is a favourite cyclists’ refreshment stop. I’d just driven over from Malham Tarn, on my first leg of the return north, and was ready for re-fuelling.
Honesty Tea Room
It’s wonderful motoring country. I expected to find the gradientsand corners and summertime congestion difficult compared to southern Scotland, but it wasn’tvery busy and I took to driving through this terrain as readily as I had, decades ago, to walking. But this is also God’s own cycling country: it hosted the grand départ of the 2013 Tour de France, and next month will host the UCIWorld Championships. My dad cycled these roads before he drove them, sometimes for 200 miles a day. He’d shoulder his bike and walk over the peaks, too.
Just below Katie’s Cuppas is a rowan tree, and a plaque on a stone next to it. It commemorates the 2014 TdF passage by quoting Blake, supplementing the ‘green and pleasant land’ reference with ‘the fool sees not the same tree that the wise man sees’ from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell – hard now not to invest this with Brexit-era significance (though most of Yorkshire voted Leave, something incomprehensible to most in Scotland).
The second honesty tea stop was in the Old School Muker Gallery, one of several repurposed former education buildings in Swaledale, and new since my last visit. It was nearly closing time; the afternoon had somehow gone by while I walked around lovely Keld at the head of the dale, in my own footsteps and those of my late parents, then drove down to Muker and walked back to the River Swale over the paving slabs on the famous wild flower meadows (now cut for hay). I’d already had my tea, and my cake, at the Keld farmhouse that serves them, but I found time – on a day spent productively losing it (the Keld area seems to have that reputation, of displacing time in the way that a sea voyage can) – to buy some presents. An agitated woman appeared to be pushing in behind me at the till but it transpired she was agitated for good reason: the passenger window of her car, parked along the verge near mine, had been smashed and valuables grabbed from the interior while she and her family were enjoying refreshments in the honesty tea room. With no signal in the dale, she needed to use the shop’s WiFi and landline to contact the AA and police. Thieves operate in this area / Don’t leave your valuables in sight notices are, alas, common, alongside more appealing way-markers, useful interpretive panels, and Slow Down for Red Squirrels, Do Not Interfere with the Industrial Archeology, or Eggs for Sale signs.
Stopping for the priority movement of sheep and cattle on the road can cause frustration if getting from A to B quite quickly happens to be your priority. Luckily it wasn’t mine and I was happy to pause for the flock moments after crossing the county boundary into Yorkshire.
Welcome to Yorkshire
Later at Malham Tarn, my car was engulfed by a positively Biblical, seemingly endless, ovine flood. Biblical-pastoral imagery is inescapable, and attractive, in a place so long predicated on sheep farming, and where Christian religion can still be deeply entrenched in valleys historically rooted in non-conformism – despite depopulation and the problematic increase of holiday homes. Nonetheless on my last night in the Dales I was quite surprised to hear that my Gunnerisde host’s neighbour disapproved of her hanging out washing on Sundays. Reading leaflets at Keld Resource Centre, housed in the former village Literary Institute, I was less surprised to find a softening of Old Testament-type values in favour of emphasis on compassion, mindfulness and environmental awareness (not incompatible with the core Christian message, of course, but often submerged under a more oppressive, controlling, discourse that has been internalised over generations, and is still sometimes evident in people’s speech and behaviour).
Tiny, tranquil Keld, a ‘thin place’, according to more Resource Centre interpretative borrowing from Celtic Christianity or pre-Christianity, has a high proportion of public buildings to private dwellings. The windows of the unadorned, atmospheric United Reformed Church look out on the Dale in the way the Telford kirks do on the Scottish Highlands and Islands. Several Anglican churches in the Dales have bespoke stained glass depicting local scenes, like the beautiful example at Muker.
Keld United Reformed Church
Through glass clearly: Muker Parish Church
Quite a number of people seem to have claimed Keld as one of their favourite places on earth, and I’d add my name to them. It featured in a Scotsman article in 2013 which draws attention one of the village’s most famous twentieth-century admirers, North Penniner W H Auden. In ‘Streams‘, part of the 1953 sequence Bucolics, Auden describes, in full Wordsworthian voice, dozing beside one of the waterfalls at Keld, ‘where off its fell-side helter-skelter, Kisdon Beck / Jumps into Swale with a boyish shouting’, and having a surreal dream that coloured the rest of his day: ‘fortunate seemed that / Day because of my dream and enlightened’.
Centuries of Transport and Industry
Gunnerside, Muker, Thwaite and Keld: names with the sonority of a liturgical chant; they certainly have the power to regulate and improve my mood. But as well as being a magical place with an undoubted aura of spirituality, this is also a former industrial landscape. Abundant remnants of the lead mining that took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are assimilating with natural screes in places like Gunnerside Ghyll. Together with place-names like Surrender (as in give up your land to the mine owner)*, they add considerable interest to today’s walks. Like in Orkney, the presence of the past is everywhere: evidence of changing uses of the land – and, with a little imagination, especially in bad weather, of the hard lives of those who worked it.
* The Surrender Mining Company is one of several that operated commercially in Swaledale in the eighteenth century. ‘Surrender’ is also a legal term internationally associated with the handing over of mining rights and land.
In addition to numerous drove roads – the lovely ancient walled lanes, sometimes incorporated as part of modern long-distance walking paths – and the tracks that have become metalled roads, the Settle-Carlisle railway line famously travels up and down the Dales. For about a decade from the mid-90s I’d meet my parents, at Ribblehead Station, for short breaks and celebrations in Swaledale and Arkengarthdale – including their 40th wedding anniversary and my mum’s 80th birthday. When they set off back to West Yorkshire I’d go for a walk around the iconic viaduct, sit on the limestone scars, have a poke around the sink holes where water seeps underground through the soluble limestone (when do ‘sink holes’ become ‘shake holes’ as you travel northwards? When do Swaledale sheep become Cheviots?) before boarding a train back to Scotland.
Ribblehead Viaduct was built, at considerable human cost, by navvies who lived in the temporary accommodation constructed for / by them on Blea Moor. It now has surfaced parking spaces and access paths and little evidence of the ‘shanty towns’ save a memorial plaque. I stopped off to pay homage en route between the Yorkshire border at Aisgill on the upper reaches of the River Eden, and Airton. As ever the presence of a fair number of bikers and cavers and families queueing at the ice-cream van made little impact against the scale of the built and natural environment.
Talking of Blake, and faith, the well-planned trip turned out to have some unplanned symmetries and highly pleasing synchronicities. My final stopover was, like the first, to be in the Cumbrian district of Eden according to local government demarcation – but somewhere that felt less like a garden than Crosby Garrett, in one of those high moor villages with which I feel great affinity, near the source of the South Tyne.
I left Swaledale by making the low-gear ascent onto Reeth High Moor, then down steeply to Surrender Bridge, up again, across more open moor, down again, through the original All Creatures Great and Small ford, back steeply up onto Reeth High Moor – where I pulled up and looked down over Arkengarthdale. I’d stayed in this most northerly dale with my late parents on maybe half a dozen occasions in the years before they became too frail. Then I quickly crossed the dale bottom, over the Arkle Beck. Steeply up once more, this time over The Stang and into Country Durham – stopping again at the top to look back, and forward, as I had repeatedly, ritually, at other summits, high points of passes, and county boundaries, over the course of the trip. If I didn’t know, and in a few months’ time, would I be able to tell which of my photos look forward into the dale, and which back at it?
The Stang from Reeth High Moor
So I returned to the North Pennines on my way back to the Border via Haltwhistle. I’d intended to head in a north-easterly direction, directly to Haydon Bridge on the final day, but I – who am supposed to Know the North – took a wrong turning, somehow confusing the two place-names beginning with H . . . my mistake at least gave me the opportunity to drive – straight- along the rollercoaster Roman road parallel to, sometimes on the course of, Hadrian’s Wall. Thence to Bellingham, where I bizarrely both cut a finger quite deeply on the door of an old railway carriage repurposed as a cafe, and got stung on the back by a wasp.
This was a road trip, enabled by having four wheels for the first time in my 54 years, but I am foremost a walker, a pedestrian (and secondarily a cyclist). The Pennine Way and my path had appropriately, it felt, intersected at several points. It ran adjacent to where I was staying both in Airton, and finally at Garrigill, just south of the north Pennine crossroad-town Alston. I encountered the Pennine Way signage, and walked a few paces, or a few miles, along it, in both of these places and wherever else we met: at Malham Tarn, the foot of Penyghent, Keld and Muker, Dufton, by the Roman wall and the A68.
Weaving in and out of North Yorkshire, Cumbria, County Durham and Northumberland, I relished too the modulation of accents from the north, south, east and west of the region – and was bemused that mine, which I take to be a fairly readily intelligible Northern English, could not always be easily understood: on several occasions I did not get the ice cream, or the beer, that I thought I’d ordered. But I did get to savour instead some pleasant surprises for the palate, as well as for the ear and other senses. A twenty-first century sentimental journey, aye; a grand tour of sorts, yes.
These are places that Auden loved to re-visit; they are places where my West Riding baker dad drove, cycled and walked. He introduced me to them when I was young and I’ve loved them all my life, but as I got older we didn’t have much else in common. We argued, as is common, when he supervised my teenage driving practice; otherwise I ignored him. I don’t think he ever really understood what it was I did after I left home. When my mum died in 2007 he tried to persuade me to take up driving again, and added me to his motor insurance. I discovered when I saw the documents after he died eleven months later, eleven years ago today, that he didn’t know what my title or my job title were. But there were places where we were able to connect in his later years, especially the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, near where they lived; and Swaledale. I inherited his car and wanted to keep it on and bring it up to Scotland, but (having no choice but to deal with the house) driving still felt too much to take on at that point; for this and other factors connected with the estate I sold it. I like to think that in making this commemorative trip, he would have understood my reasons for doing so, and my experience of place, as much as anyone; and that in driving safely on the roads he loved for twelve days of August (ok, the car sustained minor damage to number plate and wheel hubs when I was trying to park when tired, but I’m not the perfectionist he was), I would have made him a little bit proud.
10 August 1917: a dozen walkers from the Craiglockhart War Hospital Field Club, including Wilfred Owen, walk in the Pentland Hills. According to an article Owen wrote for the hospital magazine The Hydra, the route took them from Balerno tram terminus to Threipmiur Reservoir, Bavelaw Castle, Green Cleuch, Loganlee and Glencourse.
We departed, in both senses of the word, from Owen’s route, at Harlaw Visitor Centre, to have a cuppa, make introductions and do some warm-up exercises to prime us for walking as poets. Then along to Threipmuir to fall into century-separated step with Owen (I’m reminded of Nan Shepherd’s ‘one is companioned, but not in time’, The Living Mountain, ch 5). We also fell into step, conversation, and companionship with each other, sharing stories of what brought us here, today, literally and figuratively. Periodically we stopped and Neil took us back to 1917 and the findings of his own research.
2017 historian / walkers
After a lunch stop at the Howe (‘Habbie’s Howe’ to Owen), we fell into silence for a spell, to observe, hear and generally ‘sense’ the experience of walking in August 2017 – both to be mindful of the present moment, and to remind ourselves of the 1917 walkers, here as part of a rehabilitation that would make them fit to be returned to the front, that would see Owen unnecessarily killed a few days before the Armistice. Beneficiaries of post-WW2 peace and prosperity struggling to come to terms with Brexit and Trump, we used our minutes of silence to walk in an act of remembrance and maybe resistance, for peace, integration, tolerance; and to write. The results were stunning and I hope they will be in the public domain at some point.
Walkers reflecting on the centenary of Wilfred Owen’s Pentland Hills trip
A humbling, inspiring and companionable experience for someone who, like many, was introduced to, and became enthralled by, modern poetry when studying the WW1 poets at school; who has lived somewhere between Craiglockhart and the Pentlands for the last 7 years, and walked this route for over 20 without realising until now that it was the one taken by Owen. Not my average day’s walk in the hills of the adopted home.
This year’s StAnza Poetry Festival started for me before Aurélia Lassaque sang in Occitan at the launch in the Byre, before I crossed the Forth on an auspiciously bright first morning of March. It may even have started a few years ago, in exhibition venues around the town where poetry was combined with visual art, and I thought how it would be fantastic for Words on Canvas to do that. WoC are an ekphrastic group formed at the National Galleries of Scotland in 2008, who also respond to exhibitions by working artists, give readings and produce pamphlets.
Forward to the winter of 2016-17, and we started responding to linocuts by last year’s artist in residence Hilke MacIntyre as jpegs of them were emailed to us. In mid-Feb we sent fourteen new poems back to festival director Eleanor Livingstone, who combined them with their corresponding images (big shout-out to Eleanor here: it’s not like she doesn’t have enough to do two weeks before her festival starts). When I arrived in Fife on the 1st, StAnza’s printers had turned them into rather lovely 30cm sq foam boards. Local WoC member Susan Grant and I hung them in the room above the Public Library that is used for the StAnza workshops. Then I checked into my favourite B and B, quiet by the Kinness Burn, where the owner keeps his own hens – my marker for good holiday accommodation when not staying in a town.
A wall from the Sightlines exhibition
The weather was stunning. Before going off to my first booked event on Thursday I bought a selection of participants’ books from the StAnza bookseller JG Innes, before stocks ran low – I was too late to get everything I wanted last year – and sat in the sun for a couple of hours, sheltered from a still-cold wind in a south-facing nook in the harbour wall, watching the tide come in.
And then into the flow of words. I’ve already gushed on Facebook, in my own post and on others’ feeds, about how Paul Stephenson gave a masterclass in the delivery of a poetry set, reading from his Happenstance pamphlet about living in Paris during the November 2015 attacks. How I thrilled to the sounds of Occitan, Catalan, Arabic and French (that my friend Tessa Berring was one of the four poets on a four-day residency devoted to translating each other’s work between English, French and Occitan, added another layer of interest). How Joan Margarit, Robert Crawford, Alice Oswald and Kathleen Jamie played to the strengths of their voices, personalities and material. How Jacque Darras’s homage in sound to Jean Tinguely’s kinetic sculpture was one of the best examples of ekphrasis I’ve been privileged to experience. How stimulating I found the mix of poetry and themed discussion (& coffee!) in the breakfast panels on this year’s themes: the Heights of Poetry, and On The Road. And more.
The first time I attended StAnza I was struck by how it was like a mix of a Hebridean holiday and being back at university: you bump into the same people everywhere and you made new friends quickly. This year, most of the members of the two peer crit groups I belong to in Edinburgh where around at some point, as well as regulars from the Scottish poetry scene and guests from many parts of Europe and beyond – more of a joy than ever in this post-brexit vote year. Before taking your seat in the Byre auditorium, you can greet familiar faces on all four sides of you.
On Friday this sense of community was augmented by the arrival of the remaining members of WoC, who had made a very early start, from the Borders and East Lothian as well as Edinburgh. If they were tired by the time our Meet the Artist event started at 3.45pm in the Library, they didn’t show it. We’d hung the Sightlines boards randomly, because, after a bit of experimentation with grouping and ordering, we thought they looked best that way. The reading proceeded thematically, however, in the spirit of On the Road, beginning with poems inspired by Hilke’s townscape (the one that’s on the front cover of the brochure), moving into a café scene, progressing to The Byre, and concluding – with sound and shape poems – with our responses to Hilke’s response to last year’s Jazz evening.
Jean Taylor’s poem responding to linocut of St Andrews streetscape by Hilke MacIntyre
There’s a lot going on at StAnza, and you have to make difficult choices, so I had been a bit worried that the 11 of us might outnumber our audience, but we didn’t. They asked interested questions that enabled us to open up about our process, how we use artworks – or sometimes a small detail from them – to trigger a linguistic response. This could form a kind of poetic commentary on the image or be a ‘translation’ – a poetic equivalent – of it; or it could send the writer on a geographical or historical path or other associative journey well beyond it, or into personal memory. I’d become very familiar with this set of fourteen poems, as we considered constraints such as readability on a wall, and made decisions about fonts. Voiced by their authors, they took on fresh life. Like Hilke’s linocuts, they sang.
Meet the Artist reading & discussion for Sightlines
Cafés scenes: poem by Moira Scott, linocut by Hilke MacIntyre
On the final page of A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit writes: ‘the county was something I chose to return to again and again’. She is referring to Marin County, CA, and the last chapter of her meditation on loss in all its senses, place and memory, describes her involuntary revisiting, in dreams, of the ‘one story house’ where she grew up. She comes to realise that it held more narrative versions, and more connectedness to the wild hinterland she loved, than she had previously believed possible. It seemed an appropriate thing to read on my final day in the county I choose to keep returning to, Yorkshire.
I grew up in the West Riding, which had become West Yorkshire before I went to secondary school. We had many school trips and family days out in the Dales, about 40 miles north of the industrial towns, some of it administratively still in the West. My dad, a baker from Dewsbury, used to spend all his weekends cycle-touring up there, and later he took his family by car on practically every day off. I’m not entirely sure that was what his wife had bargained for, but his daughter took to it as eagerly as she took to her schooling, and it established in her a pattern of escaping the urban at every opportunity. It was the perfect place to study for O and A levels in Geography, though I suspect I actually became quite complacent about it, underwhelmed by the things that made other tourists gawp. And quite dismissive of the tourists. It was far more exciting to go up to the Scottish Highlands.
I live in Edinburgh, and go back to some part of Yorkshire every eighteen months or so. I’ve just returned from cat-sitting for a friend in Airton, Malhamdale. Airton was somewhere you passed through en route to limestone mecca Malham. A couple of miles south of the Craven fault-line which is the reason for the geological highlights of Malham Cove and Gordale Scar, it’s a farming village with a main green and several satellite ones, and seventeenth-century buildings, including a Quaker meeting house. It’s near the source of the Aire, which goes on to flow through Leeds, and which I always thought of as a more industrial river than, say, the Wharfe or Swale, more like the Calder I grew up beside.
Village green, Airton
I’m not synaesthetic, but I am highly sensitive to the way bedrock and soil colour the land. Limestone has always signified light and brightness to me, in contrast to the gritstone of the southern Pennines. Millstone grit, to give it its full name. Think wuthering heights, remains of Elmet, the small-town toxicities of Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley. The green over limestone has a luminescence; that over gritstone – beautiful also, despite the grimupnorth connotations – generally produces a more matt, olive tone.
WH Auden’s poem ‘In Praise of Limestone‘ opens: ‘if it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones / are constantly homesick for, this is chiefly / because it dissolves in water’. The poem is at least as much about the karsts of southern Europe and the crises of masculinity as it is about the poet’s own formative Pennine landscapes. I have also been homesick for the red sandstone of Arran and the gneisses of the far north of Scotland and Isle of Lewis; for the coastal bluffs of the south of France. I am probably homesick for whatever sort of rock I have most recently left behind, but a real feeling of hireath is most likely to be triggered by the sight of Pennine millstone. Limestone gives a lighter sense of longing and nostalgia, and also, I think, of hope.
The first evening was quite disorienting: familiar and unfamiliar both, unhiemlich, even. I went to the pub in the next village, Kirkby Malham, for ‘home killed’ (not cured) gammon, sold by weight. I had the smallest, and it was huge. Intending to continue towards Malham afterwards, I actually took the wrong road, and headed uphill towards Settle. I was rewarded with a fresh angle on Malham Cove, and southwest of me was the Lancashire witching hill, Pendle Hill, and the dark moors that extend towards Bradford and the industrial cities. I felt caught between the two, and surprisingly far from home.
Next morning I went for breakfast and provisions at the excellent local farm shop (it’s local, artisan, everything nowadays, unlike in the 70s and 80s), and felt a bit foreign, with my strange bank notes and own shopping bags and not realising you could buy alcohol before noon on a Sunday. But it’s the post Tour de France D’ales, and you can. After a couple of days of walking, eating and looking after a lovely cat called Picasso, I re-acclimatised. Oh, I love limestone! Walking down a green lane between limestone walls has long been a favourite pastime and a source of joy.
scar, scree, walls
The contrast between the worked countryside and the wild is marked in Malhamdale, courtesy of the decisive Craven fault, though cattle graze above it, and uncultivated species blossom by the riverbank below it. Nuances within each category become discernible, when you have the leisure to savour them all on daily walks that connect places in, above and around the dale over a ten-day period at harvest-time.
Venerable drystone walls in limestone demarcate ancient field systems above Malham village. From a distance, they resemble bobbly knitting (though admittedly there may be a chicken-and-egg issue here). Downdale, modern machinery worked the fields all day and into the night, and serially transported its loads to farm-yard, competing on the narrow lanes with tourist traffic. When not walking off-road (cattle! mud!), I hopped onto the verge to let them all pass and admired the wild flowers. As well as being the longest single stay I’ve had in the Dales, this was the first time I – a bad hayfever sufferer – had been resident in summer. I took my anti-histamine, and went out to find what was there, just as I’ve taken in recent years to going for walks at dawn and dusk, when you see, hear, smell, different things. The sparse vegetation capable of flourishing in the limestone grykes, that I’ve only seen in books before, was at its peak.
I’m surprised by how scant my recall could be: I remembered key sites / sights, like the Cove, that tend to appear frequently on calendars and magazine covers anyway, and I remembered details like the whitewashed – now flaking – sweetshop where the roads fork in the village. But I’d failed to retain any image of what excites me most, the sweep of the county seen from the heights, the horizons, the extent of view. This shouldn’t surprise me, as I know all about the sublime: the unrepresentable, the unrecoverable, the impossibility of retaining what we most desire, but it does. It made me wonder (given little in the broader picture will have changed), what did I actually see as a child?
My dad, though never an assertive person, used to have set itineraries and omissions that he stuck to – there were some places we always just drove past. Maybe he had more of the cyclist’s mindset than the walker’s, and of course he’d be aware of what time he had to return to bakery duties. I’d look out of the rear window, wanting to stop and explore. Malham Tarn was one of these places, and now I finally got to linger there.
Last Saturday had been hot by this summer’s standards – I walked in a t-shirt, and sat for long periods with books and ice-cream. Sunday was wild, like one of those Hebridean ‘summer’ days, and it was a delight to explore the variety of topographies in the National Trust Malham Tarn estate: upland moss (raised bog) and groundwater-fed fen, bird hide, boat house, broadleaf avenue, an orchid house which has been converted into a sustainable building for group use. I emerged tarnside to the accompaniment of waves, then crossed the flat high grassland and dropped into the shelter of the limestone valley above Gordale.
Underfoot conditions are tougher than in my local Pentland Hills, but there are also more people around participating in recreation activities. When I fell into a deep concealed ditch in the less visited southern Pentlands last month, there was no one around (actually I wasn’t badly hurt, and I was quite glad there was no one to witness my tumble). Now, scrambling down to the top of the force (waterfall) at Gordale, as I had up to its base the previous day, I knew that if I had newer boots with grippier soles and the rock was drier, I could still make the direct connection between the two, and was happy to leave it at that for this trip. When I was young and lithe, I took for granted what my body was capable of, in the same way as I took for granted the scenery I was privileged to be able to experience. Now I try to make the time to cherish both.
Gordale / above
Gordale / below
Places like Malham village were very busy on weekends and bank holidays when I was a kid. My dad’s car used to give them a swerve and head for quieter spots. Nowadays, an off-season traveller with a love of remote places, I’m even less used to tourist hotspots. One thing that struck me, though, was that in my Yorkshire youth you only ever saw white faces once you were out of the city. You still wouldn’t call it multicultural, but now there are Asians and a smattering of other ethnicities, clad in lyrcra or gortex for their chosen pursuits, or chasing their ice-cream eating children around village greens. These will be second- and third-generation children of immigrants, now at home, in this country, in this county.
I’ve just had a love-my-job couple of weeks. This is possibly because it’s been quite a workshop-intense fortnight, and workshops are one of my favourite aspects of my job. Also, a lot of them have taken place in beautiful gallery settings, which does tend to enhance one’s sense of creativity and zest for life. Within the ekphrastic-workshop (writing about art) category I’ve enjoyed quite range of different activities over a short time period. What follows are some notes and observations on this, in words and photographs.
I attended a rich panel discussion on writing and sculpture at the Fruitmarket Gallery the other week, during Sara Barker’s exhibition Change-The-Setting. One of the speakers argued for a fluid transition or ‘translation’ between the two mediums, rather than the old ‘influence’ model. Of course this isn’t always desirable, or possible, particularly if you are a specialist in only one field. So how do we find an equivalent language for sculpture? Another spoke of Barker’s own reading, of authors including Virginia Woolf, and her attempt to make spatial equivalents of the texts in which she was immersed. The closing remarks drew an analogy between sculpture and spoken word: both operate in space. This seemed an appropriate conclusion, as I was en route to Kevin Cadwallender’s monthly poetry event 10RED in Leith.
Change-The-Scene, Fruitmarket Gallery: visit by Third Thursday Writers in April 2016. Photographs by Rosemary Bassett.
During a decade of working as a freelance educator at National Galleries Scotland – often as the only one who didn’t go to art school or study art history – I’ve developed a love for works in the collection that incorporate writing in some way: in mediums ranging from collage to neons; by substituting objects drawn or painted in perspective with their names; playful working with signs and messages; almost-text marks, and words in unfamiliar scripts. Are we reading or looking when we view them? One of my favourite works has to be Sonia Delaunay’s collaboration with French poet Blaise Cendrars, A Trans-Siberian Prose.
Delaunay was a proponent of simultanism. This meant finding a visual equivalent for the text, rather than illustrating it. She and husband Robert Delaunay aimed to present simultaneously a number of different ‘modern’ experiences – distilling words, colour, or their signature take on the Eiffel Tower (bottom left in the image above) into a single picture. This could be a great way of thinking about the text and image relationship, rather than seeing them in more hierarchical terms of influence or inspiration. Of course there are pictures that serve to illustrate text, and writing that captions images, and the ‘responsive’ model of using a visual artwork as a writing prompt remains a productive one. But ‘simultanism’ seems to offer a way into thinking about some alternatives.
The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art has a monthly session called ‘The Drawing Room’. This ‘examines the range of possibilities within contemporary drawing practice and explores how mark-making can also be conceived as sculpture, installation, video, performance, writing, sound, textiles and animation.’ When organiser Sharon Quigley invited me to lead this month’s session, I jumped at the chance. We walked round the top floor of Mod One, collecting words from the artworks, before settling down for a series of practical exercises. All the participants were visual artists. Once again I was reminded how writers and artists work differently: short, intense bursts of concentration suit the former; long, slow periods of concentration seem more appropriate for the latter – in workshop settings at least. And of course there will be individual variations and preferences. We can learn a lot from listening to each other and observing each other’s practices. I’d wanted to show a range of activities, options and possibilities, but I realised I also needed to respect their way of working – some of them might well be out of their comfort zone here. I felt reluctant to stop them and move onto a new activity as they settled into a task, though Sharon reassured me they welcomed interruptions. During writing groups, it’s usual to pause, read and critique at several points – here saving up all the work done to display at the end worked best. I was hugely impressed by the quality and range of what they’d produced, and the way they displayed it.
The regular groups I work with use a lot of visual stimulus. The raison d’etre of the fortnightly writing group at National Galleries Scotland, Words on Canvas, is ekphrasis or responsive writing. Their recent writing triggered by synaesthesia, light, colour, time, ‘random constructions’ and ‘looking out / looking in’ in the prints of Whilhemina Barns-Graham was amongst the best they’ve ever done.
The termly-theme approach at South Side Writers tends also to encourage responsive work: like many writing groups, we often use prompts in the form of images, objects and other texts. Writing on ‘Mapping’ just now, this seems especially the case. As always, there is a massive range of relevant historical, geographical and cultural material available to use, enhancing individual and collective knowledge of the subject. Some great discussions take place in the room. We’ve used old maps, personal maps, art maps, maps of the imagination and obsolete maps; poems about maps, and novels that contain maps. We’ve considered the aesthetics and politics of cartography, and used place names and landscape features in our word hoard. As always, members have written original, funny, moving, lyrical and surprising responses.
Mapping South Side Writers. Photograph by Olga Wojtas.
Third Thursday Writers go to a different exhibition each month. Most recently we were at the Ingleby Gallery, in its final week in its Calton Rd premises, looking at Kevin Harman’s No Man’s Land – beautiful glassworks made by repurposing double glazing units and household paint. We used them to think about synaesthesia; and about chance and choice, mood and perspective in art and writing. Ingelby Gallery is a wonderful writing space – I do wish I’d used it more. The station announcements audible from Waverley across the road can seem intrusive, but we found a way to incorporate them into response to the artworks, combining place-names, remembered journeys, and imagined locations with ideas suggested by the artworks.
At No Man’s Land on the Third Thursday. Photograph by Rosemary Bassett
Cartoonist, musician and generally brilliant colleague Malcy Duff and I reprised our Text & Image workshop, previously set in art galleries, at the Scottish Poetry Library. This was about hybridity in more than medium and form: writers and artists combined their ways of working, their energy and interests, to make shape poetry, found poetry and sound poetry. One participant blogged about his experience here. The day also encouraged me to consider the relationship between creative and pedagogic practice, as I participated in Malcy’s exercises, drawing different shapes of speech bubbles; collaging; reproducing pictures using only words; making non-linguistic sounds to fit a ‘script’ of drawn shapes. Afterwards I put the four letters of the word PLOT in the corners of a rectangle, and I drew the outlines of Yorkshire and its constituent parts before, and after, the 1973 local government re-organisation. The shape of Yorkshire uncannily resembles a speech bubble – into which I might put the words wool, or steel, or scone, or STOP FRACKING – or that common lament of Yorkshire people living in Edinburgh who haven’t got the time to go and stand in a queue in Anstruther: decentfish and chips.
Text & Image
Text & Image workshop – spreading out at the SPL. Photography By Hector Michael Fried.
I accidentally attended a workshop at the very excellent Scottish Poetry Library yesterday. ‘Accidentally’ because the workshop wasn’t exactly about what I though it was – my fault for not reading the small print in sufficient detail once again! I should have looked up acrostic first (well, now I know…)
What the workshop was about was about image and poetry, but in the sense of using text and other elements to make a poem that is spatial as well as (or maybe more than) temporal. Well, so to speak…
Nothing ventured, nothing gained, however, so I decided to give it a go…
To be honest, I felt a bit at sea – I’ve always found this kind of thing quite difficult to get into. But in any event it was good to grapple with it with people who didn’t. I was impressed by the range…
Two ekphrastic day workshops coming up in the next couple of months:
On 21 May I’ll be teaming up again with cartoonist Malcy Duff for our Text & Image gig – but for the first time in a library setting. We’re thrilled to be doing this at the Scottish Poetry Library, where we’ll use the archive – including some amazing concrete poetry, and the text art in the building itself – as a starting point for practical and experimental exercises in writing and drawing. This will be the fifth, sixth even, time we’ve collaborated, since co-facilitating a comic book workshop at the Fruitmarket Gallery in 2007. We’ve run Text & Image as a six-week course and as one-day and two-day workshops at National Galleries Scotland, considering many ways in which words and pictures combine – including in illuminated manuscripts, political cartoons, calligraphy and pop art. We’ve worked in a variety of mediums, including collage and acetates, and with our non-dominant hands – and our vocal chords! We look forward to adapting the exercises we devised for this new setting.
For writers, and artists, and folk who identify as both, or neither.
More details and how to book here. Please book by 6 May.
Back at NGS, on 25 June I have a day workshop on writing and surrealism, in response to the Surrealist Encounters exhibition which runs from 4 June – 11 Sept. There will be time to look at and discuss aspects of the exhibition, try some innovative writing exercises, and develop your own piece of work. We’ll cover topics associated with the surrealists, including automatic writing and dreams, and explore how the relationship between chance and conscious decision-making contributes to the creative process. Includes refreshments, and a day pass to the exhibition (normally £10/8).
Apologies for the formatting at the end of this post. WordPress’s ‘new improved posting experience’ is failing to deliver as promised.
Patricia Oxley’s editorial in Acumen78 focused on the lack of suitability for publication of many poems begun in workshops. I do sympathise if she’s inundated with unpolished submissions born of writing group prompts, but I also want to present an alternative perspective. I encounter publishable work resulting from such prompts quite frequently nowadays. I’m not making great claims for my own powers here – it’s what the writer does with the prompt that counts. Nor am I entirely advocating Keats’s naturally-as-leaves-to-a-tree requirement. But I’ve worked with enough writing groups to know that, given an unexpected, external stimulus, i.e., one they didn’t seek themselves, and a time limit, writers produce some remarkable work that wouldn’t have happened in the same time period in their private writing space. For those who seek publication, their writing will of course need some editing and tweaking and rest time before submission – both it and the magazine editor deserve this respect – but I regularly witness how minimal this can sometimes be, before work is submitted to and accepted by respected journals.
The rapid response to workshop stimuli is equally applicable to beginners, who frequently exceed their own expectations and gain confidence as a result. Many workshop participants, for many reasons, do not see publication as the main outcome of their experience. I figure many of the South Side writers come on a Friday for some regular writing practice, and to hear how their peers respond to the same prompt. If something publishable happens as a result, that’s a bonus. I don’t think they would submit in haste, omitting the usual phases of rest and re-drafting.
I once led a workshop at a Lapidus conference, where participants made poems originating from the rhythms of their own breath, heartbeat and footfall. Graham Harthill was kind enough to observe that ‘the workshop is the poetic moment’. I was privileged to be able to experience this kind of moment myself as a participant last week. Dumfries and Galloway’s Spring Fling open studios event held a preview exhibition at the Dundas St Gallery in Edinburgh. It was delightful to meet one of the Spring Fling artists, and former South Side Writer, Isabell Buenz, who makes exquisite paper shoes.
Marjorie Gill, writer in residence at Spring Fling, ran a workshop, using the ‘duo prompt’ and metaphor-generating method of applying vocabulary the writer thinks of in association with artwork A, to their choice of artwork B. We had three short periods of writing. Unusually, I hadn’t seen either A or B beforehand and hadn’t had to think about what to do with them. The connections I started to make, the creative potential that was opened up, startled (and eventually exhausted) me. I see this (ideally not the exhaustion bit) happening with others on a weekly basis. That it happened to me provided confirmation of the value of what I do: workshops work. Personally I am a tweaker, a slow-burner, a perfectionist who finds it hard to say ‘it is finished’ (or abandoned) and to press ‘send’, or commit to the post box. I sent a couple of concrete poems (rare genre for me) off to Marjorie for the Spring Fling website. These were inspired jointly by Isabell’s shoes, a ceramic bird sculpture and a print of a deer that incorporated some text. I shall continue to work, with gratitude, at greater length on words and ideas triggered by these artworks.
The National Galleries Scotland education dept isn’t running CW courses this year as these don’t enrol as well as, say, textiles or life drawing. I had a half-full beginners class in the autumn who all wanted to continue, so, supplemented by occasional others on my mailing list who’d been to gallery writing events, we formed Third Thursday. We meet on the eponymous day in a different gallery each month, and I use the art on display for whatever writing prompts and themes it suggests (though there is of course an argument for a more arbitrary relationship between stimulus and product).
We started off on NGS sites, before moving to City Art Centre last month and Fruitmarket Gallery this month, on the day before the Spring Fling workshop. Their current exhibition is The Possibilities of the Object: Experiments in Modern and Contemporary Brazilian Art.We considered the possibilities of these objects for creative writing, paying attention to their metaphoric and sonic potential, making concrete poetry, or allowing the object its own first-person voice. At the entrance to the exhibition is a group of ten ballot boxes, entitled Cabecas (‘Heads‘). In post-Referendum, pre-General Election Scotland, these are suggestive of talking heads, debate and democracy. But the work was made in 1968, under the military dictatorship of Brazil. Consideration of cultural difference gave a further, more political dimension to the writing. One member produced a memorable piece by juxtaposing two adjacent works in her words: a fistful of dead leaves behind glass, and a bullet-pierced bundle.
At the end someone else pointed out how this kind of writing genuinely supplements and communicates the artwork, and I have to admit I’ve often had a post-workshop desire to do some guerrilla placing of poems and stories next to artworks in galleries. A number of visual arts organisations, including NGS, of course, have been great at posting creative writing online, or running competitions or supporting publications.
We’re off to Dovecot to write about photography and textiles next month, and hopefully will have studio visit to a working artist at some point. A minor and not very interesting sub-plot of my working life at the moment seems to involve checking out the portable seating arrangements in Edinburgh’s galleries.
I think it was AL Kennedy who said that workshops can infantilise writers. They can – but they can also be as grown-up as the facilitator and attendees wish. And what about the importance of play for creativity?
Workshops work . . . rapidly updating the AOCB, since I haven’t posted for far too long, Lapidus Scotland is piloting an online Bibliotherapy Toolkit, a collection of prompts and accounts of workshop situations which will eventually be in the public domain. There are entries on working in mental health and palliative care, with dementia patients and sexual abuse survivors, and in prisons. If you’d like to work with the pilot material, either for yourself, or with any groups you lead, get in touch. I contributed a section on working with a group at the MS Therapy Centre Lothian, after running an 8 week course there in autumn 2014. A pamphlet, MS: MY Story will shortly be available from PlaySpace Publications. Proceeds will raise funds for the Centre, which, prior to the CW course, offered physical and complementary, but not creative, therapies. The participants continue to meet independently, and have written a play about MS, which they hope to have performed.
We think of workshops as a way to initiate a process. They can also be a way of reflecting on one. This summer I’m leading a monthly session in Linlithgow at a residential weekend for carers. Writing is used to create a record of the experience for the participants and the organisation, care4carers. Activities on offer over the weekend include boat and cycle trips, art and craft work, and relaxation and complementary therapies, and conclude with creative writing. That’d be on the Fourth Sunday (or Forth Sunday).
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.
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.