Category Archives: News

Convergences: Debatable Lands Vol. 3 – the conclusion of a deep mapping

A new year begins and I want to acknowledge that I have grown rather tired of my academic voice, it’s preoccupations and arguments. I respect it’s right to the views it has set out here, have even admired it for doing so on occasion. But it’s time for a change.

That change will manifest itself in two ways. Firstly, because I propose to allow another, less academic and more ‘writerly’, voice space here. This is the voice that has formed and informed Convergences: Debatable Lands Vol 3. Secondly, because I hope – as I’ve already indicated – to be putting up guest posts by people whose work I admire. A response to a growing need to ‘listen’ more, to make more space for other voices.

Convergences: Debatable Lands Vol 3  is the concluding work of my Debatable Lands deep mapping project, which goes back to 1999. I began this last part in 2013, when I was recovering from bowel cancer, and it takes the form of a text and image biography of Flora Buchan.

I will be putting some sections up here, but the complete work is now available on request as a pdf .

If you would like a copy, please contact me  at:


Debatable Lands Vol. 3

 Flora Buchan

compiled and edited by

Iain Biggs 

“Writing, when properly managed … is but a different name for conversation”.

Laurence Sterne[1]



[1] The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman Ware: Wordsworth Classics 1996, p. 75.

The ‘Great Stink’ and the Russell Group of universities

In her review of Rosemary Ashton’s One Hot Summer: Dickens, Disraeli and the Great Stink of 1858 (in the London Review of Books, 4th Jan. 2018), Rosemary Hill recalls the last day of June 1858. The day when the unbearable stench of the Thames, then little more than a gigantic open sewer, finally made it impossible for the British Government to carry out its business as usual. Although the problem of the Thames had been under review for at least a decade, vested interests and administrative inertia had ensured that nothing was done. Only when the politicians themselves could no longer stand to work in an atmosphere so fetid that they gagged, was the Thames Purification Bill introduced, a process that then only took fifteen days to complete. The legislation passed into law on August 2nd, 1858, a reminder of just how quickly those in power can act when they have a mind to.

Which brings me to the Russell Group of universities.

On its official web site The Russell Group claims that its membership of research-intensive universities are world-class institutions that share certain distinguishing characteristics. These include a commitment to: “maintaining the very best research”; something which enables them to have: “huge social, economic and cultural impacts locally, across the UK and around the globe.”

This claim interests me because the Group includes Bristol University which, as I’ve reported before, has been trying to prevent Dr. David Tuller from further exposing the fact that, far from: “maintaining the very best research”, Bristol and other member universities have benefitted financially from protecting ‘research’ that, as Tuller and others have shown, is both bad and socially irresponsible science. In a blog post of 23 Dec., Tuller notes that Bristol has recently tried to use its “close and valued collaborative relationship” with Berkeley, where he has a post, as leverage to get him disciplined. Berkeley, to its credit, has reviewed the matter and confirmed not only that Tuller has done nothing wrong, but that it is his right, as both a public health academic and a journalist, to pursue his current line of enquiry.

Like the MPs in the Houses of Parliament during the decade prior to the Great Stink of June 1858, the Russell Group will no doubt try to ignore the bad odour Tuller has exposed. However, Bristol’s attempt to co-opt Berkeley in its bullying of Tuller has backfired, since it has allowed him to further illuminate just how low a Russell Group institution will go to protect the pseudo-science from which it benefits financially. This, in turn, gives the lie to the Group’s claim to represent world-class institutions that share a common commitment to: “maintaining the very best research”. For those of us with noses to smell, this Great Stink gets worse with every institutional attempt to suppress the fact that there is something deeply rotten in the whole system of validation that has allowed this situation to arise.

One obvious lesson to be learned from the events of the Great Stink of 1858 is that it’s only when a stench becomes so overwhelming that even those in authority gag on it that anything gets done. So we need to do whatever we can to draw The Russell Group’s attention to the stench some of its members have created.

Postscript to ‘Reasons for proposing a hedge school’.

I woke up in the early hours of the morning with an only-too-familiar sick feeling in my stomach. This stemmed, I soon realised, from a fear that I have thought and written myself into a place where what I was writing would simply not be believed by the people, either artists or academics, with whom I have professional interaction.

Then, this morning, I picked up a copy of the Guardian with it’s front-page headline: ‘Students failed by rip-off fees, says watchdog’. This prompted by a statement from the Head of the National Audit Office that if, universities were subject to the same controls as banks, they’d be under investigation for mis-selling. (Although not, sadly, for the excessive salaries they are paying their Chief Executives). Within minutes of my reading this, my wife had sent me a link to the academic and investigative journalist David Tuller’s most recent post: Trial by Error: My One-sided correspondence with Professor Crawley. This brilliantly summarises an exchange that, among other things, highlights Bristol University’s attempts to stifle legitimate criticism of the (pseudo)-science on which one of its professors has built her reputation as a researcher. A situation that, as I’ve commented on in a recent post, is also an attempt to protect the University’s own income stream from research.

Of course the situation is more complicated than Tuller’s excellent posts can really cover. As he has shown in the past, Bristol is by no means alone in trying to stifle legitimate criticism of its researchers’ poor science. These attempts at bullying critics into silence, along with false claims about attempts to ‘intimidate’ researchers, now seem a common strategy among the elite Russell Group of universities, no doubt desperate to maintain both their income stream and their cosy relationship as providers of ‘official’ advise to Ministers, etc. At one level, however, this is undoubtedly the result of universities having been bullied into following Government agendas by the REF audit. This does not, of course, excuse  universities, in turn, adopted almost totalitarian tactics to ensure that staff come up with the necessary ‘quality research’. (The research necessary to ensure that the 16% rack-off for ‘overheads’ continues to flow into the university’s coffers).

I do think the situation, for all its complexities, supports my claim that universities are increasingly becoming unfit for purpose. A situation that makes alternative ways of sharing genuinely innovative forms of knowledge and understanding, almost by definition troubling to the status quo, necessary. This can only reinforce the case for starting to develop some kind of hedge school.

PPS. Anyone who feels that my take on the ‘art world’ is unreasonably jaundiced might want to read Nicholas Penny’s Top Brands Today (London Review of Books Vol. 39, no. 24 14th., December 2017 pp. 31-34). This is not, of course, a reflection on the many artists who are committed to working in the space-between described in my last post. It does, however, demonstrate, in uncomfortable detail, the (in my view) malign relationships between the commercial, academic and arts worlds.


Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017)

There are four books on one of my shelves written or co-authored by Zygmunt Bauman, an internationally significant sociologist who died at the age of ninety-one on January 9th. As his obituary in today’s Guardian makes very clear, Bauman was a man with a passionate concern to promote the ethics and values necessary to “a socially progressive Europe”. This was, no doubt, in part the fruit of his own experience as someone who, at different times, had been victimised by both the Nazis and the Communists. All these books continue to be valuable to me (if that was not the case, they wouldn’t have survived the rigorous culling of my books that’s necessary each time we move house). But it’s perhaps the Introduction to Intimations of Postmodernity (1992), and its first essay – ‘Legislators and Interpreters: Culture as the ideology of intellectuals” – that I’ve returned to most often. The other three texts Postmodern Ethics (1993), On Education, written with Riccardo Mazzeo (2012), and Moral Blindness: The Loss of Sensitivity in Liquid Modernity, written with Leonidas Donskis (2013), have all been valuable, but less central to forming my thinking.

There is a second, far less direct, reason why Zygmunt Bauman has been important to me. One of his three daughters, Lydia, is a landscape painter and, in 1997, the feminist art historian Griselda Pollock wrote: ‘The Poetic Image in the Field of the Uncanny’  about her work, the preface to an exhibition catalogue of Landscapes at the National Gallery of Contemporary Art, Warsaw, Poland. A version of this was later published in the catalogue to the first LAND2 exhibition and reproduced on the LAND2 web site. In addition to the valuable insights into aspects of landscape painting this essay offers, Pollock closes by citing a “revealing insight” from Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, (1958/1964 p. 4):

The poetic image is not an echo of the past. On the contrary: through the brilliance of an image, the distant past resounds with echoes, reverberates, and it is hard to know at what depth these echoes will reverberate and die away.

The resonances of this essay’s conclusion stayed with me, and were later to encourage me to follow a line of thinking that would finally become clear only when I read the Irish philosopher Richard Kearney on ‘testimonial imagination’, which I now understand to be the central animating force for ‘open’ deep mapping. So, both directly and indirectly, I owe Zygmunt Bauman a profound debt of gratitude.

Dialogue in Place: Volume III / Shifting Perspectives


This publication, to coincide with the exhibition in Leeds, contains an essay I wrote about the work of Joyce Lyon and Andrea Thoma a while back, called The Conversational Weave (another place). (This can also be found on this web site in the section Texts, Talks, etc.).

Something Joyce wrote when she contacted me to tell me about the exhibition seems particularly pertinent at present, in that it demonstrates the value of a mutual, open engagement that’s not predicated on known positions. She writes:

“I need to tell you that in preparing and proofreading the book, I experienced a deeper intimacy with your essay that allowed me to see and appreciate it for and as itself, which I did not fully have before. I recognized that what I was then hoping for was a more fixed disciplinary appraisal! I see now that what you offered us, in all its “gappy”, thoughtful fluidity and movement towards home was so much richer and more significant. I am grateful to have been, with Andrea, catalysts in the development of your ideas”.

I would encourage anyone who is able to visit this exhibition.


On falling (temporarily) silent ….

These images will have to serve as justification for my recent neglect of this blog. They were taken over the last couple of days while I was ‘stripping out’ two rooms on the top floor and filling two others, almost completely solid from floor to ceiling in one case, with the content.

During this process the bedroom as absorbed much of the content of the picture store and my office, together with a large collection of the family’s plants.






Landscape Values: Place and Praxis – a personal response

[N.B. All the images are used with the permission of the person whose work is referred to].


At the end of June I went to the west of Ireland to attend a conference – Landscape Values: Place and Praxis – organised by Tim Collins, Gesche Kindermann, Conor Newman and Nessa Cronin for the Centre for Landscape Studies at NUI, Galway. The conference was at NUI Galway because the university is a member of the UNISCAPE network, a Europe-wide group of universities concerned with landscape research, education, and the implementation of the European Landscape Convention. This gave the event its particular flavour and orientation. INSCAPE’s member institutions are drawn from across Europe, although universities in the UK and Germany are conspicuous by their absence. I’ll come back to the significance of all this later.

I have known Nessa for some time, originally through the Mapping Spectral Traces network and through a shared interest in deep mapping, and met Tim and Conor while I was working as a visiting researcher at NUI, Galway. Knowing them, I guessed this was likely to be an interesting and worthwhile event. Their thoughtfulness as individuals – and of Unescape as an organisation – was confirmed early on when all speakers were asked to submit written versions of their papers well ahead of the event itself. These appeared in a beautifully produced paperback book that was in our conference packs when we arrived. This enabling us to choose more productively which sessions we wanted to attend, without all the usual concern about missing altogether something vital by making the wrong choice on the basis of a short abstract.

What follows here is a personal reflection on the event as a whole although, I must admit, one filtered through my own interests in activities such as deep mapping. (Those unfamiliar with this  cluster of practices might want to look at the Humanities Special Issue “Deep Mapping”, which can be downloaded for free and includes an article by Silvia Loeffler, whose work is referred to below).

Grounding empathetic imagination

I went to Galway two days early. I wanted to take the opportunity to catch up with my friend and former PhD student Dr Ciara Healy; also to meet with Nessa and Nuala Ni Fhlathuin – a doctoral student with whom we will be working (together with Deirdre O’Mahony). Arriving early also enabled me to unwind a bit before the event started.

Of the various presentations and events on the first day for myself the most memorable by far was the performance related to the Tim Robinson Archive: Artists in the Archive Project initiated by Nessa. This combined live music written by Tim Collins, choreography and dance by Ríonach Ní Néill, text, song, and a film by Deirdre O’Mahony. This performance provided a wonderful sensuously knowledgable counterpoint to the more general governance-oriented and other perspectives offered earlier in the day. As such it grounding my thinking back into the complexities of lived experience, lived traditions, and the tacit paradoxes that haunt the creation of the new Tim Robinson Archive, recently established in the James Hardiman Library at NUI, Galway, following his decision to return to London.

The second day of the conference extended that sense of grounding, with all conference attendees going out into the region on one of four carefully themed and structured field trips. Having an interest in bogs – practically through my friend Christine Baeumler and as archetypal psycho-geographical sites through James Hillman and others, I joined the trip to the turf bog at Lough Boora, which included a visit to Ballinsloe and the Shannon. Direct contact with several active members of the local community there, who are trying to work out a future in the face of the scaling-back of turf cutting, enabled us to get a clearer sense of the difficulties and opportunities that result from the implementation of environmental policy. In a small way it also gave us an opportunity to contribute ideas and information that might be of some use to the community.

The work that has been undertaken at Lough Boora is impressive and the dedication of those trying to construct an alternative future was as inspiring as it was humbling. The EU’s shift to restrict turf cutting on environmental grounds, still highly controversial in Ireland, has led to a great deal of innovative action by the community. My overall impression from our discussions was of their willingness to open themselves to new possibilities and of the pressing need for people in academia and the cultural sector (individuals with specialist knowledge) to listen, and try to try respond appropriately, to the needs of local communities hungry to find ways to save themselves from what is effectively social annihilation by decisions made elsewhere. Often with too little consideration as to how their impact ‘on the ground’ might be mediated and transformed into possibilities rather than what must often seem like a slow death sentence. That Conor Newman, who organised our trip, had clearly gone to some trouble to build a relationship with the group who met us was reflected in the warmth and appreciation they brought to our exchanges.

Following our visit three speakers presented in a small church in the afternoon. One was Patrick Devine-Wright (from Exeter University), whose presentation on Varieties of place attachments and community responses to energy infrastructures: a mixed method approach reinforced my earlier impressions and suggested ways in which the kind of alternative mappings that interest me might be deployed in such contexts. This set up interesting suppositions in relation to another of the presentation, by Sophia Meeres, on Infrastructural struggles: the making of modern Arklow, Ireland. This showed how architecture students working in a learning context can make use of deep mapping processes to plot a city as a changing taskscape, where the detailing of its infrastructure struggles over a two-hundred-year period become the basis of an analysis of the decisions that inform the space of a communal lifeworld.

Given the length of the conference and number of parallel sessions that I could (and could not) attend, it will be obvious that I can’t possibly comment even on those presentations I did attend. Consequently, I will concentrate on a few that particularly spoke to me in terms of my own interests – by Jacques Abelman, Aoife Kavanagh, Silvia Loeffler, Sophia Meeres (touched on above), and Eilis Ni Dhuill. (I deliberately did not go to sessions at which my friends Simon Read, Ciara Healy, Geared O hAllmhurrain, Harriet Taro and Judy Tucker and Karen Till and and Gerry Kearns presented, since I wanted to experience ideas from people I didn’t know. However their essays in the conference publication are well worth reading).

 Jacques Abelman works as a landscape architect and is currently based in the Netherlands (but will move shortly to teach in the USA). His presentation – Cultivating the City: Infrastructureof Abundance in Urban Brazil – interested me both for its content and because it’s tenor seemed to me to reflect his broad education and experience. This took place in the USA, England and the Netherlands (his first degree is in environmental science with fine arts and philosophy), and he worked as an environmental artist, ecological builder, and garden designer before moving into sustainable design and landscape architecture. The presentation provided a succinct and intriguing introduction to his Urban L.A.C.E. / Renda da Mata project. (L.A.C.E. stands for Local Agroforestry, Collective Engagement, while Renda da Mata means “Forest Lace” in Portuguese), which I won’t try to outline or discuss here since it can be much better explored via his web site.  However, what particularly impressed me was the way in which it built on sustained fieldwork on the ground – resulting in an impressive and well-grounded range and depth of knowledge. In a sense this project provides an exemplary model for the type of practically-oriented ‘deep’ approach to researching the basis for a socio-environmentally responsible landscape architecture of which I had a brief and tantalising taste when discussing deep mapping with landscape architect students and their teachers at Virginia Tech some years ago.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jacques’ presentation raised a number of issues around landscape democracy and questions of de-professionalism (as underwritten by disciplinarily) and given the claim that ‘citizens do not operate within disciplines’. However during the exchange after the presentation I was somewhat rebuked by one audience member for apparently suggesting a ‘bottom up’ rather than ‘top-down’ model in relation to specialist/vernacular collaborations and issues of responsibility for the Commons. This led to a brief but fruitful exchange about the need to set aside supposedly ‘modernist’ and ‘authoritarian’ notions of the professional or specialist (which in my view are not restricted to the modern period but rather embedded in the culture of possessive individualism), towards notions of an ability to make authoritative specialist contributions to debate and action with regard to the Common Good. Here the example of Brexit might be seen as indicative of what happens when populist political views predicated on prejudice and outright lies gain the upper hand. Given Michael Gove’s now notorious execration of ‘experts’ this seemed a point well worth absorbing.

Aoife Kavanagh

Aoife Kavanagh is a professional musician (piano, violin, flute, and viola) and music teacher who is currently undertaking a PhD on music, place-making and artistic practice in the Geography Department at NUI, Maynooth. Her presentation – Making Music and Making Place: Mapping Musical Practice in Smaller Places – is based on the working premise that places, perhaps particularly in Ireland, may have a ‘musical ecology’ that extends well beyond performance by professional musicians and that understanding that ecology spatially, through ‘community deep mappings of of music and place’, can give a ‘voice to people in places to uncover and document that which might otherwise be overlooked’. In certain ways her approach seems to me to resonate quite closely with that employed by Luci Gorell Barns’ Cartographers of compassion: community mapping of human kindness project in Bristol, albeit in a different register. Interesting, she has built on Rebecca Krinke’s (2010) project Mapping of Joy and Pain, with it’s particular emotional focus, while adapting this approach as a way to collectively ‘map’ more nuanced and complicated ‘musical stories’. Of particular interest to me were Aoife’s comments on the challenges involved in this project, since these tend to reinforce my own views. Namely that a combination of positions – those of  ‘insider’ (in her case the importance of being a musician/music teacher who understands the passions and limitations of the ‘lifeworld’ in which she is working) and ‘outsider’ (researcher/cartographically-oriented artist) – is a central aspect of this type of work. This first became clear to me in relation to Ffion Jones’ work in mid-Wales, which took her parents’ sheep farm – Cwmrhaiadr – as the focus of her PhD project. One in which this dual role was central to her concern with ‘woollying the boundaries’ between the world of upland sheep farming in Wales and academic understandings of rural life. This seems particularly important when the researcher is also embedded in the lifeworld of a particular community and so must act as a ‘bridge’ between worlds distinguished by emphasis on performativity on one hand and discourse on the other.

Silvia Loeffler



Silvia Loeffler is a post-doctoral researcher at NUI, Maynooth and currently holds an Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Fellowship for her project Glas Journal, A Deep Mapping of Dún Laoghaire Harbour, which was the subject of her conference paper. She has also published an illuminating article on the project – Glas Journal: Deep Mappings of a Harbour or the Charting of Fragments, Traces and Possibilities .which I would recommend to readers interested in this area of work.



Taken together, these two texts provide a valuable record of the project and make a useful contribution to on-going discussions about this type of chronotopic mapping work. Although her title for the conference paper – Place Values – Glas Journal: A Deep Mapping of Dun Laoghaire Harbour (2014-2016) – uses the term ‘deep mapping’, she spoke of her work primarily in terms of both ‘liquid’ and ‘tender’ mappings (with the inevitable resonance of Giuliana Bruno’s discussion of Madaleine de Scullery’s Carte du pays de Tendre in her Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film).

This seems entirely appropriate for a ‘collaborative, multidisciplinary cartography project that explores the layered emotional geographies of Dún Laoghaire Harbour, Dublin, that focuses on ‘performatively mapping the intimate rituals and everyday performances of those individuals who live and work in the harbour’. In the abstract to the Humanities article, Silvia refers to the work as ‘a hybrid ethnographic project’ concerned with ‘the cultural mapping of spaces we intimately inhabit’. She adds that by developed the project with the participation of local inhabitants of Dún Laoghaire Harbour, the project is able to explore the maritime environment as a liminal space, one in which the character of buildings and the area’s economic implications ‘determine our relationship to space as much as our daily spatial rhythms and feelings of safety’.



The project is as ambitious as it is complex. Currently Silvia is working with fourteen individuals who live and work in the harbour to produce handmade books that will constitute a record of ‘what the harbour space means to the residents based in the old coastguard station along with individuals involved with a host of other harbour related organisations and clubs. What seems to me particularly valuable about this project is summed up in relation to the richness and complexity of reference and evocation in Glas Journal Border Map (Sept. 2014) and other work illustrated above. She summarises ‘the interactions between human beings and their habitat’ as  existing as: ‘a constant flux of appearance, disappearance and reappearance that may be compared to a tidal system regulating liquid states of times and places’. Given the preoccupation throughout the conference with issues of heritage this statement seems to me to evoke a powerful lesson that, in our often over-literal haste to preserve the past, we are still reluctant to take on board.

Sophia Meeres


Sophia Meeres has taught in the School of Architecture, Planning and Environmental Planning at University College, Dublin since 2004. As mentioned above, she gave a presentation entitled Infrastructural struggles: the making of modern Arklow, Ireland. This described a long-term collaborative project with her Masters students that relates directly to her teaching at UCD, which places an emphasis on ‘resilience, sustainable design and development’ and is taught within a multi-disciplinary context and a an ‘understanding of site-specific processes’ with a focus on research and analysis ‘seen as a creative act’. The overarching concern is ‘to help uncover local opportunities and potential for future directions’, something that spoke directly to the experience of speaking with the various individuals working to create a new understanding of Lough Boora and the communities linked to it. It is indicative that an earlier paper – A Biographical Approach to Understanding the Landscape (a contribution to the Landscape and Imagination. Towards a new baseline for education in a changing world ) – proposes a biographical approach to landscape that: ‘seeks to better understand local cultural conditions, issues and circumstances, disclosed through stake-holder participation and by other means, by linking present conditions to the past physical, social and economic “life” of a place and its people.’


The aim of such an approach is to better understand a place in ways I would see as aligning to both deep mapping and to Kenneth Frampton’s notion of Critical Regionalism in that it’s focus is on gaining: ‘greater and more detailed understanding of a settlement in its milieu’ with a view to articulating ‘development proposals that respond better to place’ Sophia believes – rightly in my view – that this “biographical approach” ‘has potential in terms of practice, research and landscape architectural education’, a belief that clearly animates the work she and her students have undertaken in relation to Arklow.


Eilís Ní Dhúill

Eilís Ní Dhúill is a polymath whose research interests include storytelling, folklore and film. She has a particular interest in the use of film to present Irish-language literature, drama and culture and has published in this area. She gave a presentation entitled: Sounds of the past in west Kerry: Creating, recalling and transmitting cultural values through place-names and associated narratives. I find it hard to give a clear account of this presentation because I became fascinated by resonances in what Eilís was saying as these might relate to my interest in the English/Scottish Borders region. Her focus on the way in which Irish place-names catalyse story-telling in west Kerry led me to ask her whether these stories were in any sense gendered – that is whether men and women told different stories about the same places. It appears that they do, a point I would link to the implications of different categories of Border ballads. That said, the nature of our conversation is probably too particular to my rather idiosyncratic interests in folk lore to be of general concern.


Although at one level I found the bulk of the conference very enjoyable and rewarding, I also have a strange feeling that the conference I experienced it was probably not that experienced by the majority of attendees. This may be due to the fact that we tended to fall into rather different categories with interests that, while they undoubtedly overlapped, may have had less in common in terms of framing and orientation than UNISCAPE may assume. My experience may also have be influenced by the fact that I live in a country utterly divided socially and politically, and not just over Europe. A country whose government’s austerity measures and social security reforms have, for example, just been the subject of a United Nation’s Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights report that confirms these are in breach of their obligations to human rights. This gives me continual pause for thought in relation to those whose power and authority is linked to forms of cultural and intellectual capital sanctioned by the status quo – including those who represent their institutions as part of bodies like UNISCAPE.

It is significant that just before the conference opened UNISCAPE held its General Assembly (the institutional equivalent to a business AGM), an fact that no doubt ensured that many attendees were senior academics representing member institutions. In short, UNISCAPE is deeply enmeshed in the realpolitik of a resilient neo-liberal status quo and these senior academics are members of an elite that can expect to engage directly with effecting issues of planning and governance. They  also appeared to be for the most part from Social Science disciplines and landscape architecture practices. They and their proteges were also the keynote conference speakers. A second, more diverse contingency was made up of people with a background in the visual arts or music and an interest in ecological and landscape issues, including those related to environmental and heritage governance. A third group crossed between these two categories, many of them landscape architects with a practical interest in the uses of creative fieldwork.

It seems to me that what the first group have in common is a professional interest in landscape research, education, and the implementation of the European Landscape Convention through reform and  governance relating to landscape planning and heritage. However, my underlying sense of this interest is that it is heavily framed by a detached/’objective’ thinking about landscape (including place as heritage), rather than direct emersion in specific places as an active constituent of their own particular lifeworld. As such their interests often seemed to lack either the psycho-cultural dimensions of what James Hillman calls the ‘thought of the heart’ or the empathetic imagination that, as Paul Ricoeur reminds us, is necessary to any effective political mediation. (And this at a time when the authority and ‘objectivity’ of science – for example as practiced in the medical field in the UK – has been shown to be utterly degraded, simply a debased ‘post-factual’ science in thrall to our debased ‘post-factual’ politics).

So I sometimes had the sense that individuals in these two different groups were, often without realising it, quite simply talking past each other. There was very little transformative conversation as I understand it. This may, of course, be largely a reflection of my own prejudgements and bias. That said I sensed that, for the first group, the second were in the last analysis an irrelevance, except in so far as they enabled reflection on some aspect of ‘heritage’ as traditionally defined. The engaged arts as a living, socio-political energy is simply not something they can acknowledge. This may be to put the case too strongly but it relates directly to a conversation I had with Teresa Pinto Coreia, from ICAAM – Instituto de Ciências Agrárias e Ambientais Mediterrânicas, Universidade de Évora, after she had given a very interesting presentation called: Landscape values under pressure: tensions in the management of extensive silvo-pastoral systems in Southern Iberia. 

I recognised many of the difficult issues she spoke of from my own interest in conflicted rural areas. Whether in terms of the difficulties facing farmers in upland regions in the UK, in rural Ireland in relation to small-scale family turf-cutting,  or from what I know of the history of local resistance to the formation the Wadden Sea National Parks in Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands and that, in Germany and Denmark, constitute the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Wadden Sea. Put simply, it is the problem of a clash between small-scale largely rural communities in which authority still largely  based on specific forms of performativity in a given taskscape, and the worlds of academic research and governance which take as given an understanding of authority predicated on their own methodological and discursive sophistication as underwritten by a logocratic realpolitik. Two radically different ways of understanding and so acting in the world. Her response to my making something of the points outlined above was polite incomprehension and the view that, by working with students in the university, they would find a way forward.

The whole point of people like myself, Simon Read, Ciara Healy and others with an imaginal arts aspect to their compound practice attending the conference might be said, as I tried to explain to Teresa Pinto Coreia, to show that certain types of art practice are ideally placed to mediate between these two radically different ways of understanding and acting in the world. However, if that brief conversation was anything to go by, I certainly failed to do so. Not I believe for any lack of trying on either of our parts but because, as a professional group, those in the arts remain mentally marginalised by academic thinking, located as we are off to one side of the logocratic hierarchy that underwrites its realpolitik. (As a fairly distinct group we presented no keynote to the assembled attendees that could have facilitated such an exchange at the level of intellectual debate). Because of this institutional marginalisation the arts as an informed way of knowing the world – other perhaps than landscape architecture seen as an art – has no real role in UNISCAPE as an alliance of European institutions other than as ‘passive heritage’. This in turn reflects, of course, the marginal place of arts and music education as an alternative mode of understanding in the education system as a whole. The consequences of this fundamental lack in a culture of possessive individualism are now horribly clear in the political and socio-environmental situation of the UK.

It’s not for me to suggest how, as an international organisation, UNISCAPE might address this situation. However, if an initiative to address this were to be launched, it might perhaps be done from Ireland. There ‘cultural heritage’ in the sense of place or landscape may be somewhat less isolated from living forms of imaginative culture and thinking than in many other countries. So, while in some senses I was deeply disappointed by the situation I’ve tried to indicate (perhaps too clumsily) above, I still see Ireland as a site of promise and a source of guarded optimism, particularly now that the UK has turned it’s back on the EU project rather than trying to reform it. I also see UNISCAPE as an important international organisation with an annual conference I was more than glad to attend, if only because it enabled me to see the issues outlined above more clearly.






On not being a ‘real’, ‘ordinary’, ‘decent’ person?

What does it mean when Nigel Farage declares that Britain’s exit from the EU is: “a victory for real people, a victory for ordinary people, a victory for decent people”. Taken literally, this would seem to imply that those of us who wanted to remain in EU – 48% of all those who voted – are somehow not ‘real’, ‘ordinary’, or ‘decent’. Is this just the same kind of divisive rhetoric used by Michael Gove when he said the British public had had enough of experts getting it wrong or claiming that economists warning against leaving the EU were comparable to scientific experts in the pay of the Nazis Party? (Gove later apologized, although Boris Johnson claimed his remarks were justified). Or do all these statements point up something we need to attend to? 

Natalie Bennett, who leads the Green Party in England and Wales, has sent a personal email to all party members that locates our departure as an event prompted by the fact that: “People in Britain are angry with the status quo” and asks that, despite the disappointment of those who, like the Greens, wanted to remain, we now “turn our attention … to unifying our divided communities after an extraordinary bitter period in British politics”.  She goes on to write:


“This referendum campaign was carried out in a manner which does a disservice to the people of Britain. It was a Tory leadership campaign fought out over an issue of huge importance to this country and to Europe. People will have been turned off politics to an even greater degree than before. To help fix this democratic deficit we need electoral reform for the House of Commons to help build a more representative, inclusive democracy”.


While I think there is a lot of truth in this, I don’t think it’s anything like the whole story. There is a real danger that we will risk trivialising what has just happened if we reduce it to the consequences of “a Tory leadership campaign” played out via an anti-European agenda. I think Natalie Bennett is absolutely right that we face a massive democratic deficit, and that electoral reform is vital to building “a more representative, inclusive democracy”. But I think we also need to understand what social forces this political campaign has unleashed and so focusing on unifying divided communities is not enough. We also need to understand why the divisions have become so deep and so bitter. 


It’s clear that the ‘exit’ vote is, in one sense, just another example – albeit a disastrous one – of a long tradition of British protest voting. A Government that imposed ‘austerity measures’ as a means to effectively wage economic warfare on the very sick and the very poor, is run by people too certain of their own entitlements to listen to the less well-off and less educated, has understandably prompted a massive negative reaction to itself and its natural suporters. (Albeit a reaction apparently blind to the fact that there is nothing substantial, ideologically speaking, to choose between the politicians leading each camp). Thanks to the cynical politicking of individuals like Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Michael Farage, aided and abetted by an increasingly toxic approach to politics in the media, this sense of protest has been channeled into various easy forms of xenophobia, with the EU providing the ideal scapegoat for all that’s wrong in our society.

But the real causes of our current divisions do not lie simply with the Tory Party. They are also the result of the fact that “we” – whether that’s the Greens or the Labour Party – have as yet failed to create a credible alternative to the dominant ideology of possessive individualism – an ideology maintained globally by vast levels of expenditure through the media, advertising, etc. The only alternative on offer for those who can’t compete on that ideology’s terms is, as it now turns out, the myth of Britain’s “national greatness” (as celebrated by events like the Olympic games and in the type of history book Michael Gove was so keen to impose on schoolchildren when Minister for Education). So while the ‘Remain’ camp’s arguments appeared in the media to hinge almost exclusively on maintaining economic prosperity – something the Government has already brutally denied to a substantial element of the electorate – their opponents were able to exploit the powerful emotions underlying the call to restore “national sovereignty”. As a consequence, the majority of the British electorate has been induced to throw away it’s chance to help reform the EU and to build on the social and environmental rights and opportunities it has given us. All so that it can bask – very momentarily indeed I suspect – in the warm glow of the myth of ‘plucky little Britain’ (or more accurately England and Wales) “going it alone” like we did under Boris Johnson’s hero Winston Churchill. A myth that carries with it in the minds of some, given what has been said during vox pop interviews, an embittered nostalgia for a lost empire mixed with outrage that “we should be told what to do by Germans”.            


I have every sympathy with those in the UK who have reacted in this way to being disenfranchised by global capitalism as aided and abetted by a Tory Party inseparable from the social and economic elites who have most to gain from that system and from the possessive individualism on which it depends. But “we” cannot pretend that it is just the Tory Party that has failed to listen to these people or to offer them a credible alternative value system. As Gove’s comments about experts suggest, one major cause animating the ‘leave’ protest was fear and incomprehension about the way the world is changing. (It’s highly significant that many who voted ‘out’ regard Feminism and Environmentalism as negative forces in society). Gove’s comments about ‘experts’ have a basis of sorts, in so far as they reflect popular awareness of the failure of those with the intellectual capital to influence State education to provide our children and young people with a comprehensible account of how the world works and how they can engage with it as active citizens. (Let alone with the skills and opportunities that will enable them to earn a reasonable living). And ‘experts’ do indeed regularly make this situation worse when they claim authority that exceeds the remit laid down by proper professional objectivity, sell themselves to support Government ideology in return for knighthoods or professorships, or use scientistic jargon to enhance their personal power at the expense of the public whose best interests they should serve.  


There is another reason why we should not focus too much on the Tory Party and its power struggles – namely Nigel Farage.

Farage is not just a former member of the Conservative party who once voted Green, he is also a former commodity broker with substantial funds invested outside UK jurisdiction. The leader of the UK Independence Party has, since 1999, earned a very comfortable living as an MEP for South East England. (In May 2009, Farage said that over his period as a Member of the European Parliament until that point he had received a total of £2 million of taxpayers’ money in staff, travel, and other expenses). He is also a man who regards legal tax avoidance as “okay”, perhaps as a result of being asked on one occasion why £45,000 of his income was paid into his private company rather than a personal bank account. (He has resolutely refused to publish information on his own financial affairs and attached david cameron for doing so). He is a climate change sceptic and in favour of licenced hand gun ownership. In short, he epitomises the values and attitudes of the dominant culture of possessive individualism in its USA Republican form, an ideology that is as much social and cultural as it is political in the narrow Party sense.

With all due respect to Natalie Bennett, it’s our ongoing complicity in maintaining that ideology, and not just the Tory Party, that has brought Britain into the present divisive situation in which we find ourselves. If we value the best that the EU once offered us – the possibility of building a more humanitarian and empathetic politics for example – we had better provide a new and persuasive narrative able to fill the gap that will be left when economic realities demonstrate just how hollow claims of national sovereignty are in an age of global capitalism.     

Waiting on the vote

Avaaz has just informed me that:

“Today we could beat a record of the most people ever voting in Britain on one day!”

Well, I guess that would be a small good in itself, regardless of the outcome. And, again regardless of the outcomes, this whole business now reminds me of something I’ve just read in Ursula LeGuin’s wonderfully sparse yet compelling novel The Telling – which, like most of her work, I would highly recommend.

Towards the end of the book she has her main character – Sutty – say of her people (who are the inhabitants of the earth in some distant future) that their self-destructive adoption of a particular fundamentalist idea was a protest: “an assertion of our God-given right to be self-righteous, irrational fools in our own particularly bloody way and not in anybody else’s”. Somehow that says it all for me with regard to this whole referendum on the EU. It seems to be just that, an irrational protest that, if the exit camp wins out, will be profoundly damaging in almost every way, both to the British and to Europeans more widely.

A Parent’s Perspective; ‘Lost Voices’ as the years past.

The title of this post is that of a talk my wife Natalie Boulton gave in Belfast on June 6th this year. The full text of her talk – which I very much hope you will read – appears as a post under the title Presentation for Belfast. 6th June 2016  on the Voices from the Shadows website. The talk reflects our mutual concern – I helped her with aspects of it – but it’s very much her voice that speaks.

As a family we are haunted by this disease. Natalie’s  mother had ME until her death, which followed a severe relapse 11 years ago. Both one of my cousins and my nephew (my half-brother’s son) have suffered from it. Natalie and I are carers for our daughter. who has been severely ill with ME for 26 years, and for our youngest son (who was diagnosed with ME last year).

hidden_wars_for AB_2009u

One of the first wall map pieces I made, back in 2007, was called Hidden War, with and for Anna Biggs, about which I wrote at some length in the collaborative book These Debatable Lands: Debatable Lands Vol. 2 where it’s also reproduced.

The part of that text relevant here reads as follows:

“On the 16th June 2006 Eileen Marshall and Margaret Williams published a detailed report  – in which they reflect on the Brighton Coroner’s inquest into the death of 32 year-old Sophia Mirza. Sophia, although seriously ill with medically diagnosed Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME), had been wrongly sectioned under the Mental Health Act before she died”.

“The circumstances leading to her death were set down by her mother Criona Wilson as follows:  ‘In July, the professionals returned – as promised by the psychiatrist. The police smashed down the door and Sophia was taken to a locked room within a locked ward of the local mental hospital. Despite the fact that she was bed-bound, she reported that she did not receive even basic nursing care, her temperature, pulse and blood pressure (which had been 80/60), were never taken. Sophia told me that her bed was never made, that she was never washed, her pressure areas were never attended to and her room and bathroom were not cleaned’. [I cannot watch her reporting this in the film Voices from the Shadows without weeping. Not only because of the appalling degradation to which this chronically young woman was subjected, but because it reminds me forcibly that, when push comes to shove, our society is quite capable of behaving like Stalin’s USSR].  “As the Coroner’s report makes absolutely clear, Sophia Mirza died because she was suffering from ME or, to be more specific, her death from ME/CFS was in part caused by the illness and in part because she was denied medical intervention and then forcibly removed from her home and locked up in a psychiatric ward. Her death was not a tragic accident. Sophie died because of the calculated and pre-meditated actions of official bodies acting in open defiance of World Health Organisation’s formal classification of ME as an organic disease of the central nervous system in 1969 (code G.93.3) and of the 1978 symposium of the Royal Society of Medicine at which ME was accepted as a distinct medical entity. As a parent I know that informed ME patients and their carers are fighting the official policy being developed to address ME – essentially the same policy that was executed in Sophie Mirza’s case – and based on attempts to reclassify a medical condition as a psychiatric problem. [A reclassification that is making universities millions of pounds in research funding and allowing certain academic researchers to build themselves ‘glittering’ careers]. As Marshall and Williams testify, this policy has and is resulting in psychiatricaly-condoned abuse of ME patients, a situation aided and abetted by the “arrogance and ignorance” of the British medical establishment. This has created a situation in which ME patients are ’treated’ by people happy to submit them to extremes of physical and mental anguish that rereperably damage their health. They do so because it is “financially and politically convenient and profitable”, given the psychiatric collusion with “a number of extremely powerful corporations and government departments”.

“It is ultimately against the power of these corporations and government departments that those who care for ME/CFS patients must fight if we wish to make it clear that in the UK we are faced with a systematic, state-condoned campaign of abuse and cruelty towards those who suffer with the medical disease of ME. My difficulty is that I know all this not from the position of an academic specialist but as a father whose partner has devoted all her spare time to discovering why our daughter has continued to suffer from ME for the last 19 years. My difficulty is also that I fear that what happened to Sophie Mirza could one day happen to Anna and that as things stand at present there would be very little I could do to prevent such a situation fro occurring.”

Two things appall me re-reading this text now. One is that not only has the situation not improved, it has actually got worse – and that despite the fact that a number of scientists have been deeply critical of the poor science on which this whole situation rests. The second is the degree to which universities and academic researchers are implicated in the perpetuation of this situation for their own ends.

It’s a situation that would reduce me to despair if it were not for the simple fact that, as a family, despair is a luxury we simply can’t afford.