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Some initial thoughts on reading Amitav Ghosh’s ‘The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable’

One of the many challenges thrown up by reading Amitav Ghosh’s extraordinary book: The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (University of Chicago Press, 2016) is that it shows very clearly the quite extraordinary degree to which ‘we’ (those who inhabit the dominant culture of the Anglosphere) have been either misled or just plain lied to. It is true that much of what he writes brings forward into full view as fact material that have been present in my own peripheral vision as an ill-focused sense of unease, even dread. But his ability to link apparently disparate areas of knowledge makes the causes of that dread both graspable and crystal clear. 

The challenge closest to me, perhaps, is that Ghosh’s book requires me to reconsider everything I have done professionally; that is as someone who has spent a working lifetime engaged in education and the cultural field. While the principle thread Ghosh follows might be said to be the novel’s failure to address critically the imaginative world of an economic system not only predicated on isolation, but designed to produce further isolation, the implications of his argument for all the arts seem to me to need particularly urgent consideration just now, however unpalatable they will be to many people. While it is profoundly uncomfortable, at the age of sixty-nine, to be faced with the task of revising a great many of assumptions, many of them personal but considerably more in the field in which I work, there have been plenty of indicators that this would need to be done.    

In 2014 the performance artist Andrea Fraser claimed that artists are not part of the solution to our current crisis, as many in the cultural are beginning to assume, but contribute to it. Ghosh’s argument suggests that she is very likely right in the vast majority of cases. The art world has, in consequence, yet to acknowledge, let alone adequately respond to, Bruno Latour’s suggestion that we cannot start to address our current situation until ‘progressives’ begin to acknowledge the reality of those they previously viewed as ‘outsiders’, as outmoded, reactionary, traditionalist, or parochial. Yet to do so would be to undermine the whole modernist cultural project on which contemporary art is predicated. There was, of course, nothing particularly new about Andrea Fraser’s claim. It echoes, for example, issues that had been raised twenty years earlier by the artist-turned-anthropologist A. David Napier, the liberation psychologist Mary Watkins, and the writer, poet and art critic Thomas McEvilley. Issues that Ghosh now firmly locates within the culture, history and politics of The Great Derangement. 

Ghosh concludes by expressing the hope that the struggle we now face in addressing that Derangement will result in an ability to see the world more clearly and to transcend the isolation in which that derangement has trapped us. And, almost as an afterthought it sees to me, his final sentence expresses the hope that the resulting vision will be set out by a transformed and renewed art and literature. It’s a hope I can only share, but one tempered by the knowledge that there is an enormous amount of work – particularly our own psycho-social re-education – that will need to be done first.

Drying up / running out?

I have neglected this blog because I find it harder and harder to write anything sensible here.

This is almost entirely due to the state we in Britain find ourselves in. I think we are witnessing the final demolition of the British civic society built after the 1939-1945 war. That demolition project became explicit under Margaret Thatcher. It was then ramped up by a policy of ‘austerity’ largely designed to protect the interests of those for whom the only real world is that of finance. It is now coming to a head with the playing out of Brexit. When I hear some Tory politician dismiss the very real fears of families like ours with the phrase ‘project fear’ I have to accept, yet again, just how chronically warped our national psyche has become. The old class war has returned with a vengeance, with those with money and power using issues of religion (principally Islam), race, emigration and so-called ‘sovereignty’ vis-a-vis the EU, as the basis for stoking division and hatred as a way of distracting attention from the callousness and greed which their pursuit of their own self-interest is based.

Like many others, I continue to participate in finding alternatives to this situation and, in particular, am writing in support of those I know who are on the front line of the effort to create a more open, just, and sane society. But if I am honest it often seems hopeless. However, I try to continue to see as clearly as I can what is happening around me.

In this context, I have started to read Amitav Ghosh’s deeply insightful book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, which perfectly complements Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime. Both will, I hope, help me to contribute in a more informed way to the climate change workshop I’m due to attend at NUI Galway in May. In the meantime, I work from day to day, remaining incredibly grateful for family and friends whose sense of outrage at our present situation keeps them rowing against the tide.

Trackings: Don McCullin, ‘Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner’, and the twilight of landscape?

Yesterday I saw Don McCullin’s photographs at Tate Britain.

One of the many extraordinary images – Mercenary with Congolese Family, Paulus from 1965, with its uncanny synergy between the expressions of the soldier and the seated woman next to him – brought back the memory of an extraordinary conversation I had as a student. Sitting on a low wall outside the laundrette near my digs in Leeds I found that I was talking to a ‘resting’ mercenary. I remember very little of our conversation, other than him telling me he had done his National Service training but seen no active service and wondered if he had real soldiering in him. That doubt ultimately led him to signing up as a mercenary, an occupation he appeared to find addictive.

What I do remember is that, as we sat talking, a little girl ran out of the laundrette past us and then tripped and fell. Almost before she could cry out, the man I’d been talking with had picked he up and started comforting her. Smiling, he then returned her to her mother. The combined speed and gentleness of his reaction left me with a lasting sense of the extraordinary contradictions to be found in one human being.

By an odd coincidence, sometime last week I downloaded Lauren O’Connell’s version of Warren Zevon’s Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner, a song that always strikes me as a strange updating of the Borders reiver and revenant ballads that have fascinated me for years. It has the same blend of blunt and bloody realism, belief in the importance of loyalty between men and odd sense of the possibility of supernatural justice from beyond the grave. A re-casting then, of what is perhaps a very old and somehow quintessentially  masculine set of masculine preoccupations? Zevon co-wrote the song with David Lindell, who he met running a bar in Spain, having worked previously as a mercenary in Africa. (You can find Zevon’s original version of the song here  and Lauren O’Connell’s here). 

In the last room of the exhibition are the dark and brooding landscape photographs McCullin has been making for a while now. These could be seen as Romantic images, but also perhaps as representing the twilight of the whole idea of ‘natural’ landscape as we’ve understood it. I couldn’t help seeing them as a pre-figuration of a new sense of the Terrestrial, as Bruno Latour understands it in his book published last year Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime, published by Polity Press and translated by Catherine Porter.  

Brief Update: a major Ken Kiff Exhibition?

At a recently Exhibition Advisory Group meeting at the Royal West of England Academy, of which I’m a member, it was agreed that the RWA will now work towards a major exhibition of Ken Kiff’s work, hopefully to include examples of work by both the major artists who influenced him and of younger artists influenced by him. As things stand at present, this will be curated by the artist James Fisher and myself, working closely with Anna Kiff, who is responsible for her father’s estate. We are also very fortunate to have the support of John Talbot, who has a substantive collection of Ken Kiff’s work, particularly the Sequence.

Obviously it’s very early days as yet, and there is a long way to go before this project starts to take shape. However, having worked with Ken Kiff for several years on the book Ken Kiff’s Sequence (1999), as its editor and an author alongside Norbert Lynton and Martha Kapos, I’m delighted to be part of this project.

Ken Kiff remains an artist more respected by other painters and devoted members of the public than by the critical establishment that holds authority within the art world and ultimately determines reputation and financial value. The reasons for Ken Kiff’s ambivalent status are complex and in fact go to the heart not only of how we currently think about contemporary art and artists, but also touch on more fundamental issues about our presuppositions regarding in the world in which we live. Anyone familiar with the range of Kiff’s work overall will at once recognise that, in addition to being an extraordinary painter (particularly as a colourist) and print-maker, he had a an astonishingly inclusive vision. This ran from evocations of the everyday – Posting a Letter , the whimsical – From the sea to the shore , the profoundly moving – Talking with a psychoanalyst: night sky and Walking (the dead father), to extraordinary landscapes – Tree by the River and Yellow Hill and Deep River, confessional images – Anxiety, images that suggest folklore – Cottage in a field,  and the visionary – Orange sun. To my mind it is this inclusivity, along with the sense of connectivity between these diverse images, that is ultimately the most significant aspect of his work.

Still here!

I’ve not added to this blog for some time. There are a variety of reasons for this. One is the ongoing political situation around Brexit. While I feel very strongly that Britain should stay in Europe, I also recognise that many people feel passionately that we should leave. It’s not for me to second guess why they feel that way, or whether they are justified in doing so.

I am, however, deeply angered by the fact that pro-Brexit MPs continue to speak blandly about upholding the “will of the people” or “maintaining the credibility of the democratic process”, without in any way acknowledging any of the following:

1]. that the British establishment and press has used Europe as a scapegoat to mask its own failings – not least its complicity in the banking crash and the policy of highly immoral policy of ‘austerity’ used to protect the super-rich from the consequences of the systematic failure of a system of which they had been overwhelmingly the beneficiaries.

2]. That they fail to in any way to acknowledge the fact that the Pro-Brexit lobby benefitted form the systematic telling of outright lies by very senior politicians, or that that lobby ran a campaign aspects of which were clearly illegal.

3]. That it seems to me that the persistent use by pro-Brexit supporters of a phrase like “project fear” is simply short-hand for “I don’t care what your concerns may be, I’m not going to listen to them because they don’t coincide with my own”. This enrages me because I know that there are hundreds of thousands of sick and elderly people who are deeply and justifiably fearful that Brexit, and particularly a Brexit without any properly deal with the EU, will result in serious disruption to medical supplies on which they depend.

I could go on, but won’t.

I’ll return to this blog when I feel I can write more calmly.

Congratulations to eco-artist Cathy Fitzgerald

I’m delighted to pass on the news that Cathy has just had confirmation that her PhD project – The Ecological Turn: Living Well with Forests to Articulate Eco-Social Art Practice – has been accepted and that she will shortly receive her doctorate from the National College of Art and Design, Dublin. Her thesis uses Felix Guattari’s ecosophy, along with action research, to create a transferable framework that can be developed by artists with similar concerns. Her overall orientation as an eco-artist and Green activist are reflected in numerous papers available for download at http://ncad.academia.edu/CathyFitzgerald 

It has been fascinating and informative to work with Cathy as one of her supervisors and I wish her all the very best in her future activities.

 

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3: Parts 38, 39, & 40.

Mender and Maker

 I’m not sure I ever explained properly to you about how I earned my living as a mender and maker. I used to be asked to mend every kind of thing you can imagine and, having been both a sculptor and art school technician, I found I could do a surprising amount of what was asked of me.

It began by chance, because a school friend married a man who ran a little auction house and dealt in old furniture. She had seen a chair I’d restored for another friend and the carved walking stick handles I was making then and told her husband, who started giving me work mending and re-upholstering items he picked up cheap. Word got around slowly and it went on from there. I’ve done everything from remedial taxidermy, through delicate welding jobs on jewellery, to restoring genuine antiques. In lean times, I’ve also decorated houses and fed, exercised and otherwise attended to people’s dependents: elderly relatives, children, dogs, cats, hens, and horses.

My workshop was in a converted byre at the Reed Estate home farm. I leased it, like my little cottage, for a peppercorn rent, but with it came various conditions. I helped Lizzy, Mrs. Oliver and Sarah juggle the various demands in their lives, including helping to maintain and repair the home farm buildings. This arrangement was made considerably easier and more practical by the fact that the workshop was within shouting distance of their back door.The workshop, with its white walls, cool north light and, when it warmed up, rich mix of subtle and not so subtle smells, was my sanctum. It required me to keep it tidy (unlike my cottage), and to respect its tools and various materials. There was a ‘clean’ mending room, dominated by my big worktable, a little area off it with a tiny fridge and a Baby Belling that heated size, glue or soup. A long second room held a saw bench, plainer, lathe (all acquired second-hand) and a woodworking bench and repair area for delicate stuff like jewellery, the one divided from the other by thick transparent polythene curtains. A loft space ran the whole length of the roof, with the small ‘making room’ tucked away at the back under a skylight. The rest was taken up by a tiny office and the small ‘strong-room’ required by the insurance company, all accessed by wooden stairs.

I used to think that if I went blind I would be able to read my post-London working life from the surface of that worktable; every dent and score-mark a story. The network of little cut lines down the ‘paper end’ from back when I first started and hadn’t yet bought a proper scoring mat. The smooth irregular area of glass-like surface, slightly raised, the consequence of a particularly resinous glue leaking from a damaged container over a long weekend. The deep dent from where Barbara Crozier and I somehow managing to drop her little kiln after I’d so painstakingly welded back some broken elements. (We’d been laughing too much about something she’d said about a neighbour). And the surface of the table itself, smooth but for the raised knots, whorls and eddies of its convoluted grain, each plank with a history all its own. I made that table myself, helped by Willie Southgate, a local joiner now long dead. We got the heavy pitch pine from a yard he knew that was selling reclaimed timber – mostly pitch pine – taken from demolished Liverpool warehouses.

Willie helped me tongue and groove, smooth, and then fit each two-and-a-half- inch plank snuggly into its neighbour. But despite their metamorphosis from rough flooring to glowing plank, some still carried deep reddish discolorations from their previous existence. Before that the pitch pine would have found its way across the Atlantic from the northeastern United States, where the tree has a reputation for being able to survive in very poor conditions.

When I get depressed, which happens more frequently now, I go up in my mind to my little making room and spend some time sorting wood, just as I used to do. I had a collection of small off-cuts picked up from timber yards, along with bits and pieces salvaged from broken furniture. There were pieces ofmahogany, walnut, oak, yew, elm, ash, cherry, pear, pine, maple, ash, birch, rosewood,hazel, and holly, some in ‘raw’ form and some in the form of a section, say, of an old chair leg. I kept these along with lengths of blackthorn I’ve been cutting locally for years now, ever since I went on a course on how to make traditional walking sticks. Handling all these, with their variety of grain, weight, and colour, if only in imagination, never fails to lift my spirits.

There was another aspect to my workshop, which had to do with my relationship with clients. Most of the people who came there, whether bringing or collecting things, were women (although often bringing something on their husbands’ behalf).

I had a nice old leather armchair, acquired as part-payment from a client who went bust, that sat between my wood-burning stove and the little space with its kettle, various teas, coffee

 percolator and biscuit tin. Its broad well-worn arms provided an inviting perch and, for those brave enough to descend into its depths, an enfolding embrace. I often needed to finish a task in hand when someone arrived and, if that was the case, asked them to make themselves tea or coffee, take a biscuit, and sit awhile.

When we were ready to do business, they would be relaxed and, if I could do something on the spot, were happy to sit and talk while I did the job. Through Lizzy’s interest in local history I’d picked up enough knowledge to ask the right questions about their family or work. After that they just kept themselves amused by talking to me. Since most people like talking about themselves, I learned a lot, often things I couldn’t believe they were telling me. (Obviously, I was careful never to repeat anything they said.) For a long while I wondered why it was that they felt able to speak to me so freely about personal matters.

Abandoned picnic area at the site of the battle of Otterburn. 

Some of it was simply that I’m a pretty good listener and, because I’d be working and not appearing to be paying too much attention, they felt free to be more open. But I think it’s also more fundamentally because, for them, I existed as a function rather than as a person. I was an artisan and a woman with no husband, lover, children, or family in the region. I had no social influence and owned no property, land or animals. I simply didn’t register in terms of their basic social coordinates. Lizzy goes to church, takes her place on the committee for the Annual Show, navigates Sarah through the Byzantine politics of sleepover invitations and Pony Club events, while I have no part in all that. I imagine old family servants probably found themselves in much the same situation. That is, their employers felt free to say whatever they liked in front of them because they saw them as functionaries, not as persons like themselves.

Fifteenth birthday party

We had the party at the beginning of the summer holiday, well after my actual birthday, and at Homehaugh because our cottage was far too small. Dad had given me a beautiful deep blue tunic dress, short and embroidered with little dark red flowers around the neck and hem, something that Kate and I saw in a magazine and I had hankered after for months. I wore that and, because Kate had persuaded Dad to relent on his usual make-up rule, enough discrete eye-liner and lipstick to feel almost sophisticated. James brought lots of records and acted as our DJ. We rolled back the carpet in the front room so we could dance, and Hamish, usually so reserved in company, claimed the first dance with me.

Hamish and I had circled each other as sexual beings for a while. Although I was still trying to work out what had changed in how I felt about him, in addition to talking we’d now done a little tentative handholding and even kissed a couple of times. I had been unnerved by how my body responded but hadn’t talked to any of the girls about it in case they teased me. Hamish seemed to sense my uncertainty and had recently been rather wary of me. However, he clearly saw my party as an opportunity to change things. He not only asked me to dance straight away but then insisted on partnering me all evening. I was a little surprised but happy at his insistance.

During the first slow record,he began very tentatively nuzzling my neck, which I found odd but exciting.No doubt emboldened by my making no protest, he was giving me proper kisses by the third slow dance and, by the fourth or fifth, we were experimenting with tongues. I had neither the wish or the will to resist this new, passionate Hamish, who had now guided me down the darker end of the room. In what seemed no time at all his left hand finished its migration down my back and arrived on my bum. At around this point Mrs. Oliver, who kept coming into the room to keep an eye on things, turned the lights up and suggested to James that he play more ’lively’ music. (We weren’t the only ones who’d migrated to the dark end of the room). Hamish then suggested we get something to drink and I followed him out of the front room and turned right but, instead of going on down the corridor to the kitchen, he took my arm and quickly led me up the little back stairs to the dark landing above.

I was more excited than nervous but, remembering Kate’s stories, managed to be firm when he tried to put his hand inside my knickers. To my surprise he seemed relieved. But while I found it easily to control Hamish, I struggled with my own desire and was almost glad when, some minutes later, I heard my dad’s voice saying he’d come to collect me. I tidied my clothes, slipped down to get my coat, and said my goodbyes and thank-yous. Hamish, meanwhile, vanished along the upstairs corridor.

But what most stays in my memory from that year, far more vividly than my party evening, is the Friday evening six weeks later when we got caught drinking by two police officers, initiating the disastrous consequences of what we’d come to call ‘the Judgement’.

One immediate, if ultimately minor, consequence of the Judgement was that it caused real confusion between Hamish and me. After the party I had told anyone who would listen that Hamish was now my boyfrind. But in practice even meeting up became a real challenge after we got caught drinking. I had told girls at school how much I enjoyed kissing and cuddling with Hamish, not least because that was expected of me. But the deeper need, inscutable to me then, was not strictly sexual at all. It had to do with being the focus for Hamish’s intellectual enthusiasm, being what he’d once shyly called ‘his muse’. I certainly enjoyed the physical stuff and being the object of his affection, but behind that there was the business of shared imaginings, that quite other aspect of our relationship. Part of the confusion came from my awareness that our kissing and hugging involved a degree of self-deception on my part. I did enjoyed it, but I also insisted to myself that I must keep Hamish in check or he’d push me into doing something I’d regret. In truth, and from our few minutes on the landing at Homehaugh onwards, I was secretly far more worried about my own desire than his. When a school friend asked if I’d ‘do it’ with Hamish I said: ‘no, or at least not until I’m absolutely sure he loves me.’

But I knew perfectly well this expected response was stupid. I wasn’t really sure where love came into it. I certainly enjoyed basking in Hamish’s attention and desire; I probably enjoyed anticipating my own desire’s satisfaction without any of the complications that might follow if that should actually happened. I couldn’t, of course, have talked about any of this with Hamish. Sex, although it haunted our every moment together after the party, remained quite literally unspeakable. We both knew that local convention dictated I had only to say the word and he’d find a way to get hold of condoms but, like most of my peers, I said nothing. Nor did he press me, although he was certainly passionate enough within the limits I’d set him.

The reason we’d become close in the first place had to do with the shared vulnerabilities of our interior worlds, a mutual revelation that had felt extremely intimate. His confessions in that respect deepened my admiration of his love of poems and poets, of a vocabulary – words like ‘soul’ and ‘angelic’ – we would never have dreamed of using in public. For his voracious appetite for reading as an almost spiritual passion, something that corresponded obscurely with my first intimations of wanting to be an artist. My confessions, he told me in a hushed and stumbling voice, had given him hope of finding someone to share his secret life with, a soul-mate, spiritual fellow-traveller, muse. He even referred to me shyly as ‘a sort of guardian angel’. I, of course, lapped all this up, wholly unaware of the consequences of being placed on such a high pedestal.

I did not know then that traditionally both souls and angels are sexless. Had I done so I might perhaps have saved myself a certain amount of trouble and unhappiness, although I rather doubt it would have made any difference. We were caught between two conflicting desires, between the needs of body and mind, in a way we could not possibly have understood at that age. Between our budding physical desires and an obscure need for what we’d internalized as something ‘higher’ and ‘purer’, an elevated life of the creative mind. A tension that, briefly but memorably, lit up everything around me and made being the focus of Hamish’s attention somehow vital to my emerging and very vulnerable sense of the artist I hoped to become. 

All of this became increasingly irrelevant when, after we were all caught drinking, his father explicitly forbade Hamish from having anything further to do with any of us. This made communication between us increasingly difficult. I quickly came to see less of him and feared he would soon find another muse. To try to prevent that happening I contrived a secret meeting between us, despite almost insuperable difficulties. But two days after we met he sent me a note saying that he’s decided we must stop seeing each other. He added, almost as an afterthought, that he now knew he wanted to follow his father into the church. At first I thought I was heartbroken, then I felt humiliated, something which quickly turned to plain anger. However, my preoccupation with Hamish was soon overshadowed by other, less personal, issues.

Dad had not been entirely well for some time before the Judgement, although he consistently denied that there was anything wrong with him. It didn’t help that the practice had been slowly falling off, the inevitable result of greater competition in the region. This meant that I needed to do more to help at home, as well as focus on school as part of the process of getting myself to art college. Despite Dad’s half-hearted protests, I also took a Saturday job at the Co-op to help pay for my keep. When I did get offered a Foundation place at Newcastle I lost my nerve, deferred for a year, and then spend it doing the practice’s paperwork, cooking, general housekeeping, and worrying about his health which, fortunately, did begin to improve. During the three years between Hamish dumping me and my going away to London, I stopped going to church and, in consequence, I don’t think we exchanged more than a dozen sentences together. We simply chose to politely ignore each other. It was horrible but, despite feeling increasingly abandoned and lost, I passed my Foundation year and was offered an interview at Chelsea School of Art.

‘Waiting’

 One Friday evening

On a beautiful clear Friday evening, a couple of local police officers took the little road above the village on their way back from a half-day training session. They stopped for a leg-stretch and a cigarette and heard voices arguing in the little plantation below the road. Given the place and time of day, they sauntered down to investigate. That’s how seven of us were caught arguing heatedly with Maggie Hunter, who supplied us with booze, along with her two brothers, Charlie and Eric, who had come along in the hope of cadging a beer. We were drinking lager and, apart from Lizzy and Peter, were under age. We were arguing with the Hunters because James, who had the money we owed Maggie, had not turned up. Neither had Kate.

The two policemen were local. The more senior of the two was a strict Methodist and knew our approximate ages. We were asked for our parents’ phone numbers, the lager was confiscated, and we were sent home.

For years I believed our being caught drinking was the cause of  the Judgement. I was almost entirely wrong.

One of the policemen rang Mr. Oliver, who was working late at his office, within half an hour of leaving us. Mr. Oliver rang his wife and, when Lizzy got home, she was sent straight to her bedroom to wait for him. Shortly after Lizzy got to her room Kate crept silently across the corridor, swore her sister to absolute secrecy and, uncharacteristically tearful and frightened, told her what had happened.

Mrs Oliver had been out but returned home earlier than planned due to a confusion over an appointment. She went to her bedroom to change her shoes and, as she did so, heard sounds in what should have been the empty attic room directly above. She went up the back stairs in her stockinged feet and pushed open the attic room door. On the small bed in the corner she saw James and Kate having vigorous sex. She told them to get dressed. As they did so, she noticed James try to push a large fishing bag that had been partly hidden by his clothes under the bed. This turned out to contain a miniature bottle of vodka, two six packs of lager, and an estate wages envelope containing the money we owed Maggie. Telling James to stay in the attic, she took Kate downstairs and demanded to know how long this had been going on. Thrown by her mother’s uncharacteristic anger, Kate finally admitted that they’d been having sex all that holiday, either in the old hayloft or, when nobody was around, in the little attic room. Mrs. Oliver then questioned James about the contents of the bag. He told her the alcohol was for our gathering that evening and the money to pay for it. Mrs. Oliver then rang his mother, who immediately drove over. After further interogation about contraception and the guest list for the drinking party, followed by a private discussion between themselves, the two mothers issued very clear instructions that had nothing to do with morality and everything with damage limitation.

Jamie was driven home and Kate banished to her room. The two mothers quite reasonably assumed that, since James would not now arrive with the alcohol, we would abandon our intended party and drift back to our homes with no harm done. But Michael happened to have been given a six pack of lager in return for a favour by a school friend. It was this that we’d started on to placate Maggie and her brothers while waiting for James.

Mr Oliver returned home incensed by the call from the police. He summonsed his daughters, telling Kate to wait while he interogated Lizzy. For ten minutes he made it abundently clear how angry and disappointed he was at her irresponsibility, then sent her to her room. Despite her resentment at being blamed for everything, Lizzy had quickly sensed her father was more worried about Kate’s absence from the drinking party than her being there. What Lizzy did not know was that Kate had recently been in serious trouble for playing truant from school and had come within a hair’s breadth of being expelled.

Kate told her father exactly what her mother had instructed her to say: that she’d not joined us because she’d been been unwell. He questioned her at length but she stuck tearfully to her story. Mr. Oliver, having discussed the whole matter with his wife, then told Lizzy he’d decide on her punishment next day.

‘Our drinking den, seemingly still being used (2001).’

Years later Lizzy heard from Peter what happened between the twins and their father. Sir William questioned them together. Peter confirmed what the police had said, while James gave the story agreed with his mother. This proved disastrous because Sir William knew something that his wife did not; something that James, in his confusion, had entirely forgotten to tell his mother. After lunch Sir William, hearing James say he might go into the village later, had casually asked him to deliver a small package to the doctor’s house. James had agreed and delivered the package on his way to pick up our alcohol, which Maggie always left in the old stable-block nettie. He then met Kate as planned. But James stuck to the agreed story that after lunch his mother had caught him reading comics instead of revising as he’d promised to do and had grounded him for the rest of the day. This didn’t tally with what Sir William knew, since he’d received a discreet phone that told him the small package had been delivered. So James was clearly lying. Reminded of the delivery, James clumsily tried to modify his story. At which point Sir William sent Peter to bed and called his wife. He must then have arrived at a more accurate version of the afternoon’s events. Peter could hear the row going on from his room, although not its content.

Early next morning Sir William went to Homehaugh and confronted Mr. Oliver on his own doorstep. Mr.Oliver was still in his dressing gown when he opened the front door, while Sir William was in tweed three-piece suit and old school tie. He proceeded to make it abundantly clear what he thought of Kate’s seduction of James and of Lizzy organizing a ‘drinking den’. Mrs. Oliver, still upstairs in bed, could heard every word. Sir William then announced that the twins were now expressly forbidden from any further contact with the Oliver family. From this confrontation a sequence of events unfolded that had very serious consequences for a great many people.

Lizzy believes that Mr. Oliver, a proud man now seriously wrong-footed by someone he heartily disliked, simply lost all his usual calm, somehow convincing himself that James had in fact seduced Kate and that, in consequence, Sir William’s behaviour in confronting him on his own doorstep was a gross insult to both his daughter and himself. We both knew this explanation didn’t really fit with her father’s character, but it was all she could come up with. To the best of her knowledge her father never asked why Kate and his wife had lied to him. It may be, however, that the knowledge that they had done so helped explain why he completely ignored everything they and Lizzy said on the matter. That included their pleas that he let the whole affair rest. A bitter feud then began between the two men that, in time, would effectively shatter not only the world we had grown up in but the assumption of continuity taken for granted by the local community.

 

 

 

 

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3: Parts 35, 36, & 37.

Visitation

One morning in late May that year I called at the farm and, to my astonishment, Lizzy was up and eating breakfast. She seemed completely changed. I blurted out something like: ‘was she feeling better?’ She told me she’d had a vivid dream. Peter had come into the bedroom and, standing at the end of their bed, told her how much he loved her and that she must stop grieving for him now, get herself better, and look after little Sarah. She sat up in bed and begged him to kiss her, but he’d insisted he had to go. She heard his footsteps on the stairs and the click of the back door shutting, exactly as she had done when he’d go out early. Then she woke up to hear the cock crowing. I told her how delighted I was to see her up, grabbed whatever I’d gone to collect, and went out to find Arthur.

That’s the official account of how Lizzy started to mend. It’s not, however, quite the whole story.

As we were finishing moving the sheep I noticed a police car parked outside Arthur and Nessa’s cottage and said something to him. We finished up and then went down just as Nessa came out with the young copper who’d just transferred from Hawick. Arthur asked if everything was alright and the young man explained he’d just taken a statement from Maggie, who’d seen a man looking around the farm in the night.. There’d been a series of recent thefts from farms, so the two men went to check the yard. I then noticed Nessa looked very pale. She hurried me into the kitchen.

Nessa and Arthur’s daughter Ruth had recently returned from Canada with her six-year-old daughter Maggie. The daughter, a nurse, had an interview so had left Maggie with her grandmother. In the night the little girl had got up to go to the bathroom and, on her way back to bed, opened the curtain to see if it was getting light. This gave her a good view up towards the farm. As she looked out she’d seen a man come out from the back porch and walk through the yard, looking left and right, then down to and past the cottage. She’d seen his face very clearly and in the morning she’d told her grandmother what she’d seen. Nessa remembered the spate of recent thefts and rang the old police sargent, but warned him it might be nothing. He’d been concerned enough to send the young constable to take a statement.

‘He was very good with the lass and she told him exactly what she’d told me, near enough word for word. But Miss Flora, he asked her to describe the man she’d seen and it was Master Peter. But Maggie’s never seen him, nor any photograph either. Of course the young man just wrote it all down and praised her for her memory. I didn’t know what to say so I said nothing. I sent her to play and was taking him out when yourselves arrived. Whatever am I to say to the sergeant, I’m afraid he’ll think it’s some terrible bad joke’.

I told Nessa about Lizzy’s dream. She looked at me wide-eyed, shook her head, and walked out of the room. I rang the sergeant myself. He’s a traditional singer I know quite well. I don’t remember now just how our conversation went, but I started by asking if he remembered ‘The Wife of Usher’s Well.’[2]

Whatever you make of all this, and I swear it’s true, Lizzy’s depression eased off, at least to the point where eventually we were able to return to something like our old lives. But after that I had a real sense that I didn’t know the half of it when it came to Lizzy. That, of course, turned out to be entirely true.

I suppose I should also add this.

You may possibly remember sending me a little booklet,A. R. Wright’s ‘English Foklore’(1928), number twenty-three in a series called ‘Benn’s Sixpenny Library’, that you’d found in a second hand bookshop. You almost certainly won’t remember writing that you were disconcerted by what seemed to you my excessive gratitude for such a small gift. My reason, which I didn’t feel able to share with you then, can be found on page twenty-three.

The dead seem to have been carried feet foremost from ancient times, in order to prevent their seeing their home and door and so being able to find their way back as revenants.

This brought to mind something that happened when the undertakers came to remove Peter’s body. There was an altercation between an old neighbour who’d come to help Nessa with the laying out and the undertaker’s men. I only caught the low, insistent, tone of the old woman’s voice, not her words, and then an incredulous refusal from the undertaker; then the old woman again, now openly angry, before I had to attend to something else. When I looked out of the window moments later I saw Peter’s coffin carried out of the house head first. After I’d read that passage in Wright’s book, I asked Nessa if she remembered that day. She looked away and tried to change the subject. When I pressed her she admitted that old Miss Kerr had had words with the men, but insisted she couldn’t remember what the old lady had said. This was the same Miss Kerr who, when I asked about her brother one day, told me he was all upset about a tweed suit bequeathed to him by a former emplyer because it had inexplicably rotted. She’d added: ‘what did he expect, silly man, it fretted for old Mr …, who’d worn it on and off thirty years’.

After reading Wright it’s not hard to guess the cause of the altercation, but I do wonder about her motive.

I know neither of us, as intelligent, rational people, believe in such things. But, as we each know, our intelligent, rational selves are hardly in the majority.

The Reed Estate

 Of course it’s hard for me not to admire Lizzy as the localsee her; that is as Peter’s widow and ‘mistress of the Reed Estate’, since she’s genuinely had to overcome very real difficulties in order to keep the farm going and bring up Sarah. Although there’s something ironic about that view of Lizzy, since the Reed Estate as was realy only exists in memory now.

Originally it consisted of the home farm and a cluster of five smaller tenant farms, all a world away from the intensive agriculture of the lowlands. A parcel of haughs (meadows) along the river and patches of dense woodland in its steep valleys, hill pasture and moorland that’smixture of bog, heather and cotton-grass. In the old days, all this grazing land was treated by its owners, at least in terms of public rhetoric, as ‘for sport’, that is as primarily for grouse and pheasant shooting. As ‘gentry’ the Reeds preferred to see the estate as a recreational site and the income it brought in from farming as a secondary matter. From this point of view once the shooting was rented out ‘the estate’ became, in the eyes of the more hidebound of Peter’s peers, a farming business and Peter a farmer rather than a gentleman who owned land. Of course, nobody would be so vulgar as to put any of this into words, least of all say anything to Peter or Lizzy themselves. But that didn’t make the judgement any less real in the minds of some in the region. It’s difficult to explain the nuances of all this to outsiders. Particularly now when the presuppositions involved, which are essential to preserving an identity predicated on archaic distinctions, would be bitterly defended if ever made explicit. They are, of course, all but invisible to those that hold.

When I first came north I thought the Cheviot uplands were just an endless, undifferentiated succession of dull and very empty hills. Initially it was Lizzy’s schoolgirl pride in both the natural and human history of the region that carried me beyond that first impression. I learned that the upland landscape was differentiated into fields and rough pasture; that the second consisted of bog, patches of dull green sedge, occasional dwarf shrubs and massive hummocks of sphagnum moss and, higher up in the dryer areas, white headed cotton-grass and drifts of heather. In a good year, these drifts turned a wonderful purple in early to mid-August and were often interspersed with cloudberry and ling. She pointed out to me the notable inhabitants of this highland, the hares, lapwings, curlew, assorted raptors, and both black and red grouse. She insisted I understand other, more esoteric, differentiations too. I learned that the Reed Estate did not host relic communities of arctic alpine flora, the dwarf cornel, chick-weed, willow grass, alpine willow herb, rose root, hairy stonecrop, and alpine scurvy grass, that survive in some of the deep rocky ravines of estates further north. A relic flora that brings with it various environmental restrictions to vex its owners.

Even in its heyday the Estate’s farming side never made the Reeds much money beyound the tenants’ rents, but it enabled them to maintain a certain view of themselves. Lizzy’s public persona is now a strange afterglow of that former identity, a sense of self that’s genuinely invested in the farm as a livelihood for Sarah and herself. But it’s all muddled up with a ghost: the former social role of mistress of an estate as it once was; a roll that her mother-in-law wore like a glove.

Lizzy and I have never seen eye to eye on the role of shooting in the whole business of estates here. I dislike the various, largely bogus, claims that this somehow contributes ‘to the conservation and maintenance of the countryside’. Claims made by an industryonly interested in protecting its own interests, including the social status of landowners, and heavily subsidised by the tax-payer.

At the risk of boring you half to death, I’ll give you an indication (albeit a bit dated) of what’s involved, based on notes I made back in 2009. At that time 80 percent of estates were involved in grouse shooting, although grouse numbers had declined by nearly 50 percent compared to 2001. However, the fee levied per brace had increased by over 30 percent in real terms over the same period.Grouse shooting was estimated to account for 46 percent of permanent employment across the estates surveyed, but only 43 percent of reporting estates made a profit on their grouse. I think this confirms my view that maintaining the status of ‘gentleman landowners’ is a significant motive in all this.

The stone heap

That said, more estates were making more profit in 2009 than previously. It wasestimated that they spent almost £11 million on wages, operating, and maintenance expenditures. However, it’s not clear how much of this was offset by other benefits. (An ecologist friend thinks the offset is very considerable, not least because estates are able to collect substantive Government subsidies.)Much ‘everyday’ estate expenditure is on routine countryside management, including predator control (some of it highly suspect, if not illegal), pest control, and heather and bracken management, which to a degree may also benefit agricultural activity. But this is, as you’ll know, environmentally problematic. There was of course no mention in the report I’m quoting from of such environmental issues, nor of the relationship between all this activity and watershed management, or of the social and economic cost to the nation of having to deal with flooding. Nor was there mention of the very substantial subsidies paid to the owners of grouse moors by the State.All of which needs to be understood in the context of other facts, for example that over half of Scotland is owned by just 432 people, the most concentrated pattern of land ownership anywhere in the developed world.

Change

Everything here began to change when the day-to-day management of the estate was passed over to Peter, who by then had graduated from agricultural college. He immediately began worked closely with Arthur Bell to pull the farming side of the estate business around. Some three months after he moved back north he and Lizzy got engaged and she became privy to the financial and other implications of his mother’s battle with the trustees. She would only tell me

so much but, reading between the lines, I think when the lawyers investigated the trust they discovered various irregularities. Whatever the case, the trust agreed to amend its own terms of reference and real managerial authority was largely devolved to Peter. The whole business was probably as costly as it was unpleasant and, at least initially, Peter ran into endless problems created, directly or indirectly, by his father. Not the least of which was that people on the estate he’d grown up with had been ‘let go’, which had naturally generated a lot of bad feeling locally.

 Peter began at once to set in motion a plan that, to many people locally, was simply unthinkable. He put the Big House on the market and then sold it to a business syndicate, part of a package that also gave them exclusive rights to the shooting. The syndicate then turned the house and outbuildings into a small exclusive hotel that, by providing some much-needed local employment, helped to mollify local feeling. In parallel, Peter moved Arthur and his wife Nessa into a renovated estate cottage, taking over the factor’s[1]house at the farm for Lizzy and himself. All this allowed him to pay off virtually the entire estate overdraft. He then established a management company, with his mother and Lizzy as partners to sideline the trust. He and Lizzy then married quietly at a civil ceremony at the Jedburgh registry office. There were only about a dozen of us there, but Kate had come home especially. That was, to my knowledge, her last visit to the UK.

 

‘Picking up’ dead grouse after a drive.

That was in July. Early in the morning on the first Tuesday in December the following year, Peter took the old estate Landrover out onto the hill to liaise with a contractor assessing the value of a plantation with a view to felling it. The plan was that Peter would then meet Arthur and Graham Watson, the cattle man, by nine. At half past nine Arthur called in at the farm to ask for Peter.

It took a long afternoon to get Peter’s body out of the remains of the Landrover and bring it up from the river, which was high from several days of intermittent snow and sun. The police concluded that Peter had braked going into the second of the hairpin bends, that the brakes had failed, and that the vehicle had then skidded and the front hit a low boulder. At that point, the Landrover had turned over onto its side, slide down the rest of the steep, snow-covered bank, and dropped the ten odd meters into the freezing river below. The local mechanic who maintained the farm’s vehicles told the inquest the Landrover had only just scraped through its M.O.T. back in March and he’d suggested it be replaced. Peter told him he hadn’t the funds. The coroner recorded death by drowning. Lizzy, six months pregnant with Sarah, started having the most terrible nightmares and, after a very difficult birth, developed what began as post-natal depression.

Mrs. Oliver and I organized a wake for family and close friends at the farmhouse.

Arthur, normally an abstemious man, drank steadily. Knowing him as well as I do I sensed something was brewing and went to find Nessa, who was holding court among the local women in the kitchen. I told her my suspicions and suggested she get him home.  She was in the process of bustling him into his coat when he turned and said to Lizzy, across the room and loud enough for all to heard: “He might as well ha’ killed him his self”. Nessa, blushing furiously, pushed him out of the door before he could say another word. Everyone knew exactly what he meant. Coming from Arthur, normally the mildest and most discreet of men, that outburst was taken as a judgement. Nessa might tell everybody she met how mortified she’d been that he should say such a thing in front of Lizzy and ‘herself’ (Lady Armitage) but, as I told her, he had only put into words what we’d all thought.

In the year and a half that followed, Mrs. Oliver and I looked after Lizzy and Sarah and did what we could to help Arthur, Mike, and Graham keep the farm going. My father had died of cancer two springs previous and Lizzy’s father of complications following a stroke that same summer, so we were all of us already feeling bereft. Kate was largely out of touch, living a hand-to-mouth existence in Australia, loving it, but poor as a church mouse.

My childhood world, the foundation of so much in my life, was in real danger of becoming something so distant, so prelapsarian,as to be wholly unreal; my oldest friends were distressed or scattered, and Cat was dead. My musing on that childhood began, perhaps, simply as an attempt to reconstruct, to rewrite perhaps, a substantial part of my identity. Historically, disaster of one kind or another has almost been the norm, so we’re used to having to telling things again, but differently, just to keep ourselves going.

 

[1]In Scotland, a factor is an estate manager. 

[2]This is perhaps the most explicit and detailed of all the various ‘supernatural’ Border ballads that provide an account of a revenant,a ‘living ghost’, who returns from the grave to warn or instruct the living.

 

Liz Crow’s ‘Bedding Out’

I was alerted to Bedding Out, by  Liz Crow, by a good friend who, rightly, thought l might be interested in her work around a particular kind of disability and the way it has been demonised for political reasons interesting. I know from our own family experience just how frightening and difficult the situation she evokes is, and wish more people could see this piece. They might them empathise a little more, and even challenge the ideology that has created the PIP (Personal  Independence Payment) system which, as Liz points out, is actually a form of State-sponsored terrorisation that is having, literally, lethal consequences.

I find it extraordinary that there is almost universal condemnation of President Trump’s treatment of the children of migrants going into the USA illegally and yet, thanks largely to the tabloid media, the UK Government gets away with supporting policies and practices that are every bit as inhumane, including the forceable removal of children with ME/CFS from their parents on the basis of the same kinds of demonisation Liz Crow describes. There is a tendency among a certain group of people to describe this kind of thing as ‘fascistic’ but, in fact, a much closer analogy would be with the chronic abuse of psychiatry in the USSR, given that the treatment of these children has been supported by a group of UK psychiatrists, among whom is one who holds the highest role in that profession.

I absolutely understand why people wish to protest against Trump and his policies, but can’t help feeling that they might use their energies more effectively by addressing some of the abuses taking place in a ‘democratic’ State of which they are citizens by protesting against policies enacted in their name.