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After a long silence …

I’ve not added to this blog for a good while. I fractured my wrist and ruptured the tendon in my right thumb at the end of July, which has made life rather more complicated than usual. But the main reason has been a sense of emotional turmoil that’s made me reluctant to return to this form of writing. A mixture of fear and outrage at a political situation that impacts on my life at many levels. Fear that a no-deal Brexit will prevent my daughter from getting the vital medicine on which her precarious well-being depends. Outrage that the grim political farce of Brexit, played up by a monied elite (who effectively own the media) and who are now using a phoney English nationalism to blind the population to the need for deep adaptation in the face of environmental and social meltdown. And a strange mixture of deep sadness and regret that the various bonds that link me to good friends in Ireland and America are being weakened day by day. Weakened because, despite what we would wish, we are all increasingly forced to give more and more attention to a social and environmental situation created by the contempt of that elite for everything but their own wealth and privilege. We all had better and more worthwhile things to do, yet must now set them aside in a desperate struggle to retain some semblance of the quasi-democracy that we still have. Without it, we have no chance of working together towards addressing the fundamental socio-environmental issues we face.

Terrestrial Matters

This is a slightly modified version of the text of a presentation given at the Culture Climates: Fostering Art for Sustainability – Time for a new Cultural Policy? workshop held at the Moore Institute, NUI Galway, and organised by Dr Nessa Cronin, on May 14th, 2019.   

I’m very grateful to Nessa for the invitation to speak today, not least because it’s given me the chance to catch up with some old friends in Ireland, however briefly. 

I’ll start with the obvious. Our current problemsare not simply environmental. They’re social and, perhaps particularly, psychological – that’swhy Amitav Ghosh refers to our global crisis asThe Great Derangement. Until a few years back, I earned a living teaching, so I tend to see situations in terms of what we need to unlearn, learn or re-learn. I think that one of the most important things we can do now is unlearnthe dominant culture’s assumptions about creativity and self. That’s to say, we have toreturn to a fundamental ecological principle – that we’re not autonomousas individuals. We don’t own ourselves or anything we produce because we exist and can act onlythroughconnections, attachments and relationships.

In its own particular cultural terms, that’s what this retablo tells us. I’ll give you a moment to read the dedication. 

Retablo commissioned by Obdulia Lopez and dedicated to the Virgin of Jaquila. Artist: Flor Palomares. The dedication reads:

“I’m thanking, with all my heart, the Virgin of Jaquila, for keeping our family tradition of weaving. My mother and grand-mother were weavers and they taught me since I was a little girl. Now my serapes, huipils and rebozos are most valued among foreign tourists who buy them.”
Obduilia Lopez , Chiapas, Mexico.

If we want a just and sustainable world, we have to acknowledge that each of us is always enmeshed in, and dependent on, larger exchanges over time and across space. Exchanges involving the work, substance and knowledge of numerous other beings, human and non-human. That’s not always  easy to acknowledge in a culture of possessive individualism.

One way of unpicking the assumptions of possessive individualism is by thinking in terms of‘mutual accompaniment’, a phrase used by the social psychologist Mary Watkins.Mutual accompaniment is a continuous, shared process of respectful, practical, learning that helps reorient our thinking precisely by focusing onconnections, attachments and relationships. I’m going to try to give you a sense of what this might mean in practice using work I’m involved with.

LuciGorell Barnes co-ordinates Companion Plantingas part of her work at a Nursery School and Children’s Centre in Bristol, where she’s been artist-in-residence for fifteen years. Based on a council allotment plot, the project involves gardening and environmental awareness as a medium to explore parents’ engagement with their children’s learning. In the process, it brings people together to share skills, make friends, and celebrate diversity. Many of those involved are refugees or migrants, mainly from Africa and Asia. My contribution to all this is simply as a sounding-board, a ‘critical friend’ that Luci can discuss the project with in the wider context of non-standard education, environmental concerns, parenting, and creative forms of narrative and research.  

Luci earns her living as an educator, researcher, and artist-in-residence, while simultaneously working as a partner, mother, grandmother, writer, illustrator, and studio artist. We met by chance while helping to run a workshop for people involved in water policy and governance, part of a UK-wide research project exploring hydrocitizenship.On her web site, Luci introduces herself as an artist concerned with:‘… developing flexible and responsive processes that enable us to think imaginatively with ourselves and each other’. I see that concern as central tomutual accompaniment. 

Water Storiesconsists of stories told by 19 women from 16 countries across 5 continents and is produced by two groups from local families. Sitting with them in a small nursery classroom as they told their water stories was an extraordinarily powerful experience. It gave me a tangible sense of the multiplicity of human relationships with water and confirmed that, if we’re going to develop concepts like hydrocitizenship, we need to start by sharing water stories.   

The process of mutual accompaniment is focused by exchanges that constantly test the people involved. It’s educational in the root sense of a ‘drawing out’ of our possibilities. I need to read widely for the work I do supervising and examining doctoral projects, and this inevitably informs the work I share with people like Luci. I’m going to reflect this aspect of my contribution here by referencing two books in particular – Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regimeand Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable

I understandLuci to work in the political space that Latour calls the ‘radically Terrestrial’. Knowing that she lives in the Anthropocene, she works with others towards cohabiting a world that has re-imagined the relationship between the ‘global’ as created by modernisation, and commitment to a particular place on the other. She also enacts Latour’s insight that: ‘what counts is understanding whether you are managing to register, to maintain, to cherish, a maximum number of alternative ways of belonging to the world.’ Her work with migrants and refugees reflects her choice to distance herself from any sense of the Local as being exclusive, as differentiating itself by closing itself off. Instead, she identifies with the Terrestrial througha specific place experienced as inclusive, as opening itself up. Finally, she acts on Ghosh’s point that we need to renew our forms of collective imagining; to contest an economics and culture based on, and designed to increase, isolation. She does that by listening to untold stories and facilitating the creation of new, shared, ones.  

These qualities are equally applicable to Christine Baeumler’s work. For example, the recent Defiant Gardensproject for the Plains Art Museum in Fargo, North Dakota. This involved Christine, her collaborators, and their Buzz Lab interns, turning an art museum car park into a pollinator garden. A transformation with social, political and economic consequences. Christine and I have been mutually accompanying each other, both conversationally and practically, since 2007. A process that made it possible for me to write an essay on her practice for a recent book on the Defiant Gardensproject. 

An earlier example of Christine’s work isthis tamarack wetland restoration project, made for the main entrance roof at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. It calls attention to fragile and unique tamarack ecosystems in the Minnesota region by reimaging a fragment of wetland as green roof infrastructure. She wanted to show staff, students and local residents that it’s possible to “reconstitute” an endangered rural ecosystem in an urban setting by using water where it falls. Like Luci, Christine’swork requires her having a ‘mycelial’ or ‘ensemble’ approach to her work. This enables herto register, maintain, and cherish the maximum number of alternative ways of belonging to the world ascitizen, neighbour, artist, university teacher, student of ecology, researcher, curator, mentor, and activist. And like Luci, Christine understands that issues of climate change, social justice and self-understanding have to be addressed together. 

Breaking from her ecological interventions, in 2014 Christine made a set of Tarot cards based on works in the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis. She then began giving face-to-face ‘readings’ as an eco-oracle at events ranging from local fairs to academic conferences. Like Latour and Ghosh, she had seen the need to draw attention to what is repressed by Scientism. Ghosh refers to Eduardo Kohn’s How Forests Thinkto remind us that most people, across different times and cultures, have understood that communication exceeds both language and the human. To take on the role of eco-oracle is both to playfully question the limits of humanistic rationality and to suggest the possibility of radically other modes of communication. In this Christine’s eco-oracle personaenacts important points made by Isabelle Stengers, both in her writing on animismand in Capitalist Sorcery, Breaking the Spell

By playing the role of an eco-oracle, Christine also questions our culture’s presuppositions about authority.A university professor performing as a fortune-teller begs questions about what kinds of knowledge we assume to be authoritative, and why. It’s also an indirect reminder that we’re eachalwaysbothmore and less than the categories of identity used to name and divide us. Working with that understanding isn’t always comfortable, as I learned collaborating on The Crow Road, a performance made with Erin Kavanagh. However, as both Latour andStengers suggest, stepping away from our professional categorical helps us to register, maintain, and cherish a greater variety of ways of belonging to the world.

Simon Read teaches art students at Middlesex University in London and we’ve been exchanging observations since we were undergraduates.In 1980 he left his developing London art career to live on a barge on the Suffolk Coast. He joined the River Deben Association, a local environmental group, and immersed himself in debates about the cultural implications of unstable coastal and estuarine systems. Unable to find large-scale maps that related the river to its defences, the surrounding landscape and to the floodplain, he decided to make his own. He retrieved the necessary information from admiralty charts, Ordinance Survey maps, scientific literature, Environment Agency Flood Plain maps and aerial surveys. All of which he then synthesised, cross-referenced, and checked for accuracy on the ground. This mapping work equipped him to make informed contributions to debates between multiple official agencies and the local community about the management of the River Deben estuary. 

Simon’s predictive maps– they visualise the future of the riverscape over periods of between five and fifty years – enable him to make an informed practical contribution to discussions about environmental management. They’ve also served as a basis for creating tidal attenuation barriers that help sustain both the Sutton and Falkenham tidal saltmarshes. These structures were made following discussions with the local community and built, in the first case, with help from volunteers from a local open prison. They’re materialextensions of insights gained through visualisation as an artist on one hand, and involvement in public debates regarding the Deben and its environs on the other.

Simon would stress that there’s no single answer to the question: ‘what’s the outcome of these projects’? Tothe farmer who owns the saltmarsh and to the Deben Estuary Partnership, it’s environmental restoration. To those interested in art, it may be aesthetic or a questioning of categories like ‘Land’ or ‘Environmental’ art. To environmental managers it’s the use of bio-degradable materials to create structures that help build up the sediment on which healthy saltmarshes depend. To those involved in public engagement and environmental governance, it’s the processes that enmesh cultural engagement with environmental questions about ownership, land, responsibility, and belonging. As I say, for Simon each view is equally valid. 

Simon’s and my sense of mutual accompaniment circles around two core concerns. The complexities of place andcommitment to an education through art that challenges the culture industry’s assumptions about what art can do. Simon’s come to accept that his contribution to any environmental debate or action as an artist is no more important than any other when trying to find equitable solutions to problems. It took him a while and he still sometimes asks himself whether he’s in danger of losing his identity as an artist altogether. However, I see him as having developed an open creative approach to complex, multi-dimensional environmental partnerships that frees him from the limits of both his own individual ego and any one signature approach or methodology. 

I need to turn to my own situation at this point.In my final undergraduate year as an art student, I had a brief conversation with Joseph Beuys. It ended with him saying to me: ‘Always remember, education is more important than art’. I’d taken refuge in art as a dyslexic schoolboy and it had become the focus of my identity as an art student. So at the time I met Beuys I couldn’t accept what I thought he was saying to me. 

Thirty-five years later, I was supporting my family by working for a university and was involved in various deep mapping projects – in this case with my chronically-ill daughter. I’d arrived at my own interpretation of Beuys’ view, which is to embrace the necessity of working around the constraints imposed on us by categories like ‘art’ and ‘education’. That shift was in no small part due to mutual accompaniment with the last person whose work I want to talk about. 

Natalie Boulton and I were art students together and have been married for 45 years. Natalie is the main carer for our daughter, who suffers from chronic Myalgic Encephalomyelitis -ME for short- and works as a patient advocate and activist. About fifteen years ago, she started to look for ways to use her various skills and abilities to articulate the experience of ME sufferers and their careers. She first designed and edited a book of interviews and then produced the award-winning documentary film, Voices From The Shadows. These both articulate, in sometimes horrifying detail, the abuse of ME sufferers by members of the medical and psychiatric professions. Natalie is now working on an ME education project, funded by the Wellcome Trust, alongside a network of patients, researchers, carers, citizen-scientists and investigative journalists she’s helped bring together. They’re promoting proper research and contesting institutionalised neglect, abuse, and mis-representation of ME sufferers. Through that work, they’re also contributing to the increasingly vocal political opposition to the UK’s oppressive policy of ‘austerity’.  

Natalie’s work relates directly to our environmental concerns here because it exposes and challenges the mechanisms used by what Latour calls ‘obscurantist elites’. Elites that now use every means possible to obscure the fact that they’ve abandoned any sense of civic responsibility to preserve their wealth, authority and status, largely by fostering counter realities that deny the reality of our situation. The network Natalie’s involved in is, like many others, engaged in an unrelenting struggle for the social justice with which environmental sanity is inextricably bound up. Accompanying that work on a daily basis has taught methe necessity of working around the constraints imposed on us by social categories of occupation and identity.  

“… if, as an art, conversation is the creation of worlds, we could say that to choose to have a conversation with someone is to admit them into the field where worlds are constructed. And this ultimately runs the risk of redefining not only the ‘other’ but us as well”(italics mine)

Monica Szewczyk  ‘Art of Conversation, Part 1’ e-flux journal no 3 – February 2009

In this presentation, I’ve tried to indicate why what I would once have called ‘mywork’ is actually inseparable from the process of mutual accompaniment grounded in conversation in this sense. The connections, attachments, and relationshipsI’ve touched are only part of a larger picture, of course, which is dependent on the work of innumerable others, both living and dead. That is, in the shared work of trying tosustain the multiverse that, more fundamentally, sustains us. 

I want to end by picking up Mary Watkins’ suggestion there’s a downside to the increased professionalisation of social and environmental agencies and NGOs. That it sends an unintended signal to civil society, implying that caringis a specialist activity best undertaken by paid professionals. That in turn implies that ‘ordinary citizens’ no longer need to concern themselves with issues of care because professionals will do it for them and do it better. The same might be said about the culture industry. 

The work Natalie does reveals, in shocking detail, just how socially and psychically disastrous the professionalisation of care can be. It’s significant that the work I’ve referred to in this presentation involves lay citizens, refugees, scientists, children, migrants, young people, experts, the chronically sick, their carers, local communities, and even prisoners excluded from those communities. All of whom, for better or worse, are dependent on multiple ecologies consisting of shared connections, attachments, and relationships. Perhaps it’s only through acknowledging and developing our many mutual accompaniments across and beyond social categories that those shared connections, attachments, and relationships can be re-oriented towards the common good?


Amitav Ghosh The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (University of Chicago Press, 2017)

Donna Haraway Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press 2016) 

Bruno Latour Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime 
(Polity Press, 2018)

James Leach ‘Creativity, Subjectivity and the Dynamic of Possessive Individualism’ inElizabeth Hallam & Tim Ingold (eds.), Creativity and Cultural Improvisation. (Berg, 2007)

Phillippe Pignarre & Isabelle Stengers trans. Andrew Goffey, Capitalist Sorcery: Breaking the Spell(Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

Mary Watkins ‘From Hospitality to Mutual Accompaniment: Addressing Soul Loss in the Citizen-Neighbour’ in Tomaž Gruovnik, Eduardo Mendieta & Lenart Škof (eds.) Borders and Debordering: Topologies, Praxes, Hospitableness(Lexington Books, 2018).

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 

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.


 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.