Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3. Part 3. ‘8 Lost Songs’ revisited (for Catherine Douglas).

[This the third of forty-nine narrative sections that make up Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3, the concluding work of my Debatable Lands deep mapping project. The complete work is now available on request as a pdf. If A life is several stories …’you would like a copy, please contact me at: iain19biggs@gmail.com].

Editor’s note. In 2004 I initiated a project that became ‘8 Lost Songs’, an artist’s book that included a CD of music, prints and a map on silk. It was made with two friends, the musician Garry Peters and the book designer Jonathan Ward. The book was produced in a limited edition, but has a second, digital, life. It was the second publication in an ongoing ‘deep mapping’ project, begun in 1999, and was my first attempt at ‘a true story that never happened’. In a note among her papers Flora suggests that, because of what happened to her friend Cat, I return to ‘8 Lost Songs’. What follows is a slightly revised and further annotated version of the original text, but should now be read in the light of Flora’s email to me about Cat’s later life and early death, reproduced above.

 ‘8 Lost Songs’ – Preface

The circumstances that led to this project require some comment. In 1999 I began work on a book with a scholar and artist who, for reasons of his own, wished to remain anonymous. He was referred to only as A. The book we produced – Between Carterhaugh and Tamshiel Rig: a borderline episode – was published by Wild Conversations Press, and appeared in January 2004. A. had retired from all forms of public life that year, something he had been contemplating for some time. In the autumn of 2003, in preparation for his retirement, he kindly sent me material relating to various ongoing and unfinished projects he thought might interest me. The material that resulted in Eight Lost Songs immediately caught my attention.

The content of this publication has been taken from various sources. A. undertook almost all the original research on which the publication is based, which I then wrote up in the form it appears here. The ‘ethnographic notes’ on the eight lost songs themselves are, apart from a few corrections, reproduced here as cat (as ‘Alison Oliver’) wrote them. My own role has been to edit and assemble the material for publication, to produce the images, to provide some additional contextual material in the form of footnotes, and to invite Gary Peters to respond musically to what we know of the ‘lost’ material.

Introduction: ‘8 Lost Songs’

This project is best described as a celebration but, paradoxically, one that has at its heart several absences. It responds, in words, images and music, to such information as we have about a set of eight lost songs linked, as far as we know, by their connection to the former parish of Southdean. We know nothing about these songs beyond what is set out in Alison Oliver’s notes, reproduced below.

No attempt has been made to ‘reconstruct’ the songs, as individuals like Sir Walter Scott might have done in the past, not least because there is simply not the information available to do so. Instead, we have responded, using what information we have and our imagination, to the enigmatic trace of the various individuals whose lives provided the focus around which the original songs appear to have taken shape.

The background to ‘8 Lost Songs’

On May 6th, 1969, ‘Alison Oliver’ (Catherine Douglas), who claimed to be a Canadian singer of Scottish decent, played a tape to the independent record producer George Canning. On the tape, she had recorded herself playing and singing what she claimed were eight traditional songs. She also played and sang at least two of these songs ‘live’ to Canning. Oliver, an unknown singer working the northern folk club circuit, had spent almost eight months getting an appointment with Canning. When they finally meet, he was clearly impressed both by her singing and playing and by the material itself. He asked to borrow the tape so that he could play it to associates but, unfortunately for us, she refused, saying she’d rather return and play the material ‘live’. After some discussion, he agreed in principle both to help her cut a proper demo and look for a recording contract for her, providing his associates were as impressed with the material as he was. The only note of discord in an otherwise positive meeting came when he asked Oliver why, if these were indeed traditional songs, he had never heard any of them before? Oliver was clearly uncomfortable with this question and launched into a long, convoluted story about how her family had taken an old ballad manuscript to Canada with them when they left Scotland, where the songs had subsequently been forgotten.

As Canning later told Sarah Norton, his personal assistant, he didn’t believe this story and had implied as much to Oliver. At this point she had become defensive and insisted that, while the arrangements were hers, both the tunes and lyrics were traditional. Canning dropped the issue but, although the two parted on good terms, he told Norton to write to Oliver and tell her that, given her insistence that these traditional songs came from a manuscript in her family’s possession, she must bring the original manuscript with her when she next came down to London.

Some days later a fire broke out in the small, isolated cottage Oliver rented. No trace of a body was found in the burnt-out room and to all intents and purposes she disappeared.

That might have been the end of the matter had A. not found a thick envelope of material tucked into the back of a very battered copy of the first volume of Child’s English and Scottish Ballads, which he noticed at a car boot sale. The book had ‘Alison Oliver, 1965’ written inside the front cover and, to judge by the many marginal notes, she had made a close reading of its contents. A. bought the book and became intrigued by the narrative implicit in the collection of documents. He decided to find out what he could about the circumstances surrounding the loss of the eight songs. The documents included a letter confirming Oliver’s appointment with Canning and another from Norton passing on Canning’s request that she bring the manuscript to London. They also included what he took to be the draft ‘sleeve notes’ reproduced below.

Like Canning, A.’s initial assumption was that Oliver had simply ‘faked’ a set of tradition ballads, using Child as a basis, and that the notes were intended to lend an air of authenticity to her forgery. However, after some extensive research A. realized that, although almost certainly faked, the ballads were in many respects highly sophisticated. All the figures referred to in the notes had not only existed, they each had some link to Southdean. In addition, the sleeve notes’ references to other ballads, some of which are not in Child, together with Oliver’s account of local features such as the state of the site at Hilly Linn, appeared to be entirely accurate. This suggested that, at the very least, the lost songs were a deeply researched forgery. His investigations confirmed that the songs were not known locally and all the experts he consulted said it was very unlikely that they were indeed ‘traditional’ songs.

Regardless of the question of the exact provenance of the songs, it seemed to be a little short of tragic that the ‘Sowdun parish blues’, as Norton recalled Oliver laughingly calling them during her meeting with Canning, have not survived. Canning had an ear for strong material. He would hardly have offered to help an unknown singer unless Oliver’s performance, and the quality of the material, were outstanding. The notes suggest that, whatever their origins, these songs represented a rich and varied set of insights and/or imaginings about lives in Southdean parish between the seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries.

The Eight ‘Sowdun’ (Southdean) songs: Alison Oliver’s notes

One: ‘The Crow Child’ or ‘Ranting Jamie and the Witch’s daughter’. Of the eight Sowdun Parish songs, ‘The Crow Child’ is the longest and strangely, the closest in style to the old Borders ballads such as ‘Thomas Rhymer’ and ‘Tam Lin’, with their seamless blending of the mundane and supernatural. However, unlike the almost archetypal characters in the old ballads, the figure of ‘Ranting Jamie’ Courton appears to be based on an historical person. We know from historical records that, in 1670, the radical Covenanter James Courton of Southdean was drowned when the government-owned ‘Pride of London’ sank of Deerness. Courton had been a prisoner on the ship awaiting transportation to the American colonies. Other elements in this song remain, at least in terms of any historical basis, either confused or obscure.

It has been suggested by some ethnologists, however, that the first third of The Crow Child refers to the death, in 1615, of a young Shetland woman condemned as a witch for fostering a fairy child which she hid in Caldback hill. Some have assumed that she had an illegitimate child by a sailor and tried to hide this from the Kirk. Caught nursing her child, she claimed only to have taken pity on a chance-found ‘fairy’ child. However, any association with fairies, however charitable, was liable to be treated as a capital crime and she was subsequently executed. The child is believed to have survived, to have later escaped to Orkney, and subsequently to have become one of the most feared and respected ‘howdies’ (wise women with supernatural powers) in those islands’ history. She, too, is said to have had a daughter at a time when most women were past such things. The reference to the ‘crow child’ comes from an Orkney story that goes as follows.

The Crowlady’ Ruth Jones (photograph Phil Collins).

A young girl went out to play on the hill above her mother’s house one day with her friends. After a while they became bored with all their usual games and wondered what to do. The girl child, daughter to the ‘howdie’ Mattie Finn, said: ‘I’ll show you something my Mam taught me’. She stood on a great stone, flapped her thin arms, inviting her friends to catch her, turned into a great black crow that flew low over their heads. Astonished but delighted, they ran laughing and calling after the crow until they were tired out. The crow returned to the great stone and began to change back into a little girl. But the children soon realised something was wrong. What hopped and shook on the stone was a young girl with the head of a great black crow. They became frightened and, after whispering together, sent the youngest of the group to find Mattie Finn. Mattie was standing at doorway talking to a sea captain.[1] She gave the poor child a black look when she interrupted them but, when she heard what had happened, ran straight out to the hill. Coming up to her daughter, hopping and crying on the great stone, she called out some words and at once the crow child had her own head again. Mattie took her by the shoulder and gave her daughter a good hard slap, saying: ‘that’s to teach you not to forget what you’ve been taught’.

How the story of Mattie’s daughter and her grandmother’s terrible death became linked to the loss of the ‘Pride of London’ and the death of a Southdean Covenanter is not known. It must be assumed that a singer took a muddle of local island tales of ‘howdies’, fairy lovers and cursed sailors and, sensing in them the abiding thread of conflict between the ‘man of God’ and the woman who follows other paths, gave them a new form and currency through the link to an historical event, the deportation and death of ‘Ranting Jamie’ Courton, a typical example of the ‘migration’ of traditional material.[2]

Two: ‘The Righteous Fugitive’. This song was very probably inspired by the life and deeds of the Rev. William Veitch, an outlawed Covenanter and outdoor preacher, who became well known in the parish of Southdean and surrounding area for his ability to escape capture by ‘the persecuting soldiery of the bigoted Stewarts’. A local account alleges that ‘the staunch Covenanter own his immunity from capture to an underground hiding place on a heather clad knoll, so deftly fashioned and advantageously situated that he could view the landscape and watch the military as they fruitlessly searched the moorlands endeavoring to ‘track the fugitive to his lair’. The description of Veitch’s ‘lair’ in the ballad suggests this may have been the barrow formally known as ‘Carter’s Howe’ that overlooks the Carter Burn and the old road to Otterburn as it runs east across the parish. If this is the case, there is a certain irony in the fact that this most zealous of Covenanters owed his life to the one feature in the local landscape still associated with the pagan (‘fairy’) world remembered in the ‘supernatural’ Borders ballads.

 Three: ‘By Katey’s Cross’. The character of ‘Auld Peter’ at the center of this song is said to be Peter Oliver, a Southdean fiddler and supposedly the last person in the parish to see the ‘good neighbours’, as the fairies were euphemistically known. This same sighting was reported by his son, Robbie Oliver, to a local historian at some point early in the nineteenth century. It was described as having taken place somewhere on White Hill, to the north of the old Leatham chapel. The central event of the song resembles later, better known stories, for example that told by Son House of Robert Johnson, in which musicians are said to have sold their souls to the devil to play better. The Queen of Elphane is an appropriate substitute for the devil here, since the Church traditionally linked them, claiming that she paid him a human tithe every seven years. (The original basis for this tradition can perhaps be traced back to elements of pagan ritual associated with the sacrifice of the king to the triple Goddess, who became in turn the Queen of Elphane and featured prominently in Scottish witch trials).

The exact location of the cross roads where Auld Peter meets the queen, once the site of a local market, is now lost. Circumstantial evidence suggests, however, that it may have been located at the point where the old drove road running up from Leatham crosses the main Otterburn road before fording the Carter Burn.

 Four: ‘Wandering Jamie’. ‘Wandering Jamie’ would appear to record the adventures of a certain James Hume Turnbull ‘of Hyndlee’, who was born 1842 and, like many of his generation, left the parish twenty-six years later to seek his fortune in the New World. It has been suggested that, having fallen foul of the law in Scotland, the historical James did indeed cross to the New World. (An undated warrant for the arrest of a James Hume Turnbull, a suspected ‘Resurrection Man’ working in Edinburgh, can be found in the Edinburgh Records Office. Apart from the name, however, there is no evidence to link these two men and it is likely that the warrant predates the birth of Turnbull of Hyndlee. From the notes, it appears that this song may have been not dissimilar to the traditional ballad known as ‘Lord Franklin’). He is said to have travelled deep into the northwest of Canada where he died of his wounds out on the frozen sea following a mortal battle with a great white bear. Beyond the reference to ‘Hilly Linn above the Jed’ that sits oddly in the second verse and may be a later addition, there is nothing to link the song directly to Southdean. It none-the-less accurately reflects a major facet of the parish’s history – the exodus from the hill ‘farmtouns’ to find employment either in the big cities or in the New World. The former farmstead of Hilly Linn is now no more than a name on the map and a few moss-covered stones beside a young rowan tree in an area of rough ground between rows of recently planted forestry.

 Five: ‘Bold Helen’. Some circumstantial details in ‘Bold Helen’ suggest that it may be based, if only in part, on events in the life of Helen Gerdin of Dykraw ‘in Jedburg Forest’ who, on the third of June 1675, was fined for forestalling the market at Jedburgh by selling meat before ‘the ringing of markitt bell’. While the song may also refer to other actual events in Helen’s life, it probably draws for the most part on much earlier material, now lost, celebrating the wit and cunning of independently minded countrywomen in their dealings with husbands, neighbours, lovers and the authorities. The vivid account of Helen’s erotic adventure in verses eleven to thirteen, highly unusual in a ballad of this kind, is not unlike the erotic encounter of the Waggoner and Jenny in the English ballad ‘Ge Ho, Dobin’. Both songs make evocative use of parallels between the sexual act and the characteristic motions of a form of transport – the bumping wagon in ‘Ge Ho, Dobin’ and the actions of the vigorous oarsman in ‘Bold Helen’.

The ‘mill race’ where Helen half drowns her husband lies to the southeast of the site of the old Sowdun church and its course is still just visible in the field behind Sowdun farm. ‘Tam’s Rig’, where Helen hides from the Sheriff’s men, is almost certainly Tamshiel Rig, where the remains of the shielding can still be seen near the site of an Early Iron Age settlement and fort now destroyed by modern forestry planting.

 Six: ‘The Death of the Rev. Thomas Thomson’. The account in the parish record states that the death, in 1716, of the Rev. Thomas Thomson after a two-day illness was the result of ‘supernatural intervention’. (The exact nature of which is not recorded, although the song itself suggests that it was the result of a ‘fairy’ curse). Like other ‘Sowdun’ songs collected here, this one hints at an underlying and deeply felt conflict between the ‘rational’ Christianity of men like Thomas Thomson and an earlier, ultimately pagan, world view that retained much of its power in the remote upland farms into the early nineteenth century. Given her sudden appearance and disappearance in the snow-covered landscape ‘beside the Carter Burn’ on a day when a wind is blowing from the north, we can reasonably assume that the ‘fair hunting lady’ who ‘looked at Thomas with a cold eye’ after he had scorned the ‘poor tinker’ is no ordinary woman. She resembles the ‘Queen of Elphane’ in the ‘supernatural ballads’ and as she is discussed by Robert Graves in The White Goddess.

 Thomas Thomson’s son James (1700-1748) was born in Southdean and became one of Britain’s most influential poets of the period, inspiring Turner, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Perhaps the ‘fair lady’ felt she owed him some recompense for what she had done to his father.

Seven: ‘Black-eyed Border Maid’. Oddly, the ‘black-eyed heroine of this relatively recent song remains anonymous, despite herself making it clear that she is a descendent of ‘Black Jannet’. This is the ‘Black’ Jannet Grieve‘ of Suddonrig’ who married in 1762, one of the many formidable women in a family well represented in the parish. She in turn is probably the granddaughter of the ‘bonny Jannet Grieve’ who hid ‘Bold Helen’ in the song of the same name. While it will appear singularly odd to a modern listener that reference to a ‘green mantle’ should give rise to such consternation in the Grieve family, the reasons for this become obvious when we know that ‘greens’ is an ‘archaic’ expression for sexual intercourse, and that a ‘green mantle’ refers to ‘a roll in the grass sometimes, but not always, associated with loss of virginity’.[3]

 Eight: ‘Margaret and Isobell’. It is a matter of historical record that Margaret Chisholm, the wife of a traveler named Thomas Olipher (or Oliver) was fined in 1640 for wounding a certain Isobel Leidance in the face. Like the Rev. William Veitch, Thomas and Margaret appear to have used a local barrow for either shelter or, perhaps more likely, storage of dubious goods, which would explain Isobel’s ambiguous taunt about abusing the hospitality of the ‘Elphane Queen’. (Tempting as it might be to suggest that this barrow is the same ‘Veitch’s lair’, otherwise known as Carter’s Howe, linked with ‘The Righteous Fugitive’, there is no evidence for this). However, it can be noted that there are a series of long, twisting ‘banks o’ gravel grey’ clearly marked on the first ever Ordinance Survey map as lying along the edge of the ‘haughs’ that border the Black Burn, just as they do in the song. Whether these were the location of the epic fight between the two women, or indeed whether that fight inspired the song’s account of the protracted and increasingly surreal battle recorded in the song, hardly matters. Whatever the case, it is a perfectly example of the peculiar, black humour found in certain ballads.

 

Alison Oliver.

[1] On the islands the ‘howdies’ or ‘Finns’, said to gain their power from the fairy folk, were believed to be able to summon up fair or foul winds and could be persuaded to sell a fair wind for good silver.

[2] Alison Oliver’s notes resonate with Rebecca Solnit’s observations about country music. Solnit observes that: ‘the old Scots and Irish ballads were as gory and gloomy, but they are generally heirlooms now, and country and western music is their immigrant bastard grandchild, something that came into its own only half a century ago and hasn’t died out yet […] For me country’s definitive song might be Long Black Veil’, whose way with time is straight out of the Bronties. A dead man sings ten years after his hanging for a crime he didn’t commit, but his only alibi is unutterable: ‘I’d been in the arms of my best friend’s wife”, who when he died “stood in the crowd and said not a word”. Now she wanders the hills in a long black veil and, well, visits his grave where the night winds wail. Hills and night winds are still there, are reliable, are what you have in the end’. See Rebecca SolnitDiary – An account of driving in the Serra Nevada / New Mexico driving east in the London Review of Books, 9th October 2003. I would argue, however, that the approach to time she refers to is less that of the Bronties than of traditional Scots and Borders ballads that deal with the dead and with revenant beings, for example ‘The Unquiet Grave’, ‘Clerk Sanders’ and ‘Sweet William’s Ghost’.

[1] This expression crossed the Atlantic with the old ballads. In 1972, Ron ‘Pig Pen’ McKernan would introduce the aside: ‘I don’t want to miss my greens’ into his rendering of Clark and Resnick’s ‘Good Loving’. The concluding lines of ‘A Ballad of Andrew and Maudlin’ makes explicit the reason for the family’s consternation:

They laid the Girls down, and gave each a green mantle

While their Breasts and their Bellies when Pintle a Pantle.

 

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3. Part 2: ‘A life is several stories …’

[This the second of forty-nine narrative sections that make up Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3, the concluding work of my Debatable Lands deep mapping project. The complete work is now available on request as a pdf. If A life is several stories …’you would like a copy, please contact me at: iain19biggs@gmail.com].

‘A life is several stories, not just one:’ (in lieu of an Introduction).[1]

Looked at conventionally Flora and I lived very different lives. I earned my living teaching in colleges and universities and, when I knew Flora, was working in the south-west of England. Every year, however, I and my family spend time in County Durham. Flora lived in the Borders country to the north, where she worked as a ‘maker and mender’. This required her to travel back and forth across the Cheviot hills collecting and delivering work. So, despite our different ways of life, we became friends, largely because we shared a fascination with the physical and social worlds of the rural upland country of the north. We also shared a deep-rooted need for exchange and speculation, for conversation. As individuals uncertainly located psychologically between urban and rural worlds, we had a common sense that people’s lives rarely fit entirely into simplistic categories. These simple commonalities have largely determined the nature and form of this book.

As Flora’s editor, I’ve tried to be true to her sense that a life is best seen as several interwoven stories, each lived in distinct, if ultimately interrelated, worlds. As a mesh of stories inhabited by multiple, porous, selves; by ‘Flora’, ‘Faun’, and ‘Laura’s twin sister’, each one played out within a cat’s cradle of relationships. What follows is less an edited autobiography than a provisional mapping out of the life-long conversations that maintained Flora’s sense of kith[2], of a way of knowing these intersecting worlds.

Something need to be said about the process by which this mapping arrived on the page. I first read everything Flora sent me and, because her writing often addresses me directly, then worked through, in quasi-geographical terms, the overlap between our lives conversationally. This allowed me to envisage the ‘place-between’ we called ‘our’ Borders; a place that, although very much grounded in physical geography, is also somehow a shared identity. (So, I’ve visualized it using my own photographs in addition to those she sent me.)

You can get some physical sense of this Borders by tracing a route on an Ordinance Survey map. It falls within the area that you would enclose on the following journey. You might begin at the river Esk at Longtown, following the A6071 via Brampton and Alston to Stanhope on the A689, before turning north on the B6278 to join the A68 at Carterway Heads. You would then continue up the A68 before turning right onto the B6342 some seven miles north of Corbridge. Then you would follow the B6342 until Rothbury, where you take the B6341 until you turn left onto the A697. Then you would follow it through Wooler to the river Tweed and so into Scotland at Coldstream, before turning south west again on the A698 to drive to Kelso. Then take the A699 to Selkirk before joining the A708 and driving, via Yarrow and St. Mary’s Loch, to Moffat. There you need to take the A74(M) south as far as junction 17, where you can pick up the B7068 which will, eventually, take you back to Longtown and the river Esk. It’s a journey that can be done in daylight on a long summer’s day.

Of course, this route merely encircles ‘our’ Borders. It took Flora a lifetime to get to know it and, despite having visited it for over thirty years, I’ve hardly begun to do that.

The next stage of the process required weaving together Flora’s material: texts from her notebooks, our letters and emails and, importantly, her images. These different elements suggested different threads, literal, metaphorical, and imaginal, for the whole weave; the warp a variety of texts, the weft an array of variegated images.

A little about the images, then. The compound black and white ‘framed’ images reproduce those pasted into Flora’s notebooks. As I understand it, she took photographs from her early teens onwards. Then, when she first became ill, she bought a little portable scanner and started copying images from Lizzy’s collection of Oliver and Aitcheson photograph albums. I assume that the material for her dense compound photo-images came from these sources. By contrast, the many single black and white photographs seem simply to document people and places. Some appear to be experiments in deliberately overlaying images. (Flora was fascinated by images such as the mugshot of an Australian criminal from the nineteen twenties). Some of her images have notes on the back, which I’ve reproduced in quote marks. Otherwise, I have left her images untitled. Most of the colour images, apart from those of both Flora and myself wearing her ‘Laura’ mask,[3] are my own and are included because they evoke places we both knew. The titles of these are mine.

In piecing together Flora’s material, I have taken as central her belief in the links between place, kith and what the Romans called genius locus, the spirit of place. That belief was also tied up with a shared interest in ‘imaginary friends’.

By the age of seven about a third of children have an imaginary friend they experience through all manner of vivid interactions. This friend may take the form of a human, an animal, or some fantastical creature. They are often deeply bound up with children’s relationship to place. These intense friendships are not, however, restricted to childhood. Some creative and socially well- adapted adolescents (and quite possibly adults) keep in touch with imaginary friends. This does not affect their other social interactions and there is no evidence that they are particularly isolated, lonely, or have personal or social problems. These friends may provide comfort in the face of life difficulties or coping with traumatic experiences, but they may also be active partners in creative work. Although once largely seen negatively – as a mark of childishness, extreme introversion, or as a cause for developmental concern – such friends are increasingly accepted as an outlet for a child’s imagination. A prompt for storytelling, games, a source of companionship and for coping with new situations. They may even be a source of parental pride in the quality of a child’s imagination.

Invisible friends are sometimes seen as analogous to characters in novels, about whom authors say: ‘they have a life of their own’, but this seemed doubtful to Flora and me. We thought that the alternative view, that they may be personifications of some aspect of a person who would otherwise remain excluded, voiceless and faceless, made more sense. As such they may ease the demands of living in a complex, multi-dimensional world; helping us to accept and narrate ‘difficult’ relationships necessary to our plural self, enabling us to set out narratives we need for which there would otherwise be no focus.[4]

Flora herself understood invisible friends, and particularly Hamish’s friend ‘Laura’, as an important interface between our everyday sense of our place in the world and our imaginations. They enabled a person to remain imaginatively open in the face of what are too literal, dogmatic, or reductive social conventions defining the limits of what is ‘real’. She believed such friends enabled individuals to have a living engagement with experiences and values outside the limits of those conventions, with a second life that might have deep meaning without necessarily being literally ‘real’ or ‘true’.

I should add that imaginary friends have played an important part in my own life and work. Most obviously in the figure of ‘A.’, my interlocutor in two books: ‘8 Lost Songs’ and the first volume of ‘Debatable Lands’. As Flora observes in the section ‘The respondent’, she had in many respects taken the place of ‘A’. This obviously raises questions about the relationship between invisible friends as existing in a purely imaginary realm and those friends to our imagination central to our imaginal life but peripheral to our day-to-day life. (Flora and I only met face-to-face twice.)

In my exchanges with Flora about imaginary friends I always envisaged them in terms suggested by the theologian Roger Corless. He proposes that we each live, sequentially or simultaneously, in more than one world, argued that we may in consequence have, and so need to articulate, more than one personality. When the conventions that define reality in the world into which we are born do not allow for this multiplicity, we may conjure up invisible friends to help us address this lack. Corless sets out his own thinking about this in what he describes as ‘a true story that never happened’,[5] one in which several people discuss their different spiritual positions. In this way, he allowed different aspects of himself to emerge as semi-autonomous characters acting out a drama on the stage of his imagination. My sense is that, in assembling Flora’s material I have, in some respects, attempted to create a ‘true story that never happened’.

Notes

[1]Christopher Whyte 1997 The Warlock of Strathearn London: Indigo p. 203. Whyte’s strange conception of a ‘magical’ world was unknown to me when I began editing Flora’s writing, yet seems to chime with our concerns.

[2] Although the term ‘kith’ is now largely obsolete, in Middle English it meant both ‘familiar country, places that one knows’, and ‘acquaintances, friends’. It has linguistic roots back into Old German that link it to knowledge and to our modern term cunning. Kith is, then, a way of knowing the world that does not distinguish places from friends. The (impossible) task Flora bequeathed me was to ‘map’ something of this.

[3] These photographs were taken by Sharon Townson and are from a project Flora and I had started but were unable to complete because of her illness.

[4] In the final pages of Islanders, Margaret Elphinstone addresses the conflicting understandings of a newly arrived priest on one hand and the local wise woman and midwife on the other. In the process, female characters are reminded that we each have “many stories” and that “they’re all true,” so that there is no point “pretending that there’s only one tale which takes account of everything.” Margaret Elphinstone, Islanders (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1994), p. 408.

[5]Roger Corless, “Many Selves, Many Realities: The Implications of Heteronyms and the Plurality of Worlds Theory for Multiple Religious Belonging,” Pacific Coast Theological Society Journal (2002) http://www.pcts.org/journal/corless2002a/many.selves.html

Convergences: Debatable Lands Vol 3. Part 1. ‘After the service’.

[This the first of forty-nine narrative sections that make up Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3, the concluding work of my Debatable Lands deep mapping project. The complete work is now available on request as a pdf. If you would like a copy, please contact me at: iain19biggs@gmail.com].

 

After the service

I was probably the only person of Flora’s generation at her funeral who had not known her since childhood, had never called her ‘Faun’, short for ‘Fauna’. (As a precocious ten-year-old, James Aitcheson had insisted that, as a vet’s daughter, ‘Flora’ should have been christened ‘Fauna’. Shortened to ‘Faun’, this became a lifelong nickname). So, over the best part of a life-time she had been ‘Flora’ and ‘Faun’ both. I had come to known her much later, as a correspondent who became a good friend.

Chew Green

After the funeral, I turned abruptly left outside the old kirkyard, unable to face the obvious curiosity of the people gathered in the car park, and let a steep track take me up to a plantation above the village. Although the breeze was too light to disturb the trees, the late sunshine now occasionally broke through the cloud to warm the new-turned earth over her body. Chance turned me up a narrow ride into the scented darkness where, ahead, the thin grass, struggling up between the tire ruts, strained towards the light. Grass a shade of green that recalled Flora, not sick in hospital as I had last seen her, but at our only previous meeting. Sitting across from me in the Baltic’s café on a cold spring morning, she had cradled a large mug of just such a green as if warming her strong narrow hands.

The plantation drowsed fitfully in the late afternoon light and a childish fear spurred me on. Here, as in a dream, you might meet a black wolf the height of a man, or else one of the ‘good neighbours’. The churned ride took me steeply up hill, then out into a clearing. As I emerged the wind finally returned, so that the high trees murmured like the sea. I passed a half tumbled stell, its floor now a patch-work of yellow grey, deep pink, and strangely mottled emerald sphagnums, protected by the stell’s crumbling walls from the encroaching trees. Walking over a second rise I found myself in a sudden wasteland created by acres of clear felling. Rutted soil, trapped water glinting like splintered glass, Sitka stumps at crazy angles, brambles and rosebay willow-herb forcing themselves through the irregular heaps of rough trimmings. I knew that in time grass, balsam, and mosses would slowly heal the scars and hollows, cover the bare bones of the land but, hollowed out by grief, I could take no comfort in that knowing.

The light had almost gone by the time I returned to my car and, when a pair of little owls called to each other softly down the valley, I cried.

Some weeks after the funeral I received a bulky package from Flora’s solicitor. It contained thick foolscap notebooks and a memory stick, the patchwork she’d stitched together during her last years in and out of hospital. The accompanying letter read:

Dear Iain

Rilke’s Torso of Apollo notwithstanding, it’s too late to ‘change your life’, even if you really want to. As I’m sure you realise, your circumstances preclude that as an option. You just have to stay with the trouble, follow such threads as you can, and wait attentively on the flow of your Borders work, rather than letting all that go. Perhaps you also need to ask yourself what really lies behind all the ‘deep mapping’ you’ve done up here? I’ve enjoyed our exchanges and recent attempt to develop work together. (Maybe, I know, so as not to speak of other things). So, what you’ve got here is possible material for you to work with, perhaps to finish what you started in terms of your Borders work, as well as something of what we’d only just begun together?

I’ll explain what lies behind what I’m sending you.

Long ago I read Joan Didion’s ‘On Keeping a Notebook’ and it stayed with me. She’s not very flattering about people who, like herself, keep private notebooks, but I’ve done it anyway. She sees us as a breed apart, lonely re-arrangers of events, somehow always anxious and dissatisfied, maybe with longstanding resentments or a sense of loss. She rightly says that keeping such notebooks is not about having an accurate record of what you’ve been doing or thinking, not about ‘the facts’. It’s about our knowing in our hearts that we all too quickly forget things we want to believe we’ll always remember. The places where we had experiences that mattered deeply. The people who loved us and those who betrayed us. The secrets we whispered to the first and the insults we wanted to hurl at the second. We keep notebooks because we’re frightened that we’ll forget the sub-text to our own stories; what we once were and, along with that, the thickness and richness of the world. My notebooks are a prophylactic, a way of combating my fear of this illness emptying me out, leaving me rootless and adrift in a shrinking present; fear of sailing without the proper ballast that our past provides.

Nobody wants to sail that last voyage without that ballast.

When she wrote that essay, Joan Didion knew she had already lost touch with some of the people she used to be. With her teenage self and her early transgressions. (She could remember the scenes, but could not see herself as part of them, or reconstruct the conversations.) Also with an older, more troubling self, one full of complaints and stories she did not want to hear again, someone who both saddened and angered her, a ghost who kept returning in a troubling and unfocused way precisely because she wanted to forget her.

My keeping notebooks was, like hers, a way to stay in touch with the life that always exceeds what we can call ‘mine’, with a world and all that is intimately bound into it, all the kith and kin. To stay in touch ‘unto death’.

Apologies for my hand-writing and the rambling nature of it all. That’s in part the consequence of the material involved, of a mind with a tendency to wander and lately, no doubt, of the drugs they’ve had me on. What I’m sending you is also, perhaps, a useful counterpoint to all that scholarly plundering and sifting you did for your books. My ‘heart work’ to your ‘head work’, if you like.

I am of course the least reliable witness possible to all these lives inseparable from my own, but I hope you’ll find time to make something of all this. For your sake, not mine. And I hope that if I (we?) haunt you, it will be in the kindest of ways.

With my love, as always

Flora.

 

 Towards the head of the Jedwater.

 

Years before, Flora had initiated our friendship with the following email

Dear Dr. Biggs,

Please excuse my contacting you out of the blue like this. It’s about ‘Alison Oliver’ in your ‘8 Lost Songs’. We were very close as children and I feel you should know what really happened to her.

When I knew her, she wasn’t Alison Oliver but ‘Cat’ (Margaret Catherine) Douglas. She only became ‘Alison Oliver’ when she returned from France to work as a singer and fiddler. Nor was she ‘Canadian of Scottish decent’. Her father, Alistair, was an accountant born near Jedburgh, her mother Maria was half French, half Polish. (Her Polish diplomat grandfather married the daughter of impoverished French aristocrats and Cat’s mother never let her forget that blue blood). Nor did she simply disappear into thin air after the fire. She died a few years later in very sad circumstances.

When she dropped out of university in France Cat broke off contact with her parents and, unbeknownst to any of her childhood friends, came back here to the Borders. She supplemented her tiny income from playing and singing by waitressing and, after the fire, started living with a music promoter who was eventually jailed for dealing heroin. She died of a heroin overdose.

She was reported missing by a waitress she worked with when she didn’t turn up for work three days in a row. Then a walker found a body below the cliff path on the Northumbrian coast, just up the coast from Rumbling Kern. She’d taken a bus north, then walked to the sea. She was two months pregnant. I discovered all this because the waitress friend remembered Cat talking about me and the police then found my address in an old diary among her things.

Cat was well able to invent those songs. She knew all the old ballads inside out and had studied ethnomusicology for two years at university. She had walked all over the Southdean area too and knew a lot about its history. She used to visit cousins and they’d go on long hikes with an older family friend, a local historian and amateur archaeologist.

As you can probably imagine, it was horribly odd coming across ‘8 Lost Songs’. Anyway, I feel you should know about ‘Alison’.

Yours sincerely,

Flora Buchan.

I didn’t know how to respond to this email, which threw a different light on the work A. and I had undertaken together. I sent Flora a polite reply with my condolences for the loss of her friend. I also apologised for what might well seem to her the rather cavalier approach we had unknowingly adopted, given what turned out to be a far more tragic series of events than we had supposed. A week or so later she sent me a kind and insightful reply. That in turn prompted an irregular correspondence that, with time, became the friendship that underwrites this book.

Sarah Aitcheson wearing the Flora / Faun / Laura mask

 

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

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

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

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

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

If you would like a copy, please contact me  at: iain19biggs@gmail.com.

Convergences:

Debatable Lands Vol. 3

 Flora Buchan

compiled and edited by

Iain Biggs 

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

Laurence Sterne[1]

 

 

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

At the end of the year: six reasons for not reading Robert Macfarlane.

People keep suggesting I read Robert Macfarlane’s books – most recently his Landmarks – and I wish they wouldn’t. I’m aware that, on paper, we might appear to have interests in common but, beyond the topics of landscape and memory, we really don’t. Having tried to read Landmarks I have come to the view that I find Macfarlane’s books largely unreadable because:

1]. I have spent almost twenty years validating, through my own practice and in my own chosen places, Mike Pearson and Michael Shanks’ observation that:

“Reflecting eighteenth-century antiquarian approaches to place which included history, folklore, natural history and hearsay, the deep map attempts to record and represent the grain and patina of place through juxtapositions and interpenetrations of the historical and the contemporary, the political and the poetic, the factual and the fictional, the discursive and the sensual; the conflation of oral testimony, anthology, memoir, biography, natural history and everything you might ever want to say about a place”. (Theatre / Archaeology 2001, pp. 64-65).

2]. I took to heart the insights in James Hillman’s essay Peaks and Vales (1975) long before I read Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination (2002). Consequently, I’d already understood the need to ‘see through’ the Apollonian association of mountains with solitary ‘highs’, elevated states, and spiritual insights. I also saw that we needed to apply this ‘seeing through’ across the board, as a fundamental aspect of what Felix Guattari calls ‘ecosophy’. For this and other reasons I find Macfarlane’s overall viewpoint outdated and disturbingly reactionary in its underlying presuppositions. This may, of course, account for his popularity.

3]. I have read both Alan Garner’s essay Achilles in Altjira and a good deal of feminist writing. Both teach me to distrust a certain type of scholarship, one that Geraldine Finn, in her The Politics of Contingency. The Contingency of Politics. calls: “high altitude thinking, thinking forgetful of its contingent roots in particular persons, places, and times” (and so always involving, as Garner suggests, the paradoxes life inevitably throws up).

4]. I value everything that Barbara Hurd writes in Stirring the Mud: On Swamps, Bogs, and Human Imagination, a book I regard as the antithesis of Mountains of the Mind on several levels.

5]. If I want to sharpen my sense of natureculture, I submerge myself in a poem, whether by St.-John Perse, Robert Frost, Kathleen Jamie, Anthony Hecht, Naomi Shahab Nye, Don McKay, Hera Lindsay Bird, William Stafford, Martha Kapos, Kenneth Roxroth, Kathleen Raine, Basil Bunting, Anna Saunders, Charles Tomlinson, George Mackay Brown, Penelope Shuttle, Robert Bringhurst, Alyson Hallett, Walt Whitman or Charles Causley. (To name only a few). I can’t do that with Macfarlane’s books, there’s simply too much of his self-regarding sense of his own scholarship and insight in the way.

6]. Landmarks appears, at one level at least, to have been animated by a concern that children are becoming cut off from the natural world because they lack the vocabulary to name its elements. Hence the books numerous lists of regional terms for phenomena grouped according to types of landscape. (It is difficult to see what Macfarlane has in mind re. children here. Perhaps vocabulary lessons equivalent of those images of Victorian schools where every child draws the same leaf?) Surely it would be far better simply to encourage children to read and share appropriately imaginative stories; for example, Lucy Wood’s Weathering (2015) or Sylvia V. Linsteadt and Rima Staines’ Tatterdemalion (2017)? That way they might be allowed to develop their own vivid vocabulary and metaphors for their own experience of place.

 

 

 

The ‘Great Stink’ and the Russell Group of universities

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

Which brings me to the Russell Group of universities.

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

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

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

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

‘Reasons for…’ (part two): an invitation on the cusp of the year

After putting up my post on December 7thReasons for proposing a hedge school (part one) – I started sending out invitations to people whose work speaks to me, some but by no means all of whom are involved in deep mapping. I invited them to send me a ‘guest post’ to go up on this site. This could be on any topic, up to 2,000 words in length, and illustrated if appropriate.

Why?

As this blog shows me, I’ve been toying with this idea since 2015. The recent reasons I gave for this were, however, still set out in a language that, while accurate enough, increasingly feels stilted and inappropriate. I want to facilitate something I called a C21st hedge school, a post-disciplinary exchange that’s not bound by the presuppositions of either the art world or the universities. But I’m increasingly thinking the shift I’m looking for needs to include the language I use to describe it. There are various reasons for this, one of which has to do with the work of Val Diggle. After attending her doctoral viva as an examiner I realised that her PhD has taken the possibilities inherent in deep mapping into a new place, and in doing so clarified many of my own concerns.

Back in March 23, 2014  I wrote that I wanted to explore the possibility of a community of transverse action. I took the term ‘transverse’ – from Felix Guattari’s book The Three Ecologies – as referring to a working or cutting across of existing social presuppositions, assumptions, and hierarchies and the disciplinary, professional, and other structures both built upon and sustaining them. I think the ability to engage in this transverse activity is closely related to Geraldine Finn’s understanding that we are always both more and less than the categories that name and divide us. Action here is used in the sense proposed by the philosopher Hannah Arendt, as the vital act of keeping-open human horizons. For Arendt, action manifests both the capability to initiate – to begin something new, to undertake the unexpected and a commitment to plurality; that is to the presence and acknowledgment of others. These two qualities give action its social value and meaning. Action then is the enactment of the relationships between material environments, social relations, and the inter-subjectivities that animates the ecology of becoming. But all this is set out in an academic framework that I now think needs repositioning.

Thought of the Heart

Another way to explain why I feel the need for a change is by quoting from the biography of Flora Buchan that I’ve been working on for the last five or six years. In a letter to me she writes that maybe I need to ask myself: “what really lies behind all the ‘deep mapping’ you’ve done?”

Drawing from Joan Didion’s ‘On Keeping a Notebook’, she identifies herself as one of: “a breed apart, lonely re-arrangers of events, somehow always anxious and dissatisfied, maybe with longstanding resentments or a sense of loss.” One who keeps notebooks as: “a way to stay in touch with the life that always exceeds what we can call ‘mine’, with a world and all that is intimately bound into it, all the kith and kin.” In sending her notebooks to me to work with, she suggests they may be: “a useful counterpoint to all that scholarly plundering and sifting … My ‘heart work’ to your ‘head work’, if you like”.

Flora was an ‘invisible friend’ of the best kind, someone whose ‘heart work’ has balanced my own ‘head work’, allowing me to recognise an important impasse. Namely, that the language I’d evolved to discuss the protean ‘space-between’ the worlds of art and the university, the space in which open deep mapping can take place, is in danger of cutting me off from “the life that always exceeds what we can call ‘mine’,” from the wider ecology named by the old phrase “kith and kin”. So, I’m trying to open an exchange with people I regard as tuned to that ecology, in the first instance by creating a shared platform.

If the use of that platform gains any kind of purchase, then we may have a basis for something useful, a ‘hedge school’ made up of learner/teachers and teacher/learners, or whatever we choose to call it.

Postscript to ‘Reasons for proposing a hedge school’.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Reasons for proposing a hedge school (part one).

What?

I have a simple proposal to make. I want to explore the possibility of a modified, twenty-first century version of the old Irish ‘hedge school’.

A hedge school based on critical solicitude between people who acknowledge their incorrigible plurality and whose work emerges out of a specific intersection of peripheries. Work that is always to a greater or lesser extent entangled in an understanding exemplified by two interrelated observations: that our common humanity: “begins in shared pain”[1] and that: “we are always both more and less than the categories that name and divide us”.[2] This would be a hedge school with a difference, neither solely oriented to the arts or academic concerns, but animated by the intersection of these with the broader concerns of lived experience in all its complexity and multiplicity.

Why?

I find this difficult to explain, so please forgive the length of what follows. If you are short of time, or unconcerned with questions of ‘why’, please stop reading here. In due course, I’ll put up a second section of this post that addresses the practicalities of a Hedge School, actual and/or virtual?

I’m anxious about the way the economics of austerity is enforcing higher and higher degrees of cultural conformity. Today it seems that the university and arts worlds, largely inseparable from those forces that drive global capital, increasingly determine which intellectual orientations and creative activities survive and which do not. As a result, there seems a growing danger of our arriving at a point where “nothing recognizable” as knowledge (analytically or aesthetically understood) can be circulated unless it conforms to the ever more strictly enforced presuppositions of the dominant cultural.[3] (Trump’s prohibition on officials articulating concern about climate change and the environment are indicative here).

The dominant culture remains wedded to an outmoded, ‘monolithic’ approach, the limitations of which can be examined by looking at two distinct ways of experiencing life worlds. In the first a life world is a given, framed by prior expectations, as a ‘life-as’ (a banker, an artist, a farmer, an academic, and so on). In the second, a life world is experienced as an open project: multi-stranded, dynamic, as ‘being-as-becoming’.[4] (This does not, of course, preclude engagement in any of the activities named above, or facing the contingencies, vulnerabilities and responsibilities inherent in human being). This conceptual distinction between modes of experience is never absolute and parallels one made by the philosopher of place Edward S. Casey.

Casey differentiates between a position, taken as “a fixed posit of an established culture”, and our experiencing of place which, notwithstanding its normally settled appearance, he characterizes as “an essay in experimental living within a changing culture.[5] This parallel further suggests the spectrum across which life worlds are experienced. From the given, fixed, or positioned (whether willingly adopted or imposed by others), that constitutes ‘life-as’; through to a becoming that requires continual negotiate as to how we are placed in relation to a world always in process.  In actuality of course our experience fluctuates between these two poles. If the first is best described as given and unitary, the second is dynamic, experimental, and plural – a ‘polyverse’ (a term borrowed from the theologian Roger Corless, both a Benedictine oblate and a Gelugpa Buddhist, who uses it to articulate his experience of the richness of both these spiritual lifeworlds without denying the irreconcilable differences between them).[6]

Our experience of the world as polyverse is rarely acknowledged because it raises difficult questions about identity and self-consistency and opens us to increased levels of cognitive dissonance. However, denial of the world as polyverse, with its corresponding sense of plurality and internal difference, has real social consequences. It restricts our capacity to deal with change and, critically, to accept the plurality and difference of others. Fortunately, many people experience their life worlds as a polyverse, whether tacitly or explicitly, learn to manage the resulting cognitive dissonances, and welcome the new understandings that result.

An example may be helpful here. Alan Garner makes a sharp distinction between ‘life-as’ a scholar or an artist, seeing the first framed by the concept of a “purely academic mind” that insists on “the primacy of analytical categories”, and the second by a rejection of the primacy of categorical thinking in the name of creativity.[7] Yet I know artist/academics who live in a polyverse that includes these supposedly antagonistic positions which, as the art educator Jon Thompson suggests, actually provide a generative paradox necessary to good art education.[8]

I have spent almost twenty years supervising and examining arts-led doctoral research projects, work that frequently requires creative acts of translation between the values of individual life worlds and an academic institution as a ‘world unto itself’ based on “a distinct cultural and linguistic tradition and a vehement sense of territoriality”.[9]  Such institutions are designed to perpetuate particular presuppositions about professional work, and increasing put pressure on individuals to constitute their identity as a professional ‘life-as’.

However, the doctoral students I work with are engaged in projects which, while conventionally categorized as art, are better understood as examples of new ways in which meanings are actively produced in relation to life worlds as a polyverse. This claim makes two assumptions. The first is that the work actively mediates between distinct, even antagonistic, framings of life worlds. The second is that, in doing so, it also mediates between the dominant aesthetic, one that privileges ‘Art’ to the exclusion of all other categories, and an ‘aesthetic of the everyday’ essential to ecological awareness.[10] Consequently, what is distinctive about these projects is not their relationship to the given category ‘art’, but that they creatively translate or mediate between what are conventionally regarded as distinct, even antagonistic, values, positions, framings, and perspectives.

‘Incorrigibly plural’

The phrase ‘incorrigibly plural’ is borrowed from Louis MacNeice, via Declan Kiberd’s discussion of MacNeice’s “protean identity” and refusal of “any simple self-description” and, in so doing, illuminates my concern with a life world as polyverse.[11] The underlying question here is how to support our giving greater attention to living in and between the dominant lifeworlds pre-given as a ‘life-as’, so as to facilitate greater attention and respect towards the multiplicity of interwoven narratives that constitute both our multiple selves and those of others. Given our worsening eco-social situation, lack of such attention can only make our situation worse. We need, at the very least, a common, empathetic, and respectful sensing of the plurality of lifeworlds from which to recognize, acknowledge, and argue our differences and similarities.

Unfortunately, the opposite appears to be happening. Collective “incommunicability through a protective withdrawal”[12] is increasingly reinforced by a constellation of factors. These include our culture of possessive individualism (in which identification with ‘life-as’ is increasingly socially adaptive), an almost pathological desire to avoid cognitive dissonance, and the persistence of deep-seated and archaic presuppositions generated by many hundreds of years of monotheistic theology and its secular off-shots.[13] All are equally antagonistic to the understanding of a life world as polyverse. Yet such an understanding is now central to the properly ecological praxis necessary to address our present troubled social and environmental situations.

Understanding a life-world a polyverse

My own understanding in this respect has been influenced by A. David Napier, who writes:

Now in our petri dish we see not only how static and complacent cells become at the center of our ‘culture,’ but by contrast, how those at the periphery of the colony – where toxic wastes do not collect in high concentration – tend to have access to the nutrients of change and, therefore, to be the most vibrant. Remember, cell colonies are cultures that are engineered not only to promote certain types of growth but to limit others.[14]

Following this metaphor, the work that matters most to me takes place somewhere along an indeterminate border, the uncertain zone that both joins and separates the cultures of ‘the university’ and ‘the arts’. However, this zone is also the site of a hard-learned empathy or critical solicitude born of ‘not (quite) belonging’, of finding oneself in a ‘place-between’ and accepting its demands. That acceptance is, in my experience, facilitated by the contingencies of an individual’s life. (In my own case, by long-undiagnosed dyslexia and through living with the innumerable ramifications of my daughter’s long-term Myalgic Encephalomyelitis). What is shared, however, is what I described earlier as an entanglement exemplified by two interrelated observations: that our common humanity begins in shared pain, and that we are always both more and less than the categories that name and divide us.

A problem of identity

In the past, I’ve tried to identify this indeterminate place-between through the lens of ‘open deep mapping’, a perspective that I now see as far too limiting. I’m increasingly aware that any name can be used “to control and even destroy something”; while the alternative, living “with the paradox of …transformation is far more problematic, uncertain and, indeed, creative”.[15] It is also deeply problematic on various levels. In an age of austerity as social control, the weight of practical problems and uncertainty that accompany that paradox can be overwhelming, leaving us lost in an amorphous liminality ungrounded in sociability and shared endeavor. This is however an issue that might be addressed through collective action, which returns me at last to the notion of a hedge school.

What will follow in the second part of this post will be written ‘in lieu of’ a manifesto, then, since one cannot write a manifesto for what, of necessity, needs to remain unnamed.

[1] Ursula Le Guin (2002) The Dispossessed London: Orien Books.

[2] Geraldine Finn (1996) Why Althusser Killed His Wife: Essays on Discourse and Violence Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press International p.156.

[3] Michael Gibbons, Camille Limoges, Helga Nowotny, Simon Schwartzman, Peter Scott & Martin Trow (1994) The new production of knowledge: the dynamics of science and research in contemporary societies London, Thousand Oaks, & New Delhi: SAGE publications Ltd pp. 1-2.

[4] Paul Heelas, Paul and Linda Woodhead (2005) The Spiritual Revolution: why religion is giving way to spirituality Oxford: Blackwell.

[5] Edward S. Casey (1993) Getting Back into Place: Towards a Renewed Understanding of the Place-World Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press p. 31.

[6] Roger Corless ‘Many Selves, Many Realities: The Implications of Heteronyms and the Plurality of Worlds Theory for Multiple Religious Belonging”, October 6, 2002, consulted March 16, 2014. http://www.pcts.org/journal/corless2002a/many.selves.html

[7] Alan Garner (1997) The Voice That Thunders London: The Harvill Press pp. 104-105.

[8] Jon Thompson, ‘Campus Camp’ in Paul Hetherington (ed) (1994) Artists in the 1990s: Their Education and Values London: Wimbledon School of Art in associate with Tate Gallery, 1994.

[9] Irit Rogoff Terra Infirma: Geography’s Visual Culture (London: Routledge, 2000), 122.  

[10] The aesthetic concerns at stake here are clearly articulated by Yuriko Saito (2007) Everyday Aesthetics Oxford: Oxford University Press 2007.

[11] Declan Kiberd (2001) Irish Classics London: Granta Books, 2001 p. 553.

[12] Paul Ricoeur ‘Reflections on a new ethos for Europe’ in Richard Kearney (ed) (1996) Paul Ricoeur: The Hermeneutics of Action London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi: SAGE p. 4.

[13] For discussions of the continuing impact of secular monotheism see Ernest Gellner (1992) Postmodernism, Reason and Religion London: Routledge pp. 94-5; Zygmunt Bauman and Leonidas Donskis (2013) Moral Blindness: The Loss of Sensitivity in Liquid Modernity Cambridge: Polity Press pp. 19-29; and the work of James Hillman and others engaged in a post-Jungian ‘polytheistic’ psychology.

[14] A. David Napier (2003) The Age of Immunology Chicago & London: Chicago University Press p. 12.

[15] Ibid. pp. xxi – xxii).

Simon Read’s Cinderella River, ‘notitia’, and the art of both/and.

Introduction

Cinderella River, the Evolving Narrative of the River Lee (2017) is, taken literally, a case study undertaken by Simon Read as part of Hydrocitizenship, a three-year national research project funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council. It is, however, also directly informed by Read’s work as an artist, speculative cartographer, environmental activist and Associate Professor in Fine Art at Middlesex University.

 Cinderella River

Cinderella River is primarily derived from a series of scrupulously documented walks along the Lee, undertaken by Read with students, colleagues or alone. Like any good case study, the book is scrupulously researched, offers astute observations, and provides informed suggestions for practical implementation. The rich and varied material it articulates flows from Read’s informed attention to issues as diverse as water governance, the placement of art in public spaces, limitations inherent in the planning of green spaces and open space amenities, the needs of the local wild life, and so on. A valuable and detailed case study then, albeit one written from a first-person perspective informed by certain wry humour, an unusual breadth of understanding, and enriched by numerous, carefully chosen, images. My concern here, however, ultimately has less to do with the book as a case study than with it being the physical trace of an exemplary engagement, to the point of being a form of deep mapping, with and of the River Lee. In short, I am interested in it as a significant example of ‘the art of both/and’, an inclusive art that helps address: “a deficiency in the mainstream art-based philosophical aesthetics by being truthful to the diverse dimensions [italics mine] of our aesthetic life”, a life lived in a pluriverse in which experience of the aesthetic “is not confined to the artworld and other art-like objects and activities”.[1]

The notion of an art of both/and is predicated on a conversational, relational, and inclusive understanding of the aesthetic, one that recognizes the implications of our living in a pluriverse and set over against the dominant presuppositions of our culture. (Presuppositions predicated on the assumption of a monolithic universe; the same assumptions on which our current university educational system and its research culture is based). Consequently, the art of both/and could be said to be a response to our need to abandon our culture’s reductive naturalism, it’s “faith in a single natural world, comprehensible through Science—or rather, through a mistaken definition of (Western) natural science whose purpose has been to eliminate entities from the pluriverse’.[2] A need that reflects the growing sense of crisis in our psychic, social and environmental concerns.

 Locating Cinderella River as an example of the art of both/and.

 I see Cinderella River as the outcome of different energies moving back and forth across three distinct but semi-permeable ‘worlds’ located in productive tension with each other. These are Read’s own diverse set of creative practices, his long-standing educational engagement as a tutor and lecturer (which he regards as “a duty as much as a congenial way of earning a living”), and the all-too-often Byzantine complexity of the world of State-funded academic research. (In this case, the hydrocitizenship project referred to above).

I’ll touch briefly on each of these ‘worlds’ in turn.

As the Portfolio page of Read’s web site makes clear, his creative work encompasses a diverse range of activities loosely-related practices. These include large-scale art work such as his Thames Profile, commissioned by the Countryside Commission; conference papers and talks relating to his practice and related concerns; a broad range of drawing work; both cartographic and sculptural environmental interventions; and the photographic work produced using hand-made panoramic cameras for which he was originally best known. Much of this diverse set of practices has, however, been directly or indirectly informed by the fact that his home base and studio have, since 1980, been a seagoing barge that has given him intimate access to the East Anglian Coast and its concerns.

Simon Read’s active concern with art education is, in my view, central to the perceptiveness, tolerance, and critical solicitude that permeates the text of Cinderella River. These qualities relate to a rarely discussed and poorly understood distinction between what might be called ‘monolithic’ and ‘pluralist’ conceptions of the artist. The term artist is usually (and misleadingly) taken to refer to somebody whose art practice is their sole or primary source of income and so their exclusive concern. To survive, such a person must negotiate and compete in the fickle, unregulated, and highly competitive ‘art world’ dominated by a global market predicated on conspicuous consumption. Those who wish to engage successfully with this market-driven world must adopt a single-mindedly and aggressively partisan position vis-à-vis their own work and, consequently, engage in continual and often strident self-promotion. The artist (who is also an) educator must, by contrast, constantly negotiate a paradox. She or he must square the circle of maintaining the necessary degree of partisanship to sustain their own practice with the disinterested openness necessary to meet the diverse educational needs of their students. Something of how Read himself squares this circle is hinted at in a section within the book called Walking the Walk. This includes reflections on Read’s introducing fourteen first-year art students at Middlesex University to the sculpture trail known as The Line, which roughly follows the Greenwich Meridian between the Olympic Park and the O2 stadium.

It is difficult to provide any kind of brief introduction to the world of academic research to which the hydrocitizenship project (funded to the tune of over one million pounds) belongs. This is due to the Byzantine complexities and opacity of the academic research world, but also to my own involvement in the hydrocitizenship project itself. (For my views on the early stages on this project, see my posts on 06.03.2016, 18.07.2015, and 11.02.2015). Consequently, I will restrict myself to making one general point here.

This concerns the realpolitik of disciplinarity which still underwrites almost all academic research projects. The Research Councils have, for some time now, encouraged the inclusion of the arts in inter-disciplinary academic research projects, arguably to increase the impact of their outcomes. While there are legitimate arguments for seeing the inclusion of arts elements as extending the reach and effectiveness of discipline-based research, these represent a somewhat partial view.

Arts practitioners have long complained that their inclusion in research projects is often either cosmetic, a means of ‘sexing up’ or rendering more accessible the data provided by ‘real’ research, or as a tacit form of academic ‘neo-colonialism’. That is, as a way of co-opting the aura of the arts, but without addressing the fundamental ontological and epistemological issues that should be raised when they are included in research projects. This leads to the suspicion that the academy is merely using the arts to paper over the cracks in a logocentric system increasingly unable to adequately address the ‘wicked problems’ at the heart of our most pressing psychic, social, and environmental difficulties. In my view both views outlined above contain a degree of truth.

I’m concerned here to think about Cinderella River in the context of this ambiguity, and to point up the book’s significance in relation to the type of research project that occasioned and funded it.

 The ‘art’ of both/and.

“We are always both more and less than the categories that name and divide us”.

Geraldine Finn[3]

In this section I want to offer a brief justification for referring to Read’s book as an exemplary engagement, to the point of being a form of deep mapping, with and of the River Lee. (A claim which, I suspect, will not concern him one way or the other). For reasons already hinted at, this justification is likely to appear indefensible to most artists because it runs counter to the cultural presupposition that art only appears as such in its own exclusive aesthetic space, one entirely ‘other’ to that occupied by such instrumental activities as the production of a case study. While practitioners of the art of deep mapping are likely, almost by definition, to be more inclined to adopt more inclusive notions of what constitutes ‘art’, they too may view my claim as over-extending the notion of what might reasonably constitute a deep mapping.

Put briefly, the justification for my claim is as follows.

In his Preface: Deep Mapping and Spatial Anthropology for the online, open access Journal Humanities,[4] Les Roberts refers to a statement by Jane Bailey and myself in which we describe the process of deep mapping as consisting of: “observing, listening, walking, conversing, writing and exchanging . . . of selecting, reflecting, naming, and generating . . . [and] of digitizing, interweaving, offering and inviting.”[5] He adds that although this “will not apply to all variations and permutations of deep mapping practice”, it usefully signposts “the way that very little of what deep mappers are doing is in fact oriented towards the production of maps”. Rather, he suggests, they immerse themselves:

“in the warp and weft of a lived and fundamentally intersubjective spatiality. It is from that performative platform—that space—that the creative coalescence of structures, forms, affects, energies, narratives, connections, memories, imaginaries, mythologies, voices, identities, temporalities, images, and textualities starts to provisionally take shape”.[6]

In my view, Reed’s book precisely articulates just such a warp and weft of lived and fundamentally intersubjective spatiality. Roberts goes on to add that whether what emerges from the process of articulating that space is a “map” is less important than the process involved; “an embodied and reflexive immersion in a life that is lived and performed spatially. A cartography of depth. A diving within”.[7] On this basis, I feel wholly justified in claiming that Read’s Cinderella River is both a case study and, additionally, the outcome of pursuing the fundamental qualities ascribed to a deep mapping by Bailey and myself, as taken up by Roberts.

This argument pre-supposes a view of the art of deep mapping in which collective relationality, rather than a traditional artistic exclusivity, is taken as central. One in which “listening”,[8] understood as a form of notitia,[9] is the founding principal. Notitia is understood here inclusively, as the exercise of an imaginative facility common to the creative articulation of insight central to the practices of art, education, ethics, and conversation, properly understood.[10] As “a careful attention that is sustained, patient, subtly attuned to images and metaphor”, it is able “to track both hidden meanings and surface presentations”.[11] Neither a technique nor a methodology, notitia constitutes an informed “seeing through” that is “never accomplished once and for all” and which is, of necessity, “slow, observant, and participatory”.[12] In the educational and research contexts relevant here, the practice of notitia is best seen as “an attempt to recover the neglected and perhaps deeper roots of what we call thinking”.[13] This attempt is necessitated by our being “inhabitants of a culture hierarchized by a logos that knows how to speak but not to listen”; the hierarchization designed to restrict our acting between and across the “competing monologues”[14] that make up the academic culture of disciplinarity.

In the context of reflecting on Cinderella River, notitia is understood as related to parrhesia, a classical term revisited by Michel Foucault and often paraphrased as ‘free or fearless speech’. This mode of speaking is intended to: “unearth alternatives to the dominant, post-Cartesian approach to truth as disembodied and objective”,[15] an approach that still dominates the presuppositions on which disciplinary realpolitik is predicated. Zitzewitz characterizes this alternative approach in terms of: “a variety of practices in which truth is dependent upon the ethical disposition of the speaker” [emphasis mine].[16] In this respect, parrhesia sits in direct contrast to notions of professional and academic authority predicated on the rhetorical use of an exclusive discourse that draws heavily on ‘power words’ that derive their authority from the taken-as-given intellectual or cultural positions of an academic status quo. “Parrhestastic speech” is, then, “characterized by the frank and unornamented declaration of … what is in the speaker’s mind”[17]; the product of a person whose spoken or otherwise articulated truth: “is subjective, verifiable not through recourse to claims of expertise” [whether that expertise is conventionally ‘academic’ or ‘artistic’], “but rather through the ethical labour … of the speaker”[18] (ibid). (A point that reinforces the inclusive understanding of notitia as common to both art and ethics). Zitzewitz adds: “The audience accepts these truths because of their relationship of trust with the speaker, a trust that is maintained through the speaker’s exposure to risk”,[19] for example, the risk inherent in setting aside any recourse to claims of a special or elevated position predicated on taken-for-granted professional expertise.

My own thinking in respect to the above draws on Guattari’s conception of the ethico-aesthetic as this relates to parrhesia. That is, in terms of a thinking that derives in part from Foucault’s desire, in the discussion of art, to move its practice “away from an exclusively discursive situation” by placing “parrahesia within the realm of sensible experience”.[20] In terms of Simon Read’s work, that sensible experience is used both ‘artfully’ and to construct a practical case study. That is, it’s located within an inclusive realm of imagining, drawing together, conversing, story-telling, all framed by extensive walking and other bodily practices oriented by the River Lee. An inclusive realm that, in its paradoxical marriage of specificity and diversity, responds to Geraldine Finn’s observation above, that “we are always both more and less than the categories that name and divide us” and, in doing so, is also: “truthful to the diverse dimensions of our aesthetic life”, producing a book that is both a work of art predicated on the expanded aesthetic of notitia  and a case study responding to forms of everyday aesthetic experiences that are: “not confined to the artworld and other art-like objects and activities”.[21]

Notes

[1] Yuriko Saito (2007) Everyday Aesthetics Oxford: Oxford University Press p. 242

[2] Bruno Latour (2004) Whose Cosmos, Whose Cosmopolitics http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/92-BECK_GB.pdf p. 458.

[3] Geraldine Finn (1996) Why Althusser Killed His Wife: Essays on Discourse and Violence Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press International p. 156.

[4] The Deep Mapping double issue of Humanities (ISSN 2076-0787) from 2015–2016, is available online at: http://www.mdpi.com/journal/humanities/special_issues/DeepMapping)

[5] Jane Bailey and Iain Biggs “‘Either Side of Delphy Bridge’: A Deep Mapping Project Evoking and Engaging the Lives of Older Adults in Rural North Cornwall.” Journal of Rural Studies 28 (2012): 318–28, p. 326.

[6] Les Roberts ‘Preface: Deep Mapping and Spatial Anthropology’ reprinted from: Humanities 2016, 5(1), 5
http://www.mdpi.com/2076-0787/5/1/5 p. xiv.

[7] Ibid.

[8] See Gemma Corradi Fiumara (1990) The Other Side of Language: a philosophy of listening trans Lambert, C London & New York, Routledge.

[9] Mary Watkins (2008) ‘”Breaking the Vessels”: Archetypal Psychology and the Restoration of Culture, Community and Ecology’ Marlan, S (ed) Archetypal Psychologies: Reflections in Honor of James Hillman New Orleans, Louisiana, Spring Journal Books pp. 415-43.

[10] See Monica Szewczyk (2009) The Art of Conversation, Part One e-flux Journal no. 3 Feb. 2009: ‘…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’.

[11] Watkins (2008) op. cit. p. 419.

[12] Mary Watkins (2013) Hillman and Freire: Intellectual Accompaniment by Two Fathers  https://www.academia.edu/13451036/Hillman_and_Freire_Intellectual_Accompaniment_by_Two_Fathers p. 8. (consulted 1/12/2017).

[13] Fiumara (1990) op. cit. p. 13.

[14] Ibid p.85.

[15] Karin Zitzewittz (2014) The Art of Secularism: the cultural politics of modernist art in contemporary India London: Hurst & Co. p. 128.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Thanke quoted in Zitzewitz (2014) op. cit. p. 146.

 [21] Saito (2007) op.cit: p. 243.