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.

Ken Kiff’s ‘The Sequence’ at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts

In what now seems almost like another life, I worked with the painter Ken Kiff to produce a small book on his TheSequence, a series of almost two hundred paintings. Since his untimely death in 2001, Ken Kiff’s extraordinary body of paintings, prints, and drawings has yet to receive the attention it deserves. There are any number of possible reasons for this. Not the least of which is, in my view, that his vision was fundamentally and profoundly that of a visual poetand, as such, largely antipathetic to the historical, conceptual and theoretical preoccupations of those who earn their living producing the ‘official’ discourse around reputation in the art world.

The work on show in the exhibition demonstrates the full range and qualities of the Sequence works in all their beauty, strangeness, and occasional provocation. But it also includes the last of his large triptychs, the Untitled National Gallery triptych painted between 1991-c.1997. Back in 1997 my wife and I spent a wonderful afternoon with Ken Kiff at the Royal Academy, looking at the exhibition of Braque’s late Studiopaintings and his last triptych is, for me, a summation of a similar kind to that found in those works. (Although in certain respects it also distantly echoes, in a softer, perhaps more English way that we might relate to the work William Blake or Samuel Palmer, there is also something here of Beckman’s great triptychs with their complex psycho-dramas). So, while it’s clear from the exhibition and its catalogue that Ken Kiff’s work is very far from being forgotten, it has yet to receive anything like its proper due.

Fortunately the current exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre, beautifully curated by Emma Hill, has an excellent catalogue that, unusually, does justice both to the work itself and to the artist’s own thinking by liberally quoting from his letters. It also helpfully includes commentaries by a number of contemporary artists whose appreciation of his work adds to our understanding of its reception. The exhibition and catalogue will, I hope, be a first step towards bringing the work of this extraordinary artist to a wider (and, I trust, younger) audience.

Currently I feel in many respects too caught up in the circumstances surrounding my own relationship to the work in this exhibition to write about it coherently. (A number of Ken Kiff’s letters on display in the gallery and quoted in the catalogue were written to me during the course of our working together). This is in part be due to the fact that, having spent over fifteen years working on a variety of deep mapping projects that had, I thought, taken me away from the preoccupations that inform Ken Kiff’s paintings, I now find myself working in a studio again. While the relief paintings I have been making over that last two years are of an entirely different order to his work, his extraordinary achievements as an artist remain in the back of my mind.

There are, however, some thoughts arising from reading the catalogue in the light of my relationship with Ken Kiff’s work that seem worth sharing here. These relate to the notion of marginality and relevance, and are prompted by a remark quoted by the painter and critic Timothy Hyman that’s repeated in the catalogue. Hyman reports that the painter John Hoyland (1934-2011)claimed that: ‘… if you turn your back on all the understanding of what’s gone on in modern art, you’re going to end up doing some idiosyncratic little kind of painting that doesn’t belong to anything, like an escape … like Ken Kiff or somebody, painting your own nightmares’. Looking back at Ken Kiff’s work today, given the political and environmental causes of the present situation, Hoyland’s patronising and ill-informed put-down has acquired a bitter cultural irony. Today it is Hoyland’s late modernist gestural abstraction, and the macho assumption of ‘progressive’ historical relevance that accompanied it, that increasingly seems not to “belong to anything” culturally substantial; to be “an escape” into the dogmas of a self-mythologizing cultural elite largely blind to the deepening psychic, social and environmental nightmares induced by an increasingly toxic Modernity.

In the same article in which he quoted John Hoyland, Timothy Hyman went on to identify what he took to be Ken Kiff’s ambition for his work; namely to create: ‘conjunctions – of the Absolute with the humdrum, the Essential with the particular; but also Klee with Renoir, the most refined abstraction with the most warm, earthy depiction. How to show dimensions that might seem “other” – say of thought or of spirit or of Fantasy – as part and parcel of the Natural world’. It’s something of this quality in the work as a whole that gives the lie to Hoyland’s trite exercise in self-promotion, offering as it does a verbal approximation of the particular richness and enduring relevance of Ken Kiff’s work. However, today the aspect of that work that speaks more strongly than ever is touched on in a letter he wrote to me in 1988, which is quoted in the catalogue. Although he is referring to his work as a painter, I have come increasingly to hear his observations as relating equally to the work involved in our psychic, social and environmental realities. He writes:

The strangest thought, always, for me is how a work can be reached, and then left. For it to be reached, a process has to be undergone … which is both highly thought out, and ‘arbitrary’ to a point which feels kind of vertiginous. For the work to be left, a totally unintelligible new thing has to be sensed as complete, perhaps necessitating a determination to scrap all ideas of completeness. After all, all ideas of completeness will be useless anyway.

And, ironically perhaps, it was on re-reading this after a gap of twenty years that I finally recognised that my long preoccupation with deep mapping chimed precisely with this recognition. With the need to find a way of working that let go of ‘all ideas of completeness’ (in all its various senses and dimensions) so as to be open to whatever ‘totally unintelligible new thing’ that may emerge.     

Un-disciplining practices: some paradoxes and possibilities.


 This text is from a presentation given to students on the Arts and Humanities Masters programme at Duncan of Jordanstone School of Art and Design, University of Dundee on 20/11/2018.   

Since I’m going to offer you a provocation about un-disciplining art practices, I need to start by clarifying what I mean by this. My concern is with un-disciplining the framing of creative practices, freeing them from disciplinary authority so as to open up other, more relational conversations between creative practices and the world. I’ll begin with the general crisis in disciplinary thinking, move on to more specific disciplinary issues relating to creative practices, and then share some examples of undisciplined practices.

Why does the university system assume that, although I know nothing about you or your work, I will have something useful to say to you? That assumption rests on our being categorised by discipline – and on the belief that disciplinarity is the best basis for transmitting knowledge. But to say that Andrea Fraser and Jeff Koons share a discipline actually tells us nothing of real value. So, might there be another reason why we’re all here together in this room?

Jane Bennett, reflecting on Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of ‘becoming-animal’, observes that this childhood game: “suggests that children have a sense of themselves as emerging out of a field of protean forces and materials, only some of which are tapped into by a child’s current, human, form”. This sense of protean possibility – linked to empathetic imagination – usually fades as children internalizesocial norms. However Bennett’s claim might be extended to those adults who have a real desire to stay in touch with protean forces and materials, including those who feel a need to make art.

Increasingly, the assumptions that underwrite disciplinarity are being questioned. Isabelle Stengers is a Belgian professor of philosophy. She trained as a chemist and has won international acclaim for her work in the philosophy of science. Starhawk is an American writer, teacher, activist and leading exponent offeminist neopaganism and ecofeminism – or, as she might say, a witch. From the perspective of disciplinarity, these two women are separated by an unbridgeable divide. Yet in Capitalist Sorcery: Breaking the Spell, Stengers and her co-author present Starhawk as somebody reclaiming an art of participation that deals directly with pragmatic concerns about effects and consequences. That’s to say, they identify her as somebody able to tap into, and work with, Bennett’s sense of protean forces. Somebody involved in: ”the dangerous art of animating in order to be animated”; in transforming our capacity to affect and be affected. That capacity is, of course, what many people claim for art, so it’s no surprise that Stengers sees Starhawk as having what Felix Guattari would call an ‘ethico-aesthetic practice’.

The disciplinary system is in crisis because it can’t engage with the Earth as a complex adaptive whole – a nested system of ecologies, all dynamically interacting and continuously forming new structures and patterns of relationships that aren’t easily isolated or predicted. Un-disciplining art practices is a response to this failure. It involves rethinking the relationship between imaginative activity and the disciplinary discourse that positions art in terms of possessive individualism. A discourse that, to maintain its own exclusivity, needs to isolate art from the kinds of fluid, shared, more-than-human, energies sensed inthe game of ‘becoming-animal’.

So, maybe we’re not in this room just because of disciplinarity.

Stengers and Starhawk both want to counter the deadening effects that disciplinarity enacts through its overwhelming compulsion to separate, categorize and judge. They want us to remember that we are always both more and less than the categories that name and divide us.The disciplinary compulsion to separate, categorise and judge divides the world into ever-smaller fragments that are supposed to increase our knowledge. But, because we live in a multi-layered, dynamically interacting, and continuously forming multiverse, it actually does the opposite. What we now desperately need are relational understandings– ways of thinking that acknowledge that all phenomena are ultimately  inter-related and inter-dependent. However, for the moment the disciplinary mentality is still dominant. It judges all forms of knowledge and value claims according to its own hierarchical criteria. That’s why, when artists get doctorates, they’re made Doctors of Philosophy, not Doctors of Art. In the disciplinary system, philosophy is the ‘queen of the sciences’, while art isn’t considered capable of producing proper knowledge at all.

We can’t step just away from the disciplinary system, but we can be agnostic towards its claims, neither accepting or dismissing them. We can acknowledge the values of disciplinary education in relation to practical skills and insights, while questioning how these are framed and used by institutions. It’s unwise to reject disciplinarity outright. Firstly, because that tends to encourage political and religious fundamentalisms. Secondly, because the dualistic thinking that reduces everything to an either/or choice belongs to the same binary thinking that’s embedded in disciplinarity itself. So we need to work in another space. One which the feminist thinker Geraldine Finn describes as: “the space between experience and expression, reality and representation, existence and essence: the concrete, fertile, pre-thematic and anarchic space where we actually live”.

As students on an Arts and Humanities Masters programme, you’re no doubt already navigating that space-between. So, I’m now going to touch on some of its  paradoxes and possibilities.

 In Anthropology and/as Education, Tim Ingold argues that there’s more to education than teaching and learning, and more to anthropology than making studies of other people’s lives. Instead, he sees both activities as ways of leading a life of study with others; that is, of attending to the world so as to open up paths of growth and discovery. I read this to be a variation on Isabelle Stengers’: “dangerous art of animating in order to be animated”. (I’ll come back to the danger involved later). Ingold goes on to argue for an education that’s direct, practical, an observational engagement, rather than the top-down transmission of knowledge by disciplinary experts.

That’s fine in principle, but the core issue for artists is that disciplinary art discourse doesn’t just determine what is recognised as art.

 More fundamentally, it also assumes that imagination and creativity is exclusive to, and owned by, specialist groups or individuals – an assumption enshrined in copyright and patent law. This same assumption is part of the underpinning of the Western culture of possessive individualism – a culture and society that places the sovereign individual before the community. And its particular notions of personhood, nature and society have proved toxic. It’s vital, then, that we now acknowledge alternative understandings. For example, back in 1989 the psychologist Edward Sampson pointed out that: “there are no subjects who can be apart from the world; persons are constituted in and through their attachments, connections and relationships”. More recently, the physicist-philosopher Karen Barad has again reminded us that our existence is not an individual affair, since neither individuals nor ideas pre-exist their interactions. These understandings contradict the most fundamental presuppositions of both disciplinarity and possessive individualism.

So, if personhood, ideas and imagination emerge through our entangled intra-relatedness, we need to think in terms of how people, practices, ideas and materials interact as mutually co-constituting entities. I going to suggest the notion of “ensemble practices” as providing one way for artists to start thinking about this.

The term ensemble is usually applied to groups of musicians whose music-making depends on the relationship between individual skill and collective interaction. But each musician is themselves also an ensemble, a being who must attend to and coordinate what is remembered or read as sheet music, sensed, and physically played. That coordination requires attention– a combination of sympathetic curiosity, sensitivity, and openness. Attention is central to all creative work – whether we’re performing music, having a conversation, or making a banner – and we learn it through practical interactions in all sorts of ways and contexts, as Ingold suggests. The agnosticism towards disciplinary discourse I’m proposing allows us to maintain a necessary creative tension. Between this vital attention and the ways in which the results of art practices are conceptualised by specialist discourse.

This brings me to a fundamental paradox. It’s disciplinary art discourse that’s brought you to this MA. But in the process that same discourse has gradually reframed your imaginative and affective relationships with the world. Disciplinary education requires both that you learn skills and that you internalise values via a specialist discursive language. Through the process hinted at in this slide, a relational animation– in this example evoked by a sand-painting ritual – is subjected to rationalisation and re-conceptualised as ‘making art’. In this way our initial desire for emersion in protean forces and materials is formalised into a highly specific disciplinary practice that, in Western culture, is subject to the specialist analysis and judgement that isolate art as a specific, discrete discipline.

The process of art education is, then, double-edged. It allows us to develop and maintain a creative practice, but it’s also a process of indoctrination into disciplinary values. If we simply internalize those disciplinary values, rather than remaining agnostic towards them, we risk conforming to a reductive orthodoxy. We risk that orthodoxy starting to dictate both what we feel able to make and what we feel able to say about what we make. When that happens, our sense of ourselves as open beings – as always being both more and less than the categories that name and define us – is repressed or lost. We then subject ourselves to the requirements of the disciplinary category “art” rather than engage creatively with the multiple relationalities of our worlds. This process of enculturation eventually results in art that simply illustrates some current aspect of art discourse.

A report published in 2015 – Humanities for the Environment: A Manifesto for Research and Action– can help clarify what’s needed. The report makes it very clear that the understandings our society now needs involve employing multiple, even contradictory,perspectives, something that’s alien to the logic of disciplinary thinking. Additionally, it stresses that we need to move beyond models that assume that knowledge is produced exclusively within the academy. It argues that we must find alternative understandings that exceed disciplinarily thinking.

The academy’s reply to this type of criticism has been to promote the notion of trans- disciplinarity.

But the term “trans-disciplinarity” still assumes that the discipline is foundational. And at the level of institutionally-managed practices – of what actually happens on the ground – that’s exactly the problem. Trans-disciplinary projects still remain subject to the authority of a discipline-based system of funding, evaluation, governance and dissemination. So they are all-too-often a face-saving exercise for disciplinarity as the final arbiter of “real knowledge”. This prevents us from hearing what other forms of knowledge – in the case of the knowledge embodied in this dance, one that reaches back to before the last Ice Age – might say to us.

In a chapter called Rethinking the Conversation in Re-mapping Archaeology: Critical Perspectives, Alternative Mappings, Erin Kavanagh provides a helpful insight into the underlying problems of trans-disciplinarity. She sees it as a tricky exchange that’s usually heavily distorted by different discourses and the unequal status of the participants. As a poet, artist and mytho-archaeologist working on the margins of academia, she writes from experience . She knows, for example, that the potential of trans- disciplinary work is restricted by the fear most specialists experience when faced with an unfamiliar disciplinary discourse. A fear that comes from disciplines and professions treating their fields of expertise as exclusive domains – each with its own distinct culture, linguistic habits, and traditions – all to be jealouslydefended against outsiders. A fear that’s considerably reduced if we are agnostic to the territorial claims of all disciplines, including our own.

Erin points out that, if we want to be taken seriously by members of another discipline, we have to learn to speak their language well enough to understand how they think. For genuine conversations across disciplines to take place, both parties must not only become conceptually bi- or multi- lingual, they must be sympathetically curious about, and sensitive to, the other disciplines’ concerns. This is why genuine trans-disciplinary exchange is rare. But it’s also why genuine conversationscan un-discipline our practices.

The curator and art writer Monica Szewczyk argues that entering into a conversation, properly understood, makes the creation of worlds possible. When we take part in a genuine conversation we enter a space-between different worlds. But – and this is the crux of the matter – in doing that we also run a certain risk or, in Isabelle Stengers’ terms, face a certain danger. We risk our own subjective world being destabilised, perhaps even redefined, by fully engaging with someone else’s world.The danger is that we will be transformed. That’s to say, we risk becoming both more and less than whatever disciplinary category we identify with – for example, the category ‘artist’. However, as I’ve said, these transformative conversations are fairly rare.

What does what all this mean in practice? It means that it’s not possible to discuss Ffion Jones’ imaginative work productively as something distinct from, say, her living and working in a Welsh-language speaking hill farming community, as well as working as a performance artist, academic and researcher.Her work, like her life, is a complex conversation between different, sometimes antagonistic, worlds. To navigate those worlds requires sympathy, commitment, curiosity, and an underlying attention that’s oriented by trust rather than competition. And these conditions are rare in contemporary professional life – certainly in universities and the art world – where most professional exchanges are instrumental, strategic, or competitive.

People do, of course, learn to be conceptually bi- or multi- lingual, to make productive border crossings between disciplinary territories. But such crossings are demanding and generate a certain level of discomfort – of cognitive dissonance, paradox, and ambiguity. Most people prefer to embed themselves in a familiar disciplinary world, a profession, or a given identity. Some however choose, or come to accept, to become outliers, to work out on the edge of different disciplinary territories or professions and to regularly cross their borders. As a result, they develop undisciplined practices.

I’m now going to suggest why doing this is important.  

In Artificial Hells: participatory art and the politics of spectatorship, Claire Bishop writes about what she calls ‘pedagogic art projects’. In the process she reveals the tension between Joseph Beuys’ undisciplined practice and her own disciplinary critique. During the 1970s, Beuys’ work became increasingly conversational, a relational exchange with others art, education, politics and environmental activism. However, Bishop chooses to frame this work as a prompt to: “examine our assumptions about both fields of operation – art and education – and to ponder the productive overlaps and incompatibilities that might arise from their experimental conjunction, with the consequence of perpetually reinventing both”. This re-framing is highly reductive. It reduces Beuys’ work to providing the critic with an opportunity for analyse of the categories of ‘art’, and ‘education’ and their relationship. Bishop thus treats  Beuys’ work not as an open act of social engagement, but as simply another opportunity to exercise her own disciplinary skills. This disciplinary reductivism is indicative of a fundamental problem for creative practitioners.

Earlier this year Darby English, writing in the catalogue for the exhibition Outliers and American Vanguard Art, highlighted one of the basic presuppositionsof critical art discourse. He writes: “The often brutal character of modernist criticism is shown in its insistence on the primacy of external judges, which is another way to describe its tendency not to think of makers as the primary seers and knowers of their work. Vanguard criticism displaces the maker’s vision and knowledge in favour of its own rigorously cultivated awareness of how Art operates…”.

Such acts of displacement remain the stock-in-trade of critical art discourse.

Critical discourse frames the work of Eamon Colman through genre – as landscape painting – and through technique – as the product of a colourist who grinds his own pigments. Categorised as ‘landscape paintings’, these works are assumed to lack ‘engagement’, as current art criticism understands that term. However, Colman does not describe himself as a landscape painter but as someone whose work responds to “listening to other people’s stories and interpreting their dreams”.Hewalks. He thenreconstructs what he encounters from memory, before adding carefully-considered, evocative titles. He has also said that his work responses to the earth as: “a living being like you or I … an organism that breaths and communicates”. I suggest it would be more relevant and productive to explore his work in these terms than reduce it to normative categories like ‘landscape painting’ and ‘colourist’. But because current critical discourse presupposes that landscape painting is incapable of ‘engagement’, it neutralises Colman’s work in terms of larger cultural conversations. If you want to find thinking open to the contribution Colman’s art might make to such conversations, you need to turn to the writing of a sociologist, Ben Pitcher, rather than to disciplinary art discourse.

The disciplinary process of displacement  I’ve indicated makes it hard for artists to present their work as constituted in and through their own particular attachments, connections and relationships. As a result, they’re increasingly creating their own framing narratives.

Raaswater belongs to a narrative set in motion by the South African painter, researcher and performer Hanien Conradie.The work shares its name with a now-abandoned farm that, in the 1940s and 1950s, grew grapes for export. Her mother grew up there. The farm was named after the raging waters of the Hartebees River, which ran through the property. As a child, Hanien loved her mother’s stories about Raaswater which, growing up as a child of suburbia, sounded like an earthy paradise. As an adult she took her mother to visit the farm, which her grandparents had been forced to sell, and which Hanien herself had never seen. When they got there, the river was silent and all the indigenous vegetation had gone. European farming methods have so radically destabilized the water ecology that the river is now dry for much of the year.

Shocked by this situation, Hanien salvaged some of the clay that had featured in her mother’s stories of playing by the river as a child. She took it into her studio and created a simple ritual that allowed the river’s water to re-sound, to run wild again. From that she gradually evoked a new story about Raaswater. The river became a space made up of what the geographer Doreen Massey refers to as “a simultaneity-of-stories-so-far”. Hanien’s story is about land ownership, loss of indigenous habitat, and the importance of mourning at the intersection of personal history and environmental irresponsibility. That story, along with the paintings and other works it accompanies, is part of Hanien’s MFA project, Spore. It evidences the way her conversation with an ancestral place transformed her art practice into an ensemble practice. One in which a range of arts skills interact with material from botany, ecology, law, psychology and philosophy,generating a complex, open-ended, multi-dimensional relationship of materials and narrative that is more than the sum of its parts. A telling relationship that’s irreducible to any one category or discipline.

There’s an important convergence between Doreen Massey’s understanding of space as a simultaneity of ‘stories-so-far’”, and notions of a relational self as an ongoing conversation. Gulammohammed Sheikh evokes this convergence in his major project: Kaavad: Travelling Shrine: Home. Sheikh is from a Muslim family in Gujarat, a state subject to extreme anti-Muslim violence over many years. He has long been committed to staging visual conversations between different, sometimes contradictory, stories-so-far across both space and time. This draws in part on his childhood in pre-Partition India, when the belief systems of different religious groups interacted peacefully within a heterogeneous popular culture. Consequently, much of his work can be said to counter attempts by an increasingly virulent Hindu nationalism to suppress cultural exchange in contemporary India.

In Kaavad Sheikh provides a new, expanded context for the richness of the popular heterogeneous culture of his childhood. A kaavad is a portable, folding, wooden shrine used by nomadic storytellers to reveal images of different gods, goddesses, saints, local heroes, and patrons as their narrative unfolds. For Sheikh, however, it serves as a secular device, as: ‘a site for atonement for innocent victims of the senseless violence of our times… a motif of remembrance, of memory”. Through it he enfolds figures from radically different backgrounds and spiritual traditions – his mother, medieval Hindu and Sufi saints, an anonymous sweeper, the Chinese Buddhist scholar Shoriken, St. Francis, Gandhi, and the prophet Mohammed – all within a complex, multifaceted, conversational space.

Sheikh imagines conversations between stories-so-far as a non-believer, but one deeply concerned about the failure of liberal, humanist cultural education in a fractious post-secular world. The results are complex relocations of old narrative themes within a new, cosmopolitan, multiverse, with the work’s many enfolding panels evoking a ‘safe space’ for debate.

Sheikh spent many years helping to create, and then defend, a secular educational space for Indian art students. However, in 1992 he was expelled from his academic post due to political pressure. I see Sheikh as having an ensemble practice that draws on, and works out of, a variety of distinct skills and understandings –those associated withhis roles as painter, poet, secular participant in Muslim culture, educator, activist, editor and cultural observer. Activities that then feed into his polyvocal conversation about heterogeneity and tolerance.

In 2007 Deirdre O’Mahony initiated the X-PO project. Her aim was to convert  the decommissioned Kilnaboy post office in County Clareinto a centre for artistic and community activity in that small rural community in the west of Ireland. Local people embraced the project through its first exhibition: a tribute to the last postmaster, Mattie Rynne. This was followed by exhibitions, talks and presentations dealing with changes in the environment, in farm life, and in rural social circumstances – all mirroring events and concerns across the west of Ireland. Local interest groups later took ownership of X-PO through local history and mapping projects, using digital resources to create a community archive, and through using it as a meeting place. However, it continues to feed into O’Mahony’s SPUD project.

SPUD draws on education, activism, research, art practice and agronomy. It stages a conversation between elements of traditional local agricultural knowledge, self-sufficiency practices, and the relationships between agriculture and identity, by re-imagining Land Art as ‘Useful-Art’. It has involved collaborations withthe community of Kilnaboy,a South American research institute focused on developing disease resistant potatoes, and the Loy Association – a nationwide Irish group dedicated to preserving viable traditional farming practices. Originally concerned to present a more nuanced understand of the potato’s role in Irish culture, SPUD developed into a public conversation about sustainability, food security, and vernacular cultivation knowledge. Its potato lazy-beds – at the bottom of this slide – are here displayed outside the Irish Museum of Modern Art.

SPUD requires O’Mahony and her co-workers to identify, acknowledge, and work with the possibilities and limitations of different discourses and understandings. It employs multiple, sometimes contradictory, perspectives to find ways of working productively both with and across differences. Concluding her chapter in the recent book Rurality Re-imagined, O’Mahony identifies SPUD as a micro-political process, one: “necessary to remind us that the skills of both head and hand are needed if we are to actively respond to the challenges facing humanity today”.

Luci Gorell Barnes’ ensemble practice highlights other aspects of un-disciplined practice. Her Cartographers of Compassion: community mapping of human kindness might be taken as a typical example of socially-engaged art practice. But to take it in isolation is to miss the complexity and richness of her practice. This draws onskills, interests and an ethics located at the intersections of education, participatory and personal arts practice, academic research, and community engagement. It’s also particularly involved – often through narrative mapping – with the specifics of the place where she lives.

Central to her ensemble practice is a concern with learning and a commitment to people who find themselves on the margins; particularly young children with learning difficulties and migrant and refugee women. The overarching aim of her work is: “to develop flexible and responsive processes that allow us to think imaginatively with each other”She earns part of her living as a long-term artist-in-residence in a Nursery School and Children’s Centre; work that includes the Companion Planting project on an allotment linked to the school. However, her approach is not simply that of the conventional, discipline-based, local artist. Rather, she is an informed and plural subject playing many different creative roles in many different contexts.

 In The Power of the Ooze Simon Read – who lives on a barge on the River Deben – suggests that our eco-social problems require: “a particular kind of strategy that our culture has yet to develop and promote”. This requirescontinuous improvisation, without a desire for perfection or a fear of failure. Read works as an artist, teaches at Middlesex University, and serves as an environmental designer, community mediator, and ecological activist. He’s been involved in various projects on and around the River Deben since 1997.

His numerous large map drawings are always a response to issues relating to management strategies for fluid and shifting environments. They both delineate specific and recognisable possible future landscapes, and act as tools for active meditation in debates about changing environmental conditions. He retrieves, cross-references, and synthesizes material from many different official sources to equip himself to join the complex environmental planning debates around environmental management. However, his ability to imagine a synthesis of the material he collects is very much a product of his art training.

Read’s work on the Falkenham Saltmarsh project – an exploration of the conditions and potential for salt marsh stabilisation – led to him planning and creating barriers designed to prevent its erosion. These manage tidal flow and encourage the controlled deposition of silt. The practical yet sculptural barriers are “soft engineered” from timber, brushwood, straw bales, and coir – a natural fibre extracted from the husk of coconuts. They’re specifically designed to degrade back into the marsh over time. Simon’s response to the challenges of environmental change includes publicly acknowledging our need to find nuanced and complex solutions. Solutions that necessarily acknowledge the cultural implications and dimensions of change involved in re-framing our collective understanding of land, ownership, responsibility, ‘home’, and belonging.

Most of the people I’ve referenced would conventionally be categorized as artists and have no quarrel with this. But if you talk to them about what they do, you quickly recognise that their work can’t be usefully categorised through a disciplinary or trans-disciplinary discourse. Each individual is an informed and plural subject who productively adopts different roles in different contexts; subjects who understand that both they and their practices are constituted in and through their multiple attachments, connections and relationships.

There’s nothing particularly new in what I’ve been saying. In Australia, the Anthropocene Transitions Project is working to increase understanding both of the Earth as a single socio-ecological system and of the cultural drivers that threaten it. It’s co-ordinator, Kenneth McLeod, insists that we can only meet that threat if: “we climb out of our disciplinary and professional silos, take off our institutional blinkers, and start exploring genuinely transformative change; … ask ourselves how can we step into the “space between” disciplines and cultures where new thinking and ways of knowing and acting in the world are possible; where new ways of understanding and valuing the Earth can emerge”.

For those who experience creative involvements as something more than a disciplined category of work, meeting McLeod’s challenge requires a conscious un-disciplining –  perhaps the cultivation of an ensemble practice along the lines I’ve indicated.

Indicative bibliography

Karen Barad Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning.

Jane Bennett The Enchantment of Modern Life: attachments, crossings and ethics.

Claire Bishop Artificial Hells: participatory art and the politics of spectatorship.

Darby English ‘Modernism’s War on Terror’ in Lynne Cooke (ed.) Outliers and American Vanguard Art.

Geraldine Finn Why Althusser Killed His Wife: Essays on Discourse and Violence.

Tim Ingold Anthropology and/as Education.

Erin Kavanagh‘Rethinking the Conversation’ in Re-mapping Archaeology: Critical Perspectives, Alternative Mappings.

Humanities for the Environment: A Manifesto for Research and Action.

Kenneth McLeod, Learning to Think Like a Planet –

Philippe Pignarre and Isabelle Stengers Capitalist Sorcery: Breaking the Spell.

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

How to respond to living in a post-truth ‘democracy’?

It’s hard, today, to know how to try and make any impact at all in an increasingly dysfunctional political system in which money and privilege are, more than ever, distorting the democratic process.

Although I’m a member of the Green Party, I live in an area with a good Labour MP who pays attention to what his constituents tell him (and is also environmentally-minded). Recently we’ve been doing our bit to help him, distributing leaflets about Brexit options, attending open meetings, etc. But it seems pathetically little and does nothing to ease the anxiety of what’s happening nationally and internationally. But easing that anxiety in one’s own life is not really the point, is it?

In terms of making any kind of positive social difference, the most useful things I can do at present are all small and domestic. That is, I can free up more of my wife’s time to get on with the major, Welcome Foundation funded project she’s currently working on. Be a better house-husband, basically. So as to keep up with what she’s doing I have just read both Brian Hughes’ book Psychology in Crisis and his recent blog article The Triumph of Eminence-Based Medicine, from which I quote here.

Both give irrefutable evidence of the corruption of science by professional groups who “try to face down objective criticism, look the other way when ineptitude is exposed, and doggedly stick to their guns in order to avoid threatening their own interests”. Something they are supported in by the universities that employ them and for whom they generate the research income needed to pay wages and overheads. All of which further adds to the sense that, as David Tuller and others have demonstrated through their examination of the mis-presentation of ‘scientific’ work so that it matches Government ideology, means that the whole interface between the academic and political worlds is becoming ever more deeply flawed by a toxic mixture of cronyism and self-interest. A situation in which the supposedly ‘liberal’ media is deeply complicit through, among other things, its reliance on organisations like the Science Media Centre, which purports to be independent but, as a past investigative article in the Guardian itself has shown in the past, is nothing of the sort. The result of this failure is, with regard to the current rearguard action to defend what is now agreed by all but those with a vested interest to be totally unacceptable psudo-science of the PACE trail, Hughes notes that:

“the producers of the Guardian science podcast decided that this week’s guest should be none other than a colleague of one of the authors of the withdrawn Cochrane review, and — for good measure — himself an author of the maligned PACE trial. Not just marking his own homework anymore, but now — in defiance of expert criticism — defending how well it had been marked.”

That a newspaper of the Guardian’s supposed standing allows itself to be hoodwinked into supporting: “the hegemony of the cognitive approach to ME/CFS”, which is clearly partisan, is deeply worrying. For readers such as myself, it undermines any residual trust in a paper that purports to take investigative journalism seriously. As Hughes points out, the PACE trail results are: “at variance with much of the scientific literature. The very fact that its status is disputed exposes as logically unwise any claim that there is only one side to the ME/CFS story”. [The current defence of the indefensible PACE trial is that patients are ‘bullying’ the professionals. An absurd and unsubstantiated claim that, none the less, led to the establishment bestowing a knighthood for Sir Simon Wessely]. Hughes continues by pointing out that the continuation of the PACE supports’ claims are the result of “professional politics, not scrupulous science”.

His verdict is that PACE represents the worst kind of abuse of science and is nothing more than: “a grand sanctimonious delusion shared by a professional clique who, for circumstantial reasons, find themselves dominant in British behavioural healthcare”. Yet the Government and its senior ‘scientific’ advisors are doing everything in their power to ensure that this “sanctimonious delusion” is maintained because it fits with their ideology, which includes the ‘outsourcing‘ of every possible aspect of healthcare to the private sector. Nor is PACE just a case of ‘one bad apple’, but rather it is illustrative of an entire socio-political and academic apparatus in disarray. When Hughes writes that: “The echo chamber in which reviewers review each other’s work, award each other’s grants, and line up as one other’s acolytes, suggests that little of this will change any time soon”, we can reliably read as a critique of the unholy larger alliance between academic research, ‘big science’ and Government ideology. He concludes his blog piece by writing: “Bad science is bad enough when it is just science. In the case of ME/CFS, where flawed research materially damages the lives of hundreds of thousands of blameless people, it is nothing short of a scandal, about which the establishment should feel acute embarrassment and, ideally, shame.”

Sadly, as we see everyday, embarrassment and shame are feelings that are wholly alien to the ‘big beasts’ of the political, academic and business worlds. If we wait for that to change, our situation can only get much worse, and quickly. We have to do whatever we can, however, mundane and on however small a scale, to address this situation.    





Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3: Parts 44, 45, & 46.

A small pink geranium (listening to the dead)

 As I’m sure I’ve said, all this writing was originally meant to be a way of listening to the dead, to the ancestors of my life, and was vaguely conceived as a missive to both yourself and Sarah as representatives of my own and the next generation. But then I remembered that there are things it’s far better not to tell the young. After that you, and the ancestors themselves, became my addressees. Not ancestors in a literal sense, of course. What I’ve been trying to do, if I’ve understood our discussions correctly, is to interweave many of the voices that have ‘made up’ (in both senses of that phrase), ‘my’ narrative identity in a multiverse.

It’s almost a year since I wrote the little snippet below in my diary. Hard to believe now that I still hoped then that I might pass through all this illness and return to old habits, whereas now my entire previous life appears to have happened to someone else entirely.

“Mrs. Oliver very frail now, but her mind’s still good. The doctor told her yesterday she may have a few more winters in her yet. We sat quiet this evening, three generations together. I didn’t ask Sarah to sing. I’m still glad I taught her the ballads, even if she learned them largely to please me. Maybe she’ll value them in time. There’s two I’ve not taught her: ‘Lucy Wan’, (I’m still uneasy about Patsy and Michael), and ‘Bonny James Campbell’, (because of her mum and Peter). Time yet, maybe.”

Those thoughts seem rather maudlin and somewhat naïve now. But it’s hard to let go of my investment in the old songs because, in one sense, they’re more real than we are, sing us rather than the other way around. In that other world, only a year ago, Mrs. Oliver was still with us and Sarah going back to the farm for the odd weekend, not staying with herArvid in preference to coming to sing with me!

A pair of lapwings.

I think all this is coming to an end now.

We are, of course, all far more porous than we allow. I have written about different people I knew but each, in her or his way, is also a partial ancestor of the compound, loosely woven personage who writes this page. We’re all just shifting currents in the same sea, Po-souls who’ll sink back into the same earth.

The public Lizzy still goes confidently about the region, and all the other ones I’ve known or glimpsed over the years appear to have gone to ground, down into the dark. Those bright echoes of her mother’s youth and of the strangeness of Elizabeth Reed who, limping through life, did so much to set Lizzy on the path that led to Peter when she was still only a girl, somehow gone. (Or so it seems to me.) I hear Peter’s voice still. Not the poor drowned Peter who, if he’d lived, would now be indistinguishable from any number of other ruddy, thick-set and aging farmers, gathered in some corner of a cattle mart, each dressed in neat but faded tweeds, to debate the price of yearlings. Quite another Peter, both quick and dead who, as boy and young man, kept coming back for Lizzy, although whether to save her or himself I can’t know. Yes, I still occasionally hear him, like an undertone of uncertainty in the early morning song of a blackbird. I suppose there may be a corporeal James out there somewhere, his body now running to fat, maybe pontificating over the Financial Times at the nineteenth hole of some exclusive Home Counties golf course and so, finally, the perfect embodiment of his father, son and heir. But I keep another James alive so that, when the deals have been done and he’s back in the blank space of some airport executive lounge, for a moment he’s still the youth who sat silent with Lizzy and me one evening, watching stars fall and die. The boy who helped two young girls on the cusp of change connect with a clutch of strange old songs, gifted them in a discarded box, with a whole wide, vital and varied world of music-making. I will no longer distinguish the slurred, alcohol-roughened growl of the deeply troubled Mike we buried at Wooler from the young schoolyard hero who championed, and was loved by, his plump, confident little sister. I’ve let them both go to be themselves now, finally setting aside the purulent speculation I’d attached to Mike’s telling me that Patsy’s leopard freckles covered every inch of her body. As for Patsy, I can hear only the smiling girl child who, for a few brief years, sparkled within the protective aura of her brother’s reputation. I cannot, or cannot bring myself, to hear the burdened, haunted girl whose wellbeing caused Cat and Mike to take opposite sides in some struggle that will always remain unknown to me. Cat whose singing voice, like both her shallow breath sweetly brushing my neck as I fell asleep and her tragic death, I keep close to me now. All the shades who are both themselves and the lively ancestors of my present self, who whisper to me, along with my mother and father and the innumerable and glorious birds and beasts most clearly experienced in my childhood; the whole wide world of my kith and kin (and not only in dreams and memories.)

And, of course, there’s all the others too. The Kate with the wicked pirate’s laugh, bad fairy and mistress of dangerous secrets, whose other, adult voices are lost to me, drowned out by life in an antipodean world about which I know nothing. The mercurial Kate I loved, envied, and somewhat feared because she spurred me to override my fears and innate caution, somehow imbued me with the calculation necessary to challenge my own desperation, even if that led to my childish attempt to seduce Hamish. (I know now that childish self would have gone through with it if he’d wanted to, that sexually inquisitive girl/woman that Kate had birthed from her cocoon.) That momentarily brave girl/woman who knew in her heart that anything was better than to drift into being the distant, untouchable, disembodied, angelic, (and so sexless) muse of a secret poet and latent priest. Dear Hamish, so wounded and confused by his father’s frigid, angry dualisms, whose musings and troubled and tender silences, as much as his tentative explorations of my flesh, woke me to my own unruly desires. Bodily desires, yes, but also a sowing of other possibilities; of entry into a world of fully sensuous, deeply tactile, imaginings made flesh – the strange fruit, perhaps, of Tam Lin’self-queen’s ‘eyes of wood’. Kate and Hamish, earthy seductress and erstwhile saint, the twin yet incompatible anchors in the tug-of-war that forced me to reinvent myself through acts of imaginative making. And then Mario, unbidden friend and casual initiator of my European citizenship, the secret lover of no doubt beautiful boys I never knew; Mario star in a distant city who then fell and died alone.

Also, first among the living, my dear Sarah, the whole bright arc of her from helpless bairn, through flowering child, to the bright, brave young woman who, with warmth and care, is negotiating her way through the traps, rewards and tangles of a life of research and action. And my briefly beloved Andreas, golden one, the brightly burning gift of a kindly Fate, a wholly unexpected feast and refuge in my last real London days. Old now, with deep smile-lines around his eyes no doubt. But then, a softly furred, honey-coloured, spice-scented being, a mouth warm, wet and tasting of Nykteri; my post-coital purveyor of breakfasts of fresh figs, galaktoboureko, and sweet black coffee in the sanctuary of his tiny Highgate basement flat. Of late dinners: tirokafteri, tzatziki, or dakos, followed by kolokythoanthoi, spanakopita lamb, soutzoukia smyrneika, spanakorizo, or maybe tiropita; then grapes and melomakarona or maybe baklava to finish. Meals lovingly prepared and followed by the long slow walk up the twilight hill and back, before falling into the pleasures of the still unmade bed.

The Andreas who would leave me, exactly thirty-three days after we became lovers and just as he had told me he must. Left for the waiting penthouse in Houston and the marriage to Ariadna,to which his father had committed him at fourteen as the seal on the partnership of two families. Andreas who I allowed to become my first and only dealer and who, in less than ten years, turned Papadopoulos and Ioannou into the most respected gallery for makers and up-market crafts in Texas, perhaps the entire American South. The Andreas who is a loving husband and the doting paterfamilias of four girls and a boy; whose Christmas letters always overflow with their news and achievements, always radiate a simple pride, and never mention the vicissitudes of the business. And that other Andreas, the punctilious businessman who unfailingly pays me my annual artist’s retainer as agreed all those years ago, punctiliously calculating the proper percentage to be passed on to me for each sale. A man who has served my work so well I’ve never needed another dealer.

Iain, you may wonder why have I never bothered you with my maker’s life.

Initially, I think, because I had no wish to risk being labelled a ‘craftswoman’. Later, simply because it would have involved giving you a wholly predictable account of my craft – the making of two or three small wooden pieces a year in whatever spare time I had left over from my mending work; my small, highly intricate wall pieces like puzzles made for the delight of fitting together different woods chosen for their distinctive colour and grain. What could be less interesting that that production, or the business of shipping the outcome off for sale. Pleasurable and necessary respectively, of course, but still a set of entirely self-contained practices that had little to contribute to exchanges outside the small world of my art. My dear, I simply had better and more interesting things I wanted to explore with you.

And, of course, I have listened to you, all your various voices in our various exchanges. (We’ve written often enough of them and I’ll not bore you by going over that ground again.) So, here I am, waiting for the inevitable and, meanwhile, listening to these and all the other night-selves, ancestors, shades and kith who are good enough to visit or even stay with me.

I should have liked to be a braver soul, somebody about whom you could have said when she died, as the poet Robert Bly did of James Hillman, that: ‘Flora threw enormous parties for the spirits’. I know only too well that I’ve had neither the courage nor the necessary generosity, although I have on occasion made real efforts in that direction and tried at least to lend the spirits a sympathetic ear. For that, and for the many pleasures of our friendship, I hope you’ll remember me kindly, will continue to speak with me in your head and heart when my body’s gone.

Enough. There’s a small pink geranium in a pot on the shelf below my window here, second cousin maybe to the wild one you found surviving on the sea wall. I’m not supposed to have it but my kindly Nigerian nurse, Wanda-May, pretends not to notice it. She even surreptitiously waters it for me, since I can’t do that myself now. It has that squat, slightly hairy look that I find endearing about geraniums. Sometimes if the sun is out and a nurse comes in to close my curtains so I can sleep, he or she brushes against it. Then its distinctive smell drafts across to me here in bed. I can’t say I particularly like the smell, but I do like that sharing, a reminder that the geranium and I, like all living things, have a common need for light, air and water, and that something, in consequence, is always being exchanged between us all. I find that extraordinarily comforting just now!

Improvised drinking trough, Side Head.

I’m tired and can hear the nurses starting their evening rounds. Again, enough, enough.

With love, as always



Fly-tipped bath in Bristol suburban woodland.


 In analysis you work to turn the ghosts that haunt you into ancestors who accompany you.

Bruce Springsteen[1]

I see little purpose in writing anything more about Flora, other than including here a quotation from a book she recommended to me right at the end of her life, Octavio Paz’s Sor Juana. Flora was neither a poet nor a nun, but this passage seems to me to summarize something essential about her. Paz writes of Sor Juana that she was not ‘a simple person cut from whole cloth’, rather she was ‘a complex and dynamic being, in conflict with her world and herself.’ He adds:

The obstinacy with which she insisted on being herself, […] her fidelity to her inner voices, the secret and proud pertinacity that allowed her to bend without breaking, […] was (and is) an example of intelligence and will in the service of internal freedom.[2]

What follows here does not, then, directly concern Flora herself. It’s a very partial explanation of, and perhaps a summary of, the trajectory of a period of my work that began back in 1999, before the Debatable Landsproject, of which this is intended to be the final part. Work in which she played a vital part. In offering this account I am also coming clean about Flora’s claim to provide ‘heart work’ as a counter-point my ‘head work’. Less a post mortem as ‘conclusion’, then, than a setting out of certain concerns.

Those readers who do not feel the need for any such prosaic explanations may wish to stop reading at this point.

The main purpose of what became the Debatable Landsproject was to carry out a series of linked forays into unknown territory, forays that acknowledged, engaged with, and tried to interweave, the plural interests and energies of the porous, conflicted constellated self I found myself to be and its places in the world.

Those constituent concerns included those of a university lecturer trained as a visual artist who, while necessarily engaged in the professional activities of those two ‘worlds’, was also personally entangled in thinking that was marginal to the orthodoxies of both. Those entanglements included a long-standing preoccupation with the post-Jungian or Archetypal psychology associated with James Hillman; a powerful identification with the rural uplands of the North of England, the Scottish Borders and the Highlands and Islands; and a passionate curiosity about the power of certain forms of traditional and contemporary popular music. These concerns gradually generated resistant to what, following Crawford Brough Macpherson, might be termed‘the culture of possessive individualism’, a culture that artists and academics were increasingly expected to internalize if they wished to thrive. That resistance may have been partly due to temperament but, more centrally, it was a response to unusual and demanding family circumstances. The resulting dissonances generated the tensions that have framed the Debatable Landsproject.

By 2012 that project was losing direction because my energies had been diverted into generating a discourse around ‘deep mapping’ (hence Flora’s comment). Early versions of the present text appeared, in consequence, to belong to some quite other order of concern, and were written out of a period of considerable professional, family, and personal change. That period began with a diagnosis, in early 2013, of advanced bowel cancer. A major operation saved my life but had ongoing consequences; health issues arising from chemotherapy and the end of regular academic employment. As a family, we also needed to undertake the drawn-out process of finding, buying, and adapting a smaller house to our needs. All this impacted on, and gradually modified, my sense of place and the ‘deep mapping’ I’d been involved in since 1999. Only very slowly did I come to intuit that the amorphous text on which I was working, almost despite myself, might have some relationship to the Debatable Landsproject and, despite its apparently very different nature, provide its resolution.

This work is, then, a going through, a giving form to, a modification of (?), my senses of place as reconfiguring an ongoing project. One way to describe what I’ve attempted here would be to say that I have taken William Least-Heat Moon’s ‘PrairyErth (a deep map)’ as a starting-point but, rather than focus on an external, geographically defined, location, instead set out to map a composite internal set of place-based relationships. An indication as to why this work might provide an appropriate conclusion to the Debatable Landsproject, previously always closely aligned to the teaching I no longer regularly do, came on 23rdJanuary 2017. I received an email from a friend of a friend who, three years earlier, I’d helped in a small way with her doctoral work. This communication resolved the indecision and doubt that, for some months, had prevented me finishing this text.

My correspondent had read Between Carterhaugh and Tamshiel Rig: a borderline episode, the first work in the series this book concludes, and wasusing it for a workshop on ‘landscapes of the imagination’ she was helping run. What had inspired her to do so was the chapter ‘Everyday magic: singing walking writing’. This, she told me, had enabled her to identify: “what is missing from my academic training”. Coincidentally, she had also become fascinated by stories of wolves in a region she was researching for a piece of creative writing she never seemed able to finish. She goes on: ‘Perhaps the wolves have become a symbol of my own imagination and its repression through academic training’!

Wolves, and human attitudes to them, play a central role in Between Carterhaugh and Tamshiel Rig, which begins as follows:

“For much of my childhood I suffered a recurrent nightmare. It began as I took the route of a familiar daytime walk – a muddy, flint-studded path that leads away from the house into a wood. I follow it through the well-thinned hazels and out onto the edge of the farmland beyond. I am alone. Arriving at the fringes of more established woodland, thick with young saplings between vast, smooth-trucked beech trees, the path takes me along the edge of a rough strip of grass between the wood and a large, L-shaped field. In the distance, there is an orphanage where, on daytime walks, I sometimes hear children laughing and playing together. Now there is only silence”.

“Where the path turns a corner towards the lane I pass an old wooden shed that is gradually disappearing under nettles and briars. When I reach the point where the path crosses the narrow lane a vast black wolf confronts me. It stands at least as tall as myself. It always appears as if out of the air, materialising at the edge of the shadows just where the lane runs in under overhanging trees. I know instantly that my only hope is to lie down on the road with my eyes closed, hold my breath, keep absolutely still. I must play dead, as I have done in this dream hundreds of times before. On each occasion, I wait to see what will happen next. Usually, after what seems like an eternity of the wolf sniffing around me, I wake in absolute terror just as it starts to eat me alive.”

What I did not say then was that this same wolf sometimes behaved very differently. For example, it once spoke with me at length (I don’t remember what about), while a great city burned in the distance behind it. In short, its place in my childhood was more ambiguous than the passage above suggested.[1]In one sense, then, Between Carterhaugh and Tamshiel Rigwas an extended ‘staying with’ just one aspect of that dream wolf by following its sense of uncanny violence via the history and geography of the former parish of Southdean just north of the English Scottish border. That process of ‘staying with’ the wolf,a process borrowed from James Hillman[2], provided the basis for an imaginative, image-based connectivity across time and space between a wide variety of topics; childhood sites, etymologies, histories around Borders place-names, the ethnography of an old song still sung today, scape-goating, land rights, otherness, and terrorism, for example. But it did not begin to exhaust my listening to the figures that appeared through that work.

The sense of returning to something still potent in my concern with the reanimated image of the wolf, revived by that email on January 23rd, 2017, became linked to observations made by Octavio Paz. These concern the implicit ‘authorisations and prohibitions’ that, in any society, institution, or professional world, become the tacit basis for an automatic and unthinking obedience predicated on self-censorship. An obedience further guaranteed by all those figures whose institutional authority is ultimately dependent on perpetuating those authorizations and prohibitions. Paz suggests that a creative work may tell us something that can only be understood if we realize that, as an ‘utterance’, it is ‘surrounded by silence: the silence of the things that cannot be said[3]precisely because its creator has internalized those prohibitions.

One of my primary concerns in Between Carterhaugh and Tamshiel Rig was to find a way to interweave scholarship and fieldwork with the types of testimonial imagination (in Richard Kearney’s sense) I felt were prohibited. Both by an academic training predicated on Modernist notions of rational, self-sustaining, and consequently reductive, disciplinarity, and by the hyper-criticality of the Postmodern. I wanted, in addition, to draw attention to athing-that-could-not–be-acknowledged’, the wolf in imagination, while still working as a teacher/artist/researcher. This seemed to me to involve engaging with, and validating, the contemporary relevance of, traces of what I took to be a vital tradition of quasi-pagan vernacular animism alive and well within British culture; something articulated through our singing and listening to the ‘supernatural’ Borders ballads. Interwoven with all this there has been the issue of the repression of testimonial imagination by a culture obsessed with novelty.

The situation indicated above is not, of course, simply personal; rather it reflects a significant social phenomenon. The journalist Paul Mason, in a long article on the protest marches world-wide following the inauguration of President Trump, writes:

“So the challenge for the truly liberal section of the elite is – as in the 1930s – what to do. If you work for a bank, a law firm, an Ivy League university or a Silicon Valley giant, and your employer is systematically accommodating the new, post-factual reality, you are – even now, just weeks into the Trump era – living a double life.”[4]

While I largely agree with the substance of his article, I think the link between having to live a ‘double life’ and Trump’s arrival in the White House misrepresents a situation that has a much longer history.

It was clear before the turn of the twenty-first century that university employees were being required to live multiple and conflicted professional lives. As lecturers, we were expected to square educational values with the demands of an increasingly authoritarian management culture based on quite other values and imposed by diktat. The research activity that had animated our teaching and kept it current was no longer to be determined by our interests and expertise, but by instrumental institutional responses to a system of state audit predicated on economic control. To borrow from Hannah Arendt, our ability to actwas being reduced to a passive capacity for directed work. Not only that, but institutions were beginning to adopt quasi-totalitarian strategies; the endless reorganisation of departments and faculties, revisions and de-democratisation of committee structures, and so on, all of which increased the power of management.

I made ‘Between Carterhaugh and TamshielRig’ to articulate the convergence of a physical and psychic landscape. A convergence necessary to the multiple possibilities of creative work and able to sustain my engaging with, and teaching about, the constellation of memory, place and identity through testimonial imagination.It was then a response to an increasingly repressive and alienating educational context. The body of work around that book then mutated into the larger ‘Debatable Lands’project. By the time ‘Debatable Lands Vol 1’ was published in 2007, I was also heavily engaged in co-ordinating informal networks that created the space necessary for such imaginative work, collective or otherwise, to survive. The ‘Debatable Lands’project had, by then, taken on a more political inflection following the Border ballads, and the conflict of mentalities they helped illuminate, west across the water – first to the Ireland of the plantations and then to the USA. What I had understood, from reading Geraldine Finn, James Hillman, Felix Guattari and others, was that the psychic, the social, and the environmental must all be thought together, from a ‘place-between’ the contradictory life-worlds in which I was by then enmeshed. From the perspective of that place-between, Trump is simply a by-product of a crisis that has overwhelmed the academy, the dominant culture, and society at large. A crisis in no small part generated by the wholesale internalisation of possessive individualism. Trump is, after all, only a gross articulation of possessive individualism in its most extreme, monomaniacal, form.

By 2007 the Debatable Landsproject made it possible for me to articulate an ‘open’ deep mapping, one that attempted:

“[…]speaking from the space-betweenrepresentation and reality, language and life, category and experience: the space of the ethical encounter with others as the other and not more of the same – a space and an encounter that puts meinto question, which challenges and changes me, as well as the other (the otherness of the other) and the socius/the system that contains and sustains us.”[5]

The resulting preoccupation with academic discourse also began to cut me off from (Laura)/Flora/Faun as kith, as invisible friend. ‘She’ became the aspect of ‘placed-between’ I had increasingly neglected, its psychic dimensions personified, the constellation able to facilitate renewed conversations with multiple qualities and selves. Some sense of the ancestral roots of her persona can be evoked by listening to two thematically related songs: Alastair Roberts’ ‘I went hunting’from his Farewell Sorrow(2003) and The Handsome Family’s ‘Hunter Green’ from Last Days of Wonder (2006). Both reach back to the ancient folk supposition that there are men and women who are not constrained by their human form alone.[6]The supposition Hamish imaginatively realised in and through Laura.

Running through this work, then, is the tacit contention that we cannot properly engage with our current psycho-social-environmental situation until we learn to live with the cognitive dissonances attendant on acknowledging that we live, not by the reductive mentality implicit in the notion of a universe, but in the much greater complexity of a polyverse. In Roger Corless’ discussion of our many realities and selves, the voices of Helen Rhys-Jones, Cornelius Yang, Gregory Hinsdale and George-Michel de Saint-Hilaire allow him to conduct (in his own words), “an exercise in heteronomy, in allowing aspects of myself to emerge as semi-autonomous characters and act out a drama on the stage of my imagination”. He notes that these characters: “say what they wish” and that he exercises “no particular control over them”. While he identifies to a greater or less extent with them all, he does so most strongly with Professor George-Michel de Saint-Hilaire and “least of all with Helen”. He adds:

“Perhaps this is because I self-identify as an intellectual and am uncomfortable in the presence of persons who are strongly connected with their feelings. Never-the-less Helen exists, and she brings me back into my body when I get too professorial and lose my heart.”[7]

This returns me again to Flora and suggests that Hamish and Roger Corless may have had more in common than just a religious vocation. This postscript is, then, a brief exposition of Laura/Flora/Faun’s desire for a counterpoint to the scholarly plundering needed to create the other book works in the Debatable Lands series that, in turn, drew me into debates around deep mapping. This final piece is our‘heart work’, offered in the spiritof testimonial and empathetic imagination and as a small act of defiance in the face of their increasing repression.

At the edge of the old world (Orkney beach).

This book concludes with two images from the abandoned book on imaginary friends that Flora and I had just started to work on when she became terminally ill. I only have the photographs in which she arranged for Sarah Armitage to stand in for her younger self. She did not feel able to sit for a second series, which would have shown her wearing the same mask but as an adult.


[1]Quoted in John Lahr, ‘Greasers and Rah-Rah’, London Review of BooksVo. 39, No. 3 02.02. 2017 p. 29.

[2]Octavio Paz (1988) Sor Juana,Cambridge, Massachusetts, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press pp. 296-297.

[1]My relationship with this dream wolf would eventually find a resolution in an extraordinarily vivid waking dream that occurred entirely unexpectedly during a session with a therapist. On a beach flanked by low, crumbling cliffs, I watched two wolves play in the space between me and the sea. This brief vision appeared to take place in a space just beyond the room in which we were sitting and had an air of tranquillity and peace.

[2]See James Hillman (1979) The Dream and the Underworld. New York: Harper & Row

[3]Octavio Paz (1988) Sor JuanaCambride, Mass., The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press p. 5.

[4]The Guardian(G2) 24.01.17

[5]Ibid. p. 176.

[6]An example of a male variant on the theme of transformation in the two songs referred to would be Mr Fox’s version of ‘The Gay Goshawk’ from Join Us in Our Game 2004. Record label.

[7]All quotations are taken from: Roger Corless: ‘Many Selves, Many Realities: The Implications of Hetronymy and the Plurality of Worlds Theory for Multiple Religious Belonging’, originally given on October 6th, 2002 andreproduced at:

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 41, 42, & 43.

The Judgement

The whole village soon knew we’d been caught drinking and simply assumed, as I did, that that was it. What first got people asking questions was that the ‘innocent’ James had immediately been sent away to stay with Sir William’s sister in Brighton; supposedly to concentrate on his revision. There was also gossip about the ‘guilty’ Peter not been summonsed to the police station for an offical warning with the rest of us. That was largely put down to his father being a local JP and so was seriously resented in some quarters. Our parents collectively grounded us all for varying lengths of time and then either restricted our socialising together or, in Hamish and Peter’s case, banned it. Kate, when I saw her, kept resolutely silent about the whole event. All this was incomprehensible to me. But with Lizzie, Peter and Kate silent, I could only guess that perhaps something else had happened about which I knew nothing.

‘Shake hole’.

Contradictory rumours abounded. Then Mr. and Mrs. Oliver were not invitated to the pre-Christmas cocktails at the Big House, seen as a direct attempt at public ostracization that supported the rumour that Kate had led ‘young Master James’ astray. In mid-January it became public knowledge that Lady Aitcheson was divorcingSir William for adultery, followed by renewed gossip about his relationship withthe doctor’s wife, an excellent shot who had often joined the summer shooting parties. This seemed vindicated when the doctor and his wife sparated and moved away from the village. Sir William now spent most of his time in London. LadyAitcheson was increasingly staying in the family’s second home in York, where she was said to be consulting lawyers. Peter spent the summer holiday with his mother in York and did not come north. James came up for the shooting in August with his father but we didn’t see him to speak to. Cat and I started using the term ‘the Judgement’ for all this after a thunderous sermon from Hamish’s father on that topic which, in addition to drawing attention to the terrors of the last Judgement, contained a number of references to poor parenting and the dissolute behaviour of the young.

All this felt to me like a very painful, drawn-out ending to my childhood and a bitter withering-away of my sense of belonging. Our close-knit group simply evaporated. Kate left school early to study photography at a sixthform college in Newcastle, made new friends, and spent as little time as possible at home. Her absence led to new rumours, the most lurid being that she’d left because she was pregnant with James’s child. Lizzy, meanwhile was trying to get a place at Durham to read history and had her own worries. And I was starting to focus on my my interest in art, and all the practical problems trying to pursue that interest would throw up. At that time I knew very little about the larger consequences of the Judgement; that Mr. Oliver’s business declined due to a number of significant accounts, including those of the estate and most of its tenants, being switched elsewhere. Nor that Arthur Bell, a very capable man but now increasingly left in limbo by his absent employers, was heard to say that he felt like a man fighting with one hand tied behind his back. Since the estate is central to the village economy, everyone soon shared his anxiety.

‘Shake holes’.

I went on a short walking holiday organised by the parents of school friends down in the North Pennines that summer. One day we came across a series of big sink holes off to one side of the path. I was impressed by them and, weeks later, they came back to me in an extraordinary dream, an emblem of how things now were.

A last tryst

My last tryst with Hamish required lengthy and maticulous planning, but by that time I was desperate to keep his attention and prepared to go to any lengths. I had absolutely no understanding then of the contradictory causes of my desparation or that I was trying to ward off the inevitability of changes that, unconsciously, I think I probably longed for. And I had no sense of how confused Hamish and I were by our various conflicting desires. What I did intuit was that my relationship with Hamish was midwife to my trying to be an artist. Anyway, in the event I got Hamish spectacualary wrong.

I’d had great difficulty contacting him and making plans, but was encouraged by the fact that he did at least want us to meet. I forged a letter to get him off school early on the Friday. I engineered circumstances that required an early lift for myself and invented a good reason for a friend’s mother to drop me off before we got to the village. That enabled me to double back to my arranged meeting-place with Hamish, the old bus shelter at the little crossroads where he would naturally get off. All this so that we could spend about fourty minutes alone together before his expected arrival home. Above all, I had made sure to obtain the one personal item critical to my plan, (aquired with considerable difficulty and at substantial cost).

I thought we’d been very careful after our meeting, emerging onto the path from the little abandoned building on the edge of the wood some time apart. But because things had not gone as I’d hoped, we had argued and so were running late. He must have followed me sooner than he should. I don’t know who rang the vicar. (Although later it did occur to me that Mrs. Purvis’ kitchen window virtually overlooked the end of that path.)Nor do I understand why they rang the vicar and not Dad. I do know that when I went to change out of my school clothes, there were traces of dirt on the back of my skirt and blouse. In a village now alerted to the moral terpitude of the young, someone must have speculated on cause and effect. In the ten or so minutes it took Hamish to walk home that person rang his father. Weeks later Mike would tell me that what frightened Hamish the most was his father’s insistance that any further disobedience about seeing me would result in his damnation. It’s no wonder then that Hamish dumped me.

At the time I thought the business of him joining the church was just a lame excuse, but it turned out that he did, and even became something of a radical. I must assume his God really does move in mysterious ways, although I can’t help wonder whether it was damnation or my offering to have sex with him that scared him more. Anyway, when we parted I sensed deep down that my offer had been a last straw.

What astonishes me now is what I can and can’t recall from that day. I remember almost nothing of our meeting itself. Of course I know factually exactly what happened (or rather didn’t), but it feels unreal, stilted, like a scene caught in an old, hand-tinted photograph. Yet I can vividly recall my long wait for the bus, all of twenty odd minutes hunkered down among the fag-ends and litter behind the bus shelter. It felt like several lifetimes.

I can feel the rough wooden planking of the bus shelter against my lower vertibra as I shift my weight; there’s even a slight tenderness from my bra strap rubbing a patch beneath my left armpit. Under the smell of creasote from the shelter there’s the faint, sickly-sweet odour of rotting flesh that comes and goes with the breeze, probably a dead ewe in the next field. There’s a low hum of insects and the persistant trickling sound of water, making me wonder if I really need to pee or am just rediculously nervous, or both. Then there’s the sound of a solitary car going slowly along the top road, a sound that, as it fades, blends into the bird song. While I listen to all this I’m rubbing the little scars and scabs on my right knee where it sticks out beyond the hem of my skirt, trying to distract myself from my butterflies. I’ve now convinced myself that Hamish’s bus will never come or, if by some miracle it does, he won’t be on it.

At some point my nervous fingers find a little swollen bump on the inner side of my knee that’s tender and, adjusting my weight again, I begin to rub it harder. To my horror a long curved black shape then suddenly pushs its way up through my skin. For a second I think it’s some awful parasite, then take courage and gingerly tweezer it from my flesh. A fat drop of blood and milky pus wells from the exit point. It’s a big thorn. I then remember the thicket of brambles Dad and I’d cleared away the previous weekend.

It had been fun attacking the brambles and discovering the junk they’d been hiding for years. I’d had a bill hook and worn work gloves, Dad’s old leather jacket, and my thickest jeans. We worked all afternoon, clearing and burning the dense bramble patch threatening to take over the sunniest corner of the back garden. (Afterwards I watched the pale grey circle of ash from our fire darken and lighten each day in response to the changing weather). But all my precautions that day had been in vain. I found myself caught on a long, arching, thorn-encrusted caneand, half falling, it ripped a short but bloody gash through my jeans on the inner side of my right knee. I could see thorns embedded in this wealt and went into the house to remove them. I clearly missed one. That thin black arc rising inexorably from my flesh is almost as vivid now as when it happened. 


I had very little warning that Cat was leaving for France, a move her parents told her they’d been contemplating for a while. She and I wondered, of course, whether it was just another consequence of the Judgement. For a while after she left we wrote each other increasing stilted letters, each shorter than the last, until we finally agreed to stop. She had tried to give me the impression that all was well with her, but I could tell that everything had changed for the worse.

Cat was always a little in awe of her Mama, but on easy terms with her Papa. That didn’t stop her from belittling him to me for not standing up to his wife. Cat, like her relationship to her parents, was as lively as she was complicated. What I remember most often now is her singing, the quality of her voice. I also remember the girl with the long chestnut pigtails I first met, her big dark eyes flashing with excitement at some story or game. An excitement just held in check by the sense of personal dignity she’d absorbed from her Mama. Her ready excitement, her smile, and some of her physical gestures were her father’s, but in most other respects she took after her mother. This was most obvious in her neatness and sense of her own worth. So much comes back now from the period when we were close. Stuff I forgot, or maybe turned away from, for years.

When I first played Maddy Prior and June Tabor’s ‘Silly Sisters’, I burst into tears. It was so perfect, sounding just as I imagined, entirely unrealistically, that Cat and I would have done if we’d kept on singing together. Absurd. And then I discovered that there was a wholly other Cat, and another Michael and Patsy too, people I didn’t know as I’d thought I had then.

In the last months before Cat left our friendship had cooled and I saw less of her. I told myself this was because of the Judgement, which was partly true. But I was also increasingly preoccupied with Hamish and, after that finished, with my art homework and working out how on earth I was going to get to a Foundation Course. In any case, after the Judgement, her mother kept Cat away from us all, except Patsy and Mike. That exception was purely pragmatic. Cat was spending long hours practising her fiddle, and this was clearly better done in an empty barn of their aunt’s than in her bedroom at home. We were now mostly in different classes at school, and made no real attempt to find out how things were with each other. My curiosity about what had happened during those last days before she left for France only started many years later, after I bumped into Mike, down from Glasgow for an old school-friend’s silver wedding anniversary.

He’d changed almost beyond recognition and, when I asked after Patsy, he ducked the question and started a long rambling monologue about Cat. He seemed rather drunk and I suggested coffee. Eventually he told me that everything had become increasingly difficult for Patsy when his own hopes of becoming a trainee gamekeeper on the estate were abruptly ended. Sir William, who had initially been agreeable, simply announced that he didn’t want to see ‘that boy’ with the keepers again. Mike’s future evaporated in that moment but, a proud boy, he didn’t tell any of us what had happened. Instead he took his disappointment home with him.


He’d had enough practice driving to pick up an HGV license without too much difficulty and worked for a while as a driver for a local haulage firm. He admitted to me that his anger and frustration often boiled over, making life increasingly difficult for Patsy. He and Cat fell out when she persuaded Patsy to see the doctor, but he also seemed to blame her for going back on a promise. I couldn’t get any sense out of him about the connection between these two things. What I did discover was that, after Cat left and I’d gone to London, their aunt started going into the paddock at night to remonstrate with the unseen dead. Then she had a full-blown breakdown, went into a home, and the house, stables, dogs and ponies were sold off. Patsy went to live with a relative near Wooler, while Mike moved away to Glasgow. It was in Wooler that Patsy started to pick up again. I heard no more because at that point Mike insisted he had to leave for work.

A couple of years after that wedding I got a card care of the estate telling me Mike had died. There were only a handful of us at the funeral. Sarah Kirkwell, Mike’s second cousin and a former nurse, sat beside me, clearly pleased to be in contact with someone who’d known him as a boy. (Due to some protracted family quarrel, she’d seen almost nothing of him then.) All due rites observed, we went for a cup of tea together. She gave me a potted version of what she knew of Mike’s adult life, which had included a spell inside for possession of an unlicensed shotgun used to threaten another lorry-driver, years on the outer fringes of Glasgow’s trade in fenced goods, and increasingly serious alcohol abuse. Mike eventually inherited a relative’s house just outside Wooler and moved back east. By now he had liver trouble. She suspected he’d been borderline depressive for much of his adult life and had dealt with it by drinking.

I asked if she knew anything about his sister.

It appears that after Mike moved to Glasgow Patsy came off antidepressants and started working at a local hotel. She’d met and then married an Australian who’d had a temporary job there and gone back home with him. They had a boy and a girl. Michael had letters from her, all of which he’d burnt before he died, but would never talk about her. Sarah had asked him for a contact address when he was clearly terminally ill but he’d ignored her and she’d been unable to find one among his papers. There was no will. I told her what I knew about Michael, Patsy, and Cat, and my feeling he’d never told me the whole truth about what had happened between them. She was silent for a long time.

‘I think from things he said that maybe Michael and Patsy got a little too close and Cat’s getting involved triggered some kind of crisis between them. Mike once let slip that he’d never forgiven himself for what happened before they moved, something involving a friend. Maybe that was your friend Cat’?

Iain, that’s as much as I know. I told you way back how Cat’s life ended.


Second sight at the BBC?

I’m not a great fan of the BBC these days, but that’s neither here nor there. Whoever programmed The Bank That Almost Broke Britain to show on BBC2 on the evening after Boris Johnson did his cynical parody of the Tory patriot at their conference must surely have second sight?

If there’s a single programme that explains the enthusiasm of those Tories hungry for Brexit (and, indeed, of the whole hideous Brexit mess), it was this one. If you join the dots, it becomes crystal clear why the EU, with its concern with regulation, had to be made the whipping boy for all Britain’s woes. (Which is not, of course, to imply that it is not itself a problematic institution that needs major reform). Given the social impact of ‘austerity’, it was vital that those who benefitted most from the fact that, as the programme put it: “the gain was privatised, the pain nationalised to the country”, found a way to distract the citizens of Britain from the grim truth that has followed from the banking crisis.

Put bluntly, the solution to the banking crisis and the programme of austerity that followed it shows that we are now a democracy in name only. In reality, democratic institutions have simply become the veil behind which a tiny elite manipulates politics to serve its own ends. That elite is personified by the Oxbridge Old Etonians Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg (co-founder of a hedge fund management business, Somerset Capital Management LLP). By people like Jonathan Harold Esmond Vere Harmsworth, 4th Viscount Rothermere, chairman of DMG Media (formerly Associated Newspapers), a media conglomerate that includes the Daily Mail, and the former CEO of the Royal Bank of Scotland, Fred Goodwin. But perhaps most pertinently evoked by Rhodri Colwyn Philipps, 4th Viscount St Davids, three times a declared bankrupt. A man with criminal convictions for financial mismanagement and menacing communications who offered £5,000 to have Mrs Gina Miller killed for having the audacity to take the Government to court over its undemocratic attempt to implement Brexit without Parliamentary approval. (The same woman, of course, who founded the True and Fair Campaign in 2012, which calls for an end to financial misconduct in the investment and pension industries).

This is an elite saturated in its own sense of self-entitlement, one that is hell-bent on ensuring that the country is run for its benefit, regardless of the cost to the vast majority of its citizens. An elite that needs Brexit to ensure that British citizens are distracted from what’s really happening in Britain and so don’t get in its way. It has shown itself willing to lie, cheat, threaten, and hoodwink, and it will continue to do so.

So, respect to the BBC for offering us a stark reminder of what is really going down in Britain today.

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.