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Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3. Part 6. ‘The Two Kitchens’.

The two kitchens

Almost the first thing Mrs. Oliver did when she moved in with Lizzy and Sarah was to ask if she could hang an old photograph from Homehaugh on the kitchen wall. When it was up she’d regularly glance at it, fondly but reverentially, as a devout Russian Orthodox believer might at an old family icon.

In that photograph, she’s about fifteen and looks assertively out from the middle of a group of bell-ringers. A rather short, serious-looking girl in school uniform who is already becoming the woman I’ve known since I was eight. On her left a taller, thinner girl with glasses, Millie, identically dressed but for white ankle socks. She looks as if she’s about to giggle. There are eight older men and one younger, who wears an ill-fitting double-breasted jacket. Finally, there’s a schoolboy about the age of the girls. Everyone looks very serious except Millie and the younger man.

This photograph now hangs in Lizzy’s kitchen next to an old child’s blackboard where farm and household tasks are written and erased daily. It overlooks the big kitchen table with its dark green legs, draws for cutlery, and ridged and knotted pine top. The house revolves around this table, located as it is between the yard beyond the back door, the farm office and passage that leads to the sitting room, and a shabby utility room dominated by a big old washing machine that’s always busy. It’s the hub of a working world-without-end, now watched over by Mrs. Oliver’s bell ringers. They used to face the kitchen window at Homehaugh, the house where Lizzy and her sister Kate were born and grew up. There, from opposite the massive double sink, they looked out across the narrow back lane, the small home field and churchyard, towards the high hill above.

That photograph is also witness to a lifetime of Mrs. Oliver’s cooking. To thick yellow scones, large uneven loaves of brown bread, crusty meat pies, and the almost black rich fruit cake that always appeared in our bait-boxes on holiday trips, walks or rides out. To eat that cake again now is to return to childhood, to meals in the hidden river valley or the hills, the taste of many expeditions. And to drinking sweet tea out of chipped enamel mugs in the big shabby back room at Homehaugh itself on wet winter Sunday afternoons. The smell of cooking would waft in to where we all sprawled, us girls chatting with half an ear on the boys’ squabbling and to whatever music James was currently playing: Dylan, Them, The Animals, The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, The Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, Leonard Cohen.

Mrs. Oliver cooks less now and Lizzy is reluctantly stepping into her shoes. Reluctantly because she’s so busy on the farm, but also because she knows she’ll never cook as well as her mother and has a competitive streak. Mrs. Oliver helps her cook weekdays and, at weekends, teaches her granddaughter Sarah. That, along with her regular glance towards the bell ringers, suggests she’s feeling her age. I see these things because I’m in and out of that kitchen all the time.

I learned from Lizzy that her mother met Elizabeth Aitcheson (then Elizabeth Reed) as a canteen manager in the WAAF. Lizzy is named after her and because of that friendship they moved to Homehaugh in 1954, shortly after old Mr Oliver died. Elizabeth Reed’s older brother, a bomber pilot, was killed late in the war and her younger brother, a soldier who became a Japanese prisoner-of-war, died in 1947. At that point, Elizabeth Reed left home. (The locals always assumed there was a man involved, something Mrs. Oliver dismissed as empty gossip.) Elizabeth only returned after a car accident that left her permanently lame. Her father, old Mr Reed, never recovered from losing the boys and wanted to make a male cousin his heir. There was a monumental family row of the kind we specialize in on the Borders and have done from time immemorial. In the end, a formidable great aunt of Lizzy’s brokered a compromise whereby the estate was put in trust, although this involved certain conditions that put Elizabeth under pressure to marry. She left home again when she could and only returned when her father was dying. (Her mother had died four years after her younger brother was born.) Then Elizabeth suddenly married Sir William Aitcheson. Handsome, titled, a decorated war hero, well-connected in both the business and political worlds, he was considered by the Reed clan to be ‘a very good catch’, not to mention ‘a remarkably good fellow’ for marrying an eccentric, if wealthy, cripple. It was clearly a marriage of convenience from the start, since they mostly lived apart. She up here, him in York or London. He got his big country estate and shooting parties each summer; she her sons and a loosening of the trust’s hold on the estate.

Lizzy’s parents were uneasy about Sir William from the start. They felt he took too much for granted and, while Mrs. Oliver wasn’t entirely immune to his considerable charm, she thought him untrustworthy. Mr. Oliver disliked him from the start as a smooth Public School man, a snob, and an ‘incomer’ (conveniently ignored the fact that the Armstrongs have always been a Name to reckon with in the Borders.)

Personally, I think Sir William was predictably true to type, but with the savvy to find new ways to underwrite his traditional presuppositions about family, class, and entitlement. But then Lizzy would say I’ve always been unnecessarily critical of our landowning class since I went to London.

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3. Parts 4 and 5: ‘Fragments from genealogies’ & ‘Richard Kerr’

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

Fragments from genealogies



Richard Kerr

Richard had rented a cottage on the southern edge of our high moorland for several years before I discovered he was there.

When Dad and I first moved north, Richard was studying at university and often visited us in the summer. I didn’t see a lot of him then because he stayed in the old caravan in the garden, although he sometimes ate with us in the evening. But I often heard him, talking with Dad downstairs late into the night, or singing when he came in for a bath. I was rather shy of him because his occasional appearances at breakfast, still glowing from his bath and dressed only in shorts, gave me my first, somewhat bewildering, taste of the mysterious attraction of the male body. I do, however, have a very fond memory of us all playing tag out in the back garden early one morning the year we moved north. Me rushing around on the wet grass playing the fool, and the two men so bent up with laugher they’d no chance of catching me. It was the first time I remember Dad laughing properly after Mum died.

After Richard graduated we got snippets of news from Christmas cards. He got a First in Earth Sciences, did a Masters in Environmental Studies, and then a Ph.D. on something involving the Forestry Commission. He was overseas when we had Dad’s funeral and I lost touch with him after that. So, when I heard where he was living I got his number and rang him. We agreed to meet for lunch at a pub after I’d made a delivery, suggesting neutral territory in case, after all those years, we didn’t hit it off. As it turned out, we did.

He was a little late. He’d helped with a stray bullock hit by a lorry and then needed to clean up. We talked over a ploughman’s lunch and then went back at his cottage and continued over mugs of tea. We walked a big mongrel called Mike, who Richard shared with a neighbour. Then he made soup and we ate it together with bread, cheese, pickle and his own small sweet tomatoes, grown in a little ramshackle greenhouse behind the garage. We were still talking when I noticed it was almost midnight and that I needed to drive home.

Richard had worked full-time for the Forestry Commission as a ‘field scientist’ and then diversified. He studies, and occasionally culls, roe deer and acts as a consultant. He also records data for various long-term environmental projects on forestry for two different universities. The cottage is full of books, the garden of vegetables and bees that, like Mike, he shares with a neighbour because his work involves traveling. When he’s at home he also does odd jobs around the village, mostly gardening, walling and other handyman stuff. He says it’s to supplement ‘the pittance’ he gets for his work, but I suspect it’s just as much because he’s gregarious, likes to gossip, and enjoys the physical work.

Richard is tall, lean, with a weathered face and crow’s feet around his eyes. His hair is thick, cut close, flecked with grey, and starting to recede. He has powerful arms and big expressive hands – the hairs on their backs are ginger brown but go almost blond in summer – with which he gestures as he talks. His voice is no less deep, lively or edged with laughter than in my childhood memories. When he gave me a farewell kiss on the cheek he smelled slightly earthy, with a hint of wood smoke, well lived-in wool, a touch of sweat, and a hint of garlic from the soup. As I turned I felt a faint tug of desire and, for the time it took me to walk to the van, turn, and wave back to the figure in the doorway, I wondered what he would be like as a lover. A mistake. But I made a resolution to visit him when I could.


As it turns out there wasn’t that much time for visiting. I saw him twice that spring and maybe four or five times over the summer and into the autumn. In early November, a community forestry group on the Isle of Mull hired him as a consultant. He met Margaret there and sent an email announcing that they were engaged and he’d be moving to Mull. The significant bit read:

I’ve met someone called Margaret McDonald, a wonderful woman who lives here with her son Ben, a boy who sings like a lark and has given all their hens Gaelic names. (Ben’s father was drowned at sea when he was three.) Margaret is fifty per cent of the post office here. She also helps run an internet repair business for the north end of the island. A pillar of the local community in the best sense, who has helped negotiate me a part-time job here on a highlands and islands community forest initiate. Despite my advanced age, she has also graciously agreed to marry me. Wedding invitations will follow in due course and, as soon as I can sort myself out, I’ll move to Mull.

I was invited to the wedding but made my excuses. I sent them the little yew box I’d made him as next year’s Christmas present, along with a copy of an old photo of Dad with myself, aged about ten I suppose. I last saw him when he and Ben drove away with the remainder of his possessions. He had spent a week sorting out his lease, saying goodbye to friends, collecting up the last of his books, furniture and so on into his van and a horse trailer he’d borrowed from Margaret’s brother. Mike and the bees had already gone. Sarah Aitcheson helped me entertain Ben while Richard was busy. A thin, darkly beautiful boy who said little, but smiled his dazzling slow shy smile to make up for it.

Richard, Ben, Lizzy, Sarah and I squeezed around my kitchen table for supper the night before they left. We had a grand evening together and, despite my sadness, I enjoyed watching Sarah, then just turned sixteen, try out her already considerable charms on young master Ben. She was wearing her big black DMs, red tights, short sleeveless blue dress over a black tee shirt, with her long dark hair tied back and up. Very adult-looking but still also just a girl – that wonderful combination of not quite knowing what to do with her body, of ready smiles and open laughter, the odd blush, and those almost savage little surges of energy that ensure she’s never still for long. Ben, probably a year or two younger, was clearly smitten. Watching them flirt and laugh together I remembered her aunt Kate at Sarah’s age. When we said goodbye outside his cottage late in the morning the next day, I had the sinking feeling in my stomach I get now whenever someone who matters to me goes away.

After the goodbyes, Richard started the van and, opening the window, passed me the white glazed ceramic bottle he’d kept among assorted oddments on the old pantry shelf. I’d said, the last time I called in, that it was a little white sentinel, keeping watch on the home road. As he gave it me he smiled and gave a little nod. Then he reversed the trailer around the yard and headed down the lane. Sarah, who had come to help load but spent most of her time flirting with Ben, forgot about being grown-up and jumped up and down, waved wildly, until they disappeared.

I went straight back inside to shut windows and start locking up. I needed time alone to still my heart.

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

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

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

 ‘8 Lost Songs’ – Preface

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

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

Introduction: ‘8 Lost Songs’

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

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

The background to ‘8 Lost Songs’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Crowlady’ Ruth Jones (photograph Phil Collins).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Alison Oliver.

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

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

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

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

While their Breasts and their Bellies when Pintle a Pantle.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

[5]Roger Corless, “Many Selves, Many Realities: The Implications of Heteronyms and the Plurality of Worlds Theory for Multiple Religious Belonging,” Pacific Coast Theological Society Journal (2002)

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

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


After the service

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

Chew Green

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

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

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

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

Dear Iain

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

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

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

Nobody wants to sail that last voyage without that ballast.

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

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

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

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

With my love, as always



 Towards the head of the Jedwater.


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

Dear Dr. Biggs,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours sincerely,

Flora Buchan.

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

Sarah Aitcheson wearing the Flora / Faun / Laura mask


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

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

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

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

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

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


Debatable Lands Vol. 3

 Flora Buchan

compiled and edited by

Iain Biggs 

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

Laurence Sterne[1]



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

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


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

 Cinderella River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 The ‘art’ of both/and.

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

Geraldine Finn[3]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Bruno Latour (2004) Whose Cosmos, Whose Cosmopolitics p. 458.

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

[4] The Deep Mapping double issue of Humanities (ISSN 2076-0787) from 2015–2016, is available online at:

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

[6] Les Roberts ‘Preface: Deep Mapping and Spatial Anthropology’ reprinted from: Humanities 2016, 5(1), 5 p. xiv.

[7] Ibid.

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

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

[10] See Monica Szewczyk (2009) The Art of Conversation, Part One e-flux Journal no. 3 Feb. 2009: ‘…if, as an art, conversation is the creation of worlds, we could say that to choose to have a conversation with someone is to admit them into the field where worlds are constructed. And this ultimately runs the risk of redefining not only the “other” but us as well’.

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

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

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

[14] Ibid p.85.

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

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

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

 [21] Saito (2007) op.cit: p. 243.




A deep mapping and Bristol University’s role in a ‘hidden war’.

Hidden War (with and for Anna Biggs)


I wrote at length about the background to this piece of work in May 2013, in a piece on this web site called Performance and intervention (Mynydd Epynt, etc.). I made the work itself – first exhibited at Bristol University –  as the result of my participation in a major research project called Living in a Material World: A cross-disciplinary location-based enquiry into the performativity of emptiness. At the heart of that project were an inter-disciplinary group of researchers drawn primarily from Bristol University, Aberystwyth University, and UWE, Bristol. The work itself came out of a specific field trip, carried out at the instigation of Mike Pearson, to Mynydd Epynt in Powys, mid Wales, in 2007.

It may appear odd to return to this work now, ten years later, but it feels appropriate to do so because the ‘war’ around which the work revolved is no longer so hidden and because, although not strictly a ‘deep map’, the work flowed from the same impetus as my work that more obviously belongs to that genre. It is unlikely that I will have an opportunity to exhibit this piece again but, if I was to do so, I would want to make a substantial supplementary panel that brought it up to date, in conformity with Cliff McLucas’ indication, in Point Five of his There are ten things I can say about these deep maps ..., that no deep map should ever be considered ‘finished’. The rest of this post is indicative of the kind of material I’d need to consider in constructing that supplementary panel. 

Deep mapping hidden connections: academic probity or ‘dirty tricks’.

At the heart of Hidden Wars is an analogy between the training of soldiers in ‘closed’ locations normally off-limits to the public and the hidden machinations used to sustain the misrepresentation of ME/CFS, the chronic illness from which my daughter Anna (to whom the work is dedicated) has suffered for many years.  

Those machinations now include bogus claims of harassment and victimisation by some academics trying to protect poor research work from legitimate criticism. A classic case of this tactic is provided by an article, Threats of persecution, in Views from the Front Line, produced by the notorious Science Media Centre. (The Centre claims: “To provide, for the benefit of the public and policymakers, accurate and evidence-based information about science and engineering through the media, particularly on controversial and headline news stories when most confusion and misinformation occurs” but, as George Monbiot, Jonathan Matthews, and others have shown, is in reality a front for lobbying on behalf of ‘big science’, and a particular school of psychiatry.

Threats of persecution is authored by Dr. Ester Crawley, a highly controversial researcher who is a professor at the University of Bristol. My primary concerns here are not with Dr. Crawley, however unethical her methods of trying to protect her work from legitimate criticism, but Bristol University as her employer. This focus is necessary because the most recent manifestation of this tactic, set out at length in the Voices from the Shadows  blog, highlights Bristol University’s apparent complicity in supporting Dr. Crawley.

This whole situation needs to be understood in a wider context. Universities, never the most transparent of institutions, are now having to do all they can to resist sliding into crisis on a number of levels. Their funding is often precarious and the legitimacy of the size of salaries paid to their senior executives increasingly under scrutiny. Their ability to objectively arbitrate  what constitutes genuinely valuable new knowledge is increasingly in question due to their dependency of government patronage and their economic links to big business. Furthermore, their continued dependence on a disciplinary realpolitik signals their increasingly archaic place in a contemporary society plagued by ‘wicked problems’. (This is nothing new. Senior academics like Ferdinand von Prondzynski, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Robert Gordon University since 2011, have long been aware of the problems facing universities in this respect. See, for example:  and Yet the majority of people, if they think about universities at all, continue to assume that, as instatetions, they are staffed by, and aim to education, individuals trained to be dispassionate arbiters of Truth and Reason.

Part of the difficulty in addressing the mismatch between this assumption and the reality of the situation in universities lies in the fact that too few people grasp the relationship between the academic research industry and the way universities finance themselves. This relationship is of real importance if, as appears to be the case at Bristol, universities start to use bullying tactics to hide the fact that they have received funding for academic research that has been shown, through proper scrutiny, to be unethical, subject to serious conflicts of interest, or just plain bad science. Why a university might be willing to do this is not, however, too difficult to understand.

Universities receive the money gained by their employees to conduct research projects. A substantial part of that money goes to pay for the cost of researchers’ time on the project for which the funding is awarded. The university will, however, almost certainly also be receiving very substantial fees from doctoral students supervised by researchers in the field of the research). The university also takes approximately 16% of the research funding to cover it’s overheads. In a department with many research-active staff, that 16% from each research award will amount to a very substantial sum almost certainly far exceeding that department’s overheads. In addition, every five years the government requires all research to be submitted for audit under the Research Excellence Framework. It then allocates extra money to universities that can demonstrate the quality and value of their research. In short, the business of winning research funding is not only important to a university like Bristol’s public image, it is absolutely central to its economic viability. This being the case, it would not be too surprising that a university might be willing to go to the lengths identified by the Tymes Trust in order to protect their research income and the reputations of those who provide it. Even, apparently, when by doing so they put at risk the ethical and intellectual probity on which their status as a major academic institution ultimately depends.

Obviously finding a way to visualise or ‘map’ this web of material is not easy. However, if deep mapping is to continue as a necessary and relevant form of extra-disciplinary creative activity, then I would need to find ways of doing just that. Of the many kinds of contested ‘place’ within our society, universities are rapidly becoming sites in urgent need of the kind of counter-mapping we can provide. Whether it will be possible to do so, given the realpolitik of the relationship between the art world and the universities is, of course, quite another question.




‘Layers in the Landscape’: deep mapping and the enlivening of culture.

On November 3rd., I drove over to the Trinity Saint David campus of the University of Wales in Lampeter. I wanted to see the Layers in the Landscape exhibition there and to hear my friend the poet, artist and geo-mythologist Erin Kavanagh talk about the extended deep mapping project she has been orchestrating, working in conjunction with the geo-archaeologist Martin Bates and others, in and around Cardigan Bay. Erin’s project employs film, music, poetry, art, geology and archaeology, engaging publics by illuminating the interrelationship of past and present cultural, linguistic and ecological concerns. As such it seems to me to be very much a lively extension of important aspects of the tradition of deep mapping initiated in Wales by Michael Shanks, Mike Pearson and Cliff McLucas.

I don’t intent to say too much more about Layers in the Landscape here, since it’s currently available to see in the Old Building on the Lampeter campus and is well-documented in the project section of Erin’s own web site. Sufficient to say that, in it’s most recent manifestation, it has now included a collaboration with Three Legg’d Mare, a band who specialise in traditional songs of madness, love, death and adventure. This collaboration builds on the fact that, in July this year, the Layers in the Landscape project was extended via an exhibition at Borth Station Museum. This exhibition was focused by the poem King of the Sea Trees, which tells some of the story of a spirit of Cardigan Bay – Brenin Y Coed Mor – a creature born with the land itself and a witness to its long-term changes. The band’s Dafydd Eto has now become the voice of Brenin Y Coed Mor. To do this he took Erin’s poem and revisited the texts from which it catches echoes – something he’s well equipped to do as a Medievalist at the National Museum of Wales – and then applied a variety of different traditional melodies along with his own bilingual interpretations and lines of poetry. (The result can be heard here). All of which gives some insight into the richness and complexity of Erin’s approach to ‘open’ deep mapping.

Erin is involved in ‘open’ deep mappings. (That is, those that have not been co-opted to serve the ambitions of those sections of the academy hoping to benefit either from gaining some advantage in the archaic but no less bitter battle for disciplinary advantage in the fight for every fewer resources or for those available to newly fashionable, hybrid, ‘digital’ disciplines and fields – for example ‘the digital humanities’). This means, in practice, that her project is being developed piecemeal, as and when she can raise the funds necessary to carry it forward. I want to reflect on this by picking up on something she said on Friday evening.

I do not remember Erin’s exact words, only that she spoke eloquently about the ways in which deep mapping as a process, with its managed and serendipitous convergences of unlikely intellectual and material ‘stuff’, becomes an enlivening of culture. What struck me later, talking about the work with my wife Natalie, was that what the collaborations that bring such mappings into being achieve is just that, an enlivening of culture as a lived set of mutable, often contested  and always dynamic, mesh of values intimately connected to a sense of place in which both the ‘global’ and ‘local’ play a part. This is, of course, what ‘place-based art’ is often claimed to do but, as I have increasingly come to understand, in reality rarely achieves. Largely, I think, because the context in which professional artists now work they are required to engaging in a realpolitik predicated on an attitude of cultural exclusivity; one that usually precludes the necessary openness and inclusivity involved in a genuine enlivening of culture in the sense just given. (However, as the current Grayson Perry exhibition at the Arnolfini demonstrates, there are obviously important exceptions to this generalisation).

A consequence of this situation is that, increasingly, those involved in ‘open’ deep mapping, like visual artists whose work is genuinely ‘socially’ or ‘environmentally’ engaged, tend to find themselves caught between the pragmatic imperatives of making a living (however precarious), and the reductive demands of ‘playing the game’ – whether that of the academy or the professional art world. The institutionalisation of an acceptance of the values of total monetisation by both higher education and the ‘culture industries’ as ‘worlds’ inevitably works against any genuine enlivening of culture in its proper sense. Consequently it’s now more vital than ever that we each do all we can to promote and maintain those forms of creative activity that resist that monetisation and all that follows from it. Whether that’s through support networks or whatever other means we still have at our disposal.



‘Essaying’ to ‘poetics’? Thoughts on Gulammohammed Sheikh and Octavio Paz.

A little while back I reached a difficult point in my relationship to deep mapping. I had either to abandon it as a practice based on  ‘essaying’ (see my “The Southdown Projectessaying site as memory work, 2012) or rethink it from the ground up. Deep mapping belongs to a field of action and possibility I can no longer properly engage with because of an inexorable shift in my own situation – a shift bound up with the increased complexities of my family life and (once again) with my own uncertain health. However, while these circumstances effectively prevent me engaging with deep mapping as essaying, they don’t preclude maintaining certain orientations and attitudes of mind related to it. Nor from refiguring these in the context of a return to a small-scale studio practice. Return is actually the wrong word I’ve never entirely left the world of small-scale making I entered as an art student. Rather, until recently I saw this making work as located on the periphery of the larger conversational or relational field of my work as a constellated self that included teaching, researcher, and various kinds of making. That perception has had to change.

My intuitive response to what was something of a personal crisis was simply to go back into my studio and make something, working from memory and whatever reading my concerns pointed me to at the time. (I described some aspects of this process in my last post). But of course intuition, no matter how helpful in the short term, needs feeding, reflection and consolidation if the work it starts to animate is to flourish. It’s something of this process that I want to reflect on here.

Since I wrote that last post, I’ve begun to look for a basis for a new praxis that, while still aligned with certain central aspects of deep mapping as I understand it, moves from the inclusive process of ‘essaying’ and towards the more contained process of a ‘poetics’. I’m finding the work of two men helpful in this; the painter, poet, educationalist, and art critic Gulammohammed Sheikh (b. 1937) and of the poet, diplomat, writer and publisher Octavio Paz (1914-1998). Although my turning to these two men’s work was serendipitous and based on vague recollection of their work, there are relevant historical links between them. One is that Gulammohammed Sheikh was a member of Group 1890, a short-lived but influential collective of Indian artists formed in 1962. Paz, at that time the Mexican ambassador to India, wrote a catalogue essay: Surrounded by Infinity, for their first and last show in 1963 in New Delhi. My intuition, and at this stage its no more than that, is that they share an underlying poetics. On the basis of my reading of Paz and Karin Zitzewitz’s detailed discussion of Sheikh’s 2011 exhibition City, Kaavad and Other Works, I am hoping that going deeper into these two men’s work may open up a way for me to rethink my approach to deep mapping. (I won’t attempt to paraphrase Zitzewitz’s article, which also contains excellent reproductions. Anyone interested should read it in full).  I will, however, quote her concluding paragraph as indicative of why I take Sheikh’s work exhibited in 2011 as being so relevant to deep mapping. She writes:

“Sheikh’s vision of cultural multiplicity contains a reconfirmed commitment to complexity, defined in art historical, cultural, religious and temporal terms. In his work, complexity has an absolute aesthetic value, but I would like to suggest that complexity can also be seen as Sheikh’s principal political strategy. Or, perhaps it is clearer to say that complexity is the strategic mode by which Sheikh questions the discursive basis for political speech. For Sheikh’s main claim is that the cultural flexibility found in a pre-secular historical moment can provide a counterpoint to the fixed identities mobilized by modern politics”. (Zitzewitz, Karin. “Past Futures of Old Media: Gulammohammed Sheikh’s Kaavad: Traveling Shrine: Home.” CSSAAME Borderlines, 11 March 2016. p. 17).

The second link between Sheik and Paz is something they share with deep mapping, an intuition also central to Surrealism. Michael Shanks has claimed that deep mapping is about creating a “forced juxtaposition of evidences that have no intrinsic connection” – a process of “metamorphosis or decomposition”. For anyone with some knowledge of Surrealism, this notion of ‘forced juxtaposition’ evokes the image of “the chance meeting on a dissecting table of an umbrella and a sewing machine”. It’s easy to misunderstand the point of this image, to see it simply as an invitation to novel fantasies rather than as a purposeful metamorphosis or decomposition of the dominant epistemological frameworks that prevent us from thinking and feeling otherwise. Charles Tomlinson introduces the Selected Poems (Penguin 1979) by reminding us of Paz’s version of this need to think and feel otherwise.  Namely that: “Poetry is the other voice”. It is: “Not the voice of history or of anti-history, but the voice which, in history, is always saying something different”. This is, of course, also the voice of the unconscious as it percolates through testimonial imagination.

It’s clear from his later writing that Paz’s deep engagement with India was transformative. Returning to his engagement has taken me back to my own fascination with Indian art, something that really first developed when I studied with Philip Rawson at the Royal College of Art. (Rawson, an authority on Tantric art, encouraged me to read the aesthetics of the Kashmiri Tantric philosopher and mystic Abhinavagupta (c. 950 – 1016 AD) and, significantly, it was Paz who was responsible for the first exhibition of Tantric art in Europe, held at the Le Point Cardinal gallery in Paris in 1970). My fascination with Indian miniature painting, Tantric art and with the work of the 1890 Group artists later came to intersect with my interest in place and land. The reasons for this are difficult to explain, at least in the space of a short blog. Something of what lies behind them is indicated by something Greta Kapur writes, providing this is read from an agnostic position where the term ‘God’ evokes a sense of incomprehensible complexity recognised and honoured as that which, if we attend to it, allows us to question the dominant discursive basis of historical power. Kaput writes:

“For nature in Indian painting is not remotely majestic, as it is often in European or even Chinese painting; it is expressly sympathetic to human feeling: nature often serves as a composite metaphor for human emotion, especially the erotic emotion. Landscapes in the miniatures are, moreover, in the best sense ornamental – for to perceive the earth as so richly adorned is to give praise to God”. (‘Modern Painting Since 1935’ in The Arts of India Phaidon 1981 p. 209)

As Kapur points out in the same essay, there is a profound empathy between attitudes in Indian culture regarding the unconscious and Surrealism (with which Paz was closely associated through his friendship with André Breton). So it’s in the particular, agnostic context of late Surrealism that I read Kapur’s statement above. While she suggests the playful Surrealism of Paul Klee as closest to the spirit of the Indian Group 1890, my own current thinking is that my own way into this potent convergence requires attending to Surrealists like Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo. Not because I think I can learn anything particularly helpful from their art work, in which I have only an uneasy and rather queasy interest, but because of what ultimately grounds that work – their highly unorthodox understanding of the nature of the self, of our relationship to the animal, to ‘magical thinking’, and so to reality itself. Which, of course, takes me back to my last post and to Eduardo Kohn’s How Forests Think.

So I now find myself trying to adsorb something of Paz’s understanding of the role of the poet. At present I am particularly attracted to the conclusion his poem Sunday on Elefanta and, in turn, am trying to evoke something of this in my own work. In that poem, he writes:

Y yo,

Nada les pedimos, nada

Que sea del otro mundo:


La luz sobre el mar,

La luz descalza sobre el mar y la tierra dormidos.


(Which Michael Edwards translates as:

And I,

Ask you nothing, nothing

From the other world:


Light on the sea,

Light barefoot on the sea and the land asleep.)