Talking Place between the Kingdoms of Sleep and Waking

By Hannah Christopher (BA English Literature, University of Birmingham)

I am surprised to have woken up in the dark. In my mind, September feels like it should be clutching onto summer more than it has. My weather app informs me that the sun will rise whilst I am underground, screeching through the rabbit warren of tunnels that link London Bridge to Euston. Although I never usually rise with the sun, I want to see it this time and the thought of missing its first appearance is disappointing.

It is 6am but the tube is far from empty. Next to me there is a traveller with matching coral suitcases and opposite me a commuter with hair still swirled upwards by recent contact with a pillow. To my right, four lads are shouting and laughing at alarm clock volume, their drunk conversation is surreal and cyclical, sips of phrases pass between them, echoed and repeated. Some of us have slept, others will soon shut the curtains on the sunlight and sleep through the day. For now, we shuttle under the dark city together. I think about how strange the tube is, necessity or desire has united us to this mobile waiting room before we are called out to our real destinations. I think about trains, the infrastructure which supports these tunnels and our dependence on these technologies, mechanical and digital, which enable us to live between places, ignoring nature’s rhythms: long distances are contracted by transport, night and day blurred by electric light, hot and cold levelled by air conditioning, the internet dividing friends between embodied and online experiences. As I emerge from the tube station and turn into the rail station, I am strangely relieved that it was a cloudy sunrise, I feel I have missed nothing. I face away from the dawn and take a picture of the glowing underground sign instead.

Sunrise at Euston Station

My destination is the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester for the WomenTalkPlace symposium Talking Place. There are five panels throughout the day, aiming to facilitate conversations between contemporary place writers. The panels on place memoirs, novels, writing about places as magical experiences, and writing politically through landscape consider different writers’ methods and reasons for engaging with places in literary ways. Throughout the day, what came across most strongly, is that there are many ways to exist in a place; no approach to place is quite the same and many approaches combine seemingly opposite narratives of natural and digital, past and present, personal and geological, fiction and non-fiction.

Liptrot’s memoir responds to the complexity of navigating a digital and natural world simultaneously

In the first panel Amy Liptrot read from her Berlin memoir, The Instant. The chapter documents how she embarks on a series of excursions to traffic islands around Berlin with a new lover. The chapter drifts between romantic anecdotes of hands held and emails exchanged, before washing up on these traffic islands every so often; each island has a ‘mission report’, narrated like a Springwatch segment. The digital journey threads through the natural, a theme which runs throughout the book. Liptrot names the chapters after extended metaphors, many of them synthesising the technological and the natural: ‘a google maps tour of the heart’, ‘traffic islands’, ‘digital archaeology’. Liptrot’s memoir responds to the complexity of navigating a digital and natural world simultaneously which is reflected in the way that she writes.

Later, in a panel discussing magic and connections, Jeff Young’s reading from Ghost Town took us through the streets of Liverpool, unlocking stories from the city’s past by exploring the marks on the landscape that stories have left behind. Young describes the visibility of the past in a present landscape, making this vibrant city simultaneously a kind of Ghost Town. His memoir combines layers of civic history as well as his own story; in doing so, he writes himself into this landscape. He receives emails from readers who identify with his story, saying things like ‘you have written my childhood’. There is a continual repositioning of whose story is the story of this aggregate place which spans both distance and time.

Another memoir writer, Nicola Chester, discussed her new book On Gallows Down as part of a panel about ‘belonging’. Chester’s book claims to be a ‘story of a life shaped by landscape’, yet as she spoke about her life, which she describes as being able to see ‘laid out’ in their chapters from atop a local hill, I felt that she was instead giving us a landscape shaped by her life. Chester’s narrativization of her personal life interwoven with the topography of West Berkshire goes on to shape our perceptions of this place, even as her life was shaped by the landscape initially. The individual and the landscape become synthesised and invite the reader into an active dialogue with place.

Throughout the day, there were a number of questions raised concerning the struggle of separating fiction and non-fiction in place writing. In the first panel, Amy Liptrot, Anna Fleming and Lily Dunn acknowledged, as non-fiction writers, that ‘memoir can slip precariously into fiction’. Later, Fleming addressed this indirectly as she spoke about the distance between herself and her work. Fleming used an illustration from Melissa Febos’ Body Work which describes memoir writing, not as an egotistical project, but as a process in which the self is made transparent for other people to inhabit. The self becomes detached from the work, simply a skin through which a reader can see the world from a different perspective, or an unfamiliar landscape with clarity. This distancing process steps onto the slippery slope between non-fiction and fiction. I also feel this tension as I write this blog post, emphasising some things and not others in an attempt to curate this day into a sort-of conclusive story, a kind of fiction itself. Yet, on the flip side, fiction writer Fiona Mozley, noted how her books were a kind of non-fiction, reflecting places and experiences in her life. She noted a similar feeling of vulnerable exposure that Liptrot felt in publishing her intimate memoir, The Instant. The relationship between writer, place and story is entangled, creating unique works which sit along a spectrum between fiction and non-fiction.

The relationship between writer, place and story is entangled, creating unique works which sit along a spectrum between fiction and non-fiction.

It was between the last two panels when I noticed a jazzed up literary notice by the door, ‘sleep and waking are two opposed kingdoms. Please be considerate and keep noise to a minimum.’ Perhaps this statement was true when night meant sleep and darkness and the waking kingdom was built anew each day with the dawn chorus, but our nights, more and more, take on their own luminosity and night life.

I thought back to the tube this morning and my shared journey joined with my unlikely travel companions, and the blurring of waking and sleeping kingdoms under artificial light — not opposing but operating simultaneously. As if sitting between kingdoms, like the crossed paths of unlikely travellers, the way writers complement landscape with digital spaces, overlay the past with the present, combine internal emotional life with geographical topography, and blend fiction with non-fiction in ways that are not oppositional but complementary, seems to speak into this current moment. Many of these writers’ responses to place are grounded in the natural place, the urban place, the digital place, the historic place etc., sometimes weaving a narrative from all of these at the same time, giving a richer and deepening experience of what it means to exist in a place in our time.

Sunset at Manchester Piccadilly Station

 

 

Table Talks

 

 

On Monday 5th December at 5pm we’ll be online with the table set for an intriguing Advent treat.

Dr Will Bowers (QMUL) will introduce his new research on the dynamics of eighteenth-century dining circles, and Dr Heber Rodrigues from the UK Centre for Excellence on Wine Research will be exploring the cultural contexts of wine appreciation.

All are welcome. Please register by following this link.

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Image: Claude Pratt, ‘Still Life of Newspaper, Pipe, Decanter, and Jar’ (1935, Birmingham Museums Trust)

Welcome Drinks and Research Exchange

Monday 3 October 2022, 5pm, UoB Arts Building 224

A chance to get together as the academic year begins.

Whether you’re a regular Arts of Place contributor or new to Birmingham and interested in finding out more, please do come along for this special in-person version of our ‘Monday Conversation’ series. Lucy Shaw (History of Art) and Jon Stevens (English) will be among those giving brief talks about their current work. No booking required: just drop in between 5 and 6 to share your place-related interests, meet other researchers, and enjoy a drink. 

Trees of History

Tuesday 5th July 5.45pm – 7.30pm, Barber Institute of Fine Arts. The £3 ticket includes a drink. BOOK HERE

An evening of readings and discussion in the Barber Gallery, inspired by the exhibition Taking Root.

With Flora Kay, Gillian Wright, Tom Kaye, Alexandra Harris and Jessica Fay

In response to the arboreal work of artists from Gaspard Dughet to JMW Turner, this event will consider some of the writers who shaped ideas about trees in seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth-century Britain. Their powerful imaginative responses illuminate the past and give us new perspectives on the present. After a welcoming drink and tour of the prints on display, we’ll consider the work of tree-thinkers including John Evelyn, who advocated tree planting in the 1660s, and William Cowper, who thought a single oak tree was fit subject for poetic biography.

All levels and abilities are welcome. This talk, is open to anyone 18+ and will be held at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts. Limited spaces, so booking is essential.

Speakers: Flora Kay is Learning and Engagement Manager at the Barber Institute Gillian Wright is the author, most recently, of The Restoration Transposed: Poetry, Place and History, 1660-1700. Jessica Fay is a scholar of Romanticism and currently writing about relations between poetry and Dutch painting. Tom Kaye is writing a doctoral thesis on forestry in American literature. Alexandra Harris is the author of Weatherland, Time and Place, and is finishing a book on rural history and local feeling.

“Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap…”

The Place of the Churchyard

Monday Conversation, 30 May 2022, 5-6pm, online. Please register here for the zoom link.

The meanings and resonances of churchyards are multiple and deep. They are a sanctuary of peace at the centre of the community; a focus for local history; a place for prayer, mourning and memorialization. In the eighteenth century they inspired a group of poets looking for new ways to connect with the land and with the past.

Join us for a discussion of exciting new research on churchyards, history and poetry. Ruth Abbott (Cambridge) will take us beyond and behind Thomas Gray’s Elegy, introducing the poet’s unpublished Commonplace-Book notes on historical graveyards, tombs, and sepulchres. James Metcalf (King’s) will offer a new reading of Robert Blair’s The Grave as a piece of land work.  

Daisy Hay: Stories of Romantic Birmingham

Joseph Priestley, Joseph Johnson, Ruins and Riots

Arts of Place and Oxford Centre for Life-Writing Annual Lecture

Tuesday 3 May, 5.30pm GMT
University of Birmingham, Arts Building Lecture Room 3 (R16 on this campus map). Lecture followed by drinks reception.

Please register here.

We are delighted that Daisy Hay (University of Exeter) will give the second OCLW and Arts of Place Annual Lecture. Daisy’s new book, Dinner with Joseph Johnson, is an extraordinary account of writing, publishing, and friendship in a revolutionary age — and Birmingham is central to the story. 

If you’re new to Birmingham, or haven’t visited the campus before, you’ll find there’s lots to explore so you might want to make an afternoon of it. Trains from New Street stop at ‘University’ station, bringing you right to the gate (walk straight in past the Paolozzi sculpture). Stroll through the park-like ‘Green Heart’ and explore the collections at the Barber Art Gallery (open until 5 on Tuesdays). In the Arts Building, you’ll find Peter Lanyon’s fine mural from 1963 – and signs to the lecture room.

Songs of Spring

Monday Conversation 25 April 2022, 5-6pm online.

With Bethan Roberts and Francesca MacKenney

Bethan Roberts is the author of Charlotte Smith and the Sonnet (Liverpool University Press, 2019) and her new book Nightingale has recently been published in Reaktion’s ‘animal’ series.

Bethan’s talk is called ‘Sweet harbinger(s) of spring’: Placing the cuckoo and nightingale in poetry‘, and it will consider the traditional poetic rivals the nightingale and cuckoo. Bethan will think about the significance of place and its different meanings in poems on these spring migrants, from matters of habitat and distribution to poetic feeling and beloved ‘pleasant places’.

Francesca MacKenney is the author of Birdsong, Speech, and Poetry: The Art of Composition in the Long Nineteenth Century (forthcoming in 2022 with Cambridge University Press). The book explores what poetry can do and say in comparison with birdsong and music.

Francesca’s talk will explore ‘Birdsong in the Poetry of John Clare‘.

Watch a recording of Francesca’s and Bethan’s talks here: Songs of Spring

On Place Value

Monday Conversation 7 February 2022, 6-7pm online. Register here.

Paul Nash, ‘Thirlmere’, 1914.

Why do we value the land? Is it for agriculture and the production of food? For harbouring rich biodiversity? Or for the beauty of the landscape and the opportunity for recreation? These long-debated questions and interests gained urgency at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow but what role can literature and the arts play in determining the answers?  

We have two exciting speakers joining us for a discussion of Place Value:

Dr Christopher Donaldson (Lancaster University) reflects on the racial politics inherent in representations of the British countryside, focusing on the English Lake District;

Dr Pippa Marland (University of Bristol) considers the emergence of a ‘new georgic’ in farm writing of the twenty-first century.

All welcome!

Fire and Ochre: Films by Julie Brook

Artist Julie Brook pictured near her home on Skye (Jane Barlow/TSPL).

Over this past summer, Alexandra Harris talked with our Artist-in-Residence Julie Brook about her motivation, her materials, and her methods. Brook is a British artist who creates large scale sculpture. She uses a variety of natural materials and incorporates photography and film to combine wild terrains with classical formalism. Drawing from, with, and in the landscape, Brook has lived and worked in the Orkney Islands, on Jura and Mingulay, and in the Libyan desert. She currently lives on the Isle of Skye. She often travels wide and far for her work, using what she finds in particular landscapes to create new forms and works within those spaces.

In this post we showcase two sections of the conversation, focusing on Brook’s ‘Firestacks’ and ‘Japan’. These, and a further section of the conversation, ‘Labour’, will be screened in-person at the University of Birmingham on 22 November at 5pm. Please do join us if you can. Register here. Come and see Julie’s spectacular images on the big screen! We’ll be making the swish new Teaching and Learning building as much like a cinema as possible…

Firestacks

Firestack, Julie Brook. Jura, West coast of Scotland.

In the early nineties, Brook moved to the remote island of Jura on the west coast of Scotland to paint and draw. Living beneath a natural stone arch, the solitude became part of her art which she then translated into her ‘Firestacks’ series, a body of work which uses rocks to build cairns on the shore, and wood to set fires in them. Eventually, as the tide comes in, the stacks topple and Brook captures the whole transient process on film.

In this video, Brook and Harris explore the rock cairns that Brook now builds every season in the same place; they discuss the process of documenting how each day and each season affects the firestacks differently. 

Firestacks: Julie Brook in conversation

“I first conceived of this work really as the beginning of my sculptural work as well. I was living in a natural arch, I was collecting my water, I was making a fire everyday to cook on. After doing functional building in the arch to make it habitable, I wanted to use those skills and that sensibility to make work.”

Julie Brook

Japan

Ascending, Julie Brook. Kanagaso, Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan.

The second video concerns Brook’s project in Japan, entitled ‘Ascending’. ‘Ascending’ is a 2019 sculptural response to the ancient working quarry of Kanagaso in the Ishikawa Prefecture. Working on a huge scale in the space of the quarry itself, Brook used the material nature of the stone to give ‘Ascending’ its weight, mass, colour and sound. 

In the video, Brook and Harris discuss how Brook’s artistic work within spaces reaches out to the surrounding landscapes, highlighting their own sculptural likeness and giving new life to the space.

Japan: Julie Brook in conversation

“I couldn’t compete with the cliff but I wanted the work to be about the cliff… I wanted the steps to feel like they’d always been there, that they’d simply grown up overnight. It was almost like I was revealing them rather than making them… It’s the whole experience of the environment and the way in which you can ascend the piece to experience that natural amphitheatre that quarries often create, whereby, you change your sense of scale by being able to walk on it.”

Julie Brook

Tobacco and Feathers… The Art of Looking


Arts of Place is supporting an exciting evening’s conversation at Trinity College Oxford (Monday 8 November 6pm) and an online version with live discussion (Monday 15 November). BBC New Generation Thinkers Lauren Working and Lucy Powell discuss art, literature, and colonialism with art historian Stephanie Pratt. This event is part of the 2021 Being Human Festival.

The event at Trinity College is now fully booked, but please do register for the online version on Monday 15 November 6 – 7.15pm. A film of the panel talks and conversation will be screened, followed by live discussion with the online audience. Book here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/being-human-festival-transatlantic-tales-stories-of-feathers-and-smoke-tickets-179205748217?aff=erelpanelorg

Please note that unfortunately Alexandra Harris is unable to chair this event, but Lauren and Lucy will take her place in hosting the conversation.


How do you read a feather? How did tobacco, a plant cultivated by Indigenous peoples in the Americas, end up in the playhouses of Shakespeare’s London? How were transatlantic objects altered or incorporated into ‘new’ worlds?


From parrots to sunflowers to chilis, plants and animals from the Americas have reconfigured cultures across the world for over four centuries. This event will examine objects that crossed the Atlantic in the early modern period, illuminating their place in everything from still life paintings to botanic gardens to the writings of the seventeenth-century playwright Aphra Behn. Drawing on literature, art history, and Indigenous perspectives, Lauren Working, Lucy Powell and Stephanie Pratt will follow the journeys of feathers and tobacco to discuss the ongoing impact of colonialism and empire on society and culture in England.