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

 

 

“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.  

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.

Julie Brook: Arts of Place Artist-in-Residence

As part of our celebrations at the close of the first year of Arts of Place, we are delighted to welcome leading land artist Julie Brook as our Artist in Residence. Here, we look over Brook’s career and work.

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.

Artist Julie Brook, pictured near her home on Skye. PIC Jane Barlow/TSPL.

Brook travels to and dwells within remote regions, spending time inhabiting the landscape either alone or with local guides. These places are usually quite solitary and inhospitable, from caves in the Hebrides to Libyan deserts. From there she makes art that reconnects us with the natural world, in exciting ways, through sculpture and large-scale drawing. From 1989 Julie Brook has been living and working in remote landscapes in Scotland: Hoy, Orkney (1989); the west coast of Jura (1990-94); on the uninhabited island of Mingulay (1996-2011) in the Outer Hebrides. Recently she has been working in different parts of the desert: in Central and South West Libya (2008-09) travelling with Tuareg guides; Syria (2010); NW Namibia (2011-14) travelling with Himba-Herero guides; Aird Bheag, Hebrides and Komatsu, Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan (2015-2022).

Pigment Drawing, poured. Otjize, NW Namibia.

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. While living alone and collecting water and fuel for drinking and cooking, Brook began to build artworks using materials found on the island. So became her Firestack series, where she used rocks to build cairns on the shore, and wood to set fires in them as the tide came in. Eventually, the stacks toppled, and Brook captured the whole process on film.

“Brook’s Firestacks are works that we feel could have been made at any time in the past 5000 years, but they have had their pertinence refreshed by the current focus we are putting on the environment. When the tide comes in her artwork has to make its own case against the elements, just as we, in the age of dawning climate change, might still have to.” – Jonathan McAloon for Elephant Art

Firestack, Autumn: Aird Bheag, outer Hebrides, 2015.

We are extremely excited to host Brook at Arts of Place this summer. On the afternoon of 23rd June, she will be running a practical drawing workshop for Arts of Place writers and readers. This free workshop will be a chance to explore form and emphasis in a different medium. You can read more about the workshop and reserve your place here.

Practical drawing with Julie Brook

To celebrate the end of the first year of Arts of Place, we were thrilled to welcome leading land artist Julie Brook to a summer residency with us. Brook registers the infinite drama of the four elements and measures time on multiple scales. She has worked over many years in Libya, Namibia, Japan and Scotland, learning from local communities about the materials of the earth.

Julie ran a free Drawing Workshop on 23 June, 2-5pm and there was no artistic experience required! This was drawing for writers and readers, a chance to explore form and emphasis in a different medium. We worked with charcoal and swapping the usual A4 paper of our working lives for the expansiveness of A1. Julie provided special charcoal and rubbers for those who participate which were sent to participants in the post. It was a treat of an afternoon.

Here are a couple of the participants’ wonderful drawings from the workshop:

Cover image: Firestack. Outer Hebrides, Autumn 2016

 

William Cowper, Art and Afterlife

William Cowper lived in and around Olney in Buckinghamshire from 1768 to 1795. It was here that he wrote Olney Hymns (1779) (with John Newton), Poems (1782), The Task (1785), and his translations of Homer. The poet’s experience of his immediate surroundings, his close attention to the natural world, and the importance he attached to domestic life gave particular energy and vision to his poetry.

On 3rd and 4th of September 2021, Arts of Place members Andrew Hodgson and Will Bowers hosted a conference at The Olney Centre, focused on Cowper’s career in verse. The event included a visit to the Cowper and Newton Museum where attendees toured Cowper’s home and the beautiful garden in which he worked.

 

‘William Cowper’ by George Romney (1792)

A range of papers explored formal and stylistic elements of Cowper’s writing (Gregory Leadbetter discussed the ‘exploded couplets’ of the blank verse of The Task; Samuel Diener examined warring lyric and narrative impulses in ‘The Cast-away’; Jessica Fay looked at Cowper’s handling of movement and stillness in the closed stanzas of the Hymns). There were also papers focused on Cowper’s critical heritage (Tim Fulford traced an association of ideas about church-bells from Cowper to Coleridge and the Wedgwood family; Alexandra Harris explored Virginia Woolf’s appreciation of Cowper’s ‘white fire’, while Andrew Hodgson read Cowper’s fear and dread through Donald Davie). Meanwhile, Will Bowers offered a paper on Cowper’s conception of time, Andrew Newell introduced Cowper’s ‘exegetical poetics’, and Tess Somervell presented Cowper as a key poet of the anthropocene.

The highlight of the conference was Fiona Stafford’s lecture on ‘Cowper’s Hare Care’. Cowper owned a number of pet hares but alongside an exploration of his personal attachment to these characterful animals, Stafford showed that a close reading of Cowper’s poetry can open up the extended literary heritage of the hare — a heritage that stretches from John Gay to Seamus Heaney.

The conference also included an informal discussion of the value of teaching Cowper’s poetry at a time when many of his preoccupations have renewed pertinence in the classroom.

 

 

Featured image: ‘William Cowper’ by George Romney (1792), National Portrait Gallery

The conference was supported by the British Association for Romantic Studies, British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, and Queen Mary University of London

Listen to Alex Harris and Kate McLoughlin talking about Cowper’s poetry here.

The Lives of Naturalists

Richard Mabey on Gilbert White of Selborne, in conversation with Alexandra Harris

The Summer 2021 Weinrebe Lecture, presented as part of a new collaboration with the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing. Available to listen here now.

Portrait of Richard Mabey    Gilbert White: A biography of the author of The Natural History of Selborne: Amazon.co.uk: Mabey, Richard: 9781861978073: Books 

Richard Mabey, who celebrates his 80th birthday this year, has been bringing people closer to the natural world since his first books Food for Free and The Unofficial Countryside delighted readers with their subversive outings to the hedgerows in the early 1970s. He is on the side of the weeds that refuse to be tidied; he takes his cues from the playfulness and conviviality of swifts; he gives us all a ticket to join the exuberant ‘cabaret’ of plants.

In this conversation, Mabey reflects on his work as a biographer, and particularly on his long relationship with the great eighteenth-century naturalist Gilbert White of Selborne.

“White is talking about the possibility of birds being parallel citizens”

“I was able to find specific colonies of plants at the precise addresses where White had seen them”

Arts of Place is extremely grateful to OCLW for hosting and producing this lecture recording.

Related links:

The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing (OCLW)

Richard Mabey’s website

Gilbert White’s House

Expand your Mabey reading list with help from Profile Books: Happy 80th Richard Mabey

Pallant House Gallery explores artist’s responses to The Natural History of Selborne in Drawn to Nature.