On Monday 5th December at 5pm we went online with the table set for an intriguing Advent treat!
Dr Heber Rodrigues from the UK Centre for Excellence on Wine Research explored the cultural contexts of wine appreciation, and Dr Will Bowers (QMUL) introduced his new research on the dynamics of eighteenth-century dining circles!
Have a taste of the two talks below! First up, Heber introduces us to thinking about wine, place and terroir. Under the concept of terroir, Heber introduces, the place of wine is not only the place in which the vines are grown, but is also imbibed with the characteristics of their surrounding context—in all its complexity.
Will introduced us to the transformative place of the dining room at Holland House, an essential creative context for Romantic London, facilitating discussion and hospitality between British and European cultural and political figures. This room, Will argues, was a “literary and political space” that “gave coherence to the ramshackle organisation of the Whig party” alongside hosting literary salons at the heart of the definition of taste. It was above all a space of both literary and political opposition.
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.
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
Tuesday 5th July 2022, 5.45pm – 7.30pm, Barber Institute of Fine Arts.
In response to the arboreal work of artists from Gaspard Dughet to JMW Turner, this event considered 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 considered 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.
With Bethan Roberts and Francesca MacKenney
Monday Conversation 25 April 2022, 5-6pm online.
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.
Francesca MacKenney is the author of Birdsong, Speech, and Poetry: The Art of Composition in the Long Nineteenth Century (2022). The book explores what poetry can do and say in comparison with birdsong and music.
‘Sweet harbinger(s) of spring’: Placing the cuckoo and nightingale in poetry – Bethan Roberts
“In prose nature writing about birds, specific place is nearly always specified in geographical terms, while bird poems almost wholly leave this out. Poets do however often specify place in equivalent notes and journals. [Within the poems], geographical location is taken out as poets distil the essence of spring hearing, which acts as a kind of poetic double access that transcends geography”.
Bethan’s talk, “an obsessive pursuit of place in poems about cuckoos and nightingales”, begins with an attention to the migratory patterns and the local and national habitats of both birds, looking to underpin the poetic topographies of birdsong and their far-reaching literary connotations. Bethan considers the traditional poetic rivals the nightingale and cuckoo, and thinks 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'”.
Listen to Bethan’s talk below:
Birdsong in the Poetry of John Clare – Francesca Mackenney
“Whenever we attempt to translate the sounds of birds into our own words and phrases we are always in danger of descending into anthropomorphism and absurdity; of making birds sound ludicrously like ourselves”.
Francesca’s research is influenced by interdisciplinary approaches and draws together and compares the different ways in which scientists, musicians, and poets have tried to understand the mystery of birdsong. Her talk reflects on the difficulty of interpreting, and translating bird song through a range of historical mediums, and dwells on the development of the sonogram and the poetry of John Clare alike to consider how our representations match up to the complexity of birdsong. “Birdsong tests the limits of language”, Francesca argues, questioning how poetry can respond to such an ‘irrevocable otherness” as the call of the nightingale.
My research explores how new music can be used to recontextualise place-specific texts. Recent projects have included a collaboration with Dr Timothy Senior on ‘A Future for our Underused Churches’, in which site-specific literature and music is being used as basis for forming new communities to look after historic buildings. My practice-based research has also been strongly influenced by the folk music and texts of my home in the Lake District.
Recent publications include GIA Publications – The World – SATB edition (giamusic.com) and GIA Publications – Requiem (giamusic.com).
My research counterpoises two movements in the intellectual history of rural narratives: radical local thinking which envisages a global commons following enclosure, and that which works to preserve the liberal subject. Broad areas of interest include nineteenth-century land law and its legacies, compulsory purchase, middle-class or “remote” activism, self-erasing expressions of geo-privilege, policy and funding for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and rural aesthetics more generally.
I am particularly interested in the imaginative labour represented by ‘elsewhere’ and ‘meanwhile’ constructions, whether ecologically (‘Meanwhile particles of plastic from packets I opened when I was a child are circulating, right now’, Daisy Hildyard, Emergency) or in the placement of infrastructures (‘Let ‘em go cutting in another parish’, Mr. Solomon, Middlemarch). I will be exploring the wider context and implications of the latter in my next project, provisionally titled ‘NIMBY: The Politics of Encroachment and British Rural Realism’.
My own place of interest is Sizewell, its arts encompassing Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, P.D. James’s murder mysteries, Maggi Hambling’s artworks, and EDF media (from reconstructive drone footage to augmented maps).
In my spare time I co-convene the Literary London Reading Group and would love to hear from scholars – early or established – about their own place-based research.
A few summers ago, I was standing on a coal spoil in South Wales, overlooking the derelict structure of the Cwm Coking Works. I was there with Liam Olds, a young entomologist who specialises in the insect life of former collieries. ‘People see these places as eyesores,’ he said, ‘but they’re so much more than that. For animals, they’re a kind of shelter — a refuge from monoculture farms, conifer plantations and fragmented habitats. They’re important ecosystems in their own right. It just takes some time before you begin to see them.’
‘How do you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?’ Meno asked Socrates. It is also a question for our times. Without any of our interference, and without any of our planning, some of the landscapes we call wastelands have become difficult paradises. They are places where life is learning to thrive again, but they are difficult because they do not conform to our ideas of what healthy landscapes might look like. The miners who scooped coal from deep inside the Welsh earth brought other things to the surface, among them clay, shale, sandstone, and ironstone. The materials were piled up in the most haphazard ways, first in little hillocks, and later, as the mining continued, into landscape-defining hills. Limestone mixed with shale, sandstone was thrown up alongside clay, and the stratigraphy of the earth, which had been gradually laid down over millions of years, and which ran in large folds and faults beneath us, came to be mixed in the strangest proportions.
What followed was bizarre, wild, unpredictable. The spoil heaps formed complex topographies of their own, characterised by varying gradients and aspects, and because the spoils were composed of different materials, with different pH levels and soil structures, they provided the underlying substrate for different landscapes to emerge. During my tour of the spoils, I saw more distinctive habitats in two hours than I usually do over a day of walking. There were bilberry-filled heaths next to wildflower meadows; patches of open, free-draining ground next to bristling reed beds; woodlands next to boggy marshes; and, on the other side of the spoils, what Liam called ‘inland sand dunes’, habitats usually formed by wind, but which emerged here under less natural conditions.
The habitats were home to a bewildering diversity of plants. On some slopes we found carline thistles, which thrive in calcareous soils, and the low-lying fields were filled with undergroves of bird’s-foot-trefoil and kidney vetch. Nearby we found southern marsh orchids, a plant of damp alkaline meadows, and, half a mile away, round-leaved wintergreens, a plant that typically grows on coastal dunes. And interspersed among these plants were a variety of moss and lichen species, including greasewort, Clay Earth-moss, Olive Beard-moss, and Whorled Tufa-moss. ‘The soil here is nutrient-poor’, Liam explained, ‘which is why these plants are here. They thrive in the stressed ground conditions left behind by the spoils. In fact, the more stressed the ground is, the more flowers they seem to produce.’
With the greenery came the insects. There were dingy skippers and graylings, mottled grasshoppers and meadow grasshoppers, dozens of bee species, as well as dragonflies the size of my hand. And, amongst this heady mix, there were the parasites: specialist hoverflies that preyed on a particular kind of ant, flies that preyed on beetles and moths, and a wasp that preyed on certain miner bees. (Later in the day, as Liam pointed out a miner bee’s burrow, the wasp he was talking about appeared right on cue, a yellow flash in the air.) Some of the creatures recorded here are common to Britain, others are nationally scarce. Others still are new to science, including a millipede Liam’s friend found on the Maerdy colliery spoil, duly named the ‘Maerdy monster’. And here they all were, the rare and the abundant, sharing the strange commonlands of the spoils. Since 2015, Liam has found more than 900 invertebrate species on the coal tips, but there are many more surveys to conduct, and he suspects his list will grow substantially in the years to come.
‘too ugly to care for…’
No-one knew these spoils would be so accommodating to wild life. Inadvertently, the impoverished landscapes left behind by mining generated pockets of richness. Wildflowers that could no longer be found on intensive farmland began appearing here, followed by beetles and bees, moths and butterflies. Some of these abandoned collieries are among the most successful rewilding projects that have taken place in Britain, although they have never been seen or described as such. People find them too ugly to care for, and today hundreds of spoil tips are threatened by reclamation projects, including proposals to ‘green’ the spoils. Liam shudders at the misnomer. He wants them recognised as sites of special scientific interest.
Some of the places we have spoiled will never heal again, at least in our lifetimes. The barn swallows of Chernobyl continue to be born with strange malformations — misshapen beaks, bent tail feathers, crippled toes — while open-cast mines in Appalachia have completely terraformed the geology of the earth. But if many landscapes are in need of healing, there are also those places that have found their way back to health, although not in ways we intended or planned. They rebuke us with their strength, but also educate us with their presence, reminding us of the vitality that can sometimes emerge from damaged places. We should celebrate them, too, not in order to excuse destruction, or to uncritically celebrate nature’s ‘resilience’, but to appreciate what happens when we stand to one side. The Latin term relinquere gives us the adjective ‘derelict’, a word for forsaken and abandoned things, and it also gives us the verb ‘relinquish’, to give up or desist from. Not all derelictions are bad, and some of our plundered places can come good again. We do not necessarily have to withdraw from these places, but rather inhabit them more skilfully and on different terms. Liam has taken up a family tradition — both his grandfather and great-grandfather were coal miners — but he works the land in a very different way now, noticing rather than extracting, and standing aside rather than digging down.
Michael Malay is a Lecturer in English Literature and Environmental Humanities
at the University of Bristol
As part of a remarkable project to record lives on a single British street, documentary photographer Martin Stott has been capturing images from the age of coronavirus as it unfolds in a very local context. Here, Alexandra Harris chooses a small selection, and recommends a visit to Martin’s website where you can see the full series.
All images are © Martin Stott.
A cobbled kerb-side, with the usual detritus of twigs and wrappers and cigarette ends caught between the cracks, and, blown here or thrown here, a very 2020 kind of cast-off: latex gloves, still holding the mould of whoever wore them, still rolled at the cuff where they were peeled off. I’m tempted to say there’s something ghostly in the image, but Martin Stott tends to steer refreshingly clear of hauntings and freighted symbols. He likes bright daylight in which we can see how things are.
Martin has been photographing places and communities since the 1970s. His images of the co-operative movement, of people in Mao’s China, and of Bhopal in the wake of the 1984 disaster, are all now valued for the social and cultural histories they tell, as well as for their distinctive qualities of openness, clarity, and keen watching. Martin photographs things so ordinary you hardly noticed they were there and bothers with every nuance of detail in a humble setting. He lavishes attention on pavements and dog-eared notices; in his portraits, people often look straight at the camera – there’s no pretence: they are having their pictures taken – but they are surrounded by the intricate business of their lives.
In recent years, Martin has focused on what is to be found within a few metres of his own front door. That door opens onto Divinity Road in East Oxford, a long street of Victorian houses just off the busy and super-diverse Cowley Road. Martin has lived here for more than thirty years, and has been active in community-building initiatives throughout that time. When the lockdown came, Martin went out with his camera. Many of his subjects will seem very familiar. Chalked pavements, children’s rainbows, unreadable eyes behind a visor: these are the visual language of 2020, passing across our screens each day. But here is one particular street, part of the global story but not exactly the same as anywhere else and containing multitudes within it. In the tradition of Mass Observation, the pictures tell us something of what is shared while revealing a wealth of idiosyncrasies. Each arrangement of window posters is individual. Each household is in its own lockdown. The relations between inside and outside, private and public, are being renegotiated.
How much can we tell about the street? We can sense the Thursday night atmosphere: families emerging from behind privet hedges or peering between the parallel-parked cars to see each other. The lockdown has made some neighbours more visible and part of the community; others have disappeared. Someone has needed the paramedics’ stretcher. There’s a party spirit further down towards the Cowley Road: housemates are making the best of things with an outdoor drink, though the flat roof of the Co-op isn’t anyone’s ideal terrace. Another group stands ready with new turf and spades: they are clearly embarking on a garden together. In fact they are medical students working at the sharp end of the pandemic through long hours up at the hospital. Their new lawn will give them a place to relax during the difficult months ahead.
The images of gutters and kerbs remind me of the sculptures made by the Boyle Family when they focussed in on certain squares of ground and made faithful reproductions of them in fibreglass and mixed media to hang in a gallery. They made us look at the pavement markings and the texture of tarmac. But any similarity here points up a contrast. The Boyle Family aimed for objectivity; they went to places they didn’t know and examined them like scientists. Martin has been trying to know this street for thirty years. He’s poised between objective recorder and long-term neighbour. He’s photographing ‘his’ place, with a curiosity and attention that comes from loving it. But he knows the street is always changing and that neighbourhoods are best not taken for granted.
My journey into Romantic place began with Charles Lamb’s deliberate taunt to Wordsworth in a letter of 1801, responding both to a present of the second volume of Lyrical Ballads and an invitation to Cumberland:
“Separate from the pleasure of your company, I don’t much care if I never see a mountain in my life. – I have passed all my days in London, until I have formed as many and intense local attachments, as any of you Mountaineers can have done with dead nature.” (Letters of Charles and Mary Lamb, ed, Edwin Marrs, 3 vols (Comell, 1975-8), I, 267.
This was my first introduction to the voice of Lamb, a sly, sharp, city Romanticism. It seemed at first directly opposed to my teenage version of the Wordsworthian sublime, whirled round with rocks and stones and trees. But Lamb’s ‘intense local attachments’ are actually deeply interconnected with Wordsworth’s response to place: a living, London reading of Lyrical Ballads. I spent the next few years of post-graduate study working out Lamb’s relationship to his contemporaries – and the fractious connections between the sociability of urban Romanticism, at home in the tavern and the periodical, and the solitary inspiration of the mountain poet. The two extremes of Romantic place have inspired my work since, and feed into my first book Charles Lamb, Coleridge and Wordsworth: Reading Friendship in the 1790s (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).
I continue to draw on that work, as I edit the children’s writing of Charles and Mary Lamb, to be published as Volume 3 of the Oxford Edition of the Collected Works of Charles and Mary Lamb, under the general editorship of Gregory Dart. The Lambs’ lively writing for the Godwins’ ‘Juvenile Library’ brings the urban world of publishing for children together with their readings of eighteenth-century and Romantic writers. I currently hold a Leverhulme Fellowship to undertake this work, the first scholarly edition of their children’s writing for over one hundred years. I am co-chair of the Charles Lamb Society, which holds regular lectures on the Lambs, their circle, and Romantic London, open to all.
The Lambs prompted me to explore the creative conversations and networks of religious Dissent. What began as an interest in the Essex Street Chapel where the friendship of Charles Lamb and Coleridge was cemented, and the Monthly Magazine where their poetry was first published, expanded into a larger interest in the places, families and communities associated with rational Dissent. These stretch from the Academies like Warrington which nurtured Anna Laetitia Barbauld and William Gaskell, and the industrialist families such as the Strutts who helped the young Coleridge, to the intellectual and literary exchanges of the Midlands and Norwich. Religious Dissent and the Aikin-Barbauld Circle, 1740–1860 (cambridge.org), my co-edited essay collection, discusses some of these Unitarian networks; I’m also interested in tracing literary connections and forgotten works of these circles, as in my edition, with Tim Whelan, of the lost feminist novel Fatal Errors (1819).
I’m also always interested in joining in conversations about the place of Romantic reading and writing, such as the AHRC-funded networks Creative Communities 1750-1830, and Institutions of Literature, 1700-1900. I was part of the AHRC project Understanding Everyday Participation, working with an interdisciplinary group of researchers to explore the long history of cultural participation in particular communities, and you can read my chapter on Peterborough, past and present, in our book Histories of Cultural Participation, Values and Governance .
I look forward to continuing the conversations, national and international, urban and rural, through Arts of Place.