Affairs of the Heart

 

I first saw this ad on the tube last summer. I remember thinking at the time that science has nothing to do with love. That it can’t be predicted or defined by an algorithm. That there’s something indefinable about it – and that’s rather the point. By January this year the UK Advertising Standards Authority were saying something not dissimilar and upheld a complaint that there was insufficient evidence to support the ad in its current wording. (1) As we leave the month of Valentines I’ve been reflecting on this again.

 

While there may be something indefinable about love itself – its presence in our lives, and our attitude towards it, can define us. Our identity is often constructed in terms of our relationship to others and ‘love’ provides a short-cut to this. We are someone’s wife, girlfriend, husband, boyfriend, or the less value-laden ‘partner’. Or we are none of those things and may be defined in all or part, by love’s absence. Indeed there are times when the absence of love might influence us more than its presence ever could.

 

Love also impacts on our identity in another fundamental way. It is tribal. We are the pragmatist, the romantic, the singleton, the serial monogamist, the player etc. This is mostly not about whether or not we have a partner but the truth of what we believe love is. What we think it’s for. The extent to which we believe it is unique. How we believe it arrives, and for that matter, departs. And our hopes and fears for its consequences.

 

I have at least two contacts who met their partners (in one case husband) through online dating profiles (e-harmony would be delighted I’m sure). By all accounts these individuals have now been very happy together for a number of years, and I too am happy for them. I do however remember being distinctly unnerved when one described in not inconsiderable detail the level of specifics she had listed for her potential partner, and indicated that she had approached the ‘project’ in much the same way as she would a work assignment.

Piglet with loveI’ve somehow never felt entirely comfortable with this idea that you go online, pay your money and take your choice, specifying the age, the weight, the looks – down to a level of specifics one might deploy when ordering a new coat or buying a set of shelves – which of course can be returned if they don’t ‘fit’ (as can these potential partners). However experience has led me to conclude that for many, if not most, the ‘strategic’ approach to love appears to result in happiness. So good for them.

 

When my friend was describing her online search I privately thought ‘where’s the romance in that?’ To voice my reservations could have exposed me, as a likely member of that (in most circles) unfashionable love identity – ‘a believer’. A true believer in the holy grail of a love that is generally more elusive than an emotional job description of ‘essentials’ and ‘desirables’. Believers also tend to subscribe, in whole or part, to the (now often maligned) ‘soulmate’ theory. That enticing shibboleth that out there somewhere, there is ‘the one’. In the reflection of whose love, you are the best version of yourself.

 

The lyric is frequently the greatest descriptor of love and its influence. And when reflecting on loves tribes I’m reminded of lines from The Rose – delivered with such authenticity by Bette Midler – “and you think that love is only, for the lucky and the strong”. I have always taken slight issue with the Divine Miss M on this one. For the lucky – yes certainly (though hopefully not only). Only for the strong – not so much. Anyone who has been alone in adult life, will know that it can be loves absence that truly requires strength beyond imagining.

 

And then there are those who find their (presumably soul) mate early on, manage to actually be with them – and stay with them – all in the same lifetime. It is possible to gaze with something approaching awe at couples who have married their first and (it turns out potentially) only love. What must it be like to believe in ‘happy ever after’ – and actually have it come true? Forever. Surely this confers a level of emotional privilege and security that could make one almost invincible in the face of life’s external challenges?

 

Of course experience has also taught me that not all of these ‘arrangements’ are as they appear. Behind their outward solidarity, some conceal at least one individual who is unhappy or whose heart is elsewhere, however physically present they may appear to be. And it is ironic that is often members of this elite club who are the greatest advocates of ‘moving on’ – and the wonderfully Californian – ‘achieving closure’ – when relationships struggle or end. Presumably because they have never had to experience either concept themselves… (Part of another sub-tribe creeping in here – the ‘experienced cynic’).

 

But ultimately, whether we are believers or strategists, or, to quote the late great Amy Winehouse, believe – “love is a losing game”. It remains an alchemy of everything that makes us human. And in honour of this I leave the last words to John Lennon:
“Love is the answer, and you know that for sure”

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Notes

  1. https://www.asa.org.uk/rulings/eharmony-uk-ltd-a17-392456.html

At the going down of the sun…

 

As we leave November behind for another year I find myself reflecting on contemporary remembrance and its relationship both with art and our identity.

In my childhood, ‘poppy day’ was a fleeting affair. You asked for some extra pocket money to buy a poppy (plastic and paper with ‘Haig Fund’ stamped in the middle), in the week before remembrance Sunday, and you might have participated in a remembrance parade on the day itself. There might have been a lesson at school about ‘what the poppy was for’. That was pretty much it. At a time when many veterans of both world wars were living, and long before the casual vigilance and random terror of the post 9/11 world.

Now annually, in early November poppies are everywhere, beyond lapels, on cars, vans, bags, scarves. This year for the first time I saw a ‘poppy-decorated’ house, in a not dissimilar way as one might decorate it for Christmas. These participative acts of poppy-wearing, have also in recent years been accompanied by the articulation of remembrance as art, in part brought to centre stage by the Centenary of World War One and the work of its artistic arm 14-18 Now.

‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ – between 17th July and 14th November 2014 saw the moat of the Tower of London gradually (and this was significant) occupied by a spreading carpet of 888,246 ceramic poppies (each of which represented a British military fatality). Over the months, as the installation grew, so did public interaction with, and support for it. I visited on three occasions – the first two of which were in the early weeks, and the last was in its last days. The difference was overwhelming. My early visits were timed to coincide with the inclusion of my Great Uncle in the Roll of Honour read from the moat at dusk each evening, preceded by the sounding of the Last Post. In these early weeks there were perhaps 100 people present each evening. From the many conversations I had there, it was apparent that most of those attending had a direct connection with one of the fatalities. Many had brought mementos and family stories, and a willingness to share on a deeply personal level. It was for them, as for me, a way of reaching down the generations to our (overwhelmingly) young ancestors who gave their lives in the face of horror beyond understanding, to tell them that it wasn’t in vain. We acknowledge your sacrifice. We remember.

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Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red © A-Sense-Of-Place

By its later weeks ‘Blood Swept Lands…’ had quite literally assumed a life of its own. The moat was full, as were all the vantage points, access to which from any direction was at shuffle-pace only. It was daily news, the subject of discussion in parliament, and firmly on the ‘tourist trail’. What began as an act of remembrance, had become an attraction to be witnessed, uploaded and shared.

In 2016 Canary Wharf became the first place in the UK to host a Remembrance Art Trail. Fitting given the Wharf’s location as a permanent home to one of the UK’s largest collections of public art. The Trail ran for two weeks with seven installations curated by Mark Humphrey in collaboration with the Royal British Legion and service personnel. The installations were radically different representations of remembrance. In particular the largest – ‘Boots on the Ground’ aimed to capture the spirit of the armed forces. Away from a main tourist site, the trail engaged a new audience and moved remembrance art and its curation as a destination, to a new level.

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Boots on the Ground © A-Sense-Of-Place

Also in 2016 the centenary of the Battle of the Somme was commemorated by ‘We are Here Because We Are Here’. From 7am onwards on 1st July, 1,400 young men wearing WW1 battle dress appeared in (often contemporary) locations across the UK. They did not speak but occasionally sang a song from the trenches – ‘we are here because we are here’. If engaged by members of the public they handed out a printed card with the details of the fallen soldier they were representing. Reportedly, in Manchester, within half an hour of the process commencing, a ‘soldier’ had amazingly handed a card to a descendent of the individual named on that card. The power of this seemingly random connection across a century, is spine chilling.

‘We are Here…’ was particularly unusual, both as art and remembrance, in several respects. Firstly, it was not revealed until the evening of the day itself that the entire project had been the work of the artist Jeremy Deller and Director of the National Theatre, Rufus Norris. Similarly, its substantial three-year preparation was entirely secret. There was no element of advance marketing or publicity, as Norris has stated – there was ‘no sell’. This is almost unprecedented in art terms within which the building of an audience prior to the event or launch is key. There is also the sheer level of public awareness and engagement achieved within a single day. Statistics from 14-18 Now indicate that by the evening of July 1st 63% of the British public (approximately 30 million people) had some awareness of the work. Not withstanding the fact that the organisers had harnessed the help of key influencers, and that the work was a gift to social media, this is impressive. Finally there is the interaction with, and reaction of, the public. The volunteers participating in ‘We Are Here…’had been trained to expect and respond to potential aggression. What they were unprepared for was a level of public emotion that meant that many on encountering the ‘soldiers’ broke down and sobbed. Both shortly after the work took place, and more recently, Deller has publicly linked this out-pouring of emotion to political uncertainty at the time post the EU referendum. For me this is to significantly underestimate the power of our national connection with remembrance in general, and the iconography of World War One in particular.

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© and acknowledgement 14-18 Now

My connection with remembrance has always been strong. Many if not most of my peers had parents who were born during, or immediately after, the Second World War. Mine were older. My father served in the navy during the war (though not technically old enough to do so) and my mother has vivid memories of the London Blitz. At least one Uncle also served, and my maternal Grandfather too young to fight in the first world war, found himself (to his great distress) too ill in the second, to be accepted front line duty, and served in the London Home Guard. In addition to the Great Uncle mentioned above, another (a lifelong pacifist), was a second world war conscientious objector, and served in other ways. I imagine we are not that unusual in this collective heritage.

These experiences, my father’s in particular, were frequently talked about, sometimes with an immediacy that belied their distance. It was commonplace to hear reference to an older relative having ‘been in the forces’. In spite of having been born decades later, I grew up in the long shadow of the world wars alive in my family, and the more immediate influence of the Cold War, with its terrifying and ever present nuclear threat. As a child, and particularly as a teenager, (that time of all in life when we are desperate to ‘fit in’), I resented this ‘difference’ from many of my peers deeply. It is only in recent years, with the benefit of hindsight (how wonderful that is), that I realise how lucky I was, to grow in the shadow of the generations that gave all.

The activities we associate with ‘remembrance’ are now mostly ‘commemoration’. We can no longer turn to direct memories of those who gave their tomorrows. With the passing of Harry Patch in 2009, the last surviving combat soldier in the trenches, of any country, died. And there are now very few living who were alive during World War One. In the decades to come we will inevitably lose that same connection with the witnesses of World War Two. Yet the further we are from the experience of ‘world wars’, the more central ‘remembrance’, has apparently become to national life and identity.

The decades of ‘peace’ have in part been anything but. Post 9/11, war is everywhere. It runs into the Manchester Arena with a bomb, through the streets of Borough Market with a knife, and in the hearts of those who believe hate is the answer. As a nation we may now be more consciously familiar with random loss, and mourning. It is also not surprising that we now ‘remember’ with contemporary relevance. ‘Blood Swept Lands…’ and ‘We are here…’, were literally made for the social media age. We articulate through the visual. If we haven’t seen it and shared it – and therefore participated in it (even if only by re-tweeting) – did it really happen?

In 2016 there were suggestions that the art of 14-18 Now, and in particular ‘We are Here..’ had the potential to grow popular support for increased public funding for the arts, at a time when this is clearly threatened. In 2017 there has been an emerging debate that perhaps there is now too much ‘remembrance’ and that the ‘message of the poppy’ has been lost. Are we now living in an age of art in the service of remembrance? Or remembrance in the service of art?. Or both? And does it matter?

I’m not sure it does. Every generation will remember and memorialise in its own image, for that is the path to relevance and engagement. However, connection to a world characterised by individual effort and sacrifice for the common good, still has much to teach us, not least about our humanity. That art can articulate and inform this connection, is only testament, both to its power to connect and transform, and its importance in our personal and national lives.

All text © A-Sense-of-Place
All images, unless otherwise stated, © A-Sense-of-Place.


Links

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red
https://www.hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london/history-and-stories/tower-of-london-remembers/#gs.84EgZ=Q

14-18 Now
https://www.1418now.org.uk/

Canary Wharf Remembrance Art Trail
http://group.canarywharf.com/media/press-releases/remembrance-art-trail-in-association-with-the-royal-british-legion-to-open-at-canary-wharf-in-november-251016/

There is Art. There is Hope. – There is Art. There is Hope.

 

October Plenty

Autumn Glow - Epping Forest

© a-sense-of-place

I never want Summer to leave us. For me Autumn is the falling away of the year. A signal that the end, with its dark days, reflection and reassessment, is on the horizon.

But Summer is rarely quick to go. It ebbs away imperceptibly, as Autumn, the advance ambassador for winter, arrives by stealth. Creeping in with every falling golden leaf. The inevitability of autumn is the surety that try as we might, we can’t hold onto the light-hearted longer days forever. Come what may the days will shorten and darken and the temperature will drop. The leaves will fall, and we will turn towards the end of the year, again. For all our technical supremacy and urban retreat from the constraints of seasonal dependence, nature will triumph.

The UK is both by reality and perception an increasingly urbanised country. In the first decade of the 21st century UK population growth outstripped previous decades and in spite of a substantive ‘counter urbanisation’ trend, the greatest percentage growth is in the cities1. Yet our national drift towards urban living is not either without question, or attempts to retain a direct connection with the land and its ways, and rightly so. At no time of the year is this more apparent than October – a time of celebration, festival, and ritual. This month includes; Apple Day, All Hallows Eve, October Plenty, the Winter Droving, and in some years – Harvest Festival. It is, in all senses, a time of ‘plenty’.

These celebrations offer us the promise of a connection to the rhythms and traditions of a life dependent upon the land and its seasons. A direct line to Albion. In the case of Harvest Festival and All Hallows Eve this is chronologically true. However Apple Day, October Plenty and the Winter Droving are recent developments. Apple Day was invented less than 20 years ago in Central London. October Plenty was developed in recent years by Lions Part as a celebration to encompass a number of older English harvest-time traditions, and to link in with the Apple Day at Borough Market in Southwark. The Winter Droving developed by Eden Arts is now in its sixth year and draws thousands of people annually from all over the north of England, and beyond, celebrating the centuries old tradition of droving that had largely disappeared by the advent of railways.

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© a-sense-of-place

Often associated with an increasingly present American commercialism, modern Halloween is based on All Hallows Eve – a celebration which begins the three day All Hallow Tide. The time of the year dedicated to remembering the dead. Many All Hallows Eve activities have their roots in the Celtic traditions, in particular Samhain which marks the end of harvest and the beginning of the dark part of the year. Even pumpkin carving which began in America is believed to have its origins in 19th century Ireland. This is also seen as a time when the boundaries between this world and the next are particularly fluid and spirits could be more active. Contemporary All Hallows Eve (rather than ‘Halloween’) celebrations tend to be a conscious attempt (usually by churches) to reclaim the reflective and thankful aspects of this time. The celebration I have attended during the last few years, deep in the heart of a forest, often includes; a lantern procession, lit carved pumpkins (Jack-O-Lanterns), apple bobbing, and an outdoor barbeque (yes, in late October!).

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© a-sense-of-place

I have also recently been invited to an ‘All Souls Service’ in early November which includes the name of one of my relatives in the list of those deceased souls who are to be remembered at this time. From their origins in the US over 30 years ago to their popularity in the UK in the last five years – the Light Up a Life ceremonies led by the hospice movement, are another way we remember those we have lost as we enter the dark, and reflective time of year. A contemporary All Souls Service (with added fundraising).

Harvest festival to give thanks for the gathering of food has its roots in paganism, though the traditions of collecting and decorating churches with food date from the 19th century. Like generations of schoolchildren I remember taking a tin to school for the harvest festival collection. Even as long ago as the 1970s the fruit of the land was most conveniently manifested as ‘canned goods’. I’m not even sure I knew where all those tins went, though now across the country local food banks are the recipients. In spite of its pagan associations, and our growing urbanism, ‘Harvest’ is still celebrated in most schools and churches. Sometimes the traditions are interwoven with celebrations of other cultural heritages, such as the annual ‘Pearly Kings and Queens Harvest Festival’ service held at St Martin in the Fields2.

Apples - Lionspart

the Lions Part – October Plenty

The Apple Day movement is a national heritage success story. In the first 10 years alone the number of events grew to 600, and a quarter of a century on from the start, there are few communities – rural, suburban or urban, without one. A key aspect of these events is to encourage the growth of heritage varieties (which can date back as far as the eighteenth century), in or close to, their place of origin. Other apple related activities include variety identification and sales, and juice/cider pressing, as well as music, food and drink and community activities. Numbers can be significant – a recent Apple Day at Copped Hall in Essex was so busy that the gates to the grounds had to be temporarily closed at lunchtime. Lions Part produces an annual October Plenty festival at Bankside in London which in addition to its ties with Borough Market’s Apple Day, also includes music, procession and a play. Like their better known Twelfth Night celebrations, this attracts tourists, Londoners and locals alike3.

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©’The Winter Droving, Eden Arts’ Images from 2016 – Graham Wynne

Once of the best examples of both a contemporary take on tradition – and current impact – is the Winter Droving. An annual celebration of the tradition of herding animals over long distances to market, developed by Eden Arts, The Winter Droving takes place in Penrith, on a single day with a market, street performers, bands and rural games culminating in a masked torch-lit procession4. Now in its sixth year an economic impact report in 2016 estimated that the 2015 Droving created almost an additional £1 million for the local economy5.

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© ‘The Winter Droving, Eden Arts’ Images from 2016 – Graham Wynne

From the mid 20th century onwards England (not so much Scotland of Wales as it turns out), has to an extent been a country in search of an identity. Our contemporary connections with seasonal ritual can be seen as a manifestation of the search for both identity, and the holy grail of contemporary life – authenticity. But they are also positive attempts to ensure that a rich, and largely English, heritage is not completely diluted and ‘urbanised’ away forever. Indeed Common Ground who created Apple Day in 1990, are clear that “The aspiration was to create a calendar custom, an autumn holiday. From the start, Apple Day was intended to be both a celebration and a demonstration of the variety we are in danger of losing, not simply in apples, but in the richness and diversity of landscape, ecology and culture too”.

Our current embrace of autumn celebrations, whether old or new, is a (largely unacknowledged) dialogue within an on-going, and necessary, national ‘conversation’ about identity. That these events also have an economic dimension, whether fundraising for a local church or hospice, or raising the profile of, and consumer spending in, a region – only serves to underpin the view that they can have a contemporary – and practical – relevance. Above all it is difficult to embrace and articulate a current and future identity, without an understanding and appreciation, of the rich cultural heritage on which that identity stands.

Like the Summer that leaves us so quietly and without fanfare, our intangible cultural heritage can, if we let it, all too easily ebb away, until suddenly, one day the landscape is very dark indeed.


All text © A-Sense-of-Place

All images, unless otherwise stated, © A-Sense-of-Place.  Images from the Winter Droving are included with the kind permission of Eden Arts.

Footnotes

1. ‘People in Cities: the numbers’ produced by Government Office for Science/Foresight
https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/321814/14-802-people-in-cities-numbers.pdf
2. St Martin in the Fields Pearly Kings and Queens Harvest Festival
http://www.stmartin-in-the-fields.org/event/pearly-kings-and-queens-harvest-festival-5/
3. The Lions Part Company and October Plenty
http://www.thelionspart.co.uk/octoberplenty/
4. The Winter Droving http://www.winterdroving.uk/
5. Economic Impact of the Winter Droving
http://investineden.co.uk/news-events/news/growing-economic-impact-of-penrith-winter-droving-event

Links

Common Ground – Apple Day
https://www.commonground.org.uk/apple-day/

Eden Arts
http://www.edenarts.co.uk/

The Copped Hall Trust
http://coppedhalltrust.org.uk/

 

There is Art. There is Hope.

There is still art there is still hope

If asked to describe myself it is inconceivable that my relationship with the arts would not figure somewhere in that description. Without this my world would be one dimensional and monochrome. And I would be someone else. (1)
As with other aspects of identity, early experiences have cast a long shadow. I was taken on my first trip to London’s West End theatre at the age of eight. The production was ‘Billy’ at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, starring Michael Crawford. Based on the novel Billy Liar, this wasn’t a particularly typical outing for a child. I don’t remember anything about the production. What I remembered, was the sense of occasion. We dressed up. I was walking up wide red carpeted stairs to our seats. Being small I was closer to the carpet than others, and noticed this. Instructions were given (as they routinely were to children back then) to be obeyed once the curtain went up. I thought this was a novel idea – the curtain didn’t go ‘up’ at home!. I must sit very still. Be very quiet. And watch. To this day, this is what I do at the theatre. The sense that this is an occasion, to be fully engaged with, has never left me.
For some people its sport, which generally (with the notable exception of the London Olympics and the odd Wimbledon) passes me by. I have friends for whom their support for Manchester United or West ham is as much a part of their identity, as visual art or theatre is a part of mine. I have often envied the tribal benefits of sport, and I suspect there is a collective sense of belonging and camaraderie in being a Manchester United or West Ham supporter, that is distinctly absent from being a fan of Chekhov or the Tate Modern (no disrespect to Anton or the Tate).

 

Almost 10 years ago I saw an outstanding production of The Three Sisters at the Manchester Royal Exchange, a central theme of which is the yearning for a life elsewhere, to the detriment of the present. In the case of The Sisters, an overwhelming yearning for a return to ‘life in Moscow’, seemingly unaware until relatively late in the proceedings that they are sacrificing present happiness for a ‘return’ to an imagined future. The sisters are exiled, not only from Moscow, but in their yearning for a future always beyond reach, from the potential of their present. At the time, I was living in one city, in a state of almost perpetual ‘waiting’, to return to another. I had made the decision to return and was working towards that reality, but daily life was coloured by the sense that ‘Manchester was not forever’ and somewhere else was ‘real’. I had a life everywhere, and nowhere, in a present I could never fully inhabit. When towards the end of the play, it becomes clear that the sisters will never return to Moscow, and the only reality (and therefore happiness) is the present – the resonance with my own life hit me with a shock that was both physical and lasting.

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© Production photo and Programme – Manchester Royal Exchange

I am a Chekhov fan and I have seen other productions of The Three Sisters, yet I don’t remember them. The 2008 production stays with me because it was at the Royal Exchange. My favourite building in Manchester, a central part of my life in that city, and a place of pilgrimage when I return. And because the theme of the play reflected my personal experience at the time. In the remaining two years in Manchester, I lived differently and deliberately in a way that did engage with the present -and life was better for it.
Was I changed by that theatre performance? Imperceptibly so to the external eye. But yes, I was changed. The Arts are at their most powerful when we see both the wonder and bleakness of life, our choices, and ourselves, reflected. They speak to us of our own experience, and because of that we feel less alone. For those of us for whom the arts are an integral part of life, there is mystery and alchemy at the heart of this.

 

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© An allegory of the Vanities of Human Life – Harmen Steenwyck, National Gallery

 

I have been visiting the National Gallery in London for over 35 years. Both for exhibitions and also spontaneously for some space and to breathe and reflect. Like the natural world visual art can be a great facilitator of reflection. Sometimes these reflective visits are to see pictures I’ve been seeking answers in the heart of, for decades. And like artistic critical friends they literally hang (in) there through each phase of life. Others are a reminder of specific times and individuals.
One of these is Steenwyck’s ‘An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life’, a central message of which is the transitory nature of life. A postcard of this was on my wall as a student, back when I thought it at least mildly inconceivable that I would be around long enough to encounter a conventional middle age. Passing by the image now, decades later and heading into a different stage of life, I find it more than a little ironic. It still speaks to me, just differently. In contrast Gallen-Kellela’s ‘Lake Keitele’ will always remind me of a visit to the gallery with my half-sister during which we both admired the painting. We don’t see each other often, and as a reminder of a rare meeting, Lake Keitele is now, for me at least, a thread in the fabric of our story.

 

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© Lake Keitele – Akseli Gallen-Kallela – National Gallery

 

Making no value judgement about either, I have often said that personally I like my art ‘traditional’ and that I am not ‘into’ modern art (whatever it is). Yet there are three contemporary conceptual artists whose work engages me – Jeremy Deller, Tracey Emin and Grayson Perry. Both Emin and Perry are best known for their self-confessional work and the curation of their own lives as art, while much of Deller’s is invariably participatory. I was present for Deller’s inspiring ‘Procession’ in Manchester in 2009 –and his return this year for the opening of the Manchester International Festival with ‘What is the City but the People’ was literally a mancunian self-portrait. The work of all three is fundamentally about identity and connection. Sometimes the connection is more alive than others. Deller’s 2016 work (in collaboration with Rufus Norris) ‘We are here because we are here’ commemorating the centenary of the Somme, took both participation and identity to new levels. An army of authentically dressed trained volunteers appeared in locations throughout the UK. They did not speak. They occasionally sang – and distributed cards with the name of the soldier lost in that battle, that they were representing. My Great Uncle died in World War One, and one of these ‘performances’ took place in my home town. Identity and Connection.

 

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© becausewearehere.co.uk

Music is another influence. I am a lifelong jazz fan, though nothing too ‘experimental’ (that’s jazz for you – tribes within a tribe). Jazz has been part of my life and identity both as a result of inheritance – when I was young it was what was on the record deck (remember those?) – and because like other activities it has been a backdrop to many of life’s key events. It has also delivered the miracle of hope in some dark days. There have been times of sheer elation, but also at least two days in my life when a close bereavement has occurred and I have been in a jazz club that evening, or the day after. For some it would be church but for me at such times there’s a compelling need to live, and live defiantly in the face of what has been taken. Jazz has delivered that, and much else.
When we hear a lyric that echoes our experience we know we are not alone. Others have loved, hoped, lost, and grieved, as we have. Though our hearts are often understandably arrogant enough to believe (as they should), that no-one has really known love as we have. Sometimes it will be a phrase, or the delivery of a song will that be exceptional, or poignant enough to reach us. Or the biography of the singer may bring additional meaning. In June this year I was lucky enough to be at the Royal Albert Hall for one of Tony Bennett’s concerts. At 90 Tony Bennett is undeniably a survivor and can still deliver a lyric like no-one else. In a venue that holds 5,000+ there was palpable love in the room for the last of the true greats of the jazz and swing era. But at a pivotal point in my life, after several years of doubting the future – singing only to me (of course) he made me believe ‘the best is yet to come’.

 

P1210642      © a-sense-of-place

 

The Arts are part of our identity because we are changed. Sometimes this is because of a shared experience, but often it is a personal collaboration with the art itself. Even in a packed theatre amidst collective applause, our reaction is authentically our own, influenced by our personal heritage, and filtered through our reality.
There is Still Art. There is Still Hope.


Notes
1. ‘The Arts’ encompasses a huge range of activities and the boundaries of that range are not without debate and controversy. For the purposes of this post I am taking examples (specific and personal) from theatre, visual art, music and conceptual art.
2. Images from the National Gallery are courtesy of the Creative Commons
https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/

3. Copyright for ‘There is Still Art. There is Still Hope’ – Bob and Roberta Smith

4.  All text © A-Sense-of-Place

 

A Handful of Leaves

Epping Forest

The places that shape our identity are often those in which we have spent time at significant points in our lives. Places that have been the location for memorable times good or bad, those that speak to us on some level of fundamental truths, or where we almost indefinably feel ‘at home’. For me Epping Forest (1)  which has been a presence throughout my life, is all of these. Like the waves of a sea it has receded at times, sometimes for years, and at others has arrived crashing into my consciousness with a welcome familiarity.

The Forest and I have always been close. I was hooked from the start on my first visit. It was like nowhere else I had been – and instinctively I reached out and grasped a small handful of leaves from the Forest floor. I was twelve weeks old. Half a century later we still have that handful of leaves carefully preserved in an old cigar tin, recorded with my age at the time. That this souvenir of an early outing was recorded and kept at all, is indicative of the role Epping Forest played in my childhood, and family life beyond. I was lucky. My father had moved to the area with his then young family immediately after World War II from a bombed out east end of London. His appreciation of the Forest, and gratitude at living somewhere where daily proximity to this sanctuary, was possible, was both palpable and lifelong. It was a wonderful inheritance.

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We weren’t walkers. Walking through the Forest any great distance beyond a short wander, wasn’t something we generally did. We did however visit regularly, especially in the summer. Visits were made by car for short walks and exploring, and above all just ‘being’ in the Forest. An activity that viewed from the 21st century can seem almost indulgent in its apparent lack of purpose or achievement. But that was, and still is, for me a key part of my relationship with this ancient and precious place. It allows you to be. Stand quietly, breathe and dream. The Forest is a really good listener.

Our other main Forest activity as a family was what we called ‘logging’ – collecting wood for our open fire. A ritual that already seemed strangely old-fashioned and out-of-step by the modern 1970s, not least on the outskirts of London. We were the only family I knew that didn’t have central heating and this regular reliance on the land for a necessity was far from the norm. But it was also unusual in another respect – Epping Forest is one of the few places in the UK from which byelaws permit the collection of fallen wood from ‘common land’. To this day a Conservators Byelaw (4) permits the taking of up to 12kg of ‘loose, dead or driftwood’, (but nothing else) from the forest floor, (2) though this is rarely enacted.

Years later, before I left for university on the south coast, and a life by the sea (another passion), our last action as a family was a Saturday afternoon trip to the Forest. It was a golden autumn day, with low sun and a musky smell of the slumber to come. I left. Winter closed in. Four months later my father was dead. He had wanted to be buried in the churchyard deep in the heart of the forest. This proved impossible and a cemetery in a nearby village was chosen. But on a January day, when the ice froze your bones in an embrace of death – the funeral cortege drove through the Forest. There was one last visit after all.

In the years that followed the Forest receded from my daily life. Its main supporter in our family had gone and (at the time) no-one else thought it important. I lived other lives in other cities, and for a time, another country. There were a few years here and there when I was able to spend more time in the Forest learning about its history and ecology, and walking with friends, but for the most part, it was less present.

But during recent years the Forest has resumed its place in my life. I returned to live nearby and seamlessly the land drew me back into its green embrace. I walk more than I used to. Through the seasons, if I can – a fundamental connection to the passing of time, and its inevitability. There has been exhilaration and sorrow, desperation and peace. Memories of; walks with friends, the Forest as inspiration for art, the undiminished thrill of seeing wild deer fleetingly through the trees, a picnic with a lover on a sunny afternoon, walking through trees in the muffled silence of a heavy snowfall, Summer Sunday tea and cake in a Forest churchyard, and above all embracing the hope of another spring after an endless winter. The memories of these years, and those more distant, are the emotional photographs of identity.

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Almost half a century after collecting my first handful of leaves, I walked through the forest, to the Lost Pond on my birthday. I had a hard time ‘hitting fifty’. But close to one of my favourite trees I was struck by the absurdity. Worrying over a half century when this veteran had stood rooted in our land for 800 years through wars, plague, revolution (industrial and otherwise), outlaws and wanderers all. The Forest encourages perspective like nowhere else.

There is a place on the edge, high on a hill where you can stand with the Forest behind you towards a clear view of London in the distance… The threats faced by the Forest however are far from distant. While its preservation is underpinned by an Act of Parliament, its internationally significant history, wildlife and ecology, face considerable threat from nearby potential over-development and population growth. We destroy in the name of progress at our peril and I find myself fiercely protective of this place. Epping Forest has over centuries been a place of entertainment and sport, protest and refuge, of inspiration for artists and poets. For all its gifts the Forest needs our eternal vigilance and protection.

I walk through the Forest in the footsteps of my own past and a collective heritage of centuries. My roots are buried deep in this land, and I walk with gratitude.

© A Sense of Place 2017

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Notes:

This post is a fragment from larger writing on aspects of Epping Forest also entitled ‘A Handful of Leaves’.

Footnotes:

1. Epping Forest is a former royal forest of 6,000 acres between north east London and Essex. It is an area of ancient woodland believed to be at least 3,000 years old and is home to more than 80% of the UK’s ancient beech trees.

2. A list of the Forest byelaws including Conservators Byelaws can be found here:
https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/things-to-do/green-spaces/epping-forest/visitor-information/Pages/byelaws.aspx