Richard White

explorations in place and time

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Doing time in Somerset and Portland

Portland B-Side Festival for the last weekend of Katrina Palmer’s piece  The Loss Adjusters. Not quite a locative media piece but certainly more than an audio trail.

The Loss Adjusters: Katrina Palmer

We begin entering a shopfront office in Easton Portland, up on the top of the island the town has barely changed in the decades I have been visiting, a chunk of isolated Yorkshire that somehow drifted south. Looks hard and grim even in the summer sun. Poor. Strange half open shops with sun bleached goods half heartedly displayed. A town that sat above the high tide of the wash of Olympic cash, the tide now receded, life continues. Heavy flat bed trucks trundle through with huge chunks of stone strapped to their decks. Holes in the ground get bigger, a cricket pitch, a church, standing alone as the ragged quarried cliff edge approaches under the brambles, the process of extraction continues. Not at any great speed, but it is inexorable.  The extracted rock has been used to build the cities and temples of the old empire and the strong houses of the new from St Paul’s Cathedral to the United Nations HQ in New York. The Cenotaph is made of Portland stone as are all the official British and Commonwealth war graves. There is a part of a foreign land that will always be Portland. Something of this Jurassic island becomes imbued with the dreams, stories, sorrows and memories of all those people in distant cities but at the same time something of this island is shipped out …. and its not just hard white stone. So what is left?
That broadly was I think the context of Palmer’s work, The Loss Adjusters, were the ones trying to work out what had been lost and how to compensate for it perhaps. Something more than the physical fabric of the island, something more had been undermined, ‘destabilised’  well spoken queens english they whispered in our ears. Strange to walk into that abandoned office shop front on the high street, the Loss Adjusters had left and so had the author, still trying to complete her story. We wandered the office willing the photocopiers and faxes to burst into life and the phones to ring, but the story we were being told was working on another dimension.
strimmers and grave diggers
Out on the island and weaving through old quarry workings, the boundary and fence of the cricket ground a green island on the island not yet eroded. Crossing a busy road we walked to the quarry’s edge and listened again. Looking across the graveyard of packed and finely hewn memorial stones towards the old church and prison beyond, we picked up a story. A convict, a body, a burial, an unaccounted-for corpse hidden. Something that came out of the quarry that should have stayed in those depths. We looked for the convict grave digger pushing his wheel barrow and heard the man strimming the long grass in the graveyard. Daily maintenance of the stability, echoes of another place.
wheelbarrow walk
Walking the narrow vertiginous track between quarry edge and cemetery wall almost giving way to your panic, feelings in legs and ears, palm sweating. Dont stop now. Keep walking. Dont look down into the open raw wounded belly of the island.  Thoughts of the gravedigger shifting that unaccounted for mass on his wheel barrow every night like Sisyphus.
At the church we bypassed the Wren myth and strimmer, sat again and listened. The quarry mens daughter described their bond to the island. Looking at the fine cut teeth of the memorials each with their back to the prevailing winds a story of patriarchy and rape unfolded. The island as woman, destabilised, the Loss Adjusters more than just complicit in riveting her to the stone. Powerfully echoed by the old recordings of the stone cutters, their work song and rhythm inexorable until the stone cracks. In the breeze a discrete public announcement cable tied to a lamppost that the burial ground is identified for ‘mineral extraction’ flapped. A dark bird on a gravestone.
listening to the quarrymans daughter
We walked back along the far edge of the quarry past huge cut white stone, some of it like frozen shrimps revealing the shells and forms of the creatures that had died and sunk to the bottom of that warm shallow sea so many millions of years ago. Their crushed lives became the stone, a passing echo of the crushed lives on the island told this piece. If the Loss Adjusters are complicit, with the substance removed and the office closed and ghostly who can tell this tale. Well spoken outsiders are not bound to the stone in the same way as the convict gravedigger or the quarrymen’s daughters. At the pub on Easton High Street a group of women dressed in carnival dragon outfits, raucous.
And for the second quarry visits in a week….

Step in Stone: Artscape in Mendip Quarries

Deep time in Somerset. Walking with Step in Stone in the Somerset Quarries. Out of these vast holes in the ground came stone to be broken and graded for roads and runways. Motorways, military runways and the foundations of nuclear stations. Once the mythical Swampy tried to stop an access road being built to take the stone out. Damming the source. Condemning the locals to the endless roar of trucks. The road got built. Stone millions of years old. Compressed life.
We gathered at the Somerset Earth Science Centre for a minibus ride into a maze of lanes and gulleys that would eventually lead us to Westdown/Asham Quarry. To follow a trail of art works down into the quarry on the way lead artist Fiona Campbell offered orientation on the art works and botanist from Somerset Wildlife Trust and quarry expert from the centre offered orientations on pretty much everything else.
 Somerset pyramids2
Given the scale of the stage, the story of the stone and what has become of it the art work we saw on this trail was largely overpowered by the context. Fiona’s work referenced the creatures that had lived in the seas and had eventually formed part of the stone all those millions of years ago. The work was made from scrap but not materials found on the site. There was something about brought in materials by humans and non humans that needed to be further explored. The huge ‘toast rack’ like ancient pyramids where once gravel was graded and the unofficial art in the form of graffiti offered other challenging readings to the artwork and to the location.
 sea creatures scrap
As ever found myself thinking about the people who worked there and that enormous absence left by their presence. In the distance we heard the rumble of trucks and  imagined the sound and power of the blasts that broke the rock loose from the ground. Beside the track a fast running stream and slowly life reclaiming the surface…grasses and mosses, flowers, shrubs and small trees. A once blasted open area colonised by silver birch and I thought again of that place in the birchwoods of eastern europe.
 lime colour stage
A stage surrounded by birch and hazel decorated with the ancient colour of the quarries red, black and white…a human geometric design but the colours from the same palette as prehistoric cave paintings.
At last my doubts were silenced as we walked towards a circle of chairs in plastic, they looked white like a Ku Klux Klan gathering, then I saw the water and the grass, life reclaiming this from the inside. Sally Kidall’s piece ‘Lest we forget: is enough enough?’  was a powerful statement in the space working at each scale and wandering through it I thought of the Somerset quarry men and their Portland counterparts. What had been removed and where it had gone. Perhaps there is something of the Mendips in the roads we drive on, it all seems such a huge and terrible waste of life. For some the return of wild life as flora and fauna was seen as a sign of hope, amused that garden shrubs were colonising the surfaces alongside the birch, hazel and elder out of the valley. In an instant of geological time the sediment of hundreds of millions of years had been removed and used, the cycle continues but however dense and green the thickets that form here slow time has been interrupted. Deep time exposed. Something very violent had happened in this place, committed by men, with the story of the Portland quarryman’s daughter in my head, I was in mourning.
 chairs ghosts
chairs people quarry
Not sure if the artwork here entirely lives up to the enormity of this place, the project continues, this visit only scratched the surface, but it moved me deeply.

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Severn Bridge Blue Moon July Sunset …. Englands Glory

As a child, I remember waking in the dark from a long backseat journey to the sound of tyres on wood. At least I know now what that sound was. A rhythmic reassuring thuddening, awakening in the thought that an adventure was about to happen and soon we would be home. Those two thoughts still so strong in me.

The Aust Ferry.

aust ferry track bridge

An adventure in the dark, once, cold wind blowing in the door, men’s voices in the night time, the black waters of the river swirling about us as big engines roared and we drifted out and hard from the lights. A vague anxiousness that I couldn’t get out of the car. A desire to get out and see and feel the wind, yet the pleasure and safety of my floating cocoon. Another time in memory daylight and the great H’s of the bridge had been erected  and a section of roadway advancing like a huge plank from one side. It was raining and the water splashed over the side of the ferry. When I later heard about the Jumblies I imagined the sieve as something like the vessel that got us across the river and home before the bridge was built,  before the motorway got there. That saved us the long journey past gloomy Gloucester warehouses and the match factory gates. England’s Glory was there. For me it was the interminable back seat journey, the consequences of a storm or missed tides.

Years later we went back to the spot made famous by Bob Dylan but already flash memoried for me, the sound of tyres on wood, men’s voices, still resonating in my childhood ears.

bobdylan was here

The Severn Bridge

A twilight adventure last week to walk the bridge at sunset and to see the full moon, a blue moon, rising. Maybe in search of England’s Glory. To walk easily and without challenge from one nation to another as the government rhetoric gets nastier and the refugees more desperate in the camps at Calais. The stunning and beautiful structure I had seen built, still majestic at a distance but creaking and clanking close up. Maybe it always made such noises, after all I had never walked over it. The viewing pavilion, an elegant motorway services, from which we had viewed the bridge and once picnicked at years ago, sold off and closed to the public. The remaining public space without a view of bridge or river, colonised by fast food tax dodgers. A Radio 3 Proms Shostakovich symphony prepared me for an admiration of the engineering, but I was told stories of decay, heaters in the cables to dry out the rain that gets in, a bridge barely bearing its modern load.  Huge juggernauts trundle across, indifferent to the flex and grate of metal that follows them. Memories literally littered the verges.

rail and river

We walked into the sunset gathering the flung found notes, litter discarded or treasures lost and blown away or already typed up safe, memories of a drink damaged colonial past and a dreamy farm home in England in small inky capital letters. For which I find myself custodian.

We looked down dark holes to the river below, the sunset receded to pink and gold as we approached. The Black Mountains silhouetted deep blue and black. I tried to catch a glimpse of the ferry slipway, I saw its carcass, the skeleton of memory and the sound of tyres on heavy wood slats echoed deep inside. In the middle of the river we stopped, the cable curve dipped to meet us and hold us, safely, above the dark and swirling high tide waters. In the distance the lights of a nuclear power station spun my thoughts to energy and tsunami.

down to river

The moon was rising behind us and when we reached Wales and turned we walked into its shine. The moon rose between the great H on the far side of the bridge behind a lattice of cables. At last it broke free and shined on us, momentarily it was huge and bathed the bridge in its cold light. The street lights resumed their ascendancy. We walked towards England back across the bridge, over the now falling waters and again I thought about others trying to get into England, walking under the water or hidden in a truck. Angry and sad.

full moon red car

On the England side a decaying sign bade us welcome. In the dark a bramble snagged me in the face. I have still to read the memory notes I found. Englands Glory.


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Relics of the River Crouch walk

At the end of the walk we assembled quietly on the bank of the river as the tide turned and the river began to flow again towards the sea. We collected out thoughts and reflected on the 8 days, remembering each one.end of walk 2

In the heat in the pub garden I showed and described a series of items into a cardboard container. Enumerating the  thoughts each had triggered on my walk:

Dried blue flowers from the beginning, seeds at the finish.

Items returned with love and memories for the next time.

  • A sprig of blue flowers from the sea wall at Bradwell, picked on the day our river pilgrimage began, their blue contrasting with the flag we walked between them.
  • A Mercedes badge resembling the Dengie windmills near where it was found, into the container with ruminations on this icon of conspicuous consumption
  • A spare coat button once in a small torn plastic bag found on the path, for my mum who further humiliated me when I lost a primary school playground fight.
  • An Apple ‘paperclip’ found on the ground out at the antiques emporium and b&b at Battlesbridge with amusement and irony on the location, and with respect to the equipment I am using
  • A 1988 2p piece found on the ground at the North Fambridge station rendezvous for love and community arts in Swindon
  • 2 cockle shells from a beach of shells bounded by the sea wall for the sea, Aphrodite and ancient pilgrims
  • Last, a baby conker found in the shade at the park by the river for the sun, shade, children’s poems and The Box of Crabs

All contained in a sortlifeout tube stuffed tightly with screwed up pages of the Daily Mail July 3 2015

Box of Crabs says

Cast into an ebbing tide on the River Crouch at Hullbridge on Saturday 4 July. The end of the walk.