From Hill To Sea by the Fife Psychogeographical Collective: A Review

From Hill To Sea by the Fife Psychogeographical Collective (Murdo Eason), Bread and Circuses 2015, ISBN-13: 978-1625178879, £11.99

 

There can be a tendency to think of hill to seapsychogeography as an essentially urban activity, the province of Baudelairean flâneurs and Situationist revolutionaries wandering the streets of Paris and London ley-line hunters, while non-urban walking is thought of as being more focused, more directed at a specific end, its politics associated with claiming rights of way rather than rites of passage. On his Fife Psychogeographical Collective blog, From Hill To Sea, Murdo Eason has been steadily expanding the range of the dérive to take in the ‘Kingdom of Fife and beyond’ in an astute blend of text and photographs. The ‘beyond’ does include cities; Edinburgh, Glasgow, Amsterdam, Berlin, Newcastle, Huddersfield and, yes, even Paris are explored, but the heart of the blog is in the towns, villages, fields and coasts of the old kingdom. The writing is as varied as the locations, and the range of genres wide: poem essays, photo essays, walking notes, essay poems, photo poems, travelogue are all here, in any kind of combination you care to think of.

And now there’s a book that brings much of the best of the blog together in a large, nicely readable format. It’s an exceptionally happy transfer from digital to print; apart from a couple of stray ‘click heres’ and a visual presentation that perhaps too closely imitates the online incarnation, From Hill To Sea works remarkably coherently as a book. This is, perhaps, due to the unifying central preoccupations that run through Eason’s work, which might be summarised as a concern with what places can tell us if we observe them with sufficient patience and an understanding that ‘a landscape view is never neutral’, an insight that holds true for the urban as much as the rural environment.

One of the more fascinating aspects of Eason’s explorations is the connections he unearths. Take the case of William Gear, the Fife-born miner’s son turned painter whose abstract works regularly reflect the skeletal pithead architecture of his family background. Gear was one of only two British members of the CoBrA art movement, an number of whose members were founders of Situationism. This link, naturally, takes us to Amsterdam in search of the CoBrA museum and to the Haute-Loire (on paper, at least) in search of Guy Debord’s rural other life. There’s a passage in the CoBrA manifesto that could equally be applied to Eason’s approach to writing: ‘A living art makes no distinction between beautiful and ugly because it sets no aesthetic norms. The ugly which in the art of past centuries has come to supplement the beautiful is a permanent complaint against the unnatural class society and its aesthetic of virtuosity; it is a demonstration of the retarding and limiting influence of this aesthetic on the natural urge to create.’ This refusal of the conventionally ‘aesthetic’ allows Eason to bring motorway bridges and graffiti into his work on the same terms as woodland and art installations.

Reading any psychogeographical work will bring the reader to a contemplation of certain words and concepts: edgelands, the interzone, dérive, and, above all else, liminality. The word liminal is in such common currency that it bears explicit teasing out every now and then just to clarify what it is we mean by it. Liminal derives from the Latin limen, meaning threshold, and was first introduced into English by psychologists towards the end of the 19th century. In 1906, the anthropologist Arnold van Gennep began to us it to describe the middle stage of rituals where the initiate is in the space between their old and new selves, a state in which they exist between two worlds, idir eatortha as we say in Irish.  In the 1960s, Gennep’s ideas were expanded by another anthropologist, Victor Turner. Turner initially focused on rites of passage, which, following Gennep, he saw as being guided liminality, where an expert/teacher/shaman moved the subject to the threshold of a socially approved new state. Later, he began to apply the term to more spontaneous threshold states (his favourite examples being the Beats and Hippies) where uncontrolled disruption of the social order with no agreed desirable outcomes emerge. Since Turner, this idea of liminality as an unpredictable disruption of social norms and behaviours has become perhaps the most widely recognised use of the word.

Eason explores this sense of outsider liminality in his meditations on physical and temporal threshold states: his bridges, beaches, graffiti art, coffin roads (the splendidly named Windylaw – am I alone in hearing a ‘ley’ there?) [I am, of course, wrong. Harry Gilonis informs me ‘The path passes over a tump, or law, from Anglo-Saxon law, low (from Welsh llaw: a mound). No immediate connection with ley (Anglo-Saxon, a clearing in a wood).’], ghosts (neither living nor dead) and so on are classic liminal exemplars, as are the repeated visits  to abandoned mineheads, which represent both the physical line between the upper and lower worlds and the disruption of an entire way of life as an industry was abandoned with no thought to where its displaced workers might end up. Again, when he writes about the condition of Dalgety Bay, an area of radioactive contamination caused by the dumping of materials by the UK Ministry of Defence, he is discussing what happens when an entire landscape is rendered liminal by a complete disregard for the environment and for all our futures. Equally, the temporal space between two concerts becomes an opportunity to stroll along the banks of a Huddersfield canal, another sign of a lost way of life.

Of course, no word exists in a vacuum. In Latin, limen is cognate with limes, the fortified boundaries of empire, like Hadrian’s Wall, part of which is buried under one of Eason’s sites of interest in Newcastle. In English, its cognates include: limit, eliminate, subliminal and, possible, oblique and sublime. It would need a book-length study to fully relate these words to liminal writing and art; another day’s work entirely.

Another member of the family is limen, or liminal point, the usage in psychology that originally predates the anthropological sense. The liminal point is the limit below which a stimulus is no longer perceptible, the minimum level of nerve response required to produce a reaction. In this sense, the liminal can be seen to relate to an aesthetics of penury, an art that favours a kind of poverty of means as its basis. This would imply an art of place that declines the grand Wordsworthian gesture in favour of the small, neglected, discarded and ignored features of the world we move through. Eason, building his meditations on some blades of grass growing through a pavement, the shadow of a leaf, tagging on a dull concrete wall, transforms the everyday through this kind of attention.

It is impossible to do justice to From Hill To Sea in twelve hundred words; it’s too rich in detail, too wide in range, to do anything other than indicate why it’s worth reading and how it might be read. It is a book that raises an interesting question; in instances of spontaneous liminality resulting in social disruption, can the artist play a role in reintegration? Turner wrote that “the subject of passage ritual is, in the liminal period, structurally, if not physically, ‘invisible’”. Perhaps the psychogeographer’s role is to render them visible again. It’s a role that Eason seems eminently qualified to fill. And the book really doesn’t end on the last page, but carries on as the blog continues to grow, possibly assembling materials for a second volume. What to say? Buy it, read it, ponder it. It’s a delight. Oh, and here’s a video taster to whet your appetite:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KozGcZqLo4U

LANDscape UL • Place, performance and imagination research seminar – all welcome

LANDscape UL • Place, performance and imagination.

Place, performance and imagination

Wednesday, 28 January 2015, 4-5.30pm,

Tower Theatre, Irish World Academy of Music & Dance

LANDscape research seminar – all welcom

Speakers:

Dr. Niall Keegan, Irish World Academy of Music and Dance

‘Mapping the Linguistic Turn – language, space and place in Irish traditional music’

Billy Mills, poet and critic.

‘Words for Music; Music for Words’

Niall Keegan is a traditional Irish flute player and an ethnomusicologist. His PhD, The Art of Juncture – Transformations of Irish Traditional Music, focused on the language-based structures used by traditional musicians to account for and shape their performance practices. His research also engages the diasporic experience of traditional music, particularly in the UK. He has performed extensively throughout the world with musicians such as Sandra Joyce, Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin and Clive Carroll.

Billy Mills is a poet, editor, literary journalist at guardian.co.uk. Mills was born Dublin in 1954. After some years spent in Spain and the UK, he currently lives in Limerick. He is co-editor (with Catherine Walsh) of hardpressed Poetry. His Lares/Manes: Collected Poems was published by Shearsman in 2009, and Imaginary Gardens and Loop Walks by hardPressed poetry in 2012 and 2013 respectively.

Getting to the Academy:

http://www.irishworldacademy.ie/venue/map-directions/

Place Quotes

A handout from the International Literacy Day conversation.

 

“Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.” – Gary Snyder

“I hate scenery.” – Denis Devlin

“Landscapes are culture before they are nature; constructs of the imagination projected onto wood and water and rock.” – Simon Schama in Landscape and Memory 

“The sudden change of ambiance in a street within the space of a few meters; the evident division of a city into zones of distinct psychic atmospheres; the path of least resistance which is automatically followed in aimless strolls (and which has no relation to the physical contour of the ground); the appealing or repelling character of certain places–all this seems to be neglected.” Guy Debord, Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography.

Following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, James Joyce wrote to the philosopher Bertrand Russell that had Dublin been destroyed by an atom bomb, “it would be possible to rebuild the entire city, brick by brick, using Ulysses. Though God alone knows why anyone would want to. The place is a shithole.”

“If you don’t know where you’re from, you’ll have a hard time saying where you’re going.”  – Wendell Berry

Don’t be descriptive; remember that the painter can describe a landscape much better than you can, and that he has to know a deal more about it.

When Shakespeare talks of the ‘Dawn in russet mantle clad’ he presents something which the painter does not present. There is in this line of his nothing that one can call description; he presents. – Ezra Pound

He (the Dalai Lama) asked me for my participation and I rejected the plan to make a kind of sculpture there in this old way, to make in a kind of special place this special modern sculpture. I told him that my idea would be this time to plant seven thousand oaks in Kassel, seven thousand trees. And to mark every tree with a little stone, so that everybody after three, two, five or six hundred years can still see that in 1982 there was an activity. After the radical destruction of the forests here in Germany for all this technological nonsense, that there was an impulse that came in the same time, to plant seven thousand oaks. This is such a kind of activity during the Documenta (in Kassel) , that has to do with the ‘Documenta’, but is a real other thing in the conventional understanding of art. – Joseph Beuys

Gavin Prior – Babbleon Cork: http://desertedvillage.bandcamp.com/album/babbleon-cork

International Literacy Day Event

This is the press release for my Limerick event this Sunday at six in the evening.

On Sunday 8 September, The Hunt Museum and Ormston House will celebrate UNESCO Literacy Day with a free discussion event with poet Billy Mills of hardPressed Poetry. You are invited to join us in exploring questions about place, representation and sustainable art practices from the perspective of practising and aspiring writers and artists, to share your own insights and, we hope, learn from the insights of your colleagues.

Billy Mills was born Dublin in 1954. After some years spent in Spain and the UK, he now lives in Limerick. He is co-editor (with Catherine Walsh) of hardpressed Poetry. His Lares/Manes: Collected Poems was published by Shearsman in 2009, Since then he has published one collection, Imaginary Gardens (hardPressed poetry July 2012) and a work for choir in collaboration with composer David Bremner called Loop Walks, a book/CD set.

The Abbey that Isn’t

Abbey OwneyThe first thing you notice when you visit the abbey at Abington is that it isn’t there. What’s worse, nobody’s really sure where “there” is. It may have been beside the cemetery, but then again it may not. The two small ruins just outside the graveyard wall may have been part of it, but that’s by no means certain. In fact, the first thing you realize when you go to see the Cistercian abbey at Abington is that you can’t.

And is it Abington Abbey? Or is it Abbey Owney; Abbey Woney; Abbey Wothney; Mainister Uaithne? You take your pick. Presumably the English name is a corruption of Abbey Town, but what of the others?

The Civic Parish of Abington, in the days when such administrative units meant something, lay partly in Tipperary and partly in Limerick, with the abbey in the Limerick half, by the banks of the Mulcair. In Tipperary, it was part of the barony of Owney-Arra (Big Owney?), and in Limerick, part of the barony of Owney-Beg (Little Owney). It seems clear enough that these barony names and the Irish versions of the abbey name are related; that they derive from a common source. And it also seems we have some idea what this source is.

Around 150 AD, the Alexandrian geographer Claudius Ptolemaeus, known in English as Ptolemy, made a map of Ireland that showed, amongst other things, a tribe called the Auteini resident roughly in the Tipperary/Limerick area. This name has been equated with the Gaelic Uaithne. However, this identification is, in its own way, just as problematic as everything else in the story so far. Ptolemy never actually visited Ireland; he depended on hearsay and sailors’ stories for his information, and these had been filtered through who knows how many different languages on their journey from Gaelic to Greek. If that’s not enough to cast doubt on his reliability, the oldest surviving copy of Ptolemy’s map dates from 1490, nearly thirteen and a half centuries after he made it. And this version’s printed in Latin.

At the very beginning, the abbey at Abington wasn’t actually at Abington. It was originally established around 1196 in a place called Wyresdale in Lancashire by monks from Furness in Cumbria. The mother house of both these abbeys was Savigny, in Normandy. This had been the home of the Savigniac Order, who adopted the Benedictine Rule. By 1147, Savigny was insolvent and applied, with some opposition from the English houses, to become Cistercian. In 1204, the by now presumably reconciled Cistercians of Wyresdale moved to a new site at Arklow. Here, the monks found the exposed location somewhat less than welcoming. The following year, they moved to Limerick, where they were augmented by the arrival by more of their fellows from Savigny. The abbey of Abington was finally at Abington, where it stayed down to the end of the 17th century, when it was demolished to make way for a new manor house. If you go to Abington to see the manor house, you’ll notice that it isn’t there either.

So, if you want to see the abbey at Abington, you need to go to Dublin, to the manuscript department of the National Library, and find the Journal of Thomas Dineley. Dineley was an Englishman who visited Ireland in 1680 and 1681 and kept a record of his travels. He was especially keen on English castles and abbeys and made sketches of many of the places he saw, including one of Abington Abbey. And there it is, the abbey that isn’t; a paper place. But be advised, Dineley’s drawings are persuasive, but not always accurate.