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A few weeks ago I went on a press trip to the Liverpool Biennial for the Learned Pig. You can read my article and review of the Biennial events across the city at the Learned Pig here. In this blog post I’ve included my own oral parable which focuses on the discovery of a mural painted by my relative in the beautiful Old Blind School building.

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This year the Liverpool Biennial’s constellation of exhibitions, events and curatorial side-shows are grouped under the title, ‘A Needle Walks into a Haystack.’ Whether you read the play of words as a joke, a surreal oral parable, or a maxim on the banal and the domestic: it’s easy to feel like the needle walking into the haystack when you begin your hopscotch across Liverpool’s art map or enter the labyrinthine, peeling corridors of the Old Blind School for the central exhibition.

The power to make you feel like the main protagonist in an oral parable, passed by word of mouth, needle-like, between the blackened terraced houses of Liverpool’s sloping streets, is the Biennial’s greatest achievement. It’s a clever trick and it sucks you in. So here’s my needle in a haystack story: read it, repeat it, pass it on to a friend, and then visit the Biennial and find a story of your own.

Every year the Biennial seeks out venues with their own local character and this time the historic Old Blind School has been chosen as the contextual and cultural backdrop. On the outside Liverpool is a city of quarry-red terraced houses and smoked-black brickwork, its tar dock-waters shrouded under grey, but the Old Blind School’s interior is a peeling palette of inexplicable pastel shades: lemon yellows, mint greens, soft pinks, baby blues and shades of beige.

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In 1791 the Liverpool School for the Blind was founded by local hero Edward Rushton and since then the building has transformed and regenerated itself many times. Over the course of a century this building has housed the Merseyside Police, The Trades Union Centre, a recording studio and performance venue for the young and unemployed known as The Picket, and most recently, the Theatre Resource Centre. The building is a fascinating palimpsest of Liverpudlian social history and testament to the city’s reputation as the pioneering home of welfare.

There’s a palpable sense, wandering the corridors of the old school, that if you scratched away at the walls you’d find living history beneath. For locals, the Biennial has brought an old, abandoned building back to life: giving people an opportunity to return to the institutional and radical spaces of the Old Blind School where they once worked, campaigned, plotted, picketed and even performed.

As a life-long southerner and occasional Londoner, I didn’t expect to find I had any place within this architectonic narrative. Yet looking up from amongst Peter Wächtler’s ceramic sea creatures I discovered a mural. A mural which was not a part of the official Biennial programme but a piece of the fabric of the building itself, a fragment of the city’s past. Like the needle who stepped into the haystack to discover a lost connection with the social and political history of Liverpool, I found that I was a part of the crumbling walls and chipped paintwork after all. The mural was painted by a relative of mine in 1986.

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My great uncle Mick Jones, son of the Garston-born Trade Union Leader Jack Jones, was a political illustrator and mural painter most famous for his work on the Dalston Peace Mural designed by Ray Walker. The mural in the dome of the Old Blind School commemorates the Peoples’ March for Jobs in Liverpool: it curls over the mint green balcony of the top floor with the rage and passion of 1980s political activism. The colours are vibrant and in wild, striking contrast to the polite neo-classical detailing of the rest of the building.

Edward Rushton, one of Liverpool’s great radicals, is depicted as the blind hopelessly leading the blind. There are towers of smoke billowing behind him, and the cranes and hooks which swing in and out of the warped mural seem to threaten to demolish the world around them, including the crumbling red brickwork of the Albert Docks. Beneath this post-industrial apocalypse the people march with their bright, rippling protest banners.

Marx lurks somewhere amongst the crowds along with a self-portrait of the artist himself, and recent family debates have also concluded that the fiery red-head leading the protest must be my great aunt. That statuesque red-head raises her arm to unleash a cry, the slogan on her t-shirt screaming out: ‘Give us a Future!’ This cry ripples across the painted surface of the domed mural, and by a kind of magical coincidence I suspect: the sonics of protest, dissent and disenchantment, echo across the city and the Biennial’s many venues.

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Sound carries and it is the sounds of political and social unrest which offer one of the most interesting threads for navigating the haystack. Attune yourself to a sound-map of the Biennial and you’ll have found a satisfying way in.

For me, the best of the acoustic offerings was the exhibition devoted to Liverpool’s oral poet, musician and painter, Adrian Henri, at the Exhibition Research Centre. Here rare video and audio archive footage evoke the sounds of radical Liverpool in the 60s and 70s. Henri’s words come to us slowly across the music, at times coloured with romance and at others, barbed with politics. Listening to Henri’s experimental lyricism, the sounds of Liverpool and the chiming of the Liverpudlian accent, the Mersey Sound, become richly musical and even sensual. Henri was a wordsmith of great skill and craft. It’s when the Biennial taps into the Liverpudlian local and particular, when it picks up the melody of the city’s sounds and passes them back to the visitor: that the events reach rhapsodic peaks of brilliance. It’s then that they have our attention: that we’re all finally leaning to listen in.

I catch the beginning of a final parable as I’m leaving. I overhear two scousers swapping stories about going to Henri’s spoken word events in their own Mersey youth, their voices ricocheting against the looped recordings. There’s another two needles, entering the haystack.

So now the question is (or the moral of the parable): how can we preserve the mural? Rumour has it that the Hope Street Hotel has acquired the Old Blind School and plans to convert it into luxury apartments, but will there be space for the mural in this new development? If anyone has any interest in helping to preserve the mural, or any ideas of how to do so, please leave a comment below.

Liverpool Confidential believed the mural stole the show: http://www.liverpoolconfidential.co.uk/Culture/Arts/The-mural-that-steals-the-Biennial-show You an read more about the unique Liverpudlian history of the Blind Schools on the Biennial website where they have opened up a forum for swapping stories and memories: http://www.biennial.com/blog/2014/06/05/share-your-stories-an-iconic-building-brought-back-to-life Unite the Union has more detail about the historical figure of Edward Rushton and the history painted in the mural: http://www.unitetheunion.org/growing-our-union/education/rebelroad/murals/

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This morning the A3 Review finally slipped through my letterbox to land in my eager, outstretched arms. The Review, which is  the size of a concertina postcard, folds out to become an A3 map of short stories fizzing with energy, lyrical prose and poetic fragments.

Several months ago I responded to a challenge from the wonderful Writing Maps to write a short story on the subject of neighbourhoods in just 150 words, and this is how ‘I Came to Find You’ found its own way into the Review. The story is set in the compact, yet drifting, neighbourhoods of east London and looks back to local patterns of movement and nostalgia. But I shouldn’t say much more – a footnote to a tiny story – except for to encourage you to buy a copy of the Review and discover all of the other wonderful pieces of Flash Fiction and poetry which are included in the inaugural issue. Order your copy here: http://www.writingmaps.com/collections/the-a3-review

It also occurred to me today (when I insisted that all of my family needed to read the story aloud and to catch hold of the right rhythm) that I am doing things with sound, and with a kind of aural, vocal sculpting, in my own writing which I am also interested in in my academic research. I will talk a little more about this in some posts over the next couple of weeks, but it is something of a newly dawning revelation. It never crossed my mind that the two things might overlap before.

Writing Maps, who produced the journal, also make beautifully designed maps and prompts to inspire writing in all kinds of unlikely and lovely places (from the beach, to a local cafe and the city streets), and they will soon be starting up their monthly short fiction competitions again in the search for new material for the next Review. So have a little browse of their website, sign up to the mailing list and submit to their upcoming prompts!

http://www.writingmaps.com/

@writingmaps

 

‘Most people collect something or other: stamps, butterflies, beetles, moths, dried and pressed wild flowers, old snuff-boxes, china dogs and so forth. A few eccentrics even collect disused bus tickets! But collectors of pebbles are rare.’ The Pebbles on the Beach, Clarence Ellis

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On Saturday I headed out to the Suffolk Coast on my first adventure for the wonderful online journal The Learned Pig. The Pig, with one interest for each of it’s legs, spans poetic subjects across art, thinking, nature and writing. My three trains to the (surely Saxon?!) Saxmundham, a single taxi to the Snape Maltings, a minibus to Orford, and then a ferry ride – all led me to Orford Ness for Anya Gallaccio SNAP commission as part of the Aldeburgh Festival. You can read my piece on Gallaccio’s installations and the enchanting, fragile ecology of surreal Orford Ness here, in the Story of a Single Rock.

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Here’s a little extract from the piece to tempt you:

‘Like many stories, this one begins with a rock, in fact one rock amongst many: the shifting shingle which geographically defines and continually redefines the salt marshes of Orford Ness. When contemporary artist Anya Gallaccio made her first trip to the shingle spit of the Ness, it was not the accidental sculptures of wire and curled sheet metal (rusted by salt-winds) which captured her imagination, but the stony beach desert on which they lie, abandoned like military driftwood.

When we arrive for SNAP on the National Trust ferry out to the Ness, our faces glittering with salt water spray, Gallaccio recalls the illicit exchange of a bag of shingle in Fortnum and Mason, miles away from the flat-lining whistle of the Suffolk coast. Back in the Snape Maltings a photograph records the forbidden transaction: a plastic bag of assorted rocks tied up with a paper label: “For Anya Gallaccio”.’

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The day involved the unlocking and discovery of stories from a whole host of interesting characters, both local and alien, so I hope to find a place for some of these moments elsewhere, and at another time. For now enjoy the accidental sculpture of some shingle and pulled up Yellow Horned Poppies:

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So it’s dissertation season (a little like silly season but with more quiet reflection time) and I’m currently researching, reading, thinking and putting off the inevitable moment at which I begin setting words to paper. I’m at that frightening, but also quite satisfying stage, at which everything in my life slowly weaves its way back to being ‘about my dissertation;’ where all connections lead in a single, focused direction and I find myself impossibly entangled in my research. So I’ve decided to record a few of these tangled threads informally here.

I’m currently being sucked into the sound-vacuum of a broad range of texts, studies and collections on sound theory.  I’m reading without a clear sense of where all this theory is leading me, but its beginning to attune me to a number of things I was once deaf to. Sound is emerging as an increasingly significant element in my own sensory landscape. So here are a series of anecdotes which I hope illuminate some of the ideas I’m currently processing about sound. I should point out that lots of these ideas seem fairly obvious and yet are, ironically, muted and unarticulated in a lot of discourse.

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I live in a small, quiet village of around two thousand people and the natural soundscape is one punctuated by the soft swell and drift of cars, birdsong, neighbours’ children bouncing basketballs or jumping on trampolines, and the innocuous and temporary sounds of summer lawn-mowing and strimming. A sonic collection of subtle and reasonably non-intrusive village sounds.

Recently this soundscape has been completely transformed by the development of a skip-yard over the road into a noisy, dirty, disruptive waste processing site and wood-chipping yard. Lounging around in the garden is now the aural equivalent of being on an industrial site. Surrounded by the punctures of bleep-bleep reversing vehicles, the roar and stutter of forty tonne lorries, and the steady and perpetual drone of heavy machinery; it is only now that I understand how important that village soundscape was in shaping, soothing and soundtracking our daily lives.

But the most interesting thing about living amidst all this new noise is the confirmation that we don’t just ‘hear’ with our ears. As philosopher Don Ihde reminds us: ‘while ears are the focal point of hearing one listens with his whole body.’ ‘One apparent paradox of hearing is that it strikes us as at once intensely corporeal – sound literally moves, shakes, and touches us – and mysteriously immaterial,’ writes Steven Connor in an essay entitled ‘Edison’s Teeth: Touching, Hearing.’ The corporeality of sound and its embodiment in beings and things is also something which has been preoccupying me a great deal.

The most unbearable of all the combined industrial noises is the sound of the wood-chipper: a noise which can neither be drowned out by the overlay of sweeter, louder melodies nor escaped by retreating to the sealed-up confines of the house. Even when we choose not to listen with our ears – desperately seeking to blot it out – this sound works its way through our bodies as though all our skin, limbs and bones were sensory organs and sound receptacles. It’s a kind of reverberation which travels through the ground and through the walls: one which it is impossible to stop ‘hearing’. It rattles my mum’s nerves and gives her the shakes and so we are launching a battle against the noise (and have so far successfully recruited a so-called ‘noise-man’ from the council to our case) and sound becomes the hottest topic in our household.

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The other night I was standing amongst the crowds at a gig in the Islington Assembly Hall forgetting the nightmarish noise back home, and tuning in to the pleasurable sounds of Wye Oak. Suddenly I was slowly and sensuously enjoying the experience of hearing with my whole body; remembering that totally immersive soundscapes can also be pleasurable. I stood feeling the vibrations in my belly, feeling them rippling across my skin, and I gave myself over to my auditory senses.

The music filled the Islington Assembly Hall, bouncing off the backs of the walls and circling about the cavernous dome but it was also pulsing through me: so that in some way my body became a new kind of speaker, an audiophone. The experience spoke to Georgina Born’s studies of the mutual relationship between sounds, music and space in which she writes, ‘the auditory self is also an embodied self that responds and re-sounds: in the words of Jean-Luc Nancy, sound is ‘tendentially methexic (that is, having to do with participation, sharing, or contagion)’; it ‘spreads in space, where it resounds while still resounding “in me.”’

Then gradually I started to realise that my hearing body was reacting in different ways to the sounds pulsing through it. Despite being a terrible dancer the music touched me in such a way that I couldn’t help moving with it: my feet, my legs, my hips, even my shoulders and my neck and my head. It felt wonderful to let my body go with the rhythms, to let it do what it wanted as though my mind was now a separate entity that had little control over its movements. There was no ‘language’ involved in the way I was moving and yet it felt like I was communicating.

The most interesting effect of the music (aside from the emotional wellings and bursts of joy and sadness) was the desire to begin making my own auditory effusions. When I’m listening to music alone I like to join in, even though I am not a gifted singer: touching my own voice with the voice of the artist in a peculiarly and satisfyingly tactile way.

I didn’t want to sing along at the gig because I wanted to focus all my energies on ‘listening’ but when the songs finished I whooped as loudly as I could and then leaned in to whisper to my friend: these over-excited effusions of praise and awe which I couldn’t help but let escape. Interestingly enough as I write this in the British Library there are academics all around me who can’t help but let out sighs, exclamations and laughs – auditory releases in the silence of concentrated study. Perhaps sound has a greater emotional and communicative power than I have ever given it credit for. Sound divorced from language, still speaks to us in significant ways.

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Which all leads me to my final anecdote (yes, finally!). Corporeal gestures are after all, a language, just not one which we all speak: sign language. Yesterday I was sitting on the train at a table-seat next to two deaf men who were chattering away in sign language. It was a fascinating experience for me as my reading on sound and language keeps leading me back to sign in a confirmation of Oliver Sacks’ statement that ‘one may need to encounter  another language, or rather another mode of language, in order to be astonished, to be pushed into wonder again.’

As I sat beside these men I felt profoundly this wonder at language. I was aware of an animated conversation taking place beside me but I was frustrated by my inability to listen in. Listening in, in this instance would have involved me turning to look (a gesture which I could not get away with doing covertly): as Sacks writes in his incredible book ‘Seeing Voices’: sign is a ‘visual language.’

And yet I was struck by the extent to which even this seemingly visual, silent language, ‘the emphatic silent vocabulary of the body’ as David Wright describes it, was accompanied by so many effusive sounds which escaped even without these men being consciously aware. I listened to the dry clickings of the tongue touching the roof of the mouth – in a kind of phantasm of audible speech – and heard the hands making their own communicable sounds as skin brushed against skin and fingers clapped and clicked together. Both voices and gestures are felt in the body with a similar resonance, echo or reverberation: our bodies feel both silent visual languages and audible speech as we enact them, or cognitively process these sensory experiences.

I also thought of Don Ihde’s theories about the ‘auditory imagination,’ which suggest that silence is never silence because much of our thinking is ‘linguistic;’ a kind of ‘inner speech’ in which language is sounded out in our heads. Do people who were born deaf have a sense of their own ‘self-resonance,’ of the unique sound of their individual voices? Do they hear their own rhythms and melodies as a kind of inner-music? Do their ‘auditory imaginations’ give the world a new set of imagined voices and imagined sounds, or is auditory imagination impossible for the congenitally deaf?

As we pulled into Tottenham Hale an announcement was made over the PA that the train would now be terminating at this station due to its late running. I began to pack away my things and one of the men gestured to me to ask if I was getting off. I nodded and he politely moved over to another seat so I could get out. And then I realised that I couldn’t just leave them there ignorant of the announcement which the rest of the train had happily heard. I had seen the one man order a red-bull from the drinks trolley earlier by typing his request down on his phone, so I got my own phone out and typed ‘This train is now terminating at Tottenham Hale’ and passed it over for the other man to read.  There were smiles and thank yous exchanged.

This experience gave me an incredible amount of pleasure, I couldn’t help smiling to myself. Ultimately I think it was so satisfying because despite the seeming barriers in our communication (despite the time I spent feeling left out and adrift, locked out by their language), we had found a way to speak to each other and realised that we did share language after all; all language is a drawing and sculpting of words in space even if we do it with different sensory perceptions.

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My deadlines are over and now all I want to do is write, but now the question is (the eternal question) which of my unfinished short stories should I work on?

There’s the surreal one about a cat hunt through the dark neighbourhoods of Palermo; the one about strange Santiago customs like coffee with legs, and a slip into the city’s 70s time-warp; or the mysterious one about the disappearance of a girl from a highway-side bar in Beijing amidst the flashing headlights of rushing cars; the one about the forgotten stories of a communist age which flit about the Cismigiu gardens in Bucharest, dancing through the Linden trees to the tune of ‘Hotel California’; the one about thousands of dead jellyfish washed up on the shore of St Andrew’s and the disastrous, fractious heat of a holiday between two couples; or that one about empanada beach picnics and the making a human chain to save a son from drowning in the sea; and maybe even that other one about walking your heart break through the streets of Barcelona and finding that you knew how to heal it all along.

Who knows which thread to pick up and follow…

This is not quite a short story, more of an episode inspired by research, about sunshine, and life and love. I wrote this when I was writing two dissertations: the first on Virginia Woolf and Jessie Dismorr, and women re-writing London’s cityscape, and the second on the influence of Eric Gill on David Jones’ poem The Anathemata (any obscure, embedded references are mostly related to these).

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I’m finding it difficult to quieten my mind. I struggle to type and my whole body yearns for sleep, but the past few days of intensely working on my dissertation have wound me up to a heightened study fever.  I shut my eyes and feel only guilt that I am not working and then this strange undertone of panic that is larger than all that guilt and runs much deeper.  It comes over me now when the world reaches its most beautiful moments; as I close my eyes and tilt my face up to the bright, white, sharp sunlight filtering through the train window.  It is some deep wrenching pain about a future loss. Or perhaps it is a past loss. Every time I stop to consider life in its moments of most utter perfection, that fear returns.

Today I had lunch with Will. He was tired from his trip to Berlin and the sun and the beer made him quieter and softer.  Then I cycled in the sun to the station, the wind in my hair, white heat pricking the weighted parts of my body.

I listened to the conversation of some Cambridge students on the train, felt oddly involved, but all the while had the luxury of softly looking out of the window. Even Hatfield as we passed looked lovely, and it filled me with an odd joy to know that I recognised it; the strange tower of Tesco rising from the motorway.  With the fields and clouds all in sunlight, every new town looked like a place I would like to visit.  The sun puts everything in a brighter light, makes every detail perfect, memorable: a stunning shard of experience.

I finally made it to the British Museum.  People were littering the grass on Bloomsbury Square and I tried to think of Virginia Woolf, but tired and distractedly. Then I tried to focus upon Jessie Dismorr and her ‘London Notes’ as the columns of the British Museum came in to view.  But there were no orange parallelograms of sand, just students and tourists stumbling about those immense structures of stone.

I failed to get in to the Reading Room.  It has been closed to the public for three years, they tell me.  I didn’t think that I had any hope of wooing the staff with tales of my dissertation and my researching passion, and the airy, expansive white gleam of the foyer offered no access to higher authorities.  I sort of idly tripped about the museum instead; attempting to follow in the footsteps of Eric Gill and the mythus of David Jones.  I saw the Greek and Roman inscriptions, the Nereid temple, the Cycladic figures.  I glanced at some rudimentary bowls without the belief that they would be relevant.

Then Sidney came and saved me from the realisation that I did not have as much to see as I believed. He was reading on a little fold-up chair under the semi-transparency of the glass of the Great Court: he looked like an invigilator and that made me smile. Perhaps I will pass by some exhibitions on my way home, perhaps.  Although I have this suspicious feeling that I won’t be feeling any less tired.

We drank two pints each at The Plough and everyone assumed we were a couple.  I got a little tipsy and we talked about too much as always.  I feel his jealousy and his dismissiveness when we talk about Will.  I feel this thing between us which we did not resolve and here it is still. I feel it now, it may be foolish and have been encouraged by drunken conversations, but I feel it.  It confuses me, and yet I think we will carry on despite it.

When I said goodbye I hugged Sidney a second time and wished him good luck.  What a stupid thing to say.  It gives me away.

A little vignette which I wrote years ago, 5 years ago to be precise when I was just 19 years old. A little vignette to sustain the blog. This is, ‘On Bucovat Hill’.

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As a final goodbye they take us to Bucovat Hill. With the scent of cherry shisha smoke lingering in our hair we drive out of Craiova. Further and further into the darkness of the outskirts of town, summer’s insatiable desire for adventure chasing us on. We wind our way to the top of the hill, a solitary car tracing its headlights on the road. Catalin speeds as we turn each slow-curving corner so that we slide into each other in the back seat amidst the chaos of our cacophonous laughter.

When we reach a peak we park the car at the side of the road and look out across the vast collection of lights which make up Craiova. At some point on the horizon they merge with the fainter light of stars as if they are the mirror image, like water when it meets the sky. The light is infinite. Inside, I gasp. Far away from the light pollution of that grey, intoxicating town the entire universe is stretched out around us.

The luminous S of the Milky Way snakes above our heads and I wish on the spark of a shooting star that I could stay here forever, or at least, that life could be as good as this again.

We lie in the road; a jigsaw of bodies. Iulius, Catalin, Tom and I. Heads together, limbs strewn across each other: we can’t stop giggling. Something about the spurious sense that we are risking our lives, lying in the road on this deserted hill: is delicious food for laughter.  Then, headlights move in the darkness and we get up in a panic even though they are miles away – distant searchlights. We fall about the road again, with heady joy.

We put my camera on the roof of the car on a timer and stand with the lights behind, waiting for the flashing red as it quickens to become the blinding flash of our photo.  Captured time.  I never want to leave, and yet something inside me; a dull, distant pain, tells me I will never come back.

As we drive down the hill, back towards the city, our voices fade although singing: Hai Craiova! Hai Craiova! Oltenia Eterna Terra nova.