The text below comprises the full presentation script of my paper at the 2014 Unofficial Histories conference. Note: this paper has been developed from a piece I presented at the Occursus Post Traumatic Landscapes Symposium last year, which we think is the first time that the term ‘Post-Traumatic Landscapes’ was used.
Part 1. Monument, Memorial, Memory And Forgetting
‘tell me what you forget and I will tell you who you are’
Marc Augé, from Oblivion (2004)
In his 2004 essay Oblivion, Marc Augé explored the relationship between memory and forgetting, and proposed that ‘memories are crafted by oblivion as the outlines of the shore are created by the sea’. He goes further than this, implying not just a relationship between the two, but a kind of complicity that suggests that we can shape our memories, and therefore our identities according to the self-mythology that we either consciously or unconsciously desire – or, to put it another way, that an active forgetting, an active erasure, is vital in maintaining the truths of the histories that we want to write – the histories that best serve our passions and our interests. I will examine the work of creative, resistant remembering, regarding traumatic and violent acts in terms of the materiality and emotion of physical place. We are all subject to official narratives of what can be remembered, what memories the civic body can bear; the most visible markers of what we might call ideologies of memory are monuments and memorials, and I would point to the textual emphasis on place in these official inscriptions. ‘Here lived, here lies, here fell, here died’.
Police officer Jon Speed was shot dead outside Leeds Parish Church in 1984 and a monument was erected on the pavement to mark the spot where he died. Every year a memorial service is held on the street. This is the Rector of Leeds speaking in 2005:
“Sgt John Speed was a brave man, willing to risk his life in the course of his duty. He was struck down by a fatal bullet and we pay tribute to his courage and devotion to duty and think of his family and loved ones whose lives were so cruelly changed by the tragic events we remember today”.
His words point out the obvious truths regarding the tragedy of lives lost to violence and the terrible effect on those left behind, but they also outline the criteria by which such events and such victims are allowed to be remembered, and materially marked. Brave, dutiful, courageous, incorporated into the civic body by virtue of profession, politics or belief, above all respectable, and, by extension, innocent. The plaque itself is made from the traditional materials that physically embody these strict conventions: metal and stone – a working into permanence, an inscribing into history.
2. Telling Tales: A House, A River And A Field
‘Nothing defines the specific rootedness of a location – the transformation of a place into a site – more than its being founded on a grave’. Francesco Pellizzi
Luke Bennett and Amanda Crawley-Jackson have outlined three categories of ‘Post-traumatic Landscape’, none of which are mutually exclusive, and which may include contested and non-contested sites, and be either physical, conceptual or fictional.
– a place where something traumatic has happened in or on the landscape
– a place where something traumatic has happened to the landscape
– a place where a subject performs or narrates trauma to and of themselves within a landscape
The traumatised sites and the corresponding creative resistance that I examine here all relate to the first of Bennett and Crawley-Jackson’s categories. Sites where harm was done: sites that are contested, forgotten, and erased; and where, in different ways, the work of ‘fiction’ – a term which I use here to describe all areas of artistic and creative practice – ‘performs’ the sites back in to life.
Part 3. And Every Brick, And Every Piece Of Rubble…
‘’Matter’ feels, converses, suffers, desires, yearns and remembers.’ Karen Barad
25 Cromwell Street was the home of Fred and Rosemary West, the site where they tortured, murdered, dismembered and buried 9 of their 13 known victims, both in the house and in the garden. It is in the nature of buildings that they are part of the fabric of an urban landscape that can be bounded, delineated and specifically identified in the way that streets, or hills, cannot. They are material objects that occupy a distinct physical space: bricks, concrete, tiles, joists, enmeshed in a body as distinct as the ones of flesh and bone that we inhabit. This distinction is important, for to forget and disappear such a body requires a physical labour, an effort of erasure that matches the body’s construction. The effort made by Gloucester city council to erase the house went beyond such parity. An extended analysis of the complexities of civic shame and disquiet would require its own paper, but suffice it to say that so great was the city’s desire to eradicate the visible signifiers of the West’s atrocities that the consensus was not so much for demolition, as for obliteration, cleansing, and forgetting. The bricks and mortar of the house were taken away and crushed, pulverized to dust. Gordon Burn, in his 1998 account of the West’s atrocities Happy Like Murderers, describes the process thus:
‘The job of taking the house down was given to the local family firm of the Bishops whose lorries carry the slogan ‘We’ll bring it down to earth’. […] The Bishops had been commissioned not only to remove all the materials from the site but to destroy them. There was a crushing machine at the Gloucester tip in Hempstead by the docks. And every brick and every piece of rubble was dismantled and driven to Hempstead and crushed to dust. Timber and everything flammable was taken to RAF Innsworth and put in an incinerator and burned there and the ashes crushed. The cellar was backfilled with bricks off the walls and sealed with quick drying concrete.’ (p 464-5).
This was a process of demolition, of deconstruction that was detailed, obsessive and forensic in the attention it paid to the physical matter of place. Everything is gone; nothing remains: the meat and bones of the building dispersed into ashes, smoke and dust. For those of us seeking to remember – not a voyeuristic remembering that will elevate Fred and Rose into the pantheon of true crime serial killer stars, but a remembrance of the marginalised, socially and civically overlooked victims – only a fictional reconstruction is possible, a creative resurrection of place that attends to the materiality that has been erased. Happy Like Murderers is a book that transcends the ‘True Crime’ genre, and, in its forensic dissection of place and social history, contextualises the actions of the Wests through a cellular scrutiny that both locates the mutation and illuminates our vision of the whole.
Tim Edensor, speaking at the 2014 Big Ruins conference, proposed that buildings, in a physical sense, are ‘collages of time’, and I would add to this proposal another layer, the proposal that buildings, places, sites, are emotional palimpsests. Gloucester city council desired not only to erase the fabric of the building, but also the emotions contained within it – the feelings, utterings, suffering, desires, yearnings and rememberings contained within the bricks and mortar. Burn’s writing returns again and again to the processes and substances of construction: from Fred’s obsession with DIY, and the details of his burying of the bodies, to the council’s comprehensive erasure, and in doing so he resurrects not just the house, but the memories of the murdered women. In the final passage of the book he flips the obliteration – turning absences into presences, making holes speak, creating memorials from the concrete that was poured into the holes where the bodies once were.
‘When the house had been levelled and the cellar filled in, block paving was brought and laid in a herring bone pattern, three small trees planted, edging cobbles set in thick grade concrete: ST4 concrete on 150-mm.-type figure-1 granular material. […] They laid a blue-brick on-edge soldier course channel and feature between the block-paved areas and the grass verge. They fixed close-boarded fencing stained chestnut brown. Tough spiked pyracantha bushes were planted to run the length of it and discourage graffiti-writers and vandals. A country lane introduced to the city. The bends and shadows in the narrow road. […] The intention is that it will be impossible to distinguish between parts that have been added and those that already exist. Underneath is the cellar void. And under the cellar five cores of concrete buried in Severn clay. The fact of something behind. Something that is inaccessible, unknown. Beyond a doubt there is something behind. It imposes itself and won’t go away. You look at the walls. You listen to the space.’
Part 4. Running Water: Remembering Oluwale
‘By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.’
Psalms: 137: 1&2 (KJV)
On the evening of January the 23rd in 2013 I joined a group of people standing on the south bank of the river Aire. Rough ground, a building blinded by its bricked up windows, a lonely stone archway holding up an invisible wall.
We were gathered to remember David Oluwale, a Nigerian immigrant. His is a long, complex and tragic story of mental illness, homelessness and police persecution, told at length by Kester Aspden in his book Nationality: Wog, The Hounding of David Oluwale (2007). The last reported sighting of David was of him running away from two police officers in the early hours of the 17th of April 1969. Two weeks later his body was found floating in the River Aire. His death was not deemed suspicious, and he was buried in a pauper’s grave. In 1971 charges were brought against the officers, and although the original charges of Manslaughter and GBH were reduced to ‘assault’, it is one of the few times in contemporary British history that police officers involved in such a case have been convicted, and received criminal sentences. At the time, the trial caused scandal and outrage, but dropped from public and civic consciousness with alarming alacrity. Oluwale was the City of Leeds’ secret shame.
The evening’s events had been organised by the David Oluwale Remembrance Association, and the ground upon which we stood has been identified as a site for a permanent memorial garden to be dedicated in his name, but there is no evidence that this is the spot where he fell. The exact whereabouts of his death will, in all probability, never be known. The site’s importance is symbolic, its materiality a testimony for the speculative and imagined place where David Oluwale met his fate. The materiality of the (paradoxically) imagined real space can never be reconstructed, but the emotions of it can be resurrected through an experiential witnessing upon a material and symbolic ground.
The evening was multi-stranded, including performances from The Leeds Young Authors, The Baggage Handlers, poet Rommi Smith, Nigerian drummers and more; projections, speeches, silences, and food.
Dramatisations of David’s life and death were enacted amongst us, and indeed most of the performances took place within the crowd, closing the gap between audience and actor, so that we experienced rather than observed.
It was bitterly cold and utterly still, the absence of wind seeming to allow the freezing air to tighten its arms around us. We stayed for two hours in the numbing chill, never once wanting to leave – the act of witnessing mapping the ground and making it real. David Oluwale was there because we were there. For that night, we became his memorial. We were the language with which the ground spoke.
Part 5. Alone in the Chaotic Dark, Shitfaced on Spirits and Speed
‘At first I referred to the field as a space awaiting events; now I refer to it as an event in itself’. John Berger, from Field (1971)
Prince Phillip playing fields is the site where, in 1975, Wilma Mcann was murdered by Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper. Like the majority of the West’s victims, and like David Oluwale, Wilma McCann was deemed not just unimportant, but unrespectable, embarrassing, not able to be incorporated into the civic body without disturbing its sense of its own desired identity. When the city remembers Sutcliffe’s crimes today, it forgets its own treatment of most of his victims then. Her son Richard recalls the day that he was told that his mother was dead, and seeing the newspapers, and having to ask what the word prostitute meant, and realising that to the rest of the world she was something very different to ‘mum’. There is currently no memorial for Wilma.
As with the graves at 25 Cromwell Street, the spot where Wilma fell can be pinpointed with great accuracy, but unlike Cromwell Street it requires no effort of erasure by the civic body. Its flatness, its municipal banality enables it to auto-erase. It disappears itself. Gordon Burn’s fictions reconstructed the emotions of Cromwell Street by using words as materials, rebuilding, textually performing the space in our hearts and our guts. The Remembering Oluwale event made a symbolic space real through an experiential witnessing performed through a symbiotic fiction of audience, act and place. Prince Phillip Playing Fields, a site that is the instrument of its own disappearance, requires a transformative fiction of ritual and conjuration. A spell to break a spell: a reveal.
David Peace’s novel Nineteen Eighty is a re-imagining of the hunt for Peter Sutcliffe and it uses, as does much of his work, sections of text that are repetitive and incantational, both in utterance and on the page:
Lit match, gone –
Lit match, gone –
Like dark Jack, out –
Seeing through my eyes:
Winter, collapse –
Like dark Jack, out –
Seeing through my eyes:
Out, out, out.
On reading the book for the first time, its visual and textual summoning of an almost bewitched broken-up-ness invoked for me not just a sense of the brutality and tragedy enacted, but a memory of my own history in Leeds in the immediate aftermath of said events, where, as a then heavy drinker and drug user I would stagger ‘alone in the chaotic dark, shit-faced on spirits and speed, a stumbling target (there but for the grace of God).’ (Bolland 2012). These lines were written for a poster publication for an on-going collaboration between myself, artist/photographer Tom Rodgers, and curator Judit Bodor: MilkyWayYouWillHearMeCall.
Our starting point was a collective reading of David’s novel followed by a series of site visits to the traumatised landscape named in the book. We walk in the manner of a drift; talking, looking, listening, enacting rituals of mourning and remembrance, photographing, writing, and collecting detritus & fragile ‘edgelands’ flora from these spaces.
Our roles are deliberately blurred, and the outcomes are open-ended, so far encompassing drawing, photography, writing, performance and sound. When the work is shown we do not individually identify which of us made this piece or that. These walks are profoundly emotional and we experience being plunged into dreamlike states. We become both the enchanters and the enchanted.
The work of fictions, of creative practice, can attempt to uncover the multiplicity of ‘truths’ that constitute the material, conceptual and emotional narratives of individual and intertwined lives, and with which and of which we tell to and of our selves through the process of memory and forgetting. To return to Marc Augé and his essay on oblivion, he talks of life as being a narrative, and of how the story of an individual may fall over, and even topple in to death, because it is caught up in, obliterated by, the history of another. Fictions give us the chance to tell our own truths, to decide for ourselves what can be remembered.
I end with an extended reading from Nineteen Eighty:
‘this is the world e was driving through Leeds at night e had been having a couple of pints and e saw this woman thumbing a lift and e stopped and e stopped and asked her how far she was going and she said not far thanks for stopping and jumped in and e was in quite a good mood and then she said did e want business and e said what did she mean and she says bloody hell do e have to spell it out so we drove to the park in my green ford capri and before we started she said it cost a fiver and e was a bit surprised and e was expecting it to be a bit romantic and e am not the type that can have intercourse in a split second e have to be aroused but all of a sudden she said e am off it is going to take all fucking day em fucking useless you are and e felt myself seething with rage and e wanted to hit her and he said hang on do not go off like that and she said oh you can manage it now can you and she was taunting me e said can we do it on the grass and she stormed off up the field and e took the hammer from my tool box and followed her and spread my coat on the wet grass and she sat down and unfastened her trousers and said come on get it over with and e said do not worry e will and e hit her with the hammer and she made a lot of noise and so e hit her again and then e took out knife from my pocket and e stabbed her fifteen times e think and her arm kept jerking up and down and so e kept at her until she was very dead and then he shot off home this is the world now’
In memory of Wilma McCann 1947 – 1975
©Emma Bolland 2014
2 thoughts on “The Truths Of Fictions: Post-Traumatic Landscapes, Civic Erasure And The Projects Of Artistic Resistance.”
The concept of artistic resistance as a fiction for remembering is absolutely brilliant, and your examples of its shared-experience implementation are most thought-provoking. Wonderful work. Thank you.
Thank you Toby. Most kind! It was a really interesting conference to present at too.