Remembering Peterloo

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As the anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre approaches, the event has been on my mind. This year, we will have a memorial meeting and attendees will contribute to a tapestry objects that they associate with Peterloo. I made the piece in the image above, which has the text of a banner in a Chartist demonstration in 1840. Like the Chartists, today’s Mancunians think that it’s important to remember the event. I want to write this to understand what it meant to me to make the piece above, and remind myself of the research I did into the Chartists’ feelings and thoughts about the event. For a summary of Peterloo, see this; for Chartism, see this.

Looking at my thesis, the material about the Chartist reactions to Peterloo was focused through the lens of Shelley’s poem ‘The Mask of Anarchy‘. At an earlier stage of research, however, I collected a lot of interesting content about the ways Chartists talked about the event more broadly. By the time of the demonstration featuring the slogan above — The Murder of Peterloo Shall Never Be Forgotten — it had been just 21 years since those murders. Imagine that Peterloo had happened in 1995, and that you, your friends and family, or comrades had been killed or mutilated by the sabres of the yeomanry. When you participated in your own movement demanding political reform, gathering in the streets and confronted by police or soldiers, you would remember Peterloo — not as a distant historical event but as a live one. Wounds may have scabbed over but you would connect your own experience with that of 21 years earlier.

Peterloo was remembered by Chartists as a pivotal and spectacular event in the recent history of radicals’ contact with the ruling class. This is not in itself surprising, but I also think that the act of remembrance had a specific political function — that they remembered Peterloo partly in order to imagine future clashes that would result in a different outcome. The Chartists intended this remembrance to be transformative — they would not straightforwardly identify with victimhood and suffering, but would register Peterloo as an example of a tyrannical power victimizing the people, an example that they had no intention of allowing to recur in their own period and to themselves.

Over the course of Chartism as a movement, their Peterloo rhetoric developed as Chartist strategy was tested and they experienced their own conflicts with armed opponents. In the early days of Chartism (the late 1830s), Peterloo was talked about as if it could not happen again because the authorities would not dare attack them or, if they tried, the Chartists would fight back, refuse martyrdom and redeem the deaths of 1819 in gaining liberty. By the early 1840s, events such as those in Preston and Ashton during the General Strike of 1842 could be described as the equivalent of Peterloo:

This town [Ashton] has been the scene of the most brutal and dastardly assaults on an unoffending and defenceless people that is on record since the never-to-be forgotten Peterloo, by a soldiery that is evident were made drunk for the purpose.1

I won’t go into this development in detail here, but just concentrate on a few examples from the early period and in the local context of Manchester and surrounding areas.

The Chartist remembrance of Peterloo was actually a reimagining of the event, and a mental rehearsal for future clashes with the Peterloo yeomanry’s successors. I use the word ‘rehearsal’ on purpose, as meetings by Chartists on the site of the massacre in the centre of Manchester were reported using theatrical metaphors. (I wrote about this previously in a piece about Maxine Peake’s Manchester International Festival performance of Shelley’s poem ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ in a venue close to the site of the massacre.)

A report in the Chartist newspaper the Northern Liberator on the release of Peter McDouall (imprisoned for using seditious speech at a Chartist meeting at Hyde) describes the two- to three-hour long procession of around 2,000 Chartists, and their route through Manchester and Salford. Two days later, Chartists attended a dinner at the Hall of Science, Camp Field, which was near the site of the massacre. The Grand Hall was decorated with ‘portraits, banners, and flags, most of which had been used in the procession on Saturday evening’, including a banner that ‘bore a much worn and faded representation of the never to be forgotten “Manchester massacre”’. 2

This description of Peterloo, as an event that deserved a permanent place in the memory of the working class, is typical of the ways in which Peterloo was represented in the Chartist press. Banners at other demonstrations carried mottoes such as ‘The murder at Peterloo shall never be forgotten’ and ‘Remember the bloody deeds of Peterloo’.3 The imagining of Peterloo as a piece of theatre in the report of a demonstration in Manchester on the nineteenth anniversary of the event is striking, and the most explicit example of a tendency to think of it as a tragedy in the theatrical sense.4 The reporter noted that: ‘It has been customary with the Radicals of Manchester to celebrate that important though memorable day, by holding a meeting on the spot where the dreadful tragedy was performed’. The crowd assembled ‘at the “New Cross”’ and proceeded to the site of the event, where they were addressed by Edward Curran:

In yonder window (pointing to a window opposite,) sat a number of magistrates, who read the Riot Act, and who afterwards rioted in the blood of an unoffending and starving people. (Hear, hear.) That scene had passed away; they were then subjected to a temporary defeat, but he hoped they had now sufficient courage never to allow either the sabres of the Yeomanry, or any other weapons drive them from that field again. (Loud cheers.)

Curran could claim authority for his account; as a veteran of Peterloo, his first-hand experience of the massacre made him a suitable guide and narrator of its events. The impression given is that the crowd, some of whom may have been present nineteen years before, is asked to take the role of the crowd at Peterloo and they are shown the stage position of the magistrates who addressed their forebears. The dead and injured are referred to several times as ‘their mother, fathers, sisters, and brothers’, and this may have been literally true for some attendees.

Besides public meetings in Manchester on the site of the massacre, there was another symbolic event that was used to remember it: smaller, comparatively more intimate meetings to commemorate the birthday of Henry Hunt, a leader of the Peterloo demonstration. These were cultural events; poetry, songs, and paintings of the massacre were vital elements. A celebration in Ashton-under-Lyne at the house of a veteran of Peterloo, Mrs Walker, saw the chairman quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Songs were sung, and ‘the room was embellished with patriotic decorations’. There were toasts to the memory of figures like Thomas Paine, Cobbett, ‘and other great men, who laboured for human regeneration, and, lastly, to the memory of Robert Burns’.5

Another celebration in Ashton-under-Lyne the following year was similarly decorated with portraits of Hunt and animated with song. The chairman read a letter written by William Aitkin from prison, in which he noted that although Hunt’s name:

did not shine conspicuously on the silent pages of the history of our country, […] it is engraven in the brightest characters of affection on the hearts and minds of a long suffering and insulted people.6

The article ‘Henry Hunt’s Birthday. Radical Dinner at Manchester’ described the way in which the attendees ‘seemed as much affected’ by gazing at portraits of Hunt and other patriots, ‘as if were in reality gazing upon the last remains of that immortal patriot’. An original song by Mr Heims was sung. As the Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor stressed in his speech, however, the purpose of such symbols was not to offer an apolitical aesthetic experience but to provoke the audience to do justice to the aims of those martyrs. O’Connor:

had attended meetings pretending honour to departed heroes and martyrs, where statues of marble and busts of stone were considered fittest emblems to represent the principles of heroes; but when he moved, as an amendment, that the recognition of their principles would be the most imperishable monument of their patriotism, he was met by Whig yells and factious scorn (Hear, hear and cheers.) They were there tonight to perform a more noble work than that of bedaubing the market place with inanimate figures, cold emblems of recollection. They were building a fresh temple in the hearts of youths which he saw about him while they were watering the recollections of veteran patriots, so that the name of Hunt, the immortal champion of liberty might still live green in their memory. (Tremendous cheering.)7

Stimulation of feeling, therefore, is important political work: ‘cold emblems of recollection’ are dead letters when compared to the organic, vital figures ‘watered’ by tears of sympathy and respect.

In references to Peterloo in the Chartist press, there is a correspondence between different forms of Chartist activity — cultural events like dinners and commemorations of Hunt’s birthday, demonstrations and their speeches (as in Curran’s dramatic speech), and public lectures — and this stimulation of feeling. The Chartist Henry Vincent followed Curran’s speech to the crowd assembled on the site of Peterloo with a speech that saw political capital in the feelings provoked by the scene:

We are here not merely to make speeches […] but to declare in the face of England’s Aristocracy, that the remembrance of that bloody deed, will stimulate us to renewed exertions until their unhallowed power is destroyed.8

He ends by referring to the rejuvenating effect of being on the site of Peterloo:

My friends, I feel somewhat fatigued, having spoken every day for the last fortnight; but the remembrance that I am on the plains of Peterloo, inspires me with renewed vigour. Methinks even now the departed spirits of the murdered patriots of Manchester hover over us, (hear hear), bidding us to ‘go forward’ in the great work until you are placed in the position that you ought to attain; until you have made England what she ought to be — a Democracy.

Stimulation of feeling is not only important political work in itself; it also inspires other forms of political work, and both combine in Chartist rhetoric and activity to create a virtuous circle. Mr Tillman’s public lecture in Manchester on ‘the spirit of liberty’ linked not only the spirit of the people in 1819 and that of the Chartists, but the ‘spirit of liberty’ with blood. According to the reporter:

[Tillman] made a few very striking remarks upon Hunt, and the blood that was spilt at Peterloo, and that the spirit which excited the people of that day was yet warm in the breast of many before him; and the blood of the martyrs had been the means of fortifying the principle, and, if possible, had made them more ardent in the cause of liberty.9

A ‘spirit’ that is ‘warm in the breast’ appears to have the desire for liberty as the very life-blood of the people. It also, given the familial relations drawn between the reformers of 1819 and the Chartists, and the fact that the lecture was delivered in Manchester, hints at literal consanguineous relations. Their forefathers’ spilt blood only fortifies the desire for liberty; warm blood is emotive and political power.

When I made the piece for the tapestry, I was surprised that it was an emotional experience for me. Peterloo has been an academic subject of interest to me going back to my undergrad days, when I chose to talk about it in one of those general ‘give a presentation’ projects in my first-year tutorial group, and when one of my peers stated it was not that important because ‘not many people died’. I wish now that I had counted out 15 of us in the room, to point out that when you know the people, you might feel differently about a ‘few’ deaths.

When I was cutting out the letters and sewing them onto the fabric, it was an experience in which the action of making something allowed me to meditate on the event. The strength of the word ‘murder’ was brought home to me while I designed and made the piece. The need for the ‘M’ to be wider than the other letters, sewing on the second ‘R’ of murder — these were practical issues to solve, but not purely so. The experience of creating something made me think for hours about the subject, and in a way I don’t recall experiencing when finding and marshalling the historical evidence, some of which features above. By the end, I felt properly indignant and wondered if the Chartist banner makers had a similar experience.

At the two commemoration meetings, too, I had a strong emotional reaction. When the names of the dead were read out, by Maxine Peake on the Sunday and John Henshaw on the Tuesday,  I felt really properly angry and understood totally why Chartists wanted to honour the dead by making political gains. Here are a few photos of the assemblage of the tapestry, and one of the commemoration on Tuesday when it was displayed.

  1. Brutal and Cowardly Attack on the People by an Infuriated and Drunken Soldiery, Northern Star, 10 September 1842, p. 8.
  2. ‘Liberation of Mr. McDouall from Imprisonment’, Northern Liberator, 29 August 1840, p. 7.
  3. ‘Apprehension of the Rev. J.R. Stephens’, Northern Liberator, 5 January 1840, p. 2; ‘Trail of the Rev. Mr Stephens’, Northern Liberator, 24 August 1839, p. 7, respectively.
  4. ‘Great Demonstration in Commemoration of the Peterloo Massacre’, Northern Star, 18 August 1838, p. 8.
  5. ‘Ashton-under-Lyne’, Northern Liberator, 16 November 1839, p. 5.
  6. ‘Ashton-under-Lyne. Hunt’s Birth-Day’, Northern Liberator, 14 November 1840, p. 3.
  7. ‘Henry Hunt’s Birthday. Radical Dinner at Manchester’, Northern Star, 10 November 1838, p. 8.
  8. Great Demonstration in Commemoration of the Peterloo Massacre, Northern Star, 18 August 1838, p. 8.
  9. Public Lecture by Mr Tillman, Northern Star, 12 September 1840, p. 8.

Taking stock

It’s a good time to take stock of the potential avenues for further research based on what I have already seen and thought about.

  • Find out more about the history of the woods. Decisions have been made by people in the past about how the land was to be used, what were they? Why was the course of the River Irk altered just after it passes Lever Bridge? The field on the main road that the river looped into hasn’t been built onto, were there plans to? Does it have something to do with flooding? There was a major flood in Middleton in 1927 (two pics below) and then again in 1971. The main road to Middleton along the woods floods when there’s heavy rain and the river bursts its banks.

The photos above show what happened in June this year, when the Irk burst its banks. On the right is the water level in relation to Lever Bridge, a very high increase on normal conditions.

Potential topics: history of the woods; water-way management; uses and dangers of water near residential areas — good for industry, bad for citizens.

  • The relation of Alkrington Hall (the big ‘heawse’, as Lancashire dialect would have it) to the land is obviously important. There’s a picture in Middleton Library’s archive of rye grown on the slope between the hall and Lever Bridge during the second world war. There are also photos that show a lawn and gardens between the front of the hall and a long ornamental pool — that land is now occupied by newer housing. The placement of that pool, and another one nearby, make more sense to me now. After its heyday, the hall was made into bedsits, and more recently into more desirable residences.

Potential topics: social relations between the local gentry and local residents over time; class differences in relationships to the land.

  • Thanks to Katrina Navickas via Twitter, I have some leads for my experiments with drawing in order to understand the woods and local life: Edwin Waugh’s scrapbooks in Manchester Central Library for his work ‘Roads out of Manchester’ (FF 942.73 R 24 Rowbotham collection) and Edwin Butterworth’s sketches. I will look at this work and try to think about what they were doing when they made drawings/paintings. I also discovered these images of Manchester maps via one of Katrina’s tweets, some of them are coloured in interesting ways. Potential topic: different ways of representing spaces in order to understand them.

Here is a sketch — not to scale! — where I just pulled out places close to Alkrington Woods from Katrina’s map of Britain indicating the green places where various political groupings met to hold meetings or drill for demonstrations. I compared the current map with the National Library of Scotland’s OS Six Inch, 1888-1913 map and learned that there was an area called ‘Mountains of Poverty’ near Unsworth Moss, where radicals met on 1 August 1819 to drill before Peterloo!

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  1. Radicals met on a large green at Unsworth Moss to drill on 1 August 1819 before the Peterloo Massacre
  2. Reform meeting attended by radicals at Cronkey Shaw common on 1 March 1817
  3. Radical meeting at Tandle Hill on 5 April 1801
  4. Hampden Club meeting at White Moss on 20 March 1817, after the march of the Blanketeers to London
  5. Weavers’ trade union meeting on Kersal Moor on 25 May 1808. Also popular with the Chartists decades later.
  6. Chartist drilling in a field near Birchen Bower on 24 April 1839
  7. Boggart Hole Clough (PDF), a battleground in 1896 between local people using it for public meetings and the city council who wanted to stop this practice. Several members of the Independent Labour Party were jailed for defying the ban on meetings, and the council eventually backed down.

Wood St, Middleton is the site of the mill that was attacked by Luddites in 1812. The poet Lord Byron, the 6th Baron Byron of Rochdale, gave a speech in the House of Lords on the response to the workers’ rebellion:

Are we aware of our obligations to a mob ! It is the mob that labour in your fields, and serve in your houses— that man your navy, and recruit your army—that have enabled you to defy all the world,—and can also defy you, when neglect and calamity have driven them to despair. You may call the people a mob, but do not forget that a mob too often speaks the sentiments of the people.

  • The Samuel Bamford connection. I’ve mentioned before that I want to think about his relationship to Middleton’s green spaces. Sources: Bamford’s reminiscences, poetry, and letters.
  • Foraging and botany. I’ve collected some wild garlic from the Kitchen Wood and blackberries from other parts of the woods. It would be interesting to find out if that is a practice with a history in this area. I’m interested in local working-class botanists such as those associated with the Manchester School of Botany: Edward Hobson. I remember seeing some archived plant specimens at the University of Manchester; it would be nice to see them again (Reading: Anne Secord, “Science in the pub: artisan botanists in early nineteenth-century Lancashire”, History of Science 32 (1994), 269-315).
  • Natural movement as exercise. I first became aware of this way of exercising via Christopher McDougall’s book Natural Born Heroes. It is an idea that keeps being discovered, representing a shift away from having to use gyms and expensive machinery in favour of using the whole body as a unit and an emphasis on the ability to move skilfully. The natural environment is a big part of that, but so is the urban space, as shown by people taking up parkour. Alkrington Woods are clearly used by local people as a space for exercise, and there is a long history of working-class people getting a lot out of rambling in the surrounding area, both for pleasure and political reasons (e.g., the mass trespass of Kinder Scout).

What I’m finding interesting is that to focus on a single space can take you in many different research directions in terms of subject, and can also lend itself to different modes of representation —writing, drawing, mapping.

Drawing the Human

I know what I meant now in a previous post about needing ‘a human perspective’ on the land and the changes that have occurred in it. As I expected, John Berger has a lot to offer me on why I’m drawing and what I experience when I do it. The book John Berger: Selected Essays (Bloomsbury, 2001) includes the piece ‘Drawing’ from the volume Permanent Red: Essays in Seeing (1960). If anyone has never drawn and wonders what the experience is like, they could do worse than to read the short essay. Berger defines what drawing means to him, as distinct from painting, and takes the reader through his thought process as he sketches a human figure, noting the interplay between the acts of observing and creating the 2D image, between marks made on the paper, subsequent decisions made about the direction of the drawing as it unfolds, and further marks. Above all, this is a process of discovery for the artist, one that takes him beyond the individual and immediate artwork to the fullness of human creativity as such.

As Berger notes, it is a ‘platitude in the teaching of drawing that the heart of the matter lies in the specific process of looking’ (p. 10). This platitude is also true, any artist knows this from experience, but it is not the whole story. What we must consider is how and why we observe so intensely.

Thinking about the ‘how’ makes you realise that the drawing is both an object and a process. It is an artefact (in the noun form, ‘the drawing’) but specifically a man-made artefact that records the process of its creation (it is a noun that points to, at least in English, the verb ‘drawing’). Berger describes this process as having two movements: taking the artist both into the object and over it.

Each confirmation or denial brings you closer to the object, until you are, as it were, inside it: the contours you have drawn no longer marking the edge of what you have seen, but the edge of what you have become. Perhaps that sounds needlessly metaphysical. Another way of putting it would be to say that each mark you make on the paper is a stepping-stone from which you proceed to the next, until you have crossed your subject as though it were a river, have put it behind you. (p. 10)

The drawing is not really a record of the thing as it is; it is a representation of the artist’s experience, one that developed in the period between the first mark put on the paper and the last. It is the material form of a learning process occurring within the artist, its materiality helping the artist to reflect on what they have learned. Without this process of observation and recording, the learning would not have happened, or at least would have been poorer in quality.

Could a machine produce a drawing? Only, I think Berger would argue, if it was capable of learning like a human being. The decisions could not be given in advance. Like a human, the machine would have to make a mark, consider the shape that is developing, confirm or reject ideas before making other marks, and so on. There could be nothing inevitable about the process; failure would have to be possible. More importantly, so would understanding. The successful drawing is not so because it is ‘accurate’, but because the artist has learned something by making it.

I used an online programme to turn one of the photos in the previous post into a sketch.

This is more ‘accurate’ than I would typically aim for, but it is not a drawing according to Berger’s definition, unless the programme in some way learned during the process. Interestingly, the capacity of Artificial Intelligence to make art has long been an area of study and experimentation.

Berger distinguishes between the drawing and the painting, which is not a ‘working drawing’ but a ‘”finished” work’ (p. 11).

A drawing is essentially a private work, related only to the artist’s own needs; a ‘finished’ statue or canvas is essentially a public, presented work — related far more directly to the demands of communication.

It follows from this that there is an equal distinction from the point of view of the spectator. In front of a painting or statue he tends to identify himself with the subject, to interpret the images for their own sake; in front of a drawing he identifies himself with the artist, using the images to gain the conscious experience of seeing as though through the artist’s own eyes. (p. 11)

A good example of this for me is the difference between Raphael’s sketches of the apostles for his painting the Transfiguration and the version of them in the painting itself (in the middle).

In the sketch, we can see Raphael discovering how the expressions of the apostles looking with compassion at the sufferings of a possessed man — who had been brought to Christ for healing — combine with the quality of the light, which casts a fair proportion of their faces into shade. This play of light has meaning, I think. The top part of the painting depicts Christ risen from the dead, the light coming from him blinding the apostles who lie beneath him; ‘And was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light’ (Matthew 17). Those same apostles in the bottom half see the afflicted man, try to direct his attention to the vision above, but, as the gospel says, they failed to help him to salvation. When they asked Christ why, he replied it was their lack of faith. They are partly illuminated by the light, but not totally.

But since total immersion in the light blinds them in the transfiguration part of the painting, how could they see the suffering before them unless there was some shade? For me, the sketch is by far the more moving of the two versions. The pathos in the expression of the apostle on the left is unforgettable; I write this as a non-believer in the divinity of Christ for whom the potentially more secular mode of the painting’s lower part is more powerful. I feel that this emotional power and the radical ambiguity introduced by doubt are more evident in the drawing than in the painting.

What happens when we are encouraged to identify with the artist? Following Berger’s distinction between the private drawing and the public painting is the description of his thought processes in drawing a male figure. It is no coincidence that the object drawn and described is a human — for Berger does not anatomize the figure dispassionately, though he has to observe it very carefully in order to draw his subject. This is not a process of objectification, where the object of the drawing is viewed as being less than human. Berger’s experience is one of sympathetic identification with the powers he discerns in his subject; the quotations below are not continuous but pulled from different parts of this section of the essay.

Arbitrary lateral lines taken across his body ran from curves to sharp points — as streams flow from hills to sharp, compressed gulleys in the cliff-face. But of course it was not as simple as that. On his near, relaxed side his fist was clenched and the hardness of his knuckles recalled the hard line of his ribs on the other side — like a cairn on the hills recalling the cliffs. I now began to see the  white surface of the paper, on which I was going to draw, in a different way. (pp. 11–12)

Yet, when I made a mark, somewhere beneath the near ribs, the nature of the page changed again. (p. 12)

As I looked at the model I marvelled at the simple fact that he was solid, that he occupied space, that he was more than the sum total of ten thousand visions of him from ten thousand different viewpoints. (p. 12)

My task now was to coordinate and measure: not to measure by inches as one might measure an ounce of sultanas by counting them, but to measure by rhythm, mass and displacement […] to feel the pressure of my lines and scribbles towards the utmost surface of the paper, as a sailor feels the slackness or tautness of his sail in order to tack close or far from the surface of the wind. (pp. 12–13)

It was no longer a question of just realizing the main vertical stance. I had become involved more intimately with the figure. (p. 13)

I saw that the line down the centre of the torso, from the pit of the neck, between the nipples, over the navel and between the legs, was like the keel of a boat, that the ribs formed a hull and that the near, relaxed leg dragged on its forward movement like a trailing oar. I saw that the arms hanging either side were like the shafts of a cart, and that the outside curve of the weight-bearing thigh was like the iron rim of a figure on a crucifix. Yet such images, although I have chosen them carefully, distort what I am trying to describe. I saw and recognized quite ordinary anatomical facts; but I also felt them physically — as if, in a sense, my nervous system inhabited his body. (p. 13)

Within that last description we find the creative powers that have shaped human history: mankind has built vehicles to travel the earth and also metaphysical religious systems. Marx described religion as ‘the opium of the people’ but also as, in the less often reported part of that formulation, the ‘sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world’ (A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right). If man was created not by God in his image but during the long process of evolution, then we have literally had a hand in our own creation. Our ancestors made decisions that shaped our bodies in particular ways: to eat the fatty animal tissues and viscera that enabled the brain to expand and the gut to shrink. How could we have culture and politics if we were compelled to spend most of our waking hours chewing vegetation? If you accept the ‘running-man theory of evolution’, then our movement over land shaped our form, evolving the physiological features that would make it easier for us to run long distances.

We have also degraded the body, with poor nutrition leading to the diminishing height of working-class men, which was a problem for states when recruiting soldiers, and working conditions that twisted the human frame out of its shape into one that suited the requirements of the machinery then in vogue. From Capital, vol. 1 (Penguin, 1990):

Apart from the daily more threatening advance of the working-class movement, the
limiting of factory labour was dictated by the same necessity as forced the manuring of
English fields with guano. The same blind desire for profit that in the one case exhausted the soil had in the other case seized hold of the vital force of the nation at its
roots. Periodical epidemics speak as clearly on this point as the diminishing military standard of height in France and Germany. (p. 348)

Dr J. T. Arledge, senior physician of the North Staffordshire Infirmary, says:
“The potters as a class, both men and women, represent a degenerated population, both physically and morally. They are, as a rule, stunted in growth, ill-shaped, and frequently ill-formed in the chest; they become prematurely old, and are certainly short-lived” (p. 355)

Of course, ‘we’ are not collectively responsible for such harm done to humans; it results from class rule and the decisions made by some to exploit others. Some positive developments, such as shortening the length of the working day as described above, aim at stabilizing or furthering the needs of the capitalist class as a whole. While worth having, we have no need to feel grateful to oppressors for such measures and we might do rather better.

To identify with the artist as the drawer, rather than the painting as an object, is to acknowledge the creative power that is ours by birthright, and through which we can shape the world and human life according to positive or negative designs. When Berger drew the man, the line centring the figure was like the keel of a boat, and the artist was like a sailor responding to conditions. In drawing the human, Berger confronts and engages with the creative powers he possesses.

On the Drawings as a Means of Representing Multiple Views

In my last post, I trialled the use of drawings to depict multiple historical views of the same scene. Here, I will note what I think was successful and where the method presents problems.

This was the first drawing I did, of a curve in the path beside the river and a slope to the right. In black ink is the late 1970s view, in which the slope is covered with lots of long grass and there is a largeish tree just behind it. There are also trees to the left and the line of sight to Middleton is clear enough that a few buildings can be seen.


The green ink shows what the scene looks like now, with large trees near the curve having blocked the light so that the path is now in shadow instead of in sunlight, which allowed grass to grow there in the past. The slope is no longer covered in long grass but is bare in the patches between the young trees that have taken over this area. Nor is the view to Middleton clear, being obscured by the large trees.

I enjoyed doing the black ink part, but hit problems with the green. The large amount of shade was a key change but I couldn’t figure out how to do it without flooding most of the page with green ink. Superimposing one view over another meant that my negative space, the areas around the marks on the page, had disappeared. I could not draw in green and expect the areas in white around the green ink to make sense of the shapes I drew, because the page was already covered in black marks. Here is the image with just the black, in which the composition of the 1970s view is much clearer because of this negative space.


Perhaps the green is too weak in comparison to the weight of the black, but I think the problems go beyond that and are really about composition. It might be better to pick out only the key features and have a much more stylized drawing, one that is less attached to the naturalism of the scene. In order to think about the white spaces that both views need, I might have to do several versions so that I can see where problems arise and leave room for what I need in the second drawing. A true superimposition might not be possible in a way that makes sense to the eye.

Another problem is the fact that the second drawing records the additions but does not remove things that used to be there but which no longer are. In this drawing, the example is the grass in black in the foreground. While this composite represents the multiple images I now have in my head, knowing both past and present views of the scene, this drawing (at least) does not convey the bareness of the path now, only the presence of the grass that used to be there. Another medium might solve this problem. Or there might be some techie solution, with one drawing fading out as the other comes to the fore, and the reversal of this movement? There must be some way to convey this sense with drawing, however.

For the second, I tried a different approach: copying in black ink a section from the OS Six Inch, 1888-1913 from the National Library of Scotland Map Images resource, then using watercolour to indicate the changes I wanted to highlight – the alteration of the river’s course and the growth of trees and shrubs, especially just behind the houses.


Watercolour is not my preferred medium, but its translucent properties might be an asset in solving the problem noted above — the difficulty of overlapping shapes from different periods and keeping them both visible. The map on the National Library of Scotland site was great because I could fade in and out between the old map and a photo of the current scene, making it possible to see exactly where the river’s course had changed and where new trees were.

Screenshot from 2016-07-28 18_56_58

Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

I enjoyed sketching using the late-19th century map as a model; it has a charm in the quality of its lines. If I wanted to try this again then I’d have to get some waterproof black ink, as mine bled when paint went over it.

For the third drawing, I returned to a view from the ground, combining black ink representing the old view and coloured pencil crayons for the new vegetation. This is better than the black and green ink, I think. Similar but closer to what I wanted. The black is really weaker than it should be because I washed the green out of my fountain pen nib and the water diluted the black ink. I also used another pen with a thicker nib for a bit more depth in places.



Past and Present

As a way of understanding the changes to the landscape of the woods, I’ve found the old photos archived in Middleton Library very useful. Comparing views of the land in photos from the 1950s and ’70s allows me to answer questions I had regarding how old certain wooded areas were. For example, the area in the picture below seemed old to me when I walked though it. Bearing in mind that I know next to nothing about dating trees and areas like this based on the growth and characteristics of the flora, my ideas were conditioned totally by a subjective feeling of walking through a shady, prickly patch populated by bent over, thorny trees and shrubs.

It turns out that this patch of ground — in the middle, where the wet patch is between the trees and the houses — was completely clear before the 1960s.


This is what I meant in the initial post by the ‘romantic nonsense’ my head is stuffed with, and which this research is stripping away. I’d rather have knowledge about how the land has changed over time than a fantasy based on uninformed ideas about the natural world.

Another thing I didn’t know was that the River Irk’s course was changed at some point after this photo was taken in the late 1950s. See the small boy running across the field in the foreground!

I took my own photo from approximately the same vantage point, just in front of Alkrington Hall.

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The following photos, from the late 1970s on the left and now on the right, show how the appearance of trees has totally changed the aspect when walking from the lodges and along the river towards the town centre.

These ones taken from the field along the main road show how major buildings in Middleton are now obscured from view. Fencing post have also been taken down and paths are less obvious.

I feel disorientated by these pictures from only a few decades ago, because they present the land to me in a way that I do not experience now. When finding the spots from which the old photos were taken, I have to orient myself according to buildings that are still there — like Warwick Mill — but which are no longer visible from that vantage point due to the growth of trees.

I find it difficult to represent these changes using pictures or to describe them using words. Both seem to fall short of the actual experience of walking that path to the town centre: not only today, which I did as I walked from home to the library and back again, but also the knowledge I have of the terrain in my head, built up over some 18 months of walking. (Something I like about this patch of land is the variety: of terrain, altitude, paths that intersect. It gives a sense of infinite variety, that you could take any number of routes through the land based on whim and, as is often the case for me, the need to escape aggressive dogs. This creates a very flexible  sense of the land, as I’ve approached areas from multiple directions and know where things are in relation to each other.)

I need a human perspective based on the knowledge I have and the imagination I am compelled to use in juggling the terrain as it is now with what the photographic record tells me it used to be. Therefore, I’m trialling drawing as a way of showing multiple images that now coexist in my head. Stylistically, they are both sort of ‘mappy’ sketches, pointing out changes to perspectives and shapes in the landscape (as in the river boundary change), but also hopefully skilful enough to work as drawings in which, say, trees can be identified as such.

I don’t think these drawings are totally successful; I’ll explain why and why I made certain decisions in my next post. The method has potential, though.

Reflections on my current research methods

It strikes me that what I’m trying to do here is very different to what I’d do if I was trying to write a cultural history of this land as an academic for an academic audience. I definitely am not suggesting that academics would not do similar things as a way of understanding what they were trying to do, or that they wouldn’t experiment with ways of presenting their ideas. I have been influenced in starting this project by Katrina Navickas’s work on ‘protest and the politics of space and place‘ in her website of the same name, which also takes the form of an academic monograph. This post represents the routes protesters took into the centre of Manchester on the day of the Peterloo Massacre, and maps the residences of victims. As we learned at this year’s Chartism day conference, she is currently creating films in which protest marches through the centre are shown with digitized images of buildings and crowds. It was well received by the audience and the atmosphere was energized (in the final panel, as well) by a novel way of representing things we thought we already knew. The innovation stimulated others to think about the subject and was therefore very helpful in promoting the healthiness of the field as a whole. I will be looking more closely at her use of digital techniques to see what tools are available to me.

So, these things are definitely done, I just can’t imagine doing them myself as an early-career academic, concerned to build up a roster of research ‘outputs’ in ‘esteemed journals’ in time for the next REF cycle (apologies to readers who don’t know what this means, but I won’t explain this; I’d rather not know myself). I would be too worried about ‘wasting time’ on experiments and potentially non-productive labour, even though I think such an approach might be the only way (for me, at least) to keep sane and to keep the intellectual and creative spirits alive in a system that I experienced as destructive and couldn’t accept.

As it is, I have complete freedom in this forum to represent my ideas in any medium that feels appropriate. In that way, I feel like I have returned to a more well-rounded version of myself, before academic specialization encouraged me to develop one aspect of my personality and abilities, and I inevitably left others behind in that time-consuming project. Now it feels like it’s time to return to activities I’ve left behind and explore them.

Drawing, as above, is one such activity. I don’t do it now with the ease and confidence that I had as a kid, but that might return if I keep it up. If I use both written and visual media, it will be hard if not impossible to assert a distinction between intellectual and visual-art forms of creativity. Such a division feels false to me.

Another important part of this research is walking, both through the woods for pleasure and through them on the way to Middleton Library to access the archive materials. As in my previous post on this subject, I used a sports app to track my route, which can be viewed here. (The return leg is choppier as I stopped to take photos for this post and, at one point, scramble up a slope to escape a threatening dog.) Walking is a crucial part of this research, as I take certain routes to collect photographic evidence, and take those routes repeatedly, as I have to compare impressionistic memories with the exact contours of the landscape that photos in the archive tell me either were there (before land management) or that are still there but which are now obscured by the recent growth of trees. As I walked to the library, I anticipated the batch of photos that I intended to look at today and kept an eye out for features I’d have to think more carefully about. On the return leg, I planned the structure of this post and confirmed or rejected suspicions about potential changes to the landscape that the latest research had suggested.

This approach need not take me away from theoretical considerations, either. In thinking about walking I was reminded of reading Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking and Frédéric Gros’s A Philosophy of Walking, and how central walking has been to the work flows and health of writers and thinkers. I also suspect that returning to the writings of John Berger might help me to understand what I’m trying to do with using drawing as a way of representing my ideas. Drawing forces you to really observe the object of study, and would therefore teach me a lot about the things I focus on.

In short, I think that this project and the approach I’m taking has potential, and could lead me in many different directions, which is exciting.