'In Comes I' explores performance and land, biography and locality, memory and place. The book reflects on performances past and present, taking the form of a series of excursions into the agricultural landscape of eastern England, and drawing from archaeology, geomorphology, folklore, and local and family history. Mike Pearson, a leading theatre artist and solo-performer, returns to the landscape of his childhood - off the beaten track in Lincolnshire - and uses it as a mnemonic to reflect widely upon performance theory and practice. Rather than focusing on author, period and genre as is conventional in the study of drama, the book takes region as its optic, acknowledging the affective ties between people and place. Offering new approaches to the study of performance, he integrates intensely personal narrative with analytical reflection, juxtaposing anecdote with theoretical insight, dramatic text with interdisciplinary perception. The performances, ranging from folk drama to contemporary site-specific work, are seen in the light of their relationship to their cultural and physical environment.
About the Author
Mike Pearson is Professor of Performance Studies at University of Wales, Aberystwyth. He is a leading theatre artist, having worked both as director and performer in various theatre companies in Wales; he continues to create performances as a solo artist with German saxophonist Peter Brõtzmann, and with artist/designer Mike Brookes. He is co-author of Theatre/Archaeology (Routledge 2001).
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«In Comes I»
Performance, Memory and Landscape
By Mike Pearson
University of Exeter PressCopyright © 2006 Mike Pearson
All rights reserved.
Around the idea of settlement, nevertheless, a real structure of values has grown. It draws on feelings: an identification with the people amongst whom we grew up; an attachment to place, the landscape in which we first lived and learned to see. (Williams 1993: 84)
This section of In Comes I is located in the village of Hibaldstow.
It consists of:
* an account of Bubbling Tom, a peripatetic, solo performance that I created and presented in 2000
* an excursion to ten locations in the village, evoking memories of these places in the mid-1950s, commencing on the street corner at the White House
* a proposal for a performance project to be staged in the yard of the White House, and an examination of notions of site-specificity
In the 1950s Hibaldstow was an agricultural community; men and women still worked on the land in numbers. Most of my family lived there, uncles, aunts, cousins. My paternal grandfather was a farm labourer then cement worker, my grandmother a former farm maid; my maternal grandparents kept the fish and chip shop, a grocer's shop and a taxi service. Social relationships were frequently repeated and folded. As a comparatively small number of people were involved in a wide range of roles this led, in the acknowledgement of individual resources of knowledge and ability, to a sense of self-sufficiency and communality. But the need for approbation could be costly.
It can become a prison; a long disheartening and despair, under an imposed rigidity of conditions. (Williams 1993: 85)
It was the landscape of my early childhood, my square mile, in Welsh y filltir sgwâr: its topography was that of home, yard, garden, street, stream, school playground. I knew it at the most intimate of scales, as a concatention of people and events and things, of textures and smells and feelings, only gradually differentiated and named. And I heard the gossip in the fish shop, voices suddenly lowered to discuss another rural suicide; glimpsed moments of adult interaction tense and full of threat; delighted in those calendar customs and life-cycle celebrations when everyone I knew seemed to be present at once.
It's 25 April 2000 and I'm standing on the corner of West Street, West End as was, in Hibaldstow with my mother, my wife, my brother and his family, my aunt and uncle, my father's cousin and his wife, my mother's neighbours, my primary school teacher, my school-friend Tony, various local inhabitants, and visitors from Sheffield and London. At 8 p.m. I squat against the telegraph pole and begin to speak:
'It's 1953 and I seem ... happy. It must be the ice cream, not the usual yellowing lump in a cardboardy cornet retrieved by Norman from the bottom of Kendall's fridge but a 'grown-up' tub, its wooden spoon lodged in the corner of my mouth; yet to be manipulated efficiently by small fingers. And in my left hand too!'
'In this moment, my attention stretches as far as Uncle Wilfs Kershaw Raven folding camera, camera of choice of de-mobbed tank crews that had already seen North Africa, Sicily and Austria, already produced images of men and their hardware and distant locations: eight pictures on a roll of 120 film, black spool, red backing paper, sticky seal - "Just lick that duck" - each number appearing and disappearing in a small, circular window on the back: 1/250th of a second at f8. Wilf must be out there, in the road, also squatting. But he'll be alright. He'll hear anything coming, grinding gears, blowing exhaust, long before he sees it and, by the look of my new coat, it's probably Sunday anyway. That'll have to come off before we start washing the taxis: "You don't want to get it mucky, duck".'
Later, we begin walking. Over a period of two hours we visit ten locations in the village: school, church, stream, and others less notable. And I recall my great-uncle Fred, who as a child contracted polio and lived in a caravan at the bottom of the garden, and techniques for catching stone loaches, and the stink of the dilly-men, and mowing the churchyard, and the Lone Ranger. And I sit on the step of my grandfather's fish and chip shop where we would sit, Tony and I, and watch traffic, and I try to climb the schoolyard wall, and I stand in the stream in Wellington boots. And I point out this that still survives, my great-grandmother's grave; that which has altered, the school gate now bricked over; and that which has disappeared, the footbridge over Pottage's Beck, the corrugated-iron church hall. And I recall friends long dead. And I reveal the odd family secret, mainly about Fred and his pigs. And I touch surfaces, the soft oolite of a farm wall, the lichen-encrusted timber of a decayed fence. And I include an occasional moment of theoretical reflection, from Gaston Bachelard (1964), Georges Perec (1997) and D. J. Williams (2001). And my accent gradually becomes thicker and at times, in emulation of my grandmother, fragments of dialect emerge: 'By, she's slaape duck. Put sneck on't doar.' Each of my companions carries a small white booklet in which two pages are devoted to each of our stops: with a map reference; a location; an enigmatic quotation - 'yet another goldfish-in-a-bag'; photographs from our family album, in the first of which I squat against the telegraph pole, and from Peter Gilbert's collection of images of Hibaldstow and its people that earned a prize in the competition to create a village map organised in 1999 by Common Ground, an organisation dedicated to the active enhancement of British rural culture (Matless 1994: 43–75); digital scans of school books, ration books, I-Spy books, pictorial tea cards. All this material relates to these places at another time, the mid-1950s in the main.
We are all engaged in Bubbling Tom, a guided tour - 'a journey, not an object' (Turner 2004: 377) - of the places I knew at the age of six or seven, walking as if in the couple of years either side of 1955. A site-specific performance 'on my own doorstep', 'in my own backyard', within, and concerning, the landscape of my childhood, site of earliest and formative experiences and sealed in a particular envelope of memory, for in 1957 we moved to the nearby village of Kirton in Lindsey: 'a quest and narrative of return' (Wilkie 2002: 3). A leisurely stroll pausing to remember significant events and people in a sequence of performed texts and informal conversations, its guided nature emphasising 'the importance of place itself' (Wilkie, p. 3), for an audience who may know nothing of the conventions of contemporary theatre practice, of current artistic fascination with biography, place and identity. Me at the centre of events, as both narrator and the subject of narration, dramatising 'the familiar past', in the year I am fifty. We visit those places that, though unmarked or nondescript, have personal resonance: places where significant things, memorable events happened to me, landmarks biographic and personal, though where 'you can't tell by looking'. There is a temporal distanciation that allows both a revelling in and subversion of nostalgia; an archaeological aspect that prevents loss and change becoming solely issues of regret.
I've written and learned a long text, in itself a feat of memory, yet at times I can barely get a word in edgeways. I am constantly interrupted by others with additions to, and corrections and contradictions of, my story: 'It wasn't there, it was there. And it wasn't you, it was your brother!' says my mother. For there are always those who remember us, remember for us, better than we do ourselves. And as soon as I stop talking others begin, with other memories of these same places at other times, for this was the landscape of their childhoods too, many of them; 'there were murmurs and laughs of recognition, sparking conversations on the walks between stopping places' (Wilkie, p. 3). What such performance stimulates and elicits is other stories, and stories about stories. It catalyses personal reflection and the desire on the part of the listener not only to reveal and insert her own memories, but also to re-visit communal experiences. It works with memory, raking over enduring ones, stirring half-suppressed ones. It can demonstrate multi-temporal densities of experience within a given location, place as palimpsest (Turner, p. 373), named and marked by the actions of ancestors. Visitor Fiona Wilkie notes the care taken in locating the exact places where events occurred in Bubbling Tom: '[i]n this window'; 'on that door over there'; 'here'; 'there' (Wilkie 2002: 4); for her, places are figured as 'containers (of memories, stories and legends)', as 'aggregations of metaphorical and physical layers' (Wilkie 2001: 2). The ephemerality of performance and the materiality of locale are intertwined and mutually revealing; the transitory nature of the event is set against the longer durée of architecture; contemporary exposition becomes the latest layer of patination. Performance can here engender a provisional and contingent communality across generations. Did we not all stand against the same school wall to have our photographs taken, whether in 1935, 1955 or 1975? Were we not all children in this same place? Limited in our mobility, without means of escape, our lives were played out on these same few streets.
All present experience contains ineradicable traces of the past that remain part of the constitution of the present.
'Here we sat, for hours: two of us, me and Tony whose Mam was already dead and whose Gran inhaled and coughed with equal regularity; or three of us, waving at passing lorries from ... from ... well, not from here anyway. "Well you wouldn't miss any!" says me Mam. Only later did we realise that by using an old, custard-yellow AA book of Wilf's we could identify where they came from, from the last two letters of their numbers: Lindsey, Grimsby, Dundee ... And there was Layne's Garage, Brigg with its tiny, black breakdown-truck symbol. Mind, the I-Spy book In The Street was a dead loss, not many one-man bands or pavement artists here, though March 1958 was busy for 'Roadmaking': a man with a pick was 'Picking the road'. Must have been when they were putting in the main sewer: the trench ... here. Then came the day one of them tipped over, shedding its load of oranges which were doled out to us by the arm-load: bounty, especially after months of collecting the muddy, fallen, road-kill sugar beet that we never quite knew what to do with.'
In the account of his life to the age of six in a Carmarthenshire agricultural community at the end of the nineteenth century, a panegyric to a way of life that always and forever seems on the point of disappearing, D. J. Williams draws together memories of people and animals and incidents and journeys, suffused with descriptions of landscape and genealogy and moments of political aspiration. It is as much of 'pheasants and horses and pubs and stories and singers' (Thomas 1973: 86) as of chapel, eisteddfod, poetry, all that constitute y pethau, 'the things' that are the enduring symbols of Welsh culture. Hen Dy Ffarm (The Old Farmhouse) (Williams 2001) is a book about place, the operation of memory and the creation of identity, and it runs deep: there is a historical aspect to the story he tells of family and of the development of effective, located husbandry. 'The urge to keep hold of one's family history D.J. saw as part of a valuable instinct to hold the present and the past together, the process which makes civilisation possible' (Thomas, pp. 85–6).
Williams never defined the notion of y filltir sgwâr in print, but Hen Dy Ffarm is its most acute elaboration. This is the square mile of childhood, the intimate landscape of our earliest years, that terrain we know in close-up, in detail, in a detail we will never know anywhere again. Significantly, Williams's memories of occurrences in this landscape are precisely located; there is a spatial primacy:
When the many things I remember actually happened whether early or late in the course of that six years, I haven't much of an idea. But I can locate most of them with a degree of certainty - where such and such a thing happened and where I was standing when I heard what I heard whether in the house or on the fold or in an outhouse, or in the haggard or the orchard or one of the woods or a certain field. (Williams, p. 6)
In his words too his memories have a local and pictorial content though they are remembered not only with the faculty of the mind, but with 'every nerve in my constitution' (Williams, p. 168). He is aware of the problem of unravelling the temporal dimension:
Difficulties arise when one searches back in memory's earliest cells and records what one finds. First, it is a hard task to put the incidents in their time sequence because they tend to fuse into the one static image that remains so clear in the minds of most people. It is all one endless day. (Williams, p. 2)
Through processes of imitative learning and imaginative construction, and inordinate amounts of time changing the landscape, the square mile is where the creation of individual identity begins. This is a site of discovery, where 'the child first learns everything which is of real importance' (Thomas, p. 86): the rudiments of taxonomy, working with difference and similitude, putting names to things, people and places. Here the details of natural history reveal themselves, flora and fauna gradually differentiated: on the nature table, in a fishing-net, in Williams's case at the end of a gun barrel:
[B]efore ever I crossed the school threshold, I began to learn the history and geography of Carmarthenshire, learning much of it on the spot at my mother's side on the seat of the trap, listening to her speak of people and houses and woods and fields, of stream and river and lake. (Williams, p. 66)
Bubbling Tom was created within and in reference to a particular square mile, commissioned as part a scheme entitled Small Acts at the Millennium that actively encouraged alternative forms of performative celebration. In its creation I began by revisiting places I once knew, at a different scale, always hoping to discover physical marks and traces I had left there: the handprints in white gloss paint I remember making on the shed door; those rooms that were the location of dreams and day-dreams and that provide one's cognitive maps for all other places. I used the rediscovered landscape as a mnemonic for events and people and feelings and personal reveries: relocating myself in a place once intimate; re-embodying, at a different scale, remembered actions: standing in the stream; staging a cowboy gun fight outside Tony's house. I sought records and photographs of me in these places, studying the details of stance and posture, eventually adopting the same positions in performance, at a different scale, drawing attention to all that has changed, in me and in it. I recorded the memories of those who remember me and my actions up to the age of eight, particularly non-family members, relating to specific events such as Coronation Day 1953. I considered the pathology of my own body, physiognomy, morphology, gesture, demeanour, that combination of heredity, habit and conditioning that were engendered in this landscape: how I remain slightly knock-kneed, how I clasp my hands like my father. I thought too about physical scars, for the body bears the marks of its history and the skin is a map of accident and injury. Above my right eye is the cut where I fell on the fish-and-chip shop step whilst carrying a bottle of lemonade. I have no memory of the event, though of course others, a few now, remember for me. The scar is still there, as trace that time has passed. And I collected objects, my father's knife, a toy gun, each bearing the marks of age and usage. And I attempted to recall all those surrogate incidents, those thresholds, those entrances and exits that punctuate the passing of our lives. I looked at maps, seeing the village from above, and photographs, seeing me then, them now. I worked with fragments, with material traces, with evidence, in order to create something, a meaning, a narrative, a story, that stands for the past in the present. This address to memory in a contemporary project, as unafraid of critical romanticism as of nostalgia, led to a work of writing.
A memoir writer's first prerequisite is a good memory. The second is that jaunty self-confidence that enables a man to believe that what is of interest to himself is bound to be of interest to everyone else. And the third is courage, sincerity, or, alternatively, a kind of innate simplicity that makes it easy for him to wear his heart on his sleeve. (Williams, p. 164)
Williams's talent was to disprove the adage that we have a kind of structural amnesia of everything before the age of six.
I have long been of the opinion myself ... that a child's observation and memory of what goes on around him in his very early days are very much deeper and more intense than people in general have believed them to be. (Williams, p. 4)
In his essay 'The Storyteller', Walter Benjamin notes:
Less and less frequently do we encounter people with the ability to tell a tale properly. More and more often there is embarrassment all around when the wish to hear a story is expressed. It is as if something inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences. (Benjamin 1999a: 83)
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations Preface Map of the book Introduction VILLAGE: Preamble Performance: Bubbling Tom Excursion: Hibaldstow Project: White House Yard NEIGHBOURHOOD: Preamble Performance: Hibaldstow Plough Play Excursion: Hibaldstow, Redbourne and Kirton in Lindsey Project: Gainsthorpe REGION: Preamble Performance: Haxey Hood Excursion: North Lincolnshire Project: Ousefleet Afterword: Performance and landscape Bibliography Index