Some Journeys to Lichfield and Llandeilo

Leaving Lichfield I remembered Google map’s prediction: 165 miles, 3 hours 15 minutes to Llandeilo Carmarthenshire. That is on the route I suggested, dragging the line away from the M5 /M4 junction, to the M5 /M50 junction. Google thinks I have added 3 minutes. I think I have saved 30 minutes.

So I imagine leaving Lichfield, heading south and west. But actually I reach a series of roads that only travel either north and west or south and east. Google has also already told me that ‘this route has tolls’. A picture comes to mind of the 1770s toll house at St Fagans*, and of the Merched Beca marching towards it.

I am going to my parents house, however, not driving to Llandeilo. I am heading south and east. I crawl through Walsall’s traffic to reach the M6. I regret not paying tolls. It takes me over an hour to travel 20 miles back towards Warwickshire, looking across sheds, industrial units and housing as the Motorway hovers at roof level.

The last time I arrived by car in Lichfield I was breaking a journey from the north of England back to Wales. I reflect on how, coming that way, I thought it was a quiet market town, on the edge of countryside. Taking morning coffee in the Cathedral café garden I thought I could be in a country hotel.

The first time I travelled direct to the Cathedral from Wales was with Richard Higlett. We spent the car journey up the M50 and the M5 talking about churches, Cathedrals, and the differences between those words; about leaving and returning; about writing and the visual; about association and memory.

Richard is fascinated by telling details. We both enjoy considering the […]

By |October 8th, 2013|The Book|0 Comments

The Husbands Message

As I’m in the last week of my video postcard project for Colm Cille’s Spiral, in which I’ve been sending 15 second video postcards to whoever asks for one, I wanted to put down a couple of thoughts about one of the inspirations behind it, which I learned about from medieval literature PhD students at Kings College.

The Husband’s Message, an anonymous Old English poem, dates to around the 10th century and is one of the few surviving poetic compilations from the Anglo-Saxon period. Taken to be a love letter from a lord to his estranged wife, it nevertheless seems to be written from the perspective of the wood which bears the lines of the poem, that is, the object the husband sent out with his message:

 I remain true     to the tree I was hacked from
Wood I am, bearing     the marks of a man

The wood, which carries the message ‘cross the sea’ ‘borne on salt currents’, is therefore both a medium or a carrier for the content of the poem, and a speaker; it is a self-aware medium that both carries the message and reflects on its ability to carry it:

To you far away     I carry this message

However, the text of the poem is itself a medium, which casts it as a very early example of what Marshall McLuhan argued was characteristic of every medium: that its ‘content’ is always another medium, which ‘shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action’. In other words, look at the wood (the medium) and its power to shape human experience through its ability to carry messages, not just the poem (its content)- which is what the speaker of The Husbands Message invites the […]

Reflections on Raasay


I have been following the blog entries from the residency in Raasay, made up of artists, scholars, illuminators and medievalists who all took part in the different knots of the Spiral to ruminate over questions surrounding Colm Cille; the extreme past, retelling myths, exile and labour.


One of the things that occurred to me is our connection or rather disconnection to sea and landscape in comparison to Colm Cille’s time, when it was inherent to human nature. This connection is one that is being attempted to re-invoke throughout the spiral and residency on Raasay. The sea and land were vital tools to export the knowledge of Colm Cille, from his initial pilgrimage to Iona and the unique settings he founded monasteries and settlements for contemplation. This reminds me of the Vicissitudes performance, a participant, Liam Campbell who had a big interest in Colm Cille and had just completed a Phd about the River Foyle, its symbolism and how it connects people. This reconnection to our surroundings to me is an element of Colm Cille’s Spiral that is vital to explore.


Some other themes that stood out to me was re-interpretation of power structures and traditions. Local traditions of places such as Raasay are at danger of being lost. Tory Island is just off the coast of Donegal, where Irish is the native language. It draws similarities to Raasay, with a similar population count, traditions, native language, all of which are dwindling. There is a King of Tory who is selected by the islanders as a spokesperson for Tory, a tradition that has died out in other places. The local people use the sea and soundscape as a tool to throw their voices to manage everyday island […]

A slow approach to Lindisfarne

It was a pilgrimage of sorts, by train, bus, then walking to Lindisfarne and Bamburgh, to experience ‘Antiphonal’, two sound installations by Tom Schofield comprising poetry by 12 North East poets. The poems, also published in pamphlet form as ‘Shadow Script’, were commissioned by Linda Anderson of Newcastle University’s Centre for Literature Arts as a response to the medieval texts and this undulating landscape of historical narrative.
We stayed in Durham to see the Lindisfarne Gospels (on temporary exhibition) first-hand, the pen and colour still so fresh and real, then retraced their dispersal from Lindsifarne following the Viking attacks.
The bus dropped us at Beal, about five miles from Lindisfarne, where we camped overlooking the sea – walking to the island early the next morning with a tent and heavy rucksacks seemed appropriate for seventh century monastic life and Cuthbert’s ascetic existence. But as time went by, and the long causeway and sweep of the Snook stretched out before us, the distant nub of the village and abbey ruins seemed to get no closer. We pondered on getting provisions and building materials onto the island without motorised transport when St Aidan founded the monastery, what could be grown on the island and how hard life must have been. Then as we arrived, the spell was broken by bus loads of tourists, cafes and shops.

The words of poems were broadcasting in the Tower, reaching with the eye into the seascape, and back and forth in time. But others coming in were in a different space, so we descended to Cuthbert’s isle and read two of the poems from Shadow Script to each other.


He’s sad to see […]

By |August 23rd, 2013|The Word|0 Comments

Reflecting on Bradwell

I joined the group of early medievalist PhD students from King’s College London for ‘Interrruptions’ on 25 July at St Peter’s-on-the-Wall, at Bradwell-on-Sea, the opening episode in the London/Essex ‘knot’ of Colm Cille’s Spiral. It was a wonderful experience that perfectly demonstrated the academic-artistic collaboration that the project has set out to achieve.
The group, organised by James Paz and tutored by Professor Clare Lees, had been briefed in May by Marc Garrett of Furtherfield ‘to imagine you had been forced to live in a dystopian world where the internet and mobile technologies are no longer safe to use…where all our information is used against us under the globally networked eye of the ‘Netopticon’, or post-Panopticon’ (uncannily prescient with the recent news of widespread snooping by US and UK security services). The group’s aim was ‘to reclaim social and cultural contexts on our own terms and share ideas, knowledge and crucial information’.
It was bright and sunny, the brutalising A13 left behind as the roads diminished in scale to this isolated end of Essex where the land and sea become almost indistinguishable. St Peter’s Chapel stands on its own on a slight rise, the site of Cedd’s community founded in 654, and strangely surreal, with Bradwell nuclear power station in one direction, wind turbines in another. It does have some special quality, which Cedd must have sensed when he arrived. Even as an aetheist and materialist, I often wonder about this very human response of faith to the material character of landscape and architecture.

I thought about this more with Hana Videen’s Mapping the Human on the Non-Human, a beautifully simple illustration of the seventh century imagination extending into the natural and material world. It was one […]

Peregrinatio: Thomas Joshua Cooper

Over an eleven day period, GSA’s Head of Fine Art Photography Thomas Joshua Cooper travelled to Skye, Raasay, Cumbria and Northern Ireland, covering a total of 3135 miles.

He worked on two photographic bodies of work. For the first, he travelled to photograph the birthplaces of Saint Patrick, St Brendan and St Columba. His description of Lough Gartan, St Columba’s birthplace, echoes the mention of birches of Sorley MacLean’s poem ‘Hallaig’. MacLean imagines the cleared village’s absent women as, “ … a wood of birch trees / Standing tall, with their heads bowed.” Cooper speaks of, “Three silver birches, leaning towards the Lough, a trinity picture”.

For his second series, he went to the very edges of land, visiting the cardinal points of Northern Ireland including Benbane Head, County Antrim, the north-west point and then onto the east-most point at Burr Point on the Ards Peninsula.  In particular, with the latter location, he focused on the view from Ireland across the water to Scotland, aiming to echo St Columba’s last view from Ireland, before his exile to Scotland.

A quote from a book brought in during our residency by local Raasay resident Jennifer Burnet describes who Columba was in terms of the cardinal points.
 ‘In the West he was called upon as a bard, a guardian of the magical powers inherent in the literary traditions of the Celtic languages; in the North, he was a prince, a member of a prestigious lineage with a responsibility for the defence of his people; in the East he was a father, an abbot who was a just and tender provider of the many monks under his care and in the South he was a priest who dealt directly with […]


The long green journey through the highland braes have given me ample time to reflect on the last few amazing days that I have spent on Rassay Island with the Convocation group.
What a way to begin a commissioned project! The dynamic was rich,informative and full of good will. I feel that perhaps due to the nature of the themes that we were exploring, that of contemplation, of spirit, prayer, language, the soul.. that this may have instilled and created a framework for a particular level of connection.

Each day we set out to a different part of the island to visit specific sites,to discuss aspects of the Life of St Columba and to raise various departing questions/points for the project. Among many subjects, we talked about the the rhythms and structures of monastic living.
I found it interesting to hear Clare Lee ( Professor of Medieval English Literature,Kings College) discussing the monastery as a place of production. A”power house of prayer” for the lay people, who in turn provided the monastic community with food and means. It is bizarre to me that salvation and prayer was and still is something that can be considered as a ”produced” mass of substance.
I am fascinated by the effects of belief systems on social structures and communities. Artist Augustus Veinoglou brought an excellent book with him called ” Religion for Agnostics’ by Alain De Botton. I couldn’t put it down all week ! It presented so many ideas for me, around the themes of art, culture and religion.

Each evening after dinner we were blessed to have really interesting talks. Rodger Hutchinson, author of the book ”Calum’s Road’ came to tell us the story of Calum Mac Leod and how he […]

Di Domhnaich

We left the island today.

Over the course of the week, we have oscillated between the rational and aspects of faith or mystery. The artists in the group are comfortable about using the latter terminology in talking about their practice, with Michail Mersinis talking about “photography as an act of faith”. The group are split however between the two entities when thinking about ‘The Life of St Columba’. “Maybe the book doesn’t want you to know”, Clare Lees said earlier in the week. “The book is its own I”.

As we sat in the waiting room yesterday evening for our last discussion, looking out to the ferry making its way in between Raasay and Skye, it was a good location to highlight that the group are at the start of seeing how the information from the week will filter down into their practice. Distance and the return home seemed to be the next stage that will help us see what we have learnt.

Jennifer Burnet, the woman who helped Jessica Ramm cut peat, has been visiting Raasay House with a wealth of information in forms of books, photocopies and photographs relating to our area of enquiry. A quote from one of the books she brought, sums up our first phase of the Spiral.

“The Celtic mind was never drawn to the single line; it avoided ways of seeing and being which seek satisfaction in certainty. The Celtic mind had a wonderful respect for the mystery of the circle and spiral”1

1 ‘Anam Cara: Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World’, John O’Donahue

Thisssssss: Sound and Silence

Yesterday was bookended with both a real and a transmitted experience of the same place, Hallaig. In the morning, Emma Nicolson led the group on a walk to this cleared village situated in the south-east of Raasay. In the evening we watched we watched Francis Mckee’s copy of ”Hallaig: The Poetry and the Landscape of Sorley MacLean’ 1

‘Back through the gloaming to Hallaig,
Through the vivid and speechless air,
Pouring down the steep slopes,
Their laughter misting my ear.’ 2

Emma Balkind, one of our illuminators, has been recording the sound of our field trips and conversations. When we interviewed her for the short film we are making about the residency, she said, “I felt I was switched on all the time”. She and her microphone have captured the layers of words and movement of the group, alongside the land and the sea around us. I asked her if she has managed to record silence at Hallaig and she said no. Even when Johnny Rodger, one of the most ebullient in our group, asks for silence on the hill, the put-put-put of a boat out on the Sound can be heard, followed by the musical tone of a button on a digital camera.

In the evening, the cadence of Sorley MacLean’s voice and his delivery of the word ‘Thisssssss….’ sticks in my mind. The letter ‘s’, a spiral in form, fizzes in his mouth, shaping the word into a new sound and entity.

How can something, as Sorley MacLean has it, be ‘vivid and speechless’ at the same time? What is Much of our discussions have circled around pairs of words that come from different realms but are interwoven in order to exist: Faith and Doubt. Rational and Spiritual. Discipline […]

Vision on Raasay

“It’ll be like an Autobahn” 1

Emma Nicolson, Director of ATLAS Arts, joined the Spiral. Her input on the shaping of the project, her choice of Raasay as location and suggestion of Skye artists Caroline Dear and Jessica Ramm, has proved invaluable. Emma invited local author Roger Hutchinson to meet the group and talk about ‘Calum’s Road’, which tells the true story of a road built over ten years by one man on his time off, Calum MacLeod, to link up to his declining community of Airnish at the north of Raasay.

MacLeod wanted a ‘motor road’, using a 1901 book about building roads for motor vehicles to act has his guide. Using a pick, wheelbarrow, spade and hammer to make the road from stones, his friends also got him dynamite, which he used to blow up a local landmark, a stack that was in the way of the road. He completed the road in 1979, at a point when it was only he and his wife remained in Airnish.

Roger Hutchinson covered the ‘practical sphere and metaphorical sphere’ of this true story. He said that MacLeod was aware he was ‘building a metaphor’ as he fully realised that the migration from his home community was terminal. As the local council, Inverness County Council, had always refused to build the road, latterly citing their decision in view of unsustainable costs for such an enterprise, for such a low population, MacLeod also knew he was building something subversive. Hutchinson said that the Raasay islanders he interviewed said, “Just how he did it was beyond belief to all of us”.

Hutchinson proved to be a great storyteller. He concluded that Calum Macleod died in 1988, found by his wife in […]