An almanack out of the attic

Whilst sorting out stuff in my attic recently, I came across an almanack I made for a project at Glasgow School of Art in 1996 or 1997. This thing is made of paper mounted on mounting board in a concertina-style book: 13 ‘pages’. It lives in a box made of mounting board. Box and almanack are decorated with orange acrylic paint (unmixed orange and a peach-coloured tint) and graphite. I’m far enough away from the person I was when I made it that I think I can start to unlock some of its meanings.

(Images © Matthew Herring)

My first year supposedly on the illustration course at Glasgow was frustrating. Neither of our two tutors were practicing illustrators – one was a packaging designer and the other I think had been a commercial artist (i.e. graphic designer) in the days before computers – and neither had any interest in teaching illustration. Most of the projects they set were either idiotic (“design a planet”) or basically graphic design briefs. Into this context came: “Make an almanack”. It had to use two colours only, as if it were to be printed using a two colour process. One of our tutors, remember, harked back to the days when artists made colour separations by hand. Peculiar thing to teach, on the brink of the digital/internet/multi-media age.

An almanack is usually heavy on type. For a computer-phobe who went to art school to learn to illustrate, almost nothing could be more calculated to turn me off a brief. Either: learn Adobe QuarkXpress (and how to use a computer in general), or do the whole thing by hand. This was in the days when computers lived in a special room guarded by a technician more unhelpful than any librarian; crashed if you breathed on them; and had to be fought over tooth and nail. In 1996/7 I was a frustrated fine artist pretending to myself I wanted to be an illustrator while being extra frustrated at not even being taught that. (The 40 year-old me wonders why I didn’t leave and go to a different art school).

To top it all, a suggestion: why not do something about Charles Rennie Mackintosh? Saint Mack of the Dollars. Into this plays the tension of Glasgow School of Art in those days and hopefully not still: be a Mackintosh theme park for tourists, or a working art school. The fine artists in the Mackintosh shared their space with tourists. For the illustrators and graphic designers in the leaky Foulis building over the road, since demolished, it was this: do something Mackintosh and it might get produced for the gift shop. Our tutors were in cahoots with the gift shop.

So. My almanack was an anti-Mackintosh, anti-graphic design, anti-commercial, anti-sense, anti-almanack. On one side of the concertina: a front cover and twelve images. On the other side, a jumble of calendars, mad handwriting and scribbled drawings. Nowhere does it say which year it is for and it is utterly unusable, as intended. I barely remember what my tutors said to it. I think they were more-or-less indifferent to it. If they realised it was a deliberate and frustrated attempt at a riposte to their project and whole approach to teaching, they didn’t care.

This is what is going on in it:


‘Images side’


Page 1: front cover

Has the following hand-drawn text in smudgy graphite on a pale-orange ellipse on an orange ground: “The This Almanack Was DesiGNED by Me for Me And is DeDICATD TO ME”. Orange was my colour of the apocalypse: the colour of a nuclear sunset. A pale ellipse surrounded by a ‘burnt’ black border on an orange ground was a nihilistic gesture: a vacuous “that’s all folks!” portal at the end of everything. A burnt out tunnel to nothing (not even Bugs Bunny).

Page 2

On top of a C.R. Mackintosh motif of four squares sits a sack with eye holes and ‘z’s coming from it, some backwards, as something is asleep in the sack. Behind it, a distraught girl I copied from the Beano says in a large speech bubble: “Charles Rennie Mackintosh ate my hamster!!”. This, in a puerile way, closed the door on it being sold in the school shop.

Page 3

A Bold washing powder box label copied in mirror image. My attack on packaging design? A landscape intrudes on the design, in the middle ground of which is a strange hand motif that will feature in many of the other motifs. What does the hand mean? Self pleasing? The manual process of making the almanack opposed to the coming onslaught of the computer? Drowning, not waving? I didn’t know at the time.

Page 4

An image copied from a Polish painting I knew: “Zdzisiek jumps of the Palace of Culture & Science every morning”. I was interested in the Polish Poster School and anti-communist Polish art from the 1980s. Did I see myself as having to engage in irony against an unsympathetic regime? The city in the background could be Glasgow.

Page 5

A fat man with no eyes and a fish for an arm. In his stomach: a knife, an Avro Anson aircraft, a bolt, a WC sign, a mouse, a star in a circle, a Polish flag, a can of Old English cider, and several hands. The knife: murder? The aircraft: I had started to rekindle my childhood interest in aeroplanes as a refuge from what I hated about my course. The cider: probably what I would have drunk. The rest:? I was probably the fat man with the fish hand ingesting all of these.

Page 6

A flying anvil with the insignia of the hand in a sky shot with orange clouds. It has a propellor and flimsy wings. The left-hand third of the page is a flat orange ground with a scalloped edge, pushing the anvil image almost off the page. A picture of absurdity flung back at my tutors? Being an artist as impossible as a flying anvil?

Page 7

In the top half: three hand motifs and an assortment of symbols: hearts, gunsight, stars in circles, knife and fork, ladies’ toilet sign. One of the hands has an eye and fork-arm, with which he menaces the other two. They also look like wild-west cacti. In the bottom half a Royal Canadian Air Force Grumman Avenger. Aircraft formed part of my personal surreal at this stage. Aircraft are extremely specific (to those in the know) and bring with them such specific associations that to juxtapose them is very pungent. Part of the poignancy of aircraft, particularly military ones, is their ephemerality: advances in technology make them quickly obsolete, and scrappage and destruction in war make them extinct as types. I discovered the work of Guy Johnson at this time.

Page 8

A sort of strange hand-tree-thing with part of a B17 bomber behind it. A Christmas tree and a cedar from the Lebanese flag.

Page 9

The British Rail logo in a mocking sort of cartouche and the words: “Happy Birthday BR 1st Jan 1948”. Three hand logos and birthday candles. My dad worked for BR. It was a cynical and I guess ironical thing to wish BR happy birthday (it wasn’t because I cared about BR, though I kind of did). Again it is a symbol with very specific resonances: personal, national, nostalgic. The BR logo had, by that time, become a sort of generic sign for a railway in the UK. BR was already dead. The BR sign is as ubiquitous and unremarked as a WC sign and, hence, intrinsically comic. BR would have been 48 or 49 – I discovered the offbeat anniversary at least a year before the first Google Doodle.

Page 10

An orange egg shape with a lion logo from something or other and the ‘CE marking’. A hand emerges from the egg, like a hermit crab. In the background, drawn in graphite: spheres and stars in circles.

Page 11

WG Grace with an orange beard with a childishly-drawn floral border which invades the picture-space, threatening WG’s eyes. WG Grace looks like Engels, who appears later. I was aware of Terry Gilliam’s use of WG Grace’s image a Monty Python animation. Big beards hiding stiff upper lips: the afterglow of the twentieth century’s dismemberment of the nineteenth, before the current century’s rediscovery of it as a comfort bolt-hole for hipsters.

Page 12

The Mcdonald’s logo with three arches and the words: “McSwindle”. A thumbs-down symbol. I worked in Mcdonald’s just before going to art school and didn’t like it. An obvious candidate for a bonfire of the symbols.

Page 13

Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin in profile on top of some walking hands and a leaf-litter of stars in circles. The commie leaders came from a  film still from a book on Polish art. I didn’t care that much about capitalism or communism; they were just grist for the same mill. I developed the star-in-the-circle further in other work. It is a symbol of optimism and power (and American imperialism – it is the US air force insignia), but I piled it up like discarded aircraft parts at the corner of a field in one drawing.

The ‘calendar side’


The other side of the almanack is all painted orange and most of the drawing is in graphite. The calendars are muddled and jumbled together on three only of the 13 pages, again like discarded things. There are some crudely drawn monsters, like those from the margins of a child’s schoolbook. There are more apocalypse-ellipse-voids and some black holes. There are some piled up circles (without stars). Various texts, some of them swiping at commercial entities: “Sweet nothings”; “Oblivion wellcomes [sic] Graham Kendrick [a Christian singer]”; “Pizza Hut says: Never go with stranglers”; “Metsa Serla [paper company] says: 1999 has been cancelled”; “Christmas has been cancelled”; “No Yom Kippur”. One page has: “17 Historic Wednesdays. 17 things invented on a Wednesday: 1 Snakes + ladders, 2 Snakes + ladders […] 17 Snakes + ladders”. Presiding over the whole are the words, in white in carefully traced Octopus typeface: “Everythin ends here” (around it, in white, in my handwriting: “The World ends”; “Party’s over folks!”; “All change!”. Octopus was my favourite way of kicking back at graphic design (now it’s Times New Roman).

I’m not really quite sure what to say in conclusion to all this! As a thorough negation of the brief it barely raised an eyebrow (I doubt I got a good mark, though). The frustration of youth. Funny that in a setting where one is taught ‘visual communication’ nobody thought to even attempt to discern what I was communicating. Including me. I don’t know really….

Oh, the box is titled: “aHistor y O th world”, and it does actually have the year – 1998 – crossed out (in letraset).


Lord of the Rings – Tolkien as nature writer

I’ve just finished re-reading Lord of the Rings and it struck me how much of a nature writer Tolkien was. As readers we are unceasingly immersed in the natural environment of Middle-earth and made to feel every subtle shift of climate; notice every change of vegetation and geology; sense every texture and smell (“reek” is a characteristic word). LoTR is a novel of quest, obviously, but it is also a novel of journeying, of walking and riding. I was reminded of writers like Richard Jefferies and Richard Mabey, tramping a favourite beat and noticing celandines and buds in Spring; waxwings in winter.


The first of the numerous journeys in LoTR sees the four hobbits, Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin flee Frodo’s home in the Shire, pursued by Black Riders. At first they follow lanes that they know, but soon they have to decide between following the road and striking across country. They decide on the latter, and the wisdom of their choice is soon confirmed by the sighting of a Black Rider on the road they have just left. From this point on, however, their battle is with forces that are familiar with any naturalist, or walker, who choses to leave the beaten track. All of this is described with the naturalist’s precision and love of detail.


“Going on was not altogether easy. They had packs to carry, and the bushes and brambles were reluctant to let them through. They were cut off from the wind by the ridge behind, and the air was still and stuffy. When they forced their way at last into more open ground, they were hot and tired and very scratched, and they were also no longer certain of the direction in which they were going. The banks of the stream sank, as it reached the levels and became broader and shallower, wandering off towards the Marish and the River”.


A few lines further on: “they came again to a belt of trees: tall oaks, for the most part, with here and there an elm tree or an ash. The ground was fairly level, and there was little undergrowth; but the trees were too close for them to see far ahead. The leaves blew upwards in sudden gusts of wind, and spots of rain began to fall from an overcast sky”.


I’m tempted to quote a passage from Richard Jefferies’s Nature Near London (1883), which I think has the same feel for the subtly charged atmosphere of a wood. Jefferies has a similar sort of sensitivity to the small changes in the ‘feel’ of a place as one moves even a few paces through it. In the passage I’m about to quote, Jefferies has described the passage of a track from the vibrant buzzing life in the bright sunshine into a small wood. “The green lane as it enters the wood, becomes wilder and rougher at every step, widening, too, considerably”. A little further into the wood:


“There are woods, woods, woods; but no birds. Yonder a drive goes straight into the ashpoles, it is green above and green below, but a long watch will reveal nothing living. The dry mounds must be full of rabbits, there must be pheasants somewhere; but nothing visible. Once only a whistling sound in the air directs the glance upwards, it is a wood-pigeon flying at full speed. There are no bees, for there are no flowers. There are no butterflies. The black flies are not numerous, and rarely require a fanning from the ash spray carried to drive them off”.


In LOTR, the pregnant silence of the woods becomes threatening and oppressive.


Thus far in the story, the resistance offered by Middle-earth is of the same nature of that which would not have faced Tolkien and his tramping Inkling friends in deepest England, because the hobbits are still within the bounds of the Shire. Aside, of course, from pursuit by Black Riders, which are also foreign to the Shire. Once they leave the Shire, the natural environment itself begins to be warped and subtly malevolent in its own right. It takes on a hue of enchantment, which grows the further from the Shire the companions travel. In the Old Forest, the very grain of the forest constantly forces the hobbits down into the valley of the enchanted river Withywindle, which they have been trying to avoid.


“Then deep folds in the ground were discovered unexpectedly, like the ruts of great giant-wheels or wide moats and sunken roads long disused and choked with brambles. These lay usually right across their line of march, and could only be crossed by scrambling down and out again, which was troublesome and difficult with their ponies. Each time they clambered down they found the hollow filled with thick bushes and matted undergrowth, which somehow would not yield to the left, but only gave way when they turned to the right; and they had to go some distance along the bottom before they could find a way up the further bank. Each time they clambered out, the trees seemed deeper and darker; and always to the left and upwards it was most difficult to find a way, and they were forced to the right and downwards”.


Thus the companions are forced down into the enchanted valley, where they are lulled to sleep and trapped by the malevolent tree Old Man Willow. The description of a wood which seems to have a will of its own and to be willfully impeding your progress can be recognised by anyone who has tried to scramble through one, enchanted or otherwise!


Tolkien’s sensitivity to vegetation comes out constantly as the characters of LOTR travel through Middle-earth. There are numerous locations characterised by their vegetation. In this, LOTR is similar to Richard Jefferies’s post-apocalyptic novel After London. However, Tolkien, who is a far greater storyteller, allows the detail to help the story along and never to smother it, as it does in After London, and Tolkien’s story doesn’t peter out like a path in the woods, like the story of After London does. The latter book feels like a natural history essay with a story tacked on (it is at it’s best when describing the putrid ruins of London – a description worthy of Mordor).


The main action of LOTR, beginning with the hobbits’ departure from the Shire, takes place over a number of months, with the principal journey, that of the Fellowship of the Ring from Rivendell south towards Mordor and Gondor, spanning the winter. The seasons play a key role in the journey, alongside a dose of magic, in thwarting the Fellowship’s attempt to cross the mountain Caradhras and forcing them through the Mines of Moria instead. Sauron’s magic works in tandem with the season to create the snowstorm which defeats the mountain crossing, and the seasons also mirror the fate of the mission and, hence, of the world. A detail I noticed this reading is in the chapter entitled “The Palantir”. Sauron’s ally Saruman has just been defeated and there is a hope that the tide may turn. By this point, we are reminded, it is the start of Spring:


“Going westward a mile or so they came to a dale. It opened southward, leaning back into the slope of round Dol Baran, the last hill of the northern ranges, greenfooted, crowned with heather. The sides of the glen were shaggy with last year’s bracken, among which the tight-curled fronds of spring were just thrusting through the sweet-scented earth. Thornbushes grew thick upon the low banks, and under them they made their camp, two hours or so before the middle of the night. They lit a fire in a hollow, down among the roots of a spreading hawthorn, tall as a tree, writhen with age, but hale in every limb. Buds were swelling at each twig’s tip”.


The buds of a hawthorn tree are a small pivot on which the story begins to turn. Aside from its function in the story, I love the precision and care with which this passage is crafted. (The word ‘writhen’ is classic Tolkien).


Later on in the story, Merry is confronted with the immense mystery behind all things as he stands before the sheer faces of the mountains: “He loved mountains, or he loved the thought of them marching on the edge of stories brought from far away; but now he was borne down by the insupportable weight of Middle-earth. He longed to shut out the immensity in a quiet room by a fire”. The weight is, of course, the weight of events and responsibility – of destiny – as well as of stone. This, for me, is a little turning point, or telling moment, in the development of Merry the hobbit as a character. Merry and Pippin in the novel are more mature and less silly at the outset than their counterparts in Peter Jackson’s films of LOTR, but they still undergo a process of development by which their appreciation of weight and import is recalibrated from that of the Shire to that of the wider world, in which they must shoulder new responsibilities. (Pippin’s moment is when he realises the awfulness of his childish mistake in looking into the Palantir). The poignancy of the moment is brought out sharply by the contrasting image of the cosy Shire room. It is characteristic that this epiphany is brought about by the natural world.


There is obviously much more to be said about Tolkien’s use of landscape and natural features in LOTR, but I have just written about those that stood out to me in this reading of LOTR. (The transplanting of the sapling of the White Tree also struck me; and the fact that there were plants in Mordor. The twisted weeds of Mordor would sit well in Richard Mabey’s book of nature around London, The Unofficial Countryside (1973). Mabey’s city margins are less bucolic than those of Jefferies). The literature on LOTR and Tolkien is vast, and I haven’t read more than a tiny fraction of it, so I’m sure my thoughts are far from original, but I just wanted to share them as they are.

Departing from platform 10

I had an hour and a half to kill before catching a train to Scotland, so I got myself a tea in the café which occupies the old signal box at the end of the footbridge on York station. I was just recovering from being unwell and had that unreal feeling, where you feel somehow a stage removed from what is actually happening around you: even my own words as I struggled to place the correct change in the hand of the assistant seemed not quite to be spoken by me, as if I was listening to myself speak from behind a door. This is often a fruitful state of mind, where you get odd insights. It was mid afternoon on the 29th November. A peculiar yellow winter sunlight permeated everything, turning the atmosphere solid. Solid time. Cold. Low winter afternoon sunlight makes everything seem of like substance; the normal divisions of material and surface are obliterated. Everything is alabaster. Everything is tarte au citron. People wander like ghosts, or seem trapped in amber on the knife edge of annihilation; the nanosecond before an errant planet slams into the earth, dissolving everything in an instant into a vast plume of dust which rises in slow motion up into space: atmosphere, water, rock, people, buildings all converted by unimaginable forces into pale grey dust. Even sounds seem clogged.

I settled myself by the window and peered through the grimy pane out at the railway track and the people blowing and scudding up and down the stairs and over the footbridge. My mind settled pleasantly into itself, the wizened rind of the day’s thoughts collapsing in on the mush of the now absent core. Other people hunched over lattés and anxiously chattered to stave off the clawing sunlight. Decades and decades worth of layers of paint on the window frames morphed into outlandish knobbles and cankers. I started to read the introduction to my paperback copy of Moby Dick and it was with some surprise that I found my mind managed to form itself around the ideas, themes and motifs that the introduction’s author drew out of Melville’s text and picked over. Moby Dick the unreal was co-substantive with the unreal afternoon; with the blubbery sunlight and pulp paper. The light was sweet spermaceti oil. In the benevolent fug I made a pact with myself to read de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

A goods train rumbled slowly through the station below me. An endless train of open trucks full of ballast. I imagined that the trucks were exhibits being passed before a jury. That they were prophecies of doom being thrust below the noses of the passengers waiting on the platform, whether they liked to hear or not. That they were not full of pale grey stone, but of bleached human bones: skulls, pelvises, ribs, femurs, tibias, scapulae, sternums jumbled up together, like the bones of Varus’s three legions piled in waves after the battle of Teutoburg. These are your bones; your future. Look how jumbled and dry they are. We are using them to construct the future. A red blinking light on the final wagon said “enough, enough, enough, enough, this is the end, it has come”. The freight train reminded me of the sparrow passing through the mead hall in Bede.


Afterwards, on the train, the light continued to decay, this time breathing brick dust over the world. The world seemed ready to crumble. Acid grey pylons carried news of victory or defeat, their arms raised like Moses’s. The defeat of Varus. I remembered the warm waiting room where I spent a few minutes after leaving the café. Clouds brushed right across the sky by an idiot, or as a warning. Solid state world: information flow without mechanism. Queequeg: the world as a joint stock company at all meridians. It gets dark. Moby Dick is a novel about all things.

Most of the similes I could think of to describe the afternoon sunlight were of food or drink: lemon tart, pease pudding, white wine, cheese, Lucozade. The world as edible: what you eat/experience becomes you. In death and burial the world eats you; in life you eat the world. Eating as passing through: it is no coincidence that our mouths face forwards and our anuses face backwards. There are parallels between our movement forwards through time; our movement forwards through space; and our eating and shitting – the organic process that sustains all our forward movement. Movements forwards and movements backwards; the eating body forwards and the shit backwards. Art is like shitting. Martin Creed frequently says this. We shit that which we cannot assimilate, what is insoluble to us, what doesn’t nourish us. Art is made of that which we can’t absorb, which doesn’t pass simply into our lives; what is insoluble becomes a problem and art is a solution. Bones are that which is insoluble to the earth. Art and bones are what is left. Bones are used for decoration – what else can you do with them? Bury them, make lime or pigment from them or use them for decoration.

Now it’s dark, north of Darlington at 1625.

Weld: a dye plant which frequently grows up through the ballast by railway tracks and metal welding. Ahab welds his crew. Ahab is the crew of the Pequod’s “one lord and keel”. Moby Dick is a quest for light (whale oil used for light). I like the author of the introduction to Moby Dick’s remark that, “Beyond the books, men’s signs and inscriptions are to be found on all the surfaces of the world”. Ishmael and Queequeg both are covered with tattoos. Books everywhere: in the pulpit, in the bedroom, in the cabin, on the deck. “But when leviathan is the text, the case is altered”.

A man glimpsed through the glass of an office stairwell in Newcastle, as he carries a box down the stairs.

On the train going north to Scotland I always try to sit on the right hand side, so that I can see the sea north of Newcastle. But it’s dark. Can I tell when I’m by the sea? Will the darkness have a different quality? If I put my ear to the glass, will I hear the sound of the sea through the double glazing, over the hum of the train? Will I smell the sea? Feel the sea breeze in this heated sardine tin? When are we on the edge? No, I look for where the darkness is most and there are no twinkling lights, but it’s impossible. Whenever I think we must be passing the sea I suddenly see the tail lights of a car in the distance, or a shopping centre appears.

What do they mean, shopping centres and office buildings? What kind of world are we entering if these are its flags, its dark Satanic mills? If Ahab is the man of iron and cogs of the industrial age, who is the man in the bland electrostatic sweater carrying a box of documents down the stairs? Instead of the brutal the bland, the homogenous, the plastic. Houses on a hill by the Forth Bridge hover like bioluminescent sea creatures, transparent and empty. Light boxes.

The warm interior of the coach is like an overcoat. Coat-coach. Moby Dick has chapters about the counterpane, the nightgown and the blanket. The blanket is about the whale’s overcoat of blubber. The journey fizzles out as I concentrate my small remaining mental spark, with rising panic, on the task of getting off at the right stop, as the stations north of the Forth strike with increasing frequency like the very sleepers beneath the track. I have to cast off the warm overcoat of train, but I want to sleep in the haze and light, not brave the brisk dark Scottish night.








Top Shed Residency blog 7 (Friday): Orford Ness

Orford Ness © M Herring 2016

Orford Ness © M Herring 2016

Today was the last full day of my residency. I went to Orford Ness (I tried to go there earlier in my residency, but all the boat trips were full up). Orford Ness is a large shingle spit joined to the coast south of Aldeburgh in Suffolk and separated from the mainland for most of its length by the river Ore/Alde (it is rather like a bigger version of Blakeney Point, which I visited on Monday). Orford Ness is a mysterious place which was home, for eighty years, to a top secret military research establishment. Military activity ceased in the 1980s and it was sold to the National Trust in the 1990s. It was used by the military, among other things, for testing bomb aiming methods and is still littered with unexploded ordinance. The MOD have cleared paths for visitors to follow, and you stick to these, or risk getting blown up.

I first heard about Orford Ness several years ago through a BBC radio programme by Paul Evans and had wanted to visit ever since. Evans’s programme, with its blending of documentary and poetry, perfectly captures the strange atmosphere of Orford Ness. During my residency, I have been re-reading W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, which also describes a visit to the Ness. Both Evans and Sebald experienced a sense of unease and disquiet visiting Orford Ness. Sebald describes visiting on a day that was, “dull and oppressive”, and feeling, “at the same time both utterly liberated and deeply despondent. I had not a single thought in my head”. Evans, if I remember rightly, spent the night on the Ness and was spooked by a hare. Sebald was also, “frightened almost to death” by one which had, “a curiously human expression on its face that was rigid with terror and strangely divided”. I saw a hare too, one which, in the distance, shifted from being a coypu to a mutjac deer to a dog before I guessed it was a hare and got my binoculars fixed on it to confirm the identification. It was too distant to see if it had a human-like face, but it still a disturbingly indeterminate presence. Even the way it moved across the shingle desert – forwards, stop, back, stop, forwards again – was oddly indeterminate. It vanished from time to time in the yellow grass and then seemed to reappear at a spot where it was previously, as if the pocket of time it inhabited had been cut up and spliced together in the wrong order.

To get to Orford Ness, you have to take a small boat the short distance from Orford. Walking down from Aldeburgh, where it joins the mainland, is forbidden, though there is no physical barrier to stop you, only a scary sign. The day I visited was hot and sunny. The part of the Ness closest to the land consists of marshland – I saw lots of little egrets and lapwings – crossed by a tarmac road. A stoat edged round me like I was a chugger it wanted to avoid (but with little more concern than this), as I ate my sandwich sat outside the information building. The road then crosses a tidal creek with mudflats either side, which divides the Ness lengthways. The seaward part of the Ness is a large flat shingle desert. I say flat, but it is actually gently ridged, a bit like land bearing traces of ridge-and-furrow farming. The whole site, especially the shingle part, is dotted with military structures. A large radar station bearing the codename Cobra Mist is to the north – the masts there now transmit the BBC World Service, but it was once the world’s most powerful radar station. A series of bunkers and some strange concrete structures nicknamed The Pagodas, which occupy the shingle to the south, used to house experiments connected to Britain’s early nuclear weapons programme. The visitor path takes in a structure known as the Bomb Ballistic Building, which resembles an airfield control tower, the lighthouse and the closest of the nuclear weapons bunkers.

Orford Ness, exposed and on the North Sea coast, is notorious for biting east winds and I bet that being there in the middle of winter on a grey stormy day is some lugubrious experience, with the wind moaning through the twisted steelwork of derelict buildings and banging sheets of corrugated iron. On a hot, sunny day, with the sky a lapis blue, it has a different atmosphere that is harder to define. Sitting outside the bunker, I tried to get to grips with what I felt about the place. I was prepared for it being eerie and desolate and all the other adjectives. I had a headache and felt a little like Sebald in struggling to marshal any particular thoughts. The lack of shade makes it a difficult place to spend much time on a hot day. The light and heat are radiated back by the shingle and start to tire your eyes (I had no sunglasses) and head. A heat haze made distant objects shimmer. However, the main feeling I got was of a kind of mineral stillness. Everything seemed made of the same stuff and fixed in eternity. Having to walk a pre-determined circuit (with other people all doing the same) increases the sense of fixity and oddness, like you are a bunch of marionettes walking round a prison exercise yard which is also, with the logic of a dream, a desert with strange toy-like buildings set at the corners of the circuit. It reminded me of the stiffness of certain Balthus paintings.

Dried teazel plants poke up from cracks in the tarmac in perfect imitation of iron fixtures rusted into shapes that obscure their original purpose. Tiny scarlet pimpernel flowers resemble flakes of dull red paint on the crazed road surface. Ragwort smells sharply of radish – if anything could survive a nuclear holocaust, I’d bet on it being ragwort. It seems to embody toxic waste-ground. Yellow horned poppy is just as weird as at Blakeney Point. “Do not touch any suspicious objects”, the sign says. Does that include yellow horned poppy? The greenest vegetation is within the roofless bunker, protected from the wind.

Everything tends to nothing. Sitting outside the bunker I tried to note down a few thoughts and came up with the phrase, “nothingness that hums with energy”. It’s not a bad ideal to aim for in art, I think to myself. There is an energy about Orford Ness, that isn’t immediately apparent, but which is somehow behind everything. The more nothing there is, the more it hums with energy. Looking out across the shingle into the heat haze, solid objects such as the lighthouse and Bomb Ballistic Building seem as if they could suddenly disappear (and reappear somewhere else – position being relative on a featureless surface). Everywhere what you notice are alignments: two concrete cubes on the shingle line up at right angles to the horizon; a rusted piece of metal roadway lines up with a distant shed, again at right angles to the horizon; the lighthouse and nautical marker (another tower) exchange charge like two electrodes. It as if nothing exists until it is in alignment with something else. As I point my camera about, I realise that what things are tending towards are the cross hairs of a gun sight or bomb aimer’s sight. Horizontals and verticals constantly lining up and moving apart, as if the land is taking aim.

On a sunny, calm day the energy is all potential, stored for when the storm winds rip across the plain.

I started to fear that my headache would get worse and I’d not be fit to drive back to Norfolk, so I headed back to the jetty, feeling like I was betraying myself a bit. I was back on the Orford side by two o’clock and glad of my flask of tea. I’d like to go back to Orford Ness and do some work there. It’s easy to feel like you know what you are going to somewhere like that to experience and then trot out the clichés, but harder to make sense of it in its own terms. Did I experience what I expected and what others experienced? I don’t know.

Top Shed residency blog 6 (Wednesday)

DSC_0102I spent the past two days at the Shed. Yesterday I mostly wrote. Today I started on two larger woodcuts, which I will finish off when I get home, and made some drawings in charcoal.

Top Shed residency blog 5 (Tuesday)

Today I went to Blakeney Point, on the north Norfolk coast. Blakeney point is a shingle spit several miles long extending into the sea, but parallel with the land. Between the point and the land is the river Glaven. The site includes salt marshes, sand dunes and sandy beaches, as well as the shingle. It is known as a breeding site for seals and terns. I walked up the spit from Cley beach, at the point where the spit breaks away from the land.

I end up wondering why places like this appeal so much. Places that are austere and stripped back. It’s like a kind of obsession, that probably says something about us. Part of the draw is the wildlife – grey and common seals frolicking a few metres off the shore; sandwich terns dive bombing for fish – but part of it is also a fascination with death, like the fascination we feel when we encounter a human skeleton in a museum. It is us, but at the same time radically not us. Bones are hard and cold, we are soft and warm. Bones speak of absence; of flesh and life. Hard landscapes are the same. They are natural, like us, and sustain life. On the other hand, you face something elemental that has nothing to do with human life. The forces that sifted and piled up millions of tons of shingle and that made a series of beautifully sculpted hollows and channels in the sand (caused by receding tide water) are not human forces. Shingle spits, like deserts, do not readily support human life. All comfort is stripped away in a place like this. What frightens us in small doses is enjoyable. To be stuck in a landscape like this which stretched away ad infinitum would be horrifying – would be death. Billions of stones, smooth and hard as carpal bones, all of them sculpted by inhuman forces, are horrifying. Luckily the car park is only a couple of miles trudge away.

It began to rain horizontally from the west as I made my way up the spit. It’s hard work walking on the shingle, so you have to walk right beside the surf, as close as you can without getting your feet wet, where there is some sand which is wet and firm enough to walk on. (There are also patches of really fine shingle, like potting grit. When this is wet it seems like you sink into it even more. So walking on the spit means a constant adjustment higher or lower up the slope in order to find the firmest ground and avoid incoming waves). Out to sea, two enormous wind farms are visible. Turbines stand in grid formation and turn in unison, like some sort of mad mass gymnastics exercise, such as those filmed by Leni Riefenstahl for the National Socialists in Germany. Sometimes the sun catches one farm but the other is in the cloud shadow, so you get a kind of strange dualism: white turbines versus grey ones. Behind them, rain showers trundle across the horizon like pieces of massive, unwieldy stage scenery. Curtains of rain like baleen. Before them the sky above the horizon is inky green; behind them everything is smudged into a grey oblivion.

When the rain shower was overhead I had the feeling of walking underneath a vast motorway flyover. A roaring sound, which turned out to be the wind in my raincoat hood, echoed like the hollow muffled noise of traffic you get under motorway bridges. A band of dark cloud arched above me and the shingle sank into the dead greyness of concrete. My shorts were soaked on the front, but more or less dry behind, like the way tree trunks get moss on one side only. The raindrops stung like small rods of ice. A family of four who were walking ahead of me turned back, presumably disturbed that their clothes were only wet on one side and desiring to get their backsides wet as well. Distance plays tricks with you in places like this. Once the family had gone, I kept thinking the thistles growing at the edge of the dunes were people. Looking back, it seemed I had walked no distance at all. (Later on in the day, I’m pretty sure I saw a middle aged lady in the nud, getting changed without bothering to wrap herself in a towel and relying on sheer distance to hide her. I was forced to pee likewise with no cover and hope that nobody could tell what I was doing because of the distance, so I can’t criticise. It is impossible to know what people far away can see: things seem either closer or further away than they really are).

At the end of the headland the shingle gives way to sand. Fewer people make it to the far end, so I was granted a brief period of that solitude you get on remote Hebridean beaches. Flocks of terns were engaged in a noisy feeding frenzy just beside a sand bar which extended from the beach. Sandwich terns in late summer lose the front part of their black caps, making them look like they are wearing some sort of weird tonsure, like they are all in some cult, or organised crime gang. I gave a baby seal a wide berth. I cut inland into the centre of the headland. A surreal hobbit landscape of grassy dunes and small wooden research huts. Purple carpets of sea rock-lavender. By now, the late afternoon sun was out, bathing everything in its uncanny light. Someone had collected dozens of washed up and abandoned shoes, of all kinds and in all states of decay, and arranged them on a couple of pallets in one of the dune hollows. A surprising number of them were in pairs. Even before I came across this sight, with its eerie resonances, I started to feel a sinister side to the place. Perhaps my failed attempt to reach Orford Ness, with its abandoned military installations, was influencing me. The flat bottomed hollows in the dunes would be excellent places to hide out, or hide something. The sandy, desert-like landscape reminded me of the Jordan valley just north of the Dead Sea. Perhaps the rough hardcore road leads to some secret military site. Better watch your step for mines.

Surreal places require surreal plants. You can’t get much more peculiar than yellow horned poppy, with its oversized finger-like seed pods. Various fleshy-leaved or prickly plants I don’t know how to identify. Sea holly is from another planet.

Walking back down the spit, I was able to take my shoes off and paddle, because the tide was further out and revealed more of the sand. I gradually descended back into the world of the living.

Top Shed residency blog 4 (Saturday)


I have spent the past few days at Top Shed. I tired myself out with my trip to Suffolk, so it took me a couple of days to recover. I have made a number of woodcuts using MDF and a Dremel to cut them. Some of them reproduce my handwriting and texts from the cards I brought. Others reproduce sketches I took from train windows. I have hundreds of these and always struggled to do anything with them, but I discovered they transfer well to woodcut. Most of the woodcuts are of the very simplest kind, where the lines are carved out of the board and are left white in the print. I did one ‘proper’ print (with the lines in relief), but nearly choked on all the MDF dust.

Today I started on some photographs in the landscape, of me walking away from the camera. I just set up the camera and set the self-timer and walked away from the camera. I don’t know if they are an interesting idea. I see them as anti-selfies (in that it is my back I have photographed), and as a kind of refusal (walking away). Ideas of pilgrimage and ‘being in the world’ in a Heideggarean sense might come into it. I could see them working as a series with the right setting.