When the Path is a Story

Rachel Morris

Sometimes the path is a story.

No, that’s not true.  The path is always a story – somebody’s story – if we but knew it.  We are up in the bracken-strewn hills of Easedale Tarn near Grassmere, my old man and me, and the person whose path (and story) this is is, in all probability, that 18th century wild child, Dorothy Wordsworth, who roamed all over these hills.  She and her brother William came here in the winter of 1799 – the very end of the century – having walked more than 30 miles over the snow-strewn Pennine Hills, Dorothy dressed in a striped dress and straw bonnet.  They were middle-class hippies but also orphans and they came here to mend themselves and each other as well as to write poetry.  Dorothy loved her brother with a love that is indistinguishable from worship.

I have only just discovered her Diaries and I am transfixed with admiration for them.  She took the  Diary form, that had never had much status, and – a bit like Gertrude Jekyll and the herbaceous border – did what women sometimes do, and made it both local and domestic but also transcendentally beautiful.  She writes about bird song and cold pork and anemones and tooth ache.  Her style is artless, fluent, slightly mystical, composed as if written on water – and also utterly uncopyable.  Try copying it and you’ll discover that it’s not only about the words she uses;  it’s also about the way she sees the world – and no one has ever seen the world like Dorothy Wordsworth.

This is her writing on a summer’s day: – ‘The lake was now most still & reflected the beautiful yellow & blue & purple & grey colours of the sky.  We heard a strange sound in the Bainriggs wood as we were floating on the water.  It seemed in the wood but it must have been above it, for presently we saw a raven very high above us – it called out & the Dome of the sky seemed to echoe the sound – it called again & again as it flew onwards, & the mountains gave back the sound, seeming as if from the centre, a musical bell-like answering to the bird’s hoarse voice.’

And this is her writing on the moon: – ‘The Moon hung over the Northern side of the highest point of Silver How, like a gold ring snapped in two & shaven off at the Ends it was so narrow.  Within this Ring lay the Circle of the Round moon, as distinctly to be seen as ever the enlightened moon is . . . ‘

Her Diaries, which are in the Wordsworth Museum, are things, each one far more chunky and physical than these virtual words that you are reading.  Her scrawled writing slopes upwards in its urgency, and the pages are strewn with random capital letters and ampersands by which I am so charmed that I am, momentarily, a fully-paid up member of the Save the Ampersand Brigade.

Dorothy was never published in her lifetime and even in the face of her exquisite writing has always been treated with faint mockery – a thread of ‘Poor Dorothy’ runs down the centuries.  So I am perversely pleased to discover that the Diaries are full of crossing-outs and amendments. She may have been poor, plain and insignificant but she had enough pride in her talents and was enough of a craftsman to work at her effects. When the Diary opens she is sitting on a stone beside the waters of Lake Windermere, weeping – and you can’t get much more knowingly theatrical than that.

The Diary ends with the marriage of her brother William to another woman.  She never wrote anything as good again;  but then perhaps, having written this, it didn’t matter?


The History Makers

Museum of Marco Polo

Who would have thought that prehistory could be so romantic and so ‘people-y’?

I am standing in the new Wessex Gallery in Salisbury (just opened last week) and I am about to break one of the un-written rules of the Museum of Marco Polo (which is not to puff what we do in our daytime lives as museum-makers) because I am touched by the sight of so many lives and so many stories – of both the antiquarians who rediscovered the Wessex past and those who lived it in the first place.

Making museums is complicated.  Hundreds of people get involved. Not every early decision makes it through, and not every early decision should. But this was a good, early decision – to tell a double story. Round the edges of the gallery we meet the men (they were mostly men) who carved out paths into the blankness of prehistory, whilst in the middle of the gallery we meet the men, women and children, now long since dead, who were the objects of their passion.  ‘My mental eyes ached,’ said William Pengelly, a 19th century antiquarian, ‘from looking back so far into the abyss of antiquity.’

So going round the edge of the gallery –

Here is Heyward Sumner, an artist from the Arts and Crafts tradition, with a passion for archaeology, folklore, geology and local history.  He retired to Bournemouth at the end of the 19th century and excavated the Roman pottery kilns in the New Forest.  His delicate drawings of Roman pottery forms, washed in browns and blues, are masterpieces of delicacy and elegance.

And here is the Reverend Masters, who discovered a ‘cart-load of broken Roman pottery,’ which he displayed in his village museum at West Dean  (a museum now defunct, but I wish I’d seen it).  Here are Cunningham and Colt, a duo of passionate barrow-diggers.  And here is Pitt-Rivers, the soldier-archaeologist, with his military bearing and intransigent attitudes, who laid down the principles of archaeology in the 19th century.

And above all here is my favourite, William Stukeley, 18th century antiquarian and self-styled Arch Druid, in whom the mysterious and numinous landscape of Wessex first implanted an obsession for prehistory.  For five summers he walked, rode, measured and thought his way round the puzzles of Stonehenge, often with his friend and patron, Lord Winchelsea – because for Stukeley, who was an 18th century man, scholarship was convivial and went hand in hand with friendship.  It was Stukeley who rediscovered the Avenue at Stonehenge, named the trilithons, gave the ‘Cursus’ earthwork its name, and observed that the stones were aligned with the midsummer sunrise.  Stukeley said of Stonehenge ‘it is a true masterpiece. Everything bold, proper, astonishing.  The lights and shades adapted with inconceivable justness . . . the proportions of the dissimilar parts recommend that whole, and it pleases like a magic spell.’

But Stukeley also fell in love with the idea that the Druids had built Stonehenge and so successfully planted this idea into the popular imagination that it still exists today – as a result of which the archaeologist Stuart Piggott wrote that Stukeley was ‘the least scientific and most irresponisibly romantic writer on antiquities ever.’  I love that mix of passion and exasperation leaping off the page together.

The showcases are stuffed with paintings, drawings, measuring tools, notebooks and first person quotes.  All that poetry and imaginative sensibility – who would have thought it?

So much for the History Makers.  In the middle of the gallery are the objects of their scholarly passion:  the touching remains of those who lived and died here on the Wessex uplands:  the teenage boy who was buried on Boscombe Downs in 1500 BC with 90 amber beads beside him;  the mother, her 5 year old daughter, and two more children, siblings but unrelated to the first, who were all buried huddled together on Cranbourne Chase;  and, best of all, the Amesbury Archer, born in Switzerland but buried at Stonehenge, who lived and died on the very cusp of a new, metal-making era, and who was buried with a pair of gold, hair ornaments and a cushion stone beside him.  The cushion stone suggests that he may have been a metal worker, may indeed have brought the new techniques to Britain, and through them became a wealthy, shamanistic type, powerful enough to be buried by the Stones.

Wrapping round the gallery are huge photographs of the moody Wessex uplands, with their tall grasses and blowy, summer clouds.  In prehistory the landscape was dominant, the deal-breaker, perhaps the most powerful character of all in the story.

It takes dozens of skills to make a museum – text, film, graphics, showcases, conservation, curatorship – but we couldn’t have done it without the History Makers and the long-dead people of Wessex.

 The new Wessex Gallery has just opened at the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum.


The Future of Remembering

Museum of Marco Polo

Am just back from  Lindisfarne Island where I went with the Chief Illustrator to the Museum of Marco Polo, who is in search of English magic (don’t ask) – which is how it was that I was in the graveyard at Lindisfarne, admiring the gravestones and thinking how economically every one of them tells a story and how cleverly they had licked the challenge of ‘Remember Me’.

The theme of ‘Remember Me’ chimes with various books that I’ve been reading, not to mention what I’ve learnt over the last year through the writing of this website, all of which suggest that what we remember, as a society, as well as how we remember it, are changing in ways that are fascinating.

So bear with me if the following sounds like a lecture because I promise you, it’s more interesting than you might think . . .

The history of Remembering goes something as follows.  For thousands of years we were largely an oral society.  Only a minority of people could read and write. The Past was fragile and easily destroyed, and although people remembered it in all the ways that they could – through story, song, dance and ceremony – Time would keep sweeping away our pasts.  Stone was the nearest thing that we could get to the material of immortality – and so it was the material of kings, although later on the material of all of us – although only after death, in the form of our gravestones.

And then, from about the 18th century onwards, as literacy spread, organisations grew up, like publishing houses and museums, whose job it was to record and remember the Past. Remembering became easier but also highly privileged.  It was the top-down past that we remembered, the past of the few and the important, not that of the many and the nameless.

And so things went on, until digital came along, a wonderfully cheap, powerful and democratic medium, and released a great surge of storytelling, as everyone took advantage of it to get their story out there, to say ‘Me too, I also matter’.  Although nothing is ever perfect and this surge of storytelling has all but destroyed the professional storytellers, undermined the business cases of the old publishing houses, and is currently lapping around museums.

The rise of the community museum is no coincidence.  It’s all part of a great wave of Me too/I also want to be remembered.  And it’s all strangely and interestingly democratic – as if we are returning to the old, pre-literate world in which no one person owns the storytelling medium.

It will certainly change museums in ways we can only guess.

But, and this is where it all gets puzzling, although digital is clearly a powerful medium for recording huge amounts of data, it doesn’t feel like a medium for the expression of Eternity, in the way that stone, for instance, does.

In fact, you only have to run a website for a while to discover that (unlike with writing on stone or paper) the true nature of digital feels transient, changing, flexible, personal, provisional, provocative, deletable and playful in ways that stone could never be. (Which is why, dear Reader, the Museum of Marco Polo has a playful feel.)  All of which sets me wondering how does the personal, the playful and the provisional work if you are looking for a medium to express Eternity?

The interesting thing about new media is that it always takes them 50 years or to so settle down.  When printing came along in the 15th century it released a flood of printed books – but most of them were printed versions of books that were already in existence.  When film arrived at the end of the 19th century it took many years before it became the medium of big storytelling.  In book terrms we are somewhere around about 1500 AD, in film terms round about 1890.

We don’t yet know what digital will become, although we can be sure that this will also depend on the platforms that we develop to deliver it.  Right now I am looking at my ipad mini where words and images have the brilliance of stained glass windows – and I am thinking to myself, I bet you, this will be the medium of short stories and pictures, and that long novels with words and nothing else will not survive.

Meanwhile back on Lindisfarne, the Chief Illustrator, who is still in search of English magic, suggests that we go down to the water’s edge to watch the tide come in. And so we go down to the causeway where the tourists are now hotfooting it off the island in advance of the rising tide. We settle down to watch, and as we do so the grey clouds come down, the seagulls begin to rise and keen, and the westering sun comes slanting through the clouds in long ladders of light. At which a look of delight comes over the Chief Illustrator’s face at this bit of English magic, laid on just for her.

(c) Rachel Morris

The book I have been reading is ‘Information Ages:  Literarcy, Numeracy and the Computer Revolution’, by Michael Hobart and Zachary Schiffman.  It’s interesting.

Time Machines

Ben Morris

There are many kinds of time machine.  Books are rather obvious ones.  I’m baffled by those who jettison books after reading them, or who prefer to borrow from libraries.

I’ve been guilty of stealing from libraries, and stealing from bookshops too (I was earning £25 per week when a hardback might cost £3), rather than giving back the moments I had found in some book or other, whether over months of extended borrowing (library) or a lunchtime infatuation (bookshop).  Looking back I am alarmed at my rashness, but I still have the books.

When you read a book you give it your time – not just any time, but very particular time, that special right-here-right-now time.  In return the book gives you its time, and the writer’s time. So reading a book is like being time-brothers (blood-brothers without the blood) or time-sisters with the writer, your time and his or hers joined forever, and it’s that conjoining that the book – the physical thing, the object – locks away.

The reader, in this imagining of the world, running his eye or her hand over the bookshelves, picking out this book or that one, and opening it, re-lives the time of its reading – the time, the place, the season, the bus journey or train journey or the quiet midnight moments or the bright days;  who you were with, what you were doing or not doing, when and why, that whole rush of nostalgia, all within the pages of a book.

You don’t have to will it to make it happen.  You don’t have to wish for it or even want it. It doesn’t depend on beautiful editions – nice as that can be – it’s just about the book, any book you have once read.

Let’s try a few.  The Penguin Gunter Grass editions of the middle 1970’s – Dog Years, Local Anaesthetic, Cat and Mouse –  with their dull gold covers, The Cherry Orchard by Tchehov (!) in its pink, early-Penguin covers with its end note For the Forces (1940) – Leave this book at a Post Office when you have read it so that men and women in the Services may read it too. Did anyone?  Kafka, its dust jacket torn like a careful piece of Tate art – Secker and Warburg, a first edition, 1973.  A Faber Fool for Love, Sam Shepherd, from 1983, when I was still deeply in love with playwriting.

A well-tuned time machine can even outrun death. There’s nothing past tense about the Raymond Carver of Granta 12, with its Rolling Stones cover – green shoes, red drainpipes, blue Hockney pool. Primo Levi is still miraculously alive in Granta 16. No one is dead, except in stories, in my favourite Granta of all Grantas, Dirty Realism, Granta 8 – Carver and Hoban and Angela Carter all turning their time tricks.

The world of ordinary objects becomes a recording device for all our moments, from the first moment we are aware of inhabiting it;  its objects record time – finite time, our time – as soon as we start living among them, as if a clock is set running.

But there’s a knowingness about books that makes them special kinds of objects.  Re-read the collected letters of your favourite writer to enter the deliciously multi-layered place of book time, writer’s time, your time now, your time then.

Films can play the same game. Watch Welles among the fun-house mirrors in The Lady from Shanghai.  Paintings (for me anyhow) don’t seem to in quite the same way because they are such singular objects, in the sense that they are already so completely what they are that there is no room to smuggle in much extra, they are already too completely defined. And that’s also the point. The precious object creates a singular world in its own image, somehow. In contrast, it’s the plain, everyday and ordinary object  that seems to reflect us, rather than to shine on itself.

I have my own favourites. Train tickets.  An old receipt.  A credit card statement with its list of strange transactions from a decade or more ago. An opera or theatre or cinima ticket left in a book as a book mark (I stuff them into books randomly and deliberately).  The deja vu moment when you pay for your newspaper and seem to have been here before.  The way the bus doors just closed and what you glimpsed out of them. A half-written draft of something lost in the wrong folder in your laptop. The sound of a dog barking which somehow breaks out of its own ordinaryness. The look on a face. The heady moment of that glass of wine. The trickle of the song you half hear.  These are all time machines.

Ben Morris is the author of the thriller, ‘Driving Jaimie’, currently available from your local Kindle store and from other ebook stores soon.