James A. Holliday

I am a writer and have work in Art Licks, Arc, Ark: Words and Images from the Royal College of Art Magazine 1958-1970, The Blue Notebook and House Guests (a publication for Kettle's Yard, Cambridge) I have co-edited and contributed to As is the Sea, an anthology of text responses to the sea and Ends Meet: Essays on Exchange, a collection of responses to ideas of exchange. I am currently working on my first book. Contact me at: jamesholliday203@gmail.com

Diving into the Dandelion Head. I was asked by the painter Sam Marsh to produce a written response to his paintings to accompany his exhibition.


Held in place on JMW Turner’s porcelain palette – currently on display at the Royal Academy of Art – are clouds of paint. Laid on top of the white porcelain, these colours rush over each other and plume as ink does dropped into water. They are layered too and thin enough to bleed into each other. On getting closer, the scrub marks become clear. Bristles scratch into the surface of paint and mixing gestures can be traced. The paint covering the surface is now erratic, not the delicate plumage it was from a distance.

 Sam Marsh has his fingers in paint. In an instant, he whips his arms around and drags paint with him. Across the canvas, arcs are appearing as the paint is moved around. It is tubular, snaking over the surface and lacing up and down. It is taken off, scraped back. Not right. His fingers are back in globs of paint and his arms are whipping around and the paint is following. Better. This is a repeated process; it is quick, and physical and replayed. SM moves back and forth across the canvas, removing and reapplying paint. What hangs on the wall is the result of a single frenetic session – but it is also one of many. Frank Auerbach’s drawings are made in the same way: the charcoal from the previous day’s sitting is wiped off and the image is remade. Below each drawing is the faint outline of old marks. When finished, one image stands out but the others linger behind. While SM adopts this method, the thickness of the paint wipes away any ghost. Tubular was the right word to use; the marks appear three-dimensional. They could have been squeezed out and piling up like ketchup on a plate.

When I was growing up, I had this friend whose dad converted their attic space. Every surface was clad in chipboard. At first, it was strange; we stood, as eleven year olds and were surrounded by chipboard. On mass, like this, chipboard has the effect of the white static between television stations. It is hard to focus when surrounded by flakes of wood and we would find ourselves absorbed in this space but also disorientated. Gradually this softened. Mattresses were thrown in for sleeping and a television plugged in. Videos piled up along with empty pop cans and wrappers. Really though, what this space is remembered for is housing a Scalextric set. It was vast and covered most of the floor – the mattresses were moved inside the track and the television pushed to the corner. As we constructed this we imagined its potential. In our heads, the track would loop constantly. Each turn would lift into a sequence of loop-the-loops and continue spiralling into the next turn. Some loops would lift up so that the cars were above our heads and the track would begin spiralling down to the chipboard ground like helixes. We imagined parallel tracks weaving in and out of one another as they climbed up, lacing the space. We would stand, not in the centre of a room clad with chipboard, but cascades of Scalextric track as it twisted around us.

Below the manically made tubular paint marks are calmer paintings. This is a slow process and sets the tone for the finished work. Blocks of colour are painted on and areas are masked off. Space for the paint to be dragged is made. Fingers move through the paint, pulling the globs across the surface. As this is done, the colours below come through, staining the marks being made. Where masks have been laid the dragged paint doesn’t go and pre-planned shapes can be seen. Ideas of collage begin to come through. In places, the paint laces and is met by a sharp line or the corner of a hexagon. There is an expected tension between the rapid swirls of paint and the measured calm of a hexagon grid.

Recurring throughout all of the paintings are references, to collage, but also to the imagery of computing and the Internet – particularly with the use of garish colours. They do not move softly into one another but stop and start sharply. The electric colours of early web pages come to mind. Also the marks made with SM’s fingers are reminiscent of graffiti imitated by early Photoshop or Microsoft Paint. Remember dragging a curser over a computer screen and leaving a trail of harsh colour behind? SM’s paintings have the marks we tried so hard to make.

In a car that was sat in traffic, we looked out of the windows and saw a great flock of starlings. It quickly filled the immediate sky. It was unexpected. Can you remember seeing so many starlings at once before? I don’t think I can. What I can remember is seeing lines of birds resting on telephone wires and that looked pretty hectic but it was still. When we were surrounded by the starlings, it was as though something had gone off and suddenly these birds were whipping around us. The air was thick black with fluttering shapes. In Malawi I saw clouds of what looked like smoke across the lake. By the afternoon the clouds had got closer and I realised that it wasn’t smoke but midges. By the evening they had filled the bar I was in. All I could see was a thick cloud of midges. They tasted bitter and got caught behind my glasses. Before we knew it there was another flock of starlings. The two were dancing together – ducking and diving around the buildings. One flock would dip out of sight and the other would appear and then be swamped by the first. When both were in the air, and like the midges, the sky looked the same as the static between television stations. It was fluid too. When some of the flock turned it looked thinner because they were side on and shapes began to appear in the flocks.

Against a single colour backdrop, marks move through and over the canvas and there is fluidity. Cutting into the paint, SM reveals more layers of colour. Set into a single colour, these cut-out marks have space to breath. Grey comes through and flicks across the surface. Shapes hover, as though in flight, over blue and teal surfaces. Where SM does have dragged paint marks, they are woven in and out of and not the dominant expressions they are in other works. The paintings that focus on tubular marks are manic; constricted to the canvas, this is heightened and good to burst. But, here it is as though glimpsing only part of an image as it passes by. When dandelion heads are blown or birds take flight we watch for a moment, knowing that it will change instantly. SM’s paintings behave like this too. On round canvases, it is the same as looking through a camera obscura and seeing life, in motion, caught and lit on a circular board.


Swimming Southampton. I was invited by John Hansard Gallery to write a response to Southampton.

Philip Hoare tells me that there is a high suicide rate in the area. This regular spot for jumpers is the centre of the Itchen Bridge. Here a Samaritans help point has been placed. Like at Beachy Head, those feeling desperate are reached out to. When bodies fall from this height, at the moment of collision there is resistance. For a split second the body feels water as if it were solid. The skin burns before the body continues to fall and disappear from sight. Philip talks about the physical determination it must take to drown oneself; to refrain from kicking out and back up to the surface. Each time one is submerged into water, there is some degree of wariness as the fear of not coming back recurs.

Philip is a daily swimmer in Southampton waters. Sailors enter and exit daily; they understand how these waters operate; the shallows and depths and strengths of current. But, this is not felt, the physicality not understood. Felt by sailors, is the effect of the water on the boat as it manoeuvres through the tides. Philip feels the water. Every morning his body is soaked. His skin contracts and reddens while his body numbs. Often more than once a day, Philip will put his body through this trauma; there is little time to dry between swims. Southampton waters are cold; they are working waters, filled with industry and its ghosts. Philip swims among the ferries that go to the Isle of Wight and Hythe and also the export ships. This is a grey, industrial stretch of water: a coating of debris and what looks like film is draped over the water’s surface. Philip submerges, giving himself almost entirely to this water. The time of his swim is not of convenience or sunlight but of the tide. This determines when he wakes, and sets the rhythm of his day. Philip is a dark shape within the purple-blue-grey of early morning light. He can just be made out; his arm arches above before breaking the surface of the water and his head turns, chasing breath. On the shore, his bicycle lights remain flashing to guide him back. He moves quietly and anonymously, and with trepidation. I’ve been so scared of the water, I didn’t learn to swim until I was 25 and I’ve always had this great deep fear of the water – and I still do – but one of the things that made me change that, is actually when you first put your face in the water; this stops the fear in that moment, allowing me to swim. Raising my hips to the rising sun, for a few moments, there is the possibility that I will be carried away, from this suburban sea, picked up and washed away, leaving only a puddle of clothes behind.

There is a sense of permanence when something is cast into the sea, of it becoming irretrievable. It is as though, the object no longer exists but it is just covered over and hidden.



The water is the colour of gunmetal; it looks as solid too. In the November air it looks almost impenetrable. The free flowing water appears to have halted completely, seized by the cold and now is stagnantly waiting for spring. It is high too. Weeks of heavy rain have brought the treetops down and the water level up. Broken branches, some smashed others splintered, coat the shoreline. The waters edge is closer than usual. It laps, pulling back before rolling in as far as my bare toes. I can feel them begin to tingle. I remove my top and begin a one legged balancing act to remove my trousers. Next to my paired shoes, I drop my clothes. They become a lifeless pile of fabrics. With trepidation, I move into the water. It is cold against my calves and I bend my knees to lower myself before leaning forwards, becoming horizontal and making my first strokes. As I draw arcs with my arms, I feel the coldness of the water against my fingertips before streaming along my arms and into my body. Here it sits. My innards feel dull with the weight of coldness. As I draw arcs, I am pulled through the water, my splayed fingers have become receptacles for the cold. I picture television aerials jutting upwards from rooftops, reaching into the air for signals. These metal poles, angled and linear in construction, submerge themselves in the airspace, just as my extended arms and digits do.




Still on the highest point of the Itchen Bridge, the ruinous nature of the city and the line between its nautical history and modernity is in sight. It has a veneer of tired steel, glass, concrete and old stone. Barren sites and wastelands throughout the city mark the locations of past industry; these land-spaces are unused and left hollow. Clusters of suburbia, which ordinarily blend into the background, are made visible and appear larger. Woolston can be seen facing the city. This was once the site for the Vosper Thorneycroft shipbuilding yard, a 31-acre area of land, industrialised to produce ships, until its closure in 2009. In its place is silence. What was once the location of working hangers has become dry and disused. What is left, are the ghostly remains of industry; rectangular stains on the ground outline old buildings. Security vans circulate and CCTV cameras are reminders of a distant presence. Like mausoleums, these barren landscapes are proof of past life. Billboarded fencing wraps the empty plot to advertise the flats and houses that will become a new suburbia.

Inland, is the site of the old Pirelli tyre factory. This too is now discarded. Just visible are the dried cracks from the foundations that now map out the building. Here, there are no billboards; instead a slatted garden fence marks the perimeter. Down from the bridge and looking through the knotholes in the wooden fence: the sand-coloured floor can be seen; disuse has let grow old and dry. From above, it is a gap in the landscape between the road and the houses. At ground level its shape is less definable. Stepping back reveals the remains of the city wall. It is higher than the wooden fence. It looks to be not above, but of the fence, running along and crowning its top.

Philip suggests following the wall. There is tension between the land and the sea. First, the wall was the edge of the country but now stands inland, marking out the old city. It declares a boundary and is a structure of defence; attempting to hold back invasion – naval and ecological. The surface bears generations of gathered scars. Some are mere daubs, while others are chips and cracks, and in places developing into gaps. One in particular has given way to a small, red brick, conventional housing estate. Here one wall collides with the other, squaring two moments, centuries apart, against each other.

What remains of the city wall marks out where the outskirts of land were first followed. Now, it is a narrow road that replaces the coastline. Following it, leads us through the modern ports of Southampton. Moving through this developed area, the city wall brings objects of the past into view. Half set into the wall, a stone cannonball protrudes. And, although the wall’s stones are not even in shape or size, it is the only sphere.



Looking at it, this cannonball mirrors the relationship between land and sea but also to human presence and a want to conquer, to demonstrate authority. The cannonball is seen from the road – a position only possible now that the sea has been built over. Authority was demonstrated and the boundary between land and water was altered – the water shunted back. Here, the road bends, becoming deeper and the sea is pushed further away. Through crane masts, it is difficult to see the water and there is no feeling of being coastal.





Ahead of me a freightliner moves towards the channel. I can feel the water swell as it passes and like a television delay, it hits me once the ship has passed. In the news a few years ago, I read about a woman out in a rowing boat. As a ship passed, she was pulled under, only to pop back up on the other side. The shape of the hull must have cut a V into the water – sliding her down on one side and spitting her up on the other. Trying to recreate this, I lower my head (for the first time) underwater. The cold now blankets my whole body. The water is cloudy-brown and dense and hard to see through. I can feel hands holding me down. Pressing on my shoulders as I gather kinetic energy. Until, like a jack-in-a-box, I am released and spring out of the water. Rocketing upwards until my head and shoulders are clear of the waters’ surface. As I swim, the sharpness of the cold feels like warmth and my body stings somewhere between being hot and cold.




Archived in the British Library are the bound collections of John Speed’s maps. These include The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine, (1610). These are the first mapped records of the counties of the United Kingdom. Their detailing is lavish. Marginalia consists of coats of arms, while script fills empty spaces with tails and tips of letters swirling along the page. These mapped studies of the British Isles, recorded the geographical construction of the land. In his map of the Isle of Wight, Speed documents the topography of land on either side of the ‘British Sea’ (the English Channel). Southampton is shown as being shaped by its wall and coastline.

Washing up to the city wall, the sea is described as far more present than it feels now. The shift in perimeter is noticeable, the wasteland that was once the Pirelli factory is not here, and water fills its place. On Speed’s map West Quay shopping centre is visible but as West Key. Rather than inland, the key juts out and cuts into the water. John Speed gives better understanding to the old city’s landscape. It becomes apparent how much Southampton has been an invented city that has had its shape altered to suit different purposes.






Behind me is the site that once housed the Netley Military Hospital, but is now empty and green. All that is left of the quarter mile long Victorian building is its chapel. I can see the steeple towering higher than expected, dwarfing its short body. During the First World War, military ships travelled through these waters, bringing boys back from the front and depositing them here. Some were so wounded that they appeared lifeless. Shocked into looking vacantly through, over or beyond, but never at the view or the doctors. My head and body turns from the open green space and the solitary chapel and faces stacked cars waiting for exportation.

In the sunlight, the new and unblemished car bonnets glisten and the bank is illuminated. It must be at least seven stories high and seems to spread across the majority of Southampton’s front. I think of the owner – a car enthusiast, obviously, but also an avid collector. This display of cars is not dissimilar to a bedroom wall coated in Matchbox cars; kept in Perspex boxes, parked at a slight angle to give the best view to passers by. As I swim past, I understand this.




Every morning Philip follows his route, the same route each day that still has the tyre marks from the previous day. He makes his first act of the day one in water. For all of his time submerged, he is conscious of not being an assertive or disturbing presence. I sometimes almost don’t want to get into the water, because I feel as though its virginal and I don’t want to spoil it. The notion of spoiling water exists in the extended building of roads onto the sea. Philip’s concerns raise questions of arrogance and the environmental outcome of asserting ourselves over water. I suggested that perhaps it is because we know so little about it and that it is something we cannot really see ourselves dominating in the same way as we have with land. No we can’t, and the storms of last week really prove that, they prove that we have no way of controlling that.




As I swim back to shore, towards the greenery that was once the military hospital and leave the car collection behind, I realise that I have been swimming in neither rural nor industrial water but somewhere between the two. There is no start or finish of either; rural waters seamlessly move into industrial, and visa versa. Stooped over, reaching for my clothes, water drips from me. The droplets are clear, not gunmetal. They run down my flesh, leaving trails of coldness behind. Water is pooling at my feet as I begin putting wet limbs back into clothes.





Part III of my writing set in Dungeness has appeared in the latest ArtLicks. Buy it here – http://www.artlicks.com/events/5308/issue-17

Part III


By his feet is one of the ruined winches. The taste of lemon sole, peppered, still lingers and the audio of the old lady unveiling her life in Dungeness still fills his ears. Across the horizon, the line of Selotape yellow that has been sealing the sky shut is lifting into the blue. Yellow is spreading into the blue and now it hums electric. In the distance, the power station is blackened; shadow puppeted against the evening. The ruined winch by his feet is one of the many that dot the shoreline – rusted in place. Jerking outwards is a length of cable; rust holds it coiled. It is hanging in the air, caught mid spring. The cogs too are firmly rusted. All along this length of coast, that must be at least a mile long, are these winches. Each has a concrete base that sits proud of the pebbles. Some have come away and lie, toppled, to the side of the base while others still stand but look forlorn. They are machine debris, ruined and with aging motors and generators attached. By his feet is the coil of wire that lurches out from the spindle, clawing for something to hook onto.

Her arm reaches out to find the door handle for her fathers’ van. Along the beach she can see him and watches. He is filling the trawler. Carried on board are the nets and baskets. Now, the crew climb on. The trawler is moving across the water and she watches through the rain until it is far enough away that she can hide the vessel by sticking her thumb up. She can fall asleep now. This is the morning watch – 04:00-08:00 – and while the sun is beginning to come up, she is falling asleep. Pink is reaching across the sky and the grey rain clouds are tinged with colour. This is the van that her father will deliver his fish from. This is the seat that is occupied by his delivery boy. When he does not occupy it, her brother sits here and when her brother does not occupy it, she is permitted to sit. Her eyelids are weighing heavy: opencloseopencloseopenclose.

In the distance he can see the now beach-mounted fishing trawlers; resigned to be climbing frames and the subjects for water-colourists. The trawlers are submerged at high tide and left coated in mussels and limpets. Once crewmembers would fill the deck and cabin. Now it is children who occupy and imagine steering the boat.

Behind the boats and surrounding him, the sky is darkening fast. The yellow strip that stretched over the seam has disappeared and made way for blues that move from cool white-blue to a darker, rain heavy, grey-blue.

He has hardly moved and is looking, again, at the winch by his feet and considers it, and those that line the shore, pulling in loaded fishing trawlers: the cogs mounted on the side crunching together and ratcheting the cable in. Cabling appears to move without the mechanics of cogs and calmly wraps the spindle until the trawlers are back on shore.

Some days she is able to resist her weighted eyelids and watch as her father returns. She watches the trawlers cut through the water. Heaped high are the fish and they glisten in the sunlight. Even the flat, brown plaice, stacked like dinner plates, catch the sun and are illuminated. Once inland her father makes note in the book he keeps with him, of what has been caught. She never sees it but pictures the nets being opened from above the deck: they hang heavy on chains and bulge before spilling out and the fish fall in cascade; a constant pouring. Rain in a storm fills the air with silver and grey. It coats the windscreen, running, solidly, down the glass.

He received the notebook, that her father carried, in the post and now is thumbing through its pages. The blue trimming of the Alwych all weather notebook is fading and the pages wave from wetness. Each entry is headed with marine time frames and also the shipping forecast. Together these make interesting sentences: first dog watch on the north of France move towards the Eastern Channel. SW 3 Bft gusting at 4 Bft. Before the fish are counted and written in, her father has listed anything new on the trawlers. Throughout the book there is regular reference to nets and baskets and different crewmembers. One entry has the mention of a new anchor. Alongside this is the note from Beale’s at Winchelsea beach.

Winchelsea beach he knows well. He has walked it with family and knows how it drops from the roadside and into the sea: tiers of pebbled beach take visitors down to hard sand that has been left rippled by the tide. In places, the hard sand dips and the sea is left, pooled, long after the tide has gone. Cutting up the beach are lines of wooden tide breakers. Like the shored fishing trawlers, these wooden breakers are now climbed on and wearing down. Their wooden surface is covered in the wet green moss and seaweed that also covers rocks in the shallows.

He knows the heat from molten iron too and is bringing it to his mind as he reads her fathers’ entry for the new anchor. It is a suffocating heat that is heavy and hard to breath through. Speech is hard to maintain and so few words are exchanged. As the iron is poured into the two-piece mould, it is thick and the heat feels solid, pushing against the skin. The brightness of the iron – white in the heat – is difficult to watch. Even as it cools, and the T shape is put together, the metal is glowing white. Now, it is placed on an anvil and hammered into shape: two men in heavy leather aprons swing sledgehammers at the cross section and the white metal is beginning to glow orange. A third man calls orders and places an axe on the crown so that the excess can be cut away. It is. Now the anchor is placed amongst hot coals and the men alternate their hammering. This is metronomic and only broken when the anchor is turned in the coals. He can hear the tide coming in, it is crashing on the shore and pulling back and crashing down before repeating. Dents texture the iron surface. Still, the hammers are swung at the crown of the anchor until the arms and the shank are one piece. The yellow glow is lifting and the black of the iron is coming through.

Part II of my Dungeness writing that is appearing across three issues of Art Licks magazine. It can be bought here http://www.artlicks.com/events/4955/issue-16

Part II


Little is given to break or slow the wind as it fills, the otherwise static Denge with movement and sound; its howls and yelps mask the audio track of ordinary coastal suburbia. It silences the kite surfers, being carried along the beach in three-wheeled vehicles: kites billowing above are filled with wind like bed sheets on the washing line. The animated mouths and faces of the surfers tell of exhilaration, but the audio cannot be heard – grabbed by the wind and lifted after utterance. Other vehicles too are inaudible; the revving of a car, lorry or bus and the clicking of a bicycle chain, are muted and the percussive sound of wind and rain on vehicle or lorry tarpaulin takes over.

In the distance, in the rain, the large concrete shapes are blackened: jet-black, oil-black, as slick looking too. From here, across the pebbled field, the largest of the structures – the 200ft and curved C shaped wall – looks flattened. He has seen it before, but in dry heat and it was grey but for the green stains of overgrowth. Now, it is black and sodden. Rather than the dry grey of concrete, it is the slippery black of a recently beached whale. Its large corpse lying flat across the landscape, its skin still wet and shining black under the sun. Soaked rubber is slowly drying. Long bitumen rooftops shine under the heavy rainfall.

Each footstep presses down on the pebbled surface and sinks into it. The toecap of his boot disappears and he feels like he is wading. There is monotony to walking like this. Through the pebbled surface, down into it and lifting up, over the ground. Behind him, the repetition of the sea mirrors his monotony. It is washing over the pebbled beach, pulling back into itself, leaving the white foam that gathers on the crest of a wave. Again, it is washing over the pebbled beach, pulling back into itself, leaving the white foam that gathers on the crest of a wave. Building on the beach is foamy debris that glints in the sunlight. The sound of the tide can be heard as he walks – carried across the flatness of Denge.

Her eldest brother, who was absent when they moved house, after offering it up to the military, also knew the monotony of walking across this pebbled field. He understood how the feet drag through the loose terrain, how every pace forward is followed by a slump downwards. Under the weight of boots and bodies, the loose ground gives way.

The sound of the buzzer to his flat cuts through the still air. With a charge, it jolts him. Its sharpness hangs in the air after the buzzer has been released. Handed across the doorway – signed for – is a padded envelope. The handwriting across the address label wavers but is still meticulous and recognised as belonging to the old lady who he helps once a week and now, also, teases history out of.

She has recorded what she remembers onto tapes and sent them to him as and when they are filled. He is interested in her life growing up in Dungeness. He wants to know about its military history, about its industries, about the abandoned objects that now dot the landscape. He takes her recordings with him, there, and plugs into them. He lets her recitals wash over him, wash through him. He lets her revelations fill the landscape, so much that it replaces what is really there. He sees the fishing boats being mechanically pulled into shore by winches on the beach. And, he witnesses the piping being pushed through the ground until it pops up on the other side of the channel, filled with petrol. The place is transformed from being largely retired and still, to working again.

The tapes arrive in the same type of A5, padded, envelope and can be felt floating about inside. But, this, in his hands, is full. The corners of the book dig at the corners of the envelope. With the book, is an index card:

There is no need for me to record this part. It is not mine to record anyway. I’ll give it to you and you can read it yourself.   M.

Out from the envelope and held in his hands is this brown-red leather notebook. It is mottled and its spine cracked and corners creased, a dry rubber band cuts it at the middle and keeps it shut. Inside, the writing is small and practiced; it loops and flicks in a way he has only seen in archives and museums. It is the handwriting of her eldest brother who, instead of moving with them, was making pots and ornaments in Rye. The address of the pottery where he was apprenticed has been written inside. It is dated too – 1930. Before she was born. She has said before that she does not know why her eldest brother left the pottery, briefly, to join the RAF and listen for aircraft, sat under the newly built sound mirrors.

He is picturing him sat in the listening post waiting for the wind to carry the sounds of engines and propellers spinning the air; sat waiting for the dead space in the curved mirrors to be filled; for noise to whip round the concave structures and vibrate through his listening device.

Morning watch.

I remember being a child and holding the rough stone bowl that lived on the mantelpiece, to my ear and hearing the muffled sound of the sea.

Looking out of the bungalow window and matching the sound inside of the bowl with the incoming, grey, sea.

The water crackled like the sound too.

The waves, moving back and forth, broke on one another and white foam spat about and broke up the solid grey.

Smaller, china, teacups held neater sounds.

Still muffled but tidier.

And now, through this listening device, I hear the hum of the aircraft, it drones through the concrete and crackles like broken radio signals and the waves on the sea.

I am still looking out at the sea and matching the sounds with the images.

The entries are all written like this. Each page reads as a list and the writing sits on the page looking like poems that have been jotted down before being forgotten. Lines of writing ebb and flow into the blank space surrounding the text. This feels erased, written into and onto but also as though it is covering over, washing back over the text. There is tension between the lines of writing and the surrounding emptiness. The waves continue to push the white foam onto the shore. The tide covers the empty coastline only to fall back again.

He reads through the book, following the back and forth of the lines to the edge of the page, to its centre or hardly in at all. He is looking for textures of the land.

Sticking out of the diary, now, are the stubs of coloured labels. Each colour is attributed to a different texture: blue stubs for rain and sea; green stubs for flora; grey stubs point to architecture and yellow stubs to light and air. These he uses to understand the place at different times and in different lights. No dates are attributed to the entries. Her eldest brother has adopted the naval watch system, adopted also by their father on the fishing boats and also by himself in the pottery when firing the kiln, also here, when listening for planes in the hollow cavities of the mirrors.

Without audio to listen to, he uses the diary to let him imagine the landscape and to transform it. The coloured stubs have curled around and hold the pages together. He has thumbed through them and found the entry he is thinking of.

Forenoon watch.

Walked in wind and rain.

Across the pebbles.

Collar up, head down.

Arms crossed and body bent.

Coat tails flying out, behind me.

Pebbled ground sounded louder with the wind.

Imagined footsteps crunching into the sound mirrors.

Filling the hollow.

With rain washing over the concrete, and soaking it through, the mirrors remind me of the first pots that I made.

Pressing down on the thrown cricket ball of clay, holding it firmly in the arch of my hand but still letting it spin.

Finding the moment between holding it steady but letting it turn.

Pouring water in through the gaps in my fingers and feeling it run over the body of the clay.

I thought of the drenched mirrors being held in the curve of someone’s hand.

Once confident that the wet clay had been centred, they moved their thumb into the middle to press.

Sinking into it.

Still, water is added, filling the hollow and bursting over the sides.

Between thumb and forefinger, these are pulled upwards.

Wobbling, they are squeezed into shape.

It takes delicacy and steadiness, all the time feeling the thickness of the clay as it gradually forms into a bowl.

It is set aside and the dish is left to dry and become leather-like before it is worked on again and its final shape is made.

He is getting closer to the sound mirrors and the pebbled floor falls away beneath the weight of footsteps that do not seem to have made any distance, merely re-trod the same patch. He sees a footpath, leading to the mirrors, trodden in by past visitors. This cuts through the surrounding water. In colour, the water is like lead but for the reflected greenery and occasional spreads of silver where the sun is caught. The sound mirrors are still at a distance and the vastness of the water islands them.

From first sight, these structures seemed physically dominant; they crowned the landscape, dwarfing their surroundings. Reaching them, they appear less on the landscape, less as though they have landed, and more of it. The line between base and ground is unclear; the undergrowth does not grow over them but into their surface. The ground is claiming the structures and they have become passive. They are still and redundant in front of him. He is stood looking at them and realises that they are only redundant now that no one is sat beneath them. Once, there was someone seated taking note. Once, her eldest brother listened and noted the sounds of aircraft. These filled the mirrors that reclined backwards, waiting. Sat amongst them, her eldest brother was reminded of holding teacups and stone bowls to his ears and hearing the crackled sound of the sea.

The sound mirrors still receive information. Even without someone taking notes, the large, hollow spaces are filled with noise. They have heard the changes in air traffic, the variations in engines. They have reclined and had the sounds wash over them. This word, reclined, had been used in an entry in the diary. He had labelled the entry with a yellow tab. Reclined felt like the right word. He imagines lounging back and letting information wash over him and wash into empty spaces. Letting the tide push itself over him before falling back, reclining to let water fill the hollow cavities. He can see the concrete shape of the mirrors push into themselves to make a hollow to hold the sound.

First dog watch.

Walked to the listening post as the sun lowered.

In the closing light of day the pebbled field is coated gold.

The mirrors had blackened against the sky becoming dark shapes.

Silhouetted, I could see their reclining shape, waiting for something to sound.

I pictured the stone bowl kept on the mantelpiece that I used to pick up.

I thought of it before and after I held it to my ear.

Filling and emptying of sounds from the house.

He begins to think that this is why her eldest brother joined the RAF. Not to listen to aircraft or make advances in defence, but to use the bowl shape that he had spent so long making as an apprentice and then as a potter, that he had held so often as a child and listened to. The dishes had become a way of communicating, or at least being communicated with. He pictures her eldest brother again, seated and listening to the dish shaped sound mirrors; uninterested in what he is listening to or why he is doing it. Interested only in being able to listen to something real. Not only the imagined sea of his childhood.

This is the first of three instalments of a text I am writing set in Dungeness. They will appear in the next three issues of ArtLicks. The first can be bought here http://www.artlicks.com/events/4690/issue-15

Part I


Of Operation PLUTO? Nothing visible remains. His phone is trapped, as he talks, between his ear and his shoulder while he struggles making a cigarette. He speaks into the receiver; this looks as though he is speaking into his shoulder. The sweat and grease coating his ear cause the phone to slip. At any moment, this balancing act could come to an end. It doesn’t. He manages to hold it. His head is now lifted and the phone held. He speaks through smoke. Nothing should remain, or be visible. The pipes were laid underground. The whole setup was invisible. I didn’t expect to see a signpost pointing them out. The photographed bungalows? No sign of them either. And I don’t know which or where hers’ was, or if it’s still here. There is a reproduced photograph of four, perhaps five, bungalows. Each were lived in before their military acquisition in 1943. Part of Operation PLUTO, kept secret from the owners.

There is an old lady who he helps once a week as part of a volunteer scheme. It is her childhood bungalow that he is looking for. Not in an effort to find the bungalow for finding’s sake. But, to understand and engage with the military histories of this place and what may have been left behind. She had shown him nothing and told him very little that could help. Instead, it was the information booklet on the details of Operation PLUTO that contained the reproduction photograph. It had been written for those people for whom it was not enough to visit a place or to just learn surface-layer-details: pipes laid underground; underwater to France; selected bungalows converted into pump houses; petrol pumped through narrow pipes and into cans at the other end; stolen German ‘Jerry’ cans; stolen for their design ingenuity. Fuelling the allied forces in Northern France. The information booklet went further: the construction of the piping; where and how the layers of fabric and twisted metals were wrapped; names of those responsible for the design and construction of the miles of pipe; the factories and shipyards used; how the coiled piping went from factory floor to seabed. Connecting two countries. Holding. Stranded between them. Telephone wires. Zip wires. Washing lines. There was a moment of connection created.

He had read through pages of this anatomical description. He had learnt the names and the ranks and the addresses of the manufacturers. He had not learnt where the incision was made. The playing card sized photograph was the best locater he had seen. But his poor attempts to remember its details made it difficult to place. In the booklet, he had stared at the photograph to ensure that he would not only remember it but recall it also. As he read, he turned the page back to remind himself of the image. The bungalows filled most of the frame. Shingle and sky the rest. The nondescript design of the bungalows made them difficult to remember. They held blank expressions. He can remember the blankness but not their shape. Earlier when he walked through the few rows of houses and bungalows, he could not see the photograph. The architecture of this suburbia varied but felt as though it began in the 1950s. Each had a drive and small garden. Signs of domesticity. Of gardening and owning a car. Each was far enough apart to be independent whilst close enough to feel neighbourly. Each would suit the overexposure of early colour photography; while the grey grain of the reproduction, suits the normality of the old bungalows. In the reproduced photograph, there was little distance between the homes. Here there was more. The fronts of houses are now all decorated in naval ephemera. Clad in varying woods. Painted in blues and whites. Made to look ship-worthy. The ordinariness of the bungalows in the reproduced photograph had gone. There is no sign of these having once been petrol pump-houses.

He has finished his phone conversation. His back is turned to the fish and chip van. A moment ago – before his phone rang – he had watched as the flat fillet of lemon sole was dropped onto the greased hot plate. Immediately it hissed and spat. He watched as the edges curled. Began to singe. The whole thing, shrinking. As it cooked it looked less fish like, taking on the appearance of a leaf dried on a hot stone patio. Edges crisp enough to snap. Body waved rather than flat. Colour fading into brown, under the sun.

Facing the way he is, he looks at the coast. At the moment the sky meets the water. At the line between the two. He is thinking of Joseph Conrad describing the Thames and the sky as welded together. He is looking at that line here. There is a yellow fog covering it. It is smeared across the join and begins to green at the edges. It is mostly the yellow of aged Sellotape. He thinks of school notice boards; of teenage bedroom walls; of childhood collages; of bringing two materials together and holding them there. The sky and sea held together. He is drawn to these moments. Moments of connection. Moments of collision. He imagines objects landing onto surfaces and remaining. The landscape he is standing in is scattered with these moments. Away from the rows of suburbia, the houses look dropped into place. Not even into place, that is too planned. Dropped into a place then. They are small and far apart from one another. Wooden, mostly; concrete, rarely; glass, occasionally.

He looks. Thinking that what is now empty space may have once been bungalows. France is in sight. He imagines a line left on the water’s bed from the pipes. The two countries strung together. Each one a pole or pylon for cabling. Follows the imagined line to the shore. He looks for pockmarks on the gravelled surface. For the remains of incision. The scars left by needles on skin. Track marks running up forearms. Blood ballooning to the surface. Dotting a line of swollen veins. The barrel of the needle emptied into the bloodstream. The opiates flushing through. The drum of petrol emptied. Pumped through the water. He is picturing the moment that the tip of the pipe broke the surface of the gravelled beach. He is thinking of his needle metaphor again. Piercing the skin after a slight push.

She is sat on the edge of the only bed that she has called her own, waiting to be called out. Her bag is packed, a trunk too and a smaller box also. Unlike her brother, who is three years older, she has folded and organised her clothing. Neatly stacked her possessions. He has scraped the contents of his room into boxes and sealed them. Only recently have her feet reached the floor when she sits on the bed’s edge. She is growing up in this room. She now understands what this can mean: not only in age but in height also. Growing up. Growing upwards. She has never seen this room – her room – empty. Its shape is revealed. Those things that used to rest against or be nailed into the wall are now marked against it. The outline of the object remains. Traced. She is looking at a darkened patch of wall where until yesterday her dressing table stood. The curved line of the mirror is easily followed. From the centre down it can be made out. The rectangular wings are harder to see and almost disappear into the paper. This room is empty of furniture, but for the bed. When she is called outside, this will be taken too. On the wall, the shape of the headboard’s bars will remain. The colour and pattern on the paper will not have faded. She is imagining someone drawing around these and the other silhouettes with chalk. Constructing a life-size map of the room. Of the house. Of the neighbouring bungalows. Her imagined unfurling of this scale 1:1 map is interrupted. Her name is called. She is being summoned, it is overly formal.

Holding its straps, she is dragging the bag. Clunk. Clunk. Clunk down the three steps that lead out from the front door. The bag is taken from her. Her trunk is fetched and the smaller box also. Later the bed will be removed and the bungalow will be left empty.

The van that her father uses to deliver fish has now been filled with the contents of the bungalow. She has never seen the family possessions in one space before. She has never moved home before and does not understand why or how she feels excited and sad in the same moment. Not wanting to cry but wanting to do something burstful, she laughs. This helps a little. It is out of the blue and she says that she is remembering something heard on the wireless.

She does not know where they are going; perhaps this is why she feels uneasy. Her brother seems to know, but he won’t say. It is possible that he is pretending, to her, so that he can seem older. Grown up. Sat in the front, in the seat usually occupied by the delivery boy. He is offering pretend fish to people walking by. Their father laughs. Mother also. She thinks that her mother’s laugh is the same as her own was. Not wanting to cry but wanting to do something burstful.

Tomorrow, the bungalow that she and her family are driving away from will be occupied. Occupied is the word to use, it is not a family moving in but the military. She is not supposed to know. From behind her slightly open bedroom door, she overheard the conversation. Her parents were told that their bungalow was needed for reasons of security to aid the war effort. Her father is unable to fight, poor health, but instead, he is able to give his house. Her mother did not argue, not with her husband or with the soldier in uniform. He had removed his beret but played with it, rolled up, between hands. This, she could see through the slender gap in door and thought that it made him look awkward.

Lemon sole?


He has turned away from the aged Sellotape line to collect his food. As he walks over, he pauses the recording that the old lady made for him. With oral history in mind, he has asked her to record herself speaking about her bungalow in Dungeness. The old lady’s memory is fading and he knows that she may not have much to record. He pictures her mind as black. Not erased but covered over. Smothered by blackness. Each time a memory comes through, he imagines it glowing until it is forgotten again and covered over. He left her the small Dictaphone hoping that while she was remembering an event, she would remember to record herself. This also felt like a collision. He is weary of her memories being interrupted by the expectancy to record. He imagines the thoughts colliding, and pictures her left holding the recorder but not knowing what to say. What she records is sharp and vivid and he is able to picture them as though he is in the scene. Observing rather than listening.

Ends Meet: Essays on Exchange


Through the Strata: Movement and Embodiment

This is the foreword to a longer piece of research based writing that I have spent the past year working on. It also became the work I graduated with from the Royal College of Art. Please contact me if you would like to read more of the project.


In the autumn of 2013, I accompanied the writer Philip Hoare into the industrial waters of Southampton. I walked into the gunmetal coloured water and lowered my body until horizontal. Each arc I drew with my arms propelled me along and seemed to bring the cold further into my body. I began to understand better how water feels. Its currents pushed and pulled me, and my skin contracted in the dropped temperature. I braved it and took my head under. The cold that had been around my head now filled it. As though my ears had opened and let the water pour in. Filled with chilling water, they became blocked. Any sounds made under or above the water were muffled. When I brought my head back above the surface, it was as though gasping for sound. There was little to hear, but in contrast to the dampened acoustics of submersion, my ears felt full of noise.
What followed my encounter with Philip was an examination of place within three layers of landscape: water, sound and air. Through emersion, a study of embodiment began. The physicality of these environments and the subjectivity of the self within them became central. There is no interest in the shape that I cut; instead the focus is on looking outwards. So often when visiting a place, it remains shapeless as we travel in cars, buses or on trains, looking inwards rather than out. By not connecting our bodies to the landscape, we miss its contours. As I moved through, and up, landscapes I began to associate places with textures and atmospheres.
From these journeys came the writing, which attempts to sit somewhere between fact and fiction. By placing the writing there, I was able to see what a place was doing, and to imagine what it could do. In some instances, inventing entire constructs allowed me to greater explore ideas that had come from actual visits.
It seemed too, that artists, such as Tacita Dean and Simon Starling, and writers, such as Virginia Woolf and Tom McCarthy, shared these engagements. The treatment of the artworks and prose was the same as the locations visited. I was able to use them as ways of viewing a place, to look through the artwork. Through art and writing, places are made visual and also set into the imagination of the reader. Attention is paid to details that may otherwise go unnoticed. If the place is familiar, then it becomes understood differently; if unfamiliar, then an engagement with it begins.

JAH, April 2014

Three encounters with King Canute

As is the Sea spread out

An Anthology: As is the Sea

As is the Sea is a book that I have contributed an essay to and also co-edited with others from the Critical Writing MA at the RCA. It is available to buy here – http://cwadrca.bigcartel.com

Shackleton’s Penguin (Response to Curiosities: Art and the Pleasures of Knowing)

Standing next to and looking over the dead, stuffed, entombed Antarctic King Penguin, brought back from an expedition by Shackleton, I realise how little I have encountered death, how I still would have no comprehensive response if I were confronted with the corpse of a person. The pathologist will stand over a dead body – supported and kept in the air by a sterile slab of stainless steel – and with envious coolness encounter the cadaver. There is knowingness, which I assumedly will always lack, when approaching the dead body, an understanding that has long been in development. Corpse specifics vary; shape and size, kinks and lumps, marks, moles and scars among freckles and blemishes, but the feeling of confronting a human body remains the same. Practiced to perfection. Nailed.


When my grandfather died – the first and so far only person I have known die – there was no procession alongside his body. There was no table at the front of the service for his coffin to be held open; his stomach could not ever so slightly protrude from the open topped box. We were not required to file past, put anything in, or say any last goodbyes. Nothing so filmic. And so, the only opportunity I have had to know how it feels to confront a dead body did not materialise. My closest encounter was when – cycling three years ago – I came across a dead deer in the middle of the road. Propping my bike against a tree, I walked into the road, I had no idea of what I would do when I reached it but my legs moved – seemingly of their own accord – and with them so did I. As I stood looking over the creature I thought that it looked frozen in mid step; its legs were positioned as though it was walking and its head held high as though looking forward, fixed stare on its destination. There was majesty to the body, no markings, and the skin unbroken. I could see no blood and assumed that its interior bore the scars, that to look inside would reveal a broken framework and organs damaged beyond repair. With its clean surface and positioning – which appeared intentionally posed – I was reminded of the animals discovered by the zoologists of the empire, which now, having been nervously reconstructed and posed by bemused conservators, fill the cabinets of natural history museums. They are theatrical and made to look alive – a freeze frame of activity, not the resting place of a body.


Beside me is the double titled King Emperor penguin; laid out flat, its body stuffed but seeming limp and lifeless, its head is tilting gently back, forcing its body to arc and to slightly protrude from the wooden case it is housed. Surrounded by newspaper, the body barely fits in the wooden transportation case, the feet point inwards and the beak jerks out, ignoring the boundaries of the case. Unlike the dead animals I have encountered before, there are no theatrics, no sense of it being put together to go on show. I notice it’s colouring; a warm yellow/ochre fading into the white stomach but the corpse is washed in grey, stained with age. It is subdued and, feeling as though I am intruding by looking at this animal so inquisitively, I move onto the next exhibit, quietly adding one more encounter with death to my modest list.