Notes on absence

The Chains, Exmoor. April 2021.

It’s been a while, but I’ve been busy and somehow never got round to writing up what I’ve been up to. And then it got to the point where there just seemed altogether too much to write up so I stuck my head in the sand. Nevertheless, there’s been a lot going on with Commonplace, and it’s important to set down how my thinking and my project have both been developing.

Drizzlecombe, Dartmoor. April 2021.

The visits have continued apace. I’m starting to think that, with a family to look after, using sites within a couple of hours’ drive of Exeter makes practical sense. It would also put in place a useful limitation: there are nearly three thousand registered commons in England and I’m clearly not going to visit all of them. I’m a great believer in the energy generated by limitation, which forces a deeper engagement with a smaller territory and also, by necessity, a more creative approach. And so, for example, rather than the hefty arrangements – not least financial ones – required to make a film at Scafel Pike, for instance, I could use Valley of the Rocks near Lynton, which is a honey pot tourist spot, a literary connection through Coleridge and Wordsworth (and thus the Romantics in this definitely sublime landscape), the idiosyncrasy of its goats (which also links personally through my daughter who’s a thing for goats), and deep time, as it was shaped by a retreating ice sheet. 

Valley of Rocks, Exmoor. June 2021.

I’m also considering incorporating what doesn’t work into this project. For example, conflicts and problems encountered in filmmaking through access, or lack of it, are illustrative of commons, as are misunderstandings of why I’m doing this (at least one person has been suspicious that I might be some kind of tub-thumping Marxist for choosing this theme). Also, for example, I’m interested in tracking down the remnants of Egdon Heath, from Hardy’s Return of the Native. This isn’t an actual place but, as so often in fiction, a composite of places scattered in South-central Dorset; while some heathland remains, most of it isn’t common, and much of it has needed restoring, including from plantation woodland and the Magnox nuclear research facility. Nevertheless, pockets and patches of common exist in this area, and it’d be interesting to track them down, consider them from a variety of perspectives. This clearly has resonances with Fisher’s notions hauntology: a persistence of that which no longer is, especially given the ideological and political nature of commons. Also, Dorset is fascinating and, as I discovered in May, the home of Little Toller books and bookshop. 

Lewesdon Hill, Dorset. May 2021.

And what to do with Forrabury Common, on the clifftops above Boscastle? It’s no longer registered common BUT is one of only a handful of active open fields in the UK (there’s another in the South West, Great Field at Braunton, Devon). Laxton’s open field, in Nottinghamshire, IS partly still registered common, but it seems a bit self-consciously proud of itself with its visitor centre and so on. Forrabury has medieval strips divided by ridges called stitches which are farmed separately, and then the site is grazed over the winter. It’s got me interested and I think it’d be interesting. Perhaps here is a first tangent? After all, the London greens that explored in (In Search of) Old Sunshine were no longer registered. 

Forrabury Common, Cornwall. May 2021.

Speaking of tangents, and thus essay films, it’s worth considering having one of my films as a travelogue, one of the essay film’s enduring structures. A journey to the heart of the English commons. A week in a car. It’s a good way of getting some interesting comparisons, giving an opportunity to really think through matters and create a fun, engaging film. It’d be different to all the others, but that’s probably no bad thing. 

Another recent development has been – finally – dusting off the dead cat, unclipping the Clippies and heading off to Harpford Common for an afternoon of location sound recording. One thing I love about sound is that it forces you to focus and thus deeply immerse yourself in a place. Another is that it provides a record of things hidden – a distant plane or a cow or a stream – and this can both open out the experience of a place and create dissonance (especially industrial sounds against a bucolic image). One of the central concerns of this project is engaging with the complexity and conflict of commons; sound can definitely play a part in this, though how is something I’d only find out through actual practice. 

Harpford Common, Devon. December 2020.

One other thing I need to consider in greater depth is visual style. It’s something I’d begun engaging with while studying photography at Falmouth, but rather fell by the wayside as I got tangled up with the course’s focus on the presentation and critical and commercial context of photography. I’d begun to investigate the work of the mid-c.20thlandscape painters like Nash and Ravilious, which I’ve loved for a while, but was really taken in by Neve’s Unquiet Landscapebook which discusses a variety of painters, many of them obscure, from the point of view of a gallery owner who knew them all personally. I now see I need to follow this up. 

And one final discovery is the unbelievable richness of the Drizzlecombe area on the vast Sheepstor Commons. It’s an astonishing megalithic site, site of old mines and warrens and trackways, a tourist honeypot, well-used by the military AND includes the abandoned farmhouse used by Spielberg in the film War Horse. The views into South-central Dartmoor are also astonishing. So a real cacophony of things. Just what I’m looking for. 

Water board marker stone, Sheepstor Common, Dartmoor. April 2021.

Anyway, this isn’t a post with much detail, more a collection of notes before I forget them entirely. Hopefully, I’ll go in depth with something in the coming weeks. 

Published by andythatcher

Photographer - filmmaker - writer - researcher Environment - wellbeing - politics

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