Field Notes ‘in search of my subject’ PART II – ‘Mr. Magpie, The Undersong & the Narrative Mindset’

“trust the feel of what nubbed treasure
your hands have known.”

― Seamus Heaney, ‘North’, 1975

“Self-discovery is above all the realisation that we are alone.”

― Octavio Paz

“There are no boring people in this world.
Each fate is like the history of a planet.
And no two planets are alike at all.
Each is distinct – you simply can’t compare it.

If someone lived without attracting notice
and made a friend of their obscurity –
then their uniqueness was precisely this.
Their very plainness made them interesting.

Each person has a world that’s all their own.
Each of those worlds must have its finest moment […]”

from There are no boring people in this world
Yevgeny Yevtushenko translated by Boris Dralyuk


On one level the aim is always some degree of personal transformation – anamnesis[1] or ‘loss of forgetting’ and on another it’s the search for a voice. We all have many voices, used in many different ways and in different circumstances every day. The voice I’m after is particular, it’s my story telling Mr. Magpie voice.


Circumstances change, the changes are often unplanned. Doors open. Doors close. This post and the previous one are both attempts to pick myself up after a derailment that stemmed from huge changes in my personal circumstances (more HERE).


You might initially think it would be liberating to quite suddenly and unexpectedly have much more time on my hands, time enough to do all those things I’d previously promised I would do ‘if only I had the time…’

But free time has’t proved liberating at all. To mix my metaphors Mr. Magpie the Story Thief became Mr. Rabbit frozen in the headlights of inactivity. Time has weighed heavily and the inertia proved debilitating. My creative impulse stubbornly refused to pulse. I floundered. Down dead-ends. Up blind alleys. More creative energy has been spent on diversionary activities, from web-site building to shelf building, instead of making use of the time to fully engage in my creative practice (what I’ll shorthand here as ‘The Work’.)


Derailment hurts. I’d like to get back on track. Or back in the saddle. Or whatever best describes the desire to once more feel productive and less panicked.

To achieve it, I feel a need to take a long, hard look at what I have been doing, then be clear about what I want to do, and finally how I want to do it in the future.


“listen to me as one listens to the rain,
the years go by, the moments return,
do you hear the footsteps in the next room?
not here, not there: you hear them
in another time that is now,
listen to the footsteps of time,
inventor of places with no weight, nowhere,
listen to the rain running over the terrace,
the night is now more night in the grove,
lightning has nestled among the leaves,
a restless garden adrift-go in,
your shadow covers this page.”
― Octavio Paz


In PART I, I recognised that for some time in The Work, I’d been travelling vertically, mining the superficial integrity of the surface of things in search of some ill-defined sense of place. I’d been working through genealogy and deltiology, via industrial history, nature writing, modern biography and a perhaps predictable psychogeographically-biased pantheon towards what I now see as, not an end-point but a starting point.

In a roundabout and ill-focused way I’d been trying to go home.


In reviewing my reading, viewing and personal output (The Early Work) I’ve now been able to identify one ‘Big Bang’ early childhood memory – ‘The Moment’:

A warmed limestone wall, early Summer of 1965, at the point where the lane called Common Wood leaves St. John’s Road, along Matlock Dale, at a point called Artist’s Corner.

A few limestone cottages cling to a steep wooded hillside. There’s a church in the woods.

I’m in my mum’s arms. Hairspray. Violets. A cigarette. I’m perhaps 18 months old. My sister’s not yet born. Mum, three months pregnant. Dad stands protectively close. He wears a white shirt with woven tie.

Another couple, the neighbours, are rowing. A bucket of water is thrown. A noisy kerfuffle along the lane, their raised voices had entered our open front door and brought my parents outside.

The flank of Masson hillside rises sharply behind the houses. Steep narrow gardens. Gritstone steps pitch down to the Dale Road below. It’s hot. The colours – the greens of the trees – are vivid

The ‘domestic’ peters out. Two soaked. Too soaked.

The small crowd that’d gathered, reluctant to return indoors, savour a moment in the sunshine at the end of Common Wood. A lazy hum of gossip. I’m warm, safe, sleepy.

I’m drawn to a flash of red from a gap between the rooftops of the houses below.

Fire engines.


Replenishing their tanks from the river. They unfurl the hoses and shoot arcs of water across the meadows. Rainbows fall.

A further flash. A train on the embankment beyond the fire engines and the river and above the meadows.

This story defines my hiraeth[2] or smultronstalle[3].

I’ve come to believe that the desire to return to the feelings stirred by that single memory is the source of my narrative mindset – that urgent need to share stories and make marks. It feels as if this one, highly symbolic, moment has sufficient potency to be the catalyst for ongoing personal creativity, the itch-that-must-be-scratched, the need to remember, observe, imagine and explore issues of wholeness, identity, loss, belonging and longing.

 A return to that long hot summer, that moment of wholeness, unbroken love, passion and optimism; a Summer of stability, certainty, contentment, containment and family; in a time before loss, before hurt or loneliness or stress. In my valley. At home. In my place. Belonging.[4]

This is the genesis of my central creative project, it would become known as The Undersong.


If The Moment was the trigger for The Work involved in The Undersong project, I also realised I needed to come to terms with two facts:

  1. The Undersong is ultimately unrealisable: to re-experience those past events, as I did then, is impossible. What was is one thing, and all but irrecoverable; what I can remember is another, and both are separate from each other as each is from what I want now, to return to the womb of that memory. It’s a desire that can at best only be achieved as a palimpsest, a fragment of a story.
  2. The Undersong will always be just out of reach: potential impasse and log-jam. Too many ideas. Too much to do. Too many paths leading heaven knows where. ‘Round and around I goes and where I stop nobody knows…’.

So what’s the damned point? Why am I doing it? What am I trying to say??? Such existential angst is distracting, dispiriting and disabling. It threatens to stop the work in its tracks, bogging it down in doubt, detail or anxiety.

If I’m to make any kind of meaningful work out of the imperative of the narrative mindset to take me closer to the feelings lived in The Moment, then The Work encompassed by The Undersong project needs to be rethought from the ground up, not only the what of The Work, but the how. This will involve:

  • better defining the common ground between fieldwork, research, ‘studio’ practice and the production of artefacts /environments /vitrines / art-books whilst retaining, and making greater use of an ongoing online presence
  • better identifying approaches that bring together the elements that make up my practice – boat, walk, write, paint, research – breaking them out of their silos and moving towards a lingua franca between marks made in time (painting, writing, prose-poetry), digital capture in time (photography), engagement in time (walking) and building in time (making, restoration)


I’m beginning to see that The Undersong will echo or be a palimpsest of parts of an incomplete, metaphorical, associative, partial, fragmentary and lost memory cloth. The Undersong will be a product of a tangential, affective discourse with the past as represented by that memory cloth. The Undersong is what’s left behind, an interweaving of autobiography, imagination, imagery, stories, traces, reportage, research and intuition.

  • The Undersong’s mark-making processes or praxis[5] should aim to bring together outwardly contradictory elements in a mapping of the journey home and towards The Moment.
  • The Undersong should make a friend of multiplicity, it should encourage a placing together of seemingly contradictory element and encourage a dialogue to develop.
  • The Undersong should be based on an open exploration of the ‘poetics’ of place and the journey.
  • The Undersong should be a quest involving metamorphosis and decomposition, and a fusing or intersection of narrative and image.


“Beyond myself, somewhere,
I wait for my arrival.”
― Octavio PazThe Collected Poems, 1957-1987 


Is it possible, through a juxtaposition of contrasting thoughts or objects, to get nearer to my impossible ‘Big Bang’ early memory?


“What sets worlds in motion is the interplay of differences, their attractions and repulsions. Life is plurality, death is uniformity. By suppressing differences and pecularities, by eliminating different civilizations and cultures, progress weakens life and favors death. The ideal of a single civilization for everyone, implicit in the cult of progress and technique, impoverishes and mutilates us.
Octavio Paz


Perhaps my way forward is to think of The Work involved in The Undersong as a complementary association of opposites, an expression of yin and yang[6] where seemingly opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary, interconnected or interdependent, interacting to form a dynamic system in which the whole is greater than the sum of the assembled parts?

Make a friend of contradiction, embrace confusion, and acknowledge that those blind alleys may be just the place to explore ‘sound/silence’, ‘black/white’, ‘love/loss’, ‘happiness/sadness’, ‘present/past’, ‘then/now’, ‘microcosm/macrocosm’.


“Occasionally he selects a stone. Nearer, in close-up, we see him holding such a stone upright on his flattened palm against the distant headland. Old holes cut through have broken it from a larger stone, and sea-turned it is a little figurine: a head, a body, limbs folded along itself, a hole through the middle: an embryo or a relic. Closer in we see between thumb and forefinger a little earth mother, and through its middle hollow the distance of bay and cliff and rising gulls, fading out.”

Ken Smith, The Stone Gatherer from The Poet Reclining – Selected Poems 1962-1980


My thinking’s not yet, not quite, black & white, many questions remains, what in The Undersong will mark time, will act for time, will stand in for time’s markers in the sand or be the breadcrumbs through the forest marking my passing and the way back home?

I feel it’ll have something to do with limitations, a narrow lexicon of symbols, a limited palette, black on white or monochrome, a blended reality.


“A poem in a mask can be beautiful.”

― Glyn Maxwell, On Poetry


I think I may also be able to draw some heart from the philosophical debates around object-orientated ontology and the argument that goes there’s always something left when you take things apart or place things together, that multiplicity can get you somewhere even if it’s not quite to where you expected.

A postcard becomes musical notation, it dances across the room to join canvas in performance poetry en plein air.

In the case of The Undersong that could imply that I should become less the originator of some grand design, and more a facilitator, orchestrator, guardian, caretaker, cultivator of an environment where creative tension, collision, collusion may take place. Could this be the common ground where The Undersong is less the product of the old romantic notion of god/hero/creator/originator/maestro and more the outcome of enabling dialogue through the placing of parts?

Dare I challenge my own innate conservatism and let The Undersong run with the shackles off?

I should always remember that there are no mistakes in art. There is only process. Formlessness may be the means by which The Undersong departs from my script, and my ‘originator’ expectations. It’s the point where it should rightly take on a life un-prescribed, a life of its own.

When you break a wine glass, you don’t end up with nothing – you have instead many somethings, fascinating bits of broken glass each with their own story. That’s the phenomenology of how ‘new’ stuff happens. It’s the same with my story, if I shatter it in countless different ways I’m not destroying it, or moving necessarily further away from the ‘truth’. I’m just enabling formlessness and un-prescribing my involvement.

material + intervention (accidental or intentional) = new stuff

Perhaps, in the end, the only way back to the Moment is tangentially, through the distortion of the looking glass; or through an openness to experimentation and happenstance, the chorus rather than monologue? Supported by a mindset-in-place that allows listening, attending to, attunement, imagination and tenderness.

[…] what shape am I what
shape am I am I huge if I go
to the end on this way past these trees and past these trees
till I get tired that’s touching one wall of me
for the moment if I sit still how everything
stops to watch me I suppose I am the exact centre
but there’s all this what is it roots
roots roots roots and here’s the water
again very queer but I’ll go on looking

― Ted Hughes, Selected Poems 1957-1967

Trust the process.

Do it.

Hope for Work that has a pulse, bolder than it would have ever been had I not trusted the process. Art loves mistakes, they say. Knowing that, why not create full-throttle?

“One of the few things I know about writing is this: Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Don’t hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The very impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful; it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

― Annie Dillard


[1] anamnesis ˌanəmˈniːsɪs/ noun / recollection, especially of a supposed previous existence. The idea that humans possess knowledge from past incarnations and that learning consists of rediscovering that knowledge within us.

[2] hiraeth acute longing for a home-place or time to which you cannot return and without which you are incomplete. A nostalgic wistful yearning. (Welsh)

[3] smultronstalle lit. ‘place of wild strawberries’, a special place/heartland, returned to in person or memory (Swedish)

[4] From PART I accesses HERE

[5] praxis (Ancient Greek: πρᾶξις) is the process by which a theory, lesson, or skill is enacted, embodied, or realized. “Praxis” may also refer to the act of engaging, applying, exercising, realizing, or practising ideas. This has been a recurrent topic in the field of philosophy and has meaning in the political, educational, and spiritual realms.

[6] In Chinese philosophy, yin and yang (also yin–yang or yin yang, 陰陽 yīnyáng “dark–bright”) describe how seemingly opposite or contrary forces may actually be interconnected and interdependent in the natural world, and how they may give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another. Yin and yang can be thought of as complementary (rather than opposing) forces that interact to form a dynamic system in which the whole is greater than the assembled parts. Everything has both yin and yang aspects (for instance, shadow cannot exist without light).

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