Environmental artist Linda Gordon reflects on a recent exhibition she contributed work to, where artists responded to the documentary ‘A Plastic Ocean’, and the issues of plastics pollution of the oceans that produced such a diversity of art.
A couple of months ago, members of North Devon Artsviewed the film A Plastic Ocean, the documentary directed by Craig Leeson, which investigates the dangerously escalating problems relating to plastics production and disposal — particularly the horrific amount that’s continually being dumped in our oceans. We decided that ‘A Plastic Ocean’ was going to be the theme for our annual Summer Exhibition.
We were to limit dimensions of 3D works, and the width of 2D works, to one metre. Given these constraints, when I saw the final results, I was amazed at the huge variety of approaches, in terms of both the art-making processes as well as the exhibition theme itself. Each work was as unique and special as the person who made it. From abstract to origami; from small sculptures to traditional seascapes with something not quite traditional about them.
Here I have arbitrarily picked out a few contrasting pieces, to give you a flavour of the show:
‘You can’t even cry, because you don’t even care’ – Fiona Matthews
A globe of the world is burst and torn asunder with a mass of plastic spewing up from its innards. Prominent amongst this are hundreds of little white plastic pellets, the ones that sea birds mistake for fish eggs, and feed to their chicks. Like several other works in the show, the beauty of this piece made it all the more chilling.
Fertile Valley – Jann Wirtz
Jann is in the habit of collecting and disposing of all sorts of plastic that has been dumped in the river near her home. This of course is bound to disintegrate and make its way towards the sea.
Peering into the beautiful blue watery background of ‘Fertile Valley’, among the drifting debris, I was able to pick out a glyphosphate (herbicide) container and a fragment of old plastic feed bag, all falling slowly downwards, together with scraps of printed warnings about their potential dangers. Mixed up in all this were barely visible ghostly water creatures, a vital part of our food chain – all sinking back into oblivion as though they had never existed.
Garbage Island – Robin Lewis
Robin has used tantalisingly attractive, but potentially toxic materials for this powerful painting. It refers to the massive quantities of discarded plastic carried by ocean currents, and continually congregating in mid ocean to form what we now know as ‘Garbage Islands’. (The most notorious of these is, of course, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, details easily found on the internet.
A Plastic Ocean – Paula Newbery
By contrast, Paula has specifically chosen environmentally-friendly materials only for this tranquil view of a well-known local beach scene: looking across Bideford Bay from Crow Point towards Northam. Looking carefully, I was able to pick out a number of coloured bottles, half-buried amongst the shingle.
Paula is a member of the Marine Conservation Society, and took up their challenge to go for 30 days without the use of single-use plastic. Needless to say, she — and I am sure many others — failed. Paula’s second exhibit, carefully presented in a Perspex display cabinet, is a plastic bottle overlaid with a multitude of colourful scraps from all the plastic she was unable to avoid.
Beach Wear – Linda Gordon
An image of me, crawling out of the sea, tangled up in plastic beach litter that I had collected and strung together. I carried out this performance some time ago, but felt it relevant to extract and print this single photo from it.
During the Preview on the Sunday afternoon, I found myself drifting in and out of several spontaneous and animated discussions around the appalling problems that we humans have created for ourselves, relating to the worldwide use of plastics. The exhibition as a whole, seemed to trigger a strong and instant response in people to these issues.
Not only that, but when I returned a couple of days later to take photographs, a couple of visitors walked in and immediately engaged me in conversation about this whole topic. I was happy to be able to add a little bit more information to what they already knew.
For me, this excellent and unassuming exhibition shows the power of art to elicit an authentic response; to move hearts and minds; to get people talking, and to encourage commitment to the true realities of life. Hopefully this awareness will continue to spread and get the issues talked about, and help turn things around – for the sake of ourselves and future generations.
'A Plastic Ocean’ runs until 2nd September at the Stables, Broomhill Art Hotel, near Barnstaple, North Devon.
Find out more
North Devon Arts is “a friendly and informal network of professional and amateur artists and anyone with an interest in the arts across North Devon.” For information – Members of the Committee are listed on the website Contact Page, together with their email addresses. The exhibition is at Broomhill Art Hotel until 2nd September.
You can see a clip of Craig Leeson’s film A Plastic Ocean and find out about future screenings, how to arrange a local screening and help make its campaign, We Need a Wave of Change, a global movement. The site also has plenty of information on the issues and updates on projects by the charity, Plastic Oceans Foundation.
You can find out more about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch at Wikipedia, and this short and very interesting podcast from NOAA (the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) explains what an ocean garbage patch is and isn’t, how they form and what we can do about them.
The Marine Conservation Society has extensive information on many aspects of the marine environment and, as Linda mentions, sets us a plastic challenge to see how long we could give up single use plastics: how long can you last?
Questioning Plastics? Space for creative thinking...
"In what hidden ways does plastic connect your local community to the nearest sea and the most distant ocean? How can art help reveal and break the chains of pollution?"
Use the Contact Form to send your ideas, or if you're a Member contribute your objects for a future post.
Dramatist Julia Marques introduces her research on the increasing interest in climate change within new drama, using visual discourse analysis to chart how the topics are addressed explicitly or form a backdrop to the world of the performance.
1,040 words: estimated reading time 4 minutes
After much deliberation and changing of my mind, I settled on my dissertation topic; climate change theatre. More specifically, visual discourse analysis of climate change theatre. Who knew an MA in Climate Change could lead to a final project that allows me to go off in search of environmentally-themed theatre? I certainly didn’t.
But what is visual discourse analysis? An excellent question. This methodology consists of analysing any live climate change theatre that I manage to see myself (hence the visual), or any footage of climate change theatre that I can find through theatre archives. Once I have seen it, and perhaps read the script, I can go about analysing it for climate change content.
Performing climate change
How did I come to create such a topic? As our social research lecturer had predicted, it was not a linear route. I began by listing some of my interests with regards to climate change, and finally decided to incorporate one of my previous areas of study; Drama. What an exciting prospect! I had all sorts of ideas for my research. I was going to survey audiences at different climate change performances to garner their reactions. I was going to interview theatre-makers for the inspiration behind certain productions. I was going to conduct workshops using Theatre of the Oppressed techniques to explore the emotional responses to climate change. My research location moved from London, to the rest of England, to the UK, to even further afield. I started contacting people and groups in order to set up this elaborate operation. The wheels were in motion, the ideas were flowing, my days were filling up fast and . . . it was all getting a bit too much.
I took a step back and realised that there was so much which had already been created that warranted delving into. What about all the theatre that was being conceived right here, in London? What treasures there must be, just waiting for me to find them and write about them! Mixing drama and geography is not an altogether common occurrence in the arena of research. It is not often that you see academic papers that truly consider the arts. I was inspired by the “Four Cultures” idea put forward by Matthew Nisbet and colleagues in their paper Four cultures: new synergies for engaging society on climate change. In it they detail a new vision for the effective incorporation of the environmental sciences, philosophy and religion, social sciences and creative arts and professions. In light of this, and seeing as I hadn’t discovered a wealth of academics who do include the arts in their analyses, I decided to explore this for myself.
A creative appeal
Why include the arts? For one, my MA is entitled Climate Change: History, Culture, Society. Culture, although a contested term, most definitely includes the arts – they are part of any culture. Similarly, society without drama, dance, art and music would be devoid of theatre, films, concerts, gigs, clubs and bars (unless they were sans music), television, parades, galleries, national anthems . . . the list goes on. In addition, I know that the arts have a lot to offer environmentalism, as environmentalism has to offer the arts. Indeed, many artists are very conscious of the issues facing our planet and all who dwell in it, and wish to contribute to the effort to help resolve these conundrums. There is increasing interest for creativity and imagination in the science world, in order to alleviate the situation, and this to me is an obvious appeal to the arts, which lives and breathes creative imaginings of the world. This is not to say that scientists and geographers are not creative, no! But this is a different type of creativity which the arts brings into the environmental sphere.
On commencing my search for plays that I would deem to be climate change-themed, I realised that there seems to have been a surge of new plays about climate change roughly between the years 2005 to 2013. This in itself is intriguing, but my mission is to find what I can see myself and thus be able to analyse. But what am I actually looking for? Climate change content, and the way the topic has been approached – is it overt? Is it implied? Is it the main theme, or a sub-theme that rumbles on in the background? Are the words “climate change” even mentioned?
I have ended up with a mixture of live performances and archival recordings as the pool into which I can dip my researcher’s toes. Once I have made notes on these, and featured them in a series of posts on my website, I can decide which (if not all) I will include in my final write-up of the fascinating area of climate change theatre.
As a postscript to this; I am keen to hear from anyone who knows of, or is involved in, any sort of climate change / environmental theatre. The bigger the pool, the more I can swim!
Questioning Discourse? Space for creative thinking..."The way we speak about the world helps shape how we - and others - think about it. And what we don't say can be as powerful as what we do. How do you read the presence of climate change in some of your favourite fiction or plays, even if it seems to be absent? Does it inform the story, regardless? " Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form."
Artist Jennifer Leach selects three objects that evoke a past, present and future Anthropocene, and highlights care and nurture as constants across humanity’s ages and communities. Her words move from prose to poetry, suggesting a timeline of hope.
990 words: estimated reading time 4 minutes
The challenge: the Anthropocene – the suggested Age of Human that our species has initiated – has a complex past, present and future, and there are many versions. What three objects evoke the unfolding of human-caused environmental and climate change for you? View other contributions at A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.
Object from the past – the first blanket
There was a moment in human history where a mother, for the first time, took a covering and swaddled another in it. It was most likely an animal skin she took. Possibly soft, possibly not. Was it her cold old mother she enveloped? Was it her partner? Her feverish friend? Was it her child? Whoever it was, I imagine her gesture as a premeditated act of love.
From the skins of animals, blankets evolved into softly woven fleece, product of careful husbandry and responsive learning. Into the weavings over the years were entwined responses to the living world – stories, tales, colour harnessed from familiar plants, symbols, references to greater powers, and patterns laid down in homage to those observed in nature.
People wrapped themselves in imagination and creativity, to create a reverent, consoling, protective sheath of comfort and respite, to shelter their love in the midst of harsh lives.
Object from the present – the Trangia
Ah the Trangia! What a marvellous union of creative thinking and problem solving, streamlined with beauty, functionality and brilliant design into an artefact with near-perfect qualities. An entire packaged stove, including pots, that is roughly the size of one standard camp cooking pot. Simplicity within nature.
Each time I use it – and we have used the same one for decades – I thrill at its Russian Doll abundance. I remove the tie that binds it together, and off comes the lid, which doubles as a frying pan. Two pots nestle inside and within the smallest lies the grip handle and the screw-lid burner. The whole family is held within the vented base, which lifts the burner off the ground and provides airflow, and a windscreen protecting pot and flame, even in the gales. All fuelled by a humble little burner punching above its weight.
Our faithful stove has accompanied us on a cycling honeymoon, up mountains and in tents. We bought a second to cope with the culinary demands of a growing family. What we have not stewed, brewed or fried on them is not worth eating. My daughter’s first proudly presented meal was created on a Trangia – for the record, cooked pasta with a tin of sweetcorn and a tin of tuna.
When Trangia brought out a little lidded kettle, with its own handle, to fit snugly inside the inner saucepan, my joy and awe were complete. The sheer abundant genius of it!
Object from the future – prayer wheel generator
It will not be turned By car Nor bus Nor plane Nor mule Nor by low-paid workers Nor some robotic tool But by each of us Whilst the children play And the sick and the old And the tired Will shut their eyes And move it with their prayer.
All it will require Is that my foot follow yours And your foot follow mine And my hand lead yours And yours lead mine And with our power Combined We will generate High voltage Song lines To illuminate The land.
Each post that appears in the series earns its author a copy of a book that had an impact on my thinking about our topics here – whether fiction, poetry or non-fiction – and which I’ve recently rediscovered in a charity shop. (Delivery in the UK only, sadly!) For her post, Jennifer receives a copy of Anticipatory History, edited by Caitlin DeSilvey, Simon Naylor and Colin Sackett. This short book of mini-essays from a cross-disciplinary research network explores “the roles that history and story-telling play in helping us to apprehend and respond to changing landscapes” and their wildlife.
Your personal Anthropocene? Space for creative thinking... "What three objects illustrate a personal timeline for the Anthropocene for you? See the original 'guidelines' at ClimateCultures' A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, and share your objects and associations in your own post."
At its heart, the Anthropocene idea seems simple (if staggering): that as a species (but far from equally as generations, countries or communities) humankind has become such a profligate consumer, reprocessor and trasher of planetary resources that we've now left (and will continue to leave) our mark on the ecological, hydrological and geological systems that other species and generations will have to live within. In reality though, the Anthropocene is a complex and highly contested concept. ClimateCultures will explore some of the ideas, tensions and possibilities that it involves - including the ways the idea resonates with (and maybe troubles) us, personally.
Your objects could be anything, from the mundane to the mystical, 'manmade', 'natural', 'hybrid', physical or digital, real or imaginary. What matters are the emotional significance each object has for you - whether positive, negative or a troubling mix of colours along that spectrum - and the story it suggests or hints at, again for you. Whether your three 'past', 'present' and 'future' objects are identifiably connected in some way or float in apparent isolation from each other is another open question.
Use the Contact Form to let send your ideas, or if you're a Member contribute your objects for a future post.
Writer Mark Goldthorpe reviews Climate Symphony Lab. This lively and loud gathering of scientists, musicians, journalists, sound artists and social scientists was both fun and thought-provoking, and provided an overwhelm of data as raw material for creative thinking.
2,310 words: estimated reading time 9 minutes
In her BBC Reith Lectures for Radio 4, Hilary Mantel said “my concern as a writer is with memory, personal and collective: with the restless dead asserting their claims.” As a historical novelist, Mantel’s dead are from the past, but always present: “St Augustine says ‘the dead are invisible, they are not absent’. I don’t claim we can hear the past or see it. But I say we can listen and look.”
But the dead can be other things too. Things we’ve made invisible by not looking can become dead to our thoughts, our concerns and actions.
Of historical fiction, Mantel claims: “Done properly, it doesn’t say ‘Believe this’ but ‘Consider this.’” We need history and science to reveal the facts that are out there in the world – and art to explore the truths within it.
On a hot June Saturday, I joined the Climate Symphony Lab hosted by Arts Admin’s 2 Degrees Festival of art and climate change. It was one of a series of workshops organised by Disobedient, Forma and composer Jamie Perera to explore how turning data into sound can bring fresh engagement with climate change. Soundscapes can spark understanding in ways that tables, graphs and spreadsheets rarely can; sonification is a lively counterpart to the more familiar visualisation through pie charts, Venn diagrams, timelines and other infographics.
Why use sound? We’re so used to privileging our visual skills and understanding (‘seeing is believing’) that switching to other modes can reset and enhance our perception. Sound has a deep, ‘felt’ presence in our bodies. As a way of detecting and working with patterns, it can be both effective and affective.
But, like any representation, sonification presents dilemmas, risks misrepresentation. The workshop was centred on just such questions: Where does the desire to engage people end? Do we sacrifice accuracy for ‘accessibility’? What stories are we telling – and not telling? What makes a good story and who decides? How does this inform the type of data we use? Is this art, or journalism?
With these thorny issues in mind, Climate Symphony Lab offered an additional twist to the sonification process: participation. What happens when you bring scientists, journalists, composers, musicians, sound technologists and others into the same space, not just to discuss but to do?
To frame the possibilities and ground our experiment, we heard from a climate scientist, a design researcher, a political geographer and sound artist, and a researcher working at the intersection of music, computing and biology. From the mundane realities of collecting climate data (sometimes literally dragging it up from the sea in buckets), through ‘dark data’, ‘data wash’ and problems of scale, to the soundscape as diagnostic tool, the talks presented rich stories. But it was sound itself – specifically, noise – that made the event disturbingly meaningful for me.
The echo chamber
A strong memory from my TippingPoint experiences was early on day one of the first Weatherfronts event in 2014 – also a hot June day. 90 writers and researchers were standing quietly in two large concentric circles. Inner and outer rings of strangers faced each other close up, waiting for the instruction to stop listening to the facilitator and start talking to each other, one to one. The hall was full, right up to the limit. With its hard floor, high ceiling and walls of glass and stone, at the word ‘Go!’, the noise levels instantly rocketed from ground zero, echoing somewhere up beyond maximum. The sort of sonic environment I usually hate, but the shock of it had undeniable energy, a bodily force. The decibels just rolled on as one circle shifted inside the other, bringing new pairings into conversation. The image that came immediately to me was as if I’d opened a heavy door into a packed turkey shed and it had closed again with me inside. A surreal, animalian moment. I wish I had a recording of it.
60 people in a studio can also stage a pretty good turkey shed sound effect. When we split into two large teams and started grappling with what we’d been asked to accomplish, our conversations couldn’t help fragmenting into groups of twos and threes, each struggling to make headway under the cacophony of the whole. That, I imagine, was not part of the design here any more than at Weatherfronts, but it reminded me to look at spaces with cautious respect for what they can achieve through the obstacles they throw up as much as what we hope our plans for them will deliver.
So, what was being asked of us? For each team to take a selection of data on offer – mostly already visualised for us as graphs – and select the four datasets we thought might have a shared story to tell. Play with a simple visual musical scale, overlaying transparencies of a mini piano keyboard along the vertical axis of each graph, to decide how we wanted the changing data to ‘sound’. And have the workshop gurus do the technical bit of making that happen, using either our choice of ‘instruments’, other digital effects, or sounds we’d recorded ourselves.
Simple. Even someone unmusical like me could grasp the principles with no knowledge of what making music actually involves or how to go from paper (lots of paper) to performance in two hours. No problem.
The animal in the room
No, other than the sheer noise, I was worried about something else entirely. We were all up for being creative in the face of the climate problem, but seemed unintentionally to be reproducing a big part of the problem. As one of the speakers had said, “To frame is to exclude,” and it turned out that the living non-human world had been framed out of our climate concerns.
It might just have been the noise levels jarring my sensibilities, but I was feeling uneasy that our data had nothing to say about more-than-human experience. It was all either physical (carbon, ice, sea levels …) or human (waste, migration, air quality …). And there was a lot of it — a stack of printouts showing this growing or that shrinking, and sometimes going all over the place in the process. Why had so much story already been cut out: species extinctions and marginalisations, habitat erasures and domestications? Where was the wild? This wasn’t a criticism of the process we were trying out, but a live critique of how we habitually see and shape only what we choose. The world is always bigger than that, messier, hopelessly entangled. Understandably, we exclude so much, needing to simplify what remains in our field of vision so we have something we can think with. But this demands self-awareness and questioning: that we lift ourselves out of our echo chambers.
I wasn’t the only one trying to make sense of the creative challenge and its limitations. Everyone brought their own interests, their own take on the ground rules, and a different plea for another view on what was meaningful. And the noise continued, seeming to swamp any signals….
And yet. Somewhere in all that, I gradually found that the noise became my signal. Something meaningful emerged, slow and uncertain. The process: messy, seemingly chaotic, definitely confusing. The data, even our small sample: overwhelming. The choices: full of conflict. The time constraints: ridiculous. It was all pushing us to compromise so as not to fail. We’d fail anyway, but you have to act. Sound familiar? We had become our own representation of the global ‘problem’.
Yes, all data attempts to ‘represent’ messy and complex realities that can’t be fully captured: constructing usable human-shaped containers for a world that’s always overflowing our efforts to order it; hiding our choices even as we make them, rendering some things invisible to highlight others. In our attempts to isolate a signal and reveal meaningful patterns of change, the excluded seeps back in as noise, distorting the filters. This east London studio, this mass of graphs and files, this intention to make music, were our own container, choice and filter. And for one afternoon at least, the world was going to work through these artefacts and be creatively distorted into something playful, representing and misrepresenting it all at once. Fun!
Dissonance and disciplines
In one group, we tore up sheets of paper at the studio mic — the shreds snowing to the floor– to call up the spirit of London’s waste accumulating at our feet. Later, another group’s feet came marching towards the mic, bodies shuffling and gasping to channel the migrant Others from ‘there’ seeking refuge ‘here’. Whispered breaths became a questionable air quality. ‘Proper’ instruments became rising carbon dioxide levels or ocean acidity, or the projected scenarios of warming futures.
Then, sitting quietly again, listening to the final pieces our teams had thrown together, we heard for the first – and only – time what ‘our’ data had become, what we’d made of the world outside the studio.
I’d wondered whether to push for one of our team’s tracks to be silence: a missing voice for all the species we’d locked out of the room, the habitats slipping away under a wake of data-churning human activity. Or maybe we could have their silences cut across the other soundstreams, polluting and disrupting our human-centredness… In the end, listening to our dissonant but surprisingly beautiful collage, I found my worries allayed. Maybe it was only my imagination – anxiety made artistic – but somehow the wild had its voice in the growling, creaking sounds I couldn’t identify. Was that the asthmatic air quality of civilised London somehow calling back others that had been here before and might be again, after? And the final, faint whisper from the last ripped corner of paper being torn down to its end, was that an insectoid rustling from the corners of the room? In my hearing at least, the excluded were back in: over the fence, regardless of us. Their refusal to be ruled out maybe points to a space for undisciplinary, not just multidisciplinary, working.
Early on, one of the workshop leaders had asked us to wonder if “we can or should make something beautiful out of tragedy?” And the answer is “Yes, somehow.” The tragedy remains, but picked out in a sharp relief that maybe helps us see how we should attend to it, care for it. I think everyone shared a sense that we’d organised enough of the chaos to make something ephemeral but with impact, for us at least. Whether that is art-representing-data-representing-reality or, more simply, science-informing-artists-making-art is a perennial question. And, somehow, misses the point.
“History,” Hilary Mantel continued in her lectures, “is not the past. It is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record.” We can and should have better debates about what we can ensure is left on the record of changing climates, so that this can inform our understanding of the different culpabilities, vulnerabilities, responsibilities. But however much we measure and analyse, we’re always bound into our own ignorance and will continually recreate it; so the urge and the need to organise ignorance through our art as much as our science and our history are urgent and hopeful.
Unexpectedly, Hilary Mantel has helped me think through my own impressions of an intriguing experience that required a bit of distance to make better sense of. So I leave the final thought to her, knowing her concern for the past also speaks of the future:
“When we imagine a lost world, we must first re-arrange our senses – listen and look, before judging. But we do rush to judgement, and our judgement swings about – at one moment we find the past frightening and alien, and the next moment we are giving way to nostalgia.”
Find out more
You can read about Climate Symphony in this recent article by Alexandra Simon-Lewis in Wired. She talks to Disobedient’s Leah Borromeo, who highlights the importance of both peer-reviewed science and first person perspective, and transparency of process: “Opening things from the start so all the bones and blood of the thing are on display is important.” From the Wired article, you can also listen to Soundcloud tracks from Climate Symphony and from a previous Lab workshop at ONCA in Brighton.
Hilary Mantel’s 2017 Reith Lectures are available at the BBC website.
Disobedient Films – “established by artist-filmmakers Katharine Round and Leah Borromeo to disrupt traditional documentary form and extract new angles and emotions around factual narratives” – has much more work for you to discover. Artists of Our Natural World includes a section on artists, Dan Harvey and Heather Ackroyd, who create a photographic photosynthesis work in response to the planned exploratory oil drilling on Leith Hill, Surrey. “By manipulating the natural processes that fuel life itself, these British artists blur the line between science, nature and art, all while drawing attention to climate change.”
This short clip from BBC World Service’s programme Click features Clare Malrieux talking about her climate sound artwork, Climat Général.
And there is also plenty to explore on up-to-date visualisation of climate change data, including animations by climate scientist Ed Hawkins on global temperatures, sea ice and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels at Climate Lab Book. Ed was one of the speakers at the Climate Change Lab.
Questioning Representation? Space for creative thinking...
"What is the soundtrack you'd like make to 'capture' something about climate change, and what technologies and sounds would you use? How would you acknowledge the 'missing voices' you'd have to omit?" Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form."
ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews William Golding’s The Inheritors, an essential reimagining of a key transition for humanity, our place as inheritors of a world that lives around and inside us, and of separation of culture from nature.
2,300 words: estimated reading time 9 minutes
A copy of the novel goes to Julien Masson for his contributionto A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.
In his 1955 classic, The Inheritors, William Golding famously reimagined the lost world of the Neanderthals at the moment when the very last of them were losing it. His family of hominids — the People — encounter the incoming Homo sapiens — the New People — and only bitter, unprecedented experience can tell them what this will mean.
Almost the entire novel is experienced through the eyes and other senses of Lok, one of the family group making the seasonal journey inland from their winter coastal grounds to the forested uplands. Here, they shelter in a rocky gap in the forest: an ancestral cave, barely more than a recess in the cliff terrace overlooking a glacier-fed river, with its mystery-giving ice field above and deadly waterfall below.
Golding worried that his portrayal of Neanderthals wouldn’t stand up to expert scrutiny. “I haven’t done any research for the book at all,” he warned his editor, “just brooded over what I know myself.” His editor replied that any expert’s suggestions “would be the wrong sort” and published the book as it stood. A later essay by Golding’s daughter Judy – marking the 60th anniversary of the novel – cast light on just what it was that the author had been brooding over:
‘Some of the book’s preoccupations are understandable. It was barely nine years since the end of the second world war. Postwar austerity and rationing had restricted life to a degree hard to convey now. Housing was desperately lacking. Food was not plentiful, and even scarcity could not make it interesting. Small wonder then that hunger is one of the dominant themes of The Inheritors – an aching hunger that slows you down and makes you less able to move but also to think. Providing food is the main concern both of the Neanderthals (“the people”) and the group of Homo sapiens (“the New People”). It is hunger that produces the darkest event in the book, and the deepest sense of guilt. I believe this guilt is in some ways an expression of the complex remorse my father felt for the war.’
Judy Golding claims that her father’s sense of guilt – “not only over the people he himself had killed … but also for the role of his species in creating the whole machinery of war” was also a kind of hunger, one that consumes humanity.
Rereading The Inheritors after 25 years, I was surprised at first by the extent to which it makes for quite hard reading. It’s beautifully written, as I remember with all his novels I’d read in my twenties; but I’d forgotten just how Golding used the restrictions of language to convey the world through the thought-images of our distant cousins – distant in time, and also in consciousness. Through the eyes of Lok, his people’s social and natural world (with no distinction possible between these aspects of being and belonging) is rendered as timelessly familiar to him and his family, while unfamiliar to us. The People’s lives are practically tool-free – every need of a sick elder for a drink means a trip by someone down to the river to fetch water that has to be cupped in their hands all the way back up to the cave. Every step and act is dictated by the need to eat, drink, shelter and avoid the predatory hyenas and cats. Our reading of their life is difficult, as we struggle at times to make out what it is that Lok and the others are seeing. When Lok spies the New People drinking water as if it is being given to them by “a wobbly animal” that one of them holds under her arm, and which goes flat and empty when she accidentally drops it on the ground, he doesn’t grasp that they’ve used an animal skin as a container, and we don’t see at first that this is what he has witnessed.
Much of what Lok witnesses makes sense to us (and, too late, to him) in retrospect, and also through the reactions of his mate, Fa. She seems to grasp more about these strange new arrivals – of their darker side, especially. When Lok persists in not understanding what has become of their daughter, Fa cannot explain (or bring herself to) but her dumbfounded reactions to his ignorance are moments of heart-breaking tragedy, as we come to apprehend something that is never shown, stated or explained. This truth about the New People – us – is not explicable, because it is not comprehensible. Golding hides “the darkest event in the book” from us, just as Fa hides it from Lok as they huddle together in a treetop looking down on the drunken, violent rituals of the famished humans after their unsuccessful hunting trip.
Golding gave his Neanderthals basic language, which they use sparingly, but a rich sensory and imaginal understanding of their world. Much of their communication takes place in the sharing of pictures, a form of telepathy that occasionally helps to transfer novel ideas from person to person. Lacking a strong sense of past or future, their eternal present is a tragic illusion for the People; only we know what is coming and what the changes will mean — for them, and for us.
It may be unhelpful to fixate on the People as Neanderthals – and therefore to worry about the accuracy of Golding’s portrayal of them. Clearly, the story acts as a recasting of the Biblical Fall. A central symbol in the novel is the waterfall. Always present as an image of force and danger for the forest dwellers, it plays a literal role in their ending. But it’s also a source of realisation for Lok in its new role as metaphor, when he starts to see things through that novel form of understanding: one thing in the guise of another. It’s this transition from proto- to fully human — from imagining to rationalising, inhabiting to remaking — that marks our self-exile from the Eden of a world that lives around and inside us, the inheritors.
Nothing stands against them
Fa goes missing after a clash with the incomers and, for the first time in his life – and in his picture of the life of his people – Lok is alone in the forest. He can hear the sounds and shouts of the New People in the distance, as they cut their way through the trees to travel uphill with the hollow logs they have used to cross the river and which they are taking with them into the interior. The noise diminishes:
‘He could hear no more than the voice of the old man when it rose in command or fury. Down here where the forest changed to marsh and the sky opened over bushes, straggling willow and water, there was no other sign of their passage. The woodpigeons talked, preoccupied with their mating; nothing was changed … All things profited and thrived in a warm windlessness.’
But Lok is now able to contemplate this seemingly unchanged scene with “a new head”, knowing now that appearances are deceptive; in fact everything has changed, thanks to the newcomers’ violent nature. His own change includes the ability to see likenesses he’s never been conscious of before.
‘The new head knew that certain things were gone and done with like a wave of the sea. It knew that the misery must be embraced painfully as a man might hug thorns to him and it sought to comprehend the new people from whom all the changes came … He had used likeness all his life without being aware of it … Now, in a convulsion of the understanding Lok found himself using likeness as a tool as surely as ever he had used a stone to hack at sticks or meat. Likeness could grasp the white-faced hunters with a hand, could put them into the world where they were thinkable and not a random and unrelated irruption … they had emptied the gap of its people with little more than a turn of their hands.
“They are like the river and the fall, they are a people of the fall; nothing stands against them.”‘
Whatever the author’s intention in casting the pre-Fall people as simple, loving and unaggressive scavenger-gatherers (they never kill animals for food but do take kills discarded by predators, for which “there is no blame”), inseparable from their environment, while the New People hunt with weapons, fight among themselves and walk in fear through the forest, Golding also showed their common humanity. Both groups’ lives are centred on family, emotional understanding of their community and a need for security. This tension between commonality and ‘Othering’ must have had great resonance in a world torn open by total war, death camp genocides, forced retreat from imperial self-delusions of ‘manifest destiny’ and mounting Cold War fears of apocalypse. The resonance should be even greater for us, in the Anthropocene – a new age for the new people – where these collective insanities shapeshift and accelerate into even greater forms.
Perhaps the old people here are more a mark of our lost connection with the more-than-human world than of the origins of our species’ apparent drive to exterminate (merely) its own competing sub-cultures. With their red hair and mode of walking bent forward, Golding’s ‘Neanderthals’ perhaps seem more like orangutans (“people of the forest” in Malay); their gentleness and too-late understanding of what the New People are capable of chimes with a picture of how far Homo sapiens is prepared to go to cut itself out of the web of life by cutting down the web itself.
Fa listens patiently to Lok’s assertion that their daughter is still with her kidnappers, carried off with the canoes now being rolled uphill on felled tree trunks:
‘Fa looked mournfully at his face. She pointed to a smear on the smoothed earth that had been a slug.
“They have gone over us like a hollow log. They are like a winter.”‘
The inheritors upstream
Once the novel is done with the story of the people of the forest, the final chapter is for the inheritors, and we see the world through their eyes. They are paddling upstream, free of the forest that they feared for its natural perils and its red-haired devils. The protagonist now is Tuami, a hunter and a rival of the old man who leads them as shaman. Also with them in their boats, alongside their passions, superstitions and cleverness with thoughts and tools, lies a baby – another captive from the forest people. The red-haired devil-boy, looked on with mixed amusement and repulsion by the inheritors, is protected by the dominant but childless woman of the group. Tuami watches the comical play of the adoptive mother and infant and feels the inspiration he has been lacking for the ivory knife handle he is shaping.
‘The sun shone on the [woman’s] head and the [baby’s] rump and quite suddenly everything was all right again and the sands had sunk back to the bottom of the pool. The rump and the head fitted each other and made a shape you could feel with your hands. They were waiting in the rough ivory of the knife-haft that was so much more important than the blade. They were an answer, the frightened, angry love of the woman and the ridiculous, intimidating rump that was wagging at her head, they were a password.’
A password to where? To a distant future where part of our inheritance is the result of an interbreeding between one branch of humanity and another — between two aspects of humanity — and maybe some hope for a tempering of the fearful and violent separation of culture from nature?
Find out more
Judy Golding’s article in the Guardian marking the 60th anniversary of the book’s publication offers many insights into the writing of her father’s novel, and the inspiration he took from his own family in portraying the family of forest people.
Novelist Penelope Lively’s rereading of the novel makes the connection between the book and the then recent discovery of the prehistoric art of the Lascaux cave painting which inspired the novel’s original cover. “The dustjacket has that leaping stag figure from the walls of the Lascaux cave — half human, half animal – which places it fair and square within the context of its inspiration. It is hard to realise now the effect that the discovery of the Lascaux paintings had in the post-war period: those images haunted the imagination of a generation. For some, like Golding, it was the implications of the images and their setting; for others, it was the extraordinary sophistication and perception of the paintings themselves.” (You can read more about Lascaux, its discovery and art, in this entry by Emma Groeneveld in the Ancient History Encyclopedia).
This blog by science writer James Kingsland at Plastic Brain points out some of the problems with Golding’s novel as a literal representation of the Neanderthals (but its truthfulness in the broad sweep) – and echoes a feeling that reading Lok and Fa as more distant primate relatives could be helpful.
Questioning Origins? Space for creative thinking..."Where does being human begin for you - whether in a life, within the web of life, or in deep time? Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form."