Tag Archives: memory

An Imagined Country

An Imagined Country

This imagined country, known by him from memory, for me was always an image on a screen in a darkened auditorium during weekly visits to the local cinemas in Whitley Bay, the town I grew up in.

I can hear his slow voice, America inflected through Cumbria. Hear him talk about Chicago and staying in Cicero, Capone’s neighbourhood. How he never saw that much violence. He’d sometimes talk about, evoke a vast landscape, desert colours. Pause, sit silently leaving me to imagine what was left unsaid. Other times he’d draw it out in a nervous, spidery line. But most of all what I remember is a sense of the road, so real in the telling.

This journey is structured around significant locations reflected in the story fragments my father left me, tales he told during long walks on the Northumberland coast. Fragments, now imagined as much as remembered; those stories were told years ago, I too forget.




An Imagined Country took as its starting point some fragmentary images and a story that continue to haunt me.

It’s a couple of years after WW1 and my father, aged 17 years, walks out of his home in Maryport, Cumberland, to buy cigarettes for my grandfather. He returns around 17 years later after working his passage to Chicago to see one of his brothers and then wandering across America. This story, a defining feature of my childhood, was often used as a weapon in the brittle, corrosive relationship between my parents.

We travelled, Teresa Cairns & I, across the USA during the autumn of 2011 retracing what I remember of my father’s journeys. Tracing fragments in the echoes of the economic boom and downturn of 20th century America, listening to individuals’ stories about negotiating the current economic crisis in contemporary America.

In the 1920/30s my father travelled across a country that was beginning to impose immigration quotas, to close borders. He travelled during a time of prosperity, and economic collapse. It is these strands and echoes we engaged with.

The conflict between truth and fiction, a dialogue between the real and the imagined, and the role stories play in defining the family narrative; that’s the motivation. ‘Truth’ in the form of evidence, if available at all, is almost always subject to interpretation, ‘home’ and ‘belonging’ as boundaries filtered through memory and experience, landscape and locality as markers of identity, all located in the richness of the ordinary and everyday. This is what we found.

Seeking Shelter


Seeking Shelter is a short film exploring the use of objects, in reminiscence work, to prompt remembering.

This is the 2nd. in an occasional series, In The Object…A Memory.

In The Object…A Memory


In the Object…a Memory is a short film made with a group of older residents in Woodingdean, on the outskirts of Brighton, UK.

This is an occasional series of short films exploring the use of objects in reminiscence work to prompt remembering.



My approach to making work at the time of Salvaged was that of a collector of the ephemeral, of a maker in the beachcomber or bricoleur tradition, a way of working greatly influenced by Kurt Schwitters and Robert Rauschenberg.

I was born, and grew up on the North East coast of England. As an adult living in Brighton I found my visual production increasingly concerned with an exploration of elements of that North Eastern cultural landscape. I worked digitally, initially collecting and assembling ephemera: detritus, scraps of images, typographic fragments, and text, which functioned at the pictorial level as aids to memory. The starting point need not be autobiographical. Rather it was the association through chance arrangement, which became the material for recollection or reflection, and it is the integration of those responses into a pictorial system, which had as its goal the visualisation of fragments of a life, which made the work autobiographical.

Salvaged, published by Photoworks, in 2004 continued to explore notions of autobiography and narrative. The book consists of 52 images of objects collected on Whitley Bay beach on the North East coast of England, and Brighton beach on the south east coast. The strategy of simply scanning collected detritus, without any further intervention was appropriate to this bookwork. Ephemera collected during walks on both beaches, function as visual echoes, counterpoints to stories, and fragments of remembered conversations, which are interspersed throughout the book. At the heart of this work are memories of walks on Whitley Bay beach with my father, and walks with my sons on Brighton beach in vastly different circumstances; it is the father/son relationship which forms the core of the book.

The limitations I set myself were central to the realisation of this work. On Brighton beach the pier at the Marina defined one point (the new), the remains of the West Pier the other (the old), as well as revisiting a significant memory site; the beach at Whitley Bay, and walking to the lighthouse and back to the town.  In the routine a rhythm was defined, of constantly ‘going over old ground’ of ‘retracing ones steps’ which echoed the activity of memory, of interrogating remembered moments.

The walks took place between 1st. January and 31st. December, 2002.

Salvaged. Photoworks, 2004
ISBN 1-903796-11-3

Picture It This Way

Picture it this way; a worn step up from the pavement to the front door, which is set at an angle to the street corner.
Behind the door hangs a curtain to keep the draughts out during cold winter months. In place of one wall an immense window looks out onto the street, paint covering the glass just high enough to stop prying eyes peering in.
In the room a double bed, two z-beds, which fold away neatly during the day, and a cot. Four chairs and a table occupy the middle of this room. Except for a crucifix hanging from a nail above the double bed, the walls are bare.

At the back of the room and to the right up two steps is the scullery, small and sparsely furnished. From here a backdoor opens into a yard overflowing with all kinds of objects; among the general litter a poss tub and a mangle.

He stands in the doorway framed by the gathering gloom. Streetlights are already lit. Where on earth has he been all this time, she wonders, and in such a state too.

‘Look at you. Where on earth have you been, lad? Get yourself in and close that door. It’s freezing. Come on, get those wet boots off. Where have you been? Where have you been?’
‘Just out. Dunno, out playing.’
‘Come on and warm yourself by the fire. Maybe you can go into nanna’s if she doesn’t mind.’
‘Great,’ he yells and rushes into his grandmother’s room next door.

Sitting by the range, she appears a frail and impossibly old woman to his mind, but he loves her all the same.

‘Hello nanna, where’s my sword?’
‘There, where you left it, son.’

Now he sits on the fender idly playing with his sword, pretending to poke and thrust at the fire.
‘Mind now,’ she says. ‘You’ll damage that if you’re not careful.’
Taking no notice of her he continues his game until finally the plastic blade, placed too close to the hot coals, begins to melt, giving off a foul smell.
He is distraught. With his favourite, his only, sword ruined he begins to sob inconsolably.

It’s curious how some sounds echo across the years, some odours linger.


That Boy

That boy. I can still see him stalking the streets trailing clouds of conflict.

This story told to me by a friend.
‘Lost his rag, he did. Blood everywhere man. I don’t know what happened. One minute they were standing glasses in hand up on the balcony looking at the dance floor. The next minute he’s trying to shove a broken bottle in the lad’s face. Fucks sake, there was blood everywhere and this pale kid staggering towards the door clutching his arm. He’d raised hand to defend himself. God knows what his face would have looked like otherwise.’

Sometimes it was a nightmare being in the same space as him. Everyone tense, strung so tight the air seemed to crackle.

People flit in and out of memory; sometimes a vague presence, at other times crystal clear. There was about him a brittle dangerous energy not quite contained, forever threatening to erupt, spill over into aggression and violence.
One day in the centre of town he walked towards me bellowing, ‘Kack town, this. What a fuckin’ kack town. Lets burn the shit hole down.’
Startled people turned, and quickly turned away.

‘Where you taking them books?’
‘Back to the library.’
‘Brainy fucka. See you later then, eh?’
‘Aye, maybe. I might go down onto the front after I’ve taken these back.’
‘Aye, alright. See you later.’

Shoulders set; he walked off with such blind certainty.

After the library a walk along the beach to the lighthouse, something I often did to while away the time, to feel a sense of purpose in movement.
I’d reached the rocks and was making my way towards the island when I noticed him, or rather saw someone lying face down gazing intently into a rock pool. He must have sensed me because when he looked up it was with such excitement. ‘Quick. Come here. Look. Look at this, man.’ He pointed into the rock pool. ‘Look at those two crabs. Amazing, they’re fighting over that one shell. Cool, eh? Life and death, man, life and death.’
Satisfied, he became absorbed again, drawn down to the struggle in the pool.

Curious how those incidents remain while I have no recollection of him or what he looked like. Only this-his manic energy, flaring, scaring.


The Reading Room


The Reading Room (2000-2002) had its starting point in the memory of a rainy afternoon sitting in the reference library in Berwick-upon-Tweed.  The library closed, was relocated but still seemed a fitting starting point for this work. It was no longer possible to return to the physical place. All I could do was explore the imaginary space.

So The Reading Room functioned as a framework within which to site an exploration of memory. It suggested a space for reflection, enquiry, and possibility.