Republic of Thorns 2001

Dedicated to the memory of Dr Robert Woof OBE, CBE (1931-2005), Director of the Wordsworth Trust 1998-2005

Multimedia installation by Russell Mills, Ian Walton and Paul Farley
3˚ West Gallery, The Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere, Cumbria for the Wordsworth Trust

Earth-clad books, 3 surveillance mirrors, broken mirrors, broken glass, amber window blinds, 3 wallpapers, transfer wall texts, ceramic bowl, Dobby stone, copper wire, ceiling motor, 1953 Philips Stella ST106A valve radio adapted for ceaseless random play, 1 video film, 1 video monitor, lighting, asynchronous 6 CD players 2 CD walkman players surround sound system
Video film by Russell Mills and Ian Walton, edited by Russell Mills and Michael Webster

Soundwork by Russell Mills, Ian Walton and Mike Fearon with the poem The Thorn written and read by Paul Farley
Produced by Russell Mills and Michael Fearon at Shed Studio, Ambleside, Cumbria

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Dedicated to the memory of Dr Robert Woof OBE, CBE (1931-2005), Director of the Wordsworth Trust 1998-2005

Republic of Thorns (2001)
3°W Gallery, The Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere
Multimedia installation by Russell Mills, Ian Walton and Paul Farley: a Wordsworth Trust commission presented with the support of Northern Arts: Year of The Artist, The Monument Trust and South Lakeland District Council

Earth-clad books, broken glass, broken mirrors, three convex surveillance mirrors, amber window film, ceiling motor, stone, ceramic bowl, wallpaper, vinyl wall texts, Primum Mobile: This That There (random radio), video film (14 minutes 15 seconds) set to ceaselessly loop, monitor, asynchronous six CD players and two CD Walkman players surround sound system
Film by Russell Mills and Ian Walton; edited by Russell Mills and Michael Webster
Electrical installation by Keith Coates
Glass and mirrors supplied by Westmorland Glass, Kendal
Surveillance mirrors courtesy of Signs & Labels Ltd. Stockport

For the Wordsworth Trust:
Director: Dr. Robert Woof
Administration and production coordination: David Cooper
Construction: Jeff Cowton and Alan Houghton
Volunteers: Philip Northcott, Stephen Hebron and Sally Woodhead

Soundwork recorded, mixed and produced by Russell Mills and Mike Fearon at Shed Studios, Ambleside
Mastered by Denis Blackham at Skye Mastering

Republic of Thorns
Wordsworth’s phrase, “A perfect Republic of Shepherds and Agriculturalists” described the landscape he knew as boy and man. The place was a place of equality and dignity for the people who lived and worked among the hills. Wordsworth had gone fishing with them as a boy; he knew their ways with sheep on the fells, he wrote one of his finest poems on human dignity about an old shepherd, Michael. The phrase can perhaps be applied to the thorns, metaphoric and actual, that underlie the exploration of experience that artists and poet have brought to this exhibition. Nature, and specifically the thorn, is that enduring force that is the context of our own mortality: hardy, known when we were young; still known in maturity; obstinate, mysterious; as prevalent in the cities as in the country; an image for us all. We are all aware of the Republic of Thorns.

The Thorn
It was not in Grasmere that Wordsworth wrote one of the most famous of his experimental poems, The Thorn, but in the Quantocks, near Alfoxden, Somerset, in March 1798: indeed, on the 19th of that month Dorothy wrote in her Journal: “William wrote some lines describing a stunted thorn;” a month later, on 20 April she noted the actual tree that we suppose prompted Wordsworth to begin the poem: “Came home the Crookham way, by the thorn, and the little muddy pond.” When Wordsworth published the poem, he added a note: “The poem of The Thorn, as the reader will soon discover, is not supposed to be spoken in the author’s own person; the character of the loquacious narrator will sufficiently show itself in the course of the story.” Wordsworth’s poem, in short, is not written from his own standpoint: it is a kind of dramatic monologue written in a lyrical style with an eloquent and rapid-flowing stanza invented by Wordsworth himself. The Thorn has little of that egotistical sublime that Keats noted twenty years later in 1818 as Wordsworth’s predominant characteristic.

The poem has its origin not only in the actual thorn tree seen on the Quantocks, but also in a fragmentary ballad which we find copied onto loose sheets of paper stuck into his notebook. The fragment is a story of infanticide, but we could easily believe that the story had its origins in the story of Mary Hamilton, a lady in the Scottish court, who became pregnant, and feared, too much, the consequences of discovery. The version that Wordsworth knew, and wrote down before 1800, was the fragmentary one found in Herd’s Ancient and Modern Scottish Songs (Edinburgh, 1776):

And there she’s lean’d her back to a thorn
Oh! and alas – a day oh, and alas a day.
And there she has her baby born
Ten thousand times good night, and be’ wi’ thee.

She has houked a grave ayont the sun
Oh! and alas – a day oh, and alas a day.
And there she has buried the sweet babe in.
Ten thousand times good night, and be’ wi’ thee.

And she has gane back to her Father’s ha’
Oh! and alas – a day oh, and alas a day.
She’s counted the leelest maid o’ them a’.
Ten thousand times good night, and be’ wi’ thee.

O look not sae sweet, my bonny babe,
Oh! and alas – a day oh, and alas a day.
Gin ye smyle sae ye’ll smyle me dead;
Ten thousand times good night, and be’ wi’ thee.

There is one other line that Wordsworth surely remembered, Edgar’s comment in King Lear, when he too, disguised as Poor Tom, like the thorn itself, like Lear and like Martha Ray in Wordsworth’s poem, has to face the elements as a poor naked wretch, the bare forked animal, of Lear’s appalled imagination: “Through the sharp hawthorn blows the cold wind.” The cold wind “cuts like a scythe” through Wordsworth’s poem and the thorn survives almost by changing its nature, “like a stone / With lichens it is overgrown”. Lear scarcely survives the exposure; he becomes mad; Poor Tom manages by stealth and seeming madness, and Martha Ray discards almost all her nature as a woman; she becomes like the thorn, an object on a mountain; one that expresses only grief.

Yet, she endures, as does the thorn. And she has endured. She is almost celebrated by the great universe itself for the long endurance of her grief:

And she is known to every star,
And every wind that blows;
And there beside the Thorn she sits
When the blue daylight’s in the skies,
And when the whirlwind’s on the hill,
Or frosty air is keen and still,
And to herself she cries,
‘Oh misery! oh misery!
Oh woe is me! oh misery!’

The poem deals with a woman who might have killed a child, but who, beyond her suffering, might also be the subject of gossip and calumny by neighbours; the folk in the poem finally judge her innocent; even as the stars of the blue sky and the wind have their sympathy with her. The thorn tree of Wordsworth’s poem just has being; it could be symbolic of Martha herself; certainly, it is maternal, and may be a failed mother; it makes one think that Wordsworth, who lost his mother when he was eight, is dealing with his own problem of a mother and a child separated by death. There is almost a touch of the ghastly aged crone in the poem: this is emphasised in the manuscript:

A thorn there is which like a stone
With jagged lichens is o’ergrown,
A thorn that wants the thorny points
A toothless thorn with knotted joints;
Not higher than a two years child
It stands upon that spot so wild . . .

Wordsworth’s skilful modern narrative is to insist that we don’t know what really happened, and that we can only have partial knowledge of all serious things.

Paul Farley’s poem, Thorns, works wittily, suggestively, more autobiographically; at the same time, it is totally fictional; one doesn’t have to know whether it is true or not, it just seems like a major experience; it is lived; it has voices that confront the writer. Thorns are a metaphor for what it might be to be human and having even less grasp about the solidity of one’s own character (the character that Wordsworth fictionalises into being in his story). Nothing could be more pointed than Paul’s Thorns in that poem’s allusions to our experience of image and metaphor, of language as a tease, which brings us into thought as well as teasing us out of it.

Paul Farley can take you to the edge of discovery by denying that he has anything but an experience to build upon; nothing is given, all has to be found.

When one turns to artists Russell Mills and Ian Walton, one is reminded of early work, trace elements perhaps, when they refer in explicit terms to their interest in Wordsworthian conceptions, “accepting the Wordsworthian imperative that nature underwrites the evolution of culture, the works seek to transform, by direct action and by ricochet, recovering the wonder of what has become familiar, finding a new significance in chaos and giving meaning to the incoherent.” It is Russell Mills’ words here that point one to parallels with Paul Farley’s discomfort in having to commit himself to any avowed affirmative point of view; and yet nothing is more celebrated than the process of probing and energising the search. At the end of Wordsworth’s The Thorn, the narrator is baffled: he is like a detective who cannot find a solution to the mystery; he is only aware that the world is a mystery and that there is a story of a woman who might have killed her child, a thorn tree that might be emblematic of the pathos and tragedy of the individual alone; the tree’s courageous survival in all the elements of the weather seems to have meaning, the more because of its courageous stance even in its toothless age; a living emblem is suggested. The thorn tree in both Wordsworth and Farley is paradoxically contrasting; one tree has thorns that prick, the other tree has thorns that do not, but the probing of the tree’s nature is the interest. It is a kind of mapping which takes us outside our time-oppressed world.

In the end, Ian Walton and Russell Mills have an image of a stone turning in its bowl – like W.B. Yeats’ image of a stone turning in its gyre; the turning is marking the bowl; all art is a mark made through the turning of time; and the shattered glass and the shattered mirrors are like leaves from the ephemeral moment, still marvellously casting shadows of light. We ponder on the books that lead upwards, and lead nowhere; they also are subject to time and decay; they are articulate as images, as are the layers of wallpaper, each layer casting a shape from its own time on to our consciousness. In the end the whole produces a work of art, which might be a series of words, or a series of shapes; it comes out of and goes beyond that past of layers of paper trying to cover a wall with a surface excitement. Here, the distressed wallpaper shows time producing images in a random way, and we praise the ingenuity that sees the present encapsulating so many layers of past. And the yellowness? And the music? And the mirrors? What futility? And what aspiration? The answers are ours and it is our delight to try to reach for an answer – an answer that will probably be another question.

Dr Robert Woof, Director, The Wordsworth Trust, 2005.
(from the original installation catalogue)

West, a few yards from Dove Cottage where Wordsworth developed the imperative that poetry should disclose in nature’s handwriting, analogues for the workings of the human mind and soul, multiple images of feathers spinning, swooping, lifting and falling in continual flux ricochet between a series of convex surveillance mirrors, alluding to both the Claude Glass* of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries and the pre-eminence of our heritage-obsessed culture, which seems capable of only looking backwards. From a floor of broken glass, a staircase of earth-clad books ascends to disappear through the ceiling, connecting the visible and the invisible, aspiring to unimagined futures, while a stone gently sculpts a bowl, quietly echoing the slow incremental processes involved in shaping culture. Transformed and dislocated sounds of a house seep and whisper through the walls, an aleatoric sonic seismograph of lives lived, unfolding. The soft hush of pages turning meets the thrum of wing beats, and a river’s flow mingles with indefinable, intimate and distant organic sounds whilst a disembodied voice intones Paul Farley’s specially written Thorns, a poem of atmospheric narrative, weaving expressive memoir with cultural metaphor, telescoping time from the mud and wire of Ypres via the planned suburbs of ‘70’s Liverpool to the paradoxically walled openness of the Lakeland Fells. Fragments of text emerge, stanzas hinting at overlapping histories, from a wall papered with patterns suggestive of four eras, the decayed epigenetics of hope and change. A radio ceaselessly searches in vain for a stable signal in an uncertain world, sliding into the repeated drones of Eastern European anthems or stuttering into and out of white noise; fragmented blocks of Pop music and farm marts; decaying morse blurs into advertising blare; dissolution into being into dissolution into … ad infinitum, producing an ephemeral drift of sonic collage in real time.

In the heart of the Lake District, home of Wordsworth and the English Romantic movement, Farley, Mills and Walton have combined to conceive a fragmented multi-media work, which explores interfaces between the land, its history and its inhabitants. Digging deep into the rich archives of The Wordsworth Trust and the history of mankind’s relationship with the natural world, Republic Of Thorns references the multiple connections and contradictions which lie behind our use and abuse of the land. From notions of land as organic substance, as school, as property and as inspiration to the actualities of places people inhabit, merely visit, protect, defile and ignore, the work juxtaposes the visual, the sonic and the word to produce new associations in a psychologically charged experience.
Using a generative sound system reliant on randomness, a collection of objects and materials transformed so as to become carriers, signifiers of new meanings and words of expressive anecdote and veiled critical analysis exploring and embracing both the cultural and the natural, Republic of Thorns provides witness to a disorientating amalgam of forces. The culmination of a year long exchange of ideas between Mills, Farley and Walton in an experiment in collaboration, the installation, an immersive, compressed and highly emotive work, suggests a new form for all three in their individual and collective work.

*Claude Glass – an aid to the selection of suitable material for a landscape composition. The Claude Glass (so called because the painter Claude Lorrain (1600 – 1682) is said to have used one) is a black, convex glass, which reflects a view in miniature, largely eliminating colour and detail, so enabling its suitability as a subject to be more easily judged. Seldom used nowadays, but frequently spoken of in accounts of 17th, 18th and 19th century painting. “18th century gentlemen carried Claude Glasses in order that they might see the landscape with the golden tone of a Claude – or rather of the varnish on a Claude” – Sir Kenneth Clarke, Landscape Into Art 1956, Pelican Books.


I saw it all sharply again at a thousand feet,
above the tree-line, my eye being drawn
away from The Lion and the Lamb, coming to rest
on the solitary black mass of a thorn
growing out of grey rock;
or my ear was led by the song-flight
of a shrike on its way to the nest:
either way I was hooked.

It looked like a mould of the veins of the heart,
a fright-wig, a land-mine under a redoubt
stilled by a shutter, depending on where I stood;
it was crooked at an angle, set
firm as if in the face of a gale
even on a calm day, in one mind, alert
should one of those ‘worst blizzards
in human memory’ come over the hill.

A bush fitted with its own weapon system.
I approached it the way you would
a Burryman, his arms outstretched for a burr-hug,
or a porcupine ready to draw blood.
The Biblical ur-plant, twisted to its core,
knotted and fibrous, each wizened stem
carrying code out to its furthest twig.
I’d seen the like of all of this before:

they planted thorn in the Groves and Brows and Folds
we moved out to in 1971
and it thrived, above and beyond
the caged saplings, the windbreaks of pine,
existing beech shedding mast onto concrete
and dying slowly in streetlight. Its stranglehold
was absolute and everywhere you’d find
great brakes and stands of it.

I look back on that time as into a thorn bush:
less some easy flashback
more a tangle to be handled with due care.
Speared among the larder of the shrike
I imagined the wrappers of extant/extinct brands,
unspooled cassette tape, a cash-till cartouche,
all snagged on the hardy perennial of my childhood years.
I moved in with my hands

past a house-sparrow – a spadger – airlifted up
from some lowland estate
by the butcher-bird, which brought to mind
some early lore: when budgies headed straight
from their cages for open windows, to fly
out into that world, they’d manage one aerial lap
before the scrambled spadgers found
their range and locked-on. From a slate-grey sky

there’d be a snowfall of bright feathers
as if angels were having a pillow-fight.
Branches fork and meet, twist and snarl
the way fiction and fact collude and clot,
drawing blood and attention.
I follow one. It leads to my grandfather
who lived just long enough to see us go decimal
and move out twenty stops to ‘that midden’,

only here he’s a soldier again on the Western Front
caught on one inch of the millions of kilometres of wire
that coiled through his stories: Amiens, Arras,
Ypres. A teenage Volunteer
feeling the wind turning volte-face,
and from across the salient
the first whiff of gas.
He pisses on a handkerchief and covers his face

and I lose his features to the twisting thorn,
mediaeval in its methods of war
and the best defence for a sleeping Ladybird princess.
I helped build such a zareba
myself once; wove thistle, bramble and nettle
to fortify and hold onto a back-field den;
to keep out the shite-hawks of Halewood, Speke and Widnes.
Helix of carpet-tacks, staples and BCG needles

I could spike pages from that world up like receipts:
The Observer’s Book of Birds’ Eggs,
the Edge westerns, Ed McBain and Sven Hassell,
the works of Herbert (Frank and James, not George),
The Joy of Sex I doubt anyone shared,
Papillon, with its butterfly-and-rusty-padlock conceit,
the Pan Book of Horror series, the Bible,
The Valley of the Dolls and The Thorn Birds.

I could get my wires crossed and hear my mother
whacking the ganglion that grew in her wrist
with our bible, the Freeman’s catalogue
or the phone book, whichever was heaviest;
could hear the air-brakes of buses bound for town,
the grudging alright’s between shift workers
below my window, the barking of great-grand-dogs,
and a voice I’m sure was my own:

by now, the bush had started to look
like a sprinter coming out of the blocks
or as if it were about to jump
like an angry hill god, or a Jack-from-a-box.
The blood must have drained from my face: body-clock
and mountain time seemed to be stuck,
bringing another world to life and I felt a lump
harden in my throat as the bush spoke:

Remember me? I know I’m looking rough.
It’s me, you silly cunt: you if you’d stayed
back there until the bulldozers moved in.
I’m everything you might but never made
of yourself, a man stripped to his fighting weight.
I’m what you like to think you’ve shaken off,
though every place you’ve ever been since then
has seen something of me along the way.

Even here – walking in the English Lakes! –
they’ll meet the prickly pear, the spiky wee fucker
beneath the surface, as you see me here.
The years have been cruel to you, old mucker;
turned you shite-soft, your sharp edges to mush.
See how I’ve still got everything it takes
to hang on, while you’ve drank a lake of beer
and toked so much you could turn into a bush!

All his soft tissues eaten away.
I wanted to point the finger, to blame someone,
to turn this bush into a voodoo doll
reversed out; so I could impale Lubetkin
and Luftwaffe; the faceless councillors
and aldermen who gave the nod one day
decades ago; all those I thought accountable
dangling in an aquatint by Goya.

But finding such an image of myself
in such an unlikely place
left little room for blame, and the sap
soon dropped. Suprising myself, I said to his face:
‘The two of us both wanted the same thing
once. Both of us dreamed of taking off
out of the hardness; of going way past our stop
into the sticks and breaking into song

as townee dreck tend to when on the move,
littering the sides of public roads.
It’s happened here before: a girl from Manchester
left proof, a few sorry words
at the door of a two-hundred years old journal;
or the discharged soldier, still seen from a grove
of ‘thick hawthorn’, in verse, not far from here.
Though by and large they’ve become invisible.’

The teenage me kept shtumm, inscrutable
and bush-like again on these matters,
and a softness rose in me thinking of him
failing to make his mark, and all the others
who grew up in those unraked Zen gardens
among the bonsai thorn, the babble
of television on in the daytime;
and if this were a vision, then here it ends

with a man stood shivering at a thousand feet.
My speech is still a thorny, north-west stew;
I walk along each public right-of-way
a trespasser; there is no single view
worth taking; rootless man, still clinging on
to some idea of truth, some ideal state
just round the next bend, found out today
he’s bound towards a republic of thorns:

the flag it flies: straining, grey polythene;
its rhyme and scheme, the way it founds a voice;
its bird-life, clinging to an older way;
the way it soldiers on and knows its place.
The wind picked up. And so I left the thorn
abiding there, and dropped onto the green
and soft floor of an easygoing valley,
imagining I could start from scratch again.

Grid Ref. OS 316092

“These are the rituals most of our communities have long lost. To bring a good harvest, to raise the herring. No-one knows exactly why the Burryman makes his perambulation of South Queensferry on the day before Ferry Fair, but the velcro-like burrs of the burr thistle (Arctimus bardana) are still diligently applied to his flanneled body every year. Thus fitted out in such a suit of green armour, he may be acting out the hopes and fears of a former way of life, a strange visitor from the past who refuses to lie down or go away.” – E.K. Valentine, Old Customs of these Isles, 1978.

Like many British birds, the Red-backed shrike’s (Lanius collurio) fortunes wax and wane. Numbers in the north-west of England have fallen in recent years, though sightings do still occur.
“Barbed wire, an invention of American cattle ranchers in the 1870s, had begun to appear, strung in belts between the opposing trenches by the spring (of 1915).” John Keegan, The First World War, 1998.
“Edge westerns? Didn’t everyone’s house have a couple of battered copies, next to the phone books and carry-out leaflets? A long haired figure, obviously influenced – this was the 70s – by Clint: High Plains Drifter meets Hawkwind. Just passing through, almost Jacobean, acting out his lonely ritual.” From The Chamber of Pop Culture 4: Estate Fictions, edited by Paul Sincere, 1994.
Anyone who has seen Helm Crag from a variety of viewpoints will have registered natural anamorphosis of its summit ridge rocks. The view from Town End offers ‘The Lion and The Lamb’, though approaching from different directions throws up other possibilities: Wainwright knew several, including, from Dunmail Raise, ‘The Howitzer’.