Blackened Word

I once had a student – I’ll call her Amina – and she hated everything she wrote. Everyone in that women’s literacy class struggled to write, but none of them showed as much anger about their work as Amina did.

Like the others, she worked with pencil, pressing down on the lead until it almost tore the paper. Every time she made a mistake, she would scour it with an eraser and a fine dust of disintegrating rubber would scatter all over the page, making it even harder for her to move the pencil where she wanted it to go.

As I moved around the classroom I would praise her and it is excruciating now to think how patronising I must have sounded. ‘That’s lovely, Amina,’ I would say when she achieved some milestone like writing her name and address. She would look me straight in the eye and reply: ‘It’s horrible, horrible.’

The world-renowned sculptor Ursula von Rydingsvard once found some writing by a woman who, like Amina, struggled with literacy. Von Rydingsvard, who carves monumental objects out of blocks of cedar wood, was intrigued to see writing that looked ‘laboured and concrete’. She lifted it from a letter, had it magnified over and over and transcribed the words onto the floor of her studio. Then she built on it, bit by bit, and the result was ‘Blackened Word’, which currently forms part of an exhibition of von Rydingsvard’s work at Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

blackened word cropped

(Excuse the poor quality mobile phone picture; there’s a better image here)

As a former literacy teacher I found this work troubling. I understand how von Rydingsvard could see the writing as ‘laboured’. That word ‘labour’, with its connotations of hard work, even the prolonged effort of childbirth, is a good description for the way Amina and her classmates struggled to produce words on paper.

The sculpture sparked many memories of watching these women learn to write. Part of von Rydingsvard’s method is to score the wood with knives. This can result in deep cross-hatching that reminded me of the intensity with which Amina would dig her pencil into the paper.


bw from side

The work has a fragility that is at odds with its size and the durability of the wood. If you stand at the edge of the gallery, you can imagine a giant hand scrunching the concertina-like structure in the way someone might scrumple paper out of frustration with what was written or drawn there.

In a video that forms part of the exhibition, von Rydingsvard talks about her ‘struggle’ with the cedar. She uses words like ‘agony’ and talks about ‘agitated surfaces’. There are shots of her planing the wood, her face protected by a huge, solid mask from the shower of splinters that fly up from the cedar block.

I think of Amina with her eraser, flurries of rubber and paper flying up as she agitated the page, and I wish she could have had some protection from the shame of not being able to write in a society that values literacy so highly. 

I wonder about the woman who produced the writing that inspired von Rydingsvard. Did she, like the sculptor, also experience agony in trying to express what was in her mind?

I wanted to like ‘Blackened Word’ but I found myself getting increasingly disturbed by it. Why do we not know the name of the woman? Why is she described in the exhibition notes as ‘almost illiterate’: you don’t have to describe beginner writers with an adjective that is so often used pejoratively.

And why do we not know what the woman wrote? Her words were magnified onto the studio floor and then concealed. Von Rydingsvard has made some kind of monumental statement with her sculpture and in doing so has erased the original work that inspired it.

Perhaps von Rydingsvard did ask the woman for permission to use her name and reproduce her words alongside the sculpture and maybe the woman said no. But in that case we should have been told about her decision.

The exhibition notes for Blackened Word conclude: ‘A personal story is used as a whisper, a quiet suggestion, or shadow that remains only as an echo in the title.’

That doesn’t sit comfortably with me. I can’t deny the impact of von Rydingsvard’s stunning sculpture, but I’m also troubled by how often powerful, successful people reduce the stories of others to shadows and whispers.

I wonder if I am doing the same now, using Amina as a stepping stone for me to articulate my own thoughts, even though I am no longer in touch with her and cannot even ask permission to use her real name.

I’m mulling over a new writing project, one that involves engaging with how we behave towards the most marginalised people in our society. And I’m wondering how you do that without making your own work the focus of attention, concealing the stories that made it possible in the first place.

landscape and story

When we went to Skye I had a vague expectation of finding somewhere wild and beautiful. And there was certainly plenty of beauty, especially in the water, the way the lochs are constantly changing their colour and texture, from pearl grey one minute to granite the next and then to millions of diamonds as the sun breaks through.

About the wildness, though, I was wrong. I am sure it exists in the magnificent Cuillin mountains, but the north-west peninsula where we were staying has a different nature altogether. When I went for my first walk around our cottage, the word that kept coming to mind was inhospitable. The grass is short and tough, ranging from ochre to a yellowy green in colour, and almost entirely devoid of trees. Houses are sprinkled across it, rather than gathered round obvious centres.It did not take me long to discover why. And when I found out, I began to see how important it is to learn to read a landscape in order to understand something of the past stories that have shaped it.

From James Hunter’s book Skye: The Island, I discovered that this bleak outlook is the direct result of one of the most appalling and shameful episodes in British history: the Highland clearances. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, thousands of people were forcibly evicted from their homes in order that the land might be turned over to the increasingly profitable business of sheep farming.

A blog post is not the place to tell this story. Hunter’s book, and John Prebble’s The Highland Clearances, both provide a clear account. What I learnt though, was how a story can come to permeate the landscape.

Once I knew about the clearances, there was evidence everywhere. Take this view from our cottage, for example. Those ripples of green in the background are in fact evidence of ‘lazybeds’. 

Picture by Julian Dobson

Hunter describes how the inaptly named lazybeds were painstakingly dug out by crofters who heaped up earth in a bid to improve drainage and grow food on land that would otherwise have been barren. As the landlords cleared more and more villages, they forced the crofters into smaller and smaller spaces and it is probable that these little flattened ridges kept many families alive.

Then there are the sheep, which are everywhere. Personally I am rather fond of them – I am a knitter after all – but they are the reason for the lack of trees. Once, Skye was densely wooded but since the clearances any tree shoot has been devoured by the endless munching of innumerable ovine teeth.

On one glorious day towards the end of our stay I walked around Waterstein Head.

It was the kind of walk that makes your heart sing, with stunning views across the island and out to sea. It finished, however, in Ramasaig, once a thriving settlement but cleared in the nineteenth century. For miles around there is the  bleak, treeless landscape broken only by heaps of stones that were once the homes and farms of people who kept cattle and horses as well as sheep, and grew enough produce to enable them to live off the land. Like thousands of others they were forced from their homes, and a way of life that had endured for centuries was abruptly ended in the name of profit and progress.

I had hoped to find wildness in Skye but this was not it. Without a knowledge of the story behind this landscape, I might have imagined it was. But wildness seems to me to carry the idea of somewhere being unspoiled, and this is far from the case in Ramasaig. Robert Macfarlane sums it up in his fascinating book The Wild Places – it is not an empty landscape but an emptied one.

Storying Sheffield

Stories and Sheffield are two of the things I love most in life, so when the two come together I get very excited.

It happened this week when Sheffield University held their second, amazing Storying Sheffield exhibition. Storying Sheffield is a groundbreaking project which brings university students together with the people of Sheffield to create a living portrait of life in the city.

Half the participants in the project are second-year undergraduates studying English Literature at the University of Sheffield. Storying Sheffield is an optional module which they can take as part of their degree. The other participants are people from the city who generally have no background in higher education and who come from groups which tend to be socially excluded – mainly long-term users of the mental health services, and people with physical disabilities.

The course is a mix of academic sessions and workshops in which participants work together on creating representations of contemporary life in Sheffield.

At its heart, Storying Sheffield is about giving a platform to stories that are rarely heard. In the process, it challenges all kinds of boundaries to create a unique and multi-faceted portrait of the city. As undergraduate Josephine wrote in the catalogue for the project’s exhibition last week: ‘Storying Sheffield allows you to break the rigid boundaries that society imposes upon you – when else would I work with an actual adult (as opposed to a fake one) in a real (not student) house representing stories that are so often ignored?’

The blend of techniques used by the participants challenges more boundaries by promoting the telling of stories through a huge range of media. Film, textiles, photography, maps, drama and cardboard boxes all formed part of the final exhibition, alongside written material.

The result, to quote course director Dr Brendan Stone, is ‘a web of fragments, stories, and representations, or, to use a phrase from the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, “a cloth woven of stories told”’.

What is evident from the exhibition is that this phenomenal explosion of creativity is the result of a genuine two-way exchange between the university and people from other parts of the city. Undergraduate Charlie wrote that the best thing about the project was ‘being given the opportunity to work with Peter who has showed me so many wonderful things and taught me so much’. Peter himself wrote: ‘I’ve learnt more about myself through this course than with any doctors or shrinks.’

It’s an exchange that also inspires participants with a fresh perspective on Sheffield and deepens their sense of belonging. Kate worked with two undergraduates to explore her Christian faith and her role as a mother. Afterwards she wrote: ‘For years I have wanted to run away from Sheffield. Watching the students make short films of different places in the city has inspired me to make friends with my home town and in a matter of months, I have grown to love Sheffield, warts an’all!!! It’s made me realise that how I view Sheffield is not necessarily a matter of reality, but of perception.’

When people are given space to tell their stories, there seems no end to what can change.