Jun 15, 2008

The Last Walk of Carlow Man

[n.b. This is, I’ve just realised, an alarmingly long post, the product of sitting in a bed in a rented apartment in a small town in Ireland while it rains outside. Kind of like Jack Nicholson in The Shining but without the charm, or the imaginary friends (yet). For those who’s time is clearly more precious than mine, this basically a meandering think through a show I recently created for the Carlow Arts Festival called The Last Walk of Carlow Man, a show that mainly consisted of an audio track that I'll upload later, if you like that kind of thing.]

As the constitution of a proper place, scientific writing ceaselessly reduces time, that fugitive element, to the normality of an observable and readable system. In this way, surprises are averted. Proper maintenance of the place eliminates these criminal tricks.

But they return, not only surreptitiously and silently in this scientific activity itself and not only in daily practises which, though they no longer have a discourse, are nonetheless extant, but also in rambling wily everyday stories.
(Michel de Certeau, The Practise of Everyday Life)
We’re going to write this town like a bookTo tell our own story
To make our own history
By god
Cos we’ve had enough of theirs.
(Carlow Man)

When I lived in Edinburgh I used to work as a costumed guide at a place called The Real Mary King’s Close. This was a living museum style tourist attraction based in the original 16th century streets of Edinburgh that now lie buried beneath the royal mile. A catacomb of narrow alleyways and tenement houses once open to the air, once overcrowded slums throbbing with life, now only a ruined memory, a ghost of a city hidden like a dirty secret beneath the gift shops and restaurants of Edinburgh’s ‘Historic Old Town’.

From the beginning the creators of Mary King’s Close attempted to distance themselves from the numerous grubbier, lower budget ghost tours that cluttered up the city. They were slicker, flashier, and actually had a proper historic site, rather than a series of dark spaces lit relatively atmospherically. Fundamentally though, they distances themselves through recourse to the science of History. Unlike the urban myths and gruesome details being touted proudly by various swarthy guides in the back alleyways of the Old Town, Mary King’s Close claimed that it only dealt in fact. They had Historians, researchers, archaeologists who had studied this space and produced case histories of the lives these people led. The management were notoriously rigorous in enforcing this historical accuracy. We had to stick to the facts.

Each guide was assigned one of four characters to play, all real people; a wealthy merchant, a lady, a maid, and, for scruff like me, a plague cleaner called Walter King.

Yet once we were down in this bizarre world of waxworks, flickering candlelight and a soundtrack of half-heard voices echoing through decaying streets, something else went on. In between the facts a little theatrical universe developed. Guides, characters, interacted with each other as they passed in the hallways, invented histories, relationships, stories; the maid who’s been leading you on for years, the merchant in his fine outfit who always gives you a good kicking, your cousin who you helped escape from the clutches of the law. In these informal, improvised little moments a world was created, out of all this History stories formed; ineluctably fiction and memory seeped in. And unsurprisingly this was undoubtedly the audience’s favourite part, these brief chunks of interaction, the little chat as you meet on a corridor, the tiny scene as a character appears in a doorway and disappears off into another corner of the site, suddenly turning these old ruins into something alive, something real.

History on its own, is not to be trusted. It is science’s attempt to pillage everyday experience an place it in the hands of experts. Dressed up in footnotes and date and facts and citations, it claims for itself a position of objectivity through verifiability. History claims to look at the evidence and says what it sees, to be a window onto the past.

Yet history (like all sciences according to De Certeau) is innately flawed. History isolates chunks of the past (moments or characters or phases), removes them from the vast, uncontrollable, indescribable continuum of time and places them in historian’s laboratory, where they can be detailed, and dissected and explained. Yet the instant these particular points are amputated they stop being what they are and become something else. They become merely facets of a historical theory, rewritten in the artificial language of the scientist. And the historian, the expert, uses these nuggets of newly isolated and identified historical fact to tell his (and it is usually his) own truth.

As an example look at history’s use of dates. Dates which appear the most transparent and factual part of the historian’s language. And yet the isolation of a date, pulled from infinite eddy of things happening around it and attached to a single event, is as political as you can imagine. The ultimate example of this is of course September 11th, a date appropriated as the name of an event, silencing other events around it, silencing even other events backwards through time, (September 11th 1973, for example); through the process of isolating this single event in time, it tells a very specific story about foreign aggression and America’s right to defend itself.

Time is reduced to a series of points through which a line can be drawn, telling a very particular, narrow story with all the dictatorial force of scientific fact. The true victors don’t need to do anything as crass as rewrite history, the merely need to hand it over to historians, to science. They will fish moments from the reservoir of time and memory, carve them up, season them with footnotes and primary sources, and serve them back the people as something that no longer belongs to them, something they must swallow because its good for them. As Walter Benjamin said:
The only writer of history with the gift of setting alight the sparks of hope in the past, is the one who is convinced of this: that not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.
Which brings us (eventually) to The Last Walk of Carlow Man, a show commissioned from me by Eigse, an arts festival in the small Irish town of Carlow, about an hours drive south of Dublin. At the point at which I was asked to do a show I had no idea what to do, something as terrifying as it is exciting.

Instinctively I felt I wanted to create something that was site-specific in the original meaning of the term; a show that was authentically a product of that specific location, of that specific town. And in order to do this as a one-time History student at University, my first thought is to rush to the history books (and, well, Wikipedia).

I read about wars, revolutions, uprisings, massacres, great figures of science and literature, all of which had drifted through this town, leaving little in their wake today but a scattering of plaques and one wall of a ruined Norman castle. And that was essentially the problem – all this history didn’t reflect the town today. It had been dislocated from the town, translated into the language of science, estranged from Carlow.

And so without me ever really meaning it to be, the show became an attempt to counteract that. It became an anti-history, what Walter Benjamin might call a tiger’s leap into the past, tearing up history as written. It was an attempt at least to rewrite the history of Carlow as a ‘rambling wily, everyday story’. Like the stories we invented at Mary King’s Close, I wanted to allow the fictional, the personal, the anecdotal, the rhetorical flourishes, the myths, the lies, the jokes to permeate the science of history; to turn it back into something belonging to everyday life.

The way this happened was through the creation of a character who saw history the way we see our own past, as half-remembered things that actually happened to us. I invented a bog man. Preserved in the peat. Someone 5000 years old, who had listened to time rumbling on above him, who knew everything with the force of memory; as scraps, fragments, bits and pieces all jumbled together. And I wrote for him a series of rambling stories that he would tell as he wondered through the modern day streets of the city, the audience listening on headphones and catches glimpses of him as they went; a pair of muddy handprints on a shop window, a figure disappearing glimpsed in the distance on the far bank of a river, a pair of muddy shoes abandoned by a park bench.

Right from the get-go I didn’t want there to be any specific linear relationship between what the audience was hearing and what they were seeing. I didn’t want him to be commenting specifically on what he was seeing, as is essentially the purpose of a historical audio guide. I wanted the audience to be given the freedom to make their own connections. I wanted them to forge their own history, through the relationship between the rambling stories they were listening to and the landscape they were walking through. And then halfway through the process, around the time I started writing some ridiculous article for the Guardian about how brilliant the shuffle function on an ipod is, I suddenly stumbled upon a way to make this sense of personal ownership even more foregrounded. The rambling monologue would be divided into a series of sections, all of which could be fitted together in any order, so that by simply turning on the shuffle function on the MP3 player each audience member would have a totally unique experience of the show, their own story, that they could fit to the world around them. These half true half fictional stories of the past would be entirely detached from historical fact, given to the audience to write back over the town as they saw it; to create their own map of the town and of the past.

So that was the idea, and if you’ve managed to make it this far you’re hopefully wondering how it worked out. Well, it’s Saturday [n.b. at least it was when I wrote this] and I have one night left, after a week in my own head I’m dreaming of getting back to London. I need the grime and the irritatingly knowing irony of someone who’s able to wear horrid plastic sunglasses indoors and know they get can get away with it because they’re so damn pretty. I need its thrilling messiness and the careless conversation of people I care about. I need cinemas and book shops and theatres, not necessarily to go to them but just to be reassured that they’re there. Suffice to say, I’m about ready to go home.

In terms of the show I think probably in the haste of having to put together the little installations hidden along the route in just a few days I relied too heavily on the kind of lazy whimsy that has been site-specific theatre’s stock-in-trade since time began; mysterious figures moving slowly and enigmatically in the distance, birthday candles and red balloons and party hats and little notes pinned in incongruous places. As far the text however, I was generally pretty pleased. It’s been a while since I’ve actually tried to write something quite so self-contained and complete and, well, playlike and I think it went ok. Chris, who performed it, was able to get something that felt relatively authentic out of my lame attempts at some kind of Irishness and with only that audio track and my mix tape of possible musical ideas, Stephen Dobbie created a beautiful, perfectly judged musical score that, as so often, turned the whole thing into something a little magical.

I’ve uploaded the four tracks and I'll put them up here later, so please do go and have a listen and if (for any reason) you might want a transcript let me know and I’m happy to send you one over.

So generally I’m happy. A good week, which, Irish border control notwithstanding, should leave me with a whole bunch of MP3 players to continue to experiment with. So, as always, watch this space.

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