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Essay | A Journey Through Silence by Georgie Knaggs

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The chat stops. We rise to our feet, step back over our benches. My foot hunts for its flip-flop.

I am nine years old. It is a mid-week evening. Supper has finished and the school is about to say grace. We must be silent. We must not move. This is normal.

The thick rubber of my flop is jammed beneath the bar of the bench.

‘… for what we have just received …’

My toes stretch outwards, then curl to a grip.

‘… may we be truly thankful.’

The shoe moves … then slips out of reach.

‘Amen.’

We turn to face the teachers at the top table as they line up to leave the hall. I start to panic. I shall be in big trouble. My shoe should have been on my foot.

Half-swivelled, I jab my foot forward. My big toe hits the leg of the bench and a sharp, fierce pain stabs through it … my cry is swallowed by relief. I have my shoe.

I force my foot into it – nothing said, nothing noticed – and limp out. The crocodile of silent children is complete.

That night my foot throbs and I cannot sleep. I am afraid but I don’t want to tell anyone. It will get better by itself, I think.

But it does not. In the morning, I study my sore toe. There is a black line, the width of a pencil, which runs from a jagged edge just above the white of my nail, right down to the flesh. It is a piece wood from the bench that has got stuck beneath my nail. I do not know how to get it out, and I am too afraid to tell anyone. Why did I take my shoe off?

The days pass, only a few but they feel like forever. I limp between the ‘listen-to-me’ and ‘repeat-after-me’ hours of class. I am okay sitting down.

Term ends soon. I shall tell someone then if my toe does not get better.

There is one problem … Sports Day  on the last day of term. I am knock kneed, flat footed, and last in everything – the limp will not change that but my toe is too sore to run.

I lie awake in the dormitory after ‘lights out’. Twenty other beds fidget around me. I have to tell someone that I cannot run tomorrow.

Morning dawns. I put on my white shorts, and my white tshirt, and line up by the basins to brush my teeth. Everyone is excited, except me. I am scared.

I am scared because my foot hurts, because I took off my shoe when I was not supposed to. I am scared because I never told anyone. I did not want to get into trouble … and now it is worse.

I cannot keep my big secret in any longer. It bursts out of me as soon as I see my parents. There are frowns and questions, and then a rush to the doctor.

My toenail is sliced open. It is sore but nobody gets cross. The teachers don’t because my parents are there. My parents don’t because the teachers are so helpful. And I don’t because I know I shouldn’t.

That is how it was in the country where I grew up. We were newly independent and unravelling into a civil war. There was more to worry about than being soft on school children.

Nine years after the toe incident, I finish school. I am soundly educated, deferential to authority, and know how to hold my tongue and survive. I am the product of hard working parents, two boarding schools and a racially divisive civil war.

By the time I leave school, the country, in which I was born and raised, has changed its name four times since my birth. It is now Zimbabwe.

I step out into the world unaware that my life has been fenced apart by censorship and sanctions. I see and hear what those in power wish me to see and hear … and I believe them.

It takes a year of travel to loosen my point of view – to start to feel the joy of my generation.

University in Scotland follows. I am in a small department with a professor who prefers research to examinations. He sends me to Spain and back to Zimbabwe where the silence has lifted. The country is noisy with hope.

I write my dissertations and I graduate. I am 25 years old when I marry a man in the British military.

Another silence descends. This silence lasts a quarter of a century. It is the silence of ‘loyalty’ – of attachment to a member of a nomadic, hierarchical system caught in a time of slippery conflict.

I know silence. It is not a friend. I regress and so does the land of my birth.

When the new millennium arrives I visit my father who is ill in Zimbabwe. The country is trapped beneath the chaos of land redistribution and government ambition. Silence spreads like a bruise. It deadens.

Fourteen years later, in the south of Italy, I meet silence again and its grip is tighter than any I have known.

We are based just outside Naples, surrounded by a powerful mix of history, grace and crime in an ancient, volcanic landscape.

‘The mafia are here to stay,’ a local friend tells me. ‘I know them, I know them all. Sonno tutti mafiosi … but I say nothing. I say buongiorno and I smile. They know I know … but I am afraid for my children.’

I understand this silence that creates accomplices.

In Naples itself there are plaques, memorials to the dead, to the victims of organised crime, but I do not photograph them. I do not write about them for they fill me with dread and questions. Are they to honour the fallen or to warn those that remain?

A young American arrives in Naples. She is full of the certainty of faith and the passion of work to be done. There is joy in every positive step … but it fades.

‘We were promised the building for our work. It must be where the need is greatest. But always there is some reason we cannot start.’

She is earnest and determined, but she is alone. Then one day she is gone. Visa problems we are told.

Above her, the waters close. I bob on the surface, eyes to the sunshine while tides rip beneath.

This is corruption polished to a high finish but the people dance as they always have– gracious, defiant, captivating, faithful to their city and its beliefs. Who am I to judge?

Now, we are back in England. It is 2017, a year of anger and disbelief, a year where influence fights across the new frontier of cyberspace, where power resorts to camouflage, and truth is hard to trust.

Today, I am in a café in rural Dorset. It is the day London’s Big Ben falls silent. The day that the moon blots out the sun across the USA.

A young man paces the floor, mobile to his ear. His voice penetrates the barista’s clatter and steam. He is out of work and job-hunting.

‘I was a CEO. I had a team in Rome … people in Brazil … staff of 70 … ‘

Conversations cease. Newspapers rustle uncomfortably. We listen to the man parade his corporate credentials.

‘What is the goal of the company? Is it to grow the top line or the bottom line?’

We ponder the question, unwitting members of his interview panel. The verdict, unanimous it seems, is that he must try again elsewhere. He does. He makes one call after another – a large piece in the café’s jigsaw of noise.

I am happy to be here, free to speak and to listen in, privileged by freedoms earned by others.

A young family, armed with electronic devices, enters the café – mum, dad, and two children. The youngest is no more than four. They order their hot chocolates then, slouched and silent around their steaming mugs, they disappear into worlds we cannot see. Only their bodies remain on our shore.

I watch and I wonder if the empathy Shakespeare showed us will be smothered or amplified by digital space. Will this family emerge stronger from its new worlds … or weaker?

Behind me, giggles wriggle through the pot plants. A little boy chases his sister around the table.

My mind drifts through the noise. I re-read what I have written. Silence beckons me backwards. Why say anything? Why write anything?

Then all the words I have never said scrabble against the sides of my mind. They spell out the consequences they have witnessed in silence – fear. Shame. Corruption. Contamination. Cruelty. Collapse.

I look away. I look down. Platforms click across my screen.

All I have to do is find my voice.

Essay | Marion Coutts: ‘Aiming or Hitting’ by Annie Carpenter

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Marion Coutts Library, 2017 Archival pigment print, Edition of 5 + 2 AP, 110 x 80 cm

These are busy times for the writer and artist Marion Coutts. Her first novel, The Iceberg, which was published in 2014, has proved a runaway success. It was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, shortlisted for the Costa Biography Award and won the Wellcome Book Prize. And this month Coutts is exhibiting at Tintype gallery in Islington, her first solo presentation in eight years.

The show presents an entirely new body of work by the artist including installation, sculpture, photographs, text, and, for the first time in Coutts’s career, drawings. One work, a large-format photograph entitled Library (2017), is an image of shelves strewn with books and bathed in light. The work hints at the very personal nature of the exhibition for it portrays a section of the art library of her late husband, the revered art critic Tom Lubbock.

His death in 2011, following a three-year battle with cancer, was the inspiration behind The Iceberg. The title of the show is also taken from Coutts’s memoir, “[It] comes from a phrase I wrote in the book, ‘Seeing is active, it is an action like aiming or hitting,’ she explains.

“The book is deliberately very visual and there is a lot in it about the physicality of the visual world. The book doesn’t relate directly to the show, though one of the things I think I was doing in the book, was trying to write certain passages almost like photographs, like scenes pasted into an album. I was thinking about writing as capture, and the photograph as another form of capture. I had never used photos in my work to any degree before so that was a big change.”

Coutts’s journey to becoming an artist, and now a writer, has not been a conventional one. Born in Nigeria to Salvation Army minister parents, she spent her formative years moving around the UK before going to college in Scotland. Whilst there, she joined an improvisational music group, which led to her later becoming a founding member of the band, The Dog Faced Hermans, who were based in the Netherlands and toured extensively in Europe and the US.

Of her experience in music, Coutts reminisces, “I joined a band while at art school in Scotland. At the time it was the most interesting thing that was going on. I was lucky enough to fall in with people who were very active in seeking out stuff to listen to. I was the trumpet player and vocalist.”

One of her bandmates, Andy Moor, has scored some of Coutts’s video work, so the creative collaboration is a strong one. “I worked with Andy for a long time. When I needed to think about music in my work he was the first person I would turn to. I trust his ears like my own.”

As a visual artist, Coutts has exhibited widely, including solo shows at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Foksal Gallery, Warsaw, and The Wellcome Collection, London. And then of course there is her book. Of this, she says: “I had never written anything of any length before. When I started writing what became The Iceberg, I had no sense that it was a book. I was writing as a way into thinking. It is written in numbered sections and each section was a kind of lens onto an idea or experience. Writing allows you to put something down, shape it, return to it: that’s very powerful. The writing came out of a period when I had very little power over my experience.”

Marion Coutts False Acacia Aurea (installation view), 2017 Iodine on digital print, Edition of 10 + 2 AP, 50 x 39 cm
Marion Coutts, False Acacia Aurea (installation view), 2017 Iodine on digital print, Edition of 10 + 2 AP, 50 x 39 cm

Her Tinytpe exhibition, which will be on until the 13 of April, is all work made in the last year, save for one piece. She says: “It does feel unlike anything I did before. Working with photographic images is new. Working with drawings is new. I am enjoying the process and the engagement with the material very much, especially as it comes after a long period of not using the studio at all.”

An influence on her current show is the late Felix Gonzalez Torres, the Cuban minimalist sculptor known for his unique installations using materials such as light bulbs and individually wrapped hard candy. Explains Coutts, “I used to do talks and workshops at the Serpentine and in 2000 I worked on the wonderful Gonzalez-Torres show, which was his first major exhibition in the UK. I found the close association with his work very moving. He worked with things that were provisional and very pared down: piles of posters that were free to take away, strings of light bulbs, mounds of sweets. The work was formal, sculptural, yet intimate. The strength of this first encounter with his work has always stayed with me.”

Coutts’s varied artistic practice even extends into photography, although not perhaps for conventional reasons: “I am not a photographer but I wanted to work with photographic images so I am learning many things, about printing, paper, weight, surface, ink.” She continues, “I’m interested in how you materialise an image. Most of my images are digital but one, Library, is shot on film. There is a particular image – of a tree – with bright spring leaves that I painted the image with iodine so the colour of the iodine messes with the lime yellow of the leaves to make a deep chemical shade. Another set of images – of paper planes – I shot so they looked heavy, yet papery. These are printed on very thin Japanese paper.”

Coutts has also chosen to create a zine for this diverse presentation. “I wanted to make a publication that wasn’t really a catalogue, a bit more low-grade and thin, like a zine. I imagined it as a place to show some images of work next to very short texts. The image and text are quite separate, but the text functions like an image.”

The work on view is being presented in relation to a set of black strip-curtains that run along the length of the gallery. This is a striking contrast to the usual white walls of gallery spaces and is very much a curatorial choice. As Coutts explains, “In a way it is a very formal device. The curtain divides the wall up into above, below, in front, behind. I use it as an object around which to set images, that function themselves like objects.”

By Annie Carpenter


Marion Coutts: Aiming or Hitting
Tintype, Islington
Until 13th April 2017

My Salinger Year – Joanna Rakoff

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‘”We need,” she said, as I arranged myself in the chair across from her large wooden desk, “to talk about Jerry.”’ Who’s Jerry? The J in J. D Salinger. Who’s I? The young Joanna Rakoff, starting out in 1996, the literary world spread out before her for the taking, a Salinger virgin, fed instead on the works of Sylvia Plath. Like many recent graduates Rakoff found herself in the out-of-university predicament, the ‘pivot’ year, the year of change, of new directions and finding one’s feet. My Salinger Year is a beautiful memoir, one that expertly documents the trials and joys of making one’s way in the big city. Full of hope, not yet sullied by the endless hours of 9-5, Rakoff took on a so called ‘glamour job’ at a literary agency as an editorial assistant, the kind of job that gets you invites to all the parties, where you get paid – not with money – but with the people you meet.

However it soon becomes evident that Rakoff’s day job is no ordinary debut into the world of literary agencies; rather than finding herself sorting through slush piles, her days become filled predominantly with sorting through endless piles of fan mail—specifically J. D. Salinger’s. In the process Rakoff uncovers a whole world of stories, a wealth of reviews and responses, a sea of animated readers at the tips of her fingers. As time goes on she begins, tentatively, to respond to these messages. Her efforts to reply to the piles of emotive and often heart-warming messages streaming in and out of the office day by day offer a response, a symbolic shoulder to lean on, a sympathetic listener, even the occasional insight or unsolicited piece of advice. However, frequently the retaliations to her words suggest her efforts are more trouble than they’re worth. Rakoff’s efforts to connect with Salinger’s fans often result only in anger and pain, together with a deep rooted frustration.

Reading this book as an intern myself at the time felt slightly surreal, Rakoff’s post-graduate world strangely similar to my own, the same routine tasks of admin and tea runs, the same exciting people flitting in and out of the office every day. The world of work was one I was discovering in the same manner Rakoff describes, with all its ups and downs, the painful glamour of ‘creative-city’ poverty: the hapless attempts to find accommodation; the over-dependency on city smart friends and relations; the unconscious splurges of that minimal budget on a sandwich that really shouldn’t be as expensive as it is in some chic little deli round the corner; the long and suit-filled commute.

This is a wonderful book. It’s a book that manages to be heart-achingly intimate at times, and yet remains undeniably eloquent even when describing the most mundane of office tasks. Rakoff captures with ease the eerie and exhilarating bustle of a literary agency. By the end of the book one gets the impression that, like a Salinger character, all Rakoff is really doing is recounting the trial of coming of age. She’s produced a bildungsroman of entering that ‘real world’ after the sanctuary of university, student loans strapped to one’s back, dreams as high as ever, funds equally as small. Like Salinger’s infamous Franny one gets the feeling that all she’s trying to do really is ‘figure out how to live in this world’; the world that she creates, however, one that is convincingly worth living in.

By Thea Hawlin

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