September to school and sibling photographs

First days at school, 2015 (right), and 2018.

At this time of year, first-day-at-school photographs are all over social media. I can’t help but join in, the narrative of my children’s lives weaving into my own. But I’m also consciously reflecting on the way I choose to represent them to myself: the photographs, the albums, the poetry, the birth narratives that began 5 and 7 years ago. That’s all part of a long-term project, Born Again, in which I’m exploring something profoundly formative about the journey of early motherhood – and in particular, the forms of self-representation that I choose to work with (including among other things, taking part in One Born Every Minute).

For me, the pairing of my kids, brother and sister, with their own experiences of ‘firsts’ invites the obvious time-travelling comparison between then and now. I see a proportion shift in their limbs, I see older, more intuitively formalised body postures. And in their relationship I see my daughter’s hand on her brother’s shoulder in the younger picture, and I see his toe-pointing shoes in the older. But I also see me: in the reflection in the glass, where my husband takes the earlier photo, and my hovering, which then assumes the photo-taking position in the later image. The kids’ differences, and the different horizons of their ‘firsts’, has my sameness in the background. There I am, 3 years apart, doing the same thing, attentive even to the fact of sameness when I took the later photo, wanting to recreate the scene. That effort, paradoxically, was based on sameness, but intended to render change visible – a change that I am part of, and feel part of. I don’t think it worked, because I can’t foreground my feeling about it other than by writing here. Though perhaps indeed, that’s why I’m doing it. Some insightful people writing about photography have put their fingers on this:

The legibility of a presumed relationship in time was the backbone of a system of visual representation underwriting some of society’s most fundamental beliefs about itself. These beliefs are registered not only in the temporal realm but also in the photographic image’s fraught referential relationship to the ‘real’ object or event it depicts. This linkage has always been a cornerstone of photographic theory, oscillating across an evidentiary spectrum, from a positivist view of a transparent connection between the two to a thorough skepticism of the medium’s ability to tell any kind of truth. Before-and-after pairs disrupt each end of this belief spectrum, paradoxically, by embracing both of them. They depend as much upon the evidentiary aspects of visible temporal bookends as they do upon acknowledging that the more powerful way of articulating the central event is to leave it unseen. The before-and-after pair relies on the imaginative participation of the viewer, thereby diverting attention from the ‘proof’ of the photographs toward the viewers’ own – necessarily subjective – interpretation.

Kate Palmer Albers and Jordan Bear, in Before-and-After Photography: Histories and Contexts (Bloomsbury 2017), pp.4-5.

Siblings 20 years apart
My imagination in these images ends up taking a bit of a detour – since I feel thwarted by the evidentiary primacy of comparison invited between my kids, I mentally superimpose another effort of comparison with which I do have a deeper pictorial association – a posed recreation of another brother-and-sister shot, this time of me with my brother. In one I’m about 8 years old, in the other about 28. Yet now I’m thwarted by too much reality, the bookending is a rather blunt tool. It turns out that I’m consistently trying to turn my attention to writing ‘in between’, to the the invisible spaces that we occupy around and between photographs. If my practice is indeed a book, perhaps the image-making is only ever the cover, the boards, or the book-ends. It’s the exercise of writing and research whose pages fill out the story, that invite imagination in the reading.

Lament for England (in the style of Ezekiel 27)

'Tyre', engraving after a daguerreotype by George Keith, c.1840s
‘Tyre’, engraving after a daguerreotype by George Keith, c.1840s

The word of the Lord came to me: “Daughter of man, take up a lament concerning England. Say to England, situated on an island in the sea, home of a glorious football team known to all peoples, ‘This is what FIFA says:

You say, O England,
“I am undefeated in victory.”
Your domain was on the emerald isle,
your trainers brought your beauty to perfection.
They made your strikers from Liverpool;
your captain from Manchester,
your wings from Newcastle,
and your mid-field from London.
Fine silk of M&S was your uniform,
the 3 lions served as your logo,
and your banners were of red and white.
Men of skill were on your team,
veteran guides your coaches
and noble your manager from Sweden.
Everyone came alongside you
To be part of your game.
Men from Putney, Poole and Preston
served in your fanzine,
They wore the red shirt and hung their flags
From their cars and windows,
Bringing you glory.
On all sides you were surrounded,
Built-up and carried by your supporters.
You filled the heart of the nation.’

[There follows an interim in which the marketing, copyright and purchasing of all merchandise associated with this beloved team can be expressed with holy candour and not undue fervour]

‘But the South-American continent
Will break you to pieces,
In the middle of the World Cup.
Your skill, banners and T-shirts,
your strikers, goalkeeper and defence,
your mid-field and all your substitutes,
and everyone else in the squad
will fall beneath the Brazilian tyranny,
on the day of the quarterfinal.
The stands will moan
when your Yorkshire man lets the ball past.
All who have worked for the team
Will abandon their game;
the strikers and goalkeeper will stand aghast.
They will curse the ground
and cry bitterly over this game,
they will raise their hands to their heads
In disbelief and lower their eyes.
They will pore over the game
In post-match analysis
and ask ‘How did we lose?’
When the Owen scored the first goal,
You were electric and gave everyone hope,
Now your defence is broken,
everyone is weary and lost.
All who cheered for England are silent,
and Tony Blair is sad.
Nations laugh at you,
for you have come to a horrible end
and will be in this tournament no more.’”

(written in 2002).


Clot-formed by lump of clay
Mounded, bounded
Escaping to the desert, we may
Fall open
Into seams of undoing
Like a walking wilderness
Wandering into attrition
And erasure, by scrag and by scree
The land is a quarry for souls.
The whole earth is our hospital.
Was someone laid to rest?
It’s a tectonic tilt of closure
When God hides them in a rock
And rolls the stone like a seal,
Skin turns to soil
Soil is the creed
Creed is a seed-word which,
In furrow and plough becoming
The truth turning over.
Sifting, shifting
Mara mud and Avon silt
Running in my veins like so much geography.
I am written with stones.
The crusting cairn is my emphatic punctuation
For sentences which are maps.
The terrain of promised purpose
Is a man-marked land.
Eruption of scar-felt scafell
Is a raw patterning
Trying to find the way home.

Mont St Michel

A mix’n’match of church styles clambering over the rocks. Piled upon stone in Norman shape of round and fat set in the armpit of tall and stretched and greying Gothic with crystal seams for the wind and windows. And a setting of cloisters open to the air with green garden on top of the world and walled arms scaling down the cliffs’ curling shoulders to the earth’s place as mountain-island.

Day’s End

Sun sinks its girth over the edge of the world.
Fat light spills, rolls across the land
chasing viscous shadows with slow stealth.
Bumble bee hums to the tune of a sigh,
the swell of a breeze lapping at my window.
Put your words away, the earth is stopping.