Reading week 1: Caroline Preston & Leanne Shapton

Reading Week is a semi-regular reflection on stuff I’ve read and how it feeds into the writing and research process.  (Plus, there’s a bonus creative writing exercise to try out yourself!).  This week, two fictional books with intriguing methods of storytelling.

Caroline Preston (2011) The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt. HarperCollins.

When I was in my early teens my Gran bought me an anthology that had a title such as Adventure Stories for Girls.  This was a collection from the mid 20th Century that featured the sort of resourceful young women, young women who were not afraid of scraped knees or spiders, young women who knew their way around a penknife, and young women who got back in time to assist with some domestic activity.  My memory is hazy but I remember preferring these girls to ones portrayed in Narnia, wishing that Susan had used that knife…  Anyway.  Frances “Frankie” Pratt is the adventurous heroine of this colourful “scrapbook” novel.  Her biography, hopes, dreams, and stories are told through typewritten text, images and historical ephemera covering Frankie’s formative years from schoolgirl in small town America to Vassar College scholar and then on to vibrant, romantic European adventures.  Part epistolary, part graphic novel, the full colour scraps of image and text form a sort of diary where idealistic, feisty, and clever Frankie reflects upon her family, friendships, dreams and romantic rejections.  It’s an upbeat, time machine, of a book with a sprightly finale, however, Preston has been a canny enough author to leave you questioning whether this happy ending is real or a creative construction by an unreliable narrator.  As a contemporary reader you do bring your own understanding of the 1920s; there are times in the book that feel a little too knowing where Preston foreshadows the Depression, war, and second wave feminism.  It is a fascinating collection of vintage memorabilia and an imaginative interpretation of these items.  (Plus it’s a beautiful book and you can’t help but root for Frankie.)

Leanne Shapton (2009), Important Artifacts and Personal Property From the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry. Bloomsbury.

“At least this village full of abandoned and salvaged objects drew one’s attention, through them, to the ordered murmurs of a hundred past or possible villages, and by means of these imbricated traces one began to dream of countless combinations of existences.” Michel de Certeau (1984), The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California Press.

The “abandoned and salvaged objects” of Important Artifacts… are those of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris and set out like an auction catalogue.  These artefacts – a combination of seemingly mundane photographs of everyday chintz and short textual descriptions – tell the story of the rise and fall of a “shouda, coulda, woulda” relationship in the early 21st Century.  Shapton is an artist so is a bit of a pun in the title: the photographs and formal register form “arty facts” that are utilised to tell a story.  The items, as well as the sober “auctionese” language, assist in unfolding the story of Harold and Lenore.  On the surface that could be it, however, this is the sort of book where you have to do a bit of work “to dream of countless combinations of existences”; there is definitely more than one story here and a bit of detective work on some of the objects rewards you (I looked up a few of the music tracks and drug company references).  As a reader you sift through the archaeological remains of a doomed relationship and the personalities involved (there are other characters as well as the titular couple – as well as a doomed relationship. There is an element of voyeurism as you shuffle through each lot description of mundane and eclectic images which leads on to other questions about the nature of our role as a reader and perhaps our own relationship with “stuff”.  After I finished reading this, it made me think of the ongoing fascination that some have for celebrity lives, there’s definitely that feeling of having poked through someone else’s sock drawer!

How do these books help understanding of place/s?

While there is a focus on everyday life in both books, as well as exploring human relationships both of books evoke a sense of time and place.  Preston uses tickets, postcards, iconic images to evoke place (Vassar ephemera such as headed letters, graded papers, and the college flag; pictures of the Eiffel Tower; photographs of Shakespeare & Company and other 1920s Parisian bohemian haunts).  Shapton’s book features menus, venues, emails from different timezones, and products such as Yorkshire Tea which bring with them specific identities of place.  Using these images to evoke place as much as the narrative of the central characters.  In these two books, Caroline Preston and Leanne Shapton are curators as well as writers; the images are as important as the text.  These experimental narratives help explore notions of human existence through montage, mosaic, curation, and the use of page space, this brings innovative multilayered, or perhaps multivocal, ways of storytelling.


Try this! A Writing Exercise.

The items we hoard tell us something about who we are.  I’ve mentioned this in previous blogs that I’ve been keeping a field diary of visits to Rochdale.  These are rough notes that span subjects from tram journeys, personal thoughts, sketches, the weather, snippets of overheard conversation and brief descriptions of places at certain moments of time. During this time, like Franke Pratt, I’ve been collecting various objects found at different juncture: postcards, maps, a golf ball, the Plaza’s Gracie Fields double bill, that kind of thing and have a sort-of scrapbook emerging.

Your task is to collect items that individually tell a story (postcards, photographs, chocolate wrappers, menus, bus tickets, etc.).  If you already  have a collection (stamps, coins, china dolls, rocks, cats, anything) and want to use this then try to see them differently, see them “anew”.  You can buy scrapbooks from craft shops (these can be super expensive) but you could also do your own DIY scrapbooking: glue stick, paper, biros/felt tips/paint/glitter/pencils, a couple of bits of cardboard to help bind and protect your work.

  • Look at your assembled items – what are they?  Make notes on each one, what it is, looks/feels/smells/sounds like, what each object could mean.
  • Imagine where the objects came from, what they’re made of, who made them, why they were made, who were they for originally?  Make some notes on this.
  • Who would own this collection – what does this say about their personality, about their background (think: race, class, gender, sexuality, belief system, taste in music/fashion/politics/etc., place of birth, current place where they live, era they live in).  Make some notes about this too.
  • (You can repeat the above if you have more than one collection.)
  • See if you can link the collection to a different narrative (who could own these items, what purpose do they serve, do they say anything about personality), tell different stories with the collection.

Many stories, messy (re)tellings, no endings.

“Never again will a single story be told as though it’s the only one” John Berger

I was saddened to hear the recent death of artist, art critic, and thinker John Berger (But what a life he led and what rich cultural contributions he made!) Once again I turn to this quote as I think it’s applicable to place and how we make sense of place*.  Singular narratives are too simplistic; what is a “whole story” anyway? Places are not neat little packages all tied up with a satin bow.  Trails, exhibitions, museums, statues tell excerpts of a story from certain points of view, but places are more complex  meaning different things to different people.

Currently, I’m writing/making stories/poems/art inspired by Rochdale, responding to Rochdale’s literature, cartographic representations, landscape, ecologies, and from my own notes taken over the last couple of years.  I don’t purport to tell a whole story – I’m just adding to the complicated notion of what a place is and can be.  With my own practice I find that writing, and making, is a messy process – fragmentary, never complete, open to interpretation, to changes of mind, to be edited-reedited-rereedited.  Even after publishing, after the elation, I still think that there are ways to improve/progress a piece: to develop, to rewrite, to contrast**. The Rochdale pieces, and reflections upon them, will form the next two chapters of my thesis – here’s a snippet of one below (work-in-progress).


Baum rabbit initial sketch: experimental writing (from ‘You are Here’).

I’m a bit of an ideas generator – I have loads of them (luckily), however, I’ve reached the point where I just have to pin down the ideas I have now and perhaps develop once I’ve finished the PhD (arrgh, less than ten months to go!).  I’ve had the absolute honour of a scholarship to support this work, however, I do find it hard at times***.   This year I’m going to be honest about the writing process, the blocks, the research techniques (and research cul-de-sacs) and I’ll blog when I can during these next few busy months.

In 2017 I’m looking forward to not only finishing this project but also hearing more stories from Rochdale and beyond.  (OK, I will challenge things that I believe problematic!  I’ll try to blog any of these if they occur****…)

Thought Fragments

* Here I want to note that I recognise that this statement privileges a human-perspective.  I don’t think that an anthropocentric approach is the only approach that “makes sense of place”. I’ll write about this argument at another time as I’m concentrating on writing stories 😉

** A recent poem I had published was experimental, drawing upon personal and cultural mythologies.  Upon re-reading it I think it possibly belongs in a wider sequence or perhaps a longer collection.  This would be a much longer term project than the PhD and subsequent work post-PhD.  And it may never be complete.

***  Including: the inability to say “no” to interesting things, impostor syndrome, holding many conflicting ideas in my head and sifting through these, trying to adopt an “academic register” when writing, the constant fear of failing. etc etc. etc.

**** Had an incident on the tram last year near Rochdale Train Station where a few of us tried to intervene with a couple fighting.  It was getting increasingly violent and vocal, when he grabbed her around the neck, I shouted “stop hurting her” and she told me to “fuck off, it’s none of your business”.  They got off the tram holding hands.  I still wonder how the rest of their story ended/will end.

Mapping place, politics, literary locations: learning from Lancaster University

I’ve started the final draft section of my PhD thesis on how Rochdale is read, mapped, and written.  In this section I’m trying to pull together the literary survey and the maps sections in order to inform creative responses to the borough*.  This has, in part, been inspired by other work in this area (for example: Barry, 2000; Roberts,2012; Alexander & Cooper, 2013)  and by creative work that plays with place and cartography.  Thanks to a tweet by my supervisor I learned of the recent work of MA students at Lancaster University on the Nineteenth Century: Place – Space – Text module led by Dr Joanna Taylor.  As part of the students’ assessment, they were tasked to take a text from the nineteenth century and use a digital mapping tool to map an element of their chosen text.

From my own research, I’ve been thinking of the tropes of folk tales and how the geographical locations of these overlap.  These locations can be approximately “pinned” on a contemporary map and are influencing a piece I’m writing at the moment routeing clusters of folk tales.  I thought I’d share the Lancaster research as it has potential for teaching (visualising routes and locations), learning (thinking through the relationship of place and text), and creating (how we conceive a place in our imagination through the way in which it is presented/represented)**.


Pride and Prejudice and place

Lex Elliot’s exploration of gender in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice draws upon Yi-Fu Tuan’s notions of place and space in his chapter ‘Space and Place: Humanistic Perspective’.  Lex concentrates on social position, social mores, and the characters’ lived experience in physical space concluding that place is ‘gendered and impacted by class’.  The limitations of mapping are also highlighted: ‘the map doesn’t give the full picture’. This is something that I have found too following the work of the late Brian Harley (2001): while maps offer useful locational shorthand, they struggle in depicting a rounded picture of place and all its complications.


Shelley & the politics of place

Rebekah Musk looks at the physical and political geographies of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘Lines Written among the Euganean Hills’.  Rebekah’s map offers a two layered reading: mapping the toponyms included in the poem and plotting the potential visability of these places.  By working out the locations and, with a bit of mathematical thinking around the curvature of the earth, the possible view afforded to the poet, she then considers the cultural impact that the Austro-Italian border of 1818 had on Shelley’s poem.  She notes the political tension of territories in Shelley’s poem and from the map arguing that further research ‘overlaying a historical map like this one onto a contemporary map would allow for a more detailed reading of the political implications of Shelley’s poem’.  (Indeed, the tension of these borders, and of identity, remains a contemporary issue.)  Finally, I love the notion of the world revolving around Shelley: ‘The cities remain fixed but time and people move within them, the sun makes its journey through the sky causing Shelley’s view to change according its location, birds travel in the sky above him.’

Both these projects open up further possibilities for pedagogical application as well as offering ongoing criticism on the limitations of basic mapping software in trying to garner a full sense of place and of the power play of, and within, a place.


After this morning’s reading, I’m back to thinking of the importance of Summit and Blackstone Edge on the map I’ve made.  The information attached to the “pin” that roughly sits in those hills represents how the physical location is storied through travel writing, poetry, folk tale, protest, contemporary myth-making, and in its “character assessments”***.


Further reading

If you’re interested in learning more about Lancaster’s Digital Humanities projects have a look at the website: here.

Alexander, N & Cooper, D (eds.)(2013) Poetry & Geography. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Barry, P. (2000) Contemporary British poetry and the city. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Harley, J. B. (2001) The New Nature of Maps: Essays in the History of Cartography. Baltimore, Maryland:  The John Hopkins University Press.

Roberts, L. (ed.)(2012) Mapping Cultures: Place, Practice, Performance. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.


**** Thought fragments ****

* I’m a little worried that I’m not handling the material, or ideas, in an elegant or eloquent way but that’s not unusual for my state of mind.  The more I learn in terms of research, writing, experiencing the more I realise that I know very little indeed.  I think that’s the nature of learning, really, and I think it’s healthy to continually question what we “know“, however, it can be disorienting at times; especially when one is proved wrong.  Quite good for challenging the ego!

** Blogging about this reminds me to come back to it later after I finish drafting the final section.

*** The Rochdale borough is split between two National Character Assessments: 54. Manchester Pennine Fringe and 36. Southern Pennine Fringe.

Sound: Putting noise into words – writing exercises

Yesterday I gave a workshop for Touchstones Creative Writing Group but rather foolishly forgot to take my usual photograph of the board! This blog post reflects on the session and there are a few creative writing exercises provided that you may wish to try. 

Alliteration, Assonance, Onomatopoeia

I ran an alliterative icebreaker: “my name is Jennie, I like to jump and juggle with jam”, some people used rhyme, some people alliterated. It was all good 🙂

I then talked about different types of alliteration and how we could use it in our writing to create sound effects (poetry, for example, while using imagery to paint pictures in our mind also utilises sound).  We then played with onomatopoeic words applying sound to some art postcards I handed around.  (Nb postcards are brilliant ways of inspiring creative writing stories, vignettes, poems etc. and they’re cheap too.)


I chose 20 sound effects and played around 4- 30 seconds of each asking participants to just note down what the sounds reminded them of, any words or phrases or perhaps images that they evoked and to note these down.  I said that I wasn’t going to tell them what the sounds were until after they’d written them down.  I then gave them all ten minutes to write a piece that concentrated on one of the sounds. (One writer who is accomplished and writes terrific poetry wrote a TS Eliot inspired piece using ALL of them.  I love working with this group!)  The Spotify playlist for the sounds is below:

I wanted the participants to use their imagination in what the sound evoked, any memories, any thoughts.  However, about four sounds in, one of the new participants had a hearing aid which I didn’t  realise until they said that they couldn’t hear the recordings. This has given me much to think about in terms of the accessibility of the session; perhaps what I should have done was to introduce each recording with what the sound was supposed to be.  I am annoyed with myself for failing to plan this in.  This incident, however, has been useful to reflect upon my own practice and contingency planning in order to make every session so that that everyone “gets a go” at writing.

70 Beautiful Words

The last exercise focussed on a nice bit of marketing undertake for the British Council’s 70th birthday in 2004.  The organisation polled 7,000 from across 46 different countries in order to discover the most “beautiful words in the English language”.  I printed out the words and chopped them up individually asking participants to choose two or three (or more!) and try to link them somehow.  Remembering to add sound to their writing.  We had a lovely piece about a tutu-wearing hippo!


Once again, my aim when I develop writing workshops and activities is that it doesn’t matter if participants go off prompt; they’ve created new writing and that is what I am there for.  I prepared a writing exercises handout for the participants which you can download to use yourself or with friends/a writing group: sound-putting-noise-into-words-handout-for-writers and the supplementary list of 70 beautiful words.

In Rochdale?  The next creative writing session will be on Thursday 5th January, 2 – 4pm at Touchstones Arts & Heritage Centre and will be facilitated by Annette Martens.

Peeling back layers of time: excerpts from ‘The Miller’s Cottage’

He said: “you get your eye in after a bit”

trace wall lines, the culvert of Trub brook, kick up leaf litter

roots, leaves and mycelium disrupts, unseen spores are dust motes on equipment 

picked clean: the bones of the mill, the bones of the fence

rainbows on the millpond, oil painting wrinkles on the water’s surface



With thanks to Bob Huddart of the Middleton Archaeological Society for showing me this gift of a site, hidden just from view on the grounds of Hopwood Hall College, Middleton. And thanks to Sonia and Cliff for their patience and willingness to share their experience and knowledge. A prose piece will accompany this in my PhD thesis.  My knees are no longer dirty.


Doing the Rochdale Way #1: Heywood, a bramble ramble, and low-flying golf balls

The Rochdale Way is a 45 mile route that loops (mostly) around the Rochdale borough, it is one that should probably be split into parts as the full route may be too long for even the most hardy long-distance rambler.  Designed in the late 1990s by Richard Catlow, John Cole, Martin Riley and John Taylor it takes in some of “the sights” of the Manchester Pennine Fringe – places like Blackstone Edge, Light Hazzles Clough, Rushy Hill, Healey Dell – offering a swathe of green and good vantage points for the landscape.

Did we start as it recommends from Hollingworth Lake?  Nah, that’d be too easy and I’m interested in the more “urban” parts the route takes in. We started the route from Heywood (via the 163 bus from Bury) but didn’t get very far as we couldn’t locate ourselves on the online map.  After another bit of accidental trespassing we found the route located off Canal Street.  There was no sight of a canal anywhere near this road but there was what looked like a factory at the end of it, an arch of hawthorn cast shadows on the dirt path – the Rochdale Way!  (I think.)  This path took us to the north of the (trespassed) farmland then bent back on itself, past pylons in the middle of being fixed, over the East Lancs railway track, then to a fork and a stile to the right and A SIGN POST with round metal  plaques, one of which said “Rochdale Way” with cartoon boots on it. HURRAY!  We leapt the stile and found ourselves on the manicured lawns of a golf course.

After wandering up and down the golf course for nearly an hour, trying to find Roeacre brook but finding a long, narrow puddle of ochre.  Passing a pond filled with cottony cattails three times and avoiding the men playing golf.  I couldn’t help but notice that the men looked vaguely the same – brothers? – soft rounded bellies, white hair, bright clothes.  They payed no heed to us, however.  We wandered back to the stile to retrace our steps but could not find the Rochdale way route.  Fearing a repeat of the Springwater Park adventure the GIS map was scrutinised until we saw what looked like it was a route.  This route/bridleway was all tangled in bramble, nettles, willowherb, and (suspected) hogweed.  A bit hungry by this point and under pressure from the seasonal earlier sunset we decided that it was time to call it a day.

Thanks to a weird, bloody-minded disposition, I’ve committed to this route now, to be completed clockwise, however, it will occur at leisure around my PhD writing (it’s a nice idea but it’s my final year so got to finish).  However, things to bear in mind the next time I get a day off to do this, is to bring the Ordnance Survey maps (OS maps 277: Manchester & Salford, & OL21: South Pennines, if you want to have a go), compass, and high calorie/high carb snacks.

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Maps lie! Looking for the confluence of Roch and Irwell.

‘The rhythm of walking generates a kind of rhythm of thinking, and the passage through a landscape echoes or stimulates the passage through a series of thoughts.’ Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust (2001: 5-6).

‘There’s nothing wild in this country: every square inch of it is ‘owned’, much has seen centuries of bitter dispute; the whole landscape is man-made, deforested, drained, burned for grouse moor, long cleared of its peasants or abandoned by them.’

Kathleen Jamie, ‘A Lone Enraptured Male’ London Review of Books, 6th March 2008.


This picture was taken at the end of the mission.

Why, why, why was I so daft? I slipped up knolls, tumbled down crumbling brickwork, tripped on knotted, stumpy roots.  All in search of a river confluence.  There’s method writing, then there’s madness in undertaking such a journey.  On my own. In a hippy-ish maxi dress and battered Doc Martens.

Instead of questioning my own naïve curiosity and lack of preparedness, I blamed Google Maps; the route looked so smooth, so flat, so innocuous.


Google map. The entrance to Springwater Park in Whitefield, Bury is opposite ‘The Metro Fish Bar’. Simple?

Well.  No.  Not simple at all.  The map in satellite view and in street view betrayed the actual topography.  This map lies!  I walked up and down the curve where Bury New Road becomes Manchester Road looking for the entrance – three times, of course, because that is the storyteller’s way.  The entrance looked like someone’s drive but I eventually wandered down there, a little concerned at trespassing (but only a little).


Just one small leap.

The smell of must, of vegetation, compost rot. An abandoned turquoise Fiat groaning with green, grasses growing around the wheels.  Bits of fabric and plastic in sticky mud.  Will I need to text someone my location in case my corpse is lost?  This place seems “Wild” or perhaps, more likely, “Abandoned”. A lack of love?

I wandered past the concrete steps, deciding against trying my weight on them, and set to finding the river Roch somewhere in the brambles and nettles, in between tree trunks, concrete totems, and leaf litter.  I know nothing of this place’s histories, its stories, this unnerved me; who am I to dare disturb industrial ghosts?

A shimmer of brown river, rippled glass, a promise of hydroglyphics – fleeting, hidden messages made with autumn sunlight on water.  Yes it’s the Roch but there is no easy way to follow it, no discernible pathway.  I followed my instinct then checked the phone’s Google Maps app to be sure, almost as if checking a calculator for the outcome of an uncertain sum. I seemed to be a way away from the path so I climbed a steep, muddy hill all leggy birch and little visual vantage of the landscape.

I climbed back down, crab-like, made my way through the scrub back towards the river.  Success! I spotted a man in a dark green jacket a hundred metres away who waved in an unsure way and turned back towards his large black Labrador.  I followed his track from a distance, Alice to his white rabbit, which took me back to the river and to two metre tall balsam.  Best of all: a path of sorts.

This path led to a wider clearing where there were more dog walkers, soft long grass to stomp through, and the confluence of Roch and Irwell, the Roch subsumed into the river that flows through Manchester.


The confluence of Roch and Irwell, the jut of Umbelliferae. The river Roch is on the right with a semi-submerged tyre.

I leaned into the grasses to film the river, there was a sudden SNAP as hundreds of Himalayan balsam seeds exploded from seed cases. Whoops. An accidental contribution to their spread.  An unthinking act of environmental vandalism, city lass, should have checked first, my mind is wrapped in river currents, enraptured by water.  There is a heady almost petroleum, stink of balsam.  I imagine the seeds joining the Irwell, floating on the Ship Canal, a scattering in the Mersey.


Springwater Park, the river Irwell carrying on its journey oblivious to its name.

A rook punctuates the constant low rush of the river, I think I can hear the chipchipchip of a great spotted woodpecker as well as the low hum of cars. I try to keep my breathing quiet.

Then a path marked out, delineated by wooden posts, a road that was small chunks of yellowed stone out of the park.  The sign, as you can see above in the first picture,  the line ‘Part of the Red Rose Forest’ is obscured by paint.  Is it no longer part of it?  If not then what is it part of?  With my back to the park I found myself on the pavement of another busy road.  On the other side there was a police car parked near tramline edgelands, I saw a Police Community Support Officer slowly walking the route towards Radcliffe.

I did get lost trying to follow the map back to Whitefield tram stop but that is a story too dull to retell.

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And this is not, nor would be, the only journey that had unintended outcomes…