For those of you who are local and/or interested in attending, I will be presenting at University of Tokyo’s international, cross-disciplinary GSP conference early next year. The conference has been organised by UT’s Global Studies Program and will bring together an eclectic mix of research on the theme(s) of ‘Power and Identity’. I will be presenting some thoughts on (geo)politics, landscape and marginalised spiritualities in Britain. Please see the abstract below. The conference will take place on Monday January 9th 2017 at University of Tokyo’s Komaba I campus.
Further information on the GSP conference can be found here.
Sacred Places/Contested Spaces: examining marginalised spirituality and the struggle for religious identity in the United Kingdom 1985 to present.
Whilst it has often been claimed by mainstream religious groups in the West that rights and religious freedoms are ‘under attack’ from evermore secularised and politically liberal governments, far less attention has been paid to how ground-level power struggles have affected the ability to worship of those individuals belonging to more marginal religious communities. In particular, claims to sacred spaces that are located in privately owned, conserved or managed landscapes have seen rights of access and worship challenged. This has led to power relations between landowners, ground managers and religious communities becoming strained, resulting in staged protest and accusations of suppression of religious identity.
Spiritual groups belonging to Britain’s New Age movement have, in particular, been at the forefront of protests against restriction of access to historically sacred sites, with 1985’s ‘Battle for Stonehenge’ being a landmark case in the policing and controlling of religious spaces. As such, marginal religious communities defined as ‘New Age’ have seen both a common and official de-legitimisation of their claims to sacred sites that has at best seen restriction of access, and in worst cases, the prohibition of entrance to sites of specific spiritual importance.
This paper aims to present an overview of recent historical and contemporary events in the United Kingdom that have led to a questioning of how religious identity might be defined and legitimised, as well as assessing the role of the spatial in the practices of alternative spiritualities. Through an examination of specific case studies, I will highlight examples of contested sacred places from the UK over the last 30 years, demonstrating where religious identity has been challenged and problematised through the privatisation and restriction of certain landscapes. Reflecting on wider issues of control and surveillance, this paper will argue that the protection of the right to practice religious freedom must also include a protection of rights to land access, and in doing so, ensure the preservation of religious and cultural identity.
And… back again! It seemed like an appropriate time to break the silence of the last few months, which as always, really was quite unintended. Having relocated from London to Tokyo in March, the first few months of the year were spent planning and packing for the move and the weeks since arriving in Japan have been, well, hectic to say the least. Now that I’m somewhere slightly closer to having adjusted to the change of life (and climate), I thought I’d reignite In:Sites. This blog started as a way of keeping me writing whist I was making little headway with my thesis. Having an outlet so to spew words onto page, without the anxiety that precluded working on the doctoral research, allowed me to explore ideas and moreover places, that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to. Furthermore, having a space away from both research and paid employment engendered a sense of freedom, a way of mapping out thoughts away from the demands of an impoverished, semi-academic existence in a city I’d come to despise (sorry London!). Flash forward six months and I’m reminiscing from the window seat of one of Kichijoji’s myriad Starbucks. I’ve spent the last few weeks switching between the four or five immediate writing tasks I have to complete, unable to make progress with any of them. I’m keen to write and each of the projects excites me…nevertheless, they ain’t moving forward. So, I’m back to blogging.
I’ve been invited to give a talk at the China Academy of Art’s Place, Space, Art International seminar later in June (18-19th). The geographic leaning reflects a wider interest in the spatial which has gathered momentum across the arts and humanities and I’m very much looking forward to hearing how each of the speakers has interpreted the organiser’s abstract. The abstract for my own paper is copied below. As you will see, the primary focus of my talk will be on ‘deep mapping’ in the creation of a biography of place. I’ve referred to this subject elsewhere and am excited about developing it further for the event in Hangzhou. Further details on the various talks and speakers later in the month.
Geo-interventions: walking art, ‘deep-mapping’ and the biography of place
Dr. James Thurgill, University of Tokyo
As interest in spatial intervention continues to spread among scholars of geography and cognate disciplines, creative encounters with topography and attempts to ‘record and represent the grain and patina of place’ become of growing importance. Creative methods and visual practices appear ever more prevalent amongst studies of the landscape as new methods of producing representations in and of place continue to evolve. Whether reflecting, depicting or politicising place, Art represents a set of intrinsically spatial practices. One such practice is the method of walking, of roaming through place(s). Walking allows for an inherently physical connection with the landscape through the placing of the body in the environment and the necessary contact between body and earth. Walking affords the practitioner an opportunity to narrate place from the inside, to challenge boundaries, to reimagine margins, and to intervene in place(s). This paper looks at the role of the artist as cartographer, as mapper of places and their particularities. Looking specifically at the practices of walking artists and the process of ‘deep mapping’, I will discuss the role of the practitioner in the creation and narration of a biography of place.
 Mike Pearson, and Michael Shanks. Theatre/Archaeology. London: Routledge, 2001.
I’m going to be screening a couple of my favourite televised adaptions from the works of M.R. James in Leytonstone (London) next month. All You Read Is Love have very kindly allowed me to take over their cafe/bookstore/arts space for the evening to show, what I believe to be, the finest two filmic interpretations of James’ ghostly tales. I will also be giving a short introductory talk on the roles of hauntology and landscape in these works, as well as offering a few thoughts on the Jamesian geographies of East Anglia.
Free entry. Doors at 7pm.
I’m very pleased to have been included in Les Roberts’ special issue of Humanities on the theme of ‘Deep Mapping’. Humanities is an open access journal so you can find the complete article free and available to all.
In 1921 the photographer, antiquarian and amateur archaeologist Alfred Watkins, delivered his newly formed thesis on the origins of ancient alignments in the west of England to the Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club of Hereford. Watkins posited a correlation between ancient forts, moats, mounds, churches, trees and place names, which he had shown to produce straight lines running across the landscape. In 1922 Watkins published his first book on the subject, Early British Trackways, mixing amateur archaeology, social history and supposition to introduce what Watkins named “leylines” and setting out the guidelines for other would-be ley hunters. This paper explores Watkins’ ley hunting as a practice of “deep mapping”, examining its use as an applied spatial engagement with the hidden trajectories of the landscape. In addition to providing a concise cultural history of the leyline, with particular reference to the works of Alfred Watkins, this paper develops a critical engagement with ley-walking through an auto-ethnographic response to a leyline that has been mapped and walked in Norfolk, England.
The full article is available for download from the MDPI Humanities page.
Having been lucky enough to catch the last day of the Swanscombe Project exhibition at the Blake Gallery in Gravesend earlier this year, I was inspired to then spend a rather dreary Sunday afternoon traipsing the marshes and former landfill site of Swanscombe, Kent. The Swanscombe Project, headed by photographer Peter Luck, is ‘an encounter between a heterogeneous group of photographers and the processes of redevelopment at the urban periphery’. The group aims to provide an alternative rhetoric of this diverse edgeland, to that being pushed by the developers of the site who are working on creating East London’s first theme park: London Paramount.
(Image courtesy of Google)
Swanscombe itself is a north facing peninsula that creeps out into the Thames from the Kentish bankside. The landscape is marginal; the peninsula is bordered by industry to the south, a river to the North and flanked by marshes and landfill on either side. Access to the site is restricted and seems to depend on the mood of the security guard monitoring the traffic barrier. Weathered signage warning of dog patrols and industrial traffic mark the entrance to the site, obviously aimed at deterring visitors. The periphery is cordoned off with mesh fencing, funnelling all entrants in past the security hut. Beyond the barrier lies a long, unmade road that leads toward the buried landfill and into the site proper. As the road begins to skirt former chalk pits it makes a sudden turn north, opening up a route that takes you past derelict brick structures, chimney stacks and landfill hills.
On walking through the landscape here, the eye is drawn to a gigantic steel-latticed obelisk rising from the marshland, half of the 400kV Thames Crossing. The pylon is one of two that make up the Thames Crossing, the other being well within viewing distance on the Dartford banks of the river. The pair are the tallest pylons in Britain, reaching some 190 meters into the clouds, dominating the landscape with a monstrous beauty. And this is perhaps the most accurate way to describe these structures; cold and utilitarian, stark against the soft grasses and grey skies of the surrounding environment, and yet, the intricacy of the gossamer-like weave of the steel is nothing short of awe-inspiring. And the scale. And the power. The vehement buzz of electricity permeates the air, hairs seem to start standing on end within thirty meters of the pylon.
The surrounding land surface is strewn with fissures, ruptures where the ground can no longer contain the discarded shit buried within it. Historic waste seeps through from the landfill below; 1980s coke cans, Marathon bar wrappers and garish Crisps packets spew from beneath the wild grasses in a metastatic creeping of anachronistic refuse. Everything here feels contaminated. And yet nature prevails. The site is bordered by three marshes; Black Duck, Broadness and Botany, each of which is teaming with shrubs, grasses, wildflowers, bird and insect life. This is the type of space situated within what Richard Mabey would describe as the ‘unofficial countryside’; a place that has its own distinct type of peri-urban (re)wilding. Perhaps not a picnicking destination but no means devoid of its own, idiosyncratic beauty.
As a place, Swanscombe is palimpsestic, its surface is inscribed with the scarring of industry, both contemporary and historical, commercial and residential waste, power lines, human occupation (Broadness moorings harbour a number of ramshackle houseboats and huts), prehistoric habitation (Homo erectus and large mammals) and myriad wildlife. Layer upon layer of history is written into the landscape here, previous variations in both the matter and form of the land offering a unique insight into the biography of this place; brickworks, cement factories, marshland, edgeland. Old Father Thames laps at the banks at the pylon’s feet, abandoning a wealth of drift wood, reeds, plastic bottles, children’s toys, food wrappers, carrier bags, dead birds, trolleys, tyres, footballs, and old clothes. Each item playing but a small part in the oscillating narratives of abandonment and memory that envelope this space.
After visiting the area it becomes all too obvious why those individuals involved with the Swanscombe Project care so deeply for this unique piece of land. The looming construction of the UK’s largest ‘entertainment resort’ will, no doubt, eradicate the existing narratives surrounding Swanscombe; the moorings will be displaced, the wildlife irreparably damaged and the character of the landscape changed forever, though perhaps this is the natural state of the edgeland? Margins have a tendency to blur, to become less defined, and in doing so create new borders, new sites for new experiences. It will be interesting to see what new margins are drawn here, and what new spaces are created from the destruction of Swanscombe.
I’m very pleased to announce my inclusion in a new edited collection on Sacred Mobilities by Avril Maddrell, Alan Terry and Tim Gale of University of the West of England. The essays in this volume cover a number of engaging case studies, ranging from religious pilgrimage to the strategic sacrality of sports. My own chapter focuses on the relationship between mobility, place and material culture in Neo-Pagan ritual, developed from research undertaken during my doctoral studies. The book itself comes out of an RGS session on Sacred Journeys that took place back in 2011.
This really is a very nice collection and I’m exceptionally grateful to the editors for allowing me to be part of the project.