This summer I'm a wee bit excited about the possibility of collaborating with an arts organisation to examine in some depth the agricultural practices patterns of land ownership in the Borders. How do you make art about such topics?
I don't know much about agriculture other than what I can read about, ask farmers about and piece together from lots of walking and poking around into fields, moors, woodlands and farmyards. My research is necessarily restricted. I've been wondering/wandering for a long time how to get inside the themes and topics relevant to agriculture and land ownership and have in previous projects produced some work from the perspectives of sound recording, photography, short film (my glacially-paced and ever-emerging series on The Landowner for example) and latterly text. There's no correct answer except that the best media are best within their own conditions and limitations. Even after many attempts I’m still not sure how you make art about agriculture though having doubts isn’t necessarily a bad thing. What I'd really like to do, and have already begun in some investigations, is to find out from farmers and landowners how they see their work and land in say fifty or a hundred years, especially within the context of the forthcoming energy transition. A Northumberland dairy farmer I know told me that a century or so ago nearly everything was powered by the sun. Now it’s oil. I’m asking myself if we’ll see electric tractors and the end of nitrogen fertilisers made out of petroleum coke. I'd like to find out more - I only know bits - about the details of land ownership, rights and responsibilities, agricultural economics, how government policies affect farmers. I'm personally interested in public access to land, in particular why some landowners (but happily only a few) insist on making things as difficult as possible for people to enjoy the land simply and harmlessly, that is by walking on it. I've become fascinated by gates, fences, latches, clasps and hasps. I try very hard to understand barbed wire and electric fences. Perhaps I’ll start a Sears Roebuck style catalogue listing all the impediments to easy walking.
The more I learn the more I enjoy my walks. The more I walk the more I learn.
This is an article about property, based largely on my practical experience of how property, spaces, buildings, call them what you will, is handled in a small largely working class Scottish town. It is born out of deep frustration bordering on exasperation at the lack of creativity in working towards new ways of managing property for the benefit ion communities, even by those communities who desperately need those benefits. I'm coming at this from the multiple perspectives of creative placemaking, an approach which doesn't simply mean adding a bit of colour to the town (though that's always nice to see) but really means adding some measure of creativity proper to how we think about things like property, ie intelligent, nuanced, multi-layered and complex thinking leading to sustainable solutions for deprived communities in particular.
I don't want to talk about theories of property except in one respect and that is to paraphrase a passage from The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021) byDavid Graeber and David Wengrow, in which they look at the origins of our legal framework around property rights. It goes something like this (part copied, part paraphrased):-
The Roman Law conception of natural freedom is based on the power of the individual (by implication a male head of household) to dispose of his property as he sees fit. In Roman Law property isn’t even a right, since rights involve negotiation with others and mutual obligations. It’s power. You can do anything you want, limited only by ‘force of law’. Freedom is therefore essentially a state of primordial exception to the legal order. Property is a set of relations between a person and an object characterised by absolute power. It is argued that Roman Law conceptions of property trace back to slave law. A slave was a thing, not a person and property law was about the complications that might arise within that relationship. The people who laid down the basis for our current legal order had, in private, near total domination and authority over wives and children and had their needs taken care of by dozens if not hundreds of slaves whom they could torture, rape, mutilate or kill as they wished.
Any reasonable person can work out that other options are available and yet we’ve stuck to this framework, albeit a more humane version, for centuries.
Jedburgh is a reasonably pretty town with a beautiful hinterland. Very beautiful. It still catches my breath after twenty three years. It has an excellent school, NHS centre and swimming pool. The Abbey is stunning and Mary Queen of Scot's House has a beautiful garden in which to space out and think, read or write. In the growing season there are beautiful flowers and hanging baskets around the town, largely down to the dedication of one committed individual. Shops are so-so, many lie empty. There’s a wonderful new bookshop and pizza restaurant. The people are friendly. That’s about it.
The problem with Jedburgh is that most of the people who make the important decisions about the town are either Tories or elderly people, mainly men. Nobody seems capable of applying anarchic thinking to the solution of local problems, meaning the imagination and exploration of better forms of local democracy and governance. Creative thinking proper, that is, risk-taking, long-term thinking, nuanced approaches, doesn't have a chance. Neither does a healthy and ecologically sustainable approach to the use of property, buildings, in the town. We live in 18th century France where the rentier plies his or her trade.
In terms of community, culture and creativity it’s a dull town, a ‘cold spot’, lacking in any accessible community/creative /cultural spaces or sustainable programmes of creative activity. Some of us are working hard to remedy that but at every turn we encounter obstacles and resistance. I can't set foot in some so-called community spaces because they've been rented out or even pledged to private interests before they're renovated. The new school or Community Campus with its state-of-the-art facilities and large social and technical spaces is inaccessible to community activity because of the extortionate price structure set by Live Borders and presumably approved by Scottish Borders Council. Now I’m starting to name names. The wonderful Town Hall - who knows? It’s dragged on for about eight years and still no firm commitment that it’ll be accessible to the community. Ditto the Old Library. Last I heard was that it might be up for sale. The Campus library is not for purpose because it’s in the middle of a school with hundreds of kids and you can’t have members of the public wandering about. Why none of the highly paid executives in the council couldn’t have worked this out is beyond me. Actually I correct that - they were told and didn't listen.
What we need is a comprehensive change in the attitude and behaviour of custodians of (ostensibly) community public spaces towards how such spaces are accessed and used for the benefit of the people of Jedburgh. Led by young people preferably. The rentier economy, with respect to community buildings, sees a situation where the landlords carry little or no risk. The overt politicisation of some of the town bodies with actual agency will see that change is unlikely to happen.
Thirty percent of children in Jedburgh are considered to be in a state of poverty, which means parents as well. It's not their fault despite views to the contrary surfacing from time to time, usually from the well-to-do. A healthy and civilised community (in the sense of caring for each other), above all the self-appointed leaders, need to ensure that the less privileged people of the town have access to the same range of community/creative /cultural spaces and activities as anywhere else. The same goes for land - a whole school lying disused and dilapidated, pockets of land disused and inaccessible, for example the old limeyard by the Bowling Club and the land behind the old school which could be used for community allotments, in other words food growing. There are no mechanisms for soliciting interest in such initiatives (and there will be interest) which would enhance amenity and quality of life for citizens. But I’ll deal with land in a separate article.
The biggest problem in my view is that few if any of the local bodies who claim to represent Jedburgh at various levels are inclusive and diverse so we get what the same people want year on year. I’m not a zealous missionary for these things but they are highly desirable, important and legally required in many cases. I’m seeing very little or no effort at attempting to include women, younger women in particular, or poorer (let’s say disenfranchised) people in the town, in important decision making with respect to the town’s development. It’s become largely the domain of retirees. Three decision-making organisations I know of are largely made up of septuagenarian and even octogenarians, largely men. The argument seems to be that ‘we need to get started on things so we’ll forget about all this inclusivity and diversity stuff because it takes too much time’. But there’s the point - things should take time if they’re important and everything in one’s power should be done to make the groups with community decision-making agency as diverse and inclusive as possible. Otherwise we end up with the same people on the same committees making the same decisions. If you start something well it has more chance of ending well. The evidence is that, in my twenty-plus years of living in the town, very little gets delivered in the way of new ideas, potentially risky initiatives are resisted or even blocked and things stay the same, more or less.
Returning to property then what we find are ingrained attitudes towards sharing all or parts of buildings as if they’re sacrosanct. Any incursion into the established order of property rights and transactions (seldom a mention of responsibilities) will bring the fall of capitalism and civil order. This is entirely a political field of engagement. I feel it’s a community duty to say to the people of Jedburgh here that by voting at local level for Tories, or more importantly by NOT voting at all, you’re chopping yourselves off at the knees. At a recent local by-election a miserable thirty two percent of voters bothered to turn out and the successful candidate, who began as an independent then jumped ship to the Tories, was voted in with just over half of the total vote. All of this is therefore eminently within the political domain. It's not impolite to describe and analyse these matters as correctly as possible. Democracy is based on confrontation or, to put it more softly, finding consensus, and we shouldn't be afraid to acknowledge this.
For those young people who can’t escape Jedburgh and go to University or the Antipodes (currently a favourite destination with some youngsters) there remain the options of either entering a trade, going into agriculture or the retail sector. Nothing wrong with those at all - there are some excellent careers in the trades - but it’s a limited field and as a result we see a huge and unhealthy gap in the demographic composition of Jedburgh. The local Tory MP has done nothing to bring jobs to the town and never will because he’s at Westminster to represent himself. We therefore have to accept this and get on with making things better for ourselves. And yet the citizens keep voting for these people. For jobs I’d be looking carefully at the cultural sector in Scotland, officially defined and accounted for, which turns over more than tourism and agriculture combined, a fact that gets sceptics tapping away on the old Google. A strong cultural sector would bring jobs to the town, but this would overtax the capacity of those running the town because it requires longer term thinking (as opposed to the ’end-of-your-nose thinking of SBC and others), the empowerment of local communities and new ideas on what exactly local democracy should be.
My point is that without a fresh approach to local democracy we will never find better ways of managing properties in the town for the benefit of communities over individuals. If enough people could be persuaded to recalibrate their vision we could have wonderful community education initiatives, music, dance, theatre, meeting spaces, children’s events, green initiatives, special interest groups and even a night-time economy. This not utopian dreaming. It happens already in other regions of Scotland no different from ours.
Recon Chest Rig, Black Beret, black Operations Webbing Belt, Black G3 Combat Trousers with Knee Pads, black CHIMERA COMBAT JACKET, BLACK LOWA Z8N GTX tactical boots, black
Hanging by two fingers from the steel grid, one foot toe-smearing the razor thin metal edge, he prepares his final move. A fully committed dyno. Beyond the vertical. No second chance. Sten Mark II submachine gun over the shoulder, holstered .45 Colt pistol and his trusted dagger and scabbard. British issue. Black as a panther in the velvet night.
Arctic warfare. Military crest position, at the ready, all white, at one with the snow and ice. Left knee articulated to 67 degrees. SAKO TRG 42, a Finnish long-range sniper rifle, manually-operated, bolt-action weapon chambered for .300 Winchester Magnum cartridge. Effective range of 1100 meters. Still and vigilant as a snow leopard before the kill.
Rank - lieutenant. Service Number 5206714T. Speciality - intelligence, surveillance, marksman. Mission - to distress and pin down the enemy, eliminate hostiles one by one. Name: Action Man.
Action Man. I never got one for Christmas. Never ever. Every year in the days before Christmas I sneaked into my folks’ bedroom, opened the double wardrobe and rummaged around under the blankets at the bottom to see what was coming up. NO action man. And yet, hanging on to a sliver of hope on Christmas morning, round the tree, I looked at the wrapped boxes, praying for the tall oblong shape of the cardboard and plastic container. But no. Not for me. Dolls are not for boys said she. And that was that. What Mums don’t understand is that Action Man isn’t a doll. You don’t play with him. You don’t stick pins in him. He’s not scary. He doesn’t bawl and greet like Tiny Tears or pee itself like Betsy Wetsy. He doesn’t have a string at the back like Thumbelina that makes him wiggle around and cry when you pull it. You don’t comb his hair like Cindy or Tressie or buy him a poncy boyfriend called Ken like you do with Barbie. Action man’s mission is not to teach boys how to be good husbands or fathers.
And by the way if any boy in my day ever had two Action Men ‘eyebrows would be raised’ and ‘words had’.
You simply don’t play with Action man. You set him up and look at him. You imagine stuff in your head. You behold him in the frozen moment of a great military action, a covert mission.
Then in my 30s my mother’s guilt got the better of her and she bought me one. One Christmas she handed over a wrapped box and there he was inside. The real thing with a selection of gear. Multiple missions! And so he hung for months off the rack in my music teaching studio, suspended over the synths and drum machines. Looking as cool as you like. When kids came for lessons they spotted him straight away and reached out to grab him. But nobody touches Action Man. Except me. He’s on a mission and I don’t want some ratty little bairn twisting him out of shape, especially Sophie whose Dad had the look of a ’16” googly eyes vintage doll’. He would drop her off then couldn’t get away quick enough because he had some ‘business’ to attend to and when he came back he looked like ‘scary dirty doll with red eyes’ because he’d obviously been shagging his mistress.
Later Mum told me tearfully of her remorse. All those years denying me an Action Man. She couldn’t forgive herself. She wanted to make up for it. Of course I forgave her. It was simply a generational thing. But then, without blinking, she added ‘it’s ok though, at least you turned out normal’
There's an excellent programme of events at our local bookshop Heron and Willow (who hosted yours truly on guitar last week). Although the picture doesn't show everyone it was actually a full house which is promising for the future.
But that's about it. There's still nothing much else going on in sleepy old Jed. Deadburgh they call it in other towns. No movement on the Town Hall, the library, no public spaces to meet or to develop creative and cultural activities. Lots of meetings, secret committees, minutes, agendas and points of order but no spaces for people. A new community school bristling with features but so expensive to rent for creative or community activities. That leaves expensive piss-ups that ordinary people either can't afford or get invited to. Not the best use of a community school is it?
This is all to be expected win a town where people vote Tory. Not all but most. It's as if they want to be worked over. Tories hate giving things to people. Their ideology is based on rent and profit. Plus they're useless and always seem to run out of money. One can only speculate as to why. But there's a by-election coming up soon so maybe we'll get someone new with fresh ideas on creative placemaking. I won't hold my breath, nor will I stop being a pest and reminding people that they're chopping themselves off at the knee by voting Tory. Anyway here's a few recent pictures taken around the town which, in spite of everything else, is still a beautiful town.
thank you for your funding proposal to the Arts Council. The panel was deeply impressed by the depth of research and the bold concepts shown in your project ‘The Dark Side of the Tweed’.
We were particularly drawn to your idea of lining up ten children from Hawick and Galashiels, then selecting three out of the ten, highlighting the fact that at least 30% of children in the Borders are living in poverty.
Your idea of creating partnerships and forming teams to go fishing on the Tweed was well thought through and conceptually sound. The panel greatly admired the four-part composition of each team: a poor child, preferably a ‘Grand Old Duke’ of the Borders or at least an ennobled Tweed Commissioner, say a Lord or a Sir or indeed one of the many men who have served as commissioners. At the very least, a man of substance and standing; a ghillie, the river expert who would teach the child how to fish and point out the best spots to catch ‘a couple of fat ones’ as you put it, and finally an artist who would benefit from meeting ‘real people’ in your own words, meaning ‘anyone who isn’t a friend or family member of the artist, or another artist’ (this made us giggle).
The tour de force of the proposal was greatly appreciated by the panel. To find a chef from one of those ‘fancy posh hotels in Melrose or Kelso’ and to have the chef accompany the child, with fish, to their home, to cook a nutritious meal and teach the parent, guardian, grandmother, big sister or whoever does the cooking in a poor household how to cook properly. It should be mentioned that we did feel the use of ‘fancy’ and ‘posh’ to be somewhat provocative. Your suggestion that ‘this might be the most protein the poor kid has had since he suckled at the tit’, though perhaps true, might have benefitted from rephrasing.
However, there were some structurally weak points in your proposal. We felt that it would have been more effective to have the poor child fed at the castle of one of the ‘Grand Old Dukes’, perhaps the meal could even be cooked by the wealthy landowner himself. This type of robust social engagement would educate the poor person in the ways of the wealthy. We also preferred your original title to the alternative ‘Tory Poachers’ which was again felt to be needlessly provocative. Your comment that ‘it would be interesting to see how the Grand Old Dukes get on with their child protection disclosure’ was again felt to be provocative if not libellous. Not all Dukes are the same.
Our conclusion therefore is that your proposal falls short of the standard required for financial support. The panel feels that artists and real people are all in the same boat so to speak and do need to keep the right people on their side. The Borders is a beautiful happy place to live. It benefits greatly from the status quo. Overly contentious and risk-laden political or socially-engaged art might upset the powers that be.
Finally our recommendation to you is to develop your existing strengths. Keep producing those lovely riverside soundscapes, and especially those recordings of folk singers lilting Sir Walter Scott’s wonderful Border Ballads.
I have a small digital and cassette label called Ubanu Tarasa over on Bandcamp: https://ubanutarasa.bandcamp.com All the music on Ubanu Tarasa has been created using a digital instrument I made a few years ago, either by me or by myself and collaborating artist whom I invited to share sounds for me to work with. Because the music is driven partly by the performer at the desk and partly by algorithmic procedures, every composition, performance or installation is different, inasmuch as a computer is capable of randomness
The impetus for the project came from a desire to find new ways of articulating and presenting field recordings. There’s another story to be told about that. I wanted more than a basic laptop playback performance so I taught myself how to use max/msp and designed the instrument to do what I wanted. It and to be able to work well not only as an installation, compositional or performance tool but also as a more extended collaborative project.
It probably makes more sense to listen to than explain but basically the software takes folders of audio files and, using ‘objects’ such as random generators and looping tools, generates four stereo channels of an ever-changing sound field. The files are in folders of up to eight files of the the same duration, of wither 1,2, 3 or 5 minutes. This gives me a spectrum of sounds from the more textural to the more textural. It affords enough complexity to avoid sounding like a simple looping device. The audio stream exits the computer digitally into a A/D interface, then out of there as eight channels of sound and finally into the desk and speakers. At that point I can either let it do its own thing or I can mix live what comes at me. I call it the particulate articulator (or vice-versa). In my work over the years I’ve recorded anything and everything so I generate the audio from a wide range of material - studio recordings of objects, devices, processes, conventional and hand-built instruments, voice(s), field recordings and found recordings. However the primary purpose of the instrument was to repurpose field recordings, mainly of natural environments.
I’m working just now with ways of extending the original sounds by re-articulating them through resonant objects such as bowls and boxes which will make for a more interesting extended performance as I wander about fiddling with ‘things’ instead of sitting behind a car boot sale table.
‘Essentially we’re being oppressed by NATO fascists. Well, it’s actually more like a Satanic NATO fascist cabal. They control everything, the police, the military, the judiciary, you name it’.
His last words echoed gently then seemed to hang in the mist. But it didn’t feel like mist. It felt on the skin like like a moist bath of pure light. The path was just steep enough to keep you breathing hard. No sun, no landmarks, just the path and the light.
‘Not to mention the media, they’re the worst of the lot. Them and the medical profession, especially psychiatrists. Essentially overpaid torturers. They’ve been torturing me for 11 years.’
Higher up the mist changed colour. A patch of yellow was emerging, the beginnings of a halo, working its way into the light grey of the mist. The cloud was surely about to break. Near the top now and I had to catch up.
‘And who would choose to have monarchy, the worst way to rule anything. Of all the ways human beings could have chosen to organise themselves. Fundamentally It boils down to two things. Two opposing forces. Humanity and inhumanity.’
We reached the top, unbuckled our rucksacks and sat in silence at the foot of the monument. I shared out the sandwiches and poured the tea from the flask. On a better day we would have been able to see the full panorama of the mountains to the south with the golden river snaking through the valley below our feet.
I live in a small town. Here's how things work in my small town. Old people who have lived in the town for decades get together and pack out all the groups who decide upon and implement important local decisions. They then make decisions that suit themselves, based on their values, experience, biases and so forth. At least eighty percent on average of these decision makers are men. Young women from the community, that is, women who live, work (or not - there's a lot of poverty and an embarrassing lack of jobs in my small town), raise children in the town, are largely ignored. Most of the decision makers went to school together at the same time. They are cohorts of each other. An increasing proportion come from outside the town, mostly from England. They are often relatively affluent retired professionals or professionals who still have some skin in the game. Of course I can't blame retired or semi-retired people for wanting to make things better, even if I don't want to be helped across their road. I would imagine that there's a blend of wanting to put something back into the world, socialising with your cohorts and possibly seeing oneself as a kind of elder, someone whom the people in the community respect, nod to on the high street and talk about respectfully.
Then we have elected representatives from 'The Council' who frequently come in over the top and tell these groups what they can and cannot have. I practice this means that decisions are made outside of local 'democratic' structures and imposed upon the community. There would appear to be very little in the way of questioning, demanding or holding these officials to account, which is what I would expect from a democratic balance of power between community and 'public servant'. With one caveat on the holding to account - the people keep voting these officials back into office. I've yet to work out why this happens. It's like asking to be beaten up and robbed every few years.
The small groups (actually group because they're largely the same people) therefore slow things down or block things. By things I mean progressive ideas around local democracy, the arts, creative placemaking, cultural development or any events and proposals that might get in the way of their agendas, personal or collective, how they believe the town is or should be. The inertia and blocking are often be done unwittingly, though this doesn't lessen the blow. These behaviours are akin to a habit, more specifically a habitus (Pierre Bourdieu), the norms, values, attitudes, and behaviours of a particular social group or social class.
I read a lot about this kind of thing. This is a double edged sword. I would consider myself to be an anarchist with a small 'a'. In practical terms this means that in small communities like mine I want to see horizontal structures of governance as opposed to top-down models. To be fair to people I don't believe the movers and shakers in my small town realise that they don't actually live in a democracy, so how on earth should I expect that they'd be able to avoid blindly replicating the structures they see in 'big' government and swallowing the prevailing right-wing media narratives? It's all the more problematic in that I've observed excellent practice elsewhere, in fact not far at all from where I live, in a region with many similarities to my own. This excellent practice came about over more than a decade because of a very few individuals with a shared vision, which gradually evolved into a complex and nuanced approach to placemaking.
Living as I do in a socially conservative town, probably at the extreme end of the scale, I can't expect to easily find people who believe in social progress at the grass roots level of community development and who are prepared to take action. It doesn't help that I've just finished The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow. The book covers a lot of ground but the main thrust is that for thousands upon thousands of years human communities have experimented with social organisation, adopting this, rejecting that, going back and fore or moving on to something new. The idea that we are somehow at the end point of a qualitative evolutionary trajectory with respect to democracy, equality, representative decision-making and so forth is not backed up by the archeological and anthropological evidence.