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'Wooded Moonlight Landscape with Pool and Figure at the Door of a Cottage' by Thomas Gainsborough RA, about 1781, Museum no. P.33-1955

'Wooded Moonlight Landscape with Pool and Figure at the Door of a Cottage' by Thomas Gainsborough RA, about 1781, Museum no. P.33-1955, Bequeathed by Ernest E Cook, through the National Art Collections Fund

The Memory Maps project is about people and their relationship with place. It is about objects that are associated with particular areas as well as prints and paintings of named locations. But most importantly it is about writing about place. In recent years a new form of writing has emerged drawing on fiction, history, conversation and memoir. The project includes contributions in the genre from contemporary writers such as Iain Sinclair and Lisa Appignanesi and it also includes opportunities for visitors to share their own writing.

The Memory Maps project is a collaboration between Marina Warner, Professor of Creative Writing and her department at the University of Essex and the V&A. For this reason we have started by focusing on Essex.

Read more on University of Essex Memory Maps

What are Memory Maps?

'Oh, to whom can we then
turn in our need? Not to Angels or men,
and the knowing animals know
we are not very securely at home
in our interpreted world.'
Rainer Maria Rilke, The Duino Elegies, trans. Patrick Bridgwater (London: Menard Press, 1999)

A new genre of literature has been emerging strongly in recent years. It doesn't belong automatically on any particular shelf in a bookshop, or to a particular category in a library catalogue. Writers working in this vein are exploring people and places and the relations between them, and in order to do so they combine fiction, history, traveller's tales, autobiography, anecdote, aesthetics, antiquarianism, conversation, and memoir. Mapping memories involves listening in to other people's ghosts as well as your own. Dérive - the French for drift - characterizes this approach, rather than more purposeful terms like quest or research, though memory maps demand processes of investigation and endless curiosity and an impulse towards wonder. Memory mapping grows out of daydreaming, reverie, and the unbidden images that come up in the mind. This is writing as fugue, as enigma variations, as rapporteur of what Antonio Damasio has called 'the movie-in-the-brain', that is, the phantasmic flow of consciousness. A dériveur arrives at 'astonishment upon the terrain of familiarity,' writes Robert Macfarlane, and becomes 'more sensitive to the hidden histories and encrypted events of the city' - or the country.

Memory Maps is a joint venture between the Department of Literature, Film and Theatre Studies at the University of Essex and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Memory Maps is a website designed to inspire and foster work which will continue this approach to writing by providing focal points of interest - catalysts of thought - in the form of paintings and artifacts, alongside databases about people and places. It could also have been called after Proust's madeleine, the subtly flavoured biscuit he dipped in tea which, as if softened, set off a train of memories and meditations. Proust was revisiting a world he knew in the recent past, whereas Memory Maps spreads out in rings beyond the familiar and personal past into more distant time too, and charts, like an old portolan, unexamined coastlines, land masses, and possible harbours. This genre of literature, fusing so many modes of inquiry and imagination, has a political undertow - even a political purpose. A memory map involves individual creativity but it is also an essentially collaborative enterprise; writing and thinking along these lines engages with common issues of great urgency:

Identity and belonging
Ecology and stewardship

The two are inter-connected through memory and through the stories we use as compass bearings.

'Landscape with a double rainbow' by John Constable RA, 1812, Museum no. 328-1888

'Landscape with a double rainbow' by John Constable RA, 1812, Museum no. 328-1888, given by Isabel Constable

Memory Maps begins with Essex, and with images of its landscapes, seascapes, skyscapes, as well as its people and the things they made and make. This part of England offers a perfect point of departure for a journey that takes word and image together, for the skies, trees, ponds, rivers, and light of the county still reflect the vision of some of the country's greatest artists in spite of ecological, social and historical changes and damage.

Essex is one of the oldest inhabited parts of the British Isles, a landscape marked and shaped by human presence, history and activity, from the pastoral hinterland to the estuarian bustle, including light and heavy industry. Several of the artists who have lived and worked in the area have not confined their interest to natural beauty only: horse-trading, shipping, historical connections to trade and empire, craft industries and tailoring, as well as bridge-building, and car works, figure in their vision. Many of the art works come from the archive of Recording Britain, which Kenneth Clark commissioned in 1940 during World War Two, asking artists to make a portrait of the characteristic scenes in the country in case it all vanished in the destruction of the fighting.

'Terrington St John, near King's Lynn' by Barbara Jones, 1942, Museum no. E.1932-1949

'Terrington St John, near King's Lynn' by Barbara Jones, 1942, Museum no. E.1932-1949, given by the Pilgrim Trust

Essex is very strongly represented, because a tradition of  artistic community had grown up in Constable country.  Fine works by Edward Bawden, Michael Rothenstein, John Nash, Kenneth Rowntree, Barbara Jones, and many others who lived and worked in the county at one time or other have been digitized here. These range from a portrait by Gainsborough to a painting of a tattoo parlour in Southend, the Old Grand Theatre, Colchester, of an abandoned merry-go-round, a photographic portrait of Francis Bacon, a child's sampler, and an East India Company coffee pot, since coffee was first imported via the docks at Tilbury (like much else).

The participants

Memory Maps asked leading contemporary writers to begin the process:

  • Ronald Blythe, author of the classic study 'Akenfield', a book that in many ways inaugurated modern ecological awareness of changing conditions in the country, and most recently, 'A Writer's Day Book'.
  • Iain Sinclair , poet, film-maker, walker and wanderer, author of key works in this genre - 'Lights Out for the Territory', and 'London Orbital'.
  • Lisa Appignanesi, Canadian-born novelist ('Memory and Desire'), critic ('The Cabaret') , historian ('Freud's Women'),and campaigner, recently published a novel, 'Memory Man', and edited the collection 'Free Expression Is No Offence' for the writers' organization PEN. Her first job in England took her to the University of Essex in the early years of the Literature department.
  • Ken Worpole writer, walker, ecological activist, author of 'Here Comes The Sun' and 350 Miles.
  • Robert Macfarlane, writer on literature and ecology, author of 'Mountains of the Mind', which was awarded the Guardian First Book Award in 2005, and 'The Wild Places: A Wonder Voyage' (forthcoming, Granta Books).
  • Billy Bragg, song-writer and musician, 
  • Richard Humphreys, art historian and Curator: Programme Research, Tate Britain

From the University of Essex:

  • Adrian May, song-writer and poet
  • Philip Terry, poet and critic
  • Marina Warner, novelist, historian and critic
  •   Jules Pretty, ecologist and professor of Biology
  • Keith Brooke, novelist and webmaster for Essex University
  • Yvonne Coppard, writer and Royal Society of Literature Fellow
  • Elaine Jordan, poet, writer and critic
  • Angela Livingstone, poet, translator and critic

To come

  • Michèle Roberts, novelist and poet, recently published 'Reader, I Married Him', is professor of Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia.
  • Bernardine Evaristo, author of fictions in prose and verse, including 'The Emperor's Babe'  and  'Soul Tourists'
  • A.S.Byatt, author of the novel Possession among many others and of tales in such collections as 'Matisse and Other Stories'; 'The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye'; 'The Black Book'
  • Mark Haworth-Booth, author and former curator of photographs at the V&A
'Francis Bacon' by John Deakin, 1952, Museum no. PH.100-1984, © Conde Nast

'Francis Bacon' by John Deakin, 1952, Museum no. PH.100-1984, © Conde Nast

These writers have responded to different works and images in a range of media: drawings, watercolours, oil sketches and portraits, as well as embroideries and wall-paper, clothes, silverware and carvings.

They are now posted here to inspire you, visitors to the site, to start making your own memory maps. You are invited to respond and contribute, stitching new thoughts, dreams, history, and stories into the map.

Sometimes writings of this sort are caught under the term 'psychogeography', which has its own fascinating history, with affinities to Surrealism (André Breton's 'Nadja'; Louis Aragon's 'Le Paysan de Paris') and even closer links to the Situationists and their campaign to disrupt complacency and passive consumerism. Psychogeographers apply different constraints to create a random path through place, in order to open up hitherto concealed meanings and relations. However the form of writing it is chiefly seeking really belongs in an older, very English tradition, that of the personal, even eccentric essay, the wide-ranging, meditation, and the anecdotal almanac.The precursors of Memory Maps include Robert Burton and 'The Anatomy of Melancholy'; John Aubrey and 'Brief Lives'; Sir Thomas Browne who investigated local beliefs and rituals, ancient and modern; Samuel Taylor Coleridge, most aleatory of English conversationalists on paper and in person; Thomas De Quincey, who forged a new kind of impassioned personal testamentary essay; and others: this is another zone of exploration.

These earlier writers in the genre contributed to a definition of belonging, and an idea of Englishness in their time by inquiring into local customs and opinions, and eavesdropping on local anecdotes. Likewise in the Scottish Highlands, at the end of the seventeenth century, the minister Robert Kirk was equally keen to convey the special character of his parishioners' beliefs in 'the secret common-wealth of fairies', as he called his book of collected lore. Today, in a country braided from different peoples, cultures, and systems of thought, inquiry of this kind can draw out even more richly coloured and densely tangled strands: the docks at Tilbury for example famously saw the fleet set sail against the Armada, but they also received the first imports of coffee - the drink that changed social encounters all over Europe. The writer Bernardine Evaristo explores the richly woven patterns of migration in the past that have been so often unremembered - and effaced from the official record. In the short story 'Snow', her protagonist is collecting photographs of Nigerians landing at Tilbury in the Fifties.

The work of mapping involves above all remapping; it beckons us to entertain different, new concepts of the past and work out how they refashion the present.

Memory Maps will unfold stories from which a deeper and transformed sense of what it means to live in this country will arise. Discovering the common ground does not entail mothballing the past or Little England prejudices against change (there is more to Essex than Essex Man and Essex Girls!) . The interests of Memory Maps intersect with those of ecologists and conservationists, as well as with the work of local historians, such as contributors to the ongoing monumental Victoria County History. In his fine study, 'Postwar: Europe since 1945', the historian Tony Judt discusses the uses of memory, and argues passionately for finding new ways of telling the past, not to shrug off guilt and overlook horror, but also not to let them fill the horizon end to end. As Seamus Heaney wrote, in a different context, 'it is not, the grudge but the grief, that matters'. There is no reason to repeat the past, in more ways than one.

'Dedham Vale' by John Constable RA, 1802, Museum no. 124-1888

'Dedham Vale' by John Constable RA, 1802, Museum no. 124-1888, given by Isabel Constable

The writings here take off from the paintings and drawing and objects of the past to refashion it according to the needs and pressures of the present. We all simply need to know more about where we have come from, how we reached here, and what we can do to live this time more vividly and more fully in relation to one another. Mapping memories doesn't necessarily entail nostalgia or regret. The mind builds interpretations from the raw materials it encounters as it drifts, and the patterns it uncovers can be newly created, vigorous and alive, not reflective or twilit. When Constable was painting the landscape nobody before him had seen the lie of the land in that way. Now, everybody does: his Dedham has become an icon of England, and is even threatened with becoming a theme park. Since Constable's vision of the Vale, everything has changed - social relations, agricultural labour, as well as the trees themselves, since the elms have died. Yet at the same time, there are whispers from the past, setting up answering echoes.

When Iain Sinclair retraces the poet John Clare's escape from the asylum in in The Edge of the Orison (2005), he isn't making reproduction furniture from his predecessor's experiences: he sees the landscape and its inhabitants afresh, in the differently baleful light of twenty-first century. This is why Billy Bragg's classic song about the A13 has been included, and comes accompanied by a piece he has written about the Essex of his childhood.

A major inspiration on this project, and supreme master of the dérive, is the German-born author W.G. Sebald (d.2001) , who in his unclassifiable books 'The Emigrants' and 'The Rings of Saturn' wanders through landscapes of reality (including the coast of Essex) to create landscapes of the mind. Exploring places and setting them in time uncovers a thousand untold stories, a host of undiscovered or forgotten people, as Sebald's walks along the east coast reveal. In 'The Rings of Saturn' the narrative expands outwards, looping in stories of the Emperor and Empress of China, the Alps and the Romantic literature of Germany; Sebald likes mazes and his books hand one a ball of thread, like the clew Ariadne gave Theseus to guide him through the labyrinth - except that Sebald's labyrinth is one he invented himself and it keeps shape-shifting. This is how Memory Maps can unfurl differently in each person's mind. Sebald's enigmatic stories disorient readers as to what is true and what is invented, for mapping is about getting lost as well as finding one's way home. Or you could say it is about making a home elsewhere through the mind's drift. I heard of a fisherman who had gone blind but could still communicate every inlet, promontory, reef and buoy to an incomer of the coast where he had sailed every day.

But the internet presents us with a contradiction: on the hand it gives us infinite connectivity - to anyone anywhere and to anything. But in this first decade of the cybermillennium, we might as well be playing air guitar or air kissing when we make those connections: they are disembodied, ethereal, taking place only through digitized words and pictures on a screen. Memory Maps tries to resist this dematerialized condition of experience by using the web to communicate experiences grounded close to home: places of belonging.

'Evening View of Sudbury from the South-west' by Rowland Suddaby, 1940, Museum no. E.1420-1949

'Evening View of Sudbury from the South-west' by Rowland Suddaby, 1940, Museum no. E.1420-1949, given by the Pilgrim Trust

Intimate, tactile, first-hand understanding, when translated by the attention required to make a drawing or a painting or write a story, builds connections , and it is through such knowledge that a sense of stewardship emerges. There is nothing like knowing a stream or a field or a street or a rock to help stop neglect or worse: noticing is the first step to forestalling damage, and to resisting destruction. An ecological pioneer like Rachel Carson heard the spring falling silent before most of us. Ronald Blythe, in  'Akenfield' and later works,  observes his nearest surroundings with absorbed attention to detail and its implications. Farther afield, in America, Annie Dillard, in her wonderful, intense books 'Pilgrim at Tinker Creek' (1975) and 'Teaching a Stone to Talk', took for her field of vision a single pond and created a 'meteorological journal of the mind' (in the phrase of Thoreau) an epic on a miniature scale from her vigils watching the seething life she found there.

As well as the land, the built environment needs scrying and deciphering to tell stories in its own, different way. The artist Richard Wentworth, for example, opens our eyes to the manifold quirks and manners of our everyday surroundings, regarding the stuff of which they are made: he organized a walk through King's Cross in London with a stonemason; this man can look at a kerbstone and give its date (from the second Ice age), its type (schist, granite, feldspar), and its provenance, the very place where it was quarried - Newcastle, Cumberland, the Pennines. These stones are talking: the ground opens up to distant upheavals of the earth's crust, and distant places brought side by side beneath our feet. The particular place spreads out as Common Ground, the phrase the ecological and art campaigners Sue Clifford and Angela King have established as their cause. Or, another way of putting this would be to light on a related word, 'commonplace': not the debased meaning of something banal, but the resonance of 'commonplace book', the book where vivid, loved quotations are collected and kept. A Memory Map likewise plants the common ground.

In Russian there is a word -'vesch' - which means 'thing' and it has no exact equivalent in English, but can be understood by contrast to another word, 'predmet', object. Because 'vesch' means a thing with soul, not quite a relic, not exactly a souvenir or memorabilia, but something infused with personality through its history and its personal meaning. A Russian artist like Ilya Kabakov lovingly places or replaces such objects - such 'veschi' - from his past in his installations. The critic Mikhail Epshtein commented: 'There is not a Thing - from a car to a button, from a book to a candy wrapper - that does not occupy a special place in culture, and bring culture within human reach. In doing this it demands from its owner a reciprocal attention and understanding. His own position in the world, the meaning of his existence, is determined by the totality of surrounding Things. A Thing fallen out of signification creates a break in the network of connections with others and oneself.'2 This is the significant phrase: things can hold together 'the network of connections with others and oneself'. In many ways, Memory Maps seeks to become a kind of installation- a work made of pictures and stories arising from memories of certain places and things and gathered from myriad sources. Pictures, paintings, artifacts such as fabrics and crockery, tools and instruments, toys and tapestries - from the Victoria and Albert's collections - will attract more images and objects from among you, visitors to the site.

Such local knowledge can have surprising side effects - I heard that in the Highlands recently, in the same county as Kirk collected his fairy lore, a developer bought a field and got planning permission. But he was prevented from clearing it and building when the locals objected to his moving a rock: it was an ancient fairy mound, they said, one of the entrances to the fairy underworld. None of them, when pressed, believed this, but the fantasy served its purpose very well.

'The ocean of stories' happens to be the title of one of the earliest books in the world - the ancient, Sanskrit collection of myths. In his book for children, 'Haroun and the Sea of Stories', Salman Rushdie imagines that this ocean - this collective inheritance - is being poisoned by the evil lord Khattam-Shud, whose name means 'Over and done with'; the book is deft, witty, and touching, prophetic not only about the dangers of tyranny and censorship, but also about the effects of globalization on culture and storytelling. At the end of this modern fairy tale, the sea of stories is saved and the tap of inspiration flowing from it re-opened, and all starts flowering again.

I think as well of Dante in the Earthly Paradise, when the lovely singing lady Matilda plunges him first into the waters of Lethe, forgetfulness, so that he can put sin and evil and unhappy things behind him, and then steeps him in the other river, Eunoe, whose waters will gives him memories of good things - but these are not always without sharpness or pain.

We are inviting you to contribute your own writings, photographs, and images, in response to the materials about Essex on the site. These will be selected for posting on the site, and the Memory Map will grow as you contribute.

The University of Essex will also teach a course on Memory Maps in their Creative Writing MA, starting in the Spring Term 2007.

Through this project, you can enrich and deepen connections between yourselves and your surroundings, uncover history that has been submerged, fantasies that have faded and lost their vigour, like old photographs detached from their names and circumstances. You - visitors to the site, students on the course - are invited to respond and contribute, stitching new thoughts, dreams, and history into the map.

As the Memory Maps grow, they will go on connecting different people and places across time and in the present. Such an exchange between images and writings, past and present, memory and imagination, releases energy: the energy of stories.

Now is the beginning of Memory Maps: you take it from here.

Copyright © Marina Warner

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