Chorlton Meadows Dream: A Photography Project Thursday January 26, 2012

Wandering is the way we discover the world

- Kathryn Schulz, Being Wrong

What is truth? says Pilate,
Waits for no answer;
Double your stakes, says the clock
To the ageing dancer;
Double the guard, says Authority,
Treble the bars;
Holes in the sky, says the child
Scanning the stars.

- Louis MacNeice

Space has a spiritual equivalent and can heal what is divided and burdensome in us

- Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace Of Open Spaces

This article shows the intellectual intentions underlying my photographic project, based on the area of Manchester called Chorlton Meadows. It’s part of the reclaimed space running beside the River Mersey which includes water parks at Sale and Chorlton, woodland, and open fields. After a few years strolling around these places, and at one time I used to jog around Chorlton Water Park, I found I liked the Meadows best. At the heart of it there’s a nature reserve called Chorlton Ees which has a large grassland area, woodland, ponds, and designated paths. There are one or two kestrels here, which I’ve seen, and a kingfisher which I have not.

My interest in Chorlton Meadows started in early autumn 2011 when I noticed a display of flowers beside a muddy path. I realised autumn, like spring, has its season of flowers and its particular interest; its pleasures are not only that of russets and golds. So I returned, again and again, and noticed how the Meadows are constantly changing. I enjoyed the flowers, and then I found a large clump of daisies which were also in bloom only for two or three weeks. Now the grassy area is brown and wintry but still textured and interesting, and I know where these places are and where the flowers will be again in season as will spring flowers and then summer foliage.

Chorlton Meadows has become a meditative place for me, a place of walking and dreaming away from the horrors of the city. In a famous letter written by conservationist Wallace Stegner, you find this evocative sentence:

We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.

Chorlton Meadows is hardly wild. But even Scotland and the Pyrenees have been mapped, walked and tamed with, for example, bothies in the former and well used huts in the latter. Few places on earth can be called wild. But this doesn’t matter if it’s ‘wildness’ you find feeling wind in your hair, sun in your face, and the rhythms of nature as you walk. My walking usually takes an hour or hour and a half, not by plan but by inclination. I wander. I notice. I dream. Here are the pretty autumnal flowers, with a pleasant deadpan aesthetic which is but one mood of Chorlton Meadows:

I found myself pining for the Meadows if I hadn’t been there for perhaps a week. This was a little odd because they are not far removed from being a manicured park which, while pleasant, evokes little of the ‘wild’ which is what I enjoy. In the early days, I used to pine for the Lake District when I was still exploring the place. That was the most pleasurable walking phase I’ve ever had. Scotland is magnificent, the Pyrenees take you to even greater depths of scale, pleasure, and experience. But the Lakes, less than two hours from Manchester, were my biggest walking project as I went back there repeatedly, year after year, and got to know their geography, seasons, and paths. It’s an exceptionally beautiful place, and it’s a delightful experience when you discover it for the first time. But each of these places – Scotland, the Lakes, the Pyrenees Wales or the Alps – entails a significant effort in regard to travel, time, and challenge. Chorlton Meadows is like a backyard but when I found myself pining for a walk which I drive to in ten minutes – I realised there’s a particular interest in such backyard, local, urban escape places. The pining is, effectively, a dream; you transport yourself imaginatively to that place and really, really, want to be there.

Psychoanalyst Charlotte Beradt’s book The Third Reich of Dreams (1968) documents how the dreams of Jewish patients did not arise from personal conflicts but from the social milieu of Hitler’s Third Reich. It was the basis for a practice known as social dreaming, whereby the group nature of the act is recognised. Jews were persecuted with propaganda, half-truths and lies in addition to the culminating violence, which caused demonstrable psychological damage. The material Beradt compiled had to be smuggled out of Germany in code, testimony to hidden collective trauma: external events polluted the psychic world of Jews, evident in their dreams. Jews were forced Jews to have dreams showing resistance was impossible and their safety lay only in compliance.

Struggling with his conscience while living in dehumanising conditions is also the predicament of George Orwell’s Winston Smith. Jews were conditioned into hopelessness; Smith pursues a private resistance for a while, but is then broken by the repressive psycho-political system. He cannot act independently or resist the pernicious forces around him; he is everyman in every totalitarian regime. Beradt’s book reveals a hidden side of the War where the subconscious mind was invaded by totalitarian fear as the Nazi project grew in fervour in the 1930′s. Germans were affected too, their souls violated and their minds controlled.

Beradt collected hundreds of dreams and referred to them as “diaries of the night” giving insight into inner worlds of fear and confusion as the identity of people was damaged. The Third Reich was a mental terror, a war on the human spirit, seeking to capture inner ground and change a national psyche into something evil. In one dream in the book, Hitler is effectively an animal trainer who cannot be opposed. In 1984 Winston Smith, sipping a Victory Gin with tears of gratitude in his eyes, reaches a similar conclusion about Big Brother. His journey entails a different route, but with the same capitulation when you are embedded in such conditions.

The opposite of this mental destruction is articulated in the worst possible conditions by Victor Frankl, in his Man’s Search For Meaning. Frankl was incarcerated in a Nazi concentration camp and discovered the key to surviving it was some project, some person, some hope of return to a normal human life of work, family, art, music, or love. Frankl noticed when this vanished, a man would literally lie down and die. Frankl’s own inspiration was a driving idea that he would document the horrific situation and tell the world what he’d discovered about it: which eventually became a method of psychological healing he called Logotherapy.

Social dreaming, based on Beradt’s work, is a psychological practice addressing collective dreaming and its social origins. W. Gordon Lawrence, associated with the Tavistock psychoanalytic centre in London, recognised the significance of Beradt’s book and strayed into an area of theory and practice more inherent in Jungian methodology than Freud’s and his successors but with, perhaps, a more grounded basis than the mythological and anthropological interests of Jung. At one level, social dreaming is group sharing similar to the custom of the Senoi tribe of Malaysia, who discuss dreams over breakfast and then report them to council meetings. Beradt documented dreams where Jews dreamed of death camps and German torture, before they had happened. Freud discovered how dreams express the material of the personal psyche, and how this can be used as a means of self understanding. Jung’s focus was more anthropological, recognising universal symbolism and what he described as archetypes as the basis for all cultures and people: and how this understanding is innate within people who in some respects are ‘primitive’ but in other respects have something to offer the modern world. Addressed in either Freudian or Jungian terms, it seems fairly clear dreams often have important psychological value as an expression of that which we may not be conscious.

Gordon Lawrence says:

The dream is always the enlarging the space of the possible. Through the dream we are brought into the tension between the finite (that which we know) and the infinite (that which is beyond our ken). In the context of social dreaming, I am persuaded that the terms ‘finite’ and ‘infinite’ be used instead of the terms ‘conscious’ and unconscious’. The infinite is a mental space that contains all that has ever been thought and is capable of being thought. This space is not ‘outside’ us but is contained in our inner worlds. All thinking begins from no-thought, from an absence, which we experience in our inner world. We make the thought present from first recognising that it is not there (Experiences In Social Dreaming: 2).

It is the tension between conscious dream and oppressive conditions of life which gives us the impetus to get up in the morning and try to build the former. We live on a spectrum of possibility where some people achieve great things in terms of wealth, security and love – all of them sources of meaning in some form or another – and others who do not, but carry the same desires for such things. The cult of celebrity is dream-like; Hello magazine provides images of beauty and success and ensuing social validation which most people would enjoy but few actually do. Kate Middleton and her Prince husband have been filling their pages ever since the wedding. She is beautiful and kindly (it seems), he is handsome and a decent chap (it seems) with, for example, army friendships little different from ordinary soldier camaraderie…so we are told. In this instance, the dreams are pernicious insofar as they distract from the social conditions the rest of us endure. David Cameron got in on the act when he said the wedding was an occasion we could all celebrate, to cheer us up in the middle of economic gloom. Cameron, I’ve recently read, is worth 30 million pounds. Neither Cameron, nor the Windsors, nor Middleton, nor executive bankers, are subject to the worldwide economic crash. Despite their smiling friendly faces, the lovely Kate and the scrubbed, cheek-glowing William like he’s just returned from polo – such people are not our friends and never will be. They live in a protected stratosphere as remote from us as the moon, which also looks lovely but which we will never visit. Rather than being friends, there’s reason to criticise what such people represent in social and political context.

In 2011 I walked the Five Sisters Of Kintail in Scotland, when London was like a theatrical backdrop for the Royal “I do”. I saw none of it. It was an exceptional April, and I enjoyed successive days of highland mountain sunshine. I walked the Cuillins of Skye, and the South Glen Shiel Ridge. I wandered the Glen Shiel valley another day, incapacitated with fatigue for anything higher after an appalling night when wind howled down from the peaks and battered my little tent like a heavy metal concert. At two or three in the morning I realised it wasn’t going to stop and retreated to the discomfort of my car but where I was, at least, protected with unflapping glass and steel. A few months later I left for the Pyrenees Mountains as the riots were taking hold in Britain. They erupted from the opposite end of the spectrum of dreams from people who perhaps felt, as they would say, the recent wedding was “taking the piss”. Or perhaps not and rather, Mancunian council estates were festooned with flags and royal photographs like they are decorated with Union Jacks when the theatre of football is uppermost. When you have less, you are more susceptible to manipulative dreams.

We all dream at night, and we all dream in the day. The latter is manipulated and corralled with a barrage of adverts and celebrity imagery; wanting the TV and the trainers was partly the motivation for the riots. The stories that go with wretched “celebrities” are so lucrative journalists felt it was worth the risk of hacking into telephones and e mails to get the scoop. Journalists were pushing the drug, but millions of people want it. Our dreams are summoned and provoked by politicians when they offer a great deal and deliver so little. The themes never change – health, education, crime, business – and nor does the failure. When we get tired of one party we vote in another, and the cycle starts all over again. I do not vote. This is supposed to be a failure of responsibility but I regard voting as an illusory process of capitulation: the system is the problem.

Dreaming is inherently associated with film. The dark hall, the illusory imagery, is a similar unreal experience. Perhaps the most beautiful moment of the film Shawshank Redemption is when Andy Dufresne plays opera over the prison camp speakers. It’s the Victor Frankl moment, when inmates are awakened to beauty and temporary freedom because such things exist, dream-like. In 1984 Winston Smith dreams of a world of grass, trees and lovely hills, and a time when such things were available. In this instance, the film has more impact than the novel when you are transported into such scenery with the character: from grey drab urban living into space, light, nature, skies, and colour. Imagery conveys it better, and it barely occurs in the book.

Chorlton Meadows Dream is an interpenetration of successive impressions, containing and expressing shifts of levels accordingly. In some respects, the area is more poignant than the Pyrenees and Scotland because it exists adjacent to urban conditions. Like a novel or a map, the photographs have cognitive layers. Novels express that which is multisensory and multilevel; photographs can do this too. A book is not just words but a world of imaginary experience. According to Vladimir Nabokov the medium of thought is not primarily linguistic: “We think not in words but in shadows of words.” These shadows of words have an imagery component alongside sense and feeling. When I look at people walking in Chorlton Meadows I “think” of our existential condition in terms of relationship to nature and the universe, and dream that this is harmonious and peaceful and always there.

When Manchester sleeps we inhabit the dream region but without apprehending each other. And yet as Beradt showed dreaming has a shared dimension, shaped by shared social conditions. Dreaming is both uniquely personal and collective.

Similarly, we all share the dream world foisted onto us with the pernicious assaults of advert culture. We are sold stuff, not on the basis of its qualities or utility but in terms of a defect in us which the product claims to remedy: we haven’t got a beautiful sexy girlfriend or hunky chunky husband but a fragrance, for he or she, will make that available. We are wage slaves troubled by basic bills but buying Hello magazine gives us a piece of the rich jet set; we borrow and inhabit their lives for the duration of an hour or so.

Karl Marx famously said religion is the opium of the people. That is, it occludes our critical faculties in regard to exploitative social conditions, and we live in terms of a false consciousness. This false consciousness extends beyond the fictitious fairy tales expressed in old books, written by simple minded desert people of many centuries ago. Politics is also a dream, where the voting system constantly offers much and constantly disappoints. What’s becoming increasingly apparent is how the cliche of party polemic is overshadowed by a political and economic elite who are not themselves subject to the repercussions of policy. In religion, the same exploitative point applies but with an added dimension of self delusion: priests pronounce and sermonise while they are not themselves “saved” because any fool can understand the simple point: a belief is not a fact. Pope Whoever-It-Is is in the same position, metaphysically speaking, as everyone else. He does not know what will happen when he dies and “faith” one way or another will make no difference, nor the status of his purple finery. The situation is even worse with the Mohammedans where the same fictitious process gets blended with a sanctioned historic reservoir of narcissism, intolerance, and violence: you can’t say anything critical about me or laugh at me because my ‘feelings’ trump yours. His fatwa, Salman Rushdie said very eloquently, was “an extreme form of literary criticism”.

We are sold images. We are manipulated, by images, in the form of brands, logos, lovely ladies and hunky dudes pretending to be musicians in so called music (when they don’t play, write, and sing badly), film (the actors are the big attraction), and even science: Stephen Hawking has been denounced by intellectual peers but his robot-professor image helps him to sell large numbers of books. Even Stephen Fry exemplifies this. I personally like him and he’s clearly very talented in diverse fields of expression, but he’s also the voice and actor for adverts: Stephen Fry is an image/brand which can be used in diverse ways.

Napoleon said the world is ruled by imagination. In Machiavelli’s The Prince, the effect of a ruler is said to rest on either fear or love both of which, in today’s world, are a PR product. Imagery has taken over the world facilitated first by television and now the internet. And the process cannot stop because we all need to dream: we need some form of philosophy by which to live, using the term ‘philosophy’ in its most extreme liberal sense whereby Asda bargain prices, or wondering about Coronation Street, provides shape and meaning to life. I refer to this very gently, with personal knowledge of kindly people whose lives are thus. It is society which makes it thus, which traces back to the sources of such nonsense as drugs do to pushers.

Chorlton Meadows Dream is a set of images with a different kind of idea. It’s essentially a question of space, within the density of an ugly city. Politically, space can be questioned and reformulated. Parkour runners use city concrete for athletic activities. So called flash mobs and classical music played suddenly and unexpectedly in public spaces – both facilitated and documented with the internet – change the dramaturgical rules of the street. Cities are psychogeographic, as well as obviously geographic.

I shop at Sainsburys in Fallowfield several times a week. I’m familiar with many of the staff and a few customers I repeatedly see, one of them a lady who seems to go there every day between about six and eight for the price reductions which I also check. A few years ago I was working on a photographic commission and wanted some shots of apples. I spoke to two managers asking for their permission. The first was indignant, stumbling to find a coherent reason to object to it and coming up with “I’ve never heard anything like it”. I went back again to find and speak to another manager who said yeah, sure, and practically waved me away barely thinking about it for just a few seconds. And in 2007 students turned Sainsbury’s into a dream space, a place of poetry for a minute or so:

Space, as Gretel Ehrlich suggests in The Solace Of Open Spaces, has a spiritual equivalent. It can heal what is divided and burdensome. For Carl Jung art, images and symbols were containers for psychic energies: our thoughts, feelings, and dreams. And the mandala for example, is effectively a spatial map. When everything ends in tears – I will die and so will you – it is space, and what it connotes, which is the solution. This phenomenology of space is most clearly tasted in the mountains, evocative of eternity and existential solitude. Where we know so little, but discovering the lack is paradoxically pleasurable: because we are still here, supported by the universe.

The poet John Keats referred to ‘negative capability’ as the ability to perceive something more than any presupposition which human nature allows. It describes our capacity to reject the totalising constraints of a closed context, and to experience phenomena free from epistemological bounds. The image is not it, but spatial imagery represents it…“I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

The final scene of Shawshank Redemption shows Andy Dufresne on a vast beach under endless blue skies, beside crystalline water, joined by his friend Red. We don’t know if it’s a dream or if it actually happens, but he is spatially and geographically free after years of incarceration. In a little known Canadian film I Hear The Mermaids Singing the heroine, Polly, shows a friend the dream world of her photography depicted with a surreal vision of sunshine and green trees through a doorway, similar to the rural dream in (the film) 1984. These are entry points into an alternate freedom. At the end of Cinema Paradiso the main character returns to the lost dreams of childhood in the form of edited parts of film the local priest censored: the kiss, the cuddle, the flirtation; the slip of a dress in tame black and white movies.

The end of The Godfather shows a different aspect of a life-dream. Michael Corleone quietly dies in a manner suggesting his living has been worthless. The Godfather replays Shakespearean dramatic themes concerning power, ambition, corruption, family, and love. Michael becomes the most ruthless of all the mafia Dons when he sees his father shot, vulnerable, and possibly dying. “Do you want to wipe out everyone” he is later asked to which he replies “Just my enemies,” which is what he does in the pursuit of absolute power: but ending in an operatic quiet moment of ultimate failure. It’s all for nothing, you cannot protect those you love, power will always fade…and as you die…the dream vanishes with you. Michael Corleone’s end forms a symmetry to his life, with seconds of dying withdrawal denying all his action. But, while we live, we have to dream.

Finally, there’s an unbearably poignant moment in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go when Ruth and Kathy go to see a grounded boat. It’s just “this old fishing boat, with a little cabin for a couple of fishermen to squeeze into when it’s stormy.” Ruth really wants to see it.

“You’d like to see this boat, wouldn’t you Ruth?”

“I suppose so. I suppose I would…yeah, it’d be good to see something like that”

But why Ruth – why?

The little boat, beaten up, broken down, grounded, abandoned, trapped, symbolises lost home and nearby death but the still living need for home: we have to dream.

Chorlton Meadows

Lake District Photographs

Wales Photographs

Scotland Photographs

Alps Photographs

Pyrenees Photographs