Absence - Reflections - Andrew

Making Absence:
Mythos and Logos in the creation of a site-specific performance piece

We all know by now that people make pretty poor witnesses. In one test after another they have been shown to distort the facts, invent evidence and forget salient events.
[See, for example, Hugo M√ľnsterberg, On the Witness Stand and Michael Toglia et al. The Handbook of Eyewitness Psychology: Volume I: Memory for Events].

We can’t know, but we can guess that they do it in order to suit their expectations/ tell a coherent story/ please the person interviewing them/ make sense of what happened… or for some combination of all these reasons.
[See, for example, Larry Prusak's review of Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan:
Taleb feels, as do several behavioral economists whom he favors, that humans naturally distort facts through their natural love of narrative. They can't help but make up causal stories to explain the sheer randomness of things. This, in turn, trips them up when they try to understand things and also gives rise to all those who make a good to great living offering just such explanations.”
For sources and the fuller story see Inside Project Red Stripe.]
At least those are some of the reasons we might suppose in a post-Freudian, ‘psychologically-minded’ age. In another place and at another time the gap between what happened and what is recalled might be attributed to poor memory (pure and simple), to malicious spirits, to the ‘distorting eye’ of the beholder, to multiple possibilities in multiple interlocking perceptual worlds, or a dozen other culprits.

Historians are no exception. Primary sources are infinitely to be preferred to Plutarch or The Venerable Bede, who were writing down oral histories that had been transmitted sometimes for generations. But, as we already know, primary sources are unreliable too.

What surprised me as I helped Sandra Reeve to prepare for her performance, Absence, at Stanton St, Gabriel in July 2010 was quite how quickly and compulsively we find ourselves filling in the gaps in our already scanty knowledge.

Armed with all the local history I could easily assemble about Stanton St. Gabriel (which lies at the western foot of Golden Cap, on the West Dorset coast) I came to the deserted chapel that lies at its heart with renewed interest. Having lived within a couple of miles of the place for over twenty years, I already knew that this was a deserted village and that the chapel had been abandoned when the populace moved inland to Morcombelake (where a new church was built in the 19th century).

I had now learnt more: St Gabriel’s (as it’s universally known) had been quite a place. The old coach road from London to Exeter had run through it as, most probably, had the Roman Road before it. It had also featured in Domesday Book and in a bequest of Henry III’s sister (Queen Joan of Scotland). It had been a fishing village, a smuggling centre and a cornerstone of Bridport’s hemp and flax industries. Around its village green had huddled a cluster of houses, probably a mill, the manor farm and some twenty to thirty families at different times from 1086 onwards.
[In 1650 twenty-three families were living around the green”, according to National Trust Dorset, where a picture of a field for generations called Home Cowleaze (a cow pasture) is labelled ‘the green’.

In the Dorset Coast Historic Environment Research Framework, Stanton St. Gabriel appears as “the deserted village of Stanton St Gabriel”.]
Examining the landscape I could soon see where the now disused track comes down the flank of Golden Cap, past the chapel and on to the old farmhouse. In my mind’s eye there rapidly appeared carriages and stage coaches careering down the road in clouds of dust. Haywains, mail coaches, post-chaises, district judges and hanging judges, admirals en route to Plymouth, lovers eloping, King Charles escaping, messengers hurrying… all laboured up the hill or scuttled down it. Soon urchins came to mind clustered at the bottom of the hill looking out for the next new arrival, villagers offering food, drink, accommodation or relief from the discomforts of the journey, dogs barking and chickens scattering as the coaches approached. There must have been an inn, at least. The innkeeper appeared at the door. Then, with the thought of the mill came the idea of a millpond, ducks and geese. Stables. A wheelwright and a blacksmith. By the chapel I looked, as many others have done, to see where the graveyard could have been – there is nowhere completely obvious. No tell-tale mounds or fallen headstones. But before long I developed a sense of where they might have lain their dead.

Then, further back, I found myself watching the chapel being built, mortar supplied from a nearby limekiln. Before that, Domesday Book, the clearing of the wild wood, Viking raids on nearby Charmouth, the tramp of Roman centurions en route to the great port at Axmouth. Feeling myself into this landscape I became, within a few weeks, quite embedded in it. Besotted by learning field names, the routes of old tracks, the original line of hedgerows.

Coming again to the nineteenth century, I sensed the overnight quiet, the sudden silence as the traffic of centuries was finally re-routed inland. I could imagine the villagers waiting for a few weeks, months, perhaps a year or two. Then, led by the impatient young, packing their things and moving the mile and a half inland, their possessions on broken wagons, to restart their lives by the new turnpike road.

[“The old coach road from Dorchester to Exeter used to run through the village [of Stanton St Gabriel] but by 1824 traffic was using the new turnpike road to the north through Chideock and Morcombelake.”  - Linda Viner, Lost Villages

“The old coaching road used to run along the coast through Stanton St. Gabriel and on towards Charmouth, and the village drew most of its wealth from the passing traffic. When a new road was built, due to the old route falling into the sea, it was one and a half miles further inland. The population of Stanton St. Gabriel declined and the village died.” [Nigel Clarke, West Dorset and East Devon Walks.]

Walking almost daily across the fields, I looked for sweet chestnut trees (a sign of Roman settlement) scanned the hillsides for glimpses over the dry summer of older tracks, buried walls, apple trees suggesting forgotten houses. I felt drawn further and further into this landscape. After 23 years I had found my place in it and it had come alive for me as I peeled back layers of turf and toil and history. I could sit for an hour in wonderment and tears, bewitched by the intensity of the lives that lived themselves out before me in and around this abandoned village.

So, from the little history I had found and read, from a little logos, I with my refined genius loci, my half life spent in these valleys, my empathy on stalks had been able to weave a tapestry that I knew in my bones was real. The particular hens and horses I could see on the hillside might have been a putting together of the ghosts of hundreds of horses and thousands of hens that had paced and clucked over it. But they were real enough. Most particularly the coaches tearing down from the saddle of Langdon Hill – those were more vivid than the distant rumble of today’s A35.

The mythos I had woven from a little logos was rich and sure and I passed it on delightedly to Sandra.

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Then one day as I walked up the stream behind the chapel it became obvious to me that this must have been the old track. Not the one sweeping expansively down the hillside. A search through the oldest maps I could find showed this to be correct. And yes, the farm track to St Gabriel’s had fallen into disuse in the early 19th century. But as far back as I could tell, 200 years earlier, the main road had always been a mile and a half to the north. More research. Indeed, the coach road and the Roman road had never passed through St Gabriel’s.

More research. Census records. Parish records. The Tudor rolls. Domesday in detail. Gulp. The records all seemed to relate to the parish of Stanton St Gabriel, spread then as now over a thousand acres. It made sense. The 102 residents of Stanton St Gabriel in the 1842 census roughly equated to the twenty-three families reported in 1653 – it was simply that they lived then, as now, in the dozen or more farmsteads scattered across the parish rather than in a ‘village’. There had never been a village at St Gabriel’s. Just the two houses still standing and maybe two or three more. There had been no fishing. No passing coaches, judges, admirals or gentry. No village green or village pond. No inn. The chapel had not been licensed for christenings or burials. No graveyard.

The mythos I had woven from a little logos had been the product of my own imaginings. And, indeed, the logos I had drawn on had been already through the same process. Those writing before me had clearly had the same struggle. A chapel is a little church. A church has a churchyard. A churchyard has gravestones and burial mounds. A settlement in Domesday Book is a village. A village has a green and a cluster of houses. A village that is no longer there must have been abandoned. It must have been abandoned for a reason. A track fell into disuse. It must have been a road whose disappearance spelled the end for all the villagers.

The mythos I had woven from a little logos was rootless fantasy and I passed on the news urgently and a little desperately to Sandra and Eleanor, who had come with her violin to prepare for the performance.

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So they began properly to work in and on the site. Moving there every day. Walking to the chapel most days. El playing there when she visited. What could they make of this muddle. The theme of absence had already been identified and settled on. Absence had, at first, referred to the village and its inhabitants. Now, I ruefully suggested, it could perhaps be used to refer to the absence of evidence for any such thing. But how to make a performance about bad history?

I watched with some concern, visited the site when I could and, slowly before me there began to emerge a new cast of characters. A young woman just married emerging from the chapel: yes, there was evidence of that. A young woman with a baby: yes, there was evidence of that. A furze-carrier, a smuggler using the disused chapel to hide brandy from the passing excisemen. Evidenced again.
[“For a considerable time a successful gang of free-traders, under the leadership of a man called the 'Colonel', operated along the coast from Seatown to Charmouth. Their chief landing ground was St. Gabriel's Mouth. Much of the contraband was delivered locally and the Church Tower was used as a hiding place in an emergency.” - RogerGuttridge, Dorset Smugglers.



This evidence seems slightly flawed by the fact that St Gabriel’s chapel never had a tower, but is borne out by court and personal records.



Furthermore, in 1903, at the age of 94, Digory Gordge was interviewed in the South Wales Evening Post. Digory was the last in a line of Digory Gordges (we have written records of eight of them) who had lived in the parish of Stanton St Gabriel since the Civil War and had been involved in the smuggling business. He told how, as a boy, he smuggled tubs of French brandy and once hid with his brother in the local church and heard the preventive men shouting ‘Where be they? Which way be they gone?”



And we know how reliable personal testimony is compared to secondary and tertiary sources!]
A corbel face in the old church wall, a buzzard hovering almost motionless over the ridge, a child tumbling, an old woman laying down her burden and breathing her last breath. The corbel and the buzzard I had seen with my own eyes.

Steadily and surely Sandra uncovered these types and helped them to emerge from their landscape, like a classic sculptor whittling away the stone to reveal the figure that it already contains. “Is this yet another imposition of pseudo-history onto place in the name of site-specific performance?” I asked Phil Smith later. “No”, he said. “The characters were given no psychology, no life history. They seemed ephemeral provocations rather than impositions or instructions or directions.” 
[Part of Smith’s work, as witnessed in Mythogeography: The Art of Walking Sideways has been to challenge and resist the monocular meaning imposed on certain spaces and sites by the hegemony of local history, the heritage industry or the tourist trade. In the process of helping prepare for Absence I was reminded repeatedly of his observations on the subject and his “counter-tourist” Crab Walks.]
Exactly so. Wandering through the performance, following the lines of sight and sound that movement and music allowed, I was moved to tears of loss and elation by a swagger, a stagger and the suggestion of possible joy. Absence is a ripe fruit.

Andrew Carey, September 2010