Thomas Darby on an arts and literary project based in Lincoln, England
Brayford Island, or Swan Island, situated in the Brayford Pool in Lincoln has an elusive history. Much of what is known has come from limited official ledgers, Ordnance Surveys and newspaper articles. There are etchings and illustrations going back to the 17th Century showing lush overhanging vines from several blossoming trees which herald an opulence. There are reports of swan breeding and bludgeoning for dynastic dining delicacies.
As industries changed, the Brayford Pool moved from a thriving trading port into a bereft area of Lincoln. It fell into disrepair, often flooding, seldom dredged. Boats left to sink and rot in the silt. Debris. Rats. It became known as the ‘Big Stink’. Then around 1966 a photo surfaced showing a new, smaller island where the previous one stood. A single willow tree now rooted in the centre.
Since then, rumours have abounded. Aided in no small part by the local press using the island as a focus point for April 1st stories. Was the island older than previously thought? Did it date back to Medieval, Roman times even? What lies beneath? Buried treasure? Is it home to the Lincoln Imp? The island has a beacon for local rumours.
Fast forward to today and enter Lincoln Art Programme, an organisation that have been bringing performance art to the area since 2009. Often beginning with a geographical or historical interest of a site, and then inviting artists to respond; their project ‘Red Herrings and Chinese Whispers’ centered around this island of conjecture.
Artists Benedicte Clemensen, Tim Etchells, Blue Firth, Ian Giles, Kurt Johannessen responded in various ways. In no particular order - durational performances, an interactive swan pedalo, a ceremonial pottery procession, neon sculpture. All reflecting the history or adding to the myths surrounding the area.
I was asked to contribute as writer-in-residence. I was given two roles: to have an online presence before the weekend of events in May, and to give a workshop. The first took the format of a blog. I researched the wealth of language that existed already about, of, or from the Brayford area - various sources such as newspapers, online stories, local history books, council planning documents, transcribed YouTube clips, stories told to me, etc - collecting data from which to parse through. I dredged any debris of language like flotsam from the Brayford Pool that had been left for others to collect.
After collating and categorising this data I found that most were either reports of acts done by people, or concerned the legal holdings and proposals of the surrounding buildings. ‘Deeds’ became the title.
It then became about parsing this information into smaller concentrated chunks, Twitter feed length. Short sharp details, like brushstrokes of colour on a painting. Sometimes not changing the words, merely moving them around. Repositioning existing meaning in an attempt to mythologise real events. My literary influences were Felix Feneon and Ara Shirinyan. The fiction being not what’s being shown, but how it’s being shown. A flattening of time and cultural hierarchy, to give a broad disparate impression of the area. Something to add to the flotsam about the Brayford Island myths.
Ligneous husks emerged as the Pool was drained.
A child, clothed in white, with a crown of gold on his head circled the quay. By means alone of the breath from his mouth, bells rang out across the water.
A spacious lake forming on its shores a commodious quay; a scene more beautiful and sublime than might be expected in the neighbourhood.
A body was spotted lying face up and motionless in the centre of Brayford Island. The surrounding swans were reportedly nonplussed. In the morning the visitor had disappeared leaving only speculation.
The complex is designed to create an area of close activity; ensuring that all activities are inter-related, yet at the same time carrying on a separate activity.
The diet changed from salt carcasses to fresh meat.
Wildlife crime officer Nick Willey wrongly thought it unbelievable that with nail-embedded sticks children and men could batter a swan, drag it into a van and drive off.
The willow tree wept as butterflies spiralled among the overhung branches like sighs in the wind.
To find out more visit the Lincoln Art Programme website here.
Photographs of Brayford Island by Julian Hughes. Photographs of Thomas Darby by James E Smith.
Thomas Darby is a writer, filmmaker and visual artist. www.thomasdarby.co.uk