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Of grit, and charm… Roy Claire Potter's 'The Wastes' and George Storm Fletcher's 'Heaven' review by Derek Horton


Roy Claire Potter is an artist and writer with a diverse body of work accumulated over the last fifteen or so years across the fields of performance, writing, audio, drawing, sculpture, and installation; often collaborating with musicians and sound artists in radio broadcast and live music events. They are also involved in artist-mentoring and higher education. George Storm Fletcher is a young performance artist working with text, printmaking, photography and video, whilst also continuing their postgraduate education. Both are artists who bring their own queer identities and perspectives to bear through their work in unique, thoughtful, and revealing ways, to reflect on, illuminate, and confront their (and our) experience of contemporary culture and everyday life.


I saw a screening of Fletcher’s new video work, Heaven, just days after finishing reading Potter’s newly published novel, The Wastes. The proximity of those impactful experiences of each of these two very different works cast, for me, a new light on the other; hence this reflection on the parallels and contrasts between them.



Book cover of The Wastes by Roy Claire Potter and Film still from Heaven by George Storm Fletcher

 

The grit referred to in my title is, in part, a figure of speech, as in ‘true grit’, signifying strength of character, courage, and tenacity. It is also, literally, the millstone grit that characterises both the Pennine landscapes central to Potter’s novel and the building material of Kirkstall Abbey and many of the walls and older buildings around Leeds that are the essential backdrop to the narrative of Fletcher’s film. In that sense at least, ‘grit’ is common to them both. Charm, however, is an adjective that might be more readily applied to Heaven and its predominant tone than to The Wastes. The text work that accompanies Heaven reads, MY LUCK WAS ABOUT TO CHANGE, celebrating the moment when a long and gruelling walk is ended by the welcome offer of a ride in a florist’s van. When luck changes for the protagonist of The Wastes, it is more often for the worst. The significance of a photograph of Vanessa Redgrave, a still from the film Wetherby that also graces the novel’s cover, eventually becomes apparent as the story unfolds. There is, the author describes, “a chaotic crisscross of misfortune” behind Redgrave’s eyes. Much of the actual and metaphorical journey of the novel might be described in the same way, but the story is recounted without self-pity, and this restraint magnifies the book’s impact.

 

Heaven engages playfully with the road movie genre, documenting a conversation-filled journey shared by the artist and their mother, Amanda, along Kirkstall Road from the centre of Leeds to the outlying village of Burley-in-Wharfedale. Through their dialogue, prompted by Amanda’s recollection of making the same journey as a teenager after a night out on which she missed the last bus home, mostly walking, hitchhiking unsuccessfully, until she was eventually picked up by the driver of the aforementioned florist’s van, filled with the heavenly scent of flowers. In its easy-going, conversational (and often very funny) way, the film reflects on memory and its frequent flaws, social and cultural histories, psychogeography, sexuality, ageing, and intimacy. This narrative, set in a particular moment of historical time, reminds us that the past often seems relatively stable compared with our ever-changing present. This is reflected in the dialogue (for example in fragmentary references to past pop music, or drinking culture, or fashion) but most importantly visually, in the presence of the streetscape and landscape that we see flashing past in an equally fragmented way through the windows of the van. Heaven illustrates well the way we seldom remember things in their entirety but in vivid flashes. The film compresses many such diverse flashes, many funny, others poignant, combining them in a way that creates a coherent narrative. The fact that these memories are recounted through the intimate conversation of an obviously loving familial relationship, on which we are generously allowed to eavesdrop, is what lends the film so much of its charm and sense of joy.


Film still from Heaven by George Storm Fletcher

 

Travel, sometimes walking, briefly on a bus, but mostly a journey on a miserable and unreliable commuter train across the Pennines from Liverpool to Hull, is also central to the narrative of The Wastes. The journeyings it recounts are both purposeful and aimless. It is a powerful novel of introspection and observation, revealing much about the underbelly of the landscapes and towns of northern England. It concerns survival, economically, culturally, and psychologically. From the multiple perspectives of class, financial hardship, gender identity, sexuality, embodiment, and mental health, and in the various contexts of strained family and other personal relationships, and the capitalist alienation of underpaid and stressful work, The Wastes is ultimately concerned with the self: shaping or defining it; losing and regaining a sense of it; locating it in relation to the selfhood of others. “Caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt”, wrote the Roman poet Horace two millennia ago –  “they change their sky, not their soul, who rush across the sea”, reminding us that wherever we go, we remain, in our embodied selves, where we are. Each in their own way, Potter and Fletcher use travel in their narratives to reflect on how we shape and understand our ‘selves’.


Roy Claire Potter. Photo © Ilaria Falli.


The philosopher and poet John Koethe wrote in his 1993 essay, Poetry and the Poetry of Experience, that, “what seems most characteristic of subjectivity isn’t the content of any particular state of awareness, but, rather, the transition from instant to instant between perspectives, from an awareness of the objects of thought to an awareness of thought itself, in an unbounded sequence of reflexive movements.” In the proliferating links and layers of a life story, recalled through an account of a single day’s journey, Potter creates a novel that embodies the complexity of subjective experience in a world that is recalcitrant to it, constructing connections in a way that conveys what Koethe calls “the experience of experience”. Fletcher’s real time film journey recounting the layers of memory and history associated with the earlier journey that it recalls does something similar.


 

Film stills from Heaven by George Storm Fletcher


Heaven recreates, as faithfully as it can, the sensations of and emotional responses to an actual event (or, more accurately, two events: the mother’s journey thirty years ago, and the shared journey made recently to recall it). Its method is a spontaneous conversation that, whilst entirely focused on specific recollections of the original event, reveals much more about a familial relationship and the intimacies of communication across generations. In contrast, The Wastes is a work of fiction, written over an extended period, and related solely from the perspective of its author. Its central event is a single train journey, but it encompasses a life story. Fiction and autobiography should not be confused, but most fiction draws at least indirectly on the lived experience of its author. Such experience, condensed, reprocessed, and seen anew through the lens of storytelling, often lends greater significance to everyday reality, imbuing emotional responses and momentary reactions to mundane experience with long-lasting relevance. Through the narrative language of a skilled writer (and Roy Claire Potter certainly is one) an empathy is enabled in readers that allows them to identify the experiences of fictional others with their own.


Film still of Vanessa Redgrave in 'Wetherby', dir. David Hare, 1985


In their focus on a single journey to tell a much bigger story of lives lived, both Potter’s The Wastes and Fletcher’s Heaven are related – not least in their capacity to make us think about the concept of ‘revision’. Their revision is not simply retrospective, narrating the past as if in a straight line; rather they both, in their different ways, repurpose their respective narratives to simultaneously look backward (re–vision) and forward (revising something toward new ends).

 

 

 

The Wastes by Roy Claire Potter is published as part of Arrhythmia, a series curated for Book Works by Katrina Palmer. ISBN: 978 1 912570 20 1

 

Heaven, made by George Storm Fletcher in collaboration with the filmmaker Ronnie Danaher, is included in their solo exhibition of the same name at Hyde Park Art Club, Leeds. ( 29 May 2024 - 28 August 2024)

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