You could be forgiven for thinking the title of this blog post refers to my long absence from this site, but in fact I am excited to announce that it is the title of my new chapbook published by Sampson Low with photographs by Alban Low and myself(ISBN 978-1-912960-21-7). See above.
It all started last Christmas.
I spent last Christmas Day in the workhouse. Because I was fortunate enough not to be born in Victorian England, this was by choice and not necessity. The workhouse in question was the Guildford ‘Spike’, now opened to visitors as a heritage centre. The ‘Spike’, named after the spike used by the inmates to pick oakum, was the ‘Casuals’ ward’ for ‘vagrants’ added in 1905 to the Guildford Union Workhouse, built in 1838. This was a special opportunity to visit the ‘Spike’ on Christmas Day to see what it would have been like to spend Christmas as an inmate. It was a fascinating and remarkable opportunity that made a significant impact on me and the other visitors.
I remember not too many years ago watching a TV version of ‘A Christmas Carol’ and feeling my usual sense of 21st century complacency at the horrors of poverty, homelessness and workhouse labour described by Dickens. And yet in recent years I have felt not a remote horror but an all too present sense of familiarity and recognition, as all of our towns, cities and countryside have experienced a massive growth in homelessness and desperate poverty. It would have been hard to credit, only a few years ago, that my visit to the Guildford Spike would be accompanied by a discussion of whether workhouses – or a version of them – should be brought back. But so it was. These social evils, along with the political manipulations, prejudices and scapegoating we foolishly thought were long vanquished, have indeed returned to us. The majority of us felt that re-opening workhouses was not an appropriate solution but the very fact that we could discuss at all was sobering.
The aspect of the Guildford Spike that most resonated with me was its focus on the itinerant poor, also known as vagrants or wandering casual labourers. Much of the fear and mistrust created by the presence of these itinerants is mirrored in some of the negative media coverage today of refugees and immigration. Fear and suspicion of the outsider has ancient roots. All too often the outsider is seen as the enemy or a threat to be warded off with charms and magic marks. However, sometimes the outsider is seen as providing a potential blessing, an angel or a god in disguise to be wooed by a similar set of charms and magic signs. Marks and signs can also be an important way of demarcating boundaries, ownership and identifying members of the clan or community. However they might also have a more secret use, as I discovered.
The highlight of my visit to the Guildford Spike was the information I learned about the use of chalk marks made by itinerant labourers or wandering vagrants to communicate with each other in a secret code. There were chalk marks for danger, for fierce dogs, for good luck and for where food might be in generous supply. These marks would be left on a wall, or a door, or beneath a hedge for the next traveller to find. Not dissimilar to this secret code of chalk marks is what has become known as ‘thieves’ code’, which housethieves are reputed to use to identify and target certain houses (however many of these supposed ‘thieves’ marks’ have been subsequently claimed by utilities companies as communications about phone lines, gas and electricity supplies, a different kind of thievery altogether!) Scratched lines and markings have been discovered on the door lintels, chimneys and windows of old houses, barns and caves, ‘apotropaic’ marks or ‘witches’ marks’ to ward off demons and curses. Indeed, the more I investigated the use of chalk markings, the more it seemed I was surrounded by a world of marks, signs and symbols.
From this obsession was born first a performance, creating a set of chalk marks which I found particularly resonant, then an interest in taking these marks out into the street: allowing them to mingle with, and hide amongst, the multitude of everyday signs, marks and symbols with which we are surrounded. Finally, the poems arrived in this chapbook, an appropriate form for a series of poems that started out as an interest in itinerants, such as the itinerant pedlars or chapmen who were the original purveyors of these little books. The poems comprise words, marks and photographs that explore our relationship with, and responsibility for, a world of marks – including the marks of our written language – and how technology has in some ways detached us from our marks and in other ways, returned them to us through new forms and media.
There will be more information about various launch events to follow on this site but if you would like to purchase a copy immediately, you can purchase it from Sampson Low – https://sampsonlow.co/2019/08/11/i-return-to-you-susie-campbell/ or directly from me via Paypal (just message me on twitter https://twitter.com/susiecampbell)