Andrew Black’s film Eternity Knocker is a film-portrait of Swaledale, a remote Yorkshire valley, exploring the art and writing of social historian Marie Hartley and her partners Ella Pontefract and Joan Ingillby. This is a conversation, the result of a series of exchanges between Andrew and Calum over the past year or so while Andrew was making the film. It can be understood as running parallel to the film and elaborating on its themes.
Calum: A film you have referred to a lot in our conversations is Patrick Keiller’s Robinson in Ruins (2010). Its focus on the power (imaginative or otherwise) of ‘marginal and hidden locations’ chimes with your interest in Kathleen Stewart’s A Space on the Side of the Road, a book about the Appalachian coal mining communities of the US. In the prologue she states, ‘the narrative space that I am calling here “a space on the side of the road” is the site of an opening or reopening into the story of America’ (Stewart, 1996, p.3). Do you feel that Eternity Knocker engages in this kind of corrective pursuit? Or else in some reframing of an argument around landscape, sociality and progress through a focus on the ‘marginal’?
Andrew: I don’t know if it’s a corrective pursuit as such—Swaledale (pronounced locally as ‘Swardil’ or even ‘Seeardil’) is fairly at home in a certain fantasy of green England which is the result of the ramification of certain narratives of the place. Swaledale is part of The Yorkshire Dales National Park and is a popular tourist spot so it isn’t exactly marginal per se either. It is understood as a site that needs to be conserved; conservation and conservatism intersect there.
The film actively ignores this picture of the dale and, instead, frames it as a working, even industrial landscape in order to draw out the cycles of decline that have allowed for its gentrification as a recreational spot. The collapse and immediate consigning to history of the lead-mining industry led it to be reimagined as a nostalgic place full of curiosity and unexpected detail, and its ‘rewilding’ has meant that it is now thought of as scenic. However, it is important to emphasise that there is no unmanaged wilderness there. The way it looks and feels has been created by various forms of labour.
Calum: Watching the film I was struck by its use of marking—drawing, writing, printmaking, earmarking, farming, mining—as a means of tracing human interactions with Swaledale. This encompasses physical changes that have occurred as a result of agriculture, industry and tourism, and how writing and recording has created the imaginaries you refer to. The writing discussed in the film, by three women—Marie Hartley, Ella Pontefract and Joan Ingillby—seems key to this literary effort. Can you tell me more about these women and their work as social historians?
Andrew: Well, they were among the first to construct a picture of the place and to write it into existence, through the voices of people who work there in the main industry, hill-farming, many of them descendants of lead miners. Marie Hartley and Ella Pontefract just sort of turned up in the Dales in the 1930s when the place was transitioning into an agricultural and leisure economy after the closing of the last mines around twenty years before. They recognised they could make a life there and engage deeply with the place through working, writing and art-making…
Unfortunately, Ella Pontefract died young in 1945, having suffered with depression and mental instability much of her life. Marie and Ella and later Joan and Marie worked by being in proximity to the lives they were recording—building lasting friendships and working on farms. Annie, Bob and John, who I interview in the film, were aware of them as children. Their parents were friends of Marie and Joan and featured in their books.
In an excellent unpublished paper,Helen Bainbridge, director of the Swaledale Museum, writes about their curiosity about, and faithfulness towards, individual people—instead of providing a general picture of a community. Helen links this to them being women historians, and I’d extend that to thinking about a queer picture of a community that does not have a fixed framework, that understands communities as chaotic mixes of irreconcilable individuals, and is committed to accepting and making space for difference rather than working towards similarity: a queer process of recording or imagining community that does not look for a trend or a unifying characteristic but follows meandering lines and does not settle, learns through being involved, is open to listening and learning.
Calum: Is this a queer film though? It’s certainly a response to a history preserved, recorded and constructed by a group of women who lived together as partners.
Andrew: I’m not sure! It’s quite conservative in the way it’s made and the way that it ‘works’. I foreground Marie, Ella and later Joan’s domestic relationship and partnerships as important to understanding their work as social historians but I wanted to find a way of allowing Ella, Marie and Joan some continued agency over their own legacy—to tell their story how they might have told it.
I don’t want to reinforce queerness as something that’s always explicit or of a certain shape. I want to revisit queer ancestors’ stories and to remember and honour them without translating them into contemporary language. It was a project of queer research to hear how this relationship existed and to think about re-archiving it without changing it. In other ways, there are queer affinities in the film: between people and animals; between animals and animals; sensual bodily experiences of hard, cold, wet, deep land.
Calum: I was thinking about the way you place yourself in a similar research position to Hartley et al. You are interested and generous to the people without being didactic. You could also be seen to be at a comparable point of economic transition? For them, from lead-mining to hill-farming, for you, from hill-farming to a tourist economy. With the removal of EU subsidies following a no-deal Brexit, the area will be under pressure to transition fully to a recreational economy.
Andrew: Yes, certainly part of what was exciting, and kept me keen and enthusiastic, was an urge to discover, record what is going on, to get one mile further down the road and find a house that hadn’t yet connected to the 21st century, open the door, look inside and see how people live, hear how they speak, see what the furniture looks like, or find some old lead-mining implements and maybe some medieval artefacts handed down generations after generation, or something…
Of course, this place doesn’t exist but the desire to find it does—nostalgia for an unattainable past. I’m simultaneously wary of that impulse and aroused by it. I like to follow the tracks of desire cautiously and critically. There’s something very seductive about getting nostalgic in this landscape so I tried to ham up those moments in the film. At the start you see me opening a book, as if I am about to read a story—there are moments where it gets dangerously close to a fantasy rural idyll. I self-consciously play up to those moments by using sentimental Medieval English music. I chose not to identify and criticise that process, but to ham it up. I was trying to be generous to viewers and allow curiosity to motivate progression of the film, not to try and force a position, just to want to know.
BOB: Let’s face it, even i’ your day John. When yoour lads started work. If thou didn’t give em a lile bit o’ brass, I mean you git nowt when you started but if you didn’t give em a lile bit o’ brass they wouldn’t be in farming.
ANNIE: Oh no, they wouldn’t do it now for nothing!
BOB: They wouldn’t be doing farming now. But I can remember when thy father, when thy father wasn’t so well and I wattered t’cows, thy father gave us a sheep. My father spent it, my father selt it! I didn’t get t’money!
ANNIE: Yes! No! No that’s right!
JOHN: Aye but we fetched him up!
BOB (laughing): Aye me father, we never got nowt!
Calum: I was thinking about earmarking, which is a focus of a couple of sections of Eternity Knocker. Originally a term simply used to denote the farming practice for cattle identification depicted in the film, it is now also used figuratively to refer to the allocation of funding for specific purposes. Its etymology neatly illustrates the dependence of sheep farming in Swaledale on European Union subsidies—‘a lile bit o’brass’.
Andrew: It’s worth saying that Richmondshire, which covers Swaledale, is a safe Tory seat. William Hague was MP there for 26 years and some people I met were personally friendly with him. However, a couple of people I interviewed had perspectives on class, private land ownership, land management and political change around Brexit that I would consider similar to my own: I was heartened by that. Not much of that made it into the film because it was important not risk instrumentalising people one way or another.
Calum: Other than Robinson in Ruins do you feel that Eternity Knocker has something in common with other literature, film and commentary on landscape and Britishness by the likes of say Alan Bennett or Jonathan Meades, or even Iain Sinclair? These are people we have discussed in the past. I remember talking about the way the mundanity of their work lends its own strange and compelling pace and can draw out the nuances of place.
Andrew: Originally, I wanted Alan Bennett to narrate the film because I saw a Yorkshire Television documentary from the 1980s which he presents; it’s all about Dalesman magazine, a local interest magazine. He interviews Marie and Joan in the documentary, and talks about the Dales. But I couldn’t get past his agent’s assistant…
I love the way his writing tells stories not so much through what happens but how people speak, their rhythms of speech, their specific local dialect. All of these things condition how people are and how we understand and know them. Voice is clearly a salient theme in Eternity Knocker—the wit, the dryness of tone, the restraint and the tangents of talk. Hearing people’s words and sentences is essential to understanding how it feels to be there. Lots of the words are archaic, and of Scandinavian origin, and it’s not an immediately familiar accent to many, so I was aware it might sound strange or improbable.
In a wider sense, speech, memory, reverie, and storytelling are so essential to meaningfully inhabiting the place. Time moves or stalls as a result of the way people conceive or fantasise past events. Kathleen Stewart develops this idea with recourse to the concept that places are haunted or always already occupied when you arrive there. This fed into this film a lot. As she says,
In the local poetics, time is gathered, on the one hand, into a chronotopic dream space of dissolution, disillusion, tribulation, death and decay, wandering and nostalgia. On the other hand, there is the ongoing way of life in the hills referenced in the social and aesthetic satisfaction that comes of litany and story itself. (Stewart, p.111)
Andrew Black is an artist living in Glasgow. His upcoming projects include participation in Seized by the Left Hand at Dundee Contemporary Arts in December 2019, and The Magic Roundabout and The Besom with Aman Sandhu at House for an Art Lover, as part of Glasgow International in April and May 2020. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
Calum Sutherland is an artist and art writer living in Glasgow. His work can be found on his website www.calumsutherland.co.uk.