Andrew Black’s film, On Clogger Lane, presents the Washburn Valley in North Yorkshire as akin to a palimpsest, a manuscript in which the text has been written over, again and again. He uses the techniques of oral history and psychogeography to unearth fragments of the partially erased histories recorded in that landscape, but what exactly is being read?
As the film gets underway, we watch a group of amateur archaeologists, antiquarians, uncovering markings on a stone. How have those marks been made? Do they indicate human or non-human agency? Can we discern intention? If so, then why have those marks been made?
The film closes with more stone markings. This time they are clearly ‘cup and ring’ marks. A form that dates to the late neolithic and can be found from Orkney to Portugal. Unlike other neolithic rock art, ‘cup and ring’ marks seem entirely abstract containing no discernible human or animal figures. The cultural and symbolic orders within which these marks were made have rotted away. Only the mineral remains. We can no longer read these markings or grasp the intention behind them.
On Clogger Lane revolves around this problem of agency. Who did these things and why? It’s a mystery that isn’t entirely removed as we leave deep time and move closer to the present. Indeed, agency is not a mystery that can be fully solved even when we consider our own actions. Much of what we do, we seem to do behind our own backs.
History can be laid down in sedimentary fashion, like the strata of chalk marking millennia long deposits of innumerable sea creature remains. The landscape is marked by repeated, habitual patterns of behaviour. Patrimonial lines of land use and ownership marked out in the boundaries around fields. But history also features ruptures, moments of sudden changes in direction. And often such ruptures allow us to identify formations of power which are hard to see in more everyday moments of life even though they structure it.
The Washburn Valley has been scarred by two major, ruptural installations over the last century. The first saw Clogger Lane and the village of West End that housed it, submerged beneath the new Thruscross reservoir in 1966. The second saw the establishment and later rapid expansion of the US spy base at Menwith Hill. Both cases involved the exercise of state power, the compulsory purchase of land, and the displacement of long-established ways of life.
Of the two, it’s Menwith Hill that seems, somehow, the more contemporary. The building of Thruscross reservoir is the kind of modernising development that no longer takes place in this country. The UK has seen no increase in reservoir capacity since the advent of water privatisation in 1989. The water system is now a machine for extracting rents. Consequently, sewerage engulfs our rivers and beaches.
The infrastructural developments of the post-war period were tied to falling inequality and rising living standards. This now looks like a bygone era. Our current period is one of massive inequality, stagnant wages, and dysfunctional democracy. Menwith Hill epitomises the kind of infrastructure needed to secure order when the regime can no longer promise a better future. Its golf ball shaped radomes eavesdrop and collect data on millions of civilians in this country and abroad. The base has also been central to tens of thousands of extra-judicial killings by drone strikes around the world.
Post-war modernisation created its own anxieties. Some were channelled into TV and film through early Folk Horror and the scripts of Nigel Neale. The classic trope of this genre sees a project of modernisation unearth a long-buried horror, an alien or demonic agency. On Clogger Lane has the discordant sensibilities of a Folk Horror film. We see the displacement of a graveyard reveal the long-hidden, violent deaths of indentured children. What brought them to this valley? What demonic force stripped them of their agency? Their lives, just like the mill owners, were disciplined by the forces of capital, by the drive to maximise profits.
But agency can’t simply be reduced to its constrictions. Humans always retain the capacity to break from the demands of power and forge their own paths. This much is obvious from the interviews with peace campaigners Sylvia Boyes, Anne Lee and Lindis Percy. Their stubborn persistence, powered by friendship and belief, has dragged into the light that which wants to remain in the shadows. Ultimately, isn’t this the drive which animates the film, On Clogger Lane?
This text was commissioned by LUX Scotland and is republished here by MAP with thanks.
Keir Milburn’s most recent book Generation Left has proven highly influential, provoking debate across several countries on the generational divide in politics. He co-hosts the popular #ACFM podcast on Novara Media which explores the link between music, the weird, left-wing politics, and experiences of collective joy. As a member of the Red Plenty Games Collective he also designs and runs political strategy games and uses game play to research common political imaginaries. Finally, he is co-director of the think tank Abundance, which focuses on designing and implementing Public-Common Partnerships, an alternative model for the ownership and governance of assets. Abundance is currently participating in eight projects seeking to establish Public-Common Partnerships or related public-community action models in locations spread across urban and rural settings in several different countries.
Established in 2010, the Margaret Tait Commission is a LUX Scotland commission delivered in partnership with Glasgow Film, supported by The National Lottery through Creative Scotland. Inspired by the pioneering Orcadian filmmaker and poet Margaret Tait (1918 – 99), the commission recognises experimental and innovative artists working with the moving image, offering a unique avenue of commissioning and production support and providing a high-profile platform to exhibit newly commissioned work.
On Clogger Lane premiered at Glasgow Film Theatre in February 2023 and as part of a UK tour has been exhibited at The Tetley, Leeds, with a screening at Washburn Heritage Centre on 5 January, 2024 and an exhibition at LUX, London from 19 January to 10 March 2024.