remembering to forget

This month Gemma and I gave a workshop on place and heritage for the Rural Community Network. My Master’s was in cultural memory. During it I looked into the relationship between memory and place, and the workshop gave me an opportunity to refresh my thinking on this relationship. Then I came across a short essay on landscape and the picturesque by novelist China Miéville in the review section of The Guardian on 18th June, and a further critical view opened up.

I understand that space often is seen as the container for the flow of events through time. History is dynamic, while geography is stable. Place is supposed to provide an unchanging backdrop for constant temporal change. Of course, the reality is more complex than that, and geographers have protested the notion of place as static. Nonetheless, we tend to site our memories. When we commemorate events, we do it in the places where they happened (when possible), and we build monuments trusting that they will remain in the same places long into the future.

Further, traumatic events are believed by many to leave a kind of psychic imprint on the places where they happened, even – or perhaps especially – when tangible memorials are missing. Artist David Farrell’s series, Innocent Landscapes, alludes to this within an Irish context. He photographed sites where the bodies of people disappeared by the IRA have been searched for and on occasion found. At a glance, these photographs may appear to be innocuous studies of place, recognisably Irish in many cases, and occasionally picturesquely rural. However, they acquire a dark significance with a little background detail.

david_farrell_large_07_42_02_24-01-11 innocent-landscapes

David Farrell, details from Innocent Landscapes, 1999

China Miéville’s essay deals with the notion of the ‘picturesque’ in representations of English landscape, both literary and visual. Miéville explains that the picturesque was imagined by some to offer a middle ground between smoothly beautiful and sublimely awe-inspiring landscapes. It allows for some element of disorder or decay, ruins being seen as quintessentially picturesque. This leads directly back to the interweaving of place and memory, with one theorist criticising the picturesque landscape as ‘a too easy reconciliation between past and present’.[1] Another element of the picturesque is the active editing, framing and composing of unmediated ‘nature’ into a view. Inherent in this process, Miéville argues, is an act of violence. Inconvenient or unwanted features in landscape (throughout history often involving poor people and their settlement in and use of place) are removed – either physically or representationally. But more than this, the act of removal is done openly and explicitly as a demonstration of power.

Miéville illustrates his argument with the example of Humphrey Repton, who published in 1816 his account of how he made his Essex garden picturesque by enclosure of common land:

Repton draws attention to what he has hidden and how he has hidden it. The obscuring is visibly invisible. He can now pretend the poor aren’t there while knowing they are. This picturesque Tory gaze is not just expropriating and exclusionary, though it is that: it’s sadistic. It doesn’t forget: it remembers to efface.[2]

This phrase leapt out to me from that essay. It is a pertinent question for us in Northern Ireland, locked as we are in a fraught relationship with memory and the past. Setting aside the idea of forgetting, which can seem benignly passive: what are we remembering to efface, and what does that say about the complex operations of memory, place and power in our communities?


I conclude with this photograph, which I took in Bangor in County Down in May 2015. A visible effort against remembering to efface, this graffiti was an odd (I thought) insertion in the Bangor seafront landscape. Circling back to Innocent Landscapes, Jean McConville was one of ‘the disappeared’, abducted and killed by the IRA in 1972. The graffiti was a small but effective reminder in an everyday setting that the operations of power over memory here are not only sectarian, but also gendered and class-based. Bangor is culturally, socially and politically distant from working-class Catholic and nationalist west Belfast, where Jean McConville lived. Predictably, the then North Down Borough Council (DUP-dominated) soon remembered to efface this exhortation to remember.

[1] John Macarthur, quoted in China Miéville, ‘Skewing the Picture’, p20 in The Guardian (Review), 18th June 2016.

[2] Ibid., my emphasis.