Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Work in Progress

Here are just a few pictures of the piece being made.

Friday, 14 November 2008


Lynn and her students are busy stitching away. I hope to have pictures of the work in progress next week. In the meantime Laura and I are working on finding a space to exhibit the piece and organising a launch. Its looking like being mid January. Watch this space, as they say!

Sunday, 19 October 2008

From the New Scientist

Here's an interesting study announced in the New Scientist.
Does knowing about our genes help us change our behaviour?

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Poem, first draft

Passing Down

We come from Africa, from Asia, from Spain,
Ireland, France. We are descended (so we are told)
from Florence Nightingale, from Basque pirates,
from the Armada, from Slaves.

Our great grandfathers were sacked
for knocking foremen’s hats off with cheese butties.
On the night of the census in 1901
they were in Walton Gaol. They had letters sent
to let their wives know they were not dead.
They died in workhouses. They drowned in the Irish Sea.
They wore someone else’s medals in the photograph.

Our great grandmothers were duchesses
who ran away with gardeners. They climbed up lampposts
and caught their knickers on the spikes
and hid rolled up twenties in Smartie packets

Our grandfathers were overlookers. They flew planes in the war
and brought back birds on their wings. Our grandmothers
were flappers. They put Dolly Blue in the font and watched
the congregation cross themselves; they won geese in raffles
and had to drag them home on strings.

We had aunts, who lost their false teeth
and made their own from chewing gum,
or who went round the world and had children
out of wedlock. We have black sheep - one with two families
whose body found on the council tip. We have uncles
up in court for poaching (out of season).
Someone in our family’s past survived the holocaust.

Our mothers were pessimists who survived Stalin’s famine.
They were nurses and pharmacists. They were in panto
with Flannagan and Allen. They were outgoing
and free-spirited, would have been more adventurous
given a chance. They just wouldn’t button it
when they knew they should.

Our fathers could always laugh in a crisis.
They were the quiet ones, the observers.
In bad times we think about what they
might have done. They blacked up like a minstrels
and knew all the monologues, were Rhodes scholars
from Zambia. We grew up with perfect fathers
we never knew.

We are quiet like our grandmas
and our dads. We got our dads temper
with the ‘red hair gene’. We make safe choices
like our dads. They shaped our politics,
teaching us materialism was vulgar. We can sing
like our great great grandfathers. We got our mum’s
dodgy knees. We are short sighted like our dads.
We are clever like our them and good at history.
We get our logical reasoning side
from our mums. We have learned to be better
at expressing affection like our mums.

We had to learn to stand up for ourselves.
Sometimes bullying made us stronger, enabled
us to put up with more. But it damaged us too.
We don’t let our children waste their food.
We are fussy eaters because of what we were forced
to eat at school. We never learned to be happy
with what we had.

We take after women who fight for justice.
Our friends. We even start using the same words.
We have role models who we think up to. The people
we work and live with make us act the way we do. There are wider
cultural influences. Our choices are economically defined.

We take after people in our dad’s family
we never even knew of. There are people
we wouldn’t want to be related to. Our grandfathers
work in us through our mums, who never
wanted us to have the childhood they had.

We have no family other
than our immediate family. Our world
can collapse around us. We have dreamt
of the grandparents and great grandparents
that we have never met. We only ever hear
stories that are never about us.

We are ourselves. We make choices.
We have invented our own histories. Our sense
of who we are changes with where we are. Other people
see what they see. We’ve never believed
we are born to be this, or born to be that. The whole
of our lives shape us. We can’t think of a single one
of our families that we are like. We believe we are unique.

We try to make choices, but it’s difficult
to have that level of understanding. As we get older
we can consciously make a decision –
but what it is depends on our temperament.
Some of us rebel, some of us acquiesce.
We are different people once we are able to chose.

We try not to end up like our parents – but we do.
We adopt their characteristics
as our perspective on life changes.
When we find ourselves with children it’s our mother’s voice
that comes out of our mouth. Even away from them
we run on along the same lines. Phrases
are embedded in our subconscious.
We gain our values from our forebears.
If our parents let us discover ourselves, we can be someone
totally different, but more like them than we realise.

Our sons are practical like their fathers,
they look just like pictures of us
when we were young. Our daughters
have their dads ‘laid back genes’. Their mannerisms
are just like ours – mischievous monkeys.
They hold their heads like our fathers
and are volatile. They just get on with it, much like us.

We have asked questions – how can a man with blue eyes
be my father? How can green eyes
pop up after generations? We wonder
if our short legs are genetic or the result of rationing.
We worry that we will be attracted to men
like our fathers. We think that maybe the first born
always take after their dads. Could our memories
come through DNA?

Are our children tall
because of what we fed them on? How can you undo
what happens early? How much depends
on our environment? How much is something
inside of us? Where did that come from?
How much is wishful thinking?

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Progress Report

All the workshops are done now, and my book is full of post-its, postcards and transcriptions. I've picked out my favourite snippets and written them onto circles and strips for Lynn, who is busy considering ways to arrange them visually. In the meantime I'm planning on writing a long ballad which brings together as many of the different testimonies as possible. Should have something to post here in a week or so!

Monday, 15 September 2008

A Eureka Moment

On Sunday I went to Liverpool to the British Association's Big Bang event at the world museum, to get more people's ideas on this project (in between tasting cheese, modeling viruses and playing with knots).

On the bus on the way to the station I suddenly recognised the parallel between the process of inheritance and the stories I've been collecting.

I'd put together a book to put the stories in. On the front I'd made a representation of the diagrams which show the possibilities for the inheritance of a single genetic characteristics. It looks something like this - except the circles are mirror beads and the lines are ribbons.

I'm one of life's fiddlers, so I was playing with the ribbons as I sat on the bus. I noticed that there were fixed points and linking threads. The fixed points represented the gene, the connecting thread the possible ways that gene might be inherited. In a similar way I'd made a copy of my family tree and stuck sequins on to represent the people. Again there was a fixed point - a person - or in a conventional family tree - a name. Then there were lines connecting them. I remembered my discussion with Jeanette and how she'd talked about the role of the imagination in constructing the family tree. It seems as if those threads are something fixed - but in a way they aren't. People who follow the lines pick the lines they want to follow, they take a walk through the possibilities. Even seen the other way up, until someone is born those lines only represent possibilities.

In people's stories there are fixed points and there are connections. There are facts and supposition. Someone I spoke to knew that their great grandfather was in Walton Gaol on the date of the census in 1911. They have no idea why - or even if he was there the day before, or the day after. All that is speculation.

People notice traits that pass down in families - but they guess the reason behind it. I've had quite a few conversations about tallness and the contribution of both genes and environment. And though we might guess fairly accurately that someone inherited their red hair from their dad, it's harder to say for sure whether they've inherited his temper and how and why.

So, somehow I think I will need to separate out from the masses of text I have the fixed points and the linking threads - and Lynn will have the challenge of find a way of representing that visually.

Here's the list I made on the bus - rather raggedly. Is it just Manchester buses that make you feel as if you're on a dinghy in the middle of the Atlantic?

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

MOSI 20-22nd August

I'll be at the Museum of Science and Industry on Liverpool Street in Manchester, from 1-3pm on the 20th, 21st, August.

You can find me in the learning space which is at the end of the finishing platform of the textile gallery.

I'm hoping to talk to as many people as possible about their family stories, about what they think gets passed down in families, and how important they think that is - and about what they think makes them who they are.

If you're around please come and join me!

Monday, 4 August 2008

On Not Being Oneself

This is a bit of a rant really.

I've often noticed that when people do something stupid, something they regret, or make a bad choice, they say "I wasn't myself" or "that's not me".

There's a range of behaviours that they associate with their idea of themselves, beyond those boundaries the things they do are seen as abberations.

But it seems to me that it's not that simple - those behaviours are precisely "them". They are the choices those people make and the way those people react to certain situations.

I'd like to say that I wasn't myself on Friday morning when my internet connection went down and I got frustrated and just a little rude with the man from Virgin media. But the truth is I am the kind of person that gets very stressed when I can't get onto the internet, and that I'm the kind of person that can take that frustration out on someone on the phone.

I'm not proud of it. I shall try and control myself better next time. But in all those many many tiny facets that make up a person there's one labelled 'nightmare customer'.

I was as much myself then as I am now, when I'm feeling all calm and benevolent and at peace with the world. Especially now I've had my rant.

Who are You? Lewis Carroll

The Caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in silence: at last the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice.

`Who are YOU? 'said the Caterpillar.

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, `I--I hardly know, sir, just at present-- at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.'
`What do you mean by that?' said the Caterpillar sternly. `Explain yourself!'
`I can't explain MYSELF, I'm afraid, sir' said Alice, `because I'm not myself, you see.'

`I don't see,' said the Caterpillar.

`I'm afraid I can't put it more clearly,' Alice replied very politely, `for I can't understand it myself to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.'
`It isn't,' said the Caterpillar.
`Well, perhaps you haven't found it so yet,' said Alice; `but when you have to turn into a chrysalis--you will some day, you know--and then after that into a butterfly, I should think you'll feel it a little queer, won't you?'
`Not a bit,' said the Caterpillar.
`Well, perhaps your feelings may be different,' said Alice; `all I know is, it would feel very queer to ME.'
`You!' said the Caterpillar contemptuously.
`Who are YOU?'

Friday, 25 July 2008

Various thoughts

"I AM"

This caught my eye the other day - orange's latest advertising campaign based on the lines such as " It’s the people we meet and the experiences we share that make us who we are."

This is a model of identity that is created socially - neither nature, or strictly speaking, nurture. It's also a model that suggests our personality is continually developing, shaping and being shaped, by our experiences and our choices.

No more "Give me a child when he is 7 and I will show you the man." You might give someone the man at 37 and still not see the 47 years old.


Part of the poem about my people (below) is about introversion. It's something that's fascinated me since I saw the lemon experiment on television programme. Suddenly the thought that I'm someone that reacts very strongly to the presence of other people made sense of a lot of things for me. It doesn't worry me to think that introversion is a given in my personality, though I think that it's partly the way I have adapted to being an introvert in a world of extroverts that has made me who I am.

I can't help but think that we'll discover more of these genetically coded fundamental brain reactions, that while they don't define our personalities, may well underpin their development.


Here's Darian Leader on identification.
"At the simplest level identification means that we become like another person.... most of the time (identifications) take place outside conscious awareness. We become like others without knowing it.... Children will identify with aspects of their parents from the very start.... as their identity is forged different traits are borrowed from their parents.... A further kind of identification occurs at the moments when an intense emotional relationship is broken or put in question... the child may start to adopt some trait or behavioural detail of a precisely the parent who disappointed them. The pain of disappointment is dealt with by incorporating some aspect of the other person themselves.... Analysts have shown that if an illness appears in different generations of the same family, identifications may be the underlying mechanism.... Children don't just inherit their parents' genes they inherit their parents.


Also from the same book
"Study after study has claimed that the fewer one's social relationships, the shorter one's life expectancy and the more devastating the impact of infectious diseases.... One of the first and most famous large-scale investigations of this phenomenom was known as the Roseto study. This time in Pennsylvania had a population of around 1600 and was founded in the late ninetheeth century by immigrants from Roseto Val Fortore in Southern Italiy.... The death rate from myocardial infarction was only half that of the neighbouring towns or the US in general. Yet their diet wasn't particularly healthy, their cholesterol was about the same as their neighbours and they smoked a fair bit. But what struck the researchers was the cohesiveness of the comunity.... If it wasn't the diet of the smoking the answer seemed to lie in the organisation of social bonds...
"Studies of the eldery, for example, made the surprising finding that the amount of contact with the rest of the family is far less imporatnt than the expectation that someone is there for them. Knowing that family members are contactable and available my matter more in many instances that actually receiving regular visits. What we mean by 'other people' can thus include their physical or their potential presence."

When I read this I thought of my conversation with Jeanette and her suggestion that in searching for their ancestors people might be replacing a cohesiveness missing from modern life. Could it be that the idea of the ancestors they discover (or in fact create) was as therapeutic as any real people in their lives (and possibly a lot less annoying... )

I notice I've been using these two terms pretty much interchangeably. I'll straighten that out at some point. But I think what this shows is that for me, they are more or less the same thing. Who I am is the sum total of what I do, what I think, how I feel.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

The Family Face

Here's Thomas Hardy on the subject of Heredity

I am the family face;
Flesh perishes, I live on,
Projecting trait and trace
Through time to times anon,
And leaping from place to place
Over oblivion.

The years-heired feature that can
In curve and voice and eye
Despise the human span
Of durance -- that is I;
The eternal thing in man,
That heeds no call to die.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

First residency poem.

It wasn't part of the plan for me to write poems this residency, but there's nothing like saying you won't for making you want to. This one came out of a writing exercise at Commonword based on Kona McPhee's poem 'My People'.

My People

I would know them at first by the way they know cloth,
speak the language of selvage and warp and weft,
their way of holding the fabric and letting it fall
to check that the weave was true. And each would have
their own body’s measure – the turn of the head that gave
them a yard from nose to thumb’s end. Their eye are sharp
but the world fades away - beyond the street the edges
are muted, birds disappear as they land in trees and trees
themselves have no leaves until seen from beneath.
I could walk amongst them, they’d be somewhere else,
they would clutch at their chests at the sound of my words
and even then they would look without seeing for a breath
of two, always in aprons, interrupted, wiping their hands.
But up close I’d see their hands are like mine, restless birds
in a roomful of voice and wishes, finding their roost
on the cloth, on the paper, on the wood, or the keys

Monday, 7 July 2008

Writing our Stories

Of the conversations I have had with Kate and Jeanette, about Genetics and Kinship, one of the things that has stuck in my mind is the role of the imagination.

Kate talked about people who had been offered testing for a genetic pre-disposition to bowel cancer, who 'knew they had got it', perhaps because of relatives that they 'took after'. These people had a clear idea of their future, and sometimes those that did not have the gene  -who got the good news - had more difficulty coping, because their idea of their future had been so changed. In some cases where one sibling had the gene and another didn't, it strained at their relationship. Not only was there guilt, but in some sense the mythology of their connection had been challenged.

It's hard sometimes to remember just how much recombination and randomness there is in the business of inheritance. If you track just one gene or even two as we did at school at it makes such a neat diagram> ( ). Introduce more and the possibilities increase exponentially. And that's before you even start thinking about those strange other ways that genes apparently can behave. 

We forget that we take after people in some ways and not others. So sometimes we look at those relatives we aspire to be like, and we see what we want to see. Sometimes we look at ourselves desperately not wanting to see the evidence of those people we don't want to turn into. It's easy too to look at those relatives that we resemble - or are said to resemble - and see some of their personality traits in ourselves. It's easy to see, too, that the expectation of others might powerfully influence a child's development.

Jeanette's speciality is Kinship. Recently she's been studying people who trace their family trees. One of the things I realised quite early on in our conversation is that if you trace a family tree in this way, it's upside-down. It doesn't show people's children, it shows their parents, but it proliferates just as quickly, if with more regularity. You have two parents, four grandparents, 8 great grandparents, 16 great grandparents, 32 great great grandparents and so on. (Actually I don't because my maternal grandparents were second cousins, but that's a whole other story). The further back you go the more possibilities there are.

Except people can't track down all those possibilities. There are choices made in the paths that are followed. Some paths of course are blocked through lack of information, and sometimes there's a lucky find. But there's also a process of selection - people chose those ancestors they invest in - perhaps because of their difference in terms of class or wealth, or perhaps because they bring exciting stories with them.

Jeanette felt that 'discovering' one's ancestors was the wrong word - that people 'created' their ancestors as they built a person from scraps of information. Again there's a significant role for the imagination in our idea of who we come from and how we relate to those people.

Do we become who we imagine we can be? I recall Anwen in a recent discussion at Commonword interjecting several times with the words 'we chose'. Do we, given the potential laid in by our inheritance and our early upbringing, chose who we turn into? Or do we discover who we really are? How much can we chose if we are unable to imagine ourselves being different? And how difficult is it to imagine that which has no basis in experience?

When I first got this grant through it occured to me that I was stumbling into the complex and fraught territory of the nature vs nuture debate. (I've never been one of those that's afraid to tread; part of my charm, I'm told... ) Now I don't think it's that one at all. I think it might be the one about determinism and choice. Genetics might seem to offer us a fatalism rivalled only by ancient curses and the 'sins of the father'. Psychology might also seem to show us a version of life in which we are forever bedevilled by the half-known experiences of our childhood.

What if both nature and nuture merely lay in the potential? And what if the thing that allows us to variously exploit and transcend that potential is the imagination?

Kate told me of one person at risk of inheriting Huntingdons   (  ) who refused to take a genetic test. In some versions of the world that might seem like denial. But perhaps too, she is claiming that which we all have - the right not to have our life mapped out. To make choices, to deal with what happens. To write our own stories. 

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Blood and Water

It's almost a month into the start of this project and I realise I haven't blogged yet. So far I've met talked to Kate Mathieson, from NOWGEN about inherited conditions and genetic counselling and to Jeanette Edwards a social anthropologist from Manchester University. I've also run a discussion and workshop at Commonword and met with a couple of possible artists.

There's already a lot of material to process. After my conversations with Jeanette and Kate I'm beginning to get a sense of just how important the imagination is in how we view what we inherit, how we make it matter.  But it's not fully formed just yet. 

So, in the meantime one of my stories, about where I'm from, about who my people are.

Hannah and Harry were brother and sister, both unmarried and childless. I and my brother and sister inherited them through my father. When his own parents had been too tired, too preoccupied to care for him he had found refuge with Hannah and Harry, and their mum mother. They provided stability, security and stimulation. They were to become our third grandparents.

I remember little of their mother who died when I was around 6. I know that she was born in the workhouse, father unknown. I know that she was adopted by a couple who ran a sweetshop when she was a little girl - but that she was more helper than daughter. I know that she married a roofer who died of 'red lead' poisoning leaving her with two young children. I know she took in washing to make ends meet. I never even knew her Christian name. She was Mrs Robinson but everyone called her Robin. 

Harry lost a leg as a child. Hannah kicked him with a log and septicaemia set in. His dummy leg with it's leather strap and catch at the knee was a source of great fascination to us. We had no sense then of the tragedy. Hannah herself had a lifelong hip problem, possibly congenital and after a series of unsuccessful operations walked with two sticks.

They were good people. They are my definition of good people. They lived simply and decently and bore their troubles with humour and fortitude. They worked hard. They took pleasure in small things - for Harry this was a small nightly glass of Vintage Port. Hannah was an avid reader of Mills and Boon stories. They did the pools each week, leaving a small pile of coins on the window sill to pass to the Littlewood's lady when she called. They were unstintingly generous, both with their time and what money they had.

Their home had at some point been compulsorily purchased and they lived in a small council flat. This gave them a modest amount of capital which they invested carefully. It was a small meticulously kept flat. Hannah sowed pansies outside, which came up year after year. Sometimes she would remark on the boon of running water.

Their stories, as much as I know them are my stories. They are my link to the past. They are my people. Even now, years after they are dead, I would be ashamed to disappoint my idea of them. They are my plumb-line.

They invested in us - my brother and sister and I, as well as a neighbours child who sought sanctuary - by through their gentleness and wisdom as well as through the buff envelopes of notes that appeared at the beginning of university term times and for first cars, and first houses. They were our first call on Christmas day. They were our refuge in times of difficulty. They are our past. We were their future.

When Hannah was dying I went to visit her in hospital. A nurse asked me was I her granddaughter. No, I said, just a friend. I have no idea where that 'just' came from. I winced as it left my mouth. I think Hannah heard it too. If I could take back just one of the words I have spoken in my life it would be that one.

In any way that counts, they were kin. Love is thicker than either blood or water.

Friday, 13 June 2008

If you'd like to contribute to the project...

... e-mail your thoughts to

Here are some questions to start you off.

1. Who do you take after?
2. Who of your forebears would you like to have met?
3. Is blood thicker than water? Why? Why not?
4. Who is (was) the black sheep in your family?
5. What do you see of yourself and your parents and grandparents in your children and grandchildren?
6. What makes you you?
7. What kind of people are your people?
8. Any interesting family stories you'd like to share?