Posted on 23 February 2022 in art, bulletin, coronavirus, covid-19, isrf, isrf fellows, populism, UK

The healing power of art: strategies for mending a cleaved ex-industrial community

In this contribution to ISRF Bulletin 25, Lisa Taylor reflects on the role that participatory art projects may play in helping communities deal with the social and personal impacts of deindustrialisation.

Main image by Lisa Taylor.


‘Recovery’, ‘healing’, and ‘convalescence’ have been words on our lips across the pandemic over the past two years. In medicine recovery tends to be assumed, often post-diagnostically relegated to the patient to be independently managed after the crisis of illness. Indeed, so strong is the assumption that bodies self-heal, ‘recovery’ is barely covered by the curriculum in medical training.[1] Shift our thinking to the trauma of closure, job losses, demolition and the impact on communities in Britain’s ex-industrial regions and any focus on recovery and attendant resources have also been scant or non-existent.[2] But if coronavirus has left a legacy, it is that healing needs our focus as an active process that requires nourishment and bespoke guidance, if the lingering malcontents of inequality, failing and inadequate infrastructure, and broken or cleaved communities in Britain’s old industrial regions are to be tackled. 

Coronavirus certainly packed a punch at older industrial Britain. Comprised of former coalfields, main regional cities (containing pockets of older industry), and older industrial towns, these regions amount to around a third of the UK populace. The combination of Ageing—20% of the population of these groups are over 65 compared to 12% in London—and pre-existing health issues—8% of the old industrial towns and 9% from former coalfields are disability benefit claimants—meant that deaths from Coronavirus were 30% higher than the national average. Its regions felt the shockwaves of economic downturn as unemployment and in-work benefits expanded even while large numbers were furloughed.[3] But actually, as our economy has been reopened, what is striking is the lack of change. The gains in slow, unspectacular growth between 2012-19 which came after the 2008 crisis were halted. The economy in these regions only went back to pre-Covid levels. Even more significantly, as Beatty and Fothergill argue, older industrial Britain was already mired by economic and social difficulties long before the thunderbolt of the pandemic.[4] This makes these regions prime candidates for the UK government’s commitment to the Levelling Up agenda. Support for manufacturing and infrastructure and financial investment in land development, to be devolved to local councils and authorities, have been pledged. 

Take Firths Carpets Limited, once a company located in Bailliff Bridge in Calderdale, West Yorkshire. A producer of high-quality woven carpets since 1867, the company held global reach and exported widely across the British Empire. In the twentieth century Firths survived the ‘hungry’ 1930s with an employ of 3,000 workers, its mills covered a landmass which well surpassed the village boundaries, and it managed to become one of the big six leading carpet manufacturers in the UK. It exported to ‘every carpet consuming country’, shipping to 40 export markets beyond the mid-1960s.[5] But prosperity was not to last. Britain’s de-industrialisation was the swiftest and most systematic in the global north. While in the late 1950s 40% of the UK workforce worked in manufacturing, today that figure is less than 10%.[6] Local press archives describe dwindling sales and falling workforce numbers. In 1968, Firths was bought out by the Readicut International Group, then taken into receivership by the large US concern Interface in 2000. When the company closed in 2002, it passed through a process of dereliction and demolition culminating in the loss of the large iconic Clifton mill at the central crossroads. 

Figure 1 (image by Lisa Taylor).

A visitor to the village today will encounter the large tract of undeveloped land at the heart of Bailliff Bridge in place of Clifton Mill (see Figure 1). Arguably, long-left demolished sites are not merely symptoms of de-industrialisation, they actively produce it.[7] But if told the details of the transformation from a thriving, prestigious, and noisy manufacturing centre to a place characterised by a bricolage of derelict land, dilapidated buildings, and mundane sounds of residential living where traffic passes through, that same visitor would surely react with sheer incredulity. I grew up in Bailliff Bridge and when I returned to begin my ethnographic research there in 2016 and toured the village with ageing ex-Firths workers and village residents (their average age was 73) to harvest in situ memories of place, they told of their emotional trauma of demolition and the effects of radical spatial change through the erasure of the village’s architectural past. Place attachment is especially important for older people because it helps secure belonging. But more enduringly, they were vociferous about what they saw as the almost complete decline of a community. What ex-workers experienced in the village were newcomers they didn’t know, people who had moved into the pale-brick residential new homes, which had been gradually built over the once-mills of Firths. Ex-workers felt unseen and unacknowledged by newcomers who, in their perception, lacked an understanding of either the history or the particular sense of place that they felt and understood. Their memories of working life and their enjoyment of the social activities Firths provided as a paternalistic employer were swathed in what seemed like ‘nostalgia.’ But what struck me is that none of them wanted to go back in time; nor did they need to go back ‘home.’ They were already at home, but in a home they barely recognised because it had transformed beyond recognition. Taken together, what they were suffering was closer to what environmental philosopher and activist Glenn Albrecht calls ‘solastalgia’, or homesickness at home. Explained elsewhere as ‘imposed place transition’, his environmental research shows it produces mental and physical forms of distress which can be profoundly deleterious to health.[8] Often it is unrecognised and untreated. To return to my starting point: it is a melancholic illness that our medical, psychological, and governmental institutions assume will self-heal without any resources or guidance. 

The case of Bailliff Bridge is by no means an isolated phenomenon. Sociologically, Bailliff Bridge is a classic example of a ‘dormitory’ village. In fact, 11.6 million people in old industrial Britain live in ‘dormitory’ towns and villages. Dormitory towns are categorised as places where men and women live, so they can work elsewhere. Many such towns and villages are located in the ‘hinterlands’ of main regional cities and a significant proportion of the population live in this regional geography of the UK. Out-commuting has been growing—from 860,000 in 2010 to 970,000 in 2016.[9] Bailliff Bridge is predominantly white and affluent, but because of the lack of local jobs most people of working age are travelling to work somewhere else.

Like many old industrial towns, it has a higher than average older population: 35.2% of pensioners live alone in the area, in contrast to 12.6% in the Calderdale Metropolitan District and those drawing incapacity benefits is 0.4% higher than the national average.[10] In contrast, a steady influx of new people occupying the new houses over the once-mills is a dominant feature of the area: 228 new houses were built between 2001 and 2011, a significant number given that the village radius is less than one kilometre from the centre. While the swelling population is expanded by newcomers, they are likely to occupy a number of different ‘layers’ of community—as workers ‘elsewhere’, as members of leisure groups outside the village, or as parents at the local school. But what became clear in my research in 2019 is that ageing ex-workers and residents are not finding opportunities to meet, socialise, or cohere with newcomers. What emerged was a picture of a broken and divided community, facing different directions and living different lives. While ex-workers bemoaned the experience of encountering warm bodies in a physical village, sites and spaces where they could meet and engage with others were sorely lacking. 

The promised £96bn budget for infrastructure regeneration as part of the North-South Levelling Up programme should address economic issues with the potential to help community cohesion through the social skills required by new employment, training, and skills development.[11] But can these incentives provide opportunities to do the more filigree work required to broker meaningful connections in specific micro settings such as the Bailliff Bridge community? I argue that a more bespoke model is needed for community healing to work effectively across inter-generational boundaries. This is especially germane given the rapid technological shift these groups have lived through, where one half of the community makes relationships through physical encounter, while younger members often connect digitally via social media. It requires a model where conduits of mutual respect are set up across the ex-worker / newcomer divide, so that knowledge of the village’s industrial past, pride in industrial labour, and respect for place as it was are exchanged on equal terms with the newcomer’s lived experience of the space. To work effectively, it requires convivial spaces where opportunities for people to meet, converse and exchange ideas around the theme of place can be created.

The work that artist Catherine Bertola and I did with the Bailliff Bridge community in the summer of 2021 was based on my earlier ethnography. Workers took me on ‘walk and talk’ tours around the village and often came equipped with photographs that depicted them at work, sometimes alone or grouped together at their machinery. Catherine became fascinated by the images of worker hands in these photographs as they handled the feel and weight of carpet; while my research found that ex-workers’ interactions with their photographs in my interviews with them compelled them to recall deeply embodied rhythms and movements, such that workers—decades after closure—felt they could still fire up the looms or arrange bobbins to the rhythm of fellow workers. Drawing on both the visual motifs of work and the muscle memories of carpet-making, we devised a series of community workshops designed to bring together ex-workers and newcomers. Weavers and menders would be asked to re-enact hand gestures from their carpet-making routines, to share and pass on the knowledge of how they used their hands in the factory. Drawing on the history of hand gestures, from the sign language of the deaf to Indian Kathak dance, we drew on this idea as a way to capture powerful meaning and emotion. In this way, we drew on the affective history of the rhythms and movements of working together in synchronicity in carpet manufacture. Like learning a dance, the gestures would be passed on to the newcomer like a piece of choreography. Along the journey, a conversation about the factory and history of place would open up. 

The thick smog of Coronavirus pervaded Calderdale, as it did over much of the UK, just as our project to suture a broken community using art workshops was set to roll out. I already had access to a wide group of Firths ex-workers, but reaching the newcomers posed a challenge. We settled at last on leafletting the hundreds of new homes that had been progressively built over the ‘tufted’ weaving sheds, the dye house, and the works canteen. Placing older people first on the government roll-out of the vaccine in the Spring of 2021 likely enabled Firth’s workers to feel more confident about coming forward. Workers outnumbered newcomers. But by July 2021, we had two workshops in place.

Patiently, and with nodding reassurance that she was watching and listening intently, Catherine led the workshop discussion. It didn’t take long before the workers gesticulated as they spoke—an obvious entry point to ask more specifically about the hand-gestures of carpet-making. The second workshop was a photoshoot. Here ex-workers mingled further with newcomers and an atmosphere of friendly exchange took hold as hands gesticulated while the vocabulary of carpet-making was recalled. Newcomers keen to learn about the industrial heritage of Bailliff Bridge listened and were guided through descriptions of the use of yarn, machinery, and sometimes tools and through these mutual exchanges, conversations deepened. For sure, Firths ex-workers felt valued as their lost skills and knowledge were being re-awakened and placed front and centre in photographs. In this way an atmosphere of mutual respect was built. In Figure 2 a weaver shows a recent newcomer to the village the act of tying a weaver’s knot, an essential skill that ties two ends of the yarn together. The weaver’s knot held particular significance because it became symbolic of tying two ends of the community together.

Figure 2 (image by Lisa Taylor).

It is here that I want to go back to where I began to borrow from ideas about healing in medicine. GP Gavin Francis argues that healing is as an active process which requires guidance. It must pay respect to the process of healing using time and energy to build a programme of rehabilitation which includes a measured and slow pace, carried by movement and rhythm. Guidance in recovery should, where possible, ‘work in concert with natural processes.’[12] In this way, doctors, he suggests, should be conceived more like gardeners, for the stitch used to join the tissue is not in itself the healing mechanism but ‘simply a trellis to guide the body in its own work of healing.’ While it was beyond the scope of artist’s workshops to cohere an entire community, the use of improvised movement and rhythm did provide the trellis to bring the vibrancy of ageing once-Firths workers into respectful social engagement with people previously thought of as disinterested strangers. And so together both halves of the community attended the ‘Intertwining Threads’ exhibition of photographs displayed in Clifton House, one of the few remaining Firths buildings. Once home to the auratic wood-panelled offices of the directors of Firths Carpets Limited, the exhibition gave admission to the labouring hands of men and women to a space they had rarely—if ever—occupied, to make visible and commemorate lost labour of carpet-making in Bailliff Bridge.


Footnotes

[1] Gavin Francis, ‘“We Need to Respect the Process of Healing”: A GP on the Overlooked Art of Recovery’, The Guardian, accessed at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jan/04/we-need-to-respect-the-process-of-healing-a-gp-on-the-overlooked-art-of-recovery.

[2] For an account of the difficulties for miners expected to quickly transition to service industries after coal, see Valerie Walkerdine and Luis Jimenez, Gender, Work and Community after De-Industrialization: A Psychosocial Approach to Affect (Basingstoke 2012: Palgrave Macmillan).

[3] Christine Beatty and Steve Fothergill, Beyond the Pandemic: Older Industrial Britain in the Wake of the Crisis (Sheffield 2021: The Centre for Regional, Economic and Social Research, Sheffield Hallam University).

[4] Ibid.

[5] See C. E. C. Tattersall and S. Reid, A History of British Carpets (Leigh-on-Sea 1966: F.Lewis), 101.

[6] Christopher Lawson, ‘Nothing Left but Smoke and Mirrors: Deindustrialisation and the Remaking of British Communities, 1957-1992’, unpublished PhD thesis (2020), UC Berkeley Electronic Theses and Dissertations.

[7] Aaron Andrews, ‘Dereliction, Decay and the Problem of De-industrialization in Britain, c. 1968-1977’, Urban History, 47, no. 2 (2019): 1-21.

[8] Glenn Albrecht, ‘The Age of Solastalgia’, The Conversation, August 7, 2012, accessed at: https://theconversation.com/the-age-of-solastalgia-8337.

[9] Christine Beatty and Steve Fothergill, The Contemporary Labour Market in Britain’s Older Industrial Towns (Sheffield 2017: Centre for Regional, Economic and Social Research, Sheffield Hallam University).

[10] Clifton and Bailliff Bridge MSOA profile, Local Government Report, accessed at: https://dataworks.calderdale.gov.uk/dataset/calderdale-msoa-demographic-profiles.

[11] BBC News online, ‘Levelling Up: North-South Divide Widening, Think Tank Says’, BBC News, 17 January 2022, accessed at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-merseyside-60027330.

[12] Francis, ‘“We Need to Respect the Process of Healing”’.


Dr LISA TAYLOR

Dr Lisa Taylor was an ISRF Mid-Career Fellow in 2021. Her recent work tackles the impacts of wider socio-economic policies upon local communities – the devaluing of spaces ‘left behind’ by deindustrialisation and persistent negative images of the North. Drawing on the interdisciplinary turn to spatiality and affect and using participatory methodologies, she examines peoples’ affective interactions with place.  Her book A Taste for Gardening (2008) was about the relationship between British garden lifestyle media and the classed aesthetics of gardening.

Lisa Taylor ISRF