One thing I value about working this way is the space it opens up for unanticipated discoveries. Faced with the logistical challenge of having two boats at different points on the river, and wanting to take a companion out on the water the following week, I found myself realising – towards the end of a two-hour journey upriver – that I’d have to leave my boat at Saltford and make my way back to Keynsham by other means. Not having planned for this, I had nothing on me but my swimming costume, a map, and the paddle I had borrowed from a neighbouring narrowboat dweller. Thus my first formal walking performance piece for Tidal Recall came about by accident:
an unplanned walk from
(with a paddle)
I arrived back in Saltford, however, in time to join the tail-end of a gathering of house-dwellers and boat-dwellers, hosted by my friends on their patch of land by the river. I entered the circle of firelight still in a semi-performative role, my bare feet provoking instant and curious conversation. The evening was a lovely one and we lingered late in the light of the dwindling fire and the waxing moon.
I had brought a small dry-bag with me on the second leg of the walk, and walked back through the cool twilight dressed in a woolly jumper, the bag with its few contents strapped to my paddle and bouncing awkwardly against my back. I quickly realised that the classic vagabond’s prop of a napkin on a stick made little sense in practice, since the swinging action of the bundle and the lever-effect of the paddle shaft multiply the effective weight of the load. Instead I nested the bag close against my back, using the paddle to hang it from, in lieu of a shoulder-strap. The physicality of the experience connected me to a historic tradition of wanderers, going beyond nostalgic representational tropes to a more embodied knowledge and a sense of shared (convergent) experience.
Back at the studio, I began to search through archives for the origins of the classic napkin-on a stick image. Dick Whittington (the literary character is himself a romantic fictionalisation of a real-life person) was my first agent in the search. In a 17th c. watercolour he carried his jacket slung nonchalantly against his back. However, it was not until a 19th c. pantomime photo that I found him carrying the classic dangling napkin.
Further searching yielded a new word – bindle – possibly borrowed from Yiddish and used in the US to describe a hobo’s bedroll. To my satisfaction the hobos seemed to share my preference of a nested shoulder position. Similarly images of the wandering fool in tarot and other late medieval traditions, the other major source of stick-bundle images, seemed to start out with either just a cudgel or a shoulder bundle, the dangly napkin arriving later as a romanticised variation.
Heironymus Bosch equipped his wandering peddler with a kind of primitive napsack or basket, and reserved the dangling kettle (?) for his dreamlike world-turned-upside-down paintings.
Finally, one other figure appeared among the fools and vagbonds in my image search – a black slave on a Wanted poster offering a reward for captured fugitive slaves. At the party in Saltford I fell into conversation with Noel, a volunteer at the Saltford Brass Mill museum, who told me that the canalisation of the River had opened up supply routes for the industrialisation of the valley, including the Brass mill which had produced pots and dishes for exchange for slaves in Africa on the first leg of the Atlantic triangle. It seems the colonisation of Africa and the new world accompanied a more local colonisation of Bristol’s rural hinterland, each reliant on the other. Labour conditions in the mills were probably not far removed from slavery, and the profit from all arms of the enterprise would have found its way back to the coffers of Bristol’s wealthy merchant class. [Interestingly, when slavery was finally abolished (due largely to the frequent and costly slave resistance in the colonies), slave owners were paid vast sums of public money in compensation, which they used to build new mills on the Avon employing local bonded labour]. This first journey on the river has yielded the kind of layered history I was seeking, and already it is further-reaching and more entangled that I had anticipated.
An assorted library of internet-scavenged images: