Coming off Tottenham Court Road, screens, devices, gizmos, you plunge with relief into a street of unexpected, probably miscalculated art galleries, restaurants that change their pitch every time you pass, a pair of narrow, secret alleys, twittens everybody knows, the relief of that, the pub, the slope down into Newman Passage, the opening sequence of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, a puddle of bloody neon, awkward stone setts, smokers in doorways; and then out, immediately, into another world, Newman Street. Black leather, chrome, complimentary coffee. Film, television, advertising. Bikers with packages. Phones bleeping. A post-production house, cineContact. There is the usual cheese-grater voice-box; you whisper a name and someone inside hits the buzzer, releases the door. It’s like the clammy interrogation of Soho, reconsidered urgency, loss of nerve. The printed card in my pocket depicts a stack of scarlet container units, a pylon, a purple sky. An invitation to an invisible art manifestation: Lost Memories by Emma Matthews. ‘Very elegant, very Paul Klee,’ the punters say. Rusting English metal, from somewhere down the A13, near Rainham Marshes, rendered as a grid of delicately balanced reds and pinks, with just enough green to cancel the headache.

This, so often, is how it works; synergy, they call it. You scratch my back. Matthews is a film and television editor of reputation: peer-group respect rather than disposable celebrity. She has contributed to some of the better documentaries: James Ellroy, Anita Ekberg, Eric Sykes, watershed BBC2, air-hostesses and desert roads, midnight fodder on Channel 4, the real lost memories. She likes to use old film, degraded archive footage, and to have it reshot on tape, fed into her slim box of tricks, run, over and over, until it reveals its form. The new technology that speeds and simplifies the white-glove days of glue and acetate and celluloid pegged out like razored laundry has changed the nature of the game. The architecture of film has been displaced, but faster is not necessarily easier: it is like knitting with light. Emma Matthews reached the point of wanting to go back to her original training as painter and fine artist. CineContact like showing art, part of the buzz, the mood of the moment in London: intertextuality, pleasure and profit. The tedious limbo of the corridor, the waiting-room, the outer office, is also an opportunity to take in complimentary product. A gallery is anywhere with wall space and a price list. It doesn’t have to be a white cube or a turbine hall, an old chapel or a revamped industrial unit. Corporate operations are generous with their holdings: Jim Dine figures you glimpse from an arcade, secured by thick glass and ever-vigilant surveillance systems, large pieces by major names lost in Edenic atria, pastiches and approximations in side-streets and obscure courtyards. Art is the climate. If you aren’t being shown, walk into Tate Britain and hang your own work on the wall, making sure you have a photographer in attendance.

Photography, so they say, is bereavement. The small Emma Matthews paintings draped along the corridor in cineContact are blotches of unstable colour that breathe and tremble. Many of them are derived from films on which Matthews has worked, frame pulls that catch her quick eye: a road at night, a building, the tail fin of a car blurring against a smudged field. She’s a motorway Palmer factoring elegies to corrupted innocence. The images glow like windows lit from within, a warning light on the dashboard seen through layer after layer of gauze. This is the memory aspect: roads turning into rivers, grafts of fresh colour on a sliver of landscape that would otherwise fade into the fog of amnesia. Matthews, it seems, is keener on luminescence than structure, the burn of red through a mantle of blues and blacks. There is a residual dissatisfaction with the headlong progression of film or tape, the requirement to shape narrative, when, all too often, narrative is redundant. The pull is towards dignifying the moment, poetry not reportage. The artist’s early work, after Wimbledon Art School, was ‘icon-like’ (so she tells me), flat, hieratic portraits built up with washes of glaze, floating colour. Before that, at school, she remembers constructing an idealised, three-dimensional family group: father, mother, three children and dog (‘I was in love with the dog’), from stiff, grey sugar paper.

Now, decorating this post-production house, with its couches, desk, telephones, are these framed memory panels (like production stills from a film nobody has seen). But whose memories are they? Has she visited these places? Or are they known, at one remove, from Matthews’s work as an editor? She adjusts the selected video pull, picks out the detail on which she wants to concentrate, grades the colour and makes her print. She treats the raw image with bathings of oil. There is a PVA primer, then paint, then scratching, erasing, more paint (which bleeds seductively over the edge of the frame). The paintings exhibited in the corridor have broad white margins, mounts, frames: dense colour becomes a peep-hole. Sunlight flashing on pebbles beneath a fast stream. John Clare, in ‘Recollections after a Ramble’, writes of sitting by the banks of a river and thinking: ‘If I tumbled in/I should fall direct to heaven.’ The wet colour is hazy, soft; it does its best to subvert the over-emphatic actuality of the borrowed original. Memories are elective, not involuntary. More like dreams or reveries. Matthews isn’t implicated in the first heat, the accident of being there, but that is of no importance. Remaking memory, she remakes the past. Our truths become her fictions.

The panels in the office are bigger, but not much, and glow like stained glass: Ford’s water-tower at Dagenham, the sliced tops of tower blocks from the Thames Estuary, a night ship on a dark sea. Here, too, in a run, are paintings of another order: a young woman crouching under a bridge, beside a river, conducting some ritual of recovery or loss. A dark window in the kind of building that is now being demolished to make way for brownfield development. A woman’s face peering out. This, Matthews reveals in conversation, is a hospital, in an epoch before memory. Lincoln. A town seen, in later times, while driving across a flat landscape. Her father the doctor. The hospital sequence is not derived from tape, but from a collection of old photographs and slides found in a frozen-turkey box at the bottom of a cupboard. A family group posed in front of a provincial isolation hospital: period domesticity verging on John Wyndham or Nigel Kneale. Conventional pieties. The dress, the white shirt and ironed tie, the pipe. Such serenity summons up, for a generation queasy with paranoia, biological experiments, government-funded research, something nasty behind metal-frame windows. Matthews, discovering this cache of forgotten snapshots, was the age (near enough) of her mother back then. She is the woman in the dark window, caught behind a fleshy pink, loosely painted cross-strut. The painter has edited herself into the story: she is looking out at her father and infant brother, her unborn self, the pregnant mother. A corporeal ghost, back from the future, eavesdropping on that captured scene, the group on the grass. While some unknown photographer presses the shutter.

What is intriguing is how she uses her technique, the layering, the rubbing away, to ‘rescue’ frames that would otherwise be hurtling to oblivion. This dialogue between machine-processing and manual manipulation was first exploited by Gerhard Richter, who used banal source material, found footage, to suggest perverse scenarios, surveillance reports (sexual or political), privacy invaded. He had no personal investment in the images he selected. They were taken from newspapers or snapshots (bedrooms, cramped domestic spaces, cheap hotel rooms, ugly chairs, TV sets). The observer is invited to struggle between two kinds of perception, the blink required for responding to photographs and the respectful gaze into mediated painterly space. Matthews doesn’t share Richter’s concerns, her interrogations are neither ironic nor political: they are about retrieval, rescuing accidental configurations, the frame of film no ordinary viewer would be expected to notice.

At the time of the Newman Street exhibition, I was starting to retrace certain sections of a walk I’d done over three and a half days in July 2000, from Epping Forest to Glinton, a village on the edge of Newborough Fen which was in danger of being swallowed by the hungry sprawl of Peterborough; a procession of roundabouts, ring roads, off-highway business parks and trading estates. A cleaned-up, more efficient version of the hinterland of the M25. I had finished with the London orbital, a hobbling circumnavigation undertaken over twelve months with an old friend, the painter Renchi Bicknell: now it was time to exorcise our exorcism, a hike intended to ameliorate the shame so many Londoners felt over the Millennium Dome fiasco.

Back in the summer of 2000, trudging north, often alongside the A1 or the sad traces of the Great North Road, we were shadowing John Clare’s manic ‘Journey from Essex’. He had been kept, with the freedom to wander in the forest, at Dr Allen’s private asylum at High Beach, where he imagined himself guilty of bigamy, of being married to his dead first love, Mary Joyce, as well as to Martha Turner (‘Patty’), the mother of his children. He walked for three and a half days, without food, chewing tobacco and grass torn up from the roadside. He kept to the right path by lying down at night (on ‘trusses of clover’) with his head set towards his native county. ‘Foot-foundered’ at Stilton, he met old Helpston neighbours near Peterborough and, unwillingly ‘rescued’ by Patty at Werrington, was returned to their Northborough cottage on a cart. The account of his journey was rapidly transcribed (while he still held, raw in his mind, the names, the incidents). Then, deep melancholy unmended, Clare was dispatched to Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, where he spent the rest of his life. The narrative of the walk concludes with the entry for 24 July 1841:

Returned home out of Essex and found no Mary – her and her family are as nothing to me now though she herself was once the dearest of all – ‘and how can I forget

Quotation marks opened but never closed. The forlorn plea is ambiguous, both question and statement: how can I forget. Haunted by the delusion of having once been a poet (a claim beyond immediate resolution), Clare wrote a letter to his Mary, who was buried in Glinton churchyard. ‘My hopes are not entirely hopeless while even the memory of Mary lives so near me.’ The pain of madness lay in the loss of individual memory, noisy invasion by other voices, the troublesome dead. Long after they were gone, covered with earth, memorialised in grey stone, John Clare continued to address his childhood sweetheart, his old father, his lost children. For how many years do those dreams last? When will the dead lose interest in us?

We want our secret places to stay bright, even when we are trapped in another life: the spot of colour in a wash of grey. Walking, as Clare knew, frees the spirit, delights the eye. Poems are mnemonics, allowing others to share a catalogue of fleeting sense impressions, heightened emotions; the justified illusion of transcendence, authority vested in the proper order of words. Arrangements of sound and meaning float in the air, waiting to be caught and scribbled down. So many hundreds of pages are defaced in the attempt. So many half-heard whispers flawed by others – Lord Byron, or future biographers and scholars arguing over punctuation. In the Northampton asylum words fractured into individual letters and spilled from Clare’s head, leaking from his ears. ‘I am in the Land of sodom where all the peoples brains are turned the wrong way,’ he wrote to his wife in a letter taken down by W.F. Knight, the house steward at the asylum. ‘I write this in a green meadow by the side of the river agen Stokes Mill and I see three of their daughters and a Son now and then . . . the confusion and roar of Mill dams and locks is sounding very pleasant.’

Held in the asylum, but allowed to walk into town, Clare witnessed a royal progress: Victoria and Albert on their way to Burghley House, near Stamford. The great public poet, Wordsworth, who was also in Northampton, was another spectator. Succeeding Southey, he had been appointed Poet Laureate the previous year. Clare, afflicted by memories of poems, folk songs, books of the Bible, reports in newspapers, was everybody. His boundaries had worn away, worried at like one of Matthews’s layered panels. ‘He seemed to assimilate everything he read or heard,’ J.F. Nisbet wrote, ‘picturing events so vividly in his mind that he related them afterwards as if he had seen or taken part in them.’ He had been Byron and Shakespeare, the prize-fighter Jack Randall (who kept a pub in Chancery Lane). Now, letter by letter, language was torn from him. He described his condition to the documentary historian Agnes Strickland: ‘They have cut off my head and picked out all the letters of the alphabet – all the vowels and consonants – and brought them out through my ears; and then they want me to write poetry!’

A later patient at the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, by then renamed St Andrew’s Hospital, was Lucia Joyce, the daughter of James Joyce. Local rumour has it that Samuel Beckett paid her annual visits. He was making, perhaps, a wistful return to the town where he earned his entry in Wisden, playing cricket for Trinity College, Dublin, against Northamptonshire. The alphabet had been part of Lucia’s difficulties, too. Joyce persuaded her to design ‘elaborate initial letters’ (as Brenda Maddox puts it in her biography of Nora Joyce) for his 1927 collection, Pomes Penyeach. The experience proved stressful and unfulfilling and the agony was compounded by work on another Joyce-inspired alphabet project, the Chaucer ABC. Maddox writes: ‘Joyce tried frantically to breathe life into Lucia’s career as a designer of lettrines. He pretended that she was, as he saw himself, an unappreciated artist whose brain was on fire.’ Lucia became a patient at St Andrew’s in March 1951. She died there in 1982. Thirty-one years in Northampton limbo, to the 23 that John Clare endured under various, moderately benevolent regimes, brooding on what was lost, the sense of place, the language.

Our Clare walk, coming off the back of the M25 circuit, was a release. I didn’t feel obliged to log tedious information, to pick up leaflets at every church, to quiz dog walkers or learn the history of every deleted asylum. Renchi’s M25 paintings were diary records and detailed topographic descriptions; now he was free to slacken the leash. Slightly older than Clare when he made his escape, we were tired enough, pushing it at more than thirty miles a day, to go with the drift of a journey that was not of our making. Off-road, this was a land of dormitory villages and pubs that opened only at night. Barking dogs guarded empty farmhouses. Stories came without our looking for them. The drowned village under Grafham Water. The woman in the graveyard who filled the gaps in a family history Renchi had already begun to research. A pine cone I picked up in the grounds of St Mary the Virgin at Baldock and carried in my pocket with vague notions of pilgrimage. We weren’t sticking to Clare’s tired footsteps. We meandered, on and off track, sleeping close to the places where he had slept (pirate pubs and Ibis hotels rather than bales of clover). We extended his eighty-mile journey to about 120 miles: or the distance around the M25, if it could be stretched out like old elastic.

The memories we kept, rolls of photographs, doodles in notebooks, were of the moment, impulsive. Renchi carried a magnifying glass and a plastic prism with which to subvert the technology of mechanical reproduction. My notes, written up on my return, were as terse as Clare’s, but lacked his vision, the bite of possession, the buoyant despair. Like Clare, we were walking in July, the first blistering days after a long spell of dull damp weather. My shorthand deteriorates into a weary, sub-Ballardian list:

Tuesday 18 July. Chest-high fields of barley. Sheep you hear but don’t see. No visible evidence of farmers or livestock.

Empty concrete pig bunkers. Corrugated sheds. Abandoned airbases. Smokers clustered against the wall of Jordans Cereal Factory. Long evening road of golf courses, shooting ranges, red sports cars steaming out of town. Busy leisure.

Through plenty of townstuff to river, bridge, old town centre. Pub called: The Wrestlers. Decorated by drug notices (adverts or prohibitions?). Smirnoff & off-duty slappers. Mobiles on bar like parked 6-guns. Woman: ‘It’s my birthday. What shall I do?’ Landlord: ‘Get pissed, then shagged, like every other Wednesday.’ Woman follows us up to our room with jangling bunch of gaoler keys. Hairs in bath, as if a shaggy dog had just had the fleas hosed off. Feet wrecked, limp out to the Beefeater.

That was St Neots, the Ouse. William Cobbett, whose work Clare knew and admired, passed this way on one of his rural rides. A little downriver, towards Huntingdon, he took note:

Above and below the bridge, under which the Ouse passes, are the most beautiful, and by far the most beautiful, meadows that I ever saw in my life. Here are no reeds, here is no sedge, no unevenness of any sort. Here are bowling-greens of hundreds of acres in extent, with a river winding through them, full to the brink.

We paused on the bridge, early the next morning – a lock, pleasure craft tied up for the night – and then moved off, shadows of poplars across the road, towards Great Paxton and Buckden. My notes remind me that our overnight pub didn’t run to breakfast. We settled for a packet of Scotch eggs from the minimart, a suck of plastic water. A few cars passed, mainly women improving their make-up, yattering on mobiles, smoking furiously. Between back-draughts, we were walking through a sleeping country. The church of Holy Trinity at Great Paxton, with its clipped, full-skirted yew bushes, conical presences marking a well-tended path, was the conclusion of one of our quests. We needed to find the graves of Emma Matthews’s father and her younger sister, both of whom had been drowned in a boating accident on the Ouse in 1970.

This was why Emma wanted to come with me when I rewalked the section between St Neots and Buckden, on the riverbank this time rather than the road. Squeezed between the A1 and the railway (arguing sound-strips at the edge of the frame), most of the foot traffic is along permitted paths and official country walks. Emma had been looking at Anselm Kiefer’s pictures of the Rhine from 1981; woodcuts on paper, a giant book on a steel lectern, exhibited at Tate Modern. ‘Even clean hands leave marks and damage surface,’ the notice warns. In this inky darkness, with its Germanic rhetoric and leaking history, Matthews saw a solution to her dilemma, the memory project: how she might begin a series of Ouse paintings. For a long time, the river tragedy was not discussed, family photographs stayed in that cupboard. But Kiefer is not out on the river: he stands firm on the bank, staring across ripples of black water.

Returning to her eight-year-old self, the drama of that autumn day, will be difficult for Emma, remembering the pleasure craft, and walking now, carrying her young son, past the place where it happened. It is a fine Indian summer morning. The old posting house, the Lion at Buckden, can’t offer us breakfast; we make a detour to Alconbury, round the airbase, and back to the marina, the basin where Emma’s father picked up the cruiser. A new minted riverside development is in progress, ranks of freshly painted craft and a bar/ bistro offering sustenance to landlubbers. The Ouse Valley Way has collected its complement of kids struggling with burdens, award-seeking hikers, dog folk and unusually cheery fishermen. This is a very different experience from our original Clare walk; progress is slow. Emma’s son, seven months old and sturdy, doesn’t fancy his new carrysack. He grizzles, howls, is carried in her arms, then mine, put down beside the river. Fed and rested, he cheers up.

We wait at a spot on the riverbank which is nothing like Cobbett’s meadow. The ground is overgrown with drooping vegetation, mud and reeds caking into soft green islands. The river is broad, slightly oily, thick, a shrouded sun setting off a meniscus of gnats and midges. Currents are strong and contradictory. Pleasure boats pass. I photograph the pattern of their wakes. Emma is most concerned with imposing a reading that goes deeper than the apparent banality of the permitted path, the mild day, the autumn colours. My photographs, when I look at them, are gloomier than my memories: I ‘cheated’, allowing the drowning to shape my compositions. Kiefer in khaki.

The tower of Great Paxton church can be seen across the river. A landing stage provokes memory. Memories, Emma discovers, can’t be lost, just reinterpreted, mythologised. It was her duty, back then, two families cruising up the Ouse towards St Neots, to remember the key that would operate the mechanism of the lock, let the water flood through. She forgot. The other adult, a friend of her father, went ashore to fetch provisions from the town. The boat headed back towards the marina, the starting point of our walk. Emma, her brother, the children of the other family were in the cabin, below deck. Her younger sister, on the prow, slipped over the side. Her father, a strong swimmer, dived in. He caught the child, secured her in the rescue position, and then – as the others watched – they disappeared. Trapped in the reeds, caught by currents? It is not known. Perhaps the father suffered a heart attack, the shock of the dive into cold water. The boat was brought to the far bank, the landing stage. Emma and her brother were taken into a strange house. And then returned to London. On train journeys north, in later years, the church at Great Paxton would be pointed out.

Now the story is told, beside the river. We hear the trains. The carrying arrangements for Emma’s son never quite work; buckles break. His presence, his actuality, self-absorbed to a heroic degree, overrides any attempt – certainly on my part – to recover a sense of the drowning, the remote thirty-year-old past. My photographs in their folder won’t stand up to concentrated interrogation: a river, people on a day out, notices erected by the ‘Friends of Paxton Pits Nature Reserve’. River viewpoint: danger of drowning. No swimming. No skating. No unauthorised boating. The expedition folds into the usual English preoccupations with finding a pub for lunch, crossing a river and a railway line, visiting a church. The pub is a classic: food that fizzes on the tongue, chicken and fish as courtesy discriminations. A lovely couple sitting outside, in the October afternoon chill, minimally dressed, chewing each other’s faces off and swilling, occasionally, from a shared bottle. They have a feral, off-road beauty, an awkward grace of hair, cheekbones, clear eyes uninhibited by self-consciousness or memory of anything that happened before they walked up to the bar. The trough in the Gents was, in my experience, unique: filled to the brim with glinting copper coins.

For John Clare, memories became dreams and dreams memories. As Edward Storey wrote in his 1982 Clare biography, A Right to Song: ‘Sometimes the dreams do not even come out of memories of the past but appear to project themselves into the events that are yet to come.’ Influenced by De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Clare laboured to remember and record dreams that might lead towards future poems. There was a particular dream in which Clare and his fellow villagers filed into the churchyard to witness their day of judgment:

when we got into the church a light streamed in one corner of the chancel & from that light appeared to come the final decisions of man’s actions in life I felt awfully afraid tho not terrified & in a moment my name was called from the north-west corner of the chancel when my conductress smiled in exstacy & uttered something as prophetic of happiness I knew all was right & she led me again into the open air

Light becomes memory: the intensity of those small panels painted by Emma Matthews, stamps of liquid colour into which we have to stare. Night landscapes, dawn roads, blue boats. All the accidents of perception that try to shape a coherent future out of a troubled past. The slender history of everything we can’t forget.

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