The Girl Who Forgets How To Walk: Artists in Conversation

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DAO writer Richard Downes met Kate Davis and Julia Parks at the conference ‘Extreme Views’ in Art Gene in Barrow-in-Furness last year. After the recent sharing of Julia’s film based on Kate’s poetry collection of the same name he spoke to them both about their collaboration.

Richard Downes: Looking back it seemed we were in a place where we were wanting to work, develop our work, contribute what we could, but were also a little uneasy and doubtful as to whether we could.

Kate Davis: I’m not sure that’s the case for me. From my point of view that wasn’t about developing work; I’ve been involved with Art Gene for a number of years, showing work there, being involved in projects they’ve run and now am a member of the board of trustees. I was interested in hearing what outsiders found when they visited – what they had to say, what they had to offer. The doubt I felt was around the huge possibilities I know exist for the area and the collective journey to realise them. My sense of what’s possible with work I might want to make tends to be along the lines of ‘well, why not?’ If I really want to do something, I give it my best shot. I don’t mind too much if it doesn’t come off – a failure now and then is fine – one of my good points is that I learn quite quickly from mistakes. Besides, failing, like being mildly embarrassed in a public place once in a while, can be uncomfortable but it doesn’t last. I think it’s character building.

RD: With this film under your belts you must feel stronger today

KD: With Julia, I’ve made a new thing – the process was entirely new for me the work is new. I believe it’s good – that’s always an encouraging feeling.

Julia Parks: I feel stronger now than I prior to making the work. Words and text are not my areas of strength images are where I feel most confident. Working with Kate and her use of language meant we were able to bring the two together. The process has encouraged me to continue working with poetry, the spoken word and to explore the use of archive sound and footage more.

Barrow’s proximity to the sea, the area’s history of flooding and the water coming off the southern Lake District hills added a sense of urgency to the conference. Not only were we fragile as artists, we were fragile in place

KD: I’ve always been fragile in place- I’m unsteady on my feet and trip up quite a lot. The book, the film was taken from (same title), is almost entirely about my uncertain relationship with the ground under us all – it’s entirely untrustworthy – and the nature on the limestone landscape where I grew up – it dissolves in rain, forming unseen hollow spaces- caves and more spectacularly- sinkholes. Sinkholes are my ultimate thrill and ultimate terror- I’m a bit obsessed with them as I am with moving water.

JP: I grew up near a town that floods regularly. I remember going there in the night time of winter to see people hoovering water out of their homes. I have seen how much water shapes and changes the landscape. Banks are left exposed, footpaths disappear, river banks regurgitate rubbish. Kates descriptions of ‘land beneath our feet’ in her poems has given me new perspectives on land and what is beneath. I recently read Robert McFarland’s ‘Underland’ and again, it opened up a whole new area for me; the hidden lands which I had not previously considered – a land which is never set or still.

Yet each of us are resilient. We have survived our experiences over time. We have made our contributions and demonstrated our strengths. #WeWillNotBeRemoved

still from film of a flower

The Girl Who Forgets How to Walk by Kate Davis.

KD: I think having a disability from a young age has helped me in terms of resilience- what other option is there but to find another way?

Barrow has been particularly hurt by CoronaVirus having at one point recorded the UK’s highest infection rate. We were fragile, the landscape was fragile and now there’s something deadly in the air. In terms of timing, were you working together or apart during our shielding/social isolation. Would the situation have impacted on the making or the shaping of of the film? Is there a correspondence?

We shot the film through the spring and summer 2019. Julia did the tech stuff over the following months. It was finished late last year. Coronavirus has impacted heavily on what we’ve done with the film since though. Its first public showing was to be at Alchemy Film Festival; we’d planned to be there for the whole weekend in April, That didn’t happen. We wanted to show it at poetry events and to audiences more widely; that too will have to wait.
The book the film shares a title with, ‘The Girl Who Forgets How To Walk’ is based on a time starting with an epidemic. Kate you had poems of remembrance. Julia an interest in archival film. Revisiting time must have impact.

The archive footage we used was very familiar. Those clips are things I remember. I didn’t entirely mind being ill as a small child- I was 4 or 5 when I caught polio. I found things like not being able to walk puzzling rather than distressing and suspected it was in some way my fault. Some of the worst aspects of a long-term childhood illness were things like having my clothes removed- the feeling of being made vulnerable has never left me- I think it was the start of my sense of shame. People telling me to walk while they stared at me or picking up bits of my body to make them move and my not being able to do it, as you see in the archive clips, are crystal clear images in my memory. In many ways I’ve never left that world. The real impact of what had happened to me only became apparent when I went to senior school.

RD: Does the current time of pandemic add poignancy and value to the film?

KD: It makes me reflect on the nature of viruses and our inability to do much about them until they’ve given us a beating. People tend to think of catching a cold or flu as just having a virus- as if it’s less of a challenge to the body and something they can and should be over quickly. I firmly believe that viruses of all kinds take a huge toll on our bodies and that we need to allow ourselves time and quiet to recover properly. Instead we’ve expected to be back at work, back to normal in a few days.

RD: I was impressed an answer given at the Q+A regarding surviving fear. We went through a cold war. We survived fears of nuclear obliteration. Today’s fears are yesterday’s news. Watching the film offered me comfort in this respect. Some of the imagery, the maggots, the seed, the cold medical science in the Wellcome Collections archival film, the opening lines of Peninsular and the final scene of Kate looking towards an onrushing sea. Is there more to be said?

KD: Growing up with the fear of nuclear Armageddon was utterly terrifying. I had nightmares I still remember. That intensity of fear has lessened over decades but my sense of dread at things like the rise of populist leaders and extreme ideologies worldwide reminds me of those days when my fears about what we do to each other were so close.

I don’t really believe in any kind of permanence – geologically everything is changing. We can’t stop it. I see the entire planet as being temporary. When I visualise something like mountains I watch them pushed up by tectonic forces – see them buckling, folding rising and then they instantly begin wearing down- dissolving and sinking back into the earth- a mountain is blink-of-an-eye really, a confidence trick. I see buildings the same way- the bigger and more solid the building the bigger the trick. They could go in minutes. Nothing is permanent and none of it matters. I think the only things that count for much are things like our capacity for small acts of kindness.

JP: I didn’t grow up with the fear of nuclear armageddon – as you both did. However, I remember the realisation of danger that comes from living near a large nuclear power site holding huge amounts of highly radioactive material (Sellafield). This would have been when I was around the age of 8 – the year 2000- it stayed with me for a while but then was forgotten. I remember thinking we could all die at any moment and being scared. Speaking to people I often hear a lot of fatalism related to living on the cumbrian west coast ‘we’d all be dead’ ‘the road is too narrow to get out’ if anything was to happen at Sellafield. Watching the series Chernobyl made me reflect on this so much I ended up looking into community evacuation plans. In Barrow many people received a booklet from BAE Systems telling them what to do in a nuclear emergency – this included the handing out of Iodine tablets. There is a bit about feeding a baby the tablet with jam – that detail somehow make the threat more real.

RD: The film/the poem Bodies explores an interest in taxidermy. In the Q+A Kate talked about the beauty of bodies, their symmetry. Did interest start through an experience of impairment, from an experience of being examined, probed and prodded.

KD: I do find them fascinating and gorgeous. I love their interior symmetry and beauty. I hope i’m bot being too descriptive, there’s a moment when you’re taking the creature to bits, when outside and inside are still connected at the mouth- I think of it as ‘the mirror moment’ when a creature can know its own astonishing loveliness. So yes, probably to do with being unsymmetrical. Which, as studies show, equals ugly.

JP: It was fascinating spending time with Kate and looking through her collection of findings from Walney Island beaches. She described the different ways of doing taxidermy – the creatures she had found. She has given much of it away and I think a lot has been exhibited at the Pub on Piel Island as part of an Art Gene project. Death is something we often encounter on beaches – washed up creatures, jellyfish, porpoises, gannets – even recently a gigantic Minke Whale. I love seeing it, even filming it – but I am more squeamish when it comes to getting up close and touching.

RD: In the Q+A Julia talked about shaping the film, finding out if it would become fragmentary or linear. To me the imagery is fragmentary and the story arising from a few poems is linear. It’s like a skeleton. We look at this bone, we are interested in the skull perhaps but there is a lot more to look at if you want to.

JP: Kate’s use of language to describe her body and animal bodies extended into the land as being a ‘body’. The limestone pavement with ‘bones’ protruding – often almost white. There was a moment we were in the forest and found a lump of white rock beneath a tree – it looked exactly like bone. It was like finding a treasure.

RD: How the Forgetting Began strikes me as being a continuum. Impairment starts as loss in the medicalised view but our resilience means we learn much more post rehabilitation. Would you like to comment?

KD: The book is linear- progress obviously doesn’t happen in a succession of even steps in one direction. I’ve spent a lifetime teaching myself how to cope.

RD: The Cot In The Isolation Hospital is a very mechanical reading of the medical process. It lacks feelings, emotion. It is what it is. Is this how we get through isolation (then/now) by giving ourselves over to routine, practice, experimentation, recording, observing

KD: I think perhaps it is – for children at least; they were not and to a great extent still are not – considered a part of the process. Neither are adults for that matter, particularly women. The patriarchal/medical model can still be encountered all over health and social care- (look at recent reports into things like the use of mesh in pelvic floor and bowel surgery). That said, there’s something about being able to give yourself over to other people in illness that’s hugely beneficial- Adopting the Sick Role can be useful in the short term imo.

RD: The Ladybird Book of British Flowers took me back to special school where I looked through Collins pocket books of British Birds, Trees, Hedgerows. I left it all behind when I returned to town-life. Barrow is in Britain’s top spot for biodiversity. You are surrounded by disabling landscapes which we make accessible, which we make safe, which retains danger.

JP: I grew up being very aware of flora and fauna – I remember my parents doing quizzes with me, ‘what is that’ ‘what is this’ – it is an interest I have continued into adult life. I absolutely love the old ladybird books and have a few at home. In Cumbria we are surrounded by open and undeveloped land – fields, marshes, lakes, rivers.

‘The lake district’ is seen as the more natural when in fact many parts of west coastal cumbria are unique in terms of flora and fauna – and we have more biodiversity. I’ve spent many hours trawling around ‘Brownfield Sites’ counting butterflies and flowers – again these key development sites can be much richer than Greenfield sites. As the RSA pointed out; there is no relationship between quality of life and biodiversity levels. This suggests not everyone is getting the benefits/or are able to access such spaces.

RD: As children very little of our education is dedicated to learning about the natural environment. You might have followed the story of the Children’s Oxford Dictionary dropping words such as Buttercup and Acorn for words such as cut and paste and broadband. How can the adults of tomorrow protect something they don’t even know the name of?

During Covid-19 there were massive increases in consciousness about bird song, animals previously unseen emerging into new territories – towns, villages and cities. There was a huge increase in seed sales and interest in growing for food. One thing that kept me calm during lockdown was just tending the garden and seeing hedgerow plants changing each day. I would like to see a much larger focus on this from government, education and work. Bio-diversity is key to our planet’s survival.

DAO’s editor, Colin Hambrook said the Ladybird Book reading reminded him of Lisa Knapp singing The Shipping Forecast. It sounds very folksy. I love the simplicity of mm mm’s confirming learning as in mm mm yes I know that. We react to the landscape constantly. How important was your place in the landscape to the making of the film

KD: For me it was vital. I don’t think we could have made the film without being in the landscape- or at least it would have been a very different film.

JD: Absolutely – Place is key for me too – almost all of my work is about the west coast of Cumbria – the relationship between people, industry and the natural environment.

I love the line; ‘I have no claim on this space’. Ownership of ourselves, of our own lives in the face of exclusion are important themes in the Disability Movement. I invite comment.

KD: it was as simple as going back, as I do once in a while, standing at the edge of the wood where I was born and realising that the paths we’d used were not there. It was intensely sad that all trace of us had gone. It was also a moment of understanding about the place I thought I belonged and that somehow still belonged to me. I remember looking around and thinking- I have no claim on this place.

RD: Again I love the line; ‘I stand still at the edge of the sea. A woman who doesn’t always know what to do’ and how the closing shots capture this. It gives a sense of looking into the future from a present place. Can you sum up what you have achieved with the film and what you would like the films and your own futures to look like?

KD: I’d like the film to be seen more widely. It’s been accepted into a number of film festivals, which is great. The accepted norm for film is that it goes to film festivals prior to being more widely available. We’d like anyone who’s interested before that to contact us and we’ll make it available to them. I’d also like it to be seen by a poetry audience and by anyone with an interest in the relationship between disability and the ground beneath our feet.

Where can we buy / see / read ‘The Girl Who Forgets How To Walk’?

The film is available on request and the book from the publisher http://www.pennedinthemargins.co.uk/ and from some bookshops. It’s also on Amazon, though it’s best to buy from publishers and independents where you can.

‘To View Full Length Works Contact Julia on www.juliaemilyparks.co.uk