"Spring was moving in the air above, in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little little house, with its spirit of divine discontent and longing."
In Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows's the Mole was in the midst of spring cleaning when, "he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said 'Bother' and 'Oh Blow! and also 'Hang spring cleaning' and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat." This 'divine discontent' that spurs us on into the unknown and out to the world had me up early this Sunday morning. Over the river, heading out of London and back to my hometown, I went for something new, a workshop hosted by the talented photographer Anna Southgate of August Story Company. Anna has gained a dedicated following on Instagram for producing reportage and portrait photography. There is an air of Vivian Mier about @instannnnagram. She captures character and reveals hidden moments, she understands the power of a face and how narrative drives it. She was hosting a 'bootcamp' for those looking to use Instagram in a professional capacity. The morning helped participants examine their public face, exercising the visual coherency that is needed to develop an identity that distinguishes itself in a world of freelancing. I wanted to hear about her experience because her work tells a story always has me wondering.
Her tenacity for visual narratives comes in part, I think, from her life experience. Obvious, as this sounds, like many of us millennials, Anna's freelance career was born out of necessity as much as desire. Growing up in an era of Blairite optimism we were both part of the generation (and not to mention a relatively privileged section of that generation) who grew up thinking we had to go one way (uni, job, mortgage,kids), only to find that part of the route had a toll on it, then it turned out it was crumbling, so had to double back, only to find that when we got there, there was no there to be had. We have had to forge other ways, other narratives.
'Photography is my soul', Anna said, as she explained how after being made redundant when pregnant (hey there patriarchy, How you doin?), she looked to the things she loved to forge that new path. Her photos do that, they forge paths.
I say all this because having emancipated myself from academia in 2016 and having spent more than a year or so exploring life in, and with, a little bit of earth, my path is emerging. It was there all along of course, I just had to tidy it up a bit, dust it down and reveal the stories that were shaping it. Stories that I grew. Because whether it as as a historian, where I have strung together the disparate strands of narrative that tell the story of how children were classified in Victorian education; or whether it's as a patient-advocate where I have to convey the emotional and very real impact of long-term health conditions to a room full of medical practitioners, or even as a volunteer for London Wildlife Trust - where I have thrived this past year - helping to redesign and build a garden of raised-beds to show the stories of London's landscapes, or removing invasive plants from Sydenham Hill Woods to preserve what little fragments remain of London's ancient woodland or just digging up worms to make toddlers squeal with delight and intrigue, whatever I've been doing, wherever I've been digging, I've been sowing stories.
What will happen over the next 12 months is another path to be forged perhaps, another story waiting to be told. But one thing is certain I will happily grow a story for you.
Let's imagine then...
Perhaps you're a teacher who needs a new way to engage students with the obligatory local area study, well I will happily research the history of your school, seeking out old school photos, logbooks, maps, plans and oral histories to help you bring the past to life, to show students the school that once was, the adults who once sat in their place and the ghosts that linger on in the world around us. When London's state schools are facing cuts of up to 30% I am keen to make this work affordable and valuable. For now consultations are absolutely free, any research I produce will serve you for forthcoming years and all the sessions I deliver will be sure to bring the outside in, creating living landscapes in playgrounds and secret museums out of everyday classrooms.
Or maybe you're a small charity striving to highlight the importance of your subject, it would be a privilege to work with your users. With empathy and clarity I will help draw out their stories, ensuring their voices and your work are showcased with compassion and conviction.
Then again maybe you're someone who just really loves your local area and wish you knew more, but don't have the time to seek and scour. So let this be the year you and your friends treat yourselves to a tailor-made tour of London, where you get lost in what you thought you knew to find the stories that have been hiding in plain sight.
Or maybe you're a family looking for a good old romp in this concrete jungle of ours, discovering your local woods, getting muddy, listening to the trees and hearing their secrets. Well this Tree Week (27th May - 4th June) I'll be hosting 'Walking-Lore' a storytelling session for families in Sydenham Hill and Dulwich Woods. Join me on a quest to find the lost manuscript of the Great North Wood, written in the 18th Century by an orphaned Lambeth girl, who made her home in the woods, sharing in its fortunes and leaving them for us to find.
Historian by trade. Gardener by passion.