Thatcher, Newton and a small town on The Great North Road....some notes from an evaluation of In the Footsteps of Newton, walking with Ali Pretty, in Grantham.
Commissioned as part of the Gravity Fields Festival, Ali Pretty leading with the analogue element, and Richard White with the digital. An installation followed at Grantham Museum with the banners, short films, flickr feed and sounds produced by local sonic artists.
In the Footsteps on Newton uncovered many rich seams both locally for Grantham and more broadly in that whole process of discovering, rediscovering and imagining and creating a sense of belonging.
The work continues to be experimental and developing a model of practice with social media, visual arts and live interventions within a walking and heritage context. On the first day, the intervention by actor, Jack Klaff, in character as Isaac Newton took, the walk to another performative level that I had not anticipated. We really tapped into some spectral presence through the visit to an old house, already old when the young Newton was there and then walking along the old tracks talking with Newton 'himself'. On the second day the walk began from Newton’s ‘birthplace’ where a large group of scientists, historians, broadcasters and their children joined us. The walk back into Grantham began to look like a medieval procession, I was really pleased that we managed to connect with such a diverse group of people.
I would have liked to have engaged even more, for more of the ‘experts’ to have walked with us, to have made more of the live, performative element on the walk, especially at the points of intervention. Raising the flag from the top of he church was a treat that only a small group of walkers enjoyed. The closure at the end with the walkers and the parade of banners fell flat and for the only time in the walk I wondered who that bit was for. The two online presences we were working with, the festival web site and the Newton Tree Party blog did not integrate well, live, although the latter offered some good post walk reporting. The Twitter and Facebook following and engagement was however hot with the twitter reach in the 1000’s and Facebook close behind. Using Social Hiking via Viewranger was valuable live and in delivering a social media trail at the end.
In my mind Grantham was sadly and deeply associated with Margaret Thatcher and all that she and her like have inflicted on this country. The town, at first impression, resonates with the shockwaves of her actions, ironic that the former public library was the back drop to the outdoor events. But as we got down to work and started walking and talking I discovered some sense of community resilience was re-emerging very much around these creative engagements. There was a playfulness with history and a wakening of local pride in Newton..as shown by the shop window displays and the bemusement of the waiting staff in Pizza Express....in whose basement, it is said, are to be found the cellars of the old apothecary's shop where Newton stayed as a boy. The walking project become part of a wider process of rediscovering local history. When our residency coincided with a Heritage Open Day, I loved the continuing worship at the altar of the Newton cult. I too stood on the step ladder to trace with my finger the Newton graffiti. Wondering why his name was scratched in such a modern hand and not with the finely crafted serif of his peers….and there in that old school building I heard quite how divisive the local campaign for a statue to M Thatcher had been.
And thus I learned more about this town on the Great North Road and the people who had passed through and stayed over. From Dickens to the great Tom Paine, who had actually worked in Grantham for a while. So many travellers up and down the old road and the rail, I applauded the old gentleman who demanded that fellow passsengers doff their hats as they sighted the spire of Grantham church. Then at some point in the post privatisation aftermath capital left the town and depression set in. In reaching back into history it seemed that through Newton, Grantham was reconnecting with its past. Walking back to my hotel on the last night the echoes of funfair screams, loud pop music, bright lights and gravity defying rides was the perfect end to a great days walking. Returning through the spectacle.
The following day, I stood on the bleak privatised station and read the plaque recording the glories of the speeding steam train, Mallard, on the long straight near Grantham years ago. My train was late. A final reminder from M. Thatcher.
I cant say that my mental association between Thatcher and Grantham is now broken but it is perhaps more nuanced, and it is after all not Grantham’s fault. What is important and surprising is the discovery of the town and the significance of its location to the people who visit and live there. This developing performative walk model is becoming an effective tool in that process. I experienced a town re-imagining itself and I was as surprised as the staff at the faux LA local motel were, to discover how much more there is to this small town once on the Great North Road.