Winner of 'Matter Of Heritage' announced; Alison Ireland considers the lottery and logic of inheritance
24th March 2015
Matter of Heritage was designed to invite literary comment on the importance of ancient sites designated as world heritage ones, in the light of recent reports of the destruction of such. I thought it would be interesting to reflect on why these sites yield such an emotional kick for the human inhabitants of the world, and to perhaps travel the world a little in literary form in the course of these reflections. However, the majority of the interpretations, with the exception of the nice piece about Liverpool, its personality and its being City of Culture, were much more personal, dwelling on what makes up an individual’s heritage.
Within this area of focus, entries were fairly varied, taking in paternity issues, inherited diseases, inherited houses, maternity issues, the Queen, America, Britain, India, Norway, curses, and race. Noteworthy of special mention was the piece on the cathedral stonemason, beginning: ‘John Brewster had stone in his blood’. A little reminiscent of Golding’s Spire, it neatly demonstrated its founding statement in a pleasing and thoughtful manner.
The winner: ‘Little bird, Fly free’, finishing with the highest average marks, was truly loved by its peer reviewers. Highly evocative with strong, clear images throughout, it’s a poem with a coherent message beautifully constructed. At a glance it has overtures of a Victorian children’s picture book with its birdcages and rich men, but it contains depth rather than sentiment in the narrator’s desperate bid to give to a child a childhood for the raw, poignant reason that it may well have to last a lifetime.
‘Like this I build your inheritance
A castle full of dreams and a
Half glimpsed memory of freedom.’
The first featured entry, ‘Janine’, tells of a mixed heritage, a young woman brought up by her grandmother with only a brief encounter with her birth mother, a troubled and fascinating artist character, before her death. It’s interested in the nature/nurture issue, and the interplay between life and art, essence and difference, works nicely:-
‘The hallway was still dark. The drapes had gone, replaced by watercolours; huge colourful abstracts. I gazed at each one, and in one of them I thought I saw reflections of myself, amongst the swirls and whorls of colour. I squinted at the title. 'Self Portrait' it said.’
The other featured entry, ‘The Hollowing’, was a poem I personally found really interesting. The narrator tries to explore his/her heritage by reading a piece of ephemera, an old miner’s diary, and gets drawn into other contemplations rather than discovering any concrete connections, such as that of what’s a trusty source when it comes to knowing anything about something we haven’t directly experienced. The nub of the poem is found in this verse:-
‘It unsettles me
this recreating of landscape,
that some of what we think we see
might not be real.
Can I trust his voice?
It's a matter of heritage.’
It’s an incredibly powerful verse in its insight into the reality of what we know, what we need to know, and what we think we need to know, and leads to an internal consideration of why. Perhaps it’s a matter of the combination of what we want our heritage to be and what it actually is. The usual pattern of heritage (the word as interpreted in the majority of entries) is that people with money and a sense of entitlement aim to prolong that situation by citing their ancestors; those who aspire to entitlement decline to cite or remember their past; and those who take things as they come have little shame in their heritage. The democratisation brought about by the internet facilitated a vogue for ancestor research – for many it took the place of a historical novel which could actually account for one’s presence and nature. But does this mining of the past yield real fuel or a false landscape – or indeed both? One entry sought to reclaim the writer’s own memories with the aid of Google maps, exploring their childhood routes and pathways. Tapping into what’s already in our mind lying forgotten or adding more, and what are we at the end of it all… Stop. I don’t know where I’m going with this. Honestly, I’ve always been a little confused by heritage, despising those people who are really attached to their name, who tell you all about their successful ancestors (this one invented some form of electric, that one led Britain to success in war, this one discovered mayonnaise etc) as though over-privileged them, standing in front of you, was somehow responsible for all this achievement. But I know that from a genetic point of view, it’s nice to have a context for one’s moods, stuff you’re aware of all your life: a quick temper, a lazy streak, a tendency to depression, brilliance in musical performance. Context and pattern makes it easier for our brains to process and manage emotion, information, so maybe that’s why our heritages stream backwards and forwards, like so many brightly coloured ribbons, waving together in the wind.
AI 23rd March 2015