Home » The House » Carran’s working diary 1: Genesis of The House (working title)


Carran’s working diary 1: Genesis of The House (working title)

Gateway to the workhouse

Southwell Threshold – gate and door

I am on the threshold of this new piece of work  and it’s the first day at my working house which for this week is the John Thaw Studio at Manchester University.

Since February this year when Jenny and I had our first meeting for the Poor Theatres Project I have been reading various gathered materials Jenny has given me, talked with her about approaches to this solo piece, garbled on about past projects and how they are linked to this project realising I have probably been working on this for many years already if I think back to Looking for the Tallyman (1998).  So I have also been trawling through Triangle Theatre archives and reconnecting with the workhouse which has been an image that has permeated my imagination since my mum told me stories of her birth “in a workhouse”.  Mum was Oliver Twist!

However that was then and this is now.

I thought it important because of “the beginning” and the threshold of performance, that I should reconsider my thoughts and feelings on this special day as I journeyed here today.

I am a journeywoman.  I am journeying to this job which will take up much of my time and thinking these next 13 months.  I leave the house with my Cath Kidston rose petaled case full of materials I have been considering on and off since February, my Little Blue Man haversack and my yoga mat.  These are not my only possessions.  If I had been journeying in 1877 to Dearnley (Birch Hill) Workhouse  I would have been carrying my only possessions and be in last resort mode, jobless and fallen on hard times.   I am a fortunate freelance artist with an interesting commission here.  I have a job to do and I can get the train. However if I had to walk for work from one town to the next it would take me at least an overnight stay on the way, it’s 45 miles from Southport to Manchester. I would not be making the journey with the intention of making a performance, I would probably have to work in the laundry or pick oakum but creativity might be a coincidence of my stay at the workhouse. My human spirit could not help itself.   I would not be able to escape my imagination.  Today my imagination is working overtime, at the beginning on the threshold of this work. I am nervous and bothered about it.

On my journey, because of the case, I am aware of the slopes in the kerbs that make me change my route to avoid bumping the case against them.  I notice the raised circles at each junction, for the non-sighted I think, then my mind fills up with thoughts about disability, how lucky I am , how do people walk about without seeing, how do they get on and off trains and I continue to be bothered.   The northern rail train is like a cattle truck, the carriages were only meant to last until the early eighties I think but they still use them. It‘s never a comfortable journey. It locates me in another time.

It’s going to be a fine day so I am not wearing a coat. If it was 1877 and I was going to the workhouse as a last resort I would be wearing everything I owned on my back.

I think:  I wish they had invented an imagination device that could tune into your brain and write down the thoughts as they came to you and then when you got to your destination you could plug it into your computer and away you would go – all those thoughts manifesting as material for the piece.  That’s how quick and efficient I want to be. I want to be able to make this piece properly and do the material justice, but I know it’s not that easy.  I have made too many performances to know that it is never an easy road.  So I am bothered, very bothered.

I think of the huge handwritten admissions ledgers kept by the masters and mistresses of the workhouses and then make a leap to the computerised systems that hold data on our personal finances.  It’s a big leap, maybe less personal but still invasive.  The big ledger is less intimidating than the internet, at least you can hold a ledger.  I think of all the books we write in and think about my diaries from 1970: entries on scrimping and scraping.

I pass the first homeless person sitting on the Oxford Road opposite Premier Inn.  I have put up artists in that inn: this guy is asleep and maybe dreaming something sweeter than his current situation.

The pavement down the Oxford Road is dreadful, my Cath Kidston rose petaled suitcause bumps along.  They are always building along the Oxford Road.  I  pass two smoking workmen in their high viz jackets, hard hats cocked like Artful Dodgers.  I follow behind another two – one wearing his company’s logo the other the logo of a recruitment agency.  He must be about sixteen, maybe it’s work experience.  I think of the workhouse boy I read about in one of the ledgers sent who was much younger than this youth.  In and out, in and out of the workhouse, out to service, back from service, out to service, back from service. Then I think of the others, many others: in and out, in and out, in and out, in and out, in and out, in and out, in and dead.  Seven gateways like Inanna, the last a death gateway.  (The Last Women 2009).

Finally I am in the Martin Harris Centre, taking a slightly different route from the usual because of the building works.  I discover there is a change to the threshold of the Centre: a revolving door!  I don’t want to get stuck in it with my luggage so I go the press for access route to the side now where the doors open for you.

I walk in the studio. They’ve fixed the door.  It’s all there – the equipment I have asked for.

I am lucky.  Though I earn my living not really knowing what the next job will be, I have been fortunate to have consistent work like this for many years.  I chose to be a journeywoman rather than have the security of a regular job. I cross this threshold and walk into the dark room where I have to make my imagination manifest itself in the space. I always feel useless, that I know nothing, that I have no right  to be doing this.  I’m not poor.

There is a loud bang, the lights go off and the emergency lights come on. It’s a sign or a ghost.

Dan is there to greet me.  If I had arrived at a workhouse as a lone woman, I would have been processed by a porter at the gate.  It’s a lengthy ritual I want to explore in this development work.  I tell Dan about the project and we spend some time chatting about some technical stuff, the loud bang and the emergency lights.  He says I may get a visit from an electrician later on.

No one will check on my work.  No one will tell me when I can have my lunch. No one will tell me when I have to go to bed.  The porters close at 9pm says Dan and I can stay as long as I like really.

I don’t have to sleep here because I have a house of my own.

My experience is so far removed from a pauper’s, yet I feel linked to the genealogy because my mum was born in a workhouse.

When Jenny and I went to Rochdale to see the remnants of the workhouse, there we met a man called George Genesis, a groundsman/driver for the hospital that is now on the site of the workhouse.  It was quite remarkable that he was the porter for our arrival, he was the only one on sight and he had so many stories about the place and they tumbled from him.  It is one of the best heritage encounters I have experienced – informal and immediate because the place and the story was personal to George.  He had to tell it.

At the threshold of a project, at an arrival at a new place curious tricks happen, stories knock on doors, walls whisper and shawled women stand at windows.   In the beginning was the house and at the front of the house was a door and above that door was a tower ticking time: in out in out in out in out……


Carran Waterfield



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