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Six Lockdown Walks

Artist John Newling and writer Alys Fowler exchange letters on their daily walks, through residential areas and open spaces in Nottingham and Birmingham. Reflecting on the pattern language of these environs and their own behaviours, some happy accidents and moments of connection occur.

The publication of the letters will be serialised here over the next 3 weeks. Scroll down for latest letter.

Explore John Newling’s exhibition Dear Nature online.

Letter: 1/6
From: John Newling
Date: Monday 6 April
Time: 10am
Weather: Sunny intervals and a moderate breeze
Subject: A walk at distance 

Dear Alys,

The first and possibly only route decision on my walk is whether to go left or right outside our gate. I go left. 

I pass neighbours and friends houses and find myself waving at them. Weirdly I think this helps as if some sweep of air percolates through their walls and makes a greeting. I bring my hand down feeling a bit silly. Before long I have to cross a main road. It reminds me of film footage of the M1 opening in 1959 with single Morris Minor trudging along the vast open space of tarmac. I cross the road and think about how the earth is doing a huge spring clean right nowthis gives me some solace.   

There is, and always has been, a distance between what we hope for and the reality of our world. Distance has been a generator of human endeavours for millennia. Social distancing gives us a chance to think about what we wish forThe earth is getting cleaner and in some ways all of this can be seen as a rehearsal for some of the conditions we need to maintain if we want to survive as a species. 

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Letter: 2/6
From: Alys Fowler 
Date: Monday 9 April
Time: 4pm
Weather: Sunny, warm, light breeze
Subject: A walk with no distance

Dear John,

I can go forward or I can go right. If I go left, I hit the railroad. If I go forward, I head towards to the shops, to people and commerce. I consider this the other world. If I go right, I enter my world. I take three more rights until I dip under the railway bridge and scramble up into the park, to snake between the poplars and the emerging cow parsley, to count the cowslips (just one this year) and watch the buttercups wake up. Then through to the little wood, saying hello to the wood anemones, curving past the fallen tree where the slime mould lives, checking in on the oyster mushrooms that are now wilted snotty handkerchiefs of their former selves. Then a little further on, past the pond and the great beech (not yet in leaf, unlike your hedge) to the allotment gate and my destination.

I do this walk nearly every day. It is mapped on my heart and that of the dog’s too. She is fond of certain spots the way dogs are.  She likes to idle by the pond, knowing full well that I want to get behind the gate as quickly as possible and, playing on my frustration, will get offered a treat to hurry up. She has a mighty will for a small being.

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Letter: 3/6
From: John Newling
Date: Friday 17 April

Time: 2pm
Weather: Sunny with a gentle breeze
Subject: Between a chalked sign and a tree that hugs itself

Dear Alys,

It’s the daily walk. Compliance is a strange thing. I heard this morning that it will take 66 days for us to accept the new conditions and, indeed, to get a bit grumpy when the new conditions are changed. Not sure where that comes from, but odd all the same. We are currently drowning in snippets of data. I can still feel the stinging of my hands from last night’s clapping; that’s three so far, another six and we will be close to resenting the end of lockdown.

Right or left at the gate. I go right. I pass our next-door neighbours’ house and glance up at the flag flying from the pole they have installed. Our neighbours are smashing people and very creative. Amongst many things they have a huge collection of flags, from smiley faces to national emblems. I am not a fan of places flying the St George or Union Jack. They give me the creeps and I find myself making all kinds of assumptions about the place and its occupants.

No, our neighbours’ flags can change daily, tuning our small community into the rest of the world. I love the flags as they remind us of other stories and places whilst being remote from the relentlessness of our news media; a kind of community journalism. At the moment in the porch of the same household there are two white boards with short bursts of text, information on the flag they are flying, facts of the day and jokes; brilliant.

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Letter: 4/6
From: Alys Fowler
Date: Tuesday 21 April
Time: 4pm
Weather: Sunny
Subject: A daily routine: a walk to feed the chickens

Dear John,

A few days ago, I ran into friends walking their dog and we shouted at each other from opposite sides of the street. Michael hollered;

“I woke up, opened the curtains to another bloody sunny day and concluded that it really is Groundhog Day!”

I nodded wildly in agreement.

I didn’t really think this one through: one walk a day and I have to feed the chickens. So it’s the same walk again and again and again. Plus, work dictates at the moment that it’s always in the afternoon. This makes me all the more grateful for your walks, at least I can read of different vistas! I love the hugging tree. I have a similar tree on my walk, except this one wears its heart on its sleeve.

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Letter: 5/6
From: John Newling
Date: Friday 1 May
Time: 11.15am
Weather: Occasional sunshine, windy and showery
Subject: A walk at distance: languages

Dear Alys,

Beneath the street tree outside our gate is an area of soil that I dug over in 2010. It was exciting to dig in this place; not a garden or an allotment, but a kind of non-place. I love digging. It has something to do with cutting through our cultural surfaces, in this instance old tarmac and pavement detritus, to find what is below. It is a kind of discovery, where you see what has always been beneath our feet, albeit forgotten.

The original plants I put into the zone have long gone, however, many more have appeared. Some have been planted by friends and others have just blown in. I like the thought that the root zone acts as a catchment for seeds whirling in the wind, on our feet, fur and paws. I have often wondered at the ways in which plants grow through the pavements and walls of our streets.

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Letter: 6/6
From: Alys Fowler
Date: Tuesday 12 May
Time: 12pm
Weather: Dull, cold
Subject: Same old, same old

   

Dear John,

I found a hole in the road and peered in on your behalf. I guess that hole is going to be there for a long while to come. It was the start of some big works, for pipes or perhaps wires, but now abandoned. I pondered the thin veneer of concrete and all the layers.  In this part of the world, you don’t have to dig very far to come to that blue-orange smear of pure clay; good enough to make the bricks of the city.  I had half a mind to come back at night and plant a tree in the middle of the road to see what might happen. I haven’t though.

Instead I’ve been battling a migraine that crept in after breakfast, halfway through the first draft of an interview, and has lodged itself for the day. I’ve pruned its ambition with painkillers, but that just leaves the odd sensation of the space the pain occupies. Like the ghost of the headache and the strange auras that come with it.

Thus, it has been a very slow walk today, wrapped up in a jumper, cardigan and woolly hat, to go check on the pumpkins. They are none too pleased to be in the polytunnel under additional layers of fleece, bubblewrap and a plastic sheet. However, this is in preparation for tonight’s frost, which may well be worse than last’s night version that left the garden dusted in a layer of white and took a few nasturtiums with it.

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