On Portland

I’m giving a talk on Portland tomorrow, after more than three weeks here and just a few days before I leave. I’ve been doing everything I can to meet people, chat, photograph, gather and assemble some kind of collection of materials for the forthcoming publication, so this is a good moment to take a look at what’s happened here. And to begin some preliminary thinking about what it all means within a larger practice.

Soon after I arrived, someone advised me to say that we’re “on,” not “in,” Portland. There’s no town of Portland. It’s referred to as an island, even though it isn’t. Portland is a peninsula—Latin for almost-island—although there’s nothing “almost” about this place. It’s a solid block of limestone in the sea and it’s got a hard edge. It’s connected to the mainland (sometimes referred to locally as England) via Chesil Beach, as well as by a causeway, although that’s relatively modern. For most of its history, Portland’s only physical link to the outside world was a massive, ancient, 19-mile long pile of pebbles. Its border, crossing the beach and separating it from Weymouth, is only a few meters long.

P1100976

Its hard edge is made up of cliffs and coastline—and a guarded demeanor. You can see the island-like outline on a map, but its real shape comes across less visibly in conversation.

P1110119

Most of my chats with people here begin with my asking how long they’ve been on Portland. The response, anywhere from entire lifetimes to a few months or years, tends to set the tone of the conversation to follow, or can even shut it down. A few days in, I approached a woman who said she’d been on Portland for only 42 years, and therefore was not a real Portlander. And so, she could not participate in a project about Portlanders, she said, because she wasn’t qualified. I thought she was joking. She wasn’t.

P1100601

P1110141

And so I heard about the family names that have been here for over 500 years, and met some of them. People learn that I’m doing a project about the place and talk to me about generations of Portlanders, proudly showing me family trees and old photos. I’m intrigued by these documents and momentos and I’ve been photographing them, because they act as a sort of evidence of something. Proof of identity. They say “oh, you must try to find so-and-so, they really know this place. They’ve got stories.” I’ve heard about fathers and fathers’ fathers who worked in the quarries, almost as though the family histories come right out of the stone. Pride is careful here. Defensive, even. One can be proud of this place, but only if you are really of the place.

brian1

Portland has a funny way of working with language to support these stories. They’ve created a slang word for those not considered real Portlanders: kimberlin. It’s not an obscure term. It’s written into the poetry and you hear it in local conversation. There’s a Kimberlin Club. And a “stranger’s cemetery.”

And they’ve removed language, too. Saying the word “rabbit” is considered bad luck on the Isle of Portland, so it’s not allowed (it has something to do with seeing a rabbit rush out of the quarries, taken as a sign of imminent collapse). They’ve simply removed the word from the English language. Hare or bunny is fine, and keeping rabbits as pets is okay too—but the word “rabbit” is banned. It cannot be said, written, heard or read. The irony, of course, is that by removing language the concept is strengthened (called the Streisand effect, elsewhere). It’s one of the most powerful stories of the island and it’s continually reinforced, particularly by the elderly, who knock on wood if they hear it on television.

P1100786

I guess one way to really be of the place is to know the community’s bounds—its rules and limits—and to pass that knowledge on to future generations. Even when the telling of it is the only reason for a tale’s existence (and this is certainly one aspect of culture, no?).

That original border with the mainland is marked on Chesil Beach by the Portland Bound Stone, and every seven years the community “beats the bounds” by taking two school-children and beating them with a stick while they lay across the stone, with prominent members of the community watching. It’s an ancient custom from a time before maps, when the town would walk the parish boundary and literally beat the line into its collective memory. It’s a ritual to define a territory by physically (and emotionally) inscribing it into the mind. On Portland, the beating of the bounds has been officiated for centuries by the manorial court leet, a small group of men who “exercise frankpledge” and collect rent on behalf of the crown (recording payment by inscribing marks onto long, wooden reeve staffs). The court leet represents the island’s oldest families and watches over Portland’s ways, writing its history and keeping its identity. It’s a tight system and it defines the heritage of this place. While mostly symbolic at this point, it hasn’t gone away.

reeve4

SM0469

Again and again I’ve been directed to those people and places on Portland where I would have access to these easy narratives—who’s been around, who’s got stories from the old days. Who’s real. I’ve explored many of them.

P1110113

But on my own, I’ve discovered others who are willing to talk or contribute, regardless of lineage. Recently, a couple excitedly approached me to contribute to the project. “We’re moving to Portland in August,” they said. They’re Portland’s newest and proud of it, even though they aren’t here yet. And I’ve received a submission from one of Portland’s witches (of the local pagan group Dolmen Grove), and from a 13-year-old self-published novelist. And the 30-year-old personal, intimate diary of a long-time resident.

I met a Filipino mom and her young son at a pre-school group. Her husband is Cypriot and they moved here from Cyprus three-and-a-half months ago. How does their story connect—or not—to the place? Are they Portlanders? Portland isn’t a diverse place. Almost everyone is white.

Who is a real Portlander? I’ve asked again and again and never received the same answer.

What about Shahib, who lives in Weymouth but has nurtured his business on Portland—an Indian restaurant—for ten years? I’d like to say that to me, he’s a real Portlander.

Most of the people I’ve met here were not born from stone; they came here because they wanted to. They’ve generously offered me their stories, or some particular view of the place, as outsiders who came and stayed.

And after a month of meeting and talking with the people who live and work on Portland, I can say with total confidence that every one of them is a real Portlander.

If I can offer anything at all to the community, it’s an inclusive view from the outside. Perhaps it’s a kind of challenge, a call to the community to look within its bounds and find itself on the pages of a simple artist’s publication—not as a tight narrative, but as a loose, flowing collection of voices. Changing over time. Isn’t everyone here a Portlander? That’s what I can offer.

And so I’m going to use language too. I’m changing the name of this project to “Portlander.” I won’t try to define who or what that is. I’ll simply include everyone and everything that I’ve encountered, and put a powerful word on it. “Portlander” is more of a question than a statement. Who makes a place?

P1100413

3 Comments

  1. I do so love your blog posts, Paul. How do you feel that you, a bona fide outsider, have been accepted (or not)?

  2. Thanks James. I don’t think it’s acceptance as much as welcoming. Sometimes cautiously so. For the most part, people have been warm and generous with their time. I think there’s a real curiosity about what I’m doing with all of this stuff that I’ve collected, so there’s going to be a part 2 in September when I come back for the arts festival and the publication is distributed. I’m thinking about that part now, a lot — who is the audience, where is my voice in the project. The project ends when I hand the work back to them.

  3. Such a deep project, as I would expect from you. You’re trying to unearth things from stone, from a culture that has, for years, successfully been as solid and steady and unmovable as that rock, and as rich as the quarries. You’re chipping away and sifting through miles of pebbles, in a way.

    You’re there as the world changes mini-cultures, simply because people move in or on. (That insistence on “on” reminds me of Maine, say, oh, Portland, Maine, calling the northern coast of Maine “downeast.”

    I love how, as before, you are inclusive in a way that no one talks about, but should. Yes, it is so important that we have a tremendously more inclusive culture in the US, in terms of large groups of people. But rarely do you hear people celebrating or noticing or recording people who are quiet about themselves, the people who aren’t recognized as being what they are: special, unique, rich with stories and experiences. The woman who looks ordinary, someone who is white-haired, a man whose skin on his hands is rough from work. The people who don’t tweet about their exploits or their pleasures. Even the people who don’t have amazing stories, but lived their lives, one day at a time, were loved or lost love or never found love, but lived out their days on that rock.

    That you devote yourself to this project and do it with such interest and respect, delight in the small things, find the secret and beautiful surprises within a person who thinks nothing of who they are, is so emblematic of your body of work. It’s so fascinating to me that your work, if you merely glance at it, seems made of many unconnected pieces when a closer look, at least as I see it, reveals a common thread—one that is subtle, beautiful, and powerful, beyond labels and words.

Leave a Comment