Around 2003-2006 Thom Yorke, the frontman of the band Radiohead, wrote an angry song titled Harrowdown Hill. Its lyrics quite clearly referred to the death of Dr David Kelly, the respected Welsh scientist and UN weapons inspector, and to the 2003 invasion of Iraq by a coalition led by the USA and the UK. Yorke later acknowledged his discomfort about the song and tried to play down its fairly obvious lyrical links to Dr Kelly’s death because he realised he might be intruding on the Kelly family’s unimaginable grief. And, of course, there is always a sense of ethical unease around making art, even commercially successful art, about very raw tragedies, indeed about the suffering of others in general.
John Spinks’ photographic book Harrowdown Hill explicitly and openly says that it takes this very subject as its starting point. Perhaps time has given enough distance to discuss it? It is hard to say. Much depends on how we understand Spinks’ book.
It is worth stating the context clearly: in the run-up to the Iraq war, Dr Kelly’s discussions with Andrew Gilligan of the BBC led to Gilligan reporting that the Blair government’s claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction ready to deploy with 45 minutes’ notice, were exaggerated. The report led to a dispute between the broadcaster and the government, and Dr Kelly was exposed as the BBC’s source. He was summoned to an extremely pressured grilling by two parliamentary committees on 15th July 2003. Two days later, he was found dead on Harrowdown Hill, Oxfordshire, near his home (about seven miles from Yorke’s school). The death was officially declared a suicide by strong painkillers and incised left wrist. The death, the government’s role in the events around it, and the conclusions of the ensuing public inquiries have been subject to intense controversy and research.
Spinks has now, twenty years later, released a photographic project based on this traumatic and deeply consequential episode of recent British political history. He gives us a book bound in blood-coloured fabric, containing over 100 images of the terrain of Harrowdown Hill. Leafing through the book is unsettling. Not that it shows us anything visually explicit about human death—the closest references seem to be the colour of the cover and a single image possibly of the trees near where Dr Kelly was found. In visual terms, it actually first comes across as a book of landscape photographs, perhaps at times a little reminiscent of David Hockney’s later paintings. But it is unsettling because of the weight of its contextual references and its unusual sequencing.
The rhythm of the book is marked, above all, by repetition and interruptions. The same path, the same bend, the same tree or cluster of trees, again and again, but interspersed with images that might, very occasionally, suggest that we have started a walk that is actually taking us somewhere. But then we come to a blank page or maybe a hazy view of the sky—and we are thrown back to the very same path, sometimes pretty much exactly as we just saw it, sometimes possibly in a different season, or different lighting conditions, or from a slightly varied viewpoint. At times we get two, three, even four identical, or very near-identical shots of the same view. At times there’s a light leak or the edge of a negative frame protruding into the image—some sort of error occurs, but it is left in rather than edited out.
There is sheer emotional compulsion in seeing, say, the same view four times, or the same folklore monster-ish tree twice in succession.
The book’s sequencing structure seems temporally quite open while having some aspects of apparent direction—it is perhaps deliberately convoluted, a little like the networks of branches in the photographs. It suggests a complex mixture of forward, back-and-forth, and circular movements in both space and time. When looking at some of the repetitions, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the repeated lines in Yorke’s song; there is sheer emotional compulsion in seeing, say, the same view four times, or the same folklore monster-ish tree twice in succession.
Considering the issue stated as the conceptual foundation of the book, the temporally unstable editing might read as an investigation of sorts—perhaps one that struggles to find a system to follow, a reliable approach to the problem at hand. Or maybe it reads a little like an expression of disorientation of the populace of the UK in the tangle of political spin and mis- and disinformation at the time and in increasing doses since then. After all, the Kelly affair and the Iraq war in general were the Blair government’s defining errors, and the war was launched on the basis of what turned out to be nothing but spin—at the very least badly handled intelligence, or perhaps sheer willful exaggeration for political purposes. In Spinks’ book, we return to the site of events that eventually led to the rise of right-wing populism, to the current situation where truth as a concept has all but evaporated, and everything that has resulted from this deplorable opportunism.
In Spinks’ book, we return to the site of events that eventually led to the rise of right-wing populism, to the current situation where truth as a concept has all but evaporated, and everything that has resulted from this deplorable opportunism.
The book has more conceptual layers, however. As soon as one opens the cover, one is faced with Middle English text. The citation comes from the Arthurian legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. With this, Spinks connects the book to the long history of British writers on Arthurian themes, ranging at least from the anonymous poet of Sir Gawain to the British-Japanese novelist Kazuo Ishiguro.
The citation is an ambiguous reference in this context. It could be there to suggest something about the historically foggy foundations of British nationhood, identity, and politics, and how these were at play in the murky times around 2003, especially in the feverish drive to war; the anonymous Gawain poet speaks of the British as a “battle-happy” people.
Perhaps the book asks whether British ideals, romantically projected onto the kind of landscapes Spinks photographs, had been forgotten or even consciously abandoned by 2003, let alone since then.
Or, taking a broader view of the Green Knight story, the citation could set up a contrast. On the one hand, we have the honesty but also the human fallibility of Sir Gawain, one of Arthur’s knights, and the benevolence and insight of Lord Bertilak de Hautdesert, who recognised Gawain’s integrity in the test set up for him, despite Gawain hiding the green sash given him by the Lord’s seductive wife. On the other hand, however, we have the treatment received by honest Dr Kelly, who was also on his way to knighthood, but was not afforded similar benevolence and forgiveness by those in power. Perhaps the book asks whether British ideals, romantically projected onto the kind of landscapes Spinks photographs, had been forgotten or even consciously abandoned by 2003, let alone since then.
But, although Spinks does not spell this out, the closest literary comparison to his work might actually be Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. Spinks gives us a beautiful misty sequence and some misty shots, where the view fades as it recedes from us—the distance, whether spatial or temporal, fades away. Ishiguro’s post-Arthurian Britons and Saxons also live under a mist, exhaled by she-Dragon Querig, that casts an amnesia on them to shroud their individual and collective pasts. But the collective oblivion keeps the peace; the slaying of Querig and lifting of the mist lead to remembering the wrongs of the past and to renewed war between Britons and Saxons. The story asks whether it is better to remember or to forget; and perhaps, in the case of the collective trauma of war, on whose terms we might allow forgetting.
Spinks’ book is perhaps best understood not as an ethically uncomfortable re-investigation of the Kelly affair, but as a reflection close to Ishiguro’s story. While we are taken back and forth on Harrowdown Hill, seasons still follow each other and, in the face of the relentless onward flow of time, forgetting might begin to occur. Indeed, for those who have lost a loved one, forgetting might be the most merciful thing of all—as it has been for Ishiguro’s Britons Beatrice and Axl, who have lost their son but do not remember the tragic death and keep living as if he’d only be away in another village. But on the more collective level, we do have a duty to learn and remember to understand why the present is the way it is. And by remembering, we have a duty to avoid repeating errors (although we clearly fail at this with unfortunate frequency). And we have a duty always to remember that power and prestige—titles and offices, political or otherwise— are never, in any context, equal to being right; no matter how difficult this might make one’s life. At the same time, we have a duty to respect the grief of those for whom it never ends because they remember.
With his blood-coloured book, Spinks reminds us of this complex, precarious balance.