Writing: ‘Documenting Disappearance’

Last week my article ‘Documenting Disappearance: a day in the “research laboratory” of Iona and Peter Opie’ was published online in the journal Performance Research. In this blog I want to reflect a little bit on the background to the piece and on how it fits in to my wider research and creative practice. For me, this has been a key piece in exploring a type of overlapping critical and creative writing that I have been interested in for a while. It seems significant somehow that I have only arrived at it not by moving forward and looking outward but by writing about something very personal, delving into family history, exploring an enclosed space.

A few thoughts on this in what follows, and also a few additional photographs that didn’t make it in to the final piece.

The Opies and their ‘Research Laboratory’

Iona and Peter Opie were a husband and wife team who spent more than 50 years exploring childhood culture and ‘lore’. Working in relative isolation as professional writers rather than tenured academics, between the 1950s and the late 1990s they published numerous works together, with Iona finishing off a number of these on her own following Peter’s death in 1982.

The vast majority of these books were written from their home in Liss, Hampshire, where they established a self-contained research environment that fed the creation of their work. A sense of this, and of their working practices, is given in this remarkable (and quite funny) BBC interview which was brought to my attention by Julia Bishop in a tribute to Iona at the latter’s memorial at the British Academy in 2018, following her death in 2017.

Family ties

The Opies were my maternal grandparents: my mum’s mum and dad. The ‘research laboratory’ seen in the film above was a very familiar place from my childhood, and indeed from my adult years. Although I never met Peter, who died when I was less than a year old, I used to often go to visit Iona there both on family trips as a child and later on regular visits which continued more or less up to her death.

It’s basically a slightly weird thing to have semi-famous grandparents, working in a field at least partly aligned to the one that I am working in myself. I’ve become more and more conscious over recent years of that weirdness, and of the fact that I probably never would have set off down the pathway in life that I have done if it wasn’t for the influence of my gran.

The house itself embodies some of these tensions: ‘research laboratory’ and family home, repository of significant collections and a locus of childhood memories. After my gran died in 2017, I was determined to visit it for a final time and to spend a day there documenting as much of it as possible before it was cleared and the collections were re-housed.

One day projects

For some time now I have been conducting a series of very short, intensive ‘one day projects’  focused on documenting particular places and spaces over a designated period of time. These projects are strongly influenced both by the psychogeographic walks and interventions of writers such as Iain Sinclair and, perhaps more closely, by the ‘Day Surveys’ of the Mass-Observation movement. In the 1930s, this Surrealist-influenced sociological movement encouraged ranks of amateur writers to document particular days of national significance. Often these were symbolically loaded or ritualistic days such as the Coronation of George VI in 1938.

I’m interested in the the idea of ‘day surveys’, and of strictness that comes from taking a day to complete a project. I like the obsessive quality it brings to writing, documenting and recording. For me, one-day projects are also an important way of concentrating and carving out a space for creative activity in the midst of a challenging schedule juggling various other tasks.

Approaching  this final visit to my gran’s house as a ‘one day project’, undertaken on the symbolically ritualistic day of the Winter Solstice (the Opies themselves wrote about myth and ritual, of course) introduced an important distancing device. This was a personal project, which I wasn’t initially thinking of pitching out for publication, but one which allowed me to delve into a complex tangle of memories and allowed me to work through some of the sadness of my gran’s death and the definitive closing of a particular chapter of my own life, linked to her house.

Personal and private writing

The piece of work that has come out of this – published in an edited form in Performance Research — is an important one for me. In some ways it is not a very typically ‘academic’ piece of writing. It is written in the first person, about an extremely personal subject, without any presence of objective distance. It incorporates images, too: photographs taken over the course of the day in the house which hopefully add an additional dimension. I see this piece as an attempt at practice based research practice – an overlapping of creative and critical writing which for me feels like it sits well in relation to its subject matter, and which does it justice.

For me, this article points a way forward for the type of work and the type of writing that I would like to do much more of. It has helped, frankly, to vindicate and validate my sense that the type of writing that I do does have a place in the academic publishing landscape. It’s an important piece of proof that it is possible to write in a personal register – one that perhaps leaves you quite exposed, quite vulnerable –  and still find your way into academic print.

The full article is available online here (for those with access via an institution):


Some additional pictures not used in the article but taken on the same day in the Opie house can be viewed below.




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