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If The River Is Hidden - An Interview With Craig Jordan-Baker

By Manon Martini

As a student of literature, I believe researchers in our field can often become quite rigid in our attitudes towards academic research and project outputs. Where other disciplines may undertake excursions and experiments, we often rely solely on books and ‘armchair travel’ to experience such things second-hand. Traditional literary research doesn't often engage with the practical input that other fields do and whilst armchair travel has its advantages, we can sometimes long for something more. In an age of social and political uncertainty, such academic transitions are making way for more modern, innovative approaches to literary research and creative writing that will surely have a trickle-down impact on undergraduate study.

University of Brighton lecturers such as Craig Jordan-Baker are pioneering this twenty-first century academic development through their innovative approaches to research and writing. Doing away with elitist notions of dreary offices and stacks of paperwork, Craig’s current project can be described as a vibrant, palimpsestical manifestation of his own practical research and experience. The layers of the project include a pilgrimage along the river Bann, a written performance in collaboration with Cherry Smyth and Eimear McGeown, and a book entitled If the River is Hidden, to be published later this year by Epoque Press. The project began back in 2020, when Cherry was passing the town of Bann Bridge and began to wonder about the river that ran through it. She reached out to Craig, who has family from the town, inviting him to embark on an eighty-three-mile walk along the river to explore its typographical and social significance. They set off on their pilgrimage in July 2021.

“The Bann’s interesting” says Craig, “because it has lots of historical significance and is well reflected in folk lore.” Historically, the Bann was proposed as the boarder that would separate the Republic from the Northern Irish state. Whilst this proposal was ultimately scrapped, the river still bears the immense weight of Ireland’s social and political anxieties - physically and psychologically. Walking along side it, Craig and Cherry wanted not only to explore the physical geography of the river, but its political and poetical significance in a secular age of climate crisis, Brexit and Covid-19.

Exploring the political and agricultural significance of the river, Craig spoke to Franky, an eel fisherman on Loch Nay. He learnt how parts of the Bann were polluted and dredged, destroying the balanced ecology of the river and drastically reducing the eel population that so many people's livelihoods rely on. The once thriving eel life cycle is no longer contained exclusively within Ireland but instead infiltrated by England’s importation of baby eels or ‘elvers’.

Whilst for some the river has great significance, Craig notes that for many, “Your home river is often something you take for granted. It's an aspect of your landscape which becomes invisible.” This sense of invisibility was demonstrated in his interviews with locals, many of whom didn’t know much about the Bann or hadn't really considered its history before. The tension between the rivers concurrent significance and invisibility is duly represented in the project’s title: If the River is Hidden.

The threads of Craig and Cherry’s personal relationship with the landscape are undoubtably interwoven into the material of the project. A queer woman, a non-traditional protestant and a first-generation Irish immigrant, Cherry’s relationship with Northern Ireland could be described as “ambivalent”. She migrated to London in the Eighties during the troubles, fleeing Northern Ireland’s conservativism and homophobia only to face similar prejudices and harsh anti-Irish sentiment in England. In this sense, the project ultimately became a space through which she could re-engage with her country of origin and reconsider her complex relationship to it outside of the stereotypical unionist/republican binary.

Craig’s relationship to the land is equally fascinating. Coming from a working-class community in Southampton, he grew up in a violent and prejudiced environment. Despite this, he was always very aware of his Irish background and described his life-long attachment to the Irish literary tradition as “a way of coping with an environment that was, to me, incredibly anti-intellectual.” The project has allowed him to reconsider his relationship with this oneiric space and explore the diasporic tensions between the expectation, and the reality of travel and landscape.

Referring to Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Questions of Travel’, Craig notes how “The river was not unitary. The river was not this perfectly placed bucolic locus amoenus.” Whilst he admits there were idyllic points along the way, with picturesque views and joyful experiences, he describes them as being punctuated by the reality of “grit, dirt and signs to repent”. The often-disappointing reality of travel as we’re forced to remove our rose-tinted glasses, alongside questions of heritage and politics, ultimately produces intense feelings of discomfort. It is these unnerving associations with landscape which the project ultimately seeks to uncover and explore.

A finished and final literary project could be compared to an old oak tree: strong, sturdy and perfectly poised. Craig’s project, however, allows us to see not only the tree itself but also the twisting, contorting roots deep beneath the earth. It is within these roots that these emotional complexities are hidden. Questions of heritage and landscape that can only be answered through walking, writing, music and talking reside there. If the River is Hidden lays these roots bare, defying linearity and stratification and in doing so paves the way for future creative research and literary study.

If the River is Hidden is out with Epoque Press, and available to purchase on their website.

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