Researching Secrecy Amidst the Ruins of Orford Ness

Profile picture of Benjamin Meaker Visiting Professor William Walters

Professor William Walters, Benjamin Meaker Visiting Research Professor, University of Bristol

The heat of the Cold War forged a world in which national security came to be staked upon complex and large-scale technoscientific systems, the most notable being atomic weaponry. One of the consequences of this development was to accord state secrecy a new geography. States on both sides of the bipolar conflict created closed areas, and even whole cities (e.g., Oak Ridge in the US or the ‘closed’ cities of the USSR), dedicated to military research, development and deployment. This new covert geography was not confined to the surface of the earth, nor its surveillance from the sky by planes and satellites. A new underworld also took shape with the expansion of bunkers, tunnels, silos and control rooms. Most aspects of this new security infrastructure were deemed top secret. Physical access to these sites was tightly controlled. Knowledge about their very existence and location was strictly policed. And work within these settings was rigidly ‘compartmented’, structured on a ‘need-to-know’ basis.  The construction and management of these covert, dedicated infrastructures was a huge undertaking which gave rise to a new kind of shadow world, one that most citizens could glimpse only through rumour, fiction, and the occasional leak.

Orford Ness, Photographer: William Walters.

Some parts of this infrastructure, such as the Nevada National Security Site, remain in active use, being no less subject to official secrecy today than they were at the height of the Cold War. But other parts have been decommissioned and sometimes left to ruin. Falling into the latter category is Orford Ness. Located on the most easterly part of the Suffolk coast, Orford Ness was from World War I until the mid-1970s a key research and testing site for the UK’s military establishment as well as its US allies. Such research included not only bomb ballistics, aerial photography and experiments with radar, but also the stress testing of atomic weapons. In 1993 the National Trust bought the Orford Ness site from the Ministry of Defense.

Besides its historical significance, the NT’s acquisition was also motivated by the fact that Orford Ness is the largest vegetated shingle spit in Europe and thus of great ecological value.  During the summer months the NT allows visitors to explore the ruined landscape of Orford Ness, glimpsing not only rare birds but the mysterious observation towers, debris-strewn bombing ranges, and the crumbling remnants of the giant concrete laboratories where the UK’s atomic weapons were once heated, cooled, spun and vibrated in preparation for their live testing on distant Pacific  islands and the interior deserts of Australia. I had grown up in a small town a mere 20 minute drive from Orford Ness. The nuclear power stations at nearby Sizewell were palpable signs of Britain’s investment in atomic energy. But like many locals I had no idea of the presence of this other kind of nuclear activity.

Orford Ness, Photographer: William Walters.

A Benjamin Meaker Visiting Fellowship gave me the opportunity to spend several days at the University of Bristol in November 2018 advancing my research on Orford Ness and meeting other scholars and artists with a shared interest in discourses, practices, and paradoxes of state secrecy. My visit focused on two events: participating in a scholarly workshop on secrecy, and delivering a public lecture.

The workshop was convened by Dr Elspeth Van Veeren of the Secrecy and Security Working Group in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies entitled ‘Secrecy and (In)Security: New Perspectives. It brought together academics and artists who share an interest in renewing security research on secrecy. Topics included the potential of photography as a mode of understanding the paradoxes of secrecy within state strategies of counter-terrorism, the way in which public information campaigns made listening and chatting into sites of governing secrecy during WWII, and the arts of writing secrecy. My own contribution explored the idea of everyday secrecy, and built on a set of interviews with veterans who had worked at Orford Ness during the Cold War.

My public lecture was entitled: What can the ruins of an atomic weapons testing facility tell us about the multiplicity of secrecy? The event was in fact a co-presentation. My co-speaker was David Warren, a Volunteer Ranger and Researcher at Orford Ness. David is a veteran of this research site having worked there as a young scientific assistant in the early 1960s. Over the last few years, and at the behest of the NT, he located and conducted interviews with over 60 veterans of Orford Ness, a sample that included pilots, senior engineers, clerical staff, and construction workers. It is this rich and varied oral history archive that I have drawn on in examining everyday secrecy at the Ness. Given the fact his research has laid a foundation for my own I was grateful that the Meaker fellowship could provide such a platform for a collaborative public event.

Whereas David’s presentation focused mostly on key features of its scientific and military past, mine examined what Orford Ness can teach us about the cultural construction of secrecy. In the political sciences we tend to see secrecy in realist terms. For example, scholars debate the need for security policy to find the appropriate ‘balance’ between governmental secrecy and a democratic public’s right to know. Secrecy appears in these discussions a bit like a quantity, or a setting on a dial. But what of all the ways in which secrecy acquires qualitative meaning? How is secrecy performed? How is it experienced by publics? Under what conditions do we as citizens participate in the construction of secrecy ourselves? And what role do particular places and sites play in our imaginings of secrecy? What role does place play in creating particular cultural geographies of the covert?

Orford Ness offers a rich case study to seek answers to these questions. As I showed in my lecture, many kinds of actors have converged on Orford Ness, each producing a different and distinctive mediation of what they see as its qualities of mystery, secrecy and intrigue. The National Trust managers themselves identified mystery as a key quality of Orford Ness when they took possession of this place from the Ministry of Defense. In planning documents they highlighted mystery as a quality they sought to preserve as a kind of heritage. Their management of the site has actively curated a kind of aesthetic experience for visitors. By allowing its structures to slowly ruinate they have contributed to a mood of estrangement and unease in the visitor. When I first visited Orford Ness it brought to mind some key scenes in Tarkovsky’s epic film, STALKER (1980). Three travellers venture into a forbidden zone; debris lies all around, something very sinister has happened there, but what?

Still from STALKER (1979), directed by Andrei Tarkovsky: USSR.

Orford Ness has also been a popular destination for ornithologists, walkers, photographers, documentarians, writers and other kinds of artist. Now, it is not as though these visitors simply record a mood of secrecy that is in any way self-evident or natural. Rather, their imaginative and creative practices intensify affective and cognitive engagements with the covert, making secrecy intelligible in new ways. One sees this, for example, in the work of Louise Wilson. Her A Record of Fear set out to explore Orford Ness as a soundscape of secrecy. In the process she reminds us that secrecy is never just a matter of what is seen and unseen; it inheres just as much in the gaps between the spoken and the unspoken, in the faintly audible register of the whisper, or the viral agency and slippery medium of the rumour. Secrecy is as much aural as it is visual. Perhaps this finding would not surprise Brian Eno. One of the godfathers of ambient soundscape, Eno hails from this part of Suffolk. Listen to his On Land (1982), a recording which references places like Lantern Marsh on the Ness. Combining pastoral tones with an underlying machine drone punctuated by clanking and buzzing noises, Eno’s soundscape attunes us to the eeriness of the Orford Ness experience.

Finally, one could say that secrecy is also being constructed and performed at Orford Ness within a discursive register of urban exploration. For several decades now small groups of adventurers have been breaking into abandoned hospitals, hidden tunnels under cities, and other forbidden or invisible places. These place hackers typically film and blog about their experiences. In place hacking it seems secrecy becomes associated with truth in a new way: accessing particular sites becomes constructed as an authentic experience, something really real which ordinary tourism cannot approach. Orford Ness has not escaped the attention of the place hackers, as I learned when speaking to the National Trust managers. But it has also seen the mainstreaming of place hacking. In one episode of his popular TV series, Hidden History of Britain, former Tory minister Michael Portillo visited the atomic ruins. Or as the Radio Times’ blurb put it: ‘The former Secretary of Defence invades Orford Ness in Suffolk to explore the mysterious, formerly top-secret buildings that look, like sinister sentries, over the local population.’

Michael Portillo at Cobra Mist, Still from Hidden History Of Britain (2018), Channel 5: UK.

Yet calling Orford Ness ‘formerly secret’ misses something paradoxical. At the height of the Cold War, at the height of official secrecy, the place was little known to the wider public. Today it is known as a ‘secret’ place with a ‘hidden’ history. Secrecy has become a prominent, and even marketable feature of its identity. Secrecy as brand. Perhaps secrecy is not only the limit of what is publicly known. Might we also consider it, at least in this case, as a mode of public knowledge: a way of understanding in which it is the unknowable that energizes our will to know?


Looking beyond: how CT scanning opens up new horizons in understanding South American cynodonts and mammalian origins.

I would like to start by thanking the IAS Benjamin Meaker Visiting Professor Fellowship, Prof. Emily Rayfield and Dr. Pam Gill that made my visit to Bristol possible. This was my second time in Bristol which was an important visit to consolidate collaborative projects started in 2014 and to discuss further ventures for the future. I felt the University of Bristol and especially the Earth Sciences Department as my home during my visit. Cordiality and professionalism were two important aspects that I noted, together with the polite work we developed with students and professors.

Our collaborative project deals with mainly Brazilian fossils, from Triassic rocks (about 225 million years old), of small sized non-mammalian cynodonts. That is, animals closely related to the earliest mammals which have a mixture of primitive and derived features on the skeleton, illustrating the previous steps to the mammalian condition. We performed several computed tomography (CT) scans of skulls and jaws in order to observe in detail internal structures, such as nasal and brain cavities, replacing teeth, vascular innervations, etc. The high-resolution images we obtained in Bristol University under the advice, extraordinary dedication and professionalism of Dr Tom Davies are unique and reveal many previously unknown features of the skull. Without this technology, our conclusions would always have been partial. We scanned more than 30 specimens and collected more than 40 scans that are, and will be, the base of several projects.

During this visit, I spent a great deal of time discussing tooth replacement mechanisms with Pam Gill and Emily Rayfield (and also with Bristol alumni Dr Ian Corfe, with whom we started this project in 2014 in Helsinki), devising new hypotheses to explain the process and evolutionary patterns of tooth replacement in these precursors of mammals. I also had the opportunity to share discussions and ideas with two students from Bristol University: Erasmus visiting student Sofia Holpin and MSc Palaeobiology student Charles Salcido, both of whom are working on research projects using CT data collected from the Brazilian cynodonts. Sofia is working on the nasal cavity of a rodent-like cynodont called Riograndia and Charles on the biomechanics of the jaw of brasilodontids, the sister group of mammaliaforms. In our discussions, I was amazed how far the students had advanced in only a few months of hard work. Seeing important results being taken by these young students is always a good sign for the advance of the science. Being able to offer two seminars for students and professors at Bristol University was an exciting opportunity and, at the same time, important to divulge the South American fossil record and the research were are developing in our institutions.

We have delineated new future projects that will be important to maintain the collaborative research between the University of Bristol with the Universidade Federal of Rio Grande do Sul (Brazil) and the Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales “Bernardino Rivadavia” (Argentina). I would like to say that it is only the beginning of this project, which started in 2014, that will bring more novelties to vertebrate palaeontology in the near future.

Emily Rayfield, Pam Gill, Colin Palmer, Sofia Holpin, Charles Salcido from Bristol, Ian Corfe from Helsinki, Marina Bento Soares, Pablo Rodrigues and Cesar Schultz from Brazil and the IAS Benjamin Meaker Visiting Fellowship have made possible my visit to United Kingdom and to have access to novel data from the amazing Brazilian fossil specimens.

Finally, and no less important, the IAS Fellowship gave me the opportunity to stay and discover the city of Bristol. A city I believe is fantastic to which I will definitely return.

Dr. Agustín G. Martinelli

Sección Paleontologia de Vertebrados, Museo Argentino Ciencias Naturales “Bernardino Rivadavia”, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

A Research Sabbatical – Henry Daniel

BMVP 2016-17 henry daniel

Henry Daniel, IAS Benjamin Meaker Visiting Fellow, writes….

The IAS Benjamin Meaker Visiting Fellowship provided me with a unique opportunity to do initial fieldwork for my new research project Contemporary Nomads. The invitation also allowed me to guest teach on two different courses in the Department of Theatre (Devised Performance, and Choreography for Theatre) as well as on a new Innovation program with a number of four-year courses that lead to a Masters qualification. The structure of this degree allows students to spend two thirds of their time in the first two years in their subject discipline, and one third on innovation work. The balance would then change in later years where they would spend more time preparing for the launch of their own venture on graduation. The accent on the program was on Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Collaboration. The combination of these teaching opportunities and my research interests led to a host of connections being made with researchers in as well as outside the University, which in turn opened up further directions for Contemporary Nomads.

Research presentations at Coventry University’s C-DaRE Seminar Series in Dance, Brunel University’s “Precarity & the Politics of Art: Performative and Critical Empowerment after Democracy” Seminar Series, London Southbank University Research Seminar Series, Bristol Theatre Department’s Theatre Research Colloquium, and the Winter IASIS Salon on Diversity, all provided valuable opportunities to present as well as discuss this new research project with different audiences.

An event that occurred prior to my visit (my host gave notice a month before I arrived), also inadvertently proved to be quite fortuitous. This meant that I was mostly on my own trying to do fieldwork on the cultural dynamics of a city I knew only marginally. Although I had done a PhD many years ago at Bristol University, I had never lived in the city. The IAS Fellowship therefore gave me the opportunity to discover the city of Bristol and its environs from quite a different perspective.

A key aspect of this Professorship was the opportunity to explore future collaborative connections with colleagues within the University as a whole. The members of the Migration Research Forum, The Brigstow Institute, and others on the Productions Margins Research Project were especially helpful in giving me a sense of how that could be accomplished. Bristol, like all of Britain, had only just begun to understand the implications of Brexit while dealing with its own complex migration problem. Given the city’s historic role in the cross-Atlantic trading of bodies and industrial goods, and its example as a city that is now home to a range of immigrants, I felt that I had wandered into an ideal situation that would allow me to develop a unique case study.

As a choreographer and Performance Studies scholar, I was interested in linking movement as a fundamental premise of human behavior to that of migration. Why people move, where they move to, and what happens after these movements were questions that I felt were equally important to those working in law, policy studies, human rights, immigration, the economy, business, industry, and yes, dance as an art form. I also felt that situating the question of human movement from the micro to the macro, from the personal movements of individuals to the movement of large groups of people on a trans-national geographic scale could produce some very good results. Several conversations with colleagues from the Migration Research Forum, The Bristow Group, the Productions Margins Research Project, and numerous others I met from local communities – from the Jamaican barber shop in Easton to the opening of the Somali Festival at the M-Shed during Bristol’s Black History Month, and from the ACTA community-based theatre group in Bedminister to a number of local interests working to save the local Dance Centre at the old Jacobs Wells Bath convinced me that I was onto something that needed more time to properly explore.

A further opportunity presented itself when I was asked to mount a short performance work of my own with undergraduate students. I decided to use the framework of a previous work I mounted in Canada and feature students in the Theatre Department performing live. The intention here was to envisage how some of the research could possibly be presented in future. Two performances at the Wickham Theatre on campus allowed colleagues and friends to see the potential of such an approach. The good news is that colleagues I met at Bristol University and I are now in the process of working out how this type of work can be further developed. We are looking at a Leverhulme Visiting Professorship as a potential funding source. If this materializes, I would say that the IAS Benjamin Meaker Visiting Fellowship scheme has done a tremendous job in facilitating an important exchange.

My sincere thanks goes out to all those at IAS, to those at the Productive Margins Research Project, to my hosts at the Department of Theatre and especially to Angela Piccini in the Department of Film and TV, who suggested this route in the first instance, and who has been instrumental throughout in setting up connections and making suggestions on how to pursue them. Finally, as a thank you to all those who assisted in the production of Encounters Bristol, the performance/installation that was premiered on December 14-15 2016 at the Wickham Theatre. I look forward to visiting Bristol again.

A family sabbatical at the University of Bristol School of Earth Sciences

a boatride in the harbor viewing the replica of the Matthew that John Cabot sailed to North America in 1497 -- an early link between Bristol and America
a boatride in the harbor viewing the replica of the Matthew that John Cabot sailed to North America in 1497 — an early link between Bristol and America

Associate Professors Rowena Lohman and Matt Pritchard from the Department of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences, Cornell University (Ithaca, New York) spent just over six months visiting the University of Bristol School of Earth Sciences, thanks to Institute for Advanced Study Benjamin Meaker Visiting Visiting Professorships.  We were drawn to the University of Bristol because of the outstanding research programs aligned with our research interests in volcanology, geophysics, and glaciology (the latter is part of the School of Geographical Sciences).  In fact, during our visit we were able to celebrate the Volcanology Research Group’s award of the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher Education (link to:

Our visit to the department was everything we hoped it would be –intellectually stimulating, thanks to conversations with the staff and students, and an impressive array of seminars and visitors.  We were able to work with our collaborators here to complete joint manuscripts, develop new ideas for proposals and projects, and plan future cooperative activities.  Specifically, our research focuses on using satellite observations to better understand and forecast natural hazards like volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.  While we have been collaborating with scientists in Bristol for a number of years, there are numerous advantages to a visit lasting several months – being physically present (and in the same time zone) greatly facilitates rapid progress and the face to face interactions over a longer time frame allows ideas to develop in a more natural manner.  We also benefitted greatly from the ability to see how the School of Earth Sciences works and addresses the challenges and opportunities that face most departments – we go back with a fresh set of ideas and inspiration for how we can handle visitors, graduate student interactions, etc., in the future.

We brought along our two young children, who attended school in Bristol and traveled with us throughout the country.  We simply cannot overstate how rewarding this experience has been for them.  To help other families from the USA, we have written a few pointers.  Some of this is time-sensitive, so potential visitors should always check for the latest information.

  • Benjamin Meaker Visiting Visiting Professorships are typically for a maximum of three months. However, because we are married academics, we were able to each write individual applications, noting that if they could combine the two 3-month awards together in a consecutive 6-month period, they would end up with two visitors who were each there for the full 6-month timeframe.
  • The visiting professors are normally accommodated in the IAS’s Principal’s House, but since the rooms there cannot hold more than 2 people, we could not stay there with our family of four. Fortunately, the IAS pointed out to us that the University of Bristol has some limited family housing available, and we were able to stay there – Take home message is to be sure to apply for the housing as soon as you can.
  • The IAS office helped us to obtain the necessary Tier 5 (Temporary Worker) Government authorized exchange visas – be sure to consider the cost of these. While we did not have to pay any NHS fees as part of this visa, our children did – 400 pounds per child. Also, take note that dental coverage is not included.  Our US dental coverage did not cover work done in the UK, but we were pleasantly surprised at how inexpensive it was to pay for things like office visits and x-rays that we did end up needing.
  • Once we arrived in Bristol, the IAS office wrote us a letter so that we were able to open a local bank account, which was helpful for depositing our IAS cheques and electronic transfers. The procedure and requirements for setting up an account is very different than in the USA – in addition to the letter you need a rental agreement. Make sure that both spouses names are on the agreement if you would like both of them to use the account.
  • We were warned in advance that setting up schooling would be one of the trickiest aspects of the sabbatical, and we found this to be true. For our child in nursery school, we found several options available with space, and eventually enrolled her in a nursery program that is part of an independent school that takes kids aged 3-18, but that did not have room for our older child. The cost for nursery here was about what we were paying in the USA.  For children who are kindergarten age and up and who want to attend a state-supported school, the process involves an application where you also list your top three school choices.  You will not be able to get any confirmation of a spot until you are physically in the UK and have an immigration stamped visa for your child.  Through online research and a call to the Bristol City Council we found that all the state-supported schools within about 2 miles of our University housing were over-subscribed.  So the city council suggested that we also list a school that currently had spaces available that was close to the University of Bristol when we submitted our application.  In part this school was under-subscribed because it was recently rated “needs improvement” by Ofsted.  Although it is currently rated “good” (not the highest rating, which is “outstanding”), we found that school was an excellent match for our child and we would gladly keep her in that school if we were staying here permanently.  The lack of certainty on the school choice worried us a great deal before we arrived (we were not going to have a car, so location and commuting by bus was critical), but it really worked out just fine in the end.  One surprise was that the state- and independent- schools followed different academic calenders (for example, the independent school ended the summer term 2.5 weeks earlier), so be sure to check on this.

We want to thank everyone who made our visit to Bristol and the University so enjoyable: to the Institute for Advanced Study for funding and help with the all of the logistics, to our host Dr. Juliet Biggs, to the School of Earth Sciences for providing us space and making us feel welcome, and to

all of the friends we made.  We will miss you, and we hope to return someday!

The clifton suspension bridge and avon gorge
The clifton suspension bridge and avon gorge
Outside the planetarium At-Bristol
Outside the planetarium At-Bristol
Inside the planetarium
Inside the planetarium

Once upon an unusually sunny summer week in Bristol: a tale of a memorable academic visit – Simeon Pierre Choukem

Simeon picture for website
Simeon Pierre Choukem

I visited Bristol for the first time in December 2012, thanks to the European Foundation for the Study of Diabetes (EFSD) Albert Renold Fellowship. I was an Albert Renold Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism (OCDEM) for two months. I got Professor Julian Shield’s contact because I was developing a research programme to tackle childhood obesity in Cameroon. We discussed the topic for a few hours, he kindly introduced me to the Bristol Biomedical Research Unit (BRU), and we eventually were ready to begin collaboration.

In the meantime, I had created the Human Health and Diseases Connections (2HDC) Research Group hosted in the Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Buea, Cameroon. We successfully applied for an IAS Benjamin Meaker Visiting Professorship.

The visit

The current visit materialised the beginning of collaboration between the BRU and the 2HDC, which we hope will:

  • Contribute to building the autonomy of the 2HDC Research group by helping with the training of young physicians, nurses, dieticians in research methods and clinical trials
  • Create training and research opportunities for UK students and researchers in Cameroon
  • Foster long term interchange between the two institutions; for instance, develop joint research programs including multicentre clinical trials.

From June 14 to 20, I had the opportunity to collaborate with the BRU Team. I attended seminars and meetings, I gave two talks and visited the city of Bristol.

  • Attendance of a seminar on “How sugar changed the world” organized by the IAS. This was an international event involving guests from the US and UK.
  • Talk 1: Guest lecture: “Paediatrics where and as you may not imagine”
  • Talk 2: BRU seminar series: “Diabetes in Africans: a research journey from phenotype heterogeneity to risk factors in early life”
  • Discussions with the BRU team:

– Database manager, Stu Toms: how to build a database?
– Statistical team: Sam D. Leary and Chris Penfold
– Professor Julian Shield, Kathleen Gillespie and Abby Wilcox: project on childhood diabetes (Immunology and Genetics)
– Professor Andy Ness (Director BRU) and Professor  Julian Shield: discussion on projects, support from the BRU and capacity building training in Cameroon in 2015, 2HDC website, and how to make the collaboration sustainable.

I also learnt a lot about Bristol as a historical British city, thanks to Professor Julian Shield’s commitment to friendly tours, tales and invitations.

As a major achievement, the 2HDC Research group’s data on childhood obesity is being analysed by the BRU statistics team and research papers will be published soon.


Maintain a long-term cross-fertilisation between Bristol and Cameroon

  • Capacity building
  • Technical assistance
  • Joint research project and clinical trials

Interchange of students between UK and Cameroon for research, clinical posting and training.

Partnership to build a research institute in Cameroon.


My assistant Daniel couldn’t come with me! With the diligence of Professor Julian Shield and Professor Andy Ness, the BRU also provided funds for my assistant Dr Daniel Nebongo to be part of the trip. Unfortunately he was refused the visa. I am hoping the next attempt will be successful.

If the University of Bristol had Masters and PhD programs!

One of the main difficulties we face in developing research in SSA is the lack of well trained staff. I wished the Bristol University held masters and PhD training programs. This would have been a great opportunity for capacity building in Cameroon.


My words of gratitude go to Professor Julian Hamilton-Shield, who co-founded this collaboration with me; to Professor Andy Ness and the entire BRU team who accommodated me and made the sojourn a memorable one.

Finally, I am highly indebted to the Institute for Advanced Studies who provided the funding to make all the above come true. To Dr Conny Lippert and Dr Edwina Thorn who endeavoured throughout to make the trip and the stay hitch-free.

IMG_20140615_173022 IMG_20140615_173052

Remembrance, Legacy, and the Transatlantic Slave Trade – Ros Martin

Ros Martin, Bristol based artist and writer

Ros Martin creatively contributed to the University of  Bristol’s Institute for Advance Studies public panel discussion: ‘Slavery: Legacies and Remembrance’ on the 26 June 2014 with spoken word accompanying a music track, ‘Ethiopia’, composed and sung by Shropshire artist Polly Bolton. The soundtrack came from Bolton’s Magic of Song album.

‘Bolton’s haunting voice was my starting point for the pieces: ‘Ghost of our ancestors’ and ‘Remembering where I come from’ enabling spiritual connection with African ancestors. I wanted to respond personally to the silence in Bristol and the space: the Great Hall in Wills Memorial Building with a temporary sound memorialisation.’

Watch a video of her contribution.

Following the debate on 26 June 2014 in the Great Hall of Wills Memorial, panel members were asked to add what we would wish for the city.

What I would wish for Bristol?

To address the absence, give due recognition and respect to Bristol’s African ancestors contribution to the building of wealth in this city; a monument of a dignified African human being, evoking something of the Bristol African diaspora past and continuous struggles in the skyline in the city centre. (Not in a museum)
An addition plaque for the Colston statue in the centre clearly identifying his role in the transatlantic slave trade.
A name change for Colston Hall; as a mayor cultural venue for the city it needs to be fit for purpose with a name that seeks to unify all its Bristol residents and promotes the city’s aspiration for equality, social inclusion and social justice as culture should.
A carefully conceived, cross discipline, international centre of remembrance with objects. A centre that germinates ideas, raises projects, engages novel ways to dignify, learn, heal through memory’s journeys of the transatlantic trade, its ramifications and legacies today. At its heart, it should honour and readdress the silence regarding African ancestors and the diaspora contribution past and present to wealth and nation building.
This centre could be a place of healing for all. A place: of reflection, of campaign work; a centre of activism against commerce that denies people human dignity and rights.

A place to: curate exhibitions, hold seminars, show films, performances, talks, a place to: exchange ideas, thinking and work internationally. A centre: inspiring creative learning through public workshops from Bristol and other city’s transatlantic slave trading past and its trade legacies today.

It would enable us to better understand ourselves as human beings and our relationship with one another through the commodities we buy and trade.

Warmley Brassworks  27 June 2014 site visit

I’ve called it: ‘Capital’s Industry’

This piece was inspired following a site visit Mark Horton organised to Warmley Brass works 27 June 14 with panel members Cameron Monroe and Kodzo Gavua.

Capital’s Industry

Stretching out in front of you,
Horizons; old and new
Fetching up in the same space
A ghostly space.
Now, new build homes.
Recycled slag,
in Neptune, rising out of nowhere, ugly.

Ugliness is the sea’s dependence…….

spelter works residues
A marriage of science and entrepreneurship
Diverge from Bristol Brass company
Diversify into Warmley: a complete  works now
as Father Champions  son’s
Pioneering zinc speltering
augmenting his copper, brass spelter patent.

Contemplate how
Goldneys and Champions entwining wealth,
stump up capital from shareholders ready  to invest
and profit, completing this vast Warmley Brassworks.

Contemplate how
Nature’s elements profits all bountifully when harnessed into power,
privilege, status, innovation!

In furnaces, steam engine, waterwheels, dam, windmill,
Houses, shops, forge and battery mills,
the manufacture of plates, pans, vessels and pins,

2,000 toilers, oiling capital’s industry.
Mere cogs in this relentless triangle.

science at its best; generating  jobs, generating wealth!

Damn, the spanner in the spoke of Champions industrial ambitions!
Damn, the ganging up of former employers, Friends,
Bristol merchants, stalling expansion
Jealousies, resentments, feeding bankruptcy

See it?
Damn you!
Is always there.

This place, now
Eerily quiet,
unspeakably so.

Ros Martin

chalk one1st August, mark Emancipation Day, come, wish Bristol and the world better.

I am organising a public chalk event, a week Friday, August 1st from 2.00 to 4.00. Assembly 2.00 centre of Bristol by the fountains, to mark Emancipation Day  in Bristol which is marked in many former British colonies, areas of US and elsewhere.


– To raise awareness of the history behind it and the significance of the day
– To engage the random passerby with the day
– To encourage the passerby to relate and contribute with personal wishes. These could be words, messages that relate to their own emancipation/others struggles re what’s happening in the world, nationally, locally today.


Simple and effective, it informs and publicly engages the passerby, giving ‘little people’  a voice for a while whilst, creatively imagining a better Bristol and world. People are encouraged if they wish to, to express themselves re their concerns, and go on their way, a few stay. Open to all, any age, nationality, in any language…..

RESULT a temporary visual installation of our collective emancipation, wishes, dreams…. Come with chalks and enjoy the sunshine, or brave the rain, if only for a little while, Mark 1st August in Bristol, our bid for a better Bristol, a better world…..

Spoken Sonata – Jonathan James

jonathan james
Jonathan James


Jonathan James visited the Institute for Advanced Studies for a workshop about finding musical ways in to creative writing and the spoken word on 9 May 2014. He is a freelance classical and jazz educator who writes professionally, specialising in libretti for opera.

Creative writers have often taken inspiration from musical form, whether sonatas, fugues or different aspects of Baroque dance. In the Spoken Sonata workshop, participants were given an in-depth appreciation of classical Sonata form from a musician’s perspective. They were then invited to respond to the structures and processes demonstrated in the music as closely as they could within an hour, on a theme of their first sound-related memory.

Jonathan James
Dr William Wootten and Jonathan James

To close the creative circle, Jonathan offered, in turn, to take any ‘spoken sonatas’ that are posted here and to allow the rhythms and ideas of the poems to

evoke a musical response, as a stand-alone movement, quasi-improvised on the piano.  He is looking forward to uploading sound-files if anybody is happy to share their work below.

In Plain Sight: Knowle West Women Activating Communities – Dr. Sharon Irish

Dr. Sharon Irish, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, USA

Dr. Sharon Irish is an historian and grants coordinator at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), USA, with particular interest in community cultural development and urban spatial practices.

Knowle West, an area of south Bristol that was built starting in the 1930s, has a history of women actively working for positive social change. My recent fellowship through the Institute for Advanced Studies culminated with a celebration of a number of these women, and a discussion about future directions for Knowle West and Bristol. As an historian, I wanted to provide some perspective on the hard work that these activists have done over the decades: others came before them, and others will follow, all determined to improve the lives of their families and neighbourhoods.

During my time in Bristol, I interviewed ten of the Knowle West women who have organised against drugs and the de-funding of youth services, and for increased bus service and park improvements. Penny Evans, the assistant director of the Knowle West Media Centre, was an essential partner in my project, introducing me to the women whom she had interviewed for an earlier project, the University of Local Knowledge. I asked them what had prompted their actions, what challenges and successes they had experienced, and what advice they had for future activists.

‘Sew Clever’ Bunting

On 28 April 2014, about 35 people gathered at the Knowle West Media Centre to reflect together on the ‘tips and tricks’ that arose from our conversations, and to express further ideas about needed change. This event was part of the University of Bristol’s Productive Margins research programme with which I was connected this spring. We had an animated evening of exchange! Participants also wrote some suggestions on fabric triangles and Knowle West’s ‘Sew Clever’ group created bunting with the messages.

Why it is important to know about and acknowledge those who have struggled before us? Stories from the past provide a context for our current efforts, and add dimensions to our actions that help us see ourselves as historical agents, as women making history. The first cooperative women’s guild in Bristol formed in winter 1889-90 and was run by the members themselves; a Mrs Layton in about 1900 reported on condescending outsiders who came to their meetings. Her frustrations were very similar to the experiences of Knowle West women, who also were poorly served by officials and experts from outside their community. Mrs Layton noted:

I was not used to working-women managing their meetings. I had attended Mother’s Meetings, where ladies came and lectured on the domestic affairs in the workers’ homes that it was impossible for them to understand. I have boiled over many times at some of the things I have been obliged to listen to, without the chance of asking a question. In the Guild we always had the chance of discussing a subject. (Margaret Llewelyn Davies, ed., Life as We Have Known It, 1977, p. 40)

Drawing by Joff Winterhart

The Bristol Broadsides publishing cooperative included Pat Dallimore, a Knowle West resident who not only wrote compelling poetry and essays, but also worked in radio and television. She attended Bristol Broadsides editorial meetings, and appeared on television in the mid-seventies under the auspices of Knowle West TV. Women whom I interviewed recalled her with fondness, and discussed her leadership with admiration. These women recognized that media—print, radio, television, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter—were tools for education and publicity, as long as they remained in charge of the messages. Their commitment and hard work—done ‘in plain sight’ but not often visible—has shaped the histories of Knowle West and Bristol.

Sharon Irish
Twitter: @zumpang

20 TIPS FOR COMMUNITY ACTIVISTS 20TIPSAcademics working with Community Activists

My “Yuanfen” with Bristol – Professor Lianzhen HE

He Lianzhen
Professor Lianzhen HE, University of Zhejiang

Professor Lianzhen HE works at the School of International Studies, Zhejiang University, China and visited the University of Bristol in 2014 as an Institute for Advanced Studies Benjamin Meaker Visiting Professor.

Yuanfen is a Chinese term meaning the “binding force” that links two persons together in any relationship, and for me, it is the right term to describe my relationship with Bristol.

I first visited the city of Bristol in 1992 when I was studying at the University of Birmingham. Bristol struck me as a beautiful city with great dynamics, and deeply impressed by the magnificence of Bristol Bridge and the city as a whole, I promised myself that I would be back again.

What happened twenty years later brought me to Bristol again, this time to the University of Bristol. In May 2012, a delegation headed by Professor Nick Lieven, Pro Vice-Chancellor of UoB, visited Zhejiang University, my home institution. I was invited to the presentation by Professor Lieven, from which I got to learn more about UoB, “One of the jewels of British Higher Education”. Soon afterwards, in June 2012, when I was leading a small group visiting a couple of UK universities, I decided to include UoB, in an attempt to establish the bonding between my school and the Graduate School of Education at UoB, and the visit proved fruitful. Later in 2013 when UoB held its first graduation ceremony overseas, Professor Yang Wei, then president of Zhejiang University, was awarded Honorary Degree from UoB, I was invited to attend the ceremony and the dinner hosted by Professor Sir Eric Thomas. There I witnessed the popularity of UoB among Chinese students and I could foresee her greater impact in China in the future. And here I am again, as a Benjamin Meaker Visiting Professor this time. A truly great honour for me, I consider it a great opportunity to tighten the bonding.

Both members of WUN, there has already been some collaboration between Zhejiang University and UoB, especially in the area of education and language assessment. Working closely together with Dr. Guoxing Yu, we’ve secured funding from Educational Testing Service (ETS), the world’s largest test provider, British Council and Cambridge Assessment for our research projects. We have also succeeded in our joint application for WUN Research Development Fund 2012, aiming at establishing a WUN Language Assessment Research Network, the first of its kind on language assessment in the world that brings together the research-intensive universities at this scale. And we’re currently exploring areas for further collaboration.

It is Yuanfen that brought us together, and I believe it is this Yuanfen that will take us further.

Do women make a difference as foreign policy actors? – Professor Sylvia Bashevkin

Sylvia Bashevkin, Professor of Political Science, University of Toronto

Sylvia Bashevkin is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto. She visited Bristol University’s School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies (SPAIS) as the Benjamin Meaker Visiting Professor.

Scholars in the UK and elsewhere have spent lots of time studying women’s contributions to legislative politics. Whether they focus on attention to child care and anti-violence policy or the better tone of debate that often follows from electing more women, researchers generally conclude that larger numbers do matter.

One angle that deserves closer attention involves women’s clout in the political executive. The growing concentration of power in the hands of prime ministers and senior members of cabinet means legislators are less and less influential. Even when backbenchers had more power than they now command, the political executive’s ability to shape decisions in areas such as international relations far exceeded that of parliament. For one thing, foreign ministers and the prime ministers who appoint them have long enjoyed access to all kinds of confidential intelligence reports and military briefings that never reach average MPs – let alone members of the general public.

Asking how women operate in top jobs in global politics opens a fascinating window on ties between public officials and social movements.  One key finding about legislators is that female MPs from the progressive side of the political spectrum often champion feminist issue agendas after they’re elected. What about female cabinet ministers? Do appointees in the foreign policy field work to direct their country’s international aid spending, for example, toward women in the global South?

Clare Short, UK Secretary of State for International Development, 1997 – 2003. © Faizan Bhat

Thanks to support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, I’ve been able to pursue this question in a systematic way. What I find is:

  • Firstly, over time, we see more women holding senior foreign policy positions in Western industrialized countries, including the UK.
  • Secondly, countries with relatively high numbers of women in international relations cabinet posts (such as Sweden, Norway and the US) also tend to be among the most generous toward pro-equality foreign aid initiatives.
  • Thirdly, and conversely, countries such as France and Italy with historically low levels of women in senior foreign policy jobs have been more modest in their support for equality programmes in the global South.

For countries like the UK in the middle of the distribution, which party is in power seems to make a major difference. The arrival of New Labour in 1997 brought not only more female MPs and cabinet ministers, but also a decisive change in how foreign aid was targeted. In both 2001 and 2006, per capita pro-equality spending in Britain surpassed that of Sweden as well as the US and was second only to Norway. In short, the presence of more progressive women at the foreign policy table had a measurable effect on the directions of British overseas aid. The fact that a similar pattern occurred in other places such as Finland suggests left-of-centre women in wealthier countries can make a difference to how development funds are distributed.

A final question my study posed was, “Who talks about equality issues?” The quick answer is that, on average, female appointees to top diplomatic jobs such as foreign minister or UN ambassador spoke much more than their male counterparts. I focused on Finland, Sweden and the US, three countries that named multiple women to these posts for considerable periods of time since 1976, and compared about a dozen women with their male counterparts. These numbers are small because the numbers in the real world are small – and even tinier in other nations. The trend is striking nevertheless: women were far more likely to use extensive pro-equality rhetoric than men, and progressive appointees from social movement backgrounds were at the high end of the distribution.

Responses to these findings can vary widely but the key takeaway is clear. Females in senior international relations jobs in wealthier countries potentially affect much more than the look of a government’s front bench. They can make a difference to how the foreign aid budget is shaped, and to what gets talked about by senior decision-makers. In so doing, they are able to affect the lives of women and girls in faraway places.

(Originally posted on the BristolPolicy Hub blog)