A small bell rings. You look up. Why is the bell ringing?

Art is about questions…

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit was on BBC 2 in January 1990. We watched a lot of telly in our house, but particularly in the post-Christmas period when it was dark of an evening and totally, utterly boring in the little town of Desborough (or Desperate) in Northamptonshire.  I was 17 and this semi-autobiographical series, written by Jeannette Winterson was watched by the whole family (mum, dad, younger sister 15 and middle sister 16, the corgi, Olly and the cat, Aslan), before Dallas and after Eastenders. We sat on sofa and beanbags in our 1970’s detached house, drank tea and ate penguins as the world of Pentecostal religion, literature and lesbian love making was revealed to us. When any kissing happened on Dallas mum would spring to her feet and stand in front of the screen, but not for Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. It was wonderful and, as my dad said, from behind his Daily Mail, ‘not many oranges’.

We talked about it the next day in 6th form. I longed for red hair and my brain made a note that I was set to go Accrington Library at some point in my life and ‘do something’. Art, when it is true and pure, sends off shoots and sparks, waves at you, holds your hand, shouts, connects and that is what happened on my bean bag, cat licking its bum, dog gently snoring and me leaning my head on my dad’s slippers. I listened to you, Jeannette Winterson. I have a long list of things, places and people that have called out to me. It’s just instinct and feeling. Pure poetical journeys and choices about where to make work.

This does not happen anymore by the way. You cannot reproduce this experience with Netflix.  We had to watch Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit; there was, for a start, nothing else on, it was not algorithmically produced for us by Hulu, nor did a team of script writers write something they thought they could sell (even if it is brilliant),  it was chosen for us by the BBC (generous leadership – I’ll talk about this a bit later) and Jeannette wrote it because, well, because it was a story that needed to be told and she wanted to.

I grew up in a house without books. We had a few Delia Smiths and an encyclopaedia and there were some of those free Readers Digests you kept being mailed, but that was it. We went to the library instead. It was open until 7pm on Tuesdays and Fridays and we would go with our mother after early tea and we were always the last to leave. Afterwards, it was a slow walk home with a cone of chips and trying to read a book at the same time. The library is where I found my kind of people. It is where I looked at large books on David Hockney, wide eyed at swimming pools splashes and multi-faceted photographs of his exotic friends. It is where I learnt about macramé, how I identified wildflowers and taught myself to dress make. I read Lolita and tried Ulysses and discovered feminism via Betty Friedan and Simone De Beauvoir. It was where old men read papers and old women read gruesome murders in plastic covers, my mum included.

I come from a working class Tory family. My dad didn’t think women should work and that men shouldn’t care for their children. He ran his own business folding magazines and employed one person. My grandparents were chicken farmers on one side and machinists in the local corset factory on the other. Desborough was a co-op town like Rochdale and had its own currency and my family hated it. They didn’t need hand outs and they certainly didn’t want to work with unions and co-ops. We went to the local comprehensive and it was rubbish, apart from the literature and drama department, where we read Shakespeare, John Donne and Jane Austin, which I borrowed from the local library. When I when to art school in Brighton, (to follow the artist Helen Chadwick, who I discovered in Desborough Library) my father grumbled that he didn’t know why I was bothering as I would end up pushing a pram…but thanks to Margaret Attwood and Susie Orbach I knew that was not necessarily my fate. The books were a counter narrative to the one in my house, in my town, and most of my school. Where would I be without them? Not writing this for sure.

Five years ago, Laurie Peake talked to me about Super Slow Way and so my visit to Accrington was happening. When I visited the grand, much loved and much neglected Carnegie Library that Jeanette had slept in her mini outside, I felt a tremendous weight.  I hung about the returned books. Someone was reading Attwood, someone was researching astronomy but no one was reading De Beauvoir or had the chance to attempt Ulysses because they weren’t there. I felt a heavy sense that whatever I grew here had to be seriously useful. It had to go deeply underneath what on earth was happening to our libraries and grow with the books, the people, the place, the ether, the bones of what is left. The steady decline of our libraries is vile. On one of the beautiful stain glass windows in Accrington Library it says Knowledge is Power, which sums it up for me, what is happening. Knowledge has been slowly, stealthily stolen from the working classes and therefore power has been insidiously, sneakily drained from us too.

Accrington Library is beautiful. It was made with care, attention and with crafts people. It is full of artisan designed lighting and beautiful windows that say ‘Oh, For a Book and a Cosy Nook’. Beauty and aesthetic speaks volumes; it says you are valuable, you are worth us taking this time and effort over, you deserve this. Beautiful places hold spaces for people to feel relaxed, to feel loved, wanted, to have beautiful thoughts. They lift your thinking. Beauty is essential in lifting people out of the drudgery of poverty.

I have walked, cycled, run and floated down the Leeds & Liverpool Canal over these past 5 years. I have picked blackberries, eaten in canal side pubs, opened locks, been accosted, stepped in dog shit, seen geese choking on plastic and watched kingfishers feeding their young.  I have peered into many canal themed gardens, run past abandoned factories with canal side loading bays, visited historic canal buildings and disturbed people fishing. It is a gritty, verdant, dangerous, pastoral, engineered and underused vein of life that runs all over the UK. Reading and floating along these arteries, past all that, is utter, raw bliss.

I chose the short story as the conduit for this commission and the boat as its vehicle. The librarians and I have defined it as a story you can read in one sitting. The reader can decide on how long a sitting is…could be all day…but the point is to stop and read. Short stories do not limit the reader to a particular theme, writers such as Somerset Maugham, Anton Chekov, Italo Calvino, Ian McEwan, Ruth Rendell, Ali Smith, Angela Carter, Ernest Hemingway, Arthur C Clarke, China Miéville and Alice Munro (who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her short stories) have all written short stories and anthologies of short stories (there are thousands more). But the short story allows the visitor whether stopping by the boat for a coffee, a morning trip or a whole day on the canal to read a story in full about anything.

Library of Birth, Library of Death, Library of Euphoria, Library of Melancholia, Library of the Inevitable, Library of Bitterness, Library of Silliness, Library of Materials, Library of Familiarity, Library of Solace, Library of Warmth, Library of Possibilities, Library of Dreams and Hopes, Library of Unfathomable Loss, Library of Chaos, Library of The Lost, Library of Comfort, Library of Emptiness, Library of Equality, Library of Compassion, Library of Travel, Library of Erotica, Library of Ideas, Library of Loneliness, Library of Apologies, Library of Acceptance,Library of Disappointment, Library of Family, Library of Utopia, Library of Tragedy, Library of Happy Endings, Library of Joy and so on… Small Bells Ring is about all these things and more.

Small Bells Ring has generous leadership at its very heart which sets a research framework to be filled and grown with people. It is a project in constant transformation, revising its questions and utterly open. Its matters are all matters, and it needs all matters to keep being relevant. A few of its choices are made, but just like whoever chose to commission Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit; where it goes from here and what it does is entirely up to the people who work on it, encounter it, sail with it, learn with it and produce with it. It is beautiful and it is useful and it weighs heavy on me still.

The name: we consider our works on the Beaufort Scale, the measurement of wind on the land and sea; 0 being the sea like a mirror, 6 large branches in motion and umbrellas used with difficulty, 12 is complete destruction. Small Bells Ring is at 3, as described in Don Paterson’s exquisite poem Scale of Intensity. Enough ‘weather’ to make a small bell ring so you look up, a pleasant sound that cuts through all other noise that you cannot ignore. The bell rings again, a warning, or just a grab at your attention, causing you to stop, look up, turn your head, to think, to pause, to act…

Heather Peak, 2020