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New Exhibition 'Lonnin' by Lori Diggle

In 2020, when we all found ourselves confined to places where we had a lot of time to think and reflect, to perhaps revisit old projects, I returned to a work called lonnin, which is a deliberately genre confusing verse-novel, or prose-poem. I sent extracts from it, episodically, to long-suffering book group friends who kindly read these and provided me with feedback. But I’m not just a writer, I’m also a maker and visual artist, so alongside the writing I began to produce objects and 2D illustrations. And I thought, how am I going to do this in a way which reflects the strange times we are living in?

The pandemic for me has clear origins in climate crisis and our misuse of the natural world and its resources, so I thought that the project had to be sustainable. I discovered how many million trees were felled each year by the American publishing industry alone to produce books, and also how much CO2 is generated in the manufacture and distribution of hard copies of people’s writing. I am an author, and I want people to read what I write, but could not get into that world and feel comfortable. So, to ease my conscience, and because, frankly, there did not seem to be any alternative at the time, all of the objects I made for the project were constructed from materials I upcycled from things I had discovered in junk shops and boot sales and charity shops that I had squirreled away, pre-pandemic. I used fibre from abandoned tapestry kits, old blankets, scraps of discarded clothing, remnants of leather left over from the production of handmade boots by local shoemakers, to make things that I felt could belong to one of the characters in the lonnin narrative.

I began to realise that what I was making was a slow-stitched, sustainable critique of the kind of plastic, polluting multiple that typically comprises the merchandise associated with a successful novel. But I also found myself entering a sort of liminal, hybrid world between the invented world of the story and the physical space that the objects began to occupy. Interestingly for me, I discovered that, as I spent many hours slowly hand stitching with wool or working back, quite meticulously, into monoprints, the images that started to preoccupy me, in a way which I am not yet sure how to properly articulate, or fully understand, changed the writing. I had to revisit the writing in response to the things that I made. And that had not happened to me before. I had illustrated my own writing in the past, but I had not subsequently felt as compelled to alter the writing in response to the process of constructing a 2 or 3D illustration of it.

I remember as a child that I was entranced by story books that had a picture map at the beginning - ones that illustrated Milly Molly Mandy’s village or the Hundred Acre Wood – because it added a layer of authenticity to the story and because a map implied that the storyworld had an exciting reality, outside the mind of the author, which one day I might actually visit. I wanted my objects and images to occupy a similarly exciting place, but, caught up in the business of making them, a new dynamic emerged. It was as though I had illustrated the narrative with a map that included secret places – like a valley, lake or building which the story had not described - and which compelled me to return to the narrative and then retrofit or revise it, to include those secrets.

My preoccupation with images of haafnet fishermen is an example of this process. The original version of lonnin makes no reference to them. The narrative takes place in Scandinavia and Cumbria, charting the history of individuals whose destinies have been impacted by WW2. It explores what it means to be victorious and what it means to lose and how these experiences shape the myths, not only that nations construct about the roles they play in historical events, but also shape the myths that individuals construct about their personal and national identities. It ends in 2014, just before a slender majority of British people voted to leave the European Union.

In the lonnin story, two characters, Kash and Sam, go for a walk on Brough Marsh, on the edge of the Solway Firth, which is an expanse of water dividing England from Scotland. Sam’s elderly mother has recently been killed in a road accident and he is trying to process this event. Sam, a professional photographer, is in love with a young Norwegian eco-activist, called Solveig, and is a frequent visitor to Scandinavia. He tells Kash about the Svalbard Barnacled Goose that overwinters there, on the Cumbrian marshes. But it was only later, when researching how to illustrate this scene, that I discovered that the Solway also has spectacular murmurations, mesmeric congregations of starlings, and is the only place in Britain where people fish with haafnets. I was immediately fascinated by the haafnet process. The nets are slung from a pole, the length of a Viking oar, dating from its origins as a technique imported from Scandinavia centuries previously. There was an immediate visual resonance for me between the clouds of nets, billowing in the water, waiting for the tug of a salmon, and the birds flocking, in a cloudy murmuration over the heads of fishermen as they stood in the firth, waist deep in a line together. There was also a serendipitous, poetic resonance with the characters I had already established in the writing, who had a shared relationship, connecting Cumbria and Scandinavia. I made several monoprints to illustrate these ideas and then returned to retrofit descriptions of haafnets and murmurations into the body of the text.

Then, unsettlingly, in the process of putting the work together, I was corresponding with an academic who had been one of my doctoral supervisors, and who was now based in America, when he asked me if I had ever published my thesis. I told him that I hadn’t and he said that he would like to see it in print and would also like to publish the lonnin project when it was finished. He thought that the two books would go naturally in hand in hand if I would write about my creative process as well as give him the final version of the illustrated verse novel. This was out of the blue and exciting but also, to be honest, suddenly very compromising because the lonnin project had been a critique of the publishing industry and now, here I was, being offered the opportunity to publish my work. So, after a lot of soul-searching, I said that I would accept his offer on the condition that the works would be available as e-prints or in book form only if they were printed on demand. At least, I consoled myself, I would not be littering the future with heaps of unsold, remaindered books gathering dust somewhere.

The eclectic assembly of installed objects, texts and images here in the gallery includes half a dozen pockets for poems - hand stitched pouches containing a flash-drive with an illustrated extract from lonnin, the verse novel. If you would like more information about the project, including how to get hold of a complete copy of the finished work, please contact me via .

Lori Diggle

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