A sackcloth gown and an empty room in a disused telephone exchange might not sound much like the stuff of dreams, but the human imagination’s a wonderful thing. I’m trusting that mine is going to respond by taking me on a couple of creative journeys over the next year.
The Gown of Repentance is the object I’ve been allocated for 26 Treasures Scotland, a repeat of the project we ran last year with the V&A in London, but this year one hand of a three-hander involving the National Museum of Scotland, along with the Welsh National Library and the Royal Ulster Museum in Northern Ireland. It will take the same form as last year, a wonderful exercise in precision of language, with 62 words exactly in which to write a personal response to one’s allocated object. This year my fellow author, the indefatigable Sara Sheridan, has been making the running in Edinburgh, liaising with the museum, herding together the 26 writers (including a wheen of Scots-speakers and Gaels), and pairing them up randomly with the objects the museum has chosen to create a historical trail through its Scottish collection.
I haven’t been to see the gown yet, but I know it stands in a glass case beside its more famous neighbour, the stool – both redolent with disapproval and attended by the ghosts of stern-faced kirk elders. Personal associations with repentance have kept themselves out of sight so far, but no doubt they’ll surface when the time comes.
The room in the telephone exchange is much more of an unknown quantity. This is a brand new project which has arisen from the Dark Angels masterclass at Merton College, Oxford, in the spring. The exchange is the building which, in due course, with the necessary funds raised, will become the new home to Oxford’s wonderful Story Museum. With somewhere in the region of sixty vacant rooms, currently housing a few items of abandoned furniture and the odd dead pigeon, the place is ripe for a show of some kind before the builders move in. So my two equally indefatigable partners in Dark Angels, Stuart Delves and John Simmons, have hatched a plan to invite twenty of our most advanced former students to choose a visual artist as a partner and mount an installation in the empty room they’ve each been allocated. Stories are the theme, of course, and Other Worlds is the title of the show. This time next year it will run for two weeks to a paying public, thereby raising funds for the Story Museum and promoting Dark Angels at the same time.
Although I’m looking forward to getting to grips with that grim article of apparel in Edinburgh, I’m looking forward even more to visiting Oxford in September for the Other Worlds briefing – because I’ve chosen as my partner my daughter Ellie and her brilliant alternative floristry business, The Flower Appreciation Society. We’ve never worked together before and right now I can’t even begin to imagine how we will, but there’s something thrilling and deeply satisfying to me about the idea of words and flowers coming together, just as there is in a collaboration between father and daughter. I can’t wait to get started.