On 9th June 2022, the Stuart Hall Foundation hosted Special Preview: ‘The Conversation Continues: We Are Still Listening’, launching Trevor Mathison‘s newly commissioned audio-based artwork exploring the legacy of Stuart Hall (1932-2014) and the radical thinkers laid to rest at Highgate Cemetery. Following a preview of the soundscape experience on-site, the event featured a conversation between artist Trevor Mathison and lecturer Aasiya Lodhi, a reading from actor Joseph Black and introductions from Ian Dungavell, Chief Executive of the Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust, and Becky Hall, child psychotherapist, psychoanalyst and trustee of the Stuart Hall Foundation. Becky Hall’s introduction to the evening presenting the commission is published in full below:
And so it was that I held the watering can and my mother the secateurs as we briskly set about the now familiar route through our much-loved Highgate Cemetery. The task in hand: some midsummer graveside weeding and pruning, straightening, and sorting out, making my father look respectable. It was an inclement morning, thick with the tang of wet, earthy smells. Not a morning for pausing at the huddles of Hellebores clustered in their melancholy colours between ancient stones or marvelling at the unruly parties of forget-me-nots running riot through the trees. A cool, sad June morning, in 2020, London locked down and locked into a new reckoning with the ghosts of Empire, rattling their chains in syncopated time with the beat across the Atlantic where fault lines shuddered at the murder of George Floyd.
This is where the conversation began. Turning right at Marx, straight on to The Mound where, on a sunny day the warmth of the stone at Stuart’s grave still gives one a temporary brush with his vitality. What would he have made of it all? What turn will this dialogue with history take, what are the stakes and the conditions of belonging to the new territories being claimed? And so it was that we joined the community of Highgate visitors who talk, sometimes aloud, to their loved ones lost – words alighting in the trees, nestling under stones, settling in the soil – fragments of conversation given a new home in the extraordinary palimpsest of sounds and states and feeling that artist Trevor Mathison has brought for our attention today. I would like to thank him and his assistant editor Beverley Bennet on behalf of the family and the Stuart Hall Foundation for this work, and for the invitation to pay attention. I would like also to thank Ian Dungavell and the Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust for listening, to the Arts Council and Elephant Trust for their funding, to Ben Cook and LUX for their collaboration, Caro Communications for their PR support and to Gilane, the Trustees, Harriet, Orsod and Ilze (our team at the Stuart Hall Foundation) for pulling this off. Thanks to everyone who has contributed and supported this project.
Stuart was never going to be buried ‘back home’ in Jamaica. There was no such ‘home’ place to return to. In the end one has to find a position, he always said, and it was the once strange Lyme trees of North West London, not the glade of an illusory mango grove or the dusty yards of Constant Spring which finally felt most familiar: the home he made with my mother, the family, friendships, political projects, Cultural Studies, collectives of Birmingham and Kilburn, The Open University, black British artists, generations of students, at his typewriter, teaching, through intellectual enquiry and always, in conversation. Perhaps it could have been anywhere – Stuart really was a modest man – but his choice of Highgate Cemetery was a rare admission that his life, his contribution, had earned him a proper place and that he wished, in death, to claim it. He described on film in later life the lonely feeling of being out of sync with the times – not out of touch – but no longer quite in step. I think the prospect of being re-settled in the company of old friends, in this beautiful place, among the traditions of radical thought, near enough to home and in British soil must have felt a good place to rest.
Highgate is most likely filled with venerable ghosts, the serious nature of radical tradition setting the tone amongst its residents – it’s not easy to get a place here after all. I trust then that Stuart has smartened up his act since his hammy performance as the Ghost of McPhail in a piece of family theatre on a damp Scottish holiday – an eerie home-made soundtrack on the tape recorder as he stepped forth from the dusty drapes of a high windowsill, swathed in an ancient eiderdown and holding forth a kipper (to the great alarm of the younger members of the audience). I hope there is room for such high spirits in Highgate and suspect that it was Stuart’s mischievous, Midsummer sprite, his rebellious insistence on using as many exclamation marks as he fancied, that conjured up in me, on that cool, June morning – in the grim gloom of racialised violence, the disgrace of the un-welcomed Windrush arrivals and those without leave to remain – the wish to rattle, the urge to make a stink – “You have a black body here, make it matter.”
“I feel an email coming on,” I said, rousing a smile in my mother at the prospect of me rolling my terrible eyes and gnashing my terrible teeth, putting in a spirited performance as the high-minded custodian of my father’s reputation. And so it was that at 3 minutes past 9 on Midsummer day 2020, I wrote an email to The Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust imperiously entitled ‘Query’. At 11.53 on that same morning, Ian Dungavell (the Chief Executive) wrote back, and an old-fashioned telephone conversation began.
We last stood in this chapel to bury Stuart and never thought at that time that the Miles Davis blues and greens that my brother chose to play us out, would ever bring us back in new dialogue with such old tunes. Trevor has chosen Familiar Stranger, the unfinished, posthumously recovered text that Stuart was working on until he died – his late life efforts to lay out and lay down the unrest of his own history – to speak in a new arrangement. It is the book in which the uneasy rhythm of Stuart’s lifelong preoccupation with what it was he left behind sings out, like his love of the Blues, as it always did, with what he made of his arrival. And so it is that we come here in memory and with the necessity of new things, the thrust and verdant greens of new shoots; a soundscape that speaks with the past to the urgency of the times.
Photo: Jessica Emovon