‘It was a performance,’ I said, ‘About… about hedges…and history…about…’ I looked sideways at my taxi driver, ‘About the Great Hedge of India. Do you know about that?’ ‘India?’ he said, ‘I am from India.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘I’ve never heard of it.’ ‘Yes’, I said, ‘It was two thousand miles long, made of thorns, a customs hedge, to prevent the smuggling of salt. A horrible thing. There’s almost nothing left of it now, just a tiny bit. A man, Roy Moxham, researched it; he found just a short stretch left. The British planted it in the 1860s.’ ‘My grandmother lived in India when the British were there,’ he said. ‘She has told us about it. She says they were very honest people. Very honest. They punished people who steal. They were very clean. They were good times.’
I am outraged.
‘They shouldn’t have been there’, I say finally. He smiles, ‘We are all human.’
Earlier, I walked to Portland from Weymouth station along the Rodwell Valley trail. Sweet, bee-covered Asian migrant, Buddleia, humming like an approaching ghost train, crickets ringing a high-pitched alarm. I was the train, passing through the dis-used station. A boy and his bike sprawled on the platform. A tree-lined path where light and shade sharply contrasted: the interior of an emerald. Then the trees gave way to slabs of blue. The back of my cotton shirt was wet.
I tried to pay attention to the hedges, as Sheila Ghelani suggests in her artist’s book, Rambles with Nature, which documents her recent work on hedgerows and hybridity. These Dorset hedges are wild and unruly, full of brambles and humming, purple flowers. They contrast with the more designed hedges of the landscape garden, and all their controversies: ‘This impertinent hedge’, says Gilpin’s visitor to Stowe, in 1748, but his companion persuades him that while it confines the prospect, it creates variety. Better this careful composition of nature through art than the ‘formal, awkward…Absurdity’ of other people’s ‘clipped Yews, their Box-wood borders’, now out of fashion. The moral tone of these aesthetic dialogues is of the kind satirised by Jane Austen. Yet any illusion of tastefully assisted nature hides the coercive and absorbent reality of these gardens. All the time I was traipsing around Stowe, I was thinking about the degree of violence inherent in enclosure and landscaping and military monuments.
In their performance, Common Salt, Sue Palmer and Ghelani make the connections, so many connections, as intricate as the hedge itself: a thicket and a thorny one. This is performance in the shape of a hedge, branching, meshing, so dense it is sometimes hard to follow the delicate lines of each branch, twig and leaf. Visually it is a collector’s table, a war room, a private museum. Aurally, it counterpoints a Shruti box and a swanee whistle.
How do you read a performance of such intricacy? Perhaps the way Sue and Sheila unravelled Hampton Court Maze. Put your left hand on the hedge and keep it there. The hedge is a symbol, but the hedge is also a hedge.
Hampton Court Maze – the oldest in the country, though the actual hedge has to be replanted periodically. Someone cares for it, and has done so for years. It comprises seven turns and an island, the shape of tonight’s performance. Palmer and Ghelani were a little disappointed by the maze, but amazed at the armaments room with its flowers of swords.
These colonial treasures led them to the Great Hedge of India, planted by the British as a measure to control the smuggling of salt. The immense cost in labour, the folly, the rebellions, the revenue, the massive staffing, the inadequacy, the inconvenience, the casualties. Ghelani lays out a hedge of table salt, placing a model soldier to guard it. Palmer tells of Gandhi’s salt march: ‘India’s self respect is symbolised in a handful of salt … ‘ The hedge has largely been forgotten.
Hedge funds bring us back to modern day capitalism and the enclosure of money for investment. Ties are tied and cut like topiary. £10 notes are stapled to them. Topiary itself has degenerated to unconvincing plastic spheres.
The hedge is also a hedge. The performance celebrates Eliza Brightwen’s quiet and careful observation of the hedgerow at the turn of the 19th century. Author of books such as Rambles with Nature Students (1899), she was ‘A lover of nature, protector of everything in fur and feathers’. Her house and gardens, too, are forgotten. Only the oak trees are still standing in the housing estate that replaced ‘The Grove’, their rings formed during her lifetime. Her shell-covered grotto is preserved behind fencing, become a hang-out for kids and a shelter for vagrants.
We are shown a video which demonstrates an easy way to uproot a hedge. A casual massacre. An erasure of a memory.
In 1805, the East Indiaman ‘The Earl of Abergavenny’ set out for China via Bengal, but was sunk off the coast of Portland, taking 260 lives, including that of Captain John Wordsworth, the poet’s brother.
‘Is the sea haunted?’ ‘Yes, it’s a graveyard’.
‘Do you still swim in it?’ ‘Yes, we still go swimming.’
The East India Company still exists. It sells biscuits.
At Castle Cary station, in the sunset, I met a man who was drunk, and who shouted to the world that his brother had died. Those of us standing around said we were sorry, and I gave him a bottle of water. But then, as he continued talking, his brother went from dying of a heart attack, to dying of a brain tumour, to being about to die, and the speaker was a musician, a Viscount, a hedge fund manager, an importer of goods from across the world, an uprooter of hedges, a lover of nature, a captain of a ship, a poet, a healer. ‘I am protected,’ he said, ‘By three oak leaves. Do you know what they are?’ ‘Yes’, I said.
Sheila Ghelani and Sue Palmer performed Common Salt at B-Side, Outpost, Portland, Dorset, July 6th, 2017, 18.00.
Brightwen, Elizabeth (1899), Rambles with Nature Students, Religious Tract Society: London.
Ghelani, Sheila (2015), Rambles with Nature, L&S Printing: Worthing.
Gilpin, William (1848) A Dialogue upon the Gardens of the Right Honourable the Lord Viscount Cobham at Stow in Buckinghamshire, http://faculty.bsc.edu/jtatter/gilpin.html, accessed July 7th 2017.