John Horwood

Walks Four and Five

horwoodWalks Four and Five returned again and again to the site and story of John Horwood’s death – and began with a visit to the macabre and fascinating object that is what remains of it all.

Cutis Vera Johannis Horwood.

‘The Real Skin of John Horwood’ is a book in the collections at MShed.  It is also a work of abject documentation, a true corpus, a kind of poetic object. The book is bound in the skin of Horwood who was flayed after the execution that was ordered by the trial that is documented in the pages of the book by the surgeon who sketched the deceased and coincidentally also operated on the murderer’s victim’s fractured skull before her death.   Horwood was the first man to be hanged at the New Gaol on Spike Island, on the theatrical gallows at the end of what is now the car park of the very same museum that holds his skin.  The story folds over and over.

trinmill

Along the way, we searched for Trin Mill, a buried mill pond outside of the city which now gives its name to a small housing development on the very edge of Spike Island, and looked through maps of the city that drew out a sequence of imagined islands, one over the other.  We could almost navigate with this 1750 map by John Rocque, if we squinted long enough.  Eventually canal boats became galleons and we could take a short ferry across to Prince Street to reach Arnolfini. It seemed every corner we turned took us to another turning: a man turning into a book, a thrown stone that turned to murder, a gate house that turned into gallows that turned into a garden at the end of the car park of a harbour warehouse that turned into a museum for a city that turns itself over and over.

map

Pauline Masurel led a mapping project that would have challenged Rocque himself.  Using index cards and arrows we drew out a direct line that charted our walk in a series of translations from this to that.  We then reworked this as a single sentence that moved us through each transformation in turn, sometimes propelling us through the vibrating changes of a single word. The “flawed” city that opens this piece, for instance, arrived out of an encounter with the room-sized floor map of Bristol at MShed and a discussion of Spike’s Island’s fractured narrative.  In amongst vital conversations about the nature of collaborative work for writers, a strange wheel of fortune rolled in.  You can read the sentence here.

Walk Three

bridgescoverThe shelter of the bridge drew out a corridor of still water in the New Cut, outlining the old route of the ferry that once carried ten thousand people a week from Southville to Spike Island.  You can still see the ramps that people lined up on, where now low tide reveals a lost bike, a shopping trolley, the green mud.

wappingwharfWe walked over the bridge, over the ricochetting echoes of the ferry, over the route of a wedding day procession from the church to Brandon Hill, over the line between life and death as we approached the remains of Bristol’s New Gaol. The old prison walls are now almost exactly replicated in the bright orange swags of developers’ promises: hotels, houses, homes, here.  But not yet.  Until interest picks up, the old New Gaol is a car park.

car park

And, underneath the tarmac, the site of an old rope walk – a long, recursive pathway where ropes for the docks were stretched out and wound – is recalled in the design of Wapping Wharf.

p

Rope walks were historically difficult, uncomfortable sites of labour, sometimes dangerous sweatshops and now rebranded as shopping centres, as in Liverpool, and car parks here in Bristol.  A different mode of repetitive action, perhaps.

And still acting as gate to the car park is the gate to the New Gaol.  It has erupted into forest and, by shadowy turns, takes us from entrance to exit to no place at all.

gateBuilt as a grand gatehouse to the enormous new prison built here in 1820, the archway was altered to include a ‘drop’, a trapdoor for public hangings.  The body of first man to be hanged here in 1821 would have been framed within the enormous bulk of the gate.  A grim theatre for those crossing the river from Southville.

This first man was none other than John Horwood, whose skin was subsequently flayed and used to bind a book containing the legal papers from his own trial.  The book is now held in the collections at MShed, whose car park now also sits on the site of the old prison, the old rope walk and the last walk of John Horwood.

We set our course back to the Mud Dock Deli, to shelter from the rain and to drink (delicious) coffee.  We began to feel a little better, a little more able to talk about the trees pushing up the roof of the house that saw men walk to their deaths.  We started to write together, bridging sentences between us.

writing

We were building an exquisite corpse, we were walking the rope of the sentence between us, handing the fraying end to the next writer and seeing how far they can take it before we fall as those men did through the gate which was a welcome which was a way in which was a way out which was a doorway which was a trapdoor which was an exit which was a trip which was a drop which was a ditch which was a pitch which was a stripped back skin which was a length of rope which was a rope wound round itself which was the rope walk, the turning of the text against itself, against your skin, in, out, gone.

The resulting text, R O P E W A L K, is a strange thing, full of echoes and happy, unhappy coincidences and the evidence of writers bridging gaps between each other and the messy history we park our cars on.