Mackerel Skies: A memory of Old Town Hastings

In the mornings of my first year or so in Hastings,  I would walk to a bus stop down the road at the old market cross in front of The Old Rectory where I would catch a bus to the station. Each school morning, an elderly woman would be sitting at the stop wearing a long blue padded coat. She was often toothless, her wispy hair spiky, and her pockets stuffed with sweets she handed out to the school children making their way up the hill towards the nursery and elementary schools that surrounded the house where I lived. ‘The nice lady’ as I came to call her in my mind was a familiar figure to the children, who would pause each day with their hands extended to receive the bounty contained in pockets.

We would often strike up a conversation during my wait and I felt it was a test of my linguistic abilities to understand her speech, especially when she occasionally left her teeth at home. We would talk about the about the Old Town and Hastings generally. She was a daughter of a Hastings’ fishing family, the traditional occupants of the Old Town, who were being pushed out of their homes through the gentrification processes that, in my years there, had happened and was happening along the Southeast coast. The plague of bohemian, low-rent seekers were rolling into Hastings like a full moon’s tide.

By the time I met ‘the nice lady,’ I had learned that it was socially acceptable to comment about the weather whilst awaiting various modes of public transportation. One morning early in our acquaintance, as we waited in companionable silence staring at the sky, I said, ‘My goodness, aren’t the clouds beautiful this morning?’ She replied, ‘Tha’s a mackerel sky, that is.’

‘A mackeral sky? I did not grow up near the sea. What’s a mackerel sky?’

‘The clouds look like a mackerel’s scales. It’s a sure sign of a weather change comin’. The glass will be on the move and the weather will change. Storm’s comin’. We’ll have rain before morning.’

The nice lady wasn’t wrong.

Screenshot 2020-01-20 at 21.10.30

(image source: Date accessed: 20 January 2020)

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A love song to ‘Landscape, absence and the geographies of love’: Teaching Wylie to First Years.

For a while, in the earliest days of my teaching career, I worked as a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Sussex and a contract lecturer at Queen’s University (Canada) Bader International Study Centre at Herstmonceux (BISC). I taught a first-year, introductory Human Geography course to British and Canadian students respectively, with a sprinkling of others from the U.S., China, and Japan. I remember those times as so exciting. After decades of being the sign language interpreter in the classroom, it was quite heady to have my own classes for the first time. As a teaching assistant at Sussex I worked with Brian Short and Michael Collyer, both of whom affected my approach to the subject. With their initial guidance, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of walking our students through the vastness of the discipline. I approached the course as a humanist would, beginning with how we, individually, understand ourselves and our places, then moving on to other scales of understanding human geography, but for the end of each course, I liked to swing back around to the individual and grapple with emotional geographies.  

What brought this to mind was an event I attended this evening, a long-standing community-based discussion group that concerns itself with a variety of intellectual topics and hosted by one of my RIT colleagues, Michael Brown. I am a sporadic attendee; I tend to dip in to the group when the week’s topic interests me and I can get my tired self out of the house on ‘Hump Day.’ This evening’s topic was ‘the romance of the mind.’ As the conversation got underway, I found myself smiling to remember my Human Geography teaching experiences, most specifically, the final reading of each term, John Wylie’s 2009 ‘Landscape, absence and the geographies of love.’[1] I haven’t taught Human Geography for four years now, and I miss it. I especially miss teaching this final component, where we began to describe our metaphysical and emotional experiences we have using geographical terms.

One year, either I was ill or the trains weren’t running for some reason, I can’t seem to remember, but the final seminar didn’t meet. Instead, I sat down and pounded out the following for my students:

General Notes on Wylie and the Article

Be sure to look up John Wylie.  His webpage is extensive and interesting reading.

Note this piece is published in Transactions.  This is the most important journal in British Geography.

John Wylie’s writing is very different to most geography reading you will encounter that predates it.  One of the things I enjoy most about reading Wylie is his literary, almost lyrical, style.  He is an incredible wordsmith with a gift for description. Using a narrative style, he pulls the reader into the landscapes he describes.  Reading his work, we feel as though we are right there, walking along with him.  Importantly, Wylie leads us through a descriptive landscape at the same time he carefully weaves a theoretical argument.  This is writing and academic work of the first order and very persuasive. (To me, there’s more to this style of writing as a persuasive form than I have time to describe here.  If you’re interested, we can discuss it.)

A note on geographical historiography…Suppose Wylie was writing this in the early 1960s.  What would a quantitative piece on memorial benches look like?   An article back then would have had to include at least one topography map of the location of the benches and, no doubt, several charts of all kinds of data relating to the physical make-up of the benches themselves, how many local councils promoted the scheme, etc.  We would have had to wait much longer to read an article discussing the social justice of locating these benches, and even longer to read a piece about who could afford to have it and the privileging of certain people based on class, gender or ethnicity over others in getting a bench at all!  This kind of writing couldn’t happen without the cultural turn and post-structuralism.

Lastly, Wylie states that these ideas are unfinished.  Like Nagar & Geiger (2007), he resists the idea of drawing a line under this work and making hard and fast conclusions. This means that parts of this piece read less coherently than others.  I quite like this reflexive transparency.  We get to follow along on his thought experiments, and perhaps open up our own minds to new pathways.  It also leaves the author an open door to changing his mind in the future. I also like that it disrupts the tradition of only publishing ‘complete’ works in academe.

Locating the work

Let’s begin by discussing the actual location.  I’ve haven’t had the chance to visit Mullion Cove, but people who have tell me the description is very accurate.  When I read it, I pictured the benches lined up on the hillside with the longest sea view in my town, Hastings.  Do you have a place like that where you live?  A hilltop park perhaps?  I can also picture the parks at Greenwich and Hampstead Heath.

Memorial benches

I want to consider memory benches in their practical and physical sense. As an American, I find memorial benches to be a fascinating and very British phenomenon.  In the states, we tend to plant trees in memory of our loved ones, not erect benches.  What are the politics of memorial benches? Who gets to have one?  How is it decided?  At the local council level?  Are they expensive?  Who pays?  How do they get to be where they are?  Do the loved ones choose?  How does one choose the specific location?  Is it a place loved by the deceased or one allotted by lottery?  Who chooses their positioning in the landscape? The family?  The council?  The park’s grounds keeper who pours the cement footings?  Why are they so often in a lookout position?  Why aren’t they positioned with their backs to the vista?  What happens when they are vandalised or destroyed?  Are they replaced with a new bench and a copy of the same plaque?  Or is it the moment the council can sneak in a new one?  I want to come back to the idea of plaques later on.

Metaphysical geographies and the textual quality of landscapes

Wylie is asking us to consider how we interact with landscapes, in this particular case, a location of memorials.  I think he is also asking not just about the physical landscapes, but the metaphysical ones, the internal psychological/spiritual/emotional landscapes we continually construct and reconstruct in our mind’s eye.  For example, think of a place that has strong and resonating memories for you.  When you are in that location, what are you experiencing?  Do you feel a sense of affinity with the place?  How are you ‘reading’ it?  Are your memories crowding up to jostle with one another and with what is happening there in real time?  For me, they do.  It’s a kind of hyper-speeding flipbook in my mind, a chronological layering (a palimpsest) of memories that overlays my real-time experience of the landscape and, as we have discussed before in terms of looking at art, that is reconstructed uniquely amd based on my previous experiences each time I am there.  ‘Coincidence’ occurs when we experience these layers simultaneously. By engaging with a landscape this way, we are confronted by our internal landscapes, or memories, and perhaps learn more about ourselves.

Geographies of Absence and Love

Back to the benches.  What is the purpose of these benches?  Why do they look out over panoramic views?  If I read the bench’s plaque, I might give a moment to think about the person to whom it is dedicated, and if it’s someone I don’t know I might assemble him/her in my imagination using the same layering technique I described above based on the information and perhaps the immediacy effect.  Sometimes, I don’t really ‘see’ the person’s name but in my head think of someone I love and lost.   For a moment or two or, if I’m lucky, three, my memory returns that person to me.  It is, in a sense, a kind of haunting, not in the Amityville Horror sense, but in the sense of desire to have that person be with us again.  If I let my mind wander, I might not see the pretty view ahead of me at all, but go into my memories of interactions with that lost loved one.

Take a moment to think about how we describe these experiences.  We often use physical and geographical terms to describe this experience.  Above, I used ‘wander’ and the act of a loved one ‘returning’ which implies a coming and going, a physical distance. Here’s another example.  Think about the person you love most in the world, the person who is closest to you. And though they are the person who knows you best and you love the most, they are still not you and therefore separate entities, implying there is some measurable distance between you. How can we, as geographers, describe these distances?  Do you know, I think love may just be the striving to close that separateness, the distance between us, and it is in this shared experience of moving towards that goal and at the same time thrilling in the distance that continues to separate us that is infinitely fascinating and the work of a lifetime.  These are wonderful and heady ideas to work with.

To end

These notes only begin to unpack the depth of material in this piece.  There is plenty of room for continued discussion.  Could you have imagined nine weeks ago that you would be discussing haunting and love in a geography course??  It’s been something of a rollercoaster ride as we have covered huge amounts of ground this term at breakneck speed, sampling the vast array of ideas that are continuing to challenge and invigorate geographers, I hope you have expanded your sense of the scope and possibilities this field has to offer.  I wish you the very best as you continue in your studies.

(With apologies to John Wylie. Sir, as you can see, I thoroughly enjoy your work. This is not intended as a review but a conversation with first-year pupils about a small portion of this piece.)

Written with gratitude to my former students. Thank you for the conversations!

[1] Wylie, J. 2009. ‘Landscape, absence and the geographies of love’ Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 34(3) pp275-289.


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A research moment to make me smile


I enjoy when my areas of research interest incidentally coincide. I am currently working on a research project based in Rochester, N.Y. In order to contextualize the work, I am learning more about local women’s history. Today, I am scanning  the earliest local publication for women, “The Rochester Gem and Ladies’ Amulet: Devoted to Literature and the Arts” Originally titled, “Rochester Gem: A Semi-monthly Literary and Miscellaneous Journal”, it ran from 1829 until 1843.*
The 7 January 1843 issue (v.15, no.1, p10) (masthead above)  contains the following:

“Gratitude is the memory of the heart” appears in the dedication of my PhD thesis, so it made me smile to find it.

* A link to an incomplete digitized form of the serial is available from the Rochester Public Library:   


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International Conference in Deaf Geographies 2016

The International Conference in Deaf Geographies, 27 & 28 June 2016.

Rochester Institute of Technology

Rochester, NY

Register Today!

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Edmund Booth on Attending Church Services (1880)

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This semester, I’m teaching a course on U.S. Deaf History by using manuscripts and primary commentary of major Deaf issues and events by Deaf authors. Last week we discussed the first NAD conference in Cincinnati, Ohio, by looking at the Proceedings of the Convention. In addition to organizational details, the Proceedings records topics ranging across multiple areas of concern to the late 19th century participants, including issues of faith, i.e., the non-denominational Deaf Bible Study groups forming in urban centres to a critique of the Episcopal Church’s leadership in Deaf ministries.

While most of the Convention participants were under the age of 30, an elder at 70, Mr. Edmund Booth (1810-1905) of Iowa, the owner and editor Anamosa Eureka, was one of the three organisers and served as the temporary chair of this first national Deaf event. Below, I have pasted Edmund Booth’s colourful commentary of his church experiences and how a few typical ‘hearing’ church spaces do not meet the needs of sign language people.

Remarks of Mr Edmund Booth

When in a town or a small city there is an Episcopal Church and only one or a few deaf-mutes, not enough of sufficient numbers to employ or pay a preacher in the sign-language, it might be advisable for such mutes to attend the Episcopal service. There they can read in the book of Common Prayer (or whatever the book may be called) while the Clergyman is reading at the desk. I know of mutes whose families are connected with other than Episcopal Churches, and in every such case the mutes prefer to go with their families, some member being always ready and willing to furnish the text or point out the hymn. The advantages in these two cases are about equal. ‘Three years ago, I attended an Episcopal service in Chicago. Rev. Mr. Mann officiated. It was in the vestry of the church, and the windows admitted the clear light of heaven. It all went well and was perfectly satisfactory.

And now comes the dark side. Some weeks since, I attended church on the Sabbath in Chicago, the preachers being Revs. Gallaudet and Mann, with the regular pastor of the Church for the hearing portion of the congregation. “A dim religious light” prevailed, perfectly proper, doubtless, for the hearing people; but for the mutes a fiat reversal of the command, “-Let there be light.” I and some other mutes were seated some distance from the platform. The preacher’s face was mostly in darkness, and when seen was alternately bronze, vermilion, sky-blue, or some other color, bringing to me the re- collection of the “noble red men” of forty years ago in the forest. These various hues came from the stained windows stained to shut out the light. So far as hearing people are concerned, I find no fault with this. In their case all looked well. Even the pastor addressing them appeared just as he should, vestments and all.

But for those addressing the mute part of the congregation it struck me as a burlesque. It was difficult, at the point where I and others were seated, to gather what was said, and impossible to catch a single word on their fingers. The eye could not penetrate with clear vision the body of more than semi-darkness which floated between us and the preachers. The service to us profited nothing. Episcopal churches are built for hearing people, not for the deaf.

Two evenings ago, some of us attended Episcopal service at one of the churches in this city  of Cincinnati. There were three clergymen for the mutes and one for the hearing, all in canonicals. Again the one for the hearing looked well, and performed his part well, and, as at Chicago, the others were, in large degree, a farce. It is hard language, I know, and I speak it not willingly, but it is time to tell them the plain truth, for not one of the three seems to have given thought to the fact that to bring light to the mind of a deaf-mute, there must be light for the eye. The gaslights were arranged solely for a hearing congregation, but a little common sense, in which they appear sadly wanting, might induce our preachers to place themselves where, not their backs, but their faces, arms and hands could be seen to best advantage by those sitting in front of them. And even then there is still the annoyance from the dazzling gaslight, but that is a lesser evil than the absurdity of not light enough to know what the reverend gentlemen are saying. Theatrical managers are “wiser than the children of light.”

Another trouble, of slight importance perhaps, but which is not only out of place, but looks ridiculous. I have said the vestments of the Episcopal clergy look well on one who ministers to the hearing. Hanging from the arms of one using signs, the constant flutter, and especially in a darkened church, or where the preacher stands in an unfavorable position as regards light, these wide white sleeves are far more conspicuous than the. Motion of his arms or the play of his fingers. Where it is so difficult or so impossible to know what he is saying, we are apt to think of a scarecrow in a cornfield, with its rags fluttering in the wind. Our preachers should have something of that most uncommon of all things, common sense. Thomas H. Gallaudet, who first established preaching by signs, was largely possessed of that commodity, and would never have dreamed of preaching to mutes in a darkened church or with lights so placed as to dazzle to the eyes and throw little or no light where light is most needed.

(from Proceedings p.26-28)

As a human geographer, I am continually fascinated by the ways in which 19th-century Deaf people came together to form Deaf Spaces, and the multitude of ways in which they did this – be it physical spaces (a la today’s DeafSpace project at Gallaudet University) or metaphysical spaces signing people create in their everyday social interactions. Booth’s commentary lets us glimpse through his deaf eyes, his ecclesiastic experiences – from coping in small town settings, like I imagine Anamosa, Iowa, most likely was, to what seems more like an ideal situation for him, attending services in a clear-windowed vestry in Chicago. I think my favourite bits are when he describes ‘the dark side’. Booth was clearly possessed a fine wit.

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(If you are interested in reading more about the Convention and the Deaf issues of the day, check out the Proceedings on at )

(Image sources:

Proceedings cover:

Booth’s portrait:

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Field School in Deaf Geographies 2016

FSDG Poster 2016

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Pondering Access Technologies.

Yesterday, thanks to my generous dean, I attended a conference at RIT. The purpose of it was to explore and celebrate advancing effective access technologies for disabled people. During one of the keynote addresses, the speaker commented on how new communication technologies, set to be available in the new year, meant that signing people would have easier access to businesses and services via visual (ie. sign language) means.
As I sat there, I couldn’t help but think of a paradox that seems to be brewing between people who support communication access services such as virtual interpreting services, and the medical technologies industries working hard at eliminating signing peoples.

I also was reflecting on the current students at NTID who cannot understand their signing professors and need oral interpreters in the classrooms there. Aren’t ever-improving medical technologies companies and advancing communications access firms chasing each others tails? What good will sign-access technologies be to a future generation of people who don’t sign? Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think sign is going to disappear. It’s become too popular as a second language in secondary schools. But I do see the irony of hearing kids learning a language that deaf children’s parents are still, unbelievably (!), actively discouraged to teach their children.

What was remarkable about the conference yesterday was the chance to see the entrepreneurs making headway promoting technologies that weren’t so much about assimilation as they were emancipation. These technologies aren’t looking to fix people, rather they are looking to adapt the spaces to suit the needs of people who occupy them. Now that’s cool stuff.

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