On cheap pastel sugar paper, the kind of paper on which, in our youthful innocence, we might have cut out and kept the loving tokens of adolescent obsessions, Donovan Wylie and Timothy Prus have laid out the cheap songs, cuttings and imperfect photographs of private Ulster homes.
From the earliest clippings of the 1950s, when Cookstown boys left football pitches defeated and dazed; through the 1970s when Ian Paisley became regular and vocal on the black and white screens of British and Irish homes; to the 1980s, when leaflets that spoke of home security, threat and murder became a regular and insistent presence, their collation marks an age of separation, of religious division and the curious parallels that such estranged and adjacent communities shared. The book borrows from the language of the homemade, and looks inward to details that punctuated the seasons in once uncomplicated communities – simple and joyful moments that will eventually be eclipsed by their keepers’ ageing and death notices cut from evening papers, ever more frequently as lives draw on.
The publication of Scrapbook progresses Wylie’s engagement with the Ulster he was born into. His earlier responses to the decommissioning of the Maze prison and British Watchtowers both dwelt on the ordered spaces of incarceration and surveillance. In this latest work, the vernacular ephemera and occasions that interrupt and influence daily life are woven to create a more inclusive structure. Wylie has had a sustained and deep interest in such diverse uses of photography and Scrapbook is a further departure in an engaged and thoughtful practice. That said, beyond their more usual resting places, in the drawers and private albums of local families, Ulster has had its own particular association with such materials over recent decades. From the grave and naïve “collect” photographs, drawn from the homes of the dead and disappeared across 30 years troubles – for use in news broadcasts and newspapers – to the precious and imperfect photographs of the county fair singers, Orange Order parades and hunger marches, these documents have been important to our understanding of this region and urgently foregrounded to emphasise how sectarian acts engage at the heart of
the family.
While fading envelopes, parade ephemera, a brace of sniper rifle photographs and other partisan artefacts are reproduced as objects in their complete form, the book draws license from more recent design to elevate fading colour photographs of parades and unrest to fully bled expanses. In doing so, it migrates from the scrapbook facsimile to a more conscious and considered photo-book. The book collects articles and reports that are in turn celebratory and dreadful. The nine sons of the Hagan family, gathered around their parents at an anniversary, stare from a grey half-tone cutting. Elsewhere, the cover of a 1974 Young Gleaners magazine gathers a crowd of children and leaders at a Wexford campsite, just across the page from a news report that describes a mother’s death in an ambush. Each employs “cheap” photographs, poorly arranged yet precious. Perhaps they, like the poetry, rough drawings and gathered details in this book are the real vocabulary of the Troubles history, a social archive speaking beyond more conventional reportages that have described Ulster in more familiar ways. The potential of this approach – though it seems like there is more Wylie will do as he continues to engage with the region – is in both authors’ recognition that, as the playwright Denis Potter once noted, “even these cheap songs, so-called, have something of the Psalms of David about them”.
Ken Grant