Finella and Philip Davenport’s The Practical Senior Teacher is a book in the loosest possible sense of the word, and yet also in multiple senses of the word, too. First the loose associations: This is a collaged work spanning over thirty years begun by sister and brother Finella and Philip Davenport (collaborating as The Gingerbread Tree) in 1984 and continuing to evolve as a work in progress to this day. The pages collected, printed and bound as the 2016 KFS edition bearing the title represent a fraction of the 300-plus page work that exists and has been exhibited in loose-leaf form at the Text Festival in Bury and the Storey Gallery in Lancaster.
Beyond the codex are the physically collaged pages incorporating layer upon layer of magazine cut-ups, adverts, government health warnings, comics, paint, lipstick, scribbled notes and empty painkiller packets. The book is just one possible iteration of the project of The Practical Senior Teacher, and readers can accompany their reading with the YouTube playlist The Margaret Thatcher Museum for an additional, aural, layer to the collage. Further videos by The Gingerbread Tree feature collaged pages from the book thrown into alternative contexts. This is a restless and relentless project, a perpetual work-in-progress that has been continually worked and re-worked since its inception. The ‘book’ is just a part of it.
Yet this project also fulfils the definition of book from multiple perspectives. The title, The Practical Senior Teacher references the original textbook that forms the substrate for the composition of the collaged pages. This book started life as a textbook for school teachers in the Thatcher era, and the subsequent collage-work provides its own document (Old English boc, book) of those times through its incorporated layers. This is both a personal and a cultural document of those years, creating a history from the detritus of a throw-away culture interwoven with the debris of personal crisis and development. Pages documenting Finella’s experience of the life-threatening post-natal condition HELLP are left unchanged by Philip, yet the condition is represented, like everything in the book, by its waste products.
Throughout the book, various excerpts and iterations of Finella’s poem Bee Scandal are woven with the collaged pages, giving a kind of loose metaphorical narrative of a society disintegrating and self-destructive – the same society attested to by the decades-long collage project.
we hid in a basement
beneath the incessant buzz
didn’t know which side was winning
took turns to take
(ear to the radio:
The poem carries echoes of a bunkered and broken society as well as a colony of bees in a hive. As the poem becomes more fractured and fragmented the bees themselves begin to pile up ‘like abandoned rubbish … trash stings scattered needles’ – again interweaving the twin narratives of the bees and the society they echo. The bees piling up like abandoned rubbish, their stings scattered like the needles of a drug user. Society itself broken and addicted. Each reduced to its own destruction. Through collage, however, the abandoned rubbish becomes the material of recreation, the constant reconstruction as work-in-progress with whatever materials happen to be at hand.
Other fragments of text from the layers of collage appear and disappear through the worked pages – whose most recent form of reworking includes digitisation. This has allowed pages to be duplicated, mirrored and adapted digitally; distinguishing the collected pages from their material counterparts and enabling effects such as reversal and repetition that further distort the reading and disorient the reader.
When the work was displayed in Lancaster it was as part of Understanding the Ritual, an exhibition of art-shamanism, and it’s this that interests me the most about The Practical Senior Teacher: the ritual process at play in the project. The restlessness of the ritualistic acts that have compelled Finella and Philip Davenport to keep creating, destroying and recreating this work for over three decades, and the alchemical transformation of that act physically, mentally, emotionally and perhaps even spiritually. One of the most intriguing text-fragments for me is set onto a page painted almost entirely red and includes the following mythically-resonant phrases:
‘Heart of Dionysus
heart of hare
not eaten lest it make the eater timid
heart of lion or le[op]ard eat heart of wolf
& of bear
eat to acquire courage
SCREWS YOU UP’
The final phrase is taken from the 80’s Government health warning ‘Heroin Screws You Up’, and there’s so much going on here. Is the eater of the wolf’s heart the mythical equivalent to a junkie? Does the juxtaposition suggest equivalence or contradiction, or something less exact? The association with heroin brings to mind a play on wasted / waste / wasteful that resonates with the theme of detritus throughout the book and finds another expression in the empty pill packet representing a moment of serious threat to Finella’s life.
Like the making of this ‘book’, the reading is a work-in-progress, an unsettled and unsettling process of excavating and creating connections within, between and beyond the pages. No two readings are ever the same and there’s no fixed ‘meaning’ to discover. Reading this book is a physical process that can, if the reader chooses, engage multiple senses and experiences. For me, its magic is in its perpetual openness to recreation, coming alive at its multiple points of connection, writing and creating not only the lives it contains but also the lives it touches.
About the Publisher:
Knives Forks and Spoons Press is a prolific publisher of avant-garde poetry by internationally acclaimed poets and emerging young writers. ‘KFS is a forum for an extraordinary range of diversity and risk-taking artistic experiment.’
Review by Sally-Shakti Willow
Sally-Shakti Willow researches and writes utopian poetics at the University of Westminster. She is Research Assistant for the Contemporary Small Press.