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Nell Whittaker - On Writing, Charity Shops and Space

As a culture we are commercially driven to reinvent ourselves in the same way a swallow, martin or warbler would migrate annually. Our identity is in flux - a transient, ethereal web of nostalgia, knowledge, edifice, anything we can cling desperately to in order to give value and permanence to lives that brush against the universe like stifled breath on a mountain range. The objects that we use, we often don’t give much credence of thought to - that is until they’re gone. If we reinvent ourselves, then surely these things must be reinvented by our touch, and there exists, in every oppidan nook of the provincial spine, a sea of bric-a-brac that is raised like Lazarus by strange, fumbling hands; charity shop tat.

Nell Whittaker was kind enough to send us a copy of CHARITY SHOP - an essay published in Manchester by death of workers whilst building skyscrapers. It’s a romantic and lyrical soliloquy to domesticity, alternative family structures, the transitory nature of possession, and centres itself around the idea of the charity shop, including Fallowfield Retail Park’s Barnardos. I had a chat with Nell about her writing and the process of CHARITY SHOP. We started off with the design work - a pale, warm stone brown cover that juxtaposes its contents of loud ephemera with its minimalism. In block capitals, as if printed by some obsolete SCM typewriter collecting dust in a South Manchester charity shop window, it reads


“That’s all Lucy [Wilkinson] at the press (death of workers whilst building skyscrapers). She’s a genius when it comes to the book design. It was collaborative in so far as she would ask me about stuff. I didn’t do anything because I was just so happy with the way it was put together. She chose that brown colour because she said it was the kind of colour of that furniture you get in charity shops, old-fashioned, shiny. It came together quite gradually over a few years. I was at uni when I was writing about domesticity. It always felt like I hadn’t quite got to the end of it. There was a question I still hadn’t properly answered, I guess. It was just a case of writing stuff down and all these notes coming together in a more coherent form. I think that often what I end up writing is just a result of preoccupation with something. You know that phenomenon where suddenly you’re seeing stuff that feels relevant all over the place?

After a bit of research, I find out that it's the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, and even within the interview, it’s presence lingers like old aftershave embedded in the fibres of YMCA knitwear. I ask Nell about Homer and Langley Collyer whom she opens the second part discussing: two Americans who gained notoriety for excessive hoarding, and eventually met their end by their own hubris (one brother crushed by debris in the midst of his own booby trap, and the other dying of starvation and heart disease).

“It’s funny because I went to New York, and I was in Harlem and walking around. You know when you’re travelling somewhere and you amble around? I went past this little patch, this vacant lot right in the middle of a dense block of tenement houses. On the gate there was a little notice that said ‘This was the house of the Collyer brothers.’ After they removed everything from the house, they demolished it, and nothings been built there since. That was just a coincidence but I was like woah, this is the physical place. I’d known about the story already.”

The house that the Collyer brothers collected a driving tempest of unassuming belongings within is now a public park, yet despite the forward push for more available public spaces, there's still a drought. In 2017, a Guardian Cities investigation into pseudo-public spaces revealed the extent to which large swathes of squares and parks in London, that masquerade as public, are actually owned by developers and private backers. Manchester City Council was requested to give information on the extent of this happening within in it’s own city. Naturally, it declined to comment. Nell and I discussed libraries and charity shops in lieu of the idea of what spaces the public really hold.

“There are very few places you can go to in a town centre that aren’t hostile to you being there unless you’re making a speedy purchase. You can linger in both those places without being treated suspiciously. Cities and towns are becoming non-public. Hyper-surveilled as well. The numbers of public toilets has decreased by thousands in the past decade. There’s this sense that if you’re out in public loitering around then you’re up to something, as opposed to just existing outside of the home. I guess charity shops, and libraries have a sense of safety because of that. Pubs too. Pubs are like community centres.”

It’s deeply rooted in the politics of the last forty years - the sale of public assets to private firms. Practically anything is a commodity for enterprise or possession, and on this maddening island which lurches closer to the shadow of American health care, one can only postulate that perhaps soon our bodies too will be rented spaces - right thigh sponsored by T-Mobile, ear canal by Harvey Nichs, the uvula advertising a small independent brewery in attempt to maintain trading practices and standards. I know a man who has a tattoo of the Ralph Lauren logo on his chest, where it would be on the shirt. Should his own nude reflection in solitary moments, tender as Michaelangelo’s David, come with a warning of sponsored content?

As communities suffered this erosion, they also kicked back, and garnered strength through new, smaller hyper-local philosophies. A strong thread through Nell’s writing is in communities. Whilst primarily focussing on the predominant familial unit and its alternatives in CHARITY SHOP, she also underpins the relationship between objects, people and their history. “In charity shops, I find expression of selfhood that is constituted by relation: a way of thinking through how one might live alongside others, known and unknown. And it is a delightful experience: what is there? Human expression. What might you find? The history of human creation. I found a Roll-O-Pad, a short lived sixties invention: a metal cylinder from which you unfurled a roll of sugar paper, a rollable notepad. How to speak of delight without venturing (unforgivably) into whimsy? By thinking of these things as urgent little missionaries from somewhere that no longer exists, someone that no longer exists. The insane mash of things, a chorus of voices; multiplicity, in plastic and cotton and polyester, going cheap.” This recognition of a shared history, communities that exist in full beyond a thin veil of otherisation, is drawn on again when Nell shares her advice on publication for writers.

“I’d probably say find out what communities already exist, or collaborate within your community. Don’t worry too much about the mainstream, because working with Lucy at Death of Worker’s has been great because there’s so much integrity that she has, and Karolina who she runs it with, and they’re publishing stuff they like with people that they like. If you work collaboratively, find out ways to do that. Find what ecosystem you belong to, and build from there. Have confidence in what you find interesting, because often that’s the only thing you’ve got. Write about what you find yourself talking to people about.“

Following this, Nell’s let us know what she’s got coming up next.

“There’s some photography. I’ve got some in a zine. I’m working at the moment on an audio-essay, which I’ve not done before. It’s about pigs. It’s an attempt to trace why people invoke the pig so often as this mirror of human self, and what’s the thread through our cultural relationship with pigs. It’s been really fun. I’ve written it, and my partner’s producing it. We’re working on it together. It’s fun to use audio. We’ve got that bit where Danny Dyer is talking about David Cameron and he says “Where is he now? In Nice with his trotters up.” It’s really fun to work in a different format and bring in other things. Post-Interview, Nell informs me that this audio-essay will be featuring “on No Bounds. It’s a literature-based radio station based between Manchester and London. It’s designed to be accessible to everyone regardless of experience with audio, and it’s a super welcoming team.”

As always we asked Nell for three suggestions: brands; spaces; artists; anything really.

“Well, death of workers has just left. They’ve just moved to Glasgow. I would say Partisan is a big one. They’ve had a really tough year, because of being closed for a full year. They put on a great party. I miss them so much. DIY Darkroom, she’s amazing, an amazing photo-developer. She’s great, and lovely. She’s really fast and attentive to detail. Well for the third, I’ll tell you an amazing charity shop story. I went into the Oxfam in Didsbury. It was packed to the rafters of this beautiful fabric, and writing sets, and napkins, and table cloths, and big throws. It turned out a man who used to supply Habitat with Indian block printed cotton, had retired and had this warehouse full of stock donated it all to the Oxfam. Me and six other people did our entire Christmas shop in there. I was beside myself. There’s still some in there, so when it reopens…”

After the interview, Nell sent me some more suggestions and added thoughts she’d had on her writing.

“I thought of some DIY spaces in Manchester you might be interested in - 1520 Studios in the old Partisan space in Cheetham Hill, and Merseyway Workshop in Stockport, which is a creative community space in the shopping precinct.

Another thing I wanted to note that I didn’t get round to saying about CHARITY SHOP and more generally is the centrality in my work of alternative familial structures, and how the pandemic has exposed how - from there being no mention at all of households that aren’t biological families in the first lockdown rules that were issued, from there being no public discussion or acknowledgment that having sex with or even seeing your partner has been illegal for much of the last year... In Manchester, if you don’t live with your partner it’s been illegal to sleep with them since October; if you’re single, it’s been both illegal and practically impossible to sleep with anyone for much of the last twelve months. This applies to queer people and not-queer people alike, but the dimensions are different (as always) - The academic Sophie Lewis wrote recently 'There has been more scrutiny of the flouting of public health protocols for the sake of desire—circuit parties, cruising, hookups, “chem sex,” and so on—than scrutiny of (say) weddings, though the latter are proven superspreader events. This comes as no surprise: the imperative of capitalist social reproduction takes priority over queer life.’ I guess a lot of my thinking circles around these ideas, tracing the work of other people in imagining alternative structures that might mean less death and destruction for people and planet alike.”

Leaving this, I reflected on Nell’s pause over each word. It forced me to think that words too are transient objects, more so in a world where being online brings us into contact with new colloquialisations every day. The entire realm of human expression has become a charity shop, and writers like Nell vend discourse and stories in hope that they take new life in that same sea of bric-a-brac that we drift in like lost shipping cargo, overboard. Thank you to Nell for speaking to us, and for allowing us to use her photography with this piece. We’d like to leave you with our favourite passage from CHARITY SHOP.

“Desire and its excess can define a life. Sometimes I'm thinking about what I’m going to eat next as I’m still eating; I drink until I’m blank and stumbling; I finish one cigarette and I want another. Collecting with no real goal or endpoint makes me feel guilty, sometimes, particularly as minimalism gains traction as a signifier of emotional maturity or moral worth. Sometimes I google pictures of Kim and Kanye’s house, a secular Californian monastery consisting only of smooth off-white surfaces, not a single possession in sight. This is a rejection of excess taken to its nadir by the super-rich: those who want, literally as it turns out, for nothing. The purpose of money is not what it allows you to have, but how it allows you to live: without effort, floating about the excremental human traffic of wanting and buying, eating of the chameleon’s dish, only air.”

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