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Further Afield Logo featuring a green table microphone outlined in black and black text which reads Further Afield. exploring art and disability in rural spaces.

Interview with Letty McHugh

Writing by Polly Atkin

“I am where I am. And you can do a lot from an armchair in Haworth. And if people aren’t gonna adapt to that, then, you know, I’m just gonna have to find other people to work with and other people to connect with.”

About the conversation

In the first interview of the series, Bella speaks to Letty McHugh, an artist and writer based in Haworth, West Yorkshire. Bella talks to Letty about being a contemporary artist living in a place steeped in the creative history of the Brontë sisters, making work about the isolation of sick experiences and navigating the expectations of rural art-making as a disabled artist.

Accompanying this recording is a fantastic text written in response to the conversation by Polly Atkin. You can read it below.

Further Afield Logo featuring a green table microphone outlined in black.

Further Afield interview with Letty McHugh

Listen to the audio version here

“I used to get really like anxious about what am I going to make work about? What’s the right thing to make work about? I think whatever I make, and whatever I’m doing, this place influences it.”

Accompanying writing by Polly Atkin

Not a room of our own but an anchorage for all of us

What are the living conditions we need in order to be able to create? A room of our own? No chance. An income that leaves us free to write? Unlikely. To live in a place we love, a place that feeds our creativity? Maybe? A place of community? Is that expecting too much?

For me, to live in a place I love against all reason is the best I can do, have done, the thing on which everything spins, has spun.

I moved to the village I live in to study the idea of that village as a creative home, a well filling and refilling with inspiration from some deep fissure in the bedrock. By the time I had slept one night here the spectre of that creative home had already possessed me. I was convinced I needed to be here. By the time I had to leave, the first time, I was already afraid that leaving might mean I may never write again. Not like I did here. I knew it was ridiculous to lay so much store in a place, but it felt real, pressing. It felt like any great love. To lose it would change everything.

The questions I was asking in my research were questions I had to ask myself too: what does it mean to live a creative life in a rural place? What are the conditions that make it possible? What is lost and what is gained by living in such a place? What are the dangers to our work, our selves? How do we balance isolation and community?

I thought a lot about creative community and collaborative working, about what it means to have that, on your doorstep, and later, what it means to lose it. I have weighed that against the importance of a particular place to creativity, against place as a collaborator in our work. William Wordsworth wrote that he retreated to his native hills to make work that would live. I thought a lot about that word, retreat. I have thought about what it means to retreat from society, to live in seclusion, whether chosen or not.

The Wordsworths and their friends wrote letters. Years passed between visits from friends or family. We have the internet. The world in our hands. The Wordsworths moved back to their isolated rural community after they had begun to find creative community, so brought their connections with them. A generation later, the Bronte sisters growing up in Haworth had no such choice. Their isolation was a different flavour.

I have thought about how these questions weave through parallel questions I have about what it means to live a creative life as a disabled person. About the conditions that make it possible to live a creative life as a disabled person in any place – and in a rural place. About what could make it better. I have thought about the sickroom as a ship on a sea of placelessness, and I have thought of the sickroom as the centre of a labyrinth, nested in place. If we cannot leave a room what difference does it make to us what lies beyond that room? No difference, or every difference?

I have thought about loneliness. I have thought about the hermitage both chosen and unchosen, that Letty speaks of. I have thought about exclusion and the joy of access has shimmered like a mirage on a far-off horizon.

I have thought about whether we choose the places we live in. Sometimes there is an illusion of choice, the road taken or not taken. Sometimes there is only one option, and we have to live with it, in it, like it or not.

This is particularly the case for disabled people, when suitable housing is hard to find, and we rely so much on caring networks and trusted medical support. Like Letty, I moved home when I was too ill to work, but I left again, drawn by a vision of a way I could work, a way I could live.

In one version of this story I chose to live in a place that should be low on the list of illness priorities, low on the list of creative ones. A village eighteen miles from the closest hospital, three hundred miles from my specialists. A village most young creatives can’t afford to live in anymore, unless they’re in tied housing, working exhausting hours for someone else.

In another version of this story I chose to live in a place that seems, on the surface, inaccessible in many ways, because it was less painful to live in than any place I’d lived in. I would tell you it enables so much more than I ever imagined. That I sleep better here, so I can think better here. That I had a good doctor and no one leaves a good doctor, do they? We know all too well why you would not risk moving from a place where you have a good relationship with your GP or local hospital. Why having a local hospital is important. Why continuity of care is important. I chose to keep living here because I wanted continuity of treatment. I wanted continuity of a life I had made. I could tell you it is because I can drive to the shops when I can’t walk far enough. Because the pharmacy knows me. Because the woods and the lake unspool from my door so most days I can reach them, touch them. On the days I can’t, they reach me, sending their emissaries to our tiny garden – a small green space of our own I can work in when I can’t get beyond it. It’s not perfect, and it’s ours only precariously – like so many of our generation our lives are rented – but it is home. From this home, in and with this home, the work is done, the work grows. The work becomes.

All of this is justification after the fact. I live here because I love it, I love it. The love justifies anything. I was too heartsick without it. That’s the truth. I didn’t make a choice, I followed a lead, and from that point on I took the only path accessible to me. That I am still here in this place is a conspiracy between place and body.

It doesn’t matter if I am working from my sofa or from my bed, I am still here, in this place I love. I know it’s a kind of magical thinking. I know it doesn’t make sense. I chose to move back here and to stay here because I had it fixed in my mind or gut or diffused through all my organs that it was the only place I could work. The only place I could make work that would live.

But I also live here because it’s the only place I felt I could live, that I could be at home. It was the only future I could see unfolding, practically, from my sick body, that would hold it. The only place I felt perhaps I could have a room – a shared room – that art could grow from.

Years pass, and the work starts to enable the life. The work has gone out into the world beyond the village and made its own lives. It sends money back to the place it came from, supporting me so I can go on supporting it. We support each other. This is a kind of collaboration too.

In the place, people come and go. One kind of austerity bleeds into other kinds of austerity. Housing pressures rise and rise. Creativity is expensive and it is not supported in the place like it used to be. There is a pandemic, a cost of living crisis. My retreat feels more and more like an anchorage.

Still, the work goes out and finds others who are isolated, modern hermits in their own illness anchorages. My work, all the work. The words streams out of our isolated rooms. It threads us all together, our places, our separateness and togetherness. The work opens a crack in the rock more work can grow in. It proliferates. A glowing web of anchorages. Our work spooling out from beds and sofas and sickrooms and wards. Our work entering spaces we cannot enter with it, or outwith it. Our work moving to London or living for a year in an attic in Paris. Our work circumnavigating the globe by sea. Our work at the gallery. Our work at the library. Our work at the gala in lipstick and heels. Our work at the protest. Our work two hundred years later giving our names to taxi firms and curry houses, to cocktails and museums, trying to remember the body it came from.

Our work being the book that a teenager just like us picks up, sees themselves in, sees in its pages a future unfolding. Sees how accessibility is possibility. This is collaboration. This is community. Our work saying you can do whatever you want, however you need to do it. Our work being a room you can make work in.

A photograph of a person. It shows them from the waist up. They sit at a brown desk. They wear a bright pink shirt. They have short, dark red hair. They have their elbow on the desk and lean their chin on their hand. In the background is a green panel and the backdrop of an empty office space.
Letty McHugh

“My work explores the universality of personal experience, which is basically the intellectual way of saying I’m interested in people, their stories and the things that connect us all. At the moment, I’m researching ways of making work to bring connection and solace to people experiencing isolation, drawing inspiration from my own experiences of living with a chronic illness.”

Letty’s award winning book “Book of Hours: An Almanac for the Seasons of the Soul” is a collection of lyric essay and poetry exploring what it means to have faith, why we chase suffering and how to take solace in small joys. 

A person stand looking up to the sky. They have brown shoulder length hair which is green at the ends. They wear a green top and black leather jacket. Behind them is a house with green plants growing in front of it.
Polly Atkin

Polly Atkin is a poet and nonfiction writer. Her first poetry collection Basic Nest Architecture (Seren: 2017) is followed by Much With Body (Seren, 2021), a PBS Winter 2021 recommendation and Laurel Prize 2022 longlistee.

Her biography Recovering Dorothy: The Hidden Life of Dorothy Wordsworth (Saraband, 2021), is the first to focus on Dorothy’s later life and illness. Her memoir exploring place, belonging and disability, Some Of Us Just Fall was published by Sceptre in summer 2023, and in the US / Canada by Unnamed in 2024.

She works as a freelancer from her home in Grasmere, in the English Lake District, where she is co-owner of Sam Read Bookseller.

Polly’s latest book, “Some of Us Just Fall” is available in print and audio versions.

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