Reflections on Iona, part 2

Here’s the second part of my reflections on our week on Iona. If you’re interested in that kind of news, read on.

I haven’t mentioned the most significant thing about our time on Iona – the week was tempered by an event just before we left for the island. The story started on the Friday before we left Edinburgh on Saturday. It was my last day teaching at ESSLLI, and I was having lunch with Denis Bonnay and Benjamin Simmenauer, talking about logic, and the possibility of me visting Paris – just before giving the last lecture of my course. My phone rings. Inside the restaurant there is terrible reception, but I can see that it’s Christine calling. I apologise to Denis and Ben, and head out of the restaurant to hear Christine. She’s upset. She says “Zachary’s had an accident. We’re in the hospital.”

Christine sounds like I feel – frantic and unsettled. She explains that Zachary fell while running down a hill in the Princes Street Gardens in the centre of Edinburgh. He split open his chin, there was a lot of blood, and after help from passers-by and a first aid officer from the Scottish National Gallery, they were in an ambulance to the children’s hospital. It was not clear whether or not he’d need stitches, but there was a large and deep cut, lots of blood – Christine said it looked like he had a second mouth.

The next call from the hospital came with news that Zachary was calm (when he saw the toys), Christine was happier, and the doctor decided that he didn’t need stitches. “Steri-strips” patched his chin together, and the bleeding stopped.

I taught my last class, in a rather distracted manner, keen to get home. I caught the bus into Haymarket and the train home to see my son with a smile on his face and rather more bandages than he had ever worn before.

This meant that all of our time on Iona was punctuated with parental cries of “watch out for your chin!” and “don’t run so fast, if you trip you’ll hurt your chin!” and other admonishments, and we kept worrying about whether or not we’d be able to keep him clean enough to avoid any infection in the cut.

The long and the short of it was that he has healed up pretty well. He did end up with a very mild infection but a quick check with the doctor on Thursday helped us change the strips to new ones, keep the wound much more ventilated, and since then it’s healed up nicely into a single line across his chin, fading daily.

Other significant events on Iona included our group art project, for the Thursday night communion service and Friday morning leaving service, and our conceptual art “installations” on Thursday afternoon. I’ll try to give you just a hint of what both activities involved.

On Wednesday, Steve explained that we were going to make a large banner of words, and that we would each paint a single letter. We were given a colour pallette (green, red, brown, black, yellow), inspired by Africa, and we were choose a letter from a big list. With some inspiration from lots of different examples of different fonts, we went off with a large rectangle of card, and ideas in our heads. We didn’t know where our letter would feature in the banner, but we knew that it would be somewhere. I chose one of the five Rs, and Christine chose one of the four Cs. After much conversation and experimentation with technique, we finished our letters. Steve and others then shuffled them around and assembled them into a nine by six banner of fifty-four different paintings to make one large artwork. It scrubs up pretty well. Christine’s C is great, with a wonderful watercolour effect in the background. I’m not particularly fond of my R but I am happy with the experience of painting it (it’s been years since I did so much with a brush and paint that wasn’t applied monochromatically to a wall or a ceiling). I was most happy with the effect once it was hung in the Abbey. You have a different relationship to an artwork when you have contributed one small recognisable part to the whole, which I suppose, was one of the ideas behind doing it.

Thursday’s artistic activity started at an odd place. This time Christine didn’t take part because she went to the doctor with Zachary – the doctor has a practice on Mull and she comes over to Iona once a week, on Thursday, for non-urgent consultations. We were concerned because Zachary’s cut had bled the day before when we removed bandages. It wasn’t too bad, but we wanted a doctor’s opinion. The opinon was what we thought. It was mildly infected and not healing as quickly as it should be, the steri-strips should be re-applied and the wound should be exposed to the air to dry out and heal.

For the art, Steve asked us to start with the following activity: we were to pair up and each person was choose a sheet from a pile, at random. The sheet had the face of a person. No name, no detail, just a face. In our pairs, we were to imagine a conversation between the two people. Not a mundane conversation, but one in which one of the people expressed some kind of need. I was paired with Margaret, Steve’s spouse. We had a young white harried male executive (at least, he had a furrowed brow, was in an office, was well dressed and groomed, and was on the telephone), and an older, European woman, heavily made up, not so well off, and looking wistfully into the middle distance. We decided that they were mother and son, estranged after years of slowly going apart. They hadn’t been in touch for a couple of years. He’s embarrassed by her ways, and she’s missing him and doesn’t understand his world. She calls, to tell him she has been diagonsed with a grave illness and doesn’t have long to live. He does not know how to react, he doesn’t have the time to see her, he doesn’t understand that she wants him merely to be with her rather than to do things. While working through the conversation with Margaret, I’m affected me deeply because (as most of you know) my mother died nearly ten years ago, and Christine’s mum died five years ago. Roleplaying an imagined and imaginary conversation does not provoke imaginary emotions – they’re real.

Now we get to the art. We act out the conversation in front of the group if we’re happy to do that – Margaret and I were first to do it, and nearly everyone else was happy to do it too). They were all equally touching and suprisingly varied and subtle. (The most fun was the two blokes doing the two elderly women, one ‘Anglo’ and the other from the subcontinent. That was unexpectedly touching and sweet. They met at a doctors surgery and it was a meditation on what it was to have a home and a family.) While we acted out our conversation, the rest of the group were to note down significant words that they heard. After it was all done, we looked at the words/phrases people noticed in the conversations and chose one that seemed to have some personal significance, and made it a part of an artwork. Here, artwork was defined quite broadly. One of our number chose the phrase “I don’t know” and created a path up a hill near the centre with a length of wool, pausing halfway to spell “I don’t know” in wool and then leading on to the other side of the hill to stop. At different stages through the day, different people followed the path and engaged with the artwork. I chose the word “time” (the harried young man seemingly didn’t have enough of it; the passing of time had seen the estrangement of mother and son; and I have a new relationship with time on this sabbatical) and knew almost immediately a part of what I wanted to do. I wanted to deface all of the clocks in the centre, by cutting a strip of paper, emblazoned with the word “time”, over the face of the clock, not entirely obscuring the face, but confronting people with the word while they checked the clocks in their routine throughout the day. This was a good start, but I wanted to do more. In a community of over 50, you would think there would be many clocks but there were only three. Christine suggested I get to work on watches. So, I offered to replace everyone’s watch with a wristband (alas, I know, everyone is doing it these days – my excuse is that this is a watch-substitute, not a sign of your allegience to an idea or a cause!) containing only the word “time”. You could keep your watch but you mustn’t wear it for the rest of the day. This was most enjoyable, appropriating people’s bodies for the artistic exercise. (I know something of what advertisers must feel when they see people wearing their slogan on a T-shirt.) It also gave me an opportunity to think in a different way about the passing of time.

Thursday evening saw the communion service in the evening, and I was a part of a choir for that service, as I’d been a part of a “Wee Sing” earlier in the week, and I was a bass and we needed bass voices. I also knew that this evening would see the first performance of a new song by John Bell dedicated to Tim Williams, the music director at Iona for the year. Tim is a young man, taking a year off from his Ph.D. in music at Cambridge to direct the music (and to teach untaught singers to sound halfway decent in a group). John’s new song (a Sanctus/Benedictus) is wonderful – not too difficult to sing in four parts, with a memorable melody and interesting harmonic movement, and it was a buzz to be a part of its first outing in a group. (The song was written on the Monday, and we were rehearsing on Wednesday to sing on Thursday.) The “wall of sound” effect that a choir of 40 or so can achieve in the small Abbey is something to be heard to be believed. I would’ve kept the music were it not for the note indicating that the sheets were to be destroyed after the performance. To hear what it sounds like, you’ll have to either come to Iona sometime or wait for the next music publication from Wild Goose.

What remains with me from the week on Iona, already passing into memory as I’ve been here in Oxford for a over a week, settling in. It’s a memory, but as we explored in various ways through the artwork and through living on the island with so much history, and participating in community traditions going back so many years, memories can be expressed, they can be articulated (to engage in some philosophical jargon for a minute). Words provide a powerful means of articulating memories, and when we use words in creative ways, we not only express static memories, we can also bring to light previously hidden or unnoticed features of what we have seen or heard or experienced. Sometimes we need new forms, new words, or whole new vocabularies to account for what is before us. I came to understand this in a new way in Iona, and that is something that will stay with me for a long time.

To everyone with whom I shared that week, thankyou.


I’m Greg Restall, and this is my personal website. I am the Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of Philosophy at the University of St Andrews, and the Director of the Arché Philosophical Research Centre for Logic, Language, Metaphysics and Epistemology I like thinking about – and helping other people think about – logic and philosophy and the many different ways they can inform each other.


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