INTERVIEW by Veronica Popp

NWR Issue 109

Philippa Holloway

Philippa's memoir, ‘Energy Crisis: A Memoir of Summer’, was highly commended in the New Welsh Writing Awards 2015, judged by Mark Cocker & Gwen Davies. An extract from this essay is published in the inaugural issue of our New Welsh Reader, #108, summer 2015.

NWR: Your piece begins with yourself clinging to a rock-face, applying the metaphor of barely clinging to life to an environment in crisis. Why did you choose to begin this way?

PH: I began writing a few days after a rock-climbing event. The experience provided the perfect metaphor for both my own personal energy struggles and the issues of energy production, usage and transference. During the summer, I had re-engaged with the landscape around me and found myself developing a new relationship with the natural world, specifically, how mankind uses its resources for our own energy needs. In Snowdonia and Anglesey there is a dramatic juxtaposition between stunning natural landscapes and man-made energy generators such as Wylfa Nuclear Power station in Cemaes Bay, the on- and off-shore wind farms and the networks of pylons that stretch across the Menai Straits and thread their way over the lower slopes of the mountains. This creates a variety of tensions within residents as well as environmentalists and ecologists. It also feeds my own internal conflicts regarding my need to consume energy and my awareness of fluctuating and depleting sources for energy production. I made a deliberate decision to weave my own personal energy narrative with the environmental crises faced globally regarding energy production and consumption.

NWR: I loved the line ‘What is the point of living by the sea if you only see the beach on the commute to work?’ Would you agree or disagree that our lives in the office are secondary factories?

PH: Historically our working relationships with nature were symbiotic. Since the industrial and technological revolutions, working practices are more detached, with much of the population isolated from a relationship with the natural world, beyond holidays and a walk in the local park. My experiences in office work have made me feel restricted and imprisoned, cut off from the kind of environments that feed the body and soul. There is a reason why so many people have pot plants and pictures of lakes or open spaces in their workspace! It is easy to slide into a routine that reduces our relationship with the natural world into one of consumption and convenience, retaining little more than a wistful nostalgia for the pastoral. Many studies have explored the physical and psychological benefits of gardening and spending time in natural landscapes. We are not designed to sit in an office. However, we all need to work and earn a living. I am incredibly lucky to see the landscapes I do on my commute to work, and to have them on my doorstep for my leisure time. Whatever we can do to maintain a relationship with nature, regardless of our location, will benefit us. Even just a window box in a high rise flat!

Even the strimmers and ride-on mowers the council men use to decapitate and crush all striving spring growth can’t stop the dandelions. Two, maybe three days after the slaughter, as the severed stalks and dead insects begin to dry out and brown under the weight of the sun, the lights will come back on. One by one, orange and angry and joyful. Their energy is indestructible, their resilience unstoppable.

NWR: How does your work with MIND influence your art? Do you believe we all suffer this ‘illness of the modern world’ involving ‘limited energy resources [that are] consumed by duty?’

PH: Writing is a wonderful way to explore how we feel, how we interact with the world around us and how others behave. It can be incredibly cathartic to fictionalise or write creatively about the things that trouble us. We often put our own needs aside and are ‘consumed by duty’; this is something I do all the time! It is a huge privilege to work with MIND and a constant source of inspiration. I have suffered from depression myself, and sadly, mental health is still a taboo subject for many. It is also an incredibly complex issue, with a range of illnesses gathered under the umbrella term ‘mental health problems.’ There is no demographic for mental health crises, and most of us will experience some form of problem in this sphere at some point in our lives. It is important to seek help if it’s needed, and although it may be daunting, we can get the support and treatment we need to rebalance our minds.

NWR: Your writing discusses the ‘big questions’ about our future as a planet. The continuing theme of power or the lack of it, within solar, nuclear, wind, fossil and mind, is consistent. Do you believe we need to acknowledge and possibly embrace this lack of power, in order to survive, or will wilful ignorance be our end?

PH: There has been a huge turn in the last few years towards greener energy production. The wind farms and tidal power station planned for Anglesey illustrate this drive to find renewable resources. The sight of wind turbines uplifts me; they speak to me of the desire to try, to test new ideas, to work with the resources around us to solve the problem. However, they are not necessarily the solution and I do sympathise with those who hate them. For me, they represent a hopeful step forward. I do have faith that new systems will help, if not solve, the problem. On the other hand, while I am an energy consumer, I am also a fan of switching off. We dull our minds with TV, Internet and the convenience of the microwave. The relationships between our bodies, minds and environment are anaesthetised. Some of my happiest moments have been when cut off from the ‘civilised’ world. There is freedom, a chance to be yourself and re-engage with basic things such as food gathering, cooking on a fire and seeing the way the sun moves over the ground. By switching off every now and then we can reassess our energy needs and embrace our relationship with the world around us.

NWR:French feminist Helene Cixous believed that a woman’s body had its own language: do you believe having to hide pain, in your words, ‘keep it invisible’, is another way for the body to be heard over all the demands of modern life?

PH: I believe all bodies have their own individual and unique language, regardless of gender or other classification, as do bodies of water, landscapes and pylons. During the summer of 2014, I found myself connecting with my surroundings in a new way. I deliberately chose to be honest about my physicality and experiences, to the point of rawness, in order to explore through creative analysis my relationship with the power sources and landscapes I interact with on a daily basis. This allowed me to listen to the narratives around me and explore my own story within them. I am still learning to listen to my own body. Writing creatively about the pain I hide on a daily basis allowed me to understand it better and see it in dialogue with other invisible forces and their languages. Hiding pain is, for me, a survival technique. There is huge social pressure, especially on women, to hide anything that could be seen as a failing. It is incredibly sad that I feel I need to hide a significant part of whom I am. Speaking out about my health in such an honest way in this piece was liberating.

Veronica Popp is a writer, teacher, scholar and editor, she has a BA from Elmhurst College in English and History and an MA in Creative Writing from Aberystwyth University. Popp teaches composition and research at Elmhurst College.


previous interview: Video Showcase
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