To celebrate the publication of Where? Simon Moreton asked a group of writers and artists to contribute new work on the theme of Grief, Place, Landscape. Here the artist Peony Gent reflects on the creation of her short comic, for Sarah, and how the landscape of the Cambridgeshire Fens came to be the backdrop to her grief when an old friend unexpectedly died.
How we seep into the land, how the land seeps into us.
I grew up in the Fens of Cambridgeshire, which are all flat fields and gaping sky.
You and I would go down to the river and poke at the beer cans left in fire pits by the water’s edge, paddle in the muddy shallows and look for eels.
I actively thought nothing about the Fens until a long time after I left them. They were a place I only grew to see when they became coloured with the contrast of living elsewhere, first Edinburgh and then London. But it was when I heard that you had died – a friend from school had sent me a message on Facebook to let me know – that I started to think about them again.
You and I hadn’t spoken in years and hadn’t been friends for far longer than that, and for a good while after I heard I felt I almost didn’t deserve to feel the grief I did. I put off making this comic for a long time because of that guilt, that wary feeling that I was exploiting you or your family by using your passing as ‘content’, as taking it and selfishly reforming it for my own needs.
I’m still not certain how I feel about that, whether it was an act of love or of indulgence, of respect or of selfishness. I do know that I needed to make this comic, this piece that is for you and about you, as a way to process it all: the formative years we had spent as close to best friends, the build-up of all of those years and memories in those flat fields, under that open and gaping sky.
And when it came to constructing this comic and giving body and image to the words that I needed to expel, it surprised me how much the landscape that I’d deliberately ignored for so long gave me what I was looking for. It felt fake to replicate snapshots of memories, to mock up sentimentalised picture-perfect postcards of moments from fifteen years ago. Instead, the Fens gave me the literal grounding I needed, and let me walk through the experiences we’d shared in a way that transported me back there, rather than me transforming them into something else.
The process of creating this comic became an act of catharsis and self-therapy, methodically drawing and redrawing the sets on which our childhood played out, even as I could see our past selves projected onto them in my mind.
The comic starts on the street I grew up on, with the house I lived in for most of my childhood and the years I knew you best. As the pages move on, I walk from that house, through the village to your house – a walk I did hundreds of times.
Along the way as I draw (and as I walk?) the pages and the journey unravel, zooming out to encompass the whole village in all of the time we lived there. As my imagined walk loses shape within the comic, I begin to try to visualise both my recent past and your imagined one – the places I knew you’d lived but had never visited. I found myself mentally revisiting sites I hadn’t been to in years, or had never been, whilst I mapped the places where our paths diverged.
Looking back at this comic I see how the flatness of the fens that I used to find so ordinary and mundane takes on an unintentional, almost grand feeling in how I’ve drawn them – the empty fields cut through with a footpath leading out into the unknown. All these scenes I needed no reference photos for, the number of times I’ve walked countless similar paths having ingrained images inside my eyelids in ways I hadn’t even been aware of.
As my thoughts wander and spiral, the imagery leaves our village and winds deeper into the Fens, following a path I now see loosely maps one we had walked together as teenagers.
At the time of making this comic I had mainly been drawing these places and locations as a way to focus and think and remember – only now I see a logic in them I wasn’t consciously aware of applying at the time.
There is a break after the set of pages documenting this slow walk through the fields, after which a crash of memories returns, imagery and recollections cut up and juxtaposed from different time periods against each other. This final section of the comic returns to both of our homes, documenting little intimacies from across the years.
As the memories slip away, these images also undo and twist themselves into nothing. In the final page the panels of the comic itself also undo themselves, leaving the words floating without the boundaries of the comic panels to set them in time and place.
In many ways this comic feels unfinished to me – as a eulogy both to you, and as a eulogy to the Fens. I do know that I couldn’t make one without also making the other, the land steeped in the people I knew then, just as my memories of those people are bound up in the land itself.
This comic only scratches the surface of a body of work I could make about the Fens, and only really just begins to touch on my delicate relationship with a place I gave no consideration to for most of my years there. However, to have the beginning of this work start with a eulogy for you, Sarah, feels right.
Peony Gent is an illustrator, installation artist and poet based in London.
Where? by Simon Moreton is out now. A memoir that combines prose, illustration, photos, archival texts, and more, Where? weaves a story that slips and slides in time and geography, creating connections across geographies, histories, families, times, and circumstance.
Where? is available from the Little Toller website, and from bookshops everywhere, including Little Toller’s own, in Beaminster, Dorset.