Here be spoilers. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
I teach films, I make films, but I very rarely get to watch films. So it’s with great pleasure I sat down tonight with Down By Law, the Jim Jarmusch prison/buddy/road movie in which Jack, Zack and Bobby find themselves sharing a cell. It’s hard to switch off teaching mode, and about a third of the way through, I found myself idly wondering why it had been shot in black and white…
…and eventually decided that it was because it’s an existential story. Suddenly, the rest of the film swam into focus. All three are in prison for morally uncertain reasons — Jack and Zack have been set up, while Bobby’s manslaughter was a freak accident. Their situations are anything but black and white, so to render their world in high contrast B&W makes a nonsense of their injustice. As it unfolds, the film feels more and more like a Beckett play, the pointlessness playing out in theatrical, meditative wide shots — I don’t remember a single close-up in the entire movie.
Much of the story occurs as loops of nonsense — Bobby reciting American poets in Italian, or Zack recording the passage of days in fives or sixes or sevens, some vertical and some horizontal, none of them in any particular pattern. In the scene below, the three walk in endless circles — “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!” — while the other prisoners bellow the song along with them. It’s the only time they’re completely of one mind, and it’s over something pointless and completely unachievable.
The cabin they escape to is a mirror of their cell, while the Louisiana swamps unfold in circles. When they argue over the rabbit, Zack leaves to the right, then appears walking to the left — while Jack leaves to the left, and then appears walking right — and still they end up back at the campfire. On reaching the road — “Civilisation!” — both directions are identical and endless and pointless.
When Jack and Zack finally go their separate ways, they have literally no idea where they’re going — only that each needs to go away from the other. As solemn as Vladimir and Estragon, they swap jackets before walking away, right and left. I had the sense that they’d probably end up in much the same place they started.
Not Bobby, though. Bobby goes through life with an open heart and an open mind. He talks to people, he wants to communicate, and so he reaps the rewards of food and wine, a roof and a song, love. For all his nonsense, there’s a bigger meaning behind Bobby’s story — he perseveres through the babble of his world, and so he earns his happy ending. It’s all part of the joke that he’s the one who likes to speak — and it’s in a language no one understands.
A clever, entertaining, charming film.
I’ve now seen Penny Woolcock and British Sea Power‘s astonishing documentary, From The Sea To The Land Beyond, about ten times, including a live screening at Glasgow Film Festival last year. It’s an astonishing work—a feature length film comprising entirely of archive footage and BSP’s score, by turns haunting and playful. The footage was lifted entirely from the BFI archives, and tells nothing less than the social history of Britain through our relationship with the sea. It’s extraordinary: through the flickering windows of hundred-year old reels, the film explores Britain’s food, wars, suffrage, leisure, the rise of the middle class, industrial action, economic boom and bust, immigration, capitalism and more.
Ever since watching From The Sea To The Land Beyond, I’ve wanted to work with some archive footage. I used a little of it in my hay meadows documentary To The End We Will Go, but when I recently happened upon some fascinating public domain material, I decided to cut something entirely from archive. And here, then, is something of a music video; taken from my friend Dan Haywood‘s wonderful album Dapple, I’ve cut together footage of USAAF atomic bomb tests and the seminal agricultural documentary The Plow That Broke The Plains, all soundtracked by Dan’s glorious song I’ve Got Heaven At My Door.
It’s not the most complex thing in the world, but then again, I have very little time right now—I’ll write more about that in my next post—I threw this together over a couple of lunchtimes at college. For now, here’s the video, and I’ll get back to my novel.
With a first draft of The Hollows finished and sent away, I’ve emerged, blinking, into the light, with pasty skin and mild RSI. I’m still hungry to keep working while I have these little windows, though, so I’ve tweaked and typeset all the stories in Dare, and sent it to the printers; I’ve started thinking about some new flash stories for my guest spot at Verbalise in October; and I’m catching up on some long overdue blog posts, including this one.
When I wrote The Visitors, I had a tight-knit soundtrack to shape my work. This consisted mostly of:
Come On Die Young by Mogwai
Mar of Aran by British Sea Power
Raise Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven by Godspeed You Black Emperor
Just Beyond The River by James Yorkston
…and everything by Bat For Lashes.
In combination, they did what I needed them to do; for me, music for writing needs to hit several things at once. It must be engaging, immersive, transporting; but also neutral enough to let me tune out and play it in the background, and not get too involved. For this reason, I tend to go for records with minimal vocals; or, at least, records (like the James Yorkston and the Bat For Lashes) where the vocal is tonally consistent, drifting, utterly woven into the fabric of the music.
On starting The Hollows, I developed a new soundtrack. Some of the same culprits are there, but with different albums; listening to my Visitors soundtrack takes me back into The Visitors, and I needed to be somewhere very new for The Hollows, which is a more fantastical, more magical place. And I say ‘evolved’ quite deliberately; albums have dropped in and dropped out as the manuscript developed. Ys by Joanna Newsom was a big part of last year’s stumbles, but she gradually shifted down the running order as the story unfolded. Instead, Jonathan Eng’s wonderful soundtrack from the computer game Sailor’s Dream moved in to take her place (thanks in no small part to the wonderful vocals by Stephanie Hladowski). Another video game soundtrack has proven to be extremely good music for writing: Thomas Was Alone is an utterly beautiful game in and of itself, but the score by David Housden stands alone.
The most recent addition is I Want To See Pulaski At Night by violinist Andrew Bird. My friend and colleague Dom introduced me to this record while we were in the depths of a marking slump, and it parachuted into my writing soundtrack next day. Mostly instrumental, Pulaski takes its title from this glorious centrepiece:
The running order is important (to me, anyway – it’s totally cool if you don’t care). Andrew Bird is first on the list, as I Want To See Pulaski At Night is both sleepy and sparky, making for exactly the right way to start the day. Then comes Thomas Was Alone, which takes me somewhere deeper, calmer, more concentrated:
From Thomas Was Alone, British Sea Power take it up a notch with the drive, shift and transporting tumble of their film soundtrack From The Sea To The Land Beyond. Thanks to pal Kirstin Innes, Mon and I were lucky enough to witness them play this live at the Glasgow Film Festival earlier this year. Their performance was magisterial. I’ve now seen the film half-a-dozen times, and it’s a masterpiece: a social history of Britain told through our relationship with the sea, drawing together a century of archive footage from the British Film Institute. Watch it. Watch it again. Tell everyone.
Next up is Sailor’s Dream. By this time I’m ready for something less immersive, and the vocal interludes of the days of the week (this makes sense if you’ve played the game) saturate my head with little magics, thresholds, otherworlds.
Next comes Balmorhea. I discovered this post-rock band last year when friend Jon kindly gave me his old iPod, and I became addicted in days to their sweeping arrangements. There’s a timelessness to Balmorhea’s music that I find completely immersive. They sustain this over several records with different measures of minimalism, but it all works for me. After Sailor’s Dream I go into their album Constellations, but from this point they recur every other album, working up to Live At Sint-Elisabethkirk, which is perhaps the best £5 you’ll spend today, because this:
After Constellations, Mogwai strike back with Rock Action, the follow up to Come On Die Young. Here’s why it’s one of my favourites of their many awesome albums:
Then comes phase two of the mighty British Sea Power, with their short and astonishingly sweet soundtrack Happiness, then Balmorhea again, then Rachels and Remember Remember. I seldom make it all the way to the end, though. After Happiness, I tend to start the playlist over. It’s almost nine hours long, which is most of a working day for me.
Every time I think I won’t find any more music that’s right for me, something always comes along. Dom introduced me to Andrew Bird, and Jon to Balmorhea. I do wonder, looking ahead to next novels, how the soundtrack will change.
I’m currently wrapping up another film project before I get back to my writing. A couple of months ago, my friend Dom Bush and I were commissioned to make a film called Take Me Back To Manchester, based on the extraordinary true story of a lion tamer called Lorenzo Lawrence, an elephant called Maharajah, a cartoonist called Oliver East and a 200-mile walk across the country.
It was an incredibly tight turnaround – we had less than six weeks from commission to completion, and only three weeks from the shoot to the deadline. Dom shot the film, using drones and steadicam, and I cut it. I used the parallax effect for the first time to bring some of our amazing archive images to life. Technically we co-directed the film, but the story was so rich, the contributors so engaging, and the archive material so fascinating, that it pretty much directed itself.
Take Me Back To Manchester has now been shown at Toronto Comic Art Festival, and a shorter version will be screened on a loop in Manchester Museum.
Roll up, ladies and gentlemen, roll up…
This is my last film project for a while. I’ve really enjoyed working on this piece and To The End We Will Go, but I’m more than ready to get back to the Hollows. I’ve been maintaining my erratic early morning writing sessions, even if that means grabbing five minutes before Dora explodes downstairs demanding her breakfast. Those snatched sentences and stolen paragraphs might only give the book twenty words, fifty words, a hundred words a time, which feels painfully meagre in isolation, but they add up over weeks and months. I’m up to about 66,000 words, for all the difference it makes, and happy with where it’s going. I think again of how little I achieved last year, and feel a grim urge to push on and make up for so much wasted time.
After almost two years of work, I have finished making a film about hay meadows. This has been a huge project for me, both professionally and personally, and it has changed the way I think about the world.
When I come to the end of a project, I usually have a stronger understanding of the subject than when I began. In this case, while my knowledge has increased hugely, I’m left with far more questions than answers. In 2013, I was commissioned by Cumbria Wildlife Trust to make a ‘democratic’ film about meadows, tasked with balancing opposing points of view to create a space for discussion and reflection. Within that brief, I started the project with a sense that hay meadows were something like a set of scales, and if only the interested parties could work together better, then an equilibrium could be achieved between food production on one side, and sustainability on the other. I no longer think that’s possible; and I now think of meadows more like a jigsaw, being made by many people all at once, only everyone has a different picture on the box. Every time you place one piece down, another changes. They are mosaics of demand, shifting with the seasons. All the fundamental issues facing agriculture in Britain can be measured in hay meadows: growth, demand, food, want, waste, profit, biodiversity, sustainability, heritage, science, tradition.
Over the course of the shoot, I talked with school kids, beekeepers, walkers, landowners, farmers, conservationists and a 97-year-old farm labourer who worked in meadows between the World Wars. I left a camera in a barn outside Kirkby Stephen to record a five-month time lapse of a meadow in growth. I learned more about slow motion video, and about macro photography. After ten months of searching, I tracked down an astonishing piece of archive film footage from the 1930s. Halfway through it, there’s a shot of an old tramp simply standing in a lane, staring at the camera. It’s haunted me ever since:
All this was happening in the build-up to the Scottish referendum. Through the process of making this film, the two became inextricably linked around my realisation that if we are to survive – as a species – then it’s by being smaller. We need to reduce. To be less. Less ambitious, less hungry, less wasteful, less oblivious. We will survive in communities and cooperatives, not corporations. This was one of the many reasons I supported a Yes vote in Scotland. For me, the referendum went a long, long way beyond some petty nationalism. It would have swung a sword through the Gordian Knot of a corrupt, venal Britain. I cried my eyes out on the morning it was No. Being small and being nationalistic are not the same thing. We’ll be better as bees in hives, sharing the meadows. (This analogy does not, for me, extend as far as having Queens.)
I found out this morning that To The End We Will Go has been selected for the CMAC Rural Film Festival. This will be my first ever festival screening, and I’m really pleased. It’s quietly astonishing to think about people on the other side of the world watching my wee film and spending a few moments in Cumbria. The last shot is a drift of swifts exploding past my window against a purple dusk. I love the thought that an audience in Minnesota will look out of the same window and see African swifts in a Cumbrian sky.
It’s that time again. Last year, I cribbed together some resolutions. Looking back at them now, I’m quite pleased. The Hollows didn’t go according to plan, sure, but I’ve already talked about that, made my peace and moved on. I finished both Marrow and The Year Of the Whale, and I performed at Verbalise, Sprint Mill, Dreamfired, Bad Language and the Flashtag Short Short Story Slam. The only thing I didn’t tackle at all was writing and submitting more short stories. There simply wasn’t enough time on top of the chaos of everything else. Indeed, 2014 actually marked the first year since I started that I didn’t write a single short story, but that’s OK. I’ve been kinda busy.
People can be pretty disparaging about resolutions, but I’m coming to quite enjoy the process of making and sharing the things I’d like to do. Writing them out makes them more tangible, and leaving a record of what I’d like to do makes it more achievable. So here are some resolutions for 2015.
I kept last year’s resolution, and started climbing again. Not all that often, I suppose, but more often than never. I’d like to do more of the same this year. I’ve started going for a few hours on Monday afternoons, after I’ve finished work, and that’s been a perfect fit with my week. My fingers are slowly beginning to toughen up, week on week, and those little successes feed into each other. I’ll take my climbing shoes to Thailand to do a little bouldering on the beaches, and I hope to get out on some Lakeland rock this summer – the Langdale boulders won’t exactly be quaking with fear, but they give me plenty to aim for.
Yup. Again. It doesn’t stop, does it? This year, my writing ambitions are twofold. Even then, the first part is for fun: I want to release another flash fiction collection, which will possibly be called Real Life. I’ve been doing a night class in graphic design, and that’s really helped with the various processes involved. Making books is fun, and it’s addictive. A lot of the stories are ready, but my flash fiction took a back seat in the second half of 2014, and I want to tighten up the whole collection. Even then, though, I mostly want to direct my flash fiction for reading aloud, which is where it works the best – there are dates in my diary for 2015, and I’m already looking forward to stomping my way through some stories.
The second thing is bigger. I’d like to finish a first draft of The Hollows. I had the same ambition last year, and it didn’t happen for a bunch of reasons I’ve moaned about already. But this year is different. I’ve cleared most of my film jobs, I’m not going to work on other big writing projects (unless someone pays me a lot of money, which seems unlikely) and that gives me the space to be a bit more structured with my writing time. In the unlikely event that everything goes to plan, then I’ll get a solid two days a week from February to start finding my way again.
The Hollows is proving exactly as tricky to navigate as the swamp I initially wanted to write about. My head is a zoetrope of ideas, all glass pots and ghosts, ashes and blackened timbers, lost keys and tarot. Mon and I are going on honeymoon this year – we’re going to Thailand with Dora – and I’ll be taking my notebook and my fountain pen. Spending some time away from the internet, away from screens, away from everything except the people I love best, will give me space to work it out with pen and paper. At the moment, I’m not even sure if I’m dealing with one book or two. I’m orbiting the right story, peering down between the clouds, catching glimpses of what it’s going to be… but I still don’t know what it is.
I use a lot of metaphors for talking about writing. The weaving of a tapestry, the nurturing of some unknown seed, the orbiting of a strange moon, the navigation of a swamp. It consistently amuses and baffles me how I find it easier to clarify my thoughts on writing using almost anything other than writing itself. The act of making marks, in ink or pixels, is excruciatingly simple. But getting them in the right order? Damn. That bit is hard.
Dora is learning to write. She knows her letters, and she’s trying to form them all the time, trying to construct a sense of meaning. She can write her name, and if I help, she’ll try her hand at anything. The other day, she wanted to write ‘moose’ against her picture of a moose. I spelled it out for her – M – O – O – S – E – but she ran out of room, so went back to the beginning for the last letter, so the final word looked like ’emoos’. I tried to show her the correct way to spell it, but she wasn’t interested.
There’s probably a metaphor for writing in there, too, but I can’t make that out either.
Resolutions, like word counts and climbing grades, only matter to the person who makes them. And – like word counts, like climbing grades – they only matter if you push yourself within them. That means weaving a tapestry – nursing a seed – orbiting a moon – navigating a swamp – or, sometimes – making a mark that matters to you, even if you get it wrong.
Happy New Year, folks.
Gruff Rhys played Kendal Library last night, and it was the best gig I’ve been to for a very long time: a madcap historical tour of 1790s America told in equal parts music, PowerPoint presentation, audience participation and something like stand-up. Gruff’s new album is a eulogy for John Evans, a penniless 20-year-old farm labourer who set off for the New World in search of legendary lost tribes of white Welsh Indians. Along the way, he faced the perils of disease, incarceration, war, assassination, hunting parties, alligators, and living in London. After every few slides in the presentation came a song, played on a combination of guitar, harmonica, some box full of electronic bleeps, a wired-up metronome and a turntable, as well as Gruff’s astonishing voice, crooning and whooping and soothing and floating through it all: pop, dub, techno, folk.
John Evans’ irresistible story was told with respect and gentle humour. One of the songs took its lyrics from his letters home; another focused on the unlikely friendship between Evans and a renegade Scottish general called McKay, finishing with a gorgeous refrain: “If we were words, we would rhyme.”
Of course, with Gruff being a Super Furry Animal, every part of the show walked a tightrope of the weird; unicorns, email, breadsticks and Easy Rider all played a part. It was a truly extraordinary gig, and I’m still reeling that we were amongst such a tiny audience – only 100 people – and in such a great venue as Kendal Library. Get It Loud In Libraries is a brilliant initiative, and I love how they bring new wonders to already vital places. I hope they’ll be doing more concerts soon. (I quietly suggested James Yorkston…)
We hung around after the show to ask Gruff to sign a poster. I’ve worked with some relatively famous people in my various careers, and never been starstruck, but last night I found myself completely tongue tied. I’ve been crazy about Super Furry Animals since I first heard Fuzzy Logic – I must have been 16 – and I was suddenly overawed by how much I love Gruff’s work, from SFA through Separado and his solo albums. Weirdly, he and I share a birthday (along with Hunter S. Thompson and Nelson Mandela). Mon and I garbled at him for a while, got our signature, and fled for the pub.
I think my residing memory will be the library sign on the wall above the stage. As Gruff sung his way so beautifully through the life and times of John Evans, the clipped font above his head announced:
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