This afternoon was glum and rainy as Storm Barbara rattled across Cumbria, so Dora and I made a film starring her toys. The idea was hers. I helped with the technical stuff and a little narrative guidance here and there.
It was the best way to spend a rainy afternoon that I know. Being with Dora, and seeing her play, seeing her imagination expand and explode and take flight — that’s something truly humbling. Human imagination is a ferocious engine, and to witness it in children is to see it pure and whole, before the hooks of self-consciousness and adulthood begin to pluck and nip and pull it down. Picasso was right — every child is born an artist, and the challenge is to remain so.
As anyone who’s met her already knows, Dora is a challenging girl. We’ve never known anyone like her. She is hot-headed and obstinate and fierce and contrary and rude, and there are times when she drives us up the fucking wall. She is also clever, funny, wildly inventive and capable of staggering compassion, and we adore every fragment of her wild and fizzy heart. She lives as much in a daydream as the real world. As her parents, we’ve decided that our job is getting her to adulthood with as much of that intact as possible. At the moment, she’s an artist. The challenge is to keep her so.
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.
This is my first post since 1st October 2015; a window of more than three months, and the longest I’ve gone without an update since I started the blog. I signed off because my head was on fire and I needed some space. As a result, I haven’t shared some amazing things that happened to me last year—ten awesome days of rain and shine on the beaches of Coll and Tiree, an appearance at Bloody Scotland crime-writing festival, the US publication of The Visitors, and most especially my first time at Edinburgh International Book Festival, where I was reading with the ManBooker shortlisted genius Chigozie Obioma. Maybe he was as nervous as me about the festival, but something just clicked. I don’t know if I’ve ever warmed to someone quite as spontaneously as I did Chigozie. In the middle of our discussion a battered bookmark slipped from the pages of his book. It said, Literature tastes better with beer, and I thought, yeah, this is one of the good guys. (And his novel, The Fishermen, is a wonder.) Edinburgh is a city like no other, and the festival was an extraordinary experience. To cap it all, walking back to the hotel through the summer gloaming, I came up with a new novel idea. That was a good day.
My head was on fire because of The Hollows. I finished the second draft in June and took the print-out on holiday to Coll and Tiree, where I spent my downtime going through it with a red pen. I finished the last pages as the ferry trundled back into Oban, redrafted in a week, and asked some friends to read it. To be completely honest, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. I’d written the whole thing in about thirty days, edited it in another five, and I thought it was good. I blogged about experiencing something of a slump, but that’s normal for me, and I expected to get out of it. Unfortunately, I didn’t get out of it at all. It became worse.
The problem probably goes back to the Kate Mosse incident. I think that skewed my compass more than I realised at the time; in writing the second draft, trying to make some space between me and her, I moved too far into the fantastical, and away from the magic realism I’m pitching at; and my sheer joy of progress in writing the new draft so quickly—the drowning that I long for in my writing—that same joy blinded me to things I should have been more conscious of, things I should have been stronger about. My amazing beta readers enjoyed the book, but a couple of issues cropped up time and time again, and this consensus helped me gain some perspective on the book. Put more bluntly, it became clear that a particular strand of the story wasn’t working as well as it needed to. So go and change that one strand, right?
I sometimes think of writing a book like weaving a tapestry: the multiple threads of the characters, settings, atmospheres, emotions and plot woven against the weft of pace and rhythm, all of them bound together into a single piece. As a metaphor, it works. The problem comes in trying to unravel one or two of the threads: it can’t be done without wrecking the rest. Pull at one, and the whole thing falls apart. When I tried to redraft, I found I couldn’t do it; between the first failed version of the story, and then the flawed second, I was utterly discombobulated. It made me miserable for a very long time. One day, I’d start writing it again, completely from scratch, with the ghosts of my characters screaming outrage over my shoulder—the next day, I’d junk everything I’d done the day before, and go back to my second draft, pussyfooting around with single words and phrases—and the day after, I’d return to the very first version, and work out what I could salvage, looking for something, anything to show me the way.
At this point, I was overthinking it. I was tortured by possibilities, and wound up going backwards. The whole miserable process was compounded by the aching, awful thought of all the time I’d lost—by my reckoning, nearly a quarter of a million words of finished work over two years, and none of it anywhere near an actual book. At times I’ve been utterly inconsolable, and at other times I’ve probably been horrendous to live with. I’m extremely lucky to have in Monica a partner who understands these processes.
At the start of November, half-a-dozen small video jobs dropped into my lap in the space of a fortnight. That meant no writing for the rest of 2015, and I spent the rest of the year working flat-out to finish the films—they are now mostly wrapped, and so my writing days are back. In the end, some enforced time away has been helpful. My feet are back on the ground, and I’m not wallowing anymore. I can’t pretend I have a completely clear vision of the way ahead, but I’ve finally started getting some sense of the way. After days and days of effort and countless hours with my notebook and the myriad manuscripts, I’ve cut 70,000 words from the draft, tweaked those strands I needed to tweak, and I’m now writing into empty white pages for the first time in a year. I no longer know what will happen in some parts of the story, but actually that’s fine—that’s one of the fun parts. As daft as it sounds, I’m going to bed earlier, too, and waking with a little time to write. That helps.
I shared too much about the last draft. I’m never confident about my work, but I think I became a little complacent after discussing it in such detail. Having experienced heartbreak once, with the Kate Mosse incident, I simply didn’t believe it could happen again. I think I felt I’d paid my dues with The Hollows—that I was owed a bit of a pass. I was therefore unprepared, and it hurt much, much worse. It has taken months for me to want to write again—rather than feel I have to. And I do want to write, now. The drive is creeping back. I feel far more cautious, and I’m approaching every writing day with care—care for my story, and care for my heart—but I want to be writing, which is the big thing. I’m miserable when I don’t write.
The Hollows has sung to me for three years, and I’m going to get it right. The characters evolve and change, much like the fens they live in, the fens I’m writing about, landscapes in flux, stories in flux. I would say watch this space—but don’t watch too hard. I’ll be a wee while. Third time lucky.
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.
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:
Arts & Crafts
I haven’t blogged for ages – sorry. The reasons are almost too mundane to mention, but the short version is that my workspace has been out of action for two months. This has cut my video editing and writing time down considerably, and in what time I’ve had, the video jobs have to take priority. I wrapped up my second promo for Born Survivor, and I’m a whisker away from finishing my long-running hay meadows project. I’ll write some more about that when it’s finally complete; unlike any other job I’ve taken on, the meadows film has changed the way I think about the world. This is tied up in Scottish independence, vegetarianism/veganism, and plastic. To be discussed.
I’m writing this post as something of a confession. After months away, the last fortnight has actually given me three solid days to write. In that time I’ve added 11,000 words, and surged from despondency to exhilaration. I’ve now levelled out somewhere in between. (I’m a lot more neurotic than I probably appear.) This is a confession because, in these last few days in particular, my imagination and awareness have been completely invested in The Hollows. I haven’t had much space for anything else. I’ve been ratty and irritable – not because I’m actually feeling ratty, but because this story is a sore tooth – constantly nagging, constantly distracting, always there – and I’m struggling to live in two realities at once. I’ve now written about 26,000 words, which I estimate is about a third of the finished manuscript, and I find myself in the extraordinary position of not knowing where to go from here.
That sounds bad, but it isn’t. I very much believe in giving stories space to breathe, in letting them evolve, and this one has evolved radically around the busiest year of my entire life. I’m positive about all of the routes I could take, though each of them entails some changes. I’m now brewing on which way to go. Bluntly speaking, my choices could be defined by genre, but it’s not that simple. It’s about my sense of self-worth, and the value I take from the act of writing. This story feels entirely right to me, but I don’t know what it is. It’s like reading a map in another alphabet: the world is removed from me yet fleetingly familiar, and I haven’t yet worked out where I am. At a crossroads, perhaps. Each route has pitfalls and detours and summits to climb. (My friend James Hannah says to turn left. If it all goes wrong, I’m blaming him.)
I’m spending hours at a time with my notebook. I’m listening to Rachel’s and Balmorhea. I’m floating in a sea of puzzle pieces. If I can pin down one or two, I’ll build the rest from there, but they are quick as fish.
Writing is easy, and writing is hard.