Mountains of the Moon – Richard Burton, explorer

mountains of the moon 1990 movie

Mountains of the Moon (1990)

Early in my career I got to read two movie scripts which came in to our office for my boss, Roger Deakins. One was ‘Pow Wow Highway’, the other ‘Mountains of the Moon’. They were both realised and I recall that both scripts were superior to the final films. Roger didn’t end up shooting ‘Pow Wow Highway’ (1989), directed by Jonathan Wacks who mainly directed TV and didn’t do that much directing after this movie. But Roger was DoP on ‘Mountains of the Moon’ (1990), directed by Bob Rafelson of ‘Five Easy Pieces’ fame. The film was about Burton & Speke’s expedition into the heart of Africa in search of the source of the Nile.

richard francis burton museum st ives

Corto Maltese by Hugo Pratt

Corto Maltese by Hugo Pratt

Yesterday I was brought back to these memories by a small poster in a narrow street in St Ives, Cornwall. It was an image of a comic book type character – looking like a cross between Corto Maltese and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – and information about the Capt. Sir Richard Francis Burton Museum being accessible by appointment only. I rang up and booked a visit the next day (today) at 10am.

At the appointed hour I pitched up with expectations set by a previous experience a bit like this – rooting out a Native American museum in deepest Sussex, in an old forge building in a small village. A real unexpected little gem in the most unlikely spot.

Richard_Francis_Burton_by_Rischgitz,_1864

Photo by Rischgitz (1864)

This morning’s arrival was different. The front door of a quiet back terrace house was ajar and in I walked to someone’s home. I was welcomed and shown into a small, square backroom, done up with hints of Arabian style. Faint echoes of Leighton House in London where I used to give art historical tours for charity – Burton brought back Middle Eastern tiles for painter Sir Frederic Leighton’s house and studio in Holland Park. On the walls of this small room were 28 exhibits. My host, Shanty, a professional storyteller, set playing a very well put-together tape which lasted about an hour. Half way through he came back in with a silver pot of mint tea.

Stand-out exhibits included:

Burton’s actual Founder’s Medal from the Royal Geographic Society

The RGS funded Burton & Speke’s expedition and hosted the subsequent contentious debate between Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke about the true source of the Nile – a debate which never happened as Speke died on its eve of gunshot wounds very likely to have been self-inflicted. He was about to be taken apart in public by a highly charismatic man of action cum scholar.

A page of manuscript in Burton’s hand

Written in his dense scrawl, the small page completely covered in script at various angles in ink and pencil. Evidently worked on on at least four occasions with different writing implements. He had 11 desks in his massive study in Trieste in his latter years, each with a different literary or scholarly project upon it. The manuscript all the more valuable as his wife, Isabel, (played by Fiona Shaw in the film, who I found myself standing next to on stage recently at the Festival Hall in the winners’ group photo at the TV BAFTAs) burnt many of his manuscripts in the wake of his death, in particular his just finished translation of the erotic classic from Arabia ‘The Perfumed Garden’. Erotic and Victorian didn’t make easy bedfellows.

Original illustrations of Burton from Look & Learn magazine

Shanty, whose labour of love the Sir Richard Burton Museum is, has been obsessed with Burton’s extraordinary life and story since he was 14 and got this magazine excitedly among his parents’ incoming newspapers. We were born the same year and I too remember the thrill of receiving this educational magazine for young people, as well as TV 21 (an even bigger thrill, centred on the creations of Gerry Anderson). The illustrations are magnificent, in the same way as those of Ladybird Books and Airfix model boxes were. I imagine these artists are now far more recognised, whereas back then they were largely taken-for-granted commercial illustrators. The main one exhibited here is of Burton going undercover to Mecca as an Arab to become the first white man to reach the heart of the Hajj. He spoke some 25 languages fluently (humbling for an Oxbridge linguist like myself), including Arabic, which he taught himself at Oxford (before being kicked out in his fifth term) and which enabled him to spend six months in disguise as an Arab, infiltrating Mecca at pain of death for any slip.

VHS copy of ‘Mountains of the Moon’

I only saw this movie once, when it came out in 1990. Iain Glen I’ve always really liked, especially after seeing him play a squaddie at the Royal Court in Jim Cartwright’s brilliantly staged ‘Road‘. He played Speke. Burton was played by Dubliner Patrick Bergin. Being non-English was good for the role as Burton only lived in England for 5 years of his entire 69-year life and was never really comfortable with the place. His parents had a streak on Anglo-Irish in them via the British army. He was born in Devon (Torquay) and christened in Elstree, near where I went to school. He is buried in South-West London at Mortlake in a striking mausoleum. (I plan to visit it this autumn, as well as the Elstree church, and will report back.) But otherwise he grew up in Italy and mainland Europe, spent much of his old age in Trieste, and between travelled widely across the Middle East, Africa and beyond.

Proposed 200th anniversary Portrait

One cork-board item contains a proposed portrait of Burton – linking him to James Joyce (who entered Trieste just as Burton left, a similar exile) and the Italian painter De Chirico. It turns out Shanty, like me, is a massive ‘Ulysses’ fan and has noted the various references to Burton in that novel. He has a theory that the date of Bloomsday is related not to Joyce’s lover Nora Barnacle (a popular theory Joyce never confirmed) but to Burton and the date he departed for the interior of Africa.

sir-richard-francis-burton

in disguise

richard francis burton as arab

Dressed as a pilgrim en route to Mecca in 1853

The small but perfectly formed collection is certainly worth a visit, a well told digest of the life of an extraordinary polymath or Renaissance man – one with a unique balance between man of action and scholar, a linguist cum swordsman, a diplomat cum satirist, mesmeric, astonishingly handsome, a true Romantic hero of the highest order.

 

 

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Moon Shots

The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission resonated strongly for me. I consider Neil Armstrong’s foot touching the moon one of the two most significant events of the 20th century. The other is the explosion of the atom bomb in Hiroshima.

I watched the moon in our back garden on the eve of Blast Off + Half-a-Century – it looked full, technically one night off I think. It was slightly yellow, the surface patterns visible from the suburbs of N2.

the moon london 15th July 2019

The moon, a eucalyptus and our garden shed

During the night I caught a bit of a BBC World Service podcast on Radio 5 – in the morning I started listening to the 11-part series, 13 Minutes to the Moon, presented by Kevin Fong.

But only in London, before the day was out, would you by chance cross paths with not only an Eagle lunar landing craft, but also a Saturn 5 landing capsule.

neil armstrong portrait photograph NASA

At 09.32 on 16th July, the time of Apollo 11 lift off, I published a photo of Neil Armstrong from the Wall of Honour in our downstairs loo. It is a signed photo, the smudged signature proving it is an actual individually signed document. The smudge was made by Mark Reynolds’ auntie in Leeds who thought it was a printed moniker so wet her finger and wiped it through in 1969. She was wrong. Mark Reynolds was my trusty editor in the 80s. We made a documentary together about the first British astronaut, Helen Sharman. I swopped the photo Mark wrote away for in his childhood for a signed Damned single from Loppylugs in Edgware. One of my better deals. I’m reflected in the moon in the photo of the photo.

In the evening I went to a screening by Netflix of the documentary The Great Hack about Facebook and the Cambridge Analytica outrage, coming out on 24th July on a data-driven, aspiring monopoly digital platform near you. It was an interesting evening which included taking a leak next to the CFO of Cambridge Analytica and bumping in to an old college contemporary of mine, Chris Steele, author of the notorious Trump-Russia dossier. A chat with Riz Ahmed. Sitting in front of Brittany Kaiser, the protagonist of the film.

But the highlight of the evening – in the Dana Centre of the Science Museum – was walking out past the lunar lander on the left, covered in the crinkly gold foil mentioned in Episode 1 of the podcast, and the re-entry capsule on the right. Not something that remotely crossed my mind as I enjoyed that first episode some ten hours before and ten miles away.

The replica Apollo Lunar Excursion Module (LEM), in the London Science Museum.

Apollo Lunar Excursion Module (LEM)

Apollo 10 Command Module | Science Museum

Apollo 10 Command Module

On the tube home from South Kensington I was sitting chatting to Dr Kevin Fong’s agent – Kevin had been at the Netflix screening unbeknownst to me.

When I walked up my street on the way back home I looked up and caught the moon, now fully full, between two suburban rooftops and the disc was halved by the shadow of an eclipse. Wondrous.

As I write this it is Day 3 of the mission. Little Dot Studios where I have been working the last couple of years has brilliantly produced a marathon 6-day live broadcast on the notorious Facebook and the dubious YouTube bringing us the transmissions from Apollo 11 and Mission Control from NASA’s archive, courtesy of my previous employer, Channel 4. Moon Landing Live. (I proposed this programme in 2014 when I was still at C4, a bit ahead of the curve.) If you shoot for the stars, you may hit the moon.

 

Coincidences quote

Coincidence is God’s way of staying anonymous.

 

I’ve seen this quotation attributed to both Albert Einstein and Doris Lessing (the former seems to have the consensus). It links to my vague sense of being a Pantheist.

The last two weeks there’s been a Colombia thing going on in my life. It is not a country I have much personal connection with nor any experience of.

columbia wharf london river thames

columbia wharf horn stairs 1937

1937

As I was travelling along the Thames yesterday morning on the way to Ravensbourne university/media school to do some work on their MDes course, a postgrad masters programme which is kind of an MBA through the lens of Design, I passed Columbia Wharf, some way east out of the centre of town, on the south bank. This reminded me of, among several other manifestations over the last few days:

  • a documentary I am working on set on Tierra Bomba, a small island off of Cartagena
  • another documentary I have in the cutting room about Colombian BMXers
  • meeting a charming producer (in Waterloo a few days ago) from San Andrés, a small English-speaking island which belongs to Colombia but is much nearer Nicaragua – it was the stronghold of Welsh privateer Captain Henry Morgan, who was a thorn in the side of the Spanish and regularly ransacked Cartagena
  • several more minor sightings of Colombia and Colombian in shops and other places
Captain Henry Morgan

Captain Henry Morgan

colombian skull

Update 5/8/19:

model boat columbia

  • a model boat beside me at breakfast this morning in my hotel in St Ives, Cornwall is called Columbia
  • I turned on the TV in this hotel room the night before last and ‘Long Lost Families’ was on (one of my favourites) – the first story was about a UK woman being reunited with her birth parents in Colombia
  • the Tour de France finished a couple of days ago – the winner, the first non-UK one for a few years, was a young Colombian, Egan Bernal
  • I was at a play a few days ago, ‘Sweat’ by Lynn Nottage – it has a line where a man, Oscar, is assumed to be a Puertorican and he retorts: “Well, I’m a Colombian and I don’t know” (the question was do you know a fellow Puertorican who could burn my house down)

See also: 4 Pantheist Quotations including two more from Einstein

The Casting Game No. 55

benedict cumberbatch patrick melrose

Benedict Cumberbatch

as

kenneth williams actor

Kenneth Williams

Coincidence No. 678 – Carpe Diem

patrick melrose benedict cumberbatch actor bath phone

Seize the fucking day

Monday: I am sitting watching UK dramas and International dramas as a judge for the Edinburgh TV Festival Awards in those two categories – I am taking a short break to write this. I am currently watching ‘Patrick Melrose’. Benedict Cumberbatch has just said the line: “Well it’s time to seize the fucking day.”

patrick melrose benedict cumberbatch actor bafta award

(At the TV BAFTAs last month, when they were taking a big group photo of all the winners, I was standing directly behind Benedict Cumberbatch. He had just won Best Actor for Patrick Melrose. He was hugging his colleagues with tears in his eyes, clearly very emotional about this first BAFTA win for him.)

adam gee 5 bafta awards

The morning after the TV BAFTAs – no sleep had: Carpe Noctem

Sunday: I catch the tail-end of ‘Something Understood’ on Radio 4. Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand is exploring immortality and the desirability of life eternal. She concludes with the line: “Momento Mori – remember you are mortal – can help me focus on the limitations of mortality and also the idea it is our greatest gift. But to that phrase I would add: Carpe Diem – seize the day – for who knows when we shall cease to be and what lies on the other side of mortality.”

Saturday: My Other Half and I are walking down the High Street. She is telling me about some deaths in the family of her best friend. I say: “You can only come to one conclusion: Seize the Day.” just as I say this two boys walk past in the opposite direction. One is wearing a red T-shirt with the words, in black: Seize The Day.

carpe that fucking diem tshirt

 

Coincidence No. 677 – 12th June

I am sitting in the kitchen reading an article about Anne Frank by Bart Van Es (author of the excellent The Cut Out Girl, the protagonist of which was married to one of Anne’s school friends).

anne-frank- c.1940

c.1940

On the radio was Robert Elms on BBC Radio London discussing the Chelsea Drugstore in the 60s.

1980 robert elms

1980

In walked my wife to talk about the moths eating her jumpers.

Anne, Robert & Una are all born on 12th June.

 

I vote

I made this to mark the announcement of the results of the European elections

picasso portrait vote election

Inspired by the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Berkow. He went to Finchley Manorhill school which was on the same site in North Finchley as The Compton where one of my boys went.

Tigress

While it was very sad to hear of the death of Judith Kerr this week, it also felt like the rounding off of a life well lived. To come from flight (in 1933) from the Nazis and the Holocaust in Germany, Poland, France and across Europe (which went out to vote the day after her passing) to a constructive, hopeful and beautiful body of work which gives delight to millions is a story and a half.

I had the pleasure of appearing with her on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Woman’s Hour’, talking about fathers reading to their children. Prior to entering the studio I’d forgotten that the programme was live so it really helped having a calm atmosphere engendered by Judith and Jenni Murray, the host. I can’t recall much about the conversation other than it went well, felt coherent and fluent, not stressful. And Judith was a thoroughly inspiring person.

Of course I read ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’ with my boys. She kindly signed their copy after the recording at Broadcasting House.

I have a vague memory of people looking for a historical analogy in it, like the Tiger stood for the Nazis or the Gestapo or something, “It’s about the rise of Hitler, right?” “No” she said “it’s about a tiger. Who comes to tea.”

That Judith Kerr now stands widely as being about turning adversity to living fully, being constructive and defeating the forces of darkness with hope and humanity is as it should be. The family, though surprised, take the Tiger in their stride and find a joyful, united solution to the problems it causes.

I am writing this in the garden of Keats’ house in Hampstead. Up the road in Downshire Hill, opposite the house of Lee Miller and Roland Penrose, is the home of Fred and Diana Uhlman. I met her many years ago to speak about her husband’s work as an artist and their joint role as catalysts of the London art scene before and after the Second World War. Fred came to London in 1936 and became the centre with Diana of a network of artists on the run including Oskar Kokoschka (who followed in the wake of Egon Schiele). This whole area became a home to artists escaped from Nazi tyranny. Judith was the widely admired standard bearer for art and culture’s triumph over the dark side.

oskar kokoschka kunstler und poeten book cover design

The Artist Who Came To London (acquired this week from Black Gull book shop, East Finchley)

4 places worth visiting in Caernarfon

I am writing this in Chester station on my way home from Caernarfon aka Carnarvon. I noticed on the small train along the coast opposite Anglesey that Caer is Welsh for Chester so there seems to be a link. I’m guessing Caer means Castle but I have no idea what Narfon signifies. What I do know is that Caernarfon is a Stronghold of Chilling Out. When my work (for TAC [Welsh PACT] and S4C) was done, the rest of my time there was largely spent on the

(1) Harbour

wall, overlooking the Menai Strait across to Anglesey. I plonked myself there with the old copy of ‘The Quiet American’ I had half-inched in desperation having finished my book (‘A Woman of No Importance’ by Sophie Purnell) on the first day. The Graham Greene was the perfect read for the warm sun and the cafe terrace overlooking the harbour, an open terrace attached to the arts centre from which piano tinklings and snatches of musicals drifted gently down. The whole place was a haven of tranquility into which the sunshine poured all afternoon, culminating in magnificent sunsets across the waters.

Caernarfon Carnarvon Harbour Wales sunset

(2) The Black Boy Inn

Apparently the place to get food in the town. In an alley off the charming, narrow High Street. Thai mussels and a G&T hit the spot. It was a friendly joint and I met a bunch of Yanks of Welsh extraction from Oregon. I was wearing a T-shirt with three native Americans on horseback and the slogan “Homeland Security: Fighting Terrorism since 1492”. I was given it in the early 2000s at the Ormeau Baths in Belfast by graffiti artist Kev Largey during the launch of Channel 4’s IdeasFactory Northern Ireland (which I was responsible for). I was pretty confident I was the only person in the world who still had this T. But it turned out the fella in the Oregon trio also has it. Small world.

Caernarfon Carnarvon Wales castle flag

(3) The Anglesey pub

I’m not even into pubs really but this one has a magnificent view across the Strait, in the shadow of the castle walls. I was told the most popular Welsh pop song of recent times is set here and portrays some of its regulars. I also heard that at 11pm the swing bridge adjacent to the pub opens and stays that way until 6am. That means when the klaxon sounds you have to down your pint and leg it or face a 40-minute walk around the water to get home. I’d love to watch klaxon time.

Caernarfon Carnarvon Wales Menai Strait sunset

Menai Strait from The Anglesey

(4) Everywhere

around this town you hear Welsh being spoken in an everyday, mundane, quotidian, alive way. That I’ve not heard even in the Gaeltacht of Ireland, a minority language spoken by people going about their day-to-day business, meeting on the street. Caernarfon, the Online Content Commissioner of Channel 4’s sister station, S4C, told me, is a stronghold of spoken Welsh.  It was a real delight (particularly for a Mediaeval & Modern Languages graduate) to hear Welsh in full flow.

Caernarfon Carnarvon Wales statue Lloyd George

Lloyd George in full flow

A Steamboat Laddie

james joyce ulysses reading group swenys dublin

inside Sweny’s

I went to Sweny’s where Leopold Bloom bought his lemon soap in ‘Ulysses’ after leaving the National Gallery and ‘The Liffey Swim’. The Volunteer at the old chemist shop confirmed it is pronounced Swen not Sween (as in the Donegal family name Sweeney). A motley crew of Dubs of a certain age shuffled in, grabbed a copy and a cup of tea and biscuit. At 11am, after a brief intro as to what was happening on page 524, we started reading a page each going round the room, surrounded by pharmacy glassware in wooden cases. It was the Cab Shelter section where Bloom has rescued young Stephen late at night and bought him a terrible coffee in the shelter where taximen, sailors and other creatures of the night gas away. I’m the only Englishman there. There’s a fair amount of anti-English sentiment in the pages we read which gives the visit all the more spice. Joyce didn’t have much truck with Blame the English.

At the stroke of midday I ducked out with a wave and crossed the street to the back entrance of Trinity College. I was due to attend a lunch celebrating the 150th anniversary of one of the better English institutions – Girton College, Cambridge, my alma mater. Girton and Trinity (TCD) are connected through the pioneering women dubbed The Steamboat Ladies. Their story I summarised here.

In short, Cambridge University refused to award the degrees the early Girtonians achieved through study and the standard Cambridge examination so they ended up using the fine print of an old tripartite arrangement between Oxford, Cambridge and TCD to have the award made in Dublin. They took the steamboat from Holyhead for a swift one-day visit including a formal lunch and a group photo on the steps I found myself standing on with my brother-in-law Des (my guest) and Professor Susan Parkes of Trinity, surveilling the large, part-lawned quad.

professor susan parkes at trinity college dublin lecturing on the steamboat ladies

Prof. Susan Parkes on the Steamboat Ladies

I am writing this a few miles from Holyhead with a view of Anglesey, in Caernarfon, Wales, where I am doing a keynote speech for TAC, the Welsh indies producers/TV training organisation. I remember one of my sons saying of Holyhead when he was very young: “It’s a bit like Dublin …only shit.”

The Steamboat Ladies, Prof Parkes would explain over lunch, started coming over in 1904. This is the year in which ‘Ulysses’ is set.

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About two dozen old Girtonians were at the lunch, mostly Irish, plus the Mistress of the College, Susan J Smith, and a current Girton historian, Dr Hazel Mills. Hazel reviewed the various connections between Girton and Ireland including two of the Mistresses (Susan is about No. 19). The key point was that Girton proved something of a training ground for the pioneers of women’s university education in Ireland. Education meant jobs, jobs meant money, influence and independence.

After lunch and the two talks we reconstructed the Steamboat Ladies photo on the steps outside, us just a handful compared to the serried ranks of mobile scholars in the 1906 photo.

the steamboat ladies girton at trinity college dublin

The Steamboat Ladies at Trinity Dublin

recreating the steamboat ladies girton at trinity college dublin

As the photo posing concluded and I took my leave of my fellow Mediaeval & Modern Languages colleague Julia (we were the best represented year at 2 shows) Des and I headed to the pub for the second half of Leinster (blue jerseys) v Munster (red). An American woman at the bar beside me asked me how this game (rugby) works. I did my best, pleased with the concision of my stab at it. As I looked at the red v blue the thought crossed my mind that this was a classic colour opposition. I leaned over to her and said: “…of course the blues are democrats and the reds republicans.” “Oh, like we have in the States?” “Yes, sort of.”

The next day I rounded off the trip with a family Sunday expedition led by Des to the cliffs of Howth Head. I pulled by the place at the end of the huge harbour wall where the Asgard and its skipper Erskine Childers are commemorated in a brass plaque for the running of guns into the country via this harbour for the Easter Rising.

plaque asgard erskine childers howth 1916 easter rising

On the way to the Dart to come out of the city north into Co. Dublin I passed a sadly isolated plaque on a crappy government building marking the HQ of De Valera in 1916 at Bolland Mills.

howth head dublin

Standing on Howth Head I could see the sweep of Dublin Bay down to Sandycove – where ‘Ulysses’ opens – and beyond. Up here is where the novel concludes with Molly recalling a romantic excursion with Bloom in the early days of their love. So this geography, the curve of this bay, is essential to this greatest of books. And the perfect place to conclude this trip.

dublin airport sunset

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