Archive for the ‘Reflections’ Category

Coincidences No.s 435 & 436

No. 435 Shrouded in mystery

Turin Shroud Face

I am on the Eurostar to Paris sitting next to a group of men travelling together who turn out to be tax inspectors (I get talking to them through the bloke next to me reading Dante’s Divine Comedy). They are off to Italy, to Florence, via Turin where they are due to overnight this evening. I ask them if they will have time to see the Turin Shroud.

I am in the Sacre Coeur this same evening. I stop to light a candle in one of the side chapels. On the wall for some reason is an image of the Turin Shroud.

No. 436 Chicago

360-chicago-observation

I am on the phone on the street in Passy, Paris 16e, greenlighting the latest Real Stories Original, a documentary set in Chicago.

I come off the phone and glance across the road – there’s a vintage clothing store called Chicago.

 

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Coincidences No.s 433 & 434

small talk taiwan documentary 2016

No. 434 Small Talk

I have a conversation with my wife about someone close to us who was saying that they struggle with small talk.

I go into the kitchen and on the worktop is a leaflet from the NSPCC entitled Small Talk.

I head upstairs and flick through last year’s programme for Open City Docs festival (at which I spoke on short form documentaries) – in it is a Taiwanese film called Small Talk.

Sir John Rothenstein C.B.E. [1938] by Sir William Rothenstein (1872-1945)

Sir John Rothenstein C.B.E. [1938] by Sir William Rothenstein (1872-1945)

No. 435 Rothenstein

I go to an exhibition at the Wiener Library called London 1938: Defending German ‘Degenerate’ Art. On one of the display boards the these days not particularly well known English art world mover&shaker (longest-serving Director of the Tate) John Rothenstein gets a mention.

I am reading my book group book later in the afternoon, The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst, and John Rothenstein gets a mention as a couple of the characters are more or less in the London art world.

*** 434 meets 435

Just before writing this I was reading more of The Sparsholt Affair to try to get finished in time for the book group post-summer gathering tomorrow night. One of the first sentences I read:

She was aware of the light burden it put on any adult seated next to her, to keep one ear on the real conversation while they turned to make small talk with her.

Violet Vixen

My latest Real Stories Original commission to go live is Violet Vixen. In the wake of the documentary‘s launch, its protagonist, Leo Noakes aka Violet Vixen, appeared this week on ‘Loose Women’ (ITV). I went to the live studio transmission at the BBC Studios at Television Centre, Shepherd’s Bush with the director, Leanne Rogers. Leo did a good job in a high pressure situation, wittily taking up Stacey Solomon’s  offer to have him become her make-up artist.

violet vixen poster real stories original documentary

Leo is an articulate, sassy, amazingly mature 11 year old boy who loves doing make-up, dressing up and playing with his identity. He doesn’t want to be a girl but he does want the liberty to do ‘girlish’ things and above all to be who he is.

“I love dressing up. I don’t particularly see the clothes and make-up I wear as belonging to girls, or even to boys. I hate the fact that society labels stuff.” says Leo.

His mother surprises him with a trip to Brighton to meet his hero, drag artist Courtney Act, who Leo first came across on US reality TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race. The contrast between conventional Corby where his home is and progressive Brighton blows his young mind.

Leo runs a very successful Instagram channel, overseen by his mother, Lauren. She has to protect him from trolls but by and large people are positive about his alter ego, Violet Vixen. He uses his social media channels to spread the age-old message: Be true to who you are!

Leo’s know-how about make-up is particularly striking. He taught himself as Lauren is not really into cosmetics or clothes. He has ambitions to move to the USA and become a TV drag artist. But above all he wants the freedom to be himself.

courtney act tweet about leo violet vixen

Courtney Act aka Shane Gilberto Jenek, winner of Celebrity Big Brother 2018, was delightful in his interactions with Leo and proved a huge inspiration.

Courtney Act drag queen

Courtney Act

One of my favourite aspects of the film is the way Leo cannot compute that a place like Brighton (where he meets Courtney) actually exists – a place where he wouldn’t stand out for being who he is.

courtney act leo noakes violet vixen

Courtney, Leo, mum & friend

courtney act leo noakes violet vixen

leo noakes violet vixen brighton

Triangulating History

22.vii.18

The river ouse at rodmell sussex virgina woolf

This I reckon is the spot (River Ouse, Rodmell)

I went to visit Monk’s House, Virginia & Leonard Woolf’s cottage in the quiet East Sussex village of Rodmell. I was here years ago with Una and it left an impression, I was happy to return. Because I arrived before opening time (the cottage is now looked after by the National Trust) I sat reading for an hour in the nearby local churchyard, St Peter’s. At noon I had a look around the gardens with its view of the South Downs and then had a look around Virginia’s bedroom, with its monk-like single bed and set of Shakespeare beautifully bound by her, and a wander through the ground floor rooms of the cottage, with paintings by Leonard’s shared woman (post-Virginia), Trekkie Parsons, who split her week between Leonard and her husband at the marital home nearby. All par for the Bloomsbury course.

st peters church rodmell east sussex

St Peter’s churchyard, Rodmell

Of course Bloomsbury is rich in colourful tales, none less fascinating than the one the National Trust volunteer at the entrance to the cottage reminded me of, the way she eventually killed herself by walking from the cottage to the river Ouse, just beyond Monk’s House’s grounds, put stones in her pockets and walked in, drowning in what a local told me is a river with strong tidal currents. Not that day – in the midst of a heatwave there was barely enough water to immerse yourself in, the level less than half-way to the line marked by green vestiges of the high water mark.

IMG_4340 garden of monks house rodmell virginia woolf

Leonard & Virginia’s beloved garden, Monk’s House, Rodmell – St Peter’s in the background

I decided to go find the spot, mainly because I wanted to walk by the river which I really love, rather than for ghoulish motivations. That no-one seemed to know where the actual spot was was more of a prompt.

view from St Peters church rodmell sussex

view from Rodmell (St Peter’s churchyard)

I’ve done this kind of triangulation of history before. Two memorable ones include figuring out where Patrick Pearse read the Proclamation of Irish Independence in 1916 and standing there exactly 100 years to the minute after that momentous event. And working out where Tony Visconti and his lover kissed by the Berlin Wall, a moment immortalised in David Bowie’s Heroes. In the latter case, my estimation was subsequently confirmed as correct.

thistles at southease east sussex by river ouse

The start of the river path at Southease

For this one I went down to Southease, the adjacent hamlet, and walked down to the river under the blazing summer sun. I walked along the raised embankment back in the direction of Rodmell. By using the spire of St Peter’s I was able to align myself with the garden of Monk’s House and there is only one natural path to that spot along the edge of a field which must have been pretty much adjoining the Woolf’s land. On the basis that Virginia would have wanted to just get to the river and do the deed the place where she walked into the river is the spot shown in the first picture above.

A very resonant and tragic act in a very beautiful and peaceful place.

river ouse at rodmell sussex southease

Coincidence No. 460

I am watching ‘Othello’ at The Globe with Enfant Terrible No.2. I notice the line, when The Moor has killed Desdemona:

“Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse
Of sun and moon”
The same night there is a lunar eclipse which turns the moon red. It is known as a Blood Moon.
blood-moon-total-lunar-eclipse-27 july-2018

27th July 2018

The longest total lunar eclipse of the 21st Century took place on 27th July 2018. It lasted 103 minutes (the entire celestial event lasted nearly 4 hours).

Coincidences No.s 455, 456, 457, 458 & 459

dorothea-lange-migrant-mother-1936 photograph great depression dust bowl

Dorothea Lange’s iconic ‘Migrant Mother’ (1936)

No. 455 Oakland

I am in the Barbican Art Gallery looking at an exhibition of photographer Dorothea Lange and notice that many of the prints are from the Oakland Museum of California. This reminds me of my friend Richard who lives in Oakland. I send him an email there and then asking if he has seen the exhibition which has or will also be shown in that museum.

I get an email back a few minutes later saying that it is good that I emailed as he happens to be home in London for a funeral. (As a result, we get to meet up a bit later at the Clissold Arms for a drink.)

(I have a documentary shooting at the moment in Oakland – Back to Black.)

sick puppy carl hiaasen book cover design

No.456 Black dogs

I am reading Sick Puppy by Carl Hiaasen. The puppy in question is a black Labrador.

I keep seeing black Labradors everywhere. I saw one on Ness Island yesterday. I saw one in Coldfall Wood a couple of days ago. Since then I saw one at the bow of a small boat in Ullapool. One at Seafood Shack, the award-winning street food outfit in the same town. And someone shared a video on Facebook showing a black lab falling into a river rapid while going after a stick and a golden lab subsequently saving it by grabbing the stick and pulling it out of the fast-running water.

The island that is about to be spoiled through property development in Sick Puppy is being renamed Shearwater Island. The boat that I take to explore the waters around Ullapool is called the Shearwater.

On the way to Ullapool I hear about a shooting at a newspaper office in Maryland, USA, the Capital Gazette. One of the victims is Rob Hiaasen. An unusual surname – it turns out he is related to author Carl, his brother.

The night before I meet a man named Olaf at a dinner given by Scottish Enterprise at Xpo North in Inverness. It is the second time that fairly unusual first name came up in the day. Earlier I meet a Norwegian actress and film-maker who mentions that one of the times you can see there are plenty of Norwegians in London is on Norway Day when they gather at the Norwegian Church in London, St Olav’s (church and seamen’s mission).

the 39 steps john buchan book cover design pan

My first copy (from my dad)

No. 457 Portland Place

I buy a copy of The 39 Steps in Leakey’s bookshop in Inverness. I start reading it by the Moray Firth and on the first couple of pages there is a reference to Portland Place where Richard Hannay rents a flat.

I am walking through Inverness when I find myself in Portland Place (1828). (It contains the most northerly mosque in the UK.)

Naked & Invisible Nude in Newington Channel 4 short form video still

‘Naked & Invisible: Nude in Newington’ (Channel 4)

No. 458 Newington Green

I am sitting next to the chief executive of Highlands and Islands Enterprise at dinner. She tells me that her daughter has moved to London – to Newington Green.

I am talking to the chair of the panel I have just done at Xpo North. He tells me his office is in North London. Camden Town? I ask. No, Newington Green.

In my talk for an earlier panel for Skills Development Scotland I refer to a film I commissioned at Channel 4 and there is a still from it in my presentation. It is a scene shot in a greengrocer’s on Newington Green and the title of the episode is Nude in Newington.

Xpo North inverness creative industries scotland

No. 459 Independent filmmakers

Google Alerts points me to an article in a magazine called Filmmaker. I check it out and it is run by an organisation called IFP. This stands for independent filmmakers.

I meet one of the fellow panellists for the session I am doing at Xpo North in Inverness about 21st-century storytelling. Nick is from Brooklyn. His games company is part of IFP (which I’ve never heard of before that article shows up).

Vanished – press coverage

Some excellent press coverage in both the tabloids and qualities helped ‘Vanished’, the documentary I recently made with Martin Bright and Ryan Ralph for Real Stories, bring in a very respectable quarter of a million views on YouTube in its opening fortnight.

daily mirror vanished adam gee

The whole point of the coverage

daily mirror 10th May 2018 Could dark family secret hold the key? adam gee

Daily Mirror 10th May 2018 Could dark family secret hold the key?

The double-page spread from the newspaper appeared in the 3rd slot on the mighty Daily Mail website just below Trump welcoming home prisoners from North Korea and Barbara Windsor getting Altzheimer’s.

Daily Mail Vanished

The story was then picked up by The Sun…

sun vanished

…and The  Mirror

mirror vanished

As well as being covered in The Observer/The Guardian

Ruth Wilson, the schoolgirl who caught a cab to oblivion The Observer martin bright 2018-04-29

…and The Belfast Telegraph (home town of one of the two protagonists, ex-counter-terrorism cop, Liam McAuley).

ex-met officer from ni and his search for missing teen belfast telegraphy 8th may 2018

The Belfast Telegraph 8th May 2018

The coverage has helped progress the case bringing forward new witnesses and information which is being shared with Surrey Police, who brought on a new officer to take charge of the 23-year-old missing person investigation in March when the ‘Vanished’ team were firing a lot of questions their way. Martin Bright and I went in for an initial meeting with the investigating officers and their boss on Monday after struggling to get input from the police throughout the filming. They did show up at the screening and Q&A we ran for the community at Dorking Halls Cinema on the eve of the film going live but chose to remain incognito.

Lead Story at the scene of the mystery

This morning journalist Martin Bright and I were interviewed on the BBC Radio Surrey breakfast show about our documentary ‘Vanished’. The documentary was the lead story on the station’s news this morning, pipping MI5 and Putin to the top spot. It has now accumulated 0.25M views on the Real Stories YouTube channel in its opening days.

[11 minutes listen]

The ripples from ‘Vanished’ documentary

New witnesses and facts have continued to emerge in the wake of the release of ‘Vanished: The Surrey Schoolgirl’ last week on Real Stories, my latest commission for the channel made with journalist Martin Bright and director Ryan Ralph.

Today it appeared as the subject of a double-page spread in The Belfast Telegraph focused on Martin’s partner in crime investigation, ex-counter-terrorism cop Liam McAuley.

ex-met officer from ni and his search for missing teen belfast telegraphy 8th may 2018

The Belfast Telegraph 8th May 2018

Ex-Met officer from Belfast and his search for missing teen Ruth Wilson

Belfast man Liam McAuley is part of a new film which looks at the cold case of Surrey girl Ruth Wilson who disappeared 23 years ago

By Leona O’Neill

A former police officer from Northern Ireland is part of a new documentary examining the quest to solve the cold case disappearance of a teenager.

Ruth Wilson vanished in 1995 after travelling to a beauty spot in Surrey, England. Fifteen years later Liam McAuley, a former north Belfast man who had just retired from the Metropolitan Police, picked up a newspaper, read her story and became enthralled.

Mr McAuley (58) began investigating the disappearance, and has joined forces with an English journalist called Martin Bright, and produced the documentary Vanished: The Surrey Schoolgirl, in the hope of shining a new light on the seemingly forgotten case.

Liam retired from the police nine years ago. A year later, while perusing a Surrey newspaper, he came across the Ruth Wilson case. The 16-year-old girl had gone missing in Surrey in 1995, and he was immediately intrigued.

“I happened to be reading a local paper and came across the article about Ruth,” he said.

“It just didn’t seem to add up to me instinct ively. This was a 16-year-old schoolgirl, who has just disappeared and nothing has been heard of her ever since. We are now approaching 23 years.

“When I read the article for the first time, I just had that feeling that something was just not quite right. A 16-year-old just can’t disappear.

“She comes from a rural village. She wouldn’t have been street smart like her city cousins.

“She’s left home in the clothes that she’s standing up in. She had a bank card that was not activated. She was dropped in a rural part of the country and that was the last that was seen of her.

“You have to think there was something not quite right there.”

The 30-minute film, which is on YouTube, works from the standpoint that Ruth is no longer alive. Surrey Police and the Wilson family opted not to contribute, but many of Ruth’s school friends, along with her ex-boyfriend, did come forward.

“The police in the area remained tight-lipped and were no help. It was all very odd,” he added.

The film claims Ruth had been unaware that her mother, who had died when she was young, had taken her own life until shortly before she disappeared.

It also features interviews with Ruth’s friends who claim she had discussed running away.

Later, the film suggests there is potentially more information available which has not yet been explored.

Liam left Northern Ireland as a teenager and spent 30 years in the Metropolitan Police and Counter Terrorism Unit, focusing solely on Islamic Terrorism.

“I grew up in north Belfast,” he explained. “I lived in what was classed as the ‘murder triangle’. I lived all through the Seventies, going to school hearing all the tragic stories from friends and some of the pupils at school, what happened to them.

“Where I lived I had friends on both sides of the community. When you grow up somewhere like that you think this is your world, this is it. But it was a case of do you get stuck with it or try and carve on with your own life?

ARTICLE CONTINUES in The Belfast Telegraph

The Schoolgirl who caught a Cab to Oblivion

This article about my latest documentary commission for Real Stories channel appeared in yesterday’s The Observer newspaper. It was written by journalist Martin Bright who features in the film.

Full article in The Observer

Ruth Wilson, the schoolgirl who caught a cab to oblivion The Observer martin bright 2018-04-29

Ruth Wilson, the schoolgirl who caught a cab to oblivion

In 1995 a teenager travelled to a local beauty spot and disappeared. A new documentary finds many unanswered and troubling questions remain

 

Two years ago I was contacted out of the blue by a retired police officer who asked if I remembered the case of Ruth Wilson, a 16-year-old girl who had gone missing from Dorking, Surrey, in November 1995. I told him that of course I remembered – it was one of the most peculiar stories I had covered as a journalist.

Ruth had left home as usual on a miserable winter morning, but instead of going to school, had taken a cab in the pouring rain to the top of bleak but beautiful Box Hill, where she vanished off the face of the earth. A good girl from a good family, Ruth has never been heard of since and no body has been found.

I first wrote about the case in the Observer more than 15 years ago and it has haunted me ever since.

In 2002 I concluded that the circumstances of the Ruth Wilson case were perhaps just too odd to become the focus of a media campaign. There had been some attempts to use her family to draw attention to the case, but they were not keen on publicity. Over the years there was a series of further appeals, but even in Surrey the Ruth Wilson story just faded away.

And it would have remained in obscurity were it not for Liam McAuley, a 58-year-old retired police officer from Northern Ireland, who came across the story in a local paper when he moved to Dorking in the mid-1990s. “Nobody can actually just vanish,” he told me. “I think something terrible has happened to her. Somebody knows where she is.”

McAuley made a freedom of information request to the police to ask for details of the interviews carried out after the disappearance. He was told the case was still ongoing and he could not have the documents he had requested.

He wrote to Ruth’s parents, Ian and Karen, who still lived in the village of Betchworth, near Dorking, but received no reply. In his frustration he contacted me as the last journalist to write extensively about her. His tenacity has led to the making of a documentary, The Vanished, released this weekend.

The circumstances of Ruth Wilson’s disappearance had always left me uneasy. Why had this studious, church-going, bell-ringing, choir-singing, organ-playing young woman suddenly decided to make a new life for herself?

In the intervening years, I had discovered something about the Wilson family they had chosen to hide from me at the time. Karen Wilson, introduced to me as Ruth and her sister Jenny’s mother, was in fact their stepmother. Their birth mother, Nesta, had died in tragic circumstances when Ruth was a toddler and Jenny still a baby. Why hadn’t they told me this? Was this really such a happy family? And did the death of her mother have anything to do with Ruth running away?

When we started making the documentary Ian Wilson got back to me saying he and the family didn’t want to participate, although he trusted us to do “a professional job”.

With the family refusing to speak, we decided to contact Ruth’s friends. We knew she had recently split up with her boyfriend, Will, and I managed to track him down to the south coast. Will, who does not want to be identified, explained that Ruth was a troubled teenager. She was unhappy at home. Will confirmed that her mother had died. The story he had heard was that she had fallen downstairs and broken her neck.

Following an appeal in the local newspaper, other friends came forward. Roxy Birch, a schoolfriend who played Ruth in an early reconstruction of the disappearance, told me: “She couldn’t drive, as far as I am aware, she didn’t have a passport… So, you have to ask yourself the question, where could she have disappeared to for 22 years?” Kay Blenard, another schoolfriend, said: “My belief is that she had planned to do something. I don’t know whether that would be permanent or temporary. I’d also like to believe that someone knows what happened.”

Nesta Wilson’s death certificate showed that the story of the accident on the stairs was not correct. The awful truth is that Ruth’s mother committed suicide: she hanged herself just before Christmas in 1982, when Ruth was four and her sister a few months old.

Just after receiving this grim information, I was contacted by another of Ruth’s friends. Catherine Mair grew up close to her in the sixth form of The Ashcombe School. Crucially, Catherine revealed that Ruth had found out about her mother’s suicide just before she disappeared. She was devastated. “Ruth was really troubled,” she said. “She had so much going on in her head that she was desperately trying to find out who she was. ”

We put this to the Wilsons and they issued a response. “Her family are extremely hurt by this statement and do not recognise this view of Ruth’s childhood,” they said. “Ruth always knew about her biological mother’s death, but not the exact cause. Sadly, we now know that before her disappearance, Ruth had discovered the tragic circumstances of her mother’s death, but equally sadly, she chose not to discuss or question this with any family members.”

Jon Savell, the chief superintendent, public protection, at Surrey police, carried out the latest review. “There are five explanations for Ruth Wilson’s disappearance,” he said. “A tragic accident, abduction, suicide, murder, or that she had absented herself to start a new life.” I asked him whether the police had known about Ruth’s unsettled home life and her birth mother’s suicide. He confirmed that they had indeed known about the family background, but chose not to make it public in case it coloured the testimony of any witnesses who came forward. So it was that the narrative developed of the perfect middle-class home and an inexplicable disappearance.

There are so many unanswered questions. Why did Ruth send her stepmother flowers to arrive two days after her disappearance? Where is her mother’s family and why did they not come forward? And why, if she ran away, has she never made contact with her family and friends?

Someone knows what happened to Ruth. And secrets have a tendency to come out in the end.

Vanished: The Surrey Schoolgirl can be seen on the Real Stories YouTube channel

 

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