Archive for the ‘travels’ Category

Adventures in the Writing Trade: Day 5

Monday morning. The boat’s coming from Malahide to collect us at 10. It’s like coming back from space or returning from some fantasy land through the mirror. A touch of tristesse but more, a sense of a jewel of an experience coming to a natural conclusion.

lambay whiskeyYesterday I worked mainly on the structure and scope of the book. I took a break from writing to watch a video recommended to me by a friend I met through one of my oldest friends. The video was Margaret Heffernan’s Super-chicken TED talk.

Commercial Break: Coincidence No. 477

I ask my online circles for the answer to this question: “What makes a good Collaborator?” One friend sends a video recommendation via Facebook – Margaret Heffernan’s Super-chicken TED talk.

The day before Jonathan Gosling, the writing retreat leader, asks me if I know Margaret Heffernan? I say the name is familiar for some reason. (The video recommendation has come in earlier that same day). Jonathan asks because he and another participant both work with her at the Forward Institute.

After watching the video I go look at Margaret’s website and books and pick one I fancy reading. I go to Amazon to buy it. It says I ordered it in 2015.

This year I occasionally catch a glimpse of a red spine on my bookshelves and think what is that (Margaret Heffernan) book?

In 2015 my mentor, Roger Graef, recommends a book by Margaret Heffernan in relation to what I was thinking and writing about at the time – the role of collaboration and the collective, of openness and generosity, in human evolution. Put another way, the limitations of competition. That’s what Margaret’s book with the red spine is about.

For my one-to-one with Jonathan we opted for walk&talk – we wandered along the coast talking about publishers/publishing strategies and he gave me some really useful perspectives on getting the book I’ve already finished – When Sparks Fly (title stolen from my as yet unfinished book) on online creativity. I’d been in discussion with academic press but he persuaded me to go more commercial. While chatting I also had the idea of me and my co-writer keeping diaries of the making of our book to capture the meta dimension – collaborating to write a book about collaborating. How would that look from each side of the collaboration?

We stopped to observe the seals. Lambay has the largest colony on the East coast. I suddenly appreciated the contrast between the way they look like big fat maggots on land (I’m being a bit harsh) to being slick and nimble in water (and cute with those soft eyes). A seagull was pecking at a fat white dead pup. Feck, nature is tough. It was a great walky talky session and really interesting to find out a little more about him. He is looking at the world from the perspective of an imminent collapse and what would be needed for the species to survive it. That’s a heavy load. I think about that kind of shit when, for example, watching the first Terminator last week with Enfant Terrible No.1. Otherwise not so much. Unrealistically optimistic about the bald ape’s ability to pull himself out of the nose-dive. (Who am I kidding?)

The afternoon workshop was centred on readership. The pattern of workshops had some kind of psychoanalytical underpinning, establishing the system in which the text exists and all the people who interact with it working outwards from the writer. It was a useful session as I wrestled with the taxonomy of our readers / different ways to slice the audience. It also helped better define (slightly broaden) the scope of the book.

At the end of the day I donned my earphones and, as I was walking around the island, listened to a summary of Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc. which I bought from Audible yonks ago. My old boss recommended it highly and tried to implement some of the guidance at All4 e.g. sharing early cuts of films broadly among the team. I’m about five chapters in – so far, so banal. I’m sure the summarising and the flat voice of the reader isn’t helping any. I listened walking above the beaches of the North-West coast to the top left corner of the island. The landscape merited a better audiobook – or none at all.

marmite jar

The Last Supper with my six fellow participants was jolly – a lot of contrasting of US/UK language & culture as three were American, two Brits, one Finn. I haven’t written much about them but the whole experience afforded on this fabulous island revolved around having a harmonious, generous and bonding group of writers. I want to retain their privacy so let me capture them anonymously with the help of Tarrantino and Cluedo (as I’m a lover of colours)…

Mr Orange is from Wisconsin, a healthcare professional drawing to an end a ten-year writing project. We got on really well and he gave me a signed copy of one of his previous books, on meditation.

Mrs Plum hails from Oxford and is writing a PhD thesis on leadership in environmental groups. She says she doesn’t like writing – everyone else professes to love it. She was particularly helpful in the Readership workshop, highlighting our assumptions.

Ms Pink is from Maryland and was putting together a Fulbright Scholarship application to teach business at university in Surinam. I very much encouraged her to apply as she was wavering at the beginning. Her accent had an exotic touch of the Southern states.

She was with her friend Ms Peacock who was focused on studies of the dynamics of credit card transactions. She exuded considered and thoughtful in her speech.

Reverend Green is an elderly Finn, a psychoanalyst and academic. He observes calmly and expresses his thoughts slowly and deliberately. He may have thought half of us were crazy.

Last but not least, Mr Brown runs an Institute to help leaders become more responsible. He makes a habit of arriving last to everything but I think this is to throw us all off the scent. Turn your back for a moment and he is to be found half-way up a mountain with his noise-cancelling headphones propelling his running. He was writing mission statement type texts.

So lots of colours, lots of different forms of writing, all united by a single motto: “Crack on!” The Americans, particularly Ms Pink, were tickled pink by this exotic British turn of phrase. Is it anything to do with crack, the drug? No. But to add to the complexity, in Irish Craic means fun. “Crack on!” “Apple crumble!” “Jumper!?” “Posh!” “Marmite!” The craic was ninety. Fuelled by Baron Badassière wine and Lambay own brand Whiskey. “Crack on!”

baron Badassiere-Carigan-Label wine

The trips across the water were a key part of the experience. Arriving at the small stone harbour in bright autumnal sunshine was magical and welcoming. On board the big, sturdy Shamrock. We left bouncing across choppier seas on the Fionn Mac Cumhaill, a cheeky little RHIB, crashing into the waves, speeding just above the surface of the energetic September swell. We left full of energy to come back out of the mirror, re-emerge from the magical wardrobe, wake up from the loveliest of dreams. And then (after our concluding workshop on dry land) we drank Guinness before noon in Gibney’s pub in Malahide and blow me, it was not a dream after all.

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Adventures in the Writing Trade: Day 3

I had a momentary fear of death experience this morning. Quite sobering.

I was out for an early walk on the North-East corner of the island. When I reached the 30 minutes from base point, on a narrow path above sea cliffs teaming with bird life, I sat on a small rock facing the sea/edge/void and did my short daily meditation which I almost never do daily (two days in succession on Lambay is a good run for me). Then turned for home. As I was approaching the green stile for the cross-fields path for home I noticed a small track on my right, the sea side, towards the furthest headland. I felt compelled to take it, while I was there to take a few minutes to get to the farthest point, suppress my vertigo tendencies, carefully take the muddy trail and get onto that land’s end. I was glad when I got there as the view of the cliffs was better and, more importantly, you suddenly felt among the birdlife as gulls suddenly appeared rising above the cliff edge straight in front and silhouetted geese cut across the small bay. Uplifted by these creatures I turned to go home. As i walked over a ridge between me and the path home, suddenly there was a deep gully there. I felt like I somehow had got lost on a solitary rock cut off from the mainland. Where had the path gone? How would I get back to the mainland of the island? I tried to quell the panic. I stopped thinking about the writing I was going to be doing (now) and brought my attention fully into the present. I concentrated. I considered options. I backtracked to try to figure out where the path I had taken onto the headland was. Needless to say I figured it out, hence me sitting now in front of A General Map of Ireland to accompany the report of the Railway Commissioners shewing the Principle Physical Features and Geological Structure of the Country (constructed in 1836, engraved in 1837/38).

IMG_7481 panorama view from summit trig point of lambay island county dublin ireland

There’s something life-boosting about such experiences however minor. I had another one yesterday. A bit less intense but the same underlying primal feelings. I surprised myself (usually a good navigator) by getting lost on a solo lunchtime walk to the summit of the island, the trig point a.k.a. The Nipple. After enjoying the spectacular view from Lambay Island’s highest point I started down but soon realised I wasn’t getting back onto the track I had arrived by. I was going down a gorge which was narrowing – I wasn’t sure I could get out of it, whether there was a cleared way through to the foothills. My rising panic was witnessed by wallabies, silhouetted on ridges against the darkening sky, like they were the ones in control of the situation. I had encountered my first Lambay wallaby on the way up, bouncing away as I disturbed its peace. Eventually I saw a more chilled one up close in the ferns. Lovely looking creature. Lambay started with just three wallabies as an exotic pet of the current custodian’s grandfather. In the 80s Dublin zoo was getting rid of its wallabies and asked if he’d take seven more, all female. He did but it turned out there was a rogue male in the batch. There are now between 400 and 800 wallabies on the island, depending on whose estimate you go for. I eventually found another route down and the moment of fear passed, again leaving a certain aliveness in its wake.

IMG_7476 wallaby on lambay island county dublin ireland

Where’s Wally?

Yesterday’s early morning walk was flatter and safer. As I rounded the South-West corner of the island I walked past a large group of seals slumbering on the beach. Some took to the water as I approached, while others were shaking themselves from their slumber. Curious eyes and dog-like snouts started appearing from the waves as the bolder ones checked out the red North Face jacket (kindly donated by Enfant Terrible No. 1 for my trip to the Gaeltacht in South Donegal last month).

IMG_7455 seals at lambay island county dublin ireland

I noticed after a while how much plastic had washed up on the shore. First an unidentifiable moulded shape that looked like a piece of our kitchen bin at home. Then small plastic water and drink bottles, many of them. Gallon bottles. Fishing detritus. A child’s toy. Footballs. Tennis balls (apparently a container load had fallen into the sea a while back). A slider type shoe. I thought it would be cool to come back and organise a beach clean. Probably quite a few bags would quickly fill. What would they do with them on an island? I asked our host back at breakfast – Do you ever pick the plastic off the beaches? It just comes back the next day. Sometimes our guests come back and present us with bags of rubbish they’ve kindly collected. Her eyes roll. Oh yes, how foolish of them! I try to convey non-verbally. What could they be thinking? Note to self: scratch the beach litter pick.

After warning up with yesterday’s Simple Pleasures post, I began the research on the Collaboration book project I am doing with my old colleague and friend, Doug Miller. The most interesting part of that session was using my online network to start to triangulate the areas of most interest. I put out this question into social media – Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter:

Linked In post 2019-09-06

I used an image by Rockwell Kent which its Russian owners, the Hermitage, love for its depiction of working men collaborating. It’s set on the other side of Ireland, on the West coast in Donegal near Glencolmcille. The neighbours have come to help Dan Ward build his haystack, something he can’t do alone and effort he will reciprocate in a place where for the individual to survive (the isolated valley of Glenlough) he must collaborate with his fellow beings in the hood.

The ideas and thoughts coming back from the online call-out were considered, generous and informed, with a nice sprinkling of humour. After lunch I took advantage of a touch of sun for that wallaby walk. Then another afternoon sunshine session in the grassy yard between the wings. The day passed quickly. I felt vaguely disappointed not to have cracked through more but I had worked consistently and with focus so back off self, have a bit of patience!

At the end of the day I spotted a beautiful burst of evening sunshine, threw on my petty criminal Nikes, and trotted down to the harbour. All to myself. At the end of the harbour wall, French Lieutenant’s Woman style, I had some moments standing on the ledge at the foot of the solid wall contemplating the waves. Then a stroll along the short beach, turning back to catch that perfect moment of light…

IMG_7492 lambay island harbour white house cottages county dublin ireland

Adventures in the Writing Trade: Day 2

The tide was wrong in Malahide. Something about the boat was wrong. But the energy and the weather was right. We cast off from a pier in Rush, at the end of the beach I’ve spent years walking on, running round, sometimes meditating on. It was a kick to get the perspective from sea from onboard the Shamrock and then gazes turned to the island, some 20 minutes away across a millpond channel in bright autumn sunshine.

lambay island county dublin ireland

Lambay

As we approached the harbour on Lambay the whitewashed buildings came clearly into view, almost all designed by or renovated by Lutyens. I could see the one person I knew on Lambay, my connection to the place, on the pier and she gave me a warm welcome. Welcome was important in Lutyens’ designs. We were given an orientation talk on a circular patch of lawn near the buildings – the castle, the white house and the workers’ cottages. The architect considered circular forms welcoming by nature.

I was shown my room in the white house – charming, spacious, resonant of its (art deco) times. The house was built in 1932. It is symmetrical as it was built for two daughters with two large (around six children each) families, one wing each. I am writing this at the end of one wing in the library. I use posting on Simple Pleasures part 4 as a warm-up to get the writing juices flowing in the morning, a practice I devised on my sabbatical from Channel 4 in 2013/14.

There is A General Map of Ireland to accompany the report of the Railway Commissioners shewing the Principle Physical Features and Geological Structure of the Country (constructed in 1836, engraved in 1837/38) on the light red brick wall behind me. There are four glass cases of dead birds also displayed against the brick. An upright piano with Scott Joplin sheet music. A small case of books old and young, some old Penguins among some more vintage volumes. I’m sitting at a very solid wooden table, oak, which contrasts well with this old MacBook Air with a green sticker of the map of Ireland on the other side of it at the heart of other stickers including a Mod target, a Mexican skull in an American Football helmet (San Francisco 49ers colors) and the latest, from a surfing place, which says Shoot Rainbows into Fascists. I bought it in Milton Keynes when out with my brothers (alongside a quite loud summery shirt) because it reminded me of Woody Guthrie’s “This Machine Kills Fascists” written on his tool of choice, his guitar. On my iPad, which I rarely use, is a quotation from the Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov, famed for his Man with a Movie Camera (1929, within spitting distance of the construction of this house) which I first studied at University on a European Avant-Garde Comparative Literature, Art & Film module, on which I also first encountered Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). The quote is:

“I, a machine, am showing you a world, the likes of which only I can see”

as mentioned recently in my list of My Favourite Documentaries.

Woody_Guthrie singer songwriter guitarist this machine kills fascists

I was told last night after dinner in the drawing room which marks the centre of the house, along with the kitchen, about a set of documentaries made on another island, Fogo Island, off Newfoundland, Canada. They were made (as the writing mentor, Jonathan Gosling, on this retreat detailed) by a group of Toronto film students in 1967. They now reside online with the Film Board of Canada set up by Brit documentarist John Grierson. I knew its head for several years, Tom Perlmutter.

Commercial Break: Coincidence No. 476

When I just went to check when Tom left the NFBC I noticed his birthday:

Born: September 6, 1948 (age 71 years), Hungary

Today is September 6. A 1 in 365 chance I guess.

The series of short docs depicted life on the island. They were sent to politicians in Ottawa who were on the point of giving up on the sparsely populated island and winding down its public services. On seeing the documentaries they changed their minds and the island population also got to see that the remote politicians they despised did actually care about them. Care is a very important thing in life, I have decided, whether you are a teacher, a psychiatrist, a film-maker, or whatever. It becomes even more important in the age of AI and automation, as depicted very well in Netflix’s recently released doc American Factory. Care distinguishes us from the machines. (By the way, the new Terminator film (Dark Fate) is due out soon and it looks like it’s worth the watch, check out the new trailer.)

Once installed in the (other) white house – talking of which check out Netflix’s excellent Knocking Down the House, a documentary following grassroots Democrats taking on incumbent Senators in the recent mid-terms to try to reconnect the House with its people (I saw it the other night on the big screen, at Soho House, a few doors down from the building where my fascination with film was born, but that’s another story…)  – once installed, we soon began writing work reflecting on Beginning Writing.

Lambay Island Whitehouse edwin lutyens

I did my first session out in the late afternoon sunshine in the grassed yard formed by the three sides of the house. The open side looks up to the small chapel on a hill. This morning I walked around the headland, where to my pantheistic delight I saw numerous seals both on land and poking their heads out of the waves, up to the chapel. I took advantage of the Catholic space to meditate to the music of three sounds – the wind, the sea and the rain on the wood-lined roof. I doubt it was an accident that Michael Powell’s Black Narcissus (as mentioned yesterday) ramps up the overwrought erotic tension of the film with an accompaniment of ceaseless moaning wind.

After the first writing session, we had drinks in the central lounge early evening before dinner in the mirror room of this library, the dining room at the other end of the house looking onto the sea near where we landed.

Earlyish night, bit of Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend (which I’ve been reading since 2001(!), have been thoroughly enjoying, but am still miles from the end), frapped le sac. Dreamt of the house. Up early, out for that walk and the seal watching.

After breakfast, straight into this second writing session and now my juices are flowing…

Adventures in the Writing Trade: Day 1

dawn london N2

view on leaving home

Day is breaking. I’m on the North Circular heading to the airport. From there to Dublin, bus to Malahide, boat to Lambay Island.

Lambay Island from the air county dublin ireland

Lambay and the beach at Rush

I’m stoked. Lambay is a mile-square island just off the coast of County Dublin. I’ve spent years admiring it from Rush beach on the mainland as my in-laws live in An Ros. The next four days I’m going to spend on the island on a writing retreat with nine other writers.

The island has been in the hands of the Baring family since around 1904 (the year of ‘Ulysses’’s action) and now two younger scions of the family run the trust which looks after it. Most interestingly it serves as a small model for sustainable living, a role forced on it by virtue of being an inhabited island but enthusiastically grasped as a purpose for the trust.

There are two particular reasons I am excited. One, the house on the island was designed by Edwin Lutyens, one of my favourite architects. Besides the Cenotaph and the Institute, local to me at the heart of Hampstead Garden Suburb, he designed Castle Drago in the West Country (Devon) which I remember fondly, art deco right down to the bathroom and shower.

Two, one of my favourite films by one of my favourite writers and directors was written on the island. ‘Black Narcissus’ (1947) by Powell & Pressburger was drafted by the former in two days on the island. Here’s a previous post on this movie.

‘Black Narcissus’ (1947) by Powell & Pressburger

As I set off I’m wearing some tan shorts like the ones David Farrar [Mr Dean] wears in the film (a tad longer) in unconscious homage to the peak of writing output from the island.

Black Narcissus 1947 by Powell Pressburger movie film

David Farrar & Jean Simmons & the shorts

 

 

 

The Girl in the Blue Dress

I’m just back from a week in the village of Glencolmcille, Donegal (Ireland) doing a painting class at the Irish college (Oideas Gael). One day there I sat next to a Catweazle-looking fella, an American academic, called Jim Duna in An Chistin (The Kitchen restaurant) and he told me about an artist who had been active locally, a fellow American. At first he couldn’t recall the painter’s name and from the clues he gave I guessed Edward Hopper. It turned out it was one Rockwell Kent. I’m not bad on my art history and that name had never crossed my path.

The next day Oideas Gael put on a screening of an RTÉ documentary from last year about Kent and the subject of his most famous painting, Annie McGinley. After our morning painting session in the village’s National School we traipsed down to the college to watch the film, ‘Searching for  Annie’/’Ar Lorg Annie’ by Kevin Magee. Kevin is BBC Northern Ireland’s Investigations Correspondent and it turns out the Gaelic film is actually funded by BBC Gaeilge and Northern Ireland Screen (which I work with often), through their Irish Language Broadcast Fund.

One of the locations used in the film is a room above the better of the two pubs in Glencolmcille, Roarty’s. The next morning, on the way through the village to the hostel (where I was finishing a watercolour of Glen Head [see below] from the vantage point of their cliff-top lounge) I snuck in through an open door and up the stairs of the pub in search of the room as I knew it contained copies of Kent’s paintings. As I walked into the room there sat Jim at his breakfast – turned out he was lodging there. I had a look at the various pictures, poor copies, but nevertheless with some of the power of the originals.

None of Kent’s paintings reside in Ireland. He painted 36 in the Glencolmcille vicinity in in 1926. The most famous and resonant is this one, entitled ‘Annie McGinley’.

annie mcginley rockwell kent painting glencolmcille donegal ireland

‘Annie McGinley’ by Rockwell Kent (1926)

The painting now resides stashed away in a private collection in New York. It should be an icon of Irish painting. This reproduction doesn’t really do it justice. The location remains unchanged to this day. The day after the documentary screening some of the people on the Hill Walking course recreated the pose in the exact spot. The cliff-top is a couple of valleys over from the tranquil, resonant glen of Glencolmcille.

The subject of the painting is the eponymous Annie McGinley, a local girl, about 20, daughter of one of Kent’s local friends. Her father kept Kent’s drying oil paintings in his house as the barn where Kent and his new American wife lived was not dry enough. This is Annie’s father carrying his poitín still away at night to evade the authorities, punningly titled ‘Moonshine’.

Moonshine rockwell kent painting

‘Moonshine’

The documentary was funny in the way it skirted round the core of the painting. People kept using words like “sensual” and “curvy” when it is clear that the painting revolves around Annie’s bottom. It’s a very sexy image – Kent’s wife would have been right to be concerned. Annie in later life denied even posing for the picture. But as another curvy young woman later said: she would, wouldn’t she.

In my opinion it is the ‘Olympia’ of Ireland.

Edouard-Manet-Olympia 1863 painting

‘Olympia’ – Edouard Manet (1863)

Someone should make it their mission to get the painting back to Ireland and into the National Gallery in Dublin for all to enjoy. It is as much a part of the national heritage as Paul Henry’s ‘Launching the Currach’ (which sat above the fireplace in my mother-in-law’s good room) and Jack Yeats’ ‘The Liffey Swim’ (subject of my recent Picture of the Month).

Paul Henry 'Launching the Currach' painting (c.1910)

‘Launching the Currach’ – Paul Henry (c.1910)

Kent painted a number of pictures during his year in Ireland which could be considered masterpieces. Another one is ‘Dan Ward’s Stack’, men at work during harvest in Glen Lough, an inaccessible valley two north from Glencolmcille, lead by Kent’s friend, Dan Ward (on top, left), neighbours helping like in ‘Witness’ (Peter Weir, 1985, with Harrison Ford).

rockwell kent dan wards stack painting haystack

‘Dan Ward’s Stack’ (1926)

This one ended up not in the USA, to which New Yorker Kent returned after his Donegal sojourn, but in The Hermitage in Moscow. Kent, something of a lefty, was invited to Moscow to be the first contemporary American artist to have a solo show in the Soviet Union. He left 80 canvases to the Russian state after the exhibition, including this one. The Rusky’s loved it for its depiction of collaborative work. Kent’s socialist leanings got him into trouble with the US authorities, got him hauled up in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee under McCarthy (whose mother was from Co. Tipperary), and generally stifled his career. Hence my not having heard of him.

Now my guess of Hopper was not that far wide of the mark. Rockwell Kent was born in June 1882 in New York (of English descent). Edward Hopper was born the next month, July 1982, also in New York. The other painter who came to mind on first seeing Kent’s work was Nicholas Roerich who was born 8 years earlier in St Petersburg, in October 1874. Roerich I first came across in a little museum dedicated to him way up Manhattan island, on W 107th St. The style of Roerich’s landscapes and skies are very reminiscent of Kent – or vice versa. Similar palettes and graphical technique.

path to shambhala nicholas roerich painting 1933

‘Path to Shambhala’ – Nicholas Roerich (1933)

Nicholas_Roerich_-_Monhegan._Maine_(1922) painting

‘Monhegan, Maine’ – Nicholas Roerich (1922)

So Roerich was doing very similar landscapes at much the same time.

Interestingly Roerich is described as a “painter, writer, archaeologist, theosophist, philosopher and public figure” – Kent as a “painter, printmaker, illustrator, writer, sailor, adventurer and voyager” – both seem to have been multidimensional characters. Much like Richard Burton, the subject of my last post.

railroad-sunset edward hopper 1929 painting

‘Railroad Sunset’ – Edward Hopper (1929)

I’ll have a poke around to see if Kent, Hopper and/or Roerich crossed paths as they were all clearly active throughout the 20s.

It’s not too often I come across a painter as good as Kent out of the blue these days so I feel blessed that Glencolmcille chose to reveal him to me.

Here’s one of the poor copies from the hallway beside the room above Roarty’s

copy of annie mcginley painting by rockwell kent

And here’s one from the bar below

copy of annie mcginley painting by rockwell kent

Also in the bar below was this photo linking me back to home

shane macgowan road building at brent cross

On the right is Shane MacGowan, later genius songwriter of The Pogues. He spent his early childhood in Co. Tipperary. On the left is a local from Glencolmcille. Brent Cross is in my manor in London.

Here’s a woman on cliff-top sketch I did my first day in Glencolmcille, before coming across Rockwell Kent

water colour sketch by adam gee malin beg donegal

Malin Beg, Donegal

It’s above Tra Ban (Silver Strand) in the next village from GCC. The crouching woman is a fellow painter, Pamela from Eindhoven, Holland, taking a photo with her phone to use back in the studio.

This is my watercolour painting of Glen Head from the hostel vantage point

Glen Head Glencolmcille watercolour painting by adam gee

Glen Head, Glencolmcille

This oil, by Kent, is probably just over that headland

"Irish Coast, Donegal," Rockwell Kent, oil on canvas, The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Russia.

‘Irish Coast, Donegal’ – Rockwell Kent (1926) [The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Russia]

Kent became very enamoured of Donegal and the Glencolmcille area (as well, I suspect, of Annie McGinley). It weaved his magic on him – he was living in Glen Lough to which no roads lead (til this day), no electricity runs, some kind of Eden. Farmer Dan Ward lived down there with his wife. They survived in the wild landscape and trekked into church on Sundays. Kent tried to buy their farm when they became too old to run it. He couldn’t get over to Ireland to make the purchase because the US government withdrew his passport because of his left-leaning sympathies. He took them to court and eventually won. Regained his passport. And secured a victory which has held – the US authorities are not allowed to withhold a passport in the way they did with Kent right until today.

The magic worked on him and it did on me. I found the whole experience meditative. I have never had the opportunity to stay put in one place and paint it over and over from a multitude of angles. The afternoon after completing Glen Head above I went for a walk with two new friends, Micki a muralist and graphic designer from Ohio and Colm a retired economist from Dublin, around the religious sites of Glencolmcille associated with St Colm Cille/Columba, one of the three patron saints of Ireland. As we were walking through the landscape below Glen Head, near the ruins of St Colm’s chapel, I realised I recognised particular rocks and patches of land from having painted them earlier. It was a deep, focused relationship with a place the like of which I haven’t experienced before.

watercolour painting of glencolmcille by adam gee

A God’s eye view of Glencolmcille – a watercolour painted with reference to Google Maps on my phone, my last picture of this trip

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.

 

 

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

A Day in Dublin

Sweny's chemist pharmacist drugsture Dublin Ulysses James Joyce

Following a meeting with RTÉ in the Docklands in East Dublin I had the afternoon free to wander the city. On the way in to the centre from the airport the bus passed the end of Eccles Street where Leopold Bloom lives and is having breakfast in the second chapter of ‘Ulysses’. An hour later I walked across Holles Street where the maternity hospital is where another chapter of the Greatest Book Ever takes place. After that I looked into the window of Sweny’s the pharmacist where Bloom buys his lemon soap (and they still sell it in waxed brown paper). In a couple of hours I am heading back there for a ‘Ulysses’ reading group as it is now a volunteer-run centre dedicated to the book. It is just opposite the back entrance to Trinity College, Dublin where I am due at a lunch at noon.

Yesterday I also passed the Ormond Hotel (which, if I had my bearings right, is largely a space on the North bank of the Liffey at Ormond Quay, having been pretty much demolished since my last trip to Dublin) where the music-centred chapter of the novel occurs, the chapter which is the focus of the long-running Charles Peake seminar at Senate House, University of London which I attend every month. It takes the group several years to get through a chapter as it is a close-reading approach – we cover just a dozen or so lines per two hour Friday evening session.

proclamation of the irish republic

Back to Friday afternoon, I passed the old Ormond Hotel on the way to Kilmainham Gaol where the leaders of the Easter Rising were imprisoned in 1916. There I met my younger son who was also over, meeting his cousins. I had the great honour in the course of the visit to read to him (he has severe dyslexia so I am in the habit of reading to him) one of the surviving twenty copies of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, a poster size text printed in two sections, and then parts of the original letters written by the condemned men as their last words. These are displayed in dim light for preservation but the lighting also adds to the vibe. A particularly resonant one is by Joseph Plunkett to his girlfriend who he recognises he should have married – signed “Your lover, Joe”. My son is an Irish citizen hence the honour of introducing these things to him. Later in the afternoon we passed the GPO in O’Connell Street where I concluded my history to him of the Easter Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War. (Which reminded me that I wanted to ask my RTÉ colleague how the preparations are going for the tricky centenary of the Civil War. When I was over speaking to the RTÉ Board in December 2017 they were just starting to address the project with the President that same day.)

We went back into town via the Irish Museum of Modern Art, taking the Luas (tram) back to the river. My son is really interested at the moment in wild/open water swimming and imagined swimming the Liffey. I told him about Yeats’ energetic painting of a swimming race in the National Gallery of Ireland.

IMG_6382 finnegans wake 1st edition 1939 james joyce

1st edition (1939)

I rounded off the day seeing both a 1939 1st edition of ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ (€2,000), which I sent to Finn Fordham who leads the monthly Wake seminar at Senate House I also go to fairly regularly, and a 1922 1st edition of ‘Ulysses’ from Shakespeare & Co., Paris, 1 of 750 copies, with the famous (among a small but dedicated circle) Greek blue cover (€30,000) at Ulysses Rare Books shop off Grafton Street. I’ve seen and even handled the ‘Ulysses’ 1st edition in that fabulous shop before – this one has only been in a month. If I was rich I would buy one alongside a powder blue Mark 2 Jag. My son wanted to know how Joyce had managed to fill 700 pages with two people’s wanderings around Dublin for just one day.

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I concluded the day in another book shop, The Winding Stair, named after the other Yeats’ volume of poetry. For the last 15 years the book part has shrunk to just the ground floor and the 1st and 2nd floors up the eponymous stairs have become a really good Irish restaurant with a view of the river, quays and Ha’penny Bridge. In the past the dining room, where I enjoyed Irish duck and Irish trout this evening, used to be covered in bookshelves full of second-hand volumes. Now just a couple of shelves of books tip a hat to that literary past. The tome I acquired from here that comes first to mind is Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man’, a vintage Penguin paperback. Every book becomes a friend.

iew from The Winding Stair restaurant Dublin

View from The Winding Stair

Coincidences No.s 277-284

No. 277 Re-righting

weebles wobble but they don't fall down

6/4/19 (Norway)

I am listening to an episode of the BBC podcast ‘Only Artists’ featuring the film composer Debbie Wiseman and the TV director Peter Kosminsky. Peter (who I knew a little at Channel 4 but I think I cheesed off because I disagreed with a cultural boycott he put his name behind) talks about how he guided Mark Rylance to play Thomas Cromwell in ‘Wolf Hall’ – “low centre of gravity” – and mentions those toys that bounce back up.

Six days ago (London)

I am watching a TED talk on YouTube featuring a consultant who lives in my neighbourhood and is currently close to death. A few months ago he did this talk, knowing that he had a terminal cancer diagnosis. He and his speaking partner – it is a two-hander, both psychologists – present 8 tips for being resilient. In one he links the tip to the toys with weighted bottoms that re-right themselves always. He reminds us of the name (Weebles) and the strapline from the TV ads (which I still remember without prompting) “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down”. He champions the idea that we should recognise the wobbling as a part of our condition and allow ourselves to experience it without shame or guilt. I haven’t thought about Weebles for years and only knew them from the telly.

 

No. 278 Dried Cod

dried cod

4/4/19 (Trondheim)

Straight after a workshop on Short Form Video I am doing at the ISAK cultural centre in Trondheim, Norway for the MidtNorsk Filmsenter (a regional film fund) I walk down to the nearby fish market, the start of a guided tour of the city by my host, Line. She points out, for some reason, on the fish stall the dried cod.

1/4/19 (Trondheim- Oslo)

I get a message from my Norwegian friend, Hanna (who works at NRK, the public service broadcaster of Norway), which suggests what we might do on Sunday afternoon when I will be staying with her in Oslo, where she lives. “me and two friends Bente and Jan are having our first ‘spring meeting’ Sunday afternoon, planting a few seeds, drinking some wine, and me: making a nice bacalao (one of my specialities, with Norwegian dried cod).” I have never come across dried cod before.

 

No. 279 M&S

open city documentary festival poster

30/1/19

An email comes in reminding me about an MA Graduate Screening I am due to attend at Bertha Dochouse/Curzon Bloomsbury, London from the Open City Docs team at UCL. It includes a timetable item: 10.30 – Screening starts, introduced by Open City Docs Director Michael Stewart.

 

The next email that comes in is from (a different) Michael Stewart, an old friend of mine from Toronto, wishing me a belated Happy New Year. We exchange emails very sporadically.

 

No. 280 Golders Green

golders green clock tower

13/3/19

I drop my wife at our nieces’ place in Trellick Tower and drive home via Golders Green to post some VAT documents into my accountant’s closed offices around 11pm. As I walk away from the offices I notice various notifications on my phone and decide just to return one call – the one from my younger son. I normally might not have bothered calling back immediately but he’s been on a trip to Prague with his girlfriend so my instinct was to respond despite the late hour.

 

My younger son picks up my call. He says he is in Golders Green, just off a coach from Luton Airport and has ordered an Uber home. I ask him exactly where he is right now. I let him know that if I had a handy stone I could hit him from where I am currently standing. He cancels the Uber and I drive them home.

 

No. 281 Joy Division

unknown pleasures LP record vinyl cover

24/3/19 (Copenhagen)

I am having breakfast in Copenhagen with Mike Christie, director, who I became friends with while at Channel 4 (he directed ‘Jump London’, one of my two favourite things made at C4 during my 13 years there), and Bernard Sumner, guitarist of Joy Division and singer of New Order – as one does. Bernard is in town, like Mike, for a screening of ‘Decades: New Order’, Mike’s excellent film for Sky Arts about a brilliant show the band created for the Manchester International Festival and a subsequent short European tour. Suede’s Brett Anderson, star of another of Mike’s films playing at the CPH:DOX film festival, comes by to bid farewell and we shake hands. Not your average breakfast. I say to Bernard that the last time I saw him in the flesh was at the Lyceum, London when Joy Division were supporting Buzzcocks. “You’re a big fan then” he responds with dry Mancunian style. “He really is a big fan” my son pipes up “he’s always wearing his Unknown Pleasures T-shirt”. This shifts the conversation onto that design and I confirm “You found that image didn’t you?” He explains how he found it in a library book about astronomy and after a while tells me about a related coincidence. I didn’t fully grasp the science but the gist was that by chance the frequency illustrated in that famous graph (reversed out of black by Peter Saville, originally black on a white background in the book) is the same as a 45 rpm vinyl single. This is something Bernard found out a good while after the release of ‘Unknown Pleasures’.

 

No. 282 Time

nick drake singer

20/3/19 (Copenhagen)

I am putting the finishing touches to my PowerPoint presentation for Documentary Campus Masterschool I am due to deliver the next day in Copenhagen. It doesn’t have that many words, being composed mainly of pictures as is my wont, but I am adding the word “Time” to a list.

 

As I type the word “Time” Nick Drake sings “Time”. I am listening to Spotify, returning to Nick Drake because I have been reminded of him by Jamaican writer Marlon James on his Desert Island Discs earlier today. The song is ‘Time Has Told Me’.

Time has told me

You’re a rare, rare find

A troubled cure

For a troubled mind

 

No. 283 Polar Bears

polar-bear

21/3/19 (Copenhagen)

I wake up early and listen to the radio. On Radio 4 is ‘IPM’ in which a mother describes her teenage son and then how she lost him suddenly. The story of his death comes out of the blue, shockingly. He is on an adventurous camping trip with a group of friends somewhere frozen, I forget exactly where, Greenland or similar, and he gets attacked in the early morning by a polar bear while sleeping in his tent, mauled, killed.

 

Later in the day I am listening to a feature documentary pitch at Documentary Campus Masterschool in a community/youth centre in a Copenhagen backstreet. The pitch mentions being eaten by polar bears.

 

No. 284 Presqu’ile

Peninsula-Papagayo-wide-aerial-shot

6/4/19 (Oslo)

I am walking through Oslo city centre with my friend Hanna Førland and we are discussing the geography of the city’s coastline. We are talking about a peninsula but neither of us can think of the word however I can recall the French word for the geographic feature, “presqu’île”. We met 36 years ago studying French in Savoy/Savoie, South-East France.

7/4/19

Hanna and I meet up with a third friend from Chambéry, Marit Kolberg (also of NRK). We have brunch at Marit’s house in the suburbs just west of Oslo and we are discussing Cuba and a peninsula Marit visited there recently. She can’t think of the word in Norwegian or English but uses “presqu’île” in lieu.

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