Archive for the ‘travels’ Category

4 highlights of Geneva

Following on from the last post (All Souls’ Day) I have spent much of today reading most of Patti Smith’s new book, Year of the Monkey. It’s put me in the mood to write (which is always the sign of a special writer – her friend Allen Ginsberg has much the same effect from my experience).

GIFF Geneva International Film Festival 2019 Geneve

I am in Geneva on a flying visit to the Geneva International Film Festival. Late last night – after returning home from my second viewing of the brilliant Joker at Warner Bros., where I bumped into my old Channel 4 colleague John Yorke and chewed the story fat with him – I managed to find the old tobacco tin at home where I keep my Swiss money. It turned out I had quite a lot – I haven’t been to Switzerland for a few years and it has appreciated markedly in the wake of the disastrous Brexit referendum (I hear they are a bit better at referenda here).

referenda oui non geneva geneve switzerland suisse

So I shifted the Swiss francs to my Euro purse, a suede purse from California my grandmother gave me as a boy – it says something like Gold Nuggets on it, long since worn away. I notice in Year of the Monkey how attached Patti Smith is to particular (not monetarily valuable) objects in her life, attributing meaning through memory to them.

purse with swiss francs

I decided to blow as much of my purseload as possible – this is what I spunked it on…

1) Soup

pumpkin soup cream

I love soup – it’s a top food and generally healthy. In Year of the Monkey Patti has chicken soup, decorated with egg yolks (not sure which came first the chicken or the eggs), with her ailing friend Sam Shepherd on his ranch in Kentucky. This is pumpkin soup – I don’t normally like it, often too sweet, but this was delicious. I ate it outside Le Perron restaurant at the foot of the hill in the old town – I ate under the tree at that restaurant years ago with my younger brother. We did a sudoku outside another cafe in the old quarter that time too – I hate puzzles and crosswords but on that occasion it was fun. Patti seems much attracted to numbers both in dates (in which she sees magical coincidences – see All Souls’ Day) and in books of geometry. The fly leaves of Year of the Monkey have some kind of algebraic-geometric sketch and scribblings. I think it’s what she describes herself drawing on a white bedsheet in a moment of inspiration.

2) Perch

perch fillets geneva geneve

Fillet of perch is a speciality of Geneva – they get the poor little critters from Lac Leman. So I sat outside Le Perron – the only person to do so – but the weather was mild. The owner found it amusing but conceded the weather was soft. “Il faut en profiter” I told him – I’ve really enjoyed exercising my French today. Patti references Rimbaud’s Illuminations in the bit I just read – I made a mental commitment to read it soon. He wrote those prose-poems in London around 1873-75.

verlaine rimbaud camden town plaque

8 Royal College Street, Camden Town

3) Steak Frites

steak frites wine

The Cafe de Paris was a recommendation by the lugubrious hotel night receptionist – it is a stone’s throw from Hotel Cristal. It turned out to be a carbon copy of Le Relais de Venise in London’s Soho and Marylebone. A restaurant that just does one meal but one meal really well – a great idea. The meal is green salad followed by steak and French fries aka steak frites. There must be a model for this kind of restaurant I thought – checked it out, there is – Le Relais de Venise established in Paris in 1959. Of course the meal demands red wine so I had a couple of little glasses. Patti is always eating and drinking in this new book as well as the last, M Train. It’s like join the cafes.

4) Cherries

cherries in cognac

Cherries drenched in cognac. Frankly it’s one of the BEST THINGS I’VE EVER TASTED.

I love cherries. I’ve not really engaged with cognac. Perfect combo. Highlight of the highlights.

Geneva geneve autumn fall old city

The old town

Patti Smith – like myself – is an inveterate flâneur. I wandered over to the digital outpost of the Festival where the VR projects were on display. As usual, underwhelming. I contend that factual programming is not the strong point of what is a very important new technology. Games, health, retail, architecture, training – all no-brainers. Documentary – my jury’s out. The cobbled streets, small squares, narrow lanes and flowing fountains of the old town are charming – in stark contrast to the banks and luxury goods shops.

When I lived just over the border in Savoie (Savoy, SE France) there was an outbreak of graffiti that year in Geneva. At the end of the year they caught the culprit – a psychologist who contended that the place was too clean and boring for the citizens’ mental health. The thing is someone somewhere pays for these watch shops and luxury brands to be here – they pay in poverty and hardship. Le reverse de la medaille. Every coin has another side.

GIFF reverse banners geneva international film festival geneve

4 places worth visiting in Vilnius

I was in Lithuania last week working on ESoDoc, a workshop and development space for social documentaries. The last time I worked on it was back in 2010 in Tenno, Northern Italy. We were based this time in the National Library of Lithuania and between sessions I adopted my favourite role of flâneur.

1. The National Library of Lithuania

the national library of lithuania vilnius 1919

Its classical grandeur dates back to 1919, the year after Lithuanian independence from Germany and Russia. It sits next door to the modern parliament building which stems from Lithuania’s second independence day, 11th March 1990, the first of the Baltic States to break away from the USSR.

Lithuania parliament vilnius

An important emblem of Democracy

The books in the main atrium are cleverly decorated with black covering on their spines to create the faces of various key literary/historical figures.

Lithuania national library vilnius

2. Knygynas VAGA book shop

Knygynas VAGA bookstore book shop Vilnius lithuania

Knygynas VAGA book shop

A book shop where you can get strudel – what’s not to love? Really enjoyed hanging out here. Had to speak German as the strudel lady couldn’t speak English. We struggled a bit trying to identify pumpkin.

I picked up two Lithuanian novels in English here: Cold East by Gabija Grušaitė (“A new voice that disrupted Lithuanian lierature”) and Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys (a Lithuanian American, author of the very successful debut Between Shades of Gray).

3. The Republic of Užupis

uzupis republic vilnius lithuania

Border of the Republic

A hippy, bohemian quarter a bit like Chrisiania in Copenhagen. The name means “other side of the river” – it sits in a loop on the far side of the Vilnia. It declared itself a republic in 1998 – it has its own flag, currency, constitution and ambassadors (including my friend author Charlie Connelly who it turns out is their UK ambassador – I believe drink may have been involved in precipitating this appointment). They change the flag every season – it is currently blue for Winter.

uzupis flag vinius lithuania

Winter – blue, Spring – green, Summer – yellow, Autumn – red

It began life in the 16th century as a mainly Jewish area. WW2 reduced the Jewish population of Vilnius from 58,000 to 2,000. The Soviets then destroyed the cemetery up the hill from Užupis.

Now it’s mainly an artistic area, albeit a gentrified one at this point. Between the War and Independence in 1990 it was the realm of the homeless and prostitutes, very neglected. Needless to say, the artists moved in and made it cool and meaningful. Gotta love the artists. It still has a certain charm and some good street art. It seems to have been set up as an artistic provocation, to prompt important conversation. The Republic’s independence day is 1st April.

4. The Ghetto

the site of the great synagogue vilnius lithuania

Site of the Great Synagogue

Vilnius had two ghettos during the Nazi period – the small and the large. They both got liquidated (or “liquidized” as one Lithuanian tourist website has it) by Nazis and Lithuanian police shooting tens of thousands of Jews in the forests around the city. Above is the site of the Great Synagogue where 3,000-5,000 worshippers could be accommodated. It was damaged in the War but the Soviets were the ones who finished the job in the mid-50s, turning a magnificent building into an architecturally insignificant kindergarten (in the background above). I had an interesting chat with a Polish woman at this sign. She told me how poor all the Poles were before the war. Just like the citizen of Neulengbach in Austria (location of Egon Schiele’s studio) who told me how poor the Austrians were.

mural old jewish quarter ghetto vilnius lithuania

Commemorating the inhabitants of the ghetto

Despite these dark shadows I enjoyed the ghetto area in its autumn colours. I could sense the people. I sat in an open area reading a Lew Archer novel and sucking up the vibes. The city has peppered the area with monochrome murals of the former citizens, with QR codes linking to some basic information. I wonder what this fella would have made of QR codes…

mural old jewish quarter ghetto vilnius lithuania

QR codes schmoo R codes

4 highlights from Duluth

adam gee speaker catalyst content festival deluth 2019

Not The Usual Suspects

I gave a talk this week as part of the Catalyst Content Festival (formerly the ITVFest) in Duluth, Minnesota. All I knew about the town (which is actually a city) before I heard about the festival moving here from Vermont is that Bob Dylan was born here (and at six moved just north of the town to Hibbing). That’s why on the plane over I was listening to Blood on the Tracks, getting in the groove for a semi-mythical place. At sunset yesterday a train whistle worthy of Slow Train Coming cut through the freezing air and a four-coach train appeared on the lakeside tracks just below me as I returned from a long walk around the edge of Lake Superior. The lake, the best part of 400 miles lengthwise and 200 widthwise, contains 10% of the world’s accessible/surface fresh water. The coaches included a silver 50s-vintage one with bubble windows along the roof of AirStream-style silver panelling, matching the sides; two classic red carriages, and at the back a black Victorian-type one with one of those doors and platforms with railings from every Western ever.

1. Bob Dylan’s childhood home

On my first day I walked up the hill behind the hotel for a few blocks to an innocuous suburban duplex house – 519 North Third Avenue E – where Bob, who was born in 1941, lived on the 1st floor (UK; 2nd US) as an infant. The pilgrimage was done. There’s little to mark Duluth’s most famous son – a highway named Bob Dylan Way which I walked by chance the first evening at sundown and the air where a statue doesn’t stand, as the recent crowdfunding attempt failed. I understand there’s a small music festival annually. The city can certainly make more of their legend.

bob dylans childhood home duluth

You can see Highway 61 from the porch

2. The journey over

My talk was entitled: Not The Usual Suspects and looked at getting competitive edge in TV and film through diversity of all kinds. It seems to have gone down well as people have been stopping me in the street and giving me lovely feedback. They say stuff like “your talk made me cry” and I have to check “For the right reasons I hope!” – I showed a couple of moving documentary clips including Mushi’s King’s Speech triumph in Educating Yorkshire, made at Channel 4 (UK) during my time there.

bob dylan duluth

Bob’s next-door neighbor

“The Usual Suspects” phrase comes from Casablanca (made the year after Dylan’s birth). In the talk I showed the diversity of the people who made this ‘American classic’, from the Swede Ingrid Bergman to the Jewish scriptwriters, the Epstein brothers. By chance the movie was available on the plane over so I watched it for the first time in about five years. It brought me back of course to Robert McKee’s long-running Story course which includes a day dissecting the film from a story structure perspective. I remember that being riveting at the time, this was in the late 80s near the start of my career. John Cleese, sci-fi writer Brian Aldiss and nascent director Joanna Hogg were among my cohort of fellow students.

4 things I noticed this time out:

(i) the symbol of drinking/wine glasses knocked over and righted again
(ii) the ironic reference to how fast Nazis can kill

Victor Laszlo:

And what if you track down these men and kill them, what if you killed all of us? From every corner of Europe, hundreds, thousands would rise up to take our places. Even Nazis can’t kill that fast.

That was 1941-42 (when the Epstein brothers wrote the script) – little did they know of what would come to pass in the wake of the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, seven months after the birth of little Jewish Robert Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota (aka Bob Dylan). The Final Solution set in motion there could manage hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, millions.

(iii) the images of stripes in the film – on Bogart’s tie, on Bergman’s dress, the blinds in Rick’s office, all seem to suggest that life requires a choice between the black and white options before us. It’s resonant watching the film in a week where Trump’s isolationist withdrawal from Northern Syria has precipitated the attack of the Kurds by the Turks, sowing more chaos in the Middle East.

(iv) the theme of race and interracial relationships – the friendship and partnership between Rick and Sam must have been unusual and progressive in 1942. Sam gets 25% of the profits of Rick’s American Bar. There is a real, tangible mutual affection between the two which flies in the face of the Charlottesville era.

As I was watching the film, ironically I was filling in a form to get a German passport (my father and grandfather were born in Leipzig, German like Conrad Veidt (Major Strasser) and Ingrid Bergman’s mother). The movie is full of people seeking paperwork to escape oppressive regimes, nationalism, divisive ideas and narrow minds. There was a real resonance in the coincidence of art and life in this aeroplane seat.

casablanca-plane movie 1942

Planes are central to ‘Casablanca’

3. Sight restored

One of my fellow speakers on the Storyworld part of the conference had a small eye treatment just under two weeks ago. It involved flashing lights, no surgery, took around 15 minutes. As a result the sight was restored to one of his eyes that had not seen in the half-century of his life – he had been living with monocular vision which was blurry and 2D. His bad eye it turned out was physically OK but not wired in right to the brain. This quick intervention, a doctor’s hunch,  jump-started the connection. The real highlight of this trip was to see this New Yorker revel in his new-found vision like a child. After the morning of our talks, we went out back of the old brewery which was the venue and he was struggling with the richness and dynamism of the scene – the expanse of Lake Superior, the biggest of the five Great Lakes, was too much to take in: the bright colours under the sun, the ever-moving waves, were making the ground beneath his feet move and blowing his mind. His brain is clearly still making adjustments to having two working eyes. Since the change, his lifelong OCD tendencies have disappeared overnight. The joy of his rediscovery of how the world looks, experiencing life anew in this way was an absolute privilege to witness. Like the innocent joy of infancy.

lake superior duluth minnesota by adam gee

a superior lake for sure

4. Lake walks

I went for a long walk on Friday afternoon along the shore. Lake Superior appears more like a sea than a lake, it is so huge. First along the red stone beach, to the 1909 iron lighthouse on a long concrete jetty by the port entrance, over the massive metal lifting-bridge which is the emblem of the city, to the narrow white beaches beyond, which a fellow conference participant told me are the longest in the world for an inland body of water. It takes a freighter seven days to get from this most westerly port city to the Atlantic via the St Lawrence Seaway. I sat on a beach dune reading a Lew Archer and listening to the rhythm of the small lapping shoreline waves, grateful for such opportunities to travel and see the world afresh.

lifting bridge lake superior duluth minnesota by adam gee

bridges not walls

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.

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

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