Adventures in the Writing Trade: Day 4

Friday ended up as a frustrating feeling day. A lot of loose ends. Nothing finished. Including my relatively short To Do list. Saturday (yesterday) by contrast finished with me hitting send as a fired over three useful documents to my co-writer, Doug Miller. A mark-up of his outline. A set of notes collating the helpful, considered responses to my online call-out. And a response to Doug’s initial thoughts on how best to collaborate in practice. A satisfying, rounded-off feeling to conclude the day.

It’s important to live with mess, loose ends, even chaos in the writing process, indeed in all creative endeavour. It’s getting over that hump, bringing back some order in the face of the most out-of-control prospect, which usually marks where the creative achievement lies.

view from the summit of Lambay Island County Dublin Ireland

View from the summit down to the harbour

After lunch we headed up to the summit I had visited the day before. This time it was as a group, led by our hostess who is one of the two prime-movers on the island. I had a lovely chat with her on the way up, quite deep for a modest walk. At the triangulation point on the top there was a real sense of a cohort, a group bonded across very different experiences, backgrounds and personalities. Two of the Americans asked me to explain what we were looking at so I pointed out Howth Head as the North end of Dublin Bay and the Wicklow Mountains as the Southern limit; Rush and Malahide opposite; the small islands of Skerries looking North, and at the limits of our view the Mourne Mountains, faint in the distance, where my Other Half comes from. The panorama was epic, a beautiful subtle palette of blues and greys and delicate purples in the autumnal sunshine.

view of Howth from Lambay Island County Dublin Ireland

View of Howth Head from Lambay

On returning to the white house we did our second writing workshop with Jonathan (Gosling) on Style. Clarity; Pace; Engagement were the factors we considered. I focused on the opening of my as yet unfinished book When Sparks Fly, on the creative rewards of openness and generosity – a subject closely allied, it turns out, to the book on Collaboration Doug approached me about (the focus of my efforts this week). It was a helpful exercise and I could see at least a couple of things to improve – too long sentences in a quest for fluency/flow and questionable assumptions about how Digital Culture is perceived by many people.

The day before our first workshop was on our relationship to Writing. By using two observers as we spoke concisely about writing’s role in our lives, one recording facts, the other emotions, we quickly got some real insights into our work and ambitions. A really useful technique I hope to deploy in some other context soon. Probably starting with the MDes course on Story-telling I am teaching at the end of the year at Ravensbourne university/film school.

After the workshop I made a bee-line to the harbour to take advantage of the strong late afternoon sun. Donning my new Finisterre swimming trunks I strode into the September sea and dived in. It was …fresh. Envigorating.

Commercial Break: Coincidence No. 477

I am out for a walk in St Agnes, Cornwall during my summer break a few weeks ago. It’s a bit rainy so I head up from the cliff top inland towards where I’ve been told (by Joya & Lucy of Surf Girls Jamaica, both locals, hence my choice of St Agnes to sojourn in) there is a small business estate where there’s the HQ of a great surf clothing retailer called Finisterre. I eventually come across it, go in and buy some swimming trunks, shirts and a lime green recycled plastic water bottle. As the shop assistant is wrapping up my stuff he explains a bit about the business, how well it is doing, where the branches are, there’s even one up in London. Oh, where’s that? Earlham Street.

I work at Red Bull at 42 Earlham Street. I’ve never noticed Finisterre.

I have the harbour to myself, except for sharing it for a few moments with a black Labrador. The tide is out, the sand is smooth, the water cold (colder than Donegal a couple of weeks ago) but bearable, soon really refreshing. After the swim I feel amazing. I chat to a couple of Dubs from Howth over for a nature walk day trip. The wife shows me on her phone a photo of their view of Lambay from Howth village.

IMG_7492 lambay island harbour white house cottages county dublin ireland

I finish the day tying those loose ends on the lawn, my spot du choix. I also connect the lady-boss of the island to an old colleague & friend of mine who lives on the Isle of Eigg. Eigg has done an amazing job pioneering green energy & sustainable living, and my friend Lucy has been enthusiastically involved in driving those efforts. The Lambay Trust has similar ambitions. I’m glad I made the connection during our walk&talk.

Creativity, in my view, revolves around Connections. This includes the people connections offered by a writing retreat like this. And the factual/conceptual connections such as Lambay is a proto Eigg.

I bought myself a book from the island on Friday – it was my birthday present to myself. From my family, I asked for a new walk as a gift.  The book is In Praise of Walking by Shane O’Mara. Mara is Irish for sea. John of the Sea. It explores the science of walking and why it is good for us. I am convinced it is very good for Creativity, hence my early morning walks every day on Lambay. Here are a couple of quotations on Walking I recently gathered.

“Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time.”

Steven Wright (US comedian)

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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

 

 

 

Quotations: Walking

I’m about to set off for an urban walk along the Thames but before I go here’s a couple of quotations about the benefits of Walking.

ingmar bergman swedish film director with family

Ingmar Bergman

On the subject of taking walks,  Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman told his daughter:

The demons hate fresh air

But my favourite is all Greek to me. A physician in ancient Greece, Hippocrates (c. 460 – c. 370 BC), besides creating the Hippocratic Oath, came up with this pithy beauty:

Walking is the best medicine

My Favourite Documentaries – Take 2

see My Favourite Documentaries for the background to this list

being blacker molly dineen adam gee

Being with Blacker

  • Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929) – I came across it while studying Avant Garde literature, painting & film as part of my Modern Languages degree – my iPad is engraved on the back “I, a machine, am showing you a world, the likes of which only I can see”, a quotation from Vertov
  • German Concentration Camps Factual Survey (Sidney Bernstein & Alfred Hitchcock, 1945) – perhaps the most important documentary ever made
  • Up (Michael Apted, Paul Almond 1963>) – what I learnt from Michael Apted in Rome
  • Don’t Look Back (D.A. Pennebaker, 1967) – my visit to the location of the Subterranean Homesick Blues promo
  • Woodstock (Michael Wadleigh, 1970) – last watched it (in part, on multiple screens) at the brilliant You Say You Want a Revolution exhibition at the V&A
  • Meeting the Man (Terence Dixon, 1970) – James Baldwin at his best, shot by my first boss Jack Hazan
  • A Bigger Splash (Jack Hazan, 1973) – British vérité; still hoping to do a James Baldwin doc with Jack
  • World At War (Jeremy Isaacs, 1973 – esp. Holocaust episode) – I found out about the Holocaust from this series when I was 15 or 16; I briefly met Jeremy Isaacs at Channel 4, in whose founding he was instrumental, and we discussed multiplatform TV
  • Rude Boy (Jack Hazan & David Mingay, 1980) – my first employers
  • Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985) – the great directorial lesson in the use of detail to prompt memory
  • Hearts of Darkness (Werner Herzog, 1991) – spinning out my favourite movie made in my lifetime
  • When We Were Kings (Leon Gast, 1996) – captured the legend of Ali perfectly, above all in the shot of the dented punch-bag
  • One Day in September (Kevin MacDonald, 1999) – distributed by Redbus who funded my dot com start-up
  • Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore, 2002) – he sent an email to my book group at my prompting when we read his Stupid White Men
  • Clowns in the Hood (David LaChapelle, 2003) Jess Search gave me this one – still have the VHS
  • Jump London (Mike Christie, 2003) – the 2nd best thing made at Channel 4 during my 13 years there (Cost of Living, with DV8 was the best)
  • The Future is Unwritten (Julian Temple, 2007) – made at Film4 during my time at C4
  • Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008) – the most convincing, organic use of animation in documentary
  • Man on Wire (James Marsh, 2008) – had dinner with James in Brussels in 2008 with my friend Jan Younghusband, then Arts Commissioning Editor at C4
  • Oil City Confidential (Julian Temple, 2009) – captured the legend of Wilko Johnson perfectly, above all playing Roxette
  • Requiem for Detroit? (Julian Temple, 2010) – execed by my mentor, Roger Graef
  • Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, 2012) – saw Malik and Rodriguez (performing) at Sheffield Doc Fest in 2012
  • Night Will Fall (Andre Singer, 2014) – was with André when he went to Yad Vashem during the making of this; have been working on a spin-off project related to this on and off over the last 5 years
  • The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (Stanley Nelson, 2015) – discussed the film with Stanley in Sheffield in 2015: I said things hadn’t improved much for African Americans since the Panthers, he thought they had
  • After The Dance (Daisy Asquith, 2015) – first encountered Daisy in 2006 working on My New Home at Channel 4
  • 13th (Ava DuVernay, 2016) – a heart-rendingly powerful argument (that slavery was morphed into the penitentiary)
  • Faces Places (Agnes Varda & JR, 2017) – a perfect blend of still and moving pictures
  • Minding the Gap (Bing Liu, 2018) – I saw Bing present the film at Doc Fest; I use it often when lecturing as an example of iterative development (it started life as a skating short)
  • Being Blacker (Molly Dineen, 2018) – met Blacker at the premiere [see photo above]
  • Three Identical Strangers (Tim Wardle, 2018) – crossed paths with the Producer, Becky Read, at C4
  • RBG (Julie Cohen & Betsy West, 2018) – a fascinating protagonist
  • Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love (Nick Broomfield, 2019) – had a brief email correspondence with Nick about the film after the Sheffield DocFest screening in June (2019)
  • Rolling Thunder Review: A Bob Dylan Story (Martin Scorsese, 2019) – was high for four days after watching this, it was so good
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese

Being with Joan

 

The Casting Game: Reservoir Dogs

To celebrate the arrival of Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood (which has grown on me since watching it last week) I’ve recast where it all began for Quentin, Reservoir Dogs

jonah hill actor wolf of wall street

Jonah Hill

as

chris penn reservoir dogs actor

Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn)

Arjen_Rudd_joss ackland actor lethal weapon

Joss Ackland

as

Lawrence_Tierney_joe cabot actor reservoir dogs

Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney)

dominic west actor

Dominic West

as

kirk-baltz-marvin reservoir dogs police officer

Marvin (Kirk Baltz)

chris isaak singer

Chris Isaak

as

Michael-Madsen-Reservoir-Dogs actor

Mr Blonde (Michael Madsen)

malcolm allison manager football soccer

Malcolm Allison

as

mr white harvey keitel actor reservoir dogs

Mr White (Harvey Keitel)

paul weller singer the jam

Paul Weller

as

tim roth actor reservoir dogs

Mr Orange (Tim Roth)

My Favourite Documentaries

faces places agnes-varda-et-jr-en-tournage documentary

Faces Places – JR & Agnès

My first meeting tomorrow is with Brendan Byrne, director of ‘Bobby Sands: 66 Days‘ among many other excellent documentary films. His latest is about poverty and alienation in New York City – ‘One Million American Dreams‘. On the way to our breakfast I will be carrying on reading ‘Say What Happened‘. Its author, Nick Fraser, kindly gave me a copy a few days ago before I went on a short holiday and I am just on the home straight with it now, a very entertaining and thought-provoking read. As a result of reading it I have watched numerous docs these last few days, including the first three episodes of ‘7 Up‘ by Michael Apted. (I met Michael in Rome last year, at the MIA film festival/market, as recorded in this post.)

Reading Nick’s book has prompted me to post a list of my favourite documentaries here on Simple Pleasures. I’d love to hear your suggestions for your favourite docs.

  • Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929) – I came across it while studying Avant Garde literature, painting & film as part of my Modern Languages degree – my iPad is engraved on the back “I, a machine, am showing you a world, the likes of which only I can see”, a quotation from Vertov
  • Up (Michael Apted, Paul Almond 1963>) – what I learnt from Michael Apted in Rome
  • Don’t Look Back (D.A. Pennebaker, 1967) – my visit to the location of the Subterranean Homesick Blues promo
  • Woodstock (Michael Wadleigh, 1970) – last watched it (in part, on multiple screens) at the brilliant You Say You Want a Revolution exhibition at the V&A
  • A Bigger Splash (Jack Hazan, 1973) – British vérité; still hoping to do a James Baldwin doc with Jack
  • World At War (Jeremy Isaacs, 1973 – esp. Holocaust episode) – I found out about the Holocaust from this series when I was 15 or 16; I briefly met Jeremy Isaacs at Channel 4, in whose founding he was instrumental, and we discussed multiplatform TV
  • Rude Boy (Jack Hazan & David Mingay, 1980) – my first employers
  • Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985) – the great directorial lesson in the use of detail to prompt memory
  • Hearts of Darkness (Werner Herzog, 1991) – spinning out my favourite movie made in my lifetime
  • When We Were Kings (Leon Gast, 1996) – captured the legend of Ali perfectly, above all in the shot of the dented punch-bag
  • One Day in September (Kevin MacDonald, 1999) – distributed by Redbus who funded my dot com start-up
  • Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore, 2002) – he sent an email to my book group at my prompting when we read his Stupid White Men
  • The Future is Unwritten (Julian Temple, 2007) – made at Film4 during my time at C4
  • Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008) – the most convincing, organic use of animation in documentary
  • Man on Wire (James Marsh, 2008) – had dinner with James in Brussels in 2008 with my friend Jan Younghusband, then Arts Commissioning Editor at C4
  • Oil City Confidential (Julian Temple, 2009) – captured the legend of Wilko Johnson perfectly, above all playing Roxette
  • Requiem for Detroit? (Julian Temple, 2010) – execed by my mentor, Roger Graef
  • Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, 2012) – saw Malik and Rodriguez (performing) at Sheffield Doc Fest in 2012
  • The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (Stanley Nelson, 2015) – discussed the film with Stanley in Sheffield in 2015: I said things hadn’t improved much for African Americans since the Panthers, he thought they had
  • Faces Places (Agnes Varda & JR, 2017) – a perfect blend of still and moving pictures
  • Minding the Gap (Bing Liu, 2018) – I saw Bing present the film at Doc Fest; I use it often when lecturing as an example of iterative development (it started life as a skating short)

I’ve left out loads which I’ll add over time as they occur to me.

joe strummer mick jones the clash rude boy documentary

Rude Boy – Joe & Mick

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

Jewel of Irony

Gary Oldman (actor) is 13 days younger than Gary Numan (singer)

gary oldman actor sid and nancy vicious

Oldman is young (in Sid & Nancy)

Replicas gary numan album singer tubeway army

Numan is old

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