Archive for the ‘donegal’ Tag

The Story So Far

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In the last part of 2013 I take a sabbatical to mark my 10th anniversary at Channel 4 and write five eighths of a factual book entitled ‘When Sparks Fly: the creative rewards of openness and generosity’. I write 9 to 5 every working day during the sabbatical and get five chapters more or less completed.

I document the process from Day 1 to Day 94.

The plan is to try to write the last three when I’m back at work in evenings and weekends. The thing is I value my marriage and I’m keen on my kids. And also I commission 26 series of short form video and 9 pilots in the following 12 months. The best part of 250 episodes. that’s a fuckofalot of work.

A couple of weeks ago I have 7 days holiday left for the year which I have to use or lose so I go over to my favourite place, Donegal. I find empty beaches, the sun splits the sky from the moment I walk off the plane in Belfast till the day I return. I chill and I’m in the mood to write. At the prompting of my venerable & wise mentor, a veteran and very committed documentary maker, I set aside Book 1 for now and move to Book 2. Book 2 is not massively research and interview heavy like Book 1. It is about my day job. I’d had it in mind as a way of clearing the writing pipes.

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So I write the opening on an isolated and very difficult to access beach on Fanad Head, my favourite place in my favourite place. What a beautiful moment suspended in time.

I write the outline by the lake in the garden of artist Derek Hill’s house in Churchill. Intense, fast, no mucking about – in the zone.

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I start the main text on a secret beach up the coast from Port Salon. I have to leg it to escape from charging cows to get to the beach – but it’s worth it. Got it completely to myself.

What’s a rush is that I can just write (unlike Book 1). No notes. No looking up anything. Just tap away at the speed of thought.

And so, as I embark fully on Book 2, the story continues…

[writing location: a train just outside Durham 7.1v.16]

 

 

 

Simple Pleasures from Donegal 4

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My secret beach

Empty beaches. Lough Swilly. Hazy horizons. Traces of everyday history. Meeting strangers. The kindness of strangers. Working on beaches. Snoozing on the sand. Miles Davis’s music. A Kind of Blue nap. Photo exhibitions. Irish words for modern phenomena. European films. BB King & Tracy Chapman singing The Thrill is Gone. The Bridge Bar. Ramelton. Rivers. 

Son of a Beach

Donegal: Day 3

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Headed for Church Hill, the other side of Letterkenny, to artist Derek Hill’s house, which I thought would be an inspiring place to write. Turned out it’s too early in the season for the house or gallery which open toward the end of the month – but I got the expansive gardens all to myself. Lay on the lawn down by the lake to read and then perched on a repurposed mill stone at the water’s edge to write. Managed to put the whole outline together, ready to start writing proper. The lake was beautiful in the Spring sunshine, a slight mistiness at first from the bridge over the River Leannan and then a bright tranquility from Glebe House garden. Not a soul was in evidence all morning. Plus I had the pleasure of some magical synchronicity. I left on a high.

And headed across the peat bogs past Glenveagh westwards. Resonant highway views across expanses of peaty goodness and charismatic mountains. Reached the west coast at Dungloe where I had a pitstop for lunch and indulged in some gift shop browsing, picking up some 1916 centenary souvenirs.

Drove down the coast to Portnoo/Naran, a huge beach overlooking an island which I heard joins the shore at low tide. Watched the strait get narrower and narrower between two sets of breaking waves.

Back to Ramelton with the setting sun behind me tinging the mountains red. Dinner in Letterkenny followed by a nightcap at the Bridge Bar, Ramelton (where unfortunately I’d missed the owner, Brid, who I haven’t seen in a good while now). Epic day.

Donegal: Day 4 – St Patrick’s Day

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St Patrick’s Day in the gaeltacht

Morning at the secluded far end of Rathmullan beach writing the first chapter to the lapping of wavelets. More sunshine across Lough Swilly.

Headed up to the Old Store in Port Salon for lunch with a fine view across the waters of what was once voted 4th best beach in the world.

Then in search of a secret beach (Drumnacraig) whose entire expansive length was empty. I did have to put up with being chased by cows to get there but no pain no gain. Spent the afternoon there until the shadows of the dunes reached me.

Into Letterkenny for an exhibition and movie with Anita & Don at the arts centre. A retrospective of the photography of New York ad man Richard Noble who I had a chat with. Then ‘Tangerines’, a pretty good Estonian film about war/conflict over land. One woman had come in the expectation of seeing ‘Tangerine’ (singular), a film about strippers.

Back with A&D for a nightcap at the Bridge Bar – emerging pattern?

Quel Coincidence!

 

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I’ve been noticing coincidences a lot recently, and noting some of them down. Mainly of the type where you hear a word for the first time in decades and it comes up again the same day.

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But today I had a cracker. I went to Church Hill near Letterkenny to visit Glebe House and Gallery. As luck (or the tourist season) would have it was closed so I contented myself with hanging out in the gardens by the lake, which I had entirely to myself in strong spring sunshine. I laid on the damp lawn and took out my two books. The first one I opened was ‘Human Chain’ by Seamus Heaney, a book of poetry my Other Half gave me for Christmas 2010. I’ve only ever read a couple of the poems so I brought in with me for this Derry-Donegal trip. I read a bit of it last night so it was parked up randomly in the middle wherever I happened to get to.

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As I opened it and started reading today stretched out on the grass like a dying naturalist I wrote a note at the top of the page in pencil as a souvenir of where I was:

16.3.16 Church Hill – Derek Hill’s

Derek Hill was the artist who used to live in Glebe House and bequeathed it.

The poem I had got to last night was entitled ‘The Baler’, about a mechanical hay baler. When I got to line 19 who, of all the people in the world, is mentioned?

Derek Hill. I’m not sure if it’s the same one but it probably is.

But what I also remembered

Was Derek Hill’s saying,
The last time he sat at our table,
He could bear no longer to watch
The sun going down

What are the chances?

I finish the night before at that particular poem
I decide to go to Glebe House this particular day
I write Derek’s name
The name is printed on the very page

Doesn’t that mean there must be a God? 😉

The NW London – NW Ireland axis

Donegal: Day 1

Had 5 days of holiday to take. Decided to obey the sign above our front door:

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Donegal 1 [day away, or less]

Flew over the Isle of Man, the sun catching the blue-black sea. Landed in Aldegrove. Got my wheels and headed West. Sunshine, against all the odds, illuminated the Glenshane Pass, gateway to Donegal, my favourite county. Took the Foyle Bridge through Derry, a feeling of flying over the river, and once beyond the city of my nuptials took a detour up to the ancient stone fort Grainán Ailigh – the Solarium of the Stony Place, a stone eye catching the sun above three counties. Sitting up on the third tier of the fort I started writing my new book about online creativity, getting the outline under way. It felt like a propitious place – my favourite spot in the world. I enjoyed the contrast between the circle of ancient stones and the rectangle of my Mac Air.

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Grainan Ailigh

Carried on West to Ramelton, to the Castle Grove on the shore of Lough Swilly, the hotel where our wedding concluded on the third day. I had a cuppa in the pale yellow drawing room by the fire of this Anglo-Irish Big House, once home of the Grove family (in living memory of Honour, the elderly former landlady in her own Big House of our friend Anita). On the way over RTE Radio 1 was full of the Easter Rising centenary later this week and the Cheltenham races. A resonant week to be here.

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Donegal: Day 2

Had a run before breakfast and a meditate by a stream on the way back. Chilling you see.

Headed through Ramelton and Rathmullan up the East coast of Fanad peninsula, through Port Salon (now ruined with white bungalows at the North end, once named 4th best beach in the world). With difficulty found the way down to Pollet Sea Arch (the signs have been removed by some gobshite farmer I suspect). By now the sun was out in full glory. Walked down past all the traditional obstacles culminating in a flooded gateway to reach my other favourite place in the world, Pollet Beach which I had all to myself all morning. Wrote the opening of the book. This is an inspiring and productive place for me, to be sure.

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Lunched at Fanad Lodge, an undercover pub just North of the sea arch, run by Donegal GAA supporters. Popped over to the lighthouse at Fanad Head after, then drove round the headland to a beach called An Rinn Bhui (the yellow headland).

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bhui – whin aka gorse

Read ‘Human Chain’ by Seamus Heaney and ‘Where my Heart Used to Beat’ by Sebastian Faulks at each stop – both thoroughly enjoyable. Sunset drive back to Castle Grove, a brief snooze to Kind of Blue (as is my wont) and into Ramelton for dinner with my friends Anita & Don. Got back to Castle Grove to enjoy the kind of starry sky we city folk can only dream of.

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Simple Pleasures from Donegal 3

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Scrambled egg. Meditation. Dappled sunlight. Lakes with a light mist. Writing. Lawns. Sunshine. Azure skies. Peat bogs. The wild West. Connacht. Soup. Purple Snacks. T-shirts. Beaches to myself. Sound of waves. Apples. The Bridge Bar.

Simple Pleasures from Donegal 2

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The Angelus (on Irish radio). The yellow of whinbushes. The sound of a stream. The surprise of seeing the stars in the countryside. White toast. Jackdaws (facsimile document folders). 20C Irish history. Pollet sea arch. Having a beach to yourself. A hot drink when you’re wet. Donegal GAA team. The sound of the sea. Seaweed flowing about in the shallows. Ribbon bookmark in hardbacks. Ramelton. Snoozes. Kind of Blue. Old friends. Church bells.

Simple Pleasures from Donegal

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Grainan Ailigh – my favourite spot on Earth

The sea catching sunlight. Grainan Ailigh. Seamus Heaney. Donegal. The Foyle Bridge. Meeting interesting strangers. Porridge. Uncut. Green fields from the sky. Starting a new book. Fruit & Nut. Rosé. Detours. Inch Island. Castlegrove. Irish fires. Chat on RTE Radio. Making plans with the Enfants Terribles.

 

4 things I learnt from The Story

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Tim Wright tests his sense of balance

Today I spent at the excellent The Story conference at Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, organised by my fellow Commissioning Editor at Channel 4, Matt Locke (a labour of love on his part). The theme was stories and story-telling – little theory, no money talk, just narrative and tales about tales. So what I learnt…

1) The best conferences (like this one) have only two outputs – Inspiration and catalysing Connections between people.

2) The best comic books have a layer of history, a layer of mythology and a layer of contemporary relevance as evinced by Sydney Padua‘s Lovelace & Babbidge. She showed the development of  their new adventure Vs The Organist which combines Victoriana with Orpheus & Eurydice with proto-geekage. Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has a similar combo, a bit more literary, and it’s top of the tree for me. (Talking of trees, the frames in the new story where a band of monkeys break into Babbidge’s office and drag him off to the underworld gave me a sudden flashback to a game we played as children with plastic monkeys, something I hadn’t thought of for decades- there’s so much buried in these memories and imaginations of ours, and connection, especially surprising connection, is the key to creativity.)

3) The best stories combine profound emotion and humour. My old friend and colleague Tim Wright stole the show with his Harrison Fraud story. It’s about a mad time when he tried to convince his business/creative partner, Rob Bevan, that Harrison Ford wanted to work with them. The comic story of facial hair and faked letters was punctuated with insights into Tim’s marital struggles, recounted with an unflinching honesty. That willingness to confront difficult themes head on – as demonstrated equally in Tim’s wonderful In Search of Oldton project which has its roots in his father’s tragic death – is what raises his stories to special heights. Tim and I worked together on the writing of MindGym back in 1996, a game about creativity, Rob worked on it too programming and designing  – it was a landmark project for me, drawing me into the world of non-linear story-telling and interactivity, and I learned a wealth from Tim’s methodical approach to scripting. I remember sitting with Tim in a bar in Clapham Old Town, asserting my dedication to film-making and that I’d be giving up this interactive thing before too long, not really my bag. 14 years down the line and here I still am.

4) The best fiction is less strange than truth. The day was rounded off in style by a besuited David Hepworth, he of The Word and Smash Hits, who told a lovely circular tale of the passage of wisdom from father to son to grandson via a bespoke tailor’s in the Yorkshire village he grew up in. It involved the coincidence of a suit being made for him unknowingly by the tailor who had made his father’s suits. It reminded me of my wedding ring. I wear two rings – the wedding ring my wife gave me in the top O of the OXO Tower by the Thames when the O X and O were all floor-to-ceiling windows and the tower was still a building site, and a plain silver ring I bought from a stall in Camden market several years before. To cut a long Irish story short it turned out that the posh jeweler in Gabriel’s Wharf and the Camden stall holder were one and the same person from Inishowen in Donegal (where my wedding ended, 60 miles down the road from its start point in Derry). This stranger than fiction coincidence came to light one day when I was chucking out old chequebook stubs and I found the £10 cheque I’d bought the silver ring with. Recently I’ve had another such experience where I came across the same person (Pippa Harris of Neal St Films, Sam Mendes’ business partner) through two totally different routes – one starting off in a novel I was reading, The Great Lover by Jill Dawson; the other through judging the RTS Single Drama Award for work – the true-life story weaving through all manner of themes from Rupert Brooke to Wikipedia. It’s coincidences and dynamics like those that make life worth living.

I had a quick chat with David Hepworth on the way out about the merits of The Word podcast (very good for jogging I said, great for repetitive domestic tasks he countered) – it’s the very best on the Web, a chat with friends over the kitchen table. Leaving the period lobby, it felt great to have spent the day in Conway Hall with its radical, left-wing vibe. It was here that I took my first published photograph – one of  Gerry Adams and Ken Livingstone that appeared in An Phoblacht, the Irish Republican newspaper. But that’s another story…

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Monkeys test your sense of balance

Hunger

Steve McQueen directing Hunger

Steve McQueen directing Hunger

I have to admit I was a bit worried when I heard Channel 4 were making a film about Bobby Sands and the Maze hunger strike. Having sat through shite like Ken Loach and Rebecca O’Brien’s ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’ I feared the worst. But ‘Hunger‘, by Turner Prize winner Steve McQueen, is an artist’s film of intense emotional impact and real insight. And it belongs on the big screen, its compositions and rhythms fill the space. That it is a London born film-maker, a black film-maker, that provides such insight into so fraught and sensitive an Irish story is all the more remarkable.

It was commissioned by my colleague Jan Younghusband, Commissioning Editor for Arts and Performance at Channel 4. She is a woman with a purist and committed approach to art, as I learned from working with her on projects like Big Art Project and 4mations. ‘Hunger’ was five years in the making and conception. Through her work on the Turner Prize Jan came into contact with McQueen, hooked up from time to time in a cafe on Old Compton Street and gradually homed in on this most demanding of subject-matter. Film 4, in the person of Peter Carlton (who I worked with last year on My Movie Mash-up/Faintheart, which amply demonstrated his ballsy approach) came in to back the film as a theatric offering. I have to say, having just emerged from a viewing of the finished film, I couldn’t be prouder to be part of an organisation that creates a work like this.

I walk past Bobby Sands regularly in the form of a Christ-like statue of him in Newry, the town in County Down where my wife was born. She grew up in Northern Ireland in the 70s and early 80s – I can hardly imagine how she and her sisters will watch this film. Whatever you feel about the politics behind Bobby Sands (of which most of our (British) population is incredibly ignorant, and was so back in 1980 – as a suburban London teenager it was right off my radar beyond what I gleaned from Stiff Little Fingers) the portrayal of political conviction and of inhuman bigotry is as powerful as it comes. Thatcher’s voice, heard in voice-over punctuating the film from time to time, comes across as truly monstrous. Everything about its coldness and stridency speaks of the huge cultural gulf between the Lincoln grocery and a family gathering in West Belfast or Gweedore, Donegal (where the key flashback scene of the film takes place) or pretty much anywhere in Ireland or an Irish home.

My wife recalls how her life and the lives of all around her were overshadowed by the hunger strike. A time punctuated by the staggered deaths (they deliberately spaced the starts of their hunger-strikes two weeks apart to maximise the impact of their sacrifice). Looking back from the last few years it is only now she truly recognises what a troubled, hard childhood she and her contemporaries lived through. A couple of years ago we were in the (old) Tate with the children. They were copying some of the pictures in the Pop Art rooms. As we emerged from the gallery I noticed my wife was really upset. I asked her what was up and it turned out walking through a room of Richard Hamilton images of soldiers on the streets of Belfast [The State 1993] had really disturbed her and awakened ghosts. (Richard Hamilton of course also portrayed Bobby Sands draped in blanket in his picture ‘The Citizen’ [1981-83].)

When I first visited Newry in 1986 I was greeted by the most surreal of experiences – walking down the high street I watched British troops, armed with machine guns and equipped with radios, ducking in and out of shop doorways between little old ladies struggling along with their shopping bags. Nothing in my North London childhood had given me the slightest clue that such dark comedy was to be had on the streets of ‘my country’.

On my way out of the screening I met a woman who looked pretty shaken by the experience (naturally enough). It turned out her daughter works at the Channel and she comes from Crossmaglen, Co. Armagh. Needless to say she knew the one family I know in Crossmaglen, as that is the way of Ireland. I knew the hospital she was born in in Newry, Daisyhill aka Crazyhill, as my wife was born there too. I knew her school in Kilkeel as my wife went there too. It’s a small, connected place. In her family home this woman I got talking to has some of the tiny notes smuggled out of the Maze – that’s how connected it is.

I thought the starvation in Sean Penn’s ‘Into the Wild‘ was painful to watch and moving but it goes nowhere near the forensic observation of this film. The skeletal bodies are resonant of Auschwitz – and the crucifixion. And yet the film captures something incredible, something transcendent about the human spirit and will.

Towards the end of the film we see a flashback of the Belfast boy on a coach traveling over the border into Donegal to attend a cross-country race put on by the Christian Brothers (purveyors, as Pete McCarthy amusingly put it, of “the carrot and stick method of Education – only without the carrot”). Behind the face of the young Bobby is a blurred swoosh of gold, low sunlight on the ferns and bogland. It represents a paradise to the starving man.

Recalling when I first went to that place – Gweedore – brings a smile to my lips. I’d followed the roadmap and came to what I thought was not far from Gweedore. I stopped at a junction, reminiscent of where Cary Grant gets off the bus in ‘North-by-Northwest’ and gets attacked by a crop-spraying plane. There was a small shop at the junction, outside of which stood an old fella in a flat cap. I wound down the window and asked him where Gweedore was. You’re in it. Where? All around. He was trying to explain the concept of a ‘townland’ which was foreign to me. ‘Town’ I get. ‘Land’ and ‘country’ I get. But this was something in-between, half way to the imagination, between the word on the map and the ground beneath me was a cultural gap and an imaginative leap. ‘Dhun na nGall’ (Donegal) means ‘fort of the foreigners’ – foreigners have given the people there a tough time since way back – from the marauding Vikings (who probably explain my wife’s love of the battle and fighting scenes in ‘Gladiator’) to the screws beating the living shit out of Bobby Sands and fellow prisoners with their truncheons and tattooed knuckles. The same shit these men smeared on the walls of their cells in an astonishing act of defiance for over 4 years, the shit McQueen turns into a kind of circular abstract painting in one scene. The ability of people to survive that kind of degradation and brutality for the sake of an idea is ultimately uplifting. The ability to inflict that kind of degradation and brutality is to be the subject of one of my next posts (bet you can’t wait 😉 inspired by Philippe Sands‘ recent book Torture Team about torture in Iraq, where Steve McQueen served as a war artist in 2003.) So shifting Sands from Bobby to Philippe – not easy subjects but then 7/7 isn’t an easy day…

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