Thanks to FilmHub North (again) I’ve taken advantage of a 6-week trial of the mighty BFI Player to broaden my watching a little, and last night Mon and I sat down with Island Of The Hungry Ghosts — an incredibly powerful and profound feature documentary that ties together three stories set on Christmas Island.
The first thread belongs to Pho Lin, a torture and trauma counsellor trying to provide therapy to the asylum seekers and refugees held indefinitely in an Australian detention centre. Here she soaks up their stories of persecution and the inhuman torment of their non-determined status, as well as battling the Kafkaesque systems of Australia’s migration system. The second strand concerns the island’s billions of red crabs and their annual migration through the jungles, and the conservation team helping them cross the roads to reach the sea. The final story belongs to the anonymous Chinese migrants who died in the early years of the island’s discovery, and the modern-day immigrants who pray for their ghosts.
Those threads may sound disparate, but in truth they are all about the transition of the soul and the threshold between two places, and one of the films’s great triumphs is how the different strands are cut to show the audience the depths and complexities of the issue.
The cinematography is stunning, the edit sensational, and the atmosphere a running balance of compassion and dread — cruelty and kindness. It’s a profound statement of being.
A true story from a few weeks ago — Mon and Dora spent the day in Manchester. I was working in the garden, turning the soil to seed the lawn. Indy, who was 2 years old, had slept poorly, and was cuddled with a blanket on the sofa, watching some nonsense. He came to the back door.
‘Daddy, there’s someone knocking.’
‘Is there? Okay, I’ll come in.’
I kicked off my boots, walked through the house, and opened the front door onto an empty street.
‘There’s nobody there, wee man.’
Indy was puzzled. ‘There was a lady.’
‘Well, never mind. If it matters she’ll be back.’
I went back into the garden. Almost as soon as I stepped out, a voice spoke from just behind me, to the side of the house where the alley runs down from the street. It was a woman’s voice, warm and kind, totally lucid, very close. She said, simply, ‘Hello.’ It was near enough to be at my shoulder, and I whirled about to see.
Other people’s dream stories are almost as dull as other people’s drug stories, so forgive me. But I’ve had wretched nightmares, I feel shaken, and I want to write them down.
In the first part, I was being chased and chased and chased in the dark. I didn’t know anything except that I was being chased. I was caught and seized by countless cut-off arms and hands. The hands reached into my mouth, more and hands, gripped my jaws, and began to pull.
The second part was longer and more lucid. I was thrown into the middle of a Hercule Poirot mystery. I was investigating a series of murders. I knew who’d done it, and how, but there was no proof. There were four of them. They took turns to control and possess the recently dead, and marched bodies around like extensions of life. Two dead men shuffled down the street in a pantomime horse. I woke in a four poster bed. A dozen corpses stood in a rigid circle around me, staring, staring. One of the four watched me from a mirror. Another watched from a house across the street. At last, we came to the great denouement and I knew that it would all be over and that Poirot would pin the villains, because he always does. But he turned and pointed at me. The four murderers sat back and grinned as a host of characters fell upon me and ripped me into chunks and pieces. The last thing I saw was a smarmy smile from one of the four and I knew, I knew, that he was about to possess the tatters of my dead body.
And then I woke up.
I almost never remember my dreams. I sometimes wonder if I write as a substitute—if dreams are how the subconscious files information, couldn’t writing do the same? Both writing and dreams are the invention, collection, curation, evolution and distillation of lived experience.
I’ve seen both Indy and Dora with a baby’s nightfrights, their faces crumpled with whatever milky horrors a baby can imagine. Can a baby even experience enough to twist it into nightmares? Probably more than an adult, now I think about it. Dreams tap into the darkest corners of our extraordinary brains. Dreams take us, stumbling, into the unmapped places—and for a new baby, there is far more to explore. Dreams lead us to unopened doors, or doors opened long ago and locked up ever since.
It’s fading, now. I still remember what happened, but the dread is melting away. I rocked Indy back to sleep and now I have a cup of tea. I have a writing day today, and I’m going to see British Sea Power tonight. Sparrows are squabbling in the dog roses. It’s 6.29am, and I think I hear Dora on the stairs. It’s another day.
I’ve now seen Penny Woolcock and British Sea Power‘s astonishing documentary, From The Sea To The Land Beyond, about ten times, including a live screening at Glasgow Film Festival last year. It’s an astonishing work—a feature length film comprising entirely of archive footage and BSP’s score, by turns haunting and playful. The footage was lifted entirely from the BFI archives, and tells nothing less than the social history of Britain through our relationship with the sea. It’s extraordinary: through the flickering windows of hundred-year old reels, the film explores Britain’s food, wars, suffrage, leisure, the rise of the middle class, industrial action, economic boom and bust, immigration, capitalism and more.
Ever since watching From The Sea To The Land Beyond, I’ve wanted to work with some archive footage. I used a little of it in my hay meadows documentary To The End We Will Go, but when I recently happened upon some fascinating public domain material, I decided to cut something entirely from archive. And here, then, is something of a music video; taken from my friend Dan Haywood‘s wonderful album Dapple, I’ve cut together footage of USAAF atomic bomb tests and the seminal agricultural documentary The Plow That Broke The Plains, all soundtracked by Dan’s glorious song I’ve Got Heaven At My Door.
It’s not the most complex thing in the world, but then again, I have very little time right now—I’ll write more about that in my next post—I threw this together over a couple of lunchtimes at college. For now, here’s the video, and I’ll get back to my novel.
With a first draft of The Hollows finished and sent away, I’ve emerged, blinking, into the light, with pasty skin and mild RSI. I’m still hungry to keep working while I have these little windows, though, so I’ve tweaked and typeset all the stories in Dare, and sent it to the printers; I’ve started thinking about some new flash stories for my guest spot at Verbalise in October; and I’m catching up on some long overdue blog posts, including this one.
Raise Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven by Godspeed You Black Emperor
Just Beyond The River by James Yorkston
…and everything by Bat For Lashes.
In combination, they did what I needed them to do; for me, music for writing needs to hit several things at once. It must be engaging, immersive, transporting; but also neutral enough to let me tune out and play it in the background, and not get too involved. For this reason, I tend to go for records with minimal vocals; or, at least, records (like the James Yorkston and the Bat For Lashes) where the vocal is tonally consistent, drifting, utterly woven into the fabric of the music.
On starting The Hollows, I developed a new soundtrack. Some of the same culprits are there, but with different albums; listening to my Visitors soundtrack takes me back into The Visitors, and I needed to be somewhere very new for The Hollows, which is a more fantastical, more magical place. And I say ‘evolved’ quite deliberately; albums have dropped in and dropped out as the manuscript developed. Ys by Joanna Newsom was a big part of last year’s stumbles, but she gradually shifted down the running order as the story unfolded. Instead, Jonathan Eng’s wonderful soundtrack from the computer game Sailor’s Dream moved in to take her place (thanks in no small part to the wonderful vocals by Stephanie Hladowski). Another video game soundtrack has proven to be extremely good music for writing: Thomas Was Alone is an utterly beautiful game in and of itself, but the score by David Housden stands alone.
The most recent addition is I Want To See Pulaski At Night by violinist Andrew Bird. My friend and colleague Dom introduced me to this record while we were in the depths of a marking slump, and it parachuted into my writing soundtrack next day. Mostly instrumental, Pulaski takes its title from this glorious centrepiece:
The running order is important (to me, anyway – it’s totally cool if you don’t care). Andrew Bird is first on the list, as I Want To See Pulaski At Night is both sleepy and sparky, making for exactly the right way to start the day. Then comes Thomas Was Alone, which takes me somewhere deeper, calmer, more concentrated:
From Thomas Was Alone, British Sea Power take it up a notch with the drive, shift and transporting tumble of their film soundtrack From The Sea To The Land Beyond. Thanks to pal Kirstin Innes, Mon and I were lucky enough to witness them play this live at the Glasgow Film Festival earlier this year. Their performance was magisterial. I’ve now seen the film half-a-dozen times, and it’s a masterpiece: a social history of Britain told through our relationship with the sea, drawing together a century of archive footage from the British Film Institute. Watch it. Watch it again. Tell everyone.
Next up is Sailor’s Dream. By this time I’m ready for something less immersive, and the vocal interludes of the days of the week (this makes sense if you’ve played the game) saturate my head with little magics, thresholds, otherworlds.
Next comes Balmorhea. I discovered this post-rock band last year when friend Jon kindly gave me his old iPod, and I became addicted in days to their sweeping arrangements. There’s a timelessness to Balmorhea’s music that I find completely immersive. They sustain this over several records with different measures of minimalism, but it all works for me. After Sailor’s Dream I go into their album Constellations, but from this point they recur every other album, working up to Live At Sint-Elisabethkirk, which is perhaps the best £5 you’ll spend today, because this:
After Constellations, Mogwai strike back with Rock Action, the follow up to Come On Die Young. Here’s why it’s one of my favourites of their many awesome albums:
Then comes phase two of the mighty British Sea Power, with their short and astonishingly sweet soundtrack Happiness, then Balmorhea again, then Rachels and Remember Remember. I seldom make it all the way to the end, though. After Happiness, I tend to start the playlist over. It’s almost nine hours long, which is most of a working day for me.
Every time I think I won’t find any more music that’s right for me, something always comes along. Dom introduced me to Andrew Bird, and Jon to Balmorhea. I do wonder, looking ahead to next novels, how the soundtrack will change.
Last night, more or less six months since I started, I gave the first draft of The Hollows to Mon to read, and I sent it to my amazing agent Sue. Mon and I took Dora out to tea, then she started reading. Sixty pages in and she hasn’t ditched it in a flurry of disgust, so there’s hope for me yet.
I thought it would easier to let go of the second book, but I was wrong. I thought I’d feel more confident, more certain. I don’t. If anything, the stakes feel higher. What if I’ve moved backwards? What if no one likes the story, the characters, the writing? I’m happier with this story than anything I’ve done before, but what if I’m wrong? What if I’ve got worse?
I didn’t entirely understand the proverb about not seeing the wood for the trees until I started writing novels. When I’m so immersed in my work, in my worlds, it’s easy to lose perspective on whether it’s actually any good. My own, personal instinct for story is stronger than ever, and getting stronger still; but there’s nothing on Earth to say it’s actually right. There’s no way to triangulate what happens in my heart with the world around me. In that sense, every novel – and I’ve written three of them now – is a first novel, feeling in the dark for cellar steps. Maybe it gets better in time. Maybe it gets easier. But I can’t imagine what that feels like, how that would be. It’s strange to be so terrified of the only thing I want to do. As Mon was reading, I glanced across at her every thirty seconds, every minute: which page is she on? What happens there? Oh lord, is that all right? Does that dialogue work? Do I believe it? Will she believe it?
Dora woke at 4.30am this morning, claiming it was too dark to sleep. I put her back to bed, where she fell asleep in moments, but then I couldn’t because, ahahaha, it was too light. So I’ve been up for hours, listening to songs I love, making a Mogwai mixtape for a friend, catching up on email, gazing out the window and thinking, thinking. There’s no light quite like the glow of dawn. The world is luminous, and then it turns to gold, and it sleeps on into the rising sun. No one knows but foxes, cats and milkmen. I imagined what it must look like on the river Kent between Burneside and Staveley right now, right now, with no one there at all, only the swallows and the martins flitting on the river, vapours coiling on the water, sun sliding sideways through the trees, a hidden valley with half the world in shadow and half the world on fire.
I know what my next four or five novels look like, and I have fourteen flash stories to write. Today, though, I’m taking my daughter swimming. She’ll be Peso the penguin and I’ll be Kwazi the cat, and we’ll look for treasure and help sick sea creatures along the way. Dora loves swimming, but she’s scared of having water on her head – she won’t jump in, and hates being splashed. But today, for the first time, we’re going to see how things go with goggles. Maybe – with some support, some courage, and some curiosity, today will be the day she looks underwater, the day she discovers there are other worlds, other places, other ways to see. Letting go is hard. Feeling for that cellar step is hard. Maybe all of us need to be brave.
I woke early and spent a few minutes listening to the sparrows, then made a cup of tea and settled down to work. With a first draft complete, The Hollows is off to one side, ready for a redraft when it has finished steeping. At something of a loss for what to do, I worked on an older piece, making some overdue tweaks. It was slow, frustrating progress and I was relieved, an hour or so later, when Dora thundered on the ceiling overhead. She clattered down the stairs and burst into the room, as she does every morning, and threw herself at me.
‘Morning sweetheart. It’s good to see you. Did you have any dreams?’
‘Good dreams or bad dreams?’
‘It was a bad dream.’
‘Oh no. What happened?’
Her face fuzzled as she remembered it.
‘There was a big swamp. And a little girl went into the swamp, and she stole a ribbon.’
I frowned. This reminded me of something. Dora continued:
‘And the little girl was chased in the swamp by a very bad man.’
I realised what she was saying. I knew what she would say next. My skin began to tingle, crawling upwards from my ankles.
‘And the bad man took the ribbon, and he took the little girl as well, and then there was nothing but the swamp.’
My four-year-old daughter had just relayed to me the plot of the first chapter of The Hollows. Which would be fine, except for the fact that no one else knows it but me. I haven’t shared it with anyone. No one has read it, and I’m the only person in the entire world who knows what happens.
I’ve been ransacking my brain to work out what happened. I’ve never told Dora any part of the story, and she can’t read for herself. Mon hasn’t seen it yet, so she couldn’t have told Dora either, and no one else has access to my computer. I have no idea how she knew this part of the plot. There must be a rational explanation, but I can’t work it out.
There’s just no way. There is simply no way it could have happened.
And yet it did.
A woman always, always tripped on the bottom tread of the stairs in her new house, her muscle memory convinced and compelled to make an extra step for a stair that wasn’t there. This happened for years. When the house was renovated, and the floor was lifted, the builders discovered an extra step at the bottom of the flight. People wake from comas speaking Latin, or dream across a continent of their brother drowning at sea, and wake to bad news on the phone.
I don’t believe in ghosts as sentient beings. I don’t believe in the supernatural as an anthropology. But human imagination is an engine of staggering power, and we are utterly corruptible. The weight of human history drops away below our feet, and we walk in the shadows and the hollows of what has gone before. Like crossing a clay field after the rain, it sticks to our feet in clumps.
Holloways are ancient droving roads. The weight of carts and cattle through the roads caused the ground below to erode and sink, even as the verges to the side of the road stayed the same. Protected from the passing herds, trees grew on the verges and knotted overhead, while below, the path continued to erode, ground away by centuries of cattle, and so, over time, the roads became tunnels: hollow ways.
That’s where we are, all of us. The trees have been cut and the verges levelled and all of it coated with tarmac, but we still walk along the holloways. A sideways glimpse is all it takes to see the fleeting, teeming strata of the lives we’ve lived before.
After mugging my way through a wonderful intimate spoken word night at Sprint Mill last year as part of the C-Art Open Studios, I’m delighted to say that I’ve thrown myself into running a follow-up event.
Solstice Songs will be held on midsummer’s eve in the amazing 18th century Sprint Mill near Burneside in Cumbria. I’ve gathered the estimable talents of some wonderful writers throughout the northwest and Scotland to read at the event, and you – yes, you – should come along and hear them do their thing.
I’m honoured to share the line-up. In alphabetical order, we have:
Edward Acland The owner and curator of Sprint Mill shares his startling, disarming and heartfelt reflections on people and place, distilling a lifetime of collection into magical focus.
BigCharlie Poet As well as hosting and running Lancaster’s Working Title night, BigCharlie Poet is a ferocious slam poet with word-perfect visions of life and love, all skewed nicely through a balance of wit and wonder.
Alan Bissett Fresh from having a street in his native Falkirk named after him, we’re thrilled to be joined by the multi-award-winning playwright, actor, poet, novelist, essayist and consummate performer Alan Bissett. I don’t know what he’s going to read, but whatever it is will be good.
Luke Brown Writing without exaggeration, I consider Luke to be a true heir to Roald Dahl. He is a superb storyteller of the macabre, bringing a host of weird and wonderful alter-egos to life in his darkly humorous tales.
Joy France The inexhaustible slam-winning poetry powerhouse that is Joy France joins us from Wigan with her witty and reflective take on life – life in the world, in the north, in the past, in the present, and in the weirder corners of her own wonderful mind. Here she is performing one of her signature poems, Hey Mrs B:
Harriet Fraser A multi-media poet of landscape, dreamscape, place and unusual word projects of all sorts: this summer she is poet in residence for a hay meadow, and one of Harriet’s most recent canvases was a herd of sheep.
Jonathan Humble Following the launch of his excellent debut collection My Camel’s Name Is Brian, the Tripe Poet Laureate™ brings his brilliant, laugh aloud ballads of tea cosies, leeks and rhubarb.
Kirstin Innes The multi-award-winning journalist, essayist, playwright and novelist brings her astonishing new novel Fishnet to Sprint Mill. Meticulously researched and brilliantly observed, Fishnet ducks sensationalism to explore the sex industry through the prism of a missing person.
Ann Wilson Fresh from the launch of her second collection Straight Bananas, the former South Lakes Poet Laureate and driving force behind spoken word night Verbalise delivers her unique blend of stand-up, song and rhyme.
…and me. Just me. (Sorry.)
All this wondrous wordsmithery comes for FREE, so bring a bottle, bring yourself, and shake your rump. Let’s get pagan.
Solstice Songs | Sunday 21st June | 7pm | Sprint Mill near Burneside, Cumbria
After almost two years of work, I have finished making a film about hay meadows. This has been a huge project for me, both professionally and personally, and it has changed the way I think about the world.
When I come to the end of a project, I usually have a stronger understanding of the subject than when I began. In this case, while my knowledge has increased hugely, I’m left with far more questions than answers. In 2013, I was commissioned by Cumbria Wildlife Trust to make a ‘democratic’ film about meadows, tasked with balancing opposing points of view to create a space for discussion and reflection. Within that brief, I started the project with a sense that hay meadows were something like a set of scales, and if only the interested parties could work together better, then an equilibrium could be achieved between food production on one side, and sustainability on the other. I no longer think that’s possible; and I now think of meadows more like a jigsaw, being made by many people all at once, only everyone has a different picture on the box. Every time you place one piece down, another changes. They are mosaics of demand, shifting with the seasons. All the fundamental issues facing agriculture in Britain can be measured in hay meadows: growth, demand, food, want, waste, profit, biodiversity, sustainability, heritage, science, tradition.
Over the course of the shoot, I talked with school kids, beekeepers, walkers, landowners, farmers, conservationists and a 97-year-old farm labourer who worked in meadows between the World Wars. I left a camera in a barn outside Kirkby Stephen to record a five-month time lapse of a meadow in growth. I learned more about slow motion video, and about macro photography. After ten months of searching, I tracked down an astonishing piece of archive film footage from the 1930s. Halfway through it, there’s a shot of an old tramp simply standing in a lane, staring at the camera. It’s haunted me ever since:
All this was happening in the build-up to the Scottish referendum. Through the process of making this film, the two became inextricably linked around my realisation that if we are to survive – as a species – then it’s by being smaller. We need to reduce. To be less. Less ambitious, less hungry, less wasteful, less oblivious. We will survive in communities and cooperatives, not corporations. This was one of the many reasons I supported a Yes vote in Scotland. For me, the referendum went a long, long way beyond some petty nationalism. It would have swung a sword through the Gordian Knot of a corrupt, venal Britain. I cried my eyes out on the morning it was No. Being small and being nationalistic are not the same thing. We’ll be better as bees in hives, sharing the meadows. (This analogy does not, for me, extend as far as having Queens.)
I found out this morning that To The End We Will Go has been selected for the CMAC Rural Film Festival. This will be my first ever festival screening, and I’m really pleased. It’s quietly astonishing to think about people on the other side of the world watching my wee film and spending a few moments in Cumbria. The last shot is a drift of swifts exploding past my window against a purple dusk. I love the thought that an audience in Minnesota will look out of the same window and see African swifts in a Cumbrian sky.