We’re in Belfast to film Gearóid MacLochlainn and others. Gearóid is going to do lots of things but first of all he’s going to do his version of the Blackbird poem. He’ll do it on Cave Hill. He’ll do it in the early morning. You can hear The Production speaking, can’t you? You make a list, you read out the list and you stand there waiting for the parade to start.
Of course, there are some things The Production hasn’t done, such as finding out where Cave Hill is exactly and how to get to the bit of it we need. I did that, which means I have to drive them up the back way l and position them there to wait while I go back and get Gearóid. Ioanna and I do this – it’s an Anderson task, getting the poets to be not only present but as pleasant as they can be, able to speak and willing to do what we want them to do.
Gearóid is not exactly awake or asleep. He’s getting into the day gradually. He’s in no hurry, offers us tea. The tea moment can be decisive. Often you are being offered a choice: take the tea and you accept an entire time-wasting agenda, which may take all day, cost time, money and many frayed nerves; refuse and you become the schoolmaster, the nervous, pernickety time-keeper, the enemy.
The answer is: take the tea; always take the tea. Having joined in the tea, you can do things, you have some room to manoeuvre; without it you can do nothing but pace up and down and look anxious and incompetently managerial.
We take the tea. Cassandra phones. We tell her lies, some pretty good ones I think. Ioanna and I are the only ones who know where we are, where Gearóid is and who have any idea of the distances between us and Cassandra. Gearóid has things to say which, of course, have nothing to do with the film. Of course: in a few minutes he’s going to be in front of a camera and crew. Why would he want to talk about it? And how could he? We talk.
Cassandra phones again. It’s only about two minutes after the first call. I extend the lies, add some picturesqueness, local colour, convincing detail on the meandering nature of all Irish journeys. Cassandra doesn’t believe a word. I don’t blame the lies for this; nothing wrong with them; I’ve used them before; lies don’t wear out, do they?
I blame Cassandra. It’s her business to believe – or to pretend to believe – this kind of lie. If she did, then we could talk each other into making everything work in a friendly way. She wants us to throw Gearóid out of bed, speak to him briskly and humourlessly and, if possible, hustle him off to a windy hilltop to do a tricky wee number on a medieval lyric without drinking his tea. Nothing doing.
Cassandra phones again. I don’t remember what we do next, something that makes us sound more relaxed than we feel and much less hurried. Gearóid realises what’s going on and joins the anti-Production team. Which was the idea all along. We all ignore the tea, get ourselves out quite quickly and efficiently and roar our way up the hill, in at the secret gate and on to the precipice. Gearóid gives the frozen-faced team a grin, takes out his mouth organ and blows a few chords. We’re off.
Gearóid is brilliant. He’s arranged a sort of rap for the Blackbird poem, with interludes of mouthorgan music. He does it as well as it can be done and as often as they ask him, which is very. One reason for the very is that the chosen rock in front of which Gearóid is doing his stuff has no gorse either on it or anywhere near. Heaney’s version of the poem translates one of the poem’s most magnetic words as whin, otherwise gorse or furze. In my opinion, legions of Irish poets have been glamorised into the impossible tussle with doing this poem into English by the one word: glanbuidhe.
The poem is in old Irish; it’s about as economical as words can be; with most of the words the best you can do is to sense a modern Irish equivalent and often you sense it dimly. Then you come to glanbuidge and you glow with gratitude and recogniton: maybe you do, after all, know some Irish. Glan is clean, here probably means brilliant; buidge is buí in Modern Irish – yellow. And the two together in glanbuidhe punches you right in the epiphanies. Whingold, Heaney has it.
Obviously, Murray has come here for whin. There is no gorse. Ioanna gets sent off to get some furze. She tears some from the misty mountaintop; she presents it to The Production. The Production, now that it has what it wants, doesn’t know what to do with it. But there’s GaffaTape. There always is. So all you have to do – on account of the miraculous powers inherent in Gaffa – is to Gaffa the furze to the rock – on the other side, mind, so you don’t give the Gaffa secret away to the rest of the waiting world.
This is done. Unfortunately, the Gaffa world is an indoor world. High winds do not blow there, nor any winds blow at all at all. The Gaffa doesn’t work. The wind seems to be making a special effort to show to one and all that furze – no matter what you call it – does not usually grow in wee carefully-presented bouquets from the backs of Cave Hill rocks.
So no Gaffa. So they try a production assistant - we have two with us from a Belfast college; they’ve come to learn. The male one is picked on. He has to crouch invisibly behind the rock, holding the furze, allowing it to wave convincingly in the wind but without allowing even the suspicion of his supporting hand to appear.
He does this. He does his best, his very very best. He does better than you or I could ever have done in his place. But take a look at this bit of the film and try not to be distracted by that bloody bit of furze.
It is possible however; and I’m sorry if I have in any way ruined Gearóid’s perfect performance for you or for anybody else. I think the result is perfect. I asked Gearóid to perform the old poem. I realised that finding out how to pronounce the Old Irish would be difficult and it was. Gearóid did the homework, established a performance. So far so good, all within the terms of the agreement. But Gearóid went the extra mile – and it’s a very long mile indeed – and arrived on Cave Hill, tea or no tea, with an original, wonderful and completely appropriate version which he performed magnificently for us.
We wanted Belfast, the whole history, which you can sweep over from Cave Hill – the medieval poem, the Hill and all it suggests (Henry Joy McCracken, Stewart Parker and much more), the city, the shipyards and the whole kaboodle. Gearóid did all that, along with the way Murray did the pictures. Maybe even the wavering furze had a part to play.
Anyway, we did it. I suspect it’s a typical film day. The right result has been gotten. Because everybody went about getting it in their own way, everybody thinks the result was gotten because of their own way being followed. So off we all go to the next task convinced that the thing to do is continue doing things our own way and, when necessary, ingore or frustrate all other methods. There still isn’t a Film Making for Dummies.
So we came down the mountain and entered the soothing, comfortingly bracing atmosphere of the Falls Road Culthurlann. Gearóid and his two children walk up and down, he performing his Teanga Eile whose first line – Is Mise an Teanga – gave our film its name. It takes ages. But it’s well worth it.
Four little girls – all of them about to not be little girls any longer – start harassing Cassandra. They have questions, many of them rhetorical, or sounding like it in their a West Belfast accent. They want to be in the film. They don’t know what it’s about; don’t care what it’s about. If it’s a film, they want to be in it. We get them round a table and they say, in a slightly bewildered way, Is Mise an Teanga. Excellent. And a very fine piece of footwork by Cassandra.
We also have Aodán MacPoilin, Kevin Macneill reading The Three Pigs, Gearóid doing his sad Aistriucáin poem, all filmed that afternoon.
We move outside on to the Falls Road to mop up some visuals. There’s a pub called Oisín’s, murals, another pub with a Manchester United mural – Mat Busby and George Best. We no longer feel frightened on the Fallls but when you are surrounded by some many vociferous messages you do feel a certain pressure.
I’m standing there doing something I’ve been told to do and looking, I think, official but idle. A car stops and a tough guy whips himself around the side with what looks like paramilitary agility, opens the boot, draws something out in one hand, thrusts it at me and growls something. I don’t have to try to look a bit vague. I am feeling lost. After a minute I realise he object in his hand is a book - Óglach na hÉireann – Irish title, English text, a book of martyrs, IRA people who died in The Troubles. Ten Pounds. I pay up immediately. Wouldn’t you?
We are - unfortunately, as they say so sadly and so convincingly in West Cork - booked into one of Belfast’s most vicious pieces of hospitality. I forget which one. They are legion. They have young women in uniform who really should be doing something more interesting and young men who wear their unsuitable, unfitting and absurdist uniforms with the air of Norn Irish Good Soldier Sjeiks – they know this time will pass and sure, even if it doesn’t, absurdity is its own reward, isn’t it?
Ioanna and I, being fed up with the kinds of restaurants people seem to go to on location but at no other time, stayed in our rooms, watched irrelevant television and slept. We knew that tomorrow would come and that the things that The Production were counting on would not necessarily happen – not without encouragement they wouldn’t.
We were awake next morning at a reasonable time. We phone Rita – wake her up, I think. And find, and were not surprised to find, that Rita had sort of remembered, but mostly forgotten, that today was the day to film her for the Leabhar Mór. Not that Rita minds forgetting. Not at all. Rita can make up any day at all, just like that, on the spur of any moment.
Ioanna and I leave the film people – now abed – and go down the road to Rita in San Souci and do the whole coffee thing together. Rita has been up the whole night before and day before at a family wedding and has come back strangely altered. All the wedding women applied something to themselves – something tanned. So Rita this morning looks locally bronzed – she shows us her wrists, which are very bottle-bronze. It’s interesting, specially on a redhead, a Duffy and on a serious, modren, up-to-date and cutting-edge artist woman who is utterly unworried about being any of these things, or none of them.
Rita rouses her men, or some of them and John Kelly – the mighty man of the dome head on which the hair has never set, Rita’s husband and frequent subject - sets about bolting some Rita paintings to the rooof of the Ritamobile.
Anyway, Ioanna and I go back to the hotel to accept the congratulations of the company. Nothing. Of course not. The company are sleep-walking their way through some challenging breakfasts and obviously trust that the world they have come to film will be waiting just where it was when last they looked – waiting for the cameras to open up their reluctant eyes and record.
Off we go. We arrive at Armagh jail and get a very brisk talking-to about safety by the security man, who then does a very very brisk exit and leaves us to be as safe as we like, or not.
Armagh Jail is as near to the centre of town as I have ever seen a jail. Dublin has jails in the city, but in the poor parts – Kilmainham and Mountjoy. Portlaoise has a jail and used to look like a jail town and nothing else. But Armagh is extraordinary. There is the old town – the cathedral on the hill, the curving old streets in their ancient shapes and the lesser streets wandering off hopefully for a while. And then, just outside what I take to be the medieval limit, there is a mad plantation pustule of colonial finger-wagging architectural malice. This is a great big lawn of a grassgreen rectangle, very municipal, railings and all, pathways there to emphasise the geometry, not to invite the walker, and infested with war statues and war memorials. It’s like Belfast City Hall, except that there’s more green – you can’t, apparently, do anything about the greeness of grass. And around this municipal monument to colonial geometry stand the usual stone reminders that God is not only a barrister, but an English one. There’s the courthouse at one end. Along one side is the headquarters of the Education and Library Board and the Museum. At the other end - and massively larger, bleaker and blinder than any neighbour it can ever have had - squats the Jail.
It is a substantial, sightly structure, with large windows, and, in fact, is very much more like a benevolent than a penal structure . . . The cells are maintained in perfect ocndition, the most sensitive nose failing to perceive the faintest trace of that odor expected to be found associated with bolts and bars. During the first month of confinement the prisoner has an opportunity to become acquainted with the ‘plank bed’ – a bare board. If he takes to it philosophically, he can earn two good conduct marks a day, and rise triumphantl from the ‘plank’ to a matress in thirty days.
The Book of CountyArmagh by George Henry Bassett, 1888
So, in one central space all the ministries of control are massively arrayed side by side, more or less from the cradle to the grave; or, for Paddies, from the cradle to the jail.
Seamus grew up in the streets neighbouring the jail and used to hear the shouts and the screams from inside. You can still read the essentials of 19th century regime on the place. The wall is marked where the gallows used to be, the governor’s quarters are there inside the prison building – a complete family appartment on the same side as the gallows, not far from it but blind to it. There’s a very green space that might be a garden or might be a graveyard and is probably both. The front is all front, all statement – railings, bars, small windows, heavy stone, iron doors. Round the side there’s a street with houses only a few feet away. Many footballs must have been kicked over the prison wall.
The only invisibility is the new wing where the women political prisoners were kept in what must have been a prefab. It’s gone and the ground on which its traces must have been visible is covered with gravel. The women have left a lighter mark than the gallows.
We settle down. It’s going to be a visual day which means, from my point of view, a slow day. We carry Rita’s paintings into and around the prison and wait.
The Production is worried about Lunch. And The Game. Ireland is playing Spain in the knock-out stages of the World Cup and if lunch is essential, so is lunch with The Game. Ioanna and I go off into the town and investigate bars on various sides of The Divide. We start off trying to work out which side of The Divide a place is on – Protestant or Catholic. Then we wake up and realise that it doesn’t matter which side; we don’t want either side, we want a place where The Divide is not on the agenda.
We go, almost, into several Divide places. You don’t have to go far in. After a little while you can smell a shrine before you see it. The Prod ones are more visual – Glasgow Rangers blue all over, saltires sometimes as well as the obvious King Billy-triumphal arches-white horses-1690 stuff. The Paddy ones don’t seem to be as green as the Prod ones are blue – Glasgow upside-down.
Cassandra has a celebratory attitude to football, despite coming from Schotts, despite living in Glasgow, despite living with a Birmingham City supporter, despite being a grown-up. So she’s in some Northern Ireland office being friendly with this Northern Ireland women, who is being friendly back. It’s going so well. So Cassandra says how it’s great about the Republic’s team doing so well in the World Cup. Isn’t it.
Says the Northern Ireland woman. The conversation is over.
Anyway, we sniffed the air and headed towards the middle classes. We found the Charlemont Arms Hotel, which still has an entrance for coaches (TURKISH AND OTHER BATHS. Carriages, Broughams, Waggonettes, Phaetons &c., always ready – Bassett in 1880). Inside there was a hush, a lot of green baize, a barman who hadn’t really woken up yet and a small buzz of women cleaning the place up quietly. Ideal. Ioanna and I had been given the first lunch time – because you wouldn’t want to leave film equipment unattended, though locked up behind four-foot stone walls, in a jail, on a Sunday in Northern Ireland. Would you?
The match was on but everybody was watching out of the corner of their eye or maybe nobody was watching. So we watched without really looking, trying to watch the other people at the same time because if they were watching, then we could watch too and if they were watching, then they would be at least non-hostile to the idea of supporting the Republic’s soccer team, from whatever position.
It was a cagy match, a lot of backwards and forwards, nothing decisive and we had to wait quite a while. Then suddenly something happened on the pitch – I can’t remember what, I wasn’t really looking – and the whole bar jumped. Fine. They were watching and it would be allright to use a Dublin accent. Whether Seamus would be able to use his Armagh accent in Armagh was, of course, a complexity too far for the two of us. So we go back to the prison at half-time, sit in the car in the rain and wait.
It was a dramatic day. The whole Armagh thing was Rita’s idea and, as usual with her, much more than an idea; it was a viable production waiting to happen. She had worked with one of the prison doors for a theatre piece and knew who to talk to and how. I was sent to see the main safety man, was given a list of useful people and was guided lest I say the right thing to somebody.
We couldn’t work out how to describe what we wanted to do. If we inflated the importance of the film would that frighten them or impress them? – ‘them’ being the authorities in control of the prison. Would they like publicity or hate it? Would they care who we were?
We decided – ‘deciding’ meaning the words that happened to come out of my mouth while talking to this one or that one – to be vague. We had a Duffy and an Anderson - an apparent Catholic, an apparent Protestant – Rita is a woman artist and couldn’t be all that threatening, could it? The film was Scottish, mostly; it was a wee arts film if it was anything at all. We’d be in and out before they even knew we were there.
There were all sorts of rumours about the jail and what would and could happen to it. It was going to be the the headquarters of a North-South body – if and when the North and the South could have bodies. Sainsbury’s wanted it for a supermarket. It would be a museum. It would be ‘restored’ for some use of other. Eventually it appeared on a BBC programme called ‘Restoration’ where you choose among several projects and vote. There was no sign of anybody voting for Armagh Jail. It’s still there. But there are rumours.
Rita Duffy told us so many different things about what she was doing and thinking that we arrived at Armagh without any definite idea what would happen or how it would all fit in, except that something definitely would happen and that somehow or other it would fit. She made no David Quinn storyboard but when we arrived she walked the territory with something well above confidence. Pictures were placed in surprising but apparently inevitable positions, the whole place opened up to her and scenarios laid themselves out before her. ‘Her walk was the walk of a Queen’, Yeats used to say. Have you ever seen any actual queen walking like a Queen? Well watch Rita Duffy when and if you get the chance.
She brought her series of portraits of the women she met in a Belfast womens’ refuge, victims of the violence of paramilitaries, men who were often heroes to their own communities. The portraits have been around and seem to be growing older and wiser – and sometimes younger and unwiser - like the pictures in Christopher Whyte’s poem. They’ve been in Stormont, in the Quaker’s Cottage where the refuge is. Rita doesn’t just exhibit; she visits, ready or not.
We go round the prison halls and see the various kinds of cells – ‘family size’ ones where war detainees were kept, small individual ones separated by massive walls and colossal iron doors. We put a portrait in each cell, Pee Wee gets us to slam doors, Seamus visits each cell and its portrait inmate. It feels very peculiar; we don’t know whether we feel like prisoners, gaolers or like ghosts to whom all the history is rising up in nightmares.
Now and again on this film journey we remembered History Painting. What the hell was it? I think it’s the kind of thing you recognise because you were told to recognise it – McLise’s Marriage of Strongbw and Aoife glooming away in the half-light of the National Gallery in Dublin, the kind of picture we have taught ourselves to think all sorts of fascinating thoughts about, but about which you seldom ask the most important question: why bother?
You can find some pretty good reasons for bothering; and the thoughts you get when you bother can be very fine indeed. I remember being in the circular entrance-space of Birmingham Arts Gallery. All around the walls they have very fine 19th century paintings with some sort of historical excuse; and some are wonderful. There’s one I can still remember of the original audience for Antigone seen from the stage. It’s full of intensity and all sorts of ideas of intensity and notions of how an Ancient Greek looked at the theatre. But none of this interesting stuff is about History at all. It’s about History as an excuse for doing certain things and it tells us very little I think. I would much rather see a picture of a 19th century Birmingham staring down the barrell of Antigone, or of East Lynne (‘Dead, and never called me Mother’ – my grandmother used to go) or of any play that interested them.
Degas did it and I often look at his picture of Desiré Dihau playing the basoon in a Paris ballet orchestra, dancers on stage overhead, audience to his left, his basoon in hand and him doing the usual bassoonist things to it. It looks like every pit band and also like only that particular one. The picture’s atmosphere seems to include all that is of 19th century Paris and all that is universal.
Maybe the only History you can paint is the look of what is all around you, an implicit history. I think this is what Duffy is doing. She knows, of course, much more than the rest of us non-residents can ever know about Northern Ireland and what’s been going on. But she paints no explicit stories. There are stories, but you don’t have to know them: the picture carries the whole background music of its time and place. In the way that Rembrandt’s burghers tell you all you need, or want, to know about the Night Watch, Rita’s pictures have whole worlds enclosed within and are not there just for the looking.
Down to one of the hallway-junction places, into which the great halls feed. Rita has furnished this with some of her uniform pictures. The first Rita pictures I remember seeing were paintings of clothes: a painted pullover, empty, standing there, painted in position forever; a bra with its straps outstretched; a sofa whose hairs had grown into something like brambles. Standing in front of these would put manners on anyone – even in The Ulster Museum, where some of them are.
Lately she’s been painting RUC uniforms – jackets draped over very ordinary chairs, looking very relaxed and human, more human than people usually look wearing them. Outside on the back prison gate is Rita’s painting of Mairéad Farrell’s jacket, the jacket she was wearing when she was shot in Gibraltar by the SAS; you need no information, no history, to sense the entirety of The Troubles in there. In The North, The Troubles are part of life. In Rita’s pictures, everything shows it.
She takes us down to the laundry, in the basement, the most filmically pretty sight in the place. The paint has been peeling off the walls in the most co-ordinated and graceful way for years and years and is now poised, acrobatically pirouetting off the wall in symetrical fragments, their colours beautifully fading, very ladylike the whole thing if it weren’t for the odd mangle here and there to remind you of the heavy, forced work that this was built for.
Rita has her Macha paintings here – a whole story you would need a whole other film to tell. Macha cursed the Men of Ulster, a curse to be felt in their time of greatest need. People still refer to it. I was there months before the filming and the radio station was discussing the recent failures of the Armagh GAA football team in terms of The Curse. They were chuckling over it – the way you do when your knees are knocking and you’re not quite sure what kind of a world you are really living in – so you are!
Alasdair á Gleanna Garadh
Síleas na Ceapaich
Bu tu ‘n t-iubhar gach coillidh,
Bu tu ‘n darach daingeann láidir,
Bu tu ‘n cuileann ‘s bu tu ‘n draigheann,
Bu tu ‘n t-abhall molach bláthmhor;
Cha robh do dháimh ris a’ chritheann
No do dhligheadh ris an fheárna;
Cha robh bheag ionnad den leabhan;
Bu tu leannan nam ban álainn.
You were the yew above every forest, you were the strong steadfast oak, you were the holly and the blackthorn, you were the apple tree, rough-barked and many-flowered. You had no kinship with the aspen, owned no bonds to the alder; here was none of the lime-tree in you; you were the darling of beautiful women.Síleas na Ceapaich, Alasdair á Gleanna Garradh, No 25 in the Great Book. Translation by Colm Ó Baoill
Anyway, the one thing we know we have to get from Rita is something about her GB piece, based on the Lament for Glengarry by Síleas na Ceapaich. So Rita explains the freedom she felt hopping in Gaelic across to Scotland and dealing with a poem that she could treat normally, without the complications an equivalent Irish poem would carry with it and she mentions Donal Óg – David Quinn’s poem, the mention of which is an identity marker in Belfast.
We shot enough for a whole Rita Duffy film and she used the material herself again - re-edited by Cassandra - for one of her other projects. For us, she made the whole silent place speak, packed up the pictures and took off for Belfast, leaving us with as many directions as she thought we needed to get us to Donegal in the dark of a Sunday night: she pointed dramatically North Westwards and she left us. It didn’t feel nearly enough.
It was late when we left. If you leave late, you should be heading for somewhere you can’t miss. You should not be heading for Donegal. It’s a very big county, but you can miss it, can get into it the wrong way, lose your bearings entirely. Above all, you can fall for the obvious pitfalls – asking advice, asking directions, trying to remember what you were told and how and whether you can entirely believe it.
We had whirled happily round Donegal with Ian Joyce and Cathal Ó Searcaigh, whirled so much that we got used to the landmarks, felt at home, left the map in the back of the car, thought we’d remember it all next time. And we did, only we couldn’t remember exactly where what we remembered was exactly – and exactitude is what you must have in the nine o’clock dark when you’re rushing in the general direction of a hotel and you need to eat and sleep and to wash the whole day’s filming right out of your hair. We were going to Gweedore – a large, big, idea of a place. There’s a hotel there just on the bay, rough and windy but well insulated and they have a wrecked boat in the bay, just down the road from a few familiar pubs and from a completely insane garden where they’ve constructed a mighty garden mound to display a tribe of Garden Leprechaun-Gnomes. We know it well. But what’s it called? We’ve been told to go to Gweedore, but Gweedore seems more like a small county than an address; where exactly? - are we supposed to go?
Especially since Brian Friel’s Translations we’ve found a new reason to congratulate ourselves – placenames. We congratulate ourselves particularly on them being in Gaelic, as though they could be in anything other than Gaelic or Anglicised Gaelic. Friel is not responsible. In his play he has the sympathetic young Englishman purr over names that are routine and even functional but sound romantic when you don’t really understand their language.
Looking for Bun Beag I noticed that on Tory Island they have Baile Thiar and Baile Thoir – West Town and East Town. Sometimes, apparently, we just couldn’t be bothered. And, by the way, even among the islands we have two Inishbofins and two Arans - careless.
Mind you, I too have Gaelic weaknesses. If you ever get the chance, listen to a Northern Irish saying Ballymoney or Tullygalley and you will hear the old Gaelic names echoing through the Ulster English, no matter which linguistic or other persuasion the speaker belongs to or thinks they belong to.
We found the hotel – it’s in Bun Beag, which is an actual place. It looks like a concrete house of cards, built on the most exposed bit of the bay but somehow the fragile-looking walls kept out the wind that was sweeping the sand over the bay at great speed.
It’s the sort of hotel where they always seem to have a priest having dinner and holding court. There was a different one every night we were there, each one with a tableful of what looked and behaved like relations being entertained and examined. Wynn’s Hotel in Dublin (Abbey Street) used to be like this, a priest at every table, every priest from beyond – from England, from The Missions. The missions ones used to look slightly explosive. I met one eventually – Father Scott, youngish, plump, pleased with himself, running a village in Nigeria and impatient to get back there and get on with the running. The England ones looked depressed or anxious or – as with my Uncle Edward, very very satisfied. My mother refused even to go to his funeral – a very final brush off in Ireland.
Most families had interesting or peculiar relations who were mostly locked up inside the inner mechanics of the Catholic Church but would come home once a year to check up on us. We had a dominant nun and every summer Aunt Nan would swish into every home, take the best armchair and examine everybody’s family arrangements for signs of non-Catholic change. She was famous with us for surviving somewhere in Africa called ‘The White Man’s Grave’; we felt we should be famous for surviving her visits.
She even visited us in Edinburgh once bringing a gift - a bathroom deodorant in a lacy garment-like shroud. First and last visit. I think of her every time I drive through Girvan, where she eventually ran a boarding school for girls. High specification girls schools seem to favour windy places – Rhodean on the hills above Brighton, St Leonard’s in the constant gale of St Andrews, Girvan, which has a very large park on the sea in which I’ve never seen a living soul.
Bun Beag is good. The hotel rooms on the beach side have large windows and you can sit and watch nothing but the weather happening in the bay very satisfactorily. None of our locations are far away so, no matter how long things take, we always feel that rest and silence is at hand.
The wind blew hard all the time we were there. Even Cathal Ó Searcaigh’s voice, which seems purpose-built for it, has trouble getting into Pee Wee’s mikes ahead of the blast. Doing the sound on films must be intolerable; only the tolerant survive. I say this because Pee Wee (Alan) Young is as tolerant as it is possible to be. Film people think that if you can see, you can film; that if you hear anything it hardly matters exactly what it is. You doubt this? Then listen to the sound on the next feature film you see and note that the sound of doors closing, of feet footstepping - the sound of everything but the voice – is at a level of volume and definition miles higher than anything the speaking voice is ever given.
But our film is about poetry. So when you put Cathal Ó Searcaigh on the roof of his old homestead’s pighouse in a very high wind he might as well have been whistling The Soldiers Song as declaiming his Tree poem, which is what he was mostly trying to do.
Eventually justice was done by accident. The wind was not only loud, it was shaking the grass so violently, causing such a visual disturbance, that the camera had to come in close and so Murray was able to use in the tree part of the Biddy Jenkinson section as well.
George Wyllie is a star. He’s used to writing, designing, directing, starring-in and selling the tickets for his own shows. Once he has done all that, he is as hospitable as you can be. We, however, had written a script for him, one of my more dramatically coherent sections; we wanted him to do various well-known bits of his Greatest Hits and to say things about Gaelic things we knew he agreed with.
But we had forgotten to send him a script. Having a script as worked-out as ours was unusual, showing it in advance to the people in the film was, apparently, not done. The Production thought it a big risk. I couldn’t see how we could get the film we wanted without telling people exactly what we wanted from them and what the rest of the film would contain. I see no reason why a poet should agree to be in a film where the film arrives, hoovers up whatever it can make them say and then buggers off to do what they like with the footage. But it happens. So I gave scripts to everybody.
By the time we reach George Wyllie we are used to everybody having the script and knowing what’s going on. So it’s a bit of a shock when we arrive in Gorouck and George is expecting the usual stroll through an interview and we’re expecting him to sing his great Viking Song, act out a scene with Rody Gorman’s Gaelic Sound Poem and make certain remarks about language, landscape, rape and pillage.
So we have to do the talking that sending the script around has been saving us from having to do everywhere. It’s not so bad. Wyllie’s house must be the wittiest in Scotland. Almost every part of it has been Wyllied, there’s a surprise around every corner. I even forgot about George every now and again – the only things that can upstage Wyllie are the things he makes.
Anyway, everything worked in the end – Cassandra and Murray have done lots of things with George and Barbara Grigor was his best friend and producer for years. We couldn’t have done without his contribution. He takes no bullshit, not even the Gaelic sort. His Great Book poem is another of those mighty little monastic poems:
|Is acher in gáith in-nocht
fo-fúasna fairrge findfholt
ní ágor réimm mora min
dond láechraid lainn úa Lothlind
|Bitter and wild is the wind tonight
Tossing the tresses of the sea to white
On such a night as this I feel at ease
Fierce norsemen only course the quiet seas
|(Anon, c.900 AD, No 5 in The Great Book, translated by James Carney)|
But Wyllie likes the Vikings. The placenames of Lewis are almost all Viking, they too are part of us. No Vikings, no Dublin – something I am not willing to do without. We get everything done just about. I leave early. We’ve a boat to catch and I don’t intend to drive as fast as Cassandra thinks I should.
Just as well I simplified the scene. Originally I had written a Damp and Windy Night scenario that would have needed a rain machine, wind machine, also Malcolm MacLean conducting Rody Gorman singing his poem in a penguin suit against the wind and in the rain. As you all know, the sunshine in Gourock is more or less continuous, Malcolm’s conducting technique may exist but nobody knows, and Rody’s mouth music is probably theoretical. Writing scripts is great fun but you should be careful not to believe entirely in them, not always anyway.
John Murray almost escaped. I called him a poet; he didn’t approve. This is not usually the kind of thing people – even writing people – object to. Anyway, I apologised in some detail; we talked; he walked back into the film. It was very useful. Sometimes you just have to go on talking long enough until something becomes clear or some useful new idea announces itself. This is what happened with us.
I was talking on and on apologetically. I would have apologised anyway just to get him back in; but a proper apology has to have a bit of chapter and verse going on, and convincingly. Anyway, there I was groping around and it turned into a conversation about John Murray and how his writing met the world and the world his writing. We had been in John’s drawing room, watched the neighours not watching but taking notes, been told the way people who do not want to observe The Sabbath on this Sabbatarian island, nevertheless make sure they are not seen to be not observing it.
So John and I talked ourselves into picturing his North Barvas as a place where you could hardly tell his neighbours from the characters in his plays and stories. And he has a short play about the Lewis Chessmen, washed up on the Lewis shore, shipwrecked Vikings, sounding as miserable as they look, complaining that they were promised London and what do they get? So we agree that some of John’s characters will be knocking around in his garden, in his living room, all over the place.
This is a few days before we are due to film. Now we need actors, costumes of some sort. We are told of Nan S. MacLeod, mother of Mairi S. and a person who does theatre on Lewis. Nan will arrange everything they say. I talk to her and she will. She hardly seems to notice that we have only a day or two to arrange this. We also glide over the difficulty that John mentions – also in a gliding sort of way. He has no script for the Chessmen play. But he knows a man who may have. In Edinburgh. I’m told to phone a man who knows a man who may have access to a script and who may be able to leave it for me, through various other men, at the West End Hotel – Edinburgh’s Gaelic meeting place.
Of course I don’t tell anybody else what’s going on. Productions abhor uncertainty and while the script is travelling by many hands towards us Murray has to make mask-like things for the chessmen; Cassandra has to find cowboy hats, toy guns and anything else that takes her fancy and can be used by Gaelic cowboys. Fun is anticipated. Murray is very good at the mask-drawing business; anybody who has spent months dealing with the likes of me would welcome some highly important shopping involving cap guns and silly hats.
I go to the West End Hotel. Nobody knows what I’m talking about. This is because I try to be as detailed and accurate as I can. I have a list of facts: John Murray, play, Lewis Chessmen, our film, the source of the script, the arrangement. I get blank looks. I try somebody else behind the bar. Keep it simple. Did anybody leave an envelope? Of course they did. I grab it and run away, open it in the car. It’s the play, faintly printed by one of those dot-matrix printers we have almost forgotten the look of. Wonderful.
I make copies, lots of copies. How come John Murray has let his last copy of his play leave the house? Because he has faith; or because he doesn’t care? Anyway, we had the play; we had Nan and Nan had the actors, I hoped.
Off we went to Lewis. Murray and The Visuals disappeared into Stornoway Museum to film stuff – a rock with a cup mark and things about the Iolaire, the ship that went down just before it came home to Strnoway at the end of the First World War full of island sailors, most of whom drowned. Anna Frater, whose grandfather died in the shipwreck, has a poem about it in the Great Book.
Finding a snug, interesting task for The Visuals was always a relaxing thing. Then I can stroll about the adjacent streets with extra nonchalance and pretend to be making a film. It takes more than making a film to make you feel you’re making a film. The making can often feel like taking a crowd of schoolchildren on an outing with everybody involved feeling a bit like the teacher and a bit like the naughtiest child in the class.
There are limits to the degrees of nonchalance the streets of Stornoway will allow. Five minutes was about my limit. Nan turns up and we talk about what we have to do. Nan is a very fine talker, also a world-class listener and after we’ve spent a few minutes working out the proper modes and manners of a Lewis-North Dublin conversation, we’re off. Now I do feel like somebody making a film. I hope Nan feels like somebody who is making a whacking great and indispensible contribution to this film, because she is.
Next day it all happens. Nan turns up with her troupe – some mighty men who work on the ferry, a woman in Bank of Scotland uniform, some laconic, unexplained and unexplaining people; and Marisa MacDonald who from nine to five or from 7am to midnight, depending, is a vital cogg in the wheel of the Gaelic Arts Agency and is otherwise the Mae West of Gaelic film.
We filmed cowboy stuff, chess stuff and a meditative section from one of John’s non-comic plays that we never managed to fit into the final film. Malcolm turns up and filches a cowboy hat; John’s cowboy song gets sung in a lower key every time the cowboys sing it. When the boys can go no lower, we pack up and go.
It’s Saturday; the petrol stations are closing for the Sabbath though as usual there are mythical, far-away petrol stations and you might just make it in time if you had started half an hour ago. I’m the one caught without fuel. But our lighting man Steve always carries a spare can – been here before and wears a head-and-shoulders net against the midges. None of the rest of us has even considered midges. Tomorow is Steve Dilworth. Midges must be the least of our worries, mustn’t they?
They aren’t. Steve is going to coat an enormous rock in lard and set the lard afire. Cassandra has bought a large consignment of white fat stuff in half-pound packets – Cookeen.
Cookeen is lard. But it isn’t the right kind of lard. Steve knows about lard and he has standards. He does these happenings on his hills. The London Review of Books had an Iain Sinclair piece about Steve trapping air ritually, a piece that scared the hell out of me, partly because of Steve’s extreme reluctance to say anything about his work of the interview type.
We discuss the Cookeen question. It is not ideal but if it has to do, it will do. Cookeen is impure. Lard is lard, Cookeen is not lard. There are times when you would listen to a lot of detail on the lard-Cookeen question. While you are lugging boxes of the slightly wrong stuff up a steep hill on Harris while the midges get to work and the sun encourages them – this would not usually be the best time, would it?
But we are used to suffering from doing what Steve Dilworth does and anyway how vociferous can you get lugging the wrong lard up a hill in Harris etc? Not very. So it was a fairly silent day. Steve laughed a few times – great hoarse cackling, benevolent disturbances. The rest of us just went on groaning as silently as we knew how. Beca Dilworth was there taking photographs, Ivan the son-in-law was documenting it all independently.
It’s more or less all in the film. And it’s not all that often you can say that. I sometimes remember more about what happened beyond the camera’s scope. It did take a very long day, though. It was well after midnight when we reached out hotel in Tarbert, where nobody was awake. We let ourselves in, found rooms, slept - a bit - and did our best with the following morning - the ferry to Skye, the need to at least appear alive for Kevin McNeill’s pieces – on Sorley MacLean in front of The Kerang, while Italian visitors muttered rhetorical questions about why several Italian poets like Montale were not included in Kevin’s list of great poets. We moved on to some standing stones, and eventually to Portree where Kevin and his group Tomorrowscope did their stuff on McNeill’s poem, for which we had already filmed Remco de Fouw and the sea.
I spend the day in a funk. Kevin McNeill has a Haiku about two santas fighting in the streets of Stornoway and we wanted to have it, illustrated by two santas fighting. Cassandra had two Santa outfits in the car and I was scared I would have to be one of the Santas. I hate acting; I would particularly hate having to act a Santa. I was dreading the end of the day; I don’t really like Portree much anyway and, when we also had to spend ages looking for a suitable place for two Santas to fight, was feeling very highly displeased.
We found an alley. The camera was set up. The moment came. So why was I so worried? Murray and Kevin McNeill jumped into the Santa suits and got busy knocking the bejasus out of each other. Murray suffered for a week or two – these were Method Santas; they believed. I was delighted for them. Time to go home. We did.
And that was that more or less. We made a short trip to Belfast to get more Louis de Paor and Reiltín came up to do some stuff on vellum that we shot rather peculiarly and didn’t use. We scooped up some Belfast street stuff for Gearóid’s section.
The camera people, Conor and Angela, went home. Pee Wee took off to Glasgow with Cassandra. Seamus was already in some desert shooting an action film. Murray and I limped home last. He drove. We went on the motorway. He apologised but I don’t think he really meant it. The filming was over.
I see the film now and again when it gets shown on the Leabhar Mór tours. Sometimes I can’t remember exactly what’s in it and what isn’t. What I often remember best are the things we didn’t film.
Before I met Christopher Whyte I started making up my mind about him. My evidence was the poems, bits and scraps of facts of the kind you pick up about writers and assume you know but forget why or how. And his address.
I was in a map-making phase when PNE sent us a list of addresses of everybody in the Leabhar Mór. It was great, better than blue plaques on old houses, almost as good as gossip. I made a map of Dublin Bay with our poets placed at their houses. Máire Mhac an tSaoi was at one tip of the Bay and – by a vicus of recirculation – you could work your way round the whole thing to Michael Davitt in Bray and no neighbourhood would be without its Gaelic poet.
I looked at the Scots. I was less delighted, much less. Aonghas MacNeachaill was in Carlops, Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh was in an Inverness suburb. It looked as though Scotland was keeping its Gaelic poets well separated and out of harm’s way. But there was Christopher Whyte right in the heart of the Edinburgh New Town – exactly what we needed I thought. And Christopher’s Leabhar Mór artist – Helen MacAlister – was just up the road off George Street. I imagined you could look out of her flat down the hill and see Christopher’s.
So I started building a fantasy. I imagined Christopher’s flat. It would be like an arts gallery – bare boards, stark walls. His poems would be poem-pictures, literary centaurs, as he wishes in his poem on page 147. His poems would arrive in the film as though back from their adventures. Many complicated, highly sophisticated visual miracles would happen. Murray could work these out later – I trusted him far too much to have to consult him, or that’s what I told him later. I imagined that Christopher would preside elegantly over these metamorphoses, a Gaelic Ovid. I may have considered a whiff of sulphur now and again, the swishing of the odd opera cloak; at the very least a very high-class wardrobe.
The main thing was that he was writing things that, I think, no other Gaelic poet would have even thought of considering. There were poems set in Italy, poems about Renaissance paintings, poems that arose naturally from a European awareness that would not have surprised a 16th century Gaelic poet like Pieras Ferriter from Kerry or even Eibhlín Dubh from Cork but would somewhat stymie the Gaelic academies of the Scotland we now have.
Of course, anybody can write about Renaissance paintings. I’m not saying that subject matter on its own will make a poet interesting, even if many CV’s seem to suggest that it does. But Whyte was doing it well; he was central to the development of Scotland’s conversations about Sorley MacLean – a very important and very delayed process – and he has been around the place in interesting ways, exchanging blows with the passing critical parade.
I think Murray took my visual speculations seriously. At least I think he said he did and I think I believed him. However, eventually we seemed to have forgotten metamorphoses and were considering exotic venues to film for his Chinese Apples poem - a complicated magical thing, an open invitation to grasping the wrong end of several sticks and the right end of a very interesting one. We thought about Edinburgh Botanical Gardens – strange plants, apparently impossible things and all provided by Nature without the need for any filmic interventions.
In the end we filmed in Calum Colvin’s studio, a really magical place, full of visual invitations and inventions. Colvin is a photographer who invents the subjects of his photography. His studio is even more like a film set than any film set I’ve ever seen – not that I’ve seen many. He was working on his Ossian project, there were bits of operatic standing stones and the like everywhere. It was like having the whole Pattern Book of Gaelic Art laid out at your feet like Yeats’s cloths of heaven, except that Calum had made everything himself; I can’t quite see W.B. with a needle and thread. Some of the Ossian project led to Calum’s GB piece – Aogán Ó Rathaille’s Is Fada Liom Oíche Fhírfhluich.
Christopher came without his opera cloak but wearing a magnificent shirt and we used some Chinese material that Murray had filmed for something else long ago. When I see Christopher’s bit of the film I see him in the middle of the most illusory opticals in Scotland. The place was full of Calum Colvin’s left-overs. There was a lampshade with Janice Galloway’s head painted on it, an armchair with Alasdair Gray laid out all over it - these from Colvin’s group portrait of Scottish writers, a sort of response to the famous old Poets’ Pub picture by Sandy Moffat?
We never got to see if Christopher’s flat was visible from Helen’s. I insist that you should be able to. I can imagine it.
We had to produce a ninety-minute film with shorter versions for the BBC and RTE. We weren’t worried. We had what we thought we wanted on film, and well more than enough of it. Editing would not be difficult.
There were in the end, I think, twenty four hours of film. Sometimes we would say that other films, many other films, could be constructed from what we couldn’t use. It’s the sort of thing you say. After you’ve watched twenty four hours of film being shot, you’ll say almost anything.
There was something bracing about the way film people would deal with ideas, scripts, intentions. It seemed to be very definite, spades were called spades; it felt decisive, very clear. But I suppose any process that tempts you to use a word like ‘bracing’ is probably more interested in bullying than in anything else.
We filmed to a script; the script had been agreed, apparently; all we had to do was edit it. It was murder. Previous agreements turned out not to be as definite as they sounded, people felt free to have regrets about what we shot and what we didn’t.
One of the strangest things, I thought was the idea of ‘covering’ speech. We had some magnificently interesting speech and film of its speakers speaking it. I had heard of ‘talking heads’ as a thing that films don’t like but we had loads of landscape, stuff you could call poetic action and I assumed that, in the middle of all this very strong visual material, you would like, when listening to interesting words, to see the person who was speaking them, especially when the person was an important poet.
But this is not true, they said. We had to ‘cover’ interesting remarks with interesting pictures and the idea of an interesting picture does not include a person speaking. I can’t think of any more interesting picture than that of an interesting person talking. So we had trouble. Some of this was because - even if you agreed with the idea of ‘covering’ – you still have to have more or less relevant pictures to do the covering and we hadn’t.
The visual language of documentary is questioned very little – in my hearing anyway; but the words it uses are inspected like terrorist devices. Nobody seems to question what the pictures are saying. Of course I don’t mean the explicit pictures – the ones that show relevant action directly. I mean the ‘covering’ stuff, the kind of graphics that will accompany expository speech, information. These visuals will often have very strong visual messages in their design and presentation and often, I think, frustrate or even contradict what is being said.
We were not of course exposing state secrets but some of the same strange visual disfunctions were going on. We had Louis de Paor speaking about the way Scots Gaelic poets had taken on the larger politics of the 20th century – like Hiroshima, The Holocaust – and Irish poets mostly hadn’t. He was speaking a coherent, economic paragraph – interesting, relevant and well spoken. As soon as it became clear that we had a paragraph on our hands and not a wee verbal nugget, the visual panic started. The paragraph had to be covered. We ended up with a litte bit of Louis, then we swing off to a seascape, blue sky, shimmering waves. If a visual language is being used here then surely the sea and the blue sky are contradicting what Louis was saying.
Now, I think that, when you watch it, the words win. The visual digression is so irrelevant and so vacuous it doesn’t stand a chance against the power of Louis’s paragraph. Also I think we are probably used to this kind of thing by now and we let the visuals wash over us harmlessly. But it’s all wrong. Why are visual people content to use visual material meaninglessly? Can it be true that we live in a world increasingly dominated by the visual if the currency of visual discourse means apparently so little?
Really, though, I shouldn’t complain. Our film has many more talking heads than most, nearly all of them left alone to talk as they should and it is probably because of this that we had to have those daft debate-fights about ‘covering’.
The real fights were about the text of the commentary. I arrived one morning to find its pages being flung around, shouting going on, great emotional extremes being achieved, high decibel levels all round. This is not what people usually do when they don’t like something I’ve written. Usually I’m told to behave myself, make sense, cut out the subordinate clauses, use fewer words.
This time I must have done something very bad indeed. I was in what Polly Simmons’s little Benji in The Guardian used to call Big Trouble. It took a few minutes before they could tell me what I had done wrong.
I had quoted Thackeray.
I hope you don’t see anything wrong with that. I didn’t. So I had to be told that quotation is elitist and snobbish; it excludes those who don’t know who Thackeray is. It is no longer allowed. So we had to go back to the beginning. Thackeray came to Ireland and wrote a book about the visit and understood as little as he wanted to understand, which was very very little. So I wanted to use the poor old hack to stand in for the legions of travellers with pencils who have entitled themselves to undercooked opinions and to telling the rest of the world about them. I had it in for William Makepeace in a small, non-threatening, way. Then I wanted to quote Walter Benjamin.
In the end I won. Thackeray stayed – I think mostly because my intentions were destructive – but I had to deal with Benjamin without using his name.
It was an odd experience, partly because I had no idea this was the way things were. When I was young and ignorant I used to listen to people speaking about things about which I knew nothing. They would refer to other things and people about which I knew even less. This was the point. I wanted not only to learn about what they were discussing but also to learn to be comfortable within the intellectual world in which they lived.
By accident, we had less trouble with our film than we might have had. First because nobody thought we would be talking to the wider world much; we would be speaking to the interested and the Gaelic. Also because the film tries to let the poets and the poems speak for themselves, which they obviously can do very well and in ways that even film editors do not yet feel able to interfere with.
Maybe poetry is one of the few things that film still allows to be itself and that only because nobody thinks it worth their while to try to turn it into something else. Look at music on television, wriggling itself to death trying to be visually interesting – arty shots of reflecting french horns, shots of violinists from the back on the left so you get the strange angles violinists inflict on themselves, paroramic shots of what it would be like if you were sitting on the left knee of the tuba player. And the more visual it gets the less interesting it looks.
In one way perhaps there’s no reason to give a damn about this. But probably we should. The dominant medium of our times has developed a collection of weird habits; these habits have become the basis of the professional craft of editors and broadcasters and are by now as bizarre, as self-contained as the craft of late medieval poets, as impervious to experience and as irrelevant to what is supposed to be their subject matter. So let’s have a revolution, burn a few academies, have a bonfire of the diplomas and start again.
Or maybe we should allow these medieval visual heretics to just curl up and make films for each other. But let’s take their money off them first. Maybe we should pay them like poets and see what happens.
It’s really a script diary I suppose. If you see the film, you will maybe take its beauty for granted at first. You may even think it’s beautiful because it included beautiful places. Then you will realise that they may be as beautiful as they please but filming that beauty, doing it so smoothly and gracefully that you don’t remark it – that is a talent and one that is being used here very beautifully.
And I have not described any of this; I’m not able to. I have barely mentioned it. I no