Storm at Sea and the World Cup

Friday night, (the 13th of course) and the Captain has already warned in his midday address (position, distanced travelled since last port and weather) of the same day that we will be passing 200 miles from the epicentre of Tropical Cyclone Nanouk in the Indian Ocean. Sounds a long way away? Storm in Leeds, calm in London? Well, in tropical storm terms it is not, because the centrifuge effect of a cyclone pulls in wind from a circle of up to three hundred miles and we are going to be a hundred miles within that circle– just to let you know. “The ship may move a little,” the Captain has said. But you know, and a sense of foreboding in your stomach confirms this prescience, that he is combining English understatement with a captain’s duty not to alarm passengers, or disturb their daily round of eating, sleeping, playing carpet bowls and emptying their bowels – the latter, while making every effort not to spread the current “minor” (in the captain’s words, again) outbreak of the novo virus.

All well and good as we cross the Gulf of Oman, and even when we enter (at about 4 p.m.) the Arabian Sea (a north eastern subsection of the Indian Ocean) movement is tolerable. Gradually the swell builds, but calmly and methodically. Repeating valleys form and we climb up the side of one, slip down the side of the next. “Five metre swell to be expected,” the captain had said, and this is all right if you have good ocean legs and don’t mind doing your daily deck walk in alternating moments of uphill and downhill with the horizon appearing and disappearing completely at either end of the ship.  One senses that the swell, the sea, is still benign even if the ship is moving like a seesaw with a fifteen foot drop at either end. If this is what the captain means by “the ship may move a little”, we (the collective ‘we’ of a herd of cruise passengers) can live and sleep with it and still stuff ourselves.

So, in this womblike state of undulation, we drift off to bed around ten o’clock – except for those two or three passengers under sixty, who wish to gyrate (while also undulating fifteen feet up and down) in the disco (still called THAT here) — and are rocked to sleep. Up, down. Mm! Good night.

And then: boom!

Horribly awake. Alarm bells ringing at full volume in mind and body.

‘What was THAT?!’

There it is again: Boom!

I – the collective ‘we’ cancelled, because survival is a ‘me’ thing – am NOT a happy embryo now.

That fifteen foot, five metre undulation, or slow moving see saw, has become a jagged fifteen foot drop into which the bow of the boat (where my cabin is positioned on the lowest passenger deck) is smashing (with a noise that sounds like the hull MUST have cracked open) every fifteen seconds.

 I try earplugs, but the boom blasts straight through to the fear centre of my psyche.

Again: Boom! Well, ker-boom, shudder, shake actually! Followed by a fifteen foot stomach-losing lift that you know is going to be followed by a fifteen foot stomach turning drop and another – wait for it, tense, suppress scream  –ker- boom, shudder, shake. The shudder is me and the ship, whose whole frame shudders back and forth and then tries to shrug of the shudder with an even more alarming shake. Movie cataclysms, even with wrap around sound and 3D, have nothing on this.

We (or is it just I?) have forgotten about the gale force winds mentioned en passant by the captain. These have now whipped up the undulations into jagged, irregular and very angry fifteen foot waves, though which the ship has to ride. No, ‘ride’ sounds too benign. Fifteen foot jagged waves within and on top of which the fourteen story, ocean-going liner is tossed about like a rubber ball: fifteen foot up in the air (about two and a half storeys) and then, down, down, down to your doom — ker-boom: a fifteen foot drop to the ground below with no more gentle valley side to ease the drop. And it is NOT ground. It is water with a depth of two and a half thousand metres: the Captain always tells us the depth beneath in his noonday message – so we don’t forget the Peril of those on the Sea.

Earplugs fail.

Go-with-the-flow – a sea-goer’s standby – fails miserably, too, and produces nausea. The bed is moving too much, the noise too loud, alarming and apocalyptic to be ignored.

I check the time. 2.30 a.m. The bleakest hour of the night. The fact that it is now Saturday 14th June is little consolation, as the ominous influence of a Friday 13th must, I know, extend until dawn.

I sit up and, like an off duty soldier in the trenches, prepare myself for the next boom. I try a homeopathic, anti-panic remedy Aconite and then negate it with an allopathic 2 mg diazepam.

Five minutes and twenty booms later, still no relief.

So for the first time in my ocean-going career – I am a writer who finds he writes best on a cruise ship, though this may change – I get up in the middle of the night. And that is no easy feat in a storm.  I stumble across the cabin trying to put on shorts and T-shirt mid drop and socks and shoes, mid-rise. Boom! I fall back on the bed, get up and finally make it to the door.

I lurch along the silent corridor of closed cabin doors with inmates silently sweating through their own gloom and doom of the boom scenarios. Or perhaps going much further with their allopathic sleeping pills than I did with my diazepam, deciding to black out and hope for the best rather than face the reality of this First World War at sea.

On to the atrium (cruise ships use hotel terminology), normally a hub of activity but now deserted apart from one member of staff.  I make human contact with a woman from Serbia on duty behind the hotel style reception desk. We exchange the ‘moving a bit’ understatement (probably not a natural reaction to rough sea for a Serb, but British sang-froid and Aussie understatement is mandatory) and I tell her about the booms, which thank God are not so audible here in the centre of the ship. Would I like a technician to come and check the noise? she asks. Or a complimentary set of earplugs? I smile and shake my head and then add:  If the technician can calm the sea, yes, and if the earplugs can soothe my panicked soul, yes, otherwise no point. This is too metaphysical for a Serb – or anyone else – at 2 a.m. in a storm at sea, so she makes a note of my observation and I stagger off.

The open access restaurant on deck fourteen is my next goal. I start walking the fourteen flights of stairs – a fitness gambit on good days — but the movement is too much and my body says it is the middle of the night. I press a lift button and hear the clanking and crashing of the lift cables far above – almost as bad as the booms, because it sounds like the ship IS falling apart, right now.

The lift sways and lurches up fourteen floors and I emerge. But here the sway and judder is worse though the sea-level noise reduced to a distant thud. I head for the restaurant. No longer open I know, but with a self-service tea and coffee facility available before breakfast starts at 5 a.m.

The restaurant area is moving like an off centre Ferris wheel about to lose its balance and I only just make to the teabags. Two Filipino lads are cleaning the place, but let me help myself. Their usual cheery countenances are grim and we do not even bother going through the ‘moving a bit’ ritual.

And then an unwitting saviour arrives – the first fellow passenger I have seen since leaving my cabin. A rugged, no nonsense sort of man with a pot belly, leathery skin and overfed, expressionless face.

‘How you doing, mate?’ he asks, in a strong Oz accent. ‘All good?’

I know Oz greeting rituals well enough to reply ritually and 100% untruthfully as we crash into each other on the way down to a sea-level boom and fourteenth floor level thud, shudder and shake:

‘All good.’

‘Moving a bit,’ he adds.

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Moving a bit.’

He helps himself to coffee. I go for mint tea to calm the angst – no, terror – of a storm at sea.

‘Couldn’t sleep?’ I ask, hoping to share my terror in a therapeutic, co-counselling sort of way.

‘Nah, sleeping fine, mate. Just got up to watch the World Cup game. Australia versus Chile.’

I swallowed my amazement and nodded.

This man had woken himself on purpose having been fast asleep despite the ker-booms and fifteen foot drops and rises to watch a football game?  Was I imagining this storm? Had I over reacted?

BOOM! A ker-boom of nuclear proportions, so loud it made it to the fourteenth floor in one, undiluted mega-decibel and sent the ship shuddering and shaking in every direction at once.

‘Moving a bit,’ the man repeated, just a hint of nervousness behind the ‘all good’ façade.

He set off with his coffee. I followed him on the basis of ‘any port of call in a storm is better than none’ – for me, at that moment, this man was a haven of calm verging on the psychotic.

We went out onto the open deck, also on the fourteenth floor, where a giant TV screen dominates the swimming pools and deck lounging area. And there, the World Cup match between Australia and Chile was being broadcast live at full volume to beat the howling wind and driving rain. The image shook and shuddered with the ship, but as we were all shaking and shuddering with the ship this did not seem to matter to my haven mate, who took a seat and no further notice of me.

I watched for a while, the inane observations of the two football commentators briefly leading me to believe that I was at home watching the match. But after a first Chilean goal and a groan from my haven mate, I could take the swaying and lurching and distant thuds of valley-bottom hits no more.

I headed back to the fifth floor, past the Serbian receptionist – who waved at this, in his imagination, already drowning man – and on along the empty, swaying creaking corridors to the back of the ship.

 Here I found a final surreal sight and sound. In the area where professional videos and photos of the trip are sold at outrageous prices, a promo film was playing on half a dozen screens to no one: happy music, soft-sell voiceover, images of calm blue seas in Thailand – and not a soul to watch or listen.

Was anyone looking after the ship? Did anyone know or care that thud by thud and boom by boom the sea was shaking our boat to bits? Or would we go down with the promo video – and the World Cup on deck fourteen – still playing at full volume and everyone else asleep in their cabins.

It didn’t bare thinking about, so I curled up in a chair in the tiny library next to the video counter, closed my eyes and prepared for the worst. At least at the back of the ship the booms and thuds were almost inaudible, even if the shuddering and straining and creaking and cracking of everything around and about me seemed even louder.

 A storm at sea is an all-embracing event.

I did not sleep and the storm continued until the afternoon. But after 5 a.m., I was no longer alone, lurching and shaking as one of the herd with countless ‘Moving a bit’ exchanges to ease the angst and anaesthetize the reality of imminent shipwreck. I hope the Aussie man with the nerves of steel enjoyed his game – despite the storm, and despite the fact that Australia lost three goals to one.


Or why a missed train connection in the UK may entitle you to a taxi

Blog - York Station

Not long ago I was returning from London to York after a busy day in the metropolis keeping book and screenplay projects on the boil – writing is very much like cooking, with pots on the creative stove all in need of attention at the same time – when I made a useful discovery about the legal liabilities of our country’s railway network.

The train I had caught was due in York at 8.28 p.m. leaving me ten minutes to get the 8.38 p.m. connection to Malton, a market town fifteen miles to the east of York, where my car had been parked since a very misty 8 a.m that morning. Ten minutes out of York, with the train on time, we began to break and grind to a halt. An announcement from the train supervisor (guards have long since disappeared) regretted that due to ‘a track side issue’ we would be a few minutes late arriving. ‘A few minutes,’ I thought, ‘does that mean what it should mean – not long? Or will we be stuck here for the next hour?’ To my relief, we began to move again, and I relaxed. But un-hatched chickens should not be counted and the train not only failed to pick up speed but continued to creep past the ‘track side issue’ at the speed of a broody hen crossing the road with no answer to the question ‘Why?’ I glared at my mobile phone (not smart, but smart enough to tell the time) and saw the minutes tick by: 8.25, 8.30, 8.32.

The chances of making my connection were diminishing and the sense of annoyance ignited by the train supervisor’s formulaic announcement began to metamorphose into righteous anger. When, finally, we pulled into the station at 8.37 p.m., I grabbed my ageing, overweight laptop, jumped off the train, ran up the steps of a footbridge and down on to platform five just in time to see the Malton train disappear: a cliché scene of pathos or farce in the movies, a nightmare in real life, when, as a quick glance at the display board told me, the next train was not due until 10.20 p.m.

Fuelled by an anger, now not only righteous but on the verge of turning psychotic, and rehearsing killer arguments about the iniquity of a railway privatisation programme that meant one company could no longer wait for another company’s delayed train, I remounted the footbridge and strode across to the station concourse determined to vent my wrath on the first uniformed person I met. By chance this hapless human being, selected by fate to hear me out, happened to be wearing the uniform of East Coast, the company whose train had been delayed and arrived too late.

His first reaction to my furious but icily coherent fume on the particular and general issues at stake was, I sensed, a holding operation.

“There’s another train,” he said, glancing at the display board as I had done. “You’ll not be stuck.”

Despite his Yorkshire brogue and corporately-inculcated sense of calm, I was neither soothed nor returned to that state of resigned sanity which makes Anglo-Saxons (and some Celts) so good at grinning and bearing it, or, more often, at grumbling, mumbling and moving off to vent frustration on the spouse via a mobile phone.

“In an hour and half, yes,” I snapped in a crisp, military manner, narrowly avoiding use of an obscene incendiary. “And what about my mother waiting at Malton station to meet me – what will she do?”

My mother died sixteen years ago, and introducing a lie into my already strong case was unnecessary, but the writer in me had entered the fray and fiction would now fight side by side with fact.

“You could call her,” the East Coast official suggested.

A weak response easily shot down.

“She has no mobile phone and why would a call help? She’d still have to wait for an hour and a half.”

The official nodded and changed his approach. By resisting his initial attempts at pacification, I had, it seemed, passed some test, or crossed some Rubicon, and would now be treated as a serious complainant who could not be fobbed off with the company’s first line of defence: ‘You’ll not be stuck.’

“Follow me, love,” he said, adding the Yorkshire term of endearment in a non-corporate, man to man manner. “I’ll get you sorted.”

We crossed the concourse and entered an unmarked corner office squeezed between Starbucks and Hertz. A large woman in a darker, less well-kept uniform than that of the man stood behind a desk, monitoring a series of screens and nursing a coffee container. She glanced up and caught my eye.

“Missed connection?” she asked, switching her gaze to the East Coast man and taking a sip of Latte.

”Aye,” said the man, “Late 8.28 from London, onward journey to Malton. He’ll be wanting a taxi.”

 The woman checked her screens again, picked up a phone and muttered something into it. The man filled in a form and handed it to me.

“Sign here, please, sir.”

Promoted from ‘love’ to ‘sir’, but I was not yet ready to be pacified and drop my protest.

“A taxi? And who will pay for that?”

“It’ll be taken care of,” said the woman without looking up.

“I don’t want to end up filling in a lot of claim forms,” I persisted, keen to continue the fight.

“No forms, except one you’ve signed,” said the man ushering me from the office. “And I’ve filled in that. Now if you go out to taxi rank you’ll see a grey unmarked, car in the far lane. That’s yours.”

Before I could offer thanks, the man had disappeared leaving the concourse deserted apart from two passengers, perhaps off the same train as me, heading to the bar to grin and bear it or grumble and mumble into their mobile phones. There was no one else in uniform to be seen (the information desk had closed, the newsagent was shuttered), and it occurred to me that if I had not bumped into my East Coast man, I too would have been left with no option but to grin and bear it, or bear the considerable cost of a taxi to Malton myself.  As it was, by chance, and because of my refusal to be fobbed off, I had stumbled on a little known regulation (explained to me in more detail by the taxi driver in the unmarked taxi) that requires the UK railway network to facilitate the completion of a passenger’s journey if that passenger has been on an officially delayed train and, as a consequence, will have to wait longer than one hour for an ongoing connection.

“I’ve taken people to London, Glasgow, Birmingham and Manchester,” said the driver, “even Penzance once. As long as you fill conditions and have a ticket to show where you were meant to end up, you get a ride at the taxpayer’s expense – or maybe it’s railway companies that pay, I’m not sure on that. But either way there’s legislation from the 70s – ‘Completion of Journey Act’ or something like that – that means people like me are kept busy and remunerated year in year out.”

I shook my head in disbelief.

“First I’ve heard of it,” I said, thinking of all my missed connections over the years and imagining the chaos that might ensue if the British public – both passive and active wings – got wind of this freebie.

“Aye,” said the driver, as we pulled onto the A64 and sped off to Malton and my fictional mother. “They don’t shout about it from tree-tops,  just apply it when customer puts his foot down.”

So, if you miss a connection and the wait for your train is more than an hour, assert your rights and settle for no less than a taxi home. If, that is, you can find an official to facilitate the ride. The Catch 22: ‘Availability of appropriate staff at the relevant station.’

Good luck!


A four-mile tramp on the Indian Ocean – or how to cope with a cruise



6pm and a sand dusted sun of deep orange is preparing to set over the Arabian Sea in the North Western corner of the Indian Ocean. Our boat – somewhere south of the Arabian Peninsula, and in the preferred zone of operation for Somalian pirates (in readiness for whose possible appearance we have already done a drill involving a return to cabin, drawing of curtains and sitting as far from portholes as possible) – is cruising along at twenty miles an hour on course for Mumbai and its ultimate destination Sydney.

I have finished my writing for the day, but am not yet ready for my evening meal taken in the self-service, free-seating restaurant on Deck Fourteen where a mountain of food awaits me whether I have earned it physically or not. My cabin is on Deck Eight and is just one floor up from the Promenade Deck (Deck Seven) where a well-scrubbed boardwalk encircles the ship from port to starboard and fo’csle to stern. Three laps of this are the equivalent of one mile and my aim this evening is to do twelve – laps, not miles.

It has been 35C during the day and overfed (male) stomachs and underused  (female) thighs – all stretching too-tanned and prematurely aged Caucasian Aussie skin to its leathery limits – have been much in evidence on the Lido Deck (Deck Twelve). I do not inhabit this zombie-like zone of inertia and excess where royal blue sun loungers, azure blue pools and overheated Jacuzzis vie with free ice cream, burgers, hotdogs and French fries for the attention of the atrophying muscles, jaded palates and over-exercised intestines of cruising Australia. Ninety-nine percent of fellow passengers hail from that country, but I have not yet met one indigenous person – not even a neighbouring Polynesian or Maori. Still, no point in taxing my social conscience: the boat, whether I like it or not, is a living, breathing metaphor for the injustices, inequalities and economic imbalances of the world. White European and Australian passengers serviced by Indians and Thais (in the restaurants), Filipinos (in the cabins), Indonesians (in the engine room) and, only at officer level, a handful of Brits and Italians on permanent contracts with paid holidays. I am, after all, one of the privileged first world passengers too, and unless I am prepared to start, stoke and lead a mutiny – for which there would be little support, given the importance of the hire and fire wages to the lower crew echelons – I must accept the status quo.

With this salve applied to the militant tendency in my mind, a mental complement, perhaps, to the factor fifty lotion on my skin, I exit the over cooled Atrium – where the early-to-bed, early-to-rise wizens of Oz are gathering like bats at dusk to drink beer, sip coffee and listen to the world’s worst pianist croon standards no one has heard of – hit the evening heat (now 28C) and, dressed in my beige shorts and brown v-necked leisure shirt, set off for my walk on water.

The first mile: Laps One, Two and three

A florid-faced man slumped on a lounger (there are loungers here too, though they seem less decadent than those on the burger-fuelled Lido Deck) greets me with a ‘How you doing, mate?’ and, as an afterthought, after I am well past him and picking up speed, a yell of ‘Going for gold?’ I wave in acknowledgement of this immobile support for the mobile, but block further bonhomie by fixing an expression of ‘deck walker at work, do not disturb’ on my face. My scrubbed plank path is clear because I have timed my tramp to coincide with the first sitting of dinner in the formal dining rooms, where fixed seating and waiter service appeals to those who like to sit in the same place with the same people every night. Most white Australians, in line with their white British working class heritage, eat the evening meal (‘tea’) early and thus clear the decks for walkers like me who prefer a later ‘dinner’.

Lap one passes without incident. I clock the usual landmarks of a white wash stretching out at the stern of the ship – marine equivalent of a jet’s vapour – bleary-eyed casino staff taking a break by a staff-only door, and defiant smokers on a wagon train encampment of loungers at the forward end of the starboard side. These puffers and coughers, like pioneers of the Old West exploring the frontier of death, clap and mock the self-righteous walkers with aggressive expulsions of smoke and acerbic anecdotes of non-smoking joggers dropping dead mid-jog. Smoking is not allowed inside the ship and at only two designated points outside. The Oz smokers, unlike the Oz over-weights and the Oz over-eighties, see themselves as a persecuted minority and cling together like cowboys on whom the sun is setting fast.

At the start of lap three, having navigated the forward tunnel that separates anchor and mooring gear from maintenance storerooms, a figure shoots past – the first to have done so since I started. One of that rare species aged between twenty and thirty and seen as neither lower nor upper class in the ship’s hierarchy. In this case one of the six female dancers who, together with four males, offer song and dance shows once a week. Schmaltzy extravaganzas in which the ‘girls’ show off their bodies for the titillation of male seniors and their (mostly female) other halves, reminding the former of limitations in the late prostate era and the latter of how lithe and beautiful they once were, or weren’t. Also in this young-blood group are: Spa staff who massage bodies well past sell-by dates into a semblance of freshness; Reception staff with the patience of saints and the memories of sieves; and Cruise staff whose job it is to corral loose-enders (a majority) into collective capers and afternoon bingo. These middle-rank staff are allowed to eat in the anytime, any amount restaurant (perhaps why the pert buttocks passed me at such speed), but unlike passengers they have to clear away their dishes.

The second mile: Laps Four, Five and Six.

I count my laps by shifting my cruise card (a credit card clone that gets you into your cabin and into trouble in the Casino) from left hand pocket (odd numbered laps) to right hand pocket (even numbered laps). Now, as it slips into my right hand pocket and I use the opportunity to adjust my genitalia to a more comfortable position, I notice the swell has swollen. Swell, of noticeable size, occurs in oceans not in enclosed seas like the Med or the Black or the Baltic. It may have been caused by a storm miles away or (in its benign form) be no more than the sloshing that a large amount of water, left to its own devices on a ball revolving at speed around another ball, would make in any context. For landlubbers swell can be disconcerting, discombobulating calves, thighs and feet and requiring readjustments disapproved of by osteopaths and trainers. Imagine the landscape tilting up and down like a seesaw and then from side to side like a – well, like a ship in swell. When side on to swell, a ship rolls; when head on, it pitches. Diagonal swell can produce a mixture of the two movements as the boat’s hull (made of riveted segments) adjusts and resettles. Like turbulence in a plane, but without fasten-your-seat-belt signs and with a duration of twenty-four hours plus rather than ten minutes. In swell there is no choice but to soldier on as if nothing’s afoot – apart, that is, from the undulations beneath your feet. This flexing sensation is when some people throw up, but today the swell though present is not disruptive to a seasoned sea traveller. That said it takes most of the second mile, and the odd near miss with fellow walkers on the narrow sections, to adjust to the fact that the earth is, once again, moving for me.

The third mile: Laps Seven, Eight and Nine.

Nothing of note occurs during my third mile. The swell stabilizes to an acceptable pattern; the deck fills with strollers summoning appetites for the second sitting and getting in my way; the sun disappears and darkness descends with the rapidity of a sub-tropical clime. The smokers have enlarged their wagon train and need to be given a wider berth if passive smoking is to be avoided; my greeter on his lounger outside the Atrium has fallen asleep so will fail to see whether I go for gold or not; the dancer has disappeared, her dancing toes perhaps too discombobulated by the swell. Now the black sea is at one with the black sky and only the deck lights distinguish us from the void. A feeling of a fair at night, or a promenade in a 1950s seaside resort with nothing but the heat to remind me of where I am. That is the role of a cruise ship: wherever you are in the world, you are still in its safe, demarcated interior world – still able to define your existence in terms of its familiar smells and angular points of view. Some find this limiting, or boring, but, for a writer, its consistency allows the mind to roam.

The fourth mile: Laps Ten, Eleven and Twelve.

I am tempted to head indoors at the end of lap nine – my eat-anytime appetite is growing, my sweat pouring and the boardwalk turning into an unattended obstacle course. But then, as with the dancer, I am overtaken by someone who has come up, without warning, behind me. I watch as the figure, speed walking not jogging, powers past and draws ahead inch-by-inch and then foot-by-foot. No twenty-something this time, but an elderly woman with a slightly dislocated hip whose age I would put at 70. She is, to coin a phrase, motoring, and whether it is because of my competitive male instinct, or because of a sense of guilt at only having done nine laps, I start to motor too. A second wind becomes a second turbo charge. And, yes, it is a competitive instinct kicking in, or perhaps more of a ‘if a seventy-year old woman can do it, I can too!’ challenge. I up my speed, dodging strollers more boldly and threatening those who sabotage my dodges with a collision. ‘Where’s the fire, mate?’ someone says, and I want to reply ‘Up ahead, that woman in the red shirt and white trousers doing ninety miles an hour!’ But I don’t, I just follow in my new pacesetter’s wake – she is a more determined and effective clearer of obstacles than me – and bit-by-bit I narrow the gap.

By the middle of lap two I am within striking distance, when, despite the apparent fragility of her hip, and an age that I now put closer to seventy-five, the speed queen ups her tempo and, in the process, almost knocks a smoker lighting up into the sea. ‘You should watch where you’re going, mate’ the smoker (male) exhales at me, preferring not to chase the real cause of his near demise. ‘There could be an accident’, he adds, as if his flaming lighter weren’t danger enough. I smile, the Englishman’s defence, and push on.

Speed Queen swerves round the left hand bend at the top of the starboard side and into the forward tunnel. When I take the turn, she is not there and I fear she has cheated and broken into a trot. But no, after the second bend at the end of the tunnel, I see her striding down the port side, her faulty hip falling and rising like the well-oiled piston of a steam engine. This is my last lap and I decide that I have to catch and overtake her before it ends – otherwise, she will think I have just given up and thrown in the towel.

If that is, she has given me a second thought.

We thunder down the port side, scattering strollers and forcing a wheelchair to take a pit stop in the jigsaw room. Hard left into the stern section, the wake now bubbling in the glare of neon deck lamps, and hard left out of it. The last starboard leg and I’m gaining. The second sitting strollers have fled to the second sitting, the smokers have smoked their last cigarette and the deck is almost empty. The tunnel looms, but I will not be able to pass her there – too narrow. Then we are out of the tunnel and suddenly she turns and smiles at me. She has been aware of my presence. I make a supreme effort and catch up as the Atrium door and the end of my twelfth lap approach. ‘Thank you!’ I gasp, ‘you’ve been a marvellous pacesetter.’ ‘You stop now?’ she says with a faint French accent. I nod and slow. ‘Quel dommage!’ she adds, motoring off at full speed. ‘Ten more for me tonight! Au revoir!’


Samurai fighters on film                                “How your tender touch excites me, dearest!”.

Recently, while watching a film with hit and miss subtitles, I was reminded of an incident that occurred, when I lived in West Berlin in the early 1970s. At the time, I spoke German fluently and was sometimes asked by the Arsenal Art Cinema (Kino Arsenal) to translate foreign films ‘live’ during projection – from English into German.

This was before most educated Germans spoke, or at least understood, English, but at a time when English had already become the language in which a transcript of the dialogue was provided by filmmakers and companies submitting films. The festival or cinema could then decide whether to pay for subtitling, or not. If not, in the Arsenal’s case, it gave a translator a copy of the dialogue transcript, a beer or two and a cubbyhole at the back of the cinema with a microphone. During the film’s projection, the translator translated – in my case, not always one hundred percent up to speed, but vaguely in sync with the action – and the audience listened on headphones.

One time (in the Berlin equivalent of an NFT all night screening) I was given the English dialogue transcript for a rare Japanese film – the title escapes me now – that had received a great deal of publicity and drawn a big audience to the Arsenal. All went well for a reel or two, though simultaneously keeping an eye on the written word and the screen action proved a nerve-racking challenge given that the viewers were dependent on me for their understanding of the film and its eminent director’s intent.

Half way through reel three, it dawned on me that I was translating dialogue for a romantic love scene (Japanese style) in the middle of a Samurai battle (Japanese style) on screen. The transcript pages had been mixed up and there was no way of knowing where I was. I had little option but to struggle on and, to begin with, the audience – used to ‘difficult’ art films – accepted the disparity between sound and image in a grave manner, diligently trying to fathom the meaning of the filmmaker’s daring audiovisual deconstruction and formalist sang-froid. But when, minutes later, the situation was reversed and a love scene (very Japanese) appeared on screen with dialogue (very Japanese) from the Samurai battle, giggles and titters began to surface. I decided to stop the film and announce over the loudspeaker system that I had lost my place. But, when I did, the audience shouted, “No matter! Go on! Go on!”

So I did, and, by the end of the movie, a serious art film had become a rip-roaring comedy with the entire audience rolling in the aisles. Luckily the filmmaker was not present, otherwise I am sure he or she would have been mortified – we do not always like our work to be laughed at for the wrong reasons! Now of course digital subtitling on digital copies of films makes the costly process of getting text onto celluloid redundant, but sometimes I think that the more we solve technical difficulties the less opportunities there are for spontaneous creative chaos based on honest human error.

The Beastliness of British Soldiers – Systemic Abuse in Iraq and elsewhere.

British soldier in Iraq - imageReports of the extensive abuse, torture and rape of prisoners and civilians in Iraq by British soldiers is one of the most disturbing pieces of news to appear in recent days.

Disturbing and sad for those of us who like to think of our nation as civilised and compassionate even in a combat zone, and unpleasant proof – almost unpalatable, when you see the images of ‘our lads and lasses’ at work – of the hypocrisy of holier than thou attitudes peddled by British Governments from the colonial era through to the present day with regard to the beastliness of others. Hopefully, as a result of recent publicity, something will change in the way the army is allowed to act when abroad, but the fact that a large group of Iraqis is having to go to court to show how they were victims of systemic British brutality – i.e. not of rogue soldiers or local commanders acting off their own bat – is unfortunately not surprising.

Britain has a long and dishonourable tradition of brutality and uncivilised behaviour towards the inhabitants, as well as the soldiers, of ‘foreign’ places that it has invaded and./or is occupying – including the Irish. It is a shameful history that stretches back into the ‘glorious’ days of empire when there was, in the name of white ‘settlement’, systemic mistreatment of Maori in New Zealand and indigenous peoples in Australia and Canada, as well as the setting up of concentration camps in the Boer War. Earlier in the 19th century, in a previous invasion of a far off land called Afghanistan, whole villages were laid waste systematically and their inhabitants abused or killed. More recently the revelations regarding extreme torture in Kenya, and the likely execution of a similar government policy in places such as Malaysia and Aden are further evidence of a tradition that is not based on the behaviour of sadistic individuals (though the army does not discourage the recruitment of such people), but is part of a concerted military (and thus government) strategy to terrorise local populations and force them into submission.

The Second World War with its largely conscript army seems to have been, on the whole, an exception, but when the war or conflict being engaged in by Britain has not had a clear ‘just war’ tag (or is a form of occupation, or so-called settlement, of a foreign land) – and, in particular, when the people affected are non-Caucasians – military brutality is given its head as a (covert) part of official policy. Add to this (a) the top down brutalisation of soldiers in military training through unquestioning obedience to authority and the turning of a blind eye to bullying and sexual abuse in barracks, and (b) the imitation of sadistic sexual practices seen on Internet, and we have the perfect recipe for a fighting force ready to torture others, almost, it appears, for fun and in our name.

It may not be possible to rule out the presence of sadists in the armed forces, but it is possible to disseminate and demand an ethos of humane treatment of prisoners and civilians in combat – in other words, to stop sadism and brutality from being a sanctioned mode of behaviour that is accepted and encouraged as a necessary evil by the political and military authorities. It is possible to have a civilised army, as countries such as Germany, who have learnt the lessons of history, have proved. Britain, it seems, has yet to learn – perhaps because it has never been defeated and had its practices held up to the light by outsiders. Until it does, or the government introduces real safeguards, the arrival of British troops in your country will be no guarantee of safety – or civilised behaviour.


A heartfelt request for the USA to review its outdated revolutionary rhetoric and submit to therapy for a persistent case of bi-polar disorder and delusions of grandeur

As another presidential election with two candidates effectively united in their view of the outside world approaches, this is a call to the United States and its incoming president to abandon revolutionary rhetoric, show humility and come to its senses before it destroys itself and the world. Instead of watching American flags being burnt around the globe, this potentially benevolent, but currently, especially in terms of its foreign policy, often malevolent country should build a bonfire and throw all the insane attitudes, hypocrisies and archaic assumptions that makes it such an unsettling, predatory and inflammatory force in the international arena onto the flames. It should start anew as a benign presence rather than persisting with the schizophrenic and scary persona of an evil and abusive uncle masquerading as goody two shoes. The people of the United States would be better off, the people of the world infinitely so.

On the biggest bonfire ever would go:

  1. The core insanity that the revolutionary values of an elite group of ex-pat property owners in 1776 are still of incontrovertible, self evident and universal relevance and should be preached and exported to the rest of the world in a never-ending process of so-called democratisation that masks aggrandisement and self-interest. The revolutionaries of 1789 in France and of 1917 in Russia learnt to limit their aspirations after the adventures of Napoleon and the Soviet introduction of strategies of socialism in one country and peaceful co-existence. The USA, except for short periods where it has been faced with an effective counter balance, has never given up its misplaced and disruptive role as an evangelist and apologist for a particular form of property-based capitalism.
  1. The insanity that such values are better and more profound than anyone else’s when they represent – both in their aspirations and execution – the views and interests of a moneyed oligarchy intent on preserving its power and legitimacy and right to be hyper-rich by allowing ‘the people’ to vote once every four years within a very staged and demagogic election, where those with money and vested interests in the existing system set the agenda, pay the expenses of their puppet politicians and reap the rewards of legislation (or lack of it). When exported, these democratic values lead to societies with vast wealth gaps, the rule of the rich, and persistence of the pernicious myth that those who can vote now and then are free.
  1. The insanity of saying “we will create the biggest military capability the world has ever seen” – not Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, but President Obama in 2012. For what? The imposition of the revolutionary values of 1776 on others? Maintenance of America’s ailing status as Earth’s top dog by force? Certainly not to defend a homeland that does not remotely require the biggest military capability ever. The knock-on effect of this insanity is that other powers, such as China, are compelled to spend more on arms just to be able to ward off the predatory evangelism of the USA, which might well turn more violent when a new ‘enemy’ (post Soviet, post Islamic Terrorist) is required to feed the insatiable appetite of the US military industrial complex (against which President Eisenhower so cogently railed in the 1950s) and provide an external scapegoat to deflect attention from domestic woes.
  1. The concomitant insanity of continually criticising and cajoling countries from the old Soviet Union to present-day China thus encouraging them to develop more conventional and nuclear arms as the only sure form of self defence against  unpredictable Uncle Sam when their money could be better spent on eradicating poverty; the arrogant insanity of not letting these different political systems develop and go through difficult phases as the US was allowed to do, without outside intervention, in its own historical development in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is as if no other system – communist, Islamic or whatever – can be allowed to develop organically as the US did, but must conform to the norm here and now or face destabilisation from inside and out.
  1. The insanity and hypocrisy of supporting counterrevolutionary dictatorships in places like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and Yemen whilst ousting or trying to oust (sometimes less oppressive and certainly more secular) dictators in Iraq, Libya and Syria and going all out to destabilise the much more democratic state of Iran. The insanity of supporting (albeit reluctantly) an Arab spring in a country like Egypt and then castigating the subsequently elected Muslim government if it does not toe the US line. The insanity of replacing stability with chaos to ensure American (and ‘western’) economic interests are better served in the short term and pretending that this is being done to further democracy and the rule of law.
  1. The insanity of wondering why people in Yemen and Pakistan and Afghanistan (to name but a few) are so anti-American when robot drones regularly kill innocent people alongside people who the US claims are terrorists, but who have not been tried for any crime. The revolutionary bounty hunters and cavalry of the 19th Century who uprooted, herded, and tried to ethnically cleanse the indigenous peoples of North America now roam the world as robots killing when and where they please. Not a jovial policeman patrolling his beat as the US would like to us to believe, but a vigilante seeking vengeance and wreaking havoc way beyond the havoc originally caused by 9/11 or by any other attack on the US and its citizens.
  1. The insanity of treating Israel as a spoilt child rather than an adult country, of allowing it to be a neighbourhood bully and virtual occupier of Palestine rather than compelling it to co-exist peacefully within agreed borders. The hypocrisy and dangerous insanity of turning a blind eye to Israel’s nuclear arsenal while castigating Iran, who dares to develop nuclear arms in self-defence. The parallel insanity of not insisting Israel go non-nuclear in return for a non-nuclear Iran.
  1. The insanity of assuming that only you are right and that anyone who does not do things the way you do will eventually have to face the inevitable consequences.
  1. The insanity of holding the world at gunpoint and saying: ‘Do as I say – or else!’
  1. The insanity of busying yourself with everybody else’s business, of trying to cast out motes in the eyes of others without tackling beams in your own; the insanity of maintaining dominance at the expense of your own well-being and sanity – of not checking up whether it is your values that are in need of an update.

Sight & Sound Greatest Movies Poll 2012 – Beyond the Top Fifty in the realm of Gut Reaction

As I was one of the four hundred directors asked to vote in the above poll it might be of interest to others to see how subjective and eclectic one person’s choices (and rationale for those choices) can be and how notions of ‘top’ and ‘greatest’ are hard to define at the personal level. I briefly attended the ‘revealing’ ceremony on the South bank on Wednesday night (1st August) and, though not surprised by the choices, I was struck by the conservatism and predictability of the result – a sense that many of the choices were films that people felt they ‘ought’ to vote for (I had felt I ‘ought’ to vote for at least five of them, but hadn’t) rather than choices that people had voted for with their gut. Some ‘gut reaction’ entries in the directors’ top ten revealed later, but still more of an ‘in awe’ than ‘en-joy’ list – at least that was my perception.

Yes, it was great to have Vertigo up there – it had almost been in my own top ten, as had Battleship Potemkin, which made number eleven with the critics – but, as I say, there seemed too large an element of film history and studies orthodoxy in the final critics’ list and only a start to wing-spreading in the director’s list. Both lists also seemed to take a narrow view of what ‘film’ and ‘greatest’ mean in the context of an individual’s reception and the enormous range of work produced since films began. I accept that this was the democratic choice of those polled and I agree that all films included in both lists are indeed great films, but I wonder when there will be a real sea change in the top ten or whether these really are the greats for ever and ever amen.

Anyway, for better, or for worse, here, in no particular order of preference, are the choices I made and why – personal and eclectic, I accept, but from the gut as well as the more rarefied arenas of the mind and received aesthetic opinion, and certainly, it seems, left field as, of my choices, only ‘Some Like It Hot’ made it into the top fifty!

1.Titanic – James Cameron
My top ‘commercial’ choice: The ultimate proof that cinema can manipulate your emotions whether you want it to or not  – music, story, montage, camera and acting leave you powerless to resist. All that I strived to undermine in the 70s – now in 3D!

2. Petra von Kant – Rainer Werner Fassbinder
The exact opposite to above: minimal, staged almost alienating cinema set in confined space with small cast. What makes it a masterpiece is the framing, the precise positioning of protagonists in frame, the controlled and distanced performances and the static or very slowly moving camera. Hypnotic, sensuous, surreal and sadistic

3. Les parapluies de Cherbourg – Jacques Demy
A cinematic/ musical tour de force unequaled before or since in its particular category – no word is spoken, the simple semi-tragic love story works and the camera floats and flows effortlessly in time to the LeGrand music. Another plus point: not the predictable happy ending you might expect.

4.The Piano – Jane Cameron
Like (2) above, minimalist in approach,  but this time played in the 19th century Waitakere rainforest of New Zealand rather than a Berlin boudoir. Precise framing ( as you may have noted, a key criteria for greatness in my book), very focused performances and a great final shot

5. Amelie – Jean-pierre Jeunet

So much joie de vivre and originality of approach – it still makes me feel good and that makes it one of the greatest of all time

6. The Seventh Seal – Ingmar Bergman

Simply the one from adolescence that cannot be forgotten and therefore remains ‘great’. Black and white masterpiece with stunning photography that mixes angst with anguish and a strong sense that ‘all things must pass’ – with or without the Grim Reaper at your shoulder  and playing chess with your life.

7. Napoleon – Abel Gance

As film-making is such an exhausting and time-consuming art, ‘Greatest’ in film terms must also mean this extraordinary film which in terms of scale and input (and aesthetic border-breaking) tops all others.

8. Raise the Red Lantern – Zhang Yimou

Simply the best Chinese film I have seen – by a director who combines artistic brilliance with audience accessibility and rejects the way ‘dissident’ filmmakers are fetishised whether their work is good or not. His is neither dissident nor propagandist but a cinematic magician, and this gem shows him to be a master of mise en scene and decoupage second to none.

9. Some like it Hot – Billy Wilder

Still the best film comedy (despite its dark and very brutal opening) around. Its effortless montage and storytelling through image and flawless performance make it a film I can watch endless times.

10. All about Eve –  Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Similar to 9 above, but then greatest in the melodrama category. Flawless framing, spot-on acting for screen, excellent razor-sharp dialogue and a plot that reminds us why opera and film are so closely related.

See Full Poll Results and BFI Comment.

Fear of Flying – or How to board your plane like a VIP

Recently I had to fly from Auckland to Sydney after a long spell of not being ‘up in the clouds’ – or above them, assuming all has gone well at take off. Not a long haul trip, just three and a half hours across the ‘ditch’ as it is called in these Antipodean parts and a doddle for seasoned fliers. But waking on the day of my flight, I felt the creeping aero-angst that had been permeating my body and soul for the previous two weeks occupy and master my mind as well. ‘No way,’ I said to my partner, as she set down a cup of tea beside the bed before setting off for work at 7.30 a.m. ‘I’ll be back to pick you up at lunchtime,’ she replied, ignoring the subtext of my remark, ‘have your cases packed and ready – and make sure they’re not overweight!’

The reassuring trivia of flying: weight of cases, getting to the airport on time, saying farewell to loved ones, looking forward to the return, checking tickets, and (since 9/11) the palaver of ensuring there are no liquids, aerosols or pointy sharp things in your hand luggage – and no guns. But I was not reassured this dark grey autumnal morning as a strong north-easterly wind blew in the remnants of a tropical storm, awakening white horses in the Hauraki Gulf and sleeping dogs in my fertile imagination. There is only water between Auckland and Sydney, I thought; nowhere for an emergency landing should something go awry, nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide; nothing between trusting passengers and an angry Tasman Sea, but an inch of metal and miles of empty air. Come on! I exhorted, flying is the safest form of travel – you’re more likely to have an accident driving to the airport than flying from it. Yes, replied the angst merchants, with something approaching glee, but chances of survival in an aero accident are the lowest.

I drank my Darjeeling tea and pursued my other early morning rituals – ablutions, shower, shave, apple juice, muesli and teeth clean – hoping the merchants would retire, with the dogs, to their murky quarters at the back of my mind and cease trading in fear. But they kept me company ritual by ritual, making new and ever more fearsomely seductive suggestions as to why flying – the act of being unnaturally thrust up into the air by two gas-guzzling, flame throwing jet engines – did not make sense. They cornered me, harangued me and ground me down, and faced with their apparently incontrovertible and evermore convincing arguments that air travel was a from of expensive suicide I decided I would have to cancel and suffer the scorn of my son in Sydney, the anger of my partner at home, and the annoyance of those with whom I had work and social appointments.

Then a brainwave hit the fractured coastline of my mind. I picked up the phone and dialled Air New Zealand. It was an outside chance and there would be loss of face involved – an admission of weakness unbecoming to a man or woman – but it was worth a try. ‘Do you offer assistance for nervous fliers?’ I asked. ‘You’re flying today?’ a woman’s voice asked, unfazed by the question. ‘Yes,’ I replied, trying to keep the angst at bay. ‘I’ll put you down for Special Assistance,’ the voice continued without batting a glottal stop or repressing a chuckle. ‘Your flight number, please.’ No laughing out of court, no suggestion that I take a running jump onto a boat or train or submarine, just a matter of fact and encouragingly supportive offer of problem-specific help along with the instruction to announce my presence at the Air New Zealand information point ninety minutes before departure.

The angst remained, but retreated into the shadows, seen off by a surge of curiosity about what Special Assistance would involve and a sense that I was no longer alone with my fear, but out of the closet and glad to be scared – alongside all the other SA requesters. My partner returned at lunchtime as agreed and seemed surprised to find me now relatively sane and sanguine about the flight, no longer threatening retreat or accepting defeat by the angst merchants. ‘Have you taken a pill or something?’ she enquired, as she checked the weight of my suitcases – she is smaller than me in height, but stronger in the lifting department. ‘No,’ I replied breezily. ‘So why so perky all of a sudden?’ ‘Air New Zealand is giving me special assistance,’ I said. ‘What’s that?’ ‘I have no idea. I told them I was scared and they offered to help.’ My partner laughed a warm laugh and gave me a hug, ‘Funny Bunny.’

At the appointed time Funny Bunny, wobbling inside but with hatches battened down externally, presented himself at the Air New Zealand desk in Auckland airport with his partner.  ‘Someone will be with you in a minute, sir’ said a cheery Maori woman, who looked like she had never experienced fear of anything anywhere. Moments later the someone arrived (an equally cheery Caucasian woman), and chatting all the while took us both to the priority check-in desk, dealt with the two check-in bags and told us to take a seat in a waiting area nearby. As I watched my suitcases disappear down the conveyor belt, I remembered another occasion, several years earlier, when I had chickened out at the last minute and the airline had been compelled to hold up the plane and remove my luggage. There was an incentive to offer Special Assistance to nervous fliers: get these guys on the plane and keep them there!

And, judging by the procedures employed from now on, there was also a clear understanding in the SA team members minds of the worst moments for an aero-phobic: going through passport control and security and waiting in that morbidly named ‘departure lounge’ – spirits depart, living people leave, and many an angst case backs out in that last minute lounge when bags are on board but the body is not. After ten minutes of waiting and quiet encouragement from my partner, a uniformed Chinese man (Air New Zealand, like Auckland, is multicultural as a matter of course) appeared and pointed to a staff-only lift. ‘I will take you to the plane now,’ he said, picking up my hand luggage and adding, with a nod at my partner, ‘time to say goodbye.’ A marginal slip-up there, since angst-cases dislike the word good-bye (God be with ye) in the plane-boarding context preferring euphemisms that indicate temporary rather than possibly permanent separation, but his linguistic slip was more than compensated for by his discreet and solicitous manner. ‘See you soon,’ I said kissing my partner on cheeks and lips. ‘See you,’ she replied. ‘I’ll wait in the car park until you’re airborne. Good luck!’ I nodded, joined the man in the lift, waved and then the doors closed. I was on my own.

But not in the way you are normally on your own after crossing to the other side in an airport. No fluster as I faced down the x-rays, no ‘what do I do here’ at the hand luggage check, no getting one’s bags in a twist. In quick succession my minder took me through passport control and security (reminding me to remove my computer from its case, and scolding the customs team if they showed the slightest sign of impatience as I repacked), across the wasteland of duty free shops and other ‘boarding-side’ distractions and on to the designated departure lounge. Here my fellow passengers were, as usual, sitting in serried ranks their faces blank or long, bearing or dreading it, mobile to hand, earphones to ears – some ready to jump up and be first to board, others resigned to a long wait. ‘This way,’ said the SA minder, taking my arm. With practised movements he propelled me past the waiters, nodded at the official by the gate, held my ticket to an e-reader and swept me on through the short expandable tunnel that leads to the plane itself. No waiting, no time for second thoughts, no standing in a queue – to board or not to board, no longer the question.

At the plane’s entrance, he handed me and my hand luggage over to the cabin staff – one male, one female – already alerted and prepared for my arrival, shook my hand and departed. The cabin staff smiled and indicated an open door to the left just inside the plane’s entrance: ‘The Captain would like a word,’ they said in unison. It was the flight deck and there, facing me in his shirt sleeves with one leg sprawled over the pilot’s chair, was the plane’s captain. ‘Good day, Richard, welcome aboard! Thought you might like a look around, see how the bugger works.’ I gazed at the dials and dashboards not sure whether they made me feel more or less scared and listened as the captain gave an impromptu commentary. ‘These old crates’ll get you anywhere,’ – something reassuring about the word crate, less fragile and temperamental than a state-of-the-art machine – ‘I call them the Fords of the flying world, tough and reliable.’ He banged the joystick and gave me a broad grin. ‘Any questions?’ ‘Which way will we take off,’ I asked, the only question I could think of to ask, ‘to the West, towards Australia?’ ‘No, to the East, into the wind, then circle back over the city and out into the Tasman.’ He sounded more like a mariner than an airman, a captain keen to get up, up and away and into the great blue yonder. ‘Thank you,’ I said, taking a last look through the cockpit window at the runway from which we would soon be taking off. Special assistance was special with no stone left unturned to make you feel at ease and in safe hands; a thorough grounding in aero-normality and matter of fact-ness leaving little to chance or a phobic’s febrile imagination.

And they weren’t quite finished yet. As the female member of the cabin staff who had greeted me led the way down the aisle, she turned and whispered, ‘I’ll bring you a beer as soon as the safety belt lights go off. All right?’ I nodded and as we drew level with my seat allowed myself to be positioned in place and have my seat belt fastened by the male attendant, like a child being tucked into bed by his parents. My luggage was placed in an overhead locker, the controls of the TV explained and my seat adjusted to a comfortable position. And then, and only then, the other passengers – whether first, business, or just plain economy like me – began to board.

Take-off was fine, the turbulence tolerable, my mind in the hands of the aircrew not the merchants of fear, and during the flight the two attendants took it in turns to check if I was feeling all right, congratulated me when we landed in Sydney and hoped to see me again soon. I texted my son: ‘The Eagle – well, your Dad – has landed’. ‘Well done, Dad!!!!’ came the reply.

Well done, Special Assistance. But don’t try this unless you’re really aero-phobic – or a very good actor.

The Price of Anti-Establishment Protest: or how my films nearly perished forever last summer

One of the pluses and minuses of living in New Zealand (temporarily or permanently) is that – despite Internet and mobile phones – certain pieces of news (especially personal news) pass you by. Or, perhaps, you are considered too far away to have them passed on to you, so that it is not so much a question of them not passing you by, but more one of them never reaching you in the depths of down-under. Whatever the case, it was only recently I heard of the disturbing fact that a considerable number of DVD box sets of my films – lodged by their distributor, the British Film Institute, at the Sony warehouse in Enfield, north London – had been destroyed in a fire during last summer’s ‘riots’; I use inverted commas for the word, since, if such events had taken place in the Middle East (or even China) they would no doubt have been called ‘protests’ or ‘uprisings’.

But this is not a political blog, more a reflection on how devastated I would have been, had the ‘master’ (inverted commas again) discs been destroyed as well. I may have held sympathy for the protesters, and might not have minded endless copies of inane blockbusters being destroyed, but expect anti-establishment ‘rioters’ to recognize the work of a fellow anti-establishment artist (albeit from another time) and to put such work to one side before laying waste to Sony’s citadel or other symbols of consumerism.

Why so devastated? Well, the process of collecting, collating, cataloguing, digitising and restoring my films was a long one and took more than two years to complete. Some films, such as Brothers and Sisters, were safely stored in the National Film Archive with negative, inter-negative, inter-positive and master soundtrack all in excellent condition, but others – such as Girl from the South and Waiting for Alan – had all but disappeared.

As the use of film has declined, so the number of laboratories dealing with and storing previously processed prints and negatives has decreased to a handful. This was the case with the laboratory in Leeds that originally processed, printed and negative-cut Girl from the South. Starting life as an independent operation in the Filmatic family, the lab was taken over by Ranks in the ’70s and then subsumed into the orbit of Yorkshire TV, which increasingly became its sole means of survival. When YTV stopped all but a few dramas on film, the need for a local laboratory disappeared and with the demise of YTV itself the lab was closed and its archive dispersed or (if an owner could not be found for remaining material) destroyed.

As was the case with the negative of Girl from the South and, had there not been a print discovered in a dusty cupboards belonging to a film festival in Finland, the film might have been lost forever. Waiting for Alan was a similar case, though this time – after much searching – the laboratory in London found the negative hiding in an attic above its reception office and Channel Four returned another print in good condition to the National Film Archive. Early experimental films such as Drinnen und Draussen and Illusive Crime were slowly decomposing in rusting film cans in collectors’ cellars or catalogued as phantom entries with organisations such as the London Film-makers Co-op or Concorde Films (former distribution arm of the Arts Council). But with the TLC and expertise of workers at the Yorkshire Film Archive all the early work (including student films not on the DVDs) was rescued, decontaminated, resuscitated, cleaned and put out to pasture in the climate controlled paradise of YFA’s HQ at York St John University.

Then, one by one, they were taken out of storage and sent down to the digital magicians at Primefocus in London. First to be digitised and then, once in digital format, to have their scrapes and scratches, blotches and blobs and other unsightly blemishes removed – sometimes singly, sometimes on the run. In one case, the Berlin-based film Kniephofstrasse, some of the scratching remains because it was felt to be part and parcel of a work which is experimental in nature and very much concerned with the act of viewing celluloid. Other films, such as Telling Tales – whose negative had also disappeared  – were carefully restored from existing prints with particular attention being paid to the colour sections. Sometimes decisions on what to restore and what to leave raw were difficult as ‘restoring’ in the digital age can also mean changing out of all recognition in relation to the original. Re-framing, re-colouring, re-focusing – anything is possible as anyone who has watched a ‘colourized’ Hollywood classic will know.

I hope that what was done to my films in the production of the box set, An Unflinching Eye, can provide viewers with an authentic, but aesthetically and technically acceptable experience. Certainly the films have been brought back to life from a point close to death and made accessible to those who wish to view them. Had they – and their respective ‘masters’ – perished in the overheated flames of last summer’s protests, a great deal of effort would have been in vain, even if their demise was in the cause of ‘us’ against ‘them’. As it was the ‘masters’ (and a number of descendant box-sets) were stored elsewhere and all was not lost. In fact, there is a bonus: later this summer the BFI is to replace lost copies with a re-issue.

May 2012