Monday, 13 June 2016

Burnlaw and the Russian Woodpecker

This year's Losing the Plot festival finished on an adrenalin high. We watched the Russian Woodpecker, a film I had been urged to watch by friends who'd caught it in Orkney. They told me it was about a Ukrainian artist who believed he had traced the cause of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. His film was to claim that a Soviet-era apparatchik had triggered the meltdown as a way to cover up a different fuck-up. Which sounds implausible, and I went into the screening with a healthy scepticism to conspiracy stories.


I was not prepared for how gripping and entertaining and powerful the film was: you should go see it. It knew it was a film, did not waste your time or treat you as stupid, and it was not afraid to jump past the inbetween parts and tell you each key episode of the tale as it unravelled : the artist's face as he runs through the gamut of emotions from suspicion to discovery to elation at finding theories confirmed, is in itself a joy to behold. He comes across as something of an idiot-savant, bumbling and awkward and beyond what the likes of, say Jon Ronson/Russell Brand/Ai Weiwei would ever manage: he comes across as genuine, and here in front of you now, revealed. A back-story into his life, with comments from his family about his particular character, all worked well to reassure us that this film was telling us a true tale. By this I mean not that the neat conspiracy tale need be true, but that this was a film about a character with his emotions and thoughts upfront and visible, pursuing a righteous investigation. We were gripped, we were bonded with his character, we laughed at him and we were drawn into the investigation as it proceeded from interview to interview, from secret-filming to site-visit to fearful discussions of whether to proceed.


The content of his investigation is not what was most powerful. I remain doubtful that such a huge event can really be traced to a few individuals' fully-conscious decisions, but the effort of his and the team's research and confrontation with the past is massively valuable nonetheless. He, Fedor Alexandrovich, is a sort of contemporary performance artist. I don't quite have the right terminology to describe it, but there is a scattering of really bold and impressive avant-garde artists across Russia, Ukraine and other old Eastern bloc countries that does not have a counterpart in the West. The most famous now are Pussy Riot, but I am thinking also of incidents like the man nailing his genitals to the railings at Red Square, and other deliberately upsetting, disruptive, shocking acts that are mostly-unknown to us. I used to read an online journal by some from that culture, but have lost touch with it and I would be grateful if you could direct me to other accounts. Pussy Riot in the West were easy, lazy to support : in context in Russia they were genuine and fucking awesome activists. Their reportage of the Russian prison system was done not for ego or celebrity, but on behalf of all those inside, all those affected. In the same way, this film was about all those affected by Chernobyl. An avant garde art scene that cares about 'stuff'? - completely inspiring.


Thus far thus powerful. The imagery and the development of story built up to the Maidan protests and toppling of government in Ukraine. And then the third act of the film started and it peaked our emotional responses to the film and built to its sort-of climax and finished sharply. No one's mind was able to wander off-point for even a moment. Great film. But now I was troubled.


The credits rolled, the audience sat quietly, and as our host Christo opened the blinds and opened up an invitation to talk about the film, I think we were all a bit wobbly: my usual conflict at those periods, just after a film that has affected me, is that I do not want to rush into commentary immediately. I've been known to hurry out of a screening before the noise dims, ahead of others, because their anodyne comments can ruin the feeling that I am wanting to take some time to process. In this case, I spoke first because, selfishly, I wanted to say my piece before someone else infected it with theirs! And then others spoke, and it was good because it felt like we were all at least equally impacted upon emotionally. Politics, truth, rawness, film-making and history were covered in the discussion. We wouldn't have time to reach, or attempt to reach, any definitive commentary or consensus, but it was one of those rare post-film discussions (for me), that do help to ease the transition from being immersed in the film to walking away afterwards with 'the effect' or 'the review' stored away in your head. I'd like to thank the people there for creating that space where it was not just me dealing with my thoughts, but us together, rattled, working things out a bit.


The final main sequence of the film has the protagonist taking the stage during the street protests of Ukraine's overthrow of the old regime. And he spoke, still truthfully, still authentically, about what he had discovered and what it meant. But now he was on a stage, and he was speaking about Ukraine, and about Russia. And in that crowd, of inspiring rebels who fought and died to create what they saw as a better world, were a huge number of different thoughts and possibilities. Some from my own political tradition, some liberal, some pro-Europe, some out-and-out neo-Nazi. I don't claim to know where Ukraine is now, it confuses me, but I do know it is an uneasy state of governance. Neonazis in government, even if not in sole power, is perhaps the scariest politics that any of us could describe. And here was our hero, the idiot-savant investigator, who mixed earnestness and naivete with determination and fear, who had turned this into a redemptive search that revealed a lot of the evil done by those in power. Standing on stage, talking of nations, with the flags of country A against country B, and the squads of streetfighters training their tactics against the riot police around him. What I called, inaccurately, the inspiring and disruptive avant-garde scene of Russia/Ukraine/beyond, had shifted context from individuals-versus-system, into a situation of individuals-absorbing-into-nationalism. This I found, and do find deeply troubling. Was this the moment that that avant-garde movement was turned from something that championed individual experience and disrupted the established processes of power, into something corralled into bolstering just such processes of power: the nationalism of New Europe>


The film finished on Sunday and today is Monday morning in the office before I start work. This is not a finished review, but I have felt compelled to write it - to write something - because of the unease left by this remarkable and very very watchable film.


ps. The Russians are coming to get you.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Zines up the Logjam

Hi, I really enjoyed giving out some free copies of my Late Shows Zine at the weekend. Officially I don't feel they've been mine to give out, as they were part of my paid commission last year, but I really wanted to share them with some people. I'll stick a few pictures on here when I can, but I live in the countryside these days and the internet is weak (I like this), which means uploading photos is a right royal pain. I need to devote actual planned time to do it, so apologies for the sparseness of my sharing on here.

Anyhow, two zines should be out and about this summer, which were ready last summer. One is the Late Shows Zine, and the other is the Coffeeshops Zine.

If you would like either, post me something to my new address at
Millfield Cottage, 
Bardon Mill, 
Northumberland, 
NE47 7HX. 
A postcard is easily sufficient. 
A letter is a treasure. 
A zine a gift.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Today was a good day for footprints.

The sand and silt layer now covering our riverside woodland is a great material for collecting footprints.
 
Normally this is mostly dog walkers, but by the river, amongst the birds, this little fellow has been pottering about.
 
I especially like the scale : the moorhen or ducks are loads bigger than this little mammal (we've guessed bank vole, but haven't consulted the books yet to find out).
 
You can count the toes and work out how he was walking, tell the front paws apart from the back paws and speculate about what he was doing : looking for food? Looking for a likely new home after the floods?
 
Just look at all those footprints! The pattern of them is enough to make me happy.

Pancake Football

I've lived in Newcastle or Northumberland for 20 years now, and never once made it to the football played on pancake day in Alnwick. Until this year that is!


First the feudal overlords dropped the ball from the Barbican of their castle: keeping their distance to avoid the germs of we the crowd. Then their loyal serfs marched to the field over the river.

Here we are gathering to watch, and I expected fisticuffs and nosebleeds.
 
Action! Note the leafy green goal. The players were younger, more skilled, and less violent than I expected. I was shivering, ill-equipped for the wind.

So like this dead duck, I ducked out when the teams changed sides, and went off to Alnmouth for the train home.

I don't know if it's a spring tide, or just the general saturation from our recent storms, but I've never seen the land so inundated. We watched a barn owl hunting over the hedges and reed edges, dwarfed by the curlews flocking over it. Back on a warmer day in Spring.




Thursday, 28 January 2016

This : Flood

I live by the river. A really lovely stretch of woodland lines each side, with a shingle bank for dippers and oystercatchers on one side, and a sandy cliff for sand martins on the other. The big floods caused by storms Desmond, Eva, Frank and so on have had a massive effect. Many trees have gone and the shape of the bank is altered. But apart from that I don't yet know the impact, so on my firewood collecting walk today I took photos of some places and spring beginnings that I will follow up next time. Will the Himalayan Balsam have disappeared? Will we have lost species, or will seeds in the silt have finally reached the light and bring back the plants of the past?

This is the river bank, note the orange willow and the (new) way the bank curves smoothly down to the water.

This is just to the west of the bridge, with the telegraph pole the main landmark. It shows the route taken by the flood waters last month and, again, this month.

This is just to the east of the bridge, the dogwalkers' path which persisted as a stream for a week or two after the floods were officially over.
 
All that sandy surface is new. It used to be carpeted with green, and in autumn winter became a mostly brown, leaf and mud and plant-tufts floor. Now a lot of this ground was washed away (surely?), but what is more noticeable is how a dumped layer of silt and sand has been layered on top of it, sometimes up to 8 inches deep. What's inside this layer? And what will have the strength to poke through? 

A broader view of the wooded riverbank shows how sandy the ground now is, and how sparse the trees appear : how many were washed away? How many were just outgrowths, deadwood and shrubby extras?

Edge of wood and water. I suspect this used to a spot I would launch my kayak from, in which case the bank was generally a metre higher than the water, and I had to jump down to the edge.

Success! This broom (or is it called furze, I'll look it up) is having a great time in this wet warm winter. Its black pods were also dry and rattled full of seeds, ready to strike new ground if nothing else does.

A typical colouration of green as new shoots come through the sand : the water above is not the river, but a still channel left parallel to it,
A wider view of the channel, about 10 metres inland and not to drain until the water table lowers.

New grass shoots. I'm assuming pre-existing grass. We might get a nice lawn at this rate.
 
Bulbs coming through in one spot.
A typical selection of persisting and poking-through plants, including nettles in the front right, creeping buttercup and maybe ground elder, which used to dominate in quite a few areas.

Lots of these little heart-shaped leaves, which I've not yet looked up to identify.

Docks are tough, they're gonna make it in lots of places.
Dandelions also have roots persisting here.

But they'll not be alone: other leaves like this suggest that red campion, knapweed, wood avens and suchlike may well return. I'll make a list of what I noticed in previous years, and tick em off when they appear.

Alder buds in their super purple period: a lot of alder were uprooted and washed away, but they're still around.

One of the mysteries : what makes stalks white? Do certain species not bother to make chlorophyll until a certain age? Is it something to do with the sand and the wet?

This bit of tree has held enough stuff together (or created enough of an eddy in the water) to create something of an island in the sand, with a lot of old comrades still hanging on together in a survivalist community.


Brambles like this have survived, although they might have forgotten what's the top and what's the bottom.
This hummock is an area I think I quite systematically removed Himalayan Balsam from over the last couple of years. I'll be watching to see who comes back.

One area is much lower and more fragile/fragmented than before, and it will be interesting to see if it grows or gets slowly pulled away. This view is facing west.
 
And this view is the same spot facing east : note how wet and loose the land is.

Will this sort of spot become a stream, or will it become a great fertile base for new life, once the water table returns to 'normal'?

These little islands are our precarious outliers : nothing but the roots of their inhabitants to keep em with the land.

The clumps to the left indicate how high the river was.

Odd little mandrake-style roots pop up. Maybe they'll make it and gather new mud around them. Maybe me and the dogwalkers will kick em to bits.

Nice moss, liverwort and semi-aquatic plant communities have survived on the vertical edges of some coast : amazing to think of the hours they stuck together against the speeding current.

Daffodils, now in a daft place. They look happy for now.

I don't know what these sedges or reeds are but they survive in various clumps.

This used to be part of the shore. The tree to the left was more upright yesterday than it is today. Doomed to wash down the Tyne I reckon.
 
Another of the dogwalks that became streams, leaving higher triangles and diamonds of grass.

Presumably this is ground elder, kicking off again like nothing much happened.

This bent over pine also survived, just.

And my first flower of spring (not counting all the ones that never stopped flowering over the new year), a bonny colts foot.

More like this to come : again, showing the benefits of persistent roots.

More of the spring greens will come from this sort of thing, however : the green dusting in front of my feet is new shoots, which will make it if our feet don't grind them down.

New shoots coming up on the, er, these reedy plants whose names I don't know.

And other vegetative growth: are these flowers?

A view further east to re-check later in spring, with the nice fallen trunk landmark.

Flow, recorded in the sand : shoots coming through.

And above the ground, this tree has made a hanging basket for some plants.

Snowdrops, a bit exposed but still in position.

I hope the otters return, and the voles with them.