Monday. 19 September 2011. Hastings Old Town.
The eyes of the liberated and still nameless swan are blind as Homer. Which is appropriate. White plastic ridges in a sheltering declivity. The proud black beak points at the raging ocean, priapic as a rudder, and hinting at one disturbing fact: if the snout is indeed a rudder, then our craft is facing the wrong way, inland, amusement arcades, cliffs, caves, steady traffic. Last night a pantechnicon, headlights blazing, swept down the coast road, as the rubber-encased Kötting slid among the chained swans, deciding one which to free. The great American-sized rig was emblazoned with the stencil of a bowel-tearing eagle, which I took for another Homeric prompt. The old gods know how to adopt the shape of signs and symbols. What impressed me, when we talked about this background detail, was that Nick Gordon Smith, while tracking Kötting through the pissy water, managed to capture that moment on film, the lorry and the fierce eagle. I knew, at once, that we could rely on the crew, our partners in this venture, to document all necessary aspects of the absurdist voyage. Nothing needed to be said. We hauled swans, we challenged the waves, we disappeared from sight: they were there, Nick and Philippe with his dangling wires and a beard designed to act as a noise-sensitive swallower of acoustic footprints. Unlike the usual recordist who goes into an attack of vapours at a passing plane or cough of wind, Philippe takes off on the drift, logging the tempest, watching the gull flocks, musing on previous adventures in China. He is Swiss and lives in Hackney, which sounds like a provocative combination. Anonymous Bosch, as ever, swims close to the action, with pinholes and tripod contrivances, making his own art. Postcards for web reports and moody portraits for eternity. Rob Bernard, Cyclopean in function, guards the camper van and the expensive gizmos, deep memories of events that have not yet happened. This vehicle, door opening straight into the traffic, remains, for now, unsullied by the five sleepers and their troubled dreams of swans who refuse to quit the shingle. Mel, our runner, like one of those magnificent providers at the palace of Odysseus (when he is lost at sea), appears at irregular intervals bearing pizza disks and mugs of coffee. Secretly, she slips away for energy-replenishing hits of iced bun. And conference calls in her flash motor.
Andrew’s dream, which he is determined to enact, is of his daughter Eden, a child-spirit in Gallivant, now a young woman. She will float in the swan, from lake to sea. To this end we hoist and heave, while Eden chuckles and caws, a queen in her music-hall craft, her escaped fairground ride. She is the Lady of Good Voyage. The one that Eliot speaks of in The Dry Salvages. The one Charles Olson disputes and returns to a real physical self, on a sea-going church in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Eliot mythologizes that crisis of leaving land.
Lady whose shrine stands on the promontory,
Pray for all those who are in ships, those
Whose business has to do with fish, and
Those concerned with every lawful traffic.
Eden trills. She has watched her father set off, many times before this. She stood on Dover Cliff when he assaulted the English Channel, swimming with his brothers to France. Eden comes and goes. But she is always in Andrew’s thoughts. She was a vital element in the original equation, with the circumnavigation of Britain for Gallivant. As innocence, as bird-voice. With the wise old granny, Gladys, completing the triangle. After the messenger speaks, Homer tells us, she changes shape. ‘The next moment she was gone, vanishing like a bird through a hole in the roof.’
The Health and Safety, wetsuit minders are more concerned with holes in the swan. ‘You’re going to take on water. You’ll go down like a stone.’ They have that MOT garage-speak to perfection. The sucking in of breath. ‘Oh dear oh dear oh dear.’ Doom doom doom. More hairline cracks than Wayne Rooney’s pubic graft, his bald pate re-think. ‘Go near the water in that and we wash our hands of you.’ Sign a waver, sign a contract in blood. No life insurance, no liability. We are the property of the company.
‘Are you happy?’ Andrew says. To the person he imagines riding in a swan that is going nowhere – and which might be no more than a projection of his rampant psychosis. A gondola for the inflatable DeadDad in some Mexican firecracker procession. The more impossible the task, the better the art, he reckons. ‘Are you happy?’
‘Ummm.’ Eden responds with a big smile. ‘Umma. Ahh.’
‘How happy?’ Andrew persists. ‘Very happy? Very very happy? Good.’
Eden has some lovely paintings on show in a gallery beneath Marine Court, still-lifes like floating picnics on a serene blue sea.
‘I like drawing because it makes me feel good. It makes me feel big and happy when I am drawing,’ Eden writes in the catalogue. ‘I am happy, happy, happy.’
At last, after impossibly drawn-out, freeze-on-the-shore-for-hours, film-frustration time, the prima donna swan is ready for her close-up, Mr DeMille – but the wind and waves are not ready, those queeny elements. No sacrifices, no libations. Andrew paints an eye and the creature comes to life. I can feel the shudder run through the hard plastic feathers. She assumes character, haughty, flighty, don’t want to get my skirts wet.
Dipping the beak, an old Mafia expression, I believe. She hasn’t dipped her beak in wine. This is not going to work.
We sledge the swan across the shingle, in rage, against all advice, the production doesn’t not want us to do this. It would be much simpler to go with the CGI version and some ironic voice-over. I ask Andrew if he can do Paul Scofield. He thinks not, but he does a decent Goon Show parody of Gladys. And he keeps warm by pissing into his waders.
The waves are coming too fast, one after another, not massive but strong and unpredictable. Down we go, tumbled, the pedalo swamped with dirty yellow water. We tip her up, in an undignified fashion, swab her out, try again. Same result. My shoes are now full of small sharp stones. If we do get out, get away, we won’t be back. The support boat is bucking. Andrew gets me to read a few lines from Stephen Crane, The Open Boat. The account he penned after the disaster of the Commodore in 1897, when a vessel carrying arms from Florida to Cuba sunk. Crane, in another phase of his career, took a house in swan-voyage territory at Brede. His wife Cora, former saloon-keeper, fed Henry James his first burger.
None of them knew the colour of the sky. Their eyes glanced level, and were fastened upon the waves that swept toward them. These waves were of the hue of slate, save for the tops, which were of foaming white… The horizon narrowed and widened, and slipped and rose, and at all times its edge was jagged with waves that seemed to thrust up in all points like rock.
Many a man ought to have a bath-tub larger than the boat which here rode upon the sea. These waves were most wrongfully and barbarously abrupt and tall, and each froth-top was a problem in small boat navigation…
A seat in this boat was not unlike a seat upon a bucking bronco, and, by the same token, a bronco is not much smaller. The craft pranced and reared, and plunged like an animal… Then after scornfully bumping a crest, she would slide, and race, and splash down a wrong incline and arrive bobbing and nodding in front of the next menace…
As ever, the life of art is revealed as quotation, all respect stripped away. Kötting’s practice, as I have often said, lurches between Stan Brakhage (visionary intensity) and Benny Hill (hyper-kinetic pantomime).
‘Whatever you do,’ our minder roared, as we charged the channel for the third time, ‘don’t get between the waves and the swan.’ And at that moment, right on cue – Andrew having cannily stripped to his trunks, and burst his swimming cap like an over-extended black condom – I was positioned precisely between the rearing roller, as it lifted our vessel against a darkening sky, and the absolute downrush of hard-plastic swan.
This sodden and farcical catastrophe, the abandoned attempt at a launch, made for great film, I was assured. ‘We’ve got at least three opening sequences now,’ Kötting said. And no middle passage, no conclusion. Two days in and we are fifty yards from Swan Lake with force seven winds promised and no likelihood of going anywhere in the next few weeks. This promises to be a Swiftian or Beckettian exercise, never shifting from the shingle. A nice piece for Radio 3. Footsteps. Winds. Screams.
When it came night, Crane wrote, the white waves paced to and fro in the moonlight, and the wind brought the sound of the great sea’s voice to the men on the shore, and they felt that they could then be interpreters.