SWANLOG DIARY, Tuesday. 20 September 2011. Hastings Old Town.

Tuesday. 20 September 2011. Hastings Old Town.

 They sit, one on either side of me, on the bench facing Swan Lake, the wetsuit minders, call them Tom and Tom. Our backs are resolutely set against the misbehaving sea. We are waiting, as always, for the crew to unstick themselves from the curried depths of the camper van.

‘It’s simple enough,’ the senior Tom said, ‘you can film at sea and you can film on land. But you must never, neverever, try and film between the two. That’s when your problems start. In that bit where it’s wet, but you’ve still got one foot on the ground.’

Tom 2 nodded and gave me an encouraging smile.

‘I’ve been dropped by helicopter in the Bay of Biscay in a force nine. It’s like falling down a mineshaft in lead boots. But you’re at sea, so you know where you are. You can’t feel your arms and legs and your tongue goes blue, the next wave is the size of the Ritz, but you haven’t got a problem.’

‘Yeah right. He’s right.’ Tom 2 grinned. ‘Sea is sea.’

These were reassuring figures, taking a chance, with the wilder elements of the crew still unknotting vests and shaking out soup from their beards, to put me in the picture. They were ex-SAS, Special Boat Service, Brighton boys. They had a hardshell inflatable with enough power to go to Dieppe for coffee and back before Andrew hauled his waders on. They were under the illusion that they’d signed on for a James Bond movie. And that they would be right in shot, bouncing from wave to wave, drowning us with their steepling wake. And maybe, if we were very lucky, after a week or two, they would let us back on the children’s paddling pool. I wasn’t cruel enough to ask if Swan Lake qualified as water filming. I saw the pain and confusion in their eyes when we dragged the swan out of its element on to the land.

‘You’ve got to understand,’ Tom 1 whispered, now that we were intimates. ‘It’s about kinetic energy. Waves are not like us. Once they’ve got a taste for rolling and tumbling, there’s no going back. They’ll roll for days at a time, they can’t stop. Like ball bearings on a tilted table. On and on and on: kinetic force. So long as they stay where they are, allright. Sea is sea. And shore is shore. What if they should cross that line, up the beach, over the road, across the promenade? Doesn’t bear thinking about. Kinetic apocalypse. End of civilization as we know it.’

Tom 2 flapped his flippers in acknowledgement.

‘Wind comes from the north, it does happen, and we might let you out. You’ll be down to Rye in an hour without peddling. Could be tomorrow, could be next month. But no filming.’

‘No filming, no,’ said Tom 2, sadly. ‘Not until you’re safely at sea, a mile out. And don’t look back. Forget the land. It’s a different world.’

Now that I was deeper into Homer, I knew what that giant eagle on the truck, when Kötting stole the swan, actually meant. A portent from the gods, a telegram straight from Zeus. Watch it.

Zeus, who was watching from afar, urged two eagles into flight from the mountain-top. For a while they sailed down the wind with outstretched pinions, wing to wing. But as soon as they were directly over the meeting-place, where the sound of voices filled the air, they began to flap their wings and wheel about, glancing down at the faces of the crowd with looks foreboding death, They then fell to work with their talons, ripping each other’s cheeks and neck on either side, and so swooped eastward over the house-tops of the busy town.

 

 

We heed this warning. It does not always run smoothly between film-makers, on shore or land, who are about doing, and reckless with money that is not their own, and production staff who are about not-doing, not-spending, not-risking – although they are already involved in the biggest risk of all, the generous gift of time and energy and acumen to the derangement of a post-Herzogian vanity project. In the past, Andrew whispered, when he was young and foolish, he had been known to Glasgow kiss those who tried to preach wisdom and restraint. Now he took the sight of the eagles to heart and chewed on his salty tongue. As the days slipped by, minders, managers, drivers, fetchers, amusement arcade operators, weathermen comfortably outnumbered the active participants, who grumped and grumbled as they do.

I was delighted with all this, the interconnections and layerings were more complex and pertinent by the hour. That powerful sense of being trapped on land, like Telemachus, son of Odysseus, his palace full of his widowed mother’s hoggish suitors,  layabouts feasting on his sheep and goats, swilling his wine. And all the while preparing a swift boat for escape, the great life-enhancing quest: to search out the story of his father. To find a tale worth telling, where the sun drops into the wine-dark sea.

We needed a sacrifice. We needed to pour wine on the troubled waters. Otherwise it was all economics and risk assessments, cartons of pea-green soup from Judges’ bakery. When the real gets too real, too set in its ways, throw in some magic. Kötting, having painted the swan’s eyes, was bonded. He carried to the shingle slope a number of significant artefacts, curious twigs, miniature tea-pots and the like. He scooped up a rinse of seawater and swallowed it down, like a true performance artist, before spraying the horrified swan’s cracked neck. The show finished with the production of a bottle of fortified liquor called Le Source, which featured a label showing a mountain hut and a forested backdrop.

‘That’s where I should be,’ the director said.

And we all agreed. After a couple of hits from the narrow bottle, I saw the forest beneath the waves, the stakes and piers of the ancient Roman harbour at Hastings, the one washed away by winter storms.

Putting the business back on track, we chorused the opening of Pound’s Cantos. A sprawling, shuddering epic that dares to start in the middle, on a stroke of continuity, with ‘And then…’ I read a line and Andrew shouted it back across the swan.

And then went down to the ship,

         Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea and

         We set up mast and sail on that swart ship…

My papers are so sodden by this time, after various duckings and drenchings, after scratching with a swan nib dipped in black paint, that swart reads as swan. When we came to Poured libations unto each the dead, I opened a bottle of Oxford Landing red from the beach-drinkers minimart, swilled and spat. Spat blood over the swan’s whiteness, wings and neck. Before we marched through the breakers, chanting:

Odysseus

         Shalt return through spiteful Neptune, over dark seas,

         ‘Lose all companions.’…

         And he sailed, by Sirens and thence outward and away…

 

Outward and away. Outward and away. Outward and away. We chanted and splashed our libations on the raging waves. Outward and away.

My own journey, the bigger trip, lay ahead. Not just the Yeatsian ‘That is no country for old men’ stuff. Not sailing to Byzantium. Not raging against the dying of the light. No salmon-falls, no mackerel crowded seas. I was still two years short of my biblical span, time for grander misadventures. The swan voyage was local, a domestic matter, nothing more difficult than unpicking the hubris of the Olympic Park, the Westfield Palace of Vanities. The wider picture was the North Atlantic. As soon as I stepped off the swan – should we ever launch – I would be flying to Boston, heading for Gloucester, Mass. Reconnecting with my early inspiration, Charles Olson. Who, gorged on Melville and his white whale, on the ranges of ancient mountains beneath the ocean, on European myths and the facts of American geography, did go out with the fishermen – if only to learn that the sea was not ‘finally’ his business. But Maximus left us with the best map for our adventure, the idea of open-field poetics, of his true and original version of postmodernism. Back with Homer and Hesiod. With Pound in the Washington asylum.

Look properly at your sources. It is not Odysseus who is making libations, it is a son, Telemachus, setting off to search for his lost father. As Andrew Kötting voyaged, from northern islands to Mexico, to discover the part of himself buried with his DeadDad and the DeadDad before that. And the young daughter who seems older and wiser, sometimes, than all of them, when, coming to the beach, she reaches out her arms. And laughs at the madness, the folly of men.

SWANLOG DIARY, Monday. 19 September 2011. Hastings Old Town.

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.