The Lens of Find

From my opioid cloud I look up from a blank computer screen to the window. I should be writing but somehow it’s easier to stare at the trees and sky. On this December afternoon it’s not yet 4pm and already it’s dark, a winter dark so deep it can swallow one’s soul.

This lack of light is a metaphor I could extend to life in general but that would be too dramatic – or would it? On the streets, shops and parks, as I see people going about their business I suspect many are struggling with their mental wellbeing. As Covid mutates, with the economy in the bin, the government mired in corruption and the BBC unable to say the word “Brexit” clearly something’s amiss.

While the world gathered in my home city for COP26 last month, I retreated. At first I thought it was a measure of my detachment but I had zero interest in the conference, its sideshows, performative politics and hollow gestures. Everyone knows the fix is in. That the host cities of COPS 27-29 – Sharm-El-Shieikh/Cairo, the United Arab Emirates and Odessa – are firmly scheduled speaks to a failure by the United Nations bordering on the criminal. In COP-land, cupidity masquerades as progressive activism that no amount of sloganeering or hashtaggery will deliver us from.

Anticipating the closure of large parts of the inner city, a week before COP26 I scoped locations north and south of the River Clyde for my current film. In Tradeston, a place once dominated by the Kingston Docks, warehouses and tenements, not for the first time I felt the ghosts of my family who lived and worked in the area until the late 1960s when forced to move due to the construction of the Kingston Bridge. In 1966 the docks were filled in, with the bridge completed in 1970. Today it is one of Europe’s busiest, carrying over 150,000 vehicles a day.

Musing on this, I made a spark of connection between the construction of the Kingston Bridge and the corrosive nature of nostalgia. During my project, The Devil’s Plantation I lost count of people contacting me to ask the fate of a lost school or church, or the whereabouts of a family who lived in Carnoustie Street in 1964 or the address of an estranged brother. Many wrote from Canada or Australia, others from local schemes or Glasgow’s overspill towns. While touched by their desire to reach into the past, I didn’t wish to be the keeper of their memories. At times I don’t want to keep my own.

The author, Alex Niven, writing about England stated, “Morbid nostalgia is the evil twin of technological modernity.” Today genealogists rely on digital records to mine the rare elements of their predecessors. Thanks to my late sister and, recently I traced my maternal grandmother’s birthplace – Co. Monaghan, Ireland – a familial oversight on my part but a lifeline granting me a route back to a border-free EU. Perhaps technology isn’t so evil, after all.

Standing beneath the vast concrete span of the Kingston Bridge, (with its dodgy-looking underpinning) I can’t help but conjure the Paisley Road of old, lined with shops, bars, cafes, dancehalls, cinemas and tenements, a place populated by the working poor. My paternal grandmother, Lizzie once ran the length of Houston Street dressed only in a nylon nightgown and slippers, brandishing a breadknife as she chased her errant son, my uncle, who with a friend forcibly emptied her pre-pay slot-TV, unaware that behind the red brocade curtain of her in-shot bed, Lizzie was sleeping off a 10-hour nightshift at the Co-op warehouse.

With the clearance of the tenements, these and countless stories were scattered, with precious few committed to page or screen. History is written by the winners. In Tradeston today only the ex-Cooperative building and Kingston Halls survive, the former the runner-up in a competition to design the City Chambers, repurposed as residential and commercial spaces while the latter remains the site of the first Carnegie library in Glasgow and since 1981 has operated as a night shelter for the homeless.

On this clear, chill evening, I shoot anticipating day-for-night, trying not to heed the ghosts who insist themselves: my maternal grandfather, a foreman at Kingston Docks, often seen walking up Scotland Street with half a purloined sheep balanced on his shoulder. And my father’s father, a carter and bookie’s runner, rumoured to have driven his horse and cart into the Clyde after a night on the lash. A good story, albeit a fiction – he died of congenital heart failure aged 40.

Later, in the edit, as I plunged the River Clyde into digital darkness I marvelled at how even the most unpromising material can be transformed into something that to me is beautiful. I thought about my screenplay too, which at time of writing exists as a set of episodic sketches and fragments, though I’m certain the bigger picture is in sight. Never has writing ‘simple’ been so complicated. Musing on this lack of progress, between the privations of Covid, chronic pain and waning confidence I’ve lost almost two years, made all the more arduous by what I regard as a threat to female creativity, a threat little acknowledged nor discussed: younger women.

And yes, this is personal. Recently a writer acquaintance, Jane Darroch Riley proposed she write a piece about my work for the website, Invisible Women. She was prompted by their call for articles highlighting the careers of overlooked women filmmakers, a claim I can firmly stake. At the risk of immodesty, few have achieved what I have – or been quite so ignored. For the doubtful, see my account of trying to get my films listed in the BFI Filmography.

My reply to Jane was affirmative and grateful. What I couldn’t bring myself to say, however, was that she wouldn’t succeed. She didn’t. What was especially galling is that Jane, an accomplished and highly experienced writer, not only wrote a pitch but also sent samples of past work to appease the judges AND she generously offered to donate her fee to a younger sister.

Swapping emails, Jane and I concurred that while class trumps all else, on this occasion, age – or rather, ageism – is the modus ingrata among the “emerging.” There are few things as invisible (pun intended) as a middle-aged woman and her talent.

I see it among my peers. Creative women who establish themselves early in their career can usually maintain a profile but, for numerous reasons, the unseen majority quit. Some are tethered to caregiving duties; others reinvent themselves. Overlooked by both mainstream and peripheral media, older women struggle for visibility while institutions, abetted by a media too lazy to do much beyond cut-and-pasting press releases, take up air with exhortations of ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’ in a bid to appear caring and relevant.

While I can’t speak for women in the visual arts, publishing, theatre, etc. in the realm of film, one finds 20 and 30-something, upper middle-class females whose blushes I’ll spare by not naming, in careers underwritten largely by state subsidy. They are not makers. They, like so many in curatorial/admin/academic circles, arrogate to themselves the role of arbiters of film culture and history

In this sharp-elbowed practice, only those who display the ‘correct’ intersectional credentials are worthy of citation, regardless of the quality of the output. Identity is all to arbiter and subject alike. Little wonder then that neo-liberalism has spawned a generation whose collective psyche is simultaneously reproving, touchy and blindly ignorant – often, as they say in screenwriting 101 – with hilarious consequences.

I’m reminded of a famous exchange between the BBC and an acclaimed, multi award-winning documentary maker, Tony Palmer. His pitch for a film about the composer, Vaughan Williams was turned down by the corporation. The rejection came in a bizarre letter by a commissioning editor who stated, ‘having looked at our own activity via the lens of find, play and share,’ the BBC had decided his film didn’t fit with ‘the new vision for (BBC) Vision.’

As a kiss-off, the letter wished Mr. Palmer, ‘good luck with the project and do let me know if Mr. V. Williams has an important premiere in the future as this findability might allow us to reconsider.’ And I thought I was verbose. That ‘Mr. V. Williams’ shuffled off his mortal coil in 1958 plainly escaped the notice of the commissioner. Subsequently Mr. Palmer made his film – for Channel 5.

I’m writing this the day after the annual British Independent Film Awards. As a voter for the last two years, I’m reminded that in order to promote fairness in the evaluation of films, BIFA requires its voters to undergo Unconscious Bias training. On completing the course last September, I was asked by the training provider, Screen Skills, for feedback. I duly obliged, pointing out the omission of two marginalised groups: the ‘old and the working-class or, as I’ve seen it framed, the socio-economically challenged. I never got a reply. I rest my case.

The above image is of the view outside my window on a December afternoon. To my regular readers, and since it’s unlikely I’ll post before Christmas and New Year, I wish you all the best. Let’s hope 2022 brings better prospects, Mx.