Sunday, 14 October 2012

Distant Thunder

I woke up with a terrible headache this morning, as is, regrettably, my wont.
It was a miserable, wet morning, and as I opened the shutters, I hoped Suffolk was enjoying better weather. My Papa is in Suffolk, and today is his 91st birthday.
Thanks to the rain, the early constitutional in the orchard was brief, damp and unrelieving, but by mid morning, however, the sky had cleared a little although my head had not, so when the In Charge pulled on his boots to take the dogs out, I dropped everything and went too.
My headaches don't generally like fresh air.

We went to the headland and found that the catamaran had pulled in. It has been gone this month or more.

Apparently it belongs to a family who used to come and camp on the headland every summer with a bevy of children and dogs. They live in the same area the In Charge comes from in the south west of England, and being a sociable sort of fellow, he often used to stop and chat with them in the old, camping days. It seems they have sold the van and the tents and whatever else they had, and bought a catamaran instead.
It flew, they said, at an almost unseemly 14 knots across the Bay of Biscay recently.
It is lashed together, Polynesian style. Not with string, I hope. Or dissolving stitches.

The tide was so low that we decided to go to our favourite beach. We haven't been there for awhile.
On the way we drove past flaming red hot pokers growing wild by the side of the road. My father would like them - he likes orange flowers. Were he closer than Suffolk, I would have picked a bunch and taken them to him this afternoon, in time for tea perhaps, and a slice of Happy Birthday Cake.

Not far from the red hot pokers is the little gateway that leads into the back of an old estate. I always want to duck down and go in but we never do. The laneway beyond the gate looks impassable these days, hedged in with brambles and thorn trees, though once it must have been their path to the sea. It leads to the woods behind the house. I have heard there is an old pet cemetery there, the last resting place of the family's beloved dogs, but I have never seen it.

When we got to the beach, we had it to ourselves, and ambled along the shore watching the young gulls, and the dunlins dancing over the water.

We hadn't thought to take Model Dog's ball with us, so she contented herself with motorbiking and pursuing the end of a piece of seaweed which the In Charge threw with satisfying dexterity. Model Dog never complains about my ineptitude with ball-throwing, but it was obviously nice to have a proper sportsman around.

We stopped to inspect the mussels on the rocks by the swimming pool. They have grown a lot over the summer, the In Charge informs me. He notices these things. Who knows, by next year, they might make a handy picnic for someone armed with a bottle of wine and a frying pan. (Note to self.)

I paused to take a picture at Lover's Leap before we turned and wandered back again.
My headache was gone, and as always, we felt calm and unravelled. A perfect Sunday outing.

As we left the beach, I stopped to listen to the crashing roar of the waves.
Like the sound of distant thunder.
It varies in intensity and volume, but it is the perpetual soundtrack to my life.
I hear it from my bed, from the garden, from the courtyard.
I don't know if I could live without it.

Friday, 12 October 2012

A Candle for St Jude

It is the most beautiful day.
The sun is shining, the sky is blue and although much may be wrong with the world, all is well for a moment or two. It is the sort of morning when you can't help walking around singing.
(The dogs are used to my voice raised in song, and are happily tone deaf.)
We set out for our early constitutional with a light heart.

The first outing of the day involves Top Dog and Under Dog pottering round checking that everything is as they left it last night.
For Model Dog, it is quite a different matter.
To start with, shaking with excitement and the pent-up springs of the night, she does a kind of vertical take-off that never ceases to make me laugh.When we reach the bank beside the orchard, she levitates, tucks her hind quarters in and then, while in mid-air, achieves a kind of turbo-charge which propels her up the short flight of steps without touching any of them. From this vantage point she starts her Isle of Man practice run.

I confess, I have mixed feelings about her circuit training - rather, I imagine, as TT spectators do. I love watching her motorbike-madness, and her sheer, joyful exuberance; but being a lurcher, she runs so fast that all I can think of are the endless obstacles in her path. Trees mainly - and fences. Benches and suchlike. Cats and hens, and the senior dogs who are past the age of youthful folly and don't appreciate being bowled over.
Not to mention me!
She is a fan of the close-shave.

Model Dog is just a blur

This morning, when she eventually reached 100mph, Top Dog and I took refuge behind the young horse chestnut tree.
Through its bare branches I watched her lapping herself, until I started noticing the branches themselves.
They cast a shadow over my pearlescent morning, because the young horse chestnut isn't just bare, it is dead.
I'm used to them looking dead.Horse chestnuts get quite a hard time of it here on the west coast. They insist on coming into leaf way before the other trees, and in consequence get hammered by the harsh north winds that blow - without fail - at some point in early May. I wish they would adjust their timetable, but perhaps that will take a hundred years or two.

The trouble is, they might not have a hundred years or two to play with.
I don't know very much about tree diseases, but there seem to be a lot of them about.
My poor old elm trees finally succumbed last year - just when I thought it had miraculously escaped Dutch Elm Disease - and we cut it down last winter. It seems very hard that we now have to face losing another species.
I don't know if my horse chestnut has died of the leaf-mining moth or bleeding canker, but probably the latter. There are nasty, dark rivulets down the bark that look like the trails of bitter tears.
It is a sorry sight.

In London there are many, many horse chestnut trees.
In the park where I used to walk with my small son and our dogs, they abounded and in spring looked like overdone Victorian Christmas trees with their wonderful profusion of candles. In autumn our walks became slower and slower as my bewitched eighteen-month old gathered as many gleaming, auburn 'carcons' as our communal pockets would hold.
He was fascinated by the smooth, perfect, polished roundness, even though he couldn't pronounce their name. Who could blame him. I was fascinated myself. Conkers are to have and to hold, and each new find, plucked from the leaves or its spiky nest, promises to be the one, the very one, that will never lose its new-minted gleam, its plump fullness.

Life was a walk in the park

It's hard to imagine autumn without an annual conker bonanza. They have have been part of my life ever since I moved to the Northern Hemisphere. The road we lived in was lined with statuesque trees and my mother - daft, dear woman that she is - used to post boxes of conkers to my young nephews in Scotland. We did try to convince her that horse chestnuts probably grow in Edinburgh just as successfully as in the south of England, but later, when my own son was smitten with conker-fever, I understood the need to share that particular bewitchment with small grandsons who were far away, and without a chestnut tree of their own. I remember stopping to admire a small, hidden chateau in the middle of nowhere in France. While we stood looking down the avenue from the gates, we lost track of our small heir for a few minutes, but he wasn't far away, and wasn't missing us at all. He looked like a miniature version of Father Christmas's sack - bulging all over, utterly content, picking up every conker he could find and stuffing them, squirrel-like into the pockets and pouches of his clothes.

What will small boys do without conkers?
Forget small boys. What will I do without conkers.


Someone told me a year or two ago that conkers exude something repellent to spiders, and if you want to keep the eight-legged invaders at bay, distribute conkers liberally around your house.
I gleefully brought in every one I could find and deposited them in clusters here and there. I even posted a few under my bed in the sure and certain knowledge that spiders would never more darken the inner sanctum of my personal space.
Oh joy.
But a few weeks later I woke up in the middle of the night. That sudden jerk into wakefulness that leaves you wondering warily what roused you.

It only took me a second to realise exactly what it was. A mouse was feasting on the banquet I had so thoughtfully provided just a foot or so beneath where I lay.

When I woke the In Charge to inform him, he was at his most withering.
'What did you expect?' he said, looking at me as if I was slightly simple.
After much internal debate, I removed the conkers - what was left of them - from under the bed.
I put them on the window sills.
Unfortunately, the mice were not so easily disposed of.

Now, it looks as if I will no longer have the mouse v. spider dilemma.
It looks as though I will no longer have the conkers. Or the beautiful candles in spring.
Back in London, all those years ago, as autumn drew to a close, my small son succinctly summed things up in terms he understood. His father - like many fathers - was a weekend treat. The rest of the time, the In Charge went off to work before his day began and returned after his bedtime.
On the sad day when no amount of sifting through the crisp, brown leaves revealed another conker, he straightened up, his little face a picture of resignation.
'Carcons gone work,' he said.

I wish I thought my horse chestnut would be back at the end of the day.
Sadly, blue skies and singing notwithstanding, I am not optimistic.
Another case for St Jude I guess. I understand he's the patron saint of lost causes.
If he's got time. I imagine he's rather busy these days.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Glitz and Glamour

It's all go in the village today.
I don't remember when I've last seen it so busy. Or so glamorous.
Brendan Gleeson is walking the streets, dressed in a cassock and looking thoughtful.

Brendan Gleeson walking the streets - hallowed ground now, surely?

The reason for this is that John McDonagh is shooting his latest feature film, Calvary and after months of anticipation and weeks of to-ing and fro-ing, at last it is all happening. Here. In a remote village on the west coast of Ireland.

The Community Centre car park is heaving with trailers, catering vans, the crew-bus and a whole heap of cars. The street is heaving with technicians, PAs wielding clipboards, people in high-viz jackets shouting 'Rolling! Quiet please!', and Gardai trying not to look thrilled to be involved.
It's all very exciting.

The village is full of expensive kit

Many, many years ago - too many to count - I worked for a small, independent film company in London. I enjoyed it very much and probably still have my old Union membership card somewhere - was it the ACCT? I can't even remember, it's all so long ago.
But we didn't make feature films, we made documentaries - altogether less glorious. 
There’s razzmatazz  around the village today. 
That’s a feature film for you.

Gordon, the Locations Manager, rang me several months ago when he was first on the hunt. 'We're going to be making a movie,' he said.
'I know,' I replied. 'Everyone knows.'
'Oh!' He sounded quite surprised, but then, maybe he doesn't live in a small, rural village.
In small rural villages, I think everyone knows what colour knickers you select from your drawer each morning, so a feature film is hardly going to be a secret.
When he'd got over his surprise, he told me what the movie was about. I already knew the bare bones, but I didn't like to take the wind out of his sails a second time.
'We're looking for a Rectory,' he finished. 'I understand you live in a Rectory.'
I paused.
This is a film about a Catholic Priest. The Rectory we live in could as well have PROTESTANT inscribed in pink neon letters across the front of its 220 year old facade. No one in Ireland would ever mistake this for the Parish Priest's house - it just doesn't look like one. But I knew it would be interesting to meet him.
'Why don't you come and have a cup of coffee,' I invited.

In the months since then, the In-Charge (who really should have been a Locations Manager) has taken Gordon down practically every lane in the county he hadn't already discovered on his own. He's taken him to Georgian houses, old Parish Houses, semi-derelict houses, pubs and anything else that might - or even might not - have been of interest. Happily, several places have proved to be just what they wanted.
Gordon is a really nice guy and excellent at his job, and I don’t just mean the locations-logistics bit. He’s good with people. I was quite startled that he never asked my name a second time. Most people take several goes to remember it, let alone pronounce it right. He's also very thoughtful. On one of his trips he brought John McDonagh and the Producer round as well, and we made more coffee and sat in the sunny courtyard. It transpires that John spent childhood holidays in our seaside village, which left a lasting impression – an impression that will now inform the world.
As he was leaving that day, John looked at our placid lurchers, stretched out in the sun 'Dogs,’ he remarked more to himself than anyone else. ‘We need dogs.'
‘Fame at last!’ I thought to myself. ‘Our house may not become internationally known, but our dogs will achieve worldwide celebrity!’

John McDonagh (with the black bag) deliberating his next shot

At last the film is being made. They are - as is the way with feature films, shooting scenes here, there and everywhere.
As I drove out from Sligo Town yesterday, I passed a charming little shop in the middle of nowhere that is another location. The place was deserted except for the owner, who, looking slightly bemused, was standing with a broom in one hand amidst a sea of foamy suds. Everywhere was white. '
'Goodness,’ I thought to myself. ‘They're really going to town - grooming the place within an inch of its life.’
It was only as I continued on that I realised there had been a very localised hail-storm. It was ice, not suds.

The houses of two of our friends are being used, also another friend's family-owned pub, which was the centre of great activity the other night. Colin and his dad now have a handsome photo of themselves with Brendan Gleeson. They said he was completely charming and very friendly, which is how it should be. Famous people should always be charming to their public, they have no reason to be otherwise. 
In my brief time working for the film company in London, I didn't meet many famous actors, but I did work with Edward Fox, James Mason and Hannah Gordon and they were all delightful.

The crew's bus and catering truck

Unlike Colin, I don't have any pictures of us with the great and the good on this occasion, but Gordon did sweetly invite us down to have lunch in the crew's bus. Unfortunately the In Charge wasn't at home, so I went on my own. They were filming down on the river as I walked into the village, a fishing scene. I paused on the bridge to watch for a moment, and saw two dogs lying on the river bank amongst all the crew.
I debated rushing down, shouting: ‘Cut! Cut!’ but it was obviously too late.
And to be scrupulously fair, they looked very nice dogs, just vastly inferior to mine. For one thing, they weren’t lurchers. I mean, for heaven’t sake, they ought to have been lurchers. This is Ireland after all.

It’s a bitter pill to learn that Top Dog and Model Dog aren’t going to be movie stars after all. Their chance of fame snatched by – what? Two golden retrievers? I relayed this disappointing news when I got home, and they were distinctly peeved. The trouble is - as I tried to explain - I'm just not pushy enough, not one of those stage-struck mothers. However, Under Dog has since told me that he’s quite glad as he didn’t really feel up to the role anyway - he’s too old to feature in Hello! and there might be stairs at the premiere. He doesn’t like stairs.

Model Dog hears that she is not going to be a movie star after all

Tomorrow the trucks and trailers will all be gone – down to the shop that hasn’t been scrubbed after all. The village will be back to its normal self, passing on what colour knickers everyone is wearing. But it was fun, feeling a vicarious touch of glitz and glamour around the place. And it brought back memories of cutting room floors and the buzz of creativity, the perennial hope that the end result will be a winner. But also, watching the numerous takes of Brendan Gleeson walking down our now-hallowed street, the reminder of how much hard, repetitive work goes into creating anything.

The company I worked with didn't do feature films, but the two documentaries we made while I was there both won awards - something I am proud of. No one around here will care whether Calvary is a box office hit or not, we’ll all want to own the DVD regardless, but I hope it does well for John McDonagh, and Gordon, and everyone else involved.
How the film fares will probably colour their memories of us, but nothing can ever take the shine off how we’ll remember them.

Even movie stars can look dejected