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We are driving from Pitlochry to London to start back to work tomorrow. It’s been a great New Year break or ‘Hogmanay’ as its called in Scotland.
Yesterday the main street of the town was closed to traffic as a large highland dance took place.
Tweedy, blue-rinsed ladies danced with baffled Italian tourists while white haired highlanders in regulation kilts gave novice dancers a crash course in rock-n-reel.
As I ordered a haggis roll, (yep that is haggis in a white bread roll) I met a man who knew my Aunt. She used to be a teacher in small highland schools.
The man and I didn’t spend long reminiscing, he was particularly concerned that he’d seen a number of men with kilts that were ‘too long at the knee’.
He was shocked that people nowadays didn’t know (or worse care) how to wear the kilt. So top tip from Pitlochry pie shop is: when you next put on your kilt to go dancing in the streets you should kneel on the floor and swipe two fingers between the hem of the kilt and the floor before leaving the house.
And the good news is that even if your kilt is a little long, you are still allowed to enjoy yourself. At one point there must have been around three hundred dancers all bouncing, whirling and laughing around the street.
Highland hospitality, culture and community at its very best.
These are the urinals in the men’s toilet at the Hemingway Pub in Victoria Park, near where we live in London. The barman says they are meant to be funny but I can’t see the joke.
There is an amazing vibe in London today. The streets are deathly quiet as people stay at home to watch tv, go to parks to watch big screens, or for the lucky few, attend the Olympic venues to witness incredible performances from the British team. As we live in the East End of London, we decided to take our summer holidays over the two Olympic weeks. We spent a small fortune on tickets and crammed the family together in our little flat. I’m so glad we did. It’s been amazing so far and we have a week still to go.
Lifting my head and looking around me, the buzz of work has gone and I see art on every wall. Whether it’s tagging on the village streets, Picasso’s and Cezanne’s paintings or photo exhibitions galore, I’m electrified and inspired by how others see the world.
This year is the 40th anniversary of the Recontres de la Photographie d’Arles – a major photographic event by any reckoning. Many great photographers have shown their pictures here. We braved the 40°C heat long enough to view just a few of the 60 exhibitions, but three bodies of work really struck me.
Without Sanctuary is a shamefully banal series of postcards taken and published by Southern photographers of lynched African Americans. The collection is from the Centre for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta and shows just what an incredible leap forward has been made with the election of Barak Obama.
Eugene Richards‘ haunting images of deserted houses in America’s Mid West were shot just before ‘the crash’ and remind me of McCarthy’s ‘The Road’. Willy Ronis, is one of France’s great humanist photographers. He’s nearly a hundred years old and his work glows with life, wisdom and dignity.
Since starting my blog, I’ve been forced to reassess why I continue to take pictures and publish them. It’s years since I earned my living as a photographer, so why bother?
Seeing these walls around me, I’m inspired by insight and commitment. Looking at my blog afresh I realise I am enthralled. Photography is still my first language and my love. For better or for worse I have an passion for people, a desire for them to understand the world the way I see it, and the need for a wall to hang my pictures on.
I’m not going to write much as I’m getting to be a lazy, lazy man in the French sun but here are a few Provençal impressions from the last week or so.
Wrapping the edit up at the wonderful Envy after nine months and leaving everything shipshape was harder than I imagined. But in the end I was really pleased with the series. It’s been doing well in the US and is going to go out soon in the UK on five. The upshot of this final push was that I left the show more than a tad tired after some very late nights.
And then there was the actual last night itself when I should have done what any mature and sensible man would do and that is go home and fall into the arms of his neglected wife. But not Sammy, no, instead after a couple of pints at the Toucan we headed to Zoe Brewer’s 40th party.
Now anyone who knows the Brewers knows that a night there, never mind a night as big as a fortieth, is going to be (how should I put it?) an occasion for celebration. Consequently we lived up to our joint expectations, did our very merry duty by Colin and Zoe and returned home a little after 6am. Again, most sensible people would have spent the day in bed but I had to clean the flat before my grandaughter and her mum arrived off the train from Scotland for a week’s entertainment in London.
We had a brilliant time but the days were busy and the nights were late as we saw the sights and talked the talk into the wee sma hours. When Jen and I finally boarded the Eurostar for two weeks in the South of France the omens weren’t good either. The carriage suddenly filled with many uniformed red Americans ‘doing Europe’. They were all very excited about going under the English Channel and getting a good seat, (to view the darkness I presume).
However my fear of uniformity proved unfounded (I had a tough time in the Scouts); our American cousins were models of decorum. After arriving in Paris, yoga in the Jardin du Luxembourg, a pit-stop in our favourite Cafe Tournon (expensive, non? Charcuterie, fromage, pain and cafe creme – 50 euro/nearly quid – but well worth the experience), a mad dash across the city to Gare de Lyon, a whisk on the TGV and a thirty minute drive we found ourselves at the amazing Mas Dagan. It’s been a complete delight since then and exactly what a holiday should be, nothing and everything.
On a cold winter’s night in Stornoway, I waited outside the Caberfeidh Hotel, wondering what to do. I was working for the Stornoway Gazette, the ‘Only Newspaper Printed in the Outer Hebrides‘ according to its masthead, and I was the Island’s soul dedicated newspaper photographer. What’s more I was onto a scoop. I’d had a tip-off from the Manager of the hotel, that a, ‘big band from the south’ was staying with them.
He’d told me the band’s name as if it really should mean something to me. Oh ‘Ultravox‘ I said knowledgeably when he called with his hot scoop, wow. I think I’d heard of them, just, but I around that time I was a little in the musical wilderness. Anyway, I went into the bar to scope the place out and got into conversation with a cool looking leather jacketed Glaswegian. A few pints later, I confided my mission to him and asked if he knew the band?
I suppose I’d been expecting someone fairly outlandish and aloof to be the leader of this big band from ‘the south’ but when my new drinking buddy told me he thought I might be looking for him, I was chuffed. This was Midge Ure. I was even even more delighted when Midge asked us on the band’s video shoot the following day.
These pictures were taken at Callanish Stones the day after my meeting with the band. I can’t remember the date exactly but it was mid winter ’84 and bitterly cold. The band recorded the video for ‘One Small Day’ which was a single released from the album ‘Lament’.
The stones are called Tursachan Chalanais in their Gaelic name and are an ancient Megalithic site built around 3000 years BC. They lie on the west coast of the island of Lewis.
I can’t remember the last time I was at a proper festival. I suppose it must have been the Hebridean Celtic Festival in 2000. Even then it probably doesn’t count as a proper festival experience because I could lay down in my own bed in the wee small hours.
So when I got offered the chance by Alex to go to the Secret Garden Party and show some films at the explorers’ tent along with other filmmakers like Phil Stebbing with his important and ambitious Lifeline project, it seemed like an offer that couldn’t be refused. Big thanks to Olly for setting this up. I showed Living with the Mek and got some great feedback.
Apart from the fact that I got to buy a new tent and go camping, (I Love Camping), we heard great music, met fantastic people, learned to hula-hoop and in general were thoroughly inspired. Top tip, the next sport to sweep the western world will be ‘Sock Wrestling’, you read it here first.
The Saturday night was an epic. It followed a very merry afternoon with Jamie Buchanan Dunlop that nearly put paid to the night’s entertainment, but once the evening really got going there followed a series of bizarre encounters.
By far the most unusual experience was spending the hours before dawn with a knight in shining armour. My first encounter with Forest, the trainee radiographer and Medieval Knight, lead me to think that he may have been a tipsy fancy dress wearer who had succumbed to the weight of booze and armour.
It turned out that Forrest the Knight was just resting before a historically inaccurate but none-the-less spectacularly titanic clash with Duncan the Viking. Beware, it seems that it is almost obligatory to be a tipsy fancy dress wearer at the SGP, but not thankfully, to engage in flaming combat.
While at the fireside we also met Kata, the sustainable forestry person from the Eden project and Jason an inspiring ex-city man now hedger from Exmoor. It was that kind of night, or should I say knight.
Go, but don’t tell anyone else because it’s a secret.
I’ve been writing this particular blog about my adventures with Mark and Olly for some time now. To see the rest of the blogs in sequence click here. But if you haven’t the time to read the backstory, here is the story so far. I produced a series of eight one hour documentaries for Travel Channel and Discovery in the remote rain forests of West Papua two years ago that was great adventure.
Along with explorers, Mark Anstice and Olly Steeds, a production crew from Cicada Films and many local ‘Yali’, porters we climbed into the mountains of West Papua in search of the ‘Mek’ people. This elusive tribe have had little contact with the outside world for thousands of years.
The previous year, Mark and Olly had lived in with the Kombai people in the swamps of West Papua. During their three months there, the two explorers became aware that things were changing fast for the native people of Papua. Money, religion, politics, education, logging, military action, disease, metal goods, converse sneakers, tee-shirts, cheap chinese lighters; all these things and many more were flooding into these remote and ancient cultures, altering them irrevocably.
Spurred on by this experience, Mark and Olly decided to go to West Papua again, but this time they were to go high into the montains to make a series of films see with the Mek people. It was a big ask. The territory was ferocious and there was little guarantee the tribe would allow them to stay for the four months the two explorers and our film crew needed to really get under the skin of village life.
The Mek tribe of around two thousand people had been known to the outside world for many years. But there were small villages on the edge of Mek territory that we hoped still stood on the cusp of modernity where we could still learn of the old ways while witnessing how the tribe adapted to the new.
The blog picks up after we’d been four days into the expedition and just spent an uncomfortable night in a village called ‘Tohamak’. Our guide, the ‘Legendary Bob Pelege’ had hoped the villagers might let us stay. But in the end it was a rather disappointing encounter. The villagers were Mek people but they had moved further into modernity than we’d hoped for. This was demonstrated when they asked us for $800 dollars to kill a pig for a feast of welcome.
Our porters were from the Yali tribe and the Mek are their traditional enemies. The tension in the village was palpable as we tried to sleep in a village where not so long ago we would have been killed and eaten for such a transgression. Come first light we head further into the mountains. Bob planned to take us to the village of Merengman. It was two days walk away through ever worsening territory but it was there that he believed we’d find what we were looking for. I was sick with nerves by now. Months and months planning were hanging in the balance.
Day five’s march was awful with leeches, vertical walls of vegetation, torrential rain and a gnawing uncertainty about whether I was leading the expedition towards disaster. A night camp made in the pitch black under what seemed like a waterfall didn’t help the mood either. But on day six when we encountered a staff of pigs jaws we knew we were nearing what we hoped would be our final destination. This frightening totem marked the territorial edges of Meregman. I felt exhausted, worried but elated mostly. All the hard work, all the blood sweat and tears had all lead to this point.
The following day, after little sleep, we edged closer to the village. Bob knew that by tradition, no stranger would be allowed to enter the village without a show of strength. Less than two hundred meters from the village a tribesman who turned out to be the chief himself, leapt from behind trees and challenged us to leave his territory. We spoke English, the porters spoke Yali and and Indonesian and a few words of Mek. Between, Bob, Olly, Mark and the porters, we managed to get the Chief, Markus, to allow us to enter the village.
It was an amazing sight. The villagers looked on with a mixture of anxiety and curiosity. Ed Kelly, the camerman and director allayed people’s fears by letting them see and hear what we were recording. We’d decided that if we found somewhere that would let us stay we would share our world with them as we hoped they would do with us.
Chief Markus called a meeting of the elders and after some debate they decided to let us stay and see what we were made of. Exhausted but elated we started to make camp and prepare ourselves for what we hoped would be the long haul. We were in.
The Feis movement was founded in the early eighties in response to a resurgence of interest in traditional music. At that time I worked as a freelance photographer and film maker in the Highlands and Islands. Then it was impossible not to be drawn to what was happening at the various Feisean that were springing up all over Scotland.
The first Feis I went to was in Barra in the summer of 1988. As I wandered from class to class in Castlebay school, it was clear that there was something fundamental happening to traditional music. Fiddles screeched, drums beat, children danced – an energy I’d never witnessed before was being unleashed.
It wasn’t just at the children’s Feis, but all around, amongst the tutors and those attending adult Feisean and events: there was a real feeling of optimism.
Over the years since then, a hard core of dedicated enthusiasts from all walks of life around Scotland have ensured that many of the wee ones of the Feis movement have become the big names of the traditional music scene in Scotland and much further afield. The Feis movement is a shining example of people working togther in communities to produce something far larger than the sum of the parts.