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‘Most people collect something or other: stamps, butterflies, beetles, moths, dried and pressed wild flowers, old snuff-boxes, china dogs and so forth. A few eccentrics even collect disused bus tickets! But collectors of pebbles are rare.’ The Pebbles on the Beach, Clarence Ellis

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On Saturday I headed out to the Suffolk Coast on my first adventure for the wonderful online journal The Learned Pig. The Pig, with one interest for each of it’s legs, spans poetic subjects across art, thinking, nature and writing. My three trains to the (surely Saxon?!) Saxmundham, a single taxi to the Snape Maltings, a minibus to Orford, and then a ferry ride – all led me to Orford Ness for Anya Gallaccio SNAP commission as part of the Aldeburgh Festival. You can read my piece on Gallaccio’s installations and the enchanting, fragile ecology of surreal Orford Ness here, in the Story of a Single Rock.

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Here’s a little extract from the piece to tempt you:

‘Like many stories, this one begins with a rock, in fact one rock amongst many: the shifting shingle which geographically defines and continually redefines the salt marshes of Orford Ness. When contemporary artist Anya Gallaccio made her first trip to the shingle spit of the Ness, it was not the accidental sculptures of wire and curled sheet metal (rusted by salt-winds) which captured her imagination, but the stony beach desert on which they lie, abandoned like military driftwood.

When we arrive for SNAP on the National Trust ferry out to the Ness, our faces glittering with salt water spray, Gallaccio recalls the illicit exchange of a bag of shingle in Fortnum and Mason, miles away from the flat-lining whistle of the Suffolk coast. Back in the Snape Maltings a photograph records the forbidden transaction: a plastic bag of assorted rocks tied up with a paper label: “For Anya Gallaccio”.’

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The day involved the unlocking and discovery of stories from a whole host of interesting characters, both local and alien, so I hope to find a place for some of these moments elsewhere, and at another time. For now enjoy the accidental sculpture of some shingle and pulled up Yellow Horned Poppies:

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A little vignette which I wrote years ago, 5 years ago to be precise when I was just 19 years old. A little vignette to sustain the blog. This is, ‘On Bucovat Hill’.

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As a final goodbye they take us to Bucovat Hill. With the scent of cherry shisha smoke lingering in our hair we drive out of Craiova. Further and further into the darkness of the outskirts of town, summer’s insatiable desire for adventure chasing us on. We wind our way to the top of the hill, a solitary car tracing its headlights on the road. Catalin speeds as we turn each slow-curving corner so that we slide into each other in the back seat amidst the chaos of our cacophonous laughter.

When we reach a peak we park the car at the side of the road and look out across the vast collection of lights which make up Craiova. At some point on the horizon they merge with the fainter light of stars as if they are the mirror image, like water when it meets the sky. The light is infinite. Inside, I gasp. Far away from the light pollution of that grey, intoxicating town the entire universe is stretched out around us.

The luminous S of the Milky Way snakes above our heads and I wish on the spark of a shooting star that I could stay here forever, or at least, that life could be as good as this again.

We lie in the road; a jigsaw of bodies. Iulius, Catalin, Tom and I. Heads together, limbs strewn across each other: we can’t stop giggling. Something about the spurious sense that we are risking our lives, lying in the road on this deserted hill: is delicious food for laughter.  Then, headlights move in the darkness and we get up in a panic even though they are miles away – distant searchlights. We fall about the road again, with heady joy.

We put my camera on the roof of the car on a timer and stand with the lights behind, waiting for the flashing red as it quickens to become the blinding flash of our photo.  Captured time.  I never want to leave, and yet something inside me; a dull, distant pain, tells me I will never come back.

As we drive down the hill, back towards the city, our voices fade although singing: Hai Craiova! Hai Craiova! Oltenia Eterna Terra nova.

 

I’ve decided to write up a few episodes and meandering stories from my time in Chile for the indulgence of memory and an occasional distraction every now and again.

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Lucas and I arrived in Vicuña, a craterous basin of a town at the edges of the Valle de Elqui, broken by the robbery of the last of our food and all of our most valuable possessions. Camping beside a river under willows in the valley of Cochiguaz, a rucksack had been stolen while we slept: a sinister rupture in a setting of bliss. Sent onwards by the camp-site, driven by a toothless flete driver towards civilisation and then ignored by the police in Pisco Elqui, we had come to Vicuña in a last attempt to report the crime, gather some sympathy and move on.

Despite its desert setting, Vicuña is made lush by irrigation: orange trees, trees of willow leaves and cypress peals of cerise pink berries, decorate the low grid streets of brightly coloured houses, shutters and doors. In the garden of the family hostel, La Elquina, we find green and black avocados cradled in the wet grass, bright red chillies hanging for plucking and guavas growing atop cactuses along the dark stone wall. The lemons still green for the sound of the narrow channel of water, fall in the shallow puddles gathering for the birds to bathe in. I want to make a picnic of the bounty that falls about our tent but am too afraid to take anything from the family who let us into their house to wake a grandfather asleep in front of the television, and who take our money as they gather around a table to eat their lunch. This is so much vegetable security after our dawn robbery.

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Like every town in Coquimbo, Vicuña claims Gabriela Mistral for itself; a destination on the ‘Circuito de Gabriela Mistral’, Mistral’s face is everywhere: raised on a plinth in every small corner with pretensions to be a town square, and lying huge and omnipotent in the dry belly of a fountain in the Plaza de Armas, to gaze – unblinking – at the blue sky. Even the cash-machines seem programmed to favour her, spitting out 5000 notes (the smallest denomination) decorated with the deep-set bird of prey eyes and wide face of the handsome poet laureate, Mistral.

It is not poetry though (I am not a fan of Mistral’s Latin Pastoral, despite the Nobel Prizes) that survives as an accompaniment to my memories of Vicuña. The town defies its logically ordered size with an incredible syncopation of sonic disturbance; pop music, preaching and the cries of caged cocks. In the day Lucas and I couldn’t help laughing at the Latin pop music pumped into the Plaza de Armas: surreally punctuating the public sculptures and couples gathered on benches, and the street dogs bathing under leafy views of drifting blue. Then at dusk, when the mountains glow with a new mineral rich-hue and the fractured sky of feathered clouds begins to burn vibrant with red and purple light, we find evangelists and preachers at the corner of every block; an unintelligible echo as we cross the corner of Chacabuco and San Martin towards the next reverberation of the Word. Their sermons ringing through the dim light, the preachers – dressed in smart suit jackets over jumpers, and joined by their young apprentices (local lanky boys in churchly ties) – look up to an audience beyond us, intent. After dark it is the cocks who continue the refrain, they begin crowing at 11pm and continue all through the night (Lucas believes they can’t divine the dawn glow because they are kept caged).

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Perhaps we got closer to the Coquimban character of Vicuña than most: its struggle to host the passing tourism of Pisco distillery tours, Elqui treks and stargazing; its out-of-season honesty. The town is named after the South American camelid found camouflaged in the burnt ochre coirones and lava cordillera of the Andes: the vicuña is brother of the guanaco and the wild ancestor of alpacas and llamas. And yet I never saw any vicuña in the Elqui Valley. In many ways that elusive vicuña is a figure for the town itself, which promised and garnered affections, but always gently and subtly thwarted us: Gabriela Mistral’s museum was closed on the day that we cycled to its gates, so that we would never find out more about the poet than her magisterial height, and the stargazing tours were all cancelled because of the rare feathering of astral clouds that covered the sky; we were left to an ice cream in the town square, a bike ride through the gridded streets past the Colo Colo murals in the suburbs, and a Pisco Sour in an empty restaurant. Just this to transform our afternoon spent in the company of the police into a holiday. If Vicuña taught us anything, it was that even simple pleasures are sweet after a small personal tragedy.

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Last week I travelled up to Scotland to talk about a PhD in St Andrews, and to wander the streets of Edinburgh: falling more in love with the city than ever before. It was a week filled with incredible skies, architectural landscapes – both ruined and coal-charred – and the tumbling stone-masonry of hill-top kirkyards.

There is something of a rumour I have been clinging onto during the winter, a chinese whisper passed from a soluble sound-bite in the newspaper, read and reported by my mother, to me. The whisper said that some fortuitous alchemy, the mild winter combined with the mutable laws of astrology, had led to a period of particularly wondrous skies: shifting, transforming soft-vibrant dawns and sunsets which take my breath away. Despite its now untraceable nature, I believe it  with absolute conviction; I can’t remember a winter of such lullingly-beautiful skies.

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Sunsets bleed like flashing precious metals into the smallest slithers and exposed fractions of sky. Ruby red and amber jewelled-clouds make tracks against the celluloid blue, drifting behind the black frame of a winter tree’s scraggy branches. Mists rise up from the damp marshes, caught by the sunlight as if illumination gives levity, and then roll up and across the blue at impossible speed. The Harlow flood plains, fall below the Essex motorway, and mirror-ripple whipped clouds caught adrift in this suddenly vast, soft, brilliant sky. This winter I am obsessed with the sky.

In this sense Scotland didn’t fail me. It was gloomier and broodier, the sky there, framed by broom and gorse and the rising peaks of the land. The light seemed softer and weaker, but strangely immanent, and the clouds never succeeded in obstructing light, but simply diffused and fractured it. In St Andrews the day was spent under a weak, darkening and lightening blue, a dimness which filled me with joy instead of typically making me gloomy.

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Sunset in the depths of Edinburgh caught itself in the window panes of buildings – so tall they grow by distortion – and was framed always by an illusory perspective of the city streets (the pretence that the sea is not in fact, out there somewhere, that everything is far grander and more sprawling than it really is).  Edinburgh is the deep city, the city of vertical depths which confuse our sense of scale: cavernous archways and tunnels, infinite Scottish steps, a black tower of a monument, a castle sat atop a craggy peak.

Scotland was an adventure framed by perfect skies, more skies than I could ever or should ever try to describe. I’ll leave you with the perfect broodiness of the sky over the black rock of Arthur’s Seat…

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This month I wrote my first piece for the Santiago Magazine, Revista Revolver, you can read it on the magazine here: http://www.santiagomagazine.cl/film/00955-gloria-and-getting-gloriously-old-interview-director-sebastian-lelio

I saw Gloria in the Teatro Condell, a former theatre and sometime pornographic cinema in Valparaiso, on the night that director Sebastián Lelio and actor Sergio Hernández came to introduce the film. The location and the atmosphere had turned the event into a spectacle even before the film had started; in garrulous anticipation the crowds had grown to exceed the seats available and hoards of us were crammed into the upper balcony of the theatre to watch from above in conspiratorial excitement.

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Lelio describes that night as being, “somehow like a party… I think it was special here because the audience knew that we [Hernández and Lelio] were there. There was this intimate feeling. It’s really moving to learn that people are spontaneously applauding to a screen at the end in many, many cinemas. That breaks my heart, it’s beautiful.”
Premiering at the 63rd Berlinale – Berlin’s International film festival – where Paulina Garcia (Gloria) received the Silver Bear for Best Actress, Gloria certainly has received waves of deserved international attention.

Lelio is glowing with the success of the film when I meet him in Santiago. His return to Chile (he now lives in Berlin) has been filled with opening nights and introductions, roars of applause and celebrations, “Somehow Gloria is like a first film, it’s a turning point for me. It’s the first film that I have made that is going to be shown around the world: in 46 countries. I’m beginning to write in English and I’m opening up new territories in every sense of the term: expressive and physical.”

Gloria is slow, and beautiful and glorious: filled with moments of brilliant humour which make the whole audience erupt into laughter all at once. The film tells the story of a 58-year old woman trying to find her life again in old age. She spends her time worrying for her children, hassled by her neighbours and going out alone at night looking for a man to dance with.

In the Teatro Condell the overwhelming impression is that in spite of the audience’s age, everyone feels an individual connection with Paulina Garcia’s character, whether this is an identification with the simple desire to live life in the fullest sense, or the recognition of a reflection of someone we know; this seems to be Gloria’s power.

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Lelio recognises that “this is one of the things which creates an emotional connection, that there is this vital thing in the film that you can relate to.” He goes on to suggest that, “maybe all of the noise that the film has produced is because it’s about an issue which was somehow forgotten. The archetype of the mother was abandoned, not only by films, but it also seems like society doesn’t want to see what women of that age are doing. People want to imagine that these women are in a still place, almost as if they are dead. But this film shows that they are super-alive, that they still want to live.”

Although Gloria has this unique universal power, Lelio also describes it as being a “typically Chilean film” and admits that he believes “that in order to be universal you have to be radically local.” When I try to identify Gloria’s Chilean essence I can’t help recalling that the loudest laughs in the theatre came in response to Gloria’s growing marijuana habit, but Lelio’s explanation is more innocent, “Gloria is a typical character from here. But more than that: the way in which the characters speak and the way in which they behave, the humour in the film; all of that expresses the way we are in Chile and the way our heads work.”

Although he has moved to Berlin, where “everything is possible” in a city which he describes as “super electric; electric and electronic”, Lelio will continue to return to Chile and make films here. “To be making films right now in Chile is really a privilege for me. There are so many good films, some of them are more underground, and some of them are more famous but I feel like there is a dialogue between them all and when this happens it is really beautiful.”

Chile is also present in the luxury of the film’s panoramas and its landscapes. Although the film is set in Santiago, Gloria and Rodolfo also make a trip to Viña del Mar, where Lelio grew up, “I have always wanted to film Viña. I think it’s beautiful to film. The architecture makes it seem like a city that somehow stood still in the 60s: once it was super-elegant and now it is a little bit shabbier.” From the hotel where Gloria and Rodolfo stay the camera takes in a luxurious stretch of the Valparaíso coastline, including the surreal dunes of Con Con.

Lelio describes the variety of locations as an attempt to make everything “super-flamboyant”: “in this case we made a conscious effort to make the film look bigger; so there is a spectacularity about seeing all those places and varieties of locations and characters and extras and dances and weddings and birthdays.”

For its flamboyance Gloria is totally the opposite of Lelio’s previous feature, El Año del Tigre, filmed in the newly made ruins after the earthquake of 2010. But Lelio is essentially a story-teller, following with a passion any new thread that inspires, his stories are his trademark: “It’s like an addiction, because I really feel happy when I have an idea that I know will be realised. I guess this is one of the things that makes me most happy in life. And I just decided a few days ago, what to do next. Now I feel more connected.”

Rodaje 5A few weeks ago I made a trip to Santiago to meet with Chilean film director, Sebastian Lelio. The interview was partly a little personal research for the book I am writing about Chile, so I asked Lelio plenty about literary culture and poetic idols, as well as focusing on his latest film, Gloria, which recently took the Berlinale by storm.

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I also wrote up the interview for English language magaine, Revolver here in Chile. Here’s a snippet from the introduction:

“I saw Gloria in the Teatro Condell, a former theatre and sometime pornographic cinema in Valparaiso, on the night that director Sebastian Lelio and actor Sergio Hernández came to introduce the film. The location and the atmosphere had turned the night into a spectacle even before the film had started: in garrulous anticipation the crowds had grown to exceed the seats available and hoards of us were crammed into the upper balcony of the theatre to watch from above in conspiratorial excitement.

Lelio describes that night as being, “somehow like a party”: “I think it was special here because the audience knew that we [Hernandez and Lelio] were there. There was this intimate feeling. It’s really moving to learn that people are spontaneously applauding to a screen at the end in many, many cinemas. That breaks my heart, it’s beautiful.”

A week of architecture 041Last week I took my research to the faculty of Architecture and Design, Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Valparaiso. It felt wonderful to play at being a student in this environment: sunshine and clean white architecture, a combination of angles and curves arranged on a hilltop facing the sea. The white staircases spiralling up into the sky, a great pine tree shading the decking where students sat and ate their lunch. Around the corner from a glass-cased library, a temple-like workshop was filled with students building small constructions.

A week of architecture 037The faculty is located in the neighbourhood of Recreo, between ramshackle Valparaiso and luxurious Vina del Mar, and looks out to the sea from its seat in the hills. When I first arrived in Valparaiso some residents described the city of colourful houses as being like a cinema or a theatre; where the sea is a screen and all of the houses, seats, with a view of the spectacle. In this way the sea is both a gift (something which Pablo Neruda seemed to appreciate with a particular gluttony for soaring vistas) and something which poses a problem for the architect.

A week of architecture 042When I interviewed architect and co-founder of the Ciudad Abierta, David Jolly, he explained that in Ritoque they had kept their interiors enclosed and separate from the eternal presence of the sea. “If we want to see the sea we can go out there, we can walk on the beach, we can go for a run,” he said, describing how the Open City Group had gone against the elemental pull of the popular design tendency to worship the sea in order to keep interiors consistent as interiors.

A week of architecture 019Jolly explained the motivation as being a difference between daily life and leisure time, “when someone is on holidays they have a less complex life; you get up and see the sea, you read something. It’s relaxed. But when you are in full life you have a more complex relationship with the surroundings, so you don’t just see the sea as a screen.” But I can’t help feeling that if you surrender to the sea you open yourself to the possibility of infusing everyday life with the contented-feeling of perpetual holiday. As I sat working at a glass table with a view through the open window of the expansive Pacific Ocean I didn’t find this a distraction, but an invigoration of everything I was doing and everything I needed the motivation to do.