Letter From London: Infinite Romantic Notions

Photograph Source: David Stanley – CC BY 2.0

Was I being overly receptive to the artist last week as she wondered about the piece she had been working on these past two months? Or was I not being receptive at all? Art is not a handicraft, as Tolstoy said, it is the transmission of feeling the artist has experienced. As if to see who blinked first, the artist was sat opposite the work on a bony wooden chair, staring straight at it. She wanted badly to know if it was finished. To be fair, she didn’t need me to decide. Anyway, I pulled away in the end to travel into the heart of the capital. If art is a revolt against fate, as Andre Malraux put it, this was not the only lack of closure in our lives last week.

A number of film and TV insiders were still rocked by the premature death of cameraman Torquil Fleming-Boyd — Tranquil, as I used to call him. Torquil would talk for Scotland like others drank for England. Though a consummate film and TV professional, he would often have us all in stitches. A highlander who had worked in Afghanistan and the Middle East, he would drop randomly into our conversations words like ‘alhamdulillah’ and ‘ya’ni’. He worked not just on news and documentary but pop promos and more recently several top feature films, deploying a powerful eagerness that concealed early personal tragedy. Shamefully I had not seen Torquil, who cared deeply for his friends, in ages, though I would send him birthday greetings each year. I remember he always spoke with warmth about his mother and sister, who must be grieving terribly now. I had the pleasure of working with him on my own small films such as ‘The Man Who Sculpted Hares’ and ‘Sell-Off’. No great cameraman myself, it was always down to him to show me for example how to switch focus from one object to another without bumping the camera. Of course, that is how I shall now think of him: a shift of focus from one place to the other. Peace be with you, Tranquil. Irish — and fellow Celt — filmmaker and cinematographer Noel Donnellon wrote last week: ‘Steadicam Operator, Camera Operator, Cinematographer, and more importantly the most fabulous friend. I will miss him every day.’

I was actually en route to meet a filmmaker friend in the small Viennese cafe and restaurant we favour on Marylebone High Street, close to Daunt Books. I was still thinking about an Albert Camus line I had just read in which he said ‘real generosity towards the future lies in giving all to the present’. It got me thinking of Sudan, a country whose grossly under-reported war between the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) led by General Burhan and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) led by General Hemedti shows no sign of abating. As Lindsey Hilsum of Channel 4 News recently posted, ‘We’re so caught up in the Middle East, we’re losing sight of Sudan.’

Talking of war, my friend had sent me a public report citing former Defence Secretaries Michael Fallon and Lord Robertson and former First Sea Lord Admiral Lord West saying they wanted the UK to rediscover the importance of Northern Ireland in terms of UK security. Apparently they were worried about ‘a chronically deficient Irish security and intelligence apparatus’. One Irish friend reckoned they were just grasping at Cold War straws in order to justify clinging on to Northern Ireland. He said: ‘If they really had been aware, they wouldn’t have agreed to exit the EU. The people in Northern Ireland didn’t want to leave the EU.’ However, the report did take into consideration the 2022 shift in Russia’s maritime doctrine to prioritise the Atlantic and Arctic, not forgetting the major transatlantic undersea fibre-optic cables perhaps even responsible for you reading this right now. (Ninety-five percent of all phone and data is transferred not via satellite but this way.) To be fair, my filmmaker friend appeared more excited about the excellent used cameras he had recently identified as available online, such was his commitment to his craft. He even followed this up with a lengthy crew list a few days later that he had seen for an independent movie, making the important point that people still don’t accept the workable option of a shrinking crew. Or was this just me thinking of Torquil again?

Continuing this film buff theme, I popped into SOAS — the School of Oriental and African Studies — to watch two films on Sudan the following day. Yes, it is something I am increasingly interested in. One was Hajooj Kuka’s celebrated 2014 film Beats of the Antonov set in the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains, highlighting not just the importance of music to the communities there but how Arab-Islamic identity had been enforced on 56 other major ethnic groups that help make up a naturally diverse Sudan. The screenings — the other film was Gidam, All the Way by Arthur Larie and Bastien Massa — were organised by a brilliant young Indian student and his Sudanese friend. Today, as I was sure his friend knew, yet more civilians, including women and youth groups, members of resistance committees, prominent civil society leaders and political actors, continue to join the ‘No to War Campaign’ committed to ending the war and restoring democracy in Sudan. If only more people were able to acknowledge this fact.

Here in Blighty, as the EU accuses us Brits of a potential breach of the Brexit trade deal with Sunak’s clampdown on industrial action, this new Brexit-style populism among revolting Tories continues to grow. Was Liz Truss really going on about something called PopCon? More troublingly, it is like this all begins as a tiny bag of occultist seeds planted in a long line of regimented trays by a bumbling amateur gardener in a very small greenhouse. The following morning, however, shoots — not of recovery but of national peril — are suddenly moving fast along the long narrow passageway, eventually pushing up with ever-crazed might against the upper panes of glass, the whole place rank with xenophobia. Can we expect the sound of exploding greenhouses this summer?

Finally, the artist was still sitting there by her work. The studio was silent. Not even Adrianne Lenker from Big Thief, a recent favourite of the artist, was playing. Had this week just been one long and cold meditation on the perils of closure and forgotten challenges for the two of us? Thankfully not. ‘It’s done!’ braved the artist.

Peter Bach lives in London.