The events of the past few weeks are troubling: biblical fire, fury and floods in the US, Brexit lies and incompetence, endless under-reported wars and further terrorist attacks. Perhaps most worrying is the threat of imminent nuclear war. On social media I’ve seen many posts by those old enough to recall the Cuban Missile Crisis. During a chance meeting with an ex-BBC colleague, our exchange quickly turned to the fact that Glasgow, approximately 30 miles from the UK’s nuclear arsenal, puts us squarely in the kill zone. ‘As long as we don’t get past Defcon 2,’ I tell my acquaintance. What I don’t tell him is I’m quoting from my own movie.
How close yet how remote the threat seems. In Edinburgh, living a few doors down from the US Consulate, I once received a copy of the residents’ newsletter. Its main topic was the installation of terrorist-proof bollards at the end of our street. The item concluded with the forlorn hope, of how ‘in the event of world peace’ the offending bollards might one day be removed.
At times like these I realise how prescient the themes of “Voyageuse” truly are. When I began writing the screenplay in 2013 I never envisaged that in 2015 I would take my camera to Faslane, site of HM Naval Base Clyde and home to the Vanguard class of submarines that carry the UK’s Trident nuclear warheads. My late father, an insulating engineer, worked on the subs in the 1980s, patching up their ageing hulls. It proved to be his last job before being made redundant after a lifetime of working in some of the UK’s most dangerous sites, notably at Dounreay in Caithness, where he spent almost a decade in the belly of its Prototype Fast Reactor. Once while on home leave he gifted me his decontamination badge, remarking how the privatised security was so inept he could easily have smuggled the reactor’s fuel – plutonium – in his government issue underwear, the latter requisite on account of his mandatory four showers a day.
Perhaps it’s a reflex action, a subconscious gesture, but on my mobile phone I keep a screenshot of a model of atomic fuel rods, a photo taken during a trip to Thurso when I visited the old Town Hall, home to the excellent Caithness Horizons Museum and its permanent exhibition showing the history of the Dounreay Nuclear Research Establishment. Here I marvelled at the contents of the vitrines: a small cardboard box containing a spoof Nuclear Survival kit, a specially-commissioned Wedgwood ashtray made with depleted uranium and a commemorative crested teaspoon. There’s a poignancy to the display, that these objects were created to celebrate, if not normalise Dounreay’s nuclear capability, a source of power that in a short span would be decommissioned.
There was no question of my gaining admission to the Faslane site but there was no need. I was more interested in acquiring a few picture postcard shots of the base from the opposite shore, against the snow-dusted peaks of the Glen Fruin Grahams, Beinn Chaorach and A’Mhanaich.
Even from my discreet distance I imagined a scenario, like in a bad conspiracy theory drama, where I’m accosted by shadowy men, huckled into an unmarked van, identified as an enemy of the state and duly disappeared. Thankfully nothing untoward occurred. Later, veering off the coastal route to the empty and weirdly sinister back roads near Coulport where the warheads are stored, I felt my moves were being monitored. Still nothing happened.
What induced such paranoia in an otherwise benign and beautiful location? I realise it is already nailed to the inside of my head: a childhood memory, hazy as the interference on the black and white TV in the kitchen of our two-roomed tenement flat, relaying BBC reports of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In October 1962 I was three years old. In the kitchen, our TV resembled a cocktail cabinet, black lacquered, gold trimmed, an alien device with a set of dials and arcane labels: UHF, Station, Vertical Hold. Like most of the population, only years later would I understand the insanity of this episode, of how close the world came to MAD – Mutually Assured Destruction. During these reports, I recall my mother suddenly clasping me tight, convinced the world was about to end.
That a mass demolition of my local district – S.3. Glasgow – was already underway ought to have provided immunity to destruction. To make way for the westbound stretch of the M8 motorway, in Kinning Park each week an entire street would vanish. Here the remaining half-razed tenements gave up their secrets, exposing a collage of wallpapers where the occupants had surrendered their worldly goods; pictures on the walls, dangling scraps of linoleum, one-hinged doors flapping in the wind behind which, on the shelves of presses, saucepans and crockery clung on for dear life.
Looking at these photographs, I’m in awe of the tolerance of decent working class people subjected to unfathomable squalor that, culturally, found expression in the hands of Oxbridge-educated nyaffs on the BBC Home Service. Glasgow, as ever, became a mile-wide target of comedic skits on class of the ‘we were poor but miserable’ stripe that reverberate down the ages and survive today on BBC Radio 4 during the Edinburgh Fringe where, with reliable timing, English comedians default to cheap shots at the city’s expense, its citizens eternally depicted as uncouth, drunk and violent.
My blood memory curdles with intolerance too, of the sectarian non-profit violence witnessed after every Old Firm game. That, and poverty-borne diseases, from rickets to TB. Shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, I was quarantined in an isolation ward at the Belvidere Hospital having contracted dysentery. For what seemed like months, I had no contact with my parents bar a vague memory of them peering at me through a wire-reinforced window. On my return I learned the City Corporation had removed and burned the family’s bedding: blankets, quilts and sheets given to my parents as wedding gifts.
It was no small tragedy. Gone was a meagre source of income since every summer our quilts and blankets were laundered and pawned. They were replaced thanks to my mother’s ménage, when each week she and a group of trusted neighbours clubbed together, drawing names from a hat to take turns to buy household goods at Terley’s on Paisley Road West. Theirs was a common sense solution to the hazard of buying on tick, with its loan shark rates of interest.
As the Inuits have a hundred words for snow, I’m convinced Glasgow has a similar list related to dirt and bad smells: clatty, manky, filthy, black, boggin’, bowfin’, mingin’, mockit, howlin’ etc., words I associate with childhood that, like the reek of men’s piss in the icy half-landing toilet (shared by thirteen of us), can never be erased. The dirt, the rats and their Corporation catchers. The weekly visits to the pawn. The illicit bookies and spit-and-sawdust pubs. The oily stagnant puddles, the backcourt washhouse and middens. The gnawing hunger on Thursdays with no money for food or gas and electricity meters. Even in the early 1970s these were the norms when Mrs Dunnachie, the last surviving tenant of our close, departed her room-and-kitchen in a Co-operative coffin.
Which begs a question. If this era was – under a Labour Government – the apogee of social provision, then why did my mother have to pawn her wedding ring every week when she held down two jobs? Why was my father forced to make her a grass widow by working away from home for decades? Why did they pay an extortionate rent to a private landlord? Someone, somewhere made a killing from the tens of thousands living in these hovels.
Had de-industrialisation occurred sooner, it might have been expedient for the state to kill us all. Instead the working class of Glasgow were exiled to remote schemes bereft of all but the basic amenities. By the mid-1960s its citizens were mostly unaware that in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, faceless men in a Whitehall office, realising the potency of inducing fear and paranoia, not only signed a deal to site the nation’s nuclear weapons on the Clyde but also handed the launch codes to the US, a situation persisting to this day.
In its attempt to unravel the weaving of received truths, “Voyageuse” is set against a dark and paranoid world, a world becoming all-too-familiar in the twenty-first century. In a chilling episode, as Erica reflects on the arbitrary end of her academic career, in my script I quote Cyril Connolly, an old Etonian and ex-classmate of Eric Blair/George Orwell, whose writing never attained the fame or longevity of his contemporary but who had the grace to concede, ‘Orwell was a true rebel, I a stage one’. Certainly Orwell witnessed poverty at first hand during his pre-WW2 travels, documenting a condition engrained over generations just as today’s aristocracy clings to notions of wealth and privilege while signing the release form to some two-bit production company for a factual TV series on how the toffs scrape by.
Connolly’s words, published in 1938, ring like an icepick to the skull: ‘I hated history by now; it stank of success.’ Of course, the writer’s other, much misquoted line that ‘there is no more sombre enemy of art than the pram in the hall,’ also reflects Erica’s – and many other’s – struggles, but her experience could not compare with my mother’s who, in 1962, had three children under the age of 5 – one with TB, one with dysentery – living as a single mother in a two-room slum with one cold tap and no heating. Yet, as the film reveals, for all her perceived privilege Erica too suffered privations and personal tragedies, demonstrating how abject misery isn’t confined to any one race, class or gender. What binds these two women is the ages at which they died, in defiance of the statisticians’ metrics on class and mortality. My mother, aged 67, Erica, 71.
It’s a stretch to put this into perspective. Recently, at the Edinburgh International Book Festival the author, Andrew O’Hagan gave a speech titled ‘Scotland, Your Scotland,’ referring to Orwell’s essay, ‘England, Your England’ written in 1941 at the height of the WW2 Blitz, a cri-de-coeur and a redefining of English cultural values. In his lengthy speech O’Hagan refers to the great and good of Scottish culture, past and present – thinkers, writers, artists, historians – yet no mention was made of a single Scottish woman. His revised view of Scotland, a nation already detached from the rest of the UK, comes a generation after his 2002 LRB review of Neal Ascherson’s ‘Stone Voices.’ It’s an eye-opener if only for the reader’s letters, and a lesson for some, as Connolly wrote, of how one might come to hate history.
Dwelling on the future, I wonder what will become of “Voyageuse” and whether or not it will ever find an audience or if it will remain an obscure curiosity waiting to be discovered in the years and decades to come. Of the tiny demographic I can draw on, possibly I erred in my assumption of its natural target audience: females aged 45-65 (with a few exceptions) unattracted perhaps because the film presents a painful prospect, e.g. caring for elderly parents and/or the price one pays for loving too much. That, or the film may appear too emotionally detached. By far the most receptive audience to date has been males aged 30-50s, drawn to its themes of the Cold War and conspiracy. Younger women also respond positively but until I can screen the film to a broader audience no firm conclusion can be drawn.
Back in March my lawyer, a seasoned producer in his own right, attended the first BFI screening. He believes V is a ‘masterpiece’ but cautioned that the festival circuit is broken, with access limited to films produced within a system of institutional or industry endorsement. Recently I received an email from Raindance informing me that the film had been selected for their upcoming festival, only to be informed it hadn’t. The email was sent in error. No apology was forthcoming until I aired my grievance on Twitter, a petty gesture perhaps but a legitimate one, because when film festivals demand a fee for every submission the very least they can do is treat filmmakers with respect.
For the last three months I’ve immersed myself in a new project about Thomas Polgar and his role in the CIA. Where will this lead I’ve no idea, for it depends on me beginning again, summoning all the hope and optimism of a child blind to the future. Caught in that dread moment in 1962, my three-year-old self had no idea of whether or not I would survive World War 3, let alone grow up to make films. Should the current sabre-rattling persist and the crisis reach Defcon 1 I can take solace knowing I’m in the right place.
The above photo shows a model of the fuel rods at Dounreay’s FBR. It was taken at the Caithness Horizons Museum. I keep a black and white version as my mobile screenshot.