Monday, 28 January 2013

Jack - no: master - of all trades

Among last year’s celebrations of the centenary of the birth of Edward Lear there wasn’t much – or did I miss it? – about his travel writing or his paintings and drawings. He’s ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ man, the nonsense-verse man. We do like our categories to be tidy. He’s that kind of pigeon, we decide, and that’s the hole in which we’ll slot him. (Do the people who read John Burnside’s poetry also read his prose (fiction, memoirs)? And vice versa. Ditto with Patrick McGuinness and a number of others. I’m not sure they do, or want to. It could confuse.)

Yesterday there was a day-long (12 noon to 7 p.m.) celebration of the life and work of Dai Vaughan, who died last June and whose Sister of the artist and parallel texts CBe published last year. First let me gush about the venue, the Cinema Museum in London SE11, an extraordinary private collection (of posters, stills, cameras, seating, signs, lights, reels and reels of film, etc) housed (without any public funding) in the old Lambeth workhouse (where Charlie Chaplin was at one time resident; above). It’s personal and it’s magic (handwritten notices on doors, heaps of uncatalogued material in the corridors). In the big high-ceilinged main hall there was space for well over a hundred people to meet (some after after a gap of decades; I was Johnny-come-lately, I knew Dai for less than a year), talk, drink, eat (food provided by the next-door Buddhists), watch and listen.

Most people there were from the world of documentary film in which Dai spent his working life. ‘The best film editor I ever worked with,’ the Bafta-winning director Michael Darlow said of Dai. ‘No matter how hard I studied just how he had achieved such a perfectly natural flow, rhythm and emotional development in a sequence, it remained somehow beyond precise comprehension – it was always so simple, unostentatious and yet so perfect.’ (Quoted from the Independent obit; but the assessment was repeated, almost as a refrain, throughout yesterday.) It wasn’t all panegyric: Dai was demanding, difficult, could be fierce; the chairperson of the proceedings recalled an argument after which Dai refused to speak to him for a period of years. The clips shown included extracts from films of a 1960s Labour party conference and the 1968 Grosvenor Square anti-US demonstration, from Granada’s World in Action (Che Guevara’s body displayed to journalists, an interview with the imprisoned Regis Debray) and Disappearing World (fish caught by bow and arrow in South America, Masai women standing up to their menfolk: ‘modernist’, said the woman who introduced, of Dai’s editing; visceral, I’d add), and a complete early short film in which postcards from WW1 are voiced-over by readings of their handwritten messages.

There were readings from Dai’s books (published by Quartet, Seren, others including Rack Press: Nick Murray was there). I’m not sure what the film folk made of these: this wasn’t their Dai. But all the pieces fitted together: image and text, the politics, the diversity of gathered people; only yesterday did I realise the breadth of knowledge (he researched avidly) from which the folklore fragments in Sister of the artist, even if invented, derive; he had an award from the Royal Institute of Anthropology for a lifetime’s contribution to ethnographic film-making. One reading was of Dai on Humphrey Jennings, film-maker and writer/compiler (his Pandaemonium 1660–1886 was the inspiration for Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening ceremony): ‘Jack-of-all-trades’, Dai noted, is a standard British put-down of those whose variousness defies our pigeon-holing. He was there all day – film man, writer, lover, father, teacher, encourager, all-round maker: there were small sculptures in the room salvaged from his tiny flat, sculptures made of wood, stone, the rinds of Edam cheese for godsake, anything to hand – and when the screen wasn’t showing film it held a caricature of Dai, bearded and nimble, looking down with a glance both tolerant and not at the ways in which we sell each other short, ourselves too.

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