Firelit effigies: Thomas Imbach’s ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ (2013)


In exploring the mindset of a figure clouded by legend, this Swiss-made retelling has a beautiful atmosphere. It uses shore, mountain and forest to depict Mary’s psychological terrain; puppet effigies twitch in firelight with folk-ritual precision, and Elizabeth is a constant presence, never made flesh – she is paint or puppet or a glimpse of doppelganger.


Central to the story is Mary’s court musician and advisor Rizzio. With shades of Hamlet’s ghost, he lends another layer of tragedy to a treatment based on Stefan Zweig’s Maria Stuart with its key notes of suffering and fallibility.


There are beautiful sequences of Scottish landscape which the director captured himself (though most of the filming was in Switzerland).


As Mary narrates the letters she writes to Elizabeth, it’s a deathly, rough-hewn and unresponsive backdrop. At her moments of dislocation, the camera flees wraith-like over sea-washed shores or broken forest paths.




Camille Rutherford captures Mary’s isolation, besieged as a powerful woman, long before she is imprisoned by the English queen, with a grace that captures both youth and regality. It’s a stark, European perspective which shuns Hollywood excess, with a layer of modernity that lies with ease.



Many sequences foretell a life of imprisonment, with gunmetal-grey lattice and winter’s branches, failing winter light and a cooling sun.



The years as a prisoner are beautifully distilled to a vision of purgatory: a crown woven with the fabric of her being, stained like Lady Macbeth.


Mary Queen of Scots is a film that haunts and ebbs and flows. It’s not going to appeal to anyone seeking a history lesson, either gritty or lavish: it’s a theatrical, dramatic sequence of legendary events filtered through a poetic vision of inner life.

It’s released on Region 2 DVD now and also on Amazon Instant Video.

Synchronised dreamscapes

Tim Walker - Devon cream

Postcards from an exhibition of Tim Walker‘s photographs, which was held over the summer at the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle. All the images were displayed in light boxes, so the darkened room created a night-time setting to make the experience entirely dream-like. I like the above image particularly, because it must have been projecting quietly in my mind when I was transferring my parents’ slides from the 1950s here. It’s also called Devon Cream, which I didn’t know until I drew it out for this post. Synchronicity indeed…

Tim Walker - It rained outside

The above image is called It rained outside so we camped indoors.

Tim Walker - Snow in Summer

Snow in Summer (above).

Tim Walker - Flying saucer with members of hunt

And another hunting image – Flying Saucer with members of the West Percy Hunt. All these photographs are constructed, using props, and are not the product of digital manipulation… to quote the essay, “To reveal the ambition of photography as an integrated, collective undertaking where the pressing of the shutter on the camera is the closing moment in the creative process”.

I’m not sure how many exhibitions work so successfully, when small elements sit quietly in your mind and then crystallise a particular moment in your own history – my parents, Devon, and the 1950s – a time before I was born. I’ve looked at my parents’ slides many times over the years. They’re blueprints in my memory of a time I never knew, acting like gentle magnets, as I drift along.


WhistlesintheWind (I think that’s a place rather than myself) began with looking at things that made an impression on me as a child and the resonances I could pick up today. It also became a little deeper than that: mainly because I was keeping it at a time when my parents were either moving into a nursing home or dealing with failing sight and hearing. That’s a stage when, as a younger generation, you move into the front line: over the border, we’re getting older, heaven only knows what’s on its way to quote a Saint Etienne song.

Over the border

There’s an idea that every seven years we move into a new phase, which seems fairly accurate: 7, 14, 21, 28, 35, 42… Not long ago I was reading an article about stages of happiness as we go through life. It involved firstly the old cliché – and unlikely claim – that in youth we are free from care, worry and responsibility.

Once in our mid-30s we have enough experience for a realistic sense of the possibilities or outcomes of any given situation, and with the human need to predict and pigeon-hole and order, fall prey to any number of prejudices or assumptions that hinder contentment. Over time the predicting wears away and we settle down: we know all that may happen but have trained ourselves to keep it out of mind (which is not the same as burying it). We know life is fragile but there’s little sense in thinking of it.

That’s all my paraphrase and interpretation, but fair enough. In all this there’s the need for somewhere, some thing to keep us anchored: people, places, something ancient and unchanging – perhaps in nature or a faith. And a sense of who you are and what you look for, which is fraught with nostalgic complications, if you want to trace it back or think about it seriously.

Watch 2

My first proper watch: a Christmas present from my dad aged 10, overhauled, new strap, proper wind-up mechanism and worn today after its 20 years or so in the wilderness. Sentiment? Nostalgia? A part of me?

This post from explores the word nostalgia in some depth:

“I have just read Staying Put: Making a home in a restless world by Scott Russell Sanders – a really interesting/great read – in it there is a passage on the meaning of the word nostalgia.

To paraphrase and quote – “Nostalgia was coined in 1688 as a medical term to find an equivalent for the German word meaning homesickness. On our lips, nostalgia usually means a sentimental regard for the trinkets and fashion of an earlier time, for an idealized past, for a vanished youth.  It is a shallow use of the word. The two Greek roots of nostalgia literally mean return pain. The pain comes not from returning home but longing to return.”

Sorting out boxes and cupboards and things from the past is a strange exercise these days. There’s a vague popular notion that we’re only as good as our latest new thing; a bit like an actor saying they’re only as good as their latest film.

But then there are classic films, books and music which are made new as people discover them over the decades – and these things live at that moment of discovery, not just in the moments they were first created. And as time moves everything is fallow and unnoticed for a while. Even Elizabeth II.


Bits and pieces of our history retreat and sleep and others come forward over time, different ways of seeing, feeling, being and living. But certain places, images and objects will connect us directly to any of these moments, or spots of time – whatever you want to call it.

I remember a kaleidoscope I once had. Turned to the light, endless small sparkling grains turned over and over into new arrangements of the same pieces.

There is a lot of dust (and a little mildew) that could gather as we get older, but some things will always remind us of who we are, and also of being alive in the present moment. Ancient things in the landscape give us a sense of continuity and stability. If we need these in our landscape, might we need them in our lives?

The past is not dead, it is living in us, and will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make.

William Morris

Morris and Burne Jones

William Morris, Burne Jones and families

I know with certainty that a [person’s] work is nothing but the long journey to recover, through the detours of art, the two or three simple and great images which first gained access to [his or her] heart.

Albert Camus (apologies for this one: complete affectation to quote Camus, but it’s good. And I found it in the notes of a film I was watching).

These comments in an interview with Natasha Khan (of Bat for Lashes) brings up the ‘N’ word again, almost apologetically…

“…exploring the Sussex Downs and the countryside was a big soothing, nurturing aspect of being at home, and when I felt everything was too much I’d definitely go for walks in downs and check out Alfriston and Rye and Glynde, small villages and I just really love that countryside. It just makes me so happy, and there’s something really romantic and it reminds me of The Snowman – when you’re little and all those rolling hills and little cottages and stuff. I feel like there’s something very wild and romantic about that landscape…”

“… I was reading Patti Smith’s book Just Kids about her and Robert Mapplethorpe which I found fascinating and really inspiring. I did life drawing classes and illustrating for children’s books… I’ve re-read a lot of my childhood books like The BFG, Goodnight Mr. Tom and Ring of Bright Water… I think probably what that’s to do with is going back and rereading things that were a massive part of my childhood, and looking at them from an adult perspective. I think there’s something quite healing in that; immersing myself in my roots and my English childhood and the countryside and the history, coming to terms with my history, working through it and loving it and appreciating aspects of it. And letting go of some aspects helps you come fully into adulthood and put some of those things to rest, so maybe it was a bit of a nostalgia trip, in some ways.”

(From The Line of Best Fit.)

Ring of Bright water

Any excuse…

In sorting through anything – and recently I’ve been clearing my father’s house for new owners – there’s a pile of things that are indeterminate, that speak of no direct need to keep or throw away. And that’s the difficult area… what in that pile is lying fallow?

Take those fateful steps up the metal scaffold to the recycling skip, with cars below circling in and away to the goal of ‘now’, and what fragments of a kaleidoscope might be lost forever?

But there’s a blunt thud and tumble and they are gone. And that is as it should be.