Monday, 30 January 2012

Patience (After Sebald)

At long last a chance to see a screening of Grant Gee's film about one of my favourite books, The Rings of Saturn. Where better to view it than Manchester Cornerhouse, close to the centre of the once decaying industrial city where the young Max Sebald arrived in the 1960's and which had such an influence on him.

I am fascinated by Sebald, but came to him very late, and may never have discovered him had not one of my daughters given me the Rings of Saturn because of its setting in the bleak Suffolk coast where I grew up and where my family had lived for centuries before.

It was interesting therefore in the discussion after the screening to hear the film's director Grant Gee say that the location of the book was not of primary signifiance; Sebald's walk could just as easily have taken place elsewhere, in Manchester for example.

Likewise the film itself was not originally intended to take the form of a walk around Suffolk, but to feature a number of places across Europe with which Sebald's work is associated. The film's form and location was in the end dictated by its very small budget, around £50,000: back packing around East Anglia, as Grant Gee put it, was cheaper.

I found the film itself deeply moving. For me there was an additional layer, grainy black and white images and place names on sign posts evoked memories of my childhood: Orford, where I attended the school close to the castle, of which only a well preserved keep remains, and vague memories, among the mounds that surround it, of a mysterious decayed ghostly house overgrown with trees and shrubs; the main street of Saxmundham on the then main London road through which seemingly endless motor cycles with sidecars would pass in the 1950's on their way to Great Yarmouth; Southwold, "Chelsea by the sea" as it was described in the film, always had a rather better class of visitor!

Then there were places where my ancestors lived: Bungay where my great grandfather used to blend tea in the attic above his shop so that, according to family legend, it suited the taste of the local water; Ditchingham, actually in the county of Norfolk, associated with Rider Haggard, in whose churchyard my father took me a quarter century ago to find the grave of another great grandfather who had died in Flushing in Holland around 1887, on his way to or from visiting two daughters who for some unaccountable reason had left the quiet town of Bungay for the brighter lights of imperial Vienna. Ironically in the 1930's their relatives in Suffolk were I was told asked to supply evidence to prove that they were not Jewish.

I was interested to hear the reactions to the film of those who on my recommendation had gone to see it. Those who had never read any Sebald were not engaged by it and not inspired to read any of Sebald's books, but the only one who had read some Sebald says he would like to see the film again.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the film is the music. None of us were aware that it had any until the question and answer session revealed that there was some and that it was produced by the Stockport born electronic musician James Leyland Kirby.


Grant Gee spoke of the possibility in the future of having a screening of the film with the commentary turned off, accompanied only by the music.

Finally I was asked by my friends why the film had the title "Patience". Grant Gee supplied the answer: it refers to the passage in Austerlitz in which a pack of family postcards are rearranged as in a game of patience until they are finally put in the correct sequence.

I look forward to viewing the film again. Next time I am sure I shall hear the music.

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