Authorship and authenticity

Solomon Northup In 1841, a young father and musician was kidnapped in Washington DC, shipped in chains to New Orleans and sold into a slavery that he endured until 1853 when, through the intervention of friends and sympathisers, he was rescued and reunited with his family. From that day to this, his story has been told, retold and told again.

Solomon Northup had been trying to tell his story from the moment he found himself chained in a dark slave pen. Brutal violence taught him to be silent, but couldn’t prevent him memorising his experiences in the hope, never abandoned, that he would one day regain the right to speak. When he did finally come before justice, in Washington DC, his demand that his kidnapper be arrested was rejected because a black man could not testify against a white.

Northup was reunited with his family in New York State on 21 January 1853.  He spent much of the next few months telling his story to David Wilson, an attorney, who wrote the first person narrative published in July 1853 to immediate success. Wilson presents himself as an editor, writing in the preface that:

‘Unbiased, as he conceives, by any prepossessions or prejudices, the only object of the editor has been to give a faithful history of Solomon Northup’s life, as he received it from his lips.’

Wilson goes on to explain that his words have been read, checked and, where necessary, corrected by Solomon Northup before publication. The story of their collaboration is discussed here by David Fiske, and an exploration of the narrative’s wider context and history by Henry Louis Gates Jnr., who acted as historical consultant to Steve McQueen’s recent film, can be read here.

Chiwetel EjioforThe film of 12 Years a Slave, justly feted, is the latest retelling of Solomon Northup’s story. It shares with the original book a rigorous commitment to the truth, but the role of the artists involved must not be denied. In each case one person’s experience has been imagined by another, who has then retold it to a wider public. In doing so, they have placed their craft, empathy and creativity freely in the service of another, with a shared purpose of bearing witness. In a culture still indebted to Romanticism, our ideas about authenticity can be very simplistic—but what really matters is truth.

It is truth, in all its complexity, that can be found in the work of David Wilson 160 years ago and Steve McQueen today. Solomon Northup might not have written the narrative that bears his name any more than he made the film he could not have imagined. But he is truly the author of both documents.

Filming creation

Each Regular Marvel is the result of conversations, reflection and shared creativity. They only exist because of many people’s willingness to join a trip across unknown land. Their different voices and observations, experiences and perspectives, shape what story is told and how. I’ve also involved artists and friends like Bill Ming, Rosie RedziaMik GodleyBen Wigley and the Ligeti Quartet whose work has greatly enriched both past and current projects.

The Light Ships follows the same pattern, but this time the artist working alongside me is my son, Laurence, a young filmmaker who has just completed his first big commission. Looking for Melody is a 50 minute documentary about the recording of Sine Qua Non, an album of Serge Gainsbourg songs recast in a jazz idiom. Filmed mainly at Abbey Road Studios in London, it captures the evolution of musical creation in the hands and minds of a diverse group of musicians, engineers, and producer. It’s a process of exploration and discussion, trying things out, abandoning things that don’t work, arguing for what you hear or hope to hear, starting, stopping and starting again.

Laurence and I have worked together before, but The Light Ships, with its focus on the village church in artistic and social life, is a more open, exploratory project. The short film we’ll make, alongside the book and other activities, will take shape only as the conversations that are the heart of the project begin to take place. All that will begin in June, once the website is live and we’ve been able to do more of the background research. In the meantime, although the subject is very different, we hope you will enjoy Looking for Melody.


Restless meanings

Classical music is as important as photography in Terence Davieselegiac film about the people and city of Liverpool in the last century. Archive film of labouring lives, in streets and homes, factories and docks, are underscored by great washes of Mahler, Brahms. Perotin and Tavener. It’s almost always the slow movements and their juxtaposition with the images of hard lives is very moving.

The meaning, though, is ambiguous. The music is one artist’s addition to pictures filmed by other artists with their own, perhaps complex, intentions. Does its introduction signify the essential dignity of people struggling to make the most of the mean hand they’ve been dealt? Or does it inspire sadness at the waste of human potential produced by industrial society? Perhaps it’s like the Last Post, simply a requiem for what has been lost.


The music itself cannot have been familiar or valued by many of those over whose faces it plays, if only because poverty will have kept them out of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra‘s concerts. Even radios will often have been beyond their means, at least before the 1960s. And that is before the question of taste. There’s a short burst of the Hippy Hippy Shake to introduce a brief (and refreshingly unsentimental) appearance by The Beatles, then Davies explains that he lost interest in popular music when Presley arrives, turning entirely to classical work and his ‘beloved Bruckner’. But that was not the experience of most of his fellow Liverpudlians, who followed The Beatles into liberating new worlds, and it is hard not to feel that Davies is reclaiming his city’s soundscape for the music that he values.


But ambiguity is one of art’s – particularly music’s – great qualities. It keeps real art alive, restlessly shifting between possibilities, between interpretations, between meanings. So the uncertainty of Davies’ intentions (to me, not to him) is central to this film’s power. With its other qualities – its formal beauty, its passion and bitterness, its narrative subtlety – this ambiguity is part of what makes you want to watch Of Time and the City again, even as it ends. It’s one reason why the film can speak in its intensely local accents to people across the world, and one reason why it’s likely to be watched long after the pleasing but forgettable films made the same year.

Without the music, the film would be less moving and less interesting, easier to understand, but less meaningful.

The power to transform

Parliament of dreams


Aquatopia, the latest of Alex Farquharson’s highly original themed exhibitions at Nottingham Contemporary, explores the cultural history of humanity’s imagined relationship with the sea and, especially, the alternative world hidden from sight beneath the ocean’s skin.  The show has been justly admired by the critics and will be going on to Tate St Ives this winter. It deserves and  amply rewards repeat visits.


There is one work in particular that has wrapped its tentacles around my imagination. Atlantiques, a 15 minute video made by Mati Diop, an artist, film-maker and performer, of French and Senegalese heritage. Much of it is filmed in the light of a fire on a beach in Dakar. Young men discuss the terrors of crossing the ocean in a pirogue for a better life in Spain and the despair of being found and deported to where the journey started.

It’s impossible…

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Making sense

Nightwalking 1I got an email from a Dutch friend, partly in response to my post about waiting for feedback. Margreet wrote about Winter Fires and how reading it had made her feel happy and optimistic about the future, but also about her reflections on what matters in life. Her partner works with people who have sensory disabilities—people who cannot hear or see and therefore whose experience of the world is shaped by other senses: touch, taste, balance, proprioception and others we may as yet not recognize or understand.

One of their friends who lives this experience recently spent the day with them at home, while she was reading Winter Fires, and she wrote about the thoughts and feelings she had about it.

But the reason for writing about that here is that Margreet sent me a link to this film, in which their friend also appears, and which I think deserves to be seen much, much more widely than the 340 views it has on You Tube. It’s called Nightwalking and I won’t say anything about it except to invite you to watch it: it will take less than 15 minutes.

This is what art does, at its best: open us to experiences, feelings and ideas we could not otherwise have and so help us develop our understanding of our own existence, within the limits of our capacities. Art does not teach: it enables us to learn. We all need to make sense, every one of us.

So many questions come out of this film—about the nature of humanity, about dignity and consent, about what we understand is happening, about value, meaning and purpose, about art. Watching people making sense, I think about how I myself make sense. No answers here, but as good a way to spend 15 minutes as I know.

‘The Crystal Quilt’, Suzanne Lacy

On Sunday, the American artist Suzanne Lacy will create a new performance piece called Silver Action at Tate Modern in London. She has invited hundreds of women who have participated in political action in the past and are now at least 60 years old to take part in unscripted conversations about their experience.

The piece echoes an earlier work by Lacy, The Crystal Quilt, which invited 430 women, also over 60, to talk about their experiences of growing older. A video of that performance was shown at Tate recently, and the gallery has made a short film in which Lacy talks about the work and her own practice.

The Crystal Quilt, even in its trace on video, is a beautiful and moving artwork. It values solidarity and the collective experience that can be woven from individual strands. It recognizes the underappreciated aesthetics that women have always applied to domestic labour: the quilt, useful and ornamental, is richly symbolic of everyday creativity and deep human hopes about love and the meaning of life.

Where We Dream: The Film

My friend Eugène van Erven been documenting community arts for many years, both in his native Netherlands and in other parts of the world. Having provided valuable feedback on the draft text of ‘Where we Dream‘, he’s now written this short piece about Benjamin Wigley’s film, that is an integral part of the work.

Scroll to the end of the post to watch the film: it’s about 15 minutes long.

I have long believed in the combined power of moving images and written words when it comes to documenting cultural phenomena, particularly when they happen in out of the way places. The beautifully produced book and film package ‘Where We Dream’ proves my point.

The film gives a visible face and an audible voice to the many people who inhabit the text and hence makes the story of the West Bromwich Operatic Society even more powerful. It is so much more than an illustrative bonus track.

Continue reading “Where We Dream: The Film”

‘Where We Dream’ published

Everybody’s a dreamer…

Almost a year ago, I began a series of conversations with people in West Bromwich about their cultural interests. I met painters, musicians and writers, people who sing in choirs and make model railways, people involved in knitting, dressmaking and flower arranging.

According to government statistics, the people of Sandwell (including West Bromwich) are among those ‘least engaged’ in the arts. It’s an idea I’ve always found odd because I’ve never met anyone who didn’t enjoy some kind of cultural or creative life. Those initial conversations showed that to be as true of the Black Country as anywhere. The question is what is recognised as ‘the arts’ and by whom.

West Bromwich Operatic Society was one of the groups I met in June 2011. David Hill, who’s been with them since the 1960s, had so many stories about this amateur theatre company, established before the Second World War and stronger today than ever. When I heard that the next show was going to ‘The Producers’, Mel Brooks’ affectionate satire of Broadway musicals, it felt perfect. What could be better to tell the story of a theatre group putting on a play than a show about putting on a play?

Where We Dream

Over the autumn, working with filmmaker Ben Wigley and photographer Kate Jackson, I met company members, watched their rehearsals, trawled the archives and finally saw the show from both sides of the curtain.Where We Dream is the culmination of that work, a 100-page book, with about 25 photos and a 15 minute film inserted into as a DVD. The whole project has been enabled by West Bromwich arts company, Multistory, as part of its ‘Black Country Stories’ programme.

Black Country Stories

Black Country Stories is an innovative portrait of life in the post-industrial West Midlands. It revives the spirit of creative documentation of working class Britain by artists from Humphrey Jennings to Stanley Spencer, George Orwell to Bill Brandt. It does so through the unique connections between Black Country people and international artists enabled by Multistory, through a globalizing, diverse perspective and through its use of new technology to make and distribute the work.

Through Black Country Stories, Multistory commissions outstanding artists to document and record life in the area. Work is currently being undertaken by Martin Parr, Mark Power, David Goldblatt and Margaret Drabble, among others, using photography and writing to tell stories that celebrate everyday life in the Black Country.

Getting a copy

Where We Dream is available as a book and DVD package from Multistory for £7.00 including postage (UK) or £10 including postage (outside UK).

Multistory, The Public,
 New Street,
 West Bromwich
 B70 7PG   

Tel: +44 (0)121 533 7190 Email:

The book is also available as a free download here: Where We Dream Book (7.6MB)