My aim with The Eye is to shine a light on music, film and literature that deals with landscape in a multitude of ways.
The space below will be taken up by images from a series of landscape poems, which are now available in a limited run of signed A5 booklets here.
In close collaboration with David Rudkin, Alan Clarke was commissioned to produce Penda’s Fen as part of the BBC’s Play for Today series which ran from 1970 until 1984. It centres around interwoven themes of romantic nationalism, sexuality, identity and salvation, and is set within a parochial community in the Malvern Hills. Critics were confused and underwhelmed at the time of its release, largely due to its slippery and dream-like plot-line, which makes it difficult to categorise and contain. On closer inspection, however, it reveals itself as one of the most distinctive, strange and mystical films of its era.
The story begins with Stephen, a conservative schoolboy, listening intently to an Elgar record only to be interrupted by his mother entering the room. Elgar’s music, in its quintessential Englishness, is revealed to provide elevation for him from what he views as a troubling, unstable world. A portrait of a hyper-sensitive and melodramatic personality is rounded out across the opening section of the film, as we see Stephen playing the organ at church, then forcefully arguing against his classmates during a school debate. Finally, during a local strike meeting, we encounter a radical, leftist village playwright, whose passionate speech about the exploitation of his colleagues clashes against everything Stephen’s worldview represents.
Although the playwright’s politics initially incur disdain, their questioning, critical character comes to subtly influence Stephen’s outlook as the narrative unfolds. Somewhat cryptically, the playwright urges those gathered to dig deeper to find the conspiratorial forces that govern the landscape around them, convinced that the nearby fen is hollowed out beneath, and that “some hideous angel of technocratic death” is waiting there, conspiring to destroy them when war comes. Although framed as symptomatic of the paranoid attitudes of the time, the playwright’s suspicions are given credence when a teenager is mysteriously deformed after stopping off on the fen on the way home from a night out.
From here, the film flowers into an account of a traumatic spiritual awakening. Stephen’s entrenched belief system is gradually eroded to reveal something far deeper and more complex, repressed over the years beneath a stuffy veneer. We are given insight into an erotic dream he has of a teasing boy at school. When he wakes, a demonic incubus is sat on his chest, mirroring The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli. This powerful experience prompts him to opt out of the school cadet force, a move that’s met with outrage by his superiors.
A psychological tipping point arrives when Stephen cycles past a workman painting ‘Pinven’, instead of ‘Pinvin’, on a country lane sign. After scolding his mistake, he digs into its meaning, discovering that the local area links back to Penda, the last pagan king of England. Combined with a subsequent mistranslation of the Greek aphorism ‘know thyself’ as ‘discover thyself’, this sets him off on a personal conquest to strip away misconceptions about his own identity, whether sexual, religious or societal. He begins to recognise that meaning, as well as the surrounding locale itself, is much like an onion, with multifarious layers to peel back, contextualise and interpret.
Stephen is blindsided by more visions as the film progresses, with the Virgin Mary, Jesus, Elgar and Penda appearing to nudge him through various stages of his ongoing revelation. A vision of the incubus resurfaces during a bike-ride and Stephen clatters to the road. In a detached reverie he bears witness to a bizarre pagan ceremony. A traditional couple he spotted in an earlier newspaper article – presented as bastions of English reserve – are the ringleaders, calling his straight, conformist notions of national identity into disrepute.
The rector is refreshingly unconventional in his ideas, encouraging Stephen to explore a pre-Christian reading of the fen and its fragmented history. When he is told he was adopted, the tears quickly subside; he admits now that he is excited to be made up of ‘unknown elements’. In the closing scene, the couple from the paper wish to take him under their wing, to make him ‘pure’ again. He turns away, crying out that he is made up of both man and woman. Penda appears to save him, his words falling heavily on our protagonist: “their dawn will come”. Beneath the stiff façade of modernity, the universal truths of our forefathers lie dormant. All is not quite as it seems.
This is the sixth in a series of recordings captured at locations around Sheffield.
. ..metallic, ghost ship, bubbled, tinkle, giant waves, looking back, distant regret, eyes through fog, brown, clothes tattered, left alone, digital watch beeps the hour, widescreen, woodland, twigs and mud, tension, celestial, cold air, amorphous shape hanging, crying..
. ..dark throb, waiting, dawn, morning song, wires, water, drift..
. ..white light, insects, surrounded, train, infiltrate, soft mist, emerging, glacial, blooming, sublime, strength, immersion, daydream, world spins, crowds spin, bare stone seat, yawning view..
. ..release, warmth, stream trickles, happiness, chiming together, breathe, lungs filling, peace, playful, conjoined, reeds..
. ..wondering, tentative, hidden, appearing, creeping, night, lamplight, empty streets, ghostly, lone lady, window, latticed yellow, back to the outside world, encroach, demons, fever, bed-sheets, awake, staring out..
. ..chatter, sweeping, confusion, honing in, conversation between strangers, tiptoeing, eye contact, lyrical patter, thankful, belonging, grown up..
. ..birdsong, forest, questioning, workshop, call for attention, calling, knocking, yearning, asking for help, why, finally it stops, zoom in, action, significance, takeover, swooping, total immersion, against their will, fear, human need, history plays out again..
. ..woodpecker, hold tight, vibrations, shadows, memories, after the rain..
. ..into the night, hypnotised, clamour, inside all stuffy and dark, shuffle through, wide eyes, down and out, wooden floors and walls, making crafts, intruder, and out the other side, lost, searching for someone, underworld, mysterious way of life, unwelcome, crows bark, clock strikes, too late, try to escape..
. ..liner through ice, crawling on the water, massive, a god, danger, the end, all beauty, slow-motion, decline, lifted above, mist thick, perfect stillness slowly broken, eternally, and haunted..
. ..squirreling, bells in relief, market-day, air is warmer, quiet before the day begins, soft guitar is a hymn, steadily focus, commit to work, hold tight, relaxation, meditation, be calm and still, the minutes complicate, turn away..
. ..waterfall, collapse, spray, now probing sounds, backwards, onto flatlands, constant questioning, back to the wall, against me, jingling, waves of hurt, subside, interlocked and swaying, it fades, into quietude..
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