Blake and the Pandemic

Finding Blake creator and filmmaker James Murray-White reflects on the troubled times we find ourselves in under lockdown with Covid-19, and on what’s ahead for the Finding Blake film — and, with joy, to some extras we’re looking forward to sharing.


Well, what strange times!

We know that Blake didn’t live through a pandemic, although he understood the coming of industry as the harbinger of the spiritual crisis in the West that started then and has brought us to this point today. This time of corona — a virus passed from animal to human, likely to have transferred across in the so-called ‘wet meat’ markets of Wuhan in China — is happening because the process of industrialisation, now fully developed into the capitalist economy, has expanded so rapidly in these years since Blake’s death in 1827.

Pestilence, by William Blake (circa 1795-1800) http://museums.bristol.gov.uk

So-called ‘economic growth’ has spread like wildfire across the globe and literally eats into territory that was and should be the exclusive dominion of ‘the others’: the beautiful wildlife we share this planet with — the bat, the pangolin, the wild boar, the butterfly, the snow leopard, and of course the tiger — hunted in China for the medicinal values of its organs, or to be shipped around the world to be ‘preserved’ and gawped at in zoos.

Look on the rising sun: there God does live 
And gives his light, and gives his heat away. 
And flowers and trees and beasts and men receive
Comfort in morning joy in the noonday.

— from The Little Black Boy, by William Blake

And, in a far more minor way, coronavirus has now prevented us from getting our Finding Blake film into the world, and its bigger message of being part of the beautiful, strange and varied canon of creative responses to Blake’s life and legacy that have emerged since his death. I’m really proud of this piece of work being part of the legacy of responses to these values: the ‘golden thread’ of ethics and belief, and questioning and care that Blake (and many others) tapped into. Values that are so much needed in this beautiful and tragic world today, at this time of climate crisis, planetary warming, social injustice. There is now a growing recognition of human anthropocentrism — which sees us as being the ‘dominant’ species at the top of the tree, but cutting off the roots below — of which this tragic pandemic, which will have devastating consequences for our interconnected tribal species, is probably just one part. Blake knew, and communicated through his images and words, the true ecological and spiritually connected web of life.

More joyous things to come

So, we held a preview screening at the Kindersley Workshop. This was for Lida (the creator of the new ledger stone for Blake’s burial site at Bunhill Fields in London), and friends and funders, and it was a joyous, small event, with much discursive response in the Carpenters Arms afterwards. I’ve taken all that feedback away and am making some minor structural tweaks and tech/sound adjustments right now. And I’ve started the process of arranging screenings UK-wide — but this process was on lockdown anyway as Finding Blake is being considered for the UK’s flagship documentary festival for June (hint: in a northern city famous for steel) and, naturally, the film couldn’t be publicly screened until then if it gets in.

William Blake’s ledger stone at Bunhill Field, 2018. By GrindtXX – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bunhill_Blake_2018.jpg

We’re looking forward to screening publicly post-corona, though we’ve been invited to screen at another UK documentary festival in November! Don’t know the details just yet, or any restrictions but hope to soon (hint: in a bijou seaside town, where Pears used to play and allegedly Morrissey has a house). I’ve been reaching out to all the people who appear in the film to thank them and share news with them, and some screening opportunities are emerging there too. 

Given that we are all on lockdown, I’m hoping that we can get Finding Blake online in some pay-per-view capacity sooner rather than later. All details on that will be announced here, as will all the extra Blakean offerings: I have been making the extra scenes, outtakes and scrumptious other pieces that I couldn’t squeeze into the film into a package alongside the main feature. We hope to drip-feed some as extra teasers for the film here.

And we’ll start that off — although we can’t give an exact date yet — with an exclusive film of poet Sasha Dugdale reading her Forward Prize-winning long-form poem Joy. From the mouth of Catherine Blake, Joy is an absolutely exquisite piece of work and Sasha, currently poet in residence at St John’s College Cambridge, gave a morning over a year ago now to come into a beautiful old Victorian house being renovated beside the river in Cambridge, and be filmed reading her piece. Sadly, I couldn’t use this within Finding Blake — a case of bad planning on my part, juggling so many pieces of the Blakean puzzle together at the same time — so the footage is being crafted into one beautiful unique film of its own by a master editor in Canada. Again, that piece will be exclusive to this Finding Blake project, so we’ll announce it and release it here.

Finding Blake invited poet Sasha Dugdale to read her poem 'Joy' for us.
Sasha Dugdale, filming a performance of ‘Joy’ for Finding Blake
Photograph: James Murray-White © 2019 sky-larking.co.uk

The walls are wordless. There is a clock ticking.
I have woken up from a dream of abundant colour
and joy
I see his face and he is a shepherd and a piper and
a god
I see him bent by the gate, setting the fire, and he
is a fallen demon
I see him listening to the wind and sorrowing
I see wrath and misery, fire and desolation
A thousand fires in ancient London
And then the grass comes silent silent with the
hardest colour of all
The mirth colour the corn colour the summer
night colour
A thousand thousand summer nights pass
And children weave their daisy chains and place
them on the heads of fallen idols
He wept he wept more tears than there were days
And never changed the door lest, he said, we drive
an angel from it
And every morning he dipped his brush in wrath
and mildness
And out of him tumbled the biggest things of all
All of them righter than the rightest calculation
And truer than any compass
Yet where they were right and true none could say
And how they were right and true none could guess
But I knew I knew
He was an eye, and the eye wept and frowned and
smiled
The eye watched
The eye watered
The world was a mote in that eye

— from Joy, by Sasha Dugdale

Finding a time to reset

Until then, we hope you’re finding creativity and inner strength and resilience during this strange tough time. There will be difficult days ahead, and it feels like we as a species-community need to tackle this crisis in so many ways: medical, scientific research, social isolation, political and in a very humane, spiritual, soul-searching way. Most of all, with compassion and care and with genuine grief and a fully authentic response to the joys and the tragedies of life. It’s time to reset.

I’m in Oxford, where Finding Blake has much of its roots: where I saw the fabulously inspiring ‘Apprentice & Master’ Blake exhibition at the Ashmolean in 2014, and to where I returned (and they so generously flung open their doors to us) to film David Whyte; and then later to film Carol Leader give her talk on using Blake in her psychotherapeutic practice. So it’s a treat to be self-isolating within this other ‘hallowed’ city, so similar and yet so unlike my home city, the ‘other place’, Cambridge. I’ve offered the Ashmolean Museum a ‘thank you’ screening, so hopefully sometime later this year Blake will be back within those walls again.

I’m looking very closely at both the tiny things — the grains of wheat to feed the birds (isn’t there such rich birdsong now there are so few cars and so little sounds of industry?), planting vegetable and sunflower seeds a-plenty, and also remembering to look up, to look at the trees that frame so much space, and the light that bleeds into our retina and allows us to see. Let’s use the inspiration of Blake within these strange times…


Notes

Joy, by Sasha Dugdale, is published by Carcanet Press (2017).

You can view our trailer for the Finding Blake film in this recent post from James. 

 

 

Editing Blake – and Revealing Our Film Trailer

Finding Blake creator and filmmaker James Murray-White announces the completion of the film behind the project, reveals the trailer for the film, celebrates the inspiration behind this work — and asks what Blake would make of the changes we are seeing in the world today.


So — we have a film: a 90-minute feature doc, Finding Blake: meeting William Blake in the 21st Century, or – memorialising the vegetal ephemeral. It was completed, fittingly, on Valentine’s Day. And it’s been a long labour of love — three years, and all my life and experience before that: poured into this.

Announcing the trailer for the film, 'Finding Blake'
Trailer for the film, ‘Finding Blake’.

It’s been a long wild ride. As Patti Smith sings in My Blakean Year:

“all that I envisioned, all that I had held dear, met with grave derision.” — Patti Smith

So I write this with a sense of reflection, and both an opening to the new, and an ending of the old. I’ve been coming and going with this project over these three years: having to put it down to focus on commercial work and pay the bills; deepening my activism and my engagement with the human community in doing so, equally emphasising a deeper connection with the Earth and the soil and engaging in the work of rewilding, inner and outer. And yet, always mindful of returning to the layers and levels of understanding of Blake’s zoas, and seeking to integrate so many aspects of life and the love and joy and horror of it all coming at me constantly, so that I can truly exist somewhere within these four levels of spiritual development.

That is what Blake’s life was all about, and why he still is such a strong source of inspiration. As Luis Carrido, Blake scholar — and, with his wife Carol, the re-discoverer of Blake’s final resting place underneath the plane tree in the Bunhill Fields ‘dissenters graveyard’ — says early in the film:

“It’s a movement of spiritual enlightenment. Blake helps us reach up to the infinite.” — Luis Carrido

Luis Garrido is one of the experts featured in our film, 'Finding Blake'
Luis Garrido, featured in the film ‘Finding Blake’

So, remembering this, and constantly working with Luis and his words and the other interviewees on screen, and the ever-present solid, calm craft of Lida Kindersley, the constant tap-tap-tapping of chisel hitting stone in her workshop — which I hope I’ve used to good measure in the film as a sound experience as well as a visual metaphor, chipping away at the fixedness of life — I’ve brought all the material to the editing chipping block. Chipped away, always trying to reach up to the infinite, with all its beautiful and wrathful manifestations we find upon the way.

Blake was born for this time

Having dived into Blake’s life and legacy, and responded to it all with this project, I wonder what Blake would have made of the massive cultural shifts and rise in consciousness we are seeing manifest. It is deeply encouraging to see folk — young and old, from every walk of life — rising to challenge vested power and political corruption.

Capitalism stifles and kills. Land ownership excludes and divides. Carbon production and emission destroys. And creativity, stilling the mind, listening, looking deeply — these are what re-invigorate and produce love and beauty and compassionate care. 

Blake would love this time in the human story. He was born for it, and we thank him for the legacy of life that has helped bring this shift into being. I wonder if his energy truly went beyond, or if it was re-incarnated: to keep returning as bodhisattvas to guide us humbler mortals to enlightenment…

Malcolm Guite is one of the experts featured in our film, 'Finding Blake'
Malcolm Guite, featured in the film ‘Finding Blake’

Wild weather and deep inspiration

Sitting down to edit often feels to me like sitting in the dentist’s chair and having my wisdom teeth pulled (I’ve had two out and still remember the pain and the size of the needles). There is an ominous phrase in the film world, often used by editors and all of us crafting away with cameras: ‘kill your babies’ — which really translates as ‘does your best material hold the story together and would the story survive without it?’ I’d much rather hand projects over — and I’ve worked with a few good editors on pieces of this — but ultimately it’s been my responsibility and I knew I must see it through.

“I must create a system, or be enslav’d by another mans I will not reason & compare: my business is to create”

It’s been wild weather outside the door: Storm Ciara was in full force when I arrived, and knocked out some of Cumbria’s water supply and left the land water-logged, cold, windy, and snowy up on the higher hills. And Storm Dennis is just coming up the land now as I finish the edit and write these words. Wonderful, wild weather to inspire my looking deep into this screen and allowing Blake to unfold…

Carol Leader is one of the experts featured in our film, 'Finding Blake'
Carol Leader, featured in the film ‘Finding Blake’

I’m grateful to two dear friends who have been closely involved with Finding Blake since the beginning. Poet Clare Crossman and filmmaker Jonnie Howard both have been giving me constant advice and good guidance on this visual telling, and whose wise words I took with me to the editing retreat high up in the Cumbrian wilds.

Using film to find William Blake

To get my creative juices going, I took myself to see the new Terence Malick film A Hidden Life: a masterly telling of a true story of conscientious objection, and the soul-felt struggle of the individual who chose this path. The film isn’t about words, as with much of Malick’s recent work. He uses huge-scale cinematography to conjure emotions. Sweeping shots of mountains and the vast rolling (Austrian) landscapes, with beautiful intimate detail of grass and corn, and the vast deep joy of all of it.

One of the disappointments I felt at the big Blake exhibition at Tate Britain that finished at the top of this month, alongside the lack of A/V material, is that the big scale film panning across an artwork didn’t go into enough detail. What I would love to do with Blake is to use special lenses to really scrutinise some of the images — prints and paintings — in deep detail. Access to the images to do this requires a vast budget, and the institutions that hold the bulk of Blake’s oeuvre frown upon such deep scrutiny. There was a very fine film doing the rounds last year looking at Picasso’s early life, with magnificent slow close-ups of some of his work — a powerful way to really look at an image. Blake’s work would really benefit from this close observation by those with eyes to see.

I was up at Clare’s cottage a year ago last winter, and cut all the sequences in draft form. I have sat on them since, adding other bits of footage and doing more interviews, but wondering what was lacking in the overall project. Jonnie — a great filmmaker who has done some of the early camerawork for the project (including the beautifully shot David Whyte interview in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, where Blake quite literally sat upon our shoulders) has been continually saying I should inject more personal input: Why have I been doing this? What’s my story here? And so I have. I hope it works: it was never going to be all about me — that thought abhors me, but I realise that ultimately it’s both the personal and the wider perspective that tells the story, and this is where the craft of telling is, whatever the story.

David Whyte, featured in the film ‘Finding Blake’

Clare, a fine poet, highly capable of soul-diving to heft out words of the Earth to bring ethical diamonds to us — has also been telling me to work deeper with the Blakean words: pull out the wisdom of his legacy and craft them visually. So I’ve crafted small film-poems (one of my favourite art forms indeed — and I hope this entire film and project is in itself a larger film-poem to creativity and the human spiritual journey itself: from womb to soil).

I have to leave that to you, dear viewer, to judge for yourself. Feedback, of course, is welcome, when you get to see the whole thing on a screen someplace. We welcome reviews here, or email me directly. I’ll probably be out on a moor someplace or lugging cameras to film beavers or wild bogs, and it might take a while to respond (most of the film projects this year are responses to, reflections upon, and recording elements of this beautiful natural world, so far from the inner reflectiveness that Finding Blake has been).

Bringing Finding Blake into the world

There is a preview screening next month for those closely involved and those who chipped in to the crowdfunding campaign to get Finding Blake up and running all those centuries ago … Space is extremely limited but if you’re keen to come, email me and I’ll see if we can squeeze you in.

I’m talking to a prestigious venue about an official launch event, probably late Spring, and also to other venues around the land to take Finding Blake on a mini-tour later in the year. All details will be released here in good time. If you’d love to bring Finding Blake to a screen near you, with or without me to introduce it and do a Q&A, do shout — happy to negotiate.

For now, until Finding Blake manifests onto a screen near you, here to whet your Blakean appetite is the trailer for the film. 

Finding Blake – trailer, February 2020 from Finding Blake.


Notes

You can see many other film clips from our project, including footage that is included in the final film, over at our Finding Blake films at a glance page.

Finding Blake in Nenthead

Finding Blake creator and filmmaker James Murray-White shares a taste of a talk that he and poet Clare Crossman, a fellow Finding Blake contributor, gave on 19th October in Nenthead in Cumbria.


At the invitation of curator Maxine, with an audience of 30, we set up the screen in front of the lectern at the beautifully restored old chapel that is the Nenthead Arts and Visitor Centre and I showed a range of clips from the project so far, and shared the history of how it came to be.

Some of the selected highlights included the experience of going into Jordan’s Mine in Dorset, and on having such an immersive experience in the Kindersley workshop experiencing the letters being cut for Blake’s new stone, right through to engaging with scholars and creative minds through the interviewing process, to an assessment of getting ready for the final push and finishing the film. 

Clare Crossman speaking at Nenthead Arts & Visitor Centre
Clare Crossman speaking at Nenthead Arts & Visitor Centre

Clare spoke deeply and with careful reflection of Blake as mystic and as a continuing inspiration, through both nature references and remarks on city life and culture in his work. She used her body of poems and study in associated areas to illustrate her talk.

Extinction Rebellion

I started by referencing the recent Extinction Rebellion in London, which I had been involved with for four days, and had brought some of that energy with me to Cumbria. Immediately before this talk I had come from a woodland in the North East, where I’d met a local Extinction Rebellion  group — XR NE — talking about rewilding as the ultimate act of rebellion, and gathering seeds to further forest the planet as one of the most positive actions we humans can do.

There is no evidence Blake planted trees, though he certainly engaged with them, and it’s clear in my mind he would have supported the values of XR and shared the strong wish to throw off the ‘mind-forged manacles’ of a system that conspires against creativity and the inner/outer spiritual nature of the individual. He is an inspiration in seeking connection to all that is good and holy in this life and in this world as we know — until we transform ourselves internally as well as the world externally.

XR Capitalism poster
XR Capitalism poster

Here is the XR poster I used as an opening graphic for the Nenthead event.

A Finding Blake screening in Nenthead

I captured this footage of the start of the event — although this was just a camera on a tripod to record it, so apologies for lack of light and focus, and it not being complete. It was just meant to capture a taste of our talk and screening. 

We shall be bringing the Finding Blake film to Nenthead for a screening in the New Year!

FB Talk Nenthead October 2019 from James Murray-White.


Notes

You can find out more about Nenthead Arts & Visitor Centre — “England’s highest arts and visitor centre” — and the restoration of the chapel at Nenthead Arts and Visitor Centre

Extinction Rebellion North East is on Facebook, and you can read James’s Finding Blake post on his earlier experiences with Extinction Rebellion, Blake in the Midst of Rebellion!