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. 

 

 

‘Joy’ Reading & Film: Sasha Dugdale on Catherine Blake

Finding Blake creator and filmmaker James Murray-White announces a special public event and an exclusive film for our project, courtesy of award-winning poet Sasha Dugdale. Sasha’s recent poem Joy brings us the voice of Catherine Blake, wife to William Blake and ‘vital presence and assistant throughout his life’. 


And he is gone, fled singing to some place I cannot reach. His angels came and he sang to them and they told him they needed him more than I did… Merciless, merciless angels… Merciless angels who know nothing of human despair. And he went with them. He nodded and spoke mild words and was soon gone… And he left a shadow of grime on his collar and a warm bed. And the angels had tall wings, like steeples, or like sails and spread white like the King’s ship in dock, and they took him, only I couldn’t see them, but I know how they looked, for hadn’t he spent all his life in their company and mine? And didn’t they sometimes appear in white like good children, and sometimes like ladies but barefoot, with rosy pink staining their necks and hands and ringlets in their hair? Their sighs were angel swords and their smiles were beams of light. He smiled at me, as if to say can’t you see how bonny they are today, on this, my death day, and there’s the whole pity of it, for I couldn’t see, and I never could.

— from Joy, by Sasha Dugdale

And so spake Catherine Blake, reflecting back upon the life and death of her life-long husband William in 1827; or so writes Sasha Dugdale, poet and translator, who in this wondrous monologue gives voice to one of the most silent muses the world has known — who inspired steadily her vacillating husband-genius, is known to have helped him print and paint his masterpieces, and to whom he dedicated much of his writings.

Catherine Blake, by William Blake
Catherine Blake, by William Blake c1805

The monologue and its volume of other poems, Joy, won the Forward Prize for best single poem in 2016, and was described by the judges as “an extraordinarily sustained visionary piece of writing”. Sasha has written three other collections of poetry, is known for her promotion and translation of Russian literature, and is co-director of the Winchester Poetry Festival. She is currently poet-in-residence at St John’s College, Cambridge.

'Joy', by Sasha Dugdale
‘Joy’, by Sasha Dugdale

We at Finding Blake are delighted to announce that we will be exclusively filming Sasha reading her monologue, to be premiered here on our website and in the final Finding Blake film to be released later this year. On the same day — 11th April, at 7pm — Sasha will be giving a public reading of some of Joy and other work. The venue is a wonderful Victorian engineer’s house, undergoing restoration in the grounds of the Cambridge Museum of Technology by the River Cam. The house — now named ‘Othersyde’, with its lovely gardens and outdoor bar with views across the river onto a nature reserve in the heart of the city — is a new arts and escape rooms venue that I’ve been involved with for some time. This event is the finale of a winter series of literary & musical salons. 


Notes

The event is on Thursday April 11th at 7pm. All welcome, though early booking essential as it’s a cosy intimate venue — with only 25 seats! Booking info is here, and then please email me for a Paypal link to secure your ticket.

For further information on Catherine Blake, see Wikipedia, and there is an essay on her by Angus Whitehead at the Blake Archive.

For further information about Sasha Dugdale, see her Wikipedia page. You can enjoy another excerpt from Joy at the Forward Arts Foundation, (where there is also an interview with her), and here is a review from the Poetry School. The collection Joy (2017) is published by Carcanet Press, and was Winner of the 2017 Poetry Book Society Winter Choice Award; the poem Joy was Winner of the 2016 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem.

To find out more about Othersyde, visit their Facebook page.

Finding Blake, Looking Back and Forwards

Six months on from our website’s launch, Finding Blake creator and driving force, filmmaker James Murray-White offers this update on work to date and to come, focusing on those elements which will form part of the full Finding Blake film next year.

 


I wanted to update all our many readers and subscribers with what’s going on with Finding Blake, particularly since the great ceremony in August to unveil the new gravestone at William Blake’s burial site, which had been a big event to focus on. It was such an experience to be there on the day, with so many Finding Blake supporters and other Blake devotees!

The Lark, watercolour over traces of black chalk
Artist: William Blake
Source: The Morgan Library & Museum www.themorgan.org

I’m now wading through the many wonderful hours of footage I have. You can see many of the clips at the Finding Blake films at a glance page in our Bleakean Archive. Some of the highlights for me include: 

Finding Blake, documenting his new memorial

I have great memories — caught on film — of visiting Jordan’s Mine to see where the stone was cut; accompanying master letter-cutter Lida Kindersley as she chose the stone; being with her in her workshop for much of the process, as she bevelled the stone, then drew the letters for the inscription — and then the lovely long, slow process of the letters being cut. Amongst all that, there is an interview with Lida about Blake, talking from the heart as she cuts the letters that would soon mark his final resting place!

Leading wonderful interviews

Finding Blake has brought us opportunities to meet and talk with so many fascinating people with a shared passion for Blake:

  • Poet David Whyte, giving it to us from his heart in the depths of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (a special day that really felt like we had Blake on our shoulders!);
  • Psychotherapist Carol Leader, talking to us from her consulting room in London;
  • Writer and priest Malcolm Guite, in his study at Girton College, Cambridge;
  • Rapper Testament, delivering his powerful reflections on Blake’s influence on him, speaking on the streets outside a London theatre;
  • Blake Society chair Tim Heath, talking about his passion for Blake in Blake’s only surviving rooms in London

Participating in Blakean events

We’ve filmed at a number of talks by leading experts in different fields, including:

  • Carol Leader’s stimulating lecture in Oxford on Satanic Error – the value of William Blake’s mythology for clinical practice and everyday life;
  • William Blake, Biblical Prophecy and Jesus, a pair of talks in a Cambridge church by Reverend Malcolm Guite and Reverend Christopher Rowland, both vicars with an interest in exploring Blake from religious perspectives;
  • the Unveiling Ceremony itself, with all the wonderful speeches, candle-lighting, and personal responses, including an as yet unidentified African song, by the grave!

Creating original performances

William Blake’s creative vision speaks to many people and appeals to the genius of other creative practitioners and performers. We’ve been very fortunate in the generosity of talented actors in offering their interpretations of the man’s poems on film. 

  • Finding Blake invited actor Matt Ray Brown to read several of William Blake’s poems on location in Blake’s rooms at South Molton Street, London, including Jerusalem, The Tyger, and The Little Black Boy;
  • During our interview with David Whyte at the Ashmolean in Oxford, David delivered his reading of The Garden of Love.

Bringing personal projects into harmony with Blake

During the cutting of Blake’s new gravestone, Lida and I agreed a barter: she would make a memorial stone for my lovely mum’s ashes, and I would film it. What a wonderful trade! I’m editing that project now, whittling down many hours of beautiful conversation and cutting, as well as the sounds of the workshop, and silence too. Naturally, the conversations flowed between Blake and many aspects of creativity: including Lida talking about her late husband David, the master of letters and steeped in the craft’s heritage from Eric Gill and beyond. It’s a lineage that is so present within the workshop today, in the work of Lida and her two sons Vince and Hallam, and expert cutter Fiona (who completed mum’s memorial stone), plus a range of apprentices — and former apprentices who come in to help on other jobs as and when.

So I wanted to share with you here two outtakes from that other project (which might possibly be used in the Finding Blake film but, if not, can happily rest here on our project page) which give another flavour of the creative work:

‘Reaching the golden vein’ outtake 1 from James Murray-White on Vimeo.

‘Bank it up’ outtake 2 from James Murray-White on Vimeo.

Next steps for Finding Blake

So I’m working through all this material, and more, making notes and beginning the edit. And I’m now thinking hard about the third option within the film: either dramatic recreations of some of Blake’s art, or an element of animation, or projection. Possibly a combination of all three!

I’ve always felt passionate that we could bring Blake’s images to life on-screen, in addition to the spoken words and other elements. This feeling has been particularly over the past year as I’ve stood in front of a Blake image, be it in the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge or Tate Britain in London, or at the magnificent show at Petworth House in Sussex; many of these images shine out and dazzle with their bright illumination and their sprite vision.

So, I’m in discussion with several folk on these ideas, and we are awaiting some responses to funding applications, and further discussions.

I have been talking with an institution about possible screenings of the finished film late next year, which I will announce hopefully when finalised. We have agreed to a showing of a rough-cut of the film, or pieces of the film, with The Blake Society, at Waterstone’s Piccadilly, in January. We’ll post about that nearer the time …

In the meantime, I’m back on the edit, and the numerous other projects that consume my days.

Linda Richardson has kindly donated her canvas of Tyger, which she painted with children at a primary school in her village (see her post here with the children’s Bleakean art too!) so that Finding Blake can auction this to fundraise for the project: more details to come soon. We thank Linda for that generous gift.