I knew that the journey was finally beginning in earnest as I talked to a French man, Baptiste, on the Chunnel train from Paris to London. It was one of those conversations you can only have while traveling. I was beginning to leave the stomach bug behind, though the queasiness and muscular soreness did not disappear instantly. Nevertheless I was in London to see the Quay brothers and I’d moved into the next square of the chess game.
Not that this square was simply thrilling. I was in London. Over the years London has become less and less interesting to me, Quays not withstanding. Paris always retains its fascination, likewise Prague, Krakow, Lyon. But London seems expensive and overrated. And all of the new South Bank features; the Walk, the London Eye, the new architecture, the Millennium Bridge seem more designed for tourists and the business world than for my own human interests. That isn’t to say London doesn’t have its charms. Its just that they’ve more or less worn off of me. And I really liked London when I first visited in 1978. It still seemed like London then. There were still gents in bowler hats and original 77 era punks on the streets. But now, the population seems too predictable to me. The Starbucks, Burger Kings and American movies not worth the comment. And it seems like I paid close to $40 US for about 7 Underground trips in Zone 1 in three days. London is far too expensive considering the return on investment.
All off which isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy myself. And a great chunk of that enjoyment came from spending a couple of days with the exquisitely eccentric Brothers Quay. I had come to meet them before on my 2012 trek, where I manage to convince them that I was indeed serious about this Gravity From Above project. (You can read that meeting here.) This time I felt like I was meeting old friends. On the first afternoon conversation ranged from shared Slavic roots, to the foibles of travel, Georgian culture, the glory of Gewurtztraminer wine, Jiří Trnka’s unreleased films and to Jan Švankmajer’s being stopped at the Czech border hoping to bring a shrunken head into the country. The second day was the serious interview, which I recorded, and I focused more on their connection to puppetry than in the hows and whys of their films. I had seen several decent interviews covering many subjects but none had got at the kinds of issues I had been wondering about. So for two hours I had a chance to pretty much ask what I really wanted to know personally. And so I have captured a fairly in-depth discussion from the Quays’ on the puppet, its meaning within their work and in their influences.
(Unfortunately I was so involved in the filming process that I forgot to get the stills of the Quays studio, a warren of strange figures and odds and ends. Well that would be a good ‘excuse’ to return if I needed one, but I don’t.)
Meanwhile… my bowels had recovered enough, with the help of a Chinese herbal remedy picked up in the rather compact London Chinatown, to eat normally and to gain my strength for the next phase of my journey to visit my friends Carsten and Rebecca and their new baby Zella up in Edinburgh. The train ride north was enjoyable and uneventful. Carsten greeted for me at the Waverley Station while proceeding to introduce me to the Scottish capital.
Now this wasn’t to be a puppetry stop. Rather simply a friendly visit. Edinburgh isn’t really a serious puppetry city as far as my research indicates, though occasionally homunculi will appear during the summer Fringe Festival. Nevertheless it was a fascinating city swirling around the old dark castle of the rock that makes up central Edinburgh. Carsten, if you remember from my 2012 trip, was working on his doctorate in Divinity (to use the British term). Rebecca was now an English teacher in the Scottish school system. And Zella bubbled and gurgled gleefully most of the time.
One day Carsten walked me across vast chunks of the old city allowing me to peak into nooks and crannies of the wet brooding streets. I happened upon an excellent bookshop, The Edinburgh Bookstore, a dangerous place, especially for a George MacDonald reader. I limited my shopping to a classic 1925 Oxford University Press two volume set entitled ‘The Medieval Stage’ by E.K. Chambers, and excellent history of the British theater, with fascinating information about puppetry, the origins of Christmas (not the solstice), and the Feast of Fools, among other subjects.
We ended up at the National Museum of Scotland, which led to some curious discoveries; including the 1500 year old Orkney Hood, the strange expression on a bronze bird podium and most intriguingly the scarily textured mask worn by Covenanter rebel preacher Alexander Peden in the late 17th Century. An idea I have a use for…
On another outing we visited the University of Edinburgh’s rarely open Museum of Anatomy, which unfortunately didn’t allow photographs except for the elephant skeletons at the entrance. But the display was everything you could ask for; gorilla bones, a complete bat skeleton , antique anatomical learning aids, fetal remains, enough sliced brains in glass to make Damien Hirst salivate and the entire bony corpse of the last murderer in Scotland hanged by the neck until dead.
Alas, it was time to leave the British Isles and to get back to what was now looming ahead of me as a rather busy two weeks on the Francophone section of the puppet trail. I had enjoyed a venison burger, haggis balls, 18 year old Scotch, homemade bread and good company. Now it was time to confront what Henryk Jurkowski called our mirrors, the puppets. Time to get back to France.
In booking the Eurostar, the Chunnel train, I discovered that the United Kingdom starts with customs in Brussels at the Midi/Zuid train station. I wasn’t quite ready for the grilling and heavy security to take the train. I had gotten so used to life in the Schengen Zone that I was a bit taken aback by the sudden emergence of fences again. And it seemed to have gotten stricter since my last journey in 2005. And then there is the strange fact that the U.K. IS in the European Community but NOT in the Schengen Group, while Switzerland IS NOT in the European Community but IS in the Schengen Zone, which creates the odd situation that you don’t need a passport check to get into Switzerland anymore BUT you do need to show your passport to get into the U.K., and to show that you have a ticket out of the country, and that your luggage will have to pass through a similar degree of airport styled security to board the train. Nevertheless after a hair-raising set of circumstances I did make it into the U.K. In one piece.
At St. Pancras Station in London my old friend Nathan met me and took me back to his place in the Elephant and Castle area near Southwark (which should be pronounced Suth-uhk by the same unwritten English code which turns Greenwich into Grenich and Leicester into Lester). We dismounted a double-decker bus and strolled passed a large apartment tower, with non-working propeller blades on the top, back to his apartment to meet Annika and to put me up in his spare room, for which I was deeply grateful. And almost the minute I arrived in rainy old England a little tickle in the back of my throat became a full fledged cold with coughing symptoms. Fortunately my hosts had already been attacked by this very same creature. And also it was not the kind of thing which saps ones strength. Nevertheless I was determined not to go off into London simply to see things. I’ve been to London before, and, while I find it worthy of my time, I’ve never been as fascinated by it as I am by Paris, Prague, Lyon and other cities. And besides I had friendship to catch up with, which included a well cooked dinner by Nathan.
Nathan and Annika took me through the extensive Borough Market. Where I resisted the urge to buy Ostrich meat and large wheels of cheddar cheese and even the Stinking Bishop. Though I was in a mood to mostly rest, recover from my cold and get my strength back, there were two things I had to do while in London. One was more of an introduction to another puppet theater and the other was to find a couple of brothers quite high on my list of people to interview for my documentary.
We journeyed out to Islington to the Little Angel Theatre. While I couldn’t find anyone I could really talk to about the theatre they were performing an unusual version of Pinocchio. In their version Geppetto and most of the other characters were played by humans in paper masks on a stripped down stage, while Pinocchio was performed in a modified bunraku style by three different players in brown floor length coats. The puppet was a naked collection of raw wood, sans clothing, sans strings. This was not the Disney version but much closer in spirit to Carlo Collodi’s original. Yet still with a deconstructed essence. There were quite a few children present. And I was struck by how different, how quiet, they were compared to the French, Polish and Czech children’s shows I had seen. Ah the English.
On Monday I had one appointment. I wasn’t quite sure how it would play out. It was with the Brothers Quay at their studio not far from my hosts’ apartment. Along with Jan Švankmajer, the Brothers Quay were by far the most influential in getting me to explore the world of European puppetry. The Quays are twin American brothers who have been thoroughly europeanized and, having lived in London for about thirty years, speak with a bit of an anglicized inflection. And while they are not puppeteers themselves, their consistent and mysterious use of puppetry down through the years had raised a lot of questions about the nature of the puppet as an object. It was through hints gleaned in interviews found on DVD’s that I first heard of the Toone Marionnette Theatre, Richard Teschner, and generally realized that there must be a larger world of puppetry behind the former Iron Curtain. I also knew enough to dispel several misconceptions, that they had embarked on their course prior to discovering Švankmajer, that Starewich had had a greater influence upon them, along with Polish animation from the Sixties. I had contacted them by email after communicating with their longtime producer. We had exchanged several emails, which ranged between cordial welcome to questioning caution to finally being told that I must arrive with a bottle of chilled white wine “for provocation”. So I wasn’t at all sure how this would go. But I had a notion that there might be connections.
I arrived on a rainy London Monday at the place at the appropriate time. I was welcomed into their crammed darkened studio. Books, vinyl record albums (CDs were in the WC) weird puppets and old European Christian iconography was practically falling off the walls in in their labyrinthine wunderkammer. I immediately greeted each by name and produced my clammy bottle of Grange Volet from Ollon in Switzerland. (Swiss wine rarely escapes the country.) I also passed on Madame Starewitch’s card with personal greeting, along with Cognac chocolate from Switzerland. We all sat down at their crowded table and poured the wine as I gave them updates on the Toone theatre and Švankmajer in Prague as well as the fact that Teschner’s Nativity was being performed by a Teschner expert at the theater museum in Vienna. I also filled them in on Buchty a Loutky, whom they had never heard about, ESNAM in France, Polish puppetry and a host of other subjects. Our conversation took us through their most recent projects* and their show at MOMA in New York. Before careening off into new territory.
We discussed Georgia, the country, which they had also had some music from. I pointed them towards the Gori Women’s Choir. We had all discovered the fantastic book, The Empire of Death, about the ossuaries of Europe and beyond. To my surprise they hadn’t heard of Merhige’s Begotten, nor did they know that Peter Delpeut had released the mesmerizing Diva Dolorosa. We unraveled puppetry a bit more and I filled them in on my experiments in Alaska. They showed me books on Teschner and other related subjects. We shared an antipathy towards the virtual, wireless, digital contemporary world. And at one point they showed me their old film camera that they sadly needed to sell. (The camera they had made all of their classic pre-digital films on.) We were all being dragged into this present evil age. They also gave me a little tour through the narrow crowded corners of their atelier. At one point they showed me a pile of sand on a small table. “We just finished shooting that.” They told me. Coming from the guys who animated metal shavings with a magnet I had no doubt that the results would be gripping.
At a certain point, somewhere around the three hour point I told them that we had had such a profoundly good conversation that it would be a shame to spoil it by filming an interview. They agreed completely. But we can do it when I come back next year. “By all means!” They concurred. They were fully on board with the project now. They understood what it meant. And in a way more than I hoped. While the interview was certainly a high priority for me, meeting and connecting with them was of greater consequence, of more import. In a way I felt that my whole study of puppetry had been to get me to the point where I could have an intelligent discussion with these guys. And I couldn’t help but be grateful for the time and the hospitality.
London was time well spent. It was time to journey to my last official destination further north in England.
*Animation aficionados will be glad to know that there are several newer Quay related things to look for. Firstly there is a great book for their show in New York at the Museum of Modern Art. The show is over in January.
Secondly a DVD exists from the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia of Through The Weeping Glass, their examination of the museum. It is well worth buying.
Thirdly a DVD exists for Maska their version of Stanislaw Lem’s The Mask (It could be region 2) Get this! I own a copy now. But it is tough to find. Good luck!