I am spending a few days in Aldeburgh with a small film crew, making the film we plan to show at this year's Venice Biennale. The budget is small, smaller than the crew itself, but our ambitions are huge and this makes me anxious. For a start, why on earth have we decided to shoot the whole of it on an iPhone?
‘Stop worrying,’ says Paul Whitty, sonic artist and composer, appearing through the rain with a soggy microphone that is reminiscent of a dead rat. ‘We’ll make a plan, later.’
He’s dripping wet and squelching the mud that will soon be all over the carpet of our rented house. We are soaking from head to foot and the hail has frozen our ungloved hands. Still, we stand for a moment, shivering on the causeway with the waves lashing behind us as Paul reports that he has collected some excellent sounds of rain dripping. What he’d really like to do is drop his hydrophone into the sea and record the sound from underneath the water. Right, I think, off you go then.
‘I’m soaked,’ says Carolyn, our actress.
As she hasn’t grumbled once all day I take the hint. Time to dry out.
The rain that began as predicted, on this morning of our second day, is relentless, the sky is a soft charcoal grey, echoing the sea itself. Only the mad whisk of white foam affords a little lightness in an otherwise impossible landscape.
‘When I went into the off-licence,’ Paul says cheerily, ‘the guy in there thought my microphone was a dog.’
Whatever, I think.
Overhead a curlew pierces the air with a hesitant, tender cry and then flies in a steady line across the rain-drenched marshes towards the Martello Tower.
‘And a fishermen came up to me just now,' Paul continues, 'and he said, that’s not fishing you’re doing is it? That's something else.'
‘We’re going back,’ I say, ignoring him. ‘Before we get pneumonia.’
The light is being strangled by mist and the scene feels straight out of a Tarkovsky film.
‘Look,’ cries Caroline, ‘it’s snowing!’
It has been an extraordinary few days; all week I have been uncertain as to the direction in which I was going, until suddenly, in a flash, I understood the pattern that had been quietly evolving. It’s called a breakthrough, isn’t it?
The film we are making is a mockumentary, a fake documentary, based on an idea from my novel The Swimmer, a story about a Sri Lankan Tamil refugee fleeing from the terrors of Jaffna. The Swimmer: The True Story, was what we had decided to call it.
At dinner the night before, someone I was talking to, remarked she disliked those film-of-the-book, kind of films. But this isn’t that kind of film, I told her. This is a parallel text, another way of seeing, a space between the events that lie within the novel; a different reality, if you like. My companion had looked at me quizzically. Really, did I know what I was talking about?
How do you explain that making work is a tricky business and that although you might have the questions, only rarely do the answers appear. You set out to do one thing, to make that magnificent piece of work, only to have your hopes dashed and for disappointment to descend (really what a sham you are after all, perhaps you should give up and do something more useful). Until, just at that moment of giving up, some magic enters the arena and lifts you like an acrobat, up, above the sawdust, high onto the wire, into the dazzle of the lights. There you balance, not posing as a maker of fine work, but somehow, forgetting all anxiety, immersed in the work itself. It is a moment like no other.
And yesterday it happened again, reminding us that this is why we do what we do, for so little money, in wind and biting rain. For it is the thing that makes us happy.
That moment came when the Tamil dancer who had offered to come up from Ipswich, threw off her coat and boots and ran into the wind on Aldeburgh beach to dance on the shore of the North Sea in front of my camera. I was so excited my hands shook, but our dancer, triumphant and free as a kite, cold but not diminished, was unaware of how we held our breath.
Here, then, was the essence of what I was making. Here, on the wet shingles, in the slash of a crimson sari and with a shake of ankle bells against the surf, was the thing I had been groping blindly for.
The whole beach stood still, and the fisherman watched, and the children playing ball stood with open mouths and the men walking their dogs paused before throwing their sticks into the waves, and the sea kept turning and turning as the Tamil girl danced. On and on she went, speaking of connections and integrations, of belonging and longing and a whole myriad of other things. Wordlessly.
And time stood still. And Paul let fall his hydrophone. And even the cold went away, such was the magic on the beach.
For in that moment of pure unaffected theatre I saw with sharp clarity what had been missing in this delicate Suffolk landscape. It was present in the flash of colour, appearing and disappearing and appearing again; insistent and lasting. That which governments denied and communities misunderstood. A mixing of a wider palette. East, meeting West.