When we left Bristol on our tiny boat Lexia, we had a Plan. We told everyone we knew about it for about two years, we wrote about it on this blog, we told all our friends and when we left we had a big launch party and told everybody there about our Plan. We told the press about our Plan, and first the Bristol Evening Post and then the Daily Mail of all things, published stories about our Plan.
The Plan was as follows:
1. Travel through Europe on 21ft Lexia, with Greece as the end point, passing through France, Spain and Italy, possibly heading back via Croatia, Germany and the Netherlands.
2. Meet fascinating people along the way who would teach us various survival skills and outlooks on what we believe to be a future of dwindling resources and a steady- or abrupt- reduction in prosperity and stability of all kinds. Skills to include old fashioned handcrafts, sustainable farming methods, food preservation, different economic models and models of community.
3. Make brilliant feature length documentary of our lives while doing this, plus regular video episode updates, to be published on the blog. I pitched this idea at Sheffield DocFest after developing it on the Devise to Deliver course, with great feedback, advice, and many expressions of confidence.
Not only would we travel through Europe rather quickly, we would also meet and develop real relationships with lots of people!
Not only would I leave my life and work behind for a year, the year itself would result in a fantastic piece of work!
Not only would we both gain skills for the eventual collapse of capitalism and the ecosystem, my professional and creative development in my particular little DIY media niche would rocket in the meantime!
What a brilliant Plan. What a total win-win and furthermore, win.
It’s all gone wrong.
And while the only thing I truly regret about this incredible year of struggle, beauty and learning is all the blah I spouted about what we were going to achieve before we left, I feel the Plan merits a dissection before moving on.
Lots of people warned me about the things that might go wrong. One way or another I was warned about everything I discuss below. I didn’t really hear it properly, instead I latched onto the encouragement I got from other quarters. This is what you’re supposed to do, I thought, be optimistic and positive! ‘Think Positive’ is a mantra of our times. After the past year and two months, I’m fonder of what my sailing and film making friend Jenny Jones says: ‘Experience has to be experienced’.
What went wrong?
We got all the way from the West to the East of England on our first tiny boat Lexia, before going stir-crazy and decanting ourselves and our possessions into a bigger and more expensive but rather flawed boat– our now-beloved Joker.
We sailed across the Channel with the help of a professional sailor in the dead of winter, despite multiple mechanical failures. We then spent winter stuck in expensive marinas in Normandy, with an often broken boat and hideous and scary weather that we didn’t quite have the balls or stupidity to go out in.
We found it hard to meet anybody under these circumstances, and generally the most we learned that wasn’t gleaned from the internet was different ways to cook seaweed, where to forage for mussels without sand in them and which varieties of very cheap French wine were actually nice.
We did have an Apocalypse ‘test-run’ when the power in the marina went out for two days during a blizzard. We totally survived it, so there!
When Spring arrived we spent three weeks working on the smallholding of Dominique, a woman who has forgotten more than we ever knew about growing, preserving and cooking wonderful organic food. We learned lots. But our skills by the end weren’t anything to make a documentary about.
That’s when I finally twigged something about the Plan: it was bullshit.
Learning stuff takes time. Those reality TV shows are lying when they say that Gordon Ramsay taught crap restaurateurs to manage successful gourmet establishments in two weeks. They are lying when they pretend the X Factor contestants are transformed from ropey pub singers into uber skilled superstars over a few months. It is all just lies. I have actually always known this. It is in fact obvious. But I sort of thought that in my case it would be different. Not sure why. Odd.
Also, if you really want to learn something, filming yourself learning it- or even getting someone else to film you learning it- just gets in the bloody way. You have to really be there and concentrate and do the thing and not worry about what the camera can capture of it or whether it ‘tells a story’ or ‘do that bit again because we didn’t get it from the right angle’. Especially something- like sailing- in which if you get it right, there are no prizes- you just stay alive, hopefully with an intact boat- until the next time.
Meeting people also takes time. You can meet someone out at a bar and have a chat. We did this, often, in France. People were interested in our weird quest. It didn’t make them particularly want to take us home and teach us how to make jam, nor invite us round or introduce us to their families. Nor indeed, did it make them wish to be filmed talking about the future or the present or anything else. And as we were planning to move on, er, as soon as our engine worked, it was hard to establish the necessary relations of trust that might persuade them.
I could definitely sympathise with this. My first feature documentary was about a community I filmed for four years, who became my beloved friends. Even my beloved friends often didn’t want me filming them at vulnerable or angry or tender moments, or even normal chilled moments. Those moments I longed to have on record, because of their truth and beauty, but found it the hardest to film. Because a camera brings another eye into the room, and you don’t know at that moment whose eye- or how many thousands of strangers’ eyes- it might eventually multiply into.
We did have contact with people we wanted to film, scattered across Europe, before we started. We got their agreement, we said ‘see you in a few months!’. Then, as our itinerary shrank and we were completely unable to say whether we’d definitely arrive in such a place at such a time, or would simply be forced to test the boat engine again in the hopes it would work this time, any notion of a schedule became farcical. We could have taken trains or planes or ferries to meet people in a fraction of the time, but with a budget drained by marina fees and boat repairs and a real desire to fix the bloody boat so we could do the voyage we planned, we were-or certainly felt- stuck.
In some cases it did actually work. We do have some genuinely great and thought provoking interviews, and now I have to figure out how to do justice to them.
But ‘our story’, that was going to be the central spine of the film, is full of holes. Whether the holes prevent it from making a decent story is something I can’t currently judge, so it will take time, going through the footage with colleagues on my return, to figure that out.
The holes are there because I came to hate filming my own life.
Sam, who I thought I’d persuaded to participate in the filming, turned out to have very little interest in it, and to dislike being filmed and resent the time I spent on it even more than I’d expected. So the shooting I did do became a film about Sam having a difficult and underwhelming adventure while I unhelpfully filmed it. Which wasn’t true or beautiful. The time I was actually participating in the adventure either went unfilmed, or wonkily filmed with a head-mounted Go-Pro sports camera, which occasionally caught awesome moments and other times was just unusable.
It got to the point where if we saw something wonderful, or got through a scary time at sea, or had an interesting conversation, or just had a funny night in on the boat cracking jokes, I’d feel guilty afterwards that I hadn’t filmed it. And if I did set up the camera, oftentimes the magic would just leak out of the air with a flaccid hiss.
It comes from the sacrifice you have to make when filming something. You trade really being there for making sure lots of other people can feel like they were there. You concentrate on a viewfinder and how much of this gorgeous 3D world you can cram into it before the moment passes. In the meantime you are not in that moment. You miss it. Maybe not all filmmakers feel like this, maybe that’s why they’re better at what they do than I am. But it’s a feeling I’ve never been able to shake. I did find that my film-making background made me think in images and mentally ‘save’ moments to write later. This helped my writing to be more detailed and imagistic. Though there is much room for practice, I remembered this year that my first ambition as a child was to write.
My ‘big project’ ended up making me ask myself all kinds of questions about the type of art I want to make, what I like and don’t like about the cultural drive to document our own lives and the creative and emotional limits of that for me, and how much time I need to spend in 3D space versus looking at a screen.
Some of these changes in my outlook can be usefully articulated for public consumption, and much of it is priceless to me but not of much interest to anybody else. In time I will sort these things one from the other. This post is no doubt a mishmash of the two.
I decided at a base level that I need to interact increasingly with people and objects instead of with screens if indeed I’m expecting energy and technology to be less rather than more available in the future. And if I believe, as I do, that strong ties between people are our best chance to get through hard times, I need to be out and about talking to them instead of indoors ‘liking’ their latest photos.
So much for the creative angle. A potential feature doc or series of shorts if people will help me clarify it- and thanks for those offers of help I’ve already had. Also a rediscovery of how much I love writing, and a useful research period.
At the beginning the plan was to raise money through crowd funding, but once I realised it wasn’t going to work the way I’d hoped I was very glad I hadn’t done that. I wouldn’t want to ask strangers or friends to pay for what turned out to be my creative roadblock and epiphany phase.
As for the journey. In mid July, we were able to say with confidence that our boat engine worked, and that the weather and our skills were good enough that we could really go somewhere.
Instead of really going somewhere, we reached the River Vilaine in Southern Brittany, fell in love with it and with the summer, and moored up for two months. We swam, we sailed, walked and climbed trees, I played music and sang, the sun blazed, the moon shone, the river ran by. After being stuck, cold and lonely, it was a blessing to choose to stay because it was beautiful and we wanted to be together in its beauty. We felt free to do that because everything else had already gone wrong.
It was one of the best times I’ve ever had, and in our forays to La Ronce and La ZAD during that time we made our best most satisfying connections with other people and projects as well.
After that incredible summer, we had a choice- keep heading South and accept we’d be away for another year or so, or head back home before the winter closed in.
For various reasons- money, a longing for our friends, excitement over a possible new adventure there- we’re heading back to Bristol. We’ve made it all the way to Devizes as I write this, and should reach the place we call home, in Joker, our only abode, within a couple of weeks. After this lengthy period of pondering and little access to electricity, I’ll continue to catch up on the blog, despite being outrageously behind. Lots of great stuff happened between then and now.
We’re hoping for even more exciting times that are very relevant to the wider project if a plan we have comes together when we get home, but it’s by no means certain. Therefore I will not be trumpeting it to the heavens, the Daily Mail or anybody but the dear friends I’ve missed so much.
If it doesn’t come off, we don’t really have a plan- let alone a Plan. For now, I think that’s alright.