A storm coming

I had an idea in my head of Kate Tempest as an intense lyrical warrior who wouldn’t suffer fools lightly. What a relief to find that the poet/ rapper/ laureate was, in fact, quite lovely when I sat down to interview her a while back for the Sunday Indo. She plays Whelan’s tonight and those with tickets are in for a major experience.

***

WHAT did you call it?” Kate Tempest squints, leaning into the phrase.

“Sean-nós,” I reiterate. We had been talking about the idea of “sung language” when I mentioned the Irish a cappella tradition whereby stories are made song. She loves the concept. “I feel very close to that idea. My experience of telling stories or poems is that communication is a musical thing. I need to hear that.”

This relish from the 30-year-old poet, rapper, novelist and playwright is typical. It is this hunger along with a ceaseless work rate and sheer white-hot talent that saw the Londoner push past the somewhat snooty, academia-led literati to become a new laureate for a new age.

By 27, she’d won the Ted Hughes Award for innovation in poetry for Brand New Ancients, an epic about inner-city life that drew its energies from antiquity. Fellowships and curatorships sit next to a Mercury Prize nomination for her 2014 debut album Everybody Down. As a teen, she was as comfortable in the company of Sophocles as she was Q-Tip and Lauryn Hill. She is at home at both Glastonbury and the Old Vic. Does she lean more to one side?

“It’s not for me to classify myself,” she says, stirring her coffee. “At first I found the term ‘poet’ a very big term I didn’t deserve. Then someone told me it’s a praise word. It’s offered to you. You can be described as a poet by another, but if you describe yourself as one you’re probably not.”

I know a few people who fit that description. “Yeah right,” she laughs. “That rings in my ears every time I say, ‘Hey, I’m a poet!’. It’s more a characteristic, a personality rather than a profession. It’s the way you experience the world. Something will happen and I’ll be like, ‘God, you’re being such a poet, f**king hell!’”

You only have to listen to her speak to know Tempest burns with a conviction all too rare in “showbiz”. Like any artist that matters, she sees the world through a viewfinder all her own. It can lead to moments of localised elation, such as in anecdotes about a friendly itinerant who talked literature with her in a park in Portland, or how at a poetry slam in a Rio favela she saw four generations of a family in the audience.

But for each nice memory there is a thorn in the side. The Brazil story is finished with: “It’s not elitist in a way that in Britain especially is so f**king elitist.” On the encounter in the park, she sighs: “You’re doing a ‘literary tour’ in libraries to ‘literary types’ but the most profound and interesting conversation I had about a book was with this homeless guy.”

Tempest is warm, thoughtful company, but pluck any verse from her catalogue and a leonine heart snarls back at you, one sickened by injustice, greed, waste and violence. In “Europe Is Lost” on brilliant new LP Let Them Eat Chaos, she rails hard. “Massacres massacres massacres/new shoes, Ghettoised children murdered in broad daylight by those employed to protect them, Live porn streamed to your pre-teens’ bedrooms, Glass ceiling, no headroom, Half a generation live beneath the breadline.” Does disillusionment come to us earlier in life these days?

She nods. “Youth is still as difficult and enjoyable as ever but the stakes are much higher. The prospect of catastrophe looms pretty large for this generation in a way it did a couple of generations previously with the prospects of nuclear war. I take comfort in positioning myself on a line that goes back to the beginning of time but it does feel like – and this is my rational mind talking – my emotional core is rattled by the present times. It’d be impossible to be born into these times and not be aware of how potentially disastrous they are in a way that many years ago you couldn’t. It’s in our timeline but it’s also actually happening.”

Let Them Eat Chaos was cut in a studio with super-producer Dan Carey before Brexit trampled into the picture but it is of course on her radar. “It speaks of a worrying trend that in times that feel chaotic and close to crisis you blame others and create divisions rather than heading towards a realisation – which is what the album’s all about – that we are all part of something much bigger than ourselves, and that blame is not useful. And the idea we’re heading towards a surge in nationalism in Britain I find worrying because it doesn’t make any sense with how I understand human experience.”

A pause. One of many today. “That was a really laboured way of saying something simple!” she says, letting through a flicker of goofiness that you doubt Tempest gives enough airtime to. A very becoming sunny smile also breaks out on her face when I ask her about her professed love of the Big Three of Beckett (“He completely cloaks you in his humour and way of seeing things so that you can’t leave the house”), Joyce (“A huge influence. He probably directly led to Brand New Ancients, those ideas about the mythology of the everyday, the immediacy and the eternity of very tiny moments”) and Yeats, for whom all she can do is mime a miniature mushroom cloud exploding in front of her.

There were other inspirations, however, long before the highly literate primary-school girl or the rebellious wordsmith who gravitated towards the hip-hop and dub-reggae communities. Born Kate Calvert, she grew up the youngest of five in a south-east London hotspot of teen pregnancy and violence called Lewisham. Both her father (a lawyer and a glass-blower) and grandfather read Greek and Roman classics to her as a child. There was a teacher – there always is – who pushed her. More recently, there was also a wife who “challenged” all she knew (that relationship, she tells me, is no more). It was her aunt, however, who became a very special kind of role model.

“You’ve done your research…” she smiles. “Yeah, she’s amazing. Women visual artists face a very particular struggle. She would say to me that they only give you your own exhibition at a big gallery as a woman if you’re dead or too old to cause any trouble. If there’s any hint of anything slightly radical, they’ll wait until you’re dead. I think her experiences are not consciously directly related to mine but you look around and you learn about the possibility of living for art. The drive is very familiar; the compulsion, the frequency at which we operate, is so raw and open that until you make some sense of the world, it’s too much.”

Kate Tempest plays Whelans, Dublin tonight. Let Them Eat Chaos is out now on Fiction Records.

First published in the Sunday Independent

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National Gloaming Day

The new album is out today (it’s sublime), they’re taking over the National Concert Hall for a week (it’s going to be incredible) and, with all that going on, two of them still found time to chat to little old me for State. Here’s how it went…

***

The Gloaming: Space, Time and the Science of Play

A SENSE of timing does not necessarily equate to a handle on time itself. Or so you’d first think talking to two fifths of The Gloaming. Vocalist Iarla Ó Lionáird and hardanger d’amore supremo Caoimhin Ó Raghallaigh snuggle on a couch like brothers reunited after years apart. It’s only been six weeks, I point out.

“Ah yeah,” shrugs Ó Lionáird. “But sure that’s a lifetime ago.”

He’s probably right. Time is a relative concept, after all. Six weeks ago was December. Christmas was approaching and the most discussed Irish music outfit in years had wrapped recording on their second LP at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in Wiltshire. The Gloaming 2 lands in all good record stores this Friday and sees lightning strike twice for a group who with every song and sold-out show seem to rewrite the periodic table of traditional music science. If they seem delighted to see each other again it is because the atoms that make up Iarla and Caoimhin – and their chemical brothers Martin Hayes, Thomas Bartlett and Dennis Cahill – like to be around one another. This reunion on a hotel couch metres from their spiritual home of the National Concert Hall is a quantifiable response of that.

“Really cool” is the phrase Ó Lionáird today uses to describe the “shared headspace” the band very quickly click into when they converge. It is in this place that the unpredictable is given licence. Essentially, the former Afro Celt Soundsystem man says, all five are “solo voices swimming around each other, reacting on the fly”. “When I think of other acts I’ve been involved in, this has a lot more ‘active variability’ because we don’t make records using lots of overdubs or anything like that. It’s all ‘played’. And to be frank, it always surprises me what we’re able to do together.”

More spacious and hard to hold than its 2014 predecessor, The Gloaming 2 is an astonishing collection that will do the hyperbole surrounding the quintet no favours. ‘Fainleog’ trembles with the dark, passionate energy the Spanish call duende. A stunning guitar intro by Cahill on ‘Oisin’s Song’ gives way to breeze-blown string serenades by Hayes and Ó Raghallaigh and Bartlett’s rich ivory foundation. ‘The Booley House’ recalls the extinct house dances and “fun” spirits of Clare tin whistle legend Micho Russell and fiddle institution Junior Crehan that Iarla today speaks wistfully of. Like, say, the guitar playing of Andy Gill, things become conspicuous by their absence only to make dashing entrances once again (see the thrilling late surge of ‘Mrs Dwyer’).

The road-written songs were recorded in five days, the same time it took to pen that self-titled debut. Back then everything was “fuelled by a sense of the unknown”. If they now knew that anything was possible when they convened, what replaced that energy this time around? Without wishing to get all Rumsfeldian, did any new “unknowns” reveal themselves?

“Well there’s always unknowns,” Iarla counters. “There’s still a huge amount that just depends on the day and what decisions you make. I think especially with Caoimhin’s music, Martin’s violin interplay with him and Thomas’s piano, there’s a lot of improvisational language.”

“Absolutely,” beams Caoimhin. “I’m always looking for the unknown. There’s an energy that’s very important in terms of what the music carries rather than just ‘executing the plan’ accurately, whether you’re performing on stage or recording in the studio. It’s hard to quantify but it’s microscopic, a difference in feeling that you can’t explain. The word ‘unknown’ certainly hasn’t gone away from what we’re trying to achieve.”

For a collective of such lofty abilities – a “super group”, perhaps, but never a “supergroup” – to sit in a confluence where critics, audiences and even heads of state bow in reverence is a rare thing these days. Opera houses and Proms palaces would only do, and if an Uachtarán should shuffle in to Earlsfort Terrace one night (as he swore to me during a recent encounter that he would), he will be as likely to sit next to a world music buff as he would a Fumbally beardstroker or a lover of contemporary classical.

“There’s a fair proportion of people who come to see us who don’t have much knowledge of traditional Irish music,” Iarla nods. “I have a feeling it’s much larger than one might think. People respond to the energy rather than the surface form. It seems to bypass those stereotypes. And it’s nicer to operate just on the basis of ‘music’. Just the thing itself. It’s a blindness worth having sometimes.” He turns to Caoimhin.

“Old traditional music has things in it that are extremely powerful that we don’t understand,” Ó Raghallaigh adds as if pondering black holes. “But they’re there and you can speak that language or take the essence of it and tap into it without understanding how it works. If you ask what Irish music has to offer the world, it’s this incredible richness and depth of feeling that you’re not manipulating, you’re not using. It’s just there and it’s coming out.”

The more the two speak, the more aligned the dimensions of arts and sciences become. There is a reason for this. While seeming to dwell in the elusive musical world of feeling, sensation and harmony, both men are actually – whisper it – scientists.

Ó Lionáird has been a “passionate” lover of science throughout his life and keeps an eye on advances around the world. Ó Raghallaigh, meanwhile, worked at a particle accelerator in the US in 2000, if you don’t mind. Surely they therefore love plans, designs and equations, I protest. How do they square this with songwriting that is so instinctual, unplanned, unscripted?

Iarla nods and points approvingly at the air the question sits in. A knowing look is conspiratorially exchanged. “Caoimhin is a physicist by training,” he frowns, “I’m just a gobshite who likes science.”

“A Trekky,” hoots Ó Raghallaigh before straightening himself. “There’s a couple of things,” he begins cheerily. What follows is a perfectly reasoned, join-the-dots deductive argument from one of the world’s most experimental fiddle players. He speaks of science being analogous, and that where one aims to get to in music is the same as where one aims to get to in science. Convergent play. Divergent play. Locating breakthroughs by building logically on what went before or else via something that nobody else ever thought of. The only difference in what musicians do and what visual artists do, he claims, is in the relationship to time.

“Which is extraordinary!” he finally gasps. “You think of a writer or a painter or a scientist who can give 70 years of their life and not get that audience-artist interaction. I always thought of it as a point of infinite sharpness where things come into being. That’s where you want to be.”

“It’s the sense of wonderment,” Iarla sighs. “I love reading about how a scientist dealt with something or their lifetime pursuit of something. And I agree with Caoimhin that we’re fortunate when we’re on stage that we can create these long passages of focus on just wonderment or ‘bliss’. I’ve tried it before with different outfits but The Gloaming seem to be able to do that more effectively. Music is incredibly powerful at generating this unusual relationship with time, creating and sustaining that place where people can drift into wonderment. It sounds very pretentious but that’s really what music is for, in my book. It helps you then to achieve other levels of feeling and understanding because you’ve opened up that space.”

Space. Time. Active variability. Theories of evolution. Bricks and mortar to The Gloaming’s creation of the intangible. But the pair then slot a keystone into the algorithm that shifts in meaning with each utterance: “Play”.

Ó Lionáird speaks of not being “a player” and how the music his cohorts make is “played into existence”. Ó Raghallaigh, meanwhile, uses the word in its leisurely sense, echoing Damien Hirst’s argument that all art is childish.

“That’s what ‘play’ means,” he avers. “This childlike delight in finding new possibilities in the same backyard that you’ve known your whole life, and it’s all utterly transformed every time you step into it. It is a space that you know intimately but it’s full of surprises and infinite variety. And to play in that is to treat it like a playground, to romp all over the place and have great fun and kind of hang out, or sometimes just sit down in the middle of it or sometimes go on rollercoasters. It is that sense of joy that’s very important. That can be high-energy joy, or it can be very quiet, repetitive joy. Inherent freedom in every moment. There’s still a lot of space to explore. We’ve by no means exhausted what the five people in the band can produce, and I think that’s quite exciting.”

The two share yet another look. Atoms dance. Potential energies fire. Scientific theory has rarely seemed so supernatural.

The Gloaming 2 is out today on Real World Records. The Gloaming play five sold-out shows in Dublin’s National Concert Hall on February 27th and 28th, and March 1st, 2nd, and 3rd 2016.

First published on State.ie

Tea with Sir Terry

The higher up the ladder of notoriety you go, the nicer the interviewee tends to be. The rule was cast in iron when I had the honour, privilege and career coup of sitting down for a long and absorbing chat with Irish broadcasting titan Terry Wogan. The news of his death this morning has flooded me with memories of that day. Of his grace and hospitality at his hillside home that summer morning in 2011. Of there being seemingly no ice to be broken between us as he greeted me like an old friend. Of his extraordinary generosity of spirit that made the following Sunday Independent feature a doddle to write up. I left with a jaw sore from bellylaughs and a mind happily processing what incredible people we have in our world. 

As 2016 continues to fell our brightest and best of popular culture, Wogan’s death marks an end to a golden age of Anglo-Irish broadcasting, an era of effortless charm and wit, oak-aged diction and class without the crass. 

To Helen and his family, my sincere condolences. HW

***

ON THE horizon, the turrets and battlements of Windsor Castle are unmistakable from the back garden of Sir Terry Wogan’s home. The sun is warming the Maidenhead fields and Wogan himself is apologising for the distant roar of overhead planes. “We’ll hold it,” he says pointing at the dictaphone and waiting. “What happens is they go over the Queen first and then they come over us.”

He doesn’t say if the pilots at Heathrow make a point of passing over the area’s most eminent residents, but the ubiquitous Wogan would certainly qualify were it the case. Even since his emotional retirement from his vastly adored BBC Radio 2 morning show in 2009, the 73-year-old finds himself unable to stay away from Broadcasting House.

“I’m sort of running around like a chicken with its head cut off,” he says with the first of many soft chuckles, “because ever since I gave up the morning thing life has become much more haphazard. You find yourself doing more casual stuff.” “Casual”, in this case, infers going back to the Auld Sod last summer to shoot Terry Wogan’s Ireland, commuting from there to London every Saturday for his hugely subscribed Sunday radio slot and planning more television documentaries such as an upcoming one about his beloved PG Wodehouse.

“So life still goes on, as it were,” he says of his so-called retirement. He goes on to say that he’s also fitter now than he has been for many years following some long overdue reconstructive knee surgery for an ancient rugby injury. He now walks and swims each day and no longer suffers from the chest and sinus problems exacerbated by years and years of 5.15am starts.

Wogan is not one for regrets though, nor was there ever an early morning when he thought “I could do without this today”. He puts this work ethic down to his education and upbringing – “good old Irish bourgeois and Jesuit discipline”. “It’s my job, it’s what I did. When I used to come across to do Late Night Extra years and years ago in the late sixties, sometimes twice a week, from Dublin, I used to stay with my close friends the Brownings. Although they never said it directly to me, I used to get on their nerves a little bit because I was too cheerful in the morning.”

This self-confessed “cheery disposition” is probably what lifted Limerick’s favourite son out of his brief tenure as a bank clerk in Dublin, into the fledgling RTE studios and then on to the BBC and broadcasting aristocracy. On radio, Wogan created a tone and style all his own, where cheeky prods were exchanged daily between the affable presenter and his legions of TOGs (Terry’s Old Geezers/Gals), who supplied him with comically masterful prose and verse. The Eurovision Song Contest’s descent into gimmickry and farce was also given a similar treatment during Wogan’s 37 years as the Beeb’s commentator/piss-taker-in-chief.

“I came over here and found there was far too much sycophancy going on,” he recalls. “People on the radio saying things like ‘we love your show’ etc. That’s not the way friends behave. Friends are more likely to tell you you’ve got a spot on your nose or you dress like the Pope’s mother or something like that. So that’s what I tried to generate, a kind of mutual badinage between us that was good natured.”

The result was a daily audience that was nearly twice the population of his country of origin, and made Wogan the one to beat in European broadcasting.

He wouldn’t be nearly brash and confrontational enough to make a career of it these days, he feels. “I was following in the footsteps of great broadcasters like Eamonn Andrews,” he reasons. “He wasn’t by any standards a fantastic broadcaster – great commentator and good presenter – but what he had was decency. And the British public responded to that because they knew they were dealing with an honest and straight-forward man. Possibly that kind of thing is a bit devalued now. You have to be of your time and I was lucky.”

Then there’s that voice. In the flesh, without filter or microphone, Wogan’s silken, sing-song purr is still a wondrous thing to behold, even when all he happens to be discussing is how many sugars my coffee requires (“Have some more. Sugar’s very good for you. I like sugar and salt. Stuff like that”). Like Morgan Freeman’s, it has a comforting quality to it, like happening across the theme tune to your favourite childhood TV show, or slipping into a warm bath.

He didn’t get to see any of “Jedward’s foolishness” at this year’s Eurovision, preferring to watch the tennis instead, but did spare a thought for “poor old Graham Norton” (“He has to go to Azerbaijan next year. They’ll probably put him up in a Yurt!”). Another Irishman, I posit.

“Well isn’t it strange? First there was Eamonn Andrews. Then there was Gay [Byrne] for a little bit – he decided to come back to Ireland. Then there was me. And now there’s Graham Norton. Despite the fact that he’s from Cork,” he adds after a comedian’s beat. “Extraordinary.  I’m very fond of him. He’s toned down the more outrageous aspect which I think makes him a family entertainer – for the first few years he was very far from being a family entertainer! But as you say, another Irishman. And I understand Ryan Tubridy’s coming to work for Radio 2, which is great. He’s a good broadcaster. I hope I get a chance to see him.”

Tubridy’s eight-week stint, Wogan ponders aloud, could be the first step in another name being added to the BBC’s venerable Irish lineage, but were he offered a similar deal in Montrose it would be declined. “For somebody like me, having succeeded here, it would be a mistake to go back and try and succeed there. But as far as Ryan’s concerned, it’s only pluses.”

You see, for the UK listener the Irish accent carries no bias, he explains; it’s not a Lancashire accent annoying someone from Yorkshire or a Northern accent annoying listeners from the South etc. It’s also classless, immune from being scanned for details of regionality, school or background. The difference between Wogan and his good friend Eamonn Holmes cannot be detected by your average UK ear, and it is this lack of baggage that sees the Irish in Britain do so well in business, he believes.

Days previously the Queen had visited Ireland and the relationship between the two states was undergoing a welcome revision. For someone with close links to both parties, it must have been especially fascinating for him.

“I got an invitation to go there for one of the dos, but such was the efficiency of whoever was responsible, I received that invitation on Wednesday here for Thursday in Dublin,” he laughs quietly. “Everybody was thrilled. I can only go by the Irish here who of course were thrilled that she received such a good reception. We were all a bit nervous that something stupid would be done, and I’m sure you were in Ireland as well. But I think that’s the best I have seen Her Majesty in terms of how sprightly she was, how she smiled. She did everything absolutely right. It was a triumph.

“Was I proud of Ireland? Well I expected Ireland to rise to the occasion. I felt more proud of the Queen really. She is a very nice woman. She’s a remarkable woman. I have been to dinner with them and I’ve always found her good company. And why wouldn’t the Irish behave well?  Why don’t we expect ourselves to behave well? Why do we think we’re the only ones that history ever happened to?”

Wogan’s insight into the English/Irish dynamic is understandable for a man who, although he won’t admit it, surely helped maintain a positive Irish image when relations were strained. “You always get accused of stage Irish stuff but I’ve never done that. I’ve never apologised for being Irish even though I’ve been here as a popular broadcaster every morning to a huge audience, and after the bombs going off, the IRA campaign in England made it very difficult for an awful lot of Irish people here. But I always made it clear that what was being done was not being done in my name or the name of the rest of the Irish Population.”

He agrees that distance provides perspective on his own people specifically. He’s very conscious of Irish history (“I’m as Irish as the next man; I can get emotional about all sorts of things like emigration and starvation”) and is quick to defend the motherland during moments of scrutiny in these times. Not having ever experienced a boom, it was natural and right, he says, that we gloried in the success, and that while it came to a “sticky end”, Ireland will recover. “I know that’s a facile thing to say because Ireland’s going through a really tough time now but, you know, if you can overcome the Famine and Cromwell, probably you can overcome most things. And the Irish people are resilient and intelligent and well educated – probably a much better educated population than here.”

But like the Longford taxi driver I would meet later in Kilburn or the Carlow man who smiled knowingly at my accent in a Surrey electronics store that morning, Wogan is an example of an Irish national forging a comfortable life in England by ignoring the differences and embracing the similarities. He has said before that the Irish and the English are much closer than the English are with the Scots or Welsh, despite our fraught history. “We also, just like the English, apologise and thank people far too often.”

Nor is begrudgery endemic to Ireland, he insists. Instead, it is the symptom of other small populations such as Scotland, Wales and Denmark, where there exists an attitude of “well I knew his mother” and a sensitivity about their standing in the world. He had braced himself for such an onslaught for doing Wogan’s Ireland but it never materialised, he happily reports.

When I tell him that I can’t work out whether he’s sensitive or thick-skinned, he takes a little longer than usual before answering. “I’d say I’ve learned how to cope with criticism and abuse and I think you have to do that if you’re going to get through life. When you work in radio and television you’re assuming that everybody’s listening, watching and well-disposed to you. You have to; if you began to realise that probably 50 per cent of the audience are thinking ‘what’s that eejit doing’ you’d never do it, would you? I always say that it’s an extremely good training which I got in Ireland in the first place. Those of us who were on Irish television when it started became the first home-grown stars really, and you learned very quickly that everybody can’t bloody love you. It’s an important lesson to learn. People make up their minds about you the minute you walk into the room from the look of you so there’s no point trying to win people over. Not just in television or radio, in life. You cannot be all things to all men.”

Self-deprecation – but never self-pity – is perhaps what’s most likeable about Wogan. I begin one question about his skill as a writer (eight books published to date) by saying I had read Mustn’t Grumble, his laugh-out-loud 2006 biography. “God help us,” he quips. “I’m a tremendously lazy person,” he then sighs. “I’ve never knocked on anybody’s door looking for a job. Anything that’s difficult for me, I just don’t do. It just shows you how deeply trivial a person I am that I only do stuff that comes easily to me! Except golf; I think I’m temperamentally wrong for golf.” When he chats about the ins and outs of his honorary OBE and subsequent knighthood, it’s with a “god knows [it] was more than I deserved”.

You can see what his colleague Zoe Ball meant when she referred to him as “your naughty Irish uncle”. It’s an ever-ready, buoyant humour and a twinkle in the eye, like when he counters: “You get disappointed because you think ‘ah Christ, glamorous, tall, leggy bird, and she thinks I’m her uncle! That’s no good to me!” Another agreeable chuckle when he recalls the array of famous beauties his work brought him into contact with. “But I wasn’t available. Of course, as a man you’re going to respond to beautiful women – and so you should unless you’re a fool – but I’ve never had to slap a super injunction on anybody!”

For all Wogan’s experiences in life, it is family that has provided the most potent memories. Marriage is particularly important as it “helps you think of somebody other than yourself”. In Rathmines in 1965 he married Dublin model Helen Joyce (“We had a big crowd. The oul biddies around there followed us into the church because it was raining, and stood on the pews as we came down”).

Helen gave birth to Alan two years later. Mark arrived three years after that, before Katherine in 1972. His unconventional working hours meant they got lots of his time. Now, addicted to grandchildren, he laments that his own offspring didn’t get cracking earlier. “My eldest grandchild is six. You think, I’m never going to see them get married, and certainly never be a great granddad, so that’s a kind of thing that you think ‘ah it’s a shame’.” The only other drawback, he explains, is the “double worry” that comes when something is wrong with a grandchild and one automatically worries not just for grandchild but for child too.

Luckily, he concludes, he’s an optimist (“in other words, I don’t understand the seriousness of the situation!)” and has that rare ability to concentrate on what he has rather than what he is without. “I tend not to respond to failure; I tend to use it I suppose, but it doesn’t bring me down. I mean I’ve just had the most extraordinary, pleasant life,” he gasps merrily. “And now I’m, as it were, staggering towards the end of it but there you are. Make the most of it while I can.”

Gay Byrne’s going strong, I point out. “Yeah, he’s still battling on I see,” Wogan says with a dry smile. “Poor old soul!”

First published in the Sunday Independent

What Richard does

As one of contemporary Irish art’s best-kept secrets, Richard Hearns’s star is in the ascendant. But the story of the Dublin artist’s origins in war-torn Lebanon is just as remarkable, I discovered when we met in early winter. Here’s the Sunday Independent feature that came out of that interview.

***

Darkness to light through love and inspiration

‘THE younger one’s a messer,” Richard Hearns laughs. His outstretched hand is nuzzled by a donkey foal which has ambled over to say hello in the paddock behind the artist’s house. Back beyond the pasture, the rocky face of the Burren is lit indigo in the last wisps of the Clare sunset. Here, vistas can take on 60 mannerisms in a minute, all cast on a landscape that trembles with primordial beauty. Although I already know the answer to the question, I ask Hearns why it is that he and countless other artists, photographers and writers have made their home on the western seaboard of this country.

“Apart from the light, the lines of the Burren are also so beautiful,” Hearns enthuses, scanning around. “Very feminine. We lived in Kerry before and the landscape there is more masculine. There is something magnetic about the Burren.”

You may not have come across Richard Hearns very often and that is because he is the best-kept secret of contemporary Irish art. The large kinetic abstracts and masterful figuratives by this Dublin artist sit in collections right across the globe. He is the kind of painter about whom you might use words like “big” and “serious”, somebody who can pay annual visits to New York, Paris or LA to stage heavily subscribed one-man shows. There, a knowing fan base turns up to buy his works while they are still (relatively) affordable. He has achieved all of this largely outside the gallery system through that old-fashioned golden recipe of inspiration and perspiration.

But the story of where Hearns is going is as remarkable as that of where he has come from. He had used the word “messer” with as much casual Dub gusto as a Roddy Doyle character (he grew up in Malahide) but there is something in his eyes that is not of this land.

The warm, deep expressions and sallow skin are too pronounced to be Armada hokum and there is a fascinating engagement to his tone that speaks of some subconscious sense of wonder about things around him.

The truth is that Hearns’ place of birth could not be more different to the rocks, mosses and hazel woods of north Clare. He was adopted in Beirut at the age of 11 weeks.

The 35-year-old knows very little about how he came to be put up for adoption because meticulous record-keeping tends to be a victim of civil wars. He does, however, know that it was at the tail end of the Lebanese civil war that killed 120,000 and scattered many more.

Hearns’s father, Frank, was a UN Commandant who led one of the first-ever peace-keeping missions to the country in 1978. Both his older sisters are also from the Middle East – the eldest, Sarah, came from Bethlehem (the first-ever middle-eastern adoption to Ireland), while Claire was born in the Lebanon in 1976 at the height of the civil war. The adoptions came about via a Donegal nun working in Beirut at the time.

“I think it was on his last tour that my father went to meet Sister Patrick one day and said that he and my mother, Margaret, were thinking about adopting another girl.

“Sister Patrick said, ‘I think you have enough ladies in the family. What would you do if I got you a boy?’ He said, ‘Well I’ll have to ask the Commanding Officer (his wife Margaret) at home about this!'”

Six months passed before Frank ran into the nun again. Things were very bad in Beirut by that time and Sister Patrick began to lean more heavily on the Commandant to make a decision. An old-age home that she oversaw had been shelled, forcing her to relocate to Mount Lebanon outside Beirut.

She pressed Frank for a possible name for the potential adoptee, insisting that he would have to be christened as quickly as possible because the situation was deteriorating rapidly. All she needed were the names of Frank and Margaret’s fathers to secure the deal.

More time passed. Frank finished his tour and returned home to Malahide. And then the phone rang one day. “Richard Cornelius will be in London in two days’ time,” announced Sister Patrick.

Today, the only real sense that Hearns has of Beirut is from one sole visit and the poetry of Khalil Gibran, but he remains “intrigued” by it. He takes a slurp of coffee before recounting travelling there in his early teens with Frank and how the aroma of local spices awakened deep layers of memory that had only had 11 weeks to take hold in his consciousness.

“I think I am very Lebanese,” he frowns. “Dad tells me I have very Lebanese traits. They’re very open, affectionate people. There is a lot of artistry there. They’re mathematicians, very good writers, they’re passionate people.

“I’m very passionate – I can lose the head or fly off the rails very quickly but I make up straight away if I do that. I know that’s a Lebanese trait. And the people are like the Irish. They’re dispersed all over the world as well. They’re a scattered people. I’d love to do a residency there sometime and actually make work.”

More than a million Syrian refugees have flooded into Lebanon since conflict broke out four years ago in that war-ravaged country. Hearns finds the TV images of children caught up in the horror “too distressing” to look at as they can often bear a resemblance to his sisters’ children. He can only shudder to think of what his life could have been had he not won the lottery of being adopted to a first-world country.

“It’s kind of a miracle,” he finally says, gazing out the window. “I do feel like it was an absolute blessing. I mean, what would have happened to me if I had stayed in Beirut?

“I was born as a Maronite Christian and guns were put into the children’s hands at very young ages. Dad would have seen very young Lebanese people with rifles shooting across at Muslims in other buildings. I could have easily fallen into that.”

He describes his parents today as “amazing people” for not only taking in children that they had never seen before but raising him with the love and consistency that produces balanced and grounded people.

Although admitting to being an “average” academic in school, Hearns was always supported by Frank and Margaret to follow his own path. It was during his late teens that he realised that art was his true calling.

“I remember drawing my hand in my bedroom,” he reminisces. “It was like an epiphany. I had a moment where I realised that I could transcribe this three-dimensional space into a two-dimensional space and I could do it well. I understood line and form and everything like that.”

If we are to go along with Damien Hirst’s view that art is both childish and childlike, then Hearns fits the bill rather well.

“I am childlike,” he nods in agreement, “and I think you have to retain a certain amount of that innocence in order to make paintings. I’m not cerebral in my approach to my painting, even though I have a strong pictorial narrative or pictorial concept that I hang each painting on. But I kind of leap ahead. I want to play, I want to have fun and I want to create all the time.

“And young people create naturally – they want to make things, they have a great tactile sensibility. If you give young children in class something to mould with their hands, everything goes quiet and they all just get totally sucked in. I’ve always tried to retain that, and drawing always allowed me to do that.

“Others identified in me as a young boy that it was something that I could do well and I think that really sticks with you as a young person, if someone tells you you’re really good at something. It was kudos – I got positive feedback and pined for that attention.”

Following a degree in video and sound at Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Hearns enrolled in the National College of Art and Design for a HDip in Art, Craft and Design Education, something you feel he would have excelled at, given his switched-on style of communication.

By that time, however, he had already begun to sell his works and knew in his heart that he had to pursue painting as a career.

“I love that saying ‘leap and the net will appear’,” he says. “I was very, very keen to paint. And I’d already connected with people and knew that people were interested in my work. I became hugely invested in it.”

His father, Frank (who in retirement has cycled three times from Ireland to Jerusalem to raise money for the Bethlehem hospital from where Sarah was adopted), was an 800m runner. His grandfather, Dick, was a boxer.

No slouch himself, Hearns applies the disciplines of regular exercise and martial arts that his father instilled in him from a young age to his working day. It is in such discipline that a number of creatives often seen to fall down.

The gravel outside suddenly crunches and Hearns cranes his neck. A carful of art-loving US tourists has arrived for an appointment with him. Although the leader of the group is a gallery owner back in Florida, all six are charmed by Hearns’s sincerity and passion while being transfixed by the works to which he herds them around.

Phrases like “prismatic”, “activating colours” and “anchoring” crop up as Hearns moves his brawny arms over the canvases didactically. “Great light bounce,” one of the Americans gushes by a huge smouldering abstract. Talk of five-figure sums and transatlantic shipping is broached.

He brings us all out to one of two studios where the work takes place, a brightly lit but homely space where a stunning still life of a Bramley branch sits on an easel. The group are enraptured as he describes how he stretches all his own canvases and primes them with the same rabbit-skin glue that the old masters used. Next to Irish plein airs and a bemusing self-portrait (“If I want to rest my eyes, I’ll work on that. I’m kind of taking the mickey out of myself, really!”) are the more exotic subjects from Hearns’s journeyman days.

Thailand, in particular, became his base after the HDip. He could afford to live there for long stretches while putting together a body of work. He would then sell his creative fruits back in Ireland before returning east with the proceeds and so on.

Then in 2002, he met his wife, Boo. Their passes crossed by chance on a small Thai island off the Cambodian coast through mutual friends and they hit it off. The idea of finally relocating to another small island, albeit a rain-lashed one in the Atlantic, was less of a hard sell than you’d expect, he explains.

“Boo had her college degree and was a very worldly person,” he shares later on, “because she had met people from all different parts of the globe through working in tourism in Thailand. So she knew Ireland and knew Irish people. She’s just incredibly resilient and open to new experiences. It wasn’t without its challenges, of course – being away from her family and that – but we’ve made it work. She’s so Irish now. She’s really integrated so well into the community here in Ballyvaughan. She goes to the local ‘Stitch ‘n’ Bitch’ meetings!”

A professional chef (of no mean ability, as this writer will attest) and cooking instructor, Boo makes for a receptive sounding board for an artist always pushing himself towards new challenges and spheres. He stresses that he simply wouldn’t be able to do the shows without her because she is an integral part of hanging exhibitions, co-ordinating opening nights and entertaining visitors to the studio.

“I’ll even read my blog posts to Boo – her English is perfect – for her opinion. She is probably my greatest critic,” he says with Malahide voice and Beirut eyes, “other than my Mam.”

We drift into a discussion on how life is arguably all about discovering what we’re here for. Hearns becomes animated on a subject that clearly resonates with him.

“Richard Rohr (the Franciscan friar and best-selling author) talks about that,” he marvels, “that innate in us is the seed of what we want to do but it’s our lifetime’s work to get to that kind of place.

“Not that it’s a struggle or whatever – it can happen to some people earlier than others – but that the preconditioning is already there for us and our struggle is to find our way on to that path. That made a lot of sense to me, the idea that deep within our DNA is the final thing. You’re just working your way back to it.”

richardhearns.com

First published in the Sunday Independent

Donal’s favourite

Strolling into the Bord Gais Energy Irish book Awards last night, the first person I happened across was supernaturally gifted storyteller and awards magnet Donal Ryan (who went on to scoop the Writing.ie Short Story Of The Year award for A Slanting Of The Sun). We shook hands and had a good catch-up. Very kindly, he told me that my 2012 Sunday Independent interview was “still” his favourite piece of press. And that, gentle reader, is a bloody nice thing to hear from one of contemporary Irish fiction’s finest writers. 

***

WERE I a rival author, I might consider slapping Donal Ryan on his clean-shaven face right about now. He’s telling me all about scooping the Sunday Independent Best Irish Newcomer gong at the Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards and I’m starting to resent his shameless modesty.

“I just said to myself that being on the shortlist is brilliant but I haven’t a prayer of winning it,” he marvels. “I kept thinking that when the award is read out I can finally relax and enjoy the night. Then Madeleine [Keane, Sunday Independent Literary Editor] looked at me and said my name. My first thought was: ‘Jayzus, Madeleine’s said the wrong name! She’s after making an awful mess of it!’”

In a stout north Tipperary accent, Ryan goes on to tell me about his wife shaking him, as if from a dream, saying “Donal, you won, you won!” as he sat there agape. Just in case he wasn’t feeling enough of a fish out of water, he then got lost en route to the stage to collect his award “like an eejit”.

It’s no easier hearing his thoughts on then pipping writers such as, oh, only Edna O’Brien, John Banville and Tana French to the overall Bord Gais Energy Book Of The Year post last weekend. “I was on the awards website on Sunday night. We’d just watched Love/Hate and I checked to see what time they were announcing the Book of the Year. There it was. I just passed my wife the iPhone and said: ‘Will you read that out to me there because I think it says I’ve won but I’m not sure’!”

He can talk-up how much better he reckoned fellow newcomer nominees Mary Costello (“sublime”) or Cathleen McMahon (“brilliant”) were but the fact of the matter is these two awards have gone to a fitting home. His debut novel The Spinning Heart is staggeringly accomplished, both in style (penetrative chapter-by-chapter monologues) and the assuredness of its author’s voice. In dealing with the confessions of a group of villagers amidst the moral snakes and ladders of recession-ravaged middle-Ireland, it’s also soberingly pertinent.

The real culprits behind Ryan’s faltering self-belief, he agrees, are the some 47 publishers who rejected the finished manuscript. “I think I did an OK job of not taking rejection too personally. But every rejection does hurt a little bit. It knocks you a little bit, because for so many writers it never happens.”

It was only when Ryan was ushered into the Dublin offices of Lilliput Press that he really began to see his stars finally align. After a fruitful meeting in which he received glowing praise for the first time from people other than family and close friends, he sat in the car, phoned home and “got a bit emotional”.

There’s an intensity to Ryan. He speaks at a brisk pace, and will frown down at the table when praising Lenny Abrahamson, John Boyne or anyone else he has huge admiration for. Into this category falls the love of his life, Anne Marie, the person who gave him the boot in the backside required to spur him into keyboard-tapping action. “Oh yeah,” he nods sternly. “She said to me: ‘If you’re a writer and you’re writing a book, what are you doing watching television?’ I was shamed into it.”

The pair met in 2005 on a picket line in Limerick, of all places, during industrial strike action. But it was only on their second encounter a while afterwards that he got that old-fashioned feeling that told him they’d be married one day. His hunch was a prescient one, and two years later it came to pass.

Like his parents, who built an extension to their home to house their beloved books, Ryan and his wife are possibly the most bookish couple living in the Limerick suburb of Castleroy. They agree on most literature bar David Mitchell’s time-warping modern classic Cloud Atlas. The couple also co-authored two masterpieces in the form of four-year-old Thomas and three-year-old Lucy. While it’s great and all, parenthood is not for the feint-hearted, he insists.

“It’s all-consuming, really,” he puffs. “It’s a second full-time job when you come home. When Thomas was born, I was about three quarters the way through the first draft. All I could think about was Thomas and different things that could happen to him. Your anxiety can spike for no reason just while you’re sitting at a desk. I had to train myself to tune it out and not think about it.”

Along with his day job as a civil servant, writing is a good distraction from such self-conjured worries and it’s been this way for many years. His father (a driving instructor) always wrote verse, and as a schoolboy Ryan read beyond his level. His primary school years in St Joseph’s CBS, Nenagh saw him  became “obsessed” with Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song while his burgeoning enthusiasm was buttressed by two teachers who he still credits to this day.

He picks up my copy of The Spinning Heart and runs a hand tenderly over its matted finish as if it’s fresh off the press. It stays there while he fills me in on his first novel, The Thing About December, due out next year. He meditates over the cover for a few seconds in silence. “I never had an image of myself as being anything except a writer,” he concludes. “Funny that.”

 

Alan Rickman Interview

First Bowie, now this? I give up. Horrid news altogether that we have lost a proper screen icon. Here’s an interview I did last year with the inimitable, aquiline-nosed, feline-voiced legend during the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival. He will be sorely missed.

***

YOUR heart flinches ever so slightly when Alan Rickman smiles at you.

That smile. That same macabre, fangy, slit-eyed grin that (nearly) fooled John McClane and terrorised the townsfolk of Nottingham.

It appears often on the star’s face as he sits opposite me, his back to the blustery bright morning going on outside the window. The 69-year-old is in town for a special screening of period romance A Little Chaos at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, and all is well with the world as he tells me about his Irish heritage through his paternal grandmother.

“When I came here, and I’m not kidding,” he says with mock indignation, “it was absolutely like coming somewhere I knew, and that was back in the mid-nineties when I was shooting An Awfully Big Adventure. And those were the days before the banks went belly-up. Then it was unbelievably celebratory, and for me to just go into a bar and there wasn’t some dreadful jukebox but actually people talking and seeing Sharon Shannon play in a club, it was honestly like meeting a bit of myself. And I was talking to (Texas singer and friend) Sharleen Spiteri about being a Celt, how you smell each other out, because my mother’s family is Welsh. There’s not a lot of English blood in me.”

All of this is delivered via the great Rickman trademark, to use a horrible office-speak-ism, his “USP”; that voice.

To hear that rich, caramelised purr slowly enunciate something as mundane as ordering a coffee or commenting on the weather is remarkable. It is a voice designed to silence rooms, filmsets, political rallies and the mess hall of a school for wizards. It feels a crime to interrupt it but I must. Did it mean a lot to him to do a film like Michael Collins, given this family link?

He nods thoughtfully. “A huge amount,” he blinks. “Especially when you do the homework. I couldn’t see how Neil (Jordan, director) was going to do it in two hours. I thought that was an incredible achievement given that it ought to have been a 16-hour miniseries really. I could see a way that you could do that story from different points of view and then find a meeting point at the end.”

Rickman has spoken about playing real life historical characters and becoming “defensive” of them as human beings for the simple reason that if you judge your character too much they become harder to play. He felt this about King Louis XIV, who he plays in A Little Chaos, and still does about Eamon de Valera nearly two decades since the release of Michael Collins.

“It’s no secret what Neil’s feeling about de Valera would be,” he sighs with a hint of resignation. “I think there’s another movie to be made about one of the great love affairs of all time which would be de Valera and Collins before they split up. When de Valera was in America, Collins was going over and reading bedtime stories to his kids! They were such yin and yang, of course they were close on some level. I don’t subscribe to the view that de Valera was responsible for his death because as far as I can see he didn’t have enough power at that point, and there’s enough stories saying the day before he was killed he was running around trying to find Collins. He must have known something but didn’t have the power to stop it. Yeah, it was very important to me at the time.”

This is obvious. You can hear it in the way he recounts sitting in a cell in Kilmainham Gaol and being handed a note written by de Valera in “the tiniest handwriting” asking the nuns to look after his family. “Incredible,” I remark, for a few reasons. “Yeah,” Rickman murmurs. “Rich, rich, rich.”

A Little Chaos is the second time Rickman has directed a feature film after 1997’s The Winter Guest but the first where he has starred as well. Written by Allison Deegan (the Dublin-born wife of author Sebastian Barry), it tells of a landscape gardener and mourning mother (played by Kate Winslet) employed to design one of the lavish palace gardens at Versailles. It is a lush and canny outing that is quite understated for its genre. Studio investors, he says, insisted Rickman take a leading role as well as direct.

“It wasn’t’ my choice,” he explains. “The only thing that made it doable was that Louis XIV was a bit like a film director. It’s a certain attitude of watching everything and making a choice or moving something. The expression on the face didn’t have to change much, and he’s a fixed point so he didn’t have to move anywhere. People come to him. I remember thinking, ‘if only somebody had invented the movies for Louis. Move over Harvey Weinstein.’” Another grin and another tiny flinch.

He politely entertains my assumption that there must be an element of stepping back in time when making such a sumptuous, costume-heavy production before squashing it. “You’re really living in the present,” he gently smiles. “Believe me, there’s always a gun to your head, a very present-day gun, and if it’s not the weather, it’s the money or just the pressures of film-making. The homework is enjoyable because you’re surrounded by people who are passionate. And if the weather’s kind and you don’t have an airplane flying through every ten seconds, then there are great celebratory days of work. It’s just work. And that’s what’s enjoyable. You’re just working.

“Work”. It is that code Rickman has obeyed throughout a glittering stage and screen career that began when the then-26-year-old successful graphic designer won a scholarship to London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada) after giving in to the acting itch. Artistic growing up in council-estate Hammersmith, Rickman’s factory worker father died when he was eight. Life for his mother and three siblings wasn’t easy back then. Anything he achieved he did so through graft, and acting, like any other profession, was a challenge, not a laugh.

“If you have a talent, all you have is a responsibility to it,” he insists. “You can’t take credit for it. It’s an accident of something or other. Somebody else is a brilliant firefighter. And it gets harder and harder; young actors today; they don’t have to be a member of the union and there’s no particular pressure on them to train. They don’t notice how quickly they could get spat out by the machinery and the finger snap and the box-ticking of it all.”

As Vice Chair at Rada, Rickman is well placed to be concerned about the lot of young actors yet he does not fret over Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint, his former Harry Potter co-stars and arguably the most famous teens in the world during the planet-eating franchise’s heyday. He and life partner Rima Horton never had children, but he speaks with pride about the trio. “All of them are brave young souls. You’ve only got to watch Emma speaking at the UN or Rupert throwing himself on to the West End stage or Daniel making really bold choices with his life and work. I don’t know if it’s down to luck or the fact that there were lots of voices to mentor them. I suppose we all talked to them when we had half a second on set.”

He still struggles to get over the Potter phenomenon, and marvels at meeting “obsessed” fans who weren’t born when he began playing shifty Severus Snape. “What is it about ‘once upon a time’,” he wonders aloud, “that still has such power over people’s imaginations? I find it a relief to think a child will pick up an actual book and get lost inside it. There’s something just fundamental about it; it’s how we figure out who we are by telling stories to each other.”

A good-natured Alan Rickman “harrumph” comes when I ask about retirement.

“You try saying that word to Judy Dench or anybody,” he scolds. “The point about actors is the work goes on.”

 

First published in the Sunday Independent

When I met the lovely Joanna Hogg…

With her new film Exhibition showing this week in the IFI and selected cinemas, I thought I’d throw this Joanna Hogg interview I did a couple of years ago up on to this blog. Just cuz. 

 

At the bottom of the staircase in the Merrion Hotel foyer hangs Paul Henry’s Dawn, Killary Harbour, one of the finest examples of 20th Century Irish landscape art. Examining its violet mountains and bleached misty waterscape closely, Joanna Hogg seems transfixed. “That. Is. Wonderful,” she mutters.

Rewind half an hour, and the filmmaker and I are discussing the role of landscapes in her latest release. A feature event of this year’s Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, Archipelago is a slow-burning drama about a fraught family reunion set against the stunning backdrop of the Isles of Scilly. It was there, she tells me, that her own family would holiday when she was a child. “The actual setting has very personal resonances,” she says, “and that only adds to it for me, to the intensity of it. I cast the place like I cast the actors; I’ll only cast an actor if I feel some connection with them or I feel they understand what I want to do. I don’t just choose a location because it’s pretty. It’s got a lot more layers to it than that.”

“In fact we had really lovely happy holidays so I don’t know where the anxiety came from,” she laughs. “Well I do sort of know…” The anxiety she refers to is palpable throughout Archipelago. Pregnant silences and bottled-up emotions inhabit most scenes, sometimes to amusing effect. As in the films of kindred spirit Mike Leigh, the dinner table and kitchen sink become emotional battlegrounds.

We’re sitting in an upstairs room. Through the window behind her, the sky is a rare blue while the evening sun illuminates the granite of government buildings opposite. The shy and highly observant child she professes to have been is somehow visible in there still; dressed in jeans a lose-necked jumper, Hogg’s eyes are oddly expressionless and she has a disorienting habit of shaking her head when saying “yes”. Often, a clear and serious tone fizzles into a whisper only to swoop up loudly again.

She is gracious and agreeable and seemingly unaware of her standing as one of UK cinema’s most celebrated newcomers. The release of Unrelated, her 2007 debut, saw the then 47-year-old arrive as a mature and fully-formed talent, wowing critics and plundering awards ceremonies. It came following a spell directing music videos before moving on to shoot TV shows such as Casualty and EastEnders.

“I just stopped thinking about it and became quite bloody minded,” she smiles, “and felt that if I wasn’t going to do it at that point in time then I never was. I find myself appreciating the idea that I can express myself creatively. It’s still a new sensation as I’ve only made two films, and I had many more years of making television. I definitely see it as a liberation.”

Was television that confining for her? “At the time, I probably enjoyed it in practical ways – it’s quite fun working with actors – but in terms of my own personal creative ideas, I’ve got a lot of catching up to do I think,” she trills. “I’ve got a lot of ideas!”

She’s certainly made up for this previous dearth in artistic freedom. Stylistically, Hogg is already regarded as something of an auteur thanks to her spacious, still-camera compositions and incorporation of non-actors into her scenes. “Hopefully it makes the audience just forget that it’s fiction,” she explains. “I’m very clear on what I want but at the same time I leave those gaps, and that to me is what is exciting about filmmaking. If it was just about executing a plan I really would have no interest in that. I think most films, even if they are very tightly scripted, need to leave room for things to happen. Then these nice accidents occur.”

As the writer of her films, she exercises her need to grapple with “personal but not autobiographical” themes. She has said that there is a little bit of her in each of the characters in Archipelago, something I ask her to elaborate on. “Yesss,” she begins uneasily, “and that doesn’t have to be taken totally literally. I’m not a mother so I don’t have experience of being a mother. But some of the issues that Patricia, the mother in Archipelago, is dealing with I can relate to – I can relate to her state of anxiety, and that’s what I was taking from that character for myself. And then with Cynthia, the sister, I think it’s more the desire or the need to control everything, also the indecisive, very sensitive son. So there are little hints of my own issues in each of them. These traits that I have are quite contradictory, so it felt good to spread out some of them among the different characters.”

She cackles loudly at the suggestion that Archipelago is like an autumnal and particularly hellish family Christmas. “I think it’s only a matter of time before Christmas becomes one of my settings! I find family an endless source of ideas.”

She goes on to talk about also drawing inspiration through literature, contemporary art and even eavesdropping on train journeys (“I have to be careful sometimes,” she guffaws.). Suddenly a light bulb goes off in her head. “I’ve just remembered another filmmaker who I love and that’s Lenny Abrahamson,” she says in reference to a previous question. “I thought Garage was a really beautiful film. Very moving. Deeply moving.”

In 2001, Hogg married the sculptor Nick Hurvey, a relationship that hasn’t hurt her quest for creative stimuli. “I really like it. I’m sure there are downsides too. We work in different disciplines but one thing can feed another. One of the reasons I go to a lot of exhibitions is because he’s an artist, but I see that as an advantage for me, and then maybe he sees certain films because of me. It sort of works both ways, in terms of feedback. It’s really positive.”

Surely this must lead to some heated exchanges of opinion or bruised egos, I wonder aloud. “There’s always those moments, and I hate criticism!” she roars laughing. “I choose my moments very carefully when I show him something because he makes very, very good comments but he’ll be very honest about what he thinks about something – in a very un-English way actually! And vice versa.”

In a short while, Hogg will politely but sincerely thank me for my questions and descend the hotel staircase. As if predicting that the Paul Henry will be pointed out to her, she will first tell me about casting the English landscape artist Christopher Baker as himself in Archipelago, and that the discipline of painting infects both her directing and the film’s plot.

“You were asking me what I was like as a child,” she considers. “The other thing I did apart from observing was I drew quite a lot. I now really love painting. I’m not saying I’m any good at it but I find the process important actually. It’s very different from filmmaking; you don’t need any money to do it but it’s something that’s very involving. I haven’t really changed; I still observe things all the time.”