Norfolk film follows steps of UEA writer WG Sebald
Filmmaker Grant Gee retraced the steps of a cult UEA novelist WG Sebald's walk along the East Anglian coastline. As his film arrives in Norwich, STEVEN RUSSELL finds out more.
Seeing as he's just back from walking his dog in the woods — where he had to dodge torrential rain — it seems a bit mean to plonk a tough question in Grant Gee's lap. However, the filmmaker's happy to attempt to unravel the riddle of WG Sebald — a German intellectual who settled in Norwich and nearly 20 years ago walked a long stretch of the East Anglian coast.
The book he wrote afterwards, The Rings of Saturn, is as slippery as a bar of soap and defies attempts to stick a label on it. It's not a novel; it's not a memoir; it's not (as one might expect) a traditional travelogue.
Grant, a confirmed fan, would love it to be wider known and appreciated, but acknowledges: 'It's quite a hard sell. As soon as people have read it, they either go 'I can't stand that!' or they love it to death.
'The really difficult thing is when people say 'What's it about?' Well OK, here we go. It's about this rather staid academic chap who goes on a little hike around East Anglia. And you hear people going 'Right…'.'
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The book is somewhat melancholic too. There are some gently comic episodes, such as his disappointment at a hotel's offering of a hard piece of battered fish he suspects has lain in the freezer for years, but often his expedition's observations are the leaping-off point that takes us on to somewhere else.
The writer can within a few pages take readers from a Lowestoft B&B to the Belgian Congo, on to the Voyager space probe and back to the B&B.
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In 2010 Grant, who is best known for his music films, including Meeting People Is Easy about Radiohead and his documentary on Joy Division, retraced the author's steps over eight days, on his own, travelling from Norwich to Somerleyton, on to Lowestoft, down to Dunwich, inland to Middleton, over to Boulge and Woodbridge and across to Orford and Yoxford, and back up through the 'Saints' villages near Halesworth.
'I had a 16mm camera kit on my back and a monopod, and a sound kit and my clothes, and film stock and a stills camera, so I was in marine yomping mode.'
The resulting film — Patience (After Sebald) — has been aired at numerous film festivals and this weekend it gets a showing at Cinema City, complete with Q&A session with Chris Drake, who worked as a creative consultant.
Patience, narrated by actor Jonathan Pryce, is described as a 'multi-layered film essay on landscape, art, history, life and loss'.
It combines scenes of Norfolk and Suffolk and interviews with writers who talk about Sebald's influence.
Grant doesn't find The Rings of Saturn off-puttingly morose. If anything, it's strangely comforting. 'For one thing, even if a book's depressing, if you like it, there's an enjoyment. It's melancholic rather than depressing. It's not grinding. His imagination is fast-moving enough for there to be an intellectual lightness of touch.
'My own experience of doing that walk was absolutely delightful and not at all miserable. This is the project of a lifetime for me and probably the most enjoyable experience of film-making I've ever had, though the film isn't about my experience; it just happens that when I was walking around for eight days I had a wonderful time.'
The idea, from the start, was about exploring how Sebald works with the sense of place. 'One thing we really hit on early on was that for people who really like this book it becomes almost like an imaginary place for them that they keep coming back to.
'It's like a universe you can keep exploring – almost like a strange encyclopaedia you can keep going back to and exploring different bits of.'
Grant didn't know the East Anglian coast before he set off. 'I grew up in Plymouth and I've lived in Brighton for 13 years, and I've been to Norwich a couple of times, but I'd never been on that coast. I loved it; and now it's the only other place, apart from Brighton, I could imagine living.'
Eric Homberger's obituary for Sebald, following the writer's death just over a decade ago in a car crash, most likely to have been caused by a heart attack, spoke of his 'incomparable feel for the oddness of life in East Anglia'.
Did Grant feel the same? 'The single thing about that coastal region that sticks in my mind from reading Sebald and then doing the walk is how it should really be connected with the other side of the North Sea and that it is essentially like Holland and Denmark and the mouth of the Rhine,' he says.
'We've got an animation in the film that shows how land used to connect that coast to what's now mainland Europe.
'That's one of the great things Sebald does: it made me think about the south coast here being essentially like the upper Normandy coast. He makes these connections. I don't think of it as being cut off from England; I think of it as being cut off from Europe.'
n Patience (After Sebald) screens at Cinema City on March 4, 2.45pm, 0871 9025724, www.picturehouses.co.uk