In one of the Riddle of the Sands Adventure Club podcasts (or was it one of their blog posts) the opinion was offered that Erskine Childers’ “Riddle of the Sands” may not be written in a way that immediately appeals to contemporary (and younger?) readers. I initially bridled a bit at that sentiment, then thought back to my teenage years, when I refused to countenance the notion of reading John Buchan’s “Greenmantle” because it sounded as though it was probably old fashioned, and thus much less appealing than whatever techno-thriller subfodder I was subjecting myself to at the time.
Most of a decade later I corrected this, read “Greenmantle” (along with the rest of Buchan’s wider Hannay universe) and looking back I suspect the 13 year old that spurned Buchan made a grave error - he’d have loved the rich sense of history, the exotic location, and what is fundamentally a genuinely good read.
“Riddle of the Sands” sits in a similar space. My father, an Anglo-Irish amateur sailor (his sole claim to a straightened upbringing was that he had to buy his own yacht) whose life missed overlapping with Childers by a scant few months, was unsurprisingly a fan of the novel. When the film came out in the late 1970s there was enthusiasm around the Synge household about going to see it, but for reasons lost to my then young mind, it never happened, and while since then I’m sure I’ve seen at least bits of the film, it’s only recently that I’ve consciously watched it (in an almost unwatchable blurry VHS rip format), so it was an appealing prospect when the rather marvellous Riddle of the Sands Adventure Club proposed showing it on a biggish screen in the company of like minded folk.
Rewinding a little, the Riddle of the Sands Adventure Club is a fantastic initiative. It’s a pair of enthusiastic eccentrics who want to retrace the route described in the novel, which is ‘curiously specific about dates and places’, and in doing so explore the social, literary, and historical context of the novel, and how this is reflected in the terrain of today. Their podcasts are tremendously entertaining and I genuinely hope they raise enough cash to set out on their adventure. I’ve put my hand in my pocket, and I’d encourage all of you to do so too. You can do so at Unbound here.
But back to the screening and the chance, 30 or so years after the family failure to see the film? It started with an
instruction to meet at the last ships chandler in London, a lovely small shop on Shaftesbury Avenue full of arcane materials and enticing books about hidden anchorages on the Brittany coast. It proceeds to the parish rooms at St Giles, tucked away behind the church and bedecked with a slightly curious list of parish luminaries on the wall. It has an industrial looking improvised screen, the film’s overture on a loop in the background, and it has Lloyd and Tim (both engaging and fun people) being enthusiastic about what they’re trying to do. And there’s grog.
|The first instruction - rendezvous in a ships' chandler.|
An intriguingly varied group of people are gathered to watch the film. There’s someone who owns a Rippingille stove, there’s someone who’s painted a seascape of the Dulcibella, there’s me and my wife, who just like this juxtaposition between history, travel, and London.
A quick introduction by Lloyd and Tim, duly Periscoped, a quick word from the composer of the film’s soundtrack, and it’s into the screening. The film’s good, but it’s of its time. It’s easy to forget that the 1970s were quite a long time ago and almost closer to the dawn of cinema than they are to us. There are bits in the film where lingering long shots on eyes owe a lot to Eisenstein and D. W. Griffith, notes that today presumably would be superseded by something CGIed.
It’s a hot evening, one of the hottest London’s had this year, and parish rooms are not known for being airy. My experiences of the Ems estuary and the Waddensee are more wintery, but I’m sure they can be close and airless too. It’s nice to be given the opportunity to focus on a film in the way it was supposed to be seen rather than having it in the background while you dick about on a second screen. As a film it’s lasted better than others from the period, and can appeal to even the non-geekish amongst us. It’s even better watched amongst like minded folk.
The Riddle of the Sands Adventure Club probably doesn’t have a commercial leg to stand on, which is why those of us who support it just because it’s a fabulous idea need to stand up and make sure it keeps going. They stage intriguing events like this, they entertain and engage with us in their podcasts, and their finished product is the sort of metanarrative that should be encouraged. Please, go and find them, explore what they’re doing, and chuck them some cash so they can tell us what the Frisian Islands interpreted through the eyes of Childers are really like.