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Our touring Hosts & Champions Exhibition will be on display at Trinity Church, Irvine, until this Friday 17th April. In this article Jocelyn Grant, one of our Exhibition Assistants, looks at the some of the exhibition items from the Commonwealth Games 2014.
This is the final tour of the series looking at the Hosts and Champions Exhibition in Irvine, Trinity Church. Each of these tours has looked to highlight some of the iconic and exciting materials from the Commonwealth Games Scotland Archive that the Exhibition displays, and it would be remiss of me not to include the most recent and local of the Commonwealth Games; Glasgow 2014!
The Hosts and Champions Exhibition moves on to Carnoustie, Dundee this weekend, so if you would like to see this display before it ends, go now!
Trisha Anderson is a dancer and choreographer, and relative of the filmmaker Norman McLaren. 2014 is the centenary of McLaren’s birth and Trisha has curated a personal tribute to Norman which is currently on display in the University Archives. Here she writes about her research into McLaren’s work.
The exhibition ‘Affectionately Yours’ is based on the research for my film of the same name. In 2003 I saw an interview with the film maker Norman McLaren in which he said that movement was his art form, but had he been a dancer he would have created movement in a very different way. I was struck by this statement for a number of reasons. I am a dancer and choreographer and I was curious to know what kind of dance McLaren might have choreographed himself. This led me to research him through his personal letters.
My aim was to respond to the life and work of Norman McLaren, and to examine the link between dance and animation. This has allowed me to experience first-hand some of those common threads between my art form and McLaren’s and to begin to draw conclusions for my own practice, which eventually combined dance film and animation. I have looked at the context within which McLaren’s work took place. I am fascinated by the opinions of other artists and film makers who knew McLaren or worked with him.
Norman McLaren’s place in the history of animation and experimental film making is that of a pioneer who brought an amazing range of skills to his art form. He was an artist, director, scientist, inventor, keen observer of humanity and accomplished musician. Transcripts of interviews with him bring the reader in touch with a shy, sensitive, multi-sensory man who saw the world in a very unique way. His sensitivity and acute awareness of stillness and movement, music, line, form, space and rhythmic structure are all qualities which he brought to his films. As a choreographer I feel that I am intensely aware of these elements and I find myself looking at his work again and again from the choreographer’s viewpoint. I found myself asking how Norman McLaren might have used these qualities himself if he HAD been a choreographer. There are many common threads between dance, animation and film. There are also many common ‘threads’ between this film maker and me.
I am related to McLaren. My grandfather and Norman McLaren’s mother were siblings. In my search for McLaren the film maker I realised I could not separate him from McLaren, my father’s cousin. I realised that the qualities I mentioned before may be shared between film maker and dancer, but may also reflect a shared genetic inheritance. I felt I needed to explore how strong the link was and this brought me to the archive stored at The University of Stirling.
McLaren had an enquiring mind, and was endlessly questing to “work things out”, a quality which in part was inherited, I believe, from a very practical, down to earth lineage. His mother grew up on a farm and there are a number of relatives who were involved in some way with engineering. His artistic ability was in part inherited from his father, a painter and decorator. Musical ability was present on both sides of the family.
McLaren felt Art was one thing he was really good at which led him to Art College…. where he discovered film. By the time I found the material stored in the archive I had realised that many people still did not know who McLaren was. I began to feel that I wanted to do something to draw attention to his work. I made a decision that one day I would make a dance and film based on him. I eventually made this film, Affectionately Yours, in 2012.
Nearly eighty years after its release, Night Mail (Wright & Watt, 1936), produced by the General Post Office Film Unit, is still relevant to documentary filmmaking – its style, content and representation being key to the fundamentals of the non-fiction film. Night Mail follows the journey of the London, Midland & Scottish Railway postal service from London to Scotland, as it collects and delivers Britain’s mail.
Forsyth Hardy, film critic and John Grierson’s biographer, wrote in 1979 about the lasting appeal of the film in his book Grierson on Documentary – “Of all the hundreds of films which emerged from the documentary movement in the 1930s it has most surely stood the test of time.” Perhaps this is because the nostalgia evoked, was of a time in British culture that seemed untouched by modernity. Paradoxically however, the film proved to be stylistically and socially progressive. Modernist concepts such as commercial rebranding and details like expressionistic images – the beveled, clean lines of the titles, the specially commissioned music and poetic verse suggested a cultural shift.
Founded by Grierson in 1933, the G. P. O. Film Unit made documentaries to promote British industry to the British public. Films such as Granton Trawler (Grierson, 1934), about the fishing industry reminded the nation that respect and gratitude should be given to everyday workers. Referring to this concept Night Mail director Basil Wright said that the film was, “commissioned by the post office […] to explain to the Post Office workers how this particular aspect of the vast organization happened” (ref. Grierson Archive, GA.10.55). Grierson went on to say, “It was some satisfaction to take those letters G.P.O and make them stand for what was most progressive in the cinema” (ref. Grierson Archive, G3.14.5).
Night Mail’s appeal was partly due to the collaboration of modern disciplines and experimentation in sound and visual style. The combination of Grierson’s production, Cavalcanti’s sound direction, W.H.Auden’s poetic verse and music by composer Benjamin Britten constructed an almost avant-garde aesthetic. The juxtaposition between man and machine – the close-up shots of the moving pistons, the point of view shots from the engine drawing the audience in and the precise timing of the mail bag pick-up as postal workers listen to the beats of the wheels on the track – evokes a poetic artistry. Talking to the B.B.C about the pre-production, Grierson recounts the emotional connotations, “The train had become the living embodiment of a whole slice of British life” (ref. Grierson Archive, G7.23.3).
On its release, Night Mail was successful, in part due to transportable projection units. In Sight and Sound in 1937, J.B. Holmes, director of productions at the G.P.O discussed their method of distribution, “With machines, operators, screens and films, they were capable of showing in almost any sort of premises” (ref. Grierson Archive, G3.P4). Aside from the influential use of the cinematic device and the modernist propaganda ascribed to the film; far beyond the filmmaking world, railway enthusiasts have sustained the appeal of Night Mail and as a result, in 2013 a sculpted bust of Grierson was introduced to Stirling railway station.
(Susannah Ramsay, M. Litt. in Film Studies)
From Iowa to Alloa, a patient’s story…
Last week David, one of our project volunteers, came upon a particularly unusual entry in the earliest admission register for Stirling District Asylum. While transcribing the information recorded in the volume onto a database which will greatly improve access to the material he noted that the “Previous place of abode” given for James Dempster, a patient admitted to the hospital in August 1881 was Iowa. The normal locations recorded for patients are the towns and villages of Central Scotland, not the American mid-west. The register recorded James’ occupation as “Farmer”, the “Parish to which chargeable” as Alloa and gave his “Supposed cause of insanity” as “Sunstroke.” It also noted he remained in the hospital until February 1909 when he was briefly discharged before being re-admitted in March 1909.
Armed with the information contained in the admission register we were able to locate James’ case notes in the asylum’s case books, shedding further light on his case. Unusually for the Stirling Asylum James was recorded as being a private patient. His uncle provided an account of James’ unstable behaviour while staying at the family home in Clackmannan, where he threatened both his sister and a servant. Described as suffering from “recurrent mania” James was admitted to the asylum on 20 August 1881. His case notes recorded that James “went to America at 24 years of age. Has been insane probably since the age of 32 as a result of sunstroke and has never recovered. Had been three years in a US asylum before return.” James’ farming skills were put to good use in the asylum and he was put to work on the hospital farm. The hard physical labour took its toll and by 1901 he had been moved to the less strenuous surroundings of the hospital garden. Described as being a “good worker, very quiet and no trouble” James spent much of his time in the grounds of the hospital, a note written in September 1909 recording that he “takes a great interest in the small stream beyond the house and says that fairy children play there and gets wildly excited if a horse is driven through the stream as it may kill his fairy children.”
James’ story is one of thousands contained in the 50 volumes of case books for Stirling District Asylum which cover the years 1869-1918, many of which are brought to life by the evocative photographs of the patients which are pasted into the pages of the volumes. The fantastic work being done by our team of volunteers who are cleaning and cataloguing the asylum records is making these stories accessible for the first time.
The University of Stirling opened its doors to its first intake of students on Monday 18th September 1967. The 164 undergraduates and 31 postgraduates were welcomed into the brand new Pathfoot building where all lectures took place and the library was temporarily located. On the evening of the 18th September staff and students celebrated the opening of the university with a dinner dance and firework display.
The following morning students met the academic staff in more formal surroundings at registration and lectures began at 8.30 am on Wednesday 20th September. For the university’s first group of undergraduates the most popular subjects were Sociology, Psychology and English with a smaller proportion of students (21%) choosing to specialise in science subjects.
The archives of the university contain a wealth of material tracing the growth and development of the institution including minutes, correspondence, reports and photographs. The story of how Stirling came to be chosen as the site for a new Scottish University can be found here.
Last week the archives welcomed a visit from the university’s retired staff association. As part of their ongoing oral history project they invited their members to a ‘memory day’ in the reading room. Over 30 former staff of the university turned up for what proved to be a very enjoyable afternoon. The event gave us the opportunity to showcase some of our holdings relating to the history of the university. One item which sparked much interest was a copy of Campus, the university newspaper, from May 1974. The front page story headlined “Into battle with Monty Python!” reported that the film makers were looking “for 175 students to take part as extras in a battle scene in the new Monty Python and the Holy Grail film.”
The Pythons arrived in Stirling in April 1974. Location shooting took place at Killin and on Sherrifmuir but the bulk of the film was shot at Doune Castle. The castle was used as the location for a number of key scenes in the film including the memorable ‘Knights of the Round table’ song and dance routine. The invitation to students to appear in the film as extras offered a number of inducements (to make up for the early starting time of 8am on a Saturday morning) including £2 pay, free transport, food and refreshments, and “an added attraction… of an abundance of crazy antics.”
Doune Castle is now a popular destination for movie buffs and Python fans. Indeed it has been estimated that up to a third of its 25,000 visitors a year are there because of the film. It now hosts a very popular Monty Python day every September (coconut shells optional…).
The University Archives holds a collection of material relating to the Stirling-born filmmaker Norman McLaren including over 400 letters he wrote to his parents in Stirling over a 30 year period beginning in 1936. The letters were written on a regular, sometimes weekly, basis and include information on the development of his career, accounts of his travels and discussions of his work, alongside family business and personal information.
In 1949 McLaren was invited by UNESCO to travel to China to teach young Chinese artists how to make animated films as part of a project to improve the health of China’s rural population. McLaren’s adventure started pleasantly enough, travelling from his home in Ottawa, Canada, (where he worked at the National Film Board) west across the Pacific. He stopped off at Honolulu which he described in a letter to his parents as “utterly bewitching, no place for a Scot with a buried Presbyterian conscience to remain!” From the tropical paradise of Hawaii McLaren continued on to Tokyo, a city still struggling to rebuild itself in the aftermath of the Second World War. He kept a detailed journal of his trip and noted the poverty and destruction still clearly visible in Japan’s capital.
From the dust and rubble of Tokyo McLaren continued onwards to the heat and humidity of Hong Kong and into China to the small town of Pehpei in Szechuan province. Unfortunately for McLaren he arrived in China as the conflict between the Nationalists and Communists swept through the country. For several months life continued as normal in the sleepy rural town of Pehpei where McLaren got on with his job of educating his Chinese pupils. In December 1949 the Communist revolution arrived on Pehpei’s doorstep. In an article he wrote for a Canadian magazine on his return McLaren recounted the efforts made by the town’s mayor to prevent the retreating Nationalist forces from ransacking the town by welcoming them, feeding them and providing them with transport to help them on their way. With the Nationalists gone the town prepared a big welcoming show for the advancing communist troops – which had to be quickly cancelled when a further group of Nationalist soldiers appeared on the horizon! After entertaining thousands of retreating nationalist troops the town put up it’s bunting and held its breath for the victorious communist army. However the expected red army didn’t appear and the town was entered by a single truck of slightly bemused soldiers.
The arrival of the communists made McLaren’s departure difficult as the country closed its doors to the outside world. With no way home McLaren was forced to remain in Pehpei and extend the educational project. After the initial upheaval of the Communist take-over life in Pehpei appears to have returned to quiet normality. In a letter written on 22 Jan 1950 McLaren noted “life here is very quiet and simple, with little to do, little to read, and no radio.” A new regime brought new bureaucracy and it took McLaren five months to get a travel permit to leave. In March 1950 he received an official invitation from the Ministry of Culture to visit them in Peking. It was his ticket out of China. He left Pehpei and travelled across the country by train where he witnessed “many evidences of the battlefields of the past twenty years of war”. Following a brief stop-off in the capital he finally reached Hong Kong in May 1950.
Despite the conflict he witnessed and the virtual imprisonment he suffered McLaren appears to have enjoyed his time in China and gained a great respect for its people. Reflecting on his experiences he wrote, in a letter to his parents, “Chinese civilisation in many ways is superior to our recent western civilisation. I am sorry in many ways to be leaving it. It is not in its plumbing or mechanical gadgets that China is superior, but in its simple human attitudes.”