Michael Romer, “Poetry in Blue Black Permanent,” Cencrastus, No. 82 (2006) pp. 8–13.
Courtesy of Michael Romer.
Michael Romer, “Poetry in Blue Black Permanent,” Cencrastus, No. 82 (2006) pp. 8–13.
Courtesy of Michael Romer.
Sarah Neely, “‘Ploughing a lonely furrow’- Margaret Tait and ‘professional’ filmmaking practices in 1950s Scotland,” in Ian Craven (ed), Movies on Home Ground – Explorations in Amateur Cinema (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2009), pp. 301-326.
Courtesy of Sarah Neely.
This essay takes its title from Margaret Tait’s own writing. It is structured as a kind of a collage—with extracts from a soon to be published academic book of mine, placed alongside fragments of Tait’s writing, and descriptions of some of the more ephemeral objects in the archive, many of which are not always easily explored through traditional academic frameworks.
Margaret Tait, filmmaker and poet, was born in 1918 in Kirkwall, Orkney, on the first floor of the town’s only tenement building, a building which stands across from the St Magnus cathedral. Tait died in 1999, on Mainland Orkney, in Norseman Village, in Cruan, the house she shared with her husband Alex Pirie. It was also the house where she filmed her last film, Garden Pieces, which was completed in 1998.
In her obituary written for Tait, Gerda Stevenson, the actor who played the central character Greta in Tait’s feature film Blue Black Permanent, 1992, refers to Tait as a ‘beachcomber artist’—for her experimental spirit, and way of always searching and looking for what might be found.
Tait’s favourite beach to scour for bits and pieces was at the Brough of Birsay, a tidal island situated off the west mainland of Orkney. When the tide is out you can cross over to the island, or, as Tait did, search for bits of treasure hidden in the rock pools scattered across the causeway.
From these endeavours, Tait created a series of found object collages to which she gave the title ‘these fragments’. Two examples of Tait’s collages (pictured below), feature objects assembled on scraps of thin plywood, each roughly 16 by 12 inches.
No. 1, The Moon in a Sliver of Glass, a tinfoil moon lies between two slips or slivers of clear fragments of sea glass, hovering a few inches above a curve of rusted barbed wire. Further down below, lying on a pound coin-sized dried leaf, Tait’s initials, MCT, are spelled out in tiny bits of wire.
No. 2, Aspiration, dated 1989, features more rusted barbed wire, this time intertwined with blades of dried seagrass, huddled together in a nest-like formation. Hidden inside the nest is a train ticket to Jhansi, dated 1945.
Margaret Tait trained first as a medical doctor and went on to join the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1943, serving in India, Sri Lanka and Malaya until 1946. Although Tait demonstrated an interest in photography very early on, her experiences during WWII intensified this impulse. Tait’s experiences overseas fueled her desire to express herself creatively, and her time there formed the basis for a number of scripts and stories she would later develop. The most conspicuous output was a novel, The Lilywhite Boys, which drew from her experiences being stationed in Jhansi, a city in northern India that served as a recuperation point for returning troops.
From The Postscript to the Lilywhite Boys, 1959, unpublished manuscript
I planted bulbs round the Nissen hut in Derby, put up curtains in the stone room of Jhansi, scrubbed clean the bathroom ledges in Jutogh to the eternal shame of my plainsman bearer, kept a white kitten in Katugastota. With it all there was a pain, nostalgia of myself looking for my own. It was not Margaret I mourned for so much then as Margarets I sought, searching in the pricking light of the high mountains and in the downpour of the tropics and in the fog in England. Leaving anything behind and breaking a continuity was a pain, and taking things with me was an equal pain. Out of the tin trunk when I opened it came the same old things I had put in it. Only me, nothing of mine really. The Jhansi curtains hang here in the Rose Street studio now; but they don’t give me pain. I seem to have come to rest at last, to accept what is for me. People describe a feeling they have, as if of having lost something. I don’t remember ever feeling it to be that. I was seeking, but not for something I had lost. For something that was not there yet. For something I had never had. Something of mine – something that would be mine. And I its, I suppose.
Tait worked from her studio on Rose Street in Edinburgh from the 1950s until the mid 1970s, when she returned to Orkney and lived and worked for the remainder of her life. In addition to her one feature-length film, Tait made over thirty short films, across a great many styles and genres: from hand-painted animated films, to intimate portraits, to what she called her film poems. After Tait’s death, many cans of film were transferred from her studio in Orkney to the Scottish Screen Archive in Glasgow, delivered by her husband Alex Pirie.
Then began the often complicated task of restoring and preserving Tait’s work. Almost all of Tait’s catalogued films were made available through the Archive, with the exception of a few which were missing. During my research, some of these films were found in a garden shed behind Tait and Pirie’s house in Orkney, including Splashing, from 1966, featuring Alex Pirie’s two children and some of the other younger Tait relations. There was also A Pleasant Place, made in 1966, which was scripted by Alex Pirie, and is one of Tait’s few fictional short works. And finally, Palindrome, made in 1964, a filmic palindrome that builds to a centre point before reversing back to where it began.
Other films were uncovered too: short untitled films, even fragments of films, which Tait kept and regularly maintained with an eye to make use of them at some point. Before taking the films to the archive, I made a list of the rough contents.
Boxed from Orkney September 2010
Small green tin – title ‘Doorway’ original (looks like street scene in Italy)
Yellow cine-kodak super-k panchromatic – title ‘First roll ever shot’
Ferrania – 30m/16mm – title ‘My Room – Via Ancona 21’
Silver tin – Kodachrome – title ‘Edinburgh – Original’
Yellow box – Kodachrome – title ‘The Royal Mile’, Edinburgh – ‘original’
Yellow box – Kodachrome – title ‘Princes Street’, Edinburgh – ‘original’
Small tin – calypso from hand painted neg
Med tin – garden pieces
Med orange plastic – tailpiece
Med orange plastic – garden pieces
Med orange plastic – hugh macdiarmid: a portrait
Small orange plastic – the leaden echo and the golden echo
Med tin – a portrait of ga
Large orange plastic – colour poems
Large orange plastic – place of work
During my research, Tait’s husband passed on a great number of Tait’s notebooks and diaries to me, all of which are now held by the Orkney archive, and are currently in the process of being catalogued. The contents range from intimate personal reflections to drafts of essays and developmental notes for her films. Going through them was an enjoyable and sometimes intense process. Some of the contents greatly informed my academic book on Tait and some of the entries I felt compelled to write down for no particular reason at all, other than that they resonated with me along more emotional lines than academic ones.
Jan 4, 1997 projected Place of Work (to self only)
Jan 2, 1977 ‘No callers. Finished and wore grey shirt and ‘vest’. Dramatic day outside. colourful sky. a loch frozen in waves.
April 5, 1941 Thomas came for coffee. In afternoon we had a walk to Mermaid’s Cave. I found a pearl in a mussel but Thomas lost it!
Dec 1948 [Notes after viewing My Darling Clementine (dir. John Ford, 1946)]: wonderful shots of that desert (is it Arizona?) that the country near Jhansi used to remind Trevor of .
Tait was particularly intrigued by the idea that there was some kind of persistence of a spirit that might remain within a particular place. It is something that was a preoccupation of hers from very early in her life. Writing in a notebook in 1983, Tait recalled an uncanny experience reading Malcolm Lowry’s short story ‘Present Estate of Pompeii’,1959, and discovering that they had shared a similar sensation in front of Stazione Termini in Rome:
Margaret Tait diary, white with watercolour flowers on cover, 1983, pp. 10-11
Reading Lowry about the strange sense of alienation produced by travel somehow salves or balms sensations of that kind I had so often – I remember, in Rome, was it in ’47 or was it, in fact, in ’50, stopping in mid-piazza of the Stazione Termini, struck by ‘what am I doing here’ – ‘what do I think I’m doing?’ etc – I think it was ’47 – first visit – and it was who was I to think that I was there with any sort of logic supporting me? What the hell was I doing? (Perhaps, since I’m sure it must have been ’47 – August – the shade of that feeling lingered around until the following year, to be picked up by Lowry himself (the story set in summer ’48). Do we leave bits of ourselves behind? Or if it was ’50 then he left the feeling behind and I picked it up. And the other thing, of a sort of nostalgia even for something you don’t like, if it’s ending.
Tait’s notion that her experience in the piazza may have been deeply connected to the past and to Lowry’s own feelings of alienation in that place, reflects a sense of the kind of reverberation of place that is explored in many of Tait’s films. This is certainly true in relation to her feature film Blue Black Permanent, 1992. In the film, Tait makes a number of references to Lowry. It also is significant that the locations selected were of personal importance for the film—from the cliffs at Yesnaby to the Mermaid’s Cave on the northeast coast of Mainland Orkney.
Tait’s notebook, 1956, p. 86
Reading about Rilke & his sense of the importance of the dead – It’s not so much the dead as dead who are important but the dead as existences which have occurred. That a thing once happened has happened for always. We are the result of people who once lived – a sort of accumulation of the centuries of heredity, evolution, and through records. People who have died young remain complete for us – we see them whole.
A compositional shot list for Blue Black Permanent, courtesy of the Estate of Margaret Tait and Orkney Archive.
From Personae, by Margaret Tait, 1959, unpublished manuscript
People describe a feeling they have, as if of having lost something. I don’t remember ever feeling it to be that. I was seeking, but not for something I had lost. For something that was not there yet. For something I had never had. Something of mine – something that would be mine. And I its, I suppose.
I keep thinking of a poem which comes in lines and constructions. I keep thinking of some sort of thing which will take its form in the formation on page. But it’s probably a film I’m thinking of, really.
Think in a shape; think in a rhythm. It is something other than thinking; only, don’t reject the rhythm, don’t refuse the shape. When it comes, for you, seize it. It doesn’t do to take something else instead and hope to make something of it, believing it will be more yours because you decided to make it. It’s not that. It’s when it comes, take it, it’s not pick and choose. It is, simply, reply, respond and when it is yours. Leave the rest alone: it is there all right, it won’t waste and it is even related to you in a way. But your own rhythm is for you. If you are a poet it is for you to reverberate, drum, relay, send messages with, write life certificates with. And love with, whether you are a poet or not a poet your own is for you to love with. Woman, man, place, light, flower, work.
I would like to write a poem carefully laid in place like the table in candle light with rowan jelly matching some other browns. I would like to lay it out square and simple and set in what is needed, completing it in a roundelay. The eye goes round and round it, receiving. The mind reads. Hear the soft sound of the flame of the candle, watch the exact formation of a word.
I like carelessness too, if there is such a thing. I think I like it. But not carelessness in what needs care, not slipshodness, not triviality, not unseriousness about a poem.
There is a kind of poetry which is essentially incomplete. Any attempt to complete and form it to known ends ruins it. It is not slipshod to revere that incompleteness – that PROMISE. It is the substance of poetry rather than the made thing. It is not really literature: it is the raw magic. It has to go on as it came in, be relayed whole (that is, incomplete) for it is food and will be sustenance of growth.
 Neely, S. (2016). Between Categories – The Films of Margaret Tait: Portraits, Poetry, Sound and Place. Oxford: Peter Lang.
 Stevenson, G. (1999). ‘The Late Margaret Tait, Film-maker – An appreciation’, The Orcadian, 20 May, p. 10.
 While serving in the Royal army medical corps in India, Tait became close with another doctor, Denis Ap Ivor, also known as Trevor, a Welshman who later established a reputation as a modernist composer.
Originally published as Sarah Neely, “The bits of ourselves we leave behind: an essay in fragments,” MAP Magazine, No.37: Footnoting the Archive (2016). Courtesy of Sarah Neely.
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Pirie, A. (2000). ‘Margaret Tait Film Maker 1918-1999: Indications Influence Outcomes’, Poem Film Film Poem, No. 6, 1-12.
Price, R. (2011). ‘Margaret Tait: Film-maker and Poet’, PS, no. 7, pp. 22-28.
Ramaswamy, C. (2006). ‘Tait gallery restored’, Scotland on Sunday, ‘Arts’, 12 November.
Riach, A. (2009). ‘Tait’s MacDiarmid’, poem. In Homecoming: New Poems 2001-2009, p. 164. Edinburgh: Luath Press.
Redding, J. M and Brownworth, V. (1997) ‘Margaret Tait’ in Film Fatales, pp. 109-111. Seattle: Seal Press.
Reyner, J. L. (1970). ‘Margaret Tait’ in Continental Film Review, November, 9.
Reyner, J.L. (1999). ‘Margaret Tait’, obituary, The Guardian, 13 May, p. 22.
Reynolds, L. (2001). ‘Colour Poems’, Poem Film Film Poem, no. 9, pp. 1-2.
Reynolds, L. (2004). ‘Margaret Tait: marks of time’, P. Todd and B. Cook (eds), Subjects and Sequences: a Margaret Tait Reader, pp. 57-69. London: LUX.
Roddick, N. (2015). ‘Tait of Grace’, Sight and Sound, 25 (6), p. 54.
Romer, M. (2006). ‘Poetry in Blue Black Permanent: Three footnotes to Margaret Tait’s film’, Cencrastus, no. 82, pp. 8-13.
Romer, M. (2011). ‘Malcolm Lowry’s Influence on Orcadian Filmmaker Margaret Tait’, Firminists, No. 2, pp. 9-16.
Rosie, G. (2004). ‘A glimpse of rare talent’ The Sunday Times, 22 August, n.p.
Russell, W. (1993). ‘When Second Thoughts Are a Bad Idea’, The Herald, 24 April, p. 24.
Sandhu, S. (2004). ‘Unique Vision of a Film Poet, Daily Telegraph, 23 August, p. 17.
Sandhu, S. (2005). ‘Open Connection’, review of Subjects and Sequences: a Margaret Tait Reader, New Statesman, 7 February, <www.newstatesman.com/200502070046> accessed 24 November 2010.
The Scotsman. (1954). ‘Festival Notes: Film Portrait’, 31 August, p. 6.
The Scotsman. (1957). ‘Film Experiment in Orkney: ‘The Drift Back’’, 15 April, p. 8.
Scottish Sun. (1992). ‘Mags, 73, in Blue movie!’, 4 June, n.p.
Shand, R. (2007). ‘A Review of Subjects and Sequences: A Margaret Tait Reader’, The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists, 7 (1), pp. 107-110.
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Smith, A. (2004). ‘The Margaret Tait years’, P. Todd and B. Cook (eds.), Subjects and Sequences: a Margaret Tait Reader, pp. 7-27. London: LUX.
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Todd, P. and Cook, B. (eds.) (2004). Subjects and Sequences: a Margaret Tait Reader. London: LUX.
Todd, P. (2004a). ‘Bibliography on Margaret Tait’. In Experimental Film: 16+ Study Guide, pp. 9-11. London: BFI.
Todd, P. (2004b). ‘Remote Lives? …Looking Beyond the Canon; The Need For Images That Are Local’, Vertigo, 2 (6), p. 56.
Todd, P. (ed.) (2004c). ‘Remembering Margaret Tait: A Deeper Knowledge Than Wisdom’, Vertigo, 2 (7), pp. 53-55.
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Todd, P. (2015), ‘”Unofficial and individual”, the films of Margaret Tait’, Gallina Significa miel: Poemas escogidos y ensayos sobre cine de Margaret Tait/ Hen Means Honey: Chosen poems and essays about cinema by Margaret Tait, Punto de Vista Collection, Number 9, International Documentary Film Festival of Navarra, pp. 120-7.
Winn, J. (2002). ‘Preserving the Handpainted Films of Margaret Tait’, MA Dissertation, Norwich, 2002 (unpublished), <http://tait.josswinn.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/josswinn_dissertation.pdf,> accessed 20 May 2011.
Wolfe-Murray, A. (1993). ‘Blue Black Permanent’, The Scotsman Weekender, 24th April, n.p.
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Yates, R. (1993). ‘Blue Black Permanent’, review, Sight and Sound, April, p.43.
List of resources first published in Sarah Neely, Between Categories: Margaret Tait: Poetry, Portraits, Sound and Place (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2016).
I rise in a quiet place, tranquil, like my name,
where the lone owl swoops above constellations
of bog cotton and sphagnum moss; water drips
from roots, and I trickle by gravity’s instinct,
meander through abandoned peat banks
to curlew’s call, past orchids and butterwort,
no thought of my own utility;
till I’m commandeered –
diverted to power a mill,
a handy back-up plan
when the wind blows herself out,
and for a while Orkney lies still.
I’m bridged, dammed and fenced –
barbed wire marks men’s borders;
even my name is implicated:
‘liquor’ lurks in its letters
as I’m piped to the distillery.
I learn to flow the man-made way
in straight lines, by Caldale Camp,
its concrete wartime hearths
bereft of walls in desolate ranks,
declaring dereliction to the sky;
But flowers still come to soften my banks,
yellow mimulus and meadow sweet,
and boys gather round me to play
in the ‘deep places’, they say, deft fingers
weaving iris-leaf boats – green vessels gliding slow,
stalking each other to childish cries of ‘Torpedo!’ –
echo of battles a stone’s throw from my estuary,
where I plunge over rocks into the tidal to and fro,
and mingle among history’s wreckage
in salty Scapa Flow.
Commissioned by Alchemy Film & Arts for the the ninth edition of Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival (2019).
‘The Scale of Things’
‘Queen of Fact and Story’
‘Queen on Horseback’
‘The Queen and Her Courtiers’
‘Queen’s King and King’s Queen’
‘The Roving King’s Queen’
‘Sea-Going King’s Queen’
‘The Queen and All the Children’
‘The Princess’s Activities’
‘A Queen in Prison’
‘The King’s Discovery’
‘Loki Beside the Standing Stone’
‘Sound of Children Sobbing’
Courtesy of Orkney Library and Archive. The recordings were digitised by Sarah Neely in 2011 with support from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, AH/I002847/1.
‘Lezione di Recitazione’
‘Reading about Rimbaud’
Courtesy of Orkney Library and Archive. The recordings were digitised by Sarah Neely in 2011 with support from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, AH/I002847/1.
‘Standing Stones of Stenness’
‘You Heard What the Minister Said, Pet’
Courtesy of Orkney Library and Archive. The recordings were digitised by Sarah Neely in 2011 with support from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, AH/I002847/1.
Michael Romer, “Malcolm Lowry’s Influence on Orcadian Filmmaker Margaret Tait,” The Firminist: A Malcolm Lowry Journal, No. 2 (October 2011).
Courtesy of Michael Romer.
Recent accounts of Scottish cultural expression suggest that one of the specific and most distinctive and productive characteristics lies in the ability to express interiority. In a survey of twentieth century Scottish literature, for example, Roderick Watson identifies ‘the penchant for dealing with other realms, mixing metaphysical questions and fantastic inner experience.’ While the beginning of Duncan Petrie’s seminal account of Scottish cinema makes a similar claim through Adrienne Scullion’s contention that:
‘the role of mythology, legend and fable, the Gothic, the supernatural and the unconscious within the development of the Scottish imagination is not a symptom of psychosis but a sophisticated engagement with the fantastic that other cultures might celebrate as magic realism.’
In the light of such positive claims for Scottish cultural expression, this essay will enquire how and where this imaginary capacity to render inner experience is registered in recent Scottish cinema.
Two recent films, which offer the opportunity to pursue such questions, are Blue Black Permanent (1992), written and directed by veteran experimental film-maker Margaret Tait, and Stella Does Tricks (1996) scripted by the Scottish novelist A.L. Kennedy and directed by Polish born Coky Giedroyc. Both films are the creative vision of women, feature female protagonists, and address the respective Orkney and Glasgow childhoods of these protagonists from the present perspective of an adult. The articulation of the recalled past in these films represents an expression through film, of the inner experience of the central characters with a particular engagement with the passage from childhood to adulthood that Phil Powrie has categorised as ‘the rite of passage film.’ John Caughie has argued that – Scottish films about childhood such as Venus Peter are often marked by a backward look and tend to express a preoccupation with the feeling of loss that inhibits representations of Scotland. The reproduction of longing, loss and elegiac nostalgia that marks such films is staged within a topos of home, family and community, and is often guaranteed by the figure of the mother. The female protagonists and imaginary dimensions that characterise Blue Black Permanent and Stella Does Tricks however, can be examined as a potential challenge to this formation. The summoning of the past through the flashbacks of female protagonists foregrounds the enunciation of gendered subjectivities. These are demonstrative of the capacity to articulate inner experience through film where the linguistic terms associated with the medium are not singularly contained – as they are in the form of a book.
Blue Black Permanent and Stella Does Tricks are not set in a restored and reconstructed past, but the protagonists in each return to a remembered past through the use of the flashback which Maureen Turim defines as:
‘a privileged moment in unfolding that juxtaposes different moments of temporal reference. A juncture is wrought between present and past and two concepts are implied in this juncture: memory and history.’
For the women in these films – Barbara and Stella, the desire to return to the past is motivated by a need to work through, as daughters and adults, their personal histories via remembered relationships with mothers or fathers. Barbara in Blue Black Permanent endeavours to find out why family history appears to repeat itself as her mother and grand mother apparently took their own lives by drowning, while Stella in Stella Does Tricks recalls the past as a means of both coping with both her present predicament as a prostitute in London and her abuse as a child by her father. In both films the production of the subject, and the authorship and enunciation of women’s subjectivity is significant. The lengthy flashbacks of Blue Black Permanent depict Barbara’s mother, – Greta, an aspiring poet, cultivating a meditative connection with water and the Orkney landscape. These flashbacks are replete with images that reflexively invite the spectator to investigate the problem of rendering a poet’s consciousness of place and environment through image and sound rather than words. This concern with the thresholds of language and medium was an enduring interest of Margaret Tait, for whom, as Penny Thomson observes, there was ‘only a mechanical difference between paintbrush, typewriter and sixteen millimetre camera.’
As Tait’s first and only feature length film, Blue Black Permanent represents a literalisation of her ongoing concern with the relation between word and image, and between poetry and film – not least because the cast of characters in the film include a poet, a painter and a photographer. Greta describes herself as needing her domestic life as a mother as well as her creative life as a poet. However, the flashbacks to Greta’s past emanate from the present of her grown up daughter Barbara and as the narrative develops these become more than the sum of a daughter’s memories in serving to reconstruct the life of a mother before she took her own life by walking into the sea. Greta becomes a subject within a restored as well as a remembered past. This is illustrated by Greta’s reaction to being outside in a heavy rainstorm is a state of reverie that she endeavours to convert into written words. She describes her situation to her painter friend Andrew as being “torn between languages”. Moreover Tait’s tendency to cut away from the speaker to the artefacts and materials of expression such as the trace of watered down paint splashed on to a wall above a sink, the paintings mounted on a wall, or the books and objects that line a shelf, further underlines her concern with expressive form and its materiality. None of Greta’s poetry is quoted, rather it is the sources of poetic expression that the film endeavours to make visible. She describes her dreams as being “like the sea” and sleep being “like the sea” and consequently this functions as a recurring image as Tait strives to give visible expression to the connection between inner consciousness and outward expression – a process Greta articulates as wrestling with available language as she struggles to make words out of sensory experience and subconscious images.
Greta’s need for domestic life to anchor her is demonstrated when she returns to see her father in Orkney and revisits the location of her childhood. This journey home also represents a return to the place where her own mother, Barbara’s grandmother, was also swept into the sea and drowned – a tragic scenario that Greta is fated to repeat. Greta isn’t necessarily killed by domesticity but what apparently ends her life is a consequence of her subjective desire to reconcile her creative life and her domestic life. The extended sequence of shots of the Orkney coastline and sea that ends Blue Black Permanent suggests that what remains is the relative permanence of creative endeavour. Greta leaves behind the poetry that was formed out of her response to her natural surroundings. The cost of expressing inner experience is the unconscious reproduction of the death drive that saw Greta’s mother take her own life too. The balance that she desired between expressing herself through writing and her domestic life ultimately eludes her.
Barbara’s investigation of her mother’s past meets the present when she consciously makes a statement that arrests the impending repetition of history. After a dream of her own she declares: “I know now, I know what it is, it’s not just finding an identity, not that, forget I’m my mother’s daughter, I’m me, me”. Through the act of remembering Barbara doesn’t resolve the narrative question of why her mother took her life but she does assert the necessity of relinquishing the past rather than mourning its loss, in order to realize her own identity in the present.
Stella Does Tricks concerns the experience of a young London prostitute whose past is located in Glasgow where she was raised by her father Francis and aunt Aileen. Stella’s father, a stand up comedian, had promised her that he would become famous and they would go to London together. What happens instead is that this dream is unfulfilled. Moreover it is revealed that Francis sexually abused Stella as a child, something she clearly holds as responsible for her present predicament. At the same time her relationship with Francis is depicted as complex and ambivalent, in addition to being abusive, he is also loving and nurtures Stella’s own capacity for fantasy. Stella’s memories have more than one function, her inner life involving a combination of remembering, fantasy and dream. She uses her past to suggest a possible means of escaping her present – her pimp describes this as “going away in her head” during her encounters with clients. But Stella also modifies the past through her imagination, she fuses past and present when she imagines introducing her clients to her Dad and the moralistic and frigid Aileen. She also imagines a harrowing scene in which her Dad, in his role as a comedian, addresses a Catholic congregation through making jokes about his daughter’s rape. In Stella Does Tricks the past is summoned and imagined as a means to hold it to account and suggest a more positive future. It is both a refuge from the reality of the present and a cause of her present situation. Stella’s desire to hold her past and its consequences to account becomes a quest when she returns to its source in Glasgow. Indeed, the most positive moments of the film show Stella leaving her pimp and returning to Glasgow to enact her revenge on Francis and Aileen before returning to London with the desire to change her life. Douglas Gifford describes the typical protagonist of A.L. Kennedy’s writing as ‘a traumatised mind using displacement and fantastic imagination to simultaneously avoid and redeem the damage from which it hides.’ The difference in Stella Does Tricks is that Kennedy’s ability as a writer to combine the imagining of psychological thresholds is balanced by the director’s commitment to making explicit reference to the reality of women’s experience. Stella’s subjectivity does as Charlotte Brunsdon suggests represent a departure from ‘the tradition of naturalist representation of the prostitute as victim.’ However, ultimately Stella is unable to hide, she is unable to get away. Even after she has avenged her past abuse, she continues to find herself in a cycle of circumstances that lead to further abuse by men as her partner uses her to feed his drug habit.
Having endeavoured to show Stella’s inner experience of the past and her attempt to overcome her past the film reaches the expressive limits of her subjectivity in the ambiguous final scene. Stella is shown addressing an unseen audience from a stage, recounting in the manner of stand up her own experiences at the hands of men. She ends her confessional/performance with a meta-commentary on the artifice that separates reality from fictional storytelling: “I’m lying it’s a story, but that’s why I’m here, to tell you stories. So picture this scene”. This is followed by a cut to a blank screen that carries a caption that highlights the truth claim of the documentary research that motivated the making of the fictional film: “with thanks to the girls we met in Glasgow, Manchester and London whose lives inspired the making of this film”. The accompanying first person words of the closing song “all of this is mine” by Polly Harvey serve to locate Stella as a representative of real women like the protagonist portrayed in the film. But Stella’s subjective imagining of her past is effectively used up by the film and having reached this point there is no future that can be imagined for Stella – unlike Barbara in Blue Black Permanent who manages to arrest the recurrence of the past and release herself from it. Stella has nowhere to go other than to a premature death by suicide as she imagines being encouraged to take an overdose of pills by her father and aunt. The scene serves as a précis of the film and underlines the material artifice between dreams, stories and reality.
The assessment of Blue Black Permanent and Stella Does Tricks as films which serve as examples of the Scottish imagination described by Watson and Scullion inevitably raises the question of the expressive possibilities and limitations of film as a language. The unconscious processes that occupy the protagonists of these two films result in a gendered mode of subjective expression that foregrounds the materiality of film and the transition between the language of words and the film image. The use of the image in these films remains primarily veridical but is used to articulate the unconscious and metaphysical imaginings of the protagonists. The act of summoning the past in both films is expressive and affirmative rather than mournful and nostalgic, which brings with it an accompanying death drive with divergent consequences for the differently located protagonists. The psychological and metaphysical thresholds between parent and sibling, life and death, fantasy and reality are given a filmic materiality by the self-reflexive strategies of each film. While, the locations of Orkney and the cities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and London are key to these imaginings, both films ultimately suggest that thresholds are psychologically manifest as a state of mind rather than a physical or topographical feature – as Powrie suggests of the rite of passage film. Stella’s rite of passage cannot be assumed to proceed from childhood to adulthood but rather from a deprived childhood into a life of recurring struggles for self-determination. While Barbara’s passage contains a similar need to rebut what might be passed on to her as an adult. In each case the passage is a transitory state where the threshold between the continuity of life and the finality of death through suicide is negotiated by the protagonists. The imagining of these movements occurs as a consequence of Scottish settings and viewed together Blue Black Permanent and Stella Does Tricks can be positioned as potential departures from the tradition of realism that defines so much of British Cinema and critical approaches to its objects. They also challenge the overtly masculine focus of many Scottish films.
Ian Goode, “Scottish cinema and Scottish imaginings: Blue Black Permanent and Stella Does Tricks” (2005)
Originally published in Screen, 46, 2 (2005), pp. 235-9.
 Roderick Watson, “Maps of Desire: Scottish Literature in the Twentieth Century” in T.M. Devine & R.J. Finlay eds., Scotland in the twentieth century (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996), pp.285-305; p.285.
 Adrienne Scullion “Feminine Pleasures and Masculine Indignities: Gender and Community in Scottish Drama: in Christopher Whyte ed., Gendering the Nation: Studies in Modern Scottish Literature (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1995) quoted in Duncan Petrie, Screening Scotland, (London, BFI, 2000), p.8.
 Phil Powrie, “On the threshold between past and present. Alternative heritage” in Andrew Higson and Justine Ashby eds., British Cinema, Past and Present (London: Routledge, 2000), pp.316-326, p.316.
 John Caughie, “Representing Scotland: New Questions for Scottish Cinema” in Eddie Dick ed., From Limelight to Satellite: A Scottish Film Book (London: Scottish Film Council, British Film Institute, 1990), pp.13-30, p.25.
 Maureen Turim, Flashbacks in Film. Memory and History (London: Routledge, 1989), p.1.
 Penny Thomson quoted in Jan Moir, “Public Lives: First person highly singular,” The Guardian, 31 March 1993, pp.8.
 Douglas Gifford, “Contemporary Fiction II: Seven Writers in Scotland: in Douglas Gifford & Dorothy McMillan eds., A History of Scottish Women’s Writing (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997), pp. 604-629, p. 620.
 Duncan Petrie, Contemporary Scottish Fictions. Film, Television and the Novel (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), pp. 71.
 Charlotte Brunsdon, “Not Having It All: Women and Film in the 1990s,” in Robert Murphy ed., British Cinema of the 1990s (London: BFI, 2000), pp. 167-177, p.172.
 Powrie op. cit. p.320, p.322.
Sarah Neely & Alan Riach, “Demons in the Machine: cinema and modernism in twentieth-century Scotland” in Jonathan Murray, Fidelma Farley and Rod Stoneman (eds.), New Scottish Cinema (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2009), pp. 1-19.
Courtesy of the authors.
Mike Leggett, review of Margaret Tait at the London Film-Makers Co-op, Time Out (18 April 1980).
Courtesy of Mike Leggett.
Edinburgh International Film Festival 2004, Margaret Tait retrospective programme brochure.
Courtesy of Peter Todd.
I first encountered the world of Margaret Tait when, in 1949 as Captain of Holy Cross Academy Rugby Team, I found myself playing against Preston Lodge School in East Lothian. Among the Preston Lodge players was Alex Pirie [Tait’s husband], then a schoolboy. When we finally met a number of years later, he recalled that we first met as opponents in a rugby match. I regard Alex Pirie as a unique expert on the life and work of Margaret Tait, an artist living and working in Scotland’s art world, ill-prepared to fully appreciate the wide-ranging and complex nature of the way she expressed herself in poetry and storytelling, in drawing and painting, and perhaps most importantly in film.
While I intend to continue discussing the life and work of Margaret Tait, from hereon in I shall do so with reference to the hand-painted and hand-drawn films she produced throughout her career as a filmmaker. (For a more general discussion of her work until the late 1970s, see Leggett, 1979.) These films are:
Piano notes, forthright, and chords, both bold and curious,
then song, a voice, a Scots voice, opening the air.
And in the air also, there is The Voice of the bbc
on radio waves, the information, official and approved –
(the books of poems, information, unofficial, the wedge) –
a radio, newspapers, poems and songs: What might you do, unorthodox,
against time and within it, measured and spontaneous, delicate and strong? Continue reading “Alan Riach: ‘Tait’s MacDiarmid’”
Mike Leggett, “The Autonomous Film-maker: Margaret Tait: Films and Poems – a correspondence between Mike Leggett and Margaret Tait,” unpublished, via the Legart Archive, 1977. Edited by Richard Kwietniowksi, 1984.
Courtesy of Mike Leggett.
Little has been written about the Orcadian film maker and poet Margaret Tait. In August 2004 a major retrospective of her films was held at the Edinburgh International Film Festival followed in November by a touring programme of her work and accompanying book from LUX. She produced over 30 mainly self-made and financed films and also published three books of poetry and two of short stories.
Until recently one of the UK’s most shamefully neglected but wildly talented artist film-makers, the fiercely independent Margaret Tait worked entirely at the edges of both the industry mainstream and the geographical mainland, living between Edinburgh and the Scottish Orkney islands. The maker, over five decades, of over thirty shorts and one feature (the inspirational Blue Black Permanent), as well as three volumes of poetry and two of short stories, she made almost all her work without any formal funding, driven, like many of her peer group in the United States, towards a recording of the heightened, phenomenal world through close observation of her immediate environment and daily life. Through her own company Ancona Films, set up after she returned from formal study in Rome at the height of the Neo-Realist movement, she set about making what she called ‘film poems’, often quoting the Spanish poet Lorca’s claim to be ‘stalking the image’ to define both her intention and method.
I discovered Margaret Tait in the dark: not in a bookstore, but in a cinema. At the Cinematheque in Toronto, air-conditioned in the dog days of summer, there were Orcadian visions of turf, sharing its tough fragility with and through 8mm film kept carefully in cans in a doctor’s disorderly study. It was only in 2004 that her short films, made between 1951 and 1998, were re-released into circulation, on an international touring programme curated by London’s LUX, who also released selected shorts on DVD. Prior to that, the films had lived in Tait’s house, painstakingly edited over decades into short films – yet they had also travelled, in the filmmaker’s lifetime, on a circuit that stretched from New York and Moscow. While the Orkneys are considered remote, historically they were part of a sub-Arctic shared culture trade route, something that Tait recalls in her resolute centring of herself on the main island.
Margaret Tait named her film, as Michael Romer attests, after the bottle of Quink ink that sat on her desk, and that is visible in the film on the desk of the poet Greta. In tribute, I wrote the first draft of this talk in blue-black permanent ink, paying homage to Margaret Tait’s way with words and film, her concern with how artists and humans – particularly those who are women – make their mark, and with what lasts and what passes, and how it passes through her and on to us.
I used to lie in wait to see the clover open
But never saw it.
I was too impatient,
Or the movement is too subtle,
And more than momentary.
Margaret Tait, ‘Now’, origins and elements (Edinburgh: Margaret Tait, 1959), pp. 22-24.
She attended boarding school in Edinburgh, from age 8 to 16, followed by medical studies at the University. During the Second World War, she served at home and abroad in the Far East with the Royal Army Medical Corps. Post-war visits to France and Italy culminated in full-time study at the Centro Sperimentale film school in Rome. In the late 1940s, she worked in hospitals and undertook locum work at various places around the UK. Based mainly in Edinburgh from the early 1950’s, she moved to East Sutherland in the mid 1960s. A few years later she settled back on Orkney. Her first film was made in 1951, and her last completed in 1998. Her one feature film, Blue Black Permanent, was made in 1992. She also published three books of poetry and two of short stories (one for children) in the space of two years between 1959 and 1960.
Margaret Tait. Sweet old Scottish lady who made quaint little films all her life which are interesting to look at now because – look! that’s Princes St, Edinburgh! in the 1950s!, and that’s Rose St! it hasn’t changed! and isn’t it good to have archive film of a rural life that’s disappearing, that’s almost totally disappeared now, in her films about Orkney, and it’s so nice that she made little books of her poetry and stories and published them herself, she was such a creative soul, how sweet and interesting.