Robin Robert­son

Friday - - AUTHORSPEAK -

The Long Take

Af­ter nine books, in­clud­ing five po­etry col­lec­tions and a Se­lected Po­ems, I felt I’d reached a cross­roads. Hav­ing en­joyed writ­ing an ex­tended his­tor­i­cal se­quence, and in­vented Scots folk nar­ra­tives, I de­cided on a big­ger can­vas: one that would al­low me to ad­dress sub­jects that seemed be­yond the dense cat’s cra­dle of the lyric poem. I’ve lived in Lon­don most of my life, but I’ve al­most never writ­ten about cities. I was in­ter­ested in re­call­ing my own am­biva­lence when I first came down from my small world in north-east Scot­land to be­come an­other out­sider in the me­trop­o­lis. The con­tra­dic­tions were im­me­di­ately ev­i­dent: the city as es­cape – ex­cite­ment, anonymity, end­less pos­si­bil­i­ties. And the city as trauma: sen­sory over­load, poverty, squalor and crime.

I spent many hours watch­ing film noir. In late-70s Lon­don, the un­usual at­mos­phere of those movies made per­fect sense: here was my dis­ori­en­ta­tion and de­sire, my dread. Even though I came from the same land­mass, and had the same lan­guage, I was now an alien. These movies were made by ex­treme out­siders: emi­gre di­rec­tors and cin­e­matog­ra­phers who fled Nazi Ger­many for Hol­ly­wood. Theirs was a style, a way of see­ing, that had clear so­ciopo­lit­i­cal ori­gins and could be char­ac­terised – as one char­ac­ter re­marks in my book – as ‘Ger­man Ex­pres­sion­ism meets the Amer­i­can Dream’. I had to piece to­gether the ge­og­ra­phy of the lost heart of LA from pho­tos and hun­dreds of movies.

Once I knew I was writ­ing about cities, I knew they had to be the cities of Amer­ica, and the book should be set in the decade af­ter the Sec­ond World War. The dream had fal­tered dur­ing the De­pres­sion, and again through the forced en­try into the con­flict af­ter Pearl Har­bor. The US was trau­ma­tised and ex­posed, para­noid about com­mu­nism and the nu­clear threat, and rid­dled with cor­rup­tion, or­gan­ised crime and so­cial and racial di­vi­sion. Its sym­pa­thy for the ‘hud­dled masses’ who had built the coun­try was now be­ing over­taken by its fear and dis­trust of ‘the out­sider’. Amer­ica was 170 years old at the end of that war, and it was al­ready fail­ing. Here be­gins – as I see it – a nar­ra­tive line that goes, in 60 years, from the McCarthy witch-hunts to the cold war and Korea, Viet­nam, Iraq, Afghanistan and the cur­rent regime.

Into this post­war decade I dropped Walker, a for­mer sol­dier from Nova Sco­tia, rav­aged by PTSD and scarred by what he’s seen and done in the war. He’s look­ing for ev­ery­thing he’s lost – de­cency, love, a com­mu­nity – but Walker finds only brit­tle il­lu­sions, tran­sience and iso­la­tion. It’s when he gets to the streets of Los An­ge­les – a city in con­stant flux, be­ing end­lessly de­mol­ished and re­built (‘like a speeded-up war’) – that he finds a kind of home: a way back into him­self.

The Long Take took four years to re­search and write. I read ex­ten­sively: his­to­ries of Amer­ica, ac­counts of the Nor­mandy land­ings (and, in par­tic­u­lar, the ex­pe­ri­ences of the North Nova Sco­tia High­landers), but I mostly watched films – about 500 from the mid 40s to the late 50s – for style and tone, for lan­guage, but also for geo­graph­i­cal de­tail. I have to ex­pe­ri­ence land­scape to write about it, and I could walk through In­ver­ness County in Cape Breton, or down the old streets of Man­hat­tan and San Fran­cisco, but the area of LA that I con­cen­trate on in the book, Bunker Hill, no longer ex­ists.

This once-gen­teel res­i­den­tial dis­trict high above down­town was tar­geted by cor­rupt prop­erty de­vel­op­ers and, in the late 50s, its 130 acres of com­mu­nity hous­ing was de­mol­ished and the hill lev­elled by 100 feet. Apart from be­ing home to more than 8,000 peo­ple, Bunker Hill had been used since Char­lie Chap­lin’s day as a free open-air film set, be­cause the Queen Anne houses were shabby and in­ter­est­ing, and the el­e­va­tion of the hill – with its views and its stairs and tun­nels – made for dra­matic lo­ca­tion shots. The an­gles looked even bet­ter at night, so it be­came film noir’s out­door shoot­ing stage.

There are al­most no con­tem­po­rary maps of the area, so I had to piece to­gether the ge­og­ra­phy from still pho­to­graphs and all these hun­dreds of movies. Like my pro­tag­o­nist I was look­ing for a way to fix this world, so I watched the films and drew it. I made my­self a map.

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