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.