I prefer simple stories that begin with small events

I was in Galway. No matter what I did, I couldn’t avoid inhabiting one story or another

‘My favourite film of the week was Voice of the Voiceless, a black-and-white masterpiece about a deaf girl dancing on the New York subway as she looked for money from commuters’

‘My favourite film of the week was Voice of the Voiceless, a black-and-white masterpiece about a deaf girl dancing on the New York subway as she looked for money from commuters’

Tue, Jul 22, 2014, 01:00

I bought a coffee in a cafe. That was the beginning of a story. It could have gone anywhere. Then I drank the coffee while talking to a waitress, who told me her father had just died. She was from Poland. I mentioned Chopin. She smiled and said, “I love Chopin”.

I was in Galway. No matter what I did, I couldn’t avoid inhabiting one story or another.

I met an African-American jazz musician called Bertha Hope. We were sitting outside the Rowing Club by the water’s edge, and within five minutes she was telling me a story about her childhood.

“An insurance man came to the door,” she said, “and when he couldn’t get money from my grandmother he began insulting her. So my father came along the porch and said, ‘You can’t talk to the woman like that. You can’t call her names.’ And the insurance man just said, ‘I’ll be back’, like he’d be back with other people and maybe a few baseball bats.” So that’s another story.

Bertha’s father joined the American army when he was a teenager, in 1895, and ended up in Cuba during that country’s war of independence. He had a musical voice and he could sing jazz, and, after the army, he got lessons in German Lieder and became famous under the name of Clinton Rosemond. Which is where the great Bertha Hope got her music. Or as they say, that’s her story.

 

Soothing liberals

I told her I loved the music of Paul Robeson when I was a child, and that led us to a discussion about films. She said that in the old days, movies often contained a segment with an African-American singer that had no relevance to the rest of the plot. The segments soothed the liberals of the north, and the same segment could be cut out before the movie was sent south to the old Confederate states.

So there was no end to the stories I found last week at the Galway Film Fleadh, on and off screen. I went to five films a day, until I was blue in the face listening to stories. My favourite film of the week was Voice of the Voiceless, a black-and-white masterpiece about a deaf girl dancing on the New York subway as she looked for money from commuters. The movie went on to explain how she came from Central America, and was enslaved to a brutish gang that forced her to work for them. They beat her up when she tried to rebel.

And in a film called Watermark, I saw a woman barefoot in Bangladesh slopping out chemicals in a leather tannery where skins were being cured for making shoes that would eventually sell in European shopping malls.

I laughed when I watched a comedy about a 100-year-old man who escaped from a nursing home, and I cried when I watched Metalhead, about an Icelandic girl who took to heavy metal music as a way of grieving for her dead brother.

I treated myself to four nights in a beautiful room at the Meyrick Hotel. Every evening I ate in the Turkish Kebab House, which wasn’t expensive but the kebabs were delicious. Every morning I soaked in the bath with the window open, listening to the seagulls. Then I lay on the bed for a while, like a cooked lobster. From my window I could see two furry seagull chicks the size of Monaghan hens on the roof beside the hotel. They were tucked in behind a chimney to shelter from the soft Atlantic mist.

 

Long nights watching films

In the hills above Lough Allen, when the winter mist envelops me for weeks, I often pass long nights watching films, one after another. But you can’t beat the magic of watching with other people, and the buzz of Galway’s exotic restaurants, and seeing everything on big screens with a bucket of popcorn in your lap, like being a child again. Of course, I also saw a few big, punchy films that did all the work for the audience; muscular, masculine movies that battered me into a state of exhaustion with heavy soundtracks and frenetic editing, so that in the end I was so tired I didn’t know if I had enjoyed myself or just been assaulted.

Personally I prefer simple stories that begin with small events, such as curtains moving in the wind, baby seagulls waddling around a windy roof, or a Polish waitress listening to Chopin on my iPhone. Now there’s another untold story.

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