Writing: Born into Armistice: Margaret Tait’s Pacific Cinema

This talk was originally given on Armistice Day 2018, the 100th anniversary of Margaret Tait’s birth, to introduce a screening of the restoration of Blue Black Permanent at the British Film Institute, London, and subsequently published in the booklet for the film’s BFI DVD/Bluray release, and temporarily on the Margaret Tait 100 website.


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.1Endnote: Michael Romer, ‘Poetry in Blue Black Permanent.’ Cencrastus 82 (2006), 8. 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.

In her poem ‘Cave Drawing of the Water of the Earth and the Sea,’ published in 1959, Tait ends with an image of the water cycle that is echoed in the wave motions and writing women of her first and only feature film Blue Black Permanent, made 33 years later: The tide that comes pounding round Orkney:

To fill up the North Sea

Is obeying the law of gravity

— Is that so, now?

The ocean that shatters the rocks

Is having its surface fluffed off into clouds

Which will be ocean again some day […]

Water was made for one purpose only, –

So that I could come to being and write down these words here now.

Do you believe that?

I don’t,

But it could be argued.2Margaret Tait, Poems, Stories and Writings, ed. Sarah Neely (Manchester: Fyfield Books/Carcanet, 2012), 54

With her typical inquisitive modesty, Tait places herself in the centre of the water cycle, only so she can continue it, handing on the questions and ideas she has brought to the surface – about what it means to make art, to be a mother and daughter, to be in the world – to us, where they still resonate one hundred years since she was born.

Born in Kirkwall, Orkney to a merchant family, Margaret Tait – I want to argue – worked through her filmmaking and poetry to embody the values and significance of the Armistice Day on which she was born. Keeping the peace was, I think, the work of her life: not through the more public forms we think of such as demonstrations, petitions and protests, but through her close attention to the material of the world and its vulnerability – although she did document local protests against uranium drilling in Orkney in her 1981 short Aspects of Kirkwall: Some Changes.3Endnote: Sarah Neely, Between Categories: The Films of Margaret Tait – Portraits, Poetry, Sound and Place. Studies in the History and Culture of Scotland Vol. 7 (Oxford & Bern: Peter Lang, 2017), 265–67. Witty, wild, precise, artisanal and non-violent, her films and writing are the literal antidote to the military-entertainment complex of mainstream cinema.

A white woman with white hair and glasses, seated in a director's chair embroidered with the name Margaret Tait, looks over her left shoulder. There is a shoreline, a lively sea with breaking surf and clear horizon behind her, and a cameraperson wearing green waders and a striped sweater is looking out to sea on the beach. A person wearing a red jacket stands next to the cameraperson, also looking out to sea.
Margaret Tait filming Blue Black Permanent

So, rather than asking ‘Why have I heard so little about her, or seen so little of her work?’ perhaps we can rather appreciate, immensely, that her work exists at all in such a climate. Mostly self-funded despite her protracted attempts to foster support for artists’ and independent filmmaking in Scotland, her forty-year body of short films has been receiving the care and attention it deserves from curator and filmmaker Peter Todd, and archival researcher and scholar Sarah Neely. I’m deeply indebted to her book Between Categories: The Films of Margaret Tait – Portraits, Poetry, Sound and Place for these remarks today, and recommend it highly. It’s their work that has led to the restoration you’re able to see today.

Blue Black Permanent covers three generations of women in a single Orcadian family: Barbara, played by Celia Imrie, who is a contemporary photographer, remembers Greta, her mother and a poet, who died when she was a child, and she recalls Greta’s memories of her own mother, who died similarly. Neely suggests that Greta’s character was based on the Orcadian writer Ann Scott-Moncrieff, who died by drowning in 1943; Neely adds that Tait originally considered casting Tilda Swinton for her resemblance to the writer! Others have suggested echoes of Tait’s close friend the poet Stella Cartwright, who appeared in her fiction film ‘Palindrome’ and who died young in 1985; Tait’s sister-in-law Allison Leonard Tait, herself a poet and newspaper editor, also died very young, in childbirth. Greta combines elements of these three powerful and much-missed poetic presences in Tait’s life, a lost community of women poets refigured on screen in the vivid figure of Greta.

A white woman in a light summer dress crouches on a stony beach, looking out at the waves, with a cliff rising behind her.
Blue Black Permanent, Margaret Tait

The film’s work of mourning and revivification is not just for these beloved women, but through them for one of the central subjects of Tait’s work: the living world. When Greta runs out into the rainstorm to write a poem, she passes a newspaper board with a headline about bomb tests in the Pacific; in a subsequent scene, she and her artist friends listen to the radio news report about these tests. Almost forgotten now, between 1946 and 1962, the United States conducted 105 atmospheric and underwater tests in the Pacific, with an estimated total yield of 210 megatons, spreading deadly fallout over 3 billion square miles including inhabited islands such as the Marshall Islands, as reported by Agence France-Presse. Tait would have also been conscious that many in the Highlands and Islands were concerned about the fallout from the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. In the mid-90s, there was a sharp rise in cancer clusters on Orkney.

Greta is thus part of the generation, like Tait, who came of age under a nuclear shadow; having been born in the penumbra of the ‘war to end all wars,’ her twenties would have been marked by WWII. Greta’s wartime life is only briefly mentioned in the film: it’s when she met and married her husband. But the ‘fallout’ is felt in the news of atomic testing and its renewed threat of a global conflagration. The war’s fallout certainly covered Tait’s life: it casts a fascinating light on Blue Black Permanent as an intimate ‘women’s picture’ to know that Tait simultaneously pitched another script to the BFI, a spy thriller called Scars of Battle, set in Sri Lanka where she had served as a medic during the latter years of the war (Neely, 286–87). Having served in India and Malaya as well, Tait wrote a novel about an Indian transit camp for British soldiers returning from Burma, called The Lilywhite Boys (an unpublished manuscript resides in the Margaret Tait collection in the Orkney Archive), which was turned down on the basis of a glut of material about the war; as, she told Lindsay Anderson a few years later, were her draft feature film scripts (Neely 8, 14).

How frustrating to know that British cinema might have had a female David Lean, or anti David Lean, from the 1950s, making films that – given what we know of Tait’s filmmaking and of the fragments that remain – might have paid attention to traumatised lives and to healing processes. We need to see her films through what documentary scholar Alisa Lebow describes as ‘unwar films,’ which look:

away from the main event, as it were, to that which is happening just outside the field of frenetic action… [to] do the destabilizing work of unthreading the very fabric of the militarist paradigm… [by] engag[ing] various techniques and approaches to make the imperceptible perceptible.4Alisa Lebow, ‘The unwar film,’ A Companion to Contemporary Documentary Film, ed. Alexandra Juhasz and Alisa Lebow, (West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell, 2015), 460–61

Tait writes in her poem ‘Now’ that she turned to the camera precisely for its ability to make the imperceptible perceptible, and particularly to make visible everything from the vast scale of geological time to the microscopic scale of botanical time. Tait’s attention to the materiality of life, perhaps steeped in her medical training at Edinburgh University before the war, can be seen as a profound attempt to hold the world together, as Barbara in Blue Black Permanent attempts to piece her mother’s and grandmother’s lives together through her memory, and through her camera.

What the film is really about [said Tait] is persistence of the spirit – spirit of a place, spirit of a culture, and chiefly, the spirit of the creative person at the centre of the story. So that, although the story which is told in flashback is a tragic story, nevertheless the permanent thing that remains is optimistic (quoted in Neely, 273).

It is both tragic and optimistic to note that, in 1992, Tait became the first Scottish woman to make a feature-length fiction film, to be followed more recently by independent filmmakers Lynne Ramsay, Alison Peebles, May Miles Thomas, Corinna McFarlane, Hope Dickson Leach, Rachel Maclean and Margaret Salmon – it’s not a long list, nearly thirty years on. Rachel Maclean won the LUX Scotland (in partnership with Glasgow Film) Margaret Tait Award in 2013, and Margaret Salmon was shortlisted for it in 2017; while the award is open to Scottish artists of all genders working with the moving image, it has done particularly important work in showcasing and fostering radical work by artists of marginalised genders. Although it does indicate persistence, it is evidence, as if evidence were needed, that Tait’s film’s vision of a feminist genealogy of creative unwar work remains necessary to redefining film culture.

At the centre of the film is a memory that Greta recounted to Barbara about an experience she had as a very young girl, a memory that stretches back to her time with her grandparents. In addition to this four-generational time, which links the Edinburgh-living Barbara back to her family on Orkney, there are two manifestations of living time: the waves that come into the cave where Greta is stranded, with their rapid and repeated movement; and the rocky shore itself, images to which the end of the film returns. The pebbles stay still and hold billions of years, the water moves fast in and out – in the film’s terms, we could call them the times of bedrock and pibroch: the haunting traditional Scottish song form, built of circling repetitions, that appears on the soundtrack with lyrics by Tait and music by Hector McAndrew, composer of the pibroch also heard in her film ‘Where I Am Is Here.’

But the ocean – blue-black permanent, and a deathly place for Barbara’s family – is also a subtle connection back to those bombs falling on the Pacific, whose fallout might circulate as far as Orkney via currents as Tait writes in her poem ‘Cave Drawing of the Water’: Some particle someone gets

Has been in the subterranean passage from the sea into Loch Ness,

If there is one.

As she adds in a closely-related poem in the same chapbook, ‘Hooray, Hooray, Hoo Ray Ray Ray,’

‘The effluvium from the atomic power station will be discharged into the sea.’

Ever since time began, men have thrown their rubbish into the sea,

Thinking in that way they got rid of it

It’s not easy to get rid of your empty tin cans and your waste radiation.

There’s something deadly about ragged sardine tins under all the house windows

And about clots of radiation in the sea.

Water circulates and encircles, which makes it so dangerous, not least because it is the ocean – the currents of the North Atlantic – that made Orkney a centre for trade from Neolithic times, as Tait marks in her poem ‘Standing Stones of Stenness.’ Kirkwall’s Viking sandstone cathedral must have been a daily reminder for Tait that this, too, was one of the great centres of the earth, however much Anderson and others advised her to move to London.

Rather than go to London, Tait worked to cultivate local film cultures in Scotland that were artisanal, horizontal, and popular: centres in and to themselves. So it makes sense that Tait would crown her career with Blue Black Permanent, which was shot in Edinburgh and in Orkney, where Greta travels to see her father. Although the island is never named, it’s identified by a flower that grows nowhere else in the world, as Greta remarks. Gerda Stevenson, the poet and performer cast as Greta, remarked in an obituary of Tait for The Orcadian, that:

The Primula Scotica grows in only a few northern coastal areas of Scotland. You have to go a long way to find it, and even then, it might elude you. This tiny wild flower, a symbol used by Margaret Tait in her film Blue Black Permanent, encapsulates the essence of the filmmaker herself, an intensely private person with a unique vision, firmly rooted in her native Orkney (quoted Neely, 292).

A self-fertilising plant requiring the balanced growing conditions of well-grazed grasslands, the Scottish primrose is scarce today, affected by changes to traditional farming, and house building. Its combination of delicacy and hardiness are also emblematic of Tait’s filmmaking, as is the way it holds grassland together. Small, in need of careful notice of recovery, it symbolises the world that Tait brought onto the screen through her attentive camera and writing, whose necessity continues to reverberate today. Here’s hoping that this wonderful restoration gives Tait’s blue-black sea, her mood of melancholy wonder, the permanence of the ephemeral, local flower that she captured through Greta’s gaze – not the permanence of the Cenotaph and the standing stones, whose monumentality she questioned; but the cyclical continuity of the waves, the plants, and the ongoing generations who carry her memory.