I first found TS Eliot in two places.
First, in Apocalypse Now – the darkly psychedelic 1979 film that is based loosely on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a story told aboard a boat anchored on the River Thames (which – was the part-inspiration for the Thames-based Estuary Festival, which I was part of last year). In the final scenes, Colonel Kurtz recites part of Eliot’s The Hollow Men. Printed editions of the poem contain the epigraph “Mistah Kurtz – he dead”, a quotation from Heart of Darkness. Two books are seen open on Kurtz’s desk in Apocalypse Now. They are From Ritual to Romance by Jessie Weston and The Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer, the two books that Eliot cited as the chief sources and inspiration for The Waste Land. I love this layering and complexity; it’s how my brain works, and you’ll find it in lots of my work.
And secondly, Murder In The Cathedral, Eliot’s play which is set just down the road from Margate in Canterbury Cathedral. I was designer on a production of the play, created with a handful of professional actors and members of the local community and performed in a church in Bosham, Sussex. It was one of the best things I ever did. At first, reading the script, it seemed clumsy and awkward; but in the hands of actors and local people, it became a beautiful, elegant, and understandable piece. Eliot’s words are written for many voices and come alive when said out loud.
So my love of TS Eliot started with film and theatre, and has been reflected in my work in many ways. I’ve used fragments of his work in my own work, and performed his poems (The Hollow Men was included in a long performance piece, in Worthing Museum & Art Gallery).
Most importantly I created a work in Stoke, It’s All About The Road, which had as a working title He Do The Police In Different Voices, itself a line from Dickens which was Eliot’s original title of The Waste Land*. It’s All About The Road uses a layered, textured series of voices to tell stories collected on one single road. The book is a (not the!) complete history of Stoke-on-Trent, from the Ice Age to thirty years in the future. Threads run through all the stories; whales, immigrants, elephants.
I’ve also started creating a small series of works called Dreamland/Wasteland, inspired by Eliot’s Margate connection and history of the Dreamland amusement park. They sit alongside a series of books about the history of Dreamland, which I’ve written in the voice of Mrs Hills, who’s lived in Margate since the 1700s and seen it all. Originally a school mistress, she now runs an airbnb apartment in the Old Town.
And of course, that poem is informing the work we’re all making for From Wasteland To Wasteland.
Eliot creates work which is layered, deep and needs exploration; but which can also be understood quickly, easily, taken exactly as you find it. That’s what I’m hoping to achieve in my piece for From Wasteland To Wasteland. It’ll be shown at our First Friday event.
*And – is the key to understanding the poem.