Swandown – two men, 160 miles, one pedalo

Ahh… swan boats. Few lakeside beauty-spots in Japan are complete without a garish swannery of cygnus-shaped pedalos – and Lake Yamanaka famously goes one better, with swan-shaped cruise ships ferrying tourists around to the strains of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’.

Turns out these birds migrate, and there’s a flock, badly off-course, at Hastings, the southern English seaside town where the Battle of Hastings – at which Norman duke William the Conqueror defeated the last Anglo-Saxon king, Harold Godwinson, in 1066 – never happened. (It took place eight miles north, at Battle, natch.) Last autumn, one of those boats set out on an incredible journey.

Filmmaker Andrew Kotting and writer Iain Sinclair decided to liberate a swan-boat – they dubbed it Edith, in honour of Edith Swan-Neck, consort of the luckless Harold – and pedal it 160 miles from Hastings to the Olympic site in Hackney. Swandown is the film of that journey – it premiered in London yesterday at the East End Film Festival, where I caught it, and is released nationwide on 20 July.

I find Sinclair’s writings by turns engaging and portentous, and this film was no exception. As it opened, we were informed that ‘the landscape has a voice; this swan is that voice’, while the notion that we are all ‘flesh radios’ tuning in to our surroundings was invoked repeatedly in the film and in the Q&A with Kotting and Sinclair that followed.

The film aspires to quixotic profundity, but all we get is undergraduate pretension, as when writer Alan Moore (who I’ve seen on brilliant form live on stage) opined on the birth of Jesus that ‘Mary might have been fucked by the dove’, while orator Marcia Farquhar was brought on to read a couple of lines from WB Yeats’s ‘Leda and the Swan’, remarking afterwards: ‘It’s bestiality, isn’t it’? Apart from Farquhar – and as with all of with Sinclair’s writing – women were wholly invisible. The only other female contributor was a silent actress who in one staged ‘scene’ portrayed John Everett Millais’s Ophelia, floating prone in a wedding dress while the swan boat pedalled past, and then later, inevitably, got naked to incarnate Leda. Psychogeography – for Swandown sits squarely in that category – is such a boy’s club.

But if Swandown offered slim pickings intellectually, visually it was a treat. Scene after scene made me long to be out there – buffeted on the grey sea of the English Channel, or making a stately progress by kayak up the stagnant backwaters of the rivers of Sussex and Kent. It was wholly absorbing watching Edith’s candlelit progress by night, or her smooth sail-by one misty morning, or a beach bonfire that fitfully illuminated her like a bizarre Viking ship-burial.

Kotting is a visual artist, with the extraordinary job-title of ‘Professor of Time-based Media’at the Kent/Surrey-based University of the Creative Arts. He’s most famous for Gallivant, his 1996 film recording a round-Britain journey with his 80-year-old grandmother Gladys and his 7-year-old daughter Eden, who has a developmental disorder. Gallivant promises less pseudo-profundity and more humanity than Kotting’s collaboration with Sinclair, and I look forward to seeking it out.

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