Sudden Little Drops has been recently resurrected so I could talk about music! Check out the new Albums of 2011 post below, and hopefully there will be more new content coming soon.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Tape Loops

It came to us both in the night, the place we should go. Come the morning there was a shift over the breakfast table, a feeling that hit us as we poured out orange juice and exchanged pleasantries, as though all the trivial details of the morning were conspiring to point us in the right direction. She would say afterwards that she felt it as strongly as I did, but for then it remained unspoken.


Carrie and I, we called ourselves ‘dragonfly hunters’.

Four years ago she had persuaded me, on passing my driving test, to take her on a celebratory road trip, searching for ‘dragons’, down a roughly planned streak through Cornwall. We went first to the marshy pools of Bodmin moor, then the Carnon Valley near Bissoe & Devoran, and on through Red River Valley near Camborne, veering off our course as we fancied it and heading down through Helston to the Lizard. We drank in the local pubs, slept in cheap hostels, B&Bs, and even once or twice in the backseat of the car. We stopped at any spot we thought interesting. There were a few dragonflies around  Carrie had a little dragonfly book that she looked them all up in – Southern Hawkers and Four-spotted Chasers and Red-veined Darters.

But the best moment came at our last stop, in the shallow, serpentine quarries of the Lizard, in a little clearing by a meandering stream, buried in the corners of the county. It was there we saw a whole cloud of them, appearing out of nowhere in front of our eyes. They hovered right in front of us, inspecting us with unyielding curiosity. We stood, besotted in silence, not even caring that we’d left the camera in the car.

In the years that followed we embarked on similar trips in all parts of the country – Sussex, Yorkshire, Kent, South Wales. But not once did we return to the Lizard. It was a place too crystallised in time, a place where memory coursed through the veins of the air.

Yet on that morning, years later, we knew we had to go back. We were living in Exeter by this time, amateur filmmakers on an undergraduate degree, sharing a flat with a guy named Mark who Carrie had met at a convention up in Birmingham. Our module was on nature films and unsurprisingly we had chosen to make a short documentary on dragonflies. Toying with different ideas of where we could go, having been so many places over the years, we indulged for weeks in nostalgic conversations, appraisals of the sites we had visited. And then this idea. This idea of going back to the impossible.

Our roles in the project were well established. Mark could handle the technical side of it; the sound, the equipment, the tapes. The one thing this guy could be counted on for were his cameras.

The dragonflies were Carrie’s area, of course. She had read the books, she knew the variety of species, the details of their life cycles and mating habits, the myths and folklore. There was something in them she found irresistible. Her eyes lit up when she saw them. Perhaps she longed to live in those moments, caught forever in the alluring beauty of their intricate turns in the air.

As for myself? Supposedly, I would be the cinematographer. I had ideological ideas about beauty and the power of light. I was the one with the vision. I probably brought the least to the table.

The idea was beautiful in its simplicity. Returning to that fabled spot we would show the creatures to Mark, take walks around the same footpaths, filming what we found there. It was all we needed. Simple, clear, effective, emotive filmmaking. Shooting what was there, as it was, and nothing more. No need for clever ideas or neat little camera tricks. It all came down to this; to a clearing near a lake, to a memory from long ago, blossoming up in the night and obliterating everything else.

This was the plan. We would stay there for a few days, shoot the film, come back and return to our normal lives, and that would be that.


Dragonfly mating rituals, from afar, can appear beautiful. They twist and coil in the air, sometimes for hours. In the blink of an eye the male takes the female from the ground and together they ascend into the ether, diving and twirling, their gossamer wings glistening in the sunlight. The position in which they mate is sometimes known as the “heart position”, due to the way the female must bend her abdomen round so their genitalia can touch. To watch them can be very romantic. They are agile fliers who can reach speeds of up to sixty miles per hour. They cannot sting and they rarely bite humans, pinching them only slightly when they are threatened and need to escape.

Erratic and carefree, dragonflies have inspired much reverence in some parts of the world. Across the tribes of Native America they symbolise purity, swiftness, activity, flexibility and transformation. Dragonflies appear in the rock art of the Hopi, the necklaces of the Pueblos, the textiles of the Navajos and the pottery of the Zuni, where they are perceived as shamanistic creatures with supernatural powers. One Zuni myth tells of a brother and sister left behind by their fellow villagers after a failure of the corn crop. To cheer up his sister, the little boy constructed a toy dragonfly from the useless corn husks. The toy then came to life and appeased the corn maidens, who rewarded the siblings with a bountiful harvest to welcome home the villagers.

In the east, particularly in Japan, dragonflies are held to be sacred, holy animals. They symbolise success and victory, as well as courage, strength, and happiness. Legend holds that the mythical founder of Japan, the Emperor Jimmu, was once bitten by a horsefly, which was in turn eaten by a dragonfly. To honour his avenger, the Emperor gave the new land the name Akitsushima, meaning ‘the Isles of the Dragonfly’.

A game that Japanese children play involves trying to catch dragonflies, using a hair with a small pebble tied to each end, which they throw into the air. The dragonfly mistakes the pebbles for prey, becomes tangled in the hair, and is dragged to the ground by the weight.

Mark drove us there in his car, talking away about some zombie horror spoof a friend of his was making. I sat in the back, Carrie in the passenger seat. We were heading towards the sun so it was a slow and difficult drive, and I could hardly see them both in the front, save for their black figures, stark against the sun-drenched windscreen. Outside the scenery drifted by as we sunk further into the depths of Cornwall. My seatbelt was itching so I took it off and lay against the side, my legs sprawled out over the back seat. The car trapped the heat of the sun and the resulting mugginess made me lethargic. I think I may have dozed off once or twice, or at least slipped into some realm of semi-consciousness, my thoughts drifting, struggling to emerge fully formed in the heat. In the background the radio sounded, un-listened to. It hardly seemed worth the effort to try and make conversation. Sleep seemed like the easier option.

The heat-haze kept me detached, at a distance, until one moment broke me out of it; a stuttering glitch of a moment, like a scratch on old film. It was just after we had arrived at the car-park, a short walk along the stream from our clearing. There was a little stone bridge that took the road up over the water. Carrie and Mark climbed up on the stone wall and she pointed down to the spots we’d be filming from. It was all new to him of course. He shouted out his first impressions, all the while a grin on his face. I went back and sat on the opposite wall, watching him, his arms flapping around as he talked, attempting to accentuate his words.

There he stood, wavering on the edge of the bridge, and in my mind I watched him fall over the side, into the stream, very comically, with a great farcical splash. The image looped in my head like a fragment of old black and white film, playing over and over again, splash, splash, splash, exaggerated and dramatic and comedic, a big crash of cymbals as he collided with the water, and I saw the whole movie theatre roaring with laughter, little children pointing at the screen and laughing at the silly man who’s fallen flat on his belly, slap bang into the water, wavered too far and toppled right off the bridge, flailing his arms wildly in black and white and grey.

Then suddenly, for a second, it felt real, flashing before me, harsh and vivid, slowed down to a crawl, full colour, surround sound, every muscle of his face captured in exasperating detail. In a terrible explosion of light it enveloped me and all I could see was his face, stark and desperate, as the light bounced off it and was caught forever on film when Carrie grabbed my arm and said:

“Come on, let’s try and get closer.”

I was shaken up, sweating and alert. I had the ridiculous thought it was some kind of omen. But no, I thought. I was sweating because it was hot. I was feeling sluggish and languid and I had simply let my thoughts drift. It was a phantasm. I followed Carried.

I soon recovered from the jolt. As we made our way down the river I took solace in the familiarity of my surroundings. The trees had surely blossomed with new leaves, the river gushed with new water, yet still it seemed oddly unchanged. As we continued the stream became gentler and thinner; we were walking against the flow of the water. The path narrowed too and the trees became tighter, thicker. We were walking into the shambolic history of our past.

When we finally got to the clearing, I forgot all about the bridge and my vision. We were at our spot. There it was in front of me, hardly seeming real, bathed in sunlight, smaller than I remembered it, but relatively untouched, as though trapped in the hazy miasma of memory and unable to evolve.

 “Let’s get an opening shot, shall we?” said Mark, clapping his hands together. So we laid down our rugs on the ground and set up the camera on the tripod. Carrie stood by the water.

“Okay, three, two, one...”

We recorded a few opening words, a shade under a minute perhaps, just a brief introduction. When she finished I offered Carrie some coffee from a flask. We sat and waited, filming a few shots of the river, keeping the camera rolling in case anything happened. We ate and drank and talked by the river. Once in a while Mark would get Carrie to narrate a little, to introduce the habitat or discuss what we were expecting to see. But mostly we just waited. We should have been out searching for great shots, but none of us initiated it. After a while Mark was the only one left saying anything at all, wrapped up in some rant about Kubrick. The afternoon was hot and lazy. It grew into a long and sultry stupor, stretching out far beyond the limits of my concentration and my thoughts once again began to drift.

Around me the light shimmered and flickered. In the stillness the noises I listened to the gentle noises amalgamating, a slow, perpetual rhythm evolving, a quiet, living, creaking drone, emerging in the shifts of sound, in the softly rushing water of the stream, the buzz of insects around the water, the single, babbling voice, the occasional car from far off on the bridge, the sounds of the trees. I immersed myself in the layers of sound, in the shifts and creaks and groans that overlapped in the thick heat, in the haze, in the blur, where I ceased to yearn for dragonflies and in the absence of desire they did not come.

Mark of course was less convinced by our seemingly unperturbed attitude. He kept whinging and whining about our laziness, though he was too gutless to get up and do something about it. I remember at one point I tried to justify our inaction.

“We’re not being nonchalant,” I said. “We’re just soaking up some atmosphere. We’ve got to get the right vibes Mark. It’s all atmosphere. Just think what the film will feel like. This desolate, natural landscape, the escape, the release, getting away from the bustling nightmare of the everyday, it’s exactly what we want for a nature flick; delicate, refined filmmaking, gently touching, subtly moving, like ripples on a shore.”

He was remarkably unimpressed with my explanation.

“Right, right, subtle of course,” he said.

“Fine, well, its all in the editing anyway.” He smiled. This he seemed to accept. “Can’t have us shouting and charging around trying to catch one of the bloody things, can we?” I joked.

“No, no, I suppose not. Not the Attenborough way.”

“Right, exactly!” He was starting to get it. “So we sit quiet in the peace and try to soak up the atmosphere on tape.”

It was just as I was saying that when it happened. It was just like that. Sudden. No warning. In the midst of the mist of our inaction, a light flickered and we were given a brief flash of hope. It was so quick, I only caught a brief glimpse, while Mark missed it completely. But Carrie was sitting with her back to us, facing towards the water with her legs outstretched in the sun before her, and she saw the whole thing.

It was a dragonfly.

It flitted in front of her, just a few feet away, right where the camera was pointing. It lingered there, suspended temporarily in the air, caught in a slight pause, a hesitation, right where our lens could capture its glistening brilliance, if only for a second. And then it was gone again.

It came. It hovered. It left.

The light could not have been more perfect, soft but lustrous, reflecting off the dragonfly’s bright and shining body, almost dazzlingly so. It was a moment so brief, so ephemeral, so easily missed that I sometimes wonder if it ever really happened.

But no, it was real, and we have the tape to prove it.

It had appeared out of nowhere. With its presence it had graced us, reflecting back to us a memory, with all the hope that that memory could offer. And it had flown away.

When resting, dragonflies spread their wings wide open, while damselflies habitually close their wings, holding them over their bodies. They differ in size of eye and length of body and breadth of wing. But both are equally beautiful to behold, Carrie would argue. Both come in a wide variety of colours. Both flutter and hover in an equally alluring way. If anything, the damselfly is in fact the daintier, friendlier, more elegant of the two creatures.

Yet when we speak of them, the damselfly almost always remains... an implication. We use the word ‘dragonfly’ to speak for both. Something separates them in our minds. The myths, the legends, they all refer to the dragonfly. It conjures illusions of grandeur, of sorcery and mysticism and power and secret intuitive insight. The damselfly is ignored. It pales in comparison to its glamorous relative, as unfair as that may be. It lacks something – or rather, something is lacking in the way we perceive it. It is, no doubt, in the name more that anything. ‘Damsel’ is a perfectly nice word, but it’s anaemic, it lacks any power. Damsels. We think of them as foolish young maidens, typically in distress. They are naïve. They are incompetent. They need rescuing. ‘Dragons’ may be myth, but they are powerful myth – the stuff of legends and knights and ancient magic and noble quests.

So it is that the damselfly is left to wallow in anonymity.

Carrie, shaking herself out of the moment, turned and spluttered:

“Did you... did you see it? It was a... it was...right there in front of me!”

“What’s this Carrie? What’s this?” Mark started getting worked up. We all did. We were shouting all at once – a sudden burst of commotion that injected our lazy afternoon with a shot of energy. Mark and I scrambled for the camera to see it properly, clustered out heads around the tiny screen to watch. He rewound the tape a little and hit play. For a couple of seconds nothing and then from nowhere it appears, flitting onto the screen and hovering just above centre.

“Thank God!” Mark bellowed. “About time we had a hit! Just look at that!”

“What breed was it, Carrie?” I asked.

“I think it might have been an Emperor...” She scrambled to get her dragonfly book and flicked through the pages to confirm. She was right, of course. The Emperor dragonfly. Anax imperator. Large. A mixture of sky-blue and green. Breeds in slow flowing rivers with abundant marginal vegetation. She showed me the picture.

“It’s beautiful,” I said.

We fell into silence, then. Our fervour could not last and with its loss came an uneasy sense of dread. We had laughed, embraced, bubbled with ecstatic conversation, when as suddenly as the dragonfly had appeared we stopped. And we were quiet again. It felt like an age. Carrie was the one to finally speak.

“This is nothing really, is it?” she said. “Just a second or two of film. I mean, it’s hardly anything.”

It was like that tiny flicker of success had lit up the rest of our day. It all came crashing down on us. No longer could we hide in our hazy expectancy, thinking we were just getting started. The day was drawing to an end and there could be no denying its failure.

Yet even with this sudden onset of pessimism, we continued to do nothing. Time stretched on, unforgiving, and we continued to wait. We stayed put. We knew we shouldn’t have, but we did, we had to. Five more minutes, we’d say. Just a little while longer. We were bound to catch something else soon enough. If one dragonfly had come, so would more.

I think it was because it was that spot. The sunlight still shone there, the trees still whispered, still wavered in a slight breeze, the clear water still rushed gently over the rocks. It was so close to how it used to be. We were almost there. We were waiting on that magic. We were thinking of that afternoon, years ago, the dragonflies in their abundance. I know Carrie was thinking it too. Neither of us could get up. Just not quite yet.

But the afternoon continued to fade away. The sun descended behind the trees, the dark crept up on us as we sat submissively and eventually one of us, I don’t remember who, announced its arrival. So we packed up our things and we walked back to the car and we drove away.

Up close, dragonfly mating rituals can be violent and gruesome. There is an almost complete absence of courtship, as many male species simply grab hold of unsuspecting females, even immature ones, as they warm themselves in the sun. Some will snatch hold of a female while she lays an egg and have their way with her, even if she drowns in the process. Others may attack and split other mating pairs by colliding with them, pulling and biting them, stealing the partner from their rival. Females try to escape such truculent behaviour by submerging themselves in water, fleeing at high speeds, flying in tortuous spirals, or even fighting back, sometimes killing the attacking male.

In Europe, dragonflies have often been seen as sinister creatures. They are called horse killers, finger cutters, eye pissers, snake doctors, water witches, devil’s darners. The latter term comes from the belief that dragonflies sew together the lips of wicked children while they are sleeping. To some they are merely an annoyance, to others a danger. One Romanian folk tale says that the dragonfly was once a horse possessed by the devil, a belief also found in Maltese culture where the word for dragonfly, debba ta' l-infern, literally means “hell’s mare”. The Norwegian name for dragonflies is øyenstikker, which translates as “eye poker”, an idea also found in Swedish folklore where the dreaded “blind stingers” were believed to have an appetite for picking out people’s eyes. In Sweden, legend holds that trolls use dragonflies as spindles when weaving their clothes, hence the term trollslända, meaning “troll’s spindle”. Another Swedish myth holds that the devil uses dragonflies to weigh people’s souls and that if a dragonfly swarms around a person’s head, weighing his or her soul, they should expect a terrible injury to befall them.

Despite such myths being proved false by modern science, dragonflies are still held under suspicion across the Western world. They are virulent. They are poisonous. They will bring you bad luck. They will sew together your lips. They will tear out your eyes. They will crawl into your ear and penetrate your brain.

We stayed the night in a little hostel somewhere nearby. The room was muggy from the heat and had a fusty, sour odour. Carrie tried some air freshener but the smell persisted. I binned some abandoned toiletries that I found in the sink.

In the morning I woke up dreaming of childhood, of Sunday trips to the forest. We congregated in the lobby to eat a little breakfast, sitting there in deep sunk sofas, drinking coffee from the little machine. For a while no-one mentioned the rain, even with the water beating against the window.

But denial could not make it disappear and as we exited the lobby with our small bags of luggage it spat down from above. Great grey clouds hovered in the ominous air. We drove down to the coast just west of the Lizard, where we had planned to shoot on our second day, hoping the weather might clear up as we travelled. Somewhat bravely, we got out and walked over to the side of the lake, where two fishing poles lay forgotten on the bank. The mud was already slippery, though it had only been raining a few hours or so. We tried putting up the camera on the tripod, but it was a futile endeavour. Drops of water were flecked all over the lens in a matter of seconds and the lighting was dingy and dreadful to film in. Mark swore loudly the whole time. Carrie stayed mainly silent.

We drove for miles that morning, becoming more frustrated, stopping at any random point to get out and see if we could film. But it was useless. The morning passed by and the rain worsened. Exhausted and irritable, we gave up and began the drive back to Exeter.

We had wasted our time and now it was too late.

We should have made plans to come back the next weekend, but all three of us had other things on and none of us were very willing to cancel them. I don’t think we could face going back there again, not so soon. The weekend after that there was a massive storm, a grisly band of gloom sweeping right over the South West, even worse than before. We hadn’t the time from then on to do much more filming; the deadline was far too close, approaching us like an oncoming train.

Carrie and I were sitting over the table at dinner time a few weeks later, when she looked abruptly up at me and said, quite quietly:

“Why didn’t we bring a camera with us the first time? You had a camera then. We were both getting into our filming. We could have shot the whole cloud of them, dancing around in the air. It would have been spectacular.”

I didn’t answer. I couldn’t think of anything to say. But I thought later that perhaps it was better for us never to have filmed it. Perhaps it was better for it to remain only in memory.

In the end we twisted the basic premise of the film and turned it into a little environmental flick, Mark’s idea. I got credit as cinematographer. In truth, I did very little; juxtaposed the scraps of decent film we had with shots of the city, outlet stores selling dark-wood furniture, Starbucks coffee cups, that sort of thing. Mark wrote some narration for it. It was okay. It scraped us the pass we needed.

I held on to the rest of the film. There were hours of footage, mostly us just sitting around and talking. Late one empty night I sat at my laptop and found, in all the surplus unedited film, that one shot of the dragonfly, the sunlight set beautifully behind it. I cut it out and pasted it and looped it. It was my new film. The looped shot of a dragonfly, over and over, seemingly never-ending, running into eternity. I watched as it flitted onto the screen, just for a second or two, and flew away again. Then back it came again, and then away, and back, and away, and back, and away.

And I went back to the unedited footage, separated the sound track from the visuals and cut out all the passages where Carrie was talking about her creatures, and I copied them and pasted them onto my new film, overlaying them onto the looped shot, running underneath it, her eloquent rambles on flight patterns, on mating habits, on species variance, and not stopping there I found any passage of her talking, random scraps of film where she slipped up, or slurred her words, or made some comment about where to film, or asked me for the water bottle, or the coffee flask, or made some joke about the weather, so wonderfully inconsequential, and I laid it all over the looping shot of a dragonfly, so her voice would run all the way through, speaking of everything and nothing, ducking and weaving, under and over the dragonfly’s bright and shining body, her sequined voice, in waves, covering my film with its presence.

And I sat in my darkened room and I watched it, looping over and over, and when I got to the end I went back and played it again, until the lids of my eyes had grown so heavy that I couldn’t take anymore, and so I turned off the laptop and I went back to my bed and I tried to sleep.

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