The Western Lands: Proposals towards a Film

By Grant Gee

western-lands-grant-gee.jpgThe Western Lands, 2007

 “In the mountains, there you feel free” – T.S. Eliot, from The Burial of the Dead

“Let me put it simply. West is a landscape of loss. The light dies here.” – Jim Perrin, 2006

We must love one another or die, wrote WH Auden. Jim has it differently: ‘we must love one another and die.’ Both are imperatives. This is what Jim has learned, knows, tells us: that we must love one another and die.” – Robert Macfarlane

The Western Lands is a 70 minute film-essay on love, loss and landscape. An autobiography in 12 landscapes under 12 sunsets. 12 film sequences under the dying of the light. 12 natural fades to black… 11 cuts back to light again.


“He eats tripe and onions…”

“Slivers of paint stick to his cuticles. He smokes Senior Service, tapping the ends on the packet and flicking a lighter that smells of petrol…”

“He tells of a waitress in the Kirkwall café who would fry sausage meat and give him two eggs, even with rationing. He talks a lot about here, but not at home.”

“He has photos in his pocket of when he was a soldier in the war. In one set he’s in Orkney. ‘This is Skara Brae, this is the Old Man of Hoy.’ I study them wonderingly.”


Albert Square, the heart of Victorian Manchester’s ‘sullen righteousness’ . Gothic revival, Patrician gloom. Statues of the long-dead ‘great and the good’ point accusingly.

“School for the most part’s some kind of dumb fuck and I don’t like it.”

western-lands-grant-gee-2.jpgThe Western Lands, 2007

“Scrapping. There’s an accident to my eye. Broken glass. Operations. Then, on the bus to school one day a woman with a careless umbrella and the ferule jabs in; hospital and the eye’s taken out...”

“…and I – who wanted to shine as a sportsman for my father - show him a photograph of Joe Brown climbing ‘Suicide Wall’. ‘You’ll never be able to do that,’ he says, ‘you’ve only got one eye.’ Fuck you…”


On climbing as a form of grace.

Jim in his early twenties. Climbing gritstone.

“The feel of rock is a kind of ecstasy – not just its texture, but the way it dances your body to its ancient, lithe configurations.”

“… my body’s like a flag of silk, streaming around the jut of that neb.”


On love regained.

“One day she sees a poster for a reading I’m giving and turns up. ‘You won’t remember me,’ she says… Back at my house she leans against me. ‘I’m tired out. I’m spent. I’m going to have a nervous breakdown,’ she sighs. ‘Don’t do that, come and lean on me.’ ‘I am doing,’ she says, ‘you’re the only one who ever made any sense.’

western-lands-grant-gee-3.jpgThe Western Lands, 2007

‘Did you really love me all those years?’ she asks. ‘All those years…’ I answer. We marry down by the well in the cliffs at Braigh y Pwll, with the raven, the seal and the chough as our witnesses. We live for a time what Mathew Arnold calls ‘the ideal, cheerful, sensuous, pagan, life.’”


On loss.

Jarring noise and aesthetic dislocation. Are we in the wrong film?

Watching the planes head west. Watching the contrails glow orange as the sun gets low. Planes silhouetted black like crows.

Jim’s son Will (“He was pretty much regarded as the best young adventure climber in the country”) was climbing the Old Man of Hoy in 2003. A rock fell from above and “…gashed his head badly… didn’t have an x-ray… didn’t trust doctors… had also broken a tooth…went to get it capped… got an infection… complications…. Angina… couldn’t breathe… tracheotomy… depression… loss of self image…”

Although not really fit enough, he was due to go with an expedition to Greenland in July 2004 and drove the rest of the party to Heathrow, dropped them at departures, told them he was just going to park the car… drove home and hung himself.

Two weeks after Will’s funeral, Jim’s wife Jacquetta was diagnosed with cancer.

western-lands-grant-gee-4.jpgThe Western Lands, 2007

“She began chemotherapy and bravely endured the discomforts and indignities and the loss of the glory of her long, auburn hair… We went to the Caribbean, away from the rigours of home weather to give her warmth and the towering cloudscapes.”

She died nine months later.


“We’re back where we began, with the Old Man – with my old man, who used to carry a photograph of this around with him in his pocket; with the golden, gorgeous youth to whom I was ‘the old man’ – the sequence of events that led to his death beginning here. And now, in their footsteps, I’m here, ‘a sixty-year-old, smiling, public man’ in the old cham Yeats’s phrase…

“Sure, you can think of this climb in terms of all the wan assertions of fading masculinity. But to me, it’s less physical sequence than symbol. It’s a sunset thing, a rage against the dying of the light, a last waltz. The idea of it has gathered force for me through generations, and because I have survived this far, I come here as if by proxy – I come on this day in pilgrimage.

“At last, the summit, isolated, and beyond it the gathering dark. The sun dips into the sea, the moon sails. And as for us, up here, those who do not climb and those who cannot love both think in terms of conquest, but it is not thus. My father, my son, my woman – memories now. The stars are coming out and the waves surge far beneath. We will rope down into the night below, and the moon will cast our spinning shadows soft and silvered on the stack as the seals wail and moan. This too is an ecstasy.

“Unseeing we will climb back by perilous paths to the top of the black cliff behind, and walk away over the moor, where every solid boulder shimmers and all that haunts us there are the wild birds’ cries.”

western-lands-grant-gee-5.jpgThe Western Lands, 2007

The one completed episode of The Western Lands (Episode 12, the Old Man of Hoy) won ‘Best Short Film’ at the 2007 Banff Mountain Film Festival. He is currently seeking funding for the remaining episodes.

Grant Gee’s most recent documentary is Joy Division, available now on DVD. He’s currently developing the documentary Patience about WG Sebald and Needle in the Groove, a feature based on the Jeff Noon novel.