Simon Faithfull: 0º00 Navigation

by Robert Macfarlane

 

“Meridian”: from the Latin meridies, meaning midday. The meridians are the imaginary arcs that run over the earth’s surface from north pole to south pole, connecting all points along that arc with a single given longitude. Each meridian is half of a great circle – around 20,000 km in length – and if you stand on a meridian on a clear day the sun will cross that imaginary line midway between sunrise and sunset. Meridian: meridies: midday. Topometry’s intersection with astronomy.

The Prime Meridian, 0’00”, makes its most southerly landfall on English soil at Peacehaven on the East Sussex coast. Peacehaven: Donkey Derbys and motorhomes. Bovis bungalows and Big Mouth fast-foods. The Meridian School, The Meridian Tavern, The Meridian Obelisk (which has had to be moved north twice, due to coastal erosion). For a pacifically named town, its coastline is well-defended. A swiftly shelving flint-shingle beach. A plump concrete sea-wall, that curves up and over, like a wave breaking out to sea. Then the famous chalk cliffs: grubby white, steep and high. So high that in Greene’s Brighton Rock, these are the cliffs over which Pinkie plans to lob his unwanted girlfriend, Rose.

And this is where our artist – hero, comic, spy, automaton – makes his landfall. 0’00” opens with a creature in the sea, flippering energetically towards the chalk cliffs. Glossy black clothing or skin. No sound at all. The quality of the film a blobby, granular black and white. What is this thing in the water? A seal? A clumsy SBS soldier on special ops, circa 1942?

It – he – reaches the beach, pads painfully (bare feet) up the shingle, and his identity changes again. He’s a castaway, marooned on Albion’s shore. A shipwrecked sailor who has struck out for dry land after his barky went down. We see him only from behind, back and legs and back of head.

Then comes the first shock to the viewer. The figure knows where he is going. Inland, on a bearing. He crosses the beach, swarms up the sea-wall, and reaches the foot of the cliffs. Surely he has to stop here? No! A rope has been hung down the cliffs. Another mutation: the figure morphs into a Buster-Keatonish presence, hauling and gibboning his way up the rope, up the cliff. You wait for the pratfall (with fatal consequences) that never comes. He tops out. Pauses briefly, skylit. Then disappears inland, in the same direction. Can nothing stop him?

Apparently not. Cut to the landscape at the top of the cliffs, and the film’s second shock. The walker reaches a fence (chain-link, cement posts) that unmistakably delimits the border of private property, a back garden. Surely not. He must halt. No, he vaults it – and becomes that most English of minor criminals, a trespasser. Then he disappears past a garage, down a garden path, and over a pergola. A drunk, perhaps, returning from a late-night binge, taking the crow’s-path home? Or a cicerone, leading us – the camera, the viewer – on an arbitrary tour of England, now?

So begins Simon Faithfull’s remarkable film. The transformations of the first three minutes are multiple: seal, soldier, castaway, spy, slapsticker, trespasser, drunk, tramp, Virgil. This is where the comedy of the seriously funny piece arises. Not so much from the physical movements (though these are funny too) but from the rapid changes of presence, mode, intent. Meridian-line becomes mirror-line, shimmer-line, along which the identity of the walker flickers, is volatile.

The camerawork has a lot to do with this air of earnest comedy. Puzzlingly placid, it becomes a dog-like presence, faithful to Faithfull, but faintly supernatural in its ability always to be there. One develops a feeling that the walker might turn round at any moment, and shoo the camera away. The quality of the film itself is also influential. It has the crackles and pops of a Pathé News reel. The flares, ringworm-markings and fairy circles of Zapruder. It’s heavily grainy; a sky full of bees. A high-fidelity, low-resolution presence.

Then there’s the walker himself. We – the followers – come to know him well. Black trousers a Mr-Bleaneyish two inches too short. Black leather belt. Horizontally striped black jumper, whose striations begin to rhyme oddly with the opposition (walls, fences, doors) our walker meets. And faceless, apart from once (an awkward thrutch through a cluttered garage, which leaves the artist rolling onto one side, offering an inadvertent glimpse of the face). Shades of Bruce Naumann, walking his taped square in an unnamed gymnasium in 1962. Another act of ambulant sign-making, superbly pointless.

With GPS in hand, cleaving to his bearing, he is an over-equipped rambler, both lost and permanently located. The principal eeriness of the film is the unerring autopilot fidelity to course that our walker keeps. Despite the short trousers and the Next jumper, there’s something borg-like in the way he cleaves to his bearing: a sinister superhero on steering lock. Golem or Poseidon, ceding to nothing, off to keep an appointment far, far off-screen.

He wades fenland drainage ditches, crosses golf-courses, hurdles walls, crosses railway tracks, swims lakes (amphibious), moves through houses (front door, hall, out through the kitchen window; courteous cat-burglar), schools. Peacehaven, Lewes, East Grinstead, Lewisham, Gunpowder Park in Essex, Comberton in the Fens, Cleethorpes on the North Sea coast. On he walks, turned only by lamp-posts and unclimbable walls (lacking the ghost’s liberty to soak through solid substances). Animals and children register his presence. To adults he is usually a semi-spectre, a stealth-presence, barely noticed or remembered.

The film’s comedy is clear enough. Its seriousness is harder to grasp. Walking the arbitrary line of 0’00” allows Faithfull to make a transect, a linear biopsy of contemporary eastern England. And what results does it return, this sampling? That we exist in a post-pastoral landscape, where prairies of alien wheat wave in front of gas storage tanks, opportunist buddleia flourishes on brownfield sites, broadleaf woodlands border trailer parks, and a golf course is as close to the georgic as it’s possible to get. Even out of the cities, the walker passes through no blissful arcadia of bosomy hills and lush pastures, but an industrialised agriscape. Most telling, perhaps, is the unilateral privatisation of the land that he encounters. Padlocked gates, boarded up routes, spiked fences, glass-shard-topped walls, CCTV-surveillance. Nowhere does the route yield to him. This is the modern-day continuation of the Enclosures; the completed shift from Our Land to My Land.

The minutes of the film’s time tick on; the minutes of the meridian remain halted at 0’00. He leaves the film wading out into the North Sea, returned to the briney whence he came, still moving. And what if he keeps on going, our unstoppable force? If he keeps on swimming? Up through The North Sea, then The Norwegian Sea, then The Arctic Ocean (berg dodging), until he hauls out – seal again – onto pack ice, and walks against the spin to the North Pole. Then down the other side of the world on the partner meridian, and eventually up again to Peacehaven, in a great global orbital. There’s no indication in the film that he has stopped: he might be out there right now, faithfully keeping to zero.

[from the book Going Nowhere which contains further essays by Alain de Botton and Philip Hoare]