“Oh my god, John, the pain.”
Unity Spencer is doubled up – her shock of silver hair is all I can see on my fly-out monitor as she slumps forward. I look around for John, her son, not knowing if this is something really serious. I’m not sure what to do – she seems to be in so much pain. This really isn’t what I had imagined.
“Coming mum” says John, simultaneously assessing my obviously worried look,
“don’t worry she’ll be fine” he says.
She doesn’t seem fine, but I take my cue from his air of confidence. He’s been here before. Well in fact he lives here.
Unity Spencer is younger than my own mother, who currently resides in Leeds General Infirmary and is similarly infirm. I inevitably compare. Her skin looks the same – thin as gossamer and wax pale with blue veins. She was always slight I’m thinking. In fact Shirin, her older sister, at 91 is the same age as my mother. Similarly deaf but quite spritely, smiley and jovial; she seems in better health than Unity. I have read up a little on their well documented background, so I know some of the intricacies of the Spencer upbringing, but to be spending the weekend with people you have only read about in art books is something else.
On the Sunday morning, after she made me toast, Shirin said to me
“are you having a nice time, are you getting what you need?”
She meant had I been able to film anything of interest with Unity.
“We are just a normal family you know” she said with a big grin
“well maybe a bit mad perhaps.”
“Mad is good” I said gesturing back in a theatrical larger than life way. She couldn’t hear but smiled and nodded.
“Mad is good.”
I meant it.
The house is, shall we say, a work in progress. Unity’s pictures are on the walls and lots of others, at least one of her mothers, Hilda, are stacked against other walls. The floors are strewn with a tangle of anything and everything. It is a veritable car boot sale. There is a full size gilded harp – with one string. This project, inspired by a very evocative personal object of Unity’s, has led me to a trove of other objects which seem rather casually scattered.
And yet I am aware that the legacy which is the Stanley Spencer estate, is anything but discarded. In fact John is working on the mammoth task of transcribing and publishing some of the millions of words Stanley wrote to the love of his life Hilda whilst they were married, continuing this dialogue for years despite their divorce. John now has some help with that task from a local lady who I meet over dinner on the Saturday evening, and who seems to currently be living that past life by proxy. Immersed in the Tate archives.
Unity has her moments. She can be (as John describes her) ‘quite difficult’, but she can also be totally lucid and amusing, light hearted and tender. My filming was not going well up until the evening. I didn’t even know what I was looking for, but I thought I might know when it happened. I had various themes I wanted to explore, often referencing something Unity had written in the past, but it was very quickly apparent that I would have to readjust my approach quite radically. Unity either didn’t remember, or wasn’t interested to engage in grander concepts of time, or the meaning of her own or anyone else’s paintings. She wasn’t even sure why I was there and kept asking me. In reality I was a stranger in her house and my explanations made no sense.
Meanwhile in the kitchen John had a chicken. The chicken needed cooking. The vegetables were a negotiation between the guests… It was just like being with a bunch of old friends, except we’d never met before. By the way I hadn’t met the YouTube gothic horror actress either.. she just happened to be helping out with most things around the house, having originally been the part time skip delivery lorry driver… and well… she got co-opted and stayed!
Unity was helped through to join us. We all drank wine and Unity was handed a sherry glass of red wine which she took gleefully; more of a theatrical gesture than a drink. She wanted to read poetry. She came alive.
“You should film this” said John
“are you sure?” I countered – it seemed a tad intrusive.
“Yes of course – that’s what you came for.”
I did not need a second invite – quickly grabbing my gear from the other room. One of the good things about shooting with a DSLR is you can be low impact – but also secret the audio recorder elsewhere – it’s all very flexible, and I’m used to sorting things quickly in these circumstances. It worked; she was a different person. She held the stage.
In fact they have an actual stage arrangement of sorts in the garden. There is a summer house (also a work in progress) and John has arranged it so plays can be performed there. It’s all very idyllic in a 19th century sort of a way. Tho I have to tell you.. after a lot of wine, and when the oldies had retired, we went through his collection of punk and new wave recordings. The Ruts are his fave. Anyone remember Howard Devoto in Magazine? I do. This household may often gaze backwards, but not exclusively to the same time and place. We erm… went to bed after four. It seemed rude not to.
Eight that same morning I was up and recording bird song in that same garden. Remarkably fresh considering. Mind you it was a beautiful day. Once everyone had risen – John helped Unity into the garden where I was filming. She seemed in good spirits, and I think recognising me from the day before really helped. No longer was I just a stranger beamed in. I had my own brief part in the story and she was warming to my intrusion.
John had worked in film making for the BBC quite a few years ago. He knows how these things work. He tells me he was Mark Rylance’s snoring double one time on set. The nature of the Spencer legacy means he regularly rubs up against the great and the good. But that’s another story. My point is – he is a wonderful facilitator and general enthusiast for all things, leaving me alone, or helping me when necessary, with Unity.
Today he is my doll handler and occasional sun umbrella man. One of the things on my ‘to do’ list that seemed achievable was to make the doll, Golden Slumbers Sonia Rose, come alive. She, after all, had been the initial reason for my interest. I tried to open her eyes when she lay down but without success. Then I realised that gravitational inertia made them open. You had to tilt her and then, rather spookily, she came awake. John held her – I had him move her through space for the camera. A living doll. She gazed at me knowingly through time. You know how eerie dolls can be.
Re-appearing in the garden that morning, Unity held Sonia Rose whilst John held a brolly over his mum for shade.
“She’s not wearing her best dress” said Unity.
It was actually in the box with the doll, but so delicate, like tissue paper, that we didn’t dare dress her in it.
I don’t recall asking her to do it, but Unity began singing nursery rhymes and little ditties. John and I looked at each other. ‘Yes I am recording it’ I nodded silently.
In the greenery, and with the white noise of wind; wearing her coquettish straw hat, and breathing the air of another century, it was quite magical.
” That’s really all you needed wasn’t it” he said as I let the camera run on and looked away.
My initial doubts subsided.
“If she wasn’t doing this, what else would she be doing?” John had said earlier.
He had a point.