The emerald-green grass is sodden from the rain that has fallen through the day. But the sky shows a patch or two of bright blue. Richly pungent from a wealth of flowers, the air is full of noises from unseen birds and insects. During a break in the downpours, thirty of us cluster by a wonderfully weathered wall in a corner of the rural churchyard of St Gregory’s Minster, Kirkdale (above). Standing by a small hole dug to receive the ashes of John Read, the vicar invites us to recall for ourselves the man we have come to celebrate. Alive to everything about this glorious corner of Yorkshire and of England, I close my eyes and think of John’s kindness, his warmth and his chuckle, of his documentaries, of the significance of his films and, yes, of the frustrating lack of recognition for his work. But there will be time for this last, and now is not that moment.
John died in July last year (my Guardian obituary remains online) and on this Saturday his widow Louise has invited friends and family to witness the interment of his ashes. This churchyard on the north Yorkshire moors is the resting place of John’s father, Herbert Read, along with others of the family from the twentieth and ninteenth centuries.
In the early 1930s, Herbert (b. 1893, his Times obituary is here) had a distinguished war behind him (including a DSO and MC) and a prominent post as professor of fine art at the University of Edinburgh. But as Tanya Harrod’s Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry about Herbert records, ‘in 1933 he left Edinburgh and his professorship precipitately with a young musician, Margaret Ludwig’, known to all as ‘Ludo’. He also left John (b. 1923) and his mother, Evelyn Roff, and for the rest of his life, John had a complex and rather distant relationship with his famous father.
Herbert became one of the key figures of British modernism, but as a profoundly influential critic rather than as a painter or, as he began, as a poet. Growing up in Edinburgh, John became fascinated by the cinema, and after the Second World War and time as an Oxford undergraduate, he worked briefly for the founding father of British documntary, John Grierson, and then in 1949 joined the BBC. Herbert was a great champion of Henry Moore, among others, and in 1951 John made the first British fim documentary about an artist, Henry Moore.
Henry Moore, which is available online courtesy of the BBC archive, is a foundational film, and one which is endlessly rich in its negotations of tradition and modernity, of Englishness and internationalism, and of Moore’s individualism and the broader context of the art of the time. Over the next nearly thirty years John Read made five further films with the artist (also available here, at least for those of us in the UK), and together these are unique as a collaboration between a major artist and a major filmmaker. One day, their value and importance will be properly and appropriately recognised.
Through the 1950s and ’60s, John made a clutch of other films of foremost significance – profiles of Graham Sutherland and John Piper, an astounding two-part portrait of Stanley Spencer, and a 1961 documentary about Barbara Hepworth, which is perhaps my favourite of all his works. And he made films for the BBC on a host of other subjects – Coventry Cathedral, the hovercraft, steam trains, the Dounreay nuclear reactor.
I have blogged about John and his work on several occasions, including ‘Il miglior fabbro’ and Pioneer without honour. Perhaps what I have not quite expressed before is my sense of him as a mentor in all my own work as a producer and director. Not that I ever had the privilege of collaborating with him, but the qualities that I recognised in his documentaries from afar I endeavoured to make central to how I approached subjects: a sympathetic appreciation that could also be critical, a sense of both curiosity but also respect, a concern that the subject be central and not the sensibilities of the filmmaker.
After his retirement from the BBC, when he was living quietly in Hampstead with Louise, I would go to see him occasionally (and of course not as often as I should have). I delighted in his tales of filming with Moore and with Sutherland (‘not a nice man’) and in his acerbic sense of all that was wrong with the BBC and the contemporary art world (he could be particularly engaging on Alan Yentob and on Nicholas Serota). And I have tried to evangelise about his work with screenings and the occasional article and conference paper. But I owe him something more substantial, and so – I promise, John – that critical study of the Moore films will get finished this year.
Some of this is what I think about standing in Kirkdale. Some of it is what I reflect on, along with the absurdity and the profundity of the vicar shaking John’s ashes – which seem a touch recalcitrant – into the hole. The green plastic container has the contours of a sweet jar, one that might have contained mint humbugs or sherbert lemons, and I think John – who loved to laugh – might have appreciated the comparison. I throw in my handful of earth.
Guided by Charles, John’s cousin and the son of Herbert’s brother William, we search out the graves of the other Reads, starting with Herbert. It was Ludo, the second wife, who apparently directed that Herbert’s stone should bear the epitaph ‘knight poet anarchist’, and this seems wonderfully to catch the contradictions of the man (and, the more one learns, of Ludo’s relationship with him).
Charles tells us how Herbert, his father William, who is buried in the next plot, and a third brother, volunteered to fight in the First World War. Herbert was slightly wounded, but William (who was also awarded the MC) more seriously so, and their brother was killed. Then we find the grave of their father, who died in a hunting accident in 1903, and of his parents too. History seems very present.
History is there too in the very walls of the small church, which thanks to an Anglo-Saxon sundial (preserved now in the porch) can be dated precisely to between 1055 and 1065. But remarkably, set into the fabric are fragments of even earlier carvings, which lie like fossils in an exposed excavation. Art, history and this land of England – all the elments central to John’s films – surround us here, but not in ways that are weighty or oppressive. Rather, along with brightening afternoon, there is a sense of possibility and potential.
Our time in Kirkdale over, we drive through the rain to Pickering for tea and cakes, a glass of wine and more memories. At one point, a young friend of John and Louise’s, Karina, puts her mobile phone on the table and explains that she wants to play us a piece of music. Recalling that she danced round the room to this with John ‘and his stick’, she presses ‘start’. From the tiny speaker comes the joyously infectious, immediate and clear and oh so complex sound of Benny Goodman playing After You’ve Gone. Again, there is the sharp sense of optimism and of promise – and now there is most definitely a tear or two as well.