Director’s Commentary: Nick Hayes on the Rime of the Modern Mariner
One of the graphic novels I’ve been really enjoying reading recently is the full-length debut by noted Guardian cartoonist Nick Hayes, the Rime of the Modern Mariner, which the nice folks at Jonathan Cape were kind enough to send me (the book is due out in early April). It’s a lovely looking work – even just the physical look of the book is pleasing, being more in the form of a hardback prose novel format than the usual larger, slimmer graphic album design (I know, do not judge by a cover, but nonetheless, it is a beautifully bound book), while Nick’s artwork within this formidably large tome seemed to me to suit the nature and, just as important, the pulse of the story.
And the pulse, the rhythm, is very important since, as you might imply from the title, Nick is taking his inspiration from the famous poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by the great Romantic poet Coleridge, and although he is reworking the inspirational verse to a more modern sensibility to take in contemporary concerns he sticks with the rhythm and beat of the poem. The pages and the frames – as well as the actual text – being constructed to follow the beat of the poem, rhythm, art and text and even the page layouts all contributing to that rhythmic structure that, even if you are not consciously aware of it, will doubtless impinge on your subconscious mind as you read, anchoring you further into the deeps of the Mariner’s voyage. It’s an unusual and fascinating work, absorbing as rhythmic as the ebb and swell of the ocean and with a serious message about our stewardship of the environment. I’m delighted that Nick has taken time out of his busy work to share some of his thoughts behind the creation of this massive comics work in a Director’s Commentary for us; over to Nick:
The idea for this story first came to me sat in an open planned office in Streatham; email pings and telephone rings and the buzz of work. I was meandering through a path of hyperlinks and blogs when I discovered Captain Charles Moore, and his ship the Algalita, which had just returned from a place I had never heard of: the North Pacific Gyre. I read on.
There are seven gyres in the world: great slow-moving whirlpools caused by the movements of the earth’s currents, points where the energy of the winds and water streams meet, and offload their baggage, like sediment at the curves of a river bed. The North Pacific Gyre is the largest of them. Some reports estimate that it is twice the size of Texas, rolling round and round, 9km deep to the ocean’s bed. And it’s stuffed full of plastic waste.
(click on the pics for the larger versions; all art by and (c) Nick Hayes, Rime of the Modern Mariner published by Jonathan Cape)
The North Pacific Garbage Patch, as it is also known, is a slush of degraded bits and bobs, diving gloves, tractor tyres, plastic bottles, all swept from the world’s rivers and oceans, to be offloaded into this vast repository. I was dumbstruck. First by the scale of this rubbish heap, and second by a more insipid fact: that plastic doesn’t decompose – it only degrades in the sunlight, getting smaller and smaller until it cant be seen. Plastic is both an example of mans great ingenuity, his ability to create durable, lightweight materials to further his ends upon this planet; but it is also a symbol of the indelible mark we have left upon the natural cycle of the world. Plastic doesn’t rot – it doesn’t enter the carbon cycle; it cannot be broken down by bacteria; instead, it is the only material in this world that exists entirely outside of natural processes, simply getting smaller and smaller, piling upon itself, never to disappear. It is at this point that its effects become ever more horrendous – entering the flesh of fish, which are then caught, eaten by us and passed on through the generations through breast-milk. Tiny microscopic flecks of carcinogenic poison.
It was when I discovered a picture of an albatross, belly swelled to busting, full of plastic bottle caps that it had mistaken for shrimp, rotted and interlaced with plastic bags tight around its bones, that the penny dropped: albatross; Coleridge; burdens of guilt. It was time for a modern mariner.
I wanted to make this a distinctly English graphic novel. The rhyme and meter of Coleridge’s original were sourced from the bawdy street rhymes of low culture English folk songs, and whilst retaining that patriotic prosody, I also wanted to drench in imagery in Englishness. Not teacups and bowler hats, but a real drizzly Englishness, a cold autumnal shiver, and I spent a long time trying to get the palette of these five colours to evoke this: browns and teals, misty marines. The novel starts on an autumnal day, where the fruits of summer have fallen to the ground, and a cold wind blows the litter and the leaves of a soggy London. Autumn seemed appropriate to our current position in mankind’s cycle, resting on the harvests of our achievements, but realizing that things are beginning to turn.
The main aim of updating this old poem was to keep its rich imagery, its haunting atmosphere, but to modernize the nature of the events. The first change was to make the listener of the tale a divorcee, and not a wedding guest. This was to accentuate the idea that the party, like summer, is over, and the consequences are knocking on our door. Throughout Coleridge’s tale, the listener is rapt, and hangs off every word. It was important to this modernisation to make him disinterested, more concerned with the texts on his blackberry than the tale of ecological disaster. The North Pacific Gyre, this vast expression of the consequences of mankind’s wasteful habits, is hidden away, deep in the oceans, far out of sight, and a central theme of my story was to show how easy it is for us to be totally divorced from the repercussions of our actions. We can’t see what we do, and thus its no surprise that we continue to do it.
So, most of Coleridge’s imagery remains in this update, but is adapted to suit the reality of the modern oceans. His spirit, nine fathoms deep, has become a very real discarded fishing net, called a Ghost Net, the like of which are cut loose by trawler ships to save the expense of disposing them on land, and which continue to float through the oceans, trapping vast swathes of plastic and organic matter in their nylons threads. Similarly, the poignant moment when Coleridge’s mariner looks upon the slithering black seasnakes and feels for the first time a sense of empathy with another living thing, stranded in the ocean as he is, is also updated to incorporate what we now know of evolution. The tunicates he sees, the salp lying with flimsy heartbeats on the layers of plastic, are the first creatures in evolution to have evolved a spine – they are our ancestors. They die on the detritus of their descendents’ lifestyles.
The idea of scale was important to me throughout the tale. Man has achieved so much upon this earth, and has risen above the other animals with the power of thought and self consciousness, that he has become hubristic, and certainly in Judeo-Christian philosophy, thinks himself master of all the earth, Adam ruling Eden. And yes, in terms of the trees he has felled, and the ground he has tarmaced, man has definitely stamped himself upon nature. However, I wanted to consider another side of the argument, and put this one man against the largest of Earth’s creatures, the blue whale: “200 tonnes of living flesh, the queen of all creation, And me, this mote within its eye, too long above my station”. Under the oceans surface, or deep in his inner consciousness, however you read the poem, the mariner sees a whole of life brimming with awesome vitality, billions of thermisto gaudichaudirii, alien like viperfish, creatures who we never see, who own the 70 per cent of the world that we call our oceans .
The mariner is awed by this numinal revelation, and his catharsis is complete. He is washed up on the shores of an undisclosed land, which in real life was the composite of Snowdonia, Suffolk and my old beech and birch woods in West Berkshire. During the course of writing the rime, I became fascinated with David Nash’s sculpture, Ash Dome. About forty years ago, he sowed about twenty ash seeds in a patch of land to the south of Snowdonia, and as they grew, he grafted them together. After four decades of growth, they have formed a meshed dome of wood, the result of an artist working with the pliable, mutable power of nature. This seemed to be the perfect place for the mariner to be reborn – man and nature, working together. I never got to see the dome, as David Nash wasn’t around when I had taken my bike to Blaenau, but much of the moment when the mariner awakes on the pyroclastic stone, with the mountain vista, came from the night I spent on Moel Hebog, cradled in a dip of rock, watching the sun fall behind the horizon, night sweep over Beddgelert, and dawn rise over Mount Snowden.
The final element of the mariner’s journey is in the arms of the pilot of the ancient coracle, who hauls him out of the sea. This was a special shout-out to one of the most inspirational people I have never met, as the pilot’s features owe much to the boyish curls and Clint Eastwood squint of Roger Deakin. Roger left London to spend almost a decade rebuilding an ancient farmhouse in Suffolk, which became one of the most beautiful places, both in aesthetics and spirit, on earth. I was lucky enough to stay in the farmhouse whilst its current owners Jasmine and Titus were on holiday, and wandered the lush overgrown fields, explored the tangled woods and hedgerows and spent three golden childlike days, top off, scratching my knees on the briar, exploring this cornucopia of untamed nature. I guess the general sense of childish wonder at the end of part seven comes from these moments.
To draw the book, I went back to my old home in West Berkshire and began to prowl its woodlands. By far the greatest blessing of this book was the time it gave me to walk and wonder. I scoured the lands I had grown up in, with all manner of books in my rucksack – Rob MacFarlane, Richard Mabey, Jay Griffiths, Lyall Watson, Richard Adams, Henry Williamson, Ted Hughes, Barry Lopez, Edward Thomas, John Clare, John Stewart Collis, and in the buzzing heat of summer soaked up the words of the great nature writers, sat on some pastoral stump, happy as a pig in shit.
Writing a book is a gift of education – essentially a university course in whatever you want. I was able to spend a year researching everything from polymers to blue whales, mycelia to trawler ships, and realized that whilst the book was the ultimate goal it was the process of making it that was the most rewarding. Sat in the woods, drawing tree-roots, and calling it work, was an unbelievable blessing, and a far cry from the office in Streatham where the journey began.
FPI would like to thank Nick for taking the time to share his insights into his new graphic work with us; Rime of the Modern Mariner is published in the UK by Jonathan Cape in early April; all artwork is by and (c) Nick Hayes.