Caught by the River

The Beechwood Airship Interviews

29th July 2015

Beechwood Airship Final.indd

The Beechwood Airship Interviews by Dan Richards
The Friday Project (an imprint of Harper Collins), paperback, 400 pages. Out 30/07/15

Review by Marcus O’Dair

I first became aware of Dan Richards with 2013’s Holloway, a collaboration with Robert Macfarlane, the landscape writer and academic, and Stanley Donwood, the illustrator best known for his ongoing partnership with Radiohead. That was about a trip to Dorset inspired by Roger Deakin and was originally published in a limited edition of just 277 copies: not, you might think, the most commercial proposition. Richards has followed it up, however, with a title that must have been even harder to pitch. You can picture the meeting: ‘Um, it’s about my impulsive decision to build a wooden airship for no easily explicable reason, except that the zeppelin is only really a jumping-off point and bookending technique, so really it’s a series of conversations with creative people about their work, and workplaces, and anything else that comes up while we’re chatting. Oh, and art school, and the place of the arts and humanities within higher education, and time, and time apparently wasted, and about how that time may in fact be the most important of all.’

Except, of course, Richards wouldn’t have pitched The Beechwood Airship Interviews like that, because as he freely admits, he simply set sail. The book that emerged, which is in part about the process of writing the book, is not as he would have predicted. The format of The Beechwood Airship Interviews is simple: a series of interviews with people in various creative fields: comedy, photography, journalism, music, acting, graphic design, letterpress printing, sculpture. Sometimes these people are obviously linked, other times less so. Some are famous, others less so. No matter: each gets a chapter.

Macfarlane and Donwood are both here. So are Stewart Lee, Bill Drummond, the Manic Street Preachers and Dame Judi Dench. (There’s a particularly good bit when she fetches them each a glass of champagne and Richards promises himself to tell everyone he knows about the occasion for the rest of his life). We also have people like Vaughan Oliver, designer for the 4AD label; the landscape artist David Nash; and Steve Gullick, the man who took that iconic photo of Jason Pierce of Spiritualized standing next to an active volcano. The format is largely Q&A, with answers presented verbatim and at some length. If a subject goes off to make a phone call, that’s included. Footnotes, apparently inspired by Stewart Lee, provide the detail that could be lacking during periods when the authorial voice slips into the background.

There are moments when you wonder if it could be more judiciously edited, but in a way The Beechwood Airship Interviews is nothing without the detail. We find out that the Manics have a bust of Aneurin Bevan on their mixing desk; that Stewart Lee writes material while pushing his young son in a pram; that the KLF would re-form only at the request of Lady Gaga; that the Jason Pierce photo was taken when he and Gullick jumped on a plane after hearing that Mount Etna was erupting, blagging their way through the police line to get their snap even though Gullick’s main bag of equipment had been stolen en route. We learn that Robert Macfarlane has thrown away 700,000 words in order to get 300,000 in print. We even get tips for freelance working: if you’re struggling to focus, suggests journalist Sheryl Garratt, take your laptop to a café; anyone sitting in front of a laptop in public looks silly if not hard at work. Richards seems to have a knack not only for getting these people to agree to interviews when they don’t have anything particular to promote – The Beechwood Airship Interviews is in part a reminder of how PR-driven most features are – but also for getting them to open up once he meets them.

Really, The Beechwood Airship Interviews is a book about what I hesitate to call “the creative process”. It could be spectacularly indulgent, yet most of the interviewees are aware of the pitfalls of waffling on about their art/practice/praxis. Maybe, suggests Macfarlane, the more appropriate word is ‘craft’. The book’s success lies in the fact that, by talking about this craft, the interviewees reveal aspects of themselves that would never appear in a weekend supplement interview pegged on a latest film or album or exhibition. In large part, this is thanks to Richards’ gentle prompting. Occasionally his questions seem surprising, and he freely admits he doesn’t know what he’s doing (though he seems to have improved considerably since what was, by his own account, a spectacularly inept initial interview with Macfarlane, and even that resulted in a book collaboration). Yet this in a way is precisely Richards’ strength.

In the epilogue, he steps back for a broader discussion of the place of the arts and humanities within higher education, the whole airship idea having begun while he was studying creative writing in Norwich: it’s to go in the student union bar. There’s a lot he could say here, on fees and funding, and research ‘outputs’, and massive open online courses, and curriculum and pedagogy, and the link between theory and practice. It is perhaps inevitable that Richards only scratches the surface with his brief mentions of the Bologna process, a relatively recent initiative to create a ‘European higher education area’, and alternative educational models from Black Mountain College (where teachers included R. Buckminster Fuller, Elaine and Willem de Kooning, John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg) to Sweden’s current Hyper Island project. There’s an enjoyable moment, though, when he writes to his vice-chancellor to ask why his graduation certificate features only a photocopied signature.

All in all, The Beechwood Airship Interviews is, as Richards admits, a meandering and circuitous journey. But we go through some glorious landscape, in the company of the sort of guide who doesn’t necessarily know the way but is simply very good company. Dialogic and deliberately multidisciplinary, it’s an engaging tale of the rhythms and rituals of cultural labour – and of what you can achieve if you have the gumption to ask.

Buy a copy here.

Marcus O’Dair will be discussing his book, Different Every Time: the Authorised Biography of Robert Wyatt on the Caught by the River stages at Port Eliot Festival, on Friday 31 July, and Festival No. 6, Sunday 6 September

Dan Richards will be discussing The Beechwood Airship Interviews with Cally Callomon on the Caught by the River stage at The Good Life Experience, 18-20 September