Saturday, February 17, 2018

Joan McFadden / The best sex of my life

The best sex of my life

They are the sexual encounters that linger long after the event, the memorable moments of joy when you suddenly see what all the fuss is about – here 10 people share their bliss

Margaret Hunter, 88
I was 26 and a week away from marrying John. We’d been engaged for three years and sex scared me senseless because I was desperate to try it, but I’m from “the good girls don’t” era. I was more worried about being an unmarried mum than dying of flu when it hit our village after the war. My father had done up a tiny cottage for us on his farm and both sets of parents gave us furniture. We went over with big bags of linen and pots and pans to make sure that everything was ready for moving in after our wedding. We were making up our double bed and we fell on each other. It was such a glorious feeling I was nearly crying and so was John – it was the first time for both of us. And we’ve never really stopped since.
Gary Roberts, 42
Our marriage was falling apart and my wife had an affair. That shocked us both into realising we wanted to be together and we went for counselling because it was something I’d done that pushed her towards the other guy. I knew that but I couldn’t get him out of my head and our sex life was dead – we’d start cuddling and I’d get upset or angry and start dragging up the past. I knew I was doing it but I just couldn’t seem to stop. Then we went to see a comedy one night and laughed so much we were crying and we walked home with our arms round each other, talking about our favourite comedies. We got into the house and it was dark and she went to put the kettle on and I just grabbed her and we made love on the kitchen floor and it was like everything worked again.
Kate Murray, 41
Sex never meant that much to me. I’d had a couple of boyfriends and we sort of jogged along – I got engaged to one and we started half-heartedly planning a wedding but neither of us was devastated when I ended it. Then I had a few years just concentrating on my career and friends but when I met Janie at a wedding I was completely swept off my feet. I had never thought I was gay and in a strange way I still don’t – it’s just that Janie is meant for me. There were no nerves or anything and I’ll never forget our first night together because it just confirmed that we were meant to be together. Sometimes I wonder how I ever thought sex didn’t matter because it’s the glue that keeps us together no matter what else happens – and we fight a lot!

Kevin Barker, 29
I was 16 and at a festival. The first couple of nights had been too much of everything and I was recovering from a blinding hangover when I met Magda. She was a few years older than me and I forgot about my friends and spent the day with her before dragging her back to meet them. I didn’t need any more drink and I was full of myself, convinced I was in love. She took me back to her tent and we spent the night together and I thought we’d at least spend the rest of the weekend together but she moved on to someone else and I was shattered. I still think about her and no sexual experience has ever lived up to that hot sweaty night in her little tent – if I ever meet another woman who makes me feel like that, I’ll marry her.
Heather Brown, 60
When I had breast cancer 15 years ago my husband couldn’t cope. He left me for a younger woman a year later and my self-esteem was rock bottom as I’d put on weight and didn’t care how I looked, especially as I retired early due to ill health and just sat around doing nothing. Five years ago, my best friend had had enough and yelled at me to get a grip and get sorted. I was so stunned I obeyed her, losing three stones and taking up jogging in a big way. I started seeing a lovely man and I was so nervous as I’d only ever slept with my husband, but my first sex in 10 years was wonderful and we saw each other for a while. I’ve had a couple of relationships since then and never lost my confidence in sex again.
Grant Earl, 38
I was desperate to take my girlfriend on a cycling tour of the Outer Hebrides as I’d done it before and the weather was spectacular. She had to be talked into it and when it started raining and didn’t stop I felt guilty and she was totally fed up. We were pitching our tent in sand dunes in a brief spell of no rain and I was wittering about how beautiful it was with the sun shining when there was a crack of thunder and the heavens opened. She started laughing, stripped off her clothes and boots, threw them into the tent and stood there naked with the rain bouncing off her. My mouth was hanging open in shock until she said “Get your kit off now!” and we didn’t even make the tent. The sand got everywhere and she chucked me when we got back, but that’s still my best sex ever.
Thomas Ryan, 57
I’d known I was gay since I was very young but was paralysed by the thought of telling my parents as they are devout Irish Catholics. For years they actually thought being gay was an illness and I just couldn’t tell them – it made me feel ill when I thought of their reaction. All my friends at university knew I was gay and I was madly promiscuous but always felt so guilty. I was in my late 30s before I finally told my parents and they were amazing, totally accepting. It was like having my whole life smoothed out. The next time I had sex it was with the man who’s still my partner and I’m sure feeling so comfortable with myself at last played a huge part in finally enjoying sex and being ready for a relationship.

Lorrae Bradbury, 26
Sex was always a performance to me. An interactive, contrived production inspired by women’s magazines that told me to “unleash my inner sex kitten”, learned from porn’s exaggerated movements and sounds, and practised during sex that lacked connection. Until I slept with him. He said, “You don’t have to do that just because I like it. Do what you like.” I realised “what I like” never occurred to me. It only occurred to me to be someone else’s fantasy. To be the hot story they told their friends and the memory they recall when they are alone. At first, his words sounded like just a sweet, gentlemanly gesture designed to make me comfortable. But as he looked at me deeply, I eventually saw that the porn-star persona I’d so carefully constructed had never been necessary. I could be me. Just me. Intimate, imperfect and genuinely present with him.
Emily Yates, 24
I’m a travel writer, so spend a lot of time away from home. It’s often hard to keep the romance alive without it involving jet lag, time-delayed Skypes and heavily filtered “wish you were here” photos. I’m also a wheelchair user and it took me a while to accept myself, flaws and all. I’m single now, but whenever I landed back on UK soil was when we’d have our best sex. The anticipation would have me grinning on the flight home, and the long drive back up north from Heathrow would give us time to debrief on our months apart and get to know each other again, almost like it was the first time. There’s nothing quite like “I’ve missed you” sex (as long as you mind the sunburn).
Anonymous, 47
Our teenage daughters are patronisingly rude about how boring we are, especially as I’m a minister. Twenty years ago we were at a church camp in the US and spent our last night with another minister and his wife. Apparently she never drank but we had two bottles of wine between us and she got really amorous with him in front of us and they stripped off and had sex, so we did the same. It wasn’t a foursome, just in the same room. We couldn’t look at them the next morning as they drove us to the airport. But every time the girls go on about how boring we are, Liz and I have a snigger because we both have the same memory and the girls know we’re hiding something. But we’ll never ever share that one with them.
As told to Joan McFadden

Friday, February 16, 2018

A life in writing / John Burnside

John Burnsdide

John Burnside: a life in writing

'Having been, as it were, mad, and lived with horror I believed in, I know that rationality doesn't carry you all the way'

Sarah Crown
Friday 26 August 2011 22.54 BST

"What I'm interested in just now," says John Burnside, "is the Schrödinger's cat novel: two mutually exclusive possibilities sitting together without cancelling each other out." He achieves just such a balancing act in his latest novel, A Summer of Drowning, in which the narrator, Liv, wrestles with the question of whether a series of unexplained deaths in her island community can be laid at the door of a malign spirit – the huldra – said to haunt the Arctic forests where she lives. "I wanted readers to be able to believe that the huldra exists, at the same time as rationally thinking 'this cannot be'," Burnside explains. "Because, you know, that's how we live our lives."
It's certainly how Burnside has lived his. Here is a man whose first poetry volume, published in 1988 when he was in his 30s, turned out to be the pebble that called forth the avalanche: in the quarter-century since, he has written compulsively, pouring out an astonishing (and astonishingly well-received) 13 collections and eight novels. But here, too, is a man whose early life, set out in a pair of bleached and harrowing memoirs, was so catastrophic that it tipped him into a spiral of LSD binges, psychiatric wards and, finally insanity. In a scene at the beginning of his second volume of memoir, Waking Up in Toytown, he comes to on a bed, surrounded by bottles holding "a mixture of blood, honey, alcohol, olive oil and urine" with "a single feather, balanced precariously on each rim". The intention, as far as he can recall, was "to cast a spell that would stop the world from disintegrating . . . if one feather falls, then the spell fails". Rationally, it is impossible to square this vision of disintegration with the thoughtful, cheerful man currently sipping a beer across the table – but perhaps that explains why Burnside gives short shrift to rationality and its adherents. "I always feel saddened by intelligent people who say, this can't be true because it doesn't work in terms of rationality," he says. "What does? Inspiration? Art? Romantic love? Having been, as it were, mad, and lived with horror which at that moment I completely believed in, I know that rationality doesn't carry you all the way. Irrationality interests me more than anything: sometimes it's very dangerous, but it can be incredibly beautiful."

In A Summer of Drowning, it is both. The book has its roots in a family trip to the Arctic circle over a decade ago, when Burnside and his wife, Sarah, decamped to north Norway for the summer with their infant son. "Lucas's first birthday was on the island of Kvaløya, where the book's set," Burnside remembers (the couple now have two sons). "You sat outside your hut and gazed for miles: nothing but wind and sea and Arctic terns. It was gorgeous; it was like heaven to me. That's when I started this book. It took me 10 years to write it."
The magic of that summer infuses the book: a wide, white canvas lit by splashes of prismatic colour, it is at once the most ravishing novel I've read all year, and the most intellectually provoking. Liv, the young narrator, lives in beautiful seclusion on Kvaløya with her mother, a gifted but reclusive painter. A loner herself, Liv has little to do with her classmates, preferring to train her gaze on her environment, and visit her elderly neighbour, Kyrre, who beguiles her with local stories of trolls and lost children. When two teenaged boys drown in calm water under the midnight sun, "that still, silvery-white gloaming that makes everything spectral", Kyrre maintains that a huldra, a malevolent forest-spirit which takes the form of a beautiful young girl, drove them to it. At first Liv disregards him, but as the novel winds towards its convulsive ending, she becomes convinced of the literal truth of his tale. And we, who see everything through her eyes, grow simultaneously more aware of her profound unreliability as a narrator and less certain of what, precisely, it is that we're seeing.
For seasoned Burnside readers, the real wonder of the novel isn't the slippery subject matter, but that this is the first time he has fully succeeded in fusing the opposing strengths of his prose and his poetry in one book. In the past, the two have inhabited very different arenas – the first obsessively occupied with darkness and violence, the second with the gloriously mystical. But in A Summer of Drowning, bloodshed is balanced by beauty: the sensuousness of Liv's gaze, which lingers on food and flowers and the sea's "endlessly shifting maze of grey and silver and salt-blue", offsets the patches of pitch-blackness in a story that, like the legend of the huldra itself, has "chaos at its heart". Just as his fiction is beginning to incorporate some of the mysticism of his poetry, so Burnside's poetry appears to be absorbing the firmness of his fiction. Over the years he has established himself as a laureate of the transcendental, but his new collection, Black Cat Bone, shows a perceptible change of tack. "I realised I'd spent a lot of time in my poetry trying to find a way of talking about that whereof we cannot speak," he says. "This new book is about things that nobody can deny. I'm always referred to as being interested in the numinous, the immanent, those kinds of words. I decided not to do it any more. This book still deals with the evanescent, but it's about sex, love, death – solid, real-life things." The two books, taken together, read like the works of a man in the process of making peace with himself.

There has been much to reconcile. Burnside was born in Dunfermline in 1955, to a mother fast realising she'd made a terrible mistake and a father who would cast a polluting shadow over his son's life well beyond his own death from a heart attack between the bar and the cigarette machine of the Silver Band Club many years later. Hard-drinking, hard-gambling, simmeringly violent, he was determined to bludgeon any trace of softness or sweetness out of his son. "What he wanted," Burnside says, in 2006's superb A Lie About My Father, "was to warn me against hope, against any expectation of someone from my background being treated as a human being in the big hard world. He wanted to kill off my finer – and so, weaker – self. Art. Music. Books. Imagination. Signs of weakness, all. A man was defined, in my father's circles, by what he could bear, the pain he could shrug off, the warmth or comfort he could deny himself."
This lesson in working-class Catholic masculinity was achieved through a series of viciously petty acts of cruelty, such as the burning of a favourite teddy bear, that continue to haunt Burnside's dreams decades later. Although his subsequent discovery that his father had been abandoned as an infant allowed him to forgive the man, he was unable to forget. "I cannot talk about him without talking about myself," he writes, "just as I can never look at myself in the mirror without seeing his face." Eventually, inevitably, Burnside followed his father into the same vortex of repression and release through alcohol – but in his case the vortex went deeper, ending in drug abuse and mental breakdown.
'I didn't set out to write about my early life," Burnside says. "One day I was talking about what I was going to do next, and just found myself announcing it: I'm going to write a book about my father. We were expecting Lucas at the time, and I suddenly thought, what stories do I have for my son? I didn't even have a family album with pictures of me as a kid: I'd refused all of that. My father told all these versions of his life – he'd been adopted by his uncle, he was the son of an industrialist and a factory girl, or of a lay preacher who'd strayed – so I went to see my aunt to find out what was true, what was false. She told me the full story, the whole foundling thing. After that the book had to happen."
He followed it four years later with Waking Up in Toytown, which details his struggle to shake off the shadow. He wanted "a normal life. Sober. Drug-free. Dreamless. In gainful employment. A householder. A taxpayer. A name on the electoral roll", and on the surface, at least, he achieved it. For 10 years, he slipped himself into a textbook middle-class existence: house in Surrey, job in computing, numbing visits to cinema and garden centre. But beneath the surface, this book is, if anything, more desperate even than the first. Despite his best efforts, alcohol sneaked back in, turning his nights into uneasy odysseys, leading him to a series of encounters with equally damaged souls: the mother who dopes her kids with valium-laced orange juice; the fellow-drinker who tries to persuade Burnside to bump off his wife. The suburbia he finds for himself turns out to be a fatally debased version of the television fantasy, not the safe haven he'd imagined.

"I realised I'd been faking 'normal' for 10 years, pretty much," Burnside says. "And I knew it had to stop. I ended up walking into my boss's office and saying, 'That's it, I'm done'. And he looked at me – I was a 40-ish guy, he knew I wrote poetry – and said 'I suppose you're off to write a novel?'. In the end he told me to do some consultancy work to ease the transition."
By now, the poetry that had welled through the cracks of his suburban life was flowing, and he was several collections in, despite a shaky start. "My first book was a car crash. I tried to find all the copies and destroy them. I'd sent some poems to Carcanet, and Michael Schmidt [the editor] was very encouraging and suggested a book. I assumed this was the first stage of a long process of honing, but instead they just put my poems together, with a picture of me in a tank top on the back. They sent me a copy, and I said 'oh, this is the proof, is it?'. I thought, god, I'm not doing that again."
He decided to give up poetry there and then, but felt obliged to do a couple of readings on the back of publication. At one, he met the poet Sarah Maguire, who persuaded him to send some poems to Robin Robertson, poetry editor at Jonathan Cape, before jacking it in. "I began working with Robin and everything changed."
Burnside got married at about the time he published his first novel, The Dumb House, and moved back to Scotland where he took up a writer's residency at Dundee University. Though he was well known and admired within the poetry world (he'd been shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize and the Forward prize, and had taken the Whitbread poetry award for his 2000 collection, The Asylum Dance), his longer writing took time to gel. The Dumb House, in which a Mengele-esque narrator attempts to discover "the locus of the soul" by carrying out surgical experiments on his twin children, was reasonably well received, but the follow-ups were, Burnside says, "disastrous".
"The second one, The Mercy Boys, was an emotional response to going back to Scotland, and probably an early way of trying to deal with some of the issues around my father – the gambling, the booze, the tension in that men's world. I shouldn't have written it. Then came The Locust Room," a curiously affectless tale about the 1970s Cambridge rapist, "which was very self-indulgent: a book-length apology for having been a dick when I was growing up, for having treated my sisters and my mother the way my father did." The next book, Living Nowhere, was "better", but he still hadn't hit his fictional stride. After the memoirs were written, much of the personal stuff he'd been trying to smuggle into the fiction was cleared out.
Nowadays, he says, for the first time he is "happy with what I'm doing. I feel as if I know where I'm going now – I can see four or five books ahead." Despite the forward planning, however, when it comes to the act of writing, he's sticking with irrationality. "I imagine the mind as a big house. You've got the parlour where you sit and have tea, your bedroom, your kitchen, your bathroom. But actually there are endless rooms around you that you don't use, and there's one room way at the back – the furnace room, maybe – where your thoughts begin. Sometimes they walk all the way up to the parlour to find you before you even realised they were coming. That's how it feels for me. I think good ideas work like that."

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Who is the best Oscar-winning lead actress of all time?


Greatest Oscar winners ever: who is the best lead actress of all time? Photograph: Guardian Design Team

Who is the best Oscar-winning lead actress of all time?

Elizabeth Taylor? Meryl Streep? Frances McDormand? Our chief critic picks a winner from his five nominees – and reveals who you hose as your champion

Peter Bradshaw
Wed 14 Feb 2018

he Academy award for best actress confers a burdensome glamour on its recipient, in most cases a career-high but sometimes a career-end, a longed-for prize that nothing can top, making its winner a pampered jewel in a very male prestige display. Like almost everything about the Academy Awards, it rewards tragedy rather than comedy, and grandiloquence rather than subtlety, so there is something operatic in lining up a five-part fantasy league of the best actress winners. But these are some of the most glorious and intensely pleasurable performances it is possible to watch.

Classics corner 196 / I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou / Review


I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou – review

The first volume of Maya Angelou's autobiography is proof of her inner strength and a testament to the power of words

Anita Sethi
Sunday 18 August 2013 00.03 BST

he caged bird "sings of freedom", writes Maya Angelou in her poem "Caged Bird" – a poignant recurring image throughout her work, as she eloquently explores the struggle to become liberated from the shackles of racism and misogyny. This evocative first volume of her six books of autobiography, originally published in 1969 (1984 in the UK), vividly depicts Angelou's "tender years" from the ages of three to 16, partly in the American south during the depression-wracked 1930s, while also offering timeless insights into the empowering quality of books.

The painful sense of being unwanted haunts her early childhood, for when Maya (then known as Marguerite) is three and her brother Bailey four they are sent to the "musty little town" of segregated Stamps, Arkansas wearing tags on their wrists addressed to "To whom it may concern", dispatched by their parents in California who had decided to end their "calamitous marriage". Living with their grandmother, "Momma", who owns a general merchandise store, and Uncle Willie, they suffer racist incidents both in the store and on the streets – nowhere feels safe. Sent to live with her mother, Maya endures the trauma of rape by her mother's lover Mr Freeman ("a breaking and entering when even the senses are torn apart"). After Freeman is murdered, she stops speaking, frightened of words.

Angelou finds her voice and a love of language and books through the help of Mrs Bertha Flowers who, writes Angelou, "has remained throughout my life the measure of what a human being can be". The memoir's absorbing emotional arc traces Angelou's growth from inferiority complex to confidence, finding the strength to tackle "the puzzle of inequality and hate" and be hired as the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco thanks to her "honeycomb of determination".
Challenging societal structures, Angelou also succeeds in altering literary structures, experimenting with the capabilities of memoir – indeed, her editor had dared her to "write an autobiography as literature". Told with a winning combination of wit and wisdom, this is a paean to the powers of storytelling to build bridges across divides, and heal what has been damaged.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Classics corner 037 / The Tin Drum by Günter Grass / Review


The Tin Drum by Günter Grass

Phil Mongredien
Sunday 8 November 2009 00.05 GMT

"Granted: I'm an inmate in a mental institution…" So begins Oskar Matzerath, narrator of Günter Grass's 1959 debut. With the help of one of his titular drums, Oskar recounts – not always reliably – the extraordinary events of his first 30 years: arresting his own physical development on his third birthday by throwing himself downs the stairs; "singshattering" glass with his otherworldly voice; impregnating his father's second wife; his key role in the deaths of his parents; finding independence as a stonemason, then later an artist's model and recording artist in the German postwar economic miracle.
Set primarily in Grass's native Danzig, the shadow of Nazism hangs heavy over the first two-thirds of the book, with Kristallnacht, the fall of Poland and ultimately the Soviet capture of the city all refracted through Oskar's eyes, as is the plight of German refugees struggling westwards ahead of the Red Army.

But it's Grass's dazzling use of language that sets The Tin Drum apart, as he spins a dense verbal web alive with wordplay and innovation. It's no coincidence that Oskar enjoys a stint with a jazz band, as there is an uninhibited, free-flowing musicality to the telling of his life story.
To mark The Tin Drum's 50th anniversary, its publishers around the world have commissioned a series of new translations, overseen by Grass himself. Breon Mitchell has reinstated much of the rhythm of the German original, as well as restoring some overtly sexual references thought too shocking for British audiences half a century ago. Given Grass's close involvement with this new translation, it is fair to call this the definitive version of arguably the most important German novel of the postwar era.

My best shot / Bettin Rheims / Trans sex worker Erica

Erica Juin 1991, Paris. Photograph by Bettina Rheims

Bettina Rheims's best photograph: trans sex worker Erica

‘Erica was a trans prostitute who worked in the Bois de Boulogne. The girls hid in the bushes and called themselves spies’

Interview by Jessica Labhart
Thursday 3 December 2015 08.00 GMT

he was very feminine, very tall, wearing a mink coat. She looked like a superwoman, a Helmut Newton icon or something. I said: “You look beautiful, but I’m casting androgynous people and you’re much too feminine for my series.”

She stayed in my studio and stared at me without talking and after a few seconds I was embarrassed. “Do you understand what I said?” She said: “Yes, but you’re the one that doesn’t understand who I am.” I said: “You’re not androgynous,” and she said: “No. But I’m not a woman.”
That was my first encounter with transgender people. Remember, at the end of the 80s, it was something very hidden. If you were a transsexual, there was no way you would find a job, no way you could have your identity recognised – there was no proper life for you. Often, the only way to make money for yourself was through prostitution.

So when I decided to do a series of transgender portraits I had to go to the Bois de Boulogne, where some trans women worked at night, hidden in the bushes. I met Erica there one evening and asked her to come to the studio to shoot – all my shoots from that series were done by night. I can’t remember which camera I used or what we talked about – but I’ve always loved the result.
I started photography in my teens, but drifted into acting and modelling. I was always in and out of things – I didn’t much like myself. I was looking for something to make me want to get out of bed in the morning. But my then partner gave me a camera – with this square lens you had to hold on your stomach and look down on to focus – and when I looked through that little square, I knew I was home.
I always wanted to photograph women. I wanted to see their bodies, which was a strange idea in the 1970s. I think I may have opened a door, in a way, to help tackle women’s sexuality a while before everyone else. I took one of the first pictures of Kate Moss, when she was 15 and I was working on androgyny. She wasn’t even a model, just a little girl with a backpack doing a casting at a London agency. I said: “I want this girl.”
When I started working with transsexuals there was really no future for them besides being prosecuted. My series was called Les Espionnes (the Spies) because that is what the girls used to call each other. Most of them died before the book was published – it was a hard life for a transsexual prostitute at the end of the 80s. A lot of them were hurt horribly in the Bois de Boulogne, and there was the Aids crisis.
Everyone wondered why these people were going through hell to change sex – some were really slaughtered by surgeons. I allowed these people to show themselves at their best, to look good in photographs, to be seen with an eye that didn’t judge them. I just took them for what they were — incredibly brave people trying to make a life for themselves.
Three years ago I photographed transgender individuals again, in Gender Studies,to try and figure out what has changed in the last 20 years. Listening to people’s stories, hearing how they’re treated in the street and on the subway, there’s still a lot of fear. But the fact that the law is beginning to recognise transgender people – that they are allowed to have a neutral sign on their passports – shows attitudes have changed. I’m proud to have contributed to that.


Born: Neuilly-sur-Seine, Paris.
Studied: My mentor was Helmut Newton. I would take my photos to him every Thursday. He said: “You can do this.”
Influences: Helmut Newton, Diane Arbus.
High point: “After just a year of taking photographs I did my first solo exhibition at the Centre du Pompidou.”
Low point: “The night before a shoot, I’m sometimes convinced it’s not going to work.”

Saturday, February 10, 2018

My best shot / Glen Luchford's best photograph / Amber Valletta modelling Prada in a sinking boat

In the gloaming …
Amber Valletta on the Tiber.
Photograph by Glen Luchford


Glen Luchford's best photograph: Amber Valletta modelling Prada in a sinking boat

‘The owner of Prada was standing on the riverbank shouting at everyone. When he asked me if I’d got the shot I said, “No!” and stormed off in a huff’

Interview by Nell Frizzell
Wed 6 Sep 2017

e had to shut the river Tiber in Rome for this picture. It’s expensive to shut down a whole river, but this was for the Prada 1997 autumn/winter campaign, so we had the budget for it. You can’t see them, but there are about 10 people in the water, setting fire to bales of hay covered in kerosene to try and make it look misty. We had to shoot it in the last 10 minutes of daylight, so that the colours would be just right. I wanted it to be more than dusk – you could call it the gloaming.

We’d painted the boat the right colour. Everyone was lined up, ready to go, about four hours before we were due to shoot. But right at the last minute, the stylist decided to change the dress to a red one. That proved too vibrant. Then the boat started to sink and one of the guys throwing the bales of hay in the river forgot to let go and disappeared into the water after it. I’d been planning it for three months but in the last five minutes of daylight, the entire scene descended into utter chaos.
Mr [Patrizio] Bertelli, the boss of Prada, was standing there on the riverbank shouting at everyone. When he asked me if I’d got the shot I said, “No!” and stormed off in a huff. 
We went back the next day. We closed the river again and worked on everything we’d done wrong to get it right the second time around. When the film was developed it was exactly what I had wanted to achieve.
I’d seen two films growing up that influenced this shot: one was Andrei Rublev, by Tarkovsky, and Time of the Gypsies by Emir Kusturica. Both have religious scenes of people floating down the river in the mist. I decided to do a homage to both films. I was also thinking a lot about Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. (If I were to choose a soundtrack for this shot, it would probably be Soave sia il vento from Così fan tutte.)
Back then, film stock was really oversaturated, because it was developed in the amateur market, so you gotthese bright, vivid colours. I was trying to achieve the opposite – I wanted everything to be underexposed and muted, sombre.

We found tiny lights used for car shots in movies to illuminate people’s faces. We had just one, attached to the side of the boat; that was our only lighting. To get the shot, we had to aim for this one moment when there was a perfect balance between the strength of that artificial light and the strength of the dying sun. Two months later, I discovered Photoshop, with which I could have done the whole thing in just two minutes.
A photo from this shoot ended up on a Giles Deacon dress. The Museum of Modern Art and the V&A had already asked to have the photos in their permanent collections, so they were elevated above just magazine shots. 
What you’re looking for, working with anyone from Beyoncé to David Beckham to Björk, is a moment of spontaneity. You don’t want the photograph to feel staged. To do that you have to read each situation. Over the years you develop a bunch of skills. With this picture, Amber Valletta, the model, had been sitting so still for so long, I think she got a kind of rigor mortis. She was probably also anxiously hoping the boat wasn’t going to fill with water.
Looking at some of the things I’ve done, I remember the technical difficulties, the problems. But you create problems to overcome the boredom. Your parameter is basically a girl in a dress, and you do it every day. So you have to find a way to make it more interesting.

Glen Luchford’s CV

Born: Lancing, Sussex, 1968.
Studied: Left school at 15, and worked at a hairdresser. Started shooting for the Face at 19.
Influences: “When I was young I studied every artist and film-maker I could find. Tarkovsky is a favourite, Chris Killip as well.”
High point: “The Prada pictures were fun. It was the first time I had the budget and the crew to do something like that.”
Low point: “The financial crash of 2008. I’d just had a son, so had responsibility right when the industry went into meltdown. I remember walking into the agency in New York and it was completely silent.”
Top tip: “Don’t procrastinate.”
 The Agony and the Ecstasy: Jack Webb by Glen Luchford is out now through Idea publishing