Sunday, December 22, 2013

The visitor

At 8pm last Saturday night, the phone rang in my hotel room. The receptionist sounded suspicious and protective. 

“There’s a, er, gentleman here who wants to talk to you.” 

I was expecting him. 

“It's OK, we have an appointment – please tell him I’ll be right down.” 

She sounded only a little relieved. When I saw him sitting silently on a sofa in the corner of the reception area, I understood her reticence.

Tremain – “call me Trey” – stood out from the other guests in my trendy Brooklyn hotel. This is where the bright things in this New York borough, for many years the poor relation of Manhattan but now the cool place to live if you’re young and moneyed, come on Saturday nights with their spiky hair and trilby hats. Property prices have soared as developers have transformed the rat-infested warehouses into cool apartments. 

Tremain sat waiting in his baseball cap and trainers. Perhaps the receptionist thought he was my drug dealer. Why else would a young black youth be meeting a 60-year-old Brit? 

In fact, he’s the cameraman for my shoot tomorrow. He’s 29, and very talented. As he shakes my hand warmly, he says how excited he is to meet me at last. I reckon he says that to all his directors. He’s making the difficult transition from an operator, who mans the camera, to the person who makes films look magical, the director of photography. 

Later I realise his excitement might be genuine, because he says I’m helping his career. He’s moved here from Atlanta, the home of car crash reality shows, where he’s spent the last five years shooting inebriated divorced women throwing wine over each other. He’d be a perfect cameraman for Geordie Shore. But, tomorrow, I want him to be an artist. 

I’ve hired a Manhattan loft overlooking the Hudson River and, with one of New York’s top stylists, we’re going to shoot a video. I need Tremain to make it look beautiful. We’re going to make each other rich. And we’re going to make his father proud. 

In the hotel’s exclusive rooftop bar, the whole of Manhattan spread before us like an illuminated stage backcloth, the warm night air belying the late December date, he tells me how his family came to Atlanta from Jamaica in the early 1990s. All five children had been a disappointment to their father, who worked for the Bank of America. He had encouraged, cajoled and ultimately forced them into the same bank. Tremain had worked in the anti-fraud department, even though, as he says, “I can scarcely spell the word math.” 

Inevitably, all the kids rebelled. One by one they dropped out and joined the uncertain world of creativity. They were now successful artists, performers – and a cameraman. 

Tremain tells me with pride how, although for years he and his disappointed father hadn’t spoken, the rift had now healed and his Dad looks out for his television credits. 

Was it coincidence that all the kids had ended up creative? Of course not. It turns out Tremain’s Dad has a talent for painting, but in Jamaica that wasn’t considered a respectable career, which is why he joined the bank. 

It got me thinking of my own children – Ben, who will soon be directing his first feature film, and Rocca, my sculptor daughter, who turned 30 this very weekend. Neither had been encouraged down the creative path, but somehow it seemed inevitable. 

Today, Rocca works in Uganda, running an arts centre she’s set up to help struggling African artists. I tell Tremain about her, working in a country whose parliament, this very week, has passed an odious law effectively making it a crime to be homosexual. 

“It’s nearly 2014,” said Tremain, incredulous. “How can such hideous places exist?” 

“Not so long ago it would have illegal for you and I to share a beer here in this bar,” I replied. 

“Sure,” he said, “but it was never illegal to be black.” 

“True, but back then,” I said, “who would have thought it possible for a black person to be creative?” 

Tremain smiled. 

“Here’s to your daughter – may she transform Ugandan art,” he said. 

And we raised our beers to the New York sky, to creativity, and to tolerance.

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