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On A Clear Day

By, Sergio Burns

Being in the sky – advisedly in a helicopter or a small plane – gives you a different perspective on the world below. Potentially, you can see the topography of the whole surface of the planet. The seas, the oceans, the mountains, forests, lakes or lochs, roads, bridges, cities. What is unravelling beneath us, according to author and film-maker James Crawford, is not only those physical features of the landscape but also the historic and cultural identities of humanity on the ground.

“The view from above let’s you discover archaeological sites that you couldn’t see any other way,” James explained. “I think that’s fascinating. That can be plotted all across the world in different places. Most recently with one of the most publicly well known ones… was the discovery of a major Mayan temple system in Central America. They thought there were one or two little temples strung out, and through aerial photography and actually airborne laser scanning, they discovered it wasn’t lots of individual temples, it was actually a city.”

But it wasn’t just what could be identified from the air, but indeed how that view from the clouds could relate to ordinary people living their lives on the ground. Impressively, Crawford interviewed people who had experienced the impact of planning and building on their lives. The series, for example, included interviews with a lady who lived in a high-rise flat, a woman who lived in one of the New Towns and a Glasgow taxi driver.

“Yeah, I think that was really important because…there can be a tendency for talking heads just to be a professor of this or a doctor of that,” Crawford explained the thinking behind his BBC three part documentary series : ‘Scotland From The Sky’ “You know a lot of the themes, especially in the second episode, are dealing with people’s lives, and ordinary people’s lives and certainly people’s lives from across the class spectrum. The decisions that were being made in planning terms were impacting people fundamentally and still impact on them. To not hear their voices in the programme would have been actually quite a startling omission.”

I think, for what it is worth, it was, quite simply, genius. But, I also found the man quite enigmatic.

Crawford, for instance, studied law at university gaining a first class honours though he had never any intentions of practising as a solicitor.

“You could specialise once you got to the honours stage,” James explained his flirtation with the legal profession. “So, I was really interested in the history side and that was kind of what I write now as a historian. The history of democracy the… history of civilisation these were things I could pursue as part of my law degree always with a mind to, I am going to write about this at some stage, and once I had graduated there was honestly no point (laughing) that I ever thought that I was ever going to practice law. It was never going to be for me.”

As someone whose only career goal was to write, James became a broadcast journalist, then a literary agent, a partner in a publishing company, and eventually Publishing Operations Manager for Historic Environment Scotland. But it was his books, and especially one on particular, that brought him to the attention of the BBC.

“I wrote (a) book with a London, and actually an American publisher… called Fallen Glory,” He explained how ‘Scotland From The Sky’ had come about. “Which was nothing to do with Scotland. It was… the book that I had always planned to write. While I was doing my law degree and while I was specialising in those areas of history. It was about lost buildings around the world going from prehistory right up to the present day. Tower of Babel up to the Twin Towers. Telling the stories of those buildings like they were biographies, so the buildings were almost like people, if they were born they would die. It was while I was doing publicity for that book I was on the Today programme, I was on Start the Week, I was on Newsnight, and that’s when the BBC got in touch with me to say are you interested in opportunities with the BBC? To which I said yes…(laughs) absolutely I am. We talked about it and we talked around various ideas, but the one that kind of emerged because they were really keen on doing a series, because we had got to a point with graphics technology where it could work with the archive imagery to kind of bring it back to life so that felt like the project to pursue and they were really enthusiastic, and it obviously tied in with my work as well.”

Born in Shetland, where his father worked on the Sullom Voe oil terminal, the family were soon on the move to Singapore before returning to Scotland and settling in Auchterarder. But James has strong connections to Ayrshire.

“One of the things that is interesting when you get up in an aeroplane is how small Scotland seems. You can take off from Edinburgh and you can see Arran once you are up there.”

“I know Ayrshire quite well,” he revealed. “Been down to Troon, often into Ayr quite a lot. My dad…actually used to be based in Largs, used to go and spend the summer there. So, I could have been down that part of the world a fair amount. One of the things that is interesting when you get up in an aeroplane is how small Scotland seems. You can take off from Edinburgh and you can see Arran once you are up there. On a clear day you can see clear across to Arran, and you can sort of see from east to west coast. I think that is one of the reasons why Scotland (and Ayrshire) is such a fantastic place to view from the air.”

Crawford is now pondering over his next literary venture, more than aware that Fallen Glory was a ‘200,000 word, 600 page epic which cost him four, almost five years of his life. But now he is an experienced television presenter, and that brings a new angle to his work.

“I’d love to do more television,” he revealed. “I found it such an enjoyable experience. When you’ve got the scripts for the programme that was kind of another kind of step forward for me. It is one thing putting words down on a page but to see those words translated into film was amazing. I really absolutely loved that. Working with these really talented directors and cameramen and producers to see how they take a story and translate it onto the screen. It is still writing for me and it is still what I have always loved and what I’ve always wanted to do, but it just adds a new dimension. You know I love film, I love television, I think it is a brilliant way to communicate.”

After the success of ‘Scotland From The Sky’ James is already considering what, for him comes next. He is, already, busy thinking through several ideas before deciding on his next book, his next direction of travel.

“Yes there are a few new book ideas kind of bubbling away,” He confirmed. “That I am trying to kind of advance at the moment.”

Intelligent, erudite, and, if you pardon the pun, firmly grounded, James Crawford is certainly not someone who will stand around for very long admiring the success of ‘Scotland From The Sky’. He is possessed by an affliction called writing, which, apparently is incurable, and only drives him on to further literary adventures, and who knows where they might lead? So, we wait for his next move.