Life of his ride

James Duthie could not speak or hear but did manage to ride a bike to the Arctic Circle, as a new film reveals. By Sophie Haydock

In 1951, a young man called James Duthie set out from a Scottish fishing village on his bicycle and pedalled 6,000 miles to the Arctic Circle and back again. His story is spectacular enough – he completed the feat without the trappings of modern technology we’d rely on today. But more than that, Duthie was profoundly deaf and could not speak. Not for a second did he entertain the idea that his “disability” would stop him doing such a thing.

On Duthie’s return to his home village of Cairnbulg, on Scotland’s north east coast, he self-published the book I Cycled Into The Arctic Circle, about his extraordinary three-month journey through Europe and into the top of the northern hemisphere. It is those words and some rare footage of Duthie that form the basis of the new film Dummy Jim – a labour of love for director Matt Hulse, who spent the last 13 years turning Duthie’s “poetic yet pedantic” book into a work of art for the big screen.

“The film has a subtle humour. It’s an emotional, intimate story.”

Dummy Jim debuted at the Edinburgh Festival last year and got a positive response from critics. “The film has a subtle humour. It’s an emotional, intimate story,” says Hulse. The book came to his attention when his mother found the slim volume in a charity shop and sent it him with a note: “Do not feel obliged to do anything with this.”

Of course, Hulse was intrigued, and spent several years working on the film, which he admits has been “terrible at times”. “It had a huge impact on my life, but I had to see it through. People moved on, but I was still there trying to make it. My long efforts with it came to parallel Jim’s long journey on his bike.”

The film doesn’t follow a linear plot but instead evokes a sense of what it was to be Duthie, to capture his eccentric character (he originally set out with the intention of reaching North Africa until he decided, in Spain, that it was too hot and abruptly turned around for a cooler climate). Hulse and his team stuck to the original text and were true to Duthie’s turn of phrase. “Jim is interesting for his mix of poetry and pedantry,” says Hulse. “That’s what I wanted to capture on screen, not turn him into a hero.”

Samuel Dore plays James Duthie in Dummy Jim
Samuel Dore plays James Duthie in Dummy Jim

One example from the book includes a detailed description of dinner in Sweden. “At Lulea at twelve o’clock, I had a good dinner, namely: fried herrings, boiled potatoes, coffee and plain biscuits. ‘Sill stekt, potatis kokt, kaffe och kex’ in the home of Herr Ruben Halibom and his wife. It reminded me of breathing the old Scotch smell of fried herrings. Herrings had been imported to Northern Sweden from the Norwegian fishermen. I am very fond of eating fish myself. I am descended from Scottish herring catchers in Cairnbulg, Aberdeenshire.”

Another details the difficulties of travel by bicycle. “May 17. A screw started to move at the centre of the back wheel after cycling steadily for nearly an hour past. I attempted to fix the same kind of screw firmly and strongly, but it still remained unsatisfactory. It was of a poor quality material. At Charlotte, I went to see a French cycle repairer to see if he could sell me a new screw. He said that he had none like mine to sell. He eyed an old French-made screw thoughtfully but there was nothing like a British-made screw in this district, so he fixed a French screw at the centre of the back wheel.”

“He is a silent presence on two wheels going through different communities.”

Hulse admits candidly that Duthie’s book is “dull”. “As a reader you can barely get through it. He comes across as somewhat pedantic, with this itinerary of what he does and eats. But that is part of the charm. You end up thinking: ‘This guy is something else.’ He is not emotional in the book at all. He is a silent presence on two wheels going through different communities.”

The film also focuses on the small details, like craftspeople at work: knitting, baking bread, carving stone. The Dummy Jim team didn’t pay for the rights to the book, instead offering to make a headstone for Duthie, who had been in an unmarked grave since his death in 1965. “We felt that was more fitting,” says Hulse. The creation of the headstone is one of the focus points of the film.

Hulse says he didn’t know many deaf people when he first received the book. “I made connections in the deaf community, took sign language classes. I made an effort. I knew I had to do that otherwise the deaf community wouldn’t accept me as a hearing director telling a deaf story.”

Hulse eventually met the deaf actor Samuel Dore at Wolverhampton Deaf Film Festival in 2011. “We were introduced by the festival director who thought we’d get on, and we did. We share the same sense of humour, the love for art and film, and appreciate humour and beauty in the bleak and mundane,” says Dore.

Dore, who takes on the role of Duthie in Dummy Jim, admits he might be “frustrated” with the man if he met him today, because he was a product of the 1950s and brought up in a fairly strict Christian way. “Jim’s thoughts and musings would not fit in contemporary society very well, but that’s what we liked about his diary – the unintentional humour in the monotony.”

Duthie’s adventure may be inspirational and his story unusual but only in that he was “adventurous and self-promoting”, says Hulse. “He set off on this trip with little planning, and on his return self-published his book, going door to door selling it. He was not shy about his achievement.”

Hulse says that Duthie’s family “didn’t have any answers” about why he’d set out on that journey. “My educated guess would be that he lived in a small fishing community, and may have felt isolated. He probably wouldn’t have had any deaf friends. He found his own community through travel and connecting to people. It was then he could be culturally deaf. There was a sense of getting away and being freer, being part of a more global community.”

Duthie never thought of himself as disabled, adds Dore. “If he overcame anything, it’s recognising that he’s not going to get the community he seeks at home, so he goes out on his own to find it.”

Despite the success of Dummy Jim, Dore mourns the lack of realistic deaf people in mainstream cinema. “Often they are used as token minority characters, their disabilities there to add a quirk to the film, and they don’t really contribute to the plot. What we need to see more of is real, well fleshed out characters who just happen to be deaf or disabled.”

He adds that it is a “quirky and audio-visual poem that will appeal to those who like their films to be out of the box. Matt didn’t set out to make a film that ticks all the boxes, he wanted to convey the spirit of Duthie and the community he came from, and he did that brilliantly.”

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