The Story of K

As I stood outside the flats, she walked down the road, on the pavement on the other side. It was a hot, sticky day and I was in the shade of the marble-faced canopy. She was in full early afternoon sun, but it didn’t bother her. 

Behind her, where she had been, a fight that had started on the beach had spilled onto the road, cars stopped as police officers tried to pull apart two gangs of sunbaked, half-drunk teenagers. Bottles flew. She had walked through the middle of it. 

She was tall, but not so tall she looked awkward. Her legs were long, but not out of proportion. She was wearing a summer dress in some light fabric that at once floated free, but also defined every curve of her figure. It had a long slash up the side, and with each stride there was a hint of muscled leg. Not the muscle of working out, but of good long walks and swims in cold lakes and riding a bike down country lanes or a horse across fields and over hedges. Apart from the tattoos on her ankles and calves, dark against her softly tanned but still pale skin, she could be one of those healthy outdoors women from the 1930s. 

She had that kind of English beauty we associate with the 1930s, too. She had a firm jaw, straight mouth, good cheekbones, brown eyes with just a hint of some other indescribable colour, and just the right amount of freckles. Her hair was a slightly messy grown-out bob, a natural brown colour that spoke of countryside and haystacks and horseriding. 

She was, effortlessly and easily, one of the most beautiful women in the history of the world. It wasn’t anything obvious, not a showy beauty, but was the result of everything being in some perfect balance. 

She barely glanced at me, that first time, but in the following five years, as I grew older while she stayed exactly the same, she would quietly tell me her story. That, she had decided in that first short moment, in one glance across the street, was my role – to be her scribe, her storyteller.

She told me that, before history books were written, small wars were fought over which king of Kent or Sussex could have her, although none ever owned her. The earthworks on Cissbury Ring were built to impress her. 

The first Roman invasion was led by an Emperor who had heard of her beauty. He built her a palace at Fishbourne, near Chichester. For 400 years, Emperors paid her tribute. 

After his invasion, William the Conqueror rode straight to the castle in the Wealden forest where she lived. Her middle ages, her rebellious years, inspired the character of Maid Marion, in the Robin Hood stories. 

She was in France, in 1848. In one telling, she was in the crowd outside the Palace, in another she helped Louis-Philippe onto the boat that took him to England. Either is possible, both are likely.

She modelled for Pre-Raphaelite painters – she is an Ophelia you will have seen, a Lady of Shalot that is a popular postcard, a Salome that was a best-selling Athena print in the 1970s – and she inspired a rambling laudanum-induced epic by Rossetti which he refused to publish and destroyed in the year before his death. 

She distracted Prince Albert, if only momentarily, and later became Victoria’s trusted companion. She invented a small, portable steam engine.

In the sunny years before the First World War, at a garden party in the grounds of a famous theatre designer’s country house in the Sussex Weald, she so besotted a Prime Minister that he named a dreadnought for her. If you have read his diaries, she is ‘K’.

On a hot day in June 1914, she took her lover Gavrilo to Moritz Schiller’s delicatessen, for the best Börek in Sarajevo. He was supposed to be waiting a street away for an Archduke to pass by.

She gets a passing mention in the Bloomsbury set’s letters, books, and poems – sometime Kay, sometimes Kate or Kathleen, it seems they were all a little bit in love with her. There is a painting of her naked on the sitting room wall at Charleston farmhouse. They danced like flickering paper around her fire, rising into the air and crumbling into ash.

The Mitford Sisters, too, all reference her in their writing. Some biographers have her down as a cousin, some as a schoolfriend, some as the dalliance who defined Decca’s politics. But she was there, whatever her true role, to meet Unity at Dover.  

She stands behind Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin in a famous photo, the only woman, lazily assumed by male historians to have been a stenographer. 

She rode with Elizabeth, and was Philip’s lover. When Britannia was built at the shipyard of John Brown & Co. on Clydebank, it had a special cabin for her. In a nuclear war, she’d have been onboard.

In 1956, she is photographed kissing a Hungarian soldier before the Russians came. She is pictured sitting on top of the Berlin Wall the night it fell.

Her tattoos, of course, echoed the stories she told me. She would step out of her dress and stand in just her black underwear (always black) to show them to me. 

On her right shoulder, a line of runes left by a Viking warrior, in oak ink. Below her left buttock, a line of latin placed there by the Centurion of the 9th Legion, who had been sent to find her after she fled the approaches of an upstart Emperor. The Centurion had betrayed the Emperor, had become her lover. 

The word ‘Peace’ in a handwritten flourish across her right hip had been written by a soldier she met working as a nurse in a Field Hospital on the Western Front. 

The heart with ‘PAUL” on a ribbon, on the back of her right ankle, was from Memphis, a souvenir of a trip there with The Beatles who were visiting Elvis. On her left, an anchor, souvenir of a weekend with Blondie and the Television in New York, 1976. 

All of these memories, and more – the smell of the Titanic, the taste of Marilyn Monroe’s lips, the sound of a continent at the exact moment European settlers arrive for the first time – are collected in the Moleskine notebooks I wrote in as she told them to me, and in some three hundred digital recordings of her voice. For five years, we met once a week, and I took notes in longhand as I recorded her voice on my phone.

Last week I met a publisher, but it came to nothing because her story is frankly unbelievable without her physical presence in the room. When she is there, it is so obviously real. 

But she has gone again, and I am just a middle aged man with a strange story. She is somewhere else in the world now, which must mean that history is about to happen there. If I knew where, I might find an honest end to this story, or perhaps the perfect beginning for another.

At the moment, I’m running a series of online writing workshops for veterans with Company of Makers. One of the exercises was to write about a character, based on a real person. I wrote a few sketches of people, and then got carried away after listening to Sympathy For The Devil turned up loud.

Margate Fiction

I have written about Margate from a few different perspectives – telling the story of Dreamland as a three hundred year old lady, or exploring lockdown as the last man alive after a catastrophe in the near future. But of course, I’m not alone. Here are just a few of the books set in or featuring Margate.

Dreamland – Rosa Rankin-Gee. The sea levels are rising, and Margate is on the edge.

Contraband – Dennis Wheatley. A story of international intrigue, set just before the Second World War.

All The Devils Are Here – David Seabrook. A dirty psychogeographical exploration of Margate and the North Kent coast.

70 Years A Showman – Lord George Sanger. A Victorian circus superstar’s memoir, the truth skewed by showmanship.

The Waste Land – TS Eliot. Written by a man who was having a breakdown against the backdrop of a society broken by the First World War.

Margate 1940 – John Betjeman. A single poem about why Britain’s worth fighting for.

Realm of Shells – Sonia Overall. Margate’s Shell Grotto is, one way or another, all fiction, and this is the story of its discovery.

I Can’t See My Little Willie – Douglas Livingstone. BBC’s Play For Today, set in the fictional Sea Dog pub in Margate

Strangeland – Tracey Emin. A story of sex and art.

Goldfinger – Ian Fleming. A beautiful description of a drive to, and across, the Isle of Thanet – wisely, Bond avoids downmarket Margate.

The Seaside Angel – Evie Grace. 17 year old Hannah works as a nurse at the Sea Bathing Hospital in Margate.

Last Orders – Graham Swift. Four Second World War veterans travel from their local pub in South London to Margate in order to scatter the ashes of their friend.

The Positively Last Performance – Geraldine McCaughrean. The ghosts of the historic Theatre Royal.

The Margate Maid – Lynne Franks. 1786, and milkmaid Molly Goodchild dreams of a better life.

Hannah and Hanna/ Hannah and Hanna in Dreamland – John Retallack. Hannah is 16, and Margate is her patch – or so she thinks until several Kosovo refugees arrive in search of asylum.

Love In A Mist – Pamela Wynne. Again, Margate is the place that a man who has been broken by his experiences of the First World War ends up.

Misadventures At Margate – Thomas Ingoldsby. A seedy tale of historic Margate, told in verse.

On Margate Sands – Bernard Kops. A humorous and poignant portrait of a group of dispossessed mental patients, who manage to survive against all the odds.

The Margate Murder Mystery – Burford Delannoy. Does what it says, really.

Das Capital – Karl Marx. Here to have his painful boils treated with sandpaper and creosote, Marx started writing an angry book about capitalism.

Maxwell Fry and Margate Station

Margate really is the end of the line, or at least it was for the South Eastern Railway.

The first trains to the Isle of Thanet reached Ramsgate in 1846, when the South Eastern Railway laid tracks from Canterbury. Later that year, they ran a line from Ramsgate to the Margate Sands station, on the seafront where Arlington House now stands. 

In 1863, the rival Kent Coast Railway (soon taken over by the London, Chatham & Dover Railway) built a line from Herne Bay to Ramsgate, opening Margate West station where the current station stands. They also built a third station, immediately to the east of the South Eastern Railway station, but soon abandoned it – catering company Spiers and Pond took it over, converted it into the Hall By The Sea, sold it to circus superstar Lord George Sanger, and it’s now the site of Dreamland. A fourth station, Margate East, served the Cliftonville side of town.

During the First World War, the government took control of the country’s hundred competing railway companies, and it became obvious that there was a more efficient way to run the railways. The Railways Act 1921 created a new Southern Railway, and in 1923 they took over the Isle of Thanet’s tangled railway lines and started rationalising them. They decided to start by building new stations for Ramsgate and Margate. They chose a young architect who would go on to have a significant career. 

The year the Southern Railway took over, Maxwell Fry graduated with distinction from Liverpool University. He had been trained in town planning as well as architecture, and after a brief time as town planner, he joined the architect’s department of the Southern Railway. From 1924, he designed new stations at Ramsgate, Dumpton Park, and in 1926 Margate opened.

While essentially classical in style, in Margate Station you can see the modernist architect that Fry would become. The building is formed around its function, with the main booking hall flanked by roughly symmetrical wings that originally housed tea rooms, a cafeteria, ticket offices, an accounts department, and a parcel office. The red brick building is dressed in stone, with arched windows, and is decorated with doric columns and roundels with reliefs of early steam trains and Viking longships. 

It’s not unlike the work that Edwin Lutyens was completing around the same time, which included the Cenotaph in London and the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval. The two share a style, now deeply unfashionable, that spanned the globe and defines a certain period of the British Empire. But despite similarities, Fry’s station is more rooted in function, and its fundamental simplicity – it is less tricksy than something by Lutyens – hints at the modernist Fry would become.

In 1934, Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius fled from Nazi Germany and set up an architectural practice with Fry, in London. Although the partnership only lasted two years, it made Fry England’s first homegrown modernist. He built clean, modernist buildings across Britain for the rest of his life, and was involved in drawing up plans for the rebuilding of London after the Second World War that led to many more modernist landmarks. 

In 1951, Fry was commissioned to plan and create a new city, Chandigarh – a capital for Punjab after the partition of India. He secured the services of Le Corbusier, and over the next three years designed housing, a hospital, colleges, swimming pools and shops. 

After Chandigarh, Fry returned to the UK and collaborated with Ove Arup on a new headquarters for Pilkington Glass in Lancashire. As part of the project, Fry gave the Festival of Britain designer James Gardner his first commission to design a museum. Gardner continued to work on museum and exhibition design, and in 2000 his design company became HKD, now based in Margate – in a studio that looks out to Margate Station.

Maxwell Fry is often forgotten, mostly overlooked, but he was one of the first British architects to embrace modernism, and he worked with Gropius, Le Corbusier, and Arup. Next time you catch the train, look more closely – Margate Station is a significant building, by a great architect. 

Originally published in Margate Mercury 2019

New Work in 2021

My new work feels a lot like old work. From 2008-1015, much of my work was around High Streets and empty shops. I was never comfortable with the term ‘meanwhile’ to describe this work, because that always suggested that the arts were there until the grown ups came back to the spaces and my analysis was, they wouldn’t. Well, one month in to 2021 and more chain stores have collapsed while independents have shown their resilience and usefulness in a crisis.

Appetite Stoke logo

At the end of 2020, we announced my project with Appetite in Stoke – The Newcastle Common. I’m Lead Artist. This will look at a number of city centre spaces over a period of time, suggesting and testing new uses, and also demonstrating how a more mixed ecology of use supports other businesses. We announce our first commissioned artist this week.

Another project around empty shops will see me supporting Mooch, on a project for Historic England which connects High Streets in Ramsgate and Ryde. There are a couple of other empty shop projects I’m involved in, too, which should be public soon.

I’m also mentoring Connor Sansby, the founder of Whisky & Beards, as he develops a new publishing project.

B Arts logo

Up in Stoke again, I’m leading a year-long programme of learning with B arts, who started out as a bunch of stilt walking, fire breathing feminists and … well, they haven’t really changed much. They’re a brilliant woman-led organisation who run a massive art factory and an intimate community bakery. I’m looking at their history and their future, holding conversations with their current associates and former artists.

That dovetails with a personal project – writing a book about my work over the last 20 years. I’m looking at key projects, common themes, and the tactics I have used. It seems like now is a time for reflection, and Prof Martin Parker, Lorna Dallas Conte, and Bernadette Russell have added their perspectives to the book.

I’ve also been writing for a historical project in Ramsgate, with a long piece about Sir William Curtis and his connections to the slave trade, and a series of short architectural portraits.

Last year, I also joined forces with James Gough, who I worked with on Pop Up Culture Southampton, to launch a wider conversation about where we were all going – Rewild The Arts. We’re planning a big online open space in the next month.

I’ve also been working with Jon Adams and Flow Observatorium, on a report into the problems facing neurodivergent people in the arts, which will be published soon. As part of that, with Threshold Studios we commissioned artists to respond to the report’s findings. We’ll be sharing that work soon.

In development, I have a bunch of seaside projects, building on last year’s Back & Fill – hopefully there will be announcements about those soon. I’m excited – I’ve always lived on the coast, and seaside culture is something I love.

Down here in Margate, Turner Contemporary has given seaside culture a twist. I was poet-in-residence for their webcam last year. Well, they’re holding an Open Exhibition this year. A number of community groups are involved in the selection process, including one I sit on. I’m also working with Joseph Young and Kay Aplin, on a commission which pairs me with a Hong Kong ceramic artist to respond to the collections at the Powell Cotton Museum in Birchington.

To give me some extra space, I’ve added Beth to my studio team, to help with book-keeping and admin. All in all, 2021 looks good so far – but, as somebody who travels a lot for work and who hasn’t left the Isle of Thanet in a year, I hope we’re able to return to something like normal life by the end of 2021.

Creative Work

For nearly twenty years, the arts, heritage and creative industries have been seen as the drivers of a new economy for Margate, a town where employment was split between light industries (like Rediffusion, Hornby, and print firms) and tourism – two sectors that struggled in the late years of the twentieth century. As a result of considerable investment from 2000 onwards, Margate has a significant cultural sector, led by a range of organisations including Turner Contemporary, and Dreamland. There are a number of local studios and coworking spaces, like Marine Studios, and they support an ecology of small creative businesses. 

But there is also significant social deprivation, and the split between the new creative class and the poorer communities runs deep. Much work is done by cultural organisations in the area, like Turner Contemporary, Theatre Royal, and 1927 Theatre Company, to engage young people in existing exhibitions, performances, and programmes. 

But these activities are an opportunity to try the arts, either by participating in a workshop or as an audience member, and they do not show young people that the arts, music or dance are future careers. The creative industries, the foundation of a new economy for Margate, are
not seen as a source of future employment for young people.

Finding simple ways to show the routes into employment in the creative industries will start to bridge the divides. They will create connections, broaden horizons, and raise aspirations. Creative Work (a Dan Thompson Studio project run from 2019-2020) looks at how that might be possible.

In 2019, I carried out a two month period of action research, which included running different workshop sessions with –
● students from across East Kent completing National Citizenship Service (NCS)
● young people attending the Quarterdeck youth club in Margate
● a small cohort of students from the University of Kent’s Aspire Business School

These workshops showed the range of ways the young people engage with creativity and culture, and looked at the way that they have unprecedented access to a range of creative tools, and use them to make music, take photographs, and film and edit videos.

The findings were used to produce a guide to help start conversations with young people about careers in the creative industries. It is available as a download here.

Creative Work was supported by a Catalyst grant from the Royal Society for the Arts (RSA).

Back and Fill Margate

“Back & Fill is a coastal call to arms.

A direct response to this coronavirus crisis, Back & Fill festivals will take place in seaside towns around the UK. This movement is inspired by a need to support the fragile economy of seaside towns.

From Margate to St Ives, Swansea to Stromness, the ecology of independent shops, small businesses and creative industries is about to be hit hard. But ideas of health and wellbeing, being outdoors, playfulness and innovation, and fresh food – the same things that drew the Georgians to the seaside 300 years ago – are exactly what we’ll need to recover from the current crisis.”

The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift

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The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift was a camping, hiking and handicraft group with ambitions to bring world peace. It was founded on this day in 1920 by artist and writer John Hargrave.

His idea was that Kibbo Kift training would make people healthy and creative, leading to   a society without war, poverty and wasted lives. “The Kibbo Kift held that individual character strengthened by mental discipline was the key to the future, not mass movements based on groups defined by class, race or nation states.”

The Kibbo Kift drew heavily on Ernest Thompson Seton ideas about woodcraft, which were also a key part of the early Scout programme. But while the Scouts were always slightly militaristic, Hargrave brought to the Kibbo Kift his fondness for symbology, art, costume, and ritual.

If you want an introduction to the art and design of the Kibbo Kift, Designing Utopia is available from Bloomsbury.

A Printer’s Diary, 1938

One of my favourite objects in the various archives I have collected is the diary of Len Hughes. He kept notes for a year in The Printers’ Diary 1938, which came pre-printed with type size charts, technical notes, a guide to correct punctuation, and other useful information about the trade alongside the usual spaces to record appointments.

Hughes lived in Ramsgate, and worked in Margate, at Cooper the Printer. He went to art college in the evenings. The diary records his 18th birthday on 4th February 1938, and is written against the growing tensions in Europe that would lead to war in 1939.

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Monday 14 February

Snow! Not very thick, but enough to make me a quarter of an hour late. The high seas of the week-end badly damaged Margate Jetty and prom. Beach huts and rowing boats smashed up. Snow had cleared this evening and at school pulled proofs on various paper for the Hydro Hotel.

Tuesday 23 August

By the close of play England had scored 903 for 7 declared! Australia 28 for 2. Many records have been broken in this match. Hutton the highlight scored 364 after batting over 10 hours. Bradman has been hurt, so we stand a very real chance of winning the Fifth Test. Went in for a dip tonight with Bert. Water was warm.

Thursday 29 September

Thought I’d better obtain my gas mask so accordingly I went down Hardres Street straight from work. Didn’t have much difficulty in obtaining one and it didn’t make me very late for school in the evening.

Friday 30 September

At 3 o’clock this morning the Powers came to agreement over the Czech problem. The crisis is just about past. It has been a very near thing. It depends however, how long the peace will last. As I came to work I noticed the hastily built dugouts and imagined what the scene would have been had war come. In evening as things became normal I went to Rink.

Sunday 27 November

Did not go anywhere today.

Sunday 25 December 

A real old fashioned Christmas. Inches deep in snow in Thanet. Spent day fairly quiet. Aunt Harriet came over.

Mystery Island

There’s an incredibly clear view of Mystery Island today.

Mystery Island just appears on the horizon then disappears again, roughly west-nor-west of Margate. Sometimes it’s visible for a whole day.

It’s not on any maps.

Thanet families tell of people who have tried to sail there. Either the island is gone by the time they get there – or they are never heard from again.

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For a couple of years, I logged my sightings of Mystery Island in this school book, kept in my grandma’s old bureau.

I Tweeted about the log, and while I was working in Stoke, my flat was burgled – the only thing taken was the old school book. There was no sign of forced entry.

I have heard it called Cameloth locally, and there are whispers that it was lost after the Romans left Britain.

About ten years ago, one of those old Cold War USSR maps was declassified, showing targets for nuclear warheads. RAF Manston was on there, of course, and the naval docks at Chatham.

One was going to drop out at sea, though – just where you’d expect to find Mystery Island.

People have said it is an optical illusion, a reflection. I think Mystery Island is more an echo, of all the islands we have ever read about in stories.

 

Turner Contemporary Margate Sky – Poet-in-Residence

The view from Turner Contemporary’s windows looks out over the horizon and often frames mesmerizing sunsets.  Whilst the Covid 19 crisis closed the gallery, they installed a live camera so that audiences around the world could be inspired by the sea and sky, wherever they are. The live feed ran 24 hours a day for one week.

Dan Thompson – Webcam Poet In Residence

Dan Thompson was a virtual poet-in-residence, writing short sketch poems across the week with a final poem produced in response to the Live Feed. You can read Turner Contemporary Webcam Poems (pdf).

Dan Thompson is a Kent writer. He was Poet-in-Residence for Lincoln’s digital arts festival Frequency in 2019, and has previously been Poet-in-Residence for the Worthing Herald. He believes this is the first time a webcam has had its own Poet-in-Residence. Last year, he published Your England, a collection of poems about people and places in England which tell a history of the country. For ten years he ran the Roundabout poetry events in Worthing, and for three years hosted Landing Place at Turner Contemporary.

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A History of a View, 1720-2020

10 July, 2020
This view is too wide and deep for pixels. You need to come, be still here, where Turner and Vaughan Williams and TS Eliot stopped. Here, this exact geographical point is where they found the borders, lines, delineation to frame England. This view.

8 October, 2017, 02:42
The Officer of the Watch
lets the Master sleep,
forgetting a rising tide lifts all ships,
and if your anchor chain isn’t long enough,
with a north west wind, you drift ashore.

11 January, 1978
The King Tide is predictable,
and so is the fact that an old pier,
unloved, will always fall into the sea.

30 May, 1940
Margate is pretty dead.
Ten tin hats, and
a box of cigarettes,
and the Lifeboat crew
launch down the slip,
to see if Dunkirk
is any different.

4 August, 1914
It felt odd, to stop,
on the way to the Pole,
to walk along
a Pleasure-Pier
as war broke out,
past Palmist and
camera obscura,
to find out if we
would have to fight –
but ‘proceed’,
Winston said,
so we sailed
south, away from war.

29 November, 1897
Gone, all gone –
the Palace is out to sea,
the sprung ballroom floor,
Switchback Railway,
a thousand shell trinkets
and porcelain novelties –
the mer-folk have them.

1 January, 1877
The wind brings a ship
through the deck, neatly
separating pierhead
from land.
Fifty people spend a day
picnicking unexpectedly
at sea.

1853
Eugenius has a plan, paces
the foreshore at low tide.
Will screw iron monoliths
into chalk. This is No.1 in
a chain, England’s stop line,
keeping faerie folk away.

March, 1834
Come back to bed, I say,
and draw me:
but downstairs,
he has his easel,
and he loves
the sea and sky
more than me.
Or, at least as much.

1824
We raised a petition,
wrote letters to the
Isle of Thanet Times,
objected to the
Pier Co’s plans
but they won,
and ruined our view.

Well, for
the next 150 years.

14 January, 1808
The sea is in the kitchens
of Cold Harbour houses,
crabs in the cooking-pots,
seaweed broth for supper.

1785
A boy, from the School up Love Lane,
sits here, draws clouds. Again and again.

10 July, 1720
There is not one gentleman
who still lives on this island.
The harbour has silted up.
The Masters of Ships left,
their money gone to London.
All that’s left is a view – and
there’s no profit in that.

Five Unmade Projects from Dan Thompson Studio

These are just five of a large number of unmade projects. While I still hope that they will be made one day (and maybe sharing them in this way will bring people forward who might help), I also think there is a beauty in them just as ideas.

“A man’s vision is his responsibility. If you have an idea, make it happen. Find the brothers and the sisters, find the resources, and do it. Your personal autonomy and power expose the shallowness of endless theorising and debate. Visions become real by being acted out, and once real serve as endless inspiration and free food for the public imagination.” Peter Coyote

Idea No. 1 A folk band tour folk clubs, and play folk arrangements of Pet Shop Boys songs.

Idea No. 2 All the windows in Arlington House, Margate are fitted with new roller blinds. Each floor has a different colour, so the towerblock becomes a rainbow.

Idea No. 3 Two musicians, piano and violin, play A Lark Ascending on the cliffs near Margate, where it was written on the day the First World War broke out.

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Idea No. 4 A flotilla of model boats fitted with GPS trackers are set adrift in the Thames Estuary.

Idea No. 5 A white bell-tent, like the ones used by the British Army in the First World War, tours England’s festivals and village fetes as a space for conversations about peace and reconciliation.

Alastair Campbell’s Ten Points of Crisis Management

1. Devise, execute but also narrate clear strategy

2. Show strong, clear and consistent leadership

3. Ensure a strong centre

4. Throw everything at it

5. Use experts well

6. Deploy a strong team

7. Make the big moments count

8. Take the public with you

9. Show genuine empathy for people affected by the crisis

10. Give hope – but never false hope

From an article in The Independent today, 30 May 2020.

Sailing

It is impossible to understand my place in all that has unfolded.

I might be the most fortunate, the luckiest of everyone who has lived these last four years. But I might, equally, make the opposite assumption, and believe myself to be the least fortunate. There is, as yet, no way to measure, and either conclusion could break the keel of my boat and pitch me mad into the black water.

The things that used to mark the points between certainty and risk are still there. The old buoys are marking the sea-roads – from here, where my desk in the top room of this Georgian townhouse looks out over the sea, I can see them blinking at night – but the tidal waters have shifted the vast sandbanks under them, and nobody from Trinity House is coming to move the buoys to mark the change in circumstances.

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After all, there is no need. The tankers between here and the horizon haven’t moved for years. It is possible some of their crews are still alive, building a new life from whatever was packed into the hundreds of shipping containers from China and India, but it seems unlikely. Early on, some crews came ashore in small boats to ask for help from the locals, but like the Hartlepool Monkey, they were met with misunderstanding. What we had in common wasn’t enough to bridge the wide sea that kept us apart.

Out on the moored ships, the Plimsoll Line measures buoyancy in salt water, but the salinity of the seas has changed and the line is off.

We imagine that, with study, we can know the past, much as the ship’s captain knows the safe passage along the coastline to the harbour by studying maps and taking compass readings. But nautical charts change, year after year, and magnetic north swings one way and the other. And for historians, as every year another batch of papers were released from government storage, the past shifted.

Is anybody adding new papers to the secret archives now? It is possible that some Civil Servants, working with old muscle memory, are making sure that there are minutes and these are filed. The Thirty Year Rule may still stand.

The Prime Minister disappeared, though, after a broadcast in which he looked particularly unwell, and the Ministers at the weekly government press conference became more and more obscure after that. By the last broadcast there were Ministers I had never seen before, and it seems certain they had been given minor posts in return for some favour, not for their natural ability, and had no idea about how to manage the country in collapse. But there hasn’t been a broadcast for well over a year now. It is possible that government still functions, but if it does, it is hard to believe that it has any real centre, certainty or control.

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And if the shifting past is hard to understand, if the real truth was obscured by time all along, well – even the greatest clairvoyant in all Europe cannot know the future. I remember, two weeks into all this, the local paper printed an apology. Our horoscopes, they said, were written before we were told to stay at home, and some of our advice should not, now, be followed. This wasn’t, then, written in the stars.

I have tried to read the tarot, but The Fool comes up, time and time again. A dancing figure, dressed in motley, in the painting on my cards holding an old pocket-watch.

So if time past and time future are of little use to us, all we can really know is time present.

Years ago, before this, the now that we knew about was wide and deep and fast, like the estuary mouth at spring tide with a storm wind coming in. If there were bushfires in Australia, or a storm in Japan, or floods in America, we would know in minutes. But, one after another, the nodal points in the network of knowledge that underpinned our understanding of the whole world have collapsed. First, it was the news reporters, moving first from London studios to isolation and an ISDN line from their kitchen tables, but they blinked out one-by-one as local infrastructure failed and nobody came to repair it.

Then, one server after another went off line, and the social, real-time version of the internet we had come to take for granted slowed, became sluggish, like the silting-up of a river mouth that cuts off an old harbour. By the time it became as slow as a semaphore network, it seemed that most people had given up. The alternative, that most of them are just not there anymore, is harder to imagine.

It is possible to believe that the ships no longer come to your town because the river flows have changed. It is awful to think that there are no longer any ships, and nowhere for them to come from.

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For a long time, we would be momentarily thankful once a week that somebody was still maintaining the barest of power networks, and there was the broadcast from the Her Majesty’s Government, which had left a Westminster that flooded after staff abandoned the Thames Barrier and was now broadcasting from ‘Somewhere in England’.

In a broadcast a few months before the last one, I remember a passing mention that the Queen, the last senior member of the Royal Family, was ill. It seems certain that she, like her husband and oldest son, has gone: but who is going to organise a Coronation now? So, I presume it is still Her Majesty’s Government. It is another of the things that we not only don’t talk about, but never think about, because thinking about them would be too much. To write ‘Here Be Monsters’ on the chart, to mark it and never go there, is far easier than to face the uncertainty of sailing across that piece of the sea.

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I think it might soon be time to face the uncertainty, though. Four years in, and I am the last person in the town.

This place used to fill at the weekends, with Londoners. The Georgians came by steamship down the Thames, huddled under blankets with bread and cold meat in a wicker basket, then the Victorians followed on the railway line that threaded the North Kent towns together, and then between the World Wars a new crowd came, couples by car, with a thick RAC guide in the glove-box and a Thermos on the back seat, or whole works outings together in a coach.

Latterly, the town had discovered all this heritage, repackaged it, and become the favourite place for Londoners looking for the modern version of the dirty weekend. At weekends, the pins on the map on apps offering casual sex would blink into existence, one after another, as the people looking for momentary comfort in strangers would mingle in the cafes along the front with the couples, down from London on a first date, each with a tick-list and such certainty that they knew what they wanted already that it precluded any opportunity to find common ground over time.

All that stopped, quite suddenly, in the first week of the lockdown. The news showed the beaches and parks in other places still full, the government’s ask that everyone stay home ignored, but here it was like a light was turned off.

 

And as the shops and cafes closed, the people who had survived those first dates and moved together from London – ‘oh we love the calm, the quiet, the vastness of the sea, the cold wind and the emptiness in winter. It is the perfect place to start a family.’ – packed cases and boxes, sent ex-industrial table with four French chairs and old lamps and the comfortable reupholstered sofa ahead of them, and drifted back to London. As it dwindled, humanity drew closer to humanity, huddled together for warmth, the cities collapsing in on themselves until they became like the oldest circles of stone houses in Orkney, and that final closeness only hastened the spread and the end.

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For a few of us, though, this new life seems entirely natural, as though this is exactly how we should be living.

I stayed, watching as the town emptied out. I left the small flat I owned, off the High Street, and found this abandoned four-storey townhouse on the front, the rooms mostly empty but the Farrow & Ball walls, built-in bookcases and the basement kitchen made from old teak school cupboards a clear indicator of the type of people who had left. Then I collected and gathered; food, books, medicine, and clothing.

Like a captain planning for a long voyage, I laid down provisions and worked out how to navigate from the land we had known, and took to be real and certain, for the new one. A land that appeared on the horizon, first as a faint smudge that could be either cloud or land, but which then became more certain, more solid not as new things were added to our knowledge, but by a process of removal. With the loss of each old thing, with the fading of certainties, the new land became clearer. I made new charts.

This house was built, at least in part, from the timbers of old ships. The wood in the roof smells of pitch and salt. And it holds, in its construction, the memory of a ship, and so it groans and shifts and twists when there is a storm. From up here, the highest point, I can watch the storms move in, west to east along the coastline, until they hit here.

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As the house starts to come adrift in the salted wind of a good storm, I move downstairs, riding out the roughest weather in the basement, closer to the wet warmth of the Aga I salvaged and carried here, piece by piece on a trolley made from an old bicycle trailer that belonged to some middle-class family who had fled, and once carried nothing heavier than children on the way to the Montessori nursery, or the vegetable box from the local farm.

I have everything I need here. I have rooms full of food, wide and empty countryside to forage for more, and can catch fish, crabs, and lobsters easily in the abandoned tidal pools where people used to swim.

On the old radio programme Desert Island Discs, castaways got a book, the complete works of Shakespeare, and the Bible. I have a library with enough books to read for the rest of my life, and many are beautiful editions, too. Bill Brandt’s The English At Home, a first edition of The Waste Land, The Snow Goose signed by Paul Gallico, a shelf of Charles Keeping picture-books, rows of old Penguin paperbacks, and leatherbound local history books, found abandoned in the library.

And I have music, more than the eight discs I am allowed. A wind-up gramophone, and a Dansette wired up to a wind turbine from a caravan, parked in the drive of one of the well-off 1930s suburban houses a little way inland. The best record collection I have ever owned, scavenged from closed record shops and left behind in empty homes. Old 78s, psychedelia, classic jazz, and – perhaps the records I treasure the most – poetry readings, old Open University tutorials, and recordings of radio broadcasts, Churchill and the Apollo astronauts. Voices, speaking, the sound of other people.

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But with all this, with comfort and safety, I am hankering for a real sea. There are boats, in the harbour, and one – a sailing boat from the 1930s, when sailing became the pursuit of a certain class, she looks like something from a Nevil Shute novel – is still afloat, sound, straining at each rising tide to leave the safety of the stone pier.

From here, if I keep the coastline to the port side, I should be able to reach the Orkney Islands.

Four thousand years ago, it seems, a new culture arrived there, in the very north of the British Isles, and spread to the south. Scapa Flow was always the country’s safest harbour, the place the Royal Navy retreated to, for safety, and sailed from, in times of war. It is the start and the end of this country. What was here, for a few thousand years, has ended. I might sail north, and start again.

Sailing: Dan Thompson 05/04/2020

Not Going Back

“Albert! Bobby! For god’s sake, burn it down!” Chumbawamba, Give The Anarchist A Cigarette

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Some of us knew this was coming. Two groups have people have consistently imagined different futures, and this is one of them. So as the world falls apart it has been to the mystics, the gnostics, to the soothsayers that we have turned: we have looked to the artists and scientists.

While we see the arts and the sciences as opposites, they really aren’t. The line between them is tenjugo-thin.   Both artists and scientists observe carefully, then dream, imagine, and make. The art room and the science lab at school are remarkably similar places. (At my middle school, John Selden in Worthing, there was an open-plan space between classrooms called The Area, where science, art, and home economics were taught).

Here in England, though, while science will undoubtedly get extra funding as we adjust to a world with coronavirus (let’e be honest – this isn’t going away), the arts are being burnt to the ground while we watch. This is arson. Devil’s Night. One venue after another is being torched. Things that seemed solid, stable, fixed are finding their foundations shaking. The Globe, The National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Southbank Centre and the Royal Opera House are facing collapse. “It is really serious now,” says Greg Doran, from the RSC, “And if we lose our performance culture, we lose it for good.”

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If the big arts organisations are in trouble, imagine the problems further down the ecological chain.

Arts Council England (ACE) scrapped all their grant schemes (project grants, used by smaller organisations for day-to-day running), cancelling any funding applications already submitted. They replaced them with a new fund for organisations, and grants for artists that were each less than one month of the UK’s average wage. The problem of artists expecting so little is deep rooted – a year ago, one funder actually had to instruct artists to ask for more pay.

But there’s another arts world, underground, that is more resilient: it has never had the big funding, never had the support from ACE, and as a consequence never had the overheads. Everything is already stripped back to what matters. Down here we’ve all spent years finding the quickest route to getting work seen. It’s the world of zines and badges, DIY festivals, open houses and empty shops.

“A man’s vision is his responsibility. If you have an idea, make it happen. Find the brothers and the sisters, find the resources, and do it. Your personal autonomy and power expose the shallowness of endless theorising and debate. Visions become real by being acted out, and once real serve as endless inspiration and free food for the public imagination.” Peter Coyote

And this end of the art world has found new ways to mobilise. Music venues have come together to raise funds, ensuring there will be a small-scale touring circuit after coronavirus. Podcasts have organised online festivals to raise funds for musicians. Music and theatre (where I started) are built on self-organising, mutual aid, on collaboration. The visual arts are built on the myth of the lone genius.

While I’ve spent years bluffing at being an artist, the truth is – art galleries aren’t where I belong. My roots are in zines, putting on my own gigs, scraping together enough to make things happen. I’m more photocopier than etching, more cheap ukulele than concert hall, more throwaway pin badge than artist edition.

This crisis is helping me to look again at what I do, and where I’ve stepped in the last thirty years to get to here. And the truth is, I don’t mind a fire. We can build something better once the smoke’s cleared.

 

*****

Footnote: 

Building something new starts here. This is a pledge to start changing things.

I’m going to work on Back & Fill, in particular on building a robust network of people working in seaside towns.

I’m going to add 10% to all future charges and project budgets. That 10% will be used to give artists in Margate, Stoke on Trent and Worthing time to think (similar to this response to Covid 19, but rolling).

I’m going to work out how – if Arts Council England can have a National Portfolio of Organisations – it can also have a National Portfolio of Artists.

I’m going to work with James Gough and other people I like on some thinking around arts funding models.

I’m going to hang out with more scientists.

 

 

Interlude

It’s hard right now, being an artist, writer, musician, or actor – the people that make the things that people are enjoying during lockdown.

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A couple of times, when I have been about to hit a stop, a small charity stepped in and supported my work. Both times, it was without any strings attached – it was a gesture of kindness, and it changed my world.

Because things have come to a stop, and because the Self Employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS) has paid me and I still have a few bits of work, I have a tiny bit of money that was set aside for a now-cancelled project. It’s £250 – at a-n professional rates, it’s a day’s work. It’s not much.

I’d like to give it to an artist, writer, musician, actor, or dancer* from Worthing, Margate, or Stoke-on-Trent (my three homes) who hasn’t been supported by SEISS, an ACE Emergency Grant or other similar schemes. That’s all the criteria there are.

It’ll give you a day to take a break and think about what’s next. Go for a walk, sit under a tree, paddle in the sea, wander by a river. As well as the cash, you can have a day of my time – use me as a mentor, to write for you, as a researcher, or to help you tackle a problem more practically. (I usually charge £250 a day – so you can use all of this as matched funding in another application if you want to).

I know it’s very little, and I know that I won’t be able to help most people who get in touch and I’m sorry about that. But if you fit the criteria, drop me an email  with Interlude in the title. The deadline is the end of Sunday 31 May.

*This is open to anyone involved practically in being creative: artist, writer, musician, poet, potter, dance, actor… I don’t mind, as long as you actually make stuff.

 

 

Absent Tribe

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“Every single piece of pottery ware made in Stoke was being touched by about 15 pairs of hands. In its prime, this site employed over 1000 people. Imagine all those hands, all that history.​”

For Absent Tribe, potter Keith Brymer Jones  handmade over 1000 beakers, which were then decorated, numbered and installed in a room on the old Spode Works, Stoke on Trent during the British Ceramics Biennial.

Working alongside Keith and a small team as a writer, I helped refine the idea, gave it a name, and wrote a text as part of the installation.

Your England – Exhibition

Your England Web.jpgA journey into Englishness, from the Thames to the Lakes, industrial heartlands to chalk downs. Following tides and twittens, writing 100 poems along the way.

A park bench in Penrith, aviation at Shoreham by Sea, a skeleton in Margate, the Windrush in Brixton, bells of Whitechapel, The Lion Queen. Chalk and flint and wool and salt.

At Lombard Street Gallery, Margate from 28 Sep-8 Oct. Part of Margate Now, the offsite programme for the Turner Prize at Turner Contemporary.

Supported by Arts Council England.

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Dover Castle. Headquarters, Flag Officer Dover.

 

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Dover Castle. Headquarters, Flag Officer Dover. 

‘Operate toward the coast forthwith’

You can see the
brand of cigarette
they’re smoking
at Cap Griz-Nes
from here.

When war was declared we started
with nothing:
but we made a new map
of the world, with
these Napoleonic tunnels
at the centre, and
carried the British Expeditionary Force
to France on the lines we’d drawn.

And back – my Dynamo turned
by a National Day of Prayer.
On a Sunday in May 1940 – the
people of Britain and her Empire
committed their cause to
God. The King and Cabinet
at Westminster Abbey –
as we were on our knees
the Wehrmacht stopped.

A storm over Flanders fields,
the Luftwaffe
was grounded

‘if the Lord had
not been on our side
when people attacked us,

they would have swallowed us alive

when their anger flared against us;

the flood would have engulfed us,

the torrent’

I counted them all in,
nine days, 63 watches, 216 hours,
dire straits – the straits I patrolled
in a destroyer, in the last lot.

We started with
passenger ferries, destroyers, skoots,
corvettes and trawlers – my fleet was
English, French, Belgian, Dutch
and Polish. Then from Ramsgate –
added motor lifeboats, barges
with brown sails, tugboats, steamers –
The Brighton Belle and The Medway Queen,
the hospital ship Worthing, Leigh-on-Sea cockle boats
pleasure craft, a fire float –

we brought enough home
to carry on in faith, undefeated: Gort’s
Expeditionary Force,
Indian mule handlers,
French Senegalese soldiers
and Moroccans,
Gamelin’s troops –
brought them from hell to English heaven.

– but as Winston said
“Wars are not won by evacuations.”

So after four years of measuring the tides,
>watching convoys, always an eye on Calais,
we turned back –
no ragtag fleet, but
the greatest armada ever seen.

We took the men the long way across,
to Normandy – just shy of a million men
across the channel in a month.

This iron-railed balcony was my quarterdeck.
Here was both the frontier, and the last fortress:
both the stop and the start line.

*****

For Your England, I’m writing 100 poems about 100 places in England.

The work from Your England will form an exhibition at Lombard Street Gallery, Margate from 28th September-8th October, as part of an exhibition called Quartet.

Your England is supported by a project grant from Arts Council England.

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Your England – The New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme

I’m not going to share every poem from Your England on here, especially as I expect to rewrite early poems as the project progresses – but, here’s one of about ten new poems I’ve written in December-January.

For Peter Cheeseman, 1932-2010.

“Peter devoted himself to a single place. He gave his life to it. He believed that theatre ought to spring from and reflect the community it belonged to. He stayed true to that belief. The Potteries should be grateful for his years of devotion.” Alan Ayckbourn

This is a space that
makes people make
and makes people be.

Two actors, some planks, and passion:
the art comes from the place –
from steel and coal and clay – and
from the everyday experience.

In this ten-metre circle,
a circus of ideas
in-the-round – stories
contain more truth than
bare facts. Sit together,

listen, consider – Act One,
Beginners –
the start is
what we have
in common.

Turner Translate – Is This What You Wanted?

For the next year, me and ace writer Jacey Lamerton from Killer Content are going to help people understand what’s going on at Turner Contemporary. We both love the gallery, and what it’s done for Margate, but can see how sometimes, the way art is talked about puts a barrier between the thing that’s been made and people who might enjoy it.

This year Turner Contemporary have this great sculpture, in place of a Christmas tree:

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And here’s what Turner Contemporary have to say about it:

Visit Turner Contemporary this December and be inspired by Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan’s alternative Christmas tree installation DOES THE ITERATIVE FIT on our South terrace. This temporary sculptural and audio artwork was commissioned by The Kings Cross Project and originally installed in Granary Square, London over Christmas 2017.

Tatham and O’Sullivan’s sculptures and installations often question the accepted or expected outcomes of contemporary art practice. DOES THE ITERATIVE FIT is a response to and critique of its original commission brief to design a Christmas tree for a busy public space. The resulting sculpture with accompanying soundtrack reimagines the behaviour and meaning of a public artwork and considers the functions that art is expected to perform within the public sphere. The commentary, voiced by an actor, relates the experiences of an art object out in the world, projected through speakers that double as brightly coloured branches.

We thought (inspired in part by this news article) – what if we put that in Plain English, so people can understand it? It’ll make the art more accessible, by helping people understand what they’re seeing. So, we’re going to help out Turner Contemporary (and more importantly, ordinary people in Margate) by translating everything the gallery publish for the next year.

Here’s Jacey’s simplified take on the text about the Christmas tree:

IS THIS WHAT YOU WANTED?

Tatham and O’Sullivan make sculptures and art pieces that rebel a bit against the ‘art world’.

Someone asked them to design an alternative Christmas tree to be shown in a busy public place.

They came up with this sculpture, which they called DOES THE ITERATIVE FIT?, roughly meaning IS THIS WHAT YOU WANTED?

Lots of people have fixed ideas about art in public places: we expect things like statues and sculptures to look a certain way.

The idea behind this ‘tree’ is that it doesn’t look like normal public art – and it doesn’t sound like it either. It’s meant to make us think about why we have those set ideas and whether art always has to look a certain way.

If you listen carefully, you’ll realise the brightly coloured ‘branches’ are actually speakers – and you’ll hear an actor talking about what it might be like to be a piece of art, out in the world, with people looking at it.

The first fifty places for Your England

Your England is an ambitious project – 100 poems, about 100 places, which form a history of England.

My one rule is that I have to have visited everywhere I write about, even if the original building or location has been lost, changed, or reconfigured, so I have a real sense of place. With only a year and a set budget, that will mean some compromises, that some places are just too hard to reach in the time I have.

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All of the poems are sorted into a rough taxonomy:

  • Creativity & Culture
  • Exploration
  • Faith & Religion
  • Industry & Invention
  • Migration
  • Protest & Revolution
  • War & Remembrance

And I’m aiming for a wide geographical split, to cover a variety of faiths and cultures, and (in the poems that are about people) to achieve a 50/50 male-female split, too. It’s a complicated sort.

Just to add some extra complexity, I’ve been asking people to suggest places they think I should go, and I’ll be running workshops with some partners to let more people suggest more places.

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So – based on what I’ve written so far, the suggestions people have made, and where I plan to go next, here are the first fifty(ish) places on the Your England list:

Bedfordshire:
Panacea Society, Bedford

Coventry:
Coventry Cathedral – Basil Spence
Shopfront Theatre, Coventry

Essex:
Tilbury Landing Stage

Isle of Wight:
Ryde Pier

Kent:
The Grange, Ramsgate
Martyrdom, Canterbury Cathedral
Dover Castle – Sir Bertram Home Ramsay
Chatham Docks No 3 Covered Slip
Copperas works, Whitstable

Leeds:
Templeworks

London:
Granville Arcade, Brixton – Oswald Columbus Denniston
St Pancras Station
121 Centre, Brixton and the Rebel Dykes
The Poppy Factory, Richmond
Crossbones Burial Ground
Royal Albert Hall
King Henry’s corridor, Cabinet Office
Charterhouse Square, London
Eel Pie Island
Luna House, Croydon
Olympic Park, Stratford
Gardeners, Spitalfields

Lancashire:
Rochdale Pioneers Shop
Preston Bus Station

Lincolnshire:
St Botolph’s Church, Boston – ‘Boston Stump’

Liverpool:
Mathew Street, Liverpool

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Margate:
Sanger’s journey
The Margate Road
Site of Margate Caves
Rowden Hall Kindertransport Hostel, Margate
Dreamland
Turner Contemporary

Northampton:
78 Derngate, Northampton
Carpetbaggers Aviation Museum

Penrith:
Clarke’s Bench, Penrith
King Arthur’s Round Table, Penrith

Portsmouth & Southsea:
Fort Cumberland, Southsea

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Staffordshire:
Middleport Pottery, Stoke-on-Trent
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle

Somerset:
Glastonbury, Frost Fayre

Somme:
The Lochnagar Crater

Surrey:
Watts Chapel

Sussex:
Shoreham Airport
Gypsy Lee, Bognor
Church of St John sub Castro, Lewes
Cotchford Farm
Towner Gallery

Worthing:
Cissbury Ring
Desert Quartet, Worthing – Elisabeth Frink
Dome Cinema, Worthing

Wiltshire:
Sanger’s journey

Wildcard – all the Canals

Partners:
Turner Contemporary
Shopfront Theatre, Coventry
Dreamland
Towner Gallery

This will, of course, change – and I’m going to have to write more than 100 poems to get 100 that I’m happy with, too. These are the poems already completed:

Clarke’s Bench, Penrith
King Arthur’s Round Table, Penrith
Sanger’s journey
The Margate Road
Site of Margate Caves
Tilbury Landing Stage
Granville Arcade, Brixton – Oswald Columbus Denniston
Coventry Cathedral – Basil Spence
Templeworks
Middleport Pottery, Stoke-on-Trent

 

Your England

From King Arthur’s Round Table in Eden to Winston Churchill at Dover Castle, and from Brixton Market to the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral, our national story can be found in the buildings all around us.

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In 2016, I sat on a park bench in Penrith which carried a memorial for a forgotten First World War soldier, Pte William Gibson Clarke MM. In exploring his life I found connections to half-a-dozen locations around the UK, uncovered the story of a wave of migration to Canada, and was able to find out how and where Clarke died, in the last hundred days of the war. I wrote a poem about him, which led to a pilgrimage to his grave in Caix British Cemetery, France, revisiting the bench on the centenary of his death – and on the same day the Canadian Legion placing a wreath on the War Memorial in Moosomin where he is remembered.

If a poem about one very ordinary bench in a small municipal park can tell such a complex story, and have such an impact, what can poems about other places around England tell us?

Travelling from one end of England to the other over the last ten years, I have become more and more interested in how the buildings we pass every day – and often overlook – tell stories about our nation’s identity. Interpreting these stories seems even more important at a time when we’re facing a national crisis, at the root of which is the conflict between an idea of our historical place in the world and the reality of our current place in a global system.

In a new project Your England, taking place over the next year, I am going to write 100 poems about 100 places, which together will form a history of England. The individual poems will be sorted in a taxonomy of themes including:

  • Industry & Invention
  • Creativity & Culture
  • Revolution & Protest
  • Migration & Movement
  • War & Remembrance

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be having a conversation on social media to find buildings that I should include in the list of 100. Find me on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook  to join in the conversation. I’m looking for places that are distinct, match the themes above, and ideally have a connection to an interesting person, too (alive or dead, famous or unknown).

I hope to be out, exploring the first places and meeting people to talk about them, before Christmas.

Until then, you can read some poems I wrote earlier this year, to test the idea:

And the poem that started the project:

The project is backed by a Project Grant from Arts Council England, and supported by partners including the Towner Gallery, Eastbourne; Dreamland, Margate; Turner Contemporary, Margate; Theatre Absolute, Coventry and Theshold Studios in Northampton. 

Your England performance in Roundabout

Press Release

From King Arthur’s Round Table in Eden to Winston Churchill at Dover Castle, and from Brixton Market to the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral, our national story can be found in the buildings all around us.

Travelling from one end of the country to the other, before and after the 2016 referendum, artist and writer Dan Thompson has become interested in how the stories told about England’s historic buildings reflect our sense of identity. In a new project, taking place over the next year, he plans to write 100 poems about 100 places, which together will form a history of England.

In this special.performance in pop up theatre Roundabout, Thompson will read some of the first poems written. In this free show he tells the story of the first black trader in Brixton Market, Basil Spence rebuilding Coventry Cathedral after the Blitz, the architect who created an Egyptian temple in Leeds, and the man who discovered Margate’s Shell Grotto.

“The show will appeal to people interested in local history, printing presses, historic buildings, lost rivers, poetry, or the split in society brought about by Brexit,” he says.

Thompson has worked as an artist across the UK, often working with local people to explore the place they live. He made a set of signal flags for Estuary Festival, which subsequently toured as a backdrop with The Libertines, and in 2017 programmed the Estuary Festival in Swansea. He has won Coast’s Unsung Hero Award, been included on The Independent’s Happy List, and listed by Time Out as one of the hundred most influential people in the UK’s creative industries.

He has previously performed a one man show in Roundabout in Stoke and Margate. This one-off performance, titled Your England, takes place at 2.30pm on Friday 21st September. It lasts around 45 minutes and is free. Your England is supported by Marine Studios and is part of the Margate Festival. For more information visit http://www.danthompson.co.uk.

Download Your England – Press Release (pdf)

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The life and death of William Gibson Clarke

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William Gibson Clarke was born on 16th May 1891, in Skipton, North Yorkshire.

Skipton is on the River Aire and the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, south of the Yorkshire Dales and 26 km northwest of Bradford. The name is recorded in the Domesday Book, and a castle built there in 1090 still stands today. Skipton became a prosperous market town, trading sheep and woollen goods, and during the Industrial Revolution became a small mill town connected to the major cities by the Leeds and Liverpool Canal and its branch Thanet Canal, named for Skipton Castle’s owner Sackville Tufton, the 8th Earl of Thanet.

William’s father, Henry Blackwell Clarke, was born just over 80km from Skipton, in Blackpool, in 1866. While in most documents, he is listed as working as a newspaper reporter, by the time of the 1911 census he is a licensed retailer of wines and spirits, living in Ipswich.

22-year-old Henry married 28-year-old Sarah Gibson at St Peter’s, Fleetwood, Lancashire on 29 October 1888. It was his wife’s home town – Sarah was born in 1860, in Fleetwood. Her father was William Gibson, a blacksmith who was born in Scotland (after whom, we can assume, William is named), and her mother was Ann Carter of Garstang.

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In the 1830s, landowner Peter Hesketh, High Sheriff and MP, had conceived an ambitious plan to build a seaport and railway town, just up the coast from Blackpool and on the edge of Morecambe Bay. He commissioned Decimus Burton, who had recently designed St Leonard’s On Sea, a new town just west of Hastings. In 1831 Hesketh added Fleetwood to his name – and gave the name to his new town. Construction started in 1836. By the time of Sarah’s birth, commercial steamers were providing services to the Isle of Man, Ardrossan and Belfast, and the town had a substantial fishing industry.

By 1889, Henry and Sarah had moved inland to Nelson, just north of Burnley, and two years later they had moved further inland to Skipton, where Henry was working as a journalist.

William was the middle of the couple’s three children. He had an older sister Daisy, born in 1889 in Nelson, and a brother, Henry Cecil, born in 1896 in Ipswich.

EMPRESS_OF_IRELAND_-_Sjöhistoriska_museet_-_Fo210199.tif.jpgBefore the First World War, emigration from Britain reached unprecedented levels – over three million people left the UK between 1903 and 1913. The most popular destination was Canada, drawing almost half of Britain’s emigrants. One of them was 18-year-old William, who arrived at St. John’s, New Brunswick, Canada, on the 18th March 1910. He had travelled on the Canadian Pacific Line ship RMS Empress of Ireland, departing from Liverpool.

Just a few years later the Empress of Ireland became a famous ship for all the wrong reasons when, in 1914, she sank near the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River. Following a collision in thick fog with the Norwegian collier SS Storstad, of 1477 passengers on board the Empress, 1012 died. It is the worst peacetime maritime disaster in Canadian history

But in 1911, William arrived safely, hoping to start a new life as a farmer.

But he was working as a waiter and living in Moosomin, Saskatchewan, when he decided to enlist in the army, a year after the outbreak of the First World War. Moosomin had only been established thirty-odd years earlier in 1882. In postcards from the time that William lived there, it looks very much like a prosperous town in the north of England. It had a Baptist Church, a Methodist Chapel, a Presbyterian Congregation and an Episcopal Church

Seymour House Hotel.jpgOn the 22nd December 1915, 24-year-old William enlisted in Winnipeg, Manitoba, giving his address as either Seymour House or (more likely) the Seymour House Hotel. William, 167cm tall, with a dark complexion, brown eyes & brown hair had signed up for the duration of the war.

He was now Private William Gibson Clarke, Service Number 148605, serving in the Manitoba Regiment, 78th Battalion, ‘D’ Coy of the Canadian Infantry. He was one of the Winnipeg Grenadiers, part of 4th Canadian Division, of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF).

He left Halifax, Nova Scotia on board the RMS Empress of Britain  on 20th May 1916 – part of the first deployment of the 78th Battalion. He was returning on the sister ship to the ill-fated Empress of Ireland that had brought him to Canada. The Empress of Britain was a luckier ship. Less than two weeks after disaster struck the RMS Titanic in 1912, Empress of Britain also struck an iceberg – but only suffered minor damage. In May 1915, she was recommissioned as a troop transport and carried more than 110,000 troops. On 4 May 1919, on her last voyage before being scrapped, she returned Canadian Expeditionary Force troops from England to Canada. Sadly, William was not among them.

But on 30th May 1916, he disembarked in Liverpool five years after leaving from the same port.

While in England, William wrote out his will on the 2nd August 1916. It was addressed to his mother, Sarah Clarke, now living at 293, Norwich Road, Ipswich. Later, he updated his will and her address on 11th September 1916 was Haig House, 56, Springfield Land, Ipswich.

Ten days after writing his first will, William embarked at Southampton on 12th August 1916. The Canadians disembarked at Le Havre a day later. The French port had become a major centre for the distribution of troops, horses and goods heading for the Western Front. Manned by the Royal Army Service Corp, it was also No 3 General Base Depot for the Canadian forces.

Sadly, it’s hard to trace the exact movements of William after landing in France. But the 78th Battalion served on the Somme, and at the Battle of Vimy Ridge in the Arras region in 1917. Just north of Vimy is the commune of Souchez. On the 22nd February 1917, the telephone lines between the Advanced Headquarters and the Battalion Headquarters here had been broken. William, and another soldier, were acting as runners, carrying messages from one to the other. They passed through heavy shell fire to do so, and William was rewarded with a Military Medal,  awarded for bravery in the Field.

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He was gazetted on 24th April 1917 – by which date, he had also fought through the Battle of Vimy Ridge. In this battle, the Canadian forces suffered 10,602 casualties: 3598 killed and 7004 wounded. The attack on Vimy Ridge was launched at 5:30 am on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917. Clarke’s Division collapsed almost immediately. Machine gun nests in the German line pinned down, wounded, or killed much of the 4th Canadian Division. Reserves were brought forward, and the attack continued. By the end of the day, the 4th Division had captured objectives that the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Divisions had taken within an hour of starting the battle. It took another three days to take the rest of Vimy Ridge. Vimy Ridge is considered to symbolise Canada’s coming of age as a nation, and William was there. He received his medal on 15th May 1917.

But the toll, particularly on the men of the 4th Division, was huge. On 1st June 1917, William was granted 10 days Leave of Absence, and he returned to the line on 15th June 1917.

Seven months later, he was granted 14 days leave to return to England. He left on 12th January 1918, and returned from leave on 23rd January. While his trip isn’t recorded, it must have been to see his parents, and it would be the last time that Henry and Sarah saw their son.

Two months later, in March 1918, General Ludendorff, the chief of the German General Staff, launched the Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser’s Battle), and it very nearly won the war for Germany. The Germans had replaced the traditional advance with Stormtroop (Stoßtruppen) units, elite infantry operating in small groups that advanced quickly by exploiting gaps and weak defences. They would disrupt communication and cause chaos amongst the British headquarters, artillery units and supply depots in the rear.

On 21st March, Germans attacked on a 69-kilometre front between Arras, St. Quentin and La Fère. On the first day, in thick fog, British communication failed; telephone wires were cut and runners struggled to find their way through the dense fog and heavy shelling. Headquarters were cut off and unable to influence the battle. Within 15 days, the Germans had captured 3,100 km2 of territory, 177,739 British troops were killed, wounded and missing, 75,000 had been taken prisoner, and 1300 artillery pieces and 200 tanks were lost. But the advance was stopped just before Amiens, a vital hub in the British transport system. And the German troops were exhausted, and their supply lines overstretched.

On the 8th August, the British, Australian and Canadian forces launched a massive counterattack which would win them the war. The Canadian 1st, 2nd and 3rd Divisions were first to attack, and as they broke the German lines, William’s 4th Division pushed through the gap. By the end of the morning, they were 4.8km beyond the German front line, and the advance was so fast, they captured German officers having their breakfast.

By the 10th August 1918, William was 50km from Amiens. The speed of the advance was unprecedented. On the 10th, the 78th Battalion passed through Chilly at noon and by 2:00pm seized Hallu. The Germans counter-attacked at Hallu. Lieutenant James Tait of the 78th Battalion rallied his troops when German troops re-entered the village, stopping their advance, though at the cost of his life.

While William was escorting German prisoners back to Brigade Headquarters. an enemy shell fell close to his party. He was severely wounded him in the body and legs, immediately attended to, and then placed on an ambulance to be taken to the nearest dressing station. Aged 27, and having been as far inside the German lines as anyone, William died before reaching hopsital.

The 78th Battalion suffered 46 fatalities in Hallu – of whom 35 were missing, presumed to have been killed in action. William’s body was identified, and he is buried at Caix Cemetery. The cemetery is a walled garden surrounded by farmland, that probably looks much as it did in 1914, before the war started. At the front of the cemetery is a stone cross, and the graves are arranged either side of a central path. You’ll find William’s grave to the left, in the second row of graves. His grave, unusually for a Commonwealth War Graves Commission stone, bears a message from his parents:

‘Our Darling Son. He gave his sweet young life that others may live.’

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Off the Somme tourist trail, 28 kilometres south-east of Amiens, Caix holds the bodies of over 300 British soldiers. 203 of them are Canadian. Just across the road, Caix German Military Cemetery holds the bodies of 1264 German soldiers of World War One.

By the time of William’s death, Henry and Sarah were living at 33 Brunswick Square, Penrith, Cumberland (this address appears on William’s military records, but some other documents including his father Henry’s will have the address as 35).

In 1922, four years after his death, his mother and father were able to travel to Caix Cemetery, and like many post-war pilgrims they visited other battlefield sites nearby.

In the early 1920s, the people of Ipswich hoped to raise £5000 to build a lasting memorial to the men who died in the First World War. It was unveiled on 6th May 1924. In total they raised over £50,000, and the surplus funds went to Ipswich Hospital where, up to 1919, 7777 casualties were treated.

William is remembered there, in Ipswich, where his parents lived at the start of the war, and in the Canadian First World War Book of Remembrance, but not on the war memorial in Penrith, where his parents lived at the end. It was to Penrith that William’s Memorial Scroll was sent on the 23rd March 1922, and his Memorial Plaque on the 1st April 1922.

But Henry and Sarah wanted their son remembered where they lived. In the 1920s, Penrith District Council acquired ownership of Penrith Castle. They landscaped the grounds, adding walkways, lawns and bowling greens. In 1923, the War Memorial Gateway at the main entrance was opened. William’s name isn’t on it. Instead, you’ll find an original 1920s green-slatted park bench with a heavy cast-iron memorial plaque. It says:

‘In memory of Pte William Gibson Clarke, 78th Btn C.I.F. who fell in France 10th Aug. 1918.’

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I sat there and afterwards, asked about him at the local museum: they didn’t know about him, or why there was a bench in the park dedicated to his memory.

His father Henry Blackwell Clarke died in 1935, in Penrith – his mother Sarah Gibson’s death is not recorded. I haven’t traced his brother or sister – some sources say Daisy died as a child, and Penrith’s Queen Elizabeth Grammar School record a Henry Cecil Clarke’s death in a trench raid with the Tyneside Scottish. But – these aren’t certain, and Daisy and Henry may have descendants.

The Moosomin Cenotaph carries the inscription ‘To you from falling hands we throw the torch – be yours to hold high.’ I hope that in remembering one more forgotten soldier, the flame will burn a little brighter.

Thank you to Dawn & Paul Cole, Edward Thompson, to Penrith Remembers, and the Friends of the Lochnagar Crater, especially Iain Ross Fry, Pam Ackroyd, and thanks to the Ipswich War Memorial project for further research.

 

Article in Penrith Observer, 15th August 1922 detailing the visit to WG Clarke’s grave by his parents. Found by Ipswich War Memorial project.