Middleport Pottery, Burslem

This is the fourth poem from a larger collection of mostly new poems. This collection is an attempt to write a picture of England in 2017, through a series of poems about buildings, places and the stories they tell. It is based on my travel and research. I’m aiming for 100 poems.

I won’t publish them all online: I want them to appear in print. But – I want to give people a flavour. You can read others here.

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Middleport, Burslem

Here in the model pottery,
within this brickbuilt O,
the process of making is
refined, closed, looped.

The circle is square:
each piece of ware is
handled
by twenty five people,
and the distance from
hand-to-hand is short,
here men and women are
efficient as machines.

Alleyways are wide as cart and horse.
Each shop is closed, controlled;
even the air works well.
Here architecture is the
servant of art and science.

The Seven Oven Alchemical Works;
thick earth made to slip,
black smoke.
Boulton’s steam engine.
Rain saved in header tanks.
Held in the leyline curve of
the Trent and Mersey Canal.
This place is earth, fire,
air, water, metal –
elemental.
Here clay is made into gold.

The Famous Dr Nelson’s Improved Inhaler,
pudding bowls for the war effort,
Ernest Bailey’s kangaroo jugs for Australia,
Copeland’s designs ‘as if from outer space’,

The globe is all over Burleigh Ware
and Burleigh Ware is all over the globe.

Coventry

This is a third poem from a larger collection of mostly new poems. I won’t publish them all online: I want them to appear in print. But – I want to give people a flavour. You can read others here.

It is an attempt to write a picture of England in 2017, through a series of poems about place. It is based on my travel and research. I’m aiming for 100 poems.

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Coventry

“Basil Spence is a prophet
Who seeks to proclaim the Word of God
In modern ways”

Spence had liberated Chartres, cold and dead;
he knew churches needed life –
so started with a model
that cost as much as a house,
for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition;

then he built his new cathedral
from the inside out.
Fed by Bishop Gorton’s understanding
of people and liturgy,
of choir and canons and clergy and communion,

Spence drew pools of lightness,
wove tapestry in stone,
coloured glass, etched glass, copper frames,

thought about the fastness of dye,
the geodetic construction of a bomber,
Gothic ribs, the facets of a fly’s eye,
radio pylons as he reached higher, further.

“It is going to be built, it is going to be built”
in Spain, over and over and over,
until English ideas and Danish engineering
let the disciplined grid of Spence’s vaulted ceiling soar.

John Laings, builders,
gave all their profits back.

The last flame from the burnt cathedral
lit candles on the newest altar;
the first and last,
alive for evermore amen.

The Turner Prize is coming to Margate

In 2019, the Turner Prize hits the regions again – and while it’s recently gone to big cities like Glasgow (population 600,000 – 1,000,000) and Hull (population 260,000) this time, it’s coming to Turner Contemporary, Margate (population 40,000).

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A big show in a small town will have a huge impact; in Glasgow the show attracted 75,000 visitors, at the Baltic in Gateshead 149,770, and it’s reasonable to expect more in a venue only 1.5 hours from London by train. And especially, in a place that already fills with London visitors every weekend. Turner Contemporary has been an incredible success, and its most successful show was Grayson Perry’s Provincial Punk, with 192,177 visitors – so that’s the target to beat.

The Turner Prize comes at a key time for Turner Contemporary, too. Opened in 2011, visitor numbers would be expected to drop off a little about now – Dreamland’s two reopenings (first in 2015, then again while still in administration in 2017) have undoubtedly helped keep numbers up for the gallery, so an extra publicity boost in 2019 is a good thing.

The gallery are keen to look for a long-term impact from the Turner Prize, and are keen to engage local people in a conversation about how to maximise the show’s impact. It’s worth remembering that Turner Contemporary owes its success to a local ecology of cafes, small independent galleries, boutiques and vintage shops that mean a two hour gallery visit can easily become a weekend stay. Day trippers are bad for the economy: they typically cost more to attract and to service than they spend locally. So making Margate a place where you can spend a weekend is vital to both the gallery’s and the area’s long term success.

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The first open conversation about the Turner Prize was held at Turner Contemporary yesterday. About forty people attended, representing a mix of local authorities, arts organisations, and visitor attractions. It was clear from the attendance that the show was attracting interest from Canterbury, and the wider East Kent area. Artists were keen to be in the room, and were vocal contributors. There were notable local absences, too – nobody from Dreamland, for example.

 

The conversation took the (dreaded) World Cafe format – where you sit around tables, have a guided discussion around a central proposition, write your thoughts on the tablecloth and then move to the next table and the next proposition. I can see there are merits to this methodology; but it’s used at every Turner Contemporary event, and the central propositions are never strong enough for a real debate. Can anyone argue strongly around ‘People of all backgrounds should be able to thrive’?

Having spent 17 years attending meetings very much like this, I’m always amazed by the lack of ambition these events bring out. Most of the discussion focused on things so obvious, it’s hard to believe they’re being discussed and not done. We should ensure visitors can find other attractions, we should link up with nearby attractions, we should ensure local people come to the gallery, we should welcome people at the station and so on. Well, yes.

The Turner Prize has the possibility of being a big gear change for Turner Contemporary and everyone involved in the local creative ecology. It also has the potential to misfire, as it’s always controversial – the potential to accelerate the way property funds are buying up the area and do real damage to affordable living locally – and perhaps worst, the potential to just be another show at Turner, which many local people still don’t visit.

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So – in the spirit of starting a proper conversation, here are my ambitions for Turner Contemporary and the Turner Prize. This isn’t a costed, prepared plan – it’s a quick response to yesterday’s event. And it’s not everything; of course we should join up with other local attractions (Margate Caves open their new visitor centre in 2019), encourage more local people to visit and so on. That’s all a given. But here’s some ambition.

1. More Turner, everywhere

Turner Contemporary is a charity, established to stimulate Margate’s culture-led regeneration. That’s worked, and there’s a vibrant creative ecology around Margate – but it’s fragile. Rent is already going up; artists are already leaving. Currently, Thanet District Council is undergoing a massive asset disposal – small buildings, workshops, and anything not needed for core service delivery is going. So here’s the idea: Turner Contemporary should become the preferred new owner for any assets being disposed of. Between now and the Turner Prize, Turner Contemporary should take on a range of buildings around the town. Some can be let as studios or workshops, some as residential space for artists, some let commercially to generate extra income, some run as Turner Contemporary satellites. For example, as Northdown Road’s footfall is growing, a Costa has opened. Turner Contemporary has driven that footfall – it should be a Turner Contemporary coffee shop that reaps the rewards. A bold move, but acts like this would create additional income streams, and maintain, preserve and enhance the ecology around Turner Contemporary, and make sure it doesn’t become a victim of its own success: a gallery surrounded by Costa, Cath Kidston and White Stuff isn’t worth a weekend stay.

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2. Everyone’s connected to Turner

Turner Contemporary should become the major training body in Margate. It shouldn’t just train people in unambitious ways, to be volunteers in their own gallery; it should support proper job training across the area. Coffee shops would have Turner Contemporary-supported baristas, cafes would have Turner Contemporary trained chefs, shop staff will attend subsidised Turner Contemporary training courses, teaching assistants and nursery staff will be taught at Turner Contemporary, and local electricians will learn new specialist skills with the gallery’s help. At the same time, Turner Contemporary should develop apprenticeships in all the roles it needs, from Front of House to maintenance. Again, this is about that ecology: Turner Contemporary’s success is because of the Old Town, the lower High Street, and increasingly Northdown Road. If you’re attracting visitors to Turner Contemporary, your customer care extends outside the gallery to all those places, so making them good is protecting your name and reputation. And at the same time, you’re ensuring that young people locally have good quality jobs, and real prospects. In an area where 50% of children are still growing up in poverty, that’s vital.

3. Chipperfield hacked

Let’s hack the Turner Contemporary architecture. The building, by David Chipperfield, is a few years old and we know its limitations now. The outside plaza is underused, the legibility of the front of the building is awful, the front doors are unfriendly and stick, the foyer is a dead space. The green space at the side is unloved and never used. The space between Turner Contemporary and the sea is a carpark, recently vandalised with clumsy road markings. The outside of Turner Contemporary lacks the life the inside has. Jane Jacobs would hate it. Margate is brilliant at using space – look at the slightly chaotic life of the Harbour Arm, the buzz around the Sundeck at Nayland Rock, or the anarchic spirit of Fort Road Yard. And when Turner Contemporary has used those spaces – for example, with Dwelling for Summer of Colour (pictured), it’s been transformational. By the time the Turner Prize arrives, let’s have a plan in place for the front, the outside, and the areas around Turner Contemporary; let’s make Turner Contemporary a place, not a building.

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4. Bored

Turner Contemporary should be governed by the people it represents and works with. The Board of Trustees  does great work in keeping the gallery going, but the mix of people from the banking sector, big organisations and art world establishment could do with hearing more local voices. The typical local panel or representative group is still an exercise in power: and doesn’t encourage real listening and debate. There should be three local board members, chosen for their potential: they should be given support and training to join the board and a mentor to help them become confident contributors.

If we do this right – all the other stuff will happen, because Turner Contemporary will be properly rooted in Margate.

 

Programming the Troublemakers’ Festival for Swansea

 

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For the Troublemakers’ Festival in Swansea, I tried to create an event which was rooted locally, had proper depth, and inspired people to take real action. Commissioned as programmer by the From The Station To The Sea project, I started with what was there already. The festival was built around existing venues – a theatre space, Oxfam bookshop, independent gallery, artist-led studios, a shop-sized cinema, a pub, an artist-led centre in old offices, local cafes, a sewing workshop. I added events and activity which enhanced them, added depth to them, encouraged people to see them in different ways, or brought in different audiences to these existing venues.

In closing the High Street to traffic for two days, we not only tested an idea local campaigners had long talked about, but we created a physical connection between these buildings and spaces. The High Street is usually very anti-pedestrian: crossings are limited, sight lines poor, and the traffic discourages casual browsing from shop to shop, reduces dwell time, and disrupts the useful permeability offered by lanes and alleys running off the High Street.

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Picture: Theatre Lane by  Simone Sheridan for Troublemakers’ Festival. By Dan Thompson

The aim of building on existing venues seemed to be achieved: Galerie Simpson reported their most successful event, people visited Volcano Theatre, Cinema & Co, the Tech Hub Basement Cafe, Sew Swansea and other venues for the first time. The High Street Skate Jam showed a wide audience an activity that’s usually indoors and hidden. One 79-year-old who usually avoids High Street enjoyed the Skate Jam so much, he casually suggested it should become permanent. Local cafes reported good takings: two reported their busiest ever weekends.

In crossing over audiences – bringing together social justice talks alongside skateboarding, sewing alongside stand up – people were (unconsciously and apparently accidentally) exposed to new experiences. The festival also encouraged people to move from one thing to another, and to get more deeply involved; if you saw an artist you liked, you could come and hear them talk, and then maybe join a workshop.

People just passing through, and regular High Street users like the street drinkers, were also offered new experiences and a chance to engage: some watched, some took part, some had interesting conversations with artists and other people involved in Troublemakers’. Nobody was moved on: the usual life of the street was disrupted, but not stopped.

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This planning went deeper, too. I am frustrated by speaking at events where there’s no time for acts and audiences to come together. And I am annoyed by artists who “attend an open mic and leave as soon as you’ve done your shitty little poem or song.” So artists were booked to stay for the weekend, expected to do a short talk about their work, and invited to join audience, volunteers and the production team in an open lunch every day. In return – they were given a wide brief, and invited to create work they really wanted to make.

Some of the artists came together long before the Troublemakers’ Festival, to meet at my studio. It was interesting subsequently, during the festival, to see them act as friends, supporting each other’s events, and to see more experienced artists mentoring emerging ones.

Most of the commissioning budget was spent in more interesting ways than booking artists I knew and taking them to Swansea, though. We commissioned much activity through open calls and local meetings, and ran three commissioning strands which brought very different work to the festival.

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The local WI meet on the High Street, and they were given a commissioning budget and invited to write a brief for an artist. Being unused to commissioning and unfamiliar with the ways artists talk about work, it was an interesting process and it resulted in one of the best commissions of the festival.

Office staff who are based on the High Street were also invited to commission a piece. Working with Coastal Housing staff in this way enabled them to understand and have ownership of the festival, so they were better able to talk to their local tenants about the Troublemakers’ Festival. Coastal’s tenants were given first notice of the festival, and were offered advance tickets for some events we expected to sell out.

A ‘Disruption’ thread saw a variety of artists given £500 micro-commissions, and as these were street based, they provided the outside links between spaces in more interesting ways than if we’d just commissioned street entertainers or buskers.

Woven through the festival were a series of magic moments: a protest march by disabled children demanding a zebra crossing for their school, the appearance of a dragon, an attempt to levitate the Palace Theatre, a suffragette leading a crowd of followers, a wildly optimistic protest march, a graffitied motor car, a local version of the Obby Oss. These all help people see the street in a different way: the memory of them will linger.

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Overall, we counted over 4000 on the High Street while it was closed, and over 1000 at other events, performances and workshops. The festival engaged even more online, gaining worldwide attention through films of the High Street used as a skatepark. Our final event was a WI meeting: the usual attendance of around 15 people swelled to more than 80.

At the end of Sunday’s road closure, we brought people back into the Volcano Theatre. People inspired by the previous four days of activity were invited to give a one-minute pitch, with the public voting for their favourite which would get a £500 kickstart. The public votes to put pianos in venues across Swansea – an idea pitched by a 16-year-old woman. Other people stood up – and pledged to make their ideas happen anyway. Swansea will, for example, have its first Fun Palace this October.

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And I’m currently writing a Manifesto For the High Street, based on ideas people contributed throughout the festival and during a series of workshops I ran with local people.

So Troublemakers’ Festival has had a real impact. It has built on existing activity, and helped increase audiences. And it has generated new grassroots initiatives, too. It has shown the potential of a street many had written off, and brought people back to rediscover the architecture, life, and businesses that are there. 

It highlighted the High Street’s interesting past, but made clear it has an interesting future, too.

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Picture: Troublemakers’ exhibition at Volcano. By Dan Thompson.

All other pictures by Math Roberts, commissioned to be photographer in residence by Troublemakers’ Festival

Troublemakers’ wouldn’t have happened without other people. So thank you to: Carrie, Claud, Paul, Vic, Kay, Barbara and all the team at Volcano, Huw and Coastal Housing, Caroline, Carys, and all the Troublemakers’ Festival production team, all the Troublemakers’ Festival volunteers – an exceptional bunch, all the venues involved, Tasha at Sew Swansea for constant support for many years, Phil at Oxfam for being an inspiration, Anna at Cinema & Co who let me screen Passport To Pimlico, Exist and everyone who skated or DJ’d, Swansea’s cycling community, Swansea Central WI (mainly for cake), Patrick Driscall, Mark Rees, and – of course – all the artists but especially Bernadette, Charlie, Stella, Tasha and Mark who all helped me shape Troublemakers’, and Sarah, Simone, Deborah and the Gaggle cast, Rob and the Sign of the Times team, the Unfair Funfair gang, Stephen and the levitators, Math, Lee, Sam and Julia, Tim, Nazma, Mark, Mr & Mrs Clark, Ariane and Graham,  Mark Thomas, and finally – the High Street businesses who coped with lots of extra people and a little bit of chaos.

Brixton

This is a second poem from a larger collection of mostly new poems. I won’t publish them all online: I want them to appear in print. But – I want to give people a flavour. You can read another, from Penrith, here.

It is an attempt to write a picture of England in 2017, through a series of poems about place. It is based on my travel and research. I anticipate that, when complete, there will at least a hundred poems.

This is about Oswald Denniston, my Windrush hero. He was very much in my mind while making my work for Estuary Festival last year (pictured below).

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Brixton


For Oswald “Columbus” Manoah Denniston, signwriter and market trader, born 24th May 1913; died 3rd February 2000.

Move us on ‘cos
we ain’t got a licence:
we carry rolled cloth
on our backs, use
our yard-wand as
a walking stick:
if we sell you short
it’s because we
walk so far we’ve
worn it down an inch
or maybe two.

We walk the markets, streets, arcades.

We know the sandwich man –
Consult Madame Sandra,
Palmist, Clairvoyant –

The Man With The X-Ray Eyes –
he’ll guess your age, and maybe
throw in a horoscope –

The German Accordion Player –
who worked his way up from
tin whistle, mouth organ. We

know Mr Columbus, explorer,
navigator, who travelled from
Montego Bay to sell fabric in
Brixton Market: fancy cloth,
rich thread, always a story;
cloth woven with the promise
of adventure.

When Columbus arrived he
was a signwriter: knew the
right weight of paint on a brush –
sable brush, with chisel edge –
balanced mahlstick, measure,
soft pencil for marking-up;

pounce, pot, kettle,
spirit, chamois.

Arrived, Tilbury, gave cheers,
and raised his Anthony Eden hat.

And – in thanks for his thanks,
gained employment –
this new, old world –
his Mother country,
wanted, welcomed him.

Mr Columbus,
the first black to
join the cycling club.

Founder of the
Association
Of Jamaicans.

Calypso, skiffle, rock and roll –
Mr Columbus imported a juke box,
and an Italian coffee machine –
created warmth in a
cold harbour.

Then Columbus came here, the
market, arched-roof Granville Arcade –
set up amongst the Jews, emigres –
with his rich, coloured African cloth.

This was the place – poets, politicians,
artists, makers, movers, shakers;
Lord Kitchener, Darcus Howe, Sir
Herman Ouseley, Linton Kwesi Johnson;
the conversations, talk, discussion
lasted days, weeks – maybe never ended –
Jamaicans are happy-go-lucky people.
When you have more than six you have a party.
This formica-topped market table,
became our field of the cloth of gold.

Explorer, navigator:
Mr Columbus
came looking for an old world
but made a new one instead.


Penrith

This is from a larger collection of mostly new poems. It is an attempt to write a picture of England in 2017, through a series of poems about place. It is based on my travel and research. I anticipate that, when complete, there will at least fifty poems.

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Penrith

 

In memory of Private William Gibson Clarke, Military Medal, who fell in France 10th August, 1918.

Our son was lost in 1918.
Our son was lost again,
somewhere in
carbonic paper, typists,
foolscap quarto, in 1923.

In a wooden drawer
of indexed cards in the
new Town Hall, he was an
anomaly in the town clerk’s
taxonomy of the dead.

We are a Penrith family,
Primitive Methodists,
live here in redstone
Brunswick Square.

Our son was wearing
socks, vests from Arnison’s
when he was decorated
for bravery at Vimy Ridge.

But – earlier, he left our
old world for a new one –
emigrated to Canada.
Waited tables, when he
heard the mother country
calling,
enlisted in Manitoba, 1915.

He died, in the last hundred days,
at Le Quesnel; he had travelled
the farthest of all the Allied men;
eight miles into German lines; he
was there at the start of the end.

Here, home, in Penrith
we asked for his name
to be added to the
memorial gateway in
Castle Park: no, they
said; he’s a colonial.

So, instead, we saved and paid
for this; a bench, in the park
where he played. Here he
is remembered: we hope in
a hundred years somebody
will read the cast iron words,
that will outlive us
as we outlived him,
sit here, know who he was.

Stoke, 2045

A chapter from It’s All About The Road

He dreamed of rides like this. A stiff backwind pushing him on, the roads clear, all the way down from Hanley. Leaving the factory he’d been working in, downhill, turning towards home and there was the wind, pushing him down the long straight road that seemed to balance, tipping away to the valley on one side. Homes on one side, terraces; industry on the other.

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An old elephant outside a warehouse, years of layers of paint glowing in the low evening sun, held behind a chainlink fence in case it tried to run down the road. Fibreglass advert for some company that had long since gone. But
no easy way to get rid of an elephant, so it stayed. Straight on, the wind a hand pushing him, the teeth catching perfectly with each gear change, smooth. No cars, just trams and bicycles all the way down the road clear straight past the university. Dip down under the railway bridge, low rumble as the London train crossed overhead, up and across the canal and the road, three lines of transport, connection, transit running parallel. Rail to Europe, motorway to London, canals to the docks and the sea. Left, and a dogleg through the town centre, curving round the old town hall,

Spode Village to the right, where the money stacked up, slowing to pass through the Thursday night drinkers outside the pub on the corner.

He glanced towards the night market opening up, a tram unloading passengers, the smell of street food, first customers. In the morning this was a food market, fresh potatoes, kale, beans, carrots from the city farms that had filled the corridor where the old Garden Festival had been, repurposed the old industrial sites alongside the canal towards Burslem, cleaned the dirty soil with fresh growth.

But in the evening the market cooked the produce; Chinese, Caribbean, Polish, Nepalese streetfood alongside Stoke Oatcakes and local ale, made with Trent water.

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Cycled on, right and a short push uphill, pounding, adrenalin slamming as he turned left onto London Road, the last kilometre to home. On the right, the Library Club and Art College, a low susurration (chat, guitar, fiddle) as the day’s lectures, debates, discussions ended in drink and dancing. In an hour, they’d fill the night market, the first pints from the college’s tiny bar making them hungry.

The solar panels on the roof of the market would have charged the batteries enough and the soundsystems would play until well after dark. He’d come back later, once the dancing had started.

But for now straight on, the baked dry biscuit smell of the big pottery, firing all day now, third largest in all of Stoke. Half a million pieces of ware rolling off the lines every week. Scottish machinery at the sharp edge, Japanese touch screen control, but English hands still touching everything produced.

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He passed The Villas on his right, blockpaved road straight up the hill, halfway up gaslight flared in a lamp. An old electric light converted to burn bio-waste; some strange conservationist in-joke. He was slightly obsessed by these houses, the hopes and aspirations of Victorian industrial revolutionaries made in brick. Elegant, European, classical yet oddly post-modern, very English. Now they were home to the people who grew up and graduated from lofts in the Spode Village, moving to here when they had children. University lecturers, cloud technicians, graphic designers, digital musicians. Mid-21st century techno bohemia.

On, a last right turn, and then standing on the pedals for the last push up the steep hill to home, Penkville Street, standing, the muscle in his calves straining, standing, as gravity and the steep degrees of the landscape pushed against him at the end of a flying ride. Mid terrace house, old front door painted rich gloss blue. Sash windows, metal column between them topped with tangled gothic foliage. Through the door, muscles burning, lungs suddenly empty now he’d stopped moving, as if the onward momentum had been pushing the air into him, inflating his lungs.

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He lent the bike against the wall, white Michelin tyres reflecting on black Minton tiles. Took off his shoulder bag. A Chapman Satchel, 30 years old, waterproof British woven tough blue Cordura, red strap faded to pink, ash toggles. Handmade in Cumbria. Thin trail of soft black road dirt on the underside but that would wipe off. A good bag for his tablet, and the tangle of cables and adaptors he used to jack into any of the machines in any of the potteries he worked with. Uploading new specs, tweaking the slip mix to a different purpose, adjusting the angle of printer nozzles, making the spinning 3D models the designers worked on in light and pixels into real clay shapes. Listening in to the machines on Flare Audio cans, the bubble of slip in the printer’s pipes like blood in veins

Bent over, pulling his jacket over his head, head spinning as the excitement of the ride crashed in. Vertigo, a short hard version of jetlag, the post-cycle rush like the instant hit of short black coffee. Threw the jacket on the stairs by the bag, then pushed himself upright, straightened, turned and wheeled the bike through to the back of the house.

It was his regular ride, a handbuilt, Lee Cooper of Coventry, lugged steel. 50 years old, sky blue paint waxed and polished to a perfect shine. Every Sunday, road dirt brushed off, degreased with Dirty Harry, three coats of hand-rubbed wax in the room at the back of the terraced house. He wheeled it back there. Other bikes against the wall An old red Saffron Frameworks, a white Ellis Briggs from Shipley, older than the Lee Cooper. He laid the sky blue against the white against the red.

And on the wall, golden yellow, the finest bicycle he owned, held on the wall by two brackets, the frame wrapped in old cotton where the clamps held it. A religious object, pinned to the wall for worship. Cycling shrine, like the niche carved to hold a pottery representation of a household god in a Roman villa. A Brian Rourke frame, seventy years old, made to the leg measurements of a forgotten rider, found in a secondhand shop on London Road. Fastest bicycles in Britain. BR crest transfer on the headset over the words in small, plain type, ‘Made In Stoke’. His next project, a month of weekends planned, the stripped parts carefully labelled in wooden trays on the side. New cables coiled ready, tense with potential energy.

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He liked to know where things came from. Chapman bag. British Boxers from Leek, Hiut Denim jeans made in Wales, Josery polo shirts from Hucknall, Norman Walsh shoes, Flare headphones from Sussex. In the kitchen he sliced London Road Bakehouse bread, dropped two slices into a British-built Dualit toaster, filled and turned on the matching kettle. Pulled out a plate, took the teapot down from the cupboard, and a mug; no doubt about where they were made. Portmeirion Pottery. Down the road, the smell of the kilns that baked these pieces of ware was on the air he breathed every day.

He put the tea and toast on a tray, carried it back to the front of the house. Put the tray on top of a pile of old magazines, real old. From newspapers, from the days when newspapers were printed, last century. He’d found this whole box of them in a house clearance round the corner, pulled out of a corner of the coach house at the end of the garden. Daily Telegraph, ‘Myicuria’ penned in the right hand corner on each cover. Full of stories which made no sense, time captured, moments lost in time like tears in the rain. He’d bought a box of crockery, Biltons; one of the lost and forgotten local potteries, insignificant in the history of industry.

Some old tools, thick with grease, ‘Made In Sheffield’. And this box of old magazines. If he wasn’t careful the First Law would kick in, the house would fill with kipple, there would be whole rooms he couldn’t enter any more.

Shard ruck, a room like a shard ruck.

But he liked to gather old things, collect stories, imagine who had owned them. In the gathering of magazines, books, old bookmarks, postcards, in the dark metal tools and battered old tins, in the old cabinets of worthless pottery ware; in all of it, he could see threads, connections and patterns.

Somewhere was the point it all came together, here in Stoke, the node.

He poured the tea, English tea.

The new, nomadic Agora

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The Agora was the central public space in ancient Greek city-states. The word means either gathering place or assembly. The agora brought together the artistic, spiritual, civic and political life of the city in one space; it was a space for creating social capital.

The Agora is an idea I’ve explored previously, in empty shops – the long-running WorkShop series  (2010-15) came out of a Shoreham-by-Sea project called Agora.

The new, nomadic Agora is a mobile intervention, which will appear in everyday places.

AIRTime Belfast

Agora will travel the UK. As part of the Troublemakers’ Festival, the Swansea Agora will appear in five different locations on five days for five one-hour sessions. The Margate Agora will appear a few times in different places during the Margate Festival. Stoke Agora will happen as part of Festival Stoke.  Short, sharp versions are being planned for London, Eastbourne, and Worthing.

Agora is a social artwork, and in each iteration, I will sit down with about ten people for an hour to have a conversation about local life. A range of prompts and simple activities will be provided. It’ll be a conversation in Plain English, using everyday examples, about citizenship, social capital and democracy.

Tea party at Workshop 24

All the local conversations will become part of a wider artwork about the UK’s identity and ideas of citizenship at this time of change. The things people say and do in each place will travel on to the next.

At the end, I’ll produce a state-of-the-nation piece, in writing but also as an exhibition at my studio. Whichever way the general election goes, we’ve fallen apart as a country and it’s time to work out what’s next: our politicians have failed us in that, and it’s time for citizens to talk.

 

Natural capital gets lots of air time because banks – in their ongoing quest to own the world – like to invest. Social capital? Not so much.  Dan Thompson bangs the drum on behalf of all of us. He is expert at unlocking potential in people and places that are ignored. Lucy Siegle

Tips for Running Difficult Meetings

Demo at NestaI have run lots of meetings. You can make them useful not angry. Easily. I learnt this stuff by being ambushed and working it out.

I was at a meeting tonight where it all went really wrong, really quickly.

Ideally – don’t have meetings, but do something together and talk as you do it. But when you do need a meeting, here are six steps for running one with a likely-to-be-angry group:

1. Welcome everyone with tea and coffee. Talk to them as they come in: they will be less angry if you’ve looked them in the eye, told them your name, said hello.

2. Don’t have a top table – if you do, it’s them and us. Use groups or lumps of chairs or a cabaret-style layout. Change the dynamic of the room with the furniture.

3. Make feedback mechanisms easy from the start: have tables with activities, or boards with Post-its. Let people unload some of their anger before the meeting starts – and start by saying ‘we’re listening to you’.

4. Give gifts. A badge, pencil, notebook or something small. It makes it an exchange. ‘Thank you for coming. In return for your valuable opinions, here’s something back.’

5. Give something extra, so that the people who’ve come are the special ones. George at Maybridge Boys Club used to drum into us children ‘you’re all VIPs’. Treat people like VIPs. Start with ‘here’s a tour of venue’ or ‘here’s a behind-scenes film that nobody else has seen’.

6. There will be questions and you will have to answer. Make the Q&A in groups, around tables or around interactive activity. Not you against the whole crowd.

 

He Do The Police In Different Voices – A Trumppoem

A to be for to an election?
A NEW LOW!
All across the country
A good lawyer 
             And the many roles they serve that are 
A great case 
             A race
An incredible spirit of
 Added missiles
American people will come way down!
A complete and total disaster - is imploding fast!
Battlefield
Bad (or sick) guy!
Buy American
Competition in the Drug Industry 
                                Competition
Congratulations! 
Could make out of the fact that was in October 
Court earlier
             Crimea
Despite what you hear in the press
Don't let the FAKE NEWS
Don't worry
Down by
Drug
     Election election
                      Election!


Eight years
FAKE NEWS


For Russia got 
              For 
 For the 
        Getting major things done!
Getting rid of state lines
Good lawyer
 Got stronger and stronger!
Great discussion!
Great news, great rallies
Gone to tapp my phones


Healthcare is coming along great
Healthcare rollout 
                  How low
Hire American
I am working on a new system
I'd bet
       I have tremendous respect for women 
Is it legal


It will end in a beautiful picture!
Just prior to
JOBS, JOBS, JOBS!
JOBS!
Make America Great Again!


New Healthcare Bill
                   Now out for review and negotiation and
Optimism
Our wonderful new Healthcare Bill
Obamacare
Obama
Picked-off Crimea
President Obama 
President Obama 
President Obama
President prior pricing for the principles "ran over",
Released 

         Returned to the returned to the
 Sitting President
Stronger and stronger 
Sweeping the country
 

Tapp my phones Tapp Tapping my phones


Thank you
Thank you
There is right now—
 There is - 
There is big infighting in the Trump Admin
This is Nixon/Watergate.
Tremendous support.


Turned down by
Very sacred vicious prisoners
                            vital to the fabric of our society and our economy


We are talking to many groups
We are getting along great
We're bringing back the JOBS!
We are only just beginning 
                          "wire tapping"


Wonderful wonderful
Weak!

This is a cut-up poem, made from the text of about twenty of President Trump’s most recent Tweets. I cut out key phrases, and arranged them roughly alphabetically. This poem should be read out loud. It’s my first Trumppoem – there will be more.

 

From Wasteland to Wasteland

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I’m taking my minor obsession with TS Eliot’s The Waste Land even further – making new work inspired by an event that happened over 100 years ago in a new project called From Wasteland to Wasteland.

On the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, Captain James Young of the 179th Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers pressed a switch. He detonated two explosive charges in tunnels dug through chalk from the British trenches to a position under the German front line.

Captain Young had blown the mine at La Boisselle, creating a single, vast, smooth sided, flat bottomed crater measuring nearly 100 metres across and 21 metres deep. Now known as the Lochnagar Crater, it is the largest crater ever made by man in anger, and it serves as a unique memorial to all those who suffered in the Great War.

Five years later, after suffering a nervous breakdown, TS Eliot travelled to Margate to rest. Working for the Foreign & Colonial Branch of Lloyds Bank, Eliot was responsible for working out war reparation payments. Sitting in a seafront shelter, and inspired in part by  his job and the horror of the First World War, he wrote his epic poem The Waste Land.

Award-winning printmaker Dawn Cole (who I’m also collaborating with on the StArt The Press project) is known for her work exploring stories from the First World War. She visited Lochnagar Crater in 2015.

Inspired by the dramatic site, the manmade landscape, and the stories behind it, she has brought together a small group of us. Together, we’re going to visit the battlefield site, draw connections with TS Eliot’s poem, and make new work as a response. We’re a diverse group, from different backgrounds and with different practices.

Portugese artist Helder Clara uses arduous processes to make objects, installations, sculpture, printing, performance, paintings, and photographic documentation. He has exhibited work in Margate and Hastings.

Lorna Dallas-Conte has a fascination with colour and an interest in traditional craft skills. Her work looks at transformation, manifesting energy, and honouring the sacred. As a commended creative business adviser and academic she combines the different strands of her work together seeing their totality as her practice. She has exhibited in London, Surrey and Kent and is a published researcher.

Graham Ward is a painter, working in egg tempera and acrylics on board. His work is based on sacred themes, and is strongly influenced by pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela. Ward studied illustration in Manchester and painting at Stoke. He has exhibited widely in the United Kingdom and Europe, with solo exhibitions in London, Edinburgh, Paris and Berlin.

Supported using public funding by Arts Council England, we travel together to see the Lochnagar Crater next week. We’ll record the visit and make new work which will be presented at a First Friday event at Marine Studios, Margate on Friday 2nd June.

First Fridays have been held at Marine Studios most months since November 2009. The events are driven by a curiosity about the world and a belief that events bring communities together. Previous First Friday events have included performances, book launches, films, exhibitions, talks, installations and even picnics. First Friday runs from 6.30-8.30pm, is free, and is open to all.

The plan is that we’ll continue to work together after our initial exploration, with a view to holding an exhibition in 2021, the centenary of Eliot’s time in Margate. For more information and to follow the project as it unfolds, visit dawncole.co.uk.

 

In Margate, still making the case I made in Worthing; creativity equals jobs.

We know that steel’s an industry, that car-making in the UK means jobs, and that coal-mining’s real work. But what about a British industry that’s one pixel deep, that sees big companies operate from spare rooms, and where the raw materials are whatever the imagination can make?

Kent’s GEEK festival celebrates the UK’s computer games industry, and the creative sector jobs built around it.

6972228767_df88d58d78_oAnd here in Margate, as part of the team helping make GEEK happen this year, I find myself making the same arguments for the creative sector I had to make in Worthing between 2000-2005. Back then, the case that creativity was jobs was a hard one to make in a town that had little imagination. I argued for a future, but made sure it was firmly rooted in the town’s past – a town with a creative leyline running from Oscar Wilde to Mick Farren through to Jamie Hewlett and Travis Elborough and Deborah Coughlin. But some of the ideas I pushed became embedded in the Worthing Evolution masterplan; East Beach Studios, for example, is a direct result of making that case to the council and local business groups. I didn’t get the Tate Worthing I wanted, though; and Turner Contemporary shows what Worthing didn’t get. 

But what could Margate get, if GEEK makes the case well enough? Nesta and Ukie has estimated that the UK games industry could be contributing £1.72bn to the country’s economy – more than the UK’s steel industry. 95% of games companies are classified as small or micro businesses. But in that Nesta & Ukie study,  the 1902 video games companies they looked at employ approximately 9200 creative staff and indirectly support more than 16,800 jobs. 95% of UK games businesses export at least some of their games and services to overseas markets.

The education sector is starting to see the games industry as an important sector for future jobs, too. 56 universities are running over 140 video games development courses throughout the UK.

When the Games Developer Conference polled 400-plus games professionals across Europe it found that the UK emerged top as the best source of games in the last ten years – and as the most likely source of the best games five years from now.

Games sales outstrip video in the UK, and more than twice as much is spent on games as on music. And the people playing the games this huge UK industry makes might not be who you expect, either. The UK gamer audience has now hit 33.5 million – that’s 69% of the population. Because of the rise in puzzle and trivia game apps, there are now more women playing video games in the UK than men. Seven out of ten Britons have played some form of video game in the last 6 months and more people 45+ are playing than under 20s

“In an area like East Kent where physical connectivity can be a problem for companies, digital connectivity could be the way to build solid and sustainable jobs,” says GEEK’s director Kate Kneale, “so while the economic development people always look to attract a big employer, we’re saying – why not attract lots of small ones instead?”

P1160537.JPGGEEK was started by the team from Kneale’s design company HKD in 2012. With an interest in art and science, HKD projects are designed to help people meet, make new work, and play together. HKD have recently designed new galleries for Science Centre Singapore, and are currently involved in the design of the Hong Kong Space Museum. In the UK, they are working at Delapré Abbey, Northampton and Gods House Tower, Southampton.

GEEK celebrates the colourful culture around computer games and gaming, but also lets people meet to talk about the economic importance of the creative industries in East Kent. 

GEEK comes to Dreamland, Margate in February half term, from 17th-19th February. Alongside hundreds of games, it includes a programme of talks and workshops which touch on employment in the gaming industry.

 

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Margate’s Playful History

P1220179.JPGMargate, in the quest to show the latest visitors that it’s bottled the zeitgeist, often forgets that there’s nothing new under the sun. Since a failing fishing village reinvented itself, Margate’s always been somewhere that people come to play. And there’s a straight line from the earliest Pleasure Gardens of the 18th Century to the very 21st Century GEEK festival, which happens during the half term holiday every February.

The old Pleasure Gardens like Dent De Lion, The Wilderness and Ranelagh Gardens were egalitarian public places, where visitors from every class would dress in their finest to promenade, play bowls, perhaps impress with their archery skills, listen to music, and – later on – enjoy the first amusement rides.

So there’s a certain symmetry in GEEK’s move this year to the site Victorian circus superstar Lord Sanger chose for his own Pleasure Gardens. The modern Dreamland sits on almost the exact footprint of the grounds behind Lord Sanger’s Hall By The Sea, where visitors could see the circus owner’s menagerie, experience early rides, and wander through the (faked) ruins of Margate Abbey.

GEEK – or to give it its full title, Games Expo East Kent – has been running since 2012, and this will be its first year on the Dreamland site. Like the old Pleasure Gardens, GEEK’s egalitarian; and like the Pleasure Gardens, it will always wow visitors with the latest technology. For a few days, Dreamland will be brought alive by retro games, digital art, tournaments and boardgames. There’s space dedicated to cosplay, Warhammer, 2000AD, Raspberry Pi antics and Minecraft. There will be a special celebration of the anniversary of Mario Kart.

But while the Pleasure Gardens quickly fell out of fashion, the family-friendly GEEK festival is no passing fancy. It’s firmly rooted in the Isle of Thanet’s creative economy, and in showcasing the town’s arts, digital and creative work, suggests creative careers for the younger gamers who visit.

Margate’s a playful place, for sure, but there’s some serious thinking and a thriving economy underneath all the fun.

GEEK’s Storyteller in Residence

geek-2017-heroimage
The GEEK festival in Margate is an interesting thing. On one hand, it’s a gaming festival, with everything from retro arcades and Minecraft to edgy boardgames and a side order of Cosplay, comics and toys. Wrapped around that is a layer of art, including new commissions, digital art, and game-making.
 
But underneath all of that is the proposition that digital, gaming and the wider creative sector are vital to the economy of East Kent, and that their potential is being ignored in things like regeneration strategies. Those documents always look at attracting big employers, where a more resilient digital economy is built of lots of small, agile companies who co-exist, share services and overlap.
GEEK was created by the team at HKD in Margate, a research-led design studio who work in science centres and museums to design world-class exhibits. Alongside their own practice, they run Marine Studios (where I have a studio). 
 
A couple of years ago, I produced a newspaper for the festival, the GEEK Gazette – which included the programme, and some fun stuff, but also looked at the future of work, emerging technology, and the way creativity and gaming contribute to the area. Writers included the then-minister Ed Vaizey, Tuttle founder Lloyd Davis, and the Centre for Creative Collaboration’s Brian Condon.
 
Well – GEEK is back this year, and moves to a new venue, Dreamland. And I’ll be back there too, with a new role as Storyteller in Residence. I won’t be telling stories, but collecting them, to help tell the story of why GEEK, and all the things it’s about, are really important.
 

Pop Up People

Pop Up People looked at the problem of empty shops in town centres differently. First, it saw them as an opportunity. But secondly, and most importantly, it identified that the solution was to be found in people, not in planning, strategy or policy.

As a counter to the Portas report into town centres, which praised big retail and said the days of independent shops were over, Pop Up People recognised that individuals across the country were making a difference, identified he skills they were bringing to play, and demonstrated how they could easily be supported to deliver real and lasting change.

To produce the report, I spent a period touring the UK, running a range of action research events with people already engaged in activating high streets, city centres and other spaces. The report was praised by Arts Council England, read by government ministers, and has bee used as a tool for advocacy across the UK. It was supported by a short film, and a wiki to document the research and collate useful resources. Pop Up People is still relevant and useful today – download it and read it here..

Margate Festival

14294431549_4ca218dc3c_o (1)Back in 2014, I spent some time with Tom Swift looking at the Margate Festival which Turner Contemporary had just launched – which that year, took colour as its theme.

The report we prepared was light in tone, but looked at serious things; how far had people travelled for Turner Contemporary’s festival, how did they move across the town when they got here, and where did they spend their money.

It included statistical analysis, based on talking to 250 people, alongside anecdotal evidence.

“This document attempts to join dots where perhaps dots shouldn’t be
joined, and to make assumptions where perhaps assumptions shouldn’t be
made. But that’s the role of the artist; to see a bigger picture made up from
small brushstrokes.”

You can download and read the observatory-paper-no-1-1 here.

My broken European heart

nb This is written today, amidst the greatest uncertainty we’ve ever experienced in my lifetime, in the tattered remains of a postwar political consensus. I’m hurting. Be kind. 

I am European. I was born in 1974, in a European country. I love being European, and I love being British. There’s no contradiction there; I am also proud of being from Sussex too, with all the traditions that brings. And will always love my hometown, Worthing, which has its own identity, quirks and ways within the wider county. Think of it like Russian dolls, a Worthing boy, my Sussex identity nestled inside my Britishness, inside a European shell.

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In the last few years, I have been very lucky and, for the first time in my life and thanks to work, I have been able to travel. We had a couple of childhood holidays – Austria with PGL, Paris – but I have never had the opportunity to travel. My 20 year old daughter travels casually, spending a few months abroad with no concerns, while I pack and repack for a few days in Ireland.

Amsterdam North

Work took me there this month, to talk at the inspiring All-Ireland Performing Arts Conference (a coming-together of older, separate Ireland and Northern Ireland events). Unilever took me to Italy a few years ago. And my work with empty shops took me to the Netherlands a few times. I took those opportunities nervously, as I’d never travelled; my daughter is at university (achieving something neither of her parents did) and is already embracing travel. She is casual about it, while I’m still excited to get a window seat. I’m still dazzled by cloudscapes and overwhelmed by the distant curve of the horizon, while for her the horizon is where she going. Her world is bigger, her opportunities broader.

Or rather – they were.

This weekend, her chances have been reduced. She will have less options. My two younger children will also have to live in reduced circumstances, but at least they will never have seen how wide the horizons were to start with.

And me? Well, I’m genuinely heartbroken. The cry from Leave campaigners was ‘I want my country back’. That’s exactly how I feel.

Brighton

Everything I’ve been taught, the values and beliefs I’ve been given since childhood, have been ripped away.

I was taught (in an ordinary school on an ordinary council estate, in an ordinary postwar comprehensive)  that we’d come through war, and seen that co-operation was better. We’d fought for peace. We’d battled for kindness, for care. We’d welcome immigrants, pre and post war –  the Basque children, the young people who arrived on Kindertransport. We’d wanted the people from the West Indies on the Windrush, people from Bangladesh and India, the Italian brick-makers in Bedford because all those people helped rebuild our country post-war. We’d seen off isolationism, told Enoch Powell he was wrong, kicked back against the rise of the National Front. We’d moved from Empire to Common Wealth in a reasonable way.

We’d give a share of our wages to bigger things, knowing we got the benefits – education, the Welfare State, decent homes, a sense of safety. The things we celebrated on the opening night of the Olympics in London, what feels like a very long time ago.

The country I’ve grown up in since 1974 has been essentially safe and secure, fundamentally fair, moving consistently towards something even better. Yes, there were still class inequalities, fights for gender equality, and some residual racism – but the direction was good, the momentum there. People have more now than they did before I was born, when our economy was broken.

 

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Nobody I have ever met believed that going backwards, that reducing fairness, that shrinking horizons was in any way good.

Except – they did. In their secret hearts, they hated all the things I’d been taught were good. Half the country voted for exactly that. They voted knowing the immediate impacts; a damaged economy, the break up of the United Kingdom, less opportunities for young people to work and travel, and the rise of racism on the streets. All these things were known, but labelled Project Fear.

But – it turns out, they were a legitimate fear; we got them all. And we won’t get the things the Leave campaign promised either. Within hours of winning the referendum, they have withdrawn promises of extra funding for the NHS, of reductions in immigration numbers, of closed borders and the end of free movement. And they have admitted they have no plan. None. The thing they claim they have wanted since 1973, they have not spent one single moment planning for.

We have everything that the Remain voters feared, and nothing that the Leave voters wanted. An election in which everyone lost.

London 2012

I’ve been called a traitor for my vote, told I should leave the country. Nigel Farage has said we Remain voters weren’t decent people.

For the first time in my life, I have no optimism left. The thing that has kept me going, the sense that we can make a difference, that we can do things, that we have agency and power and magic in our hands, is gone right now.

I can’t talk to people who voted Leave. They have broken my country and broken my heart. They have left me adrift, unsure of the very identity the country has wrapped around me since birth. I am scared and I am lonely.

The country is broken, and I am broken too.

I’ve written an apology for Sussex Police.

Sussex Police have been criticised after hooding and shackling an 11 year old child with a mental health condition. It’s truly barbaric behaviour. Their response is to say:

Temporary deputy chief constable Robin Smith said: “We take our responsibility for any use of force very seriously particularly when it involves young people or those who are vulnerable.

“We welcome the IPCC’s scrutiny and during its investigation the force has adopted many schemes to support vulnerable people and those with mental illness, learning disabilities and substance misuse issues.”

He added: “As a direct result of the investigation into this case, personal safety and first aid training, which all officers have to undertake, has been updated. This means officers have learned communication skills to help them be more effective when helping people with mental illness. In addition all officers have refreshed their knowledge in the use of spit guards.

“As a chief officer I have a duty to protect officers and the public when we are called on for help, whether the threat comes from a child or someone who is unwell. This is very often the case and it was on several occasions that the girl’s mother called for our help. The application of any type of restraint is considered only when the level of resistance causes concern for the safety of the detained person, the officer and other members of the public.”

Now, I know it’s hard to apologise, and that Sussex Police are busy with more serious things. So I thought I’d help out. Here’s how you apologise, Sussex Police:

We’re sorry. What we did was wrong, and we promise not to do it again. We apologise to the child, to her family, and to everyone else. We let a child down, and we let ourselves down.

I hate the non-apologies of people in power.

I’m releasing this under CC BY-ND 4.0 so Sussex Police can use it.

The Referendum, 2016 seen from 2026

My father had been a schoolteacher, and he always said that windy days brought trouble in the classroom. Wind rattled the windows, for sure, but it rattled the children more. And that June in 2016 had been a windy one. It felt like the rough winds, blowing down the North Sea and hitting the east coast, and crashing in across the Atlantic, never stopped. Perhaps that wind rattled people, or perhaps it was an omen; it certainly brought nobody any good.

In the final weeks leading up to the vote on whether Britain was to stay European or not, the weather was the last thing people really worried about, but it was of course a constant low-level grumble. It was wrong; where was the glorious summer? The campaign to leave had become more hysterical, making wilder and wilder claims and bigger and bolder promises. Lower fuel bills, cheaper homes, free beer and an overflowing cornucopia of good, British, stuff.  Things would again be stamped Made In Great Britain on their bottoms. The church clock, and honey still for tea.

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The remain campaign seemed to be unable to stand up to such claims; while Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage were happy to stand shoulder-to-shoulder and spout sub-Churchillian speeches, Jeremy Corbyn and David Cameron were such unlikely allies they refused to stand shoulder-to-shoulder. Both spent more time dealing with squabbles in their own parties than on taking the message to a wider audience.

So up until the day of the vote, it was uncertain which way the country would swing. Except on the morning, when strong winds were joined by wild rain and the country felt like it was being hit by a very British Armageddon. The electorate were already depressed by a never-ending campaign, and now the turnout was depressed. Polling Stations reported low numbers turning out; the strong wind heavy rain was putting all but the most enthusiastic voters off. Election officers also reported numerous incidents of  scuffles and fights, started by angry Leave campaigners who took out their frustration on anyone with an ‘I’m In’ badge or tote bag turning out to vote. These reports reduced numbers turning out even less. The Remain campaigners were always more moderate, less fanatical, and the combination of getting wet and being attacked was enough to put many off turning out at all.

By the evening of that day, the media had realised that the Leave campaign had won but were still bound by electoral rules, so couldn’t say so clearly. But the worried faces of the middle class reporters, thinking about losing their French farmhouses, made it obvious.

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That night was the first time the word leave moved from being a dry, academic, legislative choice to being an imperative.

Forty years earlier, a generation of Indian and Pakistani immigrants had arrived, worked hard, and transformed the UK’s shopping habits quietly by opening small, neighbourhood shops. In more recent years, young Polish and Eastern European immigrants had started to do the same, and Polish Shops were becoming a familiar part of the neighbourhood high street. However they weren’t yet as rooted, as familiar, and as accepted. On the evening of the referendum, the first reports came in of the slogan LEAVE being daubed across shop windows in small towns with histories of immigration causing problems. Polish shops in towns like Margate, Boston, Dover and Bognor Regis were attacked. The media quickly reported it, eager for a coded way to announce the results ahead of Polling Stations closing. In a number of inner city neighbourhoods – Glasgow, Manchester, Leeds, London, Bristol – copycat slogans appeared shortly before windows were smashed. The first real winners in the referendum were emergency glaziers, called out across the country.

So the next morning, Britain woke up to the news that it was leaving the European Community. The draw bridge was being raised. Rail workers had been effectively striking across the south in the weeks leading up to the referendum; the day afterwards the south coast trainlines ground to a halt, and the Channel Tunnel had to close. Unconnected, in reality, to the referendum, it seemed to be a powerful symbol nonetheless.

And it soon seemed that the last people to leave on Eurostar might be the lucky ones. Britain was, literally and metaphorically, tearing itself apart. The vandalism of Polish shops continued, and the Police were called to numerous incidents of remainers who had Better In posters in their windows finding they had a brick thrown through them.

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Meanwhile, the two political parties were in freefall, with David Cameron forced to announce an early resignation, leaving the party to fight amongst itself, with jostling between real radicals like Michael Gove, opportunists like Boris Johnson, and a bitter presumptive successor George Osborne looking increasingly like a man who’d been at the party too long, and wasn’t coping with the pills or powders he’d thought were a good idea earlier in the evening. The Labour party had never rebuilt after Jeremy Corbyn split them into a mass popularist movement on the left and a power-hungry experienced political clique on the right. And Nigel Farage, now completely powerless as his party’s European funding fell away, looking like a man who’d got what he wanted, but was only now realising he’d accidentally kicked away the scaffold he was standing on to do it. None of the mainstream parties would ever command a majority again, and the country would have to get used to coalitions and consensus politics.

A few weeks before the referendum, British Home Stores had collapsed into administration, and their stores started to close in the week after the referendum. Seeing the familiar name stripped from streets felt ominous, and no new retailers came forward to fill their large empty stores. Quietly, a number of European-owned stores announced their own closures and started to slip away. Other big names on the high street would follow, as city investment – which was the only thing holding them up as Britain had never truly left the recession of 2008 – moved overseas. Alongside the boarded-up Polish shops, looted after young Poles quickly left for home, the nation’s high streets started to go dark.

It wasn’t just young Poles that left the country. A number of young Australians could see the way things were going, and decided that Britain’s rainy streets were no longer as attractive as the sunny side of the world. And a growing number of Chinese and Japanese people, who’d come to Britain looking for a European home, left  too.

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They were balanced out by what started as a trickle of older, suntanned British migrants, drawn home from Spain and the South of France. The initial returnees mumbled about how Britain was better now, everything would be the way they remembered, that they had only left because Britain in Europe wasn’t the Britain of Empire Annuals, toy British soldiers beating the nasty Huns, Austin cars, and Dan Dare that they’d loved. It soon became obvious, though, that the real reason was they were being made to feel increasingly unwelcome on mainland Europe. The countries that had welcomed them as part of a shared community were now checking passports, being more vigorous at collecting local taxes, and starting to be more enthusiastic in their enforcement of local planning regulations. Swimming pools were being filled in, and roof terraces closed down. In the three years after the referendum, over five million older Britons returned home. They far outnumbered the people who left Britain, and – being older – put an immediate strain on the already stretched National Health Service. They contributed little to the struggling economy.

And they put an extra burden on the nation’s housing infrastructure. Many were used to having space to live, but their southern European homes sold for so little that they could afford only flats in the UK. As their exiting crashed the ex-pat housing market abroad, they filled homes that were needed by young people and new families here, and even more people found themselves stuck in their parent’s home. The dream of home ownership was effectively killed, and an older model, of multi-generational families living together returned. An unexpected casualty of the referendum were the UK’s care homes, as people no longer sold up to afford the high fees, but instead moved in with their aging mother or father. Hundreds of care homes closed in the years after 2016.

And while the high streets and care homes closed down, so did the factories. The other European governments, wanting to head off any such rebellion amongst their voters, were tough in their negotiations as Britain untangled itself from the EU. They had no interest in kindness, and while Britain thought Europe owed it a debt of gratitude, the European politicians were pleased to see the back of MEPs who moaned loudly but rarely turned out to debate, discuss or even vote. With Britain’s political parties split, there were no strong negotiators at the European tables, either. So the trade deals imposed on Britain were crippling, or at least would have been, had Britain had any trade. In the two years of negotiations, one after another European-owned company had quietly slipped away, leaving empty business parks and factories, and the few big American companies had started to bring everything back to the USA too, as President Trump’s isolationism made overseas trade and manufacture harder for them.

Worthing

And so we got to here, the tenth anniversary of the referendum. In many ways, Britain is better. We’re a greener country, from the offshore wind farms and solar farms of Kent that bring most of our daily electricity rations to the cities filled with bicycles, with cycling at a level only our Dutch neighbours could have achieved ten years ago. At first, ditching the car was a purely economic choice, but people soon realised that cycling brought greater benefits. They were fitter, happier and lived more local lives.

Our exports are smaller, obviously, but still based around technology, all about IP, design and creativity. In many fields – music, literature, film, art, games – we still lead the world. Hardly anything physical leaves our shores, and very little is brought in; we’re a closed loop, and most of our exports leave through our nearest European neighbour, Scotland. That relationship, rocky at first after they broke up the Union, became easier and it made sense to relocate parts of the UK government to Northern cities, closer to our best European friend.

That has spread the wealth across the country a little more evenly, and accidentally released the pressure on the price of property in London and the south east. Property prices are, of course, lower than ten years ago – but they’re also more equal. They’ve risen in our manufacturing centres. The hottest spots for property today are Stoke where pottery’s made, Coventry where they build bicycles again, and around the northern government centre of Leeds. Our manufacturing is getting stronger, based around efficient use of resources, fired by technology, driven by recycling what we already have.

And all of that has led to the most surprising outcome of the referendum. We no longer have any right wing politics. The people who thought they’d won, ten years ago, exposed themselves in doing so. It became obvious that they didn’t have any solutions, and that the things that made Britain special were always on the left; our creativity and invention, our philanthropy, our public services. The things that make Britain great are still here, and probably always will be. They’re resilient, tough,  deep in the grain of the nation’s identity, embedded at the genetic level. They survive.

 

Estuary Lab – Discordianism

To introduce myself to the other artists taking part in Metal’s Estuary lab, I was asked to make a ten minute presentation about my work. I went at it… sideways.

After I was born, I lived in a small house with my mum and my nan. Number 33 Handley Road, Worthing. I was happy there. My nan still lives there. When I visit I always feel relaxed and calm. So – I like the number 33. It resonates, reverberates.

As a teenager I worked at the Connaught Theatre, Worthing – backstage. I left to join a small touring company, and that was where I learned – about conspiracies, about global patterns of power, about old religions, about mysteries, about Shakespeare. The director – Nick Young, trained at the RSC, staged a nude Romeo & Juliet in the 1970s – he was a good teacher.

The address was 33 Eriswell Road. We rehearsed in the front room. Next door, my office, store and workshop was in a little annex to the original house tacked on at the side.
33. It figured, I thought.

Sea

Years later, I moved from being production manager to Rainbow Theatre to putting together my own things (and all of that happened because I spent time hanging out on a Shoreham houseboat, Yerba Buena, which had been Nick Young’s home when he started Rainbow – and I was working on a series of colour-themed art happenings on board). I followed a path from the KLF and the Illuminati, to the K Foundation and contemporary art, to Bill Drummond – and I brought Bill down to Worthing.

Through reading about his work, and his training under Ken Campbell, working on the Illuminatus Trilogy, I came across Discordianism.

From Wikipedia:
Discordianism is a religion and subsequent philosophy based on the veneration or worship of Discordia, the Goddess of chaos, or archetypes or ideals associated with her. It was founded after the 1963 publication of its holy book, the Principia Discordia, written by Greg Hill with Kerry Wendell Thornley, the two working under the pseudonyms Malaclypse the Younger and Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst.

The religion has been likened to Zen based on similarities with absurdist interpretations of the Rinzai school, as well as Taoist philosophy. Discordianism is centered on the idea that both order and disorder are illusions imposed on the universe by the human nervous system, and that neither of these illusions of apparent order and disorder is any more accurate or objectively true than the other.

There is some division as to whether it should be regarded as a parody religion, and if so to what degree

Now it turns out that I’d brushed up against Discordianism a few times – Bob Dobbs and the Church of Subgenius, the Slackers. A real parody religion rooted in Discodian ideas.

I discovered Bob as a teenager in Brighton. In the old Jubilee Market – Tesco before the market, the Komedia these days – the Bob Dobbs gang had a stall selling stickers, T-shirts and slipmats. I bought in to this mysterious, enigmatic character and a philosophy of calm, acceptance, slack.

Everything the KLF did, you see, led me elsewhere. And all those KLF videos and their sleeves covered in pyramids – the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, the JAMMS.

(and – that led me to uncover the thing the KLF sampled, to the MC5, to finding out my dad had seen the MC5 in a field outside Worthing, to my sister working in their hometown Ann Arbor, to me visiting her in Michigan and standing outside their old communal house – but – that’s another story.)

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And that number 33. Well, the Discordianists like numbers:

The Law of Fives states simply that: All things happen in fives, or are divisible by or are multiples of five, or are somehow directly or indirectly appropriate to 5. The Law of Fives is never wrong.
— Malaclypse the Younger, Principia Discordia, Page 00016

The real point of the Law of Fives is that it as a symbol for the observation of reality changing that which is being observed in the observer’s mind.

When you looks for fives or thirty-threes you find them, when you look for conspiracies, ways to determine when the apocalypse will come, connections, you will find them.

So Discordianism worked, it reverberated. It still echoes through the things I do:
Chaos. Magic. Making up religions. Finding connections. Following threads.

About ten years ago, Nick Young moved from his house at 33 Eriswell Road.
Just before he moved, he uncovered something strange after dowsing in the house. Under the front room floor, under the floor we rehearsed the company on, was a well. An ancient well.

A well dedicated to the goddess Eris. And who’s she? Well. I talked about her earlier, under her new name.

The older name, the Roman name, for the Goddess Discordia – was Eris.

 

Estuary 16

Estuary is a new, biennial arts festival curated in response to the spectacular Thames Estuary and presented in culturally significant and historic venues along the Essex and Kent shorelines.  An exciting mix of new and existing works will pull together powerful themes resonant to the place, its history, landscape and communities in an ambitious programme of contemporary art, literature, film and music.

From the Metal blog.

 

I’m among the artists creating new work for the first Estuary biennial. Metal are making it all happen, and brought together a small group of us to work alongside each other and explore Southend, Tilbury and other significant sites along the Estuary for a week.

The places we saw are truly magical – real industrial edgelands with layers of use, occupation and meaning. Places at the end and the beginning of so many English stories. Making it an incredible commission; a chance to weave together all sorts of fragments, places, moments in time. Can I live up to all the possibility? We’ll see.

From my original proposal to Metal:

As I sit here, I can see the full spread of the Thames Estuary; the Isle of Grain, wind farms, the sea forts, the constant tides and changing shipping. At night, Southend sparkles on the horizon. I live eight floors up in Arlington House, Margate, big aluminium-framed windows facing down the estuary. In winter I huddle down and watch storms build and move along the shore, and in summer slide the windows right back to let in warm sun and the sounds of play.

The estuary’s an impressive space. Where I was born, the sea is on the south and is somehow smaller. The sea and sky here is huge.  And this view is one which is full of stories, as well as surrounded by estuary-side towns with their own tales. Submarines and pirate radio, independent nation states and messages in bottles, migrant seabirds and immigrant communities, containers full of Chinese-made knick-knacks, the rusted skeletons of crashed Zeppelins, the last flight of a Vulcan A-bomber.

 

An Industrialist and an Elephant: Lord George Sanger in Stoke

From the introduction to It’s All About The Road, where this first appeared in print: ‘An Industrialist and An Elephant’ is presumed to be written by Lord George Sanger; it is taken from a copy of a manuscript in the archives of the Dreamland Trust. Thanks to Jan Leandro from the Dreamland Trust for access, Sarah Vickery from the Shell Grotto for the introduction, and Kate Kneale from HKD for the loan of Sanger’s ‘Seventy Years A Showman’.

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After our winter in Liverpool, we again headed south-east, stopping our grand procession in Stoke-Upon-Trent, the first of six stout Staffordshire towns known as The Potteries. I have good reason to remember that first stop on that season’s travels, by an exciting incident that occurred.

The rectangular green where we pitched our wagons was just outside the town, on a road leading to the countryside. At night, on one side of our encampment was darkness and the hoot of the night owl, but on the other side the town was alight through the night with the glow of the fires in the hearts of the pottery kilns. These bottle-shaped brick structures were amongst the most impressive of any buildings I have seen in the northern industrial cities, and there were many hundreds across Stoke-Upon-Trent and the neighbouring towns of Tunstall, Hanley, Burslem, Fenton and Longton.

I endeavoured to visit this industry, which to my mind blended the arts and the sciences in a most interesting fashion. By the best of chances, I was able to visit a new manufactory which was just opening. Mr William Kirkham had bought an older works on the very road on which we were pitched and was using it to make earthenware and terracotta. His purpose was the manufacture of hospital and laboratory ware, school and artists’ requisites, chemists’ receptacles and a wide range of components for industry. Mr Kirkham was only too pleased to provide a tour of his magnificent works, to show me some of the hundreds of items produced and exported around the globe, and to explain the various chemical processes involved in the making and the subsequent decoration of pottery wares.

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I visited Mr Kirkham’s factory again in subsequent years, and we became firm friends, confirmed in the propinquity of our interests in the arts and the sciences together. Mr Kirkham became an active figure in local politicking, and was thrice Lord Mayor of Stoke-Upon-Trent. He also acted with great responsibility as the chairman of the committee appointed to implement the Technical Education Acts in the borough. He was a member of the town’s school board, was elected to Staffordshire county council and was county justice of the peace. I am certain Mr Kirkham was a great aid to the development of one of the finest towns in the Empire, but in that first year he was also of great aid to me.

The unique circumstances of our pitch in that first year, with wilderness on the one side and industry on the other, was to unsettle some of our company. As I walked our encampment at night, walking-stick in one hand and oil-lamp in the other, I was aware of a slight susurration which was not always present. The glowing of the kilns and the noise of the continuation of industry through the dark was unsettling man and beast, and there was a chatter throughout that first night. If I had acted promptly that night, I do wonder if the events of the next morning might have been avoided.

As we always did when in a new town, that very fine spring morning we staged a procession to advertise our arrival. We formed up the parade on the green where we had stayed that last night, with Mrs Sanger costumed as Britannia sitting atop a gold carriage at the fore, with a Lion and a Lamb at her Feet. Behind her were some of our finest horses in full regalia, a herd of elephants dressed in Indian garb, and assorted jugglers in tights and spangles, rope-walkers in fleshings, the clowns, pantaloons, harlequins and at the very rear a demon. All the attendants would be as Roman Gladiators, Crusaders and other such characters. We would parade up the road towards the town, passing Mr Kirkham’s manufactory, stage a brief demonstration of juggling, clowning etc. outside the local market, I would proclaim our hours dressed in my customary Hamlet clothing, and the band would then perform before leading the procession and the towns-people back to our circus-site.

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A short way along the road, it became quite clear that the beasts were restless after their somewhat disturbed night. Now our elephants were calm and placid beasts, in the usual run of circumstances. As I have commented elsewhere in this book, though, if you want to keep the animals in your care safely and in good health, there must be no relaxation in the attention they are given either by night or day. This meant that their handlers had been awake much of the night, and were as tired this day as the elephants.

One of the elephants, an old beast called Charlie, was of an independent mind. Shortly after we passed Mr Kirkham’s, where my friend and some of his managers had stepped outside to watch our parade, Charlie decided he would rather return to the green field which was his temporary home and catch some more winks of sleep! His handler, a young man called Reeve who with the aid of some darkening made an excellent native called ‘Indian Joe’, was pulled quite off his feet and dropped the elephant’s harness.

Luckily, the folk in procession behind the elephants were quick to respond to the changing circumstances and pulled to the side of the road, allowing Charlie to pass. He was chased by poor Reeve, who was very tired, quite in a flap and was unable to catch a hold of his harness.

As Charlie came alongside the factory I had visited the previous day, my newly-made friend Mr Kirkham and three of his managers stepped forward to the aid of Reeve. With some stout rope from the factory yard, they were able to catch a hold of Charlie. The five of them together were able to bring my elephant quite to a halt.

That afternoon I was able to profoundly and publicly thank Mr Kirkham when he visited our matinee performance. It was the start of a friendship of which I am most proud, and in subsequent years we visited Stoke-Upon-Trent again, and the other towns in The Potteries.

We could always rely on Mr Kirkham. Unfortunately, as you shall see in a subsequent chapter, we could not always rely upon Charlie and it is with some regret that I imagine how different things could have been if I took firmer action that day in Stoke.

Theatre conference in Galway

There is no individual act in performing arts that does not require collective effort to be realised.  Together each individual element, be it the artist, producer, venue manager or facilitator, forms a collective experience for our sector, and our wider society.

Too often the “Them and Us” distinctions we draw can become entrenched and hostile.  This conference, will look at these perceived boundaries through a variety of lenses – exploring the separation of artist from state, distinctions between makers and audiences, performance spaces and communities, the “established” and “emerging”. Do common issues and concerns arise?  Are there shared approaches that could be more fruitful? What is our single and collective responsibility?

There are plenty of opportunities to talk, and in my time I’ve covered leadership styles for multinationals, digital strategies for social action, grassroots regeneration of town centres and everything inbetween. In June, I’m travelling to Galway for the All-Ireland Performing Arts Conference (APAC) to talk about the performing arts need individuals and a collective effort.

It’s a subject that I find very interesting, particularly as theatre (where my career started) offers such a different approach to the visual arts, which hold up the myth of the individual as the artistic genius. I was standing on the waterfront in Newcastle, NSW a few years ago talking to a bunch of interesting people after a conference (Marcus Westbury, the Renew Newcastle gang, the great people from Gap Filler in New Zealand) – and we realised that all of us, and the people we admired who were taking creative collaborative approaches to urban renewal, had a thread of theatre in our backgrounds.

And it’s an approach I’ve applied to 15 years of working with mostly visual artists. I am beginning to realise that the lines between the different elements of my practice, between performance and design and visual arts and regeneration and urbanism and social action, are very thin.

Perhaps, in a dozen universes that are just a subtle knife cut apart, I have different job titles; artist, writer, activist, producer, urbanist. For my talk at APAC, I’ll try to tie them all together.

 

 

Hannah and Hanna in Dreamland

Fifteen years ago, the National Front marched in Margate. The end of the 20th Century was much like the start, and refugees were fleeing from war in Europe. Arriving in Britain, they were met by fear, hostility, anger and lies. The Jews, fleeing Germany and Eastern Europe in the 1930s, had received a similar welcome in British seaside towns. Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts paraded in Worthing in the mid-1930s, and the National Front continued the tradition in Margate 65 years later. Some things never change; perhaps racism runs through seaside towns like letters run through seaside rock.

As the 21st Century begun, the Isle of Thanet was home to only about 3000 asylum seekers, most living in Margate. They were fleeing from something real. A local doctor reported treating “shrapnel wounds, scars from beatings and torture, wounds from landmines” and the psychological problems associated with such injuries. The people he was treating included doctors, ex-army officers, dentists and teachers. Many were Kosovans, in England to escape death at the hands of the Serbs.

Once here, they were met with open hostility by people who lived in a largely closed, settled community, unused to foreigners, and which was struggling with its own problems. The local industry, a tourist trade which had started in the 1700s, had collapsed. Thanet’s people had always had low incomes, uncertain jobs, and seasonal employment but, by 2000, things had reached a low point. Boarding houses were filled with Londoners, resettled by local authorities who had run out of space in the capital. These new residents often brought their own problems, which were only increased by unfamiliar surroundings and social isolation.

And the relationships London’s local authorities had made with landlords in Margate, meant they could use the town to house their refugees, too. Once grand hotels like the Nayland Rock, and the larger, prouder guesthouses in Cliftonville, were just empty spaces to council officers. Seaside landladies saw a quick buck, and either filled their vacancies or sold up to London councils. Kosovans didn’t choose to come to Margate; they were sent here.

“The people in Thanet don’t like us, nobody likes us,” one told the local paper, “We are here because of the war, because our lives were being threatened. We are not here because it is an easy life.”

A local teenager saw things differently: “They come over here and they have it easy. Then they are rude, they try and rule the place, they barge past and are very arrogant. They are trying to take over. I am not a racist person. I don’t support what the National Front do, but asylum seekers are not liked by a lot of people.”
Of course, asylum seekers never did take over. In 2015, just 8.59%of the population in Thanet were born outside of the country. The national average is 12.5%, London has 37%, and even in sleepy, middle class Canterbury 10.96% of the population were born abroad.

In Thanet today, 11,599 people out of a population of 134,186 were born outside the UK. 3500 are from new EU member states, such as Croatia, Latvia and Poland, and 3700 from the old EU states, such as Belgium, France and Italy. 4300 people are from outside the EU. Very few are from Kosovo.

P1180988P1190009Playwright John Retallack wrote Hannah and Hanna, about a 16 year old Margate girl meeting a Kosovan girl and forming a friendship across hostile lines, in 2000.
The founder of Actors’ Touring Company, a director of the Oxford Stage Company, Retallack is particularly interested in theatre for and about young audiences. He’s written a dozen plays for young people, and has recently spent two months with La Chartreuse de Neuville in France, researching the lives of young refugees in the notorious camps in Calais.

Returning to Margate in 2015 to write a sequel , Hannah and Hanna in Dreamland, to his earlier play, he struggled to find any Kosovans to talk to. He journeyed instead to Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, to find that most people had returned there, after the war.

He found a city with a hard past enjoying a rebirth that, in some ways, mirrored Margate’s own.

P1190036.JPGMargate today has a growing tourist trade. The new visitors are here for Turner Contemporary, the Old Town’s vintage shops and cupcake cafes, and the Hemingway-branded Dreamland, where ‘heritage’ is a dirty word but ‘retro’ or ‘vintage’ are perfectly acceptable. The town is the hippest destination for London’s cool under 40s, and is in the middle of a property bubble as people relocate here, swapping East End flats for big seaside homes as they start families. This new crowd, known locally as DFLs (Down From Londons) , experience a lesser version of the anger the Kosovans experienced before. There are fears of gentrification, of rising property prices, of the new ideas these economic migrants bring with them.

And there’s still a racist tension underneath everyday life too, still a fear that the town’s somehow being taken over, and it’s most evident among a slightly older generation, who saw their town’s fall, and are still looking for someone to blame. And a younger generation have inherited that anger. The teenager quoted in the Thanet Gazette has gone from “I am not a racist person…” to having a pitbull tattooed on his chest, and giving his support on Facebook to pages like the English Defence League, True British Patriots, English and Proud, the Royal England Infidel and one called ‘I Was Born In The Uk. So Why Do I Have Less Rights Then Immigrants’ [sic].

UKIP tried to capitalise on this cross-generational anger in the elections in 2015. Throwing everything they could at the Isle of Thanet, swinging a well-funded party campaign into action, UKIP booked every billboard for months, filled hotels with their campaign teams, and pushed leaflets through every letterbox every week. They failed to get their prospective MP Nigel Farage elected. The party collapsed into bitter infighting soon after.

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So while many things in Margate are the same, 15 years on, there are great differences too. Hannah’s still friends with Hanna, but it’s a different world they live in. Margate’s new London incomers are more used to a multicultural society, and the town’s relaxing into the 21st century.

Retallack’s new play might find that perhaps, just perhaps, it’s possible to change the letters in a stick of rock.

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There will be a rehearsed reading of excerpts from Hannah and Hanna and Hannah and Hanna In Dreamland at Turner Contemporary as part of Looping The Loop. The event is organised by UK Art International and Theatre Royal Margate.

Hannah and Hanna In Margate is an ongoing photographic series by Dan Thompson, capturing Retallack in Margate, as he researches, writes and tests the new play ahead of a UK tour in 2017. It will be exhibited alongside the rehearsed reading at Turner Contemporary before accompanying the show on tour in 2017.