Current Projects – Dan Thompson Studio

This is a selection of current work, at the end of summer 2021.

Peace: an ongoing series of connected works.

Interbeing: at the Powell-Cotton Museum, Kent, August-December 2021.

Newcastle Common: a three year empty shop programme in Newcastle-under-Lyme, with Appetite.

Art City: telling the story of radical theatre company B arts and their work.

Manifesto of Care: Bernadette Russell’s manifesto for Frequency Festuval, designed by me, exhibited at the Albany, Deptford.

I’m also writing a new poetry collection, Towerblock, and planning a new series of workshops with Company of Makers, for veterans, to be delivered in autumn 2021. Alongside this are new projects in development, and some one-off workshops and Zoom sessions. In my studio, I’m playing with an Adana flatbed letterpress, making badges, and creating a series of large collages on board.

If you’d like to work with me in 2021-2022, drop me an email.

Ancient Water

Ancient Water was written to accompany the work of Hong Kong ceramic artist Lau Yat Wai, which depicted colonial buildings from Hong Kong as if they had been submerged in water, when exhibited in the Oriental Room at the Powell-Cotton Museum, Birchington for Interbeing, August-December 2021. In that room, the words of Ancient Water were spoken in a recording by Clive Holland. Interbeing was a project curated by Joseph Young and Kay Aplin.

“All we are and all we ever were is water. 

Not known, because not looked for

But heard, half-heard, in the stillness

Between two waves of the sea

Earth has been a watery planet for 4.4 billion years. There has been enough water to fill the oceans since the beginning of the planet’s formation. There is water in the seas, and water in the clouds, and there is water locked deep in the earth’s crust, mantle and core – enough to fill the oceans again five or ten times over. ‘From space,’ Heathcote Williams says, ‘the planet is blue./ From space, the planet is the territory/ Not of humans’

William Anders framed our image of the earth as a blue planet. He was born in Hong Kong, the son of a US Navy lieutenant, in 1933….”

The full text of Ancient Water is available as a pdf:

Accompanying the work was a small additional work, a stack of Observer books, which have become a recurring motif in Dan Thompson’s work.

When I am shortlisted for the Turner Prize…

Things I might do for my Turner Prize exhibition*:

  1. Give the whole space over to West Sussex Art Society or a similar group of amateurs.
  2. Buy in a small festival stage, and invite poets and musicians and performance artists to occupy the space, using my fee to pay them.
  3. Build a small live/work space and live in the gallery for the duration, meeting visitors and making new work in collaboration with them.
  4. Invite all the artists I have worked with over 20 years to share the exhibition.

*I am too far outside the establishment art world for this to ever happen, but hey.

Peace – Dan Thompson Studio, 2021

Peace is active: it is not merely the absence of war, but something we make together, and decide to maintain. That is to say, it takes commitment – it is not a neutral state.

The United Kingdom has been at war continually since 1936, and as a consequence defines itself by war. So we will have to fight for peace.

Peace is a series of connected but independent works, made by Dan Thompson Studio and including other artists. It will last from 2021 until the artist dies. The first work will take place in Newcastle-under-Lyme, as part of Newcastle Common.

It is, in part, inspired by the Lochnagar Crater on the Somme, and the work of its owner Richard Dunning. If you wish to be involved in Peace, first make this promise:

The Lochnagar Promise For Peace

‘In Remembrance of all those nations who have suffered in conflict
And of thosewho are suffering still
We vow to live our lives with more
Compassion and Kindness
Understanding and Forgiveness
Reconciliation and Unity.
Let us now, in their honour, wage Peace.

Margate Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maxwell Fry and Margate Station

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published in Margate Mercury 2019

New Work in 2021

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

Appetite Stoke logo

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

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

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

B Arts logo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creative Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back and Fill Margate

“Back & Fill is a coastal call to arms.

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

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

The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift

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

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

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

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

A Printer’s Diary, 1938

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

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

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Monday 14 February

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

Tuesday 23 August

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

Thursday 29 September

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

Friday 30 September

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

Sunday 27 November

Did not go anywhere today.

Sunday 25 December 

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

Mystery Island

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

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

It’s not on any maps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Turner Contemporary Margate Sky – Poet-in-Residence

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

Dan Thompson – Webcam Poet In Residence

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

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

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A History of a View, 1720-2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, for
the next 150 years.

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

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

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

Five Unmade Projects from Dan Thompson Studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alastair Campbell’s Ten Points of Crisis Management

1. Devise, execute but also narrate clear strategy

2. Show strong, clear and consistent leadership

3. Ensure a strong centre

4. Throw everything at it

5. Use experts well

6. Deploy a strong team

7. Make the big moments count

8. Take the public with you

9. Show genuine empathy for people affected by the crisis

10. Give hope – but never false hope

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

Not Going Back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*****

Footnote: 

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

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

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

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

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

I’m going to hang out with more scientists.

 

 

Interlude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Absent Tribe

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

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

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

Your England – Exhibition

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

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

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

Supported by Arts Council England.

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Dover Castle. Headquarters, Flag Officer Dover.

 

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Dover Castle. Headquarters, Flag Officer Dover. 

‘Operate toward the coast forthwith’

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

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

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

A storm over Flanders fields,
the Luftwaffe
was grounded

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

they would have swallowed us alive

when their anger flared against us;

the flood would have engulfed us,

the torrent’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

For Peter Cheeseman, 1932-2010.

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

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

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

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

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

Turner Translate – Is This What You Wanted?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IS THIS WHAT YOU WANTED?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first fifty places for Your England

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

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

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All of the poems are sorted into a rough taxonomy:

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

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

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

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

Bedfordshire:
Panacea Society, Bedford

Coventry:
Coventry Cathedral – Basil Spence
Shopfront Theatre, Coventry

Essex:
Tilbury Landing Stage

Isle of Wight:
Ryde Pier

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

Leeds:
Templeworks

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

Lancashire:
Rochdale Pioneers Shop
Preston Bus Station

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

Liverpool:
Mathew Street, Liverpool

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

Northampton:
78 Derngate, Northampton
Carpetbaggers Aviation Museum

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

Portsmouth & Southsea:
Fort Cumberland, Southsea

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

Somerset:
Glastonbury, Frost Fayre

Somme:
The Lochnagar Crater

Surrey:
Watts Chapel

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

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

Wiltshire:
Sanger’s journey

Wildcard – all the Canals

Partners:
Turner Contemporary
Shopfront Theatre, Coventry
Dreamland
Towner Gallery

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

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

 

Your England

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the poem that started the project:

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