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.

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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.

Women At War

 

I have been interested in the rise of these images on social media; often, people who would be proudly anti-war usually, post photos of women at war with some pride. As if war is somehow better, now that women have guns, too.

All of these are images found on social media. I’m interested in the way they’re spread, without any context. Are these the good guys or the bad guys?

In Eden

22488765014_5762f06585_o.jpgUp at the top of England, sceptred isle, just below the border with Scotland, in a corner that’s always been on the edge and often in a state of flux, is Eden, demi-paradise.
Eden district is full of places that sound incredibly English – Appleby, Crosby Ravensworth, Eamont, Greystoke, Morland, Ravenstonedale. But also of places that sound older, Celtic, Viking, Scottish – Hesket, Kirkby Stephen, Kirkoswald, Langwathby, Shap, and Penrith itself.

Eden has less land taken up by roads than almost anywhere in England (and it claims, probably falsely, that John McAdam, inventor of the tarmac road, lived here). And – at 97.9% – Eden has the greatest proportion of green space of any district in the country. The River Eden flows north to Carlisle. In Penrith, the River Eamont, River Lowther, River Petteril, Thacka Beck and Dog Beck come together. Engineer Joseph Locke casually diverted one of the rivers when he spent two and a half years with ten thousand men driving a railway line through Penrith.

Penrith is a market town, on an old Roman road. It’s a quiet centrepoint.

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Richard III, William Wordsworth’s mother, Samuel Plimsoll, Harold Wilson’s wife, and England cricketer Paul Nixon lived in Penrith. Perhaps King Arthur did too. Perhaps fifty of Arthur’s knights gathered at Eamont, on the southern edge of Penrith, to fight for the hand of Arthur’s daughter. Perhaps.

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And just north of Penrith, the Battle of Arfderydd, fought in 573, lasted six weeks and three hundred men were killed. “It was one of the three futile battles of Britain, fought over a lark’s nest.”

Certainly more important than a mythical king and a lark’s nest, though, is the story of Athelstan. In 927, “the kings of Strathclyde and Scotland came south to Penrith to pay homage to Athelstan, first King of England and one of the greatest Anglo-Saxon kings.” Penrith is where England began, with Athelstan the first king of the whole country.
And in Penrith, you’ll find Eden Arts. Since the start of the 1990s, they’ve been fighting a quieter battle to bring art to the area, never needing to kill anyone to achieve their aims. They’re the most rural of all the arts organisations that Arts Council England supports as part of its National Portfolio.

They helped make the Eden Benchmarks, a series of carved stone sculptures which also function as seats, on public paths along the River Eden. They helped bring Andy Goldsworthy to the valley, to make drystone wall Sheepfolds. They marked the hill farmer’s ancient and enduring relationship with the upper Eden Valley with a Poetry Path, carved in Stone. They left a fifty ton megalith between the ancient earthwork known as King Arthur’s Round Table and the nearby Mayburgh Henge, to mark the millennium.
Nowadays, they march to a different drum, more interested in people and the life they bring to places than in heavy stone markers.

Eden Arts made the Signs of Penrith, a series of small, temporary signs scattered therough  the town’s streets, local stories, things that made the place distinct, light and not outwardly serious.

They organise C-Art, a festival spread across Cumbria, when artists open their homes and studios. C-Art also organises an annual exhibition celebrating the best contemporary visual art from the region, and an award for young Cumbrian artists.

Picnic Cinema brings open-air screenings to forests and other quiet places across the area; a regular event is the Withnail Weekender, screening the cult film Withnail & I at the remote location, Sleddale Hall, where its heroes holiday. When they’re not outside, Eden Arts tour their film equipment to rural village halls, allowing local people to stage their own film screenings.

New Writing Cumbria covers the whole county, too, with a network of live events, publications and workshops connecting contemporary writers and readers.

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And the Winter Droving is an annual event, a brand new tradition, fresh thinking wrapped up in a fake mythology, a revival of an ancient thing that never happened before. It’s a day-long party in Penrith. The beautiful town centre, red stone buildings and old market places, is blissfully closed to traffic. A market mixes fresh food and odd art projects. Strange characters walk the streets. The district’s toughest compete for the Drover’s Cup, tug o’ war and running with pints and carrying baled hay. Small stages, bands from the blurred edges of folk tradition and crusty, festival culture. Fire. A torchlit procession as the sun falls, giant paper lanterns carried by local children. Masks. And an anarchic ball in the local leisure centre to end it all, live bands and masked mayhem.

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It’s all about place, everything Eden Arts does and has ever done. It’s all about creating something locally distinct, tied to the history, culture and fabric of the landscape. In an urban context, it’d be the hippest thing London or Manchester or Brighton ever saw. Up here, on the edge, it might be missed. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less important.

The Vampires: From It’s All About The Road

This is a chapter from It’s All About The Road, a collection of stories and essays which, together, tell a complete history of Stoke, from the Ice Age to thirty years from now, through stories from one road. This story was inspired by the death of a Polish pottery worked, Demetrious Myiciura, which is the only time in the UK  vampires are mentioned on a death certificate. the real story happened in 1972, and this one happens around then. Much of the detail is real, what happened after Lidice is true, the house as described here exists and I’ve stayed in it, and the head on the penny was designed by somebody who lived a few doors up from it.

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P1130169.JPGThe rubber seals around the windows were cracked, and where the barrier was broken rivers ran down the curved walls each time the dark red bus turned its sides to the wind. The water pooled at the edges of the floor. It wasn’t the only water inside the double decker; the heat from the bodies had steamed the windows. So the world outside was filtered through two layers of water, thick rain outside and thin condensation inside. Like looking through the dirty lenses of old glasses, the world was grey and indistinct, occasionally details lurching into sharp focus. A tiled street name, Park Street, painted out in black. A masonic square and compasses carved in stone. Shakespeare’s face mosaicked in tiles. A tin sign advertising Spratt’s Canary Mixture, ‘Sold Only In Packets’. All fragments, a brief focus on a cinematic story happening, off camera, away from the lens of the bus window.

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Better than the days after he first moved here, though. There was the blackout then. But smog too, and a man had to walk in front of the buses with a torch. The only thing that could penetrate the dark then were a pair of searchlights by the gates of the Michelin Factory up the road.

In the seat in front of him, a woman sneezed into a grey handkerchief. The cotton was frayed, and would never wash to clean white again. He realised that what he had thought to be a stain was an embroidered pattern of deep violet pansies which had faded to a different shade of grey. Each outbreak of sneezes was followed by a dry, rasping wheeze. She had sneezed three dozen times since he had got on. Thirty six sneezes, thirty six wheezes. Again – thirty seven. Each time the bus hit a pothole and shook, he reached for the handle on the seat in front of him, and his hand brushed against the thick, rough knitted wool of her coat. It was thick with damp, and under that, grease that had built up over years. Each time he brushed against her, he closed his eyes and flinched.

He got off a stop early, stumbling down the curved metal stairs, off the bus, relieved to be in the open air again. He didn’t mind the rain, or the cold, or the wind. He had grown up somewhere colder, and whenever he felt the chill he remembered, and thought himself lucky to have this new country. The winds at home had been harsher, the things he had seen worse than anything that could happen here. But even so after the forty years he had been here, it was still new, and often surprising, and still not home.

This town welcomed foreigners, and always had. He remembered, not long after he had arrived, meeting the children who had arrived here on the Czech Kindertransport. And the way that the miners here had raised funds to rebuild Lidice, after the Nazis destroyed that village. ‘Lidice Shall Live!’, Stoke had declared, and it had. But while Stoke was warm, and generous, it kept foreigners as foreigners, held them at a distance. The contradiction was at the heart of this place. The potteries were always bringing new people in, always embracing the new ideas, technology, skills they brought. The pottery where he worked was full of Germans at the moment, bringing new lithographic machines and transfer cutters. He avoided them.

Generation after generation of immigrants, but still Stoke stayed distinct, and cherished history and tradition, he thought, guarding its own local food and the rich dialect. He spoke Stoke’s English but still with a Polish accent. To the Englishman he met when in London for meetings, he sounded like a man from Stoke; to the locals, he sounded foreign. To theoccasional Pole he met at work, his Krajna dialect sounded archaic, full of forgotten words and old inflections. He knew he was adrift, a refugee, and had been for the past forty years.

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The smell of baked bread was strong on the wind, and brought him back to the here and now. He remembered the last of the bread which he had burnt under the grill that morning. He had never mastered the grill and would lean forward watching the bread below the flickering gas flames. But he never judged it right. It had been a long time since he had tasted toast without a thin layer of burning, and his breakfast every day was like a burnt offering to an old god. He pushed through the heavy half-door of the bakehouse. As always, it pushed back, as if the shop didn’t want him to enter. Getting inside always felt like a small victory. He celebrated by buying a small loaf, and two scones. The bread here tasted faintly of the coal that fired the ovens, and for the second time, he remembered the place where he lived before. Bread baked in the kitchen that was the only warm room in a cold house. The room his wife so rarely left.

Distracted by the remembrance of his Yetta, his little home ruler, he hardly noticed he had stepped outside and then he was at the end of his road. The rain had pushed thick streams down the side of the rough dirt road. The rain remembered there used to be a spring here and was trying to find the fastest way down to the river at the bottom of the valley. Two thick pools stirred at each corner of his road, brought up short where dirt road met tarmac, and thin twigs twirled and twisted as they were caught in the contradiction. The pool on each side spun a different way, he noticed. There was some order behind the chaos of this small flood.

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He turned towards home. The thick stone slabs on the narrow pavement were slick and the smooth leather soles of his boots slid. He felt uncertain, unbalanced, the world shifting slightly. Stepping across the kerbstone, over the temporary stream, he walked on the dirt road instead. As he looked down, the road sparkled. White bones, broken bones, children’s bones underfoot. No. Crushed unfired pottery had been used to grog the road. He shivered at the understanding of what he had thought he had seen.He forced himself to move, through the heavy wooden gate, up the stone path, and under the porch. The rain was a thick sheet pouring off the tiled roof and down the dark red stained glass in the windows at the porch’s side. The light here always disorientated him. When the sun was bright it felt like being in a church, but on days like today the stained glass turned the light into something slow, thick and shadowed. He always thought this porch was an ambiguous space, and felt he was at the tipping point in a religious ritual. What was inside the front door might change, depending on this balanced, pivotal moment. He was in a liminal place, the connections fragile. But then bones and blood and ritual were forgotten as he felt the bread slip from under his arm. He caught it, reached for the key in his coat pocket, turned the lock and opened the door. His gothic mood was broken by the mundanity of a loaf of bread.

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He understood that he hadn’t chosen this house. It had chosen him. It wasn’t an English house, and he wanted to be English. The road was lined with near-identical buildings, all built in what the agent who rented the house to him had described grandly as ‘the European style’. He had thought to rent a house in one of the terraced houses nearby, not in this walled enclave where the well-to-do foreign factory workers had often lived in the past.

He had found old papers belonging to Mr Léon Arnoux in a cupboard in the kitchen. And had traced this man’s story, an engineer who became an artist and moved from the Sèvres factory, to the Minton works down the road. Every house had a similar story, a Louis, a Léon, an Alphonse, an Adolf. Why had he thought of that last name? Not a good name, not a name to remember

But when he’d asked for a house in a terrace, the agent had shown him this one. He had been promoted again, just before moving here, and although the rent was cheap this house matched his new status. He was, after all, an important man now, in charge of a department in an important British company. An Englishman’s home, a Pole’s castle. But it was too big; he knew it was too big; just for him. His Yetta and his children would have loved it but he felt adrift in the spaces his new home gave him. He couldn’t allow himself to think of them here.

He wasn’t even sure how many rooms there were, but there would have been enough for all of his family. There were five doors off the hallway downstairs and he climbed the stairs ahead of him. The hallway at the top was an L shape, and he was standing at the corner. He turned slowly, looking back at the front of the house. A tall window above the front porch let in more light than seemed possible for such a slender opening. It reminded him of the embrasure in a concrete pill box he had once stood inside, abandoned in the English countryside. A defence against something that never came.

He turned slowly and counted under his breath. There were seven doors there. He pushed a hand into his pocket, looking for a scrap of paper he had put there at the start of the day. His fingers found it and he pulled it out, dropping a copper penny as he did. It landed on the bare floorboards. ‘Tails’, he thought, but as he bent to pick it up the light caught the queen’s coronet. He always called tails, not heads, and he usually won. This was not a good sign. He dropped the penny back in his pocket and unfurled the scrap of paper. ‘Seven’, it said in his black spidery writing. There were still seven doors. Reassured that the upstairs was as he’dleft it he went back downstairs, and shrugged off his wet coat. He hung it on a hook below the staircase and stepped through to the kitchen at the rear of the house.

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The kitchen was where he spent the most time. There was a dining room next door, a grand room with a bold arch and a bay window where curved windows caught the light and flooded the room. He had a dining table which was an antique, bought from a junk shop on London Road and carried here by him and the shop’s dusty old owner. It had six matching chairs, the velvet on the seats worn, the gold thread faded to a dull green but still good. But he never ate in that room. The kitchen had an old, square pine table and two battered Victorian chairs. One was for his newspaper, and one for him. This was enough, so it was where he ate. He knew an Englishman should have a dining room, so he had one, but he couldn’t see a use for it.

So he opened a tin of soup, and tipped it into a saucepan. The pilot light never worked, and he wondered if they ever did. So he struck a match, matches from the Bali Hai Nightclub – Margate, held the match until the sputtering gas steadied into a constant flame, and warmed the soup slowly while he sliced and buttered his bread.

From the cupboard in front of him he took out a bowl, which had travelled the shortest possible distance from the factory to his house. The Biltons pottery was just across the road, and although that wasn’t where he worked, he liked their designs. His work was traditional, with crinkled edges and gold trim. But this Biltons pattern was modern. This set of crockery had a series of concentric circles, each ring made up of small squares. A central circle of black squares overprinted in green, and an outer circle left white. As he looked it induced a slight sense of vertigo, the pattern turning as he looked at it. He poured the orange-red tomato soup over it to hide his confusion and sat down to eat.

He finished quickly, and realised he had nothing else to do until going to bed. He dropped the saucepan, bowl, spoon and breadknife into the washing up bowl. Eating little, using little, he often took three days to gather enough dirty crockery to fill the washing up bowl and make it worth turning the immersion heater on. He left it and picked up the Daily Telegraph Magazine from the seat next to the one he’d used. Stepping back into the hall, he checked the number of doors, five, before choosing the one that led into the long, thin front room.

Running from the front to the back of this house, this was the room in the house he liked the most. There was light from each end, and he looked out of the back window, down the overgrown garden to the old coach house. This was a building he didn’t use, full of a tangle of chairs, small tables, bicycles, broken garden tools and chests of drawers which could never be opened again. The accumulated junk was like the inside of a sewing box which had been overturned, threads, needles, pins and buttons twisted, tied together into new, interesting but ultimately useless configurations. Nothing could be removed. It had all grown together. He had an intense dislike of the space inside the coach house, which seemed to grow smaller and tighter around him whenever he entered. He hadn’t ventured further than the few clear feet of cobbled floor inside the door from the garden, and had never risked the bowed and twisting wooden stairs which led to the coach house’s upper floor. He was happy to leave the building padlocked, and suspected it would, eventually, just give in to the future and crumble

Turning back to the front room, he chose an armchair as far from the back window as possible, and sat down by the empty fireplace. He knew he should light a fire to fight the continual dampness in the house, but the effort was too much. He picked up the magazine; ‘The Artist As Entertainer…Philosopher…And Social Conscience’ said the cover, with a photograph of a longhaired portrait artist, painting an old tramp squatting in a makeshift shelter in some woodland. He flicked through the magazine, enjoying an article about the problems of a button-shop owner with 50,000 buttons on which he had to calculate the new Value Added Tax, and an unlikely story about a seaside town in Northern Ireland, a world away from the bombs and bullets causing trouble elsewhere. He paused to read an advert, ‘Drive a Michelin. It makes a good car better’. Although he had no car, and consequently no interest in steel-braced radial tyres, they were made just down the road; his was the interest of a neighbour.

The main article, on page 36, told about an arrogant artist, ‘with a talent for upsetting people’, who was painting tramps and vagabonds. This artist, Lenkiewicz, an ordinary commercial portrait painter and an unconventional muralist, was the child of emigres. A couple who’d escaped from a corner of Poland, from Krajna! He felt a sudden lurch, the unlikeliness of this connection pulling him up physically. Today had been a day of reminders, blood red light and bread, pottery underfoot and painters in magazines. He felt old now, suddenly, and tired.

Perhaps the woman’s germs from the bus were already affecting him, bringing him down with a cold. That English phrase, ‘a cold’, when everything here was already cold and damp.He decided he should prepare for bed early. It was already half dark, the sun behind the heavy wet clouds providing little light and no warmth. He could forget today in sleep, and wake tomorrow.

He stood up, still holding the Telegraph Magazine. As he dropped it on the table beside the chair, a piece of square-cut wartime utility furniture with one leg shorter than the others, the room seemed to lurch. No, it was just the table, resonating on a loose and warped floorboard.He needed to use the kitchen to prepare for bed, but in the hour he had been home it had got darker. The kitchen, at the back of the house, didn’t get enough light late in the day. He pushed the solid Bakelite switch down. There was a slight fizz before the dusty bulb lit. Bare. It brought as much dark with it as it brought light. He turned to the sink, twisted the tap, filled the electric kettle, turned it on at the wall socket. While that boiled, he moved to the larder, opened the three-panelled door and found the cloves of garlic in a basket on a bowed shelf to the right.

Next to the board where he had sliced the bread earlier was a pestle and mortar, and he used it to break the garlic bulb into smaller cloves. He dropped the cloves into a small bowl.

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A drum-shaped jar, white ware from the factory where he worked, was full of poppy seeds. They were collected from the garden behind the pottery, the thin flutes of seedpods picked while green and carefully dried out on an old side-plate before being stored. He measured three teaspoons of them into a discoloured sherry glass.

The kettle started to whistle, so he pulled open a drawer and took out a rubber hot water bottle. He filled it, wrapped it in an old towel, and placed it on the side. He poured milk into a small saucepan and fumbled with the matches and gas again. A slow warming, a low heat, stirring constantly. The smell of warm milk meant the end of the day was near. He pulled out a silver tray, put a dimpled glass tumbler on it, and poured in the warm milk. He put the bowl of garlic on the tray, the glass of poppy seeds, added a salt pot, and tucked the hot water bottle under his arm. He turned the kitchen light off as he left.

He put the tray and the bottle down on a side table in the hallway, and pushed the heavy bolt to make sure the front door could not be opened from outside. A formality; he knew that, for the visitors he might expect, that would be the last place they would choose to enter. He turned to the stairs, counting the five doors as he did, before picking up the things he had put down. At the top of the stairs he paused, turned, and counted from one to seven. Each door was still there, but he couldn’t remember what was behind the fifth and sixth ones.

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The last door, the seventh, was the one he wanted. He pushed it open with a foot and looked up at a second flight of stairs. While the stairs from ground to first floor were wide, solid, proud, this second staircase wasn’t one to be seen by anyone other than servants. It was narrow, and twisted to the left at the top, into his bedroom. He climbed, the long and thin staircase lit by the last daylight falling through a slit of a window at the top. The last step was loose, but he knew that and braced himself for the wobble. In his room, he put the tray down on a plain chest of drawers, and tucked the water bottle, without its towel, into the single bed. He turned on the lamp on the bedside table. Even though it was just a plain metal frame, bolted together, he thought it must have been incredibly hard to carry this up here, through the twisted stairwell.

There were two wedges in the sash window, and he pulled them out to open it. Across the road, flattened in the gloaming, was his house reflected. Each house in the street started as the same, a kit of pieces, the same porch and roof and window styles and at the top, this tower. The architect, he imagined, had started with a set of children’s toy bricks. Square, arch, triangle, cylinder, rectangle. But each house was slightly different in its arrangement. The one opposite was his house reversed. He had never been inside, but could imagine the spaces there. He wondered, briefly, if they noticed, as he did, that sometimes the internal arrangement of the rooms shifted. He wondered if they knew what was in the front two rooms on the first floor. He knew the lady who lived there, an upper class Spanish lady with her thick black hair always piled high, and that she took lodgers. She used them, he supposed, to fill the emptiness he felt in his house.

He picked up the glass of poppy seeds, and scattered them across the window ledge before closing the window and putting the wedges back in. On the inside, he scattered some salt. He poured some more in a straight line parallel to the end of his bed, reinforcing a line which he had made many times, but which was blown and scuffed away.

He undressed, folding his clothes and dropping them onto a chair by the drawers. From the top drawer, he took flannel pyjamas. He drunk the still-warm milk. He placed a clove of garlic on the floor by the head of the bed. There were a few from previous nights there already, some old and thick with dust. This was a regular arrangement, part of the routine of bed time.

It was a simple protection, against an enemy that had never come for him, but which, he knew with certainty would, one day would. It had come for his lovely Yetta, and for the children.

He had worked in a pottery factory in Poland before the war. He was the factory’s technical director, introducing new machinery to an old works. The machines often went wrong, the workers were unhappy at having to change, the world was uncertain (but he had little time for reading the newspaper anyway),and he often came home from the factory, late, and dirty, and tired. He knew though that, however late, Yetta would have managed. Food would be warm on the stove, the bread fresh from the afternoon. The children would be clean, and in bed.

Not on that day, though. There had been rumours of war all day, but with his head under machinery he had not had the time. It was unlikely that the German army would invade, after all, because Britain had sworn to protect Poland’s land.

So he was unprepared for what he found when he got home. He found his family, drained of blood. He knew where it had gone, most of it. It was smeared across the He knew where it had gone, most of it. It was smeared across thewalls and pooled on the stone floor. Something had ripped through the wooden window frames, breaking glass into a fine dust, and had torn them apart. He knew that the things happening in the world that year had woken the darkest things in Krajna. Things that wanted blood and warmth. Vampires from his home weren’t the gentlemen of the English stories he had read since arriving here in Stoke, but were brutal and animal. He had seen what they had done to Yetta, to his two children. He had fled, ahead of the vampires, tumbling across Europe until he found himself here.

He had not protected Yetta, the children, but he would protect himself. Many nights he knew, with certainty, that he was a foolish old man and he did nothing. But after days like the one he had just had, he was more careful.

He climbed into bed, brought the dark outside in by switching the lamp off, pushed the hot water bottle further down and shifted himself into the warm spot where it had been. He had a last clove of garlic in his hand, and he dropped it into his mouth, without biting. As he pulled the blankets tighter he realised he couldn’t move, and the garlic shifted to the back of his mouth. He couldn’t breath, his body restricted and the clove of garlic blocking the air to his lungs, and the bad signs he had seen all day rose again; children’s bones, blood, and the darkness rising in his eyes as the last light faded.

Next time in TribevTribe

What didn’t work. In the spirit I always talk about, that discussing failure’s important, here are the bits I want to improve for future (and a rider to this – this is my personal list, not a detailed evaluation, and it’s thrown up quickly). Some of these are very local but are things to watch out for if the game goes elsewhere. You must read yesterday’s post about what worked alongside this one.

  1. The least used check in was the one inside Dreamland. While the Roller Disco and The Quarterdeck were well used, players didn’t get inside Dreamland, and we didn’t turn the people who were visiting Dreamland into players. We had Dreamland staff playing, but even they didn’t check in inside the park (even though they did go to other venues). If TribevTribe happens in big places, it needs a bigger presence.
  2. When staff from Dreamland and Turner Contemporary were playing, we could have made more of getting them to play against each other than we did. In week one and two, we kept them competitive, but it would have been good to have encouraged the organisations themselves to push this more internally. I had hoped this would create a game within the game.
  3. We didn’t use our players as the mechanism to get new people playing enough. We know this could work, and a few times it did, but we should have pushed it harder.
  4. We got some people Tweeting, using Instagram and watching the Facebook page, but we never took it further. We didn’t have the time or budget to fix the mechanics for people who wanted to play entirely online. An app overlaid on the real world game would be a good way to take this further, but you still need the real, physical game. Could the further away players encourage, mobilise, act as back room teams for the players locally? We needed this version of the game to work out how a more online version could work, though; it was like a big card sorting exercise.
  5. We didn’t add as many new check ins as we could have, mainly because I ran out of bits to make them! It would be good to have the time to mass produce log books, Chance cards and so on. To be more responsive, to add new check ins quickly.
  6. Some people ignored TribevTribe, and I felt that while it’s good that Cliftonville is developing its own identity, it was perhaps too separate. Visitors don’t care whether it’s Margate or Cliftonville, and could be encouraged to move around more. We tried to get Resort on the board, and the Tribes Festival was run from the Tom Thumb Theatre, but we didn’t nail either to involvement in the game. Venues in the Old Town and the lower High Street were more enthusiastic. How can we create something which drives visitors to Cliftonville, if Cliftonville doesn’t want to join up with what’s happening elsewhere? We made lots of good links, connections, and moved people to new places, but not in this case.
  7. With a bigger production team, we could have got check ins set up at some of the events happening around Margate too. We tried to get a check in at the Art Car Boot, for example, but didn’t get it sorted until very late so it didn’t happen. Again the short timescale we worked to made this harder.
  8. I think 6. and 7. show where we could have done with a little bit of help. TribevTribe played across some of the venues involved in the Tribes Festival, but a little bit of nudging other places from the Tribes Festival organisers might have meant we had check ins at more venues and events. I understand the budget and time constraints, but think future festivals need a bit of active curation to encourage collaboration. The space between exhibitions, events – the bit that TribevTribe occupied – the bit where audiences can find new experiences, move from thing to thing – is important. We need to develop audiences, get new people to see things, and make it easy for people who already see some things to try new ones. To make sure events, actions, happenings, dovetail.
  9. Our final week was the quietest, although it did swing the final results. It was after the school holidays, and after a big burst of activity in Margate, so there were fewer visitors in town, and fewer residents out around Margate as well. There were fewer check ins, but this allowed the Mods to play tactically, take places, and win the game. We could have pushed extra places, extra rewards more this week.

Game Over #tribevtribe

So after 30 odd days, TribevTribe v0.1 has finished. Game Over. What worked well?

  1. People played together. Families; we saw mother, daughter, and grandma playing together a couple of times. Was TribevTribe mostly played by women? Seems so, though that’s not data we recorded. Friends; we saw small groups trying to outplay each other, too. On different sides.
  2. People played as much or as little as they wanted. Some people tried to visit every venue, some tried to find every badge, some played for the whole month, getting tactical towards the end. Some people dipped in for a day, on a daytrip, down from London or on a day off work.
  3. People found new places, or found that TribevTribe gave them an excuse to go to places they wouldn’t normally go. Richard said he’d found the Shell Grotto by playing, and a couple said they’d had their first pints in The Quarterdeck when they went there to play.Tweet 1
  4. All the stuff looked good. People liked the Dead Letter Boxes, log books and Chance cards. The mix of designed but homemade appealed; the lo-fi, some people said, made the game feel a bit edgy and underground. People nicked bits of the game to take home and keep.
  5. We let the Big Boys mess around. We hijacked a locker at Turner Contemporary and hid stuff in Dreamland. At both venues, staff seemed to enjoy the oddness, and were obviously excited or amused by players turning up. They delighted in making grown-ups say a silly password to get the Dead Letter Box.
  6. The history stuff got people talking. Places displaying posters for old gigs had conversations with their customers about those gigs, about memories, about what went before. People weren’t sure what was real, what was made up. Lines blurred.
  7. That and the Chance cards made people look a little harder, linger, even go back to find things they’d missed.
  8. People added bits, Children left drawings in Dead Letter Boxes. Other people added sweets. The boxes looked after themselves, or rather – people looked after them. Nothing went missing, nobody stole all the badges.Tweet 2
  9. We made things equal. Turner Contemporary got the same from the game as Breuer & Dawson, Rat Race was as important as Dreamland. Old places like The Shell Grotto were on the same level as new places like the Street Art Boutique.
  10. Players could cheat. Well, they described it as cheating; I think they hacked the game. Found ways to visit more places, found stooges to take their place for a day to score more, found ways to sign other people up for their team. It was a game that belonged to the players, not the referees.
  11. The Tribes Festival felt bigger because of the game. We took in more players, added a layer, got the places we were using talking about each other and about the game. TribevTribe was an effective amplifier.
  12. Bolting on things like the Wide Eyed Theatre workshop added layers to the game – even if that workshop had a low signup. Perhaps those things need a bit more integration to really work.
  13. We opened up Marine Studios. This place is a brilliant space. It’s got room for bumbling artists and anarchic thinkers, even while the main resident company are stretching themselves on a big pitch to an overseas client. More people came in, saw the place, and signed up as coworkers. The building, the space, was adaptable, agile, hackable and professional. We gave something back to the space by being there, too.
  14. It made me think, to look at my own work differently, to see a new angle on what I’d been doing for years.
  15. It was all done cheap, fast and dirty. We had about three weeks from the Green Light to having people playing. The budget covered a few days work, but people gave lots more because they were enjoying it.
  16. As well as TribevTribe, other work was made. Megan the producer made a series of drawings of the places in the game, and there will be more work for her from that. David joined us on work experience, shot a great bunch of pictures for his portfolio, was forced out of his comfort zone and got an exhibition.
  17. All that and it’s all only beta, test, trial, This version of TribevTribe is just the start. Imagine it with a budget and time.

TribevTribe

Five tribes will fight across Margate for the next month. TribevTribe is a month-long artwork which takes the centre of Margate as a board to play on.

When players choose to play they collect a Game Card, which randomly assigns them to one of five Tribes – Mods, Rockers, Punks, Hippies and Ravers. So if up to five people decide to play together, they’ll be playing for different teams.

Players visit venues across Margate, looking for a hidden Dead Letter Box. Usually taking the form of a wooden box, the Dead Letter Box is identified by some combination of the five Tribe symbols. Players can visit each venue once a week. In a few places, the Dead Letter Box is held by staff, and there’s a password to access it; the clue to these stashes can be found in other Dead Letter Boxes.

Chance back new copyEvery Dead Letter Box contains two things for sure; a Log Book and a pack of Chance cards. Players record that they’ve visited to score a point, and take a Chance card which can send them to other venues or set them another task to score more points. Dead Letter Boxes might also contain rewards or gifts left by other players. These might change week to week, and special rewards might be announced via social media.

Players can play by themselves, in secret; they can just visit each venue, find the Dead Letter Box and record their visit. The game is like a less technological version of geocaching. It’s a good way to explore Margate.

Or players can choose to play TribevTribe on a more social level. Players don’t know who else is on their team, but can accept Chance card challenges to use social media to meet other players.

Or they can, by gathering strangers together (and without even meeting them) play strategically, agreeing to all visit certain venues in an attempt to conquer them.

That’s important because scores are collected from the Dead Letter Boxes, and announced on a rolling basis. Each week, it will be announced which Tribe has scored most points and conquered each venue, encouraging the other teams to try to retake those places on the board.

Around twenty venues are involved in the work. Each venue can choose how to participate; the simplest way is just to host a Dead Letter Box. But some venues have chosen to get their staff playing, to add extra levels of content, or to champion one of the five Tribes on social media. The first fifteen venues are already in play – and more will be added next week. The venues are large, big public funded attractions like Turner Contemporary, and small, independent shops, cafes and attractions like The Shell Grotto, Rat Race and Proper Coffee.

Lower Third PosterOther venues are involved in another way. The game’s skin of subcultures has led to the creation of a series of posters referencing real gigs and events from Margate’s past; a residency in a community hall for The Lower Third, a Hawkwind community benefit, a wrestling match and so on. These post for long-gone gigs can be found displayed around the town, and players score extra points for finding them, too.

The game is designed to scale, flex and adapt as it happens; ‘it’s iterative design’, a Design Council expert said as she took her Game Card.

TribevTribe was conceived after carrying out evaluation of last year’s Summer of Colour, a festival organised by Turner Contemporary. That evaluation found that people’s movement across Margate from venue to venue was limited. And that people weren’t generally attending multiple events within the festival.

TribevTribe aims to address that, by giving people an incentive to move between places. But it also creates a linking structure for the diverse venues within the festival, and connects them to smaller independent shops, cafes and attractions across the town.

TribevTribe

“And then came the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!”

“Have you used it much?” I enquired.

“It has never been spread out, yet,” said Mein Herr. “The farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.”

Lewis Carroll, Sylvie & Bruno

Whenever you go down the roads in Britain, you travel not in three dimensions, but in four. The fourth dimension is the past. And as we move to and fro in this fourth dimension, we see not only landscape but the economic, political and social forces at work behind the landscape. Shaping it, forever changing it, but leaving here and there the record, and the mark.

There’s life everywhere and the tracks we make are shared and crossed by the paths of others, who know this world better than we do.

Travis Elborough & Bob Stanley, How We Used To Live

Tribe Icons only

TribevTribe is a game uses the town itself as the board, and is played not in three dimensions, but in four. It’s a game which celebrates Margate’s place as a home to youth culture, and lays that past over the present townscape.

Players move through the town, and in and out of history, winning points by completing simple challenges, finding clues or building their tribe. As they play they win points for their tribe; Mods, Rockers, Hippies, Punk and Ravers. The Isle of Thanet, which history tells us is the correct place to land if you want to conquer Britain, will be conquered again as each tribe wins and loses territory in the four weeks the game is being played.

TribevTribe has been created by Dan Thompson, a social artist whose work is about mapping, public space, towns as places to play, and social history. It’s been commissioned by Marine Studios, who are behind the GEEK festival, which brings play, art and technology together. It forms part of the Tribes Festival. TribevTribe is funded by Kent County Council and the Tribes Festival.

Arlington House Auction

Margate’s beautiful Main Sands is bookended by two Brutal buildings, bold seaside architecture that is the spirit of a town that’s on the edge, both physically and metaphorically, told in concrete. Turner Contemporary and Arlington House are a pair, a duet, Margate’s story made solid.

Because Margate’s a living, breathing place. It’s not pickled heritage painted in Farrow & Ball, not a Cath Kidston nod to a Ladybird book past, not a 21st century take on a kitsch saucy seaside postcard, but is a colourful, chaotic and always contemporary place. It’s always faced firmly forward and Arlington House is as much part of that story as the Georgian squares, Dreamland’s Art Deco cinema, David Chipperfield’s Turner blocks or the crazy Clocktower.

And right now, Arlington House is the bit that’s been left behind. From the tower’s east-facing flats, you can see Turner Contemporary and watch Dreamland coming back to life. And Arlington has to be next. The site has been in limbo, since Tesco pulled out, and worryingly there’s still planning permission for demolition of the shops, car park and the tower’s elegant 60s-styled foyer block.

So we need to fight. When it was first proposed Turner Contemporary was a crazy idea, and when residents stood up for Dreamland they were told it was never going to happen. Except – Turner’s there, and Dreamland is. By getting together, Margate’s residents and visitors have shown, big things can be made to happen. Arlington’s next. Tell everyone, Arlington’s next.

So right now, we need to get some cash into the Friends of Arlington House accounts, to pay off some of the legal costs from a long fight to save the building and to give them a fighting fund to look ahead. Like I said, it’s Margate’s residents and visitors that will make things happen; and they’ve donated some frankly (and yes, the word’s overused, but trust me – it fits) awesome lots to a fundraising auction.

So – would you like some art or Wayne Hemingway’s autograph, some coasters or some cushions? Advice on making your home, garden or just your body a bit better? Would you like food, or drink, in one of Margate’s ace eateries? A stay in a boutique b&b, an Old Town apartment or in a flat in Arlington House itself? Would you like records from a frankly rather hip label, or would you like to learn to DJ with them? The Arlington House Auction is odd and inspiring, eclectic and entertaining, and packed full of stuff which I re kon you’ll love and which will help Friends of Arlington Margate keep fighting for this national treasure. Fifty-odd fab lots – bid here in the Arlington House Auction.

 The auction closes tomorrow at 5pm.

The Red Chair

Great theatre gets inside you, and leaves its shadows across the world when you look at it afterwards.

David Glass Ensemble’s production of Gormenghast, which I probably saw more than 20 years ago, had that effect. The world looked different afterwards. Darker, more shadowed, layered. It still does. Theatre De Complicite did the same to me. So did the work of Bruce Gilchrist.

When I watched the preview of Clod Ensemble’s new show The Red Chair, I had a similar feeling. Like David Glass Ensemble and Complicite, the show conjures a dark, twisted world and tells a long tale on stage.

But while David Glass and Complicite rely on a whole company, The Red Chair creates that intensity with just one actor on stage.

Sarah Cameron wrote The Red Chair and performs it. It’s two hours long. It’s an intense, physical experience, for her and for the audience – there’s no interval, no respite. Cameron makes a decaying household from words and once she’s created that place she tells the story of a man who eats and eats until he becomes swallowed by the chair he was sitting in, and the story of his wife who feeds him, and the story of their forgotten child. She drags you through a Grim(ms) Fairytale, full of lush lyrical language and tumbling poetry.

The world she creates looks, I think, a little like this:

Follow Dan Thompson’s board Red Chair on Pinterest.

The set doesn’t: it’s just Cameron, a chalk circle to contain the things she conjures, and a wooden chair. There’s a shot of whisky and some chocolate for the audience. They only reinforce the sense that this is some dark mass, some strange ritual.

The Red Chair is coming to Margate. Go, and I promise you won’t ever forget it.

 

 

 

An alternative crowdfunding

So… would a bunch of you pledge some money, crowdfunding style, without knowing what it’s going towards – but knowing that three people with good taste will pick an artist and commission a piece of work of work with your money, and you’ll get something cool in six months time?

Ed Vaizey on the UK games sector

On the outside Games Expo East Kent (known for fairly obvious reasons as GEEK) is a fairly straightforward games expo, with thousands of people descending on Margate’s Winter Gardens this weekend to play retro video games and find out about the latest in computer gaming. But underneath that is a serious purpose, to look at the place of digital in a town like Margate. If GEEK proves anything, it’s that digital today is all about a little bit of chaos, a lot of collaboration, endless crossovers and constant innovation. I edited the GEEK Gazette this year, a free paper distributed across the area, and asked guest writers to contribute. Here’s what Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, wrote:

Ed Vaizey at Turner Contemporary, Margate  © Robert Canis
Ed Vaizey at Turner Contemporary, Margate
© Robert Canis

The digital landscape of the UK is undergoing a period of tremendous change, a transformation that I believe is vital for the economic growth of our country. Government and local authorities are investing £1.7 billion to help bring superfast broadband to 95 per cent of the UK by 2017 – to enhance the connectivity and digital capabilities of our homes and businesses.

An improved digital infrastructure will help drive the growth of business within our creative industries, and particularly the video games sector. We recognise the incredible contribution that video gaming makes to our economy and are determined to do all we can to support its continued growth.

That is why we introduced the video gaming tax relief. Industry estimates it could be worth up to £25 million per year for the sector. We are also invested in the development of up and coming talent. Through collaboration with Creative Skillset our funding for the Skills Investment Fund is widening access to industry-led training. We have already seen a positive impact with the Fund helping to place over 100 trainees in 67 games companies.

The UK games sector generates £2bn in global sales and contributes almost £1bn to national GDP. We cannot underestimate the importance of this industry. The UK is a great training ground for the developers, animators and programmers of the future. We are attracting overseas investment and industry figures show that our games studios already employ over 9,000 creative staff, whilst indirectly supporting close over 16,000 jobs.

Within the video gaming world, the UK is renowned for its talent, creativity and the innovation of its products. We can boast of the creation of many world-beating games, such as Elite, Lemmings, Tomb Raider, LittleBigPlanet and Moshi Monsters.

This sector is a shining example of the UK’s strength in innovation and creativity and it is great to see video gaming claiming the recognition it deserves. The UK is already home to the largest games development community in Europe. Together with industry, we will continue to strengthen our position on the world’s stage, ensuring more and more globally successful games will be conceived, developed and produced right here in the UK.

Ed Vaizey MP

Margate Is…

Margate is facing away from England. Margate is where Britain began. Margate is Anglo and Saxon and Roman and Celtic and English and European. Margate is always continental, never Little England.

P1160328Margate is made for Down-From-Londons, bearded faux-bohemians, hipsters and artists and has been since 1730. Margate is sea bathing, sex and sand. Margate is cheap and brash and elegant and high-end. Margate is old and Margate is new. Margate is a dirty ageing tart with new earrings. Margate is where contradictions contradict themselves until everything makes sense.

Margate is where England swung. Margate is where mods fought rockers. Margate is where it all kicks off. Margate is never crossing at the lights. Margate is where friendships are made and comradeships forged. Margate is where old people come for bungalows and young people come for cheap property and Eastern Europeans come to learn to be English and where UKIP come to die.

Margate is on an island. Margate is defined by lost rivers. Margate is chalk and concrete. Margate is beaches of sand and seagreen bottle glass and old Stoke pottery smoothed by saltwater.

Margate is the second oldest theatre in the country, and the smallest. Margate is a derelict Dreamland and big plans. Margate is the ball that rises once on a clocktower. Margate is a David Chipperfield building without a front door. Margate is an abandoned tidal pool that people swim in anyway. Margate is a cave covered in shells to worship the Sacred Duck.

Margate is TS Eliot and Chas & Dave. Margate is Tracey Emin and Tom Swift. Margate is Dean Thatcher and Dinsdale Landen. Margate is The Beatles at the Winter Gardens and John Le Mesurier & Hattie Jacques at Albion Lodge. Margate is Karl Marx on holiday.

Margate is Retro and Margate is looking towards tomorrow. Margate is then and now, and Margate is dreaming of England’s future.

Written for the Swifty’s Sunday Social fanzine, and first published there.

Photos from the London Road project

Stoke’s London Road connects the buzzing, active communities of Boothen, West End and Oakhill to the town centre along a long, straight road that’s full of history, unusual buildings, old architectural features and public spaces waiting to be brought to life. This year-long artwork commissioned by Appetite will end in the publication of a book. This will be a psychogeographical, slightly fictional telling of the story of London Road, from one end to the other, from the Roman to the modern day.

Here are some of the photos collected during the first six months of the London Road project,

Buildings and street scenes general photographs from London Road.

London Road – a Walking Tour – takes you from one end of the road to another. An archive of a Tweeted tour.

London Road as a green belt – is Stoke the greenest city in England?

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#chumbrella on London Road – an artwork by Sarah Nadin, commissioned by the London Road project and Appetite.

The abandoned London Road Library – inside a forgotten building, sold at auction in 2014 for £128,000.

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Inside Portmeirion Pottery – a successful pottery, producing 150,000 pieces of best-grade pottery every week.

Inside Middleport Pottery – a working Victorian pottery, restored by the Prince’s Regeneration Trust and making Burleigh ware.

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London Road Festival 2014 – a community-run festival, where the London Road project started.

Open air art gallery – part of the London Road Festival in 2014.

Expedition – performance on London Road – commissioned by Appetite as part of the London Road Festival 2014.

People I want to collaborate with

I’m looking ahead, from halfway through a year long residency in Stoke, and thinking ‘What’s next?’. I’ve always enjoyed collaboration and have been lucky enough to work with some cracking artists, makers and designers; I’d be far richer if I didn’t use the small budgets I get for projects to work with other people. So here are a few of the people who’ve been on my mind, that I’d like to collaborate with over the next couple of years8:

Lloyd DavisLloyd Davis is currently working with me on a project in Sittingbourne, Workshop 34. He’s a master of many things, carries a uke and makes me think and smile.

The Ossett Observer gang are dangerous, full-blown anarchists. They tend to have ukes too. And poetry. And pigeons.

Geek is a rather neat festival in Margate. Built around vintage gaming, it’s really about technology in East Kent. It was set up by Kate Kneale from HKD, and she also has some good ideas about pottery which ties in with my work in Stoke.

She Makes War is the musical project from Laura Kidd, who’s also a film-maker – she made the Pop Up People project much better than it would have been without her. I can’t play anything so don’t know what our collaboration would be… but hey.

I absolutely love The Shell Grotto. It’s got real English magic and mystery and it inspires me every time I visit. Run by great people, too.

Equally bonkers is the Powell-Cotton Museum. I was lucky enough to work with their education chap, Keith, earlier this year. I’ve spent a lot of time around museums, but he’s something special. Another project there would be great.

Company of Makers is the latest thing from Steve Bomford, who joined me on the Empty Shops Network tour a few years back. Top chap, top project.

Tom Swift, madman, That’s all.

P1120627Andy Lewis didn’t used to be nearly as cool as he is now, when I DJ’d with him at Blow Up. Ogh alright – he was always rather cool. But now he’s Paul Weller’s bass player too. Another musical collaboration.

I’m already collaborating, kind of, with Sarah Nadin, on #chumbrella. Lovely artist, cracking good ideas.

And further afield – Gap Filler in New Zealand, and Marcus Westbury and Simone Sheridan in Australia. But they take a bit more planning…

* (and no, it’s not an exhaustive list – it’s one thrown together quickly – so don’t worry if you’re not here. It’ll grow over the next few weeks.)

Swifty’s Sunday Social, 20 years ago

P1160328It’s odd, looking back and realising that the summer of 2014 was 20 years ago. We were just having fun in a battered seaside town and I don’t think any of us considered that what we were doing would have such an impact. We weren’t a gang, and never called ourselves Imaginists back then. What we were doing wasn’t a conscious attempt to shape the future, even if we did all secretly believe we could change the world. But Margate was burning bright in 2014. There had been months of great theatre, incredible art happenings, a buzz in the national media (newspapers, back then – newspapers!)

It really came together on a Sunday afternoon at the sleepy end of that summer; Swift hadn’t had even one platinum album then, there was little to suggest he’d win the Turner Prize twice, and the idea that there’d be a room dedicated to him in Margate’s Imaginist Centre was faintly ridiculous. He was Tom Swift, not Swift; he hadn’t become, like Madonna, somebody known by a single name. He was just oddball painter Tom Swift, a lanky, awkward character with an eye on the main chance, fingers in some odd pies, a hatful of ideas, a neat line in drippy paintings. And, in Caspar, a mentor.

Yes, that Caspar – he was charismatic even then, but we didn’t realise how dangerous his religious quackery would become. I’m not sure then he even believed in the Sacred Duck; it was just an in joke. I think after Apple introduced the smart drugs, they started to alter the world around him, and he believed the coincidences and chances meant something. If we had known how far he’d take it, well; we’d have pushed him off the harbour arm, the Thames Barrier wouldn’t have been damaged so badly by that ridiculous Rubber Duck, and London wouldn’t have flooded.

P1160550Anyway – together Swift and Caspar and me cooked up the plan for Swifty’s Sunday Social at the Black Cat Club. Not the one you can visit now, of course – that’s a shameless cash-in, a Disneyfied version of where we hung out. It’s not even in the same place. There never was a Black Cat at the Imaginist Centre on the seafront. Back then it was an art gallery called Turner Contemporary, and that summer it was exhibiting work by Jeremy Deller. Forgotten now, but back then he was the big star, not us. Today’s Black Cat at the Imaginist Centre is just an imitation, as authentic as The Cavern in Liverpool, but it’s made Keith Roberts rich and famous. When I watch him on the panel of England’s Got Talent, I can’t help but remember the Gabicci-wearing, quiffed, suited and booted wideboy he was back then. He hasn’t really changed much, has he?

Our Black Cat, back then, was across the road; it’s the toilets of Starbucks now – I know, tiny. It was a proper underground club, sweat dripping from the ceiling and the walls sticky. It was where Swifty’s Sunday Social started, and my own Face Up! too. That was just supposed to be a one-off night, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Mods vs Rockers battles in Margate in 1964. I never saw Face Up! becoming the brand it has become, and every one of our coffee shops around the world has a little bit of the Black Cat spirit, every item of clothing in our shops is inspired by what people were wearing in Margate back then, every disc and download in our record shops could have graced the turntables that year. But I digress; the first Swifty’s Sunday Social, all those Sundays ago, is what I’m writing about.

It was a good afternoon. There was a DJ, a local vicar called Emmet Keane (remember, there was still a Church of England back then!), playing reggae and dub; and Helen Seymour performed her poetry. She was an interesting character; slight and hauntingly beautiful, magic eyes, slightly awkward as we all were, slipping rhymes and interesting images into rambling stories. I saw the spark in her, but still can’t believe she’s the same person who wrote that poem for the old Queen’s funeral, let alone that her brief affair with a prince that started at the funeral could topple the monarchy.

P1160510And there was a Simon Williams film projected on the wall, too. I know, I know, it seems unlikely – a Turner Prize winner, the Poet Laureate, a ten-times Oscar winner, a TV superstar, the Prime Minister and me all in the one place, on one Sunday afternoon, but it’s true. It really happened. Simon’s film was a precursor to ‘365’, that won him that first Oscar. It was a black and white film (timelapse, of course, could it be anything else, from him?) shot from Arlington House, which wasn’t the swanky, gated place it’s become. Back then it was just a towerblock, Margate just a seaside town.

The crowd that Sunday afternoon was full of good, interesting people, too. Joe Brown was there; he was a shopkeeper, ran a junk shop with Kelly. He hadn’t become a politician then, had no ambitions to become Prime Minister. Really! Back then, people were career politicians, not people like Joe who just rose from nowhere. There were photographers, and writers, and painters, and dancers, and shopkeepers out that afternoon. The Breuer and Dawson boys, before they hosted their TV makeover series, before Breuer and Dawson was just a chain store. IndustroChic wasn’t a thing back then. A good crowd, for a rainy Sunday afternoon, but not as many people as have said they were there; we’d never have fitted everyone that said they were at the first one into that tiny room. I remember Simon saying we needed ten more people to make it feel busy; Caspar wanted fifty more. There was room for ten, room for fifty, and there weren’t queues around the block back then for anything Swift did.

I guess it’s that weekend that changed it all, really; that made it clear we had a scene. I know the Black Cat is compared to Warhol’s Factory, and while that’s a lazy comparison there’s something in it. The atmosphere maybe, that bottled sense of excitement, that belief that we could take on the world and win, that buttoned-down madness – but the impact of the Imaginists has been so much bigger, deeper, wider. It all started one Sunday, and nothing’s been quite the same since.

Margate, November 2034

The Graphic Art of the Underground

It’s a pretty neat trick, to take a bunch of stuff you’ve seen before, thread it together and give you a slightly different view of the world at the end. But that’s what Ian Lowey and Suzy Prince do in The Graphic Art of the Underground.

The usual graphic design suspects, and plenty of familiar images, are all here. There’s Hapshash and the Coloured Coat and Family Dog’s psychedelic screenprinted posters, Jamie Reid punk graphics, Peter Saville’s hard industrial design for Factory, and Barney Bubbles riotous album sleeves, and they all deserve their places here.

But Lowey and Prince thread together more diverse artists, illustrators, designers and makers to create their narrative, which starts with Von Dutch and Ed Roth customising Hot Rods and ends with Rob Ryan’s papercuts and Naomi Ryder’s embroidered illustrations. It’s that bringing together of the bright mainstream of popular culture, and of  the dark corners of underground art, which make this such a strong book.

That wider story finds ‘the spirit of youthful energy and rebellion’ threaded across the last 60 years, and constantly starting underground before moving to the mainstream.

It’s fair to say that in almost every case, the makers – whether of custom cars, psychedelic posters, punk fanzines, street art, designer toys or indie crafts – see themselves as bold explorer’s of unknown places, largely independent of what’s gone before. But the line Lowey and Prince draw from a Von Dutch car paintjob to a Gandalf’s Garden front cover to a Barney Bubbles album sleeve to an Alex Gross painting to a Pete Fowler toy is pretty straight.

It’s a captivating story, well told, and suggests that some things we’re familiar with are worth looking at again, and some things we’ve never seen are worth taking the time to investigate. If you’re interested in youth culture or underground art, graphic design or independent crafting, there’s enough in here to make this a useful (and in the future, well thumbed) addition to your bookcase.

What would Jeremy Deller do?

Bouffant Headbutt by Shampoo is a glorious piece of pop. It’s a snotty, sneery punk anthem – 2 minutes 11 seconds of perfect attitude. it was released in 1993 on the frankly too-cool-for-school Ice Rink label.

Now you’ll feel our bouffant in your face

(Bouffant Headbutt by Shampoo)

It’s also the first time I came across Jeremy Deller. He took the live photos on the single’s sleeve. He may have designed the Dolly Bird T-shirts they’re wearing; he produced designs for Covent Garden shop Sign of the Times, and a number of pop stars were caught wearing them. I’m fairly certain he was hanging around some of the same bars and clubs as me – Where’s Jude in Farringdon, Blow Up in Camden and Soho, the Good Mixer in Camden. Those were heady days; late nights, early morning trains, a buzz that wasn’t just chemically induced, a sense of urgency, excitement as the people we danced with at night made it onto Top of the Pops or into Face and i-D.

Those years in the mid-90s were reminiscent in more than just sound and style of the classic years of British pop. And Jeremy Deller’s always been into pop, a cultural archivist as much as an artist: Brian Epstein, David Bowie, Morrissey, Bez, brass bands playing acid house, Keith Moon and posters of Kate Moss.

Shampoo – two teenage girls with attitude and pretty popstar boyfriends – fit perfectly into that tradition. They even ran the Manic Street Preachers fan club, and Deller produced The Uses of Literacy, an entire collection of work inspired by those fans. And Unconvention, an exhibition which he imagined the Manics had curated, too.

I’d like to be a gallery
Put you all inside my show

(Andy Warhol by David Bowie)

Deller brought music and art together even further, producing posters imagining Keith Moon having a retrospective at the Tate, turning  song lyrics into scripture, imagining the baggy scene coming to the Hayward Gallery, a poster given away at Frieze asking ‘What would Neil Young do?’. Posters and prints are a perfect pop medium, and they’re something Deller’s returned to over and over. Fast, out there in public, easy to  produce, and ephemeral.

They’ve been an important part of what I do, too; a minor obsession started because my first real job was producing and distributing posters for the Connaught Theatre. I’ve still got some of those; classic designs, elegant typography, ephemeral. Since then, I’ve produced posters to mark projects and actions; a set of three screenprints for Worthing Pier, a dozen designs for Bedford Happy, posters for Face Up! so good they all get nicked.

So Jeremy Deller coming to Margate feels like an interesting collision, my mid-90s life catching up with where I am today as an artist.

Art isn’t about what you make but what you make happen

(Jeremy Deller)

I’ve spoken on the Social Art podcast about Deller’s work, and referenced him in various talks and workshops. I think our work as social artists is similar; unsurprising as we come from very similar starting points; music, collaboration, pop, and people. So, a couple of times when working on projects or in different places  I’ve found myself wondering ‘What would Jeremy Deller do?’

That, and his visit, felt like something that should be marked by a poster. A limited edition, well printed, but given away and produced as a piece of public art. And nickable – it had to be nickable. Something people would steal and take home for their wall.

So the two have come together in my artwork for Margate, produced as an edition of 100, printed in heavy black on dayglo paper. Drawing pinned to walls, stuck up in shops. Find one, it’s yours.

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The Sacred Duck; the truth is out there

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For some time, I’ve been exploring the actions of artists Tom Swift, Paul Hazelton and their friend Caspar. You can read here about how I uncovered connections between them, an ancient religious cult and Margate’s Shell Grotto.

And that led me to finding an old essay, typed up and pasted into a scrapbook I found in one of Margate’s junk shops. It’s signed JR, Margate and dated 1874 and you can read it here.

Swift, Hazelton and Caspar have today given me access to this set of photos on Flickr, which show them finding and opening a box. It was found in a hidden room at the Shell Grotto, so it seems my research was on the right track at least. I’ve uploaded them to my account on Flickr for your safety and convenience.

The box is now being exhibited in London, in an event curated by Alice Herrick. It was apparently the start of the series of artworks which Swift, Hazelton and Caspar called De-In-Stall, which included installations at A Fete Worse Than Death, the Art Car Boot Fair at the Folkestone Fringe and at the Herrick Gallery.

De-In-Stall included text, film, drawing, assemblage, performance and installation. It all started with a box. Swift, Hazelton and Caspar say this is the last work. De-In-Stall is back in the box, and the mystery is set to be buried again.

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