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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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.

A Canadian memorial in Penrith

Penrith’s Castle Park is two things. It’s the ruins of the town’s old castle, all thick red sandstone walls and big ditches. And it’s a largely untouched Victorian or Edwardian town park.

It has a bandstand, a memorial gate with plaques listing the dead of the two world wars of the Twentieth Century, and an earlier Boer War memorial known locally as the Black Angel. It has plenty of flowerbeds, meandering parks, a bowling green and some rather curly wooden slat benches. The kind you remember, but haven’t seen for years.

On one of the green-painted benches I found a memorial. Nowadays, an engraved plaque on a bench is nothing special. Frank loved this spot. Elsie walked her dog here. Independent journalist Miles Kington is remembered with the best, of course, near the Dundas Aqueduct: ‘In fond memory of Miles Kington, who hated this spot, because there was never anywhere to sit down and enjoy it from’. So why comment on Penrith’s bench?

I think it might be the oldest in the country, the original. I’ve never seen one this old. And it is the start of an interesting story which is untold elsewhere.

Set in heavy cast iron lettering are the words:

In Memory of

Pte W.G.Clarke. MM

78th C.I.F.

Who fell in France

10th Aug. 1918

Now, bits of this I understood straight away; Private Clarke, Military Medal. 10th August 1918 probably means the Battle of Amiens. The rest? Well, it took some digging around fairly obscure internet forums. Clarke’s not listed on any other local memorials.

William Gibson Clarke was the son of Henry Blackwell and Sarah Clarke of Penrith (they appear to have been unmarried). They lived at 34 Brunswick Square.

William was born at Skipton, North Yorkshire, emigrated to Canada, and was working as a waiter when he enlisted at Winnipeg, Manitoba, late in 1915.

He served as a private with the 78th Battalion, Manitoba Regiment. The battalion embarked at Halifax 22 May 1916 aboard the Empress of Britain, disembarking in England on 29 May 1916. Its strength was 37 officers and 1097 other ranks.

Clarke’s Military medal was recorded in the London Gazette on 26th April 1917. It’s likely he won his medal at the battle of Vimy Ridge, a smaller part of the infamous Battle of Arras, although there are no records I can find. The battle is remembered at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, set in a 250 acre memorial park, and in Siegfried Sassoon’s The General:

“Good-morning, good-morning!” the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

It seems that the 78th became part of the Canadian Independent Force (CIF), serving under Brigadier-General Raymond Brutiner. This was an unusual and irregular unit, designed for fast attacks; a precursor to the later German Blitzkrieg tactics. It was made up of two Motor Machine Gun Brigades , a Cyclist Battalion , the 5th Canadian Trench Mortars , 1 Corps Wireless Section , a Mechanical Transport Co. , the 101 Machine Gun battalion, the 10th Royal Hussars and the Canadian Light Horse.

Clarke fell during the Battle of Amiens, in the last 100 days of the First World War. He died aged 27 at Le Quesnel, the location of the deepest penetration the Canadians (and indeed any of the Allied armies) achieved on the first day of the battle. He had advanced 13 kilometres into the German lines by that point, and that action saw the start of the German collapse and brought about the end of the First World War.

Clarke is buried at Caix British cemetery southeast of Amiens, Somme, France, and remembered on a bench in Penrith’s Castle Park which, we can only presume, his parents placed there. Nearly 100 years later, it’s about time the story behind it was told.

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.

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

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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.

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.

#mymargate

In the in 18 months since moving to Margate, I’ve been to more theatre than in the 15 years before that, when I was living in Worthing. I’ve been spoiled – drowning in a sea of good shows, great performances, interesting interventions across the town. I’ve seen Steven Berkoff, an army of mysterious Red Ladies spreading across the town, a crazed sequel to The Tempest, shows about explorers alone in a hut somewhere and the workers in the huts at Bletchley Park. I’ve experienced 366 Days of Kindness which had a bit of me in it, watched The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Reduced), spent an evening with John Cooper Clarke, and seen the rebirth of repertory in Paines Plough’s Roundabout. One good thing after another, more than I can see (I kick myself for the things that I’ve missed). The programming by the Theatre Royal has been to theatre what Turner Contemporary’s shows have been to the visual arts.

So now, in a small way, I’m returning to theatre, which is where my career in the arts started. I’m helping to bring new people to see a series of shows, as part of Fuel’s  New Theatre In Your Neighbourhood project, funded by Arts Council England and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.

The next show as part of that programme is Feral In Margate.

Feral combines puppetry, film, digital technology and live sound to create and destroy a world in front
 of its audience’s eyes. Joe looks back at the town of his childhood. Bright, vibrant and idyllic the world resembles a haven of comfort. But as the walls are peeled back, the story of a community’s fall unfolds around him.

Feral seamlessly blends film and live performance. Puppeteers manipulate and bring to life a tiny world, while simultaneously creating a live animation, as they follow its every breath via a digital camera.

The show is being remade for Margate, and to build on that, we’re asking people to film their favourite Margate place, and upload it with the #mymargate hashtag. Nothing fancy: I shot my contribution on my phone, in less than three minutes. All entrants’ films will be screened before the Feral in Margateperformance on Friday 13th March and the winner will receive a bespoke puppet from the show, a piece of the set and a £50 John Lewis Voucher

The Post Office

In a town of beautiful buildings, it’s easy to overlook the functional ones. But a cluster of mid-century modern brick-built buildings in Addington Road are worth a second look.

Facing the street is the grand modernist Royal Mail sorting office, dated 1951. Clean lines, sweeping curves, plenty of fenestration to give tantalising glimpses of the insides of this building-as-machine. Sharp red brick, the lines of Crittall windows copied in UPVC, heavy doors. Neglected planters and unpainted railings suggest the care given to public spaces has been forgotten in recent years. Reinstating an entrance onto Addington Street would make all the difference, connecting this building to the town again and reducing vandalism, too. The Royal Mail sign, though slightly faded, suggests that it wasn’t that long ago that somebody cared enough to make sure the lettering fitted the curves of the building, which echo the town’s Regency bay windows.

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Behind the sorting office, separated by loading bays and Royal Mail vans, sits a similar building with an almost identical footprint, the Telephone Exchange from 1946. Only a few years older, this building looks more like traditional, classical architecture. The neglected, over grown steps and fancy lamps are from an earlier generation. But again there’s a curved front entrance, and this building’s bold, curved buttresses are more solid, functional and even rather brutal. Just visible through windows are banks of machines, like steampunk computers. This building even looks good from behind, where a handful of yellowbrick bayfronted houses remain, facing the Telephone Exchange’s almost abandoned carpark.

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The Telephone Exchange has a later addition, probably 1960s or 1970s. Although the connection between the two is unloved, this later, square building still has architectural quality, particularly in the way the rounded corners echo the earlier building.

The final building that makes up the site is slightly more unusual, though. Built onto the side of the streamlined Sorting Office (or, just maybe, the Sorting Office fell onto it, splitting it in two) is a little piece of suburbia; an empty semi-detached house.

Thanet Press

Union Crescent gentle curves at the top of Margate’s town centre, an unloved sweep of opposing Georgian terraces and a religious collection of church, mosque and Salvation Army Hall. The biggest mass of buildings on the street are a jumble, united only by peeling, faded red paint and in the Sterling board covering the windows and door.

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Behind the boards are The Thanet Press. Anybody who’s shopped around Margate old town will have found mention of this place; all the shops have old leather-bound ledgers from this business, which collapsed in 2011 under the weight of a £100,000 unpaid tax bill. Have a look in fashion boutique Ahoy Margate for a blood red ledger, full of copperplate script listing ‘Plant and Repairs and Renewals’. And that ledger tells you more; embossed in gold, it’s titled ‘Eyre & Spottiswoode Ltd (Thanet Press Account)’.

That’s a name that is full of history. Eyre & Spotiswoode are the Queen’s printers, entitled to print the King James bible without her permission. And they printed invitations and other material for Princess Margaret’s wedding to Anthony Armstrong-Jones in 1960. They were printers for exam papers, too, and – if all that establishment work was too much – also produced the fan club magazines for The Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

For all of that, Thanet Press was a rough commercial printers, producing manuals, journals, diaries and calendars for a range of different organisations. The business survived almost a hundred years, since the first records of Bobby & Co as a printer in Union Crescent. The site is a jumble of buildings, from Victorian industrial with pretensions to grandeur through to mid-20th century modernism. There are factories, offices and shopfronts facing onto Union Crescent. There are a dozen doors, windows at every level. A courtyard, the old front office curving into it. This is organic, not planned, a site which has grown over time, the kind of street scene loved by Jane Jacobs and Francis Tibbalds and Lewis Mumford. Individual buildings may not have much architectural merit, but collectively they show that even a seaside town like Margate had industry, even here in a street full of seaside boarding houses.

And they show that there was a pride in industry. Look at elegant ventilation, curved glazed bricks, the details of shopfronts, and it’s obvious that this was an important building, made to last.

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The back of the site, on Princes Street, has its own style and tells more of the story. It’s mid 20th century, streamlined even as it slips down a hill, but even here there are odd, older doorways and well-proportioned details. There’s some heavy industrial ducting, too, and an electricity substation that is humming behind red louvred doors that remind me of the post-war junior school I went to. This is the bauhaus ideal made in brick: a delight in technology and an elegance in simple function.

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Of course, change is inevitable and the site is scheduled to be cleared, and a dull, cod-Victorian block of flats built in the place of Thanet Press. And this in Margate, which has over 200 empty homes already.

I can’t understand how an architect can look at this site, and not be inspired by glazed brick, perfect proportions and elegant fenestration. And instead of demolition, suggest these buildings repurposed, an assortment of flats, live-work units, workshops and studios bringing new employment.  New ideas must use old buildings, Jane Jacobs said. what better than housing young, digital businesses and start ups in an old printworks?

This site is quite ordinary, but very special because of that. Some buildings are made great, and others have greatness thrust upon them. That’s what Thanet Press deserves. 

This was originally published on another blog in 2013: I’m moving it here as I have a ‘blogs I never really used much’ cull.

Folkestone’s on the edge of something

England’s seaside towns are unlike anywhere else in the world. They were the places that the country’s industrial workforce went for rest and relaxation, certainly, but the mass market that appeared there meant that they were also the places that industry carried out its research and development. Seaside towns are scattered with rusted remains of prototyped cutting-edge technology, from concrete seawalls and cliff paths secured by man-made stone to mechanical marine lifts and electric railways. So Folkestone, overlooked on the South Coast because Dover, Hastings and Brighton have more pizazz, is an interesting place for an international arts festival, especially as it became a prime stopping-off point, as people abandoned the south coast’s seaside and headed for the continent.

There are two strands to Folkestone’s festival – the ‘official’ bit is the Folkestone Triennial, titled ‘Lookout’. Running alongside it is the Folkestone Fringe, on the theme of ‘Future Now’. Both run from 30th August-2nd November, and together, they’re a very good reason for (at the very least) a daytrip to Folkestone. In all honesty, you’d need a weekend to fit it all in, especially as events, installations and interventions are spread out across the town, with some walking needed to get from one to another. Our one-day visit with children was certainly not long enough to get more than a glimpse of an interesting event.

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We started at the Art Car Boot Fair. This I was excited about; I’ve seen reviews of this in London, but never been able to make it (not living in London, I can’t always get there). The idea is simple; well-known artists and emerging artists side-by-side, selling affordable work from the boot of a car. The reality, though, was a little different. Emerging artists and small galleries made all the effort, with new work and a degree of performance in their presentations. Tom Swift and Paul Hazelton‘s De-In-Stall, Heidi Plant and Julia Riddiough (pictured), Bayle Window Lost Pigeon Archive, Quiet British Accent, Hello Print and Sadie Hennessey stood out. Collectively, these artists created a chaotic carnival atmosphere.

The name artists, meanwhile, knocked out work to a willing audience of ebay dealers who were throwing cash at them. At the Emin International stall, a proper fight broke out between two pushy dealers. Meanwhile, Peter Blake didn’t make an appearance, but you could buy a colour photocopy of an old Folkestone postcard with his signature on it for £60 from a trestle table. Now – I’m a huge Peter Blake fan and own half-a-dozen of his works, but even I can see that’s just lazy.

Just round the corner from the Art Car Boot, on the platforms of the abandoned Folkestone Harbour station, Tim Etchells has installed ‘Is Why The Place’, a pair of neon signs, one on the ‘up’ and one on the ‘down’ platform. This work is simple but effective, occupying the space well. We saw it twice; on the first visit, families were wandering along the abandoned rail tracks and climbing across both platforms, unguided urban explorers. On the second, a steward had stopped people leaving the platform they entered on; the work was far more powerful when you could explore the station, rather than being a passive viewer, standing on one side and looking across to the other. And I think people can manage that slight risk for themselves.

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Adjacent to the station, in an old waiting room or ticket office, is a small exhibition, presumably part of the fringe but unsignposted and unlabelled. It’s well worth finding – the work is about travel and journeys and the atmosphere of the unloved space (pictured below) is a perfect complement to the art.

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We wandered along the seafront after the station, visiting the Folkestone Future Choir‘s ‘Lookout!’ before stopping at a battered white shipping container under AK Dolven’s piece ‘Out of Tune’. This bell, suspended high in the air between two poles, is a beautiful piece of public art, and a permanent addition to Folkestone’s seafront since the 2011 Triennial. It rings out over an abandoned space, left when a seafront amusement park closed.

The booklet explaining the work in the shipping container, Centipede, wasn’t available to take away. Which fits – the container was a secret research laboratory, funded by the EU, with a range of equipment monitoring the local area for signs of the mysterious centipede. Secret equipment, mounted on a tuk tuk, was wrapped in tarpaulin. Everything’s waiting to be uncovered here and I like the mystery.

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From the seafront we wandered back into town, through the Creative Quarter. These steep, narrow streets are giving Folkestone a new heart, full of quirky and interesting shops. Somewhere in here (but we overlooked it – ironic in a festival called Lookout, no?) is Andy Goldsworthy’s shop. We did watch Strange Cargo scanning people, though.

We headed for Wilkinson’s, instead – in search of both flip-flops and Hollington & Kyprianou‘s The Castle, art inspired by the idea that as every Englishman’s home is his castle, so he should carry out DIY improvements. Some great interventions in the shop are confusing shoppers.

In search of fresh air, we headed back towards the seafront, walking along the clifftop and stopping to watch the headless chicken of Whithervanes before catching the lift down to the beach again.

We headed back towards the harbour, where most Fringe and Triennial activity seems to be happening. Gabriel Lester’s bamboo pagoda over the unused railway line was closed, officially, but is actually uncloseable so was soon reopened by people-power. Straddling the line and with a view down to the station and ‘Is Why The Place’, it’s a calm space in a place that should be inaccessible and busy.

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The pagoda looks out towards the Grand Bustin, a monolithic hotel with architecture like something from Soviet Russia. Perched just above the highest balcony is Alex Hartley’s Vigil. Hartley has installed a climber’s camp, hanging outside the top floor rooms. This spot, the artist says, is ‘a unique vantage point from which to look out over the sea and back over the town [from which] a lone occupant will inhabit these exposed ledges, acting as a lookout over the sea, harbour and extended coastline.’ That’s a beautiful, poetic explanation, so I was looking forward to seeing Vigil – and I enjoyed the feeling, walking around the town, that there was somebody up there, watching over us. However, it’s not unique vantage point nor a lonely spot, as hotel visitors have much the same view from their balconies, and I’m not sure the work stands up to this contradiction.

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Round the corner from the pagoda is a piece which really isn’t quiet. Michael Sailstorfer has rather won the Triennial with Folkestone Dig. £10,000 worth of small gold bars have been buried on a small beach by the harbour. Dig, find them, they’re yours. This simple idea has created an incredibly powerful work, bringing hundreds of people together every day in a communal activity with a selfish end. It’s a spectacle, worth watching from the harbour wall – but it has also created an incredibly social space, where strangers happily talk to each other while doing a job of work which they know has little chance of success. And that’s totally in the spirit of Folkestone and the seaside town; a place where holidays were an industry, where work is about leisure.

So, with the Triennial and Fringe, it seems that Folkestone is finding a way of reinventing itself, presenting challenging art in public places. It’s certainly worth your time to visit, and you’ll find meaning, challenge and enjoyment when you do. But Folkestone’s still very rough around the edges (it felt much, much harsher than Margate, say) and while that adds an edge, it also left me a little uneasy. A couple of times, I saw locals reacting angrily to the art – similar to the problem faced by Turner Contemporary in Margate.

I really believe that good art (considered, careful, made for the site and calmly explained) can make the places we live, better. And I hope that with events like the Folkestone Fringe and the Folkestone Triennial, we can persuade other people of the power of art in public spaces, too. That, yet again, England’s seaside towns are the research and development spaces for society. Spectacle, yes; challenge, for sure; but enjoyment, shared experience, education, and enlightenment too.

Visit Margate

Since moving to Margate, it’s become obvious that there are a whole range of conflicting  tourism strategies trying to pull people here. In fact the only problem is that, for people outside the area, it’s probably too confusing. We have a Turner & Dickens Trail, the Viking Coast, Margate The Original Seaside… plenty of good things, but rather muddled.

So what are the basics? Margate is one of the three towns in the district of Thanet and it looks north, from the tip of England straight up the North Sea. Next door is Broadstairs (literally – you can walk there) and just below Margate is Ramsgate, which looks south and connects via the Port of Ramsgate to the continent. The towns-on-three-sides are a clue that Thanet was an island, and it still has the advantages of an island – everything is close and easy to reach.

We have an incredibly active coastline; surfing, walking, sailing, cycling, swimming all happen along the 27 miles of beaches and cliffs. Across Thanet, we have the most Blue Flag beaches in the country.

That coastline is beautiful. Chalk cliffs for the most part, with beautiful bays in between (‘~gate’ means ‘a gap in the cliffs). There’s great birdlife and fantastic rockpooling. Some of the bays – Joss Bay, Botany Bay – are well known in their own right.

And there’s incredible history too; the Vikings landed here first, the Romans knew it – there are Roman remains at each end of the channel which separated the island from the mainland. More recently, RAF Manston was at the centre of the Battle of Britain and the bomber raids over Germany, including the most famous of all, the Dambuster raid. Turner, Charles Dickens, TS Eliot, Tracey Emin, Oliver Postgate, John Le Mesurier, Ronnie Barker all have connections. Youth culture – think mods vs rockers – has always been huge in Margate, centred around Dreamland, reopening in 2015 as a heritage amusement park. There are a wealth of small museums – at RAF Manston,  in the home of the explorer Powell-Cotton, underground in a hidden Shell Grotto.

There’s plenty more history just down the road, too. Canterbury is less than half-an-hour’s drive away, or a short, cheap, train ride. That means, too, that it’s easy to visit Margate, Broadstairs or Ramsgate if you’re already in Canterbury. Perhaps we should open a Tourist Information Centre there, and pull a few of Canterbury Cathedral’s million visitors a year up the road to see our wonders.

But nobody outside the area really knows the name Thanet – it’s an administrative district, not a place. The towns are too distinct, each with their own heritage; Turner, TS Eliot and Tracey Emin in Margate, surfing and good food and folk music in Broadstairs, Dickens and maritime history in Ramsgate.

So what to do? Well, I think the focus should be on the three towns; they are, after all, why people visit. Each has a name and history to be proud of. There could be a joint branding – one typeface, a three-colour palette, some common language – which all three share. The three towns need to stay distinct; they have spent over a hundred years building a good brand. And they complement each other, provide balance.

And the name Isle of Thanet should be brought back – not the meaningless ‘Thanet’ but a name that means we’re an island. People love to visit an island – the Isle of Wight, the Isle of Purbeck – and they know that this means many towns, all within reach, with coastline and cliffs and beaches around them.

It’s worth staying here for a weekend because everything is so close – historic towns, culture, coastal walks, wildlife, good food, watersports, heritage buildings, contemporary art.

And a strapline? That’s simple – we’re living ‘Where Britain began’.

Low country (Part II)

It’s amazing how much of a city you can see in a single day, if you put in the legwork and the city has a decent public transport network. Amsterdam does, and in Maurice Specht I had the perfect city guide.

Cycle store
Cycle store

The intercity train from Rotterdam where I’d stayed the night beforewas a good start – double decked with seats more spacious and comfortable than anything in the UK. And plenty of spaces for bikes, too. Every station has huge cycle racks, housing hundreds of bikes; so big in fact that a regular complaint is that the edge of the cycle parking is still five minutes walk from the station.

In Amsterdam itself, the bike is king. Beautiful, rusty and battered sit-up bikes are ridden down cycle paths as wide as the UK’s roads and it means the city’s traffic has a human face.

Signs
Signs

We started with the short ferry ride from Central Station to the Noord district, home to Tolhuistuin and a growing creative community. While we couldn’t get inside Tolhuistuin– a jumble of old municipal architecture reconfigured for creative use, with open spaces full of ad-hoc structures used for events – we were given a much more warm welcome at T-shirt print studios Tees Me. We were literally passing and were dragged in off the street and offered coffee in the offices of what is essentially a web-based business. There has been a concerted effort to give these businesses space in the Noord, and mixed in amongst neat residential housing are small studios and galleries mainly selling online. There are odd corners of craziness too; one street of tiny, brightly-coloured wooden houses stood out as worth exploring.

Concrete jungle
Concrete jungle

The creativity of Noord is a huge contrast to our next stop, Bijlmermeer. This area of the city was planned post-war; it’s all big city blocks and a maze of spaces that on a plan might have seem structured but in real life are insane. Motor traffic is raised on roads at first floor level, with pedestrians, scooters and pushbikes at ground level. There was a street market selling the same jumbled stuff as any UK street market, with foodstalls and street barbeques billowing smoke across the maze of precincts. This wasn’t the future people planned. It’s a confused jumble, an illegible space that’s the the wrong scale for people to live. It reminded me of nothing as much as the dystopian refugee camp in the final scenes of Children of Men. We never even found the place and the person we were looking for.

Block
Block

The beautiful ‘Plan West’ estates from the 1930s might well have been what the Bijilmermeer architects were inspired by. But here, the vast city blocks felt very comfortable. Each unit of housing and flats took up a whole city block, and was finished with small details like art nouveau tiles and elegant house numbers. Blocks look subtly different, and there are details like clocktowers, balconies and the like that give the buildings an organic feel. The blocks have wide streets between them and neat, well-designed squares spread around them. The squares have good public space, and are used for events throughout the year. Shopping streets are cared for, with bike lanes and tram tracks meaning cars are the transport of last resort.

Paving slab
Paving slab

However, last year a jeweller was shot on the main shopping street here, Jan Eef, and the fear of crime and the sight of empty shops led local residents to start the ‘Ik geef om de Jan Eef‘ campaign.

It’s a simple, elegant and well designed campaign, bringing local residents, community groups and shopkeepers together to show they care for their local street. There’s a neat branding, applied to paving slabs along the street, and a number of the empty spaces are being used for pop-up shops under the same banner. It’s made people aware, in a very simple way, that their local street is worth having; a lesson that many UK high streets learnt the hard way.

Equally inspiring was the project which housed the meeting I was attending. A converted shop just round the corner from Jan Eef house Groen Gras, an events company which employs young people as stage managers, technicians and stewards when it delivers events for the city council. It has given hundreds of young people worthwhile and well paid employment and staged events attended by tens of thousands of people. While a lot of projects aimed at getting young people back to work have good intentions but no way to deliver, Groen Gras is really changing lives.

And that seems to be the spirit of Amsterdam; the spirit of can-do optimism that our own prime minister David Cameron wants to see more of in the UK. Who’d have thought that Amsterdam, with its obvious reputation for cannabis and prostitution, might just be the best Big Society inspiration we can find?

The Maybridge Estate

Worthing, through the 1920s-1930s, had been rebuilt from a small, rather sleepy seaside town into an edgy, modern town. Today, in the early years of the 21st century, the town’s most iconic buildings are still from that period; the Art Deco frontage of the Connaught, the massive streamlined building on Stoke Abbot Road and the stylish civic Assembly Hall opposite, the interior flourishes of the monumental Town Hall, the Moderne pier cutting it’s way to sea and the landmark buildings along the seafront, from the Rowing Club at Splash Point to the stylish captain’s house at Marine Gardens.

In 1946, everything changed. The Maybridge Estate, built to the west of the town, provided nearly 500 homes for returning servicemen and for the workers at the Inland revenue, being moved out of London into an ex-service hospital nearby. Planned by Charles Cowles-Voysey (something of a social visionary, he also designed Kingsley Hall in London with monastic cells for charity volunteers to live in) the estate has the best buildings in Worthing but has never had the recognition it deserves. It did early on, with buildings being copied for the Olympic Exhibition in 1948 and visited by the royal family, but Worthing has never understood the architectural gem it has.

Of course, this was the fate of most of the post-war council estates. Immediately after the war there was an optimism, but that soon sunk back into traditional views of class. Even when I grew up in the 1970s-1980s in Maybridge, the estate had a tough reputation in a firmly middle class town. Undeserved; we had good solid houses with Crittal windows and outdoor coal-sheds, decent sized gardens and green hedges, playing fields and open space aplenty (although the short-sighted council have slowly filled these in and fenced them off). Stoutly working class neighbours kept us children in check, and swept pavements and polished their doorsteps. I grew up in a house with a black and white telly, a coal fire and an immersion heater for hot water. I never felt badly done by – I had space and streets and friends, a battered Boy’s Club behind my house, and could ride my secondhand bike to the edge of the estate and still find a cornfield and a stream full of leaches and sticklebacks. My wife, the same age as me, lived in well heeled Goring, with MTV, foreign holidays and an early computer. I prefer my childhood.

And that’s because Maybridge was well planned. Cowles-Voysey anticipated a mix of residents living alongside each other, building everything from flats to small bungalows for older residents and lacing them together with green spaces and grass verges. Most of the estate is made up of red brick semi-detacheds, built by prisoners-of-war working for 46.5 hours a week. The first people moved in in 1947; Mr & Mrs Stillwell and their three children were welcomed by the Mayor of Worthing, old man Bentall.

The most long-term residents we knew, two generations living side by side, a dustman and a dinnerlady with an old, old Sussex name, only left when they won the Lottery. My dad still lives there. In many ways, I still do too.

Carlisle’s edges

“Carlisle’s all about edges, borders, the delineation of one thing and another.

It’s on the edge of England, or maybe the edge of Scotland. It’s a border town, a frontier place, a fringe; the edge of every empire that the last two thousand years has seen. It’s very much the end, the full stop.

It’s the thing between sentences, full of squares and courtyards, the space between places. It’s transient, shifting, always in a state of flux yet ancient, solid. Rooted in Roman history and a local deity, but alive with even more ancient religions. Standing stones, early Christian Celtic crosses in the cathedral, Green Men on the walls of shops in the market square.

The buildings are heavy, made from a local stone that itself changes from one thing to another, sandstone sedimentary layers blending from deep, faded-blood red to a soft yellow, often in one carved piece. Stone from a Roman quarry eight miles away.

The stone is so eccentric it makes the cathedral look like a patchwork. A feeling that’s only enhanced by the slipped lines of decorations, the wonky and skewiff Norman arches, the might of pillars whose feet don’t quite match each other’s ground levels. Maybe the clay, when they built one bay, was wet, (don’t forget, ever, that Carlisle floods), but for whatever reason, stone pillars sank. So even the cathedral is in a state of movement, neither one thing or another. Where there should be something static, unchanging; there’s something that wiggles like a fish.

There are solid stone city walls and metal barricades on Botchergate. Heavy gates across empty alleyways and railings around war memorials. Clear, strong definitions. Black and white. With so much that is transient, temporary, timely, the city tries to draw strong lines.

Of course, a firm line always makes you see what’s either side of it. So the city’s attempts at definition only make the change, confusion and incoherence more apparent.

Carlisle’s about shift and uncertainty, the edge of places, the impermanence of stone.”

Written for an exhibition as part of the Empty Shops Network tour in Carlisle

Carlisle, city of two halves

The third stop on the Empty Shops Network tour (the second, Shoreham, was so manic it goes unblogged) is Carlisle.

It’s a bewildering, beautiful and bewitching city. I’m staying in a moderately grotty guesthouse a few minutes outside the city centre. The straight route here is down Botchergate (‘bid the dishonest man mend himself; if he mend, he is no longer dishonest; if he cannot, let the botcher mend him’).

Botchergate is the main road into the town, but it’s shabby and semi-derelict at the bottom end, and at the top end is a string of pubs and rough alehouses. The drunkenness on a Friday and Saturday night is so bad that they actually close the road to traffic, to stop people falling under passing cars. Locals are obsessed with how bad the street is, and it’s certainly in need of some love and attention, especially as it’s the gateway to the city.

The other side of the city is where I spent today, starting in the gentle, intimate cathedral. It’s a magnificently shambolic building; some of the arches are wonky, and in one place a pillar sunk during building and the line of detail above is interrupted. The local stone changes colour from a white to a deep red, sometimes in one block, giving the building an even more haphazard feel, like patchwork made from favourite scraps. The ceiling holds the whole together; a dramatic blue with gold stars, best viewed by laying on your back on the stone floor and relaxing for five minutes. Which amuses local schoolchildren no end.

Tullie House Museum is equally eccentric, with Stanley Spencer paintings hung in stairwells and corridors where it’s almost impossible to see them and appreciate their incredible beauty. There’s a Peter Blake tucked away in a stairwell amongst some far less impressive portraits, as if they didn’t quite know where to hang it. And the Roman galleries, with a mock up of Hadrian’s Wall, butt up against a gallery about railway history which includes replica First and Third Class carriages with a view across to the castle.

The Cathedral and Tullie House are in a beautiful quarter, all rambling cobbled streets and corners with arches and turrets like a Harry Potter film set. It’s also home to the perfect Foxes cafe lounge, a quirky and eccentric eaterie with great staff, art on the walls, and comfy seats. The ideal way to end a day exploring.

It’s been difficult to get to grips with Carlisle this week, with the clash between rough drinking and ancient history and contemporary art making it hard to understand. But it’s a great city once you explore and just accept the accidental collisions, chance encounters and culture clashes.