Ancient Water

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

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

Not known, because not looked for

But heard, half-heard, in the stillness

Between two waves of the sea

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

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

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

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

The Story of K

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Sailing: Dan Thompson 05/04/2020

Your England – Exhibition

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

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

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

Supported by Arts Council England.

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Turner Translate – Is This What You Wanted?

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Your England performance in Roundabout

Press Release

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

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

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

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

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

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

Download Your England – Press Release (pdf)

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The life and death of William Gibson Clarke


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

John Laings, builders,
gave all their profits back.

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

Stoke, 2045

A chapter from It’s All About The Road

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


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

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

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

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



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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Shard ruck, a room like a shard ruck.

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

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

He poured the tea, English tea.

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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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.

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.


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.

PO7 PO8 PO9 PO10 PO11 PO12 PO13

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.


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.

Tom Swift

14294431549_4ca218dc3c_o (1)38 year old Essex boy Tom Swift is an awkward genius. The 6’2” eligible bachelor (taller, in his straw trilby) can’t stop working. His latest work is blurring the boundaries between painting, being a snotty punk, carrying out random acts of performance art, and writing poetry.

Based in the downtown side of British seaside town Margate, he’s been involved in making music, making paintings and breaking rules since he was a child.

His home life was hardly ordinary; Londoner Tom (born in 1969) is the son of legendary session drummer Hazelton Swift. As a teenager, dockyard worker Hazelton met calypsonian Lord Kitchener as he disembarked from the SS Empire Windrush when it docked at Tilbury and joined his band a week later. So Tom was surrounded by music and musicians, bohemians and beat poets from an early age.

Oddly though, it was only in his mid-30s that Tom took up music himself; he has taught himself to play guitar and drums, recorded three albums (as yet unreleased, while two well-known labels squabble over an advance), and plays with an arthouse jazz band.

But music stardom aside, it is, of course, for his painting that 191cm-tall Tom is known, after recent London exhibitions at Art 14 and A Fete Worse Than Death. Tom’s manic brushwork means he can produce a hundred paintings in a day. His energy has become as important as the finished work; at Art 14, Tom’s work sold out in the first hour, so he transformed his stand into an ad-hoc studio and he produced new paintings in the space, covering the walls and selling as he went. Three very well-known dealers (one of them, actually an art dealer) and a pop star left with his work on paper rolled up.

For A Fete Worse Than Death, Tom and artist Paul Hazelton got a gang together. Meeting in an ice cream parlour in Tom’s hometown of Ramsgate (out of the eyes of Margate’s art cognoscenti) the boys (and one girl) planned one perfect job, never to be repeated. De-In-Stall was a collaboration between Tom and Paul, pop music video director Simon Williams, artist Steve McPherson, colour poet Emrys Plant, musician Steve Graham, and seamstress Beth Anderson. They ended up being joined by the ice cream shop owner, a reclusive ex-millionaire called Caspar (who once owned Gillingham Town FC), who dispensed advice to visitors. De-In-Stall created a gambling den, self-help centre, music hall comedy show and contemporary gallery space in a market stall on London’s Rivington Street.

De-In-Stall from Paul Hazelton on Vimeo.

Having pledged to make one perfect album and split up, the De-In-Stall band of brothers (and one sister) will reunite with some special guests when the one-off event will be repeated as different line-ups of De-In-Stall come to the Herrick Gallery, No 18 Gallery and the Art Car Boot.

Unifying all his projects, by working with brushes, typewriters and pieces of found timber, Tom (who wears stacked heels to increase his height) creates work that’s distinctively his. Rambling sequences of hybrid drawing-painting-poems which reference architecture, shopfronts and the grid layouts of magazine pages show that Tom is in love with the modern world, modern girls and modern rock & roll. Tom, who models his look on 80s icon Roland Rat, is never seen without his baseball cap on and always wears Converse All-Stars.

Don’t look for him at home; he’ll be out in the moonlight, looking for factories, neon lights and auto-signs. While he’s out, steal his art; it’s a good investment, and you’ll make a profit in five years.

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.


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.


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.