Your England – Exhibition

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

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

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

Supported by Arts Council England.

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Dover Castle. Headquarters, Flag Officer Dover.

 

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Dover Castle. Headquarters, Flag Officer Dover. 

‘Operate toward the coast forthwith’

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

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

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

A storm over Flanders fields,
the Luftwaffe
was grounded

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

they would have swallowed us alive

when their anger flared against us;

the flood would have engulfed us,

the torrent’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

For Peter Cheeseman, 1932-2010.

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

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

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

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

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

The first fifty places for Your England

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

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

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All of the poems are sorted into a rough taxonomy:

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

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

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

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

Bedfordshire:
Panacea Society, Bedford

Coventry:
Coventry Cathedral – Basil Spence
Shopfront Theatre, Coventry

Essex:
Tilbury Landing Stage

Isle of Wight:
Ryde Pier

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

Leeds:
Templeworks

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

Lancashire:
Rochdale Pioneers Shop
Preston Bus Station

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

Liverpool:
Mathew Street, Liverpool

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

Northampton:
78 Derngate, Northampton
Carpetbaggers Aviation Museum

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

Portsmouth & Southsea:
Fort Cumberland, Southsea

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

Somerset:
Glastonbury, Frost Fayre

Somme:
The Lochnagar Crater

Surrey:
Watts Chapel

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

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

Wiltshire:
Sanger’s journey

Wildcard – all the Canals

Partners:
Turner Contemporary
Shopfront Theatre, Coventry
Dreamland
Towner Gallery

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

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

 

Your England

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the poem that started the project:

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