Imagine a piece of literary theatre that takes over a pier and a seaside town and converts it into a Gothic sea fantasy for one day.
The Pavilion Theatre on Cromer’s Edwardian pier is the perfect venue for a piece of literary theatre, but it can be intensely difficult to draw in crowds from North Norfolk with its ageing population, disparate audiences and, of course, erratic weather. I've been imagining a very different, collaborative approach.
The idea of Cromer Gothica is to create more than a seated literary festival, but a one-off piece of literary theatre, with multiple events, surreal ceremonies and literary experiences, music, dance and story booths, set pieces on stage, as well as readings held together with a Master of Ceremonies and his Black Shucks, dogs that help move the audience from one tale to another, from one space to another.
Immersive and cinematic, an auditorium filled with Victorian music hall sounds, projections and sound sculptures. All gathered together around poetry and stories informed by the ideas of sinister storms, hell hounds, the edges of the world, mad seas, sailors and wrecks and ghosts. Lost buildings, lost worlds. Crazy Victoriana. Giant dolls in crimplene skirts and perambulators filled with wolves. Stilt walking dogs. Incantations. Secret gatherings. Pirates and monsters.
The event could draw together companies from around Norfolk: Writers’ Centre Norwich, Norwich Arts Centre, Sheringham Little Theatre have all expressed support, and would be joined by publishers: Ambit, Salt, Unthank to name a few from the region, as well as a gothic bookshop run by Norwich independent bookseller, The Book Hive, held in the foyer of the pier.
The idea would be to draw a creative team from the theatre and other performing communities, and to agree a narrative architecture for the day’s events. A production team would prepare the show and draw upon the existing services in the region. I imagine the events taking their cues from the work of the Wild Workz Theatre Company, that was led by the late great Bill Mitchell — could we invite them to help coordinate the event?
I’m also envisaging that the event will draw upon Norwich’s theatre goers and literary enthusiasts, and may even take over the train station in Norwich to usher in people attending the day’s events and, once in North Norfolk, escorting them from Cromer station to the pier in a kind of Pied Piper carnival walk.
There may be events on the sea front and, as the day comes to an end, a beach party for the writers and participants to celebrate the literature of Norfolk.
There would be one ticket price for the day and people can pick and choose from a Devil’s Menu which events they wanted to attend.
That's what I'm imagining.
It was an open day at Mannington Hall today, the home of Robert Walpole, 10th Baron Walpole. It's a family home and alongside seventeenth- and eighteenth-century portraits, hung in the wood-panelled rooms, there are mantelpieces filled with recent family photos, too. Snaps. Wedding photos. Children smiling. It's a fourteenth-century house with substantial add-ons (you can't quite call them extensions). Outside one lounge of sagging sofas and a serious plaster ceiling, there were ranks of CDs: classical composers alphabetised, English church music and, the entire CD collection of This Sceptred Isle, the 90 part history of the British Empire from the BBC. It is a charming, intimate hall, lived in, slightly fusty — looking through some French windows you see the moat (it has one). What struck me was the sense of another England, a continuous, untouched, living stem of something planted in the 1400s. Perhaps the things central to the Tory core of small C conservatism: preservation, continuity, religious and royal bedrock. For the first time, I really could see it. See it in the gardens. In the children's clubs they run. The Observer’s Guides to Weather, Insects, Birds tucked away in the shelves. It was another England that occupied the one I was standing in. Something forever separate from me and millions like me, parallel, absolute and other.
Over the past fortnight, the poet and novelist Richard Lambert and I have been collaborating for European Poetry Night, an event run by Steven J Fowler and his Enemies Project on behalf of the International Literature Showcase that was held on May 4th 2017 at Dragon's Hall, Writers' Centre Norwich.
It was a terrific evening of readings and performances, each pair of writers bringing something unique to the occasion: fairy tale, rumbustious parody, experimental dialogue, children's stories — even the vague threat of being eaten.
So excited to have two new poems coming in Transom Journal. ‘Fat Days’ and ‘Nights Again’ will be published in issue 11. They're taken from a sequence I've been writing for around six months that were influenced by Parquet Courts and Bob Hicok and insomnia — you heard it here first, folks. Huge thanks for Kiki and Dan for taking the poems. I'll share link once the issue goes live.
Grey night seas turn black
making tired blood, making bone
from stars. Old crab light,
the smart shore, pours and claws free.
The chiffon surf is sightless.
I’m very pleased to announce that I have a new poem, ‘Lord of Misrule’, coming out in Cōnfingō 8 — a gorgeous journal of new fiction, poetry and art produced in my home town of Manchester. The poem is part of a new series of highly-tangential and associative poems I’ve been working on since October 2016.
The new issue of Cōnfingō should appear around October 2017. Meanwhile, thanks to Tim Shearer for taking the piece and I look forward to sharing it with you all.
In a delightful surprise, my friend and colleague, Nicholas Royle, has a new collection of short stories, Ornithology, being published by Cōnfingō on 2nd June, and you can glimpse his beautiful book on their website now.
Four days after my death and I am beginning to itch. Is this normal? I do not know. The stifling loneliness is not abating. I had always imagined an afterlife to be crowded with corpses, the chatty throng moving along some twilight pastureland, I had not expected to be completely alone. Perhaps everyone’s death is like this, after the bizarre and annoying company of the forelife, you come to this place to be alone forever.
So many stories and films point towards those left lingering in the shadowy hinterlands, somehow managing to interfere with loved ones and enemies. As far as I can tell, the buildings and landscapes are completely unchanged, but there are no humans, no animals at all. When I wake, I can almost imagine the creaking of trees, sallow dogs, shrieking birds, but there is nothing. No sound. I can hear my thoughts. I can imagine the sounds of the world, but each time I wake, I realise with increasing urgency that the sounds of the world are gone. There is no point in talking.
All the forgettable rage of the world. The burning trees, the clouded fields, the mud ridges that loped with bodies. Tarpaulins sinking in squalid rain before the torrent bit through hills and spilled the lifeless into a lake of beige waste.
When I step inside, Esther is sitting down with Finn. A small hard thing, to flee, to drive away from one life to the next.
Esther stacks their coats beside her, pushing them down with her palms.
‘Like that,’ she says, patting them down. ‘I expect it will rain, later.’
A cable of water from the pool gathered on the sill next to her pours onto a sleeve and Esther brushes it away, then brushes it off the blue vinyl seat beside her.
In here, everyone is no one. I imagine all the endless tubs of chips through the hard summers. There’s a film of scum and condensation on the window and, outside, I can see the Sierra cooling now, steaming on the thin grit of the forecourt. Bar the wreck in the corner, ours is the only car. The sun is low, it hangs above the beach precinct, behind oily clouds: a worn eye.
I turn and stare at the metal counter with its scribbled menus, then look up to the smeared stainless steel wall above the oil fryers. I think of those last few hours on the coast: the white roads spanned by power cables and bordered by marram grass, the clouds that lifted into endless tiers of rain, so much rain it seemed we would drown. The sea always out of sight, but that iodine smell coming through the car, between the sacks and baggage. Sometimes, I saw a thin high bird sweeping through the cloud-line.
Why did they do that? Block the views of the sea with dykes? Is it a sort of defence against something? Something pouring in to the marsh? I thought they were salt already.
Finn is emptying the salt from a shaker on to the melamine table and pushing it around with his toy, he’s breathing heavily again, but there is no need to worry. Esther stares at the walls, reading, squinting at the specials, ‘Hey, they have rock,’ she whispers to herself. She checks the faded health certificates and the sprawl of bleached, misaligned photographs. ‘They have eel here,’ she says. Besides us, there’s no one in the café.
I hear something on the other side of a folding leatherette partition and guess the owners know we have arrived. They will be coming out soon. At this time of year, perhaps very few travellers come here. Everyone has something to leave behind, something to burn, in a place like this. Perhaps people do not greet people out here. Not in the wintertime. The other shops in the compound look shut. We are miles from any town now. Driving down between half-built bungalows and yards of breeze blocks and sand piles, there’s a sense of collapse.
In the corner of the dining room, there’s an archway into next door’s leisure arcade. The lights are off. I can see a rust-coloured stain on the ceiling tiles, some are missing, showing a dark void where I imagine pipes and cables are fastened. I realise I am checking the change in my pocket and take my hand out and stare at it.
Next to the glass doorway, in a swirling Artex alcove, there is a giant turtle play car with an enormous grin. The plastic has paled and whitened and, next to it, there’s a blue paddling pool filled with yellow balls with the legs of some discarded animals poking through. A sign says ‘Play Area’. I look back at the wall clock.
Music comes on and Esther sits up sharply. It’s the Bay City Rollers. Who plays the Bay City Rollers anymore? I turn and look at Esther. She raises her eyes the way she does and I almost smile back. Finn flicks the salt away, slaps his toy down and looks up, his eyes lift slowly upward into his skull and he opens his mouth like some raw ape.
The man walks in. ‘The fryers are off,’ he says.
‘Is there anything hot?’ I ask.
‘Jean, can you come through here and get these fryers started?’ the man yells, he lowers his voice and wipes the hair out of his eyes, then rubs his hands on his thighs. ‘I can sort some nuggets or something. The fryers will take ten minutes, I reckon. Do you want fish?’
‘Do you have rock?’ Esther shouts over.
‘We don’t got rock or eel in yet. The boys’ll be bringing some later, though it’s getting late,’ says the man.
‘You ain’t got rock?’ repeats Esther. ‘You got a cod back there, maybe?’
‘I can do cod,’ says the man. ‘I got the fishcakes and the nuggets.’
As they talk, the women, Jean, comes through. She looks like an Elvis impersonator and I stare at the shoelace tie she is wearing and the parade of badges on her black frilled shirt. Like the man, she has dyed black hair and looks out at us, taking us in, one by one. ‘Do they want fish?’
‘I’m just asking them,’ says the man.
‘I’ll have the cod, I guess,’ I say. ‘Esther, do you want the cod?’
‘I want the rock,’ she says.
‘We don’t got the rock yet,’ repeats the man, staring at me. ‘I can do sausages, too.’
‘I want haddock,’ Finn says. ‘And chips. And tomato sauce’ He throws his arms on the table, lays down his head and stares sideways at the flayed toy.
‘Fryers will take ten,’ says the woman. ‘You from here?’ she asks. She’s knows we’re not but it’s the opening we all need. Finn’s mouth is opening and closing, but no sound comes out.
I’d like to kill the simple soil
and learn the sun, taste the air’s bitter rust,
brandish my mouth like a sabre
and worry about the compass with pins and art.
I’d like to eat among stars and stones
and heave my dirty stomach through
the winter teeth, and I want my enemies to wolf along
severally bad and I will grin with ruin like a god.
There ought to be hurtling quartermasters
and parades of juicy men whose backs we’ll pick along.
the late trains will veer West to all the Henrys and Georges,
for to live is to sink. Later, we can lean into the concierge
like a disease and read the tatty tariffs.
O the ague of silver lives. So take my arm,
we’ll seek the bottle of our room now
and paint the evening puce.
And I intend our memories to hoist their pants
over a cinematic street in Wolverhampton
where the poor admire the Crimplene of
Mrs Culthorpe as she seeks love over her prestigious pram.
And I want to eat haddock on toast
and burnt sausage and bananas, so that, principally,
The President of the League of Confectioners
will smell my breath as I lick the pristine years.
On Sunday, we can boil eggs too long and laugh
at each widow. Nothing can distil the bright glade.
Even the shadows are crawling with our infancy.
Everything will adhere to the many of us.
When you look at things this way, I guess everybody comes to the same point somehow. I mean, Ellie could have stayed and I could have left. That’s true isn’t it? You know when people say, Eventually, like that, they kind of mean they knew it was coming, don’t they? I didn’t know it was coming. I mean, I knew something was coming in the sense that things happen. Everything happens, I guess. Nothing happens for a reason though. I believe that. Truly. I mean, when we were on holiday in Barcelona I didn’t really know we were going to kiss the way we did in the old Olympic Park with that heavy concrete hanging in the air and those giant silos, so weird, and the Telfónica mast, reaching up like some space machine into that amber sky. It was so warm. Everything was emptying out and it was like 1936 or something wasn’t it, not when we were there, but when it was used, and we talked about the lost gift of the wars. No one was around. And I didn’t know that we would do the whole stop over thing in Zürich, either. Just like that, getting off the crazy train into the wet crowds smelling of damp wool and expensive cologne. She took those photos then. And then we ate that amazing cheese thing in some restaurant where neither of us could speak but she was so beautiful and I thought I could die because she was so beautiful. What do they call that food? You know, the one you put the potatoes in, spearing them and dipping them and scooping it all out. And we had lukewarm meats that tasted so rich with the wine. That was good. That was so good. I remember that the streets were cold and we hadn’t packed the right clothes at all, and the lights were glinting in the waters as we walked about with our feet frozen and our hair damp. We were so cold we went shopping and couldn’t afford anything. Anything at all. Not even the coffee. How do people get that rich? Even then, was she thinking she was going to leave? Maybe it was then. There was a lot of travelling that year. Or maybe it was the miscarriage. That takes its toll. I hope you never have to go through that. All I can remember is staring into this sink, a stainless steel sink, in a yellow corridor filled with the smell of babies, and such heat. Such intense, you know, womb-like heat. And that sink. Just that sink, the grey scratched steel. Its lack of any kind of lustre. I thought my whole life had emptied into that sink. I couldn’t even see my reflection in it. Just the black teeth of the plug hole and the suds emptying down, into a kind of, a kind of mouth. And that was the whole point of it. You know? The point of everything, really. Maybe it was then. Maybe that was it. A steel mouth kind of ending.