Worthing library was bright with balloons when I arrived for the final Reading the South creative writing workshop. It was the library’s 40th birthday, and there’d been celebrations throughout the day as staff and library users shared cake and memories. I would have been almost five years old when the building first opened, and I can well remember my excitement when I discovered the red bean bags dotted around the children’s section. A book and a bean bag – bliss!
Forty years on, I felt a different sense of anticipation as I walked into the library foyer. I was leading an extra workshop which had been organised in response to the great demand for Reading the South creative writing sessions. I wondered what kind of group this would be? How would they respond to the extracts and exercises I’d prepared? Age-wise we turned out to be a mixed bunch, from young students to retirees. Many were from Worthing, others had relocated to Sussex quite recently. Previous sessions had included writers at different levels (including some with MAs and published work on their CVs), however this group all described themselves as complete beginners. Is it wrong that the phrase ‘fresh meat’ flashed into my mind? Perhaps ‘blank slates’ would be more appropriate…
During this session, we focused on first person narrative as a way of developing character, looking at extracts from John Fowles (The Collector), Iris Murdoch (The Sea, The Sea) and Nathan Filer (The Shock of the Fall). I was impressed once again by the imaginative and original responses to the writing exercises, with some memorable Sussex characters and settings which participants will soon be sharing on this website. There was a lot of laughter during this session, as well as interesting discussion around the subject of character, for example how characters can – and arguably should – drive plot, rather than vice versa.
I might not have been clutching a balloon as I left the library that night, but my mood was definitely celebratory. Reading the South has been such an enjoyable and inspirational experience for me and, I hope, the many readers and writers who’ve attended the various workshops, reading groups and events. I’d like to thank Jackie, Lyndsey and Julie for organising the Worthing sessions – and special thanks also to my workshop groups for sharing their enthusiasm and their creativity.
My pen doesn’t write, it’s been acting like that small brat on the number 11 bus last night. It’s been dashing backwards and forwards, won’t stop until we hit a curb, then it backs up, rubs up the blond on the back seat the wrong way. On paper, it keeps turning over the page to start afresh and I’ve told it before, there’s no point in jumping ahead and getting off, the next one is not due along for another half hour or so. It clings to the pole, with its clammy hands, starts pressing the red bell. The driver and me are getting all hot and bothered. The driver stops, starts swearing, won’t move until we get off.
Now it looks as though we are heading for Eastbourne Library. The corner is dark but the lights are on. It goes ahead, opens the door for me (how can that be? why is it now so well behaved?) It goes up the stairs to the conference room, which has a notice on the door ‘Do not disturb’. It opens the door, I follow it in, feeling very nervous. It points to an empty seat, I sit down, it comes over, takes my hand and smiles….
In my reading group sessions at Worthing Library we explored the relationship between place, culture, role and identity. Throughout, I felt as if the gist of the matter always floated just beyond my understanding. Now, at the end of my involvement with Reading The South, I feel like things might finally be starting to crystallise.
For the last session I brought a new book to read from to contrast with my own: award-winning Albanian author Elvira Dones’ remarkable novel, Sworn Virgin.
Hana Doda, the protagonist of Dones’ book, occupies many selves during the story. She is a girl from a mountain village, then a university student, then a man. The decision to live as a man is a result of how bound Hana is to her native place and culture. It’s only when she finally tears herself away from the mountains and emigrates to America that she can re-emerge, become a woman again and reconnect with her authentic self. For Hana, her homeland, her roots, are both a refuge and a trap. In an earlier reading group session one of the participants had talked about how moving to a new place, rather than weakening our sense of self, can offer us instead the opportunity to reinvent ourselves. In Sworn Virgin, Hana’s departure from the place that has always defined her allows her to finally become herself.
For my own part, over the course of Reading the South I have started to feel differently about being in West Sussex, about being in Worthing. Since moving here I’ve often wondered at my sense of incongruity. It’s a feeling that’s been hard to define. I just don’t feel at home. I’ve often wondered if it’s just me or if it’s just about the difficulty of adapting London notions to a smaller town. Because it goes without saying that there is much less flux in a town like Worthing. In London new narratives arise as a matter of course. People arrive to study, to start work, to explore the big city, to catch their big break, to escape from their beginnings. There is a constant sense of potentiality. It does not feel so in Worthing. More usually this is where people move to when they want to slow down. Consequently it’s not unusual to come up against a certain kind of discomfort, even mistrust, around new ideas, a communal mind-set which can be creatively stifling. But I’ve gradually started to understand that there’s more to it than just that.
At the start of Reading The South I had assumed that place informs, to a greater or lesser degree, some fundamental part of our identity. What I hadn’t considered was whether the converse might also be true. In the last few weeks I’ve been following the news about the London Garden Bridge project. It’s baffling to read the list of suggested prohibitions for users of this proposed new urban space: no running, no cycling, no picnics, no large groups. It strikes me that a garden, on a bridge or otherwise, is a space that demands inhabitation. It requires human narratives to be embroidered into it to make it fully the thing that it is meant to be. A garden bridge should have not just picnics and runners but also espresso carts and ice-cream vendors and communal Tai Chi sessions and buskers and pre-schoolers chalking multicoloured pavement art. Because without these things such a place will lack meaning, cannot achieve full place-hood. And place-hood, like self-hood, surely must continue to evolve, otherwise all that remains for it is to ossify.
The result of all these various threads of thought is that I‘ve been wondering whether, like Hana Doda, it’s time to re-emerge rather than reinvent. I’ve worked here for years as a doctor, but my heart is a writer’s heart. And so, lately, I’ve finally stopped thinking of myself as transient in Worthing and started wondering how I might now weave my most authentic narrative into the communal one. With a friend, I’ve started programming a series of literary events to bring new voices to Worthing. We are setting up after-school book-clubs for able readers and planning a children’s mini lit-fest with the hope that we might play our part in inspiring the next generation of writers here. The effect of doing these things feels to me like an act of affirmation but also, at long last, of re-connection.
Half the age of the known World, this herd
this flock of green-fleeced sheep, sleep
heading forever East.
Bent to their toil, beneath skin of soil
a network of white-walked bones, homes
to ancient memories, a residue of lost time.
Heads in the sky, the sunlit height, sight
earth-worked lines of hidden landscape signs.
Clouds rush to greet the ground, bound
from broad back to broad back, gather round
fill the frowns of our valleyed, fort-crowned Downs.
In our Reading the South workshops we considered ‘place’ as a starting point for story, character and voice. We wrote about the journeys each of us had made to Eastbourne library – in the course of our lives and in the course of the day on which we gathered for our writing workshop. A handful of participants have moved South from other parts of the country and these geographical, cultural and temporal shifts offered rich material for creative work. We considered what it means to be ‘living on the edge’ of the country, and ‘living on the edge’ in other ways too.
Workshop attendees were generous with their stories and experiences and in their willingness to share their writing. One exercise, in which we wrote each others’ stories, reminded us of the respect that writing involves, and the listening skills it requires. The challenge was to do justice to another person’s experience and record it accurately as well as creatively. It was a challenge that workshop participants met with skill and grace. You can view some of the writing that emerged here.
An invigorating three afternoons at Hastings library, working through ideas of belonging and alienation; of seaside decadence and sleaze, and of what it means (to us, and to writers) to inhabit a suburban Sussex town or rural village.
As a provocative opener I read a paragraph by Viv Albertine – punk singer songwriter of The Slits; more recently found rebuilding her life in Hastings. Her memoir Clothes, Music, Boys was a surprise hit of 2014, and for me she puts her finger nicely on this town’s ability to hold all-comers in the palm of its slightly grubby hand.
‘This is a town that people come to when they want to get as far away from other people as possible. This is a town of renegades, musicians, writers, artists, drug takers, teenager mothers and pyromaniacs. It’s lawless, a frontier town, where anything goes and everything’s acceptable, even failure. I f***ing love Hastings.’
Vigorous head-nods all round. Except for one: ‘That’s just pandering to cliché!’ cried social worker Joe. We debated this point for some time, before turning to Brighton, and to Patrick Hamilton and his brilliant, beer-sodden novel Hangover Square (1941). How does a pleasure resort look in high season when viewed through the eyes of a schizophrenic? More on the sinister side of Brighton from Graham Greene (of course), moving to its paint-peeling suburbs and a windswept caravan park with Will Self and My Idea of Fun (1993).
It proved hard, in Hastings, to keep my reading groups on track. But this was part of the pleasure. Each extract prompted reminiscences and debate, from the ‘monkey man’ who used to stroll the seafront with his camera, to the pier’s current rebuild. New friendships were forged. Book titles jotted down. Faces recognized.
I come from Chelwood Gate, an East Sussex village in the Ashdown Forest. So I wanted to explore that particularly British phenomenon of net curtain-twitching rural communities. I asked what sprang to mind. Responses varied: ‘claustrophobia’, ‘support’, ‘loneliness’, ‘safety’… even ‘murder’. Sarah wanted to remind us of the mysterious ‘missing years’ of those who return in adulthood to where they grew up, as so many of us here do.
The class system cropped up again and again, so it was apt to kick off with H.G. Wells and his biting satire of life below stairs in a large country house, Tono Bungay, based upon his time spent at Uppark where his mother was a Victorian housekeeper. I explore Mrs Wells’ life in my book The Housekeeper’s Tale, and conclude that she was aggrieved by the fact that her mistress was born plain Fanny Bullock, dairy farmer’s daughter.
More servants followed: Virginia Woolf and her fraught relationship with cook Nellie Boxall, as explored so brilliantly by social historian Alison Light. Nellie put up with giant rats, floods and a kitchen the size of a closet at Monk’s House in Rodmell (where Virginia and Leonard used to take their bath, behind a curtain).
Ruth Rendell uses a fictitious Sussex village for her Inspector Wexford series: Kingsmarkham is based, some say, on Midhurst. We read from her last book, No Man’s Nightingale, published shortly before her death at 85 this year. And she is absolutely spot on: a modern day servant, a cleaner, is the first to discover the vicar strangled on the floor… the vicar being a single mother – naturally – and of mixed race.
In the last of my Reading the South Workshops at Bognor Regis Library, we tackled the subject of weather in the south. Our group discussions circled round gales, snow, floods and uproarious seas. Roads and houses blocked by fallen trees, the unexpected challenges thrown up by nature, led us to discussions of diversions and changes to our routine worlds. Wild weather prompted ideas about characters who were suddenly out of control, faced with something more elemental and strange than they were expecting. Simple decisions became more complex as fictional characters set out on icy roads or climbed over fallen trees or contemplated being cut off from where they aimed to be. Each invented character wanted to reach another person and was thrown back on her or his resources as they tried to battle on. Though the weather in the south is usually fairly mild, freak weather in our region had certainly made an impression on writers in the workshop, and showed how such events heighten the senses, as well as creating an atmosphere of danger and tension.
As this is my last blog, I’d like to say that I thoroughly enjoyed giving these workshops and was very impressed by the writing that the participants produced.
So over to them, I’m posting up one piece that came out of the workshops, Pagham Beach by Suzanne Houchin. Many thanks to them for sharing the work and to everyone who came to the workshops for being such lively and thoughtful participating writers.
My family moved to Worthing in the early 1970s when I was a toddler. From my bedroom window I had a view of the allotments opposite and the wide alley which ran along one side of the veg plots. As a young girl I would puzzle over the graffiti sprayed on the alley wall. Stiff Little Fingers. Sham 69. Fair to say punk passed me by.
We lived in St Andrew’s Road, a nice street of 1930s houses about a mile from the seafront. I’d like to claim that I was enchanted by the Sussex coastline from an early age, but in truth I have mixed memories of childhood trips to the beach. Clouds always seemed to gather, and the wind would whip up, and there were those weird little pink sand flies which would jump onto your goosepimply skin…
Outings to the countryside were better, and best of all was a trip to Bramber Castle. Here were hidden stone stairways and crumbling turrets, butterflies and blackberries – a landscape straight from the Famous Five stories I loved to read.
By the age of fourteen or fifteen Enid Blyton had become an embarrassing memory. I’d moved on to Shirley Conran via Stephen King and Virginia Andrews; X-rated novels we handed around and marvelled over at school. At home, furtively, I read poetry and books by George Orwell. My parents were never given the opportunity for further education, but fortunately for me they were both great readers. There were always books in the house, and we visited the library often.
We all thought Worthing was boring. ‘Costa del Geriatrica’ it was nicknamed. Still, the demographic provided the town’s teenagers with washing-up jobs in care homes. I had a part-time job at a nursing home in Tarring, and later I was promoted from washer-upper to cleaner. I liked this job and especially enjoyed cleaning the residents’ rooms, dusting their faded photographs and chatting to them about the sepia people in the pictures: Victorian matriarchs and young soldiers – fathers, brothers and husbands, many of whom had fought in the First or Second World Wars.
Our town was run-down and a little seedy – it lacked the vibe of nearby Brighton – but there were plenty of pubs and several nightclubs. By the age of sixteen we could get served in pretty much any pub, no ID required. When Morrissey released Everyday is Like Sunday the lyrics were a gift:
This is the coastal town
That they forgot to close down
Armageddon – come Armageddon!
Come, Armageddon, come!
…Perfect for sing-shouting while wheeling your mate home along Heene Road in a shopping trolley.
I hung out in the arcades and pubs but at heart I wasn’t much of a rebel. When my friends left school, I went on to sixth form college. My history teacher suggested I was bright enough for university, and my dad conceded that a degree wasn’t just a three-year-jolly-up after all. I applied to Cambridge, I got in and I couldn’t wait to leave Worthing behind.
Looking back I cannot believe how confident I was – what a brat! Of course I was punished for my hubris. During most of that first year at university I pined for my family and friends at home; for a gusty walk along the prom or a classic night at The Carioca, for gulls and seaweed and the shabby glamour of the Dome.
Acute homesickness passed but the pull of the south coast never disappeared. After a spell in London I moved back to West Sussex, half an hour’s drive from Worthing. Family and friends still live in the town and I visit often. One day I hope to persuade my (northern) husband to move even closer to the coast.
How has my Sussex childhood influenced my writing? The first short story I wrote was set in a nursing home, my debut novel Before the Fall explores family tragedy during the First World War, and my second book (almost finished) is set partly by the Sussex seaside. I’ve never thought of my writing as autobiographical but on reflection the connections are evident. No shopping trollies as yet, but there’s always book three…
In my workshops for Reading the South at Midhurst Library we thought about ‘sense of place’ – one of my favourite preoccupations – and the ways we are shaped by the landscapes we love. Drawing on our experiences of living and working in the south we talked, wrote, exercised our imaginations and discovered ‘the astonishments on our doorsteps’ (Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways). My sessions are for writers of all levels and for readers with a sense of adventure. Each workshop had a different focus and covered different aspects of the writing craft:
1: ‘Sussex by the Sea’ – flotsam & jetsam; memories, emotion & place.
One of my favourite writers, Tim Winton, describes the coast as ‘the precarious, wondrous edge of things’ – so this is where we started, working with the flotsam and jetsam of memory and the writers’ ‘wild mind’.
We talked about our connections to Sussex, the vivid detail of flashbulb memories and listed our current fascinations. In the second half we looked at ‘Stornoway Harbour’ by Catherine Smith which, like most of her poems, has bite, encouraging a lively discussion about the power of imagery to suggest atmosphere and mood and to add depth of meaning. This was followed by a writing exercise entitled ‘The Pier’, which focussed on the importance of selection of detail. The room went quiet and, at the end of the session, participants had produced in response a wonderful variety of edgy and colourful writing.
2: ‘Forests, Fields & Footpaths’ – magic, myths & legends
In this session we moved inland, turning to the beech woods, yew forests and chalk paths of Sussex for our writing inspiration. We also looked at point of view, and the way sense of place enriches character development.
3: ‘Fire & Stories’ – historical, local or personal?
In the final session the focus was on gathering material from the stories which surround us and how to find the right voice to tell our tales.
Photos courtesy of Natalie Miller