Taking It Back

Dear David Amess MP,

I’m really glad you retracted that moronic statement you allegedly didn’t write. The one that said that “The recent revelations that countless starlets have apparently been assaulted by movie mogul Harvey Weinstein are dubious to say the least”, that “this sudden flurry of alleged inappropriate advances beggars belief.” and then, a faeces grenade from left-field, “Just as with claims against Jimmy Savile here in the UK, why did no one say anything until now?”

Wow. A sideswoop Savile defence. That’s classy, Dave.

I’m glad though that you had the guts to blame a member of your staff because you really shouldn’t be expected to take the flack for the idiocy of someone you’ve wilfully employed to be your mouthpiece when you’re busy on other matters, like making sure Southend is shown off at its best in its year of being self-appointed Alternative City of Culture. (Only two months to go til the as yet undisclosed special end of year celebrations! I hope it’s something on the end of the pier. As you well know Dave it ain’t even a thing unless it’s on the pier.)

I’m extra glad you’re putting “instructions in place to prevent this happening again”. Do keep us posted as to what happens to this churl in your employ. After all, as much as I’m loathe to accept you are there by elected means, whoever is doing your job for you is not. If they’re messing up and they weren’t even elected, get them out Dave. Liability. You don’t need any more bad press to make you look like a numptie.

The fact it was a press release presumably means you/they thought your/their two-penneth on the Weinstein matter was write-and-share-worthy.
A question for you Dave. Who asked you? No, really – who did ask you? When was it an obligatory part of your day, paid by us, to comment on the goings on in Hollywood, or to put aside your sandwich to make sure gobby women everywhere got a sharp elbow in the ribs? That’s not in your remit is it? A knee-jerk reaction to a man you don’t know getting slammed for his consistently deplorable behaviour around women? Did you/your employee think it was high time that some of these women who got all uppity over being objectified and intimidated be put in their place, by you? What is their place, Dave? On their knees, not making a fuss?

Re the laughable “why did no one say anything until now?” – you do know that it is almost never the instinct of a raped or abused woman to march straight to the police to report it, or to even mention it to family and friends, don’t you? You do realise that by the time most women can stand and breathe and talk after an attack the DNA has passed from their bodies? You do know that because of the way Everything Works most women have absolutely no faith that their claims would be taken seriously and are reluctant to expose themselves to even greater vulnerability and pain? Furthermore, you do realise that cretinous comments like yours make you complicit in the further silencing of victims?

Let’s just suppose for the sake of optimism that you really didn’t make this statement you allegedly didn’t make. Let’s assume the person who issues your statements feels like they know you well enough to comment in lieu, that they really think you’d want to stick your head above the parapet to express sympathy for a rich man who is attracting overdue universal wrath, to attempt to give the unfortunate reputation of poor Jimmy Savile, loyal friend of the Tories, a bit of a polish, and to blanket victim shame? Because that’s worrying Dave. Because they’ve either got you wrong and should be immediately dismissed, or they’ve got you right and you’re the one who should be immediately dismissed. Which is it?

Sincerely,
Most Women

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Salvo

When I was a kid I used to collect clowns. It was one of those fascinations that was adopted from someone else. My cousin Emma, who I worshipped – a year and two days older than me, my hero and role model – had a big pierrot doll. Satin suit and a big painted on tear. Why on earth was this clown, this beautiful colourful man, as otherworldly as a fairy or an angel, so sad? Of course I didn’t know the history of clowns, or that Pierrot was a character from Commedia Dell’Arte, theatrical stock characters that encapsulated the trials and tribulations and aching messy comedy of being human. I just saw someone that lived for giving pleasure, who was tortured by a sadness he would not speak of. It seemed so unjust to my child’s mind.

Perhaps our regard for clowns is one of the earliest empathies we form as children – these strange creatures in make-up and costume – showmen for the world who want nothing but to raise a smile, while emitting to some degree, in many cases, their own deep inner sadness. Perhaps we pick up on some of the innate tendrils of loneliness, and though we have not experienced those things yet, somehow bookmark them as some of Life’s Big Things. Even the jolliest of clowns still carry around that potential for sadness. We know, at some point, alone, they take off their make-up, and are just the human underneath.

From that Pierrot onwards, I began collecting clowns. Porcelain ones from gift shops, dolls, stickers, whatever I could get my magpie hands on. I even had one that roller-skated along. I remember the smell of its plastic face, the brittleness of its bright curly hair, and the whirring of its mechanics as it stiffly crawled the floor.

Then I saw IT. A sucker for Stephen King books and all the horror films I could get sneak into sleepovers, I thrilled to be scared. But that film cured me of my hobby. The child-murdering paranormal freak who dwelled in drains was absolutely terrifying; a work of iconic genius from actor Tim Curry. So I no longer collected clowns. Perhaps I just grew out of them, or perhaps it’s because nothing sticks in your head quite like a homicidal children’s entertainer with fangs and drippy eyes, but from then on clowns were never the same.

This weekend I stumbled on a beautifully shot film about a clown and it reminded me of everything I used to feel about them as a kid. Most of us Southenders will know of Salvo – one of the regular characters about town, often seen in the high street, fashioning balloon shapes for passing children.

The film is by a Film student called Natalie Hazelden from Thundersley. She has known of Salvo for years and decided she wanted to make a film about him. The film she created lasts 7 minutes, had me crying for ten, watery eyed for another hour, and thoughtful for the rest of the day and beyond, and here I am now writing my column about it. What an art to capture someone’s life in seven minutes. It’s not my place to pass on the story. But it reminded me of the hidden pain of a clown. How too easily we choose not to see people while we’re in the bustle of our own lives, how seldom we consider the man behind the make-up.

It’s a valuable beautiful film. I hope you watch it. Next time I see Salvo I am going to go up to him and say hullo. I can’t believe I never have.

WATCH ‘SALVO’ – BY NATALIE HAZELDEN

 

Keep the Momentum

So we’re still in a bit of a pickle, perhaps even more of a pickle than we feared for a bit, but hopefully it won’t be a pickle for long.

That seems to be the boiled down upshot of the election. The Tories tried to smear Corbyn with their hysterical “He’s mates with the IRA! Lock him up, he’ll bomb your Nan!” schtick mere days before the election and now, denied the terrifying landslide that was being hinted at and the majority they were hoping for, they are desperately dragging the DUP into bed for a lacklustre gang bang, where everyone gets stuck with the wet patch.

I can’t lie. I had to google them. The DUP. They sound like a lovely bunch don’t they. I’ve been keeping abreast of the articles pinging around about them and what it means for them to be a part of our government in however small a way. Insidious parliamentary polyfilla. The hypocrisy involved in their baffling hoik to co-power is galling, disgusting, and a bit hilarious (if you’re feeling more chipper). To have had past diplomatic dealings with the IRA is tantamount to witchcraft when it comes to a peace-loving Labour leader driven by working for the many not the few (how despotic of him), but when days later you need to be propped up by anti-abortion anti-same sex marriage parties with a shady past, it’s fine. Fine. Cue hysterical laughter and grab your Tena pads. It looks like we’re set for a period of needing our undies to be well-lined to deal with our array of reactions concerning our country and what the blazes is going to happen to it.

I would not normally write a political column. It’s not my place to do it here in a paper that should be unbiased and I doubt I could do it well, but in the confusion that abounds post election, were it not a big enough head-scratcher before, I feel I can’t write a column about cats or shoes. Not today.

I have differing views about the Frankenstein’s monsterfreakchild of the Tory-DUP bunk-up. Part of me thinks that the Conservatives allying with the DUP is tantamount to sanctioning their blinkered mediaeval creationist cruel and woeful approach to humans in a modern liberal world. To saying it’s ok. To saying they agree. And that it must be rallied against, now, because Fuck That Shit. And part of me thinks “let the cunts fucking hang themselves’. Shining a light on laughable, insidious, out-dated, self-serving cretins can only serve to start showing up their wrinkles and their pock-marks. Their bigotry, ineptitude, and lies. And there is no brighter light than power. We saw the power-lit panic-twitch behind the cold death stare of Theresa May in the days preceding the election and we all pictured the skids when she got home to take her cacky keks off.  Anyway. Perhaps – perhaps – the Tories aren’t likely to get away with half as much hell as before. Give the DUP their little taster of pseudo power for a bit. See what they do with it. And let’s see how far down they drag the Tories PR rating before we vote again. Being ultra optimistic, the election result might bear far more fruit for Labour supporters than an immediate win would have yielded. Thinking of the long game, if shit really hits the fan and the Tories, with the DUP acting as their sagging squirty-boil covered testicles, start bleeding colour until they are nothing more than Punch sketches of themselves, caricatures begging to be scrubbed out, then maybe the next General Election will really get interesting and Labour will get to instigate real lasting change. For the many, not the few.

I don’t know. But I know I don’t feel hopeless.

It’s massively inspiring that masses of people were rallied to vote when they ordinarily might not. It’s eye-wateringly brilliant that young people were whipped up enough by bold campaigns to think and to turn up and mark their cross. In a flawed first-past-the-post system, the voice of young people willing to be engaged had something of the sound of a cavalry charge to it. Labour supporters might have a temporary situation that does not reflect their hopes as they voted, but there is a feeling of higher engagement in the air, and the very real feeling that it might eventually bring change in its wake.

So, while there is activism to be kept up, while there are demos and dithering and about-turns from lots of quarters, (and of course goatskin parchment drying *eye roll*), while we still owe ourselves and others a responsibility of staying informed, staying conscious, of not just letting the flags flop while we get on with real life, we also have to be patient.

I am writing this in a town represented by two constantly re-elected Tories. Southend has remained a Tory stronghold, with votes for Conservatives going up a tad overall, but it’s certainly less safe a seat than before, with votes for Labour in Rochford and Southend East (following an impressive campaign from Ashley Dalton) going up significantly, presumably cleaning up the votes that have fallen away from UKIP (hoo-ruddy-ray) and Lib Dems. I’m greatly intrigued to see the next vote after – sorry to be callous – more old people have died and more young people have reached voting age and have had their sense and their social conscience appealed to.

I’m sure this leftie column will mostly be met with ire by the readership of the paper it is printed in. But it’s not a knock – it’s a camaraderie column, if you will. Labour supporters might not be feeling as savaged or as scared as we were before the election, but we are feeling a similar uncertainty as millions of others, both left and right leaning, who are waiting to see what happens next. And that’s why we have to stay focused, stay on it, and stay together. Don’t make Labour have to start from scratch again in their next campaign. Keep the momentum.

jeremy-corbyn

Love is Loud

A friend told me last week that he suspected his Nan had lived for thirty years in a gay relationship but had never spoken of her love for her partner. She raised a family living with the woman she loved, but no one was ever quite sure of their true relationship. It just wasn’t the done thing back then. Hearing that after she lost her life partner she regularly said she “missed her friend’ broke my heart, not only because I know missing people is an emptiness that is never quelled, but because not being able to speak about the love you feel is a prison. Love is an emotion you want to share; when you feel it your heart wants to shout, and so often we reduce it to a whisper or even silence. Real love is a diamond you want to hold up after years of grasping around in rocks. It is why people post pictures of their dogs or babies or new engagement rings. Love never wants to stay quiet. Love is loud.

The other evening I went to an event at Focal Point Gallery hosted by Southend artist Scottee that for me crystallised the importance of love being free and open and unashamed. Entitled “Is Southend homophobic?”, it was a platform for people to come and express their views in a queer safe-place.

The empty floor of the gallery space had been given over to a long table lined by chairs. A further row of chairs circled the table; people were to sit on the outside row and step in to the table when they wanted to contribute. It could so easily have been an intimidating set-up for those not used to speaking to many strangers at once, but under the masterful friendliness of Scottee, it took almost no time at all until the table was filled and people were talking openly. 

I stood by the wall sandwiched between the rainbow art of current exhibition Volker Eichelmann and listened. I didn’t want to take up a chair that might have been needed by someone else. For a few brief moments I was nervous that my head-cocked curiosity on the periphery was a patronising outsider’s stance. For what was I bringing to the table? I had not suffered coming out of a closet in a town that, like most, fears alternative ways of living and loving. I had not had to feel scared to fall in love with someone from my own sex or walk down a street holding the hand of the person I loved, or experienced derision, verbal hatred or violence for the choice my heart had made; which, where love is concerned, is really no choice at all.

While the adults spoke freely, a young boy of about maybe 12 got to his feet and joined the table. All eyes fell on him as we waited for him to speak. And then, when it was his turn, he did. He spoke of having come out at school and how his friends supported his decision. He spoke as though he felt part of something, a wider community he has not had the freedom to mingle in yet being still in possession of a parent-dictated bedtime. He spoke with a nascent wisdom of how many had struggled before him, and he was respectful to those who had helped make it acceptable for him to recognise who he is, so young; for him to be openly and articulately gay in his still-small world. I had to wipe my face dry about a hundred times in ten minutes, though I had no right to the tears. I did not want to be one of those liberal observers pleased at the chance to get their cheeks wet, but I just felt so overwhelmed because there was a young man sat at a table of adults, utterly equal and at home, seeming proof that times had changed and were still changing – and that he would live his life being brave; a bravery that had been fought for and hard won by his peers at the table. Bravery is a word we seem to over-use when people have the confidence to simply be themselves, to articulate how they feel without fear of being judged. If this boy felt fear he did not show it, and there, with the whole of the rainbow around him – lesbian, gay, bi, trans, camp, queer, straight, all the different shades in between – it was bright and it was beautiful. The evening concluded with dozens of people sharing chips from the chippy brought in big squishy white bags by the gallery staff, there amongst the art, discussing how everyone could keep in touch and keep talking. I left, heart brimming as trans queer punk group T-Bitch crackled in full-force in the foyer usually accustomed to a quieter crowd. 

How many of us present our true selves to the world outside our comfort zone? It takes bravery to live our lives as we wish; it takes long enough to discover ourselves, our sense of self a journey started at birth and seldom ever completed – and then it takes a certain defiance once we’ve realised who we are to express it outwardly. Sometimes it takes people decades of private wrangling; some people never get there. We are naturally predisposed to staying in some sort of closet of society’s or our own making, and flinging open the closet doors feels like a loudness few people embrace. To live openly is a gift; at first to ourselves, and then to the world, which is always richer when the closet doors are smashed. Our selves should be like the best galleries – not locked away portraits pointing inwards for a lifelong private view, but open exhibitions of the morphing vibrant fearless expression of the infinite possibilities in being human. Who are we, really? Let us be that.

Follow #queersos to join the community

Oh, Southend…

Good morning Southend,

Did you sleep well? I did. I woke up when you elbowed me in the head but it didn’t hurt. It’s fine. No, seriously, it’s fine.

So, Happy Valentine’s Day, my love. Let’s just lie here for a bit before the days gets all bonkers. Hang on, you’ve got a bit of sleep crud in your eye. Wait. Got it.

How long have we been together now? 31, 32 years? YOU GET LESS THAN THAT FOR MURDER. Seriously. You really do get less. Ah dear. We’ve had some right old times, haven’t we sausage? Do you remember when I got bored of everyone at the casino and went swimming in the sea fully clothed instead and lost my shoes? And you just rained on me the whole way home but it’s alright because I was drenched anyway. Never did find those shoes.

I just don’t think I’d feel at home anywhere else. I’m not saying there aren’t other places that would make me happy, I don’t believe in soul mates or that there’s just one town for everyone, we live in a big beautiful world, and I certainly wouldn’t kick Paris or New York out of bed, and, ok, if that filly Florence came calling I’d have to pinch myself hard to keep myself on the straight and narrow, but for now, and for a long time, you have been the one I choose to wake up with. I have chosen to stay with you. That must mean something, right? I know there was that time I got a bit mad at you and was going to move to Stoke Newington but I’m glad I didn’t. Likewise, Clapham. Lucky escape. I’ve known people who moved to Clapham and I’m not sure I feel the same way about them now.

I love your ways is what I’m saying, Southend. There’s no one I’d rather snuggle up to at night. You big bear. I even love your morning breath. Like wet sand blowing up from the beach. I don’t even mind you on bin day when you’re not at your best. I don’t mind all that. I love you for all that you are. Not just the sunsets and the seafood and the estuary skies and your ‘Let’s pretend we’re in Miami’ palm trees that I suspect might actually be dead. I love your gulls squawking and your sea mists and your changing light, but I also love your peeling walls and spilled chips and your fights. You’ve got spunk, Southend. I like it.

I love all your familiar places. I’ve nestled into your nooks, your pubs and bookshops, shoved my head in the crook of your arm for comfort. I’ve lain on your beaches and rolled in your sand and swum in your waters and walked your streets. I’ve got beautiful friends scattered along you. Your skin is like a constantly changing tattoo. I like to scooch up to you and look at the new pictures, see how you’ve changed, see how you’re reflecting us and our lives. I love finding secret parts of you I’ve never seen. Just when I think you’re all about change, seeking sleekness and self-improvement, I look up and see a faded Lending Library sign from the last century fading into old bricks but holding fast. Your wrinkles are endearing. I wouldn’t wish you smooth. You’re a complicated creature Southend but I love you for it. You’re grand and humble and peculiar and a bit oversensitive and grumpy but you always remember your sense of humour just in the nick of time.

Oh Southend. You’ve still got a bit of crud in your eye but I love you.

Looks like it might be a nice day. Spring is coming. You look really pretty in the spring.

 

 

Metal are launching Love Letter to my Hometown – a chance to tell Southend what you love about her in her 125th year. The work will be displayed at Village Green Festival on 8th July. If you’d like to contribute, words or art, pick up a postcard from Chalkwell Hall or email chalkwell@metalculture.com 

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Dear Sir David Amess MP…

Dear Sir David Amess MP,

Hullo! Nippy isn’t it? I’m typing this just round the corner to your office. I bet if I were to print this out, fold it into a paper aeroplane and lob it over it’d reach you quicker than the post but the truth is Sir David I haven’t got a printer so I’ll just stick it in the newspaper instead.

How was your Christmas? Did you get to chill out much or were you busy with work? I ate too much cheese. It happens. What can you do (except not eat cheese)?

Do you get to read this paper much, or do you get pertinent pieces cut out by your secretary for you to scan while you’re having a biscuit break? I’ve been writing this column (well not this one specifically) for over four and a half years now but it’s the first time I’ve written one to you. It’s ok if you’ve never read it. To be honest Sir David if you read my weekly witterings rather than tending to important political business I’d tell you to get back to bloody work.

How did the Alternative City of Culture launch on New Year’s Day go? Was it nice? Did you go? Was the clown good? I couldn’t make it in the end because a group of us decided to boycott it. Sorry. We used your event as inspiration and called our quiet rebellion No Culture Day. It involved doing literally nothing that resembled anything cultural whatsoever. It was a hard task on the nation’s favourite hangover day and by about 5pm I thought I was going to expire from not sculpting something thought-provoking from sea-clay while listening to Shostakovich but I got there. Phew.

The reason a group of creatives decided to announce on social media platforms that we were shunning culture for the day was because we didn’t want to appear complicit in our silence. You may have become aware that some people are reticent about you announcing Southend as the Alternative City of Culture following its defeat in the bid for Actual City of Culture. Some have been left a bit confused about what a city actually is, some worried the dissent might look a bit petulant to the rest of the country and queer our pitch for future bids, and some of us sat by the phone, waiting for you to call. We knew that if you were serious about programming a whole year of Culture,❤️💥🌟🌈 etc, in the town by the town for the town to represent the town, you would make concerted efforts to reach further into the town for said Culture. This year – the year you call to arms the creatives of Southend to give your personal project substance, context, and meaning – would be an exceptional opportunity to get to know some cool people you don’t otherwise get to talk to. It must be hard though, finding time to talk to the people when so much of your work takes you away from them. It’s a busy life isn’t it Sir David? I get that. Sometimes I want to pull my hair out at the lack of time to do everything.

I came to the Southend day you held at the House of Commons a few years ago. I think it was a preparatory event for your City of Culture bid. There were some nice people there. And a lot of nice suits. I tried not to get a bit blinky at the slight air of patronisation that can surround such events; the jocular implication that we simple seaside Southenders live on cockles and lactate Rossis ice-cream, but I stood by the table with the fizz and was fine. ( A nice Aldi Cava I assume, what with parliamentarians being so dedicated to saving the nation’s quid.) 

Standing around in shoes I don’t normally wear looking at old portraits that probably cost more than I will earn in a lifetime reminded me of the day Teddy Taylor showed my Politics A’ Level class around the Houses of Commons and Lords in the late 90s. It’s quite a nice place to hang out with all that history and bustle and cracking architecture isn’t it Sir David? I can well imagine being part of the cogs of history must feel like quite a heady whirl of privilege and purpose. I can also imagine that once you’re ensconced in that world you must grow protective of it, like I am protective of mine. We are all simple clans folk really, aren’t we. We’ve decorated our caves nicely but the hard-wired programming of being human remains pretty basic. Perhaps spending a great portion of your working life in that gilt club must make it hard to see beyond the gleam, to wander away from the campfire; perhaps your voting history is merely you voting with the pack. Weirdly, it’s easier to think you voted, for instance, against gay marriage because you’re toeing the old Tory line for an easy life than it is to think you truly don’t believe in your heart that everyone should be free to marry the person they love irrespective of whether they’re packing two nadgers, four tits, or whatever. Sorry for the language, Sir David. It is the fruity dialect of the common person and I’m happily stuck with it.

Yes. I suppose it must be hard to come away from the unrelenting bind of a stressful job in the most important institution in the country to find time to get to know the people who comprise your constituency, especially when some of those people are diametrically opposed to your own ideals. The truth is Sir David, the creatives you need to pad out your year of Culture are not likely to be those who voted for you. They are not wealthy businessmen, comfortable pensioners who like their people as anaemic as their tea, or people who like to give their vote to the unchallenged local party because it’s easier than thinking or changing anything. The real truth is most creatives are piss poor because we have chosen a life of lunacy in the Arts, because we’re drawn to little else, and we make our strange peace with not being amply remunerated for the life we choose. We count our riches out of different pockets. But we all make up the town and whether some of us agree with how you vote or not, while you are our MP, it is your town. And we are here too. Other people. Hi.

 
Your Cultural project makes me wonder what culture floats your boat enough for you to take up the mantle of enthusiast so publicly? Are you a theatre man? Feminist confessional new writing with a metatextual bent? Perhaps you like opera or Morecambe & Wise or burying your eyes in a Turner painting – or maybe when you have a quiet moment you listen to Mötorhead to get your juices flowing or perhaps you’re on the fifth listen of Black Star and mourning David Bowie’s passing like a lot of us. I don’t suppose many people think to ask you what culture sets you alight. Does that nark you out a bit or make you sad? You’re not a bloody machine after all. I like to think that a thing we all have in common is when we put down our work and our rules and the things which tire us or stress us out, we are all creatures who seek joy in something. Art is always there for us and it never diminishes, no matter how much we take from it. That’s pretty cool isn’t it, Sir David?
 

I suppose you get asked to attend a lot of things, probably involving cutting a ribbon somewhere, but I wonder how many people ask you to come out for a pint and a chat about the culture you’re passionate about. Now, I know you’re busy because you replied to a friend of mine – a wonderful artist named Scottee – saying someone else would be in touch. But I wondered if, in the interests of the town and the culture you’re personally celebrating this year, you might be the one to venture out yourself. I’m no PR guru but I think some shots of you holding a real ale with some people wearing Converse would be cool. (Some of them are gay though, FYI, but I doubt you’re their type so you’re quite safe.) It would be great. You could take your tie off. It would be winsome. You might even feel comfortable, happy, inspired, refreshed, or – dare I suggest might not be common in political life – real for a while. In short, fancy a pint? (We can also do coffee – we’re not heathens.) 

Because Sir David, if facepainting and a singular clown remains the zenith of the vision for your year’s foray into culture, we’d rather you didn’t do it in our name. Shall we discuss the other options?

Warmest,

Sadie Hasler

Columnist, Southender, playwright, leftie, lover of gays.

A Crossing Bell

I rang the bell. I had been about to pass it, having heard it rung, mostly by children, almost constantly for the past two days. Something called me back, to approach it. Maybe it’s because no one else was around and I saw my chance. I rang it. It sounded louder than when other people rang it. I felt naughty somehow. So I rang it again. It had a clarity, as though it had found exactly the right points around it to bounce from to make itself sound important; drew them in like coordinates of the perfect pitch then sent them pealing out to the clouds.

The bell is A Crossing Bell – an art installation at Tilbury Cruise Terminal by Professor of Sound & Landscape Angus Carlyle who has worked in residence at Metal, an arts organisation with a big heart in a big house in a pretty park where I am lucky to work. He is also a part of Estuary Festival. Passengers are invited to ring the bell while offering a prayer for a crossing – their crossing or someone else’s, a friend’s or a stranger’s; a prayer to ward off the bad or wish for the good. Angus’ hope is that the bell’s unamplified peals suggest other crossings, other times and other places. And they do.

I only remembered then as I rang it that right there, down to the deck to the waters between Tilbury and Gravesend, that my dad had been moored here in the 60s. I have the last diaries he wrote as a teen in the Merchant Navy. 1964. After months of sailing more exotic waters – Biscay, Suez, Arabian Sea, Muscat, Persian Gulf, Abu Dhabi, Calcutta, Trincomalee, Colombo, his list goes on – they drifted… into Southend-on-Sea. My hometown. A strange town that Dad could not have known then would be the place he’d later move to in his fifties to be near his daughters, and then soon after where he would take his life. He stayed four days in 1964 then sailed on to Tilbury, and one night – “went ashore to dance in Gravesend with lads. Got really pissed.” The next morning, he got up at 8.15, and “just read papers all morning.” Then the diaries come to an end, and as far as I know he never wrote any others. Or certainly none that he kept and passed on. Perhaps these were the only ones that he wasn’t ashamed of. The ones that only chronicle small details of ship life – no truths of his character or feelings at all that might be of use in the puzzle of a dead bi-polar man.

I had just been thinking the week before, as I walked past the road where he lived and died, that I felt pretty cool about him being dead, now. I felt tough. Over it. Cool. I walked past – as I do most days, I live a few roads away now – and felt ‘nothing’.

But I didn’t feel nothing when I rang the bell. It was like a brass hammer to the sky, cracking open the clouds to say hullo to my father, there on the very waters where he had written in his tiny blue scrawl. Maybe only meters away from where I stood, now, ringing it. Maybe if I could call to him back then – me on the deck, him rocking in his bunk – he could have heard me. Was his ship that close? If only time could allow me that experiment. Distance and time and death. Science. What huge impassable relentlessly factual things keep people apart.

Earlier that morning I had been up at 5am for a dawn performance by a vocal artist named Caroline Bergvall, who wove her mesmeric voice with that of a vocalist Peyee Chen and a backing track of collected sounds. Raga Dawn. My job was to capture it for other people, but towards the end I just lay down on the deck behind the audience, my spine falling between one of the broad gaps in the planks, the breeze surging up through the fibres of my jumper to my skin, and the sound of the heavy lapping water beneath my head. What do we think in these moments of reflection? Our thoughts trip on to one thing mostly. To how we feel, to people, to those we have lost. To love. To loss. To death. I often wonder if anyone can ever pass truly blithely through life without thoughts of death; whether it is a dialogue that can be completely avoided. Whether the ‘mentally ill’ can shut out awareness of it with a complete efficiency that we, the ‘more normal’, the ‘well’, cannot.

I suppose it comes as a not-too-great surprise that artists are drawn to water and to death. It tells not only stories, captures our thoughts, loves, and fears, but it also inspires a sort of peace that must be made before we ourselves go. A peace with ourselves. Estuary Festival is full of work by countless artists of dizzying various disciplines that observe a similar theme, but it is this piece – A Crossing Bell – that spoke to me, because it spoke for me.

I didn’t tell Angus during our multiple chats as he milled around in a nice blue jacket that I had rung his bell and been moved. I felt shy. I don’t know why. Maybe I just wanted to keep it for myself. Between me & Dad & the river.

The bell did its job. A hullo was said. And a small patch of the Thames that was new to me became familiar, like Dad was with me for a while, strong and tangible as bronze, invisible yet potent as sound waves saying “I was here.”

 

 

Estuary Festival runs until the 2nd October in various places in Tilbury, Gravesend, and Southend. For more – go here.

For more on Angus Carlyle, go here. And the bell – here.

For Caroline Bergvall & Raga Dawn, go here.

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