Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Holiday Reading

"You are from Kent?" she said, 'maybe you can answer me this. Why are old things so important in England?'*

My wife laughed when the book arrived. It seemed almost too right for me, as if someone had suddenly perfected one of those Amazon consumer profiles to an eerie, unnerving degree. There was that title for a start, the Elliot misquote that could be a description of a certain kind of blogospheric writing with its hyper-links, digital jump cuts and chance virtual encounters. 

More fundamentally there's the subject matter. Connecting Something With Nothing is an anthology of writing about the south east coast, a place we have spent the last five or six years exploring. A flick through the essays within it reveals familiar place names and obsessions: Pegwell Bay, New Romney and the Wantsum Channel, long-since silted up harbours, nuclear reactors, muddy estuaries and rusting neon signs. My kind of holiday destinations basically, the sort of places I drag my family to on bitingly cold new year mornings or rainy bank holiday weekends.

The contributors list offered up some  familiar  names too, names recalled from Twitter encounters and even in a couple of cases, Actual Real Life. All of which is to say that I was quite heavily predisposed to like this book, almost to the point where it could only disappoint, like an over anticipated night out.

Fortunately such perverse worries turned to nought. There are some great things in Connecting Nothing With Something.  Kit Caless' lyrical evocation of ordinary pleasures in un-lyical places is genuinely moving. I liked Salena Godon's bracing poems about teenage love affairs and filthy fishermen too,  as well as her suitably salty tale of teenage mayhem in 80s Hastings. Rowena McDonald recalls a more awkward adolescent experience in the Sussex town of Newhaven.

Adrian Self's contribution is both enigmatic and funny, a kind of miniaturised version of W G Sebald if he'd had a sense of humour. It takes the form of notes from an imagined audio-art project, a parodic psychogeographic derive that is more of an eventful walk around the block.

Owen Booth's short story is highly entertaining and faintly peculiar, a fictionalised account of a young Richard Burton's antics while filming Green Grow The Rushes in New Romney in the early 50s. I enjoyed this tale of illicit drinking, smuggling and sex so much I sought out the film on YouTube, which is considerably more enjoyable to watch if you've read Owen's short story first I imagine.

There is a similar tone to much of the writing here; memories of adolescent lives in burnt-out seaside towns that are still fresh. The voice is generally sophisticated, sceptical and aloof but also prone to nostalgia and an unspecific sense of loss. Many of the pieces suggest a rapprochement with places almost forgotten about over the last few years, places now indelibly linked with (recently lost) youth.

The Margate contributions coalesce around the role of teenage sub-cultures - skin-heads, punks, mods and rockers alongside its cheerier, cheesier reputation for cockney knees-ups and Chas'n'Dave. Iain Aitch - curator of Margate's Hidden Youth Culture History - contributes a good, short essay on Margate's recent half-hearted attempts regeneration while Gary Budden describes a personal revelation at the Turner Contemporary exhibition Nothing In the World But Youth.

Art and regeneration loom large too in these accounts, especially in the two gloomy but still grand towns that bookend the collection. Margate and Hastings are like mirror images of each other with their mysterious pier fires, shiny new contemporary art galleries and histories of drinking, drugging and escape.

The book and its contributors are more than aware of the contradictions, the dubious nature of the role of art in a regeneration industry seemingly fuelled by middle-class property speculation and cup-cakes. And yet, undeniably both towns have acquired two fine new public buildings after years of mostly shonky and careless development, buildings that draw day trippers and 'staycationers' in the best seaside tradition.

These conflicts have become intertwined so that it is now virtually impossible to separate artists and writers drawn to forgotten or overlooked places from the boosterist language of the regen. agencies that are themselves now confined to (New Labour) history. Iain Sinclair after all has a flat in Marine Court, Hastings' extraordinary cruise-liner like art deco block of flats. Psychogeography has become inseparable from the inevitable clean-up campaign that follows in its wake, property speculation on the back of obscure interests and arcane modernist fictions.

I should say at this point that I'm a part of the problem.  A DFL (Down From Londoner) if ever there was one. My wife and I bought a house in Deal a few years ago. Spending time there is partly about escape and partly about a nostalgia of our own. My father spent his childhood in Deal and my wife was brought up by the sea, so for both of us it connects back to something for sure.

The seaside represents a place where the usual rules don't apply, a holiday from normal life. But the British seaside is indelibly and unavoidably about the past. The stories in Connecting Nothing With Something situate themselves in this illusory and highly ambiguous space. For people born there - and most of the writers in this anthology were - the coast is somewhere to escape from rather than to, small towns with big social problems and only one direction out. Or two if you are feeling particularly bleak. But then, as the stories also make clear, such places drag us back too, exerting a powerfully nostalgic pull. Like boats borne back ceaselessly against the tide, as someone once said.

* Taken from Old but Somehow New, by Kit Caless.

Connecting Nothing With Something: A Coastal Anthology is available from Influx Press here.

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