writers are ghost-hunters (the ambivalence of the muse)

I went to the seaside last Saturday, as you do in early February.

And once the clouds broke and fled, it became a clear, crisp, sunny day. Yes, it was freezing, but at least you know you’re alive on those days. I hate drab days of homogenous, monotone grey, whatever the time of year. You know the type, not necessarily freezing, not even cold; not necessarily hot, not even warm… not really anything at all. I love seasons – English seasons, if you don’t mind, I’ll take four to go…

My day turned out to be something of a pleasant surprise, too – more so, in fact: an inspiration, hence my basing a blog post around it. Reason being, is that I met with that sense of ambivalence, the kind I always hope for whenever I’m at an English seaside resort ‘out-of-season’.

Let me explain.

Gt. Yarmouth is on the east coast, in good ol’ Norfolk County. And it’s a place I haven’t visited since childhood, with my parents, so I’m talking a good forty years ago…

Ouch!

I’m forever fascinated by out-of-season English seaside resorts. You see, such a place can be invigorating in wintertime, as was Gt. Yarmouth on Saturday – or should I say bracing? For some can even be that in summertime, it’s their very selling line; phone up Skegness Tourist Board and ask them. On Saturday, once back home, I poured a mere glass of beer down my fiery-faced orifice and was then out of it until Sunday…

What I’ll now call the other side of the coin, rendering matters ambivalent, is that I’m always overcome by a place’s poignancy – this is all in my head, of course, I can’t account for the town’s other visitors, or its inhabitants; but what I vaguely visualise is a dreamland that once was, and not necessarily a dreamland I recall from my youth, but maybe a time I never physically witnessed; a time my grandparents may have known, or my great grandparents.

There’s something unique about the English seaside resort.

I’ve heard all sorts of depictions through the years: from it being the world’s first and best to being cheap and tacky; from “Why would anyone want to go abroad when we have everything here in Bournemouth!” to “Torquay? ‘The English Riviera’? Oh, for God’s sake, get on a plane!”

Gt. Yarmouth was an unexpected visit; unplanned, we just made a detour, via my own intrigue. That said, even as a writer, due to the spontaneity of the whole thing, I’d not even had time to wish for inspiration; to call upon memories, or upon my imagination, upon those days before my time.

For, you see, writers are ghost-hunters…

Or at least I am a ghost-hunter, and in the ghost I acquire my inspiration, my muse. Never a ghost buster, I should add; never to chase away, but to seek out. And sometimes I win, sometimes I lose.

Saturday, I won.

Phillip, the first person narrator of my novel, Wood, Talc and Mr. J, appears to win every time, in capturing the seaside muse. But then Phillip is looking back, lest we forget:

* * * * *

I planted my feet on the steps and shut the surfboard-like portal of what otherwise conjured up a pink and white spaceship. Eyes closed, I was conveyed to an enchanting world of my own, by those, ordinarily so elusive, perfumes of the past. The heady scent of morning dew, sprinkled over freshly chopped grass, was swept along by a hypnotic salt breeze. The tormenting aroma of eggs and bacon on some long-ago morning fluttered its impatient wings. The punch of an evening’s newspaper-draped fish and chips thumped me drunk; and the breathtaking vapours of a bygone gaslight in a bygone caravan all but sobered me up. With alacrity it was lit, by the one person permitted the act: my dad, post-a swift thumbnail flick against an ever re-productive Swann Vesta match, singled out from the hanky pocket of that glorious ‘Italian boy’ jacket. I tasted the beer on his breath, heard a meek, red and cream Philips wireless jingle a synthesis of ethereal tunes…

* * * * *

Ghostly.

On second thoughts, Phillip is, in effect, looking back at himself looking back. We might, then, ask ourselves to what point he is recalling a childhood that was, or a childhood of his imagination; invoked by the seaside muse.

Could it be that it was much simpler then? Or does time indeed re-write every line?

He’s a bit of a romantic, is Phillip. Even when only looking back – and not looking back at himself looking back. Having fallen hook, line and sinker for North Yorkshire’s, at present Lambretta-invaded, Scarborough, he depicts a scene like something from The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up:

* * * * *

… Sea surveying via the colossal arches of a puffy-cloud-connecting bridge. Invading white horses in magical mass – an ocean’s welcome. To our left, below trees of already-green, stood a sun-speckled café, at the foot of a precipitous Parisian walkway, or a Parisian walkway of my mind, name served on tricolour over a terrasse of ornate tables and chairs… Our nosey relic’s south side surely wondered what we were waiting for. A Weller spray-alike reflecting moody felt-lettered Lonsdale, a messenger sent, appeared to pose the very question. ‘When You’re Young,’ prompted pea-rattling pink. When you’re young…

* * * * *

Clichéd, timeless seas and their rocky/sandy shores aside, buildings are my real forte, particularly derelict ones, or at least those showing their age, displaying great vestiges, clues to former glorious days; rather like Phillip’s café description above – I know the café he’s talking about…

Of course, churches play their role – it was indeed Philip Larkin’s poem Churches that had me appreciate everything about the man, read more, his astute observations; and that particular poem from a secular viewpoint, while still a spiritual one. There was Larkin’s muse. Human spirit, and its sense of history.

“If these walls could talk, eh!” was one of my old dad’s much repeated lines.

When I was a lad, he’d have me exiting such places – churches, castles… – with dirty hands, having been obliged to “take it all in, soak it up!”, as he’d put it. Funny thing is, decades later, I still do exit such places with dirty hands, to my partner’s amusement/bemusement. I think she understands, though, as does my little girl – she leaves such places with her hands in the same state, and having been more open about rubbing the walls, to everyone else’s amusement/bemusement. But we always make sure to wash our hands before eating…

The difference with my dad and me, however, at least to a degree, is that, for me, the walls do talk, more loudly than the busy hum of modern day life, by their very silence; or those light echoes of the past. How does Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Past describe it? “These are but shadows of the things that have been.”  

Shadows. I like that. The walls echo to the shadows of things that once were. 

I went photo-snappy loopy on Saturday, and I can’t wait to go back. I also can’t think of another seaside town in England to appear so… gorgeously, stunningly… run-down. A ghost-writer’s paradise; an author’s utopia. Truly, most people would say that the place requires major investment; those glorious buildings need a serious sand-blast, with a touch of renovation here and there – ’be like new then!

I said the same thing myself, initially. It just didn’t last long… ‘The Empire’ – oh, The Empire! The days you must have seen; flat caps and Saturday night dancers, aestival romances; setting suns and surreptitious unclippings of suspender belts… and I wonder where she will stay, my little runaway…

A poet’s epic whim.

The truth of the matter is that present day Gt. Yarmouth is a romantic mix of the cosmopolitan new – and not so new; the Portuguese and Greek communities settled in many decades ago – and those echoes, voices, calling us back, back to its, never-to-come again, former glory. No amount of money in the world can change that. But then I’m only a writer, and I’d sooner see its renovation than its total dilapidation.

I reiterated the idea in a recent post about dreams, that “one man’s hell is another man’s paradise.” And I believe that is certainly the case for most writers. But if anything, a writer experiences that hell all the more, by way of his/her acute sensibilities; we may talk about the raw, concrete beauty of a landscape, yet such a beauty lies in the poignancy of something lost but not forgotten, or imagined; of a place where feet did walk and hands did work. Who were those people, where did they come from and where did they go?

And if you’d like the answer to those questions, then you leave it to me. For all you need to remember are two things: a. to keep an eye on this fidgety pen of mine; and b, that writers are ghost-hunters, and one day I’ll be back to offer you the fruits of last Saturday’s visit to the once glorious town of Gt. Yarmouth.

Chris,

Chris Rose

your literary, soulful friend

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