Friday, 4 May 2018

Writing Residency: The Curfew Tower, Cushendall

I've just got home from a most remarkable writing adventure in a poetry prison. I was April's writer in residence at the Curfew Tower, Cushendall  . . .

On the 7th day of the month of April 2018, I left all I love and hold dear, and I flew alone from London to Belfast International. Once on Irish soil, I took a car and drove through the Glens of Antrim; a breathtaking and glorious landscape of evergreen, passing jagged mountains and mossy, rocky hills, waterfalls and clear streams, fat sheep with new-born lambs, yellow gorse and forever-changing skies: Bright grey and silver, then dark purple thunder clouds with slices of warm summer blue, sudden downpours and April showers, hail stones and a rainbow, all in one sky and all at once and changing all the time.

After an hour drive, I arrived at the gentle village of Cushendall to live in The Curfew Tower as Neu Reekie's April writer-in-residence. The Tower is owned by KLF founder Bill Drummond. "Scotland's favourite avante-garde noise makers" Neu Reekie are curators, placing an author, poet or artist to reside and make work in the Tower each month. I was third, following in the mighty footsteps of February resident poet William Letford, and March resident author Claire Askew. The Tower was built in 1809 to imprison riotous people, so it seems pretty perfect to me that riotous poets, artists and thinkers should reside and make work in there now.

Looking back, it is magic how I ended up in the Tower. This all started with a conversation I had on a train travelling back from performing with James Yorkston in Fife back in October. I have been working on a book+album titled 'Mrs Death Misses Death' and I've been dreaming about finishing it by taking the protagonist of my book away to live in a tower or lighthouse. And so before I knew what was what, by the grace of good fortune and serendipity, here I was in this tower to write the the last chapters of my book. A book about life and death, our relationships with our ghosts, and the language we use for our mourning and healing, the things we hold on to versus the things we let go of. 

When I arrived in Cushendall I was greeted right away by the key holder Zippy Kearney, the local butcher. You really couldn't meet a more lovely and lively fellow. It's as though he has coffee in his veins and jumping beans in his toes. He lives up to his name and zip-zip-zips about. It's amusing to try to keep up with him, but you never can and never will. On one bright-sunny-rainy-shiny-grey afternoon Zippy took me for a drive and a tour of the local sights, waterfalls, caves and ruins. This place, this country is so astonishing and beautiful, I haven't seen it before, this is a magic part of the world. I feel like I made a new friend in Zippy and with his brilliant wife Steph too and as I write this I send them both my love. They were very kind and generous to me, I won't forget it, and although I was to live in the Tower alone, it was good to know they were just up the road and there if I needed anything.

When I first arrived Zippy gave me a tour of the Tower. It's so funny how the imagination works. I had a dream version of the Tower in my head, as I'd been dreaming vividly of it. I also had a version I had pieced together from pictures on the internet. It's funny how we do that in our minds, we set traps, we draw a map, and we paint a picture of where we are going and what our intentions are, but in real living life we go somewhere else, a little similar, but completely different too.

As a child I spent summer and easter holidays in that old house on Springfield Road in Hastings. A house that was filled with memories and cobwebs and lost pieces of the inhabitants of before. I loved that house and wrote about it in detail in my childhood memoir, Springfield Road. And so to me the Tower was just a bit like this too, like our old home, and I was immediately like a child again, exploring and inhabiting the past, the old dusty basement and attic rooms of my remembering. My first impression of the Tower was a sensation of visiting a special place that was not a jail to keep you in, but quite the opposite, a fortress to keep distractions and doubts out. Or a fortress for ideas and visions to be conjured, nurtured and made real. In my head it was all about how I looked at it - Are we captive and locked up in a poetry prison or are we protected in a poetry fortress - I found during my time in there I was swinging between these two feelings and concepts and I am not sure why. And this both helped the writing and scared me too. My mind played out the worst of my fears, fear of solitude, fear of the dark, fear of the unknown, fear of the dead. Then as I overcame these nightmares and tricks of the mind, of light and shadow, and as each fear left me, I was empowered and left to feel stronger and braver. 

Time is a trickster and fear is all in the head and the heart is a mimic. Boom boom boom the heart goes, thumping like a rabbits foot, but there's nothing there but your own fear. During the first days inside there, your time is slow, slow, slow and it looks like a long stretch ahead of you and you feel lonely and truly alone ... but then suddenly it's nearly time to go home and you wonder what on earth you were so scared of. It isn't often we are alone, really alone with ourselves and our thoughts and that opportunity to stop, to tell myself to stop bashing myself up and berating myself was invaluable.

Writing at the kitchen table, Curfew Tower

The door to the dungeon, Curfew Tower

First light, sun rise from the tower

So what's it like inside? You enter through the garden and the kitchen door. The kitchen reminded me of the basement of my old home in Springfield Road, with the old sink and homely odd plates and cups and forks and tiles. There is a good sturdy kitchen table to write at in the mornings while you make your breakfast. Next you walk through a corridor to the dungeon and there is a black raven there at the door to greet you. I never got used to the raven, it watches you pass with its beady eye. Narrow creaking stairs take you to the next floors, there is one room on each floor. The first floor is the bathroom, then the second floor is the fire room and the living space, then there are two more floors with two bedrooms above that. I loved the fire room, the heart of the tower, and lived mostly in there, for though it was April it was cold and rained most of my first weeks in there. The fire was my friend and companion, glowing there in the corner of my eye, when the fire was roaring and crackling away I was not alone at all. I stared into the flames and had great overdue conversations with myself and my work there. I got really good at keeping the fire going, and the conversation with the fire burning. On that first weekend in the Tower I remember going to watch a hurling match. A violent and exhilarating game that is a bit like rugby and hockey in one. When I came back to the Tower, a thick sea mist rolled in, the fog surrounded the Tower, all the way up to the windows and I could hardly make out the faint lights of village below and beyond, it was eerie and mythical. I am not surprised to learn that Game of Thrones was filmed in these hills, caves and dramatic shores.

Those first days I tried to make the Tower my home, my castle, my writing den. I lived mostly on stove top, one pot meals, chowder and soups and stews, more than anything the smell of home, filled the kitchen, the smell of herbs and spice and my own and my mothers home cooking. I filled the rooms I inhabited with living things, with flowers and candles. In the dead of night the Tower echoed and sang with the wind, the walls vibrated, the windows rattled, at night when the fire died down the building was a very different and colder place. Everything in the Tower had a story how it had got there and what it had seen, every fabric and object, candlestick, chair, painting, door. The Tower was a bit like going to stay with an elderly relative and them telling you war time history and ghost stories when you are trying to sleep. I know now this was all in my over active imagination, but on the fourth day I wrote and read out a letter to the Tower to thank it for letting me stay, but to please let me sleep, and to stop telling me gory horror stories from the belly of the dungeon in the middle of the night. Ridiculous as this sounds, it kinda worked, and I started to sleep a little better. I got used to falling asleep to the rattle of age and time, the howling wind whipping around the tower and the crackle of flame.

The villagers of Cushendall were lovely, so friendly and kind to me, always a friendly word or a chat in the little supermarket, the cafe and the sweet shop too. I must say that I noticed when I said I was staying in the tower their faces would go grave and they'd shake their heads, so I worried they knew something I didn't. I joined the local library to look local history and things up. I had a good laugh with the librarian when we looked up the history of the Tower together and discovered there is a 'murder hole' in The Tower, neither of us had heard of this term before. A murder hole is the hole below the window, for the occupants of the Tower to pour hot oil or tar on your head if you're an unwanted visitor. Looking back in retrospect, I wonder how they managed to get a vat of oil up those narrow stairs. 

Soon I had a routine of sorts. I didn't have any WiFi or very much phone signal, and I went to work writing every day. I usually managed two sessions. 4am, first light, early morning and all morning. And then again more writing in the dusk and early evening. My afternoons were spent reading and walking. I re-read John Burnside's 'Waking Up In Toytown' and I found Sylvia Plaths 'The Bell Jar' and the poetry of Seamus Heaney in the library. Heaney was born and brought up near here. I experimented and wrote a poem for the Tower playing with Heaney's rhythms and structures. Both the Burnside and the Plath were books containing elements of solitude, some madness and death which fitted nicely into the themes of 'Mrs Death Misses Death'.

I love the writing of John Burnside. In 'Waking Up In Toytown' he discusses two things which coached and inspired my writing in the Tower. Reading Burnside's books are like friendly hand on the shoulder for me. 

Firstly, Burnside wrote about Wabi-Sabi - The Japanese and ancient aesthetic philosophy rooted in Zen Buddhism. I looked it up and believe it to mean to be happiest with the simplest pleasures. To be content that nothing lasts, nothing is finished and nothing is perfect. Reading about this I decided my time at the Tower would be this, Wabi-Sabi. Worn and torn. Simple. Understated. Rustic. The tower, the soul of the building itself is a flawed beauty, the kind of beauty that can only come with age and time and wear and tear. Secondly, Burnside wrote about composing on the lips something I've been doing with 'Mrs Death Misses Death' recording her monologues and poems into my phone. Burnside is like a familiar and encouraging hand on  my shoulder, and it gave me a confidence to continue this work and the recordings.

Each day I walked the beaches, cliff tops and down country lanes with Mrs Death in my head and in my mouth. I kept a record, a written diary, an audio diary and an instagram diary, if you use instagram, you'll find those posts on the tags #goddencurfewdiary or #mrsdeathmissesdeath. 

'Mrs Death Misses Death' has not been solely conceived by writing at my desk with a pen or hunched over a lap top, but walking and talking. It has been spoken, ranted, whispered, sang, shouted and chanted from the guts and the heart of me.  Some of the work has been informed by the music we've been writing for it too. This April in Ireland I went skying every day, I watched magnificent sun rise and sun set as I wrote and recorded soundscape and poems and prose. The views were spectacular, sea salt on the air, the deep green of the sea, the cliffs all yellow gorse and sage. I'd sit and gaze at the world turning, the seasons changing, watching the sea sky like it was my telly.



Spring arrived when I was in Cushendall. And time speeded up and my last week in the tower went super fast. I went to the pub and made friends with two brilliant lovelies who kidnapped me for a weekend and took me on a road trip. We drove down majestic roads, passing the Vanishing Lake, the Ballypatrick Forest, the Causeway Coastal Route to Ballytoy and Mussenden Temple. Heart-stopping cliff tops and landscapes, as epic and rugged and dramatic as any Californian coast. Thank you to Trish and to Kelley for making me laugh until it hurt, I loved our times together. New old friends.

Cushendall is a tiny village with three pubs: When I wasn't working, I loved drinking in Johnny Joes where this beautiful rare music and the most delicious guinness flowed. I was delighted to be asked to join in a folk jam and given a tambourine solo, which is still making me laugh now. I loved joyful times in the Central Bar, the laughter and the banter and the good times, and The Lurig too, for that was where there was prosecco on tap and I had lovely laughs there too. Thank you.

I am home in London again now writing this. I had a most extraordinary time - Sometimes a wee bit lonely or homesick, of course, but always inspiring and productive. Occasionally a bit scary, but absolutely here, there, living in the present. I feel different in my head about some things I was holding on to, some things I was meaning to let go of. Some lost things, and some found things, and my heart is nourished and all full up. No matter what happens, I will never forget this time and place.

I hardly recognised myself by the time it was time to come home. I'd almost stopped wearing make up and my hair all in knots. My nails ripped and black with coal dust and I talked fluent fire. I had so many tiny moments of significance. I saved a giant spider and set it free in the garden. I fed toast crusts to the same plump robin every morning. I made a morning sunshine writing corner with pots of lavender, both for the bees and for the next resident poet to help them dream easy. I developed a big love of Guinness and have come home quite plump and rosy-cheeked. There's a shine in my eyes since I came home, a bit like that beautiful Leonard Cohen song 'Thanks, for the trouble you took from her eyes, I thought it was there for good, so I never tried." Thank you Tower!

I'll be sharing work from 'Mrs Death Misses Death' in a live performance at Blah's Big Weekend at The Wardrobe Theatre in Bristol onJune 17th, live on stage with music composed and performed by the brilliant Peter Coyte. 

A 'Mrs Death Misses Death' documentary is in production now and will be aired on BBC Radio 4 later this year.

BIG heart filled thank yous and love to Neu Reekie and Bill Drummond and Zippy. And my thanks to all the lovely and friendly people of beautiful Cushendall! I had the most memorable residency writing and living in the Curfew Tower. 

Until I see you again... Thank you Xx

Curfew Tower, Cushendall

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