Nick’s Blogs

In March 2015 writer, Nick Walker travelled around Blackpool, Wyre, & Fylde, together with artist Andy Hazell. Their mission... to create a magnificent storysaving machine. Here are Nick's Blogs about his experience
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10 February 2015

Andy’s car is a fairly common Volkswagen but he’s spray painted it Combine Harvester Green which I suspect makes it unique. Occasionally I’ve noticed it gets a discrete yet admiring nod from people who I assume must be associated with farming. Whether they are or not, I admire it because it’s very easy to find in a car park. Today Andy’s agricultural-themed car found itself on a stretch of road called Amounderness way. This isn’t a word I’d heard before but it turns out Amounderness was the name of the hundred, or judicial shire, that covered what for this project is our Save Our Stories catchment area. Hundreds as a way of dividing up the country gave way to districts in the 1890s and though many of the hundred names lived on, the only geographical reference to Amounderness is this road (technically now called the much less romantic A585). A bit of rooting around revealed that the origin of the word Amounderness is in dispute, which in itself isn’t such a surprising thing as many place names have many conflicting origin stories, but my favourite one is mentioned in a 1974 book called Danes in Lancashire which claims that the hundred was thought to be named after Amounder (or Agmundr) – the first Viking who settled in the Fylde country. The book thinks this is probably fanciful, but why let that get in the way of a good story? Indeed, fanciful is often a key ingredient in a good story.


This part of the country would’ve suited Vikings down the ground, there’s still peat to be found for fuel, and they’d have been particularly impressed with the Fisherman’s Friend factory in Fleetwood. Somewhere in Agmundr’s name there’s a bit of West Scandinavian meaning ‘protector’, in fact even in the old English version of the origin of Amounderness, or Agemundrenessa in the Domesday Book, there’s the word ‘protection’ (mund). So even if the stories don’t all match up exactly, there’s a general idea of protection written into the very name and purpose of the area, so if there’s a better ‘hundred’ in which to save stories then I’d like to know it.


Emboldened with Viking spirit, we sharpened our axes and looted, pillaged and set waste to rival hundreds, or rather, we sat quietly in the library. While Andy looked for inspiration in the history of transport design – boats, trams, buses – I gathered together stories of shipwrecks. I was particularly struck by the wreck of an unnamed ship in 1779 which was carrying a cargo of peas. Images of waves of mushy peas crashing onto the beach along the Fylde coast, and fish and chip shop owners rushing to the shoreline to scoop up free garnish, came unbidden into my head, but records indicate that the peas were in fact in tins. Nevertheless, I believe people still went to the shoreline to salvage what they could as there’d been a bad summer that year and food was short – they called it the pea soup wreck.


Whether all this will be useful for the project remains to be seen, but our brains were slowly filling up with stories of the area and Andy wondered if perhaps the SOS vehicle shouldn’t also be a massive brain – one which gradually filled up and expanded with stories as it went on its journey. A massive brain could be housed in a large Perspex dome fitted on top of the vehicle, glowing and pulsing, so we went to visit the place where such design requests were part and parcel of daily life – the illuminations workshop near Blackpool airport.


This huge warehouse is where the design and construction team create the cultural institution that is the Illuminations and it’s quite a sight. I particularly enjoyed the row of prostrated spacemen, freshly painted and ready for suspending should they be needed in September. There were large Perspex domes everywhere – mainly used to protect the lasers and moveable lights from the elements – so we knew we could source one if we needed to, but a more enjoyable find was the room where the archive of illuminations designs were being collated. The aspiration is for these designs to be made available online but for now it was fascinating to root through drawers and drawers full of drawings and clippings stretching back to the very early days of the illuminations, and some really stunning designs from 1968 imagining a brave new future which, in 2015, we weren’t far off. I’m always struck by the technological optimism that the present feels about the future – and I hope the 1968 designer, Emilios Hatjoullis, is proved right and in 2068 I shall be buzzing around the Blackpool tower in my own mini-helicopter and owning a machine which changes me into my swimming costume at the touch of a button.


Our visit encouraged a boldness of thinking and we’re looking forward to exploring some of these stories in the workshop phase of the project which starts in a few weeks time, but it was great to see that there’s still as much pride and excitement inside the workshop as there must have been when the illuminations were first conceived in the 1870s – when, incidentally, the region was still Amounderness.


2 March 2015

I was hired by the SOS team as a writer, and a working writer does a bunch of various things to pay the bills. In my case, one of those things is working for television, and on Sunday 1st March I found myself in Sussex discussing the logistics of a location shoot with a director of photography about a sitcom which will happen next year, and how the script might be adapted to fit with the surrounding South Downs. I very much enjoy this conversation but I could only have it for one hour because if it went on longer I would miss my train that was scheduled to take me the 280 miles to Lancaster that evening and which would give me a fighting chance of getting to Fleetwood the following morning in time for the first lesson at the excellent Chaucer school where the SOS consultation process would begin. I have been looking forward to working with the sparky young story tellers of Chaucer school so much that I display a rare focus in Sussex and catch my train with 15 minutes to spare. I think most meetings should be conducted against the backdrop of an imminently departing train.


Andy picks me up from the hotel in Lancaster the following morning and drives me the scenic A588 route towards Fleetwood, pointing out on the way the deliciousness of the saltmarsh lamb that you get in this area, and telling me about the time he dragged a barge over the moors to his friend’s workshop for reasons that escape me right now. I don’t think I’ve met anyone quite like Andy. It seems every space, every location, every bit of history, holds a story for him.


Chaucer School is one of those ‘yes’ schools. Peter, the headteacher, has been saying ‘yes’ since the very start of the project and today he not only clears the timetable so we can work with some of his year 5s and 6s, but he also leaps into a minibus in order to pick up a year group from Larkholme primary in order to spread the engagement. I like it when two schools get together, there is a little shy moment at the start, a curiosity about the subtle uniform differences, a chance to see themselves as others see them, and then in five minutes, a sense that they’ve known each other all their lives.


Chaucer school have made a classroom out of a bridge between the old school and the new build, and it was in this rather exciting space that I introduced the provocation of SOS:

“Imagine if, one night, all our stories were stolen, so that in the morning, when we woke up, we discovered they were all gone. Which stories would you miss the most?”

I was told about current books they were reading – David Walliams came up a lot, Andy Stamp, Jaqueline Wilson, J K Rowling of course. One girl was in the middle of a Percy Jackson novel and she forcefully told us she’d be furious if anyone stole it now – she was at an exciting part. We also talked about television stories and films we’d miss, and then shared memories of nursery rhymes which were our first experience of being told a story.

“So then if our stories have been stolen,” I ask, “who, or what, could have taken them?”

Pieces of paper were distributed and the creative answer to what had taken our stories filled the room. The findings will be evident in our final piece, let’s not give them away them now, but it convinced me that the dramatic notion of lost  stories was very resonant. The design of the creatures who might have taken them were so vicious and scary that the children plainly felt very protective of their stories and angry at the idea of them being taken from them.


The older a child gets the more difficult it is to suspend disbelief so it was unsurprising that the teenagers at Fleetwood High school (though only a couple of years older) were a little more wary and harder to win over – just as it should be. But once Andy’s irresistible picture/word games had broken down some barriers they were as creative and responsive as we could’ve hoped for and soon we had a further collection of gruesome and sinister fictional monsters who were candidates for our story-stealer. An exercise of mine – that of writing the random missing page from a novel, the title of which had been generated from a previous exercise – produced some really subtle and interesting writing suggesting to me that should our stories genuinely disappear, we could quite easily replenish them by arming ourselves with paper and handing it out to the young people of Fleetwood.


I spent the night in Bispham, which, as I was told by the very proud and informative hotel cleaner, pre-dated the more well known Blackpool by several hundred years. Indeed, some rooting around revealed that it was in Bispham that the first mention of Blackpool appeared when the register of the Bispham Parish church recorded a child born on the 22nd September 1602 to a couple who lived “on the bank of the Black Pool”. I’m reliably informed that drainage channels running over peat make the water black and so that’s where the name comes from. This blackened water washes up in Dublin hence the origin of the name of that great city (Dub-lin is Gaelic for black pool). Inspired and energised by these unexpected facts, I decided to go for a run and soon found myself in the Bispham Rock Gardens, which is a late Victorian park popular with both runners and butterflies. Usually I expect butterflies to appear in the summer but today I see a few flitting around the shrubbery and I feel uplifted by their appearance and at the same time terrified that they’re here in March due to catastrophic global warming. So very much a mixed bag of a run.

 3 March 2015

Our first stop of the morning is at the Brunswick Children’s Centre in Blackpool where we’re gatecrashing a parent/toddler group. SOS is keen to engage with those very early moments of the storytelling experience, where a parent or carer tells a young child a story and sees for the first time that intent mode of listening as a story unwinds itself. The Brunswick clearly offers a time for parents and carers to be social too – a chance feel connected to those people in that particular bubble of early years childcare where it’s all about naps and feeding and changing and that strange combination of boredom, love, and panic.


Our main job this morning is not to get in the way of the social side too much so we ask the children what kind of creature they’d like to colour in and Andy draws a series of animal hybrids and we make a cast of strange creatures which I then turn into a story. I was particularly inspired by a lad of about 1 who urged me to carry on with the story by offering me small pieces of soggy toast. The poet and dictionary-writer Dr Samuel Johnston said that only a blockhead writes unless for money. If he’d have met this little lad at the Brunswick centre, he might have also happily written for small bits of soggy toast too, such was his charm.


The afternoon took us to Anchorsholme Primary. The school was in the middle of what seemed to a celebration of the Chinese New Year and was garlanded with vibrant red lanterns and writings in Mandarin. The Anchorsholme school logo is a very appealing combination of a book and an anchor – the connection to save our stories seemed already embedded in the ethos of the school – the anchor stopping the books from drifting away, and as we drove away from our 2 day workshop session in Andy’s little green car, we were determined not to let the stories we’d heard over that time drift away too.

24 March 2015

From our consultation period in the Wyre region something very simple kept emerging. If the stories need saving then what we should be making is a rescue vehicle in order to save them. Andy threw himself into that, and today, during our progress report to the team in Blackpool, he prepared the aesthetic ground by showing us the beautiful sweeping curves of the old American and European buses and trams – the Italian Golden Dolphin bus, the GWR art deco train, the bright red 1940s General Motors bus – all fins and sleek lines and shining metal and with a look that is a strange mixture of the retro with the futuristic, like our predecessors had a much more ambitious view of what kind of public vehicles we’d be making in the year 2015. Luckily, Andy has taken up the baton of those audacious designers and produced a plan for an SOS rescue vehicle which is a riot of chrome, rivets, fins, appropriated missile casings and pointy lights. It looks like it might well fly as well as drive – or at the very least hover. If that wasn’t impressive enough, he is also tasked with making the vehicle compliant with road regulations, so that it can be driven throughout the region, and can accommodate a dozen participants, and is accessible, and durable, and yet still have a wow factor when it rocks up at a festival or a school playground. There are probably only a handful of people in the country who understand the issues involved here and we’re lucky that Andy’s one of them so he was given the immediate green light, and he was straight on ebay busily sourcing those parts salvaged by obsessive collectors so he can start welding in his workshop on the Welsh borders.


My job is far more straightforward. What should happen inside this vehicle once its made? The narrative behind the project is that all our stories have disappeared, so the vehicle sounds the emergency response (including a trumpet call mounted to the top) and so when people enter, it’s their job to start replenishing our stories. There’ll be a range of different workshops and activities depending on the age group, but the net result will be a growing archive of titles of new stories that we’d like to see, and participants will be helping create sentences, words, pages, paragraphs, drawings, which might be part of those new stories. That will constitute a brand new SOS library that will grow inside the rescue vehicle. The more the vehicle travels around, the more stories will be saved. By the time it reaches its final destination (and more on that later) we’ll be able to reconstruct hundreds of new stories, all written by those who have passed through our gleaming storyship.


As well as providing us with contributions, I also want people who visit to take something away with them too. Seems only fair. And I got drawn to the idea of the story about SOS being written on chip paper and turned into a mini-book which would be given to everyone who comes. Chip paper is thin and easy to fold, it is in ready supply in case of story writing emergencies, and printing up a tale on such paper might give it a bit of extra bite and saltiness. I experimented with the folding of such a book and I thought perhaps it would be a good idea to fold the paper in such a way that it appeared to have pages but when fully open – to its majestic A1 size – then it’d be a map on the other side charting the progress of SOS. Turns out I’m not such an inventive origamist and so the example I bring up to show is a bit clumsy. But the principle is clear and I think it’ll work really well. Especially if people are able to customize the story themselves, or put themselves in it in some way.


So now it’s a making period. Andy’s is noisy and full of loud and terrifying equipment and machinery. Mine involves a laptop and origami websites. You’d think I had the safer task but I’m the first to bleed from a paper cut. Andy has no sympathy for me. I’m not sure he quite understands what we writers have to go through.