When stories find you
Logic says that mostly writing has made me more alert to stories waiting to be written, so that I seem to stumble across them more and more often. Gonzo, my creative brain, is telling me that, on the contrary, stories sense writers, lure us to their hiding places, hoping to tease and woo and hopefully obsess us.
She’s using a trip to Hastings as evidence. Me, Gonzo and Mr G went there to learn one story, only to be importuned by several others.
We didn’t go looking for the 1066 story that Hastings might remind you of, that lives up the road. We went with Trevor Hopper’s fascinating guide, to follow the secretive writer Robert Tressell to the places and events which influenced the writing of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists. I was narrating, book in hand, the history behind the pseudonym - an unlucky childhood, ill-fated marriage, war and protest and propaganda. As Tressell’s trail led us up streets which we’d never wandered before, Gonzo interpolated.
There was the case of the missing ghost sign, at which Gonzo whispered of homes under the influence of the forgotten messages written onto (into?) their walls.
The museum was almost hidden – we mightn’t have found it without help from an eccentric gardener, who told us that few people did. Inside, past the silent receptionist, we seemed to be alone. A museum that keeps itself secret, said Gonzo, is a museum with secrets to keep.
Entering the wood-carved Durbar Hall was like blundering elsewhere and elsewhen. It looked Indian, but more so. Intricate styles from across India, all together at once, in a room that has lived more than one life. Its first was centrepiece of a colonial exhibition in London, its second a smoking room in a Park Lane residence, third a Hastings curiosity and now a place to wed. Gonzo speculated about what it might really be and when it would go next.
Nearby waited the local gentleman who’d kept a coffin, into which he’d climb to consider the vanities of life. He’d smiled at the photographer while doing so. Gonzo said we should definitely have a natter with him.
There was also Grey Owl, the ersatz Apache, really Archie from Hastings. In Canada he was a trapper, then a lover, then a conservationist, then famous. Gonzo said we'd re-imagine him, how he felt when he gave a talk as Grey Owl in is home town, why on the ship back to Canada he ate only onions.
Heading back into town, the Old Observer building loomed. Built in 1924, a giant with elegant facade, it stopped being a print works in 1984 and has stood empty since. Multiple owners have dropped various schemes of decreasing public good. Almost a quarter century later, it is a derelict. Gonzo told me her theory why (she doesn’t believe in the obvious) and what goes on in there, and whether it will stop if they turn it into posh flats.
She’s muttering now about a farcical scene acted out before us on the train home, involving a huge dog with one green and one brown eye, but I think she’s made her point. Some lucky days, stories find us.