Since I was a teenager I have been quietly obsessed with abandoned buildings and disregarded man-made spaces now claimed by nature. However, it only struck me recently how this obsession of mine feeds my creative work. The search for and discovery of these lonely places full of memories and forgotten times is a form of research and so often my lengthy treasure hunts for some old stones or concrete foundations (driving my family to distraction) are the inspiration for a new character or scenario that I will turn into a play or new project.
I write a lot about memory. I write about how memory seeps into the present and influences the lives of my characters. More recently I’ve started writing about memory loss and a longing to get memories back, exploring why certain memories are blocked out and how it affects the equilibrium when circumstances force the memory to the surface.
For what it’s worth, I have an excellent memory for the stuffing of life. My oldest friend, who I’ve known since school, jokes I have an ‘elephant’s memory’ as I can seamlessly recall the minute details of our schooldays while she’s still struggling to remember the name of our form tutor. I cannot, however, remember useful things like people’s names. Or telephone numbers. But the trivia and details, easy.
Crucial memory number one: early teens. I was taken by my aunt and uncle to the Foxton locks in Leicestershire. There are ten locks in sequence (the longest set of staircase locks in Britain) and it takes forty-five minutes to travel the entire flight. Here began a love of canals (another story) and it also marked the start of my obsession with the abandoned. It was not the locks so much that interested me. They were, of course, incredible and full of happy canal-boating families going up and down in the summer sun. A few feet away, however, was something more spectacular than the locks: the forlorn, overlooked and forgotten inclined plane boat lift. My little teenage heart skipped a beat as I took in the sorry scene. A huge hulk of metal still attached to its rusting pulley, now pathetically lopsided on a deserted muddy hill that no one but me, and my slightly exasperated uncle, were investigating. The inclined plane boat lift was designed at a time when canals were the mass transport system for England and it was built to improve the capacity of this part of the canal. Due to competition from the railways, the boat lift was abandoned and the canal industry declined. There was something so sad and pathetic about the abandoned boat lift. Such a huge amount of effort, expense, time and ingenuity left to rot for years. It made a huge impression on me. However, I haven’t actually written my canal- boat play yet. In fact no canals, boats, locks nor inclined plane boat lifts have ever appeared in anything I’ve ever written. Perhaps I need a trip back to Leicestershire.
Crucial memory number two: late teens. A wet weekend in Brighton. This was the first time I properly, consciously took in the West Pier. Again, my (older, less grumpy) teenage heart skipped a beat. The main part of the pier and the extravagant entrance building on the promenade were already separated but other than that it was intact, albeit in need of some serious TLC and a big injection of restorative cash. It was stunning and yet heartbreaking. And so began my love affair with abandoned seaside towns. Boarded-up windows and faded signs. The holiday makers who had come before, now long forgotten.
Crucial memory number three: mid-twenties. My dad, after a few days back in his home town of Columbia, Missouri for his father’s funeral, is speeding down the highway having taken the wrong route to the airport. We had been to Columbia Missouri for a funeral, and were heading to the airport to take separate planes… but he was late. I’m badly jetlagged and dozing in the back. The landscape is flat and expansive. I’m in and out of a dream state. Now and again the car passes what appears to be rusting fairground cars and signage. Am I dreaming? I come round. Sit up. Take note. What is going on? Have we entered some sort of parallel dystopian universe? I ask my dad about the faded signs and gnarled fairground rides. He tells me they are from Dogpatch, the amusement park in Arkansas, which shut down years ago. I make myself stay awake. An abandoned amusement park? I so want to go and explore, but time is ticking by, my dad drives ever faster to the airport and the waiting plane.
Skip forward a few years and I’ve graduated from university and am realising that my meagre writer’s wage won’t buy me a nice big flat in the Merchant City in Glasgow so I settle for a flat with a sea view on the Isle of Bute. I divide my time between London (living at my mum’s), Glasgow (living at various friends) and Bute (living in perfect solitude). The island is a treasure trove of abandoned places and spaces. The nostalgia of holidays gone by is everywhere, in everything. Boarded-up shops and the Art Deco pavilion in need of a dust off and shake up. The glorious Winter Gardens now home to a mediocre but pricey bistro restaurant. I wrote, kept myself to myself and walked all around the wonderful island discovering more discarded and forgotten things. The tram tracks that took holiday makers to Ettrick bay, the old pier at Port Bannatyne, the ruins of St Blane’s church and my absolute favourite; the dilapidated bathing station. Abandoned and water related. I had struck gold. If I had been savvier, and actually liked small boats, I would have befriended a local fisherman and asked them to take me round to see the bathing station from the water. But I wasn’t and I hate boats. I know, living part time on an isle was a bit of a foolish move I’ll admit but I couldn’t help it. I was in abandoned-building heaven. A few years ago during a late-night online abandoned-build search (yes, I do do this…) I discovered that the bathing station on Bute was for sale. I was more than tempted.
I wrote a lot while living on the Isle of Bute. There was not a lot else to distract me. I had no internet and my telly only picked up three channels (one of which was fuzzy and black-and- white). I wrote a play about a man searching for his estranged brother that takes him to an abandoned village on a Greek island (yep, went there. Made my mother, brother and sister walk around in the baking sun for an afternoon as we tried to follow fairly basic instructions in a local guide book trying to find a little village of empty houses). My first commission for BBC Radio Four came soon after. The Waltzer is set at a fairground, skipping constantly backwards and forwards in time echoing the unsettling nausea of a fairground ride. Looking back it also conjures up that dream state I was in when I first saw the fairground rides abandoned by the side of the highway. Discarded fragments of a joyful family day out left to rot. A further commission for BBC Radio 4 was about a woman reminiscing about her life, her lost loves and her time spent working as a waitress on the West Pier. And the commissions continued and the abandoned buildings subconsciously found their way in, and they often still do.
One of my favourite finds recently is the abandoned hovercraft port in Pegwell Bay, ten miles from where I now live. There’s nothing there apart from the concrete foundations of the old terminal building and the markings of the car park. It’s a completely brilliant location for me. Nostalgic; I went there as a child and got on a hovercraft. Horrific; I threw up all the way to France. It’s an abandoned place of ghosts. The perfect place to set something new…