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My Weekend
 - warning, looooooooong

    ( by Iain Rowan)

A purely personal account of the weekend. It is what is filtered through the clouded haze of my recollection, and warning, it doesn't half go on a bit. No owls were harmed in the making of this account.


The Friday.

I get on a train at Sunderland on the Friday lunchtime, looking forward to the time away and to meeting people, slightly apprehensive because I know that I will be the only person there who hadn't already met at least some of the others. The forecast was for heavy rain and high winds, but as the train rattles along the north-east coast the sun is shining. I relax into the journey, I like travelling by train when I am on my own, watching the world slide past the window, noticing the other passengers on the train, wondering where they are going, why they are going there. Change trains at Middlesbrough, and travel away from the coast, into the green rise and fall of the moors. The train stops at a hundred stations to let no-one on, small platforms half the length of the train, tiny station houses with window-boxes and hanging baskets all dripping colour. At one station we pull up alongside the steam train that runs across the moors. it is brighter, shinier, larger. In all probability it's faster too. Eventually the train curves under an impressive viaduct, rounds a corner, and there before us is Whitby, all coloured roofs and forests of masts. The view of the abbey on the hill is spoilt by the large telecoms mast that towers behind it, perspective pulling it close so that from this angle it looks as if it rises from the middle of the abbey itself. Have visions of Dracula shouting into his mobile, "HELLO! YES, I'M IN THE COFFIN! TALK TO YOU LATER, YAH."

I fight my way off the train through a shoal of schoolchildren and wait for a bus. Still a little nervous. It's always amusing trying to catch a bus when you don't know where it is you're going to be getting off. I look out for things that say Fylingthorpe. At least if I get off too early or too late, it's still a nice day for a walk. The bus climbs and descends some hills and hairpin bends that make me wonder what the journey must be like when it's icy. Then the bus crests a hill, the ground falls away before us, and I see the whole sweep of the bay around to the cliffs at Ravenscar. Beautiful. A few minutes later, I'm there. A short walk from the bus-stop, and at the end of a narrow lane I see Thorpe Hall. It's even more impressive than it looked in the picture that I had found on the web. I walk down the drive and meet Dawn, the first person to arrive. The enthusiastic man who is there to meet us shows me all over the house. I look at the oak panelling and the leaded windows and the aged red leather sofas and chairs in the lounges, and wonder if anyone would notice if I put the whole room in my bag and took it home with me. I get shown to my room, past paintings and wooden sculptures and what looks like a Sheela-na-gig lurking on the stairs. The enthusiastic man and I talk about lightbulbs for longer than I thought it was possible to talk about lightbulbs, and then I unpack and explore the grounds. Taxis come and other people arrive, and I try and guess who is who before I find out for sure. I do pretty well at that, and am obscurely pleased. It's slightly awkward, as these things always are, but everyone seems very nice and I feel included in the conversation, which I appreciate. Jeff and Mark and Gary are staying a short way down the road in another b&b. It appears that the b&b is guarded by a gate of Arthurian properties that only the virtuous and worthy can open. When everyone arrives, we mill about for a while until it is decided that we should go into Robin Hood's Bay to get something to eat. There are many times over the weekend when the group's milling is turned into decisive doing, and this time, like the others, I suspect that it is Tamar that has managed to do the near impossible and gain both consensus and prompt everyone to act on it.

We wander down the hill. On the way down, we notice men in crampons and oxygen masks clambering up it, assisted by teams of Sherpas. This suggests that the walk back up may be just a little more taxing. It is starting to get dark, and the crooked alleys of Robin Hood's Bay are lit up by a soft glow from windows. I can hear the sea, I can smell the sea, and decide that the place is magical. My stomach barges into the quiet romance of the moment by rumbling loudly. We pile into The Dolphin, looking for food and drink and somewhere to sit. It's a tiny pub, but cheerful and welcoming, and we manage to cobble together enough tables upstairs for everyone to sit around. There are signs which say that tonight is a folk night. We're not sure where this is going to happen, but agree that it might be entertaining and interesting. As it turns out, we are right on both counts, but perhaps not in the way we imagined. Dinner is ordered and drinks are drunk, and conversations start around the table. They tend to be fragmented, as the size of the table and the noise of the place make cross-table talk difficult. We don't have to wait long for the food, and it's brought to us by a cheerful waitress. There's lots of it, and mine tasted good, and other people seemed to be enjoying theirs. Then more drinks, and more conversation. The ratio of beards to people increases dramatically, and it becomes apparent that the entertainment is about to start. A man sings briefly to the audience, and then four large men stand up behind him.

"Hello," one of them says. "We're Monkey's Fist. We are a sea shanty band."

And so they are. I spend most of their first shanty just enjoying their name. It doesn't sound like the name of a folk band, more like that of a heavy metal band or of a Hong Kong kung-fu action movie with floating vampires in it. They shanty on, all in tune with themselves, if not with each other, and we watch and listen and drink and talk as much as you can only feet away from four burly men shout-singing shanties about hanging people. I believe that it was at this point that Keith and Mark are asked not to talk, as this is disturbing the shanty-karma or some such thing. The Fist give a rendition of what they claim is a genuine native American song about rivers, but Jeff looks sceptical. Eventually, they stop for a break. A raffle is drawn, and we don't win, despite having high hopes that come from possessing about half the tickets that had been sold. Before Monkey's Fist come on again, someone stands up and rather pointedly asks that people keep quiet while the artists were performing. As one we decide that sitting in a pub without talking was a rather dull way to spend an evening, so en masse we get up and leave, more pointed comments about our departure ringing in our ears. Keith and Mark look sad at the prospect, as they want to stay behind to try and buy some autographed copies of the Monkey's Fist CD, but they have to depart with the rest of us. Des says that he did quite like the singing, but I am not sure whether he means this or not. Roseanne is forced to abandon her whisky for the cause.

We wander down to the sea for a few minutes, then climb the hill back out of Robin Hood's Bay. I don't remember much about the climb apart from a ringing in my ears and several mystical experiences caused by lack of oxygen. Tamar phones Neil and Phil, who are still on the way down from Glasgow, to let them know where we will be for the next couple of hours. Fortunately there's a pub near the top of the hill, and we walk in warily, looking out for folk singers. There are none, only the pub's tape of Best Hits of the Eighties (Volume 48). It is a tribute to the powers of Monkey's Fist that this tape sounds OK. We chat for a while, and then as the pub is about to close, Neil and Phil appear. Lawrence's cunning disguise fools Neil for a few moments, but then all is made clear. There have been many changes in facial hair since Storyville last met. The pub eventually closes, and we walk back to the hall. I am tired, and I think that many of the others are too, most people have spent a long day travelling. I spend some time in the lounge enjoying the conversations, and then call it a night. I drift off to sleep, the moon shining through the leaded windows. Owls hoot. At least, I think they are owls.

The Saturday.

I wake up, and for once have no small child trying to tell me about his bizarre dreams, or trying to smother me with Bagpuss[1]. I am relieved to find that the locals from the Dolphin have not constructed a giant wicker man in the grounds of the hall. We have breakfast in a large room overlooking the gardens at the back of Thorpe Hall. Breakfast is good, conversation is muted. People are still waking up. After breakfast, Jeff and Mark and Gary arrive from their b&b. A bizarre touch is that the woman changing bedding and sorting out the rooms is the same woman who was our waitress in The Dolphin the night before. We indulge in some patented Storyville milling, but then coalesce into a organised group and all walk out united to Robin Hood's Bay. As we reach the foot of The Hill, and make plans to walk along the clifftops, a separatist movement makes its presence known. This is not a bad thing though, as it allows everyone to use the word schism repeatedly, and it is *such* a good word [5]. Some of the group stay on the beach, with plans to fly Phil's kite. The rest of us carry on, but our plans are thwarted by paths closed because of the foot and mouth outbreak. We speculate about biological warfare for a while, find an alternative route, and carry on up and down the hills (in apparent defiance of the natural order of things, there appear to be two uphills for every downhill). Some more of the party decide to make for the beach, and I watch them go, with considerable worry and concern. Have they never seen Alien? It's always the ones who go off who get eaten first. The rest of us follow the cliffs on for a while longer, and then descend to the beach ourselves.

The tide is out, there are many rock pools and interesting things to look at, and we can walk along the beach all the way back to Robin Hood's Bay. As we walk along in that direction, I think I can see what looks like fleeing children and a brightly-coloured kite swooping down over them like an hawk diving to catch a vole. I decide I must be imagining things and go looking in rock pools instead. Jeff wanders a long way out, right to the edge of the sea. The siren song of the squid must be calling from the deep. Lawrence shows Tamar and I the fossils that can be found on the beach. He gives me one, and I put it away to take home for Aidan, planning to lie a parental lie and tell him that it is a dinosaur bone. The beach is in parts covered by the sort of seaweed that has little pods on it that pop! when you walk over it it's like a gigantic covering of bubble wrap. We wander gradually back along the bay, collecting fossils and talking and popping. I take a lot of photographs, and hope that they come out looking interesting. I have an interesting conversation with Tamar about writing, one of many with many people across the weekend, I step in a lot of pools and get my feet wet. The promised squalls and showers and hail have not arrived, the air is clear and the sun is bright and walking along the beach I am very happy.

We all meet up again in the Dolphin, for a well-earned drink and some lunch. In a bid to imitate the now-popular sports bars with huge-screen TVs and Sky Sports, the Dolphin has a tiny portable telly stuck on the bar. This can only mean one of two things. Either we're going to be assailed by the Monkey's Fist Video Collection, or the football is going to be on. Another schism develops. Some of us settle in to watch the England match, others decide to explore the nooks and crannies of Robin Hood's Bay. Before the football starts, Dave turns up, as he has travelled up that day. Now all of those who could be here, are. I am pleased so many people were able to make it, and hope next time that some of those who couldn't, can. Dave passes round a novel with a fawn-coloured front cover, which he had read on the train. It does indeed contain some of the most overwritten prose I have seen. Purple prose indeed. Well, maybe a fawny shade of purple.

The football is about to start. Mark gets nervous. Events later prove that this was a smart move. Neil, in an admirable spirit of self-sacrifice, tells us that he hopes England will win. Then he reveals that this is only because otherwise he knows we will all be unbearable company. I find out that both Keith and the jolly barman are both Liverpool supporters too. I settle back to watch the match, looking forward to swapping smug banter about how well Fowler and Gerrard and Heskey and Barmby, the four Liverpool players, are doing.

It is half an hour into the football. Fowler and Gerrard and Heskey and Barmby are all playing like they are true professionals. Unfortunately the profession is accountancy, not football. Oh dear.

It is half time. Oh dear.

The second half starts. Oh dear.

We suffer through the last forty-five minutes. It is edge of the seat stuff. Every time a goal is scored, the local eccentric-man-who-drinks-in-the-bar-all-day leaps up, says, eh? has there been a goal? and stands three inches in front of the TV to watch the replay, blocking the view for everyone else. Those present who smoke, do so. I wish I had never given up. People who have never smoked wish that they could start. The tension is almost unbearable, and then Beckham scores. Everyone cheers and shouts and then it is all over. Neil watches out for the Scotland result. Jeff wonders about the US-Mexico result. There are certain matches I have watched that will always remind me where I was at the time I saw it watching Liverpool lose to Wimbledon in the FA Cup with friends at university, watching Ireland beat Romania in Italia '90 with the woman I would eventually marry, watching England play Argentina in France '98 with my friends. This would join them. I realised that I had forgotten about feeling a bit nervous about not knowing anyone. This was all due to the company, rather than to me.

I leave, and join some of those who are exploring more of Robin Hood's Bay. It is a fascinating place, full of little alleyways and steps and passages. It reminds me of Staithes, a little further up the coast, but rather prettier and better kept. We call in at the off-licence for supplies, and I walk back up to Fylingthorpe with Mark and Dave. People are putting their feet up, having a rest, resting some of the work which people have brought with them. I enjoy spending some time looking through it, and wished that I had the time to read more. As well as the quality of the work, I'm impressed by the diversity. This is one of the things I like most about Storyville; it's to be reinforced later. We phone ahead to the Fylingdales Inn and let them know that a party of fifteen are to descend on them shortly. I think this flusters them somewhat. The Best of the Eighties tape is swapped for the Fifteenth Best of The Seventies tape, perhaps in an attempt to calm things down. When the food finally arrives, it is good. We pass some of the time waiting for the food by investigating a machine which dispenses strange presents. Phil acquires an alien, I win a football which is the world's most useless puzzle, Dawn gets a very fetching necklace, and Trevor meets Dwayne, an event which I suspect could be life-changing.

We wander back to the hall for a night in. The fireplace groans under the weight of the bottles assembled on it. People chat, laugh, discuss things, in little groups and as a whole. This is enjoyable, it is good to be together as a group. Jeff passes round some photographs which entertain everyone, Tamar produces some photographs which include one of a dog stuck to a ceiling, and then Trevor baffles everyone with a series of card tricks, with the assistance of his helper, Dwayne. I'm impressed. It's easy to do such things on the TV, but here I am, a few feet away, and I still can't work out how it's done. Liz reveals that her father is a member of The Magic Circle, and there is much speculation as to the rituals of this shadowy organisation. There's a discussion of the nature of Storyville, and whether this meeting is genuinely Storyville in spirit. Des speculated that the weekend was a fleshly corruption of the true spirit of Storyville. I quite like the idea of being a fleshly corruption.

Then it is time for some creativity. In the best oral traditions, the group invents a story off the cuff, each member contributing a sentence (including Des, even though he is No Longer A Writer), and soon after, just a word. Dwayne emerges as the hero and protagonist of much of this story, which doesn't so much verge on the surreal as plunge into it from the beginning and stay there. Someone remarks that it was a shame that no-one was writing it down. I furtively check my secret tape recorder to make sure it is running. When one of the Storyvillains sold the film rights to their work and was nominated for best screenplay Oscar, then my blackmail attempts would begin. Eventually the story ends, or is put to sleep in a mercy-killing. More drinks are drunk, and there is great speculation as to the uses of irony concerning a subject my English teacher never covered.

Late in the evening, it is time to listen to the stories. There is some uncertainty at first, which I found a relief people whose writing I admired were obviously feeling nervous too. Dave breaks the deadlock by offering to read a couple of stories for people. Mark takes the plunge and offers his up first, and then Gary his, and by then the awkwardness is overcome, and we have two hours that I enjoy as much as any in the weekend. Dave reads both Mark's and Gary's pieces well, and I think that gives confidence to everyone else. I think it was Des who afterwards said that he felt privileged to have been in the room that night. He certainly spoke for me, and I think for everyone else. The quality of the work, the performance of some of the readers, the diversity of styles and subjects I feel very lucky to be there, and know that I will remember it for a long time. As I will the rest of the weekend, but this part, for me, is special. What is so good is not just the excellence of the writing, or the pleasure of hearing it read by the author, but the way in which everyone really *listens* when the work of others is being read, and the enthusiasm and support with which it is received. Towards the end of the evening, I read something of mine. I had almost not, nerves getting in the way. But I know that if I don't I will kick myself for being foolish, so I do. I have to speak in public a lot as part of my job, I've acted in the past and had to speak to an audience of two hundred and fifty, six nights running. But tonight my throat narrows and my mouth dries, and I realise how nervous I must be. The support and warmth of everyone there when I have finished makes me very glad I didn't pass up the opportunity, though. I think that Jeff is the last person to read, and Ambergris seems a fitting place to finish. People drift off to bed, some of us talk a while longer, and then the evening is over. But I will remember it.

The Sunday.

And so all good things pass. There's always a certain sadness to the last day of a trip like this. Even though there are still things to do, conversations to have, and tacky seaside Dracula museums to explore, the end always seems to loom heavy. I was looking forward to going home, as I missed my wife and my son, but I was also sad that such a good weekend was nearly over, and that these people who I had not even met forty-eight hours earlier, would all be going their separate ways.

After breakfast we settle our bills Thorpe Hall was a magical place to stay, and Tamar (and Dawn, I think) deserve so much credit for finding it and doing all the hard work of booking and co-ordinating people and pile into cars to Whitby. It's gusty, but the promised storms have still not materialised. We walk along the cliff, down into the town, and visit the no-not-tacky-at-all Dracula Experience. Dry ice blows, dummies turn round to stare balefully, and someone who is probably in the middle of sixth-form college lurks about menacingly moaning at people. We assume that he works there, although someone does speculate that maybe it's just his hobby. We climb the steps to the abbey, and admire the view. I am carrying my case around, because I know that I will be heading off to the station shortly, and the cars are parked on the other side of town. Lawrence insists on carrying it for a while, and Phil offers too, which I appreciated. We make our way back down into the winding streets of Whitby, and stop for coffee and something to eat. Soon, too soon, I have to make a move. I say aquick goodbye, a very quick goodbye because I hate saying goodbye about as much as I hate saying 'please sing more shanties', and I make my way to the train station. The journey home takes half the time that the journey down took, and my son is there to meet me. I love the way he gets so excited when he sees me, nothing tugs at my heart more. I am home again, and the weekend is over.

Over, but not finished. There are many things that will stay with me. Unfortunately, one of those things is a small monkey that follows me about, lurking in the shadows with red eyes, and shaking its fist at me. Too much green tea, perhaps. Still, whenever I see it, I spit at it. But there are other things. It was good to meet everyone there a nicer, funnier bunch of people I have never met, and I look forward to the next time any of us have a chance to get together. I will remember that Saturday night, that glorious morning spent messing about on the beach, the beauty of the place we stayed in, the incessant hooting of those bastard owls. But something else, too. I'm starting out on something that many of the others have been doing for years, fumbling my way along, making my mistakes, learning as I go. It's hard sometimes, discouraging, easy to lose heart when another rejection arrives. But the level of encouragement I received over the weekend, the level of support, the help and the kind words from so many people, have meant that I have come away from the weekend feeling motivated, feeling that I can keep going, and feeling part of a community of writers. And that, I will always appreciate, and always remember. That and Dwayne, of course.


[1] A cultural artifact[3] akin to the Clangers [2], except rather than being a small pink space creature, he is a large floppy pink and white stuffed cat who comes alive. And excuse me for being a celebrity name-dropper, but my wife knows one of the people who did the voices for the mice on Bagpuss.

[2] Small pink space creatures who live on a moon, an important cultural symbol[3] for British people of a certain age. Apparently maligned in some way by Jeff on the list, hence the gift. Also apparently responsible for Mark's interest in sf. They appear in some of the photos on the 'moon-landing' site.

[3] qv also Noggin The Nog, Ivor the Engine, The Magic Roundabout etc.

[5] Schism. Schismschismschism.

[6] See [7]

[7] See [5]

[8] You shouldn't be reading this footnote, as it is not actually referenced anywhere in the text.

[9] The End.

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