The listeners: Slung Low’s Knowledge Emporium in Jaywick

by Alan Lane

By many measures Jaywick is Britain’s poorest town. A collection of bungalows south of Clacton, it is, regardless of whichever measure you use, an area of some deprivation. Old amusements stand burnt down, many of the streets aren’t really streets in any modern sense and there are few of the contemporary touches of affluence that one might expect. Which is my way of saying that the nearest Costa coffee was 3.4 miles away.

There’s also a defiant air about the place, an almost punch-drunk sense of independence. The last time I was in Jaywick [on one of two research visits to the area, which began Slung Low’s relationship with NTiYN], a confederate flag flew high in a yard above a pile of old boat engines and land rovers. The pile remains the same but now the flag is rainbow, an equally contentious statement in UKIP central.

This narrative, of a town lost and desperate, has been captured by a recent TV documentary. I didn’t see it but it’s the first thing I hear when I arrive and the constant snare drum through our week:

“Are you with the Tele? They can fuck off! They just showed the bullshit. Lying bastards they are, they told us they were doing one thing and then did another.”

There isn’t one person we meet that doesn’t mention it. The television company is hated. They got their easy narrative and scarpered.

I don’t know. I haven’t seen the show. But, beyond any morality, I do know that if you make a film about a community and you end up this hated by your subjects then it’s a pretty short-sighted view of community engagement and documentary making. A slash and burn approach. But maybe that’s the point. The betting is that these places will be burned in the not so distant future and there’s no real risk in being hated by the people who live in Jaywick. Maybe they’re right. Personally I think they should make the same team do a follow up doc in a year’s time but then there’s a reason why I’m not in charge of commissioning at Channel 5.

Whatever your opinion on emotionally manipulative, social vulture, class sneering poverty porn documentaries – and there have to be some folks who like these things because they’re always getting made – we can all agree that they got their narrative and buggered off.

And then, about a month after it aired, Slung Low arrived.

A silver airstream caravan parked up in the centre of the town. In bow ties and candy-striped waistcoats, four of us stood outside. If anyone approaches and asks what we are about then we explain that we are a sweet shop that accepts no money: we trade our sweets (a whole bag of your selection) for your knowledge which you enter – unobserved – in our Great Big Book of Everything That We Know.

Suspicion and open disdain always disappears in the face of actual sweets. Once it’s been ascertained that there is no catch and this is no cruel trick, most people get involved. Most came back day after day with new knowledge for more sweets. A deal is a deal.

That’s the easy part of the Knowledge Emporium. It’s easy because it’s simple and it works. Sweets for knowledge. Everyone loves sweets.

The rest of the week was harder in Jaywick. We struggled. Stood in a candy striped waistcoat, it’s not easy to hide. There was a man who stood in the car park in the town centre shouting, to no one specifically, that the police had come and taken his little son. Again. We ended up talking to him for a while that day – there was no one else about, the town abandoned during the day – but for all the talking I never found anything useful to say to him.

There was the man who came to explain to us that Iceland had sold him mouldy meat and he was going to take it back for a refund. It became clear as we stared at him in confusion that we were as close to authority figures (if your idea of an authority figure wears bowling shoes) that there was around and this rehearsal of his story an important boast of confidence before he got on the bus to argue his case with the supermarket (he got a refund and vouchers).

There was the unbelievably friendly older woman who kept returning day after day. Her pride in her new husband and his various achievements (endlessly told in winding anecdotes) sharpened by the sight of the actual man in front of us withering with Parkinson’s. That she had found someone new to tell all those old stories to had a clear, profound effect on her: a little, rare new audience for her memories. The two of them isolated by his disease, we were – only for a moment, but still – vital.

But it was tough. Not just emotionally draining. We expended a lot of energy combating the various and frequent attempts to steal Alfie the Airstream caravan, and there is a limit to how much aggression that even a neon candy-striped waistcoat can defuse. For all the light and shade we found, Jaywick is the hardest place we’ve ever taken the Knowledge Emporium.

At the end of a residency, we perform a reading of a town’s knowledge. We type up all the knowledge, placing each piece on a scrap of paper, which is then drawn at random from a box and read to an audience. The show is timed according to how long it takes for a member of the audience to cook a tortilla. In Jaywick the reading took place at a village fete thrown to mark the anniversary of one of the Martello Towers opening as a museum and art space. The reading was competing with a local community African drumming band, a very hard working acrobat show and a woman set up just behind the reading who was singing plaintive covers of the hits of the Cranberries. If art can ever be a competition then we lost with this one. The African drums overlay everything, the departing acrobat audience walked right through ours without a second glance and the mournful rendering of already mournful songs still echo in my ears: “LiiiiiiiinGARRRR”. This was not Slung Low’s finest moment.

But that’s OK. The realisation that the Emporium does its real work long before the reading is many years old. The vast majority of people who came to the caravan weren’t at the fete. That’s not a criticism of the fete, nor of the caravan. Wild horses wouldn’t have dragged some of those people to the fete. But regardless, the Emporium had done its work, and performed its important function by simply standing and listening. In a town so full of loneliness and the tangible sense that no is listening and no one cares, the simple act of standing and remaining available was the most useful thing we could have done.

And in standing and listening, what was overwhelming in nearly every conversation we had was how very proud people were of the Jaywick they live in. Not the “we don’t care if other folk hate us” of some towns (Leeds, I’m looking at you), nor the “We’re glorious” (side eyes Manchester), but: “It’s so wonderful here, the people are so kind, we don’t understand why everyone else can’t see it.” If we had read out every comment that talked about how wonderful the sense of community in Jaywick was, the reading would have been a week long.

Jaywick’s knowledge turned out to be made up primarily of how great it is to live there.
As we were reading out the knowledge, I found myself facing directly the area’s councillor who had turned up on a Saturday morning. If we only had one audience (and we weren’t far off at times), then this was the one that made it worth the effort.

Slung Low talks a lot publicly (and certainly within the press) about our large, explosive shows full of fire and politics and vainglory and noise. I cannot express the importance within that context that we give to still doing the Knowledge Emporium: which, if it goes well, doesn’t involve setting fire to anything. The simple usefulness of going to a place, offering a fair trade and listening.

It’s normally reliant on piggybacking on an existing structure: a street festival, a theatre with a progressive marketing budget, Christmas light switch on. Jaywick doesn’t have any of those. Without Fuel’s New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood, there is no way that the Emporium could have gone to Jaywick. As challenging a time as it was, there was a clear sense and understanding that the ground had been prepared for us. Relationships made by Fuel with key people in the community to ensure that there was room for us to stand, hold space and listen. You can’t rock up to a village and look to make any sort of positive impact without real relationships. And Fuel created those relationships and created the space for us to be able to place the Emporium.

Maybe that’s what the TV people were missing. Someone like Fuel, who had taken the time to make the relationships needed to REALLY see what Jaywick is like and who lives there.

Alan Lane is the artistic director of Slung Low.

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