In 2016 the Julia Darling Travel Fellowship was awarded to Manchester writer Michelle Green. The fellowship allowed Michelle to spend three weeks in Hayling Island, which lies off the south coast of England.
Hayling Island, in Hampshire, has always loomed large in my mind. I was born there, and I don’t remember it. My family tell me stories about it, and my imagination fills the gaps. Now, with the help, support and huge encouragement of Julia Darling’s family, friends and collaborators, through the fellowship fund, I am finding fictional worlds in the bus stops and the abandoned WWII bunkers, the beachfront strip and the fading lights of Funland, the immense and changing sky and the huge concrete groynes that crouch on the shore, holding back the sea (for now).
On my first visit I stayed in one of the island’s holiday parks, next to a group of builders on a job away and a handful of families eking out the last of the summer. Caravans to rent or to buy. Seven o’clock bingo, that hypnotic chant of numbers, and I never did win. Down on the seafront, windsurfers carved through the waves and the beach lunged from shingle to the old sand beneath – the bit that keeps being washed away.
I met with Ray and Andy, who took me on a sixty words per minute tour of the island – from back when they were boys, having to get off the bus before it could cross the wooden bridge from the mainland, to now, the quaint whitewashed thatches (‘there’s a smugglers tunnel under that one’) and churchyard full of Russian princesses and émigré artists and Ray’s old bank manager and him from the pub, road traffic accident, remember? There are rumours on every street, tales that aren’t quite confirmed, like the church in the sea, the drugs on the beach. There’s a tenacity here, a pride, and there are no climate change deniers on Hayling Island. Andy reckons they’ve got 200 years if they’re lucky, 100 if not, and until then, the council dredges the shingle from the east shore and ships it back to the west, where it will wash east again by the end of the year.
There’s a tiny train that runs from Eastoke Corner, former home of the penny arcades, to Funland, the amusement park on the seafront. It’s one of those mini trains that’s all polished wood and waving at the people on foot, kept going by the passion of those who care for that heritage and who don’t mind moving slowly. I got on it, the only person in my mini carriage, and there was my name painted on the inside, above the door, in careful yellow capitals. Seaside Railway Michelle. At the other end, I waited for the sun to set, and I walked the beach in the dark, taking night vision pictures of the sand, the sky, the last of the lights from across the water. Dog walkers, packs of kids. A man on his own, fishing Langstone Harbour. That one bit of sand that appears at low tide, the thumb, so inviting, and I walked out as far as I could.
On the hottest day, I spread historic maps and nautical charts all over the library floor, and later recorded the sounds of the shells breaking underfoot. Every time I think about the stories I want to write here, I keep hearing them – the environments as well as the words – and so I’ve come to realise that this collection of short stories will be audio as well as text, housed in some kind of dreamlike, collaged, imagined digital map. Thanks to the incredible support of the fellowship fund, and the wide- open remit I was given for it (have an adventure – this was Bev’s key piece of advice!), I’ve been able to come here wondering, open to whatever I might find… and the ideas keep growing. Later this year I will start working with a sound designer, a digital artist and a literary geographer (!) to make this map of stories grow in multi-dimensions, take it to festivals and libraries and who knows where else – and until then, in memory of one of Hampshire’s great writers, I will be Seaside Railway Michelle, as many times as I can.
Michelle Green is a British-Canadian writer who works in and around Manchester. She began writing spoken word poetry in 2001, with a focus on economy, working class experiences, and queer lives. Her work has been published in a number of anthologies and broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Her debut poetry collection, Knee High Affairs, was published in 2005, followed by a critically acclaimed short story collection, Jebel Marra, in 2015.
The Julia Darling Travel Fellowship is now open for submissions until Wednesday 1 May 2019. Find out more here.