The White Swan

A hundred years ago tonight the collier SS White Swan dropped anchor off Gorleston beach to ride out a storm. She’d left Hartlepool 24 hours before  with a cargo of coal bound for Liverpool. During the night her anchors dragged and she came ashore on Gorleston beach, side-on to the waves, where she still lies today. Though they probably didn’t know it her crew of 22 had reason to thank an earlier Gorleston resident, Captain William Manby, whose house on the High Street is marked by a blue plaque provided by the local history society.


Captain Manby  had an inventive turn of mind.  He was responsible for the ‘Jumping Sheet’ a blanket to catch people leaping from high windows, an unsinkable whaler, a lifeboat made of wicker designed for the rescue of sailors trapped below the ice, and – of more interest to the crew aboard the White Swan – the Manby Mortar. Examples of this squat little cannon were manned by local rocket crews up and down the coast. On the night of the 17th November the Gorleston rocket crew were quickly summoned.  They managed to get a line to the vessel and after 13 hours in atrocious conditions the entire crew were rescued by breeches buoy. The White Swan was the only vessel operated by the Swan Line and with her loss the company duly went into liquidation.

Today the wreck of the White Swan is a hotspot for local fishermen. Beach casters can almost reach her from the shore and kayaks are able to pick their way through the pieces of her superstructure occasionally visible above the waves.


Curiously in its anniversary year the vessel was the subject of another rescue. On the 21st April the coastguard were called out to a report of something in the water off Gorleston beach. It turned out to be the wreck of the White Swan revealed by the falling tide.

Writing and Running

I taught myself to touch type as soon as I started taking writing seriously. My handwriting is largely illegible to other people and after a few days, when I’ve forgotten what I was saying, to me as well. Learning to type was straightforward. I didn’t like the look of the exercises in the typing guides so instead I found out which finger was supposed to operate which key on the typewriter and made sure that’s what I used. After a slow start things improved quickly.  Before too long I was able to type faster than I could write.

But sometimes speed isn’t the problem. If things aren’t going well writing faster isn’t going to help. Sometimes the words won’t come at all, sometimes they come easily but don’t seem to count. It’s at moments like this I tend to reach for my pen. To explain why I need to talk about running.

At school I was a sprinter. Fast over short distances, hopeless at anything over 200m. Sprinting is not a good idea when you’re middle aged and over-weight. So I’d largely discounted running as a way of keeping fit. Then I discovered Park Run – a free Saturday timed 5k run which happens in parks all over the country. It’s informal, friendly and beyond a pair of running shoes doesn’t require any special gear. You run with people of all shapes and sizes, some with dogs on leads, others trundling pushchairs or being dragged along by eight year olds. A couple of hundred people turn out on the cliffs in Gorleston. If you run it in nearby Norwich the pack can often be 500 strong. It isn’t a race, it’s simply a run against your own best time. Inevitably there is pressure to get faster and strive for that elusive PB. Initially I pushed myself a little harder each week  but as my times started to come down I began dreading the next run.  (No pain/No gain has always seemed trumped by No pain/No pain.) Clearly if I was going to run long term I needed a plan.

So instead of trying to run faster, I decided to concentrate on running more smoothly. At once things got better.  I started looking forward to pulling on my running shoes again, and strangely my times didn’t suffer. Something similar happens with writing.

When I pick up my pen I’m forced to slow down. Especially if I take care to form letters on the page properly instead of dropping straight into my usual scrawl.

If my hand slows down then my brain has to slow down too. Because that’s the way writing works. We don’t assemble words in head, sort them into sentences and then write them down.  Writing is like speech in that words are formed (as the linguists have it) at the point of utterance. When you start a sentence you don’t usually know how it’s going to end. You set out on a journey and trust your experience of language – it’s vocabulary, rhythm, and cadence –  will get you safely to where you want to go.  It’s  a creative act with a mechanical component – they physical act of transcription, hand and brain in sync. A good pen makes transcription like painting words onto the paper. It can introduce a meditative element, smoothing out the transcription process. It’s therapeutic. For me this slow, deliberate, hooking up of the writing arm to the writing brain has a way of removing obstacles. Of freeing me up.

There’s something else. Word processing can be undone by a couple of clicks. So there is no real need to commit yourself. If everything can be changed, why worry? But handwriting is indelible. It’s much harder to scatter words in an approximation of what you want to say and edit them into shape. (Though you will anyway.) Somehow with a pen in my hand the temptation to approximate disappears.  Don’t sketch, says the voice in my head,  get it said.

So when things aren’t going well this is what I tell myself.  I can write faster with a keyboard. But I can write better with a pen. Some days it’s even true.

The Breydon Choir

crowther-finaleOne happy spin-off from the Breydon Crowther show was the choir who helped develop the music. The Breydon group began with an informal lunch where we offered a some local singers soup and sandwiches in return for a few hours of their time. The intention was just to let Chris and I hear the first couple of songs we’d produced but the day was such a success we decided to make it a regular part of the development process. As word got round we were approached by other singers. We ended up with a group of 15 drawn from several choirs including Akabella, Sonrisa and Big Sky. The standard was remarkably high.

There was a lovely moment when the professional cast arrived in the final week. The actors had been told they were working with a community choir and it was clear that for the most part they were expecting the singing to be a little rough and ready. Their faces at the choir’s first entry showed how wrong they’d been and gave us our first exciting glimpse of how an audience new to the material might respond.

One of the songs from the show has since been adopted by Akabella and Chris and I are now planning a song cycle so that we can continue working with the singers.

Breydon Crowther

A script-in-in-hand performance of Breydon Crowther, our new musical opened the Great Yarmouth Arts Festival in June this year within sight of Breydon Water where the story is set.

We had hoped for funding from the Arts Council and after they’d turned us down twice we were left with a difficult decision.  We had a handful of songs, a community choir enthusiastic about the material, and a belief that we had a good story to tell. Actually, it wasn’t a difficult decision at all. Composer Chris Warner and I had a brief discussion which lasted all of two minutes and decided to carry on. Essentially, we were going to write an entire musical on spec.

We approached various funding bodies, Eastern Angles and The Broads Authority and managed to raise enough money to fund five actors for a week and a professional director in the shape of Tim Bell (currently touring with his one man show Dame Nature – The Magnificent Bearded Lady). Then we set to work.

The resulting performance went better than we dared hope. A full house with everyone on their feet at the final curtain. The representative from the Broads Authority left with a smile on his face.

Which was good news as they have just won a £2.6 million Heritage Lottery Grant for a project they’ve called Water, Mills and Marshes which is focussed on the exact geographical area where Crowther is set. They wanted some drama input as part of the delivery of this project and put this element out to tender. Eastern Angles put in a strong pitch with Crowther as its centrepiece and got the gig.

So it looks as if our original decision to go ahead without funding has been vindicated. Breydon Crowther will get a full production. The downside is that the project won’t be delivered until 2020, which is not the sort of deadline I like. And there will have to be a deadline because the show will have to be substantially re-written. The show will have to tour. Realistically this couldn’t happen with our orginal forces of 5 actors plus 15 singers and Chris on accordion.  The  new version will be for 5 actor/musicians and a set that can fit in the Eastern Angles van

‘Elf and safety for writers

Some recent research has suggested that sitting is as dangerous as smoking. (Smoking and sitting at the same time is clearly a bad idea.)  This comes as no surprise to most writers. Put two writers in a room and it won’t be long before the conversation turns to backpain.

On a building site there are invariably brightly coloured posters offering advice about hard hats and the importance of not standing under falling hammers.  This is my version for avoiding the hazards of life at the desk.

Obviously evolution has carefully designed us not to sit at desks. So the first thing my poster would say in big letters is THIS IS RIDICULOUS GO AND DO SOMETHING ELSE. This advice is likely to coincide with what friends and relatives have been telling you for years and is something you can safely ignore.

Sitting position. You don’t have to buy a £900 Herman Miller Aeron. But you do need to be able to sit with an open hip joint. That is, your hips should be higher than your knees.  A cheap foam sitting wedge will convert most dining chairs into a back-friendly work chair. This might seem a poor substitute for the all-embracing leather fantasy chair but see below.

Screen position. The top of your screen should be just below eye level. Adjust the font size so that the image comes to you. The resolution should allow you to sit back rather than hunch forward. Your elbows should be at 90 degrees, your wrists relaxed.  Notice this combination of seating and screen position is impossible to achieve with the laptop that everyone uses. Ideally you should plug your laptop in to an external screen, and probably an external keyboard. Or just yourself get a desktop.

Writing slopes. Even if most of what you do happens at the keyboard you will still need space to read scripts, scribble notes, and doodle. So get yourself a writing slope. The sort medieval monks used. Your back will thank you. You can pay proper money for these or you can knock one up out of blockboard. You might find they even encourage you to try using a pen.

Use a pen. All right, you don’t have to use a pen.  But when things aren’t going well I don’t know a better solution than turning away from the screen and picking up a pen. This also allows you to indulge your stationery fetish and your fountain pen fetish at the same time.

Standing. It worked for Philip Roth. Standing to write has a good pedigree. You can buy desks with adjustable heights or you do what I do and stand your writing slope on top of a chest of drawers.

Think movement rather than stillness. The big message here is that you should not be aiming for the perfectly supported position where there is no strain on the body. Because that means you are still and being still is a bad idea. You have to find a way of making your work practices dynamic. The body needs to move. Galen Cranz in a wonderful book called The Chair argues that your workspace should be thought of as a gym rather than somewhere you can support yourself in immobility. It should have a variety of places to work, sitting and standing as well as room to lie on the floor.  Lying on the floor, head slightly raised on a paperback, feet flat on the floor, knees pointing skyward is what you should do when you’ve ignored all of the above. It’s a life-saver.

Schedule breaks. At least every hour. Get up, walk around, take some deep breaths. A view is a bonus for any workplace. Let your eyes focus on the horizon instead of the screen. At low tide I can see seals on Scroby Sands. The seals aren’t essential but the view probably is.

All of this might seem obvious. But it’s easy to lose sight of when you’ve got a deadline looming.  A laptop in bed might work in the short term. But the thing about writing is it’s a long-term game.


Boats heading for the outer harbour come in on a course which lines up with the window where I work.  If it wasn’t for the intervening docks and the river the same course would bring them through the front door and up the stairs. If they’re heading for the river entrance – and most of them are – they approach from the north east instead before disappearing behind the warehouses on the opposite bank of the Yare.  They average some 80m in length and for the most part with their steel hulls, high-tech navigation equipment and powerful diesel engines seem impervious to wind and weather.

Last week I looked up to see something  very different making an approach –  a wooden ketch, twin masted, with a lengthy bowsprit on a course for the river mouth under lashing sails.  It was grey and overcast. A strong wind was whipping up the sea and sending waves crashing onto Scroby Sands. The ship was being flung about by the waves as it struggled towards the shelter of the harbour. It was a scene from the 19th century which had unaccountably surfaced in the 21st.

The Marine traffic website identified the vessel as the Bonawentura an elegant 16m ketch from Poland.  And the Bonawentura was in trouble. She was getting closer to the shore, but was failing to make headway.  I didn’t know it at the time but she’d suffered engine failure and was in the process of being driven onto the rocks that made up the enclosing arm of the Outer Harbour. Before I’d managed to work out just how much trouble she was in – I could see she wasn’t going to make the river on her current course – the Gorleston all-weather lifeboat Sarmarbeta arrived at high speed.

From here on it was a race against time. After some tricky manoeuvering the crew managed to get a line on board and with very little room to spare hauled the Bonawentura backwards away from the rocks. With the immediate danger over they managed to fix up a more orthodox tow and bring the vessel home. Andrew Wilson’s Marine Traffic photo catches her arrival off Gorleston.



SW Scroby

At night, from my upstairs window, I can see the flashing light of the SW Scroby buoy. Throughout the hours of darkness its green eye blinks unwaveringly every 2.5 seconds. To my right – partially obscured this evening by the superstructure of a wind farm service vessel – is the next buoy in the chain  marking the edge of the channel formed by Yarmouth Roads and Gorleston Roads:  the  W Corton buoy.  The W Corton buoy has a green light too, but it’s easy to tell them apart. Instead of SW Scroby’s regular pulse, W Corton flashes three times in bursts ten seconds apart.

Beyond the channel lie the shifting hazards of Scroby and Corton Sands. Maritime charts of these waters carry a warning. Charted depths are not to be trusted.  A 2011 survey revealed that waters whose charted depths were 12 m were now showing a drying height of 0.3m.  Or to put it another way, where there ought to have been enough water to take the 148,000 tonnes of the Queen Mary 2 a foot of dry sand was showing above the waves.

The view was a surprise. At ground level the tiny terraced house looks out on to the blank brick wall of an industrial unit. The street narrows to 6’6″ at the far end but here is just wide enough to take a line of parked cars straddling the narrow pavement and pressing against the chain link fence. At first floor level you are above the corrugated asbestos of the adjacent roof. From here you can see the river and the quayside that makes up part of the port of Great Yarmouth. At times it’s lined with service and general cargo vessels, at others it’s deserted. Beyond the quay are warehouses, South Denes Road, and finally, the sea.   I can watch waves breaking on Scroby Sands and the occasional vessel making its way into the Outer Harbour.

This was my new world. Or at least the portion visible from the window of what inevitably became my study.

This, I remember thinking, this is going to be ok.