Every piece of nonfiction I've ever written couldn't fit into my nonfiction collection, forthcoming from Monkey Brain Books. Some couldn't fit because they seemed more personal and less about science fiction, fantasy, or horror. One of these is my account of the Storyville Weekend in Robin's Hood Bay, England. Storyville, a group of writers and artists who communicated via an e-mail distribution list, was for several years central to my daily existence. It was a great avalanche of ideas and jokes and serious and nonserious discussions about writing. Through it, I got to better know Des Lewis, Liz Williams, Mark Roberts, Tamar Yellin, Keith Brooke, Neil Williamson, and many, many others (some of whom I'd known before, but stayed in more constant contact with due to Storyville). Eventually, Storyville weekends ensued, many times in England, because most of the members were from England or Scotland. For one of these weekends, a few years ago, I managed to make it across the pond. And this is my account of our weekend, which I freely admit may be of no interest to anyone but myself. That's the great thing about a blog--ephemeral, fluid, self-indulgent, and ultimately skippable if one wants to skip an entry...
P.S. WorldCon upset my reading momentum, but I'll be getting back into Mortal Love, etc., very soon...
My Storyville Weekend
On the plane over, I finally read the little safety brochures and was startled to learn that “the body expands slightly while in the air”—which could explain why my thigh was using the remote control embedded in the arm rest of the seat to order movies and TV programming, because it certainly wasn’t doing that before I got on the plane. Before that, it was a relatively technology-challenged thigh.
But the Storyville weekend didn’t start with the plane flight and the eight hours of listening to the hyena behind me chortle at his entertainment screen while clapping like a wind up monkey. It didn’t start with the funny look that the passport checker at Gatwick Airport gave me when he turned to the passport photo and found a hundred dollar bill beside it (“I was just trying to hide my money in different places,” I told him unconvincingly.) It didn’t start with Mark Roberts meeting me at the airport. It didn’t start with meeting Liz Williams, Gary Couzens, Trevor Mendham, and Rosanne Rabinowitz at King’s Cross Station. It didn’t even start when we boarded the train to York, or when, onboard the train, Lawrence Dyer sought us out to let us know he and Des Lewis were five cars up (Des, as befits a king, deigned not to go tramping up five carriages just on the off-chance of finding people he’d see anyway later—besides, we were just pulling up to York.) No, the weekend started with none of these things, nor with meeting Tamar Yellin, who picked us up at York and drove us the rest of the way. At that point, for me, everything was dreamlike and me a spectator wondering how to become a participant.
No, the Storyville Weekend began for me when, winding our way through rolling hills clumped with brown heather and, far off in the distance, an odd triangular obelisk of concrete (national security-related, of course), the car rounded a bend and—breath caught, gaze caught, between heartbeats—there, spread out before us, Robin Hood’s Bay: the miraculous long line of the cliffs topped with green, the dark blue of water flecked with the white of waves, the line where the dark blue met the light blue of the sky, and that point from which the sun suffused the town of stone buildings, sheltered by the bay, with an antique light. The light looked painted on, each rooftop individually lacquered in rich tones of brown and deep red. There was a collective gasp—it was so unexpected and yet so complete, no slow revelation over time, but all there, of a piece, and beautiful. I began to smile. Now it was real even as it became unreal—what could be more perfect than this place that looked like it had come out of an old story, with cobblestone streets and grizzled sea-goers in sturdy boats. Selkies and storms. Ghosts and tragic love.
Tamar drove Mark and me to our bed-and-breakfast, whereupon a little of the beauty faded even as the mystery deepened: Neither Mark nor I could open the gate to the place. We struggled with it like we were auditioning for parts as the apes in 2001 until Tamar, Homo sapiens to our Neanderthal, got out of the car, walked up to the gate, and opened it in about five seconds. Mark and I hooted our appreciation and scratched our armpits, knowing that we would not be consulted on the opening of doors, wine bottles, or much else for quite some time. Tamar drove away to the main bed-and-breakfast, Thorpe Hall, whilst Mark and I, quite chastened, set up digs in our respective rooms. Of our bed-and-breakfast, I know only these things: Gary stayed there too; it was luminous with light that cascaded off the burnt-red wood of the interior; it contained two spastic, crotch-sniffing black Labradors; the walls were covered with pictures of the owner’s family in various pseudo-Victorian settings, almost certainly taken at amusement parks in the United States; the bathroom was bigger than the bedroom and contained several pieces of equipment that were foreign to me; for some inexplicable reason, the owner’s wife told me she would bring milk up to my room, eliciting from me as much of a raised eyebrow as if she had said she would bring up a rubber chicken post haste; and the first night, I discovered a large butterfly fluttering around my room, its wings quickly losing luster, and grabbed a supposedly empty box on the cabinet top, captured the butterfly within, closed the top, opened my window, and cast the contents of the box out into the night...from the sounds of things hitting the pavement below, there must have been a whole division of tin soldiers inside of it (but, in the morning: nothing on the footpath below; had the proprietors protected me from my own embarrassment or had the sheep that baaed outside the window from across the street snuck over the gate in the night and cleaned up?).
Refreshed, memories of the gate disaster fast fading, Mark and I, joined by Gary, headed for Thorpe Hall, where everyone else was staying. The weather was good, despite the forecasts of doom-and-gloom. The shops, the houses, the green hills, all smiled with light.
But Thorpe Hall was empty. Mark and Gary and I knocked once, twice, then entered...to find that our fellow Storyvilleans had apparently been transformed into printed words: a Storyville library was laid out in the window seat of one of the sitting rooms. The lights were all on. The chairs gave the impression of having been used recently. Mark and I looked at each other. Somehow the nervousness of meeting Storyvilleans increased with this silence. Leaving The Shining to itself, we walked around back, where the crunch of gravel and the rise of voices reassured us. And then it was greetings all around and the first tentative words of hello. Dave Matthews, Phil, and Neil Williams had not yet arrived, but otherwise, it was a full convocation of Storyville: Tamar, Lawrence, Gary, Mark, Dawn Andrews, Des, Keith Brooke, Rosanne, Liz, Trevor, Iain Rowan, and myself. (Milling; indecisive; herdlike—yes, Storyville in the flesh was a many-headed beast that in an emergency would have died to the last word, but although many jokingly remarked on the amount of time it took to make a decision, this was not really the result of indecisiveness but because we were all in continuous conversation; decisions did not seem as important as communication.)
So, after some thought, Tamar led us down into Robin Hood’s Bay, dusk descending over the sea, dimming the light atop the buildings. Rambling along sidewalks, through what appeared to be people’s yards (!?), up cobblestone streets, clomping down steep stairs, we made our way to The Dolphin for dinner. The Dolphin was, for an American like me, the prototypical English pub—close quarters, dark wooden beams, an assortment of chairs and red-topped stools, rows of beer cans (including Monty Python Holy Grail beer), and solid food like fish-and-chips, mushroom-and-steak pie, and blood pudding. In The Dolphin, sitting at one long table with two small circular tables pulled up as well, conversation that had been perhaps stilted at times became natural, as we all seemed to relax and enjoy the moment. Most Storyvilleans chose beer, but having experienced a rather awful beer-related incident some eight years before and still scarred, I chose cider (I had to be careful with this, though—the sneaky Brits had made their cider as strong as some beers, something I did not realize until, at dinner in London Thursday night, I had four pints before noticing that for some reason my legs were not working the way legs were supposed to work, but more like the segmented dry twigs of a praying mantis.)
Into this atmosphere of good cheer, we welcomed the appearance of a traditional folk group: Monkey’s Fist. Ironically, I think we stayed longer than we would have just to get a glimpse of them. Around 8:30 p.m., they and their hangers-on and groupies entered the dining area. The Monkey’s Fist numbered four, their manager presumably being the thumb of the fist. All four were large men with bellies of varying pedigree. All four wore the Monkey’s Fist uniform—a t-shirt with some sort of monkey fist logo on the front and a series of what looked like monkey pictograms of monkeys in various states of monkey inebriation on the back. Two of the four Monkey Fists had their eyeglasses shoved into the front of their t-shirts. Disheveled beards were prominent, eliciting a disgusted look from the anti-hirsute revolutionary Tamar (who, having produced a beret, a cigar, and a riding crop, had just the moment before been delivering a manifesto against the production of hair upon the chin). Promisingly, one Monkey’s Fist had a guitar. I have always been of the opinion that, just as Chekhov believed a gun produced in the first act should be fired by the third, a guitar introduced at the beginning of a set should be played during the set. I hunched over on my stool, wedged between an optimistic Trevor and Iain, waiting for the show to start. As the tremulous notes broke over us, as the thunderous voices wailed their ancient sea shanties, as the full weight of Monkey’s Fist crashed down upon us...I realized I wasn’t enjoying it quite as much as I had hoped—although it took awhile to understand this because Des seemed to love it, which automatically made me wonder if I wasn’t missing something. The reason for my discomfort? For one thing, most of the songs sounded remarkably similar. For another, some of the lyrics—perhaps misunderstood by my American ears—were...suspect. Something about hanging grandmothers or tadpoles at one point. Monkey’s Fist then introduced a song “as in the Native American tradition,” only to subject us to yet another song in the same mode as the others. I simply cannot believe that when Custer was making his last stand, the Apaches taunted him with Old English sea shanties. However, perhaps the biggest disappointment was the lack of guitar playing. Except for one song, MF sung without accompaniment, the forlorn guitar forgotten, slung across the smallest MF’s shoulder.
Mark and Keith had been whispering to each other, their backs to Monkey’s Fist as they hunched over on their stools. Suddenly, about halfway through the set, as a song ended, the band’s manager stood up and pointedly asked them to please be quiet during the performance. If Mark and Keith had been quiet before this, they were positively funereal thereafter. They stared down at the floor in melancholy embarrassment as if all hope had left them. They could not have looked more depressed if they’d been ghosts hovering over their own corpses. Which, of course, made them immensely amusing to the rest of us.
As soon as we could politely do so and still find out who had won the raffle we had been gang-pressed into, we slipped out of the dining area, down the stairs, and into the night, there to laughingly incorporate Monkey’s Fist into the Storyville mythos. (We did see Monkey’s Fist again, not two blocks from The Dolphin, on Saturday, performing in front of some fishing boats. I had a sudden flash of paranoia, scenes from the movie Wicker Man playing out in my mind. Perhaps we were doomed to encounter them on Sunday, too, from even farther away, our fate by then decided, the inhabitants of Robin Hood’s Bay having woven us into the flammable surface of some immense monkey, symbolic of a May Day celebration postponed just in case fourteen or fifteen obnoxious writer/artist-types showed up in October.)
As penance for our mockery of Monkey’s Fist, the walk back proved to be a Bhutan death march of a trudge, up an incline I could have sworn had been less steep on the way down. Conversation died away as everyone concentrated on one more huffing breath, one more trembling step. The night was cool but not cold, the light of lamps and stars diffuse. The taste of sea air invigorated us with its energy.
More and more, the weekend began to seem like some sort of twisted exercise course intended to whip all of us Storyvilleans into shape. Down that hill, up this mountain, through this person’s yard, always steep descents and steeper ascents. My quads quite approved even as my lungs told me there must be a way to install escalators in this place.
At the next pub, Neil and Phil showed up after a five-hour drive from Glasgow, Phil in a trademark colorful shirt of the type I used to wear when I didn’t work for a tie-and-suit business and Neil his usual unfazed cool self. While Neil talked to Tamar about her novel, I quizzed a suddenly inscrutable Des about Nemonymous. “Who’s in it?” “Don’t know.” “Will you be advertising it?” “No.” “Will you be sending it out to reviewers?” “I was thinking about it. Possibly.” For the record, Des also claimed not to be a writer, despite over a thousand stories in print. My questions might have irritated someone else, but Des was gracious enough to take it in good humor.
After the pub, we all walked back to Thorpe Hall, there to talk in the sitting room until midnight, whereupon Mark, Gary, and I went back to our digs, hoping to get some rest in preparation for Saturday.
Saturday...the day of greatest Storyville Joy and the day of what some dubbed the Great Schism. I woke in a state of intense restlessness, almost a panic. There were a couple of reasons for this. The first had to do with the forced march of almost fifty thousand words of new fiction for an Ambergris collection, completed the day before I had boarded the plane. Over ten weeks, there had not been a day that I had not typed or scrawled words, many times opening a vein in my wrist to do so. I was still shivering and shimmering with the echoes of words. My fingertips tingled with the imprint of letters. Somehow, finishing the material had not satisfied the lust. I was still writing story fragments in my head, too exhausted for it to make any sense—literary heat lightning.
The second reason was that even by Friday night I had become acutely aware that the weekend was already slipping by—that there were only so many hours left to spend with my fellow Storyvilleans, many of whom I might not see again for years, depending on finances and circumstances.
That morning, it seemed tragic that there would be two separate Storyvilles: one for those who wanted to putter around the beach looking in tidal pools and flying Phil’s kite and one for those who wanted to hike up to the cliffs and only then, gluttons for exercise, descend to the beach below. Although it meant some would experience events and conversations the others could only guess at, it also meant some small measure of security: it seemed impossible that both groups could be snuffed out, given that splitting Storyvilleans into two groups gave each more speed in reacting to emergency situations...
I decided on the hike, along with Tamar, Garry, Lawrence, Mark, Neil, Rosanne, Iain, Keith, Rosanne, Lawrence, Liz et al. The weather, again, was profoundly perfect, the sky a reflected bowl of blue above a bay at low tide, strips of rock and sand stretching out well into the sea. The ascent to the top of the cliff consisted of a murderous aerobics once again, the steps muddy and steep. Lawrence and Tamar led, good naturedly disagreeing on the composition of the stones beneath our feet and the amount of time it would take for the foothills beyond the cliffs to become proper hills. The rest of us followed behind in little gaggles of groups, tromping over rocks and grass, over farmer’s fences (although Mark and I did have a little trouble with the gates, of course), through areas where interlocking bushes formed a tunnel with a door of light at the end. The vegetation had a depth of green not found in washed-out semi-tropical Florida, where all plants appear as if they have been in a life-and-death fight with the sun. The wind off the ocean sustained us. At one point, Mark posed by a farm gate like some designer-clothes-clad avant garde farmer, doing a series of absurd accents for our amusement.
Defeated by the welter of gates and by warning signs posted by farmers, Lawrence and Tamar eventually brought us back to the sea, our path lowering to the Boggle, where we lost Mark, Liz, and Keith to the appeal of the beach. By the time the rest of us made it back down to the beach, around 11:00 a.m., we were four: Tamar, Lawrence, Iain, and me. I took advantage of the low tide to walk out as far as I could, staring down into the tidal pools as I shuffled along: sea anemones, tiny writhing red worms, limpets, dark green kelp-like seaweed, oddly-shaped stones. The sky enormous above me, the sea restless and sly. The cliffs seemed small from that vantage. The town of Robin Hood’s Bay had been reduced to a few patches of brown-red roofs. I kept walking, driven by nothing in particular except the need to keep walking. There’s something about the natural world, when you can make a case for being all alone, that brings up emotions that have nothing to do with words. One of my purest, most pleasurable memories of growing up in the Fiji Islands is of walking out on to the reefs for hours at a time, sometimes a mile from shore. Any time I can come close to that experience, I am beyond happy.
After awhile, remembering a distressing Storyvillean utterance about fickle tides and being cut off from shore, I walked back to where Lawrence, Tamar, and Iain were looking for shells and fossils. Lawrence had found a fossilized mantle of a creature that is the ancestor of the squid and was kind enough to offer it to me. A fossilized squid! I couldn’t believe it. On any other day, that would have been the highlight.
We slowly made our way back to town, where the beach-dwelling Storyvilleans plied us with stories of Phil’s breakdancing kite. Back at The Dolphin for a much-needed lunch, we found that a sub-Schism had developed: Dave (just arrived), Mark, Neil, and Keith intended to dig in to their position opposite the television and remain there until after the conclusion of the England-Greece game. The rest of us wandered Robin’s Bay during this time—although Lawrence and I could not resist ducking in for the last 30 minutes of the game, managing to see three of the four goals scored—not knowing that, really, all of it was just preamble to the night. During this interlude, we visited bookstores and cafes. Des found an anthology that contained one of his stories. I found a treasure trove of novels by the long-forgotten mid-80s writer Stuart Gordon, whose Smile on the Void is one of my favorite books.
By mid to late afternoon, I found myself disengaging from my companions on-and-off for a few hours, content to just observe conversations, to notice a turn of phrase, a mannerism, faces. A sense of melancholy overtook me, a sense that it would all be over soon and knowing that I had rarely been in such enjoyable company. I found myself thinking of everyone with a general deep affection, from Des and his owl eyes to Neil’s subtle flashes of amusement to Tamar’s continual almost-smile, to...just the way the community in cyberspace had so seamlessly formed a community in the flesh. Dawn describing her latest work to me. Liz talking about her parents’ reaction to her novel. Rosanne on Doris Lessing. Iain describing his novel in progress. Gary on Eastercon. Phil and I discussing Robyn Hitchcock. Lawrence explaining fossils, talking about his book A Cottage on the Moss. Keith and I comparing old publishing scars. And a hundred other little moments as well. There’s really no way to capture such things in print.
That evening displayed Storyville at its finest, everything slipping into present tense. Having sequestered ourselves in the Thorpe Hall’s main sitting room, along with several dozen bottles of various types of alcohol, we begin by reading from among the books, magazines, and manuscripts left by the window seat: the Storyville library. And a rich, varied library it is—as wonderfully chaotic as Storyville itself. As I read through the materials, I am amazed by the depth of it all.
After much playful and clever conversation, I experienced a bit of embarrassment when it turns out Tamar was just joking about wanting to see baby pictures, etc. “Tamar,” I say, “you left off the emoticon! No emoticon! I didn’t know you were joking.” Tamar has brought photos of her husband, her dog, her house. I have brought sixty plus photos of various Vander-chagrin, from baby photos to high school photos to current photos of me dressed up for Halloween as Don King. I’m in diapers in some photos, dammit! I’m sure I’m turning red. As Tamar passes them around, I hope hopelessly that no one thinks I’m an arrogant bastard, but it’s probably too late. “I was coerced,” I want to say. “There was no emoticon!”
As preamble to the rest of the festivities, Trevor does card tricks with the help of a kingly finger puppet. The tricks are excellent and the puppet surreal.
Then comes the storytelling, beginning with the idea of each person in the circle composing a sentence of a story. This becomes quite hilarious, but is hard to follow and so we decide to try a story where each person just contributes the next word. The story that slowly takes form from this involves characters named Trevor, Duane, as well as squid, a hamster, and sex change operations. Des surprises by mostly contributing words having to do with sex. Liz sits back in a corner of a couch and produces an unrelenting list of strong verbs and nouns. Gary goes for the more obscure approach and contributes many byzantine words that cut hilariously against the simplicity of other entries. Iain, to my right, puts me in a bad position, seeing as I have lost any imaginative capacities I might have had sometime earlier in the day, with a series of strong words that force me into a “bridging” capacity—I think I say the word “through” at least thrice, which makes for tough times to my left, where Keith sits, staring up at me in my chair, a smile on his face as he hopes I’ll give him something better to work with than “an” or “the”. Over time, this drives me nearly insane with laughter. I’ll stare down at Keith and Keith will know exactly what’s coming—yet another retarded Vander “through”—and, though long-suffering, will devise some suitable revenge in the form of a brilliant response...which Neil will then run through his exceedingly devious Scottish brain and transform with his next work into another context altogether, followed by Gary’s OED word, followed by Rosanne’s vibrant variation, Dave’s analysis prior to adding his own, Lawrence, Trevor, Tamar, Dawn, Phil, and so on...At one point, we are debating the viability of such terms as “sarcastic wank” and “ironic wank,” although I cannot remember if this occurred during the single word story or before or after. The room’s spinning a little from the motion of all these words going around the circle.
Eventually, dizzy with the horrible and incoherent travails of the characters Trevor and Duane, convinced we will never be able to explain any of this to non-present Storyvilleans, we stop. (Somewhere around this time, I believe Liz gifted me with a pink mouse or “clanger” from a BBC children’s show—much to my enduring delight. I must again officially retract anything I might have conveyed in email form indicating a dislike for clangers. Clangers are marvelous creatures.)
If the word-by-word story had been sublimely silly, then the story reading was seriously sublime. I’m not a big fan of extended readings—I have the attention span of a vole—but there was something magical about that evening where everything seemed to work, each story commenting on the next. I sat back with my wine and let the words wash over me, trying to fix readers’ faces in memory. What impressed us all was the quality of prose that was, in each case, substantially different, underscoring the diverse strengths of Storyville. Dave, Mark, and Lawrence read stories by those who did not want to read their own and did a magnificent job. It was one in the morning before we finished and I know everyone was tired, but story by story, the readings had been the perfect capper on the evening. As Neil said, “I am full of words.” Glutted on them. A few of us soldiered on after most of the others had gone to bed, tired, intoxicated, but unwilling to let it end, until not one word was left to be said.
Finally, it was just Mark and me heading back to our lodgings, me directing Mark out of the way of several cars that, although stationary, seemed to be giving Mark some problems. It had gotten very cold (at least for me) and the stars were hard and bright. I was relishing the chill, enjoying the way the few streetlamps spread their shadows, amused by the small tufts of white on the dark green fields that signified sheep. It was that part of the night that you never really want to end, the part where silence is a companion and, after a night of literary stimulation, your mind works at a hundred miles an hour. You’re energized by the company of others and you’re full of images and memories that you keep replaying, but even that is not enough. I seriously thought about returning to Thorpe Hall and convincing someone to come back down from their rooms and walk the streets, the cars touched by shadow, the cobblestones dark with shadow, the fields sighing under the light gasp of wind, our breath appearing before us. I wanted desperately to do something. I wanted to write. I wanted to pour that sense of companionship and solitude onto the page.
At first, it looked like the garden behind the bed and breakfast would be a good place to sit and write—Mark said he’d sit with me awhile, although I could tell he needed sleep—but the moment we stepped out onto the garden, flood lights came on and spoiled the mood entirely, making us laugh.
So for hours I sat in bed with a notebook and pen and wrote fitful sentences that in no way did what I wanted them to do. The best of the worst of it was the following:
He sometimes had a strange longing for another life—a life he received inklings of in the small hours of the night, in a stray sentence of conversation curling around the corner from him on the subway. A chance meeting on a crowded street. A life that we never truly find our way to, too enraptured or entangled in the life we have already chosen or that has chosen us. [Note: This eventually wound up in my story “Secret Life”.]
After awhile, I snuck out for an hour or so, prowling up and down the streets, not looking for anything, but trying to find a way through to write what I wanted to write. A way to rapture. It never came, just left an ache that still has me wanting to write—feverishly.
Sunday went even faster than Saturday, as we drove into Whitby, there to explore the Dracula Experience. Neil won the unofficial Vanderprize for best reaction to the masked man paid to step out and scare us all amongst the dusty plastic exhibits: he simultaneously took a step back and forward, arms held out ahead of him in a classic martial arts defensive move that I have to think was subconsciously learned from some film. We also walked up to the Whitby Abbey, with its strangely weathered gravestones (one last bit of Storyville exercise). Perhaps the funniest thing on Sunday was watching Neil’s face light up as he crafted a story around the idea of the wild hamsters of Scarborough (with additional fabrications from Keith, Mark, and me), Whitby’s major landmarks eventually incorporated into the myth.
After the abbey, we had lunch in Whitby and talked about the “war” on terrorism. Iain left us during lunch, headed for the train station, first of the many disappearances that day. The rest of us eventually headed for the cars and York station, there to disperse to our various trains, Neil and Phil back to Glasgow by car. One last drink in the station café—holding the clanger up to Tamar’s ear like a seashell—and then into the station. Dave, Mark, Trevor, and I were on the same train. The rest had left, except for Tamar, Keith, Lawrence, and Des. I shook hands and exchanged hugs. I was still working through these feelings of needing to write...something...and the thought that I might never see these people again was just too much. I couldn’t deal with it. As I walked to the train, I looked back, hoping to hold some semblance of Storyville in my head, in the flesh...and then they were gone and we were on the train, heading back to London.
Storyville reduced to four: Mark, Trevor, Dave, and me. Then just Mark, Trevor, and me. Then just Mark and me, as the journey had started, leaving Trevor on a rain-soaked train platform as we made for the last stretch of the journey. The weather on the way back was horrible—rain lashing the train windows, skies black as night. As Mark’s wife drove us home, I kept having this daydream that could not at first be dislodged. In it, I write at a desk by an open window and through the window I can see Robin Hood’s Bay. The wind is chill off the sea. The waves lash the rocks. It is my room. I am renting it. And all across the town, other Storyvilleans have rented other rooms, so that we can always be Storyville in the flesh, not just an electronic ghost reanimated into flesh every so often.
These are the kinds of thoughts you have after meeting wonderful people. They are by nature bittersweet. They take awhile to fade. If you’re lucky, you write them down before they disappear entirely.