‘Then the lapwing sang, and it sang of eloquences and springs. It sang of the genteel and the waters. It sang of tulips and tea blends, and when Kenny went to speak the lapwing had taken all his words, leaving him no voice for his own story.’ From Haunt.
Harrogate. The English Spa with an air of opulence. Entertainments available include afternoon tea at Betty’s or walks through the elegant valley gardens. Yet there is another side to this most genteel town – for five years voted one of the happiest places to live. This side is rarely acknowledged or discussed; many people in Harrogate experience homelessness or vulnerable housing – far more than might be expected for a town with such an enviable reputation.
I know this personally. At 16 (just before my GCSEs) I was kicked out of home, spending three years either with no fixed abode or in bedsits. In Harrogate, bedsits tend to be in large town houses associated with the Spa’s opulent past. In cheap, vulnerable, accommodation you are haunted by Harrogate’s other wealthier identity in the fixtures, fittings and very walls of the building. Many sleeping rough bed down in woods or fields on the edge of town, so they too are not visible. A study by Harrogate Homeless Project (HHP) found over 60% of residents surveyed believed there was no homelessness in the town, or very little. These stories are hidden from most of Harrogate’s population, in houses whose multiple-occupancy can only be recognised by the cluster of doorbells on the outside wall. In these bedsits the town is a spectral presence that can appear suddenly, as all ghosts do, in the form of an evicting landlord, or a hungry and expensive electrical meter causing lights to cut out, like a manifesting poltergeist. People living in a town known for healing are not healed.
The idea for Haunt, the collaborative writing and performance project that started in late 2014 and ran in Harrogate until July 2016, grew out of my own experiences, and my realisation of how homelessness is hidden in the town. The name Haunt reflects three aspects of being homeless or vulnerably housed in a place like Harrogate. Firstly, it encapsulates the idea of being haunted by the identity of the town. The name also reflects being haunted by our own experiences, as well as haunts as somewhere people gather.
Haunt was developed with Imove Arts, an arts company with a focus on human movement in specific spaces, a perfect fit for Haunt, a project exploring how people move in and out of accommodation. My fellow author Becky Cherriman, who experienced homelessness in Harrogate whilst a teenager, was involved in creating Haunt. From the start Haunt was seen as having three stages. We would start by running writing workshops for people experiencing homelessness, then publish their work in an anthology alongside stories and poems by myself and Becky. The final stage was to use all the work created throughout the project to develop a site specific theatre performance, bringing the audience through a different Harrogate, into a bedsit space.
Our core principle was that people experiencing homelessness should have space to tell their own stories in their own words. Working with Harrogate Homeless Project, the local homelessness charity, and Foundation UK, who support young people at risk of homelessness in Harrogate, Becky and I visited drop-in centres and hostels. We had conversations there, and these were the key to the project. Firstly, they allowed people to speak for themselves – to say what they wanted to say in places they felt comfortable. Secondly, it allowed us to talk about our own experiences, share our common ground, and show we were not imposing a preconceived view.
The workshops ran over six weeks. Sessions varied from free writing about Harrogate to a ‘Hauntological’ walk around the town. The walk used disruptive ways of seeing the town (for example imagining a ship docking at Harrogate pier, choosing a distant building to pick up and put in a pocket, and discussing the fires that have affected the Majestic Hotel, (a major symbol of Harrogate’s past opulence). In another session we asked participants to think of Harrogate as a person. What would they eat? How would they speak? What would their hair be like? What shoes would they wear?
Life for people in precarious accommodation can be chaotic, so at the end of each session we secured permission to use work in later stages of Haunt.
The sessions were very positive. One (anonymous) participant wrote a beautiful poem, his first creative writing since school:
The river runs through the woods,
past the old oak trees,
a place to reflect.
Another participant, Nathan, delivered a visceral spoken word performance:
You sit there looking at me through the glass like I’m something off the bottom of your shoe which you probably got from Primark but you still think you’re better than me. Harrogate is beautiful but you make it ugly.
Combining the stories with work by myself and Becky, we next published an anthology with very specific design requirements. The book was pocket-sized, so participants who were rough-sleeping could carry a copy. The font chosen was from a 1920s brochure promoting Harrogate, embedding participants’ words in the town’s history.
Harrogate Museums invited us to contribute Haunt work to the Royal Pump Room Museum’s Harrogate Stories exhibition, as well as hold our anthology launch there. This was significant in that it recognised the importance of these experiences, and moved them into the core narrative of the town. We held pop-up readings at the cafés Bean & Bud and Corrina’s, and held an exhibition of photographs by Paul Floyd Blake, portrait photographer and winner of the 2009 NPG/Taylor Wessing National Portrait Prize. With these events, we attempted to disrupt the single narrative of Harrogate as a wealthy spa town.
The final stage was a site-specific theatre piece, involving projection artists, physical performers, sound designers and, most importantly, project participants’ words. This took the form of a ghost walk through Harrogate. The performances happened three times a day over three days in late June, early July. The events were ticketed and part of the Two’s Company programme of site specific theatre run by Harrogate Theatre. The event was advertised nationally and selected by The Guardian as one of the top five theatre tickets for the week.
The audience wore headphones to hear the soundtrack, and to separate them from the wider public. The walk started at the Royal Pump Room Museum, surrounded by the scent of sulphur water, with historical voices who could be part of a normal ghost walk. Partway through these voices became disrupted: first by stories of homelessness from the 1960s (this was the story of a contributor’s sister), then by modern stories of those experiencing homelessness. The walk concluded at an installation of a bedsit set up in a room in the basement of the Carnegie Library building, a strong central symbol of Harrogate and feet away from a small park where people experiencing homelessness congregate. In the claustrophobic bedsit setting, inspired by some of my own teenage accommodation (with mattress on the floor, empty cans and full ashtrays), the audience members realised that they were playing the role of the ghosts of Harrogate, haunting the performers.
I was pregnant
This was the Sixties
Meant to be swinging
Sandie Shaw and Petula Clark
Did not live like me. (Richard H.)
Haunt had two clear aims. The first was to give people whose voices are not often heard in Harrogate a chance to write about their own experiences and have those stories, poems and experiences brought to a wider audience. With the anthology, inclusion in the Harrogate Stories exhibition, and shortlisting for the Saboteur Awards, we achieved this goal.
The second aim was to use the disruptive methods of pop up readings, exhibitions and site specific performances to jar peoples’ attention toward the homeless and vulnerably housed part of their community they might not be paying attention to. Again we succeeded, and set off several conversations and shifted perceptions.
On a personal level, Haunt was a chance to explore a town that had a huge impact on me, even when I was living no fixed abode and didn’t necessarily feel part of the wider community. Through the project we met many people. I met my 16 year old self and saw how much things can change.
Haunt shows the impact writing projects can have by allowing participants who are not writers to find their own voices, and by including their stories in the narrative of a town. Stories build empathy. An audience can learn to see homeless people in these situations not as an unknowable other, but as parents, plasterers, gardeners, pet-owners – as fellow residents. As people like them.
Our Sundays were the opened-up
dog ends of rollies, bedsit gravel
and guitar – even Leeds was forever just out of
reach. This town has ways
of paralysing its young. (Becky Cherriman, Our Harrogate from Haunt)
To generate interest in the project amongst people experiencing homelessness or vulnerable housing, we ‘strewed’ envelopes containing quotes about Harrogate (“…a wild common, bare and bleak, without tree or shrub or the least signs of cultivation.” Tobias Smollett 1771) and old photos about Harrogate, (for example about the Bower Road Bridge collapse In 1862), pencils and blank paper, so people could start writing about the town as they experienced it.
We left origami dragons (To echo Dragon Road and Dragon Parade in the town) and birds (paper ghosts of the pigeons and jackdaws that congregate in the centre every sunrise) with questions written on such as “If you could fly away, where would you fly to?” to kickstart conversations. We used large A0 sized maps to collect quotes and stories about places important to people. The origami, maps and quotes were later displayed in the Royal Pump Room Museum as part of the Harrogate Stories exhibition.