In the mid-1990s I attended a writers’ workshop at Brighton Unemployed Centre. Each Thursday morning, a group of about ten would meet in a basement room. Just outside was a washing machine and dryer, and above us a dance class was usually in progress.
Our tutor, Martin, suggested a theme and we spent half an hour writing whatever came into our heads. After a tea break, we read and discussed each piece. That wasn’t as scary as it might sound. The group, like the Centre itself, was non-judgemental, though they weren’t afraid of gentle criticism. Each member brought their own experience to the table.
I started spending more time at the Centre, staying for lunch and volunteering in the Welfare Rights group. And I organised writing workshops for a few months after Martin left. But the real benefits of my time at the Centre were the friends I made, and the chance to develop my writing in a supportive environment.
Almost fifteen years later, writers still meet at the Centre and have now produced an anthology of life-writing, Salt And Vinegar (devised by Bridget Whelan and published by Waterloo Press.) The premise is simple enough, drawing on personal memories of childhood, home, work and travel – prompted by family photographs or even household furniture.
The best pieces are not merely descriptive or opinionated, but enable the reader to relive the events and emotions depicted, whether exotic or familiar. In No Time For Trains, Ty Galvin takes us on a boy’s journey home from school to find that the house has been emptied by bailiffs – even his train set is gone.
Let The Dust Settle by Josephine gives a child’s view of a mother’s descent into madness. In Praise Of Grandmothers by Allison Claire portrays two very different matriarchs with tangible warmth.
Some of the most effective selections are also the shortest. Julian Harvey, Rob Stride and Malcolm Williams summon up the past with wit and poignancy. Alive Again and Time Bomb, both by Michelle Brown, capture turning points in a young woman’s life – finding a redemptive love, and the turmoil of pregnancy. Dee Hesling’s November 1963 recalls the Kennedy assassination, and a schoolgirl’s sense of distant loss.
Josie Darling’s Homesick reveals the shock of family breakdown, while in the poem my father’s pin-up girl, Anthony Spiers uses a simple memory of a haircut to suggest things left unsaid between father and son. Ged Duncan’s Gnostic Sandwiches is an amusing tale of a naive teenager doing his bit to help the homeless.
Reading this collection reminded me of my own time at the Centre, and I dug up some of our early pamphlets. Each piece brings back that person I knew, and that era. I wonder what they’re all doing now, if they’re still writing. Hopefully they’ll look back on those mornings at the Centre as fondly as I do, and maybe dip into it again.
To find out more about Salt And Vinegar, click here
Read about Brighton Unemployed Centre’s writing group here