The inimitable Geraldine McCaughrean shares her experience of writing The Positively Last Performance, her wonderful new novel about a seaside town and a theatre full of ghosts, each with their own story to tell.
First it was Turner, then Tracey Emin. Even the Rough Guide put it among the world’s ten top resorts. Karl Marx and T. S. Eliot visited (though Eliot hated it, and I can’t see it made much impact on Marxism). Now it’s my turn. I’m the one commending the town of Margate—by way of a novel.
Two years ago I had a phone call from Will, Artistic Director of Theatre Royal Margate. He asked how to set about finding someone who’d write such a book, then donate some of the proceeds to the Theatre. Taking this broad hint, I asked if it was likely to become a play afterwards and (taking this equally broad hint) Will said he didn’t see why not. Game on.
I called the town Seashaw. Well, the Bong Shop in the book is not quite the one on Margate High Street. The ‘Royal Theatre’ is not quite the Theatre Royal. Rockers probably never met the mechanical elephant . . . Better to change the name, than incite irate letters. Anyone who knows Margate will recognise it. But, equally, anyone who’s holidayed in any British seaside town will recognise Seashaw.
I benefitted from the best research source of all—the locals. Two Margate ‘residences’ combined school sessions with information-gathering. The children were better than any guidebook. (Guidebooks don’t mention the autographed photo of Tiger Woods in the Palm Cafe, the tin-can shop, or the man who always wears yellow). I also visited Dreamland, the Museum, arcades, caves, beaches, graveyards. And theatres, of course. Because this book’s about theatre, too.
The Positively Last Performance is set in ‘The Royal’. After a lifetime eschewing ghost stories, I finally succumbed. All ‘The Royal’s’ ghosts have back-stories they would rather not tell; over the years they have settled into a comfortable, comforting routine, like oysters into a mudbank. But interloper Gracie ruthlessly prises them open one by one, so out spill the stories.
History’s genuine hiccups and absurdities always throw up better storylines than staring into space does, or forking over personal experience. And astonishing things have happened to Margate: the sea came half a mile inshore; Mods and Rockers invaded like Visigoths; TB patients died under the stars; tens of thousands of Londoners arrived every summer, by steamer, in search of a good time, and then abruptly . . . didn’t.
A cartoon’s caption sums up the town’s social status in Victorian times:
“Good Lord, madam, you must never think of going! It is so low class and vulgar!”
But naturally, those gaudy, bawdy days are long gone. Modern-day Margate has been blessed with investment and fine art!
Yes, and sea silt, arson, an out-of-town retail park that killed the town centre, love-it-or-hate-it high-rise, and urban seagulls big as dogs.
It was a funny book to write: the children’s recommendations included Primark, Macdonald’s, one-armed bandits, and going to Ramsgate instead.
It was a poignant book to write—got unbelievably more so as it went along. While T. S. Eliot’s promenade shelter was being repainted a classy green, demolition workers were smashing up the cheap-and-cheerful arcades to make way for a Tesco. The bucket-and-spade shops were being painted . . . and closed down, for fear their vulgarity detract from the Turner Contemporary.
A year later, arts-funding cuts halted Theatre Royal’s unrivalled community outreach. Indeed, Will and all his team suddenly became an unaffordable luxury.
So, while I wove my optimistic fiction, real-life Kentish dreams unravelled in hanks. If only happy endings were as easy to achieve in life as in a novel.
But I’m so glad of the initiative! Without it I would never have written The Positively Last Performance. A book’s origins have nothing to do with its worth or how it turns out. The Positively Last Performance will always and obstinately believe in better times ahead. And readers need to go on believing in those. So do authors.
Geraldine McCaughrean has written 165 books, from first-readers and picture books to adult novels. Her awards include the CILIP Carnegie Medal, Whitbread Children’s Fiction Award, Guardian Children’s Fiction Award, Smarties Prize and America’s prestigious Printz Award.
In addition to fourteen children’s novels, five adult novels and many stories collections and plays for younger children, she has retold myths, legends and inaccessible classics such as Moby Dick and Gilgamesh. She is the author short plays for schools, plus radio drama and stage plays.
Her best known book is Peter Pan in Scarlet, official sequel to J M Barrie’s classic, instigated by Great Ormond Street Hospital and published simultaneously around the world in 2006.
The Positively Last Performance is out now.