Easington Colliery in East Durham is a strange and fascinating place. It is, they say, on a ley line that leads right down to the sea. For most of the twentieth century it housed and served a great colliery that had seams under the sea. Still almost too fresh are memories of the nineteen eighties, which was dominated by the destructive and divisive year long miner's strike. After a long and debilitating action, the miners and their enduring wives and families won the moral victory but the state won the power battle.
Coming here as a stranger I am haunted by the ghost of the great pithead where there is now greensward by the sea. And the memories of people I meet - however forward looking they may be - are peppered with the bruising memories of that and earlier times. Outside the big Welfare building where we meet a line of beautiful trees dressed in spring green memorialise 83 lost lives in the colliery disaster of 29th May 1951. The explosion was caused by firedamp propagated by coal dust, ignition caused by sparks from cutter picks striking pyrites.
But we are not here to hark on the past. The Tall Tales Project is a substantial writing group project. Lottery funded, it is the baby of Susan Robinson, Mary Bell and the Easington writing group. The brief is to talk with up to two hundred Easington and Horden people, young and old, and come back with inspiration to write stories. The idea is not to write yet another social history, but to use these insights to develop original creative writing which will somehow shine a new light onto this remarkable place and its present day identity. The invitation is to write fiction inspired by what they hear, to tell 'tall tales'.
My role here is as writer- consultant and mentor to support this group to help to drive this project to completion. My writer friend Avril Joy (avriljoy.com) is on board to help and support, to inspire and to be inspired. After some familiarisation writing workshops, today it the first of ten workshops from which will emerge a book of original writing that defines this place in 2009.
The group - today consisting of Susan, Mary, Terry, Agnes, Mavis, Joan, Chris,and David - have been hard at work interviewing, talking with groups and have sheaves of notes and some recordings. They tell us some of the stories and the inspiration emerging from their work in the community. They bring stories and poems already drafted. They read them and we all comment on how they are progressing. We address the particular skills of self editing. Already some extraordinary stories are emerging, as these writers add their considerable imagination to the tales they have heard. Sometimes they will take a single phrase or incident and build a tale around that.
Joan reads a poem about a flirtatious old man called Bert that has us all in stitches. Mavis reads her ghost story. Susan reads her inspired story based in a quest for identity. Agnes tells a tale of two brothers and a muskett ball lodged in a tree. Mary tells a tale which seems quite straighforward but has a dark heart. We all speculate how Terry may incorporate vampires into his tall tale. Chris, rushing in later after a meeting, brings in her research, papers rustling. I feel she will write about the sea, as she already has in our workshops. David tells of his intention to write a story from a dream he had, about being press-ganged into the navy at Hartlepool.The readings are interspersed with unforced personal storytelling which seems to stream from these individuals. There must be something in the air in these parts.
What strikes me is how original these voices are, how unique to themselves and different to each other. I am now very optimistic now about the quality of this emerging book. Watch this space.