The house of King Boy D: inside Bill Drummond’s Curfew Tower, Cushendall, County Antrim
In June 2012, I spent a few days as artist-in-residence at the Curfew Tower in Cushendall, County Antrim. Owned by the art/pop maverick Bill Drummond, the tower makes a curious home, even if just for a week. Read on to discover the what, where and why of my brief time as king of this Cushendall castle.
I threw one last glance round the kitchen, then flicked the light switch and blinked. There was the absence of a flash – a momentary flood of total black; then the soft-edged charcoal smudge of night began its dusty creep, and what had seemed a room of cosy corners with its share of home comforts – kettle, tea bags, jar of coffee – now appeared to be masking secrets, a chamber of gloom and threat.
I could see a large square of paper taped to the centre of the ceiling, but though I knew what was printed on it – ‘The Teardrop Explodes / Echo and the Bunnymen’ – I could no longer make out the words. I unhooked a small pocket torch from the nail on which it hung, then turned and left the kitchen behind me. I was dry-mouthed and uneasy, and the naked bulb that illuminated the ground floor corridor – the dungeon corridor – scarcely helped to calm my nerves. In fact it hurled bulging shadows across the walls and floor, shadows that waxed and waned as I moved towards the stairs and began my climb up the inside of the tower.
The Curfew Tower stands in the middle of Cushendall, Northern Ireland – a small seaside settlement with a river, a bridge, three pubs. Built from pinkish sandstone scuffed with black, the tower has cast its shadow across the village’s central four-way junction for almost 200 years; part prison, part folly, it’s one of those historical curiosities that piques the interest of visitors and yet is just part of everyday life to those who live there. In Cushendall, it’s equivalent to the Empire State Building or the Eiffel Tower: iconic, a living symbol; but just scenery once you’ve been there for a while.
Built by Francis Turnley around 1820, the Curfew Tower is now owned by Bill Drummond, the art/music provocateur who famously burnt a… well, you know that tale by now. The Teardrops/Bunnymen poster in the kitchen was a reminder of his musical past; well before his involvement with the JAMS or the KLF or ice-cream vans and Tammy Wynette, he was manager of both those bands, whirling them round the globe in pursuit of a twisted psych-pop perfection which would eventually leave them warring and scarred. His own notorious career as a pop star then followed, before he eventually sidled his way into the art world and eccentric middle age. Or did he? Even if you asked him, I’m not sure you’d really be able to tell.
But whether he’s sanctified by the gallery system or not, his commitment to creative endeavour is such that he invites artists to the Curfew Tower to do work there – art projects in a style of their choosing. There are some stipulations, but not many. For the most part, each artist must take responsibility for what they do or don’t achieve while staying there: without funding, without committees, without Arts Council box ticking or policy-driven outcomes, each artist must motivate themselves in the way they know best – or not. At the Curfew Tower it’s a moral choice, not a fundee’s obligation.
And that was why I was there: to create. But at that moment as I made my way to bed, I wasn’t thinking about the work I might or might not get done. I was alone in a 200-year-old tower that didn’t seem quite so much a landmark or a beacon as a giant headstone, with its inscription waiting for the insertion of my name.
I took one step at a time, holding down the hollow feeling in my chest as I thought again about the gloom of the kitchen, and how if anyone chose to sit in the garden peering in at me, I would be visible and yet none the wiser. I thought of Withnail, and his gulp-backed terror on arrival at Monty’s cottage:
“These are the kind of windows that faces look in at.”
And though I was far from being in the middle of nowhere – the pubs were awake and there was audible activity out in the street – I still knew what he meant. With windows on every face of the tower’s four sides, some without curtains, and me playing the role of an unknown outsider holed up in this most extraordinary building – well, I was a curiosity it was easy to observe.
I reached the tower’s first floor and doubled back past the rudimentary bathroom. I disliked this floor intensely; it was chilly and dark, with walls of rough plaster that seemed to connect me too closely with past occupants, forgotten lives, departed souls. The bathroom was basic, hygienic but plain; though with its single tiny window criss-crossed in iron and an extractor fan that, rather than removing the steam and the smells, seemed to megaphone the outside world back into the tower – adding King Tubby reverb and an otherworldly boom – it was always a room to be hurried past. Certainly, the prospect of a nocturnal trip to the toilet from my bedroom two floors above wasn’t a journey I looked forward to; but fortunately, previous residents had clearly had the same idea. There was a glazed ceramic chamber pot by the wash-basin, so rather sheepishly, I collected it and took it upstairs.
The next floor up was more welcoming and I couldn’t help feeling that here was where the real tower began: the cosy tower; the homely tower. Here there were radiators, and as I climbed I could feel the heat giving me a cuddle as I stepped into the living room. There were voices up here too, ones I’d invited; they were the residents of Radio Four, which I kept switched on throughout the day and night in order to remind me that I wasn’t alone. Today In Parliament; The World Tonight: they were my guests, and by keeping my ears free of silence they tirelessly earned their keep.
I liked spending time in the living room with its warmth and its book shelves, its map of post-war Africa on the wall. But right now I was climbing higher still, so I turned off the light behind me and took the twist in the stairs to my bed.
Another floor up and it was still warm, still comfortable – though with the spartan atmosphere of a 1950s’ youth hostel, all floor boards and plaster and plain wood. I was also aware that I was now standing three storeys up above the street, which doesn’t sound much, but in a low-rise village such as Cushendall with a sky-rising landmark like the tower, it was akin to being three quarters of the way up the Burj Khalifa, and as such, I couldn’t help thinking of the column of darkness on which I now stood. Like coiling a rope as I climbed, I had pulled the illumination up behind me and now felt suspended in a hanging bowl of light. But still visible of course; and with a motoring heart I yanked every curtain tight shut.
As on every floor, there was just one room here – my bedroom, with its single bed, its chest of drawers, its markings and graffiti on the walls. They were the idle scrapings of past residents, and though they were meant to be creative and amusing, they recalled for me the desperate etching into stone of a Papillon or Rapunzel. Towers: imprisonment: damaged lives. I swallowed back a bubble of fear and silently slipped into the bed.
The radio whispered.
From the street came the revving of cars.
With another floor above me – a second bedroom that seemed chillier and grim, and which had a ceiling trapdoor that led to the tower’s roof and the Cushendall night sky – I felt sandwiched between thick layers of suspicion, concealment, even dread. I thought of the Northern Ireland I’d known growing up, which was a domain of ill repute experienced solely through news flashes, through headlines, through mugshots. I knew the reasons why this was so, and I accepted that things seemed to have changed; but still, with centuries of resentment behind them, those activities had been supported by networks that couldn’t simply have vanished. And through the power of my own imagination, I created whispers and conspiracies that lay just beyond the tower’s locked door.
I thought of balaclavas, of car bombs, of gunmen. My mind was dark; and now it was time to finally shut off the light. Which, I realised with a sigh, meant getting out of bed again and crossing the floor to the wall switch. So I padded across the floorboards and took a deep breath as I jabbed at the smooth plastic lozenge, and the blackness of night swallowed me whole. There was a moment of readjustment as the delicious orange glow from the street eased its way round the edges of curtains, then I retraced my steps to the bed, climbed in, and tugged the thin duvet around me.
And I rolled over. And in that flash of a moment my innards flipped forward, my muscles snapped taut, and adrenaline surged through my veins.
For there was a vision in front of me, a spirit. Humanoid and yet shapeless, it hovered across the room pulsating with an inner light – an ectoplasmic green that seemed mixed from the devil’s own palette. With eyes popping like gobstoppers I stared back, my rationality in tatters, my fears running wild. It was sudden and it was sickening; and all my terrors of this tower had come true.
And then of course I realised – it was a daubing, an image, a practical joke; my nerve-shredding ghost was a vision in luminous paint. It was a sham, a fraud, vile trickery; the oldest trick in Scooby Doo’s book. And how foolish I felt! And I giggled. I admired the culprit’s imagination, and shook my head over the errors of my own. For this was the house of King Boy D, not Doctor Dee: there would be no portals to the spirit world conjured here.
So that’s how it was, the first night I spent there. Spooked by illusions, riddled with fear, it was far from being a typical night.
Life, for me, is a routine affair. I am a commuter, a wage slave, a cog in the advertising industry’s machine. During office hours and regularly in the evenings too, I take someone else’s brief and generate some creative thoughts that will help them sell more stuff. I’m all right at it, which is to be hoped, as I’ve been doing it a long time. But if you were to bump into me at a party – unlikely, as I would do what I could to stay home and watch telly instead – I wouldn’t reveal any of this in response to your regulation smalltalk. Instead, I would make vague claims to be ‘a writer’ – without specifying that earning a living tapping out advertising copy is hardly the same as being Hemingway in Paris. In support of this claim I would cite the words I scrawl in my spare time, by which I mean the random hours that are left once I’ve made up the kids’ lunch boxes, watched those essential-but-leisure-time-sapping DVD box sets, and indulged in eternal procrastinatory fiddling with my phone.
The results of these sporadic labours are available on the internet – rarely in real books or magazines. They concern music and memory, Sheffield and Liverpool, mixtapes and movies, all fuzzed over with a layer of nostalgic dust. I put this stuff on a website of my own rudimentary ‘design’, and if you ever saw it you would probably call it a blog. Though please, don’t let me hear you say it; because in its monosyllabic prosaicness – akin to ‘bog’ and ‘flog’ and ‘clog’ – the word seems to yank away my cloak of pretension and leave my work cruelly exposed. I am a writer because I have written, it’s true; but without the open-to-anyone internet, it’s less than clear how I would ever be able to prove it.
My life, it seems, runs on rails, both metaphorical and leaf-covered. Indeed, as I type these words, I trundle towards Manchester on a clapped-out and comfort-free train – a local stopping service that operates on cast-offs, other networks’ hand-me-downs. It shudders and squeals as it rolls through Irlam and Urmston and Trafford Park, and I wonder how many times I have made this journey – five mornings a week since 1999; but though it would be simple to make the calculation, I haven’t got the courage to work it out. And as we approach Manchester Oxford Road station, I flick through a book by Bill Drummond, a collection of autobiographical essays called 45. He is creative, energetic, inspired; full of projects conceived – and, crucially, executed – on whims; or more accurately, on whims with a wonderful coherence, so a plot to suspend dead cows from a road sign seems to sit comfortably alongside his Liverpool pop management, his stadium rave, his passion for both music and silence.
He’s McClaren, he’s Warhol, he’s both Gilbert and George – and yet these references are ridiculous, because in his crumpled shirt and walking boots he’s more volunteer dry-stone-waller than arch metropolitan; his is a more dubbin-coated brand of situationism entirely.
I read about his think-it-then-do-it approach to life while absent-mindedly flashing my season ticket at the guard. I do it with the practised flick of the wrist that betrays my years as a daily train traveller; I fear I have adopted that stern sense of entitlement – to prompt service, to some silence, to a seat – that only comes when you have spent tens of thousands of pounds over the years on the same purely-functional journey, backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards. Then having tucked my ticket back inside the pocket on the flap of my bag, I pull out my tiny computer – a ‘netbook’ in technical parlance, though one which at three and a half years old, already looks quaint beside the iPads and Kindles that surround me. And I stare at the screen, and I tickle my phone, and if I’m lucky, eventually I begin to write.
I might not have it in me to phone Tammy Wynette or to machine gun the Brit Awards or to put my accumulated savings to the flame, but at least I can make a show of my writing; and doesn’t that elevate me a few feet above these automatons around me, tweaking their spreadsheets and reading the Metro and shuffling through their private iPod worlds?
Not really. But it’s a self-deception I’m anxious to accept.
I have a friend, Paul Sullivan, who runs an art organisation called Static. Based in Liverpool, it’s unclear to me whether Static is an exhibition space, a gig venue, a shed filled with studios, or simply an entity that exists in his mind and manifests itself as all of these things and much more. He is an architect, an artist, a writer and lecturer – but mostly, he seems immersed deep in thought, constructing elaborate ‘pro-jects’ (pronounced with a resonant Huyton drawl, the first syllable emphasised and dragged out) that involve setting schemes in motion and then feeding the results through the intellectual mincer of his mind.
He has long reminded me of Bill Drummond, but on a budget; as if the unit-shifting pop career never happened but the do-it-and-see creativity remained intact. So although Static is often referred to as a gallery – housed in a functional urban shed in the middle of Liverpool’s Chinatown – it only rarely hosts exhibitions of any conventional description. Once, Paul turned it into a pop-up noodle bar by visiting Korea and recruiting a team, then smashing a hole in the gallery wall, attaching a shipping container to the side, installing a kitchen, then inviting anyone and everyone to the opening which coincided with the launch of the Liverpool Biennial. Only, no one had accounted for the inordinate care and attention that the Korean chefs lavished on each dish, with the result that the orders backed up while the exquisitely dainty meals appeared only sporadically, if at all.
My family and I eventually decamped to the cheap and cheerful Tokyou cafe at the bottom of the street, where our painfully teased appetites were finally satisfied by a big fat slop of udon noodles sluiced in gravy; nothing like the gem-like delights served in Static that night, in that our meals weren’t remotely gem-like, but at least they were actually served.
Neither had Paul applied for planning permission to place a shipping container in the middle of the street, fit it out like a kitchen and run it as a professional restaurant, and it wasn’t long before the council came calling, insisting he was in breach of regulations. They said he should either take it down or apply for retrospective planning permission, adding that it probably wouldn’t be granted.
“Why do I need planning permission for a temporary art installation that’s part of the Liverpool Biennial?” asked Paul.
At which the planning officer looked at him.
“But it’s not art though is it?” he replied, posing a question that has tasked minds greater than those possessed by planning officers down the decades.
Wilful confrontation executed with a twinkle in the eye: this is why Paul reminds me of Bill Drummond. So no surprise then when he announced he was developing some “pro-jects” with Bill – the initiation of the Liverpool Cake Circle for instance, and a performance by The 17 at Static – and at the end of 2011, revealed that Bill had invited him to curate the Curfew Tower in Cushendall, County Antrim. And also… would I like to go and stay there, and do some work?
Would I? Could I? And more to the point, what was he talking about? The Curfew Tower meant nothing to me, so I Googled it, and discovered where it was and what it looked like; and that it had been restored by an organisation called Hearth in the early 1990s and sold to Bill Drummond in 1994. He had used it now and then as a personal escape, a base from which to immerse himself in the deep peace and quiet of this idyllic rural spot.
Eventually he decided to open up the tower as an artist’s residence, inviting creative people from anywhere and everywhere to stay within its walls for a week or two or three, and to embark on a burst of artistic activity with the proviso that the work must be inspired by the tower, the village or the experience of being there. And thus, in 1999, the Curfew Tower artist’s residency began.
All the artwork produced during the residencies was to be kept within the tower, forming a curious collection of artefacts – from paintings to embroidery to photos and prints – bearing witness to the experience of living in a building akin to a lighthouse devoid of its bulb. In order to help ensure that the project remained connected to the village, the population would be invited into the tower every August – during the Heart of the Glens Festival – and asked to choose their favourite piece of work from those produced during the previous year.
Originally, artists interested in taking up the offer were required to submit a proposal to the In You We Trust – the supervisory trust responsible for looking after the tower and running the annual award. However, since 2009, the tower project has been handed over each year to a different arts organisation who can then invite who they want and tailor the project in a manner of their choosing.
This, of course, is where Static comes in.
Under Static’s jurisdiction, the Curfew Tower would become a recording studio. With each invitation he gave out, Paul explained that he had amended the stipulations placed on artists: he would arrange for a four-track cassette recorder – a Portastudio – to be left in the tower all year, and his invitees would be required to use this equipment to produce an audio tape based on their experience. This would be their artwork, the relic left behind once they’d gone.
It was only on visiting the tower for the first time that Paul realised the extent to which previous residents’ creative labours impacted on the everyday reality of being there; the paintings and photographs and poems and sculptures covered every wall, every surface. Anyone visiting the tower was immediately confronted by the efforts of others to make sense of the place, and it couldn’t help but have a tainting effect on the imaginations of those who came after. So Paul decided that he would remove the tower collection from sight, logging each item and documenting its position before transferring everything to the dungeon on the building’s ground floor. During January 2012, Paul and a friend travelled to the Curfew Tower, took photographs and made drawings of every artwork’s location, then moved them all to the dungeon where they would spend a year propped against cold stone. They would remain accessible to anyone visiting the tower, but by stacking them in a dark and lonely corner, they would necessarily be stripped of some power.
As for the annual Heart of the Glens festival, during which the village would pass judgement on the work produced, Paul’s solution was to conceive a takeover of the Cushendall airwaves during the festival of 2013. He proposed to apply for a temporary radio licence and broadcast every submitted cassette in its entirety for the benefit of anyone who chose to tune in. With a transmitter on the roof of the Curfew Tower itself, he would send his signals to the homes, farms and fields round about – and across the sea too of course, as his radio waves would fly over the real waves just as much as they floated over land. He would set the signals in motion, and send them rippling endlessly into space.
He had other ideas too, including a plan to edit all the submitted cassettes down into one audio collage which would then be released in a limited vinyl edition and auctioned on ebay. This, he stated, would raise notions of value in art, of the ephemeral form versus the physical relic, of the wilful perversity of using analogue methods in a digital world. And ultimately, this is what the year’s project would come down to: a single radio broadcast and a slab of black vinyl. From this detritus, the people of Cushendall would be able to form a view and make their annual Curfew Tower award.
At the time of writing – December 2012 – these plans remain good intentions. It will be interesting to see next summer whether either the radio broadcast or the record ever emerge, or whether they join the tangle of unrealised concepts that must surround people like Sullivan and Drummond – things that could have been great, that should have been done, that really just might have worked.
I agreed to go to the tower.
And so there I sat on my first full day, in the last week of June 2012, fingers aloft over my computer keyboard, screen glowing, cup of tea steaming by my side. I had done all the procrastinating it was possible to do: had bought supplies from a convenience store just a few yards up the road; had wandered to the other end of the high street with a notion that I might explore the village, but had found that the buildings petered out almost immediately and I certainly wasn’t dressed to wander open country alone; had walked up and down the stairs staring out of windows, uncomfortable with the situation now that I knew I had to get down to some work.
Before I arrived, I imagined that it would be a liberating experience – to be alone in the countryside with nothing to do other than engage in creative work on my own. Wasn’t this what I longed for during my daily commute, my interminable back and forth between Liverpool and Manchester? Time to just think, to see, to feel – to just work? And not according to the dictates of someone else’s brief, but following the tributaries of my own creativity, allowing them to flow into a conceptual ocean of my own design?
But now that I was confronted with the reality of making it happen, it suddenly seemed a lot harder than I had imagined. And that gloriously long week of lone activity that I’d thought about in advance now seemed too short to do anything of substance. I would have only five nights in the tower – just four full days. In this time I would have to conceive a piece of work – which, being a writer, would surely take the form of text on a page – then find a way of bringing it to life on the four-track recorder, discovering how to work this near-obsolete hunk of technology as I went. True, I could work at any time of day or night. But after 20 years of office-bound wage slavery and a decade of parenthood, my body clock was as regular as Big Ben and I couldn’t imagine I’d ever get much done after midnight.
There was a sense of having to force something to happen, and though I did manage to bang out some words, I knew from experience that they wouldn’t be the words I would ever use.
I had arrived on Monday afternoon. It was now approaching Tuesday lunchtime. I felt strangled, frustrated, on edge; more pressured than I ever do at work.
I made beans on toast. Then washed up. Then made more tea.
I realised the day was evaporating around me.
At which point there was a knock on the door. You might think this would have spooked me, being alone as I was in Northern Ireland, no known friends on that side of the sea, and with a tendency to jump at the sight of luminous paint. But I knew it would be Zippy from the butcher’s across the road, a bloke in his early thirties who’d been charged by Bill Drummond with looking after the tower, plus meeting and greeting its guests.
He explained that it was half day closing in the village and he had an afternoon off, and he asked if I wanted to go out for a drive. I’d already observed that this was possibly the most restless man I’d ever met, who jabbered and jerked as if he’d been mainlining Lucozade and scooping Maxwell House from the jar, and got the impression that if I didn’t say yes he would simply claw his way through the wall of his house, unable to sit still or relax.
He insisted I didn’t have to assent. “If you’re getting on with your work, feel free to continue. I know what you artists are like.”
And I felt fraudulent, a shyster, as if I was there under knock-off pretences.
“But I’m not really an artist,” I didn’t say. Nor did I tell him how the work I’d been doing had felt desperate, just typing for the sake of it. “I shouldn’t be here,” is what I thought, but again, I kept it to myself.
“Yes,” I said. “That sounds great.”
And so for a couple of hours that afternoon, through layers of June fog and unseasonable downpours, we took in the high points of Cushendall and the surrounding Antrim coast, speeding from one beauty spot to another and spending barely five minutes at any of them. We talked without stopping – about our real lives, relationships, the politics of the region. About Bill Drummond – his past and his present. And about the mundane realities that accompany the arrival of a living pop legend in a village like Cushendall, one who just wants his 200-year old tower keeping safe.
I think Zippy understood that I wasn’t necessarily cut from the same canvas as some of the other artists he’d met at the tower – the ones who burned with a singular vision, and who had eschewed the comforts and routines of family life in order to pursue their calling at all costs. And if he went further in his suspicions, and wondered what the fuck I was doing there given that I wasn’t exhibiting regularly, or publishing at all, or offering any evidence of my creative ambitions beyond muttering “I have a few articles online”, he was generous enough not to mention it.
And the wonderful thing was that when I sat down that evening and began to write – now a little more comfortable on my stone-built perch up above the Cushendall main drag – I could sense that the words I was writing felt solid. The mist of vowels and consonants that I’d blundered through previously was clearing; here was language of substance that I could begin chiselling into shape.
The journey with Zippy was at the heart of the piece, the writing of which took me into the following day – the Wednesday. Progress was such that after breakfast that morning I gifted myself a walk in bright sunshine, wandering up to the ruined church above the village then round the cliff path and back towards the beach. Even as I strolled and sat and scribbled in my notebook, I could feel thoughts swirling around in my mind; things were happening beyond and yet within my control – themes were coalescing, lines were suggesting themselves, vague forms were approaching and becoming real. I no longer felt desperate about the task in hand; I was confident that by working into the night I was capable of writing a piece of which I could be proud. Or at least, to which I would be happy to put my name.
And then Cushendall flooded. There was worry, excitement, a little dread. While Cushendallians gathered in the street and attempted to save their businesses, their homes, I indulged myself by gazing out of upper storey windows and texted Paul Sullivan back in Liverpool.
“Everyone out in street,” I said, “Zippy marshalling traffic, all kinds of mayhem.”
In reply, he was concerned about the artwork, all the stuff that was piled up in the dungeon.
“Do you think it may be an idea to get all the artwork in the lock-up higher?” he asked.
Of course, he was right. Although the tower was thus far unaffected, the flood water was only a few feet away from the door and if it came much higher, it wasn’t inconceivable that it could find its way in. And although a tower might be thought to be the best place to be in a flood, the Curfew Tower collection could be wrecked in under an hour. But at the same time, the rain had eased and it didn’t seem as if the water was encroaching further – besides which, the thought of dragging years worth of artwork up a couple of flights of stairs was a daunting one. If nothing else, the task would devour my evening, and I would suddenly find myself up against it again – an artist in residence without any art to show for my residence.
I convinced myself we should watch and wait rather than act immediately, and texted Paul to say the same thing. He agreed, though could have done little else in any case given that he wasn’t on the scene whereas I was. I eyed the grey clouds and watched a fire engine pumping water outside the shops just two floors below. Still it rained, but not torrentially so.
I watched a DVD on my laptop, then returned to my work.
By Thursday lunchtime I’d written 2,000 words and had typed the final full-stop. Now there was just the small matter of getting to grips with the Portastudio and turning my text on the page into a spoken-word-with-sound-effects piece. The first step was to burst open a cassette from its shrink-wrapped sleeve, an action I hadn’t performed for many years, and which itself was so heavy with Proustian significance that I could have spent the rest of the afternoon simply turning the plastic box over and over in my hand, hearing the rattle, sliding the cassette in and out of its pouch. The second step was to try some practice runs with the Portastudio, layering stream-of-consciousness speeches over the top of each other to create something like a Kurt Schwitters babble, a tone poem for the tower.
Not that I planned anything so experimental for my submission to the Curfew Tower project; rather, I would record my writing as a conventional monologue on one tape track, then add a bed of atmospheres and effects underneath, and that would be that – the kind of thing I might like to catch accidentally on the radio sometime, a quirk in someone’s thinking in audio form.
And so I spent the rest of that day lugging the Portastudio up and down stairs, trying to find the spaces in the tower that would give me the echoes and reverbs I needed – instruction book in one hand, microphone in the other, my initial self-consciousness rapidly receding until I was declaiming my words without worry. Recording the speech was most troublesome, as I didn’t have the ability to edit out errors and so any mistake meant rewinding the tape and starting again from the beginning. But eventually I got what I wanted – or as close as I was ever going to get. And the sound effects, carefully placed, added an element of surprise that I hadn’t even planned; and listening back, I began to feel that for all its muffled amateurishness – and with its hisses and hiccups it was certainly no Radio Four Classic Serial – I had managed to put together an aural artefact that had grown directly from my experience of Cushendall and the Curfew Tower.
I really couldn’t have created it anywhere else.
That left my final full day during which I floated round the village on a euphoric wave, delighted with a job well done – within my own limited parameters at any rate. The pressure was off, my mission was fulfilled; and this allowed me to simply enjoy the local landscape as a tourist for the first time during my stay.
Walking up the steep hill behind the tower, I watched clouds the colour of mushroom soup building over the horizon, and aware that a spot of rain was probably on its way, I walked briskly down through a wooded track that brought me back to the edge of the beach. Some more leisurely wandering, some scribbling in my journal, then I turned to photograph for the last time the Close Encounters-style plateau that shoulders the village – and there were the clouds again, bowling across the sky towards me, viscous and storm-laden and ready to fall on my head.
Which they did. Fat buttery dollops of rain – a drip, a drop, and then a patter and a hiss. And by the time I reached the far curve of the tight little bay, where a tidy crag of rock turned into the outer edge of a housing estate, I was drenched. My jeans were heavy, my jacket was leaking, my trainers were sodden to the sole. So I walked as quickly as I could back to the tower and draped my clothes round the living room, cranking up the heating and hoping they’d be dry enough to pack before bed.
Because that was the thing: I would be leaving in the morning. It was my last night in Cushendall – and Zippy was due round any minute.
He’d invited me to have a few drinks with him in Johnny Joe’s, a pub about 100 yards from the tower where, it was promised, musicians would gather in the evening to play the night away – fiddles and whistles no doubt, and tabors and Guinness and craic. Though in the event we were much too early for the music; it was barely dusk really as he still had work to attend to that evening, so we chatted and drank then shook hands, and he sped off into the daylight-coloured night while I wandered round the corner for pizza.
There were no spooks behind the bedroom door that evening, though the luminous paint was still there, waiting to surprise the next unwary artist on their Curfew Tower adventure. I still had a bus journey out of town ahead of me – changing at Antrim and Ballymena, names that still resonated for all the wrong reasons – and a flight back to Liverpool on my own, but to all intents and purposes my suspension from reality was over. By Saturday night I would be easing into familiar routines, and by Monday I would be back at my desk at work. I would be writing of course – professionally, all day long – but the words I’d string together would be designed to satisfy someone else’s brief. And there’s a skill to that, there really is. But it’s as nothing compared to the need to spring words from somewhere deep and hidden, and scatter them in the hope that you will begin to see patterns in the way they fall, and slip them and slide them into something new.
It had been an analogue week on the whole; of fog that was thick, of rain that was wet, and in which the internet was just something that I knew was out there rather than something I could use every day. There was no web connection in the tower of course – and no television for that matter, which was all part of Bill Drummond’s scheme to keep artists from growing lazy during their stay – but a cork board in the kitchen revealed that the Cushendall library offered the internet for a price. I’d always intended to pop down there and make use of it, but its opening hours were erratic – or rather, my organisation of my own time was erratic while the library hours were simply those you’d expect in a tiny village – and I never made it. On a handful of occasions I caught the tail of a phone signal and thus sent a few texts, even uploaded the odd photo to Facebook, but there was none of the blogging and banter that even backpackers travelling to the other side of the world can manage these days.
And there was the cassette recording of course – an analogue format that was once the world’s music delivery system of choice. Not my choice I hasten to add – I loved vinyl, and disliked cassette tape’s propensity to tangle, to wear out, even to snap – but there was no arguing with its portability, its flexibility, the way it untethered music from its source and allowed it to be reprogrammed in the guise of the mixtape. It was almost shocking, therefore, to handle tapes again, and be reliant once more on their sound-muffling ways, their wows and their flutters, their fragile magnetising of the moment. To recall how all this had once been so familiar, and how the tricks and techniques had all but vanished.
And there was the tower itself: resistant to technology, unsophisticated in design – just one room on top of another. In my wonderings and in my writings I’d concerned myself with its ghosts – never seeing them, but feeling something inside my own skin that the tower had provoked, and which another person on another day might call a ‘spirit’. Although the traces of other artists had been brutally packed away, I knew enough about Bill Drummond to discern his mysterious ways in many of its corners. Whether in screenprints from his Liverpool days or in the books that lined the shelves, he was there – dreaming and scheming and wondering at the things he’d done.
I didn’t quite know why, but I imagined that Bill Drummond – the King Boy D of pop legend, let’s remember, who orchestrated great moments in the self-destruction of pop – wouldn’t much like the quiet meanderings of my work with its lack of grand gestures, its spurning of social engagement, its mundane dissection of the moment. Wouldn’t he appreciate artists who swept through this village like the River Dall on flood night, who could corral pensioners and school kids into communal action and fill the tower with singing and music and light? I looked around at my damp jeans steaming by the radiator, my sodden trainers leaking their vapours to the ceiling. I thought about the way I’d hunkered down entirely alone with my laptop, with the Portastudio, and fashioned some ‘art’ beyond anyone else’s control. It was the way I chose to work; but it seemed anti-Drummond, perhaps completely against the spirit of this place.
On the other hand, maybe that post-modern pop dismemberment was just for the cameras. I’d read enough of Drummond’s writing to know that Richard Long was one of his favourite practitioners, and while Long’s art is clearly about getting out into the landscape and marking paths through the expanse of the world – as opposed to sitting in a tower with a laptop – his art is also private and self-reflective, involving no one but himself.
Perhaps my personal trudge through a few isolated days was acceptable after all. Not that there was anything I could do about it if I decided otherwise; because with the arrival of the 09.56 bus to Ballymena on Saturday 30 June, my work in Cushendall was done.
Coincidentally though, it wasn’t the end of my encounter (of sorts) with Bill Drummond.
On Wednesday 4 July, he appeared in Liverpool at a bar called Mello Mello, giving a talk and touting his new book, called 100. I went along to see him and hear him, and after he’d done his thing he signed books and chatted and caught up with old Liverpool friends. I could only wonder at the memories they shared, the anecdotes full of shorthand about the things that happen when a city’s music scene explodes across the globe. I knew I had nothing of the like to share with him, but I bought the book and took it over to have it signed.
“I was in the Curfew Tower last week,” I said. “It was… brilliant.”
I think I’d expected him to throw his arms round me or something, and greet me like an old friend. I know if someone had spent a week in my house, I’d at least want to ask them what they thought of the decor. But he finished scribbling in my book and looked up and nodded, just a little. He looked shy, as unsure what else to say as I was.
“Right,” he said. And after a pause, “Did you get any work done?”
This was it; the moment I’d been waiting for: a chance to talk to Bill Drummond about my OWN FUCKING WORK!
“I did,” I gushed. “I did, I was really proud of myself, I…” but there were other books to sign, other people to engage with, many of whom really were his friends, and so I curtailed the details about my writing, my recording, my tape, and muttered, “So thanks for the chance to stay in the tower, it was great.”
And I wandered off for a beer.
There would be no tidy full stop to this story, no sweet circularity in a snatched conversation with Bill Drummond about Cushendall, the flooding, the pressures and delights of placing yourself in a location and forcing yourself to create. We wouldn’t share our experiences or natter long into the night about the way the beds creak, how the shadows fall, or why the Cushendall youth gather in their cars outside the tower each night and rev their engines until dawn.
Instead, I would send my cassette to Paul Sullivan at Static and then…
Six months on, my tape remains unheard by anyone except myself. Once the year is out, I’m sure Paul will listen to them all, an intriguing experience given that I know those involved in this year’s project have included bands and singers and writers of repute. Plus me. And then the final stage of the project can be set in motion, and eventually our Curfew Tower artefacts can be broadcast over land and sea – for the people of Cushendall, for one day only.
All that is still to come.
And once the tapes have been unleashed, I will add mine to this website and leave it online – as a warning to the curious about what happens if you take leave of your life for just a week, and move to Cushendall.
To the tower.
To its luminous ghosts.
To the house of King Boy D.
Text and images © Damon Fairclough 2012
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