Bridport Prize Black Writer Residency: Stephenjohn Holgate
October 3, 2022
When I look back at my week’s residency with the Museum of Dorchester and the Bridport Prize, I have a jumble of handwritten notes in various notebooks and a leaf from my diary that details the week in such riveting prose as “teachers’ evening at the Museum” and “catch the X51 from Brewery Square”. But there was so much more to the week, even if my plans to continue with writing that I had already started were quickly abandoned.
Yes, a confession: I did not do as much writing as I thought I would during the week. Not that I did no writing or that I did not find the week important. I’ve continued to work on ideas generated in that residency week. By the end of the first day in the Museum I had started to consider what we do to remember the dead, those dinosaur bones and pictures of Thomas Hardy were doing strange things inside my brain. Instead of working on my novel or shaving bits of my short stories away to reveal whatever was hiding behind the words I’d written, I was thinking about the Roman skeletons arranged behind glass. My mind was full of skulls.
Walking is as good as writing
I knew I was in need of a walk to get anything like a story to emerge. I wanted to explore the landscape of Dorset, to see Portland and think about how it compares to Portland, Jamaica, a landscape I know well. There is no connection between the Portland, Dorset and Portland, Jamaica, except perhaps the sea. As so often with words, their meanings are hidden by the passing of years, and we draw conclusions based on little more than sounds. But not even the dramatic collision of cliffs and sea could get the bones out of my head.
The truth was that the skulls and bones and stories of the Museum seemed to encourage something else in me, something that had nothing to do with whatever I had been writing before the residency. Some of the exhibits seemed to need further examination, fictionalising in some way. So, walking along Chesil Beach and struggling against the large stones, I began to think of a story about a museum, a skull and a couple of boys. And later, over the course of a few early mornings, I wrote a draft in a fit of creativity that seemed to make up for absence of writing that had taken place over the first half of the residency. I would include an extract here, but I’ve already entered it into a competition, so we will see.
There is still more about the week that I want to reflect on and write about. Just sitting in Hardy’s garden contemplating how he thought about his process. Writing as work. Disciplined sitting at a desk and making the words come out, no matter what. The sea. Elizabeth Frink’s Green Man sculpture. I don’t think the bones are done with me either. Especially not the replica skull of Waddon Man. I looked at his skull, or the facsimile of it, on the same day I saw that Belgium had repatriated the bones of Patrice Lumumba to Congo. These tangible reminders of colonial history are still with us and asking to be considered and reconsidered.
What do I take then from a residency that almost seems unfinished? For me it was being taken seriously as a writer. Being introduced to people as a writer, having conversations with Kim Squirrel and Beth Brooke as a fellow writer. Whatever writing was or was not done in that week, I felt like a writer for the entire time I was there.