MAKERS AND QUAKERS BY MICHAEL JARVIE

Life writing is often inspired by the hidden, the everyday, and seeks to engage the reader by exploring its subject matter in an entertaining and thought-provoking manner. In this instance, the Friends Meeting House became the focus of that enquiry. To the author, it is a place that resonates with history, and which has gained a new lease of life in recent years, serving the community in a variety of ways. The author’s aim is therefore to locate the building in its historical context, as well as celebrating its new role in the Darlington of the 21st century.

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Pink Dandelion is not a name you’re likely to forget. When I worked at Mowden Hall in the 1990s for the Teachers’ Pensions Agency a list of unusual names was in circulation. Wendy House happened to be one of them, and so was Pink Dandelion. In fact, one day I even handled his file. Incidentally, it was blue, not pink. At the time I imagined him living in some sort of new-age squat or rural community where the other members would be called Tree and Sky, but Professor Ben Pink Dandelion is actually an expert in Quaker Studies at Birmingham University. If you think about it, he’s waited nearly thirty years to make his way into my writing, so it’s only right that I should order a copy of his book The Quakers: A Very Short Introduction, published by Oxford University Press.

Quakers nominally belong to a Christian denomination known as the Religious Society of Friends, and with Darlington being a Quaker town it should come as no surprise to learn that they have occupied their present site in Skinnergate since 1678. Given the recent emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s also worth pointing out the preeminent role that Quakers played in the anti-slavery movement. None of our statues are in any danger of being pulled down since local worthies such as Joseph Pease have all been on the right side of history.

For the purposes of this piece, I’ve decided to celebrate the iconic Meeting House, which dates back to 1840 and is a Grade II listed building. Despite the fact that alcohol, tobacco and gambling are not permitted on the premises, it’s hemmed in on all sides by sybaritic temptation, in the shape of Speedy Pepper, Tre Amici and Al Forno. 

The unmistakeable figure of Les Fry – he of the black bandana – is the driving force behind the nearby Voodoo Mexican eatery, another establishment bearing the name of a religion, albeit one originating in Haiti. It’s here that my friend James Watson, side by side with Scott Wetherill, can be found spinning their vinyl for the punters on a Friday night. Although one of the early converts to Quakerism, the seventeenth century composer Solomon Eccles, smashed his collection of violins, this kind of fundamentalism fortunately never caught on amongst the wider Quaker community.

In the midst of the hedonism of twenty-first century Darlington, the Meeting House does have some spiritual support in that it is located next door to a Christian bookshop. Inside, it features stripped wood floors the colour of honey and boasts a marvellous library in which my friend Pam Bassington once displayed her quirky hand-coiled pots. With its high ceilings and Georgian windows it’s a space that’s readily flooded with light and an ideal venue for such an exhibition.

Rather like the architectural equivalent of a Swiss Army knife, the property serves many purposes these days: yoga, local history talks, art workshops, tai chi and line dancing classes. It’s also a hub for creative writing – or at least it was before the coronavirus struck and turned us all into the equivalent of anchorites and anchoresses. Appropriately, Quakers venerate silence, and there’s certainly plenty of that in a creative writing class, especially during the inevitable head-scratching and thinking process. What’s more, we count several published writers amongst our members such as John Dean, Bud Craig and Mike Watson. Perhaps Quakerism and creative writing are a good fit. I seem to recall that the great Northumbrian poet Basil Bunting was brought up as a Quaker. Not only that, his most famous work, the autobiographical poem ‘Briggflats’, is named after the meeting house in the Cumbrian town. 

When it comes to my own writing implements, I’ve got one of those trendy Moleskine notebooks, though it’s only one of many in my collection. You can’t beat the feel of nib against paper, though these days my serious writing is done on a Mac. In such old-fashioned surroundings most of us still use the disposable Biro or even the fountain pen, though Richard McElheran has gone all high tech and switched to an iPad. Now, with the virus rampant, the creative writers – myself included – conduct our virtual sessions via the video conferencing app Zoom.

The visual arts are also represented at the Meeting House. Mike Tweddle recently shot his short film The Curator inside the building and also filmed outside in the burial ground amongst the spring crocuses. This delightful work starring Derek Griffiths is available on Vimeo. Give it a watch. Another local filmmaker to keep an eye on is Jim Campbell – his Ripper fan film is a belter. 

Only a matter of a few years ago the Quakers were thinking of selling up and had put the property on the market. From a high of three hundred people in attendance for Sunday worship the figure had dwindled to a paltry twenty souls. Thankfully, with an increase in bookings for room hire, community use of the building has soared. As a result the Quakers decided to stay put, though with a cemetery as part of the site, they can hardly decamp. If you ever get the chance to look through the register of names you’ll find there are an awful lot of Backhouses and a proliferation of Peases buried at the rear of the building. 

As for a group of creative writers huddled around a table, I think there’s only one suitable collective noun, so here it is: a concentration of creative writers. And remember. There’s always room for another face at the table.

Michael Jarvie is a local writer who is particularly drawn to exploring his environment. His short, evocative pieces are typically based on his own experiences. The modern terminology for such work is ‘life writing’. 

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