Memories of a creative childhood in Whitstable

Ghostwriter Marnie Summerfield Smith grew up in Whitstable and after a short time away returned to move in to her old family home. Through her company, Your Memoir, she helps people to write their life stories.

Shapeless clay from which a sculptor forges art is my earliest creative memory. I was only a toddler when Mum saw workmen digging near our home, heaving the red-brown mud to the surface. Mum asked if she could take a lump, probably stowing it in her bottomless Mary-Poppins-on-steroids handbag. That afternoon we baked what we had made from the formless rock.

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After clay came dance – the love of my life. When I was three, I started attending ballet classes with Deborah Capon at her dance school in Castle Road and every day Mum would walk me from school to my classes. I was in my first ever show at the old, old Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury– the one before the one before this one. I credit dance not only with giving me a creative outlet (I still choreograph in my head when I hear evocative music) but confidence and discipline. After Deborah’s recent death her school became Dance Whitstable where I still attend ballet classes.

My mum says she’s not that creative. I think she’s wrong. Her mothering was endlessly creative, from providing my dressing up box (I still have her ‘now vintage’ dresses) to the countless books she read to me. Our garden was stunning. Roses, which love Whitstable clay, filled the front garden. An immaculate veg patch at the rear of the house provided food. Our house backed onto the historic Crab and Winkle railway line and I loved exploring in the woods next to it and collecting chickweed for our chickens, ducks, rabbits and guinea pigs. Whereas dance was very structured, our garden was a place of spontaneity where I could lose myself for hours. Gardening remains a creative outlet for me today. Mum inspired this, together with our family friend, the late Brian Summerfield, whose name I added to mine as a thank you for his kindness throughout my life. Every week, he took Mum and me to a garden or stately home in Kent which offered more cultural experiences and endless sources of beauty in the Garden of England.

When I was five, something very exciting happened in Whitstable. The local drama group, the Lindley Players, started raising funds to convert a church in the High Street into their own theatre. It became the Whitstable Playhouse and Mum was involved from the start. The fundraising jumble sales saw the start of my love affair with rummaging in other people’s unwanteds to create outfits with a flourish. No doubt I wore something theatrical to the theatre’s opening night in 1982. The play we saw was A Voyage Round My Father by John Mortimer, who came along to mark this special occasion. By now I was seven and already performing and Mum’s invovement at the Playhouse was the gift of a lifetime. She set-up and ran the box office and during the school holidays I spent hours practising my singing and dancing at what felt like my very own theatre. I saw every produIMG_5380 copyction and performed in many myself. Dance, theatre, creativity – they were all flourishing in Whitstable and inspiring me to choose a creative career.I performed there with Dance Whitstable in 2015 and discovered that I can still make my way across that darkened stage to the light switches.

From the ages of nine to eleven, I danced professionally in five-week long pantomimes at the old Marlowe. I even did this during the year of my 11-plus. Mum went to speak to the headmaster at my school who agreed that if I didn’t do the pantomime I’d probably be so miserable that I’d fail the exam. I’m so grateful to him and Mum for recognising how important my creative side was. I wonder if headteachers are able to use their discretion over a child’s whole wellbeing today.

After graduating, I moved to London where I worked as a performer for two years. But up close the job wasn’t as stimulating as I’d hoped. I came home and worked at BBC Radio Kent before getting a job in The Ship Centurion pub in Whitstable. Flicking through the local paper, the Whitstable Times, one quiet lunchtime in 2001, I saw an advert for a trainee reporter. I was good at English at school so I thought I’d give it a try. I got the job. One of the first things I did was to create the My Whitstable feature (now the Whitstable Pearl) which portrayed a local character. Somehow I knew that it was people who contain the best stories.

That was fifteen IMG_5218years ago now and writing is my life. Journalism took me all over the world, from Afghanistan to Malawi interviewing refugees, soldiers, celebrities and ordinary people to whom the extraordinary had happened. In 2008, I developed a story I’d written for the national press into the memoir Home From War and at that moment knew that I wanted to be a ghostwriter. I wanted to tell people’s stories in an expansive and authentic way. My authors have come from all over the world and I love my work. It is a privilege to help people write their memoirs. It is an honour to help them leave their mark on the cave wall.

Was it inevitable that I would lead a creative life? Nature? Nurture? Who is to know? I do know that growing up in Whitstable, a safe and free place, nurtured by the countless creative people I encountered – not least my Mum – provided me with opportunities to explore and ultimately realise that I could forge my own path. I know that I have been exceptionally lucky in this way.

I teach memoir writing at the Horsebridge Centre (on the spot where I had my 13th birthday party, although it was known as The Ballroom then). I also mentor writers online. I tell all my authors and students that the most important thing is to get the story down in rough form, to create a first draft. I liken writing to sculpture and the first draft to a block of marble. We need our block of marble and we’ll chip away at it to reveal the story we want to tell. Perhaps now I’ll reinvent that metaphor and from now on use clay. After all, it was Whitstable clay that helped forge my story.

 

 

Visit Your Memoir for information about Marnie’s memoir writing services and her classes at the Horsebridge Centre.

Visiting Whitstable and need some ideas of what to do and where to eat? See Catriona’s blog

 

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