Just last week, one of BBC2’s last bastions of artsiness The Culture Show took afternoon tea in the resplendent surroundings of one of the north’s architectural icons. No, not Morecambe’s Art Deco Midland Hotel or Manchester’s Gothic Town Hall; rather Preston’s Brutalist bus station, in the greasy spoon. The rigs and cameras were rolled into England’s newest city to highlight the building’s plight: namely that its future is bleak as the cost of refurbishment has gone through the roof, and demolition is on the cards.
On Saturday however, Preston Bus Station’s imminent destruction was the focus of an inventive and unusual one-off spoken word project. The concrete edifice (once, so legend has it, the second largest bus station in Western Europe) became the backdrop to a promenade literature event, Journey To The End Of The World, with two sets of audience members wired up with headphones and guided around different locations to experience storytelling in various forms.
The tour began with composition, transitioned through poetry and ended with short stories. MC Brad Bromley led the groups first to experimental singing ensemble Noizechoir, who often work site specifically to capture the essence of a space – although Preston-born Marek Gabrysch said it was a first for them to approach a live spoken word piece, joining forces with poet Bruce Rafeek to perform a eulogy for the legendary landmark. Next stop was another Manchester-based poet, Shamshad Khan, who recited Body Clothes, pieces about transformation and death, challenging us to accept change we cannot control. Micro fiction writer David Hartley, a former Prestonian, offered an interactive Choose Your Own Adventure-style story called ‘Choose Your Own Apocalypse’, handing the fate of mankind to one member of the audience. ‘If they pick the right choices, they could save the world,’ David explained to me before the event. ‘Wrong ones, and we are all doomed.’ As it turned out, the first group blew us to smithereens.
Journey To The End Of The World involved the audience actually embarking on a journey ourselves, both physically as we wandered around the 1960s behemoth, and emotionally as we reacted to each apocalyptic vision of the future with which we were presented. Being forced to listen to a narrative unfold via individual headsets engages audience members directly and heightens the personal response to each piece and the event as a whole – it’s been successful before in projects such as David Gaffney’s Station Stories for Manchester Literature Festival and Lavinia Greenlaw’s Audio Obscura for Manchester International Festival, both of which made Piccadilly railway station their transport hub of choice. And it worked again here, as literature blogger Sarah Jasmon describes: ‘We’d all been given headphones, through which we were fed the eerie sound of a thousand bus stations. The multi-layered result – the shhhing sound of sliding doors being closed, the reversing beeps and revving engines – was amazing!’
The action wrapped up in Preston Bus Station’s aforementioned café, virtually unchanged since its original fit-out, with playwright and director Phil Ormrod’s new work, An Hour Before the End of the World, in which two people await the apocalypse. Says Phil: ‘I’m hoping the experience gave the audience a different relationship to the passage of time, and a renewed love for the bus station.’
All the pieces were specially commissioned for the performance by Preston-based arts organisation They Eat Culture, and the event was produced in association with Northern Elements, a spoken word development project for Arts Council England. Ruth Heritage, Director of They Eat Culture, which incorporates Lancashire Writing Hub, says: ‘It’s been a joy to be able to translate spoken word into a site-responsive event on and for the Bus Station. It deserves a moment of glory where we celebrate the place: the outside of which stretches for what seems like the breadth of the town; the grimy, but beautifully tiled interior with soaring ceilings, original digital and analogue clock, and the 60s cafe; and, of course, all the individual meetings, journeys, endings and beginnings and cups of tea which happen daily.’
Ruth continues: ‘We hope that the words and music exploring endings and created for the space has been a fitting ‘happening’ in a moment where the future for the bus station is still undetermined. My favourite moments were sharing the headphones with kids who were using the bus station as their hangout on Saturday evening – and enjoying their responses – I hope we turned some of them on to live art experiences!’
Photography: Bernie Blackburn