Margate, a favourite haunt for visitors: Geraldine McCaughrean and the making of The Positively Last Performance

The inimitable Geraldine McCaughrean shares her experience of writing The Positively Last Performance, her wonderful new novel about a seaside town and a theatre full of ghosts, each with their own story to tell.

GeraldineFirst it was Turner, then Tracey Emin.  Even the Rough Guide put it among the world’s ten top resorts.  Karl Marx and T. S. Eliot visited (though Eliot hated it, and I can’t see it made much impact on Marxism).  Now it’s my turn.  I’m the one commending the town of Margate—by way of a novel.


Two years ago I had a phone call from Will, Artistic Director of Theatre Royal Margate.  He asked how to set about finding someone who’d write such a book, then donate some of the proceeds to the Theatre.   Taking this broad hint, I asked if it was likely to become a play afterwards and (taking this equally broad hint) Will said he didn’t see why not.   Game on.

I called the town Seashaw.  Well, the Bong Shop in the book is not quite the one on Margate High Street.  The ‘Royal Theatre’ is not quite the Theatre Royal.  Rockers probably never met the mechanical elephant . . . Better to change the name, than incite irate letters.  Anyone who knows Margate will recognise it.   But, equally, anyone who’s holidayed in any British seaside town will recognise Seashaw.

I benefitted from the best research source of all—the locals.  Two Margate ‘residences’ combined school sessions with information-gathering. The children were better than any guidebook. (Guidebooks don’t mention the autographed photo of Tiger Woods in the Palm Cafe, the tin-can shop, or the man who always wears yellow).  I also visited Dreamland, the Museum, arcades, caves, beaches, graveyards.  And theatres, of course. Because this book’s about theatre, too.


The Positively Last Performance is set in ‘The Royal’.   After a lifetime eschewing ghost stories, I finally succumbed.   All ‘The Royal’s’ ghosts have back-stories they would rather not tell; over the years they have settled into a comfortable, comforting routine, like oysters into a mudbank. But interloper Gracie ruthlessly prises them open one by one, so out spill the stories.

History’s genuine hiccups and absurdities always throw up better storylines than staring into space does, or forking over personal experience.   And astonishing things have happened to Margate:  the sea came half a mile inshore;  Mods and Rockers invaded like Visigoths;  TB patients died under the stars; tens of thousands of Londoners arrived every summer, by steamer, in search of a good time, and then abruptly . . . didn’t.

A cartoon’s caption sums up the town’s social status in Victorian times:

“Good Lord, madam, you must never think of going!  It is so low class and vulgar!”

But naturally, those gaudy, bawdy days are long gone. Modern-day Margate has been blessed with investment and fine art!

Yes, and sea silt, arson, an out-of-town retail park that killed the town centre, love-it-or-hate-it high-rise, and urban seagulls big as dogs.

It was a funny book to write: the children’s recommendations included Primark, Macdonald’s, one-armed bandits, and going to Ramsgate instead.


It was a poignant book to write—got unbelievably more so as it went along.  While T. S. Eliot’s promenade shelter was being repainted a classy green, demolition workers were smashing up the cheap-and-cheerful arcades to make way for a Tesco.  The bucket-and-spade shops were being painted . . . and closed down, for fear their vulgarity detract from the Turner Contemporary.

A year later, arts-funding cuts halted Theatre Royal’s unrivalled community outreach.  Indeed, Will and all his team suddenly became an unaffordable luxury.

So, while I wove my optimistic fiction, real-life Kentish dreams unravelled in hanks.   If only happy endings were as easy to achieve in life as in a novel.

But I’m so glad of the initiative!  Without it I would never have written The Positively Last Performance.  A book’s origins have nothing to do with its worth or how it turns out. The Positively Last Performance will always and obstinately believe in better times ahead.  And readers need to go on believing in those.  So do authors.


Geraldine McCaughrean has written 165 books, from first-readers and picture books to adult novels.  Her awards include the CILIP Carnegie Medal, Whitbread Children’s Fiction Award,  Guardian Children’s Fiction Award, Smarties Prize and America’s prestigious Printz Award.

In addition to fourteen children’s novels, five adult novels and many stories collections and plays for younger children, she has retold myths, legends and inaccessible classics such as Moby Dick and Gilgamesh.  She is the author short plays for schools, plus radio drama and stage plays.

Her best known book is Peter Pan in Scarlet,  official sequel to J M Barrie’s classic, instigated by Great Ormond Street Hospital and published simultaneously around the world in 2006.

The Positively Last Performance is out now.


The many faces of the sea: Tim Bowler and Sea of Whispers

The wonderful Tim Bowler writes on our relationship with the sea, as explored in his latest novel, Sea of Whispers: a haunting tale of love, loss, courage, and mystery in a beautifully-evoked remote island setting.

Tim BowlerI am writing this blog piece from a favourite spot: a high nest in a little town perched above the sea on the south coast of England. I come here regularly by myself to write, and I do write, pages and pages that give themselves readily in this marine solitude; yet whenever I come, the same thing always happens: for every word I write, I find an equivalent portion of my attention is being drawn from the story in progress to a contemplation of the sea.

I have long since given up trying to resist it. There’s something that the sea has, or does, or is, and I am not the only person who finds in it an echo of our human mystery. Hetty in Sea of Whispers is drawn to it too, though her obsession comes at a price and the messages it gives her are mixed. She feels the loss of her parents and in her island life sees the pain of this daily embodied in what she has come to call the ghost water, yet the sea gives her courage too, not just through the dangers it forces upon her, but in the challenge it offers to the deepest part of her to search for meaning and hope.

I love the many faces of the sea. As I look upon it now from my writing nest, the surface is grey and calm, yet the last time I sat here the water shone like a diamond, and the time before that it was skittish and playful. A few hours later it was crashing so heavily on the shore I could have sworn it was trying to destroy me. I know this is false. The sea has no design upon us and certainly no need of us. Yet we need the sea, I would argue, not just for its practical uses, but for the emotional resonance it gives us. What we perceive in the sea, whether real or imagined, can transform us. Hetty has known this all her life.

As I finish this blog piece, the sea is changing again. It is the ultimate shapeshifter, the ultimate illusionist: always different, always the same. The calmness has gone now and I can see waves forming in clusters. I remember a man who said he always meditated when he saw the sea. He imagined it was infinity and pictured himself as a bubble floating within it. I can see more waves now, bigger and more restless, and a line of foam stretching along the shore. It is time to go.

Tim Bowler

Tim Bowler is one of the UK’s most compelling and original writers for teenagers. He was born in Leigh-on-Sea and after studying Swedish at University he worked in forestry, the timber trade, teaching and translating before becoming a full-time writer. He lives with his wife in a small village in Devon and his workroom is an old stone outhouse known to friends as ‘Tim’s Bolthole’.

Tim has won fifteen awards for his many novels, including the prestigious Carnegie Medal for River Boy. His provocative Blade series has been hailed as a groundbreaking work of fiction. He has been described by the Sunday Telegraph as ‘the master of the psychological thriller’ and by the Independent as ‘one of the truly individual voices in British teenage fiction’.


Find out more about Sea of Whispers, out now.

The Heart of the Ocean: White Dolphin and Saving our Seas

The wonderful Gill Lewis shares her thoughts on a matter close to her heart, and central to her fantastic novel White Dolphin: the protection of our oceans and sea life.

Gill LewisWhen was the last time you scrambled over rocks on the beach and probed deep into the pools of water left by the ebbing tide? We’ve all felt that sense of excitement and wonder to step barefoot into these mini other-worlds, searching for strange creatures in the swathes of seaweed and beneath rocks and pebbles; transparent bodied shrimps, snakeslocks anemones with luminous green tentacles, limpets held tight fast against the rock, small crabs and maybe even a starfish or two.

Rock-pools give us only a small glimpse of what lies beneath the waves around our British coastline. The seabed is alive with all forms of bizarre and wonderful life, in living landscapes as dramatic as those on land. There are mountains and deep valleys, towering cliffs jeweled with anemones, caves hiding sea-monsters, forests of kelp, vast underwater deserts of sand and mud. Our reefs are home to bright corals and sponges, feather stars and sea fans. All these delicate habitats provide breeding and feeding grounds for bigger fish, which in turn feed the bigger fish and birds and mammals found around our shores. We have breeding bird colonies so vast that you can hear and smell the birds a mile out to sea. We have resident pods of bottlenose dolphin, visiting whales and orca.


It was my own chance sightings of dolphins around our shores that inspired the initial idea for White Dolphin. Yet, as I began to delve deeper into research about dolphins I began to discover the dangers they face; from capture for the meat and the entertainment trade to degradation of their habitats from overfishing, pollution and acidification of the water.

Our insatiable desire for fish has depleted our global fish stocks. All around the world, we have bigger fishing vessels going after fewer fish. These vessels have the technology to map the underwater landscape and search for shoals of fish. They can mop up every last fish, pulling dredges across the seabed, destroying the delicate sea floor. They pull nets capable of fitting three jumbo jets inside. Fish stocks are collapsing. Some have gone already. It’s not just the fish that are affected. Many mammals and birds are killed too, ensnared in nets and on long baited lines.


All this paints a fairly bleak picture. Yet there is hope for the future of the seas.

And so White Dolphin became Kara’s story, about a girl fighting to save the reef in the bay of her hometown from overfishing and destruction by commercial dredgers. She knows the reef must be protected to ensure the fishing community and the oceans have a future. Kara also carries the hope that there can be a future for our seas, by belief, determination and by never giving up.

Alone, her voice goes unheard, but as she finds out, many voices can make a difference.

Kara’s story was inspired by true stories of marine conservation from around the world; the Lyme Bay Reef Project, Goat Island Bay reserve in New Zealand, protected reefs in St Lucia. In these protected areas, the ‘spillover effect’, where fish stocks are replenished and spill over to non-protected areas have positive impacts on commercial fishing and increase the health of the marine eco-system.

Currently, less than 1% of the oceans have some form of conservation status.

If 30% of the world’s oceans were protected, we could have healthy seas and sustainable fishing for now and for future generations. FOR. EVER. 

Common Dolphins

We all love to see dolphins leaping out of the water, but the problem brewing beneath our seas has been out of sight and out of mind for too many years.

So what can we do?

We can buy seafood from sustainable and well-managed fisheries. We can ask our fishmonger or look for the blue Marine Stewardship Council label on the packaging.

MSC label

But no fish stocks are truly sustainable at current levels of fishing. Ours seas are at risk of becoming devoid of fish, and filled with jellyfish and slime instead.

So we need lobby MPs and the government and fight for clean seas and marine protected areas and for intelligent laws that protect our oceans and promote sustainable fishing. We need to sign petitions such as the online Wildlife Trust Living Seas Petition Fish.

Maybe then, our voices will be heard, and maybe then, we can make a difference.

Gill Lewis

Gill Lewis spent much of her childhood in the garden where she ran a small zoo and a veterinary hospital for creepy-crawlies, mice, and birds. When she grew up she became a real vet and travelled from the Arctic to Africa in search of interesting animals and places. She worked in Cornwall for several years and spent many hours of her spare time in the cold Atlantic, learning how to fall off a surfboard.

She now writes books for children. She lives in the depths of Somerset with her husband and three children and writes from a tree house in the company of squirrels.

Visit Gill’s website

Follow Gill on Twitter

The stunning White Dolphin is out now.


Gill’s debut novel, Sky Hawk, was published to much critical acclaim and has been translated into twenty languages.


And look out for Gill’s forthcoming novel, Moon Bear, publishing in May.


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