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The sea is often a source of inspiration for artists and writers and Southend on Sea is proud to have its very own literary and artistic network, keen to put the appeal of the town and the talents of its residents’ on the map. Petra Hornsby finds out more

Southend on Sea is a much-loved, British seaside resort, with a famous theme park, fantastic beaches, plenty of amusements, events for all generations and the longest pleasure pier in the world.

Along with its near neighbour, Leigh on Sea, it is a community, which has seen some change in its demographic over the years as people move into the area from outside the county, often from London, to settle with young families.

Artists and writers have been drawn here too and those already living locally clearly continue to find inspiration. The Southend Arts Council promotes amateur arts by supporting a range of local groups and the Temporary Arts Project (TAP) which offers studio and exhibition space for emerging young artists.

So what about the writers? Writing can be a solitary craft but, as Audrey Snee knows from experience, the chances of making a breakthrough and finding success can be made harder by going it alone.

Audrey describes a poignant meeting with one lady at a book fair. ‘This lady was in her eighties and had published hundreds of books. Wanting to know more about her success, she explained to me that it was important to have a tribe behind you — a presence — and this is really what SWAN is all about.’

The Southend Writers and Artists Network (SWAN) has been going for around two years now and operates as a method of contact and communication largely via its Facebook page. The group is made up of writers, poets, artists, photographers, storytellers and also therapists — anyone who has a connection to the arts.

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‘Some of our group members are already published, including Leigh on Sea resident Claire Freedman who is the author of the Aliens in Underpants series that has just been made into a stage show. We look to inspire other residents through their success.’

Audrey explains what she feels the group can offer. ‘By sharing advice and experience with each other, we aim to give support and help boost confidence, as trying to get published or find an exhibition space can be complicated and sometimes daunting.’

The group aims to meet at least twice a year at one of its self-funding SWAN gatherings and this year the arts group METAL assisted in providing a free venue for an event which was attended by around 60 people.

Audrey adds: ‘Everyone there was invited to stand up and give a three to four-minute presentation on themselves, their experiences or to hand on some helpful advice. One lady talked about how to give a radio interview — something not many of us are experienced in, but could well be called upon to do when promoting a book. Other aspects of self-publicity, especially social media, can also be rather baffling, particularly for older members.’

Audrey herself is a published writer, journalist, blogger and publisher (Estuary Publishing) so is well aware of the knock-backs all writers and artists can experience.

‘SWAN serves as an advice exchange forum on the various ways to keep going and how to aim for success. Each member will have their own unique experience and will know all too well that sometimes results come when you least expect them, but by maintaining a profile and by promoting your work where possible, the odds of success are higher.’

So why has Southend become such a magnet for writers? Audrey explains: ‘One reason could be the love of local history and the many books that have been written about Southend’s past. One of the most successful books that I worked on was about Southend’s Ekco Factory (Ekco Sounds). At one stage the factory employed around 7,000 workers drawn from the local area, so when a book about that time was published, there were plenty of people who knew someone who had worked there and who would like it as a gift. There are plenty of things about Southend that have impacted on us and provided us with inspiration to write.’

Audrey feels there is a great appreciation of writers, particularly local ones, where people get the chance to meet the author at a book signing and share their enthusiasm — or otherwise! ‘It is great to meet members of the public at a book event and to hear their feedback, good or bad.’

SWAN held an Author’s Day at this year’s Southend Forum (as part of the Essex Book Festival) and it is hoped that this will become an annual event promoting local authors. As part of the festival, there was also a talk on Discover Southend in Books where authors Dee Gordon, Karen Bowman, Judith Williams, Ann Duggans-Robson and Audrey herself revealed local secrets and scandals — including some covert war-time activities — during an entertaining afternoon held at the end of Southend’s famous pier.

SWAN will also be supporting the first Leigh Literary Arts Festival, a free event to be held on September 19 at the Leigh Community Hall from 10am to 4pm. The fair will feature a wide selection of tomes including autobiographies, local history books and cook books. Young readers are catered for with a range of children’s and young adult books and lovers of comedy, fantasy and science-fiction are not forgotten either. The event will also include talks, poetry readings, photographic exhibitions, short films and there will be plenty of displays of artwork. During a special designated Children’s Hour, Ann Robson will read from her latest book Zippitt and Lee Go to Southend on Sea.

Audrey says: ‘All artists, writers and organisers give their time for free at local book events like this and self-fund the hire of the venue. This is because they love what they do and also want to promote the region as a cultural centre — sadly arts funding has all but disappeared for such events, so we do hope the public can come along and support local artists and writers!’

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