Why I Do What I Do

I probably inherited the creative gene from my maternal grandfather. He was a writer, photographer and political dissident in the former Soviet Union. He wrote for an underground newspaper and spent time in prison because of his views. Every birthday and Christmas he would send me a card with a specially written poem. He encouraged me to read Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn at an early age. After his death in 1974 my grandmother gave me his camera which contained a roll of exposed black and white film. Years later I developed the film in my home darkroom and found images of myself as a young adolescent. It was a spine-tingling moment, alone in the dark watching the images slowly materialise and seeing myself the way my grandfather saw me. The images were faded and decomposed because of the length of time they’d spent inside his camera. They had aged, they had scars – like myself.

In the beginning was the word, according to the Gospel of John in the Bible. We experience and interpret the world through language. We write the words and the words write us. I’ve always associated writing with the desire to make the world a better place. It’s a way of getting inside someone else’s head, a chance to see life from another point of view. Writing has a therapeutic value but it’s much more than that…it leads to greater understanding and tolerance between people. It is a powerful tool for personal and social change. Writing can break down barriers, build bridges.

As a disabled woman I have been marginalised by a society that treats people as disposable commodities within the Capitalist machine. Throughout history disabled people have been ignored, silenced, treated as if we are stupid, useless. Alas, the ‘does she take sugar?’ attitude persists even in the 21st century. Disability is the last great taboo which feeds on society’s fear of death, illness and impairment. This is an issue which affects everyone, disabled and non-disabled, because we all age, sooner or later our bodies start to let us down and no-one is ever perfect. We live in a society obsessed with superficial appearances, it’s a kind of body fascism and it creates a lot of misery.

Creative writing and art have given me an equal voice. They have empowered me, helped to counter the negative stereotypes of disability that underpin mainstream culture. Visual arts and writing are two sides of the same coin for me. I often incorporate text in my artwork through collage and photography. I enjoy unexpected juxtapositions. I tend to use abstract and surreal imagery and a lot of colour in both poetry and art. They are just different ways of communicating my unique experience of the world. In recent years I’ve focused more on poetry as it feels purer, more precise. It satisfies my obsessive compulsive streak! Poetry works through the construction of images, as well as metaphor, rhythm and rhyme. And there is the important visual element of words typed on paper, black on white, the shape of the poem on the page. Concrete poems, ekphrastic poems, black-out poems, cut-up poems, acrostic poems all rely on our visual sense.

I am often asked about my working methods. Like many writers I keep a journal. I try to write every day even if it’s just a few words. Ideas and phrases frequently come to me at night and I record them on my phone otherwise they are lost. Sometimes the first line of a poem will take root in my mind and I can’t rest until I’ve put it down on paper. Once it gets a hold on me I can’t let go until it’s finished. Stephen King said that when he’s writing it’s as if he’s just a channel, a conduit for a story that already exists in a mysterious parallel universe. I agree. Like King I believe in what the psychologist Carl Jung named the collective unconscious. Creative people and mystics are able to tap into universal images and stories that we need in order to navigate our path through a complex and difficult life.

There have been many tines when creativity has literally saved my life. I survived several long hospital stays trapped in a bed alone in a small room because I had paper and pencils. I was able to make my mark on a world that seemed to have forgotten me. I have a vivid memory of drawing a vase of anemones on my bedside locker when I was in intensive care at the age of nine after spinal surgery that left me paralysed. Looking at those delicate flowers, the pastel colours, the shapes and recording them on paper reminded me of the beauty of the world beyond the horror and pain of the hospital.

We all need art, we all need stories, we all need to survive.

Photo by Angus Mackay

Sometimes it’s Hard to See

There are times when it’s hard to spot the signs of hope hidden amongst the negativity and gloom that surrounds us at present. As UK appears to sink beneath another wave of a more virulent strain of Covid 19 many of us are teetering on the edge of despair. Today when I opened my front door to another cold and frosty winter’s day I noticed the teeny tiny shoots of crocuses emerging in a plant pot. They were almost invisible amongst the moss, weeds and colourful pebbles but they were definitely there. So however grim our lives might appear at present we must pause and look for the good stuff and remember tomorrow is another day.

Notes on a Pandemic #5

As Britain spins in a maelstrom of Covid mutations and Brexit insanity I realise that the mega-hours I spent watching post-apocalyptic/survival/science fiction/disaster/horror/zombie movies have not been wasted. I am fully psyched for the reality show in which I now play a minor (so far) role – numerous crowd scenes featuring clapping for the NHS or fighting for a food delivery…? This nail-biting series could be called Escape from UK, The Last Ferry, No Way Home or Gone Broccoli Gone.

Further suggestions on a postcard please addressed to our buoyant Prime Minister Boris at 10 Downing Street, London.

In the meantime I have shaved off my hair as hairdressers are a distant dream and changed my make-up to match.

Here’s my new look….hope you like.

Notes on a Pandemic #4

A crisis is like an x-ray. It shows us who we really are. In the case of the UK government the Coronavirus crisis has revealed incompetence and deceit. In the case of the British public however, the picture is more positive. Communities have come to the rescue where the State has failed.

As individuals we are dealing with this new existential threat in various ways. Here’s a light-hearted analysis of the different strategies we are using to cope with strange times. So read on if you want to know if you are an Ostrich, a Doomer or a Happy Clapper.

The Hero

This group includes all essential workers including health and social care, cleaners, truck drivers, supermarket staff, delivery drivers, police, community volunteers and the invisible people who maintain electricity, water and sewage systems. This group gain strength and meaning through helping others. They enjoy being busy and have a positive, practical attitude to life. Their hard work and self sacrifice must be rewarded and respected.

The Ostrich

Unlike the heroes Ostriches think only of themselves and their own needs. They have difficulty facing up to reality and are afraid of change. They admire Donald Trump and believe the virus is a Chinese Hoax. They often have narcissistic tendencies and think the world owes them. During the Pandemic they are out on the streets flouting lockdown rules or on Facebook posting photos of their dinner and complaining of boredom. They have a deep seated fear of death hidden beneath a superficial bravado.

The Happy Clapper

This group have an optimistic trusting attitude. They believe all will be well if only we listen to the authorities.  They spend lockdown time painting rainbows on windows, organising sing-songs on Zoom, doing sponsored knitting for charity and making masks out of cotton knickers for health workers. They clap so hard and so long their hands hurt. They are a contented bunch who never ask difficult questions. Sadly I am not one of them.

The Doomer

The Doomer is the opposite of the Happy Clapper. They are pessimists and give up on every project after five minutes. They believe the Pandemic is the beginning of the end of the world and nothing can be done to stop it so we may as well not try. They disagree with Lockdown, thinking they might as well die sooner but on a good hair day and in a nice restaurant. They brood indoors and do nothing constructive, spending time instead watching the 24 hour News Channel and drinking gin. They take their allocated daily exercise strolling around the local cemetery. Doomers are to be handled with caution as they can damage your mental health.

The Survivalist

This group are going strong while others struggle. They have been preparing for the Pandemic or some other existential crisis ever since they first saw George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. They may have an underground bunker in the back garden or a basement filled to the brim with essential supplies, hand sanitizer and Hazmat suits. They have an emergency generator in the shed and a very sharp axe by the front door. They are now smugly observing from a safe distance as lesser mortals fight for toilet rolls.

The Creative Revolutionary

This group sees the Pandemic as a chance to change the world for the better. They are idealists. They believe people are basically good and that a new order with humanist values will rise as the virus demonstrates the failings of capitalism. They are using Lockdown time to organise community groups and post provocative messages on social media. They believe art can bring change and they may be artists, musicians, writers or gardeners who leave boxes of vegetables or poems at the doors of needy folk.  This group are an inspiration to us all and we must hope they’ve got it right.

 

214C0529-452C-45E1-9421-A4EBEBE9D5F0
Artwork by the author. Acrylic, household paint and collage on canvas.

Notes on a Pandemic #3

In the topsy turvy world of the Pandemic where social distancing is paramount, the news media and politicians are broadcasting from their home environment either by Skype, Zoom or other technological wizardry. This is fascinating as instead of a neutral studio backdrop we get a glimpse of the real personalities behind the public image. Or do we?

The funny thing is the majority of such broadcasters are careful to arrange themselves in front of their vast book collections reminiscent of a city library with thousands of resplendent volumes on custom-built floor to ceiling shelving. It’s as if they have to prove to themselves and to the audience just how intelligent and ‘expert’ they really are. I would love to know how many of those books they  have actually read and digested or are they merely status symbols signalling their supposedly superior social class. The tasteful middle class interiors with designer accessories  and original artworks are a universe away from the average person’s home, that is if they’re lucky enough to have a home at all. I have yet to see an ‘expert’ speaking from a cluttered bedsit or a small kitchen with dishes draining by the sink. Perhaps we would trust these people more if they showed their human side. They’re keen to prove how intelligent they are but books are not the only marker. There’s something called “common sense” which has fallen out of fashion in recent years. And there are different types of intelligence, not just the academic sort with its focus on science and rational thinking, there is also emotional intelligence, the intelligence of direct experience. There is intuition, gut intelligence, survival instinct, body intelligence.

 

63C7953B-A338-4B6B-80AD-95C5345A3477

 

According to Howard Gardener, the American developmental psychologist there are nine different types of intelligence, all equally valuable. Which one are you? I am probably a cross between interpersonal and existential but perhaps that’s something for someone else to judge.

So back to the Pandemic crisis…perhaps we would be coping better with defeating Coronavirus if we relied on people with different perspectives on life, different skills and different types of intelligence. A footballer, a psychotherapist, a musician, a poet, a plumber, a mother of six, a gardener..they all deserve the same respect. Their insights and skills are just as useful as any so-called expert with an impressive book collection and a David Hockney on the wall.

 

 

Notes on a Pandemic # 2

The Coronavirus pandemic is being widely compared to a war, a war between humanity and an invisible, mysterious enemy – the virus.  There are many weapons used in a war and propaganda is one of them.

The word ‘propaganda’ was derived from the verb ‘propagate’, meaning to spread. It can take many forms including the withholding or distortion of information, the dissemination of fake news,  emotive language and subliminal ‘brainwashing’ techniques which pass unnoticed, for example, the repeated use of suggestive images and slogans. Since the early twentieth century propaganda has been used to  persuade or manipulate an audience into behaving or thinking in certain ways.  If you think that kind of thing couldn’t happen in a Western democracy, think again.  Look at Donald Trump’s election campaign and Brexit. Look at any advertising campaign. Democracies depend on the cooperation of a compliant population.  We are told we are free so we believe we are free, but how free are we really?

In 1929 Everett Dean Martin argued that, “Propaganda is making puppets of us. We are moved by hidden strings which the propagandist manipulates.” In his book ‘Propaganda’ Edward Bernays wrote “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.”

Back to the Coronavirus pandemic and the British government’s response (or lack of it). Think of the slogans and language used repeatedly.

STAY SAFE ………STAY AT HOME……..STAY 2 METRES APART…….STAY….STAY…..

STAY is a command used in dog training. Stay safe is a pat phrase we all say to each other now as we become ever more fearful and ever more passive, meekly accepting the nonsensical titbits of information about the virus that the government doles out. We are treated as sheep not equals.

FOLLOW THE SCIENCE, follow the yellow brick road, follow the Pied Piper…

At the start of the pandemic when the British government were wallowing in sloth and denial of the seriousness of the situation, doing fuck all to protect the public and wasting precious weeks, the Prime Minister would appear on his podium flanked by two government scientists. He claimed his decisions were based on ‘science’. There is no one science. Science is not God. Every country has its own scientists and experts with widely divergent views on this unknown virus. Even within the UK there are different opinions. While harbouring their covert dark agenda of ‘herd immunity’ and protecting the Capitalist economy at all costs (elderly and vulnerable groups considered collateral damage) the British government hid behind the veneer of so-called science. As a result, several weeks later the UK has the highest death rate in Europe and the mortality figures are ‘massaged’ to exclude deaths in the community.

 

5B0E2DC7-A00E-42A7-8289-DCE189812433
Image by the author

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favour of lockdown. We must take strict precautions.  But we need other State measures to successfully eradicate Covid 19. Testing everyone, not just those with symptoms or in hospital, adequate PPE for all care workers, a safe vaccine, antibody testing, anti viral drug treatments, research into why some but not others succumb to this disease apparently for no rhyme or reason, proper financial support for self employed so they are not tempted to go back to work. Instead of throwing every resource into those measures the Government have been working behind the scenes; giving new powers to the Police similar to those in a Fascist state, the Care Act has been suspended, mentally distressed people can now be sectioned by just one doctor for example. And God knows what else has been going on behind our backs…

People are snitching on their neighbours. Poor Mrs Wigglesworth from No 19 is being blamed for the collapse of the health service and the spread of the virus because she took her dog Bowser for an extra walk! The public are told to stay home and if they don’t behave like good little children many will die.  Like any skilled magician the government is making us look one way while they perform their dirty tricks. The health service and social care would not be in such a fragile state if it hadn’t been for years and years of cutbacks and austerity. Now the public are deemed responsible if the NHS can’t cope. Parents are scared to take their sick children to A and E as they don’t want to burden the system.  Many people are dying unnecessarily and not just of Covid 19.

So please, please, those of you who have persevered and read as far as this….thank you and next time you listen to a Government briefing, or a media report or any ‘expert’ holding forth…think what language they are using, what are they choosing not to tell you? What might lie behind those smug assurances and token gestures? What are they really saying with those snazzy slogans. Look at the wider picture and think for yourself.

This is not just a war against a pandemic – it’s an exercise in social control. It’s amazing what fear will do to a population. Fear and sex- the primal instincts.

So I won’t say ‘stay safe’ but I will say Keep Well and trust only yourself.

 

Notes on a Pandemic

There’s a pandemic but no one is dying. No, they are all ‘sadly dying’. The adverb ‘sadly’ is now inevitably coupled to any mention of death.  Journalists, broadcasters, politicians and other famous figures have all succumbed to this trend – feigning sympathy for the deaths of unknown people as a way of distancing themselves and their audience from the grim realities of dying. It’s particularly hypocritical when UK politicians use this phrase as their lackadaisical response to the Pandemic has caused many vulnerable people to die unnecessarily. People in care homes, health workers, essential workers, disabled people and the elderly have been thrown under the bus due to lack of Personal Protective Equipment and not enough testing for the virus.

The public are struggling,  not so much with social distancing and isolation but with this close up encounter with their own mortality. Uncomfortable, terrifying, unfamiliar. Death is one of the remaining great taboos in Western societies. Many people go their whole lives without witnessing a death.  Death is hidden away in hospices, hospitals, care homes and the third world. Even in the midst of this pandemic I’ve been surprised how many intelligent people are convinced they could not possible die of Covid 19. They think they’re too smart, too fit, too wealthy, too young or immune because they had a bit of a cough over Christmas and eat a lot of yoghurt.

’Dead is dead’ is a phrase my father used. It sounded harsh to me as a teenager but my father knew there was little room for sentiment when it comes to dying. We are all born to die. Sooner or later, one way or another. We are flesh and blood.  My father lived through Holodomor in the USSR, World War 2 and life as a refugee. He certainly knew about death.

We do not help ourselves by hiding away from the truth. The way we use language is important.

Here are some alternative phrases and colloquialisms for dying:-

pop your clogs; kick the bucket; drop dead; snuff out; expire; breathe your last; depart this life; dead as a door nail; launched into eternity; gone to Davy Jones’s locker (drowning); pushing up the daisies; one’s race being run; shuffle of this mortal coil; peg out; hop the twig; slip one’s cable; close one’s eyes; give up the ghost; pay the debt to nature; cross the Stygian ferry; to go aloft; last gasp; the swan-song…

 

Here’s the marvellous Leonard Cohen’s take on the inevitable with his powerful song Who by Fire:-

 

 

Coronavirus

This hideous pandemic has clearly shown that the earth and humanity are interconnected and dependent on each other for survival. Different nations, animals, plants, the climate – we all need each other. There is no room for selfishness, cheap nationalism and bigotry. The World Wide Web is not just on the internet but everywhere.

 

FFC0665A-8D4C-44FA-B7A5-A9320481723C

Spooky Stuff

Last night I climbed into bed relaxed and comfortable with my cat Nadia beside me.  I switched off the lamp and moments later I heard the sounds of a cat moving around the house.  It’s very quiet where I live, bordered by fields so every sound is amplified.  I heard a cat jump down from a height and then the gentle clicking of claws on the wooden floor.  I was confused as I could feel Nadia snuggled up against my legs.  Convinced a stray cat must have sneaked into the house I quickly switched the light back on.  There was no-one there.  I switched the light off again and the noises continued.  It was pretty spooky.

This was not the first time I’d heard unexplained cat sounds since my loyal ginger cat, Sputnik, died four years ago.  I’ve sometimes heard a cat wailing. At first I put it down to missing him but now I’m not so sure.  Perhaps he’s still around me.  It would be nice to think so.

One of my friends had an uncanny experience after her beloved dog died.  A few days after his death she was visiting a relative in hospital.  As she walked the length of the ward she was stopped by an old lady, one of the patients.  “What a lovely spaniel you’ve got there, dear,” she said to my friend.  “Fancy the nurses letting you bring a dog to visit!”  My friend’s deceased dog had, in fact, been a spaniel.  The old lady could describe the brown and white dog following along behind. It’s hard to find a rational explanation for this.  The lady had never spoken to my friend or her sick relative before.  How could she know about her dog?

Acccording to a recent poll about fifty percent of people in the U.K. believe in ghosts.  In an age where secularism and science are the undisputed new religion it’s surprising that so many believe in the supernatural.  Cynics would say, it’s all in the mind, a trick of the light, a hallucination or there must be a rational explanation.  But surely everything is in the mind.  Our experience of what we name ‘reality’ is entirely subjective.  The world is perceived and interpreted by our mind, there is no other way.  So if we think it’s ‘real’ then it is ‘real’.

The word “ghost” in English tends to refer to the soul or spirit of a deceased person or animal that can appear to the living.  In A Natural History of Ghosts, Roger Clarke discusses nine varieties of ghosts identified by Peter Underwood, who has studied ghost stories for decades. Underwood’s classification of ghosts includes elementals, poltergeists, historical ghosts, mental imprint manifestations, death-survival ghosts, apparitions, time slips, ghosts of the living, and haunted inanimate objects.

In Asia the belief in ghosts is more widespread than in Europe.  Ghosts are seen as benevolent, healing spirits,  ancestors watching over us.  In the U.K. while some people are frightened of ghosts, many participate in ghost hunting holidays staying in supposedly haunted hotels.  The tourist industry cashes in on these spooky thrill seekers.  The medieval city of York is famous for hauntings and organised ‘ghost walks’.  When I was six years old, too young to know anything of history or the supernatural I must have seen a ghost in Clifford’s Tower.

Clifford’s Tower is a striking landmark in York built on top of a steep mound.  It is the largest remaining part of York Castle, once the centre of government for the north of England. The 11th-century timber tower on top of the earth mound was burned down in 1190, after York’s Jewish community, some 150 strong, was besieged and massacred by an anti-Semitic mob.  The tower was rebuilt and the present 13th-century stone building was used as a treasury and later as a prison.

I visited the tower with my father and grandfather, climbing the fifty five steps to the entrance and then up a twisting stone staircase to the roof.  We were on the decked walkway at the very top of the tower admiring the panoramic views of York.  I wandered off on my own, as children do, and descended a narrow spiral staircase, not the one we’d ascended.  Halfway down I discovered a furnished room bathed in a rose light with the door ajar.  A man wearing a crimson, velvet cloak trimmed with white fur was seated at a desk, his back turned to the door.  He was writing with a quill pen.  I was astonished.  With great excitement I ran back up to the roof to find my grandfather, dragging him down the stairs to see the strange man with the fancy clothes.  But everything had changed.  The door was now bolted and disused.  There was no-one there.  My grandfather dismissed my claims as childish fantasy but it was completely real to me.  It was only years later, as an adult that I recalled this incident and realised the mysterious figure must have been an apparition.

I would love to know who or what I saw that day.  Was it just a memory imprint in the fabric of time, like a psychic photograph?

IMG_0264

When Winston Churchill visited the White House soon after World War 2, he reported a ghostly experience.  Naked after a long soak in a hot bath with a cigar and a glass of Scotch, he was walking into the bedroom – only to encounter the ghost of Abraham Lincoln.  Churchill kept his cool and announced: “Good evening, Mr President. You seem to have me at a disadvantage.” The spirit smiled and vanished.
The writer Arthur Conan Doyle spoke to ghosts through mediums and Alan Turing who invented the first computer believed in telepathy.  These three men were all famous for their intelligence and yet they believed in the supernatural.

So perhaps I’m in prestigious company!  It’s good to think that there might be more to life than our humdrum material world, that there’s still a mystery to ponder.

I would love to hear your personal ghost stories.  Please leave a comment if you have  any.  And sleep tight!  It’s the living and not the dead we need to worry about!