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

Blue Poppies

For the first time on the Purple Hermit we have a poem from a guest poet, fellow Scottish writer and friend, Alastair Simmons. Enjoy!

Blue Poppies (In memory of Esther)

She took ages to answer the door
in the heavy summer rain.
Finally, she fumbled open the catch.
Her hand was bandaged, her eyes blackened, on a white face.
“Err, I’ve had a fall,” she said, her hands still shaking.
“Err, I’ve come about the garden, gardening,” I said.
Suddenly, her eyes sparked then ignited
ninety plus years held in darkening pupils,
the delicate filament in her blue iris illuminated.
“Did I tell you about trekking in the Himalayas?
Right over the pass for six days.
I remember now, the blue poppies, wonderful,” she said.
She began talking, as if she’d known me all of my relatively short life.
She took my arm and leaned hard on the old wooden stick,
“Now let me show you the roses.”
The summer rain pelted like an Asian monsoon.
We didn’t notice.

By Alastair Simmons 2012

Alastair lives on the Northeast Scottish coast, finding inspiration in the landscapes of Scotland and Northern England, and also it’s cities. And the gardens he creates,  working as a gardener. “Poetry is about finding connection and expressing that feeling, whether it’s people, nature or worlds we find ourselves in.”

photo by the Purple Hermit

Old Flame

so good to see you
smoke-eyed stranger in the night
with blood on your teeth

when you spark that talk
sly fruit bloom on sullen trees
starlings fall like snow

I remember you
burning sweet Ballachulish
heather by the loch

in a hotel room
shadowed by the Three Sisters
and scented orange

we hoped our extinct
volcano might come to life
in that flash of light

 

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Photo by the author

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?

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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!