From Out of the Rubble

There was a little kerfuffle in the high street this week. Well not in it but about it. Some artists were commissioned to create artwork on the boards covering the BHS windows. They worked their butts off in some grotty weather to get it all done in time for the Christmas Lights Switch-on.

Four window boards now bear the following: “Some things are a dream.”, “Dream wonderful things.”, “People can be wonderful”, and “Be wonderful and dream.” The words were taken from the poetry of one of the artist’s late father, an artist himself.

The response I saw was almost all positive, but there were a few voices of dissent too.

Some people think it an affront to the people who harrowingly lost their jobs and pensions at BHS. Some people think the space is still ripe for political comment rather than a chipper encouragement to move on. Some people thought the sentiment was trite and offensive to people who perhaps weren’t feeling very happy and didn’t need to be told to effectively look on the bright side. Some people queried who got the job, how, and why. And of course all these opinions and the freedom and platforms to express them is what keeps things interesting. We are not all sheep baaing to the same flat note.

But. If we judged every high street billboard or window display or piece of publicly commissioned art against our own lives, we’d all be wailing and roaring. A jaunt down the gamut of the high street’s offerings could conjure a thousand insecurities or sadnesses or discontents with how things are. Are we pretty enough, slim enough, creative enough, popular enough, go-getting enough, clever enough, happy enough. Vegans don’t want to see posters of tender strips of chicken being ripped open to reveal moist flesh, but they’re there. People who’ve just lost a baby don’t want to walk past the Early Learning Centre and see A B C scrawled on a mini chalkboard; the letters their child will never be able to write, but they’re there. Homeless people slump outside as window-dressers plump up beds with stiff clean cotton that will never get slept on; a searing affront to the basic comfort they seldom get to experience. Lonely people pass posters of sequin-wearing bronzed pals quaffing festive prosecco, throwing their heads back and laughing with perfect pearly-whites. The windows are festooned with picture-perfect lives to taunt us.  Everything we see in them can hurt us somehow. There are times when all the life around us seems intent on jabbing us deep, right in the bits that already hurt. Windows are more about the things we do not have than the things we do have. And retailers capitalise on our deepest desires. That is how the big man maketh the money.

We are not all the same. If those four boards outside a now sad and empty BHS – the place I went for my school dresses and cardigans and socks, the place I trawled round on its sad last day before its doors closed and it just all felt horribly wrong – had been given to us all to spruce up, no two of us would have stumbled on the same design. And that’s kind of the beauty of art, isn’t it? Even if we’d willed it to happen by somehow communing our thoughts together, we would never have all come up with the same idea. Words, shapes, colours, style, message. All would have been different. Some may have fallen on the side of cheering passers-by with a sort of obligation to retail Blitz spirit; keep calm, keep on, love, laugh, live, etc. Some may have fallen on the uproar of the times, the ire of the year. Some may have gone abstract, some may have used words, some may have splashed paint, some may have painstakingly painted impeccable detail.  Within the designs would have been hidden thematic layers of love, loss, ambition, desire, fear, and rage. Within the designs would have been whatever spirit makes that artist an individual. If I was an artist and had been approached to cover the boards, what would I have opted for? Given my current mood at the tail end of this shitty year I think it might have been a big wash of black. Or a complete fucking mess of bottle-tops stuck on with blu-tack or something like some sort of Generation Prozac meets Blue Peter.  Thank god I know I am not an artist.

It’s hard to know whether the world most needs our love or our anger. I think it needs both, the love keeps us sane while the anger drives us forwards, but it’s hard to know how to fuse the two together like some sort of swirly light sabre. The onus is on us to contribute to making things better, but how the fuck do we do we do it? If world leaders are getting so much of the big stuff wrong, how do we ordinary folks stand a chance?

Maybe we just start small. We start at the very centre of things and work our way outwards. We start inside ourselves, we get to know what drives our guts and we propel some of it out into the world. We think and we learn and we contribute. We are a part of it all, and that’s important.  I personally found it hard to listen to some people’s opinions about the art that went up on the BHS boards. Because vitriol makes my eyes water and I felt protective of the artists who had made choices and worked hard to bring them to life, with good intent in their hearts, and I think sometimes the better things to judge is the intention that goes into something, not the thing itself. That’s more interesting; that’s the person, that’s the fire inside. Street Art is an invaluable part of our visual world, and it’s an important counter culture to the images the high street in its role as a long shifting gallery curated by rich cunts offers us, that by its very corporate nature just plays on our weaknesses not our strengths; our lack not our haves; our emptiness not our fire.

We’re all carrying an arson of things at all times. Some keep it all inside never to be expressed like a guilty mute secret, often to their own detriment. Some fling it out without thought and damage things rather than add something good, some choose their battles and their words and their counter-attacks carefully, to great effect. As I consider what the right balance of peace and fire is, I think I generally fall somewhere on this: instead of hurling bricks at people, we should build something with them. I think that’s how better things get created, and the world builds itself back up from the rubble.

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and then Leonard Cohen died

Well. It’s been quite the week. I don’t know where to start, such is the utter daze that has wound its way around everything since the election results rang across the world like a bell intent on breaking your ears off the side of your face. It seems too big to tackle with my own words. Like figuring out how to scrub a whale with a tooth-brush. I am badly-tooled for the job.

 

Perhaps that means I’m in the wrong bloody job. Lots of other people have put aside their blue daze to form words about all this, about how we came to be here, about what might happen next, about what must be done to make changes from the inside. Those with political savvy who can take a clear line on it all having assimilated the stats and facts but I just feel a bit lost and like I have reached the outer limits of my noise. Like the year has extracted everything from me and I am empty, and might only automatically refill at the strike of midnight of 2017’s first day. It’s been a year. New home, new job, new writing, touring, new friends, a lot of work work work, change, unrest, exhaustion, a million questions about love and life, Brexit, Trump, this, whatever this is. Deeply deeply unsettled, the world a turbo carousel that I might get flung from. I know a lot of people feel the same. “My god, what an absolute bastard of a year.” I think I’ve just reached a sort of muteness. Like I can make hand gestures but can’t talk. But of course you’re not really permitted that when you write. You have to find some words.

 

And then Leonard Cohen died. And it was impossible not to see it as a sane man checking out of Earth before he could watch any more ugliness. It was hard not to think that if a poet who hardly shies from the dark matter of life feels like even he can’t bear any more, then we really are in trouble. That is over-dramatizing it I know. He was old and ill, dying wasn’t a choice, and if he’d had a choice I’m sure it would have been anything but leaving. He was a very much alive and still fruitful man. But the timing of it seemed so exquisitely pertinent. It could only have been a greater slight to the world if Cohen had actually been the American that people keep mistaking him for. Shunning your country by dying might have been a real statement, but the Canadians don’t really need a totemic gesture in the form of a dead legend to further express their separateness from the States. Cohen’s dying was just a chance of timing, one extraordinary man’s ordinary body reaching its inevitable end during a seismic world shift, nothing more, nothing less, but it socked itself further into the firescorch of our winded guts.

 

Leonard Cohen is one of the men who keeps my Dad alive for me. I’ve stowed bundled bits of my Dad into many things, though he did most of that himself just by living in the word and leaving traces. Most of the men who keep my dad alive are men of music. Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Cat Stevens, more. And Leonard Cohen.

 

He started as a thing of inherited dread for me. Mum can’t bear Cohen. “Whenever I hear bloody Leonard Cohen my blood runs cold.” For he was the music of choice when my Dad took to bed for days with a savagely demonstrated depression. He’d play it on loop , the low gravel grumbling around the house like a minor earthquake, the cracks from his bed splitting out to my helpless mother trying to reach a man who could not be reached. My little sister & I would’ve been there too, toddling about with our hands in jam & Cohen in our blithe unthinking ears. Cohen was the chosen voice of Dad’s darkness. The lyrics were a friend; the darkness didn’t judge him. I grew up thinking listening to Leonard Cohen was tantamount to climbing into a pond of voodoo treacle; like palapable actual visceral bad things could happen if you listened. But like all dark things he intrigued me. I somehow knew he was brilliant. I was drawn to him; he was marked by me as a young girl as a thing for ‘later’.

 

It all changed when we were introduced to an album of Cohen’s songs sung by Jennifer Warnes. Famous Blue Raincoat. I must have been about 14. And something in the new treatment of the songs, songs she’d heard before in the bad old times; the melody, the newness of fresh harmonies, the feminization of a deeply male voice, made my mother listen. And listen and listen again. It became one of our albums; a soundtrack to those years of our life together; a 3 girl choir singing at the tops of our voices while polishing the house on a Saturday morning. Maybe Mum washed herself clean in the singing. It is still one of my most exultant joyful albums. But I listen to Cohen too; I listen to the real stuff. I like the darkness, I am lured by the words. And he’s damn sexy. I’m not sure there’s many octagenarians who can make a shiver travel from your neck down down down to be lost in warmer parts with his voice; his last album You Want It Darker has a deeply erotic charge to it that transcends the finality; the work of a man who knows he’s not got long to say the rest of everything left in his expansive wonderful heart.

 

I suppose what I’m saying, though I’m not much good with the words or the clarity right now, is that times and songs of darkness can be filled with light and colour. We just need time and the determination to sing even when we are scared.

 

 

 

Tonight is…

I feel a little sick. I have that same clammy pallor in my cheeks that marked the few hours, nay – days, after the referendum. I’d cast my Remain vote early that morning then skipped off to Oxford to do my play Pramkicker. I didn’t for one moment believe that the result would be what it was. My naive brain felt utterly convinced that sense would prevail, that the vote would be in favour of staying. That ultimately we’d be alright.

Later that night I sat in the back of the car on the way home reading the BBC newsfeed on my phone and felt my certainty that everything would be ok slip, in slow motion, like a cake inching off a plate. Then, as the cake dropped, as it broke apart from the force of the fall, its neat layers spinning out into comet-like crumbs, scorching the earth, panic set in.

That felt weird didn’t it? The afterwards? The disbelief mingled with stunned horror mingled with the anger mingled with the sickness wondering who the heck voted for such a result, and what on earth it would mean now.

I have that same grumble in my gut now over the Presidential election. As we go to sleep tonight, the process will have started. When we wake, the results will be streaming in from 50 very disparate states. There will be heavy indications of what the overall result will be. There will be exit polls. And at some point we will know. We will see the true voice of America, the clamouring noise of all those silent voters who really swing it. We will at some point see which way the world may change. 

I’ve just had a lovely email, from an American director who wants to put my play Pramkicker on in Washington DC. After the initial disbelief – “are you sure you’ve got the right play? Are you sure you mean my Pramkicker, not another one?” I permitted myself a rush of excitement. Not only because anyone wanting to perform something you’ve written is a pretty amazing feeling, but because I was excited about the place itself. Washington DC. The Capital of the United States of America. Home of the White House and the Obamas. I can’t not think of Washington without thinking of that scene in Mr Smith Goes to Washington where Jimmy Stewart stands for hours trying not to fall asleep defending All Things Good. That scene makes me cry like a baby. 

I tried to imagine my little play, being spoken aloud over there. The rush through my joy veins was heady and scary and beautiful.

I kept rereading the email. Particularly I kept rereading the lines “Assuming we still have a country in November 2017 and have not been overrun with rifle-wielding pussy-grabbing misogynistic lunatics, that is the projected date for production of the play. We are excited to be bringing this to the USA! Which will be run I am sure (crosses everything) at that point by our first female President. Heck – maybe we will send her an invite?”

Some tiny part of me allowed myself the ludicrous image of Hillary Clinton having a night off and going to the theatre, sitting in the front row at the US premiere of my silly sweary play surrounded by men in black, clapping til her hands ache a bit and then buying some merch. I think such a ridiculous fantasy may be permitted for thirty seconds at least. But then my Washington DC fantasy dematerialised in my head as I realised how little formed 2017 could really be in our minds. How much could happen in that year, will happen, between the election and when I get to hear my play done with an American accent. I will fly out to see it, if it really happens, because it might be my only chance to hear words I’ve written spoken on the other side of the pond. It will be a big big thing in my little life.

But what kind of a world it will be. Who will be at the helm of the ship, and will it feel like it’s soaring or sinking.

I feel sick tonight, and I feel naive for the sense of impending doom that has gripped me. Because I know we’ll be ok, because we always are, because things always pass and change and dark ages give way to light and dark people make way for, are pushed aside for, those who’ve been holding the lanterns all the way, steering things from the back. It is the way of things, even though the routes may be circuitous. The bad exists to shape the good. The good bends around it, the good is versatile, it is resourceful, and it is patient. We bend, we dodge, we shift, we leap over, we fly. We need the wrongs to teach us the right. We learn, we accomplish. We respect, we love. We’ll be alright. But tonight is another thing. Tonight is the sick bowl and the bottle. Tonight is a night for holding hands.

                                         —————————————-

Here’s a bit from Mr Smith Goes To Washington that made me love Jimmy Stewart even more than I already did, and he had already won my heart forever in It’s A Wonderful Life…



“Just get up off the ground, that’s all I ask. Get up there with that lady that’s on top of this Capitol dome, that lady that stands for Liberty. Take a look at this country through her eyes if you really want to see something. And you won’t just see scenery; you’ll see the whole parade of what Man’s carved out for himself, after centuries of fighting. Fighting for something better than just jungle law, fighting so’s he can stand on his own two feet, free and decent, like he was created, no matter what his race, color, or creed. That’s what you’d see. There’s no place out there for graft, or greed, or lies, or compromise with human liberties. And, uh, if that’s what the grown ups have done with this world that was given to them, then we’d better get those boys’ camps started fast and see what the kids can do. And it’s not too late, because this country is bigger than the Taylor’s, or you, or me, or anything else. Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light. They’re right here; you just have to see them again.”


  

   
 

Killer Doll

Halloween. School classroom. 1987. I’m stood, rustling in the crinkly folds of a black binbag, being forced to sway my arms in a class dance to Michael Jackson’s Thriller. It’s a tiresome song. I can’t bear all this angular jerking. Sometimes I feel like an outsider, standing on the outskirts of ordinary 1980s childhood fun. The Locomotion leaves me cold (TRAINS DON’T DANCE), Agadoo makes me feel like I’m drowning in sick, Jive Bunny is a derivative structural mess, and if you even think about making me bob to that Superman song I will ram my Care Bear down your throat. I prefer country dancing. I like to see if I can fit my steps neatly within the rectangles of the school hall parquet flooring while I do the do-si-do. I just don’t get Halloween. Why are we dancing like our arms are precariously close to dropping off while dressed as rubbish? I’m only not making a fuss about this ludicrous business because the general comments section of my school report is very important to me. I don’t much care if I’m not very good at the scholarly stuff, but if Miss Lewis thinks I’m a non-dancing tedious drip I will die. 

Halloween. Massachusetts. 1997.   I’m on a school exchange and appear to be dressed as a clown witch. That’s right, a clown that is also a witch. A ludicrous combination that seems to be pleasing everyone but me. I’m in a beautiful little town named Cohasset. The leaves are pleasing shades of New England orange and red. We should be doing a walking tour of historic witch-burning spots with someone with qualifications from nearby Harvard please, not banging on people’s doors and asking for sweets. Trick or Treating. I don’t get it. Asking strangers you normally ignore to give you stuff. I wonder if my family will let me stay in while they perambulate the neighborhood (no u in that word out here; tense); maybe read some Sylvia Plath, or reorder the contents of their fridge in height order. They’ve got some really bafflingly big stuff over here. That milk is going to last until at least March. It’ll be cheese by then. They’ll probably put it in a really big burger. I have mixed feelings about this. Being a teenager is so hard. Sylvia Plath would understand me. Oh god. Until we leave I am just sitting here, bemused in clown shoes, dutifully licking Reese’s Pieces and not understanding that either. Peanut Butter, with chocolate. This is madness.

 

Halloween. 2008. Somewhere posh in London. I am wearing a dress, which is bad enough. I have drawn a Vampyric bite mark on my neck with a sarcastic globule of blood oozing out. That is my sole attempt at a costume. Everyone else looks mental. I still don’t get Halloween. I have to be forcibly dragged away from the vodka luge by my rear. I put my gum in a photographer’s palm as he tries to help me along. I think I’m tipping him.

 

Halloween. 2016. Balcony. Home. I have paused frantically trying to cobble together a costume from the dregs of my hideous mess of a wardrobe to have a feminist existential tit crisis. With an emphasis on Halloween tits. There’s a lot of them about. I have mixed feelings. Do you own the fact you have tits, or try to reduce them? I have tried to flatten my boobs on occasion but it only serves to squish my décolletage upwards like I have a goitre. Being a feminist is hard. Not even the good ones want a goitre. 

 

Later that night. Pub. Still fucking Halloween. I panicked. I eschewed all vague attempts at a proper costume and have ostensibly come as myself, but like, if I were having a really quiet breakdown. Like, really keeping my mental deterioration on the downlow. I have half-hearted bunches. I have mildly rosy cheeks. I have white ankle socks and a dress that makes me happy because the pattern is like 1950s children’s book illustrations, yachts and islands and birds, but which I never wear because the plunging boobage is a bit much. (See earlier feminist existential tit crisis.) I look outstandingly normal compared to the walking dead. I’ve decided that if anyone asks I will tell them I am a killer doll named Poochkin. I have nominally scrawled the hash-tags #killer and #AAARRGH on my chest with eyeliner (using breasts as a  creative notice board rather than something to line shots up on; #goodfeminist), and have an intricate horror narrative and psychologically warped character backstory plotted out in my head, just in case anyone asks for more. No one asks. Fuckssake. Being a writer is so hard. Literally no one gives a shit that I have prepped. They either can’t see how glaringly underdressed I am because their faces are obscured by horrific prosthetics, or they don’t care because they have been drinking £1 neon shooters since 3pm.

 

“But Sadie, you’ve just come as yourself.”, a friend says later. I have not the words to explain (to David Brent) that that can be horrific enough. You try living with this inner monologue. Thanks to internalising my Halloween efforts instead of just painting my face green or something Poochkin is still running around with a rusty knife stolen from the top drawer of a haunted orphanage bureau holding locked away secrets of horrific juvenile crimes of bygone days of sepia evil. And someone just made me do shots. I’m not in control anymore. Poochkin is, and she’s getting tired of this bullshit. 

It’s late. I accept the fact I still don’t get Halloween. I call a cab and promise myself I’ll be better next time. Poochkin demands chips. I give in. It’s just easier.


 

 

 

The Devil’s in the Glass

A pub table is a dangerous place to plan adventures. The devil’s in the glass, the mischief’s in the music, and the old chairs creak meddlesome suggestions to you like the bows of pirate ships or the hammocks of forest hideaways. There is a reveller’s riot spirit lurking there under the table like discarded gum, ready to stick itself to you with the leftover minxy scent of Juicy Fruit. Plus you’re drunk. That almost never helps. 

We were sat down at such a table the Sunday just gone – me, Paige, Dean, Liam, Matt and Michelle. A colourful gang with Sunday fun on their mind. Paige and Dean had just moved into their new flat so we were clinking to them and their new walls so they could blithely ignore the fact they now had a heckload of unpacking to do. To distract them we were attending to all the important stuff of life, like how long can you hold your eyes wide open without it really hurting? Can you put your arm around and up your back and touch your head? Can you do that really quick finger-clicking thing that makes a cool snapping sound? The big stuff. Like if Mensa did Twister.

 

Now. I think there is something intrinsically dangerous about sitting opposite people. Hear me out. When you are physically able to see each other, something happens. You incite mischief together. Something alchemical happens as your eyes spark off each other. Trouble ignites itself. You egg each other on. You get the giggles. You indulge in a precarious “what if”. Less stuff happens when you are all facing the same way. When was the last time you formed a human pyramid just to see if you could, at, say, the cinema, or queuing up in Primark to pay for a 50 pack of socks? No. That is because you were all facing the same way. Most of life’s big moments can all be tracked back to the moment when eyes locked together. Human eyes are the start of most of the trouble. Especially when they’re drunk. That almost never helps.

 

Then, around our table of weekend champions, as can happen, talk turned to the local airport. Not to bemoaning the noise or the flight paths, but to adventurous plottings. To that possibility of adventure residing in our very own town in the form of a magical portal to Other Places.

 

“Let’s all go to Another Place, just because we can.” said someone. “Alright”, said everyone else, not entirely in unison, but we can work on that for next time. We talked about Barcelona, Prague, Lanzarote, Reykjavik, we got so fired up at one point someone even mentioned Jersey. I made that person calm down. The central tenet of our adventure logistics was that when we went, and go we would, we would hike to the airport by foot, eschewing the use of cabs, because we could. Because it’s there. Because the airport is so flipping local you could almost wake up in the morning and clonk your head on the 07:23 Easyjet to Glasgow.

 

The trouble with carousing with your mates around a table in the pub, planning pan-global recreation eyeball to eyeball is that your phone’s sat there in front of you. There you are, all together, all excited, existing in the modern world, with real-life phones sat there right in front of you. Drunk.

 

And I can only presume that is the reason I woke up the next morning and saw in my inbox, to my surprise, a confirmation email telling me “Dear Sadie, Congratulations! You’re on your way to see Ludovico Einaudi at Waldbühne Berlin!”

 

I wonder whose eyes are to blame. Whose mischievous brain. Whose adventurer’s calling. Someone is at fault. And they were almost certainly drunk and that almost never helps.