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At this time, it feels like the edge of the world has risen up to meet us and we are tipping and tilting on a precipice that is ever-shifting. Multiple crises surround us and the failure of our systems, governments and structures are visible, perhaps more visible than ever before. It is easy to stumble and fall off the edge, to feel overwhelmed by waves of despair and hopelessness. Our smallness and lack of control over our world is revealed and it is not comfortable.
What do we do when that overwhelm comes and the world tilts? Each of us will find different ways of coping and of dealing with those primal flight/fight instincts we all have. My instinct, after dealing with either fight or flee, is to turn to two sources of wisdom and solace; nature and story.
The natural world, particularly the sea and the sky remind me of the mutability of existence, of constant change. An hour spent watching the sea is a lesson in accepting change. No two waves break in the same way. The light shifts moment by moment. As you stand there gazing, you too shift and change, in small but important ways. The same with the sky. Watch a sunrise or a sunset, they are dynamic experiences, full of wonder and change.
This year, gardening has been more important to me than ever before. Tending a small urban garden through the lockdown, watching it grow, caring for it gave structure and order to the day, and a place to lose myself and my fear and anxiety over the chaos ‘out there.’ Putting the garden ‘to bed’ for the winter this year feels like a solemn responsibility and an act of thanks and gratitude for all the garden has given me this year.
Story has been my other place of refuge. I have been writing but also forging a path back to reading and to the stories and tales I love. I have found it hard to read this year and have done so in short bursts. I have made a commitment to myself to read over the winter; to read the books I know I need to read, to rediscover the stories and tales that I need to help me make sense of the world and to step back from the edge and into the mysterious embrace of myth.
This is where nature and story intersect for me. The stories I want and need are stories about the land – and the sea – and our connection to it. I want to root deep into story and deep into the earth, while reaching for the sky and tasting the salt of the sea. This is where I will find balance, strength and courage to navigate the coming tumult and play my part in the world.
This time last year I was touring with The Alan Barnes Octet. We were touring A Requiem, a Jazz and Poetry collaboration which was written to commemorate and comment on a century of global conflict. Working with Alan and those superb musicians was a creative highlight of my life, a hugely enjoyable and rich experience and I look back with enormous gratitude at having had that opportunity. Two years prior we toured Fish Tales which celebrated the history, mythology and legacy of the Grimsby fishing industry. I never imagined that I would write about either war or fishing but part of the delight of creative life is to be surprised by what you can do.
Given the current context and the terrifying threat to the arts in the UK, presented by both Covid and a lack of support from the government, artists find themselves staring into an abyss and wondering what kind of a future there is for this essential part of human experience. Life without the arts can only be arid, desperate and sad. To be advised to ‘get a better job’ in the face of rising unemployment, shrinking opportunity and a UK isolated from the world is as offensive as it is unrealistic.
There is a terrible imbalance in the creative arts nationally, one that was longstanding before the current crisis. Access to the arts is increasingly limited to the middle classes, those with means and connections. The direction of travel over the past decade has been away from arts for all towards limited enclaves where not enough varied voices are heard. The education system has played a significant part in this with arts being constantly demeaned and undervalued while the STEM agenda has been relentlessly peddled, pushing children and young people in directions where they are not necessarily going to find fulfillment. It’s not enough to have arts as an afterthought or extra-curricular. A decent education should encompass and value the arts as equal to science and mathematics.
It would be a travesty to not centralise diversity as part of arts recovery in the UK post pandemic.
This year’s theme for National Poetry Day is Vision. Artists have vision, they have sight, insight and intuition in abundance. But sometimes it is hard to see, especially in times of great stress and duress. Vision is hard to find if you’re worried about losing your livelihood, feeding your family, keeping your home. However, it is important to not let go of artistic vision. Perhaps now more than at any other time in recent history we need vision and visionaries, artists who will sing, write, paint and create a future that could just be better than the past we have had to let go. I believe that each one of us is an artist and that with our creativity we can envision and create a better world with much broader and wider representation, particularly in terms of social class. I would love to be proved right.
Breaking taboos I am pleased and proud to have been been published in a taboo-busting collection of poems written by women all over the UK. Bloody Amazing! explores the health and social issues that affect experiences of women of all ages yet are hardly ever talked about: periods and menopause. The anthology is intended to be a conversation-starter for everyone. If you’ve never had a period, you’ll find out what it’s like not just to experience it physically, but also to function on an everyday basis while you work hard to hide your secret. And as for what happens when it all stops… It is a book of very human experiences, full of humour, grit, anger, pain, hot flushes, mood swings and, of course, blood.
Bloody Amazing! already has celebrity support in the form of comedian Jenny Eclair, author of Older and Wider – A Survivor’s Guide to the Menopause. She took very little persuading to write the foreword:
“I don’t think I’ve ever come across a collection of poetry that is so relevant and accessible about something that happens to around half of the planet at some stage of their lives. Who’d have thought that periods could inspire such a torrent of beautiful words? … I cannot recommend it highly enough.”
I was inspired to write about my experience of the onset of menopause. I am entering the third age and have to come to terms with letting go of my youth. It is painful and challenging. My hair is turning white, I have expanded around the waist and I am finding that my body often feels like a stranger to me. The unknown country of the future currently feels very disorientating.
I have been reflecting on my bleeding life, remembering the trauma and difficulty I experienced for decades. I was adept at avoiding school -especially PE lessons during periods. I lived in terror of the boys in my peer group going through my bag and finding sanitary towels and using them as a weapon of humiliation. I remember sitting my O Level English Literature exam in agony and under-performing as a consequence. I look back and shudder at the days I spent curled up around hot water bottles, lying in hot baths, battling three-day long migraines that became an unmanageable, chronic condition.
I remember one particularly horrible day at work when the pain was so bad, I slid down the wall outside my classroom and slumped on the floor wondering how the hell I was going to get up and get through the hour and forty minutes ahead of me with twenty rambunctious A Level Literature students. A colleague (female) saw me there and made a lairy comment, insinuating that I should ‘man up.’ And that’s often the problem isn’t it? Women are expected to behave as if they are not bleeding, not in pain, not struggling month after month after month – and sadly I’ve often found female colleagues unsympathetic simply because they breeze through their bleeds with no issues and can’t empathise.
The irony now, as I cease to bleed, as periods are down to one or two a year, is that when they come I welcome them like an old friend. I put this down to grief. I am grieving for the part of my life that is coming to an end and it is a complicated physical and psychological process. This is why this book is so special and so important. It brings together a flood of women’s experience. It is a bold, brave and timely collection.
Only last year, I burst into tears listening to Dawn Butler talk seriously about legislation to help women in the work place with menstruation and menopause, bringing this subject into the public domain and acknowledging its importance. Sadly we will now have to wait longer for that legislation, for social and political change that acknowledges and understands bleeding and all its attendant issues in a grown-up way. But this book supports the movement for change.
“Women have kept quiet for centuries about ‘women’s problems’ but the taboo is beginning to crumble, especially with excellent campaigns like Bodyform’s #wombstories or initiatives such as The Vagina Museum in London. That’s why we thought it was a timely idea for the two publishing houses to combine forces with poets to create an anthology that addresses the taboos and experiences around menopause and menstruation. And they haven’t let us down.”
All proceeds from the sale of the book will go towards period poverty charities.
The season of being surprised by spiders has arrived. This year it’s the Daddy Long Legs variety that are appearing regularly in my hair or in the way as I navigate webs and busy little arachnids doing their autumn clean up. A money spider decided to tickle my feet yesterday and I know there’s a heck of a bruiser lurking somewhere in the bedroom but I can’t find him at present.
The late September warmth and soft sunlight are welcome. I don’t want the cold and damp just yet; I’m not ready. We had such a long and lovely spring it seems almost inconceivable that soon it will be time for thick socks and long stretches of darkness. It’s as if I’d forgotten about winter completely.
I am not a morning person on the whole. I have found getting up and getting going tricky since the age of about thirteen. I would love to be a lark and to leap out of bed with the sunrise and crack on. However, I have been making the effort to get up and get to the beach to see the beautiful sunrise, or at least the last bits of it. It is its own reward, a sublime experience, a connection between the smallness of self and the vastness of sea, sky and sun. The photos don’t do it justice, but they do record moments in time and I can look at them and remember the feeling of joyous connection.
It’s hard to know what to say about life at the moment. My only certainty is uncertainty as we all continue to try to make sense of the strangeness of the times we find ourselves in. I know I’m not alone in feeling time become elastic, contracting and expanding. Days merge and I have to check where we’re up to in the week. Gardening, cooking, sewing have all come to the fore at this time; small, manageable domestic activities that are absorbing, creative and practical.
I’ve been writing. Having some structure to writing, making a plan, being consistent has been helpful. I’ve also been working with fellow artists, keeping projects going, pivoting to respond to the context, trying to keep a balance and not become overwhelmed either by the situation itself or the pressure to respond to it.
What has become clear is that arts and artists have been central to helping people keep some equilibrium and some quality to their lives. There has been a plethora of online offers; choirs, theatre productions, operas, stories, art and craft. In the first weeks there was a scramble to get work online. Much of that work has been given away for free, and that may have unforeseen negative consequences for the future.
A friend and supporter of my work sent me a beautiful message on receipt of a copy of A Requiem. I’ll share his words here as they have touched me deeply:
‘The days of performing will come back, and we’ll experience them like never before. I think this Covid-19 crisis is a call to arms, ie ‘hugging arms’ if you like, to heal and give hope to our communities. I think we are going to need all the music, and poetry, and art that we can muster to restore, and re-invigorate our communities. I hope that people begin to recognise THEIR artists as the key-workers that they, that you, truly are.’ Paul Cowgill.
My final thought today is of how badly I miss the sea and how much I look forward to being with and in it again as soon as possible.
Beginning in February as part of the Sun and Moon Festival, I am setting up a new choir project. Great Grimsby Community Choir goes from strength to strength and it is time to take some of the learning from that wonderful project and bring it over to the East Marsh.
The Peace Choir will focus on songs of solidarity, of peace, power and protest and will hopefully bring together those who wish to use their voices to affect social change. Singing is hugely powerful and important and when voices come together they can make change happen. I will look forward to welcoming all who wish to come but I am particularly hopeful that residents from the East Marsh will come along and join the choir; it is for them. The choir will run on Tuesday evenings for 11 weeks between 7.00 -8.00 pm at the courtyard on Freeman Street Market. Each session will cost £3 per person and that money will be allocated to a seed fund for further choir development. The choir will be accompanied by the brilliant Jo Townell on piano and Sue Baker on violin. Together we will arrange and teach wonderful, relevant songs to empower and inspire.
Singing is good for body and mind. It is proven to release endorphins and to help people with sadness and depression. Singing together is uplifting, positive and joyful. It creates positive energy that can be shared among people.
At the end of this project we will host a special concert to raise food and funds for the Rock Foundation food bank on the East Marsh.
We have had a great week touring A Requiem. On Sunday 29th September we were at the Herts Jazz Festival, hosted by Clark Tracey. Lovely theatre gig with a very appreciative audience and great vibe. Because it was a festival set, the suite was truncated to fit the time slot but it worked well and felt good to be playing it again after a break. I am finding that the music is affecting me and my performance in subtly different ways each time we perform. I have always responded to Song Without Words and found it a deeply affecting piece but this week I have been listening intently to Dark at the Edges and Sacred Music both if which seem to haunt me.
These pictures were taken by Mike O’Brien at Herts and I share them here with Mike’s kind permission.
On Wednesday we set off on a long drive to Swansea to play the opening night of the Swansea Jazzland International Festival. The venue was a little pub tucked away on a high street and had a more traditional, earthy feel to it. We received a very warm welcome from the Swansea team and from the audience who were most attentive and generous in their response.
From Swansea we headed over to The Stables at Wavenden. This gig was a real treat. Beautiful theatre, comfortable and a good size yet still intimate. I was especially excited to be there as Cleo Laine was a performer who fascinated me as a child. I used to love seeing her on TV with her fabulous hair and dresses, singing in that unique style. I was a little more nervous than usual but I really enjoyed the event and had some warm and wonderful conversations with members of the audience after the show.
On Monday we head off to Southport for the last of our October dates. Between now and October 12th, I have a special offer regarding the sale of the book. You can purchase A Requiem for just £5. Simply email firstname.lastname@example.org to order copies. The book features all the poems performed as part of the show plus extras. The artwork is by renowned North East Lincolnshire artist Dale Mackie. See Dale’s work here: https://www.dalemackie.com/
Autumn has certainly arrived and it feels a little damp and dreary today after the balmy days of summer that have been generous and long. Last night at choir, we pretty much finished the first of our new Christmas songs and it didn’t feel too odd singing it in September as it was dark and rainy outside.
We celebrated the equinox in heartwarming style with the wonderful staff and children of St Mary’s RC Primary School in Grimsby. The whole school formed an enormous circle in the playground to sing their favourite song, The Power, while we filmed them for our Sun and Moon Festival community film.
Community is at the heart of this season, of Mabon, the moment where autumn really arrives. Whether you attend church and share in a harvest festival supper, or are taking in your geraniums and fuchsias for a winter rest, or walking a labyrinth, taking a spirit journey or otherwise marking this tender and lovely time, may the peace of the season be with you.
It’s worth remembering that amidst the chaos of the public sphere at present and the insanity around the whole Brexit debacle, that all things pass. Here’s a poem from A Requiem to remind us of how small we are.
August was going to be the big month of novel writing. I had such plans. This book has been percolating since 2017 and it feels important and pressing. Getting to it is not straightforward as I’ve discovered. All manner of things get in the way of having a long run at writing, from laundry to projects out in the world that just need attention. I feel as if I am almost getting to things that need to be done but not quite and that includes the novel.
There are about 40,000 words of novel in existence. there are chapters, notes, fragments and plans. There are lists, drawings, mind maps and associated novel paraphernalia. I am confident that there will be a novel.
It’s just gone 4.00 pm, the tide is low and it’s perfect weather for swimming but I know I won’t. Swimming is another thing to get to; it requires preparation, including 20 mins of wrestling with wet-suit and sea socks. It has been on my plan of what must be done every day this week – it is yet to happen.
However, the sea is calling and I will answer, even if it is only to go and observe it. That might be enough today. And who knows, tonight, when the sun goes down and the world goes quiet, I might find the words and write some of that novel.