I’m writing short pieces about moments and strands of my life. Thanks to City Lit for the impetus. What appears here will change and grow.
I’m looking at a blurry print-out of a blown-up scan of two small snapshots taken on a Canon single-lens reflex camera. The original photos are glued into an album of my pictures and poems. Hattie and I are on the front seat on the upper deck of a bus and I’m holding the camera to my face, looking up to take the pictures in the little round mirror at the top the stairs which you can see behind us. It’s 1979 or 1980 so we’re about 24. Hattie has her legs crossed confidently at the knee, arm draped loosely around my shoulder, looking out of the window, thoughtful, serious. Our haircuts are of similar length and style, cut short but thick on top. We both wear jeans and plimsolls, look relaxed. I have on a vibrant light blue velvety V-necked top over a brown and yellow striped tee shirt, Hattie wears a purple tee shirt under a thin, crimson cardigan, second hand I think.
I can’t read what’s written on the badge she’s wearing.
We lived then in a ramshackle, shared house in Sheffield where consciousness raising groups met to discuss the patriarchy, a band practiced in the cellar, monogamous heterosexuality was challenged, relationships explored and exploded, demos attended, causes supported. In our room, using that same camera, recording equipment from the Community Arts centre where I worked in the Sound Collective, and the mirror from a broken wardrobe door, we made a tape/slide presentation for Hattie’s final show at Sheffield Art College. Tape/slide using a Carousel projector was cutting edge just then. Called Last Tangle, our piece featured a soundtrack of my poetry, quotes from feminist tracts and Hattie’s dissertation with added echo effects, played over slides of Hattie’s art and our naked bodies, reflected images of the two of us circling each other, eventually merging into androgenous Hatopher. These were radical, creative, sexual, earnest, challenging, painful but exciting times. We loved each other and were out to reimagine love and desire. Last Tangle ended with us speaking these words, our voices overlapping:
“To take off our clothes and make love? I have never been naked – hands gloved in assumption, body swaddled in fear, eyes fixed upon emblems of a standardised lust. There is a mask beneath my mask…
through time through love we take off can we
gather strength and strands
together love through time through struggle
to release the clench of power to let slip and fall
through time through
love slowly unravelling
love through exploration
are we slowly
Looking for photos of Hattie for her 65th birthday card, I put my finger on the laptop key and the last fifteen years or so pass by backwards in jerky animation, fragments of days flying, hair lengthening, vanishing, ungreying, unthinning, so so many unlocked places and parties, so many roads frantically travelled, beauty spots reversed through, grandchildren reverting to toddlers, babies, bumps, hopes, desires, nothings.
I was interviewing for a community radio show in Sheffield and talked to a teenage Goth girl about her tattoos, piercings, purple hair, baggy black decaled tee-shirt. I asked her, “So do you think you’ll always dress the way you do?”
“Yes of course, this is who I am. I’ll never change.” I smiled. Then she continued. “I mean maybe when I’m like twenty five or something…” I was twenty five and have never felt such a has been.
As a boy I came across a box of toy cars which I hadn’t played with for ages, spilled them onto the carpet in my room, lay down, breathed in its reassuring, dusty fug and started driving them along the roads in the pattern of the carpet. But that narrative voice of play had grown out of me. Like waking from a dream or, I later noticed, like coming down from a trip, the rich mental density thins out and blows away – the ghost in the machine.
Unearthing paper wallets of negatives of photos we took of each other naked for Last Tangle opens up the strangest feelings, like being a voyeur on my own memories. Especially as I find negatives which Hattie chose not to process at the time – of her looking too beautiful, too happily in love, too caught by the male gaze for a newly signed up member of the Women’s Movement to bear. But male is the only gaze I have, a toxic glare sometimes but looking in other modes too, appreciatively, openly, tenderly, into the distance, vaguely into space, achingly back at the past.
At the Picasso on Paper show just before lockdown with my Californian friend Jorg who I hadn’t seen since we were twelve in 1968, I looked at his face and it morphed from the older man to the soon to be older still, to the boy I knew, to the shy teen, stoned hippy, cool dude I missed ever meeting. He was all these faces and I am mine. Growing older we are all ages, all times of life, flitting from memory to memory, like children playing, making faces.
It takes me more than a year after mum dies to separate the physical shell of her house from the memories it contained.
I’m in the kitchen by the gas cooker, an old model, white enamel door and grime encrusted pipework around the burners, at odds with the trendy units and hand-painted tiles. Through the hatch to the sitting room my Dad and sister on the sofa watch Steptoe & Son. Mum’s poured two tins of pillows, her name for Heinz ravioli, into a pan to heat through.
“You really need to clear up your room, honey. It’s a tip.”
“Too busy. Got homework.”
“If you don’t, I’ll have to.”
“Mum! Don’t you dare!”
“Yes, I know you don’t want me snooping about down there.” She’s right. I’m already thinking where I hid the cigarettes, Rizlas and the foil-wrapped nub of dope Paul’s brother sold me.
“Ok, I’ll sort it.”
“I mean it.”
She turns towards me, sternly. And both of us realise she’s looking down.
“I’m bigger than you!” I say and we both start to laugh.
I’m looking through the hatch at Mum in her eighties, sitting in the armchair where Dad used to sit after his op. She’s on the phone to the daughter of an old colleague, sending condolences, puts the phone down, to my amazement says,
“It’s such a shame that so many good friends are dying these days, because apart from that, I’m enjoying old age.” She has freedom to be safely independent now, in a pocket of time after what’s recognised as a happy marriage, in the house where her kids played, rowed as adolescents, found uneasy but permissive spaces in which to become separate selves.
My parents are away. ‘Fragile’ by Yes plays on the Boots stereo. Nick, drunk on old liqueurs found at the back of a cupboard, has just thrown up, thankfully on the kitchen lino not the sitting room carpet. Once I’ve mopped up Nick and the floor, bundled him out and up the road towards the tube, my girlfriend and I revert to snogging, her on my lap in the armchair. She extricates herself to straddle me, lifts her teeshirt over her head and, in one ground-shifting moment, unhooks her bra.
I reach down to that armchair to hug mum for the last time after calling round on my scooter, this paunchy middle-aged son saying “Love you,” in the same singsong voice I use to tell the kids. Two days later I get a call from the carer who’s found her in bed, Radio 4 still playing, Guardian crossword slipped from her fingers.
For the memorial I pore over a box of jumbled photos, take home snapshots from different eras, blow them up on the computer, making a collage of images from her gawky youth, uptight teens, uniformed twenties, stylish thirties, nervy but affirming married life, through to garrulous grannyhood.
“I thought I’d feel grown up at some point in my life, but I still feel no more than 21 inside” she says one night at a meal out with her husband and kids. Mum is in her sixties, and I’m too young to know she speaks true.
JULY 6th & 7th 2005
I drove across London twice a day on my red Vespa via Euston Station, the Thames, Houses of Parliament, Kings Road – a gobsmacking cityscape leading to Wandsworth and Booktrust where I was CEO. That scooter transported me to numerous Government departments, quangos, schools, publishers and libraries. I suppose we were part of the New Labour Establishment. Our Bookstart scheme gave free books to babies via libraries and health visitors. We promoted creative reading and writing within the national curriculum, ran projects in workplaces, prisons and community centres, liaised with sponsors on book prizes for children, teenagers and adults, held award ceremonies at swanky venues. A year later I’d scooter along the Embankment singing loudly having just heard the Chancellor promise major funding to Bookstart in his budget review – the first ever mention of the arts in such a speech.
But that July I drove past the huge screen erected in Trafalgar Square delighting in the slogans promoting London as global, multicultural, progressive and positive. On the evening of the 6th, just before leaving the office, news came in that Britain had won the Olympic bid. Staff were thrilled the games were coming. I hate sport so wasn’t bothered, but did take pride in how my city had presented the capital’s diversity not as a problem but its greatest strength.
About to set off to work the next morning I caught radio reports of explosions on the tube: first confused talk of multiple blasts, then TV pictures of shocked, scorched faces emerging from the stations. Next a bus was blown up on Tavistock Place. I drove past that spot most mornings.
Afterwards it was hard not to stare at the backpacks of young Muslims. Abuse was hurled at girls in burkas. The Tories coined the term ‘Broken Britain’. Broke and bitter white Brits swallowed the idea, and later swung behind the toxic notion of ‘Taking Back Control’. Factfulness by Hans Rosling highlights how fear of terrorism dominates society. The world gets better, he argues, but we’re hooked on catastrophising. The number in extreme poverty has halved in the last 20 years but that goes unnoticed as we watch round the clock coverage of the latest, statistically small but screen-grabbing outrages. The past is cosily nostalgic – we made it through after all – the future terrifyingly unknown. Weaving a personal route through my chunk of history, have I witnessed it clearly, or relied on assumptions that suited my worldview?
On a scooter you get close up to events, park when you want to explore further, turn round if you get lost and find yourself another route. It’s dangerous – I’ve suffered various scrapes, skids and bumps – but I made it through. Haven’t ridden the scooter for years. Someone stole it from the front garden last week and I felt relief.
PAUL McCARTNEY & ME
When we flew to New York to see my elderly uncle just before lockdown, we queued for hours in the early morning at JFK to be quizzed by a hostile officer. Then, as we emerged, Paul McCartney appeared from the next gate.
Twenty years ago I met Paul at a work event – a historic meeting – and said to him, “Hello”. He replied, “Hi”. Since when I’ve felt Macca and I had a special bond. I listened to his last album, made during lockdown, like it was recorded by a personal friend. He crops up sometimes in my dreams being sort of encouraging. Oh, and in 2012 I saw him at the 02 Arena, but 20,000 other people were there, so he may not have spotted me.
A friend says I get starstruck, go weird around celebrity, and I do have a tally in my head, as if a list of the famous I’ve brushed past was some kind of achievement. Elvis Costello on Waterloo Bridge. Laurie Anderson in a library. Three Doctors on the highstreet: Tennant, Capaldi and Whitaker. As a teenager I saw Ravi Shankar on Tottenham Court Road. Thrillingly he was wearing a faun raincoat. I could go on. Gordon Brown I have properly if briefly met, and he became a regular in my dreams, sadder than in real life, a bit needy.
Celebrity culture is defined as “a pervasive preoccupation with famous persons and an extravagant value attached to the lives of public figures whose actual accomplishments may be limited, but whose visibility is extensive.”
Is my Macca thing a symptom of that pernicious culture? Not really. I’ve loved the Beatles all my life. We do feel close to those whose music or films or politics we admire, and physical sightings give that closeness an illusion of substance.
Through work I’ve met well-known writers and some I’d think of as true friends, but then they become like any other friend whose achievements aren’t really why I like them. But public recognition does matter. Writers need readers. A global fanbase would be nice but a supportive City Lit class works too. Most important of all is taking pleasure in the creative act itself. I’m sure Paul would agree.
In her quiet way my grandmother bound our family together. Her desk was used to keep track of household expenses, the whereabouts and birthdates of relations; its musty drawers and compartments held cheque book stubs, Basildon Bond stationery, postcards, keys, a stick of sealing wax.
I picture her reclining on the sofa, in her first floor flat above our portion of the house watching colour TV – the first one my sister and I ever saw – while I pottered around her. Nonny was the name I’d invented as a toddler because I couldn’t pronounce Phyllis. Many women of that generation were landed with nursery nicknames. All those Nannans and Foofoos and Gaggas, born before radio, world wars or universal suffrage.
Nonny kept a supply of posh Tree Top squash and Terry’s chocolates. She had subscriptions to Life Magazine and Encyclopaedia Britannica which arrived through the post volume by volume, though I never saw her reading one. And she owned the clunky mono Bush record player on which I played singles by the Beatles, Cilla Black, Freddie and the Dreamers. Nonny rested while I drew and wrote and jabbered away about my secret life as undercover spy and pirate radio DJ. It never crossed my mind or hers that she might enter any further into my games. I think of her not quite smiling but looking on calmly, passively.
It was said that on the day after their wedding her husband brought his bride a cup of tea in bed. Phyllis thought it rude to tell him that she didn’t like tea, and so he brought her a cup every morning for the rest of their marriage.
In widowhood she gardened and played Scrabble with her sister Maudie, an ex-Communist spinster who always argued about the rules. Maudie wore tweed, Nonny the standard old lady uniform of blue white permed hair, glasses, long skirt and cardigan, her stocky body encased in stiff girdle. I loved my granny very much but don’t remember ever hugging her.
Nonny shed a tear each Christmas when the boy soprano on the radio from Kings College sang Once in Royal David’s City. She had The Times delivered daily and voted Tory whereas Mum was Liberal and Dad a member of the Labour Party, but never discussed politics nor, as I recall, uttered opinions on anything much.
But at one Sunday lunch I heard Nonny say that her youngest son had been beaten once by his father to make him work harder. She didn’t seem to regret this act but pondered whether or not it had been effective. I was horrified. No adult ever hit me, though the threat loomed fearfully around all children then. My eyes were opened to how little I knew her real views on anything.
When I was fifteen Nonny went away to the coast for a weekend and died of a heart attack, quietly and neatly as ever. I remember Mum and I on the sofa crying together. And then mum opened up to me about the problems of having her mother in residence upstairs. It wasn’t that they argued, more the controlling power of her presence in our home.
“When I’m old,” Mum said, “even if I beg you on bended knee to let me live with you, Chris, don’t ever give in.” And my eyes were opened even wider.
I remember…but do I?..that newsagent up the road, close enough for my sister Clare and I to walk to unaccompanied, crossing three side roads clutching our sixpences of pocket money, to buy the penny chews and Milky Bars of financial freedom – and comics, like Beano and Buster, TV 21 providing “adventures in the 21st Century”, poptastic Fabulous 208, WHAM! featuring the Hulk and Thor, then onto Private Eye, OZ and IT, journals of the alternative society.
If I try hard can I remember more about the look of the shop or the guy who ran it? I picture a bald head and flat cap but I’m probably filling the gap with an Andy Capp cliché. This really was the first shop I bought something from in decimal coinage, was painted dark green, smelled of smoke (but everything did then: pubs, restaurants, cars, parents and tube trains included). Was the counter on the left or right? No idea.
Who cares? I didn’t then. This was my purveyor of imagination fodder: words and pictures of cheeky kids and ferocious teachers, grinning pop stars, cool spies, puppets, superheroes, satirised politicians, sexy, radical hippies. I handed over my thruppenny bits and half crowns / fifty pees and new pences and hurried back to my basement room to read and dream, chewing on rectangles of lurid pink Man From Uncle bubble gum. When I was 12 I had a poem printed in a newspaper competition, bought a copy there feeling utterly arrived, as published as was humanly possible.
But perhaps I didn’t buy it from that shop, and IT was only available from the stand outside the Underground. I thought the newsagent was called Perrins, but checking Google Streetview I find that’s just the road the shop was on. I’d check with my mum but she’s no longer alive. The past feels such a solid place when we’re in mid-life but now it’s fading, sinking, unravelling, and the neuroscientists tell us that we have no inner reel of our lives to mentally spool through but recreate the past each time we’re called on to recall. We reinvent our whole selves too, this me only a momentary screengrab of current fixations. I remember…but do I? Not really.
I8m writ ing this on a portable OLivetti Lettt era 22 typewriter I bough on Ebay recently, identical to one I owned years back. I love the cliche clackety sound of course, and the absence of pop-up notifications, though my phone is still here to provide all that. I can't play music on the Olivetti, nor read what I'm wrtiting as I go along,which has the advantage of giving the words some brief privacy, A FEW seconds to themselves before even th e author gets to see what they mean. And I find it hard to write on this ma chine about anything other than the act of typing itself. But I dolike grappling again with the clunks, zip and ping.
Yuli, at 2 years old, loves words and delights in their flavours, mimics us saying “Absoloootely”, enjoyed singing “Yik yak mud” with me down by the river as much as he liked stamping his wellied feet in the stuff. He takes pride in mentioning the “hopsitalappointments” which grandad goes to in his friend Bill’s Big Red Car. Yuli worries I might be ouchy. He likes chatting to us on the putor at breakfast when one of us can talk to our daughter while the other pulls faces with him. Yuli’s aim in life is to watch more TV, so on-screen grandparents suit him perfectly.
I’m astounded that the internet has worked so well over the past year; any futurologist or dystopian novelist would have predicted digital meltdown.
These are the strangest and tenderest of days. We’re cut off yet closer than ever to each other, our children, neighbours, and a community of friends and family on chilly walks or web chats and social media – the cloud of half-knowing.
30th JANUARY 2021
A Writers Group on Zoom this morning involves all the usual unmuting and failed screensharing, one member in Perth, one in Bedfordshire, the rest a few streets away from here, one eating muesli, another with only his chin visible. Yesterday I partook in a daily morning warm up with up to 100 invisible students across Europe copying the exercises of a dancer in her South London front room. Together we can text chat then concentrate on our moves, hidden and anonymous, without any fear of being seen. The web makes possible new permutations of connection and aloneliness. We are hug hungry, we are personal distancers, we are multitudes in a world transforming, clumsily reinventing what closeness means.
I breathe. I tap my fingers. I hum to myself. My sister does the humming thing too: emits a drone of what I can’t recognize as tunes. Annoyingly this reminds me how annoying my hums must be to my family.
But I hum actual songs. These may be current musical favourites or catchy earworms, others are triggered by memories. When we moved back to London I cycled through Hyde Park and found myself singing Everlasting Love, a forgotten pop hit circa 1967, then recalled – or think I recalled – hearing it on the car radio back then, being driven to the dentist down that very road in my granny’s Morris 1100. Now I write songs of my own which burble through my brain as I walk round our local park full of socially distanced puppies, toddlers and their frazzled minders.
Humming by Suk-Jun Kim points out that this act of singing with the mouth closed sits strangely between performance and privacy; we hum to ourselves though we know others can hear, and don’t worry if we can’t remember lyrics or hold a tune. Also while we need to look in a mirror to see our faces reflected, mechanically record our speaking voice to discover what we sound like to others, our hum is ours without mediation, the pure sound of self.
Resurfacing from unconsciousness after my operation, retaking control of my breath, using it for my own creative purposes, my fingers tapped rhythms on my chest – the choreography of the bedbound.
Now I’m up and moving to a new choreography built around the constraints of current aches and strains. My walk is a ballet far more complex and seasoned than when I strode effortlessly. Soon I may burst into song and dance as naturally as Rodgers and Astaire, waltzing weirdly away towards wellness.
For now I wake up from dreams of people mingling and touching. For several minutes I don’t/can’t lift my head, just settle gradually into consciousness before finally arising to make tea for two and carry out the morning ritual of pills and ablutions. Back in bed I pick a tarot card from a pack given me by our daughter. It came with a radical guide to the Tarot with no mention of divination and much about coming out and tackling white male oppression. Today I pick the Page of Wands: Curiosity In Motion. A good start. Next I climb out of bed, groan and dress. I take breath. I hum. I drum on things.