Forgetting Faces

Two days of conferences. Or, as they’re alternatively known, the prosopagnosiac’s nightmare. (Person bad at remembering faces).

Bad ways to greet a prosopagnosiac:

“Do you remember me?”

An answer of no usually seems to offend.

(Offended tone & still not giving your name) “But we met at – “ (name event where there were lots of people, after which I’ve subsequently met a thousand more people. Give no clue what we talked about).

Good ways to greet a prosopagnosiac:

“Hello! My name is – and we met at -”

By turning your name tag towards me so I don’t give into the urge to do this myself.

Neutral ways:

“Hello!” (Happy face and look of recognition). I’ll probably work it out eventually.

Accidentally good ways:

Be visually distinctive and/or don’t ever change what you look like. Particularly your hair.

Drop clues into the conversation early. Like “It was a nice day when we got married. At that lighthouse” etc.

Say mournfully “You probably don’t remember me”. This allows me to say “No, I don’t remember anybody”. Though you’ll usually be happy to find I do remember you once you say who you are/where we met/what we talked about.

Accidentally bad ways:

Look like lots of other people I know.

Say “I’m bad at remembering names too”. Names and faces are a different thing. But this does make me feel a bit better.

Assume I’ll recognise you because you just spoke on stage. This is a very fair assumption, but it turns out I often don’t recognise people who’ve just spoken on a stage because then you were small and far away, and now you’re big and nearby.

Be somewhere that I’m expecting to see people I know, but in another context. For example, I recognised both a comedian and a poet in Hull today but assumed I was just imagining I knew them because I was at an event which wasn’t for comedians and poets. Also, be anywhere I wouldn’t expect you to be. Another town, an event for people who aren’t you, my bath etc.

If I’ve met you more than four or five times or seen your photo a lot then I’ll probably recognise you anyway. Also if we’re related/married. Maybe.


Cultural Transformations- Hull as a Tiger

I’m back in Thieving Harry’s on Humber Street overlooking Hull’s marina. The sky’s grey, it’s raining. Nice coffee and things with avocados in are on the menu, served at wooden trestle tables with mismatched chairs. I came here a lot while I was doing things during the year of culture. A quiet place to breathe. Some regulars didn’t come here as much during the year- it suddenly wasn’t as quiet a place for them to breathe. I wonder whether this area will have been completely, horribly gentrified in ten years, or be run down again, or be about the same but with thriving new types of business I can’t even imagine now. I’m one of thousands of people who will want to keep coming back to Hull. Who feel an emotional investment in its story, in its people. Who want the investments of the City of Culture year to keep on paying off. That’s different to its residents who both want and NEED them to pay off, to echo the original bid slogan.

The figures from the initial evaluation report are looking good. Amazing even. The mood is celebratory at the Cultural Transformations conference at Hull University, in which academics and cultural, civic and business folk, and a smattering of artists, small businesses and students have gathered to discuss it. 95% of Hull’s population attended an event, an additional 1.3 million visitors came compared to in 2013, tourism’s contributing over £300 million to the economy, and 3 out of 4 residents feel proud to live in the city, after having been battered by years of negative press coverage and low morale previously. There are notes of caution and challenge. Arts Council chair Nicholas Serota notes with concern that the 230 redundancies announced at Hull College are the sort of thing that could impact negatively on how young people are able to capitalise on new opportunities and gain new skills. He says the Arts Council should have a “development and advocacy” role to convince other places of how the arts can positively benefit people’s well being, “place making” and the economy. But says it’s also still about “making great art”. I think of my students when I was teaching on a module about the contemporary cultural industries at the University of Leeds and the essays I marked in which they parsed and analysed the many paradoxes and ambiguities of arts sector language. Hull 2017’s outgoing (in both senses of the word) chief exec Martin Green says that these figures are important to convince politicians and the media of the benefits of investment in the arts and culture. He points out that for the entire creative and cultural sector the evaluation is “a weapon, so use it”. At the same time, he says, the next important conversations to be had are about social impact and they can’t as easily be summarised in “sexy figures”. Dr Derek Atkinson points out that for many people, the last thing about the year will be the memories. What if it’s being able to look back and say “That was a great year?” that has the ultimately decisive impact on Hull’s future.

There are several highlights videos. I see two women sat in front of me wiping their eyes and sniffing in unison after one which had also brought a lump to my throat and made me think of my home city of Bradford and adoptive city of Newcastle and all that cultural investment has and hasn’t done for them. There’s a funny video Martin Green took part in, in which some young Hullensians provide an alternative evaluation in distinctive and sweary style. Mostly there are people talking through Powerpoints of tables with varying degrees of slickness and charm. I host a Pecha Kucha event out of the main conference programme in which seven people sum up their highlights in words and pictures and bring the impacts to life in another mode entirely. I think, again, that the point of “Great art” for me is often the ability to translate between different languages and ways of being in the world. The way, for example, a novel by A.S Byatt or a comedy set by Russell Kane, can illuminate and reflect the ways that people can be saying the same thing in such different ways, they can’t hear each other. We need multiple ways, never just one. We need the figures AND we need the stories and we need to be able to recognise that neither of them will ever be the full picture. They’re snapshots not long-term views and even a long-term view would never be the full picture. The figures and the stories need to speak to each other though. Here is another conference in which “The Numbers” and “The Art” are kept separate from each other as if they inhabit different worlds rather than being able to reflect back and forth so that they open each other up. Reveal the depths and the gaps in conversation with each other. I’m not seeing the creativity and innovation that the hosting university institute says it values.

Flicking through the doorstop of the report I see that some of my poems are in there. I interviewed 36 residents, schoolchildren, creatives, random people in a shopping centre, students, about the impact of the year. Got them to do some drawings, come up with some similes, chatted to them. I grouped the responses into themes. Probably the overarching one was “Openness”. Again and again people talked about how they felt they and the city had opened up. People were remarkably consistent in the responses they gave when I asked them to describe Hull as an animal before and after. Lots of people spontaneously said it was a “Sloth” before. They didn’t have to think long, it came to them. Or an earthworm, or a hedgehog. I checked with non-animal similes. Still they said things that were slow and stuck. A single gear, rusty cycle. Again and again the similes suggested they perceived it as having become something faster, more complex and bigger; a chameleon or a tiger, a galaxy of stars, a whole fleet of ships. Something that could reach beyond itself, respond quickly. A broadcasting, beaming satellite. These are also the qualities that Hull is asking for in its leadership and it’s institutions. Responsiveness, openness, being open to multiple views. Being exciting, colourful, looking to the future whilst acknowledging the past. As distinctive as Hull itself and proud of it. For me this has to mean continuing to break down boundaries that the main City of Culture year did, whilst spreading opportunities and empowering smaller organisations and individuals to do things differently. That means being able to have new conversations in new ways and translate between different ways of doing and saying things. Not numbers people over here and artists over there and academics somewhere else. Everybody being valued as a reflector, an analyser, an evaluator, a creator, and willing and able to learn new languages. As with the inclusion of my poems as part of the evaluation, this can mean just one or two people (Thanks Elinor Unwin) being willing to champion a new way and quite a few other people not quite getting it or valuing it but going along with it anyway in hopes it will either quietly go away or culturally transform into something more recognisable. I wish Hull many more conversations as it battles to work with and against a tide of austerity and the ravaging of the structures and skills it will need to carry all the wonderful benefits of the year forward. Truly, they will have to carry on being tigers. Talkative ones.

Hull Tigers

Before, we were stuck,
an apathetic sloth
boring and grey.

A curled up hedgehog,
a grumpy badger,
an earthworm,
stubborn and hiding away.
A reliable chicken
producing the occasional double-yolker,
an ugly duckling,
knowing we were beautiful on the inside
though nobody gave a second look
as we nurtured a complicated, spiky pride.

We were a rusty anchor,
a puttering trawler.

Now we’re a whole fleet of ships,
we are tigers,
not just because of the football team,
proud and fierce, roaring,

we’re like falcons,
spreading our wings and soaring.
Woodpeckers, digging for opportunities,
flamingos and proud peacocks showing off,
parrots who never stop talking.

Before we chugged,
plodded on,
a single gear, rusty cycle,
a Reliant Robin,
a Pacer train
a Volvo

Now we’re a solar powered,
future-proofed velocette,

a shinier, upgraded Intercity,
a Limo.

a beautiful Harley Davidson motorbike,
a shape-shifting chameleon,
a boat-plane,
something exciting that people admire
and copy and like.

Before, we were space-junk,
a peripheral planet like Pluto
where people would never think to go,
a black hole.

Now we’re a galaxy of stars,
pulsing light,
a broadcasting, beaming satellite,
people know where and what we are,

we’re a caterpillar that’s turned into a butterfly

the brightest point in the sky
a Northern Star.


Me- Autistic? As If…

IF I was autistic
I would still be that poet who made a leap of imagination that caused your brain to jump,
the comedian who made you laugh (sometimes),
the facilitator who ran that writing workshop with empathy and care and cried and laughed with several strangers over the things we dared express,
the girl who grew up being told not to be “too big for her boots”
and would cringe at boasting about any of the above things in order to challenge the stereotypes of autism embodied in all those geeky, awkward men from Rain Man, to Christopher in a Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime to Sheldon Cooper in Big Bang Theory.

I wouldn’t be Saga in the Bridge either, though how I would want her trousers and crime-fighting skills, and empathise with her bafflement at social rules.

If I was autistic I’d be puzzled at how people told me I wasn’t like their child. Do they expect any of their adult friends to be like their children? I imagine that’s why we’re not having this conversation with their kids over a few glasses of wine and some filthy jokes about rabbits.

I’d find quiet carriages too loud, administration arduous and if I was interested in things I’d be very interested, but if not then forget it.

If I was autistic then that Facebook friend who said he told the “stupid psychologist” that his daughter couldn’t have Aspergers because she’s doing an A-level in English Literature probably wouldn’t have thought it made sense to say that to someone who works with words for a living.

I’d be bad at multi tasking, excellent at hyper-focusing and full of sensory sensitivities meaning that I’m expert at finding clothes that are both comfy AND sparkly.

If I was autistic then I’d confront the mire of language that means that for most people the word conjures boys, kicking and scratching while being held down in padded rooms, the mire that means many people are more comfortable with words like “High-functioning” or “Aspergers” or “Mild”, or as one friend put it beautifully “Autism-lite” to describe verbal adults with medium to high IQs. However, it’s a mire that covers up the fact that “functioning” is a word with a lot of loaded agendas, that Aspergers is being phased out as a clinical term and that whatever this heterogeneous thing called autism is, is hard to describe.

(It’s a neurotype I’d say- that is, really not a thing in itself at all, just a description of a type of brain and way-of-being-in-the-world and processing it which may lead people to need help, in certain situations, to deal with a world which mostly isn’t designed for them. How much help, or when, is highly variable because a “spiky profile” of doing some stuff well in certain situations and not others is particularly characteristic of autism).

If I was autistic then I would have been wounded by the gig promoter who, after I’d talked about my diagnosis at her gig, messaged me to ask whether it was okay that that bloke sexually harassed her because he told her he was autistic so maybe he didn’t understand what he was doing. I might have said “Er, hello? Would it have been okay if I sexually harassed you?”. For the record, autism isn’t an excuse for being a knob. Any more than being a man is.

But talking of which, if I was autistic, people would say “But isn’t that just a man thing?”. No, no it isn’t. But as the intensive training in How Be A Girl propagated by schools and society, is more effective than the intensive How to Be A Man training, at causing people to fit in and be socially pliant, then I’d tend to stand out a bit less, as a woman.

If I was autistic I’d find noisy pubs hurt my head, sometimes cooked fish smells too fishy and eye contact can be distracting though I can do a passable enough amount of it that people barely notice nowadays.

I’d have found non-verbal language and tacit communication a complete mystery until much of it was put into words for me by; doing drama workshops, training to be a radio journalist, doing a person-centred counselling diploma, experiencing being a stand-up performer over fifteen years and talking to like-minded people interested in the anthropology of this strange species we call human. And I would thank heaven that for all the downsides of late-diagnosis, I hadn’t had the experience of being medicalised and pathologised and having my deficits talked about so much that I didn’t believe I could do the things I do.

I would feel responsible when parents talked about how much their children needed autistic role models, doing things in the world. Though I’d also feel like that girl in the class who everyone hated because other parents said “Why can’t you be more like them?” (I was never that girl).

I would feel responsible when I heard parents of autistic people say, as one did on my Facebook (I really should do less Facebook) that “due to the nature of their difficulties”, Aspergers people just can’t do community. That would surprise the performers doing the show “Stealth Aspies”, or the hundreds who go to the autistic-led conference “Autscape” or the many groups on Twitter and Facebook or the autistic-led support groups plugging the massive NHS gaps.

If I was autistic there would be no support available to me post-diagnosis whatsoever. None. Not even a badge, a welcome pack and a subscription to a Dr Who magazine. My GP would look a bit awkward and ask if I was getting “treatment” at the place where I was diagnosed. I would resist asking him if he’d found a cure for autism. My local autism centre would say they had support groups for families of autistic people, but not for actual autistic people at the moment and anyway, they weren’t sure about working with people who weren’t “known” to them. My husband would find it easier to access a support group for people married to autistics if he wanted to (he doesn’t) than I would to find one.

(If I was autistic my husband would say that the most important thing for him is that I’m just me- and that we’ve found a pretty good balance over our ten year marriage in matching both our “spiky profiles”).

If I was autistic, I would have rapidly cycled through shock, disbelief and worry at how my talk was going to go when I was scheduled to speak after a child psychiatrist who described autistic people as stuck at toddler stage, primarily egocentric and the possessors of brains which were quite possibly a “genetic mess”.

I’d have compared the situation to being like an ethnic minority comedian having to follow Bernard Manning doing a particularly racist set, which was why I wanted to write a note to the organiser in the middle saying “I’m going to BOMB”. Also “Aaargh”.

But, luckily, I’d have just spent three years of a PhD thinking very intensely (and DOING very intensely) about how stand-up comedy and poetry can bring audiences together, can confront stigma and prejudice without alienating the people who carry some of it, and turn being silenced and negated into joyful, laughing resistance.

Thank goodness for an audience who could help make that happen I’d think. Though professionally and personally being put in that situation, as a newly diagnosed adult is potentially damaging to a level that makes having to follow spotty teenage boys doing endless rape jokes at comedy clubs look like nothing.

It would be enough to make me continue to hesitate about coming “out” . To worry that it will distract from the other things I’m passionate about, like regional, class and gender-based inequalities, or that it will stop people asking me to do interesting things or stop them listening to me and make them put me in a pigeonhole. Not coming out, when an authority figure like that can say those things at a professional conference, will seem like sensible self-preservation- goodness knows that’s something you have to learn, growing up as an autistic woman and confronting the self-care, relationship-work, sorting out a household and career-stuff that tends to be harder and more baffling for us and statistically more often goes wrong.

If I was autistic
I’d worry about my identity and my “authenticity” and my “victimhood” being appropriated and commodified. By me, on days with an empty bank account, but mostly by any of the forces that have an interest in doing that, not always because they have bad intentions.

I would love irony and puns and saying two apparently contradictory things at once, even though there’s probably a leaflet somewhere saying I wouldn’t.

So I’d take refuge in the liminal, in the in-between, in the possible that is the space of so much art and culture and entertainment. And for now, I’d say: me- autistic?

As if.

Further Reading:

Steve Silberman- Neurotribes (Allen and Unwin)
James McGrath- Naming Adult Autism (Rowman and Littlefield)
Joanne Limburg- The Autistic Alice (Bloodaxe)
Laura James- Odd Girl Out (Bluebird)
Samantha Craft- Everyday Aspergers (Booklogix)
Damian Milton -A Mismatch of Salience (Pavilion Publishing)

Speaking Out- International Women’s Day Blog

Have been involved in speaking up about several different things recently, both with others and on my own. I’ve seen changes happen as a result. I didn’t use to have any confidence that using my voice could change things. Now the more I see it can, the more I have confidence in using it. This is part of a wider process and this blog is partly about adding to a chorus of voices this International Women’s Day with ever more hope they will be heard.
Four months ago, I wrote a blog about abusive relationships in the poetry community. I used the Philomela myth to underpin my description of a relationship with a poet who promised to publish me then didn’t, and with whom I entered into relationship that blurred personal and professional boundaries in a damaging way. I called for a code of conduct for the poetry community. I’ve been involved in two ongoing conversations about this via the Poetry Promoters Group on Facebook and the Society of Authors. These are feeding into wider conversations in the publishing industry.

I did not have hope that my blog would lead to any redress for me against the poet I was in a relationship with. I didn’t imagine him apologising, and I didn’t want to be in touch with him.The relationship took place over a decade ago now. I used his first name once in the article, so that people from the scene wouldn’t think it was another poet. What was unexpected, and devastating, was that two female poets got in touch to say they had also had bad experiences with him. (One described “stalking behaviour” and the other, abuses of power, when she was a young poet starting out in the scene and had a relationship with him). Then somebody else got in touch, having been ostracised by the poetry community when she raised concerns because her friend had been in a relationship with him and experienced domestic violence. He had actually been convicted of this. (I confirmed this with her).This was all in the few years after my experiences with him ended. Some people in the poetry community in Scotland where he had moved to were aware, but he always blamed and negated the women and nobody quite joined the dots. I wished I had spoken out earlier.

In my blog I gave a fuller picture of what happened than when I had previously written about being raped by him, but at the time not realising that non-consensual sex was rape. That incident was part of a wider context. I haven’t wanted to explicitly say that that was not the most traumatic thing that happened as part of the relationship, because I haven’t wanted to risk minimising the accounts of people who have experienced rape. It wasn’t though. What I experienced over the time, rather than one big trauma, was a cumulative set of upsets and traumatic events, some of which I felt and some of which I dissociated from. People rarely witnessed the events. Once though I went to a poetry reading where I was going to be meeting him and texted to ask if he was on his way. He replied; “At home. Killing myself”. He didn’t answer the phone and I raced through the venue hyperventilating, found one of his best friends and showed her the text. She got hold of him and he told her it was just a joke. She disapproved of our relationship, and me, but I later found out she had stopped speaking to him for several months because of this incident. It was certainly more consciously upsetting at the time it happened than having my “No” ignored before sex- but I buried both incidents equally deeply and both of them were symptomatic of the wider abuse of power and boundaries which was all the more acute because it crossed into my working life as a poet.

As for the poet, Kevin Cadwallender, he contacted me last week. Four months after the blog. Our first contact in eleven years apart from passing in the street a couple of times during the fringe. By Facebook messenger at half past midnight. His message read:

“Kate, How could you say that about me? We both know it isn’t true. I feel sick to my stomach that you should accuse me of that. It is despicable. I cannot understand why you would do it.”

It seemed an odd response to a wide ranging blog about the various ways our relationship exemplified the blurred boundaries in the poetry world. It becoming something I had “done” rather than said, and just one thing rather than a detailed narrative, I presumed the accusation of rape. I didn’t dissociate, but felt a full on activation of old reactions. Shivering, full body shakes. I thought maybe I could get back to sleep and reply in the morning. It became clear I couldn’t. I reminded myself in my head about Philomela not being silenced. I had words now. The only way to stop the waves was to write back. I tapped the words rapidly in the dark. What had happened since I wrote it, the other women I’d heard from (I didn’t name them). I said I’d be happy to meet him with a witness of his choice to discuss what I’d said, or to publish his point by point rebuttal of my blog. I asked if he had any further comment on what I’d said about him as a poet and a publisher. He said he hadn’t read the blog but had “had a report of it” and would read and reply if I sent him a link. It’s on my website so not hard to find, and I’d certainly have wanted to read something earlier if I thought someone was making up false accusations which were causing other poets to question me. However, I sent him the link. I almost stopped shaking. I went back to sleep. The next day I remembered that inviting a response without a time-limit could mean me hanging on indefinitely waiting for one, so I said there was going to be a sector-wide meeting about how to proceed with harassment and abuse in literature, that I would be naming him in a blog that week and again invited him to write a rebuttal. I asked “Is there really nothing in your relationships with women you feel you should examine and address?”. I haven’t had a reply.

So what could be done, what should be done?
Many things that affected me have been addressed by wider social changes, even in the past decade;
More awareness of issues around sexual consent including “date-rape”.
More awareness of emotional abuse and ongoing trauma within relationships.
Though there is further to go on both these fronts.

I’d want writers to have somewhere they could report issues and know they could be heard and understood. That if they had been treated as somehow not a person by an abuser, they would be treated very much as one by somebody hearing a complaint. This could be someone they talk to with proper training in dealing with abuse/harassment issues and reach via a professional literature organisation.

There still needs to be more awareness around men in publishing abusing their power and how that’s not okay. A scoping out of the extent of the problem- surveys as other industries such as theatre are doing.

Gigs, readings and festivals should sign up to codes of conduct and empower promoters to have “quiet words” if they suspect someone is breaking it. (I’m aware, however, that this could go horribly wrong and be a landmine of personal feuds, grievances and relationship grey areas). Kevin’s relationships were consensual and how could people have known whether they merited more than a raised eyebrow, a “He’s a wrong ‘un” or a sisterly (or brotherly) warning? Again some of this could change with broader changes in social attitudes, including the romantic notion of tragic poets and doomed, destructive love which can just be a different way of saying emotional abuse.

Kevin’s currently a member of the Poets Advisory Group for the Scottish Poetry Library, and I wouldn’t be rushing to have his insights, myself, on issues to do with women and harassment in the poetry industry but I don’t know how far a recent conviction for domestic violence raises flags for anyone employing him to do workshops etc, or is something (presumably mentioned) on a Police disclosure.

As ever, this stuff’s complicated.

As ever, speaking out in this much detail makes me cringe, and fear repercussions. But not speaking out for so long was clearly so damaging, and not just to me. I still hope that these changes in how we think about relationships and emotions can feed into wider structural changes and vice versa. True change needs both.