After Olivia Laing

I read Olivia Laing’s Crudo and Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living and I am not them or Kathy Acker or Virginia Woolf or Gordon Burn (whose prize they’re both nominated for, not the former presenter of The Krypton Factor), but I can feel a sudden urge for stream of consciousness. I haven’t swum for days. I had started going under the surface. No more head up breast stroke, eyes swivelling like a meerkat. I was my own pivot. Front crawl, the first new physical skill since learning to drive. Mostly underwater where gold bubbles fell through cloudy river like prizes. The world on mute and only the breath in front of me.

But I used Anti-Fog Mist on my Goggles, just once so as to be like a proper wild swimmer who bought things off, and my eye became irritated and now is irritated by everything else and is red and puckered and streaming, and if my pancreas or other internal tissues react anything like my eyelid has done to emollients that Doctors and the internet assure me are benign, like E45 or Diprobase or Simple Eye Balm (Whose ingredients list suggests it’s anything but simple) then it’s time for me to imbibe fewer chemicals. So I’m like Wittgenstein only noticing he didn’t like well-done toast in his sixties, except that what I’ve finally noticed is that as well as being hyper-sensitive to people acting in accents that are not their own, I’m sensitive to lanolin, vaseline and chemicals ending in “eth”. I’m as satisfied on discovering this as about anything else that distinguishes me. Though now my skin needs a barrier against it’s new rawness to the world and it turns out Vaseline won’t do and the coconut oil success might only have been temporary. I’ve never found it too easy to let things get inside me before.

The other eye though still looks out smug and white and clear and says we can gaze on this without any trouble; whether it’s sun sparkling through giant hogweed on the banks of the Tees which, because of the Tees Barrage, has no tides and is thus like a long, thin lake, or on news headlines about the world burning or on the reddening cheeks and firm gaze of a Swedish woman who stood on a plane until others stood with her and said somebody being sent to die was more important than getting somewhere safe on time.  The voice of the English man trying to take her phone, telling her not to make a fuss was recognised by those watching the video, as the voice of every English man who has used a Corby trouser press, telling his daughter not to make a show of herself whilst Europe looks on at very English men and women trooping in and out of lobbies like Trumpton characters, appalled at the show they are making.

But I am not one-eyed Tiresias either or whichever acceptable Greek myth gives a street poet cultural legitimacy. And the poets are removing their sunglasses and other eyewear to ask whether it matters that a publisher is erratic or is a better word eccentric. Is it part of their charming character, the obsessiveness required to run a small press when poets photograph their square-shaped poems for free to millions, to provoke and write hostile contract clauses or repeatedly threaten to withdraw themselves or their website, whichever is currently in most trouble. Why, some poets ask, would we require anything other than a man who will change his profile picture for ours for we are flexible and fluid. We are Giddens’ ideal mobile labourers. We will not be reading the characterisations of us as exploited cultural labourers from a man who is Hayley on Coronation Street’s brother. And with one eye half-closed I read the biographies of writers who don’t live in a place where job descriptions like “Ethical fashion model” would be laughed out of them and where the word “colloidal” silvers pages. Though I weary of the obligation to be just eccentric enough and just down to earth enough.

On Twitter, autistics cry out to #Takethemaskoff and be their autistictrueselves. That might perhaps in my case be a self which can talk in an incessant stream softened by a Yorkshire accent, which is tamed by sounding like either a parody of itself or of somebody else, as this blog. But it would not be recognised as something underneath an autistic’s mask. For a mask to be recognised as a mask then whatever is underneath it must be recognised as real. I gave twenty minute careers talks on how to be a poet once when Tony Blair’s government was betting on culture to plug the holes left in society by the eighties. In one school, children thought I was drunk. Once I shared a draft poem with songwriters and realised in an autistic world all of my poems would do the equivalent of going into this much ecstatic details over vacuums. Nowadays I can see people visibly recoil or smirk sometimes when I forget to turn myself down. I become off-putting as a small poetry publisher detonating on Twitter unless I do it on stage where it is permitted and can be refracted by an audience. Then I am not a tidal river, only a long thin lake you can travel on.

Notes after Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette

I’ve not yet watched Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette on Netflix because I watched it live in London earlier this year, after trying desperately and failing to see it in Edinburgh last summer. I’m bad at watching things twice, though this would repay it I know. This is a good interview with her in the Guardian. So much that’s rich in it. I’m glad she’s still speaking and adding context to the show for many selfish reasons including;

1. Whenever I talked about my research on resistance and comedy, people would often launch into monologues about Stewart Lee’s innovation with form and I would sometimes say “There are also other comics innovating with form, in a way which plays with the comic-audience relationship differently” and they would look at me blankly, unsure how to cope with the idea that “Held up as an example of innovation due to having lots of cultural capital” and “Innovating” might be separate things.

2. In this interview she says that comedy is a form which is more accessible to people with less socio-economic capital because there are fewer gatekeepers. A strand of class criticism runs through her work and she makes the tension of social mobility visible in her movement between comedy and art criticism. See, look what can be done with comedy as an art form and give it Arts Council funding. (Actually, lots of practitioners from poorer backgrounds I know who straddle stand up comedy and other potentially subsidised forms are savvy enough to source both public and commercial funding and audiences for their work. The boundaries between forms like stand up and poetry and theatre are increasingly porous).

3. That’s why at a crucial point in Nanette I wanted to say “But, stand-up is able to do way more than you say it can, as your show itself proves, so you don’t have to give it up”- but she seems to have concluded that now. This applies times a hundred after the success of her show on Netflix. Stand-up is a brilliant form for people from marginalised backgrounds to challenge stereotypes without necessarily ONLY self-deprecating or minimising their experiences.

4. She’s talking openly here about being diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Condition (or Autism Spectrum Disorder, as the Guardian possibly insists). In the show, HG talks about the importance of stories as a tether and of shame being overcome-able culturally. (Her ASC is not part of her show, which focuses on her experiences of terrible homophobia). It’s still part of ASC diagnostic criteria that you might struggle with humour. Autistic people are still too often punchlines to jokes, rather than authors or subjects of stories which address the complexities of their lives. The fact that an autistic comedian is being so hugely successful with a deeply sensitive, emotional and hilarious show is part of a story which can act as a tether for autistic children and adults (and their families) who are often only hearing about deficits and “can’t”s via the reductive medical model.

5. Her show itself performs anger and tension and refuses to defuse it for the audience so that everybody can go away feeling better. Whilst that’s part of her performance that feels particularly revolutionary to audiences used to everything being wrapped up in a tidy bow of laughter, the interviews and commentary on Nanette demonstrate that she’s also mobilising another affect/emotion that can be revolutionary in stand-up- love. Or if that sounds too soppy – deep acceptance. Her trust of the audience in making herself vulnerable and expressing her previously hidden feelings, including anger, shows an acceptance of herself, but also of them. That can, in turn, help them to self-acceptance around their own traumas. Conjuring love in the room is not seen as particularly revolutionary- but in these times it certainly is. Experts at it include Sarah Millican and Barbara Nice- though love often hovers, unfashionably and unnamed in stand-up settings everywhere.

6. I was doing gigs at The Stand in Newcastle throughout 2012 and 2013. Open mike spots, unpaid tens and fifteens, some paid tens and fifteens. I’d been doing quite well as a stand up poet for a few years and had stepped back from the stand up circuit with relief. I’d never done very well there. Some paid support slots and usually a feeling of deep discomfort with how stand up put me in a box and led to me to be a much less interesting, thoughtful version of me as a performer. I could see that performers who were able to talk about men and women as different species and be relatable did well. I wasn’t relatable- but I wasn’t weird enough, or knowing enough then about my weirdness, to play up to it. This was somehow resolved when I did stand up poetry because I could be all of me at once and declaring you’re a poet already says you are coming at some sort of left angle to the world. Anyway, I decided not to do any self deprecating material at all in these Stand gigs. Meanwhile I saw Bridget Christie, Hannah Gadsby and Rachel Mars do shows at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012 in which they all at some point took clothes off (onesies for Bridget and Rachel, standing in a swimming cossie for Hannah). They were telling me that stand up comedy could be self-controlled exposure but I couldn’t quite hear it. Just heard lots of angry young men doing material about rape and how awful women were and didn’t have the craft or binary thinking to deal with it. That’s when I decided to do a show nobody would care about because nobody was listening to me anyway- and my show about not wanting children became my first Radio 4 show and featured on an impending film documentary about women who don’t have kids. So in a very mini-way, I have also struggled to break out of the limitations of stand up as a form- and found a way to do that within stand up. It can expand to fit because it’s not only a commercial form that happens with big shiny lights around it and blokes with jokes, but is part of the folkloric, human need to have one person channel thoughts and jokes and stories in a way which makes them and an audience thrum with something which isn’t just thoughts or feelings, or being told, or listening, but the thrilling, transformational chaos that happens in the third space between.


Interview with Hannah Gadsby

The Quirking Class Manifesto

It’s okay not to want what most other people want, in the way that they want it.

Applying the word “Failure” is a means for some people to stop other people doing certain things in a certain way.

Applying the word “Success” is a means for some people to keep other people doing certain things in a certain way.

Beware of any communication treating the concepts of “Independent” or “Dependent” as absolutely good or absolutely bad.

You probably do, and did, things earlier or later than other people. Time is relative. We’re all sometimes tortoise or hare.

Your work may look like play and your play may look like work to other people. That’s okay. The boundaries between the two aren’t as rigid as society makes out. Working at play and playing at work is often the key to happiness.

You’re right to be wary of the phrases; “It’s always been done this way”, “Just because” and “That’s just the way things are”.

You may never feel that you belong- but there are lots of places where you can belong by not belonging.

You exist in a place and a time- but there are lots of other places and times, past and future you could live by.

Learning doesn’t only happen when other people tell you they’re teaching you, often especially not then.

A community to value is one that values you.

Sometimes you might need to be helped to have help and supported to have support. (The rare) people and organisations which understand that, may well be your best help. It may take a lot of trial and error to find them.

This manifesto could also be drawn, sung, danced or sculpted or signed;

a translation of any communication or piece of art is always an act of kindness.

Labels can be useful, until they’re not useful;

it’s okay to point out that some of these manifesto points sound like fridge magnet slogans or Instagram poems.

Comedy lets you say two contradictory things at once- and also doesn’t.

Talk about the things that others don’t want you to talk about; money, sex, politics, grief, cucumbers;

it is just as important to learn how to be listened to as to learn how to not be listened to.

It is just as important to learn when and how not to listen as to learn when and how to listen.

If all you that you ever said, demonstrated, practiced, believed, lived, Tweeted, skated, swam, ate, painted, excreted was that there are multiple truths, then you would have been kinder to the world than most people in it.

The thing we call “you” and “not you” are only ever intersections of times and places, but this is one of the insights that is hardest to work into conversations about shopping, football and Love Island. Find the people who will have those conversations.