Category Archives: Poetry

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.

Flash, bang, Me Too trauma, what a picture.

In the first car accident, a car turned wrongly and too fast into a box junction I was crossing and hit my Fiesta, crumpling the front passenger side. I heard a big bang, instinctively braked, then saw the other driver, a tall man, on the road ahead of me hitting his car bonnet over and over with his fist like Basil Fawlty in that scene where he hits his car with a branch. I was outwardly calm, but I couldn’t tell  people who came over what had happened, though two witnesses told me, and luckily were able to tell the Police. My then-boyfriend was upset that I didn’t ring him, just a garage who came and got the car, then dropped me off at home.  Trauma had frozen my memory and my reactions. I am convinced it wasn’t just the accident, but the way the other driver had lost his reason (Even if that was because of his own trauma). I was brought up by a man who might possibly have reacted to a similar incident by hitting his car. In the face of such scary anger I had never won and didn’t imagine I would now.  Bits of my brain stopped in an old pattern. It took me ages to fill in the insurance claim form because I kept imagining that man punching his car and me having to confront him in court- but in the end I wrote it, and the written-off car was reimbursed in full.

In the second car accident, my Stepmum was blinded by the sunlight and went into another car just after we had exited a roundabout. Another flash and bang. I herded her and me and my husband (all of us uninjured) out of the car and onto the pavement, checked the other car passengers were okay, rang the Police and the breakdown services and comforted my StepMum. The coping bits of my brain sparked into action. Emotions on hold, as in the first accident, but I wasn’t helpless, I was helpful. Powerful, even.

Two similar situations, two very different reactions from me. As psychiatrist and trauma-specialist Bessel Van Der Kolk (Interview) says- trauma is something produced in a social context; “If you’re not allowed to feel what you feel, know what you know, your mind cannot integrate what goes on and you get stuck on the situation…”. Trauma interferes with the brain’s ability to tell a story about something, with the ability to re-member it. It is re-lived (by your body) rather than consciously remembered, because it has never been integrated into your story of your self in the first place. I couldn’t ever tell a useful (or any) story about what happened in the first car accident, I think because in the temporary shock of the shunt, seeing an irrational, aggressive man reminded me of growing up with one and the many traumas that led to. My brain elastic-banded back to the past and the parts that organised memories and planned things shut down.

This is not a post about car accidents. It is primarily meant to be a post about #Metoo and its aftermath. Many, many women, and men, will have had visceral, bodily stuff stirred up because of what they have read, written, thought about and talked about since the deluge of stories about sexual abuse and harassment. The media is mostly carrying coherent narratives. Things like “Women have told their stories, now powerful men are falling”. But in reality, there are so many fragments flying around like cars hitting each other. Some of these are being assembled into other narratives. News moves fast, faster than memories though they can feel as present, as urgent as news.

The blog post I wrote about my experience with an abusive poet has resulted in some other stories being revealed. I had written about Philomela speaking and being stopped from speaking. I want to characterise some of the exchanges since then as stuttering. Other women have got in touch, handing me more pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Perhaps making a picture is a better analogy. Or at least, it is quicker, than attempting to tell a story, though that is happening too. Sometimes emails have flown back and forth quickly.  Sometimes there have been gaps, delays. This work can be overwhelming. Revelations, news bulletins; it turns out, to my shock, that the poet had similarly abused power in other relationships in the poetry community. He had been convicted of domestic violence against his partner. Lots of people hold and held bits of a full picture, a full story, but so many things have prevented us putting it together. In this instance, the trauma of others  is helpful to an abuser. This contagion (also, often of their own trauma) stops social memories and stories forming. There has been a crash, a bang, but the fragments are still flying apart from each other. It is helpful when witnesses who are not likely to be freezing, flighting or fighting trauma share what they know, tell and re-tell narratives.

We can only ask what is next, or what is to be done about it, when we know what has happened. Another reason there are so relatively few rape convictions. My reaction to traumatic events has had a lifetime of being established as “Freeze and forget” or “Freeze, act, immediately move on”. It is much easier to write about cars than about how those patterns were set down. What should happen now? I don’t know what can or should be done about a past that sometimes feels so present and sometimes feels so buried. I know only that it must not happen to other women in future. I hear fragments from other people (speaking about him, or to him) which suggest that building up the narratives is going to help that.

Tuning in to the Swimming Channel

One day I might want to know which day I tipped over from “Odd whim” to “Firm plan” about something big.

It is not yet this day, but it might be.

It was swimming in a new swimming pool that did it. The one attached to Ampleforth College. I imagined monks wringing out their habits in the changing rooms and noted the absence of “No Petting” signs among the usual ones urging users not to run, push, slip, wrestle or jump. There was a high white ceiling, white pipes without rust, natural light and tree tips just glimpsed through the high windows. Even better there was just me and one other woman in a 25 metre pool. Space, light, freedom to stretch out down the middle of the pool and still be a dot in the blue rectangle. I decided to alternate crawl and breast stroke and see how long I could do that for. It turned out that the length of breast stroke was also plenty enough to recover for the length of the crawl so even though two consecutive lengths of the crawl still felt like hard work, my overall speed must have been 50% higher than usual. I don’t usually bring numbers into swimming. I don’t count lengths or strokes or seconds. Just the ticking down of the clock to the end of the swim. I’m nearly always there in the last 45 minutes of any given swim session and end up recreating the “Can’t we stay in just five more minutes?” of childhood with myself in my head.

Out of curiosity though, I thought I’d note the difference between a length of crawl and a length of breaststroke. Crawls came in at about 33 seconds, breast strokes at between 55-65 seconds. I was impressed that I could go twice as fast as normal, without really pushing it. Though I’m still very new to building up any crawl stamina. I always feel like I could go on forever with breast stroke (an unchallenged assumption while I keep slipping in forty five minutes before the end of swim sessions) whereas I didn’t really do crawl at all until last summer. Last summer when I thought I might like to do more sea swimming. Last summer when I started looking up facts about channel swims and discovering that people mostly don’t do it by breast stroke alone (though the first man to cross did- which is partly why it took Captain Matthew Webb 21 hours 45 minutes back in 1875 before front crawl was a thing).

Unlike the pool nearer me in Thirsk, Ampleforth’s changing room is women only not unisex and the floor was dry, not wet and streaked with mud. I am very squeamish about changing rooms. Which makes it seem perverse that the swimming room I prefer most of all is the basic, down and dirty Helmsley. The outdoor pool which doesn’t open until June 14th and whose opening I’m counting down to as if I’m waiting for part of my life to begin. In such a way that I know I can’t yearn this much for something I can only have for three months of the year when Helmsley’s open (and not even that long because I’m usually performing in Edinburgh in August where last year I built up another yearning for the white, brightness of the Commonwealth Pool which was closed for refurbishments in August).

The closed pools say “Here is the light and space and freedom that you cannot have as you float”. The sea says I can have it any time. I just need to learn how to have it. Or be motivated enough to go further out of my way.

Last night, after the crawl/breaststroke experiment, I started reading about channel crossings again. Sally Goble’s articles and blog inspire me. She talks about being a very average swimmer who took on the unaverage feat of the channel. Not really out of bravado, but out of dogged persistence and sheer love of swimming:

I have applied my own dogged persistence to running- completing the Great North Run’s 13 miles three times even though I have no aptitude for running whatsoever and many people could probably walk it quicker than I managed. I do however have a bit more aptitude for swimming, despite my lack of crawl, my phobia of diving and tendency to arrive at sessions shortly before the end. I feel at home in water, like my body is supposed to be there. Swimming soothes me. Though maybe that’s because I don’t bring numbers into it.

Sally Goble isn’t slim and talks about how well she withstands the cold compared to svelter swimmers. Apart from darts, I can’t think of any other sport where being overweight is an advantage (well- I know it strictly speaking doesn’t help you chuck an arrow- but you stand out on the oche if you’re skinny). After over twenty years of trying to accept my curves maybe I should go for something more than acceptance. Something where spare fat is actually a strength.

Could I go on for the 21 miles of the channel which is frequently many more miles due to tides and winds? Could I afford the £3000 cost and the hours of training? Could I cope with the effort which is said to be 90% mental, 10% physical? Could I do it whilst doing a PhD? Couldn’t it be the perfect antidote? Mind and body in sync in soothing waters? Ah, see, I’m trying to talk myself into it. Write myself into it. There’s another thing. The writing. Already I’m thinking of symbolic journeys. Crossing the gap between England and France where my Mother died. Actually testing the theory I’ve always blithely believed that I had more than usual swimming stamina to make up for my less than usual running stamina. Something about unbreachable gaps being breachable. Uh-oh. Will I be going simile when I should be going swimmily? The puns could be worse than my Great North Run.

I’ve done my modern-day equivalent of testing the water. Started a Facebook thread, hinting at my thoughts. Saying that I’ve realised that more people climb Everest than swim the Channel. No one with the surname Fox has ever done it (There’s lists). Carina said, in response to me saying that it was a whim or an idea that it sounds like “a plan”. Amanda said “No, just no”. I’ve been warned of jellyfish and cold (apparently it’s really not as cold as you’d think- partly due to outflows from Dungeness Nuclear Plant which isn’t as reassuring a fact as you’d want but still…). Margie said she’d sponsor me and want to follow my journey and thinks others would too. We’ll see. Or sea.