Instead of a Funeral

In my show about Northern women, I talk about how important it is to remember people who might get erased from history, and about how my stepmum Rosemary always made sure to write me, as an illegitimate daughter, into the family history, although she herself was now suffering with dementia.

One of the most extraordinary ordinary women I know has died and she won’t have a funeral. Rosemary Reynard was my stepmum. Which is a title which covers over the story of how actually, I’m one of twins that her husband fathered when he had an affair with his secretary, my Mum (it was the seventies, what can I say). Rosemary loved pub meals out, doing the Yorkshire Post crossword, routine, Marks and Spencers, cleaning, neat numbers in rows, turning plugs off at night, her family, saying “kid” at the end of sentences, two glasses of sherry before tea, and me.

 

She first heard about my existence when her husband had briefly left her for my Mum while I was an embryo. The week in a rented flat didn’t go well, and he went back to her. The next Rosemary heard of me was when she was on her wedding anniversary trip to Jersey and I was being born, alongside my brother; “There’s two of them”.

Then she and Norman went round to my Nan’s house to offer to bring me and my brother up. My Nan and my Mum gave them short shrift. There was a gap for a while, she brought up her much-loved son Andrew, worked part time doing the books in a petrol station, laid the table every night for the meals she made of “chicken in the oven” and meat and potato pie and chicken and salad and braised beef and enjoyed being part of her own, and her husband’s extended family life, though was one of the quieter members.

Move ahead seventeen years and a letter arrived from me, saying I thought her husband might be my Dad. “It’s like a book” she said. And “There must be no more secrets” he said. We all met for a Sunday dinner in a pub and liked each other straight away. I would go round to their house and play rounds of gin rummy and eat chicken in the oven and learn the order of tea, starting with Sherry for her and “Cinzano and lemonade in a long glass?” for me and always ending with taking the lace table cloth up and the green undersheet and helping dry the pots.

We visited Norman in hospital together and when he died two months after I met him she said I should have been in the front row at the funeral “with us”.

She wanted to make sure I knew I had a home, a “base” when I was university. I was living in a bedsit full of mould at the time and home and safety and cosiness in a way I’d never known was “milky coffee” on the pink settee before bed after a bubble bath in her spotless green bathroom.

Sometimes we wrangled over words because she wanted me to say “home” and “love” and I couldn’t for a long time. But there was home and love. And sometimes her loneliness and need for company was something I had to find a distance from, and underneath it was something I needed, that would anchor me in a way I never had been.

She loved me visiting and hated me going. She hated any change or going. We went for pub meals on Sundays, we had milky coffees, I helped with the odd Yorkshire Post crossword clue. She went to my graduation and took me up to my journalism course every day. She was the honoured guest at my wedding and listened to my poems on the radio and I’d ring her afterwards and she’d tell me I talked too fast.

After her heart attack in 2011, when I stayed at her house for a few days and rang my husband so he could talk me through how to make her omelettes, she slowly lost the independence she loved. The driving, the going out, the sameness. The past two or three years of her vascular dementia have been difficult and then more difficult. She was still herself but often not there. “I feel sort of yonderley” she said. “She always remembered your name though” said her neighbour John who did so much to care from her “Even in hospital at the end”.

When I saw her in hospital on March 11th, I thought it might be the last time. She reached out for my hand in the telly room and we sat like that for a while. “Your nails are a mess” she said, looking at my chipped green sparklies. I couldn’t spring her out of the ward no matter how much she begged and I just had to hope that she would feel better with cleanliness and routine again in a care home.

She wasn’t on her own at the end- care workers and paramedics were there. I hope somebody held her hand. This ordinary woman who loved exceptionally.

Floor

Her neighbour says when he found her on the bedroom floor
she thought she was in the playground in Baildon
and her Mum was coming to fetch her,
that I should try getting her to talk about the past

I had been trying to stay
in the ever-shorter present
where an apartment in Mallorca still is,
sunrise over the sea
on Christmas Day,
one of the years we went away
so we didn’t have to not belong
in a room of people with the same eyes.

There’s a photo on the telly stand of
our slide down into an Austrian salt mine,
the two of us laughing
as we sped down the polished wooden rail,
feet in the air like toddlers.

I have been avoiding knowing the Sunday
when me and her and my father
met for the first time,
has gone.

That day she said “I could write a book”
because of the seventeen years
I had only been imagined
and she rewrote every other story I’d been in

about the illegitimate baby,
the standoffish girl,
the Runaway in the paper,
the Troubled Teen,
the Black Sheep, the Scapegoat
too clever for her own good

to tell the one about Norman’s daughter
she just clicked with straightaway
who he was over the moon to meet,
the first story of me
that felt right.

But that story has disappeared
along with her pillion rides up Baildon hills
on Norman’s motorbike
when she was seventeen

and dancing in his arms to a big band
in the hall near the Alhambra

and the ashes she scattered in the daffodils
while I stood by one grey February day.

I can keep them though,
along with an image of a playground
where a dark moor is rising into the sky
and a girl is reaching out her arms
waiting for her Mother to take her home.

Acclimatisation

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I know “strange” times is popular, but I prefer “weird” times.

I went back in the sea today. Glittery panda hat, neoprene gloves and socks, swimming costume, and swam out and back across Cullercoats Bay. I walked in slowly, lulled by my warm feet. I splashed water up onto my chin and shoulders.  I hugged my arms across my chest and lowered myself in.  Then the cold hit my chest as if it was heat, as I stretched my arms out into a breast stroke. The sun was making a golden trail along the surface of the waves. The stone arms of the harbour wall held me as I crossed between them, but I could look out and see the expanse of blue and white ahead of me. Freedom, it felt like.

It was only when somebody else said it that I realised I’d been in trauma “fight or flight” mode the last couple of days of the New World of Weirdness. My strongest urge was to go walking and swimming and camping in Scotland and not encounter a soul. I wanted to be with people but I also wanted to be on my own. I feared abandonment, but wanted to run. Boring old traumas resurfacing. I also had grief. The grief I’ve been sitting in (not always consciously) since ending my marriage in September. And moving away from my home and dog. And my Step Mum passing into the stage of dementia where she barely recognises me. And other stuff I’ll write about one day.

There has not only been grief and loneliness; there has been love. And sometimes joy and exploration. But grief has become a Screensaver. And now it seemed the whole world was joining me in it. In the sense of not being able to picture a future ahead. The terror and possible liberation of that.

But swimming in the cold, cold sea again reminded me that we can acclimatise to anything- and quicker than we think. I could bear 15 minutes in the maybe 8 degrees centigrade of the North Sea in March because I’ve been swimming in cold water through last summer and autumn and a couple of times in January. My body remembers and it doesn’t take me into the shivers of cold water shock. If I keep going in the sea a couple of times a week from now, I’ll gradually build up the time my body can stay in without my hands turning to knives. Minute by minute. I’ll even begin to think it’s kind of warm.

And it made me think about how this crisis will become “the new normal” sooner than we think. We’ll get used to staying in, planning our shopping, managing on less or scrabbling to find out about what support might enable us to stay afloat. We’ll be used to emptier streets and not “popping out” and only one thing on the news and the cancellations.

There can be a downside. For anyone who has ever swum in trauma, it is a state we can ping back to too easily, even when there’s no need. I am acclimatised to that, and to loneliness, to a degree. But I can also sit with some of the strange solaces of isolation, sadness and slowness. The unthinkable can be thought, and become okay or more than okay. The freedom of cold water without feeling the shock every time…

Tips for Parents of Autistic Children (I won’t be giving)

From my small experience of meeting parents of autistic children at events, I gather that some people want tips from an “out” autistic adult. Handy takeaway hints. How do you raise an autistic child? How do you live well as an autistic adult? Part of me wants to respond “Well, it depends on your world view- to take tips from me then you might have to accept some aspects of my world view which might not chime with yours. I tend towards openness, recognition that people can and do develop at different speeds and in different directions, a belief that different styles of thinking and being are important, a recognition that some people need more support than others to live their lives but are still valuable members of society, a belief that humanity is just one part of a rich, interconnected world of beings and things and a faith in the value of kindness, acceptance and unconditional positive regard for others and their experiences. 

Also, a recognition that private troubles are always entwined with public issues and that a world which ceaselessly pursues economic growth at the cost of human and ecological wellbeing is not one to be welcomed, indeed sometimes to be resisted often by people working together to uphold common values of kindness, fairness and love either; by changing society or finding alternative ways to do things. Although I’ve fought my own battles for acceptance, I haven’t fought them as a parent, which involves being far more subject to value systems I may not share than I usually have to experience as an adult. I was trying to think how I might then give tips to the parent of an autistic child, or to an autistic person who just didn’t share these aspects of my values. Try to do it from closer to their position. I realised it would not go well…

  1. Agree to all demands that they should appear the same as “everybody else”.
  2. To this end, pursue therapies and treatments which have not been adapted for autistic people
  3. Or pursue therapies and treatments which are part of a business model aiming to make money from the desire of the parents of autistic child to have behaviours which are as normal as possible.
  4. Interpret signs of distress as defiance, rather than as communication about something in their environment which is upsetting and overloading them and ignore it, or stop them showing signs of distress. 
  5. Do not attend to different ways of communicating with your child- make them communicate only your way. Do not worry too much about what’s going on inside their mind and heart, why would you need to know about that?
  6. Force them to spend time in environments they say they find difficult- noisy, bright places for example. Make them eat foods they don’t like.
  7. Train them in making eye contact with people even if they say it hurts or makes it harder for them to think.
  8. Control their body movements so that they look the same as other people- do not allow them to display the self-stimulating behaviours that would allow them to regulate their own bodily input. Use mockery as a way to make sure your disapproval is reinforced.  
  9. Don’t try to find out why they do certain things. Best just to assume it’s either why you would do them or why most people do them.
  10. Don’t bother enlightening them about the reasons for the social rules that many people follow even if they express bafflement. Ignore “Why?” questions and say “Just because”.
  11. Be aware that research shows this eventually will lead to increased mental health problems and distress and suicide rates- make sure any further necessary therapeutic interventions as a result are not autism-adapted. 
  12. Do not be guided in the things they find interesting, that spark their joy or passion. Force them away from learning about those things. Guide them towards work you would like them to do. Ignore any ideas they have about pursuing careers you don’t know anything about, or don’t think will make sufficient money, or approve of. 
  13. Remind them that the diagnostic criteria show they lack the same feelings and abilities as other people, so that they will feel motivated to change themselves. 
  14. Discourage them from connecting with other autistic people; why would they want to be with other people like them? That’s not how most people in the world are. 
  15. Tell other people you are grieving for the normal child you should have had- let your child know this is how you feel. Do not seek counselling for any of your complicated feelings, that would be a weakness. 
  16. Find a school that shares your values about how children should appear to be just like everyone else.
  17. If they say they’re happy spending time on their own, disbelieve them and force them to spend social time with you or other children. If this tires them out, tell them they are “lazy”. 
  18. Either do not let them develop any independence because you believe they’re so fragile they will not cope with failure or risk, or do not give them any support whilst they try out new things because they have to learn that nobody will help them. Do not attempt a balance of support and scaffolding.

No, I’m not sure I’d be the right person to be able to give those “tips”…

Becoming Autistic

Two vignettes:

The day after my Mum died I had to call someone about a project. During that call I said I was going away to my Mum’s funeral and it emerged that she’d died the day before. The person said “But you sound so cheerful!”. I remember wondering how else I was going to sound, given that I’d been phoning them about a professional project, not for sympathy. The easiest default option I had available in my voice register was “Happy to help”. It would have taken some work and effort to find or perform “Feeling some complicated grief, identity confusion and dread right now”, and wouldn’t have been relevant to the subject of the call anyway.

Many years ago I worked in the open plan office of a radio station. I’m not sure now what the context of our conversation was, but I remember being surprised when one of my colleagues said it made them a bit sad to see me coming in each day and attempting a greeting, perhaps a general “hello”, in such a low-key way that it was generally ignored. I probably wasn’t doing eye contact right and was doing it with a lack of volume or conviction. It was basically a bad performance of “Greeting”. It was unusual for someone to point something like that out to me. It may or may not have made me better at doing “Hello, I’m here” after that.

I thought of both these things when I was in the company of two hundred people last week for the “Autscape” conference. Given that it’s grown year on year since starting in 2005, then perhaps it was the biggest gathering of majority-autistic people there’s ever been.

Coming down to breakfast in the hotel each morning, I’d institute a round of “Hello!”, breezy smiles and “Good mornings” at people I recognised. They’d nod or smile back. Once I noticed one of them was sporting a red badge. Red badges mean you don’t want anyone to initiate interaction at that moment. “Argh! Sorry” I said, then tried to continue my self-berating over the coffee machine so as not to make it about me. One of the many wonderful things about the rules and guidelines for being at Autscape (set out in the handbook and at the “Orientation” session) is that autistic people, as all people, make social mistakes, so to be tolerant around not following a rule- interrupting someone or not noticing an interaction badge or using the wrong pronoun or whatever.

By morning three I had come to recognise that my round of constant greetings was actually a bit tiring and unnecessary. I’d learned a behaviour that works well in neurotypical space but isn’t needed in autistic space. In fact, it might well have been taking my own energy and also using up the energy of people who were already managing hundreds of interactions throughout the day.

When I caught myself doing it, I self-berated internally for being “so neurotypical”, whilst at the same time, recognising my clumsiness mirrored in many people around me, which somehow felt like it was making me even clumsier than usual, berated myself for being “so autistic”.

Both of these (internal, quite ableist and inaccurate) berating voices are NOT the voice of Autscape itself. It’s strength and sustainability seems to come from recognising that, as well as being a place where autistic people can “be” themselves, it’s also (especially given that at least half the delegates in any year will be newcomers) a space where autistic people can “become” themselves. Experiment with just who this is and might be. See it reflected and responded to in others. Had I stayed another day, I would have tried to do a breakfast without greeting anyone. Put on the red badge and dared to say that I was too tired for interactions for a bit. After all, being officially identified as autistic only two years and having spent the vast majority of my life among mostly non-autistic people, I’m still very much in the process of saying hello to my autistic self…

Heartfelt

heartfelt

bright blue, red, yellow
I can’t stop looking
but then we have to cover it
with white wool

water and soap
turn and rub, press and mould
she says
you will feel when it is felt

the famous writer
tells us my kind
only have feelings for ourselves

I can’t see how the colours
will get back on the outside
will something dissolve?

I had told the front row girl
with the rainbow fringe and eyebrows
they made me happy
and she flapped her hands at my prints
and how things matched

it is cutting in the end.
Scissors along the bottom so the inside
becomes the outside

more pressing and moulding,
relieved to be told
it’s harder than you think
to break an uncooked egg.

 

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Notes from the Hip Yak Poetry School

Notes from a facilitator at the Hip Yak Poetry School (Run by the Hip Yak Poetry Shack for poets in the South West, May 23-6, 2019)

DIY culture. I was born to it. Methodists, cloggers. But often it’s not just DIY, it’s ask someone else and before you know it you’re all Giddens’ mobile, flexible workers together and no one has enough time to stop to enjoy the trees. 

But I miss this, miss these tents of people who “entrain” (join together in unconscious rhythm, as Chris Redmond told us) in clapping, laughing and saying words. In-jokes, the celebration and acceptance of quirkiness, a counter-public.  An alternative to “Zip Zap Boing”, a game for every performance workshop- the Eastenders version. Every game can be rewritten to include an “Oi!” but we get stuck on old tracks. 

The sign inside the flush toilet said it would save water if you felt able to use the dry toilet instead, I never did. Maybe it would have taken longer than four days.

Funny poems used to win slams, that’s how I won them. Not now, apparently. Or do they mean trivial. Me and Scott Tyrrell laughed at the poets who fake-cried at the national slams at Stratford-East in 2005, but they were a coming wave. We stepped outside from the foyer into the guests at the comedian Linda Smith’s funeral. “Look- there’s Jeremy Hardy!” we said. 

Pete Bearder (book on spoken word forthcoming from Outspoken) says that there’s a “crisis of the elders” in the spoken word community. They (we) move on to things that pay or value us. It was good to see grey hairs here. I kept circling back to my first tour in 2010 as if it was the scene of an accident or a crime, and my recent one as if it was a cake I had uncovered before I was supposed to.  

There was a conversation about being tactically old, tactically white, tactically gay, tactically female. In my head I translated back into PhD terms: “Rhetorical marginality”, “Translocational positionality”. In a tent, I felt the feelings of two poets who do not primarily want to engage audience feelings. 

Maya Angelou spoke to me in a stone circle and said I was more engaged when I said “We” can change things than “I” can change them. Bukowski and me worked out I wanted a quiet space and time, as represented by a house with a swimming pool. Kerouac somehow knew I wouldn’t want “To parent” written on my face. I told Adrian Mitchell to crack on, he had a logjam. 

In the past I worked for free to get poets to join a union. I worked for free to get spoken word poets recognised and included in a publishing manifesto against harassment and power abuse in literature. I hoped the top-up would filter down. The calls for these things still come. I’m not in the places that need it so much, or if I am, I’m talking about my matching tights, Brexit, the politics of clapping. I’m not made for the long, slow, thankless slog of activism, though I suppose I’m still here. 

I love the flat surfaces and the musty smell in my caravan. I can see everything I need, nothing gets lost. 

I don’t say that poems about the climate emergency should become part of every stage backdrop, part of the poisoned air we might clean, but not always explicitly. I don’t say that one way to hope is to hope that species left to their own devices will recover from what we’ve done eventually. That the human-animal-plant hierarchy means as little to me as the funny-serious hierarchy.  

People ask “Will I be heard?” and I say “Yes, I hear you wanting to be heard” and they hear me. 

We take our shoes off and put them back on as many times as children. I worry that some need spoilers because we are opening gateways and not everyone has valves or can work out when they will be needed, without more information. Matt Harvey, whose kindness lasts like limestone and makes people cry, tells me about the Archimedes screw, which lets water through weirs slowly. 

There have been, and will be birthdays, we marvel at how Liv is conducting us, at how she is an oak and are relieved (or I am) when someone else offers to take on the task of something like a strategy that has been imagined by us in our final yurt gathering. I think I have heard all this before, I think all of this is new. On twitter, separately, someone suggests in not so many words that poets telling other poets how to make a living as poets is a Ponzi scheme. 

Slipping away to swim in a bath-hot pool was a need not a want, and easier to assert now than at the time this weekend reminds me of most. The time I call the “Yes-phase”.

I spot neuro-siblings (some of them) and we slip into a different language briefly, unnoticed. Other groups are doing this. Remember how we are belonging by not belonging, I want to remind everybody. The service station on the way home was a mistake. Liv says our souls will come back to us after we’re home, they’re following more slowly on camels…

Autism and the Arts Festival (University of Kent): 10 Things I Learned

A blue line was painted on the floor to link all the buildings used as venues at the Autism and the Arts Festival. The organiser, the heroic academic Shaun May had hoped for something more like this:

Not Actual Blue Line

but it ended up more like this (though with more waves, diversions, paint splashes and corrections). I wish I had photographed it. But I was so busy. Doing events or interviews for a podcast made by me and Joanne Limburg about autism and literature that I think might just be the best thing I’ve ever helped make happen, or chatting to people. Or relaxing by walking through bluebells, or eating.

Not Actual Blue Line Either

I still seem to have some brain left. Which is surprising after three days. So, whilst thoughts are still fresh, here are some things I learned/thought/found out as a participant, chatter and audience member:

1. Autistic joy is a key component of autistic creativity. It’s a glint, a shine, a glow, an intensity. It powers writing, pictures, music, novels, not to mention inventions, discoveries, analysis…

2. There’s lots of it about. Many of your favourite things exist because of an autistic person following what makes them glow.

3. Autistic creativity is full of folds, bends, diversions. It makes unexpected connections and gleefully crosses boundaries, genres and conventions. It can be completist. It can see the whole of things as a shape and insert interchangeable parts.

4. It’s nice to see it without it being framed by doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists talking utter bollocks about it or the people producing it.

5. Autistic voices are getting louder and more public. I don’t think there’d have been a strong demand to turn a gig with loud clapping into into one with silent clapping even two years ago for example. (It happened at the gig I was doing with Robert White for example. I was glad).

6. Autistic people seem to vibrate and hum at a higher, faster frequency than non autistic people and are sensitive to this. (See also moves between slow & fast). That means there are more very calm and very frenetic patches of energy throughout autistic space. It can be contagious. Some people are calm-seekers, some are frenetic-seekers, some oscillate. (I’m a big oscillator with a veer to calm). There was enough space for everything to coexist.

7. Many autistic people said they felt much more relaxed in social gatherings than they normally would (I did).

8. There are so many hidden histories yet to uncover about autism. The whole “Mothers being dubbed mentally ill because they were trying to get help for their daughters” thread is terrifying. Co-occurring physical conditions like POTS & EDS are still under-recognised.

9. Dislocations-physical, mental, emotional, spatial are likely to be a feature for autistic people. These dislocations occur on other axes too. Sometimes obscuring, sometimes clarifying. No one is “just” autistic. They are from a place, a time, a class, an ethnicity, a gender. They share dislocations with others who are dis-located-which may allow the forming of bonds, or may lead to double, treble, quadruple dislocations…

10. These burgeoning, fragile, necessary autistic spaces may be the foundations that can help explorations to, and with, allies, companions, partnerships. However power imbalances within and outside these spaces must be acknowledged and respected. Being able to be there was a privilege not available to all. (That shouldn’t be taken to mean that the path to being there wasn’t differently hard for so many of us). It is always better to be done “with” than “to”. Luckily autistic people (can have) strengths in clear, direct, honest communication. What could be more useful (& endangered) in a post-truth world?

Touring a Show: The Good Stuff and the Challenges

I’m sitting in an M and S cafe failing to start writing my next show and the pilot episode of a sitcom. Instead, I’ll record some of the learning from touring my show “Where There’s Muck There’s Bras” and hopefully be useful to another stand up/poet/spoken word theatre person if not myself. It has been categorised in comedy sections, theatre sections and talk sections in the fifteen theatre/arts centre venues (plus five rural touring venues) it’s been to in the past couple of months. It also contains spoken word/poetry. It started as a commission from last year’s Great Exhibition of the North and I hadn’t originally planned to tour it, but enjoyed doing it and thought there might be an audience. Here are ten good things about doing it, and ten challenges:

Good Things

  • I was paid properly to do it and could pay other people. The GEOTN commission was for £20k and allowed me to work with an actor, director, producer, designer, video person and basically make the thing properly (The shows that became my R4 shows were self-funded and produced and made on a shoestring). I then got £11k ACE funding for the tour and could pay a PR company, tour booker, actor etc. The shows themselves also earned at least £500 each. I’d seen folk like Luke Wright and Aisle 16 working like this for years but, having had quite a difficult experience with my show Kate Fox News back in 2010, hadn’t had faith it would pay off.

 

  • I’ve made a show in the mix of genres I work in; stand up, storytelling, poetry and this time, because of working with brilliant director Annie Rigby and actor Joey Holden- theatre. I also acted (and sang for about twenty seconds!) in the show which was terrifying but opened up a whole new canvas for me.

 

  • People came to see it. Average audience- about 100. Having struggled in the past (Say on Kate Fox News) to get people to come to poetry shows, this was a relief and a joy. Back in 2010, Claire who did my PR said that Edinburgh could lead to a fast road in which you were feted and a big hit- or otherwise you’d have to take the slow road. Building up over years. I thought I’d left both roads- but turns out from doing shows and radio and being around over the past decade or more, I’ve taken the slow road and enough people have seen and liked me along the way to walk with me a bit (Plus the show image/title/concept helped a lot!).

 

  • I didn’t really know what people meant when they said that if you want to tour you should “Build up relationships with venues” but now I know there are some venues whose audience and ethos fits what I’m doing and hopefully they’ll book me in future and I’ll know I can go to them and have an idea of how they work. Also, good venues have amazing connections with their audiences and can put them all at your disposal to bring the right people into your show.

 

  • I’ve learned more about how tours and contracts and things like guarantees and ticket splits actually function.

 

  • I feel like I made a piece of work I’m proud of, that I enjoyed performing and that audiences connected to in a deeper way than a superficial “That was alright”.

 

  • Connected to that- I had something I wanted to say (about Northernness, class and gender), which I said in technical language of chapter three of my PhD, but then managed to say in a more entertaining way to over 2000 people in the flesh (Average readership of an academic paper: seven).

 

  • It’s made me look at the future in a slightly different way- this might have been a fluke but if venues will book me and audiences come see me, then I can think bigger about future work I do (and it can help sustain me as a writer and performer, rather than being something I’d assumed I’d lose money doing).

 

  • I loved working with a team (nearly all Northern women- as in, women who live and work in the North of England) who helped me do and think things differently and often better than I ever would have on my own.

 

  • I now have a piece of work that can be and is being) booked in it’s own right after the tour and can go from a literature festival to a fringe festival, a textile festival and a poetry festival because of it’s broad appeal.

 

Challenges

 

  • I’ve worked with a brilliant team- but it has been hard to get people to work with me initially. From established theatre producers to culture-ents PR people, they’re not lining up to work with a stand up storytelling-theatre-poetry person.

 

  • Turns out (as Laura Brewis and Carole Wears discovered) touring a small-scale show just in the North is hard because venues have “exclusion zones”. Usually things like that you can’t go to a venue within thirty miles/within six weeks- three months. The North’s not actually that big…(and it’s not like I’m Michael McIntyre…).

 

  • It took a while to work out that it was vital to use a microphone because otherwise there’s always at least one person who can’t hear and others have to strain. It may not be about volume exactly but sound quality. This is an access issue and after the first three shows I went and bought a Sennheiser Radio Microphone for about £220 (I was surprised how often venues don’t have them, just cable ones which aren’t as flexible) and it’s been brilliant.

 

  • There was a point when all the dates and contracts were coming in that it just got too much information to take in and I didn’t really have a strong sense of what the tour looked like- I was so busy trying to write the show and other things. It became a constant distracting background buzz in my head. Less so than when I used to do everything myself- but there’s still so much to do, sort out and think about and it can hamper your need for creative quiet time.

 

  • I discovered that the £500 I spent on local newspaper digital ads as a bit of an experiment (I’d originally thought about real newspaper ads) might as well have been weed down a drain.

 

  • It was relatively easy to get local radio and local newspaper coverage. I naively thought that as the show was on in Manchester, we might get some national radio stuff. (ha ha ha). I think that would have been possible only if we’d gone to London. It (issues of combined Northernness/gender) doesn’t seem cool or “relevant” (to use what will become an increasingly important word). Plus- it wasn’t happening in London therefore it didn’t exist.

 

  • The first shows had the brilliant actor Joey Holden with me. It was then hard to work out the logistics of one-off tour dates (as opposed to strings of dates) for a London-based actor so we came up with the cunning plan of adding a video element to the show. It’s worked really well and Virtual Joey adds a whole new dimension to the show (including a haunting), but it made me realise that there’s a great value in solo shows when you’re often having to work at least six months ahead. However…

 

  • …If it’s just you, then you can’t have down-time if you’ve got flu/a dodgy throat as I did for the first few February dates (not, to be fair, that I could have done even working with other people). On the positive side, doing shows while under the weather makes the ones you do with all your spoons much easier.

 

  • I hate being video’d and photographed and have been very late in getting a proper trailer and production shots which, thinking about it, are vital and I should have sorted out last year when we first did the show. However, this all comes back to planning ahead. I didn’t know we’d tour in the spring, or that I’d get booked for more dates, or actively want to book a second leg of the tour.

 

  • Returning back to the London thing- I haven’t actively sought reviews but it would have been easier to get them if I had done London shows. Social media and unsolicited Tweets/Facebook posts and Instagrams from audiences have been wonderful. And, I did do literally a whole PhD which might suggest why a show done by me on this subject matter with this approach might struggle to garner cultural capital…

Lifting the Lid (Tins Tins Tins poem for Barnsley Museums)

I was commissioned to write a poem for the launch of the “Tins Tins Tins” exhibition, celebrating the Barnsley Canister Company and the beautiful tins they produced.

Loved hearing more from women who worked there in the seventies about factory and office life. (Especially as I’m a product of seventies office life- born of an affair between a secretary and her boss!). This project really resonated with one I recently did for Kirkleatham’s Steel Stories exhibition about the steelworks in Redcar. Overwhelming sense of family and support from being part of the factory workforce (which can be idealised but was also very real and now felt to be vanished).

Exhibition at Barnsley Town Hall til September

 

Take the Lid Off

If you take the lid off the four storeys 

of the clacking, stinking, buzzing 

of Barnsley Canister Company, t’in’ole,

you’ll know this town 

wasn’t just built on coal.

Some thought it was too much, 

they should keep a lid on it,

this hub, this hive

where passersby at the bottom of the hill 

heard women laughing and singing

as if it was the time of their lives.

 

Take the lid off,

who knew Barnsley made such beauties?

Slicing, edging, rolling, trapping,

tins moulded into teddy bears (biker bears, ballet bears),

puppies, cottages, Egyptian mummies.

Tombs topped with companion animals. Collectable as gems, 

as grudges. Stored in cupboards, coal holes.

Top on spinning, bottom on spinning, you’d get in a rhythm.

We should stop keeping a lid on their skill,

if only we’d realised sooner

how much they were really worth.

 

Let’s take the lid off how

a woman’s finger ends suddenly appeared on a tray.

A man held half another’s arm on,

at the very least you’d be ringed with plasters.

No helmets, no safety,

but at the end of the week, 

a brown envelope with your pay.

So you’d keep a lid on it

and there’s Fridays at the Fitz,

half a lager and lime, rollers in since lunchtime,

you’re part of a family.

 

Take the lid off this heavy work, men’s work,

leaving your kids instructions to make their tea

when you took twilight shift.

Earning anything from a good Christmas

to a holiday, freedom, survival, a lull in the thrift.

No need to keep a lid on it,

always someone to pick you up and carry you,

put a pound in, bits for the babbies, take up the slack.

Men scaring you to giggles with warehouse ghosts

a line of ARP hats in an abandoned room;

the women of tin have got your back.

 

Take the lid off the world,

you might get a chance to travel beyond Barnsley,

even if you’re not a twinkly manager in a suit,

though the tea in a Twinings tin’s been further than you,

than the office girls sharpening boss’s pencils 

when their special buzzer sounds.

If you’d wanted to be an artist,

someone would have said “Don’t be daft, put a lid on it”

but Dana, the designer from New York,

and businessmen with briefcases visited

and shouted to the world about your craft.

 

Take the lid off this box in a box filled  

with flickering specks in the air and talk,

folded intricately as origami 

by Pat, Wendy and Regina in their tabards.

Day after day they felt that click.

Surely there’d always be tick 

and treasures in the stock room.

Carol’s wind had them digging up the drains once

but she kept a lid on it,

unlike the Diamond White she thought was slimming beer,

the magnificent beehive she built every day for years.

 

Take the lid off, blow the dust from photographs 

of factory girls on a bus to the races, an old lipstick,

a newspaper clipping about the can can-themed float

winning the Christmas Eve fancy dress prize.

Smell morning break rolls from Edna Coes.

taste the butchers’ hot pies.

Keep a lid on the longing shining their eyes

reflecting faces turned to craquelure.

They thought t’in’ole would be there for ever

We see now that they are precious 

edged and embossed as fancy tins. Moulded together.

 

Northern Women Will Laugh in the Face of Future Hard Times- as Usual #IWD

Saying that my current touring show “Where There’s Muck There’s Bras”  is about forgotten Northern women, makes it sound as if the amnesia is just historical- but, as one of my characters, Mother Shipton (who was really Ursula Sontheil, resilient daughter of a fifteen year old single mother) says “In order to be able to see the present we need to be able to see the past”. The forgotten women are also women of now. The women of the Northern of England are most badly hit by austerity, by London’s economic dominance over the country and, soon, by Brexit. 

Cultural discrimination against Northern accents (now recognised as part of a “class ceiling” impacting on those from working class backgrounds) comes in a context of the social and economic struggles faced by Northern women. Austerity has hit the North of England harder than any other part of the country, with cities and towns facing on average twice the level of cuts as councils in the South of England (Seven out of ten of the hardest hit cities and towns are in the North). Research also shows that austerity has hit women hardest- with 86% of the burden falling on them. So it is Northern women who are experiencing the greatest cumulative impact.  

The North will be deeply affected by Brexit too- with the North East the most badly hit, facing what would be a devastating 16% reduction in GDP in the event of a no-deal Brexit, and up to 9% in the event of leaving the single market. In all the post-Brexit scenarios modelled, London would suffer the least. All these statistics are likely to impact even more deeply on women in the North who are further marginalised by ethnicity, disability or sexuality.

Surely, however, it’s never been a better time to speak up as a Northern woman – what with influential figures like Lauren Laverne, Angela Rayner, Maxine Peake and Sarah Millican (and a Northern female Doctor Who!)? However, in general, for a mixture of the social and economic reasons outlined above, it is significantly harder for women based in the North of England to become journalists, academics, lawyers and politicians.

It’s hard enough to become actors, when drama schools discriminate on grounds of Northern accent and background as Jodie Whittaker has said recently to a Commons committee. (MP Tracy Brabin and Gloria de Piero’s Acting Up report shows the strong class bias in acting https://tracybrabinmp.com/2017/08/11/labours-acting-up-inquiry-says-its-time-to-bring-the-curtain-down-on-middle-class-dominance-in-the-performing-arts/, my own PhD research into stand up performers argued that there is also a cultural bias I called the “Northernness Effect”- https://www.chortle.co.uk/correspondents/2018/02/15/39149/is_it_because_im_northern%3f). 

MPs like South Shields’ Emma Lewell Buck, mocked for her accent in the Commons itself, have highlighted this prejudice; along with journalists like BBC Breakfast Business Correspondent Steph McGovern who was once told by a BBC boss that her accent made her sound stupid. 

What can you do in the face of miserable and terrifying statistics like these? So often, if you’re a Northern woman, you laugh. You laugh in the face of the crap and the absurdity and the uncertainty and the trauma.You laugh, as marginalised women have the world over, because what on earth else are you supposed to do?

Geneticists now say trauma is passed on in our DNA- I think the ability to laugh at it is passed on too, if not in your DNA then in the way generations of your family have dealt with the crap they’ve had to- whether as working class immigrants from countries like Pakistan or Poland looking for a better life in the North, or a line of families moving from the countryside to the cities to find work that aged or killed them prematurely, but gave them a living in a country whose establishment often used the “Barbaric, backwards” North trope to define itself as the “Progressive, rationalising” driver of the country. “Eeh, if you didn’t laugh, you’d cry”. I say in my show that those in the centres of power in the South East need to keep caricaturing Northerners as funny and tough so they don’t feel bad about our higher death rate and council cuts, and the lower spend on our housing, transport and arts. 

A recurring figure in my show is the music hall and sitcom star Hylda Baker (most known for playing Nellie Pledge in seventies sitcom Nearest and Dearest, as well as her roles in Saturday Night, Sunday Morning and Up the Junction). She wrote, produced and directed her own shows (including an all-female revue during the second world war), designed the sets and once stepped in to conduct the orchestra when a bandleader didn’t turn up. She was a pioneer. Her “Cynthia” routine in which she harangued a tall, silent man dressed as a woman with her signature mix of malapropisms (“I can say this without fear of contraception”) and surrealism inspired Victoria Wood’s Kimberley sketches. But she ended up in a nursing home with only seven people at her funeral and one-liner obituaries in newspapers despite her stature as one of the country’s biggest music hall, then sitcom stars. 

She stands for me as a symbol of how Northern women’s achievements are often overlooked and minimised (the usual double whammy of class and gender), and as a trickster figure who can still make us laugh at our own ridiculous aspirations (“I need electrocution lessons!”) and those who use the weight of tradition to justify our continuing marginalisation (“I see you sat there in your fine hysterical buildings”). In times to come we’re going to need to remember Hylda’s spirit more than ever. 

www.wheretheresmucktheresbras.com

www.katefox.co.uk

NOT the social anthropologist. Though confusingly I did an ethnographic PhD.