Wednesday, 18 October 2017

I Post #metoo

John Berger's book, 'Ways of Seeing', which I read for the first time last year, made me cry.  Specifically the third chapter.

"A man's presence" he writes, "suggests what he is capable of doing to you or for you." In other words, it is a presence of power.  In contrast, "a woman's presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her" (1972, p. 46).  He is writing in the context of visual art - specifically in a discussion of the meaning of the female nude.  And his text is almost as old as me, but still it resonates. 

Berger's thesis hinges on the idea that men survey and women are conscious of this surveillance. I think there is a deep truth in his work. My collusion with the consciousness of being looked at  was built as I grew (don't paint your face, don't wear a short skirt, be modest, don't lead him on, don't go to the disco, don't, don't, don't) became my very fabric, my stooped stance, my lowered-eyes demeanour.

I grew up colluding with the idea of my sexuality as troublesome, Eve-like, and it felt burdensome, sinister. I looked for a hiding place.

You might quibble with Berger: with my response to his text. It's so binary his talk - male / female, men / women: it's 2017 and we are moving on from binaries. 

But I read his work again and it pierces me. And now this. The decision whether or not to post #metoo.

What's the risk?


It's not much, in itself, to align myself with the vast majority of women and some men who can relate to my first such memory, the one of the man in the park on my walk to the tube to school.  I was 13, had never seen the flaccid rope of a grown man's penis before, did not know for a moment what I was looking at, so looked. And I can still see it swinging improbably, him passing to my left, about six feet between us, neither of us missing a step (what, what, What?) - can still feel the punch of shocked realisation, the loss of not-knowing, remember my friend disbelieving me when I told her later, standing on the station platform, .

So many, many other things I will come to remember. Some of these will include physical assault, some will involve people I trusted, some will make me fear for my life.

Dear child.
Dear, dear girl.
Brave teenager with her face set forwards.
Brave schoolgirl who went on to her physics lesson.
I sorrow with you, hold my arms around your shame.
For all that was yet to come - remember your courage, your own gift of survival.
You will come to a place no longer at odds with yourself -
your stride will lengthen with the rage that is rightfully yours.
And I love you for it.

And so I come to this:
Me too, dear heart. Me too, sweet precious girlchild. Dear Liz.

And look! Look at the crowds striding in the same direction.
We were never, after all, alone.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

I Applaud A Performance

Lucy Aphramor is hot.  You can tell this from the cover of her book, Raise The Roof.  She is shown sharp with style and she looks you in the eye. If she had a gauntlet, she'd be laying it down.  Behind her are the flames of a burning home.

It is typical of Lucy, ever-generous, that proceeds from the sale of Raise The Roof are going to support her friends Leela and Jamie, who, she says in her preface, have stuck with her through thick and thin, and whose home burned down earlier this year.

Raise The Roof is the book of the show. Lucy is the Naked Dietician and I first saw her performance in its entirety in Edinburgh, on the Fringe.  I've kept my ticket from that day as a souvenir.

I want to remember that performance because it was brave and bold: in fact, it was incendiary.  Lucy's monologue is a weaving of stories of injustice, of heartbreak and oppression, into something that's alight with energy and hope. Always serious, she plays with words in a way that's clear with enjoyment and raises some chuckles amidst the intensity.

So to take the opportunity to see the performance again at the Quaker Meeting House in Shrewsbury last Sunday evening was, for me, obvious. At a time when the news is full of miserable stories about the abuses of white male privilege - women groped and raped, young black men singled out, children shamed about their body shapes - Lucy challenges the status quo - the assumption that simple sound bites: for example, eat less, move more, dispensed by the Powers-That-Be-So-Simplistic, can redress the injustices resulting from inequalities built into the very fabric of society. Whilst this a personal statement, it inevitably calls us, the audience, to consider living differently:

         for right now I am on fire gut-busting for an exodus from stasis
         so almighty it incites the gods in each of us to hurl up everything
         they worship   sacred  secular  profane   inflame a new way 
         of doing being praying grieving growing speaking thinking longing
         loving listening fucking that does justice justice

It's impossible to hear the density of Lucy's text and absorb it in one sitting. Hearing it again, I realised it's impossible to hear the density of Lucy's text and absorb it in two sittings, but it was definitely an advantage to hear it twice. And buying the book for a longer look makes sense.

On Sunday, the audience was focused and able to hear each word, each lift of hope and ecstasy, each plunge into despair and pain.  Lucy's command of her words, her amazing memory for them, left us free to soak, washed over by wave upon wave of a searing yet playful narrative which includes the deeply personal references to self-harm and discrimination, and the deeply political longing for injustice to be brought out into the clear light of day, seen for what it is.

Friday, 6 October 2017

I Feel At Home

It was my eldest son who said it out loud first - "Mum, you fit in here."  We were in Antwerp buying small electrical items for his new home, wondering at this city, its zigzag frontages, its mercantile heritage.

Antwerp is in Flemish Belgium: in Flanders.  The language is Dutch: Flemish Dutch.  In those simple facts lie layers of history, politics and numerous cultural sensitivities with which I am only just becoming familiar: sensitivities which this blog may in some way trample across unwittingly - I hope to come to understand more of the complexity, and may need to re-write parts of this in future.

My son expanded on his verdict by saying that I look like many of the women we passed. I'm tall and apparently I dress in middle class Dutch style. His analysis fitted with my feelings.

I have often felt at odds in new places - in Thailand I was too tall, in Paris too casual, in Bari too pale, in Los Angeles too introverted, in Scandinavia too jealous - whereas on arriving in Antwerp, even when driving on the right, I felt immediately at home. 

It wasn't just the weather which settled me, although the grey rain with its moments of intense sunny glory set the backdrop.  It wasn't just everyone's (but everyone's) ability to speak English during a week in which I struggled to commit any more Dutch than the words 'dank je' to memory. I knew I was amongst a tribe I recognised.

From this tribe, the Plantin and Moretus families emerged in the 16th century to establish a phenomenally successful printing business, and the Plantin-Moretus is amongst the best museums, no, it's the best, I have ever visited. The two oldest surviving printing presses in the world live there amongst drawer upon drawer of beautiful fonts.

So far, my son is settling well to his three year BA course in Fashion Design.  I'm hoping to pay several visits to Antwerp during this time and said as much to my Uncle Bob on the phone last weekend.  "Of course, my dear" he said, ever-affectionate, "our Huguenot ancestors were in the cloth trade in Flanders and they fled persecution back in 1570 or so."

My uncle's reminder explained in some way that sense of alignment that comes to me from time to time, when for a moment it feels as if the world, quietened for a while from the clash of empires, fits snug as the new coat I bought yesterday for my niece's wedding. When I got the coat home and looked properly, it turned out, of course, to be Dutch.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

I Compare Two Audiences

Royal Albert Hall Saturday 23rd September 2017
Beethoven’s 5th Piano Concerto
Beethoven’s 9th Symphony

Notes on the Audience

Flash photography? In a place this size? With the lights down and the sublime music of Beethoven it's like watching a badly choreographed, underwhelming firework display.  If you are going to use your camera turn off the flash AND the sound you twerps and oh, you're clapping after the first movement; well, I mustn't judge - it's just a convention to remain silent but it IS Beethoven and I hope by the time the 9th comes on you'll know not to clap until the end and why oh why are you eating, and eating noisily - yes, it is the Emperor Concerto which is a popular piece but it's not the bloody Nutcracker and whatever you are chatting to your neighbour about ,can't it wait because the Royal Albert Hall acoustics are bad enough as it is without the competition of what is not even an apologetic whisper and surely you could have used the interval to rummage around your bag which is the size of Wembley stadium and I am going to turn around and smite you with my Paddington stare if you don't shut up ... there I did it (and am I a musical snob for wanting to listen to music in quiet I mean I know that sometimes people have to cough and that can't be helped but talking - talking! - why did you even bother coming and if you realised I'd booked these tickets back in February to enjoy an evening with my son whose favourite piece is the 9th and which I have never seen live before and which I want to be memorable for the right reasons would it make any difference?).  Oh, and there you go! Clicking away during the slow movement which is so sublime that I want to cry and shout at you for the sake of all of us who want to listen and I think I will stand up and leave and I think I will stand up and walk down and into the orchestra to be as close as I can be to the cellos when they pick up that theme which is the most amazing moment and even you lot with your rustling and your chatting and your flashing and your clicking can't ruin this - the voice of joy rising from the deepest place in the whole wide world.

Much Wenlock Pottery Saturday 30th September 2017
Voices for Change - An Evening of Poetry to mark 100 Thousand Poets for Change Global Event Day

Notes on the Audience

I look out at  people, listening with all of themselves.  You are still, intent, serious about this: focused on what's happening now.

Thank you.