…pleasurable things

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A soft café chair with a tall cup of rhubarb and ginger tea, daffodils in milk bottles, buds on the cusp of opening.

The tattoo needle on the summit of your shoulder, like having an itch scratched that you never knew you had. You’ve heard it’s a pleasurable sensation on the face too, but you’re not convinced.

The creek on opening a new hardback book.

The aftermath of a migraine. That sensation of being a caged bird freed into a clear blue sky, everything light, everything interesting, pure sensory pleasure. Your eyes are hungry to take everything in.

A dog’s smile and beating tail. The snug curve of a sleeping cat. Even the haughtiest cat might allow you to slide your fingers into her bundled centre, the warmth reminding you she’s a living thing.

Your lover’s touch, like swimming in a warm river. His fingertips tapping Morse code onto your collarbone.

Your lover leaving for his own house. When you close the door you’ll retreat into blissful solitude.

An invitation that ends with ‘I’ll cook us dinner’.

The perfectly twirled fork of spaghetti with no dangling strands.

A new Leuchtturm notebook; the pages a pale buttery yellow; each page softly numbered at the corner; two bookmark strands; elastic strap to keep the thoughts inside; blank contents page at the opening; pocket at the back for free-range thoughts; labels for finding thoughts within the filled Leuchtturm notebooks on your shelf. You have an ex-lover to thank for this particular pleasure. You can’t think of anything else you should thank him for.

New pens. Always blue.

Codeine and a glass of crisp white wine. You imagine a doctor would disapprove, but your osteopath has told you he gets very drunk when he needs to be reset, so surely he wouldn’t quibble the addition of two innocent-looking tablets. It doesn’t even matter if you still feel the pain, your body is balanced by the warm glow of the grapes.

Dancing salsa in your bedroom before breakfast. Sometimes you enjoy 1970s funk too. Stevie Wonder’s Suspicion is a favourite, it reminds you of dancing at your mother’s wedding when everyone you loved was there.

The smile when you suggest to the woman behind you at the supermarket checkout that she can go before you with her three items.

The smile when you give your parking ticket to a new arrival at a car park, especially if there are two hours remaining.

The smile when you ask a stranger how they are.

Discovering a new place. The astonishment at realising only a moment earlier you didn’t know it existed. There is pleasure too in knowing this sensation is inexhaustible, you will never see all the places, just as you will never read all the books.

The yearning pleasure of anticipation.

…being lost

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It’s early afternoon and you ask yourself, why do you feel compelled to write about this? Why would anyone want to read about the negative forcefields of your body? You walk along the river, sit in a cafe and reread Hilary Mantel’s memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, and there you find a chiming struggle.

Mantel endured years of undiagnosed physical and psychological symptoms. Migraines, backache, nausea, exhaustion, vomiting, internal pain, bleeding, depression. She was dismissed by doctors as ‘neurotic, hypochondriacal and a bloody nuisance’ and told not to write (women and their flights of fancy – willfully fueling their neuroses). She ignored this particular prescription. But she took the chemical kind, some of which gave her disturbing symptoms of psychosis. She continued to endure, until finally she diagnosed herself with endometriosis, a nasty and destructive disease that is ‘hard to diagnose, for a doctor who doesn’t listen and doesn’t look’.

Her internal organs have been hijacked, growing endometrial cells which belong in the womb. Each month, when her womb shed its lining and bled these cells out, the other organs did the same, each month creating new layers of scar tissue that pressed on nerves, knitting organs together, pulling them out of shape. A disfigured interior. She was operated on, her womb removed. She was prescribed more drugs, which made her body balloon, her face moon-like, her hair falling out.

And throughout it all she continued to write.

She writes ‘to take charge of the story’.

She writes ‘to locate myself, if not within a body, then in the narrow space between one letter and the next, between the lines where the ghosts of meaning are.’

She writes that she has been ‘mauled by medical procedures’, her body and mind exhausted so that ‘each morning it is necessary to write myself into being’.

You walk home along the river and the resonance of her words spiral you down into a dark slump of recognition.

You cannot locate yourself.
You cannot locate yourself.
You cannot locate yourself.


The following day you write.

You know you are not your physical pain. You are not a collection of symptoms.

You are not your anxiety, that space in your mind that desperately reaches out but finds nothing there.

You are not your life problems, the small ones, the intractable ones, those you think you’ve overcome but suspect you have not.

So, if you are not within these things, where are you?

Keep writing, you tell yourself.

Write, and you may find the ghosts of meaning.

Write, write, write and perhaps you can write yourself into being.

…on walking

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You walk every day because your osteopath tells you to. It’s good for your muscles, your heart, your diaphragm, your mind. He tells you to write every day too, for the same reasons.

But you are relearning how to walk. After years of poor posture, two pregnancies, various accidents and injuries, your body is in a sorry state, so you’re trying to rebuild yourself. You walk mindfully, engaging your core, pelvis tipped forwards, shoulders back. This takes effort and is only sustainable for the time it takes to walk along the river into town. Then the ache begins, a lower back grumble turning quickly to a roar.
When this happens you feel resentment towards the people around you. They appear to move without effort, carrying their shopping bags, strolling or striding, peering into windows, standing in queues. They have the appearance of comfort and ease. You resent their ease, but you also lust after them, you want to inhabit their bodies so much.

But, gradually or suddenly, you don’t remember which, you feel ashamed of this anger you feel towards strangers, and you remind yourself that truth is not always something to be seen. These strangers are likely to be experiencing pain too. In their bodies. In their minds. In their hearts. No-one is immune.

Sometimes pain can be etched onto the face, particularly the pain of loss, but often we choose to hide. Pretend. Let ourselves be absorbed by the billow of life. We are all wandering lost within ourselves and our own perception of what is beyond us.

So, you begin to smile at these strangers. Something that can be seen. Something that says, I feel it too.

The Unwritable

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You want to write but you cannot write. Your body objects. Your shoulder throbs, the pain radiating down your arm to lodge in your elbow, across your shoulder to fizzle up your neck, itchy heat into your jaw, your gums, your ear. Your body is telling you to stop moving your fingers across the keyboard. But this feels too cruel. For the first time in your life you have no children to care for, you have no lessons to plan, you have no student emails to respond to. Your mind is alive with the thoughts you have kept silent, and now you want to write out loud. So you make a deal with your body. You will take care of the pain, swaddle it and resist the anger that swells when it overwhelms the logic of your reality. You will keep the daily routine of physiotherapy in the hope that in a year, perhaps, the pain will ease. You will do this, if you can write one thought at a time.
This is the first thought.

Listening to George

Last week, I went on one of those creative roller-coasters that only happen occasionally.  It involved walking around the local park on a bright wintry day letting my thoughts follow their own course, beginning with how tired and low I was feeling, onto the Australian bush fires, then to reminding myself to look for the beauty around me, to the difficulty of cultural appropriation, to observing how nature had placed tufts of moss on a park bench, to how happy the woman looked who was sitting on the bench reading a book.   

I realise that might sound exhausting, but when I returned to the warm of home I managed to link all these things together into one logical strand, so I went straight to my laptop and just let it unfurl into the rough draft of an essay.  Then, an hour or so later, I mentioned the moss on the benches to someone else and he told me about antifragility, a word coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to describe nature’s way of coming back stronger and more vigorous after being decimated by man-made or natural disasters.  I went back to my laptop to research antifragility, and it went into the essay too.

By the end of this process I had over a thousand words and I felt exhilarated, more than a little pleased with myself, but also bewildered with how this could have happened.  Like most writers I’m superstitious when it comes to my writing routine, convinced that I need a very special set of circumstances for the creativity to flourish (a fresh morning mind, a light breakfast with strong black coffee, and most importantly, silence and solitude).  Yes it was morning, but this was the only criteria I’d met.  I was also walking with another person, which is a sure-fire way to derail any kind of personal thought-flow, although he is mostly a silent walker, an under-valued trait in any human, I believe.

Strangely, I knew even as it was happening what had caused this rare flare of connectedness.

Before my walk I’d been listening to George the Poet’s podcast, inventively titled Have You Heard George’s Podcast?.  I discovered him after a few references on Radio 4, although it was only in the past few days that I’d actually got around to listening.  George Mpanga is a poet (obviously), but he’s also a commentator, an investigator, a researcher, each episode so packed with ideas (social, cultural, creative) that I’m often torn between hitting the pause button to allow the shift in my thinking, or staying immersed in the mesmerizing brilliance of what he’s created.  He doesn’t just deliver his material (definitely nothing like a Radio 4 program, no rule following involved), instead crafting his material with carefully chosen language (often in rhyming couplets), vivid dramatisation and clips of music, speech, poetry, whatever is relevant to the subject he’s exploring.  These subjects include the realities of growing up as a young black man, the Grenfell Tower fire, his relationship with his work,  the competing forces of contentment and ambition, to name but a few…. a wide-ranging list that’s both personal and universal.

It seems he has a wonderfully elastic mind, able to bounce between forms to gather up the resonant snippets to weave into something new, delivering a message with an astonishing amount of elegance and artistry.  What’s more, he makes this appear effortless.  Of course, making something appear effortless actually takes a lot of effort, but I suspect he’s helped by that elastic mind of his.

I’m pretty sure this was why my mind was so active that morning.  That elasticity had both pulled me in and pushed me out, my mind activated by what he was saying and how he was saying it, my thoughts primed to see the world fresh and complete and connected.  It reminded me that sitting inside my head is a real danger, my thoughts like frustrated children locked in the house when there’s a playground right outside.  George’s podcast was like a glistening key to open the door, open my mind so it could hear and feel, see and play and explore.

So whether you want to write an essay, discover some new ideas, or listen to some poetry, go and listen to George’s podcast.  He will change your morning.

Beginning Again

It has been five years and two months since my last post.  I try not to feel too bad about this, as I was drawn away by novel writing, working two teaching jobs, moving house a multitude of times and launching my children into the world of adulthood.  Still, I feel bad about it.  

Re-reading the posts I wrote back then I can see they were written by a different person.  She was direct with a dry sarcasm and not afraid to state her opinion.  She was also curious, observant, fully engaged with trying to balance writing, teaching and motherhood, trying her hardest to be truly excellent at it all.  

Didn’t someone say that life is what happens when you’re busy doing other things?  I feel this in a visceral way reading back those posts, knowing that I’m no longer the person who was grappling with the challenges of her life, but also relatively carefree.  I have learned a few things over that five years and two months, about motherhood, about writing, about the world and the people within in, so I can see, I can feel, that my voice is now more introspective, more meditative.  It’s going to be an interesting exercise resuming the discipline of writing regular blog posts about the things I’ve learned, and the things I don’t yet know or don’t understand, of which there are many.  This is one of the joys of writing.  A way of discovering new things through thinking, formulating ideas and finding ways to express those ideas in a way that other people can relate to.  As Philip Gerard wrote in his essay Adventures in Celestial Navigation, ‘We don’t write what we know—we write what we are passionate to find out.’

I’ve talked about where I am right now on my About page, but just to recap here:—

I have taken voluntary redundancy from Bath Spa University, so I can no longer call myself a University Lecturer.  This, I realise now, is a fundamental part of my identity, so I’m sure I’ll be writing about this sometime in the future.  

I do still work for Advanced Studies in England, so I can call myself a Creative Writing Tutor (although arguably not right now as they don’t have any work for me until September, and even then it’s not a done deal).  

I have no steady income and I’ve moved into a flat in Frome, Somerset.  For the first time in my life I’m living alone, so I’m enjoying full freedom but also full responsibility for meeting the rent.  

I am no longer writing novels.  Quite bizarrely, after a lifetime obsessed with reading and writing fiction, I am now only interested in nonfiction.  True stories are where it’s at, a form that both excites and intimidates me.

My plan, such as it is, is to write true stories while I figure out what to do with the rest of my life.  

I’ve already made some progress in this mission, with a piece of flash memoir published by The True Story, as well as finishing a long-form essay about a recent trip to Sicily.  I’ve also written an essay on being tattooed, which is so deeply connected to the last two posts I wrote over five years ago that it could be seen as a convenient coincidence, although I like to see it as just the natural progression of things.

Those posts (The future is built on the dreams of today) dated 16th November 2014, describe my daughter’s struggle with fitting into the education system, and how she gave up on A-levels to follow her own path.  Sadly, the education system has changed very little in that time but my daughter has, so I’ll also be posting about her journey since then, and how she’s never regretted being a drop-out.  

The future is built on the dreams of today – Part 2

Last week I posted about the restriction of creative subjects in our schools, with Education secretary Nicky Morgan in one corner suggesting that studying the arts will hold young people back, and Steven Spielberg in the other, fighting for the daydreamers and window gazers who spend their time imagining a whole world of possibilities.  Needless to say there were bloody noses all round.

I also mentioned that the majority of creative people I know have a driven commitment that’s essential for them to continue doing what they do, particularly when there is little support from the school education system or the government.

Find Elly Gander Tattoo Designs on Facebook

One such person is my own daughter, Elly, who for many years has wanted to be a tattoo artist.  She chose to study art at A Level so she could develop her skills, and began working on a portfolio of designs that would help her follow her dream.  Almost immediately the problems began.  While her teachers recognised her stylised designs were good, she was under constant pressure to broaden her range, use different materials and techniques so she would meet the criteria of the exam board.

Now, I understand this approach.  Developing a broad base of ability is something I encourage in my own students, whether it’s reading new authors, experimenting with  technique or trying out new working methods.  This is how we as practitioners engage with the possibilities and push our own abilities, discovering along the way what kind of writers we want to be.  It also creates versatile individuals that can use their skills across a range of potential markets.

However, Elly already knew what kind of artist she wanted to be, so being forced to engage in work she wasn’t interested in left her feeling frustrated and unhappy.  Eventually, after only a few months, she dropped out of school.  And this is when her drive and commitment really came into play.  She worked in bars and restaurants to earn some money while still trying to practice her art in what little time she had left.  There were months when she couldn’t do any, when she was too exhausted from working to even contemplate picking up a pen. These were the times I thought the reality of life was going to consume her more than her ambition.

But eventually her refusal to give in rewarded her with a lucky break, and she heard about a tattoo artist that was looking for an apprentice.  Being the perfectionist she is, the portfolio she’d accumulated suddenly seemed inadequate, so she spent every spare moment working on designs that would show how serious she was.  When she finally met up with the tattoo artist in his studio, she showed him her work and he gave her the apprenticeship on the spot, even showing her the room that will become her own studio.

Two days ago she began her training, and she called me in the evening to tell me she’d learned how to build the tattoo machinery, and she was going to put her designs up on the wall for the clients to see.  Her voice was full of pride and excitement, the fulfilment of doing what she wanted to do and the knowledge that all the difficult choices she’d made were the right ones.  And as a parent, I felt the hopeful relief of knowing she’s out in the world, living her life on her own terms.

It seems to me that in the current education system, those sixteen and seventeen year olds who want to be lawyers or doctors or scientists have a level of certainty that must be reassuring.  They’ll study the relevant academic subjects and be set on the right path, and no-one will tell them they’re restricting their future.  But if you want to do something creative, in whatever artistic field, you’re seen as a risky investment, an empty-headed dreamer and perhaps you should study some academic subjects too because let’s face it, you probably won’t actually succeed in being an actor or artist or writer.  After all, what did staring out of windows and dreaming of making movies do for anyone anyway?

What I’d really like to see is an education system that is led by the passions of the individual children rather than the requirements of government policies.  A system that doesn’t bind our children’s minds with notions of success that’s measured by how well paid their future jobs may be, but enables them to flourish and grow into whatever direction their passions take them.

My daughter took matters into her own hands, and she’s succeeded through a combination of talent, luck and sheer bloody-mindedness.

And as a result, it’s only a matter of time before I get my first tattoo.

The future is built on the dreams of today – Part 1.

Yesterday I caught the end of an old episode of The South Bank Show, where Melvyn Bragg interviewed Steven Spielberg in 1982, the year ET: the Extra-Terrestrial was released.  I tuned in at the right moment, when Spielberg looked at him with a childlike smile and said, “Movies are dreams.  They’re the daydreams you have at school that give you bad grades because you should be thinking about schoolwork.”

At this point I found myself wondering if the Education secretary, Nicky Morgan, was watching, and if she was experiencing any pangs of shame or regret about her comments this week.  Speaking at an event to promote science and maths she said that if young people study creative subjects it would “hold them back for the rest of their lives”.  She also suggested that if you didn’t know what you wanted to do career-wise “the arts and humanities were what you chose”, as if this was the worst case scenario for aimless and disengaged young people, opting out so they could continue being aimless and disengaged into adulthood.

I’m pretty sure this flight of fancy, Spielberg awakening Morgan’s own imaginative lightbulb, really was pure fantasy.  Instead she was probably spending her evening doing more industrious tasks, perhaps planning tests for two year olds or shutting down libraries.  After all, she wouldn’t want to hold back the rest of her life by engaging with other people’s ideas, particularly when it involves the horrific crime of doing something other than schoolwork.

Her comments suggest to me that she doesn’t believe in the restorative power of the arts, and that she considers nourishment of the soul to be superficial and distracting.  Many fictional dystopian worlds have been created as an extension of this idea, worlds where society is governed by work and making money, and freedom of thought or speech or time is punishable by a variety of methods.  These dystopian societies are always described as nightmare worlds, where the characters’ lives become small and meaningless, where experience becomes controlled, tested and judged, and where human existence becomes a crippling burden on the spirit.

Successive governments have built an education system that programs our children to retain information in order to pass exams, tick boxes, and fit into a narrowly defined slot.  Teachers themselves are so governed by these strict boundaries they no longer have the flexibility to allow students to follow their own passions and interests.  As a result teachers are leaving the profession in their thousands, their knowledge and ideas lost to the next generation who will be sent out into the world with a narrow vision and an inability to think for themselves.

If this is Mrs Morgan’s warped view of the future, how does she address the fact that creative thought does more than paint pictures, write novels and perform plays?  Creative thought is also about making connections between ideas, whether that means an engineer toiling alone in her workshop, or the Apple method of bringing experts together to work collaboratively.  This is the way inventions develop, new systems are implemented, and new thinking can improve the lives of people around the world.  But I guess we’ll have to do without that.

As human beings we are born with an innate creativity.  Our childhood years are spent creating our understanding of the world, exploring it through drawing, playing, talking.  If a child is allowed to continue exploring this side of themselves through music or art, performance or writing, they will continue to use this intrinsic ability in whatever they decide to do, whether that’s a job in the arts or trade and industry.  Even running a bank.

And as for those people studying or working in the arts being aimless and disengaged, they are some of the most driven and productive people I know.  In order to survive in the creative industries you need a level of self-motivation that’s beyond that of many other careers, because apart from family and friends, there is very little out there to support you, monetarily or otherwise.

So, my hope for the future is that all children get to attend the Spielberg School of Creative Thought, allowing infinitely more time to stare out the window and daydream.

Now that’s utopia.

Next week: Part 2 – a personal perspective.


Sometimes words are not enough…

I’ve always believed that words have the power to do anything you need them to do, whether it’s to tell a story, express an idea, or rouse people to support a cause.  The written word is there for us to fulfil our need to communicate, a part of our biological make-up that we often take for granted.

IMG_6337However, I recently found this viewpoint challenged when I did an interview with the rather marvellous mime artist and physical performer, Les Bubb.  Les has travelled the world with his cabaret show, toured with Take That and most recently has put his mime skills to good use as a motion capture artist in the 2014 animation of Tarzan.  So when we met on a cool summer’s day for  lunch on the terrace of the Cosy Club in Bath, I knew he’d have lots to talk about.

We started by discussing his childhood beginnings and early influences, then on to his career progression through the perils of travelling with artificial snakes, getting trapped inside his own suitcase, and how it feels to be on stage with thousands of Take That fans projecting their love.

Throughout our conversation Les was doing what comes naturally.  He was performing.  Not his full act, obviously, he didn’t turn up with a bowler hat and case and wrap rubber bands around his face (that would have made the other diners pause over their steak sandwiches).  It was more that he was gesticulating and demonstrating, doing the voice of Richard Harris when talking about the Harry Potter films, or playing with those imaginary snakes to mollify airport security.  So the problem I had when writing it up was trying to convey these stories with the awareness that something was missing, that mere words were not enough.

IMG_6281This was particularly evident when I met up with him on a later date and he demonstrated the balloon trick.  He was talking through the various elements as he moved, giving details on the fluidity of movement, the effect of gravity, how to visually deceive the audience, a demonstration that was a mini-masterclass of the art form.

As you can imagine, the words on the page seemed rather inadequate after that, a bit like bread without the Nutella.

In the end this section required several drafts, going back to Les to find the best way of expressing something that really can’t be expressed through words.  I’m moderately satisfied with the finished product, but still secretly hanker after an accompanying video.

It’s always humbling to realise your limitations, so to meet someone who has full mastery of words and movement is humbling indeed.

You can read the interview here, and you’ll be able to see Les in action as part of a new Saturday night TV show in January 2015.

Note:  Sadly IdeasTap, who originally published this article, has now closed due to lack of funding.  Instead you can read the interview on my publications page.

Embracing Newness

With the crisp autumnal air comes the start of a new semester, and I’ve been back teaching undergraduates at Bath Spa University for two weeks now.  In many ways things are much the same as last year, what with dusting off the old lesson plans and lecture notes, desperately trying to remember names, getting swamped by the obligatory admin and having cheery conversations with students and colleagues about summer break shenanigans.

The shiny new Commons building at Bath Spa
The shiny new Commons building at Bath Spa

But there’s a whole bunch of new stuff going on too.  I have eager new students, a new building to get familiar with, and a new routine trying to fit teaching around my own research and projects which again, are quite new to me.

I know some people hate change.  The fear of the unknown, the possibility of failure and the feeling of waste and disappointment that comes with it.  But these changes, the newness of the various elements in my life (personal as well as professional) have given me renewed energy, helping me to look at things differently and actually taking the alternative fork in the road when given the opportunity.

This was highlighted to me this week when I was talking to a new friend about an organisation she’s involved in called Edventure, in Frome.  They offer apprenticeships to young people interested in social entrepreneurship, helping them to develop skills and ideas for projects and businesses that benefit the community.

My friend was telling me about consensus decision-making, where individuals build groups and make decisions on projects collectively, which means they are actively involved in its planning, development and subsequent success.  This interested me because every year my first year students have to do a creative project.  I usually create the groups myself, taking random names from the register, but every year there are a couple of students in each group that just go along with the person whose idea seems the most feasible.  Consequently they don’t get as involved as they should because they don’t have a genuine passion or connection to the aims of the project.

I don’t consider this to be the students’ fault.  I’m asking them to spend a significant portion of their time planning and executing a project, writing a report and creating a portfolio of evidence, for something they don’t really care about, and I know I would struggle under those circumstances too.

So, finding out about an alternative decision-making concept made me realise there could be a better way.  Perhaps if the students start by brainstorming their ideas and then deciding as a group which ones should go ahead, individuals can then decide what group they’re going to join.  The theory is that each student will be given a choice based on their interests, and with that feeling of empowerment comes the willingness to be actively engaged in the progress and success of their chosen project.

I’m looking forward to trying this out in class this week.  Yes, there’s the risk of failure.  And yes, if it doesn’t work I’ll have wasted valuable class time.  But if it does work, if consensus decision-making enables the students to create something they’re passionate about, giving them a sense of purpose for the hours they are devoting to it, as well as learning new skills and creating something they are really proud of, I think it’s worth the risk.

Either way, I’ll continue to embrace the newness because the students aren’t the only ones that get to learn new things at university.