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Saturday, 20 October 2012

Sexuality is fluid - but discussing it is dry

So...I'm somewhere between Jackie Clune and Tilda Swinton on this one. Not a bad place to be sat at the imaginary dinner party.
The other week on holiday in France I watched, for the second time, I AM LOVE.
It amazed me again, the fact this film took ten years to develop and find funding for. Just shows you what it's like out there trying to make something different, even when you are a 'name'.
When I arrived home to a sunny Gatwick on a Sunday afternoon, straight away I tuned into my beloved Radio 4 and listened to Jackie Clune talking about her long ago discarded vegetarianism and lesbianism. She's made a small journalistic career out of her past love life, and why not? There are many ways to skin a cat.

I met Jackie in the nineties when I entered The First Ever Lesbian Beauty Contest. I can still picture her backstage at the Cafe de Paris with steam rising from her curling tongs, with an all-in-one flared jump-suit. Jackie did the most fantastic impersonations of Karen Carpenter, so if you closed your eyes it could have been Karen C.
Jackie was an out lesbian for 12 years until she met a man and fell in love and had quartet babies. She'd realised by then that sexuality wasn't linear. She wrote a brilliant piece for The Observer about it, though gays and lesbians reacted badly, angrily lauding her as a traitor. I can see both sides- how can you fight so hard for something so true about yourself for it only to be noted that it might not be the whole story, or that you could also meet someone of the opposite sex and simply be wildly attracted to them? I mean how can anyone deny that you might contradict yourself one day because you find someone beautiful or funny or just downright unlike anyone you've ever met before? But, once you've taken all the trouble to come out, face your inner homophobe, shock your family, tell the world, isn't it disjointed to go back in and say well actually, I'm just like an everyday, 9 out of 10 person really? Jackie Clune's argument is that sexuality is fluid, but as far as her example goes, it's like that delicious American processed cheese - it formed, it melted and was pliable, then set and never melted again. Or will she shock us again with a new take on her love life when her babies are all grown up? I'm really not that worried, but the idea of 'hasbians' and 'yestergays' will always create anger because it confuses people. And just because you're gay, doesn't mean your liberal.

Now in I AM LOVE there is a lesbian daughter character. Tilda Swinton talks about the character as being an alien in the family, but not because she is gay, but because she is an artist, and artists are the outsiders in a family, unless you are from a family of artists of course, but I don't know any of those.

Yesterday, I moved into my artist's studio in Penge. I borrowed Mum's shopping trolley because I don't drive, and didn't want to ask anyone to help me move because it was about me doing it, on my own, with no one else taking part. This is my private space, not one to show off and say, look, how creative am I? I sat there and wrote a part of my new novel. All my dear inspirations are behind me; Cindy Sherman, Julia Darling, Ali Smith, Nan Goldin, backing me up, willing me again to dare to write the book that will change my life. I see them all as back bone, their spines visible with a quarter turn of my head; A L Kennedy, Lorrie Moore, Amy Hempel, Carol Shields, Richard Yates. The family.

This week I accidentally heard this and I think it's brilliant.
'If you don’t stand for something you fall for anything
Harder than you think, it’s a beautiful thing' - Public Enemy



Friday, 3 August 2012

The importance of glitter

After the party, on Friday night, after losing my cab to someone else, there are three of us, two sisters and me, covered in glitter in the back of a cab en route to Lewisham. We have not watched the Opening Ceremony to the Olympics but recreated a seventies disco upstairs in a pub in Waterloo. We had a Vogueing competition and M C Kinky (Feral is Kinky) performed electro ragga 'Everything starts with an E'. I read a 'This is Your Life' poem dedicated to my friend who was dressed in pink tights and no knickers with a mini glitter ball pinned so it hung down, between her legs, like an udder.
At one magical point, people sat on the floor and formed a long line to dance to 'Rock The Boat' by Hues Corporation (1973).


I like sitting between people's legs. There aren't many occasions where you can have physical contact with friends and strangers without it being seen as sexual. I'm all for it, being surrounded by legs, rocking back and forth, as enthusiastic as children who bundle on top of each other, slamming the floor with the palms of your hands; raising the dead, putting things to bed. This is why parties are so important. And this is why we will be resuming normal service soon with our arty party MOONA.
Spoon face painting table
My friend who is the DJ and artist of all things MOONA has always insisted that we keep our cabaret, arty-party nights free of charge. At first, I was frustrated by this, not being able to pay cab fares for acts, or having any money to buy equipment, or make money from entertaining people. But now, more skint than ever, in these days of commercial-dom (blah blah), where the commercial is favoured over art and where I have no understanding of why some novelists get truck-loads and most authors bread-crumbs, I see keeping our MOONA free of charge as a political act. Jack Smith, the performance artist, God-father of experimental theatre who created drag culture as we know it, who influenced the films of Warhol and John Waters, later Cindy Sherman to name a few. See:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Smith_(film_director)
Jack Smith
Jack Smith insisted on making no-budget movies from using discarded colour film stock. I like the fact on his Wikipedia page that it tells you who introduced him to glitter, it's seen as that important a moment. He was vehement that money corrupted art, crippled it even and fell out with Warhol over it. He lived on two boiled eggs a day.


Life Drawing
We have tried charging admission in the past and it changed the atmosphere, made it more reserved, took the freedom out of a free, non-pretentious night. The attitude of the management is the key. For a long run we took over the upstairs bar in The Castle in Camberwell. The owners were into art with an anything goes philosophy, and not necessarily profits. Two years ago it was over for that team after a good run. A kind of gastro-pub has wallpapered its walls into some diluted idea of comfort. We have to have a place where nudity is permitted, because we have a life modelling spot which happens at about ten o'clock. Once a bar manager told me I had to cover up my nipple tassels, as he said I was topless. I pointed out to be topless I would have to have nipples showing. We didn't go back.


In the cab the younger sister says, 'My flat smells of death, something has died there, you won't like it.' 
I hear the words but don't think that they could be the truth. All I can think is how wonderful it is that she say things like this, dramatic crazy things. It reminds me of how many things there are to possibly say that don't normally get said. Are we the three drunk and debauched men in Chaucer's The Pardoner's Tale where three men set out from a pub to find and kill Death, who they blame for the passing of their friend and all the other people who have died? The tale goes that they meet an old man says they can find Death at the foot of an oak tree. When they arrive at the tree, they find a large amount of gold coins and forget about their quest to kill Death. They decide that they will sleep at the oak tree over night, so they can take the coins in the morning. The three men draw straws to see who among them should get wine and food while the other two wait under the tree. The youngest of the three men drew the shortest straw. The two plot to overpower and stab the other one when he returns, while the one who leaves for the town plots to lace the wine with rat poison. When he returns with the food and drink, the other two kill him and drink the poisoned wine, dying slow and painful deaths. All three find death.

Is the pot of gold in my pocket? I have a Euromillions lottery ticket. Tonight one hundred people across our small island will become millionaires. It's a special draw. As long I don't check the ticket, I am possibly one of them and I'm possibly not.

The next morning I wake up in a someone else's bed with my friend. A cat is sitting on her chest, kneading the duvet. I walk into the lounge to find her sister and her boyfriend smoking. 
I retch. When the cigarette smoke stops the smell begins, like a noise being turned up. 
I put a sock over my nose and breath through my mouth.
'What's that smell?' I say.
'It's death,' she says. "Death is under the floorboards. I told you last night.'

'Well yes, but I thought it was just pretend,' I say. 
I get a cab home in last night's clothes. I sit on the loo with a diet coke and when I get up the seat is covered in glitter. A week has passed and I'm still finding it, in my clothes, on my cheeks, in the fronds of the carpet. 
How it lasts.


New things that happened this week

I read Tove Jansson's 'Fair Play' and am wowed how she writes so quietly, but solidly about how artists live and love and how any old day can change into something magnificent. I learnt from a bee keeper that you can give Lucozade to dying bees and perk them up.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Sometimes you get to be who you are.

Last night I met up with an ex-lover in Waterloo. We met outside the Old Vic which is on The Cut where my mother got married to my dad in a church which has now gone.
As I had been writing all day, I hadn't spoken a word to anyone and I was very much inside myself, far away from where my skin meets the rest of the world. (Well, apart from speaking to the man in the newsagents who topped up my Oyster Card but he didn't want to laugh about my broken umbrella.)
I was reading the reviews for the play when an attractive, young woman came up to me and asked me if I was going to The Pitt Bar. I'd read on the door that a musician was going to be playing jazz later in the bar downstairs beneath the theatre. The advert said her voice was like a 'fog horn' which I'd thought was strange advertising.
As the woman came up to me I jumped as I thought it was going to be my friend. They had the same long brown hair, but different faces and the unexpected face was the thing that made me gasp. She laughed and I patted my chest. I said no, I wasn't going to the Pitt Bar and she nodded and walked away.
My friend turned up and I told her how I had been surprised by someone who wasn't her speaking to me and she said the woman was probably chatting me up. This is how it happens these days, she said. I said it was a bit fast and I preferred the days where weeks or months went by while you weighed up the words and actions of somebody, trying to work out whether they were gay or just being friendly. There seemed more time about then, but that's probably just nostalgia warping the past.


We went down Lower Marsh, where a stall holder was packing away small rustic cheeses and arrived at my new favourite spot, The Scooter Bar. We sat out the front so we could smoke. I went up to the bar and ordered a bottle of white wine. The woman stared at me and I thought for a long moment that she was going to refuse to serve me. 'Are you famous?' is what she said.
'Well, no. It depends, but no...' I say, thinking 'Here we go again. Another person thinks I'm Jenny Eclair.'
'It is you, isn't it? 'In Search of The Missing Eyelash'? I saw you reading, you were very funny.'
I felt I should say something funny, to prove to her that what she was saying was the truth.
'That is me,' I said, with a self-mocking flourish of the hand. The teenage me cringed.
'Famous author,' she said, nudging the bar maid next to her. 'Uh, oh right,' the other girl said, pushing up the optic on the Vodka with a glass then opening a can of R Whites.

I took the drinks back to the table and told my friend what had happened. I clapped my hands together.
She said, 'See?'
I said, 'Wow, I know'.

I am now famous in one place* and to one person.

*The Scooter Bar used to be the spot to get your Vespa fixed in the Sixties. While you waited you got a proper cup of coffee. It was the first place to have a coffee machine in central London. The word spread. It became a famous coffee haunt. It is now a bar with a toilet behind a curtain. It is one of the few Bohemian spaces left. It feels like the magic of London can still happen here, just like in Danny La Rue's Bar which used to be on Charing Cross Road. My aim is to have a stool at the bar with my name on it by 2020.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Break Up Make Up, Never Do It Again.



Last Saturday, I went up to Manchester to see Jackie Kay's new play 'Manchester Lines' which was taking place in a 'found' space of a modern office block. The set was made up of lost items handed into Transport for London Lost Property Office. Before arriving in the theatre space, a toy train was running around a track along the wall, appearing and disappearing into a miniature tunnel. In hushed lighting, akin to a museum protecting its artefacts from sun-damage, I passed thirty-four walking sticks suspended from a rail (two banded together) four shopping trolleys, twenty-five crutches, a child's mini-kitchenette and a lifeboat jacket. In the main space the walls were hidden by shelves piled with Cine cameras, one stuffed fox with a cowboy hat on, a box of false teeth, hundreds of envelopes containing jewellery, phones, purses, then coats and umbrellas. A man was sitting behind a desk looking through a ledger. His character was named The Keeper. Jackie Kay had based him on the man who runs the Baker Street lost property department. She said he was like a philosopher, with his theories of what and why certain things get lost.


The play mainly took place inside the reconstructed lost and found office. Each of the  items lining the walls were tagged with a yellow label with the date and the station where the item was found. They were all recent, in the last six months. The items suggested irretrievable stories. There was something hopeful and yet desperately sad about the objects, waiting to be claimed. The piles suggested all the moments of human forgetfulness, rushing, drunkenness and carelessness that goes on every day, every night. The objects were proof of how things could just slip away from you. Then I thought of all the people who had gone out of their way to try to return things by handing them in. How rare that art or theatre is born from this kindness. I remembered how once, I found a mobile phone in the street and tried to find the owner by going through all the numbers held on it. The phone contained a number for Tim Rice (lyricist for Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita and Joseph). I fantasised that it could be Elaine Page's phone, but there weren't any other glitzy numbers in the address book. I rang the MUM number and an elderly lady answered after many rings. Her voice was shaky and faint. She was confused while I explained that I had found the phone. She had expected to hear her son's voice. Then she said 'hold on' and searched for her address book. She gave me the number of the mobile I had in my hand, and I wrote it down. She told me her son was a vicar and, after I pointed out I couldn't call him on the number she had given me because it would be calling myself, she gave me his home address.
 
One character in the play, Pauline, spoke about being lost as a person. She said, 'how do you know the person who went to bed is the one who will wake up?' She talked about how you couldn't be yourself every day, that it was impossible. How many of us must be just winging it, pretending to be ourselves? I thought about our need to be recognisable to the people we love.
Another character reported herself to The Keeper as missing, just before she was about to disappear. I liked that, I wished there was a place you could register as being lost.
The play ended with us being escorted out into an open plan office space, where we could see the trams running below. The Keeper, finished the play with these words.
'See the lines crossing all over Manchester, the train lines, the tram lines. See the lines on your face, the lines on your hands...Always look for the things other people won't notice. The small things. It's our lives.'
Cathartic is such a lame word, but that was what the play was. I wept a big weep as we walked outside the office block. In the open space, the sun suddenly brightening the new pavement, my girlfriend tied her scarf tenderly around my neck to keep me together.

Twenty years ago, it was summer. I was on my foundation of Fine Art, a course which no longer exists at a College which is no longer there.
I had shaved my off hair and was sat in the long grasses out the back the studios. A girl with dark curly hair who was studying Graphics had seen me there from her window. She came and asked if I was OK. I told her I didn't know if I was a man or a woman and I didn't want to have to decide. She didn't know what to say. I told her I felt like I was acting my life out as if it were a play. A specialist at the hospital diagnosed me with having too much pink adrenalin in my system. He said it can happen at any time, it is the same as speed, it is hormonal. It can make you feel like you are behind glass, reading from a script, knowing the lines which will follow from others. And then it went, I was back in the moment. No more splitting for a few years.



After university, I worked for a while for Barclays Bank. Most mornings I had panic attacks as I walked towards the Knightsbridge branch from Victoria, past the posh white painted villas with palm trees and the cobbled Mews, knowing that this job was not for me. I'd gone the wrong way, taken the wrong turning. I was too cowardly to pursue the life of an artist. I would sit in the giant safe in the basement and count Harrods' takings which arrived by a shute piped under the road. I wondered if I might be able to steal a few thousand. I drank every night away in the pub with 'Big Trevor' who I felt was wasted as a cashier with his sharp political humour. He said he was happy enough, living with his mum. One night, back at my house, I got drunk and I fell asleep on his bollocks which were padded with fat, making them into pillows of thighs.

No one tells you at school how destructive the wrong job could be. Or how, if you can't find what it is you are looking for, then how you might separate from yourself in order to get along.

In 1997 I started to work as a stewardess for British Airways. I would panic as I rolled the trolley down the cabin. 'Is this who I am now?' I would think. My dream of becoming a successful performance artist was vanishing. A uniform and a badge had replaced her. I only had my personality to keep me apart from the others. I performed drag shows in hotel rooms for the other cabin crew, I kept on, trying to retain my individuality. I performed once in Entebbe in the nightclub attached to the hotel. The locals thought I was some kind of witch doctor or shaman with my back combed wig, lip-syncing to Shirley Bassey.


San Fran has trams
In 2002 I visited San Francisco on holiday. My friend Elaine's father had died and she needed a break. We went together, staying in a hotel where the bar was completely red, including the ice cubes. By this point in my job, I was suffering. I had split up with myself. I was concious I was impersonating myself and I had no idea who I was any more. I realised this was not normal. So, the two of us made a wedding ceremony in the bedroom. I borrowed the plastic flowers from the corridor. My friend wrote a sermon and a speech. We got dressed up in our best clubbing clothes. I'd bought a ring. She was nervous as she read out my vows which were to remain true to myself, through sickness, health and uncertainty. Myself then said, 'I do' as I slipped the ring on my finger. Reader, I married myself! After, we drank a bottle of Champagne and went out, getting standby tickets to see Sandra Bernhard. It was one of those nights. I was flying. I was back. I couldn't do much about the job, but I could take a correspondence writing course with the Open College of Arts. And I hoped, like a newly wed everything would turn out fine. 'Hope for the best and expect the worst' Angela Carter once said.

Two years ago I left British Airways. Again I had fallen out with myself. I felt unreal. The shrinks call it depersonalisation, I call it being art-less.

After the play we found a restaurant. The roads had been closed off and a friendly Policeman said the Olypmic Torch was coming to town. This is the memory, one to store up for the weird uncertain days; there was an array of dips, heated pita bread in a basket and good white wine. The Olympic flame was going to pass by our window. Three Indian waiters came out the front of the curry house opposite. They were each handed British flags by their manager and then were waving them shyly at one another, scrunching their noses up self-consciously. I stood up as the flame appeared, carried by a man in a white team GB tracksuit. All of a sudden, a tanned bride in a Katie Price style wedding dress and a groom in a suit and kipper tie jumped into the road and stopped the flame. They had their photo taken with it.
I raised my glass to unions and marriages of all kinds. To self-sufficiency and to loving someone else and them loving you back. As we walked back to Manchester Piccadilly, there was a new moon in the sky, cut like half a lemon slice ready for a gin in the station pub.






Sunday, 10 June 2012

I'm sorry, Simon Amstell

Yesterday, I was reading the new 'Are You My Mother?' by Alison Bechdel, author of the marvellous graphic novel memoire Fun Home.

It absorbed me with its talk about psychoanalysis, the false self, the true self (which always tries to win out, hooray!) depression and the unmetabolized emotions we absorb from our parents. But then, I had to stop reading it in the same way I had to stop reading the diaries of Sylvia Plath, Kenneth Williams or Janice Galloway's novel The Trick is to Keep Breathing. There comes a point, a specific sentence, where a feeling of suffocation triggers this sadness or melancholy, rolling over my head like a rain-cloud, and I have to get out.

So, I decide I'll go for a walk. But, before I can leave the flat, I have to have a reason to go for a walk. As I don't have a dog to lead me out into the open, I usually pretend to need something from Sainsburys and go and buy a bottle of fizzy water or a tin of olives. This time, I think, I'll save the 80p and go and pick some thyme out my mother's garden for the roast chicken later.

'I still can't find that lead,' she says.
'For the new radio?'
'Yes, I've looked everywhere I would normally put it, but it's not there. The shed's a mess, don't even go there about the shed.' (I find it funny how she incorporates American black slang into her chat.)
'Where's the box then?'
'Threw it out. You know, I could get more batteries, because I like it being a portable radio, but then they will just run out. I should just use the lead.'
'But, you don't like the lead to show, do you?'
'No.'
'Though have you moved the radio off the fridge since you got it?'
'No.'
'Then it doesn't need to be portable, does it?'
'That's right, but still.'

We look together in the sideboard in the dining room, although she says she has already looked in all the places she would normally put such a thing. I like looking for lost things, because if you find them for someone the reward is the look of relief on their face. She offers me a bronze cast of an anonymous child's boot from the back of the cupboard to take home. I'm surprised there is anything left like that, from the old days, as for the last few years she has been clearing everything out. I have my school reports, letters I sent mum and dad from school journeys, photographs of great grandparents I never met.

Dulux Eygptian Cotton

Mum has had the front room done up.
I am standing admiring how big it looks with its warm grey walls and new limestone fireplace.
'My last front room' mum calls it, as Dad has said it was too stressful having it done and that there will not be any more redecorating in the house until after he's popped his clogs.
This sounds like it should be a joke, but it isn't.





On Friday night, I went to an Italian restaurant before seeing Simon Amstell's show Numb with my niece. I realise at seventeen years old, everything is a potential disaster for her. She was worrying about losing the tickets, not finding the venue, drinking too much Coca Cola in case she needed the toilet during the show. These little frets are her moorings. I'd forgotten how good worrying about those small things could be. So, we found the Shepherd's Bush Empire first and then sat at the restaurant opposite it, just in case it moved in the next half an hour.
As we were shown to the restaurant table, the sun came out through the square plastic awning which made an al fresco area of the pavement. My niece said it was a bit like Benidorm and I didn't know if this was good or not. The prices on the menu were so cheap that I thought we may have time travelled back to the eighties. I chose an Abracadabra Cocktail which was priced £3.
My cocktail didn't look like this
An Abracadabra was Vodka, orange, cranberry and ice cubes. Ice cubes featured largely on the cocktail list. Their strange importance harped back to the days when ice was a luxury. As the waiter brought us our drinks I had the little chat I like to do with waiters, having been one for so many years. The sun hadn't been out for two days and I said, 'Ooh, you'll have to take our picture, it's as if we're on our holidays.' My niece gave me the look. I had said one of the sentences that belong to my mother.
'Sorry,' I said, 'That was Nan wasn't it?'
She nodded and said, 'It's OK though.' I looked around the empty restaurant and said, 'She'd like it here, wouldn't she?'
My niece nodded and smiled.
The whole meal, pizza, cocktails and service came to £12.

I can hardly remember any of the comedy show, not because I was absurdly drunk or tired or that it wasn't memorable, as Simon Amstell is very funny. We were in the front row, close enough to see the follicles of his messy hair. I think it was because he was so quick with his wit. All the months he took to observe and write the show were squeezed into minutes and seconds where there wasn't enough time to mull it over. I wanted to think about what he was saying while he was saying it, like when you read a short story.
It was nearing the end of the show when I did the embarrassing thing.
I had gone into this type of trance, just watching him, when I shouted out the word 'Kleenex', loudly, like a heckle. I don't know why I did it. I've been over it a thousand times: he was asking a question, not to the audience, only to himself, but I thought I knew the answer. I don't think I shouted it so I would get a laugh, it was just more of a knee jerk thing. The part of me that I'm not really in control of wanted to join in with him. Simon Amstell just carried on as if nothing had happened, and to be fair, nothing had for him, because he hadn't heard me and was immersed in his script. This was not an interactive show. He was the light on the stage and I had paid to sit in the dark and listen. That was the deal. I think I felt invisible. I think I had had enough of feeling invisible.
Sorry Simon Amstell, I thought you'd get what I was saying if you heard.
Sorry niece.





Tuesday, 29 May 2012

On Having A Laugh


Today I am writing this from a double bed in Rye in East Sussex. Rye is Home to Benson's Mapp and Lucia, Henry James and birth place of Edward Burra who painted The Snack Bar, which is one of my favourite paintings. I love the sliding salami and the way Burra depicts the seated prostitute eating a sandwich (other painters tended to opt for the more erotic view of the French prostitutes found in 1930's Soho). The composition always makes me ponder about what the woman, paused, just outside the door, is doing.



The bed I'm reclining on is a trendy old hospital bed with a thick white bar at the end where a clean white towel has been hung. Across from me on the wall, above a pink kettle, is a print of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark which I feel attached to because someone once kindly said my writing reminded them of hers. It is also a very attractive print, and is screwed really well to the wall.


A fan is cooling my fat foot (see Naked Posing blogwhich became flat and normal for a while, but after running for a bus last week, has ballooned again. I am not ill, I am hardly ever ill, maybe because I regularly enact all the pleasurable bits about being ill. Someone waits on you, you don't have to get dressed, or feel guilty about not doing any work. So, on this mini break, I am sitting in bed at 3pm wearing my Japanese light-weight dressing gown and watching a movie with four plumped pillows cradling my shoulders. I don't have to do anything but just admire the smooth sheets all tight under me because the chamber-maid (proxy mother) pulled them really tight earlier when I went out for my savoury crepe. I have a glass of water on the bedside table and a coffee. I am ignoring the pull of the sunshine, a red triangle on my left breast got enough of that yesterday on the beach.



I am thinking about how much I love my mother. Though I never seem to be able to translate it, or show her, very well. One year when we couldn't afford our yearly trip to Spain, mum and dad hired a caravan at Camber Sands. We had to travel to Rye on the train, then get the adjoining bus to the coast which is fifteen minutes from Rye. As we killed some time in Rye, I remember dragging my feet as we walked around the cobbled streets, a sense of death coming over me as Mum oohed at the wooden beams of the fifteenth century cottages. It was only when I saw a funfair that my spirits lifted and I went on a ride though my sister refused to join in, making the experience rather a solitary one.
In Camber Sands, one night, I secretly won a pound on a fruit machine all in 2p's when I was supposed to be fetching the fish and chips. And then even better, I triumphed with first prize in a talent competition. At the age of nine it had been my largest audience so far, of over a hundred people. I performed my 'set': impressions of Janet Street Porter, Sue Ellen from 'Dallas' and Margaret Thatcher whilst wearing my mother's bi-focals. Everyone had laughed (apart from my sister) and especially my mother. My sister tells me now, the other contestants had been rubbish, because they were both under five and had merely recounted a nursery rhyme or done the dance to Michael Jackson's Thriller. The prize was a wooden pencil case with a sliding drawer which seemed the height of sophistication. Years later, when back at the same caravan park, I had my first kiss with a boy in the Camber sand dunes and I remember how I had found sand in my underwear, and it had got everywhere.



Still, I think about my mother. Last week I put something on Facebook which was not entirely true about a conversation we'd had on the phone.

"Just tried to explain to my mum what an @ is so she can get the instructions for her new fire emailed to my account. Patience needed for this one, I thought, explain it as if you're teaching French.
I ended up saying very loudly, 'Just say AT, they will know what an AT is.'"

When I met her in the street she told me off, saying I had made her look stupid. I had posted it without any thought. I had done it to make my Facebook friends laugh and give us all a boost of lightness. Looking back the entry is really about how impatient and cross I am at times. I couldn't foresee, or didn't think it through, that her sister would see the entry, then laugh about it on the phone to her later that evening. It was an easy joke to make, because mum has encouraged this kind of self-mockery all her life. Being 'green' is as much part of her personality as it once was mine, before I had to start acting less scatty, because it's not actually funny, to knock yourself by pretending to be dumber than you are. It's the opposite of wit and charm. I did it the other night in the pub, I remember. When I couldn't quite hear what the person had said I made up what I thought they had said, and repeated it back to them, sounding like a deaf granny (stop me if I ever do this to you). Being old is not funny, there's plenty of other stuff out there.

My girlfriend has knocked at the door. I do my pretending to be ill walk across the room as she comes in having a sneezing fit. She laughs at the way I'm holding my back as if I'm pregnant. That's funny isn't it? To have bowed legs and a fake puffing face. I got the laugh, not a really big one, but one that didn't hurt a fly.


Thursday, 3 May 2012

The man with the photos of his sister's mess

Last Thursday, I decide to take a vacation*. Normally I write, but I decide on a day out up the East End. The break will last about twelve hours long and I have two aims, do whatever you feel like doing when you feel like doing it and be kind to yourself. I will travel there on The Ginger Line and return on the same day. I will have a sausage roll for breakfast, wine for lunch and who knows what for dinner.

Things have gone wrong lately. Not horribly wrong like when a high wind whips away your house and leaves a pile of wet collapsed walls, but certainly not according to plan. Strangely, I feel back to myself. Maybe because a shock jump-starts the heart and brings the body into feeling present. No one has died, so everything compared to that is manageable, right? I remind myself as long as there is writing and ideas for performance, as long as that urge keeps coming, there is hope. But still the year will not turn into the one I'd planned, the one I'd told people was going to happen.
My natural impulse is to jump on a plane and get lost, but I used to get paid to do that with British Airways. And it's against the advice I'd give anyone who thinks going travelling is a sure way to help an achy heart. If the backpacker in me asked me for advice, I'd tell them this; you can change the story of who you are anywhere on any day. No, that sounds naff. I'd tell them, the thing you're trying to leave is the thing that needs to be addressed. That however you think a different landscape will make things disappear, when you come back, the old you will be there at the airport leaning on the rail in the arrivals hall with your name on a piece of card wearing that corduroy jacket that you thought you'd got rid of. You know, the one with the writerly elbow patches that you'd decided made you look the part? So I say to myself calmly in the mirror, go for your vacation in East London and come home with a lovely souvenir**.
Gillian Wearing's show is on at the Whitechapel Gallery. I've been saving it up for when I needed a day of inspiration. The adventure reminds me of the time I walked through the snow in New York to see the film The Hours or when I trekked miles in Houston to find Rothko's Chapel. These were intense emotional moments when I was trying to sort out which way to go next, and become quiet enough so that I could hear what my heart was urging me to do.

So, I get off at Whitechapel and don't know where I am. I tell the man behind the glass window at the station that I have lost my bearings and he tells me to head right. Such simplicity, I think! The market stalls along the street are being set up. A phone stall, Indian clothing, phone stall, baby grows on hangers in plastic coats. One fruit and veg display breaks the repetition. Could be abroad, I think. Nothing is really stopping me from pretending I am abroad.
I wait for my friend outside the gallery as its not open yet. An attractive woman is waiting alongside me, shaking her umbrella. Another arty type arrives, demonstrating her arty-ness with an interesting hairstyle of hair divided up into sections held with colourful bobbles. So this is where they all are on a Thursday morning. My friend arrives a little late and hugs me. She says all the clocks have stopped in Stockwell and I don't think to ask why.
Gillian Wearing's art is about masks. She specialises in getting people to reveal aspects of themselves that would normally stay hidden. Her most famous piece is where she asks people to write on a big white bit of paper something they think or are hiding. They stand behind the piece of paper, it acting like a shield and pose for the camera. It is called Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say.


In Family Portraits She poses as each of her family members in prosthetic masks, her dark eyes shining out of each portrait uniting them. To the left she is her mother, to the right, her  brother. She wears a body prosthetic, contorted for six hours during shooting the frame.

All images copyrighted to Gillian Wearing


Then there are the confessional videos in where people tell their secrets. It's a bit like Post Secret, the postcard confessional art project TED Talks - Frank Warren but more in depth. 
In 1994, Gillian Wearing places an ad in Time Out magazine: Confess all on video. Don't worry, you will be in disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian...


A man wears a prosthetic mask. It covers everything but his eyes and part of his lips. He starts by saying, today you're getting to see the internal me, people at work only get to see the external me. At the age of four he was locked in his room as his mum and dad were heavy drinkers. It used to make him late for school because they would lie in hungover and not let him out until they had come to. He got bullied at school because his parents spent all the money on drink, so he was in second hand clothes. His Alsatian was his only friend and sleeps with him in his room. The dad left and a new man appeared. The dog growled at the new man, didn't let him near the boy.
One day he got home from school and the dog wasn't there. The new man started to beat him up, pounding fists into him. He tried to drown the boy in the bath. One day he threw the boy in the Thames. The boy survived miraculously by grabbing hold of a mooring rope, though after he pretended to the Ambulance man that he'd just slipped in. He didn't know why he lied about it. The boy got older. He learnt to become top dog through bullying the bullies at school while he remained powerless at home.
Then he was in foster care. He pretended to be the carer's child when at school. He saw a photo of a family trip to America and pretended he went to America to all the school kids. He started to stand out at football, and got some attention and was asked to play for a good team by a well known footballer. But his real mum said no, that he had to concentrate on his school work. His dreams were crushed.
Then, when he was sixteen, he killed a random stranger in the street by banging their head over and over on the pavement. It made sense when you listened to the whole story, every detail leading up to that point. For the first time I could understand how someone might kill someone and it's frightening. It exposes the wilderness within, the dark violent woods, the empty black space under the bed, which we do well hiding from most of the time. We get used to covering things up as grown ups.
As the man was speaking I think how weirdly eloquent he was about it all, but then the story must have gone through his mind over and over as he sat in his cell, connecting all the pieces together.
After many years, he got out of prison and has now got a job working in a call centre. Everyone thinks he's the funny bloke in the office, the right laugh. They all want him around. He puts on a front, then goes home alone to his bedsit. He knows people won't understand the truth of his past if he tells them. Everything is built on lies, he says, because if one person gets to see that horrible little monster hidden in the cage, the people who he talks to at work wouldn't talk to him any more and he'd lose everything. It's only because of his lies and the fact he hides things that he gets to have a job, and is able to speak to people, because without that false person that he is, he knows he would have nothing at all.


Later that night, I go to the pub to meet my sister. She brings the friends along she used to work with at Barclays bank in the nineties. They all agree around the table that they hate Barclays Bank, and call it soul destroying work. I can sympathise, as I worked temporarily as a machinist in Knightsbridge for a while, buggering up millionaires accounts by typing in the wrong amount of zeros when processing cheques.
My sister's friend, Paul, has suffered from depression since he took voluntary redundancy. He is quiet and doesn't speak much nowadays. For occasional work he moves computer equipment in hospitals. As we sit there his wife speaks up for him, says he enjoys pressing the buttons to turn all the computers off, that he enjoys watching all the screens go blank as the big systems are shut down. The only time I see him animated is when he gets out his phone and shows pictures of the inside of his sister's house. He explains she earns over seventy thousand pounds a year. On his iphone he flicks through six or seven shots; inside her spare room he points out the bin bags, the old toys, the suitcases piled high on top of one another. In her kitchen he points out all the plastic containers she keeps on the surfaces. Then he shows me inside her wardrobe, the shoved jumpers, the piles of socks and a photo of a balding patch of carpet in the small bedroom. I am supposed to be shocked, I think. I realise this is his story, like someone would normally turn up at the pub with a joke, or an anecdote about work. I realise that this is all that he is able to show of himself. And when they ask how I am doing, I say I'm fine, everything is really fine.


 *I prefer the word vacation to holiday. To vacate = empty, quit, clear (good daring words).

**I bought three postcards and a half price book on self-portraiture.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

My name is Elsie

This morning I went to see my Aunty Elsie in the old people's home. I escort mum as she is having trouble seeing out of her left eye. On the way to West Croydon a bus stops alongside the tram. On the side is Stonewall's SOME PEOPLE ARE GAY. GET OVER IT! advert.
"Look at that!" I say
"What?" she says.
"The bus," I say. "On the side. See what it says?"
"Yes, a bus," she says. "I can see the bus."
I don't say anything more but just nod, thinking about the days when I would have pointed out a bus to her from my pushchair and that the bus would have been the thing I was interested in, because a bus was more than enough.

We arrive and Elsie is asleep, slumped forwards so her head is angled near her chest. There is a big cancerous growth on the balding side of her head which I can't look at. I stand on the other side where her hair is bobbed and still growing. From this point of view she looks fine. I take hold of her hand, knowing that touching is better than speaking. It brings her eyes into focus on my face. She's deaf and makes little straining noises, like she is lifting something too heavy for her wrists. The carer wheels her into a side room. Mum gets out a box of Maltesers. I pull off the cellophane as Mum says her fingers aren't working today.
I notice Elsie looks like her sister, my mum's mother, my grandmother. It's the look of being old, crumpled and tired. Her legs have lost all shape of ankle. I go into the room to fetch her cardigan and skim the row of old folks in the main room. 'This Morning' is on TV and I start praying that I don't end up sat in a room filled with sleeping strangers, watching Eamon Holmes' equivalent. But then again they probably prayed not to be old once too. I stop myself from welling up. I think how all the people look strangely alike. Then as I put Elsie's cardi over her shoulders, I notice she has painted fingernails, coral pink. The lady shuffling past hasn't had her nails done. The lady looks at me, her hair is white and in a style of post-electric shock.
"Why are you here?" she says.
"Elsie, I've come to see Elsie," I say, loudly.
"That woman over there, she's come to see her." A carer comes from round the corner and shouts into her ear. Then a man is coming out the lounge and is smiling at me, his eyes are alive and blue, as his hands push down hard on his zimmer frame.
"Hello there," he says. "I'm Bill. There was a frost last night." I smile back, wondering what is wrong with him apart from needing a bit of balance. He is mentally quick enough to be leading a fuller life than this one.

We eat Maltesers and drink tea. Mum says for me to go and find that old photo album in Elsie's bedroom. I walk through the kitchen where the man with the zimmer frame is now sat with his daughter, who has arrived with her daughter and a little boy. An Easter egg is between them on the table. On the wall there are children's paintings of houses and blue skies and big suns. Then I realise they have been done by the residents. I find Elsie's, hers is of a neat tree with a corner of blue sky. The old guy is talkative, and being funny, telling a story and his family all look relaxed, at home, as if they are relieved to have lively Dad/Granddad back at the helm. I go into Elsie's room and use the toilet. Above the sink is a laminated piece of paper. It reads:

My name is Elsie 
In the morning I like to brush my hair in front of the mirror. I will go along with what you say as long as you keep speaking to me. I like to have a choice of two outfits put out on the bed. In the evening I don't have my hair brushed. I like to be given a choice at all times. I use talc under my arms.


I am moved by the small story of her habits and how a glimpse of Elsie's spirit still shines through. When everything recognisable about a person starts to drop away, the hair, the shape, their thoughts, the cleverness, it turns out that the packaging is not anything to do with the person they were all along.

I close the door and see a picture of Elsie on her door, a smiling Elsie next to a London Underground sign. Then there is crying in the kitchen. The little boy is sobbing, wanting to go home. The old man starts to shout at the boy.
"You are a wicked, evil little boy. Wicked. Wicked." No one knows what to say to the old man whose face has changed to hatred. The mother takes the boy outside.

I go back to Elsie. We look at her photos. Her face is animated. Time passes with Maltesers being shared, then Mum and me decide we'll get the next train.
"We've got to go now," I say to Elsie. She's clearly not bothered. The carer comes to unbolt the door.
"You don't have to go," she says in a matter of fact way. I wonder what she means.
"You know, we don't have to go." I say to Mum as we walk up the drive.
"No, it's time. Did I say we're going to sign the house over to you and your sister next week?" Mum says as we walk away. "For you know when."
We go to Homebase and Mum buys a new doorbell and she buys me the Dulux paint tester pot.



Friday, 23 March 2012

Dreams of a new life

Last weekend was the opening of the 26th Lesbian and Gay Film Festival held annually at the BFI on the Southbank. Twenty years ago when I was at art college in Cardiff, I was invited up to London by one of my fine art tutors to watch the opening film. She had decided that my avant-garde black and white 16mm film I'd made entitled 'Death by Biscuit' was good enough to show at a future festival. The film consisted of a static close-up of two pairs of un-socked feet sticking out the end of a bed, with only the flickering of a TV lighting the shot. I had made the illusion of the light from the TV by flapping my hands in front of a 'red head' (technical name for a type of spot-light). The soundtrack was a script I'd written imitating the melodramatic style of a 1940's 'women's film'. The brief synopsis to the film was, a woman chokes her husband to death with ginger biscuits so she can run off with her female lover.


My tutor led me to believe that the programmers would think it was fantastic. (It turned out that my tutor thought it was my long legs that were fantastic. In a real life replay of The Graduate, she was a butch, short-haired Mrs Robinson and I was a slightly more feminine Dustin Hoffman.) 
With the film I was aiming for something subversive yet humorous. I knew the film was unclear, fragmented and possibly stupid. Anyhow, I arrived with the two film cans under my arm, dry mouthed and faint because I'd convinced myself that if they liked my film, I would be straight on the next plane to Hollywood. I panicked that I wasn't prepared for fame or success without having put in enough leg work.


At the BFI, I was led, tutor in tow, down a corridor into a small screening room, by a woman with a BFI festival pass dangling round her neck. Part of me wanted the film to be successful so I could get one of these passes, which was a hangover from never getting a Jim'll Fix It badge. I remember sitting alongside the women in the darkened room, my tutor in the middle, fretting in silence in case I was grilled about what the film meant. It finished, the programmer stood up, smiled and said thank you, yeah, great. We shook hands. Nothing happened. No phone numbers were swapped, no hint of a commission or even a pint of lager. I was relieved, I could go and stand in the bar with all the other normals, the ones who watched films and didn't have the burden of making them. It was gut-wrenchingly painful having to watch something I'd made, that wasn't good enough, get enlarged onto a screen and then watch it with strangers. I imagine its a similar feeling to watching your bandy legged, tone deaf child, tap dance and sing, then fall off the stage. 


This BFI moment reminds me of how my Mum approaches the lottery, which demonstrates how I was brought up to think about ambition. Every Saturday, Mum watches the Lotto draw live on TV and every week as the coloured balls fall down into a line along the metal rack, she holds her breath in case she wins. Every week she decides at that very moment of the numbers making themselves known, that she doesn't want to win in case it's just too much, too life changing.


Ambitious means: intended to satisfy high aspirations and therefore it is difficult to achieve. The film festival this week has inspired me to try to make another film. It's going to be digital this time. I have no idea what it will be about, but I know myself better now so it'll be a bit clearer than Death by Biscuit. I know you don't make films to make money, in the same way that you don't write books to get rich quick or you play the lottery to get a yacht. It's about dreaming up what you dare to dream and making it materialise. Its about daring yourself to write something that will change your life.



Sunday, 4 March 2012

Culty Lesbian London

The other day, I went to the wonderful Curzon Cinema Soho where I watched Martha Marcy May Marlene. It's a film about what happens to your identity when you get entangled in a cult. Without giving too much away, the main character gets called by a series of names beginning with M, therefore diluting and unravelling her sense of self. She escapes (whoops, just gave too much away) though remains fractured throughout.

Once, I changed my name to Tom. It was when I began art college, I believed no one would remember the rather suburban Karen, surely everyone would a Tom. Little did I know then it was an old slang word for a lesbian and soon I would become the Tom I had called myself. People I knew from those days still call me it today and it strangely jars if they ever call me Karen. My friends who've always known me as Karen dislike me being called Tom in their company, as if I'm suddenly not the person they've always known. I still grow hot under the collar when the two worlds collide.

I don't know much about cults but I did brush alongside a couple in the late 90's. The first I witnessed taking place at The Candy Bar, Soho. It had a successful, loyal following and was the only predominately lesbian bar in those days. But soon I realised I wasn't quite what the disciples were looking for. The group of moody-faced lesbians who hung out there didn't want to initiate a round-hipped girly girl like me. Small hips, spiky hair do's and boy trousers seemed to equal a fashionable dominant robustness and a parade of sexual steeliness that I had no hope of ever pulling off, unless I became anorexic and stopped eating garlic baguettes.

Where was the cult of the feminine lady-loving beauties with an edge, I asked myself?

My question was soon answered when I had an adventure with a group of women who lived in a house in Walthamstow. The odd thing about them was that they lived in a different era. I was asked to visit by Miss Martindale, the head-mistress of the house. I'd met her when I was a contestant in Amy Lame's (Duckie host extraordinaire) 'First Ever Lesbian Beauty Contest'. Amy was challenging the lesbian community and world at large with putting this event together and all the contestants understood and wanted to subvert the stifling dominant image of the butch Lesbiana Kingdom. We thought it was time for all shapes and shades of femaleness to come out into the open. We wanted to say, yes you can like Karen Carpenter and Julie Andrews and wear false eyelashes whilst having the desire to kiss a lady. We thought lipstick and eye shadow and females parading around as bold as drag queens (who understood that that part of our femininity was all about drag) should be released like glitter onto the masculine dominated world at large. Maybe, in a small way things shifted (although the crown did leave on a bull-dyke's head).
       
Soon after the furore of the beauty contest dissipated, Miss Martindale invited me along to one of their open evenings. They held these to recruit girls from the outside world, which she referred to as the The Pit. She told me previously that I should not wear trousers but a nice dress. She picked me up at the tube station wearing lace gloves and hat with a net veil pulled over one eye. When I entered Aristasia, as their invented world was known, a maid in a wig took the bottle of wine out my hands and brought it back in a glass decanter. Later, when I pulled out my cigarettes, the maid was called in again and the fags were removed from the box and slotted into a silver cigarette case. Any reminder of modern day living was swiftly discarded. Miss Martindale explained they lived in the 1940's or thereabouts, sometime before TV and before there was too much plastic. She asked me what I would like to be called for the evening. I chose the name Belinda Light, after the American cigarettes in the case. As we chatted on, I was encouraged to think whether Belinda Light was blonde or brunette. Blondes were weak and likely to need punishment and brunettes were the ones in charge. Though she did explain that you could possess both types of character within you. Belinda Light I figured was blonde with a surname like that.
         
During the evening we drank sherry, listened to the gramophone, and had a very long poetry reading given by a lady with a hair-lip called Alice. I felt excited, but nervous. I knew something was up when Miss Martindale left the room to change into a new persona for the third time. Early on Miss Martindale's character (true or not I wasn't sure) had been a woman in her early fifties with long oily-black hair but her third incarnation was as a young girl with pig-tails, silly and naughty. Her overacting as she bounded about the room, fluttering her eyelashes and looking to be told off made me feel nauseous. I told myself that this might be because everything was so foreign. But really, I know it now as a body signal from my stomach to say I should get my coat. But, in spite of feeling uncomfortable, I stayed, because being able to play out being someone else with a group of strangers was liberating.
       
When it was time to leave, Miss Martindale, still in her teenage persona, drove me into London. She didn't believe in seat belts as they were a sign of a law outside of Aristasia and she drove madly and too fast, overtaking cars, finally dropping me off by Nelson's Column, parking up on the pavement. As I left the car, she invited me to join the house, and I said I would think about it. I understood that once in the house I would have to cut all communication with family and friends. On the one hand I was really interested in playing with new identities, but on the other I wasn't into the corporeal punishment that I knew they all enjoyed. Miss Martindale enticed me by saying there were houses like hers in Cambridge and Paris, but they were closed to visitors. I imagined, dotted across the world, these small contained liberated universes of women changing selves as they saw fit.
       
 I went back to Penge and the phone rang repeatedly with Miss Martindale's number appearing on my answer machine. What was I so afraid of? I was autonomous, I could have left at any time I wanted. Then one day I took a deep breath and answered the call. Would you like to come and stay the weekend? She asked in her precise, posh voice. I said I was sorry, but I loved my mother too much to leave her. I would miss her cauliflower cheese, and the dog. What about walking the Cocker Spaniel? Although it was an old-fashioned answer, the phone soon stopped ringing. My Penge roots holding me safe, or, holding me back from adventure, I wasn't sure.


The documentary showing the world of Miss Martindale as it was then in 1997.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

The Ways of Lebanese Menus

In Search of Lost Time - Proust. Seven books in total. I've always wanted to read them, I even have one on my bookshelf, but I pick it up, look at the tiny print and decide for the fifth time I haven't the time because its Saturday night and I am going out. I slide the book back and convince myself I will read it one day, besides, I know a bit about it - a character eats a madeleine cake, which evokes a memory of another long ago madeleine cake. Then somehow the cake business makes me torn between two of my selves: the one who wants to stay in and know more and the other who wants to party. I tell her, who reads Proust on a Saturday night? You have on a good dress and a pair of red tights. Your hair has done the right thing. You have madeleine memories of your own to make.



I leave the flat in Penge, just as the friend I'm meeting calls to say she is leaving her house in Bromley. We've settled on meeting in the middle at a Lebanese restaurant in Beckenham. The thought of Beckenham makes me defensive. I went to school there. It was really white, well off and stiflingly suburban. David Bowie escaped as soon as he could. People from there take the mickey out of my beloved Penge. It's something to do with the word sounding like minge. I realised a long time back that the word Penge is a cross between penis and minge (coarse I know). And it's where we're all from.


The five minute bus ride from Penge takes me out of London and into Kent. Maybe times have changed. I speed into the restaurant as soon as I see my friend sat, waiting. I talk ten to the dozen, so glad to see her. Wine arrives and the waiter asks us three times if we would like to order. I keep saying not yet, sorry. He shows us a way to use the menus: face up they mean we haven't looked, one face down on top of the other means we are ready to order. It's like the world of handkerchief wearing in the back pocket. We order. The mezze arrives quickly, I eat it as quickly as it arrives, I drink and then we drink faster. We ask for another bottle before it is finished. The wind of the air-conditioning blows my hair. We finish. I ask for a traditional Libyan coffee, meaning Lebanese. The waitress doesn't seem to mind. I'm on holiday, destination misplaced.


My friend says let's go clubbing. I think of meat markets. We end up in a wine bar, I am still the prejudiced teenager, convinced that there is no place for someone like me in Beckenham. I buy drinks and get too much change back in my hand. I buy more drinks with the change as if the place is willing me on. My friend's eyes go hazy after the sambuca. She gets a cab. I sit at the bus stop and the barmaid from the wine bar is smoking in an adjacent doorway. We talk, she says she is nineteen and she doesn't know what she wants to do in life. All she knows is that it isn't what she's doing now. I ask her what she is interested in. She doesn't know. The bus swings past me. "Is that your bus?" she says. I nod. She runs in front of the bus and tries to get the driver to let me on. He won't. She brings me back in the bar. Orders me a cab. She tells me to sit down as I'm still hobbling from the last blog's injury. I have a stool of my own.  I have a place at the bar. They order me a taxi. The bouncer opens the door and winks as I leave.
I have my own madeleine memory, but it is an aubergine dip. 







Monday, 6 February 2012

Naked Posing

Last Friday I went down to Lewes to earn some pounds as a life model at the Old Grammar school. As I leave the railway bridge I fall down a step and sprain my ankle.A young girl with a side sweep presses my arm and asks if I am OK in a tone which implies I am not safe to be out alone. I limp up the hill, thinking about how there are no black people in Lewes and also wonder why I am so accident prone. I decide it is because I can never really be sure how big I actually am. I use the word big, because I am both tall and wide, though in my mind's eye I am shorter and slimmer. Bad at judging the space around me, I am like a cat without its measuring whiskers. I walk into lampposts, bump against people on trains and knock over books in the shop with my bottom. I am never sure where I end and the world really begins.


The children are all polite and courteous as you would expect from a posh private school. There is no sniggering, the type that I would have made behind my hand at their age. The teacher, Miss Dinmore, is an old art school friend of mine. I keep slipping up by calling her Jane. Miss Dinmore repeats over and over, Karen is not a series of lines, she is blocks of shadow and light. Give her weight, make us aware of her insides, draw the dimples on her thighs, look at the curve of her substantial bottom. 
Miss Dinmore makes me nicely weighty with her words. I actually begin to feel more myself than ever. It is an honour to be looked at carefully. Five minutes into the first pose, standing with hand on thigh and the magic begins to happen. I drift off, leaving the confines of my body. I think about Virginia Woolf as I am very close to her writing house which is up a side street near the school. I recall how Mrs Dalloway remembered something from her childhood by simply walking up a set of stairs. Bingo! Within minutes I have got the solution to a part of the novel that has been troubling me for weeks. I am worried that I will forget the idea as I can not move to write it down. I repeat the words over and over so that it burns into my memory. Life modelling is meditation. Being naked while standing or sitting still unchains the body and therefore the brain.  
In the break I look at their drawings. I cannot grasp anything concrete about my size. Some pupils have given me long breasts and a floppy belly and others have sliced pounds off me drawing me with small hips and girl's slender arms. In one drawing I have a beak on my face.
I fully recommend anyone to take off their clothes and stand still. Let some teenagers draw you. Let someone else try to work out your shape and size. It's a relief not to be concerned about it.