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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.