A Grammar School Girl: assimilated, not converted

Grammar schools: a leg-up onto the social mobility ladder for poorer children, or a kick down for those unable to pass a test at the age of eleven? They are back on the political agenda, placed there by grammar school girl, Theresa May. In Kent, where I live, they never went away.

rosebery-class-2hI, too, was a grammar school girl, from 1971 to 1976. I lived on a council estate, just a few yards from the back gate to Rosebery County Grammar School for Girls. My daily walk to school was via the tradesmen’s entrance. I was the only girl from my estate that took that walk. There were only two of us singled out by the 11 plus test – me and Peter Mann, who had gone to the boys’ grammar a year or so before me. My brother followed him a few years later. We were oddities. Our elevation made us different, other; admired and reviled by the world we were brought up in.

My mum was a cleaner at the grammar school that I went to, and she also cleaned for a woman, Mrs S., in one of the big houses nearby. Mum was so proud when I got my place at Rosebery, the very same school that her employer’s daughter went to. I went cleaning with Mum during a school holiday. There were earthenware cups and saucers, and a bowl of brown sugar for the coffee we had in the lovely kitchen before starting on the bedrooms. Mrs S. came into the kitchen, and Mum told her that I had got into Rosebery. Her distaste was barely disguised. The daughter of her ‘lady that does’ getting into Rosebery? She just about managed a ‘Well done,’ before scurrying off.

I was excited about going to the school. It was a stretch, I am sure, to kit me out. I didn’t have everything I should have done. I remember not having the blue Songs of Praise hymnbook, and being told week after week that I must get my mother to buy a copy. We were supposed to have colouring pencils for Geography; I had wax crayons, which resulted in remarks on my homework about the need to have the right equipment.  The feeling grew, as time went on, that I did not belong. I found a small group of friends who were also, in some ways, outsiders, and we survived. Most of us left before the sixth form, for the freedom of a local F.E. college.

I am one of five children. Two went to grammar, three to secondary moderns. We studied different subjects. In many ways, they were more prepared for the world of work, since the grammar didn’t teach typing or secretarial skills. But they were also steered towards certain, traditionally working-class careers. My two sisters (one with undiagnosed dyslexia, the other in hospital for long periods during her childhood) did not pass the 11 plus exam. They went on to gain university degrees in their forties and fifties; university was not suggested to them in their teens, let alone staying on at school beyond the age of 16. Only grammar school children did that.

When it came to choosing schools for my own daughters, I was filled with anxiety. My eldest passed the Kent Test to gain a place at grammar school, but as my own experience of grammar had not been good, I was in two minds. I sat with the other parents at an open day, on the verge of a panic attack. What should we do for the best? The school was smaller than the other schools we had considered. My girl would probably do better in that environment. In the end, both daughters went to grammar; both escaped for the freedom of an F.E. college instead of the sixth form.

There was a school reunion a few weeks ago. I decided not to go, as some memories  – both of school and of my home life while I was there – are best left in the past. It has been fun, though, to see some of the old photos posted on a Facebook group. To see faces I still recognise, forty years older, at the get-together.

There is a photograph of Class 2H, which embodies my experience at Rosebery County Grammar School for Girls. I am sitting next to the teacher, the lovely Mr Stokes, who was the kindest form teacher ever. I have a class prefect’s badge pinned to my tie. I so wanted to help, to be good, to do well. My feet are tucked behind the chair legs. This is because I had holes in the top of my shoes, where my big toes had poked through the cheap patent leather. I wore those shoes to school for a long time, as there was no money to buy me new ones.

My time at grammar left me with a feeling of being a fraud, that I did not really belong there. Although I did go on to higher education, that feeling remained with me. This place, that kind of education, was not for the likes of me. I even felt like this when I returned to study in my forties, to do an MA.

I read something recently about Mr Spock from Star Trek. Half human, half Vulcan, he lived amongst humans on the Starship Enterprise, assimilated but not converted. That is how I felt, being plucked from my friends and background into an alien world.

Now there are more than Fifty Ways to Leave

We’ve all had break-ups. There’s the ‘It’s not you, it’s me’ scenario; there is often blame and recriminations of the other party, sometimes self-blame, whereby we examine what we have done wrong. There is usually some discussion, argument, sorting out of stuff – who owns the CDs, who gets custody of children and pets, a splitting of finances.

But what about friendships? In these days of social media, cut-offs can be swift and devastating. How easy it is to ‘unfriend’, to ‘block’ without discussion, leaving things unsaid, things unsorted.

When I think of friends I’ve left behind, they fall into different camps. We have moved apart physically, geographically, changed jobs, changed schools, just don’t get the chance to hang out anymore. I had my children when I was young, and lost many friends who were getting started on their careers whilst I was negotiating nappies. Natural progressions, my former mental health nurse called it when I mourned people I was losing at a time of great change, when chronic illness came into my life. I used to find it harder to let go than I do now.

There are friendships that end in a row. In hindsight, there were things wrong with those friendships from the start. I’ve examined why those people and I became involved. Was it that circumstances pushed us together when we had little in common? Were those things we had in common harmful?

Some friendships end with confusion. A friend I had been close to for many years suddenly starved me of contact. My emails, phone calls and texts all went unanswered. There was no incident before this, no indication of what was to come. Six or so years after she broke contact, I remain baffled as to what I might have done. It was painful for a long time, then I became angry. It was cruel to treat a friend that way. I deserved an explanation.

I am an explainer. I broke up with a very long term friend once. He had been around for so long, I accepted how things were between us, until new friends said, ‘Why do you let him treat you that way?’ I’d shrugged off some very unacceptable behaviour in the past, but when I came to look at your relationship, I actually didn’t like having him around. So I wrote to him and effectively ‘broke-up’ with him. He was hurt and didn’t see what he had done wrong, but there was no other way to do it.

Recently, I ‘unfriended’ someone on Facebook. Someone I have been fond of, but their comments on my threads were so much in opposition to my own thinking I couldn’t tolerate them anymore. Attempts at discussion went nowhere. It helps that I rarely see this person in real life; I know it will be awkward when I do.

I have been ‘unfriended’ twice in recent weeks, each time without discussion, though I can guess at the reasons. Both ‘unfriends’ are people I know very well, in whom I have confided in real life, and they have confided in me. These are acts of hurt and anger, which feel irreparable. In days gone by, they might have slammed doors or slammed down phones, or perhaps not spoken of their hurts. They might have kept away for a while; we would have made it up. But there is something final about wondering where your friend has gone, the friend that always ‘Liked’ or commented on your Facebook posts, only to discover that you have been ‘unfriended’, even blocked.

I can psychologise here. Perhaps these people grew up in atmospheres where it was not safe to discuss things openly. Perhaps there is a family history of cutting people off. Indeed, this is the case in my own family – aunts not spoken to for twenty years, people ignored in the street. It’s a strategy I have used, a learned strategy. Self-protection was an issue in some instances; in others, a lack of self-awareness as to what I was doing. It’s never to late to say sorry, I have found, and some of my previously cut off relationships have been restored, years after a break. True friends forgive.

Paul Simon wrote ‘There are fifty ways to leave your lover’. With social media and texts, there are even more. Separation and divorce involve a painful division of possessions, shared space, shared bodies. Friendship break-ups could, perhaps, go through the same process. It would help with the grief, allow people to eventually pass in the street, to think that was someone I was once close to, to wave and move on.

Rip it up and start again

When I was seventeen, my German penfriend, Elke, sent me a page a day diary. It had a green leatherette cover, and she later sent me a pretty notebook, with a Chinese design on the cover, And so began the habit of keeping a journal. My recollection is of not writing in it for several days, then filling pages when I felt a bit down. I remembering recording watching the Fonz on Happy Days (appointment television in the days of three channels), or that I had seen the boy I fancied looking out of the window of his office, several floors up, as I walked to college. He had blonde, short hair, and I only ever saw him from a distance as I passed the telephone exchange opposite his building. Yet I built up a private fantasy about him, shared only with my journal. Now I think of it, he was always standing at that window when I passed. Perhaps he wrote about me in his journal.

Research or a notebook obsession?

Research or a notebook obsession?

My mother was not one for respecting privacy, so I kept my diary with me at all times, and slept with it under my pillow. No one read it but me.

My diary habit stopped when I left home, a week after my 19th birthday. I can’t remember why. Perhaps there was too much going on, little time outside of studying and socialising in my first year at Thames Poly. I didn’t start again until I was 40, a gap of over 20 years. Illness had forced me stop work, and I was adrift; I felt like I had lost my identity.

I was out with a friend when I saw a notebook I liked. It was A5 spiral bound with a picture of a parrot on the cover. ‘Let me get that for you,’ she said, and out of nowhere, I started writing poetry in that book, and keeping a diary.

It became a thing that I only wrote in notebooks  that other people had given me. As I took on a new love, a new identity as a writer, the notebooks filled and accumulated. By this summer, with only one notebook cull since I began writing (again) in 2000, I had two large boxes full of notebooks, plus a pile on my desk awaiting a second read.

Faced with moving house, and the prospect of someone having to deal with my journals when I die (yes, I do think about such things), I decided to destroy them. I don’t think anyone else has read them. When my daughters were living with me, they didn’t seem interested. Current journals were left on coffee tables and never picked up by them. When I met the man who is now my husband, I said that he was not to read them, and he has respected that.

Over the years, I have read each one again, a while after completing them, to see if there was any material to develop into poems, stories or blog pieces. They have then been stored away. I saw no reason to read them again before destroying them, and I drew in the support of a friend to help me. ‘Are you sure; are you really sure?’ she said before and during the ripping, cutting and shredding. Writer friends on Facebook asked the same question. It seemed drastic, they said. But I was and am sure, and the hours we spent in my writing shed, going through the repetitive actions of notebook destruction, left me lighter. It also made me realise what a huge task this would have been for someone after my death. I have it written into my will that I want my notebooks destroyed without being read.

The paper filled a builder’s bucket and two black sacks, which have gone to be recycled. I picked out some shreds, read some words and phrases from the remains of the journals. My eyes fell on sentences as I tore pages out, which threw me back to certain people, certain times. But I was not drawn into reading further.

I don’t know where I shall write or where we shall be when we move. I’ve had the good fortune to have my own room, in a converted shed, for the past six years, and it’s doubtful that I’ll have that luxury again. I may have space for a desk, or it may be that the kitchen table becomes my space. I may become a cafe writer, as I used to be, or someone who writes on trains and buses.

There will be new journals, new gifts of notebooks at birthdays and Christmas. These will fill and be kept again, until the next cull. All that shredded paper, that’s the past. The future is ahead of me, with new notebooks to fill.

Saying goodbye to Biscuit

When you have an old cat, you know they are on borrowed time. One day, you have to make that phone call, get the pet carrier from the shed. Your cat doesn’t struggle so much as they used to when you lift them in, though they do cry a little. You have that conversation with the vet who has known her for nearly eight years, with the nurse who recognises your voice when you phone to order your cat’s food. You know what the conversation will be. You are ready for it. You sign a form. You stay with the creature, now twenty-one years old, who has been your friend for the last thirteen years of your life. You owe it to her. The vet is kind; the nurses equally so. They apologise when they offer the card machine to enter your PIN number. They offer tissues. They say to take it easy today. You leave with an empty pet carrier and your dear friend’s purple velvet collar.

Biscuit enjoys her new blanket

Biscuit enjoys her new blanket

There are people to tell – your children, now grown, who once lived with her and now have their own homes and cats of their own. The neighbour who, just a week ago, looked in on her and fed her when you were away. The friend who once stayed for a week to do the same. Then Facebook, you tell Facebook, and you know there are at least three people you know who have had to say goodbye to their dear friends in the past few weeks. You are not alone.

There’s the clearing away of things: her little fleece blanket on the sofa; the fur-covered cushion on the chair by the window; her food and water bowls; the stick with feathers on that she still played with up to a week before she died; the litter tray; the litter; her bag of food in the cupboard; the treats that she loved so much you wrote ‘Kitty crack’ on the shopping list each week.

You know it was the right thing to do, that it would have been wrong to put her through any more, and yet…

The next day, and the day after that, she is not on her spot on the sofa, she is not on her chair by the window, she is not getting under your feet in the kitchen, she is not crying her unbelievably loud cry at all hours of the day and night, she is not lying on your legs when you stretch out on the sofa, she is not stretching out her paw to rest on the TV remote control, occasionally changing channels or bringing up strange information boxes on the screen, she is not sitting out in the sun or taking a slow walk round the orchard, stopping to sniff at things.

You fill out a form. It asks if you own a pet. You click No.

Nostalgia – a longing for a past that is not our own

“I heard the news today, oh boy…” of the death of George Martin. The cacophony at the end of The Beatles’ ‘A Day in the Life’ is magnificent, and I was hoping to hear that; the track that BBC 6 Music chose to play first, though, was ‘In My Life’, a nostalgic song.

I have been thinking about nostalgia recently, with the loss of so many of my cultural heroes this year. Also, because I was involved in the production of a poetry collection about the experiences and memorials of soldiers in World War I – Memorandum: Poems for the Fallen by Vanessa Gebbie. It’s an immensely moving collection, which brought me to tears more than once as I was editing it. It has also brought a rush of responses from readers, the poems resounding with their own family histories. It’s interesting to me, as it is a kind of removed history. My parents arrived in England from Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s, and although my father arrived in 1944, and later did National Service in England, Ireland was neutral during the war. My family’s war experiences were different from those of an English, or in Vanessa Gebbie’s case, Welsh, family.

There is a photograph that sits on the cover of my cousin’s pamphlet, The Men from North Clare and the Great War 1914-1918, by Guss O’Halloran. It is of Pte Patrick O’Halloran, 1st Battalion Connacht Rangers, saying goodbye to his sister Bridget and mother Mary at Ennistymon Railway Station early in 1914. He died at the 2nd battle of Ypres the following year. It is an intensely moving picture. Bridget is avoiding Patrick’s gaze as they hold hands; he is leaning out of the train window, she is on the platform. Patrick looks a lot like my cousin Guss. Mary’s face is obscured by Bridget, though her sorrow must have been as great. Guss has written ‘The Last Goodbye’ across the photograph. It can be viewed, along with the pamphlet, as a PDF on the Clare Library website: The Men from North Clare and the Great War 1914-1918

I didn’t know these people, nor know of them till recent years. Nor did I know of the part that Irish soldiers played in the conflict until I read Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way. And being raised in an Irish family in England, I was steeped in  nostalgia that was not from my own past, my own experiences. When Irish friends and family came round, there would be singing and the playing of records of sentimental songs about Ireland; the homesickness in the room would be palpable. An immense sadness, a longing for their homeland. It is not surprising that the origin of the word nostalgia is expressed in terms of pain. From the Concise OED:

Nostalgia – n. a sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past … acute homesickness, from the Greek nostos “return home” and algos “pain”.

We are suckers for nostalgia, from the ubiquitous Keep Calm and Carry On posters to Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife. I must confess to watching the latter – largely undemanding, at times moving, and depicting the time when I was born and was an infant. It does feel like my past – the clothes the children wear being those I see in old photos of me and my family.

Leslie Ronald Harding, photo with kind permission of Jacquie Kirby

Leslie Ronald Harding, photo with kind permission of Jacquie Kirby

I am currently working on a poem based on a photo of a boy to whom I have no connection. A friend pointed it out to me on Facebook, knowing that I have been writing about the decline of the orchards in Kent. I have had some contact with the person that posted it – it’s of her uncle as a child, leaning on a cherry ladder in the now-felled orchard down the road from where I live. It was taken sometime between 1914 and 1920, she thinks, and I became a little obsessed with finding out about him. His history is not mine, nor the history of the orchards. I only moved to this part of Kent in 2008. It is not as if I grew up with the sight of sheep grazing beneath fruit trees, nor did my family occupy cherry orchards for a few weeks each summer to pick the fruit. Yet I am sad that these things are disappearing.

I wonder what it would be like to live in the present, to be concerned only with what is going on now, not to pine for a past that is not mine, not ours.

I do think that being an outsider helps us to see things more clearly, to record them. Being neither fully Irish nor English has given me an outsider’s view, standing aside and watching, not fully engaged with a nostalgia that is not mine to own.

Walking, walking; writing, writing

On a cold Valentine’s evening, in a room above a pub where the old sash windows didn’t quite close, I heard Katherine Pierpoint and John Gallas read poetry. The week before, I went to the University of Kent to hear Katharine Norbury read from The Fish Ladder, her superb memoir, which was one of my favourite reads of 2015. What links all three, and got me thinking, is that travelling inspires their writing.

Katherine Pierpoint talked about winning a Somerset Maugham Award, which had to be spent on travelling, then read some poems, and recounted some tales, from her trips to India and Egypt. John Gallas – well, he just keeps moving, and the poems he read ranged from New Zealand to The Alphabet of Ugly Animals, which he wrote after seeing an exhibition at the Turner Contemporary, Margate. He has also worked on a book of translated poems from around the world, The Song Atlas, and read one from Tanzania.

Katharine Norbury walked and walked from the sea to the source of water. Will Self, he’s another one: walking, walking; writing, writing. And I wondered if there was something missing from my experiences, from my writing, because I haven’t been very far at all.

My writing came from enforced inactivity. It started a year into my illness, at a time where I hardly left the house. Journeys were short, and the I was only able to be away from the house for an hour or two. This is still the case, sixteen years on. I haven’t spent a night away from home in a year. I nearly did – to go away to a wedding – but I crashed the day before, and knew I couldn’t make the journey.

Yesterday, I went on a short trip alone. A ten minute walk to the station, a train ride of less than half an hour, and a wander round Rochester, where I used to live. It’s familiar, yet changing. The shops change ownership, a cafe where I used to write every Sunday morning has changed names twice since I moved away, and has knocked through to the next shop. Even the railway station has moved a few hundred yards from the old one, which stands strangely empty as we roll towards the new one, the waiting rooms and shelters levelled, just a sign saying ‘Do Not Alight Here’.

The wild orchards near Newington

I am not alone often when I go out, but felt the need to undertake this bold expedition by myself. I notice things more when I am not in company. The wild orchards that border the track between Newington and Rainham; the passenger waiting on the platform in a thick puffa jacket, glasses tinted black on a bitterly cold day; a little girl in the next toilet stall with her mum, telling on Leah, who had ‘pulled all the tissue out and just thrown it on the floor, and that was a waste of tissue, wasn’t in Nanna?’ Nanna was in the next stall along from her. The small child in the Oxfam shop, who declared she was going to ‘inspect stuff’: ‘Hmm, this a very comfy chair’. How different the Cathedral looks from the platform of the new station, the perspex and metal shelters on the opposite platform obscuring the view. How cold the fingers of my right hand, texting my husband to ask him to pick me up at the station on the way home.

At the weekend, I’d heard Guy Garvey on the radio, at the BBC 6 Music festival, talking about living in New York for a year, and how being away had fed his songwriting. Again, the importance of travel to an artist. I listened to Guy Garvey’s solo album on my iPod on the way back from Rochester. I’d heard it a few times at home, whilst on my computer, my phone, reading, talking to my husband. I hadn’t really heard it at all. On the train, it was just me and Guy and the music, and staring out of the train window.

Perhaps it’s being alone that creates the experience, and travelling doesn’t need to be that far. My orchard poems, on Wandering Words, and new ones being written, started when I felt bereft after finishing my story collection. I wrote about what I could see from the window of my writing shed, as a filler-in thing, till the next writing project found me. They became that project. Like the shops and cafes of Rochester, the orchards are changing, disappearing. Here is a new poem – or perhaps two, about the boats that are docked on the orchard that backs on to our garden.

Dry Dock

A catamaran

upturned on trestles

a milk jug draining


And now there are three

hour     minute     second     hands

stilled round the dead tree


Photo by Stephen Palmer

On a car ride from Faversham to home, I was shocked to see that most of an old cherry orchard had been chopped down; the second such orchard that has disappeared in the last two years. Last summer, we bought cherries from a stall in that orchard. A young woman was selling them, her toddler in a playpen under a tree, and a babe in arms, just ten days old. We asked what kind of cherries we bought each time – Napoleon Biggereau, Sunburst, Merton Glory. We bought some on the very last day the stall was open, on my way to an event where I read my poem ‘Know your cherries’. I used them as a prop, then shared them with my granddaughter. She accepted them silently, seriously, while the other poets read. The juice dripped down her chin.

Heroes – Common People like Jarvis Cocker

If asked to create a Top 10 favourite songs of all time, I would decline. It would never remain the same. But if pushed, Pulp’s ‘Common People’ would be up there every time. Jarvis Cocker’s story of a posh girl wanting to slum it, to “live like common people”. He tells her to “rent a flat above a shop, cut your hair and get a job” to “pretend you’ve got no money”. Jarvis came from common people and so did I – thrown into the world of ‘college’ as we called it then (Thames Poly in my case) from a working class family that lived in a council house, the first in any generation to go on to further and higher education. I didn’t cut my hair, but I did get a job – several jobs – to see me through teenage years and college holidays.

‘Common People’ is on the album Different Class. It’s in my Top 10 albums, too (if forced to list those). It got me through a year of immense change in my life. It has a choice of album covers that you can slip into a frame. The main one was a wedding group photo, and this reflected my early marriage, a week before my 21st birthday. Some of the songs I could directly identify with, like ‘Misshapes’ – about those of us who didn’t quite fit in with the kids on our estate, about the boys at risk of being beaten up for being different. Like ‘Live Bed Show’ – “she doesn’t want to go to work, she doesn’t want to stay in bed.” As for other songs, I could only imagine what it would be like to be one of “twenty thousand people standing in a field”, having left my festival days behind, having never been to a rave, in fact being a thirty-six-year-old mother of two in a failing marriage. Let’s brush over the fact that Jarvis may have been ‘a bit of a perv,’ as a friend of mine put it at the time – hiding in wardrobes, watching girls. Let’s not examine that I got my young daughters singing along to ‘Sorted for Es and Whizz’ in the car. I relate that song to rushing to school in the car, crossing Rochester Bridge, knowing whether we were late or on time by how far the barber who worked in Strood had progressed across the bridge on foot, in the opposite direction to where we were travelling.

I once wrote Jarvis a fan letter. I sent it by email to his BBC 6Music Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service programme. It was probably never read by him, dismissed by some intern as the ramblings of a crazy middle-aged woman. But it was the writing of it that was important. I needed to tell Jarvis that he had got me through a marriage break-up, the most difficult year of my life. That I could still ‘dance and drink’ (‘and screw’) like common people in spite of all the pain.

I was asked by someone what I blog about. ‘Oh, all sorts of things, ‘ I said, struggling for a theme. I didn’t start blogging with the intention of it being ‘about’ anything – just things that interest me, that fire me, that get my goat, that make me feel. My first blog of 2016 was about a musical hero – David Bowie – and I think I shall carry in that vein, making Heroes an occasional theme. Stay tuned for the next hero. Or for the next thing that fires me, makes me feel.

Oh no love, you’re not alone. Remembering David Bowie

I started writing this post some months ago. It sat half-finished in a notebook, the flow interrupted by the train journey, on which I was writing, coming to an end. I kept meaning to finish it, get it up on this blog, but it seemed like there would always be time.

IMG_0053The news of the death of David Bowie came two days ago, on waking, announced on Radio 4. Sleepless during the night, I had put the radio on, then fallen back to sleep, waking again just before 7.00 a.m. Then the news. Mishearing it as David Byrne at first, then the true name was unmistakable. There is – was – only one David Bowie. Switching to 6 Music, in floods of tears, Shaun Keaveny and Matt Everitt sounded so shocked, knocked sideways, and then came a day of Bowie songs, the airwaves taken over by his music, stories of in-the-flesh encounters and, for most of us, the personal relationship we had with Bowie and his music, him talking to us in our bedrooms, alone or with friends. For a man who was so protective of his private self, who presented several public persona, we all knew him. He made us feel part of it: “Oh no love, you’re not alone,” he sang, shouted out, in ‘Rock and Roll Suicide’, and we felt that someone understood.

I could not bear to write this  post on the day I learned of his death. The day was lost in tears and and disbelief. But here is what I wrote in my notebook, dated 8/6/15. I present it here unedited:

Our all girls grammar school was decidedly liberal about some things. The compulsory wearing of hats was abolished in our second year (bottle green, round felt in winter; straw boaters in summer). We could wear any style of skirt we liked, as long as it was bottle green. And the decorating of form rooms was allowed by some teachers.

In Class 2H, 1972-73, we had Mr Stokes as our form teacher. Tall, lugubrious, bearded, in a dark pin-striped three piece suit with a watch chain stretching between his waistcoat pockets, we thought we were in for a no-fun year. Mr Stokes turned out to be a sweetie. He won us over with chocolate treats at Christmas and Easter, and by allowing posters on the back wall of Room H. One of these was a double page of Bowie from a teen magazine. Some years away from being named the Thin White Duke, he was super-skinny, hair razor-cut and orange, pale-skinned, made-up, and wearing a kind of short knitted jumpsuit with leggings of the same orange and red stripes. ‘Snow-white tan,’ like Ziggy Stardust. He wasn’t looking out at us, as David Cassidy was, on the same wall, wholesome and pretty, or Michael Jackson, in the days before plastic surgery and skin bleach. He was facing right, half-crouched in performance.

David Bowie was exotic, alien, strange, yet an ordinary boy from Bromley. We thought, in those days, that he wore a coloured contact lens to make one eye look different. I learned only this week that his unusually large pupil, diminished iris, was the result of a playground accident. But then there were, and remain, so many secrets, so much misinformation about this enigmatic singer, performer, composer, actor.

What I can say is, in 1973, he was the most exciting thing on my horizon. If I could get away with watching Top of the Pops (my mum said it was ‘pure rubbish’), he might appear singing ‘Life on Mars’, strangely contorted and with bad dentistry, and absolutely mesmerising to my 13-year-old self.

There was a cabinet at the top of one the staircases at school, which was given over to different classes to make displays, and our theme was Life on Mars. We hadn’t quite got the meaning of the song, so took the title literally, and created a planet surface populated by little rubber aliens that you could buy from sweet shops, with holes in the bottom to balance them on fingers or use as pencil tops.

David Bowie’s songs and albums bring back such memories, such feelings. I remember the track listings of The Fall and Rise of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and Aladdin Sane, which I still own on vinyl. with stickers of my name and address on, for when I took them to parties. One person was not so careful, and I accidentally came home from a party with two copies of Ziggy Stardust, unable to reunite it with its owner.

Diamond Dogs, borrowed from a friend, reminds me of the death of another friend. I had been listening to it constantly during her short illness and following her death, and can now no longer bear to hear it. I can’t see the cover, or hear the opening track, without being thrown back 40 years to that time, that grief.

David Bowie, and other music of that era, is associated with seminal moments, suicidal thoughts, feelings of sorrow and embarrassment, first kisses, love, betrayal, and the Sunday boredom of ’70s teenagehood.

There the notebook entry ended. Thank you, David Bowie, for making me feel like I was not alone. May you rest in peace.

Free lunches, or the freedom of the freelance life?

Nearly seven years ago, my husband came home from work one day and said, ‘I don’t think I can work under her for much longer,’ meaning his line manager. Nine months prior to this, we had taken on a mortgage on the basis of his salary. Some nine months after this moment, we agreed that he should resign from the job, after several months off work with anxiety and depression. His supervisor had been micro-managing him, finding fault at every opportunity. The last straw was an appraisal, filled with negative feedback, which he was then asked to write up.

Work-based counselling, talk of mediation – any benefits were cancelled out when, on a phased return to work, the first thing she asked of him was to complete the appraisal process. The very thing that his counsellor said should not be raised at this time, as it was the trigger for his illness. We realised that there would be no positive changes as long as he worked under this manager. The only way was out.

So, for some five years plus, my husband has been working freelance, pursuing the work he loves – commissioning and editing books. (The paid employment had not been so interesting, editing examination questions.) The work is often speculative, and there is no income while book projects are in development; they may or may not be taken up by publishers. In short, some of the work does not pay at all. And outlets for the kind of books that he commissions are in decline, with some of the big players pulling out of that area of publishing (Science, Technical and Medical). When he does get a book accepted, or does a piece of editorial work, it often takes several months of chasing up invoices to receive the money.

He has no sick pay, no holiday pay as a freelancer, even on some of the long-term contracts. He has worked through sickness, and if we have taken a holiday, it has been in the knowledge that there would be no money coming in that week.  One ’employer’ ended his contract the same day as he sent notice of termination, with no financial recompense; he had worked for this publisher for eighteen months. Legally, the contract should have been on a direct employment basis, as regular work of the same kind for the same employer. He should have received the same rights as an employee, but who would argue this point when the work could easily go to another freelancer? We had discussed approaching the publisher about this, to put my husband’s work on a more permanent footing. Then came the termination notice. He saw a solicitor about pay in lieu of notice – the contract gave two months. The employer said that he was giving this notice, but had no work for my husband during this time, and payment was only due for work actually carried out. The solicitor thought my husband had a case, but when he approached the employer with this information, asking for two months’ pay, the scoundrel threatened him with bad-mouthing his work publicly.

As for myself, I have worked in a very stressful environment and found it hard to stop the speeding waltzer that was my working life. It felt more dangerous to jump off than to cling on tight and carry on. I was brought to a halt by ill health. That was sixteen years ago, and despite periods of extreme poverty (as a single parent on sickness and disability benefits), and relative poverty (still on benefits, married to a freelancer, growing older, and with a mortgage outstanding), I would not go back to that life, employed and relatively well off financially, impoverished in health and leisure time.

Were we right, my husband and I, to decide that he should resign from that job? From sick and holiday pay, from the free lunches (no such thing as…) in the staff dining room, a perk of that job? Hell, yes! He now chooses his work, his hours, his commute is from the living room to his study, in the cellar. If we want to  go off to the seaside on a summer’s day, he can decide to do that. He is free to pursue his music, to potter in his shed, to spend time with our granddaughter. The lunches might not be so good, but he can eat them in his armchair, in my company.

Every so often, we have ‘the conversation’ about whether he should apply for jobs in London, which would bring in twice his freelance income. The money seems attractive. The commute, about three hours per day, the unknown nature of management, the fact that he reaches sixty this month, and deserves to be slowing down … it’s a no-brainer.

Wellbeing versus a reasonable income – it shouldn’t be a choice. And low income, money worries, can affect your wellbeing. My closest friends and family regularly listen to me talk about money, the lack of it, particularly when unexpected expenses come up. We recently had a leaky roof. Rain was dripping through the bedroom ceiling onto the bed. We were bailed out by a loan from a friend to pay a roofer, spared some of the cost by using a scaffolding platform owned by another friend. We often wonder if we can carry on living in our house, whether we should sell it and rent another property. One friend reminded me that she had heard me say this before, a couple of years previously, and yet we were still there.

We begin 2016 overdrawn, like many people. In 2015, we borrowed off Peter to pay Paul, so that we could keep up with the mortgage. It’s something I learned from working alongside a debt advice service – meet your housing costs before anything else. Holidays were dropped, as were meals out, takeaways, concert tickets, gym memberships. It’s felt grim sometimes, but we are better off than some.

Hopping Down In Kent. Freelancer Bob Carling, on guitar.  Area 51 Photography

Hopping Down In Kent. Freelancer Bob Carling, on guitar. Area 51 Photography

On New Year’s Day, we went for a walk, ending up at a pub. ‘Let’s pretend we are rich people, ‘ I said, and we had lunch at the pub, toasted the new year. And remembered the amazing things we had achieved in the last year: publishing eleven books with Cultured Llama, my husband producing Hopping Down in Kent, a community-based folk opera from scratch, in less than three months. And we were thankful for our families, friends, and the freedom of the freelance life.

Bob Carling is a freelance commissioning editor, editorial consultant, publisher, science journalist, and typographical designer. He is also Managing Editor of Cultured Llama Publishing. See his website here.

Bring your own tent? Why I’m taking a break from the literary world

Three months ago, overwhelmed by many things, I resolved to take a break from public readings. I had got into a habit of saying yes to every invitation to read, perform and organise literary events, and felt obliged to go along and support others in their artistic endeavours. I had become jaded with it all, and while some invitations to read were beautifully hosted, the last straw was when I was invited to read at an outdoor event. I had kept the date free, which was on a bank holiday weekend. Given my health problems, a ten to twenty minute spot in the afternoon meant that I had to keep the whole day free, resting before and afterwards.

A few days before, I checked with the person who had invited me to read – the organising committee had changed the time of the reading to much later in the afternoon, without telling me, and two reading spots had become one. He then said I could bring my tent along in the morning, set it up, and sit there all afternoon alongside my books. I made it clear that I had been invited to do this reading and expected tent, table, chair and PA system to be made available to me, and that I would only be there for the reading. I was grumpy throughout the afternoon, and though I did deliver a reading (alongside another grumpy poet who had been similarly treated), I didn’t enjoy it and wondered why I had turned up at all.

Filling up journals is the way to go

Filling up journals is the way to go

So I stopped readings altogether, and also held back on submitting my writing to magazines and e-zines. After winning the Tom-Gallon Trust Award in the summer, I hadn’t been able to place a thing. Rejection after humbling rejection arrived. The high of publication and awards is short-lived, and only leaves me craving more, so I reminded myself of why I began writing. As a way of dealing with a life-changing and devastating illness. So I have gone back to writing as nurturing, sharing my words mostly with my journal, only attending writing events that add to my own wellbeing.

I am learning to not feel guilty about declining or ignoring invitations to others’ literary events. Facebook is a demon for this – I find it easier to ignore a notification telling me I have 15 event invitations rather than to pick through them, responding with apologies and explanations.

After a while comes the temptation to start it all again – in fact, I have had new ideas for adding more into my literary and organising life. This is old stuff for me: over-commitment, getting excited by new projects without regard to the consequences to my health. I have to remind myself that the break from it all is doing me good, whilst not being an absolutist. I am the child of an alcoholic – we tend to have an all or nothing approach. I have made a small submission for publication this month, and shall wait to see if it is accepted. I have also agreed to review a new poetry book, which is something I do rarely, and I am looking forward to doing that.

Although I have enough material now for a second collection of poetry, I am holding back on planning publication, and working instead on a collaboration with an artist. We have no funding for this, nor any goals or end in mind; we are just exchanging work-in-progress by snail mail and seeing what happens.

If you are interested in writing and wellbeing and live in the Canterbury area, there are poetry workshops with Vicky Field and journalling sessions with Canterbury laureate John Siddique starting in January with Wise Words. Read their latest newsletter here. Many events are free.

Read my article: Low energy high creativity – discovering writing through chronic illness, originally published in Writing in Education, 62, Spring 2014.

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