Mythbusting: changing the stories we tell ourselves

Breaking news: I don’t have a poor sense of direction; I quite like having my photograph taken. This is news indeed, as I am letting go of two myths about myself that I have believed for most of my life.

When I was 17, I got lost in Norwich. I went into a shop and, when I came out, could not remember from which direction I had walked there, and so where to meet my family. I must have found them, regained by bearings. I was just disoriented for a moment, and that one moment became a myth I believed for the next 37 years. I have worried about travelling, about finding my way when I am driving. I have planned my routes with maps and timetables, handwritten instructions annotated with buildings of note, monuments, parks, how many left turnings to count before the one I needed. All because I believed I had a terrible sense of direction, and the worst thing in the world would be to lose my way.

I returned to Norwich this year (for the first time since the great getting-lost of 1977), and noticed that it is a confusing city of one-way streets, side roads and alleyways. When I was 17, I was in a strange place and temporarily lost my way; I do not have a poor sense of direction at all.

My thinking has also been changed about having my photograph taken. When I was a child, Ted Gale, family photographer, would visit once a year and group us on the sofa like the Simpsons. I hated it so much that I once hid behind the rabbit’s cage in the garden  so I wouldn’t be in the photo. I was found, picked up and placed on the sofa and told to ‘watch the birdie’ and ‘say cheese’. They could drag a child to the sofa, but they could not make her smile. My hunched shoulders and scowl were captured for posterity in a picture too horrible to reproduce here.

Those occasions when photos were obligatory – first Holy Communion, graduation, weddings and so on –  became endurance tests. I vetted the results, found fault with my image, hid photos (they were too expensive to destroy).

So why did I, a photo-refusenik, embark on my Friends’ Gallery, a project to have my photo taken with as many friends as possible in 2014?  What’s more, I am delighted with the results. Could it be that I like having my photo taken?

Perhaps this is about control. I was forced to have my photo taken as a child, dressed in frocks that felt uncomfrotable, told to sit there, stand like that, to look happy, to smile. It was a false image, the family gathered together as one smiling, functioning unit. The reality was that my father was rarely in the same room as the rest of us. He was either working, travelling to or from work, in the pub or the bookies. My mother was mostly angry at him, clashing around in the kitchen, making meals that he often didn’t come home to eat, shouting at her children when she was really angry at my dad.

The prints on the wall framed family lies – the way my mother would have liked us to be; the image she wanted to show the world. No wonder I was a photo-refusenik; I wanted no part in those charades. No wonder this continued into adulthood – hating the formal pose, the posing on demand.

The photos for my Friends’ Gallery are at my own volition, and the friends in them having mostly been willing participants. Some have actually asked if they could be included. Only two have not been keen, one only agreeing to it as long as I do not share the photo online. I respect her point of view – the loss of control when your picture appears on Facebook, the issues over who owns those photos. Perhaps it is true, that tale about your soul being captured in a photograph, it no longer belonging to you.

Jenni and Maria

Jenni and Maria

As for me, I am happy to have a record of my friendships, an audit of the people I count as friends right now. Some are new, some go back more than 30 years. I can reflect on the stories of how we came to know one another and the things I value about them. There’s Anna, who I met at Swale Sings community choir and who likes cats and poetry as I do. There are my friends I met through writing: Anne-Marie, Maggie, Sarah, Patricia and Fiona, the last of whom I first met at the launch of my poetry book strange fruits, and has become my co-bargain-hunter on charity shopping trips . And there’s Jenni, who I first met at Thames Polytechnic in 1978. She was carrying a placard saying ‘We Need a Nursery’, having just returned from a protest march. We look similar in this photo – have we grown to look alike, or did we see something that day we met in 1978 that drew us together?

I don’t look for faults in recent photos. I used to comment that I looked old, wrinkly, fat. The ones I like best are funny, offbeat, and my favourite of all is one where the old me would point out my double chin (all right, I did notice it!). But the new me sees the joy in my expression and that of my daughter, Rachel. We are sitting on a sofa, holding hands, and in between us is my new granddaughter Caitlin, just 3 weeks old.  A new generation of sofa photos, but no-one will be forced into best clothes, to smile against their will (or not), or to look at any offending photos framed on the wall for the rest of their lives.

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