My ten year old granddaughter tells us her news from the back seat of the car. She’s seen something new, and it’s the best thing she’s ever seen. Doctor Who, the first episode of the first series, she tells us. William Hartnell, I think, wondering what she makes of television from 1963; but no, she means Christopher Eccleston, the ninth Doctor. It reminds of when she discovered Beatbugs, an animated series on Netflix, featuring music by the Fab Four. ‘Grandma, I’ve found out about a band called The Beatles,’ she said. ‘I think you’d like them.’
Yarnbombing of Medway Art Box by Unravel and Unwind
Sixty years of Doctor Who hardly seems possible, spanning several generations – and regenerations – and sparking many memories. I was four years old when the first Doctor arrived on our screens, the black and white sets liable to slip on the ‘vertical hold’, or to go fuzzy. I don’t really remember the William Hartnell era, but have a strong memory of Patrick Troughton, the second Doctor, and his companions, Jamie and Zoe. Not of any episodes, but of a children’s Christmas party. I couldn’t place how old I was when I went, but as the granddaughter once said, ‘If you’ve got a Google you can look it up,’ so I discovered that I would have been around my granddaughter’s age, perhaps a little younger.
My memory starts on a dark evening, walking along a path along by a field with my family, then entering a large hall. The party was already in swing. The hall was dark and there was a magician on the stage. When the lights went up, we were invited to queue up to go into the grotto. There was no Father Christmas to give out presents. Instead, we entered the Tardis. There were real Daleks to walk past, then the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe. Yes, the real Doctor, Patrick Troughton, standing a little way back behind a rope. I was upset, as my brother John had flu and couldn’t come to the party, so I as Jamie (Frazer Hines) handed me a wrapped gift, I told him that John was ill, and asked if I could take a present for him, too. Jamie gave me a second wrapped parcel to take home. My gift was a Lady Penelope plasticine set, with moulds to make the Fab1 car, Parker and Lady P, from Thunderbirds. I don’t remember what John’s gift was, and when I asked him a couple of years ago, neither could he.
I couldn’t work out why we were invited to meet the Doctor; the only other Christmas parties I can remember were at my dad’s working men’s club. John told me that it was Alistair and Beryl that arranged it – near neighbours of our family when we lived in the prefab where I was born, and where seven of us lived when were finally allocated a council house. I knew that they had an adopted daughter, Penny, and that they fostered other children, and that they lived in their ‘own house’ on a road that ran at right angles to ours. What I didn’t know was that Alistair worked for the Post Office, and that these annual Christmas parties were for Post Office workers’ children, and that they could invite other families that were ‘in need’. I think my mum would have mortified if she’d known about the ‘in need’ bit, but we probably were. It was John that told me about Alistair arranging for us to go, and a couple of friends who enlightened me about the invitations extended to ‘in need’ children. It’s amazing about these revelations, so many decades on.
I have many other memories about Doctor Who – like the long, multi-coloured knitted scarf I wore in my teens, like Tom Baker’s (the fourth Doctor). It wrapped loosely round my neck three times, and still hung down to my knees. One time, three of us from school wrapped it round each of our necks and walked from school to work in Woolworth’s, the sole runners in a three-necked race. Then there was the wooden Tardis that my father-in-law made for my daughters, with a clear plastic tub poked through a hole in the top, and a torch inside to let the light shine through. Also, my sister-in-law writing a Doctor Who screenplay for her grandsons to perform and video one Christmas. They declared that it was ‘Certificate 30’, so we were all old enough to watch it.
I shall be watching the new series, as I have with recent ones, but I must admit to finding them harder to follow than I used to. So many special effects, so much running around … perhaps I preferred the sets of disused quarries, the slightly slower moving scripts.
Today marks a year since I last saw my big brother John. He died just over a month afterwards. I miss having him fill in the gaps, like telling me how we came to be invited to meet the Doctor. Perhaps he would have remembered Alistair and Beryl’s surname – I’d love the see if there’s anything I could find about them online. Perhaps I could find their daughter, Penny, ask if she remembers us, and what present she received from the Doctor at that party.
I was at the dentist a few weeks ago, the last painful procedure in a series of appointments that had begun 10 months previously. I heard the words ‘blade’ and ‘spanner’ pass between the dentist and the nurse, as once again they rummaged in my mouth, this time to fit the actual tooth into the implant that had been placed a few weeks before. I tried to imagine I was somewhere else, and the words of the song, ‘I wanna dance with somebody’ ran through my head, over and over.
The nurse stepped away, to the back of the room, and in her place was my brother John, just behind me and to the left. Now, this would have been unusual in itself; it was even more so, as John had died 7 months before.
Pete the Temp, Medway River Lit Festival
I used to be sceptical about such experiences, and I would once have explained them as tricks of the mind, but now I am not so sure. This wasn’t the first time that John had come to me since he died. The first was a few months before. I was in the kitchen at home, having cleared the dishes from the dinner table. I had just made a decision and taken action on a matter that had been troubling me for some time. Suddenly, there was John, behind my left shoulder, just at the edge of my vision. ‘Well done, Maria,’ he said. ‘You’ve done the right thing.’
Both were quite banal settings for John to make his presence felt – and it was a sense of his presence rather than a physical manifestation. I suppose I’d imagined that, if I were to have such an experience, it would come with celestial light and a choir of beautiful voices. Not in a dentist surgery or amongst the dirty dishes. Each time, I found the experience comforting. But, after that time at the dentist, I felt that he’d visited me for the last time.
I was asked recently about transcendent experiences. Spiritual, out of the ordinary, where I’d felt transported to a different state. I couldn’t think of a reply at the time. Brought up Catholic, I never truly felt spiritually raised in church, or within that faith. It was too bound by duty and rituals, by being told what to believe, by being sent to church long after I believed, until I finally refused to attend Sunday Mass. I did, though, experience a kind of transcendence singing with others in the children’s choir, and several times when I attended the sung Latin mass. There was the mystery of the words that I only understood in relation to the spoken English versions of the Credo and Agnus Dei, the musicality, the congregation singing along to the priest’s lead, acapella. It was the only service that I became lost in.
I think my transcendent experiences have all been around music. I was once taken by my choir mistress, Mrs Field, and her daughter Rosemary, to Brompton Oratory to hear the choir. I can’t recall what they sang, only remember that high roof resounding with seemingly heavenly voices, a beautiful feeling coming over me. And then going for lunch at The Golden Egg opposite the church. Mrs Field took me along to other musical events – piano recitals and the like – but they did little for me. My next experiences of transcendence were to be around rock music, being with others that were as into it as I was, losing myself in a kind of free-form dance. Now, I’d been into dancing for a long time before this, being a disco girl before I became a rock fan. I found ‘freaking out’ and shaking my long hair – head-banging – made me far happier.
I’m not sure where I’m going with this, only that in writing this blog post I am reaching after something. Something outside of ordinary experience. Since John died, I feel more open to new things, trying to get out of fixed ways of being and fixed beliefs. Perhaps the rigidity of Catholic doctrine was replaced by other kinds of rigidity: I only read those kind of books, or listened to that kind of music. Also, a denial of the unexplained, of others’ beliefs and spiritual experiences. For heavens sake, I’ve even been open to the idea of God in recent months! Me, with my reputation.
I took very few things from John’s house after he died. Half a dozen books, which I have been reading, and a wallet of CDs, which he used to play in the car when he was a taxi driver. Some were of music I liked, bands that he introduced me to, like The Who. Others were from his rave years – dance music, which I just can’t get into. I was well into motherhood during John’s rave years; it was ‘The wheels on the bus’ and early nights for me. At the time, and as I tried to listen to John’s CDs after his death, I really couldn’t see the attraction.
A couple of months ago, I went to an event that was outside of my comfort zone. A poet/singer/musician known as Pete the Temp was performing, along with a harpist and synth player. As it began, I felt that this was not for me, that we would all be drawn into some kind of cult, taken off to a house in the country and made to wear robes, As the evening progressed, I got more and more into it, and had one of those transcendent experiences during what I can only describe as a rap in Latin with the sun setting over the river Medway outside the window. If a cult was involved, I was all in, robes and all. Perhaps this is what John felt, dancing at raves, a sense of losing himself, forgetting all his worries for a while.
I do think that John has visited for the last time, but that his music and his books are a legacy where I might discover more about him, and lay myself open to new experiences, new beliefs. Posting this, which I might once have kept to myself, is a part of the process.
I was 20,000 words into writing a memoir. It was a year since my mother had died, and the work was about my relationship with her; best described as difficult. Early in the process, I decided that I would only write about my relationships with the dead, with the living as incidental characters. The work was developing into a possible book about grief. Disenfranchised grief, to be precise; a phrase only recently learned from a writer friend, Victoria Field, when we met for coffee to talk about her published memoir, Baggage: a Book of Leavings, and my work-in-progress. It’s a complicated kind of grief, when you have been estranged from the deceased. You may feel, and others might feel, that you have no right to grieve. But the loss of a parent, no matter how difficult the relationship, is a big hit.
Another unresolved grief came up for me as I was writing. A close friend had died by taking her own life some 35 years before, the same week as my second daughter was born. I hadn’t grieved for Julie, the friend, at the time (the reason being closely tied to my mother, who had decided for me that I should not go to Julie’s funeral). I was pleased by the way in which the memoir was developing, and it was helping me through two complicated experiences of grief at the same time. But there was a snag, a fear. How would the living react to my work? Specifically my four siblings.
I spoke to several memoir writers I know about family reactions to their published work; the first being Victoria Field. I asked if anyone had objected to the memoir. She told me that a relative had said she didn’t want to read the book, as it might upset her. That was it really. The main figure in Baggage, Victoria’s ex-husband, had not raised any objections. She had disguised his identity, but not sought his permission. I wasn’t so sure about my own family’s reactions. I had included siblings in the work – as the middle of five children, I could hardly pretend I was an only child. Family dynamics played a part in the relationship I had with my mother. I had been sensitive, and had not used any names, but the terms ‘older brother’ or ‘younger sister’ were jarring.
I spoke to John O’Donoghue, the award-winning memoirist, author of Sectioned: A Life Interrupted. As an only child whose parents died when he was young, John had no experience of having to consider siblings as he wrote. He suggested writing to each of mine, telling them what I was working on, and asking their permission to use their names, or pseudonyms, if they preferred. He also said that I could offer to send them a section of my writing. My younger brother was fine with his name being used. ‘Anything that helps,’ he said. So far, so good. My sisters’ replies were identical. They did not wish to have their names used, or to be written about at all. They did not want to read anything I had written. One sister added that she found my writing ‘triggering’.
OK, not a dealbreaker, but a setback. Then John, my older brother, phoned me in a state. He told me that he hadn’t been able to leave the house, that he was suffering from anxiety since he heard from me, and that if I were to publish this work, he would have to move to another town, as he couldn’t face seeing anyone he knew. We had two long phone calls that day, and though I assured him that I had not let slip anyone else’s secrets, only my own, he was implacable. He did calm down to an extent, said that maybe I could publish it anonymously, once he better understood what I was about. We spoke a lot about grief, about Julie’s death as well as our mother’s. He shared that he, too, had lost a friend recently. However, seeing how distressed he was, I told him that I would discontinue work on the memoir. All was well between us once again.
The trouble was that I could not write for a year afterwards. John O’Donoghue advised that dark stories have a way of finding light, and that this would not be the last of it for me. But, he said, you can’t write with someone looking over your shoulder, and that’s how it felt every time I sat to write. What would John think? What would my other siblings think?
The second memoir I started was a year or so later. It was my story to tell, no-one else’s. I wrote with some fear, but not about what my siblings might think. The book-length work reached its first full draft within 3 months. It was about a police investigation after I reported a case of historical grooming and sexual assault – rape – by an older boyfriend I had when I was 15 and 16. The investigation was thorough on the part of the police, and the perpetrator was interviewed twice in connection with the offences. As I had predicted, they could go no further due to lack of evidence, but the man (whom I shall call Adam) was brought to account and faced with what he had done to me. It was a story that would help other women and girls, and the writing of it helped me process my experiences.
Only my younger brother knew that I was writing it; I didn’t tell my other siblings. I didn’t need their permission, nor did I need another reaction from John, my older brother. My suspicion was that he would be more concerned with what other people would think than I was. The book reached its third draft, after some feedback from John O’Donoghue, then I hit a snag. In my research, I found a photo on the internet of another man that had sexually assaulted me on a long train journey when I was 13. I couldn’t remember his name; only that he was in an Irish showband, and the name of the band. There was the face I had never forgotten; an obituary in connection with his musical career. Thank God the bastard was dead, but how many other young girls did he assault? I now knew the true meaning of being triggered.
That was 6 months ago. The work has been put aside, filed away, the various drafts in ring binders marked ‘Chalk Lane’ the working title of my memoir. Dark stories have a way of finding light… will I return to it, face my demons? Try for a publisher and get it out in the world? If I do, I will not fear the reactions of my siblings. John, my dear older brother, died a few months ago. I no longer need to worry about him. As for my other siblings, this is my story, and my choice to write it and let others read it. Like Victoria’s relative, they can choose not to read it.
Some other memoirs I would recommend: The Missing List, by Clare Best; First in the World Somewhere, by Penny Pepper; My Name is Why, by Lemn Sissay; To Throw Away Unopened, by Viv Albertine; Patricia Debney’s blog, which excerpts her as yet unpublished memoir, Learning to Survive; and my all time favourite, An Angel at my Table, by Janet Frame.
“The last time I saw John was at my daughter Laura’s 40th celebration, a lunch out at the end of November. Seated at either end of a long table, I went to talk to John between courses. He told me a story from our childhood that I hadn’t heard before. It involved the fire brigade being called out on Christmas Day, the first year that we moved to the house in Ebbisham Road. I had no memory of it. ‘You would have been too young to remember,’ John said. As the oldest of us, John held many stories that only he knew, many that will remain untold. I am glad that I heard just one of them, the last time I saw my big brother John.”
John at his 21st party, 1976
The passage above is from ‘One of Five’, a tribute to my brother John, which I read at his funeral last week. A life is made up of stories. Some of them die with a person, untold. Others are told repeatedly, like the story of when our father brought Belfast home for Christmas dinner … a man who lived in a shack in the woods and who drank at Dad’s local. Our mum gave Belfast (and Dad) short shrift, and the poor man, who already had a Christmas dinner lined up at the White Horse, ended up with no dinner at all. John retold that story, too, the last time I saw him, as well as the new one I hadn’t heard before.
The celebrant leading the funeral asked John’s four siblings to contribute stories to allow her to compose a eulogy, ‘The Story of John’. We each added them to a shared document, filling in the gaps that one couldn’t remember, correcting details that another had misremembered. Or had they? Listening to ‘The Story of John’ at the funeral, something didn’t seem right to me. The celebrant said that John had left England to go travelling at the age of twenty, after completing an apprenticeship as a tool maker, This puzzled me, as I have a photo of John at his 21st birthday party, held in the garden of the house he still lived in with me and my family, in the hot summer of 1976. I also remembered that he was living at home when I left to study at Thames Poly. He was 23 then. He had, though, left for a while to live in a shared flat, taking my records with him. Much to my annoyance. We fell out over that, never having had a cross word between us before. The records were returned; peace was declared. As soon as I bought my own record player, with my first grant cheque, the records moved out of the home we had shared and moved into my room in the Halls of Residence.
How can I piece together John’s timeline, and get the details of his story straight?
At John’s wake, old stories were retold, new ones emerged. A tale from a cousin of how his brother helped John cover up a love bite by hitting him with a piece of scaffolding, turning the offending mark into a more acceptable injury. That was new to me. The same cousin and I shared the well known story of how John used to hide his Doc Martens under a hedge in a nearby alleyway, changing out of his ‘respectable’ shoes into them after leaving home, as our mother didn’t approve of his ‘bovver boots’. An old friend of John, who seemed to have hardly aged at all since I last saw him in the late ’70s, shared that he and John had worked together in Jersey. I knew that John had lived out there, but hadn’t been aware that Glenn had been there with him. Jersey is where he met Angela, the girl who was to become his fiancée, though they didn’t marry in the end. Angela was at the funeral, as was another of John’s exes. A third ex was to find me, through this website, in the days following the funeral, and between us we pieced together John’s timeline, the story of John.
I was indeed right: John had not gone travelling until his twenty-fourth year. I discovered that he left for Jersey after an unseasonal snowfall in England. He had been fed up for a while, and when it snowed at Easter, he left almost immediately, to join his friend Glenn. Google supplied the year: 1979. John was 23 then, going on 24.
John’s middle years were unhappily fuelled by alcohol. I saw little of him, with him being abroad for a few years – in Jersey, on kibbutz in Israel, in Holland, and for a year or two he lived with Angela in Australia. She tells me that they returned in 1984. By then, I was pregnant with my second child. Our lives had grown apart, and then I found it hard to be around him, when he was drinking so much. Sometimes, when I visited my childhood home, John was there, where he had returned to live after his travelling days were over. Other times, he was not. One time, I travelled to see him, knowing that he had been going through a bad patch. When I arrived, he had decided instead to go shopping for some new clothes. I felt let down, angry. Another time, he failed to turn up, having promised to take my children swimming so as to give me a break on Mothers’ Day. I ended up in the pool with my kids and my nephew, full of resentment.
John and I didn’t see one another for a few years; we reunited after John got sober. I think of John’s last twenty years as his third act. He was a different man without the booze: loving and kind, though plagued with lifelong anxiety, which he managed by working hard, keeping busy outside of work, and walking his beloved dog Rupert for hours and hours on Epsom Common. Although past retirement age, John continued working – to pay for Rupert’s vet bills, he said, but also because he wouldn’t have known what to do if he were to stop working. Rupert died last summer, John six months after him, taking some stories with him, untold.
I think I’ll be piecing together John’s stories for some years. I almost wish for a re-run of his wake, on an annual basis, so as to gather new stories. A life is made up of stories, and I don’t know half of John’s.
When my first child was born, we were living in a privately rented ‘flat’; in fact a set of rooms, with a shared, unheated bathroom down a flight of stairs. It wasn’t ideal with a new baby, having to leave the pram in the downstairs hallway, bathing her in the living room, with water brought in from the kitchen.
Artists at work in our council flat
When she was three months old, Greenwich Council awarded us a flat on the Middle Park Estate in Eltham. Yes, a proper flat! Self-contained, and though it was upstairs (only one flat below us, none above) it had its own garden. Several other people had rejected the property. It was due for renovation, but if we were prepared to stay while a new kitchen, bathroom and replacement windows were installed, it was ours.
My daughter and I holed up in a bedroom while the work went on. She wasn’t crawling yet, so having a kettle at floor level to keep me and the workmen going during the day was manageable. The worst day was when the windows were replaced, the chill and the dust hard to cope with between the removal of old frames and the installation of new. We took many walks round the leafy estate, discovered the café at the local shopping centre and the community centre that became our home from home along with the Adult Education Institute. There were creches so I could go to classes, plus parent and toddler activities. The estate was alive with children; the green in front of our flat was a space where children could play together, watched over by their parents from the windows of their flats and houses.
By the time my second daughter was three years old, we had outgrown the property. The soundproofing between flats was poor, and the woman downstairs, who had initially been friendly, spent much of the day banging on her ceiling with a broom handle. A birthday party at home turned into a cacophony of children’s laughter and broom handle percussion.
Some of the houses and flats on the estate started to sport new front doors and mock-leaded windows. It was the late 80s, and the Right to Buy your council house had been brought in. We didn’t want to go that route, and saved for a deposit on a house in the Medway Towns, London prices being unaffordable. The day we handed back our keys, our estate officer said that no one else was doing this – moving from council housing to a private buy. Most were buying from the council, and selling on after a year or two.
Thirty-four years after leaving that flat, I went to have a look at it from the road, with my second husband and my granddaughter. It seemed too weird to knock and say that I used to live there. The flat itself has different windows, and there is a high fence and gate to the garden. The green in front of the flats and houses is still there, though some of it has been lost to parking spaces, and newish trees are dotted on it, where it was just grass before. When we were driving through the estate, I pointed out where my friends had lived, and remembered the time when my older daughter (aged four) decided to push my younger daughter home from the Community Centre because I was spending too long talking to someone. I was quickly alerted by Mr Curly, a chap from the Pensioners’ Group, who spotted them, already halfway home, and came running to find me.
The strange thing about the estate in 2022 is the lack of children. It was half-term, but there were none playing on the green in front of my old flat. In any case, the trees would hamper a game of football or catch. Is this because children don’t play out anymore, or just that the now owner-occupied residences are more mixed, more singles or child-free couples, not so many families?
I don’t know how long the flat remained a council property, but I do know that it sold for £300,000 a year ago.
It’s easy to be nostalgic for a time when there was community and children played outside the home, when a neighbour would alert you to a runaway child. What I am truly nostalgic for, though, is a time when you could rent an affordable property from the council. If we had been that young family today, living in rented rooms, where would we have ended up?
It began with a poem I read, headed with an epigraph saying that there are only eighteen letters in the Irish alphabet. As a second-generation Irish woman, how had I reached the age of sixty-two without knowing this? Some Irish was spoken at home by my parents, the odd word or phrase, but apart from knowing that bainne is milk, I questioned none of it. ‘Oscail an doras,’ my dad would say. I have only recently learned that this means ‘Open the door’. There are other phrases that I recall phonetically, but have no idea how they are spelt, so their meaning remains hidden for now.
I started learning Gaeilge on Duolingo about three months ago. Duolingo offers no grammar, only words and phrases that you learn by trial and error, so I supplemented my learning with a book, Learning Irish by Micheal O’Siadhail. I have tried translating the phrases at the end of the first chapter of the book three times, and have got no more than half of them right. Irish is a tough language to master. There are no words for yes and no, rather the verb in the question is repeated in the answer, in the affirmative or negative form. There is lenition to come to terms with – an aspect of Irish grammar that adds an h to the beginning of some words that come after certain other words, and change the pronunciation. There is eclipsis, too. I could try to explain, but as the experts sometimes do so by stating ‘see sentences in this chapter’, I am not sure that I could.
Maria at the Cliffs of Moher in the 1990s
What I am coming to realise is that the Irish speak English in a way that’s influenced by Gaeilge. An Irish friend uses the phrase ‘Giving out’ to mean what I would call ‘Going into one’, or more precisely telling off, scolding, or complaining. This is a direct translation, so ‘Tá sí ag tabhairt amach’ means ‘She is giving out’.
I am sure that Irish turns of phrase have influenced me as a speaker and a writer, in spite of my years of denying I was Irish. I wrote about this in my first self-published pamphlet of prose and poetry, Learning to be English, and it was the subject of my first professional writing gig, as a columnist for BBC Radio 4’s Home Truths. This outlined how I went from being one of many Irish children at my Catholic primary school in Surrey, to being one of a few at grammar school. This was the time of IRA bombings on mainland Britain, and as we lived just a few miles from Guildford, the pub bombings by the IRA in 1974 were all too close. In fact, many years later, my brother told me that he usually drank in one of the pubs that was bombed when he was on day release at Guildford Technical College. The only reason he wasn’t in the pub that day and at that time was that he had flu. What I remember is my Physics teacher saying to me, in front of the class, ‘I see your lot have been at it again.’ I told no one at home what she had said, just silently decided that it was safer in that school to pretend that I wasn’t Irish, and become an English girl. Hence the title of my pamphlet, and of the piece that was broadcast on Home Truths: Learning to be English.
In common with many second-generation Irish people, I feel I have a dual identity, not quite one thing or the other. Neither fully English, nor fully Irish. Since I began to reclaim my Irish identity, in my thirties, I have been learning to be Irish, reversing the process of learning to be English that I went through in my teens. Like learning Gaeilge, it’s something that I may never master, that I shall carry on learning throughout my life.
My collection of short stories about Irish women living in England and their daughters is available here: As Long as It Takes.
Robin Halls’ photo from the Precinct zine issue
To borrow some words from Lennon, McCartney and David Byrne, the road from writing to publication can be long and winding, or the road to nowhere. Once a poem or story has been submitted to a publisher, there is the wait … sometimes months, and sometimes you hear nothing at all, leaving you wondering whether it’s OK to follow up with an email, or if you are now free to submit elsewhere. The admin that follows the creativity can be tiring and disheartening – researching suitable publications, keeping track of submissions, dealing with rejections.
I have been spared this for the past ten months, as I have been collaborating with a photographer, Robin Halls, who has been producing a photo zine for every month this year. Each month he sends me photos on a different theme, and I have just two weeks to respond to one or more photos in words. Every month, when I first scroll through, I think ‘I have nothing.’ Yet every month I come up with something. An idea breaks through days later. I often don’t write at that point; I hold it in my head, take it for a walk, then get a draft down and rework it several times over the following week. My default writing process is to take a lot longer than this, maybe months. I often leave work for a year, feeling it hasn’t got any worth, then have a breakthrough after finding the draft and seeing something fresh I could do with it. There isn’t the time with the zine, no time to fuss.
I usually take a quick first look at a new batch of photos, and it’s always the one that first captures my attention that will spark the first poem. For the last issue, it was a photo of dusty slotted spoon found in a lost drawer (or should that be a drawer of lost things) found during a kitchen refit. The most unlikely items can be the most inspiring, such as a photo of a blank noticeboard at Berengrave Nature Reserve. I have mined memories triggered by the photos, as well as responded directly to the images in front of me. There is no selecting and rejecting of my work; Robin has been happy with everything I send him, so the only selection is at my end. I always have more drafted poems or prose pieces than I send him, and I don’t send work I am not happy with. The road to publication in the zine is short and straight, a far more pleasurable and less stressful journey than the usual submission process.
I have no idea of the circulation of the zine, only that it’s free and handed out locally to anyone who would like a copy, plus a few go out by post. I shall miss it when Robin finishes the project at the end of the year.
I made a decision some time ago not to search commissions or participation in events, to trust that they would come to me, and they have. Most recently, I was invited to write a poem for the Dickens 150 celebrations in Medway, and to be a guest writer at the Irish Writers in London Summer School, as well as take part in the zine project. I have two invitations to read my work in the offing, one where I hope to read some poems from the zine with Robin Halls’ images projected. I wonder what will come next, what 2022 will bring.
In the meantime, I await news of more traditional submissions, and must do some research on a story that needs to find a home. And I await November’s batch of photos from Robin. I shall have nothing, at first, then something will break through, something from the most unlikely image.
Robin’s photos can be seen on Instagram @robin.halls
My first paid gig as a writer was for BBC Radio 4, as a columnist on Home Truths. This was a programme filled with listeners’ stories, and I sent them a piece that I thought they might feature. It was about the loss of half my Led Zeppelin vinyl collection, when my marriage broke up.
Maria, as she appeared on the Home Truths webpage
The programme producer and I worked to edit the piece to fit their five-minute slot. She cut the first page and a half. On re-reading, I could see that she was right, and I agreed to this. Then there were other suggestions: I would need to cut a reference to the lyric of a Led Zeppelin song. Not everyone was a Led Zeppelin fan, and they wouldn’t get the reference. OK, fair enough. Each editing suggestion was explained, and I agreed to every one, even though the loss of my clever reference to the lyrics of ‘Tangerine’ was a bit of a blow.
Not every editing experience has been so positive. A couple of times, I have held on to the integrity of a piece at the expense of publication.
A couple of years ago, I was invited to submit to an anthology. I sent a story, which the three editors liked, but they said that this alone would not get me a place in the book. They also needed an essay. They gave me a fairly tight deadline to produce this, and a word-count of four to six thousand. I was about to go away, but didn’t want to miss the chance of publication, so I worked on the essay on a Eurostar journey, en route to Bruges, and worked further when I got home. I sent a 6000 word piece, but the editors came back to me wanting it cut by 1500 words. They made suggestions of what they wanted more of, and what they wanted less of. I sighed deeply. It was coming up to Christmas, and life was busy. I felt uneasy about some of the editing suggestions, but came up with a second draft. Days before Christmas, I was sent a version of my essay that the three editors had worked on themselves. I said that I couldn’t look at it until January, and I am glad I didn’t, as it would have ruined the festive season. When I finally read the editors’ cut, the 4500 words I had sent them had been slashed to 1500. A lot of it no longer made sense. Editing by committee does not work. I said I could not agree with their edit, and explained why. I said if they had wanted 1500 words, I would have written 1500 words, but they had asked for 4-6000 words, then 4500 words. Plus it was not acceptable to hack a writer’s work about in the way that they had. The essay was not published, though the story I had sent them found a place in their publication. This was all I had wanted, to have the story published, not to be spending my precious time dancing to the tune of the three editors, who frankly didn’t know what the flip they wanted.
It was a bad experience, which grates to this day. Normally, I am happy to receive a copy of a publication in which I have work, but when the above-mentioned book arrived, I didn’t give it room on the shelf above the desk where I write. Moreover, when I saw events to promote this book advertised on social media, I realised that I had not received an invitation to any of them. I was the one that was seen as awkward, bloody-minded, for holding on to my integrity as a writer.
Today should have seen the online publication of a new story. I would have been sharing it on social media and emailing people with the link. But that will not be happening. I had uneasy feelings about the publisher’s requirements when they accepted my story. There was a heck of a lot of admin attached, a form to fill in, a contract to look at, all of which took time away from my writing. They said that they would be editing for house style, and would send any changes for me to approve. The story is set in the 1970s, with the protagonist working in the kitchens of The Grandstand at Epsom Racecourse. When the edit came to me, they wanted me to remove any specific mention of Epsom, or any reference that might suggest that the story referred to the Epsom racecourse. So ‘the horses hurtling round Tattenham Corner’ should be changed to ‘the horses hurtling round the nearby corner.’ The reasoning behind this? The story referred to poor hygiene in the kitchens at Epsom Racecourse, and could be seen as ‘defamatory’. The price of publication was to make the racecourse and town where it is set ‘generic’, so as not to offend. I would not pay that price.
I suppose the moral of the story, for me, is to trust my instincts. I felt uneasy early on in the process of editing with ‘The Three’ as I have come to call the editors of the anthology, but I did everything they asked, until what they asked was unacceptable. I felt uneasy with the requirements of the publisher of the new story, too, and that instinct turned out to be right.
I now have a story that is still looking for a publisher; but I can also hold onto my integrity as a writer.
I am part-way through the second draft of a long piece of writing. It’s book length, non-fiction, and that’s all I want to share. The fear has got hold of me, fear of if it’s any good, if anyone will want to read it, if I want anyone to read it. Perhaps I just needed to write it, and it doesn’t matter if no one reads it. Perhaps, once this second draft is complete, I’ll rest it, not look at it for a while, or never look at it again. I might just destroy it – a passing thought. I know I won’t do that.
I have written a paragraph to summarise the book, the kind of thing that might appear as a blurb, on the back cover. There I am, calling it a book, as if that might happen. Ha! I am drawn back to my MA class when Patricia, my tutor, would say, ‘What is it about?’ when we were discussing texts, or workshopping one another’s writing. And I find that the book is not just about what I set out to write. It’s also about loss, about grief, it’s about the toll that trauma takes on the body.
I wrote the first draft in two months, which is the fastest I have ever written anything of that length. I wrote a little every day, scared that if I missed a day, I wouldn’t return to it. Some days I wrote only two hundred words, others much more. I found that the gingerbread man timer I usually set to stop my wrists and back from hurting, if I type too long, had been ignored, and my wrists and back were indeed hurting when I stopped writing and noticed things other than the words on the screen, on the printed page.
Some things were hard to write, having held onto them in silence for so long, some for forty-five years. I felt better for speaking them, for writing them, but sometimes I don’t, and today is one of those times.
I didn’t plan this book before I wrote it, just wrote scenes and chapters as they occurred to me. I thought I could sort out the order later. And I find that they do make sense in the order in which they came. There is only one chapter that I might place elsewhere, or maybe cut it all together. I wrote it as light relief, as a positive story about that time, about myself. There are a few stories like that in the book. It’s good to remember those fun times as well as the trauma. Light relief for the reader as well as the writer. The reader! There it is again, the thought that someone might read it. Maybe they will, maybe it will go out into the world as a book. Maybe it will help others who have been through the same kind of things.
Early in the writing process, I wrote a dedication: For those that have not yet spoken, and for those that have. I must remember that, when the fear takes hold, why I wrote it. For myself and for others.
The ending is set on a day in March of this year, when I went in search of a tree to climb, in memory of my friend Karan, on the anniversary of her death. It’s a remembrance of loss, but also of hope, as the book will be. A memoir of grief, loss, hope, and understanding. Here is an extract, a reminder of facing the fear:
We slide down the muddy slope. It’s incline is one I would normally attempt, with a tree to hold onto on the first couple of steps down, then nothing to halt the slip and run towards the bottom. Bob goes first. He says, ‘Just go for it,’ and the rush of the last few steps is liberating, even though there is a risk of falling. How seldom we do this as older adults, just go for it, see what happens, risk falling on your face or your arse, and would that matter, after all?
I size up the horizontal branch. It takes a few attempts to pull myself onto it. I worry that I can’t do it. I just don’t have the upper body strength. Then I think of my granddaughter on a climbing frame at a playground a few weeks before. She tells herself that she can, when at first she thinks she can’t, when attempting scary climbs, or anything scary. I am doing this for Karan, to regain that childhood feeling, and I haul myself onto the branch, straddle it like a horse, and I am grinning, laughing. The seat of my jeans is damp and slimy where the mist has clung to the bark. My coat is splattered with mud. I am ten years old again.
‘Auntie’ was the honorary title reserved for the closest friends of the family. Children in the 1960s were never allowed to call adults by their first names. Neighbours were Mrs Hubbard, Mrs McLoughlin, Mrs Sullivan, and so on – except for Auntie Joan and Auntie Pam, close friends to my parents, and with children that we played with all the time. It truly was a time when back doors were left unlocked; front doors, too, in warm weather. They were left wide open, so that aunties would just walk in without announcement, the first sign of their visits being a head and shoulders passing the front or back window on their way to the front or back door.
The woman gathered in the kitchen for coffee, Maxwell House or Mellow Birds, which my mother preferred. And I would sit on a stool in the corner, trying to be invisible, so I could listen to their talk and try to make sense of it all. What was a ‘prolapse’? What did ‘paying the milkman in kind’ mean? I would puzzle over these things, sometimes making up my own interpretation of the stories told. Eventually my mother would notice that I was there. ‘Little ears are flapping,’ she would say, and send me out to play.
I learned so much in that kitchen, and gathered material for stories and poems I would write thirty, forty and fifty years on. That time, those women, continue to haunt my writing.
Auntie Joan died a couple of years ago, and now Auntie Pam has gone, too. When I learned of Auntie Pam’s death, her daughter asked me and my siblings for any memories that could be retold at the funeral. Looking back through my notebooks and published work, Pam and her husband Uncle Dave featured strongly. In one story a thinly disguised Auntie Pam cuddles a young child whose dog has just been run over by a car, just as Auntie Pam did to me the day our dog died when I was 10 years old. I have a strong memory of my face being held to her bosom, and of the scent she wore. I can remember the colour of her lipstick and, on happier days than that one, her loud, uninhibited laugh.
Click on the image to hear Morningtown Ride by The Seekers
In ‘Rock On’, a performance piece that I debuted at the Confluence Sessions in Rochester, one of Pam and Dave’s parties is described. Pam was showing off the new radiogram and and TV that Dave had won on the TV game show, Take Your Pick. The audience would shout out ‘Open the box!’ or ‘Take the Money!’ to the contestants, and Uncle Dave had opened the box to find he’d won a big prize. The music played on the radiogram on the night of the party ranged from ‘Morningtown Ride’ by The Seekers to The Rolling Stones. It may have been from another party, another year, but I recall Pam in a long, halter neck dress with a drink in her hand, swaying to Demis Roussos, for all the world like Beverley in the Mike Leigh play Abigail’s Party.
Auntie Pam is the last of my childhood ‘aunties’ to go. I don’t have a picture of her, except those that I hold in my memory. Of her dancing at the Irish dances at Surbiton Assembly Rooms. Of her holding up my baby daughter with delight, the first time I brought her ‘home’ to Epsom. Of her showing off the radiogram at her party, singing along to ‘Morningtown Ride.’