Making Roots

For a while, a few years now I have had the privilege of being able to visit some of the places where my ancestors came from, and where my parents grew up. As a white English woman I was perhaps late in life to identify as a second generation migrant, after all, three of my grandparents lived in England. Yet when I submitted a script of a play I’d written about my family (a very different play) in 2009 to the writers’ department of Soho Theatre, the feedback I received was to make more of my cultural background, and to connect with the diaspora of my people. This was not what I had expected, however I realised that a few lines had been misinterpreted as indicating my perceived Jewishness. It was an eye-opener that served to illuminate further to me how unusual my background was, and also to be aware of how I may be read so that I could then be more in control of that.

I had lots of research to do on the places and people I actually come from, and various pieces of the story emerged at different times. Some were already known to me. In 2008 I can’t remember why I decided to start reading the memoirs of my maternal grandfather (known as Gramp), and as well to type some of them up so that we would have a digital copy. The copy we already had was faintly typed on very thin, yellowing East German paper. We’d had it for years, since my childhood and for some reason as I approached my 31st birthday I gained an interest in the papers. Gramp was still alive and nearing his 97th.  Then suddenly a few months later, out of the blue he died, and we travelled to Berlin for his funeral. It amazed me that he’d died just as I was getting interested in his story – which was long and I had only tackled a small part of it. Well, he had been very frail for years, in fact I had visited him 10 years before in 1998, sent by my Mother to be her ambassador as she was too unwell to visit him. On that occasion it took him a while to determine who I was. Hearing my voice he asked in his American accent, “Are you from London?”

His memoirs cover most of his life, from birth including what he knew of his ancestors, up until his early 70s when with long hours alone he wrote them. There were passages which did not really interest me, but then it was like striking gold when a cluster of paragraphs stood out describing childhood scenes on a farm, or being on the run from conservative agencies during the McCarthy era. It was fascinating social history and information about some of the forces that even shaped my life. Unfortunately my pursuit of the long typing needed faltered and I only recorded a few sections that year, but nevertheless I knew the material was waiting and my appetite had been whet.

Pictures of Moletai in May 2018

Last year my partner Steve and I visited Lithuania, and spent time in the town which had been a village, where one of my great grandmothers came from. Moletai (pronounced Molyati) had been about 85% Jewish in those days, including this branch of my family at the turn of the last century. We have no family or connections there now, as my family left in 1911. The fear of pogroms was very real, and Jews who did stay were rounded up the following year by the Soviets. Some were later freed, but in years to come the situation worsened, culminating in the Nazis finishing off all Jews in the area in 1941. I had not known all this prior to visiting, however the town is blessed with a cultural centre and local history books tell the people’s story.


Rivkah Notlevich in Lithuania, 1908

There were old photographs which reminded me of the style of photograph we have of Rivkah, my great grandmother. There was also a letter printed, by a man bearing Rivkah’s same surname, albeit with one letter different. She was née Rivkah Notlevich, and he was Yudel Nutlevich; and I thought having seen all the graves inscribed with Hebrew, that there may easily have been inconsistencies in translation, also from Russian/Lithuanian. Yudel wrote shortly before he was to be shot in 1941, and entrusted the letter addressed to his family with a Christian neighbour. To say it moved me is an understatement. It described how everyone they knew had been murdered, he himself had hidden for 16 weeks in a pit before being found.

“This is my last letter, one of farewell, I am writing to you from prison, condemned to death. Barbaric murderers have condemned me, a victim who is innocent of any crime. Thousands and thousands of people have perished. The blood of those slain will not be silenced. It hurts to leave this wonderful world… you won’t know where our bodies will end up.”

Imagining him as a distant relative I suddenly felt connected with a deep lost strand of my history, and for the first time in my life felt some Jewish identity, or rather it weighed on me what that could be like. Rivkah herself was not interested in religion, instead politics drew her and she became a committed socialist from an early age, whilst in Lithuania. Judaism was not passed on by her as she married out and only had sons.


Jewish cemetery at Moletai

There were many memorials to the thousands of Jews killed and I learnt just how large an area they had been eradicated from, throughout many parts of Eastern Europe. I have always felt critical of Israel’s anti-Palestinian policy and still do, but a change occured in how I felt like approaching the subject. I was overcome with compassion as I understood to what extent Jews had lost their lives and homes in several countries, and it would have been very difficult for them to feel safe.

Rivkah’s family eventually settled in Johannesburg, South Africa which I have not been able to visit yet. It is high on my list as there are many places there I would like to go to as that’s where my Dad was born, and his Father’s family had had a presence there for almost 200 years. A missionary called Jabez set out to preach Methodism, and a mission named after him – Old Bunting, later Buntingville – was established in 1830 on the Eastern Cape of South Africa. This character was known to me by a plaque unveiling I attended as a child, in a square in Angel, London where he’d lived, as well as a severe if smiling portrait of him at my grandparents’ and later my parents’ house. A further detail was revealed when during an English A Level class his name appeared in the introduction to Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights! A strict and unkind priest was based on him.

As if to redeem the family from this authoritarian presence, some generations later when the family had already become more liberal, his great grandson called Sidney went a few steps further, and became a radical black rights activist and politician in South Africa during the 1920s. He succeeded in shifting the South African Communist Party’s policy and focus to being led by black South Africans (it had been all white and not keen to embrace the native population), however this was an extremely tough battle which ultimately cost him his career; life even. It is a sad story yet Allison Drew’s ‘Between Empire and Revolution‘  beautifully shines a light on all aspects of his life and tells the whole story in detail. This book had been in my possession since my Dad gifted me it when it was published, though I only read all of it last year when my trip to Lithuania ignited my interest in any information about Rivkah – who became Rebecca. The only documents about her relate to her husband, Sidney and there were a few sections that were pertinent in the book, as well as in Sidney’s ‘Letters to Rebecca‘, which also includes one letter by her. Theirs was a most extraordinary and inspiring tale, and I feel enormous pride when I think of Sidney and Rivkah.

The Roots play follows the stories of Rivkah and Sidney from my Father’s family, and of John and Mary who were my maternal grandparents. All the sources of writing were fascinating, it is just unfortunate that neither woman left writing in her own right. That is only partly because of the time they were in; with Sidney and Rivkah it is true that women at that time and place were not in such prominent positions yet. For John and Mary however in the socialist world a generation later, she had just as many if not more opportunities than him, career-wise. It was rather that he lived longer and was more alone in those years so had time to record his memories. I think he also had more reason to, since his journey was more dramatic, living in exile from the age of 37. Without his words, his descendents would not have knowledge of their ancestral past, since the cold war climate had separated us long ago from his living family in America.

Mary was an artist and fashion designer when she moved back to London, and left many embroideries, tapestries, drawings, clothes and jewellery. Reading between the lines and sometimes directly from Gramp’s memoirs, as well as what I remember of her, I identify a great deal with Mary’s vitality, creativity and strong spirit of independence. She was also a socialist feminist! It therefore seems odd perhaps that she doesn’t have her own voice in the play, unlike Rivkah whom I had penned a monologue for shortly after my visit to Lithuania. Writing the play was partly piecing together sections of text I’d written and collated over several years in fact, and rereading all the letters. There may be unfinished business, but in a way, my own voice may be closest to Mary’s which may account for the absence.

Coincidentally both families partly moved to London in 1963, to the same unique part of Highgate – Holly Lodge Estate. It is through this connection that my parents met, and I believe that the stories contained in the play may partly explain their attraction; on some level recognising shared and unusual family pasts of extreme left dimensions and political persecution. It is also true that both my parents, coming from these activist origins, did not feel drawn to continue such a path. Growing up in families where politics may have been more important than family, and where you’re on the losing side even if righteous, may sometimes be a strong antidote to choosing that oneself.

Presenting the play with my usual life drawing formula was a stretch with subject matter not remotely relating. I used some costumes but also opted for nudity quite a lot. It is my natural medium, however a few audience members rejected the approach as inappropriate. Others appreciated the art interpretation, and perhaps that my own passion for nude liberation is in some way borne of this earlier family idealism. The life drawing did also fit well with much of the text being audio based; static tableaux could be drawn whilst the audience listened.

I performed most of the show solo, and as well for a few scenes invited friends and audience members to join in whether nude or not to create group tableaux. It was very helpful to have a man posing to represent my Grandfather, whilst at other times scenes were illustrated by enactments of famous paintings from the time. We recreated ‘American Gothic‘, and I posed alongside works by Chagall and Popova.

During the first scene, about Rivka’s life in Moletai, I played a video I had made there of myself performing a menstrual ritual in one of the nearby lakes. Pouring my own blood into the water of my once Motherland was a way to connect with a place now lost to us. This practice has been part of my work for a few years, such as a time I was on the trail of a Grandmother not included in this show, when she lived in Tanzania.

Finding the voices for the male characters didn’t come straight off. I was fairly quick to pick up on Dad making an excellent Sidney, but the American voice was harder. I searched and people answered, but I wanted personal connection, feeling a little precious of my project. There were a couple of guys who nearly did it, then didn’t, and as time was running out I wasn’t sure what to do. At short notice I asked my brother, and to my very pleasant relief he came good and we discovered a previously unknown (to me) talent! Recordings were crafted and I selected music to add in the mix. Steve kindly created these with great care and fine tuning. I fell in love with those recordings! Like a movie soundtrack or a radio play I wanted to keep listening to. Which was lucky as I had to rehearse fast and the lines weren’t coming quick enough.

I had overstretched myself and foolishly gotten Steve booked for another gig the same evening as my first performance. So I was on my own and this was a very technical show – projector, sound and visuals to coordinate with live action cues. I was a bit stuck but luckily my friend Anastasia agreed to help. She was at first unkeen, being unfamiliar with these things, but I was desperate and the main thing was having a mate there. On the night it was a bit chaotic, but we did it and had an amazing audience. The show was part of a festival of events and an exhibition called ‘We Grow into the Forest‘, as curated and organised by my friend Judit.

For the second performance at Telegraph Hill Festival, it was a smoother flow and it was great to have the opportunity to see that version of the play grow through the duration. I think there is much I would like to add to it, from the voices already included but also more about the women, and other characters and narratives that didn’t make this cut.

Why Roots now?

Judit asked me about a year ago to make a life model based performance and workshop for this event. I had suggested myself as the model since it was unknown if there would be funding, and besides I have a few images of myself with trees, or nude in natural surroundings, which related to the theme of trees and nature that ‘We Grow into the Forest’ was about.

When we returned from Lithuania in late May last year, Mum was in hospital and died ten days later. This shook my world, our family’s world, and grief is a long unfolding. While this is still so raw, and in fact she has been the subject of much of my art over the years, it felt easier to go back further into the past this time and untangle some of the knots. I mean, on the one hand Mum has been very much on my mind and with me these last months, but on the other I am not ready to make her the subject directly again.

I have learnt a lot from this gathering of information and still there is much more to do.

Here is an audio version of the Roots play.

Giving Testimony: Breaking The Silence

I want to speak out: for too long I have been silent.

I have been told that my case will be closed but not officially confirmed.

I have learnt to be more quiet. I have learnt to love being more quiet, not having a mobile phone for nearly 4 months. Paying more attention to what’s around me, listening better to others and my own inner voice. Responding to emails when I am ready, looking at the internet and social media just sometimes. This has added enormous quality to my life. It wasn’t just because of the police investigation but the timing worked out, when my mobile naturally died, so long overloaded.

It was a good episode and so far has culminated in my rape survivor talk at WOW on March 11th. There was of course also doing a video testimony for the police, and that whole process, which as well resulted in the accused man being brought in for questioning. I am happy knowing that he knows that I was pissed off enough to report him now. It lets him know that his past actions could yet catch up with him and may be a warning to him regarding his present behaviour. It might make him more careful or even more dangerous… but he knows.

The video wasn’t easy though I was fairly calm. I was nervous too, and the preceding days were challenging for how vulnerable I felt again. Being so re-immersed in that earlier difficult part of my life was a headfuck. I was glad to get it done and found the police ok to work with. Also the support of an advocate from Rape Crisis UK was highly appreciated. I want to state that anyone can access Rape Crisis and its sister organisations like Solace Women’s Aid (there are men’s ones too). You can get advice to find out whether it’s a good idea for you to go to the police. The legal process may not be advisable, and if it possibly is, then it’s great to be armed with knowledge in advance. The Rights of Women‘s ‘From Report To Court‘ is recommended reading as is this essay on institutionalised misogyny in the legal system.

There has been the added bonus that a good friend of mine was involved as a witness, though treated as a separate case. It has been a privilege if in fact awful, to share this with her, naturally for the solidarity. It is a little challenging for the legal system if witnesses know each other, as they may contaminate the evidence, so we were obliged not to discuss the case. At first we thought we were not allowed to communicate at all, which felt very wrong, but fortunately it was discovered that the law was not actually so restrictive.

What I want to say is, it was great to do this even so many years later, in fact because of that and being in a relatively strong place in my life now so that being the right time. It has helped me to re-examine the map of my life, what led to what and what that means for where I am now. The rape preceded an important part of my life that I wouldn’t ever change. The important part didn’t only happen because of the rape, but it was heavily informed by it. I made close bonds in a new community and lived an alternative, underground lifestyle. That shaped me so much that I can’t imagine changing it now. But the rape was not a positive act and it is right to seek justice however unlikely to be met. There is a sense of realigning my relationship with my own past; underlining that my departure from that time in my life, has its origins in rape. There was a very positive outcome to an unhappy family life; I made good out of a dark situation. Moving on entails examining the background circumstances more fully. That was an empowering solution for that time, but by no means solved all the problems.

I would like the man to be put on a register at the least as I think if he is free, he is dangerous. I would love to give talks to teenage girls and vulnerable young women about my experience, though I understand the landscape has shifted towards the online. Still, being vulnerable hasn’t changed so much. It’s about when you are in a desperate place and you have to leave home, or you just arrive in a country with no place to call home yet. You are more vulnerable, sometimes with few options. Men like this one I am talking about, know how to spot this, and to avoid being caught. In my case it was all too easy. Others are drugged. I wish I had been able to report him at the time. I think speaking out must be a lot easier now, not just for me so many years later, but for young women who have seen #MeToo. Of course it is one thing posting on social media and another to report to the police. Then you are obliged not to post online, so it really is a dichotomy. The police are not always useful, and cases can be extremely stressful. I wouldn’t want to go through with a court case unless I was one of several witnesses. Historic cases are difficult to prove. But if you report, then at some point the police may realise they have several allegations against the same man. Or if you have strong evidence yourself and are able, going to court may be viable.

None of the other women I shared the panel with at WOW had gone to the police, so often it isn’t appropriate. There may be family entanglements involved, or the perpetrator is not known… Speaking out is important for being listened to, for owning your story, for fully integrating complex and challenging realities. That is what I have found, and it gave me an appetite to dig deeper, go write more, share more in this way, whether speaking or writing. This is not new to me as several of my performances include personal experience, but somehow this feels more direct. There is not the spectacle, but simply rawness.

Giving a rape survivor talk has allowed me to look at my past through a contemporary lens. Rather than seeing the incident as just an unfortunate thing that happened and was bound to happen, I am ready to see it more for the damage it inflicted in its own right. I want to say out loud that what he did to me (and others) is wrong. Something ought to be done about him if it hasn’t already. I believe if not locked up, he would be dangerous, with a large appetite and no scruples. Even if he can’t be convicted there should be a way to warn women and teenage girls about him.

I met Winnie Li at WOW, she was leading the discussion session after our talks. She was one of the speakers I saw in 2016 at Giving Testimony, and she has written a book called Dark Chapter about her experience. She also started Clear Lines Festival in 2015 as a forum for discussing consent and sexual violence. I hope to join her for a meeting of Clear Lines supporters on April 17th. Her story is one of adult stranger rape and she was able to report and win a court case, most fortunately. She has an inspiring approach, as it changed the course of her life and she has made it into an extremely positive thing, for the benefit of others like myself as well as herself. She brings professionalism and confidence with leadership to an emerging scene; I hope to learn from her! She led the discussion with the equally inspirational Silke Grygier who founded the Survivors Collective and is an activist.

I myself felt a little different for being less innocent if just as vulnerable as my fellow panel speakers. It is just the nature of my circumstances that I was already in some question with the law; I had chosen an underground path. That feels a very valuable thing as society isn’t like that in the same way now, to have followed a less travelled path. Everything is more diversified now with the internet, yet still an oppressive mainstream dominates. We do enjoy considerable freedom of choice and expression here however, which I appreciate keenly. One of the other speakers regularly speaks as a survivor representative on the radio or does magazine interviews I think. Her name is Sophie Yates Lu.

As I grow older I become more interested in the bigger picture of my origins, beyond the immediate time of my life, into the past of various strands of my ancestry. It makes such a rich composition that touches on lots of 20th century history from fleeing Lithuanian pogroms, migrating to South Africa, founding the South African Communist Party, escaping McCarthyism to bring up a family in East Berlin, and living on one of the last colonial plantations in East Africa. With all this in mind, the smaller events of my individual life are put into a grander perspective. I may be relatively unusual for being such a mongrel in terms of having various origins, but all our ancestors lived in vastly different periods of human history, no matter where we come from. Taking it all in, I feel less victim, more survivor, and more connected to different facets in my character.

I wonder how my life may resonate with others, my particular story, who it might reach? I always felt no one could have reached me when I needed it most, as I was not open to it. So who might I reach? Simply being the best version of myself that I can must spread the most positive energy. It may have all manner of outcomes and that I could never plan.

A recent chance experience in Hamburg reminded me of one of the most effective forms of therapy I have come across. Death metal, head banging and loud industrial/noise music/sound. This kind of music saved me when I was a teenager. It’s the sort of thing that sensible parents work hard to avoid their offspring encountering, but sometimes there is a powerful catharsis available through the medium of live performance, the direct connection with singer (or growler!) or simply received via the sound. If you are in a place in life where you feel a great deal of anger, and find that there is no reasonable recourse to justice apparent, that can leave enormous frustration and an intensification of toxic anger. This is very unhealthy if left unchecked, as the impulse to seek revenge being thwarted by fear/legal implications, there is no place for the anger to channel except inwards to the sufferer, possibly affecting others too.

I recommend a good dose of death metal (or similar). Just seeing or hearing someone else expressing what appears to be angry dark emotions (I have wondered if sometimes they are in fact exploring more nuanced, sensitive mental states, though in their screams and roars it is hard to discern, I imagine they must as they produce so much!) seems to validate my own anger. It says, ‘It’s fine to feel this way – for whatever reason – and you don’t need to hide it. In fact you should definitely not hide it, but show it loudly and not holding back.’ Then to join in by dancing/head banging or growling/screaming along allows you to share in the righteous reclaiming of that part of you that felt forced into the shadows. At least that’s how it worked for me. It was my regular practice aged 16 – 20 perhaps, sometimes weekly or more often. It aided the processing of unhappy emotions, and shifted my sense of disaffected outsiderhood towards focusing on a state of elation found in dancing free-form with others. It is a tribal thing, to all be pounding the ground together rhythmically at the same time, to sweat the night through. The dance floor was a temple, the DJ/bands priests and the clubbers a congregation. It was not lost on us as we stomped to Ministry‘s ‘Psalm 69‘. That the psychedelic messages on all the record covers told us to take a trip, to drop out, to groove and feel the love (and the anger) but also to reject mainstream culture and capitalist consumerism, served as a wider political framework to hold such disillusioned youth.

I was visiting my friend Sabine in Hamburg over Easter and she is a musician who recently moved back to her home city from London. We wanted to see some live music and quite randomly picked something from the listings which none of us knew, and nor did we research. Just took a chance. I might not have chosen it had I known it was death metal, but I was so pleased we did. It took me back to the clubs of my youth and the immense source of power I found them to be! An issue that had been plaguing me relentlessly recently, now found a place to be deposited.

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Rolo Tomassi at head CRASH 31/3/18

In Rolo Tomassi‘s combination of rage and sensuality, soaring synthscapes and earthly torment, I found redemption. The switch in my head to release such negative emotions was flicked. I left the head CRASH venue just off the Reeperbahn, a happier, more connected and grounded person than the distraught harpy who arrived earlier. Modern life – mass produced culture leaves swathes of loneliness, devastation, anger and deep sadness amongst us. But there are natural remedies out there if you look hard enough!

Recently I wrote and performed Girl in Suitcase, once more at my local Telegraph Hill Festival. I had the tremendous musical support of Sarah Kent, and as well other friends were involved too. It was a wonderful opportunity to be celebratory and make something I wanted to, be an expression of myself in the moment! With some preparation of course… So I leave you with a few photographs by Judit Prieto. I was developing some of my narrative here, particularly about being a life model. The slideshow is very indulgent; for the non-nudity collection please see here! This was the Equinox performance at The Telegraph pub on March 20th 2018.

 

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Following Grandmother’s footsteps in Africa

I have slowed down since going to Africa – Tanzania – and my inner compass has been reset. It is on a more peaceful course now that the barometer of importance shifted back down to Earth. I was humbled to spend time in a city, a town and a village where people live so much of their lives on the street, in the open, in community. They are in touch with the elements of their existence in a way that few are in the West, beyond the homeless or eco communities.

on Zanzibar

In some ways they are behind us, when it comes to women’s rights or LGBTQI rights, or state provision for health or welfare. Their life expectancy is lower (about 62), HIV is the biggest killer, and the majority of their population are young. Women are not allowed to defend themselves in court – they must be represented by a male relative, and homosexuality is punishable by lengthy prison sentence. In England women were in a comparable situation legally in the 16th century – if they were poor and tried for witchcraft (the two often going together), they were not allowed to defend themselves. Gay men in the UK however, faced imprisonment if outed until relatively recently; homosexual acts were decriminalised just 50 years ago. Part of the reason Tanzanian law is homophobic is a legacy of colonial law, so that while Britain was in power there until independence in 1961, the change in UK law in 1967 did not pass on.

off Zanzibar coast

I was in coastal areas of Tanzania – Dar es Salaam, Bagamoyo and Zanzibar – where 85% of the population are Muslim. The women are very well covered up, even in intense heat wearing many layers. It was my first direct experience of the call to prayer which happens 5 times a day, and is often most noticeable at the quietest times like just before sunrise. In each location we stayed, these calls varied according to the caller. My favourite was in Dar es Salaam, which could only be heard early as the city is so noisy the rest of the time. It was a sonorous, melodic voice that carried a powerful reach to a higher source. It was a music that did inspire, and I appreciated that this part of Muslim practice is absolutely in touch with the Earth’s passage around the sun. It’s a regular call to nature, a reminder to retune to the essentials and spiritual side of life.

In 1947 my Father’s family moved from England, via Johannesburg where he was born, to Kongwa, central Tanzania (then Tanganyika). This was because my Grandfather, who was an agriculturalist, had been commissioned by the British government to work on the controversial Groundnut Scheme as head of the scientific department. They were trying to find ways to grow crops on less favourable land, in order to feed more people easily. Massive and monumental mistakes were made right at the start of the project and it was a complete disaster wasting untold resources. Because of a post war oil/fat scarcity, sample testing on small plots of land which would have been the intelligent thing to do, was bypassed at a political level in UK parliament. Instead, they planned from the outset to clear over 3 million acres of dense bush (about the size of US state Connecticut) using the most advanced machinery to tame the land, in order to create a peanut monoculture. My Grandfather was brought in after these decisions had already been made, and did his best within the framework. By Summer ’51  the Scheme had been abandoned and my Grandfather drove North alone to a place known at the time as Tozi, in Northern Sudan for his next contract. The rest of the family flew back to England to spend time with my Grandmother’s family in Lancashire, while the site in Sudan was being set up.

“Prison Island” near Zanzibar

For my 40th birthday my partner Steve offered to take me anywhere in the world. I immediately thought of Africa due to some interesting family history there, and never having been before. South Africa would have been the obvious choice (my Grandfather’s family having been there since the turn of the last century), but I was drawn to less well trodden soil, and the place where my Grandmother allegedly began to lose her marbles. In a shamanic sense I wanted to go and find them, and to reclaim her story. My Grandfather is well remembered professionally in an annual memorial lecture given at the University of Reading, where he held a long professorship, and even has a tree dedicated to him in Kew Gardens. Although the Groundnut Scheme was a failure, he had more success subsequently and was a renowned agricultural scientist throughout his career.

in the Slavery Museum at Stone Town, Zanzibar

My Grandmother’s life was more in the shadows, and not unusually for her time she endured her husband gallivanting with numerous other women. He was well known for that too. After his death it was even said by old family friends and fellow scientists, that not until a particularly open affair out in Tanganyika, did my Grandmother crack, as if catalysed by his behaviour. This seems an unusual observation for my Grandfather’s former colleagues and close friends to share (with my Father), about 50 years after the episode. It seemed that for them it was important to pass on information out of respect for my dear Grandmother. She had suffered a great deal following diagnosis of schizophrenia, with the typical procedures of the time – institutionalisation, EST (electro shock therapy) and medication – apart from the illness itself. This didn’t all happen at once mind, rather she had episodes of illness, yet managed to hold family, work (she was a teacher at the school in Kongwa) and home together very well the rest of the time, but under great strain I imagine. Following my Grandfather’s Sudan contract, the family relocated to England which was probably due to a few reasons. Sudan gained independence from ’56 and prior to that Westerners were increasingly unwelcome. Apart from that my Grandmother’s family doctor in Lancashire had warned that for the sake of her health she must return to England. That advice likely came in ’51 yet she continued on out to Tozi to support husband and children throughout their African spell.

At her funeral in 2005 (in Reading), her brother came down from Lancashire and spoke about his sister’s plight for the first time to her family. He pointedly called that episode in Tanganyika a turning point from which she was never the same again. He felt when seeing her after that time that he had lost his once extremely bright and sharp-witted sister – she was the first person from their town to get into Oxford University where she got a first class degree in English Literature. With her (and Grandfather) now dead, he was at last free to express this. I have long been aware of the connection between the onset of her illness, and her husband’s painful and blatant infidelity. Since researching this piece I have also wondered about a psychogeographic connection with the destructive and large scale rape of the African land, that was the Groundnut Scheme. Local African wisdom was completely ignored, the area to be farmed known as “the country of perpetual drought”, which tallied with available meteorological data. Moreover the land was not tameable as hoped, and only a tiny fraction of the original plan went ahead, but still a lot of land was damaged in this process. The Scheme was more a symbol of colonial power and agriculturalism, than what it actually yielded – more peanuts were flown in to start the growing than were ever harvested.

In Mangapwani, Zanzibar

My partner and I did not go to Kongwa, which is a very rural place in central Tanzania and not so easy to reach, especially in just the fortnight we had available. It is a large country that can take a long time to travel across, so we stayed in more accessible places. I was pleased they were not all touristy, and in some places we were the only white people. It was in Zanzibar, in Stone Town, which is very touristy, that we got hassled a lot and there were many other white people around. I generally felt safer there as I knew people would speak English more and there was infrastructure for westerners’ benefit, but I did not enjoy it so much! I knew that a lot of what we saw there was in place to cater for our needs, and try to tempt our purses. Indeed, for some locals I think we were basically purses on legs. On the occasions that someone spoke with us outside of that agenda, it felt such a warm privilege.

Fish market in Dar es Salaam

One such time was on my favourite day of the holiday, when we took the daladala (bus) from Stone Town on Zanzibar to a village called Mangapwani. We went there because it had some places of historical interest, including caves and a slave chamber, as well as a beach. In the event, the journey by bus was most rewarding for an authentic African experience. We were the only white people who crammed into this single level lorry/bus with a very low ceiling. Everyone except small children had to bend over and crouch to walk inside it when finding a seat. There were different types of bus, some with rows of seats, and this one with a bench all round the edge, everyone looking inwards and very close together, also a few people sitting in between the others’ feet.

the 102 daladala

This was the 102 daladala and we had a walk from the main road where we were dropped off, to Mangapwani. The caves were a really interesting discovery; not easy to navigate in the dark by torchlight, but it was surprisingly big down there, with large pools from which locals collected fresh water in buckets.

It was at the slave chamber that the guide himself made a very positive impression. We had already visited the slavery museums at Stone Town in Bagamoyo and Zanzibar – the first with a guide who shared much interesting information in particular relating to the present day experience of descendants of slaves. The second had a really well documented exhibition telling the whole history, and as well some slave chambers to go inside. So what we saw and learnt at this spot in Mangapwani was not so new for us, though it was different for only pertaining to the time after slavery had officially been abolished. These were secret chambers used by Arab slavers who continued their trade on the quiet for some years, away from British patrolling eyes. What really struck was the nature of the guide. We both came away with a strong feeling of his personal warmth, the care he took leading us down dusty steep steps in the dark, or along a rubbly pathway to the shoreline. He showed extra consideration beyond the call of duty. Also our guidebook had warned us that we would be forced to pay much more than the going rate for entrance. It was not the case – in fact it cost less than the (2015) guidebook suggested – so we’d been set up to expect dodginess when none was present, just a very decent sweet man. After being so much hassled in Stone Town, this day out in a village free from that, and this particular encounter, stood out. I think it’s normal that some descendants of slavery feel wary towards white people, even if it was in fact Arabs who did the slaving in these parts. The gentleman at this chamber, however, seemed quite neutral, and as with the museum guide in Bagamoyo, incredibly knowledgeable. The experience with him, although brief, left a resonance of human connection that I won’t forget. It was of the sort that heals where faith in our fellow humans has been eroded. Difficult to explain, but it was felt by both me and Steve. This was an unstated aspect – I mean our conversation with the guide stayed on topic, but it was something special and rare about him.

Inside Mangapwani slave chamber

We made another pleasant connection that day during the ride back to Stone Town. This time we took a daladala direct from the village and, being the first to get on, we were given seats next to the driver. I asked if he spoke English and he shook his head. Then I saw a Liverpool football club sticker on the window and asked if he liked them. Now it became apparent that he could speak some English… if it was about football! He first asked if we liked Liverpool (before in fact answering the question). Steve said he liked Tottenham Hotspur, who of course the guy knew. He then asked me and I said I didn’t care for football, which made him laugh. Then he told us he actually liked Manchester United and the sticker was not his. The football connection opened communication between us and although we couldn’t talk a lot, a few other exchanges happened after that.

 

 

Also in Mangapwani was a quiet beach, the chance to swim briefly in the warm, clear water, and discovering the most divine cafe/bar within a grove of monkey-laden trees and overlooking the Indian Ocean. We were the only visitors so it felt an extra treat to have escaped the tourist trail.

To remember Granny, I performed a ritual by myself whilst standing in the sea. I had originally planned to do this in Dar es Salaam as I have a photograph of her on the beach there in 1949, on holiday with her small boys including my Dad, so I know she went there. After checking out the beaches in Dar however, it became apparent that the quiet areas were not wholly safe for westerners. We found out why as well, since we walked that way and had a scary encounter with a man hassling us in a very disturbing and dramatic fashion. It seemed likely that he had mental health issues, as we say here – his eyes looked like he was on something. For a while he followed us in a place where no-one else was around, jabbering frantically in Swahili (I presume). He tried to put his arm round me a few times, and was attempting to hold on to Steve, but we shrugged him off. He expressed immense desperation in his gestures, madly trying to get our attention, but we could not understand him and I felt a bit scared. He intoned words rhythmically, repeatedly as if cursing us, but I thought he was a very broken, damaged person. He had a naked torso and many scars. I sensed that he was fearless, which is why I was scared, and also because I could not see potential help. He was relentless and I didn’t know what he might try to do. Luckily after quite a while walking a long stretch with him trailing us, we saw a stall where there was a guy in uniform. We headed towards him. I wasn’t sure who he was as the stall seemed to be sponsored by Pepsi, but just his presence felt favourable. As we got closer we saw the sign that he was a policeman, and he called our unfortunate companion over. We imagined it was not the first time that those two individuals had met… Later we found a passage in the guidebook (that somehow we had missed before) warning of that dangerous area.

Art market in former slave market at Bagamoyo

So, after a few days in Dar, we travelled North to Bagamoyo, a town known for arts and also its history as a centre where slaves were taken. The name means ‘Lay down your heart’, as it was seen as an end point to many slaves’ long journey from far away where their tribes resided in the centre of Africa. Those who were weak would not make it beyond Bagamoyo as they were not valued enough to be worth selling in the slave market. Many wouldn’t even make it that far, so gruelling the weary journey. Those that made it to Zanzibar were then often sold on to masters in the Middle East. We were told that the reason that slave descendants are not widespread in the Middle East despite so many Africans being taken there during that slave trade, is that unlike the slave masters in America and the West Indies, the Arabs castrated all their male slaves (and presumably didn’t raise children with female slaves). The slaves who remained in Bagamoyo were put to work in whatever ways they could be used.

We were staying at an eco lodge called Firefly, which was very friendly and comfortable. The woman running it also organised local beach cleaning to deal with the tide of plastic bottles washing up amongst other waste (the beach was the other side of the lodge garden). She had teams of Western teenagers on gap years dropping in to do their bit, which seemed highly enterprising! It was along this beach during the quiet of the day, when Tanzanian workers are still working and there were few tourists around, that on our last morning there I decided to do my ritual for Granny. The tide was a long way out so it was easy to get some distance from walkers, hawkers and men building boats at the top of the beach, by walking right up to the water’s edge. I was in my bikini as nudity might cause too much of a sensation in those parts and I didn’t want to attract undue attention, rather be left alone. Even a bikini was extremely unusual there, the local women always being covered up.

Bagamoyo beach

I had brought along a picture of my Grandmother, a portrait of her that was photographed when she was 17: young, bright, hopeful and quite innocent, I imagine. I had been looking at several images of her before we travelled to Tanzania, and that was the one I chose for this ritual as I wanted to focus on her at a time before she became ill; when her soul was perhaps most intact. That was the idea. To focus on restoring that sense of her healthy vibrant soul, and in so doing, restoring the connection between her and her lineage. Healing a damaged female line which should have passed on strength and power instead of trauma. To represent the female blood line, I had collected my most recent menstrual period that had begun on the first day of our trip to Tanzania so it was pretty fresh. After a meditation focusing on the image of Granny and her soul, I poured my blood onto each of my limbs, then washed it off in the sea. Finally I focused on the horizon while I was still in the zone, and then walked back to the sand where my bag and clothes were. I sat down and immediately recorded some feelings.

There was a lot more to this journey that I could share. I suppose what struck most strongly was the feeling I had in Dar es Salaam. Being in an utterly new place, where people make homes out of anything – often corrugated iron, and further out from the city, mud and sticks – and live close to the ground. It was a privilege to be among them. We were staying in Kariakoo, the African neighbourhood as the guidebook called it at the heart of the city, which bustled throughout from dawn till late. The people looked healthy and live tremendously physical existences. There is food but they work hard for it. There is poverty as we know it, yet I sensed some richness of spirit that many of us have lost through the acquisition of (and dependence on) too many material goods and processed foods. And we’ve become more separated – from ourselves and each other – because of our relative wealth. I mean almost all of us in the West, even if we don’t think of ourselves as rich. Compared to them we are, because the state is and the infrastructure is, but that doesn’t make the soul rich. Being all crowded together in the streets of an evening sharing a meal, that looked like a different world to me. Not yet tarmac streets either; but dusty, crumbly, bumpy, earthy roads with holes in. I know it’s not what their middle classes aspire to, you only had to watch the TV in the hotel to see that.

part of Kariakoo market

Technology is changing the world rapidly and while it takes longer to upgrade the outer infrastructure – buses, trains, roads etc, as I sat crammed on an old daladala in Zanzibar, some of my fellow passengers were using newer, more powerful smartphones than my own! We witnessed them at a juxtaposition of older and much newer ways of life. It seemed like an exciting combination and I hope they don’t lose too much of the old, though their women’s and LGBTQI rights need a complete overhaul.

Colobus monkey on Zanzibar

Watching boys play football impromptu on a promenade by the sea, from about 4 years old up to late teenagers, kicking the ball to each other, practising their footwork; I was reminded of my brother playing as a child with his friends, sometimes I would join in too. To see their control of the ball and physical confidence – and barefoot in Tanzania – I thought how that sight has become rarer back in England. I don’t mean in the proper designated places, but just in an empty street or car park; we used to enjoy playing in the streets. Not only are parents much more cautious now (and rules probably stricter), but also children are busier with little screens and tiny keyboards and I think it’s a shame. We used to get a lot of exercise making our own entertainment playing outside. It was a pleasure to watch the African boys, and it was a common occurrence in the different places we visited. Later towards sunset and beyond they were running and diving over the wall into the sea below, each trying to outdo the others’ prowess, inventing new styles, playing games in friendly competition.

red colobus monkey

The other side of this is that I couldn’t see the girls enjoying such physical fun. They were very covered up from an early age, from babes in arms in fact, with bonnets and long sleeves; only faces and hands revealed. They were not able to be wild and free, always supposed to behave in a coded, mannered way. I don’t think that’s healthy for girls and women; they cannot access the intelligence of the skin and the body this way, or the confidence that grows from sharing physical connections with others. They are limited instead and encouraged to view others’ dress critically instead of focusing on what really matters. I tried to adhere to local etiquette when it comes to dressing, but one of my long dresses has a slit up one side. I thought nothing of it, just that it is comfortable, but as I walked along the street local women stared at me, and the only thing they looked at was the slit. Maybe they were just curious but I thought I detected judgement. It reminded me how women end up enforcing the systems that oppress them.

more colobus!

I felt more strongly that I would never defend a woman’s right to cover up back home, though equally I would never tell her how to dress. It is for women to decide themselves, but if your culture has that norm it could feel daunting to break it. I personally think that if women’s modesty is valued too highly, it creates a culture of victim blaming. It is saying that if a woman doesn’t cover up, she may expect to be abused somehow. It is removing the responsibility from men for their own atrocious actions and putting it all on women. That is the Patriarchy and while I understand that hearing these words from outsiders may be less appealing than being told what to wear by your own people, I want to be open because too often we feel unable to speak from the heart. And it does affect my life in the UK (and the world) if there is a pervading culture of victim blaming within the population. I don’t think the West has all the answers; we have much to learn from each other. It ought to be a dialogue.

hippos at Sadaani National Park

In Tanzanian law marital rape does not exist; a woman is deemed her husband’s property by virtue of his having paid bride price – he may do what he likes with her providing he does not disturb the peace of others unduly. That means other people’s peace, not his wife’s. Many women there will suffer domestic violence in silence as there is little they can do to escape. I think that state of affairs is fairly common, particularly in parts of Asia and Africa; sometimes much harsher too. In the UK marital rape was only written into law in 1991.

I’m not totally down about Tanzanian dress code, however – they have amazing textiles and know how to cover up with style! The prints on women’s dresses were visual candy, kaleidoscopic, psychedelic, every-coloured, multi-patterned joy! And although I usually couldn’t understand them, there were some outspoken, authoritative women on TV, and vibrant front-women singing and dancing in bands in a local festival. Oppression is everywhere in the world, and it is relative to the state of the society. What I observed about women was just a part of my experience; the overriding feeling I had was about the whole way of life – the African way, it seemed. An outdoor way of life, where the kitchen may look dirty but the food tastes amazing. I am remembering the lunch we were treated to in the village of Sadaani which is in a National Park. From my diary;

stall where vegetables for the meal were bought

“The meal in the village was very fine, all vegetarian as I had requested. Coconut rice, okras with what our guide, Adam had called white tomatoes, though I had assumed them to be related to the aubergine; spinach prepared with carrot and garlic, and a dish with kidney beans. All very tasty, also with fresh water melon and cucumber. All together. No separation of courses, just eating, because the luxury of eating is appreciated. It looked and felt a feast. The room we ate in was a shack like the rest, semi open, ground floor as in earth floor, like outside. Dirty by western standards. Basic facilities, cooker if you would call it that black/burnt from use, looked old like many items, mixed together with newer plastic bowls etc. Small children wandering about outside, playing drafts, also small goats.”

We were driven around the park slowly – the roads are bumpy and you don’t want to scare the animals – and saw giraffes, baboons, waterbucks, warthogs and antelopes (also lots of elephant shit!) Then we travelled by boat on the Wami river to catch sight of hippos, crocodiles and many different birds – a fish eagle, storks, southern ground hornbills, yellow weaver birds and African spoonbills. It is a relatively new park and quite bushy so harder to spot animals than on the open plains in other regions. Also, animals like elephants that until 2005 were hunted in the same area, hold on to that memory and still are afraid of man. I think it was the river journey that inspired me most – the muddy banks and mangroves, families of hippos, and occasionally a croc dashing into the water! Another world.

I loved the market in Kariakoo too, like what Peckham or Deptford are suggestions of, but nowhere near as busy in my experience. The colourful dresses on sale, rummaging in piles of beautifully printed frocks, searching for some that weren’t ridiculously long as so many were. The women there were not so tall so I never understood this. Pairs of leggings modelled on mannequin legs with large bottoms! Absoluely anything and everything on sale on the ground or a table; old electrical items, cuddly toys, soap… books in english on how to get rich. A man with various rare doves in a cage on the back of his bicycle!

the old German Boma at Bagamoyo, Stone Town

There were quieter parts of Dar too, that looked more like streets in East London and had tarmac roads, plenty of mosques. Also the ‘colonial’ area of old, with more official and gated buildings, but much less character. The ruins in Bagamoyo’s Stone Town, with the old slave market now housing lots of artists’ work for sale. Enormously wide girthed trees with roots above ground, and red colobus monkeys in Jozani forest. I have so many wonderful memories of this trip, and a lot more in my diary but I will leave it here for now. It was such an educational – in the widest sense – trip, helping me to understand my family background better, and also cultural – colonial. I have finally travelled to Tanzania, to remember Granny, and gained a closer knowledge of my own connection to the past. With so much love and thanks to Steve for taking me there.

 

A useful article I found about the Groundnut Scheme.

Reporting historic rape; telling women’s stories; & the Solstice

It began in a funk; I was depressed and disinclined to leave my home on Thursday 1st June. Yet I had planned to go to a Women’s Equality Party meeting in Catford, of the Lewisham branch which I had recently become a member of. A friend of mine was going to come with me. She isn’t local but had also joined the party and encouraged me to do likewise. I messaged her to say I was not well and couldn’t make it; she responded that she was already on her way! So I quickly put sandals on (it was warm), and went to meet her. We had time before the meeting to sit in the park and chat.

After a couple of hours, and a drink, for by now we were in the beer garden of the pub where the meeting was due to take place, we got on to a subject she had been wanting to discuss with me for a while. Rape. I wrote a blog post almost a year ago, about being raped 22 years ago. This had resonated with her, but it had taken her a while to find the opportunity to bring the subject up. She started describing something that had happened to her about 9 years ago, being raped, and why she hadn’t felt inclined to report it until reading my blog.

As she described her experience and all the details, particularly of the man involved, I began to pick up on distinct similarities. I asked her pointed questions about the location and his physical and personality description, and came to the conclusion that this was the same man. We were struck with incredulity! How had this happened to us both, with the same man? Before we knew each other, and many years apart. How extraordinary. At that point it was necessary for her to check old emails, as her experience had, unlike mine, happened within the digital era. There were email records, with other digital links. This could lead somewhere and we were just left with the certainty that we would both report it to the police.

This process has since been underway, beginning with making contact with Rape Crisis UK. We wanted to learn about the system we would be getting involved in before contacting the police. We wanted to be prepared for a very challenging mission. This proved to be a brilliant move and I found much value from all contacts concerned. I was guided early on to the extremely helpful ‘From Report to Court’ document, written by The Rights of Women. This spells out step by step what to expect from the legal process and what you are entitled to as a victim or witness. It makes clear that there are a lot of safeguards and improvements in the system for victims these days. It actually made me feel firstly very empowered for the knowledge of the process, and secondly encouraged to go forward with my report. It made me feel supported, knowing that The Rights of Women exist, and that although there’s still a long way to go in dealing with sexual violence, there are structures in place to protect us. I knew there was help out there, and Rape Crisis also proved to be really efficient and supportive.

Not long after reading ‘From Report to Court’ I felt inspired to switch on Woman’s Hour one morning, and most fortunately the woman speaking, Karen Gardner, was describing her experience of taking a rapist to court and the legal system. I seemed to be in synch with the universe (I by no means often listen to the programme, and I had not checked the content in advance)! What she said was far less favourable than what I had read about in the document, and her experience was recent and in London. It made it apparent that sadly victims often don’t receive the good care and all they are in fact entitled to. It was useful to get this real life account, but also the speaker said that she still felt it was worthwhile. Even if there is not enough evidence to prosecute, and it is a very difficult case, you as a victim are doing your bit to achieve justice. This may be beneficial for your own inner peace and ability to move on, and it may also help to protect potential future victims. The report will still exist even if the perpetrator cannot be sentenced. It may add to a body of evidence. That said, I understand well why many women do not report, and that it may not always be helpful for a woman to do so.

I was assigned an advocate who I met up with a few days later. She added more insight to what I had gathered already. Where I had been led to believe that if my friend and I continued speaking with each other, this could be used against us if the case went to court, as we may supposedly be contaminating each others’ evidence, this turned out not to be the case, much to our relief. While we are obliged not to discuss the case once it is in the hands of the police, that does not inhibit our friendship otherwise. I had wondered how victims would feel encouraged to come forwards if they could not support each other during an already testing time.

My advocate accompanied me to the police station to make my first report. I was not exactly in a traumatised state, so many years later, but I did feel anxious and I knew that her presence would only be positive. In the end it took more than two hours with quite a lot of waiting around, and the policewoman not being sure of protocol in such a situation so checking with others upstairs. But it was fine. I had already tried to think about it from their point of view, the facts they would want to know, some of which are uncomfortable to remember, while others I could not. I was able to describe the scenario fairly matter of factly, while she looked up spellings in the dictionary! She listened, asked sensitively, and very importantly, I felt believed and treated with respect. I was thanked for my patience, for coming forward and being brave. This was the beginning of an important process that is a sort of turning point.

A few days later my assigned SOIT (Sexual Offences Investigative Techniques) officer called to check a few details that the first officer had missed. These concerned the nature of consent, or lack of; questions that help to determine if, when and how the perpetrator committed crimes. To understand how the case may unravel in court if it gets there, what sort of line of defence would be likely, and perhaps the probability of a successful conviction. These questions could feel intrusive, but they are important. I felt very grateful to be approaching this now, so long after as I am not so reactive. There are still triggers, but I can see them more. I was aware that if I was freshly traumatised, this process would be an ordeal I think. I don’t know how they improve that for victims. In cases where it is not physical overpowering that is involved so much as psychological manipulation, there may be a very strong burden of guilt on the victim, for allowing it to happen. Yet the more people that come forward about these sorts of cases, the better understood they should become and more familiar to those who work within the law and police.

It is an unexpected turning point, even if a natural progression from sharing the blog post. I did not expect this, but it has been a game-changer in terms of going to the police. This has allowed me to consider the past differently already; I have imagined being in court, seeing him again, what I would say. It has bonded me in a newly bizarre way with my friend, and that certainly helps one to feel empowered on this path. I reconsidered the actual impact of the rape all those years ago. Where I had blurred the memory into the hectic and intense events that soon followed in my life at the time, I now unpicked it. The rape itself had happened at a turning point. I was at a very critical juncture; soon to leave home, make a new beginning, and I lacked strong guidance. What was going to affect my choices? Maybe I would have made the same ones anyway but I will never know. That incident stood out at the time as extremely disturbing. I masked it with drugs because I didn’t know how to get justice.

Apart from this serious matter, I have been aching for new activity on the artistic and activist front. Something to distract me from dwelling too long in the past, and focus instead on creating a new Spirited Bodies format. I met the Feminist Library last year when working at the Fawcett Society conference in London, and having visited them knew that they have a workshop space. I wanted a venue that share my values and were not commercially driven. I also felt it was time to involve professional models in a more active (and paid) way. It is all very well creating a space for body empowerment through life drawing, but as a professional model myself, I want to work with my colleagues rather than separately. I want them to share their experience in a way that enhances their modelling role. I want to include all our voices, especially of women who are outside of mainstream beauty ideals. I want to give them a chance to share their feelings and any difficulties they may have come up against by giving them a lot of freedom to create their session in their own way (with some guidance), so expecting variety! The new series is called the Stories of Women and began on 17th July, for women only. The next is on Monday – 21st August, featuring model Jennifer Farmer.

Finally, this year’s Summer Solstice celebration was exceptional with the heatwave coinciding perfectly! This time my friends and I were not the only ones with the same idea at Hilly Fields stone circle! We were in brilliant company and enjoyed sharing a ritual with lovely folk, dancing naked until late. I leave you with a few images and a lovely clip which was originally found on Instagram.

P1010277-01

By Rodger Kibble

solstice

By Rodger Kibble

Screenshot_20170626-133937-01

 

Old Fashioned Subtle Sexism and Implied Body Shaming

I’ve been a life model for a number of years now and fancied a change. I’d like to work with children but have no such qualification beyond babysitting as a teenager and modelling occasionally. One option is Teaching Assistant, so I looked it up and (a) the job description wreaks of “normal” job in a way I’m not sure I can handle any more. (b) The pay rate is low. I mean I often refuse that rate as a life model. I can earn a lot more as a life model, and to some extent being freelance can negotiate my own terms.
There is so much freedom and variety in my job and this mere cursory glance at another option made me appreciate that again. For a job looking after children, committing to regular hours for weeks on end, only minimum wage (or London Living Wage?) applies. Disgusting!

On the other hand I was thinking about what’s been bugging me as a life model recently. Certain jobs were making me uncomfortable. Even if I felt appreciated for my talent as a model, I also felt judged, subtly. These are jobs where I happen to fit into the artists’ idea of attractiveness in a body for them to draw. I am slim, a bit curvy, young(ish!), fit, reasonably flexible, not bad looking… and I know how to behave as life model in the way that is desired. I don’t just mean turning up on time and holding poses. I know how to engage with the artists and make suitable conversation. They want something reflected back to them which is how they see themselves as artists. They want to feel appreciated and to feel at ease with you.

What was bothering me was, these jobs while often better paid, do not always feel ethical. I know that they never book a fat model, an old model or a male model for example. They have asked me to recommend models and I’ve connected them with various. Not all have gone down too well. One was too old, too political and possibly opinionated. Another was an astrophysicist by day and they didn’t find her conversation stimulating in the way they wanted from their life model. Perhaps she hadn’t switched off yet from the day job!

At another such group I enquire what their other models are like. “Oh we don’t have any horrible bodies here,” I am told, and now I know I have completely strayed from the land of the politically correct. Which is partly a relief for the honesty, but in this case it smells of elitism, and I ask myself what is the appropriate response from me? At the time I say nothing as the conversation meanders on, and she speaks of their appreciation of fit bodies, with the strength to hold more ambitious poses. The woman I spoke to is not an organiser, just a regular punter. It’s true that when the model is really exerting their self, it can make for more compelling poses. But that wouldn’t rule out lots of older, male or larger models.

Is it for me to question who they want to draw? Is it a matter of aesthetics? And personalities? I am grateful to sometimes be among the chosen, but as someone who has run my own groups for all body types (to encourage body confidence) and gone to other groups to draw, I know of brilliant models outside of the obvious mainstream norms, and many of these would automatically be excluded from the jobs I described. Part of this it seems to me, is perpetuated by us models, picking up on the standard and only recommending similar types. After all, we want the work.

Posing one on one for an artist can be like a mini-relationship, an affair, a courtship. It might last days, span over weeks, months… Unless it’s for a commission or similar endgame, it’s very much about a connection of personalities. An exchange that is more than time and physical effort, rather an energetic connection. Sometimes it exists artistically alone, a musing inspiration, but other times I sense a girlfriend experience of sorts. Male artists with disposable income and space in their lives.

I used to be a hostess in Soho clip joints. Male clients paid excessively for time in my lingeried company, sipping expensive drinks. They likely entertained ideas of further/sexual developments. My job was to keep them there. Of course now “art” is occurring, so a higher purpose is implied, or at least perhaps a more acceptable relationship/activity. Several muses may be simultaneously on the go, alternating weeks, months, or exclusivity may be preferred for an intense period. Sharing an interest that the wife doesn’t (any longer), if she ever existed. Sometimes I am a cheap counsellor for their woes as well as indulging or reprimanding their neuroses, and providing conversation with my body to be looked at, submitted for inspection.

It can feel like that with a group of artists too. They fall in love with me a little, collectively, unanimously, and hopefully I with them. We bond for a while, over years at intervals. It is loose, casual, but they know me so well. I share brief intimacies in passing and they enjoy glimpses of my truth. Being able to be with artists in this way, to organically make this relationship work, is perhaps an unwritten skill, talent in the job description. It’s such a personal thing that is more than about looks; though I think often those talented in this context seem to share certain traits. A kind of physical beauty, and inner charm, genuine sharing without being too shy, or domineering. Exuding happy, contented, feel-good vibes. Being comfortable in this slightly old fashioned at times role.

I am sure more varied models could take on the position (and surely sometimes do) if they wanted it, but does the fit feel so natural? Do they feel accepted? Or is it just that I don’t know, and out there actually all variations coexist, with some artists choosing less typical muses, or even being less typical (and male) themselves? I hope so. I would love to hear about that. It would make me feel less like an anachronism!

I have modelled for female artists individually, but only a couple of long series which were both for committed projects where I had the desired form.

There are other groups and artists, not of this type, and fortunately now many so, who feel wholly ethical. They employ all good models and enjoy full diversity as much as is available. Every group has its own vibe to a certain extent attracting models and artists who fit in, though this is a broad spectrum. My feelings in this piece reflect my realisation that I felt more comfortable in these more I think ethical work situations. Yet there is also a place for more intimate encounters of the muse variety if not being outright physical or overtly sexual. These can be a healthy transaction, an exchange of ideas and growing friendships. It’s positive and it’s a privilege to explore connection outside of the romantic sphere (and be paid for it). It can run parallel to other relationships, offering other avenues to learn about ourselves. It’s the sort of job where you negotiate the boundaries, in terms of conversation as well as poses. What they are, for how long and when to take breaks. Do you also share meals, or go for a drink with them? Sometimes, but it usually stays professional. I mean it always does, but sometimes you become friends.

In Hammersmith, by Barry

In Muswell Hill

At Lauderdale House, in Sharon’s class

Above are some recent drawings of me from various classes. Posing with Goddess props at Cody Dock, in Tim’s class.

European Mother

She was born in Paris in 1950 but not long after, a new right wing government forced the HQ of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) where my grandparents both worked, to move abroad. My family moved to Geneva for a few months, now working temporarily as WFTU representatives to the International Labour Office (an agency of the UN) while their offices were moved to the Soviet sector of Vienna. Between ’51 and ’55 my Mother was raised in Austria until there was a change of government – it became independent after the 4 way rule (between UK, France, USSR and USA) came to an end. A condition was that it had to be neutral, so the Communist WFTU moved to Prague in ’56. My family did also but decided ultimately to move to a German speaking country, instead of having to learn Czech. They found jobs in a member organisation of the WFTU, an affiliate in East Berlin. Their 6 week period in Prague was basically for the purposes of being under observation by the East German government, as if in a holding pen. Once in East Berlin my Grandparents were employed by the Trades Union International (TUI) for Public Employees (a TUI was a Communist idea, a global collective of trade unions for a particular sector.)

When my Mother was finally brought to live in London in 1963, it was because of the break up of my Grandparents’ marriage. My English Grandmother had retained her British passport throughout, so moving back was possible. My Mother cites walking up the steps to board the aeroplane for London as the biggest turning point in her life. She had to give up the life she’d grown comfortable with, and be thrown into a new system – politically and culturally. Her Father would not be allowed to visit (until later in life) and she felt forever like a foreigner in her actual Motherland. The divisive political borders in place during the Cold War made travel and connection much harder; so far from the free flowing passage to which many of us have become accustomed. I got to thinking about this after last June’s referendum on Britain’s EU membership, as the UK plunged back to the 1980s (and earlier) in terms of overt racism. Trump’s presidency just added to this sense of regressing, of a fortress around richer more developed places, and poverty being enclosed in a prison.

Many of my European friends living in London can’t help but feel unsettled, even if they have lived here more than 20 years, and even if they have married a Brit. Theresa May refuses to guarantee their right to remain here. However much I find it hard to believe they may be deported, I do not currently face any threat of deportation myself. My life continues largely as before. Yet my life has been shaped not only by the threat of, but the actual deportation of my Mother’s family throughout her childhood. My life would have been very different (or probably not existed) had my Mother never journeyed to the political East early on. She even cites the move back to the West during her puberty, as the catalyst for triggering her multiple schlerosis (MS). A few months after moving to London, she first experienced the disease. For a month she was unable to walk properly and for a year could not take part in sport. The doctors knew what it was and told her Mother, but as my Mum was under 16 they were not obliged to tell her. The crucial thing was, the doctors warned that while at this stage the disease was only temporary, it would most likely return later in her life, around her late 30s, when it would reappear with a vengeance. This is exactly what happened, but my Grandmother died without telling her daughter that she knew. It was a Great Aunt who subsequently revealed the truth.

While it may seem unlikely that moving to a more affluent and liberal city such as London would bring on a disease, the point is that my Mother had grown very comfortable and self confident in East Berlin. Not what we always hear about the Communist states, but that was her experience. To be wrenched from that world at her Mother’s instigation at a time in a girl’s life when many hormonal shifts are jolting, thrown into a new system more driven by greed and competition, unable to maintain easy contact with left behind loved ones, was a psychic disturbance.

When I was about 19 and my Mother’s MS was well underway I got in touch with the MS Society and started reading their literature. One article stated that there was a relatively high incidence of MS occurring among people who moved from a warmer climate to a significantly cooler place during puberty. I couldn’t help but imagine a link. What if it wasn’t just about physical temperature, but also concerned energetic shifts, say in socio-economic climate, combined with emotional state. It might not apply to a girl escaping from the East to find a better life in the West as was not uncommon, but in my Mother’s case, her parents had unusually chosen to live behind the Iron Curtain because of their political beliefs. More than that her American Father would not have been able to marry his British Communist wife and remain in the US at the time. His choice to move to Europe was political, and also of the heart.

During a recent visit to my parents, I found my Dad sat at the kitchen table. He declared bleakly, “It’s like an unfolding nightmare here. Let’s move to Germany.” Mum however was less keen. After living in London for over 50 years she has finally settled. Besides which, being massively disabled makes any sort of moving or travelling far harder. Their home has been fully adapted with hoists, ramps, a lift, special shower unit for wheelchair, a hospital bed… and after a good 15 years of employing carers and personal assistants, they are now in a more confident place in that respect. It takes time to know what you need and how to ask for it, often of people who don’t speak English so well. They have had assistants of many nationalities – African, middle eastern, far eastern, northern European… and the current team are a mix of Polish, Czech Republic and Slovakian. In the event that these women had to leave the UK, perhaps Mum would feel differently about staying.

Mum aged 11 or 12, in East Berlin, 1962

Mum aged 16 or 17, in London, 1967

Being Open on the Internet

…is not always wise. People read about your innermost thoughts and exploits from afar, and sometimes become obsessed with you. Without even meeting you, they may think they have fallen in love with you. Then, because you mention or recommend particular events, or you hold them yourself, they know where to find you. They turn up and actually meet you, having read your blog for months before. They don’t tell you how much they’ve been following you, just that they love what you do, which is not so unusual.

Last year this happened and I got to know a man, as a friend, and as he was an intelligent, eloquent and erudite life model, I let him into my professional circle. I wasn’t interested in him romantically, but I thought he was interesting. In our evolving model-centred scene, he is an innovative player. I was already with a partner, and not looking for more. I was clear about that, yet because parts of my earlier blog refer to more open phases of my life where I existed outside of monogamy, the man knew that within me was also a more adventurous side.

I did note in our first proper meeting his interest in freer sexual encounters. My own openness to discussing this stems from a sense that less conventional relationships are important if more people on the planet are to love and be loved as they ought. I do make a distinction however, between what I consider a really positive idea that may work for others, and what I personally prefer for myself. Let’s say, I have experimented with alternatives, arguably not enough and even less in more enlightened recent times when much is shared online and beyond about such fascinating ways of life; but at the point where I am in life, I find my needs are best met with one mate. Building one solid relationship as well as strong friendships around me. I think it’s the way I am wired.

Some months after connecting with the man he had opportunity to tell me how he’d fallen for me a while back (before we’d met); but what felt really awkward was, he imagined that had he only informed me of his desire sooner, he and I might be an item. This is a most ridiculous idea to me. As if my feelings didn’t even come into it. As if just announcing his apparent love at the right time would have been enough. There is only so much one can read from a blog; but if you ran a careful search of my writings you’d find that my partner Steve Ritter was already known to me several years before we got together. We were friends for some time before partnering. Trust was built in the real world preceding our intimacy.

Once when I was 22 I got together with a guy I hardly knew nor spoke the same language as, and our first sexual encounter I now realise would have been described as rape by a contemporary definition (when he thought ‘no’ really meant ‘yes’). That lasted 5 years. Now I am nearly 40. I like to know people properly before I am really interested in anything substantial. Such naivete and arrogance on the man’s part just put me off, made me feel more closed, and angry that I had considered him friendship material. Obviously he was too self-obsessed and driven by his libido. I’m not interested; but I am a bit scared. I realised someone as canny and generally smart as him could get past many preventative hurdles for avoiding dodgy men at Spirited Bodies, and still find his way to causing strife. It’s true that my own openness does leave me vulnerable to such types, while many women would close the door on him immediately and never take a risk.

No real harm done. He isn’t so bad; and he is interesting, just not good for me. He ought to be more realistic about the internet. Sending me an epilator was also not a savvy move. I am far too fond of my bush. For context, the epilator was not completely out of the blue(!) He’d offered me one as I’d entertained the idea of trying pube removal, to see how vulvic baldness feels, but I turned down his offer. If I was going to do it, I’d get my own device. Coming from him was wholly inappropriate. To then send it to me anyway was just wrong, and the symbolism of controlling my feminine wildness showed extraordinarily poor judgement.

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Recent self portrait in menstrual blood, charcoal, fineline ink pen and beetroot water.

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My flaming bush celebrated in Victoria Rance‘s painting, from her class at Blackheath Conservatoire