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.

Advertisements

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.

20170226_170309

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

victoria-rance

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

Spill at Orwell Bridge

I was very excited about going to Spill festival and I didn’t exactly know what to expect. Not performing in it meant I could wholly enjoy other acts, which was a treat. Looking at the programme in advance, without inside knowledge I found it hard to anticipate what would be most interesting. Some of the descriptive language just leaves me guessing.

There was only one thing I decided I would definitely go to, apart from the Symposium on Wednesday 26th October. That was the Strand walk by Mark Offord. This was partly dictated by my homeward travelling plans, as unfortunately I had to leave Spill in mid-flow for a pre-arranged job in London. I could either leave Friday evening or Saturday morning, and the latter meant I could do the walk. Although it entailed taking a convoluted journey back to work due to the rail replacement coach from Witham, I was unperturbed as the walk promised to visit nearby coastline and get out of the town. Coming from the built up capital I am so grateful to see some of the natural environment, some Suffolk wilderness.

By Friday night I had been completely wowed by extraordinary acts I had witnessed. There was Elaine Mitchener listing the names imposed on African slaves and the price they were sold for, from the pulpit of the atmospheric Ipswich Unitarian Meeting House which was built in 1700 and remains unaltered. There was the awesome looped violin (“…full body immersion of soaring strings and spiralling sound…”) in Alicia Jane Turner’s ‘Breathe’. Spoken word raps about refugees in Shabazi’s ‘Terra Nullius’ from within the museum; 6 dancing and story telling performers moving towards nudity – with their heads covered in clay, in ‘Another Bald Dead Woman’; Vijay Patel’s emotive recollection of growing up in a corner shop (and then escaping to perform karaoke in drag) – this unexpectedly really moved me. It wasn’t polished like some of the others, but the message was felt more strongly. It reminded me of the Indian kids I was at school with, and the overt racism at the time. The recording of a male relative recounting the early days of the family’s migration in the ’70s from Uganda, and the hard work that went into settling in the UK, added powerfully to this piece. Tania Camara’s ‘Me, Myself And My Oreos’ was a superb act to follow. She whitened her skin with the filling from oreo biscuits, and gradually got messier (a popular theme with performance artists), dancing with liquid and powder. Again a voice recording set this off terrifically; this time MP Diane Abbott describing overcoming the racism she encountered as a teenager in school. Similarly it took us back in time, an eloquent voice describing the sometimes invisible struggle of minority migrant populations. Critically these examples appropriated by Patel and Camara, evoked times when although racism was more mainstream, there was at least an economy they could integrate into quite well. It struck a chord with migration and the refugee crisis now. Finally, Robert Hesp got messy with a petroleum based lubricant, and his moves were mesmerising in ‘Hard C*ck’. Chicken meat and bones featured, and a deliberately awkward audience encounter; overall it was Hesp’s flawless execution that drew me in.

I was sorry not to see the rest of the festival as the momentum had just been building and I had gradually become familiar with the streets, venues and a few friendly faces. I woke early as necessary for the Strand walk, and made my way to the meeting point. A circle of us slowly emerged, and Mark explained that the walk would be silent, and that he wouldn’t go too fast, particularly as he has MS and walking sometimes hurts (he walked with a stick). He said we would go to a very high bridge and asked if any of us are afraid of heights? No. He said many people go there to commit suicide and unfortunately in the act they land on nesting birds. He said the walk might overrun by half an hour – was that ok with everyone? I said I have a train to catch and it might be a bit tight. He said he would shut up then, and we set off.

Through backstreets, park and woodland we left the town. To our right as we progressed, we often saw the long and high bridge looming, a massive road bridge over the river Orwell. Not beautiful, but awesome for the scale of such enormous concrete caterpillar construction. It seemed far off but we approached steadily, silently. Once, quite close, Mark led us to a viewing point, a clearing in the trees from which we saw the magnificent bridge towering ahead. It was almost scary. For a few minutes Mark looked at it intently and so did we, and only then it struck me. The clues had been there but it was seeing it stark in front of me and this pause in silent reflection that made a thudding realisation.

Before the walk Mark had explained a bit about his MS to us, that at a certain point in his spine the nerve endings ceased communicating with his left leg. He described keeping some sort of track of its development, and likened the shape of the river where we were walking along it, to the curvature of a spine. Places on the map – and on the land/river, had metaphorical significance to him. He said we would find our own meanings in the walk. I am very familiar with the deterioration that MS can produce, as my Mother, like Mark I believe, has the type known as secondary progressive. In her the advancement is so far however, that she now and for a long time, has only been slightly able to move her neck. She is otherwise paralysed.

It was a dark feeling that hit me, that this walk may represent a possible future solution for Mark. I have been there with Mum, but most acutely several years ago. It was the driver behind one of my first post-drama school performance projects – Assisting Sara – a forerunner to Girl in Suitcase that I continue with today. Assisted suicide was in the news at the time, and we knew one day it could be more pertinent to Mum, as already she wouldn’t be able alone. She had described the conditions under which she wanted to be taken to Zurich. Happily none of those have come to pass, and we are 7 years on from that time. She remains incredibly stable and robust for one so apparently physically fragile. She is inspiring to many who meet her, and she was so pleased to see the performance in which she was represented. She also regularly participates in my Spirited Bodies project, again an inspiration to all who witness her.

20161029_091634

After our pause, Mark led us up to the bridge in earnest and we traversed the less regularly walked pavement scattered with random clothing and knocked off bits of vehicle. Signs at regular intervals pointed to the Samaritans freephone. We halted a few times to regard the view.

20161029_092702

The morning mist across the expanding river in front, dappled with light from the gaps in the clouds; and a marshy shoreline band of patchy grass and shrubland.

20161029_094143

By the time we’d crossed, I was aware of the time and that it seemed unlikely we’d be back by the originally stated time of 10am. This slightly detracted from my enjoyment or ability to process the complex messages.

At the very last stretch I had to break the silence momentarily to announce my departure, and run back to my digs to grab my bag and bound for the station. It was an uncomfortable rushing if unsurefooted scramble across town and back, getting stickier and more agitated. I just made the platform in the right time, but I vowed never to leave a performance art festival in a hurry again! It takes time to debrief. A walk may never be just a walk. Going home ought not to feel so wrenching.

The emotions that juddered through me may have been triggered by Mark, but related strongly to Mum, to my old script, and every piece of art I have made with or about her. It reminded me that they may be the most significant thing I have ever done. Now in the wake of this fresh reopening, they did not feel so complete.

Mark had suggested we join him for tea after the walk, and I wished I could have for a period of debriefing. It took me quite a few hours after arriving back in London, after finishing my job, after drinking several glasses of wine and downloading to my partner, to come down. It was magical to take a few days out to be in the midst of so much performance art; it is a headspace for otherness. I think I need more regular encounters.

Here Mark speaks about the Strand walk.

With special thanks to Mark for sharing this walk, and to all at Spill for presenting the many inspirational pieces.

Day of the Girl – a feminist Love revolution

14606272_1231064036916269_7852500890584694330_n

Looking East as we rose on the London Eye, #DayoftheGirl October 11

In December 2011 the UN decided to create the International Day of the Girl, which is October 11 each year. The day is to raise awareness of the many inequalities faced by girls around the world, and to celebrate their achievements. Women of the World (WOW) at Southbank Centre, London, mark the occasion by a day filled with activities for girls, including speed mentoring early in the morning with successful women in a diverse range of fields, on the London Eye. I took part as a mentor on Tuesday and found it very rewarding. I remember how much I could have done with some good advice on real life matters when I was a young teenager. At that age the adults you mostly get to speak to may be family or teachers, and may not touch on all your areas of interest. I was very moved and this is what I wrote.

Caitlin Moran said, this country has been run by men who went to boarding schools for far too long. These schools are like businesses that people pay to send their children to. They are not like the real world where people care about each other.

She said, she’s met these men, and they are not more clever or special than many of us. They were just brought up to feel entitled to lead, but they do not understand most of us. She said, no one will ever just hand you power, you have to go and get it. Don’t worry that you don’t look like the others who have power, it’s ok to look different. She said it’s an exciting time because we have the possibility to change things in massive ways.

She had a message for the teenage girls, to be kind to themselves, and to learn how to accept compliments, because many find that very difficult and struggle with low self esteem. She advised them about their future – to follow their passion and make something of their own, a project or career. Because in the end the satisfaction you get from those achievements of what is within you to succeed, will be far more rewarding than what you get from a marriage or from having children. My heart sang. It is so important that girls are told this, that they (we) are reconditioned.

She said Love yourselves, and be nice. Be kind to each other and support other women.

This Day of the Girl had already moved me so much. It was afternoon now in the Royal Festival Hall, but breakfast had brought me to tears.

I had been so hard on myself the day before, so angry because I thought I had failed. I had performed Girl in Suitcase at the weekend and was looking back with unflinchingly self-critical eyes. I knew I must do much better, and told myself sternly what needed to change in future.

Still I went to bed early and though it took a while to quiet my mind for sleep, I was woken by the alarm when it played at 5:30am. Deliberately getting up at that hour is usually reserved for journeys to foreign lands. This, however was to take a different sort of flight. I showered, dressed, grabbed a bite and then cycled to Southbank Centre. I went in the building and was given a name badge and told I was in Capsule U. I got a cup of tea and waited; I was in good time. To my surprise when the voice on the tannoy announced the first groups to make their way to the London Eye, U was one of them. As we gathered, I recognised one of the women. I was unsure if she was facilitating, or mentoring like me, as I had seen her working at Southbank Centre before, as well as giving a talk at this year’s WOW. It was about her experience of the criminal justice system – serving time in prison and coming clean off drugs after many years’ addiction. I introduced myself and told her I had seen her powerful talk. She said it had been an important moment for her as since then she had gone on to give many talks in prisons and to the NHS for example. By telling her story she could destigmatise people with addictions to help health and legal professionals understand that treating them like patients is far more positive than as criminals. Her name was Nina, and she was also mentoring. It was her first time, my second. I had taken part in this 3 years ago, but had since doubted how helpful I could be to school girls. This year however I had regained confidence and felt that this would be a very good thing for me to do. Meeting Nina before we even started really reassured me. I was not alone with my dodgy past and unconventional pathway. I was in brilliant company! I settled into my group with ease, feeling absolutely certain that I had very valuable contributions to give to the girls we would be mentoring. Whatever they wanted to know, I had real life experience, and I had come a long way. I knew things they for sure were not taught in school. What a privilege and wonderful opportunity for me too.

We were on the Eye for an hour, in each capsule a group of 8 mentors and 8 mentees, and each mentor spoke with 3 different girls for 15 minutes each, answering their questions, having a dialogue. Two of the girls I connected with were considering futures in the arts, one with singing, the other in musical theatre, so I was at least partially in the right ballpark. I know how tough it can be in the arts as a performer, but also how important to follow your calling. I have been through drama school, a bit of university and chanced my way as a jobbing actor before deciding I preferred to create my own work and perform it. Mostly the girls’ questions and conditioned attitudes reminded me (remarkably after 25 years difference! – they were 14 years old) of how school and middle class norms taught me to think when I was their age. How little has changed! It’s not all bad, but it’s not necessarily realistic, or helpful. Mostly the prevailing attitude talks up the importance of financial security, so anyone considering a career in the arts is advised to have at least one back-up plan in case it doesn’t work. That’s all well and good, but starting out with that in mind is a bit like sabotaging your truest desires. Thinking you have failed before you begin. No one wants to prepare young people for the possibility of being out of work for a while, taking low level jobs so you have the headspace to be creative, and definitely not that you might end up doing a more dodgy job like I did. But it happens, quite a lot. My pathway is unique, but so many women try similar things to get by and maintain their independence. The reality is, for most of us if we want to make it as an artist, it will take a while to find our niche. There will be struggles, but that doesn’t mean the moment there isn’t a stable income (!) we should give up and become an accountant. Unless that works for you, and, some people are better at managing several jobs at once, so again you have to find how it is for you. How many of the older people I model for say they wanted to be an artist, but needed a proper income, so after going to art school decided to train in something else. They then got caught up in a mortgage and raising a family until much later in life when freed up, they decided to enrol in art classes. This generation might not have such options – perhaps it’s better to follow dreams in the present instead of deferring.

My other mentee wanted a career in games concept design. Not so much my area but I do model for quite a few animation studios and games design students at university, as well as having dated the odd geek, so I knew a wee bit.

After our Eye revolution, I caught up with Nina a bit more over a coffee, before the talks in the Clore Ballroom led by Jude Kelly. I filled her in more about my past; Soho and the drugs. She asked if I, like her, had told my story. I said I’d been inspired by Jude’s rape survivor talks at WOW, as I had largely buried some of my own experiences, or classified them as insignificant, not worthy of note. A misappropriation, since rape was being opened up for discussion now in the 21st century, and the definition considered more widely without fear of shame. I told Nina I have been writing about some of my experiences, and performing them. Some of it is quite recent. She has a few years on me, and she looked at me wisely and said, “You’ve just begun to tell your story”. I could tell she meant that I would need to tell it and tell it and keep telling it before I was properly healed, and empowered by it. I knew in my blood that this was true, I felt it. I shed tears, and welled up some more as Jude got started with some very stirring speakers.

There was Fatima Manji, the news reader who wore a hijab whilst reporting on the recent Nice attack, and was subsequently criticised for doing so by a Sun journalist. She had spoken up bravely to make it known that it is not ok to discredit someone because of what they choose to wear. There was Frances Morris who is the new artistic director of the Tate Modern – and the first woman to have the job. There was Chi-chi Nwanoku who founded Europe’s first BME classical orchestra, and Luisa Omielan, an award winning comedian. There was also an inspirational 6th form prefect. Two other teenage girls were given the mic too, later in the day on stage with Caitlin reading excerpts from her ‘Moranifesto’, and I think it was important to include them. To show we are not just listening to the mostly white “successful” women in our society, but are also aware of younger women of colour (as it happened) who may be lesser known now, but are already making their mark. One was a spoken word poet leading a collective of performers in her school, and the other, June Eric-Udorie. The very articulate June successfully campaigned a year ago to keep feminism on the Politics A Level syllabus (it was going to be removed), and as well have more female thinkers added, as there was only one (Mary Wolstencraft) out of 16, included. Whilst doing her A Levels, she also writes for the Guardian among other publications.

By the time we went upstairs to listen to Jo Brand and Jude chatting, I was beyond speaking during the networking periods before and after. Nina had gone to a meeting, and I had spoken all that I needed to for the morning. Something had moved inside me, in my heart something was healing but still tender. I was very happy to sit on the floor and just enjoy Jo Brand’s deadpan wit combined with reassuringly human nature. I am quite used to listening to Jude, so it is a more familiar pleasure watching her in conversation with many amazing women.

The strong warm glow and buzz that I left Day of the Girl with, was the same feeling I get at WOW, but I think it’s growing. I really felt that the intelligent women in this country and beyond who have achieved some power, have gotten together and decided that they want all girls and women to share that, to have the same and more. They want to change the world and they are inspiring all of us. They wanted to support us all, in a really loving way, to big us up and encourage all our aspirations. It is a political movement, but there is spirit in it too. It is full of heart and Matriarchal Love. I felt like I belong, and I never want to lose that feeling. I noticed afterwards that some of my usual default thought patterns of comparing myself with others negatively especially when tired, had evaporated. I could overide them now, I was on a higher level. There were more important things to connect with, and bigger aims were possible. I ceased to self criticise as well, as I felt in my heart that there was a reason my weekend performance hadn’t been polished. A superficial shine hadn’t been important for this show – it was all about the content. I was delivering some very personal lines for the first time, live. Revealing sensitive material about my past, to both friends and strangers in my own city. That was what counted, Nina had reminded me without realising. That was what I had to prioritise. Not the blood and glitter, nor interacting with the audience like a cliched hooker, nor allowing them to body paint me – albeit this created a beautiful connection. My focus must be the lines of truth concerning delicate intimate secrets of my past. That’s all. My performance, my therapy.

Caitlin said, we don’t yet know what the world looks like and feels like when women have equality, it hasn’t been created yet. It’s up to us to make it, to have a revolution. Everything could be different; we might invent new economic systems since capitalism doesn’t work. We might create new political systems as the current one is definitely corrupt. Family, social, religious and geo-political structures may completely change. If each of us chooses to live our lives as fully as possible, to make the world better for everyone.

20161011_083610

My view from the London Eye on the morning of October 11, 2016.

Wild, naturist and free ~ Brighton Rock

Body painted at the World Naked Bike Ride, Spencer Tunick’s Sea of Hull, and last week with the Neo Naturists at the ICA. Also of course in my 3 Girl in Suitcase performances. Guerilla nude photoshoots during each visit to Venice, and as well twice on Hilly Fields. This year has been exciting for me for a proliferation of artistic naturist opportunities, surely not unrelated to having a partner with similar leanings.

wnbr_london_20160611_024a

WNBR 2016 © AntwoneWalters.com

seaofhull-42

part of the Sea of Hull (photo by Steve)

DSCF7750e

Backstage at the ICA Steve and I painted each other Neo Naturist style. Photo by Cy Wol

I have been getting back to where I was 3 years ago it seems. Revisiting Scotland with Spirited Bodies, renewed enjoyment of the nude art community, and finding my way towards playing a role with WOW, as a mentor for girls once more. In 2013 I took part in speed mentoring school girls on the London Eye on the Day of the Girl. When asked for feedback afterwards I responded that I felt slightly misplaced in the role as no school girl aspired to be a nude art model! It wasn’t the point; it was all the other things about what I do that I need to share. Spreading the message of body confidence and empowering women, developing art projects, and surviving unusual pathways. A 12 year old might not imagine where I have come from, but you never know. I signed Laura Bates’ petition this week demanding that sex and relationship education become compulsory in all schools. The availability of violent porn to youngsters has led to a rise in teenage rape, largely due it seems to ignorance. The young people don’t know that this isn’t normal because they haven’t been presented with another way. There need to be healthier examples and people who aren’t afraid to speak about these issues. That could be me.

venice_20160229_072

at the Lido beach Venice, February 2016 photo by Steve

This month I felt strongly the need to shed a layer (again). To embrace more the light, and cleave less to darkness. Those parts of my past that I am separate from now I do not shun. I just need space to grow my own way without old associations limiting my path. Then when I have created new patterns, it becomes ok to revisit the old without fear of undue influence.

My blood rituals; often signifying shedding a layer; marking myself with an old (waste) part of me, then rinsing it off. Yesterday in Brighton the sea was choppy and I saw a rock I could sit on for the act so to be steadier, yet still close to, sometimes within the water.

I arrived at the naturist beach in the afternoon with my partner, Steve, and our long-time friend, Rodger. We undressed, though it was brisk at first, and had a cup of wine. Toasting our capers and Rodger’s 60th year, cameras were readied and my menstrual supply was by my side. Although a private moment, the ritual gains significance for being captured and shared. Psychically knowing it is out there increases my sense that this will change something within me. It gives me a chance to share a message with others too.

14100410_1348184218525771_2904899769948583351_n

photo by Rodger

The pebbles under foot were uncomfortable to tread on. I reached the water which was charged and rushing even at the edge. I was moving forward commitedly and successive waves kept splashing me more. Any sense of coldness was lessened by my pumping adrenaline, my effort to remain upright in the face of uneven painful footing; the force of the enormous sea pushing me back as I lurched towards the rock. I was focused; I had to be; there was no being casual here. It was set for drama. There was the potential of a calmer sunshine in the gaps between the clouds, but nothing sure and I just felt to seize the moment.

14206115_1348210275189832_897585837273345527_o

I gripped the seaweeded rock and pulled myself on. There was to be no standing on the slippery  wave crashed and submerged platform; too dangerous, easily knocked off and blown about. No I sat, still clutching my tiny full pot of blood. I unscrewed it and poured it liberally around limbs and torso. The intense elements hastened me, so little time was spent just enjoying this moment. Quickly blood dripped then splashed off by waves. The smell of menstruation from April I believe, was strong, but hardly did it stay on me. I bathed, lowered myself surfing the rock (part of a groyn) on my belly. All wet with the sea I faced the expanse of water, then turned back and sat astride. At once ready for the walk to shore I attempted to climb down but was pushed off the rock by another wave. Knocked under water I became more involved in my scene than I’d planned but knew the immersion was good. I stood again, finding feet to make the walk. More than refreshed this felt quite raw and wildish, beyond health and safety!

Back on the stony beach out of the water I found a new cut in my foot flowing fresh blood. My friends stopped filming and helped me stumble back with a towel. We discovered more scratches grazed in the backs of my legs and right buttock, presumably from the point of being pushed off the rock. I’d not felt sharp edges but who knows underneath the powerful water what marked me, maybe barnacles under the greenery. I’d shed old blood, washed it off then opened fresh wounds, to make more memorable perhaps my encounter with Brighton rock.

With thanks to Rodger and Steve for recording my cleansing ritual.

 

Rewriting the Past – regaining confidence after rape

This year at WOW, I was there with my still relatively new partner Steve, and on the Saturday we went to the rape survivor talks led by Jude Kelly. She has been doing this for a few years but I had never been before. I wanted to see how it was handled, but didn’t quite anticipate how the session would affect me. The extremely open and raw talks moved me, because they made it very clear how normalised a lot of rape, and rape culture is. What I became aware of is the value of speaking out, for the brave (and very articulate) women we witnessed there as well as for the audience listening, and also that I had buried experiences that would benefit from being unearthed too. I’d started writing this blog in February I think, as I’d sensed there were some blocks I needed to uncover, and hearing the talks encouraged me further. I had to postpone processing the effects of the session, as I was running Spirited Bodies later that day and there was a lot to coordinate. The next day however, I felt it. In fact I have been finding that whenever I am at a low ebb, those feelings re-emerge, and I have to do some work on them. Writing really helps.

A long long time ago, I had an experience with a photographer, from the fetish scene, which was part of a big period of setback for me. I wouldn’t say that rape was uniquely responsible for my fall, because, I was already on that trajectory. I am not letting him off the hook, however if it hadn’t been him, I at that point would most likely have attracted something of that nature one way or another. There were deep family problems that created the right set-up for some disaster. It’s not always the case, but it was for me. Rape happens in many ways, from via people we know very well, to complete strangers. This was a man I met in a club, who lured me to his studio with the promise of paid fetish magazine modelling work. I was interested, and probably overlooked unsavoury signs, because my parents had told me I had to move out after finishing my A-Levels. It was the Spring term, 1995. I was clubbing a lot, taking drugs, and truly I had a bent to try injecting. It was that sort of phase in life – and I was also considering the sex industry. I didn’t know how I would support myself after leaving home, and could not imagine getting an ordinary job. My general appearance was a bit punk, or hookerish, and back then I don’t think that was ok in your average bar, or shop. In any case, I had a yearning to experience a different side of life to the narrow band of just-within-the north-circular-suburbia that the edge of Muswell Hill had thus far afforded me. At that time, life modelling was not within my sphere, sadly! Although artistically gifted as a child, going to an academic school I was mostly guided towards more cerebral subjects, which later proved to be less fruitful.

Rape has become much more publicly spoken about in recent years, and I keep reading that there is no hierarchy in rape. It’s positive to read that, because I did use to categorise my own experience as something far less valid or challenging say than a woman who had been forced violently, perhaps drugged too. Mine was more psychological, harder to prove technically. I was such a mess generally at the time that I never considered going to the police, I sensed that could be even more difficult. I was very promiscuous and hardly ate. People say I’m rather slim now; back then I was weighing myself everyday and making (short) lists of the foods I ate. I wore basically underwear in the nightclubs I frequented and took speed in particular on a regular basis. On occasion I whited out at home in the kitchen and Mum had an idea of the nature of my condition. We weren’t on the friendliest of terms then. She’d been diagnosed with MS a few years before and though only in the early stages of onset, was quietly dreading her more limited future.

I didn’t dare go above 7 stone – I had a strict limit on myself, would not allow myself to grow further. This wasn’t anorexia exactly; I wasn’t vastly concerned with being fat. I just didn’t want to be bigger, and I was deeply unhappy on a soul level. I could not allow myself to enjoy food. I had newly discovered confidence on the dance floor in my underwear on speed. I didn’t have to work at remaining thin, but I made a dedicated practice of it. I could get high on being empty, and drugs were more readily absorbed by the absence of food in their path.

The photographer was sleazy and I was far too easy prey. I must have embodied ideal victimhood. I was already well-sexualised and largely looking for it, just sometimes not being as discerning as I might. I was not strongly grounded – I felt undermined by family support who ought to have been guiding me with love. I was abandoned in spirit and in need of a new home, a new family. The lynchpin of my independence (and career) could wrest on my completed education as I had been thus far prepared, but it was not to be as I spiralled off the rails. I would have to find my own way, invent a new path. Hard won female pathways of power had already been indicated, however there seemed a fault along my branch.

My Mother though having a degree, had simply been a housewife (and not a happy one). My Father’s Mother though having graduated well from Oxford (and the first woman in her town at that), had not long after developed schizophrenia and suffered detrimentally. My Mother’s Mum hadn’t been to university but had forged several careers including journalist, broadcaster in East Berlin, and fashion designer in London. This woman was the closest person to me in my youth, who represented female power and autonomy. In her old age she was a talented artist who guided my love of painting and creating collages as well as building sculptures made of rubbish. She died just after my 14th birthday, and I don’t think it was by chance that my walk towards the darkness happened soon after.

I was emotionally lonely and found myself submitting to the photographer. He had a very large penis and he wanted anal. I was not so gifted in the art of saying no and he was obsessed with gratifying his appendage. I sank to new levels of despair but home was a spent force for me and I had to cut loose. Finding fellow inhabitants of such a place of broken was my calling. I count three of those people still as friends even if we don’t meet so often. Another died last year, and others fell off the radar a long while back – indeed I think their own darkness was a tad beyond my scope in time. Outside of that immediate circle a wide sprawling network of Slimelight, fetish and gay clubbing networks buzzed and vibed. It was the 90s, there was a scene.

The rape photographer staged intimate shots of me that he personally prepared my body for. He was keen on bondage but it was all relatively new to me and he so pushy. I negotiated away from the more extreme stuff, and took lines of speed between shots. I wasn’t interested in keeping any of the prints, except for one of me dressed, and one a portrait. The innocence and beauty on my face at the time he had in fact caught. I actually put the portrait on the wall of my bedroom in the new lodgings I secured with a friend. A curious memento marking my departure from the parental home, more so for in the image of my face, I saw my Mother’s resemblance. It seemed mostly her that I escaped from, yet she would always be with me, within me.

The pictures were never used for a magazine that I know of and I have no idea what became of them. He never paid me, and at the point of acquiring the two nice photographs (which subsequently got damaged or lost) after two or three visits I was able to say I wanted no more business with him. Being raped had seriously hurt me emotionally, but I couldn’t completely think of it as rape as I had allowed it. I hadn’t wanted it, but I hadn’t stopped it. I thought life might somehow be better if I didn’t say no. I thought I might get something I needed, though I don’t think I had a clue what. I just wasn’t in a good place to begin with. My Mum shouted and screamed at me (and the rest of the family) every day, that she hated us and wished we were dead. I could hear how unhappy she was, but she was unreachable, and we couldn’t utterly understand what was so wrong with her. At the same time, she was very powerful and there was little manoeuvring around her stubbornness. She wanted me out, and was especially jealous of my open and youthful sexuality. I had to go, and was yet to discover my own layers of protection.

Within a year I had transformed into a notorious and newly powerful dominatrix; if any man deigned to try even the slightest wrong doing towards me, I was ready to kick him with my heavy metal boot heal.

I gave myself away to that man in 1995 when I could have spat in his face and walked away. I wasn’t empowered enough at that time to do that, or to even be aware of it in the moment. Maybe that’s why now, I have been wanting to help other women wherever I can. It took me quite a few years to get to that point of just being able to help in the way I have. Now I realise I have to help myself a bit more, before I can help anyone else.

Talking about the rape incident with a new friend at the time led to a lasting friendship that helped throughout my several years episode outside of the mainstream. Up until that point I had been considerably more isolated, and now at last a small family of fellow freaks emerged in my midst. It wasn’t exactly a smooth ride; I did enter the gloriously varied sex industry at several junctures, and found the wild experiences and underground insights I’d sought.

IMG1995_0001

In my dungeon kitchen in Old Street, 1996, photographed by David Hindley, friend from the Slimelight. I love the way that David has captured me looking strong and confident. In my underwear and make-up was often how I was seen – in clubs, at work, and sometimes at home. I was not a model exactly, but I did do some modelling. David liked to photograph many of his friends from that period.

 

Coming back from that journey wasn’t easy either, trying to re-enter institutionalised life not as my unwise youth imagined. At university and drama school I didn’t know how to connect, effectively. For years I hid behind a very long fringe, dressed down, so no one would ever guess my bohemian past. When a fellow student once asked what I’d done before coming to college, I started to shake and stutter for several minutes. I gave up on uni and transferred to an experimental theatre degree at drama school. Even if I couldn’t find much commonality with other students, I could dig the out-there qualities of some of the practitioners we were investigating. Tadeusz Kantor’s ‘Dead Class’ resonated with my gothic leanings; I felt I’d already lived this art, let alone studying it!

 Now at 39 years of age, I have managed to reach a considerable way in my life modelling career without greatly delving into photographic modelling. I think, even if I was bound to get raped when I was 17, the fact that it was a photographer did leave particular scars. I have had a block about photography. While I am comfortable being photographed by friends, especially women, and more recently in the context of my performance work, I have never actively sought photographic modelling work, though it generally pays at least twice the life modelling rate. I always felt safer dealing with drawing artists, and have found that generally far less sexual politics comes into it.

I think I have past issues to heal that could uncover previously concealed layers of potential confidence, that reach way beyond photographic modelling. This is much more than about being raped, it’s about the conditions that led to that. It’s about not feeling valued, not knowing what I had that was positive and worthy of respect. I didn’t know how to channel myself towards a bright future, in fact the very idea of that was alien or even repugnant to me. I was anti-bright-future, and so destined to find some darkness. I was more than a drop-out, I was an active seeker of darkness! I revelled in it; it was the only thing that made sense. The world was not one I could see myself or anyone flourishing in.

Much of that harsh attitude has naturally been reshaped over the years, softened and redirected. But there are still pieces to uncover and iron out, in order to achieve the shine I’m after. As an adolescent I had not been raised with a strong sense of how to look after my own interests. I would let myself be overtaken and wouldn’t allow myself to reach the heights I would like to. I had massively missed out on emotional support, and was far too ready to give myself away and not consider consequences.

My own lack of confidence was responsible, and some of this patterning has remained with me. It has been pointed out to me that while my projects focus a great deal on helping and empowering others, I have tended to neglect some of my own needs.

During this recent period of reflection, I haven’t been seeing my parents so much as I noticed that if I want to realign my behaviour, I need to not be overly exposed to the most original source. At this stage in my life, this is not about blame, but rather trying to get to the bottom of things, to a better understanding, so I and all in my sphere may grow towards greater happiness. I would like to say that I generally have a good relationship with my parents now; a lot has been worked through. They are there for me, and very importantly they accept me as I am. I know I am very lucky to have them, and appreciate the unique upbringing they gave me. My Mother is now severely ill with MS, and caring for her takes up considerable family energy. I have felt that my own needs haven’t been prioritised but know that I am far from alone.