Ursula’s KALI & BLOOD

It happened that Ursula also felt inspired to record herself in a video, performing her poems from our 2015 Girl in Suitcase performance. She has done them back to back, overlaying her voice and some musical sounds delightfully, witchily I think, with dreamy sandscape shoreline intersecting with her shadow. We are enjoying revisiting, reconnecting, recreating together, apart. Please, enjoy her voice, words and images!

The photo at the top of the post is of Ursula performing ‘The Moon’ in the same ‘Girl in Suitcase’ show referred to.

Open up the Gender Binary

Until our legal system changes to allow more than two genders, we are stuck. We would then be operating in a structure that acknowledges and gives rights to more diversity of existence. Until then trans rights are trying to fit into an outdated system which doesn’t do them or anyone else justice.

Until a child can grow up knowing it could be more than male or female and there is a meaningful place for that in our world, people who are gender diverse may only imagine their lives as they ought to be, whilst limited to fitting themselves within the binary for all sorts of functional purposes. That in itself can be harmful. I also believe it contributes to some divisive strategies happening within feminism today. Personally I sit on the fence regarding the gender debate. It may not be fashionable, though to be honest I’m not sure what is! I mean, I think both sides – because that’s what it is (after all we’re stuck in a binary) have elements of sheer value and goodness. I cannot pick a side. I have time for trans activist arguments and gender critical ones. I deplore the negative aspects of both, and as well the fact that they are necessarily at ideological war – a political war for power. They ought to be helping each other.

It’s a distressing situation that sometimes puts me off feminism, or getting more involved. I can’t fit into the current factioned polarity, so I reckon I am better off outside it. I express my feminism as an artist, however my openness to open debate will affect where my work appears and with whom.

I want to hear more lesbian voices. I love this video (below) which showcases a few prominent lesbians in the arts in New York last year. When I see and hear the video, I wish more young girls in particular, but all kids, could see this sort of representation. It normalises female masculinity, in such a way that may or may not be trans; it might be trans that accepts itself as it is. So it offers another perspective that quite often gets missed out in today’s arguments for “inclusivity”. I’m not saying transitioning is wrong; it’s clearly the right thing for many. I just think young kids today might not see enough options to really empower them. If you can truly accept yourself in the body you’re born, that is a very fortunate thing. It’s certainly simpler not to rely on taking hormones for the rest of your life for example. The current pandemic shows how sometimes the modern lifestyle we take for granted can be pulled suddenly from under our feet.

This article explains more about the idea behind the video. The image I have put at the top of this piece, is from the article and it shows a bunch of queer womxn posing for a photoshoot. I am using ‘womxn’ rather than women, as I don’t wan’t to assume their identity.

“…we’re simply not out to appease the male gaze. We disregard and reject the confines of a sexualized and commodified femininity.” Said actor Roberta Colindrez in the article about butches.

I’m not going to write a huge essay on this now. I wrote a bit more last year about gender inclusivity in women’s spaces, for the Spirited Bodies site. It states my position clearly. I embrace the multiplicity of gender and urge a change in the law and the structure of our society which dismantles the binary. I want to see more representation of different types of femininity and masculinity. Until we live in a world that is ok with every version of gender, it’s a lot harder for some of us to know who we really are, and feel safe.

I’ve noticed a current drive by trans activists to push feminists and women’s organisations to make a stand demonstratively. I understand they feel very urgently about promoting their cause, but I think it can sometimes be divisive. The other side has important points too and I will not deny that – like about how gender neutral language can be problematic and erase the experiences of girls. This is very pertinent in addressing violence against women and girls. I also appreciate the need for more varied gender language – like when I used ‘womxn’ above. There is so much to this discussion – and it does contain a lot of nuance – I am just lightly touching on here. I am avoiding linking to either side, but just search on Twitter for examples of them.

The divisiveness is very toxic. I want to hear more people standing up for an open discussion that is not shut down. The message at the moment can sound a bit like it’s from George Orwell’s 1984. If you can’t comply with every part of the activists’ mission, you are their enemy. It needn’t be like that. It would be healthier if it wasn’t. There is another way! That’s why I’m encouraging you to watch the video and read the linked article, as these express in a bit more detail a type of middle ground, and it’s coming directly from some of the queer community. They are people who are more connected perhaps to the issues and I think their voices are so extremely relevent.

Women this is our Blood

I recorded another of Ursula‘s poems which had been part of ‘Girl in Suitcase‘ in 2015, when it was about goddesses, and witches. I used some old footage of myself performing menstrual rituals on the island of Fuerte Ventura in March 2017. It was pleasing to rediscover the text, and the videos, and be able to combine them whilst recording my voice on top.

There is a sense of reclaiming communion for a matriarchal rite, reconnecting sacred blood with menstruation. What a different culture that would look like, that celebrated women’s cycle. That honoured its connection with nature, and all that it brings. The changes in our moods and energies, our appetites and sensitivities. Our fertility. The blood itself as a means of connection; from part of what keeps us alive, to becoming waste blood; on with the cycle. The red liquid that reminds us of mortality, with its distinct flavour and smell. That looks like paint, has been used as paint; to colour our faces and bodies; to draw on walls. To share messages and signs. An essential ingredient of human life; the liquid passed down generations; especially through women in the process of birth.

To restore balance in the world, this natural order must be honoured. The implications are enormous and rock every foundation of patriarchy. The power of menstruation can be revolutionary!

In this phase of blogging, creating new material every day, I feel enlivened. It reminds me of when I used to blog regularly about my life and work as a life model, alongside Spirited Bodies stuff, several years ago. 2011 – 2013 mainly. I was quite open sometimes and eventually realised it didn’t fit having it all on the Spirited Bodies site, so I compartmentalised – and made (this) separate space just for art and myself. I remember how I was always thinking about what I would write next! It gave me a good focus while I was posing. The excitement and pleasure at sharing my process… it’s a healthy thing.

Thinking of blood, I remember this track I listened to a lot in the late 90s. ‘Love Like Blood’ got played on the dancefloors where I hung out. It’s a sad song with a strong edge. ‘Killing Joke’ were part of an intense soundtrack for those years.

The painting at the top is by me, made by dripping my menstrual blood as well as some wax. It is called ‘Lunar Waxing’ and I made it in January this year, at new moon.

I AM KALI Goddess of Time Change & Transformation

When I recently rediscovered the ‘Girl in Suitcase’ script from 2015, two of Ursula‘s poems in particular stood out. When we performed the show, on neither occasion was I Kali’s face/front person so I never had those lines, though I did make a recording at the time but I can’t remember if we used it. It would only have been if whoever was at the front – Ursula or Lidia – felt more comfortable with it than learning the lines or reading them. I really loved saying the words! They are so powerful. So I asked Ursula if she’d like to make a recording now or if she minded if I did. She’s busy with other projects, but she was happy for me to. This is ‘Kali’ performed by me on Saturday in Ladywell Cemetery close to where I live. You will need the sound on to hear the poem!

It took a while to get the right voice, which I added at home. That rich, timeless, reverberant, almost musical intensity; had to be right for a goddess, especially since I was overlaying the voice on to the video. She/I am speaking with my mind. I wanted to focus on being her, as in embodying her, and in particular using my face to express her. I hadn’t learnt the lines so I didn’t want to be distracted by trying to remember them. Also there were people about, so it was one thing dressed down to my tights wearing blood on my face waving my arms around in front of a tree pulling silly faces; if I’d been shouting manically on top of that, we might have attracted too much attention!

When it came to adding the voice, I realised I wanted to slow the video down about 50%. When we’d shot it, I hadn’t been consciously thinking of the order of the lines; I was just moving my face as I felt like in the moment. So then I had to work out when to start speaking so the lines best fit the expressions. I think that worked out quite well, but it would be cool to do it whilst saying the lines live, or to have the lines playing while I filmed my face.

In any case, this was a last minute production where I seized the day – suddenly thought of a simple idea and made the most of Steve being around and us both being free. Not much time to prepare. I literally grabbed the blood from the fridge and said let’s go. On the way to Ladywell Fields, Steve said I think the cemetery would be better, fewer people. And he was right. The cemetery is always quieter, and has a fantastic, atmospheric ambience.

Nevertheless there were some people about and there was a bit of waiting for folk to get out of shot, or kids to stop shrieking, or a motorbike to clear off. Finding the best location within the cemetery was firstly about a quiet spot unlikely to be disturbed, and with the right background. On a grassy clearing, I saw the tree and thought that’s it. We’d discussed how ideally we’d have another person to help make Kali arms behind me, but what were the chances when we didn’t have much time? I’d thought about putting my hands around my face to accentuate them in striking ways as an alternative to having more hands and arms. We’re not proficient in video editing to the point of overlaying extra arms… The tree presented a shape with short “arms” at about the right height and length to create an idea of extra arms. It seemed a natural alignment.

A word on microbes. This hadn’t even crossed my mind, however the blood I used is months old – it’s a composite from several periods and some of it may be over a year old. As I was applying the blood to my face some drops went in my mouth. I wasn’t bothered, but Steve quickly said, “Don’t drink it, spit it out, and don’t let it get in your eye, because the microbes could kill you!” I thought that sounds a bit over-dramatic and didn’t pay too much attention. I just think what came out of my womb will be healing, no matter how old! That’s confidence, or madness, not sure. What I’m saying is, don’t do this at home kids! Or if you do, use fresh blood. That would be safer. I did notice that after I’d washed the blood off, some staining wouldn’t go away for the rest of the day, even if I washed it again. It looked like I might have a rash. It was fine the next day, and part of me wondered if such a thing could even be good for the skin, like a scrub or a facial… not that I’m thinking of trying that. Just saying who knows. They could be good microbes!

Goddesses Vs 2nd Commandment

In 2015 I made performances with female friends. The ‘Girl in Suitcase’ play was reborn, structurally divided into seasons of the year, which represented phases in the life cycle of woman. Extraordinary goddesses led the way, soaring through time to articulate our feminine narrative.

Four friends brought different qualities and talents into the process. Sylvie was around at the beginning for the main development period which also included a red tent gathering with other girlfriends. Sylvie helped formulate the idea, and some of her poems were part of the script. I’d recently read ‘The Alphabet Versus the Goddess‘, about how misogyny culturally emerged alongside the written word. This made a big impression, partly because it suggested the significance of drawing in connection with cultures loving women. The text outlines the neurological impact of reading and writing, and charts how misogyny grew historically in tandem; leading us away from matriarchy and goddess worship as the left brain was privileged.

Smitten with the book I manoeuvred some of its thesis into the play. It talked about religion, mainly Christianity – how Mother Mary had been the centrepiece during the dark ages (obviously she still is to a great extent for Catholics but it seems she had been even more so), after which much of her power was removed. I fashioned a Madonna costume wearing a white dress, a blue sheet, and a white head covering, and narrated some historical detail. The second commandment basically forbids life drawing! That’s still a thing for many Muslims, but has been disregarded by most Christians and Jews these days.

Sylvie’s life was in a lot of flux. She suddenly had to move house a couple of weeks before the performance and cease involvement with the play. This threw me into a mild panic. Her circumstances were critical, so she just had to focus on fixing them. We could no longer be there for each other, having been super-involved up till that point. I had a performance to salvage and she, a very important life move. The script required more than one woman and there was minimal time to sort it out. I had to leave her to solve her crisis, as I cast my eye about and told female friends of my predicament.

Germanic Goddesses came to the rescue! Ursula was interested, and so was Sabine. Even with such a short time to go, I now felt supported by two good friends so my anxiety was relieved. They brought new inspiration – three powerful poems of Ursula’s were added to the script, and Sabine belly danced when performing Isis. We could easily cover all the roles between us, and have fun. What had been a very tricky situation was turned around and made a really lovely opportunity to be creative with other friends. Both of them – and Sylvie as well – had worked with me on Spirited Bodies events; being interviewed; telling their story; and in Ursula’s case singing on one occasion. So there was an understanding of how we work – and play together. Although rushed, this collaboration was fruitful.

Sabine sourced a stunning costume with long, shimmering wings for her dance and practised her moves meticulously. Ursula’s rich ode to the moon poem fitted perfectly, and another was a firebranding feminist call to arms – for menstrual rites. “Women! This is our blood!” we decried as she and Sabine delighted in pouring the period offering over my body. Building up to that she and I got body painted during the Autumn/Enchantress act. First of all we splashed paint on each other and Sabine drew on us before inviting the audience to make their own marks.

It was the first time ‘Girl in Suitcase‘ had not included the original scary art tutor scene – it had morphed into a sexist male tutor played by myself. I took more than one masculine role, as male voices were needed to hound “witches” in the middle ages. To obtain a suitable voice, I used a programme to alter mine.

We became a three person Kali with six arms, fronted by Ursula. Her Kali incantation of survival poem was also a piercing lament for the “witches” killed, sending chills like shockwaves. The menstrual ritual with fake blood (I didn’t start using my actual blood till the following year) came a little later, after which I was pretty sticky. I have done several shows especially in 2015 and 2016, which got royally messy, whichever kind of blood I used. If there wasn’t a shower in the building, the real endurance came after the show when you are meant to relax and celebrate. Either spending a long time taking up one basin and ruining the floor, or just wearing old clothes that stuck to my skin, bearing the discomfort with a glass of wine. That’s show biz!

We wore shawls and hunched over our walking sticks for the Winter act of Crones. Sabine wrapped me in a shroud and helped me into my coffin suitcase – where I had begun the tale in Spring. Sisterly mourning completed the show cycle.

It was a wholly different show now (to previous years’), and almost not about me personally at all. Artemis did have a very spikily charged monologue in the Summer act however, which reminds me I snuck in some of my deeper thoughts at the time. Rediscovering this script has been another revelation for me – similar to what I describe in Script Variations. I can’t believe I buried such a precious gem so long. Life was an emotional dodgems, with too much blocked out by smoking. I was trying to make my life work – but my goodness this had potential. Hey – I am grateful we had the opportunities we did and made the most of them even if only for a while. I can see how my difficult feelings regarding Mum’s condition, were barely fit for public consumption, and I was working out other matters through my relationships.

Even so; the writing and scenography came from all of us. A true collaboration, created by necessity in different phases, much of it hastily. Working with the german goddesses grew our friendships, and particularly with Sabine, it helped inspire her in some new artistic direction. I wish we’d recorded Ursula’s Kali and Menstruation poems, because they shine through the script with timeless rhythm and urgency. Having this time now to look back with a bit more clarity and hindsight, is a gift. To stop and understand allows the lessons to settle. There is still time.

Not long after the March show, I was invited to perform it again in May, at a festival in Norwich called Dandifest. There were a few weeks until the date, but I was going away for two of them to Spain where I had a job. I asked Ursula and Sabine, but it happened both would be away for the performance date. What to do? Again, this was not a one woman show. I thought about who else to ask who might be able to take it on with me and save the day. There was my friend Lidia, also a life model and performer with strong feminist ideas.

Around this time my personal life was taking a change of course and I called her to catch up. She always had a lot to say, and I let her speak a while. In my memory I casually dropped in at the end of the call, oh I’ve got this show coming up, by the way there’s funding. That last bit of course important. Many of my projects are on a shoestring, and for the professional artist, we have limits on how much we can give in these situations. It wasn’t a huge amount, but it helped. Critically she was available, and I think quite keen of the opportunity to perform.

When Lidia commits, a lot of work happens. Work might start happening you hadn’t realised needed to happen. The game is upped, and preparations are rigorous. We had to make the show much tighter with just two of us. Because we were travelling with it, we didn’t have someone else to operate sound, which was too complicated to ask one of the Norwich crew. Lidia recorded all the sound in one long track, which possibly had to be stopped a couple of times during the show, when one of us was off-stage which wasn’t very often. Most of the time we had to be bang on queue with every move. Lidia had it covered, rehearsing us with dictatorial precision till we nailed it. She organised props; from the most ideal squirty body paint, the best fake blood recipe, I think two different extra long wigs, and she’d been inspired by Sabine.

Lidia had kindly filmed the last performance (see above) so she knew what she was dealing with, and now she was taking on some of the key roles. She was the belly dancing Isis (I’m not sure how much belly dancing she’d done before, but while I was in Spain I think she studied it) complete with wings; a very inviting enchantress; and I think as well a moon character with white shiney hair down to the ground (the photographer perhaps ran out of battery at that point).

There were some stand-out moments. Because we have both trained in physical theatre, we incorporated some contact improvisation after the Kali scene. This allowed the thick black paint which I had brushed on to her, to spread onto my body as well during the dynamic movement. We were running across the stage at each other, colliding and sliding one over another; pulling, resisting, and receiving impulses to send ourselves beyond or under. Imaginatively, this expressed the rage and torment of the women burnt as witches. Part of the text speaks of the Malleus Maleficarum, which ordered these killings on behalf of the church, and made it extremely dangerous for women to be seen to be – or just be – friends with each other. It underscored a genocide of female power and sisterly love. Our physical movement together, demonstrating unguarded connection, was also disturbed. Circumstance forced us against one another; to survive at all we would have to fight. Spiritually we were vanquished; brutalised and distraught.

That could have been the end, but our characters – now crones – did find means to live, and unbelievably regroup. With elderly wisdom (and new found gentle spirit) we invited the audience to model for us (some of them had been drawing the show). It was very cold in St Margarets Church (what an appropriate place!) with stone floor, and we were largely kept warm by our adrenaline. Most of our audience were not tempted in the slightest, but we did have one keen novice, who immediately stripped. He was quite drunk, and pleased of this chance which legitimised a likely urge he already felt (he’d been an avid body painting participant already). We duly got on the floor ourselves to sketch him while he posed to Bananarama’s Venus.

It was a lot of fun being part of the Dandifest and meeting their folk, not to mention that it provided reason to develop the piece. I’d met Christina when she’d come to Spirited Bodies at WOW, and now she introduced us to some wonderful artists she created with in Norwich. It was also a treat to have the Lidia experience. It made a difference working with someone who had a similar training, and intense feminism. There had always been something peculiarly familiar I felt with her, like we’d known each other in a past life. I mean, she understood part of me on a very deep level, and it was to do with trauma. There were particular dark things I didn’t have to explain – she just knew.

Coming Home to Myself

As I stare into the camera with my long hair framing my face, there is a light side and a dark. My eye traces the silhouette of the beautiful left, and in her softly refined cheekbone curve to the jaw, I don’t see me any more. Mum is looking back from the screen, directly meeting my gaze. She is in me, and my portrait won’t let me forget; she is watching me.

It is her youthful beauty channeling through the light side of my face, wondering what I will do next. I search for condemnation in her pupil; does she mind the way I write about her? I find only a questionning, a look that is checking.

The light side is only a sliver the width of an eye; grossly out-proportioned by the shadow. The darker part is tired and pasty, baggy-eyed; wearing the weight of my worry like the picture of Dorian Gray. It is real life lived, completing a model with stories to tell. Only squinting can I shed the ugliness to reveal a blurry pretty me/my Mother all in one.

In Victoria Rance’s class I agreed to sit, on Zoom, finally giving in this term. Yesterday evening an experienced class drew me in Steve’s clean studio space. This morning I was at home in Brockley for beginners.

Looking straight on, in Victoria’s drawing this morning

Last night was my first good night’s sleep in the last four. Returning to my own bed with its double mattress all to myself, helps to reboot my insomniac system. I spread out luxuriating, stretching my limbs to each corner as far as they’ll go. I feel the cracks in the walls, the raw plaster above my head, the drafty windows and their damp underside; pictures on the walls telling pieces of my history (my sister calls my home ‘the museum’) and my bones know they are home. I haven’t had a home this long in my life ever till now, and I know its value. Not just in terms of housing benefit. It is a sanctuary.

In the afternoon I met one of my oldest friends on the Heath. We talk about how we are different when we are spending time in our homes alone, to when we are staying with our partners. She has a similar set-up. Sometimes coming home is a reconnection with self, and this is something we hadn’t always realised in our lives. Now in our 40s it is really clear; but when we were younger, we didn’t always notice the disconnection.

Here is a short video I shot yesterday in Bowers Marsh, close to where Steve lives. I was very tired and spontaneous; it’s a bit rambly, but honestly I love the ambience! It wouldn’t be the same on a grey drizzley typical day, but here in gorgeous Spring sunshine, something is working. It continues from yesterday’s theme of sex and connection.

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

 

https://www.instagram.com/p/BVnvNaYBzFK/

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.

Day of the Girl – a feminist Love revolution

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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.

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