I am here again. On Asanga’s wild land. Slow running up the track that I walked and slowly ran up during the first lockdown in March and April 2020 when I was here in N Wales, in Gwynedd and scared. Of Covid. Of societal collapse. Of the food chain failure. Of being treated as an interloper and sent home to London.
This is where I saw that hand-written sign on the telegraph pole right at the start of the track – GO HOME STAY HOME.
What happens when you – that is me, 67, and my partner, Asanga, 77 – have in a very small way become a poster couple for Living Apart – last year we were just about to be on the One Show when Covid hit and I’ve written various articles about it – and then are thrown together by lockdown?
Suddenly instead of Living Apart – as in five hours apart by car, we were Living Together in Wales. Heavens to Murgatroyd!
The first time round, we learnt a lot. It was not a pretty sight. There was quite a lot of shouting. I am a woman of my own terrain, and then I was on his admittedly very beautiful wild terrain and in his farmhouse. The trouble for me was it was exactly that – it is his. And he had very precise ideas about the execution of most household tasks. I struggled with this dynamic. I had lived on my own for far too long. No wonder he refers to me as the Duchess of Harlesden!
I enjoyed returning to London at the beginning of June. To the friendliness of the city. To my road’s tight squeeze of terraced houses. To people. To neighbours. Friends. I revelled in that warmth. It’s a topsy turvy world in more ways than one. Well, okay, not everyone yearns to live in the countryside. But there is a growing trend amongst my friends for moving out of the city.
And now in January 2021, back on the track, there are no shoots of new growth. No blackthorn blossom. No hare. No vole. No willow warblers. Just the bare bones of the trees to identify. And those mountains.
Asanga moved up here for the mountains. He has been a rock climber since his teens, but had a major climbing accident in his early 50s, took 15 years off, then returned again to the crags in his mid-60s. By the time I met him, he’d more or less given up because he couldn’t attain the same levels. I used to joke vaingloriously ‘I am your mountain now’. Ha ha.
No Ropes, No Ropes, No Ropes
Like a balletic Welsh goat
he devils the overhang.
A saucy clamberer, his ferocity
belies any sinking libido.
Before me, he’s a circus performer
eager to reverse salty-old-lady disapproval.
Tantric Goddess (Eyewear 2017).
I’ve given up being his mountain now though! More recently, Asanga has started going to an indoor climbing wall and joined the Mega-Vet competition for the Over-70s. The wonderful Ginger Cain aged 90 died recently so maybe he’s in with a chance! Formerly a bit of a purist about outdoor climbing, he’s now an avid indoor climber too. And during the lockdown, of course, there is the Zoom Climbing Group where they cook up their next ventures – sea stacks, slabs, overhangs – when it’s possible to go out again.
Five years ago, Asanga took me into the mountains, up Tryfan, a 3,000 ft mountain in Snowdonia. I was unprepared. I had had very little sleep.
We scrambled up the final rocks and it was scarily windy and misty on top. This is what mountain-lovers call ‘atmospheric’ and I found terrifying. And the way down was much worse. Not the manouvering between rocks but the long journey down with the loose stone to negotiate. By the end, I was trembling with exhaustion.
It put me off. I love the coastal paths from Borth y Gest to Samson’s Cove, the pebbly beach at Criccieth, the Dwyfor river walks down past stunning reed beds, I love the woods at Tremadog and the walk along the Glaslyn gorge near Beddgelert.
But I was wary about mountains.
The turning point was more of a gentle roll. We had talked about going up Cnicht, which is referred to as the Welsh Matterhorn – it’s the shape – for years. But somehow we had never made it. I’d been sticking to the sea, rivers and woods.
Yet my appreciation of Asanga’s climbing skills – his nimbleness and balance, that ‘balletic goat’ stuff – had been growing. Secretly. I started to be able to actually listen to his amazing accounts of ice climbs, of Himalayan treks or of leading feats at outrageous sea cliff locations. And even watch the very occasional climbing film like Free Solo.
Gradually it came to me that it would be great to join him in some way. Not climbing. Even if I laughing talk about it. But by finally going up Cnicht together. A going towards – from me. A sharing of his mountain love.
Finally, we went. I was anxious. Not just about being on ice and snow while climbing upwards but also about wearing the right clothes. I borrowed boots from this daughter – Asanga bought new laces – he found me some purple rainproof over trousers, I had layers, a woolly hat. My first and maybe last time in a woolly hat. I have to add that I still had flowers in my hair underneath. My loyalty to floral adornment did not waver. Oh yes, and the gaiters – they had straps that went underneath my boots and waterproof material which went up to my knees.
I looked hideous but was so content to be ready for the mud, the ice, the snow. I was also warm. This was a good start. Also, Asanga was reassuringly organised when it came to getting ready. Flasks of tea and hot chocolate.
‘Look, I’ve got these two survival blankets,’ he announced showing me these two shiny packages. I am still not sure whether he should have told me that or not. But I understood that the intention was to keep us safe whatever the outcome.
Importantly for me, we discussed various possible eventualities before we went. I said that I felt vulnerable, that mountains were his territory and unknown to me, and that I might have to say that I’d gone far enough. He agreed that that was okay. I had to do this because I didn’t want to feel pressurised into going to the top. I knew that he would want to go to the peak.
The climb starts in the spectacular mountain-cradled village of Croesor and a mossy oak wood. Reassuringly, there were four young people leaving at the same time as us. ‘Good luck,’ said a broadly smiling woman.
The lowlands were muddy and sheep-scattered, we could see one peak ahead, but it turns out there is another ‘true peak’ behind that. As we walked, we looked down and saw the Glaslyn Estuary at Borth Y Gest and the Cob, as well as the other snow-covered peaks around us – Moelwyn Mawr to the right, the Nantlle ridge to the left. I was a little concerned about the clouds coming down and being engulfed in grey. I was afraid of getting lost even though Asanga knew the way.
And it was raining. Raining was unexpected and not what I wanted on this mountain walk. It turned into sleet as we got further up. But there were sheltered pauses. I avoided all the ice at first, and then found what bits I could walk on safely. Of course, it’s all about feeling confident. And the sticks – this was my first time – helped with balance. Asanga really is like a mountain creature when he gets going on these steep trails and the sticks were a good aid for me.
At about a 1,000 feet, we got to the snow line. In fact, it was still fairly thick and we were accompanied in our hot chocolate drinking by the deep croak of a raven flying back and forth. We wished for a peregrine but the raven was thrilling in itself.
Now, we started a steeper climb, winding carefully up this spinal ridge because there was a drop on the other side. I followed Asanga. I was happy for him to lead. Of course. He was exhilarated to be up here in his magnificent mountains again. He really is in his element.
I took in the silence. I felt the aloneness. The snow and ice. And that sense of expansiveness as we looked down to nothing except other hills and peaks. No cars, no villages. Just the mountains.
And as we kept on, it wasn’t physical tiredness that got to me, it was more the constant sleet and the grey clouds descending. And the drop down the side. There came a point where I felt my ‘No’ gather strength and eventually emerge. Asanga graciously accepted. We were three quarters of the way up, I didn’t feel the need to get to the peak.
Afterwards, I felt content that I’d done it. And I know Asanga did too. I had shared a few steps of his grand passion. My going towards had created a new layer of togetherness. I could feel the difference in our disagreements. There was a different layer there. A new trust. Another bit of the love web.
How are you doing on the creative front? Has getting older freed you into a more creative place?
I just googled exactly that and depressingly it came back with endless reports about the brain being less creative as we get older. Bullshit, I thought. But I did find this from Psychology Today in 2007.
‘The ageing brain resembles the creative brain in several ways. For instance, the ageing brain is more distractible and somewhat more disinhibited than the younger brain (so is the creative brain). Ageing brains score better on tests of crystallized IQ (and creative brains use crystallized knowledge to make novel and original associations). These changes in the ageing brain may make it ideally suited to accomplish work in a number of creative domains. So instead of promoting retirement at age 65, perhaps we as a society should be promoting transition at age 65: transition into a creative field where our growing resource of individuals with ageing brains can preserve their wisdom in culturally-valued works of art, music, or writing.’
I am 67 and a half!! Did Adrian Mole ever get to that age? And I co-founded Advantages of Age with Suzanne Noble in 2016. In many ways, we’ve gone in different directions – in that Suzanne is developing her Silver Sharers site and Start-Up For Seniors while I am more focused on the arts and my relationship with poetry and dance and writing non-fiction. Although having said that Suzanne is singing the blues and performing when we’re not in Covid times.
Being a part of Advantages of Age – advantagesofage.com – has definitely helped me develop my relationship with the arts. In 2017, we received – on the second try and we didn’t write the budget bit – our first grant from the Arts Council and we created Death Dinner, the film about death and dying, had hot tub salons on everything from tantra to co-housing, ran a Taboo Club around sexuality/love, filled a bus Flamboyant Forever with Over-50s dressed up not just to the nines but the tens and elevens. There was a lot of production work involved.
And I realised that I could do it – get that sort of thing together. The same year 2017, I had my first poetry pamphlet Tantric Goddess out on Eyewear. By 2019, I created a book of poems with my partner, Asanga Judge illustrating them with watercolours – it was called Wild Land. We had an exhibition – poems and paintings together – at the Llyn Arts Festival in N Wales and we also performed there. By this time, I’d written a long poem A Song for an Old Woman, which was about the fears and vulnerabilities of getting older plus my mum having Alzheimer’s and the horrors of the later stages. Asanga plays the crystal bowls. So we did a performance where I read one stanza and then he responded with the haunting sounds of the bowls. We were going to do a version at the Poetry Café but Covid came along.
In 2019, Brent – I live in Harlesden and have written a non-fiction book – A London Safari walking adventures in NW10 – about my walks here with Louis Theroux, George The Poet etc – were told that they’d won the competition to be the London Borough of Culture 2020. Immediately, I started thinking of a project that I’d love to do. Be Willesden Junction Poet in Residence and immerse myself in this bleak but beautiful place. This scary but intriguing place.
I already had a relationship with the station. I’d done a chapter in A London Safari where I walked with railway enthusiast, Ian Bull and been enthralled by his litany of Willesden Junction nuggets, for example, that the buddleia seeds were brought in on the train’s wheels from ports, they came from China. For example, the old transformer building dates back to 1910 and is Arts and Crafts. Plus his winsome theories on my favourite building – the building on stilts. He surmised that it was a carriage washing building.
However, I didn’t go ahead until I’d had several chats with producers. Thanks, Titania Altius. And it became obvious that community was the name of the case. Of course. It’s not all about you, Rose. So I came up with the idea of The Willesden Junction Poets in Residence. I would gather poets in Brent and we would unravel the station through all of our different perspectives. And so I filled in the form. Yes, I managed it with a bit of advice from Suzanne on the budget front.
Lo and behold, last November I heard that I was one of the lucky ones. I had a grant of £3,000 to create The Willesden Junction Poets, make a book out of our poems, find an artist to illustrate it and launch it. I was over the moon. Exactly my kind of project.
By Feb 2020, I’d put the word out on social media, the Kilburn Times and amongst friends for nine poets. I found about 30 and decided on the group. One of my aims was to cherish this group so that it had long-lasting roots so that we became a collective that could carry on afterwards. I had tea with the ones I had decided upon.
On March 1st, we got together for the first time. A vegetable curry at my flat, lots of research about WJ strewn on my floor, shared our WJ stories and then we went to the station. The sun shone and we looked at the station in a way that we never had before. Even me. The fences suddenly looked like the staffs owned by medieval nobility. There were convex mirrors everywhere. And frills on the roof. A wasteland with steps to nowhere. The poets were animated and falling for WJ. Poems started to be written.
And then there was the night visit. I really wanted to go in the dark. Three of us went just as social distancing was coming in but wasn’t understood. Not by us either. No masks yet. We stood in the drizzle and dark, feeling like people in an Edward Hopper painting. There was a loneliness to it and an endless blue freight train. And postmodern blue lights like spears.
Lockdown happened. We took to Zoom like everyone else. Poetry workshops – we shared and commented on our WJ poems. Zoom kept our group together. The project was meant to last three months. We spent two months on Zoom. It deepened the trust and commitment in the group.
By June, the visits to the station started again. This time with masks. Filmmaker Tereza Stehlikova – she’s made Disappearing Worm Wood which is about this landscape which is changing all the time – came for a visit with us. This bleak and beautiful landscape. The vast horizon with all those tangles of tracks where both art critic John Berger drew and made etchings from (I haven’t been able to find any) in the 50s and painter Leon Kossoff made gorgeous, ugly paintings in the 70s and 80s.
Tereza told me she thought of Willesden Junction as a land of enchantment, I told her I thought of it as a theatre. Together with poet, Sue Saunders, we found the beating heart of WJ. Round the back, down a narrow passageway, near the steel bridge. Where the station staff make their way up and down in their orange hi-vis. Where we were forced into close encounters because the pathway is so narrow. Where the mainline trains speed by to Scotland, where freight trains chug by slowly carrying limestone aggregate, for instance, from the Mendips. And the wind is howling as though we’re on the moors in Haworth. Meanwhile, we’re caught up in an intensity of lines – fences, bridges, tracks.
More poems are written. Another high point is the visit with a botanist, John Wells who introduces us to over forty varieties of wild plant in the wilderness that looks like a wasteland full of rubbish and rats. Bristly ox tongue, dove’s cranesbill, spear thistles to name but a few.
I’d always wanted to re-frame the infamous WJ ‘walkway from hell’, ‘the purgatorial pathway’, ‘the jailed path’ with our imaginations. And these urban plants gave us another chance to see and feel this challenging walkway differently. And the poems went on.
By July, I’d picked the poems for the book and thought that BeWILDering could be a good title. The station was referred to as ‘bewildering’ in the late nineteenth century because it was labyrinthine and people actually got lost trying to look for their trains!
Be Wild, re-wild, Wild thing, Willesden Junction – they were all in that title for us. And Sue turned up at our interview with local radio station The Beat with badges bearing – Be, Wild, Er, Ring. I congratulated her on her brilliant deconstruction of our title. ‘I just couldn’t fit it on the badges,’ she said beguilingly.
In the meantime, Keira Rathbone was making her dazzling typictions. And having her own adventures at the station. She wasn’t keen on WJ at first, but as time went on, she fell into intrigue. Keira would appear in her silver jacket and mask looking like a visitor with Mars with her own old Imperial typewriter. Then she’d sit and turn the platen while typing furiously and by some twist of wonderment, she’d create all these images.
On one occasion, she and I were down by the heart of WJ, and we simply became fascinated by an old pipe in the wall. This very textured wall with what looked like gunshots in it. Keira said something like – ‘Look like her come hither look’. And then she became the sexy pipe. And on we went. The spirit of the WJ residency captured. That spirit of tale-telling and you never know where it will lead you.
The book went to the designers, then the digital printers. By October, we had the beauties in our hands. Finally, my son, Marlon – thank you son – who is a filmmaker came down and made short films of us reading our poems ‘on set’ as Tereza put it. It was a great day. An acknowledgement day. Andrea Queens read Legend – where magical occurrences happen at WJ – on the steel bridge, I was near my beloved Building on Stilts, Ian McLachlan performed Changeling down ‘the purgatorial path’, we even got into the station itself for a quick shoot of Sue Saunders reading her Closely Observed Pigeons, Elizabeth Uter was filmed near the 266 bus stop reading her How Many Feet, Iman Hamid told us about her experiences On Platform 4 and Sue Saunders read Nick Moss’ STOP because he couldn’t be there.
And so The Willesden Junction Poets project has been a great project. We are now a group and hopefully, we will carry on performing in London. And I have just filled in another application. So let’s see if the next project comes about next year when I’m 68…
For the past seven years, I have been having a Living Apart Together relationship with my partner, Asanga. He lives on his beautiful wild land in North Wales and I live in my funky flat in Harlesden, North West London. Every few weeks, we visit one another for four or five days.
We are together but we retain our independence. We’d also found a way to be interdependent, we send photos and WhatsApp messages about our daily lives. Our gardens, our thoughts, our friends, our plants, our interweavings – we’ve both given each other so many gifts, he even has rags made from the maroon candlewick bedspread that I had on a bed as a child because he helped my family clear my mother’s house – then there’s his baking, my poems, his paintings. Life is rich and the anticipation around seeing each other again is relished.
We were in Fes this year on March 7th my birthday. News about Covid-19 in the UK has started but there was still the idea that it was a mild flu. I hadn’t given it much thought. I had organized a shared birthday party – with Suzanne, my co-founder at Advantages of Age – for March 14th after I returned. On March 9th, I was basking in the glory of a beautiful 18th century Medina townhouse and I received a warning text from Suzanne. Had I seen what was happening in Italy?
I hadn’t and I had no intention of removing my head from the gorgeous red Moroccan earth. I promised I would look as soon as I got home. By that Thursday – 12th – I was looking around FB and seeing that people whose politics I admired, were saying that we should be in lockdown already. That we should be learning from what happened in Italy. I read one particular article that convinced me which spoke about Covid-19 and how infectious it was. That the reason for lockdown was to stop that infection but also to protect the NHS.
We cancelled the party – I’m so glad in retrospect that we did. It was that weekend – the Cheltenham Festival weekend. The virus was spreading rapidly.
The next week, it was obvious that we should be locked down already and it was coming. There was all the panic buying. No-one, where I lived, seemed to be taking social distancing seriously. I felt afraid. It literally felt as though society’s structures were collapsing.
Interestingly to me – forever independent – I found myself thinking that I wanted to spend lockdown with Asanga. Marlon, my son, said I should go. Asanga was excited – thank you for that sweetness – at the prospect.
By that Saturday morning, March 20th, I had packed up my little car, my big Apple Mac there too. I had never taken my computer to Wales! That felt so significant and made me feel extremely anxious. I always feel as though my life is on my computer and if I move it, it might all disappear.
So you see – I am very rational when it comes to my computer!
Replicating Living Together Apart When We’re Now Actually Living Together!
I moved into the guest bedroom. A fabulous bedroom that looks across the oak canopy. At this point, there were no leaves but the Irish Sea was there in the distance. And Moel y Gest, the little mountain. And this wild land. Fourteen acres of it.
I could have my own world. The Apple Mac was installed.
So it began – I spent four days sleeping in the guest room and three weekend days, Friday, Saturday, Sunday – sleeping with Asanga. Saturday would be our day when we devoted ourselves to the relationship. Making love, baths, appreciations, cooking together. It all sounded perfect!
And I was still working three days a week, so that could carry on as normal.
The ups and downs, the downs and ups.
The ups were all around living in such splendid isolation. No neighbours, lots of naked sunbathing.
The Track has to have a capital. It had such an important part in my lockdown story. This was a lane that Asanga had never travelled up – I persuaded him to walk up it one day to confirm my spotting of a pair of willow warblers – well, not by foot and was a back route to Criccieth. And every other day, I would walk or slow run up it.
For eleven weeks, the Track amazed me with its unravellings. Not since I was a child in our Yorkshire village have a felt so close to the earth, to nature. To the layers of life. While Covid 19 raged elsewhere – and it did feel like a ‘bubble’ where we were –the creamy froth of blackthorn blossom arrived, a mighty hare which appeared like a messenger from a magical story, three dead moles were displayed, the dazzle of the gorse yellow accompanied me.
As I read more about the horrors that were going on in hospitals and then care homes, and the PPE crisis, the bus drivers dying, the young health workers dying, the mounting death count – it was the weekly toll of small deaths on this lane that put me in contact with my grief. I couldn’t believe how quickly they came and went. I was truly shocked by the speed of their fading. Wood sorrel, wild garlic, stitchwort, bluebells – there was a parade of death and birth.
Maybe as well it’s because at 67, I’m aware of my own death approaching and have faced that my spring blossoms are finite now – but I felt deeply sad as the blackthorn turned brown. I wanted to yell – Stop, slow down. Yet in a giddy fashion, the hawthorn had already replaced it with its more substantial cream. This longing for life went on.
There was the hand-written sign on the telegraph pole, which announced Return Home, Stay Home early on. Initially, I felt like an intruder from foreign lands but Asanga pointed out that the notice was aimed at those who had caravans and mobile homes nearby. Still, I couldn’t help but feel guilty for being from London.
And insisted that we keep a low profile about my presence.
More ups were planting of all those seeds together in the first weeks. What a mixture – from lupins to peppers, cucumbers and mixed flowers – that quickly turned into lush seedlings.
And the swing seat tradition – in breaks from working up in Roseworld, I’d come down and share a mid-morning piece of banana bread with Asanga while listening to all that birdsong. Ah yes the baking, Asanga was the man in the kitchen producing rhubarb flapjacks, cinnamon buns, sourdough bread and different banana breads. What a marvel. No, I didn’t lose weight during my Welsh lockdown experience.
Then there was the Zoom Dance Ups – my family were so great at this, we’d pick tracks and then dance together before settling down for a chat, we had a couple of Saturday night club nights where we threw our bodies around and dressed up with friends including our French friends. Oh, and there was one Zoom evening which was supposed to be a cabaret night and turned into something more meditative and lovely. One friend played Bach on her cello, another showed us the paintings that she’d done on chair rescued from a skip, my sister read from Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane, I read a new poem Today The Death Count Reaches Eleven Thousand…
Oh yes, the Friday poems. I learnt to make little videos of myself reading my mostly new poems and I really relished doing it. Even though the holding shots often showed me not at my best! It became another little ritual for my time in Wales and on several occasions, Asanga joined me on his crystal bowls.
Ah ha and the downs. The crazy ongoing not sleeping. Awake at 2 and not asleep again. Again and again. But it wasn’t just the lack of sleep, although this also contributed. It was the return of my high reactivity towards Asanga. I was living in his house. And on a part-time basis, I had learnt how to do this with ease, bring food, cut out mundane chore stuff, focus on the special activities. On a full-time basis, I was lost.
I reacted strongly to being in his domain. I was in his home and I found that difficult. I hated being told what to do – never a strong point of mine. I took everything – all words of instruction – as criticism. I felt unappreciated. I bought lots of food to make up for feeling unsafe. My internal waters were shaken by storms that I already knew well but I could not stop the shaking.
I had been content with our arrangement, the visiting, the exchanging but this living together – even though I was in the spare room much of the time – disrupted the emotional me. Sent me back to daddy waters. I struggled with this unwanted, familiar territory.
There were explosions on both sides. There was intensity. One of my mantras, as I get older, is that I am happy with the every day, I no longer need the extraordinary. I am a self-confessed recovering drama queen. Sometimes my recovery lapses. These weeks contained constant lapses.
Despite the dressing up for takeaways, the slow runs up The Track, the birdsong, the wild land, the walks in the woods, the poems, I was exhausted by my own emotions. Of course, the communal grief for what was happening outside my bubble was part of it. The deathly undertow. The Tory chaos. Dominic Cummings.
One weekend, I feared my mental health was tipping. Fortunately, Alan Dolan – who does conscious breathwork – was having a Zoom workshop that day, I used this circular breathing through the mouth – as Alan says, it’s deceptively simple – to bring me back to solid ground. I used it every day until I travelled home at the end of May.
Home Sweet Home
Neighbours came out to greet me. Jakki and Dylan who have saved me on several occasions including when I needed a heater – my central heating boiler had packed up – after Marlon’s heart surgery. Francisco and Gabby who for years adored our cat, Tara, they provided a second home for her just up the road. My 80-year-old next-door neighbour, Patrick who had been watering my garden all this time.
I hadn’t realized that a lack of neighbours would affect me so profoundly. That I loved being squeezed into a street with people. That this warmth is part of my love for living in the city. That I am a country woman – I come from a village – but now I am a city one at heart.
Over the last couple of weeks, my internal waters have calmed. My sleeping has improved massively. I have been in the garden a lot, planting out the seedlings that germinated in Wales, building a barricade to save them from those frolicking fox cubs, listening to the robin who is always around. I have been back on those tennis courts –my proclivity for combat fulfilled. I’ve still been writing poems, now about Willesden Junction. I have tended the street garden. I have seen my friends and family.
And three weeks on, I’m ready to go back to North Wales again. This time for five days…
From our inception in 2016, Advantages of Age has always had a proclivity for poetry. In 1936, William Butler Yeats, widely considered one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, described Edith Sitwell’s poetry – ‘Her language is a traditional language of literature — twisted, torn, complicated, choked here and there by strange resemblances, unnatural contacts, forced upon us by some violence beating in our blood, some primitive obsession that civilization can no longer exorcise’.
This week, I asked our six poets – myself, Caroline Cadenza, Wendy Klein, Beatrice Garland, Matthew Brown and Debra Watson – to introduce themselves and to tell us something about how getting older has affected their poetry. We will all be performing at the Poetry Café this Thursday, June 27th at 7pm.
I started writing in my mid-50s so I was already old when I started. I wasn’t a teenage poet however I had been a journalist for years, and words ran with me like water. I found myself in the position career-wise where the opportunities to be a freelance journalist had become less and less. The democratisation of writing on the web and my age mitigated against the career I’d relished for the previous 25 years. It was a scary time. So I decided that re-invention was the best policy. In order to earn money, I started doing press and at the same time, I signed on to a Beginner’s Poetry Class at City Lit in London.
There was something about the succinctness of poems and the task in hand that attracted me, and it still does. And there is a parallel in that, with journalism. Condensing an experience that is long and complicated into something that bites with its intensity. Like pasta al dente. Not to overcook. That is my aim.
My first pamphlet Tantric Goddess was published on Eyewear in 2017 when I was 64. It was an exploration partly of the relationship that I started when I was 60. Hence the title which also has a tongue in its cheek. More recently, I did a project with my partner, Asanga where I sent him ten poems and he created ten watercolours as a response, this then became an exhibition and a book Wild Land.
Here is a poem from Tantric Goddess –
LOVE IS LIKE FINDING A SECRET BALLROOM IN MY HEAD
All those years I’d been doing crazy asanas,
the dancing was happening round the corner.
My Conscious Relationship teacher did a lecture
on Holding The Psychosexual Boundaries.
Destroy his letters in a fire ritual.
I’d always dived into Never-Neverland
with broken men, bits of rope and dirty dishes.
To me, the terms were incomprehensible,
I thought my writing should be on their walls.
Enlightenment came through painstaking logic,
a series of unyoga-like forays into household chores.
Like rebels in flagrante,
we move our old limbs slowly.
I haven’t mentioned the chandeliers.
Caroline Cadenza, 51, is an award-winning advertising copywriter, living and working in London. Not finding much scope to express the deep stirrings of her soul whilst writing cat food ads or car brochures, she often uses her daily commute to write poetry. She loves reading her work at Open Mic events and feeling it resonate with audiences.
She has just published Metaphorplay, which she describes as ‘a wildly poetic romance’ and is a collection of her erotic, naughtily edgy, witty poems. She has also illustrated them with her own inimitable pizzazz and colour.
Here’s what she says about her evolution as a poet –
In my 20s and 30s, my poetry was a microphone for my innermost voice as it sung of my spirit’s longings for wholeness and my passion’s yearnings to bust out of the prison of my shrinking-violet personality.
Throughout my fantastically freeing 40s, my art and poetry were increasingly an outlet for my mischief and wildness. But at some point, this ‘secret me’ was so thoroughly outed as the ‘real me’, that putting it back in its box became pointless.
Now at the tip-over from 40s into 50s, it seems that my former decades were merely fertilising the ground for the fruition and bursting forth I’m currently enjoying. This feels like the midsummer of my life – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually blossoming, blooming, ripening and epiphany-ing all over the place.
My poetry today remains an amplifier for my ever-more daring voice – defying convention, berating ex-lovers and shaming them for chasing ridiculously younger totty. But my main catharsis comes from fondly deriding myself and transmuting my tragedies – confessionly, into comedies. As ever, my poetry doesn’t just express my inner world, it reveals, translates, unscrambles and interprets it to me. The trembling voice of my awe and gratitude to be here at all, offers both poetic prayers of thanks and laments the loss of contemporaries who have already passed away. Through my poetry’s portal, my inner goddess roars her wrath and purrs her promises.
What’s next? Who knows? I love turning my poems into performances. So watch this YouTube space for more like this:
This is one of Caroline’s poems that we published at Advantages of Age. It epitomises her courage and naughtiness.
Fruits plucked in haste when ripe enough to eat
Are fresh and firm and tolerably sweet
But look again and higher up you’ll see
Maturer fruit still hanging on the tree.
Come connoisseur, this mellow one’s for you
Not tang and tart and biting back
Nor am I overdue
But come to my fruition – in my prime
Beyond delicious: my taste is sublime.
You’ll barely need to bite – just use your lips
I’ll yield my liquid treasure for kiss
My perfume beckons – lures you to come near
Good sir – you are the reason I am here.
I’m burdened with this ripeness, heavy with completeness
Never before nor ever more will I exude such sweetness
Nectar-seekers, lotus-eaters have not tasted such
Come pluck me now and glut yourself while I am soft and lush.
I’ve nought to lose and all to gain
For it shall be lamented
If my ripeness finds no mouth
Before I’m all fermented.
Widely published and winner of many prizes, Wendy Klein, 77, is a retired psychotherapist, born in New York and brought up in California. Since leaving the U.S. in 1964, she has lived in Sweden, France, Germany and England. Her writing has been influenced by early family upheaval resulting from her mother’s death, her nomadic years as a young single mother and subsequent travel. Despite dashing about between four daughters and fourteen grandchildren, she has published three collections: Cuba in the Blood (2009) and Anything in Turquoise (2013) from Cinnamon Press, and Mood Indigo (2016) from Oversteps Books.
She writes about herself – ‘I believe profoundly in the curative powers of dancing dogs and reading poetry out loud. I hope that someone will humanely destroy me if I cease to be able to enjoy these pleasures.’
Here’s what she says about age and being the poet she is – I am a bit of an imposter to Advantages of Age, because I really don’t see many advantages in terms of any part of my life. I read the brave, positive items you post with great interest and wonder! Certainly getting older has made me less confident about many aspects of my life, and writing is one of them. I am a glass-half-empty person who does her best to stay just ahead of the black dogs. Everything takes me longer, I am more disorganised, I forget titles I have changed, waste a lot of time looking for lost/mislaid items, electronic and paper.
I had a pretty good system up until we moved a few weeks ago, but I have just spent a whole morning not finding a reading I did in Chichester recently, which I want to repeat in London this Saturday, and I cannot find it. Will have to reprint, and I have no replacement cartridge to make my printer work. It is solvable, and I have a wonderful techie partner who bails me out. But… Performance-wise, I suffer more from nerves than I did when I was younger, stumble more, etc. Am pretty diffident about promoting my work, more etc. You get the picture.
I think I am definitely past my prime in terms of developing new ideas, experimentation, etc. I write what I write and know my limitations, which I guess could be described as an advantage. In general, I find the poetry world an awkward place to navigate, and I think I have retreated from the competitive corners of it I used to inhabit willingly. I still put on a pretty good show, but it doesn’t feel secure.
This is a wonderful poem that Advantages of Age published of hers! I love that it’s ‘the beast’ that she covets. I’m sure Yeats would approve.
WHAT THE WEAVER KNOWS
I’m not just any maiden lounging in the millefleurs,
there to bait the trap. On my canvas, invisible
to the innocent, fish knives gleam, wait to scale
your silver, crack open your heart. Listen;
there are rumours of drowning by metaphor:
the flicker of dance, the aspiration of flight,
the whale-bone squeeze that robs breath, moulds
flesh into enticement, promises nothing.
Embrace the rush of darkness, the drip and seep
of 4 AM when eyelids are peeled back, lashes bat
and flap, when the tick of the body is loudest
as light advances, twists, morphs, begins its birth trial:
crown of head, shoulders, the buttocks’ heart-cushion,
legs and feet, their twitch and kick built-in.
No I’m not just any maiden, there to bait the trap, a silly pawn
in some hunter’s game. It’s the beast I covet:
the arch of his back, his mane’s rough silk, the heave
of his white, white breast. Look out, for only the canniest
can break into the spiked circle, where I spell-spin;
a sucker for unicorns; not much of a lady.
Beatrice Garland, 81, has a day job as a National Health Service clinician and teacher, work which requires a lot of publication in its own right (under a different name), so there have been long gaps in her writing poetry since she began in 1989. But it has never stopped completely.
This is partly because she has always read – poetry from the sixteenth century right up to the 2019s, as a result of a first degree in Eng. Lit. – and partly because no job can satisfy every need, perhaps particularly not the need for something personal and self-examining. She spends a lot of the day listening to other people’s worlds. Writing poems offsets that: poetry is a way of talking about how each of us sees, is touched by, grasps, and responds to our own different worlds and the people in them.
She won the National Poetry Prize in 2001 with Undressing, has won several other prizes and has two collections out – Invention of Fireworks and The Drum.
Beatrice is one of the most dynamic women I know. Her poems are vivid and daring.
Here’s what she says about her writing and getting older –
I only started to write really once I was older – say, from 50 onwards. And over the last four or five years I’ve become more confident about performing/reading. But basically growing older for me has meant knowing my own mind, and not being afraid to speak it without becoming strident.
We are going to bed. From where
I am lying, hands behind my head,
I watch your progress with interest
for you are a fine-looking man, good hair
and yes, still slim. When you remove
your shirt, stretching to take it off
without undoing the buttons, I see your ribs
and catch a drift of something feral,
warm, from the efforts of the day
and it makes my pulse quicken. But first
I must tell you something important:
you must never ever ever again
leave your socks on till last.
Matthew Brown, 54, is a freelance journalist and writer. His poems have appeared in a number of publications, including Magma, Other Poetry and South Bank Poetry. He grew up in Durham and lives in East London.
Matt is brilliant at forensically dissecting experiences, particularly around nature. His poems are have a quiet but flaming sensitivity to them.
Here’s s poem of his that was in a group pamphlet, Sounds of the Front Bell.
Weigh it first in the palm of your left, belly up.
Then flop flank down on the block, tail fanned out
against marble or oak. Note the gold scales,
the red-eye dots. See the gills collapse,
the arsehole’s dark O. Touch your blade tip here,
clip a nick, press till the slit grows. Grip.
Use a rag if you must, then slice through chest
to throat – a fine line where pale flesh thins.
Stop before the slack jaw’s wishbone. Make it clean.
Fishwives, it’s said, could cut through fifty a minute, their blunt fingers stunk to old age.
Slide yours between the flaps to catch
the guts, a moist purseful of soft mechanics.
This is what there is: a tube for in and out made slime. Snip the gullet, tug
the slick innards till membrane peels from bone. Adjust your hold, thumb
back muscle, let the knife-point pierce
the spinal column. Ooze as black as claret dregs.
Most goes with a running tap; some spots
need an edge, a fingernail. With luck, what’s found
between the ribs is pink. Leave the head,
let eyes pearl in the pan, skin butter-crisp with sting of lemon and dill. What’s left
is skeleton: skull, vertebrae, fin; tail, a tattered flag on a grounded ship. Fold the waste
in old news, seal the lid from night’s predators.
Debra Watson, 53, is the co-founder and director of The Crimson Word, a poetry collective for shows and events exploring multi-sensory, immersive poetry. She is also a regular performer at The Poetry Brothel London and with The Bloody Poets. She has recently published her first chapbook Laments and Incantations.
Debra is a sensual poet whose words wrap around you and wrestle you to the floor. She delights with her provocative tongue.
Here’s what she says about her work and evolution as a poet –
I stopped writing poetry when I came to the UK in 1997 and started again in 2011. I found a batch of poems that I wrote between 1993 and 1997 and to be honest, the themes and the writing styles are not madly different. I think, if anything, I have developed more craft in the writing. It was wonderful working with poet and editor Katie Haworth on my chapbook. The reasons the poems look more ‘professional’ is that Katie brought some ‘grammar rules’ to the work. She has a fine eye for teasing out the style of the poet and creating formatting rules. She is a tough editor and I had to fight my corner. I am quite stubborn, so often my first reaction to changes is ‘no’ – but then I would look again, and I would see that Katie had actually made a really genius and elegant suggestion. If anything, getting older has made me more willing to open up my work to collaborations.
What has made the most impact on my writing is performing live with The Poetry Brothel London. When I first started I asked Gabriel Moreno if I had to learn my lines. He suggested that I did, but left it to me to decide. The first few performances, I read from a book both for the opening performances and for the private, 1-2-1 readings. However, The Poetry Brothel always has photographers roaming about, and I didn’t like the way the photos looked. So I started learning the poems out of vanity. It was very freeing.
It is very much like that point in rehearsing a play when the director calls for ‘books down’ and suddenly, you can concentrate more intently on your body and your internal relationship to the words than you can if reading from the page. I find this difficult to describe, but in some way it has affected the musicality of the writing.
Performing ‘book down’ has then become really useful when performing intimate poetry either with The Poetry Brothel or with The Crimson Word, the poetry performance company I started with Winter James. Being book free has made it possible to get really close to the clients and to experiment with performing multi-sensory poems.
The poet Amy-Nielson Smith was the first person I knew who was doing this in her private readings, using blindfolds and smell sensations. I was reluctant at first – but after a few months at the Poetry Brothel – seeing how much the clients loved it when other poets blindfolded them, I started doing it too. Now it is a central part of my intimate performances and has made me super aware of the use of multi-sensory word triggers within the long form poems.
The second major influence has been working very closely with the violinist Henni Saarela. Henni is a hero. So much of the impact of the work has come through developing work with her. I have worked with musicians a lot since I started performing publicly in the 1980s.
I used to write far more political stuff till the late 80s, early 90s and worked at first with a traditional drummer and then a cellist. I have always written erotica and performed at a lot of arts events in my youth. At my book launch in May, Henni and I were joined by PicturePoems and Gabi Garbutt for some of the poems from the collection.
There are a lot of poets who are musicians and we tend to talk a bit about the difference between writing music and writing poems. Sappho, of course, was a musician, so the two have been linked in a bardic way through many cultures. We keep intending to record. I’d love that to be a collaboration with other musicians. The Spanish poetess, Belen Berlin, played ukulele on the first performance of ‘Dammit Johnny’ with the collective ‘The Bloody Poets’ and it was amazing. Henni plays that part now and sometimes other instruments too.
At the last Poetry Brothel, Henni and I were joined by Gabriel Moreno on guitar for ‘Barcelona’ and it was sensational. The title of my chapbook is called ‘Laments and Incantations’ and some of the writing has choruses/ refrains that reflect this influence of working with musicians. I’ve worked with a few different musicians on different instruments, but never all at the same time. I guess that might be next.
The last few months I have been dealing with chronic pain and have not had much mental clarity or energy to write. The last thing I wrote which I performed with FemmeDemomium at The Uncensored Festival is a prose poem called ‘Bad Feminist’.
It is a huge departure for me in terms of style. The piece before that was a bespoke performance piece called ‘Baba Yaga’. Although thematically it fitted into my fascination with retelling fairytales – stylistically, it was writing to fit in with a performance developed by poet Naomi Wood – playing the young Baba Yaga who gets the calling to visit the Baba Yaga.
I wrote for and performed the more cantankerous version of Baba Yaga. I also re-wrote ‘The Beauty and The Beast’ for a performance of ‘Venus in Furs’ which we did with The Crimson Word. It was hugely satisfying as it was delivered to be read as a pervy bed-time story and it was enacted by our house submissive playing ‘Beauty’ and an audience member playing ‘The Beast’. The fairy-tale turns the roles on their heads.
I am also busy writing for a new collection called ‘The Empire of Fluff’ which includes poems about colonialism, capitalism and environmental degradation. I don’t really know – my writing feels all over the place at the moment. Lacking discipline in so far as I am responding in very different and diverse ways to themes – so it is more difficult seeing an organic collection grow as I did with ‘Laments and Incantations’.
Here’s a poem that we published in AofA –
I immerse myself in you
Wanting you same
as I always did
When we were young
and the violet Jacaranda
fell carelessly in
around our feet
though we were still
Both busy reaping
the sky of stars,
I fell into you,
and light in passing
we’d be doing
into our 60s
that the delights and sensations of spring
could last for endless nights.
I touch you now
beneath my mouth
open to receive me
and though we are both older
when I kiss you
I feel a subcutaneous youth,
surfacing from deep within
and my thighs
My longing is both endless and urgent
Your body lends itself to me
and I can be as selfish as I choose
in choosing you
The feel of you evokes
so much light in me
that my fingertips
burst with sunshine
Tonight the smile will not
leave my eyes
or my soul
stop from spinning
and I cannot be damned for the
laughter you make well from me
or the way my body remembers
As if we had not spent mere hours together
in this life
but lifetimes with every hour.
TICKETS FOR PIZZAZZ, SIX POETS OVER 50 TAKING PLACE AT THE POETRY CAFÉ DOWNSTAIRS AT 7PM, JUNE 27TH 2019, CAN BE BOUGHT HERE –
Cards mean a lot to me. Birthday cards and Xmas cards particularly. I love both giving and receiving them. For me, it’s an opportunity to write personal messages, or long drawled out, hieroglyphic-looking paeans to family or friends.
Yes, it’s not the cards per se. It’s the messages, the hand-written words of appreciation and love. The chance to reflect on a year spent with this person and to acknowledge those little adventures in friendship, vulnerability, travel, laughter.
Since the demise of the letter and the upsurge of the email and text, it feels to me all the more important to send cards. My French friends, Les Pougnets, are bemused, nay bewildered by the British dedication to the card. They don’t have the same tradition. However, last year they sent me a couple themselves. You see I’m converting them.
Xmas cards, it turns out, were invented in 1843 by two men – Sir Henry Cole and John Horsley – who were trying to popularize the use of the Post Office. They designed a card, sold it and encouraged people to post them. As printing methods improved, costs went down and more people were able to afford to buy and post them.
The first cards usually had pictures of the Nativity scene on them. In late Victorian times, robins and snow scenes became popular. In those times the postmen were nicknamed Robin Postmen because of the red uniforms they wore. Snow scenes were popular because they reminded the public of the very bad winter in 1836.
Hmmm, well I was always a bit of an Xmas rebel. I didn’t do Xmas every year with my family. I just found it all a bit stifling and repetitive. Not really fun. My mum used to go on Caribbean cruises, my sister and her family would go skiing, Marlon and I would seek out other friends who wanted to celebrate with us. I was a single mum and I sought out other mums with kids. It felt freer that way. I wasn’t the 2.4 family and back in the 90s, that mattered more.
But Marlon – he’s 32 now – and I always made our own cards. It was our individualized offering to our world. Just as I don’t buy many off-the-peg clothes, I tend to do the DIY charity or vintage thang or have them made, I didn’t want to do the classic box of cards buying. I certainly did not want robins and nativity scenes. I was predictably anti-religious.
In fact, I remember a friend whom I played tennis with in the 80s telling me in a confessional kind of way that she really didn’t think that she could let herself stray from the traditional Christian iconography as far as her Xmas cards were concerned. I was shocked by her card modesty. Especially as she played in some well-known rock ‘n roll bands.
How conservative could you get! I laughed when she told me in such a coy tone. But then again, her family did found the Salvation Army.
And so they started with Marlon’s drawings. At six in 1992, he drew a classic paunchy Santa but by seven, he was doing funnier cards. Ones that portrays the sledge without the reindeer. The reindeer wanted the year off, he wrote winsomely.
And then there’s a funny Xmas cityscape with Santa disappearing down chimneys and one of my favourites with Santa nailed to the cross. Black humour. Teenagedom is obviously approaching.
And then in the noughties, the photos started. Marlon doing his tinsel-bedecked Eminem impression – to be honest, I think the tinsel was under coercion from me!!! And then I start appearing in the shots as Marlon is obviously more reluctant. There’s a punk-inspired one of me roaring at Xmas with a question mark on my head!!! Kind of Young Ones, a bit late.
And then the ‘arty’ shots, me popping my head around a corner, Marlon wearing a white mask, me and an Xmas tree with lights around my neck, a tumble of kitchen implements in the background. This was our Kitchen Sink drama, evidently.
There’s a distorted angel digitally enhanced. A blackened tree with baubles looking distinctly dystopian. The vibe seemed to be experimental, dark, brooding.
Phew, then we lighten up with photoshop and we are given Santa’s white beards and hats in a sudden turn for the comedic.
More recently, Marlon, of course, has moved out. And I am left doing the Xmas card myself. Keeping up this Rouse tradition. There was the lyrical black and white shot of my mother at 86 taken by Marlon, of course.
And finally a kitsch shot of my partner, Asanga and I at Portmeirion. I look as though the pot of flowers is a headdress. It keeps up the tradition!! Do you have one?
There’s something about starting a new pursuit and passion when you’re older. It’s stimulating in a different way. I began writing poetry when I was 55 ten years ago. Partly, because it was non-commercial. I knew I’d never earn any money from it – so it could be purely words and me. Unlike the world of freelance journalism that I’d inhabited for the previous 25 years, which was getting more and more like a hamster wheel.
I sought a certain sort of freedom of literary expression for its own sake. And I found it at City Lit and City University in evening classes with all sorts of contemporary poets from Roddy Lumsden to Annie Freud to John Stammers. The latter had an invitation-only group, which I eventually was able to join and Wednesday afternoons became the highlight of my week. They still are.
Last year, I published my first pamphlet Tantric Goddess at the age of 64 on Eyewear. There was a flurry of readings including a Tantra evening at Book and Kitchen – this wonderful little independent bookshop in W11, which has now sadly shut down – with friend and writer, Monique Roffey. I read from my pamphlet and Mon read from her recent erotic novel The Tryst, then we did a Q & A afterward on tantra workshops. We loved it, there was such an easy, intimate flow to the evening.
A year later, I felt like I needed to get out of the almost comfort – despite the ruthless taking apart of each other’s poems – zone of The Group and float my poetry evolution elsewhere. I had just discovered – how had I not known – that Ty Newydd, the National Writing Centre for Wales is actually three miles away from my partner’s farmhouse. I saw they had a masterclass – surely mistress class by now – with the former national poet of Wales, Gillian Clarke, at 81, a grande dame of the art and Robert Minhinnick, another revered Welsh poet and eco-activist. We had to send off poems and be invited. Phew, I got in. Apparently, they chose 16 out of 30 applicants.
The week before I was feeling a little anxious. How would my London/Yorkshire attitude go down? I also knew I wanted to be committed to this course. No staying up late with other poets, I was going to be devoted to the workshop itself.
I drove into the village of Llanystumdwy, along the river Dwyfor and found the long driveway to Ty Newydd. It is a grand old house – where the former Prime Minister, David Lloyd George had lived – and painted in white and blue with a long, narrow library designed by marvelous architect and eccentric Clough Williams-Ellis, the man responsible for the wonderland of ‘fallen buildings’ that is Portmeirion down the road.
My room, well, our room – I’d yet to meet my roommate – was right at the top of the house. Oh, yes, the long-forgotten joys of the single bed. Eventually Thirza – I learned later that this was a self-appropriated name – turned up and so began our week of negotiating this space. Actually, she was very well-behaved, although definitely a late night poet. On the last night, she outdid herself and didn’t get to bed until 3:30am.
I managed to resist. I told you I was going to be a good girl. At last. Thirza, who is older than me, obviously wasn’t rebellious enough in her youth and middling years! She was lovely, by the way, kind, supportive and didn’t complain about my snoring.
The first night was meeting each other and eating delicious food, a good portent for the week. We also got to interview each other in the library and then introduce the group to our partner. An exercise in listening and remembering. And absolutely no run of the mill – where do you come from type questions – for Thirza. She recounted her love of gardening, Italian and her strange obsession with the dishwasher.
The next morning –the workshop ran from Monday afternoon to Saturday morning, which seemed short but turned out to be intense – we started for real. With Robert. Who is an elegiac poet of distinction but in person quite dramatic and direct. And funny. Oh, I have to say there was only one other person on the course from London. This was heaven in so many ways. There were poets from up north and many from Wales. There was that song with us all the time.
Robert had brought an envelope of abstract nouns that he’d prepared earlier. We got one each, looked it and started writing with his prompts. Unlocking the muse suggestions. What does this word taste like? Where is it? What does it feel like? I got jealousy – a shameful feeling with which I am very familiar. We wrote for 15 minutes and then read out to each other what we’d written. The first public declarations. The others had to guess what our word was. Well, they got that mine wasn’t pleasant. One of my lines was – ‘You are a twisted priest’. Robert liked that. Other abstract nouns were dread, fear, joy, wonder, mystery and we began to form an impression of each other as poets.
It was fun. The afternoon was with both tutors and eight of us brought along poems without our names on them. We handed them out and critiqued them publicly. And then wrote little advisory or appreciative notes on them. The first one was called Goldfinches and very accomplished – about the First World War and vividly expressed. I’d put one in called Identity, which was about race, my son and partly about Grenfell. Funnily enough, it hadn’t gone down well with my group in London but it did go down well in this group. I got a lot of positive feedback and some questions. One was about my usage of bastard mango, ie was it gratuitous or actually the name of a mango. It was, I’m glad to say, the actual name of a mango. I found it very useful although the shape of the table meant that we couldn’t really have flowing conversations. And 16 turned out to be a challenging number of people for optimum inclusion.
Later on, we divided into much smaller groups of four to look at each other’s poems. Ones that we’d brought with us. My group retired to that fabulous library with the view over to Cardigan Bay and we were serious about our endeavor.
Incidentally, ‘serious’ is one of Gillian’s favourite words and now at the ripe old of 65, I can finally appreciate it. And sink into it.
We were Alison Lock – a poet and short story writer from Huddersfield, Julia Usman – a poet from Swaledale who travels to Dubai a lot to visit her husband, and Trish Reith – a poet who lives in Biggar, Scotland. It was delightful to find four women who liked talking about poems and poetry as much as I do. There were occasions when we almost had a chat but Trish kept us in line. Poetry, first.
The reason we liked our fours – the others in the group agreed – was that we could share equally. We spent an hour each day with our four poems. Someone would read one, the others would comment, then the poet in question would respond to the comments. We all found it incredibly instructive. And we discussed questions like – how do we bring political events into poetry. Make them personal in some way, I think we agreed.
Later in the week, we dubbed ourselves The Crones. Part of AoA’s vision is to reclaim words like crone and old, in order to make us feel more relaxed about ageing and less in the eternal pursuit of youth. I could immediately see a Crone Tour on the cards.
And it was Halloween while we were there. In fact, Trish had a poem called Mission Time, which was about the original pagan festival, Samhain. And it just so happened that the Crones were the cooking crew that night ie we chopped vegetables for the Lobscouse, a tasty stew that I’d never heard of but apparently fed to sailors in Northern Europe for years – so we performed Mission Time as Crone-witches. It seemed to go down a storm. As did the Lobscouse and the wine.
There were readings in the library in the evenings – initially Gillian and Robert. Gillian read a few from her vast selection, while Robert tried a new long poem about his mother on us. He’s written about his mother before – she’s diagnosed as schizophrenic – but not a suite of poems like this, they will be set to music, they was a triumph. On Wednesday, we were treated to the poems and personal stories of Kim Moore whose collection The Art of Falling has won prizes and many plaudits, there’s a moving 17 poem sequence in it where she describes an abusive relationship she was in. ‘And in that year, my body was a pillar of smoke’. From Barrow, she’s got a new collection that features poems about sexism as she’s also doing a PHD on the subject. She read a couple of poems from this new collection All The Men I Never Married – they are lyrical, incisive, brave.
The week unfolded and I found I enjoyed the workshop mornings where Gillian or Robert would offer poem prompts – like think of an object which has a memory, where is it etc. Mine was the kitchen sink in my childhood home in Yorkshire and turned into a poem where I remember my father washing me in this very sink. It was, I said, a look back in sweetness to that time, rather than when I was a bit older and life with him was a lot more difficult. There was something about the challenge of this deadline that I relished. And their lyrical nudges. Gillian would say – make sure it includes a hallelujah line. Robert would say – make sure it’s powerful. And then there was the important advice – don’t have a summing up line at the end. I liked it when Gillian suggested we look up and over our shoulder for that last line.
On the final day, we were to assemble – Jude Brigley, Anne Phillips and Rufus Mufasa were the fine editorial team – an anthology of our work, the Secrets of Cwtch Dan Star (the cupboard under the stairs) inspired by Rufus’ intoxicating poem that combines Welsh and English.
That evening, we all did a five minute reading in the library. My roommate and I were the hosts with the hopefully entertaining and serious introductions. It was our pleasure to acknowledge this work and these poets. We had a ball. Of course, I wore one of my minor feather headdresses…
Could you tell us about WOFFF and why you created it?
Women Over 50 Film Festival (WOFFF) champions and showcases the work of older women on screen and behind the camera with an annual short film festival and year-round events and film screenings.
Our next festival, WOFFF18, is 20 – 23 September at Picturehouse Duke of York’s, Brighton and Depot, Lewes. We’ll be screening two feature films, 58 short films, as well as hosting workshops, panel events, talks, filmmaker Q&As and an evening banquet for festival audiences, filmmakers and guests.
WOFFF addresses the ageism and sexism many women face in the film industry and in so many other walks of life. We screen films celebrating older women on both sides of the camera. We believe inclusive spaces to watch films together and conversations between generations of women can help make older and younger women feel less isolated and feel more connected to each other and to their surroundings and communities.
I’d been a writer and producer (mainly for radio and theatre) for a number of years when I wrote and produced a short film, Microscope, about a middle-aged woman examining her life and marriage, when I was in my early 50s myself.
With my producer’s hat on I started going to short film festivals to see where I thought the film might fit. At the film festivals, I found I wasn’t seeing many people who looked like me on the screen and, after screenings, amongst the people in the bar afterward talking about the films we’d just watched, I wasn’t seeing many people who looked like me either. I found I was often the oldest person in the room, and usually the oldest women. Not many people talked to me; I felt pretty much on my own; like people weren’t really seeing me; I felt lonely and isolated – which is the exact opposite of how I expected to feel in a roomful of people who had the same interest and passion in storytelling and film as me.
It got me thinking about questions like: Who’s not in the room? Who’s not running film festivals? Who’s not behind the camera? Who’s not on the screen? Then, over a pint in the Marlborough Pub in Brighton one night, I was talking to my pal, Maggi, about how I was feeling about my film and film festivals, and Maggi said, ‘Well, bugger that! Let’s just start our own film festival.”
The word I’d like to highlight from that story from back in 2014, with the knowledge I have now, is “just”!
How are you personally connected to the film industry?
My background is mostly in writing and producing. I worked for the BBC World Service for many years and created, wrote and produced an online soap opera to help people learn English. So I think story telling’s in my blood! And my days as a producer certainly helped me in creating and setting up WOFFF. I’m connected to the film industry now as a programmer and screener of films but before I started WOFFF I didn’t have any particular connection except that I’d always loved films and I’d always loved cinema. Still do.
I see Greta Scacchi is a supporter – how did that happen?
Greta grew up in Sussex and WOFFF is based in Brighton and Lewes so there’s a local connection there. Greta has been a WOFFF champion for a number of years. She said recently, “I’m proud to have been an early supporter of the Women Over Fifty Film Festival before the subject of women in the film industry became such a huge public issue. WOFFF has always been ahead of the curve in its celebration of the unique voice of older women in film and I am delighted to continue supporting the work of such a great festival.”
I think movements like #TimesUp and #MeToo have brought issues like sexism and ageism to the fore in the film industry and it’s great that see stars like Greta and Joely Richardson, Amanda Donohoe and Denise Welch all pledging their support for WOFFF.
And if you’re looking for a bit of star attraction at this year’s festival, we’ve got a great line up – stars of Downton’s Kevin Doyle (downstairs Joseph Molesley) in READY TO GO by Lynda Reiss and Samantha Bond (upstairs Lady Rosamund) in LADY M by Tammy Riley-Smith. You can also see Jane Asher in THE VISITOR by Duncan Roe; Sara Stewart in ROMY by Ornella Hawthorn Gardez;
Lynn Cohen in ARTEMIS & THE ASTRONAUT by A. L. Lee and Rhea Perlman in THE MATCHMAKER by Leonora Pitts.
You celebrate older women on both sides of the camera – how do you make sure both are covered?
We make sure both sides of the camera are covered by asking filmmakers to follow this one simple rule that we’ve had in place since Women Over 50 Film Festival launched in 2015 – every film we screen has to have a woman over 50 at the heart of the piece on screen or a woman over 50 behind the camera in one of the core creative roles (writer, director or producer).
The beauty of that rule is that it makes WOFFF a really open and accessible festival because everyone’s welcome – older women and everyone else too. A 17-year-old boy can make a documentary about his 57-year-old grandma and that film is welcome at WOFFF. In our first festival in 2015, we screened LOVELY ALICE POET a film made by two young trans men (Fox Fisher and Lewis Hancox) about the older, trans poet, Alice Denny. To me, that sums up what WOFFF is about. Everyone’s welcome to submit a film to WOFFF and everyone’s welcome to come to WOFFF. As long as you want to be part of the conversation about older women, as long as you’re interested in what it means to be an older woman living in the world today, we want to see at you at WOFFF.
What sort of subjects are covered in the films you show?
The sort of subjects are… us! We screen films that portray older women as we are. We’re human – same as anyone else. We love and hate and have affairs. We can be vicious and proud and generous. We work, we’re unemployed, we retire. We have holidays and arthritis and sex – sometimes all at the same time.
One of the many joys of a short film programme is there’s something for everyone so at WOFFF you can expect animation, drama, documentary and experimental films, and a great range of film subjects too – films about jealousy, a teenager with four lesbian mums, migration, and a bank robbery. We have films from Britain and Ireland, as well as from the US, Canada, Australia, Iran, Taiwan, France, Italy and Turkey. We’re a truly international film festival
I saw that one was called Rebel Menopause from last year?
That was the documentary judges’ top choice in last year’s festival. It’s a fantastic film by Adele Tulli about Thérèse Clerc. Therese was a French, bisexual, feminist who died in 2016. She was in her 80s when this documentary was made about her and one of the things she said in the film which I really loved was this: “I can say I’ve had a great life and that it’s been an amazing time. So while gynecologists talk about menopause as if a woman’s life is over, I say to them ‘No, this is when a woman’s life starts.’” Her words really resonate with me – I love being older. I feel genuinely liberated about what I say, what I do, how I look. I’m in one of the most creative periods of my life, I’m engaged and excited by the work I’m doing and the projects I’m involved with. I can’t recommend getting older highly enough. I think Thérèse’s words really are ones to live by! It’s a wonderful film and I’d encourage everyone to see it if they get the chance.
And you were telling me about one about following some end of life doulas in their work?
We’re screening a documentary in this year’s festival at Depot in Lewes called HOLDING SPACE by Rebecca Kenyon.
HOLDING SPACE is an intimate, observational documentary about preparing for death, told through the connection between a dying person and their end of life doula. The film is structured around a series of conversations, and the film finds both poetry and unexpected humour in this most universal of experiences. By witnessing three people on the threshold between life and death, the film asks: if you knew you were dying, how would you prepare to let go?
We have five workshops lined up for this year’s festival – a mixture of ones aimed at filmmakers and ones aimed more at our festival audience.
One of the workshops is on after the screening of Holding Space with Aly Dickinson from End of Life Doula UK. Aly is one of the doulas featured in HOLDING SPACE and she’ll be exploring with workshop participants the role of a doula at the end stages of life.
Our other workshops include How to Shoot a Film on Your Smart Phone, A Movement and Dance session which is inclusive and open to all abilities, and a talk by Dr Deborah Jermyn called “About time: Ageing women, (in)visibility and the ‘old lady revolution’ in Fabulous Fashionistas (film by Sue Bourne, 2013)”. This workshop will reference another short film that’s screening at WOFFF18 – THE PAST IS ANOTHER COUNTRY by Magda Rakita. Magda’s short doc features one of the original “Fabulous Fashionistas”, Bridget Sojourner, from the Sue Bourne feature documentary of the same name.
Are the films you show mostly shorts? Why is that?
I think a short film is different from a feature-length one in the way that a short story is a different work of art from a novel.
I like the variety that a short film programme can offer and I love that screening short films gives us more opportunity to showcase more work by older women.
But we still love feature films at WOFFF and this year we’re screening two of them – a launch-night film and a closing-night film.
We’re opening WOFFF18 with a Sussex premiere of the Sundance documentary HALF THE PICTURE by Amy Adrion. This film has screened only twice in the UK, at Sundance London so it’s a real opportunity to see this gem of doc that looks at the stories of the women behind the cameras in Hollywood. It’s a chance to get up close and personal with high profile women directors including Ava DuVernay, Jill Soloway, Lena Dunham, Catherine Hardwicke and Miranda July, among many others, as they discuss their early careers, how they transitioned to studio films or television, how they balance having a demanding directing career with family, as well as challenges and joys along the way.
And we’re closing WOFFF18 with FACES PLACES. Director Agnès Varda and photographer and muralist JR journey through rural France and form an unlikely friendship. Agnès Varda is now 90 and her films, photographs, and art installations serve as a total celebration of her creativity and her age. A true WOFFF role model!
I like that you mention promoting the connection between older and younger women – how does that happen?
The rule we set of what makes a WOFFF film means that younger people have been involved with WOFFF with the start. We have filmmakers Q&As after each shorts programme and our all-female panel event is always a bit hit with our audience. In the Q&As and the panel events younger women are on the stage and in the audience so connections are made and conversations started which flow and continue throughout the festival and beyond.
One of the best pieces of feedback we got in our first year was from someone in their 20s who wrote that the thing they liked best about the festival was “the chance to hang out with cool older ladies”. To me, that sums up WOFFF – it’s a place where everyone can connect and get to know someone new; a place where older and younger women (and men too) can meet and learn and grow together.
How do you see the future for WOFFF?
As more of the same and then some! Two areas we’re working on are, first, to make WOFFF as inclusive as we can, and, second, to bring WOFFF to more people around the country with the UK our touring programme reaches urban and rural areas all around the country.
This year, thanks to funding from the National Lottery ‘Awards for All’ and BFI Film Hub South East, we’re extending a warm WOFFF welcome to people who are deaf and Hard of Hearing (as many older people are). All 58 short films we’re screening at WOFFF18 will be subtitled, and many of our WOFFF18 events, like our filmmakers Q&AS, will be BSL interpreted.
Some of our WOFFF18 events are free so people who are socio-economically disadvantaged can participate in and feel welcome at WOFFF.
Our UK tour this year has taken us to over 30 pop-up venues, community spaces and mainstream cinemas from Belfast to Bradford. Next year and beyond we’d like to add more locations to the tour to make sure older women, wherever they live in this country, can watch films in a fun, relaxed, communal setting and see work on screen and behind the camera that reflects them, their lives, and their experiences.
20 – 23 September 2018 at Picturehouse Duke of York, Brighton and Depot, Lewis.
Old – English ald, of West Germanic origin; related to Dutch oud and German alt, from an Indo-European root meaning ‘adult’, shared by Latin alere ‘nourish’.
I was writing this piece before AoA – Suzanne Noble and I – went to the Byline Festival in East Sussex at the end of August 2018 where we gave a workshop there around the taboos of getting older. A few women participants – one was 64 – were adamant that they were still young. Which propelled me into action again.
I had an age crescendo myself before I had my 60th birthday. A spike, an emergency, a horror story. My internal waters cascaded. My refusal to grow old imploded, exploded and derailed me as a woman. I’d just got used to being post-menopausal, in other words, non-fecund, not so attractive to men as I thought I should be and then along came 59.
The edge, the precipice, the chasm of no-return. Could I be The Fool?
In the tarot deck, The Fool is the major arcana card, which depicts the young man (it should be a woman, of course) with his knapsack and his dainty step right on the edge of the cliff about to step into the Big Unknown. For me, this is the Thelma and Louise moment, the car over the cliff, the new life or the oblivion.
I decided that I would fulsomely fling myself over that edge and welcome OLD. Such a little adjective with so many fears in its sub-textural bag. So many cultural and societal demons entangled and ugly. The sag, the disappearance of desire, the looming energy loss, the not being seen as a desirable woman, the disappearance in the world of work, the atrophied vagina.
NO, I was not going down that waterfall, that cultural fall into darkness and non-existence. That bleak, bleak mid-winter. I was searching for the summer instead.
First of all, I stopped being so quiet about my age. To anyone I thought might miscalculate in the puella aeternus direction. To younger men. I mean who were 50 and might, at a pinch, think I was the same age them. That all stopped.
And on dating sites where fear reigns. Particularly from women. If you are honest about your age, you will only be visually visited by men at least 10 years older than you. Or a lot younger. That was so dispiriting. I raged against this particular dark night but in the end, I gave up lying.
And then I had a huge 60th birthday party. I went the whole hog. Without the pig. Voewood House in Suffolk was the location. A butterfly house architecturally, it turned into my own emergence as elder. Or as older, as Ashton Applewhite, the activist and author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, likes to say so acknowledging that wisdom is not integral to the greater age!! We – there were 40 of us staying in the house and another 30 in B&Bs – danced to all that 70s funk. I did a speech about owning my 60th year. I hate the way so often we British only have a party and are silent about the connotations, the feelings, the meaning in our hearts.
There were performances as gifts. And there was a Rites of Passage ritual on the Sunday morning. That was BIG for me. Co-created (oh no one of those contemporary words) by two of my close women’s group friends, I spent an hour in silence with myself, then I was invited to join the rest of the guests who were in the main hall. Slow, heart-opening music was playing and I found myself in the circle of women dancing with them one by one keeping our eyes in deep contact. Sometimes there was an irreverence as with my old school friend – yep, 45 years – Sarah, sometimes a flowering grace and tears as with psychotherapist, Juliet, sometimes a gorgeous acknowledgement of relationship as with my French friend, Isa and on it went, this womanly interweaving.
And then there was the people-tunnel, many feminine hands caressed me through the decades, softness prevailed and then I was hugging someone at the end, which turned into thunderous tears.
My son. And all that signified. OUR huge love. So gorgeous to be in it and realize whom I was with!! And his male friends at his side, also in so many tears; I savoured every watery, heart-split-open moment. This was being in love.
The men appeared and whisked me into the air. The energy changed. Trust, trust, trust. In their hands and care. That masculine/feminine relationship. I surrendered fully to the carrying, to the being carried. Away.
And then the final stage, crossing the threshold to elderdom – there was a distinct lack of peer elders but one or two appeared, one reluctantly – amid candles to acknowledge this new life stage. I spoke quietly.
Old, I was old and fully there. Now I had the rest of my days to inhabit that previously feared place.
Co-founding Advantages of Age when I was 63 – was another way to relax into this BIG declaration. We’re always saying how old we are, literally.
And it’s such a freedom.
Mary Beard, 64, is the high priestess of OLD. In this social media world, in this age-industry world of chasing young, chasing the lack of lines, the super horn, the porn delusion, Mary Beard is in the public eye looking and being proud of looking her age.
And at the forefront of re-claiming OLD in all its glory, in all its positives as opposed to the disease-laden, hideous beast that it is cast so often to be.
She has declared that OLD should be reclaimed, re-appropriated. Very much in the mode of when the gay community took back queer. And the black community took back nigger. And the BDSM community took back perv.
“I’m rather keen for a campaign to do that for old, instead of ‘old’ instantly connoting the hunched old lady and gentleman on the road sign, or the picture that you get on the adverts you get for senior railcards.
I hope by the time I die, old will be something that makes people fill with pride,” she said in the Telegraph.
In the taking back – the shame, the negativity, the fear melts away.
The Gray Panthers in the US are on the same track. An advocacy group that works on all sorts of anti-ageist campaigns – from highlighting forced retirements to what goes on in care homes – they have peppered their name with a little Black Panther/Gray Panther warfare in the name of activism on the age front.
Already in the UK, a third of the population is over 50. In Japan, it’s a quarter. In the US, it’s a third too. We need to find another way with not just the word old but the fears that it evokes and the results of those fears.
David Weiss, assistant professor of socio-medical sciences and psychology at Columbia University’s Aging Center has identified a phenomenon, he calls Age Disassociation.
“As people grow older, they distance themselves from old age. This behavior maintains ageism and the notion that nobody wants to be old. It’s hard to impose a positive meaning of old age in that case, and potentially difficult to counteract negative age stereotypes.”
Can old become groovy? Yes, it can. Janet Street-Porter is on board and recently wrote an article where she declared: “At 71, I don’t see my world as diminishing, quite the reverse. I see nothing but opportunities and challenges ahead.”
At Advantages of Age, we’re promoting the idea that we can be a funky tribe of oldsters if we want to. The Flamboyance Forever Bus Trips – where groups of us dressed up to the nines in jewels, sequins (hot pants, thanks Serena) and colours gave us the opportunity to thoroughly relish our visibility, verve and hilarity. We also talked to each other a lot, new connections were made. In NYC, we did a smaller Flamboyant Forever outing on the subway. 83-year-old purple-haired and head piece-bedecked Topaz Chanteuse came along in all her dazzling glory. We were transfixed by her spirit of fabulousness. And inspired. At a later date, she showed us her tinsel-adorned walker!
This is the way forward. Not necessarily the flamboyance which is fun, but the attitude of putting ourselves out there and not cow-towing to reductionist age industry-influenced negativity.
In fact, the Office for National Statistics reports that older people are more satisfied with their lives than many other groups. I can’t tell you how relaxed I feel now that I am fully out there age-wise, it makes a huge difference to my life.
So let’s start fully re-claiming old in all its magnificence.
Eve Tibber is a member of the Cannock Mill Co-Housing Project in Colchester. She’s a member of the Advantages of Age FB Group and we decided to ask her a few questions because so many of our members are interested in co-housing.
Would be great if you could introduce yourself and what you do and the Co-Housing Project and your age and the age of the others.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my passion.
I am of French origin and a lecturer in Economics specialising in agro co-operatives. For the moment, I am living in Latin America waiting for the co-housing building to be built and retirement. It’s in Colchester and is called the Cannock Mill Co-Housing Project.
Our members are around retirement age. We all have lived full, active diverse lives and intend to carry on enjoying ourselves in the same way.
How were you introduced to the idea of Co-Housing?
From my background in Co-operative studies as well as my active interest in alternative movements from my late teens.
Do people confuse Co-Housing and Communes?
Yes, and with the gated community too. Communes, everything put in common, physical assets, work and sometimes more. It is managed by the commune Diggers and Dreamers.
Co-housing a mixture of private and common. Easier to define what is common because everything else is private. Common is the land we bought and maintain together, the Mill (our ‘common house’) where we can share occasional meals, entertainment and whatever we want to do and some shared utilities like a carpool, a bicycle pool a tool pool etc. Private is everything else we own – including our individual house or flat with its own front door. Of course, we manage ourselves without any form of exterior administration.
Gated community are independent homes, with a sort of clubhouse attached to them, security at the gate and are managed by an agent without too much say from the people living there. Same for a retirement village.
What appealed to you and why now?
Easy because for my husband and myself, after a lifetime of living abroad, we had to decide where, how and with whom we wanted to spend the rest of our lives. People are to us, the secret of a good life, people from diverse walks of life but with the same values of respect, cooperation and fun. This is what attracted us to this way of living.
What tipped it over into a project from an idea?
Hard work, determination, courage, confidence in ourselves and the right people with the right values. Above all, the right people who all wanted the same thing.
How do you think co-housing connects to getting older and the future?
Cohousing is for everybody, intergenerational cohousing is successful but senior cohousing is easier to start up. The advantages of long-term deep companionship, emotional support, common goals, activities and togetherness losing our individual choices – should allow us to live healthier and more fulfilling lives. We hope to be less a burden to society and to our kids, as well as enjoying our time as fully as possible. My aim is to be part of society and community until I am 105.
How hard was it to find a group of similar spirits to do it with?
Incredibly easy thanks to the UK Cohousing network. There is a lot of information, blogs, and above all a directory of groups.
Are you a mixed gender group?
Yes and equal opportunity.
And what about the land? How difficult was finding that?
Ha! That was the problem. We looked for a site for more than six years but things may be getting easier. The government is waking up to the advantage of senior cohousing and there is some support available for groups.
And paying for it?
Today there are more and more institutions helping, lending money, if you can demonstrate a sound business plan. Community-led housing and community land trusts are lobbying successfully to help groups. Some housing associations are becoming very interested in cohousing.
But the truth is that in the end, we are building our houses, privately. The positive side is that we are completely independent. Building in London is prohibitive but more and more groups are starting in places where brownfield land is still affordable. Some people club together to buy an old place like a small community hospital or old school. Support is available via the Community Land and Trusts.
Tell me about the site and the facilities?
The site in Colchester is in the Bourn Valley, in a nice little wood but still at walking distance from the centre and with a bus at our doorstep 20 minutes to the station, 45 minutes to London by train. There are plenty of cycleways and we have a wonderful greengrocer on our doorstep.
The white house was a water mill that we are making it into our common house with kitchen, guest bedrooms, dining room and a sitting room.
The sitting room is for music making, meetings, yoga, chilling room. We are painting it white! And it will feel so cosy.
What have you set up to deal with conflict in the group?
Our decision-making process is through consensus and well-honed. This process is democratically collaborative, transparent and thoughtful. Until now we have avoided major conflict by being honest and being good listeners. We intend to put in place a conflict resolution process when we move in.
Could you tell me about the process re the project so far?
We are self-developers, that is to say, we have contracted a builder but we are lucky to have in our group the talent and competence to look after the finances and the legal work as well as so many other details, which are incredibly time and skill consuming. We are a Limited Company, all members are directors but we behave like a cooperative. The company is building the houses and owns the leases, each cohousing member – also directors of the company – buy the houses and manage the common assets.
And why Colchester?
We wanted to be close to London, in a dynamic town with both artistic and sporting activities. Most importantly, we wanted a town which was alive. Colchester is very much alive with its university, garrison and interesting history.
Where are you at with it now?
We are moving into our eco-houses in November. We have still 2 houses available or more exactly not allocated yet. We have created a waiting list because life being what it is – we already have had people who had to abandon their dream for personal reasons.
What are your hopes and fears for the future?
Happy forever in my enchanting co-housing, but realistically, co-housing is like everything in life. It is what you make of it. My hopes are to have enough energy to further my engagement in more social, affordable, sustainable community-led housing and co-housing. My fear is that I end up watching daytime television, even if it is in the common room of my co-housing project!