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The Yeastie Girlz Interview


9 Minute Read

SERENA CONSTANCE interviews with Cammie Toloui, co-founder of 80s feminist rap band, the Yeastie Girlz. 

It’s a muggy Friday night in August, and on the spur of the moment, I’ve made it to the last Haiku Hands UK tour gig in the intimate venue above the Hope and Ruin bar in Brighton. I’m not disappointed by the energy these three Australian female rappers (sisters Claire and Mie Nakazawa, with Beatrice Lewis) unleashed into a mixed audience of all ages. I can still bump, grind and squat at the front with great energy. Just the tonic I needed after a stressful week, though my thighs are groaning the next day. 

Coming out of the Peaches mould of electro hip hop and dance-pop, Haiku Hands are a feisty act with lyrics full of attitude and girl power. They get the whole crowd dancing. Together with their local Brighton support act, rapper Boudicca, the show contains a sense of energetic empowerment in these uncertain times, when modern pressures on young women are affecting their mental health more than ever. We need girl bands like this.

On the walk home, I’m thinking about the history of female singers in hip-hop, rap, and other genres. Before Haiku Hands, Peaches and Pussy Riot, when I was a teenager in the early to mid-80s, I was riding the wave of post-punk and new wave bands fronted by women with attitude, who were blazing a trail through a sexist, male-dominated industry. On the UK music scene, The Slits and the Au Pairs made me feel strong. They were singing about the reality of sex and female bodies from a women’s perspective, not through the male gaze. Hell yeah! Their music is still as powerful today with Peaches and Pussy Riot taking the genre further.

In 1987, the year I started university, hip hop was big but so male. I remember going to see the Beastie Boys and Run DMC at the Brixton Academy, on their infamous tour featuring a giant inflatable penis and caged female strippers. (Peaches does it so much better with her feminist twist.) On the other side of the Atlantic, three young women at Berkeley were performing their response to the white male hip hop explosion. Although I hadn’t heard of the Yeastie Girlz at the time (too busy raving in fields), I met one of the founding members, Cammie Toloui, when she stood up to rap at a monthly Sunday gathering of Guerrilla Poets in Lewes, performing an acapella Yeast Power.  As she had the whole pub crowd cheering, I realised just how relevant her music and lyrics are for women now as they were thirty years ago.

Cammie is a professional photographer, as well as a rapper, and also runs a massage treatment centre in Lewes. I wanted to know more of Cammie’s story, so caught up with her for an interview in her studio, on how the DIY band ethos of the Yeastie Girlz emerged.

“I was a teenager growing up in the San Francisco bay area. In the town of Berkeley, there was a magazine called MAXIMUMROCKNROLL and the editors had found a great venue on Gilman Street for young bands to play. We would all volunteer to help run the nights, and it was an incredible community. Not long after it opened, there was a big 4th July music festival; the trouble was all the bands were boys. My friend Jane came up to me and Joyce and said we have to do something about this. There are just too many boys on stage. Usually female bands were lumped all together in one line up, instead of integrating and mixing us up. Jane sat down and quickly wrote this rap Yeast Power. In between bands, we just jumped on stage, grabbed the mic, shouting “we’ve just written this song and want you to listen”:

We’re the Yeastie Girlz and we’ve got yeast power, we don’t shave our armpits and we don’t shower…

“We were terrified, but we sang it and jumped off the stage. It was so scary but kind of exciting too. We were 18, fresh out of high school. We’d sing as a bit of a joke, standing around the club, from time to time. Then the editor of MAXIMUMROCKNROLL was going to put out a 7 inch EP of all the bands that performed at Gilman Street and included us. We recorded as an acapella rap, it was about the lyrics and the attitude. Then the name came up; the Beastie Boys had just burst onto the scene but their songs were kind of rapey, so we said we’re the Yeastie Girlz.  We started to write more songs and add to the performance. We’d get speculums and explain to the women in the audience how to use them.”

This made me think of Annie Sprinkle’s sex-positive feminist performances where she’d use a speculum on herself and invite the audience to look at her cervix.  I asked Cammie more about this part of their act:

“ I wanted to educate. I’d worked out you could play the cardboard tube of a tampon applicator as an instrument, so I figured out how to play songs such as Iron Man on it. I’d get on stage and play this thing, sometimes throwing a whole bunch out into the mostly male audience. It was very feminist; we’d be teaching women how to defend themselves too.  Most of the guys would be totally embarrassed, as we’d be singing about our periods, cunnilingus, yeast infections and so on. We were throwing it back into the faces of these punk guys who thought they were so tough; we’d freak them out! Most were great, but some just couldn’t handle it. However, the club was very open-minded; we wanted to talk to women but also shock the guys!

“In 1988 we went on tour as a joke; Joyce had moved to a squat in Amsterdam and Jayne moved to New York. I asked my friend Kate to join the band. We went over to Amsterdam separately and did European tours with Joyce; we’d just show up, no music, just our voices. Most people didn’t know what we were singing about but occasionally they would because of the international reach of MAXIMUMROCKNROLL. We were trying to sell our demo tape too, so we dipped tampons into fake blood and put them in with the tapes so people would have to pull them out. We were really challenging guys’ attitudes to women and our bodily functions.

I kept a scrapbook with all the comments and material we created. All our memorabilia is now in a feminist archive at Harvard. 

“By the late 80s, we’d split, as everybody had moved and were focused on different things. Then in 1991 we were contacted by a band called Consolidated. They were an indy dance band and wanted us to feature on their album. They sent us their music and we thought yeah, we could do ‘You Suck’ to this one. We recorded in the studio – me, Kate and Wendy O.  It became a dance hit, even to this day people tell me they’ve heard it or we get some royalties from radio airplay. “

I ask Cammie where she saw Yeastie Girlz within the feminist history of rap and dance music.

“We were pre-Riot Grrl and there were lots of female punk bands before us that set the stage; we weren’t breaking totally new ground, but every movement since has pushed it forward. To talk about your pussy, your periods and yeast infections was new. I look at other bands now like Pussy Riot and think wow, it’s really evolved. At the time, with what we were doing, we’d really taken the subject to a new level.”

As women, we have come a long way in terms of openly discussing periods and our power over our own bodies. with movements such as the campaign to end period poverty and group performances by artists within the Menstranauts collective founded by Dr Marisa Carnesky. I asked Cammie if she’d be performing more Yeastie Girlz:

“We’ve occasionally performed over the years, sometimes sitting down to write new songs. Now that all of us are going through perimenopause or are in menopause, we’ve got lots more to sing about. I feel there are people who are writing and performing about this now. For instance, whenever I see Pussy Riot – not that they are menopausal, but they are even more forceful and radical – I have so much respect for them; they are incredible. I look at them and think the world doesn’t really need the Yeastie Girlz anymore! I’d like to think the three of  us would get together to write a couple of menopause songs – that would be hilarious.” 

I wonder what Cammie’s now older wiser menopausal self would now say to her 18-year-old self. She laughs:

“Go girl! I don’t have any regrets. I’ve lived a full life as I could. We started the Yeastie Girlz when I was 18, but then in 1991, I became a peep show dancer at the feminist strip club The Lusty Lady in San Francisco. I was studying photojournalism at Uni and really needed more money to fund all the costs involved. I didn’t expect to stay as long as I did there – three years – but the work turned into a photojournalism project. I was documenting clients who agreed to be photographed. In fact, more people know me for the photos that came out of the Lusty Lady, as I’ve exhibited in galleries and museums all over the world.”

Having danced briefly at the Raymond Revue Bar in Soho back in 1998 – the now-defunct club had just celebrated its 40th anniversary – I became interested in sex-positive, feminist performers such as Annie Sprinkle. Co-incidentally I also have a copy of The Lusty Lady by Erika Langley on my bookshelf. I ask Cammie how receptive Lewes is to this aspect of her creative career:  

“I did a presentation with photos from the Lusty Lady era at the Westgate Chapel in Lewes. The audience was really surprised and enthusiastic, and I’ve had lots of positive feedback. I think people here see me as a mild-mannered massage therapist; they don’t tend to see me as a Yeastie Girl or a Lusty Lady!”

I’m glad that Cammie has stepped out of her Yeastie Girlz closet, and am looking forward to her latest creative project. You can view her photos at www.cammiet.com and find more about her current photography service. 

The Culture Interview: Lucy O’Brien – Writer & Academic


11 Minute Read

Lucy O’Brien, 58, is a writer and academic. She has written for NME and City Limits as well as the Guardian etc. She has published various books including Madonna: Like an Icon. She has just updated and re-released her biography of Dusty Springfield – Dusty.

What attracted you to writing this biography of Dusty in the first place in the late 80s?

I interviewed Dusty in 1988 when Phonogram released The Silver Collection, a sumptuous greatest hits album. I’ve interviewed quite a few musicians and artists and she stood out – for her Goonish humour and her original responses. She didn’t trot out a PR spiel, and she thought carefully about each question I asked. I think that summed up her approach to life and music. She never sang the obvious, and she made each song her own. The angle I took with the piece was that Dusty was ‘Queen of the Mods’. She had a cool mod sensibility, and was a regular on the 60s pop show Ready Steady Go!

I did the interview for City Limits magazine, and shortly after it was published an editor at Sidgwick & Jackson wrote to me saying, ‘Would you like to do a biography of Dusty?’ I jumped at the chance. I hadn’t published a book at that point, and it was a great opportunity.

Can you tell us something about that initial undertaking and the process around it?

Ooh, it felt arduous at first. I’d never written a book before…but then I realised that it was like a string of articles put together as chapters, with a linking theme. The next challenge was tracking down interviewees, people who knew her and had worked with her. In the late 80s there was no internet, so I had to use a lot of snail mail, do a lot of phone calls and face-to-face interviews. I also spent time in the US, travelling to New York, Memphis, Nashville and LA, interviewing friends and musicians she had worked with. There was a mystery around her at that point, because she moved to America in 1970 and disappeared from the scene. No one really knew what had happened to her…and I had to somehow piece the story together. All I had to go on was a trickle of articles in back issues of NME, and some press around the time she visited the UK for a ‘comeback’ tour in 1978. It was like doing detective work.

How has Dusty’s image changed now in this LBGTQ-aware era? 

She has become an LGBTQ icon. She was in the closet as a lesbian in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Being out and gay on the pop scene was tantamount to commercial suicide (and to an extent it still is). She had to invent boyfriends and live a life in public that felt artificial. In private she had a very active love life and used to go to lesbian clubs like Gateways, and had a legion of gay male admirers, some of whom used to enjoy dressing up in her gowns!

What did you find challenging about the writing of it?

The main challenge in the late 80s was what I couldn’t put into the book. It was read by lawyers, and I couldn’t write about Dusty’s lesbianism. I could only hint that she was bisexual, because she had said once or twice during interviews ‘I’m just as easily swayed by a woman as a man.’

I loved writing about her music, her childhood, the 1960s pop scene, and all her soulful influences. But I had to be careful when discussing her mental health issues and her drug use – she hadn’t talked about these things in our interview, and they were not in the public domain.

Would it have been different writing it now with the internet?

Writing a biography now is a very different process – it takes half the time. You can get in touch with people much more quickly via the internet, you can do Skype interviews, and there is SO much more information at your fingertips. However, you still have to fact check. And there is no substitute for physically travelling to a place and breathing in the air and absorbing the atmosphere, and talking to people face to face. Old-fashioned physical research gives you much more emotional information about a person’s life. The internet is very flat, gossipy and superficial. For instance, I learned so much about Dusty’s experience recording Dusty in Memphis when I actually went to the rundown studio in Memphis where she recorded it. And feeling the close-knit cameraderie of the Nashville music scene, or, by contrast, the alienation of those sun-baked LA freeways.

Tell us something about the interviews you did? For instance, with Pat Rhodes her longstanding assistant? Or others that stand out? 

I loved meeting her 1960s manager Vic Billings – he was a camp impresario of the old school, a real gent, and hilariously funny. Also her Philips producer Ivor Raymonde, (whose son Simon was part of that amazing post-punk band Cocteau Twins). Ivor was dashing, dedicated, and very good at explaining why Dusty stood out from the other 1960s beat girls like Lulu and Cilla Black.

I also remember interviewing the Dusty In Memphis producers – Jerry Wexler (so articulate, yet a little exasperated with Dusty), Arif Mardin (he drove me through Manhattan in his enormous station wagon and talked about Dusty’s instinct for soul music), and Tom Dowd (who gave me funny anecdotes about her tottering into the studio with her beehive and gown ‘made up like a Southern lady’). Sadly, all of those wonderful people have passed away, so I’m thankful I was able to capture their words and memories.

Dusty’s assistant Pat Rhodes was also helpful, giving me insight into Dusty’s childhood – her vivacious, slightly unhinged Irish mother, her shy, lumbering father, and brother Tom, who formed folk act the Springfields with Dusty in the late 1950s. Pat was a constant in Dusty’s life, and she has been really supportive of the book, at each stage.

This publication is updated – could you tell us something about that?

What’s good with this publication is I have been able to use some of the interview material that was out of bounds in the first edition. I can be much more frank about her lesbian relationships, and her struggles with mental health and addiction. It’s enabled me to go into her story in greater depth, and really explore the full impact of her legacy. I was able to interview her former lover Julie Felix, who told me a lot about the tensions of their secret relationship in the 1960s. I also talked to Pat, and Dusty’s close friend, the singer Simon Bell, about the last five years of Dusty’s life after she got the cancer diagnosis. They both spent a lot of time caring for her, staying at her house in Henley. It was reassuring to know that Dusty’s dry wit and humour stayed with her to the end.

And I interviewed playwright and TV scriptwriter Jonathan Harvey, who wrote the recent Dusty musical. He gave me a fresh perspective on her music, her psychological struggles, and her legacy as a gay icon.

Was there anything that shocked you when researching Dusty or Mary O’Brien’s life? 

I never forget talking to Brooks Arthur, producer of Dusty’s ill-fated, unreleased 1973 album Longing. ‘She wasn’t handling her New York trip very well. Something had begun to tumble,’ he said to me in an interview for the first edition of my book. He was hushed and close to tears when he talked about how she attempted suicide. He had to take her to hospital, and was devastated that he couldn’t take ‘good enough care of her.’ I was also shocked when talking to her US manager Howard Portugais, about how she tumbled so badly through drink and drug use, that she ended up with no money, living in a ‘halfway house’ in LA. I had no idea things had got that bad. I felt enormous sympathy for her, and realised then what a fragile character she was.

Did you understand Dusty’s mental health problems any better at the end of this research? 

Yes…that she was a bit like Amy Winehouse in the way she had to fight personal demons just to sing. She was her own worst critic, and had such a harsh opinion of herself. Yet she created such vulnerable, beautiful music. So much more is understood now about mental health. Many musicians struggle with it, and the music industry, with its punishing schedules of touring and promotion, can make someone’s mental health much worse. Dusty suffered from having to hide her true sexuality, and she battled anxiety and depression. However, as Jonathan Harvey says, what’s so inspiring about Dusty’s story is how in the end she made a brilliantly successful comeback with the Pet Shop Boys. And although she died young at 59, she found happiness and peace of mind at the end of her life.

I hadn’t realised what happened to her in South Africa and how she took that stand that made her controversial at the time, she wouldn’t play to segregated audiences in 1964? Good on her. Max Bygraves wasn’t too pleased!

Yes, Dusty was close friends with the Motown crew, particularly Martha Reeves. She was a huge supporter of the civil rights struggle, and was utterly opposed to playing to segregated audiences. However, Dusty really paid for that – many of her peers (like Max Bygraves) criticised her, saying she shouldn’t mix politics with showbusiness. A question was even raised in Parliament, asking whether a pop star should get involved and speak out against apartheid. Times really have changed.

And what about that beehive? What did it represent for her?

Dusty modelled her look on drag queens. She was never particularly comfortable being a typical girl, so she created a style that was hyper-feminine and over-the-top, with the panda-eye make up and the huge beehive. The queens loved it. I explore this in the book, how there was a split between the real-life Mary O’Brien and the stage persona Dusty Springfield. After a while, though, this split triggered a psychological crisis, and Dusty felt dominated by the alter ego she had created.

And the Lady? Her reputation wasn’t always great with musicians? And she was known to throw things around in her dressing room?

Dusty had a fiery temper. She had a ‘difficult reputation’, but many argue in the book that she had this reputation just because she was a woman making demands in the studio, and not accepting second best from the musicians she worked with. She was a hard taskmaster…and she fell out with a few musicians – notably jazz drummer Buddy Rich. They got into an argument and she whacked him round the head, sending his toupe flying.

She also liked to release tension by throwing food and crockery around her dressing room. She says that she always cleared it up!

Why did she disappear in the 70s in the US?

Dusty adored US soul music, and wanted to perform and record in America. She was also fascinated by American culture and Hollywood films, so moving to the US in the 70s was like the fulfilment of a childhood dream. Unfortunately it was also her undoing. The US music industry then was still very segregated, and they couldn’t understand or market a white English woman singing soul music. Also, as her backing singer Doris Troy said, there was a lot of cocaine around – ‘the devil’s dandruff was rulin’.’

And did she ever find a good gay relationship or was her family Catholicism always at play in the background? 

Dusty was inhibited by her Catholic upbringing, and found it hard to form lasting relationships. However, she had a long-term lover in the 1960s, artist-singer Norma Tanega. And she lived with a number of lovely women in LA. Pat says that towards the end of her life Dusty was single, and more devoted to her cats. It was simpler that way.

How was your interview with her in the late 80s?

I really enjoyed talking to Dusty. She was an original thinker with a nice turn-of-phrase. I always remember her talking about how being a female performer involved ‘such a lot of upkeep. All those hair extensions…’ And she enthused about Sinead O’Connor saying, ‘Where were women like her in my day? She’s young, Irish and so talented.’ She was analytical, and she KNEW her music. I would love to have known her as a friend, and to have her perspective on pop music now.

Dusty: The Classic Biography, by Lucy O’Brien is out on August 22nd

* Lucy is featured with writer Julie Hammil at The Rock N Roll Book Club event ‘Madonna and Dusty: Icons of Song’, London Dublin Castle, on September 4th. For tickets and info: https://www.wegottickets.com/event/476707

On Eccentrics, Fran And Jay Landesman in 1970s London


7 Minute Read

ON HER BED

‘You must have a very small heart to only love one man, all your life.’

Fran Landesman

The gravelly voiced actor, Lionel Stander, who was in London during 1965, working with Roman Polanski in the film Cul-de-Sac, first took me to meet Jay and Fran Landesman.

‘They’ve recently arrived from New York with their two young sons Cosmo and Miles. They’re a great couple, you’ll love them,’ he said, adding, ‘they have an open marriage.’

‘How interesting.’

Fran, he told me, was a well-known lyricist, having penned such evergreens as The Ballad of the Sad Young Men, and Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most. Whereas Jay’s multi-fold talents, Lionel explained, were mainly channelled into the Art of Living.

We found Jay, wearing skin-tight black faux-leather trousers and a very crumpled denim shirt, outside his house in Duncan Terrace in Islington. He was solemnly engaged in a not-so-serious conversation with the street cleaner whom he introduced to us as ‘The Demon Sweeper.’ Then he held out an elegant hand to shake mine and presented himself with the words, ‘Stan Stunning, I’m deeply superficial and superficially deep, sweetheart.’

His brown hair fell to his chin and there was a twinkle in his inquisitive, dark eyes that suggested he was always ready to play. I was instantly attracted to this charming eccentric who verged on the surreal.

His invitation into the sitting room of the terraced Georgian house was prefixed with the warning, ‘My wife will probably join us in a minute. Don’t mind if she’s not very friendly, her moods can be heavy. But I’m working on improving her character.’

Just then Fran, with a short crop of rich auburn hair, cut by Vidal Sassoon, sallied in. She was adorned with many glass, plastic and Bakelite jewels, which perfectly matched the colour-coordinated flowing clothes that draped themselves sexily around her slender body.

In a light mood, she shrugged her husband’s remark off with: ‘I heard that! It’s true. I know I’m spoilt rotten and my tongue can be acid. But it’s not my fault, it’s the devil that makes me do it,’ she said, scrutinising me with her topaz eyes, and then smiled.

‘Great to see you, Lionel. I see that as usual, you’re in the company of a beautiful woman. Sorry, this room is such a mess chaps, but then, as you know, I’ve never believed that cleanliness is next to godliness.’

‘She doesn’t have too many serious beliefs,’ her husband informed us, as he gave her a hug.

‘Well, for sure, I believe it’s all bound to end in tears,’ she retorted. A shadow of gloom swept over her animated face. Then added; ‘I’ll get some tea and I’ve just made these great hash cookies. Better than Alice B Toklas’ recipe. They’re strong, so watch your appetite.’

My eyes wandered over the sprawling room on whose fading-yellow walls artworks by talented friends rubbed frames with high-priced paintings, international bric-a-brac and Victorian pub mirrors. Bohemia sprouted from every corner of the room. An old dentist’s chair was by the window. The keys of the old piano needed tuning, the plants needed watering, the vinyls needed to be put back into their sleeves, everything needed dusting. Clearly, no one cared.

Fran Landesman

The kitchen, with its large, old-fashioned black and white enamelled gas cooker, was at the far end of the room. A glass door opened from it onto a small wood platform, steps led down to an unkempt garden.

As we lounged, sipping tea and nibbling at hash cookies, on a mattress covered with a worn Moroccan carpet piled with colourful cushions, our stoned chatter was punctuated with laughs. I felt I was, at last, where I belonged. Until then, I’d believed hippies were supposed to be young, untogether, unsuccessful, uneducated and hard-up. But Jay and Fran, an obviously classy, brilliant, talented and well-to-do couple, were leading an unconventional lifestyle, which was exactly to my taste.

I had come home.

Fran invited me upstairs to see her bedroom. It was bathed in a soft light that was seeping in through the two broad sash windows, which overlooked the huge trees in the park across the way.

Every space was filled – the cloudy-grey walls were covered with pictures, paintings, photographs, bangles, beads and wood trays decked with fluorescent butterfly wings under glass. All the lovely objects she’d collected were on display. Mementos of her past holding her present life together. Above the solid wood wardrobe between the windows, her mother’s portrait looked sternly down on shelves creaking with books. A chaise longue covered in fading blue satin was piled with pink and purple feather boas.

The mirror above the marble mantelpiece atop the fireplace was framed with postcards from long-standing friends and pictures of past and present lovers. A note on it read- ‘DON’T TAKE YOURSELF SERIOUSLY’.

Satin dressing gowns and silk kimonos hung on the large bi-fold door that opened to the bathroom.

Her bedside table was crowded with knick-knacks: lustrous lipsticks, burnished rings, Bakelite boxes, French glitter and pills for all seasons. A Kodak film can packed with Thai grass.

A canopy made from an embroidered Chinese shawl hung over the generous bed; a large mirror served as its headboard.

Subsequently, I learnt that Fran spent countless hours on her bed. She read on her bed, watched TV on her bed, napped (often) on her bed. Propped up on a mound of pillows covered in exotic fabrics, she did her sewing and patchwork on the bed. She entertained on her bed; put makeup on, on her bed; got stoned on her bed; received lovers on her bed and wrote world-renowned songs on her bed.

‘Show me a sane man and I will cure him for you.’

Carl Gustav Jung

One didn’t necessarily have to be famous to frequent the Landesmans, but you had to be amusing given that the main proclivity at Duncan Terrace was the pursuit of fun. Nothing put a light in Jay’s eyes as much as the prospect of revelry.

Out-of-town friends often stayed in one of the many rooms and parties were organised for them. A stream of articulate friends poured in through the yellow front door. There were heavyweights like Norman Mailer, R.D. Laing and Tom Waits. That merry prankster Ken Kesey danced cowboy style with Christine Keeler, who, looking at the spice rack in the kitchen, asked in a bemused fashion, ‘Who are Rosemary and Marjoram?’ A story Fran never tired of telling. There were the writers Chandler Brossard, Anatole Boyard, and the comedian Tommy Smothers, who was rated to be a great lover by the many women he bedded. The writer, performer and poet, Michael Horovitz, who founded the New Departures publication and the Poetry Olympics, was a frequent visitor. As was Jim Haynes, who co-founded the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the counter-cultural Arts Lab; as well as the satirist, Peter Cook, famed for the television show, Beyond the Fringe, who was as funny off stage as on. The entrepreneurial Sam brothers turned us onto macrobiotics, and brown rice was now on our menu. Carolyn Cassady charmed with tales of her life with husband Neil and lover Jack Kerouac; the uber-feminist, Betty Friedan, never cracked a smile. Beautiful young women sang Fran’s songs, talented men played the piano, until Ralph Ortiz created a happening with his Piano Destruction Concert as he hacked their old piano to bits.

‘You need to get a new one immediately, Jay,’ cried Fran, who hadn’t thought this destruction a good idea.

‘Your wish is my command, my Jewish Princess,’ replied her husband and bought another piano.

Fran was nifty at the cooker, Jay mixed the best martinis, the grass was from Thailand, the hash from Morocco, the acid on a direct express line from Timothy Leary. The ecstasy count was high and it was the ecstasy count that counted in Duncan Terrace.

There I heard Germaine Greer tell a story. ‘I was in New York a few winters ago, walking down a freezing street when this hobo approached me and mumbled, ‘I wn shuk ya cnt.’ What did you say, my man? I asked. ‘I wan shuk yo cnt.’ I still couldn’t understand him and I said, speak up my man, make yourself clear. So he said, ‘I wanna suck your cunt.’’ I looked at this poor creature, there in the dirty snow, and overwhelmed by compassion said: ‘And so you shall my man. I pulled up my skirt.’

We were never sure whether it was a true account or a tale told for our amusement. But knowing Germaine for the giant she is, she very likely gave the bum an unforgettable Christmas gift.

On Reading


4 Minute Read

Mish Aminoff Moon, 61, is a photographer and a member of AoA. Here she describes what she does. She was born in London into a tight-knit Persian Jewish Community and brought up in a multilingual household which alternated between English, Farsi and Hebrew.

‘When I’m walking around a city and suddenly notice something that sparks my interest, I feel a combination of freedom, concentration, stimulation and harmony. There’s a choice be made, to take a photograph of this image regardless of whether or not I think it will work. That is part of the freedom: the experimenting.  My eye and approach are influenced by a love of art history and painting. Prior to studying Photographic Theory & Practice at The University of Westminster, I graduated in History of Art at Sussex University but my interest  – as evidenced in my old diaries – started much earlier. As a young teenager going to art galleries and museums was a gateway into an exciting world. I now believe I can experience the exciting, the beautiful, and ultimately my quest for seeing art on my everyday wanderings.’

This project is about reading. She found a photo of her maternal grandfather reading after work on his balcony in Tel Aviv and the project progressed from there.

Looking through old photos from before I was born I found another informal photograph of family members reading newspapers.  Here are Matt and Pauline reading their papers in the back garden  in Stamford Hill, circa early 1950s:

However, the tendency was that reading matter was used as props in formal studio portraiture. Below, my father in 1930:

Another relative – my father’s cousin Haji-Ben who was based in Milan – with an open book as a prop. His direct gaze and grown-up cross-legged position contribute to the quasi adult composure of the portrait:

And below another studio portrait of my aunt Hannah, this time hand-coloured, with a large open picture book as a prop. I can’t make out the illustration, but it seems like a grand scale documentary image, not what I’d expect from the context!

A posed photograph of me in my bedroom when i was about 3 or 4, taken by my father. This was part of a series of photos he took of me in my room; one at my dressing table, another chatting on a toy phone.  I find it interesting that the bookshelf in my room is filled with his old Penguin paperbacks, possibly deemed unsuitable for display in any other part of the house?

When my own children were born I took lots of photographs documenting their everyday experiences and family life; I was interested in capturing moments that I considered significant. The photograph below was taken in 1990 after a particularly sleepless night; Rafi finally asleep on his father’s right thigh and an open book in Josh’s left hand:

And one from the mid-90s of Josh reading one of his old Tintin books to the boys:

Dan occupying himself reading the Zelda manual on our regular Sunday morning brunch outings to Bar Italia in Soho

Some more from Bar Italia – my mother used to say that I always had a book on me everywhere I went. Nowadays it tends to be a Kindle, but here’s proof that it was a habit that continued into adulthood.  A portrait of me framed on the mirrored wall, part of a semi-permanent wall display of “regulars” at Bar Italia. I don’t remember the name of the photographer but I remember posing for her back in 2009. Here I am taking a photo of the portrait of me with my book, sitting at the bar counter:

The photo below was taken outside Bar Italia; I like it because if you look carefully you can see a luminous image of a man with long white hair – looking like a biblical representation of God in sunglasses. It happens to be the Brazilian musical Hermeto Pascoal, who is rather amazing, and definitely a jazz master if not a god!

Travelling further afield, here’s another café reader, taken the other week in a February sun-drenched Campo Santo Stefano in Venice:

And at this Tel Aviv café back in 2014,  a Hebrew newspaper is used to block out the bright February sun:

On the first day of my first trip to Japan in 2006 I was excited to snap a detail of my Manga-reading fellow passenger on the Tokyo Metro:

I took that trip with my younger son Dan who was 13 at the time. The photo below was taken one night  by Dan –  I’m reading a book by Haruki Murakami, in my new Japanese glasses:

I like the parallel activity of these bespectacled book browsers in a Parisian gallery shop:

Next up are a couple of images taken on London Underground. I loved the intimacy of this elderly couple sharing their art magazine:

This dapper gentleman in a corduroy suit and coordinating tan accessories was reading a book called The Tao of Physics:

Next a couple of diary-like images, the first documenting my ora dell’aperitivo ritual, complete with Campari, pistachio nuts and tapas like snacks and obscure Kyrgyz-translated book:

And on a relaxed Saturday morning my husband Stephen gets some tips on power from GQ magazine:

The story behind Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag


11 Minute Read

Ollie Moore is 58 and a saxophonist who used to be in the very funky Pigbag. Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag was No 3 in the singles chart in April 1982. Here he explains how it all happened. Let’s go down this 70s and 80s lane…

It’s important to say that the song was written collectively, as that was always the way we worked as a band so everyone had an equal input to the music that evolved.
I think it’s fair to say that Pigbag, the band, and Papa’s got a brand new Pigbag were inseparable in many people’s view.

I will endeavour to explain my part in how this tune came to be.

As I am the only remaining member to live in Bristol, this is entirely from my perspective and, inevitably, this is linked to how my career in music started.
My father wanted me to learn the clarinet whilst at Bristol Grammar School, and my Uncle, who played clarinet in the London Symphony Orchestra, sourced a reasonable student model for me to play. I still remember the pleasing smell of the instrument in its furry case with its cork and woodiness.

Ollie MooreOllie Moore

Any pleasant associations with this intriguing instrument were soon to be dashed by an abusive, bad-tempered teacher called Mr Stone. I was 12 years old.

He was a lumbering figure of a man who stood at about six foot three and wore a suit several sizes too small for him. He also drove a three-wheeled Reliant Robin car, in which he looked ridiculous. A bulging leather briefcase completed the dishevelled look.

He would ‘correct’ my mistakes with a thrust of the base of the clarinet upwards against my teeth. If I made a squeak or played a wrong note, his face bulged and turned puce in colour, as if he were about to burst a blood vessel, as he spat angry words in disgust at my incompetence.

Consequently after a few lessons with this monstrous man, I stopped going altogether.

I didn’t tell my father who was Head of Music at BBC Bristol until the end of term.
My parents were divorced by the time I reached 18. The family house was sold and I went to live with my father, who had bought a flat in Clifton.

It was now 1979. I had finished an intensive one year A level course in Birmingham, where I had lived with my grandmother, in her large house where she rented out rooms to overseas students plus an Indian family who lived at the top in a self contained flat. It was very multicultural, and she was featured in an article in the BIrmingham Mail, where she was described as Mrs United Nations. This was 1970s Birmingham where the English population weren’t very tolerant of ‘foreigners’.

So I was now back in Bristol, armed with three O level passes, two of which I had already!

So I now had an O level in Law. Let’s just say I did a lot of socialising and didn’t quite knuckle down to study, despite my dear Gran’s best efforts.

I sold my year old motorcycle, which I had saved up to buy, as the insurance had risen drastically, and bought a car for £95. I then bought a Martin Tenor saxophone in silver from the music store in Hotwells. It cost £240. I was over the moon and excited about learning how to play it…BY MYSELF!

I had already met Simon Underwood, bass player with the Pop Group. At their gigs. I knew the lead singer, Mark Stewart, as we had been at the same school together. Simon was becoming disillusioned with the band, and the inevitable clashes, personal and musical, had come to the fore. It was time for him to move on.
He was becoming more and more interested in jazz and world music, and was eager to experiment in that direction. He shared a lot of this music and I was eager to lap it up. I ended up buying a lot of records from him and from Tony’s record store at Focus in Clifton village. Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Don Cherry, Fela Kuti, Chico Freeman, Funkadelic, James Brown, and of course, the totally out there Sun Ra and his Arkestra.

Unfortunately, my father wasn’t very keen on me playing the sax in his flat, and I had several complaints from an elderly retired Austrian doctor, who lived in the flat below.

A toilet roll stuffed down the bell of the saxophone wasn’t a very effective mute. Luckily, I was able to move in with old school friend Rich Beal, artist, singer and songwriter with Head and Pregnant. It was a tiny room at the top of the house in Regent St, Clifton.

Friends who lived in a basement flat let me use their cellar to practice, so there was of not so much likelihood of upsetting the neighbours.

This was just a temporary move until I moved into a squat in Hotwells. This was called Trinity Rooms and was a great place (and free!) to live, as there was a rehearsal room there where we could play pretty much whenever we wanted.
It also had an empty church hall out the back with a great natural reverb echo.
My first band was called Fish Food, featuring the now sadly departed, hugely talented and eccentric singer/poet Andy Fairley, who went on to record with the mighty Adrian Sherwood and On U Sound. Howard Purse was on guitar, Daniel Swan, former Cortinas drummer, also featured. The Cortinas were the first proper punk band I ever saw. They supported the Damned at Malvern Winter Gardens in 1976. They were riveting.

The first gig I played was at the Granary in Bristol on Welsh Back. A band called Double Vision were playing, featuring Melanie Dicks on vocals (Bristol City manager Alan Dicks’ daughter!). Rob Merrill was on drums. I ended up on stage with Mark Stewart who was singing a version of Max Romeo’s Chase the devil. I had been playing sax for about 3 months now! A little while later, I hitched up to Hitchin in Hertfordshire and played with the Pop Group. On this occasion they had two drummers, Bruce Smith and Brian Nevill who later joined Pigbag after Chip had left in 1982.

By this time, my dedication to practice and playing had paid off and I was quite proficient at navigating the full range of the horn.  Although later in the summer of 1982, Pigbag played at Bracknell Jazz Festival on the same stage as jazz heroes Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell with Nana Vasconcelos.
A subsequent review in the Guardian described my saxophone tone as like being in an Iron foundry!

In the spring of 1980, I was jamming with Simon, and we had been put in touch with some guys in Cheltenham who had heard that Simon had left the Pop Group and asked if he would be interested in playing with them. We would go up to Cheltenham and play in a place called Beech House in a room with black walls. Sadly early recordings of these sessions were lost from an Akai reel to reel tape recorder.

These sessions were where Papa was born and it would go on for about 20 minutes in a frenzy of percussion, including frying pans and horns!

The band was James Johnstone and Chip Carpenter, who were in a punk band called Hardware. Roger Freeman was on timbales and percussion and Chris Hamlin on congas and clarinet. Myself and Simon Underwood. Chris Lee was on trumpet.
After a few months in the summer, I decided to head off to France to look for an adventure while working picking fruit. I took the saxophone with me. Janine Rainforth’s father – Janine would go on to form Maximum Joy – had a house near Avignon and there was a possibility of some work. It didn’t work out. I don’t think he was overly impressed with our work ethic.

I returned some six weeks later on the day the Pop Group played their last gig at a huge CND rally in Trafalgar Square on 26/10/1980. Coming back to Bristol things had moved on and Pigbag had played their first gig supporting the Slits at Romeo and Juliet’s. Fortunately I was welcomed back to the fold.

Dick O Dell had approached Simon with a view to managing us and he wanted to record Papa.

We rehearsed at Janine’s dad’s house in a village outside Keynsham, called Burnett, near Bristol.

I remember that it was the day that John Lennon was shot and killed in New York by Mark Chapman. 8th December 1980.

My first gig with the band was at a Bristol Recorder event at the Anson Rooms at Bristol University. We were supposed to be top of the bill.
But the other acts, including the Electric Guitars, played over their allocated times and we were left with 20 minutes before the curfew. The porters turned the power off and we carried on acoustically, banging frying pans and blasting away on the horns for a good 20 minutes longer.

We continued rehearsing with a view to arranging Papa to around 3 and a half minutes. This took place in Cheltenham and we were booked in to the studio in Berry St. Studios in Clerkenwell, London. This was March of 1981. Legendary film- maker and documenter of the punk movement Don Letts was there with his video camera.

He filmed us as we recorded it. Unfortunately, the story goes that he didn’t actually have any film in the camera. I’ve never seen any footage.

As we were still raw, rough, self-taught musicians high on energy, we didn’t have a grasp of bar lengths and sections so when it came to recording the solos it was decided that Roger would stand in front of us with a stopwatch and after one minute of free blowing he signalled us to end!

Dick O Dell, in what turned out to be a very shrewd move, withheld the release after a year or so of regularly selling 1000 or so singles weekly and attaining top position in the independent charts of the time. The strategy worked, and in the summer of 1982, the single entered the top 40 playlist and Radio 1 had to give it airplay. The pre-order sales had built up over six weeks or so. At that time, the chart positions were based on weekly sales. We got to number 30, then number 9, then number 3. We were denied the number 1 slot by Bucks Fizz and Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder with Ebony and Ivory.

I remember it well, on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, on the green outside my flat, listening to the radio, hearing the chart countdown. Happy times.

I’d particularly like to thank my clarinet teacher, Mr Stone because my experience with him directly led to me teaching myself the sax.

At work, a few days ago, one of my colleagues introduced me to two other workers at Bristol docks.  ‘Do you know who this is? Do you remember Pigbag?’  ‘Yeah’, one of the guys, who was about my age, replied. ‘My mate was the only one who could dance to that song.’

There had been some discussion about whether or not we should do TOTPs. We were concerned about ‘selling out’. Fortunately we decided to do it. Roger Freeman wasn’t happy though, as he claimed we had told him that he couldn’t wear his donkey jacket, which he always wore. He decided not to appear and subsequently left the band.

That was a shame. He is a very talented musician and taught himself trombone in a short space of time. He played a solo on the 12 inch extended version of the song.
My only regret now is that we didn’t include the single on our debut album.
Our reasoning was that we wanted people to hear new material as we felt we had moved on since recording Papa and people could hear it by buying the single.

One of my most enduring memories was supporting the Specials at the Rainbow in Finsbury Park – later to become infamous as a mosque where the radical Muslim Abu Hamsa made his hate speeches. The Specials had just written Ghost town and were playing it in the sound check with the great late Rico Rodriguez on trombone. Wafts of ganja smoke drifted out from the open door of the dressing room as the legendary trombonist warmed up on his instrument.

We were very nervous to be playing in front of a huge crowd of mods and Skinheads and ended up playing at nearly twice the tempo. Jerry Dammers was grinning at the side of the stage, encouraging us on. We were on for about 25 minutes.
After a couple of numbers one of the youths at the front shouted ‘Oi, what’s the name of the band? The single wasn’t in the charts at this time.James Johnstone guitarist, percussionist and keyboards player, leant forward and politely said; ‘Pigbag. What? Pigshit?’

We were then met with chants of ‘PIGSHIT’ after each number. I think they enjoyed it really though…

The Culture Interview: Jenny Gordon – Artist


6 Minute Read

Jenny Gordon is an artist and filmmaker who has a son called Gabriel Bisset-Smith. She is black and her son is white. Or they are both mixed race? Her son has written a lively play Whitewash about race, skin colour and gentrification. It’s on at the Soho Theatre in London until July 27th. Book here – https://sohotheatre.com/

How did Whitewash evolve? 

Basically through situations and conversations my son and I have had over the years revolving aroundrace and the differences of our skin colour. Then, he decided that he wanted to make them into a play that explores mixed raced identity and housing in London.

Could you explain the name – I guess it’s a play on words re London and race, and also something to do with white privilege?

Yeah, it has a few different meaning really, like the word itself. It’s to do with the white privilege of the main character but also the whitewashing of London.

Advantages of Age | The Advantages of Age

Were you actually involved before your son wrote it?

It is based on our life and his upbringing so in a way yes. And he has been involved with my housing situation which has been part of the motivation to write this!

Did he interview you in order to use your experience?

He didn’t have to interview me because we have an on-going dialogue.

How do you feel about being at the centre of this play?

Initially I found it quite stressful as I’m very private about my personal life so it was odd having people think the play is real when it’s just inspired by some real events. But I’m getting use to it now.

And has it affected your relationship with your son, Gabriel?

The whole experience has been really positive for our relationship. We are always very supportive of each other as my son I are very close and we get on really well. I understand what he is doing and it’s been great collaborating with him as I did the painting for the show and he’s a dream to work with.

I noticed you refer to yourself as black and the publicity from the Soho theatre says mixed race?

I refer to myself as black but for the clarity of the story the publicity says mixed race.

How was it being a black mother with a white baby/son/child? In the public arena? And what does that say about us as a society?

When Gabriel was born the first thing I said to the doctor was  – ‘Is he going to go darker?’ and the answer was no. If I hadn’t seen him come out I would have thought they had made a mistake, so it took me a while to bond with him. He was very blond with ringlets and blue eyes and people always thought I was the nanny or minder, and sometimes people would argue with me that he couldn’t be my son.

It became very tiring so I just went with it, which made me take a step back. I didn’t really talk about it so I would just laugh it off but I think it had aneffect on me.

I’m not sure what it says about society but it madeit much harder if you were different in any way out of the norm. People thought they had a right to comment on it? Nowadays it’s probably more hidden.

Have we improved or gone backwards?

With Trump and the possibility of Boris Johnson becoming a Prime Minister, I feel that these are quite risky times and there is a feeling that we could be going backwards in terms of being a woman andrace.

There’s a lot of focus on white privilege these days? Is that good?

Yes, I think it’s a good thing that white people are made aware of their privilege. It’s been there forever but they are really only becoming aware of it now. And it means people like me have a clearerunderstanding of why we get shut out of opportunities.

How is it a love letter to London?

It celebrates what is great about this city. Clubbing, art, diversity and over the course of 30 years. But it also questions what’s happening to it.

How has your own attitude to race changed?

My attitude to race has changed for the better. It’s so much better for me now than when I wasgrowing up. I had a lot of racial abuse wherever I went. I had to be aware of which places that I couldgo to socialise, where I looked for work and education. Now it’s so much more cosmopolitan with so many more inter-racial relationships. I don’t suffer any open outward racism anymore.

What was it like being a young artist in the 80s and 90s in London? How did you survive?

I lived in Culross Buildings in Kings Cross, which could be a bit edgy, with drug addicts and prostitutes. I had a free studio in the same building as my flat and a communal hall where we would hold celebrations and parties. I would go for meetings with gallery owners and with quite a few of them I had bad experiences. I was invited for meetings on the basis of my paintings. However when they saw me, they kept me waiting for hours and then said my work was too controversial for their gallery. I found this experience to be very disheartening and as a result it made me less confident to promote myself as an artist in the ‘art world’.

I also had a part-time job working in a nursery where my kids went and I used to do a vintage stall down Portabello Road. Soho was my go-to-place for socialising at The French, Colony or Gerry’s.

We created a haven in the Victorian buildings and cobbled streets, which were used as film sets for films like Charlie Chaplin and Mike Leigh’s High Hopes. It was a really great artistic communitywhere you felt safe and protected as everyone looked out for each other.

Overall we could be more creative and less money-dependant. I had great support from family, friends and neighbours. It could be tough but we always had lots of fun and good memories of a London that no longer exists.

One of the themes in the play is social housing and how that is changing? I think you have personal experience of that?

I think social housing is coming to an end. It’s more like social cleansing, which I am experiencing myself at this point in my life. They are trying to redevelop where I am living now. It always starts with small damp issues which are never proven and leads to demolition and an uncertain future.

Is Whitewash also a celebration of London?

Yes but also a battle cry to try and save it!

 

Penny Pepper on her Naked Punk Tour


4 Minute Read

Penny Pepper, 59 – poet, performer and writer. She found her voice through writing for punk fanzines and is now on her Naked Punk tour. ‘Punk fired a freedom in me to start accepting myself, that I was okay as a human being, as a woman, as a creative, who could challenge the categories imposed on me. It is the energy that triggered my activism, and my passion for social justice and equality.’

It’s a sad moment when I realise I’ve forgotten to pack my favourite knickers, as I arrive in yet another hotel room, many miles from my Hastings home.

Where am I? I sometimes forget as hotels are my second home at least every four weeks. This time, oh yes. Bristol. The Naked Punk (me) will perform a spoken word set, plus extracts from my memoir, First In The World Somewhere. And at the iconic music store, Rough Trade, only one of four branches in the entire world, damn it!

Here I am, pushing 60. A wheelchair user with a personal assistant (the preferred term) who is my driver, back scrubber and all round right-hand woman. For most of my Naked Punk tour, this personal assistant has been Emma. We work together well, have a laugh together and sometimes a cry together. For instance when we arrived one night, at a Premier Inn in Hackney, London only to discover there was no parking. None at all.

Everything I might need at a hotel goes through a triple checking process on the phone in advance, but alas this far from foolproof. While a young person on reception does not equate with incompetence, it may equate with slow and confused service, especially if you are, gasp, unusual. Poor young things, well groomed and the epitome of polite; they rarely have a clue about the shower blockage or why your room has the wrong bed height – despite those phone calls. They can resolve internet problems though, mostly. Even if they do start by looking at you as if you’re their granny who has never heard of this inter-tweet-net thing.

There are desperate moments on the road. I wish I could at this point bring in the drugs, sex, and TVs being smashed through windows. But in reality, it’s pain killers, bad telly and ‘accessible’ wet rooms that tend to flood your entire room, bringing with it the delicate aroma of the local sewage plant.

I am a bit rock n’ roll in my approach to unpacking. Emma hangs up my clothes, but otherwise my method is to throw items THERE, on the desk below the TV. Here I leave everything from lipstick to Kitkats, note books to baby wipes, empty Dorito packets to a tissue box which is de rigeur. Oddly at home I teeter into OCD tidiness. On my road trip, meh. Let it sprawl and multiply. Earrings do the latter on the road, which I think has something to do with my self-inflicted visit to a local makers’ market. Or the mall.

My hotels are booked to be as close as they can be to the venue. This means less worry about the dreaded parking and makes me more relaxed for the important bit. But in Bristol, it means working out how to get off the noisy ring road, and avoid the Bear Pit roundabout subway where there is a sleepy gaggle of street folk. I lived in London for almost 30 years – I ain’t scared. But it smells bad and brings us out to another fuck of a noisy road. Emma solves it. We come out of the Hilton Cheap and into the posh mall.

Because I am a touch on the delicate side, I always rest the day before a gig. I don’t mean lying in bed being fanned, but I do relax. This time I chilled out by way of buying a hairpiece. Long and pink. Essential for mermaid days.

A gig brings a little tension into my stomach. I’m not nervous when I perform but I percolate the anticipation for hours in multifarious ways. There is the twitchy excitement, the fretting about time, and therefore the hours in the ‘green room’.

Once this was an empty classroom. Another time it had two rows of mirrors and I got to use HRM’s Queenie lift. Here in Bristol, it is actually in Rough Trade, a table set by the photo booth amid all the records. A little disconcerting as most of the walls are glass. At least I don’t need to do a costume change.

The gig goes well despite a scary ramp, which I shoot up from the audience. Next time I need to play some music to accompany my daring ascent. It’s a decent crowd and they respond with cheers, responses and applause throughout.

I glow and grin. Job done.

Next journey Wiltshire. Next gig, WOMAD JULY 26-28th. Get me.

For Penny’s tour dates – http://www.pennypepper.co.uk/upcoming-events/

AofA Poetry Evening – Introducing the Poets


18 Minute Read

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.

ROSE ROUSE

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.

Elainea Emmott

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

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.

FRUITION

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.

WENDY KLEIN

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

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.

ACHILLES HEEL

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

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.

GUTS

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

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.

Leif Sebastian

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 –

OLD FRIEND

Tonight
old friend
I immerse myself in you
Wanting you same
as I always did
When we were young
and the violet Jacaranda
fell carelessly in
hazy blooms
around our feet
Later
though we were still
freshly blossomed;
Both busy reaping
the sky of stars,
On occasion
I fell into you,
Carefully
Detached
and light in passing
And though
You said
we’d be doing
this
into our 60s
It seemed
to me
unlikely
that the delights and sensations of spring
could last for endless nights.
I touch you now
your belly
unexpectedly round
beneath my mouth
Your lips
open to receive me
and though we are both older
by decades
when I kiss you
I feel a subcutaneous youth,
tremulous,
surfacing from deep within
My lips
are yours
and my thighs
My longing is both endless and urgent
Generously
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 –

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/pizzazz-six-fabulous-poets-over-50-tickets-60587359423

Leaning into Death


6 Minute Read

As some of you know, I am deeply interested in death and dying.

A few weeks ago I released the beginning of a film collaboration with my friend Andrew Hassenruck. Its intent is to keep some kind of record as I explore the possibility and option of taking my life.

When I say released, I don’t mean in a major way. I’m not a media star, and neither is my little film trending. Nevertheless, I have come out into the public domain with my enquiry. Everyone to whom I matter has seen it. Many people I don’t personally know, some who kindly follow my blog, friends of friends, friends of strangers, have seen it too.

Over the last decade, I have chosen to write from an undefended place. It serves me well as a connective measure, and if on occasion it can serve someone else, well, that is a cherry on the cake.

Andrew Hassenruck
Caroline Bobby by Andrew Hassenruck

Although I’ve become comfortable with the process of working like this, putting this piece out there – still put my heart in my mouth. My close friends were already in the loop. I had had fulsome conversations (you know who you are) and felt into what it would mean, and what it would ask of me, to go public.

It’s an emotive and taboo terrain. It’s an unusual proposal. It’s likely I’ll trigger some people to anger, fear, judgment, or argument. Most difficult of all is when others want to fix me. I get the good heart of it, but that triggers me.

Don’t get me wrong, if I were offered private health care that would take me out of the six months between appointments and praying to get to talk to the same surgeon as last time, groove, I’d say an unreserved, yes, please and thank you. They are the facts of the matter, alongside the time it takes to journey through the necessary hoops. I’d prefer a shorter route to finding out if the surgery to fuse two discs in my spine, either alleviated pain enough to make a difference to my quality of life, didn’t work at all, or indeed made it worse. These are the possible outcomes.

It’s the intense level of generous but onerous offers to fix that sees me off. The endless treatments and practitioners that have worked miracles for someone else. I want to say: don’t you think I’ve tried a lot of different remedies over many years? Don’t you reckon I might have some people in place? Don’t you realize that my disposable income is very small and may well be allocated already? My low tolerance for such efforts may not be fair, or very graceful, but I also want to say: what if you don’t have to offer me anything, and neither one of us needs fixing? My point being that these old narratives make distance happen, and I’d rather hang out in the fields of helpless humanity, where tears and laughter are buddies, and it is as it is.

Death compels me, and always has done, though this last decade of my little life has been the kindest. Kindness found me when I gave up looking for redemption. It was always there. Do I regret how long I didn’t know that for? Yes, I do.

I wonder about the duet of my depression and physical pain. If I were of a lighter disposition, would it seem such a viable option to choose death in the face of increasing disability and pain? The truth is I don’t have and won’t find a categorical answer to such wondering. A simple thread of truth is this: if there isn’t a way to reduce the degree of pain in my back, hips and groin, the pain that is my constant companion, I don’t want to stay in the world. It’s survival. It’s both too much and not enough.

My specialist subjects of death and enduring depression are not always easy to speak about. I feel deep in my blood and bones that doesn’t serve us, and that the unspeakable needs a voice. Many voices. Being a tiny thread in that conversation matters to me. What if depression responds better to being welcomed than banished? What if suicide is not by definition a tragedy? (Though of course it often is) What if choosing to die, is for some of us, the optimum option? What if death itself is not a tragedy, but could be more of a sweet human event to be thought, talked about and walked towards, differently? What if the mirror twins of entering embodied life with the first breath, and slipping out on the last, were equally blessed? What if more of us could turn our faces into dying with awareness and kindness?

I know, that’s a lot of what ifs.

Here’s a thing, I feel a least some gratitude to this opportunity for sincere enquiry. I enjoy, yes enjoy, thinking it through, imagining and creating details. I can feel my integrity and my love of beauty, ritual and intimate communication in the harness. I would put my heart and soul into giving it my best, passionate effort. That must mean at least some part of me, however small, would be disappointed if the surgery is effective and I get to stay in my little life for a while longer.

In the few weeks since setting my film loose, I have received so much kindness and understanding. I am truly humbled by some Herculean stretching to empathy instead of opposition. Gratitude especially to my brother Paul, sister in law, Maureen and precious niece, Genna.

In April 2014, I started sending Postcards from the Window Ledge. My first blog post ends with these words.

Somewhere between a daughter being born and a sister dying,

I have found that I can love life and long for death at the same time.

That both are true, and I am as full of tenderness as of despair.

As Leonard Cohen says in the lyrics of Famous Blue Raincoat: I hope you’re keeping some kind of record. For me, the taking of a few notes along the road never fails to crack my heart open. With my heart open I always remember we are in it together. All our little lives rolling on and running out, in a ravaged and beautiful world, that in my humble opinion – is also dying.

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