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AofA People: Mat Fraser – Actor, Writer, Musician


4 Minute Read

Mat Fraser is a disabled actor, writer, and musician, who’s been in American Horror Story: Freak Show, His Dark Materials, Silent Witness, and played Richard III on stage in 2017. His writing has been sometimes awarded, and recently, published.

His solo show “Cabinet of Curiosities: How Disability Was Kept in a Box”, won the UK’s Observer Ethical Award for Arts & Entertainment 2014, and he wrote the ONEOFUS production of “Jack & The Beanstalk”, for which the New York Times awarded him and his director/performer wife Julie Atlas Muz “New Yorkers of the Year” 2018.

Mat was thrilled when BBC Arts commissioned him to curate the series of monologues around Disability, “CripTales”, for BBC 4 & BBC America, also writing & acting in one of the pieces,“Audition.” Mat believes that authentic disabled voices and faces are vital in liberating narrative and portrayal of disability, and mainstream life in Society.

Mat is currently working with a TV company on an anthology of 30 min dramas around disability, written by and starring disabled people. He’s also practising his triplet and quadruplet rolls hard, for that ever-elusive drumming gig.

Age (in years)

58

Where do you live?

On the China Walk Estate, Lambeth Walk, OI! London

What do you do?

Writer,  actor, and occasional these days only, musician

Tell us what it’s like to be your age?

Quintupsensually OK, good for knowledge, knowing myself, knowing answers, knowing what to say and do in most circumstances, hard for losing my fitness and superb body, harder work needed to maintain, harder to be relegated to irrelevant by the young without becoming hateful toward them, weird to know you’ve lived more than half your life now… I’ve always totally ignored many of Society’s stupid rules and acting my age is one of them, I just act the age I feel, and I’m still having a ball. Speaking of balls, yes they hang lower but oh boy do I get pleasure from them. Luckily no lumps yet.

What do you have now that you didn’t have at 25?

Knowledge. Money. Dwelling. Experience, marriage & thus consolidated partner happiness, pensions in my sights, an inability to suffer fools gladly, intolerance, a knee replacement, white pubes, scars, gut, a hernia mesh, regrets, resistance bands, a mobile phone, a computer, a shitty Wi-Fi deal with Virgin, an electric toothbrush, arthritis, people skills.

What about sex?

Yes, can’t go hard at it for quite as long as I used to, but still, have lots of great sex….1st lockdown we made a home porno for fun…an urgent sexual response to the weird feelings, but then it dissipated..luckily it has returned for a decent regular sex life, offscreen.

And relationships?

Long term, loving, happy. THE BEST thing about growing older is the amount of time you’ve known your friends, and how much more meaningful those friendships become with time….being a friend online to people alone, important, parents included…

How free do you feel?

Free to be me, unfettered by mainstream opinions, State propaganda, but I’m stiff and in arthritic pain now too so less free in my body.

What are you proud of?  

CripTales, my body, helping other disabled people get work, taking care of my Mum, my black belt when I was 38, my disability and lived experience giving me insight into what others miss, Jeremy Corbyn, BLM, #metoo…

What keeps you inspired?  

My continued need for ever-elusive righteous justice and equality for disabled people.

When are you happiest?

When I’ve just written “The End”

And where does your creativity go?

Scripts, songs.

What’s your philosophy of living?

Try to be kind, question everything you are told, stay fit, enjoy life, fuck the system but cleverly so no one notices, be an agent provocateur at all times creatively, do unto others etc.

And dying?

Yeah well, it’s gonna happen, but I’m trying to put it off.

Are you still dreaming?

Yes, of greater achievements, love, and care, a better Society, a Democratic Socialist Government, an Oscar, growing into a really old age with Julie by my side.

What was a recent outrageous action of yours?

Bottomless Zooms, commissioning 7 disabled writers, scoring £300 worth of weed because of lockdown.

AofA People: Gilly Smith – Author & Podcaster


1 Minute Read

Gilly Smith is an author and podcaster who coaches and works with women in mid-life to help them find their voice. You can buy her book out this week,

How to Start and Grow a Podcast here.

What is your name?

Gilly Smith

Where do you live?

Brighton, UK

What do you do?

I’m an author and podcaster.

Tell us what it’s like to be your age?

Blimnin fantastic! At 54, I left the part-time working, child-focussed world and started podcasting. Four years on, I’ve found my voice, am coaching others, all midlife women, to find theirs in podcasting, hosting retreats (pre and post COVI) and my book on How to Start and Grow a Podcast has just come out. Finding my voice in podcasting must have helped my writing too; after writing 15 or so books, I’ve just been shortlisted in the food writer category for the Gourmand Best in the World Awards in June for my book Taste and the TV Chef: how storytelling can save the planet.

What do you have now that you didn’t have at 25?

Where do I start? Voice, confidence, belief in myself, a proper relationship, a passion to change the world and a career that I love and can see growing until the day I die.

And what about sex?

I literally wrote the book on sex, but it’s not until I felt confidence in myself that it really works.

And relationships?

Marriage is a deep dive into ourselves and that’s been a 25-year swim among different universes, only occasionally coming up for air!

How free do you feel?

Once I’m done my lower back reset yoga in the morning – FREEEE

What are you proud of?

Finding myself in my 50s. My girls. My podcasts.

What keeps you inspired?

Family, work, campaigning through podcasting, communicating.

When are you happiest?

Pretty much all the time. I’m a white middle-class mid-lifer living happily, working creatively and keeping warm and safe in a pandemic. How could I complain?

And where does your creativity go?

Into my podcasting and writing, my daughters and my gold walls.

What’s your philosophy of living?

It’s never too late.

And dying?

I read the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying at an impressionable age. Watching my dad die was one of the most incredible and privileged experiences of my life. I’m cool with it.

Are you still dreaming?

ALWAYS. I also host a weekly Dreamwriting Zoom class with a bunch of mid-life women.

What was a most outrageous action of yours?

I’m not sure I’d call anything I do outrageous although most people dare to ask for most of the things I ask for.

The Culture Interview – Glen Colson, 72, music PR


5 Minute Read

Glen Colson, 72, is an ex-music PR – his clients have included Lindisfarne, Ian Dury, Kokomo, and Elvis Costello. I always remember Glen as a prankster PR who was interested in the ‘craic’ more than the selling of records. He worked for Stiff Records at one point, and re-papered the NME’s editor’s office walls with Costello’s new album cover. He has just published the book of his life as a music PR and typically, it’s called Nefarious. Although I think Glen was more hilarious than nefarious! He’s now more into his bamboo growth… Nefarious is available here – www.glencolson.com

I didn’t realize that your mum and dad ran the Magdala Tavern in Hampstead?

 I lived at the Magdala Tavern for 19 years.  In 1958 Ruth Ellis murdered a racing driver outside the pub and became the last woman in England to be hung. 

And you come from a long line of Kent publicans?

Yes, all my uncles had pubs in Margate.  My uncle Bob’s pub, The Dog and Duck, was the biggest, right on the seafront.  I was born in the Princess of Wales which is opposite Dreamland.

Tell us a bit about drumming and you? How come you didn’t end up as a drummer rather than a PR?

I have been drumming since the age of 10 and had lessons with Frank King, a famous tutor in Archer Street, W1.  The reason I didn’t end up drumming as a career was that I couldn’t find any like-minded musicians in Hampstead growing up and fell into PR at the age of 21 and never looked back.  Only drumming after that for pleasure.

You used to frequent La Chasse, a private members club for the music industry, in the 70s?

The Chasse was a private members club in Wardour Street where the Charisma office would relax after a hard day’s work. It was frequented by musicians and roadies from all the great bands of the day, including Marmalade, The Nice, The Searchers, Fleetwood Mac, David Bowie, Keith Moon, and Stan Webb.

And your tutor in PR, Terry The Pill?

Terry the Pill was a villain who sold pills to the Beatles in Hamburg and then managed Eric Burdon and ended up becoming the fly poster King of London.

Oh and your stay in NYC which included being asked to dance by the great Pattie Smith? Which, of course, was at a party hosted by Frank Zappa in 1976.

In 1976, I spent 18 months living in Manhattan, sleeping on Chris Charlesworth from the Melody Maker’s sofa before getting a job with the rock manager Pete Rudge.  He managed The Stones and The Who.  I had originally arrived from the US to promote a Van der Graff Generator date at the Beacon Theatre. 

Glen Colson
Keith Allen, Jock Scot, Neneh Cherry, and Glen

Tell us a few Stiff tales…

My favourite Stiff anecdote took place when waiting outside the offices for a coach on the 5 live Stiffs tour. 

A robbery took place on the opposite side of the road at the house of Tracey Ullman.  The perpetrator fled along Alexander Street and was pursued by an entire coach load of Stiffs and finally being tackled to the ground by none other than Nick Lowe.  

Who was your favourite behind-the-scenes character in the music biz? 

The funniest guy I ever met in the music business was Tony Ashton who was a Hammond organ player who was originally with the Remo Four from Liverpool.  He later formed on Ashton, Gardener and Dyke who recorded ‘Resurrection Shuffle’ famously covered by Elvis Presley. Tony always drank his beer from the water jug. 

How did you meet Keith and Kevin Allen? And I guess there were a few japes in those years?

I first met Keith when he played the Albany Empire and latterly met his brother Kevin when I intervened in the two of them brawling in a club in Convent Garden.  I ended up waking up the next morning with a black eye for my troubles. I recount many tales of the Allen brothers in Nefarious.

Glen Colson
Andy Paley, Glen, and Brian Wilson

And then there was the spirited, gifted Kirsty MacColl?

Kirsty was a close friend who I sorely miss.

I like your honesty about Trinidad and ‘the local lovely’ who made off with your shoes, shirt and shorts after sex following your claim that you ‘had no cash on you’.

This event took place in a Trinidadian nightclub when I made the mistake of picking up a girl who unbeknownst to me turned out to be a hooker who demanded money from me when we entered my hotel room and then made off with all my clothes when I was sleeping.

And the Viv Stanshall years? You seemed to genuinely like him?

After drumming sting with the Bonzos in 1969, Viv became my mentor who I would work with for the next 25 years.

Although not Ian Dury, who seemed famously tricky?

I worked with Ian Dury when he was in The Kilburns and latterly The Blockheads, although, he could be a very tricky customer who had a wicked tongue.  From time to time I would feel the lashing from it.

I guess I can’t miss out The Warwick in Portobello which is where I know you from. What a place! The characters.

After starting to work with Keith Allen, he introduced me to his local pub The Warwick Castle in Portobello Road. The pub was brim-full of Runyonesque characters, murderers, thieves, actors, musicians, market traders, dustmen, and alcoholics. The landlord, Seamus Costello specialised in pigs trotters and pints of Guinness. 

What are your reflections now on music PR at that time?

I have absolutely no interest in it whatsoever.

And how did you get into gardening?

I have always loved and been fascinated by growing things ever since I planted my first tulip bulb in a window box as a young boy. Many years later I was lucky enough to be accepted as a volunteer at Kew Gardens. After taking an RHS course in Horticulture at Twickenham College, I spent ten years at Kew working in various departments until my retirement five years ago.

AofA People: Mychael Owen – Brand Builder


5 Minute Read

“Mychael Owen has built 10 brands of his own and has advised some of the world’s biggest brands – at board level – how to build theirs.
In his late 40’s, Mychael ‘wiped the slate clean’ and closed all his businesses to pursue what he felt he was born to.
These days, Mychael ‘Builds Braver Brands’ with his new agency mychael.co.uk, writes daily stories (3650 stories, 1 each day, for 10 years) at 50odd.co.uk and leads global clothing brand Always Wear Red as they build their reputation for creating The Best Hand Knits In The World.”

What do you do?

What I am born to do.

www.50odd.co.uk.
www.alwayswearred.com
www.mychael.co.uk

 

Tell us what it’s like to be your age.

It’s OK.

I am aware of the brick wall, though.

The end.

Death.

But I am also aware that I will live for 1000 months only.

That’s it.

So I live bravely.

That’s why I closed down a raft of 7 figure turnover companies that I’d built when I was 46.

To do what I was born to do.

I thought that I’d better hurry up as I’d used 600 months or so doing shite that didn’t really matter.

Working with (some) people I didn’t really like.

It’s much nicer doing things that do matter.

And working with nice people.

What do you have now that you didn’t have at 25?

A daughter.

Izzy Willow.

Izobel is 4.

Insights that make judgement and comparison with and from others less powerful.

A determination to see just one film as I lie on my deathbed.

Most people see two.

The film they were in.

And the film they wish they had been in.

I am determined just to see just one.

The one I want to be in.

And what about sex?

It happens quite a bit.

Actually no, wait.

There has to actually be someone else there with you doesn’t there?

No.

It doesn’t happen much.

And relationships?

I’m with Lisa.

Lisa puts up with me very well.

And is probably much more important than I imagine.

How free do you feel?

Interesting question.

Always Wear Red is a business that defines me most accurately.

Always Wear Red is the best hand knits in the world.

For the most important times of your life.

Your downtime.

It’s your permission to pause.

I believe in 8/8/8.

8 hour working (on something you love).

8 hours of sleeping.

8 hours free.

For pausing.

Because the time you do nothing can mean everything.

All of that (albeit authentic) brand-speak aside.

I am not as free as I could be.

But that might be OK, as it goes.

I’m not sure.

Freedom in of itself is not valuable.

What you do with it, is.

What are you proud of?

Izobel.

Always Wear Red.

Not turning into either my dad or my stepdad.

Both of whom were cnuts (conscious misspell).

What keeps you inspired?

Tomorrow.

And Izobel.

When are you happiest?

Mornings.

When Izobel is laughing.

And where does your creativity go?

Everywhere.

I imagine a world I want to live – and then I live it.

And I insist on people around me being endlessly free-thinking and creative.

I want them to think and behave in a blurty, Tourettes kind of way.

I assertively remove anyone that erodes the creativity inside anyone or anything with a great degree of determination and focus.

Creativity is breathing.

I can think of not one scenario where it’s inclusion would make anything less good.

What is your philosophy of living?

Life is nothing about what you do.
Life is all about what you are for.

And this… generosity is the most powerful driver of preeminence and leading an exceptional life.

Because generosity leads to a feeling of value and self-worth.

And value and self-worth lead to confidence.

And confidence leads to excellence, preeminence, and leading an exceptional life.

I see this as very straight forward.

And dying?

It makes me very, very sad.

And urgent.

I’m still processing death as a notion.

I plan to avoid it if I can.

If I ever meet God.

(Which I won’t.

Because she doesn’t exist.

But if she did).

I’d encourage her to leave the death bit out.

To create both love and death in the same lifetime is the cruelest idea.

Are you still dreaming?

Yes.

Always.

It is food to me.

Imagination and creativity are everything.

Research shows that judgment and comparison begin to erode dreams and creativity at the age of 5.

We rediscover dreaming and creating as we get older.

Because we remove the two aforementioned blockers more effectively as we celebrate (and indeed crave) our uniqueness more confidently.

I could run, growling into every day.

Desperate to dream and do at every juncture.

And take everyone with me, too.

What was a recent outrageous action of yours?

I appeared on a TV programme where a psychologist was placed with me and my team for a week.

His intention was to bond us so closely that we’d come to work naked on the Friday.

This was pilot show for Virgin 1 TV channel relaunched.

They asked.

I said yes.

3 million people saw it in year one.

10m+ to date.

Being filmed driving 10 miles to work with an A to Z on your willy is.

Err.

Interesting.

(And cold).

AofA People – 5 Rhythms Teacher, Nikki Ashley


3 Minute Read

Nikki Ashley has been dancing and studying 5Rhythms for 12 years. She trained to teach in 2014 with Jonathan Horan, son of founder Gabrielle Roth. Nikki comes from a background in theatre; traditional, educational and participatory.

Nikki has worked with dancing Tao for 10 years, helping to shape it into a Community Interest Company, she also works with women, elders and regular groups and is a mentor to 5Rhythms teachers in training. She runs a Wednesday daytime group in South London for Over-60s who’d like to have fun with their dancing bodies.

Age 

54

Where do you live?

London

What do you do?

I’m a Movement Meditation teacher

Tell us what it’s like to be your age?

A relief

What do you have now that you didn’t have at 25? 

The ability not to take myself too seriously

What about sex?

Definitely gets better the older I get. I care less about how I look, perform, I’m much more adventurous, there’s less of me in the way. I’m not going in for it unless it’s absolutely yummy and enjoyable and worth staying up late for!!

And relationships?

I don’t live with my partner – we are very different, have quite separate lives and so when we do come together it’s for all the good stuff – when it gets boring we go back to our own homes!  Seriously though this does have its disadvantages as we never really deepen through the every day to day stuff, and can
sometimes feel like we live in a bubble. So it definitely has its advantages and disadvantages.

How free do you feel?   

Very free in my body.

What are you proud of?   

My Mum.

What keeps you inspired?

Music … listening to, dancing to, making it (I’m learning to play a hand drum) singing, all forms of movement and dance.

When are you happiest?

Walking in nature

And where does your creativity go?

I pour a lot of my creativity into making my classes, finding music to complement exercises – making
playlists – DJing. Lately, I have started art classes, which I love, and that I would never have contemplated when I was younger, at school art was not a subject I excelled at – now I don’t worry so much about what the end product looks like, it’s all about the process, so my creativity is flourishing.

What’s your philosophy of living?

My father told me once ‘Life is not a rehearsal’ that has stuck with me – it keeps me in the moment and grounded in the now.

And dying?

This one caught me. A good friend of mine recently went through a near-death experience. I asked her ‘what’s on your bucket list now you’ve been granted a second chance?’  She looked at me and smiled and said –  ‘Nothing, I was already living the life I wanted to live with the people I wanted to be with. She stopped me in my tracks. So now that’s my enquiry or my version of it – which is really about self-acceptance, and trust in your own path.

Are you still dreaming?

Yes!  I dream a lot of the land I was born on the hills of my welsh ancestors. I dream a lot about the sea too.

What was a recent outrageous action of yours?   

To me, it doesn’t seem outrageous but to some who see me dancing on my local common every evening around sunset, it may. I always get the odd glance but sometimes someone will join in for a wiggle and that’s always magic.

https://www.5rhythms.com/teachers/Nikki+Ashley

The Culture Interview – Monique Roffey


8 Minute Read

Monique Roffey is an award-winning Trinidadian-born British writer of novels, essays, a memoir and literary journalism. Her latest novel is The Mermaid of Black Conch, (April 2020). Her novels have been translated into five languages and shortlisted for several major awards and, in 2013, Archipelago won the OCM BOCAS Award for Caribbean Literature. Her essays have appeared in The New York Review of Books, Boundless magazine, The Independent, Wasafiri, and Caribbean Quarterly. She is a founding member of XRWritersRebel, and an advocate for emerging writers in Trinidad, founding St James Writers Room in 2014. She is currently Lecturer on the MFA/MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University and a tutor at the Norwich Writers Centre.

The Mermaid of Black Conch is available straight from Peepal Tree Press here: https://www.peepaltreepress.com/books/mermaid-black-conch

Tell us how a mermaid became your central character for this book?

Easy, she swam to me in my dreams. I began to dream of her. Then, some years ago, back in 2013, I was in Tobago, for a fishing competition. Big fish were being weighed on the jetty, strung up by their tails. Wahoo, dolphin fish and the like, and it went from there. I made the leap, imaginatively; mermaids are in some way a link between the natural world and the human world. 

And a little about the mermaids that you have researched?

Mermaids are pan-global and pan iconic; they exist in every ocean and many rivers. Rivers are also often named after the feminine too, e.g. The Ganges, Mother Ganga. They are a pre-Christian water Goddess. Collectively, we have dreamt them up. The first mermaid ever written about came from Syria, her name was Atagaris. She killed her lover by mistake, so the legend goes. She, a Goddess, and he a mere human, some versions of the legend say that she killed him by the power of her lovemaking. Distraught, she tried to drown herself in a lake, but the other Gods saved her and turned her into a mermaid. Mermaid stories are everywhere. Often they are very sad stories, tales of women cursed and isolated, of women who are ‘bad’, temptresses, luring sailors to their deaths, e.g. Homer’s sirens in The Odyssey. Mermaids in the 21st century have been cutesified by Disney, but the original Hans Christian Anderson story of The Little Mermaid is very dark; she agrees to cut out her tongue and gives her beautiful voice to the sea witch. When she walks, it’s with searing pain. All this she agrees to so she can meet the prince again, who treat her like a pet. Because she cannot talk, she is a kind of mute over compromised innocent, in the real story. In the end, the prince marries someone else. Tragic. 

What is your mermaid a symbol of?

Water is often gendered as a feminine principle. We talk of ‘la mere’ for example. Sexual ambiguity and also the sexual objectification of women. They are also the quintessential ‘other’, a chimera, the mermaid is womxn, as a symbol of the outsider, the outcast; often she has been blamed, shamed and exiled. My mermaid is a symbol of otherness, for sure. Aycayia is indigenous, shamanic, and the target of a curse. She has been denied her rite of passage into womanhood, Eros. I decided to give the myth of Aycayia a 21st century feminist update, and let her enjoy and embrace that rite of passage, erotic love.

And how does this compare with more traditional mermaids?

To be honest, my mermaid is of the great pantheon of mermaids, an exile, a woman cursed. She is young, beauteous, talented and her own woman.

Credit: Haitian Painter Mireile Delice

How do you personally relate to your mermaid?

Ha, ha. The mermaid c’est moi! I relate to her entirely, as a complex loner, an outsider, of hybrid identity.

Is there a Black Conch island in the Caribbean? I can see there is a Conch island.

Black Conch is another name, from way back, for the island of Tobago, or so I gather. The island I’ve conjured is loosely based on the northern tip of Tobago. Tobago has its own mermen legends, so I’ve fictionalized the island.

You write much of the spoken dialogue in Creole, how was it to do that?

While I speak with an English accent, I’ve always had Trinidadian dialect in my ear. When you know a place well, things like language are part of the knowing. My brother and his family all speak with this dialect, it feels for me like a second language, one I know intrinsically. I do speak it too, now and then.

And there are the wonderful names Nicer Country, Miss Rain and Short Leg, which contrast so tellingly with Nicholas or Thomas. These names tell a de-colonising story in themselves, don’t they?

Yes they do. Nicer Country is someone I’ve met, only briefly. His name speaks of a pastoral postcolonial idyll. Short leg is a fictional name but symptomatic of how nicknames are so common and identifying in small places and how something like a disability is treated very matter-of-factly. Life, the artist and sweetman, also has a name which speaks of independence and freedom. I know a man called Life too. Black Conch is an amalgam of parts of Trinidad and Tobago I know well, rural areas I have lived in on and off over decades.

There are also brilliant words in it – pussy bone, bite-up and many more, did you have a ball with language?

Trinidad’s Creole has its own grammar and lexicon. Words like ‘wajang’ and ‘’mamaguy’ are a well-known part of that lexicon. Pussy-bone I made up. It’s one of the fun things about being a writer, making up words. There’s a blend of forms too, in this book. I wanted the mermaid to have a voice and she speaks in free verse and uses broken English, Creole parlance and some of her own words, like canoa, jiguera, and yabisi. Lots of language thing going on in this book, for sure.

You also give Aycayia give a different voice by giving her a poetic form to speak in?

Yes. Initially, I wanted to write the whole book in the voice of the mermaid, but it wasn’t really do-able. I played around with the mermaid’s voice a lot. I wanted some of her lost lexicon to be part of it, and to capture her partial grasp of her new language, which is a Creole parlance, as well as English from books, e.g. Standard English. The mermaid has earnt American Sign Language too. Basically she speaks in a kind of free verse. No punctuation. My biggest experiment with this book was if I could pull this off.

Did you wrestle with this book or was it easy to birth? Which were the difficult stages?

I dreamt it for a very long time. I did lots of research, as usual. Then it all came quite easily, and fluidly, over about nine months. I wrote most of it in 2016. We sold it in 2018.

There are some horrifically brutal parts of the book and it felt as though you were being political – as in your activism for the earth, for the shamed in society, and for women – through this narrative.

I feel that’s by the by. I’m old fashioned about writing and feel all I really want to tell is a good story. If people want politics they can watch Channel Four news. Of course, the book is deeply political and deeply feminist, but really it’s just part of the weft of the narrative. All I really hope for is that readers fall in love with the characters and get swept along. Politics is for later reflection. When we write with myth and archetypes, we are plugged deeply into the collective unconscious, so much work is done and already there. I don’t have to point out to the reader the ‘mermaid’ is other. We already know this.

The sexuality veers between yearning and idealization to barbaric and shocking, how did you weave this thread?

Sex is part of life and we are all made from sexual coupling. I have been drawn to writing about sex, over time, in all its shadow and light. Many writers leave sex out entirely. In this book I get to give an ancient myth a 21st century update and gift to the mermaid the rite of erotic passage from virgin to lover.

How have your books based in the Caribbean – from White Woman on a Green Bicycle to House of Ashes to The Mermaid of Black Conch – changed your relationship with Trinidad where you were born and where your family still live?

I’ve spent most of the last dozen years or so, going back and forth to Trinidad, living with my mother for large chunks of time. I’ve watched my brother’s kids grow up. I’ve done lots of teaching in Trinidad and mentoring of local writers; I’ve run writing retreats out here too. And yes, four Caribbean books have emerged, too. I think Trinidadians, at first, wanted to know who I am. Trinidad did become a much bigger part of my life in my 40s and early 50s. It’s where my family live and where I was born and schooled and it has always been home. Push, pull. Yes, the book has brought me closer to Trinidad and given me time to know my place in such a complex post-colonial society.

This feels like a love story, which was also a love story for you too, did you fall in love with your mermaid during the writing?

I have never written such an out and out love story. In fact, there are two love stories here. Did I fall in love with the mermaid? For sure. I love her dearly.

Living in London during Lockdown – Hanja Kochansky


1 Minute Read

Eighty-three-year-old Hanja Kochansky is living alone and on lockdown in London. Everyone over the age of 70 has been asked to self-isolate for twelve weeks. But what does that mean exactly? Advantages of Age asked Hanja to tell us what her days are like. And what resources she has.

The word isolated comes from the Latin insula, which means island. And here I am on a desert island in the centre of a densely populated and noiseless city.

As soon as I wake up and turn on my radio, I’m bombarded by terrifying news and a wave of sadness washes over me. Who could have ever imagined that the plague would invade our world? How long will this horror last? Then, I remind myself to take it one day at the time. I tell myself that I am on the retreat I’ve always wanted to take but never did and now it’s been imposed on me.

After a glass of hot water, I go to my computer. Facebook and the Guardian keep my interest up for quite a while. I have a coffee and eat a too large amount of my Digestive Thins before I take a shower.

My daughter WhatsApps me from Long Island. She notices my wet hair and says, ‘I see you’ve had a shower, Mum’. ‘Of course. Why wouldn’t I?’ ‘Oh, I don’t know. I thought maybe you wouldn’t bother, given you’re not going out.’ ‘Of course, I bother. But anyway, I do go out. I’m allowed to do shopping.’ We chat about how awful Trump is, about how we are coping and how is it with the kids at home now. There’s going to be no anticipated graduation for my granddaughter. I was going to go for that in June. All plans are on hold.

I do my exercises. Mostly tai chi and chi kung which I follow on YouTube. On Tuesdays and Fridays, I do a proper class with my tai chi teacher on ZOOM. ZOOM is a marvel.

Given the lovely weather, I go down to my itsy bitsy garden and plant violets and poppies. Poppies remind me of my childhood summers on the Dalmatian coast.

I sing You Belong to Me when I wash my hands. See the pyramids along the Nile, watch the sun-rise on a tropic isle . . .

Avocado on toast is a perfect lunch. Amazon has run out of the organic apple juice I normally have- so I make lemonade with the lemons I got with my last order from Farmdrop. I can get just about anything from them. Organic food, household goods and what-have-you, but I prefer to take a saunter to my well-stocked Waitrose at the Angel in Islington. After all the rain I need to stretch my legs now on these sunny days. I must walk or my legs will lose muscle. On the way, I walk through a park and hug a tree.

My son skypes from Siena, where he is housebound with his wife and two small children. ‘You must not leave the house at all, Ma.’ He warns me. ‘I have friends in London and they can bring you anything you need.’ ‘Thanks, Kas, but I absolutely need to go out.’ ‘If you get sick, Ma, I won’t be able to come and look after you.’ ‘Don’t worry Kas, I don’t think, that after all I’ve gone through in my life, it’s in my karma that I should die here, alone like a dog.’ ‘Oh, I wish you’d stay at home, Ma.’ My worried son insists.

A friend once told me how she’d always felt safe when her husband and two children were all at home in the evening, and nothing bad could happen to them. Only, one night her husband had a heart attack and died. So much for feeling safe at home.

An often-repeated platitude is, ‘We are all in this together’. No, we are not, mate. Some are on luxury yachts, others on ships, boats, overcrowded ferries and dinghies. And some are wading through treacherous seas.

My large sitting-room bay window overlooks a lawn. I watch squirrels scamper as pigeons and magpies peck for food on the green grass, while at the same time, keeping an eye on the self-confident, stalking cats who belong to some of my neighbours whose much anticipated, twice-weekly Bingo in our communal room, is now prohibited. The fox no longer comes in the evenings. I miss her – she kept me in touch with the foxy me.

How are junkies coping without their fix? How are prostitutes surviving without their tricks? I think about the rough sleepers and the old age homes where older people are dying alone. I think about what will happen to the refugees in overcrowded camps when the assassin virus finds them. How terrifying it must be for them. I’m so sad about Italy, il Bel Paese – the beautiful country. Something has shifted. The earth has struck back.

I am, at all times, grateful for my blessed life, with enough money to get by as I reflect on the poverty which will get even worse and financial anxiety will see a flurry of mental illness. As though there isn’t enough of it already. Happy to be on my own, my heart goes out to the overcrowded families who have to learn, or not, to put up with each other day and night. I fear there will be a lot of physically abused women in these tough times. And children.

And what about the thousands on cruise-liners not allowed to dock? Or the ones stuck in other countries who are not able to come home? What will happen to them?

The virus is the revolution. More than a million heroic people have signed up to help the NHS! I was gutted when I found out the dolphin in the Venice canal was an Instagram joke, but the sky is now visible in China, rivers and seas are cleaner, there has been a significant drop in pollution, ozone levels are up. The end of knife crime without Pretty Patel’s intervention is a blessing. I wonder how she feels about the prisoners that are being released. In their case, just goes to show that it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is on temporary leave from prison in Iran, and there is talk of a possible reprieve. She must be living in a balloon of agitation.

In the afternoons, I write. What better for a writer than a retreat?

Possibly, because I don’t love washing dishes, I don’t feel like cooking much, but I know I have to eat well because healthy food is a must. I make myself a large bowl of fruit and nuts topped with kefir and homemade yoghurt, which I buy from the kind Kurdish shopkeeper near my house on the Caledonian Road. His wife, who makes the yoghurt, has been getting racist abuses, he tells me. ‘Oh, I’m so sorry,’ I say and feel guilty. For what? For the privilege of my white skin.

Maybe I’ll have a glass of wine and eat one of the packets of precooked lentil dahl and spicy beans which only need to be heated. Or maybe I’ll make myself a toasted cheese and tomato sandwich, or dine on fruit: pineapple, mango, apples. And a cookie. I have these delicious salted caramel biscuits and must be careful not to binge on them. I have a feeling that by the time this Groundhog Day is over I’ll have put on weight.

The endless pings on my smart-phone announce constant messages. There’s no time for boredom. There is no shortage of stimulating articles on the computer, and I am addicted to Radio 4, I’m sure to always find something interesting to listen to. Or I can watch a movie on the iPlayer, Amazon, YouTube, Curzon Cinema or BFI. There are myriad choices. This, alas, stops me from reading much of The Leopard, the book I’m currently enjoying.

In the evening I try to do some stretching yoga, but I don’t always manage it.

With another glass of hot water, I take the supplements which I really should take in the morning. Bs, Ds, Cs and what have you.

By midnight, I’m ready to turn off the computer, do my toiletries and get to bed. Before falling asleep, I thank the universe and my angels for another serene day and send white light to the world.

But this is early days and I’m super curious about how I and the world will be changed when the nightmare is over. Hopefully, we’ll have become wiser.

AofA People – Matthew Caley – Poet


9 Minute Read

Since his debut – Thirst [Slow Dancer, 1999] – was nominated for The Forward Prize for Best 1st Collection, Matthew Caley has published four more collections – the last three from Bloodaxe – and read everywhere from Novi Sad, Serbia to The Globe Theatre, London; from Prague’s Alchemy to Wayne-Holloway Smith’s living room. He’s recently taught Contemporary Poetry /Creative Writing at The School of English, St Andrews University, The University of Winchester and The Poetry School. He has just given the StAnza International Poetry Festival Lecture 2020. His 6th collection is Trawlerman’s Turquoise [Bloodaxe, 2019].

Where do you live?

Crystal Palace, South London

What do you do?

Poet

Tell us what it’s like to be your age?

It’s strange as this questionnaire is forcing me to think about it and I rarely do. No idea why – when I was thirty and people accused me of being thirty I didn’t like the definition of it – I might lie upwards as much as downwards just to avoid definition or pre-conceived ideas. Maybe because I was hit by poetry/art very early on – and couldn’t really do anything else very well – I’ve just stuck doing those things – poetry, putting out books, readings, collaborating with artists, teaching art or poetry since the beginning – it’s a narrow seam and therefore my basic drives and actions and life remain pretty much the same and they don’t necessarily rely on physical fitness – though I feel Ok –- so it doesn’t feel so different.

Or I don’t notice the decline!

Plus, I don’t write directly from actual life and what happens to me. I write out of wordplay and structures and imagination. Some poets write their first book about childhood, their second about amorous relationships, their third about marriage, swiftly followed by decorating and divorce. My work messes with time and follows no chronology, it draws from life but tangentially, so there shouldn’t be much stress on age in it particularly.

I had a big party when I turned 50 and another when I turned 60 but they weren’t really about that. I discovered that a ‘big number party’ is the only way to see friends you haven’t seen for years. They’ll turn up for that. So it wasn’t really about me or my age but just a grand excuse to catch up. So I don’t view myself through the lens of any age. I’ve met people in their thirties who think they are old. It’s all relative. Of course, you can’t escape how others see you. Or noticing how certain people react because of your supposed age. I notice them noticing but I don’t care. So that solves that.

I would also think that whilst your stated aim to change the image of older folk is a great one, that you must also have to be careful to avoid—as any of these pro-these people or pro-that movements do—ghettoising yourselves. All persons are persons –just at different stages. I want to be around all ages of people -and luckily again – at the moment – I can be. This happens much more naturally in other countries than here I find. Children, teenagers, young adults, adults, older folks etc should be all mixed up in the same spaces. I don’t want to know only one strata. That’s stultifying. Advertising and social spacing can force people into their own age group. It’s good to mix it up. The media often stereotype older people so the image should be combatted but outside of the media folks need to mix it up themselves.

What do you have now that you didn’t have at 25?

More books! Two daughters. A flat. I know my insides and my outsides. I know where to stand in relation to the source in order to get a poem. I know it’s not my drive that does it. The arc of propulsion that drives the poems started before me somehow and I just keep in its slipstream and end up where it takes me. I’ve narrowed down what I do so it’s more focused. If I’ve gained any wisdom then I probably don’t notice it be because you can’t re-construct exactly how you were before. Learning and skills are invisible once you’ve mastered them. You have changed, but there’s no former you to compare with. On Magazine’s- [the post-punk group’s] -‘comeback’ LP Know Thyself their songwriter and lyricist Howard Devoto has a song ‘Dear Howard of Course’ which is a song to his younger self. But much of his younger self had been filmed or recorded and maybe he has a better memory than me. Much of the LP deals with ageing, though in a typically oblique way, there’s a song called Holy Dotage! But it’s a fired-up fast song. I would guess there are losses and gains but sometimes the losses are good and the gains not so good. I have a bad memory which means I don’t tend to dwell in the past much so I’m usually dealing with the present. The now is all we have so its best to deal exclusively with that or you end up in the ether.

What about sex?

I’ve always had great fun and luck in the amorous world. It’s hard to talk about it overtly – not because of prudism – though our current culture can be strangely prudish –but because our current moment could but not misread it.

Since meeting Pavla and seeing my daughters born it all changed. Now it’s blood-ties and love. A different thing. But also I think discretion in relationships is a very underrated virtue – you make yourself vulnerable in amorous relationships and whoever or how many people are involved, what goes on is a beautiful, private thing. Those might seem strange in a world where people post videos of their genitals to each other quite merrily and overshare at every opportunity. This vies with the overall prudish culture to make a strange mix. I feel very grateful for all my past relationships, brief or more substantial, with some very strong, powerful, original, and beautiful characters. They all meant a good deal to me. But Pavla and I have been together for 20 years now and have two daughters. She’s a very strong character herself and an artist. Love and sex are both mutual and mutable things, their form changes virtually every day – if you drift with it. Being with one person isn’t so different from having a few lovers because everything changes all the time. If you keep alert they renew themselves.

And relationships?

Of course, there are many different types of relationships – not just the amorous world. I’m lucky again. I’ve got a wide range of friends – men and women of all ages and types. Because I’ve taught in art schools and poetry schools I regularly meet 18-23 year olds. I know quite a few young poets. I meet my daughters’ friends. So I have some ‘young’ friends and friends of all types. It’s just that I don’t see any of them very often because I’m too busy or always travelling about – though I have friends scattered everywhere so I see those when I travel – but with friendships – they usually hold up if they’re meant to.

How free do you feel?

‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose’ as yer man said. No-one’s truly free under Capitalism or Communism. It’s just seeming degrees of it. Freedom is internal.

What are you proud of?

I find that word a bit iffy – it gets misused so much. There’s a danger it can become a kind of vacuous Facebook meme type word. An Award Ceremony word. Like the word ‘hero’ has become. But if there’s another word then I take great delight – I like the word ‘delight’ – in my daughters. Mina is [13] a musician-playing violin and viola, in all manner of orchestras and quartets and solo and Iris [19] is studying Animation in the Czech Republic which is a brave leap forward. They are delightful and I delight in them and who they’re becoming. And Pavla, of course, who has put so much into them.

What keeps you inspired?

I read that Leonard Cohen quote a while back – the one where he says, ‘If I knew where good songs came from I’d go there more often’. It’s a good line but I was dissatisfied with it – why can’t you climb back up the rope ladder to the source? I’ve spent 6 years working on that. It’s not ‘inspiration’ which I’ve found is a flimsy and insubstantial friend. It’s a mixture of internal ‘athletics of the mind’ – technique[s] and knowledge of timing. Then you can go there when you want and get the poem you want, when you want. I’m much closer to getting that. I’m not perfect at it yet but it’s getting much closer.

When are you happiest?

Most of the time. My default mode is pretty OK – most of the time. [That really annoys some people I notice.] So if I get happy then I’m really up. I’m happier being a ‘hired’ gun rather than full-time. I’m happy ‘on-the-road’ gigging. I’m happy to get back to my beauties. I‘m a cup more than half full and slightly above the brim person.

When in Chartier in Paris. Having coffee on a frozen balcony. Listening to The Punch Brothers or Fleet Foxes or Lankum or O’Hooley & Tiddow at a concert with all the girls. The Rabbit fair, Konice, Moravia. On the road. Everywhere. It’s portable, happiness.

And where does your creativity go?

I prefer the word ‘imagination’. Always into the poems, the books.

What’s your philosophy of living?

I try not to have one! Stand in the place where you live. Be in the minute you’re in. Reduce your worries to a minimum. Walk everywhere. Advice is the worst way of giving advice. Develop out of what you lack. [Baudrillardian. Barthian. A bit of Schopenhauer. Kristeva. ] You don’t need much. Know what you do need. Avoid elegy and nostalgia. Don’t carry a phone. Tell the time by laundrettes. Appreciate everyone, especially your enemies.

And dying?

It’s another imaginative leap – until it isn’t I guess.

Are you still dreaming?

I rarely dream. The poetry replaces that, maybe. The world is enough.

What was a recent outrageous action of yours?

You should see some of my line-breaks.

AofA People: Hanja Kochansky – Writer


3 Minute Read

A refugee during the Second World War to Italy, in 1948 Hanja Kochansky went to Johannesburg as an emigrant. In 1966 she played one of Elizabeth Taylor’s handmaidens in the film Cleopatra. In 1972 her book Women’s Sexual Fantasies was published by Ace Books in New York and became a best-seller. She is currently writing a novel and editing her memoir.

What is your age (in years)?

I’m 82, will be 83 on the Ides of this March.

Where do you live?

In Sheltered Housing, just off the Caledonian Road, in London.

What do you do?

I write. Have just finished a novel about the love affair between two septuagenarians. I’m also re-editing my memoir Now and Then.

Tell us what it’s like to be your age?

I’m much more chilled out now, which is a blessing but find it difficult to cope with the deterioration of my body (my mind seems to be ok.) Legs hurt and I can no longer go for the long walks which once were a pleasure to do. I have also become slightly incontinent, which I hate. On the whole, I find what happens to the body in old age humiliating. But I say to myself, it is what it is and you are so lucky to be in good health (I take no big-pharma medication), so stop complaining. But I do complain. I do not like getting old. Although I’m not concerned about no longer being beautiful and having put on some weight.

What do you have now that you didn’t have at 25?

Everything. Beginning with self-confidence. I had a very unhappy childhood living with a violent alcoholic father. It took me years of reading self-help books, starting with Louise Hay’s You Can Heal Your Life, which I read when I was already 50, to turn my lack of self-esteem into love for myself. Also, now I’m always given seats on public transport. At first, given that I don’t see myself as old, I found that surprising, but now I’m grateful for it.

What about sex?

I had my last affair, at the age of 72, with a man of 78. It lasted for two and a half years. The sex was good, but he turned out disappointing. I’m pretty sure I won’t be having any more lovers. I still have sexual urges and masturbate, but have no desire for a man.

And relationships?

I’m happy to say that I am constantly making new friends. Mostly they are a bit younger than I am, but no one seems to be prejudiced towards my age. I’m lazy and happy about being at home, but I make an effort to go out and meet people. I love good conversation, and I never hang out with someone who is banal.

How free do you feel?

Totally free, especially as I don’t have to pay rent and am given Pension Credit and a few other perks. This is such a blessing and I wish everyone in need would have my good fortune.

What are you proud of?

My (almost) daily exercise routine which consists mostly of Tai Chi and Chi Kung. And that, even in bad weather, I go to my Tai Chi class.

What keeps you inspired?

The philosophy of the Dali Lama is inspirational.

When are you happiest?

I am always happy, as I live in gratitude, most of the time. I don’t want to be on my death bed and realise I spent time being unhappy.

And where does your creativity go?

Basically towards writing.

What’s your philosophy of living?

Be the change you want to see in the world.

And dying?

‘I will not go gentle into that good night.’ However, I could easily change my mind about that and hope I will pass away gently and painlessly.

Are you still dreaming?

I dream all the time and should I ever find a Jungian dream therapist who doesn’t charge a fortune I would love to consult her.

What was a recent outrageous action of yours?

I have no desire to be outrageous.

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