Carl Honoré is approaching his 50th birthday with trepidation. He’s worried about what happens on the other side and this sets the background for Bolder.
This context is worth remembering as you read Bolder. Honoré’s exploration of ageing is a self-confessed part of his own education and need for ‘reassurance’. Compared to many members and followers of AOA, who’ve been splashing about in middle age for a while, he appears at times to be an ingénue: he is genuinely surprised and shocked by attitudes to age.
Reading Bolder is like following an explorer in ageing Disneyland, a place that proves to be a personal roller coaster ride for the author. He finds many positives about ageing that are backed up by researchers and academics, but occasionally, usually when you start feeling good about being whatever age you are, he steps on a spike and it’s like getting the snake in Snakes and Ladders.
One moment he is laughing with Spanish grannies on a graffiti workshop, the next he brought quickly down to earth by a young female observer who tells him she wouldn’t put them on her Instagram because ‘old people aren’t that attractive.’ There are his descriptions of a Lebanese television show where over eighties play pranks at pharmacies asking for Viagra, a show that has become extremely popular and produced its own media stars.
And the same thing happens: he begins to wonder about that slender line that separates something sweet and charming from being a circus in which the aged are targets of the wrong kind of laughter. These elements in the book are the ones that made the headlines in mainstream reviews, i.e. The Guardian. While I understand how the media works, I’m not convinced that ageing, which the author describes as a game for ‘losers’, needs to be a circus.
There is much that is positive about ageing here: cognitively we are better at learning and picking up new things in middle age. In a study of IT professionals, those who were in their fifties were far more relaxed about new technologies and ready to take them on than their younger counterparts. Our experience curve gives us an advantage in making fast connections in our brain, something Don and Patricia Edgar have written about in Peak – Reinventing Middle Age. The reality is that given good health – and enough money, there are no cognitive, intellectual or social reasons why older people shouldn’t be able to continue to be the person they are. And more.
At the same time we are up against a culture that bows to youth and beauty, where social media rules the cultural narrative, and the good life is associated with the unlined and pretty.
Despite the stylish older media stars and the author’s examples of celebrities baring their wrinkles and appearing in ads, they are celebrities that means they get a very special pass that the rest of us don’t get. I wisely skimmed his section celebrating celebrities and grey hair: wild curly hair will never look good grey and I don’t intend to give it another passing thought. Not caring is a big advantage of age.
Debra Watson, 53, is a wildly exciting woman. She runs a participative theatre, art and media charity. She’s a performer who’s interested in intimate methodologies. She’s a tutor. She does sensual poetry performances as part of The Crimson Word, The Bloody Poets and the Poetry Brothel London.
Her next performance is this Thursday where she will be performing FemmeDom, tickets are only on sale beforehand from Eventbrite.
WHERE DO YOU LIVE?
Up in leafy Muswell Hill. It’s very suburban and also very green and pretty. I moved here when my son started high school. I love North London because of the proximity to the Ladies Pond on Hampstead Heath. It’s a life-saver in the summer!
WHAT IS YOUR AGE?
TELL US WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE YOUR AGE?
It’s great! I’ve had a fantastic last two years creatively. I am full of ideas and have some great people around me to work with. I worry as I am not sure how much longer I can go at this pace. I had to take a month off for health reasons in mid-October.
WHAT DO YOU HAVE NOW THAT YOU DIDN’T HAVE AT 25?
I am a lot more at peace with the fact that I am odd. My 25th birthday was amazing. I was working on a hit show at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. My sister brought my nephew and niece backstage and brought a cake. I was semi-famous. That year, we were invited to perform at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh and then for a run at the Tricycle Theatre in London. Yet somehow, though my work now is much more marginal, I have much more confidence in my process and output, than I had then.
WHAT ABOUT SEX?
Ah. I have discovered that sex is not as difficult to get as I thought it would be for someone my age. I enjoy it immensely when I have it. I don’t currently have any long-term sexual partners. I’d prefer that to a series of one-off encounters. I’m super into intimacy. I’ve discovered I’m not really that promiscuous anymore. I long for depth and the scariness that comes with allowing someone to know you. You can discover a lot about yourself. I am surprised at how sexual I still am. This year, I’ve performed intimate poetry in a few different sex-clubs. It’s been an eye-opener. I clearly have a lot to learn and explore. I feel lucky to still feel sexual desire and to be desired. I know that for many women and men, sex becomes irrelevant to them as they age. It’s a genetic thing, I think. My mum was the same.
I am separated from, but immensely close to, my ex-husband (whom I met when I was 25!), I work with him sometimes. He is my best friend. I can’t imagine a life without him. We co-parent. He wipes away my tears when my lovers break my heart. I have been experimenting (badly) with polyamory. It has been chaotic. I don’t enjoy relationship chaos. I like being treated well, with consideration and sensitivity. I can’t bear being blindsided by stupidity.
HOW FREE DO YOU FEEL?
In what way? Personally, there are things I feel free about, but to be honest, I think I would feel freer if I had more liquidity. I am not free enough to travel as much as I would like, or to give up working for money or to just pack up my flat and go full Nomad. There are many ways in which I feel constricted. Not free at all.
WHAT ARE YOU PROUD OF?
I am super proud of my creative output in the past three years. On my 50th birthday, I did a ‘dress tease’ for my friends and it started off a creative process that has been wonderful for me. In my late 40s, I started writing poetry again and this has led to an interest in performing intimate poetry. In the last two years, I have been performing with The Poetry Brothel London, The Bloody Poets and this year, have started a new intimate, immersive poetry collective The Crimson Word, with my friend Winter James. We are set up to do events, pop-ups, and parties; but we keep changing our mind and expanding the horizons of the company. The Bloody Poets was started in London by Mad Pirvan and Belen Berlin in 2017. Mad moved to London a year ago and runs the event once a quarter. It’s been very experimental and probably the closest I have come to re-picking up the thread of exploring experimental performance work I was doing in the early 80s and 90s.
WHAT KEEPS YOU INSPIRED?
I can be a lone wolf, but I really enjoy working in collectives. I get tremendous inspiration from other artists and tend to enjoy having events and themes to write to. My work is very, very personal, but having a group and compatriots that are also focussed on work and creativity has been crucial for me in developing in ways I haven’t expected. Social media is fun too. I’ve found that Instagram is an amazing tool for reaching new audiences. That being said, I need downtime and alone time to process, research and write.
WHEN ARE YOU HAPPIEST?
When I am creating. Even though it can be fraught, I love the creative process. The starting with a blank page, or one phrase, or one image and then building that up ‘into’ something. I am often not at all sure that I am going to pull off an idea. It is fabulous when/if things come together. I also get very, very happy when people pay me well and when they tell me that my work has moved them or impacted them in some way or another. Sometimes, especially after the very intimate 1-2-1 readings, people have an after-glow. They say: ‘It’s better than sex’. I used to be very shy about approaching performers and acting all fangirlish. No more. I realise how important it can be, in those dark and lonely hours when you think all your work is shit and that you’ve never have done nor will do anything well, to remember a kind word or a moment of sincere praise.
AND WHERE DOES YOUR CREATIVITY GO?
I perform, I write, I make costumes. A lot of my work is concerned with intimacy/intimate performance. It’s so intense and unpredictable. I also run a participative theatre, art, and media charity, so I also tutor and facilitate creativity. Part of my life is me being a big show off and another part is engaging very sensitively with other people to get them to tell their own stories.
WHAT’S YOUR PHILOSOPHY OF LIVING?
Go towards what terrifies you.
I recently had a health scare. I am not out the woods yet. I am still in terrible pain on alternate days, but they don’t think I am dying. Before the diagnosis, I had a very serious discussion with my ex. I felt 100% that if it turned out to be critical, I would take this as an opportunity to step off the planet. I am not too keen on living for long. The world seems to be going to shit. I think I have had a good run of it, I think there is more fun to be had, but if it all had to end, I hope to face it graciously. Secretly, I am envious of people who die suddenly and quickly. It’s horrid for those left behind but I am not, and never have been, a fan of chronic pain and slow decay.
ARE YOU STILL DREAMING?
Yes. And there’s still so much I feel I need and want to do.
WHAT WAS A RECENT OUTRAGEOUS ACTION OF YOURS?
I tend to do all my outrageous acts in performance. The Crimson Word is just about to launch the first of a series of ‘Suprasensual Poeticals’ at a private members club in Hackney. It’s a continuation of work we have been exploring over the summer. Our theme is ‘Venus in Furs’ after the 1870 novella written by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. It explores themes of female domination and male submission. So, I am going to be exploring FemmeDom in performance. I hope it will be fun! It’s a small audience in a beautiful room in a private members club. No tickets will be available on the door. Only sales in advance from here.
There’s something about starting a new pursuit and passion when you’re older. It’s stimulating in a different way. I began writing poetry when I was 55 ten years ago. Partly, because it was non-commercial. I knew I’d never earn any money from it – so it could be purely words and me. Unlike the world of freelance journalism that I’d inhabited for the previous 25 years, which was getting more and more like a hamster wheel.
I sought a certain sort of freedom of literary expression for its own sake. And I found it at City Lit and City University in evening classes with all sorts of contemporary poets from Roddy Lumsden to Annie Freud to John Stammers. The latter had an invitation-only group, which I eventually was able to join and Wednesday afternoons became the highlight of my week. They still are.
Last year, I published my first pamphlet Tantric Goddess at the age of 64 on Eyewear. There was a flurry of readings including a Tantra evening at Book and Kitchen – this wonderful little independent bookshop in W11, which has now sadly shut down – with friend and writer, Monique Roffey. I read from my pamphlet and Mon read from her recent erotic novel The Tryst, then we did a Q & A afterward on tantra workshops. We loved it, there was such an easy, intimate flow to the evening.
A year later, I felt like I needed to get out of the almost comfort – despite the ruthless taking apart of each other’s poems – zone of The Group and float my poetry evolution elsewhere. I had just discovered – how had I not known – that Ty Newydd, the National Writing Centre for Wales is actually three miles away from my partner’s farmhouse. I saw they had a masterclass – surely mistress class by now – with the former national poet of Wales, Gillian Clarke, at 81, a grande dame of the art and Robert Minhinnick, another revered Welsh poet and eco-activist. We had to send off poems and be invited. Phew, I got in. Apparently, they chose 16 out of 30 applicants.
The week before I was feeling a little anxious. How would my London/Yorkshire attitude go down? I also knew I wanted to be committed to this course. No staying up late with other poets, I was going to be devoted to the workshop itself.
I drove into the village of Llanystumdwy, along the river Dwyfor and found the long driveway to Ty Newydd. It is a grand old house – where the former Prime Minister, David Lloyd George had lived – and painted in white and blue with a long, narrow library designed by marvelous architect and eccentric Clough Williams-Ellis, the man responsible for the wonderland of ‘fallen buildings’ that is Portmeirion down the road.
My room, well, our room – I’d yet to meet my roommate – was right at the top of the house. Oh, yes, the long-forgotten joys of the single bed. Eventually Thirza – I learned later that this was a self-appropriated name – turned up and so began our week of negotiating this space. Actually, she was very well-behaved, although definitely a late night poet. On the last night, she outdid herself and didn’t get to bed until 3:30am.
I managed to resist. I told you I was going to be a good girl. At last. Thirza, who is older than me, obviously wasn’t rebellious enough in her youth and middling years! She was lovely, by the way, kind, supportive and didn’t complain about my snoring.
The first night was meeting each other and eating delicious food, a good portent for the week. We also got to interview each other in the library and then introduce the group to our partner. An exercise in listening and remembering. And absolutely no run of the mill – where do you come from type questions – for Thirza. She recounted her love of gardening, Italian and her strange obsession with the dishwasher.
The next morning –the workshop ran from Monday afternoon to Saturday morning, which seemed short but turned out to be intense – we started for real. With Robert. Who is an elegiac poet of distinction but in person quite dramatic and direct. And funny. Oh, I have to say there was only one other person on the course from London. This was heaven in so many ways. There were poets from up north and many from Wales. There was that song with us all the time.
Robert had brought an envelope of abstract nouns that he’d prepared earlier. We got one each, looked it and started writing with his prompts. Unlocking the muse suggestions. What does this word taste like? Where is it? What does it feel like? I got jealousy – a shameful feeling with which I am very familiar. We wrote for 15 minutes and then read out to each other what we’d written. The first public declarations. The others had to guess what our word was. Well, they got that mine wasn’t pleasant. One of my lines was – ‘You are a twisted priest’. Robert liked that. Other abstract nouns were dread, fear, joy, wonder, mystery and we began to form an impression of each other as poets.
It was fun. The afternoon was with both tutors and eight of us brought along poems without our names on them. We handed them out and critiqued them publicly. And then wrote little advisory or appreciative notes on them. The first one was called Goldfinches and very accomplished – about the First World War and vividly expressed. I’d put one in called Identity, which was about race, my son and partly about Grenfell. Funnily enough, it hadn’t gone down well with my group in London but it did go down well in this group. I got a lot of positive feedback and some questions. One was about my usage of bastard mango, ie was it gratuitous or actually the name of a mango. It was, I’m glad to say, the actual name of a mango. I found it very useful although the shape of the table meant that we couldn’t really have flowing conversations. And 16 turned out to be a challenging number of people for optimum inclusion.
Later on, we divided into much smaller groups of four to look at each other’s poems. Ones that we’d brought with us. My group retired to that fabulous library with the view over to Cardigan Bay and we were serious about our endeavor.
Incidentally, ‘serious’ is one of Gillian’s favourite words and now at the ripe old of 65, I can finally appreciate it. And sink into it.
We were Alison Lock – a poet and short story writer from Huddersfield, Julia Usman – a poet from Swaledale who travels to Dubai a lot to visit her husband, and Trish Reith – a poet who lives in Biggar, Scotland. It was delightful to find four women who liked talking about poems and poetry as much as I do. There were occasions when we almost had a chat but Trish kept us in line. Poetry, first.
The reason we liked our fours – the others in the group agreed – was that we could share equally. We spent an hour each day with our four poems. Someone would read one, the others would comment, then the poet in question would respond to the comments. We all found it incredibly instructive. And we discussed questions like – how do we bring political events into poetry. Make them personal in some way, I think we agreed.
Later in the week, we dubbed ourselves The Crones. Part of AoA’s vision is to reclaim words like crone and old, in order to make us feel more relaxed about ageing and less in the eternal pursuit of youth. I could immediately see a Crone Tour on the cards.
And it was Halloween while we were there. In fact, Trish had a poem called Mission Time, which was about the original pagan festival, Samhain. And it just so happened that the Crones were the cooking crew that night ie we chopped vegetables for the Lobscouse, a tasty stew that I’d never heard of but apparently fed to sailors in Northern Europe for years – so we performed Mission Time as Crone-witches. It seemed to go down a storm. As did the Lobscouse and the wine.
There were readings in the library in the evenings – initially Gillian and Robert. Gillian read a few from her vast selection, while Robert tried a new long poem about his mother on us. He’s written about his mother before – she’s diagnosed as schizophrenic – but not a suite of poems like this, they will be set to music, they was a triumph. On Wednesday, we were treated to the poems and personal stories of Kim Moore whose collection The Art of Falling has won prizes and many plaudits, there’s a moving 17 poem sequence in it where she describes an abusive relationship she was in. ‘And in that year, my body was a pillar of smoke’. From Barrow, she’s got a new collection that features poems about sexism as she’s also doing a PHD on the subject. She read a couple of poems from this new collection All The Men I Never Married – they are lyrical, incisive, brave.
The week unfolded and I found I enjoyed the workshop mornings where Gillian or Robert would offer poem prompts – like think of an object which has a memory, where is it etc. Mine was the kitchen sink in my childhood home in Yorkshire and turned into a poem where I remember my father washing me in this very sink. It was, I said, a look back in sweetness to that time, rather than when I was a bit older and life with him was a lot more difficult. There was something about the challenge of this deadline that I relished. And their lyrical nudges. Gillian would say – make sure it includes a hallelujah line. Robert would say – make sure it’s powerful. And then there was the important advice – don’t have a summing up line at the end. I liked it when Gillian suggested we look up and over our shoulder for that last line.
On the final day, we were to assemble – Jude Brigley, Anne Phillips and Rufus Mufasa were the fine editorial team – an anthology of our work, the Secrets of Cwtch Dan Star (the cupboard under the stairs) inspired by Rufus’ intoxicating poem that combines Welsh and English.
That evening, we all did a five minute reading in the library. My roommate and I were the hosts with the hopefully entertaining and serious introductions. It was our pleasure to acknowledge this work and these poets. We had a ball. Of course, I wore one of my minor feather headdresses…
Laura Benson is a British actress based in Paris – she was in Dangerous Liaisons – who plays a lead role in the controversial and challenging new film Touch Me Not (which also features Seani Love, a sex worker who appeared in the AofA Tantra Hot Tub Salon which was FB Live). Touch Me Not follows three characters, one of which is called Laura, a 50 something woman, who is in out of touch with her sexuality and takes some radical steps to address this situation. The film coasts a fluid line between reality and fiction. It won the Golden Bear earlier in the year in Berlin and is the London Film Festival on Oct 16 and 17th plus a special screening at the ICA on Oct 23rd.
How were you cast in Touch Me Not?
Through a casting agent, who works with the French co-producer. They were casting in several countries. I was asked to send something that I had shot recently. The film I had just done wasn’t out yet and I didn’t have anything recent in stock. So they sent me five pages about the subject of the film and I was asked to do an exercise: a video diary for my lover. I thought about it for a week and then did it and sent it, like a bottle in the ocean. The next week I was asked if I could go to Bucharest to meet the director. I obviously agreed. We had a four-hour meeting. I had understood what she wanted from this meeting.It wasn’t going to be a chit-chat… she wanted to feel who was in front of her and what I was made of.So my challenge was to go and not contain myself and be as free as possible.
What were your initial thoughts about playing this character, Laura who hasdifficulty with sex and intimacy?
What I had read gave little insight into her feelings and her struggle.She seemed cold and terribly cut of from herself…dead in a way.I didn’t know how I was going to bring her to life.
Were you excited by the original script in that you were playing a woman in her 50s who is the main character in this revealing/naked about vulnerability way? It’s unusual to get this opportunity, isn’t it?
I would say that what is unusual is to have a lovely part to explore (which has nothing to do with the age) and to work with an inspiring director that you get on with and understand in a way as well as on a project you like. All those ingredients are not always present all at once!I never actually considered that I had the main character and her vulnerability appeared during the process.I didn’t know before we started working that this would emerge.And yes yes, it was a lovely opportunity, which came out of the blue! I feel very lucky. I think that Laura could be 40, 45, 50, 55…
Obviously, it was a wonderful opportunity to have an interesting important part to play, considering that most important characters in film are under-45! A casting agent friend of mine told me that in France when they suggest actors over 50, the producers and TV say ‘no, menopaused’! But I do more theatre than film, and a female actor’s age doesn’t have the same significance on stage, because there aren’t close-ups — the body and how you move and your energy are more important than the reality of your age. I’ve seen some Comedia dell Arte where the character is 20 and the actor behind the mask 80. So to answer your question, I didn’t realize really how lucky I was.
What were you challenged by in the process as an actress where it sounds like you had to get in touch with your own vulnerabilities?
For me, the challenge wasn’t as much about being in touch with my vulnerabilities than it was about dealing with my fear of the unknown, my lack of confidence and my doubts.
And how did the improvisation go? Do you enjoy this way of working?
The script was just a starting point, like a trampoline that we could bounce off.A kind of skeleton, if you like. It acted as a kind of safety net. There was very little dialogue.A great deal of the material, the nature of the interaction, came from what was happening on set and how it was happening. Doing a scene when you have no idea where it is going to go, and more to the point – if it is going to go anywhere at all can be very uncomfortable. I would say that ‘exploring a situation’ rather than ‘acting a prewritten scène’ is a lovely way of working when you have a director that you can understand (and can understand you) and with whom you share the same vocabulary. There is a certain amount of preparation needed in that kind of approach. Adina has her way of working that takes you into a profound process, so you’re not lost and you are pretty charged. What was nice about the relationship on set, was that she was as worried and excited as us.So we all worked together (technicians included because for the camera and sound people, it wasn’t easy either) to do the best we could. The work was about being in the present moment, being spontaneous and authentic.
What did you discover personally?
I discovered how little I knew! How much there is to experiment with!I think the most surprising thing I discovered was when I was filming myself on a day off.It was a way of staying involved in the process and not losing touch with the film.It was something that spontaneously came to me when I woke up that morning. I put my body in the window frame (the window was very big) and I pushed and pushed against the structure. The architecture became my prison.And since I had voluntarily put myself in that space – that I wasn’t a victim – my frustration and anger transformed into pleasure. Close to a sexual pleasure. It was very empowering.When Seani Love talks about ‘conscious kink changing the world’, I understand how some sexual activities can release and transform very powerful negative energies. And that changed my outlook on BDSM.
What kind of dialogue about sex and intimacy was going on between you and the director, Adina Pintilie? This is also included in the film?
We spoke about many many things; I don’t remember it being focused on sex.But the conversations, when we weren’t talking about work, were generally intimate I think they contributed to creating a particular dynamic based on trust.
Did it make a difference having a female director?
I have often worked with women.Doing this film with a man would no doubt have been very different…but how, I cannot exactly say.
Do you think it is valid not to explore why the character Laura has ended up with such difficulty in her sex and intimacy life? Anger with her father is intimated but not explored.
I think that Adina is more interested in looking at someone’s attempt and struggle to change than explaining where the problem comes from.As far as I am concerned, we don’t need to know where Laura’s problem comes from – what is important is that she can move towards going beyond it.A young couple at a film festival said that it was the only ‘positive’ and ‘uplifting’ film they had seen in the film festival.
What was your interaction with Seani Love like? He was in our AoA FB Live Hot Tub event on Tantra, we loved him. He’s playing himself in the film? A sex worker, who deals with intimacy issues.
Seani’s work is really interesting and I would say that the interaction we had is what you see in the film. We didn’t meet and talk before, my only interaction with him is when we were on set filming. I didn’t even see his face before he came into my sitting room!
Were there moments when you had to say ‘No’ to the director?
No.Adina was very respectful of limits even though wanting everything!She never – or rarely – asked for anything precise. So the limits were where you yourself put them. I asked her at the beginning of the film, when we were preparing the escort scenes : ‘Are you expecting me to sleep with them?’ She said: ‘you do what you want’.Things were generally not decided before.It was more organic than that.
The film’s reviews have been very mixed, I read the Guardian one by Peter Bradshaw and laughed. I wondered if this is because these reviewers have difficulty themselves with intimacy issues?
I think the reactions correspond to the anger someone can feel when they are going out to have fun and escape reality, then find out that someone is forcing them to have a therapy session and that they weren’t asked if they wanted, let alone warned that they were going to have one (whether they like it or not).
What kind of conversations has come out of it for you?
People have shared some lovely things.One young man said that he spent his first night with his girlfriend just after they had both seen the film and that it totally changed his way of relating with her and changed both of their approaches to their intimacy. I am surprised because a lot of people have thanked me and given me hugs. I recently spoke to a woman who said she was happy to meet me because she had been worried about me during the film. I think it is a film that is a relief for a lot of people who have suffered feelings of inadequacy. In Kiev, a young woman had been thrown out of a café three weeks earlier because she suffered from cerebral palsy.She was so pleased to see the film. It gave her courage and hope.
What did you enjoy about making this kind of film? And the responses?
I enjoyed the complicity with Adina, the challenge and adventure and am relieved that I managed to overcome any fears and doubts, or at least deal with them. I am pleased to have managed to be spontaneous. So I guess that I have grown up a bit!
I’m a writer and academic. I’ve just published an updated edition of my book Madonna: Like An Icon, an in-depth portrait of Madonna, including over 70 interviews with friends, musicians, dancers, film-directors, choreographers. I wanted to get to the heart of what motivates her as a woman and an artist – the private as well as public Madonna. She has just had her 60th birthday, and now is a great time to think about her cultural impact. She deals with ageing in her own inimitable, defiant way!
I also wrote She Bop, the Definitive History of Women in Popular Music (now in three editions), and biographies of Dusty Springfield and Annie Lennox. And I teach popular music studies at the University of West London. I have some lovely, very engaged BA and MA students.
Tell us what it’s like to be your age?
Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. I’m not just saying that. I am happier now than I have ever been. For six years I was in a very stressful job, commuting three hours a day and waking up at 4am thinking about emails I hadn’t sent. Then a year ago I decided to leave, even though I didn’t have another job to go to. It felt like taking a skydive – really terrifying. I went back to full-time writing, I finished my PhD (I am now a Doctor!!!), and I updated my Madonna book.
Just when I started to feel the financial pressure as a freelancer, I started applying for teaching work. I was offered a full-time Course Leader job, but turned it down because the thought of it just made me feel stressed! Then part-time teaching came up at UWL. I love it there, and feel that finally, finally (after 30 years?) I have got that work/life balance.
What do you have now that you didn’t have at 25?
Peace of mind. Seriously. Peace of mind is not easy…I feel that I have worked for it. At 25 I was ambitious but troubled. There were so many things I wanted to achieve in life, and so many things I needed to work out. But now I have two beautiful, funny teenage children, my husband Malcolm who is also my best friend, and fulfilment as a writer. And passing my PhD viva on my birthday two weeks ago (great birthday present!) felt like the culmination of a long period of hard work and thought.
And what about sex?
Sex gets better after menopause. I know people say that but it is absolutely true. I feel I understand what it means to be a woman. I didn’t really understand that until I was 50.
Relationships are more complicated and deeper, with friends and family. I have good friends that I have known for years. I’ve been married 20 years and enjoy sharing my life with Malcolm, and growing with him. In the last ten years though many friends and family members have died. A lot of friends my age, which is mad – shouldn’t we be the healthy generation? But the losses make you appreciate life SO MUCH. It’s a cliche, but life is really too short to waste time doing things that make you feel unhappy. My rule of thumb is, I will do the work I want, with people I like, as much as possible. And why not? After years of senseless government austerity I feel that too ENJOY LIFE is a political act!
How free do you feel?
Very free – because I’ve worked for it. I have spent a year meditating, thinking, writing, talking to people, going on courses, working out my finances and gradually, gradually getting to a point where I can truly be who I am. It’s about following your instinct. The American psychologist and writer Ralph Metzner calls it ‘alchemical divination’. Following your instinct at every point – even if it doesn’t make sense rationally or professionally – is the way to go.
What are you proud of?
My family – Malcom and my two kids. And my doctorate. Scholarly recognition was a huge thing for me.
What keeps you inspired?
Music, literature (I love reading memoirs), looking at the trees against the sky. My kids’ jokes. Watching them grow and get enthused and passionate about things.
When are you happiest?
Laughing with my kids. If everything is all right with them, then I’m happy. And doing my work – being caught up in writing, when the words and thoughts flow. That’s when I feel like I am truly me.
And where does your creativity go?
My creativity now goes into my writing and thinking. I appreciate that so much, because for ten years I was working mainly for money to pay the mortgage. I was working for The Man!! That kind of work is overrated. I was in management and slowly dying inside, bit by bit by bit. I knew I had to get out for my spirit (and body, frankly) to survive.
What’s your philosophy of living?
Trust, trust in yourself. And when you don’t know what you think or feel, or you’re not sure what you think or feel, don’t stress it. Don’t try too hard. Go to bed and ask for help. Just ask for help to them out there. Whoever they are. They might be God, or a guardian angel, or loved ones who have passed away, or a spiritual energy. Whoever it is, just ask. And as you fall asleep, listen. And as you wake up, listen. That’s my philosophy of living.
God, the big one. I don’t have a philosophy of dying, because I’m terrified of it. I have so much that I want to do and I can’t pack it all into this life! So I guess I’ll just have to do what I can, and love the people I’m with, and hope for the best.
Are you still dreaming?
Yes, all the time. I love dreaming. I love sitting and thinking and realising. No one tells you that as you get older you get amazing wisdom. Every day you understand something about the past, or a friend, or a conversation. Every day there are moments of, Oh God, yes, why didn’t I realise that before? And it keeps happening. It’s the trade-off for being less physically agile, I guess.
What was a recent outrageous action of yours?
Six months ago I went to see spoken word group The Last Poets at the British Library. They pretty much invented rap music – they have such presence and charisma. While I was standing there watching I had a vision in my head of me wearing a black Last Poets T-shirt, my hair short and blonde, talking to a crowd. At the time of the gig, my hair was in a long red bob. So I went to the merchandising stall and bought a T-shirt, and the following week I got my hair cut short and dyed bright blonde. I reminded me of my young punk self!
Then in July, I was presenting a paper in Porto University, Portugal for KISMIF, a big international music conference. On the day of my talk, I wasn’t sure what to wear. I remembered the vision, and put on my Last Poets T-shirt. I then went and addressed a theatre of over 200 people and killed it – talking about punk and DIY and feminism, and why these ideas still mattered. Afterwards, people kept coming up to me the whole day saying how inspired they were by my talk. That to me was my outrageous action because it made me feel so empowered.
Come and join me on October 15th for LIKE AN ICON, a night of conversation and music. I’ll be talking with writer Daryl Easlea and signing copies of my Madonna book.
Lo fi duo Radio Rubbish will be playing a live set ‘tackling the most ambitious Madonna pop epics with as few instruments as possible’!
7.30pm; Poetry Café, Betterton Street, London WC2H 9BX.
Earlier this year I launched my second novel, Anatomised, which explores the impact of Lyme disease. There’d been a nine-year hiatus since the publication of my debut novel: A Portrait of the Arsonist as a Young Man. Convention says the second book can be harder to write than the first as the author sometimes hits a creative brick wall, so a time-lapse between the two isn’t unusual. A decade, however, can start to look more like retirement than a creative break.
Anatomised was definitely much harder to write than my first book, though my problem wasn’t in the fresh-ideas department. On the contrary, I was brimming with material and raring to go – until I was bitten by a tick and everything in my life unravelled. I found myself trapped in a black-windowed, monolithic building on the corner of Survival Street at the intersection of Life and Death. The terrifying symptoms of Lyme disease were initially mistaken for many other life-changing conditions, misdiagnosed as two strokes, a possible brain tumour and multiple sclerosis. Meanwhile, the raging infection was undiagnosed and untreated. It was therefore given time to take hold, spread, cross my blood-brain barrier and even destroy parts of my brain. As my own lights dimmed, the devastation of Lyme disease lit up the MRI scanner.
Within months I lost my livelihood (fiction mentor and creative writing tutor at two universities). I lost the ability to walk, to stand, to read, to write, to even think straight. There seemed little hope of me writing anything more than my own obituary. I was forty-four, had been riding the crest of a wave, and then I was sucked under, lost to a freakish riptide.
As a novelist and historian, I’m often asked about autofiction; the place where autobiography and imagination overlap. Anatomised is fiction, but it has facts at its heart. It tells the story of a middle-aged couple whose lives are turned upside-down by a mysterious illness that threatens to crush their dreams. It explores dark subject matter, but the main protagonist is a stand-up comedian so there are lots of lighter moments as it moves between harrowing, humorous and heart-breaking.
Just before I got sick, I was poised to write a romantic tragi-comedy set on an idyllic holiday island. It was to be pure, if dark, escapism; a beach read; a philosophical “Mama Mia”; a masterpiece. In my wildest dreams it would top the Times bestseller list, be optioned, turned into an award-winning film, a standout musical, a Chekhovian play, a Netflix TV series, and I would make a fortune that King Midas would be proud of! But soon after my long brush with death, after discovering the huge and rapidly growing numbers of patients experiencing Lyme disease around the world (a majority of whom had no voice), I parked the rom-com, re-set my moral compass, shifted my creative focus, and prepared to set off in a new direction. But first I had to get better.
It took over two years to be diagnosed and treated for Lyme, and then several more years to make a gradual, if incomplete recovery. Miraculously, I started to form coherent ideas and words. Sentences flourished, paragraphs piled up. It was as if I’d risen from a tomb, like a Lyme Lazarus, and I’d come back to the living with an important story to tell. The question was: should this tale be factual or fictional, memoir or novel?
Writing a semi-autobiographical novel allowed me to safely revisit the past; to explore exactly what went wrong, and still goes wrong for Lyme patients, from shambolic diagnostic processes to denial of treatment. Mistakes were made through ignorance, accident or inexperience, at other times through old-fashioned obstinacy and obstructionism. Sadly, similar errors and misjudgments are still being made with Lyme patients across the globe – every day. Anatomised writes some of these wrongs and wrongdoers, setting the record straight in the hope things will change for the better, because they must.
The process of reliving trauma in such detail was overwhelming and exhausting, but it also provided purpose and motivation; a reason to drag my ravaged, aging body out of bed. After a Eureka moment, when I suddenly understood how the story would end, I knew I was on the right track. Ironically, although I was reinventing the past, I never looked back.
Could I have written this story as straightforward memoir? In theory yes, in practice no. The truth is Anatomised did begin as non-fiction. I initially wrote 30,000 words as memoir but I gave up. The life I’d left on the page felt dead and flat, like the tragic two-dimensional outline of a Hiroshima Shadow left on the walls of buildings decimated by the atomic bomb. I pressed delete and wrote another 15,000 words of creative non-fiction, first from the viewpoint of my wife and then a close friend. There was life in this reawakened memoir and moving silhouettes, but still there was no depth of field. Facts remained facts, cold and cadaver-like. When I sat down to write, I sank further into the quicksand of the past, experiencing what I now believe to have been post-traumatic stress disorder. Lyme almost killed me, and now I was destroying myself all over again.
On the verge of giving up on writing (if I’m honest, on life itself), I stumbled across the names of Jack and Alice Mann that I had jotted randomly in a notebook, intended as material for a totally different story. Searching for safe emotional distance, I started to write in the third-person, viewing the rollercoaster ride from their shoulders. The fictional floodgates opened. Creative lightning lit up my sky. I wrote feverishly and unfettered for a year. My imagination muscles were flexed, my fingertips burned. Never in a million years would I wish Lyme disease on another person, yet I had to give it to Jack. I watched the comedy of the Manns’ lives unravel into tragedy as if my own survival depended on it; not so much a thinly-veiled autobiography as a heavily-draped curtain on a stage (quite fitting for a forlorn stand-up). Even though Jack and Alice were imaginary, I felt a colossal guilt and apologised to them daily in my head. I still do.
It isn’t rocket science: writing is good for a person. It is self-coaching, self-counselling, self-soothing. It is selfish in its taking from the world, like a sponge sucking water, but it is selfless too in its wringing out and pouring back. Sometimes it’s even mixing metaphors, because writing is gardening for the soul. It is weeding bad things out and planting new things in. But each writer must find their own allotment, the form and shape that best expresses their voice and vision; what they feel or think most profoundly and honestly about the world they live in. For me, fiction rather than memoir is the place I most effectively hunt down truths about what it is to be a human being. Fiction allows a writer to move ideas beyond the realm of “what happened” into the exciting realm of “what ifs”. Ostensibly, Anatomised is about Lyme disease. Arguably, it could have been written as a memoir entitled: “Me, Myself and Lyme”. In novel format, I wanted to confront Lyme, but also to escape it. I needed to surprise myself as a writer, and therefore the reader. Even though dark places exist within, behind and between the pages of Anatomised, readers aren’t absolutely sure what is real and what isn’t, and that’s how it should be. A story reflects its own truth.
All writing has the potential to be liberating. You may not write the wrongs that make the whole world sing, but the process can be psychologically curative; a meditative medicine for the mind. It can provide consolation, comfort and sometimes liberation. It’s true, you can’t cure Lyme disease or other chronic illnesses or traumas with words alone, but you can share your story. You can use what’s broken to reach out and illuminate the darkness. As Leonard Cohen wrote: “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”.
I remember the first story I had published. I’d just thrown away a perfectly successful career as a medieval historian in the pursuit of an impossible dream to become a fiction-writer. When one of my short stories won an international literary prize, my love-affair with writing fiction rather than fact took root. It began to pave the road to creative writing, lecturing posts, the publication of my debut novel, a collection of short stories, editing anthologies and interviewing famous novelists at literary events, including Nobel Laureate, Kazuo Ishiguro. I wrote that first short story under a pseudonym Cassi Hart, an anagram of “catharsis”. Fifteen years on, now in my fifties, the Muse of Catharsis has left her mark on me and on the skin of my pages, like coolness from the softest of calamine kisses. And her kiss doesn’t age.
Anatomised took four years to complete and, despite good reviews, it probably won’t appear on many shopping lists let alone a bestseller list! That’s a shame, as some of its profit will go to international Lyme charities that offer patients a lifeline. It may have been the hardest story I’ve ever had to write but the process soothed my soul, it made me wiser. It probably saved my life, and who knows…maybe it could help save others?
So, as we grow older and wiser, here’s to writing wrongs, flexing imagination muscles, soothing souls, and hunting down the truth of our lives; in fiction, in fact.
Article Copyright: A F McGuinness
Andrew McGuinness is an award-winning author. His traumatic experience of Lyme disease has formed the basis of his new novel Anatomised