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)
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.
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?
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.
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.
Isa L Levy, 72, is a London-based artist and psychotherapist who has just published her memoir, Conversations with a Blank Canvas: From Nowhere to Somewhere Decades of Change and Transformation. You can buy it here.
What prompted this memoir?
Two clairvoyants told me I had to write my life story: one 40 years ago and one more recently a few years ago and so I decided to write it.
What is your aim in writing it?
Sharing my life story so that others can see how it’s possible to overcome your demons and with courage keep listening to your authentic voice to fulfill a sense of belonging to your ‘true self’; so often hidden by a ‘false self’ adapting to an outer superficial world. This is very much a sign of our times within our social media screens of ‘selfie’ curated false images and how that can emphasise feelings of low self-worth leading to depression, anxiety, addiction, and in the worst case of scenarios self-harm, suicide, and high crime rates
You mention ‘invites the reader to enquire more consciously about their own personal journey’?
In writing about my own journey of self-discovery I reveal how the ‘blank canvas’ was the beginning of my true connection to myself. I only discovered painting when I was 40 and some 450 paintings emerged – I say from nowhere but in fact from an unknown place of mystery and that was tremendously meaningful for me and life-changing. What I learned about myself through painting was very much what I facilitate in my clients which is the safe space within which to explore their own ‘blank canvasses’ within and if they can face their fears and pain they will find the richness that is there hiding in their ‘true self’.
Tell us something about your own Jewish background growing up in Cardiff and how it has influenced you?
I believe my Jewish background is within every gene of my body; however, I did not identify as a religious Jew and have found my spiritual connections as a Quaker and Buddhist. I also realised that I did not conform to family and cultural expectations, which created a deal of painful confusion for me. If I didn’t conform – who was I? The Cardiff Jewish community was tight-knit and my parents were very committed to the local community. However, the pain was my motivation to find out more about myself.
Your family knew Dylan Thomas?
Yes. My father was born in Swansea, as was Dylan Thomas and Dylan lived in Chelsea with my uncle, art critic, and author, Mervyn Levy. My father, at that time, in those Chelsea days, was a poet and had exchanged poetry with Dylan and joined them when he ran away from home. I had the privilege of sitting on Dylan Thomas’s knee as a 2-year-old, although I can’t say I remember the experience.
You describe yourself as ‘the black sheep of the family’, how did that manifest itself?
I now realise that I am a non-conformist but it’s taken me 72 years and the writing of my memoir to accept that label. It’s hard to fit into a traditional family as a non-conformist as individuality threatens the status quo.
What have been the most challenging areas of your own personal journey psychologically?
Well, I believed I was a failure in everything because I didn’t fit in; Failed in education, the pressure to marry, not wanting to marry, weight issues, and poor body image that created a lack of confidence which led to low self-esteem.
Tell us a bit about ‘questioning your sexuality’ as a teenager and the confusion of that?
Basically, I did not feel comfortable discussing my sexuality as a teenager in the 1950s and coming from a traditional family where we didn’t discuss anything that didn’t fit in socially. I discussed with a few friends but mainly kept things secret.
You performed a one-woman show at Wormwood Scrubs which changed the direction of your life?
Yes. I made a conscious decision to move from performance into the caring profession as I was more interested in the lives of the prisoners than my own performance.
You mention depression and loneliness?
I think depression and loneliness are part of the human condition and I think these problems can be masked by a manic defense against facing our most vulnerable side by compulsive addictions that are socially acceptable – like work, money, drink, narcissistic power distortions. We just have to look at our present demise with politicians and leadership. I think depression and loneliness is what we all face within our own ‘blank canvasses’ and we have been forced to look deeper into ourselves during this pandemic as everything familiar has been taken away from us and left us with time for a re-think.
And then, finding a more meaningful life?
Buddhism as a philosophy for life gave me permission to engage with my suffering as I realized there was nothing wrong with me other than that I was just human. My painting was the beginning of this journey of letting go and just allowing everything to flow out of me – it was liberating. And then 15 years later I had nothing more to say and closed the door on my studio without knowing what next. In the fullness of time I found myself embarking on a Masters degree in Arts and Psychotherapy in my mid- 50s without an A Level to my name and graduated at the ripe old age of 61 with a whole new career as an Arts Psychotherapist.
How has painting, poetry and other writing supported your evolution?
I could not have survived without creative expression as an actor, singer, songwriter, poet, playwright, artist, author and back to actor now for I had no other way to express myself.
You’re now involved in a musical production of ‘Fat is a Feminist Issue’?
That was 2 years ago but I am involved with that director, Clair Chapwell and we’re performing a weekly soap opera at Jacksons Lane community centre, North London for a Pensioners Lunch Club; on zoom at the moment. I was invited by my local MP to sing a song I wrote about Climate Change, some 50 years, ago in parliament, when I had no idea at the time about the crisis that we have got ourselves into.
Tell us about your painting The Female Resurrection?
The Female Resurrection was painted after the death of my mother and four other important females in my life. I inherited a 7 foot blank canvas and decided to paint a female crucifixion scene putting the female figure on the cross as I wrestled with the question; how can you celebrate life whilst going through so much suffering? As there was no room for the central figure’s head as if by magic, I could see that there had been a resurrection, completely spontaneous, and therein lay the answer to my question.
How has lockdown been for you?
A very creative time linking me to like-minded international souls on zoom, publishing and promoting the book, seeing my therapy clients, albeit on zoom, seeing friends in a café when tiers permitted, facing myself and my core human loneliness and finding more transcendence, kindness, and compassion towards myself and others with more of a connection to my heart.
Where are you now on this journey and how has writing the book been?
I go with the flow now and enjoy what I have to deal with each day with the resolve to make it the best that I can, opening to new possibilities and expansion in every which way possible.
How are you doing on the creative front? Has getting older freed you into a more creative place?
I just googled exactly that and depressingly it came back with endless reports about the brain being less creative as we get older. Bullshit, I thought. But I did find this from Psychology Today in 2007.
‘The ageing brain resembles the creative brain in several ways. For instance, the ageing brain is more distractible and somewhat more disinhibited than the younger brain (so is the creative brain). Ageing brains score better on tests of crystallized IQ (and creative brains use crystallized knowledge to make novel and original associations). These changes in the ageing brain may make it ideally suited to accomplish work in a number of creative domains. So instead of promoting retirement at age 65, perhaps we as a society should be promoting transition at age 65: transition into a creative field where our growing resource of individuals with ageing brains can preserve their wisdom in culturally-valued works of art, music, or writing.’
I am 67 and a half!! Did Adrian Mole ever get to that age? And I co-founded Advantages of Age with Suzanne Noble in 2016. In many ways, we’ve gone in different directions – in that Suzanne is developing her Silver Sharers site and Start-Up For Seniors while I am more focused on the arts and my relationship with poetry and dance and writing non-fiction. Although having said that Suzanne is singing the blues and performing when we’re not in Covid times.
Being a part of Advantages of Age – advantagesofage.com – has definitely helped me develop my relationship with the arts. In 2017, we received – on the second try and we didn’t write the budget bit – our first grant from the Arts Council and we created Death Dinner, the film about death and dying, had hot tub salons on everything from tantra to co-housing, ran a Taboo Club around sexuality/love, filled a bus Flamboyant Forever with Over-50s dressed up not just to the nines but the tens and elevens. There was a lot of production work involved.
And I realised that I could do it – get that sort of thing together. The same year 2017, I had my first poetry pamphlet Tantric Goddess out on Eyewear. By 2019, I created a book of poems with my partner, Asanga Judge illustrating them with watercolours – it was called Wild Land. We had an exhibition – poems and paintings together – at the Llyn Arts Festival in N Wales and we also performed there. By this time, I’d written a long poem A Song for an Old Woman, which was about the fears and vulnerabilities of getting older plus my mum having Alzheimer’s and the horrors of the later stages. Asanga plays the crystal bowls. So we did a performance where I read one stanza and then he responded with the haunting sounds of the bowls. We were going to do a version at the Poetry Café but Covid came along.
In 2019, Brent – I live in Harlesden and have written a non-fiction book – A London Safari walking adventures in NW10 – about my walks here with Louis Theroux, George The Poet etc – were told that they’d won the competition to be the London Borough of Culture 2020. Immediately, I started thinking of a project that I’d love to do. Be Willesden Junction Poet in Residence and immerse myself in this bleak but beautiful place. This scary but intriguing place.
I already had a relationship with the station. I’d done a chapter in A London Safari where I walked with railway enthusiast, Ian Bull and been enthralled by his litany of Willesden Junction nuggets, for example, that the buddleia seeds were brought in on the train’s wheels from ports, they came from China. For example, the old transformer building dates back to 1910 and is Arts and Crafts. Plus his winsome theories on my favourite building – the building on stilts. He surmised that it was a carriage washing building.
However, I didn’t go ahead until I’d had several chats with producers. Thanks, Titania Altius. And it became obvious that community was the name of the case. Of course. It’s not all about you, Rose. So I came up with the idea of The Willesden Junction Poets in Residence. I would gather poets in Brent and we would unravel the station through all of our different perspectives. And so I filled in the form. Yes, I managed it with a bit of advice from Suzanne on the budget front.
Lo and behold, last November I heard that I was one of the lucky ones. I had a grant of £3,000 to create The Willesden Junction Poets, make a book out of our poems, find an artist to illustrate it and launch it. I was over the moon. Exactly my kind of project.
By Feb 2020, I’d put the word out on social media, the Kilburn Times and amongst friends for nine poets. I found about 30 and decided on the group. One of my aims was to cherish this group so that it had long-lasting roots so that we became a collective that could carry on afterwards. I had tea with the ones I had decided upon.
On March 1st, we got together for the first time. A vegetable curry at my flat, lots of research about WJ strewn on my floor, shared our WJ stories and then we went to the station. The sun shone and we looked at the station in a way that we never had before. Even me. The fences suddenly looked like the staffs owned by medieval nobility. There were convex mirrors everywhere. And frills on the roof. A wasteland with steps to nowhere. The poets were animated and falling for WJ. Poems started to be written.
And then there was the night visit. I really wanted to go in the dark. Three of us went just as social distancing was coming in but wasn’t understood. Not by us either. No masks yet. We stood in the drizzle and dark, feeling like people in an Edward Hopper painting. There was a loneliness to it and an endless blue freight train. And postmodern blue lights like spears.
Lockdown happened. We took to Zoom like everyone else. Poetry workshops – we shared and commented on our WJ poems. Zoom kept our group together. The project was meant to last three months. We spent two months on Zoom. It deepened the trust and commitment in the group.
By June, the visits to the station started again. This time with masks. Filmmaker Tereza Stehlikova – she’s made Disappearing Worm Wood which is about this landscape which is changing all the time – came for a visit with us. This bleak and beautiful landscape. The vast horizon with all those tangles of tracks where both art critic John Berger drew and made etchings from (I haven’t been able to find any) in the 50s and painter Leon Kossoff made gorgeous, ugly paintings in the 70s and 80s.
Tereza told me she thought of Willesden Junction as a land of enchantment, I told her I thought of it as a theatre. Together with poet, Sue Saunders, we found the beating heart of WJ. Round the back, down a narrow passageway, near the steel bridge. Where the station staff make their way up and down in their orange hi-vis. Where we were forced into close encounters because the pathway is so narrow. Where the mainline trains speed by to Scotland, where freight trains chug by slowly carrying limestone aggregate, for instance, from the Mendips. And the wind is howling as though we’re on the moors in Haworth. Meanwhile, we’re caught up in an intensity of lines – fences, bridges, tracks.
More poems are written. Another high point is the visit with a botanist, John Wells who introduces us to over forty varieties of wild plant in the wilderness that looks like a wasteland full of rubbish and rats. Bristly ox tongue, dove’s cranesbill, spear thistles to name but a few.
I’d always wanted to re-frame the infamous WJ ‘walkway from hell’, ‘the purgatorial pathway’, ‘the jailed path’ with our imaginations. And these urban plants gave us another chance to see and feel this challenging walkway differently. And the poems went on.
By July, I’d picked the poems for the book and thought that BeWILDering could be a good title. The station was referred to as ‘bewildering’ in the late nineteenth century because it was labyrinthine and people actually got lost trying to look for their trains!
Be Wild, re-wild, Wild thing, Willesden Junction – they were all in that title for us. And Sue turned up at our interview with local radio station The Beat with badges bearing – Be, Wild, Er, Ring. I congratulated her on her brilliant deconstruction of our title. ‘I just couldn’t fit it on the badges,’ she said beguilingly.
In the meantime, Keira Rathbone was making her dazzling typictions. And having her own adventures at the station. She wasn’t keen on WJ at first, but as time went on, she fell into intrigue. Keira would appear in her silver jacket and mask looking like a visitor with Mars with her own old Imperial typewriter. Then she’d sit and turn the platen while typing furiously and by some twist of wonderment, she’d create all these images.
On one occasion, she and I were down by the heart of WJ, and we simply became fascinated by an old pipe in the wall. This very textured wall with what looked like gunshots in it. Keira said something like – ‘Look like her come hither look’. And then she became the sexy pipe. And on we went. The spirit of the WJ residency captured. That spirit of tale-telling and you never know where it will lead you.
The book went to the designers, then the digital printers. By October, we had the beauties in our hands. Finally, my son, Marlon – thank you son – who is a filmmaker came down and made short films of us reading our poems ‘on set’ as Tereza put it. It was a great day. An acknowledgement day. Andrea Queens read Legend – where magical occurrences happen at WJ – on the steel bridge, I was near my beloved Building on Stilts, Ian McLachlan performed Changeling down ‘the purgatorial path’, we even got into the station itself for a quick shoot of Sue Saunders reading her Closely Observed Pigeons, Elizabeth Uter was filmed near the 266 bus stop reading her How Many Feet, Iman Hamid told us about her experiences On Platform 4 and Sue Saunders read Nick Moss’ STOP because he couldn’t be there.
And so The Willesden Junction Poets project has been a great project. We are now a group and hopefully, we will carry on performing in London. And I have just filled in another application. So let’s see if the next project comes about next year when I’m 68…
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
Kathy Keefe, 63, is a wildly wonderful artist who lives in Kent and can be found often on Colour Walks in London. She makes hats, paints and makes incredible dolls. She also is the carer for her profoundly deaf husband, Derek.
How old are you?
Where do you live?
I live in a small village in Kent.
What do you do?
I am an artist and also a carer for my husband who is profoundly deaf.
How is this age for you?
I enjoy being my age and living life to the fullest. I don’t have a mortgage to worry about and I only have myself and my husband to please. We are very compatible.
What do you have now that you didn’t have at 25?
I have more time and patience. I also have more knowledge as I decided to get a degree in Art/Design when I was in my 50s.
What about sex?
Sex is great. I have a very loving and healthy marriage to a wonderful man. I consider myself to be one of the lucky ones.
I have only ever had one relationship that has lasted 45 years. I met my husband when I was just eighteen. I wouldn’t say it was love at first sight, but we certainly had something that has got us through the ups and downs of married life.
How free do you feel?
My freedom to be creative and sometimes impulsive is very important to me, and I have always been able to be myself. I have never felt the need to have extramarital affairs as I am very happy.
What are you proud of?
I’m proud of many things. I am proud of our two beautiful talented daughters, and also our two beautiful granddaughters. My wonderful husband who has had to overcome many difficult and life-threatening health issues. I am also proud of myself for finding the strength to help support him and our children during those difficult times. I’m also proud of becoming a mature student and getting my degree. Plus getting a first for my dissertation when I’m dyslexic.
What inspires you?
Like-minded people. I love to mix with other people who are interested in the arts and fashion. I am a very visual person and I need to be stimulated by colour and good conversation.
When are you happiest?
When I am working on a new project. I love it when I don’t want to stop working on something that I’m creating from scratch.
Where does your creativity go?
Into whatever I’m making or painting. It could be a hat, a drawing, a painting or making one of my dolls or putting items of clothes together to wear. I have curated a couple of fashion shows locally. I would love to do more of those..
What is your philosophy of living?
To live life to the full and have no regrets.
I don’t worry about dying, it’s something comes to all of us. That’s why my philosophy of life is to live life to the full.
Are you still dreaming?
Yes, I dream about winning the lottery. What I really would like to do is to give most of it away. It must sound boring but I have most things that I need. It would however allow me to organise family holidays and make it a lot easier for my family and friends.
What was the last outrageous thing you did?
OMG I can’t think of anything. I’m much too sensible to do anything remotely outrageous, and if I did, do you think I would tell you?
SERENA CONSTANCE interviews with Cammie Toloui, co-founder of 80s feminist rap band, the Yeastie Girlz.
It’s a muggy Friday night in August, and on the spur of the moment, I’ve made it to the last Haiku Hands UK tour gig in the intimate venue above the Hope and Ruin bar in Brighton. I’m not disappointed by the energy these three Australian female rappers (sisters Claire and Mie Nakazawa, with Beatrice Lewis) unleashed into a mixed audience of all ages. I can still bump, grind and squat at the front with great energy. Just the tonic I needed after a stressful week, though my thighs are groaning the next day.
Coming out of the Peaches mould of electro hip hop and dance-pop, Haiku Hands are a feisty act with lyrics full of attitude and girl power. They get the whole crowd dancing. Together with their local Brighton support act, rapper Boudicca, the show contains a sense of energetic empowerment in these uncertain times, when modern pressures on young women are affecting their mental health more than ever. We need girl bands like this.
On the walk home, I’m thinking about the history of female singers in hip-hop, rap, and other genres. Before Haiku Hands, Peaches and Pussy Riot, when I was a teenager in the early to mid-80s, I was riding the wave of post-punk and new wave bands fronted by women with attitude, who were blazing a trail through a sexist, male-dominated industry. On the UK music scene, The Slits and the Au Pairs made me feel strong. They were singing about the reality of sex and female bodies from a women’s perspective, not through the male gaze. Hell yeah! Their music is still as powerful today with Peaches and Pussy Riot taking the genre further.
In 1987, the year I started university, hip hop was big but so male. I remember going to see the Beastie Boys and Run DMC at the Brixton Academy, on their infamous tour featuring a giant inflatable penis and caged female strippers. (Peaches does it so much better with her feminist twist.) On the other side of the Atlantic, three young women at Berkeley were performing their response to the white male hip hop explosion. Although I hadn’t heard of the Yeastie Girlz at the time (too busy raving in fields), I met one of the founding members, Cammie Toloui, when she stood up to rap at a monthly Sunday gathering of Guerrilla Poets in Lewes, performing an acapella Yeast Power. As she had the whole pub crowd cheering, I realised just how relevant her music and lyrics are for women now as they were thirty years ago.
Cammie is a professional photographer, as well as a rapper, and also runs a massage treatment centre in Lewes. I wanted to know more of Cammie’s story, so caught up with her for an interview in her studio, on how the DIY band ethos of the Yeastie Girlz emerged.
“I was a teenager growing up in the San Francisco bay area. In the town of Berkeley, there was a magazine called MAXIMUMROCKNROLL and the editors had found a great venue on Gilman Street for young bands to play. We would all volunteer to help run the nights, and it was an incredible community. Not long after it opened, there was a big 4th July music festival; the trouble was all the bands were boys. My friend Jane came up to me and Joyce and said we have to do something about this. There are just too many boys on stage. Usually female bands were lumped all together in one line up, instead of integrating and mixing us up. Jane sat down and quickly wrote this rap Yeast Power. In between bands, we just jumped on stage, grabbed the mic, shouting “we’ve just written this song and want you to listen”:
We’re the Yeastie Girlz and we’ve got yeast power, we don’t shave our armpits and we don’t shower…
“We were terrified, but we sang it and jumped off the stage. It was so scary but kind of exciting too. We were 18, fresh out of high school. We’d sing as a bit of a joke, standing around the club, from time to time. Then the editor of MAXIMUMROCKNROLL was going to put out a 7 inch EP of all the bands that performed at Gilman Street and included us. We recorded as an acapella rap, it was about the lyrics and the attitude. Then the name came up; the Beastie Boys had just burst onto the scene but their songs were kind of rapey, so we said we’re the Yeastie Girlz. We started to write more songs and add to the performance. We’d get speculums and explain to the women in the audience how to use them.”
This made me think of Annie Sprinkle’s sex-positive feminist performances where she’d use a speculum on herself and invite the audience to look at her cervix. I asked Cammie more about this part of their act:
“ I wanted to educate. I’d worked out you could play the cardboard tube of a tampon applicator as an instrument, so I figured out how to play songs such as Iron Man on it. I’d get on stage and play this thing, sometimes throwing a whole bunch out into the mostly male audience. It was very feminist; we’d be teaching women how to defend themselves too. Most of the guys would be totally embarrassed, as we’d be singing about our periods, cunnilingus, yeast infections and so on. We were throwing it back into the faces of these punk guys who thought they were so tough; we’d freak them out! Most were great, but some just couldn’t handle it. However, the club was very open-minded; we wanted to talk to women but also shock the guys!
“In 1988 we went on tour as a joke; Joyce had moved to a squat in Amsterdam and Jayne moved to New York. I asked my friend Kate to join the band. We went over to Amsterdam separately and did European tours with Joyce; we’d just show up, no music, just our voices. Most people didn’t know what we were singing about but occasionally they would because of the international reach of MAXIMUMROCKNROLL. We were trying to sell our demo tape too, so we dipped tampons into fake blood and put them in with the tapes so people would have to pull them out. We were really challenging guys’ attitudes to women and our bodily functions.
I kept a scrapbook with all the comments and material we created. All our memorabilia is now in a feminist archive at Harvard.
“By the late 80s, we’d split, as everybody had moved and were focused on different things. Then in 1991 we were contacted by a band called Consolidated. They were an indy dance band and wanted us to feature on their album. They sent us their music and we thought yeah, we could do ‘You Suck’ to this one. We recorded in the studio – me, Kate and Wendy O. It became a dance hit, even to this day people tell me they’ve heard it or we get some royalties from radio airplay. “
I ask Cammie where she saw Yeastie Girlz within the feminist history of rap and dance music.
“We were pre-Riot Grrl and there were lots of female punk bands before us that set the stage; we weren’t breaking totally new ground, but every movement since has pushed it forward. To talk about your pussy, your periods and yeast infections was new. I look at other bands now like Pussy Riot and think wow, it’s really evolved. At the time, with what we were doing, we’d really taken the subject to a new level.”
As women, we have come a long way in terms of openly discussing periods and our power over our own bodies. with movements such as the campaign to end period poverty and group performances by artists within the Menstranauts collective founded by Dr Marisa Carnesky. I asked Cammie if she’d be performing more Yeastie Girlz:
“We’ve occasionally performed over the years, sometimes sitting down to write new songs. Now that all of us are going through perimenopause or are in menopause, we’ve got lots more to sing about. I feel there are people who are writing and performing about this now. For instance, whenever I see Pussy Riot – not that they are menopausal, but they are even more forceful and radical – I have so much respect for them; they are incredible. I look at them and think the world doesn’t really need the Yeastie Girlz anymore! I’d like to think the three of us would get together to write a couple of menopause songs – that would be hilarious.”
I wonder what Cammie’s now older wiser menopausal self would now say to her 18-year-old self. She laughs:
“Go girl! I don’t have any regrets. I’ve lived a full life as I could. We started the Yeastie Girlz when I was 18, but then in 1991, I became a peep show dancer at the feminist strip club The Lusty Lady in San Francisco. I was studying photojournalism at Uni and really needed more money to fund all the costs involved. I didn’t expect to stay as long as I did there – three years – but the work turned into a photojournalism project. I was documenting clients who agreed to be photographed. In fact, more people know me for the photos that came out of the Lusty Lady, as I’ve exhibited in galleries and museums all over the world.”
Having danced briefly at the Raymond Revue Bar in Soho back in 1998 – the now-defunct club had just celebrated its 40th anniversary – I became interested in sex-positive, feminist performers such as Annie Sprinkle. Co-incidentally I also have a copy of The Lusty Lady by Erika Langley on my bookshelf. I ask Cammie how receptive Lewes is to this aspect of her creative career:
“I did a presentation with photos from the Lusty Lady era at the Westgate Chapel in Lewes. The audience was really surprised and enthusiastic, and I’ve had lots of positive feedback. I think people here see me as a mild-mannered massage therapist; they don’t tend to see me as a Yeastie Girl or a Lusty Lady!”
I’m glad that Cammie has stepped out of her Yeastie Girlz closet, and am looking forward to her latest creative project. You can view her photos at www.cammiet.com and find more about her current photography service.
Mish Aminoff Moon, 61, is a photographer and a member of AoA. Here she describes what she does. She was born in London into a tight-knit Persian Jewish Community and brought up in a multilingual household which alternated between English, Farsi and Hebrew.
‘When I’m walking around a city and suddenly notice something that sparks my interest, I feel a combination of freedom, concentration, stimulation and harmony. There’s a choice be made, to take a photograph of this image regardless of whether or not I think it will work. That is part of the freedom: the experimenting. My eye and approach are influenced by a love of art history and painting. Prior to studying Photographic Theory & Practice at The University of Westminster, I graduated in History of Art at Sussex University but my interest – as evidenced in my old diaries – started much earlier. As a young teenager going to art galleries and museums was a gateway into an exciting world. I now believe I can experience the exciting, the beautiful, and ultimately my quest for seeing art on my everyday wanderings.’
This project is about reading. She found a photo of her maternal grandfather reading after work on his balcony in Tel Aviv and the project progressed from there.
Looking through old photos from before I was born I found another informal photograph of family members reading newspapers. Here are Matt and Pauline reading their papers in the back garden in Stamford Hill, circa early 1950s:
However, the tendency was that reading matter was used as props in formal studio portraiture. Below, my father in 1930:
Another relative – my father’s cousin Haji-Ben who was based in Milan – with an open book as a prop. His direct gaze and grown-up cross-legged position contribute to the quasi adult composure of the portrait:
And below another studio portrait of my aunt Hannah, this time hand-coloured, with a large open picture book as a prop. I can’t make out the illustration, but it seems like a grand scale documentary image, not what I’d expect from the context!
A posed photograph of me in my bedroom when i was about 3 or 4, taken by my father. This was part of a series of photos he took of me in my room; one at my dressing table, another chatting on a toy phone. I find it interesting that the bookshelf in my room is filled with his old Penguin paperbacks, possibly deemed unsuitable for display in any other part of the house?
When my own children were born I took lots of photographs documenting their everyday experiences and family life; I was interested in capturing moments that I considered significant. The photograph below was taken in 1990 after a particularly sleepless night; Rafi finally asleep on his father’s right thigh and an open book in Josh’s left hand:
And one from the mid-90s of Josh reading one of his old Tintin books to the boys:
Dan occupying himself reading the Zelda manual on our regular Sunday morning brunch outings to Bar Italia in Soho
Some more from Bar Italia – my mother used to say that I always had a book on me everywhere I went. Nowadays it tends to be a Kindle, but here’s proof that it was a habit that continued into adulthood. A portrait of me framed on the mirrored wall, part of a semi-permanent wall display of “regulars” at Bar Italia. I don’t remember the name of the photographer but I remember posing for her back in 2009. Here I am taking a photo of the portrait of me with my book, sitting at the bar counter:
The photo below was taken outside Bar Italia; I like it because if you look carefully you can see a luminous image of a man with long white hair – looking like a biblical representation of God in sunglasses. It happens to be the Brazilian musical Hermeto Pascoal, who is rather amazing, and definitely a jazz master if not a god!
Travelling further afield, here’s another café reader, taken the other week in a February sun-drenched Campo Santo Stefano in Venice:
And at this Tel Aviv café back in 2014, a Hebrew newspaper is used to block out the bright February sun:
On the first day of my first trip to Japan in 2006 I was excited to snap a detail of my Manga-reading fellow passenger on the Tokyo Metro:
I took that trip with my younger son Dan who was 13 at the time. The photo below was taken one night by Dan – I’m reading a book by Haruki Murakami, in my new Japanese glasses:
I like the parallel activity of these bespectacled book browsers in a Parisian gallery shop:
Next up are a couple of images taken on London Underground. I loved the intimacy of this elderly couple sharing their art magazine:
This dapper gentleman in a corduroy suit and coordinating tan accessories was reading a book called The Tao of Physics:
Next a couple of diary-like images, the first documenting my ora dell’aperitivo ritual, complete with Campari, pistachio nuts and tapas like snacks and obscure Kyrgyz-translated book:
And on a relaxed Saturday morning my husband Stephen gets some tips on power from GQ magazine: