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The Culture Interview – Monique Roffey


8 Minute Read

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

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

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

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

And a little about the mermaids that you have researched?

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

What is your mermaid a symbol of?

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

And how does this compare with more traditional mermaids?

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

Credit: Haitian Painter Mireile Delice

How do you personally relate to your mermaid?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AofA People: Hanja Kochansky – Writer


3 Minute Read

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

What is your age (in years)?

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

Where do you live?

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

What do you do?

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

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

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

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

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

What about sex?

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

And relationships?

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

How free do you feel?

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

What are you proud of?

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

What keeps you inspired?

The philosophy of the Dali Lama is inspirational.

When are you happiest?

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

And where does your creativity go?

Basically towards writing.

What’s your philosophy of living?

Be the change you want to see in the world.

And dying?

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

Are you still dreaming?

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

What was a recent outrageous action of yours?

I have no desire to be outrageous.

AofA People: Kathy Keefe – Artist


3 Minute Read

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?

 63

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.

And relationships?

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.

And dying?

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?

The Yeastie Girlz Interview


9 Minute Read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Reading


4 Minute Read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Culture Interview: Jenny Gordon – Artist


6 Minute Read

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

How did Whitewash evolve? 

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

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

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

Advantages of Age | The Advantages of Age

Were you actually involved before your son wrote it?

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

Did he interview you in order to use your experience?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have we improved or gone backwards?

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

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

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

How is it a love letter to London?

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

How has your own attitude to race changed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Whitewash also a celebration of London?

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

 

Age and Creativity


1 Minute Read

“And now in age I bud again,

After so many deaths I live and write.”

George Herbert “The Flower”

Creativity and age – an oxymoron? The early deaths of Chatterton (“the marvellous boy”), Keats, Shelley and Byron fuelled the Romantic “Good poets die young” myth. Wordsworth proved it by living too long and churning out a great deal of second-rate stuff as he grew older.

Try taking a wider view: where would European civilisation be without Milton’s Paradise Lost, Beethoven’s last string quartets or Rembrandt’s late self-portraits? What all these works have in common is that they are the works of maturity, produced in the artist’s later years.

T S Eliot wrote Four Quartets in his fifties. The great twentieth-century American poet, Amy Clampitt, published her first poetry collection at the age of 53. Annie Proulx was 56 when The Shipping Forecast came out. The popular novelist, Mary Wesley, was 71 when her first book was published. The list could go on and on. Helen Vendler wrote of Amy Clampitt: “The flood of poems that she produced late in life delineate a self – silent for 53 years – that suddenly found a public voice. If she had died at 52 we should never have known about her.” From these examples, it seems that the creative urge, far from decreasing, may well up into a great imaginative surge in later life.

The young know they are immortal – at least in their twenties (I can always do it later …). In the past women have been at a particular disadvantage – Virginia Woolf spelled that out very clearly in A Room of One’s Own. In contemporary Western society, there are enormous pressures on both men and women, especially when they are in their thirties and forties. Paying the bills, parenting, building a career – all too often the urgent drives out the important. Not only are there not enough hours in the day but there are constant interruptions. It’s hard to produce that great work of art when you can’t get a good run at it or when you only have the weary dregs of time at the end of the day in which to write, paint, compose.

“Keep true to the dreams of thy youth” were the poignant words found on a slip of paper in Herman Melville’s desk after his death. The dream of my youth was to be a writer. As soon as I learned to write words I started writing imaginatively. I still remember the first story I wrote. It was about two cats who ran a (comically catastrophic) painting and decorating business. I wrote it in what is now called graphic novel form – strips of drawings and words on each page. I made it and sewed it together. That book was lost long ago but my creative impulse to write is undiminished.

I got hooked on poetry in my teens – reading Elizabeth Jennings and R S Thomas for ‘O’ level (that shows my age). I started writing poetry then and have never (quite) stopped. Recently I turned up a bundle of my poems written c. 1966 – 1990. Poems that at one time I thought were worth keeping. Morbid, pessimistic, strong on nature descriptions, mostly derivative of other poets – and uniformly bad. I chucked them into the paper-recycling bin but it was interesting to see where I had come from.

Over the years I’ve had moderate success writing short prose and poetry for magazines. But it was not until 2010 that my first collection of poetry was published. I was 59. I felt slightly ashamed of admitting my age. I was tempted to make a slip of the pen – born 1980 instead of 1950. I felt as if I would be judged as inferior because it had taken so long for my first collection to appear. As if a real writer would have been published years before. As if I was a woman whose literary priorities were clearly so skewed by child-rearing and a teaching career that she had only bothered to take up writing now as a dilettante project to have something to do in retirement.

When I was a child I loved helping in the garden and sowing seeds. Whenever I asked my mother what I could plant her answer was always the same: “Sow me some thyme”. As you get older you know you have less time. “If I don’t do it now, I never will” is a powerful creative force. There comes a time when, with luck, there’s the opportunity to focus on producing imaginative work without the thousand distractions which plagued earlier life.

What is the secret of keeping creativity alive in later years? The answer is, I think, change – that great feeder of the imagination. The motto of Edwin Morgan, the much loved and greatly lamented Scottish Makar, was “Change rules”. He was still writing and publishing very good poetry in his late eighties while living in sheltered accommodation. “Myself I must remake” wrote Yeats in his seventies. “Old men should experiment” said Haydn. “Old men ought to be explorers” wrote T S Eliot in “East Coker”. And women.

In 2011 I read Christopher Pilling’s translation of Maurice Carême’s last poems Défier Le Destin, written when the poet was in his seventies – as was the translator:

“It is not too late

To start defying fate.”

Do it now.

© Mary Robinson 2012, 2019

This essay won the Notting Hill Editions and Words by the Water essay competition 2012 and was originally published on the New Writing Cumbria website (no longer available).

 

 

 

AofA People: Elizabeth Carter – Leadership Development Coach


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Elizabeth Carter is a transformation lead at NHS England, working on a campaign to promote nursing as an aspirational career of choice. A change leader, feminist, and radical, Elizabeth is determined to enable young women in education and their careers to unlock their full potential. In her discretionary time, she coaches and writes with a focus on her passion, women in leadership. She is a fierce advocate for living well until dying and sees this fourth quarter of her life as a time to embrace the inevitability of death and preparing for a good death by living a good life. Elizabeth is appearing at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival as part of the AoA session on Sunday, June 9th at 5pm in the Mortuary Chapel. She will be reading a piece she wrote – with Nadia Chambers – for AoA on Living Well until Dying.

Age (in years)  

59 ( 60 in October)

Where do you live?

Oxfordshire right now.  I moved here last April having spent 5 years in Spain.  I have lived all over – longest I have ever lived anywhere ( since I left home at 18) is 5 years.  I always know when it’s time to move on and I act on it.

What do you do?

I walk my dogs, I dream a lot, I write stuff.  Oh and I coach leadership development especially women in leadership and coach narrative to leaders.

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

I feel exactly the same as I did when I was 17.  I sometimes feel like it’s a bit of a joke that I am actually the age I am but clearly it’s true!I think the best thing about being this age is that I am incredibly kind to myself and allow large amounts of selfishness to keep healthy emotionally and physically.

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

An ability to sit still, to meditate, do yoga.  I was so full on then.

What about sex?

I like sex! I am very comfortable with my body and have no shyness or hang-ups.  Great sex is wonderful and I have had some great sex!

And relationships?

Hmm – someone recently said we are hard-wired to be in a relationship – I don’t agree.  I think society tells us that. I am currently single and very happy and fulfilled.

How free do you feel?

Totally.  I really do as I please.  It’s like being at a permanent festival.
I love it!

What are you proud of?

My friendships and the feedback I get when I coach.

What keeps you inspired?

Other people – my faith and trust in young people – I think that Gen Z is amazing.  i am so hopeful for the future in their hands.  And the night sky.

Wherever I am I gaze at the stars – always amazes and inspires me.

When are you happiest?

Pretty much all of the time! Particularly if I am having a great one to one with a friend or family member.  Sparking off each other.  When I am dancing and listening to music

And where does your creativity go?

On paper – I write and I write.  Also into the work that I do – I love thinking up cool ways to engage people.

What’s your philosophy of living?

Do it – every day.  Live it well with kindness and thought for others and always smile and say hello to elderly people – you might be their only contact in any given day.

And dying?

It’s inevitable.  Embrace it and lean towards it using every living breath well.

Are you still dreaming?

All the time awake and asleep.  I am a master day-dreamer!  Or should I call it visualisation?  My night and sleep dreams are wonderful.

What was a recent outrageous action of yours?

I don’t know that I do anything outrageous.  I am prone to spontaneity and follow impulse and it usually works out ok!

Dry shade


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A problematical bed to fill was how she put it, which left a lot of scope to wonder how the problem came about and when. In her faded Greenham Common T-shirt and cut-offs, she looked too jaunty for sudden widowhood; too down-at-heel to be on the pull, though her breasts were nicely presented. She didn’t seem the sort to offer her bed to a canine companion, and I guessed her to be a cat-hater or even a member of ‘Abstinence Actually’. Dry shade she whispered to the young attendant, and the ghost of Mellors seemed to hover at her shoulder, to hint at maidenhair ferns, though a gamekeeper was probably the last thing she wanted in her garden, dry shade or not. Then she disappeared down a row of euphorbias, left me to conjure her maverick world; the delicate stepping over of a wine and poem drunk woman, her late night dance, how in the morning she might hurry to ‘sent items’ to check her indiscretions.

Wendy Klein is one of the poets who is performing on June 27th at the Poetry Cafe as part of Pizzazz, the Advantages of Age poetry evening. Book your ticket here.

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