Category Archives: Musings

Tweeting to the Converted

When my friends and I got our acts together and synchronised iCalendars to attend Hackney Attic’s Question Time Tweet-a-Long, the event had already garnered cult status (Dimble-Dancing, dedicated drinking games, even an on-camera shout-out from Dimbers himself). So much so, The Guardian were on to it.

It is part dream come true, part cliché come-down to find yourself doing exactly what people would expect of you (attending an ironic-liberal-digital-dance-off in an attic above an art house cinema in east London, say) and then find yourself being interviewed about it for your all-time favourite paper. Luckily, I later found myself being ever so slightly misquoted and sounding rather more morose than most people who know me would expect, so I managed to override my programming after all, albeit by proxy. Oh and I got to see Grace Petrie perform, which was at once so plaintive and impassioned that I forgot who was Tweeting what about who and lost myself in her ‘Emily Davison Blues’. Which is probably just what you’d expect, isn’t it?

Poetry Please

Time was, poetic stereotypes puncturing the mainstream were all romantic cliché. Keats and Byron look-alikes moping and yearning for unrequited loves in frock coats, living in garrets and expiring of consumption, that sort of thing. Well, either that or all Left Bank intellectual, a la Modernist poster boys Ezra Pound and T.S.Eliot, through to moody and brooding Ted Hughes, the Iron Man forever entwined with the Hollywood-worthy tragi-lit-romance with the suicidal twin-set and pearls word-smith, Sylvia Plath. Hitting the household name headlines in more recent times we’ve had the first female laureate Carol Ann Duffy, the brittle Northern denim and trainers aesthetic of Simon Armitage. The latter has stayed just the right side of hip since the release of his debut collection Zoom in 1989 by championing fellow Yorkshireman Alex Turner, whose swaggering lyrical dexterity brought the Arctic Monkeys critical as well as popular acclaim with that paean to Saturday night couplings, ‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dance floor.’

But it was in 1976 when the literary landscape was really shaken up by the arrival of the shambolically razor-tongued Bard of Salford, John Cooper Clarke. Dovetailing haphazardly with the riotous birth of the Punk movement, Clarke achieved cult status supporting luminaries The Sex Pistols and Joy Division, and taking poetry to places most poets wouldn’t take a train. Cutting a dash in drainpipe trousers he was and remains a spindly, androgynous figure, strutting about the stage on Cuban heels with a rock star charisma, complete with artfully dishevelled barnet. His material takes in the political and satirical spheres alongside the mundane and surreal; whether the subject be ‘Euro Communist/ Gucci Socialist’ or ‘(I Married A) Monster From Outer Space’, the writing and delivery are bitingly irreverent, laugh out loud witty and sometimes just plain daft. By honing his craft on the live music circuit rather than any refined spoken word salon-scene, Clarke was simultaneously reigniting a neglected oral tradition of sharing poetry aloud and en masse that dates back to innumerable folk tales, whilst being achingly of the moment.

However, by the 1980s this rollicking success was blighted by Punk’s demise, whilst Clarke himself was in the grip of a crippling heroin addiction. This unlikely man of letters seemed forever consigned to my Stepfather’s dusty vinyl collection, his New Year’s Eve part piece. But fashion being what it is, the reading, listening and thinking public’s appetite for the retro is nigh on insatiable, and within two decades the pendulum had swung back to Punk- by which time John Cooper Clarke’s ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ had made its way into my GCSE poetry anthology and doubtless won teenage hearts and minds across the nation.

Fast forward ten years and a new generation of rhymesters have been heralded as the resurgence of performance poetry- and once again the readings (or ‘slams’ as they are now known), are not confined to the bookshop but are down and dirty in the pub, the club, the street, the field. Luke Wright, founder of poetry collective Aisle 16, co-programmer of the Poetry Arena at the Latitude Festival and purveyor of the kind of fast-paced, observational, visceral verses that owe more to stand up than oratory, also cites Clarke as a major influence. Essex-born Wright confesses that he was ‘totally blown away’ by the old school writer’s appearance at Colchester Arts Centre when he was ‘about 16,’ chiefly because his poems ‘were funny and written about a world I lived in.’ An unpretentious, accessible, disarmingly honest style unites the otherwise disparate output of the new crop of Young British Poets. Aisle 16 is itself a motley crew, among them Swansea success story Joe Dunthorne whose Bildungsroman debut Submarine is currently in pre-production for Warp Films, and the charmingly self-deprecating John Osborne, author of Radio Head– a Radio 4 Book of the Week that was born out of temp job hell.

For those literary ladies amongst you who are starting to sense that this is all an unreconstructed boys’ club, fear not, as Dockers MC AKA Laura Dockerill, Brixton-born Brit School grad and best mate of pearly queen of pop Kate Nash is also making a noise with her inimitable gift of the gab. With literary cabaret in the form of Homework and the infamous Literary Death Match taking East London by storm, there’s no sign of poetry retreating to the library, pale and angst ridden, in bad shoes.

‘This song reminds me of swimming’

Swimming pools: it’s love/ hate. When I was first marched to the local pool in Lichfield for lessons aged four or so, delivered by a very hands-on teacher who looked like David Bellamy and smelt strongly of bacon, I had no apprehension that I’d still be swimming, of my own volition, some twenty-two years later. “It’s a skill for life,” my Mum had told my brother and I, but my own enthusiasm waxed and waned through childhood and beyond, until I fell into my current adulthood regime.

I can’t have been the only child turned off swimming by the trials of splashing, chlorine in the eyes, the shame of remaining in the ‘middle group’ indefinitely, or the public humiliation of coming last in every gala, as simple recreation increasingly became competitive sport. And all this with the prospect of a cold shower and an anxiety-ridden communal changing room still to come! But it had its moments, even then- the Zen-like trance I used to enter when permitted to do lengths of backstroke, dreamily counting the slats on the ceiling, or the weekly promise of fish and chips on the way home if we behaved ourselves. Best of all was the phenomenal take-away pizza in the unlikely setting of Swadlincote in Derbyshire. Following a weekend swim with my Dad, to this day it is the best I’ve ever tasted. Whether we had stumbled across a truly artisan pizzeria in the Midlands, or the food was merely transfigured by the profound physical exhaustion and raging hunger that are the coda of any good swim, it mattered not. But no such incentives followed PE swimming, which simply condemned the fairer sex to an afternoon of damp locks and the inevitable chill that followed when waiting at the bus stop. The fetching 80s ‘snood’ my Mum supplied me with was no defence; the letters verifying pre-menstrual, menstrual and post-menstrual indisposition that she and other lenient mothers wrote at their daughters’ behest were, up to a point.

So when did I fall in love with it? Discounting swimming abroad (which is almost always more salubrious, with the combination of kinder climate and holiday humour), the leisure centre eventually became my refuge from library and bedroom during those dark days of dissertations and finals when pubs, clubs and cafes were off limits. I couldn’t bear the mechanised hot house of the gym, or face pounding the pavement with hardier joggers in the January chill- but a solo dip to clear my head of cabin fever and stretch my limbs out of desk-induced cramp, suddenly seemed incredibly appealing. I’ll be honest- I’m not a strong swimmer- I can’t dive, I never mastered butterfly and my front crawl leaves a lot to be desired. But I was sufficiently impressed with the refreshing and restorative effects of a plunge into the medium lane to keep it up at home in university holidays, even undeterred by an embarrassing episode in which I was accidentally permitted to enter a ‘Nifty Fifties’ swim session. Although I was hauled out within minutes by a disgruntled lifeguard, it warmed my heart and strengthened my swimmer’s resolve to know that I had the support of my elders in the pool- ‘there’s enough watter for us all, int there?’ one OAP spoke up in my defence.

It was outdoor swimming, though, that really captured my imagination, once I’d made the move to the metropolis. The juxtaposition of an al-fresco, immersive experience in the shadow of a tower block was somehow thrilling; experiencing the elements on a far more visceral level than is the norm in the air-conditioned- centrally-heated – double-glazed interiors of modern urban sprawl, and all underscored by car alarms, sirens and planes overhead. My landlord at the time extolled the benefits to the circulation and the immune system of an early morning, open-air plunge, and whether it was anything so physiological or simply the enlivening and clarifying sensation, half low-impact work-out and half spa-treatment, it worked for me. I’ve heard that diving passes were issued to the first high-finance expats to populate the Cayman Islands for the same reason- losing yourself through water combats island fever as well as London fever.

Of course, in the lido you were just as likely to glide into a stray plaster or knot of hair as a fallen autumn leaf, just as likely to be stuck behind painfully slow Sunday swimmers, lane-hoppers or reckless paddlers as at any swimming bath. I’m thinking of those serial offenders who display flagrant disregard for personal space and wade right through yours- there’s nothing like an unwanted underwater scuffle of limbs, with only Lycra protecting your modesty, to violate your personal lagoon fantasy. And squeamishness is an inevitable consequence of letting the mind dwell too long on the gruesome solution of bodily fluids and debris, vomit and verrucas in which we might be wilfully marinating ourselves. Certainly this revulsion gripped a friend of mine on a recent visit to a Turkish bath in Budapest- I was in seventh heaven, she, repulsed. Does this phobia hark back to a time pre-dating water filters and chlorine, I wonder? A time when public baths were just that- communal washing facilities built as a civic duty to counter the spread of disease amongst the burgeoning urban population of the 19th century, under the Baths and Washhouses Act of 1846. Cleansing, certainly, but only if you got in early.

But back to the blissful open-air exhilaration. Brit Art doyenne Tracey Emin- a champion of lidos, amongst other things- has compared the experience to ‘being baptised. My muscles sprang into action and said: “Thank you, God,” she wrote in her column for the Independent in 2007. And novelist Alan Hollinghurst perfectly captured his characters’ hermetically-sealed thought processes, suspended within a public sphere of decadence, athleticism and homoeroticism, in his 1988 debut, The Swimming Pool Library:

‘…the swimmers loom up and down unaware of each other, crossing sometimes in the soft cones of brightness. All this makes the pool seem remote from the rest of the world….

It was a bizarre occupation, numbing and yet satisfying. My mind would count its daily fifty lengths as automatically as a photocopier; and at the same time it would wander. Absorbed in thought I barely noticed the half-hour- one unfaltering span of pure physical exercise- elapse.

There seems to be a contradiction in the portrayal of swimming in art and popular culture, something akin to the Freudian virgin/ whore complex that has divided simplistic representations of women. From fairy tales to horror movies the swimming pool or marine world is consistently shown as a liminal, transformative space, outside of the realms of everyday society. In Charles Kingsley’s 1862 novel The Water Babies, drowning is akin to rebirth, once the innocent child-victim proves their moral worth. The heroine of earlier work The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Anderson is punished for sacrificing her aquatic origins to pursue an earthly mate, ultimately dissolving into foam or air, as a result of rejecting the utopian sea kingdom. Beyond Victorian didacticism, we find swimming pools and swimming opportunities celebrated as places of liberation and transgression- from David Hockney’s sun-kissed 1960s Splash paintings, to the lurid aesthetic of Francois Ozon’s 2003 thriller The Swimming Pool.  Burt Lancaster charts a surreal and cavalier course home through the pools of his affluent Connecticut neighbours in the 1968 movie The Swimmer. What begins as a romantic stunt soon degenerates into an itinerary of middle class, midlife crises in microcosm. An open-air pool was similarly used to signify opulence, glamour and to provide the backdrop to sexual awakening in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, or Danny Boyle’s A Life Less Ordinary. Not unlike Hampstead’s male bathing pond in Hollinghurst’s 2004 novel The Line of Beauty, later lavishly adapted for TV. A comparatively lack lustre public pool gives Naomi Watt’s character solace and rehabilitation following grief and drug addiction in 2003’s 21 Grams. However, there is an altogether more menacing association to be found in the horror genre, from the silhouetted stalking scene of a lone female swimmer by an anthropomorphic predator in Cat People from 1942, to the torture of a young boy made to hold his breath after a swimming lesson in Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In of 2008, an offence for which his vampire girlfriend takes revenge by decapitating the bullies, exiting by walking on water and leaving her victims’ heads to float on the surface.

Plenty to percolate through the newly hydrated consciousness then as you strike out for another length. But I agree I agree with Laura Barton’s assessment that Loudon Wainwright said it best. Rufus and Martha’s dad encapsulated the life-affirming liberation of propelling oneself in water in the 1973 lyrics of Swimming Song, immortalised by his late wife Kate McGarrigle and sister Anna: ‘This summer I went swimming/ This summer I might have drowned /But I held my breath, kicked my feet / And I moved my arms around…’

Photograph by Kirsty McQuire

Home Truths

I wish I could be proud of where I come from. Really I do. To feel a glow of pride when presenting birth certificate or passport. To bond over my football team’s prowess abroad; to be inundated with friends’ visit requests. I never made an effort to conceal my origins, even during that make or break ordeal, Freshers’ Week. Whilst classmates trotted out associations with Sheffield or Leeds, or disingenuously claimed they hailed from ‘a small Yorkshire village,’ I held my head high and pronounced ‘Doncaster.’ Then I’d wait for it. The awkward silence, the distasteful curling of the lip, or worse- the mocking jibes, the good-humoured taunts.

There were those who’d never been further north than the proverbial Watford gap, who assumed Bronte country: rural, rugged and romantic. Some merely passed through via the East Coast Mainline and took in the slogan ‘Doncaster- a city in all but name.’ That my hometown lost out to Preston in its bid for city status in 2002 and remained just that, a town, was not nearly so disappointing as its misguided overreaching. Such hubris didn’t hinder the renaissance of the perfectly respectable higher education college as ‘Doncaster University Centre’.

The former mining town, once earmarked one of the 50 most disadvantaged areas in Britain, has no lack of ambition, but lacks proportion and direction in its regeneration. A paradox of deprivation is that with it comes excess- binge drinking, unemployment, teenage pregnancy, drug abuse and corruption. Doncaster MBC had just about recovered from the ‘Donnygate’ scandal that prefigured the Westminster expenses furore by a decade, when its ‘Discover the Spirit’ brand came crashing down with the revelation of inadequate children’s services and the fall-out surrounding the Edlington torture case. Having been to school in Edlington, I thought it couldn’t get much worse than learning my former comprehensive had been razed to the ground; I was wrong.

However, in referencing the incident as pre-election ammunition against a beleaguered Labour government, David Cameron has effectively reduced Doncaster to a byword for Broken Britain. His over-simplified, blanket indictment of distinct and complex social issues, particular to their cultural and economic context, does nothing but stigmatise. It overlooks the 2007 flood spirit; the sixth forms achieving over 50% A/B A-level grades. It bequeaths apathy and shame to communities starved of industry, investment and opportunity.

It’s easy to play the ex-pat critic. Yet we have a collective responsibility to the reputation and the representation of our towns- after all, someone calls them home.