Happy February everyone. I’d love you to read my latest newsletter:
I wrote this blog post for Bristol Life of Breath Project, so am now posting it here. I’m very proud of the work that a group of us did in primary schools in early 2019. I’m using some of the ideas we experimented with in some new workshops I’m devising for GP Dr Sarah Temple and her company Ehcap. Her work on emotion coaching for parents and children helps a great deal of people and I’m proud to be part of the development of this too.
Panel on Aging, 2nd February 2018
Dagmar Wilhelm @UWE invited me to run a panel on Aging at her conference Vulnerability, Exclusion and Domination at The Watershed. Hazel Winter performed some of her poems, “Menopause”, “My hair is thinning at the front”, and “Facing up to 50” from her book, ‘I’m Scared of the Pig on the City Farm’, and in doing so adding some rock and roll to the panel. Dr Joanna Cross delivered a fascinating talk, looking at the theme from her perspective as Gerontologist. I loved Jo’s observations about ‘extra-normative’ women Christine Keeler and fictional character Edna in Sandford’s play “Edna the Inebriate Woman” (Sandford is known well for authoring ‘Cathy Come Home’ directed by Ken Loach).
In my own investigation (so far) of getting older, of aging, of grappling hormonal changes, navigating a divorce and having a 50th birthday, I’ve found a seam of creativity – I’ve been writing and creating a lot of work, which has been helpful to me. This includes the first draft of a graphic novel, and before that the play Silva Lining’s Care Plan, which is based on real carer diaries and addresses what care, especially of the elderly, really is.
Elderly. Elder… ok so what’s this idea of being an elder… when does that happen? Does initiation into it have to be rocky and tricky?
Should we just ‘think young and keep smiling’ as a woman in a café recommended me last week?
In the words of Sharon Blackie who writes in her book ‘If Women Rose Rooted”
“Becoming elder begins at menopause, an entire journey all of its own: a biological, spiritual and emotional rite of passage whose impact is often underrated. Menopause is not a medical condition, it is an earthquake, shaking us to our deepest foundations, wiping out the edifices we’ve so carefully constructed on what we once imagined to be the solid ground of our life. Menopause hacks us open….
The relinquishing of identification with fertility, youth, and motherhood… entails a time of deep grieving. Sometimes we clutch to all that is vanishing, unable or unwilling to learn to love our beautiful silver or white hair, to live comfortably with our new wrinkles…. Sometimes we refuse it, postponing the inevitable with hormone therapy and hair dye; It seems like the harshest and loneliest of all lessons, in this society where elderhood is so little valued.”
So I ask the question:
- Is there a safe place to remove masks and be vulnerable enough to talk about these changes? Quick answer: I am in a private Facebook group with old university friends, which does provide this in part.
- My second question – is there a way to reclaim the place of elder in our society?
Three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, @peacedirect and Oxford Research Group founder, Scilla Elworthy says – “Post-menopausal energy emerges when we suddenly become invisible… it was incredibly liberating. Your energy becomes your own instead of thinking all the time about who is looking at you, who might desire you.’
She also talks about Wrath. “Wrath is different from rage… it carries an urgent instruction about what needs to happen.”. There can be much power in the wrath of an elder. She talks of how ‘Elderhood is a huge under tapped resource’.
One of the things I did in the panel was invite people to write a letter to their ‘getting older selves’. Quite a few people read their letters out and some were feeling more private, which was fine too. I always love hearing what people have created and what they might have realised about themselves in sessions like this. One UWE lecturer said she would like to use a similar exercise with her students. She called the exercise disruptive – in a positive way. I take that as a big complement.
Thanks to Dagmar, Hazel, Jo, and thanks to our audience, for listening and contributing to the session.
Hazel Winter Hazel has spent 30 years playing in guitar bands including Bristol’s Blue Aeroplanes and has released four critically acclaimed solo albums on her own Death Row Bride label. She has been produced by John Parish and Adrian Utley (Portishead), and has played in Utley’s guitar orchestra with conductor Charles Hazelwood. Hazel is going to perform from her first book of poetry, ‘I’m Scared of the Pig on the City Farm’ .
Dr Joanna Cross moved to Somerset in 2000 to look after her mother who had vascular dementia, and studied at the same time after working as a drama teacher in East London. She has a doctorate in Gerontology (“Truth to the Materiality of Later Life: the Significance of the Aesthetic for the Support of Older People” 2015). Her current aspiration is to develop new ways of understanding and communicating respect for cultural diversity in later life via the performing arts. She is an equity member and did work for Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.
Elspeth Penny is a theatre/arts and health practitioner with www2buproductions.org. Recently funded by Arts Council England, she wrote and directed Silva Lining’s Care Plan, a play about carers and dementia, a collaboration with University of Nottingham. She runs many arts and health projects with organisations such as Somerset County Council, Nailsea Town Council (Letter to My Grandchild), schools, WECIL and Life of Breath project www.lifeofbreath.org. She is currently creating an online course exploring identity and change, particularly in that ‘getting older’ space.
Vulnerability, Exclusion and Domination. A conference in conjunction with a performance of “Woman One” a monologue bsed on Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Monologue”With the kind support of Hypatia (the Hypatia Diversity Project Grant) and Social Science in the City, UWE.
Photo by Miguel from Social Science in the City.
My 16 year-old son and I were invited by Anna Best to do an arts residency at The Mothership in Dorset at the end of October 2018. This is an account of that week.
We know that we will be doing some work together. We don’t know what we’ll be exploring exactly, and we’re given the freedom to not know. No result is expected – this is luxurious, even decadent, in the best possible way. We’re both at periods of life where there is transformation and change. He will leave home soon, maybe next year, maybe in two years, so I will be looking at what this means to me. I know I want to go deep into whatever I explore.
Practicalities first. We are staying in a studio overlooking a giant oak.
Anna’s beans are drying on one of the shelves:
We have a compost loo which we’ll share with other people, there is no internet. Chris is next door with Simone the dog. We have a vast landscape to wonder in, including a disused railway line. Bridport is 20 minutes drive away and there’s everything we need there, including food shops, pubs and cafes. I’ve brought most of what we need anyway. There are other rural local produce shops and pubs nearby, and it’s not so far from the sea. I pour over maps to get my bearings as I don’t know the area at all. We are near Powerstock, not far from Bridport, and oddly close to places we used to go when we lived in Devon, such as Lyme Regis.
We will present our work at a showing for Force 8 on Friday, 5 days into our residency. http://force8.org is “a creative collective of artists, writers, designers and musicians founded by Anna Best and Hester Schofield in 2016 to promote a culture of thinking and progressive dialogue through contemporary art that will inspire people in Bridport and the surrounding area.”
Where to start? There are many resources available to us: Resource 1. we have brought books. Some are his choice, some are mine.
Resource 2: a random selection of materials. The combination of them is in itself of interest to me. I’ve brought wood cutting tools, paper, inks made out of soil, he’s got threads, wool, knitting needles, an antique wooden milk crate full of materials including paints.
Resource 3: there is a lot of extraordinary nature outside, so our palette is full and there are endless textures and colours to find.
Resource 4: In our application for the residency, we started from a statement that Bede attributed to Plato – “Inside everything, there is a perfect form“ which I think he picked up from studying Ethics and Philosophy. Another way of putting this is that everything in this world is an imperfect representation of its perfect form.
Resource 5: In the summer we were in North Wales and my mother, sister, cousin, my children and I had walked to the beach for a swim. On the walk down, Bede made me a boat to hurl away into the sea, as it was my birthday. It was rainy and cold and it was the perfect thing to do. I have brought the photo of this.
Resource 6. Making letters to an aspect of self is my thing…. so I would like to do this. Writing letters to the breath every day makes it easier to catch the journey of the week in the writing – they somehow catch the nub of each day. They give the whole thing a slow paced rhythmic quality.
The first thing I do is ditch any idea of a plan, or a list or any tightening around my waist. I do keep looking out to check Bede is ok though….
Watching your mother go into a deep creative zone in an almost off grid rural location and having no-one else about isn’t every son’s dream. And you might be amazed he actually came at all. Well so am I, and it isn’t all smooth…
“How long are we here for?” he says on day 2, impatiently.
“Seven days” I say.
“But what exactly are we doing here?”
“Making things, I don’t know, it doesn’t matter. Just making art. You know that. You wanted to come!”
” I don’t want to do an arts project, he says. I want to be at home.”
And there was the ‘You’re so deep mum’. It wasn’t a complement.
‘Yes, I am.’ I say, simply and get on with sewing fragments of text onto a piece of paper.
After that he settles in, or just gives in and finds what this is about for him. Unstructured time, un-led… no one is telling us what to do and there really aren’t many people around… all this is fine. It’s such a contrast to the stitched up quality and quantity of time in the rest of life… school, jobs, volunteering, walks, Duke of Edinburgh, Ten Tors, and so on. There is certainly no manual of how to go about making a piece of work here. Physically and in atmosphere, the place is remarkably like the farm we were lucky to be able to live on in mid Devon for eight years, before we moved to North Somerset.
I offer to give him structure, which he refuses, but I throw out a few lines in case he wanted to catch them. Such as a quote I’d been told at a wedding the day before we’d left. “When you change the things you notice, the things you notice change.” This goes down surprisingly well.
But if we’re open to noticing the perfect form of everything, then which parts of what we encounter will get sketched onto my notepad, or scratched into something he is making? What form will we use to pull it into a piece of work? Will we even make a piece of work together?
The time we have at The Mothership is during the week of the end of October, our Halloween; this was once seen as the thirteenth month. I read about October and November in Ian Siddons Heginworth’s book ‘Environmental Arts Therapy and The Tree of Life, A monthly guide for your soul’s journey on this beautiful earth.’ I read slowly as I like to let the thoughts of writers that I like seep through me, not just over me… though perhaps I’m just slow, and it’s my way of justifying it. His words make more sense to me whilst in this landscape than they would have done at home. You might say they enter me as much as the surroundings, the elements, the fierce winds on our last night there.
We don’t garden as we’d thought we would, so it is more about the landscape, the stories, the fire, the materials we find in these places. We visit the sea and the fossil cliffs.
We have walks in the forest next to the house, alone and together in various changing lights.
”I’m blowing through the elder” he says. ‘It’s pithy inside. You can easily remove the pith”. He’s carved out holes and blows the top, I hear it make a trembling airy sound. Then he shaves a bit more, and the sound disappears. That’s perfect, I think. It’s a silent recorder. And just then steam shoots out of a log.”
Everyone who walks into the space or we come upon becomes part of the work. The stories of everyone who we talk to, influence us or are woven in. The theme seems to be around cuts, threads, sewing up, tracks, circles. A saying goodbye, and a what next? Quite often words elude me, and I confuse words with others – he’s quick to point it out. That’s creative brain at work. He’s got to write an application to a school. It irritates me to have to get that bit of my brain out (the left hemisphere), but of course I’m going to help. I don’t want him to leave home just yet, yet if that’s what he needs, that must happen. We go to an internet cafe to do it.
So in the end how do you choose the right thing to put into this grand sketch of a mother-son moment in time, and what to leave out? Perspective is necessary, to distinguish between the irrelevant details and if no-one else is there to do it, eg a dramaturg, a work partner, it takes longer. I’m already making excuses for the unformed quality of my work. Yet there’s a joy in staying as free in ideas as possible for as long as possible. On Thursday night, I start to create something in script form. I am still pulling threads together when Hester and Anna arrive at 5 pm on Friday for the showing. Bede has lit a fire dish outside.
I haven’t expected it, but the making of objects, the formation of ideas, our creative journey becomes the main thread of the script. There is also something emerging about rising to the challenge of being an elder, in spite of not really wanting to be.
A fire dish. Stories. Everyone who is there tells a story, each one brings something new to the circle.
This is Bede’s story, though it’s changed and refined and perhaps got both more factually accurate and more poetic in retellings since. ‘If you cast your eye across the bay towards Plymouth, you can see Eddystone Lighthouse. Eddystone built his lighthouse out of wood and glass, and to show off how well built it, he decided to sleep over inside it, for the first night it after it was completed. And that night a great storm came, an unlikely storm, and swept it all away, and him with it. So I was on the sea, on the way to France, thinking of this story. I looked out of the horizon and I could see the world was round. You can’t get that perspective on land. We can make the land straight by building railways, but the sea will always be round. Railways were built across America, they cut off Buffalo paths. We westerners build roads, square buildings, straight lines…”
Bede also shows what he made… the silent elder recorder. A bamboo pen. A mini church door. A book bound in leather and filled with painted images: the images illustrate cell division. A thick knitted something which ‘has not become anything yet’, but then becomes a circle, a cowl. He tells a story around a fire dish. He composes a song.
I make a series of letters, in ink and red thread. Seven stories joined by breaths, stitches, insults, home truths. I then write a 24 minute script which is finding what it is.
What does Bede think about what we have made? He likes the fires and the stories but he doesn’t want to hear what I have written. Of course. But he doesn’t mind I’ve written it.
What do I think of what we have made? Perhaps I have made something out of the extraordinary ordinary – this place, the occasion, just having a week to play with. Or even something ordinary extraordinary? I like it when Anna says the studio looks like we’ve been living there for weeks – I suppose we have let ourselves get pretty messy at times. I hope I have not been sentimental, and I hope it gets people feeling something, but know I’ll need to do a lot of cutting.
When I read my words, I see that my metaphors are thick and deep, where as Bede’s thoughts are so clear, even if not simple. Does this make him a better artist than me? I know the detail can confuse the whole, and I need time to work out which is which.
What medium should this writing end up as, I ask at the showing. I’m not so sure yet. Theatre? Radio? Novellette? Long poem? Hester suggests it’s radio, it’s so internal. “You really need to stop and listen to the words, the words are enough in themselves.” I agree, and think that the character called Time could blossom if on radio. Hester sees it as a working through, an interpretation of a dream, or the unconscious, through referencing the every day. Anna says that though some of the references are familiar (she’s lived her for some time, and visited since a child), that this doesn’t make it dull. Knowing a place for years, seeing it through seasons and periods of life, seeing the same thing again and again just makes it richer, deeper, and hearing about it from different perspectives is part of that depth.
Yes – life gives everything we need. When you change the things you notice, the things you notice change.
I ask Hester and Anna to create their own letters to the breath which they do, speedily. I hang them next to my letters, at the window overlooking the oak tree.
Then they tell their own stories beside the fire. Both pick up on themes and leave something new to this story. We blow breaths to each other and receive them back and then go back to our lives.
This whole thing is a walk through something, the 13thmonth, a ritual, a song. It feels as though it touched something honest and true, but I can’t yet understand it – how could I?
I look up my notes of a workshop I went to the week before the residency, about building your dream idea. One of the exercises is a visualisation. I read my account of the visualisation – my vision if you like: it’s about a tall lighthouse by the sea, I am at the top of it talking to a big crowd, helping millions of them see differently. Let’s hope that vision doesn’t get dashed into the sea, I’ll have to build it with better materials than Eddyson used.
My youngest son comes for the last day, after his trip to London where he spent time with my mother. He’s been to the holocaust exhibition at The Imperial War Museum and played Fortnight with his cousin. I encourage him to create something. This is what he makes:
“So for now the cycle is ending…. Down by the water’s edge, our ship awaits” writes Ian Siddons Heginworth
Thank you to:
The Mothership and Anna
Ian Siddons Heginworth; Environmental Arts Therapy and The Tree of Life, A monthly guide for your soul’s journey on this beautiful earth’
Hester, for recommending ‘If Women Rose Rooted: A journey to Authenticity and Belonging’ by Sharon Blackie, which I’ve been reading since.
Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannia
The Viking I met at Adele and Nic’s wedding.
Eggardon Hill, which we could see each day, and our friends at 3CaneWhale whose beautiful song ‘Eggardon Hill’, sent little ripples to us throughout the week.
My colleague Dr Alice Malpass has written a blog about our Being Human event at the Arnolfini in November 2017: it’s on the Life of Breath website: https://lifeofbreath.org/2018/01/gasp-making-breathlessness-less-invisible-through-the-creative-arts/.
Thanks for watching.
Spring 2015, I got the go-ahead to organise a caving trip for a class of year 5 and 6 children, followed by a day workshop – and this workshop was to be something creative, which the children would benefit from. Blagdon school chose to have a day of poetry writing for the class.
The trip was set for June 8th. A coach relayed children to the caves: there were four expeditions that day at Burrington Combe.
We had to climb into overalls, wear hard hats and belts, and have our safety talk.
Walking to Goatchurch Cavern, we heard stories along the way from Rachel and Andy Sparrow and Andy Chamberlain, of skulls found in Aveline’s Hole, geology, geography, pre-history and the Victorian visitors who paid at the entrance and went caving with heavy wet through old hemp rope, in long skirts and cloth caps.
A couple of feet at a time, we went down the giant staircase, down keyhole shaped passages and shallow descending sandy slopes, in the ambient temperature which remains the same in summer and winter. We saw cave spiders and lesser horse-shoe bats. 2015 became irrelevant – time was many layered and it was hard to keep sense of minutes going by.
Andy Chamberlain cracked jokes all the way around the cave and told us extraordinary geological facts, so nobody thought of even getting scared.
I collected words along the way that the instructors and the children came up with, and wrote them all down in the dark on a dirty scrap of paper:
Down the badger pit. Bead of calcite. Brightening the cave with all their shininess. Limestone, slightly acidic water. A fractal waterfall. Boney vegetable smell. It smells like the cupboard in my bedroom. Volcanic ash, like peanut butter. The Drunkard’s alley. Scrunched. Fraught.
When I got home I put the words down on a giant piece of card.
In the workshop we cut up the words, wrote some more and cut those up too.
We hung words on giant stalactite shaped pieces of paper…
… and played with words, phrases and points of view.
The children wrote over thirty poems, many with illustrations. They worked hard, shared ideas and concentrated. I tried to help each child individually, though could have done with another day, but the children finished off their poems in class over the following week. Some of the children came up to me, all buzzing, in the playground to tell me that they had been working on their poems.
The main thing I liked in the workshop and in the poems themselves is the detail that the children observed, felt and heard on their caving trip – it comes out in their choice of words. I also liked how clear it was that the experience had ignited their imaginations and how they were able to convey their own personal experiences, including a fair bit of fear in some cases. It’s great that the poems were written from different points of view – for example from the point of view of a bat, a girl, a storyteller and a cave…
There was an acrostic poem…
and some great pictures:
The poems will go in the Time Capsule which I’ll be doing next term. The capsule will be filled up with letters and other goodies, ready to be placed in the school attic and to be opened in 25 years time.
Thank you to Stuart Bardsley at Discovering Blackdown Project for funding and supporting this project, to the excellent caving instructors and to the teachers and staff at Blagdon who made all this possible.
🙂 “Thanks ever so much for arranging everything for this trip Elspeth. I know the children have had a great time working on this during this term.” Anne Harrison at Blagdon school.
All those put your hands up if you bought books online in the last week.
Now all those put your hands up who bought books in a bookshop.
Let’s go back in time. 1978 – the North East, and I was ten. The picture you may have in your head now if you’re a Southerner may be of grim, cold, windy tragic scenes: a second cousin of mine once said he felt sorry for me because I didn’t come from London. Well, it really wasn’t too painful to be brought up there, that is when they let me out of the broom cupboard. The elders of my tribe taught me how to create warmth, and what made it even less painful was that I was brought up in a bookshop.
Back to 2014. I am witnessing this show of hands in an audience listening to a panel – ‘What Future for Words’ – introduced by Vikki Heywood, Chair of the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value. I put my hand up for both.
‘Slightly more people in the room’, Vikki says, put their hands up for the bookshop one. ‘Perhaps’, she adds.
To put this in context, this is Cheltenham Literature Festival, where people have chosen to attend in order to explore words and books, so it doesn’t represent a random cross-section of the British public.
I am reminded that one of my own children proudly told his head teacher last week that he wouldn’t be buying the book at the school book sale even though he desperately wanted it, because he could get it cheaper online. Ouch.
The question that these hands in the air are making me ask is, what exactly is it that we risk losing if bookshops or hard copies of books disappear?
Newcastle in the 80’s. It was a survival strategy of mine to spend as much time as possible in the bookshop. I’d never have seen my real live mum in the flesh, or got fed, if I hadn’t gone there.
Home did not have any in-date food in the fridge and was sometimes not very tidy and was quite often filled with pale skinned spotty goths and dope smoking teenagers.
I liked them, they taught me how to smoke, and they seemed to think I wasn’t too irritating but I knew even then that they were into a little bit too grown up kind of stuff for me to be hanging out with them all the time.
At the shop, reference books became my grandparents, poetry books became my well-stroked pets, novels my big sisters, art books gave me my special treats and cookery books read me bedtime stories. It was warm (the heating was on, unlike at home) and it smelt of Italian coffee.
Sometimes the bookshop spilt into home life. My siblings and I had a joke that when Mum wanted to say something, like ‘Time you knew about sex’… she’d just casually leave ‘the latest’ book hanging out on the kitchen table at home for us to find.
The Bookhouse was an independent bookshop with a coffee bar. We thought we were terribly original and that it was before anyone else in the UK had thought of that combination, which might be true. The Bookhouse was my very own mother’s shop. It was around that time I copied my brothers and sister and started to call her Iris: ‘I don’t want to be called Mum when I’m 77 years old,’ she said.
Whilst I was attending my father’s wedding and getting to know a new bunch of step siblings, and – more importantly – discovering my sister’s Lou Reed and Bowie records (which she had stolen from our eldest brother), Iris was busy. Somewhere or other she was persuading a bank to give her a loan, choosing the location (13 Ridley Place… spooky since my dad had married Mrs Ridley), shelving out two floors of the shell of the shop, then ordering the books.
Her dad – a Geordie grocer – sat on the sidelines, as he died slowly of a smoking related lung disease, warning her gloomily that she probably wouldn’t succeed. She was a single mum – not that we used that phrase – and a feminist, and we knew that his words just fuelled her resolve.
When the first book orders were delivered, a team of us slid knives into the tape holding the boxes together and opened them up one by one. Oh for that unmistakable inviting fragrance of a box of brand new books. The silky smoothness of a quality hard-back cover. The sensation and thrill of sliding each volume out, carefully so as not to damage it, holding each one as though it were a new-born baby, checking it for eyes, ears, nose, mouth and then working out which section to put it in.
They might well have been called worlds: worlds of ideas, for that’s what each one was, and the whole lot together on the shelves was a universe, and I greedily wanted to read them all.
My daily routine, once shop life started, was to walk there after school, or get on the Newcastle Metro, once that was installed, and get out at Haymarket. When I arrived in my creased school uniform, with half my school dinner down my front and my homework in my bag, Iris would suggest I got myself a hot chocolate in the coffee bar and do my homework there.
Then she’d open the till and give me a fiver to get garlic chicken from M&S, maybe also enough for my brothers if they were around, because she’d always stay late and I’d be being helpful if I could put it in the oven, and it would be extra brilliant if I’d walk the dog.
She had to switch off the coffee machines in the coffee bar, and count the takings at the end of the day and tot them all up each week (takings ranged widely and often determined our family mood for the week), and sort the stock cards, when we had that system.
If I resisted buying joss sticks or retro hats from the Handyside Arcade with some of the money, I might manage to get chocolate éclairs or a lemon tart for pudding.
Working at The Bookhouse on Saturdays and holidays from the age of ten was cool, and getting paid in Collins English dictionaries or play scripts or postcards, even cooler. Sometimes I made chocolate brownies or dodgy Florentines to sell in the coffee bar. Occasionally they were good enough to sell.
Iris even let me select books from the reps: ‘Just get any that you think look interesting’, she’d say. How exciting was that? I got to order any book I felt like, as well as choosing what we’d have for supper, aged 12!
Spotting shop-lifters was an essential part of working on the till, and I developed a nasty glare for anyone I thought might EVEN BE THINKING ABOUT IT. This studying also gave me quite good lessons – I am ashamed to say – for my own subsequent (brief, I hasten to add) phase of shop-lifting nasty eighties earrings (from chain stores, never independents… that was my questionable moral code) which I didn’t need or even want that much, along with a very naughty friend.
Sorry shops, I would now pay you back if I thought you still existed. Guilt. Shame.
There was a host of staff in the shop – far too many to be economical – including Gran and our rocking horse in the children’s section (the horse got the highest wages of any of us) and Aunty Ruth and sometimes my friend Didi. Beth Kessler, Mum’s choral singing friend, and Elizabeth Hammill, who went on to set up Seven Stories, the children’s book centre in Newcastle, were also there from the beginning.
Neil Astley had free rein in the poetry section, which was tucked up on the shelved section on the left side under the stairs. Neil could often be spotted at our house drinking wine, planning and discussing with my mother how to bring to the attention of the reader the slim volumes (obscure volumes as I saw them at the time), but which in fact comprised a huge collection of modern international poetry which deserved an audience. This was in the years that he was setting up Bloodaxe Books, cutting and pasting cover design in the kitchen of his flat.
Sometimes there were two people working in the coffee bar, down the spiral staircase, and also Mick, the guitarist on Saturdays. We had visitors too – illustrators like Michael Foreman and Colin McNaughton drawing wicked monster and witch pictures for kids (I still have some).
Royal Shakespeare actors dropped in to recite works such as Beowulf – in between sips of mulled wine – on winter evenings. There was a bunch of us, (including – most exciting for me – the boy I had the hots for) who often visited after we’d been to the People’s Youth Theatre, on a Saturday morning.
Reams of Newcastle Literary Festival writers and opera singers came back to our house for parties. At least that’s how I remember it. God knows how my mother did it all. She was even on Woman’s Hour once for winning Young Firm of the Year, awarded by the Newcastle Advertiser. Agony to listen to your mum talk on the radio when you’re 16, but in retrospect, that’s not a bad accolade is it? Especially for running a shop, which never really made quite enough money.
As A.L. Kennedy says at Cheltenham: “If money becomes the sole purpose for words, it becomes bit depressing”. Iris was not, you can fairly say, into selling words for the sole purpose of making money.
Our Bookhouse got sold ten years later for not very much, as an ongoing concern, which really is an unfortunate phrase. It didn’t survive that chain – Waterstones – arriving in town and setting itself up in Northumberland Street, where there must have been an astronomical rent, but, as we’d put it, ‘Everybody is always walking past, so they just drop in’, unlike the Bookhouse which suffered from just-off-the-high-street syndrome.
I truly hoped that some of the books that were still hanging out on the shelves unsold were not ones that I had ordered, randomly, in those early days, but I suspect quite a lot of them were.
For a long time, I would not go into a Waterstones anywhere, out of loyalty to our shop. Iris didn’t ever ask me to have this loyalty. I even sent unfair sour glares (learned from the shoplifting spying) to the staff in there, especially if they’d opportunely side-stepped from our shop. It’s odd to me that we are all now hoping that the chain won’t go bust. Waterstones is now one of the rare surviving bookshops.
The longest I’ve spent in a bookshop for years is at Cheltenham Literary Festival, and that isn’t even a bookshop, it’s a marquee. It’s filled with the books by the writers giving talks, the public who are listening to those talks, and the writers signing the books, which they’re giving their talks about. What a party again! I have indescribable urges to join in, but I don’t quite know how to not be part of the team organizing the event and whipping the writers off for a meal or a drink afterwards.
What happened to my own regular bookshop browsing habit? Whilst having those delights called very young kids, who have tendencies to rip out pages from books then vomit all over what is remaining, I tried to make sure I was a good book Mum. I gathered enough books to feed their hungry souls, read to them as soon as they could sit up (in my womb) and then just left them to rip out pages and vomit as much as they liked.
We were living in deep rural Devon in a seventeenth century kind of way, where it was hard to get a proper radio signal, and the ghosts spoke more loudly than my husband, and books made a contribution to keep me in modernish times. I hardly noticed bookshops then, because I hardly noticed the outside world at all in that time, but when I did sit up and notice, all the bookshops had started to close. The one in our nearest town – Tiverton – closed suddenly, before I’d even been in it. The person who pointed it out to me, was Iris.
Now I’m a bit more normal, living a bit less of a sheltered existence. I actually have neighbours, and there are cities quite nearby and in those cities there are bookshops though some of them only have remainders, the cheap books that publishers want to sell off. If I have time, I will give myself fifteen minutes to check over the titles and buy something. I still have some getting back in the groove to do. After all there is so much to know and follow nowadays if you’re interested in words, ideas and communication. How can you be expert of digital media, of film, music and art and dance and children and school and housework and earning money and looking presentable and try to eat the food in the fridge in time, then read regular papers and novels too?
There have been a few conferences which work has taken me to… such as Sheffield Documentary Festival, Cinekid in Amsterdam, Kidscreen in New York, Vision in Bristol. Fast paced adrenalin vehicles for pitching, selling and flirting. The focus is often multi platform: words and ideas across media. Telling stories over the internet, TV and on mobile devices.
This is my first visit to Cheltenham Literary Festival and to a literary festival at all since 1986. I am gate-crashing Iris and Aunty Ruth’s annual expedition, and they’ve been really kind taking me out for lunches. The festival is gentle, thoughtful, relaxed. It’s reminded me of the importance to put away your mobile phone and forget about text messages, slow your pace and read words in print, and then let the thoughts wonder.
At the ‘What Future for Words’? debate which I attend, the debate has the feeling of scratching the surface of something enormous. I come home wanting to know more about all the panelists: Amereh Saleh, a spoken word artist who has a strong online presence; the shrewd, confident writer A. L. Kennedy, Rebecca Levene who is a cross-platform writer and the publisher Gail Rebuck. I find them all on Twitter, and I also look up The Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value.
The question of what exactly is it that we risk losing if bookshops or even books disappear has taken quite a bit of answering, and I haven’t covered all the points by any means. The bookshop I was brought up in might have parented me, but it didn’t change my nappies and it didn’t give me hugs. However, the people in and around the bookshop, including the customers, did give me hugs, or at least warmth. Luckily by the time I was 10 I was out of nappies, so they didn’t have to do that too.
For me then, it’s the people in a bookshop that makes a bookshop. It the talking about a book, enthusing, knowing about the book you’re looking for, sharing, giving advice, suggesting, looking together for an author or a title. Online does do that, but it’s not quite the same when there isn’t another human being in front of you, is it? It’s a need I don’t think I am alone in having…. I need that sharing, and that energy. The same energy and need attracts us to live comedy and live music and brilliant theatre, doesn’t it? Otherwise we’d all just sit at home in front of our screens right?
The Bookhouse was a place where a bunch of Northern people could explore a little bit about who they were, for a decade. It was a place where artists, even Southern artists visited and shared their ware. It was a place for creative folk or just any folk to get a book and have a coffee, have a giggle or feel sad, just something human…. and then get on with the rest of their lives. For me, as a teenage bookseller, there was the tantalizing mystery and excitement behind the question of which book would a customer buy? Was it for them or was it a present? It’s the customer, and the future reader that eventually gives a book its breath.
Iris doesn’t sell books anymore, but my sister and I reckon she singlehandedly props up bookshops all over England with the amount she buys, and it’s great visiting her house for a weekend: each time there’s a month or two of fascinating material to get through.
My own children feast on library books, spend their earnings or savings on books and read anything else they can get their hands on in their spare time… I have to limit it in order to get a conversation out of them, and it has to be juggled with playing Terraria and Minecraft.
It feels important to Tweet about this after the festival. I want to say I was brought up in a bookshop, but Twitter doesn’t let me have enough words to say why this has any relevance at all. Then it crosses my mind (ok, I admit, I am a bit behind everyone else) that I can tweet a link to a blog post. Brilliant. This is what I will do. I spot one of the battered dictionaries that I now prop my laptop on so that I don’t get neck ache when typing – ‘The Collins Dictionary of the English Language’. I pull it out, and find on the first page an inscription in it in spangly young writing.
In payment for working in the Bookhouse.”
You could say – couldn’t you – that my words literally came from the Bookhouse and are still literally propped up by the Bookhouse.
The morning that we leave, we finish off an enormous breakfast at the hotel. It’s Mum’s – oops, I mean Iris’s 77th birthday.
What do Ruth and I give her?
PT (Postscript Tweet)…
Amereh Saleh @Voiceofthepoets has retweeted it! Yay! I now feel a little bit part of it all again.
Any ideas or thoughts this article has prompted in you? I’d love to know.