Handing out words

The Adventurer Part 2: The Quiet Space Between

Well, January has crashed into being with all the usual fears and concerns: money, weight loss, what-the-hell-am-I-doing-with-my-life worries. Once again, it’s the season in which we make arbitrary promises to ourselves, determined that this time we will keep them, and within a fortnight we have reverted back to our regular set of impenetrable failures.

Already, in the eight days since 2018 reared its ugly head and peered rheumily about at the world, a whole series of terrible and, let’s face it, thoroughly unhelpful questions have been asked of me:

  • Is it worth it, this freelancing thing, given how stressful it is to deal with money?
  • Should I just get ‘a real job’ like ‘everybody else’?
  • Am I failing?

I suppose I am lucky in that I spend a great deal of my time with other artistic types; writers (of all forms), artists, producers, actors, directors, musicians and performers all seem to suffer these same crippling terrors on a rotating basis and none of these monsters is the kind you just ‘get used to’. Every time they return, they are just as terrible as before, and it doesn’t help that our attitude to artists in the UK is so poor.

So, for my own sake and general laughs, let’s unpick this series of terrors and try to understand them for what they are. If we can.

Is it worth it, this freelancing thing?

Depends what you value, I guess. Ever since I was extremely young, my father has drilled into me a key message which, for better or worse, I took very seriously. Often frustrated and stressed in a high-responsibility position, Dad worked long hours and often had to commute abroad for his job. In his brief moments of respite, he said to me:

Money does not make you happy. Even if all it pays for is the bills, do something that you love.

Now in his defence, he may not have meant for me to completely turn my back on any form of conventional career and become an impoverished artist, but in my defence, three of his four children have all had the same idea and done just that. Throughout my entire life, I think my options have been writer or misery. I am a writer to my very core, its in my blood and bones and trying to beat it out of me will only kill me. I had no choice but to try. If I hadn’t, each and every day would have felt like cold, hard oblivion. In fact, for a while, I did try. I trained to teach and, for the first year or so, loved it, but the long hours, the tiredness, the stress and guilt all ate into my writing time and, in the end, I couldn’t cope with not writing. Having removed myself from an educational environment that, for reasons of national cuts, a crisis in teacher numbers and a thoroughly reductive curriculum, limit my creativity and played havoc with my mental health, I am now much happier. I am able to organise my own work, develop projects that appeal to me and find time to write. I still supply teach occasionally, but even that is significantly less stressful than full-time teaching. All in all, it was an extremely good decision for me.

Money, though, that’s an issue. And the main reason it is an issue is the difficulty in persuading organisations I work for to pay me on time. According to the law, payment should be made to a contracted worker no more than thirty days after request for payment has been submitted. Thirty days, when you don’t know where your next pay might be coming from, is still a really long time, so when that payment doesn’t get processed, is stuck, or has to go through an utterly inefficient system, this can cause immense stress. I have, before, not received payment for a job for twice the allocated length of time, meaning it was two months after the fact that I received the funds. How can I—not the most effective budgeter at the best of times—plan for that? Technically, I am entitled to charge a late fee for this, but this requires me to approach the organisation (for whom I did, in fact, thoroughly enjoy working), and make such a demand. No one will do this for me. As someone who suffers with anxiety, making this move causes unbelievable levels of stress and I worry heartily about burning bridges. I don’t want to cut myself off from future work, but I do need to be paid on time.

Taxes are another difficulty. The entirety of our education system gears us towards going into work where tax, NI and other such business is dealt with before our funds get to us, where our salary comes to us on a regular basis and we do not need to worry about it being late. I was never taught to write an invoice, no one ever talked me through submitting my tax return or the consequences of making small mistakes in this field. It’s all very well if you can afford an accountant, but I’m a writer. I can’t. Mistakes in this field are costly, and you only learn from them after they have set fire to your bank account and thoroughly obliterated any possibility of sleep for the next month and a half.

And even this is not as irritating as the constant barrage of frustrating requests that I receive as an artist. ‘Can I do this job for free?’ ‘I won’t be paid for this job but it’s GREAT exposure!’ ‘I should approach this organisation any time I want a REAL job.’ Sometimes, I’m offered a really reasonable fee to do a job halfway across the country, for which I will receive no compensation for travel, thus my entire fee will be taken up with paying for travel and all I will end up with is another crumpled train ticket at the bottom of my purse. People want my work, but they don’t want to pay for it. Apparently, as an artist, I should love what I do, and my passion alone should be enough to pay my rent, heat my flat and put food in my belly. Apparently, artists do not need sustenance like real people, we just need a pat on the back and we’ll be fine. Life will be great because, even though we are a week away from losing our homes, cannot afford central heating and have lived off pot-noodles for the last year, we love what we do.

It has become more and more apparent to me over the last two years that society punishes the unconventional. That might seem like an obvious thing to say, but it spends a lot of time pretending that it doesn’t. Advertising encourages us to ‘stand out’, ‘be different’, ‘make our own rules’ and yet it only encourages us to do this within certain parameters, and only at face value. Be different, but only by a certain percentage, stand out, but not too far, make your own rules, but only so far as they fit in with the ones we already have.

So, is it worth it? Yes, but it’s still really, really hard and I have very few allies outside of my sphere of other artists.

Should I just get a ‘real job’?

Short answer? I have a real job. I have a job in which I write to and for people. I produce things that make people laugh, cry, shudder. I enthuse groups of youngsters who might not have had the confidence to speak a single word in class before they read that poem they just wrote. I create, I engage, I challenge. I love what I do. I get paid pittance, but at the end of each day, what I have made, delivered or facilitated has value beyond the material. It has a spiritual, psychological, human value that reminds us that our brains need more than food and sleep.

Why is my job less real than the suited banker who spends the working day filling his own pockets by exploiting those more impoverished than himself? Why is my job less real than the CEOs and Managers whose organisations are responsible for dodging tax, rewarding themselves with huge raises whilst paying their workers as little as legally possible?

I have a real job. One that values people, tailors itself to suit its consumers and doesn’t exploit anyone. (except possibly, myself, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles).

So please stop asking. Or at least, if you do ask, be aware that I have based the entirety of my identity on developing an excellent control of the English Language and I will use this to metaphorically skin you alive in front of everyone for asking such a ridiculous and clichéd question.

You have been warned.

Am I failing?

Probably. I feel like I’m failing all the time. I haven’t yet found an agent for my book (never mind that the book is not finished and I haven’t sent it out yet). My poetry collection hasn’t yet taken over the world (it came out last September, there’s time) and I’ve just been hit with a tax bill so enormous I am genuinely considering selling my teeth in order to pay it off.

I feel constantly as if I am a failure. There is nothing more disarming than being aware that I am about a disaster and a half away from total destitution and to be reminded, constantly, that I am here by choice even though I’m smart enough to be earning loadsa money by now.

I grew up thinking that everyone had a passion, something which was just as vital to their survival as oxygen, that they couldn’t give up because if they did, the world would lose all its colour. It took a while before I realised that not everyone is like this and that I am, arguably, just unlucky in that sense.

I could well be earning loadsa money by now, in a job that made me want to claw out my own eyes. I would plod onto the train, my feet marching to the same tattoo as hundreds of others, motor through my day in a kind of anaesthetised autopilot and then plod home. Likely (and I know this, because I have been here before), I would feel so little enthusiasm for life that I would spend most of my free time sleeping. Waking up would involve that terrible, crashing reminder of my own utter insignificance and it would take every ounce of my energy and shattered self-worth to drag myself into another day.

I’m not a writer by choice. I’m a writer because if I don’t write, I’ll explode.

And it’s alright to be a writer if I’m a success. If I publish several bestselling books, get a couple made into films, go on tours, get into the windows of bookshops, I’m a virtue and an asset to society. But while I struggle to make ends meet, write obscure little books that touch only a few scattered souls, scavenge for work under every rubbish heap in order to fund my need to write, I am a leech and a nuisance. I should ‘get a real job’.

We don’t permit our artists to fail, even though failure is what makes an artist. We feel like we’re failing because we are made to feel ashamed of our failures. No one ever sees them. The public see our bestsellers, our finished novels, our developed shows, or successful interviews. They don’t see the novel that still hasn’t been written after ten years, the seventeen notebooks packed with terrible poetry that it took to produce this single, sixty-page collection, the rejection letters, the sleepless nights, the phone calls to our parents apologising but we just need a little bit more money to help us.

And how does this translate downwards? Our youngsters do not want to take that risk. They opt for misery because misery is safe. At least it pays the bills on time. So our youngsters will join the plodding masses, unequipped against the onslaught of political deception and corporate control, voiceless against the constant manipulation and exploitation, oblivious to the delivery of our lives into the hands of destructive capitalism. There will be no artists to fight it. No voices in the dark to hold a candle to the truth. No one will take up that mantle because this is how we treat our artists.

If we do not pay them, respect them, value them and accept them regardless of their perceived ‘success’, we will not have any artists in the future. They will all have ‘real jobs’.

Not wanting to end on a negative note, I will finish simply by saying: in spite of all this, I am not done. Hard as it is, and much as I need to expunge my soul occasionally, I hope this blog post hits the hearts of other artists and reminds them they aren’t alone. We are necessary, though they don’t want us. They don’t want us because we expose their lies, question their motives, challenge their politics and force them to confront themselves. They build a culture in which we are on the fringes because that’s where they need us to be.

But artists have always succeeded in spite of this. We have always taken their dismissal, their judgement and their aggression as a challenge. We aren’t weak. So that ‘real job’ application you’re writing, because in a moment of vulnerability, someone got to you? Put it down. There’s work to be done.


The Adventurer Part 1: Dragons in our Hearts

My lack of blog posts over the last few months has been no reflection on my writing habits over the same period. In fact, I have been working diligently since August on a fantasy book, the first prose writing I have committed to in almost seven years, and I recently typed the last line of the first draft, which swept in at just under 110,000 words.

Yes, it was a marathon.

It is not the first novel I’ve completed, but it is the first of such a great length, and the first in which I have actively taken an idea – the notion of social empathy, or lack thereof – and deliberately transposed it into a fantastical setting in order to explore the effects of political manipulation on a frightened and angry populous.

That all makes it sound very sophisticated and lofty. At its essence, it is a book about dragons. And magic. And inter-dimensional travel. It was a lot of fun to write.

But I now find myself rather at a loss. Often, my writing is an exceptionally grounding influence in my life. When I am off in other worlds, I feel more rooted to this one. My ability to translate narratives from my own fictional worlds to my lived one, and vice versa, makes it a great deal easier for me to handle the chaos of living with any kind of perspective. (In fact, chaos is another major theme of the novel). But now I have finished the first draft. There is no more of it to write. There is a great deal more to do to it, of course. It must, eventually, be rewritten, reorganised, pulled to pieces, gutted, devoured and then reincarnated as something significantly better. I have plans already. My mind is still whirring away in the story, telling me all the things I have not yet managed to pack in, and pointing out all the painstaking details of the first draft that, it turns out, are utterly irrelevant.

I am trying very hard to listen to a piece of extremely sound advice: leave it for a month or so, and then go back when you have gained some distance.

It is an excellent piece of advice. I have given it myself so many hundreds of times as if it was the easiest instruction in the world to follow. Only now I feel like an astronaut floating free of a ship, my fingers inches from the lifeline, and a voice in my ear is saying, don’t grab it yet, you’re not ready. But I’m afraid that if I do not grab hold, dive back in immediately, I will float out into the terrible blackness and never be able to claw my way back.

Now, I’ve just read that sentence back to myself and thoroughly appreciate it for all its glorious melodrama, but the sentiment still stands. I was rooted in narrative, now the narrative needs time to sleep and my roots have come loose. I could blow over in the slightest of breezes. I could be washed downriver in the lightest of showers.

It’s strange how we seem to have evolved to become such narrative creatures. Even those of us who are not avid readers express ourselves through anecdote. We build the story of ourselves, around ourselves, to be dished out to those we trust. In fact, we may have several narratives. There is the one we tell our closest friends, the one we share at dinner parties with people we want to impress, the online narrative of selfies and hashtags that are only vaguely concealed lies, and there is the narrative we hold close, like a cup of poison, to our own hearts, as if terrified to spill any of it out. In my work with young people, it becomes increasingly clear to me those who are able to engage with their own and others’ narratives and those who are not. Almost to a child, those who have not built the language to develop their own narrative are angry, frustrated, destructive, bitter and lost. They are the ones who say ‘I feel sad’ when what they really mean is ‘I am desolate with loneliness and grief.’ They are the ones who say ‘I feel cross’ when what they mean is ‘a monster has stepped inside my soul and is driving it in any direction he likes’.

And now that, after such an intense immersion in a narrative that was both perfect escapism and powerfully embedded in my understanding of the real world, I have stepped back out into the air, noticed suddenly that winter is coming and the days are shorter, I feel panicked and lost. I want to clamber back inside the fort of my own story and hibernate there until the real world seems better again.

But now comes the difficult crux: the first draft of a story is a delight. You, as writer, are your only audience. It can be self-indulgent, full of bizarre and personal twists. It can be unplanned, plotless, directionless and playful. Yet, I am a writer by profession and, at some point, everything I write wants an audience. My ultimate aim is to publish my work. So now comes the arduous task of turning what was a journey embarked upon for delight, art and play, into a well-crafted and honed product. Because, sadly, like every other beautiful and meaningful thing, the art of narrative has been neatly and efficiently converted into profit. This is not so much the fault of publishing houses, many (if not all of whom) exist out of love and passion, wanting to provide a wide audience for good stories. Almost all the editors and agents I have met are strong, pure souls who love what they do and find purpose in nurturing narratives into full-blown successes. But as a writer, it is daunting to know that your story might be taken out of your hands and made into something it was not meant to be.

How do we stay true to our narratives when there exists such a pressure on them to be something specific, something that they may not wish to be?

This is true of the stories crafted by writers as well as the stories crafted by non-writers. How many times have I scanned through Facebook and Twitter, a terrible, dark pressure building upon my soul, as I read through the numerous successes of my friends and contemporaries: how this friend got this massive break and that friend just got that publishing deal and still others are lauded as the voice of their generation and here I am, little old Becci, wrapped in a blanket in her living room as yet unchanged.

But of course, this is an incomplete story. I am not unsuccessful, I am just aware of the fullness of my own narrative, complete with all its failures, mishaps and insecurities, as well as its triumphs. We do not allow space for failure. We do not allow space for fear. There is no place for it on our online forums and networks. To express it is seen as self-indulgent, attention-seeking and distasteful.

Yet, in every good narrative, the hero has a moment of doubt. Where does the success come from if not the depths of failure, the first fight with the dragon in which the knight is utterly broken and defeated? The captain whose ship is torn and battered by an ocean storm? The moment when the conman realises how deeply he has hurt the people he loves? Where is the space for these moments in our own, internal narratives?

I miss my story. I miss the relentless and powerful rage of my protagonist, I miss flying with dragons, I miss not knowing where my story will take me. I miss exploring an alternate world inside my own head that is utterly new and beautiful to me. I feel sad. Sad like driftwood. Sad like the hunger of a whale. I am aware of the utterly immense task of turning this book into something worthy, and then setting out on the wide, wild road to find agent/publisher/readers/reviews/peace/enlightenment. Sometimes, I wonder why I have set such a path for myself when failure is so terribly probably and so dizzyingly painful.

But I will keep going. Because it will worse, in fifty or sixty years, to contend with the knowledge that I was afraid to follow my own ambitions, that I might have succeeded but I could not bear the possibility of failure. That will be far worse. Regret is the largest and cruellest and hungriest of all dragons and it crawls inside all of us and coils itself around the jewels of our distress, the glittering coins of our embarrassment.

I will not deny that the dragons of fear and doubt and self-deprecation have paid me many a visit. I am often flayed by their persistence, the sound of their roaring in my head.

But triumph is a dragon too. And longing. And passion. Their fire is just as potent, their voices just as loud. Right now, my narrative is in its trough of self-doubt. It does not know if it can reach the end, defeat the monster, find the way home. But it will pick itself up and dust itself off because we must keep going. And if it finds success, it will be all the better for it.

The Roving Poet Part 17: Filming Poems

Yesterday was a rather surreal day. I have never spent a Sunday in Poole before and had forgotten how sleepy some towns can be towards the end of a weekend. The museum was quiet, except for the protestations of my grumpy parrot, who clearly felt she’d spent far too long on a train the previous day. I was there to run a workshop with some members of local adult writing groups, facilitating the writing of poetry around ‘Sea Music’ and its restoration. Between 10am and 3pm we wrote, talked, read and speculated. We had some very interesting discussions, ranging from our individual attitudes towards ‘Sea Music’ itself to our relationship with the sea and why human beings imbue powerful things with personality. We talked about gods and we talked about memory. We laughed a lot. It was a lovely experience and, although I finished it in high spirits, I also finished it exhausted.

And then the cameraman turned up. I’d never met him before. An extremely efficient, smiley human being with a real knack for capturing moments of visual intrigue, we shall call him George for the time being. He had arrived to film me speaking three poems for the project so that they could be turned into videos for the exhibition and for advertising. In my usual, excited stupidity, I had agreed that filming three poems immediately after a five-hour workshop was a really good idea and of course I wouldn’t be too tired, it would be fine.

I was too tired. As George set up the cameras in various locations, directed me to sit or stand in various positions and turned light towards me, I suppressed yawns and tried to focus on the page. George laughed and said, “As long as you don’t do it in the middle of a poem!” I promised I wouldn’t and, somehow, managed to keep that promise.

The three poems we had originally agreed on became four poems as I read a new one to both George and the project organiser. This new poem was much more personal, and came from a revelation I had had whilst on the project that the phone call made by Tom Roberts, then head of Poole Arts Council, to Anthony Caro in which he asked him to design a piece of art for Poole Quay happened around the same time I was born. To an extent, ‘Sea Music’ and I were born at the same time. From then on, I drew a series of parallels between myself and the statue. Though it did not actually appear on the Quay until two years later, in 1991, it had been conceived and was being constructed from the moment the phone call occurred in early June 1989, the time of my birth. With a mix of slightly more thoughtful and evocative poems alongside this new, personal one, we set to work filming all four. After a while, the movement from sitting to standing to walking to talking became so fluid I stopped thinking about the position of my body and just focused on the camera and the poems. The words felt liquid in my mouth, spoken as if without my permission. I lost count of how many times I read each poem, how many times I had accidentally looked straight into the bright light of the galleries and ha to blink away the bright impressions they left behind.

At ten past four, we left the museum (my parrot protesting wildly in the top room) and headed out to film the final shots on ‘Sea Music’.

George said, “can you go right to the top viewing platform.”

I looked at it. I’d been up there once before, having steeled myself and clung to both railings as I forced my feet to walk me higher.

“Ok,” I said. “I’m really scared of heights.”

He smiled and said, “It’s not that high.”

He had a point. It wasn’t that high. It did not even reach the top of the sculpture. But it was difficult to communicate this to my legs. I took a deep breath at the final set of stairs and lurched up them, squeezing past a father and daughter on their way down. George asked me to lean out over the railings, looking down, and speak the poems while he filmed them from below.

I don’t know whether it was fear that made me speak them louder, or a general feeling of needing to project because the camera was further away, but reading the poems from the top of ‘Sea Music’ felt a little like declaring love from the top of a balcony. I tried not to notice that several people stopped to watch, mainly out of confusion than anything else. One man shook his head and carried on walking at a swifter pace, as if I had lost my mind. It was hard not to laugh at that. I was sure, once or twice, that I felt the sculpture laughing. Perhaps it was just the wind.

We finished with a few moody shots of my walking amongst the steel buttresses and curves of the sculpture, looking out across the harbour, running my hands down the painted flanks in a way that I would never do unless I was being filmed. I realised I had inadvertently painted my nails almost the same colour as the sculpture and wondered if I had, somewhere at the back of my mind, done so on purpose.

It’s funny how you get to know a thing when you are aware of your own shape and movement in relation to it. I swung myself from the steel columns, stumbled on ‘Sea Music’ as I tried to walk backwards from a viewing platform, felt the roll and ripple of the steel under my fingers. It felt like greeting an old friend.

That lunchtime, I had sat with my parrot on the second platform of the sculpture, wolfing down fish and chips while Maya yelled at passing jet-skis, whose drivers searched the skies for the strange-sounding gull that was harassing them.

Earlier that day, I’d listened to the attitudes of the workshop participants towards ‘Sea Music’. Some said they felt the viewing platforms cut up the sculpture, making it difficult to view as a whole. One said they didn’t like the blue it was painted in, and that abstract art wasn’t for them. Another said they felt the art would be lovely if they could see it properly. I thought to myself how each of us builds up, in our minds, what a ‘piece of art’ should be, and how confused and annoyed we get when art doesn’t meet our expectations. I thought how many people had been up on the platforms when I first sat down to eat my lunch, how children had leaned over the topmost railing to point out passing boats to their parents. Funny how our relationship with art is almost grudging sometimes.

I finished the day thoroughly looking forward to seeing the finished films, but also very excited to go to bed. It was a long journey home, and I fell asleep on the train at one point, dreaming that I fell from the top platform of ‘Sea Music’ to be caught by the statue. It was surprisingly soft and warm in the dream, like being cradled in a giant hand.

The Roving Poet Part 16: A Quiet Beach

I’m writing a week after the fact this time, but my mind is still very much on the harbour, in the town of Poole with its cobbled streets and busy quay. I am back to last Tuesday, stepping out of the museum after a successful but chaotic children’s workshop. For a change this summer, it is bright outside. The air is hot and still but there is some relief by the sea.

I am feeling slightly mad. While we got some excellent poetry out of the children in the workshop, as is often the case with children, the excitement was a bit overwhelming. The room was noisy with enthusiasm, children were everywhere and when they left, ceremoniously placing their poems into my hands, the silence was almost absolute. I have poems to write, so I take a deep breath and step out of the museum and into the sun. The town is full of noise. It is living, breathing, vibrant noise and I feel slightly distant from it. I haven’t slept well and there are various things on my mind besides the mad workshop.

I decide I cannot face the inside of a café, however beautiful the one I normally choose. I head ten minutes around the corner to the house of an incredibly kind human being with whom I am staying while I am in Poole. I will call her Elaine, though her name is not Elaine. Her house is beautiful, not least because, having met me only three weeks ago, she has opened it to me. I had spent less than five hours in her company the first time I slept in the bed in her spare room, showered in her bathroom and drank her tea. But sometimes the amount of time you spend with a person does not denote how well you know them. In the last few weeks, Elaine and I have talked until midnight, eaten dinner together, walked her lovely little dog around the quay. Today, she opens the door to me, takes one look and says, “Let’s take the dog for a swim on the beach.” See? She knows.

She makes me tea and I sit quietly and drink it while she potters back and forth, collecting all the necessary equipment for taking the dog to the beach. There is a surprising amount of it but, being the companion of an energetic parrot who comes with me everywhere, I don’t know why I’m surprised by this. We leave the parrot upstairs. She is tired and making her grouchiness known, so I fill up her food bowl and leave the radio on so she can nap in peace. The drive to the beach is less than ten minutes and the dog whines with excitement the whole way, her little pointed face poking between Elaine and I, peering with huge, liquid eyes at every turn in the road. She knows where we are going.

Elaine did tell me the name of the beach, but in my heightened state, I have totally forgotten it. We turn down a small track, bump down a potholed path that can barely be called a road and end up in a small carpark that is really just a square of tarmac that leaves the cars to organise themselves. We park Elaine’s mini on the edge of the tarmac square and spend a few minutes trying to contain the dog, whose sole purpose at this very moment, is to get to the sea. She is quivering with excitement. When we get to the sand, the dog pulling with all her considerable strength because the sea is just there and she cannot handle it, I take my shoes and socks off, roll my trousers up over my knees. The beach is still in the harbour, so the roll of the tide is not as relentless at it would be right on the exposed coast, and the beach, while sandy, is still peppered with stones and grit. There are dogs everywhere, but none of them are barking. There is too much to do for them to stand still and bark. They are haring up and down the length of the beach after frisbies, leaping in and out of the water, conveniently shaking out their coats within inches of their owners. It is strangely peaceful. I follow Elaine at a distance, picking my way slowly over the terrain, aware of every stone in the soles of my feet but bizarrely happy for the feel of sand. It is slow going, and the dog is straight into the sea. She doesn’t come out of it for the entire hour that we are there. Slowly, I follow her in, sink my feet beneath the layer of stones until my feet are almost wholly buried in mud and seaweed. The water laps at my calves. It is neither warm nor cold. I don’t want to step out of it.

While the dog swims and the sea sucks gently at the beach, Elaine points towards an island in the middle distance. It is Arn, she tells me, and a nature reserve. There are species of birds on that island in need of protection and no civilians can land on that island unless part of a special group. Even then, there are areas of the island no one goes into. She tells me she traversed the top of the island with a small group on an organised nightjar watch, and that the ospreys she saw fishing at dawn a few days ago also nest on that island. We can hear strange calls coming from it. Silhouettes of gulls wheel against the whitening sky. The sounds of the quay are distant. Behind us, someone is calling their dog and their dog is selectively ignoring this.

I realise, for the first time, that I understand why Elaine chose to move here nine months ago. There is a hypnotic magic about this place. It seems to hum at the same frequency as a heartbeat. It understands the relentless strain of living, the fears that modern human beings face, whether financial, professional, personal, social, mental or physical. Yet, this place is old. The ocean might turn inwards and outwards as she feels, but the sand beneath me has been here for millennia, slowly crumbling under the gentle persuasion of the sea. It says, Breathe. And I am reminded of the vital basics of living: sleep, wake, walk, rest, eat, drink, love. Breathe. I match my breath to the steady slip and sway of the sea. We stand and watch the birds, let the dog swim.

On the drive back, I think to myself that I understand more than just Elaine. I find I am thinking about Caro, how he waived the fee for the sculpture because Dorset healed him after, he says, the madness of London. I think of him tapering the nature of steel so that it becomes fluid, so that it replicates the playful age and wisdom of the ocean. Perhaps that is too clichéd. Perhaps what he was doing is trying to replicate the empathy of the ocean. He welded it into something unyielding. Perhaps he hoped it would survive as long. As artists, we can all hope our work will have the kind of longevity that will fossilise our footprints. But I find there is a kind of peace, now, in stepping out of the ocean and seeing her gently rearrange the sand upon which I stood until there is no evidence of me at all. There is a music to her that Caro had wanted to capture. I have experienced it today and find I am not worried any more. The heightened chaos of the workshop seems very distant. The ocean and I have talked and I breathe easier now.

The Roving Poet part 15: Young Views of Sea Music

When children choose to attend a writing workshop, they often come wrapped in a mix of eagerness and anxiety that leaves them looking, mostly, very confused. They smile, but only slightly, they have ideas, but they speak them very quietly. The title of ‘poet’ that I am wearing, (rather than ‘teacher’) seems to inspire a level of reverence that means it doesn’t matter a jot that they have never heard of me, they just desperately want to impress. I have conflicting views about this, as I feel that the title ‘teacher’ should inspire similar reverence. (if we consider what a teacher is: scholar, academic, graduate, educator, collector and purveyor of knowledge, leveller of class, promoter of intellect, linguist, guardian of rhetoric, philanthropist, aide and quiet word of courage; I believe that anyone who embarks on the journey to educate those who need it, deserves a level of respect that is sorely lacking for the profession at the moment. But that’s a blog post for another time.)

Today, I am not at school. I am tucked into one of the gallery spaces on the second floor of Poole Museum. There is a parrot on my shoulder and a pile of paper at my feet. Eight children of varying ages stare up at me, mostly from behind their parents. To a child, they have asked to come. They want to be here. We are writing ocean poetry and we are learning personification. At least one child already knows what this word means. She is the one who brought it up. The others, I’m not sure, but when I mention the word, their faces set with a kind of silent determination. They are poets and this is a poet’s word that they need to have to write today.

It starts off as it always starts off. We talk a little about whether they have read poetry, what poetry they like…well, I talk; they sit there and stare at me as if I am terrifying, but gradually, the hands go up and they offer answers. We discuss the sculpture, Sea Music, on the harbour. That is, after all, the reason we are here, to celebrate the monumental achievement of an artist and a town offering something selflessly for the sake of the community. It is interesting that all the parents present at the workshop express surprise when I say that no public money was spent on the sculpture, that Caro waived his fee and gave the town this piece of himself as a gift. The children seem less surprised. A few of them are even nodding as if to suggest they knew this all along. I am reminded that our children can make excellent teachers.

We cannot see the sculpture itself from where we are, but this gallery contains the ‘100 views of sea music’ collection of photographs by David Ward. We have endless images of the sculpture in all kinds of light from all kinds of angles. But when I ask the children to imagine what they can see, hear, smell, taste and touch on the harbour, they close their eyes. A second thing I am reminded of; never underestimate the power of a child’s imagination. My own tortured me incessantly when I was younger. It is a kind of magic that needs to be controlled, but in its untrained, juvenile state, it holds the kind of force we would do well to tiptoe past. Children are natural creators. It is life that undoes this part of them as they grow.

Once the children have written lists of things they can sense on the harbour, we share some ideas. The children are a little more animated now, and so when we read one of my poems about the bottlenose whale trapped in the Thames in 2006, and I ask them ‘who is speaking in the poem?’ they are pretty unanimous in answering ‘the river!’

It’s easy from there; they are to write a poem of their own. There are no rules except that they have to write as something other than themselves. Again, their imaginations remind me how narrow I can sometimes be. One boy writes as a seagull, one girl as the ocean, a second girl as the statue itself. We have poems from the perspective of boats, as well as one poem that draws upon the history of Dunkirk. As they write, I realise I have achieved that heightened, teacherly bliss that I never quite managed to find in four years working in education, I have managed to manufacture such a hype of intellectual activity that not one of my students needs me at all. Granted, some are working with their parents, others with friends or siblings, but their faces are wearing the frown-of-the-poet, their pens tapping their chins or dancing away against the page. Everyone produces a poem. And several are willing to share their work.

Though I have worked furiously my whole life so that I can write and publish my own work, though I pride myself on the constant and lifelong development of my craft as a writer and hope that my own writing will bring warmth and comfort and peace to those who read it, there is something about watching a child realise they are a writer that makes me catch my breath. There is power in the moment a child hands you a piece they have written. The power is almost all yours. What you say and how you say it will strengthen or unravel everything about the young person standing before you. Writing unlocks the innermost part of ourselves. No, that’s a little reductive: art unlocks the innermost part of ourselves. It is why, I believe, Caro’s Sea Music was initially so badly received. Art scares us because it reflects us. Like a child standing before their teacher with their first poem, art makes us hesitate. But that, in itself, is why the sculpture, and why writing and making are so fundamental to who we are as individuals and as a species. We should take a great deal from the fearlessness of children. We should all walk through life as if we have never fallen before and never will. We all will, and it will hurt, but that is not a bad thing.

To qualify this rather brazen assertion about the nature of life, I will say one more thing: I offered every parent in that room a pen and paper to write. They all turned it down, most for the very valiant reason of wanting to help and support their child in the writing of their own poem, a role they carried out with care, vigilance and success. Perhaps I may be wrong, but I believe there is also an element of nervousness in the turning down of a proffered pen and paper. I have seen this in many workshops I have run with adults. Creating is scary. I believe it is particularly scary when we create with words, but the fear is there in other forms of art as well. Perhaps that is why Caro’s sculpture carries such weight whenever I look at it. It reminds me that, every day, I do something terrifying: I attempt to fill up a blank page. Perhaps Caro felt the same fear when he stared at an empty space and attempted to create into it. Perhaps it is the same fear a musician faces when they hear only silence. Creating is petrifying. Yet we ask it of our children all the time. And they do it. They do it with enthusiasm and energy, far more than we could ask of them.

So, I leave the workshop after an hour, having said goodbye to every young poet before they left the space, and feel…cleansed I suppose. Cleansed of that nagging, biting, grumbling fear that asks but what will other people think?

I am reminded of a piece of advice I received as a teenager, though the source of the advice eludes me. I was told: ‘don’t let your love for the idea of being a writer overshadow your love of writing.’ I remember it whenever I need it most.

I believe this was Caro’s greatest achievement with Sea Music. He created, not for the prestige of being an artist or for the payment he would receive, he created for the love of creating, for the love of the town and the strength of his conviction that public art was fundamental and could provide something positive for the locality. Creating for the simple reason that creating is good, is something I am reminded of whenever I work with children. It is love that fuels art. And I saw that in every child I worked with today.

The Roving Poet Part 14: The Crow’s Nest

For once so far, this summer, it isn’t raining. But the clouds are thick and hang low in the sky. The gulls wheel in and out of them, calling in that screeching voice of protest that is so familiar to the coast. It’s lunch time. I am poised on the top viewing platform of Caro’s Quayside sculpture, ‘Sea Music’. There is a box of fish and chips balanced on the railings and my two-year-old parrot, Maya, is on my shoulder, purring to herself.

They call this uppermost viewing platform ‘the Crow’s Nest’. In Caro’s original design, he and Tom Roberts, who was head of Poole Arts Council at the time, discussed the idea of a spiral staircase leading right to the top of the structure, with a crow’s-nest-like circular viewing platform. In the end, this notion was dismissed, but Sea Music is still surrounded by three tiers of viewing platforms, the central of which is adorned with very simple seating. The railings are painted silver. When the sun is high, it matches the gleaming peaks of the stirring sea.

I am told that Caro would often come with his wife, (Sheila Girling, a renowned painter in her own right and Caro’s regular advisor when it came to applying colour to his work) and eat fish and chips whilst sitting on one of Sea Music’s viewing platforms. It feels right to do the same now, while I am writing about its recent restoration. Maya is eager to share the chips. Being a bird, she is not allowed, but she has some treats of her own that I give her. The treats are not chips so she is not impressed and spends the next ten minutes sulking.

This morning, we have been in the library. What a happy place to be – the excellent librarians and experts there had surrounded me with a variety of cracked and aging books, photocopies of old poems and stories and a folder of artefacts to do with the object of my study. His name was Harry Paye, known by the Spanish as Arripay, a late fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century pirate. Paye was born in Poole, spent much of his time sacking French ships and attacking Spanish towns to bring the looted goods back to Poole. He caused such trouble amongst his continental nemeses that they sent a combined fleet all the way to Poole in 1405 in an attempt to burn it down. They failed, but only just. Harry Paye was far before the time of Sea Music, but the more I read about him, the more I realise he represents something similar. Rightly or wrongly, he was admired by the people of Poole. (He still is! A social organisation called the Pirates of Poole run regular events in his honour, often dressed as pirates. Recently, they travelled to Spain to return the crucifix from the Church of St Mary, which Paye stole on one of his many rampages along the coast of Spain.) Paye brought back foreign goods, was appointed a Commander of British naval ships and provided wines and loot for the people of Poole that were far beyond what many of them would have seen at that time. Perhaps, to some, he represents the heroism and daring that could defend a town, that could give it purpose and longevity. Yes, they were hazardous times, with the harbour against which the town was nestled inviting both opportunity and danger, but Paye was brave enough to climb to the crow’s nest of his ships and stare out into the horizon as he chased it.

Standing in the Crow’s Nest of Sea Music, my own parrot on my shoulder, her feathers fluffed against the wind, I feel oddly close to Paye. He was—to all intents and purposes—a destroyer, a looter, a thief, but he brought opportunity. Like him, Sea Music was initially considered to be something quite piratical by the locals. Likened to a can opener, dubbed ugly and useless, a waste of space and public money by the residents, it received much disdain. During its time on the quay, it has been open to the elements as well as to the callousness of humankind, suffering graffiti as well as gull guano. It wasn’t until it was revealed that the design and installation of Sea Music had cost the public no money at all that they began to soften towards it. Indeed, Caro waived his fee, many of the materials were donated by Bourne Steel and the workers involved in construction were often volunteers. £130,000 the sculpture was estimated to cost, and yet not a penny of it was drawn from the public purse. Like Paye, it had crossed the horizon of public imagination and brought something back; a gift. Like Paye, Sea Music is often consigned to the depths of local history, known to the people of Poole, but not far beyond, despite the interest that may be gleaned by both stories.

A little like Paye may have been considered, by some, as the defender and hero of Poole (though, doubtless, he is thought of with nothing but contempt by the French and Spanish), Sea Music now stands sentinel on the quay, drawing the eye for the length of the harbour. It was designed to be a meeting point, to draw together town, harbour and open ocean, a crossroads for the imagination. To me, it stands a little like a guardian. We do not face armies of marauding pirates any more, it is a long time since our coastal towns have been sacked and burned, but still we face challenges. We are challenged by the nature of our nation’s identity, by how we seek to create—both as individuals and as a culture—and establish a positive and meaningful place in the world. Now Paye may be a controversial figure, both loved and hated, feared and admired, but in that regard, he is no different to Sea Music. The sculpture (so far as I know) has never sacked a Spanish town, nor looted French ships, but it has drawn much criticism in its time. Despite this, its steel spine will not bend in shame, the rolling ribbons of its shape will not warp under the pressure. It remains, stubborn and steadfast, offering a view of the horizon, the working ships, the distant sea.

Perhaps now is a good time to mention that I am afraid of heights. Looking up at the top of the sculpture from this height makes me feel dizzy. I can see the sea and the harbour through the slats in the platform. The wind is stronger up here and my knees are bent against my own unsteadiness. But fear is invigorating. The unknown forces our minds to race in shapes hitherto unfamiliar to us. Whether it is right to revere Paye or not, he is a figure that sparks conversation amongst the locals. It is not unusual, in Poole, to see a pirate crossing the road, carrying a bag of chips and possibly walking a dog. This is a town—perhaps, arguably, a country—eager to have its imagination awakened, whether by pride, anger, reverence or fear. It is openness that I hope this sculpture inspires, a willingness to see beyond the basics of shape and objective fact and observe the human stories behind those things.

I don’t stay up in the Crow’s Nest long after having finished my fish and chips. Maya is grumping loudly and we are drawing a lot of looks from the crowd below. Pirates in Poole may be normal, but even they have to look twice to assure themselves that there really is a live parrot on my shoulder!

We climb down. I bin the empty box and am composing a Paye poem in my head as I return to the museum. A few metres from the entrance, I am stopped by a father holding the hand of his young child. The father smiles at me but the boy stares with a mixture of fascination and nerves.

“He wants to know,” the boy’s dad says, “if you’re a pirate, because you’ve got a parrot on your shoulder.”

I smile. As is often her way, Maya chooses that exact moment to exert the power of her Jurassic lungs and challenge the seagulls. The boy puts his free hand over his ear, but a smile tugs the corners of his mouth.

“Not a pirate,” I say, “It’s worse than that. I’m a poet.”

The Roving Poet Part 13: Listening to Sea Music

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Today, the coast of England seems to have remembered—however briefly—that it is Summer. The sun has made a guest appearance, though I am assured that she will be disappearing to other climes tomorrow and the end of July will roll over in its sleep, complain that its mother has woken it too early, and disappear beneath the British weather for another few days.

But it doesn’t matter. Because I’m on the coast. I’m at Poole Museum, looking out over the quay. From where I’m sitting, the towering figure of Sea Music, Anthony Caro’s stunning public sculpture, rolls it steel waves into the sky. On almost every roof, there is a fledgling gull screaming for food. The parent birds circle overhead or snooze on windowsills. Their yellow-eyed stare seems to suggest that parenthood isn’t all it is cracked up to be. My parrot mimics their cries and I smile, thinking that, if she keeps it up, I’ll be taking a little bit of the coast back home with me.

When I was offered the role of Writer in Residence at Poole museum, to celebrate the restoration of the beautiful statue on Poole Quay, it felt a little like those first tentative steps out into the sea at three or four years old: the sudden shock of water that feels soft with salt, the gentle fingers of wild ocean foam holding your ankles, and you not knowing whether to back away in fear, or crash out into this new world with all its glorious, slimy, dangerous treasure. When we stand on land and look out to sea, what we are actually doing is standing on the boundary between dimensions. Experiencing that for the first time can be overwhelming. But that’s what I feel when I stand at the base of sea music and look up. Captured in steel is the vitality of the rearing sea, its heaviness and homeliness, its delicacy and danger.

But the sculpture represents more than that to me. Since being offered the position, I have excitedly ransacked the internet for local history, for biographies of Caro, for information about other public art projects. What I uncover is a silent battle on behalf of the arts to establish and maintain the place in society it deserves. Much like the Angel of the North, I read, Sea Music suffered much controversy as it was being created twenty-five years ago. Why? I asked. I examine it for hours, pore over all kinds of photographs, climb the viewing platform, take pictures, sit beneath it, touch its cool steel. What is so offensive about it? The answer is simple: its existence. For too long now, the arts have been considered surplus to social requirements, and so the idea of ‘relinquishing’ public space to a piece of art is often seen as a waste of time. Public sculptures that are long-lasting often fade from the public eye, becoming nothing more than background. They are open to destruction, vandalism, the elements, to discrimination from all sides. Yet for twenty-five years, Sea Music has endured. And its endurance poses a wider question: Why do we need art?

I do not ask the question do we need art, because for me, the answer is simple. Yes. From the earliest examples of cave paintings, to the contemporary west end theatres, art is life. As Ben Knight, a councillor during the inception of Sea Music, says in his interview, ‘art established a nation.’

What does it say about our nation that we view art so begrudgingly, jealously, critically, ungratefully?

Sea Music is described both by Ben Knight and by Anne Stribley, another member of the council at the time, as ‘a gift to Poole’. Designed and overseen by Caro, the materials and labour for its construction were all locally sourced or donated, without dipping deeply into public money. As much honest art is, it was created and given out of purity. A good friend of mine, Claire Dyer, a poet and fiction writer, once told me ‘poetry is an offering. It is a gift.’ I don’t think that is unique to poetry.

When artists take those first steps into the tempests of their imaginations, draw upon the horror and gentleness and beauty and ugliness of humanity, when they rake their nails through their memories and drag them like seaweed to the surface, hold them out in both hands and say, for you, they are giving something far purer than anything that could be bought by mere currency. They are carving their humanity up to be gifted to their fellow man. Sea Music is a representation of the enduring nature of art, of its continued and unyielding relevance, of being what a culture needs and deserves despite being misunderstood. It is a gift. It remains a gift, and it gives repeatedly.

Sometimes, we become blind to that which deserves gratitude. We grow intolerant of wonder and deaf to beauty. But still the sculpture is there, a frozen moment of ocean rearing like a storm, like a fin, like a tentacle, into the hearts of all who see it.

So, when I write of Sea Music, of tides captured in steel, of sunsets ricocheting from sculpted metal, of the rumble of boats, I add my voice to history. I stand alongside the endurance of art and fortify the walls with my words. I write, and I encourage others to write, and I create and I build and I sculpt as a way of giving sustenance to a living piece of work. To love art is to love life.

And the gulls call as they wheel over the ocean, and land, one-legged on the crest of the sculpture, and participate in the apparent violence of feeding their young. Their music rotates inside the waves of the statue, just like the moan of boats, the chatter of children, the silence of poets.

In the great scheme of things, we are all whispers of water unfolding against the sand. But what we create in our moments of being, what we appreciate, what we cherish and protect, does not just establish a nation, it defines a species. Sea Music is a gift, and I hope that what I write and create and give in the next two months goes some way to maintaining the generous offering Caro gifted to the harbour, to the town, to the nation.

I can’t wait to begin.

The Poet Activist: SLA Conference 2017 -Poetry is a Lightbulb in Moments of Utter Darkness

Last weekend, the school librarian with whom I collaborate on my residency drove us both to Harrogate to the School Library Association 2017 conference to celebrate and share ideas for how librarians, writers and associated individuals can best spread the love of reading that I’m still convinced will save the world.

It was a long day. It was also a beautiful day. There is something to be said for being in a room full of individuals who are as passionate and adamant about the written word as you are. We had a truly wonderful time and we did gather a whole load of new strategies and ideas for how to best embed reading—particularly reading of poetry—into the ethos of the school. The difficulty I have is that, although we learned a lot in terms of new strategies, in terms of our own conceptual understanding, all we really received was a lot of affirmation that out instincts were correct.

“What’s wrong with that?” I hear you cry, sipping your tea and nodding along (I hope) to the notion that reading helps us to develop the capacity for compassion, empathy, widens our social and cultural knowledge, helps us to dream and generally builds our understanding of the world. Truth be told, there was nothing wrong with it. We were very happy to have our notion of the superhero world-saving properties of reading reaffirmed. The difficulty was, and I heard it said by so many writers and librarians, if only we could convince the members of staff at whom we have been preaching this way of thinking since time immemorial?

Now, teachers, I am one of you. English teachers in particular, I feel your pain: you have maybe five or six classes, all of whom you teach every day, your marking load is so insane that you sleep-mark just to keep on top of it, all your students are supposed to know how to identify metaphors, personification, assonance, hyperbole, sibilance, simile, internal rhyme etc but none of them have woken up enough to have an opinion about a piece of work and you’re dreading the poetry unit because you know full well that the kids only have to hear the word ‘poetry’ and there will be mass, self-inflicted insertion of compasses into their eyes in an attempt to escape the lesson. I get it. There is not enough time in the day, the curriculum is ridiculous and many of you already do your best to creatively bypass this curriculum because you are trying to teach a subject you love, not just one that is functional. Enthusiasm may well have left you about twenty years ago, it’s entirely possible that all you want to do now is lay down under your desk and cry. I have done it many times. A good cry is important for the soul.

But when you’ve finished crying, I have a plea. This is a plea from a poet who hated school but loves to learn, a poet who returned to the same school where she was mercilessly bullied and desperately lonely to give safety to those who remind her of herself, from a poet who has built her whole practice around the quiet revolution; a revolution that starts with the first word of the first line on the first page of the first book your students ever pick up and a revolution routed in the poetic.

Here it is. For a day, an hour, the first ten minutes of a lesson, don’t be a teacher; be an activist. Give your students poems, and do something really awesome: don’t ask them to find the metaphors. Give them something that will make them angry, make them furious (teenagers love to be angry!) and ask them how they feel. Give them something controversial, make them justify their position, make them debate each other, then make them write their own poems in answer. Get them to be creative. Get them to read and get them to write. Share Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ with them and teach them about the history of hysteria. Share anything in Jamaal May’s ‘Hum’ with them and talk to them about the alienation of their own generation. Read them Aldous Huxley, read them Toni Morrison, give them ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian’, complete with all its bad language, and teach them about the mass genocide of the First Nations Peoples. Reading, and particularly poetry, is a lesson in compassion.

Now, I know you are measured by the number of sub-levels your students gain in a term, and not by their empathetic approach to each other. I know you are judged by how quietly your classes learn, and not how passionately they feel when they read. I know you are measured by how much writing your students put down in their books and not by the quality of their couplets.

But please.

From a poet.

For that day, that hour, that ten minutes that you are an activist, these are not just your students. They are young worlds, volcanic, explosive, still forming, their elements still sizzling in the heat of themselves. With no impact, they will burn into rock. They will pass through school, fall into orbit and be lost. But give them a book…no, give them more than that, give them the concept of story in whatever form in may appear, and you have established a catalyst. That’s all it takes—a solitary lightbulb in utter darkness, the first word spoken into silence.

I know you’re tired. I know you have a hundred and eighty books to mark by 4pm tomorrow evening. Please believe me and try to swallow your panic when I ask you to trust me that this is more important.

The Poet and the Parrot: Words with a Bird on the Shoulder

Lately, I’ve been doing quite a lot of travelling and performing with my parrot, Maya. Over the last two months or so, we have done performances in Caversham and Henley, we have spent a weekend staying in an 800 year old Franciscan chapel and performing to kids in Canterbury, and this week we ran workshops at one of the most amazing schools we have ever been to.

Maya and I have had a lot of experience recently, but we have both learned that peoples’ generic reaction to poets and parrots is almost identical:

  1. a look of fear upon realising it is in the room with them
  2. Fear turning into intrigue as they take time to get to know it
  3. Surprise and confusion as they are offered a closer look
  4. They hold out their hands uncertainly, and as they feel it step onto their fingers, their faces turn to utter amazement and excitement.

This is true when Maya steps delicately onto a stranger’s hand, or that same stranger discovers what poetry really is. I think this is why I like bringing Maya with me wherever I go. Not only does she draw conversation, she is like a little feathered poem, something that touches people’s hearts and stays with them. So, I’d like to take you through a few of my adventures over the last month.

The Wise Words Festival 2017, Canterbury

I love this festival. I have gone every year for the last five years and have been so excited by how it has grown from a single yurt in a garden to a fully blossomed, beautiful festival that is like walking straight into A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This year, with the parrot in tow, the festival struggled to find somewhere for me to stay that would allow pets, and so, in true festival style, I was granted night-time sanctuary in the Franciscan chapel on the garden grounds. Correction, the 800-year-old Franciscan chapel. The oldest Franciscan chapel in the country. I’m not a religious or particularly spiritual person, but I have a great deal of respect for sacred spaces, so listening to the way that building talked to itself as the night drew in, as the beams relaxed, as the doors and locks and floors and stairs groaned, as the river rushed by underneath it (yes, it is built over a river! There’s a trapdoor straight down to the rushing water in the room that used to be dungeon…) was magic. In the morning, Maya and I waked under trees hung with origami and decorated lampshades, under an archway of books, into a garden full of smiling people in muslin trousers and sandals. My kinda people.

I also had the privilege of performing my children’s story in this same chapel, draped in a velvet cape, with a fedora hat and a parrot on my shoulder, I had a very interesting conversation with a seven-year-old about how she doesn’t like shops that sell fake broomsticks because it puts magical people like her off, and you should only buy proper broomsticks that can properly fly, otherwise it’s much harder to learn. She reminded me of me. There is a magic in children, in the way they believe with a conviction that we have forgotten how to feel as adults. The world is magic. Just because we can explain some of it, doesn’t mean it isn’t wonderful. Electricity in the sky? What’s with that? Sea creatures that can live for hundreds of years? Glowing creatures deep in the ocean? Flight? Gravity? How are these things not magic? Under the rafters of that chapel, watching a parrot fly about over their heads, those children bought thoroughly into that narrative of magic, listened to the rolling lilt of a language that has developed over thousands of years and understood. Their hearts are open. For a whole load of reasons not entirely relevant to this part of the post, I think this is something we are taught to forget as we grow up. Which brings me to my second adventure:

The Treehouse School, Cholsey

At 8am on Wednesday this week, Maya and I rocked up to Cholsey station, four platforms surrounded by fields. We had never been their before. We were met by one of the teachers at the school we were visiting, and three students, all of whom had come to escort us. We walked. In the humidity of bizarre May-time weather, the scent of horses, the occasional rumbling of 4 by 4s with mud-caked wheels until, abruptly, the teacher stopped and said “here we are!” I looked around me. There was no building that looked remotely like a school. We were on a residential street. But the kids opened the gate of the nearest house and trudged right in. We walked past the metal sculpture of a giant eagle, into an enormous garden that looked like something right out of my childhood daydreams. The climbing frame was a Trojan Horse (yup, genuinely). The hedges had in-built dens. There was a little teepee village right beside the vegetable gardens and the kids started the day by weeding.

While they worked, I explored. The school was a house. Or, the house was a school. It was a beautifully converted house with a classroom in the conservatory, a craft room, a carpeted work space where the living room once was. The kitchen smelled amazing as the staff and students prepared a healthy veggie meal. It is an independent school, but the parents do not pay fees. Instead, funds are raised through campaigns organised by the staff and students. All fifteen students in the entire school, who spend time running around outside, cooking, exploring, going on trips, taking care of animals. Now this might sound like the airiest and fairiest of all airy fairy places. You might think ‘but what are they actually learning? Are they progressing like other kids?

I have worked with secondary age students for four years, and I’ve met sixteen year olds who couldn’t do what these kids could do. Their independence in learning, their resilience, their maturity was unbelievable. Throughout the whole day, they surprised me. To a child, their poetry was better than anything else I have read from any other child I have worked with, and the oldest kid in that school was ten. One of the oldest lads wrote the line ‘I am the small, dark room you are trapped inside.”

And a seven year old girl, sweet as anything, and enthusiastic to boot, wrote ‘I am the blood of the rainbow because I keep all happiness to myself.”


She was seven. I had brought writing frames for some of the youngest students, frames I had previously used to support eleven- and twelve-year-olds doing tasks like this. Even the five-year-olds in this school didn’t need it. They didn’t even want it. All fifteen students produced a poem of at least five lines, some over two pages, of the most beautiful, stirring, evocative and original images. They wrote lines I wish I’d come up with at twenty seven.

With all the wonder of that place, the contact with the natural world, the excitement and interaction, it almost looked like the kids weren’t working at all. But they remained focused and determined for the whole morning, proud of their writing, always aiming to make it better, crossing out and improving. Even the younger ones. Those students must go home at the end of the day and sleep so well. But I know that, if I had gone to that school as a child, if I had had an environment like that instead of the terrifying, whirling madness that was my state comprehensive; the bullying, the loneliness, the cruelty of other children, the rigorous terror of testing, the relentless unhappiness that I experienced, my anxiety may not have spiralled so badly out of control as it did when I was in my twenties. I’m willing to bet anything that that school has saved as many children as have passed through its wonderful doors. Because they are taught to be who they are. I know it’s an old, cliched message, but no one ever tells you how terrifying, how difficult, how lonely a task it can be.

If I were to tear the entirety of the education system down and rebuild it from the foundations up, I would build it in the image of that school. It is the first place of education I have been that also feels like a sanctuary. And, if nothing else, that’s what learning should be, the developing of our own, internal sanctuary. That place was a glimmer of what-could-be in a climate of over-assessment,an epidemic of young adult mental illness, the growing trend of depression and anxiety in pre-teens, the disconnection and disenfranchisement of a generation of young people who represent our future. I left and felt hope. I know it was hope, because I had to think very carefully about it. I knew I recognised the feeling, but also that I had not felt it in a very long time. Not like that.


Although I am proud that Maya and I, the poet and the parrot, delivered a whole load of words to people who came asking for them this past month, I feel humbled by the staff and students at the Treehouse school, by the incredible organisers of the Wise Words Festival, by amazing individuals who develop these places of safety, of imagination, magic and power. I am a roving poet, a quiet whirlwind with no defined path. These places give people like me a home. They are places we can recharge, regrow, remind ourselves of our missions and draw strength. Without these places, artists of all kinds would cease to exist. Like the school I went to when I was young, the world as a whole can be vicious to people who think differently, who are idealistic and hopeful. If we are to change it, we need to preserve our havens.

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