Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Historical Romance

     Hnnnyeah, it’s not for me. If I want history, I’ll read a book by a historian. If I want romance… be grateful you can’t see my face right now, because romance can fucking fuck off and do one as far as I’m concerned. I am not at home to Mr Hopeless Romantic (that said, if anyone fancies wining and dining, I’m more than happy to watch you eat whilst I sink a bottle of Chenin Blanc). So no. No historical romance here, thank you.

     And no historical romance when it comes to the past either. I’m bored with it. More than bored, actually. I’m tossily fecking pissed off with it. There seems to be a strand of people who can’t accept that A Small Thing is just A Small Thing. I’m talking mostly about graffiti, of course, because that’s what I do, but you can apply it to pretty much any Old Thing that people talk about. An old building can’t just be an old building, no; it has to have a bedroom that Elizabeth I reputedly slept in. An old book can’t just be an old book; it has to have reportedly once belonged to Shakespeare. Strange markings on church walls weren’t caused by a dangling light pull installed in 1973, but instead hint at some mysterious occult practises that may relate to tales of witchcraft in the village during the 16th century.

     People often preface these evidenceless suppositions with ‘it is tempting to imagine…’ or ‘it is entirely possible that…’ or to put it another way ‘I don’t like not knowing everything, so I’m going to make up some complete bollocks, based on nothing other than a) my own inability to accept we’ll probably never know the truth and b) that I insist on everything being significant and important because I’m scared that I am myself insignificant and unimportant’. Which would be a bit of a long-winded way to start a sentence to be fair. I privately refer to these people as ‘Pritchards’, thanks to a certain book [dark mutterings]

     I can understand why. People like certainty, facts, neat little endings, and links to Big And Important Events. When they encounter a piece of history that on the face of it isn’t clear cut or glamorous (in their opinion), they feel a little disappointed and their mind issues an ‘…oh’. The temptation to therefore make something seem more than it is appears to be fairly universal. And nowhere is this more true than with graffiti. I’m going to contradict myself slightly here by saying that all graffiti has meaning. All of it, from the humblest spraypainted tag to the most beautiful and impressive 14th Century SHIP GRAFFITI!!! If it didn’t have any meaning, it wouldn’t exist. If someone creates something by a deliberate action, it intrinsically has meaning, even if that meaning is only known by the hand that created it and the reasons behind it leave every other soul on the planet baffled. So even just a pair of initials on a school playground wall has/had meaning. Where the problems seem to arise is in determining what the meaning is.

     Let’s take those initials, shall we? We can guess at the age of them by how weathered and smooth the stone around them has become. We can guess at the age of the person who carved them by how high they are, and the fact that they’re in a school playground. We can observe that they are surrounded on every side by similar initials, and nod sagely that yes, graffiti attracts graffiti. Meaning? That’s a bit trickier. It’s just a very human thing to do. To say, in the phrase I try to avoid but never bloody do, ‘I was here’. There are other things we could add, about how people copy others, how it’s ‘just what you do’, we could speculate that the child who created it may perhaps have been experiencing upheaval in their life and wanted to make some part of themselves more permanent. But ultimately, it is just a pair of initials on a wall. Does that make it any less interesting? Any less meaningful? For me, no. For others, yes. For others still, it’s clearly the sign of some cult that brainwashed children in the 1970s and forced them to create physical damage to buildings associated with authority in an attempt to bring down society to achieve anarchy in the UK.

     I wish I was making that sort of bollocks up (I did, to be honest), but it’s actually just an extension of so many comments and wild speculating that I read again and again when it comes to graffiti. A cross found in a church porch can’t be a straightforward as a record of a transaction or agreement. It has to be related to pilgrims, even when there’s no record of pilgrims ever visiting, or even a nearby shrine. A tally chart can’t just be a basic tally chart of someone who needed a handy surface to keep a record on at some point prior to 1500. No, it has to be the record of deaths from the plague during an outbreak in the village in 1426. A drawing of someone in a hood is actually a satirical representation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, based upon one piece of marginalia written by someone hundreds of miles away at the time, and whose handwriting is dodgy enough that it’s possible to read key words in four different ways. Or, it’s just someone in a hood. A woman carved into the walls of Norwich Castle isn’t just another carving of a person, she’s there for good fortune, significance, importance, wild speculation, theories that make no sense and are based upon no actual evidence other than the person who’s talking about her determined to prove that actually it means more than that because ‘I’m clever too, you know!’

     Think I’m exaggerating? Here’s one I actually didn’t make up. 

Look! A graffito of a… hat. 

Here is another… hat. Clearly, they must be linked. Except that one is in a church in Essex, and the other is in Bethlehem. But, ‘it is impossible to ignore the resemblance’, apparently. And to give you some idea of the logic at work there, the first theory considered is that it might relate to the Knights Templar. This happens quite a lot. Anything unusual or not immediately explicable is very, very, very often assigned to Templars and some kind of mysterious plot hidden from us that continues to this very day. They are the generic fruit based listening device of graffiti theories by the bored and ill informed, and they are also very tedious. The same author also decides it’s ‘possible’ that daisywheels represent badges of a religious or knightly Order, and I’d better shut up now before I really go off on one (but before I do, I’m just going to add that the text next to the first 'hat' reads ‘god help me’ which I’d say is rather more interesting than FIVE PAGES of discussion of a hat which is actually a knight’s helmet with a plume and not a hat at all).

     Graffiti does have meaning beyond what is on the surface. It’s never superficial. I can bore on for days about it (and as we know, frequently do), but endlessly talking about it has to be grounded in what we actually see, not what we think we know, or what we want to impress others with. Graffiti always has meaning, is always important, simply by its existence. But what it isn’t is a peg on which to hang your need to show off how much you know, nor is it always going to mean more than anything mundane and simple. Some inscriptions do. Some inscriptions require knowledge, experience, research and a twatty blogger getting annoyed and saying ‘bollocks is it fuck’. Some inscriptions we will never be able to understand wholly, and that’s fine. No one is ever going to know everything. But sometimes, it is as simple as a child carefully scratching their initials onto a wall in a playground. No more, no less. And it’s important – just as important as the inscription itself – to not overcomplicate our interpretation of it by automatically assuming it means anything beyond the fact that it was created in the first place.

Thursday, 7 July 2016



 Look at that. It’s not much, is it? But whilst it certainly hasn’t changed my life, unlike another little graffito not so far away, it perhaps explains why graffiti exerts such a hold on me. I don’t get out graffiti hunting much, but I do see a lot of it and of what I see, it is the simplest finds that seem to stay with me.

     Daisywheels. If I was trying to impress you with just how intelligent I am, I’d call them hexfoils, or compass drawn designs, and wank on about principles of Euclidean geometry, but I’m not and it’d just be embarrassing for all concerned, so I’ll stick to calling them daisywheels (also because it pains some people to see them called daisywheels, and I am cruel). The idea behind them is relatively simple. Demons are all around us, stalking the earth, bringing pain, suffering and death with them. Evil bastards, basically. But also stupid bastards who are highly curious (yes, got there before you). If they come across a line, they are compelled to follow it until it reaches an end. If, however, the line is endless, then the demon must forever retrace their steps and is effectively trapped within it forever. A simple idea, a simple design, a simple solution.

     Daisywheels are one of the most common medieval graffiti finds; most people who go hunting in even the most halfarsed way will probably have found one. They don’t rank up there with the ‘WOW’ factor when you pit them against the more unusual and intricate inscriptions. People don’t ooh and aah and talk about how stunning they are, or devote time to talking about them even, because they are simple, they’re common, and to most people, they are dull.

     But because I am a softhearted contrary twat, I adore them. Especially the simplest, most basic design, the Tesco Value of apotropaic marks. The beauty of them is that they are balanced, whole, complete, and the intention behind them is pure. To protect loved ones from harm. To turn aside evil. They are a testament to the two emotions most likely to cause us to act – love of someone, and the fear that harm may befall them. The fact that daisywheels are so widespread and easily found bears eloquent silent witness that so many people felt the way we do now about those who are special to us. It’s not a great big shout of ‘look at me, look what I’ve made, aren’t I great?’, but instead a gentle little whisper of hope and love. Something about that bypasses my (admittedly limited) rationality and brings tears to my eyes.

     I’m such a twat about them that I even get a bit upset when I see daisywheels that have gone a bit… wrong. I imagine the horror that the creator would have felt at seeing something that had the best intentions do exactly the opposite and the guilt they may have felt if Bad Things happened, thinking that perhaps they had caused it by not being as careful as they might have been. Or the pointed finger of judginess from others that It Was All Their Fault And They Know It. Stupid, I know. I never claimed to be logical.

     If I’m honest, though, I just feel protective about daisywheels. That people ignore them, and instead go after the big showy treasures, the impressive stuff that’s guaranteed to gain attention. ‘Just some daisywheels…’ is the disgruntled mutter of a thwarted graffiti hunter, unimpressed by the thought of a love and intention that was etched into stone centuries earlier. An intention that was shared by so many people, in so many churches, a widespread belief and devotion that we see time and time again. People overlook them in favour of the three ring circus things, in favour of the stuff that was made with the intention of gaining attention, quite often the graffiti that weren’t made with any real meaning or significance behind them beyond showing off. That leaves me cold. I’m aware that this means I’m not a true graffiti person, that I’m out of step with pretty much everyone else on this because I’d rather think about wallflowers than find a unique graffito of national significance. But wallflowers tell me more about people than almost anything else. They’re nothing special. But then most people aren’t either… except that we all are. And wallflowers remind me of that. 

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Passing notes

     Quite a few months ago now, in what seems like a hideously distorted dreamscape of events I’m no longer certain took place; I had a Very Bad Day. One of my worst days, in fact. As bad a day as is possible, to the point that it nearly was my last day. It took someone I’ve never met to make sure that there weren’t local news reports starting with the words ‘A body has been found…’ Yeah. That kind of bad. But, as I say, a very wise man was very wise and very kind (‘and that’s how I got picked up by the Police from Beeston Priory at one in the morning’ is usually how this story ends). So, with no trace of hyperbole, I owe my life to the kindness of that person. He knows who he is. And I hope he knows how his consideration that night kept me going in the very tough weeks that followed.

     There was another stranger that day too. Although I was trying to be discreet during my phone calls with Kind Man (or at least I think I was, my memory is distinctly hazy) someone on the bus to Sheringham (yes, the arse-aching glamour of my life) heard me sobbing and trying to explain why the horror of everything had overwhelmed me and my mind had splintered. And they obviously realised that they couldn’t do much to help, but as their bus stop approached, they got up, took a few steps back to where I sat and handed me a scrap of paper.

     I’ve kept it. Of course I have. I put it in the notebook I had with me, and I’ve kept it there ever since. I carried that notebook with me for months, everywhere I went, although I haven’t written in it since that day because I don’t want to be reminded of the words that were spilt into it. But I did read that note a lot.

     I didn’t take in anything about the person who gave it to me. Male/female, old/young, alone/part of a group. All I remember is a disembodied hand passing it to me. And me snotting everywhere because I was at the point of knowing that these were my last few hours on earth, and there would be no more days, let alone better ones.

     I hadn’t planned to tell anyone about that stranger. It was just going to be a moment between us. But I sort of feel like I have to now. Because the world right now seems a bleak, empty, hopeless place. For family, for friends, for strangers. And I feel utterly powerless to do anything about it. Helpless. But I’m not, not completely. None of us are. We might not be able to change much in a wider, more meaningful sense, we can't change what has happened, nor what will come, but we can each do small things. Smiling at strangers, kind gestures, challenging people when they are casually racist or discriminatory. Stepping in when abuse is happening in front of us. We can even pass a note to someone we know is in distress. We don’t have much else, and even those small things can’t change the terrifying and uncertain present we’re living through, still less whatever it is the future holds for us. But if you see someone who needs helps, offer it. Posturing and pontificating on social media is all very well, but it doesn’t do very much to reassure people that they are welcome, they are cared about, that they matter not because of who they are, but simply because they are. Because they are, and we value that. Because they are, and we want them to be. Ignoring things only makes people feel even more isolated, before we can start to think of a way forward together. And come what may, we need to be together.

     This isn't my usual stance. Normally I'd be shouting and RANTSWEARING and telling everyone just how soul-twistingly angry I am. I have been, doubtless will be again. But tonight I am just sad. Tonight I am alone. Tonight I am despairing that everything I see seems to be a relentless and unforgiving stretch of misery, bad news, and unkindness. 

     So be kind. Be brave. Be thoughtful. And not just to people you know, but to anyone who needs it. It will be appreciated; I can assure you of that. And to you, whoever you were, on that bus … I wish I could tell you what that small gesture meant, and how I clung to it. Because if a stranger cared enough about me to do that, then I allowed myself to dare to believe that perhaps I was worth saving after all, despite everything. 

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Memo to Turner

     I get it. He’s your friend, your son, your brother. He’s been accused of doing something terrible. You don’t believe it. You can’t believe it. You won’t believe it. That sweet boy with the blue eyes and blond hair. The boy you knew, no, the boy you know, he wouldn’t do that. You know he wouldn’t. You know him. He wouldn’t.

     There must be some kind of misunderstanding. It couldn’t have happened the way they say. He says it didn’t happen like that. He says he didn’t do it. He says he was there, but it wasn’t like that, despite the evidence. He denies it. You believe him. You accept his version. You don’t question the parts that don’t make sense, the facts that exist. Blindly, you believe what you see, that boy you say you know. You close ranks.

     You close ranks, and you absolve him of any wrongdoing, any responsibility, any guilt. You don’t make him look at himself and what he did. Easier to blame someone else, everyone else, but not the boy you know. You weren’t there, but you believe you know what happened.

     Do you think you helped him? Do you think that your refusal to accept there might be some truth in what other people said was wise? Do you think that maybe if you’d considered that he wasn’t the innocent, ill-treated victim, he might have thought about what he’d done? Have you thought that people don’t often want to let their masks slip, that they lie about what they’ve done? Or are you always going to stick to your belief in the boy you know? Never doubt him, never question him, always defend him.

     Never allow him to consider that what he did was wrong. What he did, no one else. No one else did it. It wasn’t a big boy who ran away. It wasn’t a series of events that went wrong. It wasn’t a misunderstanding. It was what he did. But no, in your world, your family are entitled to behave as they wish, and if anything goes wrong, you’ll bleat that it wasn’t your fault. Nothing to do with you as parents, nothing to do with you as people, nothing to do with the boy you know.

     It is, though. And all you are doing through your misplaced sense of loyalty to your son is reinforcing that he is always going to be that golden haired, blue eyed boy who is never in the wrong. And because he’s never in the wrong, he’ll never have to apologise, never express regret or remorse. He won’t even be able to do the right thing, even now. Will you ever accept being in the wrong yourselves? Because if you don’t, he can’t. And if he can’t grow up and accept the blame, he’s always going to be that stunted little child who lies his way out of trouble every time. That selfish and entitled man who puts his needs and wants before anyone else. He will stay that boy, I promise you. That boy you know. Except that you don’t know him at all. 

Monday, 6 June 2016

Daughter of time

     Happy 8th birthday, my delightful daughter. Happy birthday, my darling.

     I got it wrong, didn’t I? I’ve always said you’re tough, resilient. I never worried about you in the way I did about your brother. You’ve always been the strong one; the one who shrugged off upsets and insults, the one who didn’t need reassurance.

     But you do.

     The problem is that you don’t like to admit it, and so I’ve missed out, so many times in recent months, on being able to give you the time and words that you’ve needed. Sometimes it’s been because I’ve just been too caught up in everything else that’s going on, sometimes it’s because your brother has got in first with his feelings and need for cuddles, but mostly it’s because you hide your feelings too well. Your real feelings, I mean. You’re never quiet, we always know when there’s a triumph or disaster unfolding, but you don’t often open up to me. And that’s my fault.

     I have always believed that of the two of you, The Boy is the one most like me. Quiet, shy, reserved, so I’ve always given him more attention to encourage his confidence. He gets my time because he’s always asked for it. You never do. It’s taken me a long time – too long – to realise that you are more like me than he will ever be, because you have that sheer bloody minded refusal to depend on other people for help, and an iron will to Just Get Stuff Done. Remember that time on the climbing frame a few weeks ago? When you got stuck and panicked a bit? And I said to you, in exasperation ‘Why do you always have to go on it, when you always get stuck?’ And your reply was ‘Because I was determined I could do it on my own.’ Sums us both up…

     It doesn’t have to be like that, though. Honestly, sweetheart. It’s probably a bit late for me to change too much. But you’re so young still, even as you seem to be racing through the years. It is ok to tell me when you’re not ok. I’m your mum. I want to make the world as easy for you as I can. Sometimes I won’t be able to help, but I’ll always listen. I can’t bear it when I see your face crumple with disappointment and how you turn away to hide that from me. The times when I see that you're upset, but you tell me that whatever's happened doesn't matter. You don’t have to live a life where the only person you can rely on is yourself, please believe me. I will almost certainly let you down without meaning to, because I’m just as human and fallible as everyone else, but I am here, I love you, and I will do anything for you.

     I treasure every moment I have with you. The hours we spend in the grotty pub next to school, waiting for your brother to finally traipse out of whatever after school club he’s doing. The times you come with me to the shop in the evening, and carefully buy sweets with your pocket money, the pride showing on your little pearl of a face. It touches me even more that you always buy something for your brother too, unasked and unprompted. I am honoured when you give me your notebook to read a story you’ve been writing. You are a writer, my beautiful, precious girl; you have an almost unnatural talent already. I know that one day your words will change the world of other people, not just me. I am so proud of how you are, who you are, and what you will become. I’m sorry that I cry over you as often as I do, but I don’t always have the words to tell you how happy you make me.

     So, today, on your birthday, I’m sorry I haven’t been able to buy all of the presents you asked for. I wish I could have done. But I can offer you something I haven’t been too good at doing up until now. I promise you that I will be a better mother to you, in that I will make sure you know that you don’t have to do everything on your own. And I hope, in time, you will give me the gift of telling me honestly your truth, and asking me to help you.

Friday, 27 May 2016

The canary

     There is a bird that lives inside my chest. I call it my canary. It’s the first warning sign to me that a situation is potentially dangerous. When I feel the first flutter of wings against my ribcage, I know. This is what living with anxiety feels like.

     It’s not ‘worrying’. It’s not ‘oh dear, hope things will be ok’. It’s not even an ‘be careful’. Anxiety becomes a physical entity that takes hold of my body. I have problems walking properly. The muscles in my legs tense and I end up taking odd, stiff legged little steps, knees unyielding. I feel as though I’m tottering along the street, about to trip at any given moment. And because I’m scared that I’m going to fall, I become more nervous, more tense, and I usually do stumble, and my brain flicks a V at me and says smugly ‘See? I knew you were going to do that.’ Brain wanker.

     I stop eating too. My throat closes up and to consider swallowing anything vaguely solid causes a ripple of panic. It’s not so much not wanting to eat as being unable to contemplate eating properly. Small nibbles, possibly, if I have a few minutes of feeling calm. Three or four wine gums, one at a time. Half a biscuit. On an average day, two crumpets with cheese. But because my body is locked into an overwhelming surge of adrenaline, the food goes undigested, and within half an hour, I’m uncomfortably full, feeling sick, and have to puke it back up into the toilet to have some relief, for a little while. I have no idea why, but it does help.

     When you have anxiety, every sense is heightened, every threat magnified, every potential for danger is laid out in a detailed risk assessment, including bibliography, references, and acknowledgements. Absolutely everything is something to be feared. We have a fourth floor balcony with solid concrete walls that are at least four feet tall. But if I find a Blondie standing near the ledge that is pretty much nipple height, I freak the motherfuck out. ‘GET AWAY FROM THE EDGE’ I shriek, in quavering tones, somehow convinced that they will manage to vault over the wall and hurtle to a splashy death below. It’s even as simple as walking past a spiked railing and automatically thinking ‘bloody hell, if one of us tripped we might fall in that direction and accidentally hit that and HOLD MY HAND BLONDIES BECAUSE WE’RE ABOUT TO DIE.’

     It’s bloody ridiculous. I expect every situation to have the worst possible outcome, so I am perma-primed against disaster.  Everything braced for impact. And the worst part of it is dealing with people. And the worst part of dealing with people is disagreement. Which is stupid, because I’m gobby, opinionated, and I don’t give a toss what people think of me. But I’m not good at confrontation (some of you may be breaking off from reading at this point to scoff incredulously. All I’ll say is that I’m good at hiding my feelings sometimes). And I was a bit taken aback by some of the responses to a (now removed) blogpost I wrote last week. More than a bit, to be honest. I felt under attack. One comment was deleted by the writer almost as soon as it was posted – wisely, as it identified a few people in it – I left the others up until I deleted the post, because I generally have a halfarsed policy of allowing discussion on posts, no matter how upsetting I find the things that people say to and about me.

     Maybe because I’ve become used to people being kind to me for the last few months. Maybe because I’m not as robust as I used to be. Maybe because for the next few days and nights I was on my own, and didn’t have anything to distract me. But those comments – both here and in other places online – really scored into my head. There are ways of making your point without being unkind. I doubt those people would have said such things to my face, and the fact that the worst comments were made anonymously pretty much sums them up. But it’s set my anxiety off in a way I haven’t experienced for a few months, and I feel ashamed.

     Ashamed that I have hardly eaten this week. Ashamed that I’m finding it hard to leave the house just to take the rubbish out. Ashamed that my face feels strained. I know this is a temporary panic, even I can’t maintain this level of catastrophising for too much longer. But since last week, I have been braced against disaster, expecting something terrible to happen at any moment, waiting for it to happen, constantly on edge, constantly expecting the worst, seeing everything through hyper eyes and feeling that everything is personal, every action and word is just one step away from someone launching a full scale attack on me. It’s fucking exhausting.

     There is a bird that lives inside my chest. I cannot release the canary from her cage, as hard as she beats her wings. If I could let her fly away and never return, I would do it in a heartbeat, I would do it without ruffling a single feather ever again. But the canary is always here. She is just as much my prisoner as I am hers. 


     I am fucking starving. Absolutely fucking starving. Literally, starving.

     I don’t eat much, these days. In the early days of What Happened, I managed, a bit. Then Mum came and took over cooking. I managed to eat the dinner she cooked, most nights, trying to set a good example for The Blondies. It felt tasteless, though. Lumps of food, sitting in my mouth, chewing endlessly until they became mulch that had to be forced down, then sitting heavy in my stomach, feeling as though it was gaining mass as my body gave up on the whole process of digestion, my stomach feeling distended. Sometimes the bloated, stuffed feeling would pass. Sometimes it wouldn’t, and I’d end up puking secretly in the toilet.

     Unsurprisingly, I lost weight. I wasn’t huge to begin with, and I’m far from skeletal now, but I’m smaller.  The weight kind of fell off without me noticing. It’s stopped now, because even though I don’t eat much, my body’s worked out that food is a rarity, and jealousy guards the slim pickings afforded by two crumpets a day and a fuckload of coffee.

     I should eat, I know that. This isn’t a healthy diet, and my body’s not going to thank me long term for the lack of vitamins, fruit, vegetables, fat, water etc that it’s being denied.

     But I can’t eat. I don’t feel hungry; don’t have those pangs that tell me I need to eat. I have dizzy spells. I feel weak. I get tired easily. But I can’t eat. My throat has closed. I have to force myself to swallow the bites of crumpet, and I feel sick. Sometimes I am.

     And the thing is, I loved eating. Loved food, cooking, feeding, snacking, stuffing my fucking face. I used to eat a whole baked Camembert with four slices of toast. And now I can’t. I wish I could. But I can’t.  And if I’m entirely honest, I like not eating. There was a prolonged period when my life was completely out of my control. When I lost every secret I had, every vestige of privacy, and my distress and vulnerability were exploited, scoffed at, dismissed, even used to attack me with. I could not control anything that was happening to me, and I was blamed for that loss of control. The only thing I still retained any power over was what I ate.

     Not eating becomes a pattern. You don’t eat because you can’t. You feel a misplaced sense of pride about not eating. Your appetite shrinks. You don’t eat. Then, things improve, you eat a bit more. Things slide, you revert to the coping strategy that is not eating.

     This isn’t a good week. There have been a few too many days when I haven’t eaten. When The Blondies aren’t here, it seems pointless. But I’m not feeling in control of things at the moment, so I suppose that for now, so until I feel better, I will be starving.