16 January 2009
Liz Porter reviews Maggie Hampton's anthology of life stories of 10 disabled women engaged in the arts, written in their own words
In the past few years a number of important anthologies, poetry projects and readers have explored the social history and personal stories of disabled people. Along the way many Disability Arts organisations and artists have been involved. This book by writer Maggie Hampton, the director of Disability Arts Cymru, takes its title from a poem by Sue Napolitano which is well-known within the confines of the disability arts world.
This wonderful anthology of stories recounts the women's early perceptions of disability and their paths towards artistic achievement. We gain insight into their thoughts and feelings on very different, yet unsurprisingly, quite similar experiences of the human (and not so human) attitudes towards disability. The collection of stories is a joy to read - a powerful reflection capturing an essence of a generation that must not be forgotten.
Penny Goaters’ shoe story struck a chord with me. She went to a ‘special’ school and noticed that some of her friends had brightly coloured shoes. She wanted some too! When the NHS shoemaker asked her what colour she wanted her new shoes to be she gleefully replied ‘red.’ Yet to her great disappointment he was only joking. Brown or black were the only ones on offer. Whilst getting a pair of glasses isn’t quite the same experience. I can still remember wishing for a pair that looked decent, rather than the thick and hideous NHS designs I was expected to wear. So much for pride in our identities. Many of us just weren’t allowed to have one, were we? I had to smile with a shudder when I read Bev Bell Hughes' description of her special school experience as it resonated so profoundly with some of my own traumatic memories, the Dickensian institutionalised rules and attitudes of staff who didn’t really understand or care.
We learn about the women’s perseverance, determination, and in a few cases good luck, such as in Sara Beer’s Graeae story. It’s rare to ring up a theatre company and find yourself working with them relatively quickly - she was certainly in the right place at the right time. I can’t imagine that happening very often now and it certainly didn’t happen for many of us then.
These stories are important: we should celebrate those who have achieved, and all these women have rightly gained recognition for their work as artists or consultants. I’d heard of some of the people featured in the book, but it was very refreshing to read the stories of women I hadn’t come across in the relatively small world of Disability Arts.
Sometimes the stories felt a bit too positive - a drop in the ocean compared to the countless other Deaf and Disabled artists out there, most of whom are still having a massive struggle to gain training, work and recognition. It would have been great to have brought a bit more balance to the bigger picture. The statistics for disabled people in active employment within the arts are still pretty shocking.
I loved the childhood photographs at the front of each section, capturing a moment in time. Together with artistic images or snapshots from the women's lives, these add a strong and personal visual presence. But how can we design books that are accessible and look as though they could be picked off the high street bookshelf? I’m not sure that this book would attract people in WH Smiths or Borders. And it should, because it’s a real piece of our heritage.
During my recent interview with Maggie Hampton I asked her the following questions:
Who will read the book?
‘I have two 'audiences' in mind. Firstly, disabled people. I want disabled people to read the book and think 'Yes! I know just what she means!' It is so important to use the arts as a mirror of our experiences. I am always hungry for that gasp of recognition and suspect that many other disabled people are too. And I hope the book will be seen as a celebration: 'We are doing this - isn't it great!’
‘The other audience I have in mind are non-disabled people who know little or nothing of our involvement in the arts. Outside of the Disability Arts movement, how often do disabled artists get to talk about their life experiences and their work? We are mostly so hidden from the mainstream. There are interesting comparisons to be made in the women's stories and I hope the book will give food for thought to a wider audience.’
What other plans do you have for social and oral history books?
‘I am brewing plans for a new book based on my experiences of Deafness and the process of having a cochlear implant. It will be a combination of poetry and prose, as opposed to all the medical stuff, which is the usual fare, especially where implants are concerned. Starting from the point that Deafness is a creative experience, I'll be talking to other people about the issues and some of those conversations will be in the book. It's all very new though. Plus I have a long-term project in mind about the women in my family, working-class Londoners, including many disabled relatives.’
Good luck Maggie - I hope you get these new books off the ground, and hope too that other Deaf and disabled artists will find creative ways to record more of our stories. Leading up to 2012, with all the changes happening around us, there has never been a more important time to find ways to archive the past 50 years or so. If we don’t, how many young Deaf and disabled people will have a sense of their cultural heritage?
‘Living Where the Nights Jive’, is published by Parthian Books Price £9.99 ISBN 978-1905762-10-1
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