Here am I. Where were you? There: Child and adult. I did my bit perfectly. All my own work. Pretty as a picture. You: Hierarchically hidden; protected.
A job became available so I jumped at it. You know how it is. Life is long while money is short.
If you’ve got health, you’ve got wealth, said my Jewish aunties, followed by a chorus of approval from the entire rest of the family. Of course, they meant good health, not just any old health. In those days, health was what you had if you weren’t ill.
Nowadays governments say we must have health and well being, healthy lifestyles, healthy relationships and a healthy bank balance.
We don’t hear much about wealth; it isn’t done. The rich have wealth and they don’t need to discuss it. Take it as read.
So for six weeks I’ve been working with words - typing, talking, thinking and writing, in that (descending) order. Images have been out of the picture, save for a few bits of tightly word-wrapped clipart here and there.
For a moment, it looked like my art days were behind me. Although I’ve seen that many times before.
No, it was just another blip.
The job lasts for another seven weeks. But this is Friday night/Saturday morning, and I have to make a picture. Not enough light to draw, and I don't have time. I need to make a picture, now.
Here is the result. Pink rabbit on the hosptal roof and me sick with grief. Bad boy Foxy threw it up there. Will I ever forgive him?
Next time I'll write more about the picture and how I made it; it's interesting.
The build-up to the Paralympics has begun, with nightly programmes on Channel 4. It’s extremely exciting.
So I’m quietly reflecting on the business of disabled people doing sport, and feeling rather in awe but mostly baffled and untouched.
So much rushing about.
At school (Chailey Heritage) no one did sport. It was ‘games’, occasionally football and rounders, but always a lot of cricket. School (boys) against Masters and so on. People being bowled over with their legs caught between two stumps, before the wicket.
All played in slow motion.
The Heritage Magazine of 1958 said of the Sports Days in 1956, 57 and 58: ‘each event provided us with the usual good fun and friendly rivalry.’
I used to enjoy running and skipping about. It made a pleasant change from lying flat on my back, which I’d done for most of the first eight years of my life. Being ‘up and about’ (a medical term for not dead) was great. Then suddenly physical fun was forbidden, on health grounds. ‘No games!’ they said.
So I had to endure the heat and boredom of watching games lessons and spectating at sports events, where the rules were unfathomable and the scores irrelevant. I didn’t care who won. They could keep their stupid shields and cups.
One year they asked me to keep score for Sports Day. I had no idea what was going on out in the field, but I was good at writing the names and numbers on the board.
About 25 years ago I started swimming, not seriously, but properly, mainly so I could take my two small children. It required huge mental effort to overcome self consciousness. I persuaded myself I looked alright, though I knew I didn’t. It was a case of ‘what the hell.'
Swimming is a big part of my life now. I'm at the pool at least twice a week. I don’t count lengths. I swim for an hour, slowly.
Then I go home and have my dinner, or maybe a cheese sandwich.
I’ve lived in so many places; I’m amazed anything important has survived. Drawings, oil paintings, sketch books - lost, stolen, destroyed (by me) or just gone…
A few oil paintings were recently discovered in the form of two and a quarter inch square negatives. I hope to have these digitally rescued soon.
The earliest surviving example of my artistic output is this scribble, from my skooldaze. I was about 12 years old.
The picture (scanned and edited in Photoshop) shows the back and front of the wrapping band of a packet of envelopes, which I expect was bought from the school tuck-shop (because the local shops were out of bounds.)
Fellow post-war baby-boomers may recognise the MainLine branding. Look at the price: 3d three old pence. Today’s 5p is the equivalent of twelve pre-decimalisation pence.
The doodle was done in red, black and green biro, probably one of those fat things that had three or four colours in one. Great, but why did they always break before the ink ran out?
Despite its lack of monetary value, the object sheds light on a number of factors that resonate and still have meaning.
For example, I was unsure about the spelling of ‘boring’. It still doesn’t look right to me. If not for my word processor’s spell checker, I would still be doubtful.
To whom was the message shown? A friend, of course, but who?
The bearded chap was my class and art teacher, Mr Pinner. He looks a lot like Jesus.
The drawing on the right shows his talent for raising one eyebrow. The upwards turn of one side of his mouth suggests he’s annoyed. He used to call out: ‘Gas bags - deflate!’
Apparently I was always talking and giggling in class. My school reports testify to my annoying (for adults) habit of being more interested in having fun than knuckling down to hard work. My parents were furious; double trouble.
Mr Pinner often referred to me as ‘Cackling Witch’ because of my laugh. Was this funny or cruel?
Drawing caricatures was possibly a way of coping with feelings of powerlessness. Mostly it was an escape from soul destroying tedium and a relief from the mind numbing boredom.
About this picture …
The background is a sunny beach. The yellow represents the sand; the blue is the sea and sky.
The wardrobe represents my mother. She had a concern for physical appearance that bordered on obsession. She spent a lot of time on her hair, clothes and make-up, trying to look glamorous; but only when she went out.
The fish represents me.
As a child I was criticised a lot by adults, particularly my mother, especially about the way I looked, but also about what I said, how I said it, what I did and didn’t do. Etc etc.
Growing up, I always felt I was in the wrong place. At home, I felt scared and rejected. At Chailey I felt scared and rejected.
The inspiration for this picture is a black and white photograph taken on the beach at Walton-on-the-Naze in Essex. I was five years old.
In the photograph I’m struggling to hold myself up. I’m extremely thin, ill with a second bout of TB Spine. I’m smiling, of course.
My mother relaxes in a deck chair, wearing sun glasses. Composed. Posing.
The point about these pictures and this blog is about finding images that speak to a deeper truth.
I’m not sure how healthy this is, or if it is a good use of my time. This is a genuine and lifelong worry.
Is there something else (better) I should be doing?
PS. The fish is made of wood. It's beautiful, I think. I bought a whole shoal of them, twenty odd years ago, from Reading International Solidarity Centre.
This picture is the latest in what I believe will be a long series, the working title of which is ‘Sundays’.
Whereas the first one was hand drawn and painted, Sweet Sunday was created digitally, with a camera and scanner to get the images into the computer. I used a combination of Serif and Adobe software to edit the images and create the picture.
As previously described, Sunday visiting in the institution was special, extraordinary and transient.
Visitors invariably brought sweets. Not all would be eaten on the day. In later years, when I could walk about, I would save some, keeping them in my locker. This gave me a problem because I hated throwing away the wrappers. They were symbols of something rare and precious. Treasure.
The shape of the sweet wrappers reminded of people standing. So I lined them up, like a row of visitors at the bedside. My mother, who was pathologically self centred, occasionally brought aunts, uncles and cousins to see me. This was to show them how much she was suffering because of my illness.
We had proper hot summers in those days, hence the golden yellow background.
For several years I was completely static, strapped to a plaster bed. The wooden artist’s mannequin seemed a good image to convey this inertness, the limited amount of movement I had. The face is a scanned drawing done by my daughter age nine. I came across it recently during a rummage for old snaps (photographs, in post-war parlance).
The building on the left, part of the old school house at Chailey Heritage, substitutes for the dolls house my parents brought for me to play with during their visits.
The teddy bear came from Ikea a couple of years ago. He is naturally shy but enjoys being in my pictures. I didn’t have a bear as a child. I had a pink rabbit. It was thrown onto the roof of the ward by bad boy David Fox.
It’s a huge though somewhat time-consuming relief finally to give visual expression to these childhood events. I realise now that this is more than mere self-indulgence, but necessary coming-to-terms story-telling. It isn’t just my story.
It is an equally huge blessing that DAO has given me this blog space, to share and get feedback on my words and pictures, which is always pleasing.
For decades I have wanted to write stories and paint pictures about my childhood. I've made many attempts, but with little sucess.
Many old photographs have survived, particularly of my parents visiting me in hospital and Chailey Heritage. In the early ones, I'm very ill. Nearly all of them show big smiles and hugs. Memories tell it differently.
Copying photographs can be pointless and dreary. But recently, while doing just that, something unusual happened.
As I was drawing, I kept asking myself, what's happening in this photo, underneath? What's really going on? What is it that the photograph doesn't show? Then, as I doodled and drew, exaggerating the facial expressions... a kind of grotesque caricature emerged.
Then I woke this morning and it hit me. I had found the imagery, the language, the motif. The circus clown. And Pierrot.
This is the first proper sketch, made this evening. I was trying out the idea to see if it works. It does!
So, what's the story?
Visiting to the ward lasted two hours on Sunday afternoons. My parents’ visits were infrequent, so it was always a special occasion. Their journey was long, there and back. Years later my mother told me that she and my father often had a row just before leaving the house and travelled separately.
The ward sister insisted we looked our best for our visitors. Ribbons and shiny faces from a tin kept for special occasions.
My parents would come prepared for an afternoon of fun: Wind-up gramophone (Que Sera, Sera ); jelly in a jar; a dolls house and other toys that couldn’t be left behind because it wasn’t safe. I couldn’t look after them. They arrived in bags and left in the same bags, leaving behind a gaping hole of sorrow.
Sometimes they came in a car, other times buses brought them and took them away again. For ever, possibly. How was I to know?
There are dozens of photographs and many more images and motifs to use: a Southdown bus, a windmill, a church (two actually), a little hut called Pax Est - to name but a few.
I've made an important breakthrough. It feels great.
The critics loved Reasons To Be Cheerful first time around. The Guardian said: 'The stage gives off a million volts.' Time Out opined: 'Rough, ready and bl**dy brilliant.' Even The Daily Mail managed a compliment: 'It's got a heart of gold.'
Aah, ain't that nice?
So, the Chailey kid came good. Well, nothing unusual in that. I won't mention any names (they might not thank me) but there are quite few of us Chailey kids in and about the (disability) movement.
Ian Dury wasn't an activist. He was an artist, hedonist, hard nut and a rock star. Talented too, but a nightmare to live and work with, if the film Sex & Drugs & Rock &Roll is to be believed. And why shouldn't we believe it?
There's a scene in the film where he goes back to Chailey, around the time he wrote Spasticus Autisticus for the International Year of Disabled People, 1981. I'd left years before, but I'm reliably informed that this visit never actually happened.
Hello to you out there in Normal Land/You may not comprehend my tale or understand.
I don't remember much violence in the film, whereas crip (and crip-on-crip) bashing did happen at Chailey in those days. Dury talked about it and we can assume it affected him, probably not in a pleasant way.
Oi! Cunt face! Who are you looking at?/I'll kick your fucking head off with shit on me boots!
Put that boy in detention!
When I went to see the film, in 2010, I think I secretly hoped I would recognise Chailey Heritage. Of course, it wasn't actually filmed there. The dormitory scenes couldn't possibly have been shot at St Georges because the place was turned into luxury flats more than a decade ago.
I always thought the Blockheads had a great sound, especially Chaz Jankel's piano, but some of Dury's lyrics are pure sexist rubbish:
I offer thee this band of gold/Now do exactly what you are told.
I guess he hated women. Or maybe he was just unconfident.
If I was with a woman I'd make believe I loved her/All the time I would not like her much.
So I prefer the instrumental version of Duff 'em up and Do 'em Over. Not that he didn't manage the occasional insightful social comment:
There ain't half been some clever bastards/lucky bleeders, lucky bleeders.
One thing you can say about Dury is that he was ace at alliteration:
Plaistow Patricia, Plaistow Patricia/Plaistow Patricia, Plaistow Patricia/Go on girl.
Chailey was a grim yet brief chapter in Dury's life; he spent a mere three years there in the early fifties. I was there for eleven years, 1955 - 1966, a big chunk of my childhood. He wrote and talked about it in less than glowing terms. I have yet to find words to adequately describe my loathing for the place.
An Instinct for Kindness. A play about assisted suicide.
A Bigger Picture. David Hockney at The Royal Academy.
Resistance; Which Way the Future. Liz Crow's important installation.
Cheltenham Science Festival 2011. Exploring the Autistic Mind & 3D Thinkers in a 2D World.
Access All Areas 2011. Live Art Extravanganza
Longcare Survivors; Biography of a Care Scandal. Review of John Pring's outstanding book.