I sit in a cramped room in Camden. I am a shy, nervous creature, newly in London. Listening to this bunch of disabled people speak, my thoughts flood with hope and awe. They speak of our arts and culture, and call for revolution.
This was a meeting in the Artsline office, Crowndale Road, circa 1985.
I am not sure any of us realised we were pioneers, but I believe history shows we were in our own ramshackle way.
And now, against memories of those beginnings, I come to Liberty in the Olympic Park. You would think disability art in the UK was not a world leader, with a developed, debated and vibrant identity. The way artists were grafted in amongst the stalls that urged sports participation, had the awful outmoded stench of Seventies art therapy. I am surprised there was not a basket weaving stall, because, as any crip of a certain age will know, that type of ‘useful’ activity has long been considered good for us handicaps in all our varieties.
We were all there at Liberty 2013. I bumped into Ruth Gould (DaDafest), Jenny Sealey (Graeae Theatre Company), Michelle Baharier (Cooltan Arts) along with friends and colleagues – Rachel Gadsden, Sophie Partridge, to name but a few performers. I never made it to see Mat Fraser and John ‘Rocking Paddy’ Kelly as the main stage (which I am told was miniscule), was not easy to locate. Artist Katherine Araniello was there to ‘enjoy’ the festival. A close friend of Liberty founder, David Morris, she was not pleased with the layout and the facilities. Translate ‘not pleased’ as furious.
This was my fourth Liberty as a performer. I yearned for the days of the comedy and cabaret tent in Trafalgar Square, when an audience could identify with the performers, where there was a sense of connection to something shared. This could not be said for the strung-out assemblage of activities at the windy park, hindered further by well-meaning volunteers who didn’t have a clue where anything actually was.
I wish I could predict a positive future for Liberty, but instead I am burdened with weary pessimism. We face a resurgence of old barriers and old attitudes, resurrected by the current government. Once more we see the model of brave, inspirational crip being upheld to a ludicrous level, which does no favours to the genuine talents of disabled athletes, and condemns the rest of us to the unworthy dustbin of scrounger and assisted-suicide candidate.
I have no easy answers; in the current climate we know funding is compromised. And worse still, there is certainly a pervasive, repellent ideology seeping into the zeitgeist, as to whether we are ‘affordable’. Because now we are deemed as having too much, of being privileged – a word that has been bandied around from the High Court hearings concerning the closure of the Independent Living Fund, to comments made within social media.
In such an environment, how can Liberty survive? Perhaps the name Liberty will be purloined; we will see a festival of ‘volunteer performers’, echoing the no-pay ethic of the Games, and of politicians that put forward ‘volunteering’ as an incentive for people to find ‘real work’.
Should this happen, I can see Liberty becoming a joke as do-gooders flood in, with disabled people ideologically high-jacked to join in some old style happy-clappy stuff that will ‘make them feel better’. I call on – who? - DaDaFest and Shape perhaps? - to take up cultural arms against this horror.
Hear now, the distant anger of the late David Morris, and my sadness as I reflect upon those fine if difficult times in the early days of our arts movement when anything seemed possible.
This week my love-hate affair with writing has me in its thrilling and painful grip. Writing is like an old friend who sometimes annoys the fuck out of me, and sometimes wraps me in arms of pure co-operative elation. Recently it’s been a see-saw between both and admittedly the ole Borderline has a role in this. But, it helps as much as it hinders. Exquisite highs bring great bursts of creativity as much as the pits of anguish that lead me to unfortunate behaviour and the whole frustrating circle. Occasionally the fast dips into desolation can result in outpourings that stand up to later scrutiny.
It was very trendy to be Mad this last week or so. Mental health ‘poster girl’ Ruby Wax did her stuff in fighting the stigma in the work place. I do get a tad uncomfortable. The portrayal of Mad people (whatever our precise shrink labels) can be saccharine. It doesn’t always feel full bodied enough – is that too scary? Perhaps. I suppose there’s always the danger of it becoming like a Bedlam tour reborn. In a programme most likely made by Channel 5. The Woman Who Sliced Her Skin Off and Made Herself Vomit (et al).
I do acknowledge that generally it seems any kind of PD makes even the toughest mind medic blanch. I told my newest ones as much last week. They tittered and argued this was not true. I pulled a face and went hmmm.
I met Ruby in August 2011, as mentioned in my blog of Oct 2011. I’m down from my high now, not so much disappointed in Ruby as working my thoughts around to a realistic view. She is still new to this. I asked her last year at the audience Q&A if she thought there was anything positive to be found in having a mental health condition. She paused, then said ‘no, do you?’ I smiled and said, I believe it makes me who I am, how can I not?
In one amazing tangential leap I will move to the Olympics. (Tangential conversation and thought is one of my personal hobbies, no apology.)
Controversy alert! I’m enjoying them. Is it the sense of history perhaps? Being a Londoner, and a scribbler? I don’t even like sport much, before we even mention ATOS. Maybe Danny Boyle slipped a subliminal message in the opening ceremony, which I also adored. Music of my youth! The Clash, The Jam, for fucks sake. Irresistible. Made more fun with some close friends over to share the experience.
A couple of us indulged in live Tweeting as we watched, adding another intriguing layer. MP gets the hump at the ‘leftie multi-cultural crap’, tweets swarming to attack him, UK Uncut get an image out there of the arena after the NHS ‘advert’ section, we laugh at the remarks that everyone outside of the UK would think what the damn is this about? But they love it anyway because all Brits are eccentrics. Aww.
Back to the sport. I don’t watch it obsessively, I tune in now and then, entertained for a while, mostly by the personalities and STORIES than the actual winning bit, then I’m bored and go back to my film obsession.
As for ATOS. Let me be clear. I detest ATOS. I loathe the overt capitalism blatant in the sponsorship of the games and hate that ATOS is part of that. I will join in any protest against ATOS that I am physically capable of. I was there at one of the first demos, I do my online stuff, my local campaigning and will continue. I don’t see a conflict in supporting the actual participants because it is ATOS who we must fight – and surely this is a great opportunity to highlight their hypocrisy while acknowledging the talents of the individuals who are committed to their sports, art and cultural participation.
Is this bias? I don’t care. A few of my friends are in the opening ceremony of the Paralympics. I am proud of them and the exhausting work they have put in. They are fully cognisant of the role ATOS plays in the attacks upon us. They see the line, and know where it is.
I will try and go to the Paralympic opening ceremony, when there’s a scandal over unsold tickets… AND to an ATOS demo. I am a writer after all, and if euphoria hits on those days, well, what entries for my bulging, greedy journals!
I've been poorly and bogged down. Staring at the walls and wondering why I painted them like I did. One is red.
Looking at the news and thinking this is all so crazy. This is a big brew of hate bubbling to a head. Feral gangs? Criminal immigrants? Disabled scroungers? When will people rebel against this?
I know we're battling. I showed my jittery face at an ATOS demo in London, but I could not stay long. The heat and the crowds, too much.
My life is split into many identities and my therapist tells me this is quite common in BPD. Huh. Am not so sure. Outwardly I am mostly on chug-mode. Happy with friends. Annoyed and silent with everything else. Agoraphobic hermit mode a lot of the time.
Edinburgh was a bit of a disaster though I did do the show, along with ending up in the infirmary after falling ill. I also got to meet Ruby Wax who I now adore with a passion. She is doing good and on a journey with her show 'Losing It'. Her memoir is very honest. Let's encourage her to some Mad Pride too.
I'm twitching around my own memoir. Oh 30 years since I started writing journals. They freeze your memories in a glow of fond nostalgia. How things have changed - it amazes me I managed to live in London when there were no PAs, barely a computer, only an Amstrad with its errie green lettering.
There has been progress which we've fought for in many capacities. We can't lose it, somehow we must not let that happen.
I'm a cheerful soul, really. Truly, madly, definitely. Mood swinging, I almost enjoy it.
The sun licks across my window and lures the blossom to bloom. At last! I’m bouncing off the walls, full of seesaw moods, happy-sad, melancholy-joyful, and dripping with creative sap. Mustn’t fall off the tightrope mind you. But isn’t it lovely to see some sunshine?
The last week or so has been a cram of activity. A new story ‘Nippy Days’, only written about 4 weeks ago, was selected to be read at ‘Are You Sitting Comfortably?’ - a story telling event run by White Rabbit Theatre
The theme for stories was sex, and I hadn’t touched the subject for some years. How could I resist? The venue was Tonybee Studios, in the hip East End of London, very near to lively Brick Lane. The event offers free chip butties and ice-cream. Definitely a happy Jackanory time for grown ups.
I had a great posse of peeps to support me, including DAO blogger and all round superstar Sophie P. The venue was packed to overflowing and us wheelies edged in, causing happy chaos in the café. The actress who read my story did a great job and selected writers had the opportunity to send the stories to Ether Books, who publish to mobiles. I await their response with the usual mix of nerves and excitement.
A few days after this, I was performing at the cabaret event ‘Sunday Service’, at Carnivale, opposite Brick Lane (again!) This place has atmosphere, a hint of tatty grandeur and a suitable seedy edged cabaret charm. Access through the rear, passing by mysterious collections of grave stones, there was an accessible loo (rarity) but alas not to the stage.
With Jo Cox giving me her usual wonderful support on cello, staking a space on the floor, we opened each half of the sets and the audience seemed to lap it up. I will never forget the crowd urging me on to do the ‘Protest Song’, throwing in their own ad-libs and drumming on the tables. Maybe with a little help from our dear editor I can supply an audio file as I recorded most of the set?!
Pausing for a brief breath, next I’m preparing for my poetry and spoken word drop-in workshops for Shape. Technology did rather mess up my grand plans to play Youtube examples of different poets and styles, including Ian Dury doing ‘Bus Driver’s Prayer’, but I hope I made up for it by encouraging the group to experiment with personification, which is one of my favourite ways of stimulating the imagination for a poem.
In this case, giving inanimate objects human characteristics and taking that forward with a narrative or emotion. My prompt of ‘being’ President Roosevelt’s wheelchair resulted in some strong and interesting pieces from new and experience poets. I can’t wait for next week and hope more people will come along. (Roosevelt was a wheelchair user, a fact kept hidden from the public at the time). The workshops run every Tuesday 2-4pm until April 12th.
In between all this, I’ve finished a short film-poem, The Lover, a homage love letter to Leonard Cohen and almost finished an absurd little film about an item of disability ‘charity’ ephemera, which I connect.
My life is a crazy one on multiple levels. During all this wonderful activity I’ve also been a bit sickly, doing my pallid invalid impersonation, and been to court! Weird.
Never once, even when wobbling close to a dip-down or a fall, have I regretted a moment of being so immersed. I might be hyper but I’ll enjoy it if that’s OK.