I have met many angels along the way who have elevated my life. One of them is Barry Fitton, an English poet based now in Amsterdam. He gave me my first poetry gig. I was horribly shy before I flew to Amsterdam to do my first gig, but I came back to England a changed woman. I was still shy, but now I believed I could do anything I wanted to do. This was all down to Barry.
He is not well at the moment, he has cancer. It is being treated. And I wish my wonderful crazy angel good health and a speedy recovery.
I have written about our first meeting in my book 'I am Still Laughing?' Below is an excerpt.
Barry Fitton is quite a remarkable person, and an unconventional character. He left school at fifteen and worked in a factory for a little while. He realised, like me, that you are not born to work in a factory for shitty wages, but to see the beauty and poetry of life, and point out where the world is going wrong. Most of civilized humanity is in huge denial about what life is really about. Barry understands this and he absolutely screams his poetry to a world that doesn't want to listen. His motto is: 'Have poems, will travel' and he has done the overland route to India, Greece and Ibiza. He also has done things like run a cat rescue and lived in squats. A man with a big heart to go along with his big mouth.
I booked my ticket and flew over. Barry gave me instructions on how to reach The Kirk, a derelict Catholic Church that was now a squat and arts centre. I found my way there easily.
The Kirk was a deserted catholic church on a corner of a street lined with shops and supermarkets - a towering presence. On the notice board out front instead of advertising services and absolutions and the opportunity to confess there were posters for the squatter meets, poetry readings, and anarchy demonstrations. It also had its fair share of graffiti. The one I remember is SAVE THE KIRK. Its current residents were battling the authorities who wanted to demolish it to put up a supermarket. It didn't matter there were 2 supermarkets less than 100 metres away. Barry suggested the church was best served as a community arts centre and was therefore of much more benefit than a 3rd supermarket on the road. The city disagreed and they eventually knocked it down. Art always loses out. Artists are too poor to give the decision makers backhanders.
Inside it was as dusty as an old church and endless progression of congregations - both religious and secular - could give to the air - dead skin lasting longer than any good intention of its owners. Ask the dust anything.
As I entered the church the first thing I saw was the stained glass. A mute light was shining through them, casting beautiful hues on emptiness. Some of the glass was broken. There were no pews, but a ragged collection of chairs and scruffy sofas salvaged from skips. It was a strong visual image, creating a memory that would elicit a calm happiness.
Barry was rushing about, getting everything ready for the event, but he stopped in his tracks to welcome me and make me feel more at home. He showed me to my bed, which was a tatty sofa. I knew it would be crawling with dust mites but I didn't care. After I had a short nap on it, I went back downstairs to the main church to help out, mainly with clearing up and in the kitchen.
The walls of the main church were lined with strange junk (such as a doll's head in a jar of vinegar) and paintings of the artists who used the church as a studio. I spent an hour watching two painters working on their pieces. One of them knew I was watching him and he gave me a good show, by not standing directly in front of his painting and giving me a fair showing of smiles and ass. There was one painter there, a Spanish guy moping because he couldn't sell his paintings, and washed his art in the wrong kind of spirits. Whilst I was there he sold one painting. He dashed out and came back with a bag full of beers. His masterpiece deferred for what reason, I don't know. We artists are a sensitive bunch. But not as sensitive as street cleaners with higher IQs than doctors, as one report found there is such a thing.
There were a bunch of Spanish anarchists there who did nothing but smoke dope on ragged sofas and eat all the food of others. I thought, these kids have a fucked up understanding of anarchy. Most of the other residents of the church were anarchists as I was, but that meant fair share of everything, including work and food. Barry would shake his head every time he passed the group. On the night of the reading he told them off for chucking litter and cigarette butts on a floor that had just been cleaned. There was always music playing in the background, punk, jazz, classical, blues and Jimi Hendrix.
There was nothing left for me to do at the church until the radio show that night so I walked around the city in broken shoes. I'm one of those people who wear clothes and shoes until they have fallen apart. I get especially attached to my shoes and do feel sad when I have to get rid of them. Eventually it was evening and I was heading back to the Kirk. About to cross the road towards the church, I heard Barry call my name. He was sitting at a pavement café nearby, eating pizza. He had finally got the poetry reading program together and it was looking pretty good. He introduced me to a poet from Liverpool called Roger Cliffe-Thompson, a protégé of the great Liverpool poet Jim Bennett. I spent a lot of the next few days with him; he was a great one for anecdotes about the poetry scene. One my favourite stories of his is about this old lady who looked very prim and proper with her hair in a bun who got on the stage and said something like: "If life is treating you badly, all you have to do is this." And she gave life - and the audience- the two-fingered swear sign. What a cool woman. Both Roger and I had a soft spot of for that crazy Barry. Roger told me when Barry stayed at his house in Liverpool Barry didn't close the windows of his room because he thought it disturb the pottery on the window sills. His compassion and kindness is palpable. Roger went back to the church, whilst Barry and I headed for the radio station.
Our stop before the radio station was some relaxation at a pavement café, drinking beers and coffee and hot chocolate. It felt good and right and magical. Barry ordered a special kind of coffee - can't remember the name - the Dutch waiters couldn't understand his Rochdale accent. He was telling anecdotes of the poetry reading: one time he coaxed a shy performer to get on stage to do his kinetic art, but once there someone in the audience was screaming like a banshee, putting the poor fella off. Barry demonstrated the scream to the horror of some of the patrons of the café. We were too weird for even Amsterdam's laid back residents. I loved that Barry. As the evening wore on, more of Barry friends and confederates joined us and crowded around the table. Jennifer Arcuni, an American poet living and working in Amsterdam, asked me how I liked Amsterdam. I told her I loved it. "You might be like me and not be able to leave." Then I met my first bluesman, T-bone Fisher, and he didn't disappoint the perception I had of them as cool. Raspy-voiced, red-eyed, taciturn, drinking, smoking, projecting a rawness and a coolness that he needed for his music. Then I saw a man talking to his bicycle. The Dutch love their bicycles.T
Then another bluesman turned up, a harmonica player who spoke more into his mobile phone than to us. He was also a promoter and was haggling with someone in Belgium. Barry asked him to tell me the story of his time on a psychiatric ward. "Yeah, I was sleeping. When I work up, my shoes were gone. The police found me walking about with no shoes and took me to the local mental ward. I tried to tell them I was a well-known blues harmonica player, that I played with B. B. King. And they were like, of course, you are, like they didn't believe me. So I had to spend the weekend on the ward. I couldn't see the doctor till Monday. When I saw the doc, I told him to please look at my website to see I was who I actually was, and he did and so set me free... without any shoes."
Barry invited him to play on his radio show, but he begged off and wandered down the street, trying to contact someone on his mobile.
We were waiting for the radio show technician, the male-to-female-and-back to male again transsexual. I kind of had an idea of a transvestite shimmying down the road in a sequined dress, so was disappointed to see a long-haired young lad in a t-shirt and jeans with his bicycle. He sat with us at the café but was anxious to get started with the programme.
He took us to a doorway in building that lead up to stairs and more stairs. The actual radio station was in a loft-like area, where the only access to it was a ladder that looked like it belonged to a bunk bed. It was a dingy little set-up, dusty and badly decorated, with underground party posters hanging limply from a wall with begrimed cello tape. All the equipment was stacked into cramped corners and were dusted with cigarette and spliff ash.
There was just the one microphone on a table for the guest speakers so we sat at the table and took turns on the hot seat and kept banging knees on the table legs when we swapped positions, so our first words on the radio programmes were 'shit' and 'fuck'. Barry was hilarious in that he kept looking at the radio man's small tits. Obviously whatever hormone he was taking wasn't totally out of his system. The small-titted radio technician warned us that the air extractor had to be switched off while we were on air otherwise there would be too much interference. But Barry was smoking so much weed, the place was too fogged and crazed, so we had to keep it on for the most part and quickly switch off when on air. Because Barry was so stoned he keep motioning at me to switch it on when we were on the air, and switch it off when we were off air. I didn't know what I was doing any more but enjoyed doing it nonetheless.
I read some of my poems. T'bone played some Blues, and Jennifer read some of her stuff. Barry sat in his seat, very stoned with a silly smile on his face. At least he stopped looking at the radio man's tits.
I crawled into bed back at the squat in the early hours of the morning to the sound of rats scuttling in the attic.
The next morning I explored the city and searched for some furry clogs for a friend. I couldn't believe that it took me hours to find furry clogs. It was like searching for the Holy Grail that is nice to touch and tickles your nose when you try to smell it to see if somebody else has worn them.
When I got back to the squat, it was early afternoon and the Norfolk contingent had arrived, well, most of them. This was a group of Norwich poets that went under the name of The Poetry Cubicle. They had all piled into a tram. The trams in Amsterdam are very long and as they boarded the group got split up. Most of them got off at the right stop, but two of them missed their stop and didn't arrive at the church until the performance began in the evening. The poor things didn't even know the name of the church so it took them hours to find us.
I helped prepare for the gig. Barry wanted to screen a film he collaborated on. But we didn't know how to work the projector, not being very technical. Embarrassingly we discovered hat the problem was - we had forgotten to switch the thing on. I was a bit disappointed the problem had been solved because that meant I had nothing really to distract me until the actual performance. I didn't want to think about performing until I actually had to do it.
The night kicked off with this weird poet called Julius Joker whose act comprised of jumping around and off things. I don't remember a word of his poetry and his madness was too forced, too artificial. A few other forgettable acts came on and then Roger from Liverpool came on. His poetry is fresh, funny, political and personal. One of his poems poked fun of the uniformity of youth's choice of clothing, called "I've Got a Tick on me Head" inspired by the tick logo of Nike. Roger has a strong Liverpudlian accent, and a lot of the Dutch couldn't understand him. One confused Dutch person said, "What, he's English!"
There were a few more poets before it was my turn. Barry became poetry avenger, making sure the audience was quiet enough to be receptive to the poetry.
My time to perform was coming nearer and nearer. How is it possible to perform without sitting on a toilet at the same time? I asked myself. My churning stomach was stealing the sound of my voice, the weight of my inflection. Would I perform the poetry of the catatonic, lips moving but poetry going awol. "I don't think I can do this," I said to Barry. "Of course you can," and he pushed me onto the stage. I read from my book 'Eloquent Catatonia'. I was supposed to do a fifteen minute set but only did ten. I wanted to get off the stage as soon as possible. But once I got off, I wanted to get back on again. Something had been triggered in me, I was getting the early symptoms of the performing bug. I had that slightly feverish high that my bones were made of bubbles. When I flew home to England, I am sure the plane flew just a bit higher because I was in it.
hello there people, I know there are anti-discrimination/stigma campaigns, which as you know I am part of. But what is frustrating is the lack of focus on institutionalised discrimination. Sara Stanton wrote an article highlighting her personal struggle with this. It will make sobering reading. http://uk.geocities.com/diagnosticdiscrimination/index.html
I was interviewed by Disability Now about my experience on mixed wards. Basically, the mental health system in all its wisdom thinks putting suicidal and vulnerable women, most of whom were abused as children, in an environment where the threat of sexual assault is more often there than not. I have been assaulted, most of my female friends who have been on wards have been assaulted. But most of these assaults are rarely tried in court. Apparantly our mental health means we are not reliable witnesses. God, it makes me mad!
The Recovery Model does not talk about Recovery from being in the mental health system, funnily enough.