On Saturday I met a woman called Lindsey. Until very recently she was living in Hurstpierpoint, a genteel Sussex village. She has a job, but she currently can’t work for reasons that will become obvious. Her GP, she told me, was kind enough to sign her off with ‘stress’. Why? Because her husband assaulted her so badly that he knocked out her two front teeth. She went to a women’s refuge where she lived for 2 weeks but then had to leave – they have a lot of assaulted women, limited funding, limited rooms in their hostel. She went to the council but according to their criteria she has made herself “intentionally homeless” because there is a perfectly good house she could live in, her marital home, so they can do nothing at all for her for a fortnight. That’s the rule, apparently. Her husband was incarcerated immediately after the assault but is now out on bail. She is, understandably, too afraid to live in this home from which she has made herself “intentionally homeless”.
Like many writers, I have used my family as material more often than they probably would have liked. For me, poetry began as a way to find out who I was, and why I was who I was, and to process difficult experiences. Through our families we discover and construct who we are, both in opposition and through osmosis. Thus, in learning who I was, I wrote repeatedly about my family.
During that process – which now feels complete – I avoided, on the whole, subjecting my children to the writer’s lens. My family of origin felt like fair game, although I recognise that on a logical level this is nonsense. But my offspring? Quite frankly it is suffering enough to be born to a writer without becoming the focus of your parent’s pen. All the time you are growing up, a writing parent is obsessively interested in something other than you. They have these other text-based offspring growing in their heads and hearts, taking up spaces that are rightfully yours. A writing parent has no right to embarrass their child publicly, beyond the standard parental actions of singing loudly, dancing badly and the like.
Yesterday I watched some footage of myself from fifteen years ago. We are not who we were.
The surface impression was disturbing. A face and a body I’d now love to inhabit. Yet I remember the agony of doing so. Looking good was my only compensation for a life more miserable than I could communicate. There’s no sign of the misery. She’s the party girl, full of talk, full of herself. And at every opportunity, full of drink. A person seemingly strong, even forceful, yet incredibly unstable. Little wonder she had so much trouble holding onto friendship, finding love. No wonder she provoked dislike; even hatred. No wonder she experienced men largely as predators.
Around this time, I read poetry in public for the first time. Just before I went up a man said to me ‘How can you write poetry when you’ve got no soul?’ At the time, I felt eviscerated. Watching this footage, I can understand his mistake.
She is not me. She is heading for a catastrophic breakdown. You wouldn’t know, to look at her, how much she cries in private. Three small children she cannot cope with, no help. She drops them off at school and nursery and cries the whole drive home. Drinking used to begin when she put them to bed. Then it began at bath-time. Now six on the dot. Sometimes lunchtime. The tension between how she appears to be, and how she feels inside, will break her. Appearing to be okay takes a huge amount of energy, but is necessary, to prevent the unwelcome attention of strangers. She has seen her friend sectioned, Largactyled, subjected to Electro Convulsive Therapy. So no trip to the doctors. Medication would only be a sticking plaster over a gaping wound. Talk therapy: did that in her twenties. It taught her *why* she was messed up. But after a year she was still messed up. In some ways, worse. Picking a scab doesn’t heal it.
It has been fascinating logging the reactions of people to my Sceptre book deal, announced in the Bookseller last week. The vast majority of friends, acquaintances and ex-students have been almost as joyful and excited about it as I have, and many see it as a victory for poets and poetry, or reassuring proof that persistence and hard work can pay off in a big way; that creativity does not have to mean penury. To everyone who has offered their heartfelt congratulations; thank you. To everyone who finds the whole thing bothersome in some way, I apologise for triggering you – but please, unless you’re a personal friend of mine, don’t feel you need to share your concerns with me. They’re your concerns; take them for a walk round the park, chew them over with like-minded friends, blog them or tweet them if you must (but don’t send me the link). This is the time I have dreamt of since I was nine years old, and I mean to enjoy it thoroughly.
I spent Saturday night in the company of novelists, for the first time being officially one of
TEDxBrighton on Friday was a rare delight. I have been a fan of the videos at TED.com for about three years now and it was a joy to have a little flavour of TED in my beloved home town. It was remarkably well put together, professional, and well-catered. It was delightful that it was a free event, and that so much had been achieved through the efforts of the volunteers, and the generosity of sponsors.
Here are the main things I came away with:
- free banana
- 2 Twix bars
- spare tuna mayonnaise sandwich
- pencil drawing of a naked woman
Okay, I’m being flippant (though these are the physical things). This is what I learned from my day at TEDxBrighton:
I can hear you now. Come on, you say. The benefits of appendicitis is one thing, but really, surely there are no benefits to having your (several) websites simultaneously hacked and all the files deleted? I mean how irritatingly positive can you get? (I’m sure my kids would provide you with an answer, but luckily they take no interest in what I do – what child does – and are unlikely to come pitching in with comments.)
I admit the experience was less than fun, at the time. But here I am, with everything restored from back up and deeply grateful that it wasn’t worse. After all, the hacker got to the websites, it seems, through a weakness in Windows XP, with a trojan activating XP’s Remote Assistance feature, meaning he (and yes, you can be sure it was a man, God bless them all) had control of my desktop. So frankly, he could have done a lot more damage.
So like all less than desirable events, I’m looking at it as a learning experience. And what did I learn?
Within hours of posting my previous post, I began to suffer abdominal pain. Not being keen on doctors, hospitals, and Western medical procedures generally, I went to bed with pain- killers and a hot water bottle and lived with it for approximately 18 hours (hoping it would pass off of its own accord) before finally surrendering and submitting myself (at 10pm) to my local Accident & Emergency department on the advice of our GP’s out of hours service. It turned out to be appendicitis, I was admitted at 4am to the Acute Medical Ward, and had an appendectomy on the morning of 5th November. In the UK this is Bonfire Night, one of my favourite nights of the year, but unfortunately I could experience nothing more than my own kind of internal fireworks, and they weren’t very pretty.