conversations 2007 (detail) (for axis)

The artist Michael Landy famously burnt all his possessions. A funeral pyre. A burning made into art. Everything the artist does becomes art. Everything gone. How did it feel? Throwing it all away. Everything gone. Clearing a space. Empty. Ready to fill. To fill with what?

It takes courage to let it all go. Delivering it up to the fire. Embers into dust. Energetic destruction. Death to life. Yes. Mark Doty writes about the Buddhist ‘Sky Burial’. Stripped bare by vultures. Then the bones crushed to powder and mixed with flour. The birds take that too. All gone. No trace. Returned to the source. Emptied.


I wake from a dream. 3.10 am. I go for a pee still disturbed by the vision of it. My mother is alive. I am staring at her skin and the tracery of red wheals that has begun to show on her arms and back. As I continue to stare the wheals become hennaed – gorgeous patterns. She seems oblivious of this tattooing. The pattern closes up and metamorphoses into a mass of swirling worms and eels. I am horrified. Mum is unconcerned merely pushing them off. I watch as they fall to the ground. Underneath her skin is perfect, white, young and shining. Dad is there too – we talk about it, wondering what it means.

I cry. Let it go, he says. It is only a dream. Yes.


Second-hand book



She gave it to us when we were crossing the road. Here, she said, I thought you might like it. A bleak cover. A range of greys. Stark. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Death in the Family. A big book with small type. I find it familiar. It is in the blood. The snow, the bleakness, the taciturn parent, the names. He is writer. A writer juggling a domestic life with a deep ambition to do something good. To do something well. Yes. Keep reading. We’ll see.



Acts of Love (2) detail 1

They bring their raspberry-coloured camper van to the promenade every summer. Parked halfway along the South Marine end, just beyond the war memorial, they have a great view. Just sea. Late August their little van is sandwiched between much larger ones. Theirs is tiny in comparison. Just one room really. A room that must be kitchen, bedroom, lounge and bathroom. Where do they pee? One morning I saw her open the side door and fling out a bucketful of soapy water onto the pavement. An arc of Flash suds. Lemony.

There are two of them in that van. A man and wife, I suppose. He is a large man with a white walrus moustache. She is smaller in frame. A busy little woman. She keeps the van tidy. When it rains they sit inside with the door ajar. When it is sunny they stretch out on fold away chairs or chat on the nearest prom bench. There never seems to be any rancour between them. They occupy the tiny space happily, it seems. They both choose to be there. What do they leave behind? Is there a house, or a flat? They are clearly both retired or out of work. He reminds me of a old country and western singer. It must be the moustache. He keeps it just so.

He takes up a lot of room. When he sits on the sofa-cum-bed there is barely room for her. His legs bow outwards, his large thighs spreading fatly on the upholstery. Sometimes she just stands leaning against the sink-cum-kitchen surface.

Once it is parked the van stays still, driven, as they so often are, onto those little yellow tyre levellers. How do they do that? They all use them, they have to, the road leans towards the sea. It would be like being at sea, always leaning.

There is something so neat about these vans. Boxes on wheels. Homes on wheels. They make him seethe. They block the view, he says. So selfish, he says. So selfish. I like them. I like the neatness. That beige sort of orderliness. The man are usually handy. They have tool belts. Though not the walrus-man, I suspect. She is the busy one. Can’t sit still. Neither of them read. They accost people, he says. See, he says, jogging my arm, see they’ve accosted another local. I think there is a little dog too. How do they do it? Don’t they long to stretch out? It pleases me that there is a certain peace between them. They appear content. No envy towards the flashier campers that flank them. They are happy in their raspberry home. Happy to be here. Happy to be them.

Driving home through Abergavenny we stop to fill up. I watch as a young man fills a bucket from a tap. He waits by the tap and unfolds his arms. Looking up he sees a crow on the roof of the Co-op across the road. He raises his arms to emulate a shotgun, aiming it with partly-closed-eyed concentration at the bird. Pow, pow, he shouts. He does this three times. And then grins.


Love and art – writes Mark Doty – those two towers can’t be knocked down, can they? Though you can, for a stretch of time, lose sight of them.



On Reading installation - photo by Andy Chittock (right)

Mark Doty calls it a profound internal sense of emptiness, a blank, a nil spot. Yes. I too am empty. Doty wanted to drown, to jump off the Staten Island Ferry, to fall into the New York water. He takes a pink pill. Serotonin. It helps. I don’t want to drown. I want to live. I don’t want anti-depressants. Though, I am lost. I want to acknowledge it. I am lost. I want to feel my loss of way even though I don’t know what to do, what to be. How to use all this, this me.

I am fortunate. I see the blessings of my life. I am truly blessed. And this space, this emptiness can only be acknowledged because everything else is taken care of. I know this. I have time to think, to consider, to look at my life from a distance and ask, what now? What now?

Making, working, doing, keeping busy. That. All that is me. But I am going round in circles. And the reasons why I made the work have gone. She is no longer here. She is no longer listening. She never was. Gone. Empty. And he too. Both of them. No longer here. No longer listening.

Freedom. I am free to do as I choose. Free. What now? How do I use up all this energy? All this longing to work. To make. To create. To communicate. To reach out to someone. To myself.

A new start. A new something. A new me. Me. Wait. Watch. Tick tock. It will come. See it is soon here. Soon.


I ask Jamie about his cat Wendy. She has not returned. Is he upset? It appears not. He shrugs his shoulders. I think she’s found someone else to look after her, he says. I don’t push it. I’m sorry. Perhaps she was restless, wanted another view. Good luck to her. God speed, Wendy.




Lowther College choir image

Two films in a row about surviving in god-awful conditions – one up a mountain, the other in an ocean. We live vicariously through such others. The brave ones. The ones who pit themselves against a greater force than the day-to-day rolling of existence. So it is for most of us. Or is it? Are most of our lives rather more magnificent than we realise? I think about the ending to George Eliot’s Middlemarch. The heroine who wanted, nay yearned, to achieve so much, to make a difference. When in the end all she did achieve was the strength to tell the truth – to follow her heart, ‘to let’, as Mary Oliver writes ‘the small animal of her body love what it loves.’ Isn’t it enough? Do we have to climb mountains, shipwreck on a sea to be extraordinary?

A picture of a girl in a school choir. Third from the left on the front row. I rarely sang. I didn’t trust my voice but I liked the belonging – the being there. I loved the ritual. The sounds of voices in unison. The candles. The exoticism. I watched. I observed.

Not much changes. We, the things that make us us become set. Don’t they? I still watch. Though I suspect I participate more than I realise. I ache with desire. Desire to be like Dodo – to make a difference. What can I do? What difference can I make? Joe Simpson in Touching the Void was so articulate (with hindsight) about his closeness to death. That terrible crevasse. That deep dark coldness. He survived by making decisions. Giving himself goals to achieve. Pulling his exhausted body with its broken leg across the glacier. I will get there in 20 minutes. Do it, do it, now. And Pi in Life of Pi acknowledges that Richard Parker the Bengal Tiger kept him alive, alert – gave him the fear to keep going.

I have finished my thesis. Handed it in. What now? I want to do so much. My mind reels with it all – what about this, or that, I could do that, no that. Round and round. While all the time knowing that I need to stop, to rest, to wait, to watch. To pay attention. Let it be. Wait. I don’t want to do the same thing again. I want to change. To transform. To become more myself. Does that make sense? It is an uncomfortable place to be. I am not in danger. I am safe. I know this and am thankful. I am not used to the space. I am a worker. I keep busy. How would it be to have that time before death? That space of grace. Waiting, watching suddenly becoming aware of the closeness of everything. That intensity. Mark Doty saw it during the death of his love. I think I saw it when my father died. I saw it before my mother-in-law died. Nothing else is left. The body has served its purpose. There is nothing else to say. There is just the peace of nothing. If I let the nothing be what will come? Anything? Something else?



Camera Obscura & other stories (closer) tiny

It was a perfect box. A neat, not too shiny, wooden box with a black cross on the lid. It felt surprisingly heavy as I lowered it into the square hole the vicar had dug.

The wind blew, gusting at our skirts. High up on a soft hill in the Yorkshire Dales. A walled-field with a dotting of gravestones. There is no stone yet. Just the hole with its new contents, filled-in with the wet clay and the two pieces of turf. The vicar jumping it down. You would have smiled at such irreverence. He was a friend after all. We all said the Lord’s Prayer. Nice.

Walking early I pass a car by the harbour. A couple having sex. The windows steamed up, a pair of ankles. I smile and remember. I take another route to the SPAR. A sign in the window of a municipal building opposite Harley’s – NO VOMITTING, NO URINATING. CCTV YOU ARE BEING WATCHED. In the SPAR Jamie tells me his cat, Wendy has gone, ‘walkabout’. No mean feat he informs me as he lives in a top floor flat. He is unconcerned. She’s probably in the flat below. I will knock on some doors later, he says.

A dog-collared vicar gives me a long look in the Morrisons.  I see him later in town. When he walks he takes short, little steps.

All of us at lunch. A big round table. The noise and cluck of women’s voices. Nerves make us a little loud. For all the mess of the past there is good will and love. I was glad to be there among them. My sisters. Amazons all. Yes. Proud. Good women. All trying their best to be true. My loves. My family.



Close-up On Reading - photo Andy Chittock

I am immersed in a book. Even when I am not reading it I am lost within it. It is Mark Doty’s Heaven’s Coast. I began reading it as part of my research for my thesis. It is beautiful. It is beautiful to me. Now. He writes about the loss of his lover, Wally, to AIDS. It is a beautiful vision of dying, of death and of mourning.

I have finished my thesis. I handed it in yesterday. What a weight. What a responsibility. I still carry the memory of its weight. Was it worth it? This last year. The writing through the mourning? Yes. I learnt so much. I crafted poems, stories. I have gained confidence. I wrote a memoir. Incredible. I wrote that. I pinch myself. See what I have done. And yet, the most, the best thing, the wondrous thing was, is, the reading. I am learning to read. To read and write.

Yesterday morning there was a couple in the road, in the rain, waltzing. Later, I saw them kissing.