Shhh!

loudnoises

I wish that those men in my life would shut up
Keep on telling me, telling me, telling me stuff

Telling me how to keep my car clean
Telling me how to smoke my sweet green
Telling me how to paint a wall!
As if in my nearly fifty years
I’d closed my eyes and stopped my ears
And done and learned nothing at all

Oh, I wish that those men in my life would shut up
Keep on telling me, telling me, telling me stuff

Telling me how to do my job
Telling me how I should love
Telling me how geology works…
Perhaps they think that I’m impressed
But, no, it just makes me depressed
That the world is so full of jerks

Yes, I wish that those men in my life would shut up
Keep on telling me, telling me, telling me stuff

Telling me how to chop potatoes
Telling me what my mental state is*
Telling me how to write my novel
Why won’t they ask, or ever listen?
Coz probably I could give them tuition
On health or design or Greek myth or fossils

See, I know lots of things as well
That I don’t feel the constant need to tell
And when you bang on, and on, and on
Telling me things that are often wrong
Your superiority is what you’re proposing
Your insecurity is what you’re exposing

Yes, I wish that those men in my life would shut up
Keep on telling me, telling me, telling me stuff

Telling me I should try a Mooncup
Telling me that my hormones are fucked up
Telling me that I’m unfulfilled
Go on, assume that I’m incurious
Very few things get me more furious
They’re lucky they don’t get killed!

I love to exchange anecdotes and ideas
And I can keep talking for years and years
But I’m not out tonight to hear you lecture
Conspiracy theories and wild conjecture
The facts in your brain are a meaningless stew
Inspired and genius only to you

So I wish that those men in my life would shut up
Keep on telling me, telling me, telling me stuff

Telling me things that I already know
Telling me things I disproved years ago
Telling me all your urban legends
YouTube videos and pomposity…
No longer will I curb my ferocity
Mate, you’re coming across as a bell-end

Can we not have a conversation?
An exchange of information?
We might both learn something new
You from me, and me from you
Because, my dear, I think you’ll find
That’s the mark of a truly intelligent mind

Until then those men in my life can shut up
And stop telling me, telling me, telling me stuff

 

  • ‘state is’ and ‘potatoes’ actually do rhyme in my London accent, so there

Solus and the City

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I’m very happy to be a part of this event via Degenerate Space

I’ve contributed this essay, which will be displayed in the structure that they are building. It can be seen from the 1st of June as part of the London Festival of Architecture at Greendale Playing Fields, just off Dog Kennel Hill in Camberwell, SE London. The themes were solitude, sanctuary, women negotiating urban space. Some of it is based on a previous post, Doing Identity

Here’s what I wrote:

On the Street

Growing up as I did – a ‘weird’ kid with undiagnosed autism, a unique dress sense, the oddest parents in the neighbourhood, and indoctrinated as a good baby revolutionary, was pretty lonely. Sometimes I had friends to pal around with, but more often, I didn’t. But, since home was not always comfortable, either, I walked the London streets alone a lot from the age of about ten or eleven. Often, I crossed and re-crossed the street to avoid other children, from whom I always expected, and often received, a hostile reception. I walked in a state of constant paranoia and tension, trying to remain alert to any possible danger. At home I got rubbish advice: try to be more like other people, because dressing my individuality was attracting the hostility, or to just punch people who bullied or physically harassed me. But as far back as I can recall, I have been a pacifist and an individualist. So no help there. At the age of twelve, I did try for a while to dress like everyone else at school, and I cut my problematic hair (curly, bushy, frizzy, huge). But I felt so miserable in my ‘normal drag’ that I decided the trouble it caused me to dress as I pleased was worth it; I returned to my own tastes.

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McEntee school, Walthamstow, which I regularly absconded from

That was the year I discovered, during the chaos of a teacher’s strike, that truancy was a thing. Rapidly I learned to take advantage of the fact that I was often mistaken for my mother on the phone: I rang up the school in the morning and excused myself, changed out of my uniform, then spent the day walking around London. Sometimes I wandered far, as far as the British Museum or National Gallery, where I swooned over Egyptian artefacts and Tudor paintings; sometimes I walked around and around closer to home, weary and driven, not enjoying myself at all, but unable to stop. The city streets are hard, they blistered the soles of my feet. I got lost in the maze of streets and had to retrace my steps. Sometimes I saw groups of truants in the shopping centre, where I would only venture on rainy days. They were having more fun than me. But I never went to speak to them, and I often saw them being questioned by authority figures. I didn’t want to get caught. In the backstreets of ‘Theatre Land’ I saw drunks on the streets, urine trickling away from them in streams that stained the tarmac. I kept walking, never stopping. Once an older boy, brother of a kid in my class, followed me for a couple of hours and tried to chat me up. I knew I had to be jaunty but firm, and to keep walking, just keep walking, to fend him off without making him angry.

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Me aged 16

As I grew older, leaving school at fourteen and spending a year travelling the world with my family cemented my individualism. I returned to London (sans parents), aged fifteen, did not attend school, and embarked on a year or two of constantly changing my appearance and hair colour. It called even more attention, not always hostile, but often it was the attention of men, in cars, on scaffolding, just walking down the street. Now I had sunglasses to hide behind, and a fierce image which I wore as a shield. I told the men to get stuffed if I was feeling confident, or just blanked them, hot, angry, humiliated on the inside. I cultivated what I like to call ‘fuck off-vibes’ and insisted that I would walk where I liked, when I liked. I would not take up the cultural burden of fear that society tries to drum into the female body. I drew on my anger about the fear culture and projected that outwards, striding along. I’m not physically brave, but walking through London at 3am, perhaps dressed as a punk, perhaps as Madonna circa Desperately Seeking Susan, I felt that I was willing to risk anything in order to feel free, as free as a man might. No-one ever approached me then, even in Soho, even in the 1980s ruins of Docklands – I must have looked pretty angry.

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Art on the street in Bristol

I also became a ‘tagger’ for a while, writing my graffiti tag as often as I could on every available surface. Our tiny crew walked everywhere, as much as we could, because that was how you found the newly-cleaned-of-graffiti bus shelters to ‘bomb’ (entirely cover with graffiti), and at night was the best time to tag post boxes, phone boxes, any kind of signage, billboards, etc. It was another kind of urban freedom – we claimed the space as our own by marking it, and we became part of a network. The first time I went Kilburn I was paranoid until I saw a familiar tag. I felt reassured – I was not in entirely unknown, unexplored territory. ‘Care’ had been there before me. So I still feel at home in areas covered in tags. I know they are not the acceptable face of street art. They are often poorly penned, poorly executed, and seem to me to be poorly chosen (a ‘tag’ is like a single-word signature that you don’t change often. If you come up with a good one, you may keep it for years, even decades. The word you choose may be misspelled in order to make the artistic flow of the letters better). A good tag is a beautiful example of the calligrapher’s art, executed at speed, often on an uneven surface and with felt tip or spray can. So I’m often, when in cities, caught standing in front of a wall of tags, looking for the good ones, laughing at strange word choices, by young people who may well wonder what the hell this middle-aged white woman is doing. If I lived in a city now, I think I would engage in street art again. It makes a city yours.

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Burnt-out taxi

Nothing makes me feel more liberated and powerful than challenging those societal fears that my female body might be violated if I am alone, or where I ‘shouldn’t’ be. I have experienced just as much – or more – violation indoors, in domestic settings, where I should have been safe. And in other ways, I like to play with urban space and feminism. Although I never ‘man-spread’ when space is tight, if the bus or train is fairly empty and my clothes allow, I will sit with legs apart, arms resting along the seat backs, just taking up space in the way I see men do all the time. It garners a lot of surprised looks (I admit, I relish those looks), but it makes me feel that I belong in the space and the space belongs to me. I will stick out my elbows and square my shoulders and muscle my way through a crowd, and only step out of someone’s way if they are also behaving politely. I’ll sit on the steps, on the ground, climb over walls and railings, dash across the road. Because the more you let the conventions of civil behaviour rule your body and where and how you negotiate the city, the more you ingrain obedience into your psyche. I do not advocate rebellion against civility itself – I am considerate, helpful, polite, always making room for people who need a seat more than I, offering help with a bag or a pushchair, holding doors open and trying to spread good feelings in my wake. But I won’t submit to rude, pushy and aggressive people. Nowadays, having lived out of London for sixteen years, I no longer generate my ‘fuck off-vibes’ all the time, I have slowed my pace, I can walk without being driven by paranoia as I was when I was a child and a young woman. I talk to people in shops and on buses like the bumpkin I’ve become. But something of the streets will always be in me, something of the rebel who jumps the gate instead of going all the way around, and the woman who enjoys messing with preconceptions about how to use space and where and when and how we can be in the city.

Putting on the vest

I have a lot to thank James Cameron for. Whatever sins he has been guilty of since, in the mid ’80s he helped to change my life.

When I first saw Aliens I was 15 and living at a residential school in rural Devon for children in the Osho (Rajneesh) movement. I felt I was on the cusp of life; I felt the adult me was about to be born. I’d just arrived back from a visit to London where I’d actually met a boy I liked and who liked me in return (first time those two situations had aligned). Everyone over the age of ten crammed into a room and we watched Aliens on VHS. From the very beginning I was gripped. Ripley is both Cassandra, the woman fated to know the awful future, cursed to be never believed, and Odysseus, clever and tough but set against a range of opposing forces that obstruct her return to home and family. Ripley wears the action hero’s vest. In being a woman who acts, who is independent, who is a mother and a lover and draws fighting strength from her love, she was a new kind of heroine to me. In a world that obviously has more gender parity than our own, Ripley still stands out to those around her as ‘more equal than others’.

In the search for heroines amongst the women I’d been exposed to on screen, I’d found that I had to go back to the black-and-white women of Hollywood’s Golden Age. I loved irreverent Jean Harlow, breezy and modern Katherine Hepburn, devilish Bette Davis, sharp-shooting Barbara Stanwyck. I admired a lot of other women of that era but as a decidedly androgynous-feeling person, I was intimidated by the sexuality of Dietrich, the elegance and poise of Bacall. I loved them, but I could not identify with them. It was the same for most of the women presented to me in comtemporary roles: they were too pneumatic (Wonder Woman), too good (Charlie’s Angels), too princessy (Princess Leia), too clean (The Bionic Woman).

Ripley impressed by being six feet tall, taking no shit and working as hard as any motherfucker out there. She didn’t have to be clean or feminine to be sexy. She picked up her flamethrower and fought as a mother might fight, and she used her brains as well as her muscles. It was love. I had found my hero. That night a lot of the younger kids were scared by the film and so I led them around the house, armed with a big stick, bursting into the bedrooms with a shout, checking under everyone’s beds, even leaving my watch with my favourite kid as a ‘tracker’. It was simultaneously a childlike performance, acting out scenes from the film, and the first assumption of adult-like behaviour: taking charge and making the young ones feel safe. Something awoke in me that night, a new possibility. I’d always felt nervous and cowardly, anxious and weak. That night, my inner Ripley got to her feet and showed me that that was not the whole story. Being bullied had made me strong as well as paranoid. Being different and lonely had made me independent; I could stand apart when I needed to. Plus I had discovered how much I love action movies and how much of an outlet for my aggression and rage they could be.

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Cameron and his wife, Linda Hamilton also created the amazing figure of Sarah Connor in the Terminator movies, who, although seriously disturbed, is another action hero who is not confined to the usual gender roles, not forced to be good or sexy or even sane in order for us to root for her. These women are mothers who have been forced into existential battles and then chosen the fight over everything else, neglecting their parental role like a man is allowed to. They ‘wear the vest’, strap on weapons, lace up their boots, and learn how to handle the hardware. They battle against fearsome monsters and bang their heads against dark corporate entities and manage to be much more intelligent and humane, less casually psychopathic, than Arnie, Bruce or Sly.

I know that I have disgusted people of taste over the years with my preference for Aliens over Alien. I don’t care. I don’t care about taste or what critics think. I even like Alien 3. I will never forget what Ripley did for me that night. It’s been a long wait for us to see such powerful women on screen again. Nowadays we are used to women fighting, firing guns, flying spaceships. They can even turn out to be the Jedi-in-waiting, which I admit did both delight me and bring a tear to my eye in the latest Star Wars Franchise offerings. But while they are in lycra or latex or corsets,* while they have perfect lipgloss and hair and wear high heels and have Barbie-doll figures, while they have to be good or feminine, they remain unbelievable and inaccessible to me. Give me a woman in army boots and a vest, a complicated and imperfect woman who will stub out her fag with a tired sigh and get to work, getting sweaty and dirty in the process. Give that woman a flamethrower and I will be in heaven.**

*Not Michelle Pfieffer’s Catwoman, I really liked her even though she breaks all the rules I list here. She’s just so deliciously bad and insane.
**As I write, I realise that this is basically a vision of me doing archaeology with a flamethrower.