Meet the Freaks: writing in response to the work of Diane Arbus

I led a workshop at London’s Hayward Gallery a couple of weeks ago, writing in response to the work of photographer Diane Arbus.

Arbus left a career in fashion photography to wander the streets of 1960s NewYork, documenting the lives of oddballs and outsiders, whom she affectionately called ‘freaks’. From Coney Island circus acts and strip club transsexuals to regular people who’d just lost their way in life.

Diane Arbus. Jack Dracula at a bar, New London, Conn. 1961.

While other street photographers of the time lurked in the bushes or hid their cameras inside their coats, Arbus wanted to meet her subjects face to face, to encounter them as people and capture something about who they really were.

As the Guardian said in its 5-star review of the Hayward show:

“More than provoking mere curiosity, Arbus teases our imaginations. Looking at her images we invent backstories and narratives we can never be sure of. She makes us stop and look, just as she did.”

In our workshop, we wandered quietly through the gallery ‘meeting’ the people Arbus met and writing in response to some simple prompts:

  • Who is here?
  • Who is not here?
  • What brings them joy?
  • What is their dream?
  • What makes them sad?
  • What is their regret?
  • What do they want to say to you?
  • What do you want to say to them?
  • What could they give you?
  • What could you give to them?

As we went, we tried to keep our minds open and – at least to begin with – not project our own subjectivity onto the people in the photos. We tried to allow them to be who they are, then be open to what emerges as our imaginations  work with what we see. Will anything emerge? Will we find a way to connect? Is there any kind of exchange taking place between the person in the photo and us, the viewers? As Arbus said:

“The thing that’s important to know is that you never know. You’re always sort of feeling your way.”

Eleven of us spent just over an hour in the gallery. We each made a close study of at least five photos. In the cafe afterwards we talked about the experience, and did a final exercise to help us process things. We were a mixed group. Some of us wrote regularly, others hadn’t tried any kind of creative engagement with words since school. But we all found it meaningful in our own ways.

Here’s what I produced, typed up straight from my notebooks…

I’m sorry I can’t help you

After: Girl with a pointy hood and white schoolbag on the curb

Woollen hat. Three buttons on her knee-length woollen coat. A white case held tight in her right hand. Clothes for a week. Waiting by the curb. An expanse of pavement behind her. She loves her silk pyjamas. She dreams of a doll to play with. Her brother makes her sad. He took her doll; stole it and hid it. She says don’t look at me. Help me across the road. I want to say, come here. I will make you safe. But I know I can’t. She needs to go.

Waiting for Harry

After: Old woman in a hospital bed, 1958

One arm folded across her chest. Sunken eyes. Everything is white, then the black hole of her mouth. Is she alive? Mary is here, Harry isn’t. He came but couldn’t stay. He couldn’t bear it. The nurse said it was a comfort to Mary, having him there. He said he needed a drink. Birdsong brings her joy. Birdsong in the square outside her window. At this time of year, nightingales. Her dream is that Harry comes. Harry comes and stays a while. No children; that was always the worst thing. She said it didn’t matter, they had each other. They would look after each other. When she woke up the last time she felt his hand in hers. I want to say he’s here now, Mary. Harry is with you. She gives me her last breath. I breathe it in.

Andy leaves town on the midnight bus to New York

After: Andy ‘Potato Chips’ Ratouchef doing his Maurice Chevalier impersonation

Straw boater. Bow tie. Thumbs in his lapels. The microphone on its stand stands taller than Andy. There are only men in the crowd. I can’t see their faces. He likes Monday nights the best. It’s his night off. He never wanted to sing, but he loves the words. Andy dreamed of being a poet. His uncle had other ideas. Bert ran the carnival. Andy dreams of getting away, of living near Kerouac, in Greenwich Village. Beatnik chicks in black roll-necks smokingFrench cigarettes. But he’d missed his chance. This was his life now. He wants to say, hey fella, don’t stand there staring, sing along. I want to say Andy, get away, find your own life. It’s not too late. Take this money, get a bus out of town. Leave tonight. Head for New York.

Join me where the sun shines

After: Man yelling in Times Square

A giant body. Black wool coat. Snow on the ground. Clutching a fist-sized hardback. A Stars and Stripes in the background.  Stanley. Screaming again, out in the cold, all alone. Stanley. Enjoying the pain in being alone, out on his own, ignored but still screaming. Dreaming of redemption. For everything he’s not had the courage to do in his life. This hole in his heart that is blacker than his boots. He wants to tell me I am lost, damned, beyond all hope. Unless I join him now, and feel the pain. Stanley, I’ll tell you this: I have my own street corner, over where the sun shines, and I am not alone.

After: Man yelling in Times Square

We drove to the hospital on Christmas Eve

After: Xmas tree in living room in Levittown, 1962

An empty room, a room with no people. A Christmas tree, weighed down with tinsel. Too big for the room, it bends under the ceiling. Under the tree, eight presents, wrapped in squares. A TV in the corner, turned off. A sofa, one cushion. Draylon tassels. A lamp on a side table, its shade still covered by its cellophane wrapper. A clock on the wall says a quarter to one.Mary’s in the hospital. Harry’s at the bar on the corner. She can’t be here this Christmas. He can’t be here without her. There is joy in those presents, but they won’t be opened. He regrets not spending more on the gift he bought her. He regrets not telling her he loved her. He should have said it more often. He should have said it once. They would have said come in, sit down, have a drink, eat with us. I want to say to him, Harry, gather up the presents. He gives me his car keys; I give him a lift to the hospital.

Stumbling outside my comfort zone

At just about every workshop I lead there’s a point where the participants move outside of their comfort zones. Sometimes they boldly leap across the line that separates where they feel safe from where they don’t. Other times it’s a more tentative shuffle.

It always happens on a Dark Angels course. But it happens too in unexpected places – in a corporate messaging workshop, for example, where an innocuous question like ‘what does your organization really do?’ can take participants into a place where they’ve not been before; a place that can feel suddenly discomforting. Especially if their boss is in the room.

But never mind. I can make reassuring noises about the fact that everything will be ok; there are no wrong answers; nobody is being judged; anxiety is just excitement by another name, etc. And it’s true, nothing bad does happen.

Yet even so, it’s important for me to remember that, while it’s easy to say these reassuring words, it’s less easy to listen to them. The participants are the ones being encouraged to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’, not me. I know the fear will pass quickly, but that doesn’t make it feel any less real in the moment.

“I need to feel the fear myself, so I don’t forget what it’s like. I should take my own medicine”

This is why I think it’s important for me to get outside of my comfort zone every once in a while. I need to feel the fear myself, so I don’t forget what it’s like. I should take my own medicine. And that’s how I found myself last week at something called The Lab.

How to describe The Lab? Really, you have to go and take part to understand what it is. But here’s how its founder, the wonderful Steve Chapman, describes it. The Lab, he says, is “a not-for-profit place where people can experiment and be experimented on in service of enlivening human beings.  It is a safe haven for creative expression and failing happy.”

For me, entry into that safe haven meant spending the afternoon in a Bloomsbury attic room with 20 other creative weirdos (they would wear that name as a badge of honour, I think). On arrival, I was asked to write on a small card the name of any ‘experiment’ that I wanted to perform. These were grouped into those that run for less than 10 minutes and those that could take between 10 and 30 minutes (But nobody really knows for sure, as none of the experiments has been tried before – that’s one of the rules). When it’s time to start, a card is drawn at random. The person who devised the experiment then takes charge and the participants basically do whatever they are told to. When the experiment ends, we do another one.

In the four hours of The Lab I did some crazy things – things that likely make no sense outside The Lab. I played a game that had no rules; punched a Boris Johnson dog-toy in the face and reflected on what it felt like with a partner who’d stood on Theresa May; squashed a grape into my forehead just because someone told me to; devised a short film to market the appeal of ‘humanity’, then acted it out with ten people; enthralled a group with my description of a photograph that didn’t exist; and started a revolution.

“There were times when I really wished I was somewhere else. But that was the whole point”

There were times when I had no idea what I was doing, and didn’t even know what I was meant to be trying to do. There were times when I really wished I was somewhere else. But that was the whole point. I’d gone so far outside of my comfort zone that if I turned around to look for it I would never have found it, so I just had to keep moving forward – which was also the whole point.

I had the chance to try out two experiments of my own. In the first one we played a game I’d made up called Frequently Questioned Answers. The second involved making a prototype of a ‘wisdom generator’ I’d invented called an Aphorismatron.

Normally, I put a lot of thought and planning into my workshop exercises. But these were experiments I’d only devised on the train that morning. I had no idea how they would work, or if they would work. That was scary.

When it came to the Aphorismatron thing, I had to make up a lot of what I was doing after I’d started doing it, because I didn’t have some of the things I thought I’d need. But I suppose that’s also the whole point of The Lab.

What did I learn? I am more confident, resourceful and resilient than I thought. But I need to keep reminding myself, none of it needs to have ‘a point’. There isn’t anything that has to be learned. The Lab just is. Which is why The Lab is so special. I’m still processing the experience, but this much I know: I loved it and will be going back.

What you are trying is impossible

It is impossible to combine work and motherhood.

But poetry starts from impossibility.

An Alice Oswald interview. Cut out of The Guardian and glued into a notebook.

As I would say more generally, constraints liberate.

Given your impossible limitations – of time, form, talent – do what is possible.

Finding a voice

I was away in Northumbria last week leading a Dark Angels writing course.

One area we explored is the different ways of finding “voice” – whether that’s your own voice, the voice of a character or the voice of an organisation you might be writing for.

So, rather fitting to stumble across this piece from poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy

She tells how Caedmon, the earliest known English poet, found his voice…. also in Northumbria. Must be something in the air.

On a seventh-century night in Northumbria, the Venerable Bede tells us, a lay brother and cattle herder named Caedmon had an extraordinary experience. Caedmon was not a literate man, and when social gatherings turned to song he would make his excuses and leave. On this night, when the harp came to him, he rose to tend the cattle and fell asleep in the stable. He dreamed that a man appeared. “Caedmon,” said the man, “Sing me a song.” But Caedmon did not know what he could possibly sing. “Sing about the creation of all things,” said the man. And Caedmon did, singing lines that he had never heard before; lines of such beauty, says Bede, that they moved the hearts of many to heaven.”

“I just knew he couldn’t break me”

This is Chris. Her father raped or abused her every day until she was 15 years old. “I just knew he couldn’t break me,” she says, when I asked her how she survived. “There was something about me that meant I wouldn’t go under.”

To help other abused women – and, increasingly, men – for the last 35 years she’s run The Haven, a charity that offers free counselling in north London. Chris often works from eight in the morning to 11 at night, seven days a week – counselling people, applying for grants, keeping The Haven open as government funding cuts force similar local projects to close.

The childhood abuse has left Chris with life-long health problems. “I’m in pain every day. Constant pain,” she says. “Sometimes you can see it in my eyes. But you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. And what’s the option? To give up? No, you just get on with it.”

I wrote about Chris for the London Community Foundation, one of her funders. more info here.

“You see how happy the young people are. The things they have achieved”


Here’s a story I wrote recently, part of my work with The London Community Foundation


There’s a worn out pool table. The bar sells Ribena, Mars bars and crisps. A girl in black leggings and a Chelsea football shirt laughs and dances. This place feels like any other youth club. The only difference is that the young people who come here to have fun, make friends, and get a bit of independence from the adults in their lives all have some form of disability.

Founded as a charity in 1948, The Caxton Youth Organisation was originally a safe haven for underprivileged boys – and later girls – in a city flattened by war-time bombing. Today it helps young people with physical or mental disabilities to thrive in the face of prejudice, exclusion and forced dependence.

On the night I visit, Caxton is open to 18-25-year-olds. The younger ones, aged 11-18, come on different evenings. There are maybe 20 people here. They all live within the borough of Westminster. Some have come under their own steam. Others arrive on a mini-bus that follows a one-hour collection route.

In a side-room people are working on their CVs, studying, or using the internet. There are seven computers, a printer and three buckets to catch the rainwater that percolates through the block of flats above. In the kitchen, Kyri and George are preparing the chicken that everyone will eat later. In another room, Billy the Reiki Master is setting up for a yoga class.

The corridor that connects these spaces is plastered with photos of Caxton members busy enjoying themselves. There are trips to the zoo and other days out. These include weekend visits to the wonderfully named Wey Inspired – a 64-foot narrowboat moored on an island in the River Wey in Surrey, which the group leases from the Environment Agency at a peppercorn rent.

Groups of eight young people visit Wey Inspired every weekend from April to October. They hang out together and learn useful skills. They also get to do the stupid stuff that young people everywhere enjoy when their parents aren’t around – like dropping Mentos into bottles of Coke to see what happens.

Showing me around the club is Rachel Akehurst, the 28-year-old who runs the place. After the quick tour, Rachel explains more about the work Caxton does.

Caxton offers four core programmes that help people to develop communication skills; to “enjoy and achieve” more through art, music, sports and volunteering; to learn about health and personal care, including sexual health and coping with stress; and to become more independent, including managing money and staying safe. Last year it supported over 110 people – 93% of them have Autistic Spectrum Disorder.

Funding this work is a constant struggle. Two years ago a third of Caxton’s budget came from the local borough, Westminster. But in the 2015 financial year that was cut by 15%. “We saw it coming, so had cut our overhead substantially,” says Rachel. “Then we were told it would be followed by a 25% cut. And then, just before Christmas, we were told there’d be no money at all. It’s not just us. Nobody will get any money from Westminster Youth Services. There won’t be any at all.”

The news hit Rachel hard. “December was a really horrendous time. We were working around the clock on research and funding applications. It was very stressful. We had to change all our financial projections and reduce services. We had to work out how much longer the project could feasibly survive.”

One of the paid staff had to go. “The young people were absolutely gutted, they loved her,” says Rachel. As other services across London closed, requests came in to help young disabled people from other London boroughs.

Caxton’s articles of association limit it to working inside the boundaries of Westminster, Rachel explains. And she doesn’t have the resources to help anyway. There are willing volunteers, but supporting people with complex learning disabilities is skilled work. “What happens in five years’ time when all the skilled workers have gone?” she asks. “Who will help the young people then? It’s a very sad state of affairs.”

If Caxton relied solely on local authority money, it would be closed now, says Rachel. “One of the things I’ve learned in the time I’ve been managing this place is there’s never any financial security in the charity sector,” she continues. “It’s a motivating factor, because everything can just suddenly turn against you, so you can’t take your eye off the ball.”

Rachel started at Caxton as youth worker and has been running the place for nearly four years. Her notional working hours are Monday to Friday, 1pm-9pm. But there are often morning meetings to attend. And she works weekends from April to October.

Her work changes lives, but she’s modest about her role. “We are all about empowering people, so the young people vote to decided what we do,” she says. “They run the club; we are just the pen pushers who make things happen.”

Amid all the budget cuts, knock-backs and worries, what keeps her motivated? “It can be really tough some days, really down and gloomy,” she says. “But you come into work for an evening and see how happy the young people are, those small changes in behaviour, the things they have achieved, because of the work you have done… that’s what keeps me going.”

“I believe we are saving lives”

Sandra Smith
Sandra Smith

Recently I’ve had the honour of visiting many small charities across London, all doing incredible work with almost no resources. I’ve been trying to tell their stories. One of them has just been published. As an experiment, I thought I’d paste the full text here. I reckon it’s a 5-minute read.


“I believe we are saving lives”

Suddenly, Marie’s hands begin to shake. The tears fill her eyes. Matilda gets up from her chair, walks over to Marie, and puts an arm around her shoulder. “You’ll be all right with us,” she says. “We’re all in the same boat.”

The ‘boat’ these two elderly Londoners are in is the crippling grief that can follow the death of a loved one. Marie had been talking about her husband, Ernie. He died on September 5, 2015, after nine weeks in St Joseph’s, a local hospice. Ernie had bowel cancer.

“I talk to him every morning,” Marie continues eventually. “I get out of bed and I kiss his urn.” For the two months since her husband died, bed has been the sofa downstairs. She can no longer sleep in the bed they used to share.

The tears just now were caused by anger. Marie feels that Ernie’s doctor missed the signs of cancer, that four months of maybe life-saving treatment were lost. “Sometimes I feel I could kill him,” she says of the doctor. “I could go round there and smash his windows.”

Matilda reassures Marie that it’s ok to feel angry. She talks about her own husband, who dropped dead in the street. Pauline, sitting across from them both, has been there too. Her husband died in an operating theatre, during surgery that was meant to be straightforward. Bill lost his wife. Leon is grieving for his mum. Everyone in the room has felt the same pain.

It was to help grieving people like the ones chatting over tea and cake this morning that Sandra Smith and her friend Olive Brade opened The Bereavement Drop in Centre in Plaistow, in 2011.

Olive and Sandra first came to know each other in an online forum for widows under 50. Olive’s husband, Ashton, died of cancer in 2005. Sandra’s husband, Martin, took his own life two years later. When the two women realised they lived near each other, they moved from online chat to real-world coffee.

“We got so much comfort from each other,” says Sandra. “There was nothing else out there. No counselling. No help. We realised that if it’s working for us, it must work for other people too.” So with no experience of doing anything like it, they decided to open a centre where grieving people could find support.

It took a year to find a suitable space and nine months to get it into shape. In a mid-terrace building rented from T Cribb & Sons, a local funeral directors, they offer one-to-one and peer-group counselling, a range of practical complementary therapies, and drop-in sessions where anyone can stop for tea and a chat. They organise social events too: a Pie & Mash dinner, a talent competition. Today, everyone is excited about a trip to the West End, to see the Christmas lights.

The centre has helped over 500 grieving people so far. Some are referred by their local doctor. Others, like Marie, have dropped in while passing – the location is handy, directly opposite the entrance to The East London Cemetery & Crematorium.

They find ways to cope with the problems that can follow loss – the anxiety, stress, sleep deprivation, anger, and depression. And they find the comfort of spending time with people who know what crippling grief feels like.

“If you’ve been on the journey, you know. It’s a monster,” says Sandra. “This place works because people feel supported and they feel heard. They realise they are not going mad; they are in grief, they are bereaved.”

Sandra offers a tour of the building. The private counselling room has two armchairs facing each other, touching distance apart. A box of tissues on a side table, another box for donations.

A smaller room with a massage table smells of warm, herby oils. Massage can ease grief’s physical toll, explains Sandra. There used to be funding for treatments, but it’s gone now. Yet professional masseuse Annette, who’s here today, has stayed. She offers her skills for no payment. “When you see the difference it makes, you can’t not do it,” she says.

In the back garden it’s sunny. There’s a concrete patio, two blue picnic tables, a couple of benches next to a barbeque. Bill, who was one of the first people to use the centre, now looks after the garden. On the wall is a colourful mural he painted. “It’s better for him than tablets,” says Sandra.

Back in the lounge area, which is about the size of a dentist’s waiting room, the group is talking about bus routes, parking problems, the people who left them, how they would all have gladly swapped places. Bill is proudly showing off some seascapes he painted. Leon has made a collage of bus tickets that he found in the attic.

There are laughs and more tears as the conversation continues to flow between trivial topics and those that are heart-breaking. “This is how it works,” says Sandra over the chatter. “We can just let them get on with it.”

Marie says that in her mother’s day you wouldn’t need a centre like this to help you through a loss. “My Mum would have said ‘come in for a cup of tea’. But that doesn’t happen any more.”

Now when her neighbours see her pushing her wheeled tartan shopping basket along the street, “they get in their cars and drive away. You shut the door and think, nobody wants me.”

She has family, but it’s hard for them to understand what she’s going through. The bereavement centre is like an oasis. “I feel safe here,” Marie says. “It’s calm. This is more… oh, I can’t explain.”

It can be hard to find a way of talking about how you feel, about your loss, says Sandra. You want to get back to your old self, but that person has gone now. You have to find a way to become someone else.

When her husband died, “I felt like someone had cut my heart out,” says Sandra. Her daughters were worried about her opening a centre for grieving people. “They thought it would be all doom and gloom, that I should move on. But this is brilliant. A lot of people who come here are suicidal. They would rather die than carry on. We are trying to bring people back. I believe we are saving lives.”

You can learn more about this charity here:



No strangers to photograph today, as I’m back working in the writing shed. So it’s off to the woods to shoot trees instead. Leading a writing workshop in Spain last year, I took a group of students on a walk; we stopped to “talk to the landscape”, asking questions of gateposts, stone walls and – yes – trees. That might sound like a strange activity, but it’s rewarding if you take a chance and go with it; in Spain it produced some beautiful writing, which we read to each other over beers and leathery jamon. Standing in the woods today, the wind forced trunks and branches together. Listening to the creaking wood, it’s easy to imagine that nature is in a conversation with itself: one it’s worth listening to.


Enjoying the light

London Bridge walk-4-2


Olivier, a French man in London. I was on my way to a board meeting at writers’ organisation Feeling knackered; still emotionally drained from a dear friend’s funeral last week. Olivier was leaning against a bollard on Borough High Street. “Are you waiting for someone?” I asked. “No, I’m just enjoying the light.” I enjoyed it with him for a while.

Always apologising

This is Sarah.

She was standing outside a laundrette in Pimlico, London, waiting for her wash to finish. I was on my way to visit a youth club project. “Can I take your photo?”

“Sure, what’s it for?”

“Nothing, just for my own purposes. Oh sorry, that sounds kind of creepy.”

“No worries,” she laughs.

I realise I’m lost. “Is there a youth club around here? Oh sorry, that sounds even more creepy.”

Us English, always apologising. #streetphotography

Why John didn’t want to be in this photo

London Bridge walk-5
Henry and John are standing on Tooley Street, London Bridge. “Can I take your photo?”

Henry says yes. John says no.

“He doesn’t want to be in the photo because he used to be a professional photographer,” says Henry. “He worked at The Times for years.”

I ask John: “So don’t you like photos?”

“Yes, but I know what can happen to them.”

“Are you worried about being in a paper?”

“No,” says John, “I’m worried about wanted posters.”

Henry chips in: “That’s right, he’s wanted by the Old Bill all over London.”