Recording things as they are

Thinking about the relationship between imagination, creativity and the impulse to document.

Not sure what i think yet.

It’s complex.

But thinking about it.

From Stuart Franklin, The Documentary Impulse

Is your bucket a colander?

Drop a bucket down the well. See what you can pull up.

But don’t get stuck at the bottom of the well.

And make sure your bucket isn’t a colander.

From Writing Poems by Peter Sansom

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.

Each moment is a leap forwards.

One of the good things about getting older is that your kids are old enough to choose amazing Father’s Day gifts.

It’s time to step recklessly into the book I have not yet written.

From the White Book, by Han Kang.

Thanks Evie.

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.”

Walking, writing, photographing

A forlorn beach hut. I’m writing about Rye Harbour Nature Reserve as part of a residency project with creative collective 26.org.uk.  It’s a beautiful place, but my word is it windy! Hard to hold the camera steady outdoors. And the few notes I scribbled in my book are almost indecipherable. But this process of walking, photographing and writing is one I enjoy immensely, whatever the conditions.

“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”

Rachel

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:

www.dropinbereavementcentre.btck.co.uk

Listening

trees-1

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.

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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 26.org.uk. 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

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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.”

Experiments in street photography

Andy

I love street photography, especially portraiture. I’ve taken candid shots of people before and caught some interesting moments. But I’ve never gone up to a stranger and asked them if I can take their photo. The main obstacle was fear, I think. What if they said no? Plus there’s that innate English awkwardness: who am I to go around interrupting people?

Then last week I was killing some time in Canterbury, taking a few photos of not much in particular. I was standing next to a friendly looking guy with a beanie hat and a beard. I though to myself, ‘you know, if you don’t ask this friendly looking guy for a photo, I don’t think you’ll ever ask anyone.’ So I asked him: “Can I take your photo?”

He said, “Sure”, and went to take my camera; he thought I’d asked him to take a photo of me. “No, I want to take your photo,” I explained. He said ok again, and went back to what he was doing: looking out across the street.

I fired two quick shots, showed him one of them – he smiled and said “nice” – asked him his name – Andy – and then walked off.

It was exhilarating. Like reading a story to an audience for the first time or performing live-lit in the street.

Mavis2

Having overcome the fear of… well, of whatever I was scared of, I wandered around seeing who else might catch my eye. Pretty soon, I found Mavis. “Can I take your picture?” I asked. “Yes,” she said. No questions about why, or what would I do with it, or why her. She just seemed pleased that I’d shown an interest.

Christian and KateThen I went for lunch in the Boho Cafe – cheese and cauliflower soup. When I paid the bill, I asked the owner, who was working behind the counter, if I could take his photo. He said ok, and then his wife, who was waitressing, joined him. They are Kristian and Kate. I was too slow to catch it, but right after this frame he kissed her on the cheek, and they had a quick hug.

I went away reflecting on my first stranger photos. I’d like to be able to take photos that look better than this; improvement will come with practice. But what feels more important to me is that the request to take a photo created an opportunity for me to connect with new people. Without a camera in my hand, I wouldn’t have spoken to Mavis or Andy; Kristian and Kate wouldn’t have had that mid-afternoon kiss.

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A couple of days later I was back in Canterbury for a writing workshop. I met Deke, a performance poet. Asking for his photo seemed like a normal thing to do now.

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Then walking around town I saw Carol. She was standing outside the Cath Kidston shop, waiting for her husband. Again, I don’t make any claims for the artistic or technical quality of these photos. For me they are reminders; visual mementoes of brief, unexpected encounters.

I walked around a while longer after photographing Carol. I asked one other person if I could take her photo and she said no: my first rejection. But it didn’t feel so bad.

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Adding a little bit of happiness

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This is Mick. He runs a South London charity called the Furzedown Project. Its mission is to prevent loneliness among the elderly. Mick organises activities like singing groups, knitting circles and exercise classes.

He’s 56 and has been at Furzedown for the last seven years. “It’s a nice place to work,” he says. “I come here with the purpose of adding a little bit of happiness to the world.”

Before Furzedown, he worked in residential care, sheltered housing and community development. “There was never much of a career plan,” he says. “But I’ve been lucky enough to work with some interesting people.”

“So is it fair to sum you up as a do-gooder?” I ask. “Oh, I don’t know about that,” says Mick.