Thursday, May 09, 2013

100-Mile Conversation

Dear Readers,

I'm currently writing a blog that chronicles my adventures on  A 100-mile Conversation as they walk the South Downs Way, starting in Winchester and ending at Beachy Head.

You can read my article on the walk, and on Death Cafes at:

Read about burial mounds, blisters, lighthouses and magic circles, and watch Nathan and Louis' film trailer at:

Update: my blog has been deleted from the new 100-Mile Conversation web page.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Keep Your Head Above Water

I keep thinking this is it. I do my sad little wave, a quick bow. Goodbye, au revoir. Then I turn in my flip-flops and start my brief walk home.
Of course the following day I return to the water’s edge. Since autumn has arrived it happens less, but this game isn’t over. I refuse to leave the sea alone; I refuse to commit to King Alfred’s chlorine depths: the stinky changing rooms; kids’ hair in the plughole. There it's all straight blue lines, rubber-capped old ladies and the flailing arms of front crawlers. There I'm a machine cutting up water, a chugging mechanism, hidden behind goggles and cap. Nameless, sexless, meant for movement and breath, there I am the number of seconds it takes for me to touch the concrete ledge of the deep end. I disappear, no longer weighed down by the burden of being somebody. It's for this reason that I tolerate that ugly pool. 
Seawater magnetises, hypnotises, pulling me in to where it’s deep and slightly treacherous. Buoyant and serene, it calms my thumping heart and floats me home. Often it’s hard work (the dragging current, those endless bloody waves) but the reward is in the crashing orgasmic flood of the senses. The serotonin kick. 
I like swimming far out. But these days I listen to friends who say For fuck’s sake, Clare, be careful.  I chit chat with lifeguards. Check wind speeds on the Web. Never go in if waves break violently on the shingle. This summer I even surrendered my solitude and swam with others - we sped past buoys, circled the West Pier and sank back onto hard pebbles, thighs trembling.
The sea has a character and a culture of its own, a world apart from the hectic town I live in. This town doesn’t feel like mine, but down here is – amidst this silent, sturdy society of swimmers, surfers and fishermen. The sea’s an addiction, I know; I'm aware of the risks I run for the high I experience, for that joy peculiar only to open water – the vast expanse, the arctic chill on the toes, sun on face, an unhindered smile. I wonder who, or what, I'd be without it, what shape my life would take. No coincidence, of course, that I started sea-swimming when mum had her last stroke, the one that finally silenced her, that condemned her to unseeable depths somewhere between sky and land. Back then, swimming far out I escaped the world, escaped people, the tick tock of life; I entered her world for a while - fluid, formless and all that quiet
Sun's out. Sitting here writing I keep one ear out for the waves, and my nostrils still sniff seaweed. This could be the day. Last week the buoys disappeared – no markers now, no edges to swim out to. No yellow globe, slimy with seaweed. Just a cold abyss, a charcoal smudge beneath a cloudy skyline.
But I wade into a new experience every day; keep my head above water. Chance it one more time. Before friendly waves turn frosty. Before the last farewell of the season. 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Chaise Longue

The golden chaise longue wouldn’t fit through my door. It didn’t matter how often I uncoiled my tape measure or how many fags Hev smoked on the front step, it was too big - or my doorway was too small. I was stuck with an already paid for sofa in the hallway of my block of flats. Fellow tenants circled the chaise longue,  prodding it with fingers, offering up solutions, but we all knew the real answer: I had to get rid of it. 
Hev and I had driven it over that morning; it stuck out like a giant banana from the back of Jo’s Grandma’s Estate car. This was meant to be my new start, the opening credits to my freshly arranged life. If I am not to move from my flat in the near future, I'd vowed, I shall beautify, brighten and spruce up what I already have – a tiny attic flat, and rudimentary, with blue office carpets and a kitchen the size of a shower cubicle. But my tiny flat has an extra-special bonus – it’s thirty seconds from the sea, from swimming that sends me shivering back through my flat’s doorway. And that’s enough to keep me here.      
But the chaise longue wouldn’t fit. We propped it up in the hallway, and pushed the old one back up the three flights to my flat. It was like some poor old grandmother who refused to go back into the nursing home. Back inside my flat resembled a crime scene - furniture, cushions and rugs roughly thrown into various corners of my living room, my bedroom entrance blocked by an empty bookcase. Days earlier, I'd carefully arranged my books into sub-genres - now they trailed, sad, across the bathroom carpet. I sank down onto my living room floor with a cup of black tea (no milk; my fridge broke yesterday). Rain battered my windows. The chaise longue felt like a symbol for my life: a beautiful bright idea, but frankly, impossible.      
A friend dragged me out for chocolate cake. When I returned, rain lashing at my legs, hands and face, the chaise longue was still standing in the hallway, gorgeous and golden and looking bigger than ever. I squelched past it up the stairs (Converse trainers soak up puddles like Kleenex) and upon entering my flat, saw I’d left my bedroom window open. Rain had gushed in all over my laptop and the precious items of Mum’s that I’d gathered in Wales and placed by my shrine. Notebooks, a lacquered box, her hand support brace, trinkets, letters, all sodden.     
I'd like to think joy's around the corner. And that when it comes I will capture it in my palms and, after a while, set it free above the waves and pebbles. But the rains keep coming and little feels sacred anymore.     
I have this memory. I’m on a hillside smothered in buttercups; the sky is cloudless and blue. Buttercups stretch as far as I can see. They merge with the sunlight that’s half-blinding me, that drops golden over distant treetops. I am dancing down this hillside. With each step I take I shed a year of my life. With each thrust of my hand I shed another. Years drop from me like dead skin. Under soft sunlight and between two fences and the horizon, all pain disappears. There’s no cancer. No lupus. No epilepsy. No Alzheimer’s. No stroke, coma, pneumonia. No death. No struggle. No loss. Only golden light and a sheep staring at me from over a wooden fence. Only me, dancing, momentarily a girl again, sweet, silly, captivated by a perfect moment.    
There’s no way back to that hillside. So I move forward. Push chaise longues up steep flights of stairs. I work; write. I make absurd birthday presents out of ping pong balls for my friends. I put my flat back together again. I chase waves when they are big. I watch the clouds moving above my house. Wait for something golden to enter my life once again.   

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Occidental Park

I'm sitting in Occidental Park eating a grilled tuna and provolone sandwich. Most people here, except for a few tourists like me, appear homeless, mentally ill, or both. Two police officers slowly cycle the perimeter. This small square in Seattle's Downtown looks pretty with its Native American sculptures, its seagulls flying overhead.
To my left, a black teenager with crinkled hair drags her anorak collar across her mouth as she stares into space. Next to her sits a man in a t-shirt with multi-coloured circles on it and, beside him, an old guy in a battered straw hat who is smoking a roll-up.
As I look over at these three people, a woman comes over. She's dressed in a long black plastic coat and a black baseball cap turned backwards. She's walking onto the square from between a tall carved monkey and some other Totem animal that I don’t recognise. She is barefoot and has a large toilet roll under one arm. In the other, she holds a branch. She stabs at the pavement with it as she walks.

On top of her baseball cap, a black pigeon cleans its feathers. The woman's face is dark as peat. She yells out to the man in the t-shirt with the circles on.
He hollers back, his gold-rimmed specs glinting in the mid-afternoon sun. "I got something for ya!"
A Chinese lady next to me on the bench looks disturbed by this sight and stares, mute, at the pigeon that is still preening itself. She is well dressed - expensive shoes, neat hair. I want to share a conspiratorial smile with her, but she won't look at me. A few other tourists dot the benches. The pigeon woman sits down beside the man.
That pigeon looks as though it's always lived on her baseball cap. She stares at me with her black crack eyes. I look down at my notebook.
The Chinese lady lets out a crazy high-pitched squeal. I notice that the other tourists have left.

A cop approaches our bench. "JinSu?" he says to the Chinese lady.

She nods.

"Is anyone bothering or hurting you?" He adjusts his sunglasses. "Come see me if..."
He cycles off. A seagull flaps its wings. Fairy lights sparkle above an ivy-covered hotel doorway opposite. It looks out of place here, with its pastel umbrellas out front, its matching cloth napkins.
Everyone else is dozing. I should leave.

A man approaches the Chinese lady. "I've seen you before!" he says with a sneaky cat smile, "Did you get a shelter?"

She giggles.
I should go. I should leave.
 "I t-aught I taw a puddy cat!" shouts gold-rimed specs man. "I'm having flashbacks!"
Everyone else is silent, except for pigeon woman, who eagerly munches her sandwich. Three policemen now circle on push-bikes.
I get up and say goodbye to the Chinese lady. She looks at me for a second, and then smiles.

I want to be looking up at cranes, staring out at departing ferries. I start walking down towards the waterfront. I glance back and see the Chinese lady now leaning forward, her long black hair hung in strips, her anorexic hands clutching the air.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


Today in my bathroom, after I'd arranged shampoos and beauty products according to their  exact colour shade, after I'd scoured and sluiced my bathtub, sink, and toilet, after I'd painted the walls in Morning Mist and ummed and ahhed about what pictures to  hang, after I'd scrubbed the grouting with a toothbrush, I realised I might be avoiding a few things. What I felt most sad about avoiding was writing this blog. 
This blog used to be a place I turned to when the writing bug bit. It fulfilled a need to express powerful and not so powerful events in my life. It provided sanctuary for my soul. Then I started writing a book, completed an MA in Creative Writing and what-dya-know, I'm lucky if I write here a few times a year. Though I do blame lack of time (most of my energies are poured into agonising over where to place my next semi-colon), that's not the sole excuse. It's fear. I want to be taken seriously as a writer and so whatever I write and whatever medium I write it in I feel must be worthy of that. Yet when I wrote most on this blog, and best, I think, was when I wasn't worried about being taken seriously. I wrote because I wanted to. 
Writing a blog is exposing. Especially when writing about the kinds of things I tend to write about. I always tried to fight the desire to hide behind words - clever words, beautiful words, original language. My blog was rough and tender. It had strange poetry splattered across it. Posts about innocence and galaxies and stalking Bearded Collies along Hove seafront. About sea swimming and dinghies and falling off my bicycle and being rescued by old ladies with purple rinses. About my mother's stroke. My Dad's absence. About toppling into love and crawling back out again. Oh, and I wrote one post whilst on E.
My day-to-day life has never been that usual. Which is why I'm bothered to write in the first place.  I don't want to fall into that trap of seeking to please or of trying to be like other writers. Because we are all different breeds of creature. The animal I am can only walk, climb, kill and give birth my way. 
I've got a little hidden lately, down in my burrow. Dark eyes to the ground, incubating my babies.
So it's time to show myself again.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Northern Lights

I read an interview with Bill Drummond the other day, in which he talks about nostalgia. He describes it as a sickness to be cut out because it tells us lies about things being once better than they are now. Forget the past; think about today. As someone who spends a lot of time writing about the past and trying to make sense of it, I’m not sure how much I agree. I certainly can romanticise it, but not because I see it as better than the present, but largely because I view it as infinitely worse. Oh, the terrible times I lived through!

There are many things I don’t want to remember. The past tugs on my arm, demanding to be recognised. I turn the other way. “Oh no, we’ve never met before”. I shrug it off. How many of us do this – hiding in the present, scared of who we once were? The past would haunt us if we let it. But we won’t. We cut out nostalgia, and with it, remembering.

I think that’s why places from my past fascinate me, and why I can’t ever quite leave them alone. Because no matter how much I may think my life has changed, there’s always a little bit of myself I leave behind, like a photo, tucked inside some old jeans pocket. I never quite know when I’m going to accidentally pull it out, and feel surprised.

The other day I posted pictures on Facebook of my recent trip up North to Yorkshire and Snowdonia. They reflected back the dark, brooding mists of my homeland, those places I love so much. I can so easily romanticise the North from my flat in young, happening Brighton, with its candy-rock Palace Pier, it's everlasting stream of clear sky. I forget the days when I couldn’t wait to get the hell away from there.

Though I studied in Manchester for five years, it’s not fun college times I largely remember. It's days spent wandering the collapsed city centre immediately following the IRA bomb explosion in 1996. Ooh, what a laugh I am. As someone standing right near where it went off, it would have killed me and probably a thousand others had the IRA not issued a warning and the police been so quick to react. I’d stare at the blackened hole, leaning into the mesh that separated me from it, wishing I could wriggle underneath and walk unfettered through the dark heart of Manchester, through the ripped out concrete shells I’d once shopped in. Royal Exchange, Corn Exchange, Arndale Centre – all Manchester landmarks and great seats of consumerism, reduced to rubble. Just as vulnerable and fragile as me. In a strange way, it made me want to laugh.

I was upset when they began to rebuild it. I wanted something of that charred, empty space to remain, to remind everyone of the terrible thing that had happened. Now, I hardly recognise Manchester anymore. The shops are bigger and better and the Corn Exchange where I used to work - a crappy flea market filled with dodgy watch-dealers and astrologers - is now a Harvey Nichols. People don’t want to walk past a reminder of a city’s grief. They want the future. They want tomorrow.

Who can blame them? The last time I was in Manchester, I looked up at the sign on the wall of The Hacienda Apartments and thought ‘I could be sad about this, but the irony is too great.’ Perhaps those who, twenty years ago waved their arms up and down on The Hacienda stage off their nuts, were the same people who now drove their BMWs into the electronically controlled Private Parking spaces under the building and, kicking off their shoes, looked out over Whitworth Street and smiled.

Is this nostalgia? Wondering what I’d have done without that nightclub, the drugs and the dungarees, the Frankie Knuckles mixtapes and the dream Ecstasy gives you at that age? Standing on the corner of my road, aged fifteen, with my sister and some lads from Blacon who made acid house music on computers, shouting “In the beginning, there was House!” at old ladies in Mini Metros. Done my homework? Actually listened in Geography class?

Dashing in from school every Friday, I’d throw off my uniform, pull on my Kickers and wait for the car that would drive my sister and I up the M56, past Helsby Hill, past Runcorn chemical plant into Manchester. As we drove into the city centre, I’d catch sight of the queue that snaked half a mile down the street, my fake ID trembling in my hand. The doors would open and that familiar thud of bass-line and dry ice would hit me. I'd sip my coke, a pill sliding down my throat. Then half an hour later I’d push my way into the thick of it; sweat, bodies, faces, smiling, a crazy rush of communion, screaming up at the DJ box, “come on!” chanting like a tribe to its leader. I was home.

Bittersweet times. Isn't that youth at it's best? At its height, I fell in love with a boy in a pink NafNaf sweatshirt, who had black hair that curled over his ears and a dog called Blackie who bit my ankle. Pretty soon, I’d left the Blacon boys to their drum machines and started instead driving to Manchester with my new dark-haired boyfriend and his mate. We’d tear up the highway in his friend’s Rhosddhu Carpets van.

One morning, after a night at the Hacienda, my new boyfriend and I wound our way through grey tenement blocks and chip papers, to where the thudding bass continued all through the night. Hulme was beautiful to me then. We pushed open the door of a squatted flat, filthy with three-week old leftovers, swarming with flies in the July heat, trying not to touch anything. Then he and I lay down on a dirty mattress and held each other and looked into each other’s eyes, sunshine already breaking through the torn sheet across the window. It was the first time I’d been touched where my desire felt like something real, not something expected. I almost lost my virginity that morning, but we stopped last minute because we didn’t have any protection. I didn’t want to end up some girl pushing a pram at fifteen. I wanted to write, be in a band; get a degree. So I cried out, his hand between my thighs “Not now! I don't want to end up like bloody Michelle Fowler off Eastenders!”

On the way back from Snowdonia last week, we drove by the village where I grew up, so I decided to pop in on my sister. A familiar feeling of love and panic hit me. Beforehand, we drove to the cemetery where Mum is buried. However, when I arrived, there was no marking post, nothing to tell me where she was. Poor Mum. I rang Flintshire County Council and wandered through the graveyard clutching my mobile until they eventually found me her plot number. I sat down, feeling angry and sad. “Sorry Mum”, I said.

The last time I went to her grave, I lay down on the grass beside her, just as I’d lain the last time I saw her alive, struggling for air through a face mask in Wrexham hospital. I’d talked and cried, rubbing my fingers in the newly turned soil. But this time, my words evaporated in the silence, until, cold and hungry, I eventually got up and left.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The Scarf

I thought all I had left of him was a beige cashmere M&S scarf. This scarf is soft as cat fur. It goes everywhere with me.  A gift, one Christmas, he’d left it in a flat box, slipped between two others, on my Mum’s front step. He’d left gifts for several years after I stopped seeing him. We threw all the others away – on principle, you know? But I couldn’t bring myself to part with the scarf. Then one Christmas, all through Christmas Eve and the next day, I opened and shut Mum’s front door, snagging the holly wreath, letting in a chill. But the step remained empty.
That was the end of 2000. Tonight, as I returned home across town through a windy drizzle, I knotted that scarf around my throat; pulled it up over my mouth. I remembered our phone conversation, a week ago.
It was as though no time had passed at all. The first thing he said to me, after ‘Hiya love,’ was ‘There’s a fella here I’d like you to meet. History Professor. I’ve told him all about you. He's two beds down from me.’ That’s so Dad. Twelve years of painful nothingness between us and now he wants to show off his ‘clever daughter’ to the man in the other hospital bed. It was sad hearing him in the ward. The nurse talked about him being up and about on his Zimmer frame as though that was a good thing.
Zimmer frame?
The second time we talk, he tells me ‘You always were your mother’s daughter.’ Asks me what we are doing about Mum's house. ‘We’ve got to go for probate,’ I say, not mentioning the protracted grief, trauma and health problems my sisters and I have endured since our mother's death. 'But then I think it’s best that we sell it as soon as’. ‘Very sensible,’ says Dad. ‘You want shot of that millstone.'
 I’m stunned by the mysteriousness of my Dad’s life: it lies behind a door I’ve never opened - I never even so much as curled my fingers around the handle. Dad gave himself another family, another wife and stepchildren, even grandchildren. How did he do all that... without me? I know virtually nothing about the last twenty years of his life or the people in it – just a few names. In my mind, my father has stayed the same man as the one he walked out as in 1991, wearing the same clothes, holding the same attitudes, and with the same mistress. He's occupied some ethereal space in the back of my mind. I've had vague images of a hump-back bridge, a quiet leafy lane and a bungalow, paintings of landscapes from our old house hanging on its salmon-coloured walls. 
But for my Dad, of course, life moved on. For over half my own life-span, he’s lived another life – full, not empty and containing something approximating love. The mistress became his wife, the blonde bit of stuff became his step-daughter. Then what? Holidays to the South of France? Afternoons out to stately homes, with a cream tea for afters? Cosy nights on the settee front of the box? The question mark he left for us, his three children.
I’m not angry with Dad. Not now. Not today. Too much time has passed, and there is so little time left. It’s funny, he sounded like my Mum on the phone – that same softening of the palette, that child-like laugh. Is that how all people sound when they’ve reached a certain age or degree of illness? And a Zimmer frame. Bloody hell! That’s a far cry from his purple Porsche blasting 120 down the motorway. Dad shouts at the doctors, and argues with the nurses about his medication. That man could argue his way out of any situation. Any parking ticket. Any hotel bill. Any extra-marital affair. My Dad, the self-made man, unmade. He falls over on the living room carpet. Is at the mercy of medication and heart monitors, bad hospital food. He loves his food, my Dad. Butter spread thick as cheese.
I want my Dad to be happy. Not lonely under thin white sheets. Scared. Still I wonder how he lived all that life without me. How it became normal, to make me into a memory. It’s not nice feeling erased. So of course, I erased him, or tried to. I know when I’m not wanted.
When something has gone, it’s gone. And if it was never there, nothing will ever, ever, make up for it. Some people understand this more than others; they’ve learned it by experience. Yet so far, a couple of phone calls to my Dad have made a difference. Everyone has such a different relationship with their parents - and some people are better at being parents than others. Some are just plain rotten. But good or bad, the relationship simple or complicated, your mother, your father – they made you what you are today. Call it biology. Call it blood. They bloody know you.

Friday, November 19, 2010

A Handsome Man

Sunday, I came back from London. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. Things didn’t make sense. On the train home I read the spiral bound diary of a relative I couldn’t place – no name on the cover, only a date: Aug 6th 1938. I wasn’t even sure if the author was a man or a woman. They’d taken a train from London to Basle in Switzerland, (‘Train reservations wrong… terrific electric storm and rain all night through France’), and then on to Lucerne, and finally, Lugano. I traced the journey as my own carriage shuttled through East Croydon and Gatwick, aeroplanes humming overhead. I ate chocolate with hazelnuts. Then I flicked through some photos I’d taken away with me from my sister’s flat – of my mother and aunts as children, of my grandparents and great uncles, and my grandma’s semi-detached house in Shotton. I read a newspaper cutting about my aunt’s journey to Nigeria to teach at a local school, and two Easter cards I’d made in infant school for my mother. I’d also brought with me two photocopies: one, a newspaper cutting noting the funeral of my great uncle Preston, who died at sea, and the other, describing my great uncle Tony’s bravery as a ship’s officer in helping rescue the crew of twenty-four men of a Portuguese steamer, abandoned in a fire in the Bay of Biscay. 
It is strange thinking of all the men on my Mum’s side having had distinguished Naval careers. Generally speaking, I remember nothing of their lives - only dirty red brick terraces, a Woolworth’s and a butcher’s, fish and chips wrapped in newspaper. I remember Shotton steelworks pumping out grime; the whirr and clump of skates on Deeside ice rink. Yet even my Grandpa, of whom I have no memory, and who my mother described as a dour, emotionally blank man, sailed a clipper ship up and down the River Dee.
My Grandma and Great Aunts were the kind of women you’d expect from that period – born just after the turn of the century – strong, solid women with large shoulders, striding purposefully in flat, ugly shoes and black furs, handbags tight under their arms, hats propped neatly atop iron-waved hairdos. They kept house, and they kept each other going - proudly, and without fuss. Whenever I stayed at Grandma’s, despite her being up, without fail, at five-thirty each morning, she’d still open her curtains before we climbed the stairs to bed. I’ll not have her-next-door saying I can’t get out of bed of a Sunday morning.
I’ve always run from the family line. I think myself autonomous, born anew, escaping the ghosts of my past. But we can never finally stand apart. Can a box full of images really give me back my history, restoring my sense of belonging somewhere? These men and women who went before me, who lived and died, the images of their births, marriages, deaths, are as transient as moments of my own life, which seemed so important at the time yet now are lost in a blizzard. As I get older, what marks me diminishes; the significance of things punctures the skin less and less. When I was young, I opened my arms to it all, and life crowded in, promising so much. I seized it, and the bruises seemed worth it. Now, most are not. 
On Saturday, in a London restaurant, over pizza and pasta, my sister passed me my mother’s gold wedding ring. I slipped it on, not expecting to feel much; I’ve done my best not to feel much this last year. But as soon as it was on my finger, I felt a circle completing: Mum was all around me again, as though she’d never left.
I always cringed when she told me that had I been born a boy, she’d have named me Preston. Now my Uncle's picture is on my wall: in his white peaked cap, stripes across his jacket arm, gold buttons down his front. A handsome man, they said, and a brave one. A right charmer.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Under The Influence

I was in the upstairs spare bedroom singing along to Mary Coughlan's Under The Influence - Fifteen or Ice Cream Man, I don't remember which. It was my sister's LP, dragged from a dusty blue case beneath the dresser; slipped from its case and onto my old Rotel turntable. After twenty years, it still had hardly a scratch on it. I've been sneaking Under The Influence in and out of my sister's room since I was thirteen, back when it was a guilty pleasure - sleazy Irish ballads ill-fitting with the rest of my record collection. Coughlan's voice, to me, sounded like burnt treacle. The album must have reached a rousing chorus because when the phone rang I didn't hear it. Emma was shouting up the stairs. When I finally turned it down, walked out onto the landing, and saw her face, I knew that Mum was dead. 
A week after the funeral, I was back in Brighton and at work, decorating the house of an eight-and-a-half month pregnant financial adviser who, after we’d finished, stood on a chair checking each doorframe to ensure it was painted correctly. Perhaps I shouldn’t have gone back so soon. But the alternative felt worse: sitting around my flat, staring at my computer screen, listening to gulls rip up bin bags outside my living room window.
So I drove myself crazy at work instead. I sweated at the top of a stepladder until ten-thirty at night, listening to bad Experimental Jazz on Radio 3 or crouched in low-ceilinged bedrooms, cutting in skirting boards. I didn’t particularly want to think about Mum. I certainly didn’t want to talk to anyone else about her. I wasn’t particularly sad; in many ways I felt relieved – joyful, even. But friends told me I was vulnerable. That I needed to take care of myself. Stay grounded.
Staying grounded was the last thing on my mind.
That week, someone new came to work with us. Within a day I’d fallen in love with him. A man already in a relationship, a man with a disastrous psyche. Click-clop-thump— I ran into mess as fast as my Converse pumps could carry me.

But that’s another story. Eighteen months later that same man and I are decorating together again. Things have moved on; the affair long ended, the emotional entanglements of the previous year smoothed out into clear separate strands. It’s autumn and we’re painting a mansion in West Sussex. It’s a country idyll. During tea breaks I stroll down the path towards lush gardens and an orchard with trees hanging with apples and pears. Every so often white horses in the neighbouring field break into a gallop, tearing across damp grass under Wolstonbury Hill. We are painting the windows of a once internationally famous actress – the kind who always seemed to be semi-nude in films, and who was once declared to be ‘one of the most beautiful women in the world’. She smiles at me from her doorway, her un-manicured fingers on her hips, her heavy-lidded eyes free from make-up. Cats curl their tails about her ankles. I take heart in her crumbling beauty and in the wild lawns that surround us. There is now friendship with this man, and the pain of what happened to Mum – those salmon-coloured hospital walls, canteen tea in its polystyrene cup, the hum and beep of life support machines – has faded. I can almost forget how, before Mum died, each time I’d looked from the nursing home window a bird would be hopping about on the frozen earth, or in sunshine, as if to show me my mother’s own soul – how it could be if only it was free to go, leave; exit the building.

Two weeks later, the weather turns, the job ends and the orchard, the summerhouse, the galloping horses all get washed away by a black, pounding rain. My friendship with the man dissolves into mud, accusations hurtling through mean damp air. Again I sit alone in my flat, a little more worn and once more with time to write. I’ve heard it said that grief and sex are inextricably linked: two sides of the same sharp knife. It’s true, the summer after Mum died, I was a bird flying into a shut glass window. But after such a cruel three year period of glacial stasis, I felt finally free. And that meant I was free to fuck up my life however I chose. Because of that, I couldn’t regret a thing.

Soon I’ll put on my parka, step out into the shuddering rain and head up to the Post Office to collect my recent purchase: Mary Coughlan’s Under The Influence. We can’t recapture what was beautiful about the past, but we can let it call out to us again.
I am glad that when the phone call came, I was singing.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Coming of December

It’s almost November. Soon the season will turn to grief, as it does every year. This year it will be more so. December used to be the one winter month I actually liked, now it's diseased with bad memories – fluttering snow, a chilled top deck of a Greenwich bus, that phone call. And for all I’ve achieved this year despite ill health, despite the hard times, I regret my failure to deal with what happened last December, with the loss that was not my loss; that belonged to someone else I love deeply. Because of this, I never worked out quite how to get over it myself.

A hot bath can work wonders: it is immersion, solace; a bone-soother. Tonight I emerged from the water revived, but sad, and desperate for a cuddle. I dried myself and came to this portable computer, to these awkward, tiny keys, not knowing what to say, as has become usual these last weeks. I feel apart from the world. I have no peace, love and understanding with which to package up its evils into pretty, bowed, gift sized pieces. Years ago, I had ideals. Now, the bodies pile up. 
I loved the snowfall last December, even during the funeral - it cast a white dream over everything. Yes, I tell myself it could all have been a dream. But I remember the blossom tree from the morgue toilet window - flakes falling in front of it like television static. Footprints covered over as soon as they were made.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Bring Out Your Dead!

For weeks now I’ve had hulking great ‘writer’s block’. Each morning has been the same: my fingers hover over my keyboard, sentences in my head unraveling themselves, the passion in my belly shrinking to nothing. No metaphors spring from the black pit of my brain. No imagery dances across my tired eyes. I am null and void. Kaput. Bring out your dead! I want to shout from my living room window. I find it hard to believe I’ll ever write another good sentence again, or that I ever did. Words clunk into each other, and so I press DELETE over and again, unpicking all I thought I wanted to say. I'm presented with a blank page, an unscratchable itch. A life without writing.
Where once was bustle, voices, movement, now is shadow and an eerie quiet. It’s been great for getting on with the rest of life – I’ve mended two record players, been prompt with my recycling and even caught up on hula hooping. I’ve earned money. But the silence is disturbing. I think of those Chilean miners after the tunnel had collapsed, seven hundred metres under solid ground; I imagine them staring through torchlight at impenetrable walls. They survived on so little sustenance, but more, they survived that deathly quiet. They kept themselves going by making enough noise to drown it out - the silence that encircled them like a noose. They sang, prayed, talked; they planned, and laughed.
Oh, to have such guts. Today the sky outside my window is heavy, as though it’s propped up by the two TV aerials on the roof of the house opposite. Someone told me the other day that in dreams we cast no shadow, that the unconscious is self-illuminating. So I slap my hand to see if I’m really awake. Or if I’m merely sleepwalking through my days: mornings spent in a cheap dressing gown, pressing fingers against a hot, stained teacup hoping it will stir my unconscious voice into life. A world without words is an easier place, but also a colder one. I take a sip of tea, stare down into the white hole of my computer screen - and freeze.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Navel Gazing

The younger I was, the more I investigated my body’s secrets. I explored each tiny place with curiosity: palms against soft, white skin, fingers poked in ears, bitten nails skating the dip of my throat. My body was not just familiar territory – it was my very own erratic, unkempt kingdom. Until puberty, I didn’t judge the merits or defects of the blood and bones that kept me alive, I only marvelled at its wonders. I’d sit on the stool in front of morning re-runs of Batman, peering down into the dark cavern of my nightie, breathing in its musty smells, touching the mole on my upper thigh, pulling at a new scab on my knee.
However, when I reached eleven or twelve, things changed. I swung from fascination to repulsion with my body, depending on my mood or what magazines I’d been reading. We were close like lovers - sometimes at peace, but often warring, confused, simmering, full of desires and woes. Still we remained allies against the outside world.
But as I grew older, we gradually parted company. And as others began to explore my body, I knew it less. Each nook, each tangle seemed less remarkable to me as others uncovered it. As lovers commented on its curiosities and miracles, I grew bored, forgetful. When I was nineteen, I got my belly button pierced. Perhaps that was the start of it. As seems the curse of pubescent girls, my teens had been wracked with bodily despair and an obsession with perfection – perfection that, naturally, I’d never achieve. I had longed to get a piercing since I was thirteen - as though somehow that would empower me, taking me out of teenage insecurity into something deeper, darker, more primal. Though it was years later, getting it done somehow felt like a rite of passage. In that Withington bedroom, lying there as my tattooed friend leaned over me in his black, sleeveless T-shirt, I had fainted, my belly button disappearing beneath a sheer bolt of silver. He screwed a tiny silver ball in at one end and I didn’t see my belly button again for another eighteen years.
When I was little I used to spend hours playing with my belly button  – an ‘innie’ - small, round and perfect, serving as a secret hiding place for toast crumbs. When the piercing fell out in the bath a couple of months ago, I decided not to feed the silver bolt back through again. Despite the unsightly scar I liked seeing my belly button. It felt ‘natural’, whatever that means, and as though I was recovering some aspect of innocence – all fresh, pink and soft.
It’s unnerving to think that the umbilical cord attaching me to my mother was imbedded in this unassuming tissue. And that the cord no longer exists, as she no longer exists. Yet the hole remains, and surprisingly, for the first time in a long time, I can see it. It's a full moon lighting the way back to that place from which I emerged, where I once belonged, wrapped up in wet unconsciousness, blind, unaware of my skin as separate from hers. One red flesh, pulsing together.
I stick in my finger, pull the sides apart, and look inside. It’s still small, round and perfect. I wiggle the finger in that black eye, a warm aperture, a relic of an eternally lost hiding place. Can that cord continue, I wonder, or has it irrevocably snapped? Could I become a mother? Inside me, an unknown beating heart, some tiny pupil into which my body pumps all that I gorged on as a child, all that was given me by my own, unseen mother?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Anyone for Pingpong?

To those who know me well, it won’t exactly be news to read this. They’ve heard it all before. They even love me for it. However, for those who don’t, here it is.
I, Clare, don’t fit in. Anywhere. Never have done; never will. The only place where I feel remotely at home is with other people equally as estranged as myself. Even then as some kind of group gradually forms, I never fully feel part of it.
Welcome to the human race, I hear you cry.

I’ve tried on various identities throughout my life (as though they were ill-fitting raincoats or top hats). And I spent the first twenty years of my life feeling lost as to what my identity might even be. It was only when I became Buddhist that I began ‘exploring’ different sides of myself. I ditched my long black skirts for sky-blue dresses stitched with swirls (gazing at them helped me slip into blissful, meditative states). I went on the road with like-minded people. I experimented with ‘open relationships’ (placing values of ‘freedom’ and ‘letting go’ above the humiliation of having to smile at parties like someone had just stuck a fork up my arse as my beloved seduced some hippy dippy chick with perfect tits.) I saw Buddha nature in everyone. Made 'spiritual' friends. 'Found’ myself. Lost myself. Found myself again. Then I realised - I still don’t sodding fit in.

Within the Buddhist movement in which I was involved, I was encouraged to give up my name and my personal vision, supplanting it with another, greater one. I could be an individual as long as I took on board someone else's interpretation of Buddha's teachings and swore my faith on it. A big part of me wanted this. But I was still, on some level, doing as I was told. And I was doing it alongside people who at best possessed grace and compassion as well as insight into their own and others' lives, but who at worst were nutters you wouldn’t have given the time of day to had they not been wearing a skull mala or able to harmonise brilliantly on a Vajrasattva mantra.
So I left and became ‘an artist’ - a writer. Maker of music. Poetry scribe. I kept going with the fucked up relationships but moved into a flat on my own where I no longer had to put up with people’s rows about veggie sausages or Tantra or why one person had 'inadvertently’ shagged the other's boyfriend. I shut my door - the world and Enlightenment could fuck right off.
It’s a shame about loneliness. And it’s a shame that being ‘an artist’ brings with it all the same bullshit everything else does. I replaced a genuinely deluded idea that I could escape the pain of being alive by getting Enlightened with a genuinely deluded idea that I could transform that pain into great stories and poems that would bring me a purpose in life (and an income). That I’d fit in somewhere – into the world of books and writers. Hey, I’d make songs and maybe I’d become some kind of pop diva (even if my songs were about sticking ex-friends in freezers, burning down cities ,and ‘deep-throating’ large mulberries). I’d find my place – not in renouncing the world, but in reclaiming it for my very, freaky own.
Oh dear. I spent five years filing my poems away, writing a blog read by approximately 3.5 people and performing, ooh, at least twice. So then I decided on something else. This time I wasn’t going to shy away from the very thing I’d kept at least half-shoved in the closet most of my life.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


I’m a North Welsh woman who grew up on the border with England. I’m from a rich family but my parents came from poor working-class backgrounds. My Dad never gave me a penny of his money and my mother’s last job was as a cleaner but I went to a private girls' school. I’m intelligent but rubbish at pretending to be clever. I’m pretty but getting old. I am disappointed by men, and fear women. I am a Buddhist who believes in God, a closet Catholic who can’t stand the Church. I fancy girls with guns and boys who play banjo. And yes, I realise they are cliches. I fancy cliches too. Oh, and I fall most passionately in love with people who are dysfunctional and creative and generally confused.
And my next identity move? Living as someone who is motherless and, essentially, fatherless as well. Living as someone who is thirty-seven and childless, broke, living in rented accommodation and trying to make it as a writer of some integrity. Living as an epileptic - assimilating that into my life and taking what I can from it that makes me a more interesting individual - living with the vision it gives and the dark places it takes me to. There’s nothing like 24 volts of electricity surging through your brain to make you even more convinced of life’s instability, and at times, of its wonder.
Life is a series of ‘Over the Rainbow’ moments (and I'm not talking about the TV programmme). So here's my advice - watch out for the witch with the green face, but watch out even more for the one who looks like Dorothy. Follow that yellow brick road, even if it is leading to a place that doesn’t exist. And don’t worry too much if you end up rolling around awhile in a field of poppies. They smell great and we all need to get high sometimes, somehow.
You can trust Toto.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

New York

I remember my trip to New York in 2005. Over the winter months, I’d been emailing with a young writer from North Carolina (whom I shall call C), who’d recently lost his father. One evening, in a long email quoting Richard Siken, he invited me to meet him in New York and explore the city together. I didn’t need asking twice. I'd dreamed of New York since I was twelve, and in particular, The Chelsea Hotel, gorging myself on a teenage diet of The Velvets, Chelsea Girls, Dylan’s Sara and Cohen’s ode to Janis Joplin’s blowjob. Also, I was more than happy to flee my current love affair that I knew (my small heart temporarily crippled) was never going to work out.
Before I flew out, I emailed C to say I'd see him at five o' clock the next afternoon in the Museum of Modern Art, in front of a painting of St Anthony in the Wilderness. After arriving in the city I'd trudged, exhausted, up Fifth Avenue, my green fraying rucksack heavy on my shoulders. However when I reached the grand glass doors, security stopped me. No bags. So C and I met instead outside by the trashcans, a bird pendant swinging around his neck.
Other snap-shots remain fixed in my memory. I remember the morning I left Brighton - a taxi ride to Poole Valley bus station, my vision of early morning travellers and dark-glass windowed coaches blurred by sleep. I remember the feel of a warm hand on mine, a copy of James Joyce's Ulysses bluetoothed to my mobile. The goodbye was dream-like and beautiful, empty of substance. 
Then I remember swooping down towards Newark airport, the Statue of Liberty dirty and unimpressive below me. The city seemed like a grey polluted stain, and the Hudson, a stream of drizzle spinning down a gutter. I remember falling asleep on a single bed (in a house with four giant poodles, where I was fed cream cheese bagels at midnight and we watched The Sopranos). C, no longer a boy, but not yet entirely a man, read O' Brien's The Third Policeman to me, images of Macruiskeen and old Mathers cycling into my dreams.
I also remember swinging, orangutan style, from scaffolding with C whilst we waited for a poet to emerge from a subway.  C had talked much about him and held him in high esteem. We played footsie as a black curly shock of hair rose up into view from behind a metal railing. And then I remember driving through Boston at three in the morning, Lambchop on the car stereo, a house huge and ghostly, rearing up like a hallucination behind a white picket fence and neatly cut lawns.
I remember a kiss, like tango, or rather a desire for tango in an apartment near Central Park with huge white radiators. I recall the sound of the key in the lock and the clatter of a flatmate returning --  C and I, muted, still, frozen together, pressed together in the spare bedroom.
I remember turning a corner in the MOMO and facing Yves Klein's Blue canvas –  a sudden dizziness – sky coursing my veins, invisible currents knocking me backwards towards the wall. No other art in the building did that to me and none has done that to me since.
And I remember standing in a rainstorm on my last night with that same poet who'd met us from the subway - his hair frizzy and glistening with pearls, yellow taxi cabs speeding past us. In a single moment I fell in love with the blackness of the storm, the glare of headlights and this thirty-year-old woman-chasing poet standing by my side - disarmed, hopeless, desperately trying to hail me a cab, squinting at me through rain-spattered spectacles. 

The Daily Growl

Saturday, April 10, 2010


Anyone who has been to Beachy Head knows the vertigo that peering over that chalky-white cliff to the rocks below can induce. It’s the kind of thing that either thrills you or makes you nauseous, depending on your temperament. And neither the lighthouse - that striped pepperpot sticking out into the ocean - nor the horizon where blue meets blue, can soften the fact that this is a place where people go to kill themselves. 
Sad remnants of deaths are strewn all along the cliff-edge – cotton flowers faded with sunlight, tiny wooden crosses and small cards with messages of love etched in biro.
Yet even as you walk along the edge, looking over into white frothy waves, seagulls swooping and rising, you can easily miss something that’s nestling in a clump of trees, halfway down the jagged slope. Squint, and you’ll make out rusty car windows, a bashed in bonnet. I noticed this car the first time I took a bus along the coast road through Newhaven and Cuckmere, towards those cliffs looming over Eastbourne. The car seemed like a drunk who'd fallen over and now lay face down, pissed, in some hedgerow. Grass has gradually grown over most of it so that now it’s almost invisible and easily missable. I find it terrifying - the empty driver’s seat, passenger door flung open, its glass long-gone. I wonder who, why, and how it came to be there, and how long the person who accelerated it off that cliff lay inside its crushed metal or thrown across bracken before the helicopter rescue team flew down over the Sussex coastline. Perhaps they jumped before the wheels skidded off the crumbling edge. I hope so, though somewhere I doubt it.
A few years ago, I sat on a bus that steadily rose through the Alpujarras mountains in Andalucia, Spanish voices chattering loudly around me. I shielded my eyes from view out of the window - a steep, rock-strewn incline, diving hundreds of feet down. From time to time I’d peer out from between my fingers, and almost every time would spot another car contorted like a body in the grass, beside olive trees. I followed the trail of devastation, like markers on the road to annihilation - my palms sweaty, teeth crunching down desperately on boiled sweets.
Seeing an abandoned car or one crushed by gravity is obviously less horrifying than, say, passing a car wreck – time has passed, the suffering has long since gone. Yet to me, it is compelling, scarring; evocative of all that we pretend to be far away from our daily realities - death and destruction, losing control at the wheel; that exhilarating fall. I remember as a kid trying to recall the best way to escape a car that was sinking into the river (I watched TV programmes on it, read stories about it) and the terrifying prospect of sitting in some airless container until enough pressure had been released so that the windows could be rolled down. When they invented automatic windows, my first thought was – so what am I meant to do now…? I’d be sunk, mouth like a goldfish, gulping nothing.
Recently I walked with friends through countryside that was flat and waking up with the first signs of spring. At the side of the small road that led towards nearby fields, we spotted an old barn. With its peeling white painted planks, its still spinning weathercock and dark, smashed windows, it looked mysterious, inviting. I peered in through dead grass that blocked the doorway, but inside was filled only with rolls of barbed wire and empty crisp packets. However, out front, two cars sat side-by-side. It was as though two people had parked up, turned off the ignitions and just wandered into fields and towards the river, knowing they'd never return. Decaying and mildewed, these cars were oddly mesmerising like some old, dead couple, still holding hands.
I don’t drive. Probably never will. Is that part of the reason why I’m so fascinated with cars that no longer function? Why I want to wrench open the doors, climb in, and sit inside the wreckage?


Thursday, April 01, 2010

Writing Manifesto

  •  Keep going through self-doubt, criticism, a sore back, rejection, ridicule and terror.
  • Honour that tiny light that sparks sometimes when I touch keyboard or grip a pen.
  • Let go of pride, decency, even ambition.
  • Make that stab in the dark.
  • Dwell in uncertainty and make friends with insecurity. Be hungry.
  • Leap for that goal. Turn into a rainbow shoal of fish as I do it. Or a dead man in a stinking overcoat.
  • Kiss the scabs on my fingers.
  • Wander down some cold back alley in an unknown country, at three in the morning (without my cardigan, and in heels).
  • Stare without blinking.
  • Love loneliness, or at least offer it a whisky when it comes knocking on my door in the rain.
  • Stay with struggle.
  • Have the grace to fall.
  • Have bruised knees and no one to phone at two in the morning.
  • Watch. Listen.
  • Stop loving the sound of my own voice.
  • Let go of being clever or the desire to be clever, or to be seen as clever.
  • Sever myself from ideas of success.
  • Feed beauty. Track wonder. Breath out fire. Dream.
  • Die not with a thorny blue rose in my palm but with a ridiculous happy look on my face, and odd socks.
  • Love.
  • Take delight.
  • Run rings around inadequacy. Remember the blood in my veins even as I wake up with a hangover.
  • Embrace boredom.
  • Run out of teabags three lines before the end of the paragraph and laugh whilst cursing.
  • Freefall.
  • Chill the fuck out
  • (it will never be what I want it to be.)
  • Accept/ever accept.
  • It is solace, so give solace.
  • It is generous - so give the shirt off my back.
  • Take those risks, the ones that matter.
  • Eschew judgment, especially my own viperous tongue.
  • Kiss fear on the mouth or at least one cheek.
  • Never give up.
  • Carry on swimming out until the yellow buoy is under my hand.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

That Day

I opened my curtain this morning and peeped out, expecting to see a white river spreading across the streets and rooftops of Hove. But the road below me was grey, dry and hard, as though no snow had fallen at all over Sussex these last weeks.
Yet yesterday as we spilled out onto a London pavement, clutching flowers, coconuts; two packets of butter, handbags and a brightly painted Ganesh statue, the heels of my brown 1940s shoes sank straight into slush and ice. Snow smothered pavements and cars; I stumbled towards a taxi.
We were running slightly late. In fact all the guests were running slightly late, except for the Hindu priest, who was running rather late. My friend S, coming from Brighton, stood on a platform at East Croydon staring at Cancellation signs on the departure board, and the snow was still drifting down. South East London was muffled by white. I suspected that the five of us squeezed into the cab might be the only ones making it to the crematorium that morning. My sister, her calm expression suddenly cracking, said, "I'll do the bloody service myself."
There aren't many days in your life where you say have to goodbye to someone you love, and won’t ever see again. Tears mess up your eyeliner; hands shake, voices wobble. Ordinary life seems like a silly childish sketch: bus journeys to work, petty arguments; that TV programme you can’t bear to miss. However, such days seem to have increasingly crept up on my family and I over the last few years, to the point where they feel more normal and real than anything else a lot of the time. Jobs, money, relationships, aspirations: these are the things you do between heartbreaks, and not vice versa.
In Hinduism, yesterday was an auspicious day, one where sins are cleansed, and night and day are of equal duration. Anyone sent to the other world on this day is especially blessed. After we’d arrived at the Crematorium, I couldn't help feeling, as I watched snow hanging off oak branches in clumps, weighing heavy on rose petals in the garden, that we might be the only people left in the world, the rest of it muted to silence, whited-out by puffy snow-clouds.
Soon taxis pulled in; legs stretched out onto pavements. The driveway filled up. Everyone had made it.
I can write about before the funeral and I can write about after, but not about what happened in between. These things are too personal. All I can say is that I think it was what he'd have wanted, absolutely. And I was proud to be there.
I ate twelve ciabatta sandwiches yesterday, including three I grilled for my dinner at my flat later that night, after it was all over. I'd left my sisters, friends - people I've loved long before I really knew what love meant - hanging over the balcony of a London block of flats, waving the paw of a dog at me. Then I trudged again through thick snow into darkness, the wet gloom of a tunnel finally gobbling me up. I sat on the train eating Reese's Cups and crying quietly, the day, the last month, finally catching up with me. Beauty, suffering: two sides of the same inexplicable force we call life. Of course there's not one without the other. But knowing this doesn't make it any easier, does it?
The sadness didn't leave; it followed me into my dreams, and was there when I woke up this morning. But now I'm here. Tomorrow, things will be different again. Life moves. The snow melts. The rose opens its petals.

Friday, November 20, 2009

No Music Day

I’m a North Welsh woman who grew up on the border with England. I’m from a rich family but my parents came from poor working-class backgrounds. My Dad never gave me a penny of his money and my mother’s last job was as a cleaner but I went to a private girls' school. I’m intelligent but rubbish at pretending to be clever. I’m pretty but getting old. I am disappointed by men, and fear women. I am a Buddhist who believes in God, a closet Catholic who can’t stand the Church. I fancy girls with guns and boys who play banjo. And yes, I realise they are cliches. I fancy cliches too. Oh, and I fall most passionately in love with people who are dysfunctional and creative and generally confused.
And my next identity move? Living as someone who is motherless and, essentially, fatherless as well. Living as someone who is thirty-seven and childless, broke, living in rented accommodation and trying to make it as a writer of some integrity. Living as an epileptic - assimilating that into my life and taking what I can from it that makes me a more interesting individual - living with the vision it gives and the dark places it takes me to. There’s nothing like 24 volts of electricity surging through your brain to make you even more convinced of life’s instability, and at times, of its wonder.
Life is a series of ‘Over the Rainbow’ moments (and I'm not talking about the TV programmme). So here's my advice - watch out for the witch with the green face, but watch out even more for the one who looks like Dorothy. Follow that yellow brick road, even if it is leading to a place that doesn’t exist. And don’t worry too much if you end up rolling around awhile in a field of poppies. They smell great and we all need to get high sometimes, somehow.
You can trust Toto.