Squiggles

This monologue was originally intended to feature in Such a Nice Girl, the play I wrote for the Just Festival in 2014. The character was cut and the play went in a different direction, but this piece has been used once or twice as a standalone monologue. I’m sharing it here because the events that inspired it have been on my mind of late. (I’m also sharing it under a Creative Commons license, so if you’re an actor and you want to use it you can do so royalty-free – click here for full details.) 

 

Squiggles. That’s what I used to call her. Partly on account of her hair – growing out of her head in little squiggles, but that wasn’t where it really came from.

 

No, it was from when she was two, and her big brother had just learned to write his name at school. Eilidh was determined she was going to write hers too, so she went and got her crayons and made her daddy write her name so she could copy it, just like Alisdair’s teacher had done for him. Then she took her favourite crayon, her blue crayon, and she had it in her wee fist, with her head down so her nose was just about touching the paper, and she was like that for about fifteen minutes until she came up to me with this solemn look on her face and said “Here you go, Mummy. That’s my name. Put it on the fridge.” And I looked at it and she hadn’t even tried to copy the writing at all! She’d just drawn all these squiggles. So I looked back at her and asked, quite seriously, “Is your name Squiggles?”

 

And she looked at me – she was such a serious wee lass, you could never tell if a thing like that would make her laugh or cry. I raised my eyebrows, making myself look even more serious, and that’s when she decided to laugh. And then she wouldn’t stop laughing, and said yes, that was her name, and it just kind of stuck. I kept calling her Squiggles even when she was too old for that sort of thing and would just sigh and pretend she didn’t know me.

 

Telling her I was dying was… Well, you can imagine. Jim offered to tell the kids, or I could have got the doctor to do it, but… The poor doctor, he was only about Alisdair’s age himself. Must have drawn the short straw. Looked like he’d rather be anywhere else, like he was wondering why he hadn’t just skived school and got a job at McDonalds. He was sitting in the chair next to my bed, and I was patting him on the shoulder and shushing him and thinking about how his shirt needed an iron. I knew what he was saying, but he could hardly get the words out. He kept getting as far as “I’m so sorry, Mrs Curran,” then he’d stammer and start again so I just said “I know. It’s ok. I know.”

 

And I did. I knew. I knew the minute I saw his face. Truth be told, I knew the minute the ultrasound man stopped as he was going over this bit here and went over it again. I knew when they said I’d to get a biopsy. I knew this was what they’d been looking for, even though they hadn’t said the name. All those tests I’d had over the last year. All those times when they’d told me it was stress or IBS or the menopause – because if you’re my age, everything’s the bloody menopause – I knew it was this. Cancer. Too fast and too aggressive to fight it, or even to slow it down. Sometimes you just know, it’s like your whole body saying to you “Come in Number 99, your time’s up!”

 

So I couldn’t let the wee doctor lad tell my family when I’d had more time to get used to the idea than he had. I told Jim first, and I could see how hard it hit him, but I could see him push it down into that part of his brain where he keeps things to be dealt with later. And he said he’d tell the kids, and I said maybe he could tell Alisdair. Ally’s like his dad, he’ll deal with things in his own way. He’s never really liked to show his feelings in front of his mum. He’d be better off with his dad. They could shrug and be silent about it. But Eilidh needed to hear it from me, and I needed to be the one to tell her. So I did.

 

And she looked at me, just the same look on her face that she had that day she tried to write her name. And I remembered that, and I raised my eyebrows like I did back then and wished she’d laugh. I could have done with seeing her laugh. But this time she didn’t. This time she just welled up and stared at me and said “Mum, I can’t manage without you.”

 

And I just said “Oh, Squiggles. You’re going to have to.”


The Tale of A Defective Woman

For International Women’s Day, I’ve decided to share the story of my infertility, sterilisation and the opposition I faced for wanting to control my own body. I make no apology for oversharing, and I’m not interested in any attempts to persuade me that I should have children. 

 

It’s been 18 months since I got sterilised. I’ve been considering whether to write about it ever since the operation, on the one hand eager to share my experiences but on the other eager to avoid the negative response that so often greets a woman choosing not to give birth.

 

In my case the childless state wasn’t wholly my choice. I’ve known since I was 17 that I was highly unlikely to conceive naturally. That was fine with me. I already knew that I didn’t want to conceive at all, so I reconciled myself to my infertility quite easily. However, several other women in my family had been told the same thing and had gone on to produce legions of offspring, so I knew better than to take any risks.

 

The most logical solution, it seemed to me, was to seek tubal ligation. A one-off minor operation struck me as a far better option than an endless round of pills, patches and injections. I approached my GP to ask for a referral. I was told I was too young to make a decision with permanent consequences. I argued that having a child is a decision with permanent consequences, and if I was legally old enough to do that then I ought to be considered old enough to take responsibility for myself. Nevertheless, my request was denied.

 

Thus began an annual battle with a succession of GPs. Every year, like clockwork, I would turn up a year older and ask for a referral. Every year, like clockwork, they would advise me that no-one would take my request seriously until I was at least 30 and probably more like 35. On one occasion, when I was 25, I succeeded in persuading a young male GP to refer me. It felt like such a triumph until I met the gynaecologist I’d been referred to. She informed me that I would want babies, no matter what I might think, that if I didn’t have them I’d regret them and that any woman who said otherwise was lying to herself.

 

I looked into the possibility of going private but chose not to. What put me off wasn’t the idea of saving up for it, or even the knowledge that I’d have to have the procedure done in the south of England, far away from my support network – it was the fact that this had become my personal ideological battle. If I had been in my 20s, married and struggling to conceive, those same doctors would have been bending over backwards to help me. If I’d been producing one child after another for all those years, no-one would have called me ‘entitled’ for using NHS resources to bring them into the world. If I’d presented with gender dysphoria and sought SRS I would not, based on what I hear from trans friends, have been told that I was too young to make decisions about what to do with my own body. But because I was choosing to consolidate my infertility rather than fighting to become a mother at all costs, I was being shut down. I felt utterly disempowered, but I was determined that I would keep fighting.

 

In the meantime I had to seek other means of contraception. For eight years I used Depo-Provera, the contraceptive injection. The noticeable side-effects were bad skin and low mood, but it kept me pregnancy-free and stopped my periods. Menstruation had always been a miserable experience for me, bringing with it cramps, nausea, vomiting, anaemia and cluster headaches at irregular intervals from the age of 13 until my first Depo jag at 18. Ceasing to menstruate was incredibly liberating. I felt like my life had been given back to me. I loved it. I was quite prepared to stick with Depo for as long as it took to win my battle for sterilisation (by which time I hoped my cycle would have settled down).

 

Then, when I was 25, I was sent for my first bone density scan. It revealed that had osteopenia and was on the cusp of osteoporosis. The cause, I was informed, was Depo. I had to stop my injections immediately and start carefully managing my calcium intake and absorption. I was advised that with proper calcium intake and a boost in oestrogen (provided by a change in contraception), I should be able to minimise the damage and I could expect to be back to a normal bone density for my age… by the time I hit menopause.

 

I wasn’t happy about all this, but what could I do? I did as I was told, altered my diet and began the quest for a new form of contraception. I tried the pill in various forms, followed by the patch, without success. It quickly became apparent that anything involving oestrogen is detrimental to my sanity. I experienced sharp, uncontrollable mood swings and became extremely aggressive, to the point where I genuinely feared that I would hurt someone. I was also anaemic from bleeding constantly, which wasn’t helpful, and gaining weight every time I switched contraceptives.

 

Being unable to take oestrogen means that my bone density will always be poor for my age, so I’ve just had to get used to having fractures every so often. But I still needed contraception, so I enquired about the IUD. I was advised that since I hadn’t had children this wouldn’t be ideal, but my options were limited. I tried the copper coil first. Cue nausea, cramps and heavy bleeding for six weeks until it had to be removed. Then I had a Mirena coil fitted, and in spite of repeated warnings that it was unlikely to suit a childless woman, it turned out to be the best option I had. Yes, there was more weight gain, mild mood swings, dysthymia, bad skin, tenderness and bloating, but at least I wasn’t actively throwing up or talking myself down from punching people who looked at me funny.

 

By this time I was 28. I’d spent three years switching from one form of contraception to another, having my hopes dashed again and again, paying the physical price for each failure. Fair to say that I was scunnered. And all the while I was being told again and again that I could not be sterilised because I was too young. It was incredibly frustrating.

 

As soon as I hit 30 I made the usual appointment. I opened with my absolute certainty that motherhood has no place in my life. I went through the usual list of contraceptives I’d tried and been told to discontinue. I closed with the argument that I was biologically old enough that I could have a teenaged child of my own, whom I would be responsible for educating about their contraceptive options, so it was increasingly ridiculous that I was not considered ready to be responsible for my own body.

 

The GP, an older man whom I had not seen before, simply nodded, agreed that I was old enough to make informed decisions about my own fertility, and referred me on. I couldn’t believe how helpful he was. Suddenly, now that I was out of my 20s, everything had changed. The gynaecologist offered no opposition, she just checked that I knew what the procedure involved and understood that it was permanent, then put me on the waiting list.

 

I was 31 by the time we found a suitable operation date, and it all went very smoothly. I will admit to a flicker of frustration when I was being prepped for the operation itself – I can understand why the nurses were checking with me that I understood that the procedure was permanent, but I didn’t appreciate being asked to confirm that my husband was happy for me to have it. Again, I can see why they asked, but the idea that my control over my body was somehow in my husband’s gift rubbed me up the wrong way.

 

A quick general anaesthetic, a few incisions and a couple of Filshie clips later, I was done. Goodbye fertility, hello freedom from constant synthetic hormones. The IUD was removed in the same operation, bringing down what felt like five years’ delayed period pain upon my poor body all at once. I spent a week curled round a hot water bottle and praying to Diclofenac for deliverance, then everything calmed down. I’ve spent the past 18 months learning what the new normality is. I still hate my menstrual cycle and resent its presence in my life, but the pain and blood loss happen at a manageable level these days. It’s an inconvenience rather than something that puts me completely out of action for days on end.

 

What annoys me is that this could have been my life years earlier. If my decisions had been respected and my early requests for sterilisation granted, I could have avoided a great deal of pain and inconvenience. Without the brittle bones I might have avoided numerous hospital trips and time spent rocking splints, plaster casts and crutches, or just fighting through invisible pain from the various fractured vertebrae I’ve had.

 

The argument against early sterilisation is always “What if you change your mind?” Does any doctor ask you this when you want to get pregnant? I’ve never heard of a doctor saying “Are you sure? You’re only 28, that’s still very young. What if you get to your 30s and find you don’t want a child then? What if you meet a man who doesn’t want children? Come back and see me when you’re 35, and if you still want children we can talk about it then. I just don’t want you making a decision you’ll regret.” And I very much doubt that a 31 year old woman going for her 12 week scan is repeatedly reminded that this decision she’s making is permanent, and asked to confirm that she understands the process that her body is going through, and quizzed about whether she’s considered termination instead. A woman choosing to bear a child is generally assumed to know what she’s doing. A woman choosing to forego motherhood is generally assumed not to.

 

If I ever regret my choice, then it will be up to me to take responsibility, accept the decision I made and find a way to get on with my life. I’m 33 now. I’ve yet to feel even the slightest flicker of activity from my supposed biological clock. The thought of being pregnant still fills me with horror, and I’ll be absolutely astonished if that ever changes. But if it does, if I suddenly find myself teleported into a chick flick and start obsessing over babies, it will be my responsibility to accept the choices I made and find a way to live with them.

 

 


A Provocation for the Declaration Festival

Tonight (technically last night, since it’s about 1am) I gave a provocation at the Declaration Festival. It was for the closing event, responding to Article 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (the right to rest and leisure). I was delighted to be part of it, particularly to be in the company of Jenny Lindsay and Harry Giles and their excellent, deeply personal responses to the topic. 

My own response was likewise personal. Unsurprisingly, I came at it from the mental health angle. This is the text…

 

Hi. I’m Jen. You might already know that. I’m never sure how much you know.

 

Thanks for coming. Not that you had a choice, but still… thank you.

 

I hope you like the weather. I chose it specially. I thought it would be a good introduction to my mood, you know? A bit grey. Frosty. Kind of a foreshadowing thing.

 

It’s really nice to see everyone here today. What’s even nicer is that I’m pretty sure that most of you are real. You look real.

 

Except you. You, not so much. I’m not sure whether I’m hallucinating you or not, and it’s not really polite for me to ask complete strangers whether they’re real or not. Normally I wouldn’t call attention to you, just in case you are a hallucination and everyone thinks I’m crazy for interacting with someone who isn’t there. I’d wait until someone else has demonstrated that you’re real to them before I said or did anything involving you. It’s a bit convoluted, I know – the easiest way to establish your reality would be to touch you, but there are two problems with that. First, if you’re not real then this entire room full of people would see me waving my hand through empty air. Second, if you are real then – wait, actually, it’s three problems. Because the second problem would be that I’d just started pawing at a stranger for no apparent reason, and the third would be that while we were in physical contact you might be able to read my thoughts.

 

That’s why I’ll avoid shaking anybody’s hand if I can. You seem like very nice people, and I’ve no doubt your hands are clean and everything, but I’m sure you’ll understand that I don’t really like letting people read my mind until I get to know them a bit better. It makes job interviews and networking sessions a bit of a bitch. Especially when people don’t employ me or don’t reply to me, because then I wonder whether it’s because they saw something in my mind that they didn’t like. I wouldn’t blame them. There’s a lot in there that I don’t like. And here’s an interesting thing – I’ve never succeeded in getting work from someone whose initial greeting involved a kiss on the cheek. I hate cheek-kissing. If touching my hand gives you access to my thoughts, kissing my cheek is like plunging head-first into them. So I’ll keep my distance and run the risk that you’ll think I’m stand-offish. I get that a lot. Stand-offish, reserved, arrogant, bitchy… I just don’t want to let you into my head, that’s all. I’m sorry. It’s not meant as a slight.

 

And now I’m noticing that all of these people are staring at me and that means I’ve been concentrating on you for far too long, trying to figure out whether you’re real. That suggests that you’re not and that I’ve been looking at an empty chair for all this time. So they think I’m weird already. And it’s not that they’re wrong – I’m well aware that normal people don’t have these kind of hallucinations – but I would rather they got to know the professional side of me first. The functioning side. And now they haven’t. Again.

 

The worst thing is that it didn’t have to be this way. I’m in control of this situation, after all. This entire room is part of my story, it’s a construct made in my own mind, so in theory I could turn it into anything I like. Surely, if everything here is the product of my will, I could have manifested a scenario in which I walk into the room and you all automatically think I’m amazing? I could have dreamt up people who have been waiting their whole lives to hear public speaking skills like mine. Why would I imagine a situation where people look at me with long faces, or sneakily check their phones while I’m talking, or think I’m crazy just because I sometimes see things that aren’t there?

 

Oh. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, you look like you’re having a terrible time. Is it just to do with this? Or is it something bigger? If I’ve imagined you, if I’ve made you exist, have I given you an existence that’s that bad? I’ve done that before, and I feel pretty guilty about it. So if I have… If I have then I’m really sorry, but I don’t know what to do about it. The easiest thing, the usual thing, is for me to steer clear of other people. If I can manage my environment, it’s easier to tell when things are real. It limits the possibilities, but not in a bad way. Just in a way that makes life more manageable. Less exhausting.

 

Because that’s what this is. Exhausting. Every time I’ve been in treatment, when I’ve explained the experience of this lovely combination of schizotypal ideas of reference, magical thinking and good old ADD, that’s what my various therapists and head-shrinkers have said. “That must be exhausting.” Every time. And they’re right.

 

They’re right.

 

This is my punishment, my penance, the price I pay for bringing you into existence and making you miserable. The price of inhibited dopamine uptake, deficient serotonin production, of a genetic quirk that triggered an intermittent madness in me. A mind that never stops tormenting me for the real and imagined things I’ve done. A brain I can’t trust, can’t ever turn my back on. A reality in which I can never, ever… rest.

 

And that’s why I’ll always struggle with Article 24, the Right to Rest and Leisure. For someone like me, with a mind like mine, the management never stops. No amount of recognition or legislation will ever be able to force me to let up on myself. The coping mechanisms have to be constant, otherwise they won’t exist at all.

 

But because of that, I appreciate everything that leaves me with only this battle to fight. The wider the recognition of the right to rest and leisure, the more I feel like I have breathing space. Time to myself, time to hide from the world and focus on quieting the noise in my head. Knowing this to be my right makes me feel better when I see the judgemental faces that my brain conjures up looking at me as if I’m lazy or workshy or seeking attention.

 

Are they judgmental, these faces? Your faces? Are the expressions I see on them real? Are the faces themselves real?

 

I don’t know, and I don’t think I’ll ever have enough energy to reach a conclusive answer.

 

All I know is this.

 

I’m tired.

 

And I need to rest.


Somewhere in the #GlasgowEffect stooshie, there’s a non-subjective question…

If you’re involved in the arts in Scotland and you don’t live under a rock, you’ve probably heard of The Glasgow Effect by now. No, I don’t mean the phenomenon whereby people from Glasgow have an unusually short life expectancy, but the art project of the same name by Ellie Harrison.

Over the past day and a half Scottish Twitter (which Buzzfeed informs me is A Thing) has gone nuts over this project. Bloggers and journalists have jumped in to have their say about the nature of the project, the nature of funding, the nature of art and the horrors of the online world.

I’m not here to write about my opinion on any of these things. It doesn’t matter what I think of her project or her decision to title it The Glasgow Effect or to use a picture of chips to represent it. It doesn’t matter whether she’s English, Scottish, Martian or Prefer Not To Say. The point is that as far as I can tell, her application for Creative Scotland’s Open Project Funding should never have been assessed, let alone granted.

Creative Scotland’s guidelines can be found here. On Page 13 they say “Academics or other education professionals seeking funding related to their educational role cannot apply.” Seems pretty clear, doesn’t it?

Ellie Harrison is a lecturer at Duncan of Jordanstone College. But of course lecturers take sabbaticals, and a lecturer who is also an artist might very well take time away from her post to concentrate on her practice, right? Right. And that would seem quite legitimate… but it doesn’t seem to be what’s happening here.

The day after this teacup tempest began, Harrison made a pinned post on the Glasgow Effect Facebook event. Here it is, quoted in full (emphasis mine):

 

Hi everyone, thanks so much for your interest and engagement in the project: both positive and negative. Glasgow has been my home for seven-and-a-half years and to suddenly have a response like this to one of my projects has been quite overwhelming. You have given me so much material to digest, it will take the whole year to do so. I hope to follow-up by meeting many of you face-to-face, when all the fuss has died down.

Before I sign off Facebook for a while, I would like to address the important questions raised about the money. Anyone who’s done any research about me will know that I am interested in the undesirable consequences of certain funding systems, and, I am working to set-up a radical alternative: the Radical Renewable Art + Activism Fund. This will form the bulk of my workload in 2016 whilst in the city…

Like any provocative artwork, The Glasgow Effect has been devised to operate on many levels at once, and the questions about ‘community’ being raised on/off social media these last few days is certainly one of them. As much as I do care sincerely about the environmental issues raised by the project as my previous work should testify, I also want to highlight the absurd mechanisms at play within Higher Education which were its initial impetus.

In the interests of transparency and to provide a more detailed context for the project, I will shortly publish the full text from my Application to Creative Scotland on the Tumblr. The Application was written over the course of one month in June 2015, in order to fulfil one of the criteria of my 3.5 year ‘probation’ for my Lecturing post at the University. I was required to “write and submit a significant research grant application”. After one unsuccessful attempt, on 20 October 2015 I was awarded the grant. Since then, I have been negotiating an Agreement with the University to ‘donate’ the £15,000 to them in exchange for paid ‘Research Leave’ in order to undertake the project.

In this Agreement I have been careful to stipulate that the money be used solely to cover my teaching responsibilities and that a post be advertised externally, in order to:
a) create a job opportunity for a talented artist in Scotland
b) provide the best possible experience for my students in my absence

The fact that this University, like most others in the UK, now requires its Lecturing staff to be fundraisers and is willing to pay them to be absent from teaching as a result, should be the focus of this debate.

At least now, thanks to you all, I have ticked the Creative Scotland’s ‘Public Engagement’ box, I can get on with the real work.

 

So the £15,000 will be (or already has been) given to Duncan of Jordanstone College to allow them to hire someone to replace Harrison for a year. The application itself was written to satisfy her employer’s requirements. Obtaining this funding and carrying out this project allows Harrison to continue in her lecturing role. Fair enough… but how is this not “seeking funding related to [her] educational role”? And if the funding she sought *is* related to her educational role, then by Creative Scotland’s own rules her application shouldn’t even have been assessed.

Creative Scotland put out a statement in support of Ellie Harrison yesterday. Here it is (again, emphasis mine):

 

Regarding the current debate around Ellie Harrison’s project…

Ellie is a recognised artist with an MA with Distinction from the Glasgow School of Art. Her idea, articulated in a strong proposal with the working title “Think Global, Act Local”, met all the criteria for Open Project Funding. It focused on exploring whether it’s possible for an artist to generate an existence for themselves by living, working and contributing to a single community, as opposed to being constantly on the road because of the need to earn money from commissions from different places that incur costly travel and accommodation costs and high carbon footprint usage.

Ellie’s project is based on the premise that if society wishes to achieve global change, then individuals have to be more active within their communities at a local level. In restricting herself to staying within the city boundaries she is keen to explore what impact this will have her on her life and on her work as an artist with national and international commitments.

Our funding will support Ellie’s creative practice in Glasgow and we will be interested to see how the project progresses. As part of our funding conditions we will require an evaluation of the project once it is completed.

 

So according to Creative Scotland, The Glasgow Effect fits the Open Project Funding criteria. Which either means that CS isn’t au fait with its own criteria, or that artists *can* apply for funding that relates to their academic roles, in which case they need to rewrite their guidelines more accurately.

 

 

 

That said, Creative Scotland makes no mention of the money going to Harrison’s college and their way of putting things seems contrary to hers. I wonder if they’re actually aware of how it’s being used? They should be, since artists have to present a projected budget when they apply for funding (while the text of the application can be seen here, the budget was not included along with the other supporting documents). But again, if they are aware that the funds are going straight to Duncan of Jordanstone, how do they reconcile that with stating that Open Project Funding can’t be used for anything relating to an artist’s academic role?

 

 

 

I’ve put this question to Creative Scotland on Facebook and Twitter. I’ve yet to receive a reply, but then they seem to be keeping a bit of a low profile today. If I haven’t heard back by this evening I’ll email them directly, and whatever they tell me I’ll be happy to share. It’s quite possible that there’s something I’ve missed, something that allows them to bend their criteria this far, or some explanation that has passed between Harrison and Creative Scotland but hasn’t made it into the public sphere.

 

 

 

For the sake of the others who straddle art and academia, I think it’s worth pursuing an explanation. I want to find out if this funding stream, which currently looks like it’s closed to any academia-related projects, is actually more open than it appears. And I want to be reassured that Creative Scotland is being as scrupulous as it needs to be about observing its own policies…

 

 

EDIT: Creative Scotland has responded. Quoted in full:

 

Just to confirm that the £15,000 funding that was awarded to Ellie Harrison for the project, originally titled “Think Global, Act Local!”, through our Open Project Fund was to support the artist in her work on this project and the development of her creative practice. The funds will not be paid to Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design to cover the costs of her teaching post. This complies with our criteria for funding through the Open Project Funding route which states that it can be used to support “the time to research, develop or create work or content including artist’s bursaries to support practice development.”

 

Well, now I’m *really* confused. I think Creative Scotland and Ellie Harrison need to have a wee chat and figure out whose version of events they want to use in future. At best, one or other of them is incorrect about this…

 


Shine On

I wrote this little story last week while I was procrastinating on something else. Since I can think of nothing else to do with it, I thought I’d share it here. A silly and cynical festive tale…

 

 

“Rudolf?”

 

“Piss off, sad act.”

 

Blitzen sighed. It wasn’t fair. Out of all of the other reindeer, he was the one who loved Rudolf best. He knew he was. It wasn’t right that Rudolf spoke to him this way, after everything that had passed between them. Yet somehow he couldn’t bring himself to turn and walk away from the stable door. Gingerly he extended a hoof and nudged it open.

 

Inside, bathed in the glow of firelight from the stove, Rudolf sat resplendent,his head held high beneath his prodigious antlers, his pelt glossy and his nostrils delicately flared. He was surrounded by three females – Donner, Vixen and worst of all Dancer. Dancer. Dancer who, only last Christmas, had been all over Comet and had left him a broken reindeer. The sight turned Blitzen’s stomach.

 

“Thought I told you to piss off,” Rudolf snarled. “Does this look like it’s open invitation?”

 

Blitzen’s every instinct was screaming at him to run back to the communal stable, hide in his stall for a good cry and not come out until Christmas Eve. But he couldn’t. Someone had to do this. “Sorry to intrude,” he replied as casually as he could. “I need a word.”

 

“Make an appointment.”

 

Now, Rudolf.”

 

Rudolf glared at Blitzen, his dark eyes smouldering in the ruby light cast by his crimson nose. Blitzen gulped. His nerves couldn’t stand much more of this, he knew. He was not a naturally confrontational reindeer. Nevertheless, he stared right back, hoping Rudolf could not see the slight tremble in his back leg.

 

“Right then,” Rudolf sighed theatrically. “Sling your hook, love. You too, Vixen. And you, Whatsyername.” The three females obliged, slipping past Blitzen and out into the yard. Only Dancer had the nerve to look him in the eye, chewing suggestively on a long piece of hay as she sashayed out. Rudolf reared up, perhaps just stretching, but really, Blitzen knew, to show off his sinewy body. He pushed a nosebag in Blitzen’s direction. “Oats. Imported from Scotland. Try them.”

 

“I’ve tried them before. In this very stable. Right after you moved in. If you remember.”

 

“Ah, yes. Right. Sorry babe, it just seems so long ago. Been a busy year. So what do you want?”

 

Oh, the things that Blitzen wanted… He hadn’t set hoof in this stable for over six months. Being back here, surrounded by the warm dark wood, the gentle fragrance of pine and eucalyptus from the adjoining sauna, the soft straw underfoot and the unmistakeable scent of him… He forced himself to focus. “You’ve noticed the time of year, right? You’re to report for training. Santa’s orders.”

 

Rudolf snorted. “Tell Fatboy he can get bent. I’m in tip-top fucking condition, mate. Plenty of the old cardio-vascular exercise. As you would know. You and the girls, right?”

 

“Rudolf, please. I’m worried about you. We all are. Yes, you look good just now. You look… amazing, quite frankly, but you and I both know it won’t last. It’ll start to show before long.” He took a few tentative steps towards Rudolf. “Look, I don’t claim to know what you’re going through, ok? All this extra responsibility, sudden fame, the pressure… I’ve never had that. I’ve always just been me. Part of the team. Good old Blitzen, just an average, boring sleigh-puller. I’m not special like you. I can’t claim to understand.”

 

“No,” Rudolf whispered, “you can’t.”

 

Blitzen ploughed on. “But what I do know is that ketamine isn’t the answer. That and whatever else you’re taking. You can’t survive on nothing but oats and tranquilisers, Rudolf. You’re going off the rails. Soon it’ll start to show, and then what? You’ll get thrown out of the team and -”

 

“Like hell I will!” Rudolf bellowed, kicking the coal scuttle across the room. With a wordless roar of fury he thundered towards Blitzen. Their antlers locked with a crash. “They’ll never kick me out of the team. Never! You lot are nothing without me.”

 

Blitzen screwed his eyes shut, the only way to avoid Rudolf’s look of rage. “He’s already talking about it. Santa. Thinks it’s all too much for you, going straight to the head of the team. Says last year was a fluke and we should all just forget it ever happened.”

 

He waited for Rudolf’s heavy hooves to come crashing down to pulverise him. Instead, he felt their antlers unlock. He opened one eye. “Rudolf?”

 

Rudolf turned away. “You tell the fat man from me,” he rasped. “You tell him I will be pulling the sleigh on Christmas Eve. You tell him I’m fine.”

 

“Then you’re coming back to training?”

 

“Just tell him.”

 

“All right.” Blitzen limped towards the door. He paused on the threshold, desperate to comfort Rudolf, but he knew from bitter experience that these dark moods could only be endured, never brought to a conclusion. His duty done, Blitzen crept out.

 

Alone in his solitary stable, Rudolf stood by the window. He did not look out. He only listened. From the distant training ground he could hear laughter and cheers as the others practised their take-offs and landings. The bag of lichen lay nearby. He took a despondent mouthful. A year ago the concept of a whole bag to himself would have blown his mind. Now he barely even registered the taste. Of course, a year ago he’d been comfort-eating to deal with long day of exclusion and mockery.

 

No-one treated him that way now. No-one would dare. It had been a long time since he’d had to endure jokes about tomatoes or traffic lights. Now he not only joined in the games, he was the centre of them. He always won, by fair means or foul.  When he stopped playing, the games ended. And when he wanted another reindeer excluded, the others would drive that reindeer out and Rudolf would watch him slink miserably away.

 

It sickened him. If anyone had told him a year ago that he would find their love even harder to endure than their hate, he wouldn’t have believed them. Yet here he was, the most famous reindeer of all, with nothing but contempt for anything around him. This – the glory, the luxurious stable, the groupies – was what every reindeer was supposed to want. This was success. Yet he felt nothing.

 

His stash of ketamine hid in plain sight, little heaps of white powder passing for fake snow on the roof of a historically dubious nativity scene. Rudolf ran his infamous nose along the roof of the miniature stable, feeling the flurry in his nostrils as he inhaled. Soon, in the dissociated peace of the ketamine realm, even the bright red glow would be beyond his awareness.

 

“One last time,” he promised himself, “then I’ll get back to training.” His long tongue darted out to lift some fallen ‘snow’ from the Christ child’s face.

 

“I will go down in history. I will.”

 

The stable began to dissolve.


Due giorni a Roma – Comfort & Joy at TREND

24 hours ago I was in Rome, sitting on the floor at Ciampino airport and trying to ignore the ache in my feet. Now I’m back in Edinburgh, my feet hurt slightly less, and I can hardly believe that the past three days have happened.

 

The reason for the mad dash to Rome was that one of my plays was being performed there – my first play outside the UK! Comfort & Joy, my Christmas tragedy, was on the bill at the Trend Festival, part of a programme of British new writing.

 

I was delighted to see my play featured alongside work by established writers like Simon Stephens and David Greig, and very excited to see what would be done with it. The two actors, Elisabetta Scarano and Bianca Vanoni, proposed to translate it. That was daunting – it’s nerve-wracking enough handing a script over to a director, but giving my words to someone along with permission to turn them into other words was something else. I speak Italian and can translate from it into English, but I’m not nearly fluent enough to translate into it, so I knew I couldn’t tackle the task myself. I concluded that I could either breathe down Elisabetta and Bianca’s necks and demand approval of the text, or I could just put my trust in them and see what happened. I chose to do the latter and gave them carte blanche to cut and rearrange as they saw fit.

 

So, having handed the script over to a group of perfect strangers, I was quite nervous when I arrived at the beautiful Teatro Belli, tucked away in Trastevere, on Saturday night…

 

The first thing I saw was a blank stage, bare apart from two chairs and two microphones. I was intrigued. I wondered how handheld mics were going to fit into a play that draws heavily on Dickens and the dark side of festive Victoriana. When the house lights went down and Santa Claus is Coming to Town began blaring over the speakers, I wondered even more. Of one thing I was certain – this was not going to be a straightforward naturalistic production!

 

Although director Marcela Serli had never met me, she seemed to have had a good look into my gothy little mind. Her production was tight, sparse and monochrome. The two sisters, identically clad in black, were lit only by stark white spotlights, two pale ghost-faces trapped in darkness. Where the script called for them to sing or dance, the sisters would try and fail. Stage directions projected onto the wall would spell out their intentions while the characters found themselves unable to participate in their own story. I loved it.

 

I really appreciated seeing a director doing something so abstract with the script. Comfort & Joy lends itself to that more than my other plays, and I was keen to see the script treated as a starting point rather than a blueprint. What I saw drew on Brecht and Artaud. Where I had envisaged pain so suppressed that it can barely be expressed even in soliloquy, Marcela had seen pain that she could bring out with operatic intensity. The world she created was even smaller and more claustrophobic than the one I had imagined, which made the antagonism between the sisters feel sharper and more vicious. I felt more acutely aware of the presence of their domineering late mother than I did when I wrote the piece.

 

It’s hard to write this post without it simply turning into a love-in. Before I get any more caught up, suffice it to say that I was delighted with what I saw. This was the first time I’d seen a play of mine directed and performed by people who didn’t know me at all. Usually I’m directly involved – I write for specific actors, I come into rehearsals, or I give the piece to a director whose work I’m familiar with. They tend to know me fairly well. On those occasions when my work has been directed and performed by people I didn’t know, I haven’t been able to attend. So this was a new experience, and I’m very glad to have had it.

 

It was also amazing to hear the play in Italian. Bianca and Elisabetta, in addition to giving very fine performances, did a great job with the translation. Their cuts and amendments made sense, and the language added a new dimension. The rhythms and cadences of Italian suit the heightened feel of the play. The sisters are theatrical by instinct and upbringing. Their words, particularly their soliloquies, are lyrical even in English, so they work well in a language which, as someone once said to me, non si parla, si canta.

 

The company is keen to take the show further, and I sincerely hope that they will. I’d be very happy to see them doing more with it, and to extend it and tailor it to them now that I have some idea of their qualities. Brave, Elisabetta, Bianca e Marcela!

 

Now I’ve just about got time to let my blisters heal before I’m back into rehearsal for #SonsOfGod: Vox with Charioteer Theatre, which will open in Milan in April…

 

I was going to close this post with an embedded video, but since WordPress has changed everything and I don’t know how to do that any more, CLICK HERE TO SEE A LITTLE OF COMFORT & JOY!

(It’s not a rickroll, I promise.)


History, witchery and recurring themes…

A few years ago I found my Story Jotter from P1. I flicked through it, interested to see what I was writing about when I was four and a half. It shouldn’t have been a surprise to find a story about a witch, another about a ghost, and one about two children playing in a tree house that inexplicably burned down. Supernatural beings and subtext, two of my favourite things… for longer than I realised, apparently.

I was a spooky little child, it’s true. I spent my first ever book token on the Usborne Book of Ghosts, and I was constantly on the lookout for anything that might be evidence of ghosts in my house (and since I’ve always been prone to sleep paralysis/night terrors, this wasn’t in short supply). Hallowe’en was my favourite day of the year, outstripping my birthday and Christmas by a long way.

Where the initial interest came from, I don’t know. I’ve mentioned before that some of my earliest memories are of powerful hallucinations and magical thinking due to the wonders of Schizotypal Personality Disorder, so perhaps it’s just that these things made sense to my addled brain. No matter how it began, the fascination only grew as I got older. I hit my teens at that point in the 90s when all things paranormal and occult were in vogue.

I got myself a deck of tarot cards and a few crystals, but actually the popularity of these things dampened my enthusiasm. Contrary soul that I am, I didn’t want to be just another teenage girl toting a mass-produced Book of Shadows. I liked history. If I was going to dabble with the occult, I was going to find out how it was done before US Games ever produced a ouija board and do it that way. This, in my teenaged mind, constituted authenticity. I was going to be the most non-conformist non-conformist that ever refused to conform. Let my peers get their ideas from Buffy and Charmed, I was going to get mine straight from the Malleus Maleficarum.

My motives may have been daft, but the important thing was that I started reading. I began with stuff aimed squarely at tourists and teenagers, but I quickly worked my way towards more legitimate sources and discovered that the history of witchcraft belief was incredibly interesting. I took Joyce Miller’s OLL Course on Witchcraft Belief in Early Modern Scotland, which fuelled my interest further and led to my amassing a respectable collection of books on the subject… and of course, since I like to plunder history for plots, those books informed a couple of plays.

Creepie Stool, the play about Jenny Geddes and the riots over the Book of Common Prayer, is not specifically about witchcraft, but it gets a couple of mentions. One of the characters is viewed with suspicion because she comes from somewhere near North Berwick, and the memory of the witch trials there a generation earlier still casts its shadow. Jenny attributes the sudden death of her beloved elder brother to witchcraft because she has no other explanation for an apparently healthy man simply dropping dead. As far as I know, none of the characters in the play have ever attempted maleficium – but it’s a concept that exists in their world. They don’t all entertain it to the same extent as Jenny, but they’re all aware of it and the dangers of being thought to practice it. It’s also in there because the play is about religious tensions in Scotland in 1637, and witchcraft belief is all tangled up with the politics of the era.

My latest play, Heaven Burns, is set in 1662 – 1663. It’s less concerned with the wider political picture, and much more directly concerned with witchcraft. Again, none of the characters actually practice witchcraft. It’s based on the story of Christian Caddell, a woman who disguised herself as a man to become a witchpricker – and a particularly vicious one, at that. In my version of her life, she’s a woman with a lust for power that gets channelled through religious fanaticism. She’s an extremist who believes she has a direct line to God. She’s the kind of person who should be frightening in any time period.

One of the other characters in the play is Isobel Gowdie, who may or may not be the same Isobel Gowdie whose famous confession was so influential in shaping perceptions of how witchcraft was practiced. The historical Isobel lived near Nairn, and Christian’s territory ran from Elgin to Wardlaw (now Kirkhill) at least, so it’s possible that their paths crossed. However, Isobel’s long and detailed confession is believed to have been taken without the use of torture – unusual in witch trials, especially if Christian was involved. The play suggests a possible reason why Isobel might have self-accused so freely, and why her case might not have fallen to Christian. It’s pure speculation, of course, based on the little information available about these women and my own overwrought imagination… but I hope it’s not too far-fetched. My aim is to explore the fears and tensions of the time, and to steer clear of anything too fantastical.

I’ve been asked a few times recently why I base so much of my work on history. The simple answer is that it’s an incredible resource. History is a vast collection of lived lives in which nearly everything that could be done was done. It’s made up of stories told by countless people, each with their own bias and limitations, so it’s never truly knowable and is open to endless interpretations. It’s never what you think it’s going to be. It’s rarely pure and never simple. It’s fucking fascinating.

If I had set out to create Christian, I don’t know if I could have done it. The process would have gone something like this:

 

ME: Ok, so I want to write a play about a woman who passes herself off as a man to become a witchpricker.

VOICE OF REASON (VOR): That’s stupid. How would that even work?

ME: Well, she’d get men’s clothes and use a man’s name and… well… prick witches, I suppose.

VOR: Right. And nobody notices she’s a woman because everyone in The Past is simple and credulous, right? So let me get this straight, a woman decides to run the massive risk of pretending to be a man so that she can, for some unexplained reason, hunt witches. Without any kind of training or preparation, she is so convincing that no-one ever doubts that she’s a man. And she becomes a witchpricker despite her lack of papers, history, letters of recommendation, license… And then what? What’s the point of it?

ME: …I don’t know.

VOR: Didn’t think so. Sounds a bit shit and implausible. Are you perhaps letting your determination to write roles for women cloud your judgement?

ME: …maybe. You know what, you’re right, it’s ridiculous. I’m just going to write another play about ghosts now.

 

I needed Christian to exist already so that I wouldn’t get sidetracked by wondering whether her story is plausible. It doesn’t matter whether a woman pretending to be a man to become a witchpricker is plausible – it happened. She was eventually arrested and made her confession in the Tolbooth in Edinburgh on the 30th of August 1662. Even taking into account the fact that records are often full of inaccuracies, I’ve yet to come up with a solid argument suggesting that Christian didn’t exist, or didn’t fake her way into a brief but eventful witchpricking career. Try as I might, I can’t think of a reason why that accusation would have been levelled at her unless it was true, or at least thought to be true.

Knowing that Christian’s story did exist, I was able to use it as a lens through which I could examine the fears, tensions and power struggles that affect her and the other characters in her world, but which have parallels today. I think one of the greatest things about theatre is that it offers a means of creating and dismantling monsters. The world is full of people who do things that I find hard to understand, whose actions baffle my bleeding heart and liberal mind. I can either ignore them, clutch my non-existent pearls at the thoughts of such horrors, reduce them to caricatures, or try to understand what motivates thinking, feeling human beings to deliberately inflict suffering on others. Christian might be a historical figure, but people like her, as terrifying as her, are not confined to the past.

Heaven Burns has been an unsettling play to write. It’s darker than my previous work, and I find myself wanting to apologise to the other characters for putting them in the same world as Christian. There were scenes I put off writing until the very end because I didn’t want to think my way through them. I’m very excited to hear it read at Previously…, especially as I’m certain the cast will make a very fine job of it, but I’m also nervous at the prospect of developing it further and spending more time sharing my head with these characters. (I’m also nervous because there will be an actual historian at the reading to talk about the historical context, which means there’ll be someone qualified to catch all my errors and call me on my bullshit. This is an inexpert enthusiast’s dream and nightmare rolled into one.)

If you want to hear the play/watch me panic/ask awkward questions to which I don’t know the answer, it’s on at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on the 21st of November. What happens with it after that is anyone’s guess, but I’m hoping that it’ll have a life beyond this reading. It’s no secret that I believe there’s an audience out there for new, lively history plays that focus on interesting women. Now I just hope I’m right…


Thoughts on yesterday’s Edinburgh Performing Arts Development meeting

Yesterday I went along to the Edinburgh Performing Arts Development meeting at the City Art Centre. EPAD is a project run by Lucy Mason and Nicholas Bone to bring those involved in Edinburgh’s performing arts together, get them talking to each other and finding practical ways to share resources and match up means and needs.

It feels necessary and very useful. It’s open to anyone within the performing arts in Edinburgh, and so far the attendees have ranged from emerging artists just setting out to established practitioners and people who work for organisations like the Festival Theatre and the Traverse (which is a supporter of the EPAD scheme). It’s a good mix, and a great way to get into a discussion with people who might otherwise have proved tricky to network.

Network. Who actually likes networking? We’re all told how important it is, but how many artists actually consider themselves any good at it? And how many break into a cold sweat at the thought of it? It feels so calculating, deciding that a person is someone you must know and setting out to form a connection with them because it’s politic to do so. Trying to initiate a conversation for networking purposes can be a strained, tongue-tied affair, along the lines of trying to ask someone out but with the added pressure of knowing that you’ll run into this person again and again because it’s a small industry, so you can’t fuck it up. And if you’re in any way anxiety-prone, as many artists are, your attempts will be underscored by that voice in your head saying “This person doesn’t want to talk to you, why are you pestering them? Look at their face, they just want to have a quiet drink and here you are ruining it. Look at how long it’s taken for them to reply to you, they’re trying to find a polite way of asking you never to talk to them again. Leave them alone. Stop inflicting yourself on them. You suck at networking. And theatre. And life.”

What a luxury, then, to have a forum that allows connections to be formed in a less forced, more natural way. Instead of desperately trying to think of something witty and memorable to say, you can focus on the questions asked within the discussion groups. You’re there to talk shop, so you don’t have to worry that it might be boring or inappropriate to talk shop (always a concern out in the wild). There are clear instructions on how to move from group to group to ensure a good mix, so you don’t have to worry that you look like you’re following a particular person around the room. By the time the group discussions end, you’ve got a good idea of who you’d like to talk to and why, and you can start chatting to them about something they said during the discussions rather than relying on the usual “I love your work” intro (because while it’s probably true that you love the work of a person you’re trying to network, it’s such a cliche that it feels dreadful to say). There’s plenty of time left at the end for chats, and the room is spacious enough for the chats to be spread out. It’s a very good set-up, and I’m immensely grateful to Lucy and Nicholas for making it happen and facilitating so well.

During yesterday’s discussions, the two themes that stood out for me were Space and Communication. Edinburgh’s a city with a lot of underused or disused spaces. Many Council properties sit empty, just waiting for someone to come along and suggest a luxury hotel/student flats/superpub development, or to fall into a state of such disrepair that there is no alternative to demolition. Some spaces are used for temporary arts projects – the Market Street arches, for example, have housed a couple of pop-up festivals. Some start out as temporary projects but grow, bit by bit, into permanent (or as permanent as any such project can be) ones like St Margaret’s House. These temporary or not-so-temporary users are given the task of maintaining the building so that it doesn’t become derelict. They might not generate the same level of income for the council as commercial rental would – but if no-one wants or can afford to pay commercial rates for these spaces, surely non-commercial lets are better than disrepair and vandalism?

It’s not only the empty buildings that are worth considering, though. There are plenty of underused spaces within working buildings too. Meeting rooms and function suites that sit empty most of the time – the pub downstairs from me has a meeting room that is seldom used in the evenings, and they let me use it for table reads for no fee. As long as we buy drinks they’re happy, and sometimes they give us free chips. Several of my friends in London have rehearsed in theatre foyers during the day, while the building is staffed but they’re not actually disturbing anyone. Most of the artists I know are not proud about where they prepare their work. All they want is a space, preferably one that isn’t their bedroom or front room, and preferably one that won’t cost them so much that it renders the entire project impossible.

I’ll talk more about why we’re so short of rehearsal spaces in Edinburgh another day, though. The important thing to know is that it was a prevailing concern at yesterday’s meeting. No less important – perhaps even more so – was the issue of communication.

As I’ve said, major Edinburgh venues and companies were present yesterday, and that was fantastic… but there were a couple of notable exceptions. First, the Council. One Arts Officer was present, but looking at the Councillors listed on the minutes from the last Culture & Sport committee meeting, I don’t think any of them were there. They should have been, especially after the Desire Lines process where it was made clear repeatedly that artists need to be able to communicate with the Council directly. Funding EPAD was a good start, but the answer isn’t money. It’s joining the conversation in person.

Second, Creative Scotland. Yes, the organisation exists to serve the whole country, but Edinburgh exists as a part of that country. What happens here affects artists elsewhere in Scotland. Cultural policy and practice in the capital city should be of interest to CS, and they should be seen to engage. The City Art Centre is a few minutes from Waverley Gate. Yes, it was a Saturday, but it was Saturday for everyone. Most of the people in the room, if not all of them, were giving up their time for free, for something they believe in. When asked the question “Who would you most like to have a conversation with?”, most of my group agreed that they would appreciate a chance to speak to Creative Scotland, particularly to Janet Archer. There will be a chance to talk to Creative Scotland at their Open Sessions next month (though whether Janet Archer will be there I don’t know – I will tweet and ask), but wouldn’t it be nice to see someone from the organisation at an EPAD meeting? At something that isn’t organised by Creative Scotland itself? I think it would.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that no-one from either of these organisations had heard about yesterday’s meeting or was free to attend. This is not intended as a slight, but as an expression of hope for the future. They’re people we need in our networks, and I hope they’ll be represented at the next meeting, ready and eager to join the discussions and speak to artists face to face. I’m looking forward to it already.


Don’t tell me not to hate, I’ve simply got to

 

Like most Edinburgh folk, I love a good Fringe rant. It’s one of life’s pleasures. Getting competitive about how long it takes to get down the Royal Mile (my record is 15 minutes to get from the Old Town Information Centre in St Giles to the Mercat Cross), whinging about the price of drinks in venues that no-one is forcing us to frequent, bitching about how rubbing Greyfriars’ Bobby’s nose is NOT A REAL TRADITION SO DON’T FUCKING DO IT… It’s fun. It’s a bonding experience for those of us who live here all year.

Of course, wherever you find people having fun, you will find people who feel the need to point out why they mustn’t. In this case they manifest as people who will tell us that the Festivals are wonderful and we should be grateful for them. They bring money to Edinburgh, they liven the place up, they are fun! In the words of one such soul on a friend’s Facebook page the other day: “Participate, don’t hate!”

I think I can safely say that I participate. This year alone I’m reviewing, flyering and teching, I’ve got plays on at the Death on the Fringe Cabaret and Village Pub Theatre, and I’m seeing a few things for the sheer giddy hell of it. I’ve got participation covered. But damn it, I love to hate, and I won’t be told not to. So here are a few of the things that are currently arousing my ire, things I am joyfully blowing out of all proportion and will probably have forgotten about come September:

  1. People who never use social media the rest of the year, but now they’ve got a Fringe show to sell and they’re all “Please RT”. Bonus points if they’ve never retweeted anything of mine.
  2. Producers who can’t make up their mind whether they’re allowing press in until an hour before the show. Especially if it’s my last show of the day and waiting for them to make a decision is delaying my getting home and into my pyjamas.
  3. Shows about PTSD (or any other mental health stuff, actually) created by people who have no fucking clue about trauma but think it’s a shortcut to depth and stakes. Bonus points if it’s based on the experiences of someone who didn’t actually give permission for their experiences to be used.
  4. On a related note, reviews of shows that completely nailed the experience of trauma and dissociation but the reviewer just doesn’t understand what they’re seeing and slags it off. Because obviously people whose experiences and understanding don’t tally with mine are WRONG. Grrr.
  5. Reviewers who automatically hate monologues and don’t have the attention span for character studies.
  6. Playwrights AND reviewers using words they don’t actually understand. Long words only make you sound intelligent if you use them correctly.
  7. Playwrights who don’t bother to do five minutes of googling to find out whether their inciting incident is in any way plausible.
  8. Publications that disappear behind paywalls then refuse to offer any kind of convenient payment option (looking at you, The Stage).
  9. Drinks prices in general, but particularly in the bar at C main. Damn it, I used to go there because it was cheap and I could get blackcurrant and lemonade for 80p.  Now it’s £1.80 even with discount.
  10. Young people are being young. Damn them with their energy and their stamina. Also, the technical manager for the venue where I’m operating can’t be more than 23 but she’s wearing stuff I wore first time round in the 90s.
  11. The trend for live action versions of 80s/90s kids’ TV shows. Though I will admit that Mark and I got quite excited at seeing Dave Benson Phillips in the flesh when we passed him at Gilded Balloon, because he’s aff the telly but from when we were little.
  12. I still miss Chocolate Soup. I will always miss Chocolate Soup. Yes, I could make my own hot chocolate and put cinnamon and Maltesers in it, but it’s not the same. You will never be forgotten, Chocolate Soup.

Matters culinary

Not arts politics, not mental health, not the usual remit of this blog, but I’m angry so here goes…

What I hate most about recent Budgets isn’t the crushing inevitability of yet more dehumanising measures being taken against the most vulnerable people in British society. It’s the chattering that follows online. It’s the equally inevitable collective shooting off of mouths, protesting that these measures are necessary and that poor people could solve their problems by just not being poor.

The discussion that happened to annoy me today was about food. I saw someone calling for punitive taxes on junk food, because apparently “poor people” make themselves ill by eating junk food and then can’t work and have to be put on benefits, and then they eat more junk food so they stay ill and never return to being productive members of society. Why don’t they quickly whip up a healthy tuna salad or a vegetable frittata, people ask. It’s cheaper and better for you than a frozen pizza or a pot noodle! These suggestions might be well-intentioned, but they’re also ignorant and got me very annoyed. Diet and attitudes towards food are so much more complex than the people making these suggestions seem to realise, and since I have some experience in this area I thought I’d share.

I wasn’t brought up in poverty, let’s be clear about that. I was born to working class parents who joined the middle class during my teens. But both my parents grew up poor, and the effects of their upbringing can be seen in mine. I grew up on a diet that was partly junk and partly the next step up from junk. I ate a lot of tinned soup, spaghetti hoops, oven chips and the like. It’s all very well to say that my parents should have been feeding me fresh veg, lean meat, brown rice… but how the hell would they have known? Their diets were absolutely atrocious growing up – tinned food stuffed full of artificial colours and preservatives, loads of fried foods, lots of sugary things.

Now you could say that their parents ought to have known better, but I don’t really see how they could. My dad’s family was huge, and I’m pretty sure that when you’re trying to feed a stereotypically Catholic family on a binman’s wages, the priority is to stretch cheap food as far as possible. Feeling full was the important thing. On my mum’s side there was one disinterested parent letting her children eat what they pleased – mostly from tins or boiled in the bag.

You could argue that since both families were poor, my parents shouldn’t have been given sweets as children. But honestly, I think people who grudge the occasional sweet treat to families living in poverty are most likely people who have never been very close to it themselves. You can spend a very small amount of money on sweets and make the treat stretch for days. The picture my parents painted of their upbringing was pretty bleak, and I think you’d have be very hard-hearted to say that they should never have brightened their days with the occasional quarter of soor plooms.

So where, in all of this, were my parents supposed to learn about nutrition? My dad made an excellent vegetable soup, but you can’t live on that alone. My mum might have been taught to cook at school, since girls were still taught Home Economics back then – but since she was mostly kept out of school to look after her siblings, that didn’t happen. She learned enough that she could cook to survival standard, but that was it.

As I was growing up, my parents passed on what skills they had. I learned how to bake using the recipes in the Bero book that you could send off for if you collected enough tokens from packs of self-raising flour. The first proper recipe I learned was spaghetti bolognese, which involved boiling the pasta, browning some meat with onions, then emptying in a jar of Dolmio.

However, what they couldn’t teach me was how cooking actually works. Anyone can empty a ready-made sauce over a pot of pasta, but how do you make the sauce yourself? If you want it to thicken, how do you make that happen? How do you get tomatoes to stop tasting so acidic? When do you add garlic or herbs? What herbs, anyway? Does it make a difference what order you do things in?

I was interested. I wanted to know how to cook, not just how to open jars and tins. When I was 14 I found a copy of an old Good Housekeeping recipe book in a charity shop. I handed over my 50p, took it home and opened it, all set to make all sorts of interesting things… then promptly slammed it shut and shelved it when I saw the lists of ingredients. They were long. They were things I knew we didn’t have in the house and guessed would be expensive to buy. They were often things I hadn’t heard of, and I didn’t know how to do any of the things in the instructions. Julienne? Deglaze? Caramelise? Seriously? These were not in my vocabulary, let alone my repertoire.

This was in the 90s, before I had access to the internet. If I wanted to look up any of these terms, I did it in the library… or I hoped it came up on a TV show. Television was the great advantage I had over my parents, and it’s what taught me to cook. My mum had watched the occasional Delia Smith programme as I grew up, but I found Delia and her pristine kitchen full of little bowls containing precisely-chopped ingredients very intimidating. I couldn’t cook that way, I knew, not without an army of BBC hirelings to do my prep for me. But then Jamie Oliver hit the screens, and that’s where I began to learn. His ingredients came in rough handfuls and approximate measures, with advice about what to do if you put in a little too much of something. His way of cooking looked fun and joyful. I thought I could probably do some of that.

So, with a certain amount of trepidation, I dug out that Good Housekeeping book and looked up the recipe for Hungarian Goulash. I had never tried it but had always been fascinated by the name. Mum had worked with a lady from Hungary for a while when I was a kid, and she had left me with a romanticised notion that anything Hungarian was automatically crammed with mystery and coolness. Carefully, I trawled through the recipe and worked out which ingredients seemed to be essential. I persuaded Mum to include them next time we went grocery shopping. Then I experimented.

The results were good. My first goulash was very tasty. It was the first time I’d ever eaten paprika. We ate it with crusty bread because I had no idea what veg it could be paired with. My only experience of vegetables was having them boiled to death, so as far as I knew I wasn’t keen on them. Anything that wasn’t boiled was probably iceberg lettuce, grated carrot or an anaemic slice of watery tomato. Vegetables, I was convinced, only belonged in soup.

Eventually I would learn how to cook veg. These days I’m actually fairly good at it. In fact, these days I’m a pretty decent cook with a reasonable repertoire of dishes, and when I want to expand that repertoire I know how to do it. I read a selection of recipes for the dish I want, identify the key ingredients, then I experiment from there. The result is that I can cook healthy, nutritious food, and I can do it with cheap ingredients. I’ve got this cooking malarkey cracked.

But do you know why I didn’t experiment more in my teens, when I was first learning to cook? Because it was expensive. Our local Safeway was small and didn’t offer much of a range of ingredients. It wasn’t the greatest for freshness, either. So first of all there was the expense of getting to the nearest big supermarkets. Then there was the cost of buying the actual ingredients. The way to keep prices down is to buy in bulk, but if you’re cooking a particular ingredient for the first time and you have no idea what you would do with the leftovers, you try to buy just as much as you need. Once you’ve mastered the basics of cooking and acquired some versatility, then you start getting bold about having leftover ingredients. When you’re a beginner, not so much.

Then there was the hidden cost of actually cooking the food. You’ve got to have the right equipment. I don’t mean anything fancy, but minor things like greaseproof paper, measuring spoons, a decent vegetable knife. Things that most of us take for granted – but if you don’t cook, why would you have them? My family cooked enough to own these things, but when I took more of an interest in cooking we suddenly started getting through things like greaseproof paper much quicker. Also things like salt, cornflour and tinfoil. Minor expenses individually, but they add up.

Finally, there was the cost of failure. Most of my experiments worked, and even if they didn’t quite go to plan they would turn out edible. But every so often things would go badly wrong and the results would have to be thrown away. In those cases, dinner would be tinned soup or, if my parents felt extravagant, a takeaway. Either way, the cost of an extra meal would be incurred. Even though I wasn’t the one paying the financial cost, every failed experiment was a blow to my confidence and I’d play it safe for a while after that. My family’s fortunes may have been on the rise, but we weren’t wealthy enough to be wasteful.

The development of my cooking skills went on hold for a while after my parents died. Living alone makes cooking a hell of a lot less economical, because it’s annoyingly difficult and comparatively expensive to buy sufficient ingredients for just one person. It’s fine if you’re batch-cooking, but slowly working your way through your freezer can be soul-destroyingly monotonous, and it’s a constant reminder of the people you would have shared the meal with had they still been alive. Tinned soup, toasties and takeaways often seem like a much better option. When I lived in London I simply didn’t have time to cook.

My experiments resumed when I returned to Edinburgh. I was living with other people, which meant I had people to feed. I had mastered the basics and felt more confident. And, importantly, I had the internet on my side. By this time YouTube tutorials and allrecipes.com existed. If I wanted to learn what deglazing was, all I needed to do was type the word in and watch someone showing me and telling me why it was necessary. If I was curious about whether a particular step was necessary, I could usually scroll down to the comments and find someone who had skipped it talking about what happened. It was magic. It’s also a lot easier to find specialist ingredients, living in a slightly hipsterish area in the city centre.

However, just because I can now cook easy, cheap meals, that doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten the lessons of my youth. I don’t take this for granted, and I know that there’s actually a fair amount of money invested in my “kitchen basics”. Individually each jar of spices, bottle of lemon juice, roll of foil or what have you didn’t cost much – but considered collectively, it’s over £35 worth of stuff. It’s enough that if I had to buy it all again, all in one go, the sum would give me pause. And yes, it’s all stuff that I use regularly – perhaps not daily, but often enough to justify the space it takes up in my kitchen.

I’m also fortunate enough that I don’t have to worry about how I cook my food. If I know I’m going to be busy all day and will be too tired to cook dinner, I can throw something in the slow cooker. If I were on a pre-paid electricity meter, that might well be a luxury I couldn’t afford. I roasted a big tray of vegetables a few days ago. 45 minutes in a very hot gas oven. Cheap, healthy ingredients, and they tasted delicious, but what if I couldn’t afford to use up that much gas? A couple of minutes in the microwave would save a lot of energy and do the job of cooking the veg, but the result would be very bland and boring. Imagine eating that every day. Just the things you can cook in the microwave, day in, day out. Is it really surprising that you might reach for the flavourful, MSG-laden alternative of a ready meal, just for the sake of a bit of variety? Is it so much to ask that people should be able to eat things that taste good as well as keeping them alive?

I know there are various “challenges” out there that ask people to try living on a fixed sum of money for a short while. Gwyneth Paltrow famously tried and failed to manage on the sum given to Americans on food stamps for a week. Some of these schemes, like Live Below The Line, do a lot to raise money for charity. But while they can raise awareness of the issue, they can’t teach their participants what it’s like to live without proper dietary education. It’s not just about the amount of money you have available to purchase ingredients, or even to pay for the energy used in cooking. If you’ve been taught to cook and educated about nutrition, you can’t unlearn that. You can’t forget what paprika tastes like and go back to viewing it with suspicion, not sure whether you should spend £1 on a jar of it because you might hate it, or it might be something you’ve got to use in conjunction with another thing that you don’t have and can’t afford. Once you know about balancing carbohydrates and proteins and starch, you can’t just erase it from your brain and find yourself wondering why, having eaten a salad, you don’t feel full.

Honestly, I know how ridiculous some of this will sound to people who learned about these things before they were old enough to realise they were learning. It might feel like this is innate knowledge. But cooking and nutrition are learned skills, just like reading and writing. They ought to be taught in schools, because being able to feed yourself well is essential preparation for adult life and it’s not a safe assumption that every child learns these things in the home. There’s no sense in damning people for lacking the skills that no-one taught them, especially when their means of self-teaching are restricted by cost and access to resources. Instead, try to imagine the challenges that could have faced you… and think yourself lucky if they didn’t.