Inspired by Ava’s piece on pondswimming.
Waking up at 5 am feels surprisingly natural. I crank open the window, totally naked, to gauge the temperature of this alternate early morning world. I find myself with my torso all the way out, staring at the empty road below. A squirrel on the pavement looks up at me for a moment. We lock eyes. She continues on her journey.
I don’t shower, don’t wash my face. In comparison to the muddy realmy depths of the Hampstead ladies pond there must be something un-goddess-like about glossier. I have heard about the pond from Ava and I’m feeling ready to emerge “a new woman” but in a non-naff way.
I want to walk out of the house freed, tied to nothing. But I take my phone and a coffee with me.
And it feels martyr-like, being on the tube this early. The only people awake at this time are The Healthy. And people who have to work on a Saturday. But within the middle-class cross section of society represented by my local tube station: The Healthy.
It turns out, I think, that the only people awake at this time are men. I am the only woman in this carriage. At any other time of day I would be suspicious, suspicious to be the only one. But now I am on my way to bathe, to be rebirthed.
I walk over the heath, for almost half an hour. It feels like I’m arriving. A leaf hangs, suspended below branches by the invisible straw of a spider’s web. Other tendrils swing down. Another squirrel. I smile at her, smile at a squirrel and feel silly. Silly-happy. There is something sweet and invigorating about the air at this hour. I get high on it.
I come upon a collection of dog walkers. You have a leaf stuck in your ear, one of them tells his dog. Are you thirsty? He pushes the button for a nearby water fountain and the distinctly not human dog leaps up and laps it at while his human softly removes the leaf.
Walk and walk and walk and I see two more squirrels, this time fighting. One squirrel almost drops out of the tree. This is not symbolism. As I get nearer I get nervouser. There is a web of ponds on the east side of the park and I peer towards each one. In one I can see the ripples of movement, and squint to identify the origin of the baby waves. I can’t. I see two women with soaked hair carrying bags that look suspiciously full of damp swimwear. I don’t stop to ask but carry on, trailing in their back steps, as if following a trail of wet fulfilment. All the streams around the heath have dried up in the heat but I sort of sense my way to the wet.
And eventually I stumble upon it, which feels like the right way to find the ladies pond, as if by accident when in fact it was planned all along.
The pond is surprisingly not cold, but I haven’t exercised in so long that I struggle just to tread water. I quickly get weazy. So Ava and I just gently cling onto a buoy and talk and float.
I flail my legs in the water and sometimes I lie back and let myself float, all of me underwater except a small circle of my face. Just sort of letting myself float, being buoyant, is the only way I can be in the pond without quickly getting out of breath.
Afterwards we sit and shiver in the meadows, stretch out in the sun. I try and ignore the leaking sensations as my body dries itself out.
It is only later that I notice my body is surprisingly ache free. Often I get an urge to smoke a cigarette. I see myself jauntily holding the thing between my fingers. Someone I used to be friends with smoked a lot and I think maybe this desire is his hold on me. But for now I feel quite cool not smoking because I am a pond swimmer, because even if I didn’t really swim, I was floating there for a while.
Ava and I talked about theatre (in a vague way), and then agreed that we would see each other again and not talk about theatre.
I remember that little vignette in Shakespeare’s Sister about things being lost in that pebbly stream of thoughts. You do not come to the pond to think. You come to unthink. But it is not a collective letting go, it is just the beginning, a swaying out, the clearing of the mind before the actual unthinking can happen, perhaps on the journey home, perhaps later that day, or that week.
I feel long and tall, not longer than I was before, but just the right size.
Checking that no one is following me as I turn the corner onto my road doesn’t feel exhausting but instead peaceful. The ladies’ pond is a very cis and privileged place and perhaps that has rubbed off on me.
I get home and lie flat on my back in the garden surrounded by dog crap. I splay my arms out and shut my eyes. I still feel the water. I feel like I’m carrying it with me.
The world doesn’t feel any calmer, but I do. I think about buying an iced coffee, or some flowers.
Here we are. Lying on our backs, for a while. Legs floating away. Toes pointing up. Re-moving cares around. It feels like we’re curing ourselves of something unknown. And we let our feelings oscillate, aches fossilize. We slowly collect our thoughts. And re-move. And begin.
Hours, later, sit at the kitchen table. Focus, begin to write. Begin to think.
It’s normal to be nervous. But not so [normal] for one thing to take hold of you; for one nervousness to increase all the others. I carry men around in my head like scar. They creep out when I get [nervous]. That’s what I call it; a friendlier word.
But. That is not your problem. The only thing you ever need to deal with is the next hour. Plan an hour without men, live an hour with friends. Eat if you can. Life is fucking transient baby; eat it. Live by the hour. Live in baby steps.
A missed call sets me off. I wonder if I could get off on this, the thrill, the spike in my abdomen. I feel pools of it bubbling in me. If you think about it really hard you realise – it congregates in bubbles in your body: the throat the belly the chest. Remember it is a physical sensation, just like anything else, a stubbed toe, a pulled muscle. A tender ache in the temples.
Normal normal normal (I say to myself). You are in a normal situation. You only have to deal with the next hour. What is going to happen in the next hour? Eat life an hour at a time. Baby steps.
What I have been drinking. Vietnamese coffee, from the National’s espresso bar. Condensed milk, iced double espresso and an orange slice on the side. Like a deep tissue massage for the arteries.
What I have been reading. There but for the by Ali Smith. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. A bit of Virginia Woolf.
Where I have been. London: the Pond, the area with the fountains in the Barbican, Tate Britain.
What I have been watching. Manhunt: Unabomber (good but quite obviously written by men; has sent me down a delicious rabbit hole of Wikipedia pages – America is weird.). Nanette, about twelve times.
What I have been wearing. A red floral maxi skirt. Nice and swishy to minimise leg sweat.
What I have been thinking about. The bunker scene in The Twilight Zone.* Whether the internet is good for my quality of life. How The Thick Of It series 2 episode 5 is basically the plot of Uncle Vanya. Whether my Thick Of It fan account is a good thing. Bojack Horseman season 4 especially the penultimate episode when the whole Bojack’s mum thing unravels.
I have been thinking a lot about how much there is to do. I get stressed out by the fact that I can’t do five things at the same time. Why can’t I load the dishwasher while reading a book while writing a play while feeding the dog while texting my friend while sleeping while writing a blog while having a bath. There are too many things to do and the uncertainty of the future, of a world in which I will have had to accomplish all of those things, scares me a lot. Sometimes it can make life feel very hard.
But when I think about that. I like to stop and pause and maybe shut my eyes. And I think about the people who make it bearable, the risks worth taking, how, if anything, I should be pushing myself further and harder, waking up earlier in the morning. I am taking it easy. I think about the parts of life I enjoy. I try and garner motivation.
And now I also think about the pond. I remember the feeling of the water, the smell of it, the temperature. I find life easier in the summer, it is easier to get out of bed, easier to enjoy being a human being. I wonder now, whenever I enjoy the weather, how I will feel in the winter. I will try and revisit those moments when I felt at my best, when I felt reenergised and engaged and invigorating. And the pond.
AN UNCOMFORTABLE ART TOUR
Lowdown: I went on one of Alice Proctor’s Uncomfortable Art Tours at the V&A. You can read more about them in this amazing Bridget Minamore piece in the Guardian.
It is my white privilege to not feel uncomfortable on an uncomfortable art tour. Given what was being discussed – primarily about the British occupation of India – I should have felt far more uncomfortable than I did. I wonder how people of colour on the tour felt.
A fair bit of the tour is about how museums function as national spaces – we touched on the museum neutrality movement in the US, and when we are interrupted by a noisy children’s group in one of the rooms, Alice talks to us about how children coming to museums is important, how school trips are important – because if you’re made to feel comfortable in a museum as a child, if you feel like it’s your space, you’re far more likely to come back as an adult.
The same must be true of theatres: people who are taken by their parents, on multiple school trips, must be more likely to book tickets of their own accord. In simple terms: I have never been to a strip club and would not ever go to a strip club. But if I was out with my friends and we ended up in a strip club then I would be more likely to come back to a strip club of my own accord at a later date. It’s an unknown, unfelt space. I don’t know what the etiquette is. I don’t know what it’s like inside. I don’t know what an appropriate amount to tip is.
Theatres being national, neutral spaces where everyone can feel comfortable has always gone far beyond mobile phones and food, even further than access for people with disabilities and cheap tickets. It is, as Alice Proctor points out, about what the art is and how it is framed. How Tipu’s Tiger is labelled matters, as does the reaction of the people around us to the object.
The precise moment when the person sitting next to you laughs matters. The reactions of the people around you can shape your experience of the play as much as the words in the play itself. Silence at a rape joke and laughter at a rape joke are two polar opposites that can make or break how one member of the audience experiences something, can swing someone’s whole day, alter their whole week. The way we label theatre (through reviews, through our laughter, through poster images, programmes) and manage the spaces, it all matters.
INTERLUDE [Oh, Sylvia]
Writing this days after my first pond visit, I struggle to find a word that carries the feeling of that early morning on Hampstead Heath. One springs to mind: stasis. Like in Ariel, the Plath poem. Seventeen year old me has scribbled all over my copy, but in amongst the pencillings I can clearly make out, in Plath’s own writing, the N word. I don’t need to need to double check with Google to know that Plath was a racist.
The era in which Plath lived is not an excuse, it is never an excuse. But a Google search reveals that the pattern is much broader than one word. See here.
At the same time (this is not excuse-making) something someone else said to me about Sylvia Plath also sticks in the mind. We could have had so much more from her. Think of everything she could have written. The work we never got to see. It all exists, just not in a tangible, readable form. The idea of it is there.
I remember this, from Virginia Woolf’s Shakespeare’s Sister:
‘[F]iction, imaginative work that is, is not dropped like a pebble upon the ground, as science may be; fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible; Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, seem to hang there complete by themselves. But when the web is pulled askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the middle, one remembers that these webs are not spun in midair by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings…’
Plath’s work does not hang there by itself. When we approach Daddy, or The Bell Jar, or Ariel, the web has already been pulled askew for us, long before we read the words. We studied Plath in school in parallel with Hughes, and spent entire afternoons not looking at a single poem but instead rereading her Wikipedia page, as if that distilled her, that was her essence.
It’s not just the life, the death, the marriage. Plath was born in 1932. Not long enough ago for the cracks in the work (the racism) to be excusable – in the way it could be excusable for Shakespeare. But also not so contemporary that it is a pressing issue, a thing that must be addressed. I remember the Native people in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Little House on the Prairie, the fear of being read that chapter as a child, that has melted in with fear of other moments – the bear in the yard, the dog lost in the river.
The pad of my finger brushes the word, stasis, on the page. It feels near to that morning on the Heath. And right below it, the N word. I spend too long on the poem. The cauldron of morning. That was how I felt. The poem begins with a rush of exhilaration, the sting of lactic acid, a horse, maybe. Then there are two figures, entities, psychologies, moods, whatever – one black, one white. The white casts off the black and we get the growing sense of dawn: ‘Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas’. And all the while you can still feel this intenseness of rushing forwards, pushing forwards, being pushed forwards, flying. Right into the pinprick of morning.
Just like Esther in The Bell Jar wearing the two white and black dresses (see Kelly Coyne’s essay), the white figure in Ariel is surrounded with infinitely more positive imaginary than the black. It is not just one word that taints the poem. The whole thing crumples around it, folds itself in. You could not neatly cross out the N word and continue reading.
For me one of the crucial mantras of Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette is on society’s enthrallment with reputation. Plath still clings onto her reputation, has not been dissected by the new century, has not suffered the same fate as Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Were Plath alive now, she’d be 86. That’s the same age as my Gran. I read somewhere that later on in her life Ingalls received a letter from a reader about the racist representation of Native people in her books, and she held her hands up and apologised. I would like to think and hope that Plath would denounce the use of that word, along with all the offending passages in The Bell Jar. But there’s no way of knowing. And the whole work still crumples around those seemingly insignificant bits. Better to forget the work and let it rest, leave it in peace, in history.
‘She lives in you and in me, and in many other women…she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh.’ I wish that I could forget that one word, that one poem. But it is all there, an obsolete mass, still attached to life. Plath is still iconised on Tumblr, on Etsy, etc.
And sometimes that thought makes me a bit sick. Other times I just stare off and think about the strangeness of the world. I try and not let those feelings get too big. Plath does not wander the world on horseback, living on. The world is not strange when you eat it in baby steps.
A couple of people have notebooks with her face on. A couple more have dumbass quotes on gaudy signs on their bedroom walls. That does not make a poet live, does not make a poet breathe. The words live, Plath doesn’t.
It is hard not to be upset at upsetting things. I think about Plath as I lie on my bed, stare at the ceiling, lie on the sofa, stare at the ceiling, walk to work in the rain.
At the bus stop, I steel myself with this knowledge: the poet Woolf talks about never wrote a word. Great poets die, we crush their words, re-write and re-mean. Fuck Plath. Feel sorry she didn’t ever become Great-er – but remember Shakespeare’s Sister, the unnamed woman who died at the crossroads. She never got the chance to write a word. Think of the Women of Colour who never got the chance to write a word, or whose words have never been recognised, or read. I think of them at the bus stop, as I stare at the ceiling.
SOME TEXT THAT WILL BE IN MY LIA WILLIAMS ZINE ‘WE ALL LOVE LIA WILLIAMS’
There is an awful 1993 film directed by Michael Winner (an awful director) called Dirty Weekend (not to be confused with the similarly awful 2015 film Dirty Weekend). I love it.
It is based on a book by Helen Zahavi and stars Lia Williams as a dowdily-dressed twenty-five in a dead-end job, dating a professor or something. It is his birthday party (like the Pinter play, but with a plot). The morning after, Lia Williams comes back to his flat to help him clear up and one of his female students has spent the night.
She gets angry and upset and leaves. I’m writing all of this from memory.
Lia doesn’t really know what to do, so she goes and talks to her friend Miriam, who lives in Brighton and is a bit older than her. She decides to move to Brighton and get some typing work which she does sitting at the window of her flat.
A man watches her from a window opposite, and starts making harassing phone calls. Lia doesn’t like it, obviously. She goes out for dinner with Miriam and her boring husband who has a successful career. They are also joined by Miriam’s husband’s friend who is a police officer and a twat. Lia tells him about her stalker problem and he’s like ‘naahhh it’s harmless’. But then Miriam persuades mr police to go back to Lia’s flat with her and check out her security. He’s looking at Lia’s front door and she’s like ‘I can’t afford a stronger door lock’ or whatever and mr police tries to get with her and then gets all uppity because in his mind if you invite a man back to your flat then that means sex. He’s like ‘you should be more careful who you let in’ and says something or other implying that if she has sex with him the police will investigate her case
[at some point, and I don’t totally remember exactly when this happens, Lia Williams goes to see this like wise person? She’s just walking through the cool bit of Brighton that wasn’t as cool in the nineties and she goes into see this clairvoyant or something? Who is a white guy brownfacing. And he gives her a knife and a philosophy or something. This scene is long and boring and I usually skip through it.]
Lia is living her life totally oppressed by this stalker guy. She goes out of the flat and sits in a park because she just can’t feel comfortable or safe in there anymore. She’s sitting on a bench in this sunny park and she just shuts her eyes and feels the sun on her face and does this contented little breath. And then the window stalker turns up and sits down next to her and says some really threatening stuff.
Lia Williams is, at this point, totally and utterly fed up with men, so that evening (I think) she breaks into window stalker’s flat wearing all black with a black beanie and repeatedly hits him over the head with a hammer. It’s pretty gruesome. Then she makes herself a sandwich.
[also peppered throughout the film are catches of sound from the TV and radio with news reports about a serial killer making his way south through the country. He kills women and he has a noticeable ring with a big green stone.]
And this is the beginning of Lia’s new life. She goes out and buys a gun. She gets dressed up into something my mum would call ‘tarty’. She goes to this big hotel by the Pavilion and has a drink in the bar. She meets an overweight man called Norman who’s a bit patronising and is there for a conference. He basically mansplains everything to her but then he asks her what she does and she’s like ‘I’m in sanitation’ – it’s very Sopranos. He invites her up to his room ‘just to stand on the balcony, no expectations’. She knows full well what’s going on. When they get up to his room he says he’s going to get changed and then comes out of the bathroom naked. ‘Oh Norman’, Lia says. They have some fairly unsuccessful sex. She laughs at him, he hits her, they go for a bit of a bondage/BDSM type thing, which ends up with Lia tying Norman to a chair and suffocating him with the bin bag from the loo. Classic Lia.
I wish Lia would be a bit more careful about forensics. She left her fingerprints all over that hotel room.
Anyway, Lia essentially goes on a murdering rampage. She kills a sexist dentist who goes on and on about the smell of vaginal discharge. She runs over a group of men who are about to sexually assault a homeless woman, and then the homeless woman is like ‘Wow! Lia Williams is so great!’ as she robs the dead men’s wallets.
Then at the end she decides to leave Brighton, go and murder men further afield. She does this 6am stroll along the pier before she gets her train, kind of like a goodbye. And as you see Lia walking down the pier you see a man put his hand down on the railing by the beach. And there is a ring with a big green stone on one of his fingers.
So you’re watching Lia walk down the pier, and you’re in total suspense, and you kind of get glimpses of the man following her, and Lia looks behind her but doesn’t see him. Then Lia does a really stupid thing which is throw her gun into the sea because it’s this *catharsis*. Which is great timing because about two seconds later the serial killer guy jumps out and grabs her. One of them (I can’t remember who) has a knife so Lia stabs him and none of the blood gets on her pretty suit. It’s in this casino with all the lights on the machines going off, which was probably very cutting edge in the nineties. Anyway, you think she’s killed the guy but NO he gets up again but she manages to throw him over the railings into the sea. Then she walks down the beach and as his body washes up she takes the ring off him and wears it as a badge of pride.
The film was actually banned from video release in the UK because it was so graphic.
It ends with her getting on the train to London and all the men in her carriage are staring at her because she’s a conventionally attractive white woman but then they see the ring and know that she’s murdered the serial killer guy. And Lia goes on and on and on and carries on murdering men forever. It’s beautiful.
In many ways, all this film is is a boiled down video game-esque pacification/glorification of female anger that never considers or gives time to intersectional feminism, that relies on ‘kill all men’ as its unsaid commercialised only feminist mantra, set in a world in which women can only try and balance the scales by committing violent crimes, a world in which that woman has to be thin and white and sexy and blonde and able-bodied so she can look fuckable while murdering men, a world in which that woman can wear a mini dress and be spattered in blood in an alluring way, still-fuckable way, so she can wear nice lingerie while she suffocates a pointedly unattractive way. It’s an unwatchable, mottled version of the drab to glam chick flick, one that forces the female protagonist not to change her appearance to appease the male protagonist but instead to change her appearance to make her actions acceptable and watchable to male viewers of the film (and probably also to the male director and the very male gaze of the lens).
There was this funny thing where Lia was doing a promo interview about the film and a journalist asked her if she thought the film was good, and she said no. She had to formally apologise to Michael Winner in Time Out.
WEAK LITTLE THOUGHTS/NOTES FROM MY PHONE
When the art is good, we don’t question the premise of going to the theatre to hear a story, paying to be told a story. But when the art is bad, when you become very conscious that you are just being told a story over the course of 3 hours that you could have read in two, that you have paid for a passive experience. You are sitting in a room of middle class people in the dark paying a lot of money to be told a story. It feels like nothing more than a bizarre luxury, like glamping or a Cath Kidston oyster card holder or buying Always INFINITY instead of bog standard Always. You realise you have gained nothing and lost quite a lot of money on stupid meaningless shit. The thought of explaining theatre to a child who has no concept of it is weird. It’s like TV but the people are right there in front of you, in the same room as you. It sounds esoterical and bougie. And that’s basically the whole art form clumped together right there. We in theatre look on the opera camp like it’s a Dead Art Form but in approximately 15 years we will be where opera is now. Will bet a tenner on it.
There is something really beautiful about the [p]hysical [t]heatre sequences in Kopfkino Theatre’s The Bearpit. The tenderness and forcefulness of how they clung to each other, gripped each other. The fact that Kopfkino’s publicity is not emblazoned with promises of Real Rigorous PHYSICAL THEATRE Sequences. That it didn’t feel naff or shit or pointless or overly choreographed or massively ineffective. And it was very good. I’m still so taken with that lasting image in my head of two people hanging on to each other. Feet hard on the floor, keeping each other up in such an unvulnerable way. They looked strong.
Anger in Nanette: I wish more twitter people would listen to it. Remember Hannah Gadsby says she does not have the right to spread anger, and that anger is not productive. That doesn’t mean it’s incorrect to feel it. But why is it always necessary to spread it? ™ and other thoughts from my water infected brain
I want to wonder round the house wearing absolutely nothing but a red t-shirt that’s too small for me, like Winnie the Pooh. I think that would be nice.
The whole ‘more people get to see it’ bullshit is like a box of wasps that is opened whenever anything goes to the West End. On the one hand I understand how people who love it, people who made it feel that way, think that. But on all the other hands: West End transfers are the commercialisation of subsidised art. That’s a huge shame. The industry is what it is now and West End transfers might be part of the system – that can’t be undone. But certain things can change: the sickeningly high ticket prices for pieces that were made by subsidised venues. The whiteness of it. The dourness of it. The top price bracket for Consent is £95. That’s just weird. Peak late capitalism is middle aged and OAP upper middle class white people sitting in theatres paying a hundred quid a seat to see a play that uses rape as a plot device and to endorse a middle class, neglectful and glib set of characters instead. (Don’t get me started on The Jungle. Sometimes these plays take on new and severe connotations when they move into the West End/into a pricier zone.) If Sonia Friedman is going to make all this money out of a play from an ACE-funded theatre, does she really need so much? Do the seats really need to be £95? Do rich people get satisfaction out of paying more? Does it make their evening? If the Nash is going to make loads of money out of West End transfers, did they really need to raise the price of entry pass tickets by 50%? I mean, it’s Our Royal National Theatre, or whatever. So the bullshit spin we tell ourselves that ‘more people get to see it’ is perhaps just a way of contorting/covering up the capitalist reality of state subsidised art being used for profit. All Art Should Be Subsidised. Keep it Marxist folks xxx
There is nothing more disappointing than opening a programme and seeing ‘secretary’ on the cast list. Feel similarly re: ‘maid’, etc.
Dream casting for the Lehman Trilogy: Noma, Lia, Harriet. Also dream casting for any play.
*I have since been reconsidering this. After reading Naomi Obeng’s piece on the white gaze the male gaze in the most recent Exeunt zine, Bearskin, I am considering that maybe that scene came at the expense of the comfort of the people of colour in the audience.
I am writing this outside. There is something nice about the outside. I have just had an idea for a thing. I can see it in pastel brightness in my head.
Sway in the trees. The occasional gust of wind blowing over the smell of dog shit.
My family has a strict no dog on furniture no dog upstairs policy but I want to take my dog up to bed and cuddle him. I’m in that kind of mood. Stretched out.
My ankles still hurt from the first trip to the pond when I go again. I go with my mum this time, who says I’m out of breath because of the cold not because of my lack of fitness, but I don’t buy that. Still – baby steps. Moving towards health. It’s been seven years, I think.
I remember writing “collected thoughts volume 1” – actually, I don’t remember so much writing it as ‘publishing it’, putting the link up on twitter and waiting for people to read it. I remember writing something last winter – I don’t remember if it was that one – that really hurt. It still pops up in my head sometimes and I don’t know if I should push it down.
There have been so many times in my life when I haven’t been happy and I didn’t even realise. There are lots of things I don’t realise. The other day I went to the loo at work and was idly thinking about how because it was The Loo At Work and I went to it a lot to check my phone I might feel more comfortable, more at home, in here than someone who had just popped in to see a play. And then I realised that actually because it is a toilet in a theatre and I am white and cis my feeling comfortable in a toilet is actually a gross privilege. And I wonder how many other things I miss on a daily basis, privileges I experience without even noticing them. It’s not a problem that the world can solve by giving everyone who identifies as a woman a room of their own, but it seems like it might be a good place to start.
Life is little, I say to myself. Eat it.
There was one other thing and I can’t remember it. But it’ll come to me.