Category Archives: Literature

Penning Anger

Recently, whilst updating my CV, I was reminded of the first poem I ever had published (in ‘Big!’ magazine): it was written during the time I spent as a fifteen-year-old inpatient in an adolescent psychiatry unit, and I use the word ‘poem’ very loosely here, because really it was just a rant with a rhyming scheme.

Back then, I was very angry a lot of the time: angry at my parents because they’d sent me to that place, and angry at the medical staff because their job was to ‘spy’ on me; mostly though, I was angry at myself and my lack of control over the situation; and the only thing that made me feel better was channeling my thoughts onto paper. Of course, I had a lot of alone time in the unit, so I had ample opportunity to write a lot of hateful letters over the three and a half month period I spent locked up; some of them were to my friends complaining about my ‘arsehole’ parents who’d left me in that place to rot, and about my ill-treatment at the hands of the ‘evil’ psychiatric nurses who followed me everywhere and were clearly out to ruin my life; but most were to Victor Bog-off, the foul-mouthed editor of the Big! letters page, who replied to all correspondence from his fans by showering them with abuse. I can’t remember what I said in those letters, but I know I wrote to him on average about three times a week with all my various woes, and it didn’t deter me when everyone else around me said his mailbag would be so full of other people’s letters he’d never get to read mine. 

Ironically, when the poem (which contained the last line ‘so bog off you great piece of snot’) was selected for publication, I was completely unaware of it – and I only found out that it had made it into print when I received a variety of stares, sniggers and whispers as I trotted into the dinner hall on my very first day back at school after my release; and one teenage girl I vaguely knew held up her copy of Big! magazine and cried, ‘oh my god, you’re famous!’

It’s interesting for me to look back on these small triumphs because not only does it help to see how far I’ve come, but it also reminds me of how much my outlook on life has changed: nowadays I’d rather turn tragedy into comedy; and I’m driven, not by rage, but by the ability to look at life from many odd angles and to laugh at myself.

The Sex Issue

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It’s three PM and I’m sitting in Cafe Jacqui’s with my Diet Pepsi and the sex issue of Diva trying to decide on what to write for this week’s blog. I feel a tiny bit awkward because I hadn’t actually realized that the May issue was the sex issue: I simply grabbed the magazine on a whim as I was rushing out of the house, thinking that reading one of the monthly columns might unlock some inspiration; but now I keep looking surreptitiously over my shoulder to see if the two octogenarian ladies at the table behind me have noticed on one of their many trips to the toilet that I am perusing a publication that is full of naked ladies.

Not that I’m particularly shy about my sexual orientation – my days of playing the pronoun game whilst trying to maintain a hetero charade are long and truly over, and there would quite possibly be a murder if Antonia ever heard me referring to her as ‘Toni’ – but similar to comedienne Susan Calman, I grew up in a household where sex was an untouchable subject (throats were cleared and channels were switched over whenever there was an ounce of nudity, or snogging scenes got a bit racy on the telly); and like she says in her latest article (‘It’s Getting Hot In here’), I also would ‘really rather we didn’t talk about it at all, thank you very much’.

And I know, that this might come as a surprise to some people – especially those writer friends of mine who’ve read the graphic lesbian sex scene in my girl-meets-girl novel ‘Vicky Romeo Plus Joolz’, not to mention the post-bath-time chapter early on where my young butch narrator gets on down with a hand-mirror to examine her vagina for the first time – but I really am quite shy when it comes to watching, reading about or discussing carnal topics; it’s all very well making my characters hot and horny and sexually liberated between the sheets of my manuscripts, but those people aren’t me – and if they were, I certainly wouldn’t be giving anyone a running commentary of what I get up to in the privacy of my bedroom!

To be on the safe side, I decide to quickly flick past the top five sex toy guide and the photographs of scantily-dressed couple Emily and Ali, and fix my gaze on Joanna Benecke’s queer grooming column. This month’s focus is on ethical make up and it includes the low down on Super Drug’s B range, a new-to-the-UK vegan brand called Pacifica Beauty, and a company called VF who specialise in cruelty-free face paint (veganfaces.co.uk); there is also an information box which goes into detail about
shark liver oil, boiled animal fat and other unappealing ingredients like cochineal beetles that are used in the production of non-vegan makeup, and I begin reading it with the best intentions, right before my gaze accidentally wanders to the opposite page where there’s a P!nk For Peta advert featuring the caption ‘I’d rather go naked than wear fur’ alongside an au naturale picture of pop star Alecia Moore…

I don’t stay to read the next page which is about masturbation (another theme which has popped up multiple times in my writing) because I realise it’s nearly closing time, and besides I’m starting to sweat inside my hoody and I’m not certain it’s the heat that’s causing that. Also, I’m not sure whether the owner (who just walked past) was coughing loudly because she wanted me to leave because she was anxious to clear up and go home, or whether she just wanted me and my cheeky magazine to leave, period. Alternatively, I suppose she may just have had a summer cold.

As soon as I go home I plan to have a cuppa and a Nakd bar whilst checking out the film and TV reviews on pages thirty-one to thirty-three, before Antonia comes hammering on my door for her dinner; because, really, that’s about as risqué as I get.

Blank

Recently, I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a second memoir.

I thought I might call it ‘Blank’ because as well as the obvious connotations it has with writer’s block, it also relates to gaps or ‘blanks’ in one’s memory, and to the ‘blank’ expressions I am often accused of wearing.

My first book, ‘Cracked: Recovering After Traumatic Brain Injury’ was launched in December 2002 by Jessica Kingsley Publishers, and in it’s two-hundred-and-twenty-four pages it documented the early years following my accident: from the initial struggle to receive a diagnosis, to my incarceration inside an adolescent psychiatric unit, and my eventual descension into bulimia and anorexia, as I failed to cope with school and exams and ordinary teenage nuances on top of memory loss and other cognitive impairments; before, finally, recounting the positive search for a new identity as I learnt to accept my limitations.

I was young when I wrote that book, and if I could go back and pen it all over again I’d definitely do it differently. I’d mention some things that I left out, and leave out a couple that wormed their way in. I’ve been told that it helped a lot of people (both brain injury survivors and their families, as well as doctors), and that pleases me because it was not originally written with publication in mind; because writing for me was simply a cathartic outlet, something I did to make myself feel calmer, and to understand myself and those around me a little better. However, I also noticed that ‘Cracked’ had received a one star review on Amazon last year by someone who said it was ‘a ridiculous waste of money’, and who claimed that it provided no insight for them into the condition at all. Well, whilst I’m inclined to be of the mindset that you simply can’t please everyone, I do concede that, perhaps, the book only described the tip of the iceberg when it comes to explaining what living with traumatic brain injury is like, and that a sequel is in fact long overdue.

I was not out as a lesbian at that time – in fact, I was only in the early stages of realising and understanding my sexuality – so I didn’t have to navigate my way around a countercultural gay world with it’s separate customs and fashions, as well as the usual mainstream one that was already highly confusing. Neither did I have to put up with others’ desexualisation of me or the assumption that my girlfriend was simply a carer.

I was also still living a rather sheltered life at home with parents, free of financial worries and responsibilities; and aside from a weekly paper round, a trial run as a silver service waitress, and an unpaid work placement via the brain injury rehabilitation centre I attended, I was completely ignorant of the world of employment and it’s complexities.

Being a person with a brain injury hugely affects the way I react to the world and in turn the way the world reacts to me: I spend a lot of time nodding and agreeding with people simply because it’s easier (and often less offensive) than saying, ‘I haven’t got a fucking scooby what you are talking about.’

 

It’s also a lot less tiresome than making the effort to tell people that a) I have had a brain injury, b) most people with brain injuries have trouble receiving and processing information (which basically means it takes longer than average for words to sink in) c) because it takes longer for words to sink in I’m still thinking about the first part you said so I’ve totally missed the second, and d) I don’t understand what you’re saying because of a), b) and c). Of course, usually when I have to explain that, I either forget what I’m saying half way through or said person gets bored and cuts me off midspiel by saying something completely dismissive like: ‘oh, that happens to me all the time’.

And believe me, having someone who has never had a brain injury tell you that they / their mother/ father / dog / most people they know have trouble understanding what folk are saying, is a bit like being vegan for seventeen years then having some clown who recently gave up red meat and dairy (‘except cheese’) tell you they are ‘basically vegan’ too.

Imagined Nations

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I’m reading a kids’ book called ‘Un Lun Dun’ by China Mièville at the moment. It’s a quirky comedy-adventure novel set in a Wonderland-y Londonesque parallel universe, about two children who are pulled into an escapade which involves riding in a flying Routemaster bus, adopting a living milk carton as a pet, and fighting a vaporous foe called ‘Smog’. It’s Mièville’s first novel aimed at younger readers (although he has previously written four novels for adults and won the British Fantasy Writing Award twice), and so far I’m thoroughly enjoying it.

I’ve always liked stories with imagined worlds: Lyman Frank Baum’s ‘Oz’ books with their legendary Munchkin, Gillikin, Quadling and Winkie countries still remain fast favourites of mine; as do the Narnia ones, and any fabled nonsenseland where Lewis Caroll’s Alice appears. But aside from the Harry Potter heptalogy I gobbled up repeatedly during my twenties, and Neil Gaiman’s ‘Neverwhere’ – another parallel world story set in the fictitious ‘London Below’, which was introduced to me by my old schoolfriend and fellow bookworm, Tracy Norman – I’m afraid to say that I largely abandoned the fantasy genre until Antonia reintroduced me to it three years ago.

I keep saying that I will write my own Oz story one day: I started but then abandoned writing a piece for Antonia called ‘The Kitchen Witch Of Oz’, about a young woman called Piccalilli Womble-Snugglebottom (although she objected to the Snugglebottom part) who had the power to heal people via the cakes she baked; she was also the estranged niece of the deceased Wicked Witch Of The East and ‘the kindest person in all of Oz’ – which was precisely why her aunt disowned her. Piccalilli is, of course, completely unaware that she has any kind of magical powers and this just adds to her charm. I was also going to make her vegan.

My other Oz-y idea was to inject a bit of social realism into the Ozites’ world by having Princess Ozma run away from the palace cross-dressed as a servant boy. Because, despite the fact that Baum’s second book ‘The Marvellous Land Of Oz’ is probably my favourite in the series, I was completely disenchanted with the ending after it is revealed that the missing princess our boy-hero ‘Tip’ has been looking for, is in fact himself, and that he was placed under an enchantment as a baby. If you ask me, Tip settled into his frilly dresses and his new life as Ozma the girl ruler of Oz all too easily regardless of his initial objections at being magically changed into a girl.   So I’d like to write a splinter story where Tip/Ozma goes in search of Glinda the Good to ask her to reverse the magic once again.

I’m on page seventy-six of ‘Un Lun Dun’ now, about to start chapter fourteen which is called ‘Attack Of The Manky Insect’. ‘Curdle’ the pet milk carton has just hurled itself at nasty bearded man in the toga who is trying to capture the goodies… oh dear, suddenly it looks like things could turn sour…