What do you picture when you think of the writer? A recluse, working in the half-light of winter or in the sun-kissed parklands of summer? Novel thoughts that flow through dainty calligraphy on tanned pages? Web string ideas that will one day sit proud and hardbacked in Waterstones or Foyles. Half an hour to transpose to pixel, twelve weeks to complete, another month or two for luck.
If that’s the vision, let me grace you with the reality, as I find myself propped in a generic coffee shop. The table is scratched as a post, the air sticky and the green chair worn away to the bare threads. There is only one word for it, uninviting. But what does it matter? My leggings are peppered with rips and holes anyway, the stains and the marks, it’ll wash out.
A train goes past, one of those piddly little things that carry children at walking pace, no, slower than that, a snail’s. The driver sounds its electric toot-toot as it crawls by, my right ear left ringing while my left is pumped with coffee grinding and the tinny music of overhead Electric Light Orchestra. The best ambiance £2.25 of tea can buy. I sip the cold fluid with a grimace, bitter and stewed.
It’s gone 18:00, my hair is wet with grease and my young face slightly more etched from another exhaustive day at the office-come-dining table. Eyes swollen, fingers twisted. I worked through lunch, which every psychologist from here to Timbuktu will say is a one-way trip to an early grave, but the extra hour of toil then means an extra hour of freedom now. A fragment of bliss with a half-eye on time. Later, a stranger beckons at my door to collect dusty offcuts from my garage; he won’t negotiate on the timings and I really could do with that £20.
Writers are leather beaters, we take the skin of an idea and scrape, beat and dunk until that piece of flesh returns gold. Sometimes our elbows linger for too long in foul-smelling liquids that the only thing golden is our stained skin, saturated with stench.
Write. Write harder and faster and quicker and smarter and eloquently, until your fingertip pads run smooth and your skin cracks with effort. That’s what writing is. I’d consider myself a very successful woman indeed if I were ever to stumble across my work in a library or charity shop. Maybe that makes me simplistic, or maybe that makes me even more of a dreamer. I scrub my manuscript some more.
I started putting keyboard to laptop in 2014 on little more than a whim and utter boredom, to fill lonely nights in a strange town I barely knew. Eight years later I find myself plagued with a parasitic urge I can barely comprehend. What time is it? When did I last eat? How long before the staff spot my empty cup and kick me to the curb?
I don’t write because I want to, I write because it is an addiction. Leave hollow hope be for there is nothing to be saved.
My colourless eyes glance sideward as the same empty train edges closer once more.
This piece was kindly sponsored by Ben Miller, who spotted my business card on a noticeboard and commissioned me to write a post on “Why I Write”.
I’m off this week on a super fancy writers’ retreat (very exciting stuff!) After what feels like a century of isolation, I’m very much looking forward to meeting and working alongside like-minded people at a blissfully rural location in the British countryside.
As per the rural comment, I’m going to mostly be off-grid during my time away but I’ll be back with a new blog post sometime next week.
Now, time to be all Natasha Bedingfield for a whole seven days.
I can see the similarities.
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Bio: “This week I speak to the new Mayor of Stratford, Councillor Tony Jackson, and find out exactly what it is a Mayor does, and to Sophie from Happy Paws in the Shire, about doggy holidays to the beach and fussing and feeding our feline friends. I also speak to local blogger, Alice, who writes the blog ‘My Housemates A Mermaid’, about her very interesting housemate, and she shares her lockdown poem with us.”
Well things are really not going my way, are they? Just when I think I’m starting to shake this illness off, boom! Tonsillitis.
Given breathing state is a bit wheezy I’ll have to try and not get too ahead of myself when typing in hurried excitement. That’ll be the hardest part, just like when my teachers used to tell me off for smudging ink all over the page and up my hand. They never really did see the other side, that I couldn’t help it. That I was so keen to write everything down in my head, too impatient to let the ink to dry.
Bruise on the leg has near vanished too, so at least my body is still capable of some level of self healing.
It was that very same night as the Sofar Sounds gig that I experienced my minor calf injury. After the meal in Wapping I found myself casually wandering around St. Katharine Docks, a delightful patch of water and wealth next to Tower Bridge. Where rich people flaunt their yachts and people like me walk along raised walkways; enjoying the chance to look down at privilege. It’s also the location for one of my favourite views of London, where Tower Bridge appears from nowhere as a mighty giant of architecture.
At this time the light was lacking, so I decided I’d return another day to take the above photograph.
There had been a steady drizzle of rain throughout the afternoon, causing the paths and walkways to be more slippy than usual. While the Underground stations blared the same warning to passengers over and over again, on a near silent Sunday night in January the message was perhaps less ingrained in my head as I strolled around the Marina.
Eventually the expected happened, walking down a flight of concrete steps in my flat, sodden, pump shoes, my foot skidded on the slippery surface and I tumbled forward. Thankfully I was near to the bottom, my hands jutted out of my pockets just in time to break my fall down the two or three steps remaining of the flight. My calf however suffered their bite, the impact of these remaining ledges grazing their teeth along the bone, from foot to knee.
It was too dark for anyone to see, too quiet for anyone to notice, too quick for anyone to spot; within half a second of me falling flat in a heap I’d hopped back onto my feet and carried on my way. It was only later when I got back to the hotel I discovered the full impact of the fall was more substantial than I’d originally thought. Lesson learnt; I kept my hands of out my pockets and tread more carefully for the rest of the trip.
Monday morning, and now it felt like the time was all mine to play with. Done were the previously agreed engagements, the catch-ups and the pre-booked tickets, now I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted while the rest of the city got back to work.
From my bedroom window I watched the suited men and women in their designer shoes and trainers as they all scuttled in the same direction, towards the heart of the financial district. It drew me back to all those times before when I’d walked the very same path, head down, headphones plugged in.
In amongst the crowd I saw one individual less sure of themselves, less familiar with the route they were taking. They reminded me of myself all that time ago, those first few days where impatient workers would dodge and tut as I stopped frequently to check the direction of travel I was headed in.
Back in the present I knew my place, I would only head out after the walking rush-hour had ceased; after 09:00 when the world was a little calmer on foot.
I’d never been to the Museum of London which had always struck me as odd given it was one of the few tourist attractions I’d seen so frequently day-to-day working in The City. It’s imposing lettering on the side of a large brutalist wall that trailed around a roundabout and off towards the Barbican.
Deciding there is always a first time for everything, I skirted around a large school party waiting outside and dived into the building to get a head start on the exhibits.
The first thing that struck me was the music playing loudly across the speakers. The sound of punk music overflowing into exhibitions on prehistoric London seemed initially a strange pairing, until I realised that it formed part of a temporary exhibit on The Clash’s 1979 album London Calling. The album was playing on a loop to help draw people in. As I walked past staff members I wondered how many repeats of the title track would it take before they grew sick of such an iconic band.
The music stayed in my head long after I left the museum. I may have seen some wonderful artefacts and learnt a lot about London’s rich history, but it would be the feeling of seeing Paul Simonon’s broken guitar in real life that would come to brand the entire city-break. I’d never been an avid follower of the Punk movement, but the first time I understood it a little better. I was able to appreciate it for what it represented; the first act of civil disobedience, the first time youth made a strong impact. “No, we will not be silenced!”
From the Museum of London I skirted on down past St Paul’s cathedral, through the buzzing crowds of tourists and across the Millennium Footbridge to reach the banks of Southwark. In my sights I had my favourite branch of Caffe Nero; one located in Oxo Tower, but before I could reach it I caught myself on an installation placed outside the Tate Modern. A walk in cuboid-like structure, hung with column upon column of white paper cups (save a couple of black columns at the front).
‘We use 5,555 paper cups a minute in the UK,’ the sign read. ‘Oh which only 555 are recycled.’
I took a step back and, like a few of the passers by, were moved by how explicit the instillation was in showcasing the amount of waste in this country. However, what was equally striking was how the majority of people had responded to the stand-alone piece. All around people were scribbling messages onto the paper cups; some were deeply emotive on the destruction of the planet, others as two-dimensional as a statement that someone had been there, like lover’s hearts engraved on trees. Whether or not the artists has intended their work to be graffitied in this way, it seemed there was no stopping it, the piece had only been erected for a matter of days and yet was already covered in human sentiment.
A ballpoint pen burning in my handbag, I walked forwards and scouted out a suitable cup to make my mark. Not entirely sure what to write, I eventually scribbled down some words. I stepped back to admire my work, only to find myself cringing at the terrible handwriting and the surrealness of the wording. It was missing something.
I pulled out one of my business cards from my bad and, with the help of a few drawing pins and some blu tac, I attached the small square of card to the small paper cup. ‘Yes,’ I thought. ‘That looks better.’
The final inscription read:
Alice E. Bennett, 27/01/20. Mermaids do exist and they can’t survive in our polluted oceans. Instead they are forced into moving to Swindon!
(After attaching the card I also added the words, ‘get curious’.)
I took a couple of photos before moving on. As I walked away I realised a few people had been stood watching me the whole time as I awkwardly attached my card to the cup. An international tourist was quick to swoop in to give it a read, though I felt quite certain they wouldn’t have the faintest idea what I was on about, I barely knew myself.
Whether I had intended it to look that way or not, I’d effectively sold out on an environmental protest.
I strategically placed one of my ‘duff’ business cards (ones which were printed with a spelling mistake) under the empty coffee cup as I walked out of Caffe Nero, the space somewhat busier than I expected for a Monday lunchtime. I retraced my steps and entered the Tate Modern just as the heaven’s opened and it started to pour with rain.
‘Better take my time, then!’ I thought to myself, making my way into the turbine hall to admire the dramatic water fountain, Fons Americanus, created by American artist Kara Walker.
I strolled around several of the art galleries, in truth I saw this as a mere fill-in experience for old time’s sake. It’s funny how spoilt you can become when you experience something everyday, in that very moment I only sought out a quick hit whereas for many this would be the highlight of their day or even their trip, to London.
A number of the galleries hadn’t changed since the times I’d been there and for me that felt bothersome, like the Tate was being lazy and people were being cheated out of an experience. But then a quick survey of the people visiting at that moment in time reminded me that for most they knew no different, they were just like me that very first time I’d entered the old factory. Just as fascinated, just as keen to photograph. I knew the issue lay more with me than anyone else; so I put my internal-tantrum to one side and took myself to a different part of the establishment.
I will spare you the War and Peace version of how I view art, but on this visitation I seemed to feel a stronger feeling of hate, divide but also a call from artists to remember we are all human. I suppose it’s not a surprise, artists always have had a reputation for expressing more liberal sentiments than other segments of society. But watching Igor Grubic’s video East Side Story where far-right extremists attack a Pride match with bloody consequences, it felt like the message was stronger now than it ever had been before.
(Warning: video below contains strong language, violence, and homophobic language.)
And then there was hope; that if we recognised the contributions of others we could be a part of something much greater than if we work in isolation. Nowhere else did I see this more strongly than in Yinka Shonibare’s The British Library, a room installation which makes the point of showing how fundamental other cultures, notably African, have played a role in shaping English literature.
A room of books, each covered in bold and heavily patterned fabric, all the colours of Heaven and Earth itself. Not in such a long time had I found myself at pains to stand behind the thin bit of wire that prevented me from reaching out to touch, to feel, the books before my eyes.
The rain still coming down in medium sized droplets, I hurried across Blackfiars bridge back onto the Northern bank and then, from there, Northwards to reach Trafalgar Square. When I’m set on an idea I can become really stubborn to it, even if it makes absolutely no logical sense to anyone else. In this instance I’d got my heart set on a visit to the National Gallery before it closed at 18:00. I left the Tate Modern at 15:00 which, factoring in travel time, would give me a safe two hours in the gallery before hitting the Tube to avoid the peak rush hour at 18:00.
Maybe in a bid to avoid the rain outside, the National Gallery was considerably busier than I had expected it to be; an old building full of hot, wet bodies.
I took a quick turn through the galleries, although I found myself stopping and starting multiple times as soon as I came by a suitable seat to perch on. I hadn’t quite factored in how much walking I’d done today, and in fact every other day, until this very moment. Of all the views within and looking out of the building, the best that day came simply from that of a window seat, where I could idly watch people ascend and descend a large staircase built in a recent extension.
Because I’m me, I did find a couple of humourous bites in some of the artworks; including this piece which reminded me of all the times my friends had placed bets on the length of my hangovers:
And this piece which looked like a screen grab from some type of low-budget documentary. Something along the lines of…”don’t tell me how to raise my kids”.
However, when all was said an done I found myself surprisingly keener to leave the gallery earlier than I had originally planned in my head. After about an hour of breezing through the classics, I left the National Gallery, breaking my route back only momentarily to stop off in a nearby Waterstones. I couldn’t resist plunging myself down to the basement level to enjoy one of my favourite sensory experiences; the smell of new books.
That night I returned once more to St. Katherine Docks to enjoy a meal at the restaurant chain Zizzi. The looks people gave me when I walked in by myself! You’d have thought I had a third arm growing out of my waist! Used to these looks of surprise, curiosity and mild judgement, I pulled out a reading book as the staff placed me on the last free table in the house. I settled down for a chilled Monday night with a glass of wine and good company (i.e. food).
As I sat there later, sipping on coffee and making it clear to everyone I was in no rush to leave, I pondered on the art works I’d seen throughout the day. From The Clash, to Shonibare, right through to the classical masterpieces in the National Gallery, they had all been individuals not afraid to make their mark and show off their talent to the world. They would never have considered themselves arrogant or forcing their talent on the world. They may have had rocky patches, but they’d always had a firm belief that the route they were taking was the right one, when The Clash coated brick walls with their posters they wouldn’t have worried about what people said or thought. So why did I still on occasion find myself blushing when friends rolled their eyes at me, ‘putting up another business card Alice? You’re such a sell-out!’
Just then a waiter came by, sensing his chance. I reached into my bag and pulled out a card, tapping it swiftly on the hand-held device to make the transaction and ensure the staff hassled me no more.
I opened up my phone case and pulled out one of my business cards from the inside. As I flicked the small piece of card around my finger, reading and rereading the contact details printed on it, I mused on the idea of all artists being sell-outs. That to be and be regarded and accepted as ‘something’ you have to be prepared to stand out; you have to be a peacock in a field of pheasants.
I lifted myself from my seat, applying my coat onto my back in a sweeping movement. I cried out to the remaining staff who responded with a polite smile.
‘Thank you! Have a good evening!’
And then, just as I picked up by bag from the floor, I placed a business card brazenly on the table before walking out into the darkness with a secret smile on my face.