Updated: Nov 25, 2018
As sat stark naked in a stuffy room in Leeds Polytechnic being drawn by adenoidal stoners my mind was free to roam at will, and it started wandering to poetry again. After being the child bloody poetry prodigy at my school and my disillusionment with the poetry scene, I'd put all thoughts of writing poetry away. What was the point, I'd thought in a particularly nauseating backlash of self pity. I was a martyr to a redundant and irrelevant art scene peopled by bearded blokes in aran sweaters with suede elbow patches who had no idea about the real world. I pouted long and hard about how no one in poetry understood me, forgetting they'd never fucking heard of me to forget me. This period of wallowing went on for some time. Then as is my wont with self pity, I got bored of it.
I realise people who don't make stuff themselves sometimes find it inexplicable that the likes of me can be reduced to tears of frustration by not getting the words in the right order. That half my mind is always somewhere else turning over ideas and images, buffing up combinations, doing mental drawing and sometimes, just wondering. I'm not arrogant, I'm just thinking. Poetry, even in the rarified world of art, is a niche activity. You generally can't make money at it unless you monetise three line clichés on Instagram or become the Poet Laureate and are obliged by your job description to kiss the Queen's arse.
Why bother? Why get upset about it? Surely there are better things to get worked up about, like the boiler, or car insurance? All my life I've had people tell me I'm over-sensitive, too emotional, neurotic. I'm a bloody poet, I often wanted to say. I'm supposed to be all of those things and more. Be grateful I'm not drinking myself to death on absinthe or off my head on opium. Half my problem in regards to bring accepted in the poetry scene was, and don't laugh, it's true, I just didn't look like a 'lady poet'. A 'poetess'. I've actually been told that. If you didn't look...like that...you'd have done so much better. I've been approached by (very) strange literary women apparently dressed by catapult at writing events who asked in disdainful tones why I chose to mutilate myself with tattoos. I did not respond by asking them why they practiced foot binding with pointy high heeled shoes that left their feet looking like mangled remnants a butcher just chucked out, but I could have. I was even described in a highbrow women's literary magazine as having a 'puglilist's build' and it wasn't a compliment on my toned physique. I was too big, too strong, too tattooed and too fucking arsey by far to be a proper poet. A proper woman poet.
As it's not in my nature to do nothing - if in doubt, go flat out - I sat on the vile, pockmarked with fag burns vinyl and catsick coloured nylon tweed sofa in the front room of 166 and thought. Around me the household of havoc swirled and hooted as the various denizens of the black mould riddled shanty either got up or went to bed, sometimes with unidentifiable creatures of the night they'd hoyed back after a night of bathtub speed and Newcastle Brown Ale. The house was in a tidal phase, as the original settlers moved out to pastures cleaner and new pioneers braved the stinky frontier.
As an aside, I did actually try cleaning the house. I employed my beloved bottles of bleach - Eau De Chlorine is my favourite scent - to every possible surface. Absolutely nothing happened. Nothing. All scrubbing did was reveal the antediluvian layers of dirt beneath. It was the archaeology of filth. The kitchen was the worst. I went at the stalagtites of muck with a wallpaper scraper only to find a lot of them were petrified cat shits some past home improver had painted over with gloss. In the end I just painted everything white as far as I could reach on the grounds I'd get one of the lads to get up on a chair and do the rest. No one ever did.
When we moved in, I had wondered why there was a light socket halfway up the window frame in our street facing bedroom. I realised in time it was for a red lightbulb. The place had been a brothel before the landlord decided 'students' were easier tenants. For some months, until word got round, seedy blokes would knock at the front door and ask for Rita. They weren't chuffed she was no longer available. This knowledge made me view the sofa with even more suspicion than it's ratty state warranted. What wankery arses had perched there, panting with anticipation of Rita's erotic allure prior to me sitting on it thinking of revolution?
Because that was, in the end, what I wanted. A small poetry revolution. I didn't want to be In with an In Crowd who's signifiers were class and academia. Who didn't live and work in the world I saw around me every day, that constantly unravelled into mind numbing poverty, abuse, addiction, violence and was lived by people who were always and without ceasing, millimetres from disaster. Whose children were removed from them often simply because of poverty, in a way that would have sent the middle classes into a screaming frenzy. Who drank or drugged themselves into oblivion as often as possible, because there was no reason why they shouldn't get numb, since there was no way out of the trap. Who frustration and ignorance drove to paroxysms of violent rage, usually against their own families. I wanted to write about them. About the people and events I knew. About thoughts that grew out of the extreme hatred of injustice and loathing of cruelty instilled into me by my Scottish working class father, who might have 'bettered' himself but who never forgot his life in the cellar flat under the Edinburgh Arts Club where his family worked as servants for the club and the glitterati of that highbrow city. He got his education being a bartender there from the age of 13, listening to those clever men's conversation and from reading absolutely everything he could get his hands on. He said to me over and over, we were not put on this earth to make people feel comfortable, daughter. Poetry as it was then, was the absolute apogee of comfortableness. It was smug, self satisfied, snobbish, and happy in its ivory tower. I decided to smash it all to bits. Laughable, no doubt. A desperately poor, completely unconnected, slightly mad girl with no family, wanting to turn the poetry world on it's head? A joke. Right then, I thought. Onwards and upwards.
As I perched, and considered poetry and what I wanted to do with it, people boiled cod-in-a-bag in the adjacent - ha ha - kitchen, and wrestled with guitars or crimpers around me like the flotsam on a distant shore. The attic, complete with disintegrating roof, was now occupied by an extremely, indeed snowily, pale dandy Mod comic poet I'll call Ian, who's vintage two tone mohair suits and immaculately polished shoes must have been hell to maintain in the pristine condition he preferred in that damp. He kept his food in his wardrobe, marked with his name. Which was very wise given the free for all attitude regarding eggs and milk in the house. His poetry was dense, witty, hilarious and extremely clever. I can still recite bits of it. With him came another poet, who I'll call Ed, who was a living powerhouse of scathing mental energy and furious polemic. Bullet-headed and rubbery with ire, his wild ideas and crazed humour were like a jolt of speed everytime he opened his mouth. The poets were mounting up, offering a challenge to the rock musicians.
Actually, members of his band didn't live in 166 with X and I. They came to rehearse in the cellar which X had vainly tried to soundproof with hoarded egg boxes. Other bands practiced there too, which meant a steady flow of gaunt, unwashed boys who grunted by way of a greeting, then disappeared into the stygian depths, only to emerge deaf with tinnitus and starving hours later. It was basically a sort of art commune for people who wouldn't have been let in to the local Arts Centre.
Also staying, but but not permanently, were various friends, including my pal Malc, a 6' 2" Vivienne Westwood inspired drag queen with black, crimped backcombed hair and the boneless physicality of a piece of cooked spaghetti. He smelt strongly of hair spray, cheap make-up and damp clothes, which he made himself after trips to London where he browsed the racks of hideously expensive designer outfits in whatever exclusive boutique Vivenne was running at the time, and with the air of a bored millionaire, scribbled the design details on his hand in biro to reproduce later at a fraction of the cost. His muslin tassel scarves and baggy pirate trousers were to die for. Malc was from Lancashire and along with his flat vowels had the long, lugubrious face of an end of the pier comedian. He had what my Nana called 'speaking eyes'. Once glance at Malc sucking his cheeks in and rolling his googly khol'd orbs heavenwards and I'd crack up. Which was hilarious - until it got us in hot water.
While 166 underwent it's repopulation, X had begun sorting out his band. He'd lost the sweet, cymbal happy drummer to a proper career and acquired a new one, a very large fella from an outlying satellite town of the city. This guy was one of those men who always had a slight smile on his broad face, but it wasn't a wow, pleased to see you smile. At least, not when he saw me and Malc. It was a what the fuck ok how fast can I get away from these wierdos smile. I strain to remember if I had any actual conversations with this chap, but I do remember going to his house as a couple for 'drinks' with him and his wife. She was very pleasant, kind and hospitable as I recall, and served homemade elderflower champagne. I'm not a drinker and it knocked me on my back and gave me a vile headache but tasted nice while you were drinking it. I've never touched it since. Faint odour of catpiss, elderflower.
It was all a bit awkward. Or rather, I was a bit awkward as usual. The big drummer and his wife were extremely straight and I was attired in something Malc had run up on my Nana's legendary handcrank sewing machine, a device that created many costumes for many rock stars over the years. I should think I looked like a space pirate on acid. That was very Malc. The drunker I got on the homebrew, the more I rabbited on about ideas and poetry and revolution and ... on and on and on. I couldn't talk about holidays abroad, or the mad shenanigans at work - oh, that Sheila! The way she cheeks Mr.Simmonds, she'll get the boot one day! Or cars, or American rock music or anything normal really. If the big drummer thought I was a crank before, he definitely did double after that. X was furious. I had drunkenly talked over him and not let him take the lead to cover my social inadequacy. He hated that. He hated that I couldn't be 'easy going' and he lectured me at length about how he only wanted people to like me as he did, so why couldn't I just be charming and pleasant and not put people off with my lack of social skills? It was a refrain that would haunt our life together. He wanted my aggression - because make no mistake, it was aggression - drive, brutal ambition and energy for his band, but he wanted his partner to be a quiet, straight, smiling foil to his intellectual brilliance.
Much as I loved and admired X, which I did to the point I'd have happily stopped a bullet for him, and knowing he loved me too because we were by this time completely inseparable and had become like a pair of reunited identical twins, I was beginning to realise there was only room for one rock star in 166. And it wasn't me.