On Thursday, I spoke at an open-mike night jointly held by two groups from the University of Dundee: the Feminist Society and the LGBT+ Society. I’d spoken at the previous one and enjoyed the experience.
There were a number of fantastic readers who tackled a range of themes. I have a few poems on the subject of gender, but I instead opted for another topic: mental health. However, it was around me looking at the health of friends and acquaintances and being unsure exactly what to do.
Two of the poems I read were ones I’d last performed around a year previously. When I’m reading them from the page, I don’t really feel their impact. It’s only when I say them out loud that it hits home what they actually mean.
An interval was called after my set. I had people come up to me and say how much they enjoyed my work, and that was much appreciated. By this time, I was almost in tears, which is not like me. But I steadied myself, stayed until the end, and left the event ready to write more poetry.
I’m watching the acclaimed TV series The West Wing at the moment. The characters frequently have to change their plans or meet earlier deadlines at short notice. Similarly, I’ve recently had to make tough decisions about what to tell an audience.
A week ago, I attended a poetry event called Interconnected Issues jointly run by the University of Dundee’s LGBT+ Society, Feminist Society, and Mental Health Society. I expected simply to be a punter watching a line-up of poets, but the organiser called on people to stand up and read. Regular readers know I’m a big fan of performing my work, so I didn’t wish to pass up the opportunity. On the other hand, I hadn’t prepared anything, plus I’d already finished a red wine and my first rule is never to drink before a performance.
With encouragement from my friend Ana Hine, I stood up to read Sir Madam. Although it fitted the theme of the evening, I was scared to read this one because it tells the life story of a character who is either intersex or transgender – it isn’t made explicit. As I’m neither of these, I was worried that an LGBT audience might take offence at my portrayal.
However, I’d tested it out at last year’s Dundee Literary Festival where it received a positive response from the general public. If there was any anger at Interconnected Issues, I didn’t hear it. Encouraged by this, I cobbled together three other pieces that were not as risky to be read later that evening. One was from memory, one was a draft from a notebook, and one was read hipster-like from a phone screen.
As I’d already broken my no-alcohol rule, I decided to order another wine. This led to me peppering the rest of my performance with a little more personal detail than I intended, albeit related to the content of the poems. Yet it’s also rewarding to leave yourself figuratively exposed on stage and let it be infused into your work. I’ve heard it described as making the personal into the political.
The first time I heard that phrase was at a weekend poetry workshop in Edinburgh. On the final day, I climbed Arthur’s Seat to watch the sunrise and came down with the idea for a short poem about a character on a cliff who intends to jump but changes their plans when they’re captivated by the sunrise.
I was looking for a title and I’d just heard about the suicide prevention charity The Semicolon Project, so it was named Semicolon. In a poignant parallel, it was reported last week that its founder Amy Bleuel had died.
I have no mental health conditions myself, but Semicolon is one of a few pieces where I’ve found the subject creeping into the narrative, particularly where I’m looking in from the outside. In February, for instance, I took part in a Q&A with Dundee Contemporary Arts after making a poetic response to one of the artworks on display.
My piece, called Surprise Attack, had already been written. The artwork was a pastiche of the Commando comic books but with Army mental health policy in place of the dialogue. Studying the pastiche helped me to finalise my poemafter well over a year of redrafting.
I’m finally pleased with Surprise Attack, while I believe Sir Madam needs more testing, Yet both pieces have shown me that a little personal exposure can bring a rich reward.
I’ve recently finished the James Bond novel Goldfinger, the first Ian Fleming work I’ve tackled.
On the whole, I enjoyed the book. There’s a certain calculated calmness across its three acts, in which Bond plays cat-and-mouse, not to mention golf, with Auric Goldfinger. Unexpectedly, I didn’t imagine Bond as any of the actors who’ve played him on film. Rather, he became his own character with his own personal quirks.
Unfortunately, there are elements of his personality that age the novel badly.
In one scene, we’re told that Bond considers the Koreans – at least those who aid Goldfinger – to be lower than apes, an opinion that’s peppered throughout the rest of the narrative. In 1959, this might not have caught much attention, but it stands out today.
Furthermore, the female characters have barely any conflict with Bond; when he tells them to do something, they don’t question his orders. There is a hint of progressiveness as Pussy Galore is described as the leader of a Lesbian organisation – Fleming’s capital – but other casual digs set it firmly in a past era. These come to a head in the paragraph starting on page 221 of the Penguin Classics edition, in which it’s almost gleefully explained that:
Bond came to the conclusion that Tilly Masterson was one of those girls whose hormones had got mixed-up. He knew the type well and thought they and their male counterparts were a direct consequence of giving votes to women and “sex equality.” As a result of fifty years of emancipation, feminine qualities were dying out or being transferred to the males. Pansies of both sexes were everywhere, not yet completely homosexual, but confused, not knowing what they were. The result was a herd of unhappy sexual misfits – barren and full of frustrations, the women wanting to dominate and the men to be nannied. He was sorry for them, but he had no time for them.
To me, the length and detail in this particular passage suggest the views aren’t simply the thoughts of James Bond but an authorial intrusion. As the protests surrounding the recently-elected US president have shown, they’re views that are no longer prevalent for many people. For further reading on this topic, I recommend the Grayson Perry book The Descent of Man.
Fleming has millions of fans around the world who read the books and watch the films, but would it right to remove these passages for a modern audience? It has been done relatively recently with a very different author.
In 2010, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five were given a 21st-century makeover. The term housemistress became teacher, mother and father were changed to mum and dad, and in a more extreme case, dirty tinker was amended to traveller. Anne McNeil from Hodder also made it clear that the publisher would continue to release the classic editions of the Famous Five books with unchanged text.
I think the important factor to remember is that times always change and that nobody could’ve predicted how it would happen. Perhaps in 100 years, all of society will accept several gender identities without question, or perhaps eating meat will be seen as shocking. So when we read archive material, we don’t have to agree with the views of the day, merely acknowledge them.