Monday, 25 August 2008

The Wellness Papers 3 Written Women

It's always a fight.

A struggle against a male desire to control what will get written, what becomes the norm, how the balance of what is spoken and what is written will be expressed.

Movement and its repression.

I sit. On a path, at a wall, at a table, watching the patterns and flow of his story as if it were a malleable art, as if it belongs to me, too.

I'm very close to it, I can see the children's nightmares, poised like clouds above our heads as the two middle aged men veer towards us, out of their minds.

'Why don't you?' I ask, pushing him into my present.

He's silent for a moment, looks at me as if I'm real but he can't understand what I am saying.

Here is a new world because he knows how much the old one injures us.

I ask to be understood.

I feel him writing. I look up. He's writing, the same moment when he notices me, he writes.

I think: 'I need to let you know how it feels to choose a moment to write that is really someone else's full stop; their paragraph, their semi colon: how it feels to find each detail of your life hammered painfully across someone else's road map for their future'.

Writing is hiding, boxing clever. Expressing love for the work in such tender terms, perhaps letting you feel that you are really the writer. Taking you in, explaining what I may do next because that is what writing has come to mean for women: preparation, ritual, rehearsal, of an act of betrayal, whether of an individual, group or a cause.

A bit like a crucifixion, really.

The written never really tells what they were really doing. Or even what they could be doing! Noone really interrogates the scene of the crime of writing except for a few odd critical theorists, getting even.

I read people and I am read. Witness and criminal. Needing to do this because I am misread. In denying my art I take him with me as if he is a drug.

He is fascinated and amused that he can fix me and walk away. I am overwhelmed. Call it lust, love, pleasure.

Anything but what it is.

I am trading silently.

It's always a fight. A struggle against my desire to control what will get written, how the balance of what was said or done will be expressed as writing. Writers feel other witers writing against the possibility of them writing all the time.

Women never have the space they think they have.

'Here' is always where I express all the imagined freely, express my 'innermost' thoughts but when they become words on a page you don't really know where I've been, don't really know the cost and price of these words.

It's only if the rhythms, patterns are any good that you'll find yourself idly following my train of thought.

You're here then, just for the ride.

Don't move! 'Sit on the wall and wait for your dad to come home'.

Don't move! 'Hold your father's hand while we give you this blood transfusion'.

'Don't move your father's head from the steering wheel. The ambulance will soon be here'.

'Don't move'. The big Irish builder stroked my head and told me that an ambulance was coming.

First position. A baby. Sprawling map of humanity. First knock, slap, repression. First position with others.

Friday, 8 August 2008

The Wellness Papers: Social Work as Painting and Decorating

The Wellness Papers 2

The Assessment

They could easily be the people labelled and satirised in television documentaries, social services departments, schools, colleges and workplaces across the country.

The ones cut off from the mainstream by the mainstream and then, expensively and expressively, let back in. The ones the police, court, agency representatives and buy to let landlords can make a pensionable living out of, offshore assets from.

They are the ones unleashed against an unsuspecting public. The sensational story of poverty of opportunity that it is not my place to change.

But this is wrong. My wellness is my social reward for a particular type of dishonest communication with certain types of people, helping them accept being let down as a way of life.

The final painting should have looked like this: an oil of a slim, elderly woman sitting in an armchair in her bra and knickers, platinum hair, side parted, eyes alert, cautious, looking across the room, it appears, towards the young sculptor in a back lit corner, as if she is going to tell him off…

Not because her face was used to public show and her body was not; it wasn’t that. It was somewhere in the way that the light fell, making the skin translucent and it was beautiful. But the sensuality, if there at all, was measured and controlled not by me, but, it seemed, by the subject’s awareness.

Painting becomes her.

Although the incandescence of the woman appeared to come from the way light had been used, the way the window behind the figure provided and held light around the trees, that same light, light outside the window, seems opaque, unimportant. Light seems to gather around the woman, tracing a path around her figure, but coming from inside her body, making her skin appear matt, fine, like alabaster but somehow irrelevant.

She allows the sculptor and me, the artist, into this time, her body pliant, an arm on each arm of the armchair, her frame erect. Time for which we are skilled and commissioned to produce work between a moment, for us, between the initial preparatory photograph and the moment where we recreate that sense that she is not there, that she is always only tentatively describable; but in the moment that I begin to paint, I see that she is willing me to paint myself, to let her go free.

She draws strength from everything that art pretends to be, conscious that she has allowed light in on the energy that she created. To her, all the paths, lines, repetitions, crossings out of her fifty years in England in this small house, matter, not in an acquisitive sense, but in the sense that she is aware and asks valid questions about everything, not just about the things that affected her, she cares about democracy, about why parliament doesn’t debate the poor as people with aspirations any more.

She thinks it’s a given that the quality of life of everyone, not just her own family, is important and this surprises me in a culture that encourages her to know nothing about anything except her own business and to gossip about others.

At first I hadn’t equated her struggle to be a decent human being with what I do. What she saw, felt and experienced were anecdotal. I didn’t see her as a creative person, preparing the ground for this moment, to tell me something small but important about her life. Then, she had been a sitter for our assessment, me the older man, the father painter/mentor for a young, creative middle class do-gooder with a young family on the way.

You see I was only thinking about myself.

Until I made this final painting, I had not seen that a deeper connection existed out there, between ordinary people and social artists like me: a relationship where the people I studied were, at the same time studying me, were willing me to find the connection between their hopes and my work. Underprivileged people if you like, but I realise now that vision and aspiration can only come from a genuine humility, a willingness to see what’s important to them.

Underprivilege affects everyone, from all walks of life.

People privilege me with their desire to know art, to show me that they made meaning and sense in the same way I, in this privileged role, make meaning and sense.

The first assessment was thorough we thought: A Triptych of interrelationships: the grandmother: the grandmother and the son and the sculptor, blacks, whites, greys and yellows: the extraordinary luxury of line without boundary: photographic certainty without giving anything away. The kind of image that could be used as evidence but again, the kind of image that I realise now, cries out for proper explanation.

The paintings were always in my head, the lines, the colours, the squalor of the way they live now. I’d made a comfortable living out of them until now that I realise that what I’d made were caricatures, social satires.

A middle aged man sitting at a computer at the end of a room which looks untidy, bookcase full to bulging, papers over every surface.

The man sits at the computer screen, hypnotised, stuck, if you like, although he is an adult, although he is working, to my eyes, then, he is about five years old and he is sitting at the end of the room with a plastic steering wheel, pretending to drive a car.

He is playing working because this is the way I saw him, conjuror, joker, sleight of hand artist, hiding behind a cruel moment of light that he is trying to control.

I had assumed that this was my light. If I’m honest, he’d frustrated me with his obsequiousness. He wanted something, I thought, and began to search the littered, overwhelming space for a way out.

He had given me his friendship, instantly, and I had rejected it.

He wanted to show me things as they were, the pressure he feels, the workload, the corners he has to cut to balance the attention he wants to give to all of his clients and the love he has for his mother. Something he developed out of nothing, here, in this small house, in difficult circumstances, without network or family privilege, he wanted to show it as it is.

And I misread him: disorganised, chaotic, weak, undisciplined.

I had made an assessment A con, I thought, too much of the nod, nod, wink, wink, pretend school, hiding something, I thought and then, I could see nothing beautiful in his way of life because, instead of looking, I listened to what I thought was his need to produce an alibi.

Everyone is always hiding something.

So that’s what I painted. All the lines of the papers worked up around him, distorting his relation to every thing, blocking who he is out of the viewer’s perception, cutting the connection between the man and his life as he sees it.

I made her look out absently as if she needed to be rescued, as if she was being abused or demented in some way. In the picture I considered the mother’s story at the expense of her son. My painting of their relationship has no complexity. I was so certain of the truth of my observations that I worked the surfaces of objects to make them obstacles: computer, TV, table, walking frame and the piles and piles of white papers into a distractive shield against any possible understanding of communication between them so that, at first glance, you don’t see that there’s someone else in the picture, until, following the light, you notice the glimmer of a walking frame.

Your eyes wander along its contours and you find the same woman from the final painting, sitting in the same chair. Only now the white cover has gone and the light has gone from her body. She is wearing any old cardigan and looks outward towards the television screen. Blank.

I am wrong.

My painting, I realise now, echoed the outside, the exterior version of their story that punishes them daily and intimidates them. My painting was really ‘I am the Carer’ and makes them both victims of a negative surveillance that I contributed to.

Because he fights, every day for a balanced connection to this home, to the people he works for, to a decent world he feels is slipping away. Wanting the truth.

We live our lives…as though we have evolved from a highly plural and diverse society but then we go out into and come back from St Ann’s, Radford, Hyson Green, Top Valley, like Dr Livingstone, having met the people who lived in strange land outside the professional middle class called ‘Chaos’.

I was threatened by his trust in me.
I am your mother

You won’t recognise me now, curled up on a metal hospital cot. I look like a frightened bird or an old lady, neglected, then hit by a stroke, demented by my socio-economic status and the family war it has caused.

You might not think I’m a person. Bag of bones, flowery hospital apron covering my front but not my back. I am unfolded by the bright lights, frightened and delusional.

Here I am. A tiny speck of me holding on to life, microscopically resilient to probing. They have scanned me and drugged me and I’m on a drip. I can’t swallow, they tell me. Yet I had a cup of tea before I came in.

Help me, my children, all of you together. Help them interpret my life as a mysterious possibility. Let them know that their diagnostic certainties are only part of what life is about. Have the courage now to get me have the information I need. I’m hungry for my life.

How can I talk to you? You always knew best. My daughter, my first child. I made you my confidante, my help mate, my advocate. You with the bright eyes, you who could always pop round to xxxxxxxx’s after dad died when the lights went out and I needed a shilling. I taught you to read before you went to school, I taught you about fairness above all things. I taught you to think but never wanted you to act. I taught you to wait for the others, taught you to reflect, be resourceful in the ever changing now that was my world. You can’t change things daughter and yet I hoped you’d keep trying.

You’re here now, smiling at me, trying to read me a story. You’ve watched the male nurse administer three large doses of analgesics and blood thinners anally and he hasn’t written them on my drug record card. In a couple of days when I’ve been moved on twice more in the hospital you’ll remember what you saw and wonder whether you should have said something. By then though, the doors will be forever shut on this part of my medical journey and I will be somewhere else in the hospital.

I look dead on arrival here. The ward is labelled ‘fast track’ stroke care, but again, you will discover that this is no longer the fast track ward and that many of the patients are simply held here because there’s nowhere, in what you again discover is really a research lexicon of space possibilities, yet to put them.

You make me angry, genuinely angry, here in this hypocritical well of platitudes. Thank you for making me angry, yet again. Your nosiness, your interfering, tampering with the label of dysfunctionality that the market place has put on families like ours, might make a difference and I thank you, daughter, for being true to yourself.

You’re sitting in an office now with the junior doctor, xxxxxx, who, you will again discover, will be following my progress, mediating the two consultants, one doctor and one senior junior doctor who will look for appropriate timings on the relaying of the appropriate lung cancer diagnosis after I have had the biopsy they plan in three weeks time.

They already know how I am going to die and all your research on autoimmune disorders and drug induced lymphoma like symptoms are in the underbelly of possibilities that there will never be a place to explore as it is morally wrong here to allow a smoker a second chance. Even though 50% of all scans are used in wrong diagnoses.

I’m an example to all the others. My eventual addiction to morphine is my penance to the pharmaceutical giants who prey on the poor in the name of high, clean finance.

But, still you sit with the junior doctor, trying to apply all the communication skills you have learnt to equalising the relationship, looking for a chink of light that noone has considered, where it will be in their interests to let me off their research hook.

I was a smoker after your dad died and you, like the rest of our society, can’t find a way out of the socially biased medical machine that will use lifestyle and nutrition as a death ray weapon in screening and diagnosis, confirming everything that could ever have been rumoured or whispered about the poor and their monstrous waste of taxpayers money.