A collection of writings from the creative writing course at Mind in Tower Hamlets and Newham's evening community learning programme
Introduction I feel very privileged to work with the learners on the creative writing course at Mind in Tower Hamlets and Newham’s evening community learning programme. The course is run as the result of a partnership between the Workers' Educational Association (WEA) and Mind. The pieces in this booklet speak very clearly for themselves. The writers describe and explore all sorts of experience in poetry, memoir and fiction. What we find is that writing is a way of making connections, both between people in a world that can feel very lonely, and also within ourselves. It’s also a way of clearly communicating experience that may have been unvoiced or unheard in the past, or else dismissed as unimportant or untrue or even ‘deluded’. We place no restrictions on what we talk and write about. In fact, there’s only one rule when we get together: that everyone in the room treats everyone else’s writing with absolute respect. We listen very carefully when a writer is reading his or her work. We think very carefully about the way that person sees their own story. I hope this small selection of pieces, chosen by each of the writers themselves, gives some idea of what we do on a Thursday between 5 and 7.30 and of how very important it is to all of us there. Elizabeth Sarkany. Summer 2013. The Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) is a charity registered in England and Wales, number 1112775, and in Scotland, number SC039239, and a company limited by guarantee registered in England and Wales, number 2806910. www.wea.org.uk Mind is a registered charity in England (no. 219830) and a registered company (no. 424348) in England and Wales. www.mind.org.uk Images courtesy of Andrew Perrin © www.andrew‐perrin.co.uk
CONTENTS T. Z Dele Oladeji Gerry Small Marina R. Arjona
Drunk The late visitor Kind words
Day by Day Through the silent wind A train in Madagascar
What used to be true but is no longer Story inspired by ‘Hotel by the railroad’ Energy Wander The still water is shaking
East End of London. July, 1986 The encounter with Angela. February, 1987
Anger A poem inspired by ‘My Papa’s waltz’ Coffee Clothes drying on a line
Chris Jones Peter McKnight Atul Desai
T.Z Having been labelled libellously with arcane, complex, vague and incorrect medical diagnoses ever since my first incarceration in a psychiatric unit during my student days, my life has taken a very different path from the one I had originally projected for it. It has been a rocky road, filling me with anger and sadness and, at times, great elation. Too much elation in fact, which the medication that the doctors have finally worked out applies in my case, does actually help to moderate. So thanks, at least, for that.
Drunk ‘He’s drunk.’ ‘Who’s drunk?’ ‘John is.’ ‘How drunk?’ ‘He’s falling all over the place.’ ‘Where is he?’ ‘He’s in there, in the living room. He’s falling all over the place. He’s been here all day. He can’t stand up.’ ‘Let me have a look at him … hey, John!’ Silence. ‘How are you?’ John looks up. ‘Are you alright?’ John tries to say something. He is slurring his words. ‘What’s the matter with you, John? Are you drunk? Been drinking?’ John gets up and falls over. We help him to his feet. ‘You have to go,’ we say. We can smell drink, strong on his breath. ‘Come on, you have to go.’ ‘What?’ ‘You’re drunk. You have to go. Come on.’ Two of us lift him up by the arms. ‘You have to leave. You’re drunk. This way.’ ‘You were born here,’ says John. ‘I was born in Afghanistan.’ ‘We’re not talking about that now. Come on. You have to leave.’ We lead John out of the living room and out of the building, through the main door. It shuts behind him. John blows a raspberry through the railings. What happens to him now, between now and sobering up, is his problem. He can’t return until he is sober.
The late visitor The phone rang. It was her. ‘How are you?’ ‘OK thanks.’ ‘Can I come over?’ ‘Alright.’ So there it was. She’d made contact when I’d thought I’d never see her again. Despite my earlier resolutions, I was really looking forward to seeing her. I was sure she’d be selfish again. I was sure she’d use me and my place like a hotel again. But I was still looking forward to seeing her. It would take her half an hour to get to me. I went to the bathroom and had a shower. I went to the kitchen and did some washing up. I went to the bedroom and tidied the mess in there. I went back to the living room to load a suitable DVD into the player. I finished dressing and put the kettle on. When she arrived, she made herself coffee, helped herself to a snack from the fridge, told me what she’d been up to, who she’d seen. I listened carefully. It was all interesting. She lent me a book she’d bought. She was always trying to influence my reading habits, probably because I used to read a bit. I looked at the title and decided, without telling her, that I probably wasn’t going to spend much time on this one. We were both tired, so I fetched her the spare duvet and she snuggled down on the sofa. I went to my room. ‘Night night,’ we said to each other, and then lights out till the following morning. I always sleep better when she is there, even in the other room. I don’t know why.
Kind words A few kind words is all it takes. Times are harsh and times are bad. The world is not what it used to be, society is not what it once was, though there have always been bad people. My generation is getting older and the future does not seem so bright as it once did. But every now and then, when I mention these things to a third party (as part of a moan), that third party comes out with reassurance. A few kind words. Reminding me of little good things I have done in the past. Of kindnesses I offered to others when I was still of a mood to do these things. And I am reminded that I do do good things from time to time, not just selfish things or self‐serving things, that I have been a good person in the past. I am reminded of how I have tried to do the right thing. I tried to work hard to please my manager at work, tried hard to please my wife at home, tried to take my medication to stay well, for the benefit of others and myself. I have done my best to please others, too often perhaps, but I have tried to do the right thing. Perhaps the secret is not to try so hard. When you stop trying it becomes easier, some say. But a few kind words, reassuring words, from someone else can make all the difference. Someone sat next to you, talking in conversation, face to face, where you can hear the emotion and the inflection in their voice, not by a letter or email or text or any of these other inferior methods of communication. A few kind words of sympathy or insight or understanding, analyzing my situation with a fresh pair of eyes, from a different perspective, can shed a ray of light of understanding upon a dense and thorny knotty problem. It is amazing how looking at a problem through someone else’s eyes shows a whole new way of seeing it. All it takes is a fresh pair of eyes, a third party looking from the outside calmly in. If, for example, one is panicking about facing the future, poor, alone, old and friendless, a few kind words can help. Everybody gets old, if they are lucky; they die young if they are not. When you point out the friends that one does have, and one was discounting, it is cheering. Cheers one up. When one panics about being alone – well, we are all actually alone a lot of the time.
Dele Oladeji I’ve lived with paranoid schizophrenia for almost twenty five years and every day means a lot to me. Creative writing is a medium for me to express my vision as a being with intuition and creativity as well as a sheer representation of the world I visualise, as someone who has lived through the mental health system retaining gaiety and joy. Every piece of my writing shares my experiences of life in the present and looks to the future.
Day by day The sun blasts treacherously above heads We see they laugh sweet laughter Buses rush by slowly The traffic built buildings high up in the sky the council man packed the last Trash Someone spoke loud Another spoke slowly she felt horrible Another was happy Somewhere along the line the train came, stopped, the passenger alighted it went slowly The moon shone slightly the cooker was on A bowl of rice stew and beans made Children slept Adults slept Another morning came sunlight rose Darkness came A new year came
Through the silent wind Almost 4 pm daytime sun shone People walk by smartly dressed Ice cream soft drinks Burgers and the rest Metallic buses – red Drive past passengers fill the seats it’s yellow brown green pink a spill of grey and now it moves stops the road is tarred the shops are open school children are out and about the workplaces are busy money transfers here and there Some time soon it’ll be dark but when darkness lurks every evil spills When it gets bright Love shines A cave a mountain so high the other one low a song rings quietly and the radio chuckles softly.
A train in Madagascar
A short trip on a fast train in the Far place called Madagascar – A short trip transcends time and place … a short trip as engine fires roasts, chumming life, place and belonging – radiating charm Diffusing honour – placing home in perspective – now this train is stopping at a far place to evolve every sense of humanity, in flesh, in time, for love, for hope and for what the train serves – journeying forth on the plain lands of Madagascar
Gerry Small Gerry started writing poetry while in mental hospital. The purpose was to inform nurses and other medical professionals about the experience of mental health distress. Gerry subsequently found creative writing also had therapeutic benefits. He has had poetry published in various collections and went on to study Creative Writing in a degree course.
What used to be true but is no longer “Everything always remains the same …” The woman’s voice in the song drifted across to me as I sat at the kitchen counter chopping vegetables for dinner. It was still early and I paused, turning slightly, and gazed out of the window. I vaguely took in the tenement blocks across the small green space, the late sunlight glinting off windows and the sky, pale blue, beyond. Well, that view has probably been the same for generations, I thought, but in my life nothing seems to stay static for very long. Most things change quite quickly and are then dramatically different for me. I took a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh. I shrugged. What’s the point in thinking about it? About what things were like in the past for me and what I’ve lost. How useful is any such comparison going to be? It will just serve to make me feel miserable. But that sensible thought did nothing to circumvent the automatic process: the trip down memory lane … I am proud of my red and white pinstriped shirt with its white, stiff collar and fold‐back white cuffs. Collar tips and cuffs each secured by a single gold stud. Black three piece suit, black shoes, narrow, knitted tie in deep red; soft burgundy briefcase in one hand and long slim black umbrella doubling as a jaunty cane which I tap to the ground and flick in time with my brisk, businesslike march, but with a hint of swagger. I am twenty‐one and heading to the office near Liverpool Street station. I run the subcontract accounts department in a City firm. I am a trainee accountant and my company sponsors me on day release to attend an HND course in computing. I have three staff under me. I have an excellent salary and a fabulous career. My social life is awesome. At the end of the working day I simply release the gold fasteners on my collar and cuffs, slip them off, and my tie, and I am instantly ready to go clubbing in a smart red striped shirt with grandad collar. And I can easily afford entry fees, drinks for my friends, the obligatory drunken after‐party burger from some dubious street vendor and taxi home. Those were the days. On weekends I played sport: badminton doubles with friends, swimming, squash with my wife‐to‐be followed by the obligatory dinner with her mother, which had its pros and cons. Nowadays? Well, I struggle to convince myself to get into the shower some days. I struggle to make necessary phone calls or to open my mail. I avoid most of my friends. The mere idea of going to a nightclub exhausts me. The main thrust of my life seems medically focused: hospital appointments, visits to GP and pharmacist, going to mental health support venues. I used to feel so in control of my world, of my destiny. Now I feel my life is not my own and pretty much everything is out of my hands.
The slightest thing now feels too much. A friend calls, all friendly: ‘Let’s meet up!’ But I decline, make some feeble excuse. I hope they don’t feel I don’t like them any more. I feel guilty, ashamed, useless, inept. And then the dreaded words: ‘How’s your car?’ My heart sinks. My head wobbles inside. I gasp. I feel panic‐stricken and it makes me feel stupid. This is not a difficult question and yet it means “things I have to fix” so it instantly overwhelms me. I am angry. Frustrated with myself. The man who owned the world and walked on the wind, lying down, floored and winded, the weight of the world holding him trapped.
A story inspired by ‘Hotel by the railroad’, a painting by Edward Hopper Frederick Samuels took a long drag on his cigarette even though it was already too short to hold. He had no desire to have any conversation with Emma anyway. His wife had resolutely opened her book, having clearly said all she intended on the matter. The sun streamed in through the window; for others this may have been a beautiful morning. Frederick could only see the back wall of the bakery opposite where he had worked from his schooldays to his retirement, six long, dreary years ago. Why do people have to retire? He scowled as the thought, which he heard rambling round in his mind several times a day, was trotted out again. Until that day of retirement, he was contented with his lot, with his routine. He and Emma had had an easygoing relationship. She had her interests and he had his. That was how it was meant to be and how it all worked. Most of his day was taken up with work anyway and, as it was very physical, he came home just wanting dinner and to read the newspaper. He always saved that for the end of the day. They had never had children, which had caused sniggering among the lads at the bakery but now… well, now things were much worse. It’s just age, he thought. It’s normal to lose interest in those things when a man gets on in age. Heaven forbid we were to end up with a child now, at our age! But she wouldn’t let it go. ‘No. Go to the doctor. Get something for that limp lizard! A woman has needs! You have to do your conjugal duty.’ He became aware that his jaw was clenched hard and that he was breathing heavily. His eyes were staring, staring down at those rusty brown railway tracks. Three years he had been listening to her moaning about wanting something he could no longer rise to. How easy it would be … he was still a very strong man and she was frail. The train. He could hear a rumbling. The 6:23 was coming past. In one move, he turned towards her, took the book gently out of her hand, pulled her up gently by one arm, and pushed her backwards through the open window. There was no scream, no resistance. It had been totally unexpected for her and his demeanour had given nothing away. Once the train had passed there was just a single slipper on the track as evidence. Emma was gone.
Marina Arjona Writing helps me to create something positive out of the negative, but not all is positive or negative, I also write out of the feelings that happen in between. It helps me make sense of the thoughts that are going through my head and I hope it will help people understand me better. I’m currently working on my first poetry book, these three poems will be part of it. As a way of narrating this work in progress I also blog: https://doublepositive.jux.com/
Wander I wander and we cross we click we don’t know why why I connect with you why I don’t connect with ‘him’ or ‘her’ why we cross in the first place how my thoughts cross without making sense I wander through the same place but I still discover it again I wander through my mind I discover myself and through wondering about you I wonder about me It makes me wander with no specific direction but following one sometimes I don’t know where to I must just wander maybe if I find the right way the right mindmap I would be able to do it without help no prescriptions on my way just a free wander
The still water is shaking The still water is shaking Should be sitting still but can’t help be shaking Uncomfortably placed in a corner Trying to focus, but all I seem to focus on is the lack of stillness The lack of stillness Roughness where there is usually quietness Somebody singing The stupid clock ticking How is the water gonna settle down in a place like this So that I can focus on writing something deep? But I stare at the shaking water to find a reason to write It’s probably always like this when the pens are poised But today it has become apparent Leaving me with no reason to write Other than the one brought by the shaking
Energy I don’t wanna test endless theories again I feel I’m compromising self‐control to do it But what can I do with energy? Energy can’t be destroyed, but transformed Can this be applied to me? If I can’t destroy it, I should use it But if I use it, it might destroy me If it gets transformed into something good might drain me I don’t know what to do I’m tired, can’t sleep, I just want to stop and sleep I want to stop thinking and go to sleep But writing feels good Too good I’m usually lazy to do it But know the writer within has taken the energy And seems willing to use it But not to stop it I wish I could do prose, but feelings are my strongest point I feel funny, I could write anything Last week I’ve been upset If only it was just from last week But now I feel awake Too awake to stop Let’s write about energy How does normal energy feels like? Or is just people not been able to keep up just jealous? I can write for hours Create for hours Not even stopping to eat or sleep if inspired or what? You calling it hypomanic? never mind I can feel great out of that and leaving something to the world to enjoy it Like people do with Woolf or Van Gogh They gave humanity their energy But they did it at high price And feeling great about it But sometimes I wish energy left me alone Let me go to bed and just start at a normal time But energy plays around What am I bound to do with mine?
CHRIS JONES I’m a survivor of mental health breakdowns and hospital admissions. It’s now fourteen years since my last breakdown. I am finally putting together the story I’ve wanted to write for so long. By attending the writing class at Open House, I’ve become much more confident in my writing.
East End of London. July, 1986. (All names have been changed to protect identities). O’Reilly sat at the top of the stairs listening to his mother talking to the social worker in the kitchen. ‘Well,’ she was saying, ‘he stopped going to school a year and a half ago and he hasn’t gone out of the house since. Most of the time he just stays in his room. He’s nearly sixteen now. He won’t eat anything I cook. He just picks at bits of food now and then. He’s as thin as a rake. He just doesn’t seem to care any more. If we try to talk to him he just goes to his room.’ ‘I can get him locked up for six months,’ replied the social worker. ‘Teach him a bloody good lesson. Where is he now? Upstairs?’ ‘Yes,’ she replied. ‘Right. I’ll go up and have a word with him if that’s OK with you.’ Hearing this, O’Reilly got up quietly, went into his room and locked the door. A few minutes later the social worker was knocking. ‘Christopher,’ he called. ‘My name’s Brian. I’m a social worker. I want to talk to you right now.’ O’Reilly didn’t reply. He heard the social worker trying the door handle, then knocking louder. ‘Christopher – open this door right now or I’ll kick it open!’ O’Reilly remained calm, believing the social worker would never do what he was saying he would. Shortly, he heard him walking back downstairs. O’Reilly tried to listen through his closed door to what they were saying downstairs but could only hear muffled voices. A few minutes later, he heard the front door open and close. He was relieved to think that that might be the end of it. He was exhausted. He regularly stayed up for two days at a time and he’d been up now for about thirty‐ six hours. He laid down on his bed, the only piece of furniture in his room, and drifted off to sleep with the curtains open and the sun shining in. He was woken by another loud knocking on his door. ‘Christopher. It’s Brian. I was here yesterday. I have the police with me and I’m taking you to Court this morning.’ O’Reilly sat up sharply. He tried to shake off the cobwebs of sleep. ‘Christopher,’ repeated the social worker. ‘Yes,’ replied O’Reilly. ‘I hear you. Give me a minute.’ He got up, already fully dressed, and opened the door. He was surprised by the social worker’s physical stature. O’Reilly himself was small and undernourished, but the social worker was several inches shorter even than him. This made O’Reilly feel on the same level as him, like an adult. He felt confident to speak to him. ‘Do you mind if I come in?’ asked Brian. O’Reilly stepped back so that the social worker could come into his room. He saw things through Brian’s eyes – the bed in the middle of the place, the drawings on the walls. Brian stared at one wall with interest for a moment, then turned to O’Reilly.
‘Do you understand why I’m here?’ he asked, through his bushy ginger beard. ‘Er, you have nothing better to do?’ answered O’Reilly. Brian drew a breath. ‘I’m taking you to Court,’ he said, ‘to obtain a Secure Order.’ ‘You mean you want to put me in Care?’
The encounter with Angela. February, 1987. Note of explanation: ‘Angela’ and ‘Little Rick’ were residential social workers at the adolescent unit in which ‘O’Reilly’ spent ten days. All names have been changed to protect identities. Everyone had left the big room except Angela and O’Reilly. O’Reilly sat in one of two chairs that were pushed together. Angela walked over from the far end of the room and sat to his right. ‘Angela.’ A gruff voice beckoned from the doorway of the kitchen. From the corner of his eye, O’Reilly saw Angela flick her blonde fringe, in the same arrogant manner he’d seen her use before. She turned her head towards the voice. It was Little Rick. He seemed to be trying to make himself look bigger and broader, squaring his shoulders. ‘Yes?’ Angela asked. ‘Have they all gone to their class now?’ he asked, in his inarticulate way. ‘Yes,’ she answered evenly. Little Rick maintained a lingering gaze., ‘Alright,’ he said. ‘I’ll be around.’ He turned slowly and squarely and walked away through the kitchen. A few moments passed, then Angela turned to O’Reilly. ‘Now you have a free hour, is there anything you’d like to do? Play a game of pool? A game I’m not very good at!’ ‘No. Not really.’ ‘How about a walk? We could go to the park. It’s just down the road.’ ‘No. I’d just like to sit for a while,’ O’Reilly hoped she’d stop pressurising him to do things. ‘Really? You’d just like to sit quietly?’ O’Reilly smiled a little and said yes. Angela seemed a bit impressed, even intrigued, by this. She gazed ahead reflectively for a few moments. ‘How about a cup of tea and we could have a chat? she asked encouragingly. ‘Yes. OK,’ O’Reilly replied, feeling glad he was able to go with something Angela was suggesting. He expected her to get up but she remained seated. He looked round at her. She was just smiling contentedly. He waited a minute, then asked, ‘Are you making a cup of tea?’ ‘Yes,’ she answered and laughed a little. Half a minute went by and she was still sitting. ‘Are you making the tea?’ he asked again, a little impertinently. Angela smiled again. ‘Yes, OK,’ she said. She stood to walk to the kitchen. O’Reilly was struck again by her gracefulness, the way her hips and legs moved as she carried herself. When she disappeared into the kitchen, he had an idea.
PETER McKNIGHT Anger Anger is outright rage. It’s alright if you can control it though it may prove difficult. Some time it may turn on you. For you, whose anger is in disuse, To let it out may cause danger. This is a thing you should consider first if you know the answer. You may turn your own emotion loose on you.
A poem inspired by ‘My Papa’s Waltz’, a poem by Theodore Roethke
A small boy with whisky on his breath could make him dizzy. Such waltzing was his condition. His mother frowned at the countenance of his waltz. He was held by the wrist. At every step he made his right ear scraped. Beating time on his head with a palm cake in hand. He waltzed off to bed still clinging to his shirt. He could not even help himself sliding from the kitchen shelf. At every step he missed she beat time on his head then waltzed him off to bed.
Coffee Coffee, hot or cold, burnt the fire of your taste. What art could twist the sinews of your heart? And when your heart began to beat what dreaded hand could clasp the taste of a mild drink pasting through the mouth? Now saturate the blend. What chains of terror are you in to taste the water with its fear? A bright burning night: What immortal hands can frame your fearful thoughts? The wild cataracts blaze in glory. The long light shakes across the mouth. I can hear how loud and clear O sweet and far from scar the horns are faintly blowing. Let us hear the echoes as they roll from field to field and grow for ever. The wild echoes flying.
Clothes drying on a line The signal of the shining sun from the heavens above, come to find a display of material, spouts out a raving at the shade, made much frantic touch, to see the wide stride side. With her wings comes the bright sun to reach the hanging cloth all displayed online bound between two poles. Who, hasting to her job, now enters for her catch. The smell of clothes creeps in. Now, while folks are in their beds she leads a waking grumble. Sounding for the prime time to hear jealous jokes sprout out or, raving at the shade, casts down a shadow of doubts as night comes. And on her wings unblazes the bright light,
while, hasting in her nightly robes, a deep sleep creeps in. Who in their will shall cast out an image Of dreams of roaring laughter?
Atul Desai This write‐up hopefully conjures up in the reader’s psyche the importance, enormity, excitement and anticipation which the London Olympics represented to myself and to millions of others. We were, for two or three weeks, in summer, 2012, galvanised by the historic spectacle, a part of one of the biggest media empires ever.
Olympic anticipation Every four years, a two week porthole in space and time embarks on the world’s consciousness. A monumental gathering of the world’s fittest, most dedicated sports men and women collectively descend on one of the world’s major cities, to thrust into the television, radio and newsprint spotlights the world’s oldest sporting extravaganza. Billions of people, both avid sporting and non‐sporting armchair viewers, will especially tune in to be a part of the global media collective, as satellite technology brings the best possible continuous coverage to each of the five continents, the major cities, the towns, the villages, the seaside resorts. They will all be privy to the biggest media audience ever witnessed. Who could possibly determine the anticipation, organisation and fine‐tuning preparation of television crews, radio stations and newsprint editors and teams, as each cog in its respective wheel hones its particular talent and training to produce its absolute best for each day, in the knowledge of the sheer numbers hanging on its every word? Thousands of sports men and women will be at peak mental and physical condition, ready for their claim to participation fame. To be a microscopic viewing and listening part and to be a train ride, a bus ride, or even a short walk from the centre of the world’s media attention absolutely fires my imagination, gratitude, focus and sense of nerves in a way I’ve never experienced before. CBS, FOX NEWS,BBC, World Service, China TV! Every Russian, French, German, African, South American, Australasian and Asian major town and city will have their terraced houses, tower blocks, estates, car radios, offices, smartphones synchronised in attention for ceremonies, sports, interviews and gossip, language no barrier, ages all glued together. I will intensively research statistics on numbers and volumes of estimated viewers, listeners and readers of this gargantuan pictorial paradise bombarding our senses, knitting together an intrigued, entertained and, hopefully, fitness‐inspired planet. I must, myself, be inspired to walk, run, exercise and take up sports, increase my strength, stamina, mental wellbeing and fitness in as many directions as possible, with dietary changes, to say at the end, with pride: “THIS OLYMPICS TRANSFORMED ME.”