At long last: X Marks the Spot, Great God Pan the opera, Eastercon and a belated tribute to Vi Subversa

book_x_marks_the_spot_front_2It’s been a while since my last post, to put it lightly. What can I say? Deadlines, deadlines, day job and all the usual. I should know by now that the best way to blog is to fire off quick items, otherwise you’re faced with the prospect of knitting together disparate events. But that’s life, a series of disparate items.

I’m pleased to announce that I’ll have a story in an anthology X Marks the Spot, published by NewCon Press to mark its tenth anniversary in July. It doesn’t seem long since I went to an event to celebrate the publisher’s fifth anniversary.

I previously published with NewCon in the anthology Conflicts. Some time ago at a bar, editor and writer Ian Whates told me he wanted stories for an anthology called Conflicts. Conflicts? You want conflicts, I’ve got conflicts! So I sent him “Harmony in My Head”, a story set around the time of the 2005 7/7 London bombings and the anti-G8 mobilisation in Scotland. Tinnitus and parallel universes were also involved.

It turned out that Conflicts (2010) was primarily a collection of military SF, which my story wasn’t, but Ian published it anyway. At least one reviewer expressed bemusement that the only military hardware in the story was a quick glimpse of a Chinook helicopter in a newspaper photo.

I’m very pleased and proud to have a story published by NewCon again, and be on board to celebrate its tenth anniversary.

Easterconeastercon cate and rosanne
I attended Eastercon at the end of March. It’s been my first Eastercon for several years. I felt sentimental about it being in Manchester, site of the first con I ever attended – Eastercon 1998. I went to some good panels, but now that I’m looking back over a few months and my memory is hazy I have to admit that a high point was dinner in the Greek tapas bar over the road in the company of Simon Bestwick, Nina Allen, Cate Gardner and Priya Sharma. And here’s a nice photo of myself (left) and Cate (right), taken by Cate. I’m notoriously camera-shy but I’m glad I gave in to the cajoling for a selfie. A ‘good’ photo of myself is one where I don’t look like a zombie or an axe murderer – so I think this one fits the bill.

Great God Pan – the opera
Those of you who enjoyed Helen’s Story might be interested in a forthcoming opera based on The Great God Pan. While I’ve not been an opera follower myself, I’m taking a great interest in this one. Composed by Ross Crean, the opera sets out with similar aims to give the vilified Helen Vaughan a voice. In her final aria she sings:

We will raise the living dead
Through the power of horned head,
Cloven foot and revelry.
Thus the Lord of Trickery will
Set this mortal coil on fire
With every succulent desire.
Pan is all, and all is Pan,
And we will hence return again!

Here’s a clip with some background information and music. Apparently, the production will be given a steampunk aesthetic. I really hope I have the opportunity to see it some day.

Vi Subversa (Frances Sokolov) 20.06.35–20.02.16
So now we’re going to hark back to earlier in the year… If you recall, my last blog ended with reactions to the deaths of David Bowie and Paul Kantner. Since then, we’ve lost even more creative people, including Prince, Victoria Wood and Vi Subversa.

Several months gone, I still want to say something about Vi – guitarist, singer and songwriter with feminist punk band Poison Girls. She died at the age of 80 last February.

I first went to see Poison Girls in 1980, and went to their gigs many times throughout the decade. Conway Hall, Chat’s Palace, the Cricketers at the Oval, the squatted ambulance station on the Old Kent Road, other venues with names that have long slipped away into the spaces between my brain cells.

I also remember when Vi performed at a picnic in the garden at the occupied South London Women’s Hospital in the summer of 1984. She was accompanied by one guitarist, 17-year-old Debbie Smith. I have a vivid recollection of Vi performing “Under the Doctor”, very appropriate to the hospital setting: “What I’m trying to say… is you’ve got to be strong, so strong/Because nothing takes the pain away for long!” Sadly, the garden  where this took place is now a carpark for the Tesco superstore that replaced part of the hospital.

In December 2015 I went to Brighton to attend what was to be Vi’s final gig, thrilled to see her performing again. Along with her own songs she sang several Brecht & Weill compositions including “Pirate Jenny”. Her voice was perfect for Brecht. Songs such as”Old Tart’s Song” and “I’ve Done it All Before” (just about the only love song I can stomach) acquired even more resonance when sung by an 80-year-old woman. I especially liked the little polyamorous flourish she added at the end: “I’ve done it all before, but not with you… and you… and you.”

I ended up sitting across a table from Vi before she went on stage. She was talking to one of the gig organisers, then to another musician. I wanted to say hello since I interviewed her for radical women’s magazine Bad Attitude in 1995, which marked the release of a retrospective CD and a grand reunion gig at the Astoria. I also went to her 60th birthday party and had the pleasure of getting to know her a little then.

But as I sat there at the Brighton venue I was thinking: ‘Better not disturb her before she goes on stage, she might be preparing for her performance and getting into the mood… etc etc… I’ll catch her afterwards.’

But I didn’t manage to find her that night, so that didn’t happen. Perhaps she left just after her performance. And now I know it won’t ever happen.

I deeply regret that I was too stupidly shy to say hello, but I am grateful that I had a chance to see that wonderful gig. Vi Subversa was – and still is – an inspiration to me.

Here are a couple of songs from that gig, “Persons Unknown: and “Old Tart’s Song”. As you might expect, the acoustic version of “Persons Unknown” is quieter than the original, but even more powerful: “Survival in silence isn’t good enough no more…”

And here’s the original “Persons Unknown” for a bit of contrast… I believe this was the first Poison Girls record.

I’ll now share a scan of the article I coauthored in Bad Attitude. The other article on the spread is about an ill-fated UN women’s conference in Beijing, in case you’re wondering. Back in the day I suppose our prevailing aesthetic was: “We’ve got a new font and we’re gonna use it!”

Vi2Vi1

If you have fond memories of any Poison Girls gigs or want to find out more about Vi and her wonderful music, you might be interested in joining a Tributes to Vi Subversa Facebook page. There you can find personal reflections and links to music videos, interviews, obituaries and tributes.

There may be trouble ahead…
Now I’m just getting up to speed. The events of the past few weeks weigh heavily, but this post is long enough. I’m sure more ranting, writing and serious thinking is called for in the near future. So at the risk of appearing flippant, I’ll close with a certain old Nat King Cole tune…

 

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History is not just about the past…

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Recently I marked the 30th anniversary of the eviction of the South London Women’s Hospital occupation with five or so friends.

From July 1984 to March 1985 hundreds of women occupied a hospital near Clapham Common to oppose the closure of the only hospital where women can be treated by women. This started with a staff ‘work-in’ that kept the hospital running. However, as doctors and staff accepted positions elsewhere the action turned into a community occupation. We kept up a 24-hour picket and turned the hospital into a campaign and community centre. We invited other groups to use the space, and held activities like jumble sales, tea dances, picnics and public meetings. A radical nurses’ group and an Asian women’s health group also met there. We linked up with other occupations and Women Against Pit Closures, hosting women from mining communities when they came to London to campaign or take part in demonstrations. Women from Greenham also joined us.

And then the date this occupation came to an end 30 years ago snuck up on me. Was it really that long ago? I still remember the intense weeks that preceded the eviction – the noise of hammers as barricades went up, sleepless nights and speeches from the balcony, the songs, the relationships that started and ended.

However, the eviction of the occupation also marked the beginning of other initiatives as women regrouped across South London and carried on other struggles. Our get-together has reminded me again why anniversaries like this are important, and why it is so pleasurable to reaffirm ties of common purpose and comradeship over the years. I previously wrote about the occupation of the South London Women’s Hospital in my 2013 post From Austerity to Fairyland, and this entry also stressed that history is not only about the past.

11080973_1026554550705237_2999057420019525871_nWe met on Sunday 29 March, though the actual eviction date was 27 March. The weather wasn’t up to much and storms were predicted. This might have put many people off, but we still had a good afternoon in each other’s company as we checked out the changes. The old hospital building is now the site of a Tesco and a block of flats – social or private, I’m not sure. The Tesco superstore now encompasses the former outpatients and what might have been Cowdray ward. Most sadly, the nurses’ home and the garden where we had picnics has been replaced by the Tesco’s carpark. The former Preston House –along with the 4th floor ward AKA ‘Cloud Nine’, it was associated with the more cosmic girls  – had been torn down and the main building extended in its place.

We took a walk to Cavendish Road cop shop, where we debated the chronology of eviction day. There was some confusion over the sequence of events but it went like this: first they got us down from the roof (I remember sitting on top of the cover of the hatch while the cops were pounding at it and pushing it up). They nabbed two women, shoved the rest of us about and eventually let us go. Then there was further pushing and shoving and the proverbial ‘scuffles’ during an attempt to de-arrest our two friends.

EvictionAfter they were carted away we went to Kennington Police station where the two women were being held (In fact, I don’t remember going there, but I’d written an account that mentions that, so it must be true). Then we went to picket the police press conference at the Cavendish Road station. We intended to go to the ‘Burger Bar’ for a long-delayed breakfast, and as you can guess this Burger Bar no longer exists. But we first thought we’d have a look at the hospital… before we knew it, the cops were nicking someone for allegedly spitting on the ground near them. There was another extended ‘scuffle’, joined by a bunch of local schoolgirls, and six women were arrested. Happy days!

We’ve all been affected by gentrification, yet I was still surprised at the state of the Windmill pub. At least half of it’s been 10708500_10153332996572228_7840531236355312206_oturned into a hotel so it was pretty crowded and choco-bloc with the plummy and yummy. It’s hard to believe I had a birthday drink here in 2001, when it was a sprawling place that sold decent real ale along with admittedly vile microwaved food. While I don’t miss the microwaved food, I do miss the space and relative friendliness of the old Windmill. Claiming a table for our crew was like mounting a new occupation in itself. Eventually, we more or less squatted a table in the grand tradition of the SLHW occupation.

Even though this was reunion, we talked a lot about what we are doing now. Current issues in the NHS and fighting cuts was a major concern, since a few of us still work in that area. I’ve concluded that holding events like this are much more than an exercise in nostalgia. “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past…” as George Orwell put it. Documenting our history and keeping it alive has implications for the future, and how we try to live in the present.

And speaking of the past.. I was last in this area around 2005 and enjoyed a cheap and tasty South Indian meal on Balham Hill, where there were several places to choose from. But these eateries are no longer with us, replaced by Costa, M&S and other chains. So when we left the WIndmill we found a Turkish/Mediterranean place near Clapham Common tube, where we enjoyed a leisurely dinner and a good gossip.

When I got home I found that a few new members had joined our the South London Women’s Hospital occupation Facebook group, including a young woman who was born in the occupied hospital in 1984. It’s been great catching up with people, previously lost to the pre-internet past. People are welcome to join this group here. Maybe you’ve taken part in the occupation, visited once or twice – or maybe you weren’t even around at the time but would have liked to be. Perhaps you have a general interest in direct action, anti-austerity struggles, the state of the NHS and women’s health. This group is for you!

We’d particularly welcome more photos. There were loads of women were taking photos at the time. At one point when we started to barricade, we got stopped for a while by a videomaker and a photographer while they documented the hospital in its pre-barricaded state. But with this taking place in pre-internet and pre-Facebook days we’ve all lost touch, and perhaps this group can change that.

occupational-hazards-225x300For further reading on the SLHW occupation and hospital occupations in general, I’d recommend Occupational Hazards, a dossier compiled by those fine folks at Past Tense Publications. It includes a spiel by me, for starters!

You can also find some great photos online here by Sarah Booker, which include Greenham, Women Against Pit Closures, Clause 28 demos, various defence campaigns – and the South London Women’s Hospital occupation.

From austerity to fairyland

bethnal green hospital occupation work-in nupe july 1978

Bethnal Green Hospital 1978: The first work-in at a hospital casualty department

In the next few weeks I’ll be taking part in two very different events. At the London Anarchist Bookfair next Saturday – 19 October – I’ll contribute to a meeting that will look back on hospital occupations against closure and discuss their current relevance to defending health services. And at the World Fantasy Convention two weeks afterwards I’m on a panel about… fairies.

From austerity to fairyland: the leap between these two subjects first provoked a few bemused chuckles. Then I looked into these subjects a bit more, and you know… I had to think again.

So, the discussion at the bookfair will ask the question: “Occupying is good for your health?” This meeting is part of a stream of radical history presentations and discussions at the bookfair. The people from Past Tense, who are coordinating these meetings, write:

“We don’t see ‘history’ as a dry ‘subject’; it isn’t separate from our own experiences and the struggles, and situations we are part of now, and the ideas and movements we hope can help build a freer future. Our own stories are also history; but reversing that, history is made up of experiences, battles, events, individuals and mass movements – linked to ours by both resistance to the hierarchical and unequal social relations they faced, and the desires, ideas and dreams of what life could be, and how to get there.” 

In this spirit, we will cast our eye back on campaigns in the 1970s through the 1990s when staff and patients occupied hospitals under threat of closure. I took part in the occupation of the South London Hospital for Women from 1984 to 1985, so I’ll bring reflections on that to the discussion. My friend Myk will share his experiences of occupying at UCH in the 1990s. Currently the NHS is under threat again. How is the situation different now? Are tales of previous occupations relevant? The NHS, vital as it is, has never really been under our control – are occupations a step in that direction? We’re also very keen to hear from others who are currently involved with opposing health service cuts and hospital closures.

The bookfair itself is well worth a visit and you don’t need to be a card-carrying or flag-waving anarchist to find something of interest here. The event takes place at Queen Mary’s University at Mile End and features workshops, stalls, books and music,  talks and films. Two crèches are available and there is also disabled access. Check out the bookfair website for more  information.WFC_small

Which brings us to the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton, from 31 October to 3 November. Though I’ve been to the UK Fantasycon many times, this will be my first world fantasy event. I’m looking forward to four days of schmoozing, socialising, panels and discussions, drinking, drinking, drinking, curries and curries… and meeting other readers and writers from around the world(ish) who are passionate about fantastical fiction. And I’m also excited to be involved in two programme items.

Tickets are no longer on sale for the convention, but if you happen to be going you might be interested in the following. On Friday 1 November I’ll be at the Reading Café 3-3.30. Given that one stream of programming at WFC will mark Arthur Machen’s 150th birthday, I’ll read from my novella Helen’s Story and from “Lambeth North”, my short story in Horror Without Victims. As you can guess from the title, “Lambeth North” will shed a different light on a part of London that Machen had once described as ‘shapeless’, ‘unmeaning’ and ‘dismal beyond words’. But here South London holds its own.

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing circa 1786 by William Blake 1757-1827Then on the Saturday at mid-day I’ll be on a panel, The Little People: When the Fairies Come Out to Play. This discussion looks at how Arthur Machen and other authors and artists have used folklore, the landscape, science and literature to create stories of the faerie otherworld.

So what is the connection between these topics? When musing on this, I had another read of Simon Bestwick’s excellent blog post, The Shrinking Space, which addresses a similar question. Simon describes the fallout from austerity and the ‘shrinking space’ it leaves for enjoying life and exercising the imagination. Simon also looks at the legacy of Arthur Machen, As well as a classic writer of dark fiction, Machen is often read as a father of psychogeography. An impoverished clerk in his younger days, he wandered the streets of Edwardian London to discover worlds of wonder and dread “a stone’s throw from Kings Cross station”.

But in the modern-day ConDemNewLab dystopia there’s little time for wandering, and the otherworldly and unworldly transcendence of Machen’s vision will find little room to thrive. Nowadays, those in employment face continual compulsion to work more and more for much less and give up their live to their work. The clerk of today would be subject to repeated performance reviews, team-building exercises and examinations of their ‘attitude’. Meanwhile, those who are unable to work or refuse to submit to this regime are hounded and starved by the DWP, ATOS and a vile cabal of poverty profiteers such as A4E and G4S.

Machen’s character Lucien Taylor in The Hill of Dreams “craves beauty and peace and seeks to capture them through prose”. But there’s no chance of doing that for those who get forced onto a workfare scheme or – as Universal Credit would have it – get forced to do time in the job centre if their clerk’s salary is too meagre without a top-up for stratospheric 21st century London rents.

Machen became a bit of an old Tory himself and waxed jingoistic over WWI, but Simon’s article nails how the literary legacy of his best work still stands opposed to the ravages of contemporary neoliberalism. I tend to think that ‘authorial intention’ is often distinct from how the core of a story is perceived by those who read it in years to come.

Moving on from Machen’s day, Johnny Void has also pointed out that a mere 15 years of neoliberal  regression could have prevented Harry Potter (among the creations of many writers who put in a few years on the dole) from ever seeing the light of publication. “Under this Government’s plans for single parents, JK Rowling would have been on workfare rather than creating some of the most successful characters in children’s literature in history.”

On one hand, the regime of austerity and intensified work aims to crush any attempt to use the imagination. On the other hand,  the active use of imagination is what gives social movements their power. Fairies might not have had much bearing on our occupation of the South London Women’s Hospital – though we did tell a few ghost stories about the walk along the underground corridor between the main building to the annexe, which happened to pass the morgue.

SL Women's Hospital

This is the balcony where we sang “What shall we do with the cops and bailiffs”, dressed up in nurse uniforms and surgeon’s masks. Good times!

But our campaign showed resilience because we went beyond traditional meetings and petition-writing. We didn’t only defend the health service as it was, but created a centre where women came together to take action, discuss and start to create the kind of health care we wanted. And beyond that – a vision of the kind of world we want to live in.

I still sometimes come across the idea that fantastical fiction is always escapist. It can be – so can anything. It can also be subversive – it is what we make it. In this context, a classic line from the 80s punk band Zounds comes to mind: “I’m not looking for escapism, I just want to escape.”

Is there a difference between escapism and wanting to escape? Answers on the back of a postcard, please!

And with that I’ll sign off with a song…