Tuesday 13 December 2011

It's Cold Outside

About 18 months ago I put on a show at Oxford's OVADA Gallery called Open-Armed and Outcast. Its description was simple:

"Have you ever KNOWN that you’re just a stranger in your life? Not known where your place is except that it’s elsewhere? Then much of the work we’re offering tonight is for you; very different accounts of what it’s like to be an outcast in your life and in the world. And to find your home elsewhere."

Around the same time, I was sitting in the Albion Beatnik bookstore half reading and half eavesdropping on the table next to me (there's always an interesting conversation going on there - it could be the spiritual home of competitive people-watching). They were talking about deserts. Great topic (so good I once held an exhibition called Into the Desert). One of them made the very interesting point that she didn't like using the word "desert" because it implied a space that was "outside" - the desert outside the city walls, the space beyond the fertile land. In other words, calling something a desert, just like calling yourself an outsider, has the effect of defining a space by its relation to the thing it is not.

That got me thinking. I'd always thought of myself as an outsider. I'd always *been* an outsider. I'd always been laughed at, shunned, ignored, excluded from "regular spaces". That made me an outsider, right? Well, sort of. It certainly gave me a name to call myself, and that matters. It's the same feeling as finally being diagnosed with depression - the feeling, "thank goodness for that, there's a reason I feel this way."

On the other hand, I got to thinking more and more that my identity was about what I did, who I was, not what I didn't do, not what I wasn't. And over the spring and summer that thougt began to mature, and found an outlet in a couple of places. I was asked to contribute to a great collection of urban writing called Urban Feel. My piece, "My Feet Are Wet I Must Be At The Beach" (about the way water and associated metaphors are used as mechanisms of control in urban spaces), contains the passage:

"The punchbag lad in the cardboard box; the smackhead’s hollow skin dropped down through the pavement floor; the free-runner jumping the skag-iron rooftops a hundred feet above the mossy park. The young don’t leave our world; they build their own"

I was aware I didn't agree with a lot of the implications of that. Most homeless people are homeless because they are running away from an alternative that's unbearable. Likewise denying the escape that drugs offer would be banal. But I couldn't help thinking the passage should stay. It made a point, however inexpertly articulated, that needed making. Society's outcasts, its outsiders, are not just the detritus from something normative. "Outsiders" are a parallel, a world of our own, with our own codes, our own structures, often our own very rigid rules of engagement and moral codes.

And equally to the point, we are as diverse as any regular office space or suburb if not more so. Maybe we *are* all outside of something, but to make that what defines us is so limiting when we are so much more, and so many different things.

That sense of being more than someone who "doesn't belong" wherever finally found its expression when I started up eight cuts gallery, in particular in this section of the manifesto:

"we are rats

we live in our own space, build our own communities, societies, foundation myths and bodies of work.

we share some of your doorways, and sometimes you will see the traces we leave behind. traces like this. often they are strange, unfamiliar, and consequently seem frightening, but they are doorways onto a whole world that exists, fully formed, in parallel with yours.

for too long we have been expected to push at these doors, and gaze around them in wonder and admiration, dreaming, cap in hand, of one day entering the world beyond them. we think maybe it’s time for us to offer an invitation the other way."

Again and again I find myself being pulled back to the idea of being an outsider. I guess in a way it's romantic. Which is wholly the wrong reason - that's the kind of empty nostalgia and posturing I so dislike in the so-called mainstream. I wonder also if it's an excuse. I've not done abc because I'm not xyz. Which is probably true. But it's not helpful. It won't help me get on and do pqr!

The fact is I'm not an outsider. I'm an insider in a world that not many people inhabit. It may be a world that's unrecognized or unvalued by the paymasters, which means I can't spend all my time there - but who can spend their whole lives "at home"? But I'm not a perpetual traveller, I am not a man in diaspora, or if I am, then it's only because that's the place I always come back to - not because I'm running away from somewhere else, but because it's my haven, the source from whcih I draw my strength, the spring that nurtures my creativity. It is where I can do what really matters, and get on with life.

How do you think of yourself? Do you feel like a stranger in your own life? And if questions of outsiderdom and identity strike a chord with you, you may be interested in my novella Black Heart High, which you can download for free here.


  1. Outsiderdom certainly resonates with me - but, now - at last - I enjoy it! Someone actually said to me the other day, 'You're not like most grandmothers, are you?' I don't think she meant it as a compliment, but I was quite pleased with it!

  2. You maybe be outside of some things, Jo, but you're certainly someone a lot of people would want to be on the inside with - your zest for life is infectious

  3. I've always thought of myself as an observer - but to observe objectively one needs to be outside whatever it is one is observing. There is always a part of me outside everything including outside myself. It is lonely and uncomfortable but there is more space out here. Lots and lots of space...

  4. I like that - though it does rather make me think of Madame Defarge knitting quietly in A Tale of Two Cities :)

  5. I like the idea in Michele's comment about the outsider being the observer; like the modernist notion of the flaneur. "a person who walks the city in order to experience it" (or at least sits in a bookshop eavesdropping, Dan...)

    And I like the idea that an outsider maybe observes more standing watching the dance-floor than those in the heat of the dance, and that great art can come from such observation. (It strikes me that a lot of novels are written from the point of view of characters slightly outside the narrative.)

    But that's a key point - it's an artist *choosing* to sit the dance out in order to observe; which as Dan says is really just choosing to be inside something else. Which is a lot different from people being forced to be outsiders by the actions of others - prejudice, small-mindedness etc.

  6. I find on my bad days(which are rather more frequent than the good ones at the moment) that I find myself saying both in my head and out loud "I want to go home" even when I am, technically at home.
    Those are the days when I dislike seeing my own reflection because I see not the form I see in my head but one that makes me recoil because it does not match the internal image. The contrast is so severe that I find it hard to recognise myself in new photos. I got caught in the camera crossfire at an event in Norwich on Saturday and perusing the photos when they appeared online, I spotted myself several times in silhouette only because I remembered where we'd been in the crowd and I could recognise my husband next to me.
    It was a so-called SoulCircus service, and I felt alien and alone most of the time.
    Hunting for carrots now....

  7. Great post!

    Hmm...I've always felt like an outsider of two worlds, and then I realised that I'm actually a straddler of two worlds, which is a really confusing stance. On both sides are two different people I want to be and I want to choose one, but my nature, upbringing, faith or interests have kept me from being able to leap over to one side. Sometimes I think that maybe I'm just insecure and just wanting to blend in, but lately, I'm starting to see that maybe, as you said, I'm in a world of few inhabitants. Sometimes I think that being secure about who I am will make everything all right, but I guess insecurity is part of me. I haven't decided yet whether to change that or to come to peace with it...

  8. James - much as I would like to own the 'artist's choice' as mine - I cannot. The only choice I made was a subconscious one at a stupidly early age to make my 'otherness' mean something positive and I am left with that survival strategy/self-programming despite many years of experience directing me to the contrary conclusion.
    I have never felt a part of anything or any community or any group except by mistake and accident. Until I married and had my son there was never been a conscious moment where I felt I truly 'belonged' and even within my small family circle it is my job to fit in and understand the group for overall harmony rather than be accepted and understood as an individual. I got miraged once by a beautiful place, but the water was sand in my mouth when my eyes cleared.
    I learned to read fluently by the age of 2 and I had a photographic memory was called The Professor by neighbours and have always been the odd one out. But I do a good job of 'faking it' to the extent that I have all but disappeared by now, although I am beginning to attempt to be me at the late age of 50. It's difficult as I have never allowed myself 'out' and I'm not even sure who I am - I've been too busy watching, observing and trying to stay unobtrusive.
    Viv - I know exactly what you mean - I have one mirror in my house for making sure my skirt isn't tucked into my knickers - otherwise I avoid them like the plague.
    My sanity depends on seeing infinity in raindrops and freedom in the breadth of my imagination. A triumph of hope over experience. For some reason there is that one lesson I seem unable to learn - and that keeps me alive.

  9. Yes, James, it's an incredibly tricky balance - on the one hand I want to make sure that there is an inner energy to what we do, to make the work that matters to us the centre of it, and the focal point for filtering everything else, rather than being defined by the "everything else". On the other, I want to engage on a practical level with small-mindedness and prejudice - I don't want anything to be a get out clause to exonerate someone else's bigotry. I think the key is an attitude of celebration of difference.

    Viv, I think finding "home" is one of the most important and most difficult things there is - we are constantly told where we *should* feel at home, what is right for us in the eyes of others - that, I think, is at the centre of the small-mindedness and prejudice that dismisses people - no one has a right to tell another person where their home is, yet they do, and it is so difficult to filter out their voices, especially at the times when our own voice seems so weak, or even extinguished altogether. I have a feeling that it's when we are comfortable with where we are that we are most and best able to accept others - and that when we are trying to accommodate to others that we are least able to do so.

    Ingrina, that resonates with a lot of what I've read on your blog - one of the things that I've noticed, following your posts for a couple of months now, is the gradual embracing of various senses of dislocation, as though you started out not wanting to admit there were things that were strange, that you missed, and this made you miss them more, but by embracing the part of you that misses them you have come to feel much more at home in yourself. I don't know if that makes sense, but if you read back through your posts I'm sure you'll see the progression yourself :)

    Michele - that's something both Ann and I have found - neither of us has ever really felt at home in our families - family life has always been about pretending well enough so as not to break a fragile ecosystem, whilst retaining behind that the recognition that w belong somewhere else. It's only meeting each other that has given us, finally, a base. Groups terrify me, even groups of people I love dearly like my writer friends - I think that's because inadequacy takes over and stops me enjoying properly the things we share

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