Splitting the Mermaid. Lucy Ayrton’s funny and powerful drama at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

I’VE seen Lucy Ayrton perform twice. I’m a fan. But with this show she had me laughing and then in tears, only able to mutter at her ‘great show’ before I ran out to wail.

I saw Splitting the Mermaid in preview in a (sorry) rather unprepossessing town hall in Oxford. There weren’t many of us in the audience, maybe fewer than twenty and at least one man was angry about the interruption to his urgent meeting with the cheap beer.

This was a mixed crowd in a venue which offered Ayrton no stage, little lighting and no set. Using only a laptop to control the music and maybe a torch for lights, you can’t say she didn’t challenge herself.

None of that mattered.

Almost as soon as she began speaking, I was drawn into her story, an update, or development of the traditional Little Mermaid fairy tale, in which May, Ayrton’s heroine, swaps the power of speech, for the chance to become a mother.

Ayrton hangs a series of wry and funny observations about gender relations on  the traditional story, as May moves from a bizarre and fascistic undersea world to a more recognisable, downatheel beach front in search of a baby she can bring up herself.

Perhaps it’s Ayrton’s confidence, or her experience and skill, but I was immersed in the narrative almost immediately as fully as if I’d dived into an ocean. It was lovely to be transported from the plain hall simply by the power of one woman speaking.

I’m not sure if I entirely agree with the suggestion I took from the show that being a mother, and, in fact, being a father, involves extreme sacrifice and nothing else, that only our progeny have a shot at redemption. I suppose it’s certainly a role which, done properly, asks parents to give without expectation of anything but the departure of their offspring. But I can still speak, unlike May, and I feel that what I have to say is richer for the experience.

It was great, though, a relief, even, to see having a child and the difficulties and joys that ensue, centre stage. In Splitting the Mermaid parenting takes its rightful place, with death and sex, as one of the determining experiences of being human and an unquestionably legitimate subject for poetry and literature.

If you’re lucky enough to be at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year, Splitting the Mermaid is a guaranteed great night out which will stay with you. Go! Take your friends. You won’t regret it.

Splitting the Mermaid is on at the Underbelly (Cowgate, Venue 61) August 2 – 12 and 14 – 24. Tickets

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Posted in Writing

What’s the point of it? Martin Creed [adult content]

I WENT to see Martin Creed’s exhibition, What is the point of it? in late April this year, with my three boys then aged eight, eleven and twelve.

I meant to write about it, hesitated and it’s taken me until to now to want to say something about it.

The title of an exhibition is, I suppose, the first item on display. Like much of Creed’s work, it raised questions to which it declined to provide clear answers. Is the question mocking and defensive, predicting most people’s response to contemporary, conceptual art? Or is Creed sincerely engaging in the process of trying to find a purpose?

I suspect he would answer that both can be the case. It’s a great title, but only once you’ve seen the show.

Walking into the show, the first work I saw was a huge steel beam on top of which were sitting huge white neon letters, spelling out the word ‘MOTHERS’ and spinning around on their own axis. It sits at quite a low level. No one taller than 6′ 6” was allowed through the front door to exhibition, to avoid accidents.

I was very surprised to find the word ‘Mothers’ given such a central place on Creed’s stage. Mothers! was my first thought, always spinning around in circles, never getting anywhere.

For me, the placement of this piece at the beginning of the show  immediately established the territory of the exhibition: metaphor. At the time, I laughed, ruefully. Now, a couple of months on, I’m less happy about the piece and about my response to it. It seems a bit sneering, on reflection, a bit judgemental. But I don’t think I’d feel this if Creed were a woman.

I suppose, as a mother, I’m glad Creed accepts that we are so central, the starting point. I’m glad too that he sees we’re elevated by society (after all it was public money paying for the exhibition) and that that might be a problem. But going in circles? That’s not so kind.

Creed’s decision to make the word plural is interesting. It seems careful to me. Careful of his own mother, at least.

I did admire the simplicity of the idea,  its power to elicit a response from me, and I’m sure, from most people.

Moving on, the children were outraged that I took them to see the film of one woman shitting and other people being sick. I found it pretty nauseating. I won’t ever watch something like that again. But I’m glad I saw it. I don’t know what it meant. More mockery? That people will travel to see others performing ordinary animal functions? Or was it an assertion of what we have in common?

We had to sit for a long time to wait for these natural dramas to run their courses. Clearly, Creed wants us to think more about being subject to basic animal urges, about being unable to escape, perhaps, from these functions which we call base.

The woman shitting was the most interesting. She was young and, I think, of Chinese heritage. In the video, she walks into the studio, pulls up her skirts and squats. We see her side on. It took her a while to produce a really big turd. It did seem genuinely transgressive to me, but a friend who spent a lot of time in China said that the people she knew there were very unembarrassed about lavatory functions and would regularly walk in on her, freely commenting on aspects of her body which they found different to theirs. I don’t know if it’s true, or was true. I hope it’s not stereotyping.

I remember the piano which opened and slammed shut every fifteen minutes or so, making many people jump. There was a car on one balcony. Again, every fifteen minutes or so its doors would open and the radio came on. You could go and inspect the car on the balcony, in which case you would form part of the tableau for people viewing the scene from inside the gallery. I thought that was clever and economical. Like a two-fer.

On another balcony, marked suitable for adults only, there was a film of a man whose penis rose and became erect. He didn’t ejaculate. I found nothing offensive or even very interesting in this. It was a nice penis, though.

I don’t remember the graphic art at all. Perhaps the installations were too loud or distracting.

The final installation we saw was Creed’s Half the air in a given space, in which he’d filled a room almost entirely with large white balloons. The children’s guide to the exhibition explains, No space is ever really empty and in this work [Creed] has made half the air in the room visible by cleverly using balloons.

This was not what I or my children took from it. The boys loved it. They spent ages in there. Having left after ten or so minutes of pushing through latex, I listened outside to their uproarious laughter. Occasionally one would appear at the glazed wall and peer out at me, making faces, before diving back in.

It was a charming installation. Balloons constantly popping and all the static causing everyone’s hair to stand on end, something which seemed to mean that total strangers, in our still rather buttoned-up culture, were allowed to talk to each other and share their pleasure in the work. I and a few other mothers whose children were still inside chatted amicably, disarmed, barriers down, by our messed up hair.

What was this? The carnival atmosphere with the undignified dance to get in and out of the room, as visitors and attendants tried to get through the door without losing balloons from it.

For me, there was something about giving birth (those mothers again), and dying, (basic human dramas).

We struggle to get into the world and often struggle to get out – and you can’t take your balloons with you. While we’re in the world, we spend a lot of time alone in our own thoughts, occasionally breaking through to find other people bouncing around nearby. It’s all a bit baffling and our hair stands on end a lot of the time.

But maybe that’s just me.

I loved the exhibition and wasn’t surprised to hear they extended its run.

Martin Creed’s show was at the Hayward Gallery earlier this year.

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Posted in Writing

Letter to an Unknown Soldier

I DON’T have any connection to anyone who fought in the first world war, or none of which I’m aware.

Letter to an Unknown Soldier invites everyone, from practising writers to rusty refugees from school English lessons, to write a letter to an unknown solder from the 1914-18 war. As the website puts it:

2014 is already proving to be a year jammed-full of WW1 commemoration, but for us, it is important to move away from cenotaphs, poppies, and the imagery we associate with war memorials.

Our project invites everyone to step back, take a few private moments to think, and make their own contribution. If you could say what you want to say about that war, with all we’ve learned since 1914, with all your own experience of life and death to hand, what would you say? If you were now able to write to the unknown soldier, a man who served and was killed during World War One, what would you write?

I really wanted to write something as a way of connecting to the sacrifices made and the tragedy of so many lives squandered, a way to try to keep feeling the appalling waste and remembering.

So I’ve written a poem (see below) and submitted it to the project, which anyone can do. I think it is a wonderful memorial of great power and importance.

All the poems will be published on June 28th, giving me not only a chance to acknowledge my debt, but also the opportunity to be seen alongside wonderful poets such as Liz Lochhead, Jackie Kay, Mab Jones, Benjamin Zepheniah and Daljit Nagra.


Dear Soldier

I can only hope
that you believed
the things they said;
that you dug deep
trenches of heady
sweetness and felt
the mighty rightness
of your death.

I hope the hot
air of their empty
bromides lifted
you up and over,
far up and over,
away from mud,
blood and screams
to that other country,
mother country.

I hope your ears
were full of hymns
and birdsong when
you died, your heart
swollen with pride,
so that your life
meant something to
you because it
didn’t mean enough

to all our fathers. They
smudged your red
into their pink stained
maps and passed the port,
a few feet to the left,
a few feet to the right.
Their price worth paying,
your life cut short.

Posted in Writing

Blog tour

Egad. I find myself on tour, of blogs.

My friend and fellow student Liz Lefroy – a fine poet who you can actually google – asked me to do this. She’s a very good poet so I said yes. I mean, maybe by doing what she says, I’ll catch some of the sensitivity and precision of her language.

I can catch viruses online, so why not good things, or virtuous viruses? You see? Already I have a lot of alliteration. This makes savvy sense, no?

For this blog tour I have to answer questions. They’re quite hard.

What am I working on? I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you. As I have about a quintillionish readers, tracking you all down would take a long time and might get in the way of my top secret project.

Suffice to say ‘gaze’ and ‘perception’. Sort of like esse and percipi with a bit of digital topspin. But I’m keeping the tree, yeah, no what I mean?

How does my work differ from others of this genre? Um. All poets are special and unique. We’re sort of like people in that regard, but with rhymes. And alliteration.

Why do I write what I do? Because I like doing it and doing it makes me feel happy.

How does my writing process work? It’s not clear yet that it does work. It might be broken or malformed, something to do with switching in the worker files, I gather, which is, horribly, a reference to one of my very own poems. Which Liz says might not be a poem.

I’m having a little tut at that idea, Liz.

I write when something nags at me or interests me strangely, as they say. Then I try to be exact. Then I fall in love with what I’ve written. Then people I trust say it could be better. So I have another go.

Then it gets published. Okay, one thing has got published in Verse Kraken. Or two if you count my poem on womenpoetswearingsweatpants.com which I only submitted to because I misread it as women poets swearing – wet pants and then I found out they took all submissions, which spoilt it a bit for me.

And it is all about me.

If you’re completely perplexed, then so am I. You can be in my perplexed poets posse.

Yes! I’m catching it, I’m catching it.

Anyone who wants to have a go – go for it. It’s really, really fun.



Posted in Writing



It’s that time of year again – the Wantage Literary Festival is bringing you another glorious Sunday afternoon and evening of Poetry (with a capital P).

Jenny Lewis, Fiona Sampson, Peter Wyton and Robin Gilbert will all be reading their work.

Please book now on the link below as last year some events sold out.

I took the following text from the website:

“Now as Then: Mesopotamia-Iraq”

Jenny will discuss her exploration of her father’s role as a soldier in the South Wales Borderers in Iraq (Mesopotamia) in WW1 and read from her new pamphlet, Now as Then: Mesopotamia-Iraq

Arising from a series of readings and workshops at the Ashmolean Museum in April 2013 to mark the 10th anniversary of the 2003 UK/ US invasion of Iraq, Now as Then: Mesopotamia-Iraq celebrates the history and culture of ancient Mesopotamia and modern Iraq as well as denouncing the devastation of wars ancient, historic and contemporary. Each of the poems, by British poet Jenny Lewis and Iraqi poet Adnan al Sayegh, appears in both English and Arabic.

Fiona Sampson (Professor of Poetry at the University of Roehampton) reads from her new collection, Coleshill, and talks about a special kind of “writing home”.

Peter Wyton, former Poet Laureate of Gloucestershire, and Cheltenham Poetry Festival co-Director Robin Gilbert come together to celebrate the joys of history in verse.  From the god Apollo to Ivor Gurney, from the Creation to the 1950s, from Saxon Gloucestershire to 19th century New Zealand, from the comical to the poignant, they offer a feast of poems commemorating deities, people, artefacts and places throughout the ages.Join them for a rumbustious progress down countless millenia! You’ll go home much the wiser about our planet’s amazing and sometimes perilous past.

In the evening there’s a slam and somewhere in this rich mixture, there’s also a chance to see yours truly strutting her versal stuff. For five minutes in the local poets and enthusiasts slot …

Here’s a link to the events and listings page:


It is going to be worth any amount of effort to see these accomplished poets share their human beingness with us.

Please book now. Last year some slots were sold out.

The venue, the Vale and Downlands Museum, is at Church Street, Wantage OX12 8BL.

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Posted in Writing

Don Paterson

ANYONE who can should come and see Don Paterson reading his poetry on May 22 in Woodstock, Oxfordshire.

The indefatigable team at Woodstock Bookshop have just arranged for this leading contemporary poet to come to Woodstock and give a reading on 22 May at 7pm in Woodstock Methodist Church which is across the road from the bookshop on the main drag.

Although the reading has been arranged at short notice, anyone who wants to go probably needs to book. Email Rachel Phipps on info@woodstockbookshop.co.uk .

Mr Paterson has been in Oxford this term, as Weidenfeld Visiting Professor of Comparative Literature at St Anne’s College, Oxford, where he gave a series of four lectures on different aspects of poetry. This will be a reading of his own poems – his Selected Poems is about to be published in paperback by Faber and there should be advance copies available to buy.

Don Paterson is a wonderful poet – for information about him see his website, here.

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Posted in Poetry

Me, Andrew Philip and a fish

ONE of the reasons I haven’t been updating this blog very much is that I have been taking online poetry classes at the London Poetry School.

In our hyperbolic age, I find it hard to characterise the course that I’m just finishing – Andrew Philip’s On The Line – adequately.

I have learnt so much.

Andrew is, as are all the tutors at LPS, an accomplished poet. His second collection, The North End of the Possible, is just out from Salt, and already critically acclaimed. I have ordered it but I’m ashamed to say I don’t know his work well. Anyway, I wouldn’t presume to comment.

As a tutor, he’s been a ladder up, at least to my mind. You can make up yours about that here, until the end of the month. The first poem Fifteen-hundred-year-old colander in the museum was written as an assignment for Andrew. I wrote it on a family holiday, having been abandoned to my uncoordinated fate on a sofa by my ski-fab family.

Andrew is unusually categoric for a teacher of poetry, although in a field which can be vague, he’s only relatively categoric. He and his meticulous course materials have given me new ways of thinking about lines of poetry and new tools to enrich my words.

When I wrote the colander poem I was sitting with pen and paper, concentrating hard. After some hours, I had one of those wonderful moments of doing a double-take at what I saw on the page before me. I felt like I’d regurgitated a fish. I didn’t know I’d eaten a fish, I thought, as I stared. The fish thrashed about a bit but finally stopped moving. When I looked again it wasn’t quite as beautiful and iridescent as I’d thought, but I still love it.

Now, of course, I want that feeling again. I’m addicted.

Thank you, Andrew.

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Posted in Poetry, Writing

GUEST POST: On course, with Sarah Watkinson

Today, my good friend Sarah Watkinson, an eminent scientist (and a woman of such modesty she’ll hate me for saying it) has agreed to share here the secrets of novel-writing she has gleaned on recent creative writing courses. Sarah, who has been writing her exciting novel for a little while now, is also a writer of beautiful poetry.

Thank you very much for writing this valuable piece, Sarah:

“I recently took the Oxford Diploma in Creative Writing in order to see if I could write a novel.  I knew I could write engagingly about fungi.  That was a start.  I knew I could construct an unambiguous and elegant sentence.  Often, I could even arouse an interest in fungi (yes – really!) and lay a trail of connected ideas for a reader to follow.  So surely a novel would be a doddle.  For fiction you don’t even need an EndNote library of references before you begin.

The professional critique of my first 32,000 words was humbling. Not devastating:  some of the settings and dialogue were quite good. And the plot was excellent (so it should be – it’s adapted from an old story, re-told many times by some of the greatest minds in history).  But that was my problem.  I had assumed the plot should come first, with a proper plan from the start.  But the result was a set of characters like puppets dancing to a complicated tune. Who would care?  Writing came to a stop as I wondered how real novelists create that marvellous illusion of a person, living their life.

So two weeks ago I went on Julie Cohen’s course for beginning novel writers, to learn about creating characters.  Julie is a successful and engaging novelist with fifteen published books. I downloaded ‘The Summer of Living Dangerously’ and was immediately hooked by the laugh-out-loud opening in which her protagonist leaps off the page.  Julie generously shared techniques for conjuring up believable people and facing them with gripping problems.  Using her carefully-designed exercises (I hope former school pupils realised how lucky they were!) I produced a character in a mere ten minutes who came to life in my imagination to the extent that I could almost feel responsible for his continued existence and happiness (Kevin Zacharias aged 65. His greatest fear? That his long-lost extrovert wife will reappear and disturb his frugal and ascetic existence in reduced but refined circumstances.  Shall I visit and offer to lend him books, take a bottle of something vintage?)

I came away from the day with new hope for my characters. Also, they now have an interesting series of plot points rising in front of them, like an attractive range of walkable hills concealing a series of hair-raising hazards.  I am back on track with my tale.  I’m also fortified by Julie’s advice to let myself write crap when stalled. So I now think I will finish my first draft. Parts will be excellent – they were graded as such by my fantastic teachers on the Oxford Diploma.  The purple passages will probably stand out from slurry pits of stuff churned out on off-days, but I WILL have a complete typescript by 15th June. That’s when Julie gives her advanced course, designed for hopefuls with a first draft to work on.  I’ll edit out my crap then.  I can’t wait.”

Sarah Watkinson

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Posted in how to write a novel, Writing

Welcome to the age of the digital readeur

TO AN interesting talk at the Oxford Literary Festival this morning.

The three speakers were talking about publishing online and I was especially interested to go as I will be talking about my other blog, SHORTCIRCUIT, at the Vale and Downlands Museum in June.

I found the first speaker the most engaging. Ivy Alvarez, a poet and teacher, smiled, a lot, and like she meant it. She gave us her personal history of moving from physical print books to the digital world. ‘The internet is a new country,’ she said and talked about the possibilities for contact between people that could never have taken place without our new digital passports.

The next speaker, Alexander Smith, is one of three students who run a publishing portal, mainly for students. I’m incredibly impressed that he and his friends have started DEAD BEATS.

Finally a French intellectual, Philippe Aigrain, spoke and made some interesting comments about the different ways the digital tools have been used in different countries. In China, the digital landscape for literature is dominated by one site on which writers post original work. In England, authors tend to use their personal websites, or blogs, to advertise their wares.

In France, writers have individual websites which they use to publish their projects including experimental collaborations (I’m sure they use them to advertise their books too). He showed us his very interesting piece, inspired by some music, which was, among other things, a demonstration of how a digital presentation can be used to slow down the reading of, in this case, a poem, the words becoming legible in time to the music. This, he saw as an interesting experiment in countering the speed culture which dominates so much of life, not least online. The poem and its digital presentation had been put together for an informal swap, in which he made something for a friend’s blog and vice versa. This is a common, often weekly, event in France, a sort of ritualised guest-blogging.

Both Aigrain and Alvarez talked about the blurring of the distinction between readers and writers. And it’s something I’ve noticed myself. Almost all the people who follow me either on twitter or facebook, are writers. We are a new type of writer though, many of us being unpublished, in the traditional, professionally-filtered, sense. Yes we want to read your work, but we want you to read ours too. We are readeurs, readers with our own voices, our own authorial intentions.

This is on one reading simply a symptom of our narcissistic age. But it’s also democratic and educational. Readeurs can be very sophisticated in their understanding of writing, on and offline. It’s an extension, a massive, oceanic expansion, of the truth that learning to write, for example, poetry, is also learning to read it.

There was some anxiety in the audience about plagiarism and copying. Plagiarism, said Aigrain, is rare, mistakes (misattributions) common (and far more easily corrected online than off) and if you don’t want to be copied, then don’t put your stuff online. His view, if I’ve understood it correctly, is that with so much content out there, indifference is more of a problem. Being copied, I think he said, is a huge compliment.

(They way I see it, the internet is porous and democratic. You can rub up against the very famous and those who will vanish without trace in your life and everyone in between. This is great, in terms of access, but it can also, in my experience, be enough rope. It’s easy to annoy the famous. They can be touchy, lack a sense of humour and feel very entitled to put over their views as the word of law. The internet is democratic, yes, but not without hierarchies.)

There was some discussion of whether or not digital practice changes output, changes the way we write. No one seemed quite sure. They mentioned ‘immediacy’ and ‘rawness’. They talked about personas. How do we know who anyone is online? There was some consideration of time. Is what we put on the net ephemeral, or there forever? Again, the answer seemed to be er, perhaps. Aigrain did say, interestingly, that the French authorities who are trying to archive online content have to be quick. There’s a lot of revising that goes on.

Anyway, I came home and looked at my blog and felt instantly unsatisfied. I don’t want pictures of leather-bound books anymore. I don’t want to try to write a novel in 10 minutes anymore (10 years is more likely). But I can have a lot of fun online in 10 minutes …

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Posted in creativity, feedback, friendship, links, literature, Poetry, reading, Writing, writing novels

sLINKY SUNDAY friendship is more powerful than racism; spider shock; upworthy

These are the links I’ve been loving this week.

Moving film – if someone sprayed your car with racist graffiti how would you respond? For the two people in this film, it’s taken for granted that they will respond creatively. That’s almost what I love most about this film. The second thing I love is the message, or at least what I took from it which is that friendship can drown out racism. I find it hugely redemptive and comforting that someone wants to assert this and does it in such style, so effectively. I also think the film is pursuing a very interesting genre of faction, which works perfectly here. More from these two please. (11 minutes)

Shocking film – another film I really enjoy watching. It is very shocking and caused my entire writing class to gasp and cover their mouths. So don’t watch it if you’re a sensitive petal or need a pacemaker but haven’t had it put in yet. Very tightly written and shot.

Upworthy – the website that I got the first film from and a couple of other things I’ve watched. I like their liberal sensibility and their taste in short films. Followworthy.


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Posted in links

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