Skull and Crossbones
In my last year at primary school I got very confused. I had already been to five schools and I was very muddled. One day I handed in my maths book and Mr Baxter called me to his desk. He picked up a marker pen and drew a thick black line underneath my work, and then drew a skull and cross bones in the middle of the line. He said that I had come to the end, that I could not, and must not go on. I was so confused about numbers, I could barely even read them correctly, they were all muddled up in my mind with the different counting systems that I had been taught in each school. And now I couldn’t even do the simplest calculation. ‘There is no more maths for you,’ said Mr Baxter. ‘You need to start again’.
Then, he picked up an old, tattered carboard box and led me to the storeroom cupboard, which was in the playground. He opened the box and set a machine up on a table. It was an old reel to reel tape recorder. He showed me how to work it, how to press play, pause, stop and start, how to go backwards and even wipe the tape clean! While everyone else was doing maths, I would carry the tape recorder to the store cupboard, press play and start to speak. I don’t know how long I had been doing this, when one day the door opened and a girl appeared. Mr Baxter had sent lovely new girl Karen to join me. She was Canadian and didn’t know anyone. We became instant friends. And set about making a radio show. We wrote scripts, sang songs, interviewed each other, made a mini documentary, wrote a little play and acted out all the parts. It was utter heaven. And was one of the best things that happened in my entire schooling. Karen left before the end of term, and I was heartbroken. And then Mr Baxter said I could try and join the maths lessons again, but this time I would start from scratch. Mr Baxter went on to let me write and direct the school play! What an amazing teacher, thank you Mr Baxter.
I have remembered all this, because my career has reached a dark black line that I cannot cross. I have had a constant stream of rejections over the last 18 months. Almost everything I have applied for has been a no. No from grants, projects, jobs, funding. Nothing works, however good my ideas might be, however perfectly they are packaged, and even if they include other brilliant and remarkable artists, my ideas do not go through. Often organizations don’t even bother to tell you, the date passes, and you are left hanging, to work it out for yourself. Occasionally I get an email weeks later saying too many people applied. I talk to myself, get over it, and try again. To the same results. I cannot help feeling that something has gone wrong with the gatekeepers of these funds and projects, they have immense power at the moment, and I am often left questioning the choices that they have made. After 30 years of making a career as a pioneering artist, creating daring work, I find I just cannot go forward.
So, I have drawn a skull and crossbones in the middle of the black line. And I am going into the store cupboard to do something different. This would be my medicine for someone else, to allow darkness, space, dreaming, nourishment, to allow things to return, emerge and grow. Mr Baxter knew that. The store cupboard is inside us all. It is full of images and stories, and is a deep endless creative source place that never disappears, never ever empties. Virginia Woolf once said, ‘Thank heavens for knitting’ which is what she would do, allowing a fallow mind, while waiting for her next book to arrive. Knitting old reels of tape … now that sounds like an idea for a performance!
I am going into the store cupboard… Karen … are you coming?