Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ammonite and Janes Plane

Yesterday was International Women's Day. Which also happens to be the anniversary of the very first performance of my long-ago band, Janes Plane. I wrote about the band and how it formed in my memoir, And Now We Are Going to Have a Party. Here's that chunk again, with links to the music.


One January day in 1981--actually a kind of glimmering twilight in the north of England, at that time of year--staring at the stains on the bathroom wall as I washed my hands with stone cold water, I realised that this was my life. It wasn't just a break from reality, or a mistake, or a holiday. It was real. I had no money, no job, no skills; no electricity, no phone, no tv; no respect; not even the coins to make a phone call or feed the machines in a laundromat. This was it, the sum total of my life so far: nothing.

It was a very ugly feeling. Something would have to change.

Carol got a job as the warden and unofficial liaison officer for the Springbank Community Centre. I got a temporary job, as something Hull City Council called a "tree technician" but which was essentially labouring. In a hard hat and steel capped and sheathed boots I dug trenches and surveyed in parks and graveyards. Back to the shovel and pickaxe life of the archaelogical dig, except it was in the freezing rain and mud. Me, a female supervisor called Maggie, and five men. We moved from green space to green space, cataloguing trees, planting shrubs and saplings and hedges. Got flirted at by gum-snapping schoolgirls. In my hard hat and rain gear, they didn't know I was a girl, at first. "Give us a kiss," they'd say. "Okay," I'd say, and take my hat off. Then they'd swallow their gum.

In some ways, it was a grim job: the brutal physical work, the cold, the nasty porn-riddled huts (and I mean nasty porn, the kind that makes you want to gag). In other ways, I was deliriously happy. I loved digging, the cut of steel through dirt. I loved trees. I loved helping things grow. And the conversation as we dug was mind-bending: sex, religion, politics, life, philosophy. Serious conversation, thoughtful and deep, though not steeped in formal learning. These men were as fascinated by having a woman work beside them as I was about living in their world. And, wow, I got paid, a lot.

Every now and again I got a telegram from Leeds about some family emergency and I'd have to leap on a train and go home. Helena ran away to London, with her girlfriend Haydee, where they set up house in a Brixton squat with a bunch of drug addicts. I went down to see if I could get her back. Compared to her situation, I was living in paradise. Gaping holes in the floor, no electricity at all. Cooking and heating with raw flame from a tapped city gas line. Surprisingly good food--because they stole it. Lots of drugs. I walked with Helena through the Brixton streets, and she was a stranger to me. Of course, our conversation wasn't helped by the fact that twice armoured troop carriers stuffed with testosterone-pumped Special Patrol Group officers screeched to a halt, and we were thrown bodily against the wall. Brixon was fulminating. About two months later--by which time Helena was safely back in Leeds--the place went up in riots.

Carolyn tried to kill herself again. She was dying. I took the train to Leeds. She recovered. I went back to Hull. Helena tried to kill herself; I went back to Leeds, then back to Hull.

Carolyn tried again. Dad also did something horrible to his back. They were in separate wards of the same hospital. The doctors deemed it unwise for either to know the other was ill. I'd be by one bedside, chatting in that bright desperate way one uses in sick rooms, then say, "Gosh, just nipping out for coffee and a cigarette," and zip off to the other bedside.

They both recovered. Back to Hull.

I memorised the train timetable, and kept a packed bag with a change of clothes and enough money for a return ticket by the door. When the telegrams came I'd check my watch, judge whether there was time for a cup of tea, and be at the station before the next train to Leeds.

Carol and I moved into another shared house. Part of our rent was to help remodel and decorate the place. One of the owners had been Marianne Faithful's lover, an ex-heroin addict who seemed to be independently wealthy. One of our housemates was a psychiatric nurse. Real people with real lives and real jobs. Beginning with them, I began to build lasting links to the women's community: about two hundred women living at close quarters along Spring Bank and Princes Ave, a tiny pool of lesbian nationhood in a violently homophobic city. Like any ghetto facing extreme stress, the community was full of bickering, poverty, solidarity, and political action. We had sex with each other (non-monogamy was de riguer) and knew each other's business. Those in funds bought the others drugs or food because they knew sooner or later the wheel would turn--lesbians got fired all the time--and they'd need help. Later, as we got the hang of community, we built an overlapping framework of formal and semi-formal support networks: Lesbian Line, the Women's Centre, the lesbian disco, a party circuit, and so on. We raised funds for a variety of non-lesbian political funds, too: anti-apartheid, national abortion league, Rape Crisis. Some of these community networks and counselling organisations and political action groups still survive. Most were ephemeral: we raised the money, we spent it on what the community needed, we moved on to the next thing.

me and Carol, really wasted on mushrooms, 1981

Carol and I went to the very first National Lesbian Conference in 1981, in London. After the plenary sesson (plenary, an addition to my vocabulary--though in the following years I would become fluent in meeting-speak), we got stoned; then, just for good measure, dropped two dozen mushrooms each. A thousand pumped and righteous dykes were working themselves into a political frenzy, which at the time involved shouting matches about who was more oppressed than whom. Carol started freaking out. I took her to one side, sheltered her in my arms, and a woman came up and started talking. I got concerned, then I got cross, then she took our photo: somehow Carol looks happy and carefree while I was worrying myself to a nub.

Back in Hull, I got sick again: inexplicable dizziness and breathlessness and muscle aches. The doctor told me I was having a nervous breakdown. I knew I wasn't, but I didn't know what the matter was*. It was bad enough to force me to leave my job. As soon as I wasn't working, I felt better. Perhaps I was allergic to work. That was the community opinion, and I wasn't sure they were wrong.

I heard that some women were thinking of starting a band. "You should do that," Carol said.

"Perhaps I should," I said.

At the audition (at the women's centre, a rickety little house bought and repainted by the community), I picked up the microphone. "How long is the lead?" I said.

"Twenty feet."

I tapped it. Miraculously, that day the electricity was working. "Great. I'll be next door." I walked into the next room, and shouted, "Ready anytime." I felt ridiculous, but not as ridiculous as if I'd tried to sing with them looking at me.

They played something. From my own special room I sang along, improvising. They liked it. I was in. Carol also seemed to be in, as a percussionist--which meant whanging on whatever was to hand with a spare drum stick, and pogoing up and down in exuberance.

The drummer was called Jane. She was an art student, a complete drumming beginner, but she owned her own kit so she was in. The lead guitarist was also called Jane. She'd been in a band before. Her girlfriend was Heidi, a drama student. Carol and I and Jane and Heidi became very good friends. The bassist, Lou--mother of a two-year-old, Christa--was currently in another successful indie band. There was a rhythm guitarist to begin with, too, but I forget her name; she left not long after I joined.

Carol and I moved again, this time to a nice house on Albany Street with central heating (and a phone, and a TV) and real curtains on the windows, and light switches that worked. It was owned by four women, three of whom had moved to Leeds. One, Jan G, still lived there.

Jane the guitarist also moved in. Jane the drummer set her kit up in the dining room, which became the rehearsal room. I bought my own microphone. We jammed the melodies, I'd go off and write lyrics, and then we hammered out the songs. (Photo: the band rehearing about February. From left to right: Carol, me, Lou, and Jane. The other Jane was stuck inside with her drums.) After five or six months we'd accumulated enough for a set, but didn't perform.

I began to brim with words.

We set up our first gig: the International Women's Day celebration at Springbank Community Centre. We would open for a more established women's band from York.

We were all tense. We would be debuting in front of three hundred of our friends and peers on the biggest day of the year. Do or die.

Stress and sex seemed to go together in the Hull women's community. Heidi had sex with Carol (that night, Jane and I got companionably stoned). Then Helena, on one of her visits, met Heidi, and they took up with each other. Jane seduced Lou. I had sex with a sweet young drama student and the Polish woman next door and a few other people.

For our Janes Plane Saturday night debut, and also to see Heidi, Helena came to Hull. She arrived on Friday, bearing some Nepalese Temple Ball to soothe my nerves.

On the night of the International Women's Day celebration, we climbed on stage--I was past the stage of being pushed--Jane shouted, "Two, three, four!" and brought down her sticks--and my life changed, again.

Between one heartbeat and the next, my performance anxiety changed to performance thrill. I could smell it, literally, smell them, the crowd, the pheremonal explosion waiting to happen--and then I pushed them over the edge.

This was what I'd been aiming for when I banged the dustbin lids together at dawn when I was four years old. This is why at fifteen I'd dressed up like a dog's dinner and stood on stage pretending to be a Japanese schoolgirl.

I opened my mouth and sang and felt that I was lighting the sky, building the universe, challenging the gods. The crowd went insane. The band went insane. I knew what it might feel like to own the world.

I decided that night that I would never stop performing. It's a version of this feedback that I ride everytime I stand up in a bookshop to read to an audience.

You can listen to four Janes Plane tracks on the CD and a couple of them aren't bad, but we were better live, where we offered our hearts and the audience offered theirs back.

Three of the songs on the CD are from the earliest days and were played that first night: "Bare Hands," "Nightdrive," and "Reclaim the Night."

"Bare Hands" is all about Hull. In the late seventies and early eighties, the inner city was the urban equivalent of a blasted heath. The good people always left; only the hopeless stayed. I knew it could be a decent place if people would allow themselves to imagine the possibility.

"Nightdrive" is, I think, the only thing I've ever written that is about the joy of machinery. I never really liked the song, never really believed it (I didn't drive, knew no one with a car), but the audience liked to dance to it and it was difficult to fuck up.

"Reclaim the Night" was our anthem. Writing it taught me of the perils of point-of-view. Lots and lots of women hated the beginning of that song, because it delves into the mind of a potential rapist and we see the target as just that, a target, a victim, and not as a human being. It was politically naïve. I hadn't realised how powerfully a perspective change could influence an audience's attitude--could alter the emotional meaning.

"Vondel Park" comes from my experience in Amsterdam. In Vondel Park, after smoking that red leb for hours on a two-days-empty stomach, I hallucinated herds of wild horses, and a fifty-foot tall Mr Bertie (an advertising icon made of a candy called Liquorice Allsorts) striding across the fields. And then all the pretty pictures eeled away like smoke and I was in the park, with a bunch of hippies playing guitar, saying "Wow," and getting stoned.

On the tape you hear that I flubbed some of the lyrics. I was always doing this, always forgetting the words.

This week is also the anniversary of the first publication of Ammonite in 1993. The book is old enough to vote. Whoa. Sometimes I just don't know what else to say. Just...whoa!

* My first experience with MS. Which I was diagnosed with the month Ammonite was published. March 1993--a big month. Sigh.

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