Winter in the City

31 October 2017

Number 49 bus to St James’s Hospital, Leeds. Fractured shoulder. Physiotherapy. This route is so familiar. Harehills Road running like an artery  from home into the city. Every nationality under the sun (or Northern rain) steps on and off, as we trundle along. My shoulder hurts. It’s hard to balance, as the driver lurches to a stop. Time to kill. Wandering around the gloom of Beckett Street Cemetery. Tumbling gravestones. Strange lurking characters.  A man, perched alone on someone’s tombstone,  secret with his thoughts. A lad on a bench, headphones tight clamped, jiggling to a silent tune. Red bouncy curls escaping his cap. Roll-up fag on his nervous lips. Coffee at his side. “Hiya” he calls, too bright and twitchy. A little high. A little provocative. I step away fast. Later, on the bus home, I see him again, at the front, near the driver. Still jiggling and bouncing and ready to run – or pounce. I hold on to my shoulder. Everything feels unsafe, when a bone gets broken, and the feet are swept away from under. Not able to run myself, these days, through the wet slippy streets. It would be hard to escape.  But he soon gets off. Grateful for the bus, and the tight swell of people. Happy to land at my own stop again. Easterly Road. And then just round the corner through the rain. Making it home – a little tentative – in the gathering gloom.


26th January 2018

“I’m pleased with you. Your shoulder is doing well. All credit” says the physio. “I’m signing you off.” I grin like a tiny child. Praise indeed. And out from the scaffolding of the scruffy old hospital, back onto Harehills Road again. The sun is shining. A rare benevolence. And I wait for the bus. But the bus doesn’t come. So I walk – with new confidence – take in the squalor and grime all around me. And look at it with a new appreciation.

Past the cemetery across the road. Round the corner, where the tiny businesses and mini markets jostle side by side, all the way downhill, in the sweep back to Roundhay. Wave after wave of immigration and re-settlement has made its mark here – working class English, then Asian, now East European. Krakow supermarket. Polski sklep. Peshawar Asian stores –  and here and there,  self-made shanties made of wood, packed to the gunnels with fruit and veg. An old Victorian church – no more prayers now – but a carpet warehouse instead.  Banstead Park on my left – a scrubby patch of green in the middle of tightly packed terraces, red and black, holding on tight to their Northern hillside. Then a tiny back- to – back, packed floor to ceiling with used and remodelled tyres.Would you  live here if you had a choice? With the noise, and the cars, and the  wary hustle of the people, all struggling to make a living, just surviving, cheek by jowl? But it’s extraordinary, too.  Energetic and fighting and always moving forward. Full of dirt. Full of attitude. Full of life.

A man lurches towards me, white, dreadlocked, pulling an ancient rottweiler on a lead, hat pulled down, dark glasses, distinctly lairy. I stiffen and speed up. We pass each other, he looks, and he grins, and the tension disappears. Just a man and his dog. I wander on. And its good to feel the cold winter sun on my face. Feel the ground coming back to me, safe under my feet. The shoulder strong and healing. The body on my side.

Then I am there, at the bottom of the road – East European Foods and the defunct Delaneys Bar nestling opposite me, side by side. Irish and Russian.  Another unexpected marriage. Everything surprising can happen in Harehills Road.

Turn up the hill, and a man in a Kurdish hat and elegant baggy trousers makes his way down towards me. He doesn’t meet my eyes. There will be no smile here. But back near my  home, an elderly Sikh man, turban immaculately coiled, bids me a courteous Good Morning, as he always does.  And it always lifts my spirits. So much life all around me. If I remember to open my eyes again, trust my feet. Just look. And walk.


Flowers of Spring

THE CLUMPS of snowdrops in the garden and in the park. Stems of daffodils, standing to attention on the high banks, yellow crocus in fat bud, lining the avenues. Even the squat and star-shaped leaves of bluebells, already lying in wait for their moment, later in May,  in the little local wood. Everything tells the same story – down to the sour clods of mud, stuck hard on the bottom of boots, and the feathered fringes of my Thursday dog’s fur. Spring is on its way. And even the thinnest ray of sunshine, filtering through our grey northern clouds, brings a little skip to the heart, a lightness to the step.

We follow the seasons particularly closely, in a creative arts project I help to run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, for people with dementia and those who care for them. Bringing in the fruits of autumn – pumpkins, squash – and the signals of winter – bare branches, images of snow – helps stabilise us all, within the rhythms of the natural world. It is a concrete reminder, to minds that may be confused, and hearts that are sometimes sore with loneliness and worry, that we can always rely on one fact: the world that disappears, like Persephone, deep into the underground at the end of every year, will always return, come the spring.

Snowdrops are the first harbingers. Then, hot on their heels, come the gaudy yellows of narcissus, the soft mauves, whites and blues of the woodland flowers, and then the heavenly mass of forest bluebells. Everybody loves spring flowers.

And though there is talk in our sessions, sometimes, of a dark  and wintry mood – of sadness at things lost: a once-nimble mind, a youthful body, friends and family that may  be dead or far away – there is always a ready access to joy. People with dementia are often more direct, less inhibited, in their emotional expression: as if the pipeline to their mind, which has grown furred and blocked, has been re-directed, opened wider, straight into their hearts.

Singing, writing song lyrics and poetry, and dancing to the powerful rhythms of spring, brings genuine delight to this group – and to those of us who lead it. Always, people’s  humour is diverting. Always, their creativity surprises and delights. Always, their own words and ideas are faithfully recorded and celebrated. In the last two weeks, new beginnings have been the dominant theme. Spring is calling everyone to attention.

Snowdrops have brought forth a tune of survival…”Snowdrops, snowdrops, snowdrops…Soft white petals, musty and sweet…smells like winter…pushing through the earth… Heralding the spring!” Parallels between the natural world – and the human need and determination to survive, to thrive, whatever the odds – are never far away. “The light makes the shoots come through/Coming out from the dark earth/Flowers dancing, swaying, springing back/They won’t break/I won’t let them…”  The whole of life is starting to pulsate. “One bird feeding… a whole flock comes gliding… dancing through the sky.” “Lovely to feel the sun on your face…What a relief!… Spring has sprung.”

My colleague, singer songwriter Fran Woodcock, co-presents the dementia-friendly Our Time workshops and provides all the glorious music that accompanies our exploration of  images, words and movement.  Visit her website here.

Nicky Taylor, Community Development Manager at West Yorkshire Playhouse, has pioneered all the dementia-friendly work in the theatre. Her latest triumph is a ground-breaking festival of theatre for people with dementia. Read about it here


Sleeping Girl

WHEN I got married in 1991, a friend I had met whilst training in dance at the Laban Centre, five years before, gave me a small sculpture, moulded in metal. It was a girl, sitting cross-legged, her long back folded over her hips, arms tucked tight in, head resting on her feet. She looks tired, but peaceful. Maybe she has been dancing – a lot – but now she has dropped to the floor and is motionless and quiet.

“She reminds me of you”, said Tricia. Now the girl sits on my bookcase, next to the buddha, where I meditate each morning. And, 25 years later, she is resting still.

Two years ago I started to experience a succession of problems with my health. After 20 years of watching significant others fall ill and die, it was my turn to struggle, and -temporarily, thankfully – fade. It was a scary and salutary experience. When I started these columns in spring, 2015, I wrote about the need to get strong again, to return to health. ‘Walking Back Home’ became a recurrent theme – treading the familiar pathways in my beloved home county of Yorkshire, to bring power and vitality back to wobbly legs; some roots back to an unearthed tree.

This year feels very different already. Despite ongoing physical adjustments, I feel better, stronger, calmer. I knew, from the first week of January, that what was needed now, more than anything, after a sparky and chaotic previous year, of both personal rehabilitation and professional outreach – was a long period of quietness and reflection. Just sitting still. Judging by the tumult across the entire globe: it’s what all of us need right now. But I can only start with myself.

I was meant to fly abroad in the first week of January. A kind and generous friend had paid for me to stay with a group of people in a warm villa, under blue skies and in  a welcome sun. But a recurring ear inflammation meant I couldn’t risk the flight. So I stayed home instead. There was, inside me, a curious restlessness. No reason that I could pin down. Just a sense of a pit opening up, despite my smooth transition into the New Year. I did all I could to stave it off. Cleaned the house (a rare event). Cooked nice things. Kept my hands busy and my mind fastened on quotidian comforts. All of which worked – to a degree.

Then came January Week Two. On Monday – the death of David Bowie. On Thursday – the death of Alan Rickman. And suddenly the darkness had a name.

David Bowie means a multitude of things, of course, to countless people. He was – and remains – a shape-shifting genius, who will fill the questioning minds and hearts of generations for many years to come, with his wonderful,soaring music and his beautiful, ever-changing face.

For me, his influence came early. 1972. I was 16. Gawky, awkward, thin and tall. I wasn’t pretty and I didn’t really fit – either myself, or the world around me. Then Ziggy Stardust burst onto the small screen and into the record shops, in all his angular, androgynous, extra-terrestrial glory. Singing wildly off-key. Snaggle-toothed. Sexually ambivalent. Inside just one skinny boy from Brixton: a whole heap of beautiful strange. And that was it. I was no longer alone.

Every girl needs a hero/ine – and I found mine in Bowie (and later, Patti Smith, to stand magnificently alongside him).

But more important by far – she needs a mentor. A guide in how she might live. In how to make her own star shine brightly. How to be rigorous, honest, brave. Ten years after the Starman first fell to earth, in the mid-1980s, I was working as a theatre journalist in London. A tall actor with a strange face and a startling voice – part husky whisper, part sardonic, menacing growl – kept hoving into view, on stage and on the television. Alan Rickman.

This was long before his breakthrough role at the Royal Shakespeare Company as Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. But already he had a pedigree. A powerful presence onstage – and a compelling personality off it. There was always a stillness, a command, in his presence. A forcefield of compressed energy, which coiled invisibly around him. He was formidable.

I interviewed him once for Drama Magazine. Whilst we never became close friends, he was certainly a kind and concerned presence in my life, on and off, for the next 20 years or more. And as all mentors do, he pointed the way forward. He saw through all flimsy argument. Alerted me to the limitations of journalism, and – unwittingly, maybe – ultimately led me to a complete change of direction in my life. He was the first to initiate me in the physical power of the Alexander Technique, the first to convince me of the wonders of dance and movement – of the beauty that lies beneath the spoken and written word. He was, as the world now acknowledges, a true artist – and, as he has done with countless others besides, he helped encourage the artist in me, at a time when I was young, chaotic, and, truthfully, a little lost. I am forever in his debt.

Giants in human form walk among us everywhere, of course, some of them famous, like Bowie and Rickman, many of them unrecognised, “ordinary”, neighbours.  But it is rare that we lose two of them in the space of a few days. It will take us time to process their true worth and meaning. For now, it is enough just to sit still, like the little dancer on my bookcase, and wonder – at the strangeness of it all.

Live in yourself. There is a whole

deep world of being in your soul,

burdened with mystery and thought.

The noise outside will snuff it out.

Day’s clear light can break the spell.

Hear your own singing – and be still.

from: Silentium by Fyodor Tyutchev, translated by Robert Chandler (The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, edited by Robert Chandler, Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski)