Chekhov’s plays are long. They usually involve a family who are suffering at the hands of political circumstances. Things generally don’t go well. This new play based on Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters’ at the National Theatre has been re-imagined by talented poet Inua Ellams. The action has been transposed to the Biafran Civil War 1967-1970. It is a clever re-telling of a family trying to find happiness in the crucible of conflict. The colonising interests of the UK and France are implicated for their financial involvement. There are unpalatable historical consequences to acknowledge. It also has unpleasant resonances of current global issues around power, in territories rich in fossil fuels. All this plays out through a classic Chekhovian plot of drawing room family dynamics. Three sisters are displaced from their preferred home in Lagos. They grapple with relationships on the cusp between arranged marriages and modern influences. Each character has different motivations, and responds to trauma differently. At a familial level it’s about hope and its subsequent loss. At a global level it’s a valuable history lesson about the entanglements that burden populations as long term consequences of colonial powers playing ‘divide and rule’. The cast give us fine portrayals of different responses to life under siege, bearing the unbearable weight of hunger, violence and sorrow.

‘The Red Hand Files’ is the blog of singer/song-writer Nick Cave. A series of questions are asked by members of the public and he replies in letter form accompanied by an image. It is a Maverick, entertaining and profound collection of musings. His answers are sometimes deep, often funny and always candid. They are brilliant nuggets of prose irrespective of your interest in the music of ‘the Bad Seeds’. I happen to love the pulsing beat and ‘Hammer House’ organ of ‘The Red Right Hand’ (theme tune of Peeky Blinders). The question he asks which underpins this compulsive call and response of blog writing is “Are you there?” The questions are themselves funny, sad, meaningful and ultimately reflect the questioner, spanning sex, death and music. From #42 “With song writing we enter the imagination, that wildest of erogenous zones, where intense obsessive yearning can be like a roaring in the heart and loins both”. He reveals not only his wit, but his Christian framework and dedication to transcendental meditation, which support him in his own profound enquiry around grief. #44 “For most of my life I have felt a strange gravitational pull toward an undisclosed traumatic event, that could only be described as a dreadful yearning, and I found it eventually in my son’s death – something that both destroyed me and ultimately defined me.” I particularly love #6 “…if we love, we grieve. That’s the deal. That’s the pact. Grief and love are forever intertwined. Grief is the terrible reminder of the depths of our love, and like love, grief is non-negotiable.” I found myself spontaneously tapping out a question and hitting send before I could censor myself. I await his reply.

“Have you been good?” she asked, as I silently observed on the train. A small child is nodding in return. “Are you sure? Father Christmas only comes to children who have been good.” This young girl is being asked to pass an invisible test with an absent judge of unqualified criteria. My childhood was littered with these impossible benchmarks. I tried to be good. I wanted to be good. At home, at school, in fairy tales, at church I was surrounded by Christian morality. I absorbed the quest for goodness. As I grew older, the promise of being ‘a good girl’ seemed less achievable. I wanted to be a good girl in order to be loved. However, being a good girl did not always bring me my desired outcomes. I flirted with being a bad girl, but ultimately found the weight of shame and guilt too difficult to sit with. I chose ‘goodness’ as an independent act of rebellion from a society that espouses goodness, but rewards compliance. I remain as an adult mired in the socialisation of trying to be good. Instead I often find myself trapped by feeling not good enough. My naïve attempt to be a good girl in order to have my needs met, has left me disempowered. My inner child set the bar at perfection. By her standards, I have failed. Please Santa, parents, grand-parents and teachers, can we foster a different ideal? I love you unconditionally and I will show that I love you by my actions and words, because of who you are.

“What makes you shape and reshape yourselves so brightly from so much pain and suffering?” asks Charlotte Salomon in her own words, in her extraordinary exhibition ‘Life? or Theatre?’ at the Jewish Museum. This is part of the collection that was found after the artist’s death in Auschwitz. Painted over two years in hiding in France 1940-1942, it was kept safe by a friend and re-discovered after her death. The artist challenged herself “to create her world anew out of the depths.” Conceived as a therapeutic autoethnographical work, she invites us into her personal and family drama. It also reflects the history of a German-Jewish girl, in Berlin during the 1930’s; running up to the racial violence known as ‘Kristallnacht’ – the night of broken glass in 1938. (Autoethnography connects the originator’s work to the wider political and social context.) Charlotte Salomon’s story leaps from the pages of loosely painted images. Using only the 3 primary colours plus white, she mixes them to create sombre depictions of her family life with elegant red, blue or yellow outlines and later more urgent, bolder pictures. They were conceived alongside writing and relate to pieces of music. Inspired by her former music teacher and lover, she explores ancestral grief through the creative process. ‘Life? Or Theatre?’ is her therapeutic reclamation of the tragic set of personal circumstances that happen to her, simultaneously with the persecution of Jewish people. This exhibition shows over 200 small paintings, which begin with detailed frames telling the troubled history. As she delves deeper into the process, the images become more dynamic and the gouache streaks onto the pages, reflecting her own complex internal landscape. “I became my mother my grandmother in fact I was all the characters who appear in my play. I learned to travel all their paths and became all of them.” Like story boards, and pre-figuring graphic novels, she takes us step by step, back to childhood and her mother’s suicide and the events that follow. A final shocking revelation comes in the letter written at the end of the process. She finds a way to move through trauma and re-connect with living, “One can be resurrected – in fact, in order to love life still more, one should once have died.”

In my early twenties I experimented with the ‘perfect’ Christmas. This involved a huge production number of card making, finding small but thoughtful presents and expensive decorations. It came to an abrupt end after a row with my mother. I stormed off (to my regret), taking refuge with my boyfriend’s parents. After we split up, I went on Buddhist retreats, neatly avoiding the festive season. I have currently arrived at a formula that seems to avoid seasonal stress. No presents, no shopping, no particular effort. Cards may be sent, but not to any deadline. There will be some delicious food, but there are no fixed rules about what or when. I would like to be a little more generous and a little less humbug, but I am wary of other people’s expectations. I love marking this time of year with simple rituals and spiced treats to eat. I don’t want to buy into a consumer binge. I enjoy having a relaxed quiet time, watching ‘The Crown’ with people I love. Today we have been quietly working separately and then sharing an annual review of 2019 and a visioning of what we want to focus on in 2020. Remaining ‘connected’ is my star, my guiding word for the year ahead.


As a child, on Christmas Eve, my father produced a cardboard box from the attic filled with wooden shavings. Hidden underneath were small glass baubles. Each one was scratched, with wire fixings that had a tendency to break. We had a set of fairy lights with small tasselled Chinese lanterns on each bulb. Their seasonal arrival, and exquisite detail fascinated me. They would work at best intermittently. In the corner of the vicarage living room we dressed a tree with these and balding strings of silver tinsel. An angel cut out of metal with sharp treacherous wings would be precariously placed on top. Presents, family, food and Christmas Specials on BBC1 had to be fitted around my father’s church work schedule, and my mother’s general state of mind. When other households were sitting down to eat or watching the Queen full of sprouts and turkey, we might be eating a bowl of soup; but then eat a special dinner much later. I enjoy the concept of a Victorian idyll, as long as it’s optional. An unexpected gift came today from our generous local creative florists, so now we have some traditional greenery to acknowledge the season and it brought with it some genuine Christmas Spirit.

This is a bowl, a container. Like my skin it holds water. A large percent of me (60% ish) is made of liquid. Inside me thoughts and feelings are continually in flux. My blood and lymph circulates. We pour water in grief rituals into this bowl. Painted with ‘Spirit Bird’ by Stephen Wright, it feels an appropriate vessel for this symbolic movement. Water connects us to the flow of life, reminds us of the movement of our feelings. When a group of strangers come together to stir their grief, Tony and I aim to create trust between all of us, to build an energetic container. Within this space things are expressed, feelings are given time, each person receives the attention of the group. People reveal something of who they are inside, unmasked. The intensity of the words, sounds and actions that are expressed inside the ritual container makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. It feels real. It feels extremely special to witness, whatever the content. Gradually there is a change in the current of feelings and we shift back into our outward facing selves. Afterwards we take the water to the garden, ask the land to receive it as a blessing.

It is ‘Persephone’ time. The shortest day seems drowned in sudden prolonged downpours. Beyond the front door everything feels grey and dank. Like Persephone in the underworld I cannot resist the burst of sweetness on biting into pomegranate seeds. We sit on the sofa, three of us, to celebrate the solstice with the delicious sweet tang of pomegranate blended with creamy coconut yoghurt. The neglected garden is covered in darkened magnolia leaves mulching quietly. This is the season for composting, for going inside to digest the events and experiences of the year that has passed. Like the pomegranate, the year divides with symmetry, and this is the axis where we turn towards the light while still deep in the dark of winter. I reflect on the steps taken this year past to welcome in my own grief for all that I have lost, for nature’s struggle, for the disappointment of paths not taken by our leaders. I reflect on the journey so far to hold space for others to experience more of their felt selves. I celebrate the opportunities to practice loving those close to me. I value the simple pleasures that bubble up when I am connected. I continue to learn how to love life more.

I bump into Wendz at the World’s End. I paint my mouth in her face as my mirror to match her vibrant red lips. They spread in a smile and dance as we catch up, swapping mental snap shots of costumes made, unlikely performances and the dazzle of the “Doris Day” side of our lives. This brief encounter in the slip stream of Camden fits with the mix of these streets’ fun, frivolous and dark. Endings slip into the conversation, and Wendz names “the big thud of death dropping into life when young”, (as she puts it). The thud came for me at twenty-three. The death of my father spun me around and sent me in a new direction in response to this glimpse of mortality. With hindsight I know how the fallout from that ‘thud’ set in train the changes that only make sense from the vantage point of who I have become. At the time I went into freefall as I re-assessed who I was and who I wanted to be. Wendz and I head off in separate directions. I see hippy pigeons eating veg curry from a paper plate on the pavement. The air is infused with conflicting beats, nag champa and cigarettes. I go to buy organic celery, vitamins and chocolate, my own Camden mix.

It’s a beautiful morning. The last residue of frost is lingering where sunlight hasn’t fallen. Bramble, rose and hawthorn are decorated with droplets of water. They hang like tears along each twig. The wider landscape is painted in layers – green grass tipped with dew, translucent opal of mist, umber of skeletal branches, then sky marbled in cerulean blue and light warm grey. This is the kind of winter day that makes my heart sing. We walk together, Tony, the dogs and me. Humans digest yesterday’s activities, unwrap last night’s dreams and make plans for the day to come. Dogs sniff and leave their marks. After weeks of poos camouflaged in dropped leaves, today they steam and are easy to find. This simple time is restorative. Crows call, swoop before us, hop and flap alongside. This is what supports me.