7th January 2018
I’m standing at the front of the class, reading out my essay on ‘Having a Bath.’ Cheryl Henderson has just read her story, which is about how she lives in a house without a bath. No surprise there. Cheryl’s hair is lank and greasy, her school uniform looks faintly grubby. My essay is about how bath salts turn the water silky, how I lie there, hot water up to my neck, feeling like Cleopatra. It’s all fiction. We don’t have a bath either, or we do but we can’t afford to heat the immersion. But I wouldn’t dream of telling anyone. It’s bad enough that every Monday morning, Cheryl and I are the only two girls in the class signing up for free school dinners.
It’s 1968 and I’m at grammar school, even though the head teacher of my primary school insisted I wasn’t grammar school material. (My mother had marched up to the school to ask why, despite coming top of the B stream three years running, I hadn’t been promoted to the A stream.) Getting here was one thing. Surviving is another. I soon learn that if you want to fit in, it doesn’t do to have a builder for a father or a mother who takes in lodgers to make ends meet. I change my accent. On the one occasion I take a friend home, I’m as ashamed as Pip is when Joe Gargery visits him in London.
Bit by bit, I shed my background, my story. I start faking it. There’s so much to hide.
The paper-round. How I’m sent to the bookies on Saturday mornings to place my dad’s bets, that I know the difference between a Patent and a Yankee. The aunts with their leopard-skin coats and jangling gold charm bracelets. The family knees-ups that inevitably end in a fight.
Around the time of the bath essay, I start writing my first novel. It’s a story about a young girl from a poor family who climbs through a hole in the hedge to be adopted by the richer, bohemian family next door. The book begins with the girl crawling through the hedge. It doesn’t look back.
Thirty years later I take a couple of writing courses. By now I’m so used to faking it, so used to hiding – booze, drugs, men, careers – I don’t even realise I’m doing it. It’s not just about class – it’s way too complex and layered for that – and I’m no longer the girl reading out her essay about having a bath, but I’m still trying to write my way through that hedge. I invariably send my characters abroad, as if to distance them from the story I’ve spent my life trying to escape. See, I want to take writing seriously, but I don’t feel entitled. Because deep down I know people like me don’t become writers.
Still, I get away with it for a while. I have some early success with short stories. I take the MA in Creative Writing at UEA. My tutors are encouraging. An agent expresses interest in the novel I’m working on. I should be in heaven.
But the thing about writing is, it eventually finds you out.
I can’t finish the book. I’m stuck, truly stuck.
I take a poetry course. Not because I want to write poetry. I have no intention of becoming a poet, no desire to become a poet. No, I take the course with the idea of tackling the problem – the writing – sideways on.
Maybe it’s the change of form that frees me up. Maybe it’s the knowledge that I’m never going to publish this stuff. Maybe I’m just sick of hiding it all. I start writing my story. I write about the free school dinners and betting offices. I write about my dad beating me up. Not with shame, but with grit, with defiance, with humour.
This is where the story turns into a Hollywood movie. My tutor, Brendan Cleary, insists I’m a poet. He encourages me to read at a poetry night. Standing at the mic I think, this is it, this is the moment I get found out. I have six poems to my name and I read four of them. Amazingly, people like them. Some even thank me for putting their experience into words. John Davies of Pighog Press is in the audience. Then and there he signs me up to write the pamphlet he’s going to publish.
A few months later, weeks short of my fiftieth birthday, Dancing to Motown is launched in a pub in the centre of Brighton. It’s Friday night, the bar is packed, and the PA is dodgy. I start with a poem about dancing and snogging. The bar goes quiet. People listen. They buy my book. One of the people buying a book is poet Jackie Wills, who tells me she wants to send a copy to her publisher, Arc. Two years later they publish my first collection, A Ghost in my House. A few years after that I follow it up with a second collection, Sweet Torture of Breathing. Oh, and the pamphlet wins an award.
See what I mean about the Hollywood movie?
Look, I’m not saying everyone has to write their own story. I’m not even convinced you have to write what you know. But I do believe you have to own your story, and write from somewhere inside it.
Until I started writing poetry, until I learned to inhabit my own voice, I wrote from somewhere outside of myself. I had to turn around, crawl back through the hedge and reclaim the house without a bath. I didn’t have to write about the aunts with leopard-skin coats, but I did invite them into the room, knocking back whiskey and showing their drawers as they danced. Sometimes I let myself dance with them, charm bracelets and all. After all, look at me. I’m a writer.
Lorna’s first home was a pub. Her father was a builder with a love of opera. Her mother loved to dance. Music, drink and dancing feature throughout the poems in her books, Dancing to Motown, A Ghost in my House, and Sweet Torture of Breathing. Lorna has always worked to support her writing. Among other things she has been a barmaid, clerk, social worker, freelance copywriter and Royal Literary Fund Fellow. She is currently working on a novel about another barmaid, Annie Miller, who became a pre-Raphaelite model.
Books: A Ghost in my House and Sweet Torture of Breathing are both available direct from the publisher – www.arcpublications.co.uk – or through Amazon.
Dancing to Motown is out of print.