Long before Covid-19 came onto the scene, I’d had a morbid sense that I was sitting around the table with ONE oxygen mask, and there were lots of us, I was the smallest one (in my family) and at the back(bottom of the pecking order). This had been my modus operandi, shallow breathing and holding my breath had been responsible for countless missed opportunities: interviews for jobs made for me, exams, driving licence tests, the list is endless.

Somewhere in this lifetime, I’d learnt that life was better safer lived from the inside out. I was a closet punk rocker, artist, writer and entertainer. But shush, no one was supposed to know about this. The world felt like such a violent and volatile place that I ushered my kids indoors as soon as they could read to counteract the passive aggressive abuse we got on a daily basis living as a ‘peculiar looking family’ on our council estate. We only came out to go to school/work/library/shops and kept ourselves to ourselves. I hoped that this would be sufficient to keep my family safe. However, I tried to ignore the fact that we were existing but not really living. I was also doing my bloody best as a disabled migrant and single parent on a low income.

Years later, I look at myself and see someone older, fatter and calmer look back at me in the mirror. The last few years have been cathartic as I’d hit rockbottom with my family having been let down by the education system having turned a blind eye to the systematic bullying my daughters had gone through at the school that should really be renamed ‘Camden school for slurs’. Following this tragedy (I am not exaggerating: it was for me, as I was raising kids and not looking after gerbils), my anxiety and panic grew exponentially and I would take hours before stepping outside, so traumatic the outside world had become. However strong the urge to retreat inside was, my survival instinct told me that I’d already locked myself in with my kids and would need to look at another strategy for coping. The answer came inexplicably through a vision to start running social group for parents of under 5’s, putting them in touch with other parents in their vicinity and building a network of support that would ensure other isolated families would not endure what we had to go through. Standing up, terrified in front of a group of parents and modelling singing to them has helped me forget about myself and focus on turning my pain and regrets into joy and hope. Now, five years later, I understand more about the benefits of singing to parents and babies: I am really singing to myself, to the terrified little girl inside, looking to self-soothe and comfort whilst I practice ‘exposure therapy’ and hope for the best.

This lockdown has forced me to up my game in ‘coming out’ when I had to work from home alongside my lovely (but noisy!) neighbours . After suffering in silence for days, I drafted and sent them a text acknowledging our individual needs , theirs for exercising their little ones and mine for rest and silence to concentrate. This has felt cathartic and self-honouring. I feel like I have finally arrived in taking my space in the world. After all, I live here too.

 

 

 


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Why should I care for an elderly woman who lived and died thousands of miles away from me, someone I’d never met and I’d never meet now that she was dead? The real question is: who said you need to have met people to care for them?

Back in 2018, I got a free ticket to go and see a gig and even though I’m always up for a gig, especially when I get in for free…I went along kind of dragging my feet a little, thinking that this wouldn’t be a great gig and giving myself permission to leave early if it turned out to be really shit as I thought it would be.

You see, I have some very pre-determined music tastes that I acquired by living with punk rock fundamentalists growing up in France in the 80’s and 90’s….Ramones, Buzzcocks, Motorhead, THAT was punk rock and I could even be so kind to include oddities such as the Kinks (my faves), the Cure, Tonton David as I like to call him (aka David Bowie), THAT was music, but I have an intense hatred of disco and jazz (since I turned 40, I don’t mind jazz so much, it must be an age thing, but I consider scatting an abomination worth  reestablishing the death penalty for). I never liked disco though and thought it was so.….

Anyway, here I am, going to a disco gig…pfff…I turned up semi late as I hesitated to go until the last minute and I walk in onto a guy talking on stage. I thought this was just a quick intro and was already scrolling down my twitter feed but actually started listening in as there was quite a lot said about Tonton David. Listening up, it got really interesting. It wasn’t the usual old musician’s war stories of how much drugs they’d done, with whom and how many people they’d shagged (yawn). This guy* was actually a really good storyteller and since I love a good story, I became engrossed in what he was saying. What really struck me about him was how gracious he was. Alone and tiny on the stage (I was far away on the balcony), I got the impression that he was talking to me only from across a bistro table. His manner was very warm, he was very smiley and was brimming with gratitude for all the people who had helped him get where he was today. Again, Tonton David came up quite a bit, and I was beginning to see the similarities between the two men: the grace, the eloquence, the style, the humble genius and ability to laugh at oneself. I put my phone away and listened intently to the rest of the story, which turned out to be the first set. Within that set, I found out so many things I didn’t know, things that I couldn’t have known since I was only born at the end of the seventies.

When the lights went back on, I once again thought: okay, that was great and I liked this guy’s stories but I bet you his music is shit and once again I toyed with the idea of leaving it on a good note…

I’m so glad I’ve become a lot more open-minded (with age, again) and decided to stay for what was the gig of a lifetime. The band was absolutely amazing and the transition between storytelling and electrifying performance was incredible. Every song was so charged with maximum vigour, its own energy and climax….I was on my feet all along, dancing and kept thinking: I’ll sit down at the next one, which will be slower or shit or whatever but it was simply impossible to stop. Behind the small guy dressed in white with matching guitar, I recognised the engineer that had cooked up the soundtrack to my coming of age in the 80’s : Loveshack, Like a virgin, Let’s dance, I’m coming out, they just kept coming thick and fast. I surprised myself even dancing on Daft Punk, a band I’d always despised before. I finally got it: Nile had been the hidden genius behind all these greatest hits and as a producer had engineered to excellence every single detail   with his virgo perfectionistic ways. The set was one of the best gigs I’d ever seen in my whole life and I was so glad I came.

The experience was a feel good moment that filled me with optimism and made me really curious about this guy so good at telling stories and so good at making excellent music. I remembered nuggets of his stories and already my curiosity was driving me nuts on the bus back home, so I ordered the book straight away.

WOW, and what a book it was. That’s when I first encountered Beverley Goodman, remember, the lady who died a few days ago. She was a central character mentioned throughout the book as the common denominator in Nile Rodgers’ life and story. She had had Nile in her teens and either from her first sexual encounter or from one of her first ones. She occupies the story and Nile’s chaotic early years as a big sister figure rather than a mother and Nile’s fondness for her is the common denominator. Through the book, I understood about why I’d always hated disco and how disco had been pitted against rock steadily but reached a climax with racist undertones when ‘My Sharona‘ came out in 1979. I was shocked to look back at the bands I’d liked …. all male….all white…singing pretty mysoginistic lyrics….this had never bothered me before and I had never even noticed as the 3 chord-tune got me on the dance floor or on the mosh pit to the sound of screaming guitars  and distortion, so there wasn’t much to say about the lyrics. Throughout Niles Book, ‘le Freak’, there’s a lot to learn, the context of the development of  bands and music genres with history, sex, drugs and rocknroll as a backdrop. Niles comes across as a sensitive soul who adapts to a sink or swim world where he has to grow up fast; though he touches onto his experiences of poverty, racism and addiction, there is no self-pity at all in the book and he comes out smiling about it all because he considers himself lucky and his gratitude shines through the book as brightly as it shone on stage. The book ends with Beverley Goodman, his mother, now an old woman slipping into Alzheimer’s and Nile’s brush with cancer.

Time, this trickster, really is the main character and keeps ticking throughout the story, taking away Bernard, Chic’s one and only original bassist and Nile’s long-term collaborator when they finally make it. I realise that long before we had the word ‘bromance’, there was love between men and they didn’t have to be gay. That’s what refreshing in ‘le Freak’. As a woman, and as a woman of colour, I have felt really enriched by my experiencing a black male (Nile) unashamedly enthralled by this black woman (Beverley) who was always present on his twitter feed and Instagram account. I got to know her and felt really grateful that she had brought forth so much love in the world through her son, his music and his stories, in which she will always live.

 

 

* what kind of a person doesn’t know Nile Rodgers??? I mean, nowadays, there’s the internet and all??? I have to tell you, my friend, when it comes to new things, I like to stumble upon them by accident rather than be sent there by someone else. My kids know that I would often take them on holidays to places none of us had been before and refused to read a guide and know about the interesting spots before hand…sure we ended up in some cul-de-sacs but they can’t claim they were ever bored!

 

 


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*Trigger warnings: suicidal ideation, hopelessness, discouragement and despair.

As November is drawing to a close and so is the second lockdown of this mad year, Guy Fawkes night and Remembrance day seem like the only recurring familiar markers to get my bearings. Though I’ve never attempted to blow anything up and I’m happy to report that I have no experience in armed combat, this doesn’t mean that I am inexperienced in fighting for my right to be here. In fact, I remember being waist deep in the trenches in November 2019…

I was working several jobs, juggling freelance gigs in a bunch of museums and galleries where I was generally employed to do what is known as ‘interpretation’ for early years and families, i.e. breaking down the art to make it accessible to newcomers to the galleries. My 45th** year loomed large and my body was becoming really tired of carrying equipment all across London and delivering high energy sessions (singing, dancing, etc)  to a crowd of families to make them feel at ease. I had done this circuit for quite a few years already and could see that I would not be able to keep it up much longer so I decided to approach each one of my employers and be candid about my situation, asking them for opportunities to progress, either through training, or just being kept in mind if there was any scope to get a more secure position, working on a contract rather than on a zero hour basis. I was satisfied that I had spoken my mind and felt that I would be considered for further positions.

A few weeks later, as I was filling in my timesheet, I noticed that my younger white colleague who had started at exactly the same time as me, doing the same thing I was doing was getting paid slightly more per hour than I was.  I brought my concern to managers who were clearly embarrassed but then exclaimed that ‘it [was] just a pound fifty more’!! At that point, I burst in tears, understanding that these Campers wearing middle class women (both white btw) were simply so out of touch with my situation that they thought I was being petty and had turned things around to make it look like I was being weird for even bringing it up. That moment made me realise we didn’t inhabit the same world and that they had absolutely no idea how much I was struggling to make ends meet.

Next thing, they told me a job was coming up and that I would be just right for it. I threw myself wholeheartedly into preparing an excellent application and revising for the interview.

I did my best but struggled at the interview and was subsequently told that out of the 5 shortlisted candidates for the four jobs, I was the one who was not selected. 

After they told me this, I plunged into a deep depression, crying all the time, self harming and contemplating suicide. I just fell so low. I felt really hopeless as a soon to be 45 year old disabled woman of colour, I felt that I’d been in the queue long enough and that I’d been a good girl long enough but that it had not worked. 

I felt like I was a sort of black mammy character who they were just happy to employ on a zero hour contract until the end of time. I had no will or strength to fight but needed the work and even though I was essentially having a nervous breakdown, I could not take any time off as I worked a zero hours contract and that did not include sick pay. I carried on working alongside the successful candidates, who were now my managers, some of whom had only just recently got employed on the same contract I’d been on for over two years and had already been promoted beyond me. 

My managers were completely oblivious to my situation, but I was well aware that there were rumours about me and about how distraught I had been for not getting the job. People stopped talking when I walked in the room. I felt worthless and still had to roll around, smiling through the tears, playing with children and families, rolling around on the floor, pretending I was happy, that everything was okay and that I loved my job.

I made a few desperate calls to my sister in Paris at my lowest point and when I felt there was nothing left for me to do than to buy some rope and hang myself in one of the many nooks and crannies of the immense cavernous mammoth of a building that was home to one of the biggest collections of modern art in the world. 

Thank God for my sister who kindly spoke to me and repeatedly assured me not to kill myself for this job, that it wasn’t worth it, to not let their parking me on zero hours be a reflection of who I was and what I was really worth. Her support gave me strength and I started liaising with the PCS union rep who was absolutely fantastic, very supportive, and refreshingly human, with empathy as to how I must have been feeling. We had a few successful meetings showing that the organisation had clearly discriminated but things were far from ‘sorted’.

I took myself for a well needed vacation to the land of my ancestors, land where my late father is buried, to see my beloved 92 year old grandmother who is always so wise and kind to me. This was a welcome break as both body and mind thanked me for it and by the time I got back, I had some perspective on my situation. 

What this whole episode showed me is that I need not assume my employers have got my best interest at heart and they may very well think they care but they clearly do not. 

I have moved away from seeking justice through these warped old dusty institutions to curating my own content, caring less about them and more about myself, letting my voice out and joining non hierarchical collaborative creative groups .

Last year’s experience has broken my heart and there is part of me that feels it’s pointless applying for jobs I won’t get given regardless of my experience, skills and ability to do the work. My protected characteristics feel like shackles that are just too heavy for me to keep going as a contender. 

Meanwhile, museums and galleries are planning new outreach schemes to reach out to people just like myself, as we speak,  confirming what I had always suspected: I am welcome to the gallery as a participant and I am encouraged to flaunt my diversity to make them look good and they will also happily have me as a volunteer but no one one wants to give me a real grown up job, a job I am more than capable of doing. And I know that they know that too. 

*I don’t generally do ‘trigger warnings’ as it stigamtises the person with the lived experience, making their story too ‘horrific’ to read and also because  no one warned me I would be going through all this beforehand. I thought I would just try it. Believe me, I don’t seek to shock or harm anyone. I just want to give myself a voice and reempower myself by telling my story. I am not the one who should feel ashamed of what happened.

** 45 years old is roughly the age when my father  was when he lost his job and was never employed again in the late 70’s. I grew up watching his health declining massively as shame and helplessness seemed to erode his pride, as a former breadwinner. 

 

 

 

 


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I don’t give a shit, I literally don’t.

I’ve learnt it a long time ago when we lived in an overcrowded flat and the toilet was outside, so from age 4 or 5 I remember having to run outside in the dark cold night. The light was on a short timer and so I’d hurry up, unzipping my trousers and almost always rushed to empty my bladder so I ended up with wee on my pants or my skirt tucked up or still zipping my trousers. As I ran back inside the lounge of our one bedroom, my whole family would be huddled together onto the large sofa and my mum would burst out laughing, laughing that I got so scared and the rest of my family joining into the furore.

It was a little bit better during the day, at least there was natural light but the small cubicle was icy cold with no toilet seat and as we shared these toilets with our next door neighbours, a couple of elderly white French people, the walls were plastered in racist slurs which formed the basis of my learning to read. Being the last child already made me eager to access the word, so competitive was I with my eldest siblings, so I took any opportunity to read to do just that.

I latched onto literacy for dear life and quickly became obsessed with correcting bad spelling and grammar on the placards. I turned ‘les arabes sa pue’ to ‘les arabes, ça pue’, making sure it was grammatically correct and easy on the eye.

Years later, I still hold my bladder and my bowels even though I am now privileged enough to have indoors toilets (and even a toilet seat!).

I once saw an osteopath who told me that I’d completely cut off my body sensations from the neck down and he then proceeded to crack me back into place so that I got the body lightness and suppleness of a nine year old child. The body I live in daily has locked in all my trauma, making sure that I feel nothing from the loneliness, the racism, the otherness, the suicidal depressions, the bad encounters, the poverty, the unanswered prayers to God, the drugs and alcohol, the powerlessness I felt all my life, the bad luck, the untimely death of my father whose shortened life passed me by like a missed boat, like a cowboy bus driver who slows down and then drives off splashing you with a puddle as you stand there with your hand raised, the low paid jobs, the sugar addiction, the fee, the anger, the anger, the fear, the anger, the rage, the rage eating at me.

Years later, I still hold my bladder and bowels, though I don’t have to. I’ve got toilets inside the house now and there won’t be racist graffiti in my bathroom unless I write it myself.

Yet it’s become harder and harder for me to poo. Everyday I feel the space inside me grow heavier with a delayed bowel movement that will only happen when the bag is full to the brim. The past few times I have been have been particularly traumatic and painful. The accumulated philosophical-fecal matter violently rapes my numbness to myself. The last few days have felt terrifying as this master has taken over my life with anxious and painful anticipation. I feel that my internalised historical pain has taken on a life of its own, ravaging my insides with a powerful determination. I ask myself ‘ is this the beginning or the end?’ Should I see a doctor?. It’s probably too late for me. The truth is that I don’t give a shit but really wish I did.

 


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This Friday, 3rd July 2020, will mark the 25th Anniversary of my father’s death.

Even though it’s been this long, it’s only now that I feel able to talk about him and to remember the man that he was and how much I lost that day.

He was born into a poor family in the Tunisian countryside in 1931. I am unsure when his father died but I understand my dad would have still been a very young boy so he was also raised by a single mum, most likely aided by the oldest girls of the family. His name was Ali but he was also called Abdelkader as he had been born on the 27th night of Ramadan, also known as Qadr night, a very special night marking the night when the Quran was first revealed to the prophet Muhammed. Thus Ali remained his official name whilst Abdelkader was the name he was known as.

He grew up quickly , having to learn a trade to help his family meant that he missed out on school and relocated to the capital, Tunis where he lived in the old town (or Kasbah) with his family. The few pictures of him in the Kasbah show him as a joyous young man who worked in bakeries in Central Tunis, a trade he shared with us in our tiny shoebox flat at each Eid. 

His wide smile on ancient pictures may advertise joy, freedom and youth but his eyes tell another story, denoting a deep sadness and disconnection. He left for France as an invited migrant used to rebuild France and found work in an automobile plant shortly after. There’s a gap in the story at this point where my mother explains that he came back to Tunis to get married to her and that from the beginning of their marriage, she noticed how his family excluded him and relied on him for bringing things back to Tunis, sharing with them of his harvest in the land of milk and honey in the form of money sent back home regularly. The returns to Tunisia were as looked forward to as they were dreaded. In the proud mediterranean culture of Tunisia, or at least in our dad’s family, there was always a kind of disappointment in seeing us return bearing humble gifts for a growing army of aunts and cousins, silence spoke real loud and my father’s family wasn’t welcomed home as heroes for lifting the family out of poverty but as fools who barely made ends meet in the fancied gold paved streets of Paris.

It was out of the desperation that saw us overcrowded in our tiny Parisian flat the majority of the year and without fixed abode on our Tunisian summers, that my parents decided to save money to get a house built. Years later, this house is still not finished and has cost us much more than money. It stands with its grey bare walls in the scorching sun of L’aouina.

When I was born in December 1974, I immediately sensed the urgency of growing up to save my family, that same old dream my father had had.

He must have lost his job shortly after I was born as I never saw him work again, despite numerous attempts at getting employed again, including a residential training course and other classes, but  as an ageing (45 year old+) man with a very limited command of French and no literacy or numeracy skills, he didn’t manage to turn the tide. I remember that year as he became ill and seemed to never fully recover after that.

He had lost his identity as a provider, as a man, and though he taught himself patiently to read, to write and to do endless calculations at the back of an envelope in a soundscape of daytime television, he was fatally wounded in his soul and in his pride. Anyone could have seen that his health would only get worse with the shame, the loneliness, the boredom, the isolation and a deep sense of having failed at a game that was rigged from the start.

Despite the sad aura surrounding my father’s lost dreams, he was an optimist and never felt sorry for himself. This clever man who taught himself to read basic French and Arabic was always very gracious and taught me to always have an open mind and listen empathically to others with views different from mine.

Watching the example of my father who taught me to keep my word and live a dignified life has made me the woman I am today. Through him also, a barely literate man on the face of it, I have learnt so much about life and the world. His curiosity and passion for education also guided my path in life and made me passionate about making education accessible to all. 

The twenty five years that have passed have brought me closer to him everyday even though I kept myself busy and have pretty much been in denial of my loss, to the point where I have been unable to cry. Turning 45 years old and seeing more white hairs appear everyday have also brought me closer to the way he must have felt. My employers who never particularly looked at me as someone they’d promote have now officially renounced considering anything more than lower paid work on zero hours contracts for me.  My father and I  have had very different lives but there have been similarities and even though I was lucky enough to go to school and get a diploma, I have felt the heavy weight of inequalities affect my life from the start, like an athlete wearing the wrong footwear, one size too small. Despite working hard, doing my best and wanting to make my family proud, I have not achieved what I would have liked to. The simple comfort of having a secure home, having friends, having enough money to breathe from one month to the next, feeling valued and a sense of belonging rather than the aura of an eternal foreigner. 

My father’s death, twenty five years ago, prompted me to up my substance abuse, I took a nosedive into drugs, self-destructive behaviour, loneliness and single motherhood, a detour that has cost me a lot. Though I have managed to turn my ship around, it feels like it is too late and that I am following in the path of my father’s later years when he renounced his right to be here, his body attacking him from the inside for taking up space. These days I also have quite a few health problems, waking up not feeling my legs, chest pains and the never ending digestive health problems all pointing to my discomfort at taking space, my exhaustion at fighting so many battles, no time to rest and more challenges everyday. I have put on weight and wil soon be empty nested, interacting with the staff at LIDL as one of my only regular social contacts. It is the accumulation of these life circumstances that is pulling me closer to embodying my father’s experience in losing his identity. Some people call it intersectionality, I just call it bad luck or karma. Amongst my widening body, poorer vision and multiplying white hairs, at the back of my eye sockets, I can feel the moisture of the first tears I should be soon able to shed for my father, for myself, for missing the boat and I look forward to be able to cry, get some peace with the past and look to a future where I can give myself permission to cry.

 


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It’s Sunday evening and Mental Health Awareness week starts tomorrow.

Watch out for the bunting, the posters, the merch, events, interviews and tanned celebs repeating a one liner platitude.

I won’t be joining in the ‘celebrations’ as I am not buying into the hype.

I have grown this cynical(I call myself ‘cinacal’) from simple observation over two decades spent in London raising two daughters on my own. I have struggled with my mental health throughout, seeking help non stop and not getting it. I’ve been bullied and intimidated many times by those with more power, who smelt the blood of vulnerability in the sight of an isolated foreign woman, little girls in tow. From headteachers to neighbours, it seems that everyone could have a go at it, as if I’d been walking around with a sign saying ‘ pick on us please’. Of course I wasn’t but my sensitivity was picked up as defencelessness and a green light for anyone to snipe at us. So much so that I became a recluse and instructed the girls to pick up books when children would not play with them. I think we were seen as a strange family, a bizarre sight on Kentish Town road, always on our own, holding our heads high and our hearts on our sleeves. Looking back at it, we were like an accident waiting to happen in what looked like a dog-eat-dog world of playground politics and populist Britons, open mouthed with disbelief, watching us approach with our strange aura, a multilingual mystery, a cultural mish mash of bohemian freedom, spirituality, our obsession with self-improvement through education and our indomitable hope which seemed to drive some mad with muted rage. In this context, I’ve kept us safe-(ish) in the sense that we’re still alive today, that we’re in relatively good health but at what price? I have undoubtedly become aware of the impact of living such a life has had on my health: mental and physical. I can only guess at how my daughters have also been impacted from seeing their sole carer always alone, regularly distraught and despairing. My amend to them has been to seek help with all my strength, not leaving a single stone unturned to aim for a better life for me but especially for them.

I have seen professionals dangerously uneducated in human kindness and  lacking empathy express ‘concern’ around my mental health. What that meant really was that unless I would tone my symptoms down and stop asking for help, my children would be seen as potentially ‘at risk’ from living with a mother so open about her mental health struggles. It is no surprise that I have had to go to pieces quietly from the discomfort of my cluttered living room until my youngest had reached her 18th birthday before I could talk about these struggles openly. The shame society has tried to tar me with does not belong to me but to a heartless society which says one thing and does another.

Aside from waking up with so much pain crystallised in my body from  the compounded anxiety, hypervigilance and responsibility for raising my daughters alone in the past 23 years, I am waking up as if from a coma, realising that I may never feel safe in the UK. This lockdown, we’ve seen it all again, my ‘otherness’ has ruffled feathers and disturbed those on our housing estate who clap for the NHS, call frontline workers ‘heroes’ and put nice little rainbows on their windows on the one hand whilst organising wild parties, sending me texts calling me deranged for wanting some peace and quiet sometimes, ganging up on me to intimidate and ostracise us. This lockdown has shown me what I already knew so well without having seen it with my eyes but strongly felt with my heart: It’s those who think there’s nothing wrong with them that one needs to watch out for. I won’t be celebrating what I already know: Mental health awareness is weak in the UK.

 

 

 


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