“I hope it rains hard on November 9th,” Ben said, looking at the date after Election Day in his battered desk diary, a crease of worry between his eyes. “The Trump voters won’t support a win by Hillary, they might take to the streets. Rain will calm them all down.”
It rained on November 9th, and New York was quiet, and curled in on itself like a man just mugged, like a woman just grabbed by the pussy. They city had cried itself into that peaceful awfulness when reality settles, and that blanket of drizzle remained in place of tears. Just…rain. Just another November day.
The day before I had been hopeful. We had driven up to Ben’s old family home outside of New York on the evening of the 7th, so the next morning he could vote there where he is registered. The morning of Election Day was fiercely bright, orange leaves drifting lazily down from the tall trees and the sky so vast and blue above. There was no wait in the polling station at the local school, and the election volunteers were cheerful and friendly. I kissed Ben as we walked out. It had been heady even watching, a thrill. I told the people manning the polling station that I hoped to be able to come back and vote myself the next time.
Later, Ben and I went to speak to an immigration lawyer, who walked us through the process of applying for my green card next year, and we left giddy and elated with happiness, and love, and plans for our wedding. At lunch, I flicked idly through my tarot deck, and pulled a card for the day: The Tower. Upheaval, calamity, difficult times ahead, but ultimately, survival. I shook my head. No. I was confident, and I felt that confidence all around me as people walked past with their “I Voted!” Stickers and Hillary Clinton shirts. I was nervous, not allowing my mind to race far enough ahead to really imagine another President Clinton, but the alternative was so unthinkable. So laughable.
My confidence jolted when I called my parents back in Wales for a quick catchup. “Of course, both candidates are unsavory. It’s a shame. Hillary’s pretty shady.” My dad’s comments annoyed me, worried me. He was so far away, so far removed – he had access to different information, different spins, and the luxury of distance. He worried that I was getting too enthusiastic and invested, I worried that he didn’t understand, and that millions might share his views, and split the vote with a third party like Gary Johnson. “People think she can walk on water,” my dad said. I disagreed. No one wanted Hillary to be perfect – no one thought she was. But qualified, well-intentioned, presidential? Yes.
It left a sour taste in my mouth, a low stirring of fear in the pit of my stomach that gnawed steadily at my optimism, at the excitement of going with Ben to vote, of discussing my future as an American citizen.
We headed to a comedy improv night in Brooklyn, sure that this would be the only way in which we could survive the tense evening and the states that would break, one by one. There was talk of a party later at the intersection of President and Clinton streets, but I shook my head as if to rid myself of a buzzing in my ears when people spoke of it. It felt like a jinx.
The New York Times had been predicting an 80-something percent chance of Hillary winning for the past few months. The numbers went up and down, but Trump’s chances never got past 16%, until that night, as the states fell steadily red, and his numbers went higher, and the sick, sick feeling in my stomach quickened and grew.
By 9pm Clinton’s chances of winning were at 5%. The crowd had grown quieter, more somber as the night went on, the performers doing an admirable job of entertaining an audience suddenly unsure of almost everything they believed in. There were a lot of LGTBQ people in that audience. I saw the fear in their eyes. I didn’t want to be there, but I didn’t want to be alone, I couldn’t think of a single place to run to where I would be safe, where things would be okay again and I could leave behind this awful feeling.
We left by 10pm. I’d been crying surreptitiously, there in the front row, but tried to keep calm as we said goodbye to friends. In the taxi on the way home I couldn’t stop the tears, and Ben and I held hands and spoke about whether or not we wanted to live in this country anymore.
I was overcome with rage, at that moment. This stupid, arrogant country, that talks of greatness. Britain only has “great” in its title because it’s…just what it’s called. Hardly anyone uses the “great” bit anymore, anyway. I’ve never really thought about it, other than in a slightly embarrassed way, like a grandparent that’s still a teeny bit racist.
If America wants to be great, let it. But there’s only one way this can end: America can do the same as colonial Britain, and fuck up the world, and live with its shame for centuries until the word “great” becomes an embarrassment that it should wear like a millstone around its neck. It’s like buying a Ferrari when you never bothered to learn to drive. All these countries want to be great, but they forgot to try first to be good.
America thinks it is the biggest, and the best, and that everyone wants to be it. That’s never been the case and it certainly isn’t today. The United States of America has spent its entire life trying to be nothing like Great Britain. Yet instead of getting down to the business of being United, as its name would suggest, it’s been preoccupied with being Great, like a teenager who hates its parents but keeps, bafflingly, trying to be get their attention.
And let’s be honest here: as a white, heterosexual woman, I will probably be fine. Getting my green card next year might be a little trickier, but I am The Right Colour and from The Right Country, I wear no headscarves and fit into a binary sexual gender. But I am terrified.
As a woman I feel beaten and bruised, afraid that the country I now live in has a leader with a pending rape trial – and afraid that this fact that this didn’t seem to bother the millions of people who voted for him. I am terrified, and I realized today….this is what it feels like. For the people of colour, for the LGBTQ community, for the Muslims. This is what they have felt like all along: betrayed, unsafe, ignored or undermined. There are people I know who will think I am being hyperbolic, older generations who have seen leaders come and go and have seen a little more of the laying out of history. But living the small, closeted life that I have, these people will most likely be white, and living in a privilege that they might not be aware of. And I want them to know that this goes far beyond them, or me. That Trump’s presidency will bring very real change, very real danger to a huge number of people, and although we might not be among their number does not mean that we should quiet our rage, or hold back our tears.
Last night as we left the venue a friend and colleague of Ben’s hugged me tightly. “Take care,” I said, and it came out like a whisper. “You too,” she said, looking me dead in the eye, and there was such sincerity in her face, such understanding and concern and fear and a hundred other emotions I knew were reflected back at her from mine. So I cried some more. She’s gay, I thought, as Ben and I stood waiting for a taxi. What I’m feeling must be ten times worse for her.
I don’t feel the need to stay here in this country now, to fight for its ideals, because its ideals are blackened and twisted and laying crumpled on the floor. They are replaced with the threats of torturing suspects because “they probably weren’t nice people, anyway”, the condoned murdering of suspected terrorists’ families, the lack of access to hormones and medication for trans people, the potential dissolution of gay marriage and the prosecution of women who seek abortions. This is not my country, and I do not love it, and if I believe in God I would not him to bless it, because America doesn’t deserve it.
But humans? That’s a different matter. It is my responsibility, where I stand, with the privilege I have, to do the things I can to help other people. I don’t know yet how that help can manifest itself, but for tonight it will be as an ally, with love, and empathy, and support. I don’t care about this country but I care about the millions of people in it who walk a far less certain path through life than I do, on ground that may well feel tremulous and treacherous tonight. Madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, right? I’m not sure I believe that love or hope can triumph anymore, but that doesn’t mean that I will stop loving, or hoping. Faith is not the preserve of the religious, and every single person with faith holds it in the face of uncertainty and lack of evidence.
I know it’s difficult. I know now is the time for grief. But tomorrow is the time to get back up, and love, hard.
I’ve been wanting to write about this for weeks, even months, but have never been able to sum up the energy. But today could be a last chance in so many ways. Everything could change tomorrow.
Is that hyperbole? Have others felt like this? Is it possible to feel the turn of History, to feel this story being etched in some great ledger, to hear the ghostly construction of future paragraphs: Here is where the world changed.
There is so much fear and paranoia and rumour and fury on both sides of this presidential election that I find it hard to swipe the accumulated outrage, glazed over with my own anxiety, and see the truth underneath. Nuclear codes and walls around America and men grabbing women by the pussy – will all this come to pass, if the unthinkable happens? Or will life continue much as it does for us here in this white, middle classed privilege, with only the slow drip drip drip of misogyny and racism and homophobia, insidious and creeping everywhere until it’s in our homes and in our hearts and we didn’t even see it coming because it didn’t appear as apocalyptic as we’d been told it would be? Will this turning point fall like a nuclear blast or a tightening of a grip around our throats? Or neither?
For posterity, for History, I will write this. I hope very much that at some point in the future we will have completely forgotten the name Donald Trump, just an embarrassing footnote, and almost was, written in vulgar orange ink in the story of America. So I will write this with hope, a hope that will allow me to tell this story as though the notion of President Trump was a joke that no one on this planet other than the man himself saw as anything but.
Donald Trump is a businessman. Opinions vary on how successful a businessman he is, though it’s my personal belief that money begets money, and millions blur in the eyes of those who don’t possess them, and a billion is too big a number to fit in the minds of men who live paycheck to paycheck. Who cares that Trump filed for bankruptcy multiple times, that he failed to pay contractors and partners and left ruined men in his wake? Or that, carefully managed, his billions could have been shepherded into multiples if he had only inherited intelligence as well as a fortune.
Donald Trump is running for president, and against all sense, against all odds, there’s a good chance that he could win. His catalogue of vulgarities, of misogyny, racism, ableism, homophobia and gross unfeeling will be easily googled in the future (assuming of course that his presidency does not bring about a nuclear apocalyptic wasteland where we suddenly realize that we were too busy googling celebrity nude selfies to look up the important things, like how to survive in a nuclear apocalyptic wasteland).
So, I won’t list all the reasons that just the sight of this man’s face on a newspaper makes me taste bile in the back of my throat. What I will say instead, is that he is the least of the things we should be frightened of. Donald Trump is just a man, but there are millions who support him with spittle and bile and the rabid white hot righteousness of God and guns and money. One day Donald Trump will not exist, but this hatred can survive inside us through happiness and prosperity, down deep and dormant, waiting for the day that things don’t go our way and we need someone, anyone, to blame. In the nuclear wasteland apocalypse it will be the cockroaches and our own fear – hatred – suspicion – that survives.
It can’t be ignored any more: there are people out there who think so very differently from us, who cannot be reasoned with and would swear that up is down and the grass is blue if it suited them, if they were told this long and hard enough by a man with money and charisma and a scapegoat on hand.
Maybe this is human nature. There’s the hope that enough education and exposure to different people and ways of life, ways to live and a love, would work like a vaccine for this hatred. But people will always be born with different brains, hooked up and wired in different ways, and people will always find an other to fear.
God this is depressing. A few paragraphs ago I said that I would write this with hope – where did that go? All I know is that reason is too fragile these days, that sense is rickety and broken and all that we can cling to is hope. Perhaps we’re kidding ourselves. I don’t know what I’ll do tomorrow night, if Trump wins this election. My heart has been creeping steadily into my throat as the election nears, and here, on the eve of this huge decision (of which, I might add, I cannot take part in as an immigrant without the right to vote) I feel sick and weary with it all, a feeling that I know so many share.
So here. Let’s end with hope. I am sitting here writing this in a coffee shop in the democratic bastion of New York City, wearing a Hillary Clinton shirt. Much has been made in the press of her emails, of various supposed wrongdoings, and in the end all we can do is to make up our own minds, cast our vote and stand on the side of the person we believe in no matter the chance that someday that belief might be undermined. I believe in Hillary Clinton, right here, right now, on November the 7th 2016. I believe that it’s about fucking time that a woman becomes the President of the United States (I mean, I know our track record with female leaders hasn’t been particularly good, but a woman prime minister has at least been possible since the 1970s in the United Kingdom). I believe that it’s pure insanity that a qualified, experienced, smart woman is having a hard time winning against a petri-dish specimen of small-minded stupidity like Donald Trump. And isn’t that something that we should be thinking about? That ultimately a lot of the suspicion and argument against Hillary is born of the deep-down, subconscious mistrust of a woman in charge. Bossy, shrill, bitchy, nasty woman. She doesn’t dress like you want her to, she doesn’t lie down and take it, she’s not obliging and willing, she won’t smile and laugh nervously like Melania Trump when her husband’s friends flirt and touch her. She’d punch Billy Bush in the balls and stomp all over him in her practical shoes.
I believe that, ultimately, the very idea of a female president is powerful and good and helpful enough before we even begin to think about what she could achieve. As a concept, President Hillary Clinton will push us forwards, to make the same leap that 2008 made when what had seemed impossible for so long came to pass, and America elected a black president.
Either way, Trump or Clinton, a new paragraph will be written in the world history books tomorrow, November the 8th 2016. Donald Trump is an intrinsically American concept, the end-product of all the mis-steps and fumbles of the American Experiment. Tomorrow, will we take the next step in the evolution of this country, or wallow in the genetic cul-de-sac of Donald Trump, and the very worst that is in all of us? Please show the world that Love can Trump Hate, after all.
Well then. I have about an hour to write something about this year before I need to start getting ready for the party to celebrate its end.
It’s been such momentous year I’m not quite sure where to start. Here goes.
This year I have learned that I am able, sometimes, to remain so visibly calm that no casual observer could possibly tell that I am in such a state of fear that I am actually willing myself to pass out, if only to get me away from the situation I find myself in. I never knew I could do that.
This year, I moved to America. Things are going well for my other half’s career, and in January he was about to embark on what, it turns out, will be an almost 2 year tour around the US. My career, it seemed at the time, could be maintained with little disruption anywhere in the world that had an internet connection. It was a pretty obvious thing, in the end.
I keep saying that I will write about moving, about the interview, the paperwork, the extraordinarily catch-22-ness of a process that often involves you needing to prove you are virtually living and working in a country that you are not legally allowed to live and work in, before being allowed to legally live and work there. The twisty-turny logic and required cunning solutions turned my brain inside out, and perhaps that’s why I’m not quite ready to write about it.
As it turned out I could no longer continue my work with a certain animated pig in the US. The revelation that the work I had been hoping for was not going to be possible felt like, well, the ground disappearing under my feet. Whilst being completely aware of the fact that business is business, that no one owes me anything and that it was my decision to leave in the first place, I was genuinely heartbroken in that moment. It turns out that the little pig, and my seven-and-a-half years in that company, had become a bigger part of my identity than I realised.
This year has certainly had some ups and downs. Often within hours of each other. Here is a fun example:
Although we’d discussed it not long before this particular situation, my now fiancé’s proposal of marriage was a surprise to both of us. It also came at the end of my non-stop five minute exuberant explanation (over lunch) of the retreat from Dunkirk during the Second World War. Yes. Despite what I’d been told my entire adult single life, I was able to convince the man of my dreams to marry me not through growing my hair long or dyeing it blonde, wearing short skirts and talking about boring things, but by just being completely myself.
Or, from another perspective, I bored a man into proposing. Either way I’ll take it.
On a high, we went home. Once there, I discovered that my passport was not where I though I had left it. My passport, that contained a very important insert that meant I was allowed to stay in the country, and which, if lost, would need to be re-applied for.
I had never had a panic attack until that evening. I sat there shuddering and struggling to breathe with ‘Nam style flashbacks of embassies and being interrogated by grim-faced officers behind post office style glass counters, scrutinising my paperwork with dubious “hmm”s.
In the end it turned out I’d left it in the desk drawer of the place we’d been staying the night before. It was fed-ex’d to me the next morning.
But, I really don’t want to go on and on about the complicated process of up-ending your life completely or the resulting emotional fall-out, nor the amazing places I’ve been and the things I’ve seen this year. Because 2015, while being many things to me, has been the year in which I have really, actually, finally realised the invaluable treasure that is a good friend.
This year my friends have helped me with complicated paperwork, equations and formulas. I have passed tests with their advice and skill, I have laughed out loud though the ground quaked and rattled, and sometimes, dissolved beneath my feet. They have given me a home, a lift, a helping hand with boxes and books and bikes. They have made time to Skype me, to write to me and let me know that though I am far away I am not forgotten. I’ve cried at them down telephone lines and over the internet, and they have selflessly helped me no matter what was going on in their own life. I have worried them with my tears, my silence or flatness of voice, my health problems and sometimes my despair. They have smiled and said the right words when I have told them that I am okay, despite obviously not being that at all.
You have stuck with me. I cannot tell you all how precious this has been to me, how I will never, ever forget the way you have steadied me when I wobbled. I love you all so much and I hope with all my heart that you know how ready I am to do the same for you, should you ever need it. I may be 3000 miles and five hours away, but I will always be there.
A soppy, but true sentiment.
Happy New Year. Here’s to 2016, let it be a corker to us all.
And lo, on the first night in Paradise, a Nicaraguan covers band did slaughter Alanis Morissette’s “You Ought To Know” at 1 am.
And we did despair.
2015 has been, by far, the most stressful year of my life, packed with packing, planning, shedding belongings, leaving jobs, saying goodbye. I have sat quaking in a embassy waiting room, filled out indecipherable documents, jumped through hoops, and done all the myriad things it takes to heave the leaver that moved the train of my life from one track on to another.
For Ben, it has been a year of constant forward-motion, barely being in one place for long enough to get his bearings. Before I joined him in September he had spent weeks alone in various US states on tour with his show. He has produced music videos and written tracks and worked hard on an almost-completed studio album. He has supported me and tried his best to keep me positive when I was crying, hand-wringing, or shaking with rage. All this and eight shows a week.
We stated fantasising about a holiday back in March, when it became obvious how huge and all-consuming the visa process would be (I realise I still haven’t written about that. It makes a good story. One day I’ll tell it). Ben liked to say that I had “never been to a proper beach before”, since his idea of a beach is palm trees and white sand, whilst mine is stormy skies and Hebridean seas. So after much deliberation, we chose the southwest coast of Nicaragua, and a yoga “wellness” resort.
Firstly I need to say how much I hate the word “wellness”, which I refuse to type in any way other than enclosed by quotation marks, since my sniffy Britishness can’t help but scoff and wonder if it’s actually a real word and why can’t we just use the word wellbeing like civilised people but we’re in America now so I guess not right yes sorry.
Landing in Managua, Nicaragua’s capital, the humid air hit us as soon as we stepped off the plane. We were greeted by a (perhaps overly, here’s my sniffy Britishness again) enthusiastic driver named Edwin, who would take us the 2.5 hour journey to the resort, aggressively pointing out the sights as we went (“Look, there. Look. See. The volcano. Look. LOOK.“).
The roads were bumpy – even the famous Pan-American highway – littered with tuk-tuks and brightly coloured buses so stuffed with passengers there were bodies smooshed against windows and piled high on the roof. There were people on bikes everywhere, push and motor both, huge lorries belching fumes and emaciated horses pulling carts. The air smelled of woodsmoke, the heavy underlying sweetness of the rainforest. On the sides of the roads were pigs and dogs, skin-and-bones cattle, horses tethered with thin string to saplings and fenceposts, loitering children and small un-tended fires, stalls selling plantain chips and things I’d never heard or seen the likes of before.
It was by far the most foreign place I have ever been. Its otherness shocked me, the one-room tin-shack poverty, the piles of rubbish at the sides of the road.
Have I been so terribly sheltered? Most family holidays were spent in Scotland. The European countries I have been to since a child (France, Spain, Italy) are not so far from England, both geographically or culturally. In the back of my mind I always knew how easy it would be to get home, if I needed to, how I could understand the language if only a little bit. Iceland is the most welcoming place I’ve been to, and possibly one of the most civilised, despite it’s sparse population and wildness of landscape and weather. New Zealand was thousands of miles away but it felt familiar because parts of it looked so much like the UK – albeit the UK on steroids. The US is very different to Britain, but even the things I don’t understand are usually known to me through film or television or pop culture of some kind or other.
Nicaragua was something entirely different, I got that from just the car drive to the resort. Ben insisted on stopping to joyously partake of every street-food stand along the way. I was given a polystyrene cup of a thick white milky substance made from corn, and sickly sweet. I drank a bit but my still-airborn stomach was not particularly happy, so I mimed drinking and tried to toss the cup in a bin on one of our sight-seeing stops while Edwin the driver wasn’t looking, thereby hugely offending Edwin the driver who it turned out absolutely was looking.
We arrived at the resort as the sun was setting, the curve of the beach and the waves visible through the boughs from our tree-top suite. We were warned to be careful of leaving doors open as the monkeys liked to drink from the plunge pool outside our room early in the mornings.
After a meal at the beach-front restaurant we crashed into bed early, twelve hours of travel and a year of work leaving us exhausted at sundown.
About half an hour later the music started – Nicaragua’s Best/Worst wedding band began playing to the party celebrating nuptials at the resort that night. It started with what sounded like terrible mic-checking, a monstrous blowing into an empty beer bottle. Ben grumbled. It can’t last long, I said.
Four hours and three increasingly irritated calls to reception later, the band stopped playing. As the female singer’s voice had become more hoarse the song choices were increasingly surreal, ending with a Central American accented take on Alanis Morrisette and the Cranberries. Our mood went past irritation into anger, to despair and on to hilarity, before circling back round to start all over again as each pregnant and hopeful pause in the music ended with the commencement of another opening riff.
A few hours later we were woken by the chorus of howler monkeys sitting by our plunge pool.
I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a howler monkey. I think howl is probably the wrong word. A dog howls. A howler monkey opens a portal to hell through its mouth.
When looking at reviews of the resort one negative one caught my eye, with the guest moaning that the monkeys had ransacked their kitchen during the night, which had ruined their entire trip, apparently.
Ben and I awoke to find a trail of muddy little monkey footprints into the kitchen which we had – whoops – left open. The trail lead to the kitchen surfaces where the monkeys had tore through packets of sugar and made a valiant attempt at eating a chai teabag before giving it up for a lost cause. Perhaps they’re coffee drinkers.
Anyway, rather than ruining our whole trip, it brightened our mood considerably. You see, it turns out the best thing about Nicaragua is Nicaragua itself, not the little details like accommodations or plunge pools or whether they’d left clean towels for us in our rooms (they hadn’t).
It meant that it didn’t matter that the yoga classes were held by the guests, since the resort’s instructors never turned up. It meant that ordering a grilled fish sandwich with lettuce, tomato and hollandaise sauce that turned out to be a rapidly cooling piece of fish with a shrivelled slice of tomato between two slices of equally stale bread didn’t become annoying until the end of the holiday.
Or rather, half-way through. We were supposed to stay for eleven days, but after four we decided that making it a week long holiday would probably be just about enough.
“Oh look, it’s sunny again.”
“Another day in fucking paradise.”
“Can I have some sugar for my tea please?” (every morning)
“But…but we gave you honey.” (every morning)
“I know, but I’d like sugar.” (every morning)
My urticaria was also protesting loudly at the heat and the humidity. I began to fantasise about being clean of sunscreen and sand, godforsaken sand everywhere. We had already read three huge novels each. The waves on the beach started to get “a bit drowny”, in Ben’s words.
Yes, it was time to go home.
Due to Ben’s ongoing feud with management and that they were probably sick of the sight and sound of us, they agreed to refund us for the days we would no longer be staying. (“That means…we owe you money…?). And despite the hugely delayed return due to a huge storm-system in Miami knocking out our connecting flight, we were so overjoyed to be back in New York it was vaguely hilarious.
Despite it all, it was a wonderful holiday. I lay in hammocks reading books. We were rocked to sleep by the crash and draw of waves on the sand each night (except the first, of course). We watched the sunset from the beach, with cold beers in our hands, or once from sea-level as we swam in the ocean. Frigate-birds and pelicans and hummingbirds busied the skies and seas and treetops. One evening at dusk a group of fifteen or twenty monkeys passed by and around and through our tree-house deck. One night we watched as a tiny baby monkey ventured from its mother’s back to practice climbing the skinniest limbs of the tree in front of our room. Butterflies of every shape and size and colour surrounded us, every moment of every day.
And this is what we’ll remember in years to come. Not the Nicaraguan cover band’s take on Alanis Morissette.
In Nicaragua Ben and I realised that, perhaps in a similar vein as the wisdom of food shopping when hungry, you should never book a holiday while stressed. We thought we wanted sun and sand and nothing at all to do – but what we really wanted, in contrast to our transient lives right now, was to be at home, in New York, beginning to build our lives together on solid ground.
On our last day it Rochester, it finally snowed.
Ben and I talked about that as an intriguing first line of a story. Why finally? They wanted it to snow? Where were they leaving to? And, most pertinently, why were they even in Rochester?
Yes, I wanted it to snow. I could taste it in the air for days beforehand, but it still came as a surprise when I opened the curtains as we prepared to leave the theatre accommodation and saw it, all 3 inches deep and glittering in the early morning sun.
We were leaving for New York, and we were in Rochester for a two-week run of Ben’s show – after a six week run in Milwaukee, and a four week run in Lowell. A long ol’ time on the road.
But that’s not what I’m going to write about, because that’s not my abiding memory of our time spent in Rochester.
One morning, a few days before leaving Rochester, before the snow fell, Ben and I went to the National Museum of Play. The big modern building – a concrete box with a jumble of primary coloured squares like children’s building blocks sticking out of one side – had the intriguing sweeping curved V of glass-walls on one end, obviously a later addition to the museum. As we drove past I saw the brightly lit, verdant green of palms and flowers and foliage within, but only after learning its purpose as a butterfly house did I notice the resemblance to a giant, resting butterfly. Or a vulva, as someone pointed out.
Being a weekday, and being, well, Rochester, there were hardly any children in the museum, let alone in the butterfly house. We entered with our guide, a young man in a wheelchair, who cautioned us to watch where we were stepping, move slowly, and check ourselves in the mirrored exit room for any stowaways.
The air hit us like something solid, warm and earthy, the fragrance of wet soil and growing things. And there they were: butterflies of all shapes and sizes, countless, fluttering and flickering and swooping throughout the huge glass room.
Tucked away in a far corner was a glass-fronted cabinet, showing lines and lines of chrysalides, brown and angular like the dried-up leaves of winter. I stood and stared at them until my eyes pricked and stung, the odd twitch and shiver, momentary, sporadic, of the full chrysalis mesmerising me.
Amongst those rows in Rochester were a few open, empty chrysalids, and underneath them a few bedraggled butterflies. Lying on the concrete floor of the case, newly-hatched, newly-bewinged and beautiful and be-butterflied. They lay there exhausted and crumpled, worn-out by the very process of becoming who and what they were supposed to be.
But is that the wrong way to look at it? Are the butterflies any more valid a life-form than the caterpillars they were before? Because they’re more beautiful? Why don’t we regard the caterpillar phase as anything but an interim, an ugly way-station between birth and butterfly?
Does the butterfly, that one lying motionless beneath its chrysalis know that it’s a butterfly now? Does it remember being a caterpillar? Does it have any comprehension of the massive, miraculous change it has undergone? Perhaps that’s why it lies there, looking almost dead. Perhaps it is too much to fit into its tiny butterfly brain, perhaps it needs time to process what it is now, the new life before it.
For fuck’s sake, it can fly now! It is no longer earth-bound! Does it know that? How can it know that?!
And how does it take that first leap, that first unfurling of wings? How does it know that they will catch and hold and carry it through the air?
All I know is that I sympathised with those brand new butterflies, dazed and reeling beneath their now empty chrysalids. My life before – my caterpillar life – was good. It was just as valid, just as important. My job, my friends, the person I was.
Either way, meeting Ben was the catalyst that began a transformation in me, for better or worse, for caterpillar or butterfly. And it’s hard. Transformation implies something done to you, somehow (or at least it does to me). The fairy godmother transforms Cinderella into the princess. She doesn’t do it herself.
Well, I did this for myself. I am still doing it.
So, perhaps transformation is not the right word. Perhaps I am still the caterpillar, and that’s alright. I’m just a caterpillar in a whole new town. And I’m having to learn the rules all over again because many of the markers in my life have changed, or simply disappeared.
In the past few years I had slowly come to a place where I felt more accepting of myself than I ever had before. I thought I was really there – that I knew myself, and liked who and what I was.
Since making this move to America I feel like a different person, and with that comes the process of re-learning, of re-liking myself again. If people have the capacity to change throughout their lives, and if, in fact, the vagaries of life and circumstance make that change a given, perhaps coming to that acceptance within yourself is not a one-time thing. Perhaps it is a continual process. Perhaps we are caterpillar and chrysalis and butterfly, over and over again, our whole lives.
The butterflies that fluttered around that room didn’t know they were in Rochester, a small city not quite as far north as you can get in New York State, but on the shores of Lake Ontario, with Canada across the water. There were plants and warm air, flowers and fruit and pools of sticky sugar left for them. This was butterfly nirvana, free from all the predators of the wild.
And that’s how I felt too, setting foot inside, surrounded by the warm air of the tropics and the fragile butterflies like brightly coloured scraps of paper blown about on non-existent breezes, thermaling about my head. It hit me as suddenly as that warm air – how utterly and terrifyingly beautiful the things life gives us can sometimes be, how fragile.
But Nature is not an aesthete. By pure quirk of evolution, of practicality or chance, it can sometimes throw up aesthetic perfection. But as far as Nature is concerned the drab brown of a caterpillar is entirely as important, as necessary, as the glittering shock of a butterfly.
A little while ago something popped up on my Facebook feed from my lovely cousin, Martha. She has contributed in the past to a book of essays about the British Sci-Fi show Doctor Who called You & Who. This year they were looking for writers for an expanded book about a range of cult British Sci-Fi and Fantasy, so I signed up. Originally I put my name down for a number of shows: Being Human, Life on Mars, The Fades, but as it turned out there was a lot of competition for these, so I ended up being assigned my last choice: Merlin.
I’m not sure why it was my last choice. The brief was to write not a review of the show, but an essay about what it meant to us as individuals, the mark the show in question had left on us, as adults or children. And I had such fun writing about Merlin.
To have an essay in print feels wonderful. To leaf through an actual real-life book and see my words, my thoughts, my name, published….well, it doesn’t get much better than that. I hope I get to experience this extraordinary feeling again, and write more. In fact, it’s inspired me to take a writing class in the new year. I want to see where this road might take me.
A few of you have asked to read my essay. I’ve held off from posting it online in the hopes that more people might buy the book, but I doubt that me posting this here will make that much difference in the sales department. So, here goes:
The Magic of Place
How can a television programme come to mean so much to a person? How can a television programme that is, to all intents and purposes, a little bit naff come to mean so much to a person?
For the past years I have lived in London, but the entirety of my childhood was spent rampaging around the hillsides, forests and lakes on a Welsh farm, and to paraphrase Dylan Thomas, treading bejumpered through the sheepy fields. So a saturday night with Merlin gave me a little window, that I could peer through into the lush, moss-carpeted, bluebell forests and fern-fronded streams that made up the filming locations, and were familiar enough to spark a sharp ache of hiraeth that sat like a stone behind my sternum, hard and burning and wonderful.
Hiraeth is an untranslatable Welsh word: half homesickness, half longing for a past that probably only ever existed in a rose-tint of nostalgia. The landscape in Merlin took me away from the concrete and the fumes of London, back to green and growing things, back to the hills where you could watch the rain or the snow come in like a wall of hazy white from the coast. It took me back to a place where red kites wheeled in broad circles overhead, back to the heavy, sucked-up silence of moss and forest floor, packed tight with the sweetness of pine needles and darkly composted soil. These are the places of my youth, the places I go back to when I close my eyes at night.
Merlin was unique in its ability to place itself firmly in a time and location – even if that time was quasi-mythical-medieval – by using the landscape as a definite character, instead of merely somewhere nice looking to shoot. Okay, admittedly most of the action took place in one of four locations recycled for each episode (some caves in South Wales that I have definitely been to on a school trip, a moss-blanketed gully, a quarry borrowed from 70s era Doctor Who episodes and a corridor or two from a castle in France) but the weather was real, and so were the places. The very few sets built for the series were pretty obvious in comparison, but the rest of it was so lovely it didn’t seem to matter.
Merlin will never win any prizes as a quality piece of television, and it certainly doesn’t stand up to the behemoth historical/fantasy series that have come along since, like HBO’s Game of Thrones and The History Channel’s Vikings. But Merlin was the Little Show That Could. It had such heart that you forgave Richard Wilson’s increasingly terrible wig, or the fact that the character of Morgana wasn’t really played by an actress but a costume assistant who was too beautiful to stay behind the camera. The bromance-o-meter consistently hit the upper levels, and while the budget seemed to stretch to a nice new dress for Gwen once she became queen, it apparently didn’t go so far as to cover the hulking arms of Sir Perceval, whose biceps were so huge they could not be contained by the simple warp and weft of mortal fabric. The humour was slapstick and seemed to mainly involve Arthur’s trousers accidentally falling down or Merlin using magic to make a bandit run into a tree branch. But it was proper, family, saturday night television in a way that only the BBC can do.
Merlin was broadcast each year as summer was ending, just as the days were shortening towards the end of the year and the air began to take on the fresh pinch of Autumn. It was a show perfectly made for darkening evenings with the rain pattering against the window, while you sat cosy inside with your family and good old Aunty Beeb.
I am writing this piece in an apartment in small-town Massachusetts, America. In the drawer of the desk upon which my computer sits is a passport stamped with a two-year US visa. I have given away clothes and bikes and books, musical instruments and, actually, three box-sets of Merlin dvds. America, for all its similarities, is not really like Britain. One day I hope it will be home, but for now it is other in a way that makes me crave the familiarity of the BBC, and shows like Merlin.
Britain’s history is ancient and twisted as a gnarled oak. Our identities, our histories and mythologies are intrinsically linked with the landscape because it was an important and undeniably present factor in our ancestors lives. Arthur’s seat, Arthur’s Stone, Carmarthen (the Welsh translation of Merlin’s Fortress) – the echoes of the Arthurian legends are in the names of places scattered from Scotland to Cornwall. Our land, our stories, are a part of our national psyche, and are more important to us than we realise. Across this planet, fairytales and myths are dictated by the landscape and its vegetation. How would Hansel and Gretel’s story have gone had it taken part in the Arabian deserts of Scheherazade’s One Thousands And One Nights? And would the goddess Artemis have caused so much woe to mortals who accidentally witnessed her naked in the streams of ancient Greece if the climate was a little closer to that of the Norse sagas, which didn’t really lend itself to prolonged outdoor bathing if you fancied your extremities frostbite-free.
The ancient woodland and eerily still mountain lakes of the United Kingdom are the places where things happen in stories, to princesses and lumberjacks and ordinary people alike. Perhaps you’ll meet an old man who offers you magic beans, or come across a trail of breadcrumbs. I challenge anyone to walk through a pine forest on a moonless night and not think, even for a tiny moment, of wolves that beguile and consume, and monsters hiding in the dark, patient shadows. The wild landscapes of Britain still hold a power over us that’s as real as any of Merlin’s sorcery. It is no coincidence that some of the most vivid, well-loved fantasy worlds came forth from the minds of British writers. Just look at how place and landscape and weather feature in the writing of J.K.Rowling, Tolkien, C.S Lewis, to name a few. And while not British himself, George R.R Martin has explicitly said that his monstrous Wall and the lands that border it on both sides was inspired by a trip to Hadrian’s Wall, where standing atop the ruined stones and gazing into the ancient, unknowable north brought forth visions of ice demons and giants, trees with faces and wolves the size of horses.
To belong to a place is odd, because it works both ways: it belongs to you and you to it. It goes bone deep, into the nucleus of every cell, so that leaving it behind – however willingly – is a physical ache. And a place has a history too: the people and the lives lived there, the buildings raised and fallen, the stacking of rock upon rock and the taming of rivers and trees. Merlin helped me rediscover the wonder of place, and gave me back the imagination lost since childhood to conjure the spirits and fairies and myths of this green and pleasant land. It reminded me that there is beauty, and mystery, and magic to be found all around us.
Even if the show itself was a bit naff.