21 Mar A BRIEF HIsTORY OF ME. CHAPTER 7. IMMERSION.
Our life in Barcelona was very sociable, it was impossible to walk anywhere without bumping into a friend on the street, shopping at the food market was an entire morning’s activity and on most days friends would join us for lunch, knelt around the long low table in the living room.
Yet my memories are mostly of feeling intensely lonely. It probably helped that I would grow into an awkward, often plump teenager and rarely had a boyfriend. I regularly fell madly in love with beautiful boys who didn’t love me back, which was a great source of inspiration for anguished poems and some terrible illustrations.
Luckily, I was a voracious reader and would make a monthly pilgrimage, two buses and half an hour by foot, to the English second hand book shop uptown, clutching my T10 bus ticket and rucksack full of Wilkie Collins, Jane Austen, Agatha Christie and holiday reads abandoned by visiting friends. I stood patiently while the tangled haired man in an ash sprinkled jacket counted my books without a scrap of eye contact and grunted how many new ones I could choose (it has just dawned on me why I have such a huge crush on Dylan Moran). I would then spend a glorious morning sat amidst heaving shelves, choosing the worlds I would be inhabiting for the next four weeks.
I was fascinated by the Brontë sisters and, inspired by their invented kingdoms of Angria and Gondal, created a newspaper for an imaginary world, including seasonal fashions and aristocratic gossip. Reading Anne Frank’s Diary when I was 10 years old prompted me to start each diary entry with ‘Dear Anne’. I deeply regret burning these diaries a few years later in a New Years Eve attempt at burning away my childhood self. I would read Judy Blume’s ‘Just As Long As We’re Together’ over and over, finding such comfort and solace in the friendship between the three girls. After reading Little Women I found ways of recreating outfits from the 1900s so I could pretend I was Jo March and upon reading a line about Amy March leaving apple cores all over the house, I had confirmation that I was indeed a March sister from a different time. I also ripped all the front covers off of books where a character was depicted as I felt it ‘compromised my imagination’.
I would draw obsessively, repeating an idea I had of the interiors of Hobbit homes. Every plate, cup, sack of lentils, lamp, vase of flowers by the bed, quilt, framed picture, curtain pattern. Also parties and feasts with endless ladies in ballgowns; my own mini soap operas where there was always an overly flirtatious boyfriend and a jealous girlfriend.
One winter I created a wall of cork people, adorned in chocolate foils, tufts of fur from an old jacket of my mum’s and glitter glue. I would sit at my trestle desk, taping the ‘Top Cuarenta’ on the radio, weaving stories about a village of cork people, most often with the starring role held by the cork who looked like Tina Turner.
As I grew older I discovered films that prized open my soul. Our TV at home wasn’t connected to an arial so we watched the same videos over and over again: Hairspray (John Waters), Brassed Off, Beautiful Girls Rita, Sue and Bob Too. I discovered a video rental shop offering films in their original language for 100 pesetas (approx 50p), and would load my bike basket up with videos every Friday in a similar way to how I gathered second hand books, and would then spend all weekend watching Spike Lee, Ken Loach and Bertolucci. I would start skipping school and hide out in the safe comfort of the tiny Cine Maldà where you could watch two films, back to back, for 400 pesetas.
I carried my camera everywhere with me, hoping to capture and somehow express the way I saw the world. The simple shapes of La Lavanderia, the inebriated sleep of the homeless man who slept on the bench outside my school, the gentleman who rarely had his teeth in but always wore a cravat.
When I was 14 I joined the drama group at school. Our teacher Itziar, a tiny Italian woman with jet black hair, taught us how to read poetry and how to find it in nature. I played Puck in a Midsummer Night’s Dream and found an ease and lightness in my body that I struggled to feel offstage. The most valuable lessons I learnt at school were from Itziar: to create every day and to say yes to new adventures. Simple lessons that have stayed with me for life.
I had friendships, intense, almost romantic in their intensity, but the time I cherished the most was the time spent in solitude, absorbing the stories I was finding in the world and learning how to tell my own.
I felt so sad for so long that I was unloved by the boys I adored. But I now look back and feel grateful, for the wonderful, rich friendships that taught me how, not all love or celebration of another human needs to be romantic. And for the luxury of time I had to explore and be curious about the world around me, instead of lost in the gaze of a boy’s eyes, however much I longed for it.
I also know that I would never have become the woman I am today without watching ‘Rita Sue and Bob Too’ on a weekly basis for at least three years.
More Next Week.