Scattered Truth, part 1

In response to Bidhan Jacob’s questions: “How would you describe your artistic development from childhood, and not from your training?” and “What is your relationship to the world, at the time of filming” 

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When I was a child, I spoke my own language, which only a few people could understand in small fragments. Many people thought that I was mentally challenged. At nursery school, my teachers used to sit me in front of a puzzle each morning, and after completing it very quickly, I’d wait for hours until my mother’s return. 

There was an almost permanent vacuum around me. When I approached children to play in parks and sandpits, their mothers often pulled them away. I hated the gossipy intolerance of those mothers. I still recall how touched I was by people, who reacted with kindness and didn’t turn away. Their small gestures of inclusion filled me with hope that, one day, life would be different.

For years, I was taken to see a speech therapist. During our sessions, each new sound acquired and every familiar one stamped out, became a tug of war, marked by my screams and tears. I felt that my identity was evaporating and that my language was vanishing, receding deep inside.  

Reading books and seeing art saved me. I had the incredible luck to be born into a house full of paintings, and to accompany my parents each weekend on their visits to museums. I carried on silent conversations with Picasso’s minotaurs, Miro’s monsters, the reds and yellows of Sam Francis and thin Giacometti men. But most of all, I loved the graffiti figures in the lunar landscapes of Dubuffet.

One day, while shopping with my mother, we passed by an apron with a grapefruit picture on it, similar to my own. I dragged my mother over to it and persuaded her to buy it. When I gave it, as a gift, to my speech therapist, she was on the verge of tears. A few weeks earlier, she had complimented me on my apron. She told my mother that here, at last, was proof that I wanted to communicate with the world. Only now, do I realise how hard they worked to prevent me from sinking into a hopeless category, how frightening it must have been for my family to envisage that a normal life might be closed to me.

When I was eight years old, I discovered a battered copy of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London in my parents’ bookshelves, and then Homage to Catalonia. His clear-sighted writing and commitment to truth; the revelation that people could make their own destinies and fight for their beliefs, filled me with surprise and excitement. When the bookshop refused to let my buy his other books, I began to save up my pocket money and give it to Briney, our cleaner, who had offered to buy books for me.

Briney was my surrogate grandmother. She brought warmth and, laughter to my childhood, inspiring me with her unbreakable Irish spirit, and woven into my memories, are the tales, that she used to tell me of her own childhood in Ireland. As a young girl, she had been terrorised by the Black and Tans (1). Thugs, they had executed her best friend, in front of her, on the garden path, for being outside a few minutes after curfew, as Briney screamed and struggled, held back by her horrified family. Later, as a young woman, she used to run around the farm on which she worked, hiding IRA members under floorboards, when the police made raids.

She lived on the twelfth floor of a tower block, in Kilburn. In winter, it was surrounded by strong winds, whirling in circles, blocking out sounds. Inside, I used to climb up onto her windowsill and gaze out over London, as she pointed out buildings, which had survived the Blitz. During the Second World War, she had slept with her three young children in underground stations. One morning, they had emerged to find unrecognisable streets; their house had been razed to the ground. But she had no time for self-pity. What counted, and remained, she said, was an intense spirit of solidarity and community.

Some of my warmest memories are of an Irish pub, that she used to take me to, where people reeled off stories, in a smoke filled atmosphere of joy and laughter. Many had an innate talent for story telling, “the gift of the gab,” and in their tales lay a whole history of transmission and resistance. There, amidst conversations of the Troubles,(2) I discovered the land that my father had emigrated from but rarely spoke of. 

My child’s mind struggled to reconcile contradictory realities, shards and splinters, in a world of shadows. On the radio, impartial voices announced blanket protests and hunger strikes in the Maze.(3) Bombs were exploding in Belfast and London. My parents impressed me with their determination that we should never altar plans, to give in to fear was to let the bombers win. 

But there was a cold Saturday morning, when I was meant to visit my father for the weekend with a school friend and we’d been excitedly planning our trip for days. Hermother, learning that we were going to travel through the centre of London alone, became angry and alarmed; a bomb had gone off there, a few days before. An argument ensued. Neither of our mothers compromised and I was told to go without my friend.

I remember that journey, as I peered out at London, as one of the loneliest of my life. I perceived the adult world as brutal, confused and fractured. We lived - as Alan Clarke, would show in his uncompromising, solitary film, Elephant - with an elephant in the room, squeezing our minds and bodies around it, pretending it wasn’t there.

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Sometimes, something I hear, moves me so intensely, that I leave a familiar place, to follow an invisible thread. Without warning, I move countries and plunge into a new adventure. During the weeks, months or years, in which I follow a fragile trail, I am driven by an endless curiosity; touched by the generosity and dignity of many of the people, whom I meet. Then, I cannot put into words what I am searching for, or what may emerge. I listen to people’s tales, follow chance encounters and friendships; rely only on gut instinct.

Something constantly draws me back to the margins; towards those whom society doesn’t care or dare to see; people, waiting in limbo and at borders, because they do not fit the dominant political narrative or our current economic needs.

In 2006, when a chance encounter in Jordan led me to spend months with Iraqi refugees, and I listened in often smoky rooms to stories of relatives executed at checkpoints and in their homes; family and friends dumped in garbage bags on roadsides or shredded apart by sectarian bombs – and the torture and the brutality of the British, Iraqi, American and insurgent armies, I remembered stories, that I had heard in Kilburn times, as if history was blowing, like the winds, in circles. 

(February 2014, Lisbon)



(1) British recruits sent to Ireland in 1920-22, by the British government during the Irish War of Independence, consisting of World War 1 veterans and also common criminals, who committed atrocities against the local population

(2) The conflict in Northern Ireland

(3) A prison near Belfast, in Northern Ireland, where republican prisoners were detained. Ten of them, including Bobby Sands, died on hunger strike there.