Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Losing London

My housemate looks at me, smiles and shakes her head.

“God. I just can’t believe you’re moving to Manchester, Lé.”

I shake my head back at her, raise my eyebrows in an expression of mild surprise, and smile.

“Yeah, I know. I can’t believe it either.”

I can believe it, though. Change shimmers on the horizon, replete with opportunity, and I am impatient for it.

Recently I have felt like Alice who, having bitten the mushroom, watches helplessly as she shrinks to almost nothing. London is exhausting and unforgiving: a violent lover whose caresses can so easily turn to blows. I have been working hard to pay my rent and working hard to pursue my dreams. Both have left me unfulfilled. Most days are silent frustrations, with nights looming as dark clouds of anxiety about what will happen when the sun rises again.

I try to write songs, but can think of nothing. I sit myself down with a pencil and paper and order my brain to create but all I can see when I close my eyes is the neon flashing pound sign, blinking behind my eyelids. Every day I spend at a desk in an office I shrink further: a vision of defeat.

I can believe I am leaving.

Of course I can.

Suddenly, though, I realize what I am leaving.

I am leaving all my friends. I am leaving Soho. I am leaving Brixton. I am leaving the bus routes I know and the pubs I like. The pubs! I know they have pubs in Manchester but they aren’t the ones I know. I will miss all the things I know. I know where the good charity shops are, and where to get a great chocolate brownie. I know where you can get a drink after everywhere is shut and I know where you can go dancing. I know the bouncer on the door of Madame JoJo’s, who always hugs with just a little too much enthusiasm. I know how to walk places to avoid the tube, and I know to avoid Topshop on Oxford Street at all costs. I will miss the familiarity of the things I know.

Ben is going to Nepal (to do this) for all of November, by which time I will already have been in Manchester for a few weeks. He has promised to show me round and introduce me to people before he goes, many of whom I have already met. He will help me to find a nice little café/bar job somewhere, to help me settle in. Then he goes and I am on my own. This is good, of course, as it means I won’t be able to rely on him too much. I am not shy about meeting people. (I am shy about other things: making phone calls; eating cereal in front of people; walking into restaurants; maths.) I love meeting people, in fact. I would go so far as to say that I am quite good at it.

But how do I find those people? How do I create opportunities for myself, musically? How will I know where to go? What if people don’t like me? What if I am too southern and I can’t stop making jokes about working in mills and owning whippets? What if it rains too much and all my shoes are wrong?

Primarily I am scared of being lonely.

I lived in Paris once. Those months of loneliness and subsequent depression triggered so many of the problems I have had since. It was awful. Once my Mum came over for a visit and when she was leaving I begged her to let me come home with her. Not realizing the depths of the problem, she refused, saying that I needed to see it through, so I stayed. I regret that decision deeply, because in those remaining months I became more depressed and anxious, and more reliant on somebody whose psychological abuse will affect me for the rest of my life. (N.B This person was not a bad person, and if he is reading this I urge him not to contact me in self-defence. There is no more to be said.)

Of course this time is different. That was eight years ago. I was eighteen then, and shy. This time I am going to live with my grandmother, who is a lovely, caring and fun person to be around. I keep telling myself that the awfulness of Paris will not come back. I am a grown up (well, ish). I have travelled the world, performed in the strangest places, talked to innumerable strangers and faced a lot of fears. I am different now. There are (two) people in Manchester who already love me, so if it takes a bit of time to make friends then I still won’t be alone.

London has beaten me and I am running into the arms of another. But, but. Oh, I have had some good (great, amazing) times in this city. I do not want to run from it feeling sad. I want to remember how incredible London can be, and when I visit (regularly) I want it to still feel like it is partially mine, that I will always be a Londoner, really. For the last three weeks I am going to re-capture the spark. Take risks and live the London life I always felt that I should be living.

I am excited about moving: eager for change and reinvention (and a bit of a rest). It will be amazing to be able to see Ben more often. Wow, I am excited.

I can believe I am going.

I can believe I am leaving London, but I am not gone yet, and there is a part of me that will never quite be gone.

I have three weeks to conquer London in a way that I haven’t felt able to do for the last four years.

Suggestions welcome.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Night of the Senses

I could have summed up my last post thus: estate agents are wankers! Hooray! They are in the same box as recruitment consultants. It is a box marked “Cocks, etc.” and sits next to my enormous costume jewellery collection, just underneath all the crayon drawings of ponies.

Nearly a week has passed since my jaunt at the Night of the Senses Ball. Compared to the Rubber Ball the weekend before, it had a much kinder, more bewitching atmosphere. The Rubber Ball was more edgy, more dangerous and dark (like being in The Matrix, in that lots of people are wearing black, shiny stuff and I was never quite sure what was going on).

The Night of the Senses was, as the name suggests, a lot more sensuous. It was decorated with care, all velvet drapes and twinkly lights. Mass in Brixton is full of little cave rooms, a dimly-lit and twisting venue with alcoves and corners everywhere. Spread over a few levels, it was easy to get lost, but, unlike the Rubber Ball, getting lost and being alone was not an invitation for others to stalk you as prey. I wore a black velvet corset, a pink tutu and a pink and black fascinator. My friend Lily had on a lovely black dress with a real and lovely corset, with a lilies tucked behind each ear. One woman was dressed only in a tiny lace waistband, accessorised by endless blonde dreadlocks. There were people in rubber things, lace things and leather things. All sorts of people wearing all sorts of things.

I had brought my amp and microphone with me, so when I arrived Bob showed me where to store it and went at once to get me a gin and tonic. We then went off to the photo booth to get some photos taken. For Bob’s story of his day/night/day, and some pictures of us, you can go to his blog (you will need to scroll down a bit).

I watched the Erotic Awards show, sitting at a distance from Lily, who was on the judging panel and therefore could not be influenced by mere observers. I sat next to a couple who told me that they come to the Night of the Senses every year and love it. The woman was wearing a sparkly white corset and beads in her blonde hair, and the man had on a top hat and black waistcoat. They looked fabulous, but their demeanours didn’t seem to match their exteriors. As I chatted with them I felt that they were shy. They watched the acts intently, clapping politely at the end of each as I whooped and cheered enthusiastically. One act involved a woman picking the feathers from her fan and sticking them through the skin on her arms and breasts. The feathers turned out to be needles, and the act got increasingly dark. Bubbles of blood appeared and then smeared over her skin as she took the needles out and danced on the points of her feet to Swan Lake. I turned to the woman next to me and she wrinkled her nose at me. “I don’t like this” she said, as her partner shook his head and frowned. “Too much” he agreed. I felt unfazed, fascinated by the darkness of her performance. I wondered what drew the seemingly nice and normal couple next to me to this event every year, and reflected once again how much more inclusive it was than the Rubber Ball. There, a needle through the arm would have seemed trivial.

After the show Lily, her friend Raf and I wandered around together. We went outside to the marquee. We came back in. We talked to people and explored the different rooms. We hung around, and I sang. I sang in the Sensuality Chamber, otherwise known as the Couples’ Room. A room where anything goes.

In what will probably go down as the weirdest gig I have ever done, I sang for ages. There were some bongos, and at times people picked them up and jammed along. For the most part, though, I sang on my own. I sang my own songs and jazz standards. Songs from the shows. I made up songs. At one point a girl came over to me and asked me what my “status” was. She pointed across the room to a dark haired girl wearing a nurse’s outfit. “My friend thinks you’re beautiful and asked me to find out.” I told her that my status was “most definitely taken”, and she shrugged and smiled. “Cool. Well can you sing a song about my friend, anyway?” I asked what her friend’s name was and obliged, singing a whole song which, of course, I have now completely forgotten.

Around me people were doing all sorts of things. For the most part I was in my own world, so happy to just be given license to sing and sing and sing. A couple watched me, not engaged in activities of their own. A man and a transsexual woman. The woman watched me closely. I sang one of my own songs and she clapped sincerely. “That was one of mine” I said, into the mic.

At the end of the night she came over to me. “The songs that you had written were the best ones” she said, clasping my hand. “Don’t stop doing this.”

It was one of the best gigs I have done. I sang whatever came into my head, and it was so liberating. I felt confined by nothing. Perhaps the permissive atmosphere of the room had freed me from fear of judgement for my singing in the same was that it had freed others to express their sexuality.

Lily and I made our way back to my house at about seven on Saturday morning. We sat in my garden for a bit before going to bed and talked about the night. It had been beautiful. I will remember it as being the strangest but best gig I have ever done.

Monday, September 15, 2008


(I have a big post to write about the Night of the Senses ball on Friday night. It was a very different atmosphere to that of the Rubber Ball last week, but still brilliant. At one point I was standing on a stool in a room full of people in various states of undress and debauchery, singing Life Is A Cabaret from Cabaret in impassioned tones through my microphone as a semi-naked man accompanied me on the bongos. There is something I need to say first, though.)

Back in 2005 I had a nasty experience involving an unwelcome visitor in the flat in which I was living at the time. I wrote all about it here.

Fast-forward three years and that experience is a fading memory. I do, however, feel I have a heightened sense of security and privacy as a result. When alone in a house, even in my parents’ house, I still do find myself sitting still and rigid, listening for evidence of some malevolent intruder.

After the ball on Friday my friend Lily stayed over at my house. By about midday on Saturday we were still under the covers, discussing the night before amid glorious girly giggles. Each of us in one of my night dresses and sipping cups of tea.

The door bell rang. I looked up from tea and chats, confused. In central London people don’t just ring doorbells. They call first to announce themselves. Perhaps, I thought, one of my housemates had left their key and their phone somewhere, and needed to be let in. I got out of bed and started looking for my dressing gown to put on. Taking my time, still chattering with Lily, I left the room.

I started making my way down the stairs, then stopped, frozen, halfway down. A startled-looking teenage boy stood in the hall, facing me. The front door was swinging open, wide onto the busy Brixton street.

My brain leapt to a reasonable explanation. The door had been left open and he had been ringing the bell to alert us to the fact. Something reasonable. Laughable.

Then I saw the key in his hand, and walked down the rest of the stairs.

“What are you doing?” I asked, simply.

“Um, yeah. I rang the bell.” He gestured towards the door as if to illustrate this point.

“Right.” I pulled my thin dressing gown around me as realisation dawned. “Wait, you have a key? Why the hell do you have a key?”

It transpired that he was from an estate agent down the road. Not, I hasten to add, the estate agents that we are with. Different ones.

“The landlord said we could come in and do an evaluation.”

“Oh” I said. “Did you have an appointment?”

“Nah, but the landlord, said, like, if nobody answered, just come in.”

I rarely lose my temper. I am rather good at sulking, at brooding and thinking dark thoughts, but I cannot remember the last time I truly lost it. Those times are indeed rare, but this was definitely one of them.

I went, for want of a more sophisticated phrase, completely mental. This moronic teenager stood there, backing out of the door whilst I told him exactly what I thought of his estate agency, of the landlord, and of him. I raved at him, a wild woman with insane hair and not very many clothes, feeling righteous anger bubble and pour tumultuously from my mouth.

Eventually I let him go, acknowledging that if he had been told to let himself in then he wasn’t solely to blame, but also in complete disbelief that anybody could be so stupid as to let themselves into someone else’s house without permission.

Then I called my estate agent. They weren’t there (it was a Saturday) so I told the answer phone what I thought. I was so, so angry and I told them as much. I wanted, I said, to know exactly what had happened, and for them to call me first thing on Monday morning. First thing.

They, of course, did not call.

At ten thirty this morning I called them. I was put through to a dismally stupid-sounding woman called Kelly, who informed me in bored tones that they had called my housemate, Ed, to apologise to him. Had I not spoken to him? “Yeah, he’s our point of contact, Lee-oh-neee. So we called him.”

I explained that I had specifically told them to call me. That they had my number, and that I had left it in the answer phone message just in case.

Then Kelly, having clearly run out of brain cells for the week, saw fit to tell me off for my tone of voice in the answer phone message. Instead of apologising profusely for a massive error on the part of her company, she decided to chastise me for reacting to it the way I did.

“I can understand it wasn’t a nice thing to happen, Lee-oh-nee, but we are looking into it and your message really upset the girl who checks the answering machines. There was really no need.”

For someone who doesn’t often lose my temper, it was an odd sensation to have twice in the space of three days.

“How dare you tell me off for my tone of voice when thanks to you I came downstairs to find a strange man in my house. I refuse to be spoken to like that.”

Kelly, in her infinite wisdom, thought best to tell me off a bit more.

The rest of the conversation was the most aggravating one I have had in a long time. Being reprimanded by someone with the intellectual capacity of half a slice of ham, and having her whining, patronising tones slithering down the telephone at me was too much to bear. I hung up.

So, what to do? We have two months left on our contract in the house (a contract that clearly states that they must give us twenty-four hours notice before a visit, and that we have a right to veto that visit). My housemates were not there and have not had the same previous experiences as I have. They are, needless to say, not at all as upset about the whole thing as I am. However, entering a house without permission is breaking and entering, whether it is by means of a key or by means of smashing the front door in. I know from painful first hand experience the possible consequences of having a stranger in the house.

I want an apology for that, as well as compensation. I know it shrieks of this hysterically litigious society we’re in, but I am deeply upset by it. I also want an apology from the estate agent Kelly for treating me like an errant five year old and not calling me immediately to discuss what had happened.

Please let me know what you think. My past experience has made me more sensitive to this, but no matter which way I turn it I cannot see that I am being over-sensitive.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Seriously In Need Of Some Kittens In Cups

Last weekend I volunteered at the Skin Two Expo, handing out flyers for the Night of the Senses ball that is coming up this Friday in Brixton. The ceremony for the 2008 Erotic Awards which will comprise the first part of the evening, and then the party will start. The ball has been an annual thing for the last twenty years, and usually attracts about nine hundred people. The exhibition was a fetish/alternative fashion exhibition in the Students’ Union of UCL, and I was helping out with a lovely gentleman by the name of Bob.

Over three floors, the exhibition was large and varied. There was clothing (primarily leather, latex and lace), toys, swings, whips. Photography. Things that buzzed and whirred, crackled and hummed. People selling cakes shaped like naughty things and naughty things shaped like cakes. A woman dressed as a dog, curled up in a cage, waiting for her master (sporting jodhpurs and a frilly shirt) to take her out for walks around the exhibition.

Our stand was next to the doggy-cage, just opposite the bar. Posters for the ball were laid out on our red, crushed velvet table cloth, along with information booklets for Outsiders, the charity for which the Night of the Senses raises money, and a trophy shaped like a large golden penis with wings. The trophy is an example of those awarded to the winners of the Erotic Awards, one of which my friend Lily won a few years ago for her burlesque performance (she is now on the organising committee). Bob fetched some drinks and we sat around chatting for a while. I learned that he had been helping organise the ball for the last twenty years, and that it has gained a reputation for being a very welcoming event, open to all. Not arrogant, not posey, just a place where people can go to explore their alternative, true selves. The more I heard about it the more appealing it sounded and the happier I was to be helping out. As we chatted I sipped my gin and tonic and looked around. Music poured out of a nearby speaker. At the tables in the bar all sorts of people congregated, laughing and talking, soaking up the energetic atmosphere.

Bob and I decided it would be best for me to walk around, exploring and flyering.
I wore black skinny jeans, a corset and gold accessories (make-up, shoes, belt, and necklace). I wandered around, handing out flyers and chattering to people about the ball, about the event, about life, the weather and everything. People were dressed up and down and everything in between: masked, costumed or casual. On the first day I watched the fashion show in the main hall. Cameras flashed like strobe as the models walked on stage in their weird finery. Dresses that looked like they were vacuum-packed, hooped corsets, wings and zips and chains. A man with a mohawk bent a woman across a chair and flogged her with a ten-foot long whip. Things were decorated with buckles, feathers and fur. The models writhed and pouted, sometimes enacting a fetish fantasy and at others standing, hands on hips, smouldering at the crowds.

As the afternoon continued I was asked over and over if I was planning to attend the Rubber Ball that evening, in the SE1 club near London Bridge. I was informed that this was much more of a hardcore event than the Night of the Senses next Friday. The sort of night where people go to show off their rubber finery, in all its forms. I hadn’t heard about it, but was offered a free ticket (a considerable mark-down from the usual £35) and, in the interests of new experience, accepted.

Once home, though, the excitement dissipated. Tired and aching from the day, I made some dinner and ate it, thoughtfully. The prospect of leaving my warm house at nearly midnight, to make my way in the dark rain to the cavernous arches of London Bridge and the SE1 club, filled me with a weary dread. No, I decided. I wouldn’t go. I would watch some television, drink some tea and get a good night’s sleep before the next day of flyering. It was the sensible thing to do, and I was exhausted as it was. I moved to the sofa and started to flick through the TV guide.
My phone beeped.
“Hey Léonie. We’re getting to the club for midnight. Can you come? It’ll be cool. See you there!”
I stared at the message for a bit. Standing up, I sighed. I had two hours to get ready and get there.

Made up of some the arches that crouch underneath London Bridge station, SE1 is cavernous. The rooms continuously branch out from each other, leading you through a brickwork labyrinth of enormous, dark spaces.

A seven foot being encased in rubber strode past, with only eyes and mouth visible. It was difficult to tell whether it was male, female or indeed even human. People were naked. Others were strapped and chained. As I walked around submissives fell at my feet, begging me to be the dominatrix. I stepped over them, no desire to play that game. There were performances and dungeons, although it was difficult to tell one from the other at times. I hung out with the people I had met during the day, and some I met there. Some had been on “the scene” for ages and others, like me, had never been to anything like this before. At times I clung to those people. To be in such a charged atmosphere whilst being completely unavailable was at times difficult. Never in my life have I received so much male (and at times female) attention. I was very glad to be able to tell people that I had a boyfriend, that, no, he wasn’t there but that it made no difference. Smile, walk away.

I got to bed at about eight o’clock the following morning. The party, the after-party, the Sunday morning tube journey.

By four o’clock the same day I was rushing down Tottenham Court Road. Late for my flyering duties, back in my corset.

Breathlessly I rushed up to the stall, and upon seeing me Bob leapt from his seat.
“I’m so sorry...” I began, but was cut off.

“They need someone for the fashion show today! I said you might do it? Do you want to?”

Images from the previous day’s show flashed through my mind. The cameras, the posing. I inwardly shrugged. It was, I supposed, a weekend of new experiences.

“Yeah, ok! Where do I go?”

I was dressed by a blonde woman with sparkly lipstick. A corset with purple trim, a short, leather skirt and a fascinator in my hair. I would be modelling for a company called B Barbarella.

Without even having a chance to look in the mirror I was rushed backstage, where the models for all the different designers were waiting on the stairs. Lounging in their wild outfits, I was put next to a sullen-looking Asian girl with immaculate hair and tattoos all over her shoulders. The feathers began to slip through my messy mane even as I roughly pushed the grips back in place. The girl was to be going on stage with me, just the two of us.

“So what do we do?” I asked, urgently, as my corset strings were being tightened.
She shrugged. “You know. Walk on, then to the front. Pose. Then walk round and, like, pose, sexily, on the chair shaped like a shoe.”

I took as much breath as the corset would allow.

“Right. How long do we have?” Please say thirty seconds. Please.

“Oh, not long. Only about, like, four minutes.”

Resisting the urge to laugh hysterically I turned to look at the rest of the models in the queue. I watched one girl run the four flights of stairs from the dressing rooms to the stage whilst encased in a knee-length rubber dress. Another was telling her friend how she gets a rash on her upper lip from wiping away the sweat that comes from wearing leather and latex under stage lights. The man with the mohawk was there, his whip coiled around his arm like a giant, tapered snake.

Suddenly it was our turn. The other girl sashayed onto the stage as I stood and waited, shoving the fascinator desperately into my hair.

I walked into the lights and to the front. Posing, pouting. Copying. Staring into all the lenses of all the cameras and trying to suppress the feeling that I was a twelve year old imitating the glamourous ladies from Vogue. The seconds ticked slowly as the feathers slid down my head and over my face.

Hold your nerve, I told myself. Don’t show the fear. Keep going. Relax. Resist the urge to roll your eyes. Resist the urge to run.

“B Barbarella!” exclaimed the hostess after what felt like years, giving us our cue to leave the stage. In the wings I turned to my sullen partner, but she had disappeared. I walked backstage to a mirror and stared at my reflection and, looking at the feathers jutting out the side of my head like some kind of vision-impaired exotic bird, burst into peals of laughter. I did an impression of myself posing like an idiot and laughed until my sides hurt. People, I thought, just took pictures of that.

Off-stage I walked back to Bob, who took some pictures of me in the outfit and told me I had looked great. I laughed, not at all believing him but appreciating the comment anyway. Modelling, I think, is not my thing.

I retrieved a gin and tonic from the bar and sat down. I went to the toilets to change back into my own clothes. There were some other women in there and I chatted to them about the fashion show, telling them about it laughingly, until one of the other models came in and I was silent, not wanting to show my amateurish status. Although, I reflected, it was probably fairly obvious from the fear in my eyes.

The hours trickled on and before I knew it I was back home on my sofa, sipping tea and waiting for Monday. Relieved to be out of my corset, out of the shoes that crunched at my feet, but holding onto the exhilaration of new experience. Shutting my eyes and revelling in the thrill of adrenaline sparking still.

(Bob's take on things and some pictures...)

Bob has sent me over some pictures. Here I am in my fashion show outfit (I think the fascinator grew wings and flew off):