Sunday, 5 June 2011

Leaping to conclusions: A tribute to Keats

Three things you should know:

A) Everything that follows is factual, though a few things have been altered to make them sound better. This is the truth.

B) The Town of Shipley lies within the metropolitan district of Bradford in West Yorkshire.

C) Shipley Pool’s diving board is 5 meters high. That makes it as big as a house.

Inspirations #1
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, - that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”
From Ode on a Grecian Urn - John Keats 1819

12th March 2011

I say

“I’m doing a reading. I’ve been asked… For The Keats House festival.”

She says

“Do you write poetry? I thought you wrote plays!”

I say

“Never mind that! I’ve already said yes… Tell me everything you know about Keats”

She says

“We did him at school… Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”

I say

“That’s the title? Yes?”

But she can’t remember.

I must sound disappointed. It’s a phone conversation. There is a pause.

“It was a long time ago Emma!’

My First memory of Shipley Pool…

I am livid!

I think I am 4 or 5, so it’s 1973 or 74.

I have armbands, I’m proud of their oranginess.

I am running around the pool.

A lifeguard is blowing his whistle hard.

I don’t care! I don’t stop. I am not scared…

I am often scared now.

Monday the 23rd of May 2011 - She is adamant she wants to be anonymous…

‘But the whole point is that they’ll know who you are! It won’t make sense otherwise.”

“Alright. You can call me Mum. Just don’t use my name’

“But Mum” I say, “That is your name!”

Inspirations #2 - Jack Stillinger (an editor of Keats poems) writes:

“The accumulation of information from so many sources allows us [now] to know Keats better than most of [his] contemporaries knew him, even those who saw him every day...” From “Keats” by Andrew Motion p.xxi Faber and Faber 1997

Some accumulated information…

1) Mum is a retired spy. Or at least during the cold war she was a Wren, working at the Admiralty. And she refuses to talk about what she did.

“For National Security reasons Emma!”

I say

“Oh go on!”

She says

‘You’ll have to wait until I’m dead. I’ve left you a newspaper cutting…”

Like my Mum, I am excellent at keeping secrets. Though I am not a spy or keen on nationalism or Royalty. On these things we agree to disagree.

2) In 1939 when my Mum was 11 years of age she entered and took part in her school’s diving competition. Unfortunately, at this time, she couldn’t swim.

I say

“Why would anyone do that?”

Mum says

“The list went up. Everybody was doing it. I just thought ‘Yes I’ll do the diving’… I didn’t know you needed to be able to swim!”

From this I conclude that my suggestible nature and inclination towards foolish, romantic gestures comes from Mum and not Dad.

3) My Mum hates heights.

You’d think spies would need to be immune to all forms of phobia, but apparently not.

I take after her with this too. We both hate heights.

Which is probably why she said

“Oh God! Why?! It’s not right… I think you’re absolutely off your rocker”

When I announced to her my plan to try and jump from the 5-meter high board at Shipley Pool, as an experimental tribute to John Keats.

Subsequently, on the 27th of May 2011 at 22:10 hours my Sister sent me a text…

“Well I have just had hysterical laughter with Mum trying to describe to me you trying to jump off the top board at Shipley baths! What are you up to now you crazy girl?”

Inspirations # 3:

“O for a life of Sensation rather than of Thoughts!” John Keats in a letter sent to Benjamin Bailey on the 22nd of November 1817

How the ‘Big Board Obsession’ began…
By now its 1980 and I’m 10 years old.

I would queue waiting for my turn, standing with the big boys, listening to their talk of dive bombs and the girl who belly-flopped and ripped her tummy open.

I wanted to run. But I didn’t, because I knew that attaining greatness meant beating fear and jumping off the big board. That much was obvious.

And then it was my turn…

The sickening climb up the silver ladders.

The dithering dithery-do as I reached the top.

The blood draining from my face.

And then the freeze of fear.

No way forward, no way back.

Kids below would start to laugh.

Finally my sister had to come up to talk me down…

Once we were in the changing room, her exasperation.

‘Stop going up there!’

But every time I went to the pool, I would try again. Always hoping that this time would be the big time…

I don’t remember when I stopped trying. I was probably 13 or 14…

Inspiration #4: The Vale of Soul-making…

“Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school Intelligence and make it a Soul?..” Letter from John Keats to George and Georgina Keats 1819

Dormant but not gone…

It is now anytime between 2003 and 2007. I am in my mid 30’s. It is a period of many heartbreaks… A relationship has just ended…

I wake alone. I have a clear understanding that my life is doomed to failure. I think about how I couldn’t ever even get off that stupid board at Shipley baths, let alone hang on to a girlfriend.

It is a fateful day.

I get up. I decide I need to draw a line in the sand. The phoenix shall rise from the flames.

Which is how I find myself once again, frozen at the top of that big 5-meter board, losing the feeling in all my limbs. With no big sister there to talk me down. A dark day.

Inspirations # 5

“The purpose [was] not to embrace the rapture of ‘terror’’; it [was] to increase his ‘knowledge’. [Keats] does not want simply to enlarge his sensations; he tries to subtleties them.” Andrew Motion on the significance of Keats’ walking tour in Scotland. - ‘Keats’. p267

A date with destiny…

At 9 am, on Wednesday the 25th of May 2011, I went to Shipley swimming pool to attempt to throw myself off the top board. I entered into this experiment for Keats, for art, for glory, to experience sensation over thought and to face my fears.

Please break the seal on your flick-book and discover the outcome…
It took me 32 years, but I finally jumped off the top board at Shipley baths.

As an act it was awkward and ungainly. It was arguably unnecessary. And in staging it for you, it has gained a stink of attention seeking. And yet, despite all of this, it is one of the truest things that I have ever done.

It was awful. It took me 30 minutes. I cried at one point. At another, the lifeguard offered to throw me off. Worse, I had to do it twice; because Jane and Shari who came to take the photos for the flipbook said they didn’t have enough frames captured during the first jump.

“You want me to do it again?”

‘That way you’ll really own that board’ said Jane…

I will never own the board! What those two jumps taught me is that the board will always own me. But finally, I am happy to live with that.

I felt the shape of fear standing up on that board. So now I know: Fear is selfish, singular and uncomplicated. Fear only knows brute force and the tyranny of binary choices. ‘Yes or no? Do or Die!’ Living like this, fear can’t be undone. Not really. It just stays until a new fear replaces it. The two jumps I made only happened when my fear of failure briefly over ruled my fear of heights. Where is the glory in that? No, the glory lies elsewhere. Having stood and traced the outline of fear, I find all I keep thinking about is the depth of love. Fear should mean love can’t exist. But love does exist! Against all the odds, we persist in loving. Love, which has so many words, so many options and so many ways of teetering on. Love, that weaves through memory and thought to make a life. And still how we undervalue it! I can’t help thinking - what might happen if, as an experiment, we all decided to stop battling fear and instead put all our effort into facing up to love?

Post Script - Saturday the 28th May 2011 – 3 days after the jump…

I ring up to say

“I found out. ‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’. It’s the first line of ‘To Autumn”

But before I can get that in Mum says

“I have been talking with your brother. And we wondered? Did you explain? I don’t think you did. Because I just don’t understand what jumping from the board at Shipley pool has to do with Keats? Can you explain that to me Emma?”

I start to laugh. She starts to laugh.

I say

“I love you Mum”