A long time ago in North London, in what seems like another life, I was thin, I had a pair of stripy yellow and red jeans and I was naive about a whole heap of things. Didn’t know how to use a computer, hadn’t really clicked that my parents met in Hackney, had only been out for a couple of years. I talked about naivety in passing in my last post: I said it’s a good thing, as long as you’re aware of it. Not sure I was aware of it in the days I’m talking about, but I did go on a steep learning curve. I was in my early 20s, and I had graduated the previous year; for a few months I ran the Creative Writing Youth Group at Centerprise in Dalston.
We were a small team of dedicated and enthusiastic writers. We spent time on a boat on the Thames learning desktop publishing and made a magazine on an early Apple Mac. In those days they were still beige boxes. And that’s how I learnt to use a computer. It’s why I’m writing this on a Mac right now. It was a brilliant moment for everyone in the group. The other high point was our performance at the Stoke Newington Festival. This was before Stokey was trendy. A team of three young women performed their spoken word poetry in the town hall, putting aside low confidence and stage fright, in front of an audience that included Diane Abbot in a bright pink suit. Their writing mattered and they knew it. The process of writing mattered too. Fast forward almost twenty years to this week and I was lying on the sofa with tonsillitis feeling sorry for myself when I found out that I won Litro Magazine‘s Stoke Newington Flash Fiction competition; it took me back to the town hall that afternoon.
I’ve been to Stokey hundreds of times since the Diane Abbot day: to visit friends, or Abney Park Cemetery, The Thai Cafe, The Blue Legume, Yum Yums, Rasa, Fat Cats, and to see a counsellor when I was having IVF, but it wasn’t until recently we started going to Clissold Park. Once our little boy was old enough to like the swings, we used to go to play there, although more often than not he spent his time chasing the pigeons instead. So one of my younger self’s favourite walks in London – through the Cemetery – was forgotten and transmuted into another favourite walk (a Mummy walk) through Clissold Park. We even went when it was frosty: in fact most of my memories of walking there involve being freezing cold and playground equipment that’s been painted with frost. It’s one of the places we thought we would miss the most when we left London in search of life by the sea.
In ‘You Are Not Special’ – the piece of flash fiction I entered for the Litro Prize – I joined these two walks together, so that the story is structured by the walk out of Clissold Park, onto Church St, and into Abney Park. I made it a cold day, because my abiding memory of Clissold Park is the frost. I ended with a choir because this story is partly about losing London, and one of the things I left behind was the choir I belonged to.
In a way, Stokey has been a figure for the changes I’ve been through since I was that naive 20 something: all those earnest conversations in cafes, all that coming to terms with stuff, changing from being fancy-free to being a mother, leaving London behind, and now a year after we’ve left it’s become a figure for remembering. I wrote the story while in the audience waiting for Rattle Tales to start at the Brunswick in Hove. Rattle Tales is a celebration of flash fiction and stories generally. I was supposed to be reviewing it, and I wrote my short short story instead. The subtext of the story is to do with finding a path as a writer. I’m trying to give a twist to the rather over-wrought idiom of the writer’s journey, which is also the Fool’s journey. It isn’t particularly about identity but this is the only way I know to express it: the story is about coming to a sense of oneself as a writer that’s so strong, criticism, rejection, prizes, publication, all that stuff, it’s there, but it doesn’t affect it. Here’s more about the Stoke Newington Literary Festival. Here’s the story.