- Holly Searle
- London, United Kingdom
- Holly Searle is a writer who was born in Westminster in the middle of London. She shares her birthday with Jarvis Cocker and David Seaman and like Jarvis Cocker she wears glasses but has nothing whatsoever in common with David Seaman. She is fascinated by words, people and their stories, and regularly spends hours fantasising about being offered a weekly column. She has a degree in Film and Television which she gained from Brunel University in 1997. She has been blessed with two quite remarkable children whom she adores. She enjoys the company of her friends and the circus that is life. Long Walk to Forever by Kurt Vonnegut is her favourite short story. She is the author of the published children's tale The Story of Balan Singh, and is currently working on her first book.
Saturday, 10 October 2015
When I was a little kid, I never thought of myself in terms of being a girl, I was just a genderless shy and sensitive child knocking about in the world. And when I think about it now, I wasn't defined by society as one either. I was just me.
I don’t recall ever being made to feel special for having been born a girl, or dressed up in buttons and bows or in pink. Maybe this was a very modernistic approach on my parent’s behalf, although I tend to think it was more to do with their lack of Joie de vivre in relation to their income that rendered them (and me) without that option.
It was more of a calamity than Calamity Jane.
We were painfully poor. It was the sort of poverty that enabled us to survive rather than affording such lavish choices like acquiring new clothes.
In our house, my dad would cut out the shape of a shilling (that's five pence in today's money) from the top of a tin can, and push it into the to the electricity/gas meter to keep our supply going. I can remember how we would all have to hide, and pretend that we weren't in when the utility man came to empty the meter. And how my dad would have to cough up the money, when the man eventually did gain access to ours after pay day. The shame was palatable as he unlock the little draw in the meter, and poured out all of those faux tin shillings.
Still, at least we had access to these utilities and were taught the important lesson of how necessity was the mother of invention.
I spent the first few years of my life in those unattractive black slip on PE plimsolls. I always thought they were quite cool and to this day if I even get a whiff of that rubber smell, I am immediately transported back to my days wearing those unsupported and unattractive canvas poor excuse for footwear.
I can only remember going to buy one pair of shoes as a child, and my overriding memory of that, was why I couldn’t have the red shiny ones instead of the ones I had bought for me. Now I can buy my own shoes, I am, as you can imagine, very particular. But alas, my feet are a problem due to these early Start-rite lacking years.
I can’t ever remember buying clothes off the peg. To be fair, and fashion accurate, in the 70's there weren't any specialist girls clothing stores, there were just departments for them within department stores. But I can remember my mum making me clothes that were all constructed in a particular style to cover my apparent girth. My nan was a pretty good seamstress, as well as being a sterling knitter. And my mum had inherited these amazing long forgotten skills.
By modern standards, I was not an obese child by any means, but for some reason I was dressed in these tent like dresses that she made to covered me up.
There I was, a concealed child, who also happened to be female. What sort of unconscious message did that send to me I wonder? Probably the one that was just as effective as the comment that I nan made to my mum during a family holiday in Devon one year when I must have been eight or nine. “Holly is very fat.” I heard her say to my mum. I was completely dissolved and devastation by that comment for years. I felt like a freak and hated myself. It consumed me and I felt socially unworthy because of it for many years afterwards, and hid my post-adolescent slim body under mountains of oversized clothes.
The comment and the tent dresses were like two scarlet letters which I wore with shame throughout those last two years of primary school, and beyond. Being a child had been okay, but realising I was becoming a girl was harsh.
When I started secondary school I wore a uniform just like everyone else. I found tremendous comfort in that as I was no longer singled out and could take cover and disappear into a crowd of other people who were all dressed just liked me.
But at this moment, the one in which I had at last found some sanctuary, my body decided it was time to evolve.
This evolutionary process decided that it was time for me to have breasts. Girl bits grew where they had not been before and I was so mortified by their appearance that tried to flatten beneath my school blouse with an ugly tight waistcoat. I was horrified by these changes that were defining my gender. In the shadow of recovery were I was able to hide after being the fat freak, I was now going to have to become a proper girl. I hated my breasts. I was so embarrassed. How dare they do that to me? How dare they appear and ruin everything in such an obvious and apparent way.
My femininity was never cherished or presented to society in the correct débutante way. On the contrary, something somewhere had been wholly unsuccessful in my coming out. And my breasts suffered because of that the most.
Their existence also seemed to me marred by other people’s perception of them. And that perception, stigmatised my own enjoyment of them. Where I should have been celebrating these changes, I was ashamed by them.
Later after I had stopped trying to restrain them with that waistcoat and had got a well fitted bra, I had to visit the doctor due to illness. As I was still too young to see the doctor alone, my mother was with me. The doctor (a woman) asked me to remove my top so that she could examine me. When I did, she gasped at my breasts. This response was not due to their magnificence, but rather due to the fact that she had known me as a child without them. Their presentation startled her and her audible recognition of them, was yet another set back.
Their presence eventually grew on me, and I accepted them as I started to grow into the woman I was becoming. Then one day a friend’s mother informed me in front of a captured audience that she didn’t really think I needed to wear a bra as she thought my breasts were quite small. “Mother!” I heard my friend cry out in despair. What is it with women and other women’s breasts I wonder?
Maybe Jean Paul Gaultier should have made me a conical bra outfit instead of Madonna. Now that would have been something to comment on for its sheer audacity.
That observation hurt. And in that moment, I was ordained with the same freakish mantel as I had been all of those years ago by the comment that my nan had made about my weight.
It was all turning in to a game of Snakes and Ladders this girl stuff. I had enough ladders to climb as it was without those that shared my gender forcing me to slide down patriarchal snakes before I needed to.
They were my breast for the love of Mary! And the more attention they drew, the more protective I became for their well-being.
Were they small? Or were they just my size? Who gets to decide what is small and what is big? Where does this obsession come from?
Less is more according to a poem by Robert Browning. Maybe it was his fault that people paid so much attention to my breasts, and felt the need to comment.
When I became pregnant, my breasts and I were given the gift of foresight. If, I had wanted bigger breasts, this was the perfect opportunity to consider this option as nature increased their size naturally for me.
After I had had my baby, I can recall going to the loo which was situated on the maternity ward and whilst washing my hands in the sink, I suddenly noticed the size of my breasts in the mirror that hung above it. There they were reflected back at me in the mirror this huge pair of breasts heavy with new motherhood. I was delighted and amazed with them. But that didn’t last long.
It was great having those around for a while. They were certainly cheaper and less painful than surgery. They were natural. But they soon lost their appeal and I was glad when they were reduced to their initial size.
Then one day I found a small lump in the left one. I was beyond scared. I was a new single mother with a baby. I went to my GP as fast as I could because that is what we women are told to do. As I opened the door to his room, and before he gave me the opportunity to sit down, my GP gestured for me to lift up my top for him to feel them. He then informed me that there was nothing there and I was just being silly.
Six weeks later I was in hospital having the lump, a milk cysts removed. I knew he was wrong. The one thing nature teaches about your body after you have had a baby, is that you know your body better than anyone else. And I knew my breasts.
Then I went through a phase where I lost a ridiculous amount of weight. This just so happen to coincide with the fact that I was on the first run of starting a new relationship with a particular man. The night we did it for the first time, I removed my top exposing my breasts to which he exclaimed “Oh my God you’re a boy!” It was horrific for my ego, and for our fledgling relationship, that died a tragic and mournful (for him) death soon after.
They grew again when I had my second child and have in the aftermath of his arrival, just reverted back to being my breasts.
I love them. They are mine and no one else’s’.
I have shared them quite successfully with each of my children. That after all was their raison d'être.
They have been admired, fondled and loved. Most of all by me and a few others over the years.
Recently they were relentlessly squashed during my routine age appropriate mammogram examination.
I didn’t enjoy that at all. But I enjoyed the negative result.
I often admire them. For although they are smallish, they remain my second most favourite part of my body.
It’s been a long and emotional love story between my breasts and I. They are part of me and I am lucky to have them. Not all love stories end so well or continue to grow so successfully.
Friday, 2 October 2015
The first time I ever visited Kew Gardens I paid one old penny to get in. I can still feel the turnstile against my body as I dropped that penny into the slot and pushed against its cold mechanical resistance. It creaked and then cranked, and then suddenly stopped with a sharp thud that granted me entrance.
As I broke free from its constraints, I realised I wasn’t in Kansas any more. What lay before me, was the safe freedom of its lush green wide open spaces and I ran and ran. Sprinklers swirled delicate soft umbrellas of water in the heat of the afternoon, and I laughed manically as I tried to dodge them all.
I had never paid to go into a garden before. The only garden I was familiar with, was my Nan's in Mitcham. And although her garden had always seemed huge to me, she had dedicated beds for her roses, which interrupted any possible access to a free run.
Kew’s gardens were immense allowing me to be able to run quite a distance without ever encountering a single rose bush. It was pure unadulterated bliss, full of warm earthy smells and small forests of tactile trees of every description, with the odd shaped sculptural buildings thrown in for good measure.
It was a complete joy to and for me. Who knew that on the outskirts of the city such a place existed?
I didn't have a garden growing up. I still don’t. I have never lived in a house with access to one. It’s the one thing I intend to rectify before I die. So over the years, Kew has become my foster garden. It is my own personal bastion of tranquillity in the over subscribe hectic crazy city I live in.
I paid one old penny that first visit, and continued to do so until it rocketed up to the hefty sum of ten pence. Then I didn't visit for many years. My life and other less salubrious activities somehow got in the way.
That was until a sad pause for thought in life presented itself, and I was advised that the best place to grieve was within Kew's gardens.
And so I did.
I returned and found the sanctuary I needed, and since then, I have never looked back.
And I was delighted to see that the turnstile was still there. And even if they no longer rotate excited small children with old pennies into their gardens, you can, if you so wish, rotate yourself out of Kew for old times’ sake. And of course, being me, I always do.
In the years since rekindling our relationship, I have fallen in love with the place all over again. Each time I go there, an immense feeling of calm engulfs me. I am safe and free to wonder and think and just be.
I can’t think of another place that I have ever spent time in, where I felt so secure. In the intervening years since my return, I have spent days there in all types of whether accept when it has snowed (as they close it for safety reasons). I would love to be able to experience it in the magical silence that only snow brings.
I have been there in the morning, during the day, and late in the evening. I have spent New Year’s Eve there, hosted birthday picnics amongst Henry Moore bonzes, watched winter become spring and spring become summer, and summer turn into autumn.
I have thrown coins at the foot of the Japanese Gateway with wishes attached to them. I have travelled on the minibus and listened to the tour guide retelling the antics of its previous royal tenants.
I have considered climbing up the Pagoda, but have to confess I never have. I have marvelled at all the history that has taken place throughout the life cycle of the Cycad that resides in the (Day of the Triffids) Palm House, and has been around since 1770. Remarkable. Imagine that?
I have comforted friends within its grounds, been comforted by friends, gone on dates there. Then gone there to recover from those dates. Met up with old friends, read to my son. Written. Laid peacefully in pools of silent sunshine during the plane strike. Ran into friends I haven’t seen for years there, discussed lovers. Avoided lovers. Walked and walked in rotations to improve my fitness levels.
Drank tea, drank coffee and have eaten lots of cake.
I have laughed. Read. Thought. Pondered. Sat on benches dedicated to people who like me love the gardens, but of whom I know absolutely nothing. Taken numerous on a whim sunny day picnics there. Been amazed by the giant redwood trees. Visited the bluebell woods in the spring. And, felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up one afternoon in the palace. It is endless the discoveries and experiences one place can offer you if you engage with it.
There is always something new to learn, see or do in my garden.
So when Kew decided to host their first literary festival, it was my idea of paradise. There between its beautifully manicured boarders, exotic plants, and elderly trees, writers, authors and journalists would descend and take root for the last week in September.
The variety of subjects that they would be discussing were vast. And if I could have, I would have attended each and every talk and lecture. For me, to be able to hear artists talk about their work and their lives, is a wonderful thing. I was invited to attend, and thereafter became Charlie Bucket with a golden ticket on her way to the chocolate factory.
As I was fortunate enough to be able to attend several talks during the final two days of the festival, I had decided that I would chose a balance between science, fiction and poetry and children’s literature as the subject matter of the hour long talks I would like to attend. I also thought about the person that I wanted to hear, and based this upon how much I knew about them in advance of the event. With my tickets secured, off I went.
The weather was glorious on both days. Perfect for visiting Kew. The sun was shining and the gardens were full. I made my way to my first talk, situated in the Jodrell Lecture Theatre to hear the doctor and writer, Gavin Francis discuss his book Adventures in Human Being.
This seemed like an appropriate talk to start my two day attendance with, as in his book Gavin maps a route from head to toe of not only the human body, but of the way in which different parts of it are represented within our various cultures. I sat there lapping it all up, intrigued by how he had managed to research and deliver so much.
Within his hour long lecture, I was most captivated by his chapter relating to all of the faces he had dissected during his training. Here he discussed how it was possible to differentiate between those who had spent their lives laughing, and those who has spent their lives frowning, simply due to the tone of the muscles in their post mortem faces.
Some he told us, had well formed cheek muscles, and had obviously spent more time smiling and laughing, as opposed to others who had more well formed muscles in their foreheads that had been built up from years of frowning. It was both insightful and telling, and a good lesson of how in death, there are those who will be able to identify what kind of person we were: one that laughed or one that didn't. The literal mask of comedy or tragedy as seen through the eyes of those in the medical profession. It was fascinating stuff that was certainly food for thought.
I then went off to a Novel Literary Lunch hosted by Mel Giedroyc. Mel's guests were ex-editor of The Lady and sister to Boris, and now novelist Rachel Johnson and John Mullan, a professor of English at UCL and Jane Austen aficionado. We the audience were introduced to Mel and her guests Individually, each who then proceeded to present us with their own home-made trays of cakes. I think mine was a Mullan creation. I shouldn't be eating cakes, I pondered, but then again when it was handed to me on a plate, how could I say no. Then Mel informed us that the purpose of the lunch was to give each of the trio the opportunity to present a starter, main and pudding in the form of their favourite choice of books.
Again, this was a real treat as it presented us with their three personal choices and their reasons why they had choosen those particular books. My favourite was Mel's The Novel Cure: An A to Z of Literary Remedies by Susan Elderkin and Ella Berthoud . If you have ever needed a book to read as a cure to an issue in your life, then this book does just that. Need a cure for a broken heart, writer's block, or a myriad of other aliments, then you can simply look up your issue, and this book will recommend what to read to cure it. Genius. My copy is on order. And if you are wondering what to buy that reader in your life for Christmas, there's your answer.
The guests choices included; I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, Clarissa by Samuel Richardson, the C.J. Sansom Shardlake series of books and All I Ever Wrote: The Complete Works of Ronnie Barker.
All of this was mental food for thought and a clever, witty and revelatory insight into what and why certain books appealed, or resonated with each of the speakers.
It was late in the afternoon when the talk ended and the sun was still high in the clear sky and I left my day one wishing I had accessed more.
My second day was only a sleep away I mused on arriving home, and what treats it held.
10:45 the next morning and I was rushing as I was late. How could I do this to the woman I was about to see? She is 92 and has had the most extraordinary life. If you haven't seen the BBC Imagine documentary about her, I would suggest that you do so. For Judith Kerr has had quite a remarkable life.
I arrived to find a lengthy queue leading into the Sir Joseph Banks Building. The chatty security guard informs me that Judith is running late so not to panic. I say at her age I think she is allowed. The guard agrees.
I am slightly annoyed at my lateness though as it means that I will have to sit nearer the back and my eyesight isn't as bionic as it used to be. Still, I am there and eventually so is Judith.
Judith is really an illustrator. Judith is Jewish. She lived with her family in Germany. At the age of nine it was brought to her father's attention that they were about to receive a visit from the Nazi party. As such, her mother packed what they needed, and left all of what they had, and escaped. Remarkably she packed some of Judith early childhood drawings. These intricate colourful drawings are now housed in the Jewish Museum London.
Their escape from Germany is an incredible story in itself. She came to London and worked as a textile designer and then after her first child was born, found herself at home with time on her hands within which she began to create stories.
Her most well known story is The Tiger Who Came to Tea.
What became apparent during her talk, was that Judith is a funny, imaginative, creative person, who despite all of the horrors that took place in her and her family's wake, finds beauty in life. Her new children's book Mister Cleghorn’s Seal, tells the tale of one inspired by her father's real life efforts to save a baby seal that he rescued from certain death. She amused the audience when asked how she had researched what the fishermen had worn and the how the seal should look for her drawings “I Googled them” she said.
She also admitted that she felt relatively new to this role having had her first book published at the age of 45.
It was a charming and gentle interview. When asked about those who weren't so lucky to have escaped the Nazis, she said that she didn't like to look back, but preferred to live in the present. She said that was amazed on a daily basis at all the beauty that the world has to offer and preferred to focus on that.
The talk ended and I queued for coffee thinking on her positivity. It was a beautiful morning and I was free and able. The cloudless sky was blue. God is in the detail I thought to myself.
I made my way back to the same building for the next talk on my agenda.
I was early this time and nabbed a better seat for the benefit of my eyes.
I sat down and waited for Sandi Toksvig. I always remember seeing her and her family in Chiswick High Road years ago. I can't put a date on this memory. But I remember thinking at the time about her and her life. She is a vivacious character, and one that I admire as she uses her time wisely to do as much as she can. Be that as a writer hell bent on educating people about facts that are crying out to be remembered. Or as an exponent of equal rights. Sandi Toksvig is colouring in every page of her colouring book with as many colours as she can.
Her persona couldn't be more opposite to my previous talkee Judith Kerr. Sandi is absolutely passionate about all of her projects because she knows from her own experiences how important it is to be a living sandwich board of information and detail.
She was simply magnificent in her deliverance of the information that she wanted to share with us, and incredibly generous with all of her stories about her life. She is an open book, and I recognised in her someone like myself who speaks up, because it is important to have a voice and to be heard.
My heart pumped with this realisation as I was handed the microphone to tell her what an inspiration she is, and to asked her how she found the support to keep going?
She was very gracious and honest in her response and shared with us her experience of coming out as gay and the ramifications that this had on her family. Recounting her story of numerous death threats and having to flee her home with her family under police guard, brought a tear to my eye. Here was a woman brave enough to be honest about her sexuality in the latter part of the twentieth century, years after Judith Kerr and her family had left Germany, being persecuted for another equally abhorrent reason.
I honestly believe that these collective experiences amongst writers, afford them the courage to be who they are. They are positive creations of their experiences and not in spite of them.
Sandi was there to promote her new children's book called A Slice of The Moon. A story that is based on a young heroine who leaves Ireland as a result of the potato famine for a new life in America.
Sandi is a arduous researcher and her attention to detail is what defines her books and who she is.
I left there inspired. I did feel a little guilty that my question had rubbed salt in an old wound. But then again, she was happy to share that memory and it's one that shouldn't be forgotten.
I had a while before my next talk. It was with a man, who when I think of, I just picture Daniel Day-Lewis with dyed hair sitting on a washing machine in a launderette.
I sat in the sunshine and ate a sandwich logging all that I had seen and heard so far. The gardens were busy with people travelling to and from various lectures. The creativity was palatable. I smiled and made my way to The Jodrell Lecture Theatre once again, to hear Hanif Kureishi talk about his book Love + Hate: Stories and Essays.
Like my two previous writers, Hanif Kureishi had turned to writing as a platform to speak up about a social injustice. For him it was the racism he had both witnessed and been on the receiving end of.
“I looked out of the window and thought I am fucked.” He began as he told us about the options open to him as a young Asian in Britain. In a heartbeat, after he had had that thought, he decided to become a writer. His premise being that there was no one like him writing about the things he had experienced.
Hanif is funny. He has a dry sense of humour that you could quite easily use to sand down a rough piece of wood. I laughed so much, that if Gavin Francis had been there at that moment to dissect my face, he would have found physical evidence of this.
Love + Hate: Stories and Essays is a series of essays and stories that deal with both of those emotions. Hanif amused us all with his well documented experience with an accountant who stole not only his money (£120,000) but also the money of many other lesser known individuals. He recounted his first meeting with the accountant Adam Woricker whom he believed to be a trustworthy person as an amiable man who had a passion for collecting James Bond memorabilia.
Hanif's main thematic was that even though this man had broken his trust by stealing his money, he became obsessed with him and what motivated Adam to do such a thing, given that he was in the main a likeable person.
Is there a thin line between love and hate, or is that just a Pretenders song? Absolutely there is. We have all at one time or another in our lives become intrigued by people who are likeable, but who do something to us that we cannot quite accept or understand. Ex-lovers for example. Hanif talked about how these incidents break our trust in people, but how we cannot let their behaviour colour our perception of trusting others. For if we do that, if we have no trust in the people we know or or yet to encounter, what hope is there for us?
He was incredibly engaging, witty and ardent raconteur. My face hurt by the end of his talk from laughing excessively. My only regret was that I was time rich but money poor (the irony) to purchase a signed copy of his book.
I was verging on being emotionally drained as I left the lecture theatre. I had so far attended talks that dealt with the holocaust, homophobia and racism. What next?
I made my way over to Cambridge Cottage (which is surrounded by my favourite garden within Kew) to hear Howard Jacobson talk about his rewriting of Shakespeare’s Shylock.
This was what I would call the intellectual heavyweight session of my weekend at Kew's Write on Festival. I have to admit I am not familiar with Howard, so I sat there and felt a little out of my comfort zone as to what to expect.
In walked Howard accompanied by Alan Yentob. They took their seats on the small platform and started discussing how Howard had arrived at his latest project.
It was an enjoyable and informative insight into the representation of being Jewish, and how the character of Shylock and been constructed and how that in turn had informed the perception of Jews. Was he a caricature or a valid construct? And if either, how did this inform and educate all of those that had read or seen the play when it had first been written and since?
Alan and Howard talk at great lengths about this and then Howard read from the manuscript of his as yet unpublished book. We were also treated to an rough edit of the BBC's opener of the forthcoming Imagine series which features Howard's journey with the play and his interpretation of it.
I warmed to Howard. He was incredibly intelligent and passionate about his work as all of the writers I had heard during the weekend were.
As a nearby clock tower struck six o'clock, the session was wrapped-up and those who wanted to queue for a signed copy of his book J were invited too do so, while the rest of us existed via the front door and found ourselves on Kew green.
I was out of the wardrobe and back in the real world.
I made my way home with my head full of information and new memories of a weekend spent in my garden with some incredible people who had shared their work and their passion for life with me and many others.
And it was bliss. If you like words and the way people string them together to amaze, delight, insight, captivate, and inform you. Then you would have been happy in my head as I lay in bed that night mulling over in my mind the two days I had spent at Kew. I could have attended an entire week of talks and lectures that were held there, I pondered, and for me it still wouldn't have been enough.
The pleasure was immense and fulfilling. Boy George was once cited for saying that he would rather have a cup of tea than sex. That might be pushing it a bit far for me. But I would say that the experience tapped into a part of my brain that finds an equal pleasure in both. Hearing people talk about their passions may well be just as fulfilling for me as sex. It's all about what stimulates your senses and leaves you wanting more of the same.
And I will be there next year, and who knows maybe someone will one day be listening to me talk about my work and my passion for it.
If anything, I hope that this piece has inspired you to read some of the books I have mentioned and to visit Kew's beautiful gardens.
And next year treat yourself and your literary senses and attend the next Write On Festival.
If you do any of those things, please let me know.