This is a photo of my mother pole-dancing at Hull Pride in August. There are several things you may notice while looking at it. The muscular couple in the centre perhaps. Or maybe the woman in her underwear on the right, her handbag clamped between her thighs. But one thing I think is immediately clear; that my mum does not give a shit.
Here she is again, look. The blonde, front row left. Not giving a shit during the audition stages of Britain’s Got Talent 2015 with her burlesque troupe, The Ruby Red Performers. While watching this broadcast I learned that she knew how to twirl a set of nipple-tassels in opposite directions. Also that she owned a set of nipple tassels.
And here she is not giving a shit while riding a scooter across the stage during the live semi-finals of Britain’s Got Talent. This despite the fact that, seconds later, the blasting caps on her bra would cause her bosoms to explode in front of an estimated viewing audience of 10 million.
I could go on but I fear I’m labouring the point, which just to be absolutely clear, is that my mum does not give a shit. What’s more, she never has. At least as long as I’ve known her. Whether that hasn’t always been the case, I’m not sure. All I know is that for the past 39 years she has been immune to stage fright. Doesn’t fear hecklers or criticism. Could not give a Christmas fig about negative reviews or cruel comment. She does what she enjoys, refusing to let anyone else’s sour-faced opinion stop her. And what she enjoys is entertaining people.
I know this because I have spent my life watching her on stage and witnessing the enthusiastic reactions she receives. In pantomimes, flitting around the stage in glittery wings as fairy Godmothers. In plays and cabaret. Singing and dancing. Or, on occasion, standing in front of Simon Cowell while wearing her undercrackers. If something requires charisma and confidence she’ll give it a try and she’ll generally ace it. Because she is fearless.
“I don’t know why,” she’ll tell me. “I’m just not bothered about what anyone else thinks.”
This is an attitude I’ve always admired in her and wanted for myself. Sadly, along with hazel eyes and the ability to hold my drink, it was not something I inherited from her. In its place I have a mortifying aversion to being the centre of attention.
Now, you might think that being the centre of attention is exactly what I might want. After all, I write indulgently self-focused non-fiction on a blog where there is a photo of me on every page. And I guess I do want attention but that doesn’t stop me fearing it. Because, unlike my mother, I’ve always been bothered about what people think. Always hated being stared at. Never keen on being the focal point.
As a child I would scream and run from the room each year when my family sang me Happy Birthday. And unlike my siblings, I refused to be involved in mum’s passion for amateur dramatics. My sister was convinced by her to dress as a flying monkey for a production of The Wizard of Oz (and later to join the Ruby Reds, that’s her in the BGT audition photo, 2nd right). Likewise my brother ended up performing a solo rendition of “Where is Love?” on the town hall stage. But I was a complete disappointment in that regard. My best effort would be to sing old time music hall songs and even then only in our living room and with a blanket over my head. I have never been anyone’s idea of a born performer.
But last year, from somewhere, I found a pinch of my mother’s confidence. Not much, just enough to make me say yes to the offer of reading one of my stories at a spoken word event promoted by The Real Story in January. I told myself it would be good for me, taking the line that nothing worthwhile is easy. What it ended up being was traumatic.
Weeks of anticipation and mounting stress seemed to have steadily whisked my guts into a soup, which sloshed around in my calves while I stood on the stage, feeling distanced from myself. Wondering if the words coming out of my mouth were words at all. Afterwards I had to take other people’s word for it that I hadn’t just been standing there for 10 minutes mawp-mawping like an adult in a Peanuts cartoon. But I’d got through it and once the sickness had died away I realised that I liked performing slightly more than I hated it. The thrill of getting a laugh when I’d hoped for one. And God, if I’m being honest here, the validation of a crowd. It wasn’t bad. So I read at another night. And another. And another etc. I learned from them all.
Some nights were wonderful. Others okay. A couple were truly appalling. Exercises in public failure where embarrassment hissed and spat inside me. Underscored my insecurities in fierce lines. But no one died. Apart from me. And then only on stage, so not really. I carry those experiences with me, where they persist like small stacks of bones. Never rotting away. Ever-present. Reminding me how awful things could be but also that, in the grand of scheme of things, that’s not very awful at all. And I found that the more I read on stage, the more comfortable I got and the less my anxiety owned me.
Throughout last year I read at a lot of spoken word nights and saw many people like me. Sensitive, ticking characters gambling with their own scraps of confidence. Squirming under spotlights that were not built with them in mind, their voices cracked and nervous as they apologised before reading. Sheets of A4 paper fluttering in their hands as if they were trying to demonstrate the beating wings of a poorly constructed origami bird. Some of these people read once and were never seen again. Others returned and grew, becoming performers that I’ve been anxious about having to follow on stage. And they’d been afforded this thanks to the nurturing nature of Manchester’s live literature scene.
Since last January I’ve read at many spoken word nights. For Bad Language, First Draft, Tales of Whatever, Speak Easy, Verbose and The Real Story. And at each event I have found supportive, constructive and inspiring people. A community that is not necessarily there to decorate people with praise but is certainly not there to destroy anyone. Only wanting the best from everyone who steps up to the mic. And for that I’m more grateful than I can really say.
From pushing myself to take that first step I’ve had the confidence to take further risks, which while not always ending in anything like victory have at least had value. I’ve sent my stories off to publishers and had my share of rejections but also my first successful book submission. I’ve been interviewed on the radio. Had one of my stories published on a podcast and picked up a regular paid magazine column. I also joined The Real Story, a group that supports emerging non-fiction writers in the northwest and gave me the opportunity to read in the first place and set my ball rolling. None of this is particularly earth-shattering by most people’s standards. I don’t consider myself to be a success. But as a socially defective periphery-dweller with crippling performance anxiety and low self-esteem, I’m cautiously proud of myself.
I’ve long accepted that I will never have my mother’s courage and fearlessness. I will always find performing nerve-wracking. And I will never stop fretting about what people think. But I have learned that sometimes taking risks can be enough to change your life and that it doesn’t always hurt to give a shit.