The Tenth Woman Manifesto

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I can only speak for myself, but the concept never arrives fully formed out of nowhere.

I can never put my finger on one thing, it’s usually one tiny thing that drops into place to make sense of the rest, but on top of many other things. The other things could be other people (I think a lot about other people and how they tick) or conversations, or things I read, and bear witness to. To bear witness seems the right phrase over watch or see, more active that passive.

The way a song is written can be a sort of shorthand for this, a modelling: sometimes you wake up all Paul McCartney, with Yesterday in your head, but mostly it is piecemeal. A title. A sentence. A chorus, a melody, a hook… can arrive in any order. These ingredients can hang around for years until they find the right mates…

It’s the same with visual art concepts. They sit around a while just waiting for the right seasoning to bring them to life. I’ve learned to trust this process.

I’m not quite sure when the phrase “The Tenth Woman” first appeared in my mind. I used it in a previous post on 3rd May.

I always said about “nine women” that “we are all in there somewhere”. It was a truth, but not the whole picture. Certainly in its latest showing, I started to think more deeply that it was more than that. I started to look at exactly how much of these stories were mine, or had been filtered through my own mind… other lives interpreted through my lens, or just plain old me. I came to the conclusion that the work was deeper than I was, or had acknowledged at the time of making. Now the work is made, I look at women rather more carefully. And I am certainly looking at myself more carefully. This might seem a bit of an ego trip, but I hope not. It’s just that I’m the woman I know best.

What I’m thinking is that The Tenth Woman is a thing, a concept, a title… it might end up being a piece of work, or might end up just being the way I go about the work – a newly awakened methodology. It isn’t fully formed yet… but I’m inhabiting it. I also feel it is perhaps something I can invite other women to inhabit. Perhaps I might write a manifesto! (Hahahaha).

I have recently seen other women, strong, creative, amazing women brought down by a little negative comment that becomes outrageously enormous, because it happens to have pressed a particularly sensitive button. I suppose I’m suggesting that if my manifesto begins:

1. I Shall Take Ownership Of All My Own Buttons

Then maybe it won’t be so easy for other people to surprise us and derail the positive thinking?

“Why don’t you dye your hair?”
“You could do with losing weight”
“You should get in with those people, they’re doing it right”
“Aren’t you a bit old to be singing in pubs?”

2.  I Shall Address My Own Sensitivities And Then Tell Them All To Fuck Off.

I think, being The Tenth Woman means owning yourself, and doing whatever the hell it is that makes you purr.

So, sisters… A Call To Arms: Be The Tenth Woman.

TWO DAYS LATER…

 

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Everything is different…

Chalk and cheese!

My voice works.

Back to the usual set.

I feel in charge of what’s happening.

My bra is under wraps, under control.

The sound is good.

The environment is good.

The audience is mixed gender, race, age… and religion I think… in that I know my religion is historical, and others’ is present…

They have come to this place, specifically for this event, to listen.

The last one is the one that makes the most difference.

Obviously.

I don’t think Tuesday was good for me, other than it made me stronger in appreciating what works best for me/us. We have good songs with complicated lyrics and unusual premise… with weird and wonderful chords and tricky bits and beautiful driving rhythms that lead to somewhere you didn’t expect to go. These songs deserve a bit of respect from us, let alone the audience. If we don’t value them, who else will?

Thursday was the best gig yet I think. Maybe that is because Tuesday felt so awful?

An Observation of Experience (or: “Are You Looking At My Bra?”)

 

The Experience in question is the pub open mic night. The variables in play are those of an adjusted set list due to illness… I’ve had a really bad sore throat and cold which meant my bandmates stepped in to make sure I only sang every other song as lead vocalist, and that the more demanding of our songs were omitted from the set. Logistically, this meant that due to the space restrictions of the venue, although I was placed “up front” I wasn’t necessarily always the one addressing the audience as I am most of the time.
I am a relatively inexperienced “front woman”. I haven’t done many live gigs, and this was only the second one in a pub. I’m willing to keep an open mind about pub gigs, due to this inexperience, but so far, I’m not convinced it’s right for me.

Being the front person of the band feels – sometimes – like a weight. Not always. And I am not apportioning blame, it’s just how I feel. I do actually like it for the most part, I like talking to the audience and enjoy them talking back. So far it has been polite and fun! I am aware that I am the one presenting the band, and that I should do so responsibly… mwah hahaaaaa!

Last night, because of not feeling 100%, and still feeling that I had no instrument to hide behind, I was more conscious of myself than I usually am. This has thrown out some interesting points for discussion perhaps – feel free to join in.

The open mic night is a predominantly male province in terms of participants and audience. I counted only three women in the audience last night. All of whom were with men, and one of those left before our set began. The other men came individually, in pairs and in groups. Some were noisy. I was the only woman performing again (as mentioned in a previous post).

I am not often these days conscious of my physical self in a space. The area for performers was small. Good job we like each other, and have good standards of personal hygiene. But these guys are used to me, they know me pretty well now I think. I was more conscious of how I present. I acknowledge that I am a middle aged, grey haired, overweight woman. Mutton dressed not perhaps as lamb but hopefully as mutton with interesting seasoning and tasty gravy? I feel a contrast between myself and my band members who always look effortlessly cool. T-shirt, shirt, jeans. A uniform of sorts? (Cue teasing for almost matching checked shirts from Andy and Ian) I agonised, for a while, about what to wear, especially in new venue with an unknown audience. I want to present as someone worthy of interest for half an hour. I want to be interesting, rather than overtly attractive perhaps? My selection of clothing is important to me. My visual art work largely consists of garments and what they say. My short sleeved dress has printed teacups and pots and cakes to reinforce the stereotype! It is knee length and so I wear leggings and comfy purple boots with it. This is because having bare legs is too much, especially as I have visible cleavage too. I’ve been warned the venue is hot, so have not worn my usual t shirt under the dress. From my own vantage point I can see my bra. It occurs to me that anyone standing close enough, over about 5’5” tall can too. I become conscious…suddenly hyper-conscious of this. Does my consciousness show? Are the audience conscious of my self-consciousness? This thankfully fleeting thought makes me stumble over my song introduction, and having spent ages making sure my curly grey hair is perfectly arranged, I proceed to nervously wrestle my fingers though it, to make sure that by the end of the set I look like a hedge. I am who I am.

There is a tension between not dressing up, but dressing to perform, to present… the presentation is read more immediately than the lyrics or even the music? I perform, yes, but as myself?

If being part of The Sitting Room is part of my art practice (and it is) then I should scrutinise my choices in the same way.

Some people might say I’m over-thinking this. But actually over-thinking this is my job as an artist. Isn’t it? I am here to observe, question and comment. My work as visual artist, performer or writer is created from those observations and subsequent questions and comments.
The acknowledgement of privilege, The aspect of the male gaze, gender roles, equality, performance and the presenting of the group are all up for questioning here.
I notice the audience demographic every time I perform. I prefer diversity. An apparently single-group audience makes me uncomfortable. I am affected… but I don’t think it goes both ways.
I notice, and am grateful for the support and protection of my fellow band members: checking my voice; instructing the sound man, plying me with drinks; walking me back to my car; or giving me lifts so I don’t have to drive if I’m not feeling too well. I am simultaneously irritated by the societal need for it… but it is a fact of the relationship between us, I’m thankful, and I make note of how it makes me behave, I make note of how our behaviour impacts on each other. (I fight an urge to cut patches out of their shirts and stitch the pieces to my dress…)

I know that I feel differently about things to my fellow band members, for a variety of reasons, but gender is at the top of the list. I feel this way because I am a woman, definitely. I also know I feel like this because of the lack of experience. I do not know what it is like to look at me for half an hour, listening, watching… I have no idea what my performance looks like, only what it feels like. I try very hard to work well for these people, to do my best and not let them down. They are talented, lovely people who deserve the best representation, whose work deserves the best representation.
We haven’t been doing this for long. Feedback is generally good, musically, lyrically, and we give off a good vibe I think, because we have a good working relationship based on mutual respect, kindness, laughter and democracy. I think this shows.

In reading this through before posting, I am not sure that I have really captured what I’m thinking, whether I am being clear. But I’m going to post it anyway, to record these immediate feelings of nervousness, self-consciousness, inadequacy…and of a real present need to do it regardless. I’m posting it because I am The Tenth Woman. Because I’m going to carry on doing it anyway. If I don’t do these things who will, and if I don’t do them now, then when?

 

 

PS If you are a rare woman attending a gig, and feel that you shouldn’t be able to see my underwear from where you are sat, please take me to one side and gently tell me so!

Press Release

The Museum for Object Research

– a project born out of an autistic practice.

– Press Release/ Phase 1

The Museum for Object Research has been granted Arts Council funding for research and development.

The Museum for Object Research (MfOR) launched on a-n blogs in 2014 as an innovative online forum for object artists to share resources and develop a network of like minded practitioners. MfOR quickly sparked the interest and enthusiasm of a core group of professional artists who form a unique community around object work as practice.

Objects as cultural signifiers and material memory comprise the artistic focus of the Museum’s work.

The MfOR blog was originated by artist Sonia Boué, who also leads the Museum’s pioneering initiative to create a template for her work as an autistic arts professional. Artist and educator, Elena Thomas is MfOR’s project co-lead and key to the development of MfOR in its current form.

MfOR is an inclusive collaboration, whose work on autistic leadership seeks to develop best practice outcomes.

We seek partners committed to inclusion and diversity for dialogue, venue spaces, and conference participation. We are keen to explore areas of intersection with other minority groups.

The culmination of this initial phase will be our Arts Council funding bid for MfOR – Phase 2. Exhibition, day conference, artists talks, workshops, publications and a project film are included in our plans.

MfOR is based in Birmingham, Oxford and online.

MfOR Team:

Sonia Boué – project lead/ artist

Elena Thomas – project lead/ artist

Simon Meddings – design

Sarah Mossop – curation

Laura Rhodes – film/ photography

Dr Jacqueline Taylor – research/ conference planning/artist

Kate Murdoch – artist researcher

MfOR Collaboration:

Sonia Boué

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Sonia is an autistic multiform artist, creative project developer and manager whose recent work includes a film collaboration with Tate Britain.

Her practice encompasses paint, assemblage, video and performance. Objects form the springboard for the many branches of her work, which is concerned with themes of exile and displacement, with particular reference to family history and the Spanish Civil War. A background in Art History and Art Therapy informs her practice.

Born in Birmingham to an exiled Spanish Republican, she grew up between cultures. Family visits to Spain during the final decade of the Franco dictatorship form the bedrock of her practice as she continues to unpack her grandmother’s handbag.

www.soniaboue.co.uk

Her writing on autism can be found on, The Other Side

Elena Thomas

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Elena Thomas is a multiform artist and songwriter, creative project developer and manager. She has exhibited nationally and internationally. Her work comprises textiles, installation, performance and song.

Her object inspired practice encompasses touch, both physical & emotional, and the traces of influence of one person on another that are implicit in the objects and garments left behind. Imagined narratives are manifested in the stitching and the songs.

She has collaborated with producer and songwriter Dan Whitehouse on her recent Arts Council Funded Nine Women project.

Her blog writing on Threads forms a large part of her reflective practice and can be found at elenathomas.co.uk

Exhibiting  Artists

Neil Armstrong

Sonia Boué

Dawn Cole

Harmony

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I know I don’t usually have such a gap between blog posts, but if you have read the previous one, you will probably understand why I haven’t written!

It’s great, being given funding to realise an idea, but getting the “yes” is also a bit scary! Scary because I feel we have an obligation to deliver… not just for ACE, but also the team we have gathered around us. If you’d like to follow the project please visit :

https://museumforobjectresearch.wordpress.com

Sonia and I have spent the last couple of weeks, as well as getting over the shock, plotting and planning, writing lists of jobs, arranging meetings, visiting venues… there’s lots to do, but at least now we have the money to do it. Thank you Arts Council! We are discovering new ways to work harmoniously, and it feels good. We are an effective partnership I think!

meanwhile…

In another part of my brain is music.

The Sitting Room – my glorious band of songwriters, singers, musicians, and all round lovely people to be with – are recording four songs for a small cd/ep type thing. Having honed the songs by performing them as often as we could squeeze in, we chose four to record with the equally marvellous Dan Whitehouse (you may remember his part in the whole nine women thing?)

We had two days in the recording studio, with the highly sensitive and critical ears of Dan. Each song was looked at in detail, one had a significant rearrangement, and is all the better for it. And THIS… this exploration, critique, play, delving and diving in, this careful, detailed listening and discussion to me is worth the world. I know that other artists and musicians will understand the brilliance of such scrutiny? It can be exhausting, is completely absorbing and leaves no head-space for anything else. But I feel the love in the room… laughter, joy in the art of making something the best you can make it. Singing in harmony, both literally and metaphorically, is just fabulous. There is a light-hearted seriousness here in this group of people, born out of respect and kindness and a common goal. I feel humbled and privileged in their company.

Icing and a Cherry on Top

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The spirits have been lifted these past couple of weeks by art-related events, topped off with icing and cherry by the Arts Council saying yes to our funding bid for The Museum of Object Research.

By “we” I mean Sonia Boué and myself…

The original Museum blog was on a-n and gathered a conversation about it, a bunch of artists contributed to the discussion and the short story is, over a very long lunch in Leamington Spa, Sonia and I decided it would be great to make it real.

The funding is to research and develop the idea so that we have the tools, information and all the nuts and bolts in place to make another bid later on. This is a large undertaking, larger than either of us first imagined over the carrot cake and tea that sustained us from lunchtime through the afternoon…

Anyway… a few days later, the enormity of the task before us has sunk in. But I tell you what, I am so excited! This feels like a proper thing! We have gathered an amazing team of artists around us, who will make it meaty, meaningful, and most of all, REAL

We have already started transferring the blog to a more accessible, trackable, website, so please do join in as the conversation progresses.

This “yes” also means I have a few successful bids under my belt now, either as partner and co-writer, access support person, artist, and advisor. 100% in fact. A fact I find truly astonishing. It appears I am quite good at this. Those years of writing for so many formal and informal reasons has stood me in good stead it seems. I can write succinctly and I can tell a story. The news of this success has reached many ears, and a couple of people have asked me to help them in their bid.

So here I am, weirdly, setting out my stall in a market I didn’t expect! Yes, I can help. But my time is my livelihood now, so I must charge. My attitude towards this is conflicted… of course I must charge, artists must be paid for work, skills and expertise, in whatever field they can. But also, I know that artists are not paid fairly, so they are not always in a position to pay for help… but it has to start somewhere, right? And I know that this service is actually valuable. A well written bid can make the difference between paying the bills or not. I know this because that is how I live myself. It is worth putting hours (days, weeks, months) into an application for funding, because then I can work on what I want to, what is important to me, knowing I am being paid, rather than hawking myself about for badly paid work I don’t really want to do… anyway, you know what I mean.

So… among the preparatory work and researching and developing, I am now available for helping with Arts Council Funding Applications. I have a diary, I can do planning, me!

Over to the Dark Side?

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So…

After being packed in boxes for 18 months, the bras are hanging in the exhibition space, the songs I wrote are playing into the air around them. The work was finished, the installation complete.

But actually… there could be more.

I hang the bras in a certain formation, in small groups, or a couple individually, in a certain way, and they talk to each other. They all now have distinct characters, and I have their back-stories in my head.

The conversations I have had about the work with gallery visitors, and workshop participants has opened up the dialogue though. There are other women, other stories, ideas for other songs. The configuration of these women is currently, pardon the pun, quite uplifting. I genuinely feel there is a positive vibe going on, and if you’ll pardon another pun, an element of triumph. There is scope here, perhaps, for the dark(er) side. I have affection for these nine. But there are women in the world who do not leave you feeling good. I think, when I made the work, I needed the positivity. I needed to feel hopeful. There might be room then, given that little bit of distance, to be more honest, to poke at the truth that sometimes, we women do ourselves no favours. I think there is room in this installation for a little reality, balance… I could get a bit nasty. I am stronger now than I was when I started. The world view has changed. There is a battle going on. I think therefore, this installation, with a little tweaking, and a couple of additions, could get more political. It could become a protest.

I could push it more.

I am also looking at myself with a little strange feeling in the pit of my stomach. Have I at last identified my own comfort blanket? Am I at last able to be a little more objective and critical (given a little time) about my own work? If this is the case, Bo will be proud!

Proactive Insomnia

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I know that as I am typing this at 4:30 am that there will be someone else I know, doing something similar.

Someone mentioned my “insomnia problem” the other day. I don’t know that it is a problem to me, although it may be an inconvenience to my husband. If I lived alone then the creeping about thing wouldn’t happen. I would just start my day twice.

I did lie in bed for about an hour, just to give sleep a chance to come back, as it sometimes does. But not today. The thoughts start to swim, and I know that it is pointless. So as is the usual pattern, I get up, come downstairs, make a cup of tea, sometimes a bit of toast… and usually I write. This morning I have finished off one lot of lyrics that weren’t quite flowing properly yesterday, and started another. Sometimes, this is all it takes to make me feel ready for another snooze, so I go back to bed (often as Mike is getting up) and get in another couple of hours.

When I had to get up at 7 to get ready to go to work I would start the day bitter and twisted and would have to make constant adjustments in order to do the job properly, and prevent myself from getting fired.

These days I rarely have to do that. I am happier myself, but I do think I have rendered myself unemployable by “giving in” to the fickle nature of my mind and body. Occasionally I complain that I am broke. It’s true, I don’t earn much these days, but I consider it the greatest luxury and privilege to have this time to think about things I want to think about. (And have the occasional afternoon nap in the chair. This sounds awfully old doesn’t it? But I am overwhelmed with the inability to keep my eyes focussed, open…)

This morning my thoughts have ranged all over the place. The new lyrics were inspired by those ants that drown alone, but cling to each other to make rafts that float over floods until they reach land or vegetation and can roam alone again. I find this also has a connection to my work, always about people clinging to each other, rubbing off on each other, irritating each other because they haven’t had enough sleep… but holding on to each other, because what else can we do but keep our loved ones close when we don’t understand what is happening in the world, when everything seems so cruel?

The Sitting Room are having a trip to Liverpool on Monday to do some recording. I have of course got a cold and can’t reach the higher notes. This concern seems ego-centric and diva-like. I protect my voice, steam my head, self-medicate…

I am also thinking about the workshops I’m doing, allied to the nine women exhibition: I lead them, and find that as always the artist~tutor gains more than gives… the topics and conversations of the participants steer my thoughts, inspire and affect… rubbing off…

I’m considering doing more of these workshops in my own space over the summer, with and for other artists: The nature of text… unwritten and imagined narratives… remembered and manipulated.

(Do let me know if you’d like to join in!)

Meanwhile, in my studio there is The Awkward Chair waiting for me. I have covered it in the soft, cream, brushed cotton fabric. A blank canvas. It waits for me to decide what will affect it. I look forward to the time (mid May?) when I can immerse myself in making my marks on it.

Also, breath baited, we wait for the Arts Council decision that will decide our fate over the next six months, possibly the next couple of years if all goes well…

Everything is connected…

If you’re drowning on your own

Then cling to me

I’ll grab your sleeve, and pull you close

We’ll make a raft

Face Pulling and Meaning It

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Oh My!

Where to start?

Last night’s private view of nine women was fab.

It’s one thing to have a great night out, full of friends, music, art, humour, deep conversation and thought provoking ideas…

It is one whole world away to be in the midst of it and realise that they are my friends, it’s my music, my art… that both the humour and the thought has been provoked by my work…or some of it at least.

It could go either way… either I could be full of myself and thinking how amazing I must be…

or… as has actually happened, I am bemused, confused, flattered, and thinking that someone must be mistaken, and that I’m a huge fraud and I’ve pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes.

But this is kind of the nub of the thing isn’t it?

My statement in my last post about ordinariness. It is precisely that which is appealing, certainly to me when I look at objects, garments, art, music… that ordinary, human voice.

Over the last two and a bit years since the Arts Council gave me the money, I see enormous changes in myself. I am certainly more confident. I do see that I have something valid to say. I no longer care tooooo much if people disagree. Is that arrogant? Possibly.

….or is it the opposite?

I used to be so conscious of myself, how I looked, presented myself to other people.

I have seen some photos this morning, which I will post here. They show me to be exactly what I am: a middle aged, overweight, face pulling woman who waves her arms about. I laugh a lot.

After my mother died, I hardly had any photos of her really, she was the one who took the photos, she hated photos of herself. That is a shame, because we would have loved to have more. So part of my reaction to this is to not care. The people looking at them that love me, will carry on loving me. I don’t care about the rest.

Also, I really feel they give you a flavour of what the night was like.

Oh man I had a good time!

Thank you so much to those who came, and those who couldn’t that sent such lovely messages.

Thank you to Dawn Harris of ArtistsWorkhouse, her wonderful gallery space!

Thank you to Dan Whitehouse, without whom it wouldn’t be very musical at all! I borrow him, and steal his skills, to make me look so much better than I am!

And thank you to Matthew Rea of stinkingdaisy.co.uk who took this batch of photos… I expect there will be more from others later on…

Rainy Days and Ordinary Mondays

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The Sitting Room: Andy Jenkins, Elena Thomas, Lloyd McKenzie, Ian Sutherland. Photo by John Stranks at The Maverick Open Mic Showcase, Stourbridge

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Actually I quite like rainy days.

And Mondays.

It wasn’t always that way though.

I really like the way Facebook pops up “On this day…” every now and again. On a rainy day such as this, I find myself probably spending too much time on a variety of social media. But the rainy days also make me contemplative, so a prompt to what has happened over the last ten years is actually beneficial. I am moaning about the usual self-imposed self-employed cash flow problem, but realise it is short term. That actually I made my choices for very good reasons. I am now time rich and cash poor. But I am not homeless, I have food and clothes. I do what I want most of the time. I have a lot of choice in my life that others don’t. I know that I am privileged and fortunate. I know that I am ordinary.

I had a brilliant job for about ten years, in which I got to spend time with other people’s children, (as well as my own) being creative, laughing, exploring, adventuring, thinking and questioning. It was a very special place to be with some very special people. For a while the three months of awfulness at the end blinded me to all this. This morning a memory from 2009 popped up:

“Elena Thomas……has had a lovely time drawing in the garden with year 5…. counting pairs of mating frogs…. and telling James it’s not sperm, it’s frog spawn…”

Joy!

Also this week I am reminded of trips around the world with my art to see amazing people and see their art, and see and hear wonderful life-changing things.

Art has the power to change things. Enabling children to think like an artist for a while is a powerful thing. Not just allowing but encouraging discussion of sperm and spawn in a place of beauty and nature and humour is something I will remember forever. Some of those children I taught hold large joyful places in my heart.

“Wow! Mrs Thomas! You’re like a REAL artist…. like….like…. Dick Van Gogh!”

It is however, also right that now I don’t do it. It is right now for me to be making things myself, saying and singing the things I want to say. Life is short. I am older. I have less energy and patience for that, but boundless energy for this.

This week I embark upon the reprise of nine women… in a real gallery space. It has been two years getting it here, almost. The work feels bigger, the songs seem more important. While women are being belittled and objectified by the “Leader of the Free World”, these women I have invented, borrowed, studied and written of become more somehow. While wrapped in tissue in boxes, these women have become more important.

My performance of the songs also is more, I am no longer apologetic, looking for an excuse to make it right to sing them. Quite the opposite. I now feel it is important to sing them… and to do it unashamedly and to the best of my ability.

I have moved on, grateful for the opportunities afforded me. So what I can’t afford a new macbook just yet. Poor me! So what we haven’t had a holiday for years – don’t need one! I’d like some new boots, but it doesn’t matter, I have old ones. I’d like a really good microphone and a new stand… so what? I have friends I can borrow from until I can. Those things are no longer important.

I like to think I don’t take myself too seriously. I’m fat, 56 (just), and I don’t look as good as I think I do, but that’s the kind of body dysmorphia that works for me. It means I am happy to post pictures of myself as exactly that. I’m happy to post youtube video of me singing in a pub in the Black Country. It isn’t all about me. It’s about doing it because I am able to. I was the only woman doing it that night. There should be more. Maybe doing it as fat and 56 and not as good as I think I am is the way to encourage other women?

Maybe ditching one life in order to become something new is a way to show other women that it’s ok? That waiting to be thinner and prettier and less spotty and less wrinkly and more elegant is never going to happen. Do it now. Do it in an ordinary way. Ordinary is great. Ordinary is fine. Ordinary is powerful. We are all ordinary.

We are so privileged in the UK, even post brexit, post truth, post Trump and post May… Acknowledge the privilege and do something ordinary with it I say. Most of us can manage ordinary. Imagine the results if we all just got up one day and decided to do something manageably ordinary? It would be revolutionary!

So get out there, look at frog spawn with children. Teach. Write songs. Bake. Draw. Sew. Make something. Talk. Laugh. Sing. Be the most ordinary you can and rejoice in it. Ordinary can change the world.