Sunday, 12 June 2016

CRITICAL VOICES 2016

BLUE by Liz Atkin
I had the great pleasure of taking part in this day of heart-rending stories of survival, reflection, healing, resolution, exploration, joy, discovery and loss. I am a bear of little brain and not at all qualified to discuss and analyse what I saw and heard and so I shall leave it for others to do so in a far more erudite way than I can manage here but I would like to try my best to describe what I experienced. 

For me, it was a day of emotion. It began with Tulsi Vagjiani telling us of the day she lost her family in a plane crash which left her with horrific burns. She was bullied as a consequence of the state of her scarred skin and I thought of what must have gone through the minds of those bullies to make them do such a thing. I suffered very minor bullying  at my Secondary school which then prompted the bullying (in a small way) of my youngest sister. I have no recollection of me bullying her - none at all. It is as if it was carried out by someone completely separate of me.

Tulsi Vagjiani
The photographer, Emma Barnard, was then joined by Consultant Stephanie Strachan and medical student, Katharine Stambollouian and they talked of their collaboration on a visual arts-based project designed to promote empathy in medical students to better prepare them for dealing with patients in their future career. It was fascinating hearing how they had dealt with the introduction of art into medical education and the challenges faced by both them and the healthcare professionals in the process. What moved me particularly was how supportive they were of each other - it was a truly collaborative project.

Then we had Antonia Attwood (who had recently filmed me as part of my project) and Monica Suswin talking about their respective experiences of dealing with severe depression. Monica had written extensively about it and read out some beautiful prose and poetry which she had written. Antonia showed the astonishing films she had made about her mother's debilitating condition and explained so movingly that, as a consequence of making these films with her mother, she had come to know her mother so much better than she would otherwise have done. You do not wish such suffering to befall anyone but, if it brings such positive results, then in a weird way, you are thankful. It brought to mind my relationship with my late sister, Janet, who suffered terribly from breast cancer but, as a consequence, I saw far more of her in the two years before her death and I experienced depths of emotion that I have never felt before or since.

Anyone reading this might begin to feel glad to have missed out an all these tales of depression and misery but hearing of these people coping with and, in some cases, leaving behind such dark days was incredibly inspiring and uplifting. 

Daniel Regan was on his own as sadly, Alice Evans (another of my photographers) was not able to attend. As ever, Daniel was very engaging as he talked of the misdiagnosis of his own chronic mental illness and subsequent recovery by reference to some excellent photographs including many self portraits. Daniel photographed me earlier this year and is a lovely, gentle soul with a sparky wit.

After lunch it was my turn but the artist, Lucy Lyons, an extremely accomplished and relaxed speaker, spoke first about Drawing. Sound simple doesn't it but some of her work was incredibly detailed and I loved the way she talked of her examination of the human body. She draws beautifully and even her handwriting looks like a work of art. She sketched and wrote about everyone who spoke on the day. As for me, I shall leave it for others to judge my performance. All I shall say is that I was incredibly nervous and that brought out all my current symptoms i.e. the rolling gait, the slurred speech and the temporary memory lapses (Yes, Tim, those creepy crawly insects you find in restaurants are called C-O-C-K-R-O-A-C-H-E-S). I also overran but, having asked the gorgeous Julia Horbaschk (who very kindly drove me over there) to tell me when I had been speaking for 16 minutes, I somehow missed seeing her finger pointing (three times) at her watch. However, I got some laughs and the slideshow of all the images at the end worked well but I'm not sure that I shall be giving any talks or speeches about Over the Hill or over anything else in the foreseeable future. 

David Gilbert, a very nice guy with an open, loving demeanour and face to match then read out some of his poems which were full of perceptive wit and pathos. 

We then witnessed an extremely interesting conversation on Skype between Graham Shaw, the organiser of Critical Voices, and Margaret Hannah, a Consultant in Public Health Medicine and currently Deputy Director of Public Health in NHS Fife. Unfortunately, at this point my early rise at 5am caught up with me but I heard enough to know that the citizens of Fife are mighty lucky to have such a personable and intelligent Deputy Director of their Public Health System.

Finally, we had Heart to Heart Theatre Group showing a piece written and directed by Mel and Joe Ball respectively and very well acted by Peter Dewhurst which posed the question who, why and what we are. The day was then rounded off by poems read by David Gilbert and Graham Shaw followed by a quick beer in the Old Opera House (now Wetherspoons) and then home.

It was a day I was dreading because I felt so ill-prepared but I found that my own poor showing was more than compensated not only by the incredible photographs in my project but also by the wonderful words spoken and images shown by the other participants and inspired by the darkness and the light of their diverse experiences. Also, I met Celine Marchbank again and Bronwen Hyde for the first time having corresponded with her by email over a period of time. All lovely, intelligent, talented people but, above all, I would like to mention Graham Shaw - a man with a big heart and kind eyes, a warm handshake and a soft comforting voice. David Gilbert led the fully deserved applause for him at the end and Graham acknowledged it with humility and grace. So, thank you all who contributed to a great day at the Trinity Theatre in Tunbridge Wells. 

WEBSITE: http://www.criticalvoices.org.uk

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