Thursday, January 29, 2015

Ines and my first poem

When I was a boy I had a very clear sense I was going to be a writer.

Where this idea came from was a total mystery to me. It wasn’t something that I chose. It was something that had somehow chosen me.

Something that left me feeling frightened and embarrassed and ashamed. And that I had absolutely no belief that i could actually do.

My French teacher told me that Camus kept notebooks and he was a writer I completely admired and so I started to keep a notebook too. 

And then I wrote my first poem when I was about 14, maybe, and it was about my mother’s death.

I was twelve at that time and expecting to see her at my confirmation and first communion. I had seen her the day before and was so looking forward to seeing her again.

But there was my dad instead and he told me she had died very suddenly in the night.

And I went numb.

I was a great fan of C.S.Forester and his Hornblower books in those days and had read of a marine on a ship’s deck whose arm had been lopped off by a cannonball and just stared numbly at it in shock.

And I wrote something like 

“I’ve heard that when you cut off someone’s hand….”

to get myself started and when I had finished the poem submitted it to the school magazine.

There was a kind of wooden posting box outside the classrooms where you could put submissions. I was too shy to sign my poem and kind of hung about until there was no-one around and then posted it in the box when no-one could see me.

And then waited for the magazine to come out to see if it was published.

Which it wasn’t.

And that was that, I thought, assuming what I’d written was rubbish as I always did those days.

It’s our misfortune to live in a society that teaches us to stifle and mistrust our creative impulse; and that, together with all the appalling self mistrust that goes with being transgendered, meant it took me years to have any self belief.

I certainly never believed in that poem.

Until years later when I was writing the play “Ines de Castro” and had got to the bit when Ines hears of the death of her children, I found her saying:

“I’ve heard that when you cut off someone’s hand….” 

And I wrote the lines and Alison Peebles said them in her amazing heart-breaking way and they found their way into the opera and tonight and Saturday Stephanie Corey will sing them, beautifully, to James MacMillan’s wonderful music.

And to me they will speak of my mother.

I don’t know what they will mean to the audience. But I am sure they will touch someone’s memory of loss.

And I hope they will allow them to release a little of their grief.



Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Jekyll & Hyde & Ines & Violence on stage

I’m at the rehearsals for my new play, which is based on Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”. It’s Wednesday afternoon and we’ve reached the end of Act One.

I’ve decided on a cast of three, not quite sure why, 2 men and a woman, and making the story work for so small a cast has been one rather fascinating technical challenge.

Stevenson’s storytelling presents another. He takes great care not to be specific in his description of Hyde: so Hyde becomes a kind of blank canvas on which we are free to project our own hatreds and fears.

Apart from a couple of horrible (and unstageable) incidents he has also left it up to us to imagine the evil actions Hyde commits.

Which is fine for a book: but not so fine for the stage. 

I happen to think there’s a real wisdom in the old tragic convention of the really violent events happening off stage; and I loathe theatrical depictions of violence.

But I have a strong feeling that in this play we have got to see Hyde doing something. And it’s at the end of Act One.

When the actors rehearse it I find it profoundly disturbing.

And I think: How could I have imagined so horrible  a thing?

And I worry. I worry about what playing this does to the two actors doing it. I worry about it being the woman who is the victim. I try to console myself by thinking that the actress concerned also plays the strongest and the most intellectually accomplished characters in the play.

And that I’ve written her a part I would love to play.

But she is still the victim. How banal…

And next day I’m in Glasgow to see the incredibly powerful opera James MacMillan and Scottish Opera have created out of my “Ines de Castro”.

It was in writing that play, way back in 1989, that I first discovered the amazing power of words. In the sense that you don’t necessarily need to depict horror: that it’s more powerful sometimes to describe it in a way that gives scope for the audience’s imagination.

I certainly seem to have horrified the Guardian:

“Jo Clifford’s unflinching libretto contains graphic depictions of sexual violence, infanticide and torture. The whole thing is laced with a dark sensuality that is discomfiting, but the emotional pummelling left me cold. By the time the heads of Inés’s children arrive in a suitcase — just after we’ve heard a detailed account of marital rape — my shock sensors had shut down to numb.”

That shutting down of emotional response in an audience is exactly what I’m most afraid of. And what I try so hard to avoid.

And I want to protest: but there’s so much more to my beautiful Ines than that.

And besides: we have to look. We have to see. And then we have to come out the other side.

And then I’m travelling down to London again and the man sitting opposite me looks like a retired air vice-marshall and is reading a copy of Fly Past magazine: aerial killing machine porn.

And I think: my work is not like that. And I feel quite proud to have upset the Guardian. And the Observer. And the Telegraph.

Proud that my words have that power. And proud they’ve inspired such amazing music.

And I know there is hope shines through at the end of it all.

In the words of Ines, and the words of the Woman at the end of Jekyll and Hyde:


It doesn’t have to be like this. There is another way.

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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

RIP Leelah Alcorn

Dear mummy,

You died over fifty years ago now, and for such a long time it was as if I did not dare remember you.

It was as if there was a thick grey curtain blocking you off from me and drawing a blankness over my mind. 

As if I would be destroyed by the grief of remembering you.

But tonight I see you very clearly in my mind: your black hair whose gentle curls framed your beautiful face. Your cheekbones. Your gentle mouth. Your loving loving eyes.

You look at me so tenderly as I tell you about Leelah.

Leelah was like me. Born in a male body, given a male name, but knowing from the moment she became conscious of herself that that maleness did not fit her.

Knowing she was not male and never would be.

We couldn't talk about this, mummy, because in those days nobody could. And there were no names either.

We all tried to pretend that it wasn’t there, that it wasn’t happening, and all tried to be normal as best we could.

I see you the day you sent me to boarding school. With tears in your eyes. Tears you were ashamed of and tried so hard to hide.

It was for my own good, you had to say, sending me to that place. That place where we had to plunge into cold water every morning and sleep in grey blankets on iron beds in dormitories named after famous generals.

That place where there was no comfort anywhere, comfort being girlish, and no place for tenderness. We addressed each other by our surnames and tried very hard never to cry.

Because those who did were mocked and tormented for doing so.

And all this to turn us into men. And how hard we all tried to be brave.

I was eight years old.

I missed you terribly. I knew I wasn’t supposed to, just as I knew I wasn’t meant to be crying the way i did, always in secret: because it was supposed to be bad for boys to be too close to their mothers.

I knew you were frightened on my behalf because you and daddy had both so greatly wanted a girl. You told me to be careful of strange men because they might abuse me; and looking back I know you were also afraid that I, too, might turn out to be a pansy.

I use that word because I think that’s probably the one you would use. And you did everything in your power, the pair of you,  to make me become a “proper man”.

I know you did it for the best, as you understood it, and so I don’t want to tell you how much suffering that caused me.

It almost destroyed me, mummy: and I think of it tonight because of Leelah Alcorn who was like me in so many ways and whose mum and dad,  Carla and Doug, were so like you because they were frightened and angy and ashamed and did everything they could to stop their child being true to herself and living as a girl.

Which is one reason Leelah walked in front of a truck.

I don’t know how I survived. Maybe because the urge to create was always stronger than the desire to die.

Surely, also, later on to do with being loved by my partner and my children.

I so wish I could have told you, Leelah, that we can be happy. That we don’t have to conform to society’s ideas of what it is to be feminine. That it’s possible to be out there, openly trans*, and happy and proud.

I wish you could have seen my grandson. Whose mum and dad are so proud of him when he plays with his big red car and dashes round the room making engine noises. And proud of him when he plays with the doll’s house in my hallway too.

He will grow up knowing I’m his grandma and his mum’s dad, too, and he will havo no problem with that because the world is changing, Leelah, and we matter so much to it.

Because the world so badly needs a new understanding of what it is to be a man and what it is to be a woman and we are part of what is making that change happen.

I wish you hadn't died but your death has not been in vain.

And I wish I could tell your mum and your dad, Carla and Doug: God didn’t make a mistake when she made us trans*.

I wrote a play about Jesus being trans* that I perform wherever I can. I wish I could perform it for you so you could hear it. Because these words are for you, just as they are for your Leelah:

Inside us we all have a light, and it’s maybe the very thing that we have been taught to be most ashamed of. 
And when you have a light, do you hide it in a closet?
No! you bring it out into the open where everyone can see itAnd be glad it exists to shine in the world. They might try to put out your light.They might hate you for allowing to shine.They might spit on you or shout after you:“Faggot! Pervert! Maricón!”Or maybe they’ll shout: “Look! It’s a geezer!”Or call you a pervert or an open sewer.They will confuse you and make you feel ashamedAnd might even drive you to kill yourself In your anguish and despair.They might do even worse: they might beat youOr torture you and kill youAnd throw your body into a skip.Because these things happen.But I say to you: 

Bless you if people abuse you or persecute you because it means you are bringing about change.And bless those who persecute you too because hatred is the only talent that they haveAnd it really doesn’t amount to much.They will lose what little they haveAnd whatever they say or whatever they do Change will come in the end 
and one day the world will be free.





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