★★★★★ Review from Open Door!

MOTHERLOGUES – FORKED THEATRE (Camden Fringe) ★★★★★

At the beginning of Motherlogues we are told that the five actors we are about to see perform had five days to piece together true stories from women who wanted to share their experiences of being a woman. These ranged from giving birth to losing a child and everything in between. The women who donated their stories wished to remain anonymous but the truth that shone through what they had to say was anything but.

 

One by one we meet the actors who each set up their individual stories and as the show progresses they become more involved with each other creating a portrait of ‘woman’ using the words of each story to paint the canvas.

Some are funny, such as a wife suggesting she give out the number of a ‘generous’ family friend who has offered her uterus to her and her husband (as they are unable to have a child themselves) to all the couples in need of a surrogate her husband has found on the internet. Some are very educational, such as a woman reliving her first experience of sexual health education. And some are heartbreakingly sad, such as a wife explaining how her ‘natural abortion’ happened moments after she gave up her seat on the tube to a heavily pregnant woman.

One of my favourite moments of the show was when a ‘pregnant pause’ was taken to give the audience a little insight into what it feels like to give birth. Members of the audience (mostly men, as “that seems fair”) were brought out and asked to assume the positions a hospital tells you are the correct ones for aiding your birth. It is clear from the array of positions and their level of helpfulness that we still have a long way to go until we really are being helpful to women in labour.

The evening belonged to all of the women involved, every single one of whom deserves huge admiration for what they achieved but it is Lauren Reed, the brainchild of the production, who deserves the highest praise. What Reed gifted us was a celebration of women by women for everyone, something that theatre is sorely missing at the moment.

CATALINA BLACKMAN

★★★★★

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MOTHERLOGUES – London Pub Theatres Review by Verity Williams

Motherlogues
Created and presented by Forked Theatre
Theatre Box at The Warren 16th-17th May

‘journeys through the entire spectrum of human emotions’

Motherlogues does what it says on the tin, but still manages to be a surprising and moving experience. A series of monologues on all things ‘Mother’: from being one, to not being able to, to turning into yours and how it feels to lose them. But more than that, Motherlogues also takes the time to explore important women-centred issues. Ones that on some level we are all conscious of but rarely discuss openly. It is refreshing to hear them cover subjects like PTSD after birth, endometriosis, and post-natal depression in a sincere, informative and at times even comic way.

The girls began by introducing the show, talking about its origin and how it came about. Six months of research and interviews provide the foundation. Over the course of a week, the five performers created the show we were watching. Their bravery and dedication must be commended. The play combines verbatim extracts, voice overs from interviews, and pieces written concerning specific issues. Over the evening the audience journeys through the entire spectrum of human emotions; watching, I felt anger, sadness, joy, love, fear and panic. Particularly shocking to me was the statistic that up to 17% of new mothers suffer from post-partum PTSD, something I’d never heard before.

The five performers (Marie Blount, Ina Marie Smith, Carys Wright, Jill Stanford, and Lauren Reed) all gave warm, committed performances, allowing elements of themselves and their personal experiences to inform their work. Full of charisma and heart, they held our attention and took us through the night, making us laugh but also making sure we understood the gravity of what they were talking about. I would love to see a bit more physical risk in the performance. Of course, this is difficult when they’ve had a week and are script in hand, I’m excited to see what else could happen and where the show might go when it can find some more long term grounding.

It is astonishing that this hasn’t been done before. A lot of the things these women talk about aren’t new, they are timeless, and relevant not only for mothers and daughters, but men as well can take so much from this show. As someone who doesn’t consider themselves maternal, or even “womanly” to be honest, it moved me in ways I wasn’t expecting. Left me feeling like I needed to call my mum as soon as I got out the theatre. I’m keen to see what the next incarnation of the show is, and I hope it may long continue to collect and share stories from women the world over.

Opened at Drayton Arms Theatre

Get your tickets here – https://www.otherplacebrighton.co.uk/3171/motherlogues
Also, for more information on the charity their raising money for –
https://www.womankind.org.uk/support-us
Verity Williams is a poet, actor, playwright, dog enthusiast and committed gin drinker (not necessarily in that order). Born and raised in Dorset, Verity has a BA in English and Drama from Royal Holloway, an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa and an MA in Acting from East 15. @Verity_W_

Mother’s Day 2017

Well we haven’t posted for awhile, we’ve been very busy planning for the continuation of our show MOTHERLOGUES. And as it’s our main theme of the year and with it being Mother’s Day, we thought it’d be the ideal opportunity to share some old work on the subject! Here are pieces written back in our early days of 2014, but still addressing the never ending conundrum for women – to be childless or childfull?

To have children or not?
By Lauren Reed

This always felt like an easy one for me. I never thought I’d be a mum. Something from a young age said, “No, that’s not for you”. I’m not sure if it was me being stubborn, or wanting to be different or a mixture of the two but I just thought the decision to have a family, in the conventional sense, was just such a normal thing to do.

I used to hate kids. Actively despise them. Screaming babies in supermarkets used to make my teeth stand on end. There are still certain types of scream that affect me. But not all. I’ve become more tolerant as I’ve got older. Maybe it’s my maternal side kicking in at last, but I’m not so sure.

I like toddlers now. The ones that walk and talk. There’s something charming in the underdevelopment of a toddler. Something ‘adorable’ (if you’ll forgive the use of that word) about a small kid, so free of social norms and graces. A freedom I envy and would love to embrace.

I’m at the age now where my friends are starting to marry off and start families so I’m around babies a lot more that I was before. I quite like my friends’ kids. They’re well behaved and amusing and love Auntie Lauren because she’s prepared to make an utter tit of herself in order to get a laugh from a 2ft human. Still, its nice to only see that side of things. I get to have the fun without the shitty nappies and 2am feeds.

Again though, I notice myself becoming softer, more tolerant when I’m around children.

There are those utter brats that I’d like to smack but as my recently married friend pointed out, they’re just badly raised. Hers would never be allowed to behave like that, especially in public.

But how can you be so sure?

What is that makes you feel like you’d be a good parent? That’s the bit that truly scares me. Can I do it? Can I be so altruistically selfless to look and care for another person and mould them into an individual who is well behaved and charming, independent and socially aware, someone who will make a difference but without being pushed into a profession they don’t want to be in.

How do you know if your way is the right way?

And what are the consequences when you get them wrong? Mothers of murderers, drug dealers, criminals – they must’ve thought they got it right. Did they know the apple of their eye would turn around and shoot someone someday? I doubt it.

What a responsibility.

One I’m not ready for.

Nor brave enough to take.

I like the outfits. The little darling shoes.

I like the sound of them laughing.

I like the outlandishly outrageous things they say and the embarrassing questions they ask.

But they’ll grow up. They’ll stop looking cute. They’ll start knowing answers to questions you don’t even have a clue about and then what?

Would I do a good job? Can I be respected and loved without being the hard nosed cow to an obnoxious teenager?

It’s not just about ‘starting a family’ or ‘having’ children. Its giving birth to a new human life, a life that is in your hands forever. Not just through childhood, but past that cute phase. I’m 26 and my mum still worries about me. When can you relax and say my work here is done? I’m still learning and growing as a person, I think. So perhaps my mother’s job is never done. I still need her. Her guidance and encouraging words. Can I dedicate that time to another life?

No.

I don’t think I can.

Not now anyway.

But never say never, I guess.

 Why I want to be a Mum
By Kristy Howell

I want that ultimate experience of love. The wonder of making a new being with my flesh and blood. I want to grow a new life. To experience that bond. To have someone to love and care for. I want to teach a child. I felt with the kids I was paid to look after that I didn’t want to look after someone else’s children any more, I wanted to look after my own. To see them grown and know them for the whole of the rest of my life. To make a new being from cells of my own body.So why isn’t Steve doing anything to look after the health of his sperm? Why is he slacking when it comes to the newborn effort? I want to shout at him: ‘Do you know my need for a child? Do you? Can you feel it so it buzzes through every fibre and preoccupies your brain so you can’t think of work or reading a book orgoing out and having fun any more?’ No, of course not. It’s not the same for a man, is it? It’s not a physical need. Not in the same way. He doesn’t understand my longing for it. No. He infuriates me by asking will I cope – how do I think I’ll cope. I will cope. I have support. Ihave my family. I have enough money I don’t need to work. Much. Iwill cope. Won’t I? Imean Iknow I’m getting older. And tireder. I don’t have the enrgy I did 10 years ago. but nature wouldn’t allow me to have a child if I couldn’t look after it. I just don’t want to hit the menopause and be childless. I don’t want my time to run out. I want to talk about this. I used to say I didn’t mind if he didn’t want children as I just wanted to be with him. It was ok just the two of us. But now, Idon’t know, I don’t want to marry hm unless we have a child. I feel like this need coming between us. I can’t bear to watch him drink and smoke. I’ve done all the research. Three months – three months of top nutrition, that’s what we need. That’s all I’m asking for. I want to have a baby.

My perfectionism is hemming me in. I am building my own trap. This is how it feels. I doubt whether Steve wants to give me what i want. Really. We don’t have conversatins about where we want to go, what we’re trying to achieve. Ineed to decide what my goals are. And if, really, I’m just being stubborn. Or is it ‘not stubborn enough’?

What do I want more than a baby?
By Kate Whiting 

More than a baby, I want to like myself. I want to be comfortable in my skin before I stretch it to its limit and come out all crinkly and marked. I want to like what I am, what I’ve achieved and what I’ve become. In every way.

I want a decent meal day to day. I want tasty cheese; blue cheese and red wine. Roquefort and good biscuits, with grapes and homemade oatcakes.

I want a pet. I want a cat sometimes, sometimes a furry dog that I can cuddle when I want love and ignore when I don’t. I’ve got a goldfish. It’s not the same.

I want a decent phone. Don’t know if I’ll go for an i-phone, it might be a Blackberry, but it’ll definitely be a ‘smart’ phone. Funny that, calling a phone ‘smart’.

I want to read things a bit more than I want a baby. I want to have a relationship with stuff on pages that I haven’t seen yet; characters and stories as much as facts and things that make me think about the world.

I want a better memory, so that when I do read, or hear, or see anything I remember details. I remember names. I’ve got a terrible memory and I can’t imagine that that gets any better when you have a baby. It gets worse! You’re exhausted.

More than a baby I want to know where I’ve come from so that I’ll better understand where I’m going.

More than a baby, I want to be bendy. I want to start up yoga and be able to bend my feet round to touch my head.

I want to never suffer hangovers. I want to have a night out and not need the booze.

I want boobs! Big, bouncy, luscious boobies. I’d get them when pregnant…but I don’t think that that’s a good enough reason to have a baby… Or is it?!

I want to know that I am in love. I want to know that he is the Dad. I want to be sure that every decision I make is the right one, or at least the right one at that point in time. I don’t think I’ll ever know if anything is absolutely right, so maybe I should never know pregnancy.

What do I want more than a baby? I want my sanity and a good night’s sleep.

I want cuddles from someone big enough to hold me so completely that I am surrounded by their warmth, encased in a big man-manly-man -sized man. And when I feel secure enough in that hold, perhaps I’ll pop out a sprog!

More from ‘Motherlogues’…

Am I turning into my mother? Anonymous
This monologue wasn’t performed as a whole in the final show so here is the unedited, raw & truthful answer to this question (written in a mere 10 minutes!!)…

I ask myself this more than I’d care to admit. I think we all ask ourselves this as we trade in Saturdays spent getting ready for a crazy night out (or recovering from a Friday 5am-er) for a browse of Ikea and remarks such as “I do love a big sink”. As life rolls along and things such as marriage, impending children, etc come upon you the message rings daily- Am I becoming my mother?

I can see so many of her positive traits in me- her analytical nature, her ridiculous work ethic, her non-stop energy. But I also see some of her darkness- the impossible standards she sets, her obsession with her body weight, and her way of trying too hard.

That moment comes – and I think it is different for everyone – when your parents are no longer infallible. Wherein they become human. Flawed. Often wrong. Sometimes petty. Broken. Even mean.

And when I think about this I realise that the reason this shocks us so deeply is not because we are totally blindsided by the truth that they are “human” but that we realise we must be all of those things too. And that one day someone will see us for who we really are- see that behind the carefully curated façade that we too are just as fallible, just as broken.

And that is fucking scary.

I had a really nasty break-up when I was in university and as we were parting ways he shot me with the big one: “You are JUST like your mother”. In my rational mind I look back and see this for what it is: a 19 year old boy lashing out with the most hurtful thing he could based on his knowledge of daytime soaps and lifetime TV dramas.

But it stuck with me.

Over a decade later I still see myself working against this – actively seeking to be different. To love unconditionally, to follow through on the things I say I’m going to do, to save some good energy for my family and not leave it all to the outside world. To care more about how things ARE than about how they LOOK to others.

But then I see it – in a photograph or video- a fleeting imprint, an expression on my face. And it’s all her. She is all over me.

And I realise in that moment that it’s not that I’m “turning into her”. It’s that so much of me IS her. It always has been. And that in reality whether or not I become her is actually just a choice.

Childless / Childfree?

Blog post, blog post! Well hello. So we’re properly into January now, and it’s time to share some more of our thoughts.

I’ve been listening to Lauren’s last podcast and reflecting again on Motherlogues and the topic of motherhood. I should share that I’m a non-Mom – childless or childfree, whichever way you look at it. I’ve had times of looking both ways. For much of my life I actively didn’t want them; then I did, I really did, and it was late, and I couldn’t have them. Him, her or them – there was no-one.

I suffered the monthly upset of finding I was menstruating again. The too-long-vacillating – together and with my partner. The visits to doctors. The bearing of my soul and my vag and my weakness. The bearing of injections, intrusions, rubber-gloved fingers, dyes, and the pessaries that left my genitals raw with eczema. Impersonal stats from specialists. The bearing of time. The bearing of guilt, of grief, of bills and fear. The bearing of uncertainty.

Times of not knowing how I would cope and what I should do. With everyone selling remedies and statistics and brands of ‘what you should do’.

I never got as far as getting pregnant. I tried IUI x 3, acupuncture, mindfulness, herbs and supplements (expensive ones, too), charting and timing my monthly signs and fluids.

I got to know my body!

I reflected – ironic that I’d gone to such lengths to capital-n-Not get pregnant in my teens, twenties and early thirties. What fun I’d probably passed up or interrupted with my neurotic fear of conceiving (which I thought meant losing control of my life and body)! I cursed then – I should have known, with the years of trying my mum had had.

I met people who had been through pricey rounds of IVF, and conceived, and miscarried and picked themselves up and started again, and again, and even again. Women who had always seen themselves as mothers and would not give up and who banded together to keep believing.

I found a commercial aspect that I recoiled from. The NHS gynaecologist who told me the only chance I had (despite what others said about my ‘unexplained infertility’) was to use donor eggs, and suggested I buy eggs from the bank at his private practice. I was a consumer for a huge proliferation of competing products – from herbs and therapies to devices you wear on your arm (remotely linked to people who can monitor your rhythms 24-hours a day and tell you when to have sex). A woman reduced to parts and percentages that had become niches for products. So many books about women who tried and tried and at last had a miracle – always a miracle! – bonny babies despite the odds, just when they were about to give up after near-double-figures of IVF. Where were the books on the women who didn’t get their miracle? Or who got debts but no miracle?

Fertility in the twenty-first century is a multi-million pound market. And they know so well how to sell to us women based on our shame and fear and lack. I was getting sucked in. I didn’t want to buy into it. I’d been enough times to the hospital and I wanted to take my eggs and my body away from them.

My body was not into spawning, and I’m pretty cool with that now. The procedures and intrusions blur in memory. Conception is not impossible for me, but it’s unlikely to happen now.

The distinction between childless and childfree is an important one. The first term suggesting lack and the second a privilege or freedom. Like a coin, I can often choose which way up I’m going to let it rest – what I show, what I feel, what side I’ll see more of. For me the two sides are always linked, never separable, with the energy passing back and forth between them. I have times of regret and envy and lack – the hurt when hearing of yet another friend’s pregnancy or seeing yet more baby pics on Facebook happens at gut level. “That should’ve been me…” But it isn’t me, and I am blessed. Pick up the coin and turn it around. There is more to life than having children.

There is gold in our wounds. Jung says our shadow side is 90 percent pure gold. That gold can get you a pretty good Plan B. Time moves on. The biological clock winds down. Life changes focus. Eventually I’m finding that my Plan B was my old Plan A after all! I write, I create, I have the time and money to rent a studio space; and because I’m not locked onto my own family and preoccupied with my own little unit, I am free to give my love to many – to put it out there. When I die there will be children at my funeral, and there will be grown ups that I watched grow up – who I nannied / paid attention to / cared for. Mothering is a verb that isn’t the sole domain of biological mothers.

I learn look after the child in me. I am becoming more nurturing.

Slowly the fear and loss become care, and love and hope and new interest. The day looks very different; life looks different.

We are a growing breed – us women over 45 who are without children. I could give you some statistics, but I’m just writing this from my heart. Just writing as it pours out. (If you want stats, though, ask in the comments and I’ll post them.)

And this all brings me back to Forked Theatre’s Motherlogues, where one of the standout monologues, for me, was from Lydia Bakelmun. Lydia’s sensitivity conjured into words and feelings something that resonated deeply with me, and I would like to share it here.

Thank you for reading. I’m want to give the rest of this blog over to the words written by Lydia. Here they are:

White light. Bright and stark. The smell of disinfectant is almost aggressive. A waiting room of women, faces reading multitudinous expressions; fear, expectation, anxiety, numbness. The Friday maternity clinic in the radiology department.

The most invasive and brief of procedures is the HSG – hysterosalpinogram. This is one of a number of procedures prescribed if a woman is having trouble conceiving. Performed under radiology guidance, a woman lies splayed as dye is injected into her uterus and fallopian tubes, to ascertain whether the tubes are patent – healthy and normal. The desperation in the room is palpable.

I was official hand-holder, up the head end of the table whist procedural business continued down the other end. One brief moment to capture the dye being released, a squeeze on my hand at the sharp shock of pain deep inside her, and then it’s a waiting game. Radiographer and Doctor leave to process and analyse the images. I am left, to speak words of comfort, a purveyor of that glorious hospital bed-side-manner, and with no training! I make tea and sometimes I bring biscuits for a sugar boost, as she lies still, a huge sanitary towel wedged beneath her catching the dye that drips away from her.

And then the room is full again. Radiographer and Doctor return and set up a screen in front of the bed. There are a number of outcomes; the dye could be visible in both tubes like a luminous bow-shaped stream, or perhaps one tube, or maybe obscured which means more investigative procedures, or there is just darkness, blocked tubes, lost hope, system shut down. This is one such time. Darkness. She crumples into herself, still holding my hand; I can feel her tears on my fingers. She is wracked by convulsive sobs. I try and hold her as the Doctor calls her partner into the room. We leave them wrapped in each other, to plan, to grieve. I make more tea. My heart breaks for her.

I also chaperone the ultrasound clinic. Most joyful are the 3D scans which you can have from 22 weeks. Couples, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends can wonder over images of your baby’s face, formed and full of personality. It is a mini celebration in that darkened room and you can’t help but feel and share the excitement. Then there’s the nuchal translucency scan, to measure baby’s neck to investigate disability. And the viability scan, to check heartbeats and early measurements. Sometimes its silent, and I want to cry for the expectant woman on the bed, covered in jelly.

I was in my late teens/early 20s when I worked in the radiology department. I saw life and death, elation and despair. I’ve been party to conversations about fertility, risk rates, investigative procedures, health, loss, biological reasoning and family planning. I have held the hands of strangers at their most vulnerable and exposed, and shared their joy and sadness.

I am scared. At 22 I had all the time in the world. At 29, I’m not so sure.

2016 – What a FORKING year!

As Christmas is fast approaching, it is natural to look back over 2016 to all those things that have happened. It’s so easy to concentrate on the negative, those resolutions we didn’t stick to, those big things we wanted to tick off our bucket list but failed to, those horrific incidents that shook us. In a year where politically we have witnessed bizarre results from Brexit to Trump! – in a year where we gained a female prime minister and a blond haired buffoon as Foreign Secretary. In a year where we have lost music icons, acting legends and comedy geniuses. And of course, the Labour MP Jo Cox. In a year where war continues to tear Aleppo apart, Brussels was bombed and Bastille Day was celebrated by a terrorist running the citizens of Nice down with his truck. In a year where mass shootings were weekly in the States and their police force came under scrutiny for racism. Again. In a year where we learnt what the Zika virus was, in a year where BHS went bust and football clubs were revealed as the latest paedophile ring. Oh and the invention of Pokemon Go…

You see it’s hard. It’s hard to look back and highlight what good came out of 2016, what positive actions were thought up and bred into fruition in a mere 12 months, but let’s try shall we? What have we, as a global society, ACHIEVED?

2016 saw the epic rise of the WEP (Women’s Equality Party) and Ed Balls give it his all in Strictly. It saw not only the Olympics, but also the World Cup hosted by Rio, bringing some much need economy to South America. It witnessed our own Andy Murray win Wimbledon and the event being the highest attending sporting event in the UK. 2016 also saw Leicester City, despite 5000-1 odds, win the Premier League! It saw Tim Peake tweet from Space and Juno reach Jupiter! Our Majesty turned 90 and Prince Harry gave the media a well deserved ear bashing! In 2016, conservation efforts to save wild tigers worked and the number rose for the first time in a century! Thanks to the ice bucket challenge, in 2016 the gene responsible for ALS has now been found, meaning we are closer to an effective treatment. In 2016, a new chemotherapy breakthrough has increased the 5-year survival for pancreatic cancer from 16% to 27% and we took a massive leap toward Alzheimer’s prevention. 2016 saw Finding Dory hit our screens, an all female Ghostbusters and Leonardo Dicaprio FINALLY winning his Oscar! In this year, the number of women dying from pregnancy and childbirth has almost halved since 1990, Gambia and Tanzania banned child marriage, and FGM was banned across Africa. Germany took on rape culture and we reached the landmark statistic of 1 billion same sex couples being married! And, as annoying as I find it, it turns out Pokemon Go has got youngsters exercising so I’ll retract my previous statement.

And what about personally? As Heather Small (and Miranda!) says What have you done today to make you feel proud? Let’s keep this positivity ball rolling, it’s rather infectious, what have YOU achieved in 2016?

For me, Lauren, I have achieved the following:

– I travelled visited European cities (mainly beginning with B!)

– I turned 30 I celebrated it exactly how I wanted, surrounded by my favourite people!

– I produced Forked Theatre’s first live show! I’ve never been prouder of womankind all contributors gave content willingly and thoughtfully

– I also produced a rehearsed reading of Merry Wives of Windsor the week before.!

– I bought a car the biggest financial investment I have ever made! #Adulting

– I fell in love to someone who is selfless, caring and true

– I ran 10k! And raised 360 for mental health in the process

– I filmed the pilot episode of my own sitcom

– I have met inspiring women and been in awe of their power, focus and efforts

– I’ve made new friends, and strengthened relations with existing ones

– I went to therapy and then stopped realising that I was better off without it

What a year… Who knew that all this could happen in 12 months? I concentrate on the negative, get bogged down by the daily grind, and kick myself for not being more proactive and achieving MORE but written down, looking at a physical list 2016 has been kind to me. It’s come with its struggles, of course, its dark days and blue moments but look overall, it’s not all bad!

And what about the other Forksters? Kate? Kristy? What have you achieved, ladies? Pop some bits in the comments below! 

And you? What about you? What have you achieved in 2016? Walk away from this year and stride with pride into 2017 thinking Cor, what a whirlwind of a year! I won’t forget that in a hurry and I won’t forget it for all the RIGHT reasons…

Happiness and workshops- a volunteer’s experience at the Refugee Women’s Centre, Dunkirk

womens-centre

I’ve just returned from a few days volunteering at the refugee camp in Dunkirk. It was incredible, it taught me so much about humanity, myself and…well, workshop leading (more on that later). It was also straightforward, dare I say it even easy, at least in comparison to what I had built it up to be in my head. It was an emotional experience, at times it was hard, but really anyone could do it, and I want to convince you to give it a go. I’ll give you an honest description of what I experienced working in the Women’s Centre, and then you can decide for yourself…

But before I tell you more, I’ll give a quick lo-down for those less ‘in-the-know’. The following is based on the knowledge I have gathered over conversations with fellow volunteers, my own research, and the media; but do please fact-check and do your own research. Most people have by now heard of the camp at Calais, otherwise referred to as ‘The Jungle’. Most estimates are that it currently has approximately 10,000 inhabitants; the majority of which are in tents. Some have already been evicted. There is talk of another imminent eviction, this time of everyone, at the end of October. There are no alternatives in place. There is talk of the French Government housing some of the families in hotel rooms. This is obviously temporary, and clearly not a solution considering the vast numbers of refugees that will be further displaced.

There is another camp that not so many are aware of, and that is just outside Dunkirk. In fact, there are two (and this doesn’t count the many make-shift mini-camps we heard about that have recently sprung up and are constantly on the move to avoid detection). The first camp was one of similar conditions to those found in Calais; it became a quagmire, people’s tents were water-logged and disease was rife. At some point earlier this year the French government and Medicine Sans Frontiers stepped in, providing a camp that sought to meet basic UN human rights standards. This pretty much amounts to some wooden shacks, a little over the size of your garden shed, a make-shift medical centre and charity run kitchen (as well as various other volunteer run services like the women’s centre, children’s centre, library and information centre; all in temporary shelters). Nevertheless, from what the people who have seen both camps have said, this creates far superior living conditions than the other camps. It has limited capacity and favours young families and pregnant women. In fact, officially, it is closed to single men. No one knows how long this camp will be in place. There was a recent raid by the French riot police which involved the use of tear gas, and some of the shelters have already been removed. No one knows why. There are now sorry looking herbs and vegetables growing in the plots where the earth has been exposed; clearly planted too late and unlikely to bear anything edible before the winter sets in. There is a lot of space to build more shelters. Many more. There are a good number of toilets and showers in the camp and they are cleaned by a private company, presumably contracted by the government, who also pay their staff to sit outside the entrances all day. No one really knows why… There is talk of the new Dunkirk camp as a slick pre-election move by the French Government, and therefore no need for it after the election has been fought. I’ll let you decide on the accuracy of such a claim yourself. In any case, there is nothing in the camp that has been built to last, and it is unlikely to maintain its humane conditions in the winter. On one of the days we were there a storm was brewing, the power cut briefly, and the reality of winter life in a shelter with walls of cloth and plywood really set in.

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So, here’s a little info regarding the actual experience as a volunteer. I didn’t know what to expect. I couldn’t help but expect the worst; no matter how critical you are of media information, it is almost impossible not be influenced by stories of violence and uncontrolled crime. Although I’m sure there are dangerous situations, I did not see any of these in my time in the camp. I saw love, kindness, generosity, laughter, some sadness (of course) and people just trying to get on with lives as ‘normal’. We did hear of one Daesh member who had recently been in the camp, this was found out, there was fear among the inhabitants and by the time we arrived he was gone. I think he was removed by the police, although I can’t be certain. There were also alleged gang members, doing various things, but this is all hearsay so I won’t go into detail here. Much like any community, there will always be opportunists.

My friends and I spent our time volunteering in the Women’s Centre; a safe space for women and children to hang out in during the day. There is a free shop for nappies, toilet roll, sanitary products etcetera, which women come and collect when they need them. These are effectively rationed to ensure that everyone gets their equal share, i.e., one toilet roll per family, per day. There is also an order book where individuals can ask for shoes in a certain size for example, then that item will be put aside if and when it is found among the donations, and given to the person with that order.

There is a large stock of adult nappies. These are used regularly by people facing long journeys in lorries before arriving at their destination.

There is a free clothes shop, where the donated women’s and children’s clothes are sorted into piles relating to age and gender. Again, this is monitored to ensure most get an even share. There is an ‘office’ where; children’s toys, women’s make-up, hairdryers, straighteners, sugar, salt, tea, and snacks to be handed out through the day, plus all paper work, is stored. Everything in the office is to be shared, so again has to be carefully monitored. One lady popped the straighteners in her bag and we only found them after asking around for a time. Who can blame her, but the office is generally manned (or woman-ed!), to make sure that no one gets carried away and all get their fair share. There are also four cooking stoves and a constant supply of chopped wood (as long as there are volunteers there to chop it). Around 4pm in the afternoon the women tend to gather round the stoves and make delicious smelling soups, chicken and potatoes, and lentil daal. The women’s centre fills with the smell of burning wood and cooked food and everything starts to get an air of calm. This was one of my favourite parts of the day. We had to be careful about telling the women that their food smelt good because they would instantly offer out a generous portion, leaving them with less. This happened to one of my co-volunteers. It was a lovely gesture and she enjoyed every mouthful, and I’m sure that the women offering the food got some semblance of normality in being able to share dinner with friends. Nevertheless, we all knew that when we got back to the volunteer accommodation we’d have a relatively stocked fridge and be five minute’s drive from the supermarket, so we learnt not to compliment the smells!

Just to reiterate, I’m sure that for most of you reading this post I don’t need to, but if I do (!)…These are women just like you and I; your mothers, sisters, cousins. One of the women told me that her husband is a doctor. Most seemed to be middle-class, professional women. They clearly have lives in their home country, far-removed from what they are currently experiencing. It was uncomfortable, even embarrassing, being in a position where I was monitoring what they could take from a shipping container of second-hand goods. I can’t imagine how awful it must have made them feel. How strong of them to endure the situation with kindness and smiles.

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Now to the workshops. I spent most of my time with the children, having originally aimed to run workshops with the women of the centre. We found upon arrival that the atmosphere was very much one of calm, of conversation, a place for the women to chill out, do hair and make-up and breast-feed (for those still able to produce milk, many can’t). So, time was much better spent distracting the children. There was a number of people arriving wanting to do types of therapy, or workshops with the women during our time there, all with varying levels of success. There is the issue of translation; many of the women don’t speak English. Also the fact that when you arrive at the centre the atmosphere is one in which a workshop (of our kind anyway) isn’t appropriate. It feels exploitative. Is it for us, the workshop leaders, or for the women? I think that they would have enjoyed some of the activities we had planned, but I also felt that our time there was better spent helping out in other ways. Besides, playing with the kids was fun. Plus we got a make-over; nails, hair, make-up. The make-up was questionable- more clown chic than the cover of Cosmo- but the girls, like many girls across the globe, loved giving us a good pamper session. Heads, shoulders, knees and toes was a hit with the youngest children of the group, especially when body parts were replaced with raspberries, and a game of Zip, Zap, Boing (every drama workshop leader’s go-to ice-breaker), was a particular hit with the older boys.

One of the most important lessons I learnt while there, was the need for happiness and relative normality. Also behaviour management, sometimes. There were some very naughty kids, some due to having been through unimaginable experiences, and some were just…well…naughty kids, and that’s the way to see it. I felt, at times, in this little bubble that the women’s centre became, that I was doing an after-school club in the UK. I used to do children’s parties and at times I forgot the context of our situation and felt as if I was back home being a kids entertainer again. It’s a situation where behaviour management is needed in equal measure to love and kindness! I fell in love with many of the children there, you’re not supposed to have favourites, but you inevitably do. But…the point I’m trying to make is, it was no time for sentimentality, for piousness, it was a time to be an adult aiming to create a space that would feel as ‘normal’ and un-disruptive as it possibly could. Regardless of the situation. It was a time to be human. And happy.

I had a conversation with one of the volunteers about what we have to offer as individuals. Sometimes it can be easy to think that you have nothing to offer; no skills, not enough time. But sometimes working on your own happiness can be the most generous thing that you can do. In this situation where many of the women and children didn’t speak English, I felt that a happy smile went a long way. My granddad, on one of the final occasions I saw him before he passed away, danced out of the communal room of his care home ,leant on his zimmer frame jiggling any spare limbs not needed for balance, and sang Ken Dodd’s “Happiness, happiness, the greatest gift that I possess…”. How right you are granddad. He had been battling cancer for over 10 years. I’m sure it’s what kept him going for so long. His motto was to never give up, he even had a poster on his kitchen cabinet with words to that effect. Happiness ran through the very core of his being and it fed into his determination to live, take every opportunity given to him, and it made the lives of anyone and everyone around him all the better for it.

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So, if you’re convinced you have something to offer as a volunteer, however small, here are some answers to some questions you may have:

Where will I stay? There is free accommodation for volunteers in an old leisure centre only 15 minutes walk from the camp. When you contact the Kesha Niya http://keshaniya.org/volunteer/  they can confirm if there is space. There are 2 beds to each room and a sink. Bring a sleeping bag and a mat then you can always camp out on the floor. 3 of us shared a room and I took a spare mattress, put it on the floor, and slept well (ish- it’s all new and there’s lots floating around your head while you’re there).  There are communal showers and toilets. The showers are great; warm and more powerful than my one at home!

Who are the other volunteers and what are they like? A lot of the volunteers are young; I’m guessing that we were some of the eldest at 28-32. Some are on gap years, one had been walking form Nottingham to Norway, injured his ankle on a trampoline, found himself on a bus with a Dunkirk volunteer, and was convinced to come and chop wood for a time! Another lady was…more mature, had a family at home and was giving up a free weekend to drop off donations and help out where she could. Everyone has a story. Everyone has the same beliefs as you at their core, otherwise they wouldn’t be there. It’s communal living with an interesting bunch of people.

What should I pack? Sleeping bag, sleeping mat. Comfortable clothes. I read up on what I should bring beforehand, but I think that the advice I read was outdated and referred to the old camp and the things needed if in those conditions. Obviously it depends on the type of work you’ll be doing, I was mainly in the women’s centre and not outside chopping wood for example, so I would have been fine in trainers and my standard clothes, but it’s a good idea for anyone volunteering to bring some waterproof shoes and a coat. The better prepared you are, the more you can be flexible in the way in which you help on camp. If you know you’ll be in the children’s or women’s centre, just come as you are, but be prepared to get a bit of paint and/or nail varnish, felt-tip pen all over you! You’ll probably get a make-over, and possibly a new handbag from the experience (see picture), so it’s well worth it!

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Can I get there without a car? Yes. We did. All the way from Cardiff. It took a long time, and we had to rely on lifts from fellow volunteers for the Dunkirk-Calais stretch, but we did it. We were lucky because one of us arrived before the other two and we therefore had contact with people at the volunteer accommodation who had cars. We were then able to bribe with beer! We used general liftshare sites, but found that a lot of these fell through; people are under no obligation to take you. Our ferry was also delayed by an hour, which made this difficult. This is however a lift share Facebook group specifically for people volunteering at the camps called Liftshare – Calais and Dunkirk Refugee camps. We didn’t know about this beforehand…The only way to get to Dunkirk via ferry as a foot passenger is to get the ferry to Calais first. The ferry direct to Dunkirk is for vehicles only. I recommended bringing your car, if you have one. Or, friend-ing up on Facebook with various volunteer sites for both camps if you don’t. There are also cheap coaches that take you from London to Calais and then onto Dunkirk. Don’t worry too much about arriving late either, you can go straight to the volunteer accommodation rather than the camp itself.

How long should I stay/is it o.k to go if I’ve only got a couple of days to spare? It is definitely o.k. to spend only a few days there. We were concerned that we wouldn’t be of any use only staying for 3-4 days, but fresh energy, new people, new ideas, and any donations you have to bring are always welcome. Long-term volunteers are ESPeCIALLY welcome though, as this enables the camp and organisations within it to start to make longer terms plans and generally run more efficiently. Also, if you’re reading and this and you’re male, please do head over to the camp, the more of you there, the more we can release some of the women volunteering in other areas that are needed for female-only volunteer roles; like that of helping in the Women’s Centre.

Should I bring donations? We collected money from friends and family into a Paypal account. That way we were able to withdraw it instantly and, after spending some time on the camp, could spend it in the local supermarket on exactly what was needed. For example, we wouldn’t have thought of hair removal wax, but we had a very funny chat with the women of the centre about the need for hair removal. Cries of ‘sheep, sheep’, and waving hands all over their bodies, plus showing us their legs got the point across! We also knew what shoe sizes were needed and could match our shopping list against something more solid than a common list online.

Can I lead a workshop? Absolutely. Our workshop ideas were drama-related, a workshop with a different focus may be more suitable. We got a better idea of what would be comfortable and enjoyable for the women once there. I would recommend asking yourself if you are imposing your idea of a workshop onto the women, or if it’s something that will truly work for them. Obviously we asked these questions to ourselves beforehand, but the reality is always different to what you might expect. Expect the unexpected! Be flexible.

Should I do it? YES! Do it. Spread the happiness. You’ll learn a lot about yourself and others. You’ll be surprised at how much you enjoy it. It is hard work, and we were exhausted emotionally and physically by the end of the few days we were there, but it is worth every minute and we’re planning on going back already.