D. Mortimer, How to Draw Hands8th May 2020
When I am bored at conferences I draw the speakers. I draw the people in the room. Usually people whose faces I find interesting or attractive. I find I can listen better and understand more when I draw.
One of the last exhibitions I went to see before the pandemic was Charlotte Salomon’s Life or Theatre? Leben Oder Theater? at The Jewish Museum in Camden. The work was made while Salomon was in exile and hiding from the Nazis in the South of France in 1939. She produced close to 800 gouache paintings on A4 based on the events of her life. Each painting is accompanied by a transparency that is hand painted with text. The text either narrates, or playfully undercuts, the image it responds to. On my visit I latched onto a curators tour that was already in mid-swing.
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The BFGA response to D. Mortimer’s ‘How to Draw Hands’ by Daniel Bermingham | 8th May 2020
“Words ... is oh such a twitch-tickling problem to me all my life. So you must simply try to be patient and stop squibbling. As I am telling you before, I know exactly what words I am wanting to say, but somehow or other they is always getting squiff-squiddled around.” – The BFG
Since my flatmate went to stay with her partner, I’ve had the flat to myself. The only people I see throughout the day are the lovely Turkish couple who run the shop across the road. I’ve been shopping there a lot more than I need, it breaks up the day. A chance to speak to someone in person. We’ve got a bit of a rapport going. Being alone is mostly fine, almost pleasant actually. My mind has been remarkably clear, writing more than I have in years. I was unemployed for two years after I graduated from Uni and spent a lot of time alone at the home house, so I’ve developed some useful strategies. Routine is the most effective way of beating back the demons. Walk in the morning, work during the day, a nice lunch and moments to write and read. Plan leisure, know what you’re going to watch/read/play in the evening or you’ll lose it. I briefly started smoking again but cut that out after two packs.
The guy I’ve been seeing since January is a Year 3 Teacher in a local school. He’s one of those affable, animated sweet characters that you know would be a natural teacher. He always sounded like he was reading a story; paced and cheeky. He fell ill with a fever and a cough around the time of lockdown and was out of work for a while. He couldn’t get a test so we don’t know if it was corona or not. We haven’t seen each other since for obvious reasons so we’ve been texting a lot. I’m not a big fan of texting, always ground down a relationship for me, but this time it’s been nice. He’s been recording these 20-minute ‘Story Time’ videos for his class since he’s been out. He’s currently reading The BFG. He sends me a YouTube link every day at about 5pm. YouTube flags every time I’m watching children’s content. I’ve been watching them in full. He does the voice so well. Those mellifluous linguistic acrobatics.
I have very few memories from my early childhood but The BFG stands out. Must have rewatched it five, six, seven times at least. I watched the movie first, so I knew the voice before the written words. We had the movie on tape so I must have been four or five. I can remember the colour scheme so clearly, the faded pastels of Giant Country. The sparkly iridescent dreams, shaking in their jars, the violent ruby reds of nightmares. The greys of Britain. Even more than the colours, it was how the BGF spoke that amused me the most. As a child his unusual way of speech was intoxicating, sharing the same Irish lyricism as the elders of my village. I always thought he spoke with a Cornish accent. Maybe he does! Now that I look back, the way the BFG spoke must have made sense or resonated with me more because of my dyslexia. My words have always come out topsy turvy, never knowing if or how they’d materialise. I have a joke with my dyslexic friends that if we’re in a group chat, non-dyslexics would have no idea what we were saying. Our own ever-shifting language without rules. Words are a bit flexible for dyslexics; open to negotiation. As the BFG would say, “What I say and what are mean are two different things.”
A few years later, when I finally got a diagnosis, my parents got me a reading tutor. I can’t remember much about her, but she was very sweet and patient and I preferred seeing her than going to the weekly dyslexia school on Wednesday evenings. I didn’t know what to expect from her really, I just knew I hated reading. It was frustrating and humiliating so I was gonna avoid it for as long as possible. I resisted all my parents' help with this stuff. They really did try everything tho. Eventually, I would be held back and repeated 6th class. I can remember the screaming. I was fat, gay, an amputee and now a proven thicko. The sense of freakdom and embarrassment is so intense on the verge of puberty. Not cute.
Sophie in The BFG functions as an authoritarian descriptive editor in the early stages of the book. When she is first brought to Giant Country she corrects the BFG incessantly. She’s just been kidnapped by a possibly human-eating giant and it's grammar and syntax that she is concerned with? The playful, creative and resourceful way the BFG constructs, combines and repurposes words – even when fully understood – are pointed out and shut down, the only apparent purpose being righteous humiliation. Neurodivergent people are all too familiar with this behaviour. Every word and sentence is monitored and policed, grinding you down and shutting you up. You know you’re getting the message across so what’s the point? Sophie persists with the live edits until the BFG breaks down and weeps under the frustration, weeping “But please understand that I cannot be helpin if I sometimes saying things that are a lil squiggly.”
On her first session, my tutor had a huge pile of Roald Dahl books stacked high on the dining room table. I hadn’t drawn the connection between Dahl and The BFG just yet, the whole book-to-film process was a complete unknown. She said we were gonna read them all. We started off with The Twits which I loved. The Twits were hilarious, and their complete dysfunction as a family was a comforting comparison. The illustrations that come with every Dahl book really helped make sense of the words. When the guy I’m seeing reads to his class he flips the book to the camera to show the illustrations. I’m sure it helps. The only books I would ‘read’ at the time were atlases and those history books that are mostly images. I would spend hours skimming through huge encyclopedic picture books book on nature, science and history, but never really reading. Dahl sketched out worlds for the reader, drawing you in. He was also dyslexic and his books are often used to introduce reading for other dyslexics, a bridge between worlds. You can see his own humiliation in the character of the BFG.
The BFG was written in 1982 but had been developed through other stories for a number of years, first appearing in Danny, the Champion of the World in 1975. The book was dedicated to his late daughter Olivia who died of measles encephalitis – a swelling of the brain – in 1962. Complications of encephalitis can include seizures, hallucinations, trouble speaking, memory problems, and problems with hearing. The language the BFG speaks is gobblefunk. I had always thought this language was inspired by his own dyslexia but it seems to have emerged from a nexus of neurological diversity in his family. In 1965 his wife, the Oscar-winning actor Patricia Neal, had had a brain haemorrhage and a subsequent stroke, leaving her with very limited speech. I do not want to try and pry some meaning out of this unimaginable suffering, but it does reveal something of the plasticity of language. What were those years of profound neurological change and adaptation like? How did Roald, Olivia and Patricia speak to each other? Did they speak or did they use forms of non-verbal communication? I am reminded of the surprising ability of neurodiverse individuals in finding ways to communicate; how people with dyslexia/dyscalculia/dyspraxia, ADHD, bipolar, Tourettes, and autism often find it easier to communicate with each other than with their neurotypical peers. Perhaps it is not the mechanisation of our individual conditions but the empathy, flexibility, adaptiveness and negotiable nature of how we use language and communicate with each other. We can see in the dark, constantly stumbling in an attempt to find common meaning.
I’ve never been great at sharing how I feel with men, breaking down that barrier. Being vulnerable. My thoughts and feelings get all fuzzy and muddled, much like my words. But there’s something about someone reading to you that exposes you, blows you over, brings you back down. It’s cliched to say it’s like the comfort of a parent reading to you as a child. It's something older and more instinctual than that. It endears you to someone. A friend of mine posted on Instagram recently that he’d read to anyone who would donate to a QTIBIPOC hardships fund. Reading as collective action. Reading as care; as solidarity. I couldn’t imagine such a pure and vulnerable act before all this. If you'd told me in January that I’d be spending my evening watching Year 3 readings of The BFG I would have laughed. But this strange time has a way of playing with our expectations of ourselves and what we can expect from others. Perhaps this moment requires some Golden Phizzwizards, effervescent forces that reconcile us to reimagining the world and how we live within it. How we live with each other.
“I is full of mistakes. They is not my fault. I do my best.”
Published as part of Warm Yourself By My Trash Fire (March – May 2020)