Between your fingertips and your pointed toes you hold your body like a smile. A happiness that you are able to place in the air, to dance with or to twirl upside down, hoping to find in that turning world a still point, a touching of the moment. And sometimes you do touch it and that’s what keeps you going, keeps you practicing, learning different ways to hold it again – to make your body smile.
Gymnastics was a happiness I gave to myself, a personal thing. It wasn’t about ambition or competition (“It doesn’t matter who wins” I would say to my exasperated coach.) It was the dialogue I had with my body and the air around it. Had I been able to put into words this conversation, the words you’d hear might have been “exhilaration, excitement, delight, despair, disappointment, danger, focus, passion or precision” but you didn’t need to put it into words because gymnastics was all about feel. How it felt as a little girl to do handstands on the garden wall, or run down the lawn trying to learn to do a cartwheel with no hands, or fling yourself towards the sky in a somersault. And then some years later to be standing on a beam at the world championships and to step simply into these moves, landing perfectly on those 4 inches.
I didn’t always land perfectly, of course … In the National finals for a Russian scholarship I managed to fall off the beam and the bars and still win – I was good, if even a disaster at competitions ! When I came back from Russia I was chosen as the youngest ever member of the GB women’s team and went on to compete around the world. In Russia I met an old man who wanted to tell me a few home truths about communist life – but only after I had convinced him I wasn’t a spy. In a corridor at the gym (which didn’t have much in the way of equipment but still produced Olympic champions) out of view, I swapped Mars Bars for a coveted USSR tracksuit, or sat in the Metropole hotel in Moscow while a dodgy interpreter slipped bags of Russian dolls under the table for us (who knows what he had been given in exchange? I didn’t notice – I was too busy looking at the builders on the scaffolding outside the window, intrigued that they were all burly women.)
In Czechoslovakia, there was a gymnast with 6 toes and I felt, rather ungraciously, that she had an unfair advantage on the beam. We were treated to 26 course banquets which seemed a bit daft as we were all tiny and had the appetites of birds. We performed outside temples in Southern Italy where the crowd booed us vehemently and the condensation made it hard to run down the mat, but where I also discovered enormous watermelons and a strange stuffed tortoise to take back as gifts and souvenirs. The watermelons of course didn’t make it but I still have the tortoise, the stuffing of which is now oozing out like a sadness.
I learnt a lot from gymnastics, some of which was sad, some poetically philosophical, some of which I wish I’d never had to learn but all of which held me in good stead. I learnt that when a lad takes you for a moonlit walk along the shore and says you have beautiful hands he is lying (My fingers opened up to reveal handfuls of red raw blisters, like I had raided a jar of sweets from some kind of horror movie.)
I learnt something about patience from a gymnast who was like a star on the edge of the sky. No one really noticed her at first. She wasn’t particularly brilliant. You could almost say she was a plodder – but she could do one particular move especially gracefully and it became her sort of trademark. She would backflip on to her hands but before they hit the mat she would do a full twist with her body. After a time, the rules happened to change in the vault which meant that you could now fly backwards onto it. The gymnast managed to transfer her full twisting backflip trick onto this piece of apparatus and became the first person in the world ever to do it. She had invented a new move and as a result she was now a star. She had moved slowly, slowly to centre stage (or centre Heaven!) so that suddenly you looked up and there she was, shining. I often think of her when I want something to happen quickly and know that I’ll have to wait.
Of all the difficult moves I learnt, this one was my favourite: You’d be on the top bar in a handstand with your back to the lower bar that was down below in front of it. You’d let yourself fall so that it seemed as if you would crash onto that lower bar and break your spine – but at the last minute you’d hop your hands and change your grip so you could still hold on and jack knife and straddle your legs and swing between the bars, bringing them together once you’d missed the bottom bar so that you could then swing up high backwards, higher and higher, until the point that you’d let go, fly upwards somersaulting backwards underneath yourself as you straddled your legs once more to catch the bar again. As I perched on that bar ready to swing in to the handstand to begin this move I would be shaking with fear but I knew that it was worth it for the exhilaration and sense of achievement if I mastered it.
Gymnastics was dangerous. One beautiful Russian gymnast broke her neck when she landed on her head dismounting from the beam. The end of my career came at 17 when I landed from a twisting somersault and my leg carried on twisting, snapping backwards. It hurt and I was disappointed, especially as I was training to go the Olympics and was just about to compete in Romania where I’d heard you could get
‘gold’ earrings for 25p . But my childhood had been colourful and the gymnastics was just one of these colours – perhaps it was time to add a few others again to the picture.
About this time I was given a present – the collected works of T S Eliot.
I had always loved books but it was a respectable kind of love. I was moved, stirred, but never shaken. Suddenly here was a poet who shook me up with a wild, exciting kind of love – the kind of love I’d had for gymnastics. And who at the heart of his work seemed to searching for that same still point I’d touched upon, where ‘the dance is’
His poetry danced in front of your eyes to a silent music, leaving footprints of words that you could follow to an idea that would linger long after you’d shut the book – that would ‘echo / Thus, in your mind’ He turned the page almost into a stage. Lines from poems came on like different acts in a cabaret. Some showed off. There were can-can girls high kicking quotes into the air. You wondered if something this clever could have a heart, but then Eliot would introduce a line that melted you with its sweetness ‘I shall measure out my life in coffee spoons’. Words went from the sublime ‘the future is a faded song … Pressed between yellow leaves of a book that was never opened’ to the seemingly ridiculous ‘if you don’t give it him, there’s others will’ Except of course it was never ridiculous – there was always a hidden meaning, as if a magician with a new trick up its sleeve. Some lines sang like a sad chanteuse ‘Weave weave the sunlight in your hair’ or were beautiful like an arabesque perfectly balanced on a beam ‘soul stretched tight across the skies’ Others somersaulted backwards landing on the page, like exotic acrobats tumbling from books I’d never heard of.
It was like some sort of gymnastics. The word gymnast comes from the Greek gymnos meaning naked (it was performed naked of course at first !) And a poem uses words to create a form out of ideas and feelings – words stripped down to their very essence so that the poem will have a lightness about it that will allow it to soar off the page and land perfectly in your imagination. Eliot’s work landed perfectly in mine and then dipped its toe into my soul causing a ripple … I knew then that I wanted to be something as exciting as a poet.
“You’re mad” said friends as I gave up offers of better paid jobs (I suppose any job is better paid than a poet!) but as Rumi says ‘Penniless one has a thousand dreams.’ I dreamt I could do something different like Eliot had done. I wanted to sprinkle my words with theatricality and take them off the page to a new space. Not necessarily to a stage but somewhere they could be colourful and be something that anyone – the Lils, the typists, the J.Alfred Prufrocks, and Tiresius’s of the world – could engage with.
And so I began. I tied poems to a ‘Poetree’ and busked, picking poems off the branches, playing music and wearing stilts, whilst doing handstands in the splits; I ate my words in the form of edible poetry cakes; I presented a show on a bed of roses in a palace; I became a poet on the platform; called games of poetry bingo; serenaded tramps and Counts in Venice; put poems in tins on the supermarkets shelves, had Dr Who play the spoons on my legs while I was upside down on stage, performed cartwheeling poems in Cuba, delivered poems on a postman’s bike, and tried to light up the heavens with my words by tying poems to rocket fireworks.
All the while inspired by Eliot to squeeze ‘ the universe into a ball’ – dance on it even and‘ roll it toward some overwhelming question.’ The question I was trying to answer was could I make life a cartwheel? Could I find at the heart of everything that still point? Could I keep turning and re-turning to the joy I’d felt when doing handstands as a kid? Or doing a cartwheel with no hands floating in space? Could I join up the circle of my being – ‘In my beginning is my end’ – and fill in that empty space with all the colours that I was, turning with the turning world until all the colours spun and there was a white light, a heart of light, a silence?
I could try … If I practiced hard enough – ran down the lawn of my own existence and flung myself towards the sky – maybe I could even make life a cartwheel with no hands!