Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections: Diva Harris

Diva Harris | 22nd January 2020

Here endeth the annual series of postings we like to call Shadows and Reflections, in which our contributors and friends look back on the past twelve months. The final piece of the season comes from CBTR editor and staff writer Diva Harris:

Some time in the lead up to the recent general election, I wrote in the notes app of my phone: very often at the moment, I wonder why my mouth hurts and then realise I’m gritting my teeth. A couple of months before, I wrote in an actual notebook: I wake from apocalyptic nightmares and am not particularly comforted by reality. In 2019, both familial and political turmoils forced me to hold a magnifying glass up to my identity, and at times it felt a lot like burning holes in my own head.

For the last year and a halfish, I have been awkwardly lugging a concrete slab of grief around with me everywhere I go. My grandmother (although never grandmother or grandma or gran or nan, because she thought those made her sound old – only ever Nanny) died relatively young and without much warning the August before last. Words failed me at her funeral, and I’m still not entirely sure how to write about her now. I could tell you about the silver buzzcut; the impeccable taste in clothing, art, music, furniture; that she was the only person I’ve ever met who ate strawberry sandwiches; how hilarious I found the concern she expressed about me going to gigs on Mare Street, knowing she was picturing the Hackney of her tower block youth rather than that of the now. That Mark Feld, yet to become Marc Bolan, had been in her year at school during said Hackney youth, and that there had been some misspent overlap, bunking to smoke cigs in the park. The anecdotes about underaged gallivanting around Soho in the 1960s as a mod, via The Flamingo Club, Georgie Fame and glass dishes of purple hearts; that the way she did her eyeliner informed the way my mum does hers and in turn the way I do mine, and how this exaggerated the similarities in our faces. The tough exterior and soft centre; the unconditional love and generosity; the ways in which she resisted the expectations of her parents and society, as a young woman and always; that she managed pretty much never to do as she was told. And countless other disparate, less consequential things which remind me of her: Barbra Streisand films, Al Green songs, marzipan fruits, dim sum, plastic lobsters, matchbooks, casinos, sticks of rock, pinball machines, Piz Buin suntan lotion, and believe or not, UK garage. I have a fond and recent-ish memory of walking into a room one Christmas to find her contentedly singing along to Kisstory while she did the crossword. 

Nanny Bev, far right, on Carnaby Street – from British Pathé newsreel ‘London – Teenagers Wear These’ (1965), and below, a clip from the film in the V&A’s current Mary Quant exhibition

She was, of course, so much more than a sum of all these parts, and no matter how long I go on listing and reminiscing, I will never be able to fully articulate just what – or rather who – I have lost. What a woman. I still swing wildly between kind of okay and hideously aggrieved on a daily basis and I have still only been back to her house once since the fact. She still visits me in dreams most nights and I am still trying to work out how to function one rung higher up on the ladder of Jewish matriarchy. I am still jarred whenever I find scraps of paper with her handwriting on, or chance across her name while doing my accounts, like I did last week; the birthday dosh long-since spent.

In the spirit of not doing what you’re told, we spread her ashes in the sea. (I kind of now think of her as the sea as a consequence, but maybe that’s for another time.)

Politically: I’m too tired to write it, and you’re probably too tired to read it, but needless to say that jews (all of us, although I speak from the position of left and secular) have been through the mincer a bit of late. I’ve never felt so secure in my personal politics though, or so connected to the generations of radical socialist mischief-makers I am descended from. I have never felt as wilfully anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchy, anti-sexist-racist-classist-establishment as I do right now, and I’m ready for a fight.

Thankfully, there was an awful lot of joy packed into my 2019 too.

In October, after what felt like about a thousand years of browsing Rightmove and turning up to oversubscribed, X-Factor-audition-esque viewings in damp flats, I traded in a stuffy corner of north London for Brixton. I love every badly painted floorboard, blocked-up fireplace and snapped window cord of our new flat. I love the market, and Brockwell Park, and am looking forward to swimming in the Lido once its waters are slightly more clement. This is the first time I’ve ever lived south of the river, and despite 25 years of being a Londoner, crossing the Thames at night still thrills me. Best of all, we have permission to get a dog – a hardly fanciful dream which has felt all too distant as a London renter. Finally! A legitimate excuse to spend inordinate amounts of time scrolling through the Battersea website.

My DJ compadre and I were asked to host our own monthly Soho Radio show (which, shameless plug, you can listen to here), and I’m very proud of that. I also wrote a lot, and weirder and better, the cherry being that I was sought to write the album biography for the person whose music has most soundtracked my life. I would say no big deal, except that it was and still is a big deal, and I don’t mind sacrificing any illusion of coolness to say so. The artist is Cate Le Bon, the album is Reward, and it’s truly a beauty. Consider it a personal recommendation from me to you. Other album highlights were Aldous Harding’s Designer, Mega Bog’s Dolphine, Solange’s When I Get Home, Octo Octa’s Resonant Body (n.b., very good for energetically packing up a house to), Vanishing Twin’s The Age of Immunology, Weyes Blood’s Titanic Rising, Derya Yildirim & Grup Şimşek’s Kar Yağar, Jessica Pratt’s Quiet Signs, Sault’s 5 and Luaka Bop’s The Time for Peace Is Now: Gospel Music About Us compilation.

I have, of course, found joy in books. Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women; Wendy Erskine’s Sweet Home; Ann Quin’s Berg and Eileen Myles’ Chelsea Girls all spring to mind. Though a lot of them are still somewhere in the chaos of new house, I have an ever-growing mental list of nexts: Jay Bernard’s Surge, Eve Babitz’s I Used to Be Charming, Nell Dunn’s Talking to Women, and, based on an essay in John Waters’ mostly brilliant Role Models about the sexiness of Tennessee Williams’ least good work, I will be seeking out Tennessee Williams’ least good work. At present though I’m knee-deep in Grace Jones’s autobiography, which is as outrageous and thrilling and jam-packed with BDE as you’d hope (just for example: When Johnny said that he couldn’t sell me because of my blackness, it motivated me like very little had before…and I am very, very motivated. I leaned over his desk like I was on the prow of a ship powering through hundreds of dry gleaming snakes, and I said, “I’m going to make you EAT THOSE WORDS!” And as I left the room, I shrieked loud enough to rattle the Eiffel Tower: “AND I HOPE YOU DIE OF CIRRHOSIS OF THE LIVER!!!”). I’m so excited to see what she’ll do with the programming for this year’s Meltdown festival. 

Other good and gorgeous things: Broad City; Agnès Varda and JR’s Faces PlacesLecker podcast; monthly newspaper The Smudge; Anni Albers and Dora Maar exhibitions at the Tate, and the V&A’s utterly delectable Tim Walker exhibition — the last two of which you can still catch for a bit. Goodest and most gorgeous of all were the people – most notably women – in whom I found solace in 2019; the gaping hole left by loss not so much filled as patchily but lovingly papered over. There was the hash cake-fuelled mission to Sussex County Cricket Ground with D & D to watch Rod Stewart, where we were the youngest people by about forty years, and the most sober by about three pints of Prosecco; the Parisian weekend of fag-smoking, shit-chatting, and red wine overindulgence with D & M; the strange Isle of Wight holiday with my oldest school friends, A, E and T, featuring lots of garlic and a peacock with albinism; all the Sundays spent making daft collages with B and L and sometimes E and J in L’s various property guardianships, in between playing with goop, food, and modelling extra-long washing up gloves. And of course, the hoots, books, brainwaves and everything else shared with A, to whom I am very much indebted for the under-wing space, and in the company of whom I ended the year with a first: a bone-aching Boxing Day dip on Hampstead Heath, in the rain. I walked out of that green water and into 2020 new-born, swaddled in a plastic astrakhan. Start as you mean to go on.