Edinburgh International Book Festival
18th August 2017
It must be daunting to face an audience, even a small one at one of the Festival’s smaller venues, but to have to do so on one’s own because the person who was due to share the stage has had to pull out takes a lot of nerve. It would have been fascinating to have seen and heard iO Tillett Wright, but – let’s face it – Penny Pepper is now a veteran of appearing in public, having emerged from behind the pen name of Kata Colbert many years ago to become both a poet-performer and an advocate for people with disabilities, and if anyone could carry it off she could. I think this does challenge the Festival programming; a joint Wright/Pepper event would have been in interesting mini-colloquium, but either one of them could easily fill an hour with something unique.
Penny was primed and prompted by poet Ryan van Winkle (and yes, that is his real name), whose enthusiasm did occasionally cause him to talk over her more than a host should, but I’m guessing that was his delight in being there. It’s picky of me to mention it, I know, and by-and-large he did all that a host should do at one of these presentations.
With the rain beating on the roof of the Garden Theatre, Penny read from her new book of memoirs, First In The World Somewhere. She has been an avid diarist for most of her life, and each section of the book, she told us, is introduced by a few lines from her journal. Such is the style in which she has written this – narrative, almost prose-poetry in places, the first passage she read out interrupted by curses and racist comments from her stepfather – that it was impossible to say where the journal extract ended and the creative memoir started.
Although Penny has happy memories of her father (still alive when she was a child) teaching her to read before she went to school, ‘home’ eventually became, in her words “a prison, Hell.” She did not want to live “the designated life of the cripple,” and so, full of Sex-Pistols-fuelled rebellion, decided to move from her rural home to an independent life in London. This took extraordinary self-belief because, as she told us, even the language of independence for the disabled did not exist back in the 1980s. One way of taking hold of her own life was to show off in her choice of clothing. Breaking out of stereotyping was also a way that a disabled person could express “a universal experience,” talk about love, sex, fun, even write to the Pope (yes, she did that – it’s a long story and I hope you hear it straight from the poet’s mouth some time).
The late seventies and early eighties was the height of the era of the fanzine. That’s a concept that the blogging generation would be hard put to get its head round, but this medium of do-it-yourself, audience-participation samizdat was where ‘Kata Colbert’ first emerged. A letter of hers was ‘Star Letter’ in Jamming magazine, and she issued a poetry cassette under the title of ‘My Heart Is Like A Singing Bird’ – she owned up to us that titled was borrowed from Christina Rossetti.
Ryan van Winkle quoted her as saying that “‘crip sex’ is still a taboo,” to which she replied “The taboo is a social construct… the body perfect is a construct… My bottom line is be human, it’s a human issue.” She also rejects, as a construct, the ‘charity model’ of disability, with its implication of gratefulness on the part of the recipient. She talked about having addressed the House of Lords and served on all kinds of diversity panels, notwithstanding her objection to the construct and the expectation that largesse was something to be handed down to the grateful. She talked about her good friend the actor Liz Carr, about Margaret Thatcher, about St Francis of Assisi (she was delighted with the idea that the birds he preached to might have been the carrion-eaters on the city dump when he became disillusioned with the people of Assisi), about her best friend Tamsin, about boyfriends, about Bill Grundy interviewing the Sex Pistols, and lots more.
If I have one… well… not a complaint but a regret, it’s that because the event was to promote her memoirs we didn’t get to hear her poetry. But there’ll be plenty of other opportunities to do that. Check your local What’s On! I had a chance to chat to Penny afterwards, and that was fascinating because she is utterly charming and much more approachable than some Festival celebs, but our chat is not what this review is about. Many thanks to Penny, to Ryan, and to the EIBF for allowing us to spend an hour with her.
Afterthought: do you realise that Penny Pepper has no Wikipedia entry? Get that sorted, someone.
Reviewed by Paul Thompson