BY Linder in Profiles | 01 NOV 10
Featured in
Issue 135

A Northern Soul

The evolution of an artist and musician

BY Linder in Profiles | 01 NOV 10

‘But we may break out from all of these various prisons with the help of other peoples’ myths, which, coming from outside our own closed system, may provide an external influence, an anti-inertial force, to move us off our own treadmill, our own track, onto an entirely new path.’ Wendy Doniger, Other Peoples’ Myths: The Cave of Echoes (1988)

I’ve recently found solace in Christopher Isherwood’s autobiographical writings from the late 1930s, written when he was trying to reconcile his affiliation with Swami Prabhavananda with driving fast cars with Greta Garbo through Hollywood. Exchange Garbo for Morrissey and Hollywood for Heysham, and you get close to my life at present. Heysham, in the northwest of England, is, as the vicar once remarked, ‘a thin place’ – the veils between its worlds are fine. Only the local watercolourists and I are doing anything resembling formal creative activity; everyone else works at the local power station, or won a beauty competition in 1964, got married then divorced and now runs a tearoom.  

I grew up in Liverpool. My family were, at best, uninterested in religion and, at worst, suspicious of it. My mother was born in 1931; her family hid behind the settee when the priest called because they were terrified of being unable to give him any money. She said, ‘they’d take your last penny, even if you were starving’. Catholics beat us up on the way home from our Protestant school. Religion was a tangle of hymns and prayers with little relevance to my small frame, although I loved my Bible. Its illustrations were very Woman’s Own – full colour, broad brushstrokes, the Queen of Sheba looking like Elizabeth Taylor and Jesus like Elvis in a sulk. It was as if a fashion illustrator had been given the brief in the absence of anyone better suited. I found it all very inspirational.

Untitled, 1977, Collage on card (framed) 26.5x32 cm, 10.4x12.6 ins image size 9 x 10cm. All images courtesy: Stuart Shave / Modern Art, London and Sorcha Dallas, Glasgow. 

At about 15, I decided to go to church. I assumed that my attendance would involve dressing up, singing and praying. I had one friend who went to the local Methodist Church, so I tagged along; I had unwittingly adopted Quentin Crisp’s admonishment to ‘shop around’ for religions. I don’t know what I was expecting – perhaps I was unconsciously longing for incense, Latin and ceremony – but the service was impoverished and severe. Nonetheless, I kept going for about a year. I also went to the Methodist youth club, until a boy there threw a dart in my best friend’s eye and that was the end of that.

Last year, with guitarist Stuart McCallum, I recorded a series of musical improvisations in a Methodist church in Morecambe, near where I now live. The congregation is tiny. The actress Thora Hird was married there and everyone knows the chair she sat in. The brother of industrialist and film producer J. Arthur Rank donated the chairs; they have red velvet cushions (the glamour of mass entertainment offering comfort for prayer). The new minister wants to sell the chairs for a pound each, to raise funds in order to convert the church ‘café style’, so the congregation can eat and drink whilst they listen to sermons. I felt irrationally perturbed when he was explaining it all to me.

Before one of our sessions, we had to wait for the Methodist Women’s Group to finish their meeting. They sang their hymns very beautifully, their voices fragile with age (one woman was christened in 1910 in the same church). I complemented them afterwards and one of them laughed and said: ‘God loves crows as well as nightingales.’ I don’t know what will happen to the churches when these women go. They clean them, arrange flowers and make tea – and then a new minister arrives and wants it all to change. But who is the change for, I wonder? The kids, he replied, but I don’t see any coming through the doors.

At the Methodist youth club of my teenage years, we used to dance to the Jackson Five (‘a buh buh buh buh, you’re all I want!’); Norman Greenbaum (‘I’m going up to the spirit in the sky’); Desmond Dekker (‘Poor me, the Israelite. Aah’) and endless Motown. We prayed under the shadow of Wigan Casino. At school, we surreptitiously listened to ‘Je t’aime … moi non plus’ (I Love You … Me Neither, 1969) by Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg – not that any of us had any idea what they were saying. Our French teacher said that her cat could speak better French than we could (oh, the curse of the northern accent!) which, if true, meant that our teacher must have been a witch. Our Latin teacher used to spend our lessons giving herself a manicure as we dutifully recited ‘amo, amas, amat’. Her hands were immaculate and our Latin stunted.

Every work I make is autobiographical. Enforced muteness holds a fascination for me, jsut as voluntary religious vows of silence do.

Everyone I knew had only one record player kept in pride of place in the lounge, so it was impossible to listen to loud music. Pop and the Methodists changed that; something formative took place in me in those pews. My memories of the prayers and sermons are non-existent, neither do I remember school prayer having an impact upon me. It was only when I was older, attending classes in Buddhist meditation, and now, practicing elements of Sikhism, that I realize that my notions of the soul, God, sin, heaven and hell were all neatly and firmly put in place in a Protestant school in Liverpool in 1959, and reinforced in a church hall near Wigan in 1969.

I grew up with pop; it was born when I was born and it will die as I die. This is not an arrogant statement: I think that the form will go on forever, like Gregorian chants and sea shanties. I never liked the Beatles but the appearance of Yoko Ono in John Lennon’s life did create some fascination. In 1969, John and Yoko released Live Peace in Toronto. On the last track, ‘John, John (Let’s Hope for Peace)’, Yoko screams over guitar feedback. I’d never heard a sound like that before and I knew it was the sort of sound I would like to make one day: pure, with the inadequacies of language falling away as the decibels rose. I began to wake up.

I’ve always been fascinated by female mystics. When I was young, I used to see lots of nuns in Liverpool. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s film Black Narcissus (1947) increased my fascination even more. It’s set in a convent in the Himalayas, though it was filmed in London at Pinewood studios. ‘There’s something in the atmosphere which makes everything seem exaggerated’, says a British agent. At times, the colours of the film are hallucinogenic and a scene in which Sister Ruth, at the end of her tether, defiantly applies red lipstick in front of Sister Clodagh, who prays for her soul, neatly illustrates the split in my psyche that has held fast ever since. Whether at early Women’s Liberation meetings in Manchester in the 1970s, or now in my studies of the intricacies of the science of Nád Yoga, I’m always the cuckoo in the nest, betrayed by non-covert use of lipstick.

‘They renounced the world of men but found that the world was not to be denied’, declares the voice-over in the trailer for Black Narcissus; it aptly describes British feminism in Britain in the early ’70s. Watching the film now, it’s farcical the way the white British actors are made-up to play Indian characters. For my performance The Darktown Cakewalk: Celebrated from the House of FAME (2010) I used an all-white cast to look at the sins of my tribe: sexism and racism, slavery and slavishness. It lasted 13 hours with ‘all sense of being in a hurry gone’, as Philip Larkin would say. We used shaving foam and spray cream to enhance the whiteness of our skin; the putrid smell of chemical soap and sour cream still lingers in the costumes. In 1982, I dressed in raw meat at the Haçienda club in Manchester and the ferric odour under stage lights also created a stench. I used half a bottle of Dioressence to try to mask it but it just made it worse.

Untitled, 1978, Photomontage, 18 x 24cm.

The Darktown Cakewalk has dominated my life for the past 12 months. Its title is deliberately unwieldy: it’s taken from a song from 1899, ‘At a Darktown Cakewalk’, and Celebrated from the House of Fame, the subtitle of Ben Jonson’s play The Masque of Queens (1609). I chose ‘House of fame’ because it sounded very Lady Gaga, even though it was written for Lady Clifford in the early 17th century. Collapsing these two titles into one meant that the historical territory of the 13-hour piece was instantly defined. I wanted to look at glamour too, from its etymological origins – it first referred to a spell cast by a witch to make someone see things in a different way – to its present-day usage.

I live close to the site of the last witch trials; you can buy witches on broomsticks in the souvenir shops. Now, they’re a caricature of the human psyche, all sense of their glamour has gone. The first bathing beauty competitions in Britain also took place here and the local library has an archive of clippings bundled into filing cabinets. A portion of the archive is held at The Women’s Library in London, while another has been stolen. I’ve read the rules and regulations (‘Rule 6: smile and say a few words to the judges’), looked at the tasselled dinner menus (‘melon basket and choice of cold cuts’) and collected the programmes (‘Wendy Ann George, 36-24-38, typist, Blackpool’). Both the witches and the beauty queens paraded themselves locally; they were all were seen as agents of glamour, all were on trial, and most said a few words to the judges (except Anne Nutter, accused of witchcraft in the 17th century – she remained silent throughout her trial). One group of women got a voucher for swimwear in a department store, or a chance to become Miss Great Britain, while the others were hanged by the neck until dead. The writers Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English helped me to understand the latter in their book Witches, Midwives and Healers in 1973. The former are still a mystery to me.

The Darktown Cakewalk was my attempt at ventriloquism (which is sometimes referred to as ‘throwing the voice’). I spent all 13 hours of it with some form of device over my mouth – a scarf, a gag, a brank. Branks and scold’s bridles were devices used to punish women for allegedly gossiping or nagging their husbands. Lots of branks have survived; they are of varied and ingenious design, usually made from metal, with a leash; some have metal protrusions to trap the tongue. All were used to control women’s speech. Similar devices were used in the transportation of slaves.

Every work I make is autobiographical. Enforced muteness holds a fascination for me, just as voluntary religious vows of silence do too. As a very young child I was interfered with, as they used to say. It’s a phrase that has almost disappeared now, but interference is a good enough word for what went on in my tender years. (As a young woman I lived in Brussels above a club called Interferences in Brussels, owned by the Belgian record label Les Disques du Crépuscule. I was trying to write an album but it didn’t happen; the interference I experienced in Brussels was of a different kind. I was surrounded by too much perfection; everything was European exquisite and I was a mute from Manchester.) As a child, the experience of sexual interference left me with acute skills at second-guessing male desire. By the time I was five years old I could have told Laura Mulvey anything she wanted to know about the male gaze and more. We shared the same surname then, Laura and I. She would have been 18 years old when I was three. When I was older, I devoured the writings of women like her. As a 16 year old, I began to read books by Germaine Greer, Eva Figes, Kate Millet and Betty Friedan, Mary Daly, Barbara Walker, Penelope Shuttle, Marion Woodman and Nor Hall, and to look of the work of the artist Penny Slinger. Without them I may have stayed on the council estate and dropped Valium like Smarties. Later, Morrissey and I read Daly’s book, Gyn/Ecology: the Metaethics of Radical Feminism (1978), and laughed; it was glorious, she took a hammer to the pronoun and smashed it to smithereens. Morrissey was the only person that I knew then who truly understood the importance of language; he’s still vigilant now, never uttering a syllable that he hasn’t held up to the light and studied. Daly’s book had pictures – they always help. (When I was a tiny child and being interfered with, I was given magazines to look at; pages of soft-core pornography and ‘glamour girls’. I realized then the power of the pin-up.) Finally, I left the Methodist youth club, listened to Yoko Ono and sat with The Female Eunuch (1970) in one hand and the Oxford English Dictionary in the other. My education had finally begun.

Pretty Girls, 1977-2007, pigment print of original art work (framed), 24x images 38.5 x 32cm each. Edition of 5, 4 of 5.

The Darktown Cakewalk was a way of gathering all my ideas together. Last year, I was looking at the pierced-form sculptures of Barbara Hepworth and they suddenly made sense. I was studying Sikhism and found a phrase Man vidh chanan vyakhya that seemed the spiritual equivalent of Hepworth’s approach: Man vidh means to penetrate the mind like a pearl, to see through it, to glimpse the soul, and chanan vyakhya to see the light. It became my mantra and Hepworth and the drummer Roy Haynes, my guides. John Coltrane described Haynes as ‘spreading time’; I loved this idea, that time could be spread like butter, or drilled or pierced in some way, to become less dense, more transparent.

When I was young, it felt as if everything moved slowly – and it did. Look at an old stereo next to a pile of vinyl records compared to an iPod and you’ll get the idea. To make any sort of cultural intervention in Britain in the ’70s required speed, wit and nerve. If the mind of the culture was to be pierced – man vidh – then it couldn’t be with Hepworth’s labours; it needed the equivalent of a brick through a sitting-room window. Punk threw the brick.

It’s difficult for me to write any more about that time, as it’s been so picked over in the last few years. Suffice to say that Punk’s mercurial action now has to be reversed and set into slow motion, to rally against a present-day culture of acceleration. The god Mercury was said to govern the tailor’s trade and trickery; Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren were perfect examples of this. Their clothes were fairy-tale and transformative; Richard Nicoll is now doing something similar with gold lamé. If you look at early photographs of the first punks and examine the Britain behind them, you can make sense of it all. Likewise, the 13 hours of The Darktown Cakewalk allows you to focus on the details of the spectacle – a star in a gold lamé suit, a beauty queen shaving her thighs, a Cakewalk King and Queen gorging on a cake, Northern Soul dancers and Lindy Hoppers – the mind has time to take it all in and see through it. Take up Hepworth’s drill, channan vaykhiaa.

I study Nád Yoga with Professor Surinder Singh at the Raj Academy of Asian Music in London. It is, as Jon Savage wrote, ‘proper study and discipline. Real application’. Nád Yoga or Gurmat Sangeet is the study of the ancient Indian rág system. Each rág refers to an archetypal life situation; it evokes a characteristic mood in order to understand and master the situation. The Darktown Cakewalk used archetypes as tethers – a witch, a star, a muse, a king, a queen. In the long months of improvisation with dancers, we had to start somewhere. Working with dancers was refreshing; they’re like a group of electricians, always wanting to know where is the energy going and why. They’re not self-conscious about using the word ‘energy’; it’s part of their trade. Likewise, studying Nád Yoga, the yogis talk about God and the soul in a very matter-of-fact way. It’s taken me a while to distinguish between the Sikh and that the Christian use of the word ‘soul’.

In my work, especially in the collages, the printed page is everything. The page, the blade and the glue; the clean cut and the stickiness. I often use images similar to the ones that I was shown as a child. I stare at the women and they stare back at me. Most of them are probably dead now or very old. I add only one or two elements to the collage; there’s no need for more. The work sometimes feels like a form of homoeopathy; my own interference in retrospective transmissions of glamour. I put things right by making them wrong.

If I decide to commit fully to Sikhism through my study of Nád Yoga , there are five objects a Sikh must carry at all times. One is the kirpan, a kind of dagger; I think it’s fitting for a collage-iste to carry a blade with her wherever she travels. For the most part, Sikhs regard the kirpan as a weapon for a male hero but the Sikh feminist writer Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh writes: ‘Ultimately, the kirpan is about following the scriptural precedent of the female who cultivates spirituality and is committed to living the different dimensions of life with strength and sensitivity.’ It makes me want to sign up.

On Tuesday evenings, I attend the Buddhist meditation class at the library; there are only three of us besides our teacher, who is a nun. A new woman, Gemma, recently joined us; she’s a gypsy and damaged by a form of epilepsy – it’s been in her family for generations and she’s the oldest to survive. Her language is beautiful; it sounds like the 18th century. When she was in her 20s she was paralyzed and her mother kept her next to a heater to keep her warm. At that point, Gemma couldn’t move, although a Hindu gentleman had given her some exercises to perform that had helped. Because the heater was warm it attracted spiders. Gemma could feel them running over her but was unable to do anything about it. After a while, the spiders became her friends and she loved them running over her face and neck. She now gets very upset if anyone ever kills one in front of her. The rest of the northwest England is probably watching Coronation Street during our classes but I’m hooked on Gemma’s life.

If I look at my life and the journey of my soul to date, it’s come a long way through the grace of the blade. I survived a knife attack when I was 20 years old. I’d been to interview The Damned and a man pulled me to the ground and held a knife to my throat but my Yoko Ono scream scared him away. My early childhood, with an adult who short-circuited around female glamour, gave me the ability to deconstruct an image, a gesture, a change in another’s breathing pattern, without even noticing it. This can lead to an overload of psychic information around people at times. The more I study Nád Yoga and observe certain siddhi practices, the more sensitive I become. I live by the sea now, on the edge of the land and listen to sea-birds, sing rágs and play the dilruba, an Indian stringed instrument that is now almost obsolete.

This way of life is a temporary measure whilst I get myself up to speed and integrate changes. I am learning not only to listen to my soul – without any interference, without awkwardness – but also to speak Gurmukhi, a sacred Sikh language. I like how it sits on my tongue. It’s an almost monastic life and deliberately so, but, to paraphrase Mary Daly, I have a network of friends, so it is not possible to imagine – for too long a time – that I am a cognitive minority of one. Satnam.

Born in Liverpool, UK, for more than 30 years Linder has been making collages, creating performances and playing music. In 1977 she founded the collage fanzine, Secret Public, with Jon Savage; she also designed album covers for bands including Buzzcocks, Magazine and Ludus (she co-founded the latter in 1978). A radical feminist, Linder’s lyrics often focus on themes of gender, female desire and alienation. For Ludus’ 1982 concert at the Haçienda nightclub in Manchester, Linder, then a resident of Manchester and long-time vegetarian, famously performed wearing a dildo and a dress made of discarded chicken meat sewn into layers of black net, while two women known as ‘the Crones’ handed out packages of raw meat wrapped up in pornography. 

Linder has been close friends with the musician Morrissey (former lead singer of The Smiths) since 1976. In 2001, Linder produced a series of photographs, ‘Morrissey Shot/Linder Live’, and in 2003 she created a screenprint with diamond dust of a portrait of him, entitled Mon coeur ne bat que pour Morrissey (My Heart Only Beats for Morrissey). 

Linder’s epic 13-hour performance (commissioned by Glasgow International Festival of Visual Arts; first performed this year at The Arches in Glasgow, and then at London’s Chisenhale Gallery), The Darktown Cakewalk: Celebrated from the House of fame, was created in collaboration with musician Stuart McCallum, fashion designer Richard Nicoll and dancers and musicians from various traditions; it explored gender roles, archetypes, witch trials, beauty queens, worship, prejudice, racism and dissent. Linder is currently studying the Sikh science of Nád Yoga, classical Indian music and learning Gurmukhi, a sacred Sikh language. Her solo exhibition ‘King’s Ransom (Hybrid Tea)’ was at Sorcha Dallas, Glasgow, earlier this year; her next solo show will be at Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London, in 2011.