Wednesday, 19 February 2014


   Great to see Jessica Thom in the Evening Standard last Friday:


   Last year I read Thom's wonderful Welcome to Biscuit Land: A Year in the Life of Touretteshero (Souvenir Press, 2012), a compelling diary of the experiences of a young woman who not only - difficultly enough - lives with Tourettes Syndrome but also goes out of her way to enlighten and demystify the condition to others, both through her proactive presence in our community and through her website/blog: http://www.touretteshero.com/. Her use of the masked persona Touretteshero is at once a comic debunking of taking herself too seriously and a symbolic representation of the courageous struggle for disability rights which individuals like Jessica are obliged to mount in a Coalition-lead UK where the status of vulnerable adults and children is - due to the pernicious decimation of public funding and disability benefits in the name of a spurious Austerity - steadily worsening.
    Welcome to Biscuit Land is written from a mature and generous perspective that is able to balance the considerable hardship of living with Tourettes against a talent for casting events in a humorous or ironic light. Disquieting episodes of Jessica being verbally abused or misunderstood while out in public (even by the police or London Transport staff) are contrasted with incidents of her being helped or supported by sympathetic strangers, as well as on other occasions by her loyal network of friends and family. 
      Much of the comedy of the book derives from the surreal verbal juxtapositions thrown out by Jessica's tics, only a small proportion of which - contrary to popular fallacy - contain obscenities. (Stephen Fry, in his Introduction, apprises us of the fact that "not more than 10% of Touretters evince coprolalia"). Indeed, as a poet, it's these bizarre, spontaneous utterances of Jessica's that seem most fascinating since many of them could indeed be lines from contemporary poems: 'Paint your bumblebee (with ink made of tortoise spit'); 'Capital letters talk to themselves at night'; 'Take a picture of your mum's best friend wintering in Lebanon, naked in the bath'. They are like Johnson's famous definition of the Metaphysicals' style: "the most heterogenous ideas yoked by violence together", simultaneously imaginative and lexically estranged. As Jessica says, "All these unconnected things get jumbled round and spat out again. They' re often random but they're rarely incoherent."
    What's interesting is the uncontrollable, spontaneous oral aspect of these ejaculations, as though the link between brain and mouth has somehow short-circuited. Fry posits that the role of these outbursts for Touretters is similar to that of sudden swearing for the rest of us (and this is why coprolalia is sometimes encountered): as a kind of safety-valve for anxiety or build-ups of mental stress, an ultimately "analgesic" effect linked to " a region of the brain deeper within the primal emotional wiring of the basal ganglia". 
     Would it be inconceivable to suggest that poetry (often unconscious or involuntary yet compulsive in its inception too) and the verbal tics of Tourettes originate from the same neural impulses within this deeper, non-rational, more primal zone of the brain but whereas the tics have the explosive power to erupt immediately, the language of poems emerge through a much slower and more zigzagging route which includes both left and right hemispheres, emotion and reason in hesitant collaboration? Might what used to be called "inspiration"( in ancient times believed to be a divine afflatus) - ie. the moment when an image or alluring cluster of words which might kickstart a poem "comes to us" apparently from nowhere - derive from a similar synaptic (mis)firing, a discharge of taboo linguistic energies which manage (as Ted Hughes says) "to outwit (one's) own inner police system"?
    You can sample some Tourettespoetry on the website where there is a brilliant section of 'Tics' which you can compare and rate. 'If you count to four backwards you make Time stand still'. Genius.

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