“Penny Pepper’s work is a virtuoso display of invention, wit, and courage.” – it wasn’t me who said that, it was Dame Margaret Drabble.
Isn’t it amazing how the words of someone who’s already famous and familiar work such miracles, even if you don’t particularly like the work, or the tastes, of that person. I’m not trying to be cynical there, and I have nothing against Drabble – I say that as a way of bringing the extraordinary value of Pepper’s work to the fore. She writes for, and from the perspective of, one who is “othered”.
As women, we know a bit about that. If you happen also to be poor, or disabled, or otherwise “other”, you’ll know a lot more. I hope you’ve looked closely enough at life to realise that, far from what the tide of society suggests, most of us are “othered” to some degree, even if only through not having been to the “right” sort of school – and so Penny’s work does all our hearts good.
We were delighted to have Pepper headlining the performance bit of our women’s forum launch – because she’s a seasoned activist and because of the quality of her work. Soon to be celebrating her 60th birthday, she’s been an activist since the 1970s so was able to remind the over-fifties among us of the “good old days” when men could wear make-up and satin, and women – well, like men really – were learning that they could wear and do pretty much anything. She also reminded us that this was the era of Margaret Thatcher, and gave us a right good Handbagging:
What have you got in your handbag dear/What have you got in there?…
Some old milk bottle tops/From the drinks you snatched from kids? …
A lock of Cecil’s lovely hair/His shameful resignation note?
She treated us to Bookworm – a romp through Peter and Jane, Narnia and all those classic magical worlds, the narrative line aching for the arrival on the scene of the likes of Jacqui Wilson, and more, in an era we can just now perhaps sense the beginnings of, where
…poor kids, crip kids [are] kicking out/Where girls fly free and save the world.
The line from Bookworm that’s going to resonate the longest in my mind is, I think, in relation to characters like Heidi’s friend Clara
I wonder, if I could breathe the air/Would I walk like Clara, if I’m good?
Because of course,
Positive thinking will cure us all.
Pepper’s poetry, ranging from punky, sweary rants through neatly accomplished villanelles and sestinas to sonnets, picks up a whole range of ideas and experiences that together, convince me that as well as being a classy poet, she was probably the best socialist and feminist at our forum.
She addresses body image and the realities, for women, of sex and romance in Mammogram and A spoken word love poem (I won’t give you any quotes from that one because it’s worth travelling through it at your own pace). She reminds us that she once got an Albert Hall audience appreciatively stroking their own bellies (or beer guts) and then she moves on to the extraordinarily satisfying Special. All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
Buy the books
Go hear the woman
Speaking as one who is highly suspicious of performance poetry – especially of the amateur kind, succumbing to which can put you at risk of being a captive to a dull, mawkish or downright embarrassing spell in a small, vulnerable audience, this Sunday was the third time I’ve volunteered myself to attend a Penny Pepper performance.
I can unhesitatingly recommend to you the experience of a book of poetry so good that it works on the page, but also so alive that, in the mouth of its author, accomplished dramatic reader Penny Pepper, it makes for a brilliant live experience. If you get a chance to go see Penny, do so – she’s brilliant, she’s funny and you will learn stuff.