A new start after 60: ‘I became a performance poet at 62 – and finally I have a sense of who I am’

Who are you? Or maybe more importantly who do you want to be? I believe that within reason it’s never too late. Many of us spend much of our life trying to be someone different, trying to be the child our parents want us to be, the person society wants us to be and possibly the spouse our partner wants us to be. But what if we are NOT that person, what if actually there is someone inside us trying to bust out but constrained by ‘responsibility’ and what people might say? Well this is the Time Of Your Life and maybe now is the time to let the real you out to run wild? 

Mary Dickins
Mary Dickins: ‘The sillier I allow myself to be, the better the writing is.’ Photograph: Teri Pengilley/The Guardian

Mary Dickins spent time in care as a teenager and always felt like an outsider. She suffered intense shyness, but taking to the stage has helped her find her voice

Paula Cocozza   @CocozzaPaula

Mary Dickins had been a spectator at poetry nights before and knew “the poetry clap”. She mimes a polite tapping of fingers. But when she made her debut as a performer at the age of 62 at the legendary Bang Said the Gun night in south London, “it was so anarchic and wild – like nothing I had seen before”. The audience stamped feet, shook shakers. “It felt transformative. I thought: ‘I’ve got to have more of this.’”

Even though Dickins says she “constantly has impostor syndrome – I always feel that I’m going to be found out”, becoming a performance poet has given her a place on a stage of her own making.

Putting things into words and giving your emotions shape is part of coming to terms with the things that happen in life

All her life she has written, mostly without being seen or heard. Her mother died when she was nine, and, after she went into a care home at 13, Dickins’ writing “stayed in notebooks”. “Never really took it anywhere,” she says (she has a habit of eliding the personal pronoun, as if she might be an impostor in her own sentences). But really, she says, a lot of her adult life has been about getting over childhood shyness. At university in north London – she studied education – she met her husband of 40 years, but in three years of seminars she did not utter a word.

Some of this is a legacy of her years at a children’s home in Kent, she says. “It gave me a sense of what it’s like to be othered.” And it exacerbated her sense that she “never fitted in anywhere. There was always something different about me.”

Dickins left that home, The Hollies, at 16, went briefly to art school and then embarked on what she calls her “chequered career”. For 10 years she travelled, from the Isles of Scilly to Israel, working as she went. “Restaurants, chambermaid in hotels, pickle factory, biscuit factory … I was a kind of vagabond,” she says.

Mary Dickins
Mary Dickins: ‘I celebrate the fact that I don’t fit into a box.’ Photograph: Courtesy of Mary Dickins

In her mid-20s, she returned to England to start her degree. “I thought it was time to start being sensible,” she says.

After she graduated, she discovered that she loved working with people with learning disabilities. She became an expert – or, as she puts it, a “so-called expert” – in inclusive education. “That was my niche,” she says. She published books, and returned to the University of North London as a senior lecturer in early childhood studies.

Even when her two children were young, she kept writing. “You can be cleaning the toilet and writing in your head,” she says. She joined local writing groups, and attended an Arvon course on comedy and poetry.

Since her debut at Bang Said the Gun, Dickins, 72, has been a finalist in the Poetry Rivals National Slam, published a volume of verse, Happiness FM, and guested at the Poetry Takeaway van.

Although she came back to England to be sensible, Dickins now sees that in adulthood she has been “giving myself permission to be silly. The sillier I allow myself to be, the better the writing is.” Her observations are humorous and poignant.

“Words can be very soothing,” she says. “Putting things into words and giving your emotions shape is an important part of coming to terms with the things that happen in life.”

Anne Youngson

Recently Dickins has acquired a different perspective on her heritage. Her parents moved to London from India in 1948, and she thinks her sense of injustice was already there in the family house: “There was a lot of mixed heritage that was not acknowledged.”

When she was five, she discovered a portrait hidden in a wardrobe, but her mother took it away. Only when a cousin circulated photographs 15 years ago did Dickins realise that the dark-skinned man she had taken for a servant was her grandfather, “a tremendous man”, chess grandmaster, army captain and surgeon who ran free clinics.

“I thought: ‘I know who I am now. I get so much from this guy that I’ve not been allowed to know about.”

Does she still feel like an outsider?

“I think I’ve made it into a virtue. I celebrate the fact that I don’t fit into a box. Finally! Have to wait till you’re 72 to feel confident!” she says. “But I have a sense of who I am and I’m proud of it. I wouldn’t be anyone else now – and it took me a long time to say that.”

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