Root Menu

Kate Raworth

As encountered by Duncan Brown

A few days after I talk to her for the first time, there is a party at Roman's and Kate's house. I go outside to have a cigarette and Roman joins me and we sit looking at the stars and smoking. We're taking about the paradox of an omnipotent being and the problem of God being able to create a stone so big that even he cannot lift it. Kate comes out and Roman puts the question to her. She thinks for a second. "Can God create a stone?"

It is just getting dark when I knock on the front door for the first conversation. Their house contains rooms. Not doors with spaces and things behind them, but environments with simple, comfortable furnishings and a great deal of space. A little kitchen at the back of the house has pots hanging from a rack she'd found the other day; a washerwoman's mangle stands in the workshop area at the back. The floors are wooden - there is nothing to look at in the rooms so much as to exist between. The workshop they have at the back of the house was a serious factor in selecting it, providing a place in which for each of them to be specifically the artisan. The whole place is thrillingly constructed, as if no two objects came from the same place, and they gently clash. It is a friendly, dynamic arrangement, and as Kate pours unusually-flavoured crisps into a bowl I wonder how they arrange these things to achieve such congruence, imagining some steady mutual pulse at the heart of the house that threads these objects and seeming contradictions together around its periphery. It is tasteful, but not fashionable (that is, not ephemeral, whimsical); between these different objects, the steadiness persists. I am too busy looking at my fingernails in nervous consternation to take this in at the time, and brandish the bottle of red I have bought from Londis on my way here to hopefully loosen things up. I drink more than she does over the course of the evening; eventually, three hours later, Roman comes in and drinks off the last glass without a word. I feel as surprised at his decisiveness as I do at Kate's self-control in the face of what I see as a useful drug for self-expression and probably a necessary aid for an evening such as this.

I have already run all my tapes back to the start, written out a few ideas about what to do and not do, put three pens in my pocket, opened my notebook at a clean page, selected my clothes for the evening (shirt), brushed my teeth, arrived as close to the second on time as I can get, double-knotted my shoelaces, made some preliminary notes based on answering-machine messages, had a sandwich just in case, hidden my cigarettes somewhere I won't be tempted to get them out and ask if she minds, and switched off my mobile phone, when we sit down. I have the sense from her 'phone messages that she wants to keep the slate clean before we meet, and I share the concern. As we begin to talk, about self-image, photographs of oneself that look like another person, I find useful facts or evidence thin on the ground, and feel confronted with the elastic sociability that she extends, not fixing the conversation to statements that are discussed, but to concepts. My idea of interview technique has fallen apart by the time she is telling me that she thinks to herself in her head that two women whom she sees on the way to work are 'Angel souls - I don't know why that phrase came to me.' Her openness is disarming me. But it is not a sense of inadequacy, more a feeling of welcoming that makes me feel so surprised. It is like she is laying down soft lengths of fabric on a heavy wooden table, and setting something up. She does not seem - it seems that she would not believe it herself - that she is preparing for this, gently brushing her personality into the empty room, in strokes.

We talk about her development work - she speaks of it as if it were the only work worth doing, something, as she puts it, more than her salary. It brings her into contact with problems that are universal, that are unsolvable through any number of phone calls or demonstrations, but still it wakes her up at three a.m. with its persistent moral dilemmas.

Physical space is one of her preoccupations, and her situation in it very important. 'I'll rarely ring someone's mobile phone because if they're on their mobile they're mobile, they're on the street, they're on the bus,' she says, using physical terms as a way to articulate her fear of intruding on someone she is not with. She is fascinated by the delusions of self-image and the way in which 'when you see yourself in the mirror, you're bang on… we create an image of ourselves that almost never occurs anywhere else except in front of that mirror.' And 'that mirror' is metaphorical as well as actual here, like the sculptures she creates that respectively resemble and suggest states of body and mind but stand alone. But she has taken to looking at herself as 'a funny little creature', 'covered in germs': playing a part in a scheme that is much wider than she is and contains rather than nourishes her, leaving her to do what she will, or can, inside it.

Living in all her parts is perhaps more precious to her than anything else. The image she uses is of running along on top of a large ball, not racing to keep up, but flowing at just the right speed. The ball is her life and its component parts: her family, friends, jazz singing, sculpture, work, yoga, physical fitness, car boot sales, a sense of intellectual engagement, everything. She is amongst these things but does not embody them. She balances them out around herself in a kind of karmic equation that, when it all flows well together, the ball somehow radiates energy in flashes of colour as if it were a living system, and she is running along on top of it. It seems a nervous way of looking at things, where one is always in danger of slipping or burning out and the energy dissipating. But for her it is something to aim for, almost a barometer for her spiritual state and that is very important. Just as to work only for money seems insane to her, likewise to do nothing but sing or sculpt or meditate. All of these things are equalised in her head as parts of her life but not the whole. So what is at the centre - who is the woman herself running on the ball? She's not a policy analyst or a singer or a sculptor specifically, but she is all of these things at different times, not exclusively her but taking up her time exclusively. If a friend is low, she will instinctively put her hand on them, to comfort them through human contact. She is always doing something, trying not to let something do her, as work sometimes does.

We talk about sculpture and have dinner, which is tortellini. 'Cheese?' is on the tape, almost imperceptible but efficient and friendly. Where I would make a fool of myself offering it ostentatiously and indelicately, Kate simply says 'Cheese?'. It occurs to me that eating alone with another person is a remarkably intimate thing to do. There is silence and crockery on the tape. We eat - I eat everything. She leaves some in her bowl and eats it later on. The food is delicious. She talks about sculpture as if she were merely an agent for whatever is sleeping in the stone until she unpeels it. In a similar way as the large bookshelf in the living room is filled with 'all those different worlds', the sculpture is something real unto itself, has a life of its own that is waiting to be released from the stone. The sculptor's job is merely to see it for the first time - the rest is technique. When stone comes off by mistake, Kate takes the attitude that it was meant to come off. She doesn't think one should hold on too tight to the sculptures themselves, that if you cling on to them you really 'cling on to a manifestation of the thing you really care about', and it is better to cultivate the creative spring from which one is welcome to take a cup of water.

Collecting is a big subject. We imagine people turning up at the pearly gates with their epic CV's or their world maps with pins in each country visited, as if this accumulation somehow justifies their life. Kate immediately focuses on the living, experience side of it; I suggest that a lot of people collect money. She's almost afraid of collecting something, like it goes against what she says about the creative spring and would block that up somehow, diverting one's attention from being the spring to being an accumulation. 'Right now, this moment is the cutting edge of your life.' It refocuses me onto the present, away from the tape and my fast-emptying glass of wine. Collecting suddenly seems insidious and impure, unfair, and I think of this spring being cold and fresh and a small stack of paper cups beside it, giving out water to whoever takes it, rather than selectively giving it, and I think of Kate running along on top of the ball and there being water produced from the equalization of the ball and that being the water of the spring, that is generated by consciousness, equilibrium, that is for whoever will look at the sculpture or sit in the living room or eat the tortellini and I am content to be there for then.

The next time we meet, everything is more relaxed; still dynamic but less jumpy. We laugh a lot more and have sillier, less centralised conversations that are welcome. I ask her questions specifically about herself, thinking that I hadn't learned enough last time, and this would be more confident, and more direct. I would get to know her.

When she was about thirteen, she began talking to tramps, offering them whatever help she could, scared to approach them but thrilled at the illicit contact. She talks about walking home through some wasted common land where she passes under a bridge where is sat a tramp. She has a packet of chips to give him. As she approaches she becomes nervous, thinking to herself 'I'm a solitary thirteen-year old girl trying to give chips to a tramp under a bridge. Who is this person here?' In her nervousness she almost throws the chips at him, avoiding retribution or even gratitude from this person with whom she sympathises as a human being but not as a normal person. In some ways he is just like her, but in some he is very strange. She talks about the surprise of seeing a man rooting through  the bins behind a restaurant turn around and fix her with beautiful blue eyes in a classically handsome face, before trying demurely to decline the proffered sandwich in a sealed plastic packet. These brushes with other sides of humanity excite her; and her work takes a similarly altruistic form.

'It makes me smile to be a little organism.' She is confident in her body, puts faith in it and its faults as if they all make up parts of a whole that may be unchangeable but is all she has. So the person running on the ball, at the centre of the picture, is basic, simplicity itself. She talks about yoga as if it is a reductive experience, bringer her down to her essence, the 'calm being' that sits at the centre of her. When I ask what she thinks makes her special, her immediate response is that 'I don't think I'm special'; the surrounding activities are what specifically define her as a human being, in the act of existing rather than under the duress of it. Everything she does relates a physical outside to the Kate inside, like she is an enzyme, defining itself through the molecules it is designed for breaking down.

What makes Kate laugh? Impressions of people, which create comedy through showing you things you've already seen but never noticed. She laughs a lot. It is irritating when girls giggle only because they have nothing to say; the laughter displaces something more neurotic or unpleasant and the 'comedy' is oppressive, bearing down. She sees the motives behind actions when you show her a scenario, is familiar with techniques for picking apart the scene, affectively getting an impression of mood and feeling and comparing it against behaviour.

Shame surfaces when she does not listen to her ball, when she gets too stressed to not do yoga or not wear a yellow balloon on her bike helmet for the whole day on Car Free Day, like she is not being true to herself on these occasions.

She starts to ask me questions about myself, and the conversation picks up speed as I respond to her curiosity. I am listening back to the tape and my answers give me back only a fragment of what I think I was trying to say. I surprise myself, sometimes good, sometimes bad, and I think of listening to Kate on so many metres of tape. The process seems like a render, an approximation of conversations whose flux of intended meanings dissolves beyond the few minutes of their existence. It is impossible to precisely conclude her portrait; her personality is suspended between points. I cannot and would not want to set it.

December 2003

Kate Raworth's homepage