Narcissus Garden – a post especially for Sarahs

On a recent visit to Stockholm, we caught an exhibition of Yayoi Kusama’s work, and fell in love particularly with Narcissus Garden.

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Yayoi Kusama’s Narcissus Garden at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm

What’s not to love? Look at all those me’s! It was originally created in 1966 for the Venice Biennale, and consisted of 1,500 of these silver balls on the lawn outside the Italian Pavilion. This is the only picture I could find of it then.

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Apparently once the work was installed, Kusama sold the balls for two dollars each to visitors under a sign ‘ YOUR NARCISIUM FOR SALE’. Art as commodification.

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In the gallery, we weren’t allowed to touch, let alone buy, so we just all stood and looked, and most of us took selfies of ourselves reflected again and again. Narcissium in action? Of course, back in 1966, this wouldn’t even have been a thing.

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It got me thinking about one of the events I’ve been part of that still makes me laugh – in that delighted gurgle sort of way. This is the Sarah Party – a party of people invited just because we were called Sarah. We were strangers who didn’t have to ask our names. Behold us in all our glories in a garden….

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The postcard of the Sarah Party, with our hostess, Sarah Pletts looking beautiful in the middle of us all

The Sarah Party was the initiative of two producers (called Sarah) at the BBC, and was open to everyone – so long as you were called Sarah. Nearly 75 of us attended, and I can’t tell you how much fun it was. We had badges with ‘hello my name is Sarah’, Sarah tiaras to wear, Sarah food, Sarah games, even a Sarah shrine.

It was even the subject of a 30 minute programme on BBC Radio 4, which was Pick of the Week in the Radio Times (although I do remember the review saying something like ‘maybe of particular interest to listeners called Sarah…!) I have to tell you that even as I’m writing this, I’m laughing to myself. What a wonderfully mad idea it was. A bit narcissistic maybe, especially as we just didn’t care.

Below is the piece I was commissioned to write for the Sarah party, which still makes me smile now. Feel free to share with other Sarahs, or indeed if you’re called Sarah please feel free to share your own thoughts. If you’re not called Sarah, I’m not so interested to be honest.

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Ten things about being Sarah
Sarah Salway

1. Once at the start of a writing group we were asked to tell a story about our names. I told everyone that Sarah meant Princess. ‘That’s so appropriate,’ they all said straight away. I secretly think of myself as modest and humble so I was a little shocked, but when I’ve told other Sarahs this story, they’ve received the same reaction. It seems we can’t always hide the princessy bit.

2. My uncle made a speech at my wedding. ‘Sarah,’ he said, ‘is harass backwards, and she has certainly always been very good at that.’

3. My real name is Sarah Jane. Once when I was being chatted up by a stranger on a train, I told him this. I didn’t think of it as something funny but he started laughing so much that he slapped his thigh too hard and got worried he might have given himself a bruise. Luckily I was able to get off at the next station.

4. Sarah, Sarha, Sahra… how hard is it to spell? Once, after three attempts over the telephone, the man on the other end told me crossly that it would be easier if I’d been called ‘banana.’

5. Ever since that wedding speech, I can’t stop thinking about ‘hairy ass’. Princess, I whisper to myself at these times. Princess, princess.

6. When my children were little, I told them that Bob Dylan had written his song, Sarah, just for me. After that, my daughter kept asking for me to play it in the car. I didn’t feel guilty until she told me that one day she wanted to find someone who would love her as much as Bob must have loved me.

7. French people find it hard to say Sarah. ‘Zhere are..’ they keep telling me and I am still waiting to hear what they are going to say next when I realise they are not just halfway through a sentence but are saying my name. For this reason, Sarahs can often appear suspicious in France. It is as if we can’t always remember what we are calling ourselves today.

8. People are often disappointed when they meet me. They tell me they expect Sarahs to be small, bubbly and blonde, but most Sarahs I have met are dark like me. Dark, brooding and princessy.

9. Sarahs don’t always respond to their name in crowds. There are too many of us. We tend to look a bit wary when someone shouts ‘Sarah’ as if we will be caught out pretending to be popular if we respond. A Mercedes or a Camilla, on the other hand, feels free to yahoo wildly at even the whiff of a ‘Merc…’ or a ‘Cam..’

10. Once when I went into a school to teach creative writing, I spent too long with a little Sarah. She had called the heroine in her story Sarah. ‘Is it about you?’ I asked. ‘No,’ she said, frowning at me very fiercely. ‘Why do you think that?’ I told her I had no idea ‘It’s because it’s the nicest name,’ she whispered to me then, and she put her hand in mine under the table to let me know that this was our little secret.

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A snail eats its way to the stars

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Tonight the world is twisting its face too hard
against my window – a man guns his way
into a room of beautiful people – a friend cries
how it’s inoperable – the politician who lies

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and lies before asking, ‘can’t you take a joke?’
‘Oh’ my friend cries, ‘my children, my children’,
and although the only real answer is ‘your children’,
I lie instead and tell her, ‘they will survive’,

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while outside in the moonlight a snail
eats its way slowly through the English hedgerow,
leaving the trail of surprising beauty:
a silver spirograph, laced leaves.

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We will all survive, the world’s children,
some of us may even leave beauty behind us,
but it’s slow. So slow. And hard to trust
when even clouds have hearts to break.

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