Tate Local Writes 2013: Gemma Seltzer - Speak to Strangers

Tate Modern commissioned Ivan and Heather Morison to create a sculptural work the Skirt of the Black Mouth, allowing the public to see more clearly the activities and progress on the construction site for the Tate Modern Project. This summer (rain or shine), in the small pocket park that the sculpture creates, a series of creative interventions and happenings have been taking place. Over the last two weeks writer Gemma Seltzer has been in residence and in Speak to Strangers she invites passers by to share their everyday lives through conversations, conversations that will inspire a series of original one hundred word stories.

So far she has been collecting stories of beach adventures, ice cream disasters, and being caught out in flip-flops during a downpour. Here are some episodes:


You clutch a Henry Hoover as you might a handbag in a dangerous part of town, the hose rigid over your shoulder. We talk about the summer mornings here, how you fill hours with coffee before the noise regulations lift and you can begin laying lengthy rows of antique flooring. You’re quick to smile and that isn’t even your best quality. Standing before you, my mind stills. Then, two beards with hands in pockets stroll across the road. They hoot at my sign calling for conversation in exchange for strawberries. ‘Tempted?’ one says to the other, but they continue walking.


On an afternoon of intermittent sunshine, when the plane tree leaves appear bleached in the light looking like thousands of little paper notes wafting in the wind, a stranger finds me. You are a garden-lover, a poetry-writer and a river-watcher. You want to experience friendly faces, green spaces and artistic places. The more we talk, the more is revealed. I like that you live on the edge of the Thames. It would be good, I think, to stand each day, by the water. Against a backdrop of Wimbledon cheers, you read your verse and speak of a summer that blossomed.


The way you say, ‘Have a beautiful day’, takes the phrase beyond its usual meaning. It’s not just a line spoken, rather it means that some days can be beautiful and that it matters that when they might be, they are. Three cyclists shoot by, waving, and an indecisive white-haired woman spins wearing an army jacket that reaches her knees. But after you’ve gone, you run around my head in vivid Technicolor: how you escaped the Malaysian haze for London, that your guitar journeyed across continents with you, that your weekends are weekdays, that your words though few, were pearls.


Today, a stranger reminds me that we are falling free, plunging into the depths slowed only by the alarm clock, the train chug and the need to pick up dinner before the shops close. If it weren’t for our friends, our aging parents, the children, the gerbil and the herbs on the windowsill, we would unravel. You appear after him, cautious but hearty with stories of your French Bulldog puppy. The motion of your day is a single focus on returning home to his enormous triangle ears, his terror of carpets. You are filled with love, actually bursting with it.


Rain drives people from the park so I walk the pavements asking them to pause and tell me something new. There’s the florist, the linguist and the unicyclist. There’s the coach driver who parks for a cigarette and the tourists that roll city maps on their laps. The Macbeth-loving teacher, the wandering wife and the designer in shorts. On the stump of a brick wall, you swing your legs back and forth. You should tell our stories, you say. People like me, without homes. I was in the army. I slept under snow. Then my heart stopped, so I stopped.