A new book of poems, self-published by model and writer Julia Campbell-Gillies, makes for a powerful reflection on coming into adulthood in England’s capital
When model and writer Julia Campbell-Gillies first moved to London from South Africa in September of 2015 at the age of 18, the city, and the people in it, were a lot to take in. Writing – as she had since she was much younger – became a means of asserting herself within the chaos. “It was very much like bumper cars,” she says, smiling. “Me just slamming into things in London, not making any sense, and not knowing where to go, and downloading Tinder, and trying to make friends with people. It was a nightmare.”
Tapping lines into her phone in the middle of the night, she began to establish a digital space for herself in which she could resolve the dramas that seemed to arise in the daytime. The restrictive form of the haiku, and the non-committal nature of writing with fingertips-to-keypad rather than pen-to-paper (“you can just delete it all if you want,” she says) made for a therapeutic process. “Haikus are very easy: it’s very a complete thing in itself. It’s kind of like a puzzle and there are a few different answers, it can go a different way, but once it’s five syllables, seven syllables, five syllables, its done, and that’s it, it’s complete. I love that.”
These after-dark lines – not deleted, thankfully – have now been gathered together in the form of a self-published book, entitled Antigone. They are accompanied by a few longer poems, and a series of photographs (which Campbell-Gillies took herself) of flower arrangements (which she created herself too – she works in floristry alongside her modelling jobs), but the book is more haiku than anything else. As for the title? “Obviously I like Antigone’s story,” she says. “She’s this character in a Greek tragedy and she ends up killing herself – which my mum got really upset about cause she was like, ‘what are you trying to say, Julia?’ – But the name basically means ‘worthy of one’s parents’. I feel like my time in London has parented me in a way; I’ve had to grow up, I’ve had to make some decisions, I’ve had to look after myself even though I haven’t wanted to.”
So while the book primarily charts a coming-of-age – equal parts beautiful and painful, wild and sad – it is also something of a love letter to the city. “For everyone in / Love and in London and for / Everyone else too,” reads the dedication on the first page. “There is something that’s really universal about that stage of your life, from 18 to 21,” she explains. “But there’s also something specific about experiencing it in London, and the way that things work here, and the way the process of establishing yourself here goes.”
The poems themselves, strangely familiar, span modern romance and meandering reflections. Take Potential Tinder Bio. “I’m a Gemini / I was born old and full of / Hot, furious blood”; or the artfully titled Architect With Shit Tattoos: “You dumped me when I / Wasn’t devastated when / David Bowie died.” There are odes to the city, too. Kew Gardens reads: “Absurd Paradise / Could I please be buried here? / I won’t haunt the staff”.
There are longer poems too, but the cohesiveness of Campbell-Gillies’ predominant chosen form lends itself neatly to the finality with which she finished it. “This book is an elegy of my first three years in London,” she explains. “Everything about this time has been so acute, but I don’t want it to be terminal.” Writing it down brackets it, she continues – now, she’s ready for the next thing. “Seasonality is a big theme in the book,” she concludes, “and I think that’s ultimately the message I want to send to those who need it. Everything changes and then it changes again. You write it down and you keep trying, and one day you let it go and live to tell the tale.”
Antigone by Julia Campbell-Gillies is out now, self-published. A book launch will take place on May 4, 2018 on Murray Grove in Hoxton, London.