‘I’m breastless, kidless and in the menopause at 36’

Lottie Rennie tells Philippa Blakeley about the trauma of being diagnosed with cancer – and her long journey to recovery.

Lottie Rennie and her husband, Tim, sat on the sofa in a dreary, sun-starved side room at the hospital – no windows, plain walls, nothing.

The only thing to look at was the empty box of tissues which sat on the table.

For Lottie, this was only the start of her long and often isolating journey navigating the foreign world of being a cancer patient.

Four weeks earlier in September 2017, Lottie had been going about her life as a 33-year-old, nothing out of the ordinary.

It was a Sunday when she first felt a shooting pain in her left breast. After feeling around, felt what everyone dreads.  A lump.  

After going to the doctors, Lottie was sent for core biopsies in both the right and left breast.

“This was first part which affected me the most, I wasn’t expecting it at all. Because I went to a private hospital, they were done there and then,

“My husband, Tim, said that after I just didn’t speak the rest of the day,” said Lottie.

Throughout her whole journey, she did all the procedural appointments on her own.

“I don’t know why I did them alone, I felt impulsed too, I think for protection really,” said Lottie.

At this first appointment, she was sat in the waiting room with another lady who said “you won’t have it, you’re too young.”

But cancer does not discriminate. Not on age, nor anything else for that matter.

Lottie was to find this out for herself when on Friday, October 13, she got told she had a two-centimetre tumour in her left breast.

However, she was told by the consultant it would likely be a small surgery and most likely she would just need chemo tablets.

An MRI scan later and she was sent to a breast cancer clinic. “The nurse took us into the side room, there was just a sofa, just an empty box of tissues and a sofa. Sat in that room made us feel like it was bad news. We’d already decided it was Stage 4,

“That when I was told the tumour was actually 8.7cm. That evening I felt like I’d been given a death sentence,” said Lottie, from Leicestershire.

After doing lots of research, she discovered tumours from lobular cancer can often be very large which meant while 8.7cm was bigger than expected, it wasn’t necessarily the “death sentence” she initially thought.

It was at this point Lottie was told she would need six months of chemotherapy and could possibly lose her hair.

Rather than taking the risk of losing her hair further down the line, she got on the front foot and had it shaved off.

“I wanted to take control. I enjoyed trying different wigs and hair colours. My hair did continue to grow throughout, but I never regretted shaving it off,” she said.

Then came the day, December 5, 2017, the first day of chemotherapy.

“The first two rounds, I was really emotional. I was always the youngest in the room and people would be staring. They were probably thinking who had it out of me and my husband,” said Lottie.

Three months in and Lottie, went for a mid-chemo scan. Despite the oncologist being adamant the lump wouldn’t shrink; Lottie was convinced it felt different.

Results day came. The oncologist was almost crying. “It had shrunk, she didn’t know why, she didn’t know how,” said Lottie.

After a further three months of chemo, discussions then started about the next steps. The discovery of Lottie having the BRCA2 gene meant that she was much more susceptible to the cancer returning.

She was given various options, a wide local excision, a single mastectomy or a double mastectomy.

“I remember as clear as day, I just said to the oncologist ‘you’re taking them both off, both off at the same time’,” said Lottie.

On June 14, 2018, Lottie had both her breasts removed.

She then began a three-week course of radiotherapy, which went fairly smoothly.

For the first four to five months post-surgery, Lottie wouldn’t look or touch her scars and her husband, Tim, did all the aftercare.

“I was happy with my decision, I found it easy because I am very much all or nothing,

“If I’d just had the wide local excision, I would have always been questioning if it was gone, I couldn’t have lived with not having it done,” she said.

Her team at the hospital knew this, so one time they were draining her wounds, they said it had started bleeding and asked her to put her hand over it.

From that point onwards, she gradually began touching them more and more.

Then in February 2019, Lottie decided to have a full hysterectomy due to the risks of having the BRCA2 gene.

“So now I’m breastless, kid-less and in the menopause at 36,” she said.

As time went on, Lottie realised she had less control over her emotions than she initially thought.

“We call them Lottie meltdowns

“I have this overwhelming feeling of hurt. People presume I’ve got a family, now people wouldn’t even know I’d been ill,” she said.

Lottie’s problems all came to a head last June.

“I had a really bad one, I smashed something and gashed my arm. I needed six stitches, I had flesh hanging out,

“It made me realise, even though I felt suicidal, I didn’t actually want to die,” said Lottie.

Since this, Lottie has made a conscious effort to turn her life around by going to the gym and continuing her cold-water swimming, something which she had loved doing prior to her cancer journey.

“It made me realise it’s not all about the breasts, but I’ve got an ass too,” said Lottie.

In the last three years since her diagnosis, Lottie has even swum in the Arctic circle – something which most of us could only ever dream of doing.

“There is more to me than cancer and being breastless,” said Lottie, her strength shining through.

Jeffrey Lewis: ‘Each album feels like some miraculous thing that I might not ever be able to repeat’

New York singer-songwriter Jeffrey Lewis discusses loneliness, luck and his love of comic books with Samuel Hornsby.

It’s the end of January but Jeffrey Lewis still has his Christmas tree up. On the wall hangs a homemade collage of ‘The Terminator’ with the head of ‘Lou Reed’. The off-kilter appearance of the interior matches the appearance of its occupant, who some might judge as a bit of an oddball. Such things do not bother him though.

As he potters about his cramped New York apartment on video call, there is a sense of self awareness about his eccentricities which he has often embraced and elaborated on in his art.

“Just because something isn’t in the charting Top 100 doesn’t mean that it’s a failure or that it has no great quality or spirit,” Jeffrey says.

“I don’t think there could be a world in which artist like Kevin Coyne, Daniel Johnston and Jeffrey Lewis are at the top of the charts. We don’t make music that makes sense for most people. It isn’t what they’re looking for. When you’re making stuff yourself you just do what feels exciting to you. I don’t make a song or a comic book with the intention of having a sales target or popularity.”

The music of Jeffrey Lewis has often been labelled anti-folk. The artist himself describes his style as “New York City rock ‘n’ roll with a lot of attention to the lyrics” and draws songwriting influences from the likes of Lou Reed, Jonathan Richman, Bob Dylan and, in particular, Daniel Johnston.

“Hearing the work of Daniel Johnston showed me a way to make music in the vein that I was making comic books. Daniel showed a way that just your own personality, humour and emotions could translate into making great songs. That was really a revelation to me.

“I graduated from school and suddenly I was out in the real world without much of a social scene. I was just living a very typical starving artist life. I was home most of the time and working jobs, but I had no money,” he says.

“At that point making comic books wasn’t enough to fill all my loneliness and boredom so I started writing songs. Then I found myself going to open-mic nights and performing them. My musical career came out of a big personal void and the pain of being alone. Humans are tribal creatures and if we’re severed from a social scene you almost feel this physical pain from the isolation. All of that emotion went into the music which were like lullabies that I would sing to myself, along with a bit of humour.”

Though Jeffrey found a cathartic release through music his first love was comic books, a passion he has had since childhood and has persisted ever since.

“It’s funny. I was just stumbling on a batch of old comics from when I was a little kid from six or seven years old. Just look at those comics I remembered how much they meant to me and how many of them I read. It was just my whole world. Music was just not part of my life as a kid. It was just comic books enveloping 100% of my brain.

“Comic books are something I feel I was born to do. It’s also something I feel I’m still on the path of learning how to do. I’m aware each one I make is just a further step towards the better comic that I’ll make next time after that.”

Though Jeffrey puts a great deal of time and effort into both of his two primary creative outlets, his approach to making and evaluating them is a contrast. On the one hand, he views drawing as a challenge and a craft that requires constant improvement, whereas coming up with good lyrics and melodies is something he puts more down to luck than his own intentional decisions.

“An album feels like a product of luck and a comic book feels like a product of skill. It’s very hard to feel proud of your luck. I feel lucky about the songs I write, not proud. I don’t know if you can say you’re going to be more inspired next time,” he says.

“Each album feels like some miraculous thing that I might not ever be able to repeat. Just because I wrote 10 songs that I feel excited about for one album, doesn’t mean I’ll write 10 more great songs for the next album. It’s almost the opposite. It’s more like ‘man, I can’t believe I came up with this album’ and then I think that I’ll never be able to come up with one again.”

Both Jeffrey’s comic books and music have a very hands-on and homemade approach. He provides all of the writing and artwork for the comics and album art as well as writing and performing the songs. His latest lo-fi release ‘2020 Tapes (Shelterat-Homerecordings & Pandemos)’ was recorded at his home during the New York lockdown. Although, as he explains, this is not just a stylistic choice but also a necessity.

“I don’t have the technical know-how or even the recording gear to make anything high quality.

“The song is the important bit and if I can just record the song in whatever way is available, which can be in the studio or at home,” Jeffrey says.

“However, I don’t apply that mindset when I make my own album artwork. Though it is a do-it-yourself project because I am literally doing it by myself, that does not equate to being a lesser product than it would be if I were to hire somebody else. I feel like nobody is going to do a better job of the illustrations and the packaging design than I can because I think I’m quite good at it. It’s kind of DIY from the opposite perspective than the music.”

A usual staple of a Jeffrey Lewis live performance, whether in the flesh or screened digitally, are documentary style history songs accompanied by his own illustrations, combining his two artistic ventures. This unique audio-visual display is one that had early roots in his musical career but has been expanded over time.

He says: “Around 1998 I started to be offered to play little shows around New York City. When you’re only playing one gig every five weeks you really have a chance to make every performance a special thing. Each show was a new chance to experiment.”

One idea to come out of that period of experimentation was illustrated songs. After a few years he ventured into non-fictional topics for them for the 25th anniversary of Rough Trade Records and soon after created one depicting the history of ‘The Fall’ when he opened for the band. Eventually though he ambitions for the format grew.

“I thought ‘what would be the most gigantic historical topic with a huge story that has nothing to do with music?’ The crazy idea I came up with was to try and tell the history of communism. I’ve been adding installations in that particular series ever since.”

His illustrated songs are emblematic of his enthusiasm for both comic books and music as well as his unique creative vision which has allowed him to persist as a cult figure for over two decades. Sure, as he admits, an artist like himself will likely never hit the charts but his passion and originality will make sure he will always stand out and be remembered.

Five Get #Cancelled on Social Media: is it okay to enjoy classic children’s stories written by authors who had bigoted views?

Photo by Corrie Barklimore. flickr.com/photos/80144821@N00/2767723506

Last night I broke the lockdown rules, writes Nikita Sharma. I went to a place I have been visiting since I was a child. Kirrin Island. I spent my time jumping over rocks encasing natural pools of crystal-clear water and feeling the soft as powder sand beneath my feet as I explored the castle ruins.

Of course, I wasn’t there physically but who said you couldn’t feel something so vividly so wholly, you feel as if you were truly there?

I think that’s the magic of books. The ability they have to transport you to a different time and different land. That’s what I like best about the children’s books I still keep close to my heart. But whilst reading them in these past few years, I’ve had guilt and outrage swirling inside and then like smoke, hanging over me.

Finding out your favourite childhood authors held racist and sexist views and realising now that they incorporated those views into their writing? It doesn’t feel good. And rereading today, you can see a line here and there not sitting right, suddenly you see the hidden messages and understand the double meanings.

Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl. These were my heroes. Their works are legendary.

It really is upsetting thinking that if I were to meet my favourite childhood writer, they probably wouldn’t like me very much. And the reasons would simply be because of the colour of my skin.

Being a woman of colour, issues like these really mess with my conscience. But I can celebrate the books that mean so much to me without excusing the person behind them

Someone of my generation shouldn’t be enjoying these books after finding out the truth. Nowadays, typed in bold HASHTAG CANCELLED on social media platforms is the only direction you need to know what persons should be avoided. Everything is either black or white. But it was one of the things that welcomed me with a warm embrace. The words called me back.

And it wasn’t just me – millions of others felt it too! Introducing us to a world of giants and witches and made-up nonsense languages to decoding secret messages and catching smugglers; these books had humour and originality, they encouraged us to broaden our imaginations.

So, we have these clearly wonderful pieces of works unfortunately written by problematic people, what do we do? Is this just a case of separating the art from the artist?

Should we even judge people for ideals that were the norm to have ‘back in the day’ with values we hold today? Was Roald Dahl and his anti-Semitism simply a product of his time? These are outdated views, and we must accept that it was a different time.

But this frame of debate takes me back to the essay I was forced to write on Winston Churchill a few years ago. I remember my blood boiling as my teacher chattered about what a great man he was, knowing his racist views and inactions were to blame for the three million people who starved to death during the Bengal Famine.

However, apart from collecting ‘woke points’ on Twitter, holding dead writers accountable isn’t doing much. It gives no productive support to movements and organisations that aim for change. Being a woman of colour, issues like these really mess with my conscience and to ‘forgive and forget’ isn’t something I can apply. But balance is helpful. I can celebrate the books that mean so much to me without excusing the person behind them.

We can enjoy literature and art that have outdated views as long as we accept that they are just that, outdated, while we work towards creating pieces that are tolerant, kind, and fair to all.    And with that, I’ll be off on my next adventure! So long.

Kurupt to the core: Bafta-winning People Just Do Nothing star Steve Stamp gets set for the BBC TV sitcom’s big screen debut

It’s been seven years since People Just Do Nothing first aired, and in that time this niche, rather underrated BBC Three mockumentary has steadily gained a devoted cult following, writes Fin Kettle.

“It was a few things that just came together at the right time,” says star and writer of the show Steve Stamp.

Seven years on from its pilot, the Kurupt FM guys have almost done it all, they’ve toured as their musical alter egos to the likes of Glastonbury and Ibiza, had a failed US remake, made a highly anticipated spin-off film releasing this summer and have even won a BAFTA for best scripted comedy in 2017.

Stamp is well known for his role as the creatively named DJ Steves, whose drug-fuelled antics and all-round obliviousness lead to some of the funniest moments in the show. Such as his anecdote on his relationship with drugs. “I wouldn’t say I’ve got a drug problem, I’ve got the opposite of a drug problem to be honest. I’ve got no problem with drugs whatsoever. I’ll try anything!”

“I’m quite lucky in many ways, but people seem to love Steves. He’s a soft, sensitive character that people are genuinely really nice when I see them in the street,” he says.

While many know him from his screen persona, he often goes under the radar in terms of his writing talent. After all, it was the script that ultimately got them the BAFTA win, but Steve explains that their writing process is uniquely collaborative.

“Because all of us work on the script, we sit down and talk about it, but I was basically given the role of main writer although it is very collaborative, which isn’t unique to our show, but the fact that all the lead actors are so involved in the writing is quite special,” he says.

“I’d say I’m most proud of the Valentine’s day episode, where Steve’s nan dies. I think that was like the big emotional moment. That is the one we won the BAFTA for as well.”

It is safe to say the BAFTAs were a surreal moment for the Kurupt boys, being surrounded by childhood heroes and red carpets, but Steve says it was just like a fancy wedding.

“It’s surreal man, it’s a bit like going to a wedding, like everyone’s in suits and there’s all this champagne knocking about,” he says.

“At first it was a bit stiff and awkward, like I don’t think I really belong in a place like that. It’s also nerve-racking being nominated because deep down you want to win but you know if you do you’ve got to get up in front of everyone.”

Steve reveals that he isn’t into the whole celebrity culture and rarely gets starstruck, but there were a few ‘pinch me’ moments at the BAFTAs.

“I remember seeing David Mitchell and I don’t really get starstruck, but he’s Mark from Peep Show!”

“Steven Graham came up to us and was just saying that ‘you lot are all so funny,’ that was mad for me,” he says with an excited grin on his face.

People Just Do Nothing, a sitcom about the hapless crew who run a pirate radio station in West London, had simple origins: just a group of friends messing around trying to make each other laugh with a bit of MC’ing on the side.

“It started with me and Hugo (Chegwin) MC’ing over these beats and doing these characters, trying to make each other laugh,” he says.

“Then I met up with Seapa (Grindah) in Thailand while I was travelling and we would do these characters that we’d seen in these pirate radio documentaries and just make each other laugh. When we got back, I thought there was potential for it, so we filmed some of it just to showcase that we were funny.”

Eventually they were picked up by BBC producers who saw potential, but Steve says it wasn’t an instant process.

“We had a little bit of YouTube fame, which in those days wasn’t really a thing as it is now. It kind of naturally evolved after that. It wasn’t like the next day we were on telly or whatever,” he says.

“Originally we were scared of those TV people, like we didn’t want them to ruin our authentic idea, but actually they developed it more and encouraged more of the drama and family elements.”

In terms of what it’s like on set, you may think it would be relaxed with improv encouraged but that isn’t always the case.

“None of us really know our lines a lot of the time,” he laughs.

“Most of the talking head portions are 80% improvised, whereas the other scenes are 80% scripted. You have to be careful with improv as there is a rhythm to each episode and you have to stick to that and make sure the viewer is carried along with it.”

“Improv is fun to do, but sometimes it can sort of take away from what’s important.”

People Just Do Nothing was clearly influenced by classic British sitcoms like The Office and Peep Show, but it was also just as much inspired by documentaries. This was the case when it came to finding a story for the much-delayed spin off film, People Just Do Nothing: Big in Japan.

“When you’re writing a film, things have to be more cinematic in that you have to have scenes that feel bigger with more impact, otherwise it will just feel like a long episode,” he says.

“We had a lot of ideas like going to a festival or Ibiza, but they seemed obvious and cliched. So we started talking about their song becoming famous in Japan and it kind of made sense and felt believable. That came from this documentary we’d seen about a Grindah-esque music manager being completely lost trying to get his client a gig in Japan.”

The film was scheduled to release last year but with the rise of the global pandemic it was decided to delay the release till August 2021.

It is safe to say that Steve’s career in the entertainment industry is only just beginning. He has various other comedy projects being commissioned at the BBC written by and starring himself but says he wants to take more of a backseat from acting, instead focusing more on his skills as a writer and maybe even directing. The sky is the limit for the multi-talented Steve Stamp.

“I’ve got a couple projects lined up, mainly writing jobs and some acting gigs with the PJDN crew. Honestly, I mainly see myself as a writer.  I’ve done acting but I want to write and who knows maybe go into directing.”

People Just Do Nothing: Big in Japan is due to be released on August 18.

Black to the future: the fresh face of alt-culture

Alternative black girls have been around for a long time but have faced ridicule and alienation within their community. But with the likes of Rico Nasty and Mimi The Nerd embracing their alternative identities, changes are coming, writes Isatou Ndure.  

A pale, skinny white girl, that’s the ideal aesthetic for an alt, punk or e-girl: the signature deathly pale look, complete with dramatic eye make-up and a bold black lip.

Caprece Harvey

But scroll through TikTok and Instagram and you’ll see the faces of alternative girls are no longer white. Black alternative girls have blown over social media as more people begin to appreciate their uniqueness. 

What most people do not understand is that it was never a prerequisite to be pale or specifically white to be in the scene. It was all about the state of mind, the beauty, and the music. It’s never about the skin tone. The concept itself is absurd.

Growing up any black girl who dressed as a goth or punk would be labelled as an Oreo, “black on the outside and white on the inside.”   

If you were black and dressed differently you were not accepted by either race. You were somehow too white for the black kids and too black for the white kids and were deemed as outcasts. 

But these days, black alternative girls no longer rouse such negative reactions anymore from their peers, not to say they don’t receive negative reactions at all, but it is more likely from those in the older generation.  Trends that were once specific to particular groups, have to some degree submerged into the mainstream standard. In earlier times, a septum piercing was a stature of subverting the status quo. Now? Not so much. 

In high school, I had some guy scream ‘vampire’ as I walked into class. I took it as a compliment

Connie Williams

Eighteen-year-old Sumaya Botan, or Maya, from Birmingham classes herself as an alternative black girl and pinpoints her style as cottage core, scene and baby-doll like.  

Maya Botan

“I’ve always leaned towards being alt mostly because it’s such a welcoming open community and I love that anything is acceptable as long as you’re a nice person.

“I’ve always had a fascination in alt culture but would say I had the confidence to dress the way I do now around 2018.”

Even though alternative styles are now celebrated, girls like Maya still feel like outcasts to those that do not appreciate alternative culture and there are still occasions where girls are judged for the way they dress.  

“I have received quite a lot of hate for the way I dress and present myself mostly when I’m in public, I get a lot of stares or get called out in public quite often, but I mostly just take that as a compliment at this point!” 

“People are scared of what they don’t understand or know and it’s fine I know it mostly comes from a place of self-consciousness of not being able to fully be themselves.”

It seems to be a normal thing for alternative girls to take the negative reactions they receive and view them as compliments. Across the pond, 24-year-old Connie Williams and Caprece Harvey, 23, have had similar experiences. 

New Yorker Connie says: “In freshman year of high school, I had some guy scream “vampire” as soon as I walked into class. Everyone laughed whilst I was unfazed. I actually took it as a compliment.” 

Model Caprece, from Pennsylvania, chooses to not give her energy to those that do not match her own and spoke of her own negative reactions to the public. 

“If by negative you mean soccer moms scoffing at me in the grocery store, yes, but I view it as a compliment. Someone took the time out of their day to acknowledge me. Like what? Thank you boo it’s always a pleasure, mwah.”

Many of the foremost unconventional, exciting and edgy individuals within the world are black and they’re not any less because of it.  

I would try to hide the bright clothes my mother bought me. It just feel normal to shop for dark colours

Connie Williams

Connie grew up loving alternative styles. “I was a quiet kid and felt insecure around a lot of other girls who developed more than me. At the time, I would put more of an effort into my fashion in order to feel attractive and less like a wallflower.”

Connie Williams

Connie describes her style as e-girl, kawaii and preppy goth. She loved alternative clothing before it was labelled “cool” by the rest of the world.  

“I’ve been doing this since middle school, so it’s now natural to me. I hated pink, yellow and green on me. I would try to hide the bright clothes my mother brought me in the back of my closet. Now it just feels normal to shop for dark colours.

“Dressing in pink and wearing “girly” clothes made me feel ugly. Once I was able to shop for myself, I bought more black clothing and felt more like a pretty kickass wallflower.”

Many alternative girls are now aware of how mainstream their style has become over the years. Now it’s a trend to be an alternative.  

The rise of unconventional rappers like Rico Nasty, Willow and Mimi The Nerd who portray self-expressions that have been made invisible within the black community and as a rule are seen as the sole realm of white social pariahs, have displayed a new dawn for alternative black girls. 

Down in Pennsylvania, Caprece describes her style as “daring, unique and ethereal.”

“I have always had a fun style since I was a little girl. I used to reconstruct my clothes all the time, the older I got the more diverse and unique it became.

“I will always take my style further, evolution is inevitable. I don’t even stick to one style, so I can’t imagine staying on one wave, yikes.”

It’s fair to point out that goth and alternative cultures are connected to whiteness within the well-known imagination, but many characteristics related to these subcultures, such as tattoos, piercings and rock have roots in the black community.  

The deletion of black people’s commitments to such subcultures is overwhelming, if you look hard enough, it’s not difficult to spot how blackness and alternative styles converge. 

Sumaya, Connie and Caprece are keeping alternative styles alive in the black community.  Many don’t believe that the black alternative community is bigger than they think. Whilst some are open-minded, a certain stigma remains within the minds of others that alternative equals white.  

Connie Williams

As the new era of black alternative girls begins to take over the world, those that have come before offer some advice. 

Sumaya says: “Be the most you possibly can be because nothing anyone says or thinks really matters. They are too caught up in their own issues to worry about that outfit you’re too scared to wear.”

Caprece says: “Keep doing you babe, you’re going to change the world.” 

Connie says: “Buy wigs, not cheap hair clips from Hot Topic, they do not match your hair texture!”