Mermaids? Seriously? As if.
My name is Rob and I’m a mermaid denier. To me, the idea of a creature who is half-woman, half-fish, is ridiculous. She would smell! And why are they always top-half human? Why not fish-head and human legs? Why do they always sit on a rock, combing their hair and gazing into a mirror? Like they’re taking a selfie? The entire mermaid concept is daft.
So why is the mermaid image still stuck in our heads? We have cool superheroes now, like Ironman, Hulk and Black Panther – and not just men, who doesn’t want to be Wonder Woman? The Little Mermaid has no powers, she just flaps around dreaming of a Prince. It’s hardly an advert for Girl Power.
Let’s face it, mermaids don’t exist. It’s a dugong, a fat seal with a big nose. Some drunken sailor saw one and mistook it for a woman. He should have gone to Specsavers. But in that moment, an urban myth was born.
Because that’s all it is, a myth. No proof, no evidence, no nothing. You examine any so-called mermaid exhibit in a 21st century lab and what do you find? A shrunken head stuck on a kipper.
So let me ask you again, why is the image still stuck in our head?
Perhaps it’s because most of our body is made up of water?
Or like all folk tales, it’s a story rooted in fear. Because we are frightened of The Other. The Strange. The Unknown. Frightened and intrigued.
If you live in Buxton and there’s a storm coming, they let you know on the telly. But in the olden days, when hairy-people saw dark clouds on the horizon, they thought it was a curse. The fish-god was in a bad mood so was going to pelt them with rain. They genuinely thought that if they sacrificed a granny, the flood could be stopped. Thankfully, now we have apps, so can plan alternative routes.
But the primal fear remains. No matter how smart we get, there is always stuff we don’t know and that makes us curious.
We are fascinated by weirdness. Look at The Buxton Museum, the entire building is jam-packed with weird stuff that is totally brilliant, some it millions of years old. That is Pre-Ed Sheeran.
As humans, we are inherently curious. Look at babies. If they find a little disc, they want to know what it is. Is it a weapon? A toy? Or a Mini-Oreo? Because as any baby will tell you, if it’s not a threat, it’s food. It’s how we learn, by looking at weird stuff. It’s why Museums are important.
I’m one of the artists who has been commissioned to ‘bring an exhibit to life’. I love that. What I’m going to do is this: spend the next few months looking at mermaids and let you know how it goes.
I’m going to start with the Buxton Mermaid because she is, without doubt, the best (and I’m guessing only) ‘shrunken head stuck on a kipper’ in the whole Peak District. And the Peak District is massive!
So even though she’s ‘fake news’, I am still obsessed with that creature, because she’s not just a spooky doll, she’s the gateway to a thousand crazy stories and over the next few months, I’m going to haul ‘em up from the deep.
I’m going to share them in all sorts of ways:
I’m going to photograph a mermaid, not a real-one, obviously, a synchronised swimmer at Sharley Park Leisure Centre (Is it still synchronised swimming if you’re doing it on your own?). One of their brilliant swimmers is going to put on a fish tail, then we’ll turn off the lights off and try to create something spooky. I can’t wait.
For a land locked region, the Peak District has a surprising amount of ‘mermaid pools’ like Blake Mere where legend has it, a mermaid still lives. I’ll be trekking around the Peaks in search of stories, inspiration and evidence (like that’s going to happen). I’ll also be finding out whether having a sailor-scoffing-siren in your back garden pond has any effect on your house price.
I’ll be finding out what modern-day mermaids might look like? What issues might they face? Does having a non-conventional body mean a mermaid qualifies for disability benefit? Is she half way through transitioning or an immigrant of no fixed abode? How do each of these groups relate to being viewed as ‘The Other’ when the truth is, we are all equal. My plan is to celebrate diversity using the mermaid as cipher.
I’ll be hosting storytelling workshops, so you can write stories of your own. If you don’t write, or can’t write, that is not an issue. Workshops for schools, groups, adults, fish… everyone is welcome.
I’ll also be writing a story of my own, a dark one, about a boy who lives in Buxton and a girl who lives in a pool. What could possibly go wrong?
And in all of the above, I’ll be working ‘out loud’ so you don’t just see the end result, you see how I got there. And why would I do that? To share my journey, so it’s not just me investigating the weird world of mermaids, it’s us.