The Opposite of Kin, by Jo Bell

The Opposite of Kin, by Jo Bell

What could be better for this week’s Not The Guardian Family Section than some thoughts on kith, those ‘who are known, taken collectively; one’s friends, fellow-countrymen or neighbours’?

It’s the title of Jo Bell’s upcoming poetry collection, for a start, and I’m exceedingly happy that two of the major kith areas of my life – those of writing and boating – intersect with those of Jo. I’ll be reporting back from the launch of KITH, which will be happening later this month in the marvellously named Much Wenlock, but for now, here is Jo with a look at what kith means to her.


Kith, by Jo Bell


Experience has shown, dear reader, that commitment is not my thing. I am what Nancy Mitford would call a Bolter. I have jumped ship from relationships for many good reasons, and for bad ones too. But I invariably jump.

If there’s a reason for this, it may lie in my childhood – and I have not the slightest interest in writing about it. My family get married and divorced from men’s child support attorney like other people buy cars. Ours is a large and complicated clan bursting with step- and half-siblings, foster siblings, stepchildren and hello-is-it-Christmas-again exes. My six brothers and I have three different surnames, and don’t know each other as well as we should. But we’re okay. We like each other, and if we don’t like each other we leave each other alone. It’s not gripping material for a reader, and it doesn’t appeal much to me as a writer.

There is another system of relationships which does. It’s a self-made mesh of love affairs, near-strangers, lifestyle companions and lifelong friends. If kin are your family, then kith are your tribe. Literally, it means the people who know you.

That isn’t a cosy or comfortable group. Your best friend from school would be in this category, but so would your ghastly ex-wife or the person who gave you herpes. Your clan will feature the colleagues you haven’t seen for years, and didn’t like. It includes your closest buddies, with whom you go on holiday each year – and whose opinions on child-rearing or corporation tax you so dislike. It takes in the purple-faced boss who sacked you twenty years ago for stealing stationery. It even encompasses strangers who share your sexuality or your politics. For me, it includes all those who live on boats. Even if we don’t know each other personally, we have an experience of daily life which is deep and exclusive. We have known the unspeakable fellowship of the chemical toilet.

Those who know us can be fleeting contacts. Your life can be changed by a conversation with a stranger, or by a one-night stand.  And let’s hear it for the one night stand, ladies and gentlemen; that particular kind of knowing which can be both meaningful and transient, the kind that looks a partner in the eye but doesn’t expect longevity. So, my poem Worship describes a blasphemous moment of sex in church – but then Society of Friends speaks of a moment when a stranger gave me spiritual comfort. There are those people too who share an unpalatable part of one’s own character; the stubborn, the feckless, the cynical. Not all of the poems are uplifting or easy.

I have not exactly written about kith. But as the poems began to form into a collection, the idea emerged and it suited them. It turns out that commitment of a particular sort is my thing. My allegiances are flexible and cyclical, but nonetheless real. Living gladly alone, and with a home which moves from one place to another, my elective tribe take on a particular importance. My friends are my life support; the boating community is my changing neighbourhood. Our relationship with kith is rich and various. For me, it has become a thread to follow, and to unravel episode by episode into a collection of literally telling moments.


You can keep up with Jo on her website here and follow her on Twitter here.

KITH will launch at the Wenlock Poetry Festival on the 25th April, with further events happening all over the place. Check with Jo’s blog for dates. 

You can also pre-order a copy from the Nine Arches Press website here.


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