Last night I attended the ‘African connections: moving people – perspectives on Bristol, slavery and migration’ seminar at the Malcolm X Centre, part of the Being Human 15 festival. The panel were brilliant, and the audience engaged.
I was struck at how solid, useful and forthright the conversation was, and particularly on the question of reparations. A question I’ve talked to white friends about several times, friends who have similar if not mirrored politics to mine, and often disagreed on. Last night the idea was crystallised for me thanks to the intelligent and cohesive offerings of everyone in the room.
The crux was this: yes we need reparations – of course we need reparations. We need to repair damage that has been done, always. We need to constantly be looking to better and strengthen our society in all ways, especially for those who bear the extra (and continuing) weights of an inequitable and brutal history.
This does not mean that we give cash handouts to individuals or families or neighbourhoods or demographics – who would we give them to? How much? Where would that money come from? Who is paying whom?
What this does mean is that we acknowledge the truth of our history, and the truths of our present. We employ that truth loudly, openly and together, to build, connect, and repair in real terms.
A full and honest education – not a black history month, but a syllabus that (shock horror) teaches all history because it’s history. New types of investment that recognise the fissured and transitory nature of existing ‘community’ investment, the removal of bottlenecking towards a particular kind of culture and commerce, and a release of the treatment of lower-economic communities as afterthoughts.
The willingness of each of us individually, of all histories and parentages, to integrate, share, listen to and work with each other – but also as a wider society to publicly express regret. Not because we are individually guilty, but because slavery was a regretful, shameful, vicious practice. And the trauma and reality and consequences of it remain today. Do we not agree?
One of the audience members suggested that a plaque be installed on the statue of Colston in the city centre, acknowledging his profession as a slaver (indeed, someone scrawled the fact on the base of the statue in 1998), or honouring the slaves who actually produced the wealth Colston distributed, or kept, as he saw fit. This is not the first time this has been suggested of course, and many people, myself included, would go further to say why not replace the thing with another statue, feature or something other.
Who are we as a city – what do we want to hide, and what do we want to celebrate?
Every time I have read about spirituality, and usually when I am reading anything vaguely self-help-y, and sometimes when I am trawling through the Internet, there is a message that keeps coming back. That we are one. All of life, all of the Universe is, or is part of, the same organism, essence, energy.
I’m not too interested in debating or justifying this though I’ll happily discuss it, and often do, when someone is willing to engage with the idea. But without any religion, I have always believed that somehow we are all connected. I don’t know why, and I can’t really explain it. I don’t need to.
My best friend believes that we are imbued with the Holy Spirit, the same spirit of her God; my other best friend is an atheist, but does believes that we each have a soul, or spirit of some kind, and that we are connected to each other through mutual dependence and a moral responsibility to each other, simply by being alive and in proximity.
I’m not sure I can describe my experience of ‘oneness’, other than to say that at times I feel a connection, an emotional mirroring, and a rush and pull so visceral that it’s frightening, as though the soul I haven’t yet decided whether or not I have is being clamped and dragged from my body. I often shut that feeling down, especially since this happens most often when I am faced with the pain of others. Pain I’d rather not feel with no power to act on it, that’s not mine to fully grasp anyway, that’s distorted and egged on by my imagination and my adrenal glands.
This oneness, connection, is both physical and mental. My partner believes that those two things are one and the same. Billions of us believe billions of things; and thus, we are all potentially as different, and potentially as similar, as we can be. Our consciousness, and the oneness, are Schroedinger’s Cats.
Last Sunday, I arrived to see my friend Sara perform at #SanctumBristol. For an hour, every single day, throughout the entirety of the installation, she has been singing, in Arabic, a call to prayer. Sara wrote the translation of her prayer on the chalkboard for us, and asked everyone to face the back right-hand corner of the structure; in the direction of Iran, her country of heritage. The chalkboard read:
The Oneness is the Greatest
I testify that there is no God greater than the Oneness
Come to Sanctuary
Come to prayer
The Oneness is the Greatest
There is no God greater than the Oneness.
It was bright and early in the morning. There was cold wintery sunlight eking everywhere and showing us everything it possibly could. I sat in the newest and most beautiful structure in my city, holding a hot cup of tea, sheltered from the damp outside and swaddled in a large scarf, and felt lucky and happy. I listened to Sara’s strong and worn voice, a vocal offering of connection with the Oneness; with anyone who cared to listen; with anyone who happened to turn up that morning; with Iran; with you; with me. As she began and continued to sing I felt a rush, an impact. A connection with so much and so many that overwhelmed me in its torrent – but for a second, an instant. A collision of whatever that fist inside my chest is that punches up and out and forces me to breathe deeper than before and open my eyes with the hope of seeing something. I see nothing out of the ordinary, simply what was there the second before, and the second before that, but I feel so many tiny fingers and roots and cracks of life surging in one single snap through every neuron and each bronchi. Between my consciousness and others’ spirits must be so much recognition, so much obscurity and all at once and altogether and if only we could have it. Hold it. And actually know each other. In all our generosity. In all our violence. In all our carefree and carelessness.
The connections, the Oneness, was, as always, too quick for me to comprehend. As I faced the feelings of fear that gathered from my seat and crowned over my head I breathed and listened to the river of Sara’s voice. So much possibility and so much pain, so much potential for downfall and excitement and creation and admission and revelation, and the only limitation that will exist will be the boundaries that I put up, as healthy as they are, to fend off the onslaught of life. It was terrifying, exhilarating and I felt the luck and the happiness and the nausea and the hatred and the absolute bewilderment and everything else contained in my life so far, to the fullest.
I’d never felt lucky or happy until recently. As I’ve grown I’ve stood and faced the Oneness whenever I could, but most often it’s thrown me to the ground, and I’ve knelt, head bowed, pleading, tempering myself and waiting sheepishly while it ticks, silently, potentially sinister. But whilst there, with a good view of the foundations beneath me I’ve gathered my blessings, my connections, my feet and my sight and I’ve waited again. And each time stood to face the Oneness. And last Sunday I sat and soaked up Sara’s singing it to me.
In the last week, the week that followed, were several more terrorist attacks that have become so frequent that they only really rock us if just across the way. More people lost their children, the loves of their lives, the people who cared for them, the people who provided them with their lifelines. Sara texted to ask that we be with her as she carried on, for an hour, every day, performing, rejoicing, calling for us to be One. Asking that we connect with her, as she continued her connection, while life once again seems to repudiate, abandon, and rip our fragile togetherness away from us.
Billions of us believe billions of things. We are all potentially as different and potentially as similar as we can be. Be aware of yourself as a perpetrator. Are you responding, or maintaining our global supply of revenge?
I don’t know what the Oneness is. I only know that we are together, and there is no choice other than to be together. What a threat, what an opportunity. I am thankful that on a Sunday morning I no longer hide under soft duvet barricades, and useless chemical clouds, but rise to connect with a friend, to hear a city, to seek the Oneness.
Come to Sanctuary. There is no God greater than the Oneness. The Oneness is the greatest.
I wrote this for my Sanctum performance on Mon 16th November 2015. I managed to get a slot directly after Sara – it was a wonderful experience. Many thanks to Situations for having me, there’s only three days left of Sanctum, get down there while it lasts.
As the year draws to a close Theatre West have produced a season of new plays, of which The Islanders is the third of five. The setup – a one-act preceded by a short piece by another upcoming writer – not only allows for a showcase of the latest writing by the west’s rising talent, but also for a reflection of the topical issues that theatre’s emerging writers are exploring.
Tory MP Claire is called back to the island on which she grew up – the constituency she now represents in Parliament – where the resident islanders are reeling from the latest in a series of building collapses caused by rising sea levels. Although the many locals – all played by the two supporting actors – spoke in thick west country accents, for some reason I imagined ‘the Isle’ to be in Scotland; perhaps because Claire’s being so far away in London for much of the year was such a foregrounded theme. Bristol was referred to at one point, so we knew we weren’t ‘here’ – but, of course, the vagueness in geography allowed the story to feel simultaneously local and universal.
All the performances were solid and engaging, and the characterisation was particularly enjoyable – Rosanna Miles gave a melodramatic portrayal of a sincerity-chasing career politician, which nicely illustrated an ego-led desperation to appear to be doing the right thing. While I don’t disagree with this reading of political behaviour, I couldn’t decide whether this felt fully three dimensional. However, it did bolster the relentless inabilities of the mentally-, geographically-, and experientially-detached leader focused on placating rather than assisting her constituents.
Joel Parry provided much comic relief in his portrayal of key locals and antagonists; there wasn’t a huge variation in his accent or characterisation – occasionally it was hard to tell whether Bob or The Man Who Wants a License to Shoot Pigeons was speaking – but he performed all with gusto. Claire Sullivan’s recently-home-and-business-less Major was particularly warming, her small frame mimicking that of a frail old man and her thousand-yard stare drawing us into his grief. Similarly, her portrayal of young and eager political aide Anna, whose willingness to admit to the realities of climate change and the subsequent necessity to manipulate the Islanders, was delivered with a frighteningly charming innocence.
The script was tight, the characters well-directed and the story accessible – it is difficult to do behind-the-scenes political dramas following the success of The Thick of It, because everything compares and almost nothing can match it. Indeed, a Tucker-esque character appeared towards the end and swore a lot, and I wished so much that the character had completely diverged from the newly-stereotyped Hardball Spin Doctor. In that vein, there were many ways the story could have been more adventurous and/or perilous, but the real success was in the interaction between characters and the pacing of the story. I was unsure as to whether Claire’s final ‘redemption’ was intended to illustrate the futility of party politics or act as a sincere resolution for the arc of the character – for me, it was certainly the former, and I would’ve liked a clearer, bolder finale.
I’ve seen many plays about climate change recently, and not all of them work. The Islanders fares well as a story about the lack of political will to address the most urgent of society’s needs, and for the company’s next installment I’d simply like a more radical treatment. Ultimately, I’d love to see more from all involved and highly recommend catching it in the last couple of days of its run. It continues until Saturday 14th Nov at PRSC’s The Space on the corner of Jamaica St and Hillgrove St.