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.
I’ve never liked the idea of festivals. They require you to be literally always outside, continuously pummelled with sounds, surrounded by munted children, munted adults, and conservatives that think they’re socialists – and enjoy it to the tune of £250. Because they sound so awful, I’ve never actually been to one before now and thus my knowledge of festivals comes from those who constantly talk about going to festivals, and – a bit like people who constantly talk about their drug use (for which there is a huge Venn diagram to be drawn here) – perhaps don’t give the best impression of the overall world of drug- and festival-use. (There’s a smouldering, silent bloc of you that are alright.)
Hypocritically, then, I’ll join the rabble forcing their self-indulgent and narrow-minded experience of festival phenomena on you, and tell myself it’s only to balance the noise. But I do hope that for young overwhelms like myself who might one day be traumatised by a cheeky, non-committal fence-hop that accidentally lasts too long, or get peer-pressured into buying a ticket for a version of hell decorated by a Glastonbury shopkeeper, I will litter the following with all the instructions I can think of that allowed me to ‘enjoy’ mine and stop short of ‘spend £250 on anything else.’
Last week I went to Green Gathering. I was running the cinema there for the first two days, on behalf of a friend who had double-booked himself with Boomtown and had wisely recognised that it would be unwise for me, at this point in my life, to be Boomtowning. It is important to do your research, and choose a festival with which you are largely compatible. Green Gathering hates The Man, hedonism, and things that most normal people think are fun and/or necessary, so we were about as well suited as a festival and I could be. Working was key to optimum mental functioning; running the cinema not only gave me some much needed structure – there were no acts on that I’d heard of, so I had no itinerary (which, for two days in a field, is ludicrous) – but also provided me with a huge tent to live in. This made the journey to and from the festival slightly less stressful, in that I had one less item to throttle me and smash into my shins.
Before I left, a festival-seasoned friend (who only talked about it at my request) advised me that there are slightly different rules to socialising etiquette at festivals, and that you’re almost certain to get a good response if you begin talking to a stranger with an enthusiasm up to and including that usually reserved for adult-toddler interactions. As I got off the train with a bunch of other people carrying camping gear, I asked a couple (in the style of a children’s TV presenter circa 1998) if I could share their taxi. Since it was a small town it was only a fiver, and they didn’t ask for money (the next day they came to visit me in the cinema and watched a film about the inevitability of full ecocide due to rapacious mining and pollution – I felt we’d bartered ironically, if not well.) Almost immediately I got out the taxi and began hobbling toward the crew office, a woman dressed as a fire-breathing mythical creature offered to carry my bags for me the rest of the way to the site.
First things first, I unpacked everything, reshuffled it, and packed everything valuable into a smaller bag to carry everywhere with me (lest the socialist-cum-conservatives wheedle their way into my temporary home – they’re individualistic at heart, but all about distribution of others’ wealth when it suits them.) It is advisable to over-prepare on anything that is light, and carry that with you too. You’ll be able to get by without that 2 litre bottle of mixer, but when you forget nail clippers that hang nail is going to fuck you.
I ran into people wearing matching fake beards, who turned out to be theatre protest group BP or Not BP, a Rasta who also ran a macrobiotic food festival, and a teenager called Carl who would have charmed me right up if I hadn’t been ten years older than him. He didn’t so much shake my hand as much as he held it tenderly and squeezed it a couple of times as though we’d been friends for years, or my hand was a piece of bread that he was crumbing for a nutroast. I didn’t know teenage boys were capable of such gentleness/astute manipulation.
By that first evening I had talked to an optimum amount of other festival-goers (i.e. not that many) who were all perfectly friendly and had thus retained a lot of my energy. I screened my last film for the day, had a drink, and ran into some drum and bass. These munters seemed alright after all. I was relaxing, mainly because of the rum/drum and bass symbiosis but also because I was by myself, bouncing without limitation from one place to another, one impromptu mid-crowd circus performance to another, one eyebrow-flash of contentment shared with a stranger to another…
At some point some square ceased that particular fun, and I, being cool, made my way over to the only stage still playing. The fun I hadn’t anticipated having was cut short – it was nearing 2am, and the final laptop had died. Perversely, the DJ started making requests for alternatives – naturally, I had packed my iPod into my tory-proof rucksack and proceeded to play all the weird and wonderful songs I never thought I’d hear on a speaker stack taller than I am. (It was around Favourite Moment #36 of my life so far, but they often happen just out of my comfort zone where there are no pens, so I can’t be sure.)
Finally someone came and grumpily shut it down – the laptop had in fact died at exactly the right time and my illicit iPod dabbling had drawn a couple of organisers out of Festival HQ to bollock us, which I unplugged and slipped away for. It got relatively quiet – which I wasn’t expecting – but I still needed ear plugs to get some sleep. (And for God’s sake take an eye mask; daytime occurs about 4am because you’re living outside.)
In the morning I felt as rough and regretful as I usually do after having a lovely time, my mind full of uncertainty and my body lacking true rest. I made my way over to The Healing Field which, alongside massages for a (suggested) donation (of £35) and a tent in which you were invited to unlock the pain of your ancestors from your DNA (no, thanks) offered free yoga sessions. The session I went to happened to be all women, and led by a friendly, generous and normal-seeming woman who was all about my womb. This was nice, because I was on my period and someone was paying attention to my need to rub my stomach a bit and stretch in un-thought-of ways and grizzle a bit, and then she said kind things about my soul. She definitely wasn’t getting munted. I wondered how she was dealing with the whole thing, seemingly super happy living amongst the rain and the badgers and the soggy leaves, chanting and smiling at people while appearing to have all her marbles. She may have been an anomaly, but she was shattering my neatly-whittled stereotypes.
It was raining again and not many people were up yet, so I ended up cancelling the first screening of the day. My structure interrupted, I was immediately bored and antsy. I walked around the perimeter of the site listening to Boards of Canada (whom I no longer think are pointless but actually quite relaxing). I finally took shelter in the main tent, where all of the youngest children at the festival appeared to have formed an adorable gang and sat in a tiny row in front of me. Trying to ‘be’ and shit, I just sat. I sat and wondered whether as a toddler I would have relished the brightly coloured music farm, or whether all of the people and the rain and the blaring would have agitated me into a series of overtired panics. I wondered how much of my anxiety was inherent and how much was learned, how much of it will stay with me throughout my life, how much of it I deserved, how much of it was my fault, how I was supposed to be relaxing and being kind to myself and not overthinking things or asking questions with no answers.
The musicians started and I stared at them as they ran through a lengthy sound check. I enjoyed a change of scenery for my staring, away from screens. I enjoyed hearing literally no traffic. I enjoyed sitting in a public space with my eyes closed, smiling and swaying gently and still not being the weirdest person in the room. A woman sat down next to me and said hello, and after a short chat she insisted on buying me a chai and a piece of cake. I was so touched that I didn’t tell her I’d just eaten or that my nervous system has an intolerance for vast clumps of sugar, so though I drank all of the chai I chucked the cake over my shoulder while she wasn’t looking (like that bit in Good Will Hunting in the joke shop, but I was genuinely trying to outsmart her and I’m slightly more hench than Matt Damon.)
I was already flagging and I’d only been there 24 hours. That felt like several too many, and I had the same amount to go. I had no choice but to pay attention to the musicians, the couples around me enjoying a break from their routines, the children embodying abandon and how desperate I was to join them. (I haven’t yet figured out abandon, if anyone has, please tweet me.) I became ok just sitting, listening, flitting from place to place for as long as each one held my attention. I gave myself a grace period each time, so I didn’t flit too much or too little, then moved around some more. It was a designated break from what was usual, and I didn’t realise how much I needed that until I was sitting on a child-size wicker stool staring at a tapestry of elves.
It was still raining like fuck and only getting windier. I went back to my screening schedule, ate, ran back into Carl the teenager and then a man named ‘Compost John’ who told me he was polyamorous and was going to nickname me something ‘memorable, like Hot and Hardcore’. That made me uncomfortable so I said ‘well, that’s what my Mum calls me’ and he looked at me like he didn’t understand why I’d said something so literally true. I wondered whether his lack of sense of humour helped in his negotiating multiple sexual partners into his life. I showed my final film, about masculinity and violence in hip hop, followed by a short interview segment with Brother Ali. It was a good choice to end on. I liked creating my own schedule. I liked carving out a piece of the festival for myself. I now had freedom to roam and stumble upon an evening like last night’s.
My body was tired. I went back to the drum and bass bar; the music was great again, but I was unable to connect with people as I had 24 hours ago. I moved lazily, my eyelids rested half way down my pupils; I couldn’t lift my limbs as I had. I wasn’t smiling naturally. I defected to a calmer stage with a jazz band and after resorting to some sort of half contemporary dance, half amateur Tai Chi, I accepted that I needed a sit down.
At that moment the drummer whipped out a triangle, and started playing it like it was an actual instrument and not just a memory from my primary education. In his hands the thing sounded like a piano. I had no idea you could play the triangle well; I thought you just hit it or you didn’t. It struck me (pun intended) that there aren’t many places you can bump into someone excelling at the triangle. What else might I encounter, were I to do the unthinkable, and go to another? Had I had a good time? Had I just coped incredibly well? Had the goalposts of my life really moved to accommodate stewards dressed as magical frogs and shitting into wheelie bins?
The morning of my exit, the sun came out with force, as though Gaia had understood my need to leave and was providing me with the best atmosphere in which to do so, but also showing me how beautiful it was to be outside and amongst a community. The site looked achingly good in the morning light – I leisurely kicked my boots through the immaculately dewy meadow to get a cup of tea and breakfast, walked around the perimeter once more and found a giant throne carved out of a few tree trunks from which I surveyed the whole arena a final time. I suppose I could have stayed one more day; I was exhausted, but the sun began to feel like my own personal charger. My experience was now bathed in sunlight and hindsight, and the parameters of the experiment had been optimal.
I was also pumped full of excitement for my next trip, starting immediately: my brother was picking me up from the site to visit my family home and celebrate our birthdays. As I packed up my belongings, throttling and smashing my way out of the ‘best off-grid family renewable community sustainable festival’, I was happy. Happy I’d done it. Happy to be here. Happy to be leaving. And possibly happier than I’d ever been to get in a fossil-fuel powered machine that represents the undoing of our survival and the fragility of our understanding of future realities.