Saturday 5 March 2016

Building Conversation

Today I sat in a room with people I know only a little, and had a 90 minute Conversation Without Words. A strange experience. I found I had a conversation mostly with myself about how I am in a group and what I look for in communication. I could so easily have sat quietly watching. I felt no great compulsion to reach out and make connections. Such pleasure in just watching.

When I chose to make eye contact, I found it hard to hold at first. I didn't know how to move on from that first warm feeling to a narrative conversation. So I sought activities to share to precipitate connection. It felt like when toddlers play alongside each other rather than together. I built a tower of cups and yearned to start a silent game of charades.

Come the end I found I enjoyed the pleasure of simply looking someone in the eye without need to communicate anything other than the joy of smiling at someone, and noticing things about them I never had before. It felt calm and restful and ever so filling.

As everyone left I stayed there to see what the space might feel like without anyone else in it. Immediately it turned from a place of comfort to a strangely lonely and empty room. For someone who loves solitude, perhaps that was the biggest discovery of all.

I loved Building Conversation and I'm so pleased to have tried it out. Can't recommend it highly enough. Will be booking onto all four conversations at Norfolk & Norwich Festival in May.

See you there!

You can see more about it, and book tickets at

Monday 14 September 2015

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

'Each time it begins in the same way, it doesn't begin the
same way, each time it begins it's the same.'

Remarkable and sustained fury. I have not read a book that more tangibly captures the othered experience than this. The impact is as a bludgeon knocking you into another shape, yet the writing is as fine and crafted as a blade. Every word of Citizen, every image, beats you round the head saying 'this is my world, this is my world', challenging you to overlook it. There is no ignoring Claudia Rankine's Citizen. This is what literature is and can be.

'Words work as release - well-oiled doors opening and
closing between intention, gesture. A pulse in a neck, the
shiftiness of the hands, an unconscious blink, the conver-
sations you have with your eyes translate everything and
nothing. What will be needed, what goes unfelt, unsaid -
what has been duplicated, redacted here, redacted there,
altered to hide or disguise - words encoding the bodies
they cover. And despite everything the body remains.

Occasionally it is interesting to think about he outburst if
you would just cry out-

To know what you'll sound like is worth noting-'

Friday 29 May 2015

Wilding the Tame: Two Encounters with Wolves

Wolf's Child, Wild Works in association with Norfolk and Norwich Festival, Felbrigg Hall
The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall (Faber, 2015)

Two (artistic) encounters with wolves over the last couple of weeks have got me thinking about our relationship with the wild in ourselves and in nature, and whether there is a difference between the tame, and the domesticated. And just how easy it is to romanticise the wild from an urban lifestyle, without really experiencing it as it is.

Wild Works new site-specific immersive story, produced at Felbrigg Hall in partnership with Norfolk and Norwich Festival, takes us on a fairy-tale adventure that mirrors the Greek myth of Calisto - the nymph turned bear - and the unusual life of Peter the Wild Boy, an eighteenth century boy found living wild in the woods of Northern Germany and brought back to live in the UK.This is what Wild Works do: they set up camp somewhere, meet people, uncover stories, and produce theatre that has that place and those stories at their heart.

In this one, we begin with a warning: do not stray from the middle of the paths - wolves are about, and our safety cannot be guaranteed. Nor can it be for Rowan, mute orphan and heroine of this show, who plays her wobbly fear with strained abandon. We first meet her amid the orphanage of Mother, a prim and austere woman who has dedicated her life to creating civilised order and ladylike manners in a manicured house on the edge of a dark forest. But Mother likes to scare her orphans into propriety. and when Rowan is sent out into the woods with a shotgun, she begins an odyssey that takes in an erotic encounter with some sort of wild stag-man, a pack of wolves, a child, and an inter-generational conflict with Mother and her harem of order.

We're guided around the forest by a murder of crows: they narrate the story and entertain us on the long walks between scenes. The female crow, with her esturine squarking runs away with the show, so fantastically does she capture the playful inquisitive intelligence of the crow.

There are other triumphs, too - a puppet of a young daughter taking her first steps in the wolf pack; the image of mother riding upright on her horse before the great grandeur of National Trust's Felbrigg Hall; and the way that an hour in we realise we have left the path and are totally lost in the woods with no idea which direction lies civilisation. The sun has sunk, the sky is a blueish grey, lighter than the treetops shadowed against it. There are candles lighting our path, sometimes a blue tinge to our destination, but either side is darkness and unknown.

If there is a criticism, it is that of many large-scale site specific works - the shepherding of an audience takes time and, for all the efforts of the crows, breaks the intensity of the story. And while the story they tell feels wild and unrestrained, following a line of theatre goers doesn't. I found myself taken out of the story too often to fully immerse, which after the intensity of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing the night before, was a shame.

There's also a sense of romanticising the wildness. This feels like a story for an urban arts audience. Perhaps I just wanted some proper danger and uncertainty! But its an amazing spectacle nonetheless.

What Sarah Hall does in The Wolf Border is simultaneously less dramatic, and more creative. The novel is about transition and change, mutability, and an interaction between the tame and the wild, voluntary, changeable, permeable. Rather than looking to a mythical past for her story, she sets it the UK today, telling a story of rewilding a tame landscape as the old-order begins to break-down, and wild new possibilities open up in a newly independent Scotland. It's a cunning tale from one of the wildest of UK writers: Sarah Hall's oevre is packed with tales of altered landscapes and characters longing to throw off the shackles of conventional life for something altogether more elemental, physical, less governed by the mind.

The heroine here is Rachel Caine, refugee from a bohemian mother, who has for years been working as a wolf expert in the US. But her life is in transition, and following her mothers death and an unexpected pregnancy, she decides to accept the offer of an Earl who has an eccentric plan to reintroduce the wolf to the UK landscape on his vast estate. In language that is scented to the earthy, metallic Cumbrian landscape, we almost feel as though Rachel is some sort of shamen figure, totemically running free alongside the pack, guiding them towards their natural home. If there is a philosophy underpinning this book, it is that we cannot escape our nature, that we are all part tame, part wild and both parts will get us in the end.

This is reflected in the narrative of Scottish Independence, which sits alongside the main plot. But what starts as a naturalistic presentation of the UK over the summer of 2014, begins to become altered as the vote goes the other way, and the public schoolboy Westminster power-base is challenged. The portrait of Scotland is slightly one-dimensional; a rugged antithesis of ennobled England. But the border is both physical and metaphorical, a transition of mindset as well as of landscape.

Sarah Hall's writing is swift and enthralling, the plot sucks you in and her very real characters enchant. She's one of my favourite British novelists, and her perspective that sits somewhere between naturalist and farmer is an unusual one in the often too bland middle-England literature. There's much familiar about this tale, in setting and atmosphere. It feels like Haweswater meets The Carhullan Army, and I flew through it in a couple of days - very quick for me! - starting on a train from Lancaster to London as I mourned the fading Cumbrian landscape behind me. There's a thrill in the wild, it calls to us like a romantic longling for something we feel we've lost. Something human, though. Governed, by our fantasies and imaginings. Wolf's Child taps right into this, and is limited by it. But The Wolf Border takes a step further, exposing that longing as an empty misunderstanding, and presenting a wilderness that is. It just is. That's Sarah /Hall's brilliance.

Thursday 14 May 2015

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing: The Play

Tonight's theatrical Norfolk and Norwich Festival adventure took in the stage adaptation (by Annie Ryan) of Eimear McBride's prize-hoovering novel A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. As with the book, it's a difficult to watch but impossible to look away masterpiece, a verbally instant and insistent barrage of emotion and experience. Guttural.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing follows the inner narrative of a girl from the womb to twenty, her relationship with her sick brother, and search for herself. It has attracted 5-star reviews from nearly everyone who has seen it, and is performed as a one-woman show by Aoife Duffin who is simply mesmeric. Hers is a performance to shape a career. Duffin holds the stage without much movement or action, and conjures characters with a slight inflection of the voice of posture. She is utterly convincing and untouchable on an raised up stage. Sometimes, so embodying the role, it feels as though she is a child playing make believe alone in her bedroom. How she can go through that visceral performance night after night and not be a gibbering wreck is anybodies guess.

And for the audience a difference from the book. Because with a book you can always put it down, but here together in a theatre it is relentless. There is nowhere nowhere to hide. It's Excoriating. I came out tense and wordless. All around was stunned silence and soft checking each other was okay after it all. The impact and power of those words and that body and voice were written all over our faces.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is playing at Norwich Playhouse until Saturday 16th. Go and see it if you can. It is, it is, it is it

Wednesday 13 May 2015

What Will Have Been - Circa at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival

'Wisps, strings, ribbons, lace,
capillaries, filaments,
delicate networks...
something sustains us
in tension.'
George Szirtes

Acrobatic pioneers Circa are currently premiering their new show at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. What Will Have Been is an intimate three person plus violinist piece with a particle physics core. We kick off with the voice of Robert Oppenheimer reflecting back on the first atomic bomb testing, and what follows seems to have at its heart the interaction of particles and physical forces: colliding, attracting, repelling, Newtonian equal and opposite reactions. At times it feels like the stage has been set up as a (small) hadron colider, where bodies are shot around the stage to collide, sparking further movement. 

The show features three of Circa's ensemble members - three new faces to Circa's ever growing repertoire of shows and performances. It is accompanied by a single solo violinist playing Bach pieces interspersed with electrical music including The Velvet Underground's Pale Blue Eyes. What Will Have Been is packed with Circa's archetypal enthusiasm for inverting gender stereotypes. Our single female acrobat often takes on significant heavy lifting work, while it is the relationship between the two men that I often found most compelling. There is a tenderness to all of the interaction, and for a show all about the drama of bodies, much of what I loved here was in the drama of the eyes. Circa mix death-defying circus performance with dance, movement, stillness, and theatre. Its the tension that enables and sustains, and I had poet George Szirtes's line above in my mind throughout the show. 

What Will Have Been is on at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival nearly every night for the next 2 weeks. Tickets are sold out, but returns are probable. If you can get a ticket, a quiet spectacle is assured. 

Wednesday 1 April 2015

Book Review: Any Other Mouth by Anneliese Mackintosh

I love Any Other Mouth. In each word we inhabit the skin and see through the eyes of a young woman growing up, learning about life and her body, struggling with overpowering grief. She drinks, smokes, sleeps around, can't hold down a relationship, changes career at the drop of a hat, can re-write an entire PhD thesis in a weekend, stares for hours at a Google Map of her now dead father frozen in time on a deckchair in the back garden. She may have Borderline Personality Disorder. We experience some of what it is to be her. And it is both eye opening and a riotous adventure.

In the epigraph, Anneliese Mackintosh states: '68% happened; 32% did not happen; I will never tell' and this teasing game of fiction and biography that she sets in motion parched my mouth with anticipation for what was to come. It doesn’t matter whether the work that follows is a searing and amazingly frank account of a life lived in the fast lane, or a cunning character study through fiction. The writing is first rate: quick, luscious, direct. Her approach to language mirrors her protagonist’s approach to life: she charges at a thing, she doesn't shirk, she tells stories full of heart that make the spaces between people feel less vast than they sometimes might.

One of the joys of reading is in discovering different ways of living life, different responses to the challenges and joys it throws up. We most often do this by reading about cultures other than our own, and at times the more harrowing the better in this sort of reading. (See the universal love of Khaled Hosseini’s pity-porn novels of Afghanistan for one example.) But we are sadly less willing to read books that present a different view of life in our own society, or that treat with empathy subjects we would rather believe did not happen. In this searing, unflinching book, we get a first-hand view of one experience of life with Borderline Personality Disorder. It is a book that asks us to reappraise our expectations for behavior, often uncomfortably so. And that, in my opinion, is one of the things that the arts should be all about.

In its nihilistic rejection of convention and vibrant lust for life Any Other Mouth reminded me of AM Homes brilliant novel Music for Torching. But much more than this exciting, blackly comic read, it feels important too. Important, as understanding perspectives on life different from your own always are. It may be a bit of a Marmite book, and will undoubtedly provoke some anger by some people who feel the content is not always 'appropriate' but perhaps because of this, it is a book that should be widely read. Any Other Mouth is engaging, unexpected, gripping, poignant, shocking and exciting. A great read.

(Note: One word of caution: the blurb for this book doesn’t really make any sense! How do you react when you discover your boyfriend is cheating on you with his dead grandma? You don’t. It’s doesn’t happen like that! Don’t be put off, Any Other Mouth is not as ridiculous as the blurb suggests!)

Friday 20 March 2015

What is Literature? Thoughts from the International Literature Showcase

This week I'm at the International Literature Showcase in Norwich. It is a new platform connecting UK and international literature professionals, produced by the brilliant teams at British Council Literature and Writers' Centre Norwich.
The programme is fabulously spacious and diverse, and the other delegates thought-provoking, impressive, and inspiring.
Two things keep occurring to me. One is the power of a good question (thank you Sara Robinson) and I will blog about these tomorrow. The other is about what literature is, how we pin down something that is so vast and so many different people produce, and whether we need a language that explains this.
Words starting bashing at my brain, itching in my fingertips, and shouting to be released. So here they are, some thoughts on what literature is.

What Is Literature
Literature is vast. It is multifaceted and multifarious and multiplicitous. It is specific and it can be held in the hands and it can disappear in the echo of a voice. 
Literature is power grasped and directed and stolen from caverns of voicelessness or invisibility. It is voice shouted into the void in the hope of being heard or listened to.
It is being listened to. And it is listening hard: opening the ear and the eye and the heart to that which has never been part of you, and that which has lain within you all along.
It is itself. And this is enough. And it is incomparably bigger.
Literature is language. It is pre-concscious utterance. And it is the language of the body and of the deaf. And of the blind. And it is the language of silence, the between words. It is fast words schlocked out and insistent, that cannot be denied. And it is the non-verbal languages of ones and zeroes , of code and the words that command and demand action.
Literature is ink splattered on parchment, typeface stamped into paper, liquid congealing and separating on a screen.
Literature is received and it is created and it is eternal and it is in everything that has gone before, and it holds within it everything that has been before. And it is new as the cracking of winter.
Literature is writers and it is producers and it is readers. And it is listeners, and it is viewers, and it is connection. It is conversation.
Literature is important and powerful and instrumental. It is unreliable and unpredictable and shifting and shifted.
After all, literature, like nature, has never loved us back.
Literature, like digital, like society and like the atmosphere and outer space, and the void, literature is an environment. What we make of it is up to us.
Literature is the world. And it is life and it is taxidermy. And it is retreat and it is escape and it is splashing in puddles and it is diving in headfirst.
Literature is easy as joy, as difficult as life, as full-frontal as death and as fearful rushed into as sex.
Literature is you and me and them and us and someone alone in a forgotten house,
Literature is...and it isn't. 

Tuesday 10 February 2015

On Literature Festivals, Power, and Process – a week in South America

Sometimes I find it hard to believe how lucky I am. Not only do I have a career working with books and people that I love, but occasionally I get to travel internationally as well. Two years ago I visited the first Lahore Literature Festival in Pakistan, an amazing experience that showed me just how unifying a force culture can be in a society starved of the opportunity to meet in public. How important open discourse is to the health of a society, and how art can be the catalyst for so much discourse.

This past week I have had the pleasure to visit two more international literature festivals, this time in South America: Hay Cartagena in Colombia and FLUPP in Brasil. They are separated geographically by half a continent, but also by a philosophy and a purpose, as well as being separated from me by two languages I can't speak very well! In these ways they offered a fascinating comparison for my Clore Fellowship learning, a point to further explore what I might wish to do in the future. Indeed, the comparison was as stark as the landscapes of the Sahara and the Amazon that we flew on the way there.

First up was Cartagena, a stunningly beautiful city on the Caribbean Sea. Historically influential leader of the fight for Latin American independence from Spanish rule. Home of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and setting for some of his most celebrated works, most notably Love in the Time of Cholera and Of Love and Other Demons. Within 20 minutes of arriving in Cartagena I had fallen in love with the city – or at least the Colonial walled city in which I was staying. It's narrow lanes, painted buildings, ornamental balconies, relaxed atmosphere. After three days I regretted not being able to stay longer.

And there: HayCartagena, the first franchise in the increasingly global Hay-on-Wye success train, celebrating its tenth anniversary this year with an appearance from Nobel Laureate JMG Le Clezio among a host of others from around the world. I was there on behalf of Writers' Centre Norwich, and our (Inter)National Conversation programme, curating and delivering a debate about global writing and publishing in the twenty-first century, and whether digital technologies are enabling a challenge to the traditional dominance of the London/New York centres of activity. With a particular focus on writing and publishing in Africa and South America, it proved an interesting discussion on where the power lies in global literature, and how individual countries or regions can have relevant local conversations within this increasingly global landscape. You can watch Binyavanga Wainana's thoughts here, in which he talks about his desire for African writers to find new routes to share their work, to reach local readers and create a new impetus for writing across Africa. Essentially he argues that African writers need a new process by which to reach readers, because the current outcomes are stacked in the favour of publishers and readers in London and New York.  It was the sort of high quality discussion that excites the intellect, and felt representative of the other events I heard while I was in Cartagena: political, active, engaged. There were some good events, some packed houses, and a remarkable feat of quality live English-Spanish and Spanish-English translation. In so many ways it was a brilliant festival and I loved being there.

On the last afternoon I met Jonathan Levi, and we spoke briefly with Ellah Allfrey about reading, and about the challenges and value of encouraging widespread interest in books and literature. Jonathan is a fascinating man with a wealth of experience, and the way he talked about audience development really excited me. This whole area is my main interest and will form the core of my research during this fellowship, and it was with this conversation in my head that I flew to Rio de Janeiro for a trip that I knew would be a very different experience to Cartagena.

In Rio, I was due to meet FLUPP, an annual festival and year round programme of activity taking place in various favelas that aims to break down the barriers between communities and encourage reading and writing for the many. (It is named after the UPP - the military police who 'pacify' the favelas; Festival of Literature of the UPP). FLUPP is led by Julio Ludemir and Ecio Salles, whom I met for the first time as an evening thunderstorm crashed around us. Julio came across as a forthright conviction-driven man, eager to to speak clearly and exactly despite having to do so for my benefit in English. And despite 24 hours confusion in which I mistook his talking about 'slam poetry' for 'Islam poetry' – a very different kettle of fish that made far less sense! – we were able to share ideas and learn a great deal from each other.

He challenged my assumptions. Each time I referred to FLUPP as a festival – as I did on at least four occasions – he repeated his mantra: 'FLUPP is not a festival, it is a process.' At first I took this for a semantic difference, but as our time together wore on, the significance came to embody something important – the activity he does isn't one directional, it is a collaboration and a deep relationship with individuals and communities. It begins long before a festival starts, and continues long after it has finished. The short festival that takes place in November is merely the most public and prominent part of this. But not the most important.

The other aspect of FLUPP that Julio was keen to convey was about quality as a demonstration of power. When FLUPP was set up to directly rival the more illustrious and international Flip festival in Brasil, he was clear that it couldn't just be a small offering for local people, but had to be big and professional and exceptional. FLUPP may be a literature festival in deprived neighbourhoods, but it refuses to be limited in its ambition and professionalism. Indeed, this commitment to excellence is at the heart of its social message. 'How can we change perceptions if we fall into them ourselves', said Julio. 'We must treat these people as powerful and worthy of quality, because they are, and the world needs to know that.'

Over the next two days, Julio and another FLUPP collaborator, Toni Marques, showed me around Rio, introduced me to their work, and took me to visit some of the sites of their work. We talked at length, and I visited the favelas of Cidade de Deus and Morro dos Prazeres, sat in on an event, and saw for myself what Julio was talking about: how the process of building trusting relationships with people drives everything that FLUPP does, how it unlocked opportunities for a great number of people, and how important that sense of power and quality was for the communities. And how, rather than seeing the time spent with people as a distraction from the terribly-important-work-that-must-be-done, it is the site of the most significant work they do. I loved this approach, it felt like a liberation.

Over the last couple of years, my work has often felt like a grand exercise in window dressing, where being seen to be impressive and highly literary by funders was more important than being of value for people, where the finances of the art, and the intellectualism of that art for the few were more significant than the many who create and consume it. As such, Hay Cartagena was a natural and exciting place to be, that same milieu in which I have operated for a while. Where valuable, interesting things happen, but they happen in an elite place out of the reach of the many. But it was in conversation with Jonathan Levi, and with FLUPP that my heart skipped and my values entwined with the work I saw. I'm fascinated by the impact high quality audience development could have in challenging the perception of the arts as elitist, in actively spreading access more widely, in encouraging deeper engagement, and in creating social benefit for people while also producing even more knowledgable, skilled, and confident audiences for the exceptional artists we already have.

Indeed, the more I think about it, the less I can see the value of significant state funding for art that doesn't have a distinctly social impact. At least in music and literature, two art forms in which the production of high quality art is perfectly well served by commercial enterprise. I'm not sure exactly what will come after my Fellowship ends in July, but I am committed that it will be about process first, and that people and art together will be focus. I'm planning a piece of research exploring best practice and the construction of a coherent programme for audience development. This feels an exciting place to be as I crack on with my Clore Fellowship.

Saturday 6 December 2014

In Praise of...

Megan Serena Ruddock

Megan is my beautiful talented generous considerate hilarious kind wife. We have been together 12 years, and married for 10. We met when I was still a teenager and I fell for her immediately. Of course I did! She sent me an album that remains one of the best things I've ever heard and we talked endlessly. But what is remarkable is that she saw in my skinny lonely immaturity someone worth knowing. And every day since she has supported me in feeling that I could make anything of my life. She has made sure I felt loved, challenged me when I needed it, and ensured I never got too big for my boots. She is my best friend and the best thing that has ever happened to me. I don't tell her that enough.

Megan is the bravest person I know. She moved to a whole different country by herself and has built a life here. And she has the bravery to stand up for what she believes in regardless of what it costs her. She's driven by this moral code to be considerate to everyone, to do no harm at all, and to support and empathise with those who need it most. She cares for everyone, from the snail on the pavement in the morning to the person pushing everyone away. She's a champion of the disadvantaged, the very epitome of what a good Christian should be.

Megan isn't afraid to be herself. She drinks absinthe at lunch on accessions. She often describes herself as simultaneously 10 years old (she just started collecting Sylvanian Families) and 70 (last year she took a course in Ancient Hebrew!). But she is also 21 and 39 and 47 and 53 and every other age there is. I can't list all the courses she had taken or signed up for. She is a polymath: everything interests her in some way or another. She is the self-development Queen, there is nothing about her she isn't prepared to interrogate, challenge and improve if she doesn't like what she finds. And she's quite probably the best quiz team player in the world!

Megan is also hilarious. No one I have ever known has such a sly, black humour, as she does. She is brilliant at word play, and she's self-deprecating and finds humour in herself at every turn. When she laughs her whole face comes alive and her eyes sparkle. She has this mini-smile wrinkle above her top lip that appears when she smiles - it never ceases to make me happy. I think her laughter is the best thing in the world. It is explosive and all encompassing and feels like freedom.

We have fun together. She is the creative genius behind Cheers (possibly the worlds most comprehensive stuffed animal society). She invented Dogwarts (stolen by Aardman as a joke in Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Wererabbit), and basically wrote the penguin and lemur characters for Madagascar. To our cats she is the sporty chaser, the trick trainer, the treater. She scoops them up and gives them medicine. And they love her for it because somehow they know she would never do anything bad to them.

Sadly life isn't always as kind to Megan as she is to it. She's had a pretty tough time these last few years with people not realising how infinitely capable she is. With people treating her horribly. And that sucks for her, it really does. But what I find remarkable is that she has this amazing capacity to take a bad hand and keep fighting. Nothing lessens her belief in people, her hope that tomorrow will be better, or her desire to turn today around.

Megan shows me what goodness is. She's so much better than I am. And I would be nothing without her. I love her with all my heart. And I thought you - and she - should know this.

Tuesday 2 December 2014

Brief thoughts on Remix Summit London day 1

Remix Summit is a global network of conferences that bring together culture, technology and entrepreneurship for an intensive set of discussions and presentations on some of the cutting edge work happening in these areas. I attended day one of the two day event, hosted at Google Town Hall in the heart of London's West End, which featured presentations by the likes of Tate, Secret Cinema, the Mayor of London's cultural office, and Manchester International Festival. Some were excellent, and there were interesting conversations around them. But overall the day proved frustrating for a number of reasons. Here are a few quick thoughts and some challenges for Day 2 tomorrow.

1. On whose terms? I probably should have realised that a conference backed by technology and media partners Google and Bloomburg would be technology centred. Nothing wrong with that: I'm writing this on my Galaxy Note 3 while listening to music on the same device, and have been tweeting throughout the day. I like technology. But the traditional arts world felt sidelined. Almost everything that was discussed was through a commercial or tech prism, focusing on how technology built communities and reached wide audiences. It sometimes seemed that technology was being seen as the savior of art. That without it, art stayed behind locked doors in austere buildings. As though standing in a gallery or on a street corner admiring a painting, sitting forward in the midst of a play, reading a book, singing along to an album, or feeling that yearn to move in the midst of dance were not enough if they weren't somehow augmented by a screen.

Clearly this is problematic. Despite a day filled with words, it is the experience of reading Liz Berry's Black Country on the underground this morning that will stay with me. There has to be a place for quiet, calm reflection, or loud furious reflection in this world and the arts provide this. We don't always have to be doing things on digital and social media platforms to be producing great work.

As Fabien Riggall said: 'We want to use technology, not be used by it'.

How we in the arts articulate different values and challenge the profit-chasing bubble thinking of the technology world may be one of the challenges for day 2.

2. There is a world outside those ivory towers. Be they the towers of national arts organisations or multinational conglomerates, there was an absence of social responsibility today. The Barbican aside, no one gave any prominence to social deprevation or how technology, culture or entrepreneurship could work to improve the lives we live and reach those whose horizons are narrowest. We talked briefly about art for arts sake, and the whole day seemed to be technology for technologies sake, and while I admire and value this there also needs to be time for art, technology and culture that works with real people and changes communities. A deliberately provocative comment  towards the end of the night suggested that art in the regions was basically just community theatre and all a bit naff and amateurish. This pissed me off! It is absolutely possible to produce excellent work that is made in and with communities and makes those places better to live in. It's time to end the dichotomy between excellence and instrumentalism. We can (and many do!) do both!

3. Stop telling me how great your work is. I thought this was a conference not a sales pitch. I'm not trying to silence good work, but some ideas, some perspectives, some challenges. All these would have made for a broader and more impactful conversation.

4. Don't over programme! It is something everyone who produces events should remember. That a good event is often the result of time to breathe, to ask questions and challenge thinking, to share and drill down. With 3 or 4 people often speaking in only a 40 minute event, time was squashed. At one point a speaker was interrupted, quite rudely, mid flow. There needed more space. Less is more.

Where an individual was given time to talk, they were worth listening to. Alex Poots from Manchester International Festival was fascinating on the importance of giving power to artists. Sir Nicolas Kenyon from The Barbican was equally inspiring on working with local communities and the subtle shifts technology can give to a wide range of different productions. And Fabien Riggall from Secret Cinema told stories and gave more than just a sales pitch, he presented a vision and a story and a call to action.

Sadly, and despite some interesting speakers, the panels were largely sales pitches mashed together. Which was a shame.

5. Hosting is a responsibility, not doing it well is rude. If you advertise an 8am breakfast start, deliver that, or at least apologise for keeping guests hungry and waiting an hour to be let in. And then make sure there is sufficient cups and sandwiches and teabags for everyone. It's basic stuff, sadly.

And to finish it off, my quote of the day:

'Those who aim to give the public what they want begin by underestimating the public taste. They end by debauching it.'

TS Eliot 

Monday 10 November 2014

What Price Peace? A Sunday Assembly 'sermon'

The Sunday Assembly

I was asked to give the first 'sermon' at a new Sunday Assembly in Norwich this last weekend. Given it was Remembrance Sunday, the theme What Price Peace? jumped out at me and I wrote a rather long and exhaustive essay riffing on themes of conflict and complication, silence, individualism and community. I'm hugely honoured to have been asked, and hope I produced something interesting and thought provoking. The Sunday Assembly has a great vision: to live better, help often, wonder more.
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I hate to break the silence... We get so little of it, don't we?

Sometimes my life feels like a long search for silence. For stillness, and calm. I have a blog called Books, time, and Silence, the title of which I took from a quote by the author Philip Pullman, and at the time I picked it for its focus on books and reading and the importance of making space for them. But as the years go by I find it might be the other way, that I am trying to make space for silence, into which I might inject reading.

I probably should have been a Quaker or Buddhist. Or a monk! None of which I really know anything about and all of which would probably involve too many rules which might drive me crazy. But I want to know about them, and the ideas that drive them. I don’t want to judge without learning. And there is so much to learn. Which is why, right now I’m pleased to be here with you. And instead of further silence, I'm going to fill this room with my other great love: words.

Earlier this week a group of friends and I went to London for a party in the Natural History Museum. Amidst the absurd excitement of drinking wine beneath the diplodocus in the central hall, and wondering whether the giant blue whale might come to life movie-style when we were kicked out at 10pm, I got to discussing the grandeur of the building. I hadn't been for a decade or so, and I had forgotten how dramatic the architecture is. I mean, really stunning. Every wall, every column and Romanesque arch is gilded or carved or decorated in some way. I asked a man I happened to be talking to about the origins of the building, and he happened to be an expert on architecture and public buildings – he works for Historic Royal Palaces in London. And he told me that it was a Victorian building, part of a trend to build cathedrals to the ideas of the age: evolution, science, and the public value of knowledge and learning.

That's great isn't it? The public value of knowledge and learning.

I respect the Victorian approach to creation. As a societal whole, they were riding the crest of the widest change in society. And this led them to conquer and impose and feel superior which aren’t very good. But it also led them to create. And they didn’t behave like Henry VIII or the 1950’s town planners, they didn’t destroy everything that came before them which they didn’t like: they simply added to it, repurposed it. They developed. They expanded. Many complain about the collateral destruction this did to historic buildings, but they weren’t just conserving the past, they were building something new on the back of great things of the past. Building a future. That feels admirable, to me.

Although we are here today in slightly less impressive surroundings than the Natural History Museum, this Sunday Assembly too feels like a monument to the public value of shared experience and learning. We are here, perhaps, because we want to better ourselves, individually, together.

I am not at all religious. And I don’t much like ceremony either. What I have loved on the occasions I’ve been to a religious service is the sermon. Sitting there in a hard pew in an often cold church listening to someone talk to me. I find I would go from slouching to the edge of my seat, listening intently, as someone took the time to distil some of their thoughts about the week that has passed and bring them together into a coherent whole. To tell me a story or invite me to think differently. To teach or introduce me to something. Or just to comfort me with their words.

So it’s thrilling – and not a little terrifying – to be doing the same here this morning. My grandfather was a methodist minister and wrote sermons. So good was he that they made him tour the small rural churches of Suffolk. That sort of sounds like a punishment to me, but maybe not. Congregation size can’t be everything, surely.
Apparently, our family has kept all these sermons, and I’m fascinated to read them, to see what was on his mind and how he presented that on Sunday mornings to small congregations in Suffolk. I’m particularly intrigued because I’ve been on a bit of a rollercoaster journey this last couple of months. I recently started a year’s Fellowship, which is essentially the biggest, boldest, most mind-bogglingly exciting and, again, terrifying things I’ve ever done. And already, one of the things that has become apparent as I’ve reflected upon my myself, is that I find it difficult to speak as though others want to hear what I have to say. I put great value in enabling others to speak, to share the limelight. And I had thought this was one of my biggest strengths (which is probably is.). But, it is also a defence mechanism, a way of hiding in the shadows. And so when Rachel and Pete invited me to speak this morning, it wasn’t only the honour to be asked and my vanity that ensured I would accept: I knew immediately, that this would be an opportunity to practice trusting in my own words. Challenging myself, and learning.

But old habits die hard, and so I'm going to quote other people liberally! First up is Thomas Paine, famous son of Norfolk. In The Rights of Man he declares: ‘Independence is my happiness, my country is the world, and my religion is to do good.‘

These words have become my personal motto of sorts. And they seemed appropriate to share here today. For not only are we at the start of something, not only will many of us feel ourselves to be independent, global citizens committed to ideas of social justice, but it is also Remembrance Sunday, a day when we mark lives lost to war: present, recent, past, and ancient. And this Remembrance Sunday is particularly significant, marking as it does 100 years since the start of World War 1. The war that came to be known variously as The Great War. The War to End All Wars.

During the silence, I made sure I thought about the non-British soldiers and civilians who have been killed or had their lives negatively impacted by war. Of the way Britain has used war as a way of imposing its will on the world.

But this week I’ve also tried to imagine what those British soldiers might have been thinking and feeling 100 years ago. I imagine that as autumn turned to winter and the temperature began to drop, it might have been around this time that the early optimism began to fade and the realities of the war became apparent. All that nationalistic bombast that saw young men rushing to recruitment centres in the belief that they’d be home by Christmas might have started to seem a little hollower. Faced with the realities of a war like nothing that had been seen before, that gap between what had been imagined and what was being experienced must have felt as vast as the trenches stretching from the North Sea into the heart of Europe.

I’m not particularly imaginative when it comes to calling to mind the thoughts and feelings of other people; this is one of the reasons I love fiction. There is nothing I do in my life that so enables me to inhabit other skins and see the world through other eyes. It puts me inside the heads of other people, other lives, other cultures, other ways of thinking. It helps me see things differently, it makes me think differently, it complicates my point of view.

On that same trip to the Natural History Museum this week, our group also visited the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red installation at the Tower of London. It is a moving tribute to the 888, 246 British service men and women who lost their lives during the Great War, each of whom is represented by a single poppy until the moat is carpeted in red. It is visually spectacular and has captured the public desire to remember, and to be grateful. The crowds flocking to the Tower - so many that tube stations have been shut and £150,000 of extra staff brought in to shepherd them - have stood in silence to listen to the names of those soldiers read one by one. It is theatre meets art installation, meets public ceremony all at once. And there is something immensely powerful about it.

But I also feel uneasy about it. As Jonathan Jones recently wrote in The Guardian, 'In spite of the mention of blood in its title, this is a deeply aestheticised, prettified and toothless war memorial. It is all dignity and grace. There is a fake nobility to it, and this seems to be what the crowds have come for – to be raised up into a shared reverence for those heroes turned frozen flowers. What a lie. The First World War was not noble. War is not noble. A meaningful mass memorial to this horror would not be dignified or pretty. It would be gory, vile and terrible to see. The moat of the Tower should be filled with barbed wire and bones. That would mean something.'

I’m not sure I would criticise the installation for not being something different to what it is. That’s a horribly judgemental view the role of art criticism. But I love that Jonathan Jones was able to complicate our national thinking about the memorial. And he raises some valuable points about the way we remember war. It is notable, I think, to remember that in 1918 as the war came to an end, young men returning from the front got behind pacifism. There was a feeling of ‘never again’ across society, and many philosophers and thinkers took to championing the morality of peace and the utter monstrosity of war. It took a financial meltdown of unimaginable proportions, and the rise of a dictator bent on imposing his will on the world to break this determination for peace. And even then, before the fighting began, Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich waving a piece of paper proclaiming peace in our time.

Whatever our view of the morality of war and peace, we shouldn’t forget how those who lived through the war came to view it. Not as glorious and noble. But as Jonathan Jones suggests: as barbed wire and bones, tangled together in a vivid, real depiction of hell on earth.

There is a commentator I admire named Stanley Haeuerwas, who said recently that ‘war serves as the great event,...where we sacrifice the youth of the present generation to show that the sacrifices of the youth of the past generations were worthy. So war becomes the great ritual moral renewal of...society. Just think of all the language about sacrifice that is constantly used about the service people.’

War begets war. Pretending it is noble only makes future war easier to embark upon.

I am also reminded of the words of 91 year old World War 2 veteran Harry Leslie Smith, who, last year, wrote a piece in The Guardian declaring that 2013 would be the last time he would wear a poppy. That after nearly 60 years of remembrance to a war so horrific ‘no poet of journalist could describe’ it, he would now mourn the dead only in private. ‘Because,’ he wrote, ‘my despair is for those who live in this present world.’

Again, Harry has complicated the blood red waters. He has a particular perspective: that all the horrors of the second world war just might have been worth it given what followed: the creation of a new society built on principles of social justice and economic mobility for all. But that as that has been eroded over the last 40 years to its present paltry state, and that erosion has gone hand in hand with a ramping up of rhetoric and ceremony around war, he has been left to mourn what we have done to one of the greatest inventions of mankind. Something we have all lost.

It’s probably obvious! My natural stance is that no end is worth the blood and gore and waste and destruction of war. I am a pacifist. I don’t believe that any end justifies its means. Even if eternal peace were to be guaranteed by war, I would oppose that war on principal. Because I don’t really believe in ends. I mean, when does history ever end? What event doesn't leave ripples in all it touches? We can only live in the present, and do what feels right now. We live these means in everything we do, every day. For that reason above all others, I am a pacifist.

But reading Harry’s book this week has been challenging my default position. And I love this. And being challenged has got me thinking about all sorts of other things, one of which is what might be my favourite line from literature. This line isn’t a grand opening sentence or a wonderful conclusion, its not got the exquisite sadness of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s opening line from Love in the Time of Cholera: ‘It was inevitable. The scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.’ And nor does it capture an entire book, as F Scott Fitzgerald does in the last line of The Great Gatsby: ‘And so we beat on, backs against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’

No!, this is a mid-paragraph line towards to the beginning of JM Coetzee’s masterful novel Waiting for the Barbarians. In a tale about conscience and honour in a land where fear has replaced trust, our hero The Magistrate reflects somberly: 'I believe in peace. Perhaps even peace at any price.'

'I believe in peace. Perhaps even peace at any price.'

Why does this sentence so affect me? It isn’t just that it is a statement of the ultimate pacifism. There’s also something in there that is complicated. I got to exploring it.

I - It starts with a single letter. An I. A person. Vulnerable skin and easily spilt blood. A brain of synaptic flashes that create a consciousness that is so much more than electrical impulse. Could have been one of 888, 246, or the 187 million people that the historian Eric Hobsbawm estimates were caused by or associated with war in the Twentieth Century.

I love the first person narrative voice. The I. Bang, we’re in another person’s head. In Western society, this I is dominant. Look at our movies, our books, our cartoons. So many of them are about a simple concept: the triumph of the individual. The individual who is different and who ends up benefiting or saving her society through her very difference. I was in China a while ago, and I picked up a picture book. I didn’t know what it was called or what it was about, but being a picture book I could follow the story pretty easily. There was an antelope and she wanted to be a zebra. She dressed up in zebra stripes and painted her flanks like a bar code. Her elders told her not to, that it was drawing too much attention to the pack. But she did anyway. And when the lions attacked they went straight for the animal that stood out. It escaped narrowly - this was a children’s book - but the message was pretty clear. Difference is dangerous. The We, is everything, the I, nothing.

I was amazed at this vast difference between the two cultures. The West and the East .The ‘I’ and the ‘We’. Are they polar opposites? Isn’t love and sex about breaking down the barriers between one person and another, uniting physically and emotionally into something bigger than the I. And this gathering and all those religious gatherings happening every day around the world,  aren’t they about finding how we as individuals relate to something more than just ourselves. Shortening the distance between people. Broaching the ‘I’ and the ‘We’.

I guess I am a product of western society, for I do believe that no matter how much we wish to change the world, or help others, no matter how selfless our desires, we can only ever be one person. I is all the power we will ever have. And it is all the vulnerability we will ever need. We can do amazing things together, but we have to value that I, nurture it, challenge it. Only then can ‘I’ ever hope to become purposeful to the ‘we’... And if the we ever leads the I, beware.

And after the I we come to 'believe'. A Tricky word. Belief says a lot to some people, and is a wishy washy loose word to others. What excites me about it is the positivity. There is something slightly audacious about saying you believe something, especially when you don’t follow it up with any evidence. Sure, blind belief isn’t complicated. In fact, it’s really straight forward. But most belief isn’t blind: it is questioned, considered, and somehow emerges undimmed. When we assume less, we undervalue the rigor of our fellow man. I admire the person who, having thought about it, believes in a God just as utterly as I admire anyone. To me, and Arthur C Clarke, there’s very little difference between magic and science. At its heart belief is about wonder. I guess I believe in wonder. There is something wonderful to me about belief.

Going back to Harry Leslie Smith - might we have been able to build a the social conscious society without the destructive furnace of war? I hope so. I believe so. Yet history sometimes suggests otherwise. This complication saddens me. But I choose to believe inspite of it.

And what does our Magistrate believe in? Peace of course. Just like many people around the world. Probably the vast majority of us. But I’m intrigued by what this peace he believes in might actually be. I fear it isn’t as straight forward as it appears. Is the magistrate a moral pacifist? Or is he so scared of confrontation and change that he will do anything to retain his safe quiet life? Are they entirely different or two sides of a coin? Is The Magistrate embracing life when he says he believes in peace, or is he fleeing from it? We’ll come back to this in a minute for now that we reach the end of the first part of this quote, we come to the best word of the lot...

Perhaps. In those 7 letters lies the genius of this phrase. Uncertainty, exploration, learning, testing the waters. The Magistrate isn't sure, he doesn't know exactly what he thinks. He is human and he is uncertain. But he is brave too. He is willing to go out on a limb and express his belief, a belief that could make him vulnerable and slightly ridiculous. And having done this he is willing to take it even further, hesitantly, to stumble into something really profound. But he knows enough to know certainty is folly. My economics teacher once tought me that the answer to every question should be: ‘it depends,’ and perhaps the beginning of every statement should be, ‘perhaps.’

Perhaps complicates. Even extends. Like belief, 'even' takes us further into something improbable. It signposts us that something dramatic might be about to be said. And it is well used here. And with Peace we have the repetition of that keyword, driving the importance of it home. And in Any we have further extension. The word any is like having a breakdown in the trenches and being sentenced to death for cowardice, then spreading your arms wide and bearing your chest against the firing squad. Relatively pointless, but symbolic nonetheless.

And we come to our last word: Price. And our theme for today: What price peace? For the magistrate in this book, the answer is ‘any’. His refusal to fight costs him everything. Everything but his principles, anyway. And true to his word, he pays it if not willingly, then with a stoic sense of necessity. In the ensuing battle with this faceless state, he is crushed. Tortured, shamed, displaced. And his peace is replaced by a fear of imminent war.
But when the forces leave, the Magistrate and the people remain. And they endure. And by the end of the book, war has not yet arrived. They are still waiting for the barbarians. Waiting...

Might peace be defined as the absence of war just as some medical professionals define health as the absence of ill-health? Perhaps semantically not, in that the word war is so much more specific that the term ill-health. But is avoiding war a triumph for pacifism, in and of itself? I think the answer to that might possibly be yes. Peace often necessitates the courage to wait and to endure.

But waiting isn’t the same as not acting. Hauerwas again:
‘Commitment to nonviolence does not require withrdrawal from the world and the world’s violence. Rather, it requires [us] to be in the world with an enthusiasm that cannot be defeated, for she knows that the power of war is not easily broken...For what creates new opportunities is being a kind a people who have been freed from the assumption that war is our fate.’

Perhaps it takes the grim, vile, ugly realities of war to help us break this cycle of sacrifice and ritual. The casting off of red poppies. The filling of moats with bones and barbed wire. Let us all take the briefest of moments to be silent again, to extend our commemoration of those killed in wars and to think about all the times peace has been curtailed by war, and what it will take to hold onto it this time, or next time.

Perhaps the question 'what price peace?' is a trick one. After all, we can never make a transaction that gives x in return for peace. There is no end of peace. We can only live our lives each day in a way that feels right. For me that means a way that does no harm...or as little as is possible in this complex world. I like to think I would do anything for peace, but if I’m being totally honest, the price I have paid until today is virtually zero. I am a man of words but few actions. I put posters in my window and talked incessantly about the folly of invading Iraq and the War on Terror, yet I didn't even join the anti-Iraq marches – like the Magistrate I was too busy looking after my own personal peace to join with a hoard of others and demand peace. I fear I would rather close the door and read. Or at least that is what my behaviour says. I don't like this about myself. It is embarrassing to admit. It is one of the personal challenges I wish to overcome.

But there are other challenges we all face: peace and war being two big ones. And smaller ones: what words to use and which not to; how to tell our own stories so that others will listen and hear them; how to turn words into actions, breaking down those barriers between you and me, your skin and my bones and our individual electrical flashes. There are some challenges we should embrace: the importance of pushing yourself, learning, and being brave, accepting own limitations and failings but not letting them stop us doing good.

And if we do anything, it must be to build new cathedrals to those things that matter: love and peace and learning and friendship and belief and complication and words and actions and individual autonomy and collectivity. To build on what already exists. To create, to create, to create.

I hope this Sunday Assembly will be that. For all of us.

Individually, together.