Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Language teaching (for Hannah Nicklin)


I'm writing this not to convince anyone of anything, but only to give myself some space to think through what I'm feeling and to hear some words said that keep getting immediately crowded out at the moment and shouted down whenever they're uttered by others. (And because I can't concentrate on the work that I ought to be doing, until I get some of this ordered in my head.) For that reason -- and for adjacent reasons that I imagine I'll touch on in the post -- I'm turning off comments on this one. Anyone who knows me well enough to have my email address is welcome to write to me.


* * *

You taught me language, and my profit on't
Is, I know how to curse.
The Tempest, Act I sc 2


If you ask me point-blank whether I'm racist -- or homophobic, for that matter -- there'll be a tiny pause before I say "Of course not." This post is about that tiny pause, and the panic that lives there; and it's about feeling that same panic, in a long, drawn-out, almost soothing version, as I drifted off to sleep on Saturday night, with my window a little open and the sounds coming in of summer rain and, behind it, an almost constant stream of police and fire sirens.

I was born in 1973 and grew up in a little village in the suburbs of Bristol, in a safe little cul-de-sac shaped like a hockey stick. Not wealthy families by any means, but getting by, and proud of their gardens, and squabbling about parking spaces. There's a photo of me dressed up as a Womble (a poor effort, frankly, home-made and half-arsed) at a Silver Jubilee street party, and sometimes when I think of that street I picture it as that jubilee party, in constant low-level swing. Union flag bunting from lamppost to lamppost, and jelly and icecream for the kids.

I don't think I really understood that it wasn't like this for everybody until the spring of 1980 when the local news suddenly filled up with gritty, scary reportage about a riot that was taking place in an area of Bristol called St Paul's. It was a part of town that I'd never been to -- that I've still never been to, actually -- and so in a way, what was happening there felt weirdly close -- how can this be happening in Bristol? -- and in another way, it might as well have been on another planet. All I picked up from my parents was that this race riot was only to be expected: not because the people who lived in St Paul's were experiencing a degree of deprivation and despair that would inevitably erupt into violence in the early days of a brash new right-wing government, but because the people who lived in St Paul's were not like us. And by extension, even on a calm sunny day with the birdies singing, we would no more drive through St Paul's than go swimming with sharks.

I don't think I've ever heard either of my parents express a directly, explicitly racist thought. They just had certain assumptions, with which they in their turn had been brought up. The encapsulating anecdote, I suppose, would be the time -- I think this would have been about 1984 or so -- when my mother returned from shopping one day in a state of considerable dudgeon and fluster, having asked an assistant in John Lewis for material in a colour that she was accustomed to referring to as "n----r brown", and been told pretty emphatically that this was no longer an acceptable formulation. What upset her about the episode was not that she felt this was an instance of what would much later be described by the Daily Mail (which she read every day) and suchlike as "political correctness gone mad", but she was aghast at the imputation that her intention had been racist, when to her mind it was nothing of the sort. She simply hadn't thought about it that way. I suspect underneath it all she was mortified at having given offence. (She was my mum so I'm prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt; she was not an unkind person. She was complicated -- like all of us.)

At the time of the St Paul's riot I'm pretty sure -- coming up to seven years old -- I had seen exactly three black people in real life. Two were girls -- sisters, maybe twins, I can't remember -- at my primary school, who were sort of cherished by us all in much the same way that my mother, as a child, had specifically asked for and cherished a black doll, and kept it carefully as an adult, tissue-papered and shoeboxed in her wardrobe; it was rare, she told me, which meant it was valuable. The other was a stranger. I would have been six, I guess. As I waited in the car for my mother to come back from the post office, I sat merrily playing my descant recorder; an elderly black man approached the car, peered in through the windscreen, beamed at me, and conducted my playing. I was terrified. When my mother came back, I told her what had happened, and cried. She comforted me, as shocked as if I had been mugged in the street. I can hear myself saying it now: "A black man looked at me." And sobbing.

In this context it will perhaps sound absurd to suggest that my upbringing was anything other than racist -- and that's part of that flicker of doubt in the tiny pause before I tell you that I'm not -- but I was at secondary school, I think, before I ever heard anyone give voice to a sentiment that black people, or non-white people, were inferior or inherently flawed. As a child, two of my favourite tv presenters were black -- Derek Griffiths and Carmen Monroe -- and there was never any anxiety about that at home. Because they were in my home, I suppose. They were in our home, and on tv, which I suppose meant we knew that a nice white person somewhere had vetted them and decided they were polite enough to get into our home. In a sense, in almost every sense, this is plainly, thoroughly, irrecuperably racist. But it was part of a continuum on which were placed not only non-white people, but also effeminate men, French people, working-class northerners, people who swore, people with a lot of money, punks, evangelical Christians, topless women on beaches, people suspected of voting Labour, people with tattoos, people with bad table manners... The environment in which I grew up -- and in which many people grow up even now, of course -- was not so much racist, or not so much only racist, as characterised by an intense, fixated discomfort around otherness, in its 57 varieties. I wasn't brought up as a racist, exactly. I was brought up to be afraid. I was raised breathing fear.

Of course by the time I was eight or nine I knew I had otherness in me, and as a consequence I was afraid of myself. I was ten when I gathered some friends around me in the playground and announced I was gay (and was astounded and frustrated by their lack of interest in the topic!) and although I didn't really realize the full implications of what that meant until I was slightly older, I certainly knew enough to know that this had to be secret at home. I had to continue to pass as a perfect fit for the cul-de-sac. I'll spare you the gory and yet cliche-obvious details, but: cue twenty-odd years of fear, weirdness, furtiveness, sadness, panic attacks, a suicide attempt, therapy, depression, eating disorder, more therapy, and only in my 30s something approaching happiness and almost-comfortableness in my own skin. Je suis un autre and pass the salt please. Still, I learned to be homophobic before I knew I was gay, and that's still flickering away in the tiny pause; and if you think my insistence on describing myself -- for most intents and purposes -- as "queer" rather than "gay" isn't partly a trace of unresolved internalised homophobia, then you're madder than I am.

The fortunate thing for me was that my professional interests more or less compelled me (as I saw it) to relocate to London after graduating. Fortunate because I think London saved my life -- by which I mean, I suppose, my life as I now live it. It has been possible to live here the kind of life that I want and need to live, and I don't know how many places there are of which that could be said. I love and relish the teeming otherness of London, even though I'm still a-buzz all day every day with the reflexes of my upbringing, even though I'm often (but in no more than a second or two) talking myself rationally down off a ledge of panic because there's a gang of kids in hoodies outside the newsagents or two bad trannies at the next table in the caff. My dad loves it too, funnily enough, when he comes to visit. I guess he's mellowed. Given the slightest prompt, he'll wax pretty lyrical about the 'melting pot' as we trundle around on the bus. Damn right, I think. Atta dad.

But for all the reflex twinges of an early life I'm still trying to shed, and I guess the occasional slightly heart-racing moment that you'd get in any urban environment after dark, I've only ever been genuinely scared by London three times.

Once, of course, was on 7/7, trying to get across London to meet colleagues, quite early in the morning, just as the disruption and rumour were starting to spread. The strangeness of the city that day was what scared me. Like seeing a familiar face with a sudden disfiguring mark or shadow. Phone networks coming in and out of service as we, thirty strangers, sat in unmoving traffic by Marble Arch, on the top deck of a bus, and I couldn't get through to anyone, and someone else sitting close by received a text that said Canary Wharf had been bombed. (Which -- for those who don't know the story -- it hadn't.) And then walking home from Paddington back to Stoke Newington. The streets full of people trudging on foot through neighbourhoods they'd only ever travelled beneath before. Getting back home and suddenly crying with fear and tiredness and no longer needing to keep a brave face in place. So sad that anyone would assault London, the great melting pot, the great city of people rubbing along together. So amazed that anyone wouldn't love the idea of people rubbing along together.

Another time I was scared was last night. We were coming back from the book launch in Brighton, due to arrive into London Bridge about quarter past midnight, and it was only once we were on the train that it dawned on me I might not be able to get my usual bus home from the station, because texts and tweets were coming through that things were kicking off again on Kingsland Road. And it was fine of course -- because we got in a cab -- because cash is still coming out of the ATM -- but for a few minutes I was shaken. Between where I was, in that moment, and my home, the city was burning. And of course I'm one of the incredibly lucky ones, I live in one of the safest, calmest neighbourhoods in north London; for plenty of people a mile or two either side, in Dalston and Hackney and Tottenham, what's happening now is happening on their doorsteps, not picturesquely in the distance or live on the BBC news channel (where I spent a few uncomfortable minutes watching a standoff unfold on Mare Street). If I were them, I'd be sick of people like me pontificating on this topic; I'm pretty sick of it anyway. In fact in a way the scariest thing about my experience of last night wasn't the disruption to my travel arrangements and the fear of what might be happening; it was getting home and skimming back through 500-odd tweets, and seeing so many people whose political instincts and personal capacities I'd trusted suddenly using language and expressing ideas that felt to me more abhorrent and estranging than anything that's happened so far on the streets.

And then the third time I can think of that scared me was not long after I moved to London, and after a brief, abortive spell in a houseful of Australian dentists in NW6, I relocated to a gay flatshare in King's Cross. (If there's one thing that's unlikely to soothe your internalised homophobia, let me tell you, it's a gay flatshare in King's Cross.) It was a tense neighbourhood, and there was weirdness afoot in the flat, and so I was in a constant state of slightly pressurized vigilance. Until one day, a few weeks in, I suddenly thought, I'm not going to live in this freaked-out state any more. I bet this area is basically fine, I thought, I'm going to go for a stroll and check it out and say hello to some people I don't know and it'll start to feel more like home. And it all worked out pretty well until, as I started to walk back towards the flat, I came to a junction, a car pulled up at traffic lights, and then another car alongside it. And two men got out of the second car, went over to the first, kicked the door in, dragged the driver out into the road and beat him with a wooden plank. I watched all of this, stupidly paralysed, but I don't know how it ended, because I guess I finally produced enough adrenalin that it became possible to walk away.

I've thought about that incident a lot in the past couple of days. I see me staring like a frightened bunny; I see the two men with the plank of wood; I see the guy in the car. There must have been other witnesses, though I don't see them in the picture. I think of how scared I was, and then I think about how much more scared the victim must have been. And then I think: who, in that picture, is the most frightened? It's the guys with the plank of wood. Right? It's them. Maybe they're not experiencing in that moment the sensation of heart-pumping terror that the driver experiences; maybe they won't have the flashbacks that he'll have, assuming he survived. But those two people are living in a state, in a day-to-day condition whose fearfulness is so unremitting, so degrading, that it's taken them to a place where they feel like the best course of action available to them, on that February afternoon, is to drag another guy out of his car and beat him with a plank of wood.

I suppose there are some workings I need to show. I need to say that I don't believe in "evil", at least as a kind of supernatural force, and I don't believe in innate wickedness. I think this, because it seems to me to be the only way of working from a basic premise of equality between human beings (and if we don't believe that then I have no idea where else to begin and where else to draw the line): that people are born into and live their lives in different contexts and conditions, but that everyone is doing the best they can with the information and resources and opportunities available to them. That no one acts deliberately against their own interests, and that all actions are produced out of specific circumstances. Whether you spend your fortieth birthday taking your kids to a petting zoo or running amok on a killing spree (or, I suppose, exactly half way between the two, flipping burgers at Burger King), you do this because a hard-to-decipher complex of past actions and present circumstances has led you to believe this is the best available option today: even when those behaviours may be superficially self-defeating or self-harming. People do what works. Those with few resources, few opportunities and scant information at their disposal may act in ways that are inexplicable and devastating to others -- not only to others who have more of those things, but to others who may have as little or even less but who for whatever reason find they're in a position to not act so harmfully.

This should make me more tolerant, of course -- of everybody, in general, but I'm thinking especially about people I'm feeling angry with today because their response to the present situation in London has been so much less than I think it could have been. Those people are doing, and saying, what works for them, just as I am. But what I can at least do is say some stuff about what I disagree with, and why, and what I'd like to propose instead, and this, in its incredibly small way, changes the context in which some of us put the next foot forward (or choose not to).

The language of intense, desperate otherness has been, for me, the most difficult aspect of this series of disturbances (and let me say, it's now a little after 2pm and I'm hearing sirens again, so this is not a reflection on past events, but an attempt to make some calmer space in the midst of chaos). I know one shouldn't turn to Twitter for nuanced debate -- or tv, for that matter, or pretty much anywhere -- but I'm so sad and ashamed to hear rioters described as "scum", for example, or as "vermin": both words that friends have used, shockingly, in the past few hours. Emotions are high, of course, but if it's in these moments that you see what people are actually carrying around with them, then this has already been a jarring revelation. Our compulsion to distance ourselves from acts with which we do not wish to be associated (no matter how complicit we may be in their occasioning, and no matter how aware we are, at a deep and perhaps profoundly suppressed level, of that complicity) makes us want to insert this spurious discontinuity into our rhetoric, but it makes meaningful further engagement impossible if we say that the people who've been rioting and looting the past few days are anything other than people. They're just people; and I suspect, scary though these times are for all of us, those "scumbag" perpetrators are the most frightened people on the block. This, partly, is what makes us reach for the animal metaphors: the media's absurd condemn/condone binary -- which a large number of people seem to have absorbed as if it were a natural order -- is as useless for thinking about frightened people as it would be for thinking about frightened animals; and moreover, of course, we want our fear to be distinct from their fear, we want our fear to be more elevated than theirs, so we want to reclassify them as less human than us.

The frequent reference to rioters as "animals", though, is at least suggestive. Think of Martin Luther King's famous 1968 speech 'The Other America':

I’m still convinced that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and justice. I feel that violence will only create more social problems than they will solve. That in a real sense it is impractical for the Negro to even think of mounting a violent revolution in the United States. So I will continue to condemn riots, and continue to say to my brothers and sisters that this is not the way. And continue to affirm that there is another way.

But at the same time, it is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots. I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. [my emphasis]

What I take King to be saying here -- not that this is an original thought, plenty of other commentators have said the same -- is not simply that if people feel they are not being heard, they will have recourse to rioting and spectacular violence. (I'm reluctant to just say 'violence' because violence exists in this picture at so many levels, and the ways in which it's so embedded and familiar as to have become practically invisible need continually to show up in the accounts, if our civic concern is to mean anything at all.)

No, more than that I think he means to suggest is that rioters are unheard even in the midst of rioting. What is expressed in spontaneous riots (to the degree that these third- and fourth-day disturbances count as spontaneous) is so inarticulate in itself that we cannot really hear anything other than the chaos and mayhem and the boiling of our own angry fear and defensiveness. And so in this sense, rioters quite precisely assume the status of animals. We cannot understand what it is that they are trying to tell us. ("What is it, Lassie?") We know that they are in a state of excitation, but we do not truly comprehend what it is they are saying. When I went out this morning to get a few groceries, a young woman was standing in the street shouting at her very young child, who had started to whimper as he waited to be let into their car. "I don't know why you're crying!" she yelled. "What's wrong with you?" She was absolutely livid. It could hardly have felt more horribly apropos.

Of course it may be -- in many cases I'm sure it is -- that those who are out on the streets chucking missiles and setting fires don't know what's "wrong with them", either. They were just going along in one way, not rioting, and then something happened, and then they were rioting. This is not to say that there is no cause: but if a single cause could be expressed in words, say, and if those same people felt that words were among the resources they had at their disposal, then perhaps they'd be making speeches and printing leaflets. But in the midst of material deprivation many also live in a state of linguistic poverty. Words fail them.

My wonderful friend Karl James has recently posted a remarkable podcast on his blog, an interview with a guy called Anjelo, discussing experiences of pain. As Karl notes -- and as others have observed, most brilliantly perhaps Elaine Scarry in her extraordinary The Body In Pain, one of maybe a dozen books that have absolutely changed the way I look at the world -- part of the difficulty with pain is that it's desperately hard to communicate. The experience of "indescribable pain" is compounded by the loneliness of exactly that, its being so hard to describe in such a way that others will comprehend your pain. Karl talks about the importance and the generosity of making the effort to describe your experience carefully. I particularly like what Karl says in his introduction to the podcast:

I often talk with people about putting energy and effort and commitment into the way you describe something, because in that way we can share experiences, we can help others to get a feel and an idea of what it was to be somewhere that [they] weren't.

I'm not sure that Karl will be totally comfortable with me quoting this passage in this context and as part of this argument, but I know he'll respect the nature of the thought-process. Because what strikes me is this: the energy of these riots could hardly seem further removed from the commitment to carefulness and generosity that he's describing. But I wonder if, in a sense, this is not what we're seeing: an outburst of energy -- albeit uncontrolled, unfocused, convulsive -- that's simply giving us a rare and horrifyingly accurate description of pain that cannot be described any other way.

There's a great video doing the rounds of an angry woman remonstrating with rioters in Hackney: "If we're fighting for a cause, let's fight for a fucking cause!" -- but there is no cause that she can see and no cause that the rioters can articulate for themselves: and on the same grounds elsewhere we see those who have been involved in legitimate organized street protest distancing themselves from the actions of these violent mixed-up kids.

Except that there is a cause, isn't there? -- it's the cause of not wanting to live like this any more: and some of us are privileged enough (though these are surely rights rather than privileges) that we've been given enough information and sufficient resources to have been able to conduct our own independent inquiries into the way the world turns, and as a result we're in a position to be able to name that cause as capitalism. And though I know I have to keep rejecting the condone/condemn arcade game that we're all incessantly offered, I do at some level see that, at the apex of their translatability into human language, these riots are an extraordinarily emphatic 'no'. And this post is also a 'no', and almost all of the work I do is trying, one way or another, to voice that same 'no'. And what I hear from those friends and colleagues who are so appalled and affronted that their getting-by has been disrupted by these incidents is something other than 'No' to capitalism. It is 'yes, but...'. The 'yes, but...' of mitigated capitalism, in which there is just enough social justice and economic parity for them to continue to be comfortable but feel less guilty about it and less weary living within it: the weariness that comes from knowing that we all (but some of us ever so much more than others) make capitalism, every day, by participating in it; for every inch by which we mitigate it through our charitable efforts and online petitions and community spirit, we take a mile of its unequally distributed benefits. And it is the knowledge that we currently depend so irrecuperably on our own participation in capitalism that makes us fearful and angry at moments like this. I heard plenty of people describing the rioters as "stupid" yesterday, as if, again, stupidity were innate in people. But stupidity, like its opposites, is a property of relationships, and we participate in its construction. If they are stupid it's because they are stupefied: most of the year round, that's how it suits us. And so we hold up as an index of their "stupidity" the fact that some of the early targets were shoe shops and sports shops from which trainers could be looted: as if this in itself shows up the vacuity at the heart of the trouble. But we know, surely, that we taught them this language. We taught them its syntax and its symbology and now it is spat back at us in a weird vituperative parody of itself. The scramble for cool trainers is an ugly, pitiful power grab -- but it was ugly last week when they were queueing to pay, just as much as it is now that they're helping themselves.

Fear underscores all our lives under capitalism. For those who have, the fear of what we have to lose; for those who don't, the fear that we will always be subjugated by those who do. And by "have", I don't simply refer to material standards of living, but to capital more generally, to power. Those who are most afraid today are those with the most power, because they have the most to lose. The rioters have grabbed some temporary power and I bet they're truly disoriented by it. David Cameron and his rioting nemeses are, maybe just for today, truly and genuinely all in this together, frightened rabbits, and between themselves and their home (which in Cameron's case, of course, he's just flown back to from holiday), the city is burning.

But those of us caught in the middle need -- in the words of that woman on the video -- to "get real" too. I'm genuinely disturbed by all the variants I've heard in the past couple of days on that famous, almost uniquely deplorable phrase that John Major balefully uttered in February 1993 in the wake of the murder of James Bulger: "Society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less." (Any thoughts that we should at least be grateful for the acknowledgement, pace his predecessor, that there is such a thing as society, might be tempered by Cameron's hopeless "Big Society": it's a straight line graph, going up, sure, but the y-axis is labelled entirely with zeros.) Stop excusing this behaviour, came the message from left right and centre yesterday, just condemn it.

Of course we have enough to lose ourselves that it's little wonder we'd rather not pursue the line of "understanding" any further. But this just seems to bring me back to something I've said here (and elsewhere) several times in the past few weeks. It's not that we don't understand what the riots are "telling" us. (These riots need analysis, not interpretation, but on we go.) It's not that we don't know. We've known it all along, but most of us don't live in a place -- physically or psychically -- where we're actually compelled to confront what we know; nor do we have a safe place in which to voluntarily acknowledge what we know, in an effort of carefulness and generosity. -- I very much don't want this to turn into a theatre-related post, let alone a 'theatre to the rescue' post. I've felt absolutely impotent as an artist in the past few days because the kind of space that I need to start from is not the kind of space that feels as though it has any cultural validity at the moment: we just need to be preparing these spaces, one way and another, for when the present crisis passes (assuming it does; if it does, it clearly won't for long), and the exhausted combatants on all sides are ready to make acknowledgements and reparations of their own.

I don't know, or can't say, whether these riots are, finally, justified or defensible. If I say I think they are, I'm projecting. Certainly I don't think they're inexplicable, or wanton; and above all, I think they're information, and they need treating as such. We need to step outside the meagre reactionary game-playing of condone/condemn and face both an unpalatable truth and a task. The truth is, we're seeing clear signals absolutely everywhere, not just in London and throughout the UK -- where, let's remember, these disturbances are still relatively minor stuff compared with the aggression we've unleashed on other countries and the unrest that has been precipitated in our names -- that our addiction to the behaviours and relationships that capitalism engenders and fixes has now come to a point where it's hurting us badly and unsustainably; and I think we know this. I don't think anyone doesn't, at some level, beneath however-many layers of fear and defensiveness. And so our task is to acknowledge that we know it and proceed from there.

I've dealt with an addiction or two myself and what we know -- again, I'm sure everybody basically knows this -- is that you won't necessarily kick it just because you know you should, and you won't necessarily stop it just because other people tell you that you must. You have to get to the point where you wake up one morning and say: "I cannot live like this any more. I cannot do this one more day."

You may disagree with my sense that that's what we're being told by these gangs of young people, in this violent, desperate, outraged language they picked up from overhearing the secrets we were muttering behind our hands. But actually, it's not them that I'm talking about.

We won't get the change we need until the people who live in safe neighbourhoods like mine, and in the hockey-shaped cul-de-sacs up and down the country where well-meaning people incubate their fear of others who aren't exactly like them, wake up one morning and say: I know what I know, and I'm so tired, and I need someone to understand the pain I'm in, and I cannot live like this any more. I cannot do this one more day.

As artists, we can hasten that day; as people with language skills, we can hasten that day; as people who are [tick] Other, we can hasten that day, and make it a day of celebration rather than mourning. And there will be rioting and looting and that too, I hope, will hasten that day, even though it may initially seem counterproductive -- unfortunately, we won't get to that point on tea and biscuits alone. There will be rioting, there is rioting, and, because of the information and resources and opportunities that I've got in my life, I hate the fear that that rioting gives rise to, as much as I hate the fear from which it arises; and thankfully I have other tools than fire and missiles with which to add my own voice to the big and necessary "no". But I will not condone, I will unreservedly condemn, any effort to dehumanize the people who are fighting on the streets, or to say that they are lesser people for it. What they're doing is sad, and ugly, and terrible, and it's exactly what we ask for by dint of our reluctance to acknowledge what we know, and to act accordingly.

As the saying goes, we can all be better teachers.