Public art that the public unmakes: the work of Juliana Capes

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A piece I wrote for artist Juliana Capes, ahead of her participation in Deptford X. For more information on Juliana’s work, visit her website.

It’s 23 June, 2016, and Juliana Capes is making what will later become one of my favourite pieces of art. My three-year-old daughter is making it too, and Juliana’s children, and some friends of ours, and some complete strangers, including a guy who we’re pretty sure is planning to steal it afterwards.

This is Annul, an outdoor installation created for the Leith Late festival in Scotland. Over the course of a whole day, a group of people – Juliana, some pre-arranged volunteers, and any passers-by who feel like joining in – hammer £250 worth of pennies into the cracks in a pavement on Leith Walk, one of Edinburgh’s busiest streets. Gradually a large circular bronze mosaic emerges like a flower clock. The theme of the piece is luck. Cracks in the pavement are thought to be unlucky (because they tend to make you fall) but coins found on the pavement are thought to be lucky. Could one of these things cancel out – annul – the other? As Juliana says, “Is luck a currency? Can we earn it? Can we choose to spend it wisely? What about if we have none at all?”

This last part has an obvious resonance in Leith, a place where luck is in short supply for many families. At first Juliana worries that it will seem decadent, hammering £250 (the whole of her festival fee) into the pavement in a place like this. She wonders whether it would feel different if she’d just spent £250 on art materials and left them on the pavement. I appreciate her concern but tell her she is not exactly the KLF burning a million quid.

Annul gets a lot of attention though. Throughout the day lots of people stop to ask what it’s all about, curious, occasionally wary, and then – as Juliana talks them through the idea – engaged and supportive. A lot of them stop to help. Children love it, delighted to have an excuse to crawl around on a pavement; some invent their own version of hopscotch across the coins. And then there’s one guy, in particular, who loiters nearby for hours, intrigued, asking questions, before eventually joining in. It becomes apparent that he is casing the joint. As soon as we are finished he is planning to take all the money.

Juliana is fine with this. Like Andy Goldsworthy’s fragile, intricate stick sculptures, soon swept away by wind, rain or tide, Annul is mostly about the process (and, in this case, the involvement of so many people in its creation). “My installations are rarely permanent,” she tells me later. “I do care about beauty, I can’t help it and I’m attracted to objects and to making. But it’s liberating to let go.”

What will remain after Annul is not the installation itself but documentation (photographs, and a time lapse film discreetly shot from a window above). Juliana never expected £250 of coins to be left alone in a public, unguarded place for long. Besides, the guy looks like he could use the money. And he did help to create Annul, so arguably he has as much right to it as the rest of us. In a sense, he will not be committing theft at all, simply staking a claim on a piece of art that was partly created by him.

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I like Annul very much. In purely visual terms, it reminds me of lots of things I love, from Gaudi’s tile work in Parc Guell in Barcelona to seaside town amusement arcade coin machines. Sometimes I think it looks like a piece of religious art, a cross between a stained glass window and a stone circle; this may be partly because creating it feels like a ritualistic act. Conceptually, it reminds me of The Obliteration Room, an interactive artwork for children designed in 2002 by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, and restaged numerous times due to its popularity. A room in a gallery is painted completely white, and young visitors are encouraged to add brightly coloured stickers, wherever they like. As hours, days and weeks pass, there is a slow motion explosion of red, yellow, blue, green pink, all over the floor, walls and furniture. Like The Obliteration Room, Annul mostly entrusts the act of creation to its audience, the artist merely providing a guiding hand. And it is more rewarding the more you invest in it.

Both Annul and The Obliteration Room feel very much of their time. Thanks to the internet and mobile phones, we are living in a golden age of crowd-sourced creativity, from art projects like The Exquisite Forest, The One Million Masterpiece and Unnumbered Sparks, to the film Life in a Day and the National Theatre of Scotland’s Five Minute Theatre. In taking place out in the real world, Annul is perhaps closer in spirit to earlier works like Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree, or Yoshihara Jiro’s Please Draw Freely, but like all these projects it challenges the idea of the artist as revered genius, separate from their audience. Instead it offers collaboration, community, connection, equality – and what better way to do all that than to encourage everyone, the artist included, to sit on the ground together building a circle?

Unlike The Obliteration Room, Annul isn’t aimed at children, but the whole experience definitely appeals to my inner child. This is equally true of Juliana‘s other work. In Exodus, dozens of brightly coloured umbrellas ascend in formation, through a window and into the street, like a flock of migrating birds. It is as magical as Mary Poppins soaring into the air. She does something similar with Loveletters, in which that familiar symbol of childhood creativity, the paper aeroplane, is also transformed into a flock of colourful birds. She has, significantly I think, made four installations – Aquifier, Meltwater, Narcissus, and her most recent project, Breakers – from that most coveted of childhood objects, the balloon.

It’s become a cliché to say that artists strive for years to create the kind of work children make without thinking. Blame that famous Picasso quote (“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”) Juliana, it seems to me, has made the transition Picasso describes more seamlessly than most. Not that her work is child-like in any reductive sense – it has a subtlety and sophistication that only a deep-thinking adult could achieve – but something about its simple sense of wonder and transformation, its ability to make everyday objects extraordinary, reminds me of the best children’s art, theatre and cinema.

Exodus makes me think of the closing scene of the film The Red Balloon, as if those umbrellas could sweep you up into the air with them. Juliana’s earlier street-based artwork, Pavement Astronomer (in which bits of chewing gum left on the street are joined up by lines of chalk to make constellations) reminds me of the children’s book Beautiful Oops, in which little accidents – a torn piece of paper, spilled paint – are transformed into penguins, elephants, fish and other creatures. Beautiful Oops is as popular with adults as it is with children, and no wonder – it is, on a deeper level, a book about finding beauty and hope in the face of disaster and disappointment. Pavement Astronomer is too, I think. It is, more or less literally, about lying in the gutter and looking at the stars.

I miss the end of Annul because I have to put my kids to bed. The installation is completed around 9pm, I hear. Those still there at that point have a drink, look at their creation for a little while, and then head home or to the Leith Late party. Immediately afterwards a small group of people, who have been waiting for this opportunity for several hours, sweep in with plastic bags, and within minutes Annul is annihilated. Half of them, Juliana is pleased to observe, are children. In a way they are completing the work – “a piece of public art that the public unmakes” as she describes it.

Breakers

Something similar later happens to Breakers, an installation on the seafront at Portobello in Edinburgh, close to where Juliana lives with her husband and two children. Created in August 2016 for Art Walk Porty, Breakers consists of 70 water filled balloons hanging in a bandstand by the ocean, in a formation that mimics a breaking wave. It survives a little longer than Annul – a whole day – but balloons left on a promenade overnight are, as you’d expect, as vulnerable as coins on a pavement. In this case it is a group of teenagers who destroy it – bursting all the balloons and getting soaked in the process, unaware that the moment is being captured in another time lapse film.

Juliana is delighted. “I never thought I’d feel so elated about something I made being destroyed,” she tells me afterwards. She wonders whether teenage vandalism is what happens to the playfulness of children before teenage nihilism suffocates it. Indeed, is it part of that childhood creativity Picasso talks about?

It also seems like a symbolically fitting climax to Breakers, a word that can mean either a heavy sea wave or a person who breaks something (as well as a period of emotional vulnerability). As Juliana puts it: “The world is constantly unmaking itself. Things fall apart. Waves break. Everything breaks. Why should art be the thing that has to last? Making art is a process of making yourself vulnerable in public. If you are lucky then people engage with your work. In this case the public became the breakers.”

A footnote: the morning after Annul, I take a bus up Leith Walk. Passing the street corner where my children and I spent a couple of hours the previous day, there is no sign that any of it ever happened. And yet, looking at it with fresh eyes, an ordinary pavement suddenly looks like a magical place. And I think to myself, Annul has done its job.

Juliana Capes will be making a version of Annul in London on 23 September as part of Deptford X Festival Fringe, 23 September to 3 October. Footage of Breakers (as staged in Portobello) and Annul (as staged in Leith) will also feature in the festival.

 

 

Mental health and the Edinburgh Fringe

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“I used to worry that I had gone mad, but really I have no time for that,” exclaims Anna in the opening moments of Stef Smith’s 2015 play Swallow. It got a big laugh from the audience the night I was there. This, after all, is a woman who hasn’t left her flat in two years and is now smashing all her mirrors with a hammer.

This scene stayed with me throughout last year’s Edinburgh Fringe – a festival in which mental illness was not only a big talking point but an unlikely hot ticket. Bryony Kimmings and Tim Grayburn’s Fake It ‘Til You Make It, about caring for a partner with depression, sold out its entire Traverse run in less than a week and added an extra show in the main space at Assembly Hall. Then there was Felicity Ward, who somehow conjured a comedy hit – the third best reviewed comedy show on that year’s Fringe – from talking about irritable bowel syndrome and anxiety.

Swallow stuck in my mind, though, because of the way it presented an almost stereotypical image of mental illness – isolated, delusional, “mad” – then undercut it by showing you how the everyday turmoil of its other two characters was also a form of mental illness. Rebecca, a wife abandoned by her husband, self-medicates with alcohol before resorting to a brutal and yet somehow relatable act of self-harm. Sam is a trans man who hides the truth about himself – that he was born a woman – behind a fake performance of amiable boyish charm, until all his suppressed rage explodes at the worst possible moment, jeopardising his safety. I may not know what it’s like to be transgender, but as a man whose depression is very much rooted in suppressed emotions, and anger in particular, I related to that scene.

In the end, what helps all three characters in Swallow is connection. The same is true in Fake It ‘Til You Make It, in which a man hides his depression from everyone for years until his girlfriend stumbles across his pills. The man is convinced the woman will leave him -instead Bryony and Tim talked about it, then got engaged, made a baby, and spent most of Kimmings’ pregnancy performing a show together that was so honest, direct, funny, and humble about what they were going through that it prompted laughter and tears in equal measure.

In fact, the big theme of last year’s Fringe was not so much mental illness as honesty about mental illness. Kimmings said the spur for making Fake It ‘Til You Make It was the death of Robin Williams. Le Gateau Chocolat was prompted to make his similarly themed show, Black, by the death, a few months earlier, of the theatre-maker Adrian Howells, his mentor and friend. Men, in particular, still seem trapped in a crisis of silence – often unable to seek the help that they badly need because they can’t bring themselves to admit what’s happening to them. (Not to suggest that this is what happened to Williams or Howells in particular – their situations were specific and complicated – but both deaths were so shocking that they certainly prompted a lot of soul-searching, especially amongst men).

Artists are good at forcing into the open an issue that society in general would prefer not to talk about – or, as Kimmings puts it, “airing dirty laundry to oil conversations on seemingly difficult subjects”. It is one of the reasons why the Mental Health Foundation, the charity I work for, has been running an annual arts programme, the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, for ten years now. Theatre, comedy, music and other art forms have the ability to cut through stigma and taboos to offer another way to look at the world – while, crucially, making this seem like a fun thing to do.

There is a slight risk in focusing on artists; if you’re not careful, people will conclude mental illness is just something that happens to those wacky creative types. In the run-up to a radio interview at last year’s Fringe, I was asked what I thought of a recent study that suggested comedians have personality types linked with psychosis. My response was to politely sidestep the issue. The idea that there is a link between creativity and mental illness is a persistent one, but if it is more visible in the arts, I suspect the reason is just that it’s a more accepting environment than “mainstream” society. You probably won’t end your career as a comedian, actor or painter by admitting you have a mental illness, but you might if you’re a bus driver, teacher or office manager.

This, for me, is why Fake It ‘Til You Make It stood out from a crowd of Fringe shows on the subject last year. It wasn’t Bryony, the wacky performance artist, who had depression; it was Tim, the advertising account manager who had never performed in front of an audience before. Tim is a classic example of a regular guy who was hiding his mental illness because of stigma – and it took an artist to make him stop. What persuaded him to do the show, he said, was the hope that his honesty might persuade other people like him to admit they have a problem too. Judging by the success of Fake It ‘Til You Make It – which is back on tour this autumn – it seems to have worked.

Communication will only get you so far, obviously. It will not free you from poverty, for a start, as the British government’s austerity policies continue to have a serious impact on the nation’s mental health. So this year the Mental Health Foundation also programmed a new festival, Declaration, exploring the wider issue of health and human rights, which is set to return next year.

In the meantime, we’re back in the thick of the Edinburgh Fringe. Shows about mental health generated a huge amount of media coverage at last year’s festival, and when the Mental Health Foundation brought together some of the most high profile performers – Bryony and Tim, Felicity Ward, Le Gateau Chocolat, and Carl Donnelly, alongside Paul Merton and his Impro Chums – for A Gala for Mental Health, it felt like a significant moment. Bryony told me that there was a real sense of camaraderie in the dressing room – here was a group of people who had all gone through similar difficult experiences and now felt able to talk about it publicly, bonding together. I was very pleased to hear that.

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We’re doing A Gala for Mental Health again this year, at the Pleasance on 17 August, with proceeds going to the Mental Health Foundation. Please come along. This year it’s an all comedy line-up – which is partly just a reflection of what seems to be on offer at the Fringe in 2016. I haven’t noticed obvious theatre/cabaret equivalents this year of Fake It Til You Make It, or Black, but there seem to be a lot more comedians talking about mental health. This may be partly the influence of comedians like Felicity Ward, who have managed to bring the most uncomfortable subjects into mainstream entertainment. It may also be something to do with Robin Williams, whose death cast a huge shadow over the 2014 Fringe and will continue to be in a lot of people’s thoughts each August; there’s another benefit show the week before ours with lots of comedians paying tribute to Williams.

Our line-up this year consists of our returning host Felicity Ward (who is doing another mental health themed show this year); Susan Calman, who has just published a book about living with depression; Chris Gethard, who made headlines internationally in 2012 after writing a long and heartfelt letter to a fan who was contemplating suicide; Richard Gadd, whose new show promises ‘a fresh insight into mental illness in the modern age, perceived ‘masculinity’ and how something presented on the outside is not necessarily the truth on the inside’; and Martha McBrier, who, like Bryony, is spending her Fringe show this year telling a story from the perspective of a carer, describing the time she took a group of mental health patients to compete in a pool tournament.

I’m looking forward to seeing all of these shows – and Felicity’s, in particular (I’m off to see it tonight in fact). I still have one moment from her show last year lodged in my brain; when she describes having a panic attack so serious she had to be physically restrained by her boyfriend. Flailing around the stage, she somehow makes the moment hilarious, upsetting, moving, and both cartoonishly weird and deeply human and relatable, all at the same time. That takes a lot of skill and I salute her for it.

Comedy seems like a great way to talk about mental health. Someone like Felicity can put an audience at ease straight away, cutting through a lot of the nervousness people feel around the subject. It’s been fascinating, this past year, watching warm, likeable comedians like Felicity and Carl Donnelly using their own experience of mental illness as a subject for comedy. Neither, conspicuously, is using it as an opportunity to show off their darker, more serious side. They just think it’s funny. And in making audiences laugh with them, rather than at them, they normalise it. That’s progress.

(NB: this blog is an updated version of an article I wrote for Scotland on Sunday in August 2015. But they never got round to putting it online, so…)

Children, creativity and mental health – some ‘issue based’ thoughts.

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Issue based (adjective) – based on or concerned with specific problems or concerns rather than an overall ideology.

It’s early June, and I’m sitting in a circle of Imaginate Festival delegates, discussing how children’s theatre can address the huge subject of children’s mental health. The conversation is wide-ranging and positive, touching on acclaimed shows like Titus (about a boy standing on the roof of his school, while a crowd gathers below, everybody wondering what he’s going to do) and Mess (about a teenage girl living with anorexia – pictured above). However a phrase keeps coming up that bothers me – ‘issue-based theatre’.

It comes up because it’s useful shorthand – everyone sort of knows what it means. Sometimes children’s theatre-makers are hesitant about tackling mental health, it is suggested, and perhaps this is partly because they’ve been put off by ‘issue-based theatre’ that didn’t stand up to artistic scrutiny. (Too narrow, perhaps, too didactic, or more like an educational tool than a work of art.)

This reminds me of a column last year by Scotsman theatre critic Joyce McMillan, prompted in part by the programme launch for the 2015 Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival (SMHAFF). While complimentary about the festival’s ‘sheer power and quality’, Joyce added: ‘I still can’t help feeling a twinge of unease at the growing need for arts projects to label themselves in this utilitarian and easily-legible way.’ The best works of art, she suggested, ‘utterly defy any officially approved idea of usefulness’.

As an example, Joyce cited the Edinburgh International Festival’s superb 2015 stage production of Lanark, concluding: ‘It’s worth remembering that great art finally tends to speak to us not because we belong to some particular interest group, but because we are human, bound up in the big story of humanity that sings through a novel like Lanark. And it’s a lazy culture, and a lazy funding system, that ever loses sight of that truth, and begins to use obvious utility as a criterion for interest and support, instead of striving to recognise the deep and often unnameable undercurrents of creative energy that power the greatest work, whatever its theme.’

Joyce’s column bothered me too. I don’t like the idea that my job, arts lead for the Mental Health Foundation in Scotland, is symptomatic of a ‘lazy funding system’ (she didn’t exactly say this, but still). I understood what she was getting at, though, and what those children’s theatre-makers were getting at. Artists want to make art, right? If the work you make has a prescribed social purpose – an ‘obvious utility’ as Joyce put it – does it not feel less like art?

To cite SMHAFF in such a discussion complicates things, for various reasons. The first thing to say, since Joyce was making a point about arts funding, is that SMHAFF is largely funded by the health sector. So it is right and proper that the health impact of the festival is a key concern.

However, the festival does also receive some arts funding – my own work over the past year, for example, has been mostly funded by See Me, Scotland’s campaign against mental health discrimination, but also by Creative Scotland. So I’ll respond to Joyce’s argument from that perspective, beginning with her use of the phrase ‘particular interest group’. At the risk of point-scoring, I can’t help observing that the audience for quite a lot of arts events consists of a ‘particular interest group’ – white, university educated, middle class people – and that SMHAFF is a notable exception to this, frequently reaching a wider audience, the reason being that much of the festival is programmed by community groups and volunteers (our core programming team is directly responsible for only a small fraction of SMHAFF, the majority of it being organised by regional co-ordinators across Scotland).

I’m also tempted to counter that mental ill health is itself hardly the preserve of a particular interest group. At SMHAFF we tend to talk about mental health rather than mental illness; it has less stigmatising associations, but also – and I think this is crucial – it makes the point that what we are addressing is not only the severe, crippling illnesses that afflict a minority of us, but also a whole range of everyday experiences from brief periods of depression to grief. All these experiences are a fundamental part of what it means to be human. Who are these people that aren’t affected by mental ill-health at some point, or haven’t had to look after someone who is? I’m not sure I’ve ever met one. In short, SMHAFF is demonstrably not about catering to a particular interest group, it is about establishing the idea that mental health is something that concerns all of us.

This is important because it’s an idea that mainstream society, still, seems to have a problem accepting. Why? Because, I think, it would force us to confront the fact that so many aspects of our daily lives are damaging our mental health. Instead, we are encouraged to think that there are normal people who are fine – these being the people who are, on the whole, willing to accept society as they find it – and other people who are not fine because they’ve gone through some kind of relatively rare trauma. This is demonstrably untrue. To choose one topical example, the problem of male depression and suicide is to a significant extent a problem created by the narrow, limiting role that mainstream society expects men to play. In other words it is not just exceptional experiences that are making men ill, but everyday life. This is one of the reasons why, when we began programming a conference on the arts and mental health last year, we called it The Dust of Everyday Life.

It is interesting to me that when people talk about ‘issue-based’ art, it often involves a process of othering. Theatre about being transgender, or disabled, or black, or a woman, or in poverty, is considered to be ‘issue-based’ (or, to quote the definition above, ‘concerned with specific problems’ rather than just being about the universal experience of being human). Theatre about being a default man is not. But the fact is, all of us belong to a particular interest group of some kind – it’s just that not all of them tend to be identified as that, only the ones that aren’t routinely allowed a voice. This certainly applies to the way people talk about mental health.

To be clear, I am not accusing Joyce McMillan of doing this, at least not deliberately. Still, I am interested in how work comes to be thought of as catering to a ‘particular interest group’, and the assumptions behind such labels. Lanark, after all, is written from the particular perspective of a white, male, heterosexual artist who lacks sexual confidence. If there isn’t a funding stream or a festival for such people, perhaps it’s because their voices are not exactly underrepresented in culture.

How, then, does all this apply to work made for children that explores mental health? This complicates things further. It is, I think, reasonable to argue that while the best theatre for adults is ‘bound up in the big story of humanity’ as Joyce described it, the purpose of children’s theatre is different because children are not yet able fully to understand or appreciate that big story of humanity. So instead it is about preparing them for the adult world. In other words, it has a prescribed social purpose. It is educational, even if not explicitly. And if you decide that the children’s theatre you are making is going to address mental health, isn’t that, by definition, adding on another layer of prescribed social purpose?

My answer to that is… not necessarily. But I’ll come back to that in a minute.

The subject of children and mental health has preoccupied me for a while now, both as a parent (I have three children) and professionally. How could it not, given the level of media coverage the subject has received in recent months? In March the World Health Organisation reported a 54% increase in the number of children being prescribed anti-depressants in the UK between 2005 and 2012. Three children in every classroom have a diagnosed mental illness, according to YoungMinds. It is difficult to get an accurate picture of exactly what is going on, since many statistics are up to a decade old, but austerity, and the way our education system is run, is certainly having an impact, and schools are not coping. In May the UK government sacked its children’s mental health champion, Natasha Devon, after she said that its own policies were making the problem worse. It feels worryingly like a crisis, one that schools do not have the resources to address.

It is, then, something that SMHAFF – and the Mental Health Foundation’s year-round arts programme – clearly needs to be talking about. And so we are. This year’s Dust of Everyday Life opened with a session on children, creativity and mental health chaired by Imaginate’s creative development director Fiona Ferguson (which you can listen to on Soundcloud). The delegate discussion at this year’s Imaginate Festival was a continuation of that conversation, and we are currently planning further events in a similar spirit, this year and next. This week I will be talking about some of this work at the Royal College of Psychiatrists in London, as part of the 2016 Public Mental Health Network day.

The question posed by the Dust of Everyday Life session was this: ‘how do we talk to children about mental health and what can artists do to help?’ My feeling is that artists have a crucial role to play, precisely because their role is not to be an educator, or a psychologist, or a campaigner, but simply to do what they’re good at – making really good art that comes from a place of curiosity, questioning, and empathy.

Art for children is, of course, different from art for grown ups. Firstly, since it is mostly made by adults rather than children, it is not created by the people whose stories it is telling (we were all children once, obviously, but that doesn’t mean we can remember with any clarity what it feels like). Secondly, children don’t usually decide to experience it by themselves. Adults decide for them. This presents particular challenges for an organisation such as Imaginate, which is exceptionally good at finding and showcasing bold, brilliant, experimental, boundary pushing art that children love. Before it can reach any children, it has to win over the gatekeepers – teachers and parents. This can be difficult if the work is exploring subjects – sexuality, perhaps, or body image, or grief – that alarm the gatekeepers.

“When you see work from other countries you see how much our attitudes towards children are reflected in the work we make,” Fiona Ferguson of Imaginate told me last year when I wrote about the Imaginate Festival (and Eilidh Macaskill’s Gendersaurus Rex research project on children and gender) for the Scotsman. “In the UK we often want to protect children but they don’t often have a loud voice. There’s a contradiction there – a lot of decisions are made by adults about what children can handle.” But are those adults always best placed to make those decisions, or are they part of a system that is harming – or at least not helping – the mental health of children?

Sitting alongside me at the Imaginate discussion this month was Emma Jayne Park of Cultured Mongrel Dance Theatre. A dancer and choreographer, Emma Jayne is passionate about making work that explores mental health, and recently became SMHAFF’s first associate artist. This year she is bringing a family show to the festival called Experts in Short Trousers, in which children help a group of aliens to rebuild their crashed rocket ship. From one perspective, the show has a social purpose – it is about empowering children to learn how to make their own decisions. But it connects with its audience primarily because it is fun, and the children feel an emotional connection with the alien characters, just as Mess connects with teenagers not because they are learning about anorexia but because they love the character and relate to her. At Imaginate, Emma Jayne talked about how she is sometimes able to reach out to school-children because she is not a teacher, or an authority figure. Teenagers feel able to ask her personal questions about her own mental health issues, she feels able to answer them, and a connection is made. For the Experts in Short Trousers tour, she has been wearing a T shirt with the slogan ‘I am not an expert’.

I am certainly not an expert on this subject, but I am attempting to learn. One of the things that makes me think the arts have a crucial role to play is the current campaign by Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood and chair of the organisation Upstart Scotland, to overhaul the education system so that children don’t begin school until they are seven – introducing a new ‘kindergarten stage’ from the ages of three to seven. This is not as radical as it may sound; Scotland is currently one of only six countries in Europe that sends kids to school at the age of four or five. Three of Europe’s most academically successful countries, Finland, Poland and Estonia, all send children to school two years later than Scotland does.

Palmer’s argument is that allowing children space to play is crucial to early development – and yet we neglect this in our obsession with teaching literacy skills. ‘When children are out playing that’s when they are developing resilience in a way they are designed by nature to develop it,’ she told the National last month. ‘We need to realise the self-regulation skills and the emotional resilience can develop in these early years. It is something you cannot teach. Grown-ups have this feeling that children’s minds are like their minds. They are not.’

This chimes with my experience of theatre for young children – the best of which tends to be about encouraging playfulness, and creating a space for that to happen. It has always been striking to me that a lot of children’s theatre-makers in Scotland – people like Emma Jayne Park, Eilidh Macaskill, Xana Marwick, and Brian Hartley – emerged from live art or dance, finding in both worlds an opportunity to play with, and subvert, the rules of theatre. Children, after all, create their own version of theatre from when they are toddlers, inventing characters and situations in the most freeform way. Children, left to their own devices, are much more free and experimental as artists than most adults are, and as audience members they are also more receptive to experimental work – often far more so than parents or teachers might expect.

Palmer’s research adds weight to the argument that children’s mental health is suffering because there is something fundamentally unhealthy about the way we make them live their everyday lives – sending them to school too early, forcing them into a stressful regime of constant tests, and not allowing them enough time outdoors. It would be naive to suggest that art or artists can fix all this, but I do think the lack of importance the arts are considered to have in children’s lives is having a damaging effect on children’s mental health. And, if I can, I want to help to do something about it, even if it’s just amplifying a conversation that’s already happening, which I am currently attempting to do in partnership with brilliant people like Emma Jayne Park, Fiona Ferguson at Imaginate and Alice McGrath of Red Bridge Arts, the producer of Titus.

I am very interested to hear from anyone else – artists, mental health campaigners, educators, children – who has experiences to share on this subject.

 

 

 

 

Kim Kardashian, Miley Cyrus and me: more thoughts on male vs female objectification

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Around this time last year I posted a blog about masculinity, nudity, and the difference between male and female objectification, and illustrated it with a couple of photos that my friend Jannica Honey had taken back in 2007. It was, and still is, the most popular thing I have ever put on this website. It’s possible that some of this attention was just people prowling the internet looking for naked bodies (and probably leaving terribly disappointed given that the pictures were 1. of me and 2. not that explicit). But judging by the comments, tweets and emails from across the world, the writing struck a chord with a lot of people.

One particularly moving response was from a gay man who had been married for three years but had never seen his partner naked. ‘He was unhealthily overweight when he was younger, which has taken its toll on his body,’ the man explained. ‘He feels deeply ashamed of it.’ He enjoyed the blog, he told me, because ‘there aren’t that many resources that encourage men to think about their gaze; their bodies; their peers; themselves’.

I agree with that, and had planned to write more on the subject, perhaps a book. I asked Jannica to photograph me again, to see if it would feel different eight years on. We discussed a collaboration – her photos, my writing – that would explore contemporary masculinity, vulnerability, the ageing process, the male gaze, the whole ‘what does it mean to be a man?’ thing. I started doing interviews. I talked to the playwright and novelist Alan Bissett, because his play Ban this Filth and novel Death of a Ladies’ Man are full of smart observations about contemporary masculinity (and, in the case of the former, male nudity). I talked to artist Diane Torr about her Man for a Day workshops, to learn more about the idea of masculinity as performance. And, for similar reasons, I talked to the transgender playwright Jo Clifford, who grew up, married and had children as John Clifford before undergoing gender reassignment late in life, and who now describes herself as ‘a proud father and grandmother’.

And then I lost my nerve and put the whole project on hold.

There were a couple of reasons. Firstly, I got bogged down in a possibly peripheral area of research – transgender identity and, in particular, its relationship with feminism – which is something of a minefield, and I ended up falling down a hole in the internet (although I did get a Bella Caledonia feature out of it). Secondly, I realised one day that, if you did a Google image search for my name, the first pictures that came up were of me naked. Since I was applying for various freelance jobs at the time and so was probably being Googled regularly by potential employers, this freaked me out a bit.

A year on, I am ambivalent about my ambivalence. I really like Jannica’s second set of pictures, one of which is at the top of this blog (cropped – sorry Jannica). And isn’t male nudity everywhere these days, in fashion, sport, film, television and media coverage of all of the above? What’s the big deal? Aren’t we all pretty relaxed about it now?

Well, yes and no. Male nudity is indeed everywhere, but not in a way that’s of much use to anyone searching for the kind of emotional resource described above. You won’t find many naked male bodies that look like mine in the mainstream media, for one thing, and I have not yet found a male equivalent of Herself, the website that prompted much of my thinking on this subject (if one exists, do let me know). Instead there are ubiquitous pecs – Jamie Dornan (in 50 Shades of Gray), Aidan Turner (in Poldark), Channing Tatum (in the Magic Mike films), or models like David Gandy, advertising an ever-wider range of products, from air freshener to salad dressing (a trend known as hunkvertising). If you believe Mark Simpson, the writer who famously introduced the word metrosexual to the world back in 2002, we are living in the age of the spornosexual,  young men raised in a world of instantly available online porn and obsessed with building up their bodies so that they look like sportsmen or porn stars.

I have no desire whatsoever to look like that, but I was happy to discover that spornosexuality at least seems to reflect a more relaxed attitude to different forms of sexuality. As Mark Simpson argued in 2014, “the way straight young men chase and hustle gay attention today represents a major, millennial shift in attitudes…. They instinctively know that male objectification is about enjoying and celebrating male passivity, even — and especially — if you’re straight. So getting the gays proves not only your hotness, and coolness, but also your metaphysical versatility.” As evidence, Simpson cites Dan Osborne being photographed naked for gay magazine Attitude, and the Warwick University rowing team, whose naked charity calendars have been a big hit and are “dedicated to fighting homophobia in sports”. Apparently young heterosexual men even kiss each other on the mouth these days.

So that’s all good, except that the recent ubiquity of male nudity is also distorting discussions around female objectification – typified by the controversy, in April 2015, over an advert for weight loss supplements by a company called Protein World. The ad, you may remember, featured a young woman in a bikini and the slogan “Are you beach body ready?”, and made headlines after women began adding their own slogans to the poster with marker pens, like “Stop encouraging women to starve themselves,” and “If my body is on the beach then it is ready, thank you very much.” At the height of this protest, Mark Simpson tweeted a photo of an advert featuring a typically spornosexual naked man that was appearing on the London Underground at the same time as the one for Protein World. “Strangely, this starkers #beachreadybody ad on the Tube didn’t provoke any demos,” Simpson wrote. “Just a lot of staring.”

Well of course it didn’t, because women weren’t objecting to a photo of a woman in a bikini, but to the slogan, which implied that, unless you looked like the model in the ad, you really shouldn’t be putting on a swimsuit in public. As one protestor, London barrister Harriet Johnson, tweeted on 23 April: “Hey @ProteinWorld, am I (a normal woman) allowed on the beach? You know, if my body’s for me, not to please others?” Others went much further in expressing their anger, threatening to smash the windows of the company’s office, or even bomb it.

This was seized on by writers like Martin Daubney, a former Loaded editor and something of a Simpson disciple, as evidence of the irrationality and extremism of feminist “social justice warriors”, when actually it was just further evidence of the internet’s tendency to polarise and poison debate regardless of the issue. Daubney’s Protein World report, for the Breitbart website on 2 May 2015, took particular pride in its revelation that the hashtag #growupharriet – the company’s condescending response to Johnson’s tweet – was to be included on billboards when the Protein World ad was launched in New York. What he didn’t mention was Johnson’s subsequent tweet, on 30 April: “This week I’ve been threatened with death & rape, told to ‘get cancer’, & abused by strangers. For pointing out an ad was wrong.”

Writers like Martin Daubney and Mark Simpson have spent a lot of time, over the past couple of years, arguing that male and female objectification are essentially the same thing and that we’re all basically equal now. But as any woman knows very well, there is a profound difference between the way women experience objectification and the way men experience it. If we men are objectified, it is almost always through choice. Jamie Dornan and Aidan Turner made a decision to be actors in dramas that required them to take their clothes off – and there is no obvious shortage of roles for young male actors that wouldn’t require them to do this. Posing for Jannica, I made the choice and I set the terms (none of the images would be displayed in public without my permission). Mark Simpson, revealingly, tends to talk about “self-objectification”. In other words, if a man does not wish to be objectified it is easy enough for him to avoid it.

Women, though, are objectified on a daily basis regardless of how they look, dress, or behave. As Barbara Ellen put it in a column on 12 April 2015, “sexual objectification is an ongoing socioeconomic-cum-psychosexual epidemic, affecting the vast majority of women at some stages of their lives. Even when they are no longer objectified (losing looks or fertility; ageing), it’s used against them in a routine way… This is the truth of female objectification – it’s less about personal sexiness and more about impersonal power structures. How could a man begin to appropriate this gigantic, complicated, socio-historically entrenched mess as his own valid experience?” Objectification of women takes many forms but fundamentally it is about male control over women’s bodies and women’s voices. Street harassment, catcalling, stalking, sexual bullying and rape are all forms of objectification, because all involve a person being reduced to an object for someone else’s gratification. And the overwhelming majority of victims of all of the above are women.

Martin Daubney made a revealing comment in his article about male objectification for the Telegraph last year. “These days, it’s acceptable for straight men to admit we actually quite like looking at Jamie Dornan’s body – and Beckham’s budgie smugglers or David Gandy’s pecs. It’s not a sexual thing, because we look at these men as objects: superior physical beings we’d like to be a little more like. Straight men thinking more like gays – and that’s healthy.”

Yes it is healthy, but it’s not objectification. If Daubney wanted to fuck the men he is looking at, to use them selfishly for his own sexual pleasure, then that would be objectification, but apparently he doesn’t – he wants to be them, physically at least. That is something else entirely – projection of our own desires on to another person, which doesn’t objectify that person any more than fantasising about being Tom Cruise objectifies Tom Cruise. No wonder men are so relaxed about it. Far from promoting equality, the spornosexual body does precisely the opposite – it reinforces the power and status of men.

But it also reinforces a particular version of masculinity – one that I find completely alienating. As I asked in last year’s blog, where are the images that find beauty (rather than comedy) in showing men as ordinary, physically imperfect human creatures?

It says a lot about the culture we live in that one of the few places you’ll find such images is as part of a conversation about feminism. In 2012, for example, an exhibition in London called The Naked Muse brought together female photographers and male poets for a series of 30 table-turning nude portraits, in which the poets became muses for women. Since poets are not exactly famed for their frequent gym attendance, the result was a rather more varied display of male nudity than is usually on offer in the media, not only in physique but in age – from 21 to 67.

And then there’s Alan Bissett’s Ban this Filth, a very personal exploration of masculinity and feminism in which Alan switched between playing himself as a teenager discovering pornography, and playing Andrea Dworkin, the feminist writer and campaigner who regarded all pornography as violence against women. At the end of each night’s show, Alan invited his audience to vote on whether or not he should take all his clothes off.

“If I was going to do a show about porn and the objectification of women, I had to be as close as I could to what a women might feel when she’s being objectified,” Alan explained when I interviewed him about it. He recalled discussing the idea with his director, Sacha Kyle, and remarking to her that if he was going to be naked on stage he’d better get himself to to a gym. “And she said, no, don’t, because if you strip off and you’ve got pecs people will go, oh for fuck’s sake you wanted us to see it because you’re beautiful, but if you’ve got the same wobbly bits and slack muscle and flab as everybody else there’s going to be a lot more sympathy.’ So I thought, let’s try and make myself as vulnerable as I possibly can. But the conclusion that’s reached at the end of the play is that it’s not the same sense of peril because I’m still male. I can walk away from this and it’s not going to hurt me. But I still felt it was important to try and go part of that way.”

Having spent years examining masculinity in novels like Boyracers, Pack Men and Death of a Ladies Man, part of Alan’s motivation was, simply enough, to question what it meant for an ordinary looking man to be publicly naked – a question to which he didn’t have an answer. “If I’m standing there undressed in front of an audience they can project on to me what that means,” he told me. “Maybe what it means is ‘fucking look at me I’m a guy,’ maybe what it means is ‘oh my god this is terrifying stop looking at me’, maybe what it means is ‘this is a really ham-fisted attempt to empathise with vulnerable women.’”

What he discovered was that “people get profoundly uncomfortable with male nudity. We’re so used to seeing the naked female form and there’s a lot more titillation around it. What I felt at that point was the audience squirming. Some people took it as almost aggressive, like ‘I’m gonna show you my dick whether you want me to or not.’ Other people were like, ‘no he’s vulnerable, you don’t have to do this mate.’ What I learned is that it’s complex; we haven’t quite worked out what male nudity in society means, which is the whole point about male objectification. What’s happened to female nudity is it’s become commodified, and it’s been commodified for decades. We’re so used to it now. An advert for moisturiser, an advert for a clothes shop, an advert for Thomson holidays. We’re much less used to knowing what male nudity means, which says it all really about our patriarchal culture.”

Another factor in play was the aforementioned ubiquity of the ‘spornosexual’ male body. “What’s much more taboo is the idea of a naked male body that isn’t perfect,” Alan observed. “Because feminism has been successful to a certain extent, the idea of a fat naked woman can be empowering, but nobody sees a fat naked man, or a skinny naked man, as empowering. There’s only one naked male form that’s permissible, which isn’t to say let’s get the violins out for men, just that we’re just not used to seeing that. There’s no product you can sell using a fat naked man. It’s useless as a capitalist symbol.”

Indeed. The manifesto for Herself, which I wrote about in my previous blog, can be read as a critique of capitalism as much as of misogyny: “Let us reclaim our bodies. Let us take them back from those who seek to profit from our insecurity.” Hunkvertising is part of that same process of exploitation; it is not about sexual equality, it’s about money. As blogger Rebecca Cullers put it in AdWeek in 2013, “it had to do with equality back when Cosmo picked Burt Reynolds as the first nude male centre fold. At this point, looking at some abs while drinking Diet Coke is hardly a feminist revolution, particularly when it’s a remake of a popular spot from decades ago.”

So why aren’t men writing Herself-style manifestos about wanting to reclaim their bodies? Most obviously, it’s because things like hunkvertising are simply not a threat to the status of men in general – we are still, overwhelmingly, the ones in charge of that capitalist society, so, as Alan rightly puts it, there is no comparable sense of peril. Also, what would we have to gain? I have never heard anyone claim that men taking their clothes off is ’empowering’ (something constantly claimed about female nudity). It is more likely to be disempowering. That was certainly my fear, rational or not. Would I be taken less seriously as a potential employee?

Another factor is that worrying aloud about male objectification tends to provoke an immediate – and often deserved – backlash from women, as Game of Thrones actor Kit Harington discovered when he complained in April 2015 that “to be put on a pedestal as a hunk is slightly demeaning… in the same way as it is for women”. The response from many women was a blunt, instantaneous “you know nothing, Jon Snow”. How could Harington possibly understand what it feels like to be objectified the way women are? Well, he can’t, obviously, but in terms of the way capitalism turns all human beings into commodities, he had a point – except for his misunderstanding of where the equivalence was.

Perhaps, as Alan’s experience suggests, the main problem is that we men are still in the early, tentative stages of a debate about capitalism and sexual objectification that women have been immersed in for decades, a debate full of questions that tend to leave men floundering because we’ve never had to think about it properly before. What, for example, is the difference between a woman’s body being objectified in a men’s magazine and a woman’s body being objectified in a women’s magazine? Until recently I had thought the right response, for a man who wants to be an ally of feminism, is that a woman being objectified by another woman is fine because the power relationship is entirely different. As Noah Berlatsky put it in a 2013 article on this subject for the Atlantic, “Esquire retails yet another fantasy of mastery for men. Women’s magazines, on the other hand, offer a fantasy of mastery for women.” But if in both cases women’s bodies are being turned into products, is there really that much of a difference?

The more closely nudity is tied to capitalism, it appears, the more complex questions about objectification become – which goes some way to explaining the recent heated debate over Kim Kardashian’s naked bathroom selfie.

Kim Kardashian selfie

The question being asked about Kim Kardashian is essentially the same one that was being asked about Miley Cyrus three years ago. Is a female celebrity taking her clothes off – on her own terms but also in an obvious bid for public attention – empowering for young women or reinforcing misogyny? Both cases demonstrate how deeply women think about objectification, how little men understand it, and how divisive the issue is. Three years on, and after a lot of reading on the subject, my little man brain is still unsure where I stand on the whole Miley thing (and, by extension, the whole Kim thing), but here – for the sake of illustrating a larger point – is my best attempt to sum up the arguments involved (without, I hope, mansplaining). While Miley is my case study of choice, I suspect you can substitute Kim’s name at various points fairly easily. And by the way, as you read this, feel free to ponder whether anyone would ever have a discussion like this about male celebrities.

For some feminists, Cyrus’s appearance at the 2013 VMA awards – duetting with Robin Thicke on a song, Blurred Lines, which had been widely accused of implicitly inciting rape – was a car crash, a leering, fully dressed, married man in his mid-thirties singing “you know you want it” while a 20-year-old “good girl” rubbed her semi-naked body against him. Sinead O’Connor, hearing that Cyrus’s Wrecking Ball video had been partly inspired by the famous video for her single Nothing Compares to U, wrote an open letter to the singer: “You are worth more than your body and your sexual appeal,” she told Cyrus. “You have enough talent that you don’t need to let the music business make a prostitute of you.”

Other women felt differently, like American artist Marilyn Minter, who said Cyrus was being “slut shamed” by such comments and that “there’s a ceiling for women owning sexuality in any shape or form”. Musician Amanda Palmer responded to O’Connor’s open letter to Cyrus with an open letter to O’Connor, suggesting Cyrus was more in control of her own decisions than O’Connor was giving her credit for, and warning of the danger of “women scolding other women”. “I want to live in a world where WE as women determine what we wear and look like and play the game as our fancy leads us, army pants one minute and killer gown the next, where WE decide whether or not we’re going to play games with the male gaze and the starry-eyed hard-ons that can make men so easy to manipulate,” wrote Palmer. “But seriously, let’s all play the game together, with a wink and a nudge… so we don’t hurt each other.”

When Annie Lennox joined the discussion a couple of days later, she initially echoed O’Connor, describing “overtly sexualised” performances like Cyrus’s as “a glorified and monetized form of self-harm… misogyny, utilized and displayed through oneself”. Within 24 hours, though, she had completely revised her argument (while skillfully giving the impression she hadn’t): “There’s nothing wrong with sexuality and sensuality and I think these artists are beautiful, but it needs to be age-appropriate.” The problem was no longer “monetised self-harm”, then, but what impact Cyrus could have on young viewers. Except that this, arguably, is a form of slut-shaming too – a very particular form of it, in which middle-aged women try to shame younger women for their irresponsibility in an effort to assert themselves as a wiser “voice of reason”. The columnist Julie Burchill accused O’Connor of doing just this, acting like “a very dreary blend of a tarot-card reader, prim headmistress and unsolicited agony aunt”, feigning concern while actually just “carping at a younger, prettier woman who sells records in the quantity you used to”.

Complicating the situation further was Cyrus’s apparent disregard for feminist solidarity, mocking O’Connor on Twitter for her mental health problems (prompting four more, increasingly angry open letters from the Irish singer) and surrounding herself at the VMA Awards with semi-naked black backing dancers, her “homegirls with the big butts, shaking it like we in a strip club”. For black writer NinjaCate, there were serious problems with Cyrus’s “association of her newfound sexuality with the traditional codifiers of black female culture, thereby perpetuating the Jezebel stereotype that black women are lewd, lascivious and uncontrollably sexualised. Can we talk about the straight up minstrelsy of that performance? Can we talk about how not a single black person won an award last night even though the people who did win awards have been mining black music and culture for years? No? Ok… I’ll just sit at the back of the bus then. #solidarityisforwhitewomen.”

Leaving aside the racial element, the debate – conducted almost exclusively among women, while most men just gawped and wondered what the fuss was about – was essentially a clash between second and third wave feminism, according to writer Michelle Smith on The Conversation website. While second wave feminists saw Cyrus as an unwitting pawn of a sexually exploitative system catering to the values and needs of men, third wave feminists pointed out that, if a woman is in control of her decisions, what right does another woman have to tell her what she should do? As Vanessa Blanchard wrote of Sinead O’Connor’s open letter, “telling Miley Cyrus to cover up and protect herself from predators negates her right to take up space any way she pleases, and the justification of this attack on her right to be is that it is meant to help her avoid being blamed for the actions of others. Never mind that attacking a person’s worth, so that they will do what you say, is just as misleading and controlling as the predatory behaviour O’Connor warns about.” Except that, as Michelle Smith pointed out, “the third wave perspective that lauds Cyrus’s choice to be a ‘raging, naked, twerking sex-pot’ rests on the problematic idea that gender equality has been achieved and that women are already fully liberated. Can we really say that the career choices available to female musicians are equivalent or comparable to those available to male musicians?”

A common feminist response to all this is more nudity – but nudity in a form that rebels against the capitalist mass entertainment system in which Miley Cyrus and Kim Kardashian operate. The point of the images on Herself, the website I wrote about in my blog last year, is that nothing is for sale. It is not a fashion shoot, or an advert. The photos have not been digitally manipulated to give anyone smaller hips or bigger breasts. You can see spots and wrinkles and cellulite and birthmarks and fat. And nobody’s hands are coyly concealing nipples or vaginas so that the photos can safely make it onto a supermarket shelf. It is one of numerous feminist projects that are, at least partly, about reclaiming female nudity from capitalism. Jannica Honey’s website is another good example; one of her best piece of work – in my opinion – is a collection of portraits of Edinburgh strippers, which are funny, frank, intimate, mostly naked, but never exploitative. The women are subjects rather than objects, full of humanity, and their bodies, in this context, are not for sale. It is a culture shock seeing photos of naked strippers that are not intended to be titillating, and it is surprising (or was to me, anyway) what a powerful statement it ends up being. Then there is Raising the Skirt, a brilliant project started by live artist Nicola Canavan in 2014, in which women are photographed roaring and exposing their vaginas, in wild outdoor landscapes, naked but for a skirt, like clan warriors. Raising the Skirt references folklore across the world that suggests “women could drive away the devils and evil spirits, all through the power and beauty of their cunts”. Its slogan echoes the conclusion of the Herself manifesto, but more bluntly: “Reclaim your cunt, reclaim our cunts.”

Perhaps the most striking British example in recent years, though, was Nic Green’s Trilogy, a passionate, celebratory theatre show about womanhood and the naked body that became a phenomenon. At the Edinburgh Fringe in 2009 it featured around 40 women, of all ages and body sizes, singing and dancing in the nude. By the time it reached the Barbican in London the following year that number had swelled to around 200 – a mass, communal reclaiming of the female body that often seemed to leave men lost for words. “At its very pinnacle, art has the ability to make criticism redundant,” wrote theatre critic Matt Trueman. “It is so important, so intelligent, so passionate, bold, heartfelt, honest, amusing, absorbing and valiant that such words simply fade into insignificance.”

In summary, women spend a huge amount of time thinking and arguing about the meaning of female nudity – and, quite often, getting naked while doing it – apparently because it is one of the only ways to feel any ownership over their bodies in a world where female nudity is ubiquitous, often oppressively so, and is used constantly to try and sell us stuff. Men, on the whole, haven’t had to think about much about what male nudity means and so haven’t bothered. We are, probably, about half a century behind women on this subject. Last week I was reading about yet another female artist exploring female nudity, wrinkles, cellulite and all – the painter Aleah Chapin – and was struck by her answer to the question of why she hasn’t painted men in the same way. “Men are less comfortable,” she said, adding that she was going to try and persuade some for her next show. “It’s daunting – but I have to do it.” Good luck with that.

And this is partly why Ban this Filth caused a stir. Here’s the twist, though – Alan never did take all his clothes off. No matter how many times he did the show, he told me, there was never a majority vote in favour of him getting naked. “When I asked people afterwards they all had different reasons,” he explained. “A lot of them said, ‘I had no objection to it but I felt sorry for you, you would have been too vulnerable.’ Other people were like, ‘I just didn’t want to see you naked.’ And other people felt that me in a show about radical feminism exposing my penis would have been completely the wrong message and would have been a macho, patriarchal kind of move, and I accept that. I think there was also a thing in the audience where people didn’t want to be seen voting for nudity, because it would make them look like a perv, which is also interesting because it clearly wasn’t a sexual thing, it was an artistic thing and a political thing but still, it’s like, ‘if I vote for this it makes me look like I want to see some dick.’ But that still makes a point about the taboo of male nudity.”

Yes it does. One thing I noticed when I published my first blog on this subject last year was that, while my female friends were very supportive and positive and kept telling me how brave I was, virtually all of my male friends (the heterosexual ones, at least) were either conspicuously silent or made awkward jokes. One of them pointed out that I had a bit of fluff in my belly button – and this was all he had to say on the subject. I had been living with these photos for eight years and had never noticed the fluff before. In other words, while acting as if it was all a bit of a joke, in his own quiet way he was clearly paying very close attention. Which is progress of a sort, I suppose.

And so I’m not sure where to go from here. As much as I love Jannica’s 2015 portraits of me, I’m not quite brave enough to put them out in the world properly yet. But it also feels like men and boys desperately need to talk about this stuff, and that an important part of that process is for different kinds of male bodies to be celebrated – just as women have been doing for years with projects like Trilogy, Herself, or Raising the Skirt. Another new word I have discovered in the past year is ‘bigorexia’, an anxiety disorder that causes young men to work out compulsively and become obsessed with looking at themselves in the mirror. Rob Wilson, chair of the Body Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation, told the BBC last year that the condition may have become more common as a result of “an increased pressure on men to look muscular, create a ‘V’ shape and have a six pack”. In other words, hunkvertising and spornosexuality are affecting the mental health of boys, just as ubiquitous media images of semi-naked women have been affecting the mental health of girls for decades now.

As difficult as this must have been for generations of girls, at least they’ve had generations of brilliant feminist writers to help them feel less alone – Germaine Greer, Andrea Dworkin, Naomi Wolf, Margaret Atwood, Caitlin Moran, Laurie Penny, to name just a few. Boys have…. Mark Simpson? No wonder we’re in trouble.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m still not sure what Declaration was and that’s ok

It’s Friday 4 March 2016. At Declaration, a new festival about health and human rights (at CCA in Glasgow), a Kenyan woman called Jaan is describing the long term effects of living as an asylum seeker. For 22 years now – a length of time even she can’t quite believe – she hasn’t been allowed to work, and has been living with the constant fear that she could suddenly be thrown out of the country. The result, as she puts it, is that she has given up on dreaming. She cannot plan a future, a career, or even any sort of stable existence.

The following day, the festival hosts a workshop by Psychologists Against Austerity, a campaign run by psychologists who believe, as they put it, that “it is our public and professional duty to be speaking out against the further implementation of austerity policies”. It is one of the busiest events at Declaration, and full of human stories about the personal cost of the government’s recent welfare cuts – a schizophrenic woman hounded by the DWP even after she had been sectioned; a woman waiting all winter for her boiler, which she couldn’t afford to insure, to fail and leave her in a freezing cold flat.

When I and my Mental Health Foundation colleagues were programming Declaration, there was some concern about making sure we focussed enough on health, not just human rights. I understood this concern – the event was, after all, led by health organisations – but I didn’t share it. If you’re being denied your human rights, of course your health is affected. One thing logically follows the other, so the subject of health was bound to come up, and it did, in almost every event.

And what came across – as we worked our way through every single article in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, over the course of 30 events (an idea that seemed inspired when we thought of it, then ridiculously impractical, and then, finally, just about workable by the skin of our teeth) – was a frightening picture of how modern society wears down our health by undermining those rights in dozens of different ways, often simultaneously.

At times, the number of battles that need fought in order to achieve ‘the right to health’ – the festival’s central theme – felt overwhelming. Throughout the weekend we explored how the legal system discriminates against poor people; society’s failure to address the problem of homelessness in the 50 years since Ken Loach’s landmark TV drama Cathy Come Home; the dangers inherent in the potential abolition of the human rights act; and how modern working practices are eroding our right to leisure and leaving us feeling demoralised, belittled and exhausted. One of my strongest memories from the weekend is watching my Scotsman colleague Joyce McMillan, about as angry and frustrated as I have ever seen her, condemning the obscene levels of economic inequality that now exist in society, as highlighted in The Divide, a new film adaptation of Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson’s international best-seller The Spirit Level. How, she asked, can CEOs of major companies possibly justify being paid hundreds of times as much as most of their employees? They can’t, is the simple answer; as the Observer revealed just two days later, even corporate headhunters think it’s excessive.

I fear I’m not selling the festival very well here. It was also an uplifting, galvanising experience – for every breach of our human rights that was highlighted, there was also a platform for a passionate, dedicated person or organisation doing their best to understand and confront the problem, from Interfaith Scotland, working to bring different religious communities together, to Amnesty International and the Anti-Slavery Alliance.

Transgender rights activist Nathan Gale was an inspiration on Saturday, a bundle of energy and optimism, good-natured in the face of a health and legal system that often treats them like a non-person. Law lecturer and blogger Andrew Tickell, aka Lallands Peat Worrier, was a charismatic, generous host, letting a young generation of law students do most of the talking at an event exploring the obstacles those without money face when asserting their right to a fair public hearing. And Norma Mackinnon of Freedom from Torture was a revelation, leading us gently through a role-playing workshop which put us in the shoes of each member of a family affected by arrest and torture in Syria, asking us to imagine what a husband, wife, daughter and son might each be feeling at each moment in the horrific journey Norma was describing – a husband arrested and tortured, a wife raped by security forces, two children traumatised, a whole family displaced first to Lebanon and eventually to Scotland. It was, in many ways, like an intense, intimate piece of theatre.

Elsewhere in the festival there was actual theatre – or rather eloquent, powerful, very personal spoken word performances from artists including Rose Ruane, Jenny Lindsay, Harry Giles, Jen McGregor, Rachel McCrum, Theresa Munoz, Ghazi Hussein and, on screen, Agnes Torok. I particularly enjoyed the story Jenny Lindsay told, inspired by her time working in education, about a secondary school teacher caught between a pedantic, disciplinarian boss and a troubled, self-harming teenager for whom a telling off about uniform is likely to be the last straw.

Watching these performances, having just come out of a panel discussion about legal aid, homelessness, or executive pay, was to be reminded what a curious hybrid of a festival Declaration was – partly an arts festival, partly a political debate, partly a health conference. But what linked all these things together, in the end, was storytelling and empathy. If you want to deny people their human rights, the first thing you do is dehumanise them – transform them in the public imagination from fully rounded individuals into a caricature, a cartoon, whether it be greedy Jews, lazy benefit scroungers, or a ‘swarm’ of migrants. In other words, you other them.

For me, if Declaration was about anything it was about reversing that process, asserting the complex humanity of a broad range of people, loudly and proudly. So for our Right to Asylum event, we simply gathered together three asylum seekers and asked them to tell their personal stories. They spoke, of course, about the horrific treatment they’ve had from the media, but they also chatted about the Scottish weather, about volunteering and friendship and community. And for our Right to Marriage and Family discussion – one of my favourite events at the whole festival – rather than bring together lawyers we brought together a group of LGBT parents: Liam, who recently adopted a young son with his husband;  Claire, who is raising a son with her female partner; and Kate; who is raising children alongside a female partner, two fathers, and an extended family, to share their stories and compare notes.

There was, as you’d expect, still lots of fascinating insight into legal rights – and the particular issues Kate faces because of her complex family set-up – but the moment in the discussion that stayed with me was Claire talking about the problem of invisibility, describing the experience of taking her dog for a walk in the park and a confused woman asking her ‘do you share that dog with someone else?’ It hadn’t occurred to the woman, who had seen Claire’s partner walking the same dog, that the two of them might be together. The same thing, she said, frequently happens on buses with their children – it is assumed that she and her partner are friends, or travelling separately, or anything other than two women raising a child together. This, in its small way, is a breach of human rights – a denial of someone’s right to be acknowledged and accepted as who they are.

Artists are particularly good at highlighting this sort of thing – finding the small details that describe a life, or the dozens of little indignities that, cumulatively, add up to oppression. The best artists understand that storytelling is about more than broad brush strokes, it is about the little details. These are the things that make your characters feel like fully rounded human creatures rather than stereotypes – and, often, the things we empathise with. This is perhaps why Norma Mackinnon’s Freedom From Torture workshop felt like a piece of theatre – it was all about telling a big, global story through a series of small, very human details.

Something similar happened at TYCI’s event on Friday. We’d asked the Glasgow-based women’s collective to create something in response to Article 3: the Right to Life, Liberty and Personal Security – on the basis that women’s liberty and personal security is so often threatened or undermined by misogyny, whether it’s being being stalked or harassed on the street, or shouted down on the internet. TYCI could have created something angry and political, but they didn’t, at least not explicitly. What they created was joyous, positive, celebratory – or ‘reflective and raucous’ as TYCI put it. The night ended with a brilliant set by singer-songwriter Chrissy Barnacle, an extraordinary performer – eccentric, vulnerable yet defiantly herself and very funny, a woman asserting her right to life and liberty just by standing on a stage, talking and singing.

If I had to describe that night in one short sentence, I’d say it was full of humanity. And that was Declaration in a nutshell, I reckon. A festival of humans. I hope we get to do it again next year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Death, Bowie, and the last house on Holland Island

holland island house

Dad tried hard to hold back the water,
Sank a barge, piled sandbags on sandbags,
But we knew, we all saw the fear in his eyes.
The last house on Holland Island is slipping under,
And taking our history with it.

The first time I sang this Seafieldroad song, The Last House on Holland Island, in front of an audience was on 16 February 2014, less than a month after my dad died. Since the song is about being afraid of my dad dying, and I was still in shock that it had actually happened, I should perhaps have cancelled the gig. It was uncomfortable for me and probably awkward for the people watching.

Anyway, today is the second anniversary of my dad’s death, and I’ve decided to call time on the whole Seafieldroad thing. These two events are not unconnected. It has something to do with moving on (I have written about my dad’s death twice already, here and here; this is definitely the last time I’m going to do it). It also has something to do with David Bowie, whose extraordinary farewell to the world must have given a lot of people who write songs pause for thought.

All these islands will sink,
All these houses will fall.

It is 19 January, 2014, and I am driving as fast as I can towards the Royal Alexandria Hospital in Paisley. I don’t know how much time I have. An hour? Less? I want to go faster but my mum is in the passenger seat and I’m worried that, in my rush to reach one parent, I’ll jeopardise the safety of the other.

It was my idea to leave. It was mid-afternoon, we had been by Dad’s bed since early morning, and Mum was exhausted. She needed a break, so I suggested I drive her home and make her dinner, give her a rest from all this. Then we could come back. She wasn’t convinced, but I persuaded her. My sister would still be there and she could call us if there was any change. After all we could be here all night, maybe longer.

And so Mum agreed, and we walked slowly down to the car park in silence, still in shock, unable to process the fact that it would now be days, at most, until it was all over and he was gone. We drove back along the motorway, over the Erskine Bridge, into Dumbarton, towards home. And then, on the dual carriageway, my phone began buzzing in my pocket.

The staircase has long since collapsed.
All of the secrets hidden in the attic
fall and dissolve in the silt
until none of it matters anymore.

The last house on Holland Island, Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, USA, was built in the winter of 1888. At that time the island was a thriving community of fishing and boatman families, with around 70 homes. But in 1914 it began to sink into the water. The cause: post-glacial rebound, a process in which land masses rise and fall over thousands of years, as the weight of glaciers created during the last ice age gradually lifts. The west side of the island disappeared first, eroded by the tides, pushing the residents eastwards. For the next four years they desperately tried to protect their homes by building stone walls, but it was no use. In 1918, after a storm damaged the church, the last family gave up and abandoned the island to the water. Nothing more could be done. In truth, there was never anything to be done. Even in the 17th century, when European colonists first settled there – including Daniel Holland, who would give the island its name – the forces that would destroy it were already moving slowly and silently into place.

And so foolishly we’ll try to beat them anyway.
Yeah there is no authority that we won’t argue with.
 

It seems to take forever to get back to the hospital, but it can’t be more than 20 minutes. I drive straight up to the drop-off point and tell Mum to go on in while I park the car. As I watch her shuffle anxiously and hurriedly through the glass doors at the entrance, wondering how painful all this is on her hip, I call my sister to let her know she’s on her way. I’m worried that, in her exhaustion, Mum won’t remember where the ward is and will get lost. I’m worried about the precious time this will waste. But as soon as my sister answers the phone I know it’s too late. He is already gone, she tells me. I drive down to the car park, shaking. I phone my wife to tell her Mum and I won’t be coming back to the house after all. I am crying so hard I can barely get the words out. It was my idea to leave, I tell her. It’s my fault.

P1040114

Hold on to what makes sense, wrap it up tight.

Almost 80 years after the final family left Holland Island, a man made one last attempt to save it. In 1995, Stephen White, a Methodist minister who had grown up on the island, paid $70,000 for the 1888 house, now the last building standing, and then spent 15 years and $150,000 trying to hold back the water with rocks, wooden breakwaters, sandbags, even a sunken barge. It was an extraordinary act of defiance against nature. But just as in 1914, it proved futile. White became ill and had to abandon his efforts and leave the island. The final photos taken of his empty, house, before it collapsed into the bay, look like something out of a dream, a shell of a two-storey building perched on the water, like a hastily constructed, half-collapsed ark. It’s an incredibly evocative image, precarious and lonely. In one of the photos, dozens of birds are perched on the roof. Sometimes when I look at the images I see one of Escher’s impossible drawings, a building that could never exist. Sometimes they look apocalyptic, an alternate finale to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, in which a man and his son finally reach the coast only to encounter further evidence of the end of the world.

The photographs also make me think of my dad, a stubborn man who refused to accept how ill he was for a long time. He would insist that he was unable to stand up properly ‘at the moment’, or was unable to remember simple domestic details ‘at the moment’, and would irritably blame others for the black holes in his memory: ‘Nobody tells me anything!’ became something of a catchphrase in his later years, as he gradually slipped away from us, into the water of Chesapeake Bay. He was, obviously, afraid. For every moment when he seemed to be in complete denial, there was another when he would awkwardly silence the room with some morbid, apparently throwaway remark about how in about five years he’d be dead. He was very much like a man looking anxiously out of the windows of his home, seeing water in every direction, and grumpily announcing that he didn’t feel like going for a walk today.

And you know to survive you’ve got to keep warm
but you just want to give up, cry, and throw the doors open. 

Sometimes I find myself wondering how much Stephen White’s faith gave him solace, and how much it was a source of torment. I also wonder what it might have been like to grow up in that household, watching your father devote his life to such a lost cause, watching it make him ill.

Hold on to what makes sense, hold on to me.

In the winter of 1988, exactly a hundred years after White’s Holland Island home was built, I began writing songs on a cheap Yamaha synthesiser my dad had bought me as a Christmas present on the condition that I got music lessons, a condition to which I agreed, a little reluctantly. I was 15 years old. I bought two tiny microphones and a cassette recorder, and resolved to make futuristic music. My role models were the Pet Shop Boys, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Depeche Mode, the Human League, Kraftwerk, anyone else making music with machines. It quickly became an obsession. Every few months I would record a cassette full of new songs. Some people would call these recordings demos. Being a teenage megalomaniac living in a fantasy world, I decided they were albums. Each had a title and its own hand-made cover artwork. Each was mixed, once it was finished, on to a C60 cassette, so is more or less an hour long. Sometimes I’d enlist friends to play bass, or guitar (as long as it wasn’t too ‘rock’) or to sing. But mostly I made them on my own, creating all the music on my cheap little machine, a little boy dreaming of the future. By album number 14 or 15 I was so pleased with my progress that I was starting to make best of compilations, remix albums and singles too (on slightly shorter cassettes). I kept up this behaviour for about six years. By the time I was in my twenties I had recorded almost 40 hours of music, most of which has never been heard by anybody.

In other words, my teenage years were largely lost to a musical instrument my dad bought me. The great irony of this was that he always seemed indifferent to the music I was making – because, to be fair, it was so alien to him. He liked classical music and jazz, the kind of music he played myself (on the cello or double bass). He would be lost without sheet music and was always baffled that my brother in law, a successful professional musician, couldn’t read it. He was bemused by drum machines, and pop music in general. He would complain that he couldn’t hear the words, or that it was rhythmically monotonous, or that it had no proper tunes. If this was the future, he didn’t want it.

It was when I was 20 that David Bowie became a significant influence. It’s been fascinating for me, reading all the tributes over the past couple of weeks, not one of which describes the relationship that I had with Bowie. The Bowie of the 1970s and 1980s, the one who transformed the lives of Momus and Suzanne Moore, somehow passed me by – 1970s Bowie because I was too young, 1980s Bowie because I was probably too obsessed with synthesisers to notice anything else. Bowie was also, I remember thinking at the time, a bit rock – more Q magazine than Smash Hits. And what the hell was that whole Tin Machine thing about? I vaguely knew the hits (so I was, I suppose, as much of a Bowie fan as David Cameron) but I didn’t properly listen to Ziggy Stardust, or Low, or even Let’s Dance, until decades after they came out.

Instead, the first time I really noticed Bowie was when he released the albums Black Tie, White Noise (in 1993) and Outside (in 1995). I particularly loved Outside, his weird, creepy sci-fi concept album about people being murdered and turned into art, which was very appealing to a depressed youth who had just got into Brett Easton Ellis, Cindy Sherman and David Cronenberg. I quite liked Earthling, his drum and bass album, too. It was oddly exciting to me that a 50-year-old man was making a drum and bass album and emerging with dignity intact. It was, if I’m honest, ammunition against my dad, who kept insisting I would grow out of pop music by the time I was 30. No, I thought, this is what I want to be like when I’m older. Bowie, rather than a roadmap for teenage self-expression, was for me a kind of alternative father figure.

Something as small as a keyboard and a microphone
can tell you the world is endless and you’re not alone
but also that you’re not a child and that you can’t go home.

And then, in my mid twenties, I became friends with Hamish Brown, a huge Bowie fan who would quickly fill in the gaps in my Bowie knowledge, and with whom I finally got to make a proper album, The Regional Variations by Swimmer One, which married my Pet Shop Boys obsession and his Bowie obsession with what I still think are pretty great results. We got played on daytime Radio One, a dream come true for the 1988 me. There were features and reviews in national newspapers and magazines. One of the songs was used in a movie. I proudly presented Dad with a copy of the album. As far as I know he didn’t listen to this either. At the end of that year he wrote a newsletter for the various family members scattered across the country. The Regional Variations – five years in the making, and the achievement I was most proud of in my life up to that point – merited no mention at all. I was furious with him. For years and years.

The thing is, I idolised my dad – more so than any pop star – and, like so many children, desperately wanted his approval. As a child I thought he knew everything. There was no question he didn’t seem able to answer, a skill he had acquired over many years working as a teacher. Looking back, our relationship often felt more like one between a teacher and a pupil than a father and a son (that synthesiser was part of my education). He was not, in my memory, a very demonstrative man. So while he was my idol, he sometimes felt as distant and unattainable as David Bowie. He showed me love by recommending things to read, talking to me about politics and philosophy and religion (much as Bowie did via his music, in fact). After I left home Dad would send me newspaper clippings with handwritten notes he’d made (Bowie didn’t do that, sadly).

The older I got, of course, the more I saw the gaps in his knowledge. The moment I knew I had grown up was the moment when I realised that, in some respects, I knew more about the world than he did. This is true for lots of people, I’m sure, but it came as quite a shock to me, given how little I felt that I knew. Put another way, I related to that moment in The Wizard of Oz when the truth about the wizard is revealed – the moment you realise the wizard is just a man.

dad and me

The world is not what you thought it was,
and nothing I can say will help,
but I can give you car keys and time,
and you can do the rest yourself.

I am staring at my dad’s corpse. My mum is sitting by the bed, looking utterly drained. My sister is trying to say comforting things, although this is obviously awful for her too. She can see how guilty I feel, and how devastated Mum is. We couldn’t have known. He would barely have been aware of Mum being there in those final moments anyway. And of course she’s right. After Dad’s first stroke he could still grip our hands, and he could still meet our gaze, just about, even if he couldn’t talk or stand up or do anything for himself. And you could sense his sadness, his frustration and anger at the situation. He kept trying to get out of the bed. After the second stroke, though, all that stopped. He just sat and stared into the middle distance, breathing heavily. We would talk to him, we would hold his hand, but it was impossible to tell how much, if anything, was getting through. That last morning, after the hospital called us in, it was immediately obvious that it was over, that it would be days at most, if not hours. Holland Island was already lost to forces bigger than us and there was nothing we could do.

And yet the symbolism is painful. Mum wasn’t there for the moment of his death. And it feels as if that matters. We should have been there for his last breath, the moment the house finally slipped underwater, out of sight. She should have been there. And now he is empty, absent, a husk. The water is still and silent.

In the years since, I have been told two things that made me feel better about this moment. The first is that Mum, straining to see through the fog of old age, has come to believe she was there when Dad died. Nobody is going to correct her. The second is that it is apparently quite common for people on the verge of death to slip away when their loved ones have left the room. It is as if they cannot bring themselves to go when they are there; when they leave it is a release, and they can go in peace. I don’t know if this is true, but the possibility is comforting.

Since The Regional Variations I have released four more albums – one more with Swimmer One, and three as Seafieldroad. While none has been a ‘hit’, they have all found small audiences, a few kindred spirits scattered across the world like tiny islands in a vast ocean. Aside from occasional tantrums of ingratitude, my ego is mostly fine with this outcome, (although I would by lying if I said I never crave more attention than I’ve had). If I’m honest, though, the thing that bothers me most, still, is that my dad never seemed to love any of this music. Dad, why buy me the fucking keyboard in the first place if you didn’t care about what I did with it? I am aware of how childish and petulant this sounds, how childish and petulant and wholly unreasonable it is.

Tie up those loose ends,
before it’s too late,
before he’s gone.
It won’t be that long now.

It is somewhat ironic that the album of mine that my dad would be most likely to enjoy is the one I finished after he died. The Winter of 88, by Seafieldroad, has tunes that he would recognise as tunes, proper instruments (a trumpet!), no drum machines whatsoever, and choral singing not unlike the music he would listen to at church, which sounds the way it does partly because I grew up going to that church too, and it seeped into my brain. Recently I have been wondering whether this album was, subconsciously, my final attempt to reach out to him, despite the fact that when I was writing and recording it he was at a point in his life when music, of any kind, meant less and less to him. Was I turning into Stephen White, revisiting the scene of my childhood, stubbornly trying to rebuild something that was clearly already lost?

You are so small now,
afraid of the world outside,
the cold that could kill you if you let it in.

P1060155

While I was writing the songs for The Winter of 88, Dad had a fall on the seafront near his home, blacked out, and had to be helped home by two strangers. He had no memory of this, but afterwards he was never the same. He barely left the house, talked much less, and was much more quiet and humble. The belligerence, the denial, began to disappear, replaced by what seemed like acceptance. I wrote a very personal song about this, The World is Just Noise, a way of processing my conflicted feelings about his gradual disappearance into silence and darkness, about the way the grieving process can often begin long before someone actually dies.

At the time I thought it was the only song on the album that was explicitly about my dad. But as time passes I think that far more of the album was about him than I realised. The Winter of 88 begins with an island sinking into the sea (The Last House on Holland Island), and ends with a journey to a new one (in a song called Islands of the North Atlantic). The first island, clearly, is my dad’s death. I’m still figuring out what the second island is. The phrase ‘islands of the north Atlantic’ was suggested during the Northern Irish peace process as a politically neutral alternative to ‘British Isles’. It’s often shortened to its acronym – IONA. So the ferry in the song might be going to the real Iona, on the west coast of Scotland, a part of the world that I associate strongly with my family, since we spent all our summer holidays there. Or it might be going to the more mythical Iona evoked by that acronym, a place described by Bertie Ahern (in 2006, in my home city of Edinburgh) as ‘a powerful symbol of relationships between these islands, with its ethos of service not dominion’. That partly reflects my feelings about my parents, an English man and a Scottish woman, a union that couldn’t help shaping my attitude towards national identity, and towards Scotland’s independence debate, which crept into the lyrics of at least one song on the album (This Road Won’t Build Itself).

The more I think about it, though, the more it seems like that ferry represents the journey towards an island – a life, a world – where my dad is no longer present. ‘I don’t know where this ship goes,’ the song concludes. ‘I don’t know if there’s an island.’ I could also have added, ‘I don’t know who’s steering this damn thing. Is it me?’

There is a curious parallel between my life now and my childhood. I was born when my dad was 40, his third child and his only son. So all my most vivid memories of him, the memories forged in early childhood, are of a man in his forties. And I was 40 when my third child, my only son, was born, three months after my dad died. I have stepped into my dad’s place, and my son has stepped into mine, and as I enter a new phase of fatherhood in my forties, I hear my dad’s voice in mine, and see my dad’s face in mine, on an almost daily basis. The way family history repeats and loops is sometimes comforting, sometimes unsettling. I never met my grandpa, my dad’s dad. He died just after I was born, and exists to me only as descriptions, photos, an idea of a person – the same relationship my son will now have with his grandpa.

And so I started not knowing where I’d go or if anyone would care. Winter of 88.

Winter of 88 mailout

Creatively, too, in many ways I have come full circle. The Winter of 88’s physical release consisted of 88 CDs with handmade artwork – based on a collection of pebbles found by the seaside – not a million miles from the handmade sleeves of my 38 early ‘albums’. Meanwhile, like most musicians in middle age, I have stopped trying to write music that sounds like the future. Instead I am mining my own past, emulating the music that has stayed with me over the years, like Mark Eitzel’s 60 Watt Silver LiningTalk Talk’s Laughing Stockthe Blue Nile’s A Walk Across the Rooftops, and David Sylvian’s Secrets of the Beehive.

And this is where David Bowie comes back in. When I began to accept what The Winter of 88 was, I decided I should give up writing songs. It had become my Holland Island, I thought – a lost cause, obsessively pursued with ever diminishing commercial and artistic returns and, increasingly, based on clinging to the past rather than trying to jump boldly into the future. I was now in my forties, and was never, at any age in my life, going to be able to do anything like what Bowie does. I thought I should let the island sink and go look for a new one.

And then my wife reminded me that this was grief talking. I had become so preoccupied with endings that I’d forgotten to appreciate the process. The point of making music, after all, is just to do it, for fun and excitement and self-expression, regardless of the results. I had forgotten that the first single Swimmer One ever released was called We Just Make Music For Ourselves, and that we meant it.

There is another way of looking at Stephen White’s story, after all – not as tragedy but as triumph. In the end he may not have been able to hold back the tides, but for a while he did. Yes, his battle against nature was doomed to failure, but so is everybody’s. All of our islands will sink, even David Bowie’s.

One of the things that was so shocking about Bowie’s death is that it seemed impossible, somehow; he was such a force of nature. And yet what is so striking about the way he died is the way he turned even that into art – and into something new, rather than something that dwelled on the past. For that final year, his illness appeared to be the focus of his work and, as it turned out, it was the best work he’d done in years. The Blackstar album, those extraordinary final videos, his musical… all appeared to be ways to process what was happening to him in that moment, even if there appears to be some disagreement over how much of a farewell it actually was. Once he was done, though, he was gone – dead two days after the release of Blackstar. And once he was gone, he was done  – there would be no funeral, the cremation would happen without any ceremony. He seemed to understand, and accept, that certain things are out of your control, so had no interest in engaging with those things. Instead he focused on what he could control. And he did it magnificently, theatrically, and poignantly. Right until the end he was living, and creating, absolutely in the present. Until there was no present left for him to live in.

If I’d been the toast of London I would still be old,
and if I’d been the king of New York I would still be old.
In the end we’re all just trying to keep out the cold.

Not that I would dare to compare myself to Bowie, but the title track of The Winter of 88 feels like a farewell from Seafieldroad. It’s a song celebrating the small impacts we all have on the world, and how we should celebrate these rather than linger on the impact we don’t have – on all the things we can’t control. It is, among other things, a farewell to the idea that my impact on the world of music will be anything more than a pebble in an ocean. But I also don’t want to make music like that anymore.

In seven years I will be the age Bowie was when I first became a proper fan. In lots of ways I feel like I have already stepped into my dad’s shoes; two years after his death I think I have reached the final stage of grief – acceptance. But as is the case for so many people, the death of Bowie stirred up lots of old feelings again. If I’d been in an earlier stage of grief, shellshocked and irrational, I might have felt drained and depressed by it, intimidated by it, weirdly envious of Bowie’s perfectly choreographed exit vs my cack-handed failure even to get my mum to my dad’s bedside in time for his. I would, in other words, have been a basket case. Instead, though, Bowie’s death has given a new urgency to how I feel about life, and also how I feel about music. In short, if I’m ever going to make more music, it needs to be music that’s not about the future, or the past, but the present. I guess I’ll find out whether I’m capable of that in due course.

Let that loose end go.
Find a new knot to tie,
to tie him to you,
before he unravels and disappears.

When I began writing this it was late at night in my parents’ living room. I was visiting with my children, asleep upstairs in what used to be my bedroom. And I realised that, while I could have sat anywhere in this empty room, I chose to sit in what used to be my dad’s place on the sofa.

All these islands will sink,
All these houses will fall,
We’ll build new homes anyway.

Where is David Bowie in this picture? High above, obviously, a starman in the sky, the man who fell from Earth.

Down below, the Earth’s crust is slowly moving, imperceptibly, over hundreds of years.

 

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(Should you be at all interested, you can download all three Seafieldroad albums, and all those teenage demos, for a mere £10.)

 

 

Is it possible to be objective about Star Wars?

(Or, Why The Force Awakens is more like Revenge of the Sith than A New Hope. And also like a Marmite sandwich)

In 2005, while working as arts editor for the Scotsman, I discovered that one of our feature writers, Emma Cowing, had never seen any of the Star Wars films – because, as she put it, “I’d rather spend two hours 11 minutes of my life alphabetising my sock drawer”.

Revenge of the Sith was about to be released in cinemas, so I asked Emma to watch the whole saga in episode order, from The Phantom Menace to Return of the Jedi, and write about the experience. Her verdict – in a piece headlined ‘Which one’s Darth Vader again?’ – was that Revenge of the Sith was “by far the best film in the series… brilliantly acted, amazingly shot, the true heart of the story in every sense”. And – brace yourselves, fanboys – she thought Chewbacca was “100 times more annoying than Jar Jar Binks”.

“This, ultimately, is the series’s problem,” Emma concluded. “If you watch Episodes I -III first, your heart belongs to these three movies and their main protagonists. Luke? Leia? Han Solo? Who cares? I didn’t, and though I watched on through Ewoks, Han and Leia’s love affair and Jabba the Hutt with a detached interest, I was forever thinking of the wee boy Ani who grew up to become the man behind that big black mask, and the beautiful young senator he had once loved. By the end of Return of the Jedi, the only character’s fate I was interested in was Darth Vader’s.”

I asked Emma to write the piece partly because I thought it would be funny (she is a very funny writer), partly because I was curious to know what an objective view of the entire Star Wars series might look like. At that point, the prequels had been ripped apart online for six years by people who had grown up obsessed with the original trilogy and mostly loathed the new films, at least in part, because they were so different – in look (all that CGI) and in tone (deathly serious with occasional lurches into slapstick). By the time Revenge of the Sith came along I felt a bit sorry for George Lucas, who seemed like a man increasingly desperate to placate all those ungrateful bastards. Much has been written in recent weeks about how much The Force Awakens resembles the original trilogy – to the point where it actually lifts whole chunks of its plot from all three films. But in many ways the Star Wars film it most resembles is Revenge of the Sith, in the sense that both are self-conscious, sometimes shameless exercises in trying to give hardcore fans of the original trilogy what they so desperately want.

Revenge of the Sith was a sweet shop of nostalgic fan treats, significantly more so than the other two prequels. It had Darth Vader masked and the Emperor unmasked, a whole planet of wookiees (which, as any self-respecting geek knows, was originally going to appear in Return of the Jedi), that spaceship from Star Wars’ very first scene back in 1977, Yoda arriving on Dagobah (in the deleted scenes, at least), and fleeting glimpses of the Death Star, Alderaan, Moff Tarkin, Mon Mothma, Captain Antilles, and – purely as a sop to fans – the Millennium Falcon. The film’s title was a knowing nod to a name temporarily given to Return of the Jedi. And its teaser trailer opened with footage from the first Star Wars, back in 1977.

The Force Awakens, meanwhile, gives us a bigger Death Star (and, cheekily, a scene in which a character points out that it’s basically a bigger Death Star), lots of planets that look just like the ones in the original trilogy even if they have different names, on which remarkably similar things happen, and fleeting glimpses of minor Return of the Jedi characters Nien Numb and Admiral Ackbar – whose appearances serve no obvious purpose other than to allow fans to go ‘oh look, there’s Admiral Ackbar and Nien Numb.’ (Or, if you’re slightly less of a geek, ‘the one that looks like a shrimp and the one that looks like a fish’.) Plus, obviously, there’s Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and, for about five seconds, Mark Hamill. The film’s entire marketing campaign was an exercise in what one writer described as weaponised nostalgia.

It certainly makes you ponder the true meaning of George Lucas’s first response to the Force Awakens. “I think the fans are going to love it. It’s very much the kind of movie they’ve been looking for.” Reading this, I once again felt sorry for George Lucas. If Revenge of the Sith didn’t make them happy, he must have wondered, what in the world would? And now he knows. A Star Wars movie made by somebody who wasn’t him, who rejected all of his ideas for its plot, which has had rave reviews and, at time of writing, is about to become the most successful film of all time. What a kick in the teeth.

Perhaps he’ll be cheered (if he can be bothered to read them) by some recent articles that have attempted to restore the reputation of Lucas’s second trilogy – whose arguments, if you’re short on time, are neatly summed up in a piece headlined There is no way Star Wars The Force Awakens will be as good as the prequels (New Statesman, only you could be so bold.) It’s unsurprising that these should turn up now, and not just because the media were looking for a fresh angle. If you saw – and loved – The Phantom Menace as an impressionable child, you are now in your late twenties, old enough to be an established film writer. And having seen the film around the same time that you first saw the original trilogy, you are more able to see the flaws in both. Expect a lengthy essay any day now arguing that Jar Jar Binks’s amphibian Buster Keaton was a clever continuation of the original trilogy’s playful appropriation of key moments in cinema history, from Metropolis to The Hidden Fortress. (But not from me, a 43-year-old unshakeable loyalist to the original trilogy.)

I quite liked some parts of the prequels, particularly Attack of the Clones, which felt like the most original and surprising of the three films, with its detective drama subplot, political skulduggery and that jaw-dropping Yoda vs Christopher Lee stand-off. Admittedly this could be partly because, after the Phantom Menace, my expectations were considerably lower, but Attack of the Clones includes what has become one of my favourite scenes in all the Star Wars movies – the one in which Count Dooku tells Obi Wan the truth about what is going on while pretending he has nothing to do with it.

It is a marvellous moment of emotional manipulation that sums up the whole character. Dooku keeps his options open throughout, betraying his co-conspirator, Palpatine, while not offering Obi Wan quite enough information to identify him. When it becomes apparent that Obi Wan is not someone he can recruit as an ally (and, presumably, kill off later) he blithely dismisses him – “It may be difficult to secure your release” – returning to whatever plan A was.

I am aware, though, that the person who likes this scene is the grown-up me. I am watching Dooku and seeing Keyser Soze or Francis Urquhart (if Christopher Lee hadn’t been available, Kevin Spacey would have made a fine substitute). I want to believe that Star Wars can fit with my adult viewing habits. And then something happens that jars – or Jar Jars – with this, and I shudder, particularly during Revenge of the Sith, a film that ends with a man murdering children and a woman dying in childbirth and yet – as if attempting to compensate – makes its robots talk like play-acting toddlers (a decision that prompted one irritated fan to create a ‘mature edition’ of the film).

I have a completely different relationship with the original trilogy – if anything, I flinched when it became a bit too grown-up. Princess Leia in a bikini? Eeew. If you saw Return of the Jedi as a 12 or 13-year-old boy, this was probably your sexual awakening. I was nine and I found it excruciating, like stumbling on your parents in their underwear. And I am mostly forgiving of the films’ flaws, because it didn’t occur to me at the time that films had flaws. It was years, for example, before I spotted the planet-sized plot hole in The Empire Strikes Back, whereby Luke can train to be a Jedi – a process that seems to take weeks, possibly months – in the same time it takes for Han and Leia to fly from Hoth to Bespin, which cannot be more than 48 hours.

I had to double check what age I must have been when I discovered Star Wars. I know I was nine because I first saw A New Hope on someone else’s videotape (it was released on video in 1982) a few months before Return of the Jedi was released in cinemas (in May 1983). But my memory of everything except the film itself is fuzzy – probably because that memory overwrote everything else. I don’t remember whose tape it was, except that they were friends of my parents and we were staying there overnight. I don’t remember where they lived, or what their house looked like. But I remember I watched the film at least twice, possibly three times, cross-legged in front of their television, and that I was devastated when we had to leave because I wanted to stay and watch it again and again.

My parents didn’t have a video player, so for a long time Star Wars existed only in my fevered imagination. Watching The Force Awakens a couple of weeks ago, after years of picturing it in my head, I was right back in the spring of 1983, when I saw Return of the Jedi in the cinema. I hadn’t seen The Empire Strikes Back yet, so what I experienced was a film that was very much like what I remembered (a desert planet, a Death Star, most of the same characters) but a hundred times bigger and louder. It was a strange feeling – exciting but also disorientating, satisfying but also anticlimactic. How could it compete with the movie in my head, a movie already one step removed from the one I actually saw a year earlier?

Watching The Force Awakens was similarly disorientating, due to the sheer number of echoes of things I’d seen before. It’s a feeling probably best summed up by the scene in which the film’s wise old man character walks out on to a narrow walkway in a Death Star-like base to face a figure in a black mask armed with a lightsaber. The death of Han Solo was, presumably, intended to be shocking, but can anyone not have seen it coming with a set-up like that?

Repeating motifs are, of course, part of the fabric of Star Wars, and The Force Awakens is at its best when those motifs playfully rewrite what we’ve seen before, rather than just copy it. I like that the Luke Skywalker role is now female (Luke Skywalker himself having turned into Yoda, an old wizard in exile). I particularly enjoyed the subtle hint of a burgeoning romance between Finn and Poe Dameron  (a man in a stormtrooper costume rescuing a prisoner… now where might that storyline be going? Your call, Rian Johnson). And I liked the younger characters’ cocky ignorance about the older generation’s adventures, which is sometimes funny – like Finn blundering into a heavily guarded enemy base with no plan other than using the force; Han (furious): “That’s not how it works!” – and sometimes tragic, like Kylo Ren worshipping Darth Vader for all the wrong reasons. In retrospect, Han Solo’s death scene has extra resonance because Han Solo, of all people, must have anticipated how this one would turn out. He was there, after all, when Vader killed Ben Kenobi.

But if you know all this – if you obsess over all this – is it possible to be at all objective about any new film in the series? In the year leading up to The Force Awakens’ release I became completely hooked on Star Wars again, watching the trailers on repeat, gobbling up every new piece of information. It sounded like exactly the film I wanted to see – the film “for the fans” that George Lucas seems a little snarky about – and yet, when I ask myself why I was so excited about The Force Awakens, and Star Wars in general, I am never exactly sure. Why these films, and not all the smarter, deeper, richer films I’ve seen in the years since?

It is, simply enough, because Star Wars just caught me at the most impressionable age, the precise moment when the real world was beginning to feel small and a galaxy far, far away seemed like where I wanted to be. My love of Star Wars is not rational, intellectual, critical, it is emotional, instinctive, like the love of a reassuring smell or taste from my childhood. I love it the way I love Corn Flakes, Marmite sandwiches or white chocolate – foods I know I should probably leave behind but always return to when I need comfort. This was even clearer to me after going to see The Force Awakens with my wife, who is five years younger than me, and my 13-year-old daughter. Both of them enjoyed it, but not like a Marmite sandwich. For my wife, Star Wars was just part of the 1980s furniture, like Indiana Jones and Back to the Future, a staple of Christmas TV. For my daughter, Star Wars is a thing she watched with her dad a lot from around the age of four, fun but not life-changing. Instead she was hooked, when she reached the most impressionable age, by another story about a youngster who discovers they have special powers, a more complicated family history than they’d realised, and a chance to train to be something special – Harry Potter.

It’s been fascinating, watching the debate over The Force Awakens evolve since its release, and seeing how conflicted some older fans are. Sometimes getting what you want can be worse than not getting what you want. Yes, we mostly love The Force Awakens, but now, once again, we have to ask ourselves why, and why we haven’t moved on from stuff like this. If we’re honest we feel a little cheated, not because it’s unlike the Star Wars we loved, like The Phantom Menace was, but because it’s exactly like it. And in watching Star Wars with fresh eyes, as grown-ups, we can’t help noticing that these are just movies –movies that (sorry fellow geeks) become more silly and implausible the more you scrutinise them (just like most other blockbuster movies, then). Ironically, what fans now seem to want most of all is for Episode VIII to be nothing like what they’ve seen before. But if it is, that will probably be a disappointment too.