Chaired by Australian Julianne Schultz the panel that gathered to discuss the role of the Commonwealth had three panellists, from India, Ghana and Barbados who collectively brought an awe-inspiring range of talent and experience to the table. Schultz herself is a prolific author and editor of quarterly journal, the Griffith Review. The panelists included Karen Lord, a Barbadian polymath and author of multi-award-winning Redemptive in Indigo, Best of all Possible Worlds and the Galaxy Game, Margaret Busby, the legendary writer, editor and broadcaster who became Britain’s youngest and first Black woman publisher and Salil Tripathi, Indian-born human rights journalist and author, currently based in London and Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee of PEN International. The very existence of the Commonwealth is, of course, contentious and a ripe subject for discussion. First mooted by Scottish aristocrat Lord Rosebury in 1884 as a means of keeping ex-colonies as allies after decolonisation, the Commonwealth was created in 1926. Potential British hopes for a post-Brexit Empire 2.0 were scrutinised, as symbolised in Meghan Markle’s elaborately embroidered wedding veil. This kicked off a broad discussion of many issues; including the appropriateness of inherited succession to the post of Head of the Commonwealth, and questions of how Commonwealth countries can best work together.
The relative importance to the speakers of the Commonwealth in the past was influenced by age, national history and the process of independence creating significant variations in experience. All the speakers agreed on the importance of understanding the history of the Commonwealth in order for us all to have a better understanding of issues of past and present immigration. Tripathi’s personal relationship had been a positive one, with fond memories of growing up in India with access to the British Council, British literature and most importantly, scholarships to study in Britain. However, the audience laughed at him likening Brexit to leaving a wife for an old flame; realising too late that life has moved on without you. Economies like India’s have certainly forged ahead in the meantime, surpassing Britain’s in 2016. Busby spoke of being born in Ghana in 1944 as British citizen, under the broader citizenship laws that were in place at the time, and the effect of being introduced to a narrow range of British literature at her British school. Lord shared the story that although she was born in an independent Barbados and studied a more relevant Caribbean syllabus, it was still a surprise to hear International Finance professors at Oxford freely admit that trade policies post-Independence were certainly not set up to benefit the ex-colonies in any way.
Lord used the example of a scene in George Lamming’s classic Barbadian novel, the Castle of my Skin where the disbelief at an elderly woman claiming to have been born a slave, parallels our current amnesia around our often fractious and violent history. She briefly touched on the history of independence for Caribbean countries and Britain’s selfish motivations for swift decolonisation. It would have been fruitful to tease out further how the method of granting of independence to Caribbean nations cemented individual national identities, interests of the local ruling classes and international capital.
There was, however, much discussion of the unfairness and the devastating psychological impact of the recent Windrush debacle that finally hit the headlines in 2018, particularly by Busby. Rightly so, as we need to continue the pressure to resolve the myriad cases of Caribbean-born, legal British citizens brought to Britain as children on a British passport who have suddenly been denied citizenship or even the right to enter the country from a trip abroad. Busby was keen to emphasise that Britain needs a fuller understanding of the Commonwealth in order to recognise the contribution by immigrants to Britain from ex-colonies, from creating, expanding and supporting the national economy to the many and varied contributions to national culture. There was general agreement that the British education system is severely narrow and limited in its focus which doesn’t provide the necessary context for understanding a demand for reparations, economically or otherwise. The issue of reparations is a touchy subject, that our political leaders make a point of dodging. From Tony Blair’s refusal of an outright apology over slavery in 2007, to David Cameron sidestepping all discussions of reparations on his ‘prison debacle’ visit to Jamaica in 2015. In the absence of a richer educational curriculum, ignorance can contribute to alienation. Tripathi cited the example of the whitewashing of the fuller historical narrative, citing the recent film Dunkirk as an example of omitting the contributions of non-white soldiers from around the world in various war efforts. Lord suggested that this kind of historical ignorance often leads to blaming others for their own misfortunes or seeming lack of progress.
One of the potential benefits of cooperating with other Commonwealth countries is the ease of communication through a mutual language, but this also comes loaded with its own problems. One of the benefits of writing in English is that literature can be more easily promoted and reach a wider global audience. Tagore’s work, for example, once it was translated into English by a passionate Yeats, went global. Even the insistence on English for entrants in the Commonwealth Writers Prize, gives a huge headstart in the race to native English speakers. Issues of language and how it affects identity and the expression of one’s authentic self have been debated among Caribbean writers for years. Lord outlined the debates over the use of Standard English or national dialects in Caribbean writing, including the perception and accessibility of dialect, particularly French patois and Amerindian languages used in Guyana.
Tripathi considered the most useful role of the Commonwealth could be in the area of human rights, citing examples of times when Pakistan and Nigeria have been asked to leave over these issues. The panel agreed on the great possibilities of South-South cooperation, particularly in sharing culture to facilitate debate. I was interested in what the panel considered the most urgent but practical issues should in the huge topic of reparations, but there wasn’t time to go beyond the immediate issue of righting the wrongs of the Windrush scandal. In an era of complicated trade agreements, the stranglehold of the IMF, using the Commonwealth to strengthen South-South trade is perhaps idealistic. However, with the global growth of publishing houses, perhaps the publishing industry can tentatively lead the way.
August: 9th & 16th
Woodland Creatures (20.00)
The lovely thing about the night was that it was poetry – funny sexy, erotic, friendly poetry. The poetry the Ladies performed was of exceptional quality. Classy, twenty-something poems of love, & about lovers, including a sonnet to well-used and loved vibrators. There were thin poets, fat poets, beautiful lesbians, drag kings, & also Rosie Garland from my beloved Yorkshire, looking splendid in Whitby Vampire Clothes & incanting her muse to perfection.
All of the night’s poets were fantastic and all of them beautiful. To the mix were added two burlesque acts that were so bad, they were brilliant. Of these we witnessed Andromeda Mystik’s performance art, that really makes one think. I saw Andromeda perform her burlesque act at last years Fringe, I didnae get it then. But last night the penny finally dropped.
There’s a lot of visual and physical poetry being expressed on the burlesque stage right now, and the presence of physical performers in a spoken word gig is very inspirational to poets and encourages them to explore their own range of movements and visual appearances.
Read the full interview
All in all, it was a whirlwind hour in the quaintly titled Woodland Creatures pub. The performance space was like walking into a bohemian Parisian boudoir; sultrily lit, wooden pews, with a small stage on which a piano resides. Our host, Max Scratchman, the only Male performer of the evening also recited a newly crafted poem about love and the etiquette of love making. This was a top hour of entertainment and my word there is a lot to take in. The next Poetry Bordello is on the 16th August, so book your tickets soon, its going to be a sell-out.
Mark ‘Divine’ Calvert
Max Scratchman. (Host)
Andromeda Mystik. Performance art.
Carla Woodburn. Poet.
Katy Kat. Poet.
AR Crow. Poet.
Suky Goodfellow. Poet.
Angie Stachan, Poet.
Jo Gilbert. Poet.
Elizabeth McGeowan. Poet.
Taylor Swift, 666. Performance Art.
Rosie Garland. Poet.
The illustrious Max Scratchmann, parvenu extraordinaire, is bringing a bevvy of beauty & talent to Leith Walk this Fringe. The Mumble managed a wee blether…
Hello Max, so where ya from & where ya at, geographically speaking?
Max: I currently live in Edinburgh but I was born in India as part of the huge ex-pat Scottish community who worked in the jute mills there and brought “home” when I was six. I’ve since lived all over the Untied Kingdom from London to Orkney and I settled in Edinburgh seven years ago when I totally fell in love with the city.
Which poets inspire you, both old skool & today?
Max: I have very catholic taste in poetry and the people I read tend to range from Poe to Pam Ayres. I’m a great fan of the late 19th and early 20th century nonsense writers, like Edward Lear, Hilaire Belloc and Harry Graham – and of course the iconic Victorian to Edwardian female poets like Christian Rossetti, Emily Bronte and the absolutely stunning and underrated Charlotte Mew. Contemporary poet wise, most of the people I admire tend to be featured in my shows, since when I find a poet or performer who inspires me I stalk them until they agree to take part in a Poetry Circus gig. It’s hard to single any one poet out, they’re all so good, but I’ll make a quick mention of our two fantastic headliners, Rosie Garland and Elise Hadgraft, who really push poetry to the furthest realms of its borders and use words in ways that even cynical old grumps like me find themselves amazed by.
You have traveled to, & perform’d in, events all over Scotland. How do you find the Scottish poetry scene?
Max: Poetry ‘scenes’ differ from country to country and even city to city, but the Scottish scene is particularly imaginative and vibrant right now. Rana Marathon is doing wonders in Perth; Glasgow is flourishing with Sam Small and Kevin Gilday & Cat Hepburn putting on regular nights; and though we’ve lost Blind Poetics and Soap Box here in Edinburgh there’s still Inky Fingers, the Goddamn Slam, Loud Poets and, of course, new girl Jacqueline Whymark’s runaway success, From the Horse’s Mouth.
Can you tell us about Poetry Circus?
Max: Yes. Poetry Circus started way back in 2014 after a chance meeting between myself and the dancer/poet, Josie Pizer, at a writers’ workshop. We had both been bemoaning the lack of theatre in poetry gigs, and the tendency of some poets to stand hiding behind the mic with their nose buried in their very expensive Paperchase note book, mumbling what was often really good poetry. What we really wanted to see was more visually stunning work, and more of poets who could demonstrate a big personality on stage. We were also particularly keen on ‘poetry’ that was expressed with more than just words, and, before we quite knew what had hit us we’d formed a spoken word theatre company and, over the last four years, we’ve hosted dancers, performance artists and film-makers under our all-encompassing banner of poetry.
What does Max Scratchmann like to do when he’s not being creative?
Max: I think I’m always being creative. In addition to my writing and performance work I’m also a visual artist & animator and an occasional tutor and workshop facilitator, plus I find time to be an artist’s model and – currently – a living sculpture in an art installation.
You are stranded on a desert island with three good books. What would they be?
Max: They would have to be very long books that could stand re-reading! I’d have to say The DANNY Quadrilogy by Chancery Stone; Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie and the complete works of Kirsty Logan. What would really be better though would be a perpetual library card and mobile library that was driven by passing dolphins…
You’re about to shoot the meteor of dazzling wordplay that is Poetry Bordello back into the Fringe’s poetical stratosphere, how did you get involved & are you excited to be back?
Max: Because a lot of my personal work is comedic I’m quite heavily in demand for cabarets – particularly during the Fringe – and, as such, i became very intensively involved in the burlesque scene a couple of years ago and was blown away by some of the performers and performance artists on that stage. It occurred to me that a lot of burlesque acts were visual poetry and lots of the artists make statements on important issues like gender politics and personal sexuality, so from there it was only a short hop towards inviting burlesque performers to join the Poetry Circus regulars, and the chemistry that we’ve discovered between the artistes is electric.
Can you tell us more about Poetry Bordello?
Max: Poetry Bordello is a unique show because it fuses physical performance art and burlesque with spoken word and poetry and provides a safe space for poets to perform their more personal work on themes of sexuality, gender and personality in a supportive environment. Plus they get to dress up if they want to!
Who is the MC & is she any good?
Max: Because we’re running a Bordello we really needed a Madam, and we found the ideal one in the shape of our very own Madam Isla. Bearing a passing resemblance to the outstanding stand-up comedian, Isla Maclean, Madam Isla will steer you into the shady underworld of the Bordello and ensure that you have an amazing time. And, yes, of course she’s good…
What acts have you got for us this year?
Max: We’re totally thrilled to be presenting bestselling novelist and chanteuse Rosie Garland headlining on 9th August, and Elise Hadgraft aka Corporationpop on 16th August before she heads off to Berlin to start a world tour with her new punk band; plus a mouthwatering array of slam-busting performance poets including the Belfast Slam Champion, Elizabeth McGeown, Imogen Stirling, Gray Crosbie, Max Scratchmann, AR Crow, this year’s Stanza Slam Champ, Jo Gilbert, Suky Goodfellow, Orla – Sparklechops – Kelly, Katy Kat, Express Yourself’s Carla Woodburn and the poet laureate of Aldi, our very own Angie Strachan; plus we’re super chuffed to be welcoming back the renowned sideshow dancer and choreographer, Andromada Mystic, from Sanctuary of Sin plus astounding physical performers Taylor Swift 666 and Sharrow.
Why do you think the blend of spoken word & burlesque works so well – especially in the hands of Poetry Bordello?
Max: As I’ve said, there’s a lot of visual and physical poetry being expressed on the burlesque stage right now, and the presence of physical performers in a spoken word gig is very inspirational to poets and encourages them to explore their own range of movements and visual appearances. We’ve been doing a series of photoshoots over the last few weeks, using the themes of bordellos and Edwardian music halls, and in particular the photography of E J Bellocq, and the performers have been pushing their own limits and have a whale of a time.
What do you think the audience will take away from the performances?
Max: Hopefully, they’ll have a totally amazing time but also find themselves thinking about some of the themes raised and maybe want to rethink their own attitudes on gender stereotypes and sexual labelling.
You’ve got 20 seconds to sell the show in the street, what do you say?
Max: Did you really, really hate poetry when you were at school? You’ll love this.
What will Max Scratchmann be doing after the Fringe?
Max: I’ll be producing a new show called Speakin’ Cajun with the Jennifer Ewan Band at the Traverse Theatre on 22nd September (and we’re doing a shorter Fringe version at Woodland Creatures on 22nd and 23rd August); plus I’ll be touring and appearing in cabarets and hopefully finishing my latest book of short fiction.