Scottish Storytelling Centre
May 4th, 2018
Four diversely different characters, each with an important story to tell. Maybe too many are recaptured in the 90 minute performance; blink once and you might miss something. One has to keep in mind just how far these guys have traveled to bring such magical words to our attention, with the show taking shape at a residency in Mumbai earlier this year. Each of the stories could have been a full performance, especially the conversation between Sheena Khalid and Eilidh Firth, about the similarities between the industrial nature of both Mumbai and Dundee – in itself was a very interesting history lesson. One has to remember that this performance of stories is still in its conception stage, a work in progress. Four performance artists all with something valid to say.
Jumping from story to story was a bit like a mental dream after a weekend on Magick Mushrooms. Mohammad Muneem Nazir was spectacular, a very confident man, full of grace and musical sparkle. With a genuine spirituality and deep wisdom. A True Sufi. Eilidh is a quiet genius who came across as being more comfortable as a violinist. In a recent interview with the Mumble, she gave an excellent account of the essence of the piece;
A New Conversation has brought together two artists from Scotland and two from India to create new work based through storytelling and music. I didn’t have any experience of storytelling before this residency, so it’s been fantastic to push the boundaries of what I do. I’m particularly excited about part of the show that looks at the links between mill workers in Mumbai and Dundee. The stories from the other artists have been really inspiring and I’ve loved experimenting with music for the show. We decided to call the piece ‘Where I Stand’ and it looks at our connection to our land and place through ancient myths and a reimagining of contemporary stories.
Sometimes during the performance, it felt like I was eavesdropping. It was very captivating & the night flew by. I have known Daniel Allison for several years having shared the performance stage with him at prominent Scottish festivals. He’s one of the best didge players in Scotland and he has already built a solid reputation as a raconteur with a deep wisdom and understanding of Celtic mythology. Like I said, each of these performers was infinitely interesting. Sheena Khalid is a natural actress who delivered quite beautifully, so much so this beautiful Indian mystic has inspired poetry within my soul. Possibilities and ideas became inspired within me. But still it was too much take in. Like a collection of ideas waiting to unfold to their potential.
Brilliant art always works me, and this has not been an exception; it has taken a weekend to process everything that I bared witness to. I think it will work me for a bit longer. The conception of the collective and the merging of culture, the Pagan roots of both Mumbai and Celtic Britain brought to life.
Indeed, my performance poet has been inspired.
Mark ‘Divine’ Calvert
This Friday sees Edinburgh-based storyteller Daniel Allison, Dundonian fiddle-player and composer Eilidh Firth, Mumbai actor, writer and director Sheena Khalid, and Kashmiri poet and songwriter Mohammad Muneem Nazir begin A New Conversation. The Mumble managed to catch a wee blether with the Scottish contingent
Hello Eilidh, so when did you realise you were musical?
EILIDH: I started getting violin lessons at the age of five, but I definitely wasn’t up for practicing! When I was ten I joined a local group called the ‘Tayside Young Fiddlers’ when I began to enjoy playing and after that my playing improved more and more.
Hello Daniel. You are a true international troubadour. What is it about travelling that thrills you the most?
DANIEL: It’s very easy for us to get stuck in habitual ways of doing things, seeing things. Going to a place where nothing and no one is familiar frees you from outdated routines and perceptions, giving you the chance to experience the world and yourself anew. Unless you bring your phone…
You have worked as a chimpanzee tracker. What does that entail?
DANIEL: I worked on a chimpanzee habituation project in a developing nature reserve in Uganda. The job was to habituate chimps to human presence so that eventually tourists could come along and see them. So, we would walk through the forests listening and looking for chimps, in silence, all day, every day.
So Eilidh, you are a relatively recent graduate of the RCS; how did you find your studies there?
EILIDH: I loved my time at the RCS. It was great to be surrounded by people who were so passionate about traditional music. It gave me a grounding in the context around the music – the history, folklore and language – and they encouraged me to start writing my own tunes as well.
Back to Daniel. Creative Scotland have funded you to give four Scottish tours to date, visiting schools as if they were Dark Age courts & you were the travelling bard. Can you tell us a little about the experiences?
DANIEL: I love working as a modern-day bard, but I wanted to have a go at being a ye olden day bard, so I organised tours in which I would walk coast to coast across the country, wild camping and stopping to tell stories at schools along the way. The first one was very hard as I made my schedule too tight, so at one point I walked 28 miles in a day, slept and then got up at 5am to run for miles across the hills in the rain – with horrendous blisters – to get to my next gig. But I learnt from my mistakes and had wonderful experiences, like telling stories outside a chambered cairn on a hilltop on North Uist at sunset, and dancing Strip the Willow down Stornoway harbour at sunrise.
How does travel inspire your creativity & can you give us examples?
DANIEL: I love how people often begin creative practices while travelling, even if it’s just writing down what they’ve seen. I think somehow you can leave self-limiting beliefs at home. For me, I see or do things that stir my imagination, and then at some point they come out in a story. Based on that period in the forest, I wrote a story years later about a Tanzanian boy who is possessed by a chimpanzee, and a novella about an English girl encountering a local shaman while living in a Kenyan nature reserve.
Eilidh, you are in integral member of the Scottish folk band ‘Barluath.’ Can you tell us about the experience?
EILIDH: We formed ‘Barluath’ while we were still at university and I feel like we’ve really grown up together. It’s been wonderful to travel and perform and I love making new music with them.
What is it about traditional Scottish music that makes you tick?
EILIDH: I love traditional music because every player can put their personal stamp on the music. No two performers will play a tune in the same way. I also think it’s great that the music has so much history surrounding it but it’s still as vibrant and relevant today.
…& Daniel, which instruments do you use when you add music to your storytelling?
DANIEL: My main instrument is the didgeridoo, which I play in traditional and contemporary styles, but I also use Tibetan singing bowls, rattles, chimes, drums, jaw harp and a few other bits and bobs to give texture to stories.
What does Eilidh Firth like to do when she’s not being musical?
EILIDH: I love getting out into the countryside with the dog or up a hill – he keeps me fit! I’ve also recently taught myself how to knit so you’ll usually find me cursing under a pile of yarn!
Can you tell us about A New Conversation?
EILIDH: A New Conversation has brought together two artists from Scotland and two from India to create new work based through storytelling and music. I didn’t have any experience of storytelling before this residency, so it’s been fantastic to push the boundaries of what I do. I’m particularly excited about part of the show that looks at the links between mill workers in Mumbai and Dundee. The stories from the other artists have been really inspiring and I’ve loved experimenting with music for the show. We decided to call the piece ‘Where I Stand’ and it looks at our connection to our land and place through ancient myths and a reimagining of contemporary stories.
What will be your contribution to A New Conversation?
DANIEL: The meeting of the mythic and contemporary is a strong current in our piece; I think my job has been to hold the place of the mythic, choosing the right stories and presenting them in a way that shows their relevance to Scotland and India now, and to our own lives as individuals. One story I tell is the legend of a poet who went to live in the otherworld but returned because he missed th madness and sadness of this world. Mohammad and I worked together to explore how his own story of a growing up in and later escaping a conflict zone reflects this tale.
Are you finding connections between European music and stories & that of India?
EILIDH: I knew there would be links between our two countries and cultures, but I couldn’t have imagined how many similarities there would be. I think both countries are going through periods of change and in some ways uncertainties and it’s been fascinating to see the parallels reflected in the stories brought together in ‘Where I Stand’.
To which places will an audience member’s imagination be taken through the event?
DANIEL: A lot of places! Audiences will experience the murder of a giant, Iron Age warfare, industrial Mumbai, cosmic turtles, Urdu poetry, soul-stirring music and an erotic proposition from the goddess of war. I think that’s plenty to go on.
What does the rest of 2018 hold in store for Daniel Allison?
DANIEL: This year I’m going to be working hard to get my novel ready to send out into the world. It’s a dark and bloody adventure story for younger teenagers set in prehistoric Orkney.
What does the rest of 2018 hold in store for Eilidh Firth?
EILIDH: I’m really passionate about music education and when I’m not performing or composing I love to teach. Over the next few months I’m going to be taking some courses to give me some new approaches to working with young people and taking on some outreach projects to widen access to music. I also have a few jumpers I want to finish knitting and a couple of Munros to ‘bag’!
WHERE I STAND: A NEW CONVERSATION
Scottish Storytelling Centre
April 30th, 2018
The situation of the Scottish Storytelling Centre; half-way up the Royal Mile by the old Tolbooth where John Knox used to preach to the passing public, & the World’s End pub, which marked the edge of the medieval city walls; is one of the most historical places in Scotland. No better site, then, for the modern dionysia that is Tradfest, thrust annually upon a receptive public by the TRACS organisation, with TRACS standing for – Traditional Arts & Culture, Scotland. A Monday is as good a day as any for culture, & so I headed into Edinburgh for a double helping of story-hearing.
The occasion was to be two hour-long sessions, divided only by a quick dash of time between performing areas in the Centre. On arrival I noticed that one of Edinburgh’s finest storytellers would be in the audience, the irrepressible David Campbell. He had surrounded himself with a bevvy of intelligent, bonnie ladies, who spontaneously burst out into a rendition of que sera sera in the cafe. ‘Only at the Tradfest,’ I thought to myself, sipping on one of the rather especial speciality beers they have in stock.
The first session was called MARY RUSHIECOATS AND THE WEE BLACK BULL, which turned out to be a celebration of Bulls, Beltane & the Buddha’s birthday performed with highly praisable panache by American storyteller, Linda Williamson, & Japanese harpist Mio Shapley. Linda opened with a tale recorded in 1985 by her husband, Duncan, who sadly died a decade ago. He did leave behind some remarkable works in the passing, including a classically nerve-wracking, mind-bending starburst of fairy tale, the Mary Rushiecoats, all in iambic pentameter with the odd rhyme thrown in too.
Following the charming wicked ogre ending, Mio also told a tale, the Bamboo Cutter, a tenth century story full of treasures & human change, & the oldest survivor in the Japanese tradition. The third tale thrust us straight into the Buffalo Nation of America, a remarkable cross-species flourish of glorious storytelling. Throughout, the ladies made us feel extremely comfortable, & the harp was so hypnotic & that it projected into my mind the harp-use of the Celtic bards in the mead halls of ancient days. In thus mind, I was perfectly set up for the second half of my Tradfest outing.
The second part of my outing was downstairs in the Centre’s main theatre, & went by the rather elongated title that is A FLAME OF WRATH FOR SQUINTING PATRICK. The soul of this story is a Weegieland modernisation of a bardic tale, recited quite engagingly by snow-haired David Frances & accompanied through a theatrical splinter of the Pìobaireachd tradititon with the curiouser & curiouser music of Calum MacCrimmon, a direct descendant of the famous pipers to the Dunvegan MacLeods, & John Mulhearn of the ineffable Big Music Society. When Mulhearn said of the story that, ‘the underlying narrative is easily brought into the twenty-first century,’ he was completely accurate in his sentiment; & as I heard the madcap jauntings of Skelly Pat, Big Donnie, Devil MacKay and Mad Dog Mackenzie, I did rather take joy in the timelessness of a good story well told.
Damian Beeson Bullen
This Friday, Leyla Josephine will be returning to Edinburgh with her highly-acclaimed show, Hopeless. The Mumble managed to catch her for a wee blether & to see some of her poems
Hello Leyla, so where ya from & where ya at, geographically speaking?
I am originally from Glasgow spent most of my life there. I lived in Japan for a while and now I’m in Prestwick. I moved to be near the coast for some peace and quiet but it’s been a lot of commuting. I spend most of my time on the M77.
When did you first realise you were a poet?
I don’t know if I’ve ever really felt like a poet. There’s certainly not been a moment I can specifically think of. I think my work has always sat on the margins of performance, storytelling and poetry. I sometimes feel like a bit of a fraud when I call myself a poet. But I also believe that anything can be poetry, so when someone gave me the title I took it and ran with it.
Which poets inspired you at the beginning & who today?
I think in the beginning of liking words and rhythm I was more focussed on music and looking back some of my favourite musicians could definitely be considered poets like Jamie T, Ghostpoet and Alex Turner. At school I was obsessed with Liz Lockhead’s Medea. I try to look around me in the UK Spoken Word community for inspiration, Iona Lee, Sam Small, Liam McCormick and Lisa Luxx are some of my favourites. I have always been a fan of Kate Tempest, Hollie McNish. I love reading Ocean Vuong and David Ross Linklater. But I definitely look to people like Taylor Mac, Kieran Hurley, Julia Taudevin and Third Angel and who manage to so beautifully tie theatre and spoken word together. I think I’ve always been really lucky to have one foot in the door of both Spoken Word and Contemporary Theatre. I have seen so many brilliant performers and poets and I try to take inspiration from everywhere.
You’re quite the creative polymath; teaching drama, making theatre & writing poetry. Do all these artistic endeavors bleed into each other?
Definitely, usually I can’t really tell the difference between any of them. It’s just the framing of what you’re doing, all the creative processes are very similar. The blurring of the lines is what makes it the most interesting. My pamphlet isn’t a poetry book, it’s documentation of a theatre show which has poetry in it but does that make it a poetry book or maybe is it a script or because it’s true story is it a memoir? I find it fascinating when people try to name it because really I’m not sure either. I don’t know even if drama teacher is right because I’m encouraging people to write their own stories and perform them which is maybe more like poetry. I’m not sure what I am in any of it, but I’m happy to just cruise along and be whatever people want me to be.
You first rose to public prominence when in 2014 you won The UK Poetry Slam at The Royal Albert Hall. Can you tell us about the experience, & what was the prize?
There was no prize but it has definitely helped me get exposure and book gigs. I came joint first with Vanessa Kissule – another brilliant poet. It was a long day, I think about 100 poets taking part. I really liked being one of the only Scottish people there, I think it gave me a bit of an edge. Slams are fun as long as you don’t take them too seriously. The best poet never wins, it’s all about manipulating the audience, it’s a performance, it’s a show but it’s so entertaining and such a buzz! That day was great because it was only my second slam and to come out top was really exciting.
You have performed all over Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland and as far as Prague, New York, Victoria and Vancouver. Which are your three best gigs (in no particular order)?
That’s such a hard question! I’d say my favourite ever was at The Wickerman 2014, it was the first time I came off stage and I was like this is what I want to do. I love this feeling, I’m in control, I’m with my friends, I’m good at this, it’s sunny, the audience are enjoying it. This is it, I’m going to do whatever this is now. The BBC Stage at The Fringe with The Social’s Rappers Vs Poets is always great. There’s an audience of about 300 and it’s always absolutely terrifying cause it’s all filmed live, but I live for the pressure!! My pamphlet launch felt like another real moment – I packed out Inn Deep which was the first place I ever performed, people couldn’t get in and everyone was standing. I felt like a rockstar for about 10 mins. I had invited all my favourite musicians and poets to perform. The mic wasn’t working and my performance wasn’t perfect but it felt special and a milestone. I never thought anyone would ever want to publish me and I was so overwhelmed with the support.
What does Leyla Josephine like to do when she’s not writing?
I like to read, I drink a lot of tea, I like going for walks, seeing theatre – the madder the better. I was a ski instructor for a while so when I get to ski I absolutely love that. I used to party all the time but that’s slowly starting to fade out, I do love to dance and drink beer with my friends when I can but not I’m not as hardcore as I used to me.
The road stretches ahead much like life does.
Mount Errigal, purple in the morning light,
greets me generously.
One foot in front of the other,
they would have walked the whole way
if it wasn’t for the water.
The smell of turf reminds me of home
but you can’t eat turf,
you can only burn it
and fire in the belly
doesn’t feed the starving.
The long grass brushes against my knees
much like grief does.
The ghosts from the Gorta Mor whisper from the ditches
‘Do not be afraid, you are not alone’
One foot in front of the other,
they would have walked the whole way
if it wasn’t for the water.
I’m trying to prove something,
anything, while the earth beneath me spins,
The rain keeps me company,
it sounds like footsteps running.
I’ve got the girls.
they’ve been with me,
staggering down streets,
on table girls,
with our tales
that we keep for take-away meals,
Hold your hand
and make you tea,
come to bed with me
Seas separate us
we come home to melt into each other
the MAC counter warriors.
Belt of lipstick
Fuck him, fuck that.
Taking our bodies back.
Bring the girls out of the dark and
try call us hysterical
Fire in our cheeks
Keys between the knuckles
When we are alone
you underestimate us.
we take up
are the greatest love stories never told,
we are bold,
and the too much
We laugh just as loud as our mothers,
feel the moon in our waters,
don’t chew when we eat,
take no breath when we speak,
don’t interrupt us
we are angry
We’re coming for you,
What are the stand-out continuous themes running through your poetry?
I always want people to feel less alone in their sadness or try to dilute shame by talking about things that are not usually talked about. I mostly write about my own experiences with the hope that they tap into the universal experience.
You are currently touring your 5 star Edinburgh Fringe show Hopeless which was nominated, I understand, for both The Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award and shortlisted for Saboteur Awards for Best Spoken Word Show? How is it going so far on the road?
Yeah it’s going really well. It’s pretty hard work, I’m currently organising everything myself, marketing, photoshop, ticket sales, performing, admin, tech – it gets really exhausting and a bit lonely. But having audiences that aren’t just friends and family is really cool and I have a lot of friends that help out when they can. I feel really lucky to be able to travel and see new cities all while doing something I love.
The pamphlet version of the Hopeless has been published by Speculative Books and is illustrated by Rosalind Shrivas. Can you describe your working relationship with Rosalind?
It was so fun working with Rosalind. She managed to do a great job without even seeing the show! I would send her photos and ideas and she would come back with such amazing pieces that just brought the pamphlet to life. She blew me away every step of the way. As I said before it’s a bit different from a normal poetry pamphlet so her drawings helped shape it into a visual of the show too and actually you get different images that you don’t get in the show.
You will be performing Hopeless at the Summerhall on the 4th May. Is it the same show, or has it been tweaked over time?
I’ve now done the show to an audience 30 times. It’s changed a little but I’ve kept the structure the same mostly. I was lucky enough to have Drew Taylor come in and direct me before the tour. He was brilliant at changing little things like my facial expression or tone just slightly. It’s been quite interesting to repeat the same thing over and over again. I need to find emotion in it every time or it comes across insincere and that’s been the biggest challenge. To still find the belief and love in all the words and actions. It changes every night but my goal is to give every audience a good experience and the attention they deserve.
To someone who has never seen Hopeless, what are they to expect?
It’s a rollercoaster! Some of it is funny and some of it is upsetting. I talk about my dad, my great-great grandfather, The Day After Tomorrow, The refugee crisis and walking 55 miles one day to try and prove a point! I always want people to leave feeling hopeful but it really depends on the person.
What does the rest of 2018 hold in store for Leyla Josephine?
Hopeless is on at The Brighton Fringe, The Prague Fringe and Migration Matters Festival.
I’m starting to make my new show ‘Daddy Drag’ to be performed at The Fringe 2019! Lots more workshops and writing and walks on the beach hopefully (no pun intended).
Leyla will be performing Hopeless @
Edinburgh’s Summerhall, this Friday, the 4th May
Price: £12 / £10
“Nackt kann die Wahrheit vor dem Volke nicht erscheinen.”
—Arthur Schopenhauer, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, Zweiter Band, Kapitel 17
The election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States of America gives further evidence, if needed, that Americans wish to be led by cartoon characters. It was not Trump the human being who acceded to the presidency. It was his screen double, which is all the American electorate has ever known of him. It was Trump the Rich Man of Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992). It was Trump the Boss of The Apprentice (2004-2015). It was Trump the Billionaire of Wrestlemania 23 (2007). Donald Trump is every bit as unreal as Flo the Progressive Insurance Girl or Colonel Sanders—all three of these characters are strategic unrealities. All are holograms, shadows of living beings rather than living beings themselves. They are not human beings; they are human seemings.
Since the accession of Trump to the presidency, there have been multiple stagings, visualizations, stylings, dramatizations of the decapitation and even of the assassination of the forty-fifth President of the United States. Such simulated deaths must be understood not as calls to actually decapitate or to assassinate the living human leader, indeed the leader of the world’s sole superpower, but rather as simulations of the death of a holographic projection, stylizations of the death of a clownish figure no more real than Donald Duck. Trump belongs to Nineteen Eighties trash culture alongside other two-dimensional caricatures of human beings such as Rowdy Roddy Piper, Joe Piscopo, and Morton Downey, Jr. If any of these characters had been assassinated, their deaths would seem as unreal as these figures themselves are. One thinks of Hegel’s meditation on the derealization of death in the time of the French Revolution and wonders if Hegel’s remarks aren’t still as fresh as the paint on our computer screens: Death in the time of the French Revolution, Hegel writes, was the “coldest, shallowest of deaths, with no more significance than cleaving a cabbage head or swallowing a gulp of water.”
In J.G. Ballard’s great novel The Atrocity Exhibition, public figures such as Ronald Reagan and Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy are subjected to the morbid and sordid fantasies of the main character. Since human beings are often dark creatures, their fantasies are often dark fantasies. Why should Trump be immune from the processes of dark-fantasization and fetishization? The imaginary assassinations of Donald Trump are simulated assassinations of a character who is already a simulation. The simulated deaths of Donald Trump are nothing more than the deaths of a simulation. Donald Trump does not exist. You cannot kill something that does not exist. Just as money is the abstract representation of desire, Donald Trump is the abstract representation of a gatherer of abstract representations. To become sentient of this simulation is to become something else: to become aware that what we are witnessing is a holographic image.
I will now turn to discuss the simulated assassinations of Donald Trump. I am excluding from this discussion the real attempt on Trump’s life on 18 June 2016 by a young Briton, as well as the subornation of Trump’s murder by celebrities such as Johnny Depp (a Kentucky-born actor with an affected European accent) and Madonna, who are themselves also unrealities.
In a 2016 promotional video for his tenth studio album Heaven Upside Down (a much better title than Say10, the original name of the album), Marilyn Manson chimerized the decapitation of Donald Trump. This is the first and most artful chimerical execution of the president. The other representations of the assassination of Trump could safely be classified as agitprop or as artless publicity stunts.
In a video for the song “Lavender” by the Toronto-based electronic jazz band BadBadNotGood, Snoop Dogg (also known as “Snoop Lion” and “Snoopzilla”) can be seen mock-executing a clown who resembles Donald Trump. Incredibly, Snoop once had a congenial relationship with Trump, who sang dithyrambs in his honor: “You know Snoop Dogg? He’s the greatest. One of the nation’s best-selling hip-hop artists. And I’ll tell you what: He’s a great guy. And he’s a lot different than you think. You know, you think he’s a wild man? He’s a very, very smart, tough businessman, in addition to being a great musician.” The director of the video, professional YouTube videographer Jesse Wellens, was wise not to directly represent the execution of the president. He was unwise to do worse what Marilyn Manson did better.
The most sanguinary simulation of the assassination of Donald Trump was performed by comedienne Kathy Griffin, who arranged a photograph of herself in which she raised a severed wax head that resembled the head of the Commander-in-Chief. Her hair the same shade of red as the hair on the blood-bespattered head she holds aloft, her facial expression joyless, and her skin alabaster, she seems like a French revolutionary a few moments after the guillotine chops off the head of the monarch. At the press conference which she must have anticipated, Griffin said tristfully, as if in explanation, “I’ve dealt with older white guys trying to keep me down my whole life, my whole career.” One cannot suppress the question: Was she thinking of her father when she said this? Did the disembodied wax head perhaps summon memories of her father? Does she have a conscious or unconscious hatred for her father? Her real father, John Patrick Griffin, died in 2007 of a heart failure at the age of ninety-one. In any event, the performance piece was condemned by almost everyone on the Right and on the Left. CNN announced that Griffin would not be invited back to host its annual New Year’s Eve program.
Rightwing activists pretended to be scandalized by the 2017 open-air dramatization of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar by New York’s Public Theater. During the performances, which took place in Central Park, Julius Caesar is dressed up as Donald Trump. The fictionalized murder of this Caesar-Trump is nowhere near as bloody as it is alleged to have been by Plutarch in his Lives, where, it is written, the body of Caesar was mutilated, mangled, and hacked to pieces. Plutarch even records that Caesar’s genitalia were stabbed. On 17 June 2017, Laura Loomer—one of the video personalities of Rebel Media, the Canadian rightist video company—jumped on stage during a performance of the play while live-recording herself. She screeched: “Stop the normalization of political violence against the Right! This is unacceptable. You cannot promote this kind of violence against Donald Trump.” She was joined by Jack Posobiec, former Washington correspondent for Rebel Media, who bellowed: “You are all Goebbels! You are all Nazis like Joseph Goebbels! You are inciting terrorists!” By disturbing the performance of the play, both of these people resembled those who the Right hates—those who commove performances and presentations. How are they any different? Even worse, they shattered the dramaturgical illusion that the architects and the performers of the play were struggling to create. Loomer twittered about the incident breathlessly: “The moment I rushed the stage of Julius Caesar. Listen to the violence and stabbing of ‘Trump’ that occurred right before. It is revolting.”
Before I consider the question as to whether Shakespeare’s Caesar has anything in common with Donald Trump, I will turn my attention to the text of the play itself.
* * * * *
The Tragedy of Julius Caesar (1599) is Shakespeare’s attempt to explain the motives behind the assassination of Caesar on the Ides of March in 44 B.C.E. and to show the baleful consequences that emerged from this assassination. (The Ides of March: the fifteenth of March on the Roman calendar, the day of settling debts. The day on which Caesar is forced to pay his debt to the conspirators.) The play also passes judgment, I believe, on the conspiracy to assassinate the Roman leader. In doing so, it passes judgment on all such plots to overthrow monarchies, dictatorships, and tyrannies. It is the antithesis of Measure for Measure (circa 1603), Shakespeare’s most politically liberal play, and one almost as politically conservative as The Tragedy of Coriolanus (1605-1608), one of T.S. Eliot’s favorite works of literature.
When we hear of him in the first scene of the play, Caesar is fresh from destroying the sons of the previous emperor, Pompey, in the Battle of Munda, the last battle against the optimates of the old Roman Republic. Caesar has been anointed the “perpetual dictator” of Rome, a dictator with no term limit. He is slated to become king. But there have been no kings in Rome, not since Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, and that was in 495 B.C.E., over four centuries ago, and most of the Roman senators and tribunes worry that Caesar will become overweeningly arrogant and sodden with his own godlike authority. Above all, most of them envy Caesar.
The assassination of Caesar leads to self-assassinations, lynchings, pogroms, purges, and civil war. The play culminates in a Jonestown-like mass suicide. The same blade that Cassius stuck into the emperor is plunged into Cassius’s own torso. He does so on his birthday. The anniversary of the day of his nativity coincides with the day of his self-imposed death. I cannot think of a clearer example of cosmic irony in Western literature than that of Cassius’s suicide—the fact that Cassius murders himself with the same blade that he sunk into the body of the Dear Leader. Titinius follows him. Brutus expires while exhaling Caesar’s name: “Caesar, now be still” [V:v]. Portia “swallows fire” [IV:iii], literally—a ghastly death that mirrors her husband’s inward bursting, his imploding. She is burning up on the inside literally; her husband is disintegrating on the inside metaphorically.
The crowd turns mobbish, and mobbishness takes over Rome. The mob tears an innocent man to pieces in the street (the Poet Cinna). This scene (Act Three, Scene Three), which quickly moves from the comic to the hideous, recalls the opening moment of the play, in which a crowd of plebeians jeers at Flavius and Murellus, sneering tribunes of the people. The point seems to be that democracy, when it uses antimonarchical means, is indistinguishable from ochlocracy. The city descends into mob violence as the result of the antimonarchical violence of the conspirators.
Until tyranny takes hold once more. Octavius, the new tyrant, and Antony are motivated not so much by revanchism, by the desire for righteous vengeance and for the restoration of the ancient regime, as by political ambition, or, what amounts to the same thing, the hatred of subjection. Their “love of Caesar” is really a lust for power or is coterminous with the lust for power. The senators fail at establishing a constitutional monarchy (assuming that this is what they desired to begin with). Such the cosmic irony of the play: One tyrant replaces the other.
The reconstitution of tyranny is brought about by rhetoric—by swaying the crowd with words. Rhetoric is the art of persuading people to do what you want them to do—not to do what you would do yourself. Rhetoric is the art is the art of persuading people to believe what you want them to believe—not to believe what you believe yourself.
When Antony says that his heart is in the coffin with Caesar, this triggers an emotional response in the audience. Brutus’s introductory speech is weak (it is logocentric). Shakespeare intentionally writes it weakly. Antony’s speech soars on the wings of pathopoeia (it is pathocentric) and thus throws the crowd into a frenzy. A classic exercise in rhetoric, pathopoeia is an emotionally provocative speech or piece of writing, the content of which is insignificant. It is not a speech in which the speaker cries, but a speech that makes the audience cry. As such, it is pure manipulation: Notice that Brutus says things that he could not possibly know—for instance, where on the body each conspirator stabbed Brutus.
The point seems to be that democracy fails. Human beings are political animals, and the lust for power supersedes the humanistic and demotic impulses. Only Brutus has a genuine love of humanity, and his role in the assassination of Caesar was motivated by a sincere desire to better the lives of the Roman people. But he is presented as politically naïve. The naïve, incautious idealist, he naïvely allows Mark Antony to speak to the crowd, which ends in Brutus, Cassius, and company being driven out of Rome. Cassius, who is much shrewder politically (he is a Realpolitiker) and politically more mature, cautions Brutus against doing so. Indeed, Cassius recommends that Antony be slaughtered along with Caesar, and Cassius knows well that slicing Antony’s throat open would have saved him and his brother-in-law from their fates. “This tongue had not offended so today,” Cassius says sneeringly to Antony, “[i]f Cassius might have ruled” [V:i]. And yet Cassius is willing to give Antony political power after the assassination is done: “Your voice shall be as strong as any man’s / In the disposing of new dignities” [III:i].
Misinterpretations surround the execution of Caesar: Not only does Brutus catastrophically underestimate Antony; Antony underestimates Cassius [I:ii]. Cassius, in turn, misapprehends Titinius, which leads to Cassius’s self-murder, and Caesar, of course, underestimates those he calls his friends. He ignores the warnings of Calphurnia, the Soothsayer, and Artemidorus.
This leads one to wonder if Brutus did not overestimate the tyrannical nature of Caesar. The entire argument for Caesar’s assassination is based on a surmise, a conjecture, a speculation: “So Caesar may. / Then lest he may, prevent” [II:i]. Epexegesis: In other words, Caesar might become an unbearable tyrant; therefore, he will become an unbearable tyrant. The justification after the deed: Caesar would have become an intolerable tyrant, if he were allowed to live. One is reminded of the question asked in Stephen King’s The Dead Zone: “If you could go back in time to Germany, before Hitler came to power, knowing what you know now, would you kill him?” Many would answer, “Yes.” Yet the argument that Caesar would have become a brutal tyrant and the Romans would have become slaves is a specious one.
It is the Iago-like Cassius who seduces Brutus into murdering Caesar in a way that is similar to the way in which Iago inveigled Othello into committing uxoricide. Cassius presents himself as Brutus’s own “glass” [I:ii], as both the mirror and the image that appears within the mirror, as the speculum and his specular image, as his replica, as his double, as his simulation, as the reflective surface by which Brutus is able to see himself—as the only means by which Brutus is able to see himself—and as his own reflection. Cassius imposes upon Brutus’s mind the plan to commit tyrannicide. He insinuates his own thoughts into the mind of Brutus.
(Let me remark parenthetically that Cassius even sounds like Iago. His “If I were Brutus now, and he were Cassius, / He should not humour me” [I:ii] proleptically anticipates Iago’s “Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago.” The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice will be written five years later.)
Brutus has a divided self. A fractured self. On the one hand, he has genuine affection for Caesar; on the other, a ghostly, anonymous, impersonal voice has colonized his mind and is commanding him to kill a man toward whom he bears no ill will: “[F]or my part, / I know no personal cause to spurn at him / But for the general” [II:i]. From an external perspective, he is a freedom fighter who believes that a constitutional monarchy would be better for the Roman people than a tyranny—but this idea is not his own and does not correspond to his feelings. This self-division would explain why Brutus, with a guilty conscience, proposes to carve up Caesar’s body as if it were a feast for the gods rather than hew his body as if it were a meal for the hounds [II:i]. But what is the difference, ultimately? Killing is killing, knifing is knifing, hacking is hacking, shanking is shanking.
Shakespeare teaches us, around the same time that he begins work on The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, that there is no such thing as a unified personality—that every subjectivity is fractured and complexly self-contradictory and self-contradictorily complex. Indeed, Brutus’s soliloquy is the precursor to Hamlet’s more famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy. Whether or not to kill himself is not yet the question; the question is whether or not to kill Caesar. Rather than ask “To be or not to be,” Brutus asks, in effect, “Should Caesar be, or should Caesar no longer be?” Brutus’s “[T]here’s the question” [II:i] forecasts Hamlet’s “That is the question.” Brutus, as the proto-Hamlet, is speaker and listener at the same time. He affects himself.
No wonder that Portia, Brutus’s wife, gives herself a “voluntary wound” in the thigh [II:i]. She is mutilating herself literally, whereas Brutus is mutilating himself metaphorically. She is a cutter, but so is Brutus. Her self-cutting mirrors his self-cutting. It is disappointing that this scene was cut from the 1953 and 1970 film versions of the play.
No wonder that Brutus will suppress his feelings for his wife after she kills herself: “Speak no more of her” [IV:iii], he says with mock coldness to Messala. He suppresses his feelings for the emperor, after all. But this does not mean that Brutus is cold-blooded; far from it. I believe Brutus when he says to Portia that she is as “dear to [him] as are the ruddy drops / [t]hat visit [his] sad heart” [II:i]. He is a Roman Stoic (with Platonist leanings), and Stoics do not betray their feelings—another sign that Brutus is divided against himself.
Not merely is Brutus divided into warring factions; Rome is divided into warring factions. When Brutus says in Act Two, Scene One that “the state of man” is suffering “the nature of an insurrection,” he is referring both to himself and to Rome. Two acts later: As the conspirators run for their lives and fight from the outside, Octavius, the adopted son of Caesar, comes to Rome, and Mark Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus form an unholy triumvirate and will divide the spoils between them after the defeat of their enemies. “Happy day,” indeed [V:v]! It is clear that Antony is planning to kill Lepidus once Lepidus has stopped being useful to him. He expends more words on his horse and on asinine and equine similes than he does on the serviceable Lepidus himself:
Octavius, I have seen more days than you; / And though we lay these honours on this man / To ease ourselves of diverse slanderous loads, / He shall but bear them as the ass bears gold, / To groan and sweat under the business, / Either led or driven, as we point the way: / And having brought our treasure where we will, / Then take we down his load and turn him off, / Like to the empty ass, to shake his ears / And graze in commons… Do not talk of him / But as a property [IV:i].
Not only that: Antony threatens to curtail the benefits to the Roman people that were promised in Caesar’s will (a stimulus package for every Roman, access to Caesar’s once-private gardens and orchards)—the promise of these benefits ferments and foments the crowd, turning the crowd into a mob. (The word mob comes from the Latin mobilis, which means “movable,” and is etymologically connected to the words mobile and mobilize. A mob is a crowd in action.) Antony says to Octavius and Lepidus: “[W]e shall determine / How to cut off some charge in legacies” [IV:i]. In other words, we will reduce the number of drachmas that every Roman was promised and perhaps repossess the gardens and orchards that we promised them, as well.
Within the factions, there are factions: Cassius and Brutus squabble as if they were fractious luchadores in the third scene of the fourth act. Mark Antony and Octavius disagree on who should move to the left in the first scene of the fifth act:
ANTONY: Octavius, lead your battle softly on, / Upon the left hand of the even field.
OCTAVIUS: Upon the right hand I. Keep thou the left.
ANTONY: Why do you cross me in this exigent?
OCTAVIUS: I do not cross you: but I will do so.
Let us not forget the intrusions of the supernatural / the intimations of the supernatural: The lioness that whelps in the street [II:ii]. The graves that yawn and yield up their dead [II:ii]. The nightbird that hoots and shrieks at noon in the marketplace [I:iii]. (Why no filmmaker, as far as I know, has represented these oneiric images is a mystery to me.) The lightning storms that frame the conspiracy to dispatch Caesar—in the third scene of the first act and in the second scene of the second act. Calphurnia listens to the thunder and studies the lightning and interprets these as fatidic signs, as if she were a ceraunomancer (someone who divines supernatural or transcendent meaning from the heavens) [II:ii]. Cassius is a ceraunologist (someone who poetically or pseudoscientifically compares the movements of the heavens with worldly events): He sees the “dreadful night / [t]hat thunders, lightens, opens graves and roars” [I:iii] as the celestial complement to Caesar’s unnamed worldly violence. The ghosts, the supernaturalized beasts, the signs of the heavens that are interpreted as wonders or metaphors: The point of the supernatural is to call into question the tyrannicide.
The self-murder, the military violence, the mobbishness, the madness, the pandemonium, the infantile squabbling, the familial betrayals, the portents, the interference of the supernatural—all of this issues from the killing of Caesar or from the conspiracy to kill Caesar. All of these are symptoms of a disease brought on by the pathogenic act of violence against the emperor. Shakespeare would seem to agree with Goethe, who claimed that the murder of Caesar is “the most absurd act that ever was committed”; for Goethe, this act proved that even the best of the Romans did not understand what government is for (Nachgelassene Werke, xiii, p. 68). Seen from this perspective, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is a politically reactionary play, one that justifies authoritarian dictatorship, if not outright tyranny. Again, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is one of Shakespeare’s most politically conservative plays, second only to The Tragedy of Coriolanus, one of the most reactionary plays ever written.
If the play is politically ambiguous (neither endorsing statism nor rejecting it), then why do we see so little evidence of Caesar’s unbearable tyranny? The play shows us more instances of Caesar’s feebleness than of his tyrannousness (all in the second scene of the first act): Caesar’s epileptic fit in the marketplace, his poor hearing, his feverishness in Spain, his near-drowning in the Tiber. Save for the sole instance of the banishment of Publius Cimber, there is no evidence that Caesar is oppressive. There is much more evidence that the play condemns the assassination of Caesar than there is evidence that the play takes a neutral stance on the assassination. Indeed, one could write, without fear of repudiation, that the play takes a stand against the assassination of Julius Caesar—and thus, a stand against the overthrow of authoritarian dictatorships.
Despite its title, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is not the tragedy of Julius Caesar. Caesar only has 130 lines and, in spite of what Whoopi Goldberg claims, does not die at the end of the play, but in the middle. The execution of Caesar divides the text into two parts: the first deals with the motives behind the deed; the second deals with its consequences. It is the tragedy not of Caesar, but of Brutus, whose desires are not his own and who is not his own.
* * * * *
The Tragedy of Julius Caesar anticipates its reception by future audiences. Like the atrociously underrated Troilus and Cressida (1602), characters are conscious that they are the unreal representations of real historical human beings. In Troilus and Cressida, Achilles spreads the fake news that “Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain,” and the reader / the spectator gets the impression that Achilles is aware that the legend will be printed and become historical. In Julius Caesar, characters (Cassius and Brutus) are conscious that the play will be performed for centuries after the death of their author in countless different languages. Cassius: “How many ages hence / Shall this our lofty scene be acted over / In states unborn and accents yet unknown?” [III:i]. And why else would Brutus’s final words be retained, untranslated, in the original Latin? The characters look backward into the dizzying abyss of history.
Did Shakespeare ever anticipate that Caesar would be costumed as a buffoon?
To return to the Central Park staging of Julius Caesar: There are at least three reasons why Caesar has nothing in common with Trump.
Reason One: Trump panders, but does not debase himself
Caesar debases himself at Lupercalia, the Festival of the Wolf, by refusing a crown that is offered to him three times and—after swooning, foaming at the mouth, and falling in the public square—by begging “wenches” in the street for forgiveness [I:ii]. (Lupercalia took place on 15 February on the Roman calendar and celebrated Lupa, the lactating Wolf Goddess who suckled Romulus and Remus in the cave of Lupercal, and the Goat God Lupercus, the God of Shepherds.) But his self-debasement is staged. It is the staged inversion of relations between the powerful and the powerless. It is not genuine, sincere self-mortification. His repeated refusal of the crown, in particular, is what rhetoricians call accismus: the feigned refusal of that which is earnestly desired.
Caesar is beloved of the people (we see this in the first scene of the play). There is no question that Caesar was friendlier to the people than his predecessor, Pompey. According to Suetonius, Caesar supported the plebeians and the tribunes, who represented the interests of the people. Caesar endorsed the redistribution of land and opposed the optimates, who wanted to limit the power of the plebeians. He was called a popularis for a reason. Pompey, on the other hand, favored a much stricter authoritarian rule.
Trump styled himself as a populist political candidate, and this no doubt contributed to his triumph over Hillary Rodham Clinton, the establishment Democratic candidate in November 2016. Is Trump, then, a man of the people in the way that Caesar was a man of the people?
Trump’s language is the language of the people—of inarticulate, slow-witted people. His grammatical skills are those of an unremarkable eleven-year-old boy, according to a 2016 study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University. He used a relatively sophisticated language in the 1980s and 1990s, however. Many of his sentences had an admirable rotundity—for instance, “It could have been a contentious route” and “These are the only casinos in the United States that are so rated” (qtd. in Sharon Begley, “Trump wasn’t always so linguistically challenged. What could explain the change?” STAT, 23 May 2017). While campaigning for the presidency, his verbal skills appeared to decompose. On 30 December 2015, Trump peacocked to a South Carolinian crowd: “I’m very highly educated. I know words. I know the best words.” He might have dumbed down his language for purely political reasons, for purely demotic purposes. This has the effect of flattering those with low linguistic skills.
Dumbing down, however, is not self-abasement. Trump never speaks in a self-deprecating manner. He never displays the false humility of Caesar. Trump reflects the vulgarity, the vaingloriousness, the cupidity, and the rapacity of the crowd. He is endlessly trumpeting his own excellence. He does not debase himself. He represents himself as someone who demands that his glistening manliness be acknowledged and respected.
Reason Two: Trump is not constant
Caesar is nothing if not pertinacious. Trump is nothing if not inconstant.
Caesar holds on to his decision to banish Publius Cimber, despite the senators’ entreaties to rescind his banishment. He is as “constant as the northern star” [III:i]. Suetonius praised Caesar for his steadfastness.
Trump, on the other hand, is a syrupy waffle. He has waffled on the travel ban and on the unbuilt Mexico-American Wall. Incidentally, Trump loves waffles “when they’re done properly with butter and syrup.” He rhapsodized: “There’s nothing better than properly done waffles with butter and syrup all over them.”
Reason Three: Trump is the betrayer, not the betrayed
Julius Caesar was betrayed by his intimates, even by his favorite, Brutus. Though I cannot find the source of this citation, I remember reading a saying attributed to Caesar: “Against my enemies my guards can protect me; against my friends, they can do nothing.” This saying has been repeated, without acknowledgement, by Voltaire (“Let God defend me from my friends; I can defend myself from my enemies”) and Charlotte Brontë: “I can be on guard against my enemies, but God deliver me from my friends!”
Trump, on the other hand, has betrayed members of his inner circle—Sean Spicer, Anthony Scaramucci, James Comey, Sally Yates, Paul Manafort, Steve Bannon—in a series of Night of the Long Knives-style purges. One thinks of The Apprentice’s slogan and mantra: “You’re fired.” I am writing this paragraph on 18 August 2017, the day on which Bannon’s faux-resignation has been announced. Who else in his administration will Trump have fired by the time you read my words?
Trump shares nothing with the Julius Caesar of Shakespeare. There is nothing wrong with contemporizing art—I myself have done this with Hedda Gabler—but there must be reasons for specific contemporizations. Those who believe that Julius Caesar can be reasonably dressed up as Donald Trump are the same people who think that a text-message Hamlet or a dubstep Macbeth is a good idea. I have descanted at length on the play’s political stance: If the staging equates Trump to Caesar, then Trump is exonerated by the production. The Central Park performance of the play unintentionally defends Trump.
Consumer culture idolizes the ordinary. To use Adorno and Horkheimer’s language in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, the trumpery of the culture industry “heroizes the average.” In this culture, which is gradually becoming the only culture on the Planet Earth, untalented filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino are hailed as geniuses, whereas visionaries such as Michelangelo Antonioni as written off as boring. Incompetent writers such as David Foster Wallace are lionized, while truly great writers such as James Joyce are blithely dismissed as “pretentious.” Even worse, the works of both filmmakers / writers are sometimes leveled off, as if they were of equal quality. Along the same lines: Trump is screened through Shakespeare not because Shakespeare represents the highest values and Trump represents the lowest values, but because the highest values have no meaning in a culture in which the low trumps the high. In the Central Park staging of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, Trump is not vaunted to the heights of Shakespeare; Shakespeare is dumbed down to the status of Trump. Why is this? In consumer culture, what is low is elevated and what is high is degraded.
By Joseph Suglia
Edinburgh International Book Festival
Reni Eddo-Lodge, a Black British activist, journalist and author has been making waves recently with her viral blog post turned book, ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race’. Just one of her appearances in Edinburgh this week, this session was a debate around gender and race that was one of the more satisfying and interesting in the festival. All the more so because the other two participants replaced the original speakers at the last minute, so it had an energetic, less scripted feel. The other writer was ‘Queen of Teen’, Juno Dawson, a transgender woman author and fellow activist, who, with her glamorous attire and self-deprecating wit brought a lighthearted approach to some serious issues. She is the author of many books for teenagers and leading education work in schools to promote understanding and acceptance of transgender people. Laurie Penny, also an activist, journalist and author of ‘Bitch Diaries’ among many, acted as chair, delighted to be with two of her ‘idols’. Because of this she kept the atmosphere vibrant and was completely up to speed on the relevant issues, if not having had the usual preparation time to have every fact of their careers at her fingertips. be able to keep the ideas rolling at top speed.
Reni discussed the new language being used to denigrate activism for human rights and full equalities, such as the reductive term ‘identity politics’, which doesn’t take into account that a deep understanding of anti-racism necessarily includes a complete restructuring of our current society. Social justice warrior and alt-left all show that the kickback against the loss of power and privilege, that expresses itself in intersectional ways from gender amongst the alt-right and race within feminism. The situating of people outside the dominant group as ‘other’ against ‘the norm’ creates problems when people are asked to reflect on their own power and even recognise their own privilege. Reni’s work is a clear political and structural analysis of power, and not a personal story, and yet is she asked over and over again, about how she feels. Juno explained that her book the Gender Games was meant to be a dry book of essays but emerged as an impassioned account of her own experiences as both genders.
Juno explained the phrase ‘cis gender’, and how much fear and ignorance exists around the term, and that trans-people are nothing new in the world, but exploited as a media freak show in the 1980’s, and that the language used and fears expressed are very similar to issues of gay acceptance from that period. She broke down her wants very simply. ‘We just want you to listen and try to understand.’ She talked for a while of the hoops through which you have to jump to be even taken seriously by the NHS, and the fact that people often have to subscribe to narrow gender expectations such as making sure that you don’t wear trousers to an appointment.
As always, you are left wishing there was more time to continue the discussion. Particularly in this current climate, as these issues are coming to a head, the question of whether we should remove statues that create a painful reminder of past violence and oppression is a hot topic, which Eddo-Lodge is firmly in favour of. Questions ranged from the role of empathy in being a solution, while continuing to be critically anti racist, cultural appropriation, how inclusive and appropriate the term ‘person of colour’ is to how white-passing mixed race people can be the best ally to Black people or be the most useful anti-discrimination activist. They encouraged the audience to continually critically evaluate and challenge the mainstream media and play an active role in debate. Three brilliant, engaged and lively women authors and activists had the audience rapt and will now doubt continue to inspire many along their journey.
Reviewed by: Lisa Williams
Edinburgh International Book Festival
Baillie Gifford Corner Theatre
23rd August 2017
In 1959 C.P. Snow, who was both a physical chemist and a novelist, delivered Cambridge University’s annual Rede Lecture, in which he spoke of the ‘two cultures’ of the humanities and the sciences, and how a gulf of mutual incomprehension had grown up between them. Today in the Corner Theatre we have been listening to speakers whose professional and academic efforts have continued both because of and despite that gap, in areas that have had a more than tangential relationship to the humanities in general and Literature in particular.
Josie Billington is Deputy Director of the Centre for Research into Reading at the University of Liverpool, and is also involved with the charity ‘The Reader’, which exists to facilitate reading groups where people who may be experiencing mental health issues can share readings of ‘great literature’. I have put quotation marks round that last term both to indicate that these are the exact words that appear on the web site of ‘The Reader’, and just to acknowledge that it is a term that has been challenged over the recent decades, though not today, Dr. Billington’s speciality being in the nineteenth century literary canon. Her recent book – and yes, this is an EIBF event so there has to be one – is entitled Is Literature Healthy? and it sets out the argument for the therapeutic value of reading.
Rick Rylance is Dean of the School of Advanced Study at the University of London, and Rector of the Institute of English Studies. Until recently he was also CEO of the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council, and his new book, Literature And The Public Good, comes from his experience as an advocate for culture and literature in particular to those who tread the thick-piled carpets of the corridors of power. Both Dr. Billington’s and Professor Rylance’s books are published by the Oxford University Press in a series of monographs entitled ‘The Literary Agenda’. The event was chaired by prominent Scottish GP and non-fiction writer Gavin Francis, who gave each of the main speakers ten minutes or so at the podium to explain the thrust of their books, before asking them for amplification of some of their points, and eventually moderating a brief Q&A.
Josie Billington spoke quite movingly about her work with The Reader, giving examples of literary texts that had voiced the inexpressible at the core of depression. There was a passage from Geroge Eliot’s Middlemarch, two lines by Christina Rossetti – “We lack, yet cannot fix upon the lack: / not this, nor that; yet somewhat, certainly.” – and two verses from John Clare’s ‘I am’. “Literature,” she said, “can make private and barely expressible things more personally felt and more publicly shareable.” A case in point was that of a reading group member who, on reading the verses by Clare, left the room for half an hour and, on coming back said “I need this language.”
Normalising the deep sadness that is often diagnosed and medicated as depression seemed to be the goal. I must confess to having mixed feelings about this, on the one hand being pleased for the therapeutic effect of literature on people who needed it, but on the other hand having to roll my eyes that something more than one person in my own family has fought very hard to have clinically diagnosed and taken seriously is now being brought back into ‘normality’.
Rick Rylance spoke of publishing and all associated enterprises accounting for seven percent of the UK’s Gross Domestic Product, being worth about £84bn per year, bigger than either the pharmaceutical or finance sectors. It is “a real and dynamic sector,” and culture in general lent the country diplomatic credibility and economic trust internationally. Reading is a mainstream activity, and “there is research that correlates ‘cultural participation’ with living longer.”
“Why,” he asked, “is cultural life in Britain, not least in policy circles and quite senior levels in government, seen as an add-on, a secondary phenomenon, a ‘nice-to-have-but-now-let’s-get-serious’?” A questioner from the floor suggested that the last thing the politically powerful wanted was the general population acquiring the kind of critical thinking that studying literature brings with it, to which he said this:
“My experience of Whitehall does not incline me to think that politicians are either the most intellectually or imaginatively generous individuals. They’re there for a quick fix, and they’re there for making a certain kind of impression, and to further their careers. None of that encourages me to believe they would be interested in critical thinking, because it requires a deal of work and reflection, and, frankly, knowledge […]” What worried him a little about the question, however was the idea that the humanities have a monopoly on critical thinking, when it was also a required and acquired skill of scientists and medics. “It’s a property of becoming intelligently informed, not of doing this discipline or that discipline.”
Despite the differences in the two speakers’ approaches to and uses of literature, they converged on many things. They saw literature as a ‘common possession’, and that it had to do not so much with private thought as with communication and transmission – economics and therefore politics could not grasp the way that the value inherent in a book, which may be lent or given away or discussed or used as a therapeutic aid, its concern with hopes and ambitions and emotions, is much more than its cover price.
There is also a problem with studying literature, however, when deep engagement or even pleasurable lightness, is sacrificed for “three or four talking points for an essay.”
Though other events this year may have given me a buzz through my being in the same room as a literary giant, this is the one which has engaged me most directly, the one which has been most intellectually stimulating and satisfying. Also I commend Dr. Billington and Professor Rylance for the clarity with which they argued their cases. I didn’t get an opportunity to buy either speaker’s book, but I may well do so at the next opportunity.
Reviewed by Paul Thompson
Edinburgh International Book Festival
25th August 2017
Today’s event here in the Garden Theatre was another one of those that punches above its weight. Sometimes the events with big ‘name’ writers can descend into chit-chat, which is entertaining in itself but can be froth rather than strong coffee. Events featuring distinguished academics or experts within a specialised field who do not, however, necessarily have the glitz and glamour of a celeb, are often where there is much more substance. Judge the weight of the two main speakers. Richard English is Professor of Politics at Queen’s University Belfast, and Distinguished Professorial Fellow in the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice, and Fellow of so many other august bodies that our chairman, Australian broadcaster Michael Williams, had to apologise for not reading all of them out as we only had an hour available. Alongside, but by no means playing second fiddle, was Mark Muller Stuart QC, a distinguished Human Rights lawyer and expert in the ways in which negotiations with terrorists take place. The event itself shared its title with that of Professor English’s recent book – Does Terrorism Work?
Just a quick word about the way Michael Williams carried out his function. I had a chance to talk to him afterwards, and I commented that it had been bold to inject humour into the proceedings. For example, when he invited questions from the audience, he appealed for a female questioner, because so far, with three men talking on the stage, it had been ‘a sausage-fest’. He told me that he had seen his function as providing the ‘air’ in which the two main participants moved and operated. In fact this levity, almost flippancy, was no bad thing, as it prevented the whole event from going beyond seriousness into sombreness.
Michael first steered the talk to the issue of why it was necessary to ask this question – whether terrorism worked – at all, and Richard English was able to respond with a detailed yet condensed twofold answer. Terrorism, he said, is a way that people use to bring about socio-political change, and we can’t claim to understand the phenomenon of terrorism until we know whether it achieves that change, so there is an analytical value to the question. The practical value is that we are only able to respond appropriately to terrorism if we understand the ways in which it does or does not do what its practitioners intend it to do. Richard English was quick to state that of course it is not a popular question to ask – one reviewer described his book as “morally repellant” – and that the whole issue of ‘terrorism’ is often useful to people other than its practitioners, for example thrusting the label of ‘terrorism’ on a particular group can be an efficient way of closing down debate and suppressing discussion.
Mark Muller Stuart, in talking about how ‘non-state mediation’ came about, cited the post-9/11 ‘with-us-or-against-us’ paradigm put in place by President Bush and Tony Blair MP, which outsourced the definition of terrorism from the international community to individual states. The result of this was that it saw the definitions broaden to include any and all groups who used violence, or considered its necessity, to effect socio-political change. This in turn threw up all kinds of questions about issues such as the right to self-determination, which is defined under international law, and for which some leeway exists in that international law when it comes to resistance to oppression. This whole situation closed down the possibility of states or groups of states being involved directly in negotiations with movements they had outlawed, and made it necessary for those negotiations to be carried out in private by a body not associated with any state.
This was the substance of only the first ten minutes of the event, which will give you some idea of its intensity. Both main speakers talked very rapidly, but crucially they were clear-thinking and articulate, which means that nothing was lost, nothing passed the audience by.
I won’t attempt to summarise the rest of the session, but I will mention a couple of items that were brought up. Firstly Richard English made the point that research has indicated that the overwhelming majority of people who practice terrorism are, to all intents and purposes, normal, rational people – people with homes and families, with daily lives – rather than some kind of psychopath. They see, rightly or wrongly, violence as the only way to achieve a definite political aim. Far from being people to whom, according to the rhetoric of those they oppose, there is no point in or no moral justification for talking, it is often possible to end a campaign of violence without giving a terrorist group what it wants – Northern Ireland and the Basque region of Spain being two examples – but conceding something that the terrorists’ supposed constituency can be content with. A group such as ISIS, on whom there is much current media focus, is atypical, but that very media focus obscures the reality of other groups.
Secondly, in answer to a question from the audience about the female fighters in the cause of Kurdish Liberation, the point was made that the motivation behind their participation was often complex, and ranged from a belief in the cause itself to a wish to escape from a traditional life back home.
Both Richard English’s book Does Terrorism Work? and Mark Muller Stuart’s Storm In The Desert, about Britain’s intervention in Libya, are weighty, and neither is particularly cheap. But I now have a copy of each and I will reach for them. Several of Professor English’s lectures are available on YouTube, but I have decided to offer a link to a shorter piece by Mark Muller Stuart which he delivered to an audience in Glasgow last year.
This has been my last event at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival, I enjoyed it and the whole Festival immensely, and I’m already looking forward to more of the same next year.
Reviewed by Paul Thompson
Edinburgh International Book Festival
August 15 2017
Bristol-based novelist and diversity activist Nikesh Shukla recently contributed to and edited the much-talked about book of essays and personal stories of 21 people of colour in the UK, The Good Immigrant. He leads a discussion with two of the contributors, Coco Khan and Miss L, which was informal and spirited. The book contains essays from many of the current leading lights of young culture and informed debate, including Riz Ahmed and Reni Eddo-Lodge. It was a sell-out talk, cheerfully and humorously chaired by Daniel Hahn, a writer and translator who was both shortlisted for and a judge for the Man Booker International Prize. In between some good-humoured jokes, he chaired an important and much-needed discussion in this Brexity climate of hostility towards immigrants.
Nikesh’s initial trigger for creating this collection was being invited to speak on a diversity panel on many occasions over a period of years, without seeing much progress in the acceptance and promotion of writers of colour within the publishing world in between. He yearned for the kind of book in the UK that we are seeing coming out of the USA discussing issues pertinent to people of colour in a racist society. He personally knew several great writers like Riz Ahmed that he could commission, and managed to raise funds easily through a Crowdfunding project, sidestepping the usual publishing routes with all its problems. The indignation at this sorry state of affairs comes through, rightly, without apology. And to the equally infuriating idea that now Blackness is ‘in’ and ‘cool’, he exasperatedly exclaimed, “It’s not a marketing trend, it’s our fucking lives!” Miss L is an actress of Asian origin and read her story ‘The Wife of a Terrorist”, about the disappointment of being typecast and held back by well meaning white tutors and audition judges. Coco Khan read us a hilarious and disturbing account of dating on the sly while living in a mainly Asian area of East London, and, as she put it bluntly, atttempting to get laid at her mainly white university just like everyone else, but running into problems being “Brown around Town”. Her own blog has helped to normalise and give a voice to young Muslim women navigating overlapping and sometimes conflicting subcultures within the U.K., and is now writing for the Guardian as well as other publications.
Nikesh said the book had two jobs; realising the power for people of colour in seeing themselves as visible, and for white people to fully humanise people of colour by realising the ‘universal experience’. Nikesh read his story ‘Namaste’, with its infuriation at cultural appropriation and the lack of respect for the origins of whatever trend happens to be fashionable and lucrative this season. The questions were from curious and concerned white people of various ages, who brought the discussion briefly to the burden of representation, getting past tokenism and what needed to be done in order to move forward. As expected, it comes down to the gatekeepers of power. In this case, who decides what gets commissioned, many of whom are benevolent but rather sheltered in their experience. Who perhaps unconsciously and unwittingly stand in the way because of their own preconceptions about people who don’t look or behave exactly like them. But there was no time to break this down further, which was a shame. We need details and strategy in this area to be able to fuel the kinds of ideas and momentum to move forward more swiftly.
It might just be a measure of my age, being at least 15 years older than the panel, but it did seem like many of the themes of the conversation among British people of colour were the same themes being discussed almost a generation ago, in the days when the theories of cultural theorist Stuart Hall were in the forefront. The difference, I think, this time, is perhaps the range of voices and the keen interest taken by the mainly white audience of all ages. In this, the book has served its purpose. At minimum, a solid platform has been created for people to have their voices heard, to express their frustration and disappointment at the systematic, structural racism that still unfortunately exists in this country. Are enough gatekeepers of power and the white consumers of culture listening and willing to move forward now? We will be all the richer for a true diversity of voices in a multicultural Britain where noone is made to feel like an unwelcome outsider, and there will no longer be any need for Nikesh to be wheeled out unwillingly to sit on another ‘diversity panel’. Because it will be completely normal to be accepted as fully British, whatever colour or religion you happen to be.
Reviewed by: Lisa Williams
Edinburgh Book Festival
August 18 2017
A panel of award-winning science and speculative fiction writers from both Scotland and the Americas blended their diverse perspectives for a fascinating conversation around speculative fictions imagining hopeful futures. Ada Palmer is a historian from Chicago who’s just published Seven Surrenders, the second in her Terra Ignota series. Jamaican-Canadian Nalo Hopkinson is the author of novels Sister Mine and many others. Representing Scotland were science fiction writers Ken MacLeod, author of many books including the Corporation Wars series and Leeds-born Edinburgh writer Charles Stross whose latest book is the Delirium Brief.
The Bosco Theatre is a circus style tent which is a new addition to the Book Festival, allowing its expansion into George Street. It can be noisy and a little distracting, as the tent flapped noisily in the breeze and allowed the sounds of Friday night revellers to intrude on the conversation. However the quality of the debate and the well-regulated and careful chairing by Pippa Goldschmidt made it a great experience. The first question to the panel from the chair was what each of them considered a utopia to be. Charles suggested that rather than a utopia being prescriptive, it was ‘simply’ an inverse of the golden mean; basically a system that minimized harm to others. Nalo referenced Thomas Moore’s Utopia, written in 1516 in Latin, and said she was suspicious about any utopia that included slavery in any form. That utopia was always an evolving process, which must include thought about how citizens can and should get along with each other. Ken used California as an example of a place that could be a utopia for some and a dystopia for others, with its over reliance on automation keeping us from our full destiny as useful and well-rounded humans. Amy agreed on the fact it was subjective, that it is necessarily a moving target because it has to feel better than our present reality to be regarded as a utopia.
The discussion moved on to how inclusive a utopia should be. It is generally regarded amongst science fiction authors and readers now that artificial intelligences should be afforded the same respect as human beings. Should this be anyone or anything the reader recognises as fully human? Or should we not anthropomorphize things or animals but just extend the boundary of what we should pay full respect? Did the authors feel a pressure or expectation of them as authors in this particular genre to explore and create visions of utopias? Nalo said she had her own personal expectations of herself in her writing. However, it was sometimes problematic. Using her novel Midnight Robber as an example, she suggested that the plot has to steer the characters into struggle and strife in order to fulfil the conventions and expectations of an exciting story. One strategy is for stories to take part outside the main culture, like in Star Wars, so that the utopia becomes as a reference point for any dystopia. Ken comes from a well known political background and his novels often reflect themes of exploring possibilities of communist and anarcho-capitalist ideas. He feels that there is a strong pressure to create the possibilities of utopia in people’s minds, seeing as it’s currently easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, drawing chuckles and agreement from the audience. He turned down involvement in a recent project for a graphic novel set in Scotland, as the rest of the contributors were fixated on imagining a ruined, flooded, dystopian Scotland, and he felt that he didn’t want to plant this in the imagination of young readers.
They broke down the distinction of utopia as either and adjective or a noun and took the examples of Orwell’s 1984 and the immensely popular Hunger Games series for young adults. Ken pressed the need to look carefully at the message of hope in the book, as although the Hunger Games is set in an extreme dystopia, the heroes successfully fight and win against it. They suggest the future of speculative fiction lies in looking at other cultures to bring fresh ideas and rework old mythologies, and that this kind of fiction often has to capture a particular point in time to be effective. Nalo discussed the impact of Japanese science fiction after the devastation and US occupation after the Second World War, featuring the iconic Astroboy, the original hero of science fiction. Intensely political, with utopian ideals prevailing despite a devastated landscape, but using veiled language to describe their oppressors. It was a unique generation involving international teamwork that gave it such a powerful focus. His name was even mentioned during a 2007 UN Peace conference, as people proclaimed ‘Let’s make a future that would not make Astroboy cry!’
The discussion moved to whether the role of science was essential in a utopia. Ken’s ideal being more of low tech ecotopia, where technology is necessarily limited, and work shared. However, in order to be credible for modern readers, it has to have a base level of necessary machinery to cut out the most difficult and energy-consuming labour. As they quoted historian Mary Beard, machinery for food production is indispensable, given our swelling world population, but brings up a very important question of who does the most disliked labour? Isn’t this the base of most of our inequalities and power struggles in all our societies? And what happens if a machine becomes your peer? Ken referenced William Morris as offering us a Marxist depiction of a utopia of a new England after a revolution. Nalo told us about her story Soul Case being influenced by the reality of the Quilombo, a Maroon (runaway slave) society in Brazil that managed to create not just an autonomous but a fully welcoming and inclusive society.
Ada points out the way that we draw on and feel nostalgic for certain periods in history is important, reminding us that the future is going to care about our present as it looks back in time, and decide why there should be a level of respect for ideas and arrangements of people in society. Nalo made the point that we should think about technology in a more expansive way to include song, which I thought was a fascinating idea. The elaborate systems of oral history that has been so important across the world in keeping traditions and history alive, is a technology in itself. As she suggested, if all the libraries burnt down, griots would be able to use the powerful medium and system of song to pass down history through the generations, placing its importance on a level with what we in the West refer to as ‘technology’.
Science fiction is a huge role to play in not just affecting politics but also inspiring scientists and social scientists, and a great way to discuss the ideas inherent in the concept of intersectionality. The audience members all looked liked they’d just left a meeting of Mensa, also asking further incisive and brilliant questions, and I was hugely inspired to start to delve in to the world of science fiction, joining the rest of the well informed, enthusiastic fans in the audience. I feel that I have been missing out for too long.
Reviewed by Lisa Williams