Monday, September 29, 2014

A transwoman traveller in Brasil

There is an old puritan who scowls inside me and who, I know, deeply deeply disapproves of people who publish photographs of food and drink. But were it not for him, growling away on his chain in the bottom of my mind, I am sure I would have published a photo of the caipirinha I had on the island last week. 

The Ilha do Mel, the Island of Honey: somewhere very close to the tropical paradise of our northern imaginations, and where they serve the most amazing cocktails. 

This was a caipirinha flavoured with hibiscus, and the lovely young man serving me insisted I try it. So I did: and the drink was of the deepest deepest purple topped with the most exquisite scarlet flower.

Probably the most beautiful flower I had ever seen, I decided after sucking up a few slurpfuls, and yet picked in the most casual way to decorate a tourist’s drink…

But better still, I can’t help feeling, would have been the picture of the pudding that suddenly arrived on my second evening. The most amazing sweet and divinely crispy rolls with a gorgeous custard like confection inside. 

Presented on a Japanese platter with the words “Bem-vinda Jo!” written in chocolate on the side.

Which means “Welcome Jo!” in the right gender and everything, and maybe I shouldn’t have been so deeply touched.

But I was…

And astonished, over and over again, by this extraordinary country, in all its cruelty and exuberance.

Each year, on Transgender Day Of Remembrance, we find ourselves reading a truly horrifying list of transwomen brutally murdered here, and each year the list seems to get longer.

The transwomen I have spoken to are frightened, and with reason: especially now as Evangelically inspired candidates are whipping up trans- and homo- phobic hatred. 

And as a tranwoman travelling alone, I, too, have wondered what I might encounter.

And yet, on that island off the southern coast, and in two urban centres, I have encountered nothing but courtesy, acceptance, and deep kindness.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be astonished.

But I am… 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Voting Yes And The Right To Dream

I remember, I still pinch myself when I remember, how when I was a child we had a wind up gramophone. I remember winding it up, putting the 78 record on the turntable, pulling a lever, and listening to the crackly distorted sound that emerged. And that was what I then knew as recorded music.

Last time my daughter came up, she installed Spotify on my mobile phone... 

And that’s one kind of measure of how fast our lives are changing. That extraordinary journey, a journey that’s happened, amazingly, in my lifetime: from a dusty heap of 78 records in torn paper covers to the music of the whole world. And inside my mobile phone.

I know I’m getting old, and I know this is painfully obvious, but the world is changing. 

When I started earning my living as a writer, I wrote plays on a typewriter. I would, literally, “cut and paste”: cut out chunks of dialogue with scissors and paste them in the place where they really belonged.

And if I needed a bit of information, I would go to the library and look it up. Because there was no such thing as the internet. And if I wanted to send a letter, I’d put it in an envelope, put a stamp on the envelope, and post it in a post box. Because there was no other way to send it...

And way back in those days when I listened to 'Tea for two' on the wind-up gramophone there was absolutely nothing I could do with the intense and frightening feeling that somehow I was not a boy, in spite of having a boy's name and a boy's body. 

Nothing I could do with that feeling except try to repress it.

But now I can live openly as a woman, and be legally protected in my need to do so, and the change in our collective consciousness that has allowed this to happen seems to me to be more miraculous still.

But then change happens all the time in this world, nothing is immune to it, and certainly not the Act of Union between Scotland and England of 1707, and to pretend it is somehow immutable is completely absurd.

It seems this has to be repeated: change happens and one of the things we have to do as human beings is come to grips with that change, accommodate it, welcome it even: and try to ensure that it is adequately reflected in our political and social and economic arrangements.

To keep on trying to live as if nothing has changed and everything can simply go on as before would be as absurd as my trying to listen to music on the bus with my wind-up gramophone. Or my continuing to live fearfully in the closet.

To be sure, change in a frightening thing. All of us remember the fear of moving to a new school, to a new job, or entering a new relationship. 

I have a very potent, if somewhat specialised memory of fear: of the time when I knew I could no longer go on living as a man. The terror of living as a woman. Of catching a bus. Buying milk in the corner shop. Of meeting my family, friends and colleagues at work.

The temptation in these situations is to stick with familiar forms of suffering, because we know we can somehow deal with them. To stay in the job we detest, or the school we’ve outgrown, or the partner we can no longer love. To stay lonely.

This is true on a collective, or national level, just as much as it is for us as individuals. Change is absolutely an inescapable part of living; but it is also a frightening thing and there always is a temptation to try to pretend it isn't happening, or doesn't need to happen, or that if we don't look at it it will somehow go away.

And that fear has a power to it; a power that is easy to use; a temptation that politicians bereft of vision find hard to resist. 

Mostly the 'no' politicians haven't even tried. I continue to be astonished at their lack of positive arguments.

As I write this, the hapless Nick Clegg is attempting to make the 'No' campaign into a positive: to make voting 'no' in the referendum as something inspiring.

It is hard to see how he can achieve this. 

For voting no means voting yes to a failing state. It means giving assent to being governed by a state whose economic policies are devoted to furthering the interests of the financial sector of the city of London - a minority within a minority whose enrichment means the impoverishment of everyone else. 

Voting no means voting yes to a state whose defence and international policy means pretending we are not part of Europe. It means pretending we live in some kind of glorious isolation with our ‘friend’ the United States. It means denying that we are that fading power’s client state. It means pretending that we are still able to  'punch above our weight'. It means pretending we are still an imperial power and that we need defending with an utterly useless nuclear deterrent. 

Voting no means voting yes to a state whose social policies achieve nothing but the increase in an already disastrous combination of inequality and injustice. 

Voting no means voting yes to manifestly unjust and outdated first past the post system of voting; and a grotesquely expensive and outdated hereditary monarchy.

It is hard to make a positive case for all this. And the Westminster establishment don’t want us even to think about it, I suspect, because it threatens a system that they are all doing very well out of . And that goes some way to explaining why they are so incapable of reforming it.

But the rest of us are doing very badly out of it. And as the years pass, will do considerably worse. Because it has become abundantly clear that on so many different levels the current British system of government is no longer adequate to the crisis we are facing.

Which means that to vote no is to vote no to change. And vote yes instead to a prolonged and messy collective suicide. 

And how sad it is that resistance to this dismal act of self-destruction no longer comes from a Labour party that has lost its way, abandoned its values, betrayed all its principles, and can now offer nothing but a kind of injustice lite version of English Toryism.

This is, however, about more than party politics. As has been said so often, and needs to be said again: the question is not do we or do we not support Alex Salmond and the SNP but do we or do we not assert assert Scotland's right and duty to govern her own affairs?

And if we do, what does this imply?

One can begin - but not end - with the policies that party endorses. It does at least have the beginnings of a sane and sustainable energy policy. It understands people's right to free higher education; it understands people's right to free health care; it refuses to possess nuclear weapons; it understands our connections with mainland Europe; it has a humane and sane attitude towards immigration; it is committed to justice and equality to people like myself who belong to historically persecuted minorities. It understands the importance of the arts and the necessity of government support for them.

This is all the more welcome and remarkable in the context of the unjust self destructive idiocies of the Westminster consensus.

And so much of it is happening in Scotland right now. It is part of what is making Scotland a different country from England already. Referendum or no referendum.

But this is not the most important part of what we will be voting for.

What matters most of all, perhaps, is that we will be voting for the right to imagine a better present and better future for ourselves and for our children. The right to imagine a country built not on the vilest and most repulsive vision of a self-interested humanity but on something nobler and truer: on our collective desire for justice, decency, and basic fairness.

The right to imagine a country we are proud to belong to instead of one we are ashamed of.

In short, we will be voting for the right to dream.

And then the real work begins....

(first published in "Inspired by Independence" National Collective and Word Power Books, 2014)

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Saturday, August 30, 2014

Chris Goode and Olwen Fouere and my daughter's bangin' beats and my grandson dancing

So this is me the last week almost the last day of the Edinburgh Festival, when I began to write this yesterday, no the day before, I’d just come out of the Pavel Haas Quertet full of gratitude because they’d introduced me me to this amazing composer, Schulhoff, who I hadn’t heard before, and I was excited because the next day I was going to se the Trojans (not knowing I was going to leave after the first interval, unable to tolerate the thought of another four hours of that production's incompetence and tedium) but most of all because that night I was going to see my new play WHITE TED AND THE RIGHT TO DIE for the very first time (but that is another story) and right up to the first note of music being played I’d been scribbling  down the opening scene for my new version of JEKYLL & HYDE and a couple of days before scribbling the opening scene of the new piece I’m developing with Chris Goode and all the while planning my trip to Brazil, and hoping JESUS QUEEN OF HEAVEN can go there and planning a trip to Manchester to discuss the revival of my ANNA KARENINA that will be happening in the Royal Exchange, and we’re filming QUEEN JESUS on Monday and so much has been happening it feels as if I began performing the show say 12 years ago all packed into the last four weeks...

And now it’s time to stop.

Stop for a moment to look out over the evening light gently softening its beautiful self over the Water of Leith and reflect, perhaps...

Reflect on Chris Goode and his MEN IN THE CITIES which I saw almost a week ago.

It’s like a baroque altarpiece of the spoken word: astonishing, amazing, virtuosic. 

And like most of them glorifying queer sensibility. Only, unlike nearly all of them, doing so openly.

It was all too much for a couple of American ladies sitting next to me who started whispering most agitatedly to each other very early on, about how disgusting it all was. Men. And their penises. Having sex. And kissing. KISSING....!!

“Please shush” I whispered across to them. “Shut up!” hissed the bolder one back at me with really quite extraordinary venom and eventually left , banging her way diagonally across the stage saying “I can’t stand any more of this” and hurling a couple of “Disgusting”s in Chris’ general direction and although it was actually a real tribute to the power of what he was doing it can’t have been easy for him to take it that way at the time...

And I actually had a certain sneaky regard for her, being (I regret to say) perfectly capable of such behaviour myself and actually preferring it to the silent resigned suffering that audiences often seem to experience and then follow with polite applause.

And I so wanted her companion to join her because she was sitting next to me positively fizzing with resentment and obviously wishing she’d had the courage to join her friend... which she eventually did along with someone else when Chris had notched the emotional temperature up another fifty degrees or so, and I hoped he could see that what he was doing was working...

This extraordinary altarpiece he was constructing, about 14 storeys high by now and absolutely amazing with subclauses; and looking back on it it seems so clear that in a weird way we have been doing the same thing, him and I...

But whereas mine’s is a transwoman’s hymn to happiness, his is a gay man’s angry scream: anger at the state of the world and the part men are playing in its destruction.

I realise I should be hating all this but I’m not because Chris is entering so compassionately and so beautifully into the desperate lives he is describing and so in the process becomes....

...He himself in all his angry grief is just so intensely beautiful &

“Aren’t you just tired” he’s pleading with his dad “Just so tired of all this?”

“Can’t we just drop it? Can’t we just drop all this?”

And I know this feeling, know it all too well, it’s all so strong a part of how I felt about the world when I lived as a man

And I’m crying, crying

And at the end it’s as if he’s just given up on the whole cis-normative heterosexual world and I’m crying some more

And I go to cry in the loo half way up the Traverse stairs, not for long enough, because I find I’m crying in the bar and a couple of people ask me if I’m OK and the artistic director of the Traverse herself buys me a gin and tonic in a spirit of the kindest concern 

And I am OK

Because one good thing about tears is that they almost always are OK, as are those who cry them,

And I know our different altarpieces - his so dark & intricate & gorgeously baroque, and mine pared down, presbyterian even, so full of light - are all both somehow arising from the same thing,

And I go home and my daughters are there, and that always makes me so happy.

Somehow we put on a CD compilation my younger daughter made once, years ago, “KT’s Bangin’ Beats”, and my goodness they are bangin’ and my grandson joins in the dancing and we all laughing, laughing in the wild uncontrollable joy of it all

And then it’s back to the Traverse and Olwen Fouere performing her RIVERRUN and she’s standing there, standing in the auditorium, a slight silver figure, standing like an archetype....

And I go all the way down the Traverse stairs almost to the stage because my heart goes out to her:

We worked together so many years ago with Calixto Bieito on my translation of LIFE IS A DREAM and she was Rosaura. She was an amazing vision of beauty and strength then.

And she is so still...

And we embraced in the sweetest way, and I sat in my seat weeping with gladness.

I can’t really write about what I saw. And what I heard...

The piece is taken from the last chapter of FINNEGAN’S WAKE. From the place where the river speaks. And when James Joyce wrote that book it took somewhere ordinary language could not describe.

And that’s why he wrote how he did, poor love, with all the suffering that cost him.


Because he’d reached a place near the source of all things, of life and of death and of all things and Olwen somehow channels all this with amazing focus and devotion and virtuosity and skill...

...Which all implies an intensity of concentration and will, which is there to be sure, but she also trusts utterly and allows herself to be carried by the flow.

And I’ve never seen such beauty of movement or heard such beauty of voice

And know now with such utter certainty we all belong there

And will go there at the beginning

And have been there at the end

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