Friday, December 21, 2012

On being asked to buy madeira cake for the jubilee

I publish my rather eccentric contribution to the Unstated collection of essays because I feel proud to be part of such an important collection and want to encourage everyone to read it.

It contains such beautiful intelligent work, including Alasdair Gray’s erudite and subtly argued essay (which has been disgracefully misrepresented in the ensuing controversy) and an especially wise and compassionate piece from Christopher Whyte about the role of shame in forming Scottish culture.

Whyte’s is the kind of piece I would have loved to have written, but completely failed to, partly I think because I was half out of my mind with concern about my mother-in-law at the time but partly also, I can’t help thinking, because as a transsexual I suffer from a profound sense of shame. I am so lucky to have been able to work in theatre because it has given such assistance to overcome it; but not an accompanying sense of inadequacy and unworthiness that I distinctly remember feeling as I sat down to try to write the essay.

Who was I, I found myself thinking, to write about Scottish independence? Nobody really...

Enough of a somebody to write this, at least:

Marks and Spencer are trying to persuade me to buy a Madeira cake.

Madeira cake with union-jack icing. And shortbread in a tin shaped like a London double-decker bus. And a biscuit tin with the queen’s head on it. They seem to assume there’s something I want to celebrate. Something to do with being British. Something to do with the Queen. Well thank you Mr. Marks. And thank you Ms. Spencer. And how wonderful this dear old lady has been doing her job so well for so many years. (Do you know if she’s thinking of retiring?)

Please understand: this is not a criticism. I know you have your shareholders to consider. And that they demand your sales grow year by year by year and that you therefore keep needing to produce more and more merchandise to try to satisfy the insatiable black hole of the world financial system.
In that way you’re just like the rest of us: helpless slaves of the market. Of economic forces none of us are able to control or understand or bring to a halt. You remind me a bit of my mother-in-law. She’s an admirable woman who’s worked hard all her life and tried to do her best by the world. Her heart’s been wearing out, as machines always do, and economic systems as well, and has been functioning less and less efficiently.

Those of us who loved her could see what was coming: we knew she had to change her ways and prepare for a day when her heart would simply no longer function. But she refused to listen. And now she’s in a geriatric ward. She doesn’t understand how she got there and none of us can see any way out. One neighbour weeps all the time and never says a word. The other is forever calling out for long dead relatives to come and help her. But they can’t, of course. Being dead.

They remind me of the European Central Banks and the IMF: lamenting the loss of old prosperities and forever trying to apply remedies that may have worked in the past. But not now. But they hold onto them, because they seem to represent old certainties. In desperate times, even hard words like “austerity” and “balancing the books” seem to have a comforting ring, somehow. 

It’s not just the economy lying in the geriatric ward. Most of our ideas about the world and most of the ways we try to live in it are in the same condition. Old, worn out, tired: no longer fit for a changing world. We are utterly bound to an oil-based economy even though we know reserves are running out and even though we know using them increases the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to a dangerous and deadly degree. We know there is a connection between this and climate change. For a while this seemed to affect only a few islanders in the midst of the Pacific ocean, or a few hundred million people in distant and low-lying countries like Bangladesh. 
But we could cope with that. Buying a new car or installing a new central heating system seemed more of a priority. As did the new flat-screen TV. But now we know our own climate is changing in wildly unpredictable ways.

But we cannot change the way we live.

We are tempted to turn to atomic power to sustain our lifestyles: but we know this, too, is vulnerable to natural forces far stronger than ourselves. We saw the tsunami destroy the power station in Fukushima . Even the few consequences we know about are enough to terrify us: never mind those that are kept hidden from us. I keep thinking of words I wrote way back in 1985, in Losing Venice:

You remember the story our teacher told.
Of the wise man who built his house upon 
the rock and the foolish one who built
his on the sand?  We built ours on the mud.
We compromised.
And now we are sinking.
Year by year the tide water rises.
Already it has flooded our cellars;
Soon it will beat against our doors.
Then the waves will come and wash us
from the face of the earth.
The clouds gather. The storm is rising.
And it will come. Nothing can stop it.
We know. We laugh when we can;
We live, as we must.
Fear eats away our hearts. Will it spare us,
We wonder, will it spare our children?
Yet what can we do? Tear down our city?
Label the stones and move them, stone by stone,
Rebuild them on the higher ground?
All our energy is taken up with living.
Besides, is there any mountain high enough
to hide us,
Is there depth enough in any cave?
I doubt it. Crying is easy.
Laughter requires a little more strength.

What I meant by those last words, I think, is that we should try the best we can to avoid giving way to despair and keep hope alive in our hearts. And that art has a role to play in that. 

I know from my own experience that my capacity to create art has saved me from self-hatred and despair. My work with other transsexual people in helping them find their creative voice has also demonstrated, time and time again, that creativity is a powerful force for the oppressed. 

In my own work I consistently try to be unfashionably hopeful; I see each play as a little act of resistance against the despair industry of the media that so endlessly tries to disempower us.

And it's true: it is hard to keep hope alive when the levers of power are often so rusted, so corroded and corrupt; and when every politician knows that it would be political suicide to carry out the changes required.

What’s more, we are part of a country that apparently regards it as fundamental to its safety and identity to possess weapons of mass destruction however grotesquely expensive they may be. And however absurdly inept. Whether they are nuclear submarines that run aground on sandbanks or aircraft carriers that have no aircraft, no-one in the political establishment seems able to see them as anything but crucial to “great Britain” or the “United Kingdom”.

The truth is obvious: we are part of a disunited kingdom whose other title really should be Insignificant Britain. Mediocre Britain. Living delusionally in the past Britain. Suffering false memory syndrome Britain. Britain stranded in the geriatric ward of history. A terminal case.

So what do we do? How do we resist as we struggle at the same time to get to grips with the massive unavoidable changes that need to take place within ourselves and the way we perceive the world?

To realise that genetics turns our common understanding of medicine into something completely outdated. To begin to grasp that our understanding of the universe as a piece of Newtonian clockwork no longer fits the facts. To try to encourage our imagination and intellect to understand what relativity means. Try to get to grips with the fact that our traditional views of what makes a man a man and a woman a woman are of very little use at all. In other words we have to try to stop being flat-earthers.

But then so many people still are. It’s all too easy for the need to change to fill us with fear; and for the fear to make us cling on to old certainties. Whether they’re the Bank of England, the Mother of Parliaments, the literal truth of the Holy Bible or the Treaty of Union.

You could argue that in the context of everything else this is pretty trivial stuff. And how dismaying the fright of many people scared to move on from it. How contemptible that no-one seems to be capable of coming up with a single positive reason to remain in the Union. The only arguments its supporters seem able to muster are fear. Fear of losing our credit rating. Fear of border controls. Fear of losing the monarchy. Fear of losing defence contracts. Fear of change.

Can we really not find just a tiny bit of courage? Does it really make sense to stay attached to England? To a failing state governed in the interest of the City of London with its tiny coterie of obscenely wealthy bullies, thieves and robbers? A state hopelessly stuck in dreams of past glory, forever trying to “pull above its weight”, humiliatingly stuck in a self deluding “special relationship” with its colonial master, incapable of creating any positive vision of its future?

My dear mother-in-law used every ounce of imagination and strength to deny the changes old age was forcing upon her. It did her no good at all. Change is coming, whether we like it or not.

Let’s try, even if in our own small and insignificant way, to do our best to embrace it.

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