Thursday, July 28, 2016

Thinking about what my work is about

I wrote this in 1991 as a programme note for the first production of my play “Light In The Village” in the Traverse Theatre:

“I think of a woman I met in a village. 6 hours east of Calcutta. She was the health worker. She showed me the one cranky hand pump which was the only source of drinking water for forty families. It was inadequate; but the other pump had been broken for a year and there was no-one able to repair it. There was no sanitation in the village. Its pond was fed by an open drain. The surface of the water was covered with slime. She told me it was the villagers' only other source of water. They had to use it to wash their clothes, to wash their cooking utensils, and to wash themselves. They used it for drinking, too; most knew they should boil it, but fuel was scarce.

There was no electricity. There was no school. The few students who attended school in the neighbouring village faced great difficulty: their labour was needed by their families. Also because there was no electricity, and therefore no light, they could not study at night.

There was no road. The village was reached by a deeply rutted track impassable in the rainy season.

Most of the villagers own no land; they work as day labourers for the local landlords, when there is work. Otherwise they scrape a living as best they can. The daily wage is around 17 rupees: 50 pence.

In December, it was harvest time. Everyone was out in the fields; only the older women and the children remain. After the harvest, the rats go out to the fields to feast on the left-over grains: the village boys were out hunting the rats. I saw them as I passed. If they catch one, they roast it this evening.

They need the protein: many children in the village suffer from deficiency.

The health worker and her colleagues explain that the women in the village want to improve the situation. They want to work: they want regular employment. They have skills. She shows me exquisite embroidery. But they cannot sell it. They cannot sell it in the village because everyone can do it, no-one values it or has any need to buy it. They cannot sell it outside the village because they are so cut off, communications are so bad, they have no means of finding anyone who will buy it.

Besides, their husbands treat them as chattels and are reluctant to allow them to engage in independent work. The Hindu wives suffer because their husbands often mistreat them to try to extract more dowry from their families; the Muslim wives suffer because their husbands have the right to remarry, as many as five wives at a time, and the right to divorce at will. A divorced wife is often destitute: rejected by husband and family, and left to fend for herself. Often with young children.

My guide distributes the few government health supplies. She inspects the young children of the village: to make sure their clothes are are washed, their hair is free of lice. To keep a check on their basic state of health. She runs classes for the children, and classes for the mothers, too. She wants her health centre to be a source of light in the village; and she wants it to be a source of inspiration to others. The government has sent her some women from Bihar so she can train them and they can do the same for their villages when they return.

She shows me her health centre. It is a tiny hut. The floor is made of mud. There is one child's desk and a scrap of blackboard in the corner. There is nothing else.

Everyone gathers round. The Bihari women speak. They tell me that they want to make things better, they want to do all they can, but it is very hard. They feel helpless and afraid. They are so very far from home. What advice can I give them?

What should I tell them?

Should I tell them that while their children suffer disease because they have not enough to eat ours are ill because they eat too much? Should I tell them that while their villages are trapped in poverty because they have no road, our towns and villages are being choked and poisoned because they have too many roads?

Should I tell them that we don't even care enough to give our own children decent schooling. That we have expended limitless millions to wage a war. A war not for justice, not for the world's children, but to try to safeguard the West's cheap oil supplies.

I want to have written something that would answer them. And that would speak also to our own overwhelming sense of helplessness and guilt.

But would not simply reflect anger or despair. Despair is a luxury we cannot afford; to spread it seems to me a kind of crime.

It is also an inaccurate response; there is injustice and cruelty in our world, but also courage, dedication, and a profoundly moving kind of solidarity. There is also, in India and in Bangladesh, an immensely ancient and yet vibrant culture that has much to teach us.

And I want the play to reflect and to celebrate the multi-racialism of our own society. I want to take the audience on a journey: a journey through laughter and anger and anger and grief. That will involve the audience on every level: theatrically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually and sexually.

4 weeks rehearsal and 36 drafts later, I still don't know if I've succeeded. In the end that's not my business. But I want to dedicate it to those women. Those women in the empty room. The light of the village.”

My plan at the time was that “Light In The Village” would be the first of a series of five plays that would all be produced together in the year 2000.

They would be about the fact that we had to begin to understand that we all live in one world and that the divisions between rich and poor would destroy us unless we worked to lessen the inequalities and end the injustice.

It was a disastrous career move. I was trying to write about globalisation before anyone had heard of it. No-one seemed able to begin to understand the concept behind the five plays and I never had another commission for a new play in the Scottish theatre until “Every One” in 2010.

But now as I begin, finally, to revisit the whole idea when the divisions in the world are deeper than ever, I can see Iwas right.

And begin the process of making this project a reality.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

The suppression of Corbyn and the suppression of truth

I’m recently back from Brazil where a powerful elite mounted a semi legal coup d’etat to depose an elected president and block further investigation into their crimes.

It is a bit strange to come back here and find the same thing happening.

And see the Parliamentary Labour Party forget even their most basic duties in its obscene panic driven haste to vilify and remove its elected leader.

Remove him before the publication of the Chilcott report into the Iraq war.

Perhaps it is a bit absurd to compare the diminished and contemptible members of the PLP with the far more powerful and sinister and effective criminals who now form the government of Brazil.

Its true that if these individuals’ criminality goes unchecked they can potentially impoverish an entire continent; and, in the process, destroy the ecosystem of the Amazon and the ecosystem of the entire world.

But then Brazil is a country that really matters. 

Great Britain, in comparison, is insignificant.

And so the crimes of its Labour party’s elite seem correspondingly petty.

Until you remember the millions killed in the Iraq war and the atrocious suffering of its consequences.

Unless and until the Labour Party can find the courage to look honestly at its role in these crimes it will never be able to function effectively as a force for justice and for peace.

Of course for them that must be such a hard and painful and almost impossible thing to do.

Perhaps that’s why they are so desperate to silence Corbyn: because that effort is implicit in his call to them to wake up, unite, and behave like decent human beings.

But then it's not just up to the Labour Party: these are crimes in which we are all complicit and all must answer for.

My own grandfather was very directly involved in the first British bombing campaign in the Middle East. Way back around 1919.

He sat in the passenger seat of a biplane and dropped bombs onto Kurdish villages.

He did this directly, by hand.

Dropping the bombs over the side of the plane.

He wrote about it afterwards to his mother. He said it was jolly thrilling.

But I don't think he was an especially bad man. He believed very passionately in the so-called civilising mission of the British Empire and I'm sure he was doing it all for the best.

I carry his genes in my blood and his memories in my body.

I’m sure all of us have similar stories, if we were able to look back and find them.

It is as if we need some kind of individual and collective truth and justice commission to get to the bottom of it all.

So we can acknowledge that the comparative prosperity of us  few is built on the poverty of so many.

Acknowledge that the capital for the industrial revolution that made us “Great" came from the suffering of millions of African slaves.

These are painful things.

There is a powerful urge to deny them.

The urge is to build walls that block them out.

The kind of walls Farage would have us build to keep out the alien and the dispossessed.

To keep out all those we fear will overwhelm us. Those who plague us with terrifying guilt.

But that response is bound to fail.

There is no wall high enough or wide enough or deep enough to keep this suffering out.

Instead we have to tear down the walls. 

The walls in our frontiers. 

The walls that maintain the grotesque inequality and injustice of our economic system. 

The walls in our imagination and the walls that divide our hearts.
Corbyn made a speech over the weekend, a speech that was predictably unreported, in which he said:

“The xenophobia within our society will not build one house. Will not educate one child”

I repeat his words because they are worth hearing and because of the increasingly desperate and concerted attempt being made to silence him.

He went on to say “Inequality will fail to educate one child. Will fail to provide the housing that we need.

Let’s build something better. Build something stronger.”

And we have to do that.

We mustn’t give up. The stakes now are far too high.

We have to use whatever talent or strength is at our command.

Build something better.

Build it brick by brick by brick.

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