In the short story Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut, absolute equality is achieved at last…at the expense of individuality. Those who are more attractive than average wear masks, the strong are weighed down and the clever are fitted with a buzzing device that disrupts their thoughts. I’m not the shiniest hubcap on the car, but whenever I spend too much time on the internet I think about that last handicap and wonder if it’s not very much the same.

Technology, and particularly social media, helped me go from shy to sociable and I’m happier for it, so I could never quite hop on the “tech is evil and destroys Authentic Reality!!!11” bandwagon but it has made me feel like, well…a bit of an idiot. My attention span is shot, my vocabulary is shocking, and I find it hard to shut out the buzz. This isn’t just me turning into an old man, because whenever it’s forced on me, like during a shift on the popcorn stand or on a long flight or at the cinema, I feel like a proper person again. I love getting away from it and instantly swear I’ll do better to stop using in future. Inevitably though, an event invite here, an amusing story there and you’re sucked back in. When I sat down to think about it a few months back (and nowadays I find I actually have to sit down to think), I realised it’s really just an easy form of busyness that keeps me away from the work that really needs doing. In response to that, I took on more and more projects, thinking it would get me back on track. It did a little, but mostly what it did was dilute the quality of everything I did. Whilst 2013 has been successful for me, I’m very unhappy with my work in the back end of this year and I apologise to anyone who’s worked with me the last few months. My work’s not been at a standard I would like it to be at, and I’m going to do better. 2014 will be about knuckling down and focusing on long form film/plays/TV, staring with a return to the structured work habits that, while a pain in the arse, worked miracles for me the last couple of years. Up early, in the library for 8. Stay as long as necessary, but if you’re done in 4 hours, don’t force more. It’s about what needs doing after all, not the time spent doing it.

Back to stories, there’s a part in High Fidelity where the main character finds a photo of himself as a kid dressed cowboy and wishes he could go back and apologise for blowing all of that kid’s hopes and expectations. I used to laugh at that bit, but it gets sadder as I get older. I never dressed up in a cowboy outfit (a Native American outfit was as close as I came, leading to my being confused about Red Indians and Indian Indians for a long time), but I remember sitting at a kitchen table night after night and scrawling stories of rainforests and spaceships and pirates and being stranded at sea. It was the only thing I was really much good at (nerding out over Star Wars aside), and I loved it. It’s a rare combo to have and now I’ve somehow set myself up to make the most of it (after meandering for a few years), I think my younger self would be absolutely thrilled to have the opportunities I have now. I don’t want to blow it all for the sake of a few retweets or a thrilling-but-unuseful shorts night. Need to remember that, scary as it is, when I sit down and write for a proper session, nothing makes me feel better than that.

So New Year’s Resolution? Simply less chatter.

Less chatter means fewer short plays, turning down projects I don’t have time for (and being honest about it up front), turning down nights out (sorry in advance, guys), less social media, less dawdling on the internet and less blogging, I’m afraid, except that which is for research purposes. I don’t need to see that new play, that Swedish TV drama won’t save my life, I probably shouldn’t cut out work early to have a pint with that person no matter how attractive or knowledgeable they are.

Perhaps a bit extreme, but I’d hate to let this little guy down. Though it’s sometimes hard to remember it now, writing’s all he ever really wanted to do.*

2013-12-26 10.15.06 Here’s to a satisfying 2014, everyone!

* Dalliances with being a pilot, a stockbroker, a palaeontologist and a film director aside.

Interview with Sunder Katwala from British Future (Part 2)

Part 2 (Part 1 is here)! The role of state in national identity, the future of Britishness, Euro ’96, the prospect of Englishness and national anthems.

What role do you think the state should or does play in the creation/maintenance of a national identity?

I think national identities are different. I mean, look, in a liberal society you want to live in a society where you can choose your identity for yourself and you can balance different identities…local identity, regional identity, or say feminism or any political identity and that’s a very personal kind of thing. National identity is different because it’s underpinning our shared sense of citizenship and so parts of it, I just feel, we need to decide collectively not…you know whether or not you put bunting up or you don’t join in the Jubilee or don’t particularly want to fly a Union Jack during the Olympics but we have to agree some of the boundary conditions like “who’s in the club?” and you can’t decide that for yourself: “well, I feel British but you don’t accept me as British”, there’s a collective conversation, so the state can, in a way, create the space where the negotiation happens. In a new country, you do it when you’re making the constitution. In a country where it’s evolving you’ve got to somehow have a public and political conversation where you actually ratify the collective understandings and you say, “Not everyone agrees on everything but we now agree this, actually.” For example, about gay rights and marriage, or we agree this about ethnicity or we agree this about the scope of faith and the limits of faith and those things. How much faith or secular identity you have is up to you, but what the rules are of the public domain, we all have to be able to be in the room and then the state has to facilitate that.

But of course the state can’t do it if it tries to own people’s emotional attachments, and I think in Britain we have the potential to get that right because we dislike American style, almost compulsory patriotism, we bring more irony to the table. But we do surprise ourselves a bit, I think people who think “oh, citizenship ceremonies will never be British” should get along to them and find that people can have an emotional attachment and it’s a powerful wanting to express something publically and in a way the freedom to opt out of any of this stuff, like the freedom to opt out of wearing the poppy has to acknowledge the legitimacy of the choice to wear the poppy because it’s a collective act of remembrance. I think sometimes the liberal individualistic allergy to any of this is almost policing something that people want to do together in a free and open society. The state can provide some space for it to happen. At local level you can provide space in which contact can happen as long as you don’t try and micromanage the content that comes out of it.

Amongst calls for full devolution and burgeoning sense of Englishness, do you see a future for Britishness?

I think so because civic is plural, it always has been, and you only get to keep it if you decide to keep it. It requires consent and at the moment there’s probably quite strong majority consent in Scotland on the basis of having a really serious discussion, a referendum about it. That’s the unilateral decision – to be in or not – and then how you adjust it has to run in a negotiated way. There’s consent in Northern Ireland in a more complicated way because you have to accommodate the non-consent on fair terms, you can’t just say “we won”, there’s a big difference between now and the ‘20s version of majority rule in Northern Ireland. So you get to keep it, if you all want to keep it and you find a fair way to do it. Now, you’ve still got this…now you’ve got the problem of Englishness which is that it didn’t even know it was different for so long and now knows it’s different and it knows that it hasn’t been asked but it doesn’t know what it wants.

To some extent, the English have to turn up and do what the Scots have done which is to think about what they want and articulate it, because in my view the English primarily want cultural recognition and the chance to have a voice, not necessarily political structures. It becomes quite fuzzy, but actually cultural recognition is quite powerful and again there’s an unwillingness from some people to recognise that desire for cultural recognition of Englishness, but the people who are slightly allergic to it tend to think cultural recognition is really important for minorities. If cultural recognition matters, why wouldn’t it matter for everybody? There’s something uneven and asymmetric in devolution that’s got nothing to say about Englishness, multiculturalism that’s only about minorities and doesn’t actually give a role to most of the population.  My view is that national identity is a better frame to do that because everyone comes to that conversation, whereas multiculturalism as a conversation, I think minorities did a lot with it because they used it to articulate the version of national identity that would work for them and they thought they’d done the work that they needed to do but actually the majority of the population thought it was a debate of minorities, for minorities, about minorities, and how could 10% of the population redefine the national identity if other people were in the room? It feels to me that national identity is a much better frame to have the people who need to turn up to decide what we’re going to share.

The majority identity can be civic, shared, plural and non-ethnic, but it’s got to have content on offer, an emotional appeal for settled indigenous Britons whose families go back ten generations as well as people whose families go back three generations as well as somebody at a citizenship ceremony after being here five years who’s choosing to become part of the community and it wants to welcome that person on equal terms in a way where everyone else can still recognise the community that they’re joining is the one they belong to.

Was there a moment in your life that you felt particularly British or English?

I think I always felt British and English and I felt both before I knew it was a complicated question. It became a complicated question when I was a teenager and there were two matters – for me it’s all about sports in different ways because it was the era I was growing up in, the place I was growing up in, but Norman Tebbit’s cricket test was problematic for me, about 1990, I’m about 16, because I always supported England and suddenly…I don’t particularly want to switch to support India though my Dad supports India but I don’t have a problem with my Dad supporting India, but now supporting England has become a sort of test of political allegiance so you support England in a quiet way, so it puts me off for a little bit because something that was normal has become politicised and you’re in a moment in the debate where it feels a bit contested and you’re suddenly aware the club you thought you were part of…some people are asking you about it. And then Euro 96 felt to me, in terms of Englishness, it felt like a moment when Englishness sorted itself out and you suddenly felt we’d turned up to the party, it’s not only the Scots and the Dutch who can turn up and enjoy themselves while the English sing “if it wasn’t for the English, you’d be Krauts” and “we’re going to smash up your towns to prove we won the Second World War” or something, so it really felt it sorted itself out.

Now looking back on that, and it was kind of a 2012-ish moment, there was an element of surprising euphoria partly because you’re not really expecting England to be any good and then they beat the Dutch very well, and partly because of the mood in which it was contained was evidently positive celebratory, all inclusive, what’s puzzling now for me is that we didn’t seem to do anything with it in terms of Englishness. It was just before devolution and we stuck with quite a plural sporting Englishness and no public Englishness at all and at different moments people then said, “if it turns up it’ll be bloody horrible, won’t it?” as if we’ll get a kind of NF (National Front) Englishness and you’re thinking, “well I’ve seen that that isn’t the one people want, why can’t we bring back the one people want?” Now, with a pretty rubbish football team, it’s another reason to not only do it through football but to just do it without needing to win a penalty shootout but we got stalled on that when we actually had the answer because Football’s Coming Home is quite rooted in an traditional ownership, a pride, you know, country that invents the game, exports the game, it’s quite a globalised pride – a country that invites the world and then celebrates its distinctive role.

So a form of patriotism…and the difference between patriotism and aggressive nationalism is that you can be special without being superior and Football’s Coming Home has that quality to it, and actually I’m quite proud we got to the semi-finals and lost, it’s not like you expect them to actually win it and that’s a bit different from what I think people always thought the hangover was, which is that not winning this test match, this football game is always a sort of lament for the loss of Empire, and actually we got over that, we learned to lose at cricket and football. Now, winning Wimbledon, doing well in the Olympics…whether we can psychologically handle that as a country remains to be seen. We know what to do with losing…the risk actually is…beating the Australians once or twice, it’s “can you believe it? We’re beating the Australians!” Doing it every time, you worry you’ll turn into the Australians, and no one wants to turn into the Australians.

What would be your choice for an English national anthem?

I would definitely have one because it’s a category error, bit of a mistake, to not. I think it annoys everybody really, the English don’t feel they’ve got something and the Scots and so on are like “Why have you appropriated it?” and I’d have Jerusalem because I think people can settle on it, it is quite English, left and right can find different things in it, this imaginary utopian idealised slightly made up version. I think it can be inclusive and I don’t see that the alternatives…I wouldn’t have Land of Hope and Glory, that feels rather British, so I think Jerusalem should be it, but I think we should get on with it.

Interview with Sunder Katwala from British Future (Part 1)

My research and development phase for True Brits begins in earnest this month, starting with my having a chat with Sunder Katwala as mentioned in my last post. The questions I’ve asked are all of relevance to the play, so forgive it they seem a bit broad or haphazard:

What made you want to set up British Future? 

Well I think we felt there was a gap in terms of debates that this country wants to have, needs to have, I mean what British Future is about is “Could Britain be a country that’s confident about the country it is and the country it’s going to be?” but I think what we wanted to do differently is we wanted to engage with people who are anxious about that, not with the people who are already confident so I think what we’re trying to move away from was the debate where some people find a society changing quite fast, becoming more diverse, liberating, exhilarating and like it and other people find it unsettling and then you have the debate about whose emotion is right, in which the people who find it liberating try and persuade the people who find it unsettling that they don’t understand the world.

Our question is a different question: This is who we are now and how are we going to make it work? It’s a discussion I don’t think was happening, I mean we have quite a polarised debate and we’ve deliberately chosen the issues that are potentially toxic and polarising: immigration, identity, integration, opportunity and we have the view that we can make choices that we could have confidence in but it means taking anxiety more seriously I think than some people have.

How much does representation matter? Do you need to see someone who looks like you doing what you want in order to do it?

I think in the very broad sense, it matters that the country and institutions that represent the country feel as though they represent the country. What I’m sceptical about is a kind of counting heads multiculturism that tries to get the quotas and the fractions right, what we’re interested in is fair chances, no unfair barriers and I can feel represented by institutions that don’t get the exact proportions right if I feel there are fair opportunities and I think it’s important around issues of race, faith, other issues to have that kind of lens on if there is a big gap, why is the gap there and what are you doing about it, but I don’t want to get into a position where the responsibility to represent the idea of Britain as a multi-ethnic society falls on the shoulders of those who are black and Asian. It’s quite interesting that, for example, pioneering race legislation in this country was passed by parliaments that were all white, and that made it possible for other people to come through so I think we can be quite limiting. I think the answer is for people to be represented in proportionate numbers so they don’t carry the burdens of representation that the pioneer group did but I also think it’s important that we don’t overly pigeon-hole women into talking about childcare and minorities talking about minority issues because they should be shared responsibilities.

What do you think it means to be integrated?

I think one debate people have is that Britishness is quite loose, we just don’t know what integration is and at one level that is partly true and that is also a strength because it’s a civic multinational, multi-ethnic identity. It’s always had quite a lot of space in it because of the Celtic fringe and so on and so perhaps it was easier to pluralise Britishness than Germanness, and then people say “Well, but is it about anything?” and actually what I find quite reassuring is that while there’s this, I think, slightly thin argument that if you can’t find some exclusive property of it that doesn’t exist in any other country then it doesn’t mean anything, I don’t think that’s right because I think it’s about a felt belonging, and what shared perceptions of the group are shared by people who are in the group and how does that work. So the things we think about ourselves,  you know that there’s a distinctive sense of humour, it doesn’t mean there aren’t any jokes in Germany. It just means that we feel that our language, our literature, our humour is distinctive but that it also absorbs other influences and makes it part of that whole thing.

People have some very core issues or concerns that they expect, it can’t work without these things. Do we speak a common language? Do people observe the rule of law, the same rule of law? Do people respect the freedom of speech of others? Those things are absolutely foundational of a common citizenship. Then what’s quite interesting is that people don’t demand too much more, people don’t start saying I’m going to pass a law about what you’re going to wear or not going to wear if they’ve got those foundations so I think while there’s a demand for content in a diverse society, the content is quite liberal.

Do you think there’s a country that represents the best model of integration or is that a red herring?

I think you’ve got to do it in your national context, though the challenges are very similar. Generally, the more highly educated you are, the younger you are, the more confident you will be in an advanced democracy that you’re country can deal with change well. Whereas the older you are, the less educated, the less mobile you are actually, the less you’ll believe that. There are always concerns about basic economic pressures and then “who we are” questions. Now the “who we are” questions are going to be different in every country, they’ll be about the values that country has so, you know, the Dutch will say we risk losing Dutch tolerance, we need to protect, say, tolerance for gay rights from diversity and the French will have a view about secularism and so on. My view is that Britain is better at this than most other countries. I’m not saying it’s necessarily top of the league, it’s the least racist country in Europe I think. The Canadians for very distinct reasons do it very well in a very Canadian way because they managed to make pluralism part of their national identity, put a maple leaf on the flag, have a multilingual community. The British are interesting because I think we are the least racist country in Europe yet we’re a bit more concerned about immigration than everybody else is and working out how both of those things can be true is quite interesting. So it’s not an entirely happy story but I think there are more resources for “we are the new us” right now in Britain than you’d have perhaps in France or Italy.

Do you think large-scale national events, like the Olympics, have the power to shift or set a country’s perception of itself? 

I think to a large extent they have a really important function that nothing else replaces, the only caveat you have to put on it is an asterisk that says “it’s never enough.” It gives you an aspirational vision of the type of better selves you might like to be and you might imagine yourselves being and you can actually see and feel it and so what I think is powerful about the Danny Boyle ceremony is that it’s done in a creative way, it’s not done in a painting-by-numbers way. Personally, I think the closing ceremony was awful and I don’t feel attached to that but the opening ceremony wasn’t and it’s really good but then 27 million people are watching it and so there’s definitely a conversation going on that night among 27 million people and with all the fragmentation, and it’s brilliant obviously at one level because it offers you iPods and iPads and Netflix, but there are very few things now, you know even on Christmas Day people aren’t watching the same thing, there are very few 20 million plus collective experiences, so when you’ve got them – sporting events still do it at the very top level, funnily enough Royal events do it , so if you don’t like the fact that that’s the reason people have a thousand street parties, then before you chuck it I’d like to come up with another reason to have a thousand street parties otherwise you’re throwing away something that works. It’s partly because you’ve got an atomised, individualised society that people really like the things where they choose to come together and I don’t believe anyone was coerced into it, wanted to switch it all off.

I thought the Beijing opening ceremony was – I’m a bit biased here – was boring. It showed an ability to synchronise a large amount of people, but it sort of lacked wit and humour. Now the downside is that if you say “job done – look at that, we can do that, so job done.” An interesting case of this is France in ’98, it mattered a lot that they won the World Cup with the team they won it with and it was probably quite hard to be a French racist because you had to decide whether or not to celebrate winning the World Cup. But it didn’t make it that difficult to put Le Pen in the second round a few years later.  So if you decide that the story that you’d like to tell the rest of the world is this one, and that’s the story you’d like to tell yourself, you’re then offering the mirror to which you’re going to hold up yourselves to and if it turns out to be a false story…I think the story of London 2012 is a true-ish story about London and a sort of aspirational story about Britain and the other thing about it is that we told a story in 2005 ahead of the crash – promise of youth and opportunity and all that – and whether or not it’s still a story you can still believe in after the crash, it’s quite interesting to have established which stories we’d like to be true and then to work out what you’d have to do to keep it going over time.

What, if anything, did the Olympics mean to you personally?

At a personal level, what worked for me about it was…my eldest daughter was 7 and I was thinking “this might happen again by the time you’re 70” and we went to watch some athletic prelims and we went to watch equestrian and we watched some women’s football and there’s pictures and images of just being at the Olympics and you know, you kind of got that it was a really big thing at one level but not how big it was and I think it’d be really interesting to see what her reflections are on that in five years time, in ten or twenty years time, if you never get the Olympics back. I mean she turned into a massive Japanese football fan now, Japan is her country of choice because we watched Japan-France in the Olympics women’s football and there was a group of Japan fans chanting, you know,  “JAPAN!” clap-clap-clap, all the way through and they gave her a flag at the end so now in the World Cup she’ll be supporting Japan, not England – her view is that it’s unfair that if everyone’s going to support England, who’s going to support the other teams – and I suppose I’ve got to be cool with that…a bit.

That’s all for now, folks….part two tomorrow (EDIT: Can be found here). Also True Brits will get a closed reading at my alma mater, CSSD, in March, followed by the first public one at the Brockley Jack the month after. Can’t wait.

I want to make the process of writing this play transparent so people who attend the readings will be given a password to my Scribd account, onto which I’ve been uploading every draft of True Brits. Post-readings I will be uploading versions that explicitly mark what has changed between drafts and why. To cut out the noise from the rest of the blog, you can follow posts about the development process by clicking the tag “TBRD”.


Research for True Brits is in full swing, and today I’m interviewing Sunder Katwala who’s head of the think tank, British Future, concerned with identity and integration, migration and opportunity. A British Future article was part of the inspiration behind the play, so for me this is an opportunity to pose questions about minority and national identity to someone who really knows their onions. If you’ve anything you’d like to ask, drop me a text.

Work In Progress

I’ve now written it on my sacred planning whiteboard now so to make it easier to discuss, my Bose/Gandhi play has the provisional title Sons of India. 

My good friend Meg has described the premise to “X-Men: First Class but with historical Asians.” Which is about right.