The Challenge Of Critique Within Community

Note: These thoughts come from years of interactions with work and people’s responses. It is not written in relation to a specific piece.

The performing arts industries are a significantly better place to be as a creative worker of my background than they were when I first entered it. There are lots of issues still but it’s undeniable that I’m seeing work now that I could never have dreamed of. To see myself in the arts when I was growing up was to be excited about a vaguely South Asian looking name in the credits of a TV show. Now? There are three bankable leading men that share my surname. And it’s more than A Fistful of Patels – there’s a breath and variation of artists, each very much ploughing their own furrows, and a supportive, communitarian energy that makes me giddy for what’s to come. While I wouldn’t want to speak for other groups, my sense is that this is not an unfamiliar feeling to many who thought’d they’d not see an artistic world that includes them in a meaningful way.

Yet with presence comes a pause. Maybe you don’t love something that you’d hope to love. That you’re meant to love. This leaves you in a bind: Do you support something you dislike for the benefit of the broader, still brittle community or are you honest about your feelings in a way that is true to your sensibilities? It shouldn’t be a big question. But the pressure to cheerlead is intense – more so if it’s a work that could clearly do with your support. The personal cost for not doing so can be immense, even/especially if the project already has public validation and/or critical acclaim. Public critiques can easily come across more harshly than you intended and get weaponised against you and others like you – often gleefully. Silence is rarely an option either since your lack of engagement with the sort of thing folks expect you to engage with speaks volumes itself.

It’s not just the pressure from the outside sitting on you. It’s fundamentally alienating within when people are embracing something that you don’t like, especially if others are enthused about it for you. Finally! You! Represented! To reflect that joy is to be untrue to yourself. To reject it is it come off as ungenerous or embittered. There are also power dynamics at play. If you’re just coming through and you care about being a part of a community, a lot of people will not want to upset those who they feel might be able to provide them with access or assistance in a notoriously closed shop of an industry.

I promised myself early on in my career that I would resist pretending that I liked something I didn’t for the sake of social grace, no matter whose work I was watching, but sometimes that’s…so bloody hard. To figure out how to express a neutral stance is its own kind of deception. In my days as a play reader, I felt so much better when I discovered that along with “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it” there was the option to say “I’m sure others will love this, but this is not for me”. This is where I try to land if it’s possible. Sometimes it isn’t. Especially if the work you’re looking at is something you believe that creates active harm or perpetuates existing damaging practices or narratives. More often than not though, it doesn’t feel worth the effort and potentially exhausting public arguments you’ll find yourself in.

So what happens is that people talk among each other instead, which often feels like the best route and everyone needs to have places where you’re safe to express your opinion or vent frustrations without judgement. I’ve often done this myself. It’s helped me form more constructive thoughts. I suppose, though, I’m writing this blog because I don’t know how healthy, long-term, it is to keep thoughts to oneself and I’m asking myself what to do about it (in a public forum). I fear rot and resentments growing that never get cleared up. My sense is that it would be better if we were able to have those conversations more candidly.

It’s easy to say that, of course. Like what if you’re the person making the work that you sense people have taken issue with, even if they won’t state it publicly? I get that you’d perhaps not want to know. Again, that’s definitely been me before. There’s such a sharp sting that comes from disapproval from your own. Especially if you feel that you’re being unfairly or inconsistently targeted. I can think of a few examples recently where creative decisions that would be considered problematic in other circumstances are more or less given a free pass because the excellence of the wider work has trumped the issues (and, for others who are more cynical, it’s something where there is greater social capital in embracing). I’m not too sure how I feel about that specifically, except to say that I veer broadly towards forgiveness (if it’s mine to give) as long as the creatives involved are willing to meaningfully engage with critiques. Others will certainly feel differently.

The sad thing is that a large part of this dynamic comes from the fact that there still isn’t enough work to find yourself in, so the little that is seeming to do it finds itself carrying the full weight of people’s hopes and expectations. The disappointments feel deeper because of this. We are definitely no longer in a place where I get so irked by how a small theatre has decided to cast its Aladdin panto (not my heritage but one of the few ‘brown’ stories I and others saw growing up and so got ascribed to me anyway) but I am more alive to how the work I hope will change the industry (and my life maybe) presents itself.

While we wait (and still push) for more of the work we’d want to see, I’m going to consider how to build a best practice for critical engagement from both artists and audiences that still supports community and fosters trust between us. As audiences, we need to retain and build our capacity to critique in good faith and perhaps resist the easy, more cathartic slams. As artists, we need to accept that we cannot expect universal adoration for what we create. Or even a fair hearing. We do, in fact, need to sit with the knowledge that work that moves with any sort of weight will inevitably cause some degree of hurt and possibly harm to others. That reckoning has to be part of our process. We have to consider what we’d say to it. We have to consider when the cost is intolerable to the benefit.

To have any community at all is a gift, one I’m more grateful for as I grow older and build up a catalogue of professional heartbreaks. I want to be able to feel like I’m interacting with it in a manner that leaves it better than when I first came into it. Growing it in the ways I want to see, sitting in the cooling shade of other’s greatness and confronting – with compassion – that which I find to be troubling. Perhaps it is simply a question of balance. I’m going to push myself to be braver in my critiques and more generous in my adoration, always reminding myself that more often than not there is a wisdom in crowds and that the answers sit a little within us all.

This Time, More Than Any Other Time

To watch England play football is to worry about England fans.

You learn that at a young age here. You might love football. You might have a great deal of affection for England itself. But there are England Fans with a capital F, and there is you. And you learn that faster if you’re not white or male or straight. You learn that to be real Fan is to accept violence as a legitimate expression of passion. Growing up in the late 80s/early 90s (in a borough that housed the headquarters of the British National Party) that was the story that played out to me on the streets. The first man to racially abuse me had a patch of St George’s Cross sitting as comfortably on his arm as “paki” was on his lips.

It was the story that played out to me on the screen. Every summer, newscasters brought tales of foreign furniture flung gracelessly across European plazas. Bare chests. Brass bands. Broken bottles. Bloody noses. “Who was it for?” I would think. Surely not the England team? Surely, somewhere, David Platt was shaking his head.

Well.

To watch England play football is to worry about England players.

Players that you fear enabled, ennobled and embodied the worst instincts of the Fans, which for me is most vividly demonstrated by the Hooligan Prince, Paul “Gazza” Gascoigne. An incredible talent who thrilled with the uncertainty of his virtuosity. What will he do next? But that giddy unease played both ways and there was always a sense that this ‘on the edge’ persona found different manifestations elsewhere, most sickeningly in domestic abuse. (The last game of eleven-a-side I ever played I remember not for the game but for an opposition player protesting his innocence after a foul by saying: “Ref, if I wanted to hit someone, I’d go home and hit my wife.” Perhaps it’s reaching to see a through-line here but it doesn’t feel that hard to grasp.)

While undoubtedly a troubled and – in some respects – sympathetic figure, Gascoigne’s uglier, brutal acts are willingly dissipated by a classical narrative of tragedy where both past and fate inescapably drive actions and – not coincidentally – allowed journalists to write beautifully about him, to literally thank him for being him. Gascoigne was Greatness. Gascoigne was our story.

Gascoigne was England.

A place where any pain and horror is refracted and resolved through an innate brilliance. One cannot exist without the other and so a silent deal is struck in which the bad is structurally forgiven. Because it is necessary. Because it is fated. Because that is the price to pay for flawed genius. It’s a logic that permeates us.

“He’s tender when he’s sober.”

“But we gave them the railways.”

“Thirty years of hurt never stopped me dreaming.”

And so often it doesn’t feel a price being paid at all.

To love football in England is love the flaw as well as the genius.

The beauty and the brutality, the latter of which becomes its own type of genius. We cheer the last-ditch, hard tackle along with the thirty-yard screamer. The raised fists and bloodied head of Terry Butcher arguably just as iconic as Gazza’s tears. And it’s in this aspect of the English footballing psyche that I unexpectedly found a small place for myself.

You see, I am not what you would call a naturally gifted footballer. But, God, do I get stuck in.

I was often told by PE teachers that South Asians are too slight to make it in football, but when it came to a hefty challenge I was the quintessential player. A primary school nickname of “Vinnie Jones” (The Hooligan King to Gazza’s prince) was both a bad play on my name and a tiny connection to the upper echelons of a game I adored. It would be wonderful to tell you that I got more refined as I aged but as I write this, my left arm is bandaged up after a tumbling encounter with a strong player and a sandy pitch, taken at speed.

There is so much joy and meaning for me in playing football, and it’s this that’s powered my love of watching it. And in particular I have always cherished the experience of watching England – in a spiritual sense, definitely not in an aesthetic sense. International tournament football is built to draw the casual viewer through its ease of identification and short-term investment. Every time someone I don’t expect gets really into a tournament, I’m quietly thrilled to be able to share that moment with them. It’s so easy to date where you were in your life to shared experiences in tournaments and so these games give me such a sharp sense of nostalgia. For when I ran around the playground at primary school, hand in hand with my mates, belting out Three Lions – the quintessential anthem for knowing you’re a bit shit but hoping that you won’t be some day soon. For when I wrote a lament in music class aged twelve, to the tune of – what else – When The Saints Go Marching In. (Though if I recall correctly, in terms of penalty misses I had more ire for David Batty’s 1998 effort than Southgate’s). Even for when I suffered through England vs Algeria in 2010, possibly the worst game of football I have ever ever ever ever seen.

However.

As much as I love to watch England, I’ve never really felt like England loved me in return. I have never seen a face that looks like mine in that squad. I don’t expect to any time soon. The conduct of players may have improved since I was a kid but the replacement of guts and glory with glam was just as alienating to me because 1) Displays of financial excess repel me and 2) I am a massive nerd who will never be cool. And those Fans haunt me. They squeeze the affection out of my heart and fill it with a deep shame to the extent that I have always worn my team shirt with a jacket over it until I got to wherever I was going.

And so we come to now. The eve of the Euro 2020 finals. England vs Italy.

You’ve heard and seen a lot about it by now I’m sure, even if you haven’t been wanting to. The first final that the men’s team has reached since 1966. And you’ve also probably heard a lot about the team that made it happen. Jordan Pickford’s goalkeeping record. Jordan Henderson’s charity. Jack Grealish’s nice calves and wolfish smile. Mum’s new favourite Tyrone Mings and his classy deputisation. Raheem Sterling’s facing down of abusive tabloids. Marcus Rashford’s raising up hungry children. The taking of the knee. The hype of a young team that play with purpose. With politics. With humility. With each other (never a given in an England team).

They can also win! And (sometimes) play beautifully! It’s a squad of outrageously talented players who grew up clearly just as influenced by the skilful, fluid dominance of tiki-taka Spain or regal poise and precision of the Italian greats as their English forbearers. All of it framed within the unnecessary redemption of nice guy Gareth Southgate and his very necessary essay in which he denounced the worst elements and instincts of England Fans.

I’m not sorry to say that I am a total sucker for it.

The team, the manager, those ideals. The lot. I might not be represented physically, but something of who I would like to be as a person is which is…just really bloody weird to find in the England team? And honestly, I don’t quite know what to do with that. Which is why I’m not here to tell you that this is some new dawn. There will be no Truth & Reconciliation for ageing Spanish patio furniture, wronged by some Ruddy Faced Wonder a quarter of a century back. Dickheads will continue to dickhead. They will continue to spray their aggression like unneuteured tomcats claiming territory. I watched people gleefully singing songs harking back to World War 2 during the match against Germany – a team so many England fans seem to feel we have an almost moral right to beat, a feeling that Southgate just today unhelpful gave succour to having previously been so sensible.

So I have no dismissiveness towards the reticence of others who eye this moment – and who it might embolden – with concern. It’s not even nine years ago that the England captain was stripped of his armband and found guilty of racism towards a black player. If you’re reading articles about this wonderful new progressive England team you are right to feel some whiplash within the right-wing backlash. It’s not cynical to think this is just the 2012 Olympics all over again. But this is different in one important way.

While I’ve enormous affection for that Olympic summer, it was so clearly built to be a big tent – to a fault. It was billed as a humble spectacle of togetherness for austerity times that, aside from flickers in the opening ceremony, swerved hard from politics. It sought to be for everyone by alienating no-one. This England team and their manager don’t mind alienating people. They understand that meaningful unity is gained from mutual respect not total compliance. They gain absolutely nothing from taking up the positions that they have and they do it anyway. I cannot imagine what that must be like to see as a kid. I’m a bit jealous but more glad that they have that. And I’m so proud of that team. It feels like mine. I want to enjoy that I can type all of this (while sober) and feel that it’s real. Even for a second.

Because there are for sure unhappier moments ahead. Playing professional football at the highest levels is to always await the fall. The depression of injury. The mental strain of expectation. The temptations of money. The slow fade out of a career. The sensationalism of virulent tabloids looking to pull down public figures whose politics disrupt their own. (My tiny hope is that there will be some inoculation for the players through the sheer affection they’ve garnered from casual viewers – so yes your mum’s newfound love of Tyrone Mings is more significant than you think.)

There are blockbuster, record-breaking contracts ahead for all of these players and a few of them will no doubt take the sheen off whatever image they’re making here with their actions. And while Southgate has overseen some useful structural change within the England set up, this team will not fundamentally change the issues endemic in this country. No serious person would expect that, in the same way we wouldn’t expect that from any single piece of art. The seeds planted here will likely take another generation at least to take a firmer root. The long scar on my leg from a childhood friend who turned racist and ran his studs down my leg during a game is never going to fade.

Yet even if all good vibes and intentions gets washed away in the spilled beer of the post-final result, this feels like a team that belongs to me and I will always love them for giving me this month in which I can embrace a simple truth.

I too am an England fan, and I always have been.

Somewhere In This Sadness Is A Path Back To Myself

Snapshot thoughts from the edge of 35

A year ago, waking up on the morning of my birthday, I made a quiet wish for a deadline extension for a play. Whoever that wish reached overshot things somewhat and shut down the theatre sector instead. I have paid my penance by putting some pennies towards this fund here that has been supporting out-of-work theatre workers. That link again? It’s right here. If you’ve ever liked anything I’ve written, I’d love it if you could put a little something towards it. If you’ve hated everything I’ve written, this fund will probably help someone you like more keep going. Win win.


When I wrote an essay about death (stay with me, casual reader) for The Good Immigrant – over 5 years ago now – I still had both my grandfathers. Since then, I have lost both, most recently my maternal grandfather in January. In that essay, I talked about rituals and how they were nonsense but nonsense that binds. It sounded pleasingly profound and pretentious at the time, but I have thought about that observation a lot of late. I have thought about whether I still believe it. I’m going to test it by trying to make a ritual for myself today.

It is my birthday once more and I am spending it at my maternal grandparents’ empty house. At this very moment I am trying to gather something of how it smells because that smell was a constant across my whole life and I know it will be one of the first things to fade. In truth, it already has a little. I feel like I’m perhaps vacuuming up too much of it and not leaving enough behind for others.

The last year (and a bit) was hands down the worst of my life, as it has been for so many others. I’ve lost work, relatives, friends, a relationship and my favourite hat. However, I have also gained a niece – the first child born in our immediate family in over 30 years – and her presence in my life increasingly makes me want to try and take those losses and build on their foundations (Also to get a tattoo but that might have been the pandemic getting to me).

So I am thinking this moment here, a ritual creation, can be the start of that. Using old elements to invoke the new. I am having a pint of my grandad’s favoured beer. I am taking photos before the inevitable emptying. I am writing this blog right here. I am saying goodbye. Now that I absorbed my fill of the loud kitchen clock (depicting different types of birds – cute!), I am infusing the comforting silence of the place with a first listen of the multi-talented Anjana Vasan’s gorgeous upcoming album, which feels about right since she once played a fictionalised version of my maternal grandmother who I think would fully adore this music as much as I do. Then I will go for a walk with my friend Shubham who played my maternal grandfather once and I will have rounded off my ritualistic myth making and go home to consider how I can make it linger and how I can make it bind (and probably drink some whisky). Maybe in eighteen years time me and my niece will be having a Stella in a London pub (imagine! the pub!) and she will think this is a nonsense from a wayward uncle but will go along because she knows it means something to him. Maybe when I’m gone she’ll craft it into something new for herself.

35! We did it, Joe!

Decisions that have helped me the most over the last year, in ascending order:

  • Staying off social media for the most part – 3
  • Going to therapy now that I can afford it for a bit – 2
  • Getting a WhatsApp group – 1

Honestly, nothing has been clearer to me this last year that realising how much pain could’ve been averted by a sympathetic WhatsApp group in which you can be your worst self rather than instinctively present that self to the world. Basically – get a WhatsApp group of likeminded folks who will bring you joy and back from the brink in equal measure.


I started writing something about the self-discovery I have undertaken over the last year and how that has helped balance out the horror but even writing the words “self-discovery” made me gag a bit and I think is the moment you should pull yourself away from the keyboard. So I’ll just say that I am proud to have pushed myself to be more vulnerable and open-hearted in a year that was…very much not ideal for that. In an unexpected way, by loosening up a bit, I feel a little like I have more control over forces in my life that I thought would just be chaotic forever so I’m hopeful for better in the months ahead. Speaking of…


Having read back through some of my old posts, both here and on my Patelograms (which I will still write when I find anything worth saying), there is a clear drive to try and make hope a large part of my output. Sometimes that feels strained. Sometimes it feels honest. But it has never felt less than important. Digging into why that is is one for another day. I just get the sense it will always be a part of what I put into the world. Or at least that’s my hope for myself for the next 35 years – that hope will stay in the heart of everything that I’m doing. That the deep miseries we’ve experienced has created a well of feeling that can be alchemised into glory. An emotion-rich medium through which we can fully be who we always wanted to.

Maybe it’s the beer talking, but I cannot wait to see you all again and make terrible, terrible small talk. That’s where I’m sure a lot of us are at. Longing for the intimate nonsense. But, hey, there’s something in that…

Keep well, folks.

V x

P.S. Looking through my grandfather’s bookshelf, I found a copy of my very first play that I had signed for him. There was a page bookmarked. What did that page say?

I haven’t laughed like that in ages and I fully didn’t expect to do so today. Thanks, universe, you whimsical bastard.

A Eulogy for Rasik Davé

Thank you all for coming. I know it’s a difficult time for anyone to be out of the house so I appreciate your being here all the more in these circumstances. I’d like to take a moment to talk about what Dada meant to me, how he shaped mine and my sister Shivani’s life and how I’ll remember him.

The days after a person passes have a disquieting quality to them. It’s an unavoidable truth that our loved one is no longer with us, but it’s been such little time since they’ve gone that the waves of their motions still carry through the world. Their messages still filter through. In some cases, quite literally.

As I sat down to write this, I didn’t really know how to begin so I was grateful, as all dawdling writers are, for the interruption of the postman knocking at the door. He handed me a stack of delayed letters within which was an envelope with familiar handwriting. Dada’s handwriting. A Diwali card arriving a month or so late. The blood drained from me when I saw his words. Once I settled myself though I thought about how he had impacted my own words, how he kept a hold of all the juvenile stories I scrawled out at his kitchen table. How he was the first person that my writing felt meaningful to. Looking at that card again, I took it as a sign that even in death, he was pushing me to put the pen in my hand and my bum in the chair. So let me properly begin my words here with talking about his.

The first memory I have of Dada’s handwriting was when, I think for my 6th birthday, he bought me and Shivani a copy of a book and wrote his best wishes to us inside. That book was Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Even at age six I felt this was a little on the nose.

But while great expectations might have been what he had for us, as children, visiting him and our Ba felt like the opposite of pressure. Coming past the frosted glass of the sliding porch door and into their home was like entering a palace of peace. A place where there was warm rotli and cool Ribena. Where we knew there would be a stack of VHS cartoons recorded off the telly with great effort. And hardback Readers Digest story anthologies to get lost in.

However, as a well-travelled man, Dada would not be content with home comforts being all that we came to him for. He was always keen for us to understand more about this city we lived in and that he had helped shape during his time working for the Greater London Council and beyond. So he taught us how to fly kites on Wandsworth Commons. How to pay for the bus and to always say thank you to the driver when you got off. He took us on glorious trips to Kew Gardens on the river boat. He would bring us to feed the geese by the Thames, laughing only very briefly when they would chase a petrified Shivani who was always reluctant to give up her bread. Dada himself was never scared of the geese. In fact, he rarely seemed scared of anything, perhaps because he was and remained throughout his life, the tallest Asian man I knew.

It’s not because he never felt fear or expressed it. He’d often tell me the story of how, as a one year old, I’d stopped breathing while in his care and how terrifying the drive to the hospital was. It was more than he never let fear overcome him. As I grew older and came to understand him more fully as a man and what great trials he’d been through in his life, that resilience felt all the more like magic to me.

Especially since it never blunted him or made him cynical. Far from it. Dada was always sharp, curious, considered. He had that paradoxical quality of all great minds – a self-confidence that allowed him to question himself. I knew I could pick up the phone to ask his opinion about anything and we might agree or we might argue, which we did a lot, but I never felt that he was taking my opinions as any less valid than his. Those conversations gave me my political consciousness, both in the way he would talk about being part of a union and how there were those on the other ‘side’ of his beliefs who he also respected and sought to understand.

In that effort is where independence and community – two things that meant a lot to Dada – come together. It is to absolutely know oneself, to never push others to follow you but to stand up for them, to help them find their own way and to do it with tenderness. He made motions. He made waves. But always so as to take others closer to the shore. If Shivani was here, she would say that he was a man who gave both excellent hugs and excellent advice and I don’t think anything more neatly encapsulates Rasik Davé better than that.

I wanted to finish by telling you that maybe we are the waves of the motions that our forebearers made. We are the expression of all their efforts to seek a better life and a promising future for those who came after them. It feels poetic. Humble. But I don’t think that’s what Dada would want the lesson of his life to be. Instead I see his story as a compulsion to understand that it is not ever enough to pull your dignity from outside of yourself – not from your family, not from your name, your race, your religion, your gender, your caste, your country. Dignity lies in your deeds. It is your actions. Your motions. And what feels like a terrible, unrelenting world is there to be shaped by that dignity if we dare to make it so just like Dada always sought to.

I am so proud of him. I am so proud to be his grandson, part of his legacy and I know my sister feels the same. I also know he’d be far happier if we could say that we were proud of ourselves. Because of him I can say that I am. I am proud of who I am. I am proud to have weight in this world, just as he did. And also because of him I know that that weight is a responsibility and a privilege that one should take seriously. Though he would, with a cheeky smile over a beer, tell you that that seriousness should not extend to one’s self.

More than anything, I’ll remember Rasik Davé as a man who was always excited about what was to come. Even if it was only a person ringing his doorbell, waiting just on the other side of the frosted glass where, in my heart, he will forever be now alongside his wife and eldest daughter. 

He understood that the future was not about bearing the past forward but in forging something new. So if we can take up that challenge, if we can demand better from ourselves for the sake of others, if we can keep hold of his Great everyday Expectations then we will keep him with us too.

An Ode To Cecily and Robbie

(Composed with quotations from and references to American cinema of the 1970s and 80s)

“There can only be one!” claimed Connor MacLeod
But this immortal Scot could’ve allowed
A greater meaning to this cry

Because there’s more that it implies
See, it’s not just about eternal life
It’s what one should be thinking when choosing a wife.

Did this thought cross the mind of another young Scot?
Dreaming of girls on a dreary backlot
Did he hold his breath. Make a wish. Count to three?

How else to summon a Cecily?
Once she appeared, did he run to her side
Screaming “hang on lady, we going for a ride?”

And what of dear Duckett, art department extraordinaire!
Crafting a prop with listless despair
Oh those days are lonely and long

But did a voice drive her on?
Promising a future of fun
If you build it, he will come.

However it happened, grail knights would agree
That Robbie and Cec have chosen wisely
They’re no longer rovers

That’s it man. Game over, man. Game over.
Loneliness has passed!
They came. They saw. They kicked its arse.

And I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe
I tell you, this couple is just one of these
Because while one might surmise

When you grow up, your heart dies
Here that claim’s blown away
These are warriors of love that come out to play.

So we wish you the best
There’s no doubt for us here
You’ll be Excellent To Each Other for the rest of your years
Then be ghosts with the most but before you expire
You’ll work through the night pursuing desires
And greet every dawn with a breath of fire!

As light chases dark and lifts up the sky
Guy turns to gal and gal turns to guy
Hands locked in hands, eye locked on eye
And together they’ll say

“Hey…

…Go ahead, make my day.”


Written for Cecily & Robbie
– Hitched 19th January 2020 (In Hahei, New Zealand)

A Year in Reviews

OK so this is not what I promised I’d write. Not exactly.

What I had promised was an article about how to cope with reviews. The idea was that it was the article I wish I had when I started out. Now I have written that (it’s bloody long) and if you want to skip straight to it, click here. I won’t judge. But if you want a bit of preamble about what this year has meant for me, I promise it’ll enrich the reflections in the review piece and morever I’ll keep it brief.

Still reading? Ok so, here’s what happened.

Trying to writing this blog post in the context of having had three pieces of work out within the space of three months made me naturally reflect on the year that’s gone by. I started 2018 needing to take a month out. I find myself ending it in the same place, just with less ability to do it. (Do you ever really get to take proper time off? The answer to that is probably yes and that’s top of my list of things to figure out for 2019).

I’m very, very, very tired. I feel like I’ve been very, very, very tired for a very, very, very long time. At least though, with An Adventure at the Bush and Doctor Who finally meeting their audiences, I’ve put to bed projects that took up many years of my life. They both require a giant amount of research. In fact, it’s only in the last few months that I’ve been able to read a book again for pleasure instead of work. They both pushed me as an artist who wants to be responsible in the stories that he tells. They put massive strains on my personal life in ways that I regret.

When I ask myself why I let that happen, what was it that made them so important, once I ducked past the “this story is very important to tell because of x” (all of which is true), what sits at the bottom of it all is that for me both those pieces of work and Sticks and Stones, a play I wrote for the wonderful Paines Plough were all about proving that my earlier projects weren’t a fluke.

I reckon I’ve done that – all three were fairly favourably received, and I’d gladly work with everyone I made those pieces with again. There is the impulse to make art that proves something to others, whether you’re conscious of it or not. And then there is another impulse to make art that is solely for your own comfort and consumption. It’s the equivalent of cooking potato faces and spaghetti hoops for dinner. If others like it – great! – but that concern doesn’t sit at the very top of your thinking. More often than not, there’s some cross over at least.

An Adventure was 95% potato faces and spaghetti hoops. I thought of the audience in terms of how I was taking them through it and how they might approach the play, but the way it was made and the way it was presented – it’s the most “me” thing I’ve ever made. In its style and concerns yes, but also it was the play I needed right then, more than anyone. I knew on the final preview that no matter what happened after that, this play had already given me what I needed. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, my paternal grandfather died whilst I was writing the play. He did, in fact, die a week after my telling him I was doing so for the first time. Making that play allowed me to grieve him in a way that I couldn’t have managed without it. I felt like it was a gravestone for him that the act of cremation naturally robs one of. Here lies Jayanathibhai Patel and his story – or a version of it – was told.

It won’t surprise anyone that knows me even a little bit to know that I think about my place in this country a lot. I think about the fact that once all my grandparents are gone, I have no real connection to anywhere else. Both culturally and legally. In a world that’s increasingly pulling up the drawbridges, this is where I am, whether I like it or not, with this face, in this country. My grandparents did a wonderful job of trying to make Britain a place that might work for me, but I never quite felt that connection I was aching for. I asked myself: How can I, in turn, make this a less lonely island? An Adventure was also that for me.

In that and Who, I worked with two predominantly South Asian casts this year and whilst I kind of wish I could say it didn’t mean much to me, it really did. I had conversations I’ve been wanting to have since I was fifteen. I felt both lighter and more driven. Sitting on a lunch table in the South of Spain, with an actor who’s been in the game for decades, a couple who were around my age, and one that had just graduated from drama school, I finally felt like this was an industry where I not only belonged but could make work that was important to me and enjoyable for others for a long, long time to come. To be, alongside the great Malorie Blackman, the first writers of colour on Doctor Who is a horrible honour, but I’m sure glad it was for the sake of that story.

Doctor Who also marked the occasion of my moving from being a local storyteller (theatre and domestic dramas which feels manageable) to being a global storyteller which is one hell of an eye-opener, particular if it’s a beloved show that you’ve made that move on. Your Who ep could be someone’s favourite ever and it could be the one that destroys someone else’s love of the show. It could go down horribly here and be a triumph in the States. There is absolutely no real emotional logic you can arm yourself with to make that less weird or easier to take. It is ridiculous but I’ve learned a lot and (mostly) loved it.

All in all then, it’s a banner year?

Sort of. Because if 2018 marks anything else, it’s also – being absolutely honest – the closest I’ve come to wanting to end my life in four years. I don’t say that to try and elicit a shock or sympathy and I don’t want to linger on it for too long. I took the steps I needed and I’m in an alright place now, but I want to drive home the point that there isn’t necessarily a correlation between success and a sustained peace. I’m sure a part of me thought that was the case when I was a younger man, but the final thing 2018 has taught me is that this is categorically not true.

So I look forward to a 2019 where I can embrace my limitations in some parts of my life, take the limiters off in others, keep pushing for excellence but to also find a joy in being a beginner again. Maybe I’ll learn to bake. 

You guys are all so into baking right now. Is it cause of the show? Are the baking and the judging inexorably linked? Oh! Speaking of…

—————

APPROACHING CRITIQUE: A BRIEF GUIDE FOR THE PANICKED AND SOON TO BE PUBLICLY JUDGED

Getting critically evaluated, be it by Lyn Gardner or your twelve-year old cousin is fucking nauseating. Even if the review is good, you’ll probably feel more relieved than joyous. Happy that you didn’t throw up on your shoes rather than suddenly assuming you’re a God. And every time I think “I’m used to it. I won’t care.” Every time I’m wrong. I suppose it’s good in the sense that if you find yourself not caring at all then that’s probably a bad sign. I want to care til the end of my days because to me it means that I’ve invested in it and that I’ve left a bit of myself behind in the work.  But how is that possible? In a world where even the most addictive substances create a tolerance, how is there no inoculation to this horrible effect?

My theory as to why you keep caring (which, to repeat, I think is healthy) and why it always stings a bit is that there is so little time to steel yourself for it even if you want to. Most new productions are being worked on right until press night and you’ve probably spent months before that trying to be open to changes and improvements and being a good collaborator. In order to do that, you need to be quite vulnerable and open as an artist, willing to accept critique and work on it which is tough but made easier by knowing you’re making the play with people who want it to be good and who (hopefully!) like you as a person. The gap between final preview and press night is not enough time to disengage that mode of being and close yourself up. By the time people come to review the work – people who don’t have that investment in you or the play – you’re still in quite a vulnerable place.

By the by, if you don’t know anything about me and are wondering what’s informing what I’m writing here: I’ve had four or so full-length theatre pieces reviewed and the same again for telly, so whilst I’m not deep into my career, I’ve had enough experience to throw out some pieces of advice that I wish I’d known before I got started. I’ve not had anything out and out panned and I’ve not had a runaway critical smash either so I hope that most of what I’m writing speaks to the middle range of responses which will be most artists’ experience.

We’ll do this in three parts. The first will be about approaching reviews when the play (or other public piece of art) is out in the world. The second will be how to consider the response after the fact. The third will be about actions and techniques to try when you’re a few months post show and in that blissful in-between stage of making work that won’t be out in the world for a while. My focus will mainly be on dealing with critics but will encompass some aspects of audience response too.

—————

WHAT TO DO WHEN IT’S ON

These are the main approaches that I’ve seen other people try and those that I’ve tried myself. You won’t find what’s best for you until you give a few of them a go. Also, some techniques work better for different projects.

It’s also worth noting that each carries a different load of stress. Nothing you do will make the experience *entirely* stress free or less nauseating I’m afraid, that’s just part of the deal of putting your stuff out there to be publicly judged, but you have some say in the *type* of stress you have which I suppose is some comfort. 

Anyway, here’s what you can do:

1) Don’t Read The Reviews

2) Read Them, Don’t Engage

3) Read Them, Engage

Let’s dig a little into each of these…

DON’T READ THE REVIEWS

This is something I see writers do once they’re a few plays into their career (using the term ‘career’ loosely here). They might look at them after the fact, but the aim is to not go anywhere near them whilst the play is running. For a writer just starting out, I think it’s pretty impossible to bring yourself to not look at reviews, hoping as you are for critical validation (who doesn’t want to read a good review? And they’ll be good because you are, obviously, a genius. Or at least so you think. Sometimes.)

When I started out, I found this approach a bit high-minded. It felt so dismissive – “I don’t care what they say. I know it’s great.” By the time An Adventure came around *totally* got it. I was so sick with worry, felt so fragile and that play was so close to my heart that I couldn’t bear to sit and take what might be a mauling. So I tried very hard to not read the reviews. And you know what? I managed it and felt great. For a bit. 

Because the big problem with trying not to read the reviews is that they will probably, in some way, leak out to you. With An Adventure, this happened in what feels like now quite a hilarious fashion. I had actively told everyone that I wasn’t reading the reviews to pre-empt them showing them to me. So I was sitting on the wall of the terrace outside the Bush, blissfully unaware, feeling pretty good about life. The press night the evening before had gone well – for me it wasn’t quite as good as the preview before it, but well enough despite some Prominent Director’s phone going off in the quietest scene. Just then my phone went off and it was Madani. We had a friendly opening exchange, just shooting the breeze and then he says “so listen, here’s the rundown” and I realised I had told everyone I wasn’t reading reviews *except* for the director. Whoops. Before I could stop him, he’d given me the summary: “They’re all good. But there’s an outlier.” For fucks sake. No bliss for me, ever again, just the gnawing question: “Which one, which one was it?”

Social media is another way you’re going to hear about reviews. You might post telling people not to tell you, but there’ll be a proud/combative relative or old school friend tagging you in a post saying how the reviewer really gets it/should burn in hell. Sometimes the actors will leak opinions from reviews to you. There might be a summary floating around the office of the theatre the play is in.

Basically, this approach is probably the best thing for your mind, but it’s also really, really hard to maintain, especially if you’ve got a long run and still have some plugging to do for the show. If that’s you – there’s an app called Buffer that lets you set up social media content ahead of time and not see the replies or have to go on the platform itself. Invaluable. Otherwise, get off social media and make sure you tell absolutely everyone and their mum that you don’t want to hear anything about the show. Get the hell away for a bit if you can. This isn’t an approach that I think works for me long-term because I find it hard to cut myself off from the world. I like to stay involved in the show, I like to be able to talk to the actors as much as I can, I like to hang around the theatre, I like to talk to audiences after, I like to suffer and celebrate communually so I’ll never be able to dodge the feedback. But if you can do it, you’re an absolute hero and have my respect.

READ THEM, DON’T ENGAGE

This is my default (and mostly where I ended up with An Adventure after my attempt to dodge reviews failed). Partly it’s out of curio-vanity, partly it’s because I don’t want to hear it from anyone else and partly because I want to be able to respond to questions or concerns within the company with the full knowledge of what they might have seen. It’s hard to be an effective cheerleader for the team when you don’t know where they are in the league.

A way to do this that’s kind to yourself is to not try and seek them out as they come in. Instead, go do something completely non-work related the day after press and then set aside an hour or two by yourself in a quiet place and Google away.

If the thought of that makes you queasy, find a partner or a good friend, and ask if they’ll look at the reviews and give you a summary. At least that way you get to maintain some distance.

Try to resist the urge to dismiss responses out of hand, even if you think they’re unfair. The horrible thing about an unfair critical opinion is that the critic won’t be the only one to have it. That review will speak for at least one other person. So if you’re interested in understanding the range of responses, you’ve got to face it.

The benefits of this approach is that you get to know and move on. It provides some degree of that looked-for inoculation. Once you know that someone has had that opinion, it makes the next time you encounter it easier. Let me tell you, this is particularly useful with something like Doctor Who. The consolidated viewing figure for my episode was eight million people in the UK. That, like the vastness of the universe, is a fucking terrifying thing to consider when lying in your bed late at night. However, that’s not eight million opinions, that’s probably about four or five generalised responses. Knowing “Ok so broadly people love it because of X though some folks really hate Y” made it easier for me to just get on with my life.

With plays, once you’ve taken in the reactions, more often than not things get brighter because there’s so much to enjoy about your work being on; the way the actors’ performances deepen, the way the scenes get tighter, the morbid thrill of seeing how different audiences respond, the utter weirdness that sets into a cast’s inter-personal relations when they hit the four week mark.

READ THEM, ENGAGE

Red Alert. This is the most fraught approach. It takes time, it takes energy, it takes tonnes emotional fuel. I’ve only really done this once with a theatre critic who’d reviewed my first play and given away a massive plot point and I wanted them to adjust the review to not do that. Unless they’re massively misrepresenting your play to a potentially broad audience, I think there’s little to be gained from engaging with critics, especially if it’s in response to a negative review.

Having said that, audiences can be different, and I don’t think engaging with them is bad per se. I liked doing a tweet-a-long for Doctor Who that exposed my process and I made a point of doing it with Murdered By My Father because it felt important to talk to the young demographic that we were targeting with researched-backed knowledge and clarity about the quite harrowing piece they’d put themselves through and how it manifests in the real world. Talking to people about An Adventure and what it had meant to them made all the work I put into it worthwhile. Even playing whack-a-mole with trolls on social media has its charms (as long as you don’t let them burrow too deep into your head).

If you’re going to respond to/engage with either critics or audience members, be sure to ask yourself what master it is in yourself that you’re serving. If it’s ego, be wary, if it’s curiosity careful to not mine too deep or you might end up in self-loathing, if it’s anger or hurt, take a step back and breath before you dive in. The world of the creative industries is small. If you have to piss someone off, make sure you’re super clear about why you’re doing it. People can be arseholes. Categorising the arsehole helps diminish their power and it useful when explaining their arseholery to others (ok, this image needs work.)

Some other tips: Learn to take a compliment. Even if it’s just “thank you, that’s very kind.” Resist the urge to tell the person who’s told you they like what you’ve made a list of the things that are wrong with it. They probably don’t care and it’s only really you who needs to reflect on that. If you’re a leading creative on the project, get in the habit of spreading praise amongst the team (Please remember your goddamn designers, lads) and reasonably absorbing blame rather than reflecting it. Even if it doesn’t seem fair, it’ll do you well in the long run.

—————

THE REVIEWS ARE OUT. HOW TO COPE WHEN…

THEY LOVED IT

Wonderful! Thank Santa for that. Enjoy the crown of daisies. Be pleased for yourself and your collaborators. Let a bit of yourself feel vindicated. Put it on your website. File it away for a rainy day/an Arts Council application. Line up your most audacious project that you’ve squirrelled away. Ring your Dad and tell them you were right to ignore them.

But don’t believe the hype. I know you want to. But you can’t. Even when it’s earned, you can’t get hooked on validation because it’s dangerous for your sense of self but also your ability to just do your job. It’s the same when actors get laughs in a play – it’s such a clear and immediate response, that to find you don’t get that response another day is devastating and can really throw you off course. You grasp for it to the detriment of the rest of what you’re doing and you can’t let it do that. Eyes forward, focus on the work and moments to come.

THEY HATED IT 

Fuck those guys! What do they know? Well…they know they didn’t like what you’ve spent years slaving over and I’m here to tell you friends that it sucks and not only that but it will always suck.

Worst of all, your friends probably know. And you know they know. And they know you know that they know. But nobody wants to talk about it. If you feel they’re itching to be supportive, maybe bring up – vaguely – the spectre of a couple of bad reviews and watch as the floodgates open and they tell you how it doesn’t matter, and you’ve made what you wanted to make etc etc. Some of it will be true. A lot of it won’t. But it’ll still be nice and you’ve earned a bit of nice.

The aforementioned “outlier” than Madani told me about turned out to be probably the worst review I’ve ever had. That it was from The Guardian and written by someone with a not dissimilar background to me made it doubly hard to take. Never mind that it was otherwise across the board positively well received, humans have a strong negativity bias and it magnetises your attention on responses that push firmly against your hopes. 

You’ll feel miserable. You’ll draft witty, cutting responses to the reviewer. You’ll dig into their biography. You’ll look at their other reviews and that’ll either validate you or horrify you (“They gave four stars to what?”). You will basically be looking for a way to dismiss the opinion. Sometimes that’ll be valid. Often it won’t. That’s why it’s hard.

Especially since a bad review can be an absolute body blow. That Guardian review basically put me to bed for three days. A friend of mine who otherwise had a wildly successful and much loved show had exactly the same feeling and response to their one bad review. They’re a smart and rational and wonderful person. Doesn’t matter. You can’t really push the feeling away in the first instance, you just have to sort of go through it. Let yourself feel really shitty. You’re allowed to feel shitty. You worked hard and it mattered to you.

When you pick yourself up, remind yourself how you felt about the show before it got reviewed. Outside of all the framing you tell yourself of certain things not being right or needing time to settle did you, fundamentally, create the piece you set out to make. If the answer is no, you can self-evaluate and consider why that happened and how to avoid it next time. If the answer is yes then for the love of God, embrace that. I’m so bad at this but trying to get better and An Adventure was one of the first things that let me do that. I adored that play. I adored that company. I had made pretty much exactly what I wanted to put out into the world and I felt so lucky to have had that opportunity. Wallowing for a bit is fine but I would be an idiot to dismiss the joy a project like that gave me because of some dissenting voices. If it’s still running, keep your focus on finding the audience who need that play, for whom it means more than anything. If you’ve made your work with care, they will be out there.

Eventually, with time, you make your peace with naysayers objections and when you do it helps to learn this phrase by heart: “I guess it just wasn’t for them.”

THEY SHRUGGED AT IT

Honestly, I think this is the trickiest one to deal with and it’s hard to give advice for. We hope for our work to elicit a passionate response, one way or another, and someone going “yeah, it was fine” can be incredibly disheartening in a way that is disproportionate to what is a fairly positive reaction. You can’t get fired up from the thrill nor can you galvanise each other to fight back against a mauling.

The careers of even the greatest writers you adore will be pocked with Shruggy work. It might be the audience wasn’t up for that kind of work in the time it was made, it might just be it’s a fair effort that didn’t quite find its fullest expression, it might have suffered in contrast to another similar show. For whatever reason, there’s no shame in this, even if it feels disappointing in the moment.

I find the best way to at this kind of response is as a bit of an emotional score-draw. “Thank God I don’t have to get too wrapped up in a response!” Both bad and good reviews can be addictive (and I screenshot segments from both). Take the calm that only comes from “They liked it! They mildly liked it!!”

—————

IT’S OVER. NOW WHAT?

Finally, beyond press night and the run of the play, here are a few things to consider trying in order to make myself feel more zen about reviews and life as an artist.

UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU’VE MADE 

With a bit of time and space away from the project, I think it’s useful to sit down and try and grapple with what you’ve done. That might be, finally, looking at reviews if you haven’t.

Consider the basis of the critiques you’ve received. Turn them over in your mind, ask yourself whether you honestly agree with it or not. If so, what might you keep an eye on next time? Ask if the project did what you hoped it might do. Did it surprise you in ways you didn’t see coming? When my first play, True Brits, finished its run at the Edinburgh Fringe, I discovered an unexpected feeling in that one of my proudest achievements with that play was for it to have a brown man on a theatre poster at the Edinburgh Fringe, a fringe where the only other brown man on a theatre poster was a browned-up Italian man, starring in a musical about Buddha. In that context, that poster felt mighty to me and I’ve been obsessed with my show posters ever since.

Otherwise, this part usually involves trying to get a grasp of how the work was received by the people in the industry (I’m so sorry for using this word) whose opinions matter to me, considering my next steps and if I need to change my process or my priorities.

For example, if the show was a success, I think about what projects I might like to work with that team again on if I can. What might be the stories that could fire us up? Can I put it to the front of the queue so it can in the works before that actor disappears into the stratosphere?

If you’ve made something absolutely heinous which you think was a disaster in every way and you hate everyone involved, perhaps you need to dig back into short pieces, applying for scratch nights, search for art that you think will reenergise you, seek out new collaborators. On that note…

CONSIDER WHAT YOU’LL MAKE NEXT

If you’re anything like me, you’ll get a bit of a creative wanderlust in the aftermath of a project. “I should make a musical next!” “I should make an epic!” “I should make an easily tourable intimate two-hander that in some tangential but beautifully metaphorical way refers to Something Big In Science.” Some of this energy comes from other things you’ve seen but often some of that energy can also come from the reviews and responses and that can easily lead you astray. A touch of “I’ll show ‘em!” is useful for an artist, if not just to get you going in the morning, but you can’t let it dominate the big artistic choices you make. Be clear about what’s driving you.

In that respect, the single most useful question I’ve found to ask myself when looking to start a new project is “what compels me?”. What’s that conversation you find yourself coming back to again and again when you’re five hours deep into a session at the pub or thinking on at three in the morning. You might, honestly, find it’s nothing. In that case, maybe don’t write for a bit. Definitely not for theatre. I find it’s a medium where it’s easy to sniff out the lack of compulsion in a writer. Try something else for a bit. For example TV – though it definitely can and should tell soulful stories driven by people invested in the tale they’re telling – sustains itself more heavily on narratively driven, episodic, high concept pieces than theatre does. This means you can be part of a wider writing team (something theatre has no real equivalent of) and it can be a place to tell stories that don’t necessarily come from the deepest place within you but still allow you to be playful, exercise your craft with flair and learn a lot.

TALK TO SOME CRITICS

You may not be in the frame of mind to do this immediately after the show is done, but I’ve found it invaluable to talk to people who review about what they look for, what the pressures are on them, what their process is, why they do it. If not just out of curiosity, it makes me consider what a tough job it is and how I’m really glad I don’t do it. Of course, you don’t have to become best mates (it’s probably quite difficult if you’re both still active and a conflict of interest to some extent) but you might find it enlightening. And hey, if you add them on Facebook you might get some decent pictures for your dartboard.

SOW THE SEEDS OF YOUR OWN DESTRUCTION

This sounds a bit counter-intuitive but what I mean is that it’s incredibly healthy both for your mind and the industry for you to put a bit of time and thought into how you can support those coming after you. Depending on your situation, it will take different focuses. For me, as A Visible Minority In The Arts (TM) I’m obsessed with thinking about how I can bring through more People Like Me, if not just to take the burden of representation off my own shoulders. I don’t want to do this job forever. I’m excited by what other people are making. I want to help if I can. Any experience you have will be gratefully received by someone with none, even if it doesn’t feel like it. So make yourself useful.

The one caveat here is that this should be on your own terms. People might be eager to hear from you but you can’t give and give all the time. Be clear about that from the start – you’re not mugging anyone off, you’re just protecting yourself in what can be an emotionally demanding job. They’ll come to understand when they get to your position.

—————

CONCLUSION (AKA THE TLDR)

Critiques are emotionally tumultous. The bad ones drag you to the floor, the middling ones make you wonder why you bother and the effusive ones run the risk of turning you into a right dickhead. There’s lots of different ways to navigate them, but they will always be a part of your life. Finding some way of embracing/negating that early will make your journey easier and if you’re really lucky, one or two will tell you something about your work you never expected and when that happens it’s luminous.

Wear none of them too heavily, hold the friends who absolutely understand what you’re doing close (what a heart-filling pleasure it was to have peers I’ve known for years see An Adventure and tell me “that felt like everything you’ve been working towards since I first met you”) and always remember that the only critic you truly need to please, to care about, the one who will be there judging your work before and after, forever and ever is you.

You made a show. It’s hard. Harder than people whipping off a casual thought can know. So be nice to yourself, yeah?

 

Finding An Adventure

I started writing this blog as a way of chronicling my journey as a writer. Considering the last few years have contained several big beats in that story, I’ve been a little remiss in updating it so let me correct this now.

Today is the press night for An Adventure, the biggest piece of work I’ve created in my life.

I’m scared.

Am I still allowed to say that? At what point in what I know is a fairly blessed career does it come off as indulgence or dishonest? I tell myself that it would be worse if you weren’t scared and that if you ever find a point where you’re casual about it then you’ve probably lost some care for the work. But that doesn’t stop you wishing you weren’t.

I’ve had my issues with critics in the past, though I think they’re usually passionate about the job and they have the potential to be useful for a range of perspectives on the same piece. It’s not them that makes me scared, exactly. They like what they like and in that regard, as I said to actors yesterday, every night is press night. I suppose what really terrifies me is that now is the point where you have to own the big decisions you’ve made with such cockiness when everything was still a hypothetical. Previews are done, the show you’ve got now is the show that people see over the next five and a half (!) weeks. There are no more excuses.

So I want to reflect a little on the process that ended up with this show. The origins of it go way back to me being on my MA and wanting to write about Mau Mau Kenya, and particularly the interaction between Asian and black Kenyans during that time. What has found its way to the Bush is a much “messier” version of the play I would’ve written straight after finishing my MA. I learned an absolute tonne about how to write on the course, what a well-made play looks like but since then I’ve learned a lot about my tastes too. I love a dramatically taut piece of writing, with twists and and secrets and reversals and huge events and it’s a skillset that’s served me well in television. But with both film and theatre, I love sitting in a space and luxuriating in a work, with the characters. This play is something I wanted people to feel like they could let envelope them.

Having said that, I suspect that since it has almost the reverse trajectory of a classic dramatic build it will perhaps feel anticlimactic to some. This is entirely what I’m seeking to produce, a replication of the feeling of the characters in the play – a life slowing, shrinking, not quite working out how you expect. But it’s one of those aforementioned big decisions that you have to own and accept that it won’t land for some people (that doesn’t mean though, as already stated, that it isn’t scary).

More broadly, I think our creative endeavours are as often motivated by lack as they are by desire. A lack of a certain face on a stage. A certain story. A certain style. For me, it’s mostly roles that are my drive. Roles outlive you as a writer and to create them is to leave behind a vessel for other to refill with whatever they wish. This was the first place I felt that lack.

It made me want to create these two Asian characters as romantic leads, across a span of ages, where they are mighty and complex and – yes, even happy at times. Madani said when we were talking about the marketing images that “brown people are never smiling in posters” and that made me laugh. As someone who was made some definitely unsmiley moments for brown characters, I wanted to rebalance my output a little.

That desire for romantic leads I think comes from knowing that there is a lack of my own in that I’ve fucking awful at relationships and am staying well clear of them for a while, yet there is nothing more I adore in life than seeing people in love. One of my favourite things is hanging out with couples who are really into each other. It makes me hopeful for the world. And that’s the last lack – the hopeful narrative. I’ve tried to put as many stories that have a hopeful aspect to them into the world as I can, even if it’s work like Murdered By My Father where the hope comes after the fact in the way it might change a life for the better via either a phone call to a charity or a better informed police officer.

In creating a mythology of my grandparents’ lives, one that I can share with my kids and their kids one day (when I sort myself out), I aim to honour their hope more than anything else. After all, it’s their own mythology of the future rather than one of the past that makes immigrants so daring. Unlike native inhabits, they know there is nothing romantic in the past, but if they were to cast their eyes further to the horizon, there might yet be a chance to find a good story for themselves. Whenever I despair about where I am or what I’m doing, I like to remind myself that immigration is an act of hope. I exist because people had hope that if they could not change the world, they could at the very least change theirs. The last post on this website is my paternal grandfather’s eulogy. I’m gutted he never got to see this play, though my maternal grandfather, thankfully did. That he came out smiling took six years of worry off my shoulders.

A final thought – writing this play has aged me. There’s a head-wrecking meta-dynamic going on within in it, in that it spans a lifetime and I can tell the parts that were written by the younger version of me and the older one. While it’s meant to showcase the people whose lives I wanted to write about, it’s as much a conversation with myself, a document of my own process.

Which is really what this blog is meant to be. Must do better.

A Eulogy for Jayantibhai Patel

I’ve been asked by a few people to provide this, so here’s the eulogy from my grandfather’s funeral:

I’d first of all like to reiterate what Foi said and thank all the people who have supported us over the past week and for taking the time to be here today.

When I was a kid, I used to spend a lot of hours being babysat in Dada’s office, impatiently flicking through television channels, waiting for him to finish work and take me home. In that office he had a little sign that I thought about as I sat down to write this. It was a picture of a bird and began with the words: “If you love something let it go…”

When you love someone like I and the rest of his grandchildren loved Dada, how do begin to let them go? Especially since without them, the world feels a little colder, a little crueller and it’s jarring to just push on with your life when you know there’s one less person in it who’d help you unconditionally, who’d treat you as a child in the good and bad ways.

I think one way to do it is through understanding, to consider the ways in which they shaped you and the world you live in, and Dada certainly did a lot of shaping. In fact, it is impossible to consider his life outside the context of history because, throughout that life, it was history he was making.

As Foi mentioned, Dada came to England in 1964. He would’ve been 31 that year, the same age I am now. The difference being of course that I am already here and happy with my place, whereas he arrived in this country, along with thousands of Kenyan and Ugandan Asians, as part of an migration wave that was not always particularly welcome.

But to be an immigrant is to be a person of ferocious hope. Of relentless care. It’s knowing that the singular ambition that drove you across oceans must not destroy community but seek to provide for it. It is to not let the hatred of others define your life. It is to know that taking a step into the dark, the unknown, is necessary in search of the light.

What I found remarkable about Dada was how he excelled at doing all of this. Firmly both a family and a community man, he was never intimidated and always compassionate. I think the fact that old school friends of mine, people I hadn’t heard from in years, got in touch to send their regards speaks to the memorable effect, through that compassion, that he had on all of those that he met on his various journeys – in England, in India, in Kenya, in America.

And for us, the children and grandchildren of immigrants, those journeys undertaken by those responsible for our being in this country are our site of understanding, our foundational myths. They keep you honest, warn you of dangers that are best avoided, remind you of values.

So what dangers did he warn me of? What values did I learn from my Dada’s life? A fair bit. The big and the small.

I learned that knowing people is nice. Helping them is better.

I learned that 3/4s of being good at your job is putting in the effort.

I learned that Johnny Walker Black Label is the finest blend whisky known to man.

I learned that a can of Fosters is an entirely appropriate drink to give a five year old.

I learned that the best thing to spend money on is other people.

I learned that when you shave, always shave with the grain and not against.

I learned that, because of my Dada’s diligence, hard work and adventurous spirit, I could be whatever I wanted to be…as long as it’s a doctor, engineer or lawyer.

I’m kidding about that last part but I know that whilst Dada wasn’t initially thrilled about my choice of career, he took my ambitions seriously if I took them seriously myself. One of my lasting memories of him is from when I went to ask to borrow the money to do my Masters. He looked at me, skeptically, as you would do if your grandchild had just told you he wanted to go to drama school at age twenty four and asked me : “What do you hope to achieve?”

I told him I was proud of the economic legacy he had left in this country and I wanted to do much the same and leave a cultural one. And when I put it in those terms, he folded his arms, nodded and told me he understood, something I never expected to happen. That was the mark of the man – often stubborn, but always just wanting the best both for and from you and I have spent the last decade desperately trying to make him as proud of me as I was of him, and I know that’s the same for all of us grandchildren.

To be honest with you, I had no idea how I was going to finish this speech. I thought maybe it should be with what Dada would’ve wanted for us. His last text message to me, sent when I was at a wedding, said simply: “Enjoy yourself”. That felt about right.

But coincidence can be a funny thing. The other night my friend Meghna was telling me, quite casually about the origin of her father’s name. A name he shares with Dada. She told me that it’s derived from a Sanskrit word meaning: “Victorious” or “the winner in the end” and when I heard that, I knew that the way to finish was to go back to Dada’s beginning.

Because although he may now have left us, we that loved him can let him go knowing he lived a life that honoured the name he was born with and seeing all of you sitting here, reflecting on the legacy he has left behind – friends, children, grandchildren, businesses, incredible stories, a way of life, a country changed – there is no doubt in my mind, no doubt at all, that Jayantibhai Shanabhai Patel is the winner in the end.

Recalibration

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a leap-out-of-bed-with-a-head-full-of-story kind of guy. I need to know why I’m writing what I’m writing in order to do it.

Of late, I’ve been a little unsure as to my “why”. My grandfather died recently and I thought I could find my way through grief by leaning into my play for the Bush Theatre which is based on a fictionalised version of my grandparents. However, I’ve just hit a wall and find it impossible to even begin to fictionalise someone whose removal from my reality I’ve not quite dealt with yet. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks doing next to nothing. I’d come very close to thinking that I might not care about writing anymore.

Then last night, I went to meet my friend Martin and he asked me what I was up to. I talked through some projects and then I hit that Bush play and I felt an urgency to explain everything I wanted to do in it. The thoughts rushed out of me and I realised I had been speaking, with some great deal of enthusiasm, about the form and content for about an hour. I walked home wanting to dig myself into those rewrites again.

Maybe this is a solution to the ennui when it hits you? It’s bad to talk about projects early on, but perhaps when you’re stuck in the doldrums it’s best to reduce our work to the simplest terms of what it is: Telling a story to a friend.