I’m going to preface this by saying I realise a lot of what I’m talking about below comes under the heading of “small violin problems”. All I can say in defence is that since starting this blog five or so years ago I’ve always wanted to document my writing journey (ugh) as honestly as I can. I hope there’s enough about the topic that’s clear and possibly familiar, despite the lens through which it’s looked at. I’ve been wanting to write it for a while, but held off until I was feeling a bit better and now here we are.
So. I really wanted to write one of those beautiful pieces about working through depression – you know, the ones with a lot of wanky water metaphors, illustrated with a cute little picture of a stick figure staring at a black dog (who’s in the water?) or similar – but I don’t know how to do it since the main problem seems to be that I don’t think or feel as keenly as I used to. For me, when I write, I sit at the computer and the images form like on a little TV in my head. For the last half a year or so that TV has mostly been screening static.
It’s an insidious process watching the person you understand yourself to be slip away in increments. Eating a bit more. Running a little less. Cracks from your housemate about how you’re sleeping late. Flagging instead of answering emails. Seeing your pile of work build up and up – work you solicited to get – and having no desire to touch it. Wondering when you last had a thought, an actual thought. Not answering party invites. Until one day you realise your clothes, the ones you’ve bothered to wash, don’t fit and you could be quite accurately be described as a lazy person who doesn’t care about anything very much. Wait. What? I love parties. I love people. I love my job. I’ve worked so hard to get here. This is not me. Or is it? Does this goes back or is this me now?
I don’t quite know what sent me in this direction, and I’m not sure if looking for trigger-cause links is particularly useful. It’s post-rationalising, isn’t it? There are things that seem likely, but how can you ever really know? Nevertheless, here are some things I suspect:
1) Getting to thirty. This was a psychological barrier for me as my mum didn’t make it to that age (29 years, 3 months) and I’ve always had a thing about doing as much as I could before I got there. Now I am, I guess the future feels a lot harder to formulate since, in a way, I figured thirty would be the end of it. I hear athletes can get a bit fazed after tournaments, even if they win a medal, because their whole life has been geared to make sense of that one moment. When it goes, it can be hard to replace it. Maybe it’s a bit like that.
2) The process of making Murdered By My Father. I’m less sure about this one, but the intensity definitely did a real number on me and I’d like to use this space to reflect on that whole experience so bear with me. It feels pathetic to talk about it in these terms considering the subject matter – especially since the incredible people we worked with at the charities deal with it every day – but I guess I wasn’t really prepared for what it would entail. MBMF was my first piece of television and I knew it was going to be quite a visible one. Plus the turn around on it was, from the perspective of someone coming from theatre, ridiculously short. PLUS I already had two theatre commissions to work on that I also needed and wanted to throw myself into.
So there were a lot of balls to juggle, but MBMF by necessity of its looming shoot date became my main concern. I had two maxims floating in my head at all times whilst working on it. The first, “Do right by the victims” the second “Don’t fuck up the honour killing drama for the BBC, Vinay, that would be really, really bad.” It was a hell of a privileged position to be in, I knew that, and it sucked up every thought, every feeling and I became monofocused like never before. I was very, very neglectful as a person during that time and probably not much fun to be around. I’m not going to seek out confirmation of that, but finding myself sobbing uncontrollably in the corner of an AirBnB room in Edinburgh during the Fringe (familiar to the Fringe, perhaps, but I didn’t even have a show on) told me all I needed to know. In way, this is the level of dedication a project like that needed, I don’t regret that at all, BUT! But…you can still probably approach it better.
I had an interesting conversation one day on set with Adeel where I asked him how he managed to play a character like that and still keep himself sane. I had so many dark nights writing him. Adeel told me that there was a tiny part of his brain that he didn’t let that character access. The part which had everything he cared about in it. Shahzad could take over every part of his mind apart from that part. At the time I think I dismissed it as an actor-y thing, but thinking on it later, I wished I had known how to do that myself.
I don’t think I fully grasped how much MBMF haunted me until it actually came out and I felt all the anxiety again but ramped up further still, exacerbated by the responsibilities you have to take for it existing. I love theatre deeply (despite my moaning) but it hadn’t prepared me for the very public responsibility that comes with television. TV can and does go anywhere and everywhere, which is both its strength and its curse. There’s the potential to be judged not just for your take on a topic but on your reasoning for doing it and that judgement can come from literally anyone on earth with access to an internet connection.
Within the production, we had had discussions about staying off social media for the duration of its launch. That was a sensible approach, but I vehemently disagreed with it. I don’t think you can drop something like that show on people and then not be out there, so everything that happened was stuff I was asking for, I accept that. No one forced me to be involved. But it felt necessary and part of my job to take responsibility for what I had helped create. This was no Roland-Barthes-Death-of-the-author stuff. We wanted it to have an impact, so I felt like I needed to take the resulting “hit”. It also was – somewhat contradictory to this post – the first thing in ages that gave me a sense of purpose and frankly I was grateful to grasp it. I did all the interview requests that came in, I wrote articles, posed for some pictures, the lot.
I was surprised and humbled by the overwhelmingly positive response that piece got, but within that there are things that stick and you have to take the good with the bad and sometimes the line between the two isn’t that evident. There’s the man who finds you on Facebook to tell you it reminds him of his own father’s abuse in 1950s Wiltshire and how that experience traumatised him forever. You can’t ignore him, but are you qualified to talk to him about that? Do you risk hurting them even more? There’s a woman who tweets you to say that her Pakistani friend in Northern Ireland was approached by a stranger and asked “Is this what you all do to your kids?” The friend was shaken and furious. My response that I was sorry to hear that (and I was) but sadly, this mostly stems from a lack of diverse representation on TV beyond dramas on these issues, felt truthful but still handwring-y. There’s nothing you could’ve done about it, but it’s still partly your fault.
The few out-and-out bright spots from this time was watching all types of kids take on this issue fully and discuss it with nuance. I also got to chat to so many young adults making their first forays into journalism and fiction writing and activism. I got to do interviews with them (and I liked them way more than the ‘bigger’ ones). I got to read some beautiful response poems. I got to go to an event in a pub in East London where what must’ve been near a hundred young women and men gathered to hear talks and performances about what feminism was and want they wanted it to be.
I was particularly heartened that so many of them were Asian too. It’s everything I wanted to exist when I was a kid and had tentative dreams of wanting to work in the arts but wasn’t sure how to ever make that happen. There was no path that was clear to me. How lovely then to engage with kids who see many different paths ahead of them.
Considering my low bar for MBMF was “don’t start a race war”, this was all a massive bonus. But making it wrung me out and responding to it wrung me out more and was a lesson in being careful in both how you approach a project and how you decompress from it. I was very lucky that by this point I had taken my misery to a GP (it took me getting drunk and swearing aggressively at some nice strangers for me to do that) and I had started four weeks of CBT just before it came out. Those sessions acted as a buffer against the worst of it.
3) Burn out. Again, a bit vague, but I suppose it makes sense. When I first told people I felt a bit off in October last year, just after MBMF had wrapped, they were very insistent that I’d been Working Very Hard For A Very Long Time and that I Needed A Holiday. I’d been on a couple of trips the last few years, mostly for weddings, but I genuinely couldn’t remember when I last went on a proper holiday. I wasn’t even that sure how you did it anymore. Truthfully, I’d rather have spent it in my pants, on the sofa, playing the PS4 I had bought but had not unboxed any games for because there was too much to do. I was then convinced by others that this wasn’t good enough.
So I tried to have a holiday. A few weeks later I found myself in a hotel room in Barcelona, quite a nice hotel room since I’d decided that I Deserve This. It was ok. I walked around a lot and listened to podcasts. But I found the stress of finding vegetarian food in a hugely carnivorous city enormous. I couldn’t bring myself to get on the subway. The football team weren’t even playing that week. I found myself on Diwali night sat in an Indian restaurant alone, overhearing a furiously red-faced Englishman explain curry to a patient Spanish woman, and all the while I wishing I was back home on the sofa, in my pants, playing my PS4.
The morning after I sat in my hotel room all day, writing an email that still sits in the drafts of my inbox that I never sent but can’t bring myself to delete. It was a long plea to my friends to not hate me if they didn’t hear from me for ages because I wanted to just disappear. I didn’t know how to be a good friend to them or how to be present in any meaningful way. I loathed everything about myself in that moment, probably more than I ever have.
So maybe it was this stuff. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was just lingering concerns I have about my personality, my inconsistency, my ability to be a functional adult human enlarging themselves til they clouded out everything else. But what’s the upshot of it all?
The bad is that I’ve turned down loads of projects. I’ve even paid back a commission. I chastise myself for not being able to take better advantage of or more enjoyment from this moment in my life and career which by all measures is going fine. More than fine, pretty damn good. I want to grasp every opportunity, I want to be able to have a Jack Thorne-esque level of consistency and productivity but the truth is I can’t really handle it and it’s been better for me to consciously step back and sharpen my focus on fewer things. I might manage to get myself back to spinning lots of projects at the same time, but definitely won’t be doing that soon. It hurts me to say no, but I know it’ll hurt me more to say yes.
The good is that the CBT has started to give me a bit of a framework to make a comeback from. The hourly journalling of mood let me see when I was best placed to operate. Setting tiny goals has been an unexpected revelation. When the big goals disappear as a source of drive and value, I’ve found pushing yourself to consistently do the little things really does help. Cooking a meal for my housemate. Making the time to ring home. Read a book (until this month, it’d be nearly a year since I’d read a work of fiction that wasn’t a play. And even then, not many of those).
Slowly by slowly, through diligent little acts of humanity and progress, the static is coming into focus. I’ve even started using wanky metaphors myself.
There is a moment from my year as an MA writing student that haunts me and I bring it up a lot because, for lack of a less wanky phrase, it was a moment of social awakening.
As part of the course, we were split into groups and had to individually develop characters in a sitcom. I got given the everyman lead character in my group, and I made him black. I remember that decision clearly because when doing it, it felt like I was being deliberately antagonistic. Which was a bloody weird way to feel. Like I’d internalised the neutrality of whiteness and any other race as “statement.” I’d already caught myself saying “I want to write stories about Asian characters, but also normal stories as well” earlier in the course and wanted to throw up over myself when I realised I’d done so so I stuck with the decision, interested to see what would happen.
We went back into class the next week and explained how we had enriched our respective characters. When I mentioned the details of what I’d done with mine, both the tutor and a fellow student said words to the effect of “Oh no, I didn’t see him as black.” And no-one else seemed to find this a problematic statement. To be clear: it would not have impacted the narrative in any significant way. It wasn’t a show about race. Yet that was the casual reaction from my peers. From my instructors. Now I don’t think they’re bad people for that, it just demonstrated to me how deep the unconscious bias sits. Characters of Colour (as it were) feel unable to be platforms from which to tell “everyman” stories. It’s not quite a “yuck factor” but in the moment it really didn’t feel far off.
It isn’t just me worrying about this, of course. On a scheme I was a part of last year, I had a long conversation with an American writer of Mexican extraction. He was a phenomenal writer (who’s doing big things now so kudos) who said he wanted to write something about his family, but felt it wouldn’t be considered American enough. I was very much “Dude, America as a state is an immigrant nation – any story is American. The lives of Mexican-American families are for everyone to know, indulge in, consume, enjoy.” But of course I know what he meant. You probably know what he meant too, right? It’s inside and out.
Bearing these stories in mind, I want to explain why Aziz Ansari’s new sitcom (?) Master of None is such a big deal to me and why I can finally (hopefully) exorcise that MA story from my mind. You can enjoy MoN as a sharp and witty and insightful sitcom about being a middle-class thirty something in the Big City. And it is that. Kids! Weddings! Friends With Real Jobs! Nothing groundbreaking story-wise. You could watch it all on a long weekend afternoon and have a nice time.
Yet I think for me watching it has been a seminal moment in my writing career and, heck, life. It’s the positive anti-thesis to that awkward classroom five years ago. Does that sound too grand? Right from the opening I knew I was watching something that would mean a lot to me, even if it seemed small potatoes to others. In that first scene, there was a straight Asian man on my screen, existing as a sexual being. I realised I’ve actually seen more gay Asian male characters given sexual characteristics in drama than I ever have hetero characters which, you know, is great but – well, there was a gap I hadn’t seen filled, as it were. (I’m so so sorry).
An idle “checking out” of the series, rapidly turned into an instant binge watch. By episode six I kicked my knackered housemate’s door down and demand he watched it with me. Having both (relatively) recently broken up with people, we cringed in recognition as the broader comedy gave way to hard truth in the brutal arguments Dev had with Rachel, his girlfriend. We both recognised ourselves in that relationship. Both of us. Keep that in your head, it becomes important later.
I should probably state right now that I don’t say this all as an Ansari fanboy. If anything, knowing him mainly from his standup, I used to find his delivery mildly annoying and his whackier physicality (and voices) not particularly funny. In contrast, I laughed out loud a lot whilst watching Master of None. It might be that I grew familiar with Ansari’s style and accepted it, it might be the more humane touches that he applies to the work that lets you in beyond the “front”. You can feel the Louie influence in this series, even if this is very much its own beast.
But I also think though I was just enjoying being able to fully identify with a lead character’s predicaments for once, in nearly every sense and having their predicaments in their entirety be the central point of empathy for the show. I’ve spent my entire life (happily) transmuting stories of white Western characters/families into my own experience. It doesn’t ask a lot of me. I still want to be Indian(a) Jones. Here, in this show, was the first time I’m properly seen a modern Western Asian character in the mainstream that a majority white audience would have to engage with as their anchor in a show. The “mainstream” part of that is important to me.
Here is an admission that is likely not music to the ears of people who I am currently under commission to. As a writer, I’m more driven by the roles I can create, the cultural artefacts that I can make exist than the stories themselves. That’s not to say I don’t care about stories, of course I do, but it’s the potential social shift around them as well as within them that really gets me going and drives me through the doldrums. This is part the stories, part audience development, part placement/marketing and doing all of this in attempt to mainstream marginal narratives seems one of the most important you can do. It feels radical to move those stories into a non-radical frame within the industry/people’s expectations. And when I say I want to mainstream, I mean it to include the entirety of the lives of those characters within those narratives.
That’s a distinction I’ve been making to a lot of my writer friends of late, particularly theatre ones: What I want most of all is not parts that could be played by anyone, I want what I guess I would call the possibility of Stage Four diversity. What are Stages One, Two and Three, you ask? Here is a rough guide that I just made up.
Stage One – Ethnics exist. Somewhere. Usually at the back. They may be doing some cleaning, or maybe have a couple of lines. If they’re in space, they will likely do both before dying horribly by airlock/alien/asteroid.
Stage Two – Ethnics exist. They’ve a significant presence. And an accent. They’re downtrodden folk from a land elsewhere…but hopeful! It might be great. It might be a “crossover hit”. But it’s mostly in a box. In the corner. And it’s something you usually feel like you should see rather than something you want to see. This is more likely than not an art house movie. You probably saw it on a date. It was probably nominated for an Oscar that it didn’t win (or if it did win, people will question why).
Stage Three – Ethnics exist as a main character. Usually not quite the central character, but up there as significant in a gang show. If they aren’t the lead, they might still have a funny accent. Crucially, if they are the lead, their ethnicity/background doesn’t affect the story in any way. They are led by the plot. They might have been called “Dennis” and renamed to “Dinesh” to meet ethnic quotas. Or a “Gary” that could easily have been white, but you’ve let a black actor play. Less cynically, think Luther. Now there’s a lot to be said for Stage Three. it’s a great and useful space. It’s important that it exists.
Just many consider this the “everyman” space, the Promised Land, and it sort of is. Sort of. But the true everyman experience is…*bing*
Stage Four – Ethnics exist as a main character (in a mainstream work). The character is a lead and their ethnic/cultural background inflects the story and their world. But it’s not an overwhelming part of the show. They are great. They are flawed. They are you. They are read as everyone in the way that white characters traditionally are.
This is the important part, so I’ll say it again with a little more oomph: The character is a lead and their ethnic/cultural background inflects the story and their world to the extent that they are not interchangeable but said background doesn’t dominate the broader context and concerns of the show.
To me, this is truest form of integrative, empathetic diversity in storytelling you can create. Everymanning with detail, not erasure. It’s saying in a more complex way than the blank canvas of stage three “Hey! This is someone that doesn’t look necessarily a lot like you or you mates, some of their ways are alien to you, but it’s still you in there.”
Master of None does this, and well. It doesn’t compel you into the character’s journey via an integration story, it’s an intergrated story. It doesn’t ignore the racial/cultural specifics of its characters yet the show is so damn generous with its invariably niche material when it delves into it. For a large part, that’s because it runs said material through its comic set ups which we all get because we all understand comedy. Like the pre-titles sequence of episode two with the two Asian dads (South and East) is amazing and funny and a little heart-rending if you recognise those characters from your life. But as a comic beat, it’s presented as a “parents work hard and kids are such assholes in comparison”. You don’t need to be Asian to recognise the structure of that joke, even if the detail might be lost on you:
Hahaha, well, that's how I feel when I watch all the white people shows. https://t.co/wCpxrBsxXX
— Aziz Ansari (@azizansari) November 7, 2015
On a couple of smaller notes, can I just take a second to say this series *looks* great too. Mostly filmic and the only times this looks like TV is when it wants to. (Even though that aesthetic difference has collapsed in recent years…anyway, for another blog, that). I also love how each episode functions as its own explicit exploration of themes that all feel relevant to me as a young(ish) tech-head in the city. In its construction, it references work I adore, including the awkward character comedy of (good) Woody Allen and the humane pacing of Richard Linklater. There’s even a quasi Before Sunrise episode.
Of course, whilst I think the show is ambitious and interesting beyond its central characters, it isn’t in any way perfect. The very segmented episodes can leave the wider show feeling a little bit uneven. The non-actor parents might annoy (Nida). I love them for their awkward performances, the mum in particular reminds me of my own gran’s discomfort at being filmed, but I get that at least. And yes, Dev is still not quite me. He’s not even the same kinda Indian (Tamil and Gujarati folk being found at complete other ends of the subcontinent) but the cultural identification was still strong. Honestly, even just the visual identification felt like a rush. I don’t think my TV has had to hold the colour brown in the centre of the screen so frequently since I last watched the beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan.
Master of None nails and transcends everything I’ve wanted to do in my writing, particularly with True Brits, and it *probably* torpedoes a couple of things I had in the works. It probably does what I’ve wanted to do better than I ever will. I don’t care. This feels like a fucking great moment. Maybe this is how some of my friends felt when Girls turned up (Or, for that matter, Michaela Coel’s excellent Chewing Gum, currently on E4.)
I exist in the world that I love. In a way that doesn’t deny background but that anyone can empathise with. And just fucking enjoy if that’s all you want to do. People of all sorts have too, and that matters. It’s rocking it, critically and ratings wise.
Watching Master of None has refreshed me more than a holiday I’m about to go on.
You might have noticed I don’t write on this blog as much as I used to. I want to believe this is because I’ve only a limited amount of words in me and that I need to save them for paid/creative work. In reality it’s a fudge of garden-variety laziness and having projects that don’t allow me to really talk about writing process as much as I’d like to. (I intend to work around that in future).
But as I’m currently in a state where sleep-deprivation and sheer brute force of deadlines have combined to leave me crying whenever I listen to the Jurassic Park soundtrack (top writer tip: It is *the* soundtrack to write to) here’s a quick 7/7-related post. I’ve held off a for a few days because it’s quite a self-involved post about image and how it implants itself in the soul. I have no meaningful insight into domestic terrorism or the pain of those who died or were injured on the day itself – there are a lot of excellent reads on those topics out there that I can point you to if you want.
On Tuesday I got my haircut. I got my haircut because after a month of trying to be a hero to my trade I was rocking quite a trampy look, which is generally fine by me except that my passport had just run out and I needed a new mugshot. A mugshot that would broadly hold true to my personality/look over the next ten years. That idea – of an official photo as statement of personality – started as an idle thought and strayed into me thinking more seriously on my old passport photo which I had taken in June 2005, a month before the London bombings.
I’ve made a lot of jokes about that photo – the long hair, the beard, the slightly dead eyes. Lots of people look back at photos of themselves looking supposedly cool years later and ask “what was I thinking?”. It’s rarer to go from “You know what, I look bloody cool” to “You know what, I look like a bloody terrorist” in the space of a month and it’s, to put it mildly, a bit of head fuck.
The vaguely beardy, vaguely brown, dangerous young male has become one of the defining images of the last decade and it’s humbling to think how much such a thing can shape your life from the minutiae to the profound. The way others see you, the way you are expected to be seen, the way you see others. The stories you write and are expected to write. The injustices you connect to. The time you spend going through airport security. The guilt you feel as you’re questioned. The near constant wondering “what’s my face look like at the moment? Angry? I hope not angry?”. The smile you develop to thrown on at times of uncertainty. The insidious but pervasive thought at your bathroom mirror: “oh I’m starting to look a bit terroristy – maybe I had better shave.” (For me this perhaps explains my not joining whole-heartedly into the hipster beard revolution though I am clearly a prime candidate.) Reflecting on my naivety back then and how it contrasts to who I am today dragged up a well of feeling I’d forgotten existed in between those two states. I mean, I certainly remembered what it was like to be at a party amongst your intellectual peers (wanky but I was excited) and be told by someone that you should be stopped and searched at airports, white people shouldn’t, and that’s just the way it is. And no-one saying anything. I remember that. The stares, the comments in the streets, the suspicious parents, the headbutts, the cracked teeth, I remember all of it.
What I’d forgotten, perhaps repressed a little, was how fucking furious I felt. I wanted to hurt people, including myself. What a lie I’d sold myself that this place was where I belonged. The slightly paranoid, often xenophobic comments some of my family would spout were actually true. These people around me would never really be my friends. How could they be? They’d never understand. In fact, whilst I’m not proud to admit it, I was genuinely angry with my white friends for a while. I really hated them and felt increasingly distant. Forgetting that we all have our own troubles, I hated their easy access to society, I resented everything that I’d gladly done to appease. Every awkward joke made to basically go “look, it’s fine! I’m no threat!” Most of all, I hated that this was even a thing in my head and that it would never be in theirs.
I wanted to talk to someone about it, but didn’t really have an outlet (I didn’t have a huge amount of Asian friends at the time), so it ended up in my diaries, on this blog, in my creative work instead. Part of that anger dissipating over the years has led me from going: “I want to write brown stuff *as well as* “normal” things” to “I want to write as many, diverse, wonderful, terrible, powerful, angry, sexy, passionate, depressed, hopeful, scheming, anxious, brown folk as possible and for that to *be* normal and identifiable and everyman and everywoman and, fuck-it-why-not, popular if it’s possible.
I still wonder about the counter-factuals. If 7/7 had never happened, would I have been driven to write half the things I have? Maybe I’d have ended up doing a law conversion like every other person I know did. After all, I’m not a Muslim and for better or worse, people have gotten a bit more nuanced in their intolerance and the worst of it passes me by now. However, I never want to be grateful for that. I don’t want to co-opt a suffering, I just don’t want to make it easy for people to make others suffer, whether it be through direct action (abuse/violence) or my tacit acknowledgement or my actively distancing myself. I don’t want to let a man sitting next to me at the airport ask cautiously “You a Muslim?” and, when I reply in the negative, have him follow up with “oh you lot are all right, but those guys…”. I don’t want to, as many a family member has suggested, shave because otherwise you’re “asking for it.”
And yet for that new passport photo I’ve short hair and I’m relatively clean shaven. I’d like to believe that’s a conscious choice, that I now think *that* looks cool, rather than trying to dodge airport inconvenience. I’ve got the two photos, the two mes (what *is* the plural of me?) sitting side-by-side on my desk: One, a 29-year-old, face grown fatter and a hairline grown thinner through alcohol and ageing. He seems a bit pissed off but can’t help that – the deep dark circles around the eyes aren’t going to become anything but deeper and darker soon. The other, a skinny 19-year-old who had been waiting 4 years to grow his hair out and thought he looked so awesome, so like Dave Grohl, that he wanted to make that his official face for a whole decade. You weren’t allowed to smile, even back then, but there’s a hint of it on his lips and why not. He was super enthusiastic, still a bit overwhelmed by university and saw little but possibility ahead. Well, possibility and Pot Noodles. Whilst life has settled into a place I’m broadly happy with, the outlook has diminished a little and criminally so has the diet, so I miss the 19-year-old quite a bit.
But I don’t envy him the years ahead.
I’ve not seen the name ‘Jyoti’ around as much as I have the last few days, for obvious reasons surrounding the “India’s Daughter” documentary, and it’s made me think about my maternal grandmother who shared that name. I had the good fortune of being raised and tolerated by some kind and very patient women who are thankfully still in my life and so today seems a good time to reflect on the one who isn’t.
My “Biji Ba” (basically meaning ‘other grandma’, which isn’t a great nickname in hindsight but felt affectionate enough growing up) was really bloody small, I think the smallest in a family of tiny ladies. I sometimes forget her face and voice, but the *lightness* of her is baked into my muscle memory.
She got to ‘pick’ my granddad from a selection of other blokes. My granddad showing me the photo that won it for him – casual pose, smart suit – is one of my favourite adult memories. She was a lot younger than him and it was still effectively an arranged marriage, but theirs was the strongest, most loving relationship in my family and I still hold it as a model for the affection and utter respect that married life should be built on.
She was naturally excellent at maths, despite not really having an education, which served her well when she moved over here and worked in a screw factory, enduring the taunts and spits of the other workers, some of whom I understand were members of the union that my granddad was a representative of. Which must’ve led to some interesting dinner-time conversations…
Of course, she wasn’t a saint herself, she had some objectionable old-school views, but she was progressive in enough ways – including regarding difference in caste between my Dad and my Mum – that overall I’m ok with giving her a pass.
Her death, nearly ten years ago now, had as a profound effect on me as her life, since she was the first person close to me to die. The dissonance between her last physical states – seeing her scared and struggling to breathe in a hospital and then hard as granite in the backroom of an undertakers a few days later – still sits with me. But her last act does more so: She gave all the money she had to buy computers for a girls’ orphanage in India so those kids could get the education she was always denied. I remember hearing about that as a scruffy, sad 19 year old who just delivered a speech at her funeral and that fact punching through the misery and just leaving me totally in awe of her.
My Biji Ba, and the women of her generation, have a legacy of courage and perseverance that’s flourished into better lives with varied prospects for those that followed them. I see it in my sister – a former marine engineer, fixing engines on ships all over the world, now back home running the shops that my mum was a driving force in creating. I see it in my cousin who’s overcome horrific illness that I can’t imagine how I’d begin to handle with resilience and grace and now has a job in law as she always wanted (even if she is a bit mental when it comes to cats).
They’re incredible, sophisticated, messy people whose narratives and aspirations, as a gender, tend to get buried under the histories of Great Men, so it’s been wonderful seeing some of those tales get excavated over the last few days and it excites me to imagine all the stories our daughters will get to tell – both of their lives and the ones that are yet to come.
I’m fucking terrified.
True Brits opens tomorrow and as the writer it’s a funny sort of helplessness to that terror. At this point, pretty much nothing you can do will change anything, save for you pulling some “oh captain, my captain” speech out of your arse if necessary. I’ve hauled boxes with texts, sat it in final rehearsals and, to busy the writing side, I’ve responded to a fair few interviews. A question that comes up more often than I thought has been: “Why did you write this play?”. Each time I answered, I talked about wanting to capture certain feelings but it is a bit more complex than that and I wanted to elaborate on a few of them here. Not all of them are good-minded artistic or social reasons but I will try to be honest.
**Contains Minor Spoilers**
REASON 1) BROWN DUDES BEING NORMAL
Not just in the life of the character, but in the action of a piece of drama. I can’t tell you how sick I was of seeing entirely regressive families, drug dealers, terrorism, arranged marriages, honour killings etc. It was as if these were the only spheres you could have a main Asian character (no, that doctor character with a few lines every episode doesn’t count). Not that these don’t have a place or aren’t interesting to delve into but none of it chimed with the reality of my life or young people like me that I knew…at the very least, where was the funnies? Where was the getting on with it? Of course there’s a sort of confusing cultural violence to being an integrated kid of immigrant families. You get pulled every which way from a young age and after events such as 7/7 you are made to choose in lots of tiny little ways – but honestly, most of the time you just want to hang out with your mates and you don’t think about it. And I hadn’t really seen that reality portrayed (Ishy Din’s Snookered a notable exception) in a play.
It wasn’t until I watched a rehearsal yesterday that I remembered how much that frustration has fed itself into the form of the show. What you get for the first half is a slight mis-sell to the blurb. Yes, it talks about the Olympics for a bit, but it’s mainly just a kid doing what kids do. His background inflects Rahul’s life, there’s a little in every scene, but it never dominates until the second half. Even then, it’s much harder to be treated as a normal kid by those around you than it is for him or to, say, resist an urge to hop off to Syria or escape an arranged marriage.
Not, perhaps, the most radical thing in the world for most people – to have a character be normal – but I can’t stress how important this was to me to have snapshots of a complex emotional life in a different sort of Asian character that’s fun to be with in a theatrical space (mostly anyway…)
Following on from this…
REASON 2) BROWN DUDE BEING KINDA MIDDLE CLASS
It’s a small one this but I’m always amused when people tell me they’re glad that theatre’s trying to get past its “middle-class moment”: ask anyone of a minority background if it ever existed for them.
In timely fashion, Kayvan Novak has written about similar in the Guardian yesterday. This in particular struck a chord for me:
I think I decided…that I was not prepared to have my identity dictated to me. That simply “being myself” was never going to satisfy me or get the job done. That the odds were stacked against me somehow, that the world was not about to adapt to me, but that I needed to adapt to the world. I had to fool the world into accepting me. I didn’t seem to fit the mould of my idols. My idols were all white or black, for a start, and working class, and northern, or American, drug addicts, rock stars, the same as anyone’s. But definitely not brown. I wanted to belong. But I never did. I was lost.
I felt all of this as a young man, and it was the loneliest place to be in since I had no way of expressing it to people who didn’t quite get it. Writing True Brits and seeing the responses to it have made me feel a little less lost and a lot less alone.
REASON 3) I WANTED BOTH THE FEAR AND THE HOPE TO EXIST IN THE CULTURAL MEMORY BECAUSE I THINK IT WILL, IN A TINY WAY, MAKE THIS COUNTRY A BETTER PLACE TO LIVE
So this is the wankiest of the three but I can’t say it wasn’t part of my process. I think a lot about how our cultural memories are affected by the arts. I’d wager the way a lot of people think about Vietnam is affected by the movies about it. It’s why there’s so much discussion around American Sniper. I hadn’t seen anything that captured what it was like to be a brown teen in this country but in London specifically after 7/7. Stuff like see-through backpacks, relentless stop and searches and people seeing a beard and moving seat will fall away from people’s minds as it probably should but you want to be able to look back and have some repository where it can be recalled. If you don’t, you’re not moving on from something, you’re just sort of erasing it. I wanted to be able to point to a piece of cultural work and go “I feel like a well-integrated fella but fuck me, sometimes it was bloody hard work to be the (relatively) nice guy that I am today, and likely harder than you might otherwise comprehend.”
BUT, and this is perhaps the most important thing behind this play for me. I am hopeful about my place in this country. In fact, in a slightly unfashionable way, I think I love it here. Not ironically, and not in a “God Bless America/All Hail The Motherland” way. Rather, like an album that catches your heart when you’re young and remains the soundtrack to your life, I feel it’s always going to be a part of me. I’ll always step off a plane after a holiday and whilst I’ll complain about the weather I’ll secretly want to wrap myself in the inevitable cold blast. It’s home.
Being repeatedly called a ‘paki’ as a kid, having my nose smashed in by various goons as a teenager, being told by sniffy posh bastards that I deserve airport searches as a young adult…this has all tested that feeling, but I’ve come out of it with a strong affection. I know this is not unproblematic. Britain’s ridden with problems, with corrosive ideologies, and its worse instincts are almost sort of an integral part of it. But I also know I want to be responsible for doing something about that. I want to do what I can to make it better. I think attempting to create a mostly harmonious ethnically and culturally diverse country is one of the nobler projects that can exist, we do do it relatively well here and y’know, it’s basically the future of the planet.
(If it doesn’t do it itself, skip to 12 minutes in).
A small piece from the end of last month that I realised I hadn’t put up.
David Edgar (writer of Destiny, the most lucid plays about race and politics in Britain) has written an interesting provocation for the Guardian this morning.
His assertion about references to Powell making ethnics suspect that, deep down, “there ain’t no black in the Union Jack” I think holds true for the older generations more than the younger. My generation that was born here post-Powell I think likes to tell itself that those views aren’t particularly mainstream, although I think it’s relatively recently that we’ve felt a validation of that tale.
For example, I loved the Olympics so much because it told me a story about Britain that I’ve always wanted to believe. It felt like the first time being a bit ethnic was internalised, embraced on a national scale, not tolerated or exoticised.
It was a bit of a strange feeling because it played against my intellectual belief that the concept of strong national identification is inherently flawed (especially in a country that hasn’t actually written down its ‘values’ anywhere) and will weaken in future anyway (thanks, technology!) but it helped me understand why people want it so much, immigrants actually more than others because it gives them somewhere to lay their hat of belonging that isn’t skin.
Apologies for the delay on this, have been working on sweet, heady nonsense. The majority of this post was written on the 28th June. I’ve also split it into two sections since later thoughts veer off onto a tangent.
Mission Drift and Post-Show Pondering
Last night’s (near) final trip to the theatre for a month was to see Mission Drift at the National’s temporary building, The Shed. Having missed out on Bullet Catch and hearing rave reviews for this play, I was pumped. Probably more so than anything in a long time. I mean, doesn’t this sound like a blast?:
Mission Drift is a pioneering journey across the USA in search of the character of American capitalism, told through atomic blasts, lizard ballet, and music that fuses Vegas glitz with rock and gospel.
Yes it does. You want to go. I did go. This is what I saw. “Anti-capitalist cabaret” as my friend put it. Delightful…and all supported by Neptune Investment Management Limited. Hmm. A quick search does not reveal whether Neptune were involved in any mortgage backed securities or collateralised debt obligations that were at the heart of the sub-prime crisis (and something Mission Drift pokes at), but I will give them the benefit of the doubt since I’m sure that level of irony doesn’t exist in theatre and it would be too easy a story about art being funded by those they critique as a way of keeping dissent quiet.
The point that the play made about capitalism wasn’t particularly new, but the form of it was relentlessly entertaining and at times beautiful. This was a rich production, packed with detail to the extent that it was sometimes a little hard to take it all in from my side-on view (the cheap seats). I particularly liked the central metaphor of the couple representing capitalism’s historic and brutal drive. There was a tenderness to them, and an urge to impress each other that served as a slight but welcome reminder that when people want to coldly make a tonne of cash, some human warmth (or lack there of) is somewhere at the root of it.
My favourite moment was when one half of the couple was describing The new New Amsterdam experience that would be part of an upcoming Vegas hotel. It was ridiculous, serious, then seriously ridiculous. It also made me want to put a hundred cameras into a theatre so as to snap a picture of every audience member at their moment of absolute catharsis and then sell them that moment after the show.
Speaking of…this show was followed by a discussion chaired by an American radio and TV presenter, with an economist and and a writer/performer forming the panel. As I sat in my seat waiting for it to begin, I felt a hint of trepidation. This could easily be a bit of an echo chamber: Who will come to this debate who isn’t already convinced by the view the play they’d just seen presented them with? It could be like the Christian Union meetings that I attended at uni where they asked themselves hard questions about their faith. Admirable intent and I praise the attempted rigour, but they unsuprisingly always came to the same conclusions.
The first few minutes of the discussion played up to those fears. Everything said was along the lines of my own thinking and there was a lot of head nodding across the board. So far, so meh. Thankfully, one of the panellists then came out with something that made me wince. The writer/performer said something along the lines of: “Everyone goes on about African poverty, but actually there’s poverty in America too.” I get that she’s just trying to refocus our minds on what poverty means, but the conflation of first and third world poverty isn’t particularly useful. I think an audience member, seated behind the panel, nearly twisted her neck off from all her head shaking triggered by that sentence.
People were properly engaged after that, though. I certainly was. For what must be the first time in a long time, it made me want to ask a question in a public Q+A. It was:
“You mentioned bubbles and depressed living standards – do you think that living standards in the West are themselves are an unsustainable bubble and what we’re seeing now is a sort of market correction?”
The economist informed me that living standards rose up to the 70s and has stagnated since then, so it’s not really a bubble. Astonishing. Especially since the 70s, according to one report, was the last time that the UK lived within its means, ecologically (can’t remember the source of that fact, but hunting it down). The upshot of a recession like this is that the rich get richer without trying, the poor get poorer despite trying, the ones in the middle stay the same and try not to rock the boat if it brings them in a paycheque.
As I left the discussion, I thought two things: 1) As entertaining as Mission Drift was, what was its purpose? It didn’t particularly challenge the audience who broadly agreed with the view it presented. Not everything must have a grand mission of course – if anything I prefer my entertainment first, politics second – but when you have a post show Q+A, it does somewhat suggest one. I had a heck of a ride, and then went home smiling to sleep and consume some mo’. I promise not to be a heartless mega-capitalist in future, but then if I’m going to see stuff at The Shed, I probably was never going to be.
2) When it comes to The State of the World, most people I talk to, especially in the arts, seems to throw the blame elsewhere, be it America (as one woman in the audience believed was the sole cause of this economic quagmire we’re in), the Conservative Party, or the banks/bankers (used interchangeably, with no distinction between type). At the heart of it though, it’s all of us isn’t it? We bemoan break down of community, of the social contract, of a reasonable life to all, but don’t really give time over to how our own addiction to convenience and our entitlement to certain aspirations, fuels the accumulation of debt and diffuses our social consciousness. Or at least to the extent that most of us don’t do anything much about what we purport to be concerned with.
For example, what’s your reaction to the words “baggage handler strike”. Is it more:
a) “Mmm – I wonder what their grievances are? Solidarity with my fellow working man/woman! I don’t mind waiting while they work this out.”
b) “This better not fuck up my holiday.”
A “fair” society that works as well as possible for as many people as possible, where those with little power are not exploited by those with lots and are treated with dignity.
Most people would say that’s the world they want to live in. But above that, above everything else, I believe for themselves people want the best lifestyle for the least cost. This personal desire often short circuits the one for the wider world.
Cost doesn’t just mean money. It can equally mean time, emotional investment etc. It’s the supermarket mentality. Decent enough quality + convenience + low price = total victory.
The host of the Mission Drift panel discussion talked about Reagan breaking the air traffic controller strike by firing them and that, basically, that was when he knew that it was game over for society as he knew it. But it’s not game over because of Reagan sacking the controllers (or Maggie smashing the unions.)
It’s game over because we all just want the fucking planes to fly.
So I wasn’t convinced by the talk, but I do respect this attempt at engagement with the audience of the piece. Over the next few months I hope to spend more time considering how an audience processes and responds to what it sees.
As a brief foray, I’m going to look at something my friend James (or “His Fritzcellency, The Right Hon. J Thomas Fritz, Sexquire” as he has asked to be known) has said. This is probably going to meander a fair bit, but I’ll come back with more considered thoughts down the line. James has been thinking about theatre and audiences for far longer and with much greater depth and clarity than I have and wrote the following in a thoughtful post about spectatorship in theatre vs. the exhilaration of a football crowd (highlights mine):
“Often I feel like what’s missing in a trip to the theatre is that sense of shared belonging, of mutual support that comes with the ritual. There is, instead, often a tension that exists between spectators watching performance (one that is felt particularly keenly in certain venues). A competitive element where your mind, in the silence of the auditorium, distractingly compares your experience with the experiences of those around you: Is the person next to me enjoying this more than I am? Why are they all laughing and I’m not? Am I understanding this better than the mate I brought along?”
…it would be nice to see more performances that unite those watching in exhilaration, that tap into and utilise an audience’s shared history and experience, that gives you time to talk to your neighbour and discover how they’re engaging with what’s going on in front of them. Maybe one that even lets you do a little bit of chanting in unison.
Even at the most meaningless football match, the most dreary, pointless mid-table end of season dead rubber, the fans in the stand still wail and shout at every near miss, every poor decision, because they’ve paid their money and want to share in the drama with those alongside them. The experience of shared spectatorship is, in the end, more important to the day out than the final score. There’s something rather wonderful in that. Ultimately I’d love to see more theatre that makes me want to grab the stranger next to me and hug them like a brother. That makes me leave the venue singing, or crying, and knowing everyone alongside me is doing the same.
Firstly, this immediately reminded me of Charlie Kaufman’s Hope Leaves The Theatre. Have a little listen to that if you can.
Secondly, to me this is perhaps a little romanticised. There is, after all, a certain type of football experience that is disliked by fans all over that comes as a result of Money. The atmosphere is at a game is more likely to be better lower down the Football League. The fringe will always be a bit more ripe than Theatreland. (What’s the theatre equivalent of match day at Old Trafford? A long running West End Musical?) Some of the best chants I’ve heard at a football match were at a League 2 Plymouth vs. Wimbledon relegation scrap. Atmosphere at games like these and cup and play-off finals (the aftermath of which James wrote that post) is also far greater than at a dead rubber. They mean something. I’ve been to many, many terrible football games (More on this later).
Thirdly, I’d argue that, actually, a lot of sharing and talking does occur in theatres and there’s plenty of opportunity for it. I don’t feel competitive in an audience. Perhaps this is just me. I went to see Mission Drift by myself and ended up chatting to the guy next to me. In fact, often when I go by myself I find someone to talk to about it that I don’t know. After Disgraced, I had a two hour chat with a man named David who I’d never met before and learned a heck of a lot. Often the interval (if there is one) serves as the point that you get to talk to your neighbour if you want. I have never, ever met a person or a group who wasn’t willing to have a natter.
Aside from direct interaction, the very reason I love to see stuff both in the theatre and the cinema is the atmosphere of an audience. The easy example is comedies, since a laugh shared is always better. It’s not just comedies though – one of the most powerful moments I shared with an audience was in a cinema screening of Waltz With Bashir when nobody in the audience moved for a full five minutes after the credits started to roll. A friend of mine told me that the best wedding she ever went to was a Quaker wedding conducted in absolute silence. Having suffered many Indian extravaganzas, that seemed incredible to me. Sharing silence. The world’s plenty loud as it is. It doesn’t mean you’re not sharing in the drama of a moment just because you’re silent.
Admittedly with most cinema/theatre, you can’t get the visceral thrill of scream in the middle of a show (relaxed performances aside). The rising popularity of stuff like quote and sing-a-longs at places like the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square caters for the exclamatory thrill – I bloody love the film Starship Troopers, but perhaps if I’d got myself to a screening at the Prince Charles, where it’d be packed with fans, I would love it more. It’d be more like a football match, or a gig.*
I’d suggest that what James seems to enjoy about football matches and wants more of in his theatre watching is the ability to switch off and just enjoy the communal experience with people who still care about what they’re watching. The spectatorship James speaks of is storied by fandom and personal history, not an attempt to “understand”, which most drama leads you towards doing. Something Important Is Being Dramatised. You Better Appreciate, Fucker. I suppose it depends what you want from your experience: Do you want to witness something or be involved in it? What about if you don’t care going in?
Football-wise, I don’t really support a particular team, I’ve been to loads of games as a neutral. When that’s the case, the shit games are shit, the great games are great. The fans were always fun, but I’d come for the drama. I didn’t care about the history of the fans, I cared about the story unfolding on the pitch. I’ve been to plenty of games that have engrossed me, and I came to care about what was happening and I was happy with that. Most theatre/cinema is set up to exploit drama rather than history since most theatre/cinema goers are “neutrals”. (Are middle-class white folk the fans of The National Theatre? They come to see some terrible plays but keep on coming.) Going along not because of fandom, but spectacle. A great spectacle unites a crowd. It’s why finals draw a bigger crowd than the fan base of either team involved. People are attracted by the components being decent and can become enthralled, fan or not. It’s the reasoning behind the Olympics making people feel cheery. All being British and what not was great – but if we’d not won anything, the mood would’ve been a whole lot flatter.
One of the worst games I’ve ever seen involved watching Liverpool. The only reason I was talking to my fellow fans was because it was so fucking dull. There was little drama to share in. Conversely, the 2005 Champion’s League Final was one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen, period, and the fact that I’m not a Liverpool fan doesn’t particularly matter. Ultimately, that’s why I loved Mission Drift, despite my reservations. It in itself was a great experience that I was buzzing from and wanted to talk about afterwards. But then I think all great drama already does that. If you want a performance that lets you talk whilst the show’s going on, Fuerzabruta’s returning to London.
*There’s a post in this about going to a seated gig vs going to a standing gig. Same with football. Standing gives a crowd more energy. Maybe that’s the solution? All standing theatres, like the pit in the Globe…
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