Wednesday 29 September 2010

KSM Exit 75, drinking, vagrancy, and visiting That London

Still alive. Still here. Just. Mum got ill again, and family drama led to me spending a rather fraught and self-pitying night at the Angel View Inn, Gateshead (nice place, lovely staff, great food, but given the circs a place I never want to go to again), then decamping, after a long day of literally bumming around Newcastle, back to Michelle's place. I'm getting kind of sick of all this to-ing and fro-ing, though, so today I did something I've been meaning to get around to for ages: I got a form from the local Housing Office, to register my interest in moving into what we used to call a council house before corporations like Gentoo got in on the act. Soon, perhaps, you will experience me blogging from the freezing cold of my own personal Bedsit Hell. Exciting!

It's not all Morrissey-esque misery, though. After my day of experimental homelessness in the Toon, I went to the long-awaited Borders reunion drinking session at Tilly's theatre bar. A fine night in a fine venue and, after we decamped to the equally fine Bodega, a great deal of fantastic conversation was had on topics as diverse as the foibles of customers, the most disgusting things found behind bookshelves, and my role, as head of the Psychology & Social Sciences section (incorporating Erotica & Sexuality) as the Pornographer of Gateshead. I've seen things you people wouldn't that was a ray of sunshine in an otherwise depressing weekend.

Another ray of sunshine is my upcoming visit to That London to do some poetry gigs, which is happening next week. I'll be reading at RAW Poetry in King's Cross on Monday the 4th; Poetry Unplugged at Covent Garden's Poetry Cafe on Tuesday the 5th; then it's up to Hebden Bridge for Write Out Loud's own 'read-around' session on Wednesday the 6th, before finishing up in Middlesbrough for the Black Light Engine Room's National Poetry Day extravaganza. It's a tornado of troubadouring which I'm privately referring to as the Cheap Date Poetry Tour, largely due to the fact that I am having to do it on as close to no budget as possible (and the fact that I will sleep with  random members of the audience in return for a drink, obviously). And after which I will probably sleep right through for the remaining three days of my officially-sanctioned week's holiday...

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Now we are 33

I had a pretty good birthday, really. Michelle chipped in to help me buy a futuristic and exciting Kindle device, at exactly the same time as the Kindle precipitated all-out-fucking-war in the book world (it's things like that which make me miss the book trade: sure, the job I'm in now pays better and this means I have more time to attend to my own literary activities but nothing, nothing, beats that sense of being one of the grunts on the ground in a bookshop, facing the 'it's cheaper at Asda!' barbarians at the gates on a daily basis, scrabbling desperately to shore up the collapsing edifice that is the printed, bound codex and bitching about it every single second you can spare from shelving and sorting and shaking your head at the mess, the fucking mess, those animals make of the toilet...but I digress); we went to a fantastic Mexican restaurant, and the pictures, and the pub (not all in the same day, mind you), plus I ate a lot of chocolate and nachos and cake, oh my!

One of the main features of the weekend was that I got waxed for the first time. At the risk of sounding overly macho (an ever-present risk on this testosterone-soaked slice of the web, I'm sure you'll agree), I have to wonder what people are on about when they say it's incredibly painful. For me, the main issue seemed to be the fact that it tickled when the wax was applied in certain areas, which was slightly embarassing. I'm willing to admit, though, that this may be because, as the nice lady from Jesmond Beauty Clinic informed me, I actually have (well, had, in the waxed areas - grin, grin) quite fine, not-exactly-manly body hair, which comes off quite easily. I suppose if one were possessed of a thick, George 'The Animal' Steele style mat of follicles, one might find the experience more tortuous. But I have to say I rather enjoyed it. So nah.

And thence to the Lamplight Arts Centre in Stanley for  the first Lamplight Poetry Slam of the new season. Hosted by Steve Urwin and James Oates, the slam was deservedly won by Jenni Pascoe, but featured fine work from Jeff Price, Alfie Crow, Poetry Jack, and many more, including myself. I'm proud of my own contribution, not only because I scored a personal best by getting through to the third round (well, okay, the first round was a warm-up round so doesn't strictly count; but reaching the second round of a slam is still better than I've done in like, ever), but also because I read pieces I've been afraid of reading for a long time, and I read them well. Let's face it, I'm highly unlikely to ever win a slam with my material (an awful lot of my stuff is genderqueer misery, and what lighter stuff there is in my set tends to be about S&M - I'm kind of a niche interest), but the challenge I set myself with this gig was that I should memorise the poems I planned to do and concentrate not just on reading them from behind the comfort of a file of plastic wallets, but on performing them. And that I think I achieved in spades. My second round poem, 'Eggshells', held the room so strongly that you could have heard a pin drop while I was reading: it was a real Little Earthquakes moment. Follow-up poem 'NSFW' also went over well (James even contending it was his favourite poem of the night), but it didn't have the shock power of the earlier poem and, as I say, I was up against a strong field. And hey, I went out in the same round as Jeff and Jack, so there's no shame in that.

All in all, the fact that I made such a good showing is a good omen for the London gigs coming up. After which - well, who knows? It might be nice to take some downtime from performing and get on with writing new stuff; then again there are a few other intriguing offers I've been made so...we'll see. Yes *steeples fingers* we shall see, indeed...moo hoo ha ha!


Tuesday 14 September 2010

A blogpost that smells mainly of toast and is comprised principally of disappointment

Regular readers of this blog will know of my enjoyment of the comedic work of genuine, certfied laughter-genius Stewart Lee. Lee - who recently gained notoriety through his campaign to get the Piss-Weak Lager Comedy God Award to be given to Japanese performance-art troupe Frank Chickens - is a breath of fresh air in a world composed of 'comedians' like Michael 'it's funny isn't it how, hmmmm, things happen, yes, itsfunnyisn'tit, yes' Mcintyre, Peter 'catchphrase regurgitator' Kay, or Sean 'genuinely vile human being' Lock. His work is dark, bitter, twisted and, at its best, becomes a kind of meta-comedy, breaking through some kind of wall beyond even the fourth and trapping the audience in a recursive awareness of how twisted the jokes are even as they laugh at them. A challenging comedian like that is worth ten Russell Howards. However horrible the image of ten Russell Howards bounding towards you, hilariously going 'hello!' in a silly voice and waving in a laugh-a-second impression of someone with learning disabilities, might be.

That last sentence is my homage to one of the key tropes in Lee's comedy - the moment when he will skewer another performer's schtick with pin-point precision. Because I'm not a professional comedian, my example tends towards the needlessly brutal and vicious - Lee's versions of this trick can be subtler and even affectionate (my favourite, despite my love of Izzard's work, is his brilliant line 'I'll improvise, like Eddie Izzard...pretends to do.' [in fairness to Lee, he has explained that he genuinely admires Izzard for his ability to make what are obviously meticulously-planned moments in his set appear to be improvised on the spot]).

If you've read this far, and you're familiar with the way entries of this sort on my blog tend to work, you'll be expecting a similar skewering of Lee himself at this point. What has he done, Adam? Has he by any chance said something transphobic, insulting and generally offensive? Well, kind of, yes. And, frankly, I'm baffled.

You see, I've been reading Lee's otherwise excellent book, 'How I Escaped My Certain Fate' today, and, during the otherwise funny introduction (it is actually a very good book except in the respect I'm going to have a go at. I'm hoping both those 'otherwises' will make that seem clear), Lee comes out with this line, apropos of his description of an alternative comedy promoter discovering Lee had been educated at Oxford:

'"But you're not like those wankers, are you?" he added with all the desparation of a disappointed sex tourist who has just discovered his beautiful Thai prostitute has a penis, and is wondering whether just to try and make the best of it.'

Now as a writer I can see why Lee has gone for this line. He needs a simile for someone discovering a secret about another person, and he also needs one that fits with his carefully-crafted 'edgy' comic persona. Superficially, it seems to fit the bill. But when we subject it to the kind of deep comic analysis which is often the hallmark of Lee's own act, we find it's actually kind of unpalatable.

The problem with this seemingly throwaway line is the implicit assumptions it contains. There are three main assumptions buried in this joke, all of them problematic.

1) Trans people are prostitutes. The basic trans woman joke is essentially a variant on this line. Man goes to prostitute. Man discovers prostitute is trans. Hilarity ensues! Well. Not really. Very often what ensues is the sex worker involved being attacked violently and possibly murdered. Some versions of the joke even imply that this violence is deserved (and to be fair, the 'disappointed sex tourist' in Lee's gag at least doesn't do that). But leaving even that aside - even if suddenly punters stopped being violent to trans sex workers - one of the implicit assumptions in a joke of this kind is that the only place you are liable to find a trans person is a red light district. While it's true that many trans women often go into sex work due to the persistent and often unacknowledged discrimination they face in 'conventional' employment, there are trans people in all walks of life. There are trans poets, journalists, architects, scientists, broadcasters and, indeed, comedians. This implicit association with the sex industry contributes to a widespread perception of trans people as being somehow sleazy which becomes both a self-fulfilling prophecy and also a contributing factor to problematic point two...

2) Trans people are (often exotic) others. Notice that the prostitute in the above scenario is, of course, Thai. There is something definitely very odd and a bit sleazy about this, on the part of Lee and the whole 'Bangkok chickboys' tone of this conversation in the culture. It smacks simultaneously of Orientalism and transmisogyny. It's a fairly toxic combo: it contributes to the belief in our culture that trans people are not like us. Which is a ludicrous notion. Trans people are a small segment of the population, but you find them in any population, caucasian, black, hispanic, asian, south asian...attitudes to trans people differ from culture to culture (some countries are much more welcoming to trans people than others), but trans people are to be found everywhere. Not all of them are flawless 'oriental' beauties (and indeed it should be noted that not all 'oriental' people are flawless beauties either): there are dumpy white trans people, athletic black trans people, skinny Irish trans people, and all sorts of combinations. One even encounters overweight non-binary trans people with pale skin who find it impossible to tan and fight an ongoing battle against their body and facial hair with an ever-expanding arsenal of depilatory creams, razors, waxing and tweezers. You know, as a hypothetical example. Actually scratch that, I'm talking about myself there, because to do otherwise is to play into the hands of problematic assumption three...

3) Trans status is a shameful secret. Oh NOES! The prostitute was really a MAN! What a horrible dark secret! What a disappointment! Oh the womanity! Oh, bollocks, more like. Is it really Stewart Lee making this joke? This tired old piece-of-shit joke we'd be more likely to expect from some hack like Letterman or Lock? For Venus Castina's sake, being trans is nothing to be ashamed of. It's only the twisted assumptions of cis society which regards it as such, and that is in no small part due to the previous assumptions listed above. And jokes like this, which - while seemingly inconsequential - reinforce those assumptions, do not help to solve the problem.

In fact, I'll go further. Jokes like this have a body count. Read that link. Every second day the murder of a trans person is reported. The true casualty figures, as always in this sort of crime, are probably far higher.

This is why I'm deeply, sorely disappointed in Stewart Lee. I don't think there's any malice in his line. I think he genuinely hasn't thought about it. And in a way, that makes it worse. Because, having followed his work as I have, I know he genuinely does think very carefully about his art, and that he generally comes at things from a sensibility rooted in the alternative comedy of the 80s. It's just a shame - a damn shame - that, for this one throwaway line, this one moment, he slackened that focus.

It is an otherwise good book. Lee is, I think, one of the good guys, and his thoughts on comedy and the construction of a stage act are required reading for any performer. But I wish he'd thought a little more when he was writing them.

Saturday 11 September 2010

We Will Never Forget (because the networks won't let us)

Another 9/11 anniversary, another deluge of programmes about the disaster that changed the world (that's 'changed the world' in the sense of 'caused the US government and radical Islam to follow geopolitical strategies they had already substantially committed themselves to' but let's let that pass).

What I find myself thinking about, though, is: were there these levels of hyper-commemoration around other major dates? During the second world war, there weren't massive commemorations in Britain of the declaration of war on the 3rd of September 1939.  During Vietnam, the Gulf of Tonkin incident wasn't marked with a slew of documentaries every year. Even other 'world-changing' events like the assassination of John F Kennedy weren't marked with special docs every year thereafter.

It might be argued that the hyper-commemoration of September 11 2001 is a result of the prevalence of 24-hour-rolling news and the internet. The internet made everyone feel a part of what was going on. I first found out about the attack on the World Trade Centre by checking the BBC website after rumours began going around the office. In this respect I was ahead of the traditional press: I later found out from an ex-girlfriend who studied journalism that the local paper she worked on had to find out about the events from the guy who ran the shop downstairs: their office had no internet connection. This was the old days, remember, you kids with your Twitter and your Facebook and your bloody Youtube. In our office we thought the Thorn Tree Forum on the Lonely Planet Website was crazy futuristic cyber-nonsense, for heaven's sake.

The rolling news both ensured that people heard about the initial attack, and that it was endlessly recycled through a search for talking heads to commentate, new footage of what happened, new graphics to explain what might happen next, contextual pieces about the history of Afghanistan, etc, etc. 9/11 was the first disaster of the new media age. The only comparably mediated event, the death of Princess Diana on 31 August 2001, occurred just prior to the mass-penetration of peoples' lives by the internet. By the time of September 11th 2001, pretty much everybody in the developed countries either was able to access the net by themselves, knew someone else who could, or had access to public internet facilities in a library or cyber-cafe (I remember going to London for a Diamanda Galas concert a little over a week after the attack: one of the first things I did, once I'd stowed my backpack at the fleabag hotel where I was staying, was to find an internet cafe in Covent Garden where I could grab a cup of bad coffee and find out whether Bush had decided to blow up the world while I was on the train); and big media, at least, armed with broadband at a time when the rest of us were still usually wrestling with dial-up connections, were well-placed to intercept, interpret and analyse the information streaming in from around the globe.

All that information, all that footage, all those interviews, all those graphics, and all the weird little facts and factoids and vile conspiracy theories which circulated after the event, were just waiting to be cannibalised and recontextured and consumed again in an endless orgy of mediophagy which began a year later and has continued every year since. We have reached a point, this year, where the older 9/11 documentaries are shown in the days leading up to the anniversary itself, because the schedules need to be kept clear for the new documentaries which will present yet another angle on the story.

The media loves a story about the media, and in a sense, the story of 9/11 is a story about the media: about the images of suffering, the stories of heroism, above all about that haunting image of the two towers, one smoking, one intact, and then the sudden, insidious shadow of the second plane sliding in, the explosion, and all hell breaking loose, in a moment which was described by many - showing the highly-mediated nature of the event - as like a scene from a disaster movie.

None of this detracts from the suffering of those involved. In fact, considering the degree to which their suffering and their stories were feasted on by the media should serve as a kick in the arse to make us think much more strongly about the trauma those people underwent. No matter how many documentaries we film, no matter how many new and exclusive interviews we see (tonight's star turns are Condoleeza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld: perhaps next year we may get to see Dick Cheney, assuming he hasn't had yet another heart attack by then), we will not be able to understand what those who lost loved ones on that day went through.

You can never truly understand another person's grief. You can empathise with it, based on your own experience of loss; but you can never truly penetrate to the heart of another person's pain (and this goes double for all the self-styled Buddhas out there who see the suffering of others as an opportunity to show off their awesome listening skills and their grade 2 qualification in Neuro-Linguistic Programming). Grief is raw. Grief is red. Grief is unforgiving and unrelenting and it sneaks up on you when you least expect it and floors you like a concrete sucker punch. Everyone's grief, like everyone's love, like everyone's fingerprints, is unique.

And this is what worries me about the hyper-commemoration of 9/11. It lulls us into the belief that we can understand what people on that day went through. More than the original media storm, the retelling of these stories makes us believe that their stories are ours. They encourage us to identify with pain with which we have no right to identify. And that has very dangerous consequences.

There is something disturbing about a culture which still, almost a decade after a traumatic event, endlessly replays and reconstitutes that event for people who were involved in it only at third hand. The survivors of 9/11 have every right to tell their stories. And they deserve to have those stories recorded. But there is something disturbing about our appetite to hear those stories ourselves again and again, without setting them in their larger historical and political context. It's interesting that none of the 9/11 documentaries I've seen have asked the question of whether we have learned anything since the events of that day. Where are the documentaries on mainstream television about the other 9/11, for instance? When will a documentary move beyond the stories of heroism and consider how those who gave their lives were posthumously betrayed when their stories were co-opted into support of the Project for a New American Century and its neoconservative agenda?

Stories are important. But telling a story over and over without moving beyond it is obsessive behaviour. At some point you need to stop telling and start analysing. Maybe next year will be the 9/11 when we do that as a culture. Until then, it's something we can all do as individuals. And the more we do that, and the more of us who do do that, the less likely another 9/11 becomes. Peace is the way.

Charlie and the Big Bad Book-burning Bigot

So today's big question is: will he or won't he? I'm talking, of course, about 'Pastor' Terry Jones and his ridiculuous and inflammatory plan to burn copies of the Qu'ran on a shitty plot of land owned by one of the ill-educated weirdos from his micro-church.

Whether or not this Terry Jones - who, as someone on Twitter pointed out, is very much a naughty boy rather than the Messiah - succeeds in carrying out his little auto da fe there can be little doubt that he's already succeeded in getting his ugly face, 'cockduster' moustache and all, all over the media.

What are we to make of Pastor Jones? What opinion of him should we form? Talking heads have thrashed it out for most of the week, but it occurred to me that no-one had thought to ask the ultimate arbiters of morality, the oompah-loompahs from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the Gene Wilder version, obviously).

So I did. And so it is with great pleasure that this blog is able to host the Pastor Terry Jones oompah-loompah song. Take it away little fellas...

'Oompah-loompah doompaty-do,
I've got another puzzle for you:
about an insignificant speck,
who spends his time watching too much Glenn Beck:

what are we to make of this sad little man,
who tells everyone that he'll burn the Qu'ran?
Is he the start of a new right-wing trend,
or is he just a chuffing bell-end?'

Chorus: 'He's a chuffing bell-end, he's a chuffing bell-end...'

'Oompah-loompah doompaty-spank,
burning Qu'rans is a right load of wank!'

So there you are. They seem a bit more foul-mouthed than normal these days, I have to say. I think they're still kind of bitter about Deep Roy getting their gig in the remake. Still, their hearts are in the right place.

(Curtsy to @vivmondo over on Twitter for the picture of Pastor Jones' startling chimp-related confession.)

Sunday 5 September 2010

Major Misunderstanding Makes War on the Poor

A few months ago, I'm talking to a friend who works for a teaching union. Said friend tells me about an interesting call a friend of hers had received. The call was from the right-wing UK broadsheet the Daily Telegraph. At that time, the Telegraph - or the Torygraph, as many on the left call it - was riding high after exposing the MPs' expenses scandal, which - although many MPs from the opposition benches had also fiddled the system - inevitably hit the Labour government harder.

The man from the Telegraph had been asking about facility time allocations made by the Local Authority my union friend worked for. Facility time is something you may not know about. It's basically a system by which members of staff who are also union officials are able to work full-time on their union activities. The system is paid for by the unions, who pay to provide staff to cover for the officials while they go about their union work.

The system is paid for by the unions. Got that? The salaries of these workers - when they work in the public sector - are paid for by taxes - but the unions recompense the employers out of their own budgets. Facility time is paid for by the unions, to provide a vital service to union members, to ensure that practices and procedures at work are fair and conform to the correct legislation. Unions aren't bolshy, Citizen Smith operations - they're a vital check on employers, who make sure they treat their staff fairly. If you think a check like that isn't necessary, I would like to know which time tunnel you used to arrive here from the late middle ages, so I can kick you back down it to your world of feudal servitude.

Anyway. The Torygraph were snooping around trying to find out how much facility time various organisations were granting. My hunch was they planned to extend the MP's expenses furore to council level, giving their story a new angle and allowing them to run with it for a while longer. This would boost circulation and keep the Torygraph at the head of the news agenda - an odd position for it to occupy as, prior to the expenses scandal, the paper had pretty much been a joke, mocked for its fawning celebrity coverage and tendency to try and cover any story in such a way that it could be illustrated by a picture of a leggy upper class caucasian girl who (usually) would be surnamed Hurley or Goldsmith.

At the time I worked in a bookshop which sold newspapers, so was able to keep abreast of what the tabs and the broadsheets were covering without having to shell out any of my (limited) cash. I braced myself for a classic Telegraph 'retired colonel' piece all about bolshy unions and YOUR HARD-EARNED TAXES being used to pay for them and blah blah Tory fishcakes. And waited.

And waited. And waited.

And had actually almost forgotten about that little piece of info I'd been given until today, when the Torygraph suddenly decided to reveal all this information they'd been sitting on in this nasty litle article.

This delay in publishing is not an accident. In fact, it reveals something rather unnerving about the Coalition's agenda. We've been told that the public sector cuts being touted by the like of George Osborne are merely necessary because of the economic situation. We're told that these cuts have to be more swingeing than even the Tories promised before the election because it turns out the economy is in an even more parlous state than anybody realised. But as my little conversation six months ago reveals, the Telegraph have had this story in the bag for a looooong time, and they're only choosing to go with it now. Why is that?

It's because there is nothing necessary about these cuts. This is ideological. This, however much the Tories may deny it, is class war. Weakening the public sector is about making the vast bulk of ordinary people even more powerless to resist being placed on lower wages, being subject to discrimination by prejudiced employers, or being forced into poverty because their benefits have been cut. The unions, rightly, are campaigning to protect the public sector, and so protect the interests of ordinary people throughout the country. The Telegraph have sat on this story so they can use it as ammunition against the unions in this ideologically-driven war on the poor. And the fact that they sat on the information for six months shows that this war was being planned long before the election - at the very time that David Cameron was promising not to bring in swingeing public sector cuts.

The Telegraph will try to dress this up as a public interest investigation. But if that's really the case, why didn't they strike when the iron was hot - when the issue of expenses abuse was high on the agenda, and people were hungry for stories of corruption in high places? Because the Telegraph don't really care about the public - unless by 'public' you mean that tiny fraction of the body politic able to pay for a seat at one of David Cameron's dodgy dinner clubs. If the expenses scandal had been uncovered under this government, the Telegraph wouldn't have pursued it nearly as aggressively (indeed, the Telegraph have lagged far behind other broadsheets in covering metgate, a story with massive public interest implications which also happens to be massively damaging to the Tory party). The Torygraph deserves its nickname, because it's a propaganda organ of the Tory party - and their latest 'revelations' about facility time are disgusting, biased and sleazy - even for a propaganda rag. Frankly, I preferred the Telegraph when all its journalists were interested in looking up was Liz Hurley's skirt.

Saturday 4 September 2010

There Goes the Government

Just popping in quickly to let readers know that Emergency Verse, Alan Morrison's anthology of anti-coalition poetry, is now available to download for £2.99 from The Recusant poetry site. Among many other fantastic contributions from the likes of Andy Croft, Michaels Rosen & Horovitz, John O'Donoghue, Keith Armstrong, Tom Kelly and Anne Babson (who contributes my personal favourite piece in the book, 'Recitative: Then Shall the Eyes of the Blind'), Emergency Verse features my rabble-rousing little poem 'Class? War?', which I wrote in a massive fit of pique during the week Nick Clegg turned out to be a total Lando and the first pictures of the lily-white new cabinet began to appear in the press.

I do urge you to buy Emergency Verse, not just because I'm in it but because it's a damn fine anthology, and I wish it wasn't just an e-book but an actual paperback I could shove into peoples' hands with an injunction to read. There aren't many good things you can buy these days for just shy of three quid (even a pint of decent lager costs more): so why not shell out for 300+ pages of good, angry poetry?