6 Things To Remember When Dating An Artist Person

[Written in response to articles like this, this and this.]

  1. They are not normal.

It’s important to remember that artistic people are genetically different to us “normies”. They perceive the world in a fundamentally way, like people who have been in brain-damaging accidents, or dogs. If you don’t get quirky, eloquent and engaged response to questions like “what would you like for tea?”, there’s probably something wrong.

2. They need to be alone

GIVE YOUR ARTIST SOME SPACE. Leave them in a room. Lock the door to the room. Roll a slice of ham under the doorway periodically, but in a non-intrusive way. Delete their social media accounts and file a missing persons report with your local police.  This will really help them create, and they’ll love you for it.

3. They need to not be alone

Artists don’t communicate in the way we do. Don’t listen to the words that they’re saying, listen to the feelings beneath them. Artists are constantly volatile and passionate, and they always experience emotions on a more deep level than you, like Deanna Troi from Star Trek, or a dog. If they are not bringing these to the surface then something is wrong.

4. They’re meant to be unhappy

Allow your artist to throw expensive electrical goods across the room. Make sure you get laminate or tiled floors for the fortnightlyish occasions when they smear a mix of tears, acrylic paint and faeces around the place. Sobbing uncontrollably into the eviscerated cushions of your sofa is just a normal day in the office to an artist. Don’t attach medical labels to their esoteric and mystical creative process. Expect anniversary presents to include a dead fox from the garden, amateurishly taxidermized and wearing a mask of your face, or a drawing of God being sad on a stained Nando’s napkin.

5. They never, ever, EVER STOP

EVER. All artists want to do is work, and then talk about their work, and then work some more. They despise breaks and holidays because it gets them away from their job, which doesn’t really stress them out because it isn’t really a job. Make sure they’re checking their emails at 4am and giving business cards out at funerals.  Ask them about what they’re working on at the moment. If they say nothing or very little, FREAK OUT. Hit them with sticks. They are not being artisty enough. They don’t have a work life balance because their work is their life, like a Necromancer or a Superhero or a Police Dog.

6. They don’t understand grown-up stuff

All artists are massive children, so don’t expect them to comprehend basic adult tasks like scheduling events,  following rules and adding up money. After all, these are people who have voluntarily chosen a career that pays poverty wages, rather than something sensible. This is because they are intensely self-centred, and would rather draw attention to themselves than do jobs that make a social contribution, like Finance or Property Management. Allow them to move out of their extended adolescence in which they value human creativity more than the ability to gain home equity in their own time. They’ll get there. Remember that their charming child-brains are why you’ve taken them in, like a malnourished orphan chimney-sweep stranded in a snowdrift, or a dog. And with your love and support, they can blossom into a fully formed adult with a real job.

You can’t date Jack Dean, but if you come to one of his shows, download one of his albums or buy one of his books, he’ll do his darnedest to set you up with one of his most artisty artist colleagues.

What would you do with 167 billion pounds?

[Script for a pitch to three venues, who are now giving me some space and stuff to make the show, which I will do if I get enough funding in, or if I don’t I’ll probably just delete this out of shame and regret.]

You could hire the entire of Bangladesh for a year based on its gdp, of half of Malaysia, or two Azerbaijans.

You could buy about 12.5 million five-door Nissan Micra Teknas.

Or you could buy enough weaponry to turn over a million people into blackened, smouldering husks.

Dramatic tea-drinking pause 1

As it stands, none of these things have happened yet. As it stands, all are equally imaginary. They are not real.

In the brisk central european October of 2014, a band of architecture, civil engineering and urban planning students started laying down chunks of concrete and wood in the square of Karsplatz in Vienna. They called the city they made there Hypotopia, and it was planned down to the tiniest detail. They knew it had 102,574 inhabitants. They knew which buildings they lived in, even who lived on what floors. They knew where their waste was incinerated and recycled. They knew where the hospital, the schools and the cinemas were. There were no banks. And they knew the exact price tag of the city. 19 billion euros to a cent. The exact amount given from public funds to underwrite the Austrian Hypo bank’s outstanding loans since the financial crash of 2008. But of course, guarantees of liquidity to holding companies are not like regular money that you could spend on a city. They’re imaginary. They’re not real.

Dramatic tea-drinking pause 2

Nuketown is a city built not on rock and roll, but on 167 billion pounds of imaginary money, a vast quantity of lego bricks and a collective imagining. Like Hypotopia, it will be made with the help of architecture, town planning and sociology experts, but unlike Hypotopia, it will be made with help from the public who are footing the bill for the alternative, the Trident programme of ballistic nuclear submarines which is planned to be renewed this year. In the planning, writing and rehearsal of the show, people will be allowed to drop in, help dream up an ideal part of the city that they’d like to see, then help build it with us, in an activity somewhere between art therapy, group protest and a massive fuckoff game of real life minecraft. Their stories and ideas will breathe life into the project, and give the city the strange collective identity that we know each of our hometowns has. They will inform the storytelling piece I create around the city, where a set of cameras on a live feed will follow individual citizens through the streets, charting their tiny tragedies and triumphs with an original musical score as they make their way across a town powered by the husks of the old Tridents subs buried under their soil, a ghostly remnant of an alternate world that could suck them back into it at any moment.

Dramatic tea-drinking pause 3. Build to crescendo 

Much more than big money and bigger bombs, its cities that fascinate me. When the people of chalcolithic West Asia started to congregate on the Barada river in around 6300BC, in modern day Damascus, they were just looking for a place to drink clean water, worship their gods and raise some cattle and or children. They didn’t know they were becoming part of the larger symbiotic creature of the city, one that would subsume their identities, their ideas and their boundaries into one great cybernetic mass, plant them a million miles from any river or field and fill their air with dust and adverts, scrabble the flesh of mountains into ever taller shrines to strange new idols: Cathedrals in the 12th century, Castles in the 15th century, Banks in the 21st. Cities offer the gift and the curse of namelessness. They are places in which we can be anything or nothing. They are places where any individual can leave their past behind and start again.

Dramatic tea drinking pause 4. Wind down to finale.

Nucleotopia is like that, but a bit different. It is a place where a whole country can start again. It is a place where art and life meet, where we say, but what if we actually, really, genuinely did something completely different? And if it gets bigger, more visible, more complex, that question could inch closer to an answer. But this is just a pitch to a consortium of theatre venues. It is imaginary. It’s not real. It is a non-place, which is what the greek word utopia etymologically means. But imaginary things are what I deal in, and I love them, so that is all I can offer you.


Never Tell Me The Odds: Wars In The Stars And Elsewhere

Dear Farid,

I hope this finds you as well as it can. I have given you the name Farid because it is ranked at the top of the list of Syrian names at the highly rigorous peer reviewed source of e-babynames.com. I imagine the odds of this really being your name are miniscule, probably less than 0.1%.

I have just now bought what Unicef tells me will be Hats And Gloves For you and Three Other Syrian Children. This cost £12, which makes an average of £1.50 per hat or pair of gloves. I hope this doesn’t mean they’re like the shitty ones I got from Primark last week that got holes in on the first day of use and then torn to bits by the dog. In reality I know this is not how charities work. It is a neatly packaged product that allows them to make donors feel like they are doing something concrete, as well as potentially scamming their way out of buying a friend a proper christmas present, both of which were driving factors in my decision. In reality, Unicef spends 2% of its donations on administration, 24% on fundraising and lord knows how much flying about the world chucking woolen goods at people. These are the practical realities of any large scale operation, but you can’t tell that to people like me in the west. We’ll just piss it all away on the Donkey Sanctuary instead.

Because I am a UK taxpayer, my government will top up my donation by 25%. Tomorrow night, however, they are planning to pass legislation to drop bombs on your country. Yeah, it is kind of the mother of all mixed messages, I know. There is some talk that there will be a rebellion amongst enough MPs to overturn the government’s plans. I don’t know what the odds of that are. 10%? The government is confident that bombs will only hit the bad guys. They acknowledge there is a chance that they won’t, but they don’t say what that chance is. This is probably academic to you anyway, as Russian, French and American bombs are already pouring over the streets you used to play in. Ours will be a drop in the ocean.

I like to think you are safely out of Syria, and planning to come to the UK. I like to think you have relatives here, and are using all the minutes you get on the camp’s computer to find out things about our culture and history. Here’s some key pointers from me:

  • Greggs do a £1 pizza slice at lunch that isn’t as terrible as it looks.
  • The Queen owns all swans, but they’re vicious bastards anyway so stay away from them.
  • Steven Fry is a sort of secular Arch-Wizard who you treat like your uncle.
  • The weather is inadequate at all times.
  • John Lewis is a man who makes people cry at Christmas so they’ll buy his things.
  • Bond movies were good, then bad, then ok, then terrible, and are now good again.

I like to think that this hat will mark a new era of health, safety and happiness in you and your family’s life. That you’ll be handed strange-coloured ones from the bottom of the box, and you and your mates will be the Orange Hat Gang. This will bind you together and start a lifelong friendship, and when you reach the UK, you will start an acappella group together at Uni and win Britain’s Got Talent and tour the world. Your message of peace and tight-knit four part harmonies will inspire people to rebuild the cities we have destroyed, and in Palmyra Airport they’ll build four statues to you that tourists drunk off Duty Free will climb up and take wobbly selfies on.

What are the odds of this? Equal to me winning the lottery ten times, only to have each ticket vapourised by a lightning bolt? Equal to me becoming Champion of All Sports 2016? Equal to finding a single drop in the ocean?  More importantly, what are the odds I want these things to happen because I genuinely care for someone I’ve never met, versus the odds that I want my donation to be meaningful, and to have something to write about in my blog? 50/50?

I don’t know the truth, I only know the numbers, and not even many of those. I know that if you choose to cross the mediterranean there is at least a 1.6% chance you won’t survive it. I know that out of all the Syrian refugees odds of you legally gaining asylum in the UK are less than 0.5%. I know there is no place where the chance of violence following you is 0%. I know that in light of the over £600 million Unicef is looking to raise, this is a drop in the ocean.

There’s another key piece of Western culture, Star Wars Episode IV,  where the characters are sailing through a sea of jagged rocks in space. The camp tin-man, who’s a bit smug about facts, says “Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately three thousand, seven hundred twenty to one.” To which the captain replies “never tell me the odds”.

Never let them tell you the odds, Farid. You are not a drop in the ocean. You are not a lottery ticket in a lightning storm. You will make it. With or without a hat.

UNICEF website.

Petition urges University of Roehampton to cancel apperance by author of controversial show Peppa Pig

A petition to prevent known radical and divisive figure Neville Astley from giving a talk at the University of Roehampton has been launched this week. The author is one of three writers behind the polarising work of televised fiction Peppa Pig was due to give a lecture to the university’s MA in Children’s Literature students, but has drawn disapproval from some of the student body for implicit attitudes conveyed in the show.

A spokesperson of the Assault On Peppa campaign group said “Peppa Pig has an appalling track record on animal rights, condoning the placing of pigs in pink dresses and blue jumpers. It also encourages abusive terms for spiders such as ‘mr skinny legs’. We won’t tolerate the promotion this kind of body dysmorphia in the arachnid community”.

The group went on to issue a statement that “Peppa also promulgates domestic violence and aggression on an unacceptable scale. When Daddy Pig loses his glasses, he repeatedly claims that he’s not grumpy, but can we really trust him when he makes that claim?”

The petition is part of a new wave of activism known as no-platforming, where students bravely encourage values of freedom of speech and open debate by not allowing people they disagree with to say anything. Originally conceived to prevent racists and fascists from skewing debate, the tactic has been expanded to prevent dangerous mouthpieces of terrorism such as Germaine Greer, Tim Stanley and Julie Bindel. It has also been recently deployed to prevent Robin Thicke’s song Blurred Lines, which features controversial lyrics such as “what rhymes with hug me?”, from being played on campuses around the UK. When asked what this means for every other song with potentially unpopular lyrics that has ever been written or recorded in the history of music, a member of University College London’s student union replied “nyah nyah, can’t hear you, you’ve got no platform in my brain, nyah nyah nyah”, before  erecting a gigantic white soundproof booth on top of the main campus building for like-minded students to sit in, drinking rainwater from a tube and reading dishwasher manuals for the remainder of their natural lives.

Daddy Pig was unavailable for comment.

4 Tips For Aspiring Performance Writers

  1. Use a social media manager like Hootsuite to schedule updates to your pages. This is a huge timesaver and means that marketing is still getting done while you’re out of the office.
  2. Keep hold of all your receipts. You’d be suprised at the breadth of what is deductible for tax purposes.
  3. Write. Write good stuff. Write terrible stuff. Write mediocre stuff. Get furious at what you write. Roll a huge boulder up a hill and down again. Send emails that get ignored. Make calls that are put on hold. Get the small letter from the Arts Council. Contemplate murder. Roll that boulder. Have awkward conversations with family members. Have awkward conversations with artists that are more successful than you. Have awkward conversations with artists that are less successful than you. Get the big letter from the Arts Council.  Write. Miss deadlines. Miss social events. Miss your friend’s wedding in a beautiful church in the Irish countryside because you’re in the back of a karaoke bar in Edinburgh shouting at three strangers at 11:30am on weekdays for three weeks. Masturbate excessively. Cry excessively. Fall apart when people make fair constructive criticisms. Fuck up the technical cues. Lug massive bags around until your head tilts forward like Quasimodo. This will facilitate you rolling that boulder up the hill. Spend too much time around the house. Try and buy one that doesn’t have damp and broken doors. Apply for a mortgage. Get rejected. Apply again. Get rejected. Apply again. End up in a bizarre situation where an underwriter asks you why you chose to go self-employed last year. Struggle for an answer. Give up. Get another small letter from the Arts Council. Insufficient Artistic Vision. Roll a huge fucking boulder up Everest in a blizzard with no oxygen mask. Take money from your parents. Feel like a massive waste of taxpayers money / parents money / air. Spend too much time on Facebook. See friends posting pictures of their babies. Freak out about never being able to afford one. Pretend to ignore barbed comments from girlfriend’s work colleagues about “proper jobs” and “being a provider”. Take more money from your parents. Stop writing.

    Go for a walk. Get lost in the woods. Realise that things are not that bad. You are not a Syrian refugee. You do not have cancer of the oesophagus. Plan new social events. Start writing again, even if it’s only stuff about writing, which is a cop out but a start. Go to interviews. Turn up late. Park in inappropriate places. Get Penalty Notices. Learn to live with it. Resubmit. Tidy the house. Celebrate small triumphs. Plan for the future. Accept that most plans are bullshit. Get more rejections. Fuck up more technical cues. Roll a boulder up a hill. Notice that the view from the top of the hill is quite beautiful. Give your boulder a quirky name and decorate it with murals of your hometown. Learn to love your boulder. Swear loudly as it rolls down the hill again. Go get some lunch. It can wait.

  4. Mailchimp is great for newsletters. Really can’t stress that enough, guys.

Jack will be rolling his boulder into London on the 13th-15th of October. You can get tickets and info here.

Senior Labour figures warn party could risk return to 1690s

[Written in response to articles like this one, this one and this one.]

Recent alarming developments in the Labour party could see its progressive attitudes swept aside by outdated ideology, warn senior members within the group.

Right-wing candidates Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham have gained astonishing popularity within the social-democratic party, with a recent poll predicting they will gain 53% of the vote between them.

The candidates are committed to supporting Capitalism, a late 16th century system invented to allow aristocrats to protect their investments in spice shipping along the high-risk trade-routes to India and China, and underpinned by texts such as Thomas Mun’s England’s Treasure by Forraign Trade, or the Balance of our Forraign Trade is The Rule of Our Treasure. Despite its early ventures repeatedly failing, this economic mechanism spread in the following centuries through a series of violent coups, but has since been largely discredited as oppressive and totalitarian by academics. Capitalists like Kendall, Cooper and Burnham believe that unaccountable, unelected corporations should be allowed to control and distribute human and material resources in order to enrich a tiny elite, fueled by mass exploitation at the base level (of slaves in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, and of fossil fuels in the present day).

“These ideas are incredibly dangerous to what the Labour Party is about”, said Barry Scuffles, MP for Crinklesham West. “We should be talking about the work of modern economists, like Piketty, Krugman and Klein, not lurching back to some ridiculous ideology dreamed up by wig-wearing pints-o’-gin-drinking toffs who couldn’t write the letter s properly, based around imaginary debts and flogging weapons and drugs to dictatorships.”

Other MPs have warned that, if elected, one of these leaders could cause the progressive arm of the party to break away, similar to when the Country Whigs split from the Junto Whigs in the early 1690s.

Linda Hamshandy, senior adviser to Tony Benn, mirrored the language of radical Capitalist Blair’s impassioned Guardian letter today, saying “The party is walking eyes closed, arms outstretched, over the cliff’s edge to the jagged rocks below. Among the rocks are sharks, being ridden by corporatist millionaire bellends who want to rob us of our last shred of human rights and dignity. Murdoch is somewhere down there felating a giant squid. I may have overextended this metaphor. The point is, cliffs are bad.”

[If you enjoy leftieness mixed with a bit of nonsense, you’ll probably like Jack’s new show, Grandad and the Machine, touring a little bit this year and a lot in the next.]

Arts Mythbusting #2 – The Wibbly Wobbly Crazypants Artist

I do believe that you have to suffer for your art. I know I have” 

– Amy Winehouse.

People who have the misfortune of working with me will probably have experienced, amongst other outbursts of linguistic fascism, me taking excessive umbrage when the word “passion” gets mentioned. My dislike of the word, besides the fact that it has become watered down and jargonized to the extent that it is adopted by tax optimisation firms, that it has a root in the latin word passio, meaning suffering, imported to English to describe the suffering of Jesus on the Cross. Even in its modern usage, passion is often used to describe a fervor that is mixed with pain.

Suffer For Your Art. This is the command our society bestows upon its cultural professionals, and indeed a mantra we often repeat amongst ourselves. Suffering is viewed not only as a necessary and unavoidable byproduct of our craft, but desirable, as an end in itself. I was talking a few weeks ago with someone who, without a hint of humour, posited the idea that “Great Artists have to be crazy to make Great Art”.

This is widely believed, but it is an astonishing reverse engineering of facts. Yes, mental health issues are more prevalent in artists according to some studies, with some even suggesting this has a link in genetics, but the associative leap to them being a driving force for better art is at best dubious, and at worst, incredibly harmful. When coal miners get lung diseases from their work, this is not viewed as part of a special superpower that bolsters their productivity. Subjectively, the experience of most artists I have talked to confirms this. Those who, like me, have suffered from periods of mental ill health, find their productivity and quality of work tanks during this period, ie in the same way it would for every other human being in every job ever.

Why do we view an occupational hazard as a blessing for such people? Sure, art engages with mental illness as a part of the human experience, but working with something does not mean you are required to become it, or the implications for zookepers would be dramatic. Sure, the art world is full of confusion about what our code of conduct and working practice should be. Most artists, I reckon, want to be part of an ordinary peripatetic skilled workforce and be treated as such, but there’s no denying that to some, like Douglas Gordon, who this week attacked the venue his play was being staged at with an axe, the job description is probably Professional Crazy Person. But I fear the reasons behind these ideas may be more insidious than the above.

As a society we tend to seek justifications for our oppressions and our apathy towards them. Dealing with mental illness among artists as an actual problem would require confronting the socioeconomic status we have given them, and their placement within what Marx called the Lumpenproletariat, those who hang off the edge of the capitalist economy, where he romantically but damningly, groups us with – “swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, pimps, brothel keepers, porters …in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French call la bohème”. It might make us look, as others have, at that whole group, and other low-income citizens, and figure out how their health is affected on a broad scale. It might make us ask difficult questions about mental illness – what levels do we accept as normal, and if those are exceeded, what do we do about it?

But the Wibbly Wobbly Crazypants Artist shortcut lets us bypass all of this, allowing us to wrap artists at all levels of success in a shroud of myth and mystification, taking a step back and washing our hands of what happens to them. Sometimes this can just lead to awkward conversations. For Amy, it led to something a lot worse. I for one, don’t want us to suffer like Jesus on the cross to do our jobs. Didn’t he do that for me?

If you like, you can help Jack’s mental health a lot by buying his book or downloading his music. Or I guess just send him pictures of cute animals.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015



Imma Let You British: why are the English so weird about hip hop?

When I was a teenager, I rapped in a band. This, to me, was not a massive deal. In the same way that punk and indie bands had inspired my peers to pick up guitars and drumsets, the music of my childhood, from Outkast to Jurassic 5 to Rage Against The Machine to Jay-Z, made me want to pick up a mic. To some of the people I was at school with though, this event was clearly on a parallel with a meteor strike, rain of frogs or double rainbow in the reaction it warranted. I was shouted at in corridors. I was instructed to rap on the spot by people I’d never met, whose voices had a level of disbelief as if I was going around telling people I could shit fireworks and sneeze unicorns. Most unnervingly and confusingly, someone anonymously put a picture of my head on a clipart, that’s right, a clipart, of a rapper’s body, replete with giant chain and backwards baseball cap, on the common room’s notice board. There are no teacher guidelines for rapper-clipart-related abuse. I don’t really blame them for doing nothing.

This is bullying, and it happens to a lot of people. I mention it not to grind my teeth about it, but as the personal base of experience to venture an opinion about the British and hip hop culture – we don’t know how to feel about it.

Kanye West is not the first Glastonbury headliner to garner mass disapproval, as this article by the List points out, but it is telling that two of the other three it mentions (Jay-Z and Beyonce) are broadly describable as hip hop artists. I’ve not been a massive fan of Kanye since his Graduation days, but  a petition almost the size of the festivals mammoth attendance itself to prevent his booking at the festival is a significant event. What gets these people so riled up that, rather than just not go to an event with someone they don’t like in it, they will adopt it as a social justice cause? What is it about hip hop that gets people in such a huff?

Part of it, I believe, is unavoidably class snobbery. Hip hop’s support base and roots in working class culture, which have broadly transposed to the UK, makes it subject to the lazy, demonizing stereotype of the Chav, the low-income, uneducated cultureless man that the architect of Kanye’s stage-crashing incident Lee Nelson has built a flailing comedy career out of embodying. Many believe this act to be just (but somewhat late and unasked-for?) revenge for Kanye’s storming of the stage during Taylor Swift’s acceptance of a VMA award in 2009.


But, however inappropriate, the latter was done in seemingly spontaneous and passionate support of Beyonce’s zeitgeist-setting music video. But Nelson, and supporters of him and the petition, seem not to stand for anything, but merely against a culture they see not just as something outside their tastes, but as a direct affront to their cultural and social values. Stereotypes about hip hop and its fans in our country run deep, reinforced by decades of dubious media representation. Much in the way that Kazakhstan might never shake the reputation Baron Cohen’s Borat has given it amongst those who don’t really understand his irony, I have met literally hundreds of people who, when talking about hip hop, can’t restrain themselves from doing the Ali-G crossed-W-hands gesture like someone involuntarily doing crap sign language alongside their speech.

Another part of it is simply a cultural disconnection. Speaking in very simplified terms ,while the US, France, Germany and many other places experienced a chart breakthrough of hip hop artists in the “Golden Age” of the early 90s, hip hop never broke through into the mainstream in the UK to the same extent, dwarfed by the shadow of autochthonous genres like brit-pop, house and drum and bass. Though there was then, and is now, a busy underground scene, occasionally bubbling up into the limelight when a teacher battles his student or a grime MC makes the jump to commercial house, hip hop to many is simply an american genre, and thus putting a hip hop artist in the spotlight is an act of cultural imperialism against our proud musical heritage. And yet, there is great demand for the music, leading to the bizarre schism between Glastonbury’s promoters, who keep booking popular and bestselling hip hop artists, and “hardcore” Glastonbury fans who refuse to simply go an sit next to another tent for an hour.


Hip hop has been traditionally about breaking down barriers,  sampling from a million and one musical sources and styles, connecting people through shared interests that extend beyond music into dance and visual art. But in Britain it seems to often simply put up barriers, or strengthen pre-existing ones around class, culture and race. Can we not find room to tolerate each others’ musical tastes, or do we consign one of them to being, as one friend of a friend on facebook commented “shit karaoke”? Or am I imagining things?

Jack keeps a whole load of shit karaoke on his Music page, and will soon be releasing more.

On Robots and Revolutions, Part 2

“All Revolutions are impossible until they become inevitable”

– Albie Sachs

Last year almost to the day I wrote a blog for Exeter’s Ignite festival in response to a beautiful image made by Patrick Cullum for the flyer. Now I have another one of his gorgeous illustrations to talk about, and this time I’m priveleged enough that it’s for my own show.

In December last year I was planning to give up writing and making theatre. A deeply depressing spell at three-week hyper-capitalist performing arts dystopia the Edinburgh Fringe had left me doubting my credentials as a performer, despite the odd encouraging review or enthused audience member. Work had dried up, funding applications went nowhere, the John Lewis advert was looping on youtube like a penguin-laden brainvirus. I was, sometimes literally, banging my head against a brick wall.

And this week I’ve been walking past the beautiful victorian buildings around Gandy Street to the Phoenix to go and make some theatre. I mention this not as a game-changing breaking news piece with a headline like “Privileged Hetero Cisgender White Man Makes Theatre Show After Thinking He Might Not” but because for me it is a personal example of the truth in the above quote.

It holds resonance on a wider level too. The Conservative Party’s net gain of a further 0.8% of the popular vote on May 7th had people on my social media timelines acting like we’d been invaded by swelling hordes of Nazi Zombie Ferrets. But my (admittedly amateurish) grasp of history seems to suggest Albie is more bang on about the nature of progressive social change than those who think the final nail has been laid in the coffin for the improvement of humanity. This for me is most true with the English. We hold deeply conservative and deeply revolutionary tendencies in an ever-tipping balance. We thought the King was a representative of God on Earth, until we chopped his head off. We thought the slave trade was super cool fun, until we led the charge in abolishing it. We thought the Labour movement was a bunch of leftie nutbags with just one MP, until they built the NHS and changed the country forever. Orwell described these conflicting tendencies with a warming mixture of admiration and disgust in his barnstorming 1940 essay laying out a revolutionary post-war vision for England, the Lion and the Unicorn:

“It will not be doctrinaire, nor even logical. It will abolish the House of Lords, but quite probably will not abolish the Monarchy. It will leave anachronisms and loose ends everywhere, the judge in his ridiculous horsehair wig and the lion and the unicorn on the soldier’s cap-buttons

    …It will disestablish the Church, but will not persecute religion. It will retain a vague reverence for the Christian moral code, and from time to time will refer to England as ‘a Christian country’. The Catholic Church will war against it, but the Nonconformist sects and the bulk of the Anglican Church will be able to come to terms with it. It will show a power of assimilating the past which will shock foreign observers and sometimes make them doubt whether any revolution has happened.”

Impossible until inevitable. Political theorists describe this limiting of perception as the Overton Window: the general perception of what level of change is possible sits on a fixed scale that is only a fraction of what really can be done, until, like some sort of surrealist cowboy builders have come through, that window shifts, and some serious shit does down. At risk of sounding wanky, this resonates with my creative process too – a problem seems like an insurmountable obstacle until a way around it suddenly pops up like those floor lights on planes.

That’s what Pat’s picture says to me. In this England there is still great beauty and great possibility, not just in the world of pretty pictures and whimsical plays, not just in Gandy Street or in the Lake District, but in our extraordinary, infuriating, idiotic geniuses of a people. So if you are doing something difficult, if you are looking for change, if you are banging your head against a wall, keep banging away. Together, there is no way that bricky fucker is staying up.

I’m currently putting the last touches on the show that the big robot picture’s for. You can see it at the Plymouth Fringe on Friday the 29th & Saturday the 30th of May, at the Bike Shed Theatre between Tuesday the 16th and Saturday the 20th of June, and lots of other places TBC.

Arts Mythbusting #1: The Happy Freelancer

Once upon a time there were some knights who lived in a regular sort of kingdom, with a castle and a moat and a few anarchist peasants. The knights all swore fealty to their king, coining the useful synecdoche of pledging their “lance” to describe a contract in which they would go out and do various knightly errands (dragon-slaying, windmill-tilting, moving in an L-shape in chess situations) for their king and their king alone, for approximately 37.5 hours a week excluding statutory Holy Days and Pilgrimage Leave.

But one of these knights was an enterprising lad. He figured he could do a lot better for himself if he went out in the world and sold his errand skills to any old king that was about the place. This meant that, even though he would lose the feudal protection of his original king, he stood to gain great treasure, great glory, and above all, the precious gift of personal freedom as the reward for this risk. And so he set off, knapsack dangling off the back of his lance, a lance that was now free.

I’m a bigger fan of fairytales than most, but as true as this story may be for some fields of work, I’m deeply skeptical about what it means for the people in mine. ConDem figures regarding rises in employment have been attacked by commentators for including precarious casual and self-employed labour. And there is almost nowhere that has seen a greater rise in self-employment than the arts.

Today I came across Susan Jones’ Guardian article trying to offer a balanced view of freelancing in the art world. The standout sentence for me is clear:

in my field, the publicly-funded visual arts – in which self-employment stands at around 50% – it’s more worrying to find that the salaries of arts employees increased during the recession, while freelance fee rates went down.

That can’t be right, can it? In the subsidized sector we’re all big friendly lefty hippies, chowing down over flatbreads together to plan our next collaborative project, right? There wouldn’t be a structural inequity between  artists and institutions would there?

This may be stating the blindingly obvious, but as someone who has worked a fair bit as both, I can say with some authority that there is one, and it is massive. Speaking only of the performing arts that I specialise in, since the slow death of repertory theatre, the work of artists has increasingly become outsourced to freelancers. According to the fairytale, this should deliver a lot of freedom and opportunity to these artists in exchange for a the loss of a little security. In reality the loss is massive and the gains tiny. Theatre makers exist on the ultimate zero-hour contracts, often being asked to work for no guaranteed payment, as Bryony Kimming’s famously lambasts in her rant-blog, or in the case of the Brighton and Edinburgh Fringe festivals amongst others, being charged to perform. As a rule, in neither of these deals are the venue managers or programmers staking their own salary in the way they are asking artists to do. The ethics of this are so poor even senior figures are in doubt about them. I’ve spoken to multiple programmers who were moved by Bryony’s blog, but haven’t changed their financial deals to artists. Which is only to be expected, to an extent – organisations are always going to prioritise their own bottom line and core staff both in times of fat and lean if there’s no pressure to do otherwise. As Lyn Gardner writes, the funding bodies tend to be pretty toothless when this happens, which is extra galling when big theatre buildings are given the kind of bailouts a human being never would.

This debate is complex and nuanced. There are laws of supply and demand in play, and the work of an artist will never mirror a regular desk job, nor should it. In essence, though, it seems that the mass casualisation of labour in the arts has shifted power away from frontline workers (artists) and towards management (administrators), and where power is unbalanced it is inevitably abused, even by the most well-meaning and compassionate people. Thus even moderately successful freelancers go without pensions, maternity and paternity pay, unemployment benefits and even on occasion the minimum wage, as the gaping legal loopholes around freelancing are exploited by organisations fraught with funding cuts and declining audiences. Not only is this unethical in a way that would provoke mass outrage if it happened in a different sector, but  economically those same laws of supply and demand mean that a unpaid, unprotected workforce will ultimately drive out the skilled, the smart and the unprivileged, lowering the quality of the art made and sending demand spiraling down through the law of diminishing returns. A system that creates these conditions cannot possibly make an ingenuous case for public support.

There are no real villains in this story, no dragons we can slay to save the kingdom. There is only a broken system, that to fix will require collective bravery, radical thought and a completely new way of working. Furthermore, I think we need to shake off the fairytale of the happy knight, and acknowledge that without freedom from destitution, no-one’s lance is really free.