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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.

pastedGraphic.pdf

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.

pastedGraphic_1.pdf

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.

On Robots and Revolutions, Part 1

Machines. We make them, we use them, we occasionally Rage Against them. They can help the sick and elderly  or drop a bomb in your chimney. All in all, they’re a mixed bunch.

My producer has told me to do a blog about the new show I’m making. Part of this process involves me coming up with an “elevator pitch”. This means the thing that you would say about your new project to some dreadfully important person who could change your career forever if you had them cornered in an elevator for thirty seconds. I’m guessing said important people take the stairs now. This is also thing I have to whip out when people ask me “what’s the show about?”.

I always struggle with these, because I tend to let a whole seraphic host of ideas bounce around in my head before throwing a trawler net over them and dragging them flapping and hosannah-ing into a few pages of writing. But here’s my shortlist.

  1. It’s about a man struggling to be a good father to a bright but quarrelsome girl.
  1. It’s about said girl struggling to understand a world of rules, restrictions and lost possibilities.
  1. It’s an epic steampunk fairtytale for grownups that will totally rock your socks off until the auditorium is just one big sock receptacle and the theatre staff look at me like “really, Jack, THIS AGAIN?”.
  1. It’s about machines. The little ones, like radios and bicycle wheels, the big ones, like battleships and factories, and the social and economic machine, the one we have created to bring us freedom and prosperity, but, like Frankenstein’s Monster, has turned on its makers to destroy their habitats and their happiness. I would call this machine Capitalism, as uncomfortable as that makes people at dinner parties who were just trying to ask what I’ve been up to.
  1. It’s about me. Isn’t everything writers write? It’s about my struggle to grow up and fit in with contemporary British society, and my obsession with fantasising about different worlds, molded by a bombardment of video games and sci-fi movies in my youth and hardened in the fires of global change.
  1. It’s Disney Pixar’s Up, but with robots and swearing.
  1. It’s about England. A country that for many is a proxy for far-right views, for others a source of post-imperial guilt and shame. For me, it is a story that we tell ourselves, one with elements of no small subtlety and frail beauty buried within it, a story we can use, if we choose, to arm ourselves against oppression and division rather than to perpetuate it.

One of those? Maybe? Or a mix of some or all of them? Basically, you should go see it.  There. Marketing absolutely NAILED. I’m off to the pub.

Grandad And The Machine is in development over April and May, before launching at venues across the UK. You can see performance dates here.

We Need To Turn Left On Copyright

[Pictured, Petey the Don’t Sue People Panda from  the TV show South Park]

Copyright has a strange and twisted history. In Britain it has its roots in the 1710 Statute of Queen Anne, set up to bust the monopoly of the Stationers’ Company, which had almost exclusive control of who got to publish what, like if Penguin Books was actually run by the Penguin from Batman. The law handed some publishing rights and legal protections back to individual authors, with the goal to encourage “learned men to compose and write useful books“.

So, three centuries passed, during which I am told some shit went down, and now a dead man has sued a washed-up R&B star over some drum sounds.

Wherever you stand on the controversy about Blurred Lines’ lyrics and video, in my opinion it is a great discredit to Pharrell, the composer who had nothing to do with either, a man who survived cancer while crafting some of the defining songs of our era and wearing some of its dopest hats,  to accuse him of “ripping off” Gaye with the beat.

As a huge fan of Marvin, and of the alleged subject of ripoffery Got To Give It Up in particular, I would hate to see someone trading on his musical legacy without proper acknowledgement. But this isn’t the case here, as, as the article linked above states “they’re pretty openly spoken about being inspired by Gaye on that track.”

An important distinction should be made between sampling the actual Gaye record, which they didn’t do, and creating something taking inspiration from it, which they did. This is where the bizarre legal process of copyright law (the American strand in particular) kicks in. Surely they used some kind of mechanical or objective measure to measure the sameyness of the two songs right? Nope: the verdict was decided entirely by the opinions of a panel of “musicologists”.

Any other trial where no hard evidence could be brought against a suspect would be thrown out of court, but in Copyrightland you can win a whole case without it. The point isn’t that their opinions aren’t informed, which I am in no place to dispute. The point is that they’re just opinions. And I don’t know if you’ve met people in the 21st century at all, but their opinions on music aren’t aways unanimous. Applied to the world of law, this leads to bizarre inconsistencies. For example, had they openly made a parody song in the “Wierd” Al Yankovic vein, there’s a good chance they would’ve been protected under fair use. More shockingly, when struggling (and alive) songwriter Rebecca Francescatti sued Lady Gaga for apparently quite blatant use of her music without permission, a similar group of opining experts ruled in favour of meat-dress-lady, who is now launching a counterattack to reclaim 1.4 million dollars in legal costs. When copyright goes unenforced, such as with the legendary drum break in “Amen Brother” by the Winstons that forms the backbone of Jungle music, opportunistically litigious music makers can leap in and try to copyright it for themselves in a tedious version of Finders Keepers.

Can we see a pattern here of who might be winning in all these situations? Yep, lawyers. I don’t blame them: they’re no more going to fail to exploit shaky, byzantine and morally dubious laws than my dog is going to cruise past a 16oz ribeye on the kitchen floor.

To find a solution to this, we need to ask big and difficult questions about intellectual property, and indeed private property in general. From a left-wing perspective, does an artist’s family have the exclusive right to earnings from their work? Gaye was no Russian Oligarch, but doesn’t this lead to the further cementing of privelege much like the inheritance of any substantial unit of wealth? And surely even from a capitalist perspective, doesn’t this hoarding of Intellectual Property constitute a tax on innovation and creativity that is the lifeblood of free trade?  Furthermore, where do we draw the line? Should we dig up the skeletons of Bach and Vivaldi and make them duke it out over the former’s borrowing of melodies from the latter in his Concerto for Four Keyboards?

Queen Anne could not have envisioned a world so overwhelmingly saturated with cultural content, from Catcher In The Rye to Gay Knights and Horny Heroes. Samples, remixes and covers shift about at a mesmerising rate. I once met a girl who thought Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” was written by Michael Buble. It was harrowing, but not suprising in the modern age.

If we are to build a society based on sharing instead of greed, then I would hope the world of art, which brings great joy and unity and mostly now costs nothing to reproduce, should be the place we can start. Lots of people are already operating in this way, such as those using Lawrence Lessig’s brilliant Creative Commons scheme. I’m not qualified to speculate too much on the values of a dead soul legend, but I don’t believe that, if he came back to life and re-recorded What’s Going On, he would follow the lyric “only love can conquer hate” with “except for that hat guy who made that Happy song, fuck him”.

Music is the universal language, and the answer to who really owns an artistic idea is off dancing somewhere with some angels on the head of a pin. I’m very conscious of how many musicians from Gaye’s era were exploited, but from an artist’s point of view, if not an estate or a record label’s, the short-term gain of a cash injection from a pop star is not worth it for a world where ideas can’t be freely exchanged. A world where “learned men” can “compose useful books” without litigation skulking over their shoulder. A world where, as Kyle from South Park says in the “Free Hat” episode:

“When an artist creates, whatever they create belongs to society.”

For a whole raft of uncleared samples and degenerate musical theft, check out my bandcamp.