When I was growing up, I lied about where I was from

Here’s a secret about me I’m not exactly proud of: when I was growing up I lied about where I was from.

I was born in Rotherham.  A town which everyone knew was a shithole. A joke.

Rotherham wasn’t always that way.  It was a town with pride and beauty that had it’s heart ripped out by the real life implications of a political ideology; Thatcherism.

Rotherham is a town that never recovered.

I rang my mum last night  and mentioned Thatcher’s funeral in passing.  I was surprised at how emotional she got.  My mum’s pretty chilled now, but this was bordering on a rant.  Like the shakes in Glenda Jackson’s voice as she addressed the house in her tribute, you could feel the depths of that emotion, still raw after all these years.

‘It brought it all back’ she said.

‘They’re saying that everyone loved her.  Well everyone didn’t bloody love her’.

My. Mum.  Never. Swears.

I was born in 1981.  I was too young to have a clue about who Thatcher was and why she wanted to  close the steel works and the pits.  Why she wanted to destroy the Unions. What that meant to my family and my community.

‘Do you remember when your dad worked in Templebrough, before it got shut down and they turned it into Magna?’

‘No’

‘Do you remember getting stuck for hours on that bus because the strikers were fighting with the police?’

‘No’.

I don’t remember shit. And partly I was protected from it.

But it was there.  Floating about in the atmosphere between more pressing concerns such as trying to convince my mum to buy me one of those Girls World heads so I could be like the rest of the kids on the estate or crying my eyes out because my cousin told me that if you ate the pith from an orange you’d get cancer and die.

It was there.  Round the dinner table.  Pervading my consciousness.

Strikes and Unions and mass unemployment and  all the shops shutting and the dole and my dad suddenly being around a lot (which was great, but not great because there was no money for Christmas presents or anything else really and my parents were arguing a lot) and scabs and pickets and my cousin getting beaten up at the Poll Tax Riots and Hillsbrough, fucking Hillsbrough and Thatcher as the villain and the butt of every joke

But really, these aren’t my memories.  They are my mum’s and dad’s.

A while ago I asked my mum about the strikes and she said ‘No one talks about it anymore.  We don’t want to talk about it.  Because that’s when we lost’

What happened to Rotherham and Wakefield and Doncaster and Sunderland and the pit villages of Wales was trauma.  Something important and precious was taken from us and destroyed and entire populations were decimated and lost their pride and their purpose.  And they fought hard to keep it, fought fucking hard, long after everyone thought we’d give up, and eventually we lost anyway.  And in some ways we never recovered.  These became the towns where daughters would lie about when people asked them where they were from.

When you go through trauma you have to find somewhere you can put it.  So you can go on living day to day, without constantly being hurt by it.  You have to get on with the job of living.

I get that.
But now our recent past is being re-written and Thatcher is being painted as a great moderniser, who didn’t really cause much harm, aside from putting a few Lefties noses out of joint, and par for the course right? And these stories of pain and the destruction of lives of people like my mum and dad, from towns like Rotherham; who no one ever really gave a shit about anyway are being purposefully silenced.

And as a child who grew up amidst all that and who came out the other side, I’m damned if I’m going to let that happen.

Because history is being re-written.

Right now.

You can see it.

Right now….

It’s time to start talking.

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I’m telling you stories. Trust me.

The title is from Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion

I’ve been thinking a lot about Winterson, because I just read Why Be Happy When you Could be Normal, which is her autobiography, of sorts. It’s an amazing triumph of a book. The kind of book you finish reading and know that things will never quite be the same again.

Winterson writes a lot about stories, and truth and the imagination. The power of these things. The importance of these these things.

One of my best friends doesn’t really read fiction, because (and I’m clumsily paraphrasing here) in general it lacks the power of writing which comes from lived experience. I think this attitude is pretty common, I’ve also heard fiction described as ‘lies’ and wherever you live I’ll place money on the biography section of your book shop or library being be one of the most popular.

Those of you who ran into me on Friday will know that I was in a play*. Not acting in it, because as far as I’m aware hell hasn’t yet frozen over, but in it, in the background as a character, with one of the experiences from my life being recounted on stage. I was there, there were other characters who I know IN REAL LIFE (Chris Howson
and Emma Adams and Jane Earnshaw) and this made me think about how, if I was standing on stage the story you would have received would have been different. Not because Hannah was lying. Just because of my different perspective and experience and the fact that the place where I was standing was just a couple of feet along from her. The story you encountered would also have varied dependent on your own perspective and experience as a viewer. This is not a world shattering revelation, but for me it was a powerful reminder.

It got me thinking about personal stories, the (im)possibility of objective truth. And then from there the collapse of ‘grand narratives’; the belief systems which seek to find a ‘singular explicable truth about reality’; party politics, religion, economics.

I studied English at degree level. As a 18/19 year old undergraduate literary theory blew my mind. Post structuralism blew my mind. With Derrida, Kristeva, Lecan and Foucault the stability of language was overturned, the binaries of gender were obliterated, the author was dead and so was the canon, the grand narratives of capitalism and communism and knowledge and rationality were being questioned and burnt and fuck, wasn’t that liberating?

An essential, stable value system or knowable static reality
was impossible. The authorities of church and state and law and morality being hacked away at. History is nothing but the story of the victor. But. I read post structuralist theory alongside Primo Levi, also one of my favourite authors, and the problems with this theoretical approach quickly became apparent. Levi was a Holocaust survivor. In the Periodic Table he writes, so, so eloquently, about the need to testify. About the extreme lengths the Nazis went to to disguise their guilt, to escape the judgement of history. Objectivity may be problematic, in post-structuralist terms it is perhaps impossible. But how do you deny the truth of a corpse? Doesn’t this flight from objectivity play into the hands of the guilty? Holocaust denial is a criminal offense. The truth of this history is inscribed by law. It is a story beyond question.

I’ve been to conferences and seminars where academics and professionals bemoan the inability of the general public to ‘read’ news anymore. What they mean by this, is that many people lack the education or the ability to recognise the biases of a text. So media and news are consumed as objective truth.

This, as far as I’m concerned, is bullshit. From the conversations I have with my extended family, who actually read the dreaded red tops, newspapers are now read like fiction. I asked the seven year olds I read with if they thought everything that was written in the newspapers was true and they laughed.

The problem is not that people believe everything, it’s more that no one believes anything anymore.

And who can blame them? Things are coming apart at a rapid rate at the moment. It feels like we’re going into freefall.

Politicians lie. They have, probably, always lied. But has the public confidence ever been so low? Have voter turn outs ever been so low? The general opinion is that they are all useless and on the take; expenses, backhanders, corruption.

Newspapers lie; we learnt this with Leveson. The BBC lies, we learnt this with Saville. What happened at Hillsborough showed the police lie (but again, for many people this wasn’t revelatory), the abuse scandals within the church show they lie, prolifically too. I think of Jenny Holzer; ‘The abuse of power comes as no surprise’.

When you look at what’s left to believe in, you’re not left with much. And there don’t seem to be any alternative ‘grand narratives’ coming along to fill the gap. We’re (at least not yet) discarding capitalism and jumping over to communism. Because that’s been discredited too, right? Another grand narrative, right?

From a post-structuralist perspective this should be liberating. But it doesn’t feel that way right now, not to me. Because what this country is left with isn’t hedonism, or anarchy or a glorious overturn of the status quo. It’s the coalition government. And they are using our cynicism and dis-engagement to destroy our health, education, welfare structures. This is a government without imagination. They don’t have policies so much as wrecking balls. They don’t seem to actually believe in anything.

Aneurin Bevan helped found the NHS as our country came out of World War II. Our national debt was proportionately higher than it was now. It was a project that was beyond ambitious. It was a product of a nation which believed in something. That believed that a better, fairer world was possible.

I’ve said it before, but I think it’s important, so I’ll risk repeating myself; it’s easy to point out what’s wrong with this world. And whilst it is important to do that, it is definitely important to do that, thinking about alternatives, what world we actually want, is as important, if not more so. And artists and writers and theorists should be out there stoking those flames, as much as politicians. I looked at the questions on Andy Abbott’s project about Erewyrehve and I was shocked at how hard I found it. I just wasn’t used to thinking about how I’d actually like my reality to be. It’s like I hadn’t even let myself go to that place. And that’s a problem.

The state of the UK right now is pretty heartbreaking, it really is. And where things are at globally is as depressing.

Right now we need to give people something they can actually believe in. Something beyond this. Stories of something better than this.

* A Conversation with My Father by Hannah Nicklin

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live through this…

‘The motor screams, I’m stuck in second gear’

I always swore I’d talk about this stuff.  Like it’s my duty.  To show people who go through it that they aren’t alone.  To try and explain to those who haven’t.  But god it’s hard.   Owning this shit is hard.  And stamp out stigma might be a good slogan, but what that means in reality is difficult.  And it never seems to get easy.  I need to own the bad shit, because looking stuff in the face and feeling it, really feeling it, is part of letting it go and moving on.

I got quite ill at the tail end of last year.  And it’s only now when I’m out of that place, that I can see how bad it got.  I’ve been treated for depression on and off since I was about 13, but the ferocity of what happened in this period scares me.  I still think if it was a physical illness the way I’d respond to it would be different.  Kinder.  I’m trying to be kind.

There were external triggers, but my reaction to those events was out of proportion.  Things crept up gradually until they were on top of me.  All of a sudden I looked up and realised I’d fallen down the rabbit hole again.

I stopped sleeping.  Which for me in mental health terms might as well be a massive fucking klaxon.  A massive fucking klaxon I covered my ears and ignored.  Not being able to sleep indicates mental distress.  It’s often the first sign.  Your thoughts are racing and you can’t turn them off.  Lowered serotoin levels linked to depression also fucks with your sleep cycle so you can’t stay asleep for long periods of time.  But insomnia also *causes* depression.  It exhausts you. It wears out your defences, it makes everything feel more shit than it really is.

My mood plummeted.  I struggled to get myself out of bed, which for someone who prides themselves on getting shit done hurt like hell.  I worried constantly, overwhelmingly.  I had panic attacks frequently.  I woke up in the middle of the night gasping for breath.  I went to work because I had to, but I wasn’t really there.  I couldn’t speak to people.  I felt like I was trapped under water and the world was far away.  I could see it, but not really participate.

I cried every day, and as time went on the proportion of my day I would spend crying increased.  Then I started crying at work.  It was like I was trying to hold back a tidal wave of sadness and pain, but I was no longer strong enough.  I didn’t know where that hurt even came from.  Just that it was overwhelming me.  Other than work I didn’t really go out that much.  I went from being someone who loves adventures, learning new things and meeting new people, to being someone whose primary concern was making sure things were safe. I was expending all my energy on keeping going.  I thought about harming myself.  And that scared the shit out of me.

I felt trapped.  Like I needed to make  massive changes in my life but I just didn’t have the resources within myself to do it.  This ended up feeding back into this loop of

-> things need to change -> you’re not changing them -> you’re shit -> everything is terrible -> things need to change ->

I’m a writer but I couldn’t write.  This was another thing I could add to the pile of things I was fucking up, that I could beat myself up about.  I felt like I was failing everything and everyone.  I thought a lot  about my friend Jaamit, who died a couple of years ago.  thought about how life is short and precious, about how little time I had.  This made me panic too.  I backed myself into a corner and the more I beat myself up about not doing anything, not living the life I wanted, the less I could do.  I was a rabbit  caught in the head lights.

In a very real sense I had stopped being able to cope.

Depression shrinks down your life.  You feel vulnerable, massively so.  So you stick to the people you know 100% love you, 100% have your back.  The people you can ring at 3am when everything has turned to shit and you just need to hear someone’s voice.  I write this because I don’t want the people I’m closest to to think they’ve failed me; my best friends, my boyfriend at the time, my parents.  I need them to know that even though I couldn’t speak to them about everything, how much their support mattered.

It felt like it would always be this way.  Like it would never, ever stop.  But it did, gradually, in fits and starts.

I took little steps, because that’s all I could manage.  Kept clunking them down into the jar, until they properly started adding up into something big.

I meditated.  i went to see the best counsellor I’ve ever had.  I went to the gym, a lot.  I took omega three oils the size of horse pills.  I did something tiny I wanted to do, that scared the shit out of me every single day.   I (reluctantly as hell) went back on a tiny dose of SSRI’s. I did my CBT exercises.  I confronted my ‘the worst that could happen’ fears, looked them in the face until they stopped scaring me.  I asked for help.  i did something for someone else – I helped kids learn to read.  I practised gratitude and refocused on the positive stuff.  I gave myself a fucking break.

And I kept going with all that, even at the times it didn’t seem to be making the damnedest bit of difference.

I look at this stuff now and it’s like a chapter from someone else’s life.  When I’m on form I know there’s not many people who can touch me.

I dress up and feel beautiful, I create and debate and laugh.  I dance.  I stand on the top of high ledges and scream, scream with the pure exuberant pleasure of it, the sheer exuberant pleasure of being alive.  Despite all the stress I love my job and am fucking good at what I do.  I have in my life some of the best  human beings on the planet.  And as much as I love them, they seem to love me back.  And that never gets old.

Despite all of what happened I am a strong person.

But then I realise that even that’s wrong.  That even that needs turning on it’s head. That I am not strong in spite of the fact that this happened, that I went through this and came out the other side.  I am not strong in spite of the fact that I have to live with the very real knowledge that this could happen to me again.

I am not strong in spite of it.

I’m strong because of it.

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‘My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit’

The title is taken directly from Flavia Dzodan’s ace piece by the same title for Tiger Beatdown

It’s long, but totally worth a read.

There’s been a lot of talk about intersectional feminism lately.

First a point, a wake up call: here’s a thing: most people don’t know what ‘intersectional feminism’ even means. We’re talking what 1%, 2% of the population? It’s part of the academic language I spent years learning, then tried desperately to unlearn as I realised it was a barrier to speaking to the people I actually wanted to talk with.  As a concept it’s totally bang on though.  Intersectional feminism is the simple, common sense idea that all women aren’t the same.  That the shit we get for being women is added to and changed by other shit (or prejudice if we’re not feeling so sweary) we experience in our lives.  Flavia refers to ‘the shit sandwich’ (seriously go and read this article).  So some of us experience racism, homophobia, crap for being poor, abelism, transphobia etc and that interacts (or ‘intersects’, hence the name) with sexism.  It’s a *really*, *really* important concept.

Because most of the women I know who have got hacked off with feminism and have walked away, have done so for this reason: that many of the women who have the mike in the movement have either ignored their experience, or directly insulted and offended them. Because they do not realise that their experience of womenhood is not the experience of all women.   And this is why intersectional feminism matters.

And right now there’s a mini-storm brewing: with folks like Caitlin Moran, Suzanne Moore and Vagenda magazine being called out on some pretty stupid mistakes and then branding the concept of intersectional feminism as divisive.

And yes, it looks like infighting.  Maybe it is.  Maybe feminism will eat itself.

Image

(This image is taken from something Ariel Silvera posted on Twitter, of her friend’s wall.  I haven’t asked permission for it, but I loved it so much)

But at the end of the day, women who fall outside of the white middle class norm  have been told for too long to shut up and ignore prejudice experienced from other women, simply because they are fighting for the feminist cause.

And that is simply not good enough.  Feminism is important, but not that important. Or maybe, the only way feminism can succeed is if it’s intersectional. And I’ll tell you something: owning your own privilege is hard.  I’m certainly not there, not even close, but it is a journey and one I know I need to make.

To be a better feminist.

Or maybe just a better person.

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Words I wrote for speaking

This blog feels a bit neglected lately.  I’ve been getting out and about doing other writing for other places which I hope to collect up here.  But I still love this place and it still warms my heart to get a steady stream of visitors despite me essentially blowing up my primary method of promoting (my Twitter account).  One day I’ll tell you that story.  Anyway this is one of the things I did – a fierce as hell piece which is the first thing I’ve ever written with the idea in my head that I’d read it out.  It scared me when I wrote it, but it scared me a lot more when I read it.  Anyway I freaking did it man, I got up and read something I’d written out loud to other people.  Me.   I did that thing.  And I’m going to write about that too because trust me *that* was a mind blowing/scary/powerful experience.

——–

So my best friend just moved into a house down the road from the place where you lived in with your parents – that house I trekked to every other weekend for four, maybe five years.  And it was a treck; bus, train, bus, just to make it. Walking past I got that feeling that you get when you see a familiar friend you no longer have anything to say to but know you have unfinished business with.  So you stop and stare, but you don’t say anything.

I remembered the address too because for years I wrote it out on envelopes twice a week.  We wrote to each other compulsively in the time before the internet, you sent me mix tapes full of American grunge bands I’d never heard of then; Sebadoh and Dinosaur Junior and Sonic Youth.  You were four years older than me, which made my parents scared and gave me some fleeting status.

In the end though you won my folks round, in fact to date you’re the only boy I’ve gone out with that they’ve ever really liked.  Because they got you. And even though you wore eyeliner and carried round that annotated copy of Street Car Named Desire, your mum worked in Sainsburys and your dad was a bus driver.   You had an accent and some rough as fuck friends.  You didn’t want the life which was being painted out for you, but at the same time you could see it speeding towards you and you didn’t know how to escape it.   You were, basically, a male version of me.

You wrote poetry, you were drowning in sheets of it.  Scrawled in the back of books, in letters, it was flowing out of you.  You were the one who taught me to carry notebooks with me, always.  And in so many ways you were so much better at it than me.

But worse at school.  Because I was a girl and I was taught to be conscientious.   I could learn by rote and was willing to cram every mindless fact into my brain, even temporarily, so that it all just swilled round in my skull, only to fall out after the exam when someone pulled out the plug.   I could do that if that was what needed to be done.  But you would fuck off and smoke weed with your mates round the back of that recording studio in Darnell.  Because you tried studying and it didn’t work out, the dice were already stacked so what was the fucking point?

We drifted as I went further into studying, hanging out with new friends that you had nothing in common with.  Until one day you sat me down and told me this dream you had about getting married, getting a flat and having a baby with me and I just freaked out.

Because I was running from that and I’d run from you if I needed to.

And I did.  We split up. I was busy trying to become someone else.  Trying to fit in and prove myself and leave every trace of the person I used to be behind.

I would fail.  And I knew I’d fail when I got that letter from you, delivered to my halls of residence in that writing I recognised so well it was like some sort of relic from a bygone era.  That letter where you asked how I was and told me you were stuck working in a factory now and how you barely ever even wrote these days.    And that you sometimes went into town but it was full of pretentious privileged students, who were all pretending to be so clever when really they didn’t know shit.  And that even the ones you met who you thought were nice turned out to be cunts who looked down on you and thought they were better than you.
In fact you said it; wrote it out there in that letter which I read, sat alone on my bed as I was about to embark upon my second year of University.

All students are cunts.

And no I never wrote back and yeah it kinda hurt.  Right there and then in that particular moment it kinda hurt.  But there was also always that part of me that got it, and that no matter what  happened, where I went, or what I did to pretend it wasn’t there, that part of me would never stop getting it.  And that was the part of me that would always belong more to you, than it ever did to them.

The part of me they couldn’t even see, let alone touch.

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Alliances, arrests and changing perceptions – Interview with Chris Howson for HowDo (unedited)

This is the interview I did with Chris for the ace HowDo magazine for May.  I’m blogging it here in its original longer form, because I have a tendency not to stick to my word counts and then have to edit ruthlessly…. This interview happened before either of us knew Chris was leaving for new Sunderland shaped adventures – and I’m sending so much good luck for yr new chapter!

Chris Howson is City Centre priest for Bradford, faith advisor to the University, political activist, Bradford advocate, author of a Just Church, father and husband.

Whilst I was waiting to chat with him I snooped around the book collection in Desmond Tutu house: black theology, feminism, anarchist theology:  I was reminded that nothing about this place was typical

How long have you been in the city?

I’ve been in Bradford since 1989 I came to study social work I worked as a social worker before training to be a priest.  From the moment I walked into Bradford I fell in love with it, I fell in love with the people, the architecture, the sense of culture, it was just a wonderful city.

What does your role as City Centre priest involve?

My role in Bradford has been to develop, firstly worship space for people who wouldn’t traditionally go to church, particularly younger people.  We’ve set up soul space which meets at the German church and Just Space which is a space for people to get passionately involved in peace and social Justice issues.

Desmond Tutu house is a unique experiment in the Aglican Church it provides space for community groups and activists that are trying to improve the world and society.  Lots of organisations meet in this space as well as having the non-violence centre, cafe and the head quarters of the regional campaign for nuclear disarmament.  Ultimately I hope that this place will always be a base or a spring board for young people being passionate about the world around them.  I hope it’s a place where people can feel empowered.

The other side of my job is to look at the City Centre and look at ways it can either be improved or the ways the church can support initiatives and for that, historically has been getting involved in campaigns, working with the refugee and asylum seeking communities through projects like City of Sanctuary, setting up things like Bradford Street Angels.

Can you tell me a bit more about how that started?

Bradford Street Angels came about because the perception was that Bradford was a very unsafe place to be on a Friday and a Saturday night, and though from the statistics we knew that that wasn’t the case we were trying to reassure members of the public and encourage them to use the city centre. We’re present on the streets and if we find vulnerable people, we make sure they’ve got a safe passage.  But mostly what we do is smile at people, encourage people to have a good night out.   It also came about because I was told it couldn’t happen, that not enough people cared about Bradford for it to work and I knew that that wasn’t the case, Bradford people are very proud and very practical.  The project’s still running five years on.  It’s had a marked impact on the city centre, the crime statistics prove that.  I just like projects that change perceptions of our city.

What I’ve picked up from you is that you don’t see religion and politics as being divorced, for you they run into each other in some ways? 

No they’re both completely intertwined.  Hopefully most politicians want to make the world a better place and my hope is that most people involved in spirituality want to make the world a better place.  How those two worlds meet together creatively and optimistically is what I’m interested in.  Our relationships with the world as theologians should be about making the world a better place and recognising the issues for poor people, recognising that most of the world is still struggling with poverty and that if the church isn’t involved in liberating people from poverty then it’s not doing its job properly.

What’s your take on direct action?

I think when governments don’t listen we have to put  our bodies in the way of evil policies, so I’ve been arrested six times over the last ten years, mostly against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or against the madness of spending so much money on nuclear weaponry.  I think people of faith, or anyone, need to stand up when governments don’t listen.

Do you ever find yourself in conflict with Marxists or extreme political groups? That they don’t want anything to do with you because you represent organised religion?

Yes but it’ll always be their loss.  Because if we are actually going to change the way this government organises itself and change the way society is run then you have to build as many alliances and allegiances as you can and not want to put everyone down.

One of the things I noticed about Soul Space with the German Church was that you had the big rainbow banner.  My impression is that it’s been very important that it’s overtly inclusive of LGBT Christians.  Why was that important to you?

Because Jesus is very inclusive and therefore the church should be very inclusive; I think particularly in a time when the church is seen as quite bigoted and homophobic it’s really important for those of us who are standing for inclusivity to be counted so our church is a safehaven for LGBT Christians, they are welcomed and encouraged and in turn they give huge amounts back to the church.  It’s a real privilege to work with that community. I look forward to being able to conduct gay marriages in churches in my lifetime.

If someone had a day in Bradford what would you tell them to do and why?
A walk round the Victorian heritage of the city is always lovely, go to Little Germany.  I like the Social History that’s here, like with Lister Mills and the strike in 1890 which lead to the formation of the independent Labour party. Or Hanover Square, go see the house where Margaret McMillan the feminist socialist lived who set up the first school meals in the country.

She’s not someone I’ve heard of, but I clearly should have!   Do you think this history informs the City now, or do you think we’ve lost it?

I think that stories are important and I like to retell those stories to help people hang on to those things that are important.  It’s the stories of our past that make Bradford quite special.

What challenges do you think the city faces?

The cuts to public spending mean that Bradford is going to struggle economically over the next couple of years.  It’s a poor city but I think it’s got some really strong optimistic bits.  One is there are a lot of people very proud of the city, who want to recognise that the diversity of the culture here is our strength.  And particularly the Pakistani community born in Bradford are invested heavily in the city.  People are proud of the city, they are very keen to defend it.

If you could wave a magic wand how would you have Bradford change?
Properties which have been empty for over five years would be converted using state money to housing co-operatives.  A place where people could not just live, but live together in solidarity.  There’s enough accommodation around Bradford to share but lots of empty and wasted buildings.

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‘It’s everything the arts should be but almost always isn’t’* We Are Poets at Bradford Film Festival

I think that practically everyone who went to see We Are Poets came out of the film and wrote a response.  This is a both testament to the power of the documentary and a nice example of bloggers helping to spread the word for an important indie film without  a massive advertising budget.  But in terms of a film review it’s difficult to add anything that new, so this has ended up branching out into a wider consideration of the spoken word scene generally and the wider context of arts funding decisions.

We Are Poets tells the story of Leeds Young Authors and six teenage poets from Chapeltown Leeds who represent the UK at the Brave New Voices slam in Washington DC.  From the opening sequence with its sucker punch poetry and slow pan of the streets of inner city Leeds, to the closing credits which tell the impressive stories of where these members of Leeds Young Authors are now: this film speaks of the true transformative power of art.  The power that makes a young girl from a council estate in Chapeltown go out and get ‘poet’ tattooed on her wrist.  It is as much a story of what happens when young people start believing in themselves after spending years being written off.   A film about the power of words, of people who have something to say and what happens to them when someone else believes in them and nurtures their voice.   The personalities of all the poets draw you in to their story and its truth makes it so moving; Lucchesi and Ramseyer-Bache have done a fine job of never descending into trite sentimentality, or cliches which could have been so easy (I like to think this is partly because Alex is a local boy).

‘A poet is a person who speaks for their generation.  If I don’t represent it, who will?’ Saju, Leeds Young Authors

We have to stop pretending the UK is some kind of level playing field.  It’s not.  It takes more for some people to get to this point than others.  Some people have real world concerns and distractions and need more support and encouragement.  The hours upon hours of work the poets and their mentors put in for this to happen shouldn’t be underestimated.  The results of this project are clear to see from about ten seconds into this film.  So why did Khadijah and the others have to work for free after their small arts council grant was withdrawn and the poets kept coming?  Why did Alex have to get into so much personal debt to even make this film? Why  aren’t these projects being supported more by the government and Arts Council England?

As exceptional a project Leeds Young Authors is it doesn’t exist in isolation.  I’ve been watching something interesting happening at slams, spoken word evenings and open mike nights recently… Where along with the usual suspects there’s been a steady stream of ‘non-traditional’ poets getting up to the mike: with words I’ve been waiting to hear all my life, from young poets from a variety of backgrounds and cultures who I never expected to see on a stage (check out Michelle Tea and Sister Spit – queer spoken word troupe who set the UK on fire in 2009, please come back soon…, Salena Godden and The Book Club Boutique, Fictions of Every Kind– a   DIY spoken word night in Leeds,  Contact’s fusing of spoken word, hip-hop and poetry For Books Sake and Word Life  there’ll be so many more – the point is these projects seem to be popping up every which way.  For me what’s really exciting is that these poets are not assimilating.  No one is asking they pretend to be someone else, some grand, distant idea of what a poet is.  Instead what we get is their voices, their concerns, their words.  And that is beautiful and powerful and a long, long time coming.  Perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that this is happening now, when so many of us are feeling so silenced, angry and frustrated.

Can we just take a step back and realise how fucking amazing that is? Start shouting about it? And supporting it? Properly?

‘It is amazing and a testament to our times that the greatest amounts of courage is found in young people who are like ‘fuck it, I’m going to say it anyway” Saul Williams

*We Are Poets review by Kay Brown

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