ALL OUR CHILDREN before the critics get to it.

Well, tonight is the last of the previews for All Our Children.

Audiences have been small.  I suspect people fear—incorrectly—that the play is going to show disabled children being wheeled into gas chambers, and are nervous about coming.  Then, it’s a long run (closes June 3rd), so people haven’t yet got their act together.  And people are waiting for the reviews to see whether they want to stump up the money and time to come and see it. 

I’ve directed enough plays to know that there’s something to savour in that moment when audiences are watching with an open mind, when the actors are still exploring the text, when everybody involved is still working on the weirdly messy and creative process of giving birth to a new production.  It’s provisional, it’s free, it’s unencumbered by reputation or settled opinion. 

But having written this as well makes the whole thing doubly fascinating.

Various things have struck me: first the quality of listening in the audience.  There’s a real sense that this stuff matters, that there’s a conversation going on which, for all the historical and cultural distance, has a worrying relevance to our own times.  After all, the Nazi persecution of the disabled was driven, above all, by arguments over cost.  Looking after such people was just too expensive, it was said, and such views can sometimes be heard today.

The second thing is the sense that the fate of the disabled is just the most clearly defined example of a broader problem: the reduction of human beings to their productive capacity, and the contempt for those who can’t work, for whatever reason.  When an old friend gave me a huge hug after the first preview, I said that I’d written it for Joey.  He knew what I meant – he’s met Joey - but said it was bigger than that, and I suspect he was thinking of his wife, who has Alzheimer’s.

But the thing that’s really touched me are the responses from parents of children with disabilities.   Several have come already, and I know others who’re planning to come.  They know the scale of the struggle, they know how much it has radicalised them, they know how it’s made them question everything they thought they knew about society.  And their responses mean more to me than I can say.

On Saturday night the wonderful Caroline came with her husband.  She’s looked after Joey probably more than anyone outside of his family – through epilepsy, illnesses and all his vulnerability, as well as the joy, the laughter and silliness – and she was in floods of tears, not for Joey but for all the kids who need care, who need help, who in so many ways cannot help themselves.  And we agreed that if the play showed anything, it was that fighting for a better world had made a difference.  The courage, not just of Bishop von Galen but thousands of people ever sincewho’ve campaigned and fought for the rights of the profoundly disabled to live a decent life, has not been in vain.

It would be absurd to claim that disabled children face anything like this level of discrimination today.  Nevertheless, there is a huge amount to be done to ensure that they’re given the same opportunities as their able-bodied siblings.  It’s often said that you can judge a society by the way that it treats its most vulnerable.  If Nazi Germany failed that test in the most abject way imaginable, we should never forget its terrible lessons.

Who knows what the press will make of it.  It’s all such a bloody gamble, and no doubt some of them will savage it.  What I do know is that I’ve seen more this last week about the ability of 90 minutes of drama to engage with some people’s lives than I thought possible.  And I’ll always be proud of that. 

A guest blog from my Associate Director, Nathan Markiewicz, about ALL OUR CHILDREN

I have been lucky enough to call Stephen Unwin my friend for the last few years. Since we met we’ve worked together in numerous contexts: professional and academic theatre, large workshops and intimate rehearsals, we’ve even sat alone together in cafés clacking away at our laptops, sharing ideas and provocations—but we’ve never done anything quite like All Our Children. Over the years I’ve become close to the Unwin children too, sometimes I even feel like a member of the extended family. The play is dedicated to Stephen’s son Joey, who has learning disabilities not unlike those discussed in the play, and I have lately witnessed the intersection of two sides of Stephen’s world: theatre and disability rights.

Everyone knows that a playwright is a creative artist and a director is an interpretive artist, but what about when they are one in the same? While Henrik Ibsen was writing Ghosts, one of his most personal and intimate plays, he famously described the process in a letter to a friend: “To live is to war with trolls in heart and soul. To write is to sit in judgement of oneself.” The sentiment makes for a rosy soundbite, but the reality of dragging one’s subconscious out of the guts and onto the page isn’t quite so romantic. The flurry of transatlantic emails that Stephen and I exchanged while he was writing the final drafts of All Our Children never included anything as nearly as poetic as that—after all every problem in the theatre is a practical one. Our correspondence, and my observations during the first week of rehearsal, have led me to reformulate Ibsen’s dictum: To write is to wrestle with the trolls inside, but to direct one’s own writing is to truly sit in judgement of oneself.

The grim subject of All Our Children is T4, the Nazi program of exterminating the disabled, but the play isn’t really about that, any more than Ghosts is about sexually transmitted disease. As a young student of the humanities, I found the great question of Twentieth Century history impossible to answer: how one of the most progressive societies in the world managed to commit such atrocities. It was only an academic consideration anyway, wasn’t it? In recent years, that question doesn’t seem so hypothetical. After all, I come from the nation which brought you the iPhone and the Tomahawk Missile, the smallpox vaccine and crack cocaine, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Contradictions everywhere.

It is this kind of cognitive dissonance which takes center stage in All Our Children. The play is a study of the emotional toll that such transgressions take on the perpetrators. It is not so much a history piece as a personal drama which asks us to consider our own complicity in the sins of our society. Nearly every day in rehearsal there is a moment when I wonder, “What would I have done?” A question which inevitably leads me to ask, “What am I doing now?”

In order to write a play, the author must face his own “trolls in heart and soul,” without self-consciousness, and in All Our Children, Stephen Unwin has certainly done so. As rehearsals progress, I see him “sit in judgement,” each day learning more about himself—the true pursuit of an artist. All Our Children is not only a play, it is also a love letter from the author to his son, Joey, and indeed to all our children.

'Trahison des Clercs'

I’ve just finished a fascinating book, called The Reckless Mind (2001).  Its subtitle is ‘Intellectuals in Politics’ and the author Mark Lilla charts the way six key European philosophers and thinkers made compromises—and worse—with totalitarian regimes through the twentieth century.  It’s a shameful story, as you read how Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmidt supported the Nazis, while Walter Benjamin, Alexandre Kojeve, Michael Foucault and Jacques Derrida all lent their support to varieties of Communist totalitarianism.  ‘Tyrannophilia’ was a real phenomenon, and some of the most brilliantly people of the time stand charged of it.

In an excellent new epilogue to the book, Lilla writes that the collectivist ideologies that attracted these intellectuals have all but disappeared, replaced by ‘a dogma for which we have hardly any name’.  This, Lilla explains, ‘begins with basic liberal principles like the sanctity of the individual, the priority of freedom, and distrust of public authority, and advances no further.  It is politically democratic but lacks awareness of democracy’s weaknesses and how they can provoke hostility and resentment.  It promotes economic growth with unreflective faith in the cost-free benefits of free trade, deregulation, and foreign investment.  Since it presumes that individuals are all that count, it has next to nothing to say about collectivities and their enterprises, and the duties that come with them.  It has a vocabulary for discussing rights and identities and feelings, but not class or other social realities.’  Lilla goes on to say that this ‘dogma is at once anti-political and anti-intellectual’ and ‘cultivates no taste for reality, no curiosity about how we got here or where we are going.  It has no use for sociology or psychology or history, not to mention political theory, since it has no interest in institutions and has nothing to say about the necessary and productive tension between individual and collective purposes.’  It’s an extraordinarily powerful critique of our own cultural mess.

Lilla's epilogue is dated June 2016, and was written before the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump.   So my question is this: what is the trahison des clercs of our own time?  How did leading intellectuals, artists and thinkers collude in creating an atmosphere in which the current wave of nationalistic, anti-science, anti-intellectual, popularism could thrive.  Who will the ‘guilty men’ be when the philosophical and cultural history of the first quarter of the twenty-first century is written?  It's not good enough just to blame the gutter press and the politicians.  Artists, intellectuals and thinkers have to examine their own consciences.  In other words, how many of us are Lenin’s ‘useful idiots’, clearing the path for the worst to triumph?  And which of us are able to articulate a resistance and lead the fight for better times? 

Historic attitudes towards people with Learning Disabilities and Epilepsy

Historically, people with learning disabilities and epilepsy have frequently been regarded as legitimate objects for scorn and derision and bullied, abused and persecuted as a result.  Most of the time, they’ve been dependent on the care of their families, as well as on charities of one kind or another but, where this has failed, they’ve been at the mercy of an uncomprehending world, often to disastrous effect.  In Britain, until the late 1960s, most families were persuaded to place their learning disabled child in a medical institution.  Indeed in many societies such people have (and still are) been murdered or simply abandoned as being too challenging, too distressing or too expensive.   Although the lives of most learning disabled people in Britain are better than they’ve ever been, we should not forget the history of persecution, nor the belief systems that made it possible.  Advances are all too easily reversed and we should never forget, as Edmund Burke warned us, that ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.‘

Christianity, it seems, has come up with two contradictory ways of talking about parenting a child with a profound disability.  The first is that he or she is God’s punishment for past misdeeds.  Thus, an American politician, Bob Marshall, Republican Member of the Virginia House of Delegates, has repeatedly claimed that disabled children are God’s punishment to women who had aborted their first pregnancy.  And the devoutly religious, but deeply confused, Glenn Hoddle, the one time manager of the England football team, was sacked when he declared: ‘you and I have been given two hands and two legs and half decent brains.  Some people have not been born like that for a reason; the karma is working from another lifetime.  I have nothing to hide about that. It is not only people with disabilities.  What you sow, you have to reap.’  And there are historic accounts of terrible cruelty and abuse towards people with learning disabilities in various Catholic care homes and institutions in Ireland and elsewhere.

Fundamentalist Christianity doesn’t have a monopoly on such pernicious nonsense, however.  The explicitly secular Nazis labelled those with profound disabilities as ‘life unworthy of life’, or ‘useless eaters’, and the persecution, forced sterilization and subsequent murder of perhaps a quarter of a million of such people under the T-4 programme paved the way for the even greater genocide of the European Jews.  More recently, one of the most extreme animal rights philosophers, Peter Singer, a Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, argued that human beings who fail to develop the ability to speak are in some ways less than human, on a par with animals.  In Practical Ethics he insisted that ‘killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person.  Very often it is not wrong at all’, basing his argument on the relative capacities of animals: ‘If we compare a severely defective human infant with a nonhuman animal, a dog or a pig, for example, we will often find the nonhuman to have superior capacities, both actual and potential, for rationality, self consciousness, communication and everything else that can plausibly be considered morally significant.’ 

Closer to home, the UKIP councillor, Colin Brewer, argued that ‘disabled children cost the council too much money and should be put down’, while his fellow Kuiper, Geoffrey Clark, called for compulsory abortions of disabled foetuses. And a Tory deputy mayor, amazingly enough a retired GP called Owen Lister, argued that disabled children should be ‘guillotined’, explaining that ‘It's merely a matter of caring for them until they die.  The only difference between a terminally ill patient and a severely handicapped child is time.’ 

Perhaps most shocking of all—because it’s so surprising from such a card-carrying liberal—is Virginia Woolf’s diary entry for 9th January 1915—where she writes that:

"On the towpath we met & had to pass a long line of imbeciles.  The first was a very tall man, just queer enough to look at twice, but no more; the second shuffled, & looked aside; and then one realised that every one in that long line was a miserable ineffective shuffling idiotic creature with no forehead, or no chin, & an imbecile grin, or a wild suspicious stare.  It was perfectly horrible.  They should certainly be killed."

Woolf, of course, was simply mirroring the common views of the Eugenics Society, whose Chairman, the distinguished biologist Julian Huxley, wrote in 1930:

"What are we going to do?  Every defective man, woman and child is a burden.  Every defective is an extra body for the nation to feed and clothe, but produces little or nothing in return."

Many public figures, including birth control pioneers Margaret Sanger and Marie Stopes, politicians Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt, and proud liberals such as H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, John Maynard Keynes and Sidney Webb all supported eugenics.  Thankfully, it has now been dismissed as pseudo-science of the worst kind that, in Britain at least, does little but discredit the speaker.  More recently, the eminent geneticist and proselytising atheist Richard Dawkins, in response to an enquiry from a woman about what to do if she discovered that she was pregnant with a foetus with Down’s Syndrome, replied ‘abort it and try again.  It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.’  He denied that he is a ‘eugenicist’, but it’s hard to understand what he means by the word ‘immoral’ in such a context.

Lower level discrimination exists too.  Research by the leading health and social care provider, Turning Point, showed that a bias against those with learning disabilities is widespread in modern Britain.  The Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities concluded ‘that people are more comfortable interacting with people with physical or sensory impairments in social situations than they are […] with individuals with learning disabilities or mental health conditions’. The consultancy Lemos&Crane produced a devastating report entitled Loneliness+Cruelty about the bullying of people with learning disabilities, and the Papworth Trust has published research showing that 90% of people with learning difficulties have experienced hate crime or bullying, with almost a third saying that it takes place on a daily or weekly basis. And, finally, UNICEF concluded in 2012 that ‘Disability is not the impairment itself, but rather attitudes and environmental barriers that result in disability.  Children with disabilities are often ‘invisible’ to service providers, and they are at greater risk of violence than their non-disabled peers.’  This is all deeply dismaying stuff.


Epilepsy: Episode 2

They say it's not over until the fat lady sings and my post about Joey's epilepsy on Saturday was horribly premature. It was a dress rehearsal for the shit storm that greeted us early on Sunday morning.

When Joey is away from his residential college he wears a little sensor round his ankle at night which measures his heart rate (his BPM) and this is linked to an information screen and an alarm. On Sunday morning at ten to seven the thing started to bleep and I jumped out of bed and rushed upstairs. The poor lad had pissed himself and was trying to take off his pyjamas, but the seizures were kicking in and he was all over the place. I had managed to get his top off and his pyjamas trousers had fallen round his ankles, when the full on status epilepticus kicked in. Still in my boxers and teeshirt I struggled desperately to shift him back onto his bed but failed miserably. I glanced over his shoulder at the screen and his BPM was at 140 something (about twice as fast as it should be) and in all this mayhem I got an image of the dead Christ being taken down from the cross: pure naked agony, with me as some kind of hopeless cross, his pyjama trousers as a slipped loin cloth. Once a Catholic, I suppose, but he was certainly in real trouble.

So I shouted to G who came rushing upstairs with the emergency meds and together we just about managed to drag him onto the bed. She then squirted the first round into his mouth as I held his head back and his mouth open. We then started to count the minutes as he shook and shook and shook. This isn't just upper body seizures, it's everything, all over right through to his toes and feet all bent out of shape, grotesque in its twists and contortions. Seven, eight, nine, ten minutes and still he was thrashing. And so we give him the second round and, as attentive readers of my last post will know, called for an ambulance. But still the seizures went on, for something like half an hour, maybe 40 minutes. Typical of Joey, they stopped just before the ambulance crew turned up and we were able to give him his full medication and ourselves a cup of tea. He very slowly returned to normal, smiling shyly and licking my hand. Joey was finally back. 

But this time, of course, he had to go into hospital and after careful discussion (including on the phone with a brilliant out of hours GP), Joey and I went off in the ambulance through the beautiful early Spring Norfolk sunshine. As we drove past Holkham Beach I remembered that we'd promised Joey that we'd walk to the sea. But instead, here he was drugged up to the eyes, asleep on a stretcher. The hospital in Norwich was great and eventually he was discharged and we managed to get him back to his college in one piece and they tell me that today he's fine. God save the NHS and let's keep it free at the point of delivery was my conclusion on Saturday, and the same is true today. 

But I found myself thinking about something else too, and I really don't want this to sound self-indulgent or self-pitying. But a severely disabled child has a huge impact on his family, on the people who love him and everyone who comes into contact with him. And that, believe me, can be seriously bloody hard. I spent half the night lying next to Joe on Saturday worried that he was going to have another clusterfuck of seizures and that the alarm wouldn't work. G and I are completely knackered and found it hard to get back to work today, and I ended up shouting at poor little Bea (8), Joey's half sister, in exhaustion and, of course, grief and delayed shock. It's hardly surprising that there's such a high incidence of divorce, nervous breakdowns and poverty among families with severely disabled kids and the impact can be huge.

And we all have to recognise that there are no miracle cures for a kid like Joey, and the thousands of others like him. This ain't no movie, no West End show, there are no simple happy endings or consolations. And, no, epilepsy isn't a punishment from God for my many misdeeds, nor are the angels speaking through him when he has seizures. It's just hard and frightening stuff. Shit certainly happens.

But there are some brilliant organisations which help us get through. I'm the insufferably proud Chairman of KIDS, a national charity which offers an amazing range of services. Imagine, for example, being a couple looking after a profoundly disabled child 24 hours a day, and once a month your child is taken somewhere where he's looked after, given a great time and is totally safe, while you can give your marriage another chance. A short break like that is sometimes the one thing that stands between having a decent life and total bloody chaos. Or imagine being a parent of a disabled baby and feeling completely confused by the whole situation (I was that) but getting the chance to talk to, and learn from, parents who've done it before. This stuff makes a difference. Really it does.

Support KIDS if you can, and other charities like them: Joey will thank you, probably with a tickle, but, if you're really, really lucky, with a head lick too. He's that kind of guy.

Calling the ambulance

Those of you who're gripped by my every utterance on Facebook will know that my Joey has epilepsy. You may even remember our trips to various hospitals over Christmas. Well, we're in Norfolk right now for half term and have had another adventure today. 

I gave him his usual drugs at 7 this morning and it was immediately clear that they weren't really working. And so G and I decided to give him the first dose of his emergency medication. He eventually came round (stopped seizing) and all seemed good. But then at about 11 this morning, he started again and it wouldn't go away, and so, after some agonising debate, we gave him the second dose of the strong stuff and - as instructed - called for an ambulance. 

Please understand why this is something we really didn't want to do. The idea of spending all Saturday in A&E in King's Lynn isn't our idea of fun, especially if the epilepsy had cleared and he was just being monitored. But we did it because that's the protocol and we know that you can't fuck with epilepsy. But, inevitably, by the time the ambulance arrived (North Norfolk is a big place), Joey was giggling and smiling and back to normal. The brilliant team took all the usual measurements (blood pressure, heart rate etc) and, after a careful discussion, headed off without him. And since then everything's been fine (touch wood, God knows what tomorrow will bring). 

But what struck me, as ever, was this: imagine if our decision had been affected by cost. I'm feeling broke at the moment and imagine if I'd had to stump up £1000. It's all too easy to say that Joey is my responsibility and so I should carry the cost (or insure against such eventuality). But although I'm pretty seasoned at dealing with Joey's epilepsy, I'm no neurologist or paramedic. We took the decision to call the ambulance to be on the safe side, and I know that we were right. But if it was going to cost a ton of money, we might well have gone without. And that could have had the most serious consequences imaginable.

So I think we'd better keep the NHS free at the point of delivery, hadn't we? We all need it like that.

‘Lives Unworthy of Life’: Bishop von Galen and the Nazi persecution of the disabled

The persecution, sterilisation and murder of hundreds of thousands of disabled people is one of the most overlooked chapters in the whole ghastly history of Nazi Germany.

Between 1939 and 1941 as many as 100,000 people with a wide range of disabilities were dismissed as lebensunwertes Leben (‘lives unworthy of life’) and systematically killed in six converted psychiatric hospitals across Austria and Germany.  Initially, lethal injections were used but soon, at Hitler’s personal recommendation, carbon monoxide was employed.

Aktion T4, as the programme was called after the war, was a logical extension of the eugenics movement, which had attracted support from a wide range of people, many with impeccable liberal credentials, across Europe and the United States.  Few had suggested murder (although Virginia Woolf, confronted by a group of ‘imbeciles’, wrote in 1915 that ‘they should certainly be killed’), but the Nazi programme of compulsory sterilisation of people with ‘congenital conditions’ was widely accepted.

With the outbreak of war, the persecution escalated dramatically and, on September 1st, 1939 (the day of the invasion of Poland), Hitler signed his notorious Euthanasia Decree which stated that, ‘after a discerning diagnosis’, ‘incurable patients’ should be ‘granted mercy death’.  Intellectually justified by Social Darwinism, this policy received popular support on the grounds of cost, with a poster claiming that a man ‘suffering from a hereditary defect cost “the People’s Community” 60,000 Reichmarks during his lifetime’.  As a leading Nazi doctor said, ‘the idea is unbearable to me that the best, the flower of our youth, must lose its life at the front in order that feebleminded and irresponsible asocial elements can have a secure existence in the asylum.’

By 1941, 5000 children, many only a few months old, with a wide range of conditions—Down syndrome, ‘idiocy’, cerebral palsy, and so on—had been assessed, registered and murdered.  Initially, their parents were asked for their consent and a panel of three ‘medical experts’ was convened to agree on the course of action.  In due course, however, deception and social pressure were deployed, and children were sent to so-called ‘special sections’, apparently to receive medical treatment, but instead bussed off to their deaths.

Public opposition to the programme was limited.  Probably the most striking intervention came from the churches, especially the Catholic Bishop of Münster.  Clemens August Graf von Galen (1878-1946) belonged to one of the oldest aristocratic families in Germany.  He spent 23 years (1906-29) working as a parish priest in a poor district in Berlin but, as a staunch conservative, had opposed what he perceived to be the immorality of the Weimar Republic.  Indeed, the Nazis, who saw him as an ally, welcomed his installation as Bishop of Münster in 1933.  From the outset, however, he objected to many aspects of the regime, and took editorial responsibility for a volume of essays criticising the paganism of the philosopher and ideologue Alfred Rosenberg.  He voiced his disapproval of Nazi racial theories and helped draft Pope Pius XI’s anti-Nazi encyclical Mit brennender Sorge (1937). 

He is best known, however, for his criticism of the murder of the disabled and, in July and August 1941, delivered three sermons which didn’t just criticise the programme they challenged the entire Nazi value system.   In one of them he asked why these ‘unproductive citizens’ were killed:

'The opinion is that since they can no longer make money, they are obsolete machines, comparable with some old cow that can no longer give milk or some horse that has gone lame.  What is the lot of unproductive machines and cattle?  They are destroyed.  I have no intention of stretching this comparison further.  The case here is not one of machines or cattle which exist to serve men and furnish them with plenty.  They may be legitimately done away with when they can no longer fulfill their function.  Here we are dealing with human beings, with our neighbours, brothers and sisters, the poor and invalids ... unproductive—perhaps!  But have they, therefore, lost the right to live?  Have you or I the right to exist only because we are ‘productive’?  If the principle is established that unproductive human beings may be killed, then God help all those invalids who, in order to produce wealth, have given their all and sacrificed their strength of body.  If all unproductive people may thus be violently eliminated, then woe betide our brave soldiers who return home, wounded, maimed or sick.'

Thousands of copies of the sermons were illegally circulated and local protest groups broke the silence that surrounded the programme.  Copies were also dropped by the RAF and inspired various resistance groups.

The Nazis were in two minds about how to respond to the ‘Lion of Münster’.  Some advised Hitler to execute von Galen or, at least, send him to a concentration camp; but others, especially Goebbels and Bormann, recognised the danger of alienating German Catholics at such a crucial time in the war, and von Galen—a close friend of the new Pope, Pius XII—was subjected to house arrest from late 1941 onwards.  Hitler declared ominously in a private conversation that ‘the fact that I remain silent in public over Church affairs is not in the least misunderstood by the sly foxes of the Catholic Church, and I am quite sure that a man like Bishop von Galen knows full well that after the war I shall extract retribution to the last farthing’.  But von Galen survived Hitler, dying of natural causes in 1946, and was beatified by his fellow German, Benedict XVI, in 2005.

Astonishingly, partly as a result of von Galen’s intervention, the programme was formally discontinued in August 1941.  It would be overstating the case to say that he stopped the murder (a further 100,000 disabled people were killed before the end of the war), and many of the techniques and personnel were employed in the far greater Jewish Holocaust that escalated so dramatically after 1941.  Nevertheless, his denunciation was one of the most courageous and outspoken acts of resistance in Third Reich.

All Our Children is very much a work of fiction.  There is no evidence that von Galen had a meeting of the kind that I have dramatised (though he did talk with senior figures in the SS) nor do we know of a doctor involved in the programme having qualms about what he was doing.  What’s clear, however, is that his intervention raised the most profound questions about the innate value of the human being, regardless of cost or productivity, and his voice, for all its stubborn absolutism, deserves to be heard.

It would be absurd to claim that disabled children face anything like this level of discrimination today.  Nevertheless, there is a huge amount to be done to ensure that they’re given the same opportunities as their able-bodied siblings.  It’s often said that you can judge a society by the way that it treats its most vulnerable.  If Nazi Germany failed that test in the most abject way imaginable, we should never forget its terrible lessons.                                    

Why I hate Harry Potter

No, of course I don’t.  I’ve neither read the novels nor seen the films and have no right to a view.  What’s more, my older son belongs to the original Harry Potter generation and I loved the sight of a playground full of primary school kids clutching novels the size of War and Peace to their brave little chests.  My eight-year-old daughter has read and reread all the books, and tells me I’m talking nonsense, that I’m a terrible ‘muggle’, and no doubt she’s right.  And—before you point it out—I know that JK Rowling is an articulate and committed champion for many of the things I care about, and has been notably generous with her millions.   Harry Potter is surely a good thing.

So what’s all this about then? 

Well, the fact is I’ve never much liked fantasy fiction.  This may be because I’m cold hearted and literal minded, or possibly something much more sinister.  I don’t know.  But when I was a kid the Mad Hatter scared the life out of me, and Tolkien—with his mixture of medieval religiosity and paganism—gave me the creeps.  I never got Star Wars with its Death Stars and Droids, and have no desire to play the Game of Thrones.   I’m not wild about fantasy in classical literature either: I much prefer the blood and passion of the Iliad to the chimeras of the Odyssey; I can’t stomach the courtly incantations of magical consolation in late Shakespeare, and Ibsen definitely got a lot better when he ditched trolls and Norwegian nationalism and started to write his ‘dramas of everyday life’.   

I’m happy to live in a time when this stuff is no longer meaningful; I’m glad we don’t believe in monsters, in fairies, in knights in shining armour; that we have electric light and aren’t frightened of the dark; that we know that lightning isn’t an expression of divine displeasure and that disabled kids aren’t punishments from God.  And I’m thrilled that most of us don’t expect our leaders to be macho and engage in physical combat, or insist that women have to be fair and beautiful and chaste.  In other words, while I acknowledge the psychological power of the ancient myths, they offer little more to me than the most obscure books in the Old Testament.   ‘Happy the land that has no need of heroes’, cracks Brecht’s Galileo, and I agree with him.  I’m happy to be a modern and am, frankly, suspicious of all claims to cultural universality.

Please don’t misunderstand me: it’s not that I don’t like metaphor or the imagination.  It’s that I want it rooted in the everyday stuff of the world.  So I find As You Like It—which, of course, riffs subtly on various myths—mesmerising until the moment Hymen appears: at which point I want to know who the hell he actually is and what Shakespeare thinks he’s up to.  Yes, I know all the ‘characters’ are just ‘texts’ and, of course, the postmodernists are very clever, but give me Rosalind’s ‘men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love’ over the desperate woodenness of this symbol of marital bliss any day.   I reckon Coleridge’s distinction between the active, creative Imagination on the one hand and Fancy’s mechanical recycling of received ideas on the other, is still useful.

But I’ve still not explained what all this has to do with poor old Harry Potter.

Well, it’s this.  Teaching a group of twelve clever students from a world class American university over the summer I was astonished to discover that the only book they’d all read was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.   Not Hamlet, not Great Expectations, not even Of Mice and Men.  What’s more, they still loved it, and reread it often.  They were desperate to visit the Oxford college where it had been filmed, they wore Harry Potter t-shirts with pride and they loved platform 9¾ at King’s Cross Station.  They were amazed when I told them that I had no interest in the whole thing and the sense of outrage was palpable when I explained that in my time at university, liking fantasy fiction was regarded as the sign of an immature mind, with a dangerous proclivity towards mysticism and authoritarianism. 

And it’s this sense of a children’s book taking hold of the adult imagination that bugs me.  I’m not suggesting that Harry Potter is responsible for the twin curses of Brexit and Donald Trump, but in a time when ‘post-truth’ is the new normal, when speculation is instantly rendered real through the alchemy of social media, and when evidence-based policy and scientific expertise are routinely derided, I wonder whether a culture which celebrated the achievements and wonders of the tangible world, and turned its back on wizardry, monsters and fantastical versions of the English public school, wouldn’t make a more helpful contribution. 

I’m a terrible snob, I acknowledge, and I’m agnostic about whether Harry Potter is part of the problem or part of the solution.  But I’m sure we can all agree that it’ll take something more than magic wands to find a way out of this mess.




Long live the NHS. Long live Joey

I’m pretty new to FaceBook so this is all quite strange to me. But thank you to everyone for sending me so many lovely messages on my birthday and supporting me through the various Joey hospital visits over the last week or so. He’s fine today, but God knows what tomorrow will bring. Epilepsy is hell, and for reasons no one quite understands, his has returned like a storm from hell. In the medieval world they interpreted epilepsy as either the devil trying to get out or, amazingly, the spirit of the angels. That’s self-evidently bollocks, and I think a much better explanation is that Joey—who has no speech, no social power of his own—is protesting against the multiple fiascos of 2016, especially, of course, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, and the ghastliness that will come in their wake.

Imagine three ambulancemen (actually two men, one woman), gathered in my booklined front room, surrounding Joey and me on my sofa. I’m still in my boxers, having just cleaned Joey’s shit off my leg, terrified that this time the epilepsy is going to get him once and for all: his heart beating at an inane speed, and with tears pouring down my face. And, fucking hell, it’s my birthday too! 

Calm as anything however, utterly professional, totally humane, they put an oxygen mask over his face, inserted a canulla and gave him diazepam on a drip. And slowly, inexorably, the fear passed and Joey came back to life. I cried some more and they let me do that and I had some coffee. We then agreed that Joey should go into hospital and eventually, holding my hand and with his epilepsy helmet firmly on, we walked down the stairs and out the front door to the ambulance. And they helped Joey on to the bed, and we joked about how if this was in America I’d need to get my credit card out. And Joey smiled at the noise when they closed the ambulance door.

And I found myself thinking, as so often, of the existence of a culture which isn’t all about dog eat dog, which isn’t all consumed by who’s the fastest, or the richest, or the most beautiful. Of a culture which is prepared to help the weakest—Joey, certainly, but me too yesterday morning—and work for the best in humanity, not the worst. And so you see Joey’s epilepsy is a howl of protest: against the dark forces out there which are trying to destroy the things that matter. 

But they won’t succeed. Long live the NHS. Long live Joey.

2016: The Year from Hell: Some ramblings on Brexit, Trump and High Culture

If 2016 has shown us anything, it’s that Britain and the States are bitterly divided societies. Demagogues like Farage and Trump, supported by their ‘alt-right’ people’s army, claim that the ‘liberal elite’—along with immigrants and anyone who looks different—has devoured everything in sight, leaving ‘ordinary men and women’ with nothing but bones to gnaw on. They overlook the fact that the actual elite—people of real power and influence—consists of a tiny number of the filthy rich (financiers, media owners, hedge fund managers, as well as the demagogues themselves) and that the ‘liberals’ (people who’ve ‘voluntarily read at least one book’, apparently) aren’t quite as pampered as their propagandists suggest. What’s more, although they defied the polls and won, they did so with small majorities (Hillary Clinton won the popular vote). But this is an alarming development which needs to be taken seriously. 

The American philosopher Richard Rorty predicted it almost twenty years ago when he wrote that one day ‘the nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.’ Not many of us are ‘tricky lawyers’ or ‘overpaid bond salesmen’, but we should, I suggest, ask whether we recognise in ourselves Rorty’s ‘smug bureaucrats’ or ‘postmodernist professors’. They’re deliberately unattractive figures, but useful surrogates for something bigger.

Whatever our answer, what can we do? Well, most importantly, we’re right to be appalled by the racism, resentment and blinkered nationalism that Farage, Trump and their pals have stirred up, which has been picked up by the army of resentful little Englanders and America First fans who lurk threateningly in the wings. Our essential first task is to use our voices, talents and numbers to oppose as forcefully as we can their threats to the hard-fought rights and freedoms of all people in both countries. ‘¡No pasaran!’, we must declare defiantly, and ensure that these vile demagogues fail and are seen to fail. 

At the same time, however, we should acknowledge that beneath this toxic surface lurk real social problems, above all the great divide between the generally well-educated and relatively prosperous inhabitants of the big cities and university towns, and the poorly paid (and often unemployed or retired) people who live in market towns, seaside resorts and the remote countryside. In our righteous hatred of far right politics we can too easily overlook the poverty, under-investment and substandard education which have combined to create it, and which even now are leading people to abandon Labour for UKIP. It’s a problem that was faced by the left in the 1930s, and we face a similar challenge today. 

So what are the implications on culture, especially the little world of ‘art theatre’? Well, first, I think we should acknowledge just how inward looking are the temples of culture that we patronise so eagerly, how sealed off from so many people’s experience is the ‘art theatre’ that we care about so much. Of course, huge efforts have been made to broaden accessibility and no one is deliberately turning people away, but the fact remains that much of the most critically acclaimed work takes place in extraordinarily exclusive places, to a very narrow audience base. Is this the inevitable nature of this antiquated and technologically backward art form? Perhaps. But as of 2016 we should accept, however ruefully, that our heartfelt cries of outrage are hardly heard beyond the echo chamber of social media and the closed circles in which most of us like to live and breathe. 

Of course, we don’t all work in boutique theatres, and many artists are trying to reach out, whether through touring or regional theatre, or the community work that exists, or in higher education and adult learning, and we should give them the attention, support and validation that they need and richly deserve. But this, too, should be questioned, as I know all too well from personal experience. When I set up ETT in 1993 we toured to unfashionable places like Crewe and Harlow, Blackpool, Darlington, Eastbourne and Wolverhampton (all Vote Leave in the referendum). But as we got more successful we decided that our job wasn’t to prop up theatres that were struggling to get an audience, and confined our visits to places that evidently wanted us. And so our social reach narrowed, focussing on university and spa towns like Oxford and Cambridge, Brighton, Bath and Malvern—all solidly Remain and very much homes of the despised ‘liberal elite’. I feel in retrospect that the Arts Council should have held our feet to the fire. But instead the divide just deepened, and we never went back to Crewe. 

And then we should consider the shape of the work itself. The arguments about formalism, realism and the popular go back to the Frankfurt School but the common assumption is that the debate is settled and that the avant-garde has won. But it’s hardly surprising that an audience brought up on soap operas and cop dramas should feel alienated from the icy abstraction of so much contemporary theatre, and I was struck to hear someone ask (of the cinema showing) why none of the characters in Ivo van Hove’s much hailed production of A View from the Bridge were wearing shoes. We can dismiss the question, or engage with it in a meaningful way on its own terms. The choice is ours, but it does reveal something of our deeper allegiances.

Finally, we should examine the nature of the work we create (whether new plays or classical revivals), and ask of it some pretty fundamental questions. Does it help explain the kind of values that we care about or does it, rather, take those for granted, as a condition for an entrance ticket? Does it do anything to describe the divide that so disfigures our countries? Most importantly, perhaps, does it explain the circumstances that have allowed the return of the right, and help us understand how this could have happened. Very little of the work I’ve done has begun to do this, but I suspect that it's only by exploring the contradictions that led to 2016, that the ‘art theatre’ can hope to play a role in helping to heal our traumatized societies. 

The underlying question, I think, is simply put: if we maintain, as most of us do, that culture shows the existence of different ways of thinking about the world, and exposes prejudice, injustice and lies for what they are, how can we ensure that the art that we claim to care about is seen not just by ‘people like us’, but the other half too? If we despise the current turn to intolerance, to prejudice, to fantasy, to simplification and lies, shouldn’t we do everything we can to share our values, insights and ways of thinking with the people who disagree with us? Culture matters, and the demagogues, with their armies of amateur but deadly spin doctors, are using it for their own aims. It's time we took it back.

And here we should, perhaps, go beyond our fastidious concern ‘not to lecture people’, and re-evaluate the great moment of post- war cultural evangelism, which produced the BBC, Penguin Books, Ernst Gombrich and the new Arts Council, as well as the popularisers of the 1960s and early 1970s. If this was, by modern standards, shockingly ‘pale, stale and male’, it did at least believe that everyone should have access to the great art of the past and the most challenging and significant work of the moderns. People like Richard Hoggatt and Raymond Williams may be of their time and almost forgotten but their leftist notions of a society bonded by a common set of values, reinforced by a shared and progressive inheritance and motivated by a united sense of purpose, stand as a rebuke to the current cultural establishment which, like globalisation itself, has, all too often, been content to leave the poor and the uneducated, the unemployed and the troubled, out in the cold. 

The internet offers endless new ways of accessing and shaping culture, and multiculturalism poses both challenges and real opportunities. But if the ‘art theatre’ doesn’t engage with everybody regardless of background, culture or education, and doesn’t test its own practices in the places where most people live, I fear devotees like myself will find ourselves increasingly isolated and irrelevant in our North London attics.

It's a very difficult ask because to pull this off we'll need to find the confidence to assert that challenging art (and a rigorous education and a commitment to science) can have a positive impact on the way that people live their lives and society operates, and we've all become too embarrassed, too cautious and too self-conscious to do so. I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that we can do better than this. We have to.

Howard Davies

The deaths this year of Bill Gaskill and now Howard Davies have made me think about the theatre they came to stand for. With its roots in the Royal Court of the 1960s and, before that, the Berliner Ensemble of the 1950s, theirs was sometimes seen as a uniquely English kind of ‘poetic realism’. There are very few of that generation still working and it’s a tradition that is fading fast.

There were, of course, individual differences but some things were fundamental: careful story telling and a sense of change; a commitment to the spoken word and the cadences of the language; above all, scrupulous representation of class, power and society. Good casting was fundamental and respect for human scale in design was essential. It was a theatre which saw everyone on stage as equally interesting, and attended to the realities of privilege and labour, authority and exclusion, culture and background, with wit and affection, but also real seriousness.

Inevitably, it didn’t engage with some of the questions that face us today—above all, race, gender and disability—but it was interested in economic and social injustice, and brought that political commitment to productions of the classics as much as to new work. And so it’s a mistake, I think, to overlook just how progressive the best of this work was, how thoughtful it was, how engaged it was in the possibility of change, and how much it dreamt of a ‘better world than this’.

Brecht was, of course, the biggest influence. Fighting the charge that he was a ‘formalist’, he quipped that the real formalists were those who insisted on only one form; but he also joked that the Nuremberg rallies were ‘impressive theatre,’ and his formal innovations were always tied to his wider concerns. Theatrical fashions change, and new engagements with new kinds of problems—and, especially, new audiences—are inspiring. But we should be careful not to mistake new form for new content, or imagine that stylistic innovations are always accompanied by progressive thinking. History shows us that they don’t necessarily travel in the same direction. Just look at Donald Trump.

Thoughts from Trumpland

I’m writing this from the heart of Trump’s America: South Carolina is as red as they come. I’m shuttling round in a little Democrat bubble but the meat eaters are everywhere and it’s frankly scary. As an English-speaking middle-aged straight white guy I blend in, but the many African Americans, Latinos and gays I’ve met are terrified. And I don’t blame them. 

Rather than venting my rage, however, I thought it might be more useful to try to work out how we can find a way forward. Because the fact is that with Brexit, Trump, Putin and, no doubt, soon Le Pen, Wildeers and AFD in Germany we are faced with very real dangers. 

So what can we do?

Well, one thing is to learn from history, especially the people who went through a version of this darkness before: I mean in the 1930s. In many ways, their fight was bigger, against an even more dangerous enemy. But they did, at least, have a clear ideology—communism—which helped give them structure and a clear alternative. Our problems and our answers are different, but there are some things we can learn.

I was taught by one of that generation, Margot Heinemann, and she used to talk about a popular front, a united front against fascism, both in reference to the 1930s and confronted by the new dangers of the 1980s. These are contested terms (some argue the Popular Front was a cynical ploy by Stalin to control ‘leftist deviation’) and better informed people like Jane Bernal (Margot's daughter) know much more about it than I do. 

For us, however, the useful point is that we need to find a way of moving beyond the 'vanity of small differences' and find a way of working together, of thinking together, of being together. The real danger is the splits that divide us: after all, more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton than for Trump and the division between the Social Democrats and the Communists let Hitler come into power. And so today - American, British, French, German, whatever - the progressive forces have to work together. And we have to be really bold and think the unthinkable: George W Bush is our friend because he opposed Trump, Blair is our friend because he opposed Brexit. No two people are going to think the same about everything, but the enemy is all too clear in its intentions and we must stand up against him and his rampages.

And in the little world of culture we have to do the same. We need to recognise that we’re all basically on the same side and stop being so sectarian. There’s so much more that unites us than sets us apart, and the differences between classicists and the avant grade, young and middle-aged, subsidised and commercial, 'quality' and 'tat' are minute when compared with the things that are destroying our societies and destroying all the good things that have been built. Fascism, racism and intolerance is a reality and the common enemy to all of us.

We need to remember the intimate relationship between culture and politics. Walter Benjamin wrote brilliantly in the 1930s about the ‘aestheticization of politics’, which, when you think of it, is a perfect description of Donald Trump. We need to respond with the ‘politicisation of aesthetics’ and make work which responds to this poison and, in whatever way it can, helps us demystify the theatrical trick that Trump, and the rest of them, pull off to gain power and control people.

Brecht confessed that he wanted to write about ‘cities by the sea’ but couldn’t while Hitler was rampaging. We’re in a similar position and we need to ask of everything we do: how does this help, in whatever way, in the struggle against this new evil? How does it help us understand what's happened? How does it help build alliances which work? How does it reach out even to people who support the bastards, and how does it indicate to everyone the possibility of a better way? 

In the 1980s Margot wrote,‘we don’t overcome despair by shutting our eyes. If you are of my generation and have never felt it or come near feeling it you are either very lucky or very insensitive.’ 

Her times were very dark. It's our turn now.