A total whatever…

“Funny how ye tell people a story to make a point and ye fail, ye fail, a total disaster. Not only do ye no make yer point it winds up the exact fucking opposite man, the exact fucking opposite. That isnay a misunderstanding it’s a total whatever.”

“Ninety-nine per cent of traditional English literature concerns people who never have to worry about money at all. We always seem to be watching or reading about emotional crises among folk who live in a world of great fortune both in matters of luck and money; stories and fantasies about rock stars and film stars, sporting millionaires and models; jet-setting members of the aristocracy and international financiers.”

James Kelman

Searching for the authentic working class voice…

I’m not sure when it happened but at some point between 1995, when I found myself back in education, and 2008, when my ‘work play’ about a bunch of lifeboatmen coming to terms with having to work with a woman in their testosterone-charged workplace was receiving little attention outside of Hull, the chip on my shoulder was smoothed and sanded off to virtually non-existent, and the anger that fueled my work completely subsided.

I had, somewhere along the line, abandoned, and subsequently severed, the once-strong roots of being born in a council house and become middle-class and, when it came to pitching a follow-up to On A Shout (2008), I proposed an opera about the desperate plight of three earth mothers who could not source the kohlrabi they required to make their dinner party the success they felt it deserved to be.

With good reason, Hull Truck refused to commission me again. Ballroom Blitz, which was produced by the company in 2012, was actually written by me at a Saturday morning dance class when I was eight and struggling to learn a new cha-cha step, submitted to the theatre in a plain brown envelope anonymously in 1998, and it was as much as a surprise to me as it was to audiences when it surfaced with my name on it, having had several jokes that elicited that marvelous smug theatre laughter we all know so well added to it by someone else that were better than anything I could ever hope to write. This, I later learned, is called dramaturgy.

Beyond all expectations, audiences hailed Ballroom Blitz as “an old-fashioned Hull Truck show, like back in the good old days [of the 1990s]” and, had the managerial and artistic regime at the company not changed, at least fifteen sequels with similar names, the same characters and extremely Hull accents, were on the cards. Although I’m still not sure if I would write them or if they’d also found the other scripts I’d submitted anonymously.

The abandonment of my roots, and the loss of the working class voice that was so evident in the stupidly xenophobic and sexist taxi driver in Sully (2006), probably commenced towards the end of the good old days [of the 1990s] when my ex-wife and I provided the home for at least 37 rescue dogs over a six month period, the amassing of cupboards full of granola and [back then] obscure organic foodstuffs. Nobody had heard of Kundalini Yoga in those days, but, if they had, we’d have probably started a class in our living room, where it would all take place in and around our many children and their many toys and our pack of many rescue dogs.

I say all this with shame, of course. It was never meant to have turned out this way. For, not only was I born in a council house and expected to amount to nothing, I spent the first ten years of my working life slaving away in a factory unit somewhere near what is now called Kingswood, crafting snouts for Miss Piggy dolls for the Jim Henson Company, whose work in the city of Hull still goes mostly unknown. Indeed, my first full-length play, never produced, was called Snout. The first two pages were devoted to a scene description that demanded the auditorium be pumped full of the authentic smell of sponge, nylon and bacon (the Jim Henson Company’s dolls were of the ‘scratch and sniff’ variety). In the unproduced Snout, an uneventful night in the factory is thrown into disarray when the production line churning out Kermit’s eyes is jammed when Richard, a broken man with a love of country and western and Capstan full strength, attempts to inflate an unstuffed Kermit. With disastrous results. Meanwhile, the factory’s charge-hand mocks the Victorian approach of the workplace’s owners by sticking his nose firmly in the trough, losing it in the process. It was a terribly derivative piece of work that led to a stock response akin to a letter from Readers Digest when submitted to the Royal Court.

Still, at least Snout was an honest piece of work, full of anger and demonstrating how grueling working men and women had it in these hell holes, and all for £3.75 an hour. Similar pieces fill a box in the loft labelled ‘unproduced’. Codhead, about a fish filleting factory in Hull; Belted, about a violent conveyor belt factory in Hull; Shocked, about a shock absorber factory in Hull; and Timber, about an east Hull stevedore who can’t get an erection. Unlike the stevedore, I could go on, but a theatre director once reminded me that lists are terribly boring and I might want to be mindful of the comedic rule of three occasionally.

My fate was sealed, of course, when I made amends for making such a terrible mess of my education the first time around by going to university. It was here that it became clear that working class authenticity is all well and good, but doesn’t leave you much to talk about in the refectory. So I started working my way through the Dewey, gobbling all of the books up on the university shelves, spewing out quotes from Baudrillard, Laura Mulvey, Moholy-Nagy and Noam Chomsky over the school-dinneresque offerings, and reading the plays of everyone from Ibsen to Ionesco (I was, mysteriously, fixated on surnames beginning with ‘I’. Very narcissistic).

I was ruined by the university experience, despite getting a first, and I lost whatever vital ingredient made ‘me’ me. Or at least the me that was me before I found, and lost, myself in higher education. Much of my ‘working class’ output was penned in that first semester, when I still used profanities honestly and abusively, rather than ironically. Sadly, I was soon to become part of the ‘mock soc’, where we would find new ways of laughing at people that lived on ‘sink estates’, never once considering that we could deliver lucrative community arts workshops there. Shameful behaviour. Please forgive me.

So as I sit here, devoid of what was once, perhaps, an authentic voice, I realise I have little to write about, nothing to be angry about, and nothing to kick against. I eat sushi, ride around town in Spandex on a faux-old-fashioned fixed-gear bike and, despite not quite knowing what it is or what to do with it, still have a surplus of granola.

Ironically, I am now involved in the search for authentic working class voices. As a producer with Ensemble 52 and of Heads Up Festival, nothing excites us, and therefore due to contractual obligations me, more than the prospect of discovering such a thing. We are yet to find it but I do feel there is hope amid the many Oxbridge graduates that make unsolicited submissions to us. Occasionally, something completely indecipherable, incoherent and undramatic will land in our inboxes, sent from a postcode in a disenfranchised corner of Hull. It is only a matter of time and funding before we produce one of these, and then we will be lauded.

On his appointment, in July 2014, I hastily arranged a meeting with the CEO of 2017 Hull UK City of Culture Martin Green to discuss my creative plans for next year (2017). I wanted, I told Martin, to get back to my roots. I had worked in a factory, for a decade, stitching snouts on to Miss Piggy Dolls for the Jim Henson Company. Martin is a big fan of The Muppets, and his ears pricked up. We got on famously, like Statler and Waldorf. It was really good to be able to tell Martin of my work as an artist. I was certain that many other conversations with other artists in the city were also taking place but I clearly had his respect. I went on to tell him that I was promoted mid-career, placed in charge of Fozzie Bear production. We would remove the hair from living red setters that were reared in battery conditions by Henson himself, and hand stitch them on to the skins of the unemployed of HU3. Then sell them as a job lot to the lucrative far east market. This was human trafficking on a grand scale, left thousands of red setters completely un-red and hairless, and all in the city of freedom, no less. This was a tale that must be told. Probably as a piece of musical theatre. An Unbearable Truth, with songs by the re-formed Looking For Adam, sans their objectionable drummer, and with lighting by Durham Marenghi. Tracey Seaward could produce it if she wanted. And maybe we could insert some film footage by Sean Mcallister. And, so, that’s what we’re doing next year.

Actually, we’re not. We were going to, but I’ve had a change of heart. For, as Martin kindly suggested to me, this is not my tale to tell. At some point between 1995, when I found myself back in education, and 2008, when my ‘work play’ about a bunch of lifeboatmen coming to terms with having to work with a woman in their testosterone-charged workplace was receiving little attention outside of Hull, the chip on my shoulder was smoothed and sanded off to virtually non-existent, and the anger that fueled my work completely subsided. Work of this nature requires an authentic working class voice. Sure, I was there and lived that life, but I was already earning £8.5k in 1987, a significant sum back then that allowed me to purchase a Mini Metro outright.

I am not that person anymore, and I cannot get back there, however much the fee might be. I am at ease with that and, indeed, now spend many hours on the Avenues talking about offsetting my carbon footprint. But if you are that voice, that person, then you do not need to ask permission. I can even give you the first draft.

Pale blue dot…

Been reading Carl Sagan this weekend. Prompted by Robin Ince talking about Pale Blue Dot on the Bookshambles podcast recorded at Bluedot Festival. Anyway…

“Before we invented civilization our ancestors lived mainly in the open out under the sky. Before we devised artificial lights and atmospheric pollution and modern forms of nocturnal entertainment we watched the stars. There were practical calendar reasons of course but there was more to it than that. Even today the most jaded city dweller can be unexpectedly moved upon encountering a clear night sky studded with thousands of twinkling stars. When it happens to me after all these years it still takes my breath away.”