A world of plenty…

Here’s some thinking out loud I did last year when I was working with Invisible Dust on their three-year Surroundings project, writing about vegetables. A strange but fulfilling commission. Rather than let this little essay gather digital dust on the hard drive, I’m sharing it with you, here.

Romanesco Broccoli

A world of plenty

We live in a world of plenty. Yet still there are people that have nothing. We live in world where there is an abundance of food, yet still people starve. There are a shameful amount of people now reliant on food banks. There are growing rates of ‘food poverty’.

We live in a world that is divided into the haves and have nots. And we accept this as the norm because we choose to and a lot of us are greedy individuals, or rather we’re programmed to ensure our survival at all costs and, thus, we cling on to what we have. And tabloid newspapers and governments are rather keen to persuade us that poverty is the fault of those that are in it, rather than something that we could collectively change.

I have been poor, and not just during my time as an artist, and there have been times when I’ve been down to my last few quid but have had young children to feed. For those stuck in a poverty trap – and believe me, when you are poor, everything suddenly becomes more expensive, as anyone that has had to pay for electricity or gas with tokens or keys can testify – making ethical and educated choices regarding food purchases suddenly drops down the priority list, no matter how ethical and educated you might be. So piling a couple of baskets high with turkey twizzlers and smiling potato faces and lots of fatty, processed items from Iceland or Farmfoods or the like that will fill up plates and youngsters for a week, for hardly any money, is seductive. And it’s also about survival. Storing up fat in and on our bodies for the leaner times when we might have no money at all. Imagine that. Maybe you can’t.

I don’t recall the last time I couldn’t afford food. And that I couldn’t afford good food, and all the things that are rich in the right nutrients. Foods that will help me reduce the risk of heart disease, foods low in saturated fat and trans fat, and those that contain monounsaturated and polyunsaturated oils. I know what real food is; things that grow in the ground, on a tree, come out of the sea, run on the land, or fly through the air.

Humble brag but I am educated and, also, middle-class. I know what’s good for me. Yet such is the complexity of my relationship with food that I am often tempted by naughty things that will do me harm. Late night kebabs and curries, those packets of 20 (approx.) German meatballs you can get for a quid, a Peperami stick from the corner shop. Bombay Bad Boy Pot Noodles. A Ginsters pasty. Not only should I know better, I do.

About five years ago, when I was heartbroken after a failed relationship, I hit food and drink hard in the way that Keith Richards hit heroin in the late sixties and seventies. Wild, enjoyable, hedonistic times but then one morning I woke up alongside someone I didn’t recognise, feeling fat and bloated. And, having looked in the mirror unable to recognise myself, had a revelation that if I was to go on living, and was ever to have another long-term relationship that would end in heartbreak, rather than a string of casual flings that involved eating unhealthy food off other people’s bodies, I had to do something about it.

And so, literally overnight, I did. I bought some cook books and applied the knowledge that I had stored at the back of my mind – my personal food knowledge larder, if you will. And started to purchase vegetables with regularity from a local greengrocers, and revelled in food preparation and cooking with fresh ingredients. I ate my five-a-day. Cut down on the booze. Consumed sensibly. Stopped eating after 6pm. Actually concerned myself with ethical farming, local farmers’ markets, and reconnected with the food on my plate, and where it was sourced.

I became a cliché, yes, but one that may live a couple of years longer. Interestingly, as I returned to something resembling an average weight for a man of my height, and my body fat reduced, people asked me if I was ok. Which they hadn’t when I’d needed them too. And lots of people thought I was ill. Very ill. And possibly dying. Which I wasn’t. And they were relieved when I explained my regime, and sometimes congratulated me, but I often thought that their reaction to me revealed that they had body image issues, and food-related issues, of their own. Which, of course, we all do.

All too rarely do writers open their emails in a morning to find that someone has commissioned them. An email to me from Invisible Dust offered me the chance to “write a new piece of writing on the theme of food and food sustainability” for their three-year Surroundings project. An offer so wonderfully vague that my positive response was pretty instantaneous. I could, within a certain remit, do whatever I wanted. Which isn’t always possible.

I write this having written this new piece of writing. And as I sit here having contemplated food and food sustainability in order to get that new piece of writing written, I realise that I’m still gathering my thoughts on what is an incredibly ‘big’ subject. Which might sound odd. Writers, especially those given open briefs, flounder and flounce about not really knowing what they’re doing, attempting to grasp at something mercurial and, well, non-existent, because of course until you get something down nothing does exist.

Initially, for no reason other than I thought there might be comic potential in concentrating on vegetables and because I only had a vague sense of what I was trying to achieve, I decided to keep a log of my vegetable intake. I mistakenly presumed that this long list would then simply result in an automatic poem that I could submit to Invisible Dust and we’d all be happy. It didn’t; it just resulted in a long list that revealed that I eat a lot of peppers, chillies, shallots and, erm, chips. With no poetic merit. Although, as a non-poet, it was better than a lot of my previous attempts at poetry.

There was a point when I considered the personification of vegetables as the way forward. You know, Keith the Carrot, Paula the Potato, ‘Arry the Artichoke. We’d all dress in funny veg suits, sprout from the ground, waving at the sun, and it would all be like a bad children’s TV show. This is, I think, based on my main childhood relationship to vegetables formed by the BBC television show That’s Life, on which Esther Rantzen used to flash her marvellous teeth and hold up various root crops and make us laugh at how they resembled genitalia (the root crops, not her teeth). Which is why I would never go near turnips and carrots when my mum served them up on the dinner plate.

Thankfully, I didn’t head down that innuendo-laden, waving cucumbers around as phallus weaponry in a fight scene cul-de-sac. I have, rather predictably, written a love story. Partly because the word ‘seduced’ kept coming up when I was reading and talking and thinking around the subject – we’re seduced by supermarkets to buy their ‘finest’ and ‘taste the difference’ products, we’re seduced by community food networks, container gardens, urban food projects, we’re seduced by the Fair Trade mark, we’re seduced by middle-class values that might lead to us buying boxes full of organic fruit and veg, we’re seduced by marketing, we’re seduced by the earth and all that nature offers, we’re seduced by local food producers and market stall traders. Some of these seduction techniques will transform our lives for the better. At other times, we’re being seduced by manipulative devils. How I wish I was a movement director and could cover all those bases via the medium of interpretive dance.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about our relationship to food. Thinspiration, a 2007 play, was about a young woman with an eating disorder who had come to view food as her “enemy”. She was in the midst of a battle but we didn’t present all that as binary conflict, because it isn’t. But it is interesting looking at the oppositional nature with which we regard foodstuffs and food production. Good food versus bad. Winter leaves wear a white hat in the cowboy movie, hot dogs clearly rock up head-to-toe in black. Factory farming is Darth Vader, organic veg Luke Skywalker. The whole world of food production and global resources is a battle of good versus evil.

A meeting with Dr Lewis Holloway from the Geography department at the University of Hull, who conducts research into food, farming and technology and most definitely wears a white hat, confirmed that my thinking was along the right tracks and also, ahem, gave me more food for thought.

When I worked in higher education I taught a module on semiotics but I’d never considered semiotics in relation to vegetables, until Lewis told me he taught a module on that. And, of course, I felt a fool that the cultural and religious significance of food, as well as the social, buying and sharing relationships we enjoy as a result of food, had barely registered on my radar. Even when I’ve broken bread with people I’ve barely known across a dinner table. Even when I’ve picked up unusual oddities from the world food store round the corner and they’ve explained various meanings that went with, say, the ingredients of Rendang for the people of Minangkabau, for whom the chilli symbolises ulama (the learned ones) and sharia (prescribed religious and secular duties). So, of course! Food is cultural as well as nutritional.

I left Lewis feeling wiser, as one should after having a cup of coffee and a natter with a leading academic. A lot of our conversation revolved around trust and how people currently have a need to rethink their relationship with food. For instance, supermarket food is intentionally disconnected from the soil, and their packaging and the clean, hygienic goods within were developed to gain consumer trust. But for others, that can’t be trusted at all because the dirt on something you’d pull from the ground yourself is a guarantee of authenticity and connects our food back to the earth.

We’re taking back control via ethical consumption, but also this is happening due to the rise in the number of middle class people, or people who perceive themselves as middle class, and the perception that to be middle class means certain things. Such as the pressure to buy, say, organic, and rejoice in that and tell everyone you bloody know that is what you’ve done, wearing it like a badge of honour.

Still, there’s a growing number of us asking those big questions of our food. Where’s it from? Is it safe? What damaging chemicals have been used in the growing process? Has it been ethically produced? And what about labour relations and bad working conditions for farm workers in some parts of the globe where our produce hails from? What negative environmental issues have been brought to bear getting this stuff to our plate? What’s the environmental cost of importing all those unseasonal foodstuffs we now demand all year round?

Then there’s the Commodity Veil that shrouds our consumption where, for our own psychological reasons, we actually like not knowing where the food we consume comes from. Especially when we think about cattle getting slaughtered or radishes screaming when they’re pulled from the soil.

We are clearly living in a world of re-attachment, after years of being detached from food production. The rise of alternative food networks and people taking pride in their purchases from farmers’ markets, buying veg boxes, the number of people on allotment waiting lists or developing veg plots in their own gardens. That’s all back to want to trust in produce and these alternative food networks are bridging the gap between people, place and production. And along the way farmers are changing their knowledge and thinking relating to farming and animals in order to keep pace with consumers, while developments in robotics, IT, and genetic science are all impacting on the food sector globally in positive ways.

Which is all very nice, isn’t it? And it offers us all hope.

Vegetables are mind blowing. It’s very easy to take them for granted and to stop marvelling at their magnificence. I genuinely recall the first time I saw a Romanesco Broccoli. Mainly, I think, because it was relatively recently and it arrived in the food box we have delivered weekly. And I held it in my hand and got lost in it for quite some time. It was quite a work of art. Psychedelic. Visually stunning and a maths lesson all in one. Fennel’s always thrilled me. And I rather appreciate a beetroot colouring my fingers.

All of which is a long-winded way of writing that, if I were to now start writing the piece of writing that Invisible Dust commissioned, then it would probably be a different piece of writing altogether. Because I’m still thinking, and I’m thinking more, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of my own thoughts on the theme of food and food sustainability, never mind being able to take those thoughts and turn them into something that might be useful to someone who would read or hear them. So I wrote a love story. Girl meets market trader. Falls in love. He gives her a bite of the apple. It goes a big wrong. But she learns something along the way and is much the better for it. That old trope.

And that is a long-winded way to get back round to the beginning of this essay, because I do like circular writing. I only ask questions, I’m not claiming to have any answers.

We do live in a world of plenty. There’s more than enough to go round.

You’re probably so intelligent that you’re ahead of me but we can’t expect supermarkets and freezer centres to lead us to a better world of food sustainability and ethically sourced produce, or to worry about the exploitation of farm workers, or to present alternatives to current models of food provision; they’re too busy locking food producers into terrible deals, capturing and attempting to monopolise the food market and constructing the demand they tell us we are asking them to supply in order to perpetuate their own myths and boost their own profits.

And we most definitely cannot expect governments to do anything other than pit us against each other, and encourage us to blame the poor for their stupidity because being poor is the fault of the poor, right? And being uneducated is their fault too. And you, from your middle-class, boastful organic food buying position are happy to go along with that, right? Because that way you get to hang on to what you’ve got and not feel guilty that you might, just might, be part of the problem.

Maybe that’s what needs to change, then?

Don’t worry. You’re off the hook. I’m actually addressing myself. Unless, of course, you recognise something of yourself in all this, in which case it’s most definitely all about you.

Surviving on this planet has always involved working together. Give a woman a three-pack of courgettes, and you feed her for a day. Give her the keys to your allotment and not only do you feed her and her family for a lifetime, you change their relationship to every other living thing we share the planet with, and we all get to live happily ever after.

What Is … Writing?

Last night (Wednesday March 8) I was involved in an event called What Is … Light? I wrote the following for inclusion in a zine we produced for the night, but we didn’t have room for it. So here you go. A polemic, a diatribe, an opinion piece, some thinking out loud.

The act of writing is a lonely pursuit. You sit, alone, and think thoughts, alone, dream stories, alone, and write them down, alone. You can, of course, do this lonely work in very crowded places. But the presence of others is no real concern of yours. You are still alone with your thoughts, ideas and stories and whatever and wherever that mysterious place is that you go to in order to combine the necessary ingredients in order to create a finished product.

I’m sure chefs are the same when they’re revamping a menu. They have a great idea for a dish but daren’t tell anyone for fear of being labelled stupid, at best, or mad, at worst. Yet something drives them to combine flavours and foodstuffs that aren’t served up in any other restaurant or in any other cookbook. And they wake in the middle of the night, head back to the kitchen, and try and get things beyond the stage of exotic ingredients, strange brews and broths. Ultimately, those dishes are destined for someone to salivate over, feast on and devour. Which, if you’re lucky, is the same with writing. No writer wants to write anything that remains in a notebook, or in a folder on the computer, or buried deep within a slush pile. All writers want to send their babies into the world for a hug. No writer wants to be alone ad infinitum. All writers want to connect with people at some point down the line.

I have spent around five years attempting to work out what irks me about working in and writing for theatre. And being involved with projects outside of theatre has enabled me to galvanise my thoughts.

In theatre, a scarily collaborative medium, writers are forced to let people in to their lonely place when they are ill-prepared for it. Theatre is not currently a place where writers sit at the heart. Collaboration is certainly no bad thing but the current vogue for R&D, workshopping and developing work in public thrusts writers into a position of taking on board the ideas of others at the very point when they want to curl up and die because they have no idea that what they have scribbled down in drafts 1, 2 and 3 or beyond is any good, and they are in fear of being labelled stupid, at best, or mad, at worst.

Writers are still working out what it is they are trying to say when others are asking them why they are saying what they are saying because it isn’t clear in the text. Actors, like tourists in St Mark’s Square carelessly tossing bird food at pigeons, hurl ideas around about character when writers are still getting to know characters.

Directors are intent on deleting lines that may or may not be pivotal to the very meaning of a play, and at the very least want to delete lines that have callbacks 20 pages later, thus rendering said callbacks as incomprehensible non-sequiturs that will also be deleted in due course. And marketing want to know what it is they should be selling to an audience. And suits want to know how any of us will make money out of this. Many people talk about return on investment. All of which just is what it is. Leave them to it. Let them make their own work. They know best. It’s a broken medium, for writers, and maybe theatre is all the better for that, but I don’t know.

In many other mediums, too, writers often find themselves involved in a distillation process, or maybe I mean a dilution process. A decreasing amount of writers are allowed to claim authorship of any finished product and even those that are have seen their work and words bent out of shape. Their initial ideas are contorted in the name of collaboration as those involved vie for the mantle of auteurship. Too many voices shouting loudly, albeit creatively and the anxious writer, told that, “well, you have to make compromises along the way, that’s how we do it,” retreating, like a tortoise into its shell. Again, this isn’t a bad thing and there are many examples of massive mainstream successes that suggest that this approach is exactly the right thing to do.

But it does nothing for the writer, chiselling away at the granite that an empty page presents to anyone bold enough to think that they can fill it. I know I’m not alone. The other day, a highly reputable, yet ‘notorious’ artist that has worked to international acclaim said to me on the phone that he thought it was a good idea to write plays but had no idea of the amount of people that would get involved that seemed intent on doing everything in their power to derail what was, at the start, a very simple idea. We’ve created a factory production system, a machine, and an unwieldy one at that. Yet writers are not machines, they’re individuals trying to make sense of the world.

Poets and novelists – and I am neither – still, income aside, retain a certain position of power and respect that is enviable and a level of purity of vision that one would never get in, say, a writers’ room or rehearsal room. Those writers – as we all should -–are clinging on to their vital societal role. Writers, making stuff up but operating as purveyors of truth, creating work in order to share important lessons; moral, intellectual and idealistic. Writers are not entertainers, although their work is entertaining and, for some poets and novelists, so is a reading or performance.

Yet it is the writing that is everything; writing so that their voices, and unheard voices and untold stories, can be heard both by an audience who desire that message but also for those that didn’t know they wanted to hear or read that message until it smacked them in the face. So, currently clinging on, even in this era where ‘celebrity’ and an aesthetically pleasing face threaten to usurp words in importance. Clinging on. Yet someone, somewhere, will no doubt be plotting how to change all that. Writers threaten power, the status quo, are imprisoned for their uncomfortable truths. They’re worth clinging on to. And we should fight for their power to fight power.

Writers should be proud of their nomenclature. It’s a powerful job title. Or it should be. Yet the above thoughts underline that the role of writer is one that is being undermined. Perhaps there needs to be a semantic leap. There are many writers that I know that are uncomfortable to claim that they are artists, when they are very clearly creating works of art. Come out, writers, make that declaration.

This would all confuse the little boy that lurks within me that spent much of his childhood bashing away on an old Imperial typewriter (made in Hull) attempting to emulate his heroes of the day (mostly Edward Lear, René Goscinny, Spike Milligan, Eric Sykes, Eric Thompson, Peter Cook and Michael Palin and Terry Jones). That little boy thought there was nothing better than filling up a blank page with nonsense and then pairing it down – for all writing is editing, really – to something that his heroes might produce (it very rarely got anywhere near that) and that made him very, very happy. He didn’t know, at the time, that he was cursed, as all writers are.

When we unfussily, and with very little attention and zero expectation of what we’d make, got together to create the first What Is? event – All Will Flow – it was a reminder that, sometimes, one can write without giving a shit about what people think and that, as a result, you hit a sweet spot that is very much about writing about those very things that people give a shit about. Emancipated from the negative nature of meddlers and energy depleting theatricals and those that want to tell you what story is without having any idea themselves of what story is takes you to a creative place that we are all trying to get to; one of universal truths and connectivity with fellow human beings. What Is? is a collaborative effort but one that allows its artists to just get on with it. It is one of those projects outside of theatre that has enabled me to not only galvanise my thoughts but get back to the business of writing. It makes me very, very happy to be involved in such a venture.

Writing is a lonely pursuit. Yet writers are content with that and it’s part of the appeal. That’s the lesson that was reinforced at the first event, when writing pieces of work in response to a theme and to the work of a visual artist. Forging collaborations with like-minded spirits, a reminder that what we do as writers is art and that the time spent alone thinking, dreaming and eventually flooding the page with words is crucial, not only to us but to the rest of the world. A curse worth living with. That’s what writing is.




#challengehull week 10…

365/17. Daily notes from the City of Culture.


Week #10 of Challenge Hull is courtesy of Pause Project, who provide a creative solution designed to address the needs of women who have, or are at risk of, multiple children being removed from their care.

They urge us to look around, go for a walk, see what we can see and collect objects as we go, then use our magic on these objects and inject them with new life, using glitter, glue, fabric, or anything else we might lay our hands on.

I ignored that brief, and went upstairs to ‘find’ something that I was given at Christmas. One of the most beautiful – and powerful – everyday objects with unfathomable creative potential: A pen.

In 1941, Woody Guthrie placed a sticker on his guitar that read “This Machine Kills Fascists”. And, of course, songwriters, Guthrie among them, have caused a lot of people to rethink their politics, brought about societal change, touched and entertained people, shone a light on wrongdoing or helped people understand life. Maybe he mainly used a pencil, I dunno, but at some point, I’d like to think that even the wielder of a Fascist killing axe will have put pen to paper to write some lyrics, or some dots on lines, down.

Writers in all forms, gripping pens, have sparked revolutions and transformed the world. The weapon of change remains the pen, even in these high-tech days. A pen, coupled with paper, is the primary tool to bring about change. Writing works. Words still work. Maybe that’s why they’re trying to close down libraries. And while it’s nice to tap away into your favourite text editor or phone app, those that know the power of the pen continue to wander the earth with a notebook in their pocket and several pens at hand; laying down thoughts, capturing overheard comments and conversations, exploring their feelings on what they see that is wrong with the world. Graham Greene once wrote, with a pen I hope, that his two fingers on a typewriter never connected with his brain. Only his hand on a pen did that.

There is no need to use glitter, glue, fabric or anything else. The glitter comes from the pen, the glue that binds us together likewise, the fabric that is required to bind society together also. Take your pen, and write about the abuses that people the world over are suffering at the hands of those in power, shine a light on the darkest, murky corners. Never has the pen been more important. It’s an analogue machine that, coupled with some intelligent and considered thought and creativity, can kill Fascists.

Go find a pen, now. And use it.

Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing…

Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing

1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.


Read more on this from Elmore Leonard at the New York Times Writers on Writing series.

Supply & Demand…

Here’s a jolly little poem for you on a Friday afternoon, ’bout a corner of Hull, along with an attractive image of said corner. Have a nice weekend.

Waterhouse Lane

Supply & Demand

She was standing under the streetlight

No idea who Septimus Bromby was

And no desire to wade through some early 19th century census

To find out the name of the pub he ran.

No desire to be here, either

Standing under the streetlight

Of one of the city’s most famous streets

Built on a demand for fresh water

Giving those of a different era

What they wanted

Long before sewage

Flowed through here

Cash in hand.

Unusual experiment…

I haven’t been drinking, haven’t been in a bar, haven’t been at the Dingo, Dome nor Select. Haven’t seen anybody. Not going to see anybody. Trying unusual experiment of a writer writing. That will also probably turn out to be vanity.

Ernest Hemingway, letter to F Scott Fitzgerald

Orange peel…

“But sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.”

Ernest Hemingway – A Moveable Feast