42. CATCH 22

There you were, in the Osteopathist’s treatment room, staring at the pale carpet, which seemed to be oscillating, like the mercurial surface of a weed-bound pond, while a cheap wall clock chopped out every second at an unnecessarily harsh volume. That was when you realised, with a groan of frustration, that you hadn’t posted your weekly Blog.

The reasons and excuses that flooded to mind were numerous: your brother is about to emigrate and visited, stayed the night and took your eye of the ball; you barely managed to see an art show this week and are not burning to share any such event with others; you’ve been fighting off depression and anxiety all week (both your own and your partner’s) ever since learning that a much hoped for and almost expected job did not, after all, have your name on it; your computer’s printer broke down; then your computer’s wireless connectivity broke down; then your landlady asked if it was OK if a couple of estate agents looked over the flat. All very inauspicious and disappointing.

On top of all that, the pain in your lower back that intensifies with stress, exhaustion and worry has led you to the Osteopath for a treatment you can’t afford but which you feel you desperately need. As you’ve said repeatedly on this Blog however, this is more about transmitting and recording a certain creative consciousness than simply art criticism or art journalism. You’ve always prided yourself on an ability to render banal events worthy of closer scrutiny and re-evaluation. So why not ‘tell it like it is’ and simply pass on what you are experiencing?

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One of the cultural highlights of this week came in the way of (yet another) excellent BBC Radio programme, this one titled ‘Writing A New South Africa.’ Some years ago you were lucky enough to be commissioned to visit south Africa and write about one of its leading painters, Johannes Phokela, and while there gained a little more sense of the country’s appalling modern history, first hand, beyond the newspapers and photographs that really give us such a thin and inadequate view of reality. The country is still clearly working its way through a tortuous turmoil, trying, rather painfully, to become something new and even unprecedented, while the vines of history still, in many ways, maintain a grasp on its abundant sense of possibility. The radio show in question featured a wonderful sonic collage (so much more vivid and compelling than televisual images) focused on the emerging generation of performance poets.

Their voices cut across the airwaves, playing with language and sound, politics and poetics, reminding you that the best art, the art you have always loved the most and always wanted to participate in is TRULY urgent, TRULY necessary, TRULY innovative, TRULY important and TRULY transformative, and when you repeat the term ‘TRULY’ you mean that these words are for real and not just their hollowed-out ‘artspeak’ simulations adorning yet another press release.

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Instead of artists setting out their work in the hope it will be acknowledged, favoured and funded, these poets were speaking direct to their peers and receiving immediate conspiratorial and noisome feedback. One of them started his presentation with a title that he repeated, so that it stood out like a banner above all present: “TELL YOUR STORY!” … “TELL YOUR STORY” he called, before the repetition melded effortlessly into the first line of his poem.

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These three big words really stuck in your mind, all through this week replete with your own, personal injustices. You regretted that you had been diverted from writing your own working class memoir (made to feel it is an impossible or thankless task in a world of middle class judgements) full of detailed descriptions of experiences both romantic and abject pertaining to a council-estate childhood, poor school, long periods of labouring, unemployment, various shades of poverty, dis-empowerment, failure and career entropy.

Yes, perhaps to ‘TELL YOUR STORY’ is what you must really do; and is perhaps all you can really do. And when you were really down this week you sometimes wondered and questioned just what is the point and where is it leading you to work so hard to satisfy all your students and all your various employers and all those you write about and write for, if the result is only living in almost constant fear of losing your home?

And when you are really down this week you sometimes wondered what is the point of trying in vain to fathom out the great sense of inequality and injustice you feel every time a colleague is promoted, buys a second home, reports an exotic holiday etc. while your own applied talent, effort and travail seems to add up to nothing more than an archive of artful but unread aspirations to excellence, and myriad memories of effective, fun-filled teaching, all fast-fading in the minds of your appreciative  ex-students.

“TELL YOUR STORY!” … “TELL YOUR STORY!”, of course, you know, and to your cost, that no-one wants or needs you to tell your story. This (incurably middle class) world, for all its claims to thrive on radicalism and difference is in fact happiest when no-one rocks it, as raising your voice is actually the privilege of the already empowered. When ‘others’ raise theirs it attracts disdain, mimicry, distancing irony or criticism. Nevertheless, it becomes ultimately impossible to live an unjust life; to remain quiet, like a butler in a stately home, when inside you are bursting with a strong and clear sense of what is right and wrong, wrestling with the pain of what is sometimes called ‘CATCH 22.’

So many are ‘caught’ the same way, forced – by fear or by their inability to articulate – to go about their business in meek servitude; to‘suffer in silence’. And if those who can articulate that feeling stay quiet then perhaps that is a disservice to those others who, like you, feel inside themselves their strong sense of sovereignty, humanity, rights and equality suffocated, diminished and crushed by culturally indoctrinated habitual deference (the way we immediately cringe beneath the power of a more refined accent) and by the obliviousness, myopia or blindness of those empowered but who never seem to consider the simple, basic, modern and democratic fact that you – although admittedly born with far less privileges, opportunities, social skills etc. – might deserve just as much reward, prospects and security as anyone else who strives, works, and gives and gives with the meek but tacit expectation that you will eventually, one day, receive some corresponding and appropriate gesture of gratitude and appreciation in return.

To be honest, ‘Justice’ and ‘Class’ have today become profane words, words that should neither be seen nor heard in a society rapidly slipping –morally, economically, ethically, socially – not just back to Victorian values but to Versaillean or perhaps medieval values.

Oh yes! you also heard this week that the tall, shining new towers currently zooming effortlessly up near Vauxhall Bridge will feature apartments designed by Versace and Philippe Starck. Hmmm, just what we all so desperately need.

WRITING A NEW SOUTH AFRICA – BBC RADIO 4

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