Reading, Writing And Telling

Our monthly Story-Nights have given us the opportunity to compare and contrast the reading of a written story with one told. We offer equal opportunity to individuals to do either, or both, and to me at least the difference is very marked. It has strengthened my belief in story-telling as a medium for truly enlightened sharing of ourselves.

Good story-readers are few and far between, and good readers of their own story even more rare. When the BBC offers a Book At Bedtime they have generally chosen to deliver the reading an actor who has great clarity of enunciation, good voice-modulation, and an innate readiness to inhabit the world of the words. The actor will also be able to cope with the various literary devices employed by the writer and imbue them, sometimes miraculously, with an immediacy and fluency which the writing was not intended to manifest. All this is the result of training, study and experience.

Good storytellers are more common and anyone can be a good storyteller with practice and attention to their audience. It is a given of storytelling that the creative/expressive act is only possible – only happens – in the presence of an audience. That is not to say that storytellers don’t write their stories first, and even sometimes memorize them meticulously – many do both. It is just that the story is only realized in the telling. It only has life as a moment of communing with others.

This contrasts with the written story which has achieved its form and substance on a page. It may be read there and, indeed may be best when read there. Writing allows the author to deploy artifices which often work best on the page. And writing for reading is a one-to-one, writer-to-individual-reader relationship. So often, in my experience, that joke, irony, sly insinuation, or detached tone which make a story on the page variously piquant and characterful go adrift when the reader attempts complicity with a crowd. They were not meant to be read aloud. The same kinds of inflection are available to the storyteller but are conveyed through eye-contact, facial expression, pauses, body-language – performance devices not literary devices. There is a great difference, I believe between a literary flourish and the rhetoric and emphasis of telling.

The story-reader so often – unless they have been practicing Jackanory-style and know their text thoroughly – looks down at their page; the voice is the main, and sometimes only, medium of communication, and that voice is so often directed towards the floor. Is it a matter of honour that writers’ stories be delivered by themselves? If so, it is frequently a false honour, doing the writing a disservice, and depriving the audience of a truly live, and living, experience. We have, on the night, been offering to find readers for the written stories, or a course on how to present your own writing. This is because we want our Story-Night audiences to have the most vivid experience and the strongest sense of occasion.

We had the pleasure at our most recent night of contributions from some student story-tellers whose university course includes a module on story-telling. They were good, and well able to breast the wave of the occasional mistake of memory, and above all very present. I noticed a slight tendency for them to enact – to run about and mime in the service of their telling – where the words on their own, feelingly used, would have done that work, but better something to follow with your eyes as well as your ears (and your mind’s imagination) than to lose a literary effect through careless reading. The students were developing their technique and some of them may go on to tell stories professionally, but they were there, on the night, to engage with people, and they did.

I have noticed one other divergence between writing/reading and telling – the nature of the human events which are related. I had wondered for some time why many of the written stories were so full of cruelty and graphic violence and malice. That’s not to say that many stories chosen by tellers, from the great ocean of stories available to us all, do not include violence or pain or downright evil. The written stories however have seemed to fetishize that cruelty, as though it was a shared indulgence to describe it. And whereas a told story will most often bring their protagonist(s) through the experiences with unrelenting sympathy and humanity to a resolution which satisfies all concerned, including the audience, the written and read stories often seemed to leave us all, well, in the shit.

I’ve discussed this perception with others and we concluded that it was the nature of story-writing to be a mixture of confessional and deep fantasy, the experiences coalescing on the page into images of personalized power. When they are read out loud to an audience they are suddenly exposed as personal. It is as though a private phone-conversation about something quite intimate were suddenly broadcast to a crowded room. Story-tellers on the other hand have declared their readiness to be heard. They have prepared themselves to connect and will use only what is needed for that to happen. They know that they must work every word in the moment.

I declare that there are exceptions to the judgements I’ve expressed above. A small but distinguished number of readers have written words which trip off their tongue with all the authenticity of their personal voice, and they still manage to make-eye-contact with their audience. The stories are humane, convivial and coloured with shared humour. Conversely some story-tellers do not hear themselves as they tell and overplay or underplay their material. We all, in the end, have things to learn about our craft. As a committed story-teller I have come down on the side of telling but I am always ready to be impressed by a good reading. All I would request of story-readers is that they consider handing over their stories to others to read, so that they can hear them in a detached way, and learn from that.

Meanwhile the contrasts and comparisons are available for all to consider. Most stories pass through the medium of the page on the way to someone’s imagination, but I guess we would all want the page to be as negligible as possible in our public sharings so that our unique expressivity can shine out.

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What Have I Got In My Hand?

Our storytelling group are planning to offer a workshop this Spring on “Story-telling And Sewing”. We have in the past programmed workshops on “Storytelling and Movement” and “Storytelling And Voice” so linking story with another expressive medium is nothing new, but maybe sewing is a less obvious choice for connection. I was inspired to propose it when I was asked by my old friend Clare Higney to read a draft of a book she has been writing, about sewing and embroidery and their place in our wider culture. Clare is a genius in this area and has so much experience of working in the medium in community settings, but the aspect of the subject which caught my attention was her description of how story can be captured and preserved by sewing, not just in the past and in far-flung parts of the globe, but here in these islands now.

I was interested in how a craft medium which produces objects and static images not actions can have a narrative dimension, and last week on a visit to the British Museum I found myself drawn to an exhibit – “Krishna in the garden of Assam – the cultural context of an Indian textile” – and there it was, the Vrindavani Vastra (literally ‘the cloth of Vrindavan’), made of woven silk and figured with scenes from the life of the Hindu god Krishna during the time he lived in the forest of Vrindavan. It’s a narrative cloth, and the exhibit is dedicated to assisting in our understanding of the story.

The Vrindavani Vastra will be on show until August and I recommend that you see it if you can. What then pre-occupied me was how we might include any products of our sewing-and-story workshop in our tellings. This seemed to me to be the same challenge that we set ourselves whenever we use objects with story, so I decided to run a workshop last weekend about using objects and what they allow and insist on in the telling.

Most of what we did was to handle, consider and use as stimulus a number of objects I’d brought in for the session. I already had had some thoughts about the different ways an object can have presence in a spoken narrative, but this was a time to test them out.

I suggested that an object can, for example, be used as exactly itself – “this very thing” – and its history can be told, sometimes the history of how it came to be and sometimes how it came to be in the possession of the teller, and indeed in this space now. I had brought with me a mug which commemorated Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. It was produced in Leicester to mark that city’s celebration of this nationally significant date, and to either side of the Queen’s image are pictures of Leicester’s Lord Mayor and his wife. We had a few stories which might be told here, of varying levels of interest – how the mug came to be produced, the story of the Jubilee, or how the mug had been passed down the years to end up at the back of a shelf in my kitchen. The mug was the story, but also contained a story or two. Each would take some investigation (and ingenuity) to constitute a story worth the telling, but there was no doubt that the presence of the mug in the storyteller’s hand would lend a certain weight to that telling.

I was also ready to point out that the mug might be presented as a representative, a stand-in, for the mug about which a story might be told, and then Mary offered an entirely fictional, or at least suppositional, tale of how the pictures on the mug may have been mixed up, which gave the object another life, and made us want to look again at it. I also pointed out that the object as held by the teller might be presented, fictionally, as having a relationship with the one in the story being told, as one of a pair, or a replacement for one broken, or as a copy, and so conferring life on the story-object by association. There was also the much looser use of the mug as a pretext for telling a story about mugs, or a mug, and we did not fail to note the use of an object, any object, as a way of distracting the audience’s gaze away from the face of a nervous or shy storyteller, by shifting the focus of the telling.

Each object raised new questions about the use of objects in story. A cheap plastic “Winner” medal on a tricolor string and bought in a supermarket – did we use that as representing a winning medal or draw attention to its cheap manufacture? Was it the medal in a story or just a medal? We can determine how much attention is paid to the close details of an object but how what determines that “how much”?

There was a beautiful flower-shaped candle, unlit (and bought, if you paid attention to the label on the bottom, from Habitat). Was the fact that it had never been lit part of the story? (Was Habitat?) Decima came up with a story which accounted for both. There was a harmonica in a perfume container – the piquancy of that conjunction suggested (almost demanded) a story which was not so much about the objects so much as about their coming together. It might be researched or made up. A sea-shell – it has its own geological story, but can also, courtesy of John and Colin hold the focus of a fiction about how it was found, or lost. The torch, the magnifying glass, – all of the objects stimulated consideration of the ways in which an object can be essential to a telling. And then we noticed how we held them as we talked and that denoted or demonstrated a relationship with the teller. It all became very fascinating and in the process we came up with a lot of developable stories.

All this will bear fruit when we come to the sewing. At the end of that session, if all goes according to plan, we shall each have a sewn something to provide a focus for a future telling. We may end up making it first and then finding out how to use it, or we may design it in our head for a planned storytelling. It will have substance, a pattern or an image, it will be a masterpiece or an avowedly imperfect go at sewing, it may represent something for us, or we may discover something about ourselves and what we need to say in the very physical, manual act of making it. We do not know, but it will be interesting to find out. When we all put down our needles and thread at the end of the session, or after what we have produced has accompanied us into a story-sharing, we may have something to report.

Our Mutual Friends

We make distinctions in story-telling, between what comes from our own experience and what we make up, between stories we’ve found and stories we’ve constructed, but in many cases the distinctions get blurred. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the characters we offer to our audiences. I think of this when listening to two members of our group when they tell some of their most characteristic stories.

It came to me the other day when Liz was telling us all about Maureen and her “millions”, a fine fantasy of a storyabout a failed compact with a devilish figure to become very rich, rich beyond the bounds of possibility, through a laborious repetition of a word (I’m not giving away the details – you may hear the story some day). Liz introduces Maureen as a friend and sketches in their shared background, but eventually we are in a fantastic situation which only a fictional character could experience. Even to the end though Maureen is shared with us as one of Liz’s intimates, someone so close to her that she can imagine (or recall) this crucial incident in her life. It’s all in manner and tone of voice, and something else quite elusive which is, or can be, part of the storyteller’s technique. It’s hard to describe but it conveys the sense that Liz does not just, as in most storytelling, know about Maureen, she knows her – as much as she knows us who are gathered to listen to her tell – and so Maureen becomes hyper-real, absolutely amongst us, courtesy of Liz, maybe, but almost of her own free will.

I reflected that David, who has also offered us many tales at sharings and on Story-nights, draws on this same dimension of identification with his characters. They are ordinary folk, from the streets and houses of our towns and cities, not from fairyland or the wide realms of fantasy. They don’t do anything particularly heroic, just interact and learn as they do so. And David shares them with us as acquaintances, perhaps from some perspective which only a wise elder or superior gossip would have – a teacher, a priest, a doctor, a seasoned youth worker. He doesn’t offer himself in any of those roles but there is no doubt that he, like Liz, knows these people, and since he is alive and in front of us, as Liz is, these people must be equally alive, and just round the corner of that twisting path of our lives, liable at some time to appear in our actuality.

I may seem to be making a very particular point here, and I’m not saying that this quality of relating is either necessary or essential to a good story-telling. Fortunately story is as wide as the universe and susceptible to an infinite range of tellings. This is just a short acknowledgement of the closeness you can feel in the presence of shared experience, and maybe a reminder that we can only convey character as a living thing if we are invested in the characters we offer up and, most important, that we manifestly love and care for them. That then also defines our relationship with our audience. We care for them so much that we want to share our story with them.

In Search Of Purpose

I chose to call our January Story-Workshop “Storytelling To Some Purpose”. The name was prompted by a reading-scheme which I remember from my junior-school years, “Reading To Some Purpose”. It has been superseded many times over by the latest Government-promoted scheme, but the phrase sounded a chord with me when I began to consider how many of us involved in “story” would like our story-telling to be connected in some way with the wider world, to be part of some social or artistic purpose. I felt instinctively that many of the people who would come to the workshop would be interested in exploring this idea. In the week running up to the workshop I had been having one-to-one advice sessions with some of the group I’m leading through the “Crafting A Story” workshop, and I knew from those conversations that some people also want their story-telling to connect with the needs of institutions, like schools, and to derive some income from the connection. All of this shaped the workshop.

We started off by sharing stories we’d remembered from recent news reports, and already I could see how the workshop would lead naturally on from these. I began by reminding the group that the news media are interested in stories. We looked at three stories from the news, the first a quite raw news web-site post about the family of Alan Kurdi, the young Syrian boy whose dead body was washed up on Mediterranean shores after the capsize of a boat in which he and others were travelling from Turkey to Kos. This was a moment which reached a global public through a news photograph which was the focus on world media reporting. The written “story” was quite raw and factual but, despite its accuracy the group found evidence in it of a “blame” culture and a failure to address the issues which led to the widespread flight of Syrians from their country.

A less “raw” story also told of the crossing, this time successful, by refugees from Turkey to Greece, but the subject was an Afghanistani family fleeing the Taliban and now living in a Calais refugee camp. The story was more crafted and focused with direct and reported testimony and it used the image of the husband’s lute-playing which had earned him the violent attentions of the Taliban and which now provided a slight dimension of defiance in the face of the current adversity.

A third news story told of the Muslim youth group which travelled from Yorkshire to help with flood relief in Cumbria. It was a positive article which emphasized the significant contribution made by the group in reaching across cultural definitions in the name of a common humanity. The story group noted the tendency in the reporting to measure the youth group’s achievement in terms of English values, also the absence of testimony from the young Muslims themselves, but concluded that such an emphasis is necessary to counter the larger trend towards demonizing or scapegoating members of the British Muslim community.

My purpose in sharing these three news stories was to raise questions about how our more generalized, less journalistic, storytelling relates to the mediated news we encounter every day. It was clear that to tell these stories to a live audience we would want to change or reconstruct the order of events and introduce ideas of point of view and agency to the telling. How much further might we go, though, – and for what reason? Indeed, at what price?

It would be possible to use no more than the facts in the articles, but the stories so produced would be neither very vivid nor engaging. Could we infer extra facts from what we had, and include these in the telling? I introduced the group to two short sections from a book by the journalist Peter Millar in which he recounts how he learned to turn raw reportage into vivid popular new journalism by just such inference. It seemed to make sense, but was anything lost in the process? Someone suggested that an emphasis on typicality and likely, rather than reported, facts took away the dimension of unpredictability from the account, and from the representation of life itself. But if more people were drawn into reading the story because it had been enhanced or expanded in this way, was it a price worth paying?

We moved on to consider the times when a news story is given a lot of elaboration, where images are emphasized, dialogue supplied, themes drawn out, when the facts are almost submerged in supposition and literary devices – perhaps in the name of some higher truth or greater reader appeal. This is the kind of thing we do when we develop a story for telling. Are we, the story-tellers, guilty of a fundamental dishonesty?

And what happens when we begin to fictionalize the story? So far, I suggested, we had been dealing with telling the story “of” something. Our purpose was to do justice to actuality. What happens when we tell a story “from”, or “derived from”, or “out of” something we’ve read or heard about? At this point we have taken it upon ourselves to select what facts and images we want, and to add to them at will, using the original information as a reference point only. We can have floods, children, migration, music, as our springboard, as inspiration, but what purpose are we serving here? Not to bring a news story alive for a live audience, surely, but just to serve the deeper (?) needs of storytelling, – interest, delight, empathy, entertainment. Is “based on a true story” an excuse for imaginative licence? If we do not seek a wider purpose for what we do, of course, these questions are irrelevant.

And then there is the story, not “of” or “from”, but “for” the world, a world which contains migration, privation, drowning, persecutions, war, violence. What can our story-telling do for that world, and what stories would we put in our story-bag to take to the stakeholders in that world, – not just Syrian and Afghanistani families and flood victims, but otherwise uninvolved individuals who only know about these situations second- or third-hand? We discussed this at some length exploring ideas of catharsis, compassion, laughter, connection, and “anecdote or antidote?” It did seem that there was some purpose, some function special to live storytelling, which we could draw upon if we wished to.

Before we took on some workshop tasks I briefly pointed out that if anyone was interested in deriving purpose, or income, from their storytelling, then serving the needs of the school curriculum or providing accessible stories as introductions to art exhibitions were areas of possible employment. There was also work as a professional storyteller, but we concluded that only a few people were at that level, that most of us probably wouldn’t reach it, and that, if you hadn’t dealt with the issues we had been discussing, you would probably never reach it.

I proposed four tasks to be tackled in groups: to retell one of the three news stories in our live storytelling mode; to explore one of those stories for its fictional or imaginative potential; to consider what stories might be told for a world of floods, drowning and war; to consider a set of photographs in a book which I had brought as the starting point for a family-friendly story to accompany an exhibition. Much interesting discussion followed.

I was, though, keen , before the end of the workshop ,to take the emphasis away from news stories for a while. I asked the individuals in the group to write on separate pieces of paper distinct images which occurred to them in answer to the question,- when you think of the world we live in, what do you think of? When they had finished we placed the papers on the carpet at random, and there, I suggested, was a composite portrayal of our world, – very provisional and impressionistic, but no less true in the moment. It was a mosaic of images, and any one of those images, or combinations of them, could be the starting point, the springboard, for a story which has as its purpose serving the needs of the world in some way, – “of”, “from” or “for” it.

For interest the images were,-

The Ocean – whales, Greenpeace activists.

A masked young man making a threat

Parched earth

Mobile phones

Supermarkets

Coffee Shops

Mobile phones/camera

Deforestation

Refugees In leaky boats

Tree – tree house, tree huggers

Rich people’s expensive food

Smart phones

British Red Cross/Red Crescent

Rich and Poor

Youth/Poor Housing

Square filtered sunsets from somewhere in the world (Instagram)

Mornington Crescent (!)

Chinese students

I would like to think that the workshop set the participants off into considerations of the processes they used in story-making and –telling, and maybe in so doing deriving a new story project from the material we had considered and the discussions it stimulated.

CHRISTMAS LOST

Someone had lost Christmas. One poor soul had to report it to everyone else, but, of course, no-one was taking responsibility. It wasn’t their department, they’d been on long-term leave, the files had been shredded. But there was no getting away from the fact, Christmas was lost,

There were the usual questions,-

When did you see it last?

Um, about a year ago, was it?

Have you checked your pockets?

The search turned up nothing more reminiscent of Christmas than an expenses receipt and an uneaten toffee.

Handbag?

A lot to rifle through, but nothing more festive than a packet of indigestion tablets.

So, a full search of the building, especially down the back of the sofas, and, although a number of unspeakable finds were made and unpaid bills were uncovered, nothing  Christmassy emerged. One individual drew the short straw and had to check the rubbish bags in the bins, but a full half-hour of grubbing through tissues and half-eaten apples produced only a lost cufflink and a bad smell.

It was time to contact the police and the travel companies, but the problem was that when it came to filling in the forms and giving details no-one could remember exactly what Christmas was like. Exact dimensions? Colour?  Identifying features? They were at a loss.

Photocopied posters were fixed to lamp-posts. Handbills were put through letter-boxes. “Have you seen Christmas? Much missed by loving owners. Please contact, etc, etc.” It turned out that there were a lot of stray cats around.

It was time to bring in the experts. Three men in the know were summoned, They arrived carrying a metal detector and a mobile device, and they were confident that they could find the lost item.

“What’s that?

“It’s GPS – Geo-positioning, but to you, Godhead Pursuit System. Guaranteed to find anything – it’s all down to the satellites.” He gestured vaguely towards the sky.

They set off, but before they’d gone far some-one called them back. “I think this has happened before, and it’s probably best to take some kind of offering with you.”

“What exactly?”

There was a big discussion.  Money? No, a bit obvious.  A Voucher, ASDA, Boots? No, too impersonal. Wine? They may not drink. Perfume? No, you can never get perfume right. In the end it was agreed, you couldn’t go wrong with a tin of biscuits, so the experts were instructed to buy some expensive biscuits, and put it on their bill.

Everybody then sat back and waited.  They weren’t very hopeful. “It’ll turn  up , I guess. And if it doesn’t, does it really matter? If we’ve got food in the house, and some drink, and the television works and we have a subscription to Netflix, we’ll never notice the difference and we don’t need to worry.”

“But I really think we’ll be needing it soon.”

Someone had a bright idea. “Let’s use Google Search, – you can always find things that way.” Everybody reached for their phones and laptops, and there it was, courtesy of Wikipedia – Christmas, – etymology, history, economics – but there it wasn’t – nothing about whereabouts at all.

They posted on Facebook – Christmas is Lost. Has anyone seen it? And a few hours later they had over a thousand Likes. Everybody liked the idea that Christmas was lost because they couldn’t do anything else.

Twitter was the next idea, but as they were about to deploy the hash-tag “#christmas lost” someone suggested that Christmas had probably been swept away in the recent floods and was lost forever, and, well, the combination of Twitter and an act of God and #lostchristmas became a natural disaster, a national one, even, and top government had to be involved.

A meeting of responsible politicians was called to discuss responses.

“How about we produce a substitute? Black Friday, or Crazy Wednesday? Or we could call Easter early?”

But one of them called the others to the window. Out in front of the building was a huge crowd, all very still. Prominent at the front were the Christmas Tree growers, standing each very solemn with a tree grasped firmly in their hand. Alongside them were carol singers, silent under their red and white hats, and behind them, turkey-farmers, tinsel-sellers, and retailers and moody protestors and Home County heritage groups, as far as the eye could see. They were all waiting, just about patiently.

“Could we not just deny that Christmas exists? A rumour spread  by unpatriotic extremists allied to a foreign religion?”

“What do you think that lot would say? Or do?”

“We could say that we abolished it – in the national interest? Health and safety, an unsupportable strain on already-stretched public services?”

There was an uncomfortable silence.

“I know,” said one bright spark, keen on promotion, “We could call a high state of alert and institute a full search. Then we can go drilling under National Parks and investigating people’s E-mails – all the things we want to do anyway.”

There was a rumble of approval. The Prime Minister cleared his throat. But before he could speak an Under-Secretary touched his arm. “Excuse me, sir, but there’s a boy at the back door.” “What’s that got to do with the situation?” “He says that he thinks he’s found Christmas.” “Oh, for Heaven’s sake, go and deal with that, will you? I’m about to declare a plan.”

So the Under-Secretary left the room with two of his Under-Under-Secretaries, and the Prime Minister said, “We can do all that, and we can say that Christmas has been stolen, kidnapped, even, by Them.” By who, Prime Minister?” “Oh, you know, that Islamic lot, Middle-eastern types.” Another rumble of approval.

When the Under-Secretary and his men got to the back door, there was a small boy with a sheep. The sheep was probably bigger than the boy.

“What do you want?”

“I’ve found Christmas for you.”

“Have you got it with you?”

“No, you’ve got to come with me.”

The three officials put on their coats, and the boy with his sheep led them off into the streets .

“Where are we going, sir?”

“God knows. Keep quiet, follow the boy and watch out for muggers.”

It was dark now and the boy led them along streets, across car-parks, down alleys and across waste-land, until they came to a supermarket. The trail led behind the store to the place where a number of big dumper-skips were standing under arc-lights. Under the central light a man and a woman sat on the tarmac either side of a skip with its lid open. The boy pointed at it. The officials approached gingerly and the Under-Secretary peered over the edge of the skip. There, nestling amidst loaves, packaging and cling-wrapped fish was a baby, entirely small, wrapped up against the mild night-air, and content.

The Under-Under-Secretaries also peered into the skip.

“This is meant to be Christmas?”

They looked at the boy. Neither he nor the sheep said anything.

“Sir, there was something about this before, wasn’t there? I’ve seen pictures somewhere. Only the baby had this thing round its head, a halo, was it? Or maybe there is one, you know?”

“Listen!” said the other.

“What for?”

“It’s all gone very quiet. And can you hear bells somewhere?”

“God knows what’s going on.” The Under-Secretary was about to turn and interrogate the boy when he felt something in his hand. He could swear it was…..the muzzle of a sheep. Sheep! A whole flock! and, standing at his shoulder, a man holding a tin of Marks and Spencers Luxury Assortment. Behind him a man with a mobile phone and another with a metal detector over his shoulder.

“Yes, this is it!” said the man with the mobile phone. “GPS has it exactly. This is Christmas.”

“What do you mean?” said the Under-Secretary.

“We were sent to find Christmas. This is it. The technology is pin-point accurate.”

They set off back the way they had come, the Under-Secretary holding the baby, gingerly, the man and the woman following close behind, flanked by the Under-Under-Secretaries, then the experts with their equipment, then the boy and the flock of sheep with some other shepherds who seemed to have tagged on along the way, – back across the waste-ground, down the alleys, across the car-parks, along the streets.

The Under-Secretary was thoughtful.  “How on earth are we going to explain this to the Prime Minister?” he mused aloud.

“Rather you than me, sir.”

“Why?”

“Well, look at the baby.”

“What do you mean?”

The Under-Under-Secretary glanced back at the man and the woman.

“Don’t you think he looks rather, well, Middle-Eastern?”

Meaning Is Enough?

Our monthly story-workshop sessions (they alternate with story-shares on Saturday mornings at the Bluecoat) take many forms and cover many aspects of story. At our last I took as my starting point a quotation from a speech made by a young woman at an event I’d recently attended at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, The night was set up to provide young individuals with a platform to express their views and opinions on the world today in the manner of TED-Talks and even The Moth. This young woman chose to talk about studying literature at university. She was a writer and this led her to complain about the academic emphasis on “meaning” which had stifled her creativity and which she said she found “demeaning”. I don’t know if there was any deliberate word-play there but I empathized with her because my own three year dedication to studying literature had produced the same feeling in me and those three years, however stimulating, had been one of the most productively barren of my life, certainly in terms of creative writing.

I asked the story-group, was it possible to tell a story without meaning? The eventual answer was of course, No, because the listener will always find meaning in what we say, even when and where it was not intended. We humans are meaning machines, after all. All the same we had a go, at creating a story which was no more than a series of episodes, adventures with no particular order or significance. The Arabian Nights is probably no more than that in its sum. Each adventure, however, could be said to contain meaning, but the listener can choose to ignore this low-level significance and just take each episode at face-value. Then I suppose their sub-conscious would extract whatever significance was meaningfully to be found therein.

But the moment we started to order the tales, into “seven tales for each day of the week,” or “a month of adventures”  or “A day in the life… “ or “A Thousand And One Nights”, meaning seemed to creep back in in the form of significant numbers, which implied meaning based in structure. Only some kind of randomness in the telling could evade the tendency to find meaning in a story. I was reminded of the German writer Robert Walser who in later life suffered from an extreme nervous condition which eventually led to his consignment to a sanatorium but which seemed to be evident in his writing from a much earlier stage in that he wrote stories which often avoided narrative structure and closure. His novella “The Walk” for example could be seen as no more than a meandering account of an afternoon’s walking with all of its episodic highs and lows. Walser specialized in a meaning which lay below and beyond structure.

In the end we gave up on a search for meaninglessness and after our tea-break I set an opposite task to those present, – to give an account a life of someone. The proviso was that the life should have meaning and significance for the teller. I led off with two examples; a friend whose adventurous early life was the opposite of my own and a reminder of both how I might have lived and the nature of my own life; also Franklin Roosevelt, the American president whose public administration and much of his personal life have always been an inspiration and source of optimism for me. Thereafter, although not without exception, the contributions of the group took a more elegiac turn. Friends and family members and mentors were celebrated and mourned in their passing and with profound emotion. It was a very remarkable sharing which absorbed our attentions and affected all of us deeply. From it I could only re-draw the idea which had impelled me to set the task in the first place – that when a story has meaning for the teller, and to the extent that it does, the matter of technique and skill in story-telling becomes largely irrelevant. Or, to put it another way, our best story-telling is about ourselves.

STORYTELLING AND ACTIVISM

STORYTELLING AND ACTIVISM – A Keynote Address to the “Storytelling And Activism” Symposium  held at The University Of South Wales, Cardiff, on April 25th 2015

I stand here as somebody who leads a storytelling group and I’m an occasional storyteller, – although I think that plays second fiddle to my encouraging other people to tell stories and develop their own storytelling capabilities, – but I also stand here as a transgender performer and I wanted to invite my gender counterpart to spend some time with us in this space because between us we’ve got a certain amount to say about this particular issue. (Image on screen)

I was delighted to be invited to address the connection between storytelling and activism from a personal point of view and I started out by posing a number of questions to myself, speculations if you like, I don’t pretend to have come to clear conclusions about them and I don’t pretend that the references I use to try to get there are definitive, but it was an interesting journey and I hope it will be for you.  There are a lot of questions along the way and I’m going to give you some of the underpinning questions now; so that you can judge at the end whether in fact we’ve got any way towards addressing them.  One of them is the question, Is our storytelling equal to our times?  Is it up to the task in hand?  The second one asks whether or not storytelling and activism, rather than being collusive, are actually counterproductive, whether they get in each other’s way?  And the third one is, If we appear to cling to a universality, a universalism in storytelling, do we cling to that at our peril, or at least to our disadvantage?  All of those questions will surface at different times during what I’ve got to say.

I start off with one of the great storytellers, – Geoffrey Chaucer, great English storyteller, and his collection of great stories, “The Canterbury Tales”, – and my first speculation was, What if Geoffrey Chaucer had written The Activist’s Tale?  He didn’t write The Activist’s Tale, but this started me off with a very interesting set of speculations because of the structure of “The Canterbury Tales”.  There is, first and foremost for my purposes, a tale told by a Canterbury pilgrim, but there’s also a Prologue in which the teller gives an account of themselves Each of those two fundamental sections are themselves sub-divided. Most of the tales have a kind of moral dimension to them, which means that they are there to produce an idea or a set of thoughts. This makes them moral tales, but there’s also the ‘tale received’. When somebody tells you a story, that isn’t always the story you receive because of the context in which you receive it.

The notion of the Prologue is also split because, as well as the account given by the tellers of themselves, there is also the General Prologue to “The Canterbury Tales”, in which Chaucer gives a portrait of each of the storytellers from the outside, so they both give an account of themselves, – they “prologue” themselves – and they are included in the General Prologue. One story breaks out into four separate aspects.  If you take, for example, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”, the Wife of Bath tells a tale, a kind of Arthurian tale which is really a challenge to husbands across the world and male hegemony.  At the same time that’s been the occasion for a huge amount of academic debate about what actually was meant and that is the tale received.  Then there is the Tale’s prologue, in which the Wife gives the account of her five husbands, and there is the General Prologue in which Chaucer portrays her in all her pomp, so we’ve got all these four things coming into play at the same time. This made me think of when in “Alice Through the Looking Glass” Alice meets the White Knight. The White Knight, having delivered his song as he departs, goes to the lengths of making clear the difference between what the song is called and the song’s name and what the song’s name is called and so on which gives us this real nest of post-modern signifiers which I think contains a kind of lesson for us when looking at a story.

If we’re talking about this putative Activist’s Tale you would have the tale told by the activist which presumably would be part of their storytelling kit, – their way of activating people, arousing them, giving their Tale a moral dimension, leading them to a particular set of behaviours, – but then that might be received by the people in a different way.  There would be the activist as they give an account of themselves, what we in modern terms call their back story, and there would be what the activist seems like for somebody standing completely outside of them, – how then Chaucer might describe them.  The four story elements will, I think, come in as I’m exploring these ideas with you this morning.

I started off, of course, by saying that Chaucer didn’t write The Activist’s Tale, but this then led me to a second speculation which is, more or less, Would Chaucer have recognised an activist had he come across one? (in the sense in which we perhaps understand an activist and I’ll come to that in a minute), and the answer I arrived at was that he should have done because during his lifetime and in the city in which he spent most of his time, there came to its climax the Peasants’ Revolt led by Jack Straw and Wat Tyler.  Whatever you think of those people Chaucer would probably have taken a negative view of those events, given his wife’s nationality and his particular job, – he wouldn’t have liked what they were doing  (In fact, Jack Straw gets a very brief mention in “The Canterbury Tales”, but it’s a noncommittal mention), You would however assume that Chaucer would know what an activist is, but I think he would never have created The Activist’s Tale for a very simple reason, – Wat Tyler and Jack Straw would have been seen to be one-offs, they would have been seen to be historical figures.  Each would have been considered an unrepeatable kind of individual and their actions not to constitute a human type in the same way as the Wife of Bath or the Pardoner does.  Effectively they would have been seen as  – whatever word Chaucer would want to use -; they would be seen as revolutionaries. Is a revolutionary an activist and is an activist a revolutionary and do the two basically correspond?  We might think about that later on.

I therefore concluded that Chaucer probably wouldn’t have found enough of a type there to have included the Activist in the journey to Canterbury or indeed to have told their tale, but this set me off on another speculation.  Where were the activists, the characters who were activists, in our literature? (and I mean both the stories which come to us through the commons and the great written heritage of literature – even if I’m only really at this stage probably talking about European work.  I’ll be talking about other stuff later).

I looked around and I started to ask almost randomly of figures from stories whether or not they were activists.  Is Beowulf an activist, or is he in fact a tragic warrior?  The Boy Who Set Out To Find Fear, is he an activist or is he simply a lucky fool?  Is Mark Antony in “Julius Caesar” an activist or is he just a clever politician?  And as I worked through the years and through the generations of the centuries I came to the conclusion that the one thing that all these lacked was a politics, which is to say a political project, a sort of common cause.  And if you ask, what do I mean by “activism”?  well, I’ve bodged together a kind of definition which works for me – activism is “vigorous political practice in support of a creed or common cause or shared belief”.

The characters I’ve just named don’t have that and I think it’s not until the 19th century and not until the 19th century novel – and I’m prepared to be corrected on this – that we actually have characters in books that correspond to the notion of an activist.  There are activists, quite prominent ones. in Disraeli’s novel “Sybil”, which is also about civil unrest, but I think the fullest and most finely drawn portrait in the 19th century after that is probably Will Ladislaw, one of the key characters in George Eliot’s “Middlemarch”, and he becomes an activist. From being something of a dilettante he eventually finds himself as a political activist. I wondered what had happened in the 19th century to produce this development,

I moved back then to look back for historical figures we would probably identify as activists; I went back to Guy Fawkes.  This reminded me of something that is quite a useful corrective for the things that we think about now, the idea that one nation or culture’s activist is another nation or culture’s terrorist.  Take, for example, the “Arab Spring”, or 9/11.  People acting politically would have been seen by one culture to have been extremely dangerous and by another as a source of inspiration and hope and activism.

I went on from Guy Fawkes and I came through the Levellers and I came through the Diggers, – and I’m moving very fast through the centuries now -, interestingly, of course, at our puppet show yesterday I was wondering whether Jack Sheppard was an activist – then I moved on to Lord Byron and his part in the Greek campaign until I eventually sped forwards to Gandhi, on to Rosa Parks and then to Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.  And I was interested by that sequence because there is a point somewhere towards the beginning of the 20th century when two forces are brought to bear, two story forces are brought to bear, upon those people, and they’re contradictory forces.

One of them canonises the activist, turns them effectively into a saint, something that has happened to Nelson Mandela over the years.  At the same time there is critical biography which tends to unpick the nature of the character and expose them as having feet of clay.  With the honourable exception of Rosa Parks you will find that many of those figures, perhaps all of them in their different ways, are seen to be flawed human beings.  And so the flawed human being and sainthood both occlude what is probably the reality of being an activist.  They pull the character in different directions at the same time as obscuring the notion about what an activist is there to do, and to that extent I think story has compromised activism. As somebody who had a very brief moment of media exposure a few months ago in which I was billed as an “unsung hero”, I’ve had time now to think about this, this peculiar idea of being famous for being not famous, and I’ve come to the conclusion it’s a circle that can’t be squared – you can’t be both.  I’m of the feeling now that the song corrupts in the singing, even in the moment that it inspires, and this is something to do with the way in which activism has become entrammelled with heroism and the notion of the activist as hero.

Once you do inspect the notion of the activist as hero or heroine, then the activist comes across as very complex, a complicated character indeed.  You have this notion of the lone idealist with their solitary mission, – and there are some activists, like Ned Ludd for example, who were probably not activists at all but have been elevated to that level, -and you come across the idea of the activist as an outsider, almost a tragic figure, who is both idealised and at the same time vilified, and how, let’s say in the character of Sydney Carton from “A Tale of Two Cities”, the aim of activism is to self-redeem. Because of this confliction – it’s what William Blake called “self-contradiction” – we limit the activist to only existing through actions not through being. The character of the activist then becomes immensely conflictive and self-contradictory.  One aspect of this came to me when I read a book recently by a Jungian psychiatrist/psychologist called Melanie Starr Costello. The book is “Injury, Illness and Imagination” and in it she analyses what’s called the “hero complex”, She’s interested in somatic experience so she points out that heroism has a rather rigorous and quite detrimental effect upon physicality as well as mentality. Not merely is the activist compromised psychologically by what happens, they’re also affected physically.

If we want to take this critique just one stage further, we can say that if we have an activist whose tale is meant to make us behave in a certain way, this smacks of propaganda, advertising, and that dread word “instrumentalism”.  From this sequence of interrogations you could conclude that “the activist” is an idea which is so deeply flawed that it doesn’t have any usefulness for us.

What I’m actually talking about are the perils of protagonism, and the idea that activism is ‘what somebody else does’.

Just recently I signed an online petition in support of a woman called Máxima Acuña de Chaupe and Máxima Acuña de Chaupe is a landowner in Peru. She is standing up against a company called Newmont who wished to take over her land for mining.  I duly signed the petition in the belief that my support would be welcome – I believed it might even have been slightly effectual – but as I did so I realised that actually it was Máxima Acuña de Chaupe who was the activist, – and what was I?  I was the clicktivist. I was the person who had, with one stroke of my mouse, as it were, lent my support to the cause.  Or was I, to use another phrase, a nano-activist?  What I wasn’t, – I was not Máxima Acuña de Chaupe.  I was not in the forefront of it all.  And if this means that agency is elsewhere you would, I believe, want me in this address to propose an alternative.

The alternative for me is not the story of I but the story of We.  It’s not the story of Me, but the story of Us.  It’s the story of plural endeavour, – and that is one of the things that I’m going to spend a little bit of time thinking about now – but I want to be very careful about the use of the word “We”, because “We” is whoever gathers together as “Us” and, for example, I wouldn’t be interested in the “we” that was the “we” of international financiers or the “we“ of people traffickers or the “we” of politicians.  I wouldn’t personally want to be present at any gathering where such people got together and shared their favourite stories to create a kind of solidarity, – it would not be the kind of solidarity I’d be interested in.  When we refer to “We”, I need to be clear who are the “We” that I am talking about now.  They are the excepted. Not the accepted, –  in fact the accepted are in contradiction to the excepted, – but people who are pushed to be an exception from society’s ministrations if you like, people who are marginalised, people who suffer, people who have to endure, people who need to survive, people who need to prevail but may not, people whose main wish is simply to exist, – people who endure and exist in their own world and in fact draw strength from their own world, – to adhere to the ways of their world and their community and to draw upon their own resources to create resilience for themselves.  The kind of people I’m talking about are perhaps the same kind of people who were commemorated at the base of the Statue of Liberty,-

‘your poor, your tired, your huddled masses, .yearning to breathe free’

and possibly also the group of people who never really had their moment when Ken Livingstone was running the GLC and proposed the idea of the “Rainbow Coalition”.  We are not talking here about sub-divisions, people divided by gender or sexual preference or ethnicity or capability, we’re talking about people who, within those sub-divisions, have been pushed to the very edge of society. That is the “We” that I am interested in. It’s the “We” that I think that our stories need to deal with and we need to bring those stories out.

Are there such stories out there?  Well, I’m in South Wales today and I’m pleased that last year I saw a film called “Pride” which seemed to me in many respects to pull together the stories of plural endeavour.  It was, for those who didn’t see it, a film about the rallying together of both the London based LGBT community and the South Wales striking miners during the mid-80s period and how the two collided, colluded, finally collaborated and found common cause.  I think here is a modern model of the We Story that I’m talking about.

I believe that, if I reach out further, I’d find more examples of this kind of story in native African village tales and in Maui community tales, and there’s also the possibility that the story of the Israelites in the Bible is equally a kind of We Story; a story of plural endeavour.  And in finding those stories out there what I’m actually proposing is “passivism” – not pacifism as in the proponents of peace, but as in the proponents of being passive – because what constitutes the raison d’être of the “We” is resistance and re-activism. Everybody in the “We” that I’m talking about is reacting to circumstances and that’s obviously in some respects different from activism.  How does “re-activism” connect with activism?  is a question I’m going to address later on.  So I’m proposing, maybe provocatively, maybe straight from the heart, the notion of passivism, – and people who are there simply to carry on being as best they can under the circumstances.

Now whether or not there are a lot of tales in that tradition, whether there should be more, whether we here and others should be creating them and drawing them out to the rest, is another issue, but passivism is also to be found in stories of individuals and in fact one story that would fit that category is actually written by Chaucer.  (I say written by Chaucer, but Chaucer, like Shakespeare, drew his tales from everywhere).  It is “The Man of Law’s Tale”, the tale of Constance, the Emperor’s daughter who is subjected to an inordinate amount of interference in her life.  She is sent abroad to be married off, she’s set adrift on the great seas of the world, she’s accused of being a witch and a murderess, she is set adrift on the seas of the world yet again and she seems to endure an endless amount of interference in what would otherwise be her life path.  When I offered this story to my story group, in synopsis I have to say, there were quite a few objections to it, and one woman said, “You can’t do anything with her because she’s so weak,” which I took as a challenge.

I went back to that synopsis and I told “The Man of Law’s Tale” in such a way that, I believe, it drew upon the power of imaginative transformation.  I told a tale such that Constance’s processing of those things that happened to her in her life was actually a source of strength. It was the imaginative transformational capability which I believe inheres in the experience of being female, and I was pleased to find some support for this in a book called “Feminizing Chaucer” by Jill Mann. In it she lights upon a characteristic, a feeling that I think is very important, which is pity, and she says of pity, “Pity is the pressure brought to bear by the sufferer on the beholder.” In the case of that story, it is the invisible strength which acts as the champion that otherwise Constance lacks. And active pity, the notion of a relationship in which it’s not the sufferer who is pitied, but the sufferer who pities and brings that to bear, opens up a whole area of feeling around that situation that seemed to be important. I came to the conclusion, which I think Jill Mann would equally have come to, that what Constance does is to choose what must be and in choosing change it, – transform it.  I know that this is an old idea – it’s probably millennia old, – but it seemed to me that it’s a rallying point for what’s important.  Constance in her story can be seen to choose what must be, and in choosing transform it.

Now if we weren’t gathered together on an April morning in Cardiff I would wish us all to be so on a warm April night in California in La Jolla, the University of California in La Jolla, at an event brought together in support of a great fabulist, Robert C Elliott. In 1982 on that particular warm night the address was presented by the celebrated science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin and it was called “A  Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be”  It stands with that awkward title even to this day in a book of essays, and although it’s an essay it’s an address, it’s the address this address would like to be if it wasn’t this one and it wants to be that because it has affected my life, it has changed my thinking, it has given me new ideas, it has recalibrated the way I see the world. It’s a very fine essay which I commend to you if you don’t know it, but all I can do today is to mention four things in that address which I think are pertinent to what we have gathered here to consider.

One of them is incidental.  Ursula Le Guin described the people of the world as “exiled from paradise” and that resonated with me even though I can’t quite connect it with everything that I’m saying.

The second thing is that she’s a very able and coherent proponent of the idea that progress and progression should not be the drivers of society’s evolution, and I think she’s here implying that kind of mechanical technological-driven progress and progression. Interestingly, I think, the notion of narrative embraces progression, so I recognised that this challenges some things in which we are implicated today.  She has a lot to say about narrative, of course, because she’s a writer.

The third thing she does is to use a rather resonant phrase. She says that our concentration in life should be to “persevere in our own existence”,  and the fourth thing she brings up is the notion of Coyote, whom we might recognise as the trickster figure who appears many stories throughout the ages, generations, millennia,

I’m glad for the appearance of Coyote, because one of the sub-invitations that brought me here today was to address issues of transgender and the transgender community and their relationship with stories and activism.  I was glad to take up that invitation for all the reasons in the world, but one of the caveats I had to make was that I could at no point pretend or claim to be speaking on behalf of the whole range of transgender experience or individuals, because it is a world of great diversity and for me to be a transgender performer does not automatically or completely make my experience congruent with people for example who transition physically and psychologically.  The only thing we all have in common is transitioning, – some of us do it regularly, some of us do it once and some people do it in small increments over a long period. There are a whole set of other gender complications which are all put under this heading of “transgender” as part of creating a common cause. If I was to talk about that I couldn’t represent everybody within the transgender community and I wouldn’t want to try, but I did want to invoke transgender as part of this discussion because I think it’s very important for what we are here today to do.

What was I going to do if I wasn’t’ going to be able to represent all transgender?  Well, I’ve taken one particular angle on this because I’ve got a very comprehensive collection of newspaper cuttings relating to transgender issues and behaviour and I’m going to go through a number of scanned newspaper cuttings (images on screen). I apologise if I move too quickly, but it’s in service of the larger argument and I would say that when I make comment I’m commenting upon the newspaper “take” upon the individual; – these are not my personal comments about the individuals referred to in the newspaper items.  You can take this if you like as the General Prologue to Transgender as written, not by a great humanist like Geoffrey Chaucer, but by journalists.  Each of these was cut from a newspaper and taken at face value as having something to do with transgender.

So here is Nathan Thursfield (images on screen) who is prepared to go into extreme debt to have the cosmetic surgery necessary to make him look like Katie Price.  This is the Metro. a newspaper that is probably very happy to look at a few harmless eccentrics or harmless narcissists, and so Nathan becomes the subject of a newspaper story.  He may be the only person who wants to do this; or there may be a lot of people, but he is in a sense a curiosity.  This is in the curiosity cabinet of transgender references, whereas here is a story of Lisa, Ian, and Ian who is also Susan, and Ian and Lisa are going to get married and Ian decides to be Susan on the day, and again because it’s a personal issue, – it’s a marriage, it’s a wedding, – we are invited to look upon this as a curious example, possibly of English eccentricity, rather than to know exactly what kind of a transgender story was going on under the surface there, and of course the pictures are always about the notion of contradictory apprearance.  It’s always about look, it’s not about interior.  Whereas “Boy, 10 went back to school a girl”, starts to introduce this idea of a much wider problematisation brought in by transgender, which is that if you have chosen to transition in any sense, and you go back into various, groups, societies, institutions then immediately it provokes other people’s activities. There’s a touch here, which we’ll have more of in a bit, about the transgender as victim, but also transgender as provocateur inviting personal insult and difficulty.  And it gets more complicated here.  This is a Guardian article where the parents, the whole family, are now coming to terms with the fact that their daughter has already chosen to change gender and the whole article is about the extent to which the family needs to adjust.  Transgender here is creating complications in almost every dimension of what we call normal family life.

This is much more tabloid; – “I took a knife to myself for DIY sex change”. The individual here who’s now Kirsty didn’t in fact, I’m relieved to say, get as far with the knife as the headline would suggest, but went as far as what would be called in some senses “a cry for help” and help did arrive because Kirsty eventually had the surgery necessary to change sex.  But self-infliction is a very big storyline in tabloid descriptions and accounts of transgender, so, ‘transgender individuals make life difficult for themselves’, seems to be the implication, in the pursuit of the trophy photograph which is about the physical change, which again is not all that it’s about.

This is a particularly complex story, but it’s also a very tabloid story.  It’s about a couple who were married, and the male in the relationship physically abused the wife.  She took a knife to him to protect herself, killed him and then discovered that actually “he” was a “she”.  The complexities of what’s going on there are considerable, but the important thing is that it was taken by the tabloids as being both a dramatic revelation and a self-infliction. The idea of violence seemed to go with it all, also the notion of secrecy.

And there is one more even complicated story that I’ll be telling, but now we go into more senior journalism and this is important because the Hijra community of India have started to claim a much wider range of rights.  They are now essentially more integrated into Indian society and here The Guardian is reporting on that.  By contrast the “yan daudu” of Nigeria are actually in more trouble now because the new regime in Nigeria is orthodox Christian, fiercely, censoriously Christian. Whereas the “yan daudu” lived in reasonable integration with their society, they’re now being outlawed and their lives are becoming more difficult.

This is the transgender as victim.  This is the main headline of the Liverpool Echo.  It wasn’t as big a story as I think the headlines would suggest, but there was the idea that the transgenders going out there put themselves at risk and are likely to eventually experience that risk in the form of violence.

Then of course you’ve got the joker in the pack – Grayson Perry – who complicates and makes life difficult for everybody by presenting in different ways at different times, but as an establishment figure, somebody who has just this week received the freedom of the City of London, Grayson Perry is a person whose provocations are both accepted and welcomed, – I was present at one of Perry’s Reith Lectures last year.  And in terms of the great provocation of course none can actually match April Ashley who has had a very great deal of press recently a propos of a major exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool.  She came from Liverpool, but in her wider life she complicated legality, she challenged society in protracted law cases about who she was and what she was allowed to be and she challenged notions about womanhood, – she also challenged notions about manhood for that matter.  She challenged those notions about what kind of success you could experience as a transgender and in a sense she is – not the very first but, in this country at least, – the Queen of transgender history, I had the pleasure of meeting her a few years ago  and she retains that sense that she’s done something. She is not self-conflicted, however much we may feel, using the long traditional headline “Born in the wrong body”, that we want to impose confliction upon her.

And then, this is the last one, – Cassandro the drag queen star of Mexico’s wrestling circuit.  Cassandro moves in and out of different genders.  There’s a sense of theatre about this, but there’s also a sense in which, within the wrestling circuit at least which is probably not one of the world’s senior sports, and seemingly the rock business as well, all kinds of provocations are possible,.  It’s a Guardian article again, but it’s positive, at the same time niches the whole idea of transgender.

One thing that comes out of all of this is that transgenders are provocative, problematising, complicating, making life difficult for everybody, requiring new definitions, and there is an ongoing battle if you like between the media who want to find a way of putting a box round all of that and the actual truth, the remarkable separateness and individuality of transgender experience.  When I said that transgender is a world of diversity, it’s not the diversity of the wildflower field, whereby if the wildflower field was infinitely large it would contain every species of flower,  the Chinese call that “the ten thousand things”, meaning all things.  It’s not that, it’s the diversity of the sea coast where every measurable section of the sea coast is unique and different and has a different outlook.  And the sea coast is not a bad place to be – it’s got a view of two different worlds – but it is on the brink of, some would say. the brink of oblivion, and it is also the margin, the place where people are forced to, and this is where my “excepted” find their place, on the sea coast.  In this kind of diversity nobody has the same point of view as anybody else.  That’s a different kind of diversity from the wildflower field.

We need, I believe, to subvert some of the traditional narratives and one way I do this is by using this idea of point of view. By telling a story from a different point of view each story becomes a different story, but from the point of view of a transgender simply to be is the complicated narrative. Simply to be transgender is to complicate the narrative structure, that narrative take on life we’ve seen in some of those newspaper items.  The journalists are battling hard to find a box to put all of those stories in, a “story “ in which to incorporate the transgender experience.  In a sense I’m saying that to be transgender is to be activist, to be trans-activist if you like, and that seems to be important although you could argue that transgender is only one of a number of excepted groups that relate to activism.

There have been a number of what we would more traditionally call activists within the great transgender history (Interestingly the poster of this symposium has the Rebecca Riots on it), and every one is different. There were the drag queens who stood up against the police at Stonewall in the celebrated gay resistance of the late1960’s period in New York, but there is a very good example of transgender as activist, or activist as transgender which is slightly different, one which trounces, trumps and generally overbears everything else – Chelsea Manning.  (image on screen) Chelsea Manning, who as Bradley Manning, released into the public domain through WikiLeaks the largest amount of classified and semi-classified information about American military activities ever.  Bradley Manning who was betrayed by a confidante on the web and was arrested, subjected to nine months of unwarranted solitary confinement.  Bradley Manning who was eventually court martialed and given 35 years of prison sentence.  Bradley Manning who in that moment chose to declare Bradley Manning as Chelsea Manning.

And this is where choosing what must be and transforming it comes to its apogee, in Chelsea Manning whose story, – inasmuch as we know it, and there’s not been much told, – straddles activism, idealism and realism, innocence and experience.  As Bradley Manning he was only in his early 20s when he took on this great act of activism, but this story also posits the idea that transgender and activism are next door to each other as promontories on the coast of life, and I think the story of Chelsea Manning as so far told, – and Chelsea Manning cannot tell her own story at the moment because it’s only recently that she was even allowed on Twitter, let alone in an outside communication system – the story of Chelsea Manning blows out of the water all my neat generalisations about activism, story, passivism, protagonism and the rest.  It’s an immensely complicated tale and it’s a real tale and one of these days I believe that Chelsea Manning will be able to tell her own tale.

My question behind all this is, Is all activism reactivism?  In the old days the story would have been about a motorway, now it would be a fracking company.  Do we have to wait for somebody to turn up on our doorstep threatening before we need to be activists?  Is it always about resistance or is there some kind of pure activism which actually flows through us like a red thread through the whole of our life?  In other words, Can we live activism?  Can we be the cause that we advocate? This is what I believe transgender is.  I was speculating earlier on whether or not if the activists, as I portrayed them or the tragic activist, were subject to self-contradiction, so. Is there a non-contradicted kind of activism or activists? What I’m trying to point out is that I believe that transgender lends weight to that idea.

If transgenders are innately activists the question is, What would a transactivist’s tale be?  What would be their desired outcome?  Would it be moral, to produce particular kinds of behaviour in people?  No, I think the Transactivist’s Tale would be, – its desired outcome would be – openness, tolerance, understanding and pity, the act of pity in people.  And although people who cherish story and love its magic and its shamanistic enchantment could say very simply that all this talk of “We Story”, all this talk of realism, all this talk of desired outcomes, is pure instrumentalism and pure instrumentalism is the death of story, – I could say to you, that’s a small price to pay if what we eventually end up with is a fairer and better society in a more open world.  But I don’t need to make that retort because the story that the transgender tells is the story of … it’s imaginative, it’s a magic, a unique, story, it’s a surreal story, it’s a hyper-real story, a magically real story, a dirty real story, it’s a story full of hybrid realities and, such stories – do they exist?

I believe they do. I believe that we wrote one of them, Mandy and I – it’s called “The  Mandayana”.  It’s a transgender epic in the great tradition of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.  I believe there are many other such stories out there.  “The Mandayana” is full of rich images and this gives me a chance to reference one other person and one other piece of writing that has informed my life over the years. Sir Michael Tippett, the composer, – Michael Tippett as he was then – wrote a rather remarkable essay in his book “Moving into Aquarius”, about the notion of images.  In it he says that it’s only through images that the inner world communicates at all and he then goes into a radiant passage describing the images that are appropriate for the difficult and turbulent times in which we live.  That was in the late 1950s.1960’s and more than fifty years later I’m prepared to admit that Michael Tippett’s images of what society needs may have changed, but I believe that his notion of the image as the way of communicating our inner world is still very important and where he’s making images contingent on time and period  I would add place.  I would suggest that in any place and time there are particular images that need to be brought out and extracted.

What times are we in now?  Well, we’re on the brink of an election.  My instinct is that after the election – whoever wins it and whatever the configuration of people within government -, the accepted and the excepted will be further and more distinctly separated. I also believe that there will be a great need for us to persevere in our existences because endurance and survival are more likely to be necessary than they have before, – whoever prevails in this particular election.

On that basis I would say that we need storytelling more than we’ve done before and, if it’s not to be a pastime, if it’s to be something effectual in the great scheme of things, we need images.  Where do we find them?  In the inner world.  What are we doing to find them?  We’re reaching inside for our own “inner transgender” if you like, or, to put it another way, we are reaching for our problematised souls and we’re bringing them out.  And if we can do that then I believe that we can prevail and I would say that – well, I know that – the Activist’s Tale is in all of us.  It’s in every one of us and if we can tell it we will also qualify ourselves to write the Prologue to our own Tale, our own self-account, and on this non-showery April day the General Prologue of all our lives will be a better, fairer society within a more open world.  Thank you.