Essays

DR. HAGEN’S PHOTOS – WELTKULTUREN MUSEUM, FRANKFURT – MARCH 2014

Coffined, confined – back, front, side view – these bodies are all now dead, and before they died were made objects of scientistic study: an objectifying, racialising gaze focused on measurement – the leg, the arm, the nose – like any inventory of colonial power and possession. More.

SEAMUS HEANEY 13 April 1939 – 30 AUGUST 2013

Land – the four green fields of Ireland – is where the symbolism, languages, history, cultures and experience of Irishness converge. The inherited boundaries of ownership, kinship and work culture meet in the land; it is the locus of identity, community, conflict and belonging, and lingers like a red mist in the rebel soul of the emigrant or exile; it is the mood music of the songs and poetry of the Irish peoples. Seamus Heaney was a farmer’s boy, and his break-through poetry collection, Death of a Naturalist (1966), was a dissection of the myths, those old un-dislodged stories and ways of feeling about the nature of belonging to the land that always did amount to trouble. More.

BELOW THE RIVER 22 MAY 2013
Wednesday picture: Vauxhall then and now

We had a camera, we had a car and a television set; we were rich. And then they knocked our house down; so we were poor. Gabriel Gbadamosi is an award-winning Irish-Nigerian poet, playwright, critic, BBC radio presenter and author. In his new novel, Vauxhall, he explores the streets of his south London childhood. More

THE GUARDIAN 18 FEBRUARY 2013
Comment is Free: Head to Head

It would be fair to say I grew up in love with England’s racist literature and iconography. I loved those swashbuckling tales of colourfully illustrated derring-do among faraway natives, the golliwogs on jam jars and my favourite, Little Black Sambo, clever enough to get tigers to chase round trees and turn into melted butter … Later, people called me golliwog or sambo; but by then it was too late: I wasn’t going to give up my copy of the Sambo book, and I knew how people felt, how much they minded no longer being able to keep their golliwogs. More

BBC RADIO 3  22 FEBRUARY 2012
An Informal History of the Male Nude
Duration: 15 minutes

The male nude in Africa is a vexed, political question. So its perhaps inevitable that the writer and broadcaster, Gabriel Gbadamosi has chosen an olblique, provocative approach to the subject. Drawing on his Yoruba and Irish roots, for the third part of Men Only: An informal History of the Male Nude, he journeys from South London to Nigeria and back again slowly uncovering pleasure as well as paradox. At the beginning and at the end of his exploration he comes face to face with the phallic, trickster god, Eshu – a being at work in traditional sculpture as well as in the photography of the Brixton-based Rotimi Fani-Kayode. Listen

GRANTA 11 AUGUST 2011
The Blazing Light in August

I’ve woken up in a riot – inside a London phone box. A brick has just smashed into the glass. There are four of us squashed in to get out of the rain of bottles and stones. I can’t get my arm up to protect my face, we’re all trying to crouch down, I can feel glass fall on my hair. But I’ve got a thick, springy Afro and I can still shake it. My friend’s got blood on his ear lobe; we look at each other and nod, instinctively – the two of us bursting out onto the road and legging it hard and low so the wind of the riot blows over us. More

ISPA 15 DECEMBER 2003
Olde England – New England

This keynote address at the International Society for the Performing Arts – ISPA’s London Conference, The World in London: Cultural Fusions, was delivered on 15 December 2003

A Dance in the Street

I want to thank you for inviting me to witness the ISPA conference. I learned a lot. I felt people thoughtful, reflective — beyond the presence of mind needed to fill their spaces. Everyone you touched, it seemed a spring of thought and experience welled up in them. There was a seriousness of purpose — or as the English poet, Philip Larkin, would say, a hunger — to think again, and perhaps a sense of responsibility to bring the reality of change to their audiences. I couldn’t begin to summarise it. It was the session I missed. But I imagine you were there.

I’ve still got to talk for 40 minutes — something uplifting. So I thought, if you’d indulge me, I’d do that English thing and talk about the weather.

It’s a blue, cold sky today — which I hope persuades you it’s not always Sherlock Holmes weather we have in London, cold wet streets and dark too early. We had a fantastic autumn this year. It was the hottest summer on record. The last time I remember that happening was the long, hot summer of ’76 — which changed our culture. Pubs and cafes dragged tables and chairs outside because it was too hot to be inside — and the pavements started to look like Paris. We’d just joined the European Economic Community, as it was then called, in 1973 and it seemed we were going to be living like Europeans after all. But mostly I remember the way that summer changed our perception of public space, how it gave us back the street.

For some years the Notting Hill Carnival — now the biggest street festival in Europe — had been building to a point of tension with the police and local residents. Black people had reached a critical mass in the country by that time, and the Carnival made it visible. The August Bank Holiday was never going to be the same again. Battles broke out in the streets between mainly — but not only — black young people and the police. Aggressive policing of this young, black population and the abuse of stop-and-search powers exploded into the kind of riot we don’t like to see in this country but occasionally do.

This is where I put my hand up. I was there. Bottles, bricks, broken paving stones flying through the air. People hid under cars, or in telephone boxes. The streets are packed for the Carnival — panic. You can’t all fit in the telephone box. There was a roar that surged along the crowds and broke over you. I was 15, and I saw my society being torn up under my feet and going over my head into ranks of the police. My brother saw a bottle hit a policeman on the face, and a brick hit him on the other cheek. My sister was under the car. The police were using dustbin lids as shields. People were being cut by flying glass — with fights and fires everywhere. This wasn’t Soweto, it was here.

It was so bad everybody backed off. I got home and saw it again on the television. My parents couldn’t believe it, so I didn’t say anything. One by one we all got home intact, but it was years before we found out from each other we’d all been there. So it was my secret as I watched my society repair itself. Headlines, angst, arguments, commissions of inquiry, recommendations, re-building relationships, black policemen — the whole panoply of English crisis management. Sporadically, it flares up again, but basically that summer marked a sea-change in our attitude to rights of way, assembly and protest. We took back the streets as a place to be ourselves. And acceptance of Carnival—steel bands and dancing policemen on the Bank Holiday television news — became an emblem of our openness as a society to change.

What I’m saying is that something happened here in the 1970s that created this London of cultural fusions. A knock on, perhaps, from civil rights and Vietnam protests in America, a reaction to the nuclear spectre of the Cold War, the chill of the OPEC oil crisis fuelling global recession — such a lot going on — but our antidote to all this was a love-in: a Carnival — a re-invention of civil society as anti-racist, inclusive and pro-the the values of pragmatism and tolerance underpinning our social order in the face of economic hardship and social unrest. The 1970s saw the growth of a street culture of festivals, markets, public demonstrations and performance that enabled us to see ourselves across boundaries of class, culture and race as Londoners. Everybody who’s here can be found anywhere on the street—there are no no-go areas I’m aware of. We still have the (Public Order) Riot Act, but the point is to avoid reading it.

I made a play about this change, unsurprisingly called The Long, Hot Summer of ’76.

It won a prize and I took the money to go and look at Mexico — another place of cultural fusions. I noticed on the back of one of the bank notes there it celebrated La Fusion de Dos Culturas (the fusion of two cultures) beneath a picture of a Castilian knight on horseback piercing upward the body an Aztec eagle warrior with his lance. Unfortunately, the eagle warrior had his stave down through the throat of the knight and the whole scene was reeling over backwards as the horse collapsed under them. That’s to say we can’t take these things for granted.

That play was a radio play. I got the BBC to broadcast it over the weekend of the Notting Hill Carnival, so it played as a kind of live broadcast of events happening outside on the street — homage to the Martians coming and Orson Welles in The War of the Worlds. Usually I listen to a radio play, I’m doing the washing up, I’m on my own, and I don’t think about who else might be listening, I’m not asked to. But I wanted to work at that blurring of public and private space that happens in Carnival — you’re inside listening to the radio about people partying out of windows and spilling out of doors, music blaring out of speakers, crowds on the streets. A play about that Carnival going on in London. You can hear the sounds and imagine other people being out there in the middle of it — and other people inside listening along with you, having doubts about it. You might go to the bathroom, or switch off, but there it is, still going on — a public event.

That seems to me to be the thing about Carnival — it has no boundaries, it moves, you’re free to go in and out as you please — and though there are costumes and musical floats, things to eat and drink and smoke, things going on, it’s really about you, centred in you and people around you. It’s an experience of who you’re sharing the space with, and how you connect with them. It’s your chance to dance in the street for a change. In public, at the end of summer.

The Fall

But as I say, it’s been a great autumn. The weather’s changing. We’re not used to it. The climate’s changing. We had this great heat, then a sudden drop in temperature which trapped the tannin in the leaves as the trees closed off against the cold. The temperatures rose again and levelled off into a long, warm autumn, but it was that tannin in the leaves that gave us autumn colours we only usually see in films set in New England like The Dead Poets Society— that great sweep of red across North America, like the maple leaf in the Canadian flag. In all the great London Parks — Hampstead, Richmond, Hyde Park — England looked like New England. As I kicked through the leaves, the Fall never seemed so vivid, so right a way to describe the autumn.

For me — here — I always heard Milton, William Blake and the Bible in that word for autumn, the Puritan founders of the early New England colonies looking into the mirror of the North American forests at our fallen nature. But no — things fall with a loveliness that makes me want to live in New England. I want to talk for a moment about that co-incidence of seeing my autumn through an American Fall — seeing old England through an idea of New England — because it involves a doubling in the idea of place, a temporary fusion of this England and New England.

In France, différence is a way of making meaning, of being creative. You’ve got one England, fine. You’ve got two, everything changes. The old England changes because you begin to see its differences from the new one. The new one changes because it’s another thing and begins to operate independently. It’s difference that makes new things, new meanings. In Britain, we call that discrimination — the class-system has made us connoisseurs in discriminating one thing from another, noticing the small differences and distinctions – in accent, in appearance. This goes to the heart of our discriminatory culture — how we operate to make sense of things, to appreciate some and to shut others out. But, like the French, we also work with metaphor, which is a different way to make meaning and analyse the world: think of two things yoked by violence together to make a third. Cultural fusion is a metaphor. You have cultures. You have welders with acetylene torches. You have fusion.

As a poet I know that metaphor is the life-blood of art. As a person I know a live artistic culture keeps us from going off the rails. We manage our society — our diversity — through integrating our differences in endlessly evolving metaphors of cultural fusion and confusion: we make art the language of our social cohesion. When an English person looks at America, they see, as I imagine Americans probably don’t, how English the language, the culture and occasionally the autumn are. They hold the sense of a special relationship with it. We also discriminate against it. Both things are at work — difference, and metaphors of belonging. We don’t see necessarily that Americans don’t believe they can be fused with being English or Anglo-Saxon. We incorporate them into our sense of who we want to be and where we need to go. America is an art-work in the minds of the English — a fusion of New England falls, deep rivers and the smell of tobacco farms: everything we lost. Hollywood, Florida, Silicon Valley, Chicago grain futures: everything we want. And some things we don’t. On/Off. A kind of switching.

Passover

Now I’m English, which is a very interesting place to be — I’m both inside and outside. Sometimes I’m only half English, half Irish and half Nigerian. Other times, I’m wholly Nigerian, wholly Irish or wholly English. It’s far more fluid than a fusion. As a black Englishman, I make common cause with people from the Caribbean, and with part of my family being French I’m a good European. It’s not uncommon. We’re on the move in this society. Net immigration is running at about a quarter of a million people a year. We don’t always see eye to eye about who we are and where we’re going — the English among us, the Welsh, the Scottish or the Northern Irish. We constantly shift among our identities as metaphors of belonging—being British, being Muslim, being English, being Nigerian. Scottish collusion in the enterprise of British Empire, translates as self-conscious anti-racism in the current mood to distinguish themselves from the English. But when we come together it’s often some canny combination of the commercial and inclusive.

How does this fluid situation sit with metaphors of cultural fusion? Well, it’s good. It’s better than it used to be. By now there are four generations of my family in this country. Parents, us, grandchildren, their children. We’ve gone through an accelerated journey. We’re the new English. We take on that colouring and camouflage. It’s a chameleon thing. On the one hand, we have the masks and costumes of Carnival as a big paradigm of our cultural fusions. In for a penny, in for a pound— everybody joins in, even the policemen. Great costumes. It’s a place, a way of moving, or better still, a performance — where you can be yourself; that mediates between you and your society, you and the collective, to defuse conflict. That dance in the streets that operates like a safety valve. On the other hand, there’s that switching that goes on, between discrimination and identifying with, fusing and separating in how far we make common cause with each other’s interests, culture and outlook—linguists call it code switching, between speaking and not speaking the same language.

Let me give an example of this, quite removed. I have a German friend, a playwright. But from East Germany. After the Berlin Wall’s come down and re-unification, he’s telling me his child’s coming home from school with a history lesson on the GDR, the old East German state. That was the state my friend grew up and was educated in. He’s history. Then again, he’s gone with a group of German writers to Israel on an official exchange. He meets the Israeli writer, Amos Oz, and he’s very impressed. I tell you what, says Amos Oz, if you’re looking for a way to commemorate the Holocaust in Berlin, why not find every building where you know there were Jewish people living and put up a plaque to remember them. We have a system of blue plaques in London, put up by English Heritage, to commemorate famous dead people, but restricted to who English Heritage thinks is famous. You can imagine the scale of the undertaking in Berlin. Oh, well, I say, Amos Oz is angry at you… What do you mean? It’s a very good idea!… Well, I say, he’s talking about Passover. What’s that? It’s Easter, you know, Good Friday, when the Angel of Death passes over. I don’t understand. So I explain, because suddenly we realise the Judeo-Christian language of Passover isn’t something they taught you with Marxism-Leninism in the old GDR. He didn’t know that you mark all the doors where Jewish people are living so that the Angel of Death passes over them and kills the first-born in all of the other houses. Just to show, we don’t always speak the same language.

A slight coda to that story. Probably because my friend was so unsettled by it. He put it to me that he wasn’t brought up feeling guilty about the Holocaust. For the East Germans, they were the Socialists, who were persecuted by the Nazis. Their wall was the Anti-Fascist Wall. The problem was drueben — over there — the others. But for the West Germans, they had de-Nazification, they based themselves on the new federal, democratic constitution; the problem lay with those others – unreconstructed totalitarians over there in the East. With re-unification, when the Wall came down, there were no others left to blame. With a unified German state they were all back in the mainstream, the painful legacy of German history. It had been the greatest shock for him as one of the silent winners at the end of the Cold War that he could no longer switch off. The cultural fusion of East and West in his generation is not complete, but now they have a shared history. They’re re-building a relationship in coming to terms with it.

The Bridge and the Tunnel

I crossed a bridge once in Berlin and froze—it was too cold to go on, and just as far to go back. So I froze. With a Siberian wind coming down off the canal, the strangest, most dissident thought popped into my head. What if the Germans had won? What if National Socialism had become the order of Europe? Perhaps I wouldn’t now be asking, What is cultural fusion? I’d be someone else, and asking something like, What is national culture?
When I was contacted by the organisers for the ISPA conference and asked to come and talk here, I had a quick look at the web-site and the schedule of events. Two things popped into my head. First I had this image of people coming to do business and looking over their shoulders into the shop window of Harrods. Christmas shopping. My experience of international events is that in times of boom people go out and spend. They buy in shows, ready-made, off-the-peg cultural goods, because they can afford it. Tastes vary, production and supply can cater for that. But what happens in the business cycle when markets contract? When all that splendid opulence becomes so much window-dressing and inside the shops are empty? One response, of course, is to invest. It’s a hallmark of our acceptance of the Lord Mayor’s love bridge (I had to check with people that he really did say that, and yes, it seems he did) – embracing each other— as a model for growth that we invest in relationships to develop work — that we invest in each other. It’s the hallmark, for example, of The Fence project set up by Writernet here to form a network of European playwrights — to talk amongst ourselves: our project is each other.

The second thing that struck me was reading about the traditional, oak-beamed hospitality of the Lord Mayor’s reception and visits to the Globe theatre intercut with samples of cutting edge work. I began to situate The World in London: Cultural Fusions within two pictures of post-war Britain… As usual. Perfidious Albion, two-timing Brits. Where one thing stands, another stands there too… On the one hand, an idea of heritage in which England is time-rich, traditional, unchanging and Shakespearian; on the other, an equally saleable idea of Britain as a bridge across the Atlantic and as a tunnel to Europe— less a place of fusions than transitions, movement, transformation. Out of a 19th century, Liberal vision of London — the port city — as the capital of virtual, commercial empire, we were now becoming exactly that. Opening ourselves as a world city to the crossings, interaction and diffusion of global culture. We’re well placed—off-shore, stable, forward thinking, diverse. Right time zone. With experience of staying awake as the sun goes around the world.

Of course, the British Empire no longer controls the world. But that’s not the point. In the virtual world of information technology no one does. People come in and out in the movement and exchange of ideas, goods and services. The point, as I’m sure everyone knows, is to be strategically located within those networks that are growing our future into the 21st century. There’s no monopoly on the uses of networks if other people are thinking faster than us about the future.

Networks

So what do I observe about the potential for growth within the ISPA as a network? A network operating, as I understand it, since 1949? Standing for Internationalism, relevance, pluralism, connectedness, these are good aims. Theatre, I was always told, is what happens in the audience — the relationship between the audience and the stage. Relationships matter. Being here, face to face, is evidence of an interest among us in networks and the relationships they foster. Networks stand in place of an audience — to broker the relationship of our societies to the arts, to our creativity.

I’ve met people here who tune buildings. St. Luke’s as a venue for the London Symphony Orchestra was constructed out of a relationship to the living community around it and the dead who were hollowed out of the crypt to allow the volume needed for the sound to resonate. Someone spoke whose motto for building audiences struck a very clear chord: Invite, Welcome, Respect. Or again, EINO: Everyone in, no one out. There was someone who described the moment you discover your mortality, needing to make sense of the world beyond yourself. There were also people who recognise limits to the viability of building spiritual bridges of communication, but do a good job trying to build them — across the generational, religious, national and cultural conflicts we all know from our own societies. It took them two goes to do that Millennium footbridge outside the Tate Modern, to stop it bouncing and throwing people off into the river. They were connecting art to the City of London, to business. But they were also connecting art to St. Paul’s cathedral. This is the point I would like to leave with you. We’re throwing ourselves on each other’s mercy. Because we must. On the eve of war, September 1939, the English poet, WH Auden, a refugee in New York, wrote: We must love one another, or die. No Messiah, no messianic talent or idea, I think, will arise to save us. We must do it ourselves. And there is now so much to do.

International Society for the Performing Arts Foundation
17 Purdy Avenue
P.O. Box 909
Rye, New York 10580
USA
tel 914.921.1550
fax 914.921.1593
info@ispa.org
http://www.ispa.org/

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