Morons Of London.

Sep 24, 2014 by

Morons Of London.

A while ago, I wrote a play called mirror teeth.  It was eventually produced at a small London venue, where it was received with general indifference, and occasional enthusiasm, and I was very happy with it.  It didn’t make me a household name, but there are two other productions of it going on at the moment, one in France and one in Brazil.

Because, occasionally, people would ask me what it was about, I did that thing where you decide on an informal elevator pitch that you can tell your friends; for mirror teeth, mine was

‘It’s about the worst parts of being English – colonialism, racism, imperialism, capitalism.  Lots of -isms’

(I would say the last bit to puncture the how-much-of-a-prick-is-this-guy? of the sentence before it).  Now, I’m going to take a wild stab in the dark, and say that you probably haven’t read it, so here’s a quotation from the first scene…

JANE: … I just don’t know what the blacks want. You see them everywhere with their hundreds of children, that you and I are working so hard to support with our taxes, darling, and they don’t seem to want to better themselves at all – they just live off the state, don’t they?

JAMES: The very generous state.

JANE: The very generous state, exactly. How are they ever going to better themselves if they’re not going to work their way up through society? And as for their children, well. I certainly don’t know what they want. They just seem to want to fight and stab each other. It is true, I’ve read it. Well, I say let them. Once all the ones who want to kill each other have killed each other, then only the ones who don’t want to kill each other will be left, and then we can all get along in peace.

JAMES: You make a lot of sense, you know; but I’m sure it isn’t all the blacks, though, love.

JANE: No, of course, you’re right; I’m generalising. It’s not all of them.

JAMES: There’s that nice young man who works at the Bank.

I’m sure you can see what’s going on here – it’s an absurd play, and the opening scene plants us firmly in a horrible world of privileged white people talking casually and earnestly about their prejudice, believing themselves  to be reasonable people as they do so.  Ta dah. Simple.

This, then, is a piece of writing that uses the structure and vocabulary of racism to set up a heightened, imaginary world that bears some strong resemblance to our own, and uses that language to point out the ludicrous nature of racism and, by making it overt, suggest that unspoken currents of it may be present in the real world. I’m not a racist, no more than Edward Bond likes chucking stones at babies.

You may be able to see where I’m going with this.

Last night, I turned up at the Vaults near Waterloo, intending to see Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B – a show which used the (visual) language of the ‘human zoos’ and ethnographic exhibitions of the 19th and early 20th centuries, showing Africans as objects of scientific curiosity, to probe the hardships faced by present-day immigrants, and the racism that millions around the world still face. It promised to be an intensely horrible experience for someone with even a fraction of humanity: a reminder of past horrors and, by placing the performers in contemporary situations, the suggestion that racism is still rife.

At least, I think that’s what it would have been like.  I didn’t get to see it.  I don’t think anyone got to see it; not during its London run, at least. I’m pretty fucking sure that the nigh-on 23,000 people who signed a petition to get it pulled didn’t see it, either. The petition didn’t have the desired effect; some protesters (were they part of the 23,000 who signed the petition?  new additions?  no idea) demonstrated outside the venue, with enough threat of a violent outcome that the Barbican cancelled the whole run of  for fear of harm to the performers.

So, if I’ve understood this correctly (and I think I have): people who hate racism have successfully used the threat of violence to shut down an anti-racist show, without even having seen it to find out if they’d understood it, or if their threats were necessary. That makes me extremely sad, and frustrated: hating a piece of art is a fantastic thing to do; I’ve done it many times myself, and I fully expect to do so in the future.  But I normally try to experience it in some form first, and I trust other people’s opinions enough that they can find out for themselves what they think about it.

I wrote mirror teeth because I live in a country whose ‘golden years’ (and what remains of its prosperity) were founded on violence, colonisation, oppression, appropriation of natural resources and a belief in the Christian rightness of all those actions, and I still see the traces of those beliefs in the arrogance of the governments we elect, the pompous righteousness of The Fucking Markets, the beating-down of the poor, and a load of entrenched racism that will only die with the people who believe it.  I wrote it as a tirade against all these things, using the language of people who perpetrated in the first place, and who carry on doing so now.

Sarah Silverman had a great response to a question in an interview, and I wish I could find the source.  She was asked ‘But how can your audience tell the difference between a joke that’s about racism, and one that’s racist?.  She replied ‘By not being a retard’.

Ho hum.

edited: Christopher Alcock pointed me towards this excellent article by Robbie Shilliam who has, of course, a much more nuanced perspective than I do.  I hope he wouldn’t think that I’m part of the problem, but I slightly suspect he would.  Robbie, if you’re interested, do get in touch. 

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