What A Complete Bastardography

“Gay, precocious and mentally unstable from an early age.” That’s how Simon Jay is described on the back of his memoir, Bastardography, and it’s also an apt description of his one-man show of the same name on at Theatre N16 in Balham. Jay hand picks a selection of experiences from his youth whether it’s a fellow kid turning a DIY flamethrower (Lynx can + lighter) on him for being gay or his obsession with the film Psycho and not forgetting his many dalliances with psychiatrists, psychologists and nurses as he skirts Borderline Personality Disorder. The result is a revealing romp through recent history with one of the funniest guides.

Jay isn’t even 30 and this isn’t his first show – his unique take on America’s latest dictator  president, Trumpageddon, sold out at the Fringe before hitting London, he’s put on a musical about a girl with a robot arm and he even collaborated with me on a series of monologues called Universally Speaking (they were particularly good) – but what’s most impressive about the guy isn’t his talent in directing, acting or writing, no, it’s his resilience. That the world threw so much shit at Jay and he turned it into this really rather fabulous production is testimony to his strength. He cracks many a joke, disregards the fourth wall, points out his penis collage, attempts to circle the stage in heels, is candid with his experiences and does all this to a soundtrack of Pocahontas, Glenn Miller and film quotes. Tickets here!

Margaret Thatcher spoke at the start of the play and her words stuck with me. It was her famous speech of 1987 in which she bemoaned the fact that “children are being taught they have an inalienable right to be gay” and subsequently “cheated of a sound start in life.” The next year she introduced a number of anti-gay laws including Section 28, that forbade any school from teaching that homosexual relationships are ‘acceptable’. Jay was born in 1987 and I was born in 1988. The law was eventually repealed in 2003, when I was fifteen. I wonder what it might have been like to grow up in a world where I had role models and cultural narratives to turn to and I imagine Jay wonders the same thing. Perhaps if things had been different we wouldn’t have been cheated of a sound start in life. So kudos to Jay for turning a legacy of hate into a queer, creative, mental health odyssey that, whilst very dark at times, always shines with love.

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Ending 2016 With Lorde

So, it’s the end of 2016, which at times seemed like a pretty apocalyptic year. Trump got in, Brexit got voted for, Syria still rages through war and not to mention the 6th mass extinction and resource depletion. It seems all those stories about humans conquering the world, about technology solving all our problems, about the forward trajectory of human civilisation, well, they turned out to be pretty shoddy stories with a shed load of plot flaws and inconsistencies. Fortunately, we’ve got Lorde, the singer songwriter, to offer us some guidance and it comes in her song Team.

The video and the lyrics go hand in hand as they paint a picture of faded grandeur. A city that’s slowly falling apart, the sort of place “you’ll never see on-screen, not very pretty,” – nothing like the Kardashians’ numerous houses. It’s a place where guys joust with baseball bats on motorbikes and grin chipped tooth smiles as the blood trickles down their noses. It’s an apocalyptic rite of passage as people get initiated into meaningless. “Living in ruins of a palace within my dreams” and that’s where we seem to be retreating these days, to inside our heads, far away from the dangers of the world, far away from the grim realities of climate change and refugee crises. Although even for Lorde that palace in her dreams is falling apart. It seems nowhere is safe anymore.

But maybe, in and amongst the debris, there’s hope. “I’m kind of over getting told to throw my hands up in the air, So there.” Maybe Lorde’s bored of being told to give up and surrender, maybe she does want meaning in a culture that’s regularly telling her nothing matters and we should all just give up. Sure, the old stories might not make sense – that everything would end happily ever after – but the people telling those stories were clearly quite deluded (and probably very privileged). What if it’s this naive belief in stories – that life has clear and well-structured beginnings, middles and ends, like fairy tales – that’s the problem. What if finding meaning in today’s world will take more than a simplistic story structure.

“And everyone’s competing for a love they won’t receive, ‘Cause what this palace wants is release.” Lorde’s right again, we are competing, constantly hoping this life of high consumerism, economic reductionism and endless comparison will give us meaning as we shove one another aside to get what we want and get happy trying. That seems so much to be the dominant story of now. But beyond the credit card transactions and the debt, like Lorde, we crave release – release from these highly conditioning bonds of consumer capitalism. Or maybe this is just an exceptionally self-indulgent blog written by a directionless yet privileged millenial – a bit like the sort of people Lorde sings about perhaps.

But, as self-indulgent as I can be, I do want to do something about the mess we’re in, even if the contribution is small and it still all ends in apocalypse (bearing in mind that countless people are already living and dying through various incarnations of hell on earth). And I think Lorde’s song holds the key. She offers us the answer for getting out of this debt-heavy, meaning-lite existence because “you know, we’re on each other’s team.” Somewhere beyond the narratives of endless competition there is a story of teamwork, a more meaningful story in which we join forces and learn to share. And it will be so much more than a story, it will be real human experiences of compassion and community. Better to rebuild ruins together than be forced to live in them alone.

Turns Out We’re All Insecure

We have a habit of projecting success onto others. We see our facebook friends’ holiday pics and assume their lives are just fantastic – they have the best holidays, they have the most fun friends and they have a monopoly on the sun. We see attractive people walking down the street and assume their lives are great – with a face like that they must get invited to all the best parties, have no self-esteem issues and have great sex. We see our hyper-successful boss and assume they’ve got it all sorted – a big salary, a big house with equally big happiness to boot. And all the while as we project success we internalise failure, telling ourselves our lives aren’t busy enough, we haven’t got enough friends and we’re just not good enough (or whatever our hook-ups are). But the thing is, it turns out we all do this because everyone’s insecure.

It’s not that we’re the only ones failing to find that abundant happiness we assume everyone else thrives in, it’s actually that we are all subject to the same slings and arrows of consumer capitalism. It makes us all feel inadequate, even those at the ‘top’ because there’s always more to buy, more money to make, the possibility of looking a bit better, having more friends, the list goes on. It’s a zero-sum game and there are only a few seats at the top table. But no one really wins and the very idea that society is predicated on the concept of winning, that it’s a competition, makes its inherent madness all the more obvious.

However, insecurity goes much deeper than the effects of living under capitalism, it goes right to the heart of the human condition. Regardless of how many holidays we go on, how often we shop and how ‘good’ we look, there are things universal to being human, namely ageing, illness and grief. We all get old, we all get ill and we all lose people we love. All of these are perfectly normal and natural but that does not make them easy. It’s not just that advertising campaigns make ageing a sin it’s also that losing things you once enjoyed is tough. Meanwhile, illness can knock us for six and, depending on its severity, change our lives forever. And loss. That empty feeling that can overwhelm our hearts when we lose a loved one and struggle to comprehend what death actually is, that is also very, very tough. Living, whilst often flipping fantastic, can also be devastating and difficult. Thus, interwoven into the very fabric of our being is the fragility and vulnerability of being alive. Our insecurity is part of who we are (not to mention the fact that we all die but that’s another blog, or book).

We are all insecure and for so many reasons. We all have different histories, no two experiences of grief will be the same, just as ageing and illness will affect us all differently. As will enduring and attempting to thrive in the zero-sum world of competitive capitalism. And why is it useful to know this? It’s not to make us feel better by luxuriating in the suffering of others instead it’s to let us all off the hook a bit. We can stop pretending everything’s ‘fine’ when it’s not and ask for help instead. We can also be a little more compassionate towards others recognising that no matter how irritating they are they will have their issues and sufferings too. So if I am going to make any categorical statement about the human condition on this blog it will be this: that, on the surface and in our deepest depths, we are all insecure.

Here’s To David Cameron, Master Of The House

As we bid a fond farewell to our dear David Cameron let us remember a few of the highlights. He measured our happiness. He did, honest! Back in 2010 he launched the UK’s Measuring Well-being Initiative, how marvellous and how happy we all must be now. Boris Johnson. He imposed austerity, sadly not quite such a happiness-inducing policy. He appointed George Osborne to oversee this process with promises of cutting the deficit, he did no such thing. Michael Gove. He aired his party’s dirty laundry in public by promising the electorate a referendum. Theresa May. He oversaw sweeping cuts to many of our public services making it harder for disabled people, kids, migrants and mothers. The bedroom tax. He also backtracked on his second general election promise to not cut the NHS. His government failed to tackle the housing crisis and that ‘big society’ he promised us, that ‘compassionate conservatism’ he promised us seemed to vanish. Then, when the referendum result came in and the public voted in a way he hadn’t expected, he resigned, whilst saying the vote had nothing to do with the economy. A paragon of public schoolboy courage, intelligence and honesty. Here’s to you, David, master of the house. Consider this a song in tribute to your legacy and I hope you enjoy a happy retirement in the Cotswolds.

Inside Out: The Highs And The Lows

I just watched Inside Out for the first time. It’s brilliant, easily my favourite Pixar film to date, up there with Toy Story 3 and WALL-E (although I’m yet to see Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo, I’m a bit slow on the uptake). What a fantastic way to represent the inner workings of the human mind and brain, inspired. And what a great way to remind us that our emotions are a crucial part of our identity and form who we are. However, because I like to over-analyse things there are a few bits about it that I find a little concerning. So what follows is a brief review of the highs and lows.

High: Our Emotions Matter! Have you ever met one of those uptight people who are convinced emotions are the enemy – the sort of person who worships economics and thinks feeling should be expunged from the human condition. The sort of person who tells us that we should be as rational as possible and act like cost-benefit maximising automatons, thinking always what’s best for us in an objective and compassionless manner. Well, despite a mountain load of scientific evidence to the contrary now Pixar is on the case, showing us quite how wrong economists can be. I’ll let one of the scientists who advised on the film hammer home this point: “…emotions organize — rather than disrupt — rational thinking. Traditionally, in the history of Western thought, the prevailing view has been that emotions are enemies of rationality and disruptive of cooperative social relations. But the truth is that emotions guide our perceptions of the world, our memories of the past and even our moral judgments of right and wrong, most typically in ways that enable effective responses to the current situation.”

Low: Memories Are Not Objects. The film depicts memories as little multi-sensory orbs that display the events of the memory like a film. Each orb is coloured with the predominant feeling of that memory, e.g. yellow for happy, blue for sad etc. However, one current theory is that memories are not equivalent to discrete objects stored in our head – e.g. a neuron per memory – but are actually engrams – unique and distributed series of neurons that correspond to multiple-facets of that memory (e.g. the visuals, the sounds, the feelings). So, rather than an orb, imagine that a memory isn’t a single item but a series of neuronal connections throughout the body. This will include the different sections and layers of the brain (of which there are many) and our internal/external organs (which are also connected via neurons to our brain/central nervous system). In other words, it takes the whole body and the world beyond to make a memory (but trying to represent this as a visually satisfying metaphor in a kid’s film was probably not Pixar’s aim).

High: Sadness Is Important. Spoiler alert. At the end of the film the emotion Joy (one of those irritating types who tries to look on the positive side of everything…everything) comes to realise that Sadness (one of those irritating types who tries to look on the negative side of everything…everything) is vital to a healthy, emotional lifestyle. Sadness is crucial in helping us deal with the difficulties of the world – the loss we may experience when moving home or, indeed, the loss we may feel when we lose a loved one. Whilst it’s seemingly easy to pretend everything is ‘fine’, the tougher thing might be to admit it’s not. But by being vulnerable and being sad we make it more likely that we will heal and be supported in the process.

Low: The Brain Is Actually Organic. It’s fascinating that the brains behind Inside Out chose to represent the brain as a hi-tech HQ full of fancy equipment and flashing buttons resting above an arid desert. Even Riley’s ‘memory islands’, places that represent core facets of her identity such as the Family Island and the Goofball Island, are just uninhabited theme parks full of statues and machines. Now, it’s a great metaphor and it’s brilliant when key emotions Joy and Sadness get lost in Riley’s mind but it’s worth stating that the brain is an organ in our body and like all other organs it’s organic. It’s full of blood, veins and gooey grey stuff, and forms a vital element of our body’s ecology. It is by no means artificial or ‘unnatural’. So perhaps a more true metaphor would be something more ecological – ‘memory forests’ instead of built-environment memory islands that can grow greater diversity but are also prone to fires and being cut down. My concern here is that Pixar’s representation of the brain as mechanical could only arise in a time when humans are rapidly trying to distance themselves from their biological nature. But, at heart and head, we are animals, just animals with a profound capacity for intelligence and stupidity.

So, highs and lows aside, Inside Out is a fantastic film that reminds us our emotions form a vital part of who we are and how we understand the world. But the vivid nature of these emotions should surely also remind us of our animal and biological nature, one prone to great highs and great lows, rather than imply we’re just walking, talking machines.

Coca-Cola Does Adverts

You’d think Coca-Cola wouldn’t need to bother with adverts. Their cans and bottles of fizzy, sugar-water are already sold all over the world and being drunk in the millions, why bother with all the billboards and posters when there’s not much in the way of competition? But that’s not enough for a global, conglomerated modern-day empire, if Coca-Cola don’t continue to beam their brand at us we might briefly forget about them and buy Pepsi instead, and that would just be terrible. So here are some of the high(low)lights of their efforts to indoctrinate us to Choose Choice, Open Happiness and Drink Coca-Cola.

In Coca-Cola’s own words: ” ‘Brotherly Love’ captures the unique relationship between brothers, a universal story of love and conflict. Ultimately the younger brother finds himself without his Coca-Cola. The older brother comes to his rescue and they enjoy a special moment together.” I hadn’t realised that Coke did universal stories of love and conflict but really I’d say this is a story about bullying – the elder brother bullies his younger brother at every possible opportunity – stamping on his feet, pushing his cap down and stealing the umbrella. However, if there’s one thing he can’t stand, it’s other people bullying his younger brother when he could be. Hence, he scares them off and then makes his little brother spill his Coke down his t-shirt. So, just to clarify, this advert has nothing to do with ‘brotherly love’ but is actually about condoning bullying and imaginative ways to addict the next generation to fizzy, sugar-water.

This has to be my favourite. Stuck as we are in the gruelling reality of late capitalism, where recessions run longer and deeper, inequality rises and as it does a whole host of prejudices we thought were gone come back. Add to this the effects rampant consumerism has on the environment and we’ve got climate change, resource depletion and land grabs. Yet despite all this Coca-Cola ploughs on in selling us its sugar-water. And here’s a handy advert to remind us which ones there are (in case we’d forgotten): the original, the diet-one, the no-calories-one which is the diet-one rebranded for men (it’s black after all and has a number in the name) and the supposedly-natural-one (aka, the oxymoron-one). But it’s the message at the end “CHOOSE CHOICE” in big, bold letters which does it for me. I mean it’s bad enough that consumer capitalism results  in so many human and environmental rights abuses but now freedom has been narrowed down to selecting one of four fizzy, sugar-water drinks. Did Emmeline Pankhurst, Martin Luther King and Ghandi really strive so hard just for us to have access to a range of soft drinks? But, worse than that, the phrase “choose choice” reveals that choice is also up for grabs, as if one day soon we won’t be able to choose at all – maybe the day when Coca-Cola instead of water is coming out of our taps whether we like it or not.

And last but by no means least it’s the Coca-Cola does Christmas advert. Coke basically invented the Santa we know and love – they changed the colour of Saint Nicholas’ outfit from green to red, they added some weight to him and put a bottle of delicious, sparkling, black gloop in his hands. And kids all over the world love him and believe in him, worshipping him almost like a deity – a false idol if ever there was one. I hate to say it but Coca Cola really are having the last laugh. Ho, ho, ho! Unless, of course, we stop buying their tasty and addictive fizzy, sugar-water.

Jess Glynne Has Low Standards

News just in, Jess Glynne has low standards, very low standards, and it’s what’s keeping her happy.

There’s a lot of pressure on people to be happy these days: we’ve got to be seen to be busy doing fun things, always smiling, always making the most of life, always on top form, always posting exciting new pics on social media. But often the mask doesn’t fit the reality. “I came here with a broken heart that no one else could see, I drew a smile on my face to paper over me,” sings Glynne in her latest song, and haven’t we all done this before – hidden how we truly feel because we want to fit in. We’re ashamed of not being happy, of being sad, lonely, or bored. “I feel like I’ve been missing me, Was not who I’m supposed to be, I felt this darkness over me, We all get there eventually, I never knew where I belonged.” And Glynne’s right, all this effort we put into constructing an artificially happy self can detract from the often painful but very important task of getting to know ourselves.

But there’s hope and Glynne knows it. “I learned to wave goodbye, How not to see my life, Through someone else’s eyes, It’s not an easy road, But no I’m not alone.” Constantly comparing ourselves to others can be very stressful. When we compare it’s often with other people’s external lives – the stuff they post on social media and the things they feel comfortable talking about surrounded by others. And it’s easy to think that our life is failing because we don’t seem as happy. But other people are people too, they’ll also feel down in the dumps, have bad days and weeks. So it doesn’t make sense to compare our inner lives with others’ outer lives. Of course, comparing less isn’t easy, as Glynne points out, but it’s a good place to start.

“Learn to forgive, learn to let go, Everyone trips, everyone falls.” Yet more sage advice – we do make mistakes all the time and the trick isn’t to beat ourselves up when we fall, it’s to get back up again and learn from our mistakes, even if we make them again. It’s not easy but in time it can work, “But wounds heal and tears dry and cracks they don’t show.” Or maybe the cracks do show, as scars, the scars of living life (wrinkles in our skin if you like) but surely they’re just testimony to being human and trying to live the human condition. “I’m just tired of marching on my own, Kind of frail, I feel it in my bones, Won’t let my heart, my heart turn into stone.” And life can get tiring especially if you do feel alone and isolated, caught in the stigma that being unhappy, sad and facing difficulty is somehow wrong and a sign of failure. I certainly remember a vivid period of depression in my early 20s. I feared telling other people about it because I felt ashamed and confused. But then I made a new friend who was also suffering from depression and we spoke to each other about it, without judgement just with support, and it made all the difference. So the hope is that we won’t always have to march alone but can reach out to others for support.

“I’m standin’ on top of the world, right where I wanna be, So how can this dark cloud be raining over me.” Yup, even when we feel we should be happy because everything’s going well doesn’t mean we actually feel happy. But Glynne’s got a remedy: “But hearts break and hells a place that everyone knows, So don’t be so hard on yourself.” And that’s just it, we are often so hard on ourselves, we often beat ourselves up for not meeting certain standards of success, perfection, constant happiness, etc. Instead, maybe we could lower these standards and just let ourselves be fallible, fragile humans with hearts that our vulnerable and eminently breakable. We don’t have to be happy all the time and we don’t have to be mean to ourselves when we’re unhappy. So yeah, I’m with Glynne on this one, those standards – drop ’em.