Do I Owe You Anything?

“For we each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever pulled in the tombs of the dead Kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving whiles others ate? No [one] earns punishment, no [one] earns reward. Free your mind of the ideas of deserving, the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think.” This quote from the sci-fi novel The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin ended one of my previous posts. And now I want to take a closer look – what might it actually mean if we were to free our minds of the ideas of deserving and earning?

To explore this I am going to get personal and focus on relationships. One sort of relationship is friendship and it is often governed by notions of deserving and earning. For example, if I give my friend a present for their birthday then I might think that I deserve to get one for my birthday, that I’ve earned it. But if we free our minds of the ideas of deserving and earning how then can we describe this scenario? It’s obvious that my friend and I care about one another, which is why we’re friends, so I give them a birthday present predominantly as a means of expressing that care. I don’t have to give them a present but I do choose to. Now, I’ve done a nice thing for them but does that mean they have to do a nice thing for me? Well, if earning/deserving are out the window then the simple answer is no. There is no universal law or cosmological truth or fundamental principle that means every good deed deserves another. However, my friend, uncompelled by abstract principles, might still choose to give me a present because they also want to express their care for me and because they know I like getting presents.

The two situations I’ve described above aren’t hugely different – they’re both about giving and receiving presents. However, in the first we can fall back on ideas of earning/deserving – “I gave you a present, so I deserve one”, as if there are unwritten laws that govern how friendships work. In the latter, we cannot fall back on these invisible laws but instead must take responsibility for our actions and choose what we’ll do accordingly. To go back to the quote we can consider the ideas of earning/deserving from two angles: either, everyone deserves everything, or no one deserves anything. The former suggests that we all deserve birthday presents and that sounds great but as soon as the scenario arises in which some people get lots of presents whilst others get none then the principle is undermined. Likewise if we all deserve nothing then we could use this to justify hoarding presents for ourselves whilst never giving them to other people. However, without the ideas of deserving/earning then the act of giving presents is about choice. We love our friend and might choose to express that via giving a present. And so, freeing our minds of the ideas of deserving/earning changes everything. Rather than being governed by rules or laws or decrees or commandments we are suddenly free to act however we wish – we can give as many or as few presents as we want. We get to choose. To put it another way rather than being forced to sing to another’s song we get to compose our own: we get to make our kind of music.

T2 Trainspotting And Why Men Can Be Idiots

So, T2 Trainspotting is happening. Twenty years after the events of the original movie and that loveable bunch of drug taking Edinburgh-based rogues aren’t faring too well. What ensues is another ride of exceptionally dark comedy, musings on ageing and a wee bit of drug taking on the side. The lads are struggling with the whole growing older thing and are stuck between emptyish lives and nostalgia for a past they only part remember. I shan’t spoil any of the plot but if you loved the first movie then you’ll like this. The soundtrack is also pretty kick-ass. Instead, I want to refer you to a brief clip from the Graham Norton Show in which the team behind T2 were interviewed including director Danny Boyle and lead actor Ewen McGregor.

It’s a fascinating clip especially because it’s about two men who fell out and then took years to forgive one another. As Boyle says “it’s one of the things weirdly the film is about…trying to express emotions.” Of course, what he doesn’t specify is that it’s about men trying to express emotions (most likely cisgendered men and probably heterosexual), indeed, the majority of the film is about men being men (and fucking it up) with the odd women doing a cameo appearance.

As Boyle and McGregor explain they fell out over a “misunderstanding” about the former not casting the latter in the very successful film The Beach. However,  McGregor acknowledges that “it was never about The Beach it was about [their] friendship” but the incident led to years of them not talking to one another. However, as time passed their views changed what with McGregor doing a wonderful speech about another hit film of Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire and Boyle describing feeling a great “shame” about how he handled the situation. And years later there they both were in 1st class on a plane back from Shanghai, the only ones still awake on their luxury beds, and McGregor thought the time had come – the time to get up, say sorry and mend the past. Of course, that’s how it would play out in a movie (because in movies people tend to learn their lessons) but in reality neither of them spoke to one another and there was no heartfelt reunion. And, my god, is this just another example of how men can be so terrible at communicating. I was raised a cisgendered man and there was scant little education in understanding and expressing my emotions and feelings. I didn’t quite fit the mould of typical masculinity but it was still the predominant lifestyle option and, boy, was it lacking.

So, it’s not weird at all that T2 is about men failing to communicate with one another and living pretty sad and often scary lives as a consequence and nor is it a surprise that a similar turn of events happened in the lives of the real people behind the film. Of course, they’re big dog Hollywood millionaires but that doesn’t mean they’re rich in the ability to communicate. So, men, I really think it’s time we learnt our lessons and realised that a greater awareness of our emotions is not a weakness or something to be ashamed of, it is actually empowering because the human being is basically one giant bundle of feelings that occasionally thinks. And sure, there would be less plot devices for movies because men would start getting things right and stop trying to kill each other so often but at least we’d get happier endings in real life, preferably without a twenty year time gap.

Why Is The Cure For Cancer So Expensive?

I don’t normally do this. Get out of bed at ten past six in the morning to go and join a protest against Roche, the giant pharmaceutical company. But yesterday I am very glad I did. One bus and one tube later and I was standing outside Westminster Cathedral with an eclectic group of activists, doctors and charity workers. The most striking were those who’d donned the custom-made fluorescent pink dresses with added boobs. I wore a modest headband with messages stuck to it including ‘Pharma Greed Kills’ and similar protestations. Then off we went, marching from the Cathedral to the revolving doors of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry.

Donna
Donna, in all her bright pink glory!

The groups on the march included Act Up London, Treatment Action Campaign and Stop Aids, all united in the struggle against HIV/AIDS and all aware that the greed of pharmaceutical companies affects people with so many other illnesses as well. Also present were Universities Allied for Essential Medicines, a student-led organisation working to improve access to and affordability of medicines. And it wasn’t just London in protest there were groups in Brazil, France, Malaysia, the US and Zambia. Meanwhile, the crowds gathering in South Africa were not only just making demands of Roche but were commemorating Tobeka Daki, a passionate activist who sadly died from cancer unable to afford the treatments.

Back in London we started chanting as we marched, “Say no to Pharma Greed, Give us the cancer drugs we need” and other less catchy numbers that didn’t rhyme. We got stared at, photographed, laughed at and cheered by various members of the public. At 8.30 in the morning we did make for a nice change from the usual grey of the morning commute. We overshot the ABPI building but quickly backtracked to set up shop. Whilst others chalked on the pavement in pink, gave speeches and waved placards I handed out leaflets and the message was clear: Roche can profitably manufacture a year’s supply of Herceptin® (unbranded it’s called Trastuzumab), a cancer fighting drug, for £190 yet it is currently costing patients tens of thousands of pounds annually. People are dying from a disease that can be treated because Roche is putting profits before people. Justice for people with breast cancer, that’s what we want.

Many people avoided my gaze as I tried handing out the flyers whilst others just carried on listening to their music (seriously, I spotted so many of those fancy, giant ambient-noise blocking headphones than ever before). Some did take the flyer with an awkward smile whilst others stopped to find out more. That, for example, the development of Herceptin® and other vital cancer treating drugs depended on public sector support, philanthropic donations and the US government’s National Institutes of Health. Whilst Roche and one of its subsidiaries, Genentech, also invested in the development of these drugs for some reason they hold the patent so can set the price. And that price is high, they’ve already earned more than $60 billion in profits from the sale of Herceptin® alone. Roche’s CEO, Severin Schwan, isn’t doing that badly either. Back in 2015 he took home a nice salary of $12 million. So, whilst Roche could easily cut the cost of these drugs and still make a profit they just aren’t.

pharma-greed
Pharma Greed Kills

But it’s worse than that because Roche aren’t just keeping the prices artificially high they are fighting dirty to ensure they have a monopoly over these drugs. In India Roche have embroiled the country’s drug regulatory body and producers of similar products to Trastuzumab in long-running and complex litigation to prevent the widespread availability of potentially affordable versions of the drug. In Brazil and Argentina, Roche is one of the pharmaceutical companies litigating against those governments for their attempts to use legal international safeguards to protect public health and make Trastuzumab more accessible. In South Africa Roche holds patents on Trastuzumab that will last until at least 2033. In essence, Roche are fighting tooth and nail to keep the prices high even whilst so many people die. It turns out that ill and dying people are profitable.

Chalk
Innovative use of some pink chalk

Back on the grey streets of London I was very grateful every time someone took a flyer. Because even if they just put it in the recycling bin when they get home what is important is that more people are aware. Cancer is a disease that touches the lives of all of us. 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime and 1 in 870 men will receive this diagnosis. We may have lost someone we cared for, we may know someone who has it or a friend of a friend, or ourselves. And whilst it is risky to talk of a ‘cure’ for cancer there are so many life-extending medicines out there which can treat it and improve the lives of those who have it. So it’s not that the cure doesn’t exist it’s that the cure is too expensive. However, at 8.30 am on a grey, Tuesday morning in February I did not always have the time to explain this as people passed me by. But many did stop to look at the giant pink banner: “Pharma Greed Kills” is a simple and shocking statement and it is true. Profits are being pitted against people and profits are winning. Until we can contain and control money we will keep being forced to fight this ruthless, tragic battle because too many people love money more than they love others (or even themselves). I hope one day Severin Schwan wakes up and does the right thing. Until then I’ll keep doing my best to wake up before the sun rises so I can join those bright pink many-boobed beacons of hope.

Still Waiting at the VAULT

Beneath Waterloo station lie the vaults. They are long, cavernous rooms made of brick and stone. They are dank and smell a little of damp. They are also the site of Great Gatsby themed parties, plays about starships, masked balls and for only two more days – Still Waiting. As the blurb promised this is an event “about the hundred handshakes you experience in the Calais Refugee Camp, volountourism and packets of pasta, and our relationship with Europe’s refugee crisis.” And as the trains rumbled overhead so I was transported into a very different world. Actually, no, I wasn’t transported because Still Waiting is about this world and the problems it is facing. Perhaps, instead, rather than being taken away on an escapist adventure I was more deeply immersed in the real world. I was made to feel.

Still Waiting - at the VAULT theatre, 1st - 5th February
Still Waiting – at the VAULT theatre, 1st – 5th February

Three cast members/musicians took us through the refugee crisis via songs, statistics, jokes, laments and thoughtful interludes. The title comes from the name of a report released by Refugee Rights Data Project on the situation in Calais. It is the “largest research effort around refugees and displaced people in the region to-date” and it is called Still Waiting because so many people are doing just that, waiting and waiting for a chance to find a new home, to be reunited with family and friends, to escape the persecution of their homelands and/or for better education opportunities. And these are people who are waiting, not just photographs in a newspaper, or numbers on a spreadsheet, or stereotyped ‘masses’. They are people like us.

And that is what Still Waiting achieved – it turned the numbers into stories and the stories made me feel. Whether it was listening to the recording of Ramia’s story, a young woman who escaped Aleppo in Syria and is now living in Goumenissa in Greece. Or hearing the cast discuss their own experiences of going to (or not going to) Calais to help the refugees and the charities supporting them (they also sang a song about it called Humblebrag and it’s worth going to the show just for that!). The show costs £9 and in going you help fund Crew for Calais, one of the charities doing vital work to support refugees. Go also to be moved and to be drawn into a humanitarian crisis in a way that no broadsheet or head of government seems capable of doing. Go because this matters, it really does matter, and we are running out of excuses not to. Because the world won’t get better by itself, the world needs the cast of Still Waiting, it needs Crew for Calais and it needs the resilience and fortitude of the endless refugees forced to leave their homes.

The world needs us too and it’s events like this that remind me of that.

Calling All Queer Warriors

Last summer I spent a week in the Welsh countryside. I slept in a big yurt and under a tarp, I did some fasting and I met a bunch of great people. The landscape was beautiful – we were staying in a rewilding valley, meaning that nature was slowly reclaiming the space that would previously have been farmed (although some pesky sheep did manage to break in to do some casual grazing). The land was fantastical and it reminded me of Tolkien’s Middle-earth and also the world of the Legend of Zelda (an ace computer game I loved playing when I was younger). However, as I thought about these stories I realised they are often about straight men fighting orcs and/or rescuing Princesses. So, there, deep in the Welsh wilderness a new character was born: the Queer Warrior.

Skip forward to yesterday and I just ran my first ever Queer Warriors workshop at ActivateLDN – a whole day event to equip young people with the skills and resources to make social change. The subtitle for my session was Resourcing and Supporting the LGBTQIA+ Community and for 90 minutes that is what I and eleven others got up to. We unpacked the acronym and explored what the different letters mean. We also spoke about our own experiences of gender and sexuality. We then got a bit fictional and invented our own characters, giving them names, appearances, genders, sexualities, fears and much more. We confronted our characters with their fears and had them overcome them in novel ways. In essence, we honed our storytelling and communication skills which I think are vital for the queer community because we have so many stories to tell, whether we consider ourselves a member of the community or an ally of it. We also need to be able to combat the stereotyping and prejudice that tries to sideline the queer community, often inciting and resulting in violence. Our stories matter and the more empowered we feel to tell them then, hopefully, the more others will listen.

Another metaphor of the Queer Warrior workshop is the idea that the queer community offers a huge umbrella of protection to those underneath. Furthermore, all are invited to shelter from the storm whether you are lesbian, gay, bisexual, straight, asexual, queer, trans, cis, intersex, questioning, genderqueer, non-binary or curious. It is also an intersectional umbrella that recognises prejudice and discrimination affect different people in different ways including along lines of race, ability, mental health, class and religion. In essence, the one thing I would hate for the queer community to be is a clique. There are enough cliques out there (and, trust me, I’ve got a post or two on this for later) but in the world of the Queer Warrior all are invited – you don’t have to be x enough or more y or less z, you can just be you, whoever that is and you’ll be welcome. You don’t even have to be a Queer Warrior, that’s just a name I like!

If you’re interested in a Queer Warriors workshop please get in touch at hello@robertholtom.co.uk. And you can find out more about my work in storytelling and narrative skills here – www.robertholtom.co.uk

Video Game - The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild Link Wallpaper
The Queer Warrior surveys their domain (actually it’s Link from the next Legend of Zelda game!)

Grieving With Regina Spektor

The Light, it’s an incredibly simple song by Regina Spektor. The lyrics are not complex, they tell of someone falling asleep into familiar dreams and then waking up to the light of morning. They talk of sunlight, stars, memories and the wisdom of the morning. Yet I find this song incredibly sad and whilst I do not know quite how to interpret the lyrics they wake in me a grief for things lost. “So many things I know,” sings Spektor, “But they don’t help me. Each day I open up my eyes and start again.” And there is something in that – the notion of waking up to another day and starting again. For that is something the aggrieved must do, wake up and live on, despite their loss.

My last surviving grandparent, my gran, died a few years ago. I remember getting a call in which I was told that she was close to dying. So I got on a train, headed north and stood at the side of her nursing home bed whilst she slipped away into death. It was a surreal moment especially as the woman I stood next to looked nothing like the woman I’d known as a kid, who would chase me up stairs, put plasters on my cuts and generally be as silly as I was. I remember the train journey home after the funeral, I was looking out the window with tears streaming down my face trying not to freak out the passenger next to me. I just didn’t get it, I just didn’t get why I was crying so much. That was until someone close to me said this: “when someone you love dies, it’s just sad.”

And it’s as simple as that. When you love someone they are wound around your heart, embedded in the fabric of your being. You might see them lots or only occasionally or not have seen them for years but memories persist, especially the ones that are born of love. When that person passes away the part of you that is them suddenly aches. All those memories you shared, as taken for granted as they may be, suddenly reverberate with loss and the knowledge that no new memories can be forged is heart breaking. And it breaks my heart that it took my gran passing away for me to remember quite how important she was in my life. Still, I am grateful for all those memories and the fantastic woman that was my gran. I don’t know how to interpret The Light by Regina Spektor but it awakes a sense of grief in me and for that I am glad. And like Regina those who have lost must wake up every morning over and over again until, perhaps, normality is returned to. But not the normality of old but a new normal in which love and loss are now intertwined. It’s often a very sad world we live in and to pretend otherwise I think is to deceive ourselves. I consider this song an honouring of grief, as devastating a process as it is I think it an important one. I speak only for myself and do not wish to make glib comments about ‘moving on’ or to dictate to anyone how they should experience their grief. Yet maybe something in what I say rings true and you recognise some of your own experiences in mine and maybe the song evokes something for you too. As I often do I’ll give Regina Spektor the last word.

How Do We Beat Trump?

It’s going to take anarchy to defeat Trump, real anarchy. And that begins with the absolute freedom of the individual. In previous posts I’ve written about how money makes the world go round and whilst it dictates all our financial relationships it also affects our personal lives as we come to view friendships and partnerships as cost benefit calculations. We quantify the unquantifiable and enumerate what others mean to us. We refer to this as social capital and there’s even natural capital when it comes to measuring the use of the environment. Jessie J was right, everything has a price. I’ve also posted on the concept of debt, which is crucial to our monetary system, and how key to any debtor-creditor relationship is the threat of violence. Just as the master can threaten the life of their slave, so the bank can threaten with fines, the boss with unemployment, the government with benefit cuts and so on. Crucial to debt is the nature of ownership – that a boss can own a company or a master can own a slave, that anything can be anyone’s property. It is clear Trump, with his billions, thrives in such a world but there are others. In anarchy, where the principle of absolute freedom of the individual is realised, no one would own and no one would be owned. Can you imagine that?

Given we live in a world ruled by money and private property it’s hard to imagine absolute freedom. It’s the opposite of ownership, a world with no masters and no slaves. We would all be free. And whilst anarchy is often misunderstood as chaos and disorder there is one vital thing it would have in common with the current world ‘order’ of capitalism. Namely, relationships. If the bonds of capitalism are dependent on money, debt, ownership and the threat of violence then, I imagine, the relationships of anarchy would be dependent on trust, choice, freedom and the possibility of ceaseless love. Jessie J said it first – if it’s not about the money then “we’ll pay them with love tonight.” And can you imagine that, an economy of love? It sounds like a utopian dream and it sounds great.

We’d need to agree on some core principles such as equality for all – not just equality for the rich, or the white, or the male, but equality for all. This would mean we’d all be fed, housed and watered, no one would go hungry whilst others gorged. There would be enough for everyone. We would all have access to meaning, work and leisure. Competition would be replaced with collaboration. We wouldn’t hoard, we would share. We would all be loved. And whilst we’d still bicker, fall out, shirk and fight, we’d do it with the goal of absolute freedom in sight and not whatever the goals of today are. We’d do all this in honour of the generations that have gone before, for the sake of the ones to come, in reverence for the world we live as part of and we’d do it for each other and ourselves. And we would do it not because someone was holding a gun to our head or because the rules say we have to or because our masters forced us to, no, we would do it out of choice. Can you imagine that, such choice, such responsibility, such freedom.

I will leave you with the words of a character in The Dispossessed, one of Ursula Le Guin’s award winning sci-fi classics that compares the planets of Urras and Anarres, the former a mix of capitalist and communist states and the latter a world of anarchism (I’ve slightly edited the quote so it is suitable to all genders, not just men). It is an amazing book that asks us to imagine a world without earning and deserving yet a world in which all are free. It’s hard to get your head around it but I have a sneaking suspicion so many of our hearts are already there. Because to beat Trump and the system of which he is a puppet, figurehead and ruthless profiteer, we must at least be able to imagine an alternative. I dare you.

A thin, small, middle-aged man beside Trepil began speaking, at first softly, in a voice hoarsened by the dust-cough, so that few of them heard him. He was a visiting delegate from a Southwest miners’ syndicate, not expected to speak on this matter. “…what [people] deserve,” he was saying. “For we each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever pulled in the tombs of the dead Kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving whiles others ate? No [one] earns punishment, no [one] earns reward. Free your mind of the ideas of deserving, the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think.” They were of course Odo’s words from the Prison Letters, but spoken in the weak, hoarse voice they made a strange effect, as if the man were working them out word by word himself, as if they came from his one heart, slowly, with difficulty, as the water wells up slowly, slowly, from the desert sand.