My reply to the text message from UK_Gov

I got a text message this morning from UK_Gov. Not sure how they got my number?!? That’s the subject for another time. But if they’re going to start texting me on my personal phone, I feel it’s my right to offer my two penneth.

What would your superpower be?

I’ve been sorting through some files on my computer and I came across the following. It was written for a job application, one of those quirky questions they toss in at the end of the application to, I think, challenge you. They asked “if you were superhuman, what would your superpower be?” This was my reply.

When asked same question, one of my friends answered flippantly invisibility. They wanted to be invisible so they could spy on people. I know. Because the superhero is after all the territory of the adolescent. It’s hard not to be flippant. There’s something very childish in all of our answers.

When you really think about the same question as an adult, the answer is very different. For adults superpowers are less super, more human. As an adult I think my superpower would be strength.

Strength of character.

Strength of will.

Strength of intellect.

We all make up stories to help us understand the world. I tell one about a villain I call Mr. Panopticon.

The Panopticon was a circular prison designed by 18th Century social theorist Jeremy Bentham. In his design the cell walls are made of glass, transparent, allowing prisoners to be watched at any time from a central tower. The structure teases compliance from its tenants because they never know when they’re being watched. Michel Foucault used Bentham’s prison design as a metaphor, to highlight the way power, since the destruction of absolute monarchies, has sought to hide itself from view. If there is no focus for our anger, it’s impossible for us to remove the cause of our pain.

My Mr. Panopticon has a lick of the Mr. World’s about him. For those who don’t know Mr. World is character from the book and television series American Gods. He mysterious, charming, and dangerous.

More recently my view of Mr. Panopticon has changed. I used to think of him as a machine, a huge torus wrapped around us, surrounding us, watching us from central point, controlling our behaviour with his constant gaze. But more recently Intinction Rebellion entered the public space with a series of demonstrations. Their efforts to highlight the impending doom of Global Warming have made me adjust my vision of Mr. Panopticon. Their efforts made me realised, he’s not a torus as Bentham designed him, but instead a sphere, a visceral ball rolling over the planet consuming everything in his path.

If that’s the case, where does Mr. Panopticon watch us from? Is he at the centre of this massive ball like structure? More importantly I wonder where we fit, where do we live?

After thinking about that for a while I can only surmise the cells we inhabit line the inside of Mr. Panopticon, coating the inside of his outer membrane like the proteins lining the wall of a virus. This realisation changes the orientation of the cells we live in, tipping them over, packing them together side by side. And that shift changes the way we’re watched. He no longer looks out along a horizontal axis, instead monitoring us from above.

If we inhabit six-sided boxes, a hermetically sealed cells, what do we see when we look out? Looking left or right, front or back, we should see the other tenants of Mr. Panopticon. They should be there, staring in on us, as we stare in on them? But we don’t! Why is that? Are we so similar we mistake them for a reflection? Does he mediate everything, filtering it though some platform or other, making us forever reach but never make contact with our neighbours? It could be that he has transfixed us, made us all Narcissus, so enamoured by our own reflection everything else is just a haze.

If when we look around, and only see reflections, what do we see when we look up? Do we see Mr. Panopticon looking down on us? No. He’s a trickster. His entire existence is based on not being seen. Can we even see the spherical version of the tower? All watching? All knowing? Omnipotent? Do we see the virus gnome, hovering above us like water sliding over oil? Do we see God? Is that why Mr. Panopticon hasn’t destroyed our notions of God? He needs us to believe in the almighty, so we keep looking up. If we’re always looking up, we’re not looking down. If we don’t look down, we don’t see the viscera, the clots of blood, the chimeric limbs of the virus. We don’t see the true horror of Mr. Panopticon swirling beneath our feet. We’re taught the fiery chambers of hell are waiting for us should we transgress. They’re not. All that is beneath us is the bloody intestine of the beast that has swallowed us.

Give me strength.

The strength of character to call him out.

The strength of will not to succumb to his manipulations.

The strength of intellect to dissect the intricacies of his plan.

One final thing. Do I think I live in a glass box? No. Am I alone in the world? No. I can reach out, pull my partner close, and feel their warmth against me. Mr. Panopticon is a story. He is Joker to my Batman. Agent Smith to my Neo. He’s a villain that I need superpowers to resist. And reason for my superpower to be strength.

“Tree” highlights the need for Credit Arbitration for playwrights

An insight prompted by a Mark Brown article in The Guardian: Writers claim being excluded after creating Idris Elba’s play

I read with interest The Guardian article by Mark Brown. The short version of the story is that Ms Allen-Martin and Ms Henley were removed from a theatre production after four years of work. “Tree” now claims it was created by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Idris Elba, and has failed to acknowledge both women for their contribution.

You should also read the Medium article Tree. A Story of Gender and Power in Theatre. Both Sarah Henley and Tori Allen-Martin explain in their own words what happened.

What strikes me after reading this article is how weak Allen-Martin and Henley were made to feel, and how little power they had to have their claims recognised. Basically if you don’t have huge reserves of cash to litigate, there’s not much you can do.

Anyone who knows anything about screenwriting knows that writers are frequently replaced. A new writer is brought in to do a rewrite, or polish, punch up the dialogue, fix this hole in the plot; the list goes on. When this all goes tits-up, and there is a dispute over credit, screenwriters can turn to the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Credit Arbitration service for help. The aim of the service is to ensure “that each writer’s contribution to the shooting script is properly valued and rewarded with the correct credit.” I can find no such service for playwrights. If I’m wrong let me know. It’s probably one of those things, it feels like something the Guild should get into, but for some arcane reason they can’t.

I wish nothing but good fortune to Ms Allen-Martin and Ms Henley. They’re not alone, we’ve all felt the same weight, frustration, and disappointment, at one time in our life.

Why do I write? Part 1.

An answer prompted by a Katie Heaney article in The Cut: Why Does Writing Suck?

The first thing to say is that when I talk about writing, I mean screenwriting. I write other stuff, the kind of thing you’re reading now, but for me writing is screenwriting.

I know most of what I write sits unread. All of the screenplays I’ve written get; how is it best to say this? They get silence. Zero acknowledgement that they’ve even been opened.

That makes me feel as if it’s 1977 and I’m eight years old, standing toe to concrete with the Berlin Wall. I’m looking up at this huge expanse of grey, topped with a baffle of weather-worn pipe. It’s big, bigger than big. The kind of big that makes me feel small. So small I’m scared. Overwhelmed because, I was told this by my dad, if I ever climbed to the top, I’d be shot by the tower guards on the other side. Writing is like climbing that wall, only to find an entire squad of marksmen ignoring me.

I started writing because I wanted to direct features. I was trying to take control of my career, making choices for myself. I set off toward a place I want to live the rest of my life. I watch films, a lot of films, and I thought that was knowledge enough to let me write a screenplay. Perhaps I understood how to visualise a story, maybe, but not to create one with meaning. I know it’s possible to tell a story by presenting a series of random images. Our brains are hardwired to make connections, tell a story from what we see. Art school taught me that. But to organise a thought, and to express it dramatically, is a wall-high challenge.

A screenplay at its core is funding document. It’s the anatomy of a film, on paper, designed to raise money. The screenplay lets everyone involved know where they’re going, before they start. It has a very specific form, with certain standards, and is heavy with expectations. It has to be a compelling read, that offers insight and emotion, and inspire readers. Otherwise why would anyone invest in the film. The form is easy to master, the execution is not. To keep going, I’ve strung together things I’ve read, mixing ingredients as if baking bread. I tell myself that if I just keep writing, put in the time mastering the craft, I’ll eventually get good. When I’m good enough, I’ll be able to break through the Wall, walk past the guards, and continue my journey. I’ll get paid to write.

How likely is that? Who knows? But the space created by the answers, lets wheel after ever-rolling-tyre-of-self-doubt roll over me. The internal voice that tells me, the works not good enough. You’re an idiot. You can’t spell. You’re too slow. No one wants to hear what you have to say. Your characters are flat. The plot’s weak. You’re confusing the reader. I am forever a child, standing toe to concrete with the Berlin Wall. It doesn’t matter which way I turn, all I see is wall! I’ve written on the concrete, left evidence I was there, that I’m here, but those marks are just hand prints on the wall of a cave. It’s not a filmed piece of writing.

What’s the point? Why bother? What’s on the other side of the wall anyway? In 1977 it was the DDR, the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, in all of its Cold War drab. A harsh life captured by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck in his 2006 film, The Lives of Others. Is that really what I want? That kind of paranoia? The pressure to conform? The logic of my metaphor has me standing in West Berlin, toe to concrete with the Wall, trying to write my way into a repressive regime. I must be mad. A sane person would just turn and walk the other way. The ambitious person might follow the Wall until they find a checkpoint. If all of their papers are in order, they’ll be allowed to enter, won’t they?

For some reason, this idea of the ambitious person makes me think of the journalist, speaking truth to power. I’m reminded of the time Noam Chomsky schooled Andrew Marr about journalists, and their grand illusion, or should that be collusion? Chomsky makes the point that unless the individual journalist shares the views of the ruling classes, they’ll never be allowed to progress within the industry. Nonconformity is weeded out. They’re only there, at the top of their profession, because their thinking aligns with the needs of the powerful. Is that what I have to do? Is that where I’m going wrong? Am I a nonconformist? Have I mistaken nonconformity for originality?

I’ve spent the weekend trying to fathom that question. The “look up” function on my Mac tells me that nonconformity is a “failure or refusal to conform to a prevailing rule or practice.” When I think back to my days at art school, nonconformity was prized, the fulcrum of originality. It’s where most artists function, rejecting the old in search of the new. Art galleries are full of people who lived their entire creative life in the antithesis stage of the Hegelian dialectic. Famous artist are defined by the way their work deviated from the practice of their predecessors. The more radicle the shift the more highly they are regarded. Is that true?

Is nonconformity all about context? Does the art-world prizes a sort of radical creativity journalism does not? Could the function of journalism be governed by a different set of rules? I think the answer to all three of these questions is yes. Which prompts my next question is, do they share anything? Where do the two disciplines overlap? Could they both favour the notion of the heroic individual? Artist as the tortured genius. Journalist as the crusader speaking truth to power. Is that the connection?

Most screenplays tell the story of an heroic individual. A protagonist battling their antagonist, overcoming impossible odds, making heroic sacrifices to change their world. Things may end badly for them, but they were tested, and rose to the challenge. If I were to play the protagonist in my own story, am I battling conformity? I live in a world full of people who prize individualism. People who live their best life without realising, their best life looks just like all the other best lives. Drive around Clapham Common on a sunny Saturday afternoon and you’ll see what I mean. Small groups collected on one patch of green, shoulder by foot with hundreds of similar groups. Is that what’s waiting for me beyond the Wall, the kind of individualism that encourages people to ignore fields of empty common?

If the antagonist in my story is conformity, I want to walk the two miles to find an empty stretch of beach. Plough my own furrow, not seed someone else’s. I don’t hate people. I just don’t own the need to be near them all the time, to play team sports, or drink beer on Friday night, or play Frisbee. Has it hindered my progress, stunted my growth, got in the way? I think probably yes. It wouldn’t be my antagonist if it hadn’t. So I must battle on, force my way past the fields of conformist souls.

None of this answers the question, why do I write? I writer to organise my thoughts. To quiet the continuous monologue that runs through my mind. To explain myself to anyone who will listen. To make a contribution. Change the world. Plot my own story. Find a way past that bloody wall.