cultivating sorrow in a locked chest

Reading some old, old letters written by my father to his brother, I came across this critique of the ‘dead sterility of Beckett’: ‘audiences feel at once flattered and reassured by him…the modish despair helps. There is something comforting…how much harder to accept and live up to Blake’s optimism, which is a judgement on all our failures’. 

Although it would be misguided to read too much into this, there is something very real about digging into despair and what this offers us. Viewing, listening to or reading narratives of poverty and struggle, mental ill-health or trauma is a kind of vicarious, therapeutic activity. It’s like lowering yourself into despair knowing that you can easily pull yourself back out. 

People who write and create stuff about their experiences, what they see and hear in the world, what change is needed: they are not creating work explicitly for that or any audience.  There’s something to say, something that needs to change. Whatever the audience sees and feels, well that’s up to them. I remember once someone walking into an exhibition of my work, glancing at the walls and saying ‘I don’t want to see this, I want seascapes and sunshine’. There’s nothing to do but shrug and say ‘well, you will have to look for that elsewhere’. 

In October 2020, every day is getting progressively worse. And it isn’t just about public health, although that is casting a long shadow. The distance between government and power and people on the street is growing. It is only a handful of Labour MPs, Andy Burnham, Sadiq Khan and Marcus Rashford who seem to have any grasp on reality whatsoever.  Scientists, artists and left journalists are enabling me to hold on to my sanity. If it wasn’t for these few voices, I feel we would be slipping into a dystopia that not even science fiction writers would dream up. 

Of course I’m being self-indulgent, and for many people in the world, this has long been the status quo. In the UK, it is Black History Month. Catherine Ross writes: ‘2020 has held a mirror up to the world and forced many to see the reality of racism in all its guises…In the UK, the scale and impact of institutionalised racism has been laid bare, with young Black men stopped and searched 20,000 times in London during the coronavirus lockdown (the equivalent of 1 in 4 young Black men)’. This period has certainly highlighted a gaping inequality. but we knew it was there all along. There has been no meaningful intent to change by those that hold power, and there never will be. 

‘Poverty made me a beast, I battled the law in the streets

We all struggled, but your struggle ain’t a struggle like me

Well how could it be when your people gave us the odds that we beat?

I mean, fuckin’ hell, what about our brothers that are stuck in jail?

That couldn’t bust a bell, they held a bird and gotta live with it’

Excerpt from ‘Black’, Dave

It is up to us, to force change and, without wanting to sound reductive, we must do this together. 

The question of who gets to tell stories – whether of despair, power, joy or change – must be remembered. Who gets to imagine a new way of being, who is represented in these conversations and who has the power to effect change?  Artists, writers, poets and musicians have an important role in shifting thinking. The way that they are able to share and shape information is critical. But that doesn’t necessarily result in access to power. Regardless of whether young people want to be writers, bankers or power players, they need to be given opportunities to think and play, supported to take risks and explore ideas, no matter what their cultural or class background is. And, as Rashford reminds us, while we allow children to go hungry, so the status quo remains, and the prominent and dominant voices continue to be principally those from ‘privileged’ backgrounds.

I’m still dwelling on how we change local energy into power, how we address the distance between the governed and the governors. The freedom to play (by which I mean explore and create) must form part of this. How can we live in a future without voices like this one:

then once those white boys were done with me

they turned their god onto Francis Uwagboe

pulling the sky from under him the salmon of fists

the faith of feet curving him into another dramatic

pause his breathing mirroring a faulty generator

his pupils two slammed priests my poor Francis 

who would always clock the more difficult levels

who always managed to beat the bosses in silence

was left in the hush of the forensic team’s brush

the police incredulous a voice safe in its transceiver 

Excerpt from ‘There Are No ends, Only Intervals’, Anthony Anaxagorou 

Returning to despair (but not sitting in it like a lukewarm bath).  I’ve lately been exploring the work of Andrey Platonov, and it’s interesting to view his work in the context of where we are now. Platonov was active in post revolution Russia and reputedly got on the wrong side of Stalin, although not to an extent that endangered his life. His narratives of an early Soviet Union struggle to build socialist states are the talk of a kind of alienating power but one that is not very different from what we are experiencing now. 

‘In accord with the activist’s words, the kulaks bent down and began to push the raft down towards the river. Zhachev crawled along behind the kulak class – in order to guarantee it a sure departure downriver and out to sea, and to calm himself still more deeply that socialism would come to be and that Nastya would receive it as her wedding dowry, while he, Zhachev, would most likely perish all the sooner, as a tired prejudice.’  (The Foundation Pit, Andrey Platononv)

The Kulaks are fated to launch their rafts to nowhere; a state enforced ‘socialism’ is envisaged for the leaders of the future and death is the only certainty.  

What the rest of the year holds is not certain. And this uncertainty is contributing to a kind of collective inertia. What is clear though is that if we don’t force a change, raise our voices and do something, history will wonder why. 

(Cultivating sorrow in a locked chest is from the story ‘The Locks of Epiphan’ by Platonov)

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