Wednesday, 27 June 2012

fairness! or a fair share

Lately I've been thinking a lot, as over-thinkers are wont to do, about value and time and money and the skewed relationship between the three. It's a general preoccupation, but this has been a distinct phase of it, and it kicked off at the end of May, on a magical day when I saw the Alighiero Boetti show at Tate Modern and held hands with Lou Brodie.

The Boetti was delightful, the more so because I went with my three-year-old, who can be a liability in galleries, but whose imagination was snared by the patterns, disruptions, playfulness and surprise of the work. Walking round, I was struck by how often the information panels mentioned Boetti's love of wasting time, and of time-consuming activity that was inefficient and uneconomical. He was enough of a trickster that you could read his work as a spree of pranks, pointless endeavour masquerading as Art. Although that hardly accounts for the beauty of his extended gags: the biro drawings, line after line after line punctuated with white commas, each one a twilit sky luminous with stars, are exquisite.

Dip beneath the surface, though, and Boetti's time-wasting feels like a radical political choice. Capitalism thrives when efficiency is maximised; Boetti consistently undermined that. And with something that feels like tenderness, too: a love of patient handicraft, and of the human capacity for commitment and selflessness. Two rooms in particular glowed with this, both filled with kilims woven by Afghan women, whose traditional craft ranks low in artistic hierarchies, and whose societal status I'm guessing was lower still. One displayed abstract rugs made by refugees in Peshwar, based on grids drawn by art students; in the other, brightly coloured maps charted a world in flux, a world at the mercy of men's violence and hunger for power, but also being reshaped by struggles for freedom. Boetti's respect for the women he commissioned, the way he relished the artistic choices they imposed on his work, made me adore him.

We missed the last piece of the show, annoyingly, the self-portrait sculpture of Boetti with a head full of steam, because I didn't look at the map properly and I didn't want to be late meeting theatre-artist Lou Brodie. I'd encountered Lou before, in Nic Green's Trilogy, although typically I failed to remember her, despite being haunted by that show. Lou turns 30 this year, and is marking the occasion by holding hands with someone for 30 minutes of every day in 2012. The invitation came via Oval House, and mostly I offered up my hand for it because something in me felt strangely provoked. In the playground with my kids, I'm always struck by the way they take other children by the hand: with shyness but a total lack of inhibition. Part of me cherishes the memory of the last time I held hands with someone I had a crush on (this is pre-marriage, now), the electric jolt that passed from his fingers to mine. And I'm still vaguely troubled by the unexpectedly challenging section in Uninvited Guests' Love Letters Straight From Your Heart, in which you have to maintain eye contact with a stranger for the entirety of Roberta Flack's not short The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. I spent the first half of it biting my lip with embarrassment, stifling giggles, forcing myself not to squirm. But two or three minutes in, I melted. I noticed that the eyes of the girl sitting opposite me were slightly asymmetric, and that her pale skin was radiant in the dim light, and I spent the final two minutes gazing at her through a romantic mist, marvelling at her beauty.

There was an odd moment of negotiation with Lou; we tried holding hands the way I hold my children's, my hand on top, and it felt weird, so we switched to how I hold my husband's, mine beneath. (And yes, there is a freaky gender theory around this, to do with power and leadership in family units.) Once we'd dealt with that, however, holding hands quickly felt remarkably comfortable. I took her to a local nature garden where we chatted about hand-holding in other cultures, how men in the Middle East who are homophobic will hold hands with male friends naturally and unconcernedly; the three occasions when Lou has forgotten to hold hands, and what she might do with the experience she's accruing; her work in Glasgow teaching drama to teenagers, and why there aren't any relaxed dress-up-and-muck-about drama classes for kids where I live. Meanwhile my son scampered cheerfully around us and just once gently tried to prise our hands apart, not because he wanted me but so he could lead Lou into a wilderness of meadow flowers that tower above his head like a fairy-tale forest. When Lou's alarm rang marking the end of the 30 minutes we kept holding hands, because it felt odd not to, and when we let go the skin of my palm tingled at the touch of the air.

What's stayed with me most about the conversation is Lou's sense of her own selfishness in making this ask of people. It's 30 whole minutes of your time for the sake of one person's personally and artistically self-indulgent daily practice. But is that time wasted? I don't think so. To the extent that I'm always looking to escape from my own life, I was grateful to Lou for the opportunity to do something other. Generally, too, her practice is more altruistic than she gives herself credit for. She allows you to stop. She encourages you to attend to the needs of someone else, without expectation of recompense. She reminds you that you and your time are valuable in and of themselves. The reminder feels like a small but lovely gift – and another denial of the capitalist ethic, where people are worth only as much money as they're able to make and spend.

If I'd written this while on holiday in Edinburgh, as I was supposed to, this post would have ended right there. (Excellent idea, mutters a readership, slinking away.) Instead I telephoned friends, read my new cookbook (Tom Moggach's The Urban Kitchen Gardener: so far the gardening advice feels more useful to me than the recipes, although after a first cook his version of cornbread, minus the chilli, has already replaced Moosewood's as my default), and spent several hours wading through the sea of absurdity that is the fringe programme. I now have a painstakingly detailed two-sheet timetable of far more shows than I can possibly see. I came home feeling like a nitwit, because that holiday put me behind with work on Dialogue, and got me sufficiently out of the habit of writing that for days after sentences might as well have been skyscrapers for all my ability to construct one. I go on and on about not wasting time, and here I'd done a spectacularly good job of wasting heaps of it. (My husband loathes this peevishness, rightly no doubt. It implies that the time spent with family and friends is redundant, but I don't mean that. I just want to have magic powers and be able to do everything.)

This seethe of frustration followed me into the room on the night I saw Kieran Hurley's Hitch and Gary McNair's Crunch at BAC. And what a balm they were: Hitch took my left hand, Crunch took my right, and both squeezed just a little to reassure me that however not OK things are and continue to be, we will fight and we will support each other and we will be OK.

Hitch appeals to the romantic in me: its fierce politics are expressed with gentleness, generosity and, most of all, hope. For the friends I went with, Hurley's hitch-hike from Glasgow to L'Aquila to take part in demonstrations against the G8 summit in 2009 was essentially pointless, because it didn't and couldn't achieve anything on a grand political scale. (And one of them spoke with the authority of having taken part in demonstrations against the G8 in Geneva in 2003.) But to me that under-rates the value in demonstrating a sense of community. Hurley's journey and the peaceful march he eventually, against all odds, managed to join, may be only gestures, but they're meaningful gestures that inspire faith in our collective humanity.

Still, Hurley is the first person to admit doubt: far from shying away from negative voices, he gives them full expression in the show, and as much as he counters them, always there is a small part of him crushed by the fear that the cynics, the exponents of selfishness, are right. But then he tells us about the jazz musician who drove him all the way from Paris to Bologna, and assured him that we can achieve anything with will and honesty. And then he sees the mighty Patti Smith play live, witnesses her fortify the demonstrators by roaring out The People Have the Power. It's our choice: we can sit back and let it all happen, or we can stand up and move against.

If Hitch is an expression of idealism, Crunch is an exercise in practical realism. Because what McNair proposes – a world in which we put faith in human value, not financial value – is totally achievable. And it certainly looks more viable than the other alternative McNair suggests only to reject, a world of “richism” in which everyone has equal financial security but continues to think competitively and fearfully about money and each other. People need no persuading of the value of money: it forces itself upon you every time you want to buy something. Persuading people to stop wanting is another matter. What McNair does, brilliantly, is adopt the repulsively smarmy persona of the low-grade salesman whose job it is to filch large sums of cash from every soul he meets, and twist it to fit his own socialist agenda. I know there have been shows in London when cynical audiences have unanimously declined his invitation to put their hard-earned cash through a shredding machine; glued to my own chair, certain that my husband would loudly protest if I proffered any of our money, even I felt a spasm of cynicism about the four people who did answer the call, wondering whether the notes they were clutching were single American dollars or defunct European currencies. What a horribly unworthy thought.

I'm gullible by nature, but I don't think my belief in Crunch is misplaced. It's the belief of someone who shares McNair's vision of a more equitable society, one founded in respect for people rather than in blind worship of money, and wants to work to see that society grow.

As an aside, in the energy rush that swooped me up post-Hitch/Crunch I found myself thinking again about Three Kingdoms, and how different that intoxication was from this one. Three Kingdoms was the intoxication of punk nihilism: Churlish Meg caught it brilliantly when she said it made her want to smash windows (mild paraphrase). Hitch/Crunch was the intoxication of punk creation, diverting energy to positive not negative action. Unlike Meg, I didn't miss the deer heads or the dildos.

Of course this stuff followed me into the room when I went to see Boys at Soho a few days later, but I didn't notice until the scene when one of the characters is on the phone to the local council and the on-hold music is Dire Straits' still-nauseating-after-all-these-years Money For Nothing (let's not have a link, eh?). The song was McNair's intro music for Crunch, and from that moment on I couldn't but watch Boys through a Hitch/Crunch filter. I think I might have struggled with Ella Hickson's characters anyway, simply because in my encroaching middle-age I am developing a more horribly pious than ever allergic reaction to watching 24-hour party people guzzle drugs, no matter how much I sympathise with the underlying desire for escape and self-oblivion. But I struggled with them all the more because the worldview they articulate feels so abhorrent to me.

That makes the worldview sound one-dimensional, but it isn't, quite. In the red corner sits idealistic, kind-hearted, hand-wringing Benny, the figure I'm most like, right down to the pious resistance to drugs. In the blue corner stands hard-hearted, knuckles-clenched Mack, who scoffs at Benny's belief in public services, communal responsibility and social decency and aggressively declaims a laissez-faire politic of selfish individualism, not least to mask his own fears about the future. The fact that it's Benny who inadvertently proves the most destructive of the two surreptitiously plants the thought that Mack might be right.

Boys shares with Mike Bartlett's Love, Love, Love the knowledge that the baby boomers have created an impossible world in which the odds are stacked against every succeeding generation. Watching the final scene of Love, Love, Love at the Royal Court – which I did love, quite a lot – my sympathies were with the daughter: yes, she's ridiculous, but who wouldn't be with such pampered, self-absorbed parents, and absolutely they should use some of their accumulated wealth to buy her a flat. What annoyed me about Love, Love, Love was how grotesque the parents were in that pampered self-absorption. A friend of mine didn't like the play at all because the parents were unrealistic to her. To me, they were entirely realistic, but so extreme that Bartlett's real-life targets wouldn't recognise themselves. Somewhere in the journey to the Royal Court stage, the play's poisoned arrow lost its tip.

My problem with Boys was deeper and knottier. It unsettled me to such a disproportionate degree that within five minutes of arriving home I was arguing lividly with my husband, who told me I shouldn't see these things if they're going to upset me so much. Some of that was simply exorcising my anger at the characterisation of Benny, who combines a sense of entitlement with a kind of smug, self-congratulatory resignation. In the muddled triumph of the final scene, he sets about cleaning up the mess that has accumulated in the flat and it's thuddingly clear that this is meant to be a metaphor for how he must sort out the ills of the world. Only it strikes me that Benny fundamentally accepts the world as it is. He makes noises about joining protests and making a stand, but he doesn't seem to be asking for fairness so much as for his generation to get their fair share.

But it wasn't just anger. Boys tapped into jagged student memories and unresolved family issues, and raised again the impossible questions of what it is to be the daughter of self-made immigrants who built up their own business, and how different my life might be if various actions in my 20s hadn't been guided by a desire for security. Above all, it struck repeatedly and unerringly at my guilt reflex. It's really easy to pronounce against money when you live in an nice house and can pay off your credit card bill every month. It's a lot easier to silence wants when the needs are fully covered. Boys made me feel like a hypocrite, for failing to live it like I talk it.

“We go back and forth between despair and hope. Are we crazy to rebel or is there some real force in our drive against capitalism? … [This] insoluble dilemma … is not composed of external forces but has to do with the organisation of our own practice. We create the society that we want to get rid of. That is terrible, but it is also the source of hope. If we create capitalism, then we can also stop creating it and do something else instead.” John Holloway, Crack Capitalism, of course. And this is where the thinking about time and value and money keeps coming back: to the idea of doing and thinking beyond money, to valuing pursuits that deny the importance of money, to spending time elsewhere and otherwise.

The usefulness of plays like Love, Love, Love and Boys for me is less in what they tell me about the generations between which I am caught, and more in what they remind me I must do as a mother. I'm pleased to say that, unlike the parents in Love, Love, Love, I'm yet to make the heinous mistake of moving to Reading, or of praising my children's innate brilliance as opposed to their hard work. Less flippantly, I feel terrified by the disappointment I'm setting my kids up for, the sense of entitlement I'm engendering in them, merely by raising them in a nice house in which they – despite their incessant and infuriating arguments to the contrary – want for nothing. Always I'm faced with the essentially conservative nature of their upbringing. Teaching them that there might be other ways of living is going to be a fight, but my sleeves are rolled up and I'm ready for it.

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