Sunday, 15 January 2017

Writers Resist London - Only 30 Years Too Late

Today, Sunday 15th January 2017, writers and authors in London finally raised their heads above the parapet. They joined the 'Writers Resist' movement based in America but taking in many cities outside the US in holding an event to protest the imminent presidency of Donald Trump as a threat to democracy, rights and civilised values. Unfortunately I couldn't attend the event, having a previous reading commitment in London, notwithstanding that I only found out about the event yesterday via Twitter and some detective work on my part (what writers call 'research'). Humble writers like myself aren't on the BCC lists, we didn't get the memo because it wasn't sent out to us.

But that is not the source of my frustration. Without coming over like some sort of contradiction in terms as some sort of putative member of the UKIP Metropolitan Elite, what about the threat to democracy in the UK? After the election result and Cameron being returned, a small group of us writers commiserated on twitter and all pledged to write political fiction - something I have always done, from Khmer Rouge Cambodia to beheading videos, Syrian migrants to Latin American death squads - but nada. After Brexit there was the same level of wailing and gnashing of teeth and calls for some sort of protest fiction - again I have penned an 11,000 word short story, but not too aware of similar works. This is hardly surprising to me as there has been a dearth of political fiction in this country because politics is seen as a dirty word when allied to the term 'literature'.

Of course it wasn't ever thus, go back to "Gulliver's Travels" for when Brits did write politically and satirically. Where poets get put in a revolutionary Sandanista government and author André Malraux was minister for culture in France, we get chicklit write Louise Mensch as an MP and MPs like Douglas Hurd and now Nadine Dorries permeating their own boredom in the service of state by penning works of fiction. Where Camus, Sartre & De Beauvoir led every march going in 1968 Paris, with the honourable exception of the late Harold Pinter, where are our authors marching under banners? Nowhere that's where. I marched with cartoonists and graphic artists in opposition to Section 28.

Is our democracy indeed under the same threat as Trump represents to that of America? Well where have you been for the last 30 years if you have to ask that? Ever since the 1980s there has been a systematic ideological assault on the rights and values held dear in the UK, under the guise of Britain needs to get its economic housekeeping in good order. Social spaces of social and public subsidised art, local government being cut back to the bone, libraries and youth clubs being starved of funding, trade unions and associations being diminished, council housing being sold off without being replaced, clampdowns on public marches and protest, all meant a reduction in the public's ability to gather together and discourse. The arts had to demonstrate a profit line ahead of artistic ideas and exploration. Ever since then there is a distinct lack of public discourse within Britain. The British sense of justice and fair play has been undermined by the rigorous assault on the Welfare State, targeting the poor and needy (ATOS, bedroom tax), rather than bringing bad employers to book over working conditions/low pay and an unrepresentative level of corporation tax. The divide between rich and poor has got wider and these fault lines were revealed by the Brexit referendum, which should have come to no surprise to keen-eyed watchers, which is why it seems to have come as such a seismic shock to most. Brexit has unleashed hate crimes and will signal the UK withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights, something PM Theresa May has been itching to do long before the referendum delivered its vote. Where was the artistic protest on any of this? In the 1970s the British theatre stage was dominated by Marxist and Left-Wing playwrights like Hare, Brenton, Edgar, but they were unable to counter the 1980s ideology of Thatcherism and that seemed to signal a retreat in political art. Our rights have since been further stripped by the anti-terrorism legislation and our decency threatened by the increase of hate crime in the wake of the Brexit vote. 

I understand that the current Writers Resist movement is keen on being seen as non-aligned politically. Labour in the 1990s did nothing to underpin  any of our depleted rights and values from and are just as culpable. But the current UK government will seek to push through radical policies that 1980's Thatcherism only dreamed of, not least the assault on out most precious value that of the National Health Service and social care for the elderly which feeds into the current crisis. As heinous as I regarded Ronald Reagan's presidency, America has one protection we in the UK do not; the First Amendment enshrining the right to free expression, therefore not even Reagan was able to dismantle the arts community as happened in the UK. However, even that protection is now under threat as Trump will start with press freedom as he looks to hobble his opponents there and after that artistic expression would be vulnerable starting with liberal Hollywood - I suspect that the realisation of this is part what has sparked the Writers Resist movement to spring up in the US. Of course other fears are the roll back of civil rights either by law, or de facto as racism is more overt and less clamped down on by the forces of law and order. But the fact remains that the USA may be facing what we experienced in the UK in the 1980s and which we've never recovered from. 

So Writers Resist London, first you need to open up your invite lists because there are some grass roots writers who have consistently been producing political work of resistance. At present you risk just talking to yourselves ( I see the same network of writer names as all work together anyway) and we had all that nonsense with UK Occupy, a talking shop which fizzled out quick enough once the housing and jobs market perked up. Believe me, I may have a modicum of the readers you have, but with all due respect you ain't at the level of Harold Pinter and so the people you need to be reaching are no more likely to be aware of you and your voice than they are of mine and the likes of me. If we're going to do this thing let's do it properly. There are so many challenges not just politically, but in terms of language and fake versus truth versus fiction. 

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