Sunday, 18 November 2018

Politics & Fiction

I regard myself as a political person. I also regard myself as a political writer. Whatever that means... 

I've written a novel about homegrown terrorism. My current novel is about post Peace Agreement Northern Ireland and also has a character who launches an assault against the symbols of patriarchy. So two absolute touchstone political themes given the centrality of Northern Ireland to the current Brexit farrago and the MeToo movement.

Yet my books will not bring about any change. They will have not one iota of impact on these issues. Not just because a well read literary fiction book means having had up to 2000 readers, a tiny drop in the ocean when it comes to influencing political power. Even J.K.Rowling whose books have been read by millions, and significantly she got readers when they were young and impressionable, yet when she ventures to express a political opinion, her views are dismissed and she is told to concentrate on addressing what she knows about, boy wizards. Britain, the country that in the Brexit referendum were offered the opinion that we no longer trust experts, has never really trusted, or been terribly interested in the opinions of its artists, outside of their art.

Somewhat of a pity I think. SJ Bradley's book "Guest" asks the question how could the British state ever credit that it could penetrate environmental protest movements as threats to national security; and to allow the police force to plant undercover officers who set up false families with members of these groups to the point of siring children whom they then walked away from once their operations were deemed over. Her novel ought to prompt inquiries into both of these legally and morally dubious events. Haroun Khan's novel "The Study Circle" which represents every possible shade of thought, identity and values throughout the entire spectrum of British Muslims, should be compulsory reading for any politician who would review the anti-terrorist "Prevent" strategy, which is not fit for purpose and incidentally is racist in its profiling. I have an 18,000 short story/novella about youth knife crime. But amidst all the hand-wringing currently indulged in by politicians and the judicial system as another 5 young lives bleed out on London streets in the last week, would any of them in their calls for contributions of causes and solutions ever conceive of admitting the offerings of an author like me? 

So you can call yourself a political author and it really amounts to very little in reality. In my case my work goes a lot further than these specific issues. It is radical, calling into question accepted notions of the consensus of what we call reality, or truth. And especially the notion that out language develops organically and therefore is neutral since no one is in control of its development. But no matter how radical the challenges to received/accepted truths, they are only offered in the context of a work of fiction. Being radical within your narrative form may tilt at some sacred cows within the history and heritage of literature, but counts for precisely nought in the wider world. Fiction, by its very name, is largely offering escapism into the world of the novel, rather than direct engagement in the real world. It's called suspending your belief, not a great catalyst for real world analysis. 

All an author can do is contribute the ideas contained within their novels to the repository of all human knowledge and who knows, maybe it will eventually reach critical mass through readership to change people's perceptions. But don't hold your breath. Orwell's lacerating visions of Soviet Communism in "1984" and "Animal Farm" did nothing to hasten their collapse. And Harriet Beecher-Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" may well have influenced some thought in the Northern United States, but it still took a bloody civil war (fought as a struggle of competing economic and cultural ways of life rather than any idealistic liberty reasons) to dismantle slavery. 

You might also be interested in:
Can fiction writers also be political activists?
What Can Fiction Tell Us Of Real Life? 
Remembering Clause 28
The Author - holy fool or underground revolutionary?
The Politic Body - New Political Metaphors For A New Politics
Grenfell Tower Fire - A Dereliction Of Political Duty

Thursday, 15 November 2018

A Literary Scavenger Hunt Around Paris

Join me for my Paris vlog - invited there for an event, I took the opportunity of checking out a couple of Paris' most famous literary spots. Musing on art and death in Montparnasse Cemetery and generally being an Englishmen abroad. Enjoy! 

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Remembering Clause 28

I recently read a (sub-)cultural history of the UK from 1967-2005 through the eyes of a Radio DJ who presided over that era with all its changing musical and social trends (You can view my review in the second half of this video). The author had given context to each chapter with an item from the national news from that year, which kindled my memory as much as the music he wrote about. What struck me in particular were the host of politicians who were brought back to mind, but who have long since disappeared from consciousness. Any legislation they were responsible for, has disappeared along with them; either repealed, fallen into disuse, or just being of utter inconsequence to deny them any kind of legacy in the history books.

However I want to talk about one MP in particular whom I will never allow to lapse from my memory, through his iniquitous contribution to the laws of the UK. His name is David Wilshire and he was responsible for one of the grossest acts of prejudice and inequality ever committed to the statute books. 

First some context, it was the mid 1980s, AIDS was just rising to the public consciousness and was being solely portrayed as a "Gay Disease" by media and Conservative government alike. The Left in the UK was very much on the retreat in the face of the typhoon that was Thatcherism sweeping away every single institutional form of collective organisation and action. However, there was one last outpost for the Left, local government in the large cities, where socialism held sway and indeed was the incubator for the current Labour Party leadership troika of Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonald and Diane Abbott. These councils were committed to policies of equality and diversity and despite having their budgets slashed by central government, funded a few organisations whose mission was to support those discriminated against in society. These circumstances formed a perfect storm.

With proposed new legislation being considered by Parliament to further restrict the funding for local government, David Wilshire tacked on an amendment called "Clause 28" which stated that a local authority 
"shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality" or "promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship".

The Bill with this Clause 28 was passed into law, thus enshrining prejudice, discrimination and homophobia within the British constitution.  Even at the time there were those dubious as to how a legal definition of 'promoting' could be established, but the mere notion that someone's sexual orientation could be determined through proselytising or whispering in the ear is as old and pernicious as saying that homosexuality and pedophilia are one and the same. This is further added to by the phrasing that a loving homosexual couple can only be a "pretended family relationship". 

Such logic represents prejudicial thinking and bigotry and nothing less. It is of the same warped logic that views Jews as controlling the world's finances, or that non-white races are inferior. It is buttressed around religious notions of family and children and all manner of biblical citations against same sex relationships. 

I wrote to David Wilshire MP to register my objections to a law that would not impact on me (unless one of my as yet future progeny identified as gay), but to my very marrow I felt was unjust and inimical to peaceful,compassionate living together in our societies. He wrote back saying could I address my concerns with my own local MP rather than bother him? I wrote back pointing out that this had been his personal amendment and therefore not unreasonable to request a response. He never replied to that. (This represents a failing in UK democracy, since all MPs represent a political party and if yours happens to be in a party with no power through being out of government, then they have no means of addressing any national issue that divides according to party lines).

Clause 28, as so many laws in the UK, proved unenforceable, because they are so badly drafted from a legal point of view despite the Parliaments of that era being dominated by MPs who were formerly lawyers. It was constantly being challenged as to whether it only covered the local councils themselves (who were responsible for state schools), or whether it extended to teachers, headmasters, school governors and guidance counsellors. The law wasn't used in an active way to prosecute anyone and was eventually repealed in the 2000s. It achieved precisely nothing other than to chill coming out, to deny opportunities for school guidance counsellors and to deal with anti-gay bullying in schools. 

What it did do was galvanise the Gay Rights movement in the UK and irony of ironies has led to where we are today legislatively, with gay marriage enshrined in law and homosexual partnerships broadly accorded the same status in law as heterosexual ones including child adoption. So much for the "pretended family relationship". 

I don't do political marches on the whole, (I dissect the purpose and efficacy of the political demonstration in my novel "Not In My Name"). But I marched against Clause 28. And it was the most enjoyable march I have been on. Through an actress friend of mine, I ended up marching with her under the "AARGH" banner of cartoonists and graphic novelists. AARGH stood for "Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia" and was started by the likes of Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. I've still got the issue of the original comic somewhere. The publishing company was called "Mad Love". 

No one remembers David Wilshire MP because his squalid little piece of legislation has been buried by events taking their course, to see such a mindset very much a minority position a mere 30 years later. However, there are still unpleasant echoes from that time, in that transgender people are facing claims that 'vulnerable' children can be convinced that they are in wrongly gendered bodies, that transitioning can be 'promoted' where its notion otherwise would not exist. We also still had a member of the UK Independence Party recently claiming that UK floods were a punishment from God for legislating gay marriage into law. So still some prejudicial barriers and thinking to be conquered then. Still, on the plus side, a likely further irony of ironies, is that the Anglican Church may very well destroy itself as it is split down the middle over gay priests, so where will that leave Biblical 'proofs' and citations against homosexuality? 

However, even if Wilshire has all but disappeared from people's memories, I just want to provide a coda on his fate. For a man who apparently believed in the sanctity of the family, even back in 1988 he was living with a partner as a commonlaw wife. A wife whom he employed in his Parliamentary staff and proceeded to channel public funds into a company nominally run by her. To such an extent, that his own local Conservative Party association wanted to replace him as their MP and under pressure he decided not to run for the constituency again. For a man who claimed that Clause 28 was not about bigotry, but about the use of taxpayers' money, funny thing was he wasn't above using taxpayers' money to make outrageous claims for decorating and refurbishing his second home in London -  this for the MP whose constituency was next to London Heathrow airport and therefore of dubious legitimacy that he even needed a second home in London in order to carry out his Parliamentary duties.  

David Wilshire, most people in the UK are unlikely to have ever heard of you, or certainly couldn't recollect you. But I will never forget your name, nor will I ever forgive you your bigotry. 

Related posts:
The Grenfell Fire
I Stand With The National Gallery 27