Review: Kate Bornstein’s On Men, Women and the Rest of Us at Manchester’s Queer Contact Festival

As part of this year’s Queer Contact Festival, I head to Manchester’s Contact Theatre to see transgender activist, performer and self-appointed ‘advocate for teens, freaks and other outlaws’ Kate Bornstein. The piece, ‘On Men, Women and the Rest of Us’, kicks off with thundering, almost militaristic music, and I wonder what I’ve let myself in for. But Kate unassumingly shuffles onto the stage; elegant, wise, softly spoken and a little bit naughty –  in other words, immediately loveable.

This piece was different from others I saw as part of the festival as rather than being a show in any clear-cut sense of the word, the evening felt more like a cosy evening in catching up with a friend, sharing anecdotes, personal trials and tribulations and putting the world to rights. Her work is described as spoken word but it lacks, for better or for worse, the characteristic lyrical modulations and urban punch usually associated with the genre. Bornstein’s style is closer to story-telling, a perhaps safer aesthetic through being less at risk of sounding artificial. Kate is sweet, sincere and candid, and totally at ease, sitting back on a chair as her audience gathers to listen to her tales.

Having been involved in activism and performance for more than a quarter of a century, Bornstein’s piece spans two generations, telling of a world that is finally showing signs of changing. She describes the misunderstanding and suspicion surrounding LGBTQ identities in her youth, experienced herself all too often as one of very few openly transsexual (now more commonly termed ‘transgender) individuals living in her area at the time. Even when the New York Times was set to publish one of her pieces, they harboured concerns about including the term ‘transgender movement’,  for fear it would equate to acknowledging that one actually existed. While there remains much to be done, we are finally seeing shifts into a time where the need for the respect, rights and representation of LGBTQ identities is being established as a baseline point on which we need to build.

The defining theme of Kate’s work has to be her the struggle to establish a definitive identity. Selecting ways to define herself from her ‘inventory of identities’, she attempts to navigate a world divided into male and female, despite falling somewhere in the middle. While this sometimes means choosing the path of least resistance and simply picking one, some areas of her life provide the possibility of multiple and shifting identities. Her mother – initially confused and upset by Kate’s coming out, sarcastically referring to Kate as ‘my son, the lesbian’ – ultimately gives Kate her most poignant acceptance. Morphine-addled and on her death bed, her mothers demands ‘Who are you?’, and, in response to Kate’s ‘proffered selection of whos.’ replies, ‘That’s good. I didn’t want to lose any of you, ever’.

It is perhaps this recognition of the possibility of multiple identities which has led Kate to interrogate the usefulness of notions of identity of any kind. After all, she says, the cells in our bodies are totally replaced every seven years with new ones, a conceptual shedding of one’s skin and identity. How can we claim to be any one thing despite physically having nothing in common with ourselves seven years ago? After spending thirty-seven years male and eight female, Bornstein has concluded that neither is really worth the trouble. Identities, as Kate sees them, are addictions: one of many manifestations of the ego which must be overcome if we are to feel truly peaceful.

As much as Bornstein essentially rejects over-identification with one gender or another, her work nonetheless powerfully critiques society-at-large’s expectations of those who do identify as women. Discussing her first foray into voice-coaching with a view to learning to speak like a woman, she describes how she was instructed to modulate her tone, be breathier, smile more (because ‘women always smile when they talk’) and add tagging questions after her assertions to convey self-doubt and humility. Rejecting this, she took a friend’s advice and listened to Laurie Anderson on repeat until she had a voice which felt right. Clearly, her mother’s experience of hearing male members of the family repeating, ‘Thank God I was not born a woman!’ impacted on the kind of woman Kate was going to be. Strong, funny and kind – Kate in turn is the perfect example of what any idol, male or female, should be.

As we leave the theatre, each member of the audiences receives a Get Out of Hell Free Card, which reads: ‘Do whatever you need or want to do in order to make life worth living. Love who and how you want to love. Just don’t be mean. Should you get sent to Hell for doing something that isn’t mean to someone, I’ll do your time in Hell for you, kiss kiss – Kate’. There’s no arguing with that. Kate, you’ve got yourself a deal.

Queer Contact Festival
Contact Theatre, Manchester

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Review: Laurie Brown’s The Daily Grind at Manchester’s Queer Contact Festival

In The Daily Grind, Laurie Brown takes us through an exploration of his sexual development, a gradual process, marked and shaped by discoveries – his mum’s karma sutra book at age ten, coming out in his teens, group sex at age twenty – until Grindr comes along in his late twenties and overturns his sexual landscape.

In the piece we see the use of a combination of techniques to convey the whirlwind rush of this sexual revolution. A hyper-charged, Candy Crush-infused world of high-speed communication and technology is displayed through projections to a screen above Brown’s head. A second after uploading his profile picture, taken in the gym and showing off a practised half-pout, half-growl, a deluge of testosterone and biceps fills his inbox. He plays what is presumably recordings he has made of himself before and after Grindr dates, a kind of audio diary taking us through his encounters, or, put so aptly in the title, his daily grind. Weighted heavily on the use of these different forms of media, I initially felt a detachment from Laurie which I thought let the piece down. However, as it was sustained throughout much of the piece it is perhaps more likely that this reliance on technological media for communication was deliberately enforcing the piece’s narrative of communication and connection, without the need for emotion.

There is a certain ambiguity as to how Brown leads the audience to view his increasingly Grindr-centred lifestyle. The use of audience participation lent the piece’s early stages an air of joviality and excitement, conveying the giddy hedonism of Grindr culture. But with the notches on the bedpost stacking up and encounters becoming more intense, nerves and euphoria giving way to a certain weariness, I wondered if the piece was becoming a critique of the propensity for things to get out of hand. Encountering drugs, violence, adultery, we, and I think Laurie too, are unsure where to stand in relation to this app revolution that has made sex on demand more available and acceptable than ever. But as phone screens light up, scattered like stars across the floor of a darkened stage, a voiceover tones in to describe the magic of a world which exists only for an hour in the confines of one bedroom, the joyous insanity of a thriving, ultra-connected ‘network of fucking’. These observations accumulate to comprise a nuanced and very intimate take on twenty-first century life as a young homosexual male.

Queer Contact Festival
Contact Theatre, Manchester

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Eilidh MacAskill’s STUD at Queer Contact Festival

Eilidh MacAskill’s STUD is hilarious. If I’d been told before seeing it that a piece comprised largely of obscure horses metaphors and penis innuendos could be so brilliantly clever and insightful I probably would have been skeptical, but alas, skepticism out the window, I’ve seen it and I’m 100% won over. It sounds odd, and it is totally, totally mad, but there’s something masterful in creating something so completely off-the-wall and yet somehow so accessible that it has pretty much the whole audience rolling around with laughter.

MacAskill as a performer holds nothing back, quite literally. When the blurb mentioned her undeniable femininity, needless to say I didn’t see the arseless chaps coming. MacAskill appears in full cowboy attire, made ridiculous by the chaps framing her exposed buttocks. The lights bare down unrelentingly on the audience, ourselves exposed as she slowly and deliberately climbs the stairs in silence, chomping on a presumably phallic carrot – fantastically uncomfortable for the audience. And MacAskill totally owns it, her sense of timing impeccable as she unapologetically revels in prolonging and intensifying the palpable awkwardness before launching into her first sketch.

MacAskill rejects dualistic notions of gender by mischievously poking fun at stereotypes of masculinity and femininity. She skilfully throws light on the utterly absurd but nevertheless very prevalent notion that one’s genitals can inherently determine one’s personality. In the space she constructs men are smug intellectuals, beard-strokers and self-professed DIY extraordinaires, and girls nurse toy babies and love ponies. Sound familiar? Sure, but in MacAskill’s world, it is the arbitrary nature of these distinctions which underpin the sketches and give way to their hilarity.

Queer Contact Festival
Contact Theatre, Manchester

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The farce of UK democracy

I emailed my MP, Ben Howlett (Bath), to express my opposition to air strikes on Syria, and we have since exchanged the following correspondence (by we, I mean me and his secretary, and by correspondence I mean said secretary copy and pasting large sections of texts from Ben’s blog into an email to me – with little to no regard of whether it answers my questions or not)

Ben Howlett (before vote):

Many thanks for taking the time to contact me about the concerning situation in Syria. I have had a lot of correspondence both in favour of and against military involvement in Syria and at the moment I have not come to the final decision on how I will vote when the decision comes before the House of Commons.I am pleased that last week the Prime Minister personally addressed the concerns of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee who now support military action in Syria. I would feel more confident in a decision if the Defence Select Committee also agreed that intervention was the right path to follow. At the moment they still have reservations centring on the need to have adequate non-British ground forces to support any bombing carried out by the RAF.I will be personally meeting with the Secretary of State for Defence this evening and I will raise my own concerns and those of constituents who have contacted me. As I am sure you will understand, I will not be able to divulge any information that I receive but I will make my decision based on what I see as the action in the best interest of the people of Bath and the UK as a nation.

Ben Howlett (after vote):

As I am sure you will appreciate, I have received an unprecedented number of emails about yesterday’s vote on military action in Syria. As much as I would like to respond individually to all the concerns that you, my constituents, have raised, it is not feasible within a short period of time. Instead, I thought it would be good to let you all know my thoughts and why I voted for air strikes in Syria.

I read through all the emails I received from constituents and raised some of the sensible comments and suggestions with various Cabinet Ministers I personally met with. I know how important it is to get the much needed assurances to a variety of concerns. The decision I made did not come easy, and I have definitely been a thorn in the side of many Ministers this week.Some of the assurances I received included quarterly reporting from the Secretary of State for Defence on the operations, a planned international development strategy which will help rebuild the country after the strikes and the continuation of the diplomatic solution. I repeatedly stressed to the Government how it is crucial that their plans were backed by a strong ground operation orchestrated by opposition forces in Syria. I have reassurance from the Secretary of State for Defence that he will continue to review and improve the ground strategy whilst the strategic aerial campaigns are ongoing.I sat in the chamber for almost the full 10.5 hours yesterday, and was the last to be called to speak before the closing remarks of the front bench. Due to very strict time limits I did not get to read my full speech, but you can read what I wrote here – You can watch my speech here – I heard impassioned speeches on both sides of the argument yesterday but the two that really stuck with me and had the effect of cementing my views were the speeches by Tim Farron, which eloquently explained how air strikes are the only option to support refugees and by Labour’s Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn, which will go down in history as one of the best speeches in the House of Commons.It is ultimately important to remember that a few weeks ago one of Britain’s allies were attacked by an unprecedented enemy. For centuries Britain has taken a lead in the world to help fight tyranny and promote liberty and freedom. We have a responsibility to support them. Daesh is the antithesis to everything we hold dear and they must be stopped. The time is now to ensure that we stand firm against our enemies – we cannot delay any further or risk people being killed on our streets.One of the repeated arguments against intervention that constituents have raised with me is that our streets will become unsafe if we pursue an aerial campaign. Daesh do not think like this. They will not think twice about slaughtering our citizens in the UK, they believe that our culture, our society and everything that we believe in should be crushed. Before the vote, even though we had no military involvement in Syria, Daesh were threatening attacks on our country every day. We must therefore take action to stop them.When women are being raped, children are being sold for the sex trade, gay people are being thrown from roofs and Christians are being crucified we cannot simply watch from afar and say this is someone else’s problem.Thank you again for taking the time to contact me. I understand that for many of you this will not have been what you wanted to read however I hope you understand that this was a difficult decision to make and I had to come to my conclusion based on representations from constituents alongside intelligence from the Military of Defence.


Hi Ben

I’d be interested to know the numbers of how many people contacted you about this issue and what they were urging you to vote? From the looks of your Facebook page it seems like people asking you to vote no were the overwhelming majority but I appreciate that people imploring you to support air strikes might be more likely to contact you privately.
Ben Howlett:

Dear Ella

Thank you for your recent email regarding the airstrikes in Syria, I am keeping a record of constituent views.  I will continue to keep my own position updated on my website during the campaign:

 With regards to the split of constituents, I have not collated this information, due to the large volume of correspondence across many different types of media as I was keen to get a rapid response out.

 Thank you for taking the time to share your views with me.


Hi Ben

If you’re receiving so much correspondence regarding this issue surely it makes sense to find a way to collate this data?
I can’t help but feel disappointed in your efforts to truly listen to constituents’ views. With so much technology and information at our fingertips it would be so easy for you to make a simple poll or online questionnaire about issues this important. You knew the vote was coming and if you and your office have enough time to put together round robin emails and keep your blog updated surely you have enough time to make an easily accessible way for your constituents to express their opinion. If you’re getting correspondence in all kinds of forms, the responsibility lies with you for not making it more clear and easy for constituents to express their opinion in a way that you can analyse easily.
Seeing as you didn’t set up something like this it is your duty to go through this information as it’s not good enough to not be able to answer a legitimate question from one of your constituents. You were elected to represent the views of your constituents and you are paid for through our taxes. We’re supposed to live in a democracy – if you don’t have time to collate the percentages of who thinks what, what kind of poor excuse for a democracy is that? A rapid response is nothing if it’s not representative.
Awaiting your response
…it might not surprise you to hear that Ben never got back to me.

May-Lan Tan and Mai Al-Nakib at the Manchester Literature Festival

As part of the Manchester Literature Festival, I head to the Anthony Burgess Foundation for an evening being read to and talking about all things literary with two up-and-coming short story writers. May-Lan Tan, born in Hong Kong and living currently in London, released her debut collection of short stories ‘Things to Make and Break’ in 2014, which went on to be shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. Kuwait-born Mai Al-Nakib currently teaches at Kuwait University and has gained recognition from her first book of short stories, ‘The Hidden Light of Objects’. The two authors present very different concerns and distinctive takes on the short story form but both adeptly evoke characters and place, often utilised to explore how being a woman shapes one’s experience of the world.

May-Lan Tan reads an excerpt from what is hard to believe was her first ever short story, ‘Legendary’. The tale examines modern relationships and is live with acute observations and dry wit. Her protagonist finds an envelope in her boyfriend’s office labelled ‘Tax Papers’, full of nude photos of his ex-girlfriends. The relationship is stale and unfulfilling; the couple are complacent in their indifference to one another. She depicts two opposing images of the modern man by comparing her ex, who only owned two appliances, ‘a bong and a coffee machine’, with her current boyfriend who goes antiquing and ‘steers [her] around from room to room by the base of [her] neck’. In spite of all this, she becomes troubled by thoughts of one nude girl in particular and tracks her down. When at last a nude photo of herself is added to the collection she is sickly gratified to now be ‘a blade in the guts of some future girl’.

Mai Al-Nakib reads a vignette and a short story excerpt, both taken from her first collection of short stories ‘The Hidden Light of Objects’. Her vignette explores coming of age as a woman in 1980s Kuwait. Childhood play gives way to the serious business of adolescence; girls ‘morph into minxes’, no longer the recipients of teasing but of ‘a new, awkward fawning’. A gawky boy is ‘made cocky by his American-ness’. Set against the backdrop of her the Kuwait she knew in her youth, Al-Nakib introduces what will become a key trope in her work: two opposing images of pre- and post-liberation Kuwait.

The later image of post-1999 Kuwait is introduced in her excerpt, telling of a Kuwaiti woman abducted in the days after liberation and held captive in Iraq for a decade. As her children try to make sense of both their mother’s capture and the drastic changes they are seeing in Kuwait, their mother draws on memories of her possessions to help herself survive. The Kuwait of her childhood becomes more rigid and oppressive, ‘women swathed in ominous black hoods’, a place of filth, dirt and corruption, ‘everyone swallowing fistfuls of dollars as fast as they could’. Faced with the fear of death, a ‘bargaining chip’ in a political game, the mothers fills herself with a different light as she envisages her dusty books, jewellery, which ‘each in their way embalmed the kernels of [her] life’.

Following the readings, the presenter strikes up an informal conversation which opens up to questions from the audience.

Both writers are driven to write by necessity. It is perhaps unsurprising that Al-Nakib’s stories are autobiographical in part, reflecting her personal effort to regain the Kuwait she has lost as she battles the sense of amnesia others seemed to display about what Kuwait had been. “I had to recreate [..] a place I was convinced had existed”. An obviously emotional experience, she hopes it will in turn go on to help her imagined audience: those also grieving for their lost home. Tan writes through compulsion, writing all day and scheduling in time to eat and sleep. She describes her lifestyle as simple but luxurious, never happier than when she is reading or writing at home, often finding herself picking up a half-read book from the floor and indulgently losing herself in it.

Both writers, although being realist in content, achieve in lending a fantastical quality to their works. Nakib says this is a conscious decision, as she strives to evoke a fairytale, magical-realist quality in her work, a feeling that the stories are ‘hovering above reality’. Even stylistic features such as these are heavily rooted in her context, a coping mechanism to deal with things happening in the Middle East which seem like they can’t be real. Tan’s stories, similarly, are subtly fantastical and highly imaginative, despite always remaining anchored in reality. For Tan, this has little contextual relevance; rather, it is an exercise in aesthetic stylisation for the sake of it. ‘I try to do everything very mechanically’ says Tan, ‘[any departure from reality] must be justified’. Exploiting the freedom of fiction but never ‘being lazy’, she frames readers underwater, or without contact lenses, to allow a degree of fantasy rupture the story.

For Tan, establishing a strong voice is essential and always subordinate to plot. I don’t understand fully the extent of this until I buy a copy of Tan’s collection, Things to Make and Break, and see how she effortlessly adopts her narrators’ identities. Her stories read like monologues, with clues which immediately shape how we perceive the narrator expertly stitched into the texture of a story. Tan comments that she is fascinated by playing with characters’ interiority: how in spite of supposedly having access to all the information people are dishonest with themselves, meaning the reader has to deduce from what goes unsaid. She says this is linked to growing up in Hong Kong, where the importance of the unsaid is a central part of the culture. Nakib also employs a variety of different voices, using the first and third person, though, comparatively, I feel she lacks the subtle ventriloquist-like skill that Tan so adeptly employs. She seems to prefer stating her meaning explicitly rather than leaving too much to the reader, as her character denounces the occupation as ‘the so-called liberation’, a view clearly shared by the author.

After an indulgent evening with two enthralling authors in an intimate space like the Anthony Burgess Foundation, I feel like we could all learn a thing or two from May-Lan Tan’s dedication to engaging with literature luxuriously and pick myself up a copy of ‘Things to Make and Break’.

Coming to Terms with my White Privilege

A lot of white people are very offended as they feel they are being branded racists.

That much is clear. Once we pass that territory we get into very messy and tangled terrain of white people getting lost down an endless conversation of whether or not it is fair to say that white people are racist for being the recipients of privileges over people of colour.

It’s easy to understand this feeling. I recently piped up on a conversation I saw on my Facebook feed, having seen the previous comment: My favourite kind of white people are the kind who comfortably accept their lack of personality. As the comment wasn’t directed at me personally, I wouldn’t say I felt attacked as such, but I did feel that it was unfair and obviously untrue. And most importantly (or so I thought), it seemed petty, deliberately inflammatory, and it seemed (for me, as a white person) to be robbing the original status and cause – a status update about cultural appropriation – of its credibility. I commented and promptly received an onslaught of comments essentially ridiculing me for feeling like I, as a white person, could speak out against this comment. It is an indicator of my privilege that I feel I can comment in this conversation. I shouldn’t be here whitesplaining my opinion and policing people’s tones, when there are white people I should be calling out on racism.

I felt attacked. I thought: how can the people in this conversation be judging another race dependent on their skin colour? Surely, as people of colour, they should understand how stereotyping can be damaging and cause tension in between races?

But then I realised that since having that conversation, those questions have been the main thing I’ve been trying to get my head around – whether it was fair to white people or helpful for anti-racism to estrange white people from conversations. And it’s gone round and round my head until I realised I was spending so much time thinking about something that isn’t really a problem. For white people to see occasional comments on the internet which make them feel uncomfortable, or EVEN if we see genuinely discriminatory comments against whites, in the vast majority of cases it will be only for a fleeting moment that we are made to feel wronged or disadvantaged for being of a certain colour. We need to keep the real problems in sight, no matter how offended we might feel. Or even better, we need to use our experience of feeling offended to help us gain insight and be truly compassionate to those who feel judged or disadvantaged because of their colour every day.

As pointed out in the MTV documentary about white people, often we maintain that we are ‘colourblind’. As lovely and glittery and idealistic as this may sound, it’s important to remember that the only reason we can feel this way is because we don’t have to consider our race – for the most part, it will never determine how we’re viewed by society and we will never have to regard it as something that might get in the way of getting a job, a scholarship, a flat to rent. The list goes on.

Ultimately what I want to get across is that – if you’re experiencing similar discomfort at being excluded from these conversations, being ‘accused’ of having privilege, or even genuinely received a vaguely discriminatoy comment – just stop and ask yourself does it REALLY matter? Is there nothing more constructive you can spend your time thinking about? (Says me writing this blog post, ha ha). If you really want to try to rid yourself of the stereotype of being an oversensitive, defensive, egocentric white person, surely the best thing to do is just not be that person. And do something that can actually help sort out a real problem in some way.

How we can try to help is another issue… Coming soon 😉

Please let me know if you have any comments or suggestions.

Paul Mason at Manchester Literature Festival

As part of the Manchester Literature Festival, Economics editor of Channel 4 news and Guardian writer Paul Mason came to Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music to discuss his new book PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future. The fairly large venue is packed, and everyone falls silent as Mason walks out on stage to join his interviewer, Katy Shaw, on stage. He’s a likeable guy, and the audience laugh as he opens cracking jokes. Very topical jokes of course, and everyone who reads the news enough to get it is chuckling away knowingly. But mostly there’s a feeling of anticipation: hope that Paul can tell us once and for all how to escape the seemingly inevitable fate of everlasting capitalism.

As the night draws on, however, excitement turns to concentration, eyes are narrowed and beards are stroked as the audience strains to get its head around Mason’s big concepts and claims. He attempts to bring some structure to his ponderings but often gets lost in tangents, naturally resulting in us all ending up pretty lost too. As Paul and his interviewer glug from their glasses of wine, I fail to suppress the thought that while it would probably be fantastically exciting to chat to Paul about this in a pub, in this context, with hundreds of people waiting on his every word, I couldn’t help but wish he’d got his ideas mapped out a little clearer. Or (I can’t believe I’m writing this) made a PowerPoint or something.

But I’ll do my best to sum up what he was getting at. Mason’s basic premise is that capitalism is at a dead end, and that developments in IT may already be paving the way to a fundamental reconfiguration of our understanding of economics.

He asserts first of all that the capitalist system is broken in a number of ways. Three of them, he says (but gets a bit lost so I’m using a copy of the book to cross-reference). Firstly there’s fiat money. The crisis of 2008 was a signal from the future that the remedy is illusory: ‘cheap money being used to fix a crisis caused by cheap money’ is a method which runs the risk of long-term stagnation of the world economy.

Secondly he quotes financialisation, an inherent feature of neoliberalism, as a trigger of the crisis and of outrageous levels of inequality. Workers receive a falling share of profits, while a growing share is generated out of their mortgages and credit cards as they are forced into the financial system to live. He says we’ve become ‘slaves to interest payments’, generating profits not only for our bosses but also for the intermediary financial sector as we borrow more and more. In other words, the neoliberal system boosts profits for a country by impoverishing its own citizens.

The last cause of crisis he lists is that of global imbalances in trade, saving and investment. It led to the 2008 crisis as America, Britain and Europe’s financial systems took on unsustainable debt, leaving most neoliberalised countries with unpayable amounts of government debt. And not to forget, of course, that we’re plummeting full speed ahead towards devastating climate crisis.

But the good news, Mason says, is that developments in information technology have come together to offer us an escape route, out of capitalism and into a more sustainable and egalitarian. This can also be summarised loosely in three points. He firstly points out that the price mechanism is being dissolved for information goods, an increasingly integral part of our lives. This basically means something that can be downloaded an infinite number of times and produced at no cost cannot have the competition that surrounds physical goods. Through the enforcement of law a certain degree of artificial security is produced, but Paul argues it means fighting a losing battle: information is meant to be free.

Secondly, developments in automation mean that currently 40% of all jobs could be automated. This would mean not only physical things collapsing in price, but also less work and more play. Thirdly, Mason asserts that the notion of ownership hierarchy is declining, while networks and collaboration prosper as the internet removes barriers to communal production. Wikipedia and Linux are just two examples of widely used open-source alternatives to commercially produced information products.

So Paul invites us to put on our ‘post-capitalism goggles’ and allow ourselves to see that what was once considered utopian fantasy might be a lot closer than we might have thought. He sees the potential of the creation of a horizontal, non-managed and non-regulated economy. His prediction is that younger, inspired generations, newly empowered by unlimited access to knowledge and mobilitsation towards activism will play an important role in this process. However, he goes on, for it to be plausible, centralised action on the part of the state would be necessary to nurture these schemes. While de-centralised action is heavily fetished, Mason holds that the state has to accept that we are in a period of transition and recognise capitalism as a dead end.

If that sounds unlikely to you, then you’re not the only one thinking so. Paul himself recognises that governments in their current state are evidently hell-bent on working within given structures, blindly crashing forth as programmed, as if nothing could go wrong. And while his ideas as they stand are interesting in themselves, stringing them all together to form any kind of coherent picture that could be effectively implemented by a government is difficult. Whether this was due to Paul’s delivery or the fact that he himself hasn’t quite figured it out I’m not sure.

But at the end of the day, he isn’t claiming to know exactly what form this next era will take. As the factory would have seemed inconceivable to people prior to the Industrial Revolution, he says, we too are unable to fathom exactly what will catalyse this coming shift. Mason’s role, rather than piecing it all together for us, is to bring light to observations which he feels hint at an exciting potential for a different future – which he leaves to someone else to examine and foster and make into something workable, with the trust that the unprecedented power of the conscious individual will lead to a non-violent, more equal economic system.

So is this feasible, or just utopian fantasy? Don’t get me wrong, I really want to believe he’s onto something. And its reassuring to know that someone with a background in economics and large following is pushing these ideas. I’m sure I’m not the only one who knows what it feels like to be mid-debate, when someone goes and throws in a load of economic jargon which shuts down the conversation immediately.

It can seem like left-leaning ideas and economics are incompatible; you’re speaking two different languages. To those on the left, economics is meaningless discourse and to right-wing economists, policies which prioritise anything other than progress and profit are far-fetched idealism. The two positions often seem so fundamentally opposed that there is zero common ground from which to start any kind of logical discussion when you’re not just talking at one another. So yeah, it’s good to know someone knows his stuff about both and thinks it can work somehow.

When I stand up to leave I hear someone mumble, “I mean it was good… Just not nearly as inspiring as I thought it would be”. It’s clear that there is an appetite for a feasible alternative, but also a fair amount of scepticism. It’s time, perhaps, to start being a bit more optimistic. Best be getting our post-capitalism goggles on.

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Adam Marek and Diao Dou at Manchester Literature Festival

Ra Page, founder and editorial manager of Comma Press, brings Adam Marek and Diao Dou to Manchester to talk about the dark and eerie worlds of their short stories.


Adam Marek and Diao Dou share a predilection for bringing together the uncanny and the banal to create surrealist tales which are at once chilling, comical, and highly sophisticated. Manchester-based publishing house Comma Press dedicates itself to bringing us authors like these, who otherwise could be lost to commercial pressures seen in mainstream publishing houses. Marek is the author of two short story collections, ‘Instruction Manual for Swallowing’ and ‘The Stone Thrower’, while Dou has written novels, poems and essays as well as his short story collection ‘Points of Origin’.

Page introduces Marek recalling the first story of his he stumbled across. In ‘Testicular Cancer vs the Behemoth’ a man finds out he is terminally ill on the same day that a Godzilla-like monster attacks his city. As Marek reads us the openings from three stories, it becomes clear Marek’s art often begins this way: by positing an odd situation at the very beginning of a story and running with the idea as if it is nothing out of the ordinary. His characters contemplate the fate of HIV-positive ‘Tamagotchi’s, value pets according to their volume (“his cat, a Prussian blue, was huge – five litres, when most cats are three”) and cross-breed with orangutans. When Marek later quotes Roald Dahl as an influence the similarities are clear: his stories are expertly spun and delightfully mad, tapping into the reader’s playful nature.

Dou, as a non-English speaker, reads in animated Chinese. The event organisers went to a great effort to try to bridge the problems posed by the necessity of operating the event in two languages. As Dou reads aloud, non-Chinese speakers can follow the English projected onto a screen on the stage or from printed handouts. Unfortunately as the reading gave way to the interview, the flow of the conversation, perhaps inevitably, becomes disjointed despite the interpreter’s best efforts. As a language student I know how challenging this role can be, but it it was definitely an issue in this event, resulting in many times when Dou’s meaning was unclear and the unfortunate pronunciation of Anthony Burgess as “Anthony Buggers”. This was no doubt compounded by Dou’s charming but tangential and sometimes dead-end anecdotes – although here too it is possible that a lot was lost in translation.

Page opens up the interview with a Kafka quote, “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for?” Neither of the authors seems to feel much affiliation with this sentiment and Page seems somewhat deflated by the upbeat nature of the two men, cheery and humble and refusing to play into any kind of tortured artist persona. And the real irony given the continuation of the quote (“So that it will make us happy, as you write?”) is that both authors do attribute huge importance to the joy of writing and reading. Dou regards humour within writing as a way of connecting to and coping with the world, with the potential of bringing joy to the writer and reader: something truly human. Marek too looks to create an experience when writing and reading, describing how he was “truly titillated” by Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and has “been trying to titillate ever since”.

Both authors claim that their use of surrealism is not part of any specific agenda; rather, it is an exploration of the human psyche, art for art’s sake. Marek is fascinated by what goes on in our subconscious minds, what is just bubbling beneath the surface. For him, literature is what allows us to perceive and explore this elusive level of our consciousness. Because of this, each story’s significance is naturally dependent on the interpretation of each reader. Dou’s stories similarly are ambiguous in interpretation, and Page asks for clarification, “Dou, it’s clear your stories are critical – its just not clear what they’re critical of?” Despite being regarding as China’s leading contemporary satirist, Dou holds that it is not his intention to make political commentary. He recognises that politics is everywhere and as such will unavoidably leave some traces of one’s work, but he believes his work harks beyond the political, exploring the dichotomy of civilisation and the wild, human and animal.

The process behind creating off the wall works like these is hard to get your head around. Marek jokes that he has two wheels in his office with images or tropes that fascinate him, he spins them and if they fit together to make a story “money starts pouring out of my mouth”. With regards to how technically surrealism is made palatable, three features stand out: keeping a balance; use of the grotesque; and humour. Limiting the level of surrealism is key, offsetting the uncanny with the banal so the reader keeps one foot in reality. The grotesque and the funny go hand in hand as the authors consciously create an experience which is comforting and unsettling at once. Marek jokes that humour sugarcoats the gruesome and the forbidden, allowing you to talk about anything and knowing that readers will “swallow it, and they will like it!”.

Despite some disruption to the flow of the event, it was nonetheless a pleasure to be read to and hear these authors discuss their artistic processes. Comma Press’s determination to take risks in little-known authors has obviously paid off. My interest is piqued. I for one will keep my ears pricked for all things Comma Press from now on.

Scoliosis and Me

As a moderate to severe scoliosis (double major spinal curve) sufferer, I’ve been really touched to discover communities surrounding the condition on sites like wordpress and tumblr. If other sufferers are anything like me they will have done countless searches trying to find out how to stop their pain and prevent curve progression, mostly to find only dead end forums with users called things like ‘more-metal-than-bone’ and endless terrigying surgery pictures.

So I thought I’d share my own experience and give any good tips I come across with the hope that someone out there will stumble across this blog and benefit from it.

I was first diagnosed as a teen, and referred to a consultant who recommended we keep an eye on the curve, monitoring it through yearly x-rays and check ups – I think I had three in total. Between my first two x-rays the curve progressed a little, and between the last two no change was seen. I was told this was probably because I’d reached skeletal maturity, so my curve had stopped progressing when my spine had stopped growing. I was discharged and told further progression was unlikely, and to come back if I had any problems or pain.

Fast-forward several years, seven or eight-ish maybe, and I’ve begun experiencing pain which is slowly but surely having a debilitating effect. I find it hard to sit down for too long, to carry anything more than a rucksack with a pencilcase in, occasionally have to miss university or can’t concentrate during lectures because of the pain. Catching a glimpse of my reflection in one of those horrid mirrors in changing rooms where you can see yourself from all angles I realise that something must have changed, I’m looking wonkier than ever and when I lean over there’s a prominent bulge on the right hand side of my back. I feel like progression is obviously so slow that it’s easy to dismiss increasing levels of pain, but at this point there’s really no ignoring it anymore and I have to go back to the consultant.

My fears are confirmed when I see my x-rays . my curve has progressed from 38 degrees upper back, 31 degrees lower to 46 degrees upper back 41 degrees lower. Pretty depressing but I’m not ready to consider surgery yet and plan to explore other options first. My consultant Ian Nelson in Frenchay Bristol is outrageously unhelpful. His receptionist explains while walking me through that I should have come straight through, it’s time for Ian’s lunch break, and it’s obvious once I get in there that he’s just trying to get me in and out as quickly as possible. Offers no real advice about how to manage the pain and I leave feeling quite lost.

On the brighter side of things, on a not so fruitless google trawl I found something exciting and have recently bought a scoliosis suit from DM (dynamic movement) Orthotics, being fortunate enough to have enough money saved to fork out the £805 it costed in total. So these suits are a relatively new thing, kind of like a back brace in concept but much more practical because it’s made from a wetsuit-like material, so it can be worn relatively comfortably underneath clothes. As an adult I was initially told that being skeletally mature, I shouldn’t expect to see any actual reduction of the Cobb angles, but that the suit could be of use in preventing pain and curve progression – which I decided was good enough for me. Having spoken now to consultants, they’ve indicated that there may be a chance of reducing the curve slightly, seeing as my spine is particularly flexible, but have been very careful not to guarantee anything.

For kids though – I haven’t looked at the research myself but have heard they’ve been having good results putting kids in one of these instead of a back brace so it’s 100% worth looking into if you or one of your children has been diagnosed with scoliosis. Having probably missed my chance to reduce my curve I implore parents to not listen to consultants who are telling you to sit back and keep an eye on it as now is the time when you are able to intervene effectively and help minimise pain in the future. For those worried about the costs, it is available on the NHS in places, a ‘postcode lottery’ apparently, so make sure to see what is on offer to you.

I’m going to see how the suit works out for me and will update with news. I’m also very intrigued by the Scoliosis SOS clinic and would love to hear from anyone who’s tried it. It seems like finally practical and non-invasive solutions are cropping up and I for one am not feeling so gloomy about the prospect of getting old with scoliosis anymore.

Here are the links if anyone’s interested, and please get in touch with comments and questions.