Hear No, See No, Speak No…

It was obvious that the director and the actors had been a part of this triplicity.

Of all the plays I have had the fortune (and, my God, the misfortune) to watch, none so turned me so upside-down as much as a bizarre, one-off performance I caught, quite by chance, in the latter-half of September 2005. The venue – the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh – had advertised the play as ‘an extraordinary experiment in light and sound’, which immediately alienated me. After another season trapped at the Edinburgh Fringe, yet another experiment in ‘light and sound’ gave the impression of vaccuous installation art-as-theatre that had numbed me for three lonely weeks.

However, a good friend of mine had two complimentary tickets to the event. Being the kind of person who assumes that a complimentary ticket usually means a second-rate performance, I would normally have made a snide remark at the offer. But my friend happened to be deaf, which for some reason made me less inclined to turn down her gesture. I accepted the ticket, and braced myself for not just an evening of boredom, but an evening of boredom with someone who would not be able to hear my whining plea to walk out early.

The Studio 3 space was small, as was the audience. This I had anticipated, because the event was clearly the one performance in every run which is signed for the deaf. Hence the complimentary tickets. Reading the programme before the lights dimmed, I noticed that the play did actually include a deaf character, so I assumed that the play, whatever it was about, would be of particular interest to Joey. I resolved to stay until the end, and try to enjoy it. The programme also included a slip of paper which explained that not only was this the signed performance, but it was also the audio-described performance. I remember thinking that someone in the scheduling department at the Traverse had clearly been pushed for time, and decided to shove all the disabled people in together. The Deaf, the Blind, and me. Great.

The set was sparse and disorientating. The audience, all fifteen of us, stood in a semi-circle along one side of the room, while the actors, all five of them, came and went from behind two or three sheets of gauze. Each actor played just one character, with none appearing to have more lines than the others. Dressed in white shirts and blouses, with neutral black trousers, they lacked a certain distinction of character, and sometimes it was difficult to remember who was who… especially remarkable since one of the actors was black. Another character, a charismatic artist named ‘T’, was revealed to be blind only in the second scene, the first time in the play that he had cause to actually get up out of his chair. This twist was well timed, coming as it did after a particually verbose monologue from the same character that threatened to send the whole play into an arid exposition on the nature of perception.

The plot, confusing at first, fell into a decent rhythmn when it was finally allowed to gather pace, towards the end of the first half hour. The pain of some characters unrequited love becoming most apparent in those scenes where other characters were oblivious. In the interactions between the pale young girl and the older man, most poignant were those scenes of contrived social interaction, where what was being said and what was meant were two very different things. The slightly cliched plot device of having a sixth character created entirely ‘off-stage’ slightly punctured the overall coherence of the story in my opinion. However, the dark reason for the absence of this friend, the man at cause of all the heart-ache, was only hinted at, leaving the audience guessing and adding a layer of uncertainty to the piece.

At just over an hour, the story was wrapped up with a rather weak final line (“I thought you knew each other?”) which sounded incomplete to me. The absence of the sixth character was never quite explained, but the couple in love achieved some kind of closure, if not happiness. The philosophising of the first section never returned and I applauded with enthusiasm, more at the discernible talent of the actors in creating believable characters, rather than because any profound statement of human nature had been achieved. We retired to the bar.

Sitting awkwardly among the punters, the conversation meandered onto other subjects – the play, I considered, not being controversial enough to provoke debate. However, as I was returning from the counter with another whiskey and soda, I had to avoid one of the actors from the play, the one who had played the middle aged man, who was on his way home. I smiled as I squeezed passed. Back at the table, Joey nodded towards him, and said something so odd, I was sure I had misheard.

“I wonder what happened to the little boy we never saw?”

She was talking about the play again, but clearly this was a mistake. The the absent character was definitely a man, an adult, but Joey had called him a “little boy”.

“In the play? You mean, ‘the man we never saw’?” I corrected.

“No, the little boy. The person who they all talked about but who wasn’t on stage.”

“That was a man. An adult.”

Joey looked puzzled, and slightly offended, as if I was making fun of her. She could see from my face that I wasn’t joking. To resolve the matter, she turned around and tapped a bald, bearded man on the shoulder. He was also deaf and she apparently knew him. Either that, or she at least knew he was deaf. They signed a quick exchange, before Joey turned back to me. “It was definitely a little boy.” she said. They both stared at me, waiting for a response.

And so the short, yet fantastic detective story began. At first, it began with a simple disagreement over the facts of the story, but it soon became clear that the woman signing the translations for the deaf audience members had been referring to the “boy” off-stage, while those of us with proper ears had been lead to believe that person was a man. I was tempted to write it off as a mistake, until the man with the beard signed something at me. Joey translated.

“He says, ‘if it was a man’ then how come they were so worried he had left them?’”

It was if they had seen a different play. The key elements were there, of course. A tale of unfulfilled love, the same essential character. But the story Joey and the Beard had percieved had taken on a profoundly different tone. Rather than worrying about what sinister motivation had removed the sixth character from the scene (A prison sentence, I had half-conjectured), they had been concerned for the well-being of a missing child. There was even, Joey said, the strong possibility he had been murdered. I was baffled that something so fundamental to the story and the characters could have been missed, or altered. I excused myself and made for the toilets.

Splashing water on my face, I became aware of someone behind me. Looking into the mirror above the sink, I noticed a man in dark glasses stagger out of the cubicle. His walking stick betrayed him as blind, and I offered to get the door for him.

It occurred to me that I needed an ally in my argument with Joey. “Did you just see that play in there?” I demanded.

He chuckled at my insensitivity, and nodded. “They gave us some ear pieces, with a narrator telling us the actions. Fucking weird. Can you help me back to my table?”

I sat him down on the table next to ours, where Joey remained seated with the Beard who had joined her. They were furiously signing in utter slience, while the bar chattered around them. I waved at her, and they stopped signing. “This guy saw the performance too.” I mouthed the words slowly. They looked at him, as if waiting for some kind of revelation.

“Odd bit of fun, wasn’t it?” He was from Essex. “Don’t know why those two didn’t just knob each other and get it over with, but still.”

“I should have thought it was obvious, the strain they were under.”

He looked at me (or rather, he turned his head in my general direction, the eyeline was slighty off, but I couldn’t mention it). “You what?”

The riddle had become a conundrum. The blind man had been in the studio with us, but the audio description had given him yet another angle on the play. The action he described was more frantic, more angry, and more farcical than what the rest of us had witnessed. He had come away from a performance that was satire. It had made him smirk.

It was obvious that the director and the actors had been a part of this triplicity. They had been putting extra information and false descriptions into the audio feed, and the translator performing the sign translations had blatantly been mistranslating the story. It was irritating that I had fallen for such a plot. I was particularly annoyed that I hadn’t managed to spot the different reactions on the faces of the other audience members. Why had I not seen the blind man smile, or Joey gasp, at moments when I was cringing? The company had been playing with us, and I didn’t like it.

“Well this is really not on!” I said eventually. “They’ve been telling you the wrong story. They shouldn’t play with people’s disabilities like that. Its mean.”

Joey knocked on the table. “But we saw the right story, not you. We didn’t need a translation for Miranda’s part, did we?” Miranda was the deaf character that Joey had been interested to see. Half the time, the actress spoke normally, but signed at the same time. In a few scenes she simply signed to another character, apparently her brother, without speaking. He always answered her properly, but her words were spoken by the interpreter, the woman at the side of the studio who usually translated the rest of the play back into signs. I could not even remember what the translator looked like, but it was beginning to seem as if she had some diabolical hold over the entire performance. Not only had she deceived the deaf people, she had deceived me too. Joey had a point.

I rescued myself. “Well, they definitely fooled you,” I said, turning back to the blind man.

“I suppose so. It took me a little while to recognise that one of the characters was deaf! They never told us that, and I only worked it out when I heard the bodies moving in the one place, and the voice for that Miranda girl coming from off stage.” He chuckled and felt on the table for the stick.

I didn’t say anything then, but I knew he was wrong, and that I was wrong too. This man had heard body movements from the other side of the room, movements I had not noticed because I was too engrossed in my own, critics eye-view. Perhaps scenes that I assumed were heavy and brutal had an underlying spring in their step that only a blind man could hear. Perhaps the key moments in the scene were not the confrontations that distracted me, but a slient resolute expression that only the deaf would see. It was not that the performance had been audio described, or sign interpreted. It had been vocally and visually translated for me.

The show had a run of only three nights. I attended the third. The magazine I wrote for had huge lead times, and in any case was struggling to break out of the niche market it had dropped into, so I never had a chance to review it. It was ignored by the tabolids, of course, but a couple of the broadsheets summarised it in a couple of paragraphs, giving it three stars and using words like “standard” and “interesting”. Someone told me that Mark Lawson on the radio had called it “pedestrian,” but I didn’t hear the programme so it might have been something else.

There has not, to my knowledge, been a revival. I am left with a perennial weed in my stomach, the feeling you have when you suddenly realise you have seen something fantastic, but did not realise at the time. You look back, but it’s gone.

All that remains is the memory, bliss and agony, of the moment we finally stood up, put on our jackets, and went to leave the bar. I suddenly remembered the innoccuous final line of the play: “I thought you knew each other?” I imagined that line, in the light of the master plan we had revealed. I considered the alternatives witnessed by Joey, the Beard and the blind man, and suddenly the various possibilities of the story were open to me. Far from being weak, that final line had brought those parallel stories together. With all the clues in place, that line revealed exactly why the sixth character was missing. Too late.

I winced for breath as we emerged into the breeze on Lothian Road. The Deaf, the Blind, and me, struck dumb.

Eloquent Kashmiris

As the death toll rises, there seems to be very little I can say on the latest natural disaster to wreak havoc on unsuspecting peoples.

One thing that struck me: I was watching a report on the relief effort, and a random Kashmiri farmer was being interviewed. His son had an arm in a sling, and they were describing their predicament. They were talking in English… It never ceases to amaze me the capacity that other nationalities have for bilingualism, when in the UK its a struggle to get students to take a GCSE or a Standard/Higher in another language.

Clearly these people have a different conception of language and nationality to us islanders. Kashmir is a divided region of course, with several ethnicities, affiliations and identities. The requirement to speak more than one dialect is a fact of life.

Next time there is a river bursts its banks and swamps an English flood plain, I wonder how many people will be able to describe their experiences to the foreign news agencies?

Inaug-roll

My first round of blogroll additions…

I’ve been waiting for a little while before adding anyone to the blogroll. This is partially because I’ve been fretting over whether or not to call it a ‘blogroll’ or whether to opt for something a more conservative description. It is also because I wanted to write a short yet coherent justification of each entry, and why they should be so honoured on www.robertsharp.co.uk.

Today I decided I should get my head out of my arse on both counts and simply get on with it.

I find myself leaving comments frequently on Pickled Politics, and I think they have hit just the right tone: balanced in places, yet with a rightly indignant fucking attitude problem in others…

Clive Davis has to be one of the most well read people on the planet. Ultimately, I disagree with him politically, but the articles he highlights always deserve a consideration, which I think will make my opinions better. His thoughts on culture, and especially the blogosphere, are particularly enlightening.

I came to Clive Davis via Jenks at the thames, who claims it was Clive who persuaded him to start a blog. I could confess to a vague nepotism with this one, as Jenks and I apparently share a couple of genes somewhere along the line… but I do enjoy his vignettes on bringing up three kids. Let’s hope this addition to the blogroll squeezes a few more out of him, eh? (edit: That would be blog posts, not kids…)

You could accuse me of cronyism when I include … by ste curran on the roll, since I am pre-aquainted with him too. But even if we had never met, I would still delight in Ste’s writing. I just would not be able to imagine the cheeky chancer beavering away at his keyboard, wiping a tear of neat emotion away from his RedEye. If they can behave themselves, the Triforce may get an entry one of these days too.

During the various happenings in Edinburgh this summer, I saw both George Galloway and George Monbiot speak on the same day. Galloway’s rhetoric has always entertained me, but there is nowhere near as much substance as Monbiot. If anyone should be ‘Gorgeous George’ its the latter, not the former.

There’s a couple more sites I have been reading recently, which I would like to add… but these five will do for now. No need to open all the Christmas presents at once.

Ghosts in the iPod, Dæmons in Google

Everyone knows there are ghosts in the iPod… but did you know there are daemons in Google AdSense too?

Everyone knows there are ghosts in the iPod. These are the beings that live deep within the algorithms of the randomise feature. They tap into your thoughts, and play a song for you. The iPod ghosts, they say, will choose the track that suits what you are thinking. The ghosts will look at your reflection in the train window, and the view beyond, and pick a song that fits your mood.

The iPod ghosts do not exist to simply provide a fitting cinematic sound-scape to our lives. They want to talk to us, and tell us stories. They show us connections we have not seen before. The non-believers claim that iPod ghosts are just the bizarre connections you make in your own head, links that give the impression of infeasible coincidence. But any connection you make will be a product of your language, the things you have done, the places you have been, the books you have read. These connections, the iPod ghosts, are our culture, the ramblings of our ancestors trying to tell us something they have already forgotten.

Contrast the iPod ghosts with the Google AdSense dæmons. These are the malevolent creatures that are trapped in a JavaScript world, somewhere between your computer screen and Google Inc’s servers. The dæmons strike when you are at your most vulnerable. They look for important pages, ones that mean something to the author. A cry for help, a gesture of genuine solidarity, a long pondered social comment. The daemons find these pages, and sabotage them with a crass, inappropriate and ill-timed mini-advert.

Trapped in their bland, neutral boxes, the AdSense dæmons are the enemy of sincerity. They take those same thoughts that are incubated by the iPod ghosts, and taint them with a blind, amoral commercialism. Perhaps the connections they make are also our culture, the same ancestors laughing hysterically at what we have become.

Update

Andrew Sullivan has spotted a couple of AdSense daemons plaguing Mickey Kaus’ blog at Slate.

Chicken Yoghurt has sharp eyes, and has spotted an odd juxtaposition of story and advert. John Reid, Knifethrower.

Abolish the Cross of St George

Describing a whole country as “white” or “black” or Christian or Muslim, is an arrogant anthropomorphism on the part of the majority group.

Prison officers have been banned from wearing St George flag tie-pins. Anne Owers, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, suggested that the symbol could be misconstrued by Muslim or Arab prisoners… because the St George cross was a symbol of the crusaders. (via Popinjays and drunken blogging).

Another classic case of people not thinking things through before they try to help. Their statements are problematic in so many ways.

The first mistake is to equate an individual with the institution. A prison officer wearing a St George tie-pin (for cancer research, by the way) is not the same as the institution endorsing the crusades. Likewise, a teacher who wears a hijab does not convert the whole school to Islam.

Second, cultural symbols have different meanings depending on the person who chooses to wear them. One woman’s proof of mysoginy, is another’s statement of modesty. One man’s blood-stained crusade memorabilia, is another man’s gentle nod to Freddie Flintoff. In this sense, the St George Cross represents the corinthian values of friendship and fair play. If someone claims to be wearing the cross for those reasons, they should be granted the benefit of the doubt.

Take these thoughts a stage further, and they become more controversial. While we should allow badges to take on a personal meaning for the individual who displays them, symbols which represent a country or a community must have a shared meaning, and that meaning should be something that the entire population can subscribe to.

To emphasise the point, I must draw attention to a common flaw of logic, which ascribes attributes of the majority of citizens, to the country itself. Its an easy shorthand, but when we discuss national identity, it is unhelpful and wrong.

When Anne Winterton MP was condemned for saying she was ‘thankful’ that Britiain was predominantly white and Christian, she was condemned as a racist. At Clive Davis’ blog, Laban Tall said:

… would you consider a Kenyan pleased that his country was black, or a Jordanian proud of his Arab nation, to be loathsome?

My response was to agree: If we want to condemn Anne Winterton’s attitude, then perhaps we do indeed have to condemn a Kenyan’s pride in “black” or a Jordanian’s pride in “Arab”. They are welcome to take pride in their own ethnicity, but should they be ascribing that ethnicity to their whole country? Describing a whole country as “white” or “black” is an arrogant anthropomorphism on the part of the majority group. Calling a country “white” or “black”, I said, is certainly not referring to a country’s soil, trees, or borders… so it seems to be inherently racist to those individuals with the minority complexion.

Labelling a country Christian falls into similar discriminatory problems. According to the 2001 UK census, 72% of people claim to be Christian. This means that there are vast swathes of the population who are not Christian. Since church attendance in the UK is only 7%, and since parents respond to the census on behalf of their children, I would suggest that the proportion is much higher than the 28% yeilded of the census.

The numbers are not really the point, however. Even if there was only one non-Christian in an entire country, it would still be discriminatory and offensive to ascribe a religion to that country. A state is a different thing to its citizens. It is certainly not the sum of its parts. Calling the UK a Christian country is preposterous and wrong. It is therefore ridiculous that our national flags should be Christian crosses. These symbols co-opt millions of people into an ideology which they categorically reject.

So it is with other countries: Abolish the Scottish Saltire and redesign the Union-Jack; pull the asymetrical crosses off the Scandanavian flags; yes, pull the crescent moon off flags from Mauritania to Malaysia; and yes, pull the Star of David from the flag of Israel. I have no quarrel with Christian states, Islamic States and the Jewish State, save to say that they are figments of the imagination, which are an insult to demography and democracy. Let the individuals practice religion freely, and let them display the symbols that their conscience dictate. But let the state and its badges be secular and inclusive.

Back in the UK, a man is formally scolded for wearing a national symbol, in support of a cancer charity. But the suggestion that we change the national symbols themselves is met with a silent dismissal. Paradoxically, the one place where the St George cross should not be – up our flag poles – has become the only place where it is still acceptable.

Royal Mile Pub

People pull mirth inducing faces for the camera

So there I am enjoying listening to the folk musician, when suddenly my view is blocked by a group of tourists posing for a photograph. They are Swedish, but that is incidental. When they group together for the portrait, they wait until the distinctive red-eye flicker betrays the imminent shutter release, and then they pull a series of mirth-inducing expressions. One sticks his tongue out, another gives some sort of thumb-and-pinkie rock gesture, while a third opens her mouth really, really wide. They lean against one another.

Once the flash has been and gone, they inspect the staged chaos on the LCD screen and chuckle over their antics. Then their expressions return to normal, and they look back at the musician.

“Hey man, its easier to smile than it is to frown, you know!”

Just because I am not smiling, it does not mean that inside me, my heart does not leap with joy.

Mixing the teams up

Its a shame when you miss a post and the associated discussion first time around. Last month David at Minority Report bravely tackled the sticky subject of inter-racial breeding

Its a shame when you miss a post and the associated discussion first time around. Last month Minority Report bravely tackled the sticky subject of inter-racial breeding in Mixing the teams up.

A telling point halfway down:

Recently, a popular stress on cultural identity, has worked to apply fresh paint on racial boundaries.

This reminds me of an article I read recently. A argument against inter-racial relationships, by a mixed-race American who married a white woman, is surely worth a read. Dell Gines post (found via Clive Davis and Booker Rising) asserts that since the pool of eligible black males has decreased in the USA due to social problems within those communities, if a white woman dates/marries one such eligible black man, she is reducing that pool even further. Black women are of course free to date white guys, but in both cases, the end result is the decrease of the black community. The erosion of the black community is a negative effect of all this.

My response is to reiterate that cultures are not fixed. They change and evolve over the generations. Black culture is certainly to be respected, but can and should it be preserved? (The same, of course, may be asked of white culture). The answer to all these questions is “probably not!” Even if the insidious eugenics proposed by Gines were employed, and a black racial purity was preserved in the USA, the black culture itself would change anyway. So why not accept this, and let black and white cultures merge with each other? As the author Hanif Kureishi suggests, multiculturalism is the idea that “purity is incestuous”. That cultures change into something else is not necessarily a cause for concern.

Revolution now, stasis later?

We are still in the innovating, barnstorming phase of this technology, and the rules for its proper use are being hastily scribbled out.

That the Internet is a radical innovation, on a par with the Printing Press, is an oft-repeated mantra, and with good reason. It excites me to think of these decades as a time that profoundly changes society, like the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century.

Jeremy Clarkson, of all people, made a very pertinent point on last week’s edition of Who Do You Think You Are? while he was slagging off enviornomentalists. Admiring the architecture in Huddersfield, he remarked that the industrial revoluton could not have occurred, had the environmental constraints we have today been in place 150 years ago.

So it is with other regulations such as town planning. I was in Glenrothes earlier this week, where the post-war new town atmosophere seems soulless and homogenised. Its all roundabouts. What a relief to return to the mangle of buildings that make up Edinburgh’s Old Town, where ancient buildings, subjected to countless ad hoc modifications and uses, give it charatcter and keep it alive. I would never seek to now abolish town planning or building regulations… but part of me yearns for a time of rapid change and progress.

This is why I am drawn online. It is interesting to watch new online societies, like The Committee To Protect Bloggers, at their fledgeling stage, and to see blogging standards and web ethics evolve. We are still in the innovating, barnstorming phase of this technology, and the rules for its proper use, its ‘best practice’ are being hastily scribbled out. I am glad I am here, and participating. In 150 years, will the codes of practice now being devised be entrenched? Will the standards and methodologies be codified and fixed? Perhaps our sites will need a licence, planning permission, and a signature from the ever-so-expensive Institute of Chartered Web Designers?

Crazy Creationists

I am not Morph… The idea that we were made from clay is demeaning.

I am not sure whether I am more scared of a British Police State, or an American Religious one. In the same five minute bulletin, I also heard that eleven parents in Pennsylvania USA are suing their school board, which has decreed that since evolution is just a “theory” it must be taught as such in schools, and only presented alongside alternative theories such as “intelligent design”, a form of creationism.

I continue to be both annoyed and puzzled by the shallowness of the “intelligent design” lobbyists, for a number of reasons. Why do they find evolution so offensive? What is wrong with being descended from monkeys anyway? I think it is demeaning to suggest that we simply appeared, perfectly formed, from the dust. I am not a clay model like Morph. The evolutionary struggle gives us a nobility, a triumph against ridiculous odds. How fantastic it is to believe in a theory which says that over the millenia, my ancestors evolved slowly from the trees, to the point where I can now be talking to the world from a laptop computer… And what rapture when I realise that despite the arbitrary and unjust nature of evolution, my genes and I have had the good fortune to succeed!

Why God cannot be described as a force of nature, or indeed the architect of the laws of Physics, has never been fully explained to me. For an omnipotent God, that should be a bagatelle! If one persists in beleiving in a God of the Abrahamic (i.e. Jewish/Christian/Islamic) ilk, then surely She would have the power to kick-start evolution at the beginning of the Earth. Since God is outside of time, She would presumably have the foresight of everything and everyone, including you, me, and Charles Darwin.

Why undermine the science that has introduced us to the idea of adaption, and therefore why species may become ‘endangered’? Why undermine the science that allows us to understand and cure genetic diseases?

Geologists deny that the earth created in six days. They say it is 4.55 billion years old. Are their theories criticised too? And if so, should we listen to what they have to say about volcanos, earthquakes, and tsunami?

Even if evolution is a theory, it is by the far the most rigorous we have. While we know we have not described the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about evolution, there is huge intellectual gulf between a few paragraphs in Genesis, and the mountains of peer reviewed experiments and tests that together make up the cannon of evolutionary theory. Let Genesis into science labs, and you may as well let in the Spaggeti Monster, and the Fundamentalist Aesopians. Its enough to make you tune in to MC Hawking.

Update: I found a quote from W.N.P. Barbellion:

I take a jealous pride in my Simian ancestry. I like to think that I was once a magnificent hairy fellow living in the trees and that my frame has come down through geological time via sea jelly and worms and Amphioux, Fish, Dinosaurs and Apes. Who would exchange these for the pallid couple in the Garden of Eden?

Crazy Congress

I would of course feel the schadenfreude if DeLay is convicted… but Justice takes priority.

Competing with the news of high-jinx at the UK Labour party conference is the story that Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX) has been indicted on charges of electoral corruption. He allegedly channelled illegal corporate donations to Republican candidates for the Texas legislature. The plot thickens when we discover that his accuser, attorney Ronnie Earle, is a Deomocrat.

Is there a case to answer, or are these political manoeverings? Both men seemed pretty earnest and pretty dour on the news bulletins, so I don’t know who to believe. This seems another classic case where the benefit of the doubt will be given to those who’s political opinions match your own. I confidently predict Clive’s excellent blog will come down in favour of Rep. DeLay – at least for now.

I would of course feel the schadenfreude if the accusations to be true, as it would reinforce my long held suspicions of US Republicans, and would undoubtedly harm the party’s chances in forthcoming elections. However, there is a chance that the allegations will not hold up to scrutiny, which would be a terrible thing for the Democratic cause. Good will only be done if justice prevails, of course.