Tag Archives: art


Do cis white straight men know what its like?

In an enlightening article on Little Atoms about ‘safe spaces’ and free speech, Marie Le Conte writes:

While discussions of identity and privilege online haven’t always been constructive in recent times, it’s hard to deny that this isn’t something cis straight white men will ever get. This, of course, doesn’t mean that they never get picked on, or that their lives must therefore be perfect; it’s just that they’ll never know what it feels like to be continuously attacked for what they represent, not who they are.

The phrase “its just that they’ll never know what its like” jumped out at me, because in its absolutist form I think its very wrong. Cis straight white men might not know what its like; and they will certainly never know what it is to be picked on in this way; but it is certainly possible that they can know what it is like to be picked on… because those who have experienced it can describe it to them!

This is the great value of language—in particular, metaphor and simile. It allows people who have no experience of something to have it described to them in a way that means they can empathise with someone who has experienced it.

Art (and particularly in my view, literature in translation) is an essential tool for achieving this. In reading the stories about people very different from ourselves, we can break out of whatever psychological box in which our particular race, gender or orientation has placed us.

My favourite example is In The Ditch (1972) a semi-autobiographical novel by Buchi Emecheta. The book tells the story of Adah, a Nigerian immigrant struggling to bring up her five children alone on a London council estate. I am neither black, an immigrant, a single-mother or a welfare recipient, but Emecheta’s literary descriptions of Adah’s plight conveys to me and other readers precisely what it is like to be in the metaphorical ditch of the welfare spiral. And it does so quite profoundly: I genuinely do not think it is possible to honestly hold hostile views towards immigrant welfare recipients after reading the book. Empathy with the character and the author is far too strong.

Countless novelists have written equally powerful works dealing with what it is like to be a woman in different social, cultural and country settings; what it is like to be a black person in a white-ruled country; what it is like to be discriminated against because you are gay… or indeed, what it is like to be bullied because you are different.

One reason I am pedantically picking on a particular turn of phrase in Marie’s essay, is that she actually deploys an excellent metaphor in support of her point that consistent discriminations, insults and hurt will rightly wear down the oppressed:

To someone with sturdy ankles, a mild fall will have little impact. To someone who once broke their ankle, the same fall may result in a greater injury. If the ankle was broken time and time again, even the mildest of falls may break it again. The fall is exactly the same in all three cases; the ankle isn’t, and neither will be the outcome. The same logic can be applied to, say, rape jokes.

This is as succinct and persuasive an argument against the suggestion that people are ‘coddled‘ as you are likely to read anywhere. I’ve never suffered the discrimination that women, black people or LGBTQ people might endure. But I most certainly do know what it is like… and I modify my political views accordingly.

As I say, I am acutely aware of the pedantry of this point, but it is important because political progress will develop faster and more smoothly if cis white straight men come to understand what it is like to be something other than cis, white, straight and male. They are capable of empathy, and those on the other side of the identity divide must never doubt that fact.

Far better that they empathise and ally themselves with people with of other races, genders and sexualities, than be hauled into the political future kicking and screaming: The more metaphors and similes that can be deployed in support of this goal, the better.

‘Safe spaces’ are necessary, both for the well-being of the people who seek them out but also intellectually. But they should not become places where those who enter choose never to leave. That would be intolerable, because it would be little more than a cultural prison. It would also cede the public space to the dominant culture… which would become the poorer for it.


Photography Imbued with Sadness

A while ago I posted on The Darker Side of Selfies, and the way in which the mainstream media illustrate the news of tragic young deaths with images from the victims’ social media accounts.

Whether it is a car accident, a drug overdose, a gang murder, or a bullying related suicide, the photo editors turn to the victim’s Facebook page or Twitter stream to harvest images. … Used in this new, unintended context, these images strike a discordant note.  The carefree narcissism inherent in any selfie jars with the fact of the artist/subject’s untimely death.

The death of Terrie Lynch and Alexandra Binns this week is a good example. Continue reading Photography Imbued with Sadness

We Need To Talk launched for The Eve Appeal


b0328d09-393b-4fe7-a646-36c6ecb8cf2bI’m delighted to have a story featured in the anthology We Need to Talk, launched yesterday.  The publisher is Jurassic London—here’s the blurb from their website:

All of us, at some point, are involved in difficult conversations. Whether that’s tough talks with clients or bosses, or break-ups, or coming out, or telling someone you love them, or giving advice to that friend who just doesn’t want to hear it. Some conversations are even more difficult, as sufferers of any potentially serious illness will know.

But one thing’s for sure, these conversations are fascinating. So much so that we’ve teamed up with Kindred and The Eve Appeal, to launch a writing competition on the theme of difficult conversations.

My story is called ‘Frozen Out’, an awkward conversation between a husband and wife.  Its inclusion in the anthology is all the sweeter because the other eighteen stories are uniformly excellent. Continue reading We Need To Talk launched for The Eve Appeal

Shocking photographs reproduced in watercolour

I am fascinated with the Waterlogue app, which converts any image into a watercolour.  Most apps and PhotoShop filters that purport to recreate a particular artistic style seem to do a poor job of it – mangling the image but without reproducing the essence of the art form.

Such ‘artistic’ filters are usually used to convey a sense of beauty. The examples from the Waterlogue community all have an extremely traditional subject matter: landscapes, portraits and still life, framed rather conventionally.

I put six of recent history’s most famous yet shocking images through the tool.  The results are below.  They are instantly recognisable, and although the paint removes detail from the images, I find them just as sad as the photographic versions.

Continue reading Shocking photographs reproduced in watercolour


Quoted in the Huffington Post discussing ‘Homegrown’

An extremely odd and disconcerting story was reported in the Guardian this week, regarding a National Youth Theatre play that has abruptly cancelled, just two weeks before its opening night. There are fears that ‘Homegrown’ was pulled due to the sensitive subject matter: young people drawn to ISIS.

I spoke to the Huffington Post about the issues raised for English PEN: Continue reading Quoted in the Huffington Post discussing ‘Homegrown’


Heckled about Free Speech and Charlie Hebdo

Last week I spoke at the launch of Draw The Line Here, the book of cartoons published by English PEN in response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

I touched on a few things that I have already noted here: the punctured optimism after the 7/7 bombings, for example.  I also explicity noted the fact that, on the day after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, all but two British newspapers carried the same terrible image of the murdered policeman Ahmed Merabet, yet only those same two newspapers (The Guardian and The Independent) felt able to reproduce the relatively benign image of Mohammed on the cover of Charlie Hebdo the following week.

Amazingly, I also encountered a heckler during the speech!  He protested that the incredibly crass cartoons that sometimes found their way into the pages of Charlie Hebdo were not worth defending.  I unequivocally disagreed.

A recording of my speech is embedded below (and also on SoundCloud). Continue reading Heckled about Free Speech and Charlie Hebdo

Cartoon by Chris Burke, used with permission

‘Draw the Line Here’ Mocks the Men in Masks

Another article on Huffington Post, published yesterday.  I’ll write something on the launch event too at some point soon.

Today we mark the tenth anniversary of the 7/7 terrorist attacks on the London transport system, which killed 52 people. It’s also exactly six months since the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, in which 12 people were murdered.

The public response to both these outrages was an overt show of defiance to the terrorists. In the days after the London bombings people shared ‘We Are Not Afraid’ images and continued to ride the tube. Immediately after the Paris attacks, ‘Je Suis Charlie‘ became a message of solidarity and a statement that we will not be scared into silence.

The Paris killings also inspired artists to pick up their pens, pencils and paint brushes. Some of the most eloquent responses to the tragedy were not words, but pictures. A new book, Draw The Line Here, which brings together over a hundred such cartoons, will be launched today in London. Continue reading ‘Draw the Line Here’ Mocks the Men in Masks


59 Productions wins Tony Award

Huge congratulations are due to my former colleagues at 59 Productions, who just scooped a Tony Award for their set design work on the Broadway musical An American In Paris.  

Creative directors Leo Warner and Ben Pearcy led the team. Here’s Leo talking about the work of 59 on the BBC World Service Weekend programme (skip to the 16 minute mark) Continue reading 59 Productions wins Tony Award