A Game of Me

tumblr_ntr3clyrxw1qbch0vo1_1280One of the most important life-lessons I have ever learnt was taught to me by a Belgian theatre company at a one-to-one drama festival somewhere in London in July 2010. I don’t want to give any more identifying details on the infinitesimal chance that someone (but who?!) reading this will then go on to ‘see’ the same ‘play’. If you do get a chance to experience the (short) piece in question, seize it, even though you don’t know its name or that of the theatre company which produced it. Basically, if it sounds like your bowl of stoemp, your best bet is probably to move to Belgium and start going to the theatre a lot. Or just email me and I’ll happily tell you. But do be prepared to learn things about yourself which will surprise and may appal you.

Here is what I learnt about myself:

  • My name is Mark, or possibly Peter.
  • I live in California and am not married.
  • I like going to the theatre.
  • I like cars.
  • I look like I work in advertising.

As we shall see, I got off lightly on a karmic level.

The first thing that happened was that I arrived five minutes early and chatted to a youngish (mid-30s) woman from London (or possibly Essex) who was ahead of me in the queue. She said she was a huge theatre fan, to the extent that she had recently given up her job to pursue a career as an actor. After a couple of minutes’ pleasant conversation they indicated that it was time for ‘her’ performance to start. Then, five minutes later, I was called to pull aside a velvet curtain and step into a small room. In the room there were a couple of chairs facing a large mirror, and a small table with a bottle of water and some plastic cups, some action figures and a notepad and paper. I poured myself some water, put the action figures in relation to one another (as one does), and waited. Around me I could hear occasional buzzers and muffled voices. After a couple of minutes a man walked through the curtained doorway to my right. He was dressed in a short-sleeved shirt and jeans, with a shaved head and a card hanging from his neck identifying him as a participant in the theatre festival. He introduced himself (he had a woman’s name, which struck me as odd) and asked me if I minded if he talked about himself for a moment or two. I shrugged. He told me that he felt a bit hemmed in by his lifestyle. He spent too much time in his flat watching TV with his partner, who didn’t share his hobbies. He said that he felt frustrated and deathly bored in his job in university administration, and that ultimately what he most wanted to do in life was to be creative. I sympathised with him, telling him that he should seize the day, follow his own path, etc. Presently a buzzer sounded and he thanked me for my time and invited me to step into the room to my right.

This room was similar to the first except that instead of a mirror there was a glass window, behind which sat a devastatingly attractive young woman who spoke English with what sounded like a German accent and who, in an extremely friendly tone, started to ask me some questions about myself, in particular about how I think I come across to others. I mentioned that people often mention that I look puzzled, and when she asked why this might be so I explained that sometimes I find life, other people and myself perplexing. She also asked me about my hopes and fears. This being July 2010, I probably talked about wanting to do a Ph.D and go to live in Brazil. I confessed some aspects of my insecurities around others but for the life of me I cannot remember any details of what I said. In any case after a couple of minutes a buzzer buzzed and I stepped into the next room.

There was another actor waiting for me (maybe 40, bald, plumpish, clearly gay), and in front of us a large screen on which we could see a youngish woman fidgeting, drinking water and occasionally scribbling something in a small notepad. To her left was a table with a bottle of water, some plastic cups and some small action figures who appeared to be involved in some sort of orgy. The actor asked me what I thought the woman was called. In response I told him that although I hadn’t asked her name, I had already spoken to her before. I guessed that her name might be Rachel or Rebecca. Rachel, I decided. He asked me what I thought she did. I said that I knew that she was hoping to be an actor, and then volunteered that maybe she had left it a bit late in life. I then made some unprompted comments about how actors always think they’re going to make the big time but then (if they’re lucky) the highlight of their career turns out to be that time they stood outside a shopping centre handing out McDonalds leaflets dressed in a Barney the Big Purple Dinosaur costume. I intimated that that might be as far as Rachel’s acting career would go if she did every actually decide to pursue her dreams, which was unlikely in any case, and threw in for good measure that her Essex accent might get in the way of her progress unless, that is, she managed to get a bit part in Eastenders. I think I was basically trying to be funny and to get him to like me as a person.

After a couple of minutes of this he invited me to move on into the next room. The room was dark and I found myself looking through a large glass window into another small room with two people in it. The one on the right was a young woman who looked Chinese, and the other a young casually-dressed man in his 30s who looked oddly familiar. He looked straight at me and then started speaking to the Chinese-looking woman. He asked her if she minded if he talked about himself for a moment, got some things off his chest. She nodded, nervously. He told her that people often commented that he looked puzzled. He went on to talk about some of his frustrations in life, like his so-far thwarted plans to go and live in Brazil and do a Ph.D, and his ongoing struggle to make sense of his identity. She sympathised, telling him in halting English (I would say late pre-intermediate, about mid-B1 or IELTS 5 on a good day) that she understood his plight (she obviously didn’t use the word plight).

Once more I was invited to step out of the room. This time I found myself in a corridor. All around me I could hear the usual muffled voices and the occasional buzz, and also an old-fashioned telephone ringing from behind a curtain at the end of the corridor. I pushed aside the curtain into a room where a geekish-looking man was quietly working on a laptop and picked up the phone. It was a male voice. He sounded like he might be German or Dutch but said his name was Rachel. He sounded a bit hurt, and said that he had been a bit dismayed about what I’d said about his prospective acting career, particularly about his age and his accent. I apologised profusely, saying it was hard to judge people on the basis of such a short encounter, and also wrong to do so. I wished him luck with becoming an actor and put down the phone, feeling a little crestfallen and a bit abashed. The man sitting at the computer silently handed me a freshly-burnt CD. Later that night I listened to a woman with a Chinese accent tell me all about myself. She said my name was Mark, or possibly Peter, that I lived in California, and wasn’t married. She said I looked like a happy person who likes driving cars and going to the theatre. Another woman’s voice asked her what she thought my job might be. She thought for a few seconds and said maybe I worked in advertising.

As previously mentioned, I think I got off very lightly indeed.

The End of Communism and the Death of Vinyl

808-1226466881_rock-and-rollHow much is an album worth these days? On CD, surprisingly little, given that I haven’t bought a CD since, erm, 2002. You can pick up a physical copy of the marvellous new Pet Shop Boys album for only £7.95 at HMV. Online, if you care to make a donation to the ailing record companies, you can get it track by track for merely 79p a pop. But why pay for a physical product? Music is now in the air, floating around for free. And according to Bob Dylan, it’s not worth paying for:

“It was like, ‘everybody’s gettin’ music for free’. I was like, ‘well, why not? It ain’t worth nothing anyway’.”

There is of course a marked difference between price and value. I’m sure Dylan didn’t feel the same way about the folk and blues discs he treasured when he was growing up. Tom Stoppard’s new(ish) play ‘Rock n’ Roll‘ is on one level an elegy to rock music as preserved on vinyl. In one of the most memorable scenes the main character returns to his flat in Prague to find that all of his beloved records have been smashed to pieces by the Communist secret police. His immediate reaction is to go to the bathroom and violently throw up.

Anyone who grew up with 12 inch LPs will immediately be able to sympathise. As someone recently wrote:

Entire lifestyles built up around albums, smoking dope to albums, having sex to albums. You lent your favourite albums out with trepidation; you ruefully replaced them, on CD, when they didn’t come back. Getting hitched paled into insignificance next to merging record collections with your loved one. Getting rid of the doubles made divorce unthinkable. Elastica once sang, of waking: ‘Make a cup of tea, put a record on.’ That’s how generations of hip young (and not so young) people have lived.

People’s relationship with their physical albums – and singles too – was an intensely personal and jealously guarded one. Tom Stoppard chose several of his favourite tunes to be interspersed throughout the performance. His choices are fairly predictable ones, covering the broad canon of late-sixties early-seventies rock music, but then he is getting on for sixty or so; I would have made quite a different selection, with maybe more Motorhead and Momus and less Pink fucking Floyd and no Guns n’ bleedin’ Roses, but then I am only twenty-seven years old. In my mind, anyway. But I digress.

There’s no doubt that the songs he chose are those that have been most important to him, and the titles and names of the performers are displayed on a screen between each scene, emphasising just how much these little details are or were so important in the fetishing of each individual record. But if nostalgia for the days when rock music assumed such critical importance in our lives is one theme, the main one is the role of rock music in the ideological struggle against the repressive Czech regime. The characters argue bitterly and passionately about music and about politics. The polarisation of the debates about materialism, about sex, about human happiness, and about what could be endured (in the name of freedom) and what must be resisted (in the name of freedom) is very clear. There is an appetite for ideas and a willingness to explore the implications of a particular stance; just as a vinyl disc had two sides, every idea must have its counterpart, both in the mind and in the ‘real world’. In the era of the two tribes, nobody could deny the existence of an alternative way to organise society, however pitiful and repressive that alternative might eventually turn out to be.

Perhaps since the advent of the CD, and certainly since the revolutions of 1989 and 1990, the debate about how we organise our economic and social life has become considerably more one-sided. A couple of weeks ago I visited the Museum of Communism in Prague, which proudly advertises itself as ‘above McDonalds, right next to the Casino’. It stands on a street which looks, with its Mango and Zara and Starbucks et al, not too dissimilar to the centre of Leeds. Consumer capitalism has swept all before it; who now would defend the Communist project, or argue for any different kind of society?

As a friend of ours pointed out during the interval, it’s unusual to hear passionate debates about basic political questions these days. And about music too; maybe because it’s harder to defend something that exists only as a list of ones and zeros on a device that may stop working from one moment to the next, rather than a physical artefact which you have held and cherished and studied intently for hours on end. The days of getting to know someone that bit more intimately by flicking eagerly through their record collection, making connections and laughing at their occasional folly, are long over. These days the question ‘what kind of music are you into’ reveals the unfortunate truth that so many of us have no longer have any discretion.

Discretion. There is an irony in the fact that, as we chat after the play to one of the actors about how quickly so many political arguments about the past and future of our planet simply dried up in the six months after the Berlin Wall fell, we do so sitting in one of central London’s many Caffe Unos (or maybe that should be Caffe Uni?!). Not a place I would choose to go, you know, it was raining and, hey, what’s the alternative?

One day in Prague an Australian businessman we got chatting to recalled how in 1990 he had seen trucks belonging to French antique dealers queuing up at the border into Czechslovakia waiting to load up with as much heritage and history they could get for a handful of francs and cart off back to France to sell for une fortune. It’s a truism that since then capitalism has run riot across that whole swathe of countries that were then just emerging from forty or more years of isolation and deprivation. But it struck me watching the play that we have experienced something akin to what James Connolly called a ‘Carnival of reaction’. The euphoric triumph of big business capitalism can be seen just as clearly in London, Lisbon or Leeds as it can in Prague or in Poland. Now everything has, as Bill Hicks put it, a price tag on it; usually, in the case of our own service-station nightmare of a nation, a highly inflated one.

But as music itself has got cheaper, political debate has too, to the point of having very little or next to no currency. Including, of course, in the realm of pop and rock music. The current consensus dictates that absolutely everyone, from Bill Gates to George Bush to Hu Jintao, and presumably Pol Pot if he were still around, has the interests of the poor and unfortunate of the world at heart. Is there any near equivalent to the Plastic People of the Universe, the dissident Czech rock group that Tom Stoppard’s play celebrates? Well, there is always the most prominent of our rock n’ roll heroes, Bongo of U2 and the UN, a defender of both the poor and the rich, and a man so politically stupid that he cannot see the contradiction between fighting for global justice and an end to poverty on the one hand, and studiously evading contributing to the cost of public hospitals, social welfare and schools on the other (fucking) one. Tax efficiency, they apparently call it. I’m sure Jesus Christ would have been very, very proud.

We stand outside in the rain mulling over these questions until the one-minute bell goes and then go back in for the second half of the play. The action has moved on to 1987 and so the curtain raises to the sound of … U2. On the train on the way home some young Australians are discussing whether if they were rich they would buy a Lambroghini or a Ferrari, a group of drunken English people are talking about how much they love working for their software company, and someone is gloating over the defeat of a football team belonging to the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. I find myself wondering: is this oh-so-ironic Schadenfreude the very best kind of challenge to authority we can offer up these days?