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No more heroes

Alongside the icons we lost in 2016, we're mourning for a world that felt like it was changing for the better.

This has been a spiteful fucker of a year. The terrorist atrocities, the refugee crisis and the fall of Western Democracy would have been enough by themselves, but really - Carrie Fisher? George Michael, on Christmas Day? That was a bit much. De trop. Unnecessary. And yet, somehow, it also seemed inevitable. The deaths of the icons of the sixties, seventies and eighties has ceased to be a set of tragic occurrences and become a sort of rolling crisis, an insistent, awful drumbeat under a change in the cultural theme music to a cruel march in a minor key.

None of this is sensible, of course. If we were being sensible, if we were to break with recent tradition and speak rationally, we know that there have been worse years. Rationally speaking, we know that death and disaster do not respect deadlines, that calendar years are semi-arbitrary human constructions - although, for that matter, so are democracy and the nation-state.

That’s a comforting thought, isn’t it? I’m sure you’ll be equally cheered by a smug little reminder that correlation does not equal causation, that many of these stars are simply reaching an age when human bodies more frequently fail.

It helps to be reminded that bodies which have, over the years, been crammed with booze and fags and other exciting recreational substances, bodies which have spent decades carting about the mercurial souls of hard-working, obsessive artists and weirdoes, such bodies tend to be slightly less durable than average. It helps to be reminded, just as it always helps people who have just lost a beloved relative to hear that they lived to a ripe old age, especially given how much they smoked, and really you shouldn't be surprised. There now.

I'm sure hearing it set out rationally like that makes you feel loads better. After all, if 2016 has taught us anything, it's that serious facts soberly stated will always trump a profound emotion felt by millions, right? Stop sniveling and gender up. Look at me, I'm not crying, just like I didn't cry last night when someone sent me a photo of Carrie Fisher's loll-tongued bulldog Gary. Just like I definitely didn't lie on the sofa, sobbing 'what's going to happen to Gary?', in a way I have not been able to weep for the entire future of the species. That didn't remotely happen. Quit your moaning. You didn’t know these people, so they couldn’t possibly have touched your heart or taught you to take your strangeness in both hands and make it shine.

Irony has also died in the year 2016, which is a mercy, as it had been suffering for years, and at any rate I can’t keep this up any longer. So let me be clear: it’s okay to be a bit of a mess right now. It’s okay to have feelings about the constant, horribly symbolic loss of people you never met and only half believed in anyway. It’s okay to be angry that these people are gone just at a time when it felt like we needed them most, and needed what they represented more. It’s okay to have a sense of savage unfairness, salt rubbed into the wound of vast and dreadful change in the human condition. No amount of smug rationalising can make mourning easier, or death less unfair.

Bowie, Fisher, Ali, Michael, Prince, Cohen - all of them died too young. Everyone dies too young. There are very few individuals of whom it ought never to be said that they died too young. Many of these individuals are still living, and fact to which the observation that there is little justice in the world is both cause and consequence.

At the beginning of the year, when David Bowie returned portentously to his home planet days after dropping a final album, I wrote this:

“This is going to keep happening. The great artists and iconoclasts of the 20th century will keep on suffering the inconveniences of mortality, leaving us to reflect on the legacy they left and what it means for us. Part of a the shock when an icon dies is the reminder that there was a real person under all that makeup, behind the lights and the vice-tight press operation, a real person who had to get up in the morning and go to the bathroom like the rest of us. Our icons always let us down by being human. Too often, they let us down further by being men of a certain generation. We have still not come to terms with the fact that even starmen can sometimes be monstrous.

When a celebrity dies, fans are often castigated for engaging in 'performative grief'. In this case, performative grief is the only kind of grief that's at all appropriate. Today, they are lighting candles in Brixton and painting lightning bolts on their faces in Berlin. The news is scattered with ten thousand hagiographies, drifting like confetti onto an empty stage. And that’s alright. It’s alright to feel that you have lost something irreplaceable.

Because whilst the family mourns the man, the rest of us are mourning an idea. We are mourning our younger selves, individually and as a society. We are mourning a time that is now past, and considering how we will live up to its ideals and rectify its mistakes…..There is still time for heroes, as long as we have the courage to become them. After all, we’ve got to think about what sort of world we’re leaving for Keith Richards.”

Twelve months on, something larger seems to have been lost. Not just the people, but the age that made them. The sixties. The seventies. The early eighties. A time when the world was, in small, defiant ways and against all reason, changing for the better. A specific sort of confrontational celebrity, as iconoclastic as it was iconic, is dying with these people. Who have we got to replace them in public consciousness? Most of those who come close are politicians, AND more and more politicians are failed celebrities themselves. It was once thought that politics is showbusiness for ugly people; now our culture is oozing with precisely the people for ugly politics. 

There is a real and frightening sense of waste washing about what remains of mass culture. It is a grief that goes beyond mourning for any single artist or celebrity, but is revisited with every fresh shock, a wound which keeps being ripped open just at the point of acceptance, with no time to scab over and start to heal. It is more than coincidence that these losses are occurring at the exact historical moment when the culture that created these unique individuals is being destroyed everywhere we look.

Let the people mourn, please. Let them make gifs and badly-photoshopped memes of remembrance and scatter them across the internet like earth on the grave of a kinder culture. Something bigger is passing away, and everyone can sense it - not just Bowie and Cohen and Prince and George Michael and Muhammad Ali and Carrie Fisher, but the particular moment they inhabited, a freer time where weird and queer and mad and poor people could actually make art that moved the world. A time of excess and adventure and experimentation.

The mid-to-late twentieth century was certainly not an easy time for any and every outsider - the sixties, too, were unevenly distributed, and nostalgia is consistently conservative. But there's an innocence to that time that feels over now. Moral austerity, fiscal austerity, rising authoritarianism, the slamming shut of a brief window of social mobility and welfare provision that really did make it easier for a certain kind of artist to make it big, for people like, say, George Michael, to be both 'a soul boy and a dole boy', to live for pleasure in the face of prejudice. Let the people grieve. Something enormous is dying, and that's enormously sad. Something is starting, too, and right now that's scary as hell.

“We never did enough,” one of my baby boomer friends told me last night. “We worked hard, but it was never enough,because we thought we could relax. Our relaxations killed us. We made deals rather than be unreasonable. We lost, because we settled for too little. Now it’s all gone to shit and everything we won is about to be torn down.”

I don’t believe that’s true, not quite. I think the people we’re losing right now did as much as they could, as much as could ever be expected, and they did change the world, but they forgot - as all of us, always forget - that the world doesn’t stay changed, that there are always new battles, new stages, new challenges to be equal to, that the baddies always return for the sequels, and the Imperial Death March starts up again.

A lot of heroes died this year. We can only hope that a lot of heroes were also born. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 05 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.