A Sami family, Lapland, c.1900. They saw their homeland as the centre of the world. Photo: Galerie Bilderwelt
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John Burnside: The tyranny of the world’s “centre”

For generations, people on the periphery have watched their ways of life – often informed by deep wisdom and ancient traditions – being sacrificed for “resources” for those in central nations. 

Recently I took part in a conference that brought together writers, economists, business strategists and politicians to discuss the future of European culture in a changing world. It wasn’t the usual kind of event for me, so I took the prompt for my panel debate – “Where is the middle of the map?” – as a provocation, a fun talking point rather than a serious concern; but in this, it seems, I was mistaken.

Having pointed out that Europe had been “at the centre” for a very long time, the opening speaker seemed troubled by the notion that the centre might have shifted away, first to North America, and now, with the growth of Asian economies, somewhat towards the east. Another speaker said it was possible to decide where “the middle” was by studying the surface of the earth from space, to see where the greatest concentrations of artificial light were to be found. Everyone seemed encouraged by the fact that Europe was still one of the “brightest” – that is, most light-polluted – areas of the planet.

By this time, I was lost. I am not accustomed to thinking of culture in terms of its competitiveness or possible superiority (one panellist felt that European capitalism was more humane than the American version, and asked that “we” should strive to hold the centre for that reason). In fact, I am accustomed to assuming that this argument is moribund – and as the discussion continued I kept thinking of the Sámi atlas that the activist and artist Hans Ragnar Mathisen gave me many years ago. This is a set of maps that re-envisions the world from a Sámi perspective, the centre at one point being the North Pole, with the Sámi homeland illumined by polar ice while other territories, such as the US and central Europe, drop away towards the periphery, into darkness.

Surely by now, with a wealth of post-colonial studies behind us, we could all see that to create a centre is also to create a periphery; and, as power is established, that periphery is inevitably reclassified as “resource” (human labour, minerals, natural gas, dammed rivers, endless agri-industrial monocultures), a harvest to be reaped in order to keep those at the centre well lit and cosy in their superior culture.

We know that, in order to dine on beef and chicken as frequently as it does, the centre destroys vast areas of forest and prairie to grow fodder for its livestock. We know that somewhere else, poor farmers are denied water so that luxury golf resorts can be well irrigated. We know that fish stocks have been exhausted all over the world, that precious rivers have been dammed to provide cheap electricity to major cities. No wonder the centre’s concerns seem so callow; the only philosophy it seems to have espoused is “out of sight, out of mind”.

For generations, people on the periphery have watched as their ways of life – often informed by deep wisdom and ancient traditions – have been sacrificed for these “resources”, or to create spaces for weary centre-dwellers to escape into well-managed pockets of “nature”. These peripheral folk do not speak of “the centre”; they speak, often in an elegiac key, of home. Sitting on that panel in the centre of Europe, I remembered a definition that Kathleen Dean Moore offers in her powerful collection of essays Holdfast. Home, she says, is:

salmon and yellow cedar, the River, the Inlet, and a little town where wooden houses stand on stilts above great schools of fish . . . A place where bears roll boulders on the beach, sucking up crabs and sculpin. Where gardens grow in milk crates stacked above the tide – daffodils and garlic, and rhubarb for pies. A place where women’s voices call to children across the docks, and salt wind carries the laughter of men. A place where people can make a living, but not a fortune. A place where enough is great riches.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

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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.