It was strange on Friday, heading off from lunch with Misha Glenny, writer of McMafia, and landing in Moscow the same evening. Misha and I spent most of our time reminiscing about his father, the renowned translator and Russian expert Michael Glenny. He and I travelled right across Russia together in 1986 accompanied by the then science editor of Pravda Vladimir Gubarev, the first journalist to set foot in Chernobyl. So great was Gubarev’s horror at what he had uncovered that he exiled himself to his dacha for months and wrote his first play, Sarcophagus, set in Hospital No 1, where all the patients, scientists, firemen, engineers and building contractors reveal to each other the massive corruption and moral culpability that led to the devastating event and their own inevitable deaths.
It was early glasnost days and all could be said, nothing was censored. The play caused shock waves right across the Soviet system and I’d been asked to direct it by the Royal Shakespeare Company. I stood in the office of the literary department in Stratford open-mouthed as Michael Glenny’s vivid translation came rolling off the fax machine, revealing the unbearable mix of human stupidity and venal desire that placed the world in such danger.
This led to our train journeys, criss-crossing the snowy landscape, to research the piece, as Michael and Vladimir gave me a crash course in Russian history while smuggling vodka into railway carriages to cope with that short-lived and doomed alcohol ban that was one initiative of perestroika. I returned to direct the play, which I’m proud to say was nominated for an Olivier award. But one thing I think we’ve all learned, and as Misha illustrated over lunch, is that our misunderstanding of Russia, in some ways, is just as great now
as it was at the time of Chernobyl.
I was in Russia by invitation of the British Council, giving speeches to artists and cultural leaders about the power of culture to help us build the necessary shared understandings and beliefs. Earnest conversations but also jokes, enthusiasm, great food and no shortage of vodka reinforces that people are very different from political states.
I hate cold weather, but I went almost straight from Russia to Ottawa. Minus ten degrees. Then Banff – minus 15! The trip was partly driven by conversations with Canadian artists about climate change. The global Earth Summit happens in 2020: governments are gathering to review environmental policy and I’d been approached to curate an international festival bringing together many of the extraordinary artists and scientists working in the field. We’d met many of them during our investigation last year of the Nordic regions for Southbank Centre’s Nordic Matters festival. Canada has equally powerful thinkers: these conversations are no longer of “fringe” interest. As part of my research, in August I’ll travel to the Arctic region to meet up with artists there. More cold! Brrr!
Coaching by coach
Yesterday, I was in my hometown of Liverpool for a meeting about a new British charity that Richard Collier-Keywood and I have co-founded called Drivers for Change. Me, arts; him, business. It’s directly inspired by an Indian charity, Jagriti Yatra, that takes 400 18- to 26-year-olds on a train journey around their own country looking at social enterprise projects and giving them the knowledge and skills to return to their own communities and make change happen.
I went for several years, supporting these enthusiastic millennials. But although I loved seeing what was being done in Bangalore or Thilonia, I was struck by the knowledge that back home in Sunderland, Port Talbot or Weston-super-Mare there are brilliant examples of change to learn from, and huge problems that need innovative approaches and courage to tackle. This June, we’re inviting 100 young recruits (80 British and 20 from overseas) from all backgrounds to travel through the UK, stopping in nine towns and cities to learn from and inspire others. It launches in Liverpool on 22 June during the International Business Festival, and although it’s buses and not a romantic locomotive, we have high hopes that it will produce a cohort whose actions and energy will make a real difference.
Watching the love tug
We live beside the canal in Shoreditch, east London, and have noticed a major escalation in epic silliness. At least once a week through December and January, groups of people immersed in hot water in a large plastic blow-up bath – known as the “Love Tug” – have floated past, drinking champagne. As I write, with the faux chimney of the tug steaming away and bursts of immodest laughter tinkling across the water, one group has just drifted under our windows. Wearing nautical hats and little else, many look like stag or hen dos. What a barmy start to married life.
Goodbye Southbank, hello world
Women of the World Festival (WOW) is in Kathmandu this weekend for its second year there – the youngest, poorest democracy with some of the most powerful women and girl campaigners you could ever meet. I have just announced that after 12 years, I’ll be leaving the Southbank Centre to build WOW into a wider global movement. Over eight years we’ve developed these festivals, which speak with candour about every aspect of women’s lives in 30 places, over five continents. It’s proved a hugely compelling project for me to devote more time to.
This month’s celebrations of women’s achievements in getting voting rights was gratifying but WOW aims to celebrate girls and women all year round. Celebration creates optimism, and optimism gives us the stamina to face up to the tough stuff and keep going. You have to build fun into life wherever possible… For me, it’s essential.
WOW – Women of the World festival will be held at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, from 7-11 March
This article appears in the 15 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist