The Going Viral tour of India is about halfway through. In the past two weeks we've been in Mumbai, Pune, Ahmedabad, Delhi and Chandigarh, doing seven shows, staying in five hotels and countless hours of travel time. It's tiring but I can hardly complain. My job for this month is touring a fantastic country and doing a show I love to audiences who receive it with real warmth and enthusiasm. I could hardly be more privileged.
We're now in Bangalore enjoying a welcome two days off before shows on Saturday at the British Council and Sunday at Rangashankara. Then it's back on the road - Tuesday in Hyderabad, Wednesday in Chennai, then back to Bombay for a couple of days' cricket. By next weekend we'll be in Kolkata for a theatre festival, then Guwahati, then back to Mumbai for another festival.
Bombay. Mumbai. It's so confusing. Everyone in Mumbai calls Mumbai Bombay, unless they work for the government. Everyone from outside of Bombay calls Bombay Mumbai. In Britain in particular we call it Mumbai because we don't want to flout the wishes of its citizens by calling it by its colonial name. But Bombay isn't its colonial name and its citizens find the name change ridiculous. So I'm inclined to call it Bombay.
Doing a show partly set in India has been a real pleasure, and I've been able to put back in some India material that got cut during rehearsals because the UK audience found it bewildering. In Bombay in particular this material has gone down a storm.
The question I'm asked most frequently here is "how have Indian audiences reacted differently to audiences in the UK". Local minutiae aside, the answer is "not at all differently". Differences are created more by performance space than by city - and more by my ability to negotiate that space than by the space itself. The two performances in Mumbai alone were as different to each other as either one was to any given UK performance. At NCPA's Sunken Garden I didn't do a good enough job of negotiating the demands of outdoor performance, which, coupled with a few sound issues, made a genuine relationship with the audience very challenging to establish and sustain. At Prithvi Theatre, a relationship with the audience comes as a given - it's almost the perfect space for the show and one of my favourite theatres anywhere in the world - and so the challenge instead became staying on track and actually getting on with the show from time to time, rather than just playing with the audience. These two shows, in the same city, on consecutive nights, could possibly be my least and most enjoyable performances of the show anywhere ever.
Then we got to Delhi, where the contrasts may not have been quite as extreme, but they were emphasised by the two performances having taken place not just in the same city but in the same venue. It was in the British Council theatre, an end-on space with a raised stage, the kind of space that's radically hostile to the confected round on which Going Viral thrives. Three small banks of audience perched on the stage, with the fourth bank, a 250-seat rake, yawning back into the darkness. The first night I didn't make it work at all, pushing too hard, straining my voice by trying to reach the back row while facing away from them half the time, not really adapting to the new context, to some degree out of irritation at having to do the show in a space so unsuitable. Contrary to popular belief, it's easy enough to be intimate in a big space - but not so much if you're facing the back half the time. On the second night, I played the room I was in rather than the one I prefer to be in, worked with the main seating bank much more, relaxed a bit, and it was an absolute blast. The audience got so involved and so much happened that we added about fifteen minutes to the run time and I've rarely had such a warm response at the end.
And then the same space in different cities or just on different nights can have very different results. In Chandigarh, in a space much more obviously appropriate to the show, the audience was almost totally silent. I'd done two shows the week before in virtually identical British Council spaces in Pune and Ahmedabad and they'd been an absolute blast, yet here it felt dead. I tried to work with the audience's silence rather than begging for laughs, to give a good account of the show's shifts of energy and rhythm, to stay relaxed despite the lack of feedback. The response at the end was incredibly warm. I should remember this more often back home, rather than inwardly cursing the audience for their silence.
The difference between audiences here and audiences in the UK aren't markedly different in part, of course, because the main cultural obstacles to encountering this show have already been overcome. No one comes unless they back their ability to follow a text in English for seventy minutes. This carries with it certain implications about the class background and privileges of the people I'm reaching here. (That's of course to some degree true back home.)
So finally, it's particularly fascinating to do a show that is, to a large degree, concerned with the corrosive effects of white western privilege on the rest of the world, here in a part of the world that has been a notable victim of British expansionist imperialist privilege-building. Early in the show there's a quip about my being - as a straight white western male - "basically a perfect storm of privilege". That often gets a laugh, at home as well as here. On a couple of occasions here it's also had a round of applause. And as I pointed out to the audience in Delhi on Sunday, that's what privilege is. It's an unearned round of applause from the universe for your mere existence. I wasn't quite sure what to do with the fact that this improvisation itself also got a round of applause.
A couple of credits:
I'm hugely grateful to QTP here in India, who've been behind all three of my visits to this incredible country. They are exceptional producers and exceptional people. They're putting together the 18th edition of their festival of young peoples' theatre and would be incredibly grateful for your support: https://www.wishberry.in/campaign/thespo-18-youth-theatre-festival/#/campaign-new
In particular, Varun Bangera of QTP has been on the road every step of the way, making everything happen and making everything work. He is a proper gem and I'd be lost without him, often literally as well as metaphorically
I'll write a separate blogpost about touring with a baby, but I'm eternally grateful to Sarah and Dot for coming to India for six and a half weeks when they both frankly have better things to do. I wouldn't want to be anywhere without them.
And of course I'm very thankful to the British Council for backing the tour and making it possible.
There's some truth in Ed Vaizey's observation that a decent majority of people working in the arts are left wing, but really, there's a surfeit of right-wing art. Andrew Lloyd-Webber does quite well, for example, and I expect Ed Vaizey has heard of him. Tom Stoppard does ok too. The Lion King is the most conservative thing I've ever seen and Billy Elliott is such an incredibly rare example of a West End musical with explicit leftist politics that I can't think of another one.
And his examples of plays whose failure to exist somehow proves his point that theatre is "relentlessly left-wing" are just weird. I don't know of a single anti-Brexit play either (not least because there hasn't been time), although I do know that the NT are planning a fence-sitting verbatim piece that will please either no-one or everyone. I must have been on paternity leave when all the pro-unionisation plays were on this year. And are there dozens of pro-Venezuela plays that I'm somehow missing?
As a theatre-maker whose work actually *is* relentlessly left-wing, I resent the implication that everyone else is at it too. Most of the main stage work I see is politically horrible. I expect Vaizey would like it a great deal.
The first week of the Edinburgh Fringe is probably not the best moment to announce I'm making a new show. But this is, at least, peak time for reading about theatre, so I'll take my chances and let you know something:
I'm making a new show.
The material is already different to what I said it would be before I started work, and it'll be different again by the time it's finished. But here are some sketches of what I currently think it's about.
I'm instinctively sympathetic to independence movements. I'm instinctively hostile to borders and particularly to the creation of new ones. But new independent states inevitably lead to new borders, new checkpoints, new illiberal immigration policies. It's hard to see this contradiction being resolved. So the show as I currently understand it is an attempt to pursue this argument between two incommensurable positions, both of which I hold.
It's a made-up story set in a tottering oligarcho-fascist sort-of Britain, run by an oppressive President who is absolutely definitely not Theresa May, no, nothing like her. From this crumbling country micro-states no bigger than villages are declaring independence left right and centre. Will everyone please stop declaring independence, says the exasperated President, who in no way resembles Theresa May, why would you think that.
It's also a really-happening sequence of events taking place in this theatre, relying heavily on the presence and activation of its audience. Some of you will join me on stage and play a game of jenga to the death. You will collectively play the oppressive President. Some of the words in the show will be different tonight because of things you said or did. If you want you can have some toast.
Many of these ideas may well not make the next draft.
If I had to write the flyer copy right now, I would describe the show as "the exposed gearbox of a political thriller". The image would be me clutching an AK47 and the stuffed toy mouse I had as a child. Had, and - full disclosure - still have. If I had to write the flyer copy right now, I would have to come up with a title.
These crumbs of content and form are an evolution from the starting point of the process, which was an investigation into notions of "security" - the things we do to make ourselves safer, many of which end up making us a good deal less safe. The walls we build. The fears that make us safer as well as those that don't. For the moment these starting points continue to inform what I think the show is - maybe this will remain so; maybe it won't.
The most consistently difficult and frustrating question continually asked as artists is "where do you get your ideas from?" This question fundamentally misunderstands the process of making work as I understand it. I don't have ideas. I map out territory that seems of interest, and I keep exploring it until I find something surprising - a story element, a counter-intuitive fact, a theatrical moment. Enough surprises put together in a sufficiently satisfying order and you have a show. Which makes it sound easy, but I know I'm going to need the full year between now and the show's opening.
First though, a week off, walking in the Lake District. Then I'm going to start a new draft and hope to finish it before my daughter is born in early September. At that point I'm going to disappear from the face of the earth before re-emerging to do a half-hour scratch at the West Yorkshire Playhouse on the 5th of October. By that point I hope the show will have a title. And indeed half an hour's worth of scratchable material. PLEASE COME.
The show will premiere in Edinburgh almost exactly a year from now - whereupon I hope one of you will attempt to distract attention from it by announcing your own show for 2018. And although as of this moment very little of my new show exists and it doesn't have a title, it does have generous support from Arts Council England and a string of brilliant commissioners as long as your arm. So I can't really back out of making it now. Those commissioners are: Harrogate Theatre, HOME Manchester, Norwich Arts Centre, Oxford Playhouse, Unity Theatre Liverpool and the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Producing, as ever, will be the extraordinary Annabel Turpin and ARC Stockton. These are wise and generous organisations that present, produce and support terrific work. They can't all have called this wrong. The only conclusion available is that my new show is going to be a remarkable work that changes the face of theatre as we understand it. So that's a load of my mind.
Fortunately I have a creative team the envy of the western world. Director Alex Swift has two shows in Edinburgh right now - Heads Up by Kieran Hurley and How to Win Against History by Seiriol Davies. Both shows are doing ridiculously well so it's good of Alex to set me up as his hat trick ball. Dramaturg Sarah Punshon spent Friday with me on this project, as a result of which I have any sense at all of what this show is. Hannah Sibai is designing and Katharine Williams is lighting. They're all awesome.
I haven't got anyone on board for sound yet but for that half-hour scratch at West Yorkshire Playhouse as part of Furnace on 5 October, I'm more than a little delighted that joining me on stage will be the incredible Steve Lawson, who will improvise a soundtrack to whatever I'm doing. PLEASE COME.
I've put the full video of The Price of Everything up online. It's embedded below.
I don't know why I didn't do this before. Inertia, I suppose.
It seemed sensible not to upload the full show while it was still available for touring. It's a year since I mothballed it, so it was about time.
But why don't we put these things up while they're still going concerns? Obviously we're worried that once someone's seen the video, they won't come and see it live. And hence won't pay. But I wonder how true that is. People still go to gigs even though they've bought the album.
In a few weeks I'll put up the video of How to Occupy an Oil Rig too. But should I put up Error 404? And Going Viral? If I do, will you still come?
I've just had some good funding news. Tiny Heroes, the new show which I'm developing with the Bike Shed in Exeter and Beaford Arts in north Devon, has got a grant from the Arts Council. There's a person in an office somewhere in Manchester to whom I'm very grateful.
This completes the trio of shows that will be my core activity for the next year or two. Between them they represent two years' work so it's pretty exciting to imagine a time when they're all in repertoire together. Going Viral is now on the road after the Edinburgh run in August. It's in Lincoln on Thursday and will be touring for most of the next year at least. Error 404, the show for young audiences I made at Polka Theatre earlier this year, re-rehearses next month and will tour in shorter bursts over the same period. And we're making the first version of Tiny Heroes in February in Devon, then polishing it up in July before offering it for touring from autumn next year. It will primarily - although not exclusively - go to places that either don't have a theatre, or just don't get much theatre.
The show is a sort of development of the Story Hunt model. On that show we met a series of people, both in curated meetings and by setting up an elaborate tent in the marketplace, in order to gather stories of things that are no longer there. In each town we then created a seventy-minute walking tour of the town in which I told some of these stories in the present tense. In each town it was an entirely new show.
Story Hunt was mostly targeted at towns that are reputed (often by themselves) to be a bit shit. There wasn't necessarily a theatre there, or any significant record of engagement in the arts. We had to keep costs low. So we ended up researching, writing, rehearsing, learning and performing it from beginning to end in as little as a fortnight. Then the show was done - none of the seven Story Hunts lived on in the repertoire. It was exhausting, and it was unsustainable.
Tiny Heroes is a slightly more sensible model. The show is a search for heroism, and for whether there is such a thing. In each place we do it we'll spend a day, or a few days, or a week, looking for heroes. Each performance will feature a mix of new and old material. It'll be a bit like a gig with tonight's set list taped to the mic. And some material from each place will stay in the mix. It'll be a different show every time, but we won't have to create a whole new show every time. It'll be a mini-repertoire all of its own.
I've become fascinated by repertoire lately, as in six months time I'm going to have at least four shows in my head - Going Viral, Error 404, We're Stuck (which I'm working on in the spring as a performer, for Sarah Punshon and China Plate) and that rolling roster of Tiny Heroes. There are also a couple of one-offs and at least one mooted revival. I'll occasionally perform three different shows in the same week. This is a brilliant stupid idea.
I don't know how to do this yet. I'm constantly astonished by Chris Thorpe, who seems to have about five or six different shows in his head at any one time. Alex Kelly must come close. But I don't know how to do it yet. I don't know how to keep them all in my head.
Fortunately, shows don't live in your head. They live in your body. When you've done a show enough times your mouth knows the words better than you do. You can be surprised by your own thoughts the way they surprise you when they first come. You run the lines on the journey to the theatre and they won't come. Not without reference to the space. The words only exist in the room with the audience.
I occasionally worry that I'll walk onto the stage and accidentally start the wrong show. This is my version of that about-to-play-Hamlet-haven't-rehearsed-the-play stress dream, especially since the first word of pretty much all my shows is "hello". But when awake I'm sure this won't ever happen, because I'm only ever in the right space for any one of them at a time.
As I write, at home we're just getting out the projector screen to watch some telly in our new house. It hasn't been up anywhere since the last time I did The Price of Everything, almost exactly a year ago. That performance was itself about four months after the previous one, and yet I instinctively want to start pouring milk. Maybe I should bring that show back into the repertoire too. Or maybe there's enough to be going on with.
I've got a new flatmate. The party animal, August, has moved out taking all his friends with him. The newcomer, September, has brought nothing so far but a rhinovirus and a to-do list. Life is all adjustments from now on.
In a strange way, though, the last couple of months have been an unusually focused affair. Since the end of May I've been almost entirely focused on Going Viral. Party animal August may be, but he's also a monomaniac.
The autumn is much more scattered. Here's what it holds:
- touring Going Viral. I had one day off between the last show in Edinburgh and the first show on tour (in Glasgow), but basically it's straight on with it, with eleven dates in the autumn and plenty more coming up in the spring.
- re-rehearsal and touring of Error 404, the show for children aged 8+ which I made for Polka Theatre earlier this year. I can't wait to get the robot back out of its box. It's a short tour in October and November, but there'll be plenty more of this in the spring too.
- writing the words for The Deal Versus the People, a co-production between Common Wealth and the West Yorkshire Playhouse. This is happening terrifyingly soon: all of the writing is being done out of what happens in rehearsals, which start in just over a week.
- R&D on a new project in the Story Hunt family: Tiny Heroes. This is a co-commission from Beaford Arts in north Devon and the Bike Shed Theatre in Exeter. We've made seven Story Hunts now and every time we build it from scratch in little over a fortnight. Given the target audience - places with low engagement in the arts, places which may not even have a theatre - we have to keep costs low, so the rapid turnaround makes sense. But I'm exhausted and can't make any more shows in a fortnight for a while. Tiny Heroes is a variation on the model, where we will still have considerable local engagement - but the show will feature a rotating roster of material, topped up in each new place, rather than being made entirely afresh. It'll also be a two-hander. I've spent too much time on stage by myself lately. Speaking of which:
- the final stages of R&D on Sarah Punshon's We're Stuck, on which I'm working as a performer along with Seiriol Davies and a fabulous team. This is being finished at Shoreditch Town Hall in spring 2016 before a short tour. And it's produced by the excellent China Plate.
- the very early stages of a new interventionist choral project with team Wonderstruck (Sarah Punshon and Boff Whalley). I'm not sure whether I'm allowed to officially announce this yet, so I'd better keep schtum. Suffice it to say that something will enter the world in summer 2016.
- the first draft deadline on a seed commission for one of my favourite theatres in the world. If they like it, it'll go to full commission by Christmas. Now that would be a nice present.
It's a day off Going Viral here in Edinburgh and so I've finally read some of the reviews. I don't tend to read them early in a run while the show is still settling in. There are quite enough voices in my head already. Even apparently positive reviews can unsettle a show early on, as you try to do the thing they liked, rather than the more important thing that it enables.
This self-protection was doubly important in this case because most of the press were in on the first preview. Eat your heart out, Cumberbatch. The show was still being made and I was some days from really feeling like I knew how to get the best out of it, but there they all were. Why?
Two days before the official start of the run, Northern Stage do a preview day to which the press are invited and a whole bunch of other people. So slightly perversely, I had press night, then a day off, then two previews, and then what would normally be the "official" opening night. By which time I'd already had about six reviews published.
This "press preview" day is either utter folly or strategic genius, depending on whether the show is well-received. So in this case I have to thank Lorne and Katie at Northern Stage for their persuading me that it was the latter.
(I did a couple of previews in Newcastle and was surprised by how many reviews came out even then. Not necessarily in a bad way, although of course the show wasn't ready. But as Meg Vaughan has said on twitter, if I buy something I reserve the right to say what I think about it on the internet. That's fair enough - when you acknowledge, as for example Andrew Latimer did in this brilliant piece about one of those Newcastle previews, that what you've written about is a prototype, not the finished thing. I'm not going to get into the total failure of e.g. The Times to understand how radically a show can change over even a short preview period. Not that it necessarily will, but it can.)
The press for my first preview in Edinburgh were invited, so they were entitled to treat it as though it was the finished product. Of course, it wasn't. It continued to evolve for several days as I got further under the skin of it. It continues to do so and in the coming week will be reworked some more. It's never finished, although there usually comes a point where you can't figure out any more about how to improve it. "Press night" is a totally arbitrary date by which you hope to have fixed most of the major problems.
Lorne and Katie are strategic geniuses, because the Edinburgh reviews for Going Viral are really good. Not just in the sense of being broadly positive about the show, although that is largely true. They're good in the sense of being really good pieces of critical writing. We're fortunate to live in a time where the standard of critical writing is unusually high.
There's often a disparity, particularly on the Edinburgh Fringe, between reviews in broadsheet newspapers and reviews on websites and magazines. It's easy to observe a little bit of grade inflation amongst the websites and magazines. Put crudely, you'll get a higher average star rating from Broadway Baby than from the Guardian. But this year all of the writing seems to be good, clear-sighted and astute.
With Going Viral, if there's grade inflation it's the other way round. There are four-star reviews in the Guardian, Scotsman, Independent, Herald, Telegraph and Stage. The show has also won a Fringe First. Meanwhile in What's On Stage, Exeunt, the List, Time Out etc, it's consistently three stars. I am not about to attempt to explain this phenomenon, but it is unusual, no? Has anyone else observed this? Is this a sign of shifting sands or is it just the quirks and tastes of the particular individuals who came to see my show? It's probably the latter.
There's an old cliche on the Fringe: "it reads like a four". But reading them blind, I think you'd be hard pushed to sort my reviews by star rating, so you could equally say that some of the fours read like a three. In any case, critically I can hardly complain. Even the three-star ones are very warm about the show. It's almost as though star-ratings are largely meaningless and arbitrary.
I can't really disagree with many of the reviews. Of course there are loads of little things that I find inexplicably irritating. But that's as often because they're right as otherwise.
The main reservation people express about the show is that there are too many ideas in there for it to cohere satisfactorily. That seems fair enough, although I'd argue that there is a particular set of lenses viewed through which the show does cohere. But even though I'm long since through previews, there's still more work I want to do and part of that involves clarifying those final moments a little further.
In the final analysis, though. I'd rather stand accused of having too many ideas than too few.
I originally wrote this as a post on Facebook, but I don't see why only my friends should see it. It marks a moment.
Going out to a cafe to write is expensive. The house is full of boxes and emptied cupboards, though, and it's more peaceful in a Camberwell cafe than surrounded by the detritus of more than four years in London.
Tonight is my last night sleeping in London as a resident of this city. Tomorrow I'm driving the first van load to Leeds, with the second following on Thursday. We don't have a house yet, but my next few weeks are: Newcastle, Mannheim, Stockton, Newcastle (x3), London, Leeds, Edinburgh (x4). So it seemed that paying the extraordinary, extortionate London rent for all of that period was a bit silly. To be honest, it's seemed that way for a while.
We're trying to buy a house. If successful, our mortgage repayments will be almost exactly a third of our current rent. Why anyone continues to live in London bewilders me. *How* anyone continues to live in London bewilders me.
I love London. It's an amazing city full of people I love dearly (although some of them I haven't seen since I moved here). The history and the architecture and the art galleries and the parks are marvellous (although I don't go as often as I used to when I was a regular visitor). And in London it's possible to watch small-scale leftfield experimental theatre every night of the week.
So in Leeds I look forward to once again broadening my cultural horizons and watching other theatre, concerts, opera, dance and all the other things I used to do. I look forward to being half an hour from the countryside rather than being half an hour from my neighbours. I look forward to being a third of the time and a sixth of the price from my family and dear friends in the north east. And most importantly, I look forward to reconnecting with the cultural life and community of Leeds, the city where I've already spent more than half of my adult life.
I look forward to writing in cheaper cafes.
I look forward to visiting London.
I've packed half the flat today, but the real sense of achievement comes from having managed to do a good morning's writing. There aren't many feelings of satisfaction like it. I look forward to having a room to do that in.
I'm in Liverpool working with a group of teenagers to make a show about the week's news. The great thing about doing a project inspired by the newspapers in Liverpool is that, unlike everywhere else I've done this, we don't have to buy the Sun.
The kids we're working with are exactly the age I was when Blair was elected. We asked them what they thought about Blair. "Iraq", they said.
They were born a year or two into Blair's first term, just as I was born a year or two into Thatcher's. We asked them what they thought about Thatcher.
"I don't know, but I know I don't like her."
"She's the baddie."
In seventeen years' time, I imagine them talking to 2032's seventeen-year-olds in their turn and I wonder who they'll be talking about. Who will bestride the political world to come. To the people born this week, Thatcher will be as distant as Wilson is from me; Blair as remote as Thatcher is from today's teenagers.
We asked them what they thought about Ed Miliband. "He's really sweet", they said.
(One of them had drawn a picture, as part of the #milifandom trend, depicting Ed as Ser Loras, the knight of flowers from Game of Thrones.)
Will the seventeen-year-olds born tomorrow still think Ed Miliband is really sweet? It seems more likely that they'll have never heard of him.
Here's another article on the Green policy on copyright. It's the most strongly-worded one I've yet seen. It raises the now-familiar cry of how fourteen years' copyright does nothing to protect creative's livelihoods and would thus disincentivise or even actively prohibit careers in the arts. It also raises the issue of peer-to-peer sharing, which it suggests the Greens think should be free where profit is not a motive.
If this article were accurate it would be very alarming. Obviously, commitments of the sort decried here would cause massive problems for the creative industries. So first of all (and before I deal with the fact that these aren't commitments at all), some thoughts on the issues raised.
If everything else were left as it is, just fourteen years of copyright protection would seriously jeopardise the ability of many writers and artists to make a living. That point roughly fifteen years in, where early-career starts to tip over into mid-career, is the point where many of us are just starting to get a foothold. I'm at round about that point myself, and for the first time can see my income sustaining more than just a few months into the future. For the many who (unlike me) rely on copyright for part of their income, this also marks a point where there's enough of a body of work behind them to be able to live off it a little more comfortably, and thus to breathe, slow down, and think more deeply about the work. This has obvious benefits for the quality, depth, engagement of the work produced.
Copyright also protects individual writers and artists from exploitation. They're usually individuals with little by way of legal support networks. An unauthorised major film adaptation, say, that makes a mockery of the work, could seriously damage both its future prospects and the creator's artistic credibility.
Copyright protection benefits artists, and that benefits audiences. If individual artists choose to release elements of their work on creative commons -type licenses, then I applaud them for doing so. It's possible for them to do so because they have that right.
Peer-to-peer sharing is a more nuanced issue.
It's worth noting, first of all, that this same question was raised, in exactly the same form, about public libraries when they were first proposed. Likewise we heard that televised sport would stop people from going to games and that videos would kill cinema. Philip Pullman is a major opponent of (what he imagines are) Green policies on these issues. He's also a brilliant advocate of libraries. I invite him to consider the contradiction in these positions. Availability is not the problem.
But, by contrast with the present copyright laws, which blunder along fine, this is a more urgent issue. The current legislation is not even close to dealing with it adequately. To summarise crudely, at present P2P sharing is almost always illegal, although almost never prosecuted.
The sharing of, for example, literature via online platforms could of course seriously damage an author's income. There is certainly a case for vastly reducing the prices of online versions of literary works - it's absurd that they cost virtually the same as the printed copy, with none of the associated production or distribution costs. And there'd have to be a limit to p2p sharing. When you buy a copy of Microsoft Office for Mac, you're allowed to install it on five different computers. When you buy a book, you're allowed to lend it to your mates. The complexities of what this means in the digital world are far from having been worked out, but the current position of a blanket ban on sharing is clearly daft, bearing as it does no relation to how we actually behave in the real world. Not for the first time, an advance in technology that ought to lead to greater freedom in fact leads to greater corporate control and profit.
Here are some stupid ideas that might get us closer to how sharing really happens. Maybe someone should write some software that allows unlimited sharing, but only one person can have it at a time. It could come with an inbuilt reversion to its original purchaser - and you'd never again have to wonder to whom you lent that book you loved and lost.
Total legalisation of all sharing, though, could mean that an author never gets a penny from the work they've written. They wouldn't be able to earn a living from their work. This is clearly a bad thing.
Fortunately, this article and most of the others written on the subject misunderstand the Green position totally. For a start, the fourteen years thing isn't a manifesto commitment. It's a policy proposal (if that). They've made it very clear that before making any actual commitments on the issue, they'd want to consult widely. That's also true of the P2P sharing business. So to suggest that no-one should vote Green on the basis of these commitments is daft, because they aren't commitments.
Part of the problem arises from a lack of understanding of how the Green party formulates its manifestos. Policy is proposed by conference, then scrutinised and developed for election manifestos through a whole process of consultation and costing. So this document - that's got everyone so excited - is the beginning of the policy-making process, not the end.
This particular "policy", then, was proposed at conference in 2011 as part of a whole raft of stuff about intellectual property. It's mostly aimed at preventing huge corporations (from big pharma to Disney) from sitting on everything from Mickey Mouse to cancer treatments, long after the creator's death. It's not aimed at individual writers and artists, which is part of why the language is so soft.
More to the point, for individual writers and artists, the fourteen years figure has been clarified by both Caroline Lucas and Tom Chance (their former spokesman on the issue - his piece is especially worth reading). The proposal refers to fourteen years *after death*, not after publication. (I can dig out links for these clarifications if you like.) That's certainly far from clear in the document, but that lack of clarity is one of many reasons this isn't anywhere near making it into a manifesto.
There may be plenty of good reasons not to vote Green, but this isn't one of them.
I certainly think that Green arts policy needs a lot of work. Although it's shot through with good will, it's often hopelessly unclear - hence this totally avoidable palaver. But their policies - the ones that are actually in the manifesto, I mean - are still a good deal better than everyone else's. The idea that they're anti-creative industries is just daft. For example, they're the only party pledged to *increasing* arts funding - by £500m a year - in a fully costed manifesto.
The intentions behind their policy position as a whole also deserve further attention. As I see it, the whole drift is towards weakening the link between art and commerce. The arts, as far as possible, should be decoupled from the market. This is music to my ears. The drift is towards making art something that's easily accessible and publicly available.
This general intention is surely a good thing. If I could make my work free of commercial imperatives, if it could be made widely available to audiences, if my work did not need to be so driven by the demands of the market, then that would, for me, be wonderful. Not all, but a good many of my peers and colleagues agree, often vocally. This sort of radical decoupling of art and market goes a long way beyond the current policy discussion; I've barely hinted at what might be possible. But it is an indication of what might lay over the horizon if this is the direction of travel.
It's very, very difficult to formulate coherent policy that achieves this while not damaging the ability of individual authors to both make a living and have creative ownership of their ideas. The Greens are nowhere near managing it and this messy, controversial, confusingly-worded, easily misinterpreted not-an-actual-policy is a vivid demonstration of that failure. Unlike the rest of the parties, they are at least trying. For everyone else, arts policy is nothing beyond the contribution we make to GDP.
When the Greens do manage to square this circle, maybe then a policy will make it into the manifesto. Let's have this conversation again then.
I hope the evolving Green policies on IP are only a small part of their approach to making the arts less market-led. Much more importantly, I hope it doesn't stop at the arts. Take pharmaceutical research. At the moment, pharmaceutical companies develop products because they can expect to make money from production, or at least from the intellectual property. This has a major distorting effect on what drugs get developed. Rather than being driven by need, it is driven by profitability.
This is one reason we're nowhere close to developing a cure for malaria. It affects predominantly poor countries, where potential profits are low. Meanwhile, there are dozens of new diet pills in development for middle class white people. (To be strictly fair to big pharma, there are some other very salient reasons why malaria is an almost intractably complex problem.)
This problem could kill us all. At some point in the next ten or fifteen years, maybe a little more, we're going to arrive in a world where some big nasty bugs are totally resistant to the strongest antibiotics we've got. Those hospital superbugs are going to get out into the world and start eating everyone's flesh. If this sounds like a horror movie scenario, it should. But this is really happening. And at present there are *no* attempts to develop new antibiotics. Bearing in mind that it often takes upwards of fifteen years to develop a new drug, we are losing this race very badly. We may, in your lifetime, be back in a world where people die because they scratched themselves on a rose, or because they grazed their knee in the park. Routine operations will once again become incredibly hazardous. We may presently be living in a seventy-year blip period, a peak of life expectancy and health, rather than the usually-imagined gradual upward curve.
And don't get me started on oil companies.
But the main thing that puzzles me about this whole hoo-hah, even if none of the above were the case, is the idea that anyone could compare Labour and Green policies on - just to pick a few - austerity, the NHS, health, the environment and immigration; then having done so, could decide that *copyright* is what really matters to them. Anyone who really cares that deeply about intellectual property above all else should just vote Tory. Their friends in big business ensure that they have extremely strong policies on the matter.
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will