Beheading the Archbishop of Banterbury with the righteous sword of shouty, poetic activism

Saturday, 28 November 2015

The Bantee Returns

It's been a while since I've updated this blog. I intended to write a summary of my Edinburgh experiences, but in the event when I returned from Edinburgh I had other things on my mind pretty much immediately - some good (preparing for the Public Address tour) and some not so good but frankly necessary (acknowledging and dealing with some past trauma, which I now see has been one of the main themes of my new writing this year). So reviewing the experience kind of had to take a back seat. If you want a quick capsule review? Like everyone who takes a show to the Fringe the first time, I thought I was ready, and it became obvious very quickly that I wasn't. The experience was gruelling physically, mentally and emotionally and when I came back from Edinburgh if there was one thing I was convinced of it was that I would never do this fucking show again.

So why, then, did I decide to reprise the show one last time, in Brixton, this November?

Picture taken from the above review by Kate Corry
Partly because Dave Pickering asked me to. Dave had always been a big supporter of Howl of the Bantee, especially given that it tied in with many of the themes of his own show, What about the Men? Mansplaining Masculinity. Dave in  particular felt that the small audiences Howl... had been getting - due to a combination of an out-of-the-way venue, bad flyer design on my part, incompetent flyering (again on my part), and me being a comparative unknown in the Fringe spoken word landscape - were an unfair reflection on the quality of the show, and so he contacted me shortly after the Fringe with a proposal that we should do our shows as a double-header at Dogstar Brixton. During the Fringe run itself I had in fact turned down a similar proposal to reprise the show from York-based punk poet Henry Raby, but what attracted me to Dave's offer was that the suggested date, in November, was months away from the Fringe. By the midway point of my August run I was thoroughly fed up with the show and frankly impatient to see the back of it: I felt that maybe by November, particularly with having spent over a month working on and touring a very different piece, I might be able to muster some enthusiasm for Howl... again. In the event I was right, but not for any reason I could have anticipated.

The nineteenth of November was picked purely because it was the next available date Dogstar had open, but in terms of timing it worked for both our shows: being International Men's Day it was a perfect fit for Dave, and being a day before the Trans Day of Remembrance it was also a good fit for a show which, especially as it had evolved during the Fringe, dealt particularly with the idea of banter having a bodycount through the lens of the way transphobic jokes and attitudes legitimise the murder of trans people. I was keen to flag this up in the show: indeed, one of the biggest changes I made to my script for the Brixton performance was the inclusion of a poem I had written for a TDOR event in Teesside, because I wanted to contrast my own trangsty fears from poems of five years ago like The Bathroom Thing with the more direct suffering of less privileged trans women, particularly trans women of colour, throughout the world. But this wasn't the biggest thing that would affect the performance.

Half an hour before the doors opened for the night, the news broke, via Twitter, about trans woman Vicky Thompson's death in a men's prison in the UK. I couldn't not include this in the performance. Here was a trans woman dead, in the UK, on the eve of TDOR, thanks to the Ministry of Justice's draconian insistence on prisoners needing a Gender Recognition Certificate before housing them in the correct part of the prison estate. The same policy which saw Tara Hudson sexually harassed by male inmates before she was moved to a women's prison after a massive activist campaign had now resulted in a woman's death. I was angry, I was upset, I was heartbroken. My Edinburgh run had coincided with a period during which we seemed to hear news of another trans woman being murdered every day, and now it was happening again. And to be honest, I've thought about this and, while I know it's most likely Thompson's death was suicide, it's a suicide in which the MoJ, and particularly the Prisons Minister, Andrew Selous, are culpable, and while that may not technically count as murder in a court of law it seems that way to me.

So I amended the show yet again. I kept the TDOR poem but skipped large parts of it, at some points reciting only the names, to leave room to climax with Letter to a Minnesota Prison, followed by an angry speech in which I implored the audience to sign the petition demanding Selous' resignation and a downbeat ending with The secrets, almost silent, that we sang. And then I got off stage, hugged some friends and got drunk with them because I bloody well needed to.

I'm resisting the idea of comparing this gig to my Edinburgh run because it seems kind of hollow, given the circumstances, to do so. In a strange way I do feel vindicated, because on every objective measure - bucket take, audience numbers - the London reprise of Howl... did much better than its Edinburgh iteration. But what's more important, I think, is that having a larger audience meant I was able to get the message across to more people. The number of people who signed and shared the petition is something I'm particularly proud to have helped with, and I'm extremely thankful to Holly Brockwell for republishing my TDOR poem on Gadgette to help with that.

Ultimately, doing Howl... was about making people aware that banter has a bodycount and getting them to do something about it. In Edinburgh, it didn't reach enough people to do that effectively. In London, maybe, it did. I'm happy with that.

Will I reprise the show again? Maybe. One of the things that has came out of both the London and Edinburgh performances of the show is that while Newcastle audiences have seen me do these poems time and again and have, therefore, had as good an education as I can give them about trans issues, other audiences haven't, and while I may think there's a 100% overlap between the Venn circles of Awesome Queer and Trans People and Spoken Word Audiences because it's true in my case, that very much isn't true in general. Sadly, as much as I wish it wasn't, this is news to a lot of the audiences I perform to. There's a need for it. And while I know it can't be the only thing I do - not least because the activist burnout of spending your nights decrying transphobia in rooms full of cis people and waking up to find yet another example of trans people being shat on the minute you check Twitter is brutal - I think it may be one of the things I have to do. And if I have to do it, then I guess I have to do it.

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