Seven Questions on Ire & Salt – the debut show!

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This interview was originally published on www.shiftword.com 

Jenny Lindsay’s Ire & Salt is SHIFT’s Wednesday show.Buy tickets now!

1/ What is your show about?

Long version! It’s part-fiction, part-memoir, and it’s about power. Political and personal power and a battle for both.

The plot devices I use for exploring this are, firstly – and perhaps most obviously –  the recent Scottish referendum campaign, in particular the conflict between those who campaigned for a Yes vote as a means to an end, and those who campaigned for a Yes as an end in itself. How you chose to involve yourself in that campaign, and how you view its legacy says a great deal about how empowered you really were by the whole thing and how you feel political power should be exerted more generally. And that’s the narrative now, isn’t it? That we’re all so much more empowered now… I question that, even while feeling it in a sense.

In my own experience, there was a real conflict between working to build a cultural movement, and working to build a political campaign – and they are different, both in means and ends; in structure, solidity and sustainability. It was a confusing time, a tumultuous one, and it took many months before I gained enough perspective on what had happened to start writing about it. Saying that, I wrote the first piece included in Ire & Salt back in October 2013, using the second plot device in the show – Julia.

Julia, from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is an absolutely fascinating character, and I had written my undergraduate dissertation (in 2008) on socialist thought in imaginative literature (clearly because I do not value employment). Julia’s role in that story, which is very under-valued by many Orwell scholars, started to come back into my head as I started to wonder how best to campaign, particularly as an artist, which requires you (in my humble) to be pretty much mega critical and questioning of everyone who wants to use your work to further any agenda, even if it’s one you agree with.

Julia’s clarity of purpose in how to live in a world that she too thought ridiculous – as much as Winston Smith –  and her dismissal of organised, structured opposition and charismatic leaders was a playful but interesting way to talk about power and activism more generally.

Her character is integral to the story I tell in Ire & Salt, and while she might be a work of fiction, she tells a truth.

The third part of the story that weaves its way throughout the show is about mental health and empathy. This was probably the most difficult part of the show to write as it is the most ridiculously personal poetry I have ever written – I usually advise against that!

‘Burn-out’ is a common tale in activism of all kinds. I was far from the only one to experience this, which suggests an integral problem with the way that we do activism – certainly the way that elements of the Yes campaign(s) did, what with there being this big, flashing 18th September end-date and the ensuing panic as 2014 went on. But… we don’t need to be run into the ground: we don’t. Where we are, it is usually about power. It is about leadership. An extremely wise friend of mine said that the basic rule of activism is to look after yourself; look after your comrades, and only then start campaigning. He was right.

Short version: it’s a story about love, power, activism and keeping the heid in a world that stitches alienation intae yer skin from the age yer old enough to hold a fork…

2/ How long have you been interested in the themes of your show, and what kickstarted your passion?

The Orwell interest started a fair while ago. I skived off school when I was 14, waited for my Mum to go to work (sorry Mum), let myself back into the house, and read Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four (except The Book excerpt – far too boring for my 14 year old mind) in one sitting, and was hooked on Orwell ever since. I wrote my Review of Personal Reading aged 16 on ‘the anti-hero’ in 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, steadily read through all of his other works, became a mature student in 2004 – 2008, and thrillingly had the best tutor I have ever had (Prof Stephen Ingle) come out of semi-retirement to be my dissertation mentor as I explored how fiction can be used to influence political thought and culture more generally. Despite my earlier joke, I had never gone to university to get a job. I went to hopefully become a better poet. By studying politics and religion. (I never claimed to make things easy on myself….)

On a personal level, giving illegitimate power a good kick in the shins has been my general mission since I realised that the disempowerment I was feeling wasn’t entirely my own fault, and I’ve always been keen to use spoken word to do that, in whatever small way I can. I’ve always been pretty confused about why we live the way we do – it’s inherently pretty stupid, and makes all of us really quite unhappy – and I’m curious about how people address that, particularly how it makes us treat ourselves and each other. I guess that’s why I was always more drawn to Julia than to Winston. I never found her as one-dimensional a character as she first appears, and oh-so much more human than anyone else in that novel.

3/ How long have you been involved in doing spoken word, and what is different about the way you perform?

About 13 years, but in all honesty, the majority of that time has been spent as a promoter and it’s only in the last year or more that I decided to chuck in any semblance of security I had and become a full-time writer, performer and promoter of spoken word.

What’s different to how I perform? Hrm. Well. I guess that a long self-training in compering has done me well for creating a relaxed and intimate atmosphere for any lengthy performances I do. I hope. I think. Sometimes, in theatre-settings, I just want all the lights up, though –  you know? My mother always told me to look folks in the eye when I was talking to em… And the way I write is often a parody of conversation.

4/ SHIFT say they are going to challenge audiences this summer: how will you challenge them?

I’m not entirely sure how to answer that, in all honesty. The themes are challenging. The piece, Today, which is about mental health, has made more than a few people bawl their eyes out (sorry). Given it’s part-memoir, some folks might disagree with my interpretation of the successes and failings of the Yes campaign. Given it is part-fiction, some folks might see my re-imagining of Julia as total sacrilege! But as a work that is part-fiction, part-memoir, with all of the artistic licence that entails – I just hope that folks can embrace a slightly left-field perspective on something that I was very much involved in.

Julia plans to challenge the audience to a gin tasting session where she asks the audience if they can differentiate between Gordons and Victory Gin…

5/ What three pieces of culture should people be up on before coming to see your show, if they want a taste of your influences and aesthetic?

Acht, none really. I’ve been told by folks who have seen the scratch version that they really want to re-read 1984, so that makes me very happy. I guess if folks are slightly aware of Orwell’s 1984 and the dominant themes that we associate with that novel, and are aware that Scotland had an independence referendum, that it wasn’t dominated by the SNP and that, despite current events the majority of the campaign was pretty bereft of saltires, that might help. But otherwise, nae footnotes necessary.

6/ What are you looking forward to about being at Summerhall this August?

In my head, there is sunshine in the beer garden… I’d like that to feature at least once or twice. Also, the camaraderie that springs up between performers in the same venue. And there’s a heckuva lot of ace spoken worders at Summerhall this year!

7/ Where can we find more of your work before the show, if we’re curious?

http://www.msjlindsay.wordpress.com for the odd blog about politics and mental health (though it sorely needs updating!); www.rallyandbroad.com for the shows I run with Rachel McCrum; and both have links to my merch. I’ve also a youtube channel with bits n bobs on there, but as someone who writes for performance yer really better coming to see it live…

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“Get Over Yourself”

.The inspiration for this morning’s blog comes from something that popped up in my Twitter news-feed a couple of hours ago. A friend had tweeted about Jim Murphy’s ill-advised jibe about how he hadn’t wanted to mention the moustachioed man in the audience of the leader’s debate because he had thought the man might be mentally unwell. This post isn’t about Murphy or his ability to spot sufferers of ill mental health just by looking at them, but is about one of the responses my friend got when he posted that, as someone who experiences the stigma of ill mental health, that he found Murphy’s comments unhelpful.

“Get over yourself. I suffered from and beat depression and I see zero malice here.”

This is a stock phrase often used against folks with ill mental health. Other versions include:

– “Well, I feel like that sometimes too, but I’m strong enough not to let it affect me.”

– “You should just exercise more/ get out more/ get up earlier/ stop being so wobbly. Honestly, you’re not helping yourself.”

– “I don’t let my depression or my illness define me. People need to be stronger/ get over themselves.”

– Basically anything by Katie Hopkins on the subject.

Why is this an unhelpful response? You might say, ‘Mon now, Jen – the guy also suffered from depression – don’t dismiss his experience.’ You’d be quite right to say that dismissing of others experience is at the heart of why this person’s response to my friend is unhelpful. Just as women are more than capable of being sexist against other women, and wealthy people who grew up in poverty are more than capable of lambasting those who don’t manage to ‘work their way out of it’, so people who have experienced ill mental health are just as capable of being utterly dismissive of those with ill mental health.

All of the stock phrases above view depression as a personality problem, as something that the sufferer needs to get over by ‘sorting themselves out’. A lot of people suffering from it, and I include myself in this, often feel like it is something that means that, fundamentally, yer a flawed human. That it’s yer own fault. If only I didn’t read so many books by beautiful, bearded, old, dead socialists. If only I weren’t so interested in politics. If only I could be like my friends and be all pragmatic in the face of powerful external forces. Then I wouldn’t be so depressed.  I’ve had all of these thoughts. I’ve frequently told myself to get tae fuck because these thoughts were making me ill.

I got it arse about tit though. That I have an interest in politics, socialist thought, literature, the arts – they are personal preferences and things that are intrinsic to the characteristics that make up me. Depression isn’t. My depression is something that happens to me. At me. Sometimes from absolutely friggin nowhere. And it can be a shocker. As time has gone on, the shock has diminished and I have learned ways to confront it. That it is a part of how I experience life is different to saying it is a part of my personality though.

This is a tricky one, of course. Because depression feels deeply personal and in all honesty nobody is entirely 100% sure about the causes nor the solutions. What we do know for certain is that rates of ill mental health are rising. There are reasons for that – structural, systemic, political, social… This isn’t the place to hash all of that out, but in terms of setting the terms of that discussion,  let me see if I can explain it a wee bit better…

I wrote in a poem, The Visit, written in 2007 “He might feel yours only, but depression’s a sailor/ you are but one of many ports,” and just as errant lovers may treat their various lovers in slightly different ways, depression is a possessive bugger too. The temptation, once ye know him well is to assume that your own experience of him gives you an insight into the way he is with others. And, to a certain extent it does. But misery is often so huge it has no need for company, and it is also tempting to assume that yer own experience trumps others.

“Depression” is a catch-all term for a deeply personal disease of the thoughts. It can be diagnosed, has shared characteristics across the board, but is also deeply personal. That’s why it is so hard to treat. It’s different for everyone and buggers us up in different ways and with different triggers.
“Beating” depression isn’t, for example, a particularly easy thing to do for chronic depressives – though it is possible to learn to live with it and to mitigate the hold it can have over yer day-to-day life. Again, those coping mechanisms will be different for everyone. For me, drugs did not work for example, but have worked excellently for others. CBT has been useful but often doesn’t entirely work, but for some reason watching origami making sessions online does. (I know, I know – strange, huh? But very relaxing). Long walks help me a lot, but enforced yoga or gym memberships are out. The latter work brilliantly for others. Essentially, the time to work out what works is key. A lot of people report how drugs have managed to allow them to do this whereas for me drugs made me feel more panicked than usual. Managing to address the reasons behind why I was making myself so very busy was what has helped me remarkably. Not to “get over it” but to find good and healthier ways of living than how I was for a while.

It is brilliant when ye feel ye have beaten it. It’s happened to me many times and for lengthy periods of time since the age of 15. The thrill of going a fortnight, or a month or even (joy!) a few months without feeling that the world and everyone in it is kind of… unreal is most wonderful.

Until recently, I had thought that the worst it could get was in 2001 when I was hospitalised due to the dreadful way it made me treat myself. So, when it returned with its good friend anxiety in 2013 one of my first thoughts was “Oh, FFS – didn’t I already get ye tae fuck a few years ago? Aren’t you something I grew out of?? Bastards…Also: shit. This is horrific – did I even have depression before, because this is something else…” Which it was. It was a different version of the same catch-all term ‘depression’ and expressed itself differently from how it did in my early 20s. While I’d “beaten” the urge to self-harm with sharp objects and illicit bottles of cheap cider followed by bouts of an intense wish to simply disappear, the new form encouraged me to self-harm in thoroughly different and arguably even more reckless ways that were largely utterly invisible. Both times felt utterly alienating: as if I had no control over what was happening to me – it was something that was happening at me. That’s yer definition of powerlessness right there. My thoughts punished me and my body felt traitorous. Getting both back to working in a healthy way takes a helluva time, a helluva lot of reading and a helluva lot of battling against powerful external and internal forces.

You’ve ‘got over it’? Well done. Genuinely. That takes a helluva lot of searching and can be horribly difficult. I am glad that you are better. You should know better than anyone that when you were in the throes of depression that if someone told you to “get over yourself” it would have been mighty unhelpful. Don’t be accidentally selfish in your triumph. Depressive illness is personal in its effects, triggers, causes, but it’s also a political issue, not helped by the atomised and alienated way we relate to each other, including on social media. Be kinder.

Now calmed to a daily dull-ache, where the dull-ache is sometimes a mere niggle and sometimes is a swampy fug, I’ve got it under control enough to the point where it can be reasonably swiftly dealt with through new coping mechanisms that it took time to forge as I got to know my condition better. I could quite easily present my ‘story’ as a tale of battle and recovery and redemption. I could’ve done that in 2001 too. But I won’t. I’m better than I was but I still have depressive tendencies and have to be extremely mindful, which isn’t always easy. I am proud to have managed to sort things to the extent that I have and at least identify if not entirely rectify the reasons why my thoughts punish me sometimes.

So, while I’m happy to be where I am now? Like hell would I feel fit to tell someone who is struggling to ‘get over’ themselves. Depression doesn’t exactly let you do that, because it is not something that you choose to happen to you. It is not you. Thus, the thing we have to get over might not be ourselves, but the way that we think about ‘recovery’ more generally.