Burning The Book of Debt, Birmingham – photos.

What do you think about when you think about debt? (some responses from Birmingham)

I had two very different Burning the Books sessions last week, opening The Book of Debts to both groups, in preparation for this weekends performance. In October, we tried to access a number of groups to whom the issues of this project might be specifically relevant, but it wasn’t always easy, given the subject matter, and our lack of knowledge and forthcoming contacts in Birmingham at that time. I am very grateful for these two invitations, both were  thought and heart provoking  encounters and I am hoping that many of the contributors present will be there on Saturday – it gives the event a meaning and fullness
My first, very small but intimate group, organized by effervescent actor, writer and storyteller Gavin Young, was at the Old Joint Stock Theatre  (which used to be a bank, I like!) . They were full of curiosity, insightful and profound in their creative developing of the concept of debt and how it might influence their choice of story to add the project (still open for Birmingham contributions till this Saturday, 3.30pm).

WriterBloc BTB session

WriterBloc BTB session

My second, with around 30 young student writers, organized by Writers Bloc manager and creative producer Elisha Owen, took place in an art room at the top of Birmingham Uni. Just getting through the responses to the question:
What do you think about when you think about debt? Took most of the session, which was actually perfect as it (1). Always expands my own understanding of the subject (2). Felt like everyone had voiced themselves however briefly, and their written stories – of debts they were proud of/grateful for/frightened of/burdened by/ prepared to repay/may never repay/ share with others, went in written form, quietly, powerfully, into the book.
Although first thoughts go to money, it doesn’t take long for people to grasp, play around with and come up with what else debt can be about or bring up – and it quickly gets dramatic! Until someone points out that there is a solar side to debt too, then the debate gets interesting.

So here is the sweep of words and phrases that came up in response to
What do you think about when you think about debt?

Money, burden, loss, relationships, emotion, life – not speaking it, survival, pain, struggle, home, ancestry, duty, unreal, imbalance, power, chase and escape, suicide, responsibility, the diggers, immateriality, fear, born into slavery, feelings, powerlessness, actions, fluctuating, undead, a trap, cultural, anxiety, guilt, personal, community, a necessity, empowering, what we owe newton, Kentucky route zero ( a video game about debt!).

And the stories, well, they are in The Book of Debts and you are invited  to add your own,  come along to Cathedral Square to hear them being read aloud this Saturday . Event details on Facebook and here. We will be exploring the question of debt as part of an opening talk at 2.30 inside the Cathedral  with myself, the Dean and John Nightingale of Jubilee Debt Campaign before we open up The Book for final contributions, prior to the recital and burning.

As I am going to be wandering around with The Book of Debts (and my firekeeper) on Friday 3.30-5pm and Saturday 11-12.30 in the Colmore District, I think these simple questions I asked of these groups may be all I need to open the conversation with strangers I encounter and businesses I approach  (apart from assuring them I am not selling anything or trying to convert them to a cause). We will see!

End Hunger Fast – A Debt of equality

Last week on my trip to Birmingham –  which happened to fall on Ash Wednesday  –  I met some extraordinary people. Among them was Matthew,  who had just set up a Hunger Hut with some in the grounds of the Cathedral, as part of the End Hunger Fast campaign. I used to do the fast of Ramadan years ago and know the power of it as both a personal and political act. They are doing a fasting relay to protest against food poverty in the UK caused by political policy and one of the initiators, the inspiring and radical Rev Keith Hebden, is doing a 40 day total fast, you may have seen this in the news. There is a lot around on this subject at the moment in the news and on the street, as every single safety net is being slashed in the guise of necessary austerity (in contrast to the uncollected corporate taxes which could render this totally unnecessary) and I think it’s difficult to make one’s voice heard amidst all of it, this panic, this moral crisis, where economy and ethics seem to have been set to different rooms and told not to speak to each other by those feverishly dismantling the welfare state.

But ancient rituals and disciplines, that double up as both spiritual and political acts – whether fasting or burning debts – can capture the imagination in a more oblique way.  

I asked Matthew to enter a debt into The Book  of Debts (read all Birmingham contributions here, they are powerful – and remember you can add yours before 3.15  Saturday to have it be read and burned as part of the finale )  and also to  talk a bit about fasting as a public act. Here is what he said.

End Hunger Fast @ BHam Cathedral

End Hunger Fast @ BHam Cathedral

 

‘ A debt of socio-economic equality owed by the government to the poorest in society

End Hunger Fast is a national campaign to protest against recent policies by our government which are putting the rich before the poor . The government is saying that it’s ok for the richer to keep getting richer and the victims of that – the poorest people in our society – to be left at the bottom.  We have got to a stage now in our society where we actually have –  in the 21st century in Britain –  people who are going hungry and can’t afford to eat – or who are reliant on charity. What we  are saying is, we don’t think that’s right and we don’t think that is a just situation for our country. Already we have been here since 8.30  this morning and we have had a stream of people giving their own personal testimonies, their own stories of how they have been affected by the bedroom tax, by the benefit cuts, penalties to benefits.

There was one man who was here earlier talking about how he had gone to other countries in Europe and found short-term work and when he came back he was barred from the benefits system because he had been out of the country!

So even people who are making an effort to go and get a  job, to find work are being penalised by the system. And really this is a way of us speaking up; using our voice to say that we are not happy with this situation and we want our government to take account of that and to think about the poorest people in society when they are making those decisions.

 

The act of fasting

Fasting is an ancient spiritual discipline and I highly recommend it to anyone – so I would recommend it to David Cameron and it’s a very complex discipline. So it has the spiritual benefits but also something that has been used through history as a political tool, as a campaigning tool. Famously by Mahatma Gandhi. So, fasting in this context really is about our own spiritual experience of putting ourselves in the shoes of people who don’t have food. So we are not saying ‘o we have got plenty of food but we are going to campaign for people who haven’t got food, aren’t we good?  We are saying, actually, part of this I understanding their experience. And it could be argued that there is an element of naivety about that as well, in that choosing to not have food is very different from being forced not to have food. But it’s about grounding the experience in something real, something physical  – and something spiritual. And it’s about communicating how important this is to us. We are talking about realities that are difficult to articulate, difficult to explain in full, but there is a power to fasting, which can change things.  And we do want to testify that we believe in that .’ 

 

Birmingham, Chapter 2 :The Art of Uncertainty

‘The world as we know it is built on a story. To be a change agent is, first, to disrupt the existing Story of the World, and second, to tell a new Story of the World so that those entering the space between stories have a place to go. Often, these two functions merge into one, since the actions we take that re part of the telling of a new story are also disruptive to the old’

Charles Eisenstein: ‘The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible’

I’m reminded at the moment that the key to making relational art – responsive to place and community – is to be open to fail, to put oneself publicly at risk and to embrace the uncertainty that a work based on sometimes random encounters can necessitate. This can induce great fear as well as great excitement (apparently they are hormonally identical). Only experience mitigates the intensity of the fear, or maybe a kind of faith in the power of the unknown. To be willing to shift territory and listen to what is and isn’t working, to stare it down until clarity re-emerges.

Clarity is coming back into the Birmingham chapter of this project. After a slightly shaky start in the late autumn, where our partnership with our original supporters, Fierce, took a different turn from what was expected – affected by resources and unfortunate timing – we found ourselves postponing our planned finale until the Spring and opening ourselves to the possibility of a totally different outcome.

In the context of The Story of This Project’, I am seeing how important the experience of what originally felt like a very difficult entry point into this unknown city  – which I am growing very fond of but haven’t yet got the full measure of  – is. In that Story, The Book of Debts is finding its entry point independent of me, it has taken me to places and people anew.

Elizabeth (my brilliant producer) stepped in and brokered a short residency for me at the Library of Birmingham, where I spent time with The Book of Debts in November, and encounters there and since (first off with John Nightingale, previously recounted in this blog) brought us into three new relationships, all of which are forming the work and its outcomes:

  1. The Cathedral of Birmingham – who will host the final event in their square on March 15th, preceded by a public discussion event on debt, art, faith, indebtedness, forgiveness and social responsibility (to be distilled but that is the current, broad starting point). The Dean, Catherine Ogle, is one of only four women Deans in the country, very arts focused and understanding of the potential of this project to draw the public together in a powerful way on a taboo subject. She also tweets!
  2. The Jubilee Debt Campaign, who are co-organising an international conference on debt on March 29th at SOAS, London, of which this project and two other artist interventions will feature.
  3. A connection with a creative writing society and the student community at the University (and beyond?), where we will run a writing workshop, and invite participants to be part of the final event. Love this, as a good number of entries there so far have been from the student community (mostly involving student loans and the impact on their concept of their future) – and they, after all, are the ones who will re-write the future. So a creative writing society is a perfect match. More on that soon.

We have other avenues to chase up and to re-invite, some via The Dean and John Nightingale’s contacts, including inter-faith groups, credit unions members, the Colmore District and homeless shelters.  These obvious sectors of society have coloured my public encounters in November, where I have met and talked in depth with a cross-section of people – from a homeless man in the library on an emotional debt owed to his foster carer, to a city banker on the social injustices of payday lenders and the mental health of banking employees (this will be a separate post, soon).

BTB@Duckie,On Stage provocation.

BTB@Duckie,On Stage provocation.

I am conflicted around this idea of engagement, and its scope, as I am aware that, on the one hand, inviting a formal group to engage with this project, whether through a free creative writing workshop or via a one-to-one encounter with me – on such a taboo, and frankly seemingly spiky subject – is a huge challenge.  I do increasingly believe that it is part of the challenge of such projects to create their own temporary community, which this will, as will be evidenced on March 15th. And yet, when we are welcomed in to a particular, ready –made group situation, by people who are up for listening, engaging and responding to what we are bringing – either through my own words or the words already written in the book by the public  – it is such a joy and feels spot -on! So I think that a mixed menu is the answer – of the contrived situation, with the random, disarming, encounters with strangers in multiple contexts ( which is in fact how we got our connection with our new host in Birmingham).

I really got the value of the ready-made context when we did our One Nighter at Duckie in November. People got it, through the liveness and strange poetry of it, the broadness and depth of the subject beyond the initial judgement that this is all about money /failure/fear – to it’s wider possibility of being about the art of being human, of interconnection, of the possibility of finding a story which is more aligned with who they are or how they are now willing to see another.  What this even means I am still uncovering, but it is clear that The Book of Debts, Birmingham, will offer up a perspective on this, which I could never get to by myself.  Which is why I make this kind of work in the first place.

Birmingham, chapter two, here we come. Expect more news soon. And – you can add your own contribution to The Book of Debts here, now, online … ready for recital and burning on March 15th.

on twitter: @burningthebooks

 

‘I (am willing to) owe you one..’

‘Because it creates gratitude or obligation, to willingly receive a gift is itself a form of generosity, it says: ‘I am willing to owe you one. Or in a more sophisticated gift culture, it says: ‘I am willing to be in the debt of the community’ (Sacred Economics, Charles Eisenstein)

On this week in between Xmas and New Year, let’s talk about gift and debt, on a human level. I met an old friend on the street the other day. Someone who has given me much on a creative level, valuable perspectives and hands-on support at an important time. He was visibly shaken and in a dark place – the same place possibly – with his family, financially, that we were in not so long ago, two years – or even a year ago – we were in a radically different socio-economic situation from today. And though we are debtors still, our debts no longer hold a cold dark grip on our psyches and daily lives, and we both have incomes. We are long out of the credit game (and on a debt management plan) but I remember regular points during those weeks and months of wondering how to feed the family and get Leo to work. I know what it is like to feel desperate and not find the strength to see beyond, to something else. And how this affected our self-image and sense of worth. To be literally enslaved to creditors, because you don’t have the power that the right information gives you and are not able to leave the illusory world of ‘easy’ credit, or simply have no alternative.
Beyond this and whatever cultural norm we may have bought into and been bitten by, having the basics covered, which millions don’t have, – even in the 7th richest country on the planet that we inhabit, – is a basic human right.

Who can even think about engaging meaningfully with the world when the most simple of bills can’t be paid and creditors are surrounding you?
There were several key friends/family during our darkest of times who were both non-judgemental and compassionate enough (and in a financial position which allowed them to respond) and offered us gifts of either practical support or money at absolutely crucial moments, as we tried to steer our shipwrecked life to safer shores. Sometimes this was the smallest of amounts or gestures but made a huge difference. It was deeply uncomfortable for me at times to accept this support, but it was life-saving, not just because of the practical difference it made, but because of the gift that the offer represented on a human level – an acknowledgement of our interdependence and the emotional risk that accepting support from another – whilst managing the feeling of indebtedness that this necessarily involves. In my discomfort one friend pointed out that this was not a one-way street, but something that she felt came back to her in other ways, and that might not involve me at all. This is a basic principle of the gift, (debt being it’s shadow side) – that it must be passed on, and is not necessarily restricted to the reciprocation to the original giver in order to move. This isn’t the case with negociated loans/debts, which have another dynamic, but more on that in later posts.
In the New Year I will be referencing writer, thinker and speaker Charles Eisenstein once more, via his new book The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible’ .
I quoted him often in my R+D blog for this project and here is a repost from that which is relevant to all this and connects his ideas of gift in his last book Sacred Economics to his language of ‘interbeing’ in the current book which I will be referring to more and more in the coming months.

BTBRedLineCo-dependence

(Repost From 24.1.2013:
‘As in infancy, periods of helplessness reconnect us to the principle of the gift’ Charles Eisenstein, Sacred Economics

I had the growing impression through the book that its author had been through some kind of personal crisis, which had transformed his thinking, and this does in fact get revealed in the closing chapters. Like us, he and his family had to go through acute material loss and the generosity of those around them to survive. It feels to me that this experience – as well as his reaction as human being to the ecological and social change in a broader sense – has on some deep level informed, the lucidity and breadth of his perspective. I am sure many will totally take issue with his ideas, but to me the overall synthesis of his and others ideas into a roadmap forward is fresh and potentially life changing. I identified with this drive I felt he had, that comes when one has nothing left to lose, and there arises a deeper sense of wanting to use what one has left – in own my case my own art practice – and put it at the service of others.
The notion of art as servitude is also something touched apon in that book and that I have been thinking about in relation to how I operate in relation to the Book of Debts – servant, guardian, scribe, conduit?

Gift and service are of course closely interlinked and there are many questions around how we define them both depending on our value system.
When I wake up feeling like I am using one of my creative ‘gifts’ fully in my everyday life, when in flows, it feels like a form of true service. Service to whom? To myself? To future audiences /public? To Art with a capital A? To the idea, as an entity In itself? To The Unseen /God/The Universe/Everything?

However both the ideas in the book and the notion of service – and how this kind of art sits within them – could be seen to be rooted in the idea of the interconnectedness of all things, the non-hierarchical nature of the way human beings can truly relate, and in this sense do both gift and service become a kind of currency that just makes society work better?
Within that way of looking at the world, debt has the capacity to operate as a form of gratitude – confronting to consider and at odds with /eclipsing so many of the visible ways debt seems to be operating in society and being used around us that gives it a dark and often violent name, I thought…’

And to all those I /we still feel we owe one to, thankyou – you know who you are.

Birmingham

The Book of Debts, Birmingham was recited and burned on Saturday March 15, 2014, outside Birmingham Cathedral.

14.3 trillion, 35.8 billion, 307 thousand, and 50 pence of unpaid financial debt and a whole spectrum of over 70 stories of other kinds of debt were sent to their fiery grave.

Alinah visited the Colmore District /Square with The Book of Debts on Friday 14th and Saturday 15th in the morning with her Firekeeper, talking to strangers, reading them existing stories and gathering final contributions to the Birmingham book.

The Book of Debts, Birmingham opened its pages on 17th October 2013, when Alinah began collecting at The Library of Birmingham and on the surrounding streets. Creative writing sessions with the artist took place prior to the event at Old Joint Stock Theatre and Writers Bloc, Birmingham University.

On the day, events unfolded as follows, involving both existing participants in the project as well as  members of the public using or passing through the Square who took an interest in joining the afternoons events .

2.30 Alinah, Catherine Ogle (the Dean of Birmingham Cathedral ) and John Nightingale (Jubilee Debt Campaign) in discussion in the North Aisle.Opening up the subject of debt with a small audience. 

3.15 An open session outside as the fire was started,  people read and contributed to The Book of Debts.

4.15 Final recital of The Book of Debts, before it was burned, followed by a celebratory ‘wake’.

Follow on twitter (#burningthebooks. ) or facebook for detailed updates of the next event. 

Book of Debts, Library of Birmingham

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Dying Language of the Loan Shark.. ?

Last weekend was the International Day for the Remembrance of Lost Species, a ritual-based, creative initiative which encourages people to hold in their hearts and minds a species which no longer walks, swims,flies or breathes on this planet. It’s a beautiful process and also rather devastating reminder of loss on such a mass scale. The extinct passenger pigeon was put into Volume II of The Book of Debts. On a lateral note,  I have been thinking of another species whose existence I would definitely be happy to see the back of: the loan shark, aka paylenders and other kinds of semi-illegal vulture-like outfits who are profiting from those most vulnerable and desperate in what are increasingly constrained times financially.

Last week, after constant pressure – including from the Church of England within the Lords – the government was at last been forced to cap the cost of payday loans. That took a long time and it doesn’t go far enough. Let’s hope it’s the start of a deep –rooted reform of that rotten and so far unregulated industry. However it does not solve the problem of what people do who have no credit rating or access to support or community and do not have money to feed or clothe their children. We were on the edge of this up to a year ago and it was only responsive members of our community of friends who made the difference. Poverty is a real issue and this has been highlighted today in the news, via Jack Munroes petition and is becoming more and more visible as each day passes, with foodbanks at an absolute and rapidly rising high.  I will be focusing on what alternatives and the new story around this might look like, but it’s hard for anyone to consider changing anything when their belly is empty and they can’t heat their house. When I was on the streets of Portslade in May, I went into a couple of pawnbrokers (sorry ‘Buy and Sell shop’s as they are now called..). It became clear that they had a steady stream of customers who brought in , often the smallest of items, just to raise the money to get to work or buy groceries. How can this be?!

So – finally! I find the right point in time to publish the following, which I have kept on my computer for three years and are a barometer of my recovery from my debt traumas of the past. What I am about to share are the email subject lines of communications sent me in the Winter of 2010 by a company called FLM Loans (it would be too long to share the entire emails) . They were one of the ‘small’ loans company with whom my brother took out – in this case a £3000 loan – for which I was guarantor, and therefore legally responsible for payback if he defaulted – I own this. I should never have signed, but I felt I owed him for past help, and so the cycle continued. And this company were only ones who pursued me to court, ignoring my debt management plan arrangements , which all other creditors accepted.

What fascinates me about this correspondence is that it is like a mini-opera, a tragi-comic series of communications for a loan which appeared on paper to be a loan at around 45% per cent and turned out to be, in fact, on closer inspection, for around 4000%. That fact and my lack of experience in discerning the true nature of the agreement was a gutting lesson in itself.

So, those who are involved with payday lenders or unhandleable loans of any kind will relate to this and possibly to the type of language being used.

The fact that I can put this into the public domain without reliving it in my body as a searing stomach-ache is a triumph over the past.Things have changed – for us. I remember how much power I gave these people to make me feel like a total loser at the time, despite this being the smallest of the loans on our credit file. Part of the pathology of the debtor that is fuelled by guilt and shame, on which such companies play. It was the straw that broke our back at the time, what made me give up trying to hold onto our house, our credibility, and our concept of a financial future. The psychological web they drew me into and the system they are part of is not something I think should be legal in any way shape or form. And I didn’t know any better than to follow the trail into the fire.

Winter 2010

 This correspondence came despite my initial responses to regular phone calls, often happening very late into the evening and intimidating in tone (‘We’ re going to take your house away, Alinah..’).It always started with me explaining calmly (as advised by Stepchange) that I was on a debt management plan and could honestly not afford an unfairly high single payment to them. Nothing I said changed their script and their tone became more aggressive – until I then got to know my rights (i.e that I could inform them by email that I did not want to be called on my mobile or landline but could only be contacted in writing). They then reverted to the following daily emails.

From ‘Ben’, ‘Tom’ or ‘James’ at FLM (first names to make me feel like they were somehow a bit friendlier (?!).

 

29/10/10: Thought you might like to know…

30/10/10: Me Again…

31/10/10: Let’s get this sorted together

1/11/10: Do you remember when you signed up as guarantor?

2/11/10: Can you give a helping hand?

3/11/10: Alinah, have you changed your number?

4/11/10: Alinah, there’s an easier way

5/11/10: Alinah, I’ve had a look

7/11/10: No luck yet

10/11/10: Alinah, there’s still time

12/11/10: Alinah look..

13/11/10: Alinah prove me wrong

14/11/10: Simon still needs you

15/11/10: Did you get my letter?

16/11/10: More than ever

17/11/10: Alinah I need to know

19/11/10: I don’t want to get to that stage

22/11/10: It’s never too late

23/11/10: I want to share something

25/11/10: Did you get my letter?

26/11/10: My manager’s advice (bailiffs, court action)

27/11/10: There’s not much I can do

29/11/10: Before it’s too late

1/12/2010: Should be your highest Priority

3/12/10: First step towards

(Default on account issued)

5/12/10: Before midnight tomorrow

9/12/10: One of two ways

11/12/10: Interested in the facts

13/12/10: Re: Breach of contract

15/12/10: Alinah look at the figures

17/12/10: Look at your case

19/12/10: A real option

21/12/10: County Court Judgment

23/12/10: Enforcing a County Court Judgment

16/1/2011: Do you want this to happen to you and Simon?

20/1/11:  Impact of an’ Attachment of Earnings’ on you, Alinah

24/1/1: Resigned to the fact?

28/1/11: Adjust to this kind of living.

5/2/11: Extreme measures we’ve had to take.

17/2/11: Pending court

21/2/11: Running out of time….

I was happy see that little progress on this via C of E pressure on George Osborne, let’s see how that unfolds. This is, after all, a moral and social well – being issue and NOT purely an economic one. Usury was, after all, illegal for centuries. (I will write more on that later).

However, dealing with debt is way more than just an issue of legislation, it is a collective mindset and a social, moral and philosophical question and it is that which I will begin to talk about more over this winter.

Student debt sell-off: the primark-isation of education…

I read with a combination of outrage and excitement the news that  £900m of ‘ageing’ student debts have been sold on to a global private debt company. They were sold for £160m, what a bargain – Primark prices!. Phrases like ‘the private sector is well placed to maximize returns from a book  (a book??) that has deteriorating value’ and this represents ‘good value for money’ (for who? not for the students obviously) made me my heart sink. My partner’s film school student debt will be one of those included in this ‘book’.

Having been subject to the manipulation of private debt companies in the past, I know the dark pressure they are capable of exerting on people and the impact this can have on one’s mental health, not to mention financial well-being.And we are talking about educational debts here, for a public service! not consumer debt.

I will give a personal example of this in my very next post, but let me explain why I used the word excitement. If there is a sector of society who are capable of drawing attention to and engaging in a movement of massive debt resistance, of arming themselves with the information need to question the morally reprehensible and still unregulated behaviour’s of the private debt sector, it is the student body. And this is has started, with the demonstrations last week .

I hope there is a connect between this sell-off –which happened today – and the attention recently and so powerfully drawn by the US-based Rolling Jubilee campaign via Strike Debt to the secondary debt market, which technically this ‘book’ will become part of. From what I understand, there is a legal case (in the US but not sure how it works here) for questioning the validity of the contract between the debtor and a company which has bought a debt like this, if the new contract is not acknowledged by the debtor as valid or the new creditor cannot supply the original version of the contract. I do not know the precise details but this must surely be worth looking into! Since student debt – and medical debt – has been a massive issue for a long time in the US, Occupy have devised ways to provide information for those who want to resist unjust debts, a lot of this is in the Debt Resistor’s Manual. I’m not endorsing everything in this manual, and some of it only applies to those in the US, but I know from experience that the more information you have as a debtor, the more power you have to draw a line between yourself and unacceptable but still legal behaviours in use within the debt collecting sector. Some debts we really want to pay –  but some are blatantly unjust, particularly those sold on which then acquire the machinery of the manipulation and maximisation of ‘assets’ at the expense of the financial survival and mental well-being of the debtor -who is, after all, a human being. And those which are converted from public to private debt are ethically questionable to say the least – no student would have willingly entered into a borrowing agreement with a private company in the first place – although I have to say that my partner was sold a film school ‘student loan’ by Lloyds years back, which turned out to be a high interest bank loan , with PPI. He got the PPI cancelled and overturned by the ombudsman before this came to the headlines for millions of others, but was still liable to pay a front-loaded bank loan totalling more than his income every month – which tipped us over the edge initially -as opposed to the affordable monthly amount that comes off of wages once you start earning. So there have been some questionable banking practices already in relation to student borrowing and it dismays me to see how overt this move is in that direction.

The Book of Debts, Vol IV

During my recent stint in Birmingham Library with The Book of Debts Volume IV (which will be the next to meet a fiery end, on March 8th 2014, details to follow), I had conversations with quite a number of students about this and they put their debts in The Book. The total in student so far comes to £111,000. One of the students, who put in £36,000, also put this in the book:

That is the price tag of my degree, the fees only. I feel reckless about it at the moment, just enjoying my degree, and on top of that I want to do a PHD – at 6k a year, plus maintenance I am looking at owing up to the early 100k and that lasts 25 – 30 years. Does that mean I will die in debt! I heard that if you move abroad and become a citizen of another country, after three years your Uni debt in this country will be written off..?

I would not be without my education though, so…what to do!’

Taking this idea to its extreme, a mass exodus of educated young people from the UK is not what the government wants, but it cannot see beyond the delectable prospect of shaving hundreds of millions off its accounts book. And this is only step 1. The issue of how this  sell-off will impact students lives in other ways are not even given a mention in its comments this last week. Perhaps because it isn’t considered by them to be an issue?  But it is aligned with a lot of their other short term – goal oriented thinking on education generally so I do not know why I am surprised…

I look forward to seeing how this unfolds, I think there may be creative solutions to transforming this , based on what I have seen happening in the US.

All debts contributed so far –many of which are non-financial- can be browsed here. Volume IV is open for new contributions until March 7th 2014 before a finale event of talks, recitals and a ceremonial burning in the Centre of the City, host venue and details of related events  tbc very soon!

As I posted this, I noticed that students are still in occupation at Birmingham University in protest at what has been happening.

Duckie,London

Burning the Books came to the legendary Duckie performance night at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern on Saturday November 9th for a one -nighter, alongside Candoco dance company and hot on the heels of Bonfire Night. We had a very warm reception, introduced by the coincidentally red-and-black-attired SonOfATutu, with a fast influx of entries into the Book of Debts after an initial on-stage provocation. We then recited all of the 45 moving and powerful stories, which burnt  beautifully out in the back yard despite the drizzle, followed by a disco wake! Scroll down for a listing of what was added that night to The Book.

Due to the intimate nature of the venue  and as an experiment in crowd-sourced documentation, we decided not to film the performances, and so the documentation  of The Book of Debts, Vol IV : Duckie, London is archived in written form, here below. Be prepared to be moved.

  1. A debt of life and love: owed – all the lives and love lost as a result of homophobic prejudice; bombings, imprisonment, murder and segregation, and that still continue on this planet right now. Examples – Russia, Uganda, Saudi Arabia to mention but a few..
  2. A pair of gold shoes- which once belonged to my late mother – the only ones that also suited me that I could wear out. recently I found them in my bedroom cupboard, nibbled to pieces by a hamster called Ron Weasley, who we had been looking after and who went missing. Lost, lost – all those nights out dancing in her shoes  – and remembering her glamour and love.
  3. I owe my partner more love, patience and acceptance. My expectations are often too high and so impossible to fulfill. And so I fail him on my curriculum of love and judgement  and a regular basis. And then I feel our disconnection, the pain – and we have to start all over again. One day this may not be an option.I want to symbolically burn  all my impulsive judgements and impossible expectations of him – this beautiful, committed man, who is – like me – only human.
  4.  Respect owed for the lives and loves of young gay people globally. To those too afraid to be out, as yet, abused – whose mental health has been affected through lack of support, understanding and acceptance.
  5. Reparations for soul murder – to the victims of child sex abuse, who have had their souls destroyed. All the unseen, unheard – whose distress has never been met, and whose have only been labelled by the mental health system as a disorder and disruption to the norm.
  6. Forgiveness of my self – for being so hard on myself for so many years, for self-neglect. Putting others – everyone – before me, and looking after so well, whilst not listening, feeling, caring or supporting myself. I truly apologise to my precious self, I endeavour to honour, love and support deeply, and I know this will affect every other relationship in my life. Apologies for this delusion, for the suffering I have created for those closest to me.
  7. £100,000 in consumer, mortgage, student and other debt.
  8. I want to symbolically contribute the UK National Deficit : £1,377 billion ! Comment: but leave a penny for good luck.Julian.
  9. In 1999, the other DJ – the black-haired one, at this club – bought me a film poster – The Switchblade Sisters. It was brilliant! He showed me it on my birthday and said ; ‘I’ll get it framed for you!” I’m still waiting for it.14 years later ! He owes me my present.
  10. The Soho homophobic bombings – their lives.
  11. A huge apology owed to me by my uncle for stealing my soul.
  12. T-shirt owed to my sister that I borrowed 10 years ago and never gave back.
  13.  I owe an emotional debt to the lovers who lost, and were kind – when they could have been nasty.
  14. I lost my glove in 5 minutes. Please burn the book.(?)
  15. Love and tenderness owed to my grandmother – someone who cared deeply and kept me from harm for many years.
  16. We owe a debt to each other as human beings to respect, love and care for one another – regardless of social, cultural or geographical boundaries.
  17. Our debt is for the birthday card we never brought for Jolly-Wally-Olly. So we take this opportunity to say we love him. Nia and Peter.
  18. To the BBC, for all the years of TV  licensing I have avoided paying.
  19. I am in debt to my mother, for putting up with way too much shit from me over the years.
  20. Debt owed to all disabled people for the lack of understanding, acceptance and for amount of places that are so inaccessible, eg. tube stations, nightclubs, venues etc.
  21. To the few flatmates who lived with me, and then had mental health problems – that I didn’t care about.
  22. I owe my boyfriend more time together.
  23. The debt of £150 owed to a hospital in Zanzibar, where I was looked after when I had malaria.
  24. I owe myself a debt of care, for not living authentically, for living in fear. It’s never too late to start afresh.
  25. I owe myself freedom to be myself, unapologetically, and the freedom to savour that – and all the fruits it bears ..
  26. My debt is to all of you – those who gave me unconditional love – and to whom I did not give back as I should . To Itsig (sic), who gives me all he has got, from whom I keep back and don’t give all I’ve got. To Tal – who loves me so, no questions asked – and I fail to love him back in the same way. All my friends and loved ones, who find it so easy to open up – and I keep myself from truly loving as one should; you have proven your love over and over again, and you deserve it as well. My debt is all the love I have yet to give you, and you all pray for and rightfully deserve.
  27. A debt owed to me by my mother and father for a childhood of non-recognition, neglect and abuse.
  28. A debt owed to my mother and father of recognition – that they are flawed human beings like all of us – with stories of their own.
  29. I know I haven’t treated you well these last three years, but things are getting better. 2014 is the year we are definitely going to make the changes to make you happy, yeah.
  30. In german – indecipherable (apologies to the contributor – it was read out as best I could at the event)
  31. To my family, for choosing to live abroad, and for being so far and not always there, I love you.
  32. I owe my family £500, for travelling in America. I have every intention of paying it back, You can’t imagine how much it meant to me – all I was able to see and experience, I learned so much more about the world and myself. I will pay them back  – I love them!
  33. 42p for a marathon bar I stole 44 years ago..
  34. Talla owes me £20 for his lunch today.
  35. Almost 32 years ago, an 18 year old woman left me in an orphanage. I am now living happily in London, and I owe her this information. She did the right choice and she has to know it -wherever she is – Rumania or anywhere else.
  36. I owe Marcie many things – mostly socks and pants – but mostly I owe her my time. Note to self: must stop working so hard and dance in my pants – or Marcie’s – to old Christina Aguielera  songs. And laugh at you when watching Black Beauty makes you super-emotional.
  37. I owe Fiona my life because it’s so much infinitely better with her in it. Thanks darling.
  38. I owe to those who are giving me shelter and warmth and love at this moment – when my world has fallen apart; a home, a roof, food. To know these people are there, who have given me unconditional regard, is the biggest gift – thank you.
  39. I owed my friend Adriana an apology – and I would do it if she let me – but hey…
  40. A thank you to Paul, I’m sorry, it was a nervous breakdown.Only medication worked..
  41. £2,000 owed to my parents..
  42. 18 rolls of toliet paper, 3 years of dinner – sorry Bruce I cannot cook..
  43. £5 owed to Simon Casson for the secret code.
  44. Gratitude to Adrienne for being an example of a true human being. Ultimately, all there is, is love. The rest is just story.
  45. When I was kid, I killed a frog for fun , to impress my friends. I still feel huge shame over this.

 

 

Debt and indebtedness – what we might owe or hold our ancestors to account for…

I have been thinking a lot about indebtedness – the immeasurable step-sister of debt.

Many people, I am finding, if they have a clean credit record, think debt is something that does not apply to them, is to be feared and is all about finance. To some extent , on a socio-politcal level this is an accurate perception. However, broadening things out  (as I like to do),  although we may not always be personally in debt – in the external sense of the word, i.e. through finance or favour – there is always someone to whom we are indebted too.

And this is the week when it is said, depending on your cultural / belief system – whether all Souls Day, Day of the Dead or Samhain that we are closest to those who have come before us, to that darkly poetic veil between the worlds… And there is the opportunity to reflect on and, where appropriate, symbolically honour, lay to rest or break bonds with, the actions of our ancestors and how they have or still do affect us, in the present. At least that is what I am proposing and have been looking at myself.

Debt or indebtedness?  I intend for The Book of Debts to cover both  of these and to look at the distinctions and connections between them. And the story I will tell here is personal and covers both concepts in one tale.

I am in debt to a number of external agencies – mortgage, credit card and loan companies etc. The expected payback is measured in a certain way and the circumstances of that payback shift over time, depending on both my capacity to pay, how I manage my finances and the revealing of information about how some of those agreements were sold or signed for (PPI, bank loans sold as student loans when in fact they were high interest bank loans after all, fraudulent information supplied on guarantor loans by a family member, hidden interest rates poorly explained in esoteric language). Yet, beyond the emotional stress that was caused when I went from defaulting to a debt management plan, there is no sense of a personal relationship that I need to repair or an emotional residue hanging over them. They are figures on a page, to be managed. (Not true of outstanding debts to friends but more of that in another post).

I am indebted to those who helped to save my family and I from going under in the chaotic wave of financial devastation, as we lost our home, credit rating and temporary self-esteem, not to mention the rocks which almost lured my marriage apon them in the fallout.

To some I am both in debt and indebted. I am indebted to those who did not judge us harshly for having screwed up, who were there to offer emotional support, straight talking or a compassionate ear. As well as offers of practical support to make sure we were not on the streets or unable to feed our children.

In thinking of these people – mainly close friends – some of them responded to my gratitude with an example of previous counter-indebtedness to me, which balanced the scales for them, for others there was/ is still a sense of something to pay for –whether in money or attention. But there is clearly a deeper bond with these people than there was before. They witnessed my often-uncomfortable vulnerability (I was so often before the one to treat, host or give generous gifts, in true Iranian tradition.). And now, as they see life and work starting to flow for me once again, they know what caused the suffering apon which it is drawn. They know me more.

Parvin Azadeh Namini

My mother, Parvin, before she came to the UK, pre 1965

I am also constantly drawn back to those I may be indebted to who came before us/me. My Iranian mother, Parvin Azadeh Rieu, who passed away in 2004 and was an example of extraordinary generosity and compassion, to whom I acknowledge the qualities of creativity and self-belief, social conscience and a love of poetry and interactions with the public…. this is an emotional debt owed via her biology and commitment.

And yet at times I see how this generosity of hers turned into over-protectiveness and financial co-dependency, bordering on control (confused with a passionate motherly love). Especially  true in the case of my long lost brother, who was the catalyst for our family’s descent into a tidal wave of uncontrollable debt. (Strange I wrote that, she died in a tidal wave, more threateningly renamed a Tsunami at the time in 2004)  This backstory  of my fall from financial grace is told earlier on in this blog, reposted from my R+D blog .

It is a story about learning to draw a line with those you love and managing one’s ability to help another (whether financially or emotionally) on one hand and managing the risk to ones own financial, emotional and mental well being involved in doing this on the other.

Looking back, beyond my mother, to my ancestral line on the Iranian side, to North West Iran,  I had always been aware of the story she told me of our charismatic, gambling, great, great grandfather who took the proceeds of the sale of my family’s land back to the state around 1900 (?) – in a beautiful metal box with a secret lock  – which she gave me and I still possess.  It had been filled with gold coins, I was told, and in the possession of my great, great grandmother, who was by her account the matriarch and in control of the land and the finances. One night, her husband took this chest with him over the border to Russia (where I imagine gambling was not illegal?) and sat up all night playing cards. He returned home the next morning with the chest completely empty, and my great, great grandmother banished him to Russia, never to be seen again.

Last weekend, in a rare reunion with my Iranian aunt, cousins, sister and nieces in London, I asked my aunt about this story, which I had become attached to as ‘true’ and part of a personal archaeology which explained why I seemed to always fall on hard times when I entered into financial relationships with men close to me, whether related or not…

She said that it there had been a chest of coins (silver, not gold) and it was indeed the chest in my possession.  But that it was the dowry payment from my grandmother’s family to my grandfather’s family – so one generation closer. And that her father – my grandfather – was the gambler. He did indeed gamble the whole lot away, along with several properties in the village, and they – a family of 11 children (two wives) were then forced to rent a house, and later moved to the south of Iran, living out a much more modest lifestyle than could have unfolded, due to his habit. I know this grandfather was loved by my mother and her siblings, he was a handsome, charming, free-thinking man  (a resistor of religious and social dogma, according to my mum) and he was the one, when the census was introduced and the family had to give itself a surname – to introduce ‘Azadeh (the free one) into the mix.

My Iranian grandfather, left, my mother next to him.

My Iranian grandfather, left, my mother next to him.

So where was the Russian connection? My aunt then told me that her fathers father HAD indeed vanished to Russia, but this was because his wife, her grandmother – was so dictatorial he could not bear to stay. It sounded like he also had a gambling streak but absconded before being held to account. So somewhere we do have Russian relatives…

This still ‘explains’ to me, in terms of the patterns following a family timeline, some of the behaviours of both my brother and other male members on that side of our family. Something in that story gives me the ‘proof ‘ that what has happened did so in a wider context, stretching back over time. But it is still a story. But I want to put it in The Book of Debts, to symbolically have it stop with me. A phrase from a  book I am reading jumped out at me the other day: ‘The past is over, it can touch me not’. Yet sometimes the consequences of my actions have felt like they are part of a much longer backstory that I can ever know, and, I have fallen into fetishing them and giving them more power than may be helpful to determine . I want to play with the idea of writing them off..

There is a conversation around forgiveness here, which I have had with a few contributors in Birmingham at the Library where I have been with The Book of Debts recently. It is the difference between forgiveness and accountability. I can forgive my brother, and myself, and those errant male ancestors of mine, but I can still hold him/ myself to account for what needs to be cleared up, written off, paid up. This will be an on-going theme, and for now I invite you to think back and draw out any ancestral stories – whether personal or national – to add to The Book of Debt Volume III.

(Ps We will now be burning The Book of Debts,  Volume III, Birmingham at the end of the winter, early March, details tbc. by mid November.)

Happy All Souls, Day of the Dead, Samhain – whichever or none you may be observing in whatever fashion..