Burning The Book of Debt, Birmingham – photos.Leave a Comment
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).
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!
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.
‘ 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 .’
We may meet, or we may never meet. I am an artist, debtor and the keeper of The Book of Debts, which is currently touring the UK. One Volume per location, it is filling with human stories of debt – past and present, online and in public places. Its stories then form a public performance unique to that place. They are recited aloud before being burned – in an act of symbolic debt relief – followed by a celebratory ‘wake’.
The Book of Debts is now in Birmingham until March 15th and I invite you to get involved in any of the free events coming up, or you can read or contribute to The Book of Debts online and I will only know you through your words. The book is only as powerful as the contributions it contains…
So, what do you think about when you think about debt? Money, time, love, attention, gratitude? Shame, denial, regret, anger, injustice? Love, community, compassion, forgiveness? Who owes what to whom? Do all debts have to be repaid? How responsible are we for what family, our community, nation or we owe? Is there a story you would like to see an end to? From priests to market traders, activists to office workers, students to bankers, The Book of Debts is open to anyone who finds it, whether debtor or creditor – past or present. The debt can be owed by you or to you. Or it may be owed to or by a third party – individual or institution. It may be financial, social, emotional, ecological or spiritual – or all of the above. All entries are anonymous and you can add as many as you like.
I was at the Library of Birmingham, gathering stories this winter – take a look. Here are the next opportunities:
Please share –facebook event here or @burningthebooks. All events are free. To contact us mail: email@example.com, call Elizabeth on 0787 353232 – or just welcome me with an open mind when you see me with my Book..