Burning The Books

Alinah Azadeh

Tag Archive: public art

  1. Images of Book of Debts, Brixton finale

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    Images from the recital and burning of The Book of Debts IX, Brixton on Sunday 29th March at St Mathews Peace Garden, Brixton Hill, amid stormy weather !  It was a very powerful ending to an intense residency for the book – thankyou to all those who contributed, recited, and supported us in Brixton. More to come on what happened soon. Read below Barby Asante’s moving debt of gratitude to the people of Brixton which she recited at the event.

    ‘Brixton is now a desired place to live. In fact people are so desperate to buy into Brixton that you will sometimes get notes through your letterbox from people looking for properties and it seems that the powers that be/ the local authority are happy to sell it off to fill the pot with the pennies that will be given in return for allowing property developers and big business to own pieces of Brixton –  displacing the people who stayed here when it was consider an off limits dangerous part of London.

    So this debt is owed to the music hall players and entertainers, the market traders, the Caribbean and Irish people who were not welcomed to live in other parts of London & those Caribbean people who bought the run down properties through pardoner systems of saving and worked hard to make those properties homes,  the working class men and women who grew up playing on the bomb sites that are now the sites of contested social housing. To the squatters and housing activists especially Olive Morris. To the Brixton Faeries, to those who took to the streets because they were fed up of racism and police brutality.  To the kids condemned as rubbish because they grew up in Brixton & the single mums who brought some of those kids up.

    The artists, musicians, writers, nightclub owners, London transport workers, teachers, shop keepers, social workers, keepers of local history,  street preachers and every day Brixton Characters, the different groups of people from around the world attracted to the place because it’s welcoming to others/ to outsiders and you can shop for food in a market instead of a bland supermarket.

    There’s so much more to say so many people that could be listed or credited that make up a really brilliant and truly diverse community, that has its conflicts and comings together.  That recognises and appreciates difference.  These are people who stuck with it and stood by their neighbourhood and it’s people when others condemned and spoke negatively about Brixton. They were/ are resilient and fiercely defend the social and cultural fabric of their community.  Many of these people have had to – or if things continue in the direction that it’s going-  will have to move on. Pushed out and priced out as profit is put before people!’

  2. Letter to the People of Brixton – Invitation to contribute to The Book of Debts (IX)

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    What do you think about when you think about debt? 

    We may meet, or we may never meet. I am an artist, debtor and keeper of The Book of Debts, which – one Volume per location – is being filled with entries, recited aloud and burned in symbolic acts of imaginary debt relief, as it travels the UK. To date over 1000 people have contributed to this project. The Book of Debts (IX) is currently open online, and will be launched in person at 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning on March 12th 6.30pm – 9pm, where it will be for a week, then tour around Brixton until the finale on 29th.March.

    I invite you to contribute to this Volume IX – whether you’re a borrower or lender, past or present. What is in your/our collective book of human accounts? Money, rights, time, love, attention? Shame, regret, anger, injustice, gratitude? Who owes what to whom? Do all debts have to be repaid? How do you repay a debt that is not financial? What would you have written off, call to account or want to draw attention to?

    The project has been related to in different ways: as a provocation – an imaginary form of Jubilee (found in many Holy Books and the basis of debt cancellation activism) – or as a source of comfort and healing for past hurts, bordering on the therapeutic. Whatever you think it is, I offer it to you as a way of opening up what this poorly understood yet powerful construct can mean, a playful way of examining your beliefs, at a personal and societal level.

    The debt entered can be owed by you – or to you. Or it may be owed to or by a third party. It may be financial, social, emotional, political, ecological or spiritual – or a combination of the above. All contributions are anonymous unless you choose to identify yourself – and you can contribute as many debts as you like. We are inviting up to 10 local people to co –recite The Book with me on Sunday 29th March before it is committed to the flames, followed by a celebratory wake!

     

    To contribute to The Book of Debts, IX, contribute online here or write in The Book in Brixton until the afternoon, Sunday 29th March, when it will be recited and burned in Central Brixton, full details of where The Book can be found and the finale location will be out by the end of February.

  3. Lewes, East Sussex

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    The Book of Debts VI (Lewes – the artists hometown)

    On Friday May 30th, at 7.30pm, Alinah  introduced and opened The Book itself at the preview (7-9pm) of Future Dreaming,  at the Foundry Gallery, Phoenix Estate, Lewes. A touring group exhibition initiated by artist Guyan Porter, it explores systems for imagining and creating the future. The project features work by Guyan, Hollington and Kyprianou, Mark C Hewitt and Xelis de Toro.

    Contributions came in thick and fast, and The Book began its life  at a Death Cafe run  by Living Well, Dying Well and three writers groups run by Bourne to Write 

    The Book of Debts VI, was recited and burned on Sunday June 8th 2014 at the back of the Foundry Gallery on the site of the former Lewes Phoenix Theatre, including the studios of many local artists, which was recently completely destroyed by fire.

    I was joined  for the first time by 10 co-reciters from the community, whose powerful and moving entries to The Book brought a whole new dimension to the project. Around 120 people stood on the land to listen to the 92 stories contained in The Book, which is at the centre of a conflicted vision for its future, between corporate and sanitised development plans and the preservation of its existing cultural capital , built up over 7 years by cultural, educational and community workers and groups of all kinds.

  4. Brighton and Hove

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    The Book of Debts (V), launched at Fabrica Gallery in Brighton on Sunday April 6th 2014.  The Book already contained a number of entries from Alinah’s recent participation in Life Before Debt at SOAS, London and is filling steadily with contributions from Brighton and Hove  – read them here, and contribute anytime before May 22nd to be part of the final recital either via this site (and your entry will be transcribed by Alinah into The Book) or by visiting Fabrica.

    On Sunday May 18th, Alinah and her firekeeper will do a promenade around central Brighton with The Book of Debts, reading and gathering stories from anyone who wishes to contribute. Follow on facebook or twitter (@burningthebooks) to find out their location and the timings.

    The Book of Debts, Brighton and Hove will be recited and burned on Thursday May 22nd. Meet at 6.30pm at Fabrica to be led to the burning site. Followed by a celebratory wake, ends approx 7.45pm.

     

     

     

  5. The Book of Debts (V) opens its pages – in prologue, at Life Before Debt..

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     ‘It is not without reason that our financial elites have been called a priesthood. Donning ceremonial garb, speaking an arcane language, wielding mysterious inscriptions, they can with a mere word or a mere stroke of a pen, cause fortunes and nations to rise and fall’ Sacred Economics, Charles Eisenstein

    So, it is impossible as an artist and human being, having experienced and recounted what I have around the subject of debt (in both financial, socio-political and psychological, interpersonal terms, for they are almost always related), and seeing the same happening all around me – to be neutral in the face of the growing imbalance and inequality, both in this country and globally.

    The Book of Debts itself is a neutral space, a series of blank pages – open to debtors, creditors alike and to any form of debt – but I find it increasingly difficult, as an individual, not to make judgments or adopt a position re the system, this house of cards, we are all trying to exist within and how it is exacerbating this gap at high speed. I have spoken before about the dimension of illusion and absurdity that characterises debt creation , especially at the level of global capital and developing countries, but also here in the UK. David Graeber wrote an article this week ‘The truth is out: money is just an IOU, and the banks are rolling in it’ on how even the banks have admitted that they are making the whole thing up, ‘throwing out the window the theoretical case for austerity’, as well as the exemption of financial elites from cuts and proper taxes. I am excited that he will be one of the speakers at this Saturdays Life Before Debt conference at SOAS, where we were originally invited to do a full cycle of Burning the Books, but now – ironically, due to lack of permission re the fire – will open the Book of Debts (V), present at the opening session, gather entries and reflect briefly on the day at the closing plenary.

    Although I do not consider myself a campaigner, social justice has become an inherent part of this project since there are so many stories that call apon the book to voice this. It is a holistic project but it is increasingly clear that there IS no debt without a story, and every sum of money owed carries a tale of some kind- whether this is an injustice, an act of generosity, a highlighting of inequality or a reminder of the capacity of human beings to work together to resist and /or to forgive. I am looking forward to what I will learn from activists, academics and other practitioners from around the world this weekend, and how it will feed into this project and my thinking on the residency.

    I will share a few of the stories I will gather on Saturday here next week in the build up to the launch of the Brighton Book of Debts at Fabrica on Sunday April 65-6pm (please come along and be one of the early contributors to what will be an extremely diverse and enriching volume).

    (Reposted from my Interhuman blog documenting my residency at Fabrica til May, where the next Book of Debts will be taking up residence from April 6th.. So there will be a cross-over between these two blogs for a while…)

     
  6. Burning The Book of Debt, Birmingham – photos.

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  7. Life Before Debt, SOAS, London

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    The Book of Debts Vol V, took up a one day residency at the Life Before Debt conference, at The School for Oriental  and African Studies,  invited and hosted by the Jubilee Debt Campaign on Saturday 29th March 2014. 

    This volume (V) of The Book was open  for delegates – and anyone – to add to online, and all entries made that day are now in The Brighton and Hove Book of Debts, to be burned on May 22nd.  

    I offered up a short  provocation at the opening of the conference, containing an invitation to add to The Book of Debts throughout the day , which was due to be burnt in the grounds of SOAS at 1.40pm. However, permission to burn was refused by SOAS and so all debts were rolled over to the Brighton and Hove Volume of The Book, hosted by Fabrica Gallery and burning on May 22nd, the final week of the Brighton Festival . 

    Alinah@Lifeb4debt

    Life Before Debt, March 29th 2014. Photo by Emma Marshall

    Although there may well be a strong emphasis on unjust and unpayable debt of a financial nature, The Book accepts debts of all kinds, containing and contrasting the financial,  the social, the emotional, the political, the ecological and the spiritual dimensions and narratives of  this powerful human construct. It is a holistic project and no debt is too small – or too big – to be included.

    This event will be an unusual one, as we are used to audiences who may not be used to thinking about debt – at least not beyond the financial – in any great depth!. Here we will be facing 400 delegates, may of whom are experts in their fields, have written or are talking on the subject in great depth and detail. It brings together those across disciplines – academics, activists, anthropologists, faith practitioners, economists – all in the same room. Check out the extraordinary range of speakers exploring the moral, social, economic and political issues involved in a series of sessions throughout the day.

    This invitation came about through encountering John Nightingale, the Birmingham head of the JDC, as I sat with The Book of Debts at  The Library of Birmingham in October – which then led to us being hosted by the Cathedral. To John I owe a debt of gratitude.

    There will be a film about the conference and the full programme is here .

    Here is the programme of what was a very enriching day.

     

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

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    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!

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

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    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.

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

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    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..