A Robbed Scooter 2 Stints in Prison & An Excavation

2002 as Contact Theatre’s writer in residency I brought a gang of teens like we would have been to Contact to do a 2 weeks workshop. I’d promised them they could tell it like it is. This is my first gig as a professional writer. I’m still 2 feet firmly in the ghetto. I could write as a kid. My biggest problem has always been feeling entitled. Anyway, I’ve made it to the top. I’m somebody now. I’m swanning around in Contact. Its artistic Director John McGrath is introducing me to everyone as the writer in residence. I have power. Or so I think.

So I bring the kids in. They look like we would. They don’t trust any fucker. They hate every fucker in Contact. They’d rob the eye out of your head. Just like us. But I am gonna change their future. They are gonna tell it like it is. Should have fucking known. The day before, I’ve been shopping with a ‘half-caste’ woman who has been in the arts game for a long time. She has been well assimilated. She’s buying glitter. Didn’t think fuck all of it at the time. Well I did. I’m walking behind her thinking this is my show. I’m not who I am today so I am walking behind her. Telling. She loads the basket to the hilt.

Long-story-short. There’s a bunch of us just like us as teens, sat in Contact’s third floor studio. The sun is shining in. They couldn’t feel any more fucking on top. Then Miss Glitter produces the glitter and tells them to draw around their hand. I wanted to fucking kill her.

You’ve got to bear in mind these kids are the same age as us going in the Reno. They’re up to the same shit as we were going in the Reno. They’ve just dimped their spliff out on the way in. Pure fucking embarrassment.

‘I’m not fucking doing that.’ Just like my friends would have said. You’ve got to save face. Once the ringleaders said it that’s that.

So I side with them. Stalemate. It turns into 2 weeks of hell. Funny really laughing now. They keep turning up. Now they’re spitting over the third floor balcony at the posh cunts below. And I’m in no man’s land. I haven’t got enough internal power to overrule the assimilated ‘half-caste’ and her Asian mate who want to be incorporated in the posh white world. I haven’t got enough skills to help the kids like me to tell their story, I’m new from the ghetto, remember. But we keep turning up.

They rob a scooter. Drop it at the door of the theatre. Run through with the police and security guards after them. I can laugh now. Long-story-short it gets worse and worse. They sit in the corridor booing when them 2 walk up to go upstairs. And I think it serves you right. I’m proper laughing. They’re kind of hanging about all over the place. For 2 whole weeks. I’ve no idea what I am doing except enjoying it really because in my heart of hearts I’m still one of them.

Long-story-short again. I am proper laughing. It comes to the last day. They’re about to have a sharing. Their mum and dads are coming to see what they’ve done. They’ve done fuck all except be horrible. Me, and them have terrorized the place and we won’t go home. Forgot a really great bit: after they’ve stole the scooter they get taken to McDonald’s, it was that ‘reward them’ time in the world. It didn’t cure them or me. I wouldn’t go with them. I just sat in the theatre on my own. So back to story. It’s the last day. They’ve done fuck all. Their mum and dad are on their way. They shit themselves. And John the Artistic Director is called in. He pulls some fab stuff together with them made of pictures. They really enjoy themselves. But it’s still not the truth. It still ain’t them. It’s an assimilated version. Their like butter wouldn’t melt version.

Fast forward. 2006. I’m now writer in residence in Askham Grange Prison working for Clean Break. My ghetto self sees them as a bunch of missionaries really.  I picture them in bonnets carrying breadbaskets saving the poor ladies of the night in 18thcentury Paris. So I’m sat in the warden’s office when she looks at my CRB. But it’s too late. Yeah I am a criminal too. Laughing. Her face is a picture. 2001. Not that long ago I’ve had a fight with an ambulance woman. Another story. She looks at my face, she wants to kill me but I’ve already got my contract. They’ve already part paid me. So I’m in and out every week for a day. We’re writing a play. Laughing again. They’re not supposed to swear. My favourite moment is the opening line in front of 300 prisoners, 2 dozen guards, and the warden. “Fuck off’ from the mouth of real, York Theatre actors they’ve employed. ‘Fuck off’. The warden turns and looks at me. The prison explodes. The women are cheering. I’m a fucking hero. But it still ain’t their story, not really. We pulled back on the real feeling of domestic violence. How it feels for your mouth to be a chunk of liver, and your eyes closed for 2 weeks.

Fast forward. 2008. My play Black Crows has toured prisons. Ivern is a marionette: a beautiful stringed puppet. He dances like Ivern could dance. He plays pool. He gambles. The central metaphor is who is pulling the strings? Is it, me? His mum? Pauline? Or him? Pauline doesn't stabs him. She cuts his strings. He falls to the floor. It is the end of the play. He’s made love to her. He’s made love to me. He’s a puppet. It is beautiful. The missionaries try on the fucking glitter game again. We’ve just witnessed something beautiful; something that resonates with women like us; something that is real for us. To hide the shame they feel for us, or want us to feel, they try it on with glitter again.

I jump in. When we entered Peterborough Prison we were told not to talk about their kids, their families, or anger. I get them all to sit in a circle. I give them all a pen and ask. ‘Tell me what makes you angry.’ Well if the guards could have beaten me up they would have. Laughing. What makes them angry? Missing their kids and family. I make all 30 women, 3 prison guards, 4 missionaries, 3 actors, and the puppeteer into 7 theatre companies. And tell them ‘in your theatre company you have to pick who’s story is the best one to tell: she’s the writer, the rest are the producer, set designer, actors.’ The guards and the missionaries are freaking out. You only ask real human beings to do shit like that. Nice posh ladies who’ve paid for the privilege to be in writing workshops for the day get to do shit like that.

Well, get on this, 3 of them couldn’t even speak English, Malayan drug mules, but they were the best plays I have ever seen. And the guards and the missionaries when they got over themselves became friends with every one else. In fact the guard that hated me most ended up being the best actress. And when I was leaving . . .  I forgot to tell you something. The main one, the daddy, wouldn’t take part all day. Till the afternoon when she cottoned on nobody was taking any notice of her. She became the MC who introduce the 7 playlets. So it’s the end of the day. We are sat in a circle congratulating each other and our selves. And the top dog leads the mass exodus from their seats to hug me. Everyone was hugging me, and hugging everyone else, including the guards and the missionaries.  It is one of my single best moments of my life.

Fast forward. 2018. It’s a beautiful room the Whitworth meeting room lovely pale walls. To my right is Persian. To my left is Myra, she is telling it like it is, the day they put her in Burford and her and Gail both pregnant ran away. John Lloyd is stood up filming. Then Carmen Jones just tells it like it is, when she robbed the dinner from the cooker on the landing because her and her sick mum were starving.  Listening is Sean our digital artist, Robert Parkinson who will design our photo book, Sam Lackey the Whitworth senior curator, Triggy, Karen our photographer, who you all know, Ivan Smith, Jeff Bassey, even Brian Thorne has stopped trying to lead a different conversations, mesmerized with their funny, revealing, poignant, sad stories that we all know are not for affect.  It is them. These aren’t assimilated versions.  Their stories are gooey, and sticky, and sharp. There’s not a drop of glitter in sight. There are no words we are not allowed to say. No emotions we are not allowed to express. Persian explains how he created the Reno atmosphere. Sam admits ‘I haven’t thought about music pervading the gallery. But it’s essential.’

As we leave she says, ‘don’t allow me to dampen it all down.’ She’s read last week’s blog about the 2 girls in the café. ‘The Reno feels comfortable here?’ She’s proud. ‘That’s all the time you’ve put in.’

Me, ‘it’s been over 2 years. Our first meeting was in Alec Park Cafe. There was mountains of coffee and cake.’

Sam: ‘Today was very, very beautiful.’

I've applied to be a TED Fellow https://www.ted.com/participate/ted-fellows-program where I will stand on stage in front of thousands telling them all the above in TED Talks entitled 'The Bridge Between The Ghetto And The Arts Has To Be Two-Way Traffic.' Wanting to change our future made me assess my past. In doing so I've realised it has actually been almost 16 years. 

Further proof of how amazing what we have done is, and how it is changing the landscape across the board. An article written by our very own archaeologist Sarah Cattell and her boss Mike Nevel in prestigious Current Archaeology.

Resurrecting The Reno: Unearthing the soul of a boundary pushing Manchester Club

Why bother recording archaeological sites from the recent past? A community project investigating the remains of a Manchester nightclub demolished in 1986 holds the answer. 

https://www.archaeology.co.uk/issues/current-archaeology-342-now-on-sale.htm £4-99. Worth a copy for your archives. At the very least, press on the link and leave a comment so future generations know you, we, lived linked to this century's academics. And our project is changing policy. I think that is wicked. 

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