Stories, history and the fight for the future

Last weekend, I was lucky enough to make it to an opening performance of Morgan Lloyd, Malcolm’s phenomenal new play “Emelia” at the Globe on Bankside. The story of Emelia Bassano, Britain’s first published female poet, probable muse for Shakespeare, his legendary “dark lady” and unapologetic furious feminist, it is as uncompromising as its decreasingly forgotten protagonist.

Bassano lived from 1569 to 1642, meaning she was 19 at the time of the Spanish Armada and died the year the English Civil War began. I have an unashamed thing for that era – the emergence of cheap printing, pamphlets and politics makes it feel rawly similar to our own. It has incredible drama, both imagined and real, and fascinatingly identifiable characters.

[My personal crush of the era is Iranian princess Teresa Samsonia [1599-1688]. Her husband, English adventurer Sir Robert Shirley who, born in 1581, is exactly 400 years older than I am. They met when he was training the Shah’s army in Persia, returned to Britain before becoming traveling diplomats for James I and journeying as far as Moscow. Their only child was born at Wiston House in Sussex, now home to Foreign Office think tank Wilton Park, which is where I discovered their story.]

It was an era when people really started thinking what kind of what they wanted with a death, passion and intensity, and discussed it. The upheavals that created were colossal, and created their own empires, slave-systems and whole new forms of evil. But they also helped form the modern world, and everything that’s in it.

“Emelia”‘s all-female cast is phenomenal, and the predominantly female audience no less worth watching –  for their anger, power and identification with the story. I did feel a little sorry for some of the more lost looking men in the audience. One was bravely mansplaining his feelings on it to a girlfriend in the bar afterwards, complaining that he felt it was just too upfront with its message. He would just have preferred something subtler, he said.

I disagree. Sometimes, points need to be made with a narrative sledgehammer, at least to those whose privilege stops them from noticing otherwise. And it’s empowering  to do so. No one wants to feel like the only quadriplegic in the village.

Discovering the Globe has been one of the real highlights of living in Bankside. If I’m with someone I think, will want to sit down through the play, I generally try and get a ticket in one of the boxes. The wheelchair access is through the backstage area, and it feels gloriously 21st century Elizabethan.

It’s even more visceral down in the yard, where tickets cost only pounds [about three dollars] and audience members pull on plastic ponchos when rain comes through the open roof. I generally wedge my electric wheelchair either at the back or up against the stage. It’s crowded, sometimes more than a little anarchic – particularly when the actors pass through the crowd as part of the play, something “Emelia” takes advantage of.

My first Globe performance was only last year, a reimagined version of “Tristram and Iseult”. Although no one mentioned it, everyone was extremely aware the performance to Saturday’s earlier had emptied out directly into the Borough Market terror attack a few hundred meters away.

It was a beautiful evening, a lovely production and you could feel just how much the audience wanted, needed be sucked into the story. Given how much edgier life was in Shakespeare’s day – and given the lack of Internet, television or other distractions – you could suddenly see how theaters became so packed.

People need stories. Sometimes, that’s all about escapism. The most powerful stories , though, are those that resonate with reality and lived experience.

“Emelia” works because it taps into female experience – or indeed, any sidelined, oppressed or marginalized group. I’m not going to mansplain feminism – or intersectional feminism, which is definitely my bit – but experiencing my own serious disability has unquestionably shaped and deepened my view of it. The play taps into anger, unfairness, and the redemptive power of making one’s own voice heard, without shying away from the sometimes brutal consequences.

The world is difficult, challenging and sometimes very shaky. But the truth is that most decades , It becomes the better place for most people in in it. I’m an extreme beneficiary of this – in any previous era, I wouldn’t have had the technology, social welfare net and accessibility of society would have blocked almost everything I’ve been able to continue to do.

Progress, though, isn’t, an uncontested process – as I’m reminded every week when I search for topics for my column.

It isn’t just the rise of the far right and intolerance in Europe and America. In China, a dark emerging form of authoritarianism and intolerance has locked up, up to 1,000,000 Chinese Muslim Uighurs – and that kind of repressive government may well be on the rise elsewhere. In Afghanistan and half a hundred other places, imperfect governments but broadly progressive societies are fighting viciously against those who would rollback everything they have achieved.

At home in Britain and America, we have entered one of those mercifully rare eras when life gets worse for the most vulnerable. I’m brutally aware that had I not sued my employer and won a substantial financial settlement, I would have likely have been put in a nursing home permanently by the London Borough of Tower Hamlets in mid-2015 when they ran out of money to look after me at home. That, ironically, was when I was just getting started – the British Army requested my return to service less than six months later, and that wouldn’t have happened if I was otherwise institutionalized.

Despite all the challenges, I do think global society – not unlike myself – will keep grinding, slogging forward, trying to think through the problems and make the world gradually better. But it will not be an uncontested process.

As for myself, I will spend the next few days packing up my lodgings in Bankside. Then I – with carers, hoist, wheelchairs and the rest of the furniture of life – will be moving west to Vauxhall. It’s not a place I’ve ever lived before – – although it will also be the closest I’ve lived to where I was actually born.

Hopefully, it will be both the new start I’ve been wanting and a chance to do more storytelling, soldiering, politicking, and exploring. For the first time in several years, I will not be sleeping in what is essentially my PA’s kitchen, and hopefully that too should open new opportunities in life.

History, like the mighty, muddy River Thames, just keeps moving forward even as it ebbs and flows. I’ve been punching my way through it for two decades now, and they’ve been nothing if not interesting. All of history is fascinating, after all, but this bit is mine and ours just as much as Shakespeare, Emilia Bossano, Teresa Sampsonia and the Shirleys had theirs. God knows what future historians will make of it, but for now I’m rather enjoying getting stuck back in.

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