Monday’s first Birmingham Literature Festival adventure was Brecht and Steffin: Love in a Tim of Exile and War introduced by David Constantine and Tom Kuhn. This was followed by The Writing of Protest an event where Everyday Sexism, 38 Degrees and Professor Mary Evans came together to discuss narrative and protest. Both were at the Library of Birmingham.
The Brecht event was an incredible performance. There were readings of the poems, letters and prose by Steffin played by Anna Procter and Brecht who was portrayed by Mathew Wernham. Some of these were accompanied by pianist Dominic Muldowney. Constantine and Kuhn discussed the relationship between the two. This was played out on a stage which had photos of the two projected behind them.
What was so striking about this performance was the eye contact of the two players which often communicated what words could not. Additionally, the complexity of this piece required an ability to take more complex cues than many performances. This all occurred seamlessly and the whole performance was mesmerising as well as incredibly informative.
I was not familiar with the work of Brecht or Steffin who collaborated with him on much of his work, prior to her premature death, during the ten year period since she first became his mistress. The performance has made me want to explore his writing more.
The audience for this event was small, conspicuously middle class and middle aged and above. This was in contrast to the Writing of Protest event, sponsored by Wolverhampton University, which was much fuller and had a far more mixed audience, including many young people.
We were told in the introduction to the event, chaired by playwright David Edgar, it built upon something Owen Jones said at last year’s event. I was concerned at the beginning when Edgar, the only male on the stage gave an introduction full of quotes by men. However, I should not have worried. He was not there to challenge and he made an excellent chair for the evening.
The first speaker on the panel was Professor Mary Evans from the LSE. She started writing in protest against the idea that experiences are just to be understood in terms of men and masculinity. She said that political narratives were now one of her interests.
She challenged the audience to think about the current narratives in three ways. Firstly, the Prime Minister recently said, “British people are decent, sensible and reasonable”. She asked what it means not to be some of those things and argued that it sets up a binary against those who protest and who may be portrayed as not sensible and unreasonable. She made the point words are used to set boundaries about political spaces and can give rise to powerlessness. She made the important point that British history is full of examples of people who have made progress in society by not being reasonable or sensible.
She then went on to talk about the two aspects of power: the setting of an agenda and the control of knowledge before finally moving on to discuss sensationalism. She continued by arguing that to challenge neo-liberalism and the neo-liberal consensus and offer an alternative we need to think about power and sensationalism.
What struck me about Evans and the Brecht and Steffin event was they could have been incredibly academic but they weren’t. What she said, like the first event of the evening, was incredibly accessible.
Laura Townshead of 38 Degrees explained the power ordinary people have and the way we need to see these people as heroes more often. You don’t have to be militant to take action was a key point made. Throughout her talk she made the point power lies with us not those we might think has it. She talked through different types of stories and the way each type could be used.
Whilst knowing a fair amount of the organisation I was surprised and impressed to find how it has grown beyond its online work. I had not realised how some of the money raised went towards supporting court cases such as one who took Sports Direct to court regarding its use of zero hours contracts.
She underlined how important it is not to give an abstract view and argued this is one of the problems the intellectual left has had.
The final speaker was Laura Bates who started and spearheads the Everyday Sexism Project. I was amazed at her ability to give a range of complex information including both statistics and stories without notes. She talked about the way in which sharing stories gave people power and how narratives change as a result.
The nuanced nature of qualitative data enabling one to make links to others and to highlight the importance of intersectionality was made clear by what was said.
During their discussions there was interesting discussion of the relationship between on line and off line activism and of the double edged nature of social media. Laura Bates has been subject to an ongoing stream of abuse and serious threats, as I know many online feminist activists have been.
This event had vitality and energy. It was a literary event but it was more than that. It was a gathering of activists and potential activists. The evening gave advice and most importantly it gave hope. This was a key thing because as the speakers said fear is a key reason for so much which we might want to stand against and we need to be able to give an alternative narrative of hope.