(UGANDA/SHROPSHIRE/NEWCASTLE)
LAYING THE FOUNDATIONS

20.


In March 1965
in circumstances not entirely intended
my family and I were on board a Union-Castle boat
sailing from Tilbury Docks London
via the Bay of Biscay Gibraltar Genoa
across the Mediterranean to Port Said
through the Suez Canal (calling in at Aden)
and down (across the Equator)
to Kilindini Docks, Mombasa, Kenya
and thence by a two-day train ride
en route for Kampala Uganda

Crossing the Line
a long poetry sequence written during my first year in Uganda
looked into some of my motives for wanting to leave Britain
and recorded the events of the sea-journey south
in actual and symbolic terms
had I left Britain for good and come south - to last
even at the time of writing the poem I was unsure
circumstances in the hands of others controlled my life
we came back in 1967
 
Uganda was the turning point of my life - for good and ill
it put me in touch with a raw energy not in control of itself
(and for which it has paid dearly since)
it had so much to absorb and make sense of
you could stand on a hilltop and bawl your ideas to the wind
(in Britain to open your mouth was to invite ridicule)
it was a dangerous place seething with intrigue
but wide-eyed too with an innocent
(but not simple) good amongst its people
tribal animosity was quick to reach the surface
and racial disquiet hung like a damocles' sword
as for me
 
I was struck down
by a burst blood-vessel just outside the brain
which laid me up for two months
Kololo School though
(on Kololo hill that Amin used for his murdering tantrums
but that was some years on)
took me back and allowed me
to get on with the experiment already agreed to
The English Block
 
For extracts from Crossing the Line
and an article on The English Block
more clickery!
22

The Block took up my attention most mornings and afternoons
often from eight to six o'clock
I was still able to run a School Theatre Club
working in-the-round
(using a donated carpet as the acting area)
and in my last term
set up an Eight Day Theatre-in-the-Round Festival
with plays in several languages
and dances and dance-dramas
using the school's widespread ethnic diversity
elsewhere I ran a playwriting course
which brought into being City Strife
(a play by Austin Bukenya
who later became an established East African playwright)
a production was planned for it
which had to be abandoned
when Kampala erupted into real strife of its own
(during which Byron Kawadwa
my contact amongst the Baganda
was arrested imprisoned and eventually killed)
I had the chance of a Drama job
at the University of Dar-es-Salaam
but that fell through
and via visits to Cairo (The Valley of the Kings)
Athens just before the Colonels took over
Crete, Rome and Paris
my family and I flew back into England
on a bitterly cold April day 1967

 
No more education for me I said
determined at last to be a settled writer
A job as Head of Drama at a Shropshire Comprehensive School
knocked that weak idea on the head
Right I said I'll not be messed around with
I got the job
within a year the Head had left
and the one who replaced him
did his best to have me disappear in a puff of smoke
Right I said again I'll not be messed around with
 

Uganda had altered me
The first head took over the block idea
and asked the Humanities Department to work it
A total mess -and niftily abandoned
Within a short time of returning
I realised Drama teaching was no longer what it was
times had converted it into Education through Drama
(thanks to Dorothy Heathcote whom I was to see more of)
Drama (the exploration of inner life) was no longer working
all my yearnings now were towards theatre
that act of communication outwards towards strangers
Drama had become something too precious
victim of benign manipulation
So I set up playmaking situations
and watched the groups at work
struggling towards a presentation of ideas
(through word action and character)
so that they might be understood
by those not party to the making arguments

 
And Children's Theatre (of the Hampshire pattern)
had lost its magic too
I couldn't reach back
over the lively (tragic) body of Uganda
and resuscitate an old world form
I felt bereft of old skills
for all my experience I was in a dull void
I simply did not want to teach any more
 

I had come back to Swinging Britain
but like all such gobbling up terms
it was no more than a touch of rouge
on a still pale face
a media-concoction that the best
and the worst of people
were desperately trying to love up to
everywhere there was a flurry of new ideas
with a great cry of want at the heart of them
and the authorities were shaking in their cothurni
and students were being more revolting than usual
and there were several Red Factions doing nasty things
but to be swinging you had to do drugs
and to be a swinging radical you had to do more drugs
the authorities could hardly keep a straight face on their outrage
and anyway it was all over by sixty-eight
when the students in Paris decided to play it for real
and the authorities came swinging in with their dahleks
and young ghosts were given up to brute force
the ideas were great but the doing was disastrous
and the serious business of changing the world
lost out to the lispings of yeah man

 

Fed up with the New Left and its voting procedures
out of tune with all I should have been in tune with
unable to pick up afresh
ideas I had been at the quick of
stuck though again in education
into my forties and nowhere on firm ground
but jettisoning nothing of my long hard take
on the significance of form
and the structure of ages
deeply assured by the English Block's achievements
understanding the raw professional shift that had to be made
from the authority-controlled lit space
(that proscenium-protected illusion of power)
into the midst of the people
who (from all sides) were crying out for their mouth-piece
yet knowing no society could allow such a move
(such a trahison des clercs)
maybe not in my lifetime
maybe not for hundreds of years
I began the long haul inwards
to a laboratory view of theatre
to getting my lifetime's proposition down to the simplest terms
and to grow out again from there
step by imagined step

 

If a change in the spiritual assumption
that defined a new age
changed the nature of living in such a way
that the pressures of it
refashioned the structure of the assembly
through which that age could speak itself
then maybe
by changing the structure of assembly
the nature of living could be changed
a new age could come about
requiring a change in the spiritual assumption

 
spiritual assumptions such as
there is one god
I think - therefore I am

are suppressors of the diversity
of the ordinary human spirit
and the structures they create
symbolise that suppression
 
how to map out then
that cathedral of the ordinary human spirit
that Cathedral of OHS

in which creation is seen
through the eyes of diverse imagination
 
the round was waiting to be realised
but how to enliven that round
with an activity
in which the ordinary human spirit
can voluntarily express itself
in which the round values
are taken to the core of themselves
in which (in practical terms)
the people are the authority
and are in charge of their own destiny
24

 ok ok
an audience comes to the round
diverse and disparate
(it has never assembled before
in this complexion)
how can it be in charge
of what is about to happen
how can it make a play

ok ok

it must be asked neutral questions
(questions expecting no particular answer)
its answers must be taken as true
all answers - that would take ages
no - all the heard answers
(it's a dramatic occasion -
life is untidy)
but all answers heard must be taken
so what if they contradict themselves
then ask - how can the answers be blended
so that both - or all - are true
yes AND no - not yes OR no
uncertainty thrown back
for the audience itself to resolve
(the power always with the people around
never with the one asking questions

ok ok
a process born
from five minutes of thinking
and instant theatre (not my name) created

 

26

In the same period
seeking a participatory form closer to the politics of the day
and wanting to tread a quizzical line between performance and reality
I began playing with a breakdown in presentation
that was as much a performance as the rest
but had the urgency of seeming real
ARGUMENT DRAMA was tried out for the first time
in a school assembly

for an account purporting to be
the view of a child present at the assembly
clickery required

28

ARGUMENT DRAMA is a rougher form than Instant Theatre
the argument provoked by things appearing to go wrong
is the drama - not its breakdown
sometimes it was too successful for its own good
causing a disturbance that could not be reconciled

The key to the form though lay in that moment of admittance
when the audience became aware
that (after all) it was only part of the play
and a huge question hung in the air
WHAT IS REALITY

Eventually (far from being a programme on its own)
Argument Drama came to serve as a prologue
to a piece of Instant Theatre
where the themes (and the anger) of the argument
could be fed with relief into
a positive resurgence of the group spirit

 

Argument Drama (as it turned out)
was a more exact indicator of the school's mood
after the change of Head

The new one and I were aliens to each other
and I was past the time of being circumspect
a new drama studio had been added to the school
he requisitioned it for something else
he moved the Drama Department into English
and gave me a pile of old drama books to read with the lower streams
eventually I was brought before the Governing Body
to answer ten complaints about my behaviour
the Governors recommended I should be sacked immediately

no said Margaret Thatcher (the new Education Minister)
let him serve out his notice in the normal way
one term at home on full pay
resistance from most of the staff
school inspectors sent in
a second term at home on full pay
then authorities caved in (under school and union pressure)
I was to be sent on a drama course of my own choice
in order to improve my chances of promotion as a teacher

the head had taken a great dislike to the round
and wanted the proper stage to be used
but I had taken over thriving school and community theatre groups
and in the fiefdoms of both heads
had got through two Brechts
a Shakespeare a Molière a Lorca
a Plautus and a play called The Poet
also Volcano and The Monster
(the last he thought a play about himself)
all the plays were done in modern dress
and deliberately cut away from realistic taste
seeking a representational style in furniture and props

Shropshire for me was like an earthquake
high up on the Richter scale
my writing thrived on its disturbances

 
A small selection of poems from my time in the NW Midlands
goes beyond the restlessness of the earlier set
every aspect of my life was darkening
(clicketty-click)
30

PROVERBS OF HELL
Another sequence of poems
written four years after Crossing the Line
The work was constructed from an investigation
of the implications of eleven of the Proverbs of Hell
gathered by William Blake
and (in sum) registered a sense of my own political failure
its style was more disjointed
showing a vast variation of poetic form
the language cruder and more disillusioned
about all aspects of my life
The extracts that follow
all come from the major poem in the collection
drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead

32

In the same darker mood
my two terms' enforced absence from teaching
gave me the time
to become a playwright again
the fresh production of The Monster
performed by an adult cast
and chiming in with heavy reading I'd been doing
in preparation for a Documentary on Rhodesia
which I did not manage to bring to fruition
blended too well with my present upheaval -
and the wider political issues of the day
which led to the brewing of two further plays
picking up where The Monster left off
turning the child-like innocence of that play
into an experienced nightmare
of two harsh plays in one
The City and And the Grot
their joint theme is similar to that of Proverbs of Hell -
The individual's retreat from the collective battle
The City And the Grot though
pointed to further plays in the sequence
Quest (the hero)
had not yet been tortured (punished) enough

 
34

In Shropshire
at the height of my anarchic impulses
I fell in with the Wrekin Libertarian Group
and the awesome personality of Laurence Otter
(took part in a revived CND march)
and through them published Ring Your Own Bloody Bell
an honestly scurrilous account
of the dishonest educational struggles
I had become embroiled in

For all his anarchism Laurence was a classicist
and went through my text with Latinate emendations
that made a nonsense of who I was at the time
but his scornful comment (on the march)
when he caught me eating a horrid burger
how disgusting - eating dead flesh
stirred a dim vegetarian light in me
that eventually brightened my world
some eleven years later

But click for the bell to ring first

36

Then for my own good
to earn a diploma in drama I would never use
to improve my chances of promotion
in a profession I was determined to quit
I was told I wasn't such a naughty boy after all
and dear Dorothy Heathcote would soon put everything to rights
in her Queendom of the Institute of Education
in Newcastle-upon-Tyne
where I was sent for a year's course

Actually she was good to me
accepting me with my eighteen years' experience
and a troublesome background
I'd heard of her first in Africa
from Lionel Burrows lecturing at Makerere
then I'd seen her promotional film
(mill-girl to top of the education-through-drama tree)
and I came to dislike intensely what she stood for
manipulateur extraordinaire of the drama world
but she (and those she brought in to run the course)
gave me the space to decide where my ideas were going
to add new lights to my writing
and to take from the course those few things that were valuable to me
she lay bare (unintentionally)
the fraudulent implications of benign manipulation
she opened out possibilities with slides and photo-plays
or her Kodak colleague did
(which led to My Cuttings
a poem built around 58 collages
and turned into a slide-and-tape performance)
that became an important strand in my future work

38

Above all her complete your thesis and the diploma's yours
coupled with her demand that it should be formally adventurous
brought about Through the Circle
a kind of exploration of a Community Theatre Company-to-be
bringing my past ideas to fruition
in a philosophically-practical way

 

Through the Circle
An attempt to bring into the one exposition
the whole range of creative, social and structural ideas
that had accrued around my envisioned determination
of twenty-seven years before
to eke out my life being a playwright
A concerted attempt to lay down the principles
of a different kind of creative arts company
(underlying the eventual practice)
marrying the values of poetry (the inner voice)
and drama (the outward exploration)

It was really about much more than coming theatre practice
It was trying to construct
in a tentative (and certainly not watertight) way
the shell of a cathedral of the ordinary spirit
realised through language

The fragmented quotes here may indicate
in a sound-bite sort of way
the range of ideas being played around with in the thesis
.

40

The course did not so much end as fall apart
I returned to Shropshire
my pay stopped and I went on the dole
my wife and I combined on a series of poem-collages
and we exhibited them in a local bookshop
with other collaborative works
the governors of the school came along
and bought a copy of every poem on display
hoping for proof of sedition

I looked for sites (old houses) up and down the country
and moneyed partners to help set up a company
eventually (nothing succeeding)
we sold up our Shropshire house
and found a winter-let bungalow in Lulworth Dorset
putting our possessions in store
in an old Portland fortification
we arrived on November 24th 1972
and by December 1st Word And Action was born

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