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From Shuangjing to Mudanyuan

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I’m standing outside the metro station, in a queue of fifty or sixty people, waiting for the metal grate to scrape open, admitting the next group of us.

I live in Shuangjing (双井) which is in the South East of Beijing (北京市) and work in Mudanyuan (牡丹园) in the North West.

Each morning I follow the same routine: Join the queue, wait and then scramble towards the train doors. Usually it takes two or three trains before I can get on.

While I wait at the station doors I watch the train come in, my early-morning mind compiling a list of things I need to get done that day.

The train doors line up with the station’s and both open together. No one exits the train. I’m looking at a solid wall of flesh and cloth. Someone behind me scrambles forward and presses themselves into the wall, bumping and jostling so the doors might just be able to close. I watch as the person’s identity vanishes in front of me, as they are moulded and absorbed into the wall.

It’s just past eight, I’m not in such a hurry. I’ll wait. The train pulls away.

A few trains later it’s coming up to eight twenty and I can’t wait any longer.

The doors open, the wall stands strong and I tentatively take a step towards it. As if they’ve been waiting for my first step the queue behind me makes its move too. I am pressed from behind into the wall and I can’t concentrate any more. The world blurs into a kind of fleshy brown and I’m knocked and squeezed on all sides. I imagine it’s like the opposite of being born. Soon I come to a stop, one foot on the floor, my body off balance. The doors shut and we move on.

I can’t move, and I have a problem. The next stop is Guomao (国贸), a major transfer station. I am pinned somewhere between the door and the middle of the train entrance. Around me people are pushing and sliding past one another. I feel hands, and stomachs and backs press against me. My nose and mouth are pressed into a woman’s hair, I feel someone much taller than I looming behind me.

We arrive at Guomao and the door opens. I’m lucky. I’ve managed to grab hold of a metal bar in the centre of the entrance. People flood out past me, like liquid fleeing an overturned bottle. I’m caught in the flow and hold on for dear life. Shoulders and arms bang into me as people barge past as if I am an obstacle that can only be overcome by force. My feet are snatched off the ground and I feel like I’m being pulled from a starship’s airlock.

The flow abates and I find my feet. New passengers embark. But I’m okay now, able to push myself into the aisle where I’ll be a safe distance from the doors.

Here I settle in for the rest of the journey, about forty minutes or so.

I feel pressure all around me. Smell the scent of sweat and perfume and breath. I find my mind wandering and I can’t seem to focus on what I’m doing there and even who I am seems hazy and unsure. I feel a rhythmic pulsing in my mind and all thought seems to fall away. We are breathing together, creating great fleshy waves that press against the sides of the train. My body dissolves and I am soaked into the whole. We are a single organism, pulsating and rippling together. Falling, swirling and morphing. Settling into the long tube-like shape of the carriage. A great, stinking worm with a thousand mouths, all groaning and grunting and leaking hot, coffee and cigarette scented breath into the recycled air.

We are blood, clogged and clotted in one of the city’s grubby arteries.

Each time the doors open some of the lumpy, sick blood spills out into other parts of the body.

Slowly, as my station approaches the carriage thins out and I’m able to move independently again. When I disembark the train I feel, at first, a kind of loss. Like I’ve just let go of something. I feel slightly dazed, unaware of where I am and what I’m doing. But soon, sense and thought come back to me and I remember.

I am Jack Owen. I’m on my way to work. I live in the city but I am not a part of it. I am a single entity again, with my own life and experience.

I let go of a breath I’ve been holding for god-knows-how-long. Relief floods over me as I exit the station into air that I can’t call fresh, but is at least more spread out than that of the train.

The experience is vanishing from my mind and will soon be all but forgotten. In those last fleeting moments of consciousness I thank life itself that I’m off that train but dread, albeit with an odd sense of longing, tomorrow’s journey, when the cycle will repeat itself.

Thou shalt not doubt thyself. Also; blog.

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WeChat Image_20170706095042My last update on this blog was posted about three years ago. I stopped writing because I suffered a blow to my self-confidence.

Without going into too many details; a job loss, a broken heart and other not-so-little things hit me and my resolve faulted. The problem is that when such things occur I have a bad habit of trying to undo myself, something I will write more about at a later date. So, through teary-eyes and a hammering heart I deleted my personal acting and writing website, gave away my book and film collection and basically sought to remove myself from a life that had brought me pain. A little dramatic, I know. But I am an actor after all!

Throughout the past few years I thought about starting up my blog again but was always haunted by the thought that perhaps I didn’t actually have anything very interesting to say. Is my life even worth talking about? The problem has always been that although something cool might be happening I’ve had the lingering thought that it might all fall away the next week and I’ll again be stuck with nothing to say.

That was three years ago and since then I moved to Barcelona to spend two years performing in different towns and cities throughout Spain and Portugal, pretty much every day. I performed with a brass quintet. I did a tour in Moldova and Romania. I finished writing my first book and then followed it up with a second, and a third, and a forth. I rediscovered my heart and gave it to someone else and, as of writing, it remains whole and happily pumping along. Then I moved to China where I’ve been living in Beijing for a year teaching drama and directing my own shows. Soon I’m going to leave China to set off on another set of mini-adventures before trying to settle again in another country, I don’t know where yet.

So, I figured I might at least have some slightly interesting things to share and thought now is as good a time as any to get started again.

I don’t know why I’ve always worried about being uninteresting but I do realise that it has always stood in the way of owning my own achievements and experiences. In the past few years I’ve learnt that no one is uninteresting and every journey is unique. The only thing that ever says otherwise is our own self-doubt, which can be hard to overcome. But overcome it we must. And in an increasingly scary, divided world which sometimes seems geared towards discrediting the ‘average’ person, I think it’s important to share our thoughts and opinions; our stories and experiences of a life that can, and should, be celebrated.

So, I’ll start blogging again. Read if you fancy it.

Seven Social Classes

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I’m a little late to the game but the other day I stumbled on the Daily Mail Class Check system which allows you to check which of Britain’s seven (yes SEVEN) social classes you belong to. There’s also one of these on the BBC website and many others I’m sure.

The test can be found in this article here along with simplistic definitions of each class, a news paper page asking “SO WHICH ONE ARE YOU IN?” and a video of Mike Savage from the London School of Economics explaining in yet more simple terms how we define these new classes. The video is intercut with a famous comedy sketch from the 1960s featuring John Cleese and the Two Ronnies about social class.

It’s all made out to be a big ol’ game really: Have fun with social disparity! But actually I didn’t really find it all that much fun really. I felt that was all a bit meaningless…

Here’s why; The entire test takes about 10 seconds and is made up of 3 tabs; Economic, Social and Cultural. After selecting from a couple of options this system easily works out where in society you stand. So, a quick, uninterested test informed me that I am part of the Precariat class because at the moment I have very little income, I have a lot of friends and I enjoy hip-hop… Interestingly, I decided to come back to the test and adjust my hobbies a bit and found out that if I say that I go to the theatre occasionally I actually raise up a class in Great British Society to Emergent Service Sector without any change to my income or social tabs. I also found out that someone can raise from Precariat to Emergent Service Sector simply by listening to a bit of jazz and watching some sports.

So it seems that the difference between at least these two classes is based on our social leanings rather than any real economic value. On the other hand, some of the upper classes rely on money only and the fact you have no friends and never leave the house don’t have anything to do with it. So somebody could inherit a house, give up work, and exist only on pot noodles and World of Warcraft and they’re still considered part of the Traditional Working Class. Someone in the exact same situation who rents out a room or two and so has a yearly income of roughly £25 – 50k jumps all the way up to Technical Middle Class skipping one class altogether, again without ever having to speak to another human being.

So I’m thinking the system here is kind of broken. I understand what it’s trying to do by saying that people from a poorer area are more likely to game and listen to hip hop than in richer areas where everyone goes out to ballet and listens to classical music, but frankly, I think that’s bullshit.

No matter how you look at it the class system is purely based on economic value, so at least one of these classes (Emergent Service Sector) is already redundant. But the reason I wanted to write this isn’t just to pull apart the Daily Mail’s little game, I’d actually like to make a comment on the whole idea of our seven class systems as a whole.

I’m open to the idea that there may have been a time where having distinct social classes had some practical application, but right now it seems to serve no purpose other than to drive divides between people. The reason I think the above system is broken is because class systems are like a sort of self fulfilling prophecy. The fact that there are now seven classes which are kind of hard to tell apart at times shows that there isn’t actually that much of a difference between people and that the classes are becoming more diverse and vague. But the fact that we have these classes creates this difference. As I said, there is no practical application to this any more, it’s not as if I can walk into a benefits office, show them a card stating that I’m Emergent Service Sector and they can instantly tell me why I’m entitled to less than the Precariat guy two booths over.

Instead, things like benefits, jobseekers allowance, etc, are all dealt with now on a case by case basis according to an individuals unique income and assets, and of course this is exactly the way it should be. It’s also completely likely that nowadays somebody could rise from a low class to a high one easily, such as landing a good job or inheriting some money/a house. It’s got much less to do with our upbringing now, although of course that is still a big factor for a lot of people.

All this begs the question then why we would continue to divide ourselves into these different groups.


Now the money side of things; as I said, I’m well educated and have worked all my life. The reason my income is so low and sporadic is that companies seem so reluctant to hire new people at the moment. Every job I’ve worked in for the last few years have been on zero hour contracts which often vanish with no warning. I’ve also been to several interviews and induction days (especially in London) for jobs which are either 100% commission based or almost 100% with a base rate way way lower than the national minimum wage. In fact the job I’m working now is the first full time, reasonably paid, stable work I’ve had for years and I had to move to Spain for it!

I’ve never once been asked about my education or social leanings when at an interview so I can only assume that these factors don’t actually affect my class level or employability. It’s also damn hard to make money as a contemporary artist right now with many arts council funding cuts, and other concerns (which I suppose is ironic as it seems the audience for the arts are better respected than the people producing it).

But whatever the reasoning, the simple fact is; I make very little money and the fact I might like theatre and jazz doesn’t change that. It definitely doesn’t make me better than the guy next door and the fact he likes games and hip hop doesn’t make him worse than me. We really are in the same boat and should respect each other as such.

The worst thing about pretending that social class has anything to do with our hobbies or whatever is that it splits people into the respectable and unrespectable poor. For the upper classes it doesn’t matter a lick what music, sports or social activities they undergo, they are still rich regardless, and the poor are still poor. 

Another reason the social and cultural tabs are completely useless are because they sort of ellude to a different world to the one in which we live. Nowadays, in the internet age, the fact that someone doesn’t go out much can mean very little. Someone who spends 8-12 hours a day on the internet could well be watching youtube vids, or they might be planning a social revolution, or both.

As an artist I myself know that the contemporary art scene extends much further than the theatres and galleries you visit nowadays. I watch the work of various theatre companies from all over the world, communicate with them and even devise my own material with a few companies, all through Facebook and other social media. I think this test has a dated, or at least simplistic view of the internet, society and ‘culture’ in general.

The worst thing about having all these different classes is that it just gives us more ways to label and judge people, and I think that is something we really don’t need in the UK right now as we’re all having quite a hard time getting along as it is. It basically just comes down to being able to look at someone and feel superior to them. I feel better than this guy because I am cultured and he is not. We both spend our evening going through the dumpsters outside tescos, but at least he doesn’t know who Dostoyewski was.

What’s also funny is that if we look at the accumulated debt of individuals I’m actually a hell of a lot richer than some working professionals who own their own homes but who are also £120,000 in debt, so surely I should be in a higher class than them?

Obviously its all very, very complicated, there’s a lot of opinion and subjectivity involved so I’m not going to carry on too much, but the point is I wholeheartedly believe that unless this information is used to improve the living circumstances of people and to even out the massive social disparity in this country (which I also wholeheartedly believe it will not be) then splitting us again into more social groups does nothing but hinder us and breed unacceptence and even hate, as is being proved by the horrendous way our lower classes are being publicly shamed, and the way the upper classes are so despised on street level.

Perfectly Useless – The Uselesquare

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There is an age old debate raging over the usefulness of art in society.  It is one of those timeless and endless questions.

Some people propose that art is absolutely integral to a community and that a society without art quickly grows stagnant. There are a great many practitioners who have proved the importance of art in the fields of politics, religion and human expression. Others however, believe that art is completely useless offering nothing but frivolous time wasting. More people still believe that art’s use extends no further than giving a moments joy or interest, and that to interrogate it further is against the spirit of art.

I can’t even begin to answer this question and I wouldn’t ever want to try. I do however have something which may (or may not) add to the argument.

What I have done, is created a perfectly useless piece of art, which I am rather proud of.

I present to you; the ‘Uselesquare’.

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One side of the Uselesquare

Now, I don’t know where inspiration for this came from. Perhaps from my sleep addled mind, perhaps though boredom or perhaps it was divine inspiration. But whatever the reason I have been tasked with presenting this piece of crap to the world.

The Uselesquare is made out of approximately 1.5 inches of gaffa tape ripped into 4 shreds and stuck into the exact configuration which ensures it is without any possible use.

Firstly, the Uselesquare is not ingenious, beautiful or even skilfully crafted. In fact, it is so unremarkable that anyone who is not the artist will forget about it almost instantly. The artist however, becomes completely obsessed with trying to find some sort of use or justification for its existence.

Two sides of the square are sticky on one side, the other two are sticky on the reverse. This means that the Uselesquare cannot be displayed easily, if at all. It can’t be stuck to a wall as only one half of it is sticky. It cannot be hung up in a space as the sticky sides will only collect dust. In fact, the idea of displaying the Uselesquare is simply inconvenient. The only way I can see to display it would be to frame it on both sides with glass, or inside a glass box and suspended it from the ceiling, but this is so much work and is so time consuming that it is not at all worth doing for this piece of shit.

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The reverse side of the Uselesquare

Even transporting the Uselesquare from Poland (where I made it) back to England was far more hassle than it was worth. I had to use probably 4 times as much gaffa tape than it took to make it in the first place, so that I could protect the sticky sides of the square from getting stuck to anything else. 
 

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A piece of folded gaffa has to cover each of the sticky sides

By creating the Uselesquare I think I have opened a great many questions for myself, but true to the Uselesquare, none of these can be answered.

Interestingly, I made this last week whilst I was in Poland taking part in a theatre festival in Gardzienice. For anyone who doesn’t know, Gardzienice is a small village in the south of Poland which hosts the largest centre for theatre arts in Europe. It’s basically a whole village of theatre and art. So, I wonder if the fact that such a useless, lazy, crappy creation which really shouldn’t be called art came out of such a creative environment carries any significance?

I’d like to say that with this piece I was making a comment on the uselessness of art, but firstly, I don’t believe that art is useless myself, and secondly, because the damn thing is impossible to display no one will ever see it meaning it even fails at this.

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Trying to display the Uselesquare

Simply there is just nothing good about this thing no matter how hard I try. Yet for some inexplicable reason I love it. I am simultaneously ashamed and proud of the Uselesquare and I just don’t know why…

In fact, now I don’t even know why I’m writing this post…what I’m trying to say with it…in fact I wish I had never begun.

And perhaps that in itself is the genius of the Uselesquare . The fact that…

you know what…

Forget it.

Leaving for Poland – Part 2 of 2

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It is roughly 8.50am and I am rising steeply and quickly into the sky.

The air outside my window is foggy and as we take off the land becomes almost completely invisible in a matter of seconds. Instead of the land then, I focus on the wings of our craft. Its simply incredible that these flimsy pieces of metal can lift and then hold us miles above the ground as they do. Watching them move and retract in that mechanical, robot-like way, I can’t help but visualise a Gundam model kit that I’ve been working on at home. It’s that sort of high-tech/lo-tech aesthetic. Something that came from the future but looks a hundred years old.

After a few minutes of grey wind and turbulence the sky suddenly brightens and the air clears. Blue sky reflects off of the wings and sun beams through the windows. I peer down out of the window and all I can see is an impenetrable ocean of cloud, a sheet so dense it looks as if you could walk on it. Above us, there are yet more aircrafts flying even higher than us, leaving a trail of visible air behind them.

I love flying. I don’t think I could ever grow tired of looking down at the clouds and feeling as though I’m a part of another world previously forbidden to humans. Or looking through the occasional breaks in the cloud cover at our land, which looks like a strange collage from way up here. A patchwork blanket of field, woodland, city and lake. I always sort of imagine myself, at this point, dissolving through my chair and the plane floor and tumbling back down to Earth. Through cold, wet, tangible cloud, cushioned by the speeding air and brought down, in free fall, to the soft ground. In my head this is a calming, meditative and almost enlightening experience, I suppose in actuality it would be kind of weird, then terrifying and ultimately very messy…

Just now I saw a wind farm in the distance. Obscured by cloud and mist I couldn’t see the land or sea that they emerged from, only what seemed like hundreds of tall, majestic structures, barely visible, spinning rhythmically miles and miles below.

I have been on the flight for about an hour now and have no idea where I am in the world. Ryanair doesn’t have one of those computer screens to show you what county you’re passing over and I couldn’t begin to guess.
So for now, I think I will sit back, close my eyes and just enjoy the strange sensation of levitating.

Leaving for Poland – Part 1 of 2

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It’s 4am and Stansted airport is heaving with activity.

The shops and currency exchange stations are open an doing good business, the overhead announcements are chiming in from all over the place and there are endless queues of people lining up to drop in their bags. Around me several other bleary eyed passengers are waking up and frantically checking their phones or watches to make they haven’t, by some cruel trick of fate, slept through the morning and missed their flight. Upon realising the time they look up, just as I do, and look slightly perplexed.

When had it gotten this busy?

I was awake, deciding to catch a moments rest only half an hour ago and the atmosphere had been almost the exact opposite of how it is now. Of course it had still been light, stuck in that perpetual artificially induced daylight that makes airports seem like another world altogether, but there had been no rush, no bustling travelers and excited holidaymakers.

In fact there had been almost no activity at all when I arrived at about 1.20am through until 3.30.
It had been quiet, the only sounds being the buzz of electrics and hushed voices emanating from a Pret at the back of the airport. Bodies had lined all the walls as people slept or waited or hid themselves away. It seemed to me as if there was some unwritten rule that no one would (or should) invade the centre of the vast space. Instead everyone huddled, either alone, in couples or even in the occasional group, close to the walls. Or they  lay underneath signage, behind bins, computer terminals or in any other nooks and alcoves they could find.
I remember feeling exposed walking through the centre of these low down, silent crowds as I searched frantically for a plug socket. Most of these had already been claimed by other creatures like myself who marked their territory by setting up whatever piece of technology they had, making that area a temporary home. Like them, I too retreated to the corners and edges of the room, found somewhere suitably safe, and buried myself between bags and under clothes.

But now, as I awake to find the place alive and bustling, again I feel exposed, this time for the exact opposite reason. Because I am not a part of the noisy eclectic crowd rushing around. I feel exposed as those tall, noisy crowds loom over me, throwing dark glances my way.

Shocked by this sudden change of atmosphere, as if I had just tumbled through a looking glass or stepped into a magic wardrobe, I stand, collect my belongings and slyly join the crowd, getting caught up in the tide of people searching for cheap coffee and tax free chocolate…

Killed by my Killer Concept!

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Out of nowhere, an explosion goes off in your head and you suddenly have the best idea in the world. It’s a beautifully complex and unique concept that is going to change everything! It’s fun, it’s edgy, it’s intelligent, it’s the Ironman of all ideas. Your eyes widen and you can’t believe it’s your own. Quickly checking to make sure you haven’t accidentally ripped off a Christopher Nolan flick you rush to the nearest sheet of paper, scramble to find the nearest pen and…

and…

Nothing…

Why can’t I write it down?

It’s so clear in my head but…

Just can’t put it into words…

Has any other writer, or any kind of artist, come across this before? When your own concept suddenly grows too big for you and you just can’t handle it?

I say suddenly, but it doesn’t have to be. Rather than a great idea being impenetrable right from the get go, it’s also more than possible, and in fact pretty common, for something to slowly grow and morph into something else entirely. The danger comes when the author of this work can’t grow and morph with it.

I’ve seen it happen a lot before in films or books. When I feel like the idea has run away with its writer and s/he can’t keep up with it, or when characters are so much smarter than the writer that s/he can’t write for them anymore.

Holes start to appear in plots which seem sound at first. Characters start using what I call the ‘Sonic Plotdriver’ (named after Dr Who, who is so guilty of this he ought to be put in a cage made from pure logic and made to think about what he’s done) in which a previously doomed situation will be resolved at a push of a button or some convenient, last minute techno-magic.

I actually stopped watching Who because I felt like anytime he was put in a mildly perilous situation it felt like the writers didn't know what to do so would just come up with an easy get out clause.

I actually stopped watching Who because I felt like anytime he was put in a mildly perilous situation it felt like the writers didn’t know what to do, so would just come up with an easy get out clause.

It’s annoying as hell to an audience member, but I have to confess I can see how it happens. Far too often I’ll suddenly hit on an idea that is so good that I’m sure if only I could write it down, it would be an overwhelming success. However, there just is no way to get it down.

In my head it makes sense, because in my head it doesn’t have to confine itself to any sort of linear structure. It can be as complicated and ingenious as it needs to be when its floating around in a non-formatted, imaginary bubble, but when it has to be trapped and pinned down by words or paint or choreography it suddenly seems as if the idea could never have made sense in the first place.

And then I’m left wondering: Am I having trouble committing it to words because it’s actually such an awesome concept that I simply can’t handle it myself? Or, does the fact I can’t work out how to write it down mean that the concept is actually pretty rubbish?

L and Light Yagami, two characters who I feel, in the tv show at least, got too smart for the writer who wrote himself into a corner and then had to take extreme measures to get himself out of. In a way this created an interesting situation where I as an audience member was genuinely shocked at where the story went, but it also meant that a number of 'quick fixes' had to be established to get the show back on track. I feel that ultimately, the show suffered.

L and Light Yagami, two characters who I feel, in the tv show at least, got too smart for the writer, who wrote himself into a corner and then had to take extreme measures to get out of it.
In a way this created an interesting situation where I, as an audience member, was genuinely shocked at where the story went, but it also meant that a number of ‘quick fixes’ had to be established to get the show back on track. I feel that ultimately, despite pulling the rug out from under my feet, the show suffered.