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Identity Crisis and Star Trek Discovery


Like many people (and unlike many others) I have been enjoying the first season of Star Trek Discovery which came to an end this week after many months. Personally I’ve enjoyed the ride through an uneven but interesting installment of a franchise I’ve been following on and off basically since birth. I know there’s an entire legion of people, however, who have hated the show with a passion for various reasons, to the extent that I’ve seen it described as the most divisive Star Trek ever.

Much of the discourse has been related to different ideas of what Star Trek ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ be. Interestingly, this question of identity reflects many of the show’s own themes in a way that highlights why this incarnation of Trek is (whether successful or not) a fascinating examination of both itself and its audience.

Full spoiler warnings and all that. I’m going to be discussing the entirety of Discovery’s first season, so don’t read on if you’re still to catch it.


The opening credits hint at the theme of deconstruction and analysis.

Star Trek Discovery is, above all else, about identity. Klingons (whose design has been decried by many fans as not being faithful to their original look or first redesign) roar ‘Remain Klingon’ from the bridge of their ship of the dead, a huge warship adorned with the sarcophagi of their fallen comrades. They despise and fear Star Fleet whom they see as trying to dilute their identity, forcing them to conform and integrate themselves into what they see as a universal socialist empire. Star Fleet officers find themselves unable to agree on the role of their organisation and what actions are or aren’t acceptable during a time of war, often citing protocol and telling each other what is (or isn’t) the way Star Fleet should operate.

This has been a conversation that fans have (whether meaning to or not) been quite glad to get involved in. Much of the criticism against the show has revolved around fans’ expectations and demands of what a Star Trek show should look like. It doesn’t take long in any comment board to find instances of fans claiming that this isn’t ‘their’ Star Trek or that the characters don’t act as Star Fleet officers should, by which they mean they don’t act as characters from previous outings have. These sort of discussions are to be expected with such a well loved franchise and they are something that not only the show-runners expected but have relied on to aid the show’s narrative and to subvert the audience’s expectations of the show.

From the outset Discovery has been using the difference between the Federation, the Klingon Empire and the Terran Empire (as well as the opposing ideologies within each faction) to interrogate the social identity of the characters, us as viewers and of Star Trek itself. If Discovery seemed like it didn’t know what it wanted to be at first, that is because it has been questioning what it could be from the beginning.

Discovery’s story, in a nutshell, asks what happens when an inclusive, expansive society comes up against isolationism and nonconformity. At the same it looks at what happens in the opposite situation; if a person (or species) refuses to allow themselves be integrated (or perhaps assimilated, if you like the comparison) into this sort of conglomeration. In short, according to Discovery, they will come into conflict. Not just with each other but also with themselves, bastardizing and compromising their own ideologies. In the show this results in a war between the two species which is exacerbated by the in-fighting between the 24 Klingon houses. The war spreads engulfing everything in its path and wearing away the moral and ideological mentalities of everyone involved until no one’s sense of identity is left fully in tact.

This theme isn’t only explored in the series’ overall plot but also through each of its characters. The question of fractured ideology and damaged identity can be seen again and again through the many splintered personalities of the show’s cast. Each character represents and explores a different aspect of identity or the lack thereof.


Identity Perception Crisis – The ‘Disco’ t-shirts were a smooth way to discourage fans from using the acronym ‘STD’.

Michael Burnham doesn’t know who she is. Raised by Vulcans she struggles with the logic-based philosophy she was brought up with and the emotions she’s always been told to suppress. Despite this, she had made her way into the a second-in-command position under the maternal guidance of Captain Philippa Georgiou. When this reality is pulled away from her, through both internal and external miscalculations, her identity is thrown into crisis. Lorca gives her a second chance but the damage has already been done and Michael no longer knows who she is and what her place in society should be anymore. Much of the series is focused on the journey Michael takes in rediscovering herself.

As a complete counterpoint to Michael, Lorca knows very well who he is but it turns out that he is not who he says he is. Considering he is the captain of the Discovery (a role that has typically acted as figurehead in previous Trek outings) this deception colours the entire series until its reveal and has deep implications for Michael as well as every other character. To further explore the theme of hidden, mistaken or withheld identity we also have Empress Georgiou, Captain Philippa’s mirror universe double, who is physically not the person she was despite how much Michael (and the audience) want her to be.

Even the characters who are more secure in their identities are made to question it throughout the series. Saru knows who he is but is constantly challenged by his nature and even has a complete personality flip at one point. Ensign Tilly must act unlike herself in the guise of Captain Killy. Stamets must confront his doppelganger. The entire crew must, in the end, confront Lorca and measure the man he is against the man they thought he was, while weighing the validity of his words that he forged their collective identity, making them the tight-knit group of fighters they are by the end.

All these character interactions are a deeper, multifaceted exploration of the show’s wider question of identity. But of course, the rabbit hole goes even deeper and so does Discovery, honing in further on the fractured personality of one character; Taylor/Voq. This character is the most complex examination of fractured identity in the show but also has another function. Rather than simply provoking more questions it is through this character that Discovery begins searching for an answer.

tumblr_inline_oy1uws4y5L1qebpxc_540Taylor/Voq is a representation of what happens when two opposing ideas or ideologies are jammed together carelessly. Like the larger social and political framework, the result is confused, messy and desperate. Voq tries to claw his way out of Taylor’s body while Taylor himself begs for help understanding who and what he is. The two personalities can’t find a unified state. It’s like trying to forge a Hegelian synthesis from a thesis and antithesis that have been lain on top of each other but not given the chance to interact properly.

It’s what happens when left-wing radicalism meets right. Neither side wants to give way to the other and they’re unable (or unwilling) to see each others’ point of view. The result is chaos and aggression, and before long, both sides, although different in principle, begin to resemble one another. Each ideology begins using the others jargon and the same hateful rhetoric can be seen from each side, just inverted.

An example of this can be taken from Trek fans themselves and the way so many people have reacted to the show. A very vocal contingent of the audience has decried its use of diversity in casting. I’ve heard it said that the inclusion of women of colour and a gay couple as main characters is a result of ‘Social Justice Warrior’ mentality. Others, while acknowledging its positive contribution in this area, have called faul of the series’ darker, grittier and more violent tone in comparison to its predecessors, calling for a return to a more wholesome and faithful vision. Others still will defend it blindly, stating that Trek has always pushed boundaries and only looks blindly optimistic (possibly naively so) in retrospect. There are a lot of rage-filled message boards but not a lot of genuine conversation on the matter, or certainly not on the surface anyway. There definitely seems to be a ‘for or against’ mentality when it comes to the show which doesn’t leave much room for discussion and seems to mirror how a lot of political discourse takes place on the internet currently.

Most of Discovery’s criticism is wrapped up in the questions of what Star Trek ‘is’ or ‘should be’. There seems to be a disconnect between what Trek’s place in the world was and what it is now. This is exacerbated by the fact that when reading reviews of the show form pop culture websites such as io9 or gamesradar+ we seem to be getting a discourse about what the writer thinks the show should be rather than what it actually is. One gets the sense that these reviewers had decided on their opinion of the show long before it even premiered and as such the reviews become much less about the show and more about the reviewers themselves. Very few discussions about the show are able to reach a mutual understanding or even acknowledgment of each others’ opinions. Star Trek Discovery is either brilliant, embodying the true values of Roddenbury’s boundary pushing epic or awful, an insult to the series’ legacy and a product of contemporary television’s obsession with ‘grit’. The truth, of course, is probably somewhere in bstdetween.

Because of all the contrary opinions before the project had even taken off, the showrunners had a lot to consider. Not just regarding the story, design and style of the show, but also its politics, ideals and how it should approach them.

I think Taylor/Voq is what Star Trek Discovery might have looked were it not given the time to explore its place in the world: Retro, nostalgia-laden optimism pasted over an adverse sociopolitical climate and thrown into a more cynical and exploitative televisual landscape. It most likely wouldn’t have worked. But through Taylor/Voq’s suffering the show is able to begin reconciling its vision with its ideology and history. Taylor looks good to begin with, he’s tough, charming and has heart, but as time goes by the cracks start to show. He’s damaged, lost and, worst of all, it turns out he is not what he thought he was, what he wants to be or what he ‘should’ be. It’s a struggle Star Trek Discovery was always going to have.

When Voq’s previous second-in-command, L’rell, finally agrees to work with Star Fleet doctors to help him we begin to see a more real synthesis. Through a mutual love for the confused mess that is Taylor/Voq they put aside their radical ideologies and work together to save whatever identity is left in him. It’s the first real compromise on both sides and a sign that it is possible to forge a relationship between these two identities, both Tayor and Voq as well as Star Fleet and the Klingon Empire. It’s this compromise which will eventually lead to the end of the war which is neither won nor lost, but firmly seated in compromise.

Before they can get to this point though, the crew of the Discovery find themselves in the Mirror Universe during the second half of the series. Here they are forced to see their organisation reflected through a lens of race-hate and opportunism, in the form of the Terran Empire. Unfortunately, the reality they see isn’t so far away from that of their own universe and, in some ways, even closer to our own. The darkness witnessed there is the kind of darkness found in all humanity.

Jasen Issacs said, of the Mirror Universe:

How different are any of us from the Mirror version of ourselves? […] This particular administration in America has brought some of the ugliest parts of human nature out from in the shadows.
[…] What Ted (Sullivan, co-executive producer of the show) did, which I thought was so brilliant, is make [the Mirror Universe] not that far from us. So, it is a world where people are slightly more Darwinian. That whole “Make the Empire glorious again” and not all races are equal. We worked hard on that speech that Lorca gives to make it not that far from the way many people around us think.

In Star Trek Discovery all universes, all beings and all identities are bound together through the Mycelial Network; the roots that hold all of creation together. This shows that all these differing ideologies are intertwined and closer in kind than each would care to admit. It’s important that Lorca’s slogan ‘make the Empire great again’ is not a far cry from the Klingon’s ‘remain Klingon’, and both have very clear real world counterparts. The implication is that our own universe is also part of this network and Discovery hopes, as does all good science fiction, to act as our own mirror universe.


It is in Discovery’s Mirror Universe, the realm of literal and metaphorical self reflection, that the crew finally come to see themselves for who they are, who they could be and who they must aspire to become. This is all put into words by Saru in the engineering room where he speaks to the crew in what is much less an address and more a meeting. He says speaks about releasing themselves from their confused and fearful past by stating ‘Lorca abused our idealism. But make no mistake, Discovery is no longer Lorca’s, she is ours, and this will be her maiden voyage.’ The scene is a direct reversal of an earlier moment in which Lorca stands in the same room and announces that the ship was ‘not a democracy’.

It’s from the moment of Saru’s speech that the characters start to embody the true ideals of the Federation and we begin to see the original utopian ideals Trek is famous for. It’s no accident that one of the last lines spoken in the mirror universe arc is; ‘That is who Star Fleet is. That is who I am.’

This becomes a mantra of sorts and is constantly repeated throughout the final two episodes and culminates in Michael’s speech in which it becomes a kind of manifesto for the show.

In the end of the Mirror Universe arc the merging and fixing of the show’s fractured identities is reaffirmed as the crew make their way back to their original universe through the Mycelial Network and ‘the clearing in the forest’; a moment of quiet introspection where you can see the world around you and your place in it without being ‘among the trees’, as it were.

Of course, on their return, not all is as it should be and the crew instantly come up against yet another crisis and are forced to stand by their newfound sense of identity even when other member’s of Star Fleet bend under the pressure, allowing themselves to stoop to ever lower depths in desperation. But the crew of the Discovery have leant and grown throughout their journey. They have not only interrogated but embodied the ideals of Star Fleet and it is their confidence in who they must be that paves the way for true change and for the future of not just the show’s world but for the show itself.

After everything has been said and done, Michael puts into words the show’s statement of intent:

No, we will not take shortcuts on the path to righteousness. No, we will not break the rules that protect us from our basest instincts. No, we will not allow desperation to destroy moral authority. I am guilty of all these things. Some say in life there are no second chances. Experience tells me that this is true but we can only look forward. We have to be torchbearers. Casting the light so we may see our path to lasting peace. We will continue exploring, discovering new worlds and civilisations. Yes, that is the United Federation of Planets. Yes, that is Star Fleet. Yes, that is who we are and who we will always be.

Star Trek Discovery is a strange show that takes many risks both in terms of its story and as a show. It relies heavily on a novel-like structure more than many shows I’ve seen that may still be serialised but not novelistic. The show’s first half is much grimmer and more pessimistic than that of its second and the writers ran the risk of alienating much of the audience who didn’t want to see such things from the classic franchise. But the show needed that time to interrogate its own identity, asking what place Star Trek has and what form it should take in a world that seems to be turning its back on Utopian ideals. By testing its characters (and its audience) morally and intellectually it has endeavoured to justify its own existence in our current political, social and televisual climate. Michael’s final speech sums up the series investigation and its discoveries. Now it knows what it is and who its Federation is, the show can start working towards reaching the goal of creating a believable, honest vision of utopia that is relevant to today’s audience.

Ted Sullivan said about Saru’s speech;

We get it. We believe in Star Trek and Starfleet too. We just had to go through this journey of twelve episodes.



Live long and prosper



Finding myself through words.


I realised recently that I love sculpture. This came as a slight surprise because I’ve never really put much thought into the sculpting arts before. I remember being absolutely bowled over by the Monument to the Conquerors of Space in Moscow and I also loved the Rivers of Siberia fountain in Krasnoyarsk. I was less enthusiastic but still impressed with the multiplicity of marble sculptures in Rome and the brass, militaristic statues in Beijing became one of the most interesting aspects of the city for me. Even so, I unconsciously logged all this information away without putting any of it together.


Monument to the Conquerors of Space

Monument to the Conquerors of Space


The reason I finally realised it, was the same reason I’ve realised so many of my personal tendencies; through my own writing. In particular I was toying with an idea about a city filled with living statues. While daydreaming about this I realised that sculpture has always played a part in my fiction, from my first novel Sketch to my latest, as of yet untitled, project. The statues in my fiction are always impressive and profound, if they’re not alive then they carry some special significance to the plot. In one story a man is slowly transformed into a stone statue after standing still for most of history.

It’s funny how it was only until after I’d written all this that I came to the realisation that I obviously have a strong appreciation for sculpture. Perhaps it comes from the fact that I actually know very little about sculpting, so had never really thought of it as anything but a periphery curiosity. Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is that this is not the first time I’ve realised something previously unknown about myself through writing fiction.

Through writing over the last five or six years I have discovered so much about myself. I’ve learnt what imagery I find beautiful or scary, what themes intrigue or infuriate me and what ideas have gotten stuck in my subconscious over the years. Through reoccurring thoughts and ideas I’ve discovered fears and concerns lurking in the back of my mind and had the opportunity to explore them. Writing has also helped me to put my social, political and spiritual views on paper and then deconstruct them, argue with myself and even take on the opposite point of view for a while. There’s also the fact that writing a novel, even a completely fictional one requires a nonsensical amount of research into related and unrelated material. I think I’ve learnt more about myself and the world through writing fiction than I have in any other medium or for any other reason.

At George Carling’s funeral Luis CK tells how he received advise for doing stand up from Carling. The advise was never to write the same joke twice, because that way you’re forced to look more deeply inside yourself for content. If the first joke comes from your head then the second comes from your heart, ‘until you get to the balls!’ says Luis CK. I think novel writing is similar to this in the ways that it’s more of a slow job than a sprint. I often find that my feeling of inspiration and excitement in telling a story only carries me so far before I realise there is an ocean of words between myself and the end of the novel. Pushing myself to write past the end of my inspiration forces me to really examine what it is in a story or theme that interests me. What traits in my characters do I find loveable or abhorrent, and if I find it abhorrent then why did I write it?

I’d always recommend that people write, whether it’s a novel, poetry or stream of consciousness, for this reason. It really can help you find and discover yourself. Through this act you might learn what it is you love and hate about yourself. If it’s not writing, then try something else that similarly stimulates you; sculpture for example.

I’m in Poland at the moment, working on a new theatre piece. But when I go back to England next week, I’m inspired to grab some clay and try my hand at making something. I hope I find out something new about myself in the process.

Necessary perspective. Traveling for life.


A book shop. Possibly the grandest I’ve ever seen.

Last week I paid a visit to Saint Petersburg in Russia, with the intention that me and my girlfriend will be moving there later this year. I think it was the first time I’ve actually visited anywhere before committing to a move. As anyone who’s followed this blog before will know, I’ve already visited Russia a few times now so I more or less know what I’m letting myself in for and certainly won’t be encountering the same kind of culture shock I did last year in Beijing. Even so, it felt important for some reason (perhaps because this time I’m moving more as a life choice rather than because I’m chasing a job) that this year I not make the move cold, as it were.

So I spent a week in the city with my girlfriend. I’d love now to write about the city itself, with its grand, elaborate buildings, winding canals, vastly deep metro tunnels and homey, soviet style cafeterias, but I feel as though I’m unable to. Mostly because, although I noticed them, these are not the things I was paying attention to.

I think it would be fair to say that I’ve been “traveling” (read; taking jobs in obscure places) for three or four years now, and I can’t easily remember the last time I lived in one place for more than a year. I feel that because of this, perhaps unfortunately, the wonder of traveling has worn off slightly for me. Add to this the fact that our visit to Saint Petersburg was informed by the idea that we’ll soon be living there and my perception became a little different. This meant that I viewed the city through a very different lens than I would have done were I just visiting, and to how I think I will when I finally return, whenever my visa clears.

When seeing a new place with the intention of making a life there, your experience of it changes somewhat. Gazing down a wide, tranquil canal at the fantastically named Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood is wonderful, but the English bookshop just there on the left suddenly seems much more interesting. The hustle and bustle of Nevsky Prospect might be exciting but how is the local coffee and breakfast? I started looking out with excitement not for brilliant architecture but for shops selling boardgames and such tit-tat. I admired the many sculptures less for their own artistry but for how they might inspire me over the year or more to come.

I suppose it’s natural that in this circumstance my experience would be different to that of a tourist’s but it almost feels like a shame that my appreciation for such a historic, beautiful place was overshadowed by necessary and sometimes superficial considerations. Having said that, this was the whole reason for our visit and I can happily say that once I fully arrive there in the next month or so, I’m optimistic the city will lend me many much more interesting observations and stories.


Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood


Into the Siberian Hellscape…


What do you think of when I ask you about Siberia?

There’s a book I’ve kind of been interested in reading recently. It’s some bizarro thing set in Siberia and if you read the reviews a lot of them start something like this; ‘In the frozen hell that is Siberia…‘ or ‘Set against the background of the Siberian hellscape…’. I’m sure you’ve come across similar things when and if you’ve ever heard anything mentioned about Siberia. I remember showing my girlfriend an episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D where they were looking for some sort of secret based hidden in the region (‘if you want to build remote, build Siberia’) and the team was shown struggling through the howling snow to infiltrate the base buried in the permafrost. I guess this view comes from the image of Siberia as it was rather than as it is now. In Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov’s newfound love Sofya shows her dedication and selflessness by exclaiming ‘I will follow you, I will follow you everywhere. Oh, my God! Oh, how miserable I am! […] I’ll follow you to Siberia!’ The most positive thing Chechov could bring himself to say about it was that ‘even in Siberia there is happiness.’

I’ve known for the past few years that, at some point, I’d be heading to Krasnoyasrk (Красноярск) the third largest city in Siberia. I’ve known this since I started seeing my girlfriend who just so happens to be from there. When I recently asked her if I should buy a new coat before going she answered with a curt ‘of course not’ in a tone that both amuses and terrifies at once. This confused me slightly, as I don’t own a coat at all. How was I to survive the frozen hell without one?

So, imagine my surprise when we land in the tiny Krasnoyarsk airport and continue to drive through the flat, green countryside which, believe it or not, reminded me of home. What surprised me more though were the next few days in which we were greeted by bright blue skies, temperatures up to 30 degrees and some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve seen in a while.


My journey began in outskirts of the city itself. At first glance this area was almost the way I expected. Slightly rough around the edges. All cracked concrete and battered cars. Being a somewhat slight Englishman I couldn’t help feel intimidated at first, however once we moved towards the city centre this roughness began to seem almost charming. Lovely wooden buildings which range from quaint to impressive line the streets and wherever you go you can find wonderful bronze statues, all representing artists or individuals of particular importance to the city. There’s a sense of rugged pride to be found here.

IMG_20170731_164300I remember that during my trip to Moscow several years ago the thing I was the most impressed with were the sculptures and the same can be said for Krasnoyarsk, although the wooden houses are a close second here. In particular there is one sculpture that really set my imagination on fire. Called the ‘Rivers of Siberia’ it portrays the main river, Enisei (Енисей), which flows through the city. Enisei is portrayed as a huge, muscular man behind whom is Angara (Ангара), another (female) river. In legend there is a tragic love story between Enisei and Angara. On both sides of the sculpture stand six more rivers, each portrayed IMG_20170731_150535as gorgeous, ethereal Siberian women, which flow into Enisei. It’s a wonderful piece that, even though the water feature wasn’t working, set my mind racing. What’s better is that you can turn around and see Enisei right there in front of you, in all his glory. And he is glorious. A massive body of water which flows right through the city, big enough to house a few small islands, one of which has become a popular meeting place for families and young people. Here, at this time of year, people meet to skate, bike and walk among the comically tame wild gophers. It’s not technically a huge city park, but that is what it felt like.

In one place on the island there is a grand tree with an overhanging branch. Hanging from the branch is a sign that reads Лукоморье (Lukomorye: Blue Bay). It refers to the name of a fictional land in Russian folklore which Pushkin used in one of his fairytales. This tree is referencing a particular passage from his poem Ruslan and Ludmila.


There’s a green oak-tree by the shores
Of the blue bay; on a gold chain,
The cat, learned in the fable stories,
Walks round the tree in ceaseless strain:
Moves to the right – a song it groans,
Moves to the left – it tells a tale.

I was also taken to visit my girlfriend’s family Dacha (дача). IMG_20170804_163858

A Dacha is basically a plot of land on which the family grows vegetables. There are also houses on the Dachas, some of which are like modern homes and others glorified sheds. On my girlfriend’s land there is a small wooden shack hand built by her great grand father during the Soviet era.

So that’s the city, now into the hellscape. Krasnoyarsk is one of those cities where an hour bus ride can take you right out into the surrounding nature. During our trip we went to visit a nature park which is home to Stolby (Столбы), large rock pillars that range from being big to absolutely huge. To put into perspective; we climbed up one of the more or less averagely sized ones to eat lunch and found ourselves looking down at the tops of the forest trees. They’re quite magnificent and the fact you can climb them without anyone shouting rules at you feels like a real adventure. Whilst up there, it felt as though we were on top of the world. Siberian forests seem to stretch on for eternity and standing on that rock, looking into the green-clad distance it’s impossible to grasp the scale of the place, especially for a Brit, whose entire county would fit into Siberia multiple times. We spent hours walking through the forest, carefree despite roadside signs informing us (only in Russian of course) what to do if we come across a bear. Fortunately, but also somehow disappointingly, we didn’t see any bears but there are also chipmunks who, like the gophers, are surprisingly tame, so that sort of makes up for it.IMG_20170803_160227

But Krasnoyarsk doesn’t only have trees, it also has water, and a lot of it. If you follow Enisei you’ll travel through the countryside and to a huge dam and hydroelectric station which apparently, a local told me, would drown the entire region in 15 minutes were it to stop functioning. Luckily it does function and by doing so it stops the river from freezing during winter and results in some bitterly cold, refreshingly clean tap water. On the other side of the dam is what I heard referred to as the ‘Krasnoyarsk sea’. A huge artificial lake (one of the largest in the world) surrounded by hills and mountains. Needless to say it more than earns its name.IMG_20170801_205701

I just spent a week in Krasnoyarsk and I could continue writing for hours. It’s a city that seems to keep on giving. There is beautiful and interesting architecture, a deep sense of history, mountains, lakes, trees, gophers and chipmunks. At once it’s industrial and rural, rough and elegant, harsh and welcoming. Throughout my entire time there I kept thinking it was like a fairy tale. Not that the city itself is particularly fairy tale like, but that there are so many elements to it that could be; the old wooden houses felt as if they had history laced into the grain; the Stolby looked like giant hands reaching up from the mountain when viewed from the city; the Rivers of Siberia and all the other brass sculptures dotted around the place seemed to have secret lives of their own.

It’s a place that has left me wanting more which is fortunate because at some point we will be venturing back so that I can experience the Siberian winter, which some of the locals claim is not actually that cold… Honestly, I’m not sure my delicate English body will agree.

One thing is for sure, I found it to be a tremendously inspiring city. After spending a year in Beijing which I have not, despite its many other merits, found an inspirational place I am returning from Krasnoyarsk, my mind racing and an outline forming for a new novel.


From Shuangjing to Mudanyuan


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.


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


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.