“What sort of day was it? A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times—and you were there.”
In a time when the profit has become the prophet, as pointed out to me by poet Michael March, and the ears of the seekers have been deafened by their drive-by societies, good ideas don’t always meet the good investment litmus test: if it doesn’t factor on the bottom line, it isn’t worth trying. I beg to differ.
The handful of people who now sponsor our morning headlines and evening news would have you believe that the game’s over, but I disagree. It may be hard to comprehend, with crazed masses frantically lining up in the US to spend $600 on a mobile phone, or going mental over a children’s novel in the UK, but I’d like to suggest that nothing is over. In fact, there’s a new movement afoot, and you are here.
Back in 1977, I attended Chantilly Elementary School in Charlotte, North Carolina. Before New York or Scotland or Europe—yes, there was life before New York. One morning, for some reason or no reason at all, I decided something was missing in my life. This time, it was music. I had a choice: band or orchestra. At first, the band seemed cool. I tried out for drums, then trumpet. I didn’t make either, so I decided to approach the orchestra, which seemed dignified. I was accepted.
The orchestra director was Mr. William Tritt, a very tall man who dressed in black suits and wore a black patch over one eye with a black elastic band around his head to hold it in place. Very Johnny Cash.
Mr. Tritt showed me the basics, and from then on, it was bows screeching across catgut strings, making 1977 better for Jimmy Carter to become president, for the Vietnam draft evaders to be pardoned, and for Bowie as well as the Sex Pistols to release albums that were sure to anger your parents.
Mr. Tritt came to mind as I sat down to write this. In particular, I remember the method he used to teach me to play: one note at a time. Wise beyond his years in a roomful of inattentive sixth-graders, he would explain indefatigably, day in, day out, that you cannot learn a piece of music all at once. He taught us, learned us, that you simply take each note one at a time, a step at a time, until it all comes together
Not so very long ago, a dusty, loud man by the name of Socrates demanded that we do much the same thing for society: break it down logically, question everything and everyone. Property-owning men, at least, were required to do the questioning and vote. Compulsory participation? I’m in. As President of the Prague Writers’ Conference, Michael March commented last summer, “It’s business culture, business disguised as culture … and we must return to an individual way of thinking, a mismanaged thinking, a mismanaged individualism, in order to stop the intrusion of business culture on our lives.”
Here, I want to explore some examples of you in the gallery of ONE Magazine readers: readers we know are out there, who don’t fit neatly into the target markets and comfortable niches that are rapidly fading into the marketing plans of yesterday. Present, making, doing, observing, reading and participating—you are here.
Some of you are survivors, like Mrs. Grundstrom, who lives just down the hall from me. Well over 90 years ago, Mrs. Grundstrom was born in this very building, long before hospitals, pharmaceuticals or prenatal care were readily available in Edinburgh. On any given day, you might see a quiet elderly lady, dressed in a tan raincoat and translucent white rain bonnet, no matter the weather, taking careful steps along the way to Portobello High Street, carrying a white plastic grocery bag.
I’ve never been able to chat at length with Mrs. Grundstrom, to ask her about her experience of a century of the culture that used to include a resort and the UK’s largest heated outdoor swimming pool, located directly across from our five-storey stone tenement building with its panoramic views of the sea. Once, all the women in this building got together each week, and pitched in to clean each other’s flats; Mrs. Grundstrom misses the tradition.
I often carry her plastic shopping bag up our four flights of steps. One day, I saw her struggling to get something down off the shelf at the food shop, and offered to help retrieve the can of beans or sauce or whatever it was. I’m not sure she really recognized me outside the context of our common stairwell. It didn’t matter, she let me help.
Some of you make culture accessible, like the museum guards and ticket takers I notice here in Scotland. These guardians of art are an inclusive group comprised of males and females, old and young, and everything in between. They sit or stand with little to do but observe the rest of us watching whatever exhibition has been nailed to the walls or suspended from the rafters above. There was an excitement in the air among the staff at the Ron Mueck exhibition of enormous, oversized people sculptures. A perverse piety enveloped the mood of the Robert Mapplethorpe show. I imagine their solemn dedication can’t only be for the paycheck, because it takes stamina to stand for hours on end in our cool, quiet, hallowed art spaces.
Some of you are transforming yourselves from the inside, like the young men in my creative writing class at a local young offenders prison. All of them can tell you how they got there, but none of them can easily explain why they ended up there, which is what I’ve endeavored to help them find out for themselves. When they walk in like quiet boys in denim trousers and dark blue shirts, I can’t imagine what they’ve done, officially, to be incarcerated, and I’ve decided not to ask.
Only one of my group claims innocence, the rest blame confusion, booze and their neighborhoods. One guard commented that society, the schools and parents have failed each and every one of these kids. He speculated that something like 80% of the 650 inmates in the jail were in a drunken blackout when their crimes were committed, and have no idea what they’re answering for in court. One of my students claims he was never taken to a school or class before being sent to prison.
One day, when the subject of sectarianism came up, one of the boys—Irish, with family from Belfast—asserted that he is a devout Catholic, that he hates Protestants.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because of my family, the way I was brought up.”
When I challenged him again, he replied: “Because it’s just the way they are. You don’t know how it is where I’m from; if someone wears Protestant colors and we see ‘em across the street, you jump ‘em.”
“Why?” I continued. He became irritated, his face gathered a red pallor.
“Because, that’s the way it is.”
“Why? Why do you accept that’s the way it is?”
“Dunno!” He became more irritated. Suddenly, I was aware that I was sitting surrounded by a gang of guys who, at any time, could end me. Sure, I had defense training and an alarm button on my belt, but the fact was, they’re in the know. They’ve been trained too.
The others kept silent, and I reminded myself that I work with them because I don’t believe in throw-away people, and that I want them to question everything. I pressed on, albeit in a calm, measured tone.
“You go along with all of that—just because someone told you?”
“You don’t know!”
“You think I don’t know anything? What’s the difference between Protestant versus Catholic and black versus white?”
He looked down, red in the face, and tersely told me that I was really starting to annoy him—like real bad. Not sure what to do, I called him by his name, and told him very directly, “I respect you.” The redness disappeared from his face as it sank lower and lower toward the surface of the fake wooden tabletop.
The first time I met with my new group at the prison, I read them one of James Baldwin’s reflections on a father: “I did not want to think that my life would be like his … he wanted no distance between us, he wanted me to look on him as a man like myself. But I wanted the merciful distance of father and son, which would have permitted me to love him.” After finishing this paragraph written by a black man in the persona of a white homosexual, I felt a distinct drop in the barometric pressure in the room, and noticed a particular sadness on the faces of my young students.
Some of you are culture creators, like Ashley Page and the company of Scottish Ballet—one of the reasons I’ve remained in Scotland. Three years ago, during the Edinburgh International Festival, I saw ballet posters for a Balanchine program. Back in New York, I’d had a layman’s education in George Balanchine via the local publicly funded television channel, been taught performance as an adult undergraduate by a choreographer, and taken classes in Greek theatre with a dancer sitting beside me. Mr. Page’s Balanchine posters attracted my homesick heart.
Ironically, I ended up going with a friend from New York, who’d also come to the UK to pursue postgraduate bliss. We bought cheap student tickets, high in the rafters, for £4.00 each, and got Episodes and Rubies—there’s no excuse for being bored in Scotland if the ballet is on.
The Episodes, was signature black-and-white Balanchine. Our Rubies was a cacophony of brilliant physical forms, with pristinely crafted, crimson costumes and choreography that produced a precious mass of moving human treasure onstage.
Rubies culminated with each dancer taking a turn joining a grand collection of bodies centre stage. The last to join, the male principal, floated to the back, crowning the human sculpture with arms completely outstretched in a cross. They all froze. The crowd was ready to applaud. I held my breath. There was a millisecond’s pause. No one moved. Suddenly, he lowered both upraised palms from the wrists, from parallel to the floor to about a 30º angle. The jubilant crowd erupted.
Some of you are workers making the world a prettier place; for example, the young lady I know in Glasgow who goes by the name Emmafork. She can often be seen around town in full costume. The first time I encountered Emmafork, she made a grand entrance at a Veterans Hall party. Dressed head to toe in a cherry-red Andrews Sisters’ 1940s frock, she commanded the attention of the entire room. Since then, I’ve seen her bringing characters to life from movies with themes like “don’t dream it, be it” and stage musicals that make things “beautiful and new”. There’s even been a hint of stardust in Emma’s extended repertoire.
Some of you are travelers. At an airport in January of this year, I took a seat among a row of tall, white, awkwardly placed tables next to a large plate-glass window. Outside, I noticed a man sitting in a small towing vehicle, reading a small yellow booklet. The tarmac extended out in front of him—an idle plane to his right, number N907H—everyone was waiting.
A young woman and her son took the table next to mine and asked to borrow a pencil to do a crossword puzzle. I fumbled through my bag to find one I wouldn’t mind her keeping. “I swear I’ll give it back as soon as you leave,” she offered. The boy was very restless. They appeared to be embarking on some kind of major life journey. I imagined some sort of medical treatment or custody rearrangement—something. The young mother tried to reassure her son with familiar things, and I found it curious when she asked him to share a coffee.
At one point the boy, who was 12 or 13, walked very near to me. He wanted a conversation. I didn’t feel like it. I continued to observe. The boy looked rather small for his age as he emptied his trouser pockets onto the windowsill—wallet, wrapper with half-eaten candy bar. Then he gave me a curious, shy glance as he wandered around the wide corridor before finally returning to his seat next to Mom, and began staring out the big window. Elbow on sill. Forearm on elbow. Wrist, hand on arm. Chin on hand.
From the profile, I took note of his straight hair, cut to the outline of his face, covering the sides, ears poking through. He hopped back up on the chair and began to swivel, back, forth, back and forth, watching my every move in intermittent frames, so as to go undetected. After a while, his mother returned my mechanical pencil, and I offered her a pen to keep. The boy watched every motion as I fumbled in my pocket with the writing instruments, muttered something forgettable and left.
Some of you are soldiers. In another airport, this time in the southern US, I saw a young American soldier dressed in desert battle fatigues, designed for Iraq. Some travelers smiled at him as he bobbed around, an awkward twentysomething searching for his flight gate—very much like the young men from the Scottish regiments you see at Edinburgh Turnhouse or Glasgow International. He reminded me of my cousin, who went into the service just after Bush was elected—his only real hope of paying off about $30,000 of student loan debt.
Watching the young soldier pace, I couldn’t decide if I should pity or salute him, and wondered why he was actually in uniform—perhaps a $20,000 cash advance? I still find it difficult to think about servicemen and women—American, British or otherwise—caught in the crossfire of King George, Queen Blair and Mr. Murdoch.
Some of you are global inventors. For example, the genius who came up with the concept of dance parties where everyone brings her or his own headphones and music player. On behalf of all your neighbors: thank you! Some of you are victims of global inventors. On behalf of people who still like to dance together, groove together, soul together, smile, talk, laugh, kiss and grind together: get a life!
Some of you make the art for our contemporary culture, like Jakub, a young actor in Prague who I first encountered in a production of Brecht’s The Exception and the Rule. Jakub was the only Czech actor in the production, and he pretty much carried the show—another new James Dean, with sparkly eyes and pouting cheeks.
A few days later, I chatted with Jakub, curious to see what the path of a budding young actor in the new Czech Republic might be. We met in a tiny bistro where he also worked as a bartender. He came dressed in a fitted black T-shirt with red bands around the short sleeves, tight European trousers and a traditional ecru golf cap.
Before we met, I’d wondered if Jakub was enrolled at a theatre school, with grand plans for Paris, London or New York. He later explained that, while he’d like to travel, he planned to pretty much stay put geographically. He told me he loved his country and Prague, and wanted to develop his
In terms of training, while he’s enrolled in a prestigious school and likes classical theatre, he told me his main interest was street theatre, which he’d been practicing since he was a child. Jakub described how classical theatre requires concentration—which he said he lacks on some levels.
In comparison, he described his street theatre as an art form of symbols, developing your body and a conversation with an audience. I became captivated as he naturally incorporated hand movements and explained to me how contemporary street theatre in the Czech Republic was born out of the Velvet Revolution. We talked politics and some of the realities of his EU world. When I made a friendly suggestion that he might perfect his English to better serve his career goals, he responded with a perfectly Czesky facial expression, but agreed.
When I offered to see if I could help find him some arts funding, he declined and asked if I knew why. I said yes, but really wasn’t sure. When I offered, at least, to pay the bill for our drinks, he took the paper and said absolutely not. Dekuji.
Some of you are entrepreneurs, like Gaya Palmer of the Upper West Side in New York City. She calls herself Gaya Lee Palmerstein the “foist”, New York for “first”. On any given day, you might see Gaya—with platinum blonde hair, wearing black sunglasses with droplet-shaped lenses and dressed in a scarlet waistcoat—walking down Broadway with Maggie, her gray pet poodle. Maggie doesn’t have a leash: she doesn’t need one. You might see Gaya explaining why Maggie doesn’t need a leash to the chagrin of any number of Upper West Side busybodies, intent on enforcing the leash law. Every day, Maggie jumps and follows along just fine.
Over 15 years ago, Gaya founded her own novelty company, which exists inside her West 73rd Street live–work–discover–create and manufacture space. She makes New York Taxi Receipt Holders, which contain such helpful hints as, Try to call driver by name, not “Driver”, and New York Passport Booklets for tourists with such handy information as How to tawk like a real New Yorker: say “Please” and “Thank you”.
“The finest achievement of human society and its rarest pleasure is conversation.”
So, music teachers, musicians, philosophers, neighbors who are almost 100 years old, art guardians, rehabilitating young offenders and their guards, choreographers, dancers, mothers, sons, soldiers, cousins, inventors, actors, art lovers, entrepreneurs, et al. How’s that for a first peek into the gallery of ONE?
Sure, there’s more to the diverse, expanding and inclusive readership of ONE.
Life is today and you are here.
Martin Belk BA, MSc., is a co-founder of the ONE Project, an integrated, global publishing and web media venture based in Scotland—as well as Writer in Residence at Polmont Young Offenders Institution.
Martin received a master’s degree in Creative Writing from the University of Edinburgh in 2005. The year before he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in writing/cultural studies from SUNY Empire State College, NYC under the direction of veteran literary academic Mary Folliet. He has since completed his first book-length manuscript.
Martin also teaches Writing as an Act of Living – a course he created, incorporating the methods of Augusto Boal — Theatre of the Oppressed, Victor Turner and Folliet in America and Britain.