Chekhov’s First Play

Actor Cillian Murphy guest edits issue 25’s Commentary, drawing inspiration from luminous creatives in his native Ireland. Here, he selects an extract from the electric theatre company Dead Centre 

Dead Centre are one of Ireland’s most exciting theatre companies. I first saw their production Lippy at the Young Vic, in London, in 2015 – a truly haunting and original piece of work. Since then artistic directors Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd have continued to write and direct shows that fearlessly investigate and deconstruct their medium, while always delivering unpredictable and memorable nights in the theatre. Here’s a taste of some of their work: two extracts from a new piece… But for the real deal get yourself to one of their shows.

– Cillian Murphy 


As they enter, the audience are each given a set of headphones.

A red curtain.

The Director enters, holding a gun, stands in front of the curtain. He is dressed as himself. He goes to the microphone.

The Director. (whispers) Hello. I’m the director. Thanks for coming to – (out loud, off mic) Oh, you need to put your headphones on in order to hear me. (Back to microphone, whispers) Hello. I’m the director. Are all your headphones working? Let’s do a quick sound check: you should be hearing this in your left ear (they should) and you should be hearing this in your right ear (they should). Our production manager will swap them out if anyone has a faulty set.

Thanks for coming to tonight’s performance of Chekhov’s First Play.

You’re probably wondering why you’re all in headphones. Well, I did a version of this show last year and it went ok, but, talking to people afterwards, it became clear that a lot of people didn’t really get it, they didn’t really understand what I was trying to do. And that’s understandable because Chekhov’s first play is really complicated and messy… so I thought I’d set up a director’s commentary to explain what’s going on, what it’s about, and why you should like it. Personally, I always need things explained to me, especially art. I’m the kind of guy who goes to an art gallery and spends all the time reading the writing on the wall next to the paintings. I hardly ever look at the paintings.

And a lot of theatre, too, can feel complicated and inaccessible, especially these old plays, the classics. But they’re worth doing. They tell us so much about the world we live in now, they ask the big questions: who am I? What kind of a society do I want to live in? What do I want?

Chekhov was 19 when he wrote this and, as you’ll see, it’s not a very good play, but it’s hugely ambitious. It’s like all his other plays were in there, waiting to get out, all his ideas. This gun, for example. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the idea ‘Chekhov’s gun’ – it’s the idea that if you have a gun in a play… if you… if there’s a gun then you fire it… erm… actually I’ll explain that later… erm…

So, hopefully this commentary will make things clearer.

Ok, I’ll be offstage so I won’t distract you, I’ll just be a voice in your head. If you’re anything like me you already have a voice in your head anyway, so tonight you’ll have two. Hope it’s not too strange. It can feel a little intimate. Like even though everyone can hear this, it feels like I’m just talking… to you.

Looks at single audience member.

How are you? Comfortable? Make yourself at home. A theatre seat actually is sort of a home. It’s legally your private property for the duration of the performance. I found this out the other day.

Pointing gun at audience member.

That, even if you hadn’t come tonight, I couldn’t re-sell your ticket, as that seat is your private property.

Taking gun away.

And property, of course, is one of Chekhov’s main themes… See, that’s the sort of thing I’ll be doing throughout the commentary, unpacking key themes, making connections… And I know this microphone is very sensitive, so I’m sorry if you can hear me breathing, it’s a bad habit of mine.

Let’s get started.

Goes to leave but then stops

And I recommend keeping the headphones on, but if there are any members of the audience who are comfortable with the classics, feel free to take them off at any point and enjoy the play, as Chekhov intended.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Chekhov’s First Play.


A spotlight appears on a single audience member. The audience member slowly rises from their seat and moves forward on to the stage. They are hearing a different track from everyone else. They are receiving private instructions. They are Platonov.

The sound of the city. Traffic and electricity.

Platonov moves to the table and sits down. 

Everyone looks at him.

Everyone moves over to the table and sits.

Platonov pours shots of vodka for everyone.

They pick up the shot glasses.

One, two, three: everyone drinks.

Music starts.

All dialogue is now pre-recorded. The performers lip-sync their lines. They are losing their voices as they are losing themselves. At once liberated and truncated.

ANNA. How could you make us wait so long? It feels like we’ve been waiting a hundred years. It’s good to see you. Now we can have the fireworks

The demolition ball bursts into flames.

They all dance. It is a choreographed number. Platonov stands front and centre, and is obviously lost.

SASHA stops dancing and looks at her husband. She looks closely, and perhaps suspects he isn’t who he says he is. The others dance, synchronised.

SASHA. Are you ok? You’re acting funny. Come and sit down. Where have you been? You’re always late. You’ll be late to your own funeral. The late Platonov! Do you have a light? Do you even… smoke? I can’t remember. You’re like a stranger to me. Anyway, we can stay for a bit but then can we go? I don’t feel great. You don’t look so good either. Have you changed your hair? No, that’s not it. Have you changed your… face?

The others gradually finish dancing and the evening continues. They have been liberated by Platonov’s arrival and swirl around the stage. We only hear them when they are close to Platonov.

ANNA. Let me get you a drink, Platonov. Or something stronger? Now you’re here we should get a little high, don’t you think. Let our hair down. Be ourselves.

ANNA shivers.

ANNA. Someone googled me.

TRILETSKY. Here, man. Do us a favour? Would you play us that song? You know, the one we used to sing together in college? Christy Moore. The one about the airport.

He puts the guitar in Platonov’s hands.

I love that song. Go!

GLAGOLYEV. (Takes away guitar.) I hate your singing.

TRILETSKY. Irish music is the best in the world! Ireland’s the best country in the world.

GLAGOLYEV. It is and it isn’t.

TRILETSKY. I’ve been to London, and New York, whatever, and Berlin. Barcelona. Paris.

GLAGOLYEV. Great cities.

TRILETSKY. No they’re shite.

GLAGOLYEV. What do you mean?

TRILETSKY gets up on the table. The others throw food at him.

TRILETSKY. Because in one of those cities you can be at a party having the time of your life but you just know that somewhere else on the top floor of some building someone is having a better time, in a better life… you just KNOW that Kanye and Kim

or David Bowie

or Björk

or Marina Abramović

or somebody rich

or Prince

or an actual royal prince

or the fresh prince, Will Smith

or Zadie Smith

or Miranda July

or Anton Chekhov

or Kate Bush

or Kim Noble

or Miley Cyrus

or Billy Ray Cyrus

or P Diddy

or Brangelina

or Kate Moss

or Simon Cowell

or Angela Merkel

or Lena Dunham

or Eric Cantona

or Michelle Obama

or Chris Eubank

or Jay Z

or Dennis Hopper

or Marlon Brando

or Elvis Costello

or Snoop Dogg

or Tyler, the Creator

or Jim Jarmusch

or Jackie Chan

or Salman Rushdie

or Yanis Varoufakis

or Harmony Korine

or Castellucci

or Vladimir Putin

or Will Oldham

or Miet Warlop

or Nicki Minaj

or Thomas Ostermeier

or Michael Myers

or Matthew Barney

or Christopher Brett Bailey

or Tino Sehgal

or Steven Seagal

or Andy Lee

or Simon McBurney

or Justin Bieber

or Kenneth Goldsmith

or Macaulay Culkin

or Anna Wintour

or the fella out of the fuckin’ Arctic Monkeys are out there somewhere, having a better time than you. But here, in Dublin, there’s no such thing as famous people. There’s just us, Platonov. Think about it. What else is there? This might just be the coolest party in the whole country.

This article is taken from issue 25. To buy the issue or subscribe, click here


Editing issue 25’s Commentary, actor Cillian Murphy selects a photo story on Dublin by Rich Gilligan

“I don’t relish having my photograph taken. Strangely I know a lot of actors who feel the same way… I have worked with Rich Gilligan several times over the last decade, and for him I make an exception. He is a proper artist, one who understands how powerful, emotional and elusive an image can be.”

– Cillian Murphy

Cillian Murphy: Can you tell me how the project was born?

Rich Gilligan: This body of work came about as part of a collaborative book project, published by The Salvage Press in Dublin in 2018. Jamie Murphy (who designed, typeset and letterpress printed the entire book) approached myself and the poet Anne-marie Ní Churreáin to create fresh bodies of work somehow connected to Dublin. The brief was open to our interpretations and we worked independently until Jamie made sense of our individual narratives and combined the work through the lay- out of the book.

CM: It seems that you were seeking to represent Dublin in detail and texture rather than scale. Would that be accurate?

RG: Yeah, that’s true in a sense. I guess the fact that I grew up in Dublin and that it’s a place I know in great detail means that the work inevitably becomes personal, and, although I no longer call Dublin my home, I still feel a strong connection and familiarity to the city. The challenge with this work was to try to represent the distinct atmosphere and rhythm of the city relative to my own personal experience without the work feeling overly representational or sentimental.

CM: Can you tell me about being an Irish artist living and working in the states, and what that brings to your work?

RG: Living and working in New York, I do find myself tuned into a different frequency. There exists a heightened sense of my Irishness, but also a strange feeling that the place is constantly changing and evolving in your absence.

CM: Ireland seems to be experiencing a very fertile period across the arts: music, literature, visual art… Do you have any insight into what alchemy might be at play in creating this moment?

RG: It’s rare that while a movement is actually happening, people have a chance to pause and acknowledge it. After moving to NYC I found myself almost exclusively listening to Irish music and reading new Irish writers. For a long time I attributed this to some form of nostalgia, but, on reflection, I’ve realised it’s simply because there is so much incredible work consistently coming out of Ireland that it’s almost impossible to keep up. There is something uniquely visceral and confident about these new voices, and that is what stands out most to me. When that fresh confidence is mixed in with raw talent, things get really exciting. I’m not entirely sure what has driven this creative surge, but I like to think it may be one of the few positive forces that often come out of a downturn in the economy; like somehow now we’re witnessing the fruits of the creativity that was happening at such a challenging time.

This article is taken from issue 25. To buy the issue or subscribe, click here

Ireland(s) 2.0.

Actor Cillian Murphy guest edits issue 25’s Commentary, drawing inspiration from luminous creatives in his native Ireland. Here, he selects an essay on Irish political identity from the novelist Lisa McInerney

I mentioned in my introduction to this section a new creative energy at play in Ireland today. Politically things are different. There are many forces at work internally and externally. For all of the country’s recent transformation into a socially liberal state, I am also aware that there are many issues that are not ideal, that are in fact shameful and need addressing. I’m a huge fan of Lisa McInerney’s work – do read her novel The Glorious Heresies, it’s a wonderful book. She has very kindly contributed this essay on the state of our nation, in which she talks a fierce amount of sense.

– Cillian Murphy


It’s not going out on a limb to say that we Irish are partial to upheaval. Plantation, partition, famine, migration: We’ve been through so much upheaval that we define ourselves by O’Casey’s “states o’ chassis”. We can cope with chaos. We feel formidable for coping with chaos. Like Father Ted’s housekeeper Mrs Doyle, we like the misery. So on August 6th, when, at the Féile an Phobail leaders’ debate in Belfast, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar warned that a united Ireland would mean a “different state” and a “new constitution”, he might have been labouring – or buckling – under the misapprehension that everyone would think this overhaul a woeful prospect altogether.

Reunification will happen only by consensus in the North and in the Republic, but it doesn’t have to be a condition of our forging a new Ireland. As a thundering nationalist, it’s my duty to realise that Ireland is far from perfect, that she might benefit from a spit and a polish, if not a gutting and refitting.

It bothers me that ‘nationalist’ is an ugly word now. As I understood it, growing up bouncing between Galway and Cork in the ’90s, it was the softer form of ‘republican’, meaning that you were passionate about all 32 counties of your country, but not to the point that you’d get lairy over it. It meant self-determination, being smug about our collective soundness, knowing the words to A Nation Once Again, and never giving Le Royaume-Uni douze points in the Eurovision. It didn’t mean building walls or breaking unions or obsessing over flags. It was positive, community driven, rather left-wing.

Recent political trends recommend lexical redefinition. Frowns skitter across pals’ faces if we talk about notorious amadáin Trump, Farage, Orbán, Salvini or Le Pen. What use have we for the word ‘nationalist’ in the age of Brexit and climate change and refugee caravans? There seems to be a fundamental breakdown in terms if the left-wing, inclusive, comforting nationalism we espoused could have anything to do with this far-right screeching. To be united by fear or hate is to not be united at all, and unity is the cornerstone of nationalism, is it not?

This definition is colloquial, of course. When your country is divided, the nationalist goal tends to be the romantic one, and that nationalism can also be used to promote the divide et impera tactic doesn’t make a lick of sense at all.

It’s easy to be romantic about Ireland. Likely this is the case with any underdog country. Ireland has not invaded or enslaved and till very recently had no wealth to speak of, and is, therefore, not grabby about resources. When recent history is characterised by casting off shackles and facing fearlessly the mistakes of the past, it’s even easier. In particular, there were the marriage equality and abortion referendums in 2015 and 2018, each won by a landslide. Of the abortion referendum result, Varadkar said, “I believe today will be remembered as […] the day Ireland stepped out from under the last of our shadows, into the light.”

Leo Varadkar should be the perfect Taoiseach for today’s Ireland. Young – our youngest ever, taking office at the age of 38 – openly gay, the son of an immigrant, educated and accomplished, he is also quite right-wing, quite cold, slow to show his hand… a bit of a cute hoor, we’d say. “You all must love him,” I’ve been told, abroad, and it’s sad that I’m compelled to let our admirers down by retorting, “He’s an awful bollocks.” (Now, the Irish will call anyone in a position of authority or influence ‘an awful bollocks’: The parish priest, the bank manager, Bono, Maura from Love Island… I’ve even heard one heathen say it of our patron saint, Michael D Higgins.) It’s a tough task to be fair, for Ireland’s problems are many and no one Taoiseach can be expected to triumph over them all. Any one of those problems could have been the breaking of Leo, if Brexit hadn’t trundled in and driven us to distraction.

Possibly our friends in the UK are sure that it’s only their social problems that are ignored thanks to the rabid elephant in the room, but it’s the same this end. Brexit has profound implications for Ireland’s economy and our fragile peace, and so rightly it takes up our public servants’ attention. Varadkar could be otherwise engaged; his counterparts in the north should be otherwise engaged. Ireland is suffering the same greed-driven housing crisis as many of our European neighbours. As a result of this, and of our underfunded mental health services, homelessness is on the rise. The Republic’s health executive is a bloated, bureaucratic nightmare. The citizens of the six counties of Northern Ireland don’t have access to abortion services, nor do they have the right to marry someone of the same sex. Power-sharing in the North has collapsed. Prejudice is grand so long as the target is a member of the Travelling community. Asylum seekers in the Republic are stifled by the system of direct provision, where the state provides for basic requirements while curtailing access to work and third-level education. “The whole system is designed to remove one of the core human needs – imagination, the ability to dream,” says asylum seeker and LGBTQ+ activist Evgeny Shtorn, who fled persecution in Russia.

Despite, or perhaps because of all of this, political disengagement is common. When nationalism either means ‘frothing bigotry’ or ‘solidly performs Come Out Ye Black and Tans at parties’, it’s easy to disregard the concept of public duty, to absolve yourself of your obligation to act on what’s going wrong. We Irish are susceptible to inaction, not so much because of frothing bigotry, but a little because of Come Out Ye Black and Tans.

Romanticised nationalism, the kind you hear in song, is the kind that comes from enduring life in the shadows. The Irish inferiority complex is the reason for our collective pessimism, suspicion of authority, begrudgery, love of a good lie, capacity for schadenfreude, tolerance for shifty politicians and intolerance for those who develop ideas above their station. These characteristics are symptoms of an illness contracted from occupation, the tyranny of doctrine, generational poverty and inequality, emigration-as-culture, the loss of a language. The Irish – in the North and in the Republic – have a propensity to form an unhealthy relationship with their own state, enabling and enduring in cycles, because the Irish haven’t yet shaken off the suspicion that whinging is all we’re good for. The Irish employ black humour because the Irish are scarred. The Irish laugh because otherwise we’d never stop keening.

So we’re frustrating en masse, but in smaller numbers we’re astounding. So much progress is driven by individuals, community groups and grassroots activism. All over the island, campaigners throw their energies into beautifying their cities, fundraising for mental health services, supporting people living in direct provision, providing for the homeless. And if there’s anything that’ll make you weep into your cup of Barry’s tea, it’s the spontaneous #HomeToVote movement, where Irish citizens living abroad came back to vote in those historic referendums, because they knew their own power, and recognised their duty. Perhaps it’s a case of divide et impera strangely being the right tactic to deal with our inferiority complex. In Ireland nothing ever works how you think it will.

By rights, our politicians should be motivated to perform with that individual energy. If the grassroots movements are indicative of national reimagining, Leo’s feared gutting and refitting has already begun. Let’s see Ireland 2.0., Ireland stepping into the light as a nation of doers rather than bitter worriers, of nationalists in good deed as well as romantic thought. Our politicians, north and south, should get on board before the ship leaves the harbour.

This article is taken from issue 25. To buy the issue or subscribe, click here

Why Take Photographs?

Photographer Giles Duley – who himself was photographed minutes after he lost both legs and his left arm in 2011 as a result of stepping on an explosive device – asks how photography can be justified when documenting the horrific injuries of war

Abdulah in Erbil, by Giles Duley

I’ve covered few stories that have affected me as much as documenting injured civilians in Mosul. The time I spent there, earlier this year, left me questioning the validity of my work and bereft of hope. For a month after returning home I hid from the world. When faced with such darkness and violence, what value can a photograph have? Does it become voyeuristic to capture and share those moments? Against such horror a camera seems impotent, its use almost perverse…

I believe photography comes with great responsibility and as soon as I lift my camera to record somebody’s story, I have to ask myself: Why am I doing this? Nothing in photography goes more against human nature than the process of pointing your camera at somebody injured, afraid or in real peril. So, why do it? Does it, can it, make a difference?

In February I was based in a hospital run by EMERGENCY in Erbil. Every day they were receiving dozens of badly injured civilians from the fighting for Mosul. Even after over a decade of photographing the effects of conflict, the scenes I witnessed there were amongst the worst I’d ever seen. Babies with amputated limbs, a young child paralysed by a sniper’s bullet, whole families lost. It was beyond words.

In the past, I have referred to how I try and find a positive in such situations, a moment of humour, or to show the love between loved ones, families. But what I witnessed from Mosul left me beyond that: there are times when you can find no such image, no positive. I think back to Raghad, a man I met in the hospital: For four days, I watch him sit silently by his injured son’s bed. He nods when I walk by, nothing more. Then one day he comes over and grabs my arm.

“It was not my fault,” he pleads through dead eyes, a hollow expression I have rarely seen. “I did what I thought was right.”

He tells me his story: His family sheltered beneath a table in their home as bombs landed around them. The house opposite was hit, then the house next door, and at that moment his nerve gave; he told his family that they must run. As they left the front door, a third bomb dropped. Raghad’s wife, three daughters and two sons were all killed instantly. A son, Abdulah, survived, left blind in one eye.

There is nothing you can say to such a story. You cannot say ‘things will get better’, because they never will. There is no hope, no positive angle. This is the real face of war and its sinking, sucking horror.

I photograph his son against a white wall, a patch still on his left eye. Skin pitted by shrapnel, his expression as hollow as his father’s.

I could only see the darkness and terror of what was happening. I was shooting angry, disregarding my normal practice of not showing the blood and gore. I wanted the world to see what was happening and reel away as I had.

As the days passed, I knew this was wrong. It should not be about me, but about those I was photographing, and to do their stories justice I had to work in a balanced way. I don’t like the phrase ‘to give people a voice’, they have voices already – my job is to make sure those voices are heard.

But there’s still that question: Why do it? What difference will a photograph make anyway? Only recently I’d heard my inspiration, the war photographer Don McCullin, say there was no point to his decades of work because wars still go on. So, if my photograph makes no difference, why point my camera at a child who’s just been injured? It’s an intrusive act.

On the last day, I sit with Dawood Salim, a 12-year-old boy who has lost both of his legs and most of his right hand. For the past week, I’ve been visiting him and his mother: He always smiles and jokes. For the first time, I feel ready to take his photograph.

I ask his mother, “Do you mind if I photograph your son?”

She looks at me with a defiant yet resigned stare: “When a child is injured like this, the whole world should see.”

Does this answer my doubts? Does that make it all ok? Of course not. But it reminds me of my simplest role: to act as witness, to tell their story. What Dawood’s mother has said has not given me permission, but has challenged me to do what she has asked. There is no point in taking a photograph if I do not then do all I can to make sure the whole world sees it.

That is where my duty lies.

This is an excerpt from issue 21 of Port, out now. To buy or subscribe click here.

Duley’s exhibition, I Can Only Tell You What My Eyes See was shown from Wednesday 4th through Sunday 15th October, The Old Truman Brewery, 89 Brick Lane, London, E1 6QL.

In this article, he reflects on the exhibition and presents a video collaboration of the event directed by Phoebe Arnstein.

Watching Them Sleep

Author Rick Moody on the subject of young love, whose tenderest moments, though fleeting, give birth to some of our most profound and long-lasting emotions

At 17 I thought I knew all there was to know about love. In part I believed this because I was reading Byron, Shelley and Keats in a literature class in my senior year of high school, and in part because I had a large crate of LPs in my dorm room, and this crate was filled with love songs. I liked love songs about romantic destitution best. In fact, as a 17-year-old, I seemed to favour repelling love in my daily life so that I could feel the destitution of love, which would occasion playing the love songs that best celebrated this acute loss. I thought love was an indescribable violet, I thought it was a certain stretch of empty highway, I thought it was in the craggy outcropping of desolate snowy peaks that you can see in the valleys, I thought it was a hanging plateau of fog, or an elk glimpsed on a bit of empty prairie, or the call of the hawk swooping down on a trembling rodent. I was happy both to declare love and to declare its futility.

We had an obligatory religion class at my high school, and a large part of this class, to the chagrin of my contemporaries, was given over to wrestling with a knotty theologian called Paul Tillich. The 17-year-old dreamer version of Rick Moody applied himself to the class, and could readily spout Tillich’s phrase loving action when asked to describe the meaning of faith. I could tell you, because we’d had an exam on the subject, that this meant that love was not a static condition, but that in the throes of love one was outwardly directed, or ultimately concerned, as Tillich says; one was giving and expecting nothing in return, one was open and selfless, one was the wind off the inscrutable ocean, clearing away the detritus of selfishness, blowing where it listeth.

What little apocalypse was required to make this loving action a thing that one felt and lived rather than something one spouted in exams? Well, there was this girl – who I’ll call Brenda – who was a couple of years younger, meaning that at the time of this story we were almost exactly the age of Romeo and Juliet. Neither of us were allowed to vote, and neither of us could legally drink, and we went to a school where if a boy visited a girl in her room she was supposed to leave the door open, and have three out of their four feet on the floor. Brenda was from Colorado, and she had a really warm and loving family. She was put together like a level-headed person is put together. We didn’t have much in common but we were in love.

One day, Brenda and I were over in this school building called Memorial Hall, an assembly hall, which was empty. Brenda and I were just strolling around, and through some impulse we ended up sitting on the carpet, whereupon, in some glorious fit she, leaning against me, simply fell asleep. Brenda was blonde, oh reader of these lines, and she was tall, had a decidedly joyful smile, a great, earthy sense of humour, and a perfect laugh, and she fell asleep in my arms. Rather than wake her, I just held her, and let her sleep. It was not comfortable for me, not for long. But I had cause to think about all of this – who she was, how she was, how I was with her – and while she slept all the ups and downs, the star-crossed and difficult portions of our entanglement, were in arrest, and all was silence and awaiting.

It came to me, in the half hour that ensued, at least as I recreate it, that I had never known how she felt, not really, not from the inside, but as she slept I felt the beginning of some sentiment that didn’t require romantic destitution, didn’t require loss, but was rather a measure of the labour and service put in to being with someone, and the selflessness that comes from trying to figure out what’s best for the girl in your lap, rather than always thinking about what’s best for you, abuser of all the natural resources in your family and your group of friends. I held her, and watched, and waited, and there was no bounty of tears, there was no brush fire of the heart, there was just the outwardly directed feeling, which in turn, as the Sun in the window moved several inches in its across-the-carpet-ing transit, pointed toward the feeling of being ultimately concerned.

We did, it must be said, break up not long after that. Or we broke up and got back together and broke up again. And then I graduated. And moved several states away. Neither of us ever drank a draught of poison, or set themselves on fire at the ocean’s edge. Protestations of need of the epistolary sort would have been silly. We went on with our lives. But in my case I went on a bit wiser about what’s important. A still moment of being and giving and letting go could, it seemed, reveal where the deepest feelings are hiding out, waiting to be diagrammed over the decades to come. The deepest feelings are to be found in what you give. Brenda taught me in the simplest way possible, by falling asleep.

I’m now in my mid-50s and very happily married, and have a newborn son, as one should probably not have at my age, and a daughter who is almost eight years old, and I frequently have the opportunity to watch them sleep. In fact, nothing makes me happier than watching children sleep. Is it the love, the agape, that C S Lewis ascribes to the divine (him or her or itself ), the love that parents feel for children? Maybe. I know that something really pure takes place in these moments, the child breathing and dreaming in some vulnerable way that is beautiful and trusting. It doesn’t seem to matter much how old the children are. It’s a different model, this adult loving action, from the 17-year- old rental economy kind of love, the love-the-one-you’re-with desperation of the teenage years, and I’m glad for it, I’m glad it’s different, no matter how long it took to get here.

Keats said it best: “Silly youth doth think to make itself/Divine by loving, and so goes on/ Yawning and doting a whole summer long.”

Illustration Tim McDonagh

This is an extract from issue 21 of Port, out now. To buy or subscribe, click here.

Excessive, Explosive Enjoyment

Drugs are synonymous with countercultural movements but how have they influenced creativity, and do they still have a place in our artistic landscape today?

Illustration by Tim McDonagh

When we were teenagers in the late 1960s, drugs were new. Not only for us, but for our parents and for the culture. We suburban kids knew that something strange had been going on in London because even the world’s most popular group, the Beatles – who had been respectable and decent but had now got weird with their colourful clothes and unusual hair – had talked about it. The music they made in their great middle period was concerned with tripping and smoking and swallowing stuff that appeared to take your mind into a free, uncontrolled zone where the usual rules didn’t apply, where you might see that which was ordinarily hidden.

This music was about freedom and leaving home and, particularly at that age, freedom meant a lot to us. The boredom and violence of school, and the drudgery which had been planted ahead of us – work, mortgage, debt, childcare – was already heavy. Our future and what was expected of us had been laid down early. It wasn’t thrilling and we weren’t ready for it.

The London suburbs were not as affluent as the American ones. Our area was still wrecked from the war. The food was repulsive; the men wore bowler hats and education was an endless sadism. But The Graduate spoke to us pretty things. As Benjamin Braddock realises in Charles Webb’s lovely novel and Mike Nichols’ film, when he returns home from university his parents’ world looks false. From the kids’ point of view, the way the adults lived seemed crazy. Who would want to fit in with that uncomfortable, John Cheever-like world where everyone should be content and yet was not? Their unhappiness and discomfort was plain, and their pleasures – of alcohol and promiscuity – were half-hidden and guilty.

We were the wrong people in the wrong place. Some people said that art could change the way you saw things. But somnolent Mozart, or Hollywood movies, or Renoir paintings couldn’t make the revolution we craved. Then we heard Little Richard and Chuck Berry. Occasionally we could see the Rolling Stones or the Who on TV. Suddenly we became aware of a dirty obscene noise which violated all decency and which represented a heightened pleasure we hadn’t encountered before. It led to the fatal association: pleasure was insane. Too much of it could make you mad. Like sex, it was excessive. You couldn’t grasp or understand it, but you wanted it, and it could make you dance and want to be creative. Music – not the cinema, television, or the novel – was the most significant cultural form of the day and it changed everything for everyone.

It was sometimes said the country was awash with drugs, but try scoring when you needed something. In the late ’60s mostly we smoked hash, took amphetamines and downers, and dropped LSD, often at school. Baudelaire in his writing on drugs notices an encounter with what he calls ‘the marvellous’, but also with an increase in anxiety and paranoia when taking hashish. He also tells us that one is no longer master of oneself. You lost control. This might be an inspiration in itself. You could see and feel things stoned that you couldn’t know straight. There might be enhanced communication. If you were less cautious and uptight, you might be able to speak and laugh more. If you lost your straight self, you might discover a better one. You might want to live differently. That became the promise.

The fact that drugs were illegal and disapproved of made them doubly exciting. Breaking the parents’ law, or indeed any law, was a big kick in itself: you could believe that by arguing with prohibition you were making the world a little wider.

Writers like Baudelaire, de Nerval, Huxley and, later, Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson, wrote about drug-taking among the artistic elite. Now, for the first time, drugs were generally available and, like pop, they had even reached the suburbs. And the drugs we began to take in one another’s bedrooms, in the parks and later in the pubs, represented instant pleasure, while everything in the suburbs was deferred. Consumerism was about patience, waiting, slow accumulation and gradual improvement. Capitalism no longer starved the workers, but it starved them of pleasure. We were supposed to work, not make love. We were made aware that happiness, if not pleasure, was always elsewhere.

The West had been growing out of God. Religion was going but hadn’t quite gone, and was yet to be entirely replaced by consumerism. The threat of God’s disapproval was still used as a form of control. Yet as we drifted around in our tie-dyed grandad vests and ripped jeans, hiding from mods and skinheads, we knew that the game of traditional authority was up and that the law we were brought up to respect wasn’t sensible. Drugs were prohibited but worse things were allowed, if not encouraged: genocide, war, racism, inequality, violence. No one would kill their own children, but they were keen to kill other people’s. We didn’t believe the grown-ups, who were not grown-ups after all. The levelling of generations had begun.

Not only that, as the 1970s progressed, capitalism – which required everyone to be anxious and hyper-alert – began to falter. The system was more anarchic, bumpy and unpredictable than politicians made out. It went up and down quickly, and you went with it. The very things that capitalism likes to promise – growth, wealth, increased consumption – couldn’t be delivered. Soon there would be unemployment, social devastation and ‘No future’, as punk recognised. And yet capitalism could never be abandoned. Since the end of socialism, it saw itself as the natural world. The only way forward was to find a place inside it which wasn’t impossible, hence the retreat into spiritualism, yoga, Zen and mindfulness. Or drugs.

‘Drugs’, when they first became generally available in the ’60s, caused such outrage and consternation that we understood that it wasn’t the undoubted damage that they did which was the problem. The drawback wasn’t the possibility of ill-health or addiction but the instant pleasure which drugs provided. Or at least the pleasure that others believed they provided. This was what R D Laing called ‘a mental Shangri-La’ – the longing for something ‘beyond’.

In the 1990s and 2000s, drugs went respectable and mainstream. Ritalin, Prozac and other anti-depressants – substances which fixed adults and children up for work without the agony of self-investigation – became the royal road to efficiency. A subject’s life and the significance of symptoms were replaced by biology and the language of science; chemistry replaced an individual’s history and doctors were substituted for self-authority. We had become machines which dysfunctioned, not individuals with parents and a past that might be worth exploring in talk and art, or subjects wondering why, inexplicably, they were fatigued or exhausted. There were no illuminating questions or slowing down. The important thing was to function, to work, compete and succeed. Drugs, cures and ideas about what a self was had become an arm of capitalism.

Pleasure, the devil’s elixir, a magic substance more valuable than gold, is always a source of anxiety, which is why pleasure is usually located in other people or groups, where it can be thought about, enjoyed and condemned. The dangers of drugs were not the fact they made for disorientation if not madness and addiction, but that they provided too much unearned illicit, or even evil enjoyment. Drugs were an idiot’s euphoria. The story was: if you liked it, or couldn’t make money from it, it couldn’t possibly be good for you.

Of course, after so long, we now know that neither legal nor illegal drugs are it either. For a time, they seemed to promise freedom from the cycle of work and consumption. But rather than representing a point outside – a place of rest, spiritual enlightenment or insight – they became the very thing we thought they might replace. Soon we would see they created as much dissatisfaction as any other cheap fetishised object.

The druggies, from Baudelaire to Kerouac, had learned that the route to paradise wasn’t simple. Though Baudelaire talks of stoned bliss, of calm, of a place where all philosophical questions can be answered, and of a liberating vulgarity, he makes it clear what hard work it is having a good time all the time.

These artists were artists first, and stoners after. The demand for pleasure can become infernal, and another form of authority. And while drugs might make you poetic – filling the gaps in reality – they can render you useless, if not impotent.

No one believes in drugs anymore. At least in art there is movement and thought. Working at something intransigent, one can make and re-make oneself, combining intelligence with intuition. Drugs, when they are effective, abolish ambivalence. But being an artist can never be straightforward. You must cede control and give way to chaos. In art, as in any other form of love, there will be strong feelings of attraction and of abhorrence. Artists may love what they do but they also hate it. Work can become a tyranny and treadmill. It is boring; the material resists; the audience might be uninterested. It can never be an uncomplicated or straightforward pleasure.

Not only can few artists make a realistic assessment of their own work, their state of mind cannot be expected to be serene. There can be no art without anxiety, self-disgust, fear of failure and of success. It is hard and dull labour, and can feel forced. Notice how almost impossible it is to convince an artist how good their work is. But that is the price of the ticket. At least one is going somewhere.

Illustration by Tim McDonagh

Our Genes, Ourselves

Considering the extraordinary potential of genetic engineering, Brian Patrick Eha wonders whether it will aid humanity, or create a new form of inequality

In 1866 a friar in what is now the Czech Republic, who had spent several years cross-breeding pea plants in his monastery garden, published a paper describing some of the laws that govern the inheritance of genetic traits. Largely ignored in his own time, Gregor Mendel could hardly have known all that his groundbreaking work would one day yield. Since the successful mapping of the human genome in 2003 – a kind of lunar landing for the cosmos within us – research in the field has progressed to a startling degree. Genetic engineering, once belonging only to the realm of science fiction, is now a headline-making reality.

One of the latest post-genome mapping innovations is CRISPR-Cas9, a powerful new method of gene editing that promises to give humanity the power to modify our own genetic code. By using enzymes to locate and snip out bad genes before inserting beneficial ones, CRISPR could be used to cure a host of harmful conditions, including cancer. Dubbed a ‘search and replace function’ for DNA, it could even impart HIV resistance to those at risk of infection.

Genetic engineering has other uses, too. Last autumn, Chinese scientists announced that they had engineered hyper-muscular beagles using CRISPR. By altering the dogs’ embryos, they ensured that the animals, if bred, would pass on the genetic mutation to their pups. The first CRISPR trial with human patients began this August. In the absence of new regulation, innovation continues to play out at the edge of ethics. Cell biologist Paul Knoepfler may have had the beagle experiment in mind when he told the New York Times last June that the field of genetic research “seems to move in dog years. It feels like seven times faster than real time.”

Largely unnoticed amid the furore over CRISPR has been the work of GenePeeks, an American genetics start-up whose technology could revolutionise family planning and public health. GenePeeks offers an ounce of prevention where CRISPR promises a pound of cure. Rather than editing the DNA of living cells, the company simulates the process of reproduction by digitally combining the DNA of prospective parents to find out what genetic diseases, for example cystic fibrosis, their future children would be at risk of developing.

“What our technology does is predict the genetic profile of a hypothetical child, pre-conception,” says Anne Morriss, the company’s co-founder and chief executive. “We literally make digital babies.”

It works like this: prospective parents seeking the help of a sperm or egg bank – couples with male fertility problems, same-sex couples, single women – provide a saliva sample that is analysed at GenePeeks’ sequencing lab in Missouri. Their DNA is then digitally combined with the DNA from thousands of donor sperm or eggs to produce simulated babies. The would-be parent then receives a risk report. Until now the company simply eliminated from contention any donor whose genome posed any risk whatsoever to the prospective parent’s future child. But from now on GenePeeks will share everything with clients, including the particular genes and mutations that may have led to disease. Should there be a red flag, a ‘genetic counsellor’ will be available to answer their questions; their as-yet-unconceived children’s genomes will be an open book.

The service, which costs about $2,000, is not yet available to ‘mainstream’ couples, but the numbers being crunched are staggering. GenePeeks matches clients up with every donor in its network, creates 10,000 digital babies for each pairing, and checks each digital baby for more than 8 million genetic mutations. And the technology is improving all the time. GenePeeks continually takes in new data from the US National Institute of Health, the Sanger Institute and other organisations, allowing it over time to add to the list of mutations – and resulting diseases – it screens for. (Later this year, the number of diseases will jump from more than 500 to more than 1,000.) “If there wasn’t this worldwide community of public data resources, our company couldn’t exist,” says Lee Silver, a molecular biologist at Princeton and co-founder of GenePeeks with Morriss.

As the genetic databases grow more comprehensive, it may even become possible to assess the risk of inheriting complex diseases such as diabetes, in which multiple genes are implicated rather than just the current single gene disorders. “We are entering a whole new era,” Ronald Green, a bioethicist at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, told the Guardian in 2014, “an era where biology becomes information.”

Some 6,000 known diseases are caused by genetic mutations, but only five per cent of them can be treated. Of those we can treat, many are quite rare, making the available therapies enormously expensive. Glybera, the first gene therapy to be approved in Europe, is instructive. It treats a life-threatening disorder that causes acute pancreatitis and which afflicts about one in every 1 million people. With a price tag of $1m, it has been bought only once since hitting the market in 2012 – a “commercial disaster”, according to the Economist.

But we can’t afford to dismiss such rare conditions. The 600-odd diseases that GenePeeks detects – all of them conditions linked to individual genes – together account for more than 15 per cent of infant deaths and paediatric hospitalisations. As genetic researchers have known for nearly a decade, and clinicians are now beginning to understand, everybody on the planet is walking around with disease-causing mutations. Most rarely result in problems, because they involve recessive genes, meaning that only people who inherit mutated copies from both ‘carrier’ parents are at risk. This helps to explain why testing one parent for potentially harmful traits is not sufficient. “The patient of interest to you,” says Morriss, is not the prospective mother or father but “the child that these two people may conceive.”

That proved true for Morriss herself. Without knowing it, she was a carrier for MCAD deficiency – a serious metabolic disorder – and so was the sperm donor she and her female partner chose. Only a warning from the doctor a few days after Morriss gave birth saved her son, Alec, from dying in infancy. But for the first year of his life, she was afraid that he wouldn’t wake up in the morning. Having done everything she could to provide for her infant son, she has said, it was devastating to realise that “the biggest threat to my son’s life was embedded in my own genome.”

GenePeeks was born out of that fear. Morriss, who has an MBA from Harvard, sees the company’s service as a “natural extension” of the maternal instinct to protect the health of one’s child. She and Silver launched their initial service quietly in 2014, working with a couple of sperm banks, but in October 2016, at the annual meeting of the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, they will launch publicly, announcing their new service for the patients of fertility clinics. 

In the United States, about 400,000 people visit fertility clinics each year. Another 50,000 go looking for a sperm donor, and a further 25,000 seek out an egg donor. In the first year, then, nearly half a million Americans will be eligible for a GenePeeks test. By the end of 2016, the service will have also been rolled out in Japan.

With a potential client base of that size, the company could kick off a revolution in public health, making it de rigueur to identify and eliminate disease risk before conception. Such a sea change in reproductive care would sharply reduce infant and childhood mortality rates, as well as the number of elective abortions performed after prenatal testing reveals a disorder in the foetus. Of those tested, “most people will get great news,” Morriss says. “More than 90 per cent of people will learn there isn’t a risk. But in six or seven per cent of the cases there’s going to be a real risk” – a 25 per cent chance that the parents’ child could be born with a serious disease.

To read through the list of harmful conditions GenePeeks screens for is to confront a host of exotic pathologies, of which the public has little or no awareness. There is combined SAP deficiency, which can cause muscle twitches and seizures as well as fatal lung infections; Ellis-van Creveld syndrome, which stunts bone growth and commonly causes life-threatening heart defects; hyaline fibromatosis syndrome, which slows growth, causes painful bumps in skin and, in its severe form, can result in death. There are hundreds more like them – or rather unlike them, for each is unique, and uniquely terrible.

The idea that we could wipe out these diseases, make them extinct, is enormously appealing. Morriss says: “We would like to be standing at the door of every fertility clinic or  practice or family practice”. Standing, that is, at the doorway of life, ready to thrust back the frailties of mankind.

There is a subtle but crucial point to make here: GenePeeks’ service does not ensure that all children will be born free of genetic disease; it ensures, rather, that genetically diseased children will not be born. Embryos with defective genes will never be given a chance at life. Even if the technology had existed before Morriss herself gave birth, she would not have been able to spare her son the dangers of MCAD deficiency; she would instead have given birth to a different son, using a different sperm donor. Alec would never have existed.

For those couples committed to the idea of conceiving together who have a high likelihood of passing on a harmful disease, GenePeeks’ service can be used as an early-warning system, preparing them for the challenges they might face after birth. It can also be coupled with in-vitro fertilisation – creating embryos, testing each of them for genetic mutations and implanting only those which are disease free into the mother’s womb, while discarding the rest. In that way, every parent could ensure the birth of a healthy child.

It thus becomes a fraught question as to what we consider a disease. The bestselling book NeuroTribes, for instance, has argued that autism should be treated less as a potentially curable disease than as a different mode of cognition, a different way of being. Silver acknowledges that there may be an “ideological battle” to come, but for now, he says, every disease GenePeeks screens for quite plainly involves “a deficiency in gene activity”. When it becomes possible to evaluate risk for more complex conditions, says Silver, “we’re going to be focusing on conditions that are a serious detriment to life.” (He includes autism among them, and told me last year that GenePeeks could already catch 20 per cent of autism cases with its current technology.)

In interviews, Morriss is adamant about not being in the ‘designer baby’ business, insisting that her company’s clients are interested only in healthy – not perfect – children. GenePeeks’ patents, however, far from reflecting this narrow mandate, are incredibly broad, covering “the likelihood that a hypothetical child of any two persons […] will express any trait or disease that is subject to genetic influences” – including height, eye colour and skin colour. It’s not hard to imagine this technology – or that of a future competitor – expanding from strictly therapeutic to purely cosmetic uses.

Should parents, for example, be able to select their future child based on appearance? The technology to do this already exists. GenePeeks’ patents declare that “same-sex and infertile couples will be able to simulate the genomic profile of their ‘own’ purely hypothetical child and match this profile to the ones created virtually .”

Stephen Latham, the director of Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, puts the case against so-called “liberal eugenics” eloquently. While selective reproduction “can have some good effects in the sense that it can avoid expense, burdens on families, burdens on caregivers,” he says, “it has a very bad effect on currently existing disabled people, because it makes them rarer, it makes us less used to dealing with them and it makes us want to devote fewer resources to them. It makes us blame their parents for their existence – as if any good parent would have avoided having a child that creates this kind of burden. If we have a world where people can avoid having children with disabilities, then when people with disabilities are born, they will be that much more marginalised.”

Silver himself was once a proponent of radical genetic engineering – a kind of CRISPR run amok. In his 1997 book Remaking Eden, he opined that “in a society that values individual freedom above all else, it is hard to find any legitimate basis for restricting the use of reprogenetics.” Yet he predicted that the use of these technologies eventually would enshrine in society a caste system divided between what he called the ‘GenRich’, a genetically enhanced elite, and the unmodified ‘Naturals’, a permanent underclass. Eventually, he writes, “the GenRich class and the Natural class will become […] entirely separate species with no ability to cross-breed, and with as much romantic interest in each other as a current human would have for a chimpanzee.” Silver now finds such predictions naive.

“What I didn’t realise then and have since come to realise, is that just because something can be done, doesn’t mean it will be done,” he says. “CRISPR is a pretty drastic step. It’s genetic engineering of the embryo with a friendlier name. People get very worried when it comes to altering the genomes of human beings. We’re not doing that. We’re going to let parents have an embryo implanted that might have been implanted anyway. But instead of rolling the dice, we’re putting the dice on the table.”

CRISPR, it turns out, can inadvertently go off target, ignoring the right genes and snipping the wrong ones, modifying regions of the genome potentially to harmful effect. New research has shown that the algorithms developed to predict off-target effects – and to look for them in CRISPR’d cells before introducing the cells to a patient’s body – miss a significant number. Imagine trying to cure a patient’s cancer with CRISPR, only to find that you’ve accidentally activated a cancer-causing gene. Rolling the dice indeed. GenePeeks’ service, says Morriss, is “a much safer and a much saner way to protect the health of your family”.

CRISPR research shows no sign of slowing down. The very real risks, to say nothing of popular concerns about playing God, haven’t stopped researchers from racing to develop and perfect new techniques, nor have they stopped venture capitalists from pouring tens of millions of dollars into the start-ups trying to harness and market the technology. So what will the public ultimately choose: an ounce of prevention, or a pound of cure? Will people reject such technologies altogether? Or will the prevention of genetic diseases prior to conception become mandatory, like vaccinations after birth?

In all likelihood, it will be parents themselves who drive the demand for such services. Why should we let the imperfections of our genes hold our offspring back? “We are at a place as a species that we can do this,” Morriss has said.

Fast forward to 2026. What might a world of ubiquitous genetic intervention look like?

By then effective gene therapies may exist for many diseases, while GenePeeks may be able to detect children’s risk of inheriting even complex conditions such as heart disease and diabetes. Less positively, the world of sport might well be scandalised by widespread “gene doping” – think hyper-muscular beagles in human form.

Some couples – or some countries – may take China’s one-child policy much further, selecting and bringing to term only those embryos with their preferred sex, skin colour, eye colour, height and other attributes. In Western nations, on the other hand, you may need a religious exemption to get out of mandatory genetic screening before having a child, just as my parents did to get me out of vaccinations as a tot. Insurance companies may refuse to cover your kids if they end up being born with a disease you could have prevented.

In the future, genetic inequality may be the issue of the day, just as income inequality is in ours. Feminists could demand that a GenePeeks-like service be fully subsidised by the government, arguing that to deprive a mother-to-be of such a vital procedure would prevent her from making a fully informed reproductive choice. Meanwhile, bioethicists will debate issues of privacy and consent related to unborn babies.

These things may never come to pass, or they may only scratch the surface of the radical changes to come. Morriss, who started her career working on poverty issues in the developing world, points out that the world is already “genetically stratified”, since in many countries only the affluent can afford to care for a child with a serious inheritable disease. The latest drug to treat cystic fibrosis costs more than £100,000 a year – so much that the United Kingdom’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence rejected it as too expensive for the National Health Service. While the drug is available in the US, France and Germany, “kids with cystic fibrosis are being born all over the world,” Morriss points out. “What we’re talking about is a world where you have a fighting chance to protect your family.”

Even Latham readily admits GenePeeks’ potential for good. But he’s concerned about the idea of expanding its service to cover complex conditions in which multiple genes are implicated, the interactions of which are not well understood. “The moment you get away from pretty simple single-mutation diseases, you start getting into a world where actually we’re not very good at genetics yet,” he says. And he wonders openly how parent-child relationships might change “if, rather than children being a surprise and a gift, they start looking like a selected product”.

Between parents’ urges to safeguard their children and governments’ need to rein in health costs, the ability to avert, or repair after the fact, the most devastating outcomes of conception will likely be irresistible. Beyond that, who knows? As Silver wrote in Remaking Eden, “The desire to have biological children and to provide them with the greatest number of advantages is a powerful force indeed.”

Words Brian Patrick Eha

Illustration Celyn Brazier

This article is taken from PORT issue 19, out now.

Brexit: The Case to Remain

PORT contributors Will Self, Janine di Giovanni and Hanif Kureishi put forward their reasons to remain in the EU


Will Self

The Brexiters have shown their true colours with their dog-summoning campaigning – it’s whistled-up our old racist friend, the British bulldog. Just look at the rump of their support: valetudinarians in support stockings who’ll be hobbling on their Zimmer frames to the polling booth in order ruin their grandchildren’s future. I’m not claiming that everything in the European garden is lovely – or even that it can be made to bloom, but we live in a febrile and fissiparous world, and institutions which have a proven record of maintaining stability should be cleaved to like never before. There’s all of that – and there’s also the unutterable beauty of French women, and the fabulousness of European culture. You’d swap that to be shafted by Ronald McDonald? Salopes! While your leaders are true rois des cons

Janine di Giovanni

In terms of international security, alliances are important. We might scoff at NATO and find it a relic of the Cold War, but in times of military urgency – such as Russia’s creeping westward expansionism onto Ukraine and eyeing the Baltic states with glee – they are necessary mechanisms for peacekeeping. I am French, British and American by nationality, and each one of my passports is an integral part of my identity, so I do understand the argument of the Leavers, but I strongly disagree with it. I think that remaining in the EU is essential for Britain, for trade, diplomacy and the economy, but also for moral responsibility. Britain was an important part of the Allies in World War II, and frankly, with the rise of ISIS and global terrorism, as well as pressing issues like climate change and epidemics, we are in dark times. We need each other, and each part of the EU is an interlocking part of the puzzle of globalisation. Yes, the Brussels bureaucrats are often lazy, inefficient and ridiculous, but the concept of the EU –like the concept of UN or the League of Nations – is about strategic alliances and partnership. Standing alone, in days like these when terror attacks and wars are literally borderless, is desperately unwise. I vote to Remain, of course.

Hanif Kureishi

My neighbourhood in West London, which I rarely leave, but, which could be considered a microcosm of the city, buzzes with the hybrid energy of Italians, French people and Arabs, as well as Africans of all kinds. We live together fruitfully and creatively, and rarely want to kill one another because of religious or racial differences. We have created one of the richest, most tolerant and culturally mature societies on earth. The wealth and success of Britain has always been based on exploitation: on Empire, immigration and the other. Now, unfortunately, the very people who made London the wonder it is are despised. And the so-called ‘migrant’ is being used as a spectre, threat and excuse. We are facing a crisis in Europe, which concerns not only the possibility of more neo-liberal destructiveness and greed, but also a backlash, which has caused a new and dangerous Right to re-emerge. These opportunists, hucksters and snake oil salesmen – from Le Pen, to Hofer and Boris Johnson – with their simplistic, opportunistic solutions, are dangerous precisely because they utilise the energy of the many disillusioned and disappointed. This threat should remind us that we must reaffirm and fight for the humanity of the European Project, which, at its centre and despite its failings, concerns egalitarianism, feminism, sexual freedom, and particularly a tolerant and non-racist multi-cultural future.

Neil LaBute: Right Back @ You

US playwright and film director Neil LaBute wonders #whendidwebecomesofuckingneedyandruthlessandawful?

Illustration by Jason Ford
Illustration by Jason Ford

That’s a rhetorical question, mind you, since I’m sitting at my computer writing this and there’s no one at my table who can respond to the query, even if I wanted them to. If there was someone close by me, however, I’d certainly want them to just shout their answer out to me – like we used to do it in the old days – rather than text it or tweet it or trend it or like it on my Facebook page (which, to be fair, would be doubly difficult to do as I do not and never will have a Facebook page).

It seems that we have come to a crossroads of sorts in the life of human expression: back in what I will fondly call “the day” people used to speak when spoken to, write things down in their diaries, and communicate openly with one another. If you wanted to say a nice or mean thing to a person, you did it to their face (can you even imagine it?), or if it was behind their back it was at least to someone who knew them so you knew that it would, in time, get back to them.

Today we utilise a cloak of the latest technology to mask ourselves in screen names and anonymity as we blurt out everything that comes to mind, anything that we feel might be remotely clever or funny, and whatever the hell we want to simply because we can. We have become a society of internet sociopaths that is blazing a trail of snark and hate across the web and throughout humanity with little or no regard for our fellow man (or woman, whom I want to be sure to mention, lest someone decides to cut and paste my name next to the word “misogynist” yet again).

Mind you, I’ve blazed plenty of trails of snark and hate, in fact it’s become part of the bread and butter of my career (including 10 or so films and twice that many plays and short stories) – but most of those comments were hurled at fictional people and not in the direction of anyone who was actually living and breathing. When did the world become so critical, so filled with rage and ready to attack the best and the worst and all that lies in between? Obviously people like to see their name in print – that’s always been the case – but never has it felt so much like open season as it does today.

Now it is done with relish and passion and folks can’t seem to help themselves from tweeting the most inane crap that has yet to be recorded in the annals of history. Social websites of all types are popping up with frightening frequency, and encouraging the public at large to say virtually (as in “almost”) anything they want to about their content, from hilarious right down to the meanest shit on Earth that has ever been said about any living person, period. Why? Because there is no one who can stop it (yet), because someone (usually) has found a way to make some money out of the situation, and, in today’s free market economy, commerce trumps all other forms of sense, logic, taste and/or morality. In terms of actual vitriol and contempt, I am now merely an amateur compared to anyone with an iPhone and a desire to spread nastiness about their fellow man (or woman). I may be a Luddite, but I’d trade a few lightning-quick updates on Syria for a few less handheld clips of Madonna in concert or tweeted death threats by public school bullies. I’m funny that way.

In some form or another, I’ve been getting reviews on work that I’ve written and/or directed for the past 20 years, and while I don’t always agree with the critics (and have written them a variety of responses stating that fact), I have respected their position as critics and duly read their work in response to my own. The fact that their job is a reactive one and not an artistic one is simply a fact, and if they are often vengeful, mean-spirited and jealous I usually put it down to bad manners and the way they were raised. I have even read of a critic openly wishing that my own mother had cut me out of her belly before birth (I’m assuming in an attempt to keep me from writing the show that he happened to be reviewing, but perhaps just for the act of violence itself), so I know the world of which I speak.

That said, I think I would rather read a few more of those reviews – with bylines and photos of the mean little bastards who write them attached – then yet another anonymous tweet or blog that simperingly tries to make fun of another person without having the decency or the balls (except for you ladies, of course) to say: “Hey, I feel this way and I wrote that.” Once we all start taking a bit more responsibility for our withering remarks and for at least acknowledging that we are wasting other people’s lives with our tweets and fucking hashtag comments, then maybe (just maybe) we can all get back to the act of living and working and experiencing one another in real time and with some sense of actual interaction. The world wide web was supposed to bring us together – I believe it has created an army of lonely people sitting in their underwear in the darkness of their own homes (rented not owned) lashing out at the world around them. Hey, that’s only my opinion (but at least I am wearing pants as I write this).

I used to love reading theatrical stories of Joe Papp kicking reviewers out of one of his shows at the Public Theater in Manhattan or of the wonderful director David Leveaux cold-cocking a critic over something that he printed in his bitchy column in a New York news rag. I threw a photographer out of a production of Fat Pig in London when I discovered he was there trying to get the first bikini photo of Kelly Brook. We almost came to blows in the street but I’m secretly happy he stood his ground and copped to the fact that he did his shitty job because “they pay me a lot of money”. He didn’t lie about the fact he was a worm – he shouldered the burden and slithered away.

I’m not an advocate for a return to dueling in the tradition of the 18th and 19th centuries (unless everyone else thinks it’s a good idea and then I’m game), but I appreciate it when someone stands their ground, fights their battles and attributes their own name to their viral bile. Believe me, critics hate it when artists (or even readers) bite back, but why shouldn’t they? Why is their review or post or article the end of the conversation? People can say whatever they want – apparently that free speech thing applies even when what is said is stupid and uneducated and of no use to anyone. Men (and women) have died for this right so I stand solidly behind it and all I ask is that these folks (the bloggers and tweeters and comment-makers of this world) show their faces and state their names, instead of cowering behind anime icons and bogus email addresses.

What happened to us that created such a race of pussies and posers? I have no idea, but I’m going to strip down to my undies, go online and figure this out immediately.

This story was taken from issue 8 of PORT. To subscribe or buy a back issue, click here

The Want of War: Owen Sheers

Stories of frontline battle are increasingly told by those who have never taken part. Just how urgent are realistic narratives of current warfare and to whom should we look for these accounts?

Illustration by Tim McDonagh
Illustration by Tim McDonagh

Nostalgia. Melancholia. Wind Contusions. Soldier’s Heart. Abreaction. Effort Syndrome. Not Yet Diagnosed – Mental. Not Yet Diagnosed – Nervous. Exhaustion. Battle Exhaustion. Combat Exhaustion. Shell Shock. Neurasthenia. Traumatic Neurosis. Psychoneurosis. Fear Neurosis. Battle Neurosis. Lack of Moral Fibre. Old Sergeant Syndrome. War Syndrome. Combat Fatigue. Acute Stress Disorder. Acute Stress Reaction. Combat Stress Reaction. Post-Combat Disorder. Post-War Disorder. Post-Traumatic Illness. Post-Traumatic Disorder. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

These are just some of the phrases the military and medical community have used over the years in their attempt to diagnose and define the psychological effects of conflict. It’s a list that represents a potted linguistic history of their efforts to capture in words the long mental and emotional tremor of violence, most often committed and suffered far from home. It is also a list that begins with a word we use today with very different connotations – ‘Nostalgia’, first coined by a medical student in the 17th century to describe a psychological condition suffered by Swiss mercenaries when fighting far from their mountain landscapes of home. The word is rooted in this idea of longing for a homeland, comprised of the Greek Homeric word for ‘return home’ or ‘homecoming’, nostos and ‘pain’ or ‘ache’, algos.

I compiled this list of phrases for a scene in a play I wrote called The Two Worlds of Charlie F. The play was based upon the experiences of recently wounded service personnel, who also formed the majority of the cast, making the production a recovery project as well as a piece of theatre. But a recovery from what exactly?

For many of the frontline soldiers involved, their trauma, the ‘pain’ or ‘ache’ from which they were recovering was, like those Swiss mercenaries, associated with returning home and with a sense of longing. In working with the cast of Charlie F., however, I soon discovered that unlike their historic Swiss counterparts, the pain from which these contemporary soldiers most often suffered was not a pain of longing to return home, but rather a pain of returning home. Nostalgia – that desire to be somewhere else – still formed a crucial part of their condition. But now, in the 21st century, it tended to be no longer nostalgia for a distant homeland that haunted them, but rather a nostalgia for combat – for the very war and its experiences that had wounded them, either psychologically or physically, in the first place.

As we worked through the process of putting the play together I came to realise that the list of psychological and medical terms I’d written, although chronological and therefore linear, was actually a circle too: one in which the original meaning of its first condition, ‘Nostalgia’, had been inverted in the experience of its last, ‘Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder’. The pain of missing, if the contemporary soldier suffering from PTSD is anything to go by, is no longer a pain suffered in the field, but is now more a condition of returning home. And the longing at its heart is no longer for a place of safety where these soldiers once lived before the war, but rather for the war itself.

So what lies behind this inversion? And why is the mental condition of returning British soldiers today, whether diagnosed with PTSD or not, so marked by a desire to be away from home and back in combat?

Well, firstly we have a professional army of volunteers, many of them very young. And by young, I mean children really. Britain is the only country in the EU where a child of 16 can still join the Armed Services. With their parents’ permission they can begin the process of applying to join even earlier, at the age of 15. What this combination of youth and a professional army means is that every soldier I worked with wanted to go to war. Robert Harris once said “there is a hole in modern man where a war should be.” Well if you join the army that hole can be filled, and most soldiers want it filled. They want their war. As one young marine put it, if you don’t experience combat as a trained soldier, then it’s like “going to the fairground but staying off the rides.” When I asked these young men and women about their first reaction to being deployed overseas, the consistent answer was simply, “It was a chance to do our job. A chance to do what we’ve been trained for.”

In this respect these soldiers reminded me somewhat of actors. Actors train in their art, their craft, but can only practice it, can only ‘be actors’ after a series of hinge moments have swung their way – hearing about the audition, getting the audition, being cast in the role. Similarly all the soldiers I worked with felt, despite any amount of training, that they weren’t yet soldiers, they weren’t yet complete, without experience of ‘proper soldiering’. And by proper, they meant violent conflict. Being deployed overseas. Fire fights. Risks. Engaging the enemy. Kills.

Added to this professional desire to experience war is the fact that in Britain, as in many other countries, we recruit the majority of our infantry from the most disadvantaged areas of society. As such, many of the boys I spoke with weren’t so much joining the army as leaving their current lives – unemployment, difficult situations at home, trouble with the police, boredom or simply poverty and the lack of a regular pay packet. Once in the services, the desire to go to war is an extension of this leaving – a further progression away from everything that pushed them from their home life in the first place, and propelled them towards its polar opposite – the unusual, the foreign, the well-paid, the exciting.

Although the ethos of the professional soldier finally getting to put his training into practice might be sufficient to get a young man out to Afghanistan, once in the country, if he is a frontline fighter, then his motivation for performing his role often begins to alter, and at an accelerated pace once a soldier known to him is killed or wounded. From this point onwards fighting the enemy is no longer about ‘doing their job’, but becomes motivated by something altogether brighter and darker at once – love, and its rougher underside of grief and revenge.

To serve overseas in a hostile environment is, for the modern soldier, to experience an increasing compression of belonging – to your country, to your service, to your battalion, to your regiment, to your platoon, to your four-man fire team, all the way down to your ‘oppo’, the person with whom you form a partnership in the field, and whose back you watch because they watch yours. These are the people for whom the British soldier fights and this was another consistent answer from the soldiers I interviewed – At that moment, when the bullets and rockets are flying, for whom, I wanted to know, are they fighting? Every one of them said each other. “The soldier on your left and the soldier on your right.” What begins (and what is nurtured within the services) as a sense of belonging, under the pressure of these combat situations, becomes an attachment of much greater emotional depth. It becomes a form of love, and that is why when something happens to that soldier on your right or that soldier on your left, when they are wounded, killed, or blown up by an IED, it is love that defines your individual response, and love that fuels your killing of others. Loss, not politics, human rights or mission statements, becomes the reason for their fighting.

What starts out as mission objectives, tactical plans or ‘just doing your job’, becomes, for the individual frontline soldier, something much more personal. You want to kill the enemy because they hurt your friend. It’s as simple as that, and explains one young man’s definition of a “good day in Afghanistan” as being “when you see them drop”.

For many of those I spoke with the sense of attachment they had with their fellow soldiers was, beyond their families, the strongest emotional bond they had experienced. Similarly, other psychological hungers familiar to them at home were also satisfied in combat. The sense of doing something important – something that matters. Being valued. Being at the centre of things. Having a strong sense of identity and purpose. Laced with adrenalin and risk, life becomes sharper-edged, more precarious and therefore more precious.

And then they return home. Wounded or not, they return home, and with that return – especially if it coincides with leaving the services – those heightened qualities of life they discovered, and relished, while overseas, are lost to them. Taken away in a plane flight and the handing in of an identity card.

And this is what lies at the heart of that returning-home pain. The fact that life, for many of these soldiers, seemed simpler and better overseas in conflict than it does back home in peace. And sometimes not just better, but actually the best that it will ever get for them. Despite still only being in their early 20s, some of these young men, on returning home, live with a profound sense of aftermath – that the apex of their lives has been lived, and everything to come will pale in comparison.

There are multiple reasons why so many soldiers feel this way, many of them to do with what conflict provides and society does not – that sense of purpose, of belonging, of attachment and of feeling, in the face of physical danger, alive. But this contemporary returning-home pain is also born of two different kinds of distance. The first is of thousands of miles but breached easily and quickly (in around 13 hours in total) when a soldier flies home. The psychological journey back from war, however, lags far behind the speed of this physical transition, resulting in returning soldiers being physically back in their home environments, while still existing psychologically within a sphere of soldiering. Such a psychological disconnect with their immediate surroundings results in may of the issues associated with recent veterans, from feelings of distaste and disapproval for affluent Western living to homelessness and acts of violence, their internal scales having been tipped off-balance by their exposure to modern conflict. As one young marine said to me, “Punching someone and kicking them in the head isn’t violent to us. Firing a shoulder-held missile into a house. That’s violent.”

The second distance is harder to measure and, perhaps, harder to breach, but every returning soldier will tell you they are aware of it the moment they step off the plane, and continue to be so, sometimes for the rest of their lives. It is the distance of perception and knowledge between them and the society in whose name they have committed violence or suffered violence done to them. Again, this is largely the product of a professional army recruited mostly from the poorer and more disadvantaged regions of the country. As a society we have outsourced our violence to particular social groups, and in so doing have become adept at dislocating ourselves from the realities of conflict and its aftermath. The narratives of war are broadly confined to news channels and newspapers, or are harnessed in operationally specific ways by charities and interest groups. They are nearly always remarkably one-sided too. How often do we hear, in this age of asymmetric warfare, about how many enemy fighters or civilians our own soldiers kill and wound, or about the psychological effects of them having done so?

What is left, in this distance between a society and its soldiers, is a gulf of story. The personal stories of what war and conflict are like. The emotional and psychological details and consequences. The nuanced tones and textures of the shadows that organised and sanctioned violence casts. The concentric rings of damage that spread from one returning individual through his relationships, his children, his community.

In working with the cast of Charlie F., it was this gulf I found the soldiers and their families wanted breached by the play. They wanted general society to know what happens in Afghanistan: to British soldiers, Afghan fighters and civilians. They wanted an audience to be exposed to everything that those three letters – W A R – really mean, in as unflinching, uncompromised a way as possible. They wanted the full spectrum of their experiences to be presented – everything they felt they had gained because of their service, as well as everything they felt they had lost.

Having worked on Charlie F. and then drawn upon the same interviews to write a verse drama, Pink Mist, I have to say I’m convinced they are right in their desire for these stories to be told. As a writer I know it is the well-told personal story, the empathetic leap into the experience of the individual, that best cuts through bland public narratives and can most powerfully resonate in the universal consciousness. And this is why I believe that novels, poems, plays are best placed to shape and excavate those stories for meaning, resonance and emotional and psychological significance. But who, exactly, should be doing the telling?

I began this piece with a list of terms created by the medical and military communities in their attempt to capture in words the psychological effects of conflict. And I suppose I want to end it by asking the same question of the literary community. How best can writers today, if they should at all, go about trying to capture the stories of modern conflict? In the early wars of the last century the stories of those wars were often been best told in literature by those who’d fought or experienced them: Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, David Jones, Keith Douglas, Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, Primo Levi. But in more recent conflicts, just as we’ve outsourced our violence to a professional army no longer including men who would always, perhaps, have been writers, so it seems the literary stories of those conflicts have increasingly been outsourced to professional writers. When those stories are told, it is now most often via a process of distillation, with writers becoming conduits for the voices of others – with those who’ve lived beyond the pressures that send boys to the army, ‘dropping in’ to report back, not from a foreign frontline, but from one at home, comprised of the experience of returned soldiers.

But should it be writers doing the telling at all? And in relying upon existing writers to tell these stories, are we in fact narrowing the scope of the stories told? Should we not be working harder to give those who directly experience conflict access to the means and skills to tell their own stories? And not just British veterans and their families, but also those exposed to conflict across the world, from the villager in the Democratic Republic of Congo to the Afghan fighter in Helmand Province. I know, from having watched the soldiers in Charlie F. perform, that being told about the truths of conflict directly by someone wounded in that conflict carries a unique charge that can never be replicated even in the most skilful piece of reported writing.

My last question, and to bring this piece back to its first word, is are we, as a society, guilty of a nostalgia for the relatively easy narratives of past wars rather than engaging fully with the more difficult and complex narratives of our current conflicts? When one contemporary poet read Pink Mist, my verse drama based on the interviews I’d conducted with wounded soldiers and their families, he remarked it all seemed “a bit exotic.” And it was. To him. Because although he was well versed in the stories of WWI and WWII, he had never come into contact with anyone who was fighting a war today. And nor had he felt the need to. Because he did not agree with the war in Afghanistan, he felt no need to know about it, despite the streets of his town being occupied by young men carrying and spreading its violence and damage every day.

But perhaps he is right? Perhaps the time has past when literature can realistically expect to be at the forefront of bringing the realities of conflict home, and that role is now better served by YouTube, films or blogs? And perhaps it isn’t our place to be trying to tell these stories at all, but rather we should allow them to naturally emerge, in time, from the conflicts that birthed them? I don’t pretend to have the answers. But what I do know is that, however they are told, and whoever tells them, and however desensitised we might appear to them, the stories of modern conflict do need to be heard. Because if they are not, then a society allowed to remain unfamiliar with every facet of conflict, allowed to think of the realities of war as ‘exotic’, will continue to allow its leaders to resort to it as a solution, and nothing will change.

This article was first published in issue 15 of PORT. To buy or subscribe to PORT, click here.