When ‘going slightly mad’ - an original piece of writing and performance from 4th year Edinburgh student Michael Hajiantonis - initially premiered in October at Bedlam Theatre for a tight two-show run, it was the recipient of enormous amounts of praise from both theatregoers and reviewers. Watching it be revived for one night only as part Edinburgh University Theatre Company’s annual mini theatre festival, ‘Bedfast’, it was apparent that the admiration of the show was richly deserved, thanks to its rare double achievement of not only tackling the taboos surrounding sectioning in this country, but doing so with a warm-hearted vigour that ultimately treated its characters with kindness. Loosely derived from real life experiences, it is actually the sequences within the play that move away from realistic portrayals where a true sense of the way that main character Max -who has been sectioned for the first time due to the onset of powerful delusions - feels is truly shown. The solidly choreographed ensemble moments, complete with strumming music and lighting, after Max is heavily sedated for the first time pull the audience into her psyche. It only needs the extraordinary qualities of Lizzie Lewis’ wide eyed grimaces to be a completely arresting portrayal of the cruelty inflicted on body and mind by an extended stay within a psychiatric ward where the sympathies of the various doctors, played in dual roles by members of the cast, are subject to differ.
The relentless nature of the set pieces showing Max drowning under the weight of strong medication, losing days at a time, makes the quieter moments between her and the other residents of the ward all the more poignant. On the threadbare armchairs of their communal space, constantly referred to as stiflingly hot, in a ward where they are meant to spend a transitory period of time but, instead, thanks to a lack of NHS beds, are unable to be moved from, there is a true sense in the writing and the actors representation that these are people who ultimately - like everyone - want to help themselves and each other the best they can. Portrayals of mental illness on stage often consume the person within them, but this production, it seems, wants to reverse that. There is no shying away from the fact that all four of the patients depicted are, at the time of their depiction, engaged in a unceasing fight with illnesses that have no remorse; Max is at one point reliably and blithely informed of her likelihood of developing depression after her initial stay in Ladywell. However, they and the audience also never lose sight of themselves as individuals in those moments, such as a dance scene with real instruments that the actors clearly relish having the chance to undertake, that provide the humour in the loosely structured play. As the character Anna at one point details, in one of many scenes that can only be summarised as containing fighting, beating spirit, their illnesses - in her case, bipolar disorder - are an integral part of them, but should be viewed as a part of them in the same way as her ‘ingrown toenail and Biology MA’, rather than swallowing the person and character whole.
When environmentalist and activist Matthew Crighton began speaking at the event ‘Can the left now speak clearly on climate change?’- organised as part of Lighthouse Book’s Radical Book Fair - he was quick to assert that he was speaking, as a lifelong socialist, from a place of constructive rather than outright critique of the UK left and their approach to the cataclysmic threat climate change poses. From this position - having been situated comfortably within socialist circles in England and Scotland for nearly 30 years - Crighton is in a prime position to clearly see the manner in which the left are responding to climate change, and therefore also the ways in which the British Left falls short of confronting what is now a tangible, urgent problem. As the world begins to experience the more serious effects of manmade changes to our climate – from the wildfires that resulted in the complete destruction of the town of Paradise, California, to the migration across South and Central America of essentially, environmental refugees, there is a growing and pressing sense that the world has turned a page when it comes to climate change. There is a sense that the time to speak out has actually come and gone, with a seemingly insurmountable effort now needed to effectively combat the problem (and people wonder why teenagers and young adults are increasingly nihilistic).
Crighton, speaking to an audience at the Assembly Roxy – the location for the Radical Book Fair – focused on the insufficiencies found in the response of the Left over a period of decades. This was less reactionary than might come across, due to his consistent reminders that the Right, with their ‘deference to big business’ were definitely bigger foes, but also his timely reminders that as socialists, there is a duty to own up to the self-voiced admission that climate change is the 21st century’s problem to solve. For Crighton, who came into his political own in the 1970s and 80s, a ‘political and intellectual development shaped by Marxism’ meant ‘focusing on anti-racism, feminism, industrialism, the ever present threat of nuclear war’ and led to the pervading thought on climate change being one of ‘we have other stuff to be getting along with’.
‘All aspirations for a fair and better world will melt away in the face of unchecked climate change’ was the thought Crighton left the audience with before opening up for discussion. However, this was as light in tone as possible when facing up to the issue of climate change - with Crighton’s cheerful reassurance that ‘confronting climate change will not be easy but is necessary’ serving as the launchpad for the tone of discussion. It was refreshing to see different approaches addressed on the Left - from ‘revolutionary Marxists to Social Democrats’ - without discussion becoming heated or impossibly entrenched. Crighton was particularly frustrated with the ‘mode of thought’ he felt was prevalent at lobbying groups such as ‘Friends of the Earth’, whereby the consensus was that ‘we won’t tell them how bad climate change is, because we want those in government to do something, and if we tell them how bad it’ll be, they’ll backpedal and shy away from the nature of the issues’. To Crighton, it was clear this wasn’t the manner in which to tackle the problem, but he was always respectful of difference of opinion, whilst all the while calling for a change of approach.
Expertly chaired by a representative from Lighthouse Books, the panel also touched upon the way the problems of climate change were sometimes funneled into being represented as simply one of the struggles on a list of issues whose root cause could be attributed to capitalism. Crighton expressed frustration at conversations he had had over the years where people had simply come to the solution that climate change could be solved via the ‘struggle for socialism’. This dangerous attitude undermines climate change, treating it as non-systemic, with the speaker touching upon the dangers of a ‘mindset of building workers power and then issuing solutions to problems’ rather than working from the other way round.
Overall, the talk and the debate that followed – where, for once, ‘this isn’t a question more of a comment’ musings were actually welcome – were engaging and instructive. This was the case even for those in the audience like me, a slightly hungover newcomer grappling with guilt at my lack of knowledge of the complexities at the response of the Left to climate change. The frank manner in which the problems of the Left were laid bare without judgement was impressive. I left feeling informed, optimistic that continued open and constructive debate and self-reflection will help when it comes to constructing a radical, Leftist take on a solution to climate change.
*Illustration by Emily Donnelly*
The approach of another Scottish winter will, for most within the university community, have a pretty negligible impact. Maybe it getting colder gives you a conversation topic when extended family members call, or is something you can reach for upon sitting next to the quieter of souls in your tutorial group; perhaps you’ve taken part in swirling drunken debates regarding if it’s time to coat or not to coat. But, the university community exists within a much wider one, which includes many of the rough sleepers currently seen around Edinburgh’s city centre. For them, the reality of another winter on the streets of the Scottish capital, often dubbed ‘the UK’s coldest city,’ is fast approaching.
Being one of the estimated 4,750 people sleeping rough in the United Kingdom in 2017 is of course a day-in day-out hell for a myriad of reasons, not solely exposure to the climate. But we are a developed country where people are still dying of frostbite, hypothermia, and other ‘cold related fatalities’ on our streets. This makes the colder months particularly volatile and dangerous. 34,100 people were assessed as ‘homeless’ in Scotland last year - a larger number than that of rough sleepers (the stereotypical state of homelessness many picture when asked to consider the issue) as it also includes those in hostels, temporary accommodation, and ‘concealed housing’ such as squats, or the floors and sofas of friends and family. Their vulnerability to being a part of the cyclical spike in deaths seen between October and March every year, termed ‘excess winter mortality’, is real. However, only this year will the Office of National Statistics start accounting for, and producing, a record of how many homeless people die in our cities and towns, after being prompted into action by the bureau of investigative journalism’s ‘dying homeless’ project.
78 homeless people were officially recorded as dying in the UK in the winter of 2017. 42 of those deaths were in Scotland, ‘most’ in Edinburgh, where affluence is high above the national average, and yet rough sleepers can be found dotted around even those areas of town where European schoolkid tourists flock, from the Royal Mile to Cowgate to Waverly station and back again; a visible, visceral problem. The unmissable presence of homelessness in the Scottish capital is a grim reminder that austerity squeezes into practical non-existence those at the very marginal edges of our state. In Edinburgh, the nightmare housing market that many of us merely dipped our toes into when finding flats to live in, as in so many cities across the country, is a major problem too. Graeme Brown, the director of Shelter Scotland, told The Guardian this year that ‘What we are seeing is a hollowing out of affordable homes in the city centre, with rising homelessness throwing into stark relief this lack of housing supply’**.
So, as students with a frustratingly limited ability to enact great structural change, what can we do to help? As Rufus Gooder, a 4th year and co-founder of ‘Heat for the homeless Edinburgh’ - an incentive where university students (and others too!) hand out hot water bottles to those on the streets - puts it, ‘As students in Edinburgh we feel we have a responsibility to be more actively engaged with the city...it really helps to sit down and actually chat and hear their stories so we don't go through our university lives oblivious to issues of others.’ It seems inefficient, but actually is exactly the sort of attitudinal change that can end up having results far greater than the sum of its parts. Gooder also points to the ‘common misconception that homeless people won’t want to talk to you’ sometimes stops students from interacting with Edinburgh’s rough sleepers – but, he continues, ‘we have found that if you take the time to sit with them they often say that it is the most dehumanising thing to be ignored by thousands of people walking past, and any conversation might really help’. Their small but effective contribution to alleviating some of the suffering faced by rough sleepers in fact came from this dialogue, with those on the streets letting the volunteers know that handing out hot water bottles were one of the most constructive things they could do for them.
Incentives like ‘Heat for the homeless’ and other charities where volunteers do what they can luckily have a large and active presence in Edinburgh, a place with a strong history of social policy enacting positive change. Institutions like SocialBite are examples of this continuation of the strong social values the majority of Scots hold, and provide another way to help. Either by eating at their sandwich shops and restaurants, worked in and patronised by members of the homeless community, or by participating in their flagship event ‘Sleep in the Park’ (spending a December night sleeping in Princes St Gardens), you can collaborate to their ‘Mission to Build a Collaborative Movement to End Homelessness in Scotland’. This year, the University is even offering to pay the £50 registration fee for students, helping make the event even more of an accessible and tangible way to provide direct action.
Across the board, charities remind us that ‘the statistics in Scotland are not insurmountable’ (SocialBite) and that ‘homelessness is not inevitable’ (Crisis). As another winter begins, we as students can and should, in whatever small way we have the means to, chip away at this commonly regarded inevitability into non-existence.
To find out more about how the bureau of investigative journalism track deaths whilst homeless (a self described ‘complex task’) :
A list of charities tackling homelessness in Scotland:
Heat for the Homeless-
https://www.heatforthehomeless.com or https://www.facebook.com/heatforthehomelessedinburgh/!
(with thanks to volunteers from heat for the homeless!)
*Illustration by Abigail Featherstone (artbyabbx) *
The day after a night out sometimes I awake, confused
Realise I’m holding my breath in the base of my throat in a silent, empty room.
Connect that confusion with regretted, acridic vodka, taken in shots,
Turn over, curl up, count the day as a write off, lost
Outside seems unfeasible with its myth of the day,
But that’s my premise, my promise- that here, where we are, if you open that curtain
Confront that light, it helps, in someway.
With this place, with Edinburgh, we have been gifted,
and no, this is not an ode to Scotmid, but instead to the city it sits in.
Stumbling out of my room towards low engagement with minimal contact hours feels like a scottish autumn, almost absurdly grey.
But then I remember- I’m on a crescent, a place, a way, and looking up, marvel
At how the dappled stone of marchmont holds its colour even in permafrost
How cornices exist, seemingly for cornices sake
And how these tenement buildings curving in front of me are sturdy, built to keep that consistent rain away
Some of these buildings even have views of the castle, safe atop its volcanic outcrop
When I’m hungover it seems to me a mirage, a beacon,
Something I don’t look at through the city for a second more than fleeting
But it’s there, providing the same security
As spotting the shaded figures spied atop Arthurs seat does,
Solid against the sky, those silhouettes of castle and mountain
when peeked at through buildings, these rocks, they help, they do
Fix the cracks within me traced to back to Sainsbury’s ‘selected wine: three for two’
Squinting at the sun through slanted library slats,
Think about this place, this city.
Think of how busy cowgate is looping down to your left, guarded by that tourist claptrap with a bad rap, greyfriars bobby
Don’t dwell in the thin light of city day on the fact that embarrassing yourself in Pizza Paradise is becoming somewhat of a hobby.
Be reminded by a rogue seagull call of Portobello, follow that breeze all the way toward the sea
And let the hangover be scrubbed off by the constant waves and sand and wind, northern grey on grey on grey
It’s hard to, when truly ravaged from tennent’s
Consider doing anything but curling in a netflix ball and paying your penance.
And, of course, the majesty of this city can be appreciated by eyes that aren’t heavy,
by muscles that aren’t tired
and by a bank account that can say ‘no, let me’.
But it’s when I walk, hungover, through the meadows, barely surviving the bikes,
that I appreciate this city, this moment, this student life.
*Illustration by Isi Williams*