Friday, 29 May 2015

New Statesman present 'An Evening with Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman'

Some poor advertising by the New Statesman led to an unexpected evening. We arrived at the Hackney Empire anticipating the conventional 'An Evening with Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman', characterised by the couple's fiction, fantasy, poetry and music. Instead, we were greeted by the New Statesman's take on 'An Evening with...' - slightly more directed, much more varied, but not quite the same. Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman are the guest editors of the current issue of the New Statesman, taking on the theme of 'saying the unsayable', and producing an edition focused on issues surrounding censorship, transgression and the freedom of speech. They collaborated with a range of eminent and 'edgy' authors, journalists, comedians and performers on this issue, to address these controversies in more creative and unpredictable ways. This 'Evening with Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman' welcomed some of these contributors: Mitch Benn, Roz Kaveney, Andrew O'Neill and Hayley Campbell. 

The evening begun with Neil, and a poem about ideas. He set the tone for the event: ideas are alive, constantly changing, moving but never dying; my ideas and opinions are my own and it is your right to challenge them, disagree with them and even find them objectionable; and it is my right to do the same to yours. He followed this up by an anecdote about his experiences at the PEN awards gala (an organisation I'd recommend you check out if you're not already familiar with), re-emphasising the principles of this movement - that freedom of speech and expression is everyone's right, it's not about whether you agree or disagree. 

The stage was soon occupied by guest after guest, Neil and Amanda only offering the occasional interlude. We first heard from Mitch Benn, a satirical songwriter most famous for his contributions to Radio 4's 'The Now Show'. He performed an insecurely entertaining song written about the Charlie Hebdo shootings - an event which became a recurring theme throughout the evening as a prime example of those 'saying the unsayable', or drawing the undrawable. Roz Kaveney recited one of her poems about the conflicts, personal and institutional, in her life as a trans woman, shining the light on a too-rarely talked about issue. My favourite guest of the evening was comedian, Andrew O'Neill, who did a short stand-up piece about offense...and his bum. I was offended, and it was hilarious. And lastly, we saw Hayley Campbell, Buzzfeed Journalist, talk about Twitter: the tweets we never publish, and what their exposure would have the potential to do. 

But Neil and Amanda were the real stars of the show. They not only took ownership over it, but made the most valuable contributions to it. I'd not heard a huge amount of Amanda's music before, but was blown away by the clever, sophisticated songwriting and fierce, compelling performing. Her song 'The Killing Type' was fantastic and, even in her extremely pregnant state, she owns it and performs it like a true professional - actually, better than a professional, like a true believer. She spoke about some challenging issues - 'the unsayable' - namely abortion (and various associated 'baby problems') and our response to the tragedy of the Germanwings plane crash. The absolute honesty and credibility of the way both Amanda and Neil speak is what really separated the evening from a corporate-ish, New Statesman promotion and a new, creative way of addressing the topics we very much like to avoid talking about. 

I felt like Amanda and Neil successfully took forward what is a fairly cliché idea about freedom of speech, and made it something different. It didn't fall into the trap of being essentially a political discussion, nor did it become boring or repetitive. I didn't leave the evening feeling like I'd learnt anything new, but I'd discovered new ways of talking about popular issues. Amanda and Neil not only forced us to think about saying the unsayable, but they showed us how to do it in a meaningful, artistic and light-hearted way. Arguably the evening was a little haphazard, and probably could have done with some better planning, continuity and direction, but I just don't really think that's their style. So whilst the evening I experienced was not the one I anticipated (and I still remain that I would have liked to have been informed of this before I purchased my tickets...) it was still a provocative, charming and inventive one. Next time, I just hope that there's more fantasy, more songs and more challenge. 

Some things to take away with you:
PEN International -
Amanda Palmer Patreon -
Amanda Palmer 'The Art of Asking' -
Neil Gaiman collecting 'Cool Stuff & Things' -


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