Catherine Hartley and Chris Lee were in Edinburgh to give the final RSE Scottish Health Humanities Seminar yesterday. Their presentation, Austerity Detox, was exactly what I needed, a quietly subversive mix of sharp social analysis, visual art and theatre, laced with dark humour. The topic: surviving public service in this contemporary age of “austerity”.
Hmm, I’m thinking university work is a a form of public service…
Chris and Catherine know what it’s like to try and do good in today’s target-driven culture, they manage an NHS community mental health service. They are also both writers and Chris is a playwright, so they know their way around narratives. I presented in a session with them on using theatre in health research at last year’s Attentive Writers conference in Glasgow. As soon as the session was over, I invited them to come back up to Scotland. Good call. As it turns out, I needed a dose of what they had to offer.
I woke up in a bad mood yesterday. I’ve been feeling mired down in bureaucracy more than usual lately and not just at the workplace. Everywhere I go there are forms to fill out, boxes to tick, surveys to complete, barcoded loyalty cards to swipe, targets to meet. The whole process of being transformed from human being into stream of digital data is exhausting, not to mention depressing. Do we really want to live in a world where efficiency is considered the highest virtue a human can achieve?
All that to say, I showed up to Austerity Detox bogged down in cynicism about life in the new millennium. Fortunately for my mental health, Chris and Catherine served up a nourishing mix of theatre, art and analysis. They got me laughing about the shear absurdity of a life lived for the purposes of filling out forms and meeting arbitrary targets. I walked home afterwards lighter in spirit and re-inspired to give priority to an ethics of care and connection in the way I work and live. Let’s start serving up stories of generosity not efficiency.