I sit in a cramped room in Camden. I am a shy, nervous creature, newly in London. Listening to this bunch of disabled people speak, my thoughts flood with hope and awe. They speak of our arts and culture, and call for revolution.
This was a meeting in the Artsline office, Crowndale Road, circa 1985.
I am not sure any of us realised we were pioneers, but I believe history shows we were in our own ramshackle way.
And now, against memories of those beginnings, I come to Liberty in the Olympic Park. You would think disability art in the UK was not a world leader, with a developed, debated and vibrant identity. The way artists were grafted in amongst the stalls that urged sports participation, had the awful outmoded stench of Seventies art therapy. I am surprised there was not a basket weaving stall, because, as any crip of a certain age will know, that type of ‘useful’ activity has long been considered good for us handicaps in all our varieties.
We were all there at Liberty 2013. I bumped into Ruth Gould (DaDafest), Jenny Sealey (Graeae Theatre Company), Michelle Baharier (Cooltan Arts) along with friends and colleagues – Rachel Gadsden, Sophie Partridge, to name but a few performers. I never made it to see Mat Fraser and John ‘Rocking Paddy’ Kelly as the main stage (which I am told was miniscule), was not easy to locate. Artist Katherine Araniello was there to ‘enjoy’ the festival. A close friend of Liberty founder, David Morris, she was not pleased with the layout and the facilities. Translate ‘not pleased’ as furious.
This was my fourth Liberty as a performer. I yearned for the days of the comedy and cabaret tent in Trafalgar Square, when an audience could identify with the performers, where there was a sense of connection to something shared. This could not be said for the strung-out assemblage of activities at the windy park, hindered further by well-meaning volunteers who didn’t have a clue where anything actually was.
I wish I could predict a positive future for Liberty, but instead I am burdened with weary pessimism. We face a resurgence of old barriers and old attitudes, resurrected by the current government. Once more we see the model of brave, inspirational crip being upheld to a ludicrous level, which does no favours to the genuine talents of disabled athletes, and condemns the rest of us to the unworthy dustbin of scrounger and assisted-suicide candidate.
I have no easy answers; in the current climate we know funding is compromised. And worse still, there is certainly a pervasive, repellent ideology seeping into the zeitgeist, as to whether we are ‘affordable’. Because now we are deemed as having too much, of being privileged – a word that has been bandied around from the High Court hearings concerning the closure of the Independent Living Fund, to comments made within social media.
In such an environment, how can Liberty survive? Perhaps the name Liberty will be purloined; we will see a festival of ‘volunteer performers’, echoing the no-pay ethic of the Games, and of politicians that put forward ‘volunteering’ as an incentive for people to find ‘real work’.
Should this happen, I can see Liberty becoming a joke as do-gooders flood in, with disabled people ideologically high-jacked to join in some old style happy-clappy stuff that will ‘make them feel better’. I call on – who? - DaDaFest and Shape perhaps? - to take up cultural arms against this horror.
Hear now, the distant anger of the late David Morris, and my sadness as I reflect upon those fine if difficult times in the early days of our arts movement when anything seemed possible.