(Please note this review was originally written in 2012)
In some ways I think that this modest production may be the most significant book I’ve read on my Kindle this year. That’s without denigration or disrespect for all the other varied, entertaining, profound and clever books that are magically stored in its flat grey space. A glance at my home page shows me that I’ve read about thirty epublished books, mainly novels, in the seven months since I began clicking pages as well as turning them. There’ve been some real treats and some exciting discoveries – books I almost certainly wouldn’t have come across if I’d not been led to them by either Authors Electric or the Indie eBook Review. Thank you fellow writers – I hope you know who you are.
However, most of these ebooks I’ve read and enjoyed since January 2012 could equally well have been paper-published. (As many of them previously were.) The ‘No Labels’ series is different. They were first published in June from a Monday to a Friday to mark Learning Disability Awareness week. This isn’t something that a book publisher would do. It’s actually more akin to journalism. You could imagine the Guardian or the Independent publishing some neat little A5 size 16- or 32- page booklet inserted into the main paper every day for a week. But would it be fiction? Probably not. Connected with learning disability? No. Would any commercial publisher, even in their most expansive moments, have considered bringing out these lightly fictionalised reports of a drama project involving nine adults with learning difficulties, one volunteer and a paid facilitator? Somehow I don’t see it.
E-publishing would make it easy to produce similar volumes now, if, like Cally Phillips, one had the energy and commitment to put in the hours of writing and production time and didn’t expect to make money. It’s open access. The new format makes it possible for anyone (with appropriate help) to record their own life-story, or publish their own novel. Not everyone has welcomed this indiscrimination. Personally I was often sad to have to say to ‘my’ oldies. “No, I’m sorry, I loved your essay but I’m not going to publish the thirty chapters of life story you have in your bottom drawer. I’m sure your grandchildren will come to them one day, or you could deposit the copy in your local record office.” If people dream of publishing their own book I’m glad that now they e-can.
What the ‘No Labels’ series is doing is different from such self-publishing. You could almost call it un-self publishing. It’s the report of a project and it’s a campaigning publication. It seeks to change attitudes to learning difficulty by telling stories – simple daily stories, like the story of Annie taken to the shops to buy a present for a friend but not allowed to buy the present that she chose, then not allowed to buy the meal that she chose, then obliged to buy the meal for the person who was paid to accompany her (and who naturally chose what she wanted to eat) and then finally not allowed to go to the party of the friend for whom she’d bought the present because the care rotas had changed so there was no one available to be paid to accompany her. There are disturbing, unexplained vignettes, such as the moment Mandy sees a certain carer in the audience and freezes in terror. There are depressing moments of insight as when the narrator discovers how easy it is to organise an event for a weekend as the residents of the care homes have absolutely nothing else happening.
There’s quite a lot of protest voiced directly through the persona of Kate, the narrator. She’s the facilitator, she’s paid and in addition to her play-writing and improvisation skills she’s a shrewd analyst of conversation. Even conversations where the other person chooses to confine herself to ‘yes’ or ‘no’. “Is that a nono or a yesno?” Kate asks, offering her interlocutor the chance to vary the pattern of communication within the rules of her chosen conversational game. If this sounds complicated, read the book. Cally Phillips is very good at re-defining what might appear to be intelligence (lack of) issues as misunderstood communications. She convinces me that the people in her group have no lack of senstivity or imagination but as their efforts to express themselves are not usually understood, they have largely given up trying. They relapse into monosyllables, they comfort-eat, they exhibit ‘challenging behaviour’.
Members of the ‘No Labels’ drama group also campaign directly, as a group. They go to the Scottish Parliament and perform a play called Politics is Rubbish. It’s about re-cyling, it’s about systemic failures and it has the sad subtext that the ‘No Labels’ members suspect that they are seen as society’s cast-outs. They have problems with ‘normal’ living – with reading for instance, or managing money. They accept that they need help but they long to be helped in the way that they want to be helped. Which isn’t necessessarily the way the system decrees. Through drama and the comradeship of their group they are able to express themselves, entertain others and make valuable comments on the way we live normally. They have gained a new way to communicate.
The depressing aspect of A Week with No Labels is that it springs from a project, from more than one project (the timeframe is unclear) but projects have a bad habit of coming to an end when their funding runs out. Perhaps I should stop reading now and leave the ‘No Labels’ group enthusiastically on their weekend holiday together with the performance still ahead of them. Treat it like fiction with a possible happy ending — instead of accepting that this humane and humourous publication is a furious polemic