The escaping writer
A man is escaping from a prison in the oldest of ways, clinging to a sheet, looking down to make sure he doesn’t fall and hurt himself, and rendering useless all the effort of snatching the sheet unseen, knotting it and waiting for the right moment to escape.
On closer inspection, the wall does not help much, because it is very smooth and old, who knows if this daring prisoner will be able to escape. This is the question of those who are quietly watching him from the other side of the street, in broad daylight (I didn’t say it wasn’t night, did I?). They are intrigued because the edge of the sheet is a typewriter. It’s not a laptop, it’s not a tablet, it’s just a heavy old typewriter.
No one has called the police, there are no journalists frantically interviewing people to see if they had noticed anything, if something had not suddenly woken them up.
There is only this prisoner, in his late 19th-century striped uniform, deciding when to jump off the sheet and vanish into thin air.
He is trying to escape from Reading Prison, the same harsh prison where the writer Oscar Wilde had to serve his sentence of hard labour for being a homosexual.
In fact, if you look closely, it might even remind you of him, with that heavy typewriter hanging at the back, bringing to mind the long list of novels, plays, short stories and aphorisms he wrote in the course of his short and troubled life, although probably all written by hand.
And it’s just a drawing. By the mysterious Banksy, the most famous street artist in existence, whom no one has ever seen.
He tells stories on walls and then eclipses himself in search of other walls and other stories to tell.
In this story painted on the wall of a prison, no one is really escaping, but anyone looking at the man looking down can at least try to imagine what Banksy’s phrase means:
There’s nothing more dangerous than someone who wants to make the world a better place.
ACTIVITY – Surf the net and look for the photo of Banksy’s latest work. Then write a tweet to a friend saying how you feel looking it.
Everyone has their own personal way of seeing the world and deciding what actions can be taken to make it better. For this to happen, you need to be certain that you have the right to express your ideas and live freely, and that you can commit yourself to changing what you consider unjust, not from behind bars but through associations, parties and institutions.
That drawing on the wall of Reading prison, which inevitably makes one immediately think of Oscar Wilde, brings to mind what he wrote, elegantly but also courageously. This irreverent author pointed his finger at inconsistency, conformism, the inability to freely decide one’s own destiny if it went against the socially acceptable ‘morals’ of the suffocating Victorian culture. Certainly the character of Dorian Gray, with his disturbing lack of feelings, made readers of the time jump, forcing them to confront a different way of observing reality. Similarly, the complicated plot twists of The Importance of Being Earnest showed how love and marriage can be burdened by unnecessary complications that have little to do with states of mind. This freedom of his own gaze condemned him to be shunned by ‘polite society’ and even to serve years in prison with hard labour for his own private life choice.
We could say that one of the sustainable goals of the 2030 Agenda, the one that wants to reduce inequalities and that aims to ensure the impartiality of justice and its institutions, is also the result of experiences like that of Oscar Wilde and many others after him, people who were ‘dangerous’ because they looked at the world with different eyes.
Someone, much later, was even more dangerous, because he committed himself body and soul to making the world a better place: Martin Luther King.
ACTIVITY – Make a list of at least three inequalities, and give them a priority, you think should be resolved.
The dream of a man
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
Martin Luther King said this in front of a huge crowd of African-Americans, who were spellbound by the power of the simple words of a man who was simply stating that rights must be equal for all and that skin colour cannot be a discriminating factor in deciding who can enter public life and who cannot. Or worse still, to decide that there are superior and inferior people. Martin Luther King’s words went around the world and contributed, together with an immense popular response, to gaining rights and greater equality for the African-American population in the United States. However, the fact that for many people it was unheard of to demand the same rights is demonstrated by the fact that shortly after this speech Martin Luther King was assassinated, as were many other rights activists, and not only in the United States.
It seems inconceivable to think that the colour of one’s skin can change the lives of millions of people for the worse. It seems equally absurd to think that the personal life choice to love people of the same or opposite sex can result in a prison sentence, hard labour, exclusion from the community, and the loss of basic rights to a dignified and free life.
How can one always think freely, without being trapped by the easy watchwords of those who would like to limit freedoms?
Literature can be a formidable antidote to any temptation to exclude and acts as a powerful inclusive tool. A reader’s door is always open to everyone, because literature explores the whole world, and no one excluded. There are scoundrels and brave children, as can be found in Treasure Island; there are women trapped in an inhospitable society who nevertheless are determined to find their freedom and love, as in Jane Eyre; there are abused and starving children who manage to redeem their condition and live with dignity, as in Oliver Twist; there are castaways who teach us how to survive and not to let ourselves down, as in Robinson Crusoe.
These fictional characters are the travelling companions of Oscar Wilde and Martin Luther King.
Impossible to put in prison, but even if this were to happen, we readers would set them free.
TO GO FURTHER
Work in groups or pairs. Look on the UN website for the texts of the two points for sustainable development in the 2030 Agenda: 10 Reduce inequalities; 16 Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions.
Read them carefully.
Now combine the list of inequalities you have already drawn up with a book that seems particularly suitable.
Then write or prepare for an oral interview a report on one of the two points of the 2030 Agenda which includes your list and a short comment on the Banksy work you looked at and the Martin Luther King quote.