everything is political: maxine peake on changing the world
Acclaimed stage and screen actress, Maxine Peake, argues that the people must be united — and less self involved — in order to effect real change. Peake, 43, also celebrates the modern family – those who choose not to have children but are just as...
I was bought up in the North in quite an intensely political time during the 70s and 80s. Bolton was an industrial town, so there was much to be political about back then. Because of the turmoil the world currently finds itself in, we're returning to a much more urgent sense of political activism. But I see really big differences in the ways in which we manifest our political selves several decades on. The landscape I was raised in wasn't one of the individual being the center of the universe — the center of the universe was other people. It was about what you could do to help others. Nowadays, we're bombarded with messages telling us you deserve it, you're worth it, or put yourself first. But back then it was about the 'we' and the 'us', not the 'I' and the 'me', which is an ideology that seems much more prevalent in contemporary society. It seems very much that people today vote on policies that may or may not affect them, rather than considering the greater good: will it affect my second home in France? How much inheritance tax will my children face paying? With both the last election and the EU Referendum so many people around me — some of them being artists, actors, and musicians — talked about how a Labour government might affect them adversely, or why remaining in Europe was beneficial for them. Voting solely based on what is good for you, it's basically what Thatcher brought in and Blair took on and ran with: the society of me.
I was bought up around believing in Socialism and Communism. My biggest political influences as a young woman were my step-granddad, Jim, and my nan, who were both in the Communist Party. My mom wasn't particularly political, well, she wouldn't say she was political but I always told her that she was a socialist at heart because that was just the way she was brought up. I saw it from her all the time, growing up. She used to run me into Bolton for a night out and she'd drive past the bus stop and see people waiting in the rain and pull over. 'Where you going, do you want a lift to Bolton, c'mon, get in the car'. I'd be squished in next to all these strangers, crushed in the back. It came completely naturally to her — why wouldn't you give people a lift? It's raining, save on the bus fare, get in the car. She did so much for other people, to her detriment in the end, she became exhausted by giving so much. She died eight years ago of pancreatic cancer and I saw her cry once, when she asked me if I was happy in work, in my relationship — she wanted to know I was alright before she went. She didn't show her emotions physically, we weren't a family that told each other we loved each other, but she was an incredibly compassionate, giving woman. She'd help a stranger in the street over me and my sister — or herself. That's the environment I was born into and it's not an environment that seems to particularly exist now. It's not that you weren't important; it's more that it wasn't all about you. It wasn't all so self-serving, so centered on the self, the individual, but the community itself.
After years of passivity, there has been a more determined rise in political activism over the last few years — particularly in the last few months. It's sad that it's taken so much turmoil around the world to engage people, although it's great that people are finally wakening from their socially conscious slumbers. But I do believe that activism needs to stretch beyond a hashtag or signing a petition on Facebook or retweeting someone else's thoughts. It's all bit inert somehow, isn't it? Even demonstrations now, they're radically different to demos we went on in the 80s. It's almost become this wonderfully delightful middle-class day out — "I must pop this bottle of prosecco in the pram with Tarquin!" It's good that people are out there protesting, because there is power in numbers, but it's not enough. It's become comfortable because when it becomes uncomfortable, people don't like that. But the political struggle isn't comfortable, it can't be. You don't get to choose whether you're political. As soon as you wake up in the morning your life is political, whether you like it or not. Just functioning; it's all ruled by politics. Where do you wake up, which part of the country, do you own the home you live in, the bed you sleep in, do you rent, how many people do you share with, where do you work, what do you earn, do you have a job? I know a lot of people have had the stuffing kicked out of them and that's all part of the Capitalist manifesto — keep the people down, don't give them meaningful employment so that when people go on about the 'scroungers' it can feed the frenzy of stereotype. That's what the doctrine needs to function.
I think we should be encouraging the individuality of women and the empowerment of women; we've slid back. We fought so hard in the 70s and we should look back and understand what we fought for. The narrative is still based around women and motherhood, women and beauty, women and fertility. The cult of selfies and the influx of social media hasn't helped this. But it's not only the digital world. Every time you turn on the tele, or tune into Women's Hour you feel overwhelmed by a narrative focused on motherhood. I wasn't that desperate to have kids, but we gave it a go; I had two miscarriages, we went to the doctors, they suggested IVF and then you go down that route, which can be very tough, very punishing. You get swept along in it all, because it's what you feel you should, or you must, do. It was hard but I accepted it wasn't for me and Pav [Pawlo Wintoniuk, Peake's partner] and we're really happy as we are. But I had friends who were going through similar things who were beside themselves — they felt as though they were no longer a woman, they weren't fulfilled or fulfilling their role as women. It broke my heart that they felt like that. It's a message that we are battered with, over and over again; family, children, fertility. The argument that Andrea Leadsom made against Theresa May being a lesser candidate because she didn't have children — the insinuation that she wasn't invested in the future — it doesn't stand up. Which future is she talking about? The bigger, wider future or her child's future? Again, this comes back to the cult of motherhood, the cult of family, the cult of self. I can't speak on behalf of everyone who doesn't have kids, but I think when you don't have kids, you're looking out for everybody's kids, everybody's future. I'm not only concerned with my children getting into the right school — I look at youth on the whole. I think we've bred this idea, and it's a bit of Tory plot, of battening down and looking after your unit, that it's only your unit that really matters. There's always been a huge emphasis on family. I think it's very hard for women to feel comfortable in choosing their own path — to be a mother or to not be. To want a career, to not. To look how she wants to look. We need clearer, stronger messages with far more regularity to cut through the crap we — and young girls and women in particular — are being fed. Be individual! Follow your own path! Be who you are! Think not only of yourself but other people! Lets fight, but let's fight together for each other.
As told to Hattie Collins
Photography Chloé Le Drezen
Hair Sharmaine Cox at The Book Agency using L'Oréal. Make-up Lucy Joan Pearson using Laura Mercier. Photography assistance Gwen Trannoy.