Sydney-based writer Ben Law was surprisingly upbeat when we spoke on the phone late last week. It might have had something to do with the fact that he became an uncle less than 24 hours before our conversation, but I think it might just be the kind of person that he is – empathetic, entertaining, and deeply grateful for all that he has. Ben can transition easily between joking about sourdough starter to dissecting inequity through the lens of Centrelink benefits. And although he has lost a large portion of his own work for the foreseeable future, his greatest concerns are with the struggles of others.
Ben has been speaking up in support of his colleagues in the arts and entertainment community in the wake of COVID-19 – the events that took years to plan cancelled, the many months of incomes lost, and the way in which the arts has been largely overlooked in the Federal Government’s stimulus measures. The world might feel like its coming to an end, but Ben can still crack a Ru Paul’s Drag Race joke that makes everything feel a bit more normal, if only for a moment.
This was a refreshing shift in energy from many of the other conversations I’ve been having with friends and family lately. Ben and I spoke about getting to know our neighbours for the first time, getting rid of Centrelink shame, and his new quarantine indulgence: Nintendo Switch.
Hey Ben! How are you today – what’s going on in your world?
You’re catching me at a really funny moment because last night my sister gave birth, so this is my first day of being an uncle. Our family has a lot of mixed emotions – obviously, the main one is happiness that we have this new family member, little Coen. All that elation and relief, of course, is tinged with a little bit of sadness that we can’t be there, but now the idea of what constitutes care and safety has been completely upended. The best way we can care for our sister Tammy and nephew Coen is to keep our distance. It’s kind of a moot point anyway because they’re across state lines and you can’t go into Queensland right now anyway.
So in conclusion, we’re pretty good.
How is your work going? I saw that your play with Melbourne Theatre Company, ‘Torch The Place’, had to shut down.
Yeah it was sad that we didn’t get to do the last 10 days of the play, but we were so lucky that we got to stage most of it. A lot of productions were just about to go on stage and will probably never get that opportunity again. It’s really devastating to put so much work into something that can’t take place. I have lost a lot of work… but I have savings. Most of my concerns at the moment are with my colleagues in the arts, many of whom have not been included in this Job Keeper or Job Seeker package because of the way that artists work.
Is there something that you’re enjoying about having this forced slow down? Or is slowing down not really your vibe?
In December 2019 and January 2020 I spent a lot of time away from home – it was close to a month and a half being interstate. I was working on the play, I was in a stage production for the Sydney Festival that toured to regional Australia, and I just didn’t see my boyfriend Scott very much. We couldn’t wait to have a holiday on the other end together, and just have some normal days at home. Well… we’re definitely getting that now! It’s a little bit of a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’, but we feel very lucky.
Me too. I’ve been feeling a big sense of responsibility to be positive and check in with others as much as I can. Have you been feeling a bit of responsibility, to maintain cheerfulness?
Absolutely – those of us in a better situation do have a responsibility to our community because we have a greater capacity to help other people. It’s such a desperate time for so many people – those living alone, with job insecurity, or who don’t have a job anymore. I’ve got friends who have lost their income for the rest of 2020 – and it’s only just hit April. I don’t think that responsibility is just a sense – it’s a real responsibility we have.
I feel like it’s so important to be connected with the people in your immediate surroundings, in a way I never have before. How has that been for you?
I think a lot of people are only meeting their neighbours for the first time now, and I have to say that’s the case in my building, which is super dense apartment living. Contradictorily, as a result, people tended to keep their distance. There was this tacit agreement because we live so close, we didn’t really want to intrude on each other. But slipping notes under doors with your mobile number to help people if they need it – people are getting into that. I certainly have been.
You never know what’s going on behind closed doors in your own street and imagine if you found out if something horrible had happened, and you could have made a difference? You want to be able to be that person for others.
I’m curious to hear how you’ve been utilising this time – there’s been a bit of talk about not feeling like you need to ‘optimise’ your time. What’s your natural instinct – are you someone who just chills, or are you learning how to make sourdough?
It’s so funny you mention that right now… because I’ve just started my new sourdough starter! I was already doing this before but when I was on the road I just had to let it die. But now I’m like, you know what? I’m here, I’ve got no excuses, I’m going to make bread! In full pilgrim mode.
A lot of us at this time need to remind ourselves that of all the periods in our lives, now is not the time to scold yourself for being unproductive. But I also know within myself, and I think this is a very migrant background kind of thing, but [there’s this sense that] you’ve always got to be working. I feel that on a cellular level. I do want to feel productive.
At the same time, the other thing I’ve been really indulging in is Nintendo Switch! I got one recently which was really hard to procure. I’ve been playing Zelda. It’s been SO soothing to explore this huge beautiful world – I can’t access the outside world, but I can explore this made up one. And I do get proper delight from it! The beautiful and horrific thing about video games is that you are just sinking time into something that has no bearing on life. You are just sedentary in this virtual environment. So I feel that’s the yin to my sourdough yang.
What are you reading, watching and listening to?
I’ve built a big Coronavirus reading stack – I just finished reading the brilliant and beautiful Scottish book called Shuggie Bain, it’s one of those books where you’re constantly thinking and worrying about the characters when you’re not even reading it. I’m also finally reading my friend Heather Rose’s novel Bruny which is already so riveting. I’ve got a lot more book recommendations in my #CoronaVirusReadingStack I’ve posted on Instagram and Twitter.
In terms of television, my boyfriend and I have just finished watching this great BBC crime drama called Giri Haji – it means Duty Shame in Japanese, and it’s about Yakuza families.
And you know, Ru Paul’s Drag Race like we always do!
What is the biggest challenge for you personally?
In terms of where I’m at personally, the biggest thing is just inconvenience. I am so, so lucky. It’s a very ‘Karen’ thing to complain about.
So you want to speak to the manager of COVID-19?
Totally! It’s all pretty privileged inner-city gay boy concerns that I have personally. I’m looking forward to seeing friends, being able to swim, and seeing my family. And I think that’s the baseline of inconveniences and anything beyond that is [to do with] what other people are experiencing – that’s what I’m concerned about.
What are you feeling hopeful will emerge out of this time?
I think Australians have been given a bit of a jolt in terms of agreeing that the money we told people was the baseline they had to live off if they were in a desperate situation, if they had to get on Centrelink, was not enough to live off. It took middle and upper-class people to go on those benefits to realise that. And it’s like, those people who were already living on those benefits are also human beings!
Hopefully this will shift the conversation and make people realise that no one is immune to misfortune. And that’s an awful lesson to learn, but an important one simultaneously. It’s healthy to understand in real, palpable terms.
Most of my family members, including myself, have all had to rely on Centrelink benefits at some stage or another and there’s a shame associated with that. I just don’t think there needs to be. It’s always been an ‘us’ and ‘them’ conversation, but it’s really an ‘us’ conversation.