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Byron Shire
March 1, 2021

The man who loved a bank

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mark-swivelSelf described writer, writer, lawyer and shameless idealist, Mark Swivel fell in love with a bank. Not just any bank mind you, the Nobel Prize-winning Grameen Bank.

In his show, How Deep is Your Love, Swivel dives into microfinance and comes up learning what the poor have to teach us about the world. Who woulda thought?!

Pioneered by the Grameen, Microfinance allows people to start up small businesses, usually women, thus empowering them to take charge of their circumstance. Although it’s an inspirational idea – how does a man passionate about economics and community make banking sexy?

‘People have a completely hard-coated negativity towards banking generally – but I do make the show funny, tell great stories along the way and there is singing!’ says Swivel who also admits, ‘I went to Bangladesh as part of a middle-aged middle-class attempt to make a difference. What else can you do? Rejoin the Labour Party? I have no claims to moral integrity, I admit to stealing from my grandmother as a kid, just $10 here and there when she was slipping into alzheimers. In presenting the show you have to undercut all the expectations people have about the subject and disarm them along the way. Before you know it you are in a tin shed in Bangladesh watching women do their banking. The fact that it is women is a key part of the story. I have become obsessed with the gender politics in development, generally it’s a total cliche, but if you want to make an impact anywhere in the world – focus on the women, educate, empower and give them opportunity. It’s a no-brainer. Up until a generation ago women in Bangladesh still lived in Purdah and couldn’t leave the home. The great achievement of Grameen was to get these women out of their houses into these centre banking houses – which were tin sheds in the centre of the village.’

At the time of his trip to Bangladesh, Swivel was a lawyer helping credit unions try and find a meaningful alternative to the big banks. As the director of a credit union he was keen to implement these strategies into the western suburbs of Sydney.

Unfortunately, that didn’t end up happening. ‘My colleagues at the credit union basically thought microfinance was too difficult and too risky. It was the same problem Grameen had when they began, they went to all the big banks in the beginning to encourage them to help rural women set up businesses, they said, give us some money and we will show you how to transform the country side. They said, you will never get the women to work or the poor to repay them, but Grameen and his devoted followers got money from elsewhere, and little by little it evolved down another path. It’s not counter intuitive, it’s the opposite in what bankers think about banking and lending and it’s what I ran up against in Australia. The credit union I worked for wasn’t prepared to get on board in developing microfinance because they couldn’t see how that worked in with their strategy… I thought this is what credit unions were created to be.’

So yes, the show is about banking on one level, but it’s also about community, and meaning and how we choose to live in the world. So why tell this story now? What relevance does women banking in tin sheds in Bangladesh have to us here?

‘The impulse to tell the story came when I was visiting my son in the UK, I was travelling through to Paris, and the Charlie Hebdo protests were on and the street was full of people freaking out and I was reflecting on who the killers were and why they would do something that terrible, and I am there literally travelling between train stations seeing people pouring through the squares and I thought about all the people I met in Bangladesh and how we are being fed images of ISIS and Boko Haram. The reality of the world is more complex, there is so much more we should be learning, at the risk of being preachy the core idea is how do you learn from the so-called poor, that is what the show is actually about.’

Swivel premiered the show to audiences in Mullumbimby earlier this year, at a run time of almost two hours.

‘I have cut it down to an hour, it’s shorter, sharper and funnier – I really think that helps with message delivery, still key poignant moments that get it home.’

Swivel will be returning back to Sydney at the end of October for a show at The Factory Theatre (30 October), and for those who missed How Deep is Your Love the first time around, he will be performing it during Mullum Music Festival. The very same festival where back in 2012 he remet his childhood sweetheart after 30 years, left Sydney, got married and settled here.

‘I always said I could work out the back of a Winnebago with an internet connection!’

As an advocate of community engagement, Swivel is a fierce advocate of more ‘connected’ living. ‘I am heavily involved in Eureka football club as club secretary, earlier this year I was asked to joined the board of Spaghetti Circus – I love contributing whatever I can and I am in the choir Dustyesky, which so much more than a choir!’

Mark Swivel’s How Deep is Your Love at Mullum Music Festival, 19–22 November. For program and ticket information go to mullummusicfestival.com.au.

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