Yes, we need to ‘reclaim England’ – from the political right

I often think: if this all ended, I’d feel such shame at being represented by ageing white men on billboards, bleating about ‘freedom of speech’

Barney Norris
Wednesday 18 May 2022 14:16
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<p>How would I feel if this world ended now, and this was what was left behind to stand for us all? </p>

How would I feel if this world ended now, and this was what was left behind to stand for us all?

At present, I’m rehearsing my new autobiographical play, We Started To Sing. In order to do so I drive across London each morning at dawn to reach the Arcola Theatre, where the play is going on. All along the route, ageing white men with slight stoops stare down at me from electric billboards, advertising what they call freedom of speech, though what they’re actually advertising is a range of privately-owned talk show platforms.

In the deserted early morning, they look like Easter Island statues, and they make me wonder: how would I feel if this world ended now, and this was what was left behind to stand for us all?

Then I get to the Arcola and rehearse a play about my grandparents, whose generation gave their youths (and often their lives) to resist the fascist right, and built the welfare state; who bequeathed to us this country we’re in the process of selling off at present. And I think, if all this ended, I’d feel such shame at being represented by those ageing white men. Because that’s how my grandparents would have felt about them too.

Over the course of the Covid lockdowns, I found myself formulating a rather grand, perhaps slightly hubristic project for my work as a storyteller. It felt a little like catching a scent; forced to stop in my tracks and take stock of what I was doing, I began to intuit a cohering idea underlying the work I had in hand.

The project I felt I had been setting myself at a more or less subconscious level was the reclamation of the subject of Englishness from the political right.

It came up time and again in what I was doing: in my collaboration with my father David Owen Norris on our show The Wellspring, which charted the different Englands where we had passed our youths; in my collaboration with Dan Hicks adapting his book The Brutish Museums, examining the source crimes and cover-ups that have created England; in my collaboration with Derren Brown on The Invisible Man, which is, among other things, a show about how England works now, which I can’t say too much about here for fear of spoiling the magic!

All these came to feel, as I went over and over them waiting for the chance to tell stories again, like attempts to reframe the discussion around the idea of England.

We Started To Sing is another such undertaking. It is, quite simply, the story of a family living in England at the turn of the twenty-first century, and what I have tried to do with it is strip away the layers of politicisation so often loaded onto people’s stories.

These disrespect human stories by insisting they’re not enough in their own right, that human lives aren’t important enough in their own right to take centre stage, but have to be made to stand for something, usually for something that plays well as a hashtag online. I am trying to present my own family on a stage, as I see them, and show without adornment who they are to me, as a way of saying – this is England too.

It’s a commonplace to say this subject was violently co-opted by gammon-faced men in 2016. What’s less interrogated is how little effort seems to have gone into challenging that hijack, and how overwhelmingly the subject of England is now framed by the right.

It’s terrible, really: millions seemed to believe they were rising up and breaking out of a repressive silence when they voted leave, asserting their presence, reminding everyone they were here. As a result, they are discussed less meaningfully than ever – quite apart from the other harms their votes have led to. Trust was eroded between communities, the peace process in Northern Ireland was undermined, trade disadvantages were loaded onto British farmers and exporters.

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It repels me, because it leaves people unarticulated and unrepresented, and because there’s nothing inherently right-wing about living on these or any other islands; that doesn’t have to be how the subject is addressed. We’re just being gaslit into behaving like it is.

I’ve felt it happening. I’m sure everyone has. The slow unravelling of the socialist principles underpinning the post-war consensus, like the withdrawing of a tide. Until lockdown, I didn’t see exactly how I’d been responding to it in my work.

But now that I am aware, it’s something I want to work hard at: the reclamation of the subject of who we, everyone living on these islands, are, from the voices of the right who are poisoning and cheapening it. I want to be part of broadening the discourse around that story, and letting people’s lives be expressed through a different political lens, to try and allow the truth about being in England to be put into words.

We Started to Sing is at the Arcola Theatre from May 19 to June 1

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