During this time, post EU referendum, this confused, broken time. This time where harm is laughed at through Farage-gaped mouths. This time in which little-boys-now-men sit complacently pulling the wings off us like we are insects. This time which hurts me in a way I hadn’t realised it would, as we watch harm building up behind a dam which the boy-men pick away for the pleasure of seeing what will happen.
In this time, I think back to a show I made 3 years ago. It was called Songs for Breaking Britain. In making it, me and a band (Sean: guitar, Keir: drums) went out into the streets of cities and asked people what it meant to them to live in Britain. Not that question exactly (who can answer it?) but broken down into smaller parts; where would you say you’re from? What does that mean to you? What makes you happy? Sad? What would you change if you could? We made punk songs out of their answers.
I met people, the kind talked about in numbers. I met people each of whom I know I could have loved, I listened while they talked.
I think a lot about those conversations. About that show I could never tour, because it involved a 4 day process in each venue, far too expensive. (If you’re interested I wrote about the process at the time).
I wrote a bit of those conversations up, two years ago, as part of a speech I gave about the Scottish independence referendum. And at this time, I wanted to share it again.
It contains words I don’t always agree with from people I met 3 years ago, before this mess. It ends with hope from a hopeful man. But it’s Nicky and Naz that I think of most at the moment.
Naz had a light blue headscarf, pencil drawn black eyeliner, and when I meet her in the cold of Febuary is wearing a chunky black coat that almost buries her. I ask her some of the questions on my piece of paper. “Where would you say you’re from”? “Stockton, here” “What does that mean to you?” “It’s hard to say, it’s hard to say isn’t it? Stockton is… it’s multicultural, I’m proud to be from here, well, it’s difficult isn’t it, proud is a complicated word – this is my home, I don’t know anywhere else.” She weighs her words again and again, it’s her home, but sometimes she doesn’t feel welcome “around the time of the 7/7 bombings, it was difficult. My children suffered, things people said. People would see you in the street and only see one thing.”
Naz is in the song we wrote but not this bit of writing. You can read a paste of the lyrics I wrote for the Stockton song here. And you can read on to hear some people I spoke to talk about Britishness. All quotes are transcribed directly from recordings.
“At the beginning of this year I made a new piece of theatre
which involved talking to people in the street about what Britishness meant to them.
I spoke to people in London, Bradford, and Stockton on Tees.
I hope to tour this piece talking to more and more people as we go.
But as for these three cities.
London, Bradford, and Stockton on Tees.
In London two people stood out
wavy brown hair
He was 35 and he spoke to me about leaving his home behind
Selling everything, his house, his car
He left his dog
and his family
“there are no jobs, no jobs in Greece now”
A cameraman who had worked in television
he explained that he was lonely
but with a pip of optimism still in him
he said finds comfort in small things,
like he’d smiled at a little boy on the bus earlier
and someone had let him pet their dog.
Then there was the woman
whose name I never did quite catch
she talked laboriously
heavy with some kind of respiratory problem
about how she had left Sierra Leone as a refugee.
Pursued into a neighbouring country.
She sang me a song which meant
“thank god for health and happiness”
and told me that her favourite person in the world was Tony Blair.
“He was the only one who ever cared about us”
“the only one. He said ‘come over here””
Tony Blair was her hero, because our country had offered her asylum.
In Stockton it was colder.
Somehow in a country I think of as small
compared to all of the others
I never really believe 3 hours on a train
will produce much of a temperature difference
I buy me and my 2 collaborators bobble hats from a charity shop on the high street.
Then we shiver standing, trying to catch people’s attention.
One of the first people who stop and speak to me
Is a young lad called Nicky.
Nicky tells me he’s just out of the army,
There’s a long thin scar on the right side of his face.
He’s from a local estate and when I ask about Stockton he tells me “everyone in this town is on the brown, all bagheads mate”.
I ask him what the biggest injustice in Britain is to him,
and he says it’s the NHS failing,
Nicky’s mate, largely silent next to him, suddenly speaks.
“it’s the immigrants, isn’t it? That’s why we vote UKIP”,
They explain how Stockton didn’t used to be like this, there used to open shops, jobs,
“but then they came, and now everything is worse.”
I ask Nicky about his regiment, he was 2 Yorks,
most of his family are in the armed services.
He says “the army changed my perspective,
they teach you all sorts of things,
like how lucky we are,
I can understand why people would want to come here, they have it a lot tougher.”
Nicky’s mate, as yet unnamed, speaks up again
He wants to study, earn enough points. Emigrate to Australia.
Nicky wants to be a business man
“not for the money though, money’s not the thing,
I want to find something I enjoy, something rewarding”
It occurs to me that if I were to paint a character of this person
without having met him
I might leave out details like his understanding.
In Bradford I steel myself
It is the third week of talking to strangers
and I am in a city I know mostly for race riots
Good food, post-industrial decline,
and George Galloway.
But several conversations into the day
and somehow everyone here is more positive.
There are still difficult stories:
a Pakistani boy-nearly-man
just out of prison
who speaks out of the side of his mouth
about the way the police “pick on pakis”
And a quiet spoken boy with facial pairings
fine dark black skin and university ambitions
always off to Leeds for gigs
laughs off his white mates never being stopped by the cops
when there isn’t a month goes by he’s not searched by them.
But I also meet a Bengali-Irish woman
‘we’re all the same, all Bradford’
while her Pakistani-British husband smiles and nods.
A guy from Karachi who says ‘Bradford’s nice and bijoux’
And Fahard Ali.
Let me tell you…
Fahard Ali was a big man; round like a barrel of treacle.
He wore a mustard coloured flat cap,
aviator framed glasses,
reflective in the sunset.
I ask him what Britishness is to him.
When I get in, later, from talking to him I transcribe his words directly:
“I am british – it’s the language that I speak – […] being british is about the natural dominion of the island and the coast and the sea, the topography, the people, the struggles we’ve gone through, the literature, the architecture – Charles Barry, Lincoln cathedral – it’s not a singularity it’s a laminated effect of who we are – and let’s not forget it’s been 100 years since the beginning of the 1st world war – we’re also a product of that – we came out poorer, we lost 3 generations of men, had to rebuild ourselves, and empire and the loss of empire, the joining up of people through the commonwealth. You can be british if you’ve lived here four hours or if you’ve been here all your life – it’s about how you relate to it, and how you want to contribute to it. I feel happiest when I’m walking around the mills – those places – where things were happening – where cloth was being made. I’m happiest also when I’m bittersweet – those empty cathedrals of industry – it’s not that we were making something, it’s the hope and ambition it gave us. The people who came from the hay way into the city – it was about finding a better way to feed ourselves, clothe ourselves. There was something there – hope. I find myself happiest around industry. The biggest injustice is the loss of narrative. I say narrative over identity – because there are many identities. How we’ve got rid of narrative – become a homogeneous thing – […] we have no narrative of where we’ve come from, so we can’t tell where we’re going to. My favourite song is William Blake’s Jerusalem. Not as a religious song – the hope Blake puts in, and he identifies the english character of living on an island, and about hoping for something better – the reality is that the feet of god weren’t here, but we look forward to a Jerusalem of the mind.”
The next day
I speak to the director of the theatre I’m working in
and he says
“I think we feel together because we went through the riots”
There was a lot of healing that had to go on.
We saw this gulf in our communities
It hurt us.
it was hard. But the city is better now.”