Valise Noire Storytelling Theatre invoked the spirit of service in their Great War rememberence pieces, using people’s own words in letters and inventories to bring audiences together around some universally shared feelings. Contributing one last piece of sound design to their final performance of the last four years of the centenary, I found myself wondering about the rallying vibrations of today’s words – especially having been surrounded by them at my first ever proper political protest, two weeks earlier.
This yearʼs Armistice Day was, of course, the 100th. A big deal. One that seemed to draw world leaders to France to listen to Emanuel Macron preach about the brilliant French lifestyle, or something. But I wonder if this momentously round number may fearfully mark the official forgetting of Europeʼs blood-spilling modern history. And for me, it felt incongruous to be out of Britain for the date.
Four years ago, I was asked by Hazel and Michele, in their shared guise as Valise Noire Storytelling Theatre, to develop some sound design with them for a very special project – Poppy Fields. A performance piece commemorating the Great War. The two other projects that the three of us have worked on together, The Girl and The Shoes and Cargo have been beautiful experiences to help create, with the sort of imaginative humanity they weave in their writing and telling. Beautiful work. And Poppy Fields was touching on something vast in its historic effect – but they tackled it as perhaps the best storytelling can only do, with personal intimacy.
They researched letters and information about veterans from our part of the world, the Poole and Bournemouth area, and we found ourselves in my shed reading these documents and weaving them into impressions of the war in sound. And to listen to this simple flow of testimony was just moving. Something that hit you from their words; these historic people from my neighbourhood were ordinary and their extraordinary sounding experiences were, in the end, just stuff that they had to get on and cope with.
None of it simple fable, is it? It was just life. Common or garden complex living. Caught up in events.
On Armistice Day this year, Michele and Hazel performed one last piece of the project in Poole Park, and I couldnʼt be there to see just how the new sound worked around their movements. I hear it rained in the middle and everyone felt it together like tears.
Now, I’m no believer in sombriety for the sake of it. But I couldn’t attend this meaningful piece of art with my friends because I was doing something so contrasting it feels odd to contemplate – larking about as I found myself doing on a shoot with other creative partners trying to bring to life something with a very different tone to Poppy Fields. You have to be where you have to be. But tapping to some of the stills I saw on my phone after their performance, sitting in another time and climate and creative zone, I could still feel the effect of what they’d made on that November day in England; it caught in the throat a little as I scrolled through what Iʼd missed. Sensing how oddly unifying is the thing they were most invoking.
Grief. Unprecidented loss.
Timing can give you new perspectives, I guess. I wasnʼt in Europe for Remembrance Sunday but I was in Florida for the most significant midterm elections in decades. And staying with folk whoʼs political perspective is rather different to mine. Who spoke not once of their politics while we were there, but who left me quietly a fan of how they expressed their evident values. These friendly people whose vote on one particular issue was inexplicable to my own.
The first thing I did upon return was run a bath to soothe the CO2-chugging jetlag and watch Peter Jackson’s remarkable They shall not grow old, broadcast as part of the centenary Armistice rememberances. A painstaking edit of original footage of the first world war and sound archives of soldiers’ later testimonies that was also brought to more vivid life by colourisation. These were no longer black and white images of the war to end all wars. These were young Tommies getting on with it. An impossible situation to live through, which millions didn’t. And they did. With haunting ordinaryness.
You don’t need me to tell you that the war was complex and far reaching. But it was ended ultimately by revolution from within, rather than clear military strategy from without. Something talked about little by anyone, uncluding Jackson’s ground level documentary. What the film did do was show British soldiers’ impressions of the captured Germans – and they said what should be obvious: “They were just like us, really. Nice boys, doing their best.” Ordinary people, caught up in all the bullshit. Caked in the mud that stuck to absolutely everything. Many of whom actually went on to rise up against the bullshit of imperial folly and depose the mad Kaiser. Ordinary three-dimensional people on the other side of the fence in the imagination of millions of allies, doing momentous things that they never got to hear about in the middle of their own stories of the war.
Which does make you remember, doesn’t it? The binification of us today is bullshit. And obviously there is one word on British lips at the moment that embodies the idea of division.
It’s getting close now, isn’t it? The crunch. When the B-word in some form or other is enacted for real over the once supposedly United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. And the only thing that seems to be truly certain in the middle of everyone’s brittly brutal certainties is… uncertainty.
About what this latest dramatic story will really do to my country. I’ve said it many times, what is the fruit of it so far? Most of it is toxic ooze. Coating everything we eat. And gulp down.
Now, I’m such a painfully balanced and probably indolent sort of chap that I am absolutely part of my generation’s problem. I’ve been asleep to many things I should have been fighting for, largely because I haven’t had to fight for much culturally and partly because the things deserving the fight are so big I don’t know where to start. How depressingly normal of me. But I also try to see both sides in a dispute. If I had the courage, such an outlook might one day make me a good writer. Once I’ve really counted the cost of losing a fight.
I hate Brexit. The word itself is so godawful it sums up just how crap the whole idea, framed as it was, has always been. How fake, and hubristically ill-thought through. Entirely a willful gamble on quieting the barky end of the Conservative party, which worked out not so much, eh Dave? And we are all left with a country more divided culturally than by any economic policy championed by generations of right-of-centre economics.
Why has it gotten to us so much? This fake debate?
Because, regardless of any possible intervention into our heads from sly front line assaults in our global culture wars, on the torn-up turf of our social media streams, I think we are wedded to the question deeply anyway. Deeply enough to inspire the biggest vote turn out for anything since the end of the second world war. And forgetting any potential influencers and their links to other global events, and the fact that the Leave campaign technically broke British democratic law in its spending, which all signals significance in Brexit’s whole existence to me still, the culture wars have polarised us all across the world, not just under the shadow of Brexit. We’ve allowed ourselves to be pushed apart, staring across a carcassed muddy soup of no man’s land, going nowhere. Lobbing shells. Only one side or the other to choose from, all across our headlines. Some weird Lord of the flies we’ve decended into on our little island as much as anywhere. Something Stephen Fry might say is part of the infantilising of us. Something creative director Dave Trott I believe called the binification of us.
Perhaps the putting of us in the bin. And the loss of much dignity.
Well, if we’re talking binary certainties, I do think there are arguably two things going on in our Brexit debates, whenever we personally join in. Two things that have driven our wranglings around it, that would have driven it even without any help from outside influences.
One is the politics of strategy. What do we think is in the UK’s best interests now? We look for facts, figures, projections. But I think we do so more often than not in the light of the second thing. The politics of identity. Ignoring all the ‘agendas’ we imagine out there, our own connection to the Brexit vote comes down to this question: How do we see the EU in our minds? Of those who could be bothered to vote, we seem to picture either an imposition on our sovereignty and a threat to our democracy, or we picture a peace-fostering culture of co-operation that looks to a future beyond borders.
There’s no room for much in between. Despite the fact that something as massive as a pan-national cultural platform like the Europe project is just going to be a complex thing to neatly judge.
For me, all this is obviously a false narrative. Like most internet discussions – because we tend to force-frame the question. I’m not sure many of us are interested in getting at the truth, in a more Pompous Ancient Greek Philosophy Club hope, we mostly just want to justify how we’re feeling, it seems. And something about the world has us feeling much deeply at the moment, like a pile of dry tinder under our message threads.
Right now, we act as though we want each other to conform to our view of that one subject, and when we can’t find us as allies to our predispositions, we see us as Them. And click a blizzard of Likes to online criticisms of Them. We collectively sound a lot less forgiving than the armed Tommies going over the top into actual bullet blizzards a century ago.
Now, in my own instinctive Them-ising, this is something I’ve obviously tended to imagine happens more on the Leavers’ ‘side’ of the arguing than the ‘side’ I more instinctively identify with – not least because I do feel the whole thing was a set-up in the first place, rendering shouts of “Project Fear!” as one big projection from the real Project Fear – Project Division.
So you might think that a rally of remainers would be a tonic to me as a weary Europhile and condescending liberal snowflake. To hear voices of pleasant reason joining in unison, reminding me I’m not in fact taking the crazy pills we all feel we’re taking. Proving my assumptions comfortingly right again.
Attending the biggest of its kind to date in London, my first proper protest march experience was certainly a very polite and friendly affair, a far cry from some band of Tommy Robinson fetishisers. But it didn’t have the effect on me you might imagine.
I came home feeling rather heavy about it.
Something made the lovely first lady of Momo and I actually go to this one. The People’s Vote March. And on a bright sunny day belying any autumn chills, we found ourselves surrounded by nice people. The nice brigade. It had finally turned out. Ordinary middle class folk. Possibly 600,000 of them turning the streets of the capital into a very safe feeling festival of witty placcards and surprisingly single-minded intent, rather than the usual rabble of different protests that get swept up in lefty parades, you might scoff.
But, even though I began to see past the immediate whiteness of the demographic and spot a more diverse mix of Brits in the ranks, and certainly a diverse age range of us, I did feel something slowly sink into me as the day trod on. The gnawing sensation that all these nice people were still not listening to those who voted out. And why.
I’ll have no truck with any whitewashing of the sickening racial side of the Leave campaign, levered even in the past fortnight as I write by the Prime Minister, hoping to “end free movement once and for all”. Like this is a good thing. Not a tragedy for progress. Or with her idea of European citizens ‘queue jumping’ immigration lines somehow, like the UK wasn’t always responsible for its own immigration policy, firmly outside the Shengen Agreement as well as the Eurozone, but a lead member of the EU and its values. I won’t forget that the papers and UKIP and various others played heavily on fears of tides of terrorists sweeping up to the front door. All that happened in front of our eyes and we all let it get to us.
But it is true, I think, that for most Leave voters the issue was really about a sense of sovereignty. A perceived injustice to Britain’s. And that we should be able to talk about openly. As openly as fears about anything, including racial swamping of towns. No one should be getting labeled for speaking up. Not if we’re truly inclusive, and confidently so.
After all, the fulcrum of that much spattered about Greek-seated word democracy is the debating chamber. It’s the very shape of the Commons, the seat of the UK parliament. We have it out. We profer and challenge, argue and counter-challenge. We beat out the truth, right?
Or, in the end, we just create an awful lot of heat and little light at the end of the tunnel. Because no one wants the actual truth any more, right? We project fake news everywhere.
The thing is, I don’t want my friends demonised by asking questions. And I don’t want to be. If we imagine the modern world has brought us anything good, that choice, that voice, that right to be wrong or just different was built in significant part out of the enlightenment. A flowering of impirical scientific testing. A lusting after truth. A certainty in it that produced plenty of hubris and arrogance and pompous silliness along the way as ever we produce it today, but which also opened up the world to a totally different future. A future beyond the fudal.
So I don’t want to be labeled a remoaner. Because it’s divisive, pejorative bullshit. Which means I definitely won’t call you a brexshiteer. We know each other’s names, after all.
Now, I’m not sure how easily I take offense. I’m a preachy hypocrit and a little bit of a lush and I make wantonly un-hip unsellable music, so pop away. But I don’t want to be insulted as any one thing in my attempt to respond to my times. I also don’t want my EU rights taken away. Which they will be if Brexit happens as democratically expected by Leave voters.
Whatever I do or don’t want, I desperately don’t want us to forget the true costs of war; of how insidiously divisive language can craft us apart, all in our own imaginations. Of how much we depend on culture to keep us together, much more than military might. We should take note of the reframing of historic stories across the world, as certain leaders want to infantilise our devotions to much simpler narratives of winners, losers, black and white.
I won’t ever be truly unpartisan. Who is? I am bent into a liberal sort of shape and there’s probably no saving me now, I should say, and I do feel that in a time of such testing, the only thing left when the fires of fighting pass will be our values. Something we are lots of us feeling perhaps – the need to assert who we are and what we believe. And I feel like my values are being tested alright. Do I know what they really are, and can I live up to them? How infantalised am I still? Are we, still?
The challenge to us all at the moment might be to consider: What are my values worth? But not just to me, to the world?
The very adult point facing us is surely this: Right now, someone is going to lose something significant feeling from all this. And in our binifying culture wars, we will begin to find peace I think only when we acknowledge that we are all losing by this two-dimensional division.
Then we might begin to accept something that could really bring us together after conflict. Help us begin to heal. See each other as human above everything.
We shouldn’t bury this shared experience in history. In fact, it is art that will be how we will best make sense of it, recovering from the conflict.
But for the sake of dignifying each other, it’s surely time to put the bullshit in the bin.
Now, as a post-script, I realise this is a swerve to the ‘left’ here. I’d be interested to know your own reaction to this speech by MP for Tottenham, David Lammy. To me it feels like waking up from a fantastical nightmare. To hear a speech for something, and ideals that drove the UK’s cultural prominence beyond its days of Empire. It feels to me like Brexit will surrender such hopes and squander such assets, giving it all to the least deserving of us and most culpable for the planet’s ills.
But here I am succumbing to another fable, right?
Well, all visions start with stories. Understanding is shown in how you apply them out in the real world.
What’s your guiding story?
“Total independence is a fantasy…Sovereignty is not an asset to be hoarded. It’s a resource which only has value when it is spent.”