Omnibus Theatre: Were you already a writer/performer 15 years ago (please give your background) and how soon did you realise you were living in some kind of treasure trove?
Jolie Booth: I’ve been a performer all of my life, since my parents were called into school when I was just six years old because the teacher was concerned that instead of concentrating on my maths lessons I’d instead start getting the kids at the back of the class to join in with me in making a play. My parents pointed out that rather than worrying too much about this that it perhaps showed that theatre was my calling and from that day forth nurtured this skill in me. Although at the time of squatting this flat I had just finished a degree in English and had moved to Brighton to create and be editor of a feminist online magazine called Flow: For Women Who Bleed. Writing and performing are my greatest passions.
I’m from a working class background and was having to live as cheaply as possible in order to forge a career as an artist and therefore squatting became a necessity. Now that squatting is illegal I honestly have no idea how artists from poorer backgrounds are able to get off of the ground. The squat had been suggested to us by the daughter of the woman who had last lived there. She worked at the University of Brighton with a friend of ours and when he’d mentioned his friends were looking for somewhere to squat she had told him her mum’s old flat hadn’t been lived in since her mother had died and told us where we could find it. When we cracked the squat we discovered that all her mum’s things were still in there. We contacted the daughter through our friend and let her know that there was all this stuff still in there, but she didn’t desire it, so we lived in amongst all this old hippie stuff – ornaments, posters, clothes, books – all left over from the life of an alternative sixties Brightonian. I’d always been obsessed with history.
As my parents had little money one thing they did to entertain us was to maintain a National Trust and English Heritage membership and every weekend we’d go on a trip to an old stately home. Each room we walked into my mum would always say “Look up, Look down, look back, back drop (out the window) and sniff” to ensure we got everything we could out of all the rooms we visited. When we got home we’d make a scrap book about the house, sticking in feathers, leaves and postcards we’d collected. I’d always walk around pretending I lived there, normally imagining I was one of the servants rather than the rich ladies of the house. Imagining what it felt like to sneak around the place trying to do the work required whilst also staying invisible. This began a fascination in me for discovering the lives of ordinary people throughout history. All the famous and powerful people get recorded, but it excites me when I find someone’s initials etched into the brick work of an old bakery’s bread oven, or discover an old grave stone where the name has worn away. I’ll spend ages contemplating who the person might have been and what ripples have perhaps been left behind them in their wake. This all led me to becoming a historical re-creator, which I started doing on my own when I was ten years old, getting time off of school and camping with a guardian, living day to day as a Tudor peasant at an award winning recreation in Suffolk called Kentwell Hall.
I’ve been doing it now for twenty-nine years. I learnt to make cheese and butter as a dairy maid first of all, was a washer woman for a while and then for the last twenty-five years I’ve been a travelling player. We have our own cart that we perform plays on top of and then sleep underneath at night. It’s like a second life. When I stepped into the squat in Brighton, and saw that it was filled with the life or a long departed tenant, it was an Aladdin’s cave to me.
OT: Which of Anne’s belongings moved/inspired you the most?
JB: Initially I loved the posters on the walls for old club nights around Brighton, like a poster for the famous Zap Club which had a cartoon on it of Margaret Thatcher with her tits out for a night called “A Something of What you Fancy”. It was £1 to get in and £1 a pint. Then one night we opened the cupboard under the stairs and found it was full of clothes, records and a box full of diaries. We got out the box and began to flick through them, discovering that the woman who’d lived there had been called Anne Clarke. One of my housemates then told me he’d read in one of the diaries that she’d had a hip replacement and on the shelf there was a pelvis bone. We joked that perhaps this was Anne’s hip bone. When we were evicted from the flat, we were in there for about three months, we agreed to put all the possessions in a lock up, as the bailiffs would have just thrown out anything they found left behind in there as they would assume we had just left stuff behind. The contents of the lock up disappeared though, something I’ve never quite gotten over. The only thing I’d kept back for myself was the box of letters and diaries, plus the hip bone. For fifteen years I carried the hip bone from house to house, always keeping it out on my mantelpiece and thinking of it as Anne. I didn’t get around to reading through all the letters and diaries until fifteen years later, when I decided to find out who Anne had actually been and why her stuff had been lift behind like that. This research is what then led to the show HIP.
OT: How much more about her did you find out?
JB: I’ve become a little bit single white female to be honest. I now know many of her friends, much of her family, where came from and where she lived prior to the squat flat, what political movements she was part of, what her hobbies and passions were, who were her lovers and I have also discovered the ripples she has left behind around the city of Brighton. There are some significant ripples very much still influencing the city and some little ones you’d never notice if you didn’t look. I also found out how she had died and why her stuff had been left behind.
OT: Was there a moment when you almost felt like an intruder into Anne’s life?
I’ve never felt like an intruder in Anne’s life for two main reasons. Firstly is because the serendipity surrounding the discoveries and the ways in which they’ve unfolded have been nothing short of magical. If she is somewhere watching down on us and doesn’t want me to be telling her story then she’s doing a really bad job of letting me know this. Secondly she left her mark. She wrote diaries, was an artist and created work. As someone who writes diaries and leaves her mark where ever possible the one thing that would be worse than death for me would be for someone to find my marks in the future and then pay no attention to them. The Mexican day of the dead celebrates the ancestors and remembers them as they believe we have two deaths; the day we physically die and the day the last person who remembers us dies. I’m remembering Anne and celebrating her life, keeping her memory alive. Warts and all.
OT: Has writing and performing HIP been some kind of life lesson to you and do you think it affects audiences in similar ways?
JB: After each show audiences talk to me about legacy and how they’re now considering exactly how they’ll be remembered once they’re gone, often saying they’d like to now start writing a diary. Journal and letter writing is a dying art due to the internet, as is printing photos, and there will be little archival materials hanging around capturing this era in the future. I’ve got my life written down from the age of eight onwards in diaries. I’d like to create a time capsule for these at some point and bury them somewhere. Preferably I’d like to shoot them into space. It has also led me to create a new project called the Museum of Ordinary People, which will open for the first time as a temporary exhibition in May this year as part of the Brighton Fringe Festival.
Audiences who had been part of the sixties and seventies counterculture scenes also get a lot out of this show. I think Anne was getting up to all the things that everyone dreamed of doing during this time. She was a trailblazer… And she also got burnt.
OT: Brighton seems to have become an extra special place over the last 20 or 30 years. Did it become special to you?
JB: I think Brighton has been special since the Regency boom when Doctor Richard Russell wrote his essay ‘Glandular Diseases, or a Dissertation on the Use of Sea Water in the Affections of the Glands’ recommending bathing in Brighton sea waters. Since then it has been a transient town, close enough to London to be part of the bigger picture, but where people can be more themselves. Recently, especially, Brighton has become a safe house for liberalism in an increasingly hostile conservative culture. After creating HIP the theatre show I then created a theatrical walking tour called The HIP Trip of Brighton: A Psychedelic Wander, where I meet a group of people at the Clock Tower and then lead them around Brighton’s counterculture history, pointing out the ‘hip’ places of the sixties, seventies and eighties. For example I discovered there had been a bookshop and printing press called the Unicorn Bookshop, where Anne had worked, and it had played a significant role in getting beat poetry off of the ground in the UK, with several famous beat poets being published for the first time through their press. It had been painted on the outside by a famous local artist with a big colorful mural which has been cited as being the first of its kind in the country. As part of the funding for the tour I paid our current famous Brighton mural artist Sinna One to recreate the mural on the outside of the shop. It has a scroll on the side dedicating the mural to the Unicorn Bookshop’s owner Bill Butler and the original mural artist John Upton, with a link to a webpage that tells you all about who these men were and what they contributed to the history of Brighton. I see layers to the city now, ghosts of forgotten roads, places where people used to hang out and where things once happened. It’s like a fourth dimension view of the city.