WHAT have I done for you,
England, my England?
What is there I would not do,
England, my own?
William Ernest Henley, 1849–1903
The Brexit vote of 2016 was arguably one of the most divisive moments in modern British political history – the result triggering highly emotional responses across the political spectrum. Brexit it seemed, was a private drama enacted on a very public stage. Depending on who you asked or what newspapers you were reading, Brexit was presented as either the Absolute Best or Absolute Worst thing for Britain; what is interesting is that the absolutism of media coverage reveals that the vote itself (United Kingdom European Union Membership Referendum) was about much more than Britain’s membership of the EU – just like Donald Trump’s election in the same year; people were not simply voting to make provision for a referendum: they were voting as a response against something much deeper. In this way we can see that the Brexit vote (Leave. Remain.) permeated the private lives of Britons in a way that no previous political moment had before, occupying almost dystopic/utopic associations in society’s collective consciousness (Elation. Despair). After all, these standpoints are subjective: whatever side (if in fact sides – two dichotomous orientations – help us when trying to understand issues that exist on a spectrum rather than sit on two diametrically opposed points) of the political fence people positioned themselves on – this was more so about what the EU meant to those who voted than Britain’s membership itself.
Brexit seemed to split an already polarised ‘United’ Kingdom further – Farage’s broken promises about NHS funding, fearmongering, the elitism at the heart of neo-liberal discourse, scapegoating & a genuine feeling (overlooked until it was too late) in some people; not all dissimilar to many white working class Americans who felt left behind by modern capitalism & who voted as some kind of faux-revolution: a middle-finger to ‘the man’ (by voting for the very man who is pretty much representative of the ugliest face of capitalism itself).
‘Sticking it to the man’ by voting for ‘the man’ seems an interesting similitude to Brexit when you compare the androcentrism that seemed to be at the heart of the Leave campaign’s rhetoric (“Hard Brexit” – Harder Brexit. Hard-on Brexit. Erect Brexit). Take Our Country Back, much like Make America Great Again both some to hark back to some vision of America & Britain which has been lost or diverted from a ‘true’ national destiny – somehow stolen from ‘authentic’ citizens of the nation: they imply some lost utopia, some diverted Paradise (what is it? We ask ourselves) that has been stolen from the people – one may wonder what cultural terrorist has committed this terrible crime of stolen destiny – is it Abolition? Modern liberalism? Feminism? The things we identify as having made our countries better for the sake of those who built it, were maligned & fought for their rights. The very language used by Leave seems inherently masculine [der Brexit. Le Brexit. El Brexit] against the construction of Europe as feminine, with the men at the front of Leave insisting: borders, departure, isolationism, a conquering of self-destiny, of land, the wider world & a kickback against the fecundity or ‘licentiousness’ of Europe ‘letting anybody in’. Feminine lands must be conquered, mastered & failing that, it seems – abandoned. The whole thing could read as something from Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale.
This polarity of a seemingly uncrossable void between two ideological extremes awoke a question in a many deal of writers – how can we narrativise this turmoil? Of course there are much larger issues at play: not only do we have the fall-out from Brexit itself, we have the effect of this government’s disgusting treatment of the Windrush citizens, the rise in Islamophobic attacks – particularly Muslim women, even Grenfell & the recent Bonfire Night video of a group of men burning an paper effigy of the tower-block with coloured in brown & black faces which undeniably affirm the rotten state of Britain’s attitude to ‘foreignness’, or those individuals deem to be inauthentic citizens – or even human beings at all with personhood & rights. But there must also be a space in which art responds – Brexit & Trump were voted for, yes – but they were felt. The capacity for empathy & understanding that art elicits means it must therefore be reflected. The events that have occurred from 2016 onward seem to be symptomatic of a much wider illness that these two specific cultural moments tapped into, namely: Fear & Anger. It raises the question of who actually belongs in modern Britain when thinking like this is given free reign but in doing so makes one also wonder how deep do even staunch Leavers or Remainers feel they belong to react in the ways they have. The cause of action seems to be unrelenting & persisting Doubt. The deep-felt anxiety at the heart of every person whatever their political persuasion. The dissatisfaction with your life grows. The dissatisfaction grows to anger. Anger wanes, gives way to something far more dangerous: Rage – then people act out. Act up.
Even in seemingly benign Middle England the anger & the rage was not only felt but tapped into by politicians & newspapers, then exploited for maximum effect. Communities divide. Families gatherings become fraught when someone mentions The B Word. Quickly, the vote was no longer just an advisory vote, a glorified opinion poll as to whether Britain should or should not remain part of the EU but if Britons felt they needed to change the make-up of modern day Britain itself (Take Back Control) as if somewhere in time (overnight, perhaps) Britain had suddenly become multi-cultural. Allegedly ceased to be ‘Britain’ at all. A friend told me recently that she happened to find herself in one of those awkward situations with a leering drunk man, who went on to explain (unasked) his motivations for having voted Leave. “I’m not racist”, he said. “I just don’t want Britain to become Saudi Arabia. Yano what I mean?” It’s a valid fear apparently – who knows maybe we could all wake up one morning to find a metamorphoses of Ovidian proportions. That would really be a sea-change. There seems to be a strong & alarming sense of cultural amnesia in our memory, the version of history we’re choosing to remember, ignoring the condition of our species being migratory. This is the history of the world. Movement. Journeys. Voyages. There’s a reason why the Western literary tradition is said to begin with Homer. Perhaps the drunk man (“I just don’t want Britain to become Saudi Arabia”) would have advised that Odysseus were best off staying home.
These opinions, despite appearing unseemly (particularly to self-identifying liberals) at least have to be engaged with because they are sentiments that don’t exist in a vacuum. As we can see now (hindsight is a wonderful terrible thing) other people felt them too. The left were all too quick to dismiss Leave, make a caricature of Trump without anticipating the much larger support by those who had enough political agency to change the direction of their countries irrevocably. Whiteness is power, it exists in a societal model built upon the bones of Empire & slavery – now capitalism & although class is highly important when understanding why those who voted for what they did felt a very real sense of (economic) disenfranchisement it also tapped into those much darker sentiments of entitlement & intolerance predicated on whiteness – (“Why should I a struggling white American be doing less well with a black man as President who I never voted for?”) enter Trump stage right to capitalise on these resentments. Not dissimilarly “Take Back Control” managed to tap into that feeling of being left behind & utilised it by playing into the desires of those who voted thinking that the Brexit vote could radically change their individual economic position. It would also somehow make them more British or return to a version of Britishness that was less ‘European’. Leave managed to galvanise deep-rooted sentiments of its followers – a feeling that their very ‘Englishness’ was under siege by the new, heterogeneous world.
It is this sense of pathological perceived threat that is dramatized in ‘England, My England!” – society itself is the ultimate antagonist in the scheme of the play. A young woman returns to her family home & is confronted by the very public imposition of the political world upon the private one she grew up in. There are no totalitarian governments here but there is a sense of deep anxiety that seems to underpin what it means to be modern for residents and ‘immigrants’ alike. The word immigrant is striking because it implies there is really such a thing as a ‘full citizen’ & side-steps the ultimate fiction of borders – and even daresay, countries themselves. It is a fallacy we have seemed to return to in forgetting that the history of our species is predicated on those endless odysseys – but how far, in returning to this myth – this story of ‘the true citizen’ (Authentic. Pure) are we from the racialised version of Nietzsche’s Übermensch employed to devastating effect in its bastardised fascist form.
We seem traumatised by political uncertainty in a world that seems disordered, incomprehensible & lacking in a clear plot. What was interesting in writing ‘England, My England!’ was the realisation that each of the characters anxieties (despite being wrapped up in ideology) are pretty much the same; it is the society in which they live that provokes the sense of being alien to a world you once thought you belonged to. The bedtime story of the citizen can no longer soundly send you off to sleep. Though Freud certainly has his limitations (I always feel incredibly sorry for his mother) his ideas regarding psychological illness as born out of narrative incoherence – a life story veering off course, lacking teleological structure or the process of ‘making strange’ struck me as I was writing the play: rates of stress & anxiety are rising; the planet is shaking & nervous – The world gives way to War. Bombs. Anxiety. Drugs. Doubt. Dissolution. Divorce. The lacking sense of narrative to the world today, in a world largely bereft by Gods or easy explanation often seems the world’s over-riding characteristic & the conflict is made acute because we as humans we seek narratives: we tell stories to understand the world & ourselves but what happens when the story veers off course? Despair. Despair seems to have won out in both a cultural & a personal sense: a narrowing of the world compared to how you once thought you knew it. The personal & the political, despite being associated with identity politics of the 1980s seem to have made a resurgence; illustrating how anxiety of a nation breeds anxiety in an individual (“One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in his bed he had been changed into a monstrous bug…”, as Kafka wrote). There seems to be a pervading fear that our generation will (or perhaps is) suffer/ing from a atomised consciousness which precipitates something more troubling… (The story falls apart).
writer & performer.
‘England, My England!’ will be previewed at Omnibus Theatre on 19 Nov as part of Engine Room in collaboration with Opia Theatre Collective, directed by Masha Kevinova.
oakley is a writer originally from the West Midlands now South London. They have just completed the Royal Court’s Intro To Playwrighting Programme & was the winner of the Out-Spoken Prize for Page Poetry 2018.