5 Things You May Not Know About The Luddites

Luddites. Be honest. What comes to mind when you read that word? Backwards, parochial sillies from the Days of Yore who smashed up machinery because they couldn’t handle the inevitable march of progress? Or maybe you think of the modern application of the term, the sort of faux-lo-fi hippies who complain “Gosh, GPS means no-one reads maps any more” (Google Maps is a map, Phillip, it’s in the name), or “I don’t have a TV, too many screens are bad for you” (What’s that, Phillip, a laptop? On which you are watching Netflix? YOU, SIR, HAVE A TV). Well stand back, internet, for I’ve been making a live show about the Luddite Rebellion, and am here to take a sledgehammer of research to the knitting machinery of your preconceptions.

1) They liked, and used, technology.

The Luddites were predominately workers in the textile industry, specifically stocking makers who made goods on a device called a stocking frame. This machine was invented in the mid-1600s and was the same kind of machine as the ones they were destroying over the course of the Luddite Rebellion (around 1811-1817). So what the hell was all this punk-ass smashing of shit about? Well, as Eric Hobsbawm writes, the destruction of machinery actually happened a long time after, and before, the Luddite Rebellion:

“the Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire Luddites were using attacks upon machinery, whether new or old, as a means of coercing their employers into granting them concessions with regard to wages and other matters. This sort of wrecking was a traditional and established part of industrial conflict in the period of the domestic and manufacturing system, and the early stages of factory and mine. It was directed not only against machines, but also against raw material. finished goods and even the private property of employers, depending on what sort of damage these were most sensitive to.”

The Luddites were specifically targeting the assets of major industrialists, whatever they were. More Eric:

“The Lancashire machine-wreckers…distinguished clearly between spinning-jennies of twenty-four spindles or less, which they spared, and larger ones, suitable only for use in factories, which they destroyed.”

Their objection wasn’t to machines, but their use for mass production of shoddy goods, with the help of cheap labour, with the surplus value being hived off to a tiny business elite. Good thing that doesn’t happen any more, EH FOLKS?

2) They had a pretty great sense of humour (and branding)

The Luddites had a major advantage in that their leader, referred to as “General Ludd” or “King Ludd” was a fictional character, and thus he could never be captured or killed by the establishment. This didn’t stop numerous government agents and officials being completely convinced he was real, and investing phenomenal effort and energy in seeking his capture. The Luddites would stoke this paranoia as much as possible, writing letters to the authorities signed “Ned Ludd’s Office, Sherwood Forest”. The local militiamen, of which 12,000 were deployed at the peak of the rebellion, started having full-on hallucinations of his appearance. According to one account “a militiaman reported spotting the dreaded general with ‘a pike in his hand, like a serjeant’s halbert,’ and a face that was a ghostly unnatural white.” The Luddites also knew how to get the right image for the Instagram of the 1810s (which was… just looking at things), wearing black handkerchiefs over their faces like your favourite screamo-rappers and giant, matching sledgehammers named “Great Enoch” after the blacksmith who made them.

3) They liked to drag it up every once in a while

One raid in Stockport was led by two men in women’s clothing claiming to be “Ned Ludd’s Wives”. Nobody really knows why or what it meant. I just love sharing this fact.

4) Their cause was backed by Lord Byron

The bisexual, drug addled, bear-owning legend himself took part in a debate in the House of Lords over a bill to regulate the stocking trade so that shoddy goods wouldn’t flood the market place. Although he condemned the violence of the Luddites, he went on to a sweeping and impassioned condemnation of the economic and political conditions in the North of England that had caused it, claiming it to be worse than any territory under the Ottoman Empire that he’d recently visited. As he later described it: “I spoke very violent sentences with a sort of modest impudence, abused everything and everybody, put the Lord Chancellor very much out of humour, and if I may believe what I hear, have not lost any character in the experiment”. Just another day at the office for the B-man.

5) Their rebellion got quite close to civil war.

As the first restrictions on gun ownership and usage didn’t enter the British law books until the following decade, everyone and their mums were packing heat in the 1810s. The Luddites weren’t afraid to use them either: raids where merchants refused to give up their machines often broke out into gun fights. Over time, as soldiers flooded into the North, what started as (an admittedly extreme form of) collective workplace bargaining through direct action took on more and more of the shape of open revolt.  Discontent hit a high-water mark in the first half of 1812, when the prime minister was assassinated, two pitched battles happened near mills in Lancashire, and riots in big cities became almost weekly occurrences. The ensuing government crackdown was as reasonable as you’d expect from Lord Liverpool, the super chill guy who once said “France is our natural enemy ; she is more so as a republic than as a monarchy”. As well as making the breaking of stocking frames a capital offence (better not accidentally knock something over at work guys), Liverpool’s government passed the Six Acts, which removed the right to bail for people under arrest, outlawed public meetings of more than 50 people, banned anti-government writings and heavily taxed newspapers. The Six Acts were not fully repealed until 2008. So in a very real way, we still live in a world the Luddites created. Fortunately, though, we’ve resolved all the issues about automation, capitalism and state power combining to create poverty and chaos, so THAT’S ALL FINE.

Jack’s aforementioned live show opens at Exeter Phoenix on the 26th & 27th of September and the Civic, Barnsley on the 29th  of September. He will not be breaking any theatre lighting or sound equipment. Not deliberately, at least.

 

 

 

 

Here’s What You Could’ve Won #3: An Airship Fleet

[Part of the Here’s What You Could Have Won series, where I take issues from the news and make whimsical fag-packet calculations of things that the £205 billion due to be spent on replacing the Trident programme of nuclear submarines could buy, in preparation for the tour of my show Nuketown]

Guys. Bear with me.

In 1930, the last British airship to be made in the 20th century, the R101, set off into the skies over Cardington, Bedfordshire. It really was the Titanic of the Air: a bevy of high-profile guests were on board, including the Air Minister Lord Thompson. There was a full dining car painted with a faux marble effect, a kitchen, and a promenade section with huge glass panes. It was 200 metres long, an unsinkable ship, designed to set a new passenger line between England, Egypt and India.

Unfortunately, the R101 met a similarly Titanic-esque fate, crashing in an unexpected storm over France, killing 48 of the 54 people on board.  The British government almost immediately abandoned its airship programme, followed shortly after by nations the world over.

Now. Am I saying we should send government ministers out to die in flimsy death-balloons? No. Not in this blog anyway. Like I said, hear me out.

80 years on from the end of the era of the airship, new ones are emerging. Companies are attracted to the same virtues that once drew governments to lighter-than-air travel: the ability for vertical take-off and landing to obviate the need for landing strips, their potential for greater energy efficiency, and their increasing possibility for greater speeds. Two years ago, the Airlander 10 became the first airship to be inflated at Cardington for more than three quarters of a century, with a top speed of 100mph and the ability to carry thirteen tons of cargo. That ship was made with an old airship model the US had got bored of and sold them for cheap, and backed by Kickstarter, its most high-profile donor being Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson. Imagine what could be achieved with investment from more than just legendary metal singers and the kind of people who will spend $50,000 backing potato salad.

The Airlander 10 cost £25 million. Assuming some efficiencies from mass production are counterbalanced by the costs of R&D and some bigger ships,  our £205 billion gets us a fleet of 8,200 ships. At home, you could hop on one from your local station at any city in the country, and tear through sky with electric engines on a beeline to your destination, soaring above our decrepit rail network, and our choked-up roads, held in serene suspension over the moors and beaches. Abroad, China’s terrifying New Silk Road project would be met by a smaller, quirkier English version, with driverless ships taking raw materials, machinery or even whole buildings and dropping them into parts of the developing world hampered by poor road access. Even if safety wasn’t greatly improved you’d still be more likely to die in a car accident. And they’re so pretty. Wouldn’t it be worth the risk?

The Imperial Airship programme behind the R101, for all its flawed thinking and the ethical vortex of the Empire behind it, signified a people that believed in a future. A future that we would be a major part, perhaps the leaders of. That attitude seems vastly absent from people across the political spectrum. We used to think we were inches away from colonizing mars, flying cars and 1-hour work days. Now there are only competing images of decline and dystopia. This blog miniseries has been me trying to recapture some of that 20th century optimism. And maybe giant balloons is a weird way to start. And no, it’s probably not the best use of £205 billion of public money. But its still better than nuclear bloody submarines. And, to me at least, its an interesting comparison of like for like. Of course if that money appeared today it should go on housing, healthcare and education. But if it were ringfenced for quixotic, unwieldy future tech, wouldn’t a Skytanic or two be so much more fun? Or, as the man Bruce Bruce himself put it: “I told my wife, I’m about to put £100k into a big bag of helium. It may go up in smoke. She said, people have to dream, and unless you can dream something it’s never going to happen.”.

 

Here’s What You Could Have Won #2: Nationalising Facebook

[Part of the Here’s What You Could Have Won series, where I take issues from the news and make whimsical fag-packet calculations of things that the £205 billion due to be spent on replacing the Trident programme of nuclear submarines could buy, in preparation for the tour of my show Nuketown]

Ah Facebook. Where else can you humblebrag about your new job, post your new avocado workout and furtively masturbate over pics of university acquaintances? People are getting increasingly vexed about the rise of Facebook, both in terms of its monopolistic control of social media, and the, um, intriguing applications of its technology by home-grown old-school British villains Cambridge Analytica. Now even the mega-rich are turning on it, as Zuckerberg and Apple CEO Tim Cook throw shade at each other, like, well, two nerds in a Facebook comment war.

If domestic geeks are going to use Facebook data to rig elections, they might as well do it for MI6 and, y’know, rig them the right way. On the real though, nationalisation would offer the potential of far greater transparency on how data is used. At a bare minimum, it would mean some elected officials would be snooping on your late-night drunk-messages and not a private company. And it would give the British taxpayer access to a slice of its tasty $4.7 billion per year in profits.

But Jack, you comment while Timehopping back to that Amazeballs Night With Fiona And the Squad, would Zuckerberg want to sell? He wasn’t very keen on sharing the fun when he was Jesse Eisenberg learning dance moves from Justin Timberlake in that one movie, was he? Well, it’s complicated. Normally, on a publicly traded company like Facebook, for every share you buy you get one vote at shareholders meeting, where the companies big decisions are made. So if you buy more than half of the company’s 2,986,000,514 shares, you get a controlling stake: you’re the boss. Our £205 billion doesn’t quite buy us all of Facebook, but it gets us a 62% stake. But Facebook, as in most things it does as a company, does things differently. They have two different classes of shares. Class A (one share, one vote) and Class B (one share, 10 votes, owned exclusively by company insiders). Through owning a shit ton of class B shares, he has 60% of the votes despite only having 16% of the shares. This, for some reason, is perfectly legal, meaning a company gets the liquidity of trading its shares on the stock market that being a public company provides, with the same total control by one or a few people that a private company does. Isn’t Capitalism a BLAST?

So our majority stake would get us the money, but not the power. But does Zuckerberg really want to be in charge of the monster he created? As Trevor Noah from the Daily show riffed: ‘Mark Zuckerberg started out by basically making a “hot or not” website for his college ,and now America is counting on him to protect the integrity of its elections”. Mark, I implore you, let go of this Atlas-like burden, go focus on philanthropy and Farmville, and leave us to counter the post-Brexit lapse in trade with some super-targeted pork pie ads.

Here’s What You Could Have Won #1: A Thousand Years of Grit

[Part of the Here’s What You Could Have Won series, where I take issues from the news and make whimsical fag-packet calculations of things that the £205 billion due to be spent on replacing the Trident programme of nuclear submarines could buy, in preparation for the tour of my show Nuketown]

I write this in the middle of Storm Emma, a rare Siberian weather pattern that has crept its way west like Kutuzov’s armies fresh on the heels of Napoleon. I am snug indoors with the dog, but outside the world is collapsing. Non-essential travel is discouraged. Chatham ski slope has closed due to too much snow. A great yellow penis of frosty doom drags itself over the land, and all the English doth lose their shit. At times like this a uniquely English clash of weather and local politics emerges over the subject of gritting. In Sheffield, the ongoing furore over the private contractor Amey’s destruction of thousands of ancient trees continues to bubble over, with the council apparently prioritising gritting access roads for tree-cutters over important traffic routes. One things for sure – there’s never enough grit and never enough people to spread it. It’s a spicy microcosm of the debate around prioritisation of public resources that I’m getting sticky with in Nuketown.

Grit (which is actually rock salt), helps snow and ice melt faster and helps car tyres grip the roads. It is mined domestically and distributed by local authorities, who are compelled to grit their roads under the 1980 Highways Act. The UK puts 2 million tonnes of it out every year. So if we spent the £205 billion purely on materials, how much would we get?. The BBC recently found out the cost of rock salt per tonne in different parts of the UK, with the priciest being Torbay at £38 per tonne. Setting the cost at that of the fancy, fancy riviera salt of my southern neighbours, we get 5,394,736,842 tonnes. Stacked into cubic metre bags one on top of each other, this would stretch to the moon and back 54 times.  Spread evenly, it would slather the entire island of Britain 173 metres deep. True Grit.

But Jack, you howl from the avalanche-hole you are trapped in: what use is all this grit with no-one to do the gritting? Right you are, these sturdy guardians of our fine minerals must be taken into account. This article put pre-austerity spending on gritting across the UK at £150m per year. I’m not sure if this figure has since been cut, but let’s give it a one-third increase either way and bulk it up to £200m. Ignoring inflation (because that’s no fun), and assuming a steady and unlimited supply of grit from our nation’s mines, as well as ruling out savings from automation by increasingly powerful and hilariously named machines, the new Royal Chartered Institute of Gritters could keep churning grip-dust onto our lanes and byways from now until the year 3043. But then what would we complain about?

 

 

 

Nuketown Villages #6: “Nietzcheville”

[These blogs describe and document the villages made by audiences as part of my new project Nuketown.]

Name: “Nietzcheville”

Made by: Audience at performance at Bike Shed Theatre, Exeter (35 people)

When: 23/09/2016

Buildings featured (from left to right, non Exhaustive List): DJ-Tron 5000 the Mech DJ, the Gateway, the Community Centre, the Anti-Bungalow, the Market, the Ziggurat of Ugliness, the Custard Pool, the House, the Tiny Nuclear Submarine (thanks dad), the Castle.

Themes discussed: “Beauty and the Beast libraries”, markets, freedom.

Jack’s Thoughts: The audience really blew us away with this one. There was also a handsome Tardis that didn’t make it into the pics.

Quote of the build: “We have art in order not to die from the truth” – Nietzsche (by way of my mum).

 

What would you do with 167 billion pounds?

[Script for a pitch to three venues, who are now giving me some space and stuff to make the show, which I will do if I get enough funding in, or if I don’t I’ll probably just delete this out of shame and regret.]

You could hire the entire of Bangladesh for a year based on its gdp, of half of Malaysia, or two Azerbaijans.

You could buy about 12.5 million five-door Nissan Micra Teknas.

Or you could buy enough weaponry to turn over a million people into blackened, smouldering husks.

Dramatic tea-drinking pause 1

As it stands, none of these things have happened yet. As it stands, all are equally imaginary. They are not real.

In the brisk central european October of 2014, a band of architecture, civil engineering and urban planning students started laying down chunks of concrete and wood in the square of Karsplatz in Vienna. They called the city they made there Hypotopia, and it was planned down to the tiniest detail. They knew it had 102,574 inhabitants. They knew which buildings they lived in, even who lived on what floors. They knew where their waste was incinerated and recycled. They knew where the hospital, the schools and the cinemas were. There were no banks. And they knew the exact price tag of the city. 19 billion euros to a cent. The exact amount given from public funds to underwrite the Austrian Hypo bank’s outstanding loans since the financial crash of 2008. But of course, guarantees of liquidity to holding companies are not like regular money that you could spend on a city. They’re imaginary. They’re not real.

Dramatic tea-drinking pause 2

Nuketown is a city built not on rock and roll, but on 167 billion pounds of imaginary money, a vast quantity of lego bricks and a collective imagining. Like Hypotopia, it will be made with the help of architecture, town planning and sociology experts, but unlike Hypotopia, it will be made with help from the public who are footing the bill for the alternative, the Trident programme of ballistic nuclear submarines which is planned to be renewed this year. In the planning, writing and rehearsal of the show, people will be allowed to drop in, help dream up an ideal part of the city that they’d like to see, then help build it with us, in an activity somewhere between art therapy, group protest and a massive fuckoff game of real life minecraft. Their stories and ideas will breathe life into the project, and give the city the strange collective identity that we know each of our hometowns has. They will inform the storytelling piece I create around the city, where a set of cameras on a live feed will follow individual citizens through the streets, charting their tiny tragedies and triumphs with an original musical score as they make their way across a town powered by the husks of the old Tridents subs buried under their soil, a ghostly remnant of an alternate world that could suck them back into it at any moment.

Dramatic tea-drinking pause 3. Build to crescendo 

Much more than big money and bigger bombs, its cities that fascinate me. When the people of chalcolithic West Asia started to congregate on the Barada river in around 6300BC, in modern day Damascus, they were just looking for a place to drink clean water, worship their gods and raise some cattle and or children. They didn’t know they were becoming part of the larger symbiotic creature of the city, one that would subsume their identities, their ideas and their boundaries into one great cybernetic mass, plant them a million miles from any river or field and fill their air with dust and adverts, scrabble the flesh of mountains into ever taller shrines to strange new idols: Cathedrals in the 12th century, Castles in the 15th century, Banks in the 21st. Cities offer the gift and the curse of namelessness. They are places in which we can be anything or nothing. They are places where any individual can leave their past behind and start again.

Dramatic tea drinking pause 4. Wind down to finale.

Nucleotopia is like that, but a bit different. It is a place where a whole country can start again. It is a place where art and life meet, where we say, but what if we actually, really, genuinely did something completely different? And if it gets bigger, more visible, more complex, that question could inch closer to an answer. But this is just a pitch to a consortium of theatre venues. It is imaginary. It’s not real. It is a non-place, which is what the greek word utopia etymologically means. But imaginary things are what I deal in, and I love them, so that is all I can offer you.

END OF PRESENTATION

On Robots and Revolutions, Part 2

“All Revolutions are impossible until they become inevitable”

– Albie Sachs

Last year almost to the day I wrote a blog for Exeter’s Ignite festival in response to a beautiful image made by Patrick Cullum for the flyer. Now I have another one of his gorgeous illustrations to talk about, and this time I’m priveleged enough that it’s for my own show.

In December last year I was planning to give up writing and making theatre. A deeply depressing spell at three-week hyper-capitalist performing arts dystopia the Edinburgh Fringe had left me doubting my credentials as a performer, despite the odd encouraging review or enthused audience member. Work had dried up, funding applications went nowhere, the John Lewis advert was looping on youtube like a penguin-laden brainvirus. I was, sometimes literally, banging my head against a brick wall.

And this week I’ve been walking past the beautiful victorian buildings around Gandy Street to the Phoenix to go and make some theatre. I mention this not as a game-changing breaking news piece with a headline like “Privileged Hetero Cisgender White Man Makes Theatre Show After Thinking He Might Not” but because for me it is a personal example of the truth in the above quote.

It holds resonance on a wider level too. The Conservative Party’s net gain of a further 0.8% of the popular vote on May 7th had people on my social media timelines acting like we’d been invaded by swelling hordes of Nazi Zombie Ferrets. But my (admittedly amateurish) grasp of history seems to suggest Albie is more bang on about the nature of progressive social change than those who think the final nail has been laid in the coffin for the improvement of humanity. This for me is most true with the English. We hold deeply conservative and deeply revolutionary tendencies in an ever-tipping balance. We thought the King was a representative of God on Earth, until we chopped his head off. We thought the slave trade was super cool fun, until we led the charge in abolishing it. We thought the Labour movement was a bunch of leftie nutbags with just one MP, until they built the NHS and changed the country forever. Orwell described these conflicting tendencies with a warming mixture of admiration and disgust in his barnstorming 1940 essay laying out a revolutionary post-war vision for England, the Lion and the Unicorn:

“It will not be doctrinaire, nor even logical. It will abolish the House of Lords, but quite probably will not abolish the Monarchy. It will leave anachronisms and loose ends everywhere, the judge in his ridiculous horsehair wig and the lion and the unicorn on the soldier’s cap-buttons

    …It will disestablish the Church, but will not persecute religion. It will retain a vague reverence for the Christian moral code, and from time to time will refer to England as ‘a Christian country’. The Catholic Church will war against it, but the Nonconformist sects and the bulk of the Anglican Church will be able to come to terms with it. It will show a power of assimilating the past which will shock foreign observers and sometimes make them doubt whether any revolution has happened.”

Impossible until inevitable. Political theorists describe this limiting of perception as the Overton Window: the general perception of what level of change is possible sits on a fixed scale that is only a fraction of what really can be done, until, like some sort of surrealist cowboy builders have come through, that window shifts, and some serious shit does down. At risk of sounding wanky, this resonates with my creative process too – a problem seems like an insurmountable obstacle until a way around it suddenly pops up like those floor lights on planes.

That’s what Pat’s picture says to me. In this England there is still great beauty and great possibility, not just in the world of pretty pictures and whimsical plays, not just in Gandy Street or in the Lake District, but in our extraordinary, infuriating, idiotic geniuses of a people. So if you are doing something difficult, if you are looking for change, if you are banging your head against a wall, keep banging away. Together, there is no way that bricky fucker is staying up.

I’m currently putting the last touches on the show that the big robot picture’s for. You can see it at the Plymouth Fringe on Friday the 29th & Saturday the 30th of May, at the Bike Shed Theatre between Tuesday the 16th and Saturday the 20th of June, and lots of other places TBC.

On Robots and Revolutions, Part 1

Machines. We make them, we use them, we occasionally Rage Against them. They can help the sick and elderly  or drop a bomb in your chimney. All in all, they’re a mixed bunch.

My producer has told me to do a blog about the new show I’m making. Part of this process involves me coming up with an “elevator pitch”. This means the thing that you would say about your new project to some dreadfully important person who could change your career forever if you had them cornered in an elevator for thirty seconds. I’m guessing said important people take the stairs now. This is also thing I have to whip out when people ask me “what’s the show about?”.

I always struggle with these, because I tend to let a whole seraphic host of ideas bounce around in my head before throwing a trawler net over them and dragging them flapping and hosannah-ing into a few pages of writing. But here’s my shortlist.

  1. It’s about a man struggling to be a good father to a bright but quarrelsome girl.
  1. It’s about said girl struggling to understand a world of rules, restrictions and lost possibilities.
  1. It’s an epic steampunk fairtytale for grownups that will totally rock your socks off until the auditorium is just one big sock receptacle and the theatre staff look at me like “really, Jack, THIS AGAIN?”.
  1. It’s about machines. The little ones, like radios and bicycle wheels, the big ones, like battleships and factories, and the social and economic machine, the one we have created to bring us freedom and prosperity, but, like Frankenstein’s Monster, has turned on its makers to destroy their habitats and their happiness. I would call this machine Capitalism, as uncomfortable as that makes people at dinner parties who were just trying to ask what I’ve been up to.
  1. It’s about me. Isn’t everything writers write? It’s about my struggle to grow up and fit in with contemporary British society, and my obsession with fantasising about different worlds, molded by a bombardment of video games and sci-fi movies in my youth and hardened in the fires of global change.
  1. It’s Disney Pixar’s Up, but with robots and swearing.
  1. It’s about England. A country that for many is a proxy for far-right views, for others a source of post-imperial guilt and shame. For me, it is a story that we tell ourselves, one with elements of no small subtlety and frail beauty buried within it, a story we can use, if we choose, to arm ourselves against oppression and division rather than to perpetuate it.

One of those? Maybe? Or a mix of some or all of them? Basically, you should go see it.  There. Marketing absolutely NAILED. I’m off to the pub.

Grandad And The Machine is in development over April and May, before launching at venues across the UK. You can see performance dates here.