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.