Labyrinths of Austerity
Wednesday, 29 November 2023 06:18

Labyrinths of Austerity

Published in Life Writing

Writer-director Brett Gregory on his bleak, moving, semi-autobiographical feature film, Nobody Loves You and You Don’t Deserve to Exist’, which tackles austerity, class, and mental health. Images are taken from the film. An interview with Brett is here.

Although I was born on an RAF base in Buckinghamshire, I was raised on a run-down council estate in a Nottinghamshire mining town from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s. After my alcoholic stepdad was arrested for assault for the umpteenth time, my mum became a single parent on benefits with three children. We had no money: we ate salad cream sandwiches, we used the local newspaper as toilet roll and I could only afford to go to the cinema once over this period, and that was to watch ‘Tron’ at the ABC Cinema in 1982 for my 11th birthday.

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Every other movie I watched was either on a black and white portable television in my bedroom or on pirated VHS tapes on the colour television in the living room downstairs.As a result, I have no spiritual affinity with cinema-going or any of its mystical rituals like many other filmmakers claim to have. With television however it’s a different story. For example, in 1982 I also grew aware of the power of the British State by following Newsnight reports about the Falklands Conflict throughout the spring. This was far removed from reading about World War I or World War II in history books; this was seemingly happening in the present tense right before my very eyes.

It was around this time as well when I became fascinated by a puzzle book called ‘Masquerade’. The author, Kit Williams, had buried a bejewelled golden pendant in the shape of a hare somewhere in England, and in the book – which told the story of Jack Hare – he’d hidden textual and pictorial clues to pinpoint the pendant’s exact location. I never solved the puzzle, and the treasure was discovered by way of fraud in 1988. The 2009 BBC documentary ‘The Man Behind the Masquerade’ tells the story.

In 1984 the Miners' Strike broke out and, as hundreds of working-class communities were torn apart across the Midlands and the North, I then became aware that the British State would attack its own citizens just as readily as it would foreign entities. Watch video footage of ‘The Battle of Orgreave’ online and you’ll see what I mean.

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Such familicidal tendencies were further demonstrated in the mid-1980s when Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government launched a completely unhinged and homophobic public health campaign using the slogan: ‘AIDS: Don't Die of Ignorance’ which infected an entire generation of adolescents with paranoia, distrust and self-doubt. The original leaflet is archived by the Wellcome Trust.

Surrounded by all this new knowledge and real life horror, it’s no surprise that by this point I’d started to read Stephen King novels and Clive Barker’s ‘Books of Blood’. In turn, I’d also begun to take the family’s Jack Russell, Shandy, on three hour long walks across farmers’ fields and to a nearby forest, as faraway from civilisation as possible.

I wasn’t a monk however, and would lead a double life by hanging around the front of the shops on the estate with older teenage lads in the evening: learning how to smoke, how to spit, how to swear, how to be angry and how to tell stories ‘that had better be fucking funny!’ When everyone eventually wandered home, I’d then return to my bedroom and switch on the Acorn Electron personal computer which my mum had bought on hire purchase to keep me quiet.

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Interestingly, if you wanted to play ‘free’ DIY games like ‘Tomb Hunter’ or ‘Spy Raider’ on a personal computer you had to type in hundreds of lines of BASIC code which were published in magazines like ‘Electron User’. However, if you made one single error – missed out a number or a letter or typed a colon instead of a semi-colon – then the game wouldn’t work. Little did I know at the time but this painstaking transcription process taught me extremely close reading skills and these would later prove very useful when I studied literary theory and literary criticism as a part of my BA and MA degrees in English Literature in the 1990s and, in turn, when I began to write, direct and edit short films in the 2000s.

In 1988, while writing a crappy ‘Twilight Zone’-style short story on a second-hand Olivetti typewriter in the kitchen, I noticed that Thatcher’s Tory government had now begun to mute all television broadcasts that featured representatives of Sinn Féin, a practice that would only end in 1994. It was at this very moment when it was confirmed for me that I didn’t live in a free society, and I probably never had.

Why was I was being denied access to this information? Why was I being denied the opportunity to make up my own mind about things, or gauge how I felt about such things? Or consider how I should or should not react to them? Or even learn from them? Furthermore, what other information was being withheld from me? What else didn’t I know? And why?

Naturally, as a young man desperate for answers which he was never going to receive, I grew frustrated and started searching out alternatives to the mainstream like I was on some sort of survival mission. I began to read the work of ‘troublemakers’ like George Orwell, Edgar Allen Poe, Jack Kerouac and Oscar Wilde, as well as whatever biographies I could lay my hands on at the local library in town.

In turn, I also started watching Moviedrome on BBC 2. A late-night television series which started in 1988, it was basically film school for poor people. Subversive film director Alex Cox (‘Repo Man’, ‘Sid and Nancy’) was the presenter. He would enthusiastically discuss the origin, production, style and themes of films which I’d never heard of. These films would then be screened, and I’d suddenly feel my imagination expand, feeling a little less insane and a little less alone. Science fiction classics like ‘X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes’, ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’ or ‘The Fly’ (with Vincent Price), and newer experimental fare like ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’. Rugged 1970s films like ‘Five Easy Pieces’, ‘Point Blank’, ‘Badlands’ and ‘The Parallax View’.

What this four-year study programme of ‘cult’ films taught me, as well as the literary books I was now rifling through on a regular basis, was that it wasn’t simply what you thought that mattered but, if you desired to feel vaguely like yourself on your own terms, then how you thought was just as necessary.

After finishing my BA and MA about eight years later I started claiming housing benefit for this damp, solitary bedsit I was confined to while I worked part-time at the library at the University of Derby for the next six years. The main reason for this was so I could have free access to all the books which I’d never had the opportunity to read while in formal education. I gorged myself on Jorge Luis Borges, Dante Alighieri, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Bukowski, Gustav Meyrink, Jean Genet, Umberto Eco, James Joyce, Knut Hamsun, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Primo Levi, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Alasdair Gray and Franz Kafka.

After watching the attacks on the World Trade Centre on television on September 11, 2001, I realised that the human race and its leaders were never going to improve during my lifetime, and so I decided I might as well study to be a teacher, sharing what I’d learned, before it was too late. In 2003 I then managed to secure a job teaching A Level Film Studies and A Level Cultural Studies at a college in Manchester.

These recollections of my early personal and cultural life form the basis of my aesthetic approach in ‘Nobody Loves You and You Don’t Deserve to Exist’. For example, as well as the myth of Sisyphus and Hieronymus Bosch’s ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’, the narrative structure is loosely based on Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse’, and the Lacanian phallocentric ‘I’ - which is associated with this novel’s subtext. In the film, Young Jack even points to the Stoodley Pike monument at one stage and exclaims, “And that big tower looks like a lighthouse, dunnit?”

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In turn, different types of storytelling are addressed to try and understand how and why these represent, and even help to construct, who we think we are. For example, there are numerous ‘storytellers’ present throughout, but who is telling the truth? What about gossip, rumour, poor memory or falsehoods? Who should we trust? The dominant third-person narrator; the newsreaders on the mobile phone; Boris Johnson; the Granny’s voicemails; the female interviewees’ recollections; the protagonist as a boy, as a youth or as a man; Brett Gregory the screenwriter or Brett Gregory the director?

A copy of Kit Williams’ ‘Masquerade’ appears in one of the opening scenes as an intertextual prompt. The characters Young Jack, Jack and Old Jack each tell the audience that they’re looking for their missing dog, Shandy, who keeps getting lost while chasing rabbits. So all three ‘Jacks’ are chasing an invisible ‘Jack’ Russell who, in turn, is chasing the fictional ‘Jack’ Hare from ‘Masquerade’ in the hope that this will ultimately lead to… what? Treasure? The Truth? The Prelapsarian Past? This idea of losing oneself within oneself is also flagged up in the opening Borges’ quote from ‘Labyrinths’ and reiterated in the print of M.C. Escher’s ‘Relativity’ which appears on one of the doors in the protagonist’s flat.

The monologues delivered throughout were written to function as the characters’ streams-of-consciousness, rather than spoken words, since what they’re saying and how they’re saying it is far too complicated to be deemed to be a part of the social realist genre.

In these ways then the film is structured like a working-class modernist novella and, I suppose, this is why a general audience finds it difficult to understand. If my name was David Lynch, I presume people would be inclined to put more effort in.

This said, I have great faith that the film will find a wider audience over time. Co-producer, Jack Clarke, who’s around twenty-five years younger than me, has promised to make sure the film is still available to audiences long after I’m gone.

‘Nobody Loves You and You Don’t Deserve to Exist’ is currently available here on Amazon Prime in the UK and the US.

This article originally appeared in Strange Exiles in June 2023.

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Wednesday, 29 November 2023 06:18


Published in Theatre

Ross Bradshaw reviews a recent play at the Nottingham Playhouse about the 1984 Miners' Strike.

Wonderland, written by Beth Steel, was the first play of the new artistic director at Nottingham Playhouse, Adam Penford. It ended with a full house and an almost completely standing ovation. It was, I gather, not the first ovation during the run.

Wonderland was set during the lead up to and throughout the year of the miners' strike of 84/85. Much of the play was set underground with a terrific set by Morgan Large which gave you both the sense of grandeur in some of the big halls underground, and the claustrophobia of the lifts taking miners to the coal face.

Like many in the audience, I was around during the strike in Notts., and knew how it ended, but the play's and the strike's turning points still kept me tense. In fact knowing what would happen created more tension, such as when the police waved pickets through to Orgreave. We all know now it was an ambush. There were people in the audience last night who had been at Orgreave on the day.

The whole play was well acted. The Tory wet, Peter Walker, conflicted over doing a job he only half believed in was, perhaps, the stand out. But the group of miners, from hardened men with their pension in sight to new, nervous recruits, played so well. I had not picked up in advance they had to sing and dance, at the same time as looking like they were people who worked hard, smeared in filth. Naomi Said, the Movement Director, deserves credit for the choreography on stage.

The creepy David Hart was, perhaps, played too much for laughs and being identified as a Jew (which he was not, other than by his father's family history and his experience of anti-Semitism at Eton)
made me uncomfortable. But yes, he was creepy like that in real life and, like the incoming "butcher" NCB director Ian MacGregor - and the working Notts miners, for that matter - he was considered expendable in the end by Margaret Thatcher.

Being Notts., of course, most NUM members did not strike, and some who did were starved back before the end. The arguments on the picket line were intense, and you felt for the young lad who'd had to kill his dog because he could no longer afford to feed it. Eleven months in, people had sold everything they could sell.

The play was not all grim. Pit humour was good. The best laugh was when a car load of pickets were stopped and, knowing they would not get through anyway, and said to the police they were Morris dancers. At the end, the cast individually mentioned some of the stories - of those who had died during the strike, including the three children who'd lost their lives scavenging for coal. The three miners who had committed suicide. The taxi driver who was killed taking a scab to work. The striker David Jones, killed at Ollerton on the picket line. The devastation of the communities left behind.

The audience rose and saluted the cast, and they dropped down Welbeck NUM banner, where the writer's dad had been a miner. As I stood I was thinking of loyal NUM members I know like Eric Eaton, Keith Stanley and Brian Walker, who died a few weeks back, and others I'd met in what is now the Notts Retired and Ex-Miners group. And four women, active in the strike, all now dead - Liz Hollis (who killed herself during that year), Pat Paris, Ida Hackett and Joan Witham.

In discussion with friends, it is the absence of women that comes up. There is power play between Hart, Walker, MacGregor and the ideologue, Nicholas Ridley. Underground, and later on the picket line, there is the traditional miners' camaraderie, a brutal reminder from the experienced "Bobbo", played by Tony Bell, that every miner watches each other's back (the symbolism of that statement is not lost) and a moving, even loving scene when the miners washed each others back, in the shower after a shift. This was a play about men, and men's relationships. Yet women, in Notts and elsewhere, were visible in the strike, in the soup kitchens, on platforms and on the picket lines. At Welbeck as much as anywhere. A few lines in the play reflected this, but it would have been quite easy to include women on the picket lines without needing to change the nature of the production.

Still, a fantastic effort by the whole ensemble.

Wonderland has now finished at the Nottingham Playhouse, but may be touring elsewhere. For a short film which puts the role of women in the miners' strike centre stage, see here.

Outdoor Ghost Lab at the Utopia Festival, Somerset House, London, 2016
Wednesday, 29 November 2023 06:18

Social haunting in the Brexit coalfields

Published in Education

Dr Geoff Bright introduces a fascinating arts-based educational project, concerned with remembering, re-imagining and re-enacting alternative community futures in the abandoned, de-industrialised pit communities in the North of England.

Over this last three years I’ve enjoyed bringing together a team of academics, artists, community trade unionists and activists in what is effectively a kind of community ghost hunt! We are now beginning the third of three related Arts and Humanities Research Council funded projects that have steadily refined a unique arts-based approach to researching what we’re calling the ‘social haunting’ of deindustrialised communities. The current project Song Lines: Creating Living Knowledge through Working with Social Haunting builds on two earlier AHRC ‘Connected Communities’ investigations: Working with a Social Haunting, which worked in the South Yorkshire coalfield and Rochdale area in Lancashire during 2015; and Opening the ‘Unclosed Space’, which hunted social ghosts in the North Staffordshire coalfield and was showcased at the Utopia Festival at Somerset House, London, on the very first weekend after the Brexit vote.

Basically, all three of these projects grew out of research work that I did after a good proportion of a working lifetime spent in the UK coalfields of Derbyshire and South Yorkshire: growing up in a pit family, as a railway trade union activist who was heavly involved in the 1984-85 miners’ strike and, from the 90s on, as someone who worked as a community activist/educator in that area. My doctoral study – which focussed on pit village youngsters who were being excluded from school and was completed in 2013 – suggested that the 84-85 strike and its aftermath were far from being matters of merely historical interest but remained, rather, a continuing – if, more often than not, unspoken – context for the lived, cultural experience of people, young and old.

Fieldwork that I did revealed a complex, intergenerational transmission process - a “kind of haunting” - as some of my research participants called it - whereby a web of feelings relating to the conflicted culture of the coalfields continued to shape cultural identity in a form of knowing without knowing that is more than mere tacit knowledge, habitus, or embodied collective memory and that persists even though the material impetus for those feelings has, to all intents and purposes, disappeared.

More than a decade after that research commenced, the situation is essentially the same. Occult affective intensities still speak through the absent present of the coal industry in multiple ways. To name but a few routes: there are redundant architectures of extraction - the run-down villages that have no reason, now, for being where they are. There are invented landscapes of what we might call regenerative erasure - the faux rural of pit tips made into ‘country parks’. There are inscriptions on, and inside, bodies, named as ‘white’ finger or ‘black’ lung, a residual chiascuro of industrial injury and disability. And there are gendered affective practices of repetition and reversal, where the men still work remembered coal seams in half-empty Welfare clubs, while the women staff the new precariat.

In a nutshell, the strike is now over thirty years past, the coal industry gone, and coal has been firmly re-positioned as the bete noir of the Anthropocene, rather than the celebrated ‘black diamond” of industrialisation that it once was. Nevertheless, the conflicted and ‘sticky’ affects generated by coal’s conflicted past have far from disappeared. The spontaneous “Thatcher funerals’ that celebrated the death of former PM Margaret Thatcher in 2012 were perhaps the most striking and visible examples of these latent forces, but the widespread Brexit vote across the coalfields is probably their most complex and far reaching manifestation.


A social haunting

Following Avery Gordon’s remarkable insights in her 1997 book Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, we’ve used the idea of a ‘social haunting’ to think about these phenomena and have tried to put into practice a mode of research capable of getting in touch with social ghosts. How have we approached that? Well, working with a social haunting is about working with the hidden, so we thought, first, about how we might look beyond the ‘blind field’ (as Avery calls it) of the conventional social research disciplines. Secondly, a haunting indicates a troubled social field. It is a communal socio-political-psychological state that “…registers the harm inflicted or the loss sustained by a social violence done in the past or in the present” and is evident at that moment when “disturbed feelings cannot be put away”.

So we knew that we would be working with trouble as well. A participatory arts-based inquiry delivered with high regard to the best of adult community education practice, but playfully, seemed to offer the best approach. However, and this is key to our work, we also wanted to respond to something else that Avery Gordon had particularly emphasised: the fact that a social haunting carries a political imperative. It is always an indication that “something else, something different from before, seems like it must be done”. Hence, we devised our Ghost Lab approach.

Song lines

The Ghost Labs – essentially a semi-improvised, art/activist “event-space” (in cultural philosopher Brian Massumi’s words) – create a space in which to re-imagine how difficult affective meanings carried into the present from contested pasts might, rather than narrowing the scope of imaginable futures, actually be harnessed as energies for benevolent change. The Ghost Labs’ success thus far has been rooted in their capacity to allow participants to reflect on subjugated community histories using collective poetry, playback theatre, and comic strip, for example, as modes of re-imagining and enacting alternative community futures in a way that is enjoyable and remarkably peaceable, even when those communities have suffered divisive traumatic change.

As one of our participants from our first project said: "We had a laugh, did something different, got to know each other and ourselves a bit better...It felt good to try to express myself through unusual means - for me - like poetry or even drawing. Doing it together created a powerful and lasting feeling...".

Working again with our key community partners Unite Community; the Co-op College, the Song Lines project will use the newest tool from the Ghost Lab’s repertoire of arts-based ‘ghost hunting’ tools: the ‘Community Tarot’. The Community Tarot is just one of the repertoire of arts based methods that the Labs employ. It is designed around individual readings, divided into past, present and future, using a pack of cards produced from images and words collected from our partner communities. So it offers a simple, playful, but richly productive device with which to bring to light contradictory and troubling aspects of what academic social psychologist Valerie Walkerdine has called “communal being-ness”.

As individual readings are collected together as community readings, a kind of living cultural lexicon of community imagination begins to assemble itself, and hidden themes becoming increasingly clear and available for reflection and renewed action.

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The new project aims specifically to address feelings around Brexit and will see the Community Tarot technique rolled out in five new communities: three in the NE of England – Sunderland, Seaham, and Horden on the Durham coalfield – and two in the NW – Rochdale and Hyde, Tameside. The creative materials generated through those Community Tarot readings will stimulate the creation of a set of contemporary ‘video ballads’ that ally with local traditions of dissenting song and will be specially written and recorded by our partner folk musicians, Ribbon Road. The video ballads will be used to initiate “song lines” of living knowledge outwards from, and back into, the originating communities as they circulate through a series of interactive public engagement and dissemination channels that will reach new audiences in marginalised and de-industrialised communities in the UK, the Basque Country, Slovenia, US, Hungary, Haiti and Malawi through the channel of community radio.

The culmination of our project will be a practitioner and policy maker conference - and not-to-be-missed live performance by Ribbon Road - at the People’s History Museum, Manchester, on November 8th, 2107. We’ll also be at the Unite Community stall at the Durham Miners’ Gala and Great Yorkshire Show and at the Wigan Diggers’ Festival during summer 2017. Listen out for the beautiful voice of Ribbon Road’s, Brenda Heslop! Get a taste of it here: Ribbon Road. Try listening to Daddy for You, Eddie’s Tattoo Studio, or The Numbered Streets and you’ll see what our work is getting at.