Thursday, 30 July 2009


"My dad said he jumped buses. Horseboxes. Jumped an aqueduct once. He was gonna jump Stonehenge but the council put a stop to it".

Elberry too is disturbed by the degradation of the professional, a person able to determine themselves the best use of the their time, into the employee, directed, targeted and incentivised. This time it's in the academic arena, where publication - now government's yardstick of academic merit and funding - has become a futile and probably nefarious end in itself.

This is the precise phenomenon bemoaned by Kenneth Minogue in his Slaves of the Bonus Culture, which I referred to in a recent post. And the transit from professional to employee needn't stop there: the description 'slaves' was used by Minogue advisedly. The surrender of self-government means government by others; it therefore necessarily endangers moral autonomy and private freedoms.

Reversing or even challenging this development will be difficult. Minogue remarks: 'As with all forms of moral change, there is no easy way back to the sensibilities so many people have lost.'

I think it's significant that he describes the challenge in terms of morals, sentiments and sensibilities rather than in the language of modern political theory, that is of rights, pluralism and civil society. It seems we're addressing an ingrained cultural phenomenon, one not necessarily susceptible to political action. Should we not then look to the cultural sphere as much as the political for illumination?

And then, in the mysterious way that art and society flows one into the other, a play emerges - explodes, really - that has a lot to say on the subject of Minogue's 'inherited integrities' and their dissolution. The quotation at the top of this post was lifted from the programme of Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth, recently opened at the Royal Court (T and I went yesterday evening). It was a fantastic play - as good as the extraordinarily positive reviews said - with what must surely be one of the great theatre performances by Mark Rylance as the play's central character, Johnny Byron (left).

Jerusalem's central character is a contemporary wild man of the woods: Johnny is a raver, dealer, wizzer, boozer, storyteller, shagger diddakoi holed up in a caravan in a wood near a Wiltshire village, Flintock. He's middle-aged but his nest of libertinism attracts the wilder kids of the village, as it did their parents.

However, the village, through a new estate, has been encroaching on his wood and he's now threatened with eviction by council bailiffs supported by police - to appease the sensibilities of locals and also probably to accommodate another new estate. We join him a couple of days before the eviction, during the annual Flintock Fair.

Jerusalem is very funny and very obscene and incredibly layered. It references bacchanalia, misrule, myth, fantasy and links them to the contemporary culture of drugs, music and mobile phones. But it's also a serious meditation on the character and place of liberty in English culture, and where it might sit between libertinism and servility.

It references a store of words, symbols and stories that resonate with the idea of traditional English liberties, their enjoyment and their endangerment. Robin Hood hiding in his greenwood to escape the Norman yoke; the destructive absolutism of Henrician Reformation; the mischievous and magical escapism of Puck; Cavalier against Roundhead with Kings hiding in oak trees; Blake railing against the dark satanic mills; Byron the Romantic defying convention in the cause of self-expression; and more, all provide us with the backdrop to Johnny, threatened by Kennet and Avon Council and its eviction order.

The contemporary setting of this age-old conflict has Johnny Byron's bacchanalia hedged around by what Minogue would describe as 'official power'. The remote corporate brewery has the local landlord dancing (sometimes literally) to its every central directive, the council has its authoritarian and petty-fogging officialdom, the massed ranks of shielded and helmeted police await.

The villagers existence, on the other hand, has a cosseted, fearful quality; they have what seems almost a colonial mentality. Swindon and Salisbury come across as official outposts of a central power. And the villagers are complicit with this. They invoke official power to protect them; it is his village neighbours who petition for Byron's removal.

The play, not least because of Rylance's astonishingly charismatic performance, has us siding powerfully with Byron. The emotion and excitement produced by the play's climactic ending is intense, uniquely so in my experience of the theatre. Byron becomes mage-like in his defiance, we're under the powerful sway of his charisma and instinctively side with him against the ranks of complaisant but resentful villagers and the uniformed functionaries of official power.

But, ultimately, this isn't an easy identification; the play puts us on the spot. We may have strong sympathies with Byron, but a moment's honest reflection informs us that we too are villagers. They want him evicted and why shouldn't they? Their kids are buying class A drugs and getting noisily wrecked with a gyppo in neighbouring woods. We probably would too.

Once the thrill of the play's ending subsides we are left with the deflating reality of this conclusion. We reach out to official power to protect us. Official power regulates our lives because we want it to - our own fearfulness, our withdrawal from risk, our aversion to wildness, that which is uncontrolled, impels us to do so. We want official power - the state, the corporate - to save us, largely from ourselves. 'Why can't they do something?'. Of course, all we're merely doing most of the time is re-locating responsibility rather than risk, or exchanging one risk for another. The consequence is servility. But we do it nevertheless. Why?

I quoted Zeldin in the earlier post:

'[T]o live outside the protection of someone more powerful than oneself [is] too frightening an adventure.... It is important to remember that it is tiring, and trying, being free.'

Jerusalem leaves you in no doubt as to how frightening an adventure liberty can be. But I left wondering why we as a society seem to have become increasingly fearful, and why we have sought to escape from this fear into the arms of official power, its institutions and abstractions. It's a big subject and one that Jerusalem, in its way as capacious, rambling and multifarious as one of Shakespeare's works, compels us to address.


By the way, if you're going to see the play - and you can guess that I urge you do - go as soon as you can. Tickets were freely available when we booked last week but judging by the audience - we were sadly starstruck by the presence of Dominic West, Jeremy Irons and Zoe Wanamaker - this will soon be the hottest ticket in town.


worm said...

being connected to the club scene in my past, I know my fair share of middle aged libertines - its always something that interests me- how people end up in that situation, refusing to grow up and hanging out with kids half their age. Personally I always dislike them, so if it was my village he lived next to, I'd be the first to napalm the wood and build a center parcs on his unmarked grave :)

Gaw said...

If someone had related the plot to me, I would have agreed with you. You had to be there, I guess. Byron is quite a creation.