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The Future History of the British Isles

Hugh Dichmont

 
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The Theatre of the Absurd came to prominence in post-World War II Europe. Inspired by the Existentialist philosophers, Absurdism was in many ways a response to the trauma of the Holocaust—educated people experiencing first-hand the true depths of what mankind is capable of. Absurdism is the breakdown of society, of language, the body. It is the limited human, in a disenfranchising system. It is dystopia.

A lot of mileage is given to the idea that “comedy = tragedy + time”. I personally disagree. I don’t think comedy is a tool, so much as a philosophy for approaching life’s disappointments. Instantly, and always. You either have it, or you don’t. Comedy is an unpicking of life’s taboos, and especially that biggest of all no-nos: Death.

Aristotle, in his text Poetics—a cornerstone of western dramatic theory—described comedy as “a species of ugliness”. The Ugly, to quote architect Mark Cousins is “matter out of place”, i.e. something that shouldn’t be there, but is: a face with no nose… a face with two noses. It is excess (and now to paraphrase): an excess of absence, or, an excess of presence. (Which I would argue is just the former in disguise.) In other words, an interruption of expectation, of the ideal, of the ego. In other other words… death. Deathy death death DEATH. Kicking the bucket. Walking the plank. Dropping the kids off at the pool, when the kids can’t swim.

I began the ‘The Future History of the British Isles’ project in 2016, channeling my feelings about the EU referendum into a piece of free writing, which now forms the narrative spine of a podcast in eight episodes. The podcast presents a darkly comic vision of the complete breakdown of society, with the backdrop of environmental disaster. So a kind of documentary, really.

I am joking, of course (it is a comedy, after all): I am fully aware that every generation believes itself to be living through the end of days. I am also aware, however, that one day, somebody will be right. Faced with competing feelings of hope, doom and impotence, my automatic response is humour, and in the case of my podcast, Absurdism.

In the referendum I voted Remain, but was open-minded about what Leave could mean. I didn’t feel informed, and the more I read, the less I felt I understood either side of the argument. Ultimately the whole debacle felt like another distraction from the biggest news story of human history, which is the fact that we are slowly cooking our only planet.

The trauma of The News can mark us so deeply. The consequence of this is that we get so downbeat, that we don’t individually do more to make things better—myself very much included. Overall, there has never been a better time to be a human. I think we should be happier. But not complacent. That clenched fist we shake at the sky could be put to another use.

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Extract from ‘The Future History of the British Isles’ by Hugh Dichmont. The full show is available for free download via www.FutureHistoryShow.com [2]

After the Prime Minister’s death on the 15th of May, ethnic tensions grew in England. Their landslide re-election, coming only days before, had stoked protest among Nottinghamshire dissidents, who used the legacy of Yorkshire’s devolution to once more demand the status of a republic. When a thousand supporters formed a human chain at the junction between Toton and Stapleford across the width of the A52, the government were on the back foot.

Yorkshire’s de facto monarch, the potty mouthed actor Sean Bean, offered support to the demands of protestors, claiming: “Yerkshire had ownly fookin groan ont int-nashnul stage since we slung our ooks from bastard London.” In retaliation to anti-capital sentiment, London loyalists built a pyre in Trafalgar Square, with Yorkshire puddings and bags of tea stacked high and doused in ethanol. Younger men teased kestrels, for lack of anything better to do.

Pedestrians sporting flatcaps were accosted indiscriminately and beaten with cudgels, whilst a call on social media for a national cull on terriers reached fever pitch under the hashtag “tread em dead”: a movement which only lost momentum after the environment minister’s popular suggestion to consider all domesticated animals under the height of 17cm as secondary food sources, in the case of a repeat of recent food riots.

Once government intelligence were able to link green protestors with anti-west terror cells based in Scotland, all credible opposition to hydraulic fracturing, hydrofracturing, hydrofracking, fracking, was defeated, leaving the entire rural perimeter of Nottinghamshire primed for development. From Costock to Scrooby, Newark to Newstead, work began on transforming the county’s backwaters into deep wells of oily productivity. There were setbacks, inevitably. But nothing seemed to dent the bandwagon of progress.

In one headline-grabbing turn of events, the entire population of Sutton-cum-Lound were optioned by contemporary artist Damien Hirst after their water supplies were compromised with chemicals from the nearby plant. Dubbed “England’s answer to Pompeii”, the 687 inhabitants of the village, known for its proximity to numerous fishing lakes, were poisoned and preserved by excessive amounts of formaldehyde, embalming residents in the midst of daily life.

It became a site of international interest. Bus loads of Russian tourists undertook pilgrimages to the site, which had a £19 basic entry fee, with a £46 family day ticket deal, that included secure parking, entry to all major exhibits, plus three complimentary shots at the shooting range, where customers had the chance to fire tennis balls at a frozen flock of wood pigeons suspended between trees with fishing wire.

It was at Hodsock where the first sinkholes appeared, with a wedding party at the Priory’s 16th century gatehouse cum-events venue subsumed by the weakened shale deep underfoot: the groom’s family, like the Titanic’s underclass, first to go, their near-relatives clawing with fake nails and shirt sleeves to stop the slide as the ground split open like a well sliced Viennetta. Next was the site east of Long Eaton, followed by Misterton and Worksop.

After the government’s failed to deliver humanitarian aide to the affected areas, the various Mayors of Nottinghamshire took power into their own hands, and, acting under the instruction of their people, closed all diplomatic channels with London. In response, the capital’s elite issued a no-fly zone, closing borders with the county. All trucks coming in or out were ordered to turn around by armed military vehicles. Meanwhile, the ground continued to fall away.

By December, during the hottest winter on record, the jagged circle was complete, with Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, Yorkshire and Derbyshire cut adrift of their neighbour.

Rather than bowing to cabin fever, the people of Nottinghamshire found strength in separation. Market gardens sprung up everywhere, with the abandoned shops and paved streets of derelict town centres pulled up for root vegetables to prosper, of which there were two or three crops a year, grown in rotation with corn or barley in numerous open fields.

Alongside these municipal projects, individual streets worked together to produce fruits and vegetables to trade within neighbourhoods and across suburbs. Rural communities focused on self-sufficient economies of dung. Until The Rains came, Sneinton had a thriving currency of peas. New Basford lettuces and greens of all kinds, from mustard leaf to spinach. St Anns residents were renowned for their purple potatoes, with moist, firm flesh and nutty after-taste.

Sold as a show of solidarity against multi-national corporations, all smartphones, laptops and tablets were dismantled and rendered unusable. For a time, frustrated youths, fuelled by bathtub moonshine, attempted midnight escapes across the county borders, fashioning rope bridges across the vast drops, which grew wider by the day.

As the outside world crawled towards a natural death, Nottinghamshire fell victim to its own influx of migrants. The automated security turrets, forged in cement and steel by his majesty’s government to keep the county’s people in, now inadvertently kept the desperate hordes out, as civil war broke throughout the rest of the England—the cracks of gunfire like distant fireworks as Ilkeston burned itself to the ground. Trying to capitalise on rumoured blackspots in the turrets’ eyelines, families with their belongings in sacks tied to their backs with electrical cables would appear beyond the precipice, only to be shot down from unseen distances, the watchmen from Eastwood would occasionally report.

Soon, the people of Nottinghamshire found new pleasure in small things. Only a few of the old guard missed communication with the outside, with talk of European cheese and South American wine, but anyone aged 65+, if not already dead, was almost certainly on their way. Young and old toiled together, and though teeth did rot, no one was unemployed, given work had once more come to mean daily survival. No one’s nails were free of soil, nor a plate of food eaten without some sense of pride. “I picked that”, is what they said. “They grow that up my Nana’s”. People came to accept death as part of everyday life, as they had the erratic weather. Bodies were burnt to save ground space for crops.

After the Black Rains, the insects were first to die. Then the fish. Soon the soil grew harsh, cold. An elder on his deathbed remembered how mixing pulverised chalk with soil can counteract acid. But he did not know how to complete the process. There was a stay of execution for six months, when turnips would still grow. In turnips we trust. Then all was barren. Man turned on man, whilst others attempted to leap the gorge, finding relief only in sharp, jagged death. All the while, the ground continued to sink. Whole villages would be swallowed up. The Broadmarsh, in Medieval times a swamp, returned to its historic state, eating naughty children by the ankles.

After comparing their limited options, it was generally agreed Nottinghamshirekind would embrace sinking further into the centre of the planet. When not fighting off cannibals, there was something beautiful in seeing the sky framed by the walls of a great cave. Or was the sky the frame? As generations passed, that sky, thrown into permanent dark, came to be a lid; the bright white dots, holes poked, through which the Gods watched over them, and their stark lot. Occasionally an adventure-minded leader would suggest building long ropes to climb up to Ingle-Land. Shamans suggested the entire earth was rotten, and that they would be climbing from one hell, to an identical or worse facsimile. People liked the word “facsimile”. They no longer new what it meant, exactly, but took solace in fragments of their shared past.

 
 
‘The Future History of the British Isles’ is part of a Special Issue on Uto/Dystopias [3].

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Hugh Dichmont [4] is a Nottingham-based writer, and artistic director of production company INFLUENCING MACHINE.