As the dust continues to settle on soon to be post-EU Britain, I’ve been thinking a lot about the place I call home. Norwich has been my city for quarter of a century now, and as my Granny says of such milestones, “You get less time for murder.” Norwich is infamously disconnected from the world, with visiting football fans often singing “there’s only one road in Norfolk” to Guantanamera at Carrow Road – and as much as it pains me to admit it, the isolation is a real problem.
The fact we’re so cut off from outsiders rubs off on our city’s attitudes towards culture in particular – with a quintessentially Little England village-mentality that boasts of being an UNESCO City of Literature in a town perpetually threatening its libraries with cuts, and renders us fiercely defensive of our ‘doing different’ status-quo, who year on year wheel out the same tired Lord Mayor’s procession, Castle firework display, and cover-band music festival, while remaining collectively suspicious, and sometimes even hostile to new ideas.
I make no secret of my own place in all this – since I announced a year ago on this very site that the Norwich Radical Film Festival would be taking place this August, to build a platform for subversive independent films from near and far, I have been met with brick wall after brick wall. The City Council have laughably pledged only to give us £250 if another funding body gives us £5000, while (with few exceptions) local businesses built on liberal veneers of craft-beer, coffee and community have refused to support our project on the basis they have a monopoly and expect to get our money with or without backing us.
It’s all led me to ask the question, “Do we as a city really support edgy alternative culture, or is that simply tourist bait we publish on our advertising without really meaning it?” Two cultural experiences last week helped me review the situation.
“Do we as a city really support edgy alternative culture, or is that simply tourist bait we publish on our advertising without really meaning it?”
“I think I can say after leaving Portugal, I found home. It is home because people I love are here, because I can see a future coming together.” These were the words of Sandra, just one of the many specters that echoed around Dove Studios as I paced through Home, an exhibition of performance, sound and images. Suddenly, the melancholic thoughts milling about my mind regarding Norwich’s elites and their disdain for the culture of their citizens are interrupted by a chorus of monologues echoing around the gallery. Suspended from the ceiling, a series of portraits of Norwich residents both old and young spring to life as motion-activated sensors stimulate speakers attached to their backs.
Up in the studio’s loft, meanwhile, a flickering image of dancer Hayley Matthews glides across a canvas screen as haunting music drifts through the space. This complements the kitchen-sink realism of Al Simmons’ camera work with an emotionally charged ambience, as the everyday lives of our city are gilded with a musical dreamscape. We simultaneously see what is, materially, while sensing what could be – and how those voices, and the dreams behind them, become lost amidst the atomistic clamor of individual monologues.
Each of these is a thing of beauty and of truth – but in a city that prides itself in supporting artistic expression, their potential is utterly abandoned to fade into the background, while established arts events charge £20 for tickets to Billy Bragg. The piece as a whole is an eerie and moving examination of the marginalized voices of Norwich and Norfolk – and an implicit critique of the failure on our part to strain to hear them – as we fail to break from the usual centralized cultural platforms monopolized by public schoolboys to create our own.
Having first seen the discordant isolation of individual dreams in an atomized modern Norwich, the second event I experience harks back to how a collective harmony can harness individual dreams for common change. “It’s 1549, but it could be any time,” chimes the chorus that has churned around my skull for the following week – heralding the Common Lot’s final performance of 1549: The Story of Kett’s Rebellion. Directed by Duncan Joseph and Simon Floyd, the story, as the opening song suggests, draws a great deal of comparisons with the state of English politics of the 21st century, as the landed gentry of old have given way to a new unaccountable elite who carve up common property like the NHS and state schools for their greed and vanity.
Filled with barbs and diatribes deliciously sending up national and local elites, from the Mayor who settles for being a ‘Fine City’ because “it’s not good… but it’s not TERRIBLE either…” to the foppish caricatures Ms. Beaujangles and Mr. Swaggerjack – gentrified beard-twiddlers who cower in disgust at the poor people rebelling in The Lanes, passing stores not meant for the likes of them, the play is stuffed with Blackadder-ish snark that not only makes it thoroughly enjoyable, but wholeheartedly devastating when the doomed revolt is eventually put down.
Radical culture here; art, performance, film can flourish by the will of those dedicated enough to create it – however it will only do so if we can band together and do it ourselves
The most notable thing about the play though is that Robert Kett himself is entirely absent. Instead of making a martyr of one savior, Simon Floyd and Karl Minns’ script places the peasants who first began tearing down Kett’s enclosures (who he then joined to rebel against the privatization of common land) – making them central to their own liberation. This is not the story of one educated land-owner attempting to free helpless peasants, it is a story of how one man was inspired by the common lot, to fight alongside them in the name of radical democracy and the defense of people’s rights.
Charting one of Norfolk’s, and history’s most remarkable movements (imagine the Paris Commune in Pottergate!), and staffed entirely by volunteers, the play is a towering achievement – coupling deft satirical wit with grand Les Mis musical spectacle, and shocking historical recreation to leave audiences with reasons to laugh, cry and organize. Certainly, it does not have a happy ending – but like the best Ken Loach film, it’s not merely geared toward making us proud to be from the place where Kett’s rebellion happened – it is art aimed at inspiring us to think what might have been and could still be possible; to fight to make our own voices heard, to create our own culture, and vision of Norwich and the world. Above all, the staging of the play itself shows the potential of ordinary people to band together in the face of an uncaring and exploitative elite – amidst a city riddled with artisanal gluten-free brew-houses, in which the established businesses exemplified by the lanes exclude the cultures of working class life – it is art imitating life, imitating art.
Returning to my earlier question then, regarding the state of radical culture in Norwich, I feel I have an answer. Radical culture here; art, performance, film can flourish by the will of those dedicated enough to create it – however it will only do so if we can band together and do it ourselves. We cannot rely on the established cultural hubs of Norwich to represent marginalized voices – and our criticisms must range further than simply protesting the BBC, City Council and store owners should do more. We have to fill that void, if Norwich is really to live up to “doing different”.
Jack Brindelli is the Director of the Norwich Radical Film Festival. To support their project please visit their Kickstarter which runs for the next 7 days (until July 23rd), and rewards donors with party access, festival passes and printed programs.
If you would like to get involved as a volunteer on the 26-28th of August, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photography done by Al Simmons. Visit his website for more of his work.