The perils of Friday night drinks

An unconvicing take on the office romance.

Tom is quite a bloke. He has never met a girl yet that he couldn't make chuck him by means of passive resistance, "like a romantic Gandhi". We gain privileged insight into this miracle of unreconstructed maleness through his asides, when we are invited to be co-conspirators in his puerile, even murderous imaginings: he tells us confidentially that he understands the mentality of the sex killer, and can "see the appeal of hacking them to pieces and putting them in bin-bags afterwards."

It's fair to say that I didn't exactly warm to the hero of My Romantic History (played by Iain Robertson), though many in the audience at the Birmingham Repetory studio theatre found the disparity between his inner voice and his public one quite hilarious. Fortunately, if belatedly, some 35 minutes into the show, we are then given access to the inner thoughts of the object of his musings, Amy from the office (Alison O'Donnell). Events are replayed from her perspective, and she proves to be every bit as unconvinced and even disgusted by the relationship as Tom. "He smells like bums" is her comment on waking up with him.

Playwright D C Moore sketches a familiar breed with the male commitment-phobe (it's Friends, by way of Peep Show out of High Fidelity), but in comparison, Amy's motivations seem both obscure and contrived. She's apparently dating him ("like fucking Americans") to prove to her co-worker that she can. But there is comedy capital to be made all the same from the unreliability of perspective: Amy recalls things in a rather different way from Tom. Speeches are attributed to different people, and the emphasis of scenes subtly shifts. Her recollection of his chat is along the lines of "blah blah blah, pretty serious about my music back then, blah". And nowhere is Tom and Amy's view more faulty and corrupted than the retrospectives on their first loves, the idealisation of which scuppers their chances of present day romance.

Nominally an office rom-com, My Romantic History doesn't, in truth, explore the office environment except to give the play an appealingly quirky setting, courtesy of designer Chloe Lamford. The office notice board gradually becomes a scrapbook collage of former loves and significant articles, like the Polaroid of a tattoo, or the manga cartoon of boyfriends past. An ancient slide projector is recommissioned to give low-tech, nostalgic presentations on the couple's love affairs, and the filing cabinet does a turn as portal to an outside world - at one point beautifully illustrating Tom's depressing ubiquity, as he appears to teleport in from various locations holding by turns coffee cup, lunch-tray and a clutch of photocopies.

Cardboard boxes are stacked to vertiginous heights; some are suspended from the ceiling, and jettison objects relating to the romantic narratives - a Magic Tree car freshener here, or a phone there. Lamford's ingenious crates suggest not only memory storage, but also a feel of pro tem making- do, and of movement between places. As the play states repeatedly, nothing lasts for ever, and it's as if Tom and Amy's relationship, by rights a throwaway and short-lived affair, has been accidentally given a lamination job and acquired a habit-hardened carapace of permanence, through motives ranging from cowardice to inertia.

Moore's office is a workless and, it must be said, joyless place, with none of the camaraderie, intimacy or shared experience that make the office such fertile ground for colleague-coupling. Amy and Tom's liaison is a purely contingent one, an anthropological likelihood based on sharing the same space. The doubling up of roles only serves to emphasise its arbitrary nature: Robertson and O'Donnell, clad in the cheap suits of junior office staff - all crackling polyester and sensible shoes - jump nimbly in and out of roles as they supply the bit parts in each other's drama. In this they are abetted by a protean Rosalind Sydney, whose main part is awful colleague Sasha, with her moon cups and her Sunday samba drumming.

But where the relationship between the lovers may be bloodless to the point of being perfunctory, under Lindsey Turner's direction the actors generate a real and unexpected warmth with a challengingly small audience. This adds considerable charm to a light-hearted memo on the ways in which we settle for each other, our partial takes on past and present, and the perils of Friday night drinks. Like a day at the office, there are lots of shared jokes, and it is a little too long.

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage