Jarvis Cocker: Sheffield in the 1980s, Tim Etchells, and how I lost sleep over theatre

Jarvis Cocker remembers the early days of Thatcher’s Britain, and the art it produced.

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What’s the opposite of nostalgia? I ask that question because Tim Etchell’s stories take me back to a time and place I thought I’d forgotten – but I really wouldn’t want to go back there.

I used to sleep a lot. I’m still fond of a good kip and will grab a snooze at the drop of a hat if the opportunity ever presents itself but back in the early 1980s in Sheffield I really used to sleep a hell of a lot. Back then sleeping was my favoured method of escaping Thatcher’s Britain.

I left school in 1982 and went straight on the dole. I left home and moved into a flat above an old factory. My friend was the caretaker. The building had been divided into units that housed band rehearsal rooms, offices, a model railway enthusiasts society and two table tennis clubs (who used to take it in turns to shit outside each other’s doors). Abandoned takeaways left outside the rehearsal rooms attracted rats. Sleeping was a much better option than facing the day-to-day reality of living on Sheldon Row.

One morning (or maybe it was early afternoon?) I was rudely awakened from my slumber by the sound of shouting coming from the room downstairs. It sounded like a domestic argument – but that was impossible because we were the only people actually living on the premises. Plus, it was a little too repetitive and rhythmic. I was irritated, also a little intrigued…

That was my first encounter with the work of Tim Etchells. The noise I had mistaken for a “domestic” was actually the sound of a Forced Entertainment rehearsal and Tim is a founding member of the theatre group that bears that name. The more I found out about Forced Entertainment the more my curiosity grew: I was intrigued by why they rehearsed during the day, I was intrigued as to how they had got rid of the food co-op that used to be downstairs (rat droppings were found in the muesli, apparently, leading to them being evicted), but most of all I was intrigued as to why a group of talented, creative people would move to Sheffield voluntarily at a time when the whole city was so obviously going down the pan. In other words: “Why the fuck would anyone move to a shit-hole that everyone else is trying to escape from?”

Only Tim himself could answer that question – or perhaps you’ll find the reason why secreted somewhere within the pages of his new collection of stories, Endland. I myself got some kind of glimpse the first time I saw Forced Entertainment perform live. They were doing a piece called The Set-up early in the evening at a local venue called the Leadmill. The Leadmill was (and still is) housed in an old bus garage – just about all the places I frequented in those days were based in places where things “used to happen”. I needed to find out what all this shouting was about. I had a right to know why my sleep was being disturbed.

I’d seen some “street theatre” at various local festivals and that was pretty dire so my expectations were extremely low. But as soon as the piece began I was transfixed. This was not Theatre As I Knew It. Minimal set, choreographed moves, most of the dialogue coming over the PA from a pre-recorded soundtrack that also featured some very interesting music. I was inspired – I wasn’t sure exactly what it was saying but it set off some feelings inside me. For some reason I am unable to explain I ran back home to the factory and got dressed in an acrylic star jumper that was two sizes too small for me and went back to the Leadmill. The play had made me feel like that Fall lyric from the song “Winter” – “I’ll take both of you on, I’ll take both of you on”. Proper got me going. Theatre had never done that to me before.

I had no idea that these stories of Tim’s existed. Some of them even date back to times I have been describing. When I read them I was instantly transported to the Sheffield of the mid-1980s and the lifestyles of those who haunted Sheldon Row: a factory “just off the Wicker”. It fucking terrified me.

These stories are the opposite of nostalgia – and this feels like the perfect time for them to appear. At the time of writing we are once more ruled by a Conservative Party leader who has no problem with declaring war on at least 50 per cent of the country that they are supposed to govern, and these stories tell you what it’s like to live in that kind of atmosphere for years on end. They are frightening – but they’re also necessary. Good things happen when you face stuff head-on.

“Endland” is right – “Endland” is where we are right now. But the fact that these stories exist at all shows that times like this can be survived – transcended even.

This book is dangerous. This book is a bitter medicine. This book tells it like it was and is. I respect this book – but I never want to read it again. 

“Endland” by Tim Etchells, with an introduction by Jarvis Cocker, is published by And Other Stories

This article appears in the 20 November 2019 issue of the New Statesman, They think it’s all over