Why writers are looking beyond the city to the rural, Leave-voting heartlands

Everyone in London theatre acknowledges that the white, upper-middle-class experience is over-represented.

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Barney Norris has a theory. “I think everyone only has one story to tell, and they keep bloody telling it until people stop paying them.” The 31-year-old’s first novel, Five Rivers Met on A Wooded Plain, chronicled the lives of five defiantly ordinary people in Salisbury – “Smallsbury”, one character calls it – linked by a car crash. His first full-length play, Visitors, focused on an elderly couple living on a farm on the edge of Salisbury Plain. His 2017 play, Echo’s End, was set in the early 20th century, but also in – you guessed it – rural Wiltshire. His latest novel, Turning for Home, branches out by moving to the next-door county of Hampshire, but features characters from both Visitors and Five Rivers.

It’s an intriguing approach to building a career, particularly one that spans both playwriting and prose fiction. I wanted to meet Norris ahead of his new play, Nightfall, at the Bridge Theatre in London – set on a farm in Sparsholt, 24 miles from Salisbury – because this is the kind of diversity that the arts world finds it hard to talk about, the kind that encompasses people who might, whisper it, have voted for Brexit. (Wiltshire voted Leave by 151,637 to 137,258.)

Everyone in London theatre acknowledges that the white, upper-middle-class experience is over-represented. The Finborough Theatre, a new writing venue in west London, even states on its website submission guidelines: “We do not programme plays about urban, middle-class ‘twenty/thirtysomethings’ preoccupied with relationships or emotional problems.” (I mean, by that rationale they would have rejected Hamlet, but you can see where they’re coming from.)

Yet while there are exciting young artists taking, say, the black experience as their subject – Arinzé Kene with Misty at the Bush Theatre; the Royal Court’s Black Men Walking, or Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon, which is about to transfer to the National Theatre – it’s harder to name emerging writers with something to say about rural poverty or the quiet hopelessness and deprivation of some seaside towns.

The creative class, which tends towards the university educated and geographically mobile, is struggling to represent people who are not desperately poor, or historically oppressed, but who feel just as disconnected from the values of Britain’s cultural elite as more visible minorities do. “I meet so many people who don’t feel Left Behind – they feel effaced by the cultural mainstream, they feel unarticulated by the dominant media or artistic voices, but wouldn’t for a moment express a feeling of cultural inferiority,” says Norris, clutching a coffee as we talk in the Jerwood Space’s greenhouse café in Southwark. Brexit, he thinks, should remind those of us who have moved to big cities “that the parable of the prodigal son isn’t universally adhered to as a cultural landmark. Not everyone who stayed home is excited to hear about how Helen’s getting on. They think we’re idiots.”

Nightfall begins with a quintessentially rural crime. A farmer taps a pipeline running across a field, and sells the stolen oil to his neighbours. But at its heart it’s a play about a splintered family. “It’s a story about inheritance and change, in terms of a farm that has recently been taken on by a lad whose dad’s died, and his mum is still living there, and his sister moved home while the dad was dying,” Norris tells me. “The three of them are living in this horrible grief bubble.”

It is also about a cultural clash between the country-dwellers and those who have left: “Whether we are choosing to be defined by our past or attempting to reject our past and go out into the black and look for something unwritten.”

The latter is a lot easier if you leave home for university, I say. Norris agrees – but he’s wary of indulging the value judgement that moving away is the better option. “What we’re coping with socially at the moment is that we’re really only in the first or second generation of genuine social and cultural uprootedness,” he says. “Most people don’t live in the same town that their grandparents are buried in. That wasn’t true in 1938.”

After the Second World War came the new towns, and the expansion of higher education, and the great drift of graduates towards cities – all of which are remaking Britain’s electoral map, as well as increasing its political polarisation and atomisation. During his research, Norris came across the story of Cheddar Man – the oldest complete skeleton found in Britain, near the village in Somerset. DNA testing revealed that the local history teacher, Adrian Targett, was a direct descendant. “When I look at the argument going on nationally about who we want to portray ourselves as being, that all grows out of that dislocation, that postwar moment which was partly about building a commonwealth, a welfare state… and that’s all up the spout.”

The writer isn’t exempt from these forces: although his first job was at the Salisbury Playhouse, and he co-founded a touring company based in the south-west of England, he now lives in south London. He is currently adapting Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day for the Royal & Derngate in Northampton. (The Nobel Prize winner has been utterly relaxed about handing over his work, comparing it to jazz: “no one in the world has ever got possessive and angsty about ‘My Funny Valentine’.”)

Norris is in demand, he admits, because his story – the one he can’t stop telling – now resonates with our political moment. “I can’t help but notice that before Brexit, I paid myself no money to put my own work on in fringe theatres. Then Brexit happened and I’m doing Remains of the Day and a show at the Bridge.” He smiles. “It’s like, bumpkin shows about people who are equivocal about whether London is a good thing might have come into fashion. We didn’t need them in 2015. What were we angry about in 2015? Bankers, probably.” 

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman, who is now a staff writer on the Atlantic. Her history of feminism, Difficult Women, will be published in February 2020.

This article appears in the 04 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, What Marx got right