Feature: Theatre - THE REVEAL FESTIVAL - Billy Bragg's Pressure Drop at the Wellcome Foundation

Published: 15 April 2010

BILLY Bragg proclaims it from the rooftops – but it is not a mantra many would expect to hear come from the mouth of a left-wing protest songsmith and political commentator.

“I am an English patriot,” he declares. As part of the two-week Reveal Festival, based at venues in King’s Cross, Bragg is providing the music for a show entitled Pressure Drop. It considers what it means to be English through the eyes of three generations of the same family.

Bragg became involved in the project after he wrote a book called The Progressive Patriot two years ago. It prompted theatre director and writer Mick Gordon to contact him – and as soon as they spoke, it was obvious they should collaborate on a production that considers this thorny topic.

“I feel very strongly about concepts of Englishness,” Bragg says. Through the show, he wants people to consider how they look at their identity, and what it means. In The Progressive Patriot he talks of what his sense of identity means – from his name, which gives him a moniker, to being brought up in Barking, which makes him both a Londoner and an Essex man, from supporting  West Ham, to the fact his great grandparents were Italian Catholics. 

“We need to stop the kind of people who make you feel ashamed to celebrate Englishness,” Bragg says. 

With the BNP leader Nick Griffin standing in the area of his birth, he says a discussion of what the term stands for is long overdue. “Why is the Scottish National Party progressive, yet the BNP are fascists?,” he asks. “Nick Griffin says he represents white English people – this needs to be countered.”

For those on the    Left, internationalism has always been a watchword, but Bragg wants to re-assert Englishness along the same lines. 

“English nationalism is a sleeping dragon that people are scared of,” he says. “And as a result people say to me, ‘you shouldn’t really talk about these things, because it gives a platform to nationalists, it brings racists out the wood­work’. But if we don’t discuss the issue of the politics of identity, then it will be the nationalists and the racists that define who does and who doesn’t belong in England. And unfortun­ately, in the past we’ve been guilty of ignoring the problem in the hope that it will go away.”

“We’ve left a vacuum, and it has been filled by the far Right,” Bragg states. “We’re internationalist, but we need to engage in the debate about national identity. Just bringing the subject up can alienate people who come from a leftist background. 

“The fact is that immigration has now risen up the political agenda, so we have no choice but to engage. It’s not enough just to keep saying to people, ‘well, we’re internationalist, we’re all in this together’. That doesn’t wash any more.”

Reveal Festival: Pressure Drop is at the Wellcome Collection until May 12. www. wellcomecollection.org


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