The Yard Theatre is one of London’s most exciting new theatre venues, quickly becoming known for hosting bold, provocative and brave work. This makes it the perfect place to host one of six events as a part of Change For A Tenner under the umbrella of the LIFT 2014 festival. Some People Think I’m Bonkers But I Just Think I’m Free saw seven activists, all with strongly different agendas and beliefs, take to the stage to make their case for various types of social change. The premise of the event was that these people’s political beliefs and activism has been dubbed ‘bonkers’ by many. However, it instead became apparent as the night went on, that each speaker was not only highly articulate (and sane), but that they had incredibly interesting and valid arguments to make about the way we live now and how it might change and improve if we were to open our minds and think a little differently.
Hosted by the warm and humorous compere, Ivor Dembina, the event took the format of five-minute speeches, with each activist making their case, followed by a brief audience question-and-answer session. The evening kicked off with Ellie Harrison, who believes in the re-nationalisation of the railways by bringing back British Rail. Harrison’s story was intriguing and relatable; as a masters student from Nottingham travelling to study in Glasgow she had to take three trains, all run by different private rail companies, all enforcing their own arbitrary pricing scheme, and none communicating with the other about delayed services. Harrison decided to do something about a situation she considered absurd, and began the Bring Back British Rail campaign which she has been actively fighting for over five years now.
Another interesting speaker was Colin Bex, who proposed autonomy for the region of Wessex (not unlike the Scottish independence campaign, but for a collection of counties in the west of England), followed by Trenton Oldfield, who is best known for jumping in the river during the Oxford versus Cambridge boat race in 2012. Oldfield, who spent six months in prison, proposed that we send more white middle-class men to jail and begin to use our white privilege for good rather than selfish, self-promoting reasons, as he believes it currently stands. One of the more memorable moments of the event was when naturist Andrew Welch stripped off and encouraged the audience to join him, with some enthusiastic men doing so without his needing to ask twice. The enthusiastic Welch was followed by Sean Gabb of the Libertarian Alliance, whose particular manner seemed not unlike that of a Bond villain. This was matched by his radical views on rejecting the state and its various means of control, the cherry on the cake being his belief in the right to defend one’s land with a handgun rather than referring issues to the police. Needless to say, he soon fell victim to hecklers and faced a barrage of pointed questions when his speech concluded.
It was certainly a lively and interesting night, thanks to the range of speakers and the welcoming, informal attitude in the room which allowed audiences to engage with and question the speakers on their views to see if they held water. Indeed, though the passion and vision of many of the speakers was admirable, it did at times feel as though they were offering a rather utopian vision of a better Britain under their proposed schemes, which often were not based in pragmatic solutions nor a real interrogation of how these systems would work if implemented. Erin Mutch of the Basic Income Guarantee party, for example, believes in offering every citizen £11,375, untaxed and non returnable; an undeniably attractive offer but one which begs a number of questions. Caught up in the beauty of his idea, Mutch had failed to consider issues such as the influx of immigration this would cause, the effect it might have on people’s incentive to work, and the possibility of inflation and further damage to the economy on the back of the recent recession. And while a couple of speakers did bandy about statistics and figures, carefully selected to substantiate their own views, there were moments when the event felt like a university debating society event based on speculation and big ideas rather than real, achievable solutions.
It also has to be mentioned that these activists, who are so intent on changing and undermining the elitist political systems and mainstream views, were all white, middle-class and (I may stand corrected here) heterosexual, with six of the seven speakers being male. I’m not sure if the irony was lost on them or the event organisers, but it seemed to only reinforce the idea that politics is coloured by in-fighting amongst people of a privileged demographic, simply grappling for the supremacy of ideas and ultimately power. Moreover, in the event being directed towards a theatre-going audience in edgy Hackney-Wick and (again, I may stand corrected) are therefore quite liberal anyway, the whole charade could arguably be seen as preaching to the converted.
Some People Think I’m Bonkers But I Just Think I’m Free certainly offered great food for thought, thanks to the discussion of interesting alternatives to the current political systems and the opportunity to join these activists in thinking outside of the box. Indeed, that these people are routinely deemed ‘bonkers’, goes to show how our attitude as a society towards alternative opinions is one of wariness and disdain, therefore highlighting how successfully our current ideology has impressed itself on us by encouraging us to accept the numerous flaws in our current system because of a fear of the alternatives. The final Change For a Tenner event takes place in Shoreditch Town Hall next week, and if this was anything to go by, it will be a lively, highly-charged and worthwhile evening.
LIFT 2014 is playing until 29 June. For more information and tickets, see the LIFT Festival website.