by Tom George Hammond
It began with Pete Buttigieg. On the 29th March 2019, Mayor Pete was preparing to formally announce his Presidential campaign, and a certain buzz began to circulate around this relatively unknown figure. He was an outsider with an acclaimed memoir – Shortest Way Home – who had been tapped in certain corners as an Obama-esque underdog; a candidate who could sneak into a crowding race and slowly take the field. I was scrolling through Twitter, on a train to meet my friend Ross about some script ideas, when I encountered an article by Nathan Robinson for Current Affairs. Robinson had read Mayor Pete’s book, in anticipation of the underdog’s potential with Democratic voters. However, Robinson begins his article with a stark warning: “…no serious progressive should want Pete Buttigieg anywhere near national public office”.
It was a compelling critique that foresaw a scandal that would later rock Buttigieg’s campaign; the former Mayor’s employment at McKinsey and Company, the consulting firm famed for its discretion, and its consulting work with authoritarian regimes in China, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine and Turkey. While Buttigieg was in their employ, McKinsey advised Purdue Pharma on how to “turbocharge” sales of Oxycontin, for which the firm is now accused of facilitating the spread of a still raging opioid endemic across the U.S. (Buttigieg has repeatedly and publicly denied any knowledge of this particular consultation). Something slotted into place after reading Robinson’s article – a character was formed, or rather a character was split in two. For Buttigieg was, perhaps, a false progressive. And we have seen false progressives sprouting in their dozens, in the U.K. and across the pond. On the public stage they proclaim themselves to be gamechangers, but they still communicate in a rehearsed, corporate language. They represent progress – the progress, indeed, of representation – but still hold the familiar ties to big business and billionaire donors. Buttigieg’s sexuality and green-gilled CV presented a folksy narrative, but behind the wizard’s curtain one found a well-managed centrist with no particular purpose beyond the accumulation of power.
But I digress. I met Ross with a vague idea for a central character, and gradually a draft was formed.
Over the rocky period of redrafting, where everything feels wrong and you want to write literally anything else, Ross and I met a few times in Granary Square, the private public area adjacent to Kings Cross Station. We were surrounded on all sides by London’s new tech district – which will, post-Covid, see the completed construction of Google’s new headquarters, set to be the widest building in London. There’s a new vision for the city, where everything is data, brunch and concrete. It’s found in Granary Square, and in the Coal Drops Yard, the jazzy new renovation for boutique shoppers and foodies. At Parillian, a terraced restaurant overlooking Kings Cross, you can cook your own steak, or pay £9 for a single scallop in a bowl. A compromise has been set with the gentrifying forces; each new structure in our corporate buffet must retain some notion of authenticity; the old Kings Cross has to feel like it’s only got one foot in the grave. And so we bring ourselves to capital and eat the exorbitantly priced, small portioned goods, with the vague pretence that the exercise is communal or exotic. (For Ross’s defence more than mine, we did not eat at Parillian. I think we got a coffee and a hot dog from a market stall).
These early meetings featured a lot of discussion about the idea of a “political drama”, or more specifically, the navigation of responding to populism and our current authoritarian cloud without being too broad, obvious, prescriptive, or condescending. There was demand for theatre that was responsive, or that offered an intellectual exercise, or some sort of bipartisan meditation, on how things could slowly be healed. But there was also the burden of our current situation where everyone is responding to something all the time. People seem to know exactly what they think about everything. News from two weeks ago feels like news from two years ago. Writing this now, CNN’s John King and his magic election news board feels like a myth of ancient autumns, where he stood waiting for Arizona’s count while King Cnut tried to stop the tide.
We would look for stranger things for inspiration. Once we leafed through a giant book I was given about Kubrck. The book is the size of a coffee table, and laden with gorgeous printed images from Kubrick’s filmography. We were drawn to a particular image; a space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey, with shiny white walls and hilariously cheap looking red chairs. It features in a scene with Leonard Rossiter playing a concerned Russian scientist and reminds you that the future will be a lot weirder, chintzier and sillier than we could ever imagine.
One late night, after all but giving up on the script, I scrolled through the channels and found Eyes Wide Shut, only twenty minutes in, whirring its alien tape. The film is like a gateway drug to conspiracy theories, with the New York elites, in a gated mansion, secretly degrading themselves at a masked orgy. It turns many people off; it is distinctly unerotic and has a question mark where it’s hero should be. But that question mark becomes the film’s magic; we expect a hero from Tom Cruise, and we expect some sort of moral or motive to his odyssey. Instead we are given an ambivalent creation, an unnerving character who we cannot always trust and understand. In the absence of moral clarity, or in the absence, really, of a fully formed character, we find ourselves, our confusing impulses, our appetites for destruction, our destructive desire.
I kept watching Mayor Pete as he landed on the debate stage. His erudition, his composure, his assuredness – he was like the first AI politician, so seamless was his performance of someone almost real. People heard in him the Presidential voice – the Democratic myth of a charismatic liberal professor with the nuclear codes – but I began to wonder how far one would have to go to find the real Buttigieg. His corporate ghosts followed him, even as he saw off the likes of Beto O’Rourke and Bill De Blasio. Questions remained about Buttigieg’s donors; he was distinctly popular with billionaires in finance and big tech. As Wall Street panicked about the candidacies of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Buttigieg remained in neutral gear, welcoming donations from the one percent in the “fight against Donald Trump”.
As 2020 rolled in, Ross and I began making vague plans for how to stage Recital. Ross, then juggling at least seven different professions at once, worked a few shifts at various Market Halls in central London. We got lunch at a branch in Oxford Circus, and I returned home to find a Guardian piece – that was getting a fair bit of traction online – excoriating the foundations of Market Halls as; “…a sanitised smorgasbord of multiculturalism, available at an inflated price, with security guards on the door”.
Ross was then reading Naomi Klein’s No Logo, and I wondered whether Klein could have foreseen how ethical consumption could one day become a brand. Her chapter “Patriarchy Gets Funky”, on how advertisers sought GenXer’s custom through diversifying their brand representation – Tiger Woods fronted for Nike, RuPaul for Mac Cosmetics, etc. – draws the trail directly to how one now sees brands on Twitter, cosplaying as bored or dysfunctional or horny millennials. This was once the great achievement of consumer capitalism, convincing the young that they were also progressive. Now they’ve pulled off a far more insidious trick; the consumers have become the product, and we are all now marketing ourselves constantly. The sincere progressive desire to do good is weighted against the consumer machine that encourages individualism through branding and does not care whether one is good or bad, only if one engages.
But I digress. We began to draw up funding applications, planning for a run at a Fringe venue, quite unaware of the impending collapse.
What we have now is due to the diligence of Ross, who made a make-shift studio in my living room on the hottest day of the year and somehow produced a completely professional sounding recording out of it, all while making other projects and training for a new career. It was his diligence too, in sticking with a play that at first, he did not like. He encouraged me to continue with it because he saw something in its core – a few ideas we shared, peaking out between a rushed and inert attempt at a political drama. We both wanted to make a play that said something, even if it was only clear to us what any of it meant.
Mayor Pete now is a likely choice for a cabinet position in Biden’s government. He has made quite a comfortable nest for himself in the establishment strata, his path to high office still only at the chrysalis. There is the age-old fear that we will betray ourselves, as soon as our ideals meet the oxygen of reality. But there is the more rational phobia that we will not recognise the moment of betrayal; that we might find ourselves talking but not hear our own voice at all.