Features Published 6 March 2014

Of Time and the Country

England, land of dreams: Barney Norris on his new play, Visitors.
Barney Norris

photo by Mark Douet 

Visitors is a picture of England. An elderly couple, who stand for old ideas of who we are, facing the end of their days; a man in the middle of his life, uncertain of where he should turn; a young woman, full of ideas, powerless to enact them. It is a study of the way life slips past us, the way people sometimes seem like islands when they try to speak to each other, the way we do not know where we are going.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. It’s got jokes. And above all it’s a love story, a study of the love we experience while we are in the world, which makes our time here worth having, which will survive us after we’ve gone, as long as it goes witnessed.

I come from an England people say is disappearing, a rural world where the patterns of life have been largely unchanged for several centuries, but are apparently now dissolving suddenly in the bright sunlight of the city and the internet, taking the whole history of ordinary life on this island with them.

It’s not true, of course. The world spins and changes endlessly round us, and for each of us the day comes when the world ends as our lives end, but in the mean time us ordinary people continue, gloriously, defiantly, to live our extraordinary lives. When I started writing Visitors I wanted to write about how beautiful the world was – to draw attention to the everyday world, the way the light comes in through a window, the way people share their lives with each other. And I believed the dignity of human life much effaced in the age of advertising, and wanted to write a love letter to the innate as opposed to the bought qualities of human beings.

All the change the big world sells us is only the window dressing of our time here. We drift through it, and very little, almost nothing, of what falls away from us as we go is missed, except, I would propose, for love and the other people in our lives. I wanted to write a story which argued that there is no such thing as belonging or permanence or home, but there is such a thing as love, and long after the pressures of finance or careerism fade from the memory, love still matters. It is what survives of us. I wanted to make people think about that.

When you go on writing courses, the tutors will tell you to write out of anger, because anger, they say, is the strongest emotion to write from. I always feel sorry for them when they say that. And I wonder what tones of the human experience an art form loses if it limits its productivity to a single emotional spectrum. Why can’t we write out of sorrow? Why can’t we write out of love?

What happens when the ad men sell us their myth of a perfectible future, and of rural life as a museum exhibit, is that people are effaced, and the struggles they face are left untended. My county, Wiltshire, where Visitors is set, needs support for farmers, a revamp of a care system that’s about to get much busier, opportunities for graduates, money pumped into a deceptively low wage economy, water pumped out of the flooded fields. What it gets is a new visitor centre for Stonehenge, snagging the traffic over the Plain, because that’s how people see it – a visitor centre. Wiltshire in the public imagination is a collection of monuments, a repository of myth. I wanted to write the world of my childhood, stranded in an oxbow lake of our culture’s making, and say to people – this, too, is happening to our country. These people are also lost in the midst of life, these lives are being lived as well. They reach out to each other across the same distances that exist between all of us.

Matthew Arnold ends his poem ‘Dover Beach’ with the following verse:

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

When I started writing Visitors I kept this verse above my desk. What is extraordinary about it is the first sentence – it strikes me as profoundly heroic that faced with all the sadness in the world, someone might respond with that. It is that decision, the impulse towards sympathy and compassion, which most amazes me about human beings wherever I see it manifested. And I wanted to write about that.

Barney Norris’ Visitors is at the Arcola Theatre, London, from 6 – 29 March 2014 and at the Bush Theatre from 1st December to 10th January 2015.

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Barney Norris is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine