There are more than a thousand homeless people hidden in the crevices of the London Borough of Camden, of whom more than a hundred sleep rough. A document called Food Poverty in Camden and Islington, January 2018: Understanding the Local Picture estimates that at least 20,000 people in the borough experience “moderate or high levels of food insecurity”. Another factsheet published by the two boroughs in November 2015 reveals that more than a quarter of children in Camden live in low-income families; data published by the charity Trust for London is more stark, claiming 35% of Camden’s children live in poverty.
I could go on, and give Human Jam a run for its money in the fact stakes, but the general point should already be clear. Given that parts of Camden have been ranked among the 5% “most deprived” areas in the whole of England, I took my seat at CPT wondering mildly why anyone should give a single glancing fuck what happens to the 63,000 skeletons who form the “human jam” of artistic director Brian Logan’s new show. Harsh, right? But among the many wonderful qualities of Human Jam is its capacity to inspire care, having been made with such care itself: for humans, for craft, for detail, for the complexity of social interconnection.
It starts with the voice of Shamira Turner chewing up a poem by Thomas Hardy; Brian rolls his eyes when he identifies her, tutting at her intrusion into his “one-man performance-lecture”. The Hardy poem memoralises a moment much like the one in which Brian finds himself: when a bunch of gravestones and bodies were moved in St Pancras to make way for urban redevelopment – for progress. Progress is imperative in cities: it keeps them thriving, pulsing, Brian knows this. But he also feels a need to pause and reflect, to think about who and what get left behind by urban redevelopment, who and what are profiting from progress.
Shamira’s “insistence” on appearing in the show is, for all its staginess, integral to this reflection. To risk stating the painfully obvious, progress is the keynote of capitalism and capitalism is the root and branch of white male privilege and white male privilege was built on the oppression of everyone who isn’t white and male, a privilege so internalised Brian “fails” to see when he’s exercising it. Human Jam is preoccupied with inequalities present and historical, visible and insidious, challenged and accepted as though this is just the way things are. The positions Brian and Shamira take when navigating this subtly embody the ways in which these seeming binaries overlap. In one of the show’s many shape-shifting turns, the duo “re-enact” a rehearsal-room argument: Brian wants to cram in more facts related to HS2, land grabs, property developer Lend Lease, the disturbance of the local rat population, while Shamira wants to talk about the difficulties her generation face trying to get on to the housing ladder. Both are protesting, but in the wrong direction: Brian against a woman muscling in on his show; Shamira in favour of land ownership.
Her desire for individual ownership is at odds with the key character Shamira performs in Human Jam: that of Thomas Spence, a radical revolutionary who died in 1814 and was buried in St James’ Garden – the public space already requisitioned and destroyed to make way for HS2, regardless of whether or not the project itself goes ahead. Born in Newcastle, Spence was so aghast at the threatened enclosure of an area of common land close by the city that in 1775 he published a pamphlet called Property in Land Every One’s Right, in which he outlined his socio-economic plan: a list of six key tenets which included universal suffrage, a “social guarantee” that would provide income to those unable to work, and above all “the end of aristocracy and landlords”, with all land owned by small communities who shared its benefits equally. For all of its middle section, Spence becomes the beating heart of Human Jam: yes, he’s a dead white man – but he’s a dead white man who fought for a kind of equity that is needs fighting for no less fiercely today. And there is something heartening in knowing that these ideas and beliefs and desires are old and tenacious and irrepressible as wild flowers, sprouting up in the modern city just where they’re least expected.
You have to take your hope where you find it, because the facts remain that Spence died and enclosure continued and a few weeks ago Guy Shrubsole published a book documenting years of research mapping land ownership that revealed how entrenched this inequality is in British society. In the midst of that argument with Shamira, Brian attempts to join the dots between one of Spence’s graveyard mates, Captain Matthew Flinders, who circumnavigated Australia around the turn of the 19th century, the trade routes of the East India Company, colonialism, globalisation, and the fact that Lend Lease – an Australian company – has sunk its teeth into swathes of London soil, the contested HS2 area included. But his words stumble because he’s lost in a miasma: the connections between these things are somehow simultaneously transparent and opaque. And how can you fight an enemy that is at once everywhere and nowhere?
The way in which Human Jam is staged is itself an act of radicalism: Brian’s performance lecture, focused on him, his research, his genial personality, illustrated with ironic-bad Word art modelled on the kind that makes local council and small business presentations laughable to urbane artsy types, is a dominant narrative disrupted by voices that refuse to be silenced – Spence’s, Shamira’s – and disrupted again by the voices of the local community, people who might be described as Spence’s extended family of refuseniks and noise-makers. Like Spence they believe in standing up for common rights and like Spence they use song as one of their tools to fight oppression. For the final section of Human Jam they are the show’s multiple beating hearts, its many-headed rebel choir.
The community’s fight is local, but it’s also general, relevant to all Londoners and, I’d argue, far beyond. It’s against HS2 and so against the inequality that results in homelessness, food insecurity, childhood poverty; against the inhumanity of a government ideology that imposes austerity while enabling and concentrating affluence; against invisible power and the loss of public land to private development. I’m going to admit, I’ve known about HS2 for as long as Brian’s been talking about it, but I’ve never paid much attention to the compelling arguments against it. I left my seat at CPT grateful that I’d had this chance to pause and reflect alongside Human Jam, to encounter a dead body I’d never heard of, a living community I’d been ignoring, and another piece of the jigsaw of resistance that makes living in this tainted city possible.
Human Jam is on at Camden People’s Theatre till 25th May. More info here.