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That’s Really Not Okay: An Interview With Tim Etchells
Jennifer Hodgson , November 24th, 2019 08:56

Ahead of the publication of his new collection of short stories, Endland, artist, writer and Artistic Director of Forced Entertainment, Tim Etchells, talks to Jennifer Hodgson about class, culture, dissonant languages, staying provincial and writing against good taste

Type the word ‘Endland’ and your phone will autocorrect it to ‘England’, as if it’s started doing wry quips about the state we’re in.

Endland is the strangely familiar setting of Tim Etchells’ new book of the same name, a collection of funny and desperate fables about how people try (and fail) to eke out some sort of life when they’ve been marooned in a mildewed wreckage of a place.

Etchells is an artist and writer based in Sheffield and London, whose work ranges across performance, visual art and fiction. For thirty-five years, he has led the visionary and evermore audacious theatre and performance company, Forced Entertainment. His previous writing includes Certain Fragments (1999), a widely acclaimed book about contemporary performance, The Dream Dictionary for the Modern Dreamer (2001) and a novel, The Broken World (2008).

Publishing a book called Endland at a time like this is quite a move, isn’t it?

TE: Yes, it feels like it. I first started working with an idea of England as ‘Endland’ in the early 90s – the first of the stories was published in ’95 and the collection Endland Stories came out in ’99. But as a project it has grown and very much in relation to the shifts in the landscape here. Obviously throughout my life, I think at pretty much any moment, the stresses and strains that are inherent in this country – the politics of it, the divisions, the way that life is here – they’re always visible, they may take on different nuances, but there’s always the feeling that something is cracking. Maybe sometimes it feels like those cracks are covered up better, but now they’re well and truly showing through, aren’t they?

Does all this make you a ‘state of the nation writer’? I wonder how resistant you are to that idea…

I do think that reality is too important to be left to the realists. Realist writing doesn’t interest me a lot. I’m interested in what a poetic understanding of what the contemporary world or experience might be like. The stories are ludicrous in so many obvious ways, and they don’t try to show, in a Dickensian way, the workings of the structure of society. But they are offered as a weird reflection of where we might be, for sure. How do you write about the reality we’re in when you’re living in Sheffield, in the middle of one austerity or another, in this England, with all its myths, delusions and foibles, soaked in US media, or in internet disinformation? All these things somehow find a way to surface in the writing. So, yeah, maybe a state of the nation writer – but if we’re allowed a multi-channel, multi-dimensional version of what that might be.

You’ve written about how in your work with Forced Entertainment, you’re trying to get at the feeling of being in the world by using the materials of that world. Is that possible in the same way when writing fiction?

Deep down in one sense my writing does come from simply gathering materials. I madly collect phrases and bits of conversation and things I see or read – from the bus, a movie, the internet, or whatever. That process is so important in these stories especially.

In an immediate sense I’m fascinated with the way that in the real context of the city graffiti, or the slogan t-shirt, or the overheard sentence can have that very vivid and very problematic sort of presence. You don’t quite know what to do with that information. They’re sort of mysterious. There was some graffiti that I saw in Leeds back in the 80s, it said DOWN WITH CHILDHOOD – I don’t know what the context of that was but it’s an amazing problem to carry with you. Disturbing.

In many of the stories the characters are surrounded by these very abrupt, confronting or unsettling slogans, as if the city, or the unconscious of other people, is talking to them. That’s the environment that they’re negotiating. Language as a troubling object. Old and new meanings that are lying in wait for you in the city. There’s something there also about the commodification of language – the catchphrase, the tag, the copyrighted fragment that for some unknown reason ‘belongs to someone’ – how alien from us language can become.

More broadly, with all the writing – and with the Forced Entertainment work – the initial ground of it was in collage. It was in Kathy Acker and William Burroughs, and that feeling that you could take a bit of 1001 Nights, or of the Highway Code, or of this newspaper article or fairy tale and just sort of smash them together and the work would start to come from that. By the time I got onto Endland, the writing wasn’t coming from collage or cutups directly, but I’d internalised the process. I very much see these stories as works where I’m shifting from one kind of voice to another and working with a kind of linguistic dissonance. It’s a process related to collage, but it’s sampling and channelling also. Sometimes the signal that’s coming through is of one kind, sometimes it’s another, and it’s happening through a badly tuned television.

It often feels in Endland like there are multiple different languages operating across one another…

That’s another thing for me, which is the novel or story as a kind of space for performing language. In these stories, so much of the pleasure is about pulling languages together – they really work between voices. At times they put on this grand antique manner, a big storyteller voice. But they also have the pub anecdote, the kids’ story, the tabloid voice, the folk tale, super-blunt shorthand, all of these. I’m trying to work with the texture and power of those languages – different rhetorics, different temperatures – and what happens when they start to infect or aggressively crash up against each other.

There’s a resistance – even a distrust, or a suspicion – towards the ‘literary’ that runs throughout the book, isn’t there?

I have an enthusiasm for the articulacy of a voice that is not massaged or corralled by ideas of good taste. I’m intrigued by its poetic possibilities. And yes, at the same time I’m distrustful of the authority that goes with the literary, that very particular writing which wears its supposed quality on its sleeve. You can see that same mistrust at work in Forced Entertainment. The pull is to a slightly degraded version of English, or simply to speech, to vernacular culture. It’s slang, it’s repeated garbage from the television, it’s disjointed, but there’s always an energy and a reach for a kind of poetics inside that, which I think, for me, is the goal.

I wondered about the ethics of representing and voicing the lives and experiences of these characters? How do you approach that? How do you make sure it’s not kitsch, it’s not patronising, that you’re not punching down?

Certainly, writing in Sheffield from the late 80s onwards I felt like I was describing what was outside the window – what we were living and working, what we were a part of, in a way. Jarvis Cocker, who’s written the ‘Introduction’, used to live above our rehearsal space in The Wicker. When he read the stories, he wrote to me that they brought it right back to him and he didn’t want to think about it! But also, there’s always something cartoon-like in the stories. There’s an awareness of them being fabulous, they’re fables – they’re not meant to be depictions of real peoples’ lives. I wouldn’t presume to do that, and I wouldn’t have any desire to do that either.

I was thinking about this the other day, because I read Zadie Smith’s essay ‘In Defence of Fiction’. I was thinking that one of the reasons one might be interested in the fabulous and the non-realist or even in science fiction is because when you step to those forms you’re creating a world that doesn’t rely for its legitimacy on a sort of one to one relation with a social reality. It’s something other than that. So, because in Endland the characters might be gods, or because they might be shop assistants with extraordinary telepathic powers, or because in the middle of otherwise mundane lives they can accidentally ‘upload themselves to the internet’, the frame shifts. It underscores that this work is about mapping an interior, psychic space, that it has a different relation to reality.

The other thing relevant to this question of ethics and representation is that the narrator in the stories is not very nice! I'm not the narrator, you know. Figures are sometimes described in brutal terms, dismissed. Or the narrator relishes ill-fortune, a sort of Tom and Jerry-style piling on of the suffering. The immorality of that, the bluntness of the tone, the apparent lack of compassion, it’s confronting. You’re sucked into this cartoon-like violent world where the figures can be – are – brutalised. There’s a dark comedy in that, the narrator pulls you towards it. But it's always trying to catch you up short. As if to point out of the window and say: yeah look though, look what you’re living in, look at the structures of this society, look how power works here, look what’s out there.

I wanted to ask you about the geography of Endland. In this place – or rather non-place – there’s Doncaster, Sheffield, Hull, Liverpool, Margate, Brighton, Rotherham, and then Paris, Ukraine, several post-Soviet states, Catalonia and Lisbon. It felt significant that these were the places in that world…

I think there are a few more – there’s definitely Blackpool, and America (as ‘Americuh’) is definitely there. But there are also places that aren’t named as such. I think Iraq is there, Afghanistan is there. Yugoslav republics are there in stories from the 90s. What else? New York is there – it’s not named, but it’s bubbling. The basis for the stories for the most part is the North of England though, and the other places come sliding in and through that, seeping through like previous works on the canvas, distant realities that can’t be denied. That's what I imagine. I did think while I was proofing, god, if I ever read the words ‘waste ground’ again I’m going to go mad.

One of the things I’m composing with is making the world cohere in a certain way and then making that cohesion evaporate and shift. So maybe you think you know where you are, or you have a set of coordinates, and then you think how did that get in here? Years ago, I did this interview with William Gibson. He was talking about Neuromancer and how people were describing the world of it and what it implied about geopolitics and stuff. He said to me that what people didn’t realise was that the world of the book was only one molecule thick. He had figured out as much of the world as was necessary and no more than that. And I think that interested me in Endland: how thin can you make it? And yet it still conjures pictures and places and feelings for the figures – you think fuck, what happened to her or him? Where is this place? That interests me.

I’m tending to say figures, rather than characters – as one might think of the protagonists in a folk tale or fable. I slightly resist that notion of ‘character’ in the writing, as I do in theatre – all that psychology. I think about the figures in the stories as ‘what happens when you read a text’. As much as they might be people they are also a side effect of language, something that happens in the cracks between the words and the reader. Which again takes me to that experience of cartoon narrative. You don’t think they’re three-dimensional people but nonetheless, despite that knowledge, you can find yourself investing as if they were, I suppose. It’s a curious paradox. There’s a scene in one of the stories, “now not moving”, where a truck driver asks the protagonist (who’s a waitress) if she’d like to see a picture of his kids. She says sure and he slowly draws a set of stick figures on a napkin. It’s a comical moment, but let’s say not without its emotional impact.

You’ve spoken a lot in the past about how being provincial is very important to you. Is that still the case?

It’s formed my work. It’s the circumstances under which my artistic work has been conducted. We moved to Sheffield in ’84, so that’s thirty plus years of Sheffield as the base for an international project. It does feel important and that perspective and experience has deeply influenced the work. And being based in a weird genre of experimental theatre and performance – where we’re not even really welcome in theatre to be honest, not in this country – does a fair bit to augment the feeling of separation that comes with ‘the provinces’. So, it feels like my work as an artist, and for us as a company, has a sort of outsiderness or a peripheralness to it. We’ve found a place of course, an audience and such support as we have – and I know there are other people from different communities with very different, even harder struggles to find that – but in terms of theatre in the UK, our place can still feel a bit like internal exile.

I want to read one of your tweets to you, and I’m interested in whatever you have to say about it:

In mainland European theatre there’s such an appetite for formal difficulty, politics, whatever – trouble above all else – that the UK is still so shy of. There’s so much gentle toxicity here, so much bland quality. Not just our theatre scene to be honest, the whole cultural pile.

I don’t know really. Culture here is so bound up with class, and with power, and with a particular performance of what’s legitimate, what’s beautiful, what’s even considered articulate, or worthwhile as expression. It’s hard to fight it because it seems too powerful and so pervasive. As much as change might have come in terms of what voices are heard, or what experiences are represented, or what work might be shown, also you can have the feeling that deep down it isn’t shifting. There’s a fucking murderous blandness. It’s an international problem of course, but I think we have a very particular version of it here, where somehow conservative political and social power is so allied to a cultural idea of what’s valuable or what’s worth having at the table. I just don’t know how we can break that.

I know you always get asked this, but I wanted to ask you about optimism. When posed the question previously, you've talked about optimism being in people's capacity to salvage something from the shit that's dealt out to them. Is the same true here?

There is something about the salvaging. It doesn’t necessarily solve things for people in the long run, but in the stories you do find people who have developed quite private ways of filtering the world, or thinking about the world, or passing time in the world. I think those figures in the stories find a way of synthesising and responding to the world – surviving in their own ways – and there’s some optimism in that. And there’s love in the stories too. Comradeship. People find an intensity of connection to each other and find a way of sheltering one another from what’s going on outside that I think is optimistic.

More than that though, yes, I think the stories are often very bleak. They pile it on. At times I think they try to push the reader into a corner, where you might say, no, the world’s not like that, it might be bleak or brutal, but it’s not that bad. But I think that’s a performative turn on my part in the shape of some of the stories – they’re tragedies, where your feeling in the end is of injustice. And in this case, you’re not supposed to think that’s all alright, or to have your feelings played out cathartically, you’re supposed to say that’s really not okay.

On 4 December, Tim Etchells will be in conversation with Lara Pawson at The Broadway Bookshop, Broadway Market, London . Tim Etchells’ Endland is published by And Other Stories