A report almost hidden in the middle of The Times on 18th September left me somewhat bewildered. The Environment Agency says it cannot protect all of the UK’s coastline as sea-levels rise: rather than being protected by ever-larger sea-walls, some communities may face “difficult choices such as managed retreat”. OK so far: harsh, certainly, but perhaps realistic.
So how do you communicate that bad news and help the inhabitants of those parts that cannot be saved to deal with it? The Agency has the answer. It proposes using the arts: stories, role-playing games, even parades. Indeed, it says, when Yorkshire’s Calderdale was flooded in 2015, a “people’s opera”, Calderland, was devised to celebrate the community’s stoic response.
There’s the model, then. Now, I yield to no one in my belief in the power of the performing arts to enrich and even change lives. But I confess: I did scoff. Then I remembered that I once wrote a stage musical about rising sea-levels and the chaos that might ensure. Staged in 2012 at Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School (by an amazing cast aged 13-18 who put the whole show together in a couple of weeks), my piece Flotsam is set in a dystopian near-future where fossil fuels have run out, the economy has collapsed and rising sea-levels have destroyed towns and cities across England’s Eastern lowlands.
An ambitious regional politician sees his chance to bring order from chaos, his undoubtedly charismatic speeches drawn from the most banal platitudes of former PMs Cameron and Blair respectively: “we’re all in this together”, “we’ve got to roll our sleeves up and get on with it”, and “it’s time to give a hard edge to goodness”. While the politician struts and spouts, shady businesspeople see the chance to make quick fortunes from the rebuilding and regeneration.
And, while some people accumulate power and wealth, others, helpless in the wake of societal breakdown, are left bereft and struggling to survive. Not least among these are parentless children scratching a kind of survival on the streets, hiding down drains in terror of the functionaries of authority and commerce to whom they are an embarrassment and a barrier to redevelopment and profit: that most sinister aspect was inspired by research I read into the dangers and misery endured by the street-children in Rio in the 1990s, who frequently fell victim to the death squads of Brazilian mega-business determined to “clean up the streets”.
Years before Greta Thunberg and Extinct Rebellion, then, Flotsam sounded a warning of the consequences of global warming and destruction of the planet. Prophetically, its first performance took place just two days after the school itself was hit by the serious floods that swept through Newcastle in June 2012.
Flotsam proved a pretty successful show. It has a worthwhile message, which still has relevance: so if anyone with the necessary resources and energy fancies reviving it, just get in touch! But did the musical change the world? Of course not.
I like to think Flotsam has a good storyline, with strong characterisation. But I’m quite sure it didn’t make anyone go home, tear out their gas-boiler and order an zero-emission electric car the next day. I hope it stimulated thought: but a stage-show’s primary purpose must be to entertain. Drama shouldn’t preach or proselytise. When it tries to (which it does too frequently, alas), it rapidly becomes tedious.
In the end, then, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the Environment Agency advising that the arts can be used to help people come to terms with impending loss or trauma caused by the inexorable rise of the sea.
Nonetheless, if I lived in Skegness (which “would be lost”) or Lincolnshire (which “would revert to marsh”), I’d be pretty disappointed in the Agency. I’d have been hoping for a rather grander Grand Plan than a proposed artsfest. In short, rather than government expending resources to help my town or village to put on an opera, I reckon I’d prefer it to provide several million tonnes of concrete, strategically positioned. Then we could sing the opera – safe behind a high sea-wall.