Since I didn’t really care very much for the institution, a degree of pretence was called for. Many readers will find these observations rather commonplace. I can only further observe that, largely as a consequence of a twenty year spell of writing and, initially, performing with Lumiere & Son Theatre Company, I had become sequestered from the experience of workaday subjugation.
Anyway, for five years I went into shock and didn’t write a thing. One day an affable colleague in charge of ‘research’ asked me how my research was going. I had no idea what he was talking about. I saw myself as an ex-theatre writer and, most recently, journalist. I didn’t do research, that was something my father, a biochemist, did. I told my colleague this, I insisted I was a journalist. His face fell. You have to do research at universities or else your department doesn’t get enough money the following year. As a result, a great deal of research material of no great use or importance is generated. Rather like the Dutch government, which used to buy artists’ work off them to give them a living then put it in storage, universities maintain libraries in which a lot of nicely bound research outcomes sit, unbothered by human contact.
I told my colleague that I had just done a programme for BBC Radio 4, in which I had interviewed a number of writers and commentators about their view of the future. ‘That’s national exposure!’ he cried. ‘Is there a book in it?’ What do you mean? ‘You could publish the interviews in a book, couldn’t you?’ Not one that people would wish to read, I thought. Yes, I said.
So began the promotion of a piece of radio journalism into a fund-worthy venture that eventually, thanks to the system-savvy persistence of my colleague, generated a sum of money large enough to mount a play. I had tagged the notion of writing a play onto my application, recognising that I had just been offered a way back into doing what I do best. The book fell by the wayside, politely declined by publishers who knew that few would wish to read it.
Despite my feeling that employment was synonymous with the end of art, I had been making notes for a show that I imagined I would put on one day, whenever circumstance delivered me from the day job. I wanted to present a succession of non-narrative scenes that examined aspects of contemporary hysteria. Blessed with a profound atheism for as long as I can remember, I found myself increasingly fascinated, as the Millennium approached, by the persistence of irrational beliefs in an age that boasted of its technologised victory over nature and superstition. I was bored with reading about UFO abductees and accounts of the interesting past lives of the currently dull, however, and more concerned with the extent to which everyday transactions were suffused with a vagueness that was justified as a form of spirituality.
In the programme for the show, which opened at the Festival of British Visual Theatre on the South Bank in October 1999, I laid out some of the ideas that I wanted the play to articulate.