And While London Burns

They’re everywhere. In everything we do.

It’s impossible to imagine the last 150 years of humanity’s growth and development without them.

But now we know we urgently need to get off fossil fuels.

This is probably the biggest challenge humankind has ever faced.

I walk to Bank from Liverpool St. It’s lunchtime and the streets are busy. I’m not enjoying being in London. Too many people. Too many people I don’t know and who don’t know me.

I put my headphones in and press play on my mp3 player. A voice calmly introduces the tour. The pressure lifts. I feel like I’ve been granted permission to stand still and look.


A kind female voice introduces herself as my guide. Then I meet Gregory. He’s in crisis. His sperm count is low. His relationship is over. He has fundamental concerns about the ethics of his work. He can’t face going back to his desk.

John Jordan & James Marriot’s And While London Burns draws on the work of arts and activism organisation Platform’s research into the fossil fuel economy, perhaps best shown in picture form as the carbon web (click for large image)


There have always been issues with fossil fuels. Platform has been working to draw attention to the social and environmental impacts of the global fossil fuel industry for more than two decades.1 And now, of course, there’s climate change. 2

Are we still working through the difficulty of talking about climate change as a society? I’m too immersed to gauge with any certainty. Coverage like the Guardian’s recent series can only be a good thing. But climate psychologist Ro Randall is concerned it’s still the kind of subject to avoid in polite company. She discusses the kinds of feelings climate change can invoke – anxiety, guilt, powerlessness, shame & fear of loss – as the basis for its potential to be taboo.

I think it’s important that audiences feel safe and supported when artistic responses to climate change raise these spectres. This is both an ideological and an aesthetic consideration. I felt AWLB has been put together with a great deal of care for the audience member. I was pleased.

I also think it’s vital to find inspiring ways to tell the story about the huge climate challenge we and future generations face. For me AWLB succeeded in this respect also. I don’t want to spoil the ending – for me it was a wonderful surprise – but I will say that it left me with a sense of hope and purpose.

Another potential pitfall issue-driven work needs to avoid is preaching. I think the layered presentation, with the two main voices supported by others as well as the score and passages of song, is one of the things that helped ensure this never became a major issue in AWLB. It also seems important that the piece left space for reflection at various points. I guess one way to describe the experience of being preached at is feeling that a particular view is being imposed to the point where one’s own flow of thoughts is suppressed. It’s usually not an enjoyable experience even when one agrees with the point of view that’s being imposed.

But I think the key factor in the dramatic success of the piece is the conflict going on inside Gregory. On one level this conflict is pretty straightforward. He works in fossil fuel finance. He hates it but it pays his wage. But the internal conflict becomes richer as we find out more. He met his former partner at an environmental impact seminar. She quit her city job to start a low-impact life far away from London – that’s when they broke up. In fact over the course of the piece we find that he’s working up the courage to do the same. In the 70 minutes we share with him he finds that courage. It’s a big part of how the feeling of hope and purpose develops.

AWLB bills itself as a “compelling collision of thriller, opera and guided walk”. Wary as I am of marketing blurb I can only agree. It works on multiple levels. The score sets the mood of the piece. Gregory’s story draws us in. And all the while we’re on the move, looking at the institutions which control the flow of money and oil around the world, walking between the points on Platform’s carbon web, becoming aware of the way those flows are embodied in public and private space in the square mile.

I’m very interested in forms which cast the audience member as an active participant as opposed to a passive spectator. I’m interested in creating opportunities for audience members to discover agency. I’m interested in work that is actively a part of the solution to the problem it’s addressing. In my view AWLB achieves all these things.

I thoroughly recommend it. Especially if you work in the square mile.

Did I mention that it’s free?


2 A key debate in terms of fossil fuels and climate change is about stranded assets aka the carbon bubble. The Carbon Tracker initiative is usually credited with initiating the discussion about stranded assets with two reports published in 2011 and 2013. The key finding of these reports is that somewhere between 60-80% of coal, oil and gas reserves of publicly listed companies are unburnable if the world is to have a chance of not exceeding the nominal ‘safe’ target of 2°C global warming.

Fossil fuel companies are ignoring this issue. When pressed they argue that the way of life to which we’ve become accustomed is going to need fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. They’ve also refuted the idea that the government will put policies in place to keep that amount of fuel in the ground.

The stranded assets argument is steadily gaining traction. Institutions like the Bank of England agree it’s a real problem. The divestment movement which continues to gain momentum around the world is also highlighting this issue. Divest from fossil fuels for ethical reasons if you like, but getting out of these investments increasingly looks like a prudent approach to managing risk.

On the other hand huge government subsidies for fossil fuels continue


About hughchapmansblog

Poet and performance maker based in Cambridge and London

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