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What does it mean to be English?

Billy Bragg and Mick Gordon
Billy Bragg and playwright Mick Gordon

By Nicola Stanbridge
Today Programme reporter

Billy Bragg is a musician and an activist. Notably he fronted Red Wedge, a collective of musicians trying to get young voters interested in politics in the run up to the 1987 general election with the aim of ousting Margaret Thatcher.

In between campaigning with Hope not Hate, an anti-BNP organisation, the Bard of Barking's latest project looks at what it means to be English.

Based on his writing and music it explores the issues of race and identity in the run up to the general election. Pressure Drop examines three generations of a white, working-class English family and their anxieties about immigration.

Actor Michael Gould plays a working man in his forties who voices concerns about people's perceptions of the working class:

"People used to be proud of us," his character complains. "The working people, they used to be proud. But now, we're not even acknowledged. It's like we don't exist.

Billy Bragg
Billy Bragg came into prominence in 1980s

"We've become an embarrassment. Worse, an insult, that's what we've become, John, an insult. But the thing is, the problem is we do exist. We do exist right here, right now. And we need some help."

The play climaxes with a racist attack, based on a real incident after an England football match and described by Billy Bragg: "An Afghan lad was stabbed. They left an England flag on top of him."

Although he himself has moved to Dorset, Bragg's mother and brothers still live in the borough, now without the Ford car plant and coping with globalisation and immigration.

'Activist and artist'

"The car factory's gone. Immigration - the ability of people to move where the work is has changed the face of the borough... incredible change in a short amount of time. For people like my mum who's lived there all of her life that change is highly visible," he says.

Pressure Drop portrays such feelings of confusion. They are voiced by a grandmother in her seventies:

"Do you know what came through the door yesterday? Something from a witch doctor. A witch doctor? I just don't know any more. I'm starting not to recognise the place."

Billy Bragg says that his own mother had a very similar experience, getting a leaflet trough the letterbox offering her to cast spells to improve her love life and to make her richer.

He would not stand for election himself, though. He sees himself only as an activist.

There's freedom in music, John, a movement of style and cultures
From the play 'Pressure Drop'

"I think you can be an activist and an artist. I don't think you can be a politician and an artist... People are confusing me with Esther Rantzen."

Playwright Mick Gordon explores the question of identity and the music listened to by the characters in the play.

The play's title "Pressure Drop" means we hear versions of that well known track by Toots & the Maytals, one of the best known ska and reggae Jamaican vocal groups, and The Clash.

Playwright Mick Gordon feels the music "working class, white, right wing people in Pressure Drop listen to has its roots in Jamaican reggae. It has it's musical DNA in a culture that they criticise."

One character in the play describes how music can be liberating:

"There's a freedom in music, John, a movement of style and cultures. Borrowing and re-inventing, connecting, re-defining, all at the same time. If only we could learn from it's fluidity, the world would be a calmer place."

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