EXCLUSIVEArt in the Coronavirus CrisisWhen the Cows Come Home
Otto English is given exclusive access to an innovative new project to celebrate the best of British talent.
If you spend too much time in the nether regions of political Twitter, you come across some very curious things indeed.
Back in 2011, on a whim, I set up a fake Twitter account in the name of Jacob Rees-Mogg and quickly discovered that he had a band of devoted female followers who styled themselves the ‘Moggettes’. It turned out that I was disturbingly good at pretending to be Rees-Mogg and this presented a problem. Soon, amorous tweets were flying my way and no amount of denial could persuade them that I was not an Old Etonian MP, but a bloke in Lewisham making sh*t up.
In the years since, I confess that I’ve become a bit of a connoisseur of eccentric political fringe groups – which is how I first came across ‘Artists for Brexit’.
That movement was set up by a group of Leave-minded creatives – including Chloe Westley, then of the Taxpayers’ Alliance; and Lucy Harris, later a Brexit Party MEP. In the months following the 2016 EU Referendum, they would meet up in dingy rooms above Soho pubs and express their antipathy for the EU in ‘artistic’ form.
Poems, penned by members, would be interspersed with readings from the works of Kipling and performances of Andrew Lloyd-Webber arias. The group’s Twitter feed revealed them to be earnest, permanently piqued and almost entirely devoid of any humour. Soon after finding them, I became so enthralled by their Monty Pythonesque nature that I determined to infiltrate a meeting and crash the party.
Posing as an Australian poet called Mike Hunt, I went along to several of their meet-ups and even attended one of their summer picnics in Regent’s Park, where I delivered a heartfelt haiku on the evils of tariff-free trade to much applause.
And it was at that same event that I first met Ned. Ned was a frustrated songwriter and performer, advancing into his mid-30s, who had spent the previous five years touring Europe as ‘Ringo’ in a Beatles tribute band. Like many musicians past 20, he was beginning to sense that he had missed the boat on the whole pop stardom thing. We became quite friendly – a difficult balancing act when you’re undercover and spent several nights in the pub talking about Nick Drake, while trying to keep a faux Aussie accent in order.
Ned believed passionately in the Brexit cause. The EU was a conspiracy against folk music; a dastardly plot to replace English pop with synth-generated Italian dance music. Foreign singer-songwriters were pushing indigenous folk singers out of the big and mid-sized venues and only by taking back control would there be a resurgence of the British folk music scene. Ned had a range of interests that included AI, Elon Musk and the blogs of Dominic Cummings.
He was a nice guy and, despite having some really weird opinions, I felt a bit sorry for him.
Once my story about Artists for Brexit had been filed, I had nothing more to do with the group. As I had never identified myself in the article, I didn’t know if they had ever worked out if it was me or not and I never signed into the email account I’d set up in Mike Hunt’s name. But, in mid-December 2019, with Boris Johnson recently re-elected as Prime Minister, I checked in, curious to see what they were up to, and saw a message from Ned.
“Hi Mike, long time no see etc. not sure if you’re still in UK or back in Adelaide – anyway wondering if you could give me a ring/WhatsApp because I’d love to chat to you about a project – cheers Ned.”
I felt conflicted. Could I be bothered to pretend to be an Adelaide-born milliner, with a passion for the works of William McGonagall again? On the other hand, and in all truth, I quite liked Ned and perhaps something useful might come of it. So I said yes and a week later we met in a pub in Southwark, just up from the Playhouse.
A Crazy Cat Fighting the Bureaucrats
He looked different. Gone were the faux punk T-shirts and cheap trainers. Ned had lost weight and was wearing low slung jeans, a beanie hat and an expensive looking puffa jacket. Unusually, he offered to get the drinks in.
“You’ve gone English!” He declared as we sat down and ripped open our nuts.
“I’ve been here too long!” I said, kicking myself for letting the Aussie twang drop.
And then, after a few more pleasantries, Ned told me about the project.
Earlier in the year, he’d reluctantly gone along to watch a performance of the musical Hamilton and been blown away. Most of all, he was struck by the parallels with Brexit. In both cases, idealistic revolutionaries had taken on a mighty and unaccountable Empire and, in both cases, the small guy had won through and brought the establishment down.
“Here,” Ned said pushing an earphone towards me. “I’ve been working on it ever since – listen.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. A drum and bass telling of the story of a working-class guy from Durham called ‘Dominic Cummings’ who rose up to overthrow the establishment.
“You wait you motherf***ers, you see what Dom man do / I’m taking back control, for me and him and even little you / They say I’m mad, it ain’t allowed I’m just some crazy cat / But I’m freein UK from Brussels and the unaccountable bureaucrats!”
Ned studied me carefully as I listened and, once I’d removed the earphones, asked me what I thought. I didn’t quite know what to say and mumbled something along the lines of “very good” and “really lovely tune”.
And then he hit me with it.
“Remember Lucy Harris? She knows Dom and I’ve been Snapchatting him and he’s agreed to let me use his blogs as the basis for the libretto. Turns out his passion is musical theatre and he once played Tony in West Side Story. So I can do the music but I really need someone to hone the lyrics. And I heard your haiku in the park that time and, well, we can pay you.”
I politely declined and suggested, cheekily perhaps, that he might like to ask Cummings to co-author it instead.
We parted on good terms and I asked him to keep me up-to-date on what happened next. Then the whole Coronavirus thing happened and I forgot entirely about it.
Until yesterday, when an email popped into my inbox from Ned:
Thanks for turning me down. Seems it’s the best thing that could have happened. Dom’s now decided he wants to do it after all. We’re calling it ‘Hello Dommy’ and it opens at the Donmar Warehouse in September. There’s even going to be a chorus of people dressed as cows singing about the benefits of herd immunity – you know like they did with Cats – but with cows.
This might, of course, be nothing more than a cunning plot to get us all to stay inside longer – but I for one won’t be taking any chances.