‘We’ve found four times more headstones than expected,” the archaeologist tells me. What, I ask, are they going to do with them? “Some people have suggested we turn them into paving stones,” she says. “Which we don’t want to do, because we all know when headstones were last used as paving stones, don’t we?”
I don’t. What is she referring to? “Auschwitz.”
It’s January 2018, and I’m at a community meeting held by High Speed Rail 2. We’re just around the corner from the venue I co-run, Camden People’s theatre. The archaeologist is working on the exhumation of bodies at St James’ Gardens, the local park (and former burial ground) closed by HS2 to make way for their new Euston station.
It was when one of HS2’s archaeologists volunteered an analogy with the greatest crime in world history that I knew there was a show in that exhumation (the biggest, I’m told, in European history) and in HS2’s sledgehammer impact on the Euston community. In the 18 months since, I’ve been making it – with the help of that community, and latterly, a team of crack CPT artists. It’s called Human Jam after a poem Thomas Hardy wrote about his experience displacing the dead at nearby St Pancras.
I’ve been working at CPT for seven years, and over that time, HS2 – the government’s controversial new railway from London to Birmingham (and beyond?) – has loomed ever more ominously over the area. People know the line threatens sites of natural beauty in the Chilterns. Not as many know that 80% of the demolition required is taking place in the London Borough of Camden. Hotels, pubs and schools have been closed, while well-loved Drummond Street – the “home of British curry” – gets its end lopped off by the new Euston station.
And then there’s St James’ Gardens, whose 100 pollution-busting London plane trees have all been felled. HS2 offered a sop to bereft locals by constructing on a corner of the vanished park a temporary “community pop-up garden”. In a skip.
The theatre has not been immune to the turmoil. For a while, our upper floors were earmarked for development to rehouse residents evicted from a nearby housing estate. We took part in a petition to parliament compelling HS2 to establish a fund to alleviate its disruptive effects – and later accepted money from that fund.
When we decided to make a show about the railway’s local impact, we knew we wanted to amplify the voice of our beleaguered community, fighting for their lives against a project with a budget now spiralling to £100bn. Residents were being turfed out of their homes, but recompense was not forthcoming. Locals feel overlooked and unheard, despite the heroic efforts of a vicar, among others, who popped up on TV news last year when she chained herself to a condemned tree outside Euston station. (She also let us record her sonorous church organ for use in the sound design of our show.)
We wanted to dig deep into the unanswered questions surrounding HS2 in Euston. If this is Europe’s biggest current infrastructure project, why are the arguments for it so weak and widely contested? Why must it terminate in Euston when the alternative – Old Oak Common in west London – is easier to reach and better connected? And why can I not stop thinking about the disinterring of 63,000 bodies from our local park?
By way of research, I volunteered last summer on a gravestone recording project at St James’ Gardens – HS2 community engagement in practice. But the engagement had strict parameters. We weren’t allowed to take photos, or even written notes. We could ask questions of the archaeologists on site – but they weren’t allowed to answer us. Our job was to wash the headstones, decipher their inscriptions and log the data. I spent two days on my knees with a wire brush and a bucket of muddy water, peering into long eroded grooves in the granite, trying to work out who was dearly departed, in whose blessed memory these stones once stood.
It was an oddly moving experience, a rubber-gloved act of communion with the dead – cut short when the headstones were then bundled off on forklift trucks. It convinced me that our show should bring those dead back to life. There’s certainly no shortage of dramatis personae to choose from. Under the gardens, once you get past the rat colonies (now dispersed around our neighbourhood) and the addicts’ needles, lie Lord George Gordon, ringleader of the biggest urban riots in UK history, the Gordon Riots; Bill Richmond, the US slave turned boxer and “Britain’s first black sporting superstar”; James Christie, founder of the auction house; and the first man to circumnavigate Australia, Matthew Flinders, the discovery of whose remains in January 2019 made news bulletins worldwide.
There are women down there, too; their glaring absence from the historical record is a playful feature of our show. The churchyard was also the last resting place of many a subjugator of India – which is interesting, given that modern Euston is known for its south Asian population, at least for now.
I volunteered on another project, the so-called Euston History Engine, which involved recording the local environment with a 3D mobile mapping gizmo called a “geo-slam”. (Our guide Paul introduced himself as “one of the three standup comedian/archaeologists in the UK”, and was nonplussed to discover the Guardian’s comedy critic among his volunteers.) Its recordings of Euston and surrounds – a cat’s cradle of geometric orange and pink lines – were duly uploaded to a computer at the Museum of London Archaeology’s HQ, where they will survive for posterity while, back in the real world, our neighbourhood is razed and rebuilt.
Also at MOLA’s HQ, piles upon piles of lidded cardboard boxes, each with a yellow sticky attached; “human skeleton” scribbled in marker pen. This may be what’s in store for the St James’ Gardens dead, each of whom must (by church diktat) be disinterred by hand and reburied in a box as big as the biggest human bone – which is the thigh bone. At every turn, the dead seemed to be buttonholing me, asking for their stories to be told. What would a show look like that spoke up for both Euston’s displaced living and its displaced dead? In March this year, we invited local people to join our company, share their HS2 experiences on stage – and to write and sing songs, including some by the 18th-century radical Thomas Spence, who was buried in the gardens.
The first Englishman to use the phrase “the rights of man”, Spence was an enthusiastic protest-song writer and a lifelong campaigner against the private ownership of land. Some see HS2 in Euston as first and foremost a land grab, by which private interests seize some prime – and underdeveloped, as they might see it – real estate in central London. The master development partner is the corporate giant Lendlease. HS2 has overseen the biggest land and property acquisition programme in Britain since the second world war.
Our production begins as docu-theatre, then pitches into beyond-the-grave fantasy. It reanimates Spence; as anyone who read the Guardian’s recent expose of English land ownership will know, we need him more than ever. It propels him out of his coffin and into the thick of Euston’s rearguard action against HS2. It tests the relevance of his Regency-era revolutionary zeal to the defeatist politics of 21st-century urban development. It has him channel the voices of the co-mingled dead (Hardy’s “late-lamented resting here / All mixed to human jam”) and whip up a musical storm. “Sing and meet, meet and sing,” he comes to teach us, “and our chains will drop off like burnt thread.”
Some will doubt it’s that simple. Can art effect social change? Can theatre stop or re-orient HS2? Well, probably not – although CPT’s last in-house production, Fog Everywhere (it was about London air pollution), did prompt Camden council to become the UK’s first local authority to adopt WHO standard on air quality.
We may never scale those peaks of political influence again. But with Human Jam – on which I’ve collaborated with artists including the performer Shamira Turner (of Little Bulb fame), the writer and theatre-maker Annie Siddons, and the songwriter Tom Adams – we can at least amplify the voices of a community that’s been frustrated and ignored. We can imagine what the dead of St James’ Gardens would make of their gruesome upheaval – and celebrate the ties that, across the centuries, bind the one to the other. As HS2, Lendlease and the rest threaten to change our neighbourhood for ever, that feels to me well worth doing.