Individualism and spending time alone is base-line normal for writers. We visit friends, we eat with people, we go to parties. But we work alone; get things going alone; get things done alone. Well, alone with our imaginary friends.
Sometimes this makes me sad. I look at the long lists of credits at the end of a film or TV series, and think: ‘All those people, working together. It must be… nice.’ I remember school plays — that was fun! And sailing — the co-operative joys of crewing, playing your part, not being in charge but contributing and making it happen. Restaurant kitchens! In-jokes! Office parties! Bands, music making! Well, I get a bit of that. But I’m a songwriter, not a musician, and that’s a different thing. More of an alone thing.
Friends talk of workmates, of office politics, of team triumphs, of how much they hate their boss or love the their fellow cast members. Of meetings (online meetings now, of course, I’m writing during the 2020 coronavirus lockdown). And I think: When did I last have a meeting? Or a team triumph? Or a workmate? I usually publish a book every two years. For a few weeks I have an editor. At publication some sociability kicks in. Otherwise — I can’t remember. When did I last do something, anything, for a purpose, with other people?
This was my situation last summer, before we were all required to put ourselves away from society. It bothered me. And then an opportunity arose. Extinction Rebellion was happening, all over the world but specially, for me, in London. I longed to get out there: to join the fray, to read in Trafalgar Square, maybe get arrested if need be — but I had broken my arm, and was recovering from surgery in which 14 pins fixed the bits of my shattered humerus to an 11-inch titanium plate. I wouldn’t be climbing any pink boats. I couldn’t go into a crowd. So, as writers do, I watched. And one thing I saw was the Reds.
The first time I saw them, I thought they were going to be embarrassing, like the living statues you see in tourist thoroughfares across the planet, with their tinfoil outfits and capacity to make a lot of us cross the road in a hurry. But they weren’t. They were… magical. Otherworldly. Ancient. Snaking lines of silent women, imperturbable, white-faced, black-eyed, crimson from head to foot. Clad like sacrificial maenads or blood-soaked pre-Raphaelite queens. Immutable.
Then my sister, who has many years of determined and inspired activism under her belt, arrived in town from Cornwall, carrying swathes of red cloth and long red gloves, and a headdress of veils and scarlet flowers. ‘Oh aye,’ I thought. ‘What’s going on here?’ It was the height of the uprising and they needed bodies. ‘You can have my body,’ I thought. ‘I will join in your body. I’ll be a platelet in this bloodstream of humanity.’
There were 72 of us on my first day out. We transformed ourselves in secret, from every kind of everyday woman (and men, though you might not notice) into a magical other multi-self. No longer individuals, we put on what might be called a group soul, becoming cells in a self-contained living column, gliding out into the city. We walk, two by two like lines of weird schoolchildren, matched and connected (my sister was my pair, protecting my damaged arm). We don’t rush. We don’t meet eyes. We don’t eat. We don’t drink. We don’t talk. We breathe deep and light. Our robes brush the pavement; our arms rise and fall like waves of wind in the branches of trees. We respond to invisible signs. Periodically we stop and huddle together to communicate; sometimes we draw together in a dramatic tableau, which we hold. Our effect can be, let’s face it, mesmerising.
We’re both reduced and augmented by our uniform appearance; we know the movements, and the form, fed by traditions from Greek choruses to Commeddia del Arte to the Japanese Dance of Death. We become greater than the sum of our parts. Crowds shift to let us through. Passers by giggle nervously, and point, or fall silent. Demonstrators cheer our arrival, calling out: ‘It’s the Reds!’ Children ask us on the Tube, ‘What are you? What are you? WHAT ARE YOU?’ and it is so hard not to tell them, but Reds are silent.
Imagine, 72 of us, in pairs, lined up on the escalator at Waterloo, descending, and rising again. There are so many cultural echoes: 72 Eurydices not looking back; 72 kinds of Orpheus braving the Underworld. Medea. TS Eliot.
We are not, it’s worth mentioning, the Red Brigade. They were violent anarchists in Italy in the 1970s. We are Red Rebels, or the Red Rebel Brigade, or Invisible Theatre, founded by Doug Francisco, in Bristol. Companion supporters walk with us, to explain us to the interested. We are witnesses. We represent life, the bloodstream of every living creature. We’re primordial and timeless. We’re not demonstrators, not arguers, not fighters. We stand by, and we watch. We sympathise and we forgive. We remember. We divert, where needed, and we unite. Where trouble threatens, we watch, which distracts. It’s a powerful thing, watching. The principles are strict, and strictly held to. In 2019, Reds spread across the world: there are Reds in Madrid and Berlin, the Netherlands and Sweden, the US, in India and Australia and Israel. We stood by Hunger Strikers, as they sat in the road and suffered. We bore silent witness as people were arrested. We stood in front of the shining palaces of arms dealers and oil companies: just stood. A mass of human forms, in red.
That first day was very long, exhausting, physically demanding, and it felt right. We were soaked by rain and it felt right. We were welcomed (by the Rebels at Marble Arch and elsewhere) and scorned (by the security guards at the British Museum, which closed for the day at the sight of us), and it felt right. We flowed. We were sort of disembodied, or perhaps re-embodied. It becomes meditative: you can’t break character; you can’t leave the zone. I had John Donne running through my mind: ‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.’ Side by side with my sister, part of a universal bloodstream of strangers, I can’t be me. I’m busy being part of this. I feel like an ant doing her duty as member of the ant hill; a bee in the hive. I like it.
Louisa Young is a novelist and songwriter based in London. Her latest book is You Left Early: A True Story of Love and Alcohol (Borough Press). More information about The Reds can be found on their Facebook page.
Photo of The Reds by Emma Myrtle Photography.