Jerusalem: Synecdoches of modern England? Adam Johnson and the EU referendum in Butterworth’s Jerusalem

I accept that the title of this stimulus owes much to my wish to get students to stop and have a look, but there is reason in my madness…  (NB in no way a model essay for regurgitation – food for thought and discussion.).


In the new OCR English Literature paper 2, the focus is on contexts. In a play which poses a moral maze around the relationship between the drug dealing “troll at the end of your garden” and the 15 year old “fairy”, Phaedra Cox, the search for contextual comment treads paths that are well covered. I want to be sure that students engage with the text as a living document, so recent context must be considered.


On the question of the paedophilic relationship perceived by the villagers between Johnny and Phaedra, Mr Johnson’s recent court case gives an interesting shade and a resonance more recent and closer to the students than that of Jimmy Saville and other shocking cases of abuse from the past. Students will often recognize the fact that in the 21st Century, the perception of society is likely to see abusive behavior in many situations where none exists. It is hard to imagine the beautiful innocence of Goodnight Mr Tom occurring in the 21st century without someone, or some group raising the issue of the appropriateness of the relationship in the first place. In many cases the fear is justified, but the perception of guilt is tangible and is probably being used by Troy to cover the fact that, as in most cases the abuser is well known to his victim and is often a family member. We should not overlook this when investigating the nature of the abusive relationship which encircles Phaedra.

The play can be said to present an image of modern England. The image is not comfortable, however – the Dark Satanic Mills of our new Jerusalem seem to be comprised of drug, alcohol and sexual abuse. The villagers are retreating into the Little England network of NIMBYISM and suspicion. Against this, Johnny is seen as the outsider, the scapegoat and a convenient carrier for the prejudices and fears of the village. In the Adam Johnson case we see similarities with Butterworth’s fiction: both girls are 15 and victims of a predator in a position of power. The attraction for the predator is made clear in the Werewolf song which Butterworth uses in Act 2: the idea is clear –the predator knows he is in the wrong and hates himself for passions which he cannot control. Whether or not students then relate this idea to Johnny or Troy, there is no doubt in my mind that the predatory figure should be charismatic and allow the victim a perverted sense of self-worth, albeit for a short period. It is not that Johnson is a better example than Harris or Saville or numerous other predatory abusers who have preyed on young girls in recent times, he is the latest example – an example which shows the endless unfolding of relevance of a play such as this.

Whilst I expect it will be quite a time before anyone challenges Mark Rylance’s portrayal of Byron on the West End stage , the play must be allowed to continue to develop its own contextual worth – for students confused by this, imagine a situation in a few years which sees the legalization of cannabis. Once this is the norm, a major strand of Johnny’s terror fr the village is diuted. Yes his drugs are harder than this (assuming they aren’t the toilet soap of which he is accused by Wesley) , but the fear of drugs per se will have been eroded somewhat by this action. Times change and plays are seen in new and often revelatory lights as they grow.


When this play was performed in London, the Dale Farm evictions were the major news story which allowed a point of connection between the audience and the idea of the persecuted traveller in his pastoral glade who faced a violent eviction by a small army of police led by the self-important jobsworth: Fawcett.


Today’s students can learn about this, but I suspect the major relevance in many minds is the situation relating to asylum seekers, particularly those being evicted from the Calais Jungle this week. From this, I want to suggest a useful contextual synecdoche in the Points West discussion in Act 2 of the play. Davey introduces the idea that leaving North Wiltshire makes him unwell – the Berkshire county boundary becomes almost as physical a boundary as the English Channel. Inspired humour is than derived from a discussion of the nature of local news and local disasters. For these young people, the world ends at a notional boundary around 40 miles from Flintock. Anything else has no relevance for them and should be ignored – a genuine disaster in Cardiff has no relevance since it is not local. I suggest that this attitude reflects in a small way, the much larger xenophobia envinced by many who wish to rush to leave the EU and even, seen in a letter in the Telegraph, to close the Channel Tunnel as a means of raising the drawbridge of Castle England and to keep undesirables out of our country. The inhabitants of Flintock/England do not look beyond their boundaries. Today the question is raised in the press about refugees currently held in France as part of the arrangements between UK and France under which France allows the UK border to begin on their sovereign soil. Remove this arrangement – and why would France wish to keep it if we withdraw from the EU and the refugees will not be stopped until they arrive in the UK itself. Once on our island, the problem becomes peculiarly English. The hypocrisy becomes clear when we see spokesmen seeking both to leave the EU and to retain the arrangement by which the refugees are France’s problem. Our band of “lost boys” want to withdraw into their world and not be bothered by matters from outside their realm. In the village, the villagers clamour to remove the unwanted eyesore who reminds them of their own hypocrisy and their moral weaknesses, much as many in Europe wish to turn away from those in real need not only in our country but travelling from distant lands.


England has a long history of Xenophobia and a pugnacious approach to diplomacy. This is seen clearly in the attitude of the Kennet and Avon council and their “puritan” attitude to difference and obstruction to financial gain. They have laid claim to the forest much as their forebears claimed swathes of the globe in the pursuit of financial reward over the centuries and one obstacle stands in their way.  He will be removed unless… I hope his final prayer brings him reward.