A view of the stage at Factory exhibition centre, taken from the rear of the cowd and looking up at banners with activist messages. The room is dimly-lit in a purple hue.

“Cancel your sodding Netflix account and start doing things together”, says Brian Eno

How can we face up to the challenges of the twenty-first century? How do we make the world safer, fairer and better for those we love and the place we call home?

Late last month, Manchester played host to a four-day event centred around these questions, to bring people together for a “celebration of collaboration and imagination” in the face of the world’s biggest challenges, from environmental injustice to the democratic deficit. 

The Fête of Britain, held at Factory International’s Aviva Studios, playfully highlighted these issues with contributions from artists, activists and the public (with much overlap between these groups), across four days of talks, performance, exhibitions and workshops.

At one point, Jarvis Cocker delivers a PowerPoint presentation chronicling his struggle with ‘biophobia’ (fear of nature), while earlier in the weekend, apoplectic comedy character Jonathan Pie rants his way through the “useless bunch of bastards” who have run the country during his lifetime, from Thatcher to Sunak, repeating a refrain of ”this is not normal” in relation to the revolving door of leaders the country has seen in recent years.

This dissatisfaction is mirrored in attendees’ responses to an interactive installation asking questions including “are you proud of the UK?”, and “do you currently feel represented by any political party?” – spoiler alert – most people answer ‘no’. 

“Our politics is men shouting at each other in a 300-year-old building, while the rest of us wonder why we can’t behave like that at work and not risk getting sacked,” says Saffron, a participant, addressing the Fête of Britain as part of the festival’s political speech-making workshop.

“It is all performance. It is faux debate, because regardless of whether you are wearing a blue or a red tie your interests are still the same. It’s all lip service, a brilliant piece of theatre, and it is very, very disappointing.”

As an alternative to this bleak picture, Saffron invites us to imagine “how prioritising empathy could impact our collective wellbeing, how compassion and understanding could create supportive social structures, how social justice and joy could become part of our political apparatus – this would be a brave new world indeed.”

For the majority of its programme, the Fête of Britain offered spaces for us to do just that – imagine what this new world might look like. 

In a discussion on myths and narratives, writer John Higgs urged us to “look into the heart of” the prevailing myths and narratives around British identity, those traditionally tied up in monarchy and aristocracy, highlighting a need for new stories everybody can connect with. 

“The story of Britain is the story of every single person who has been on these islands. It’s huge, and it’s vast, and so multifaceted that you have to sort of take a shortcut, to turn it into a story.

“And the one [that has been] handed down is awful – sort of ‘Downton Abbey’. We can come up with much, much better ones than that. They’ll probably be personal to us, but hopefully, they’ll overlap enough, so they’ll all connect with each other.”

The Fête of Britain is in itself an attempt to take a new twist on national narratives, seen in its use of the ‘Union Jill’ flag on its flyers – a protest symbol expressing both love for the country as well as an urgent need for change. 

Alongside the discussion of big ideas like democracy and identity, the Fête of Britain also showcased practical examples and inspiration from communities putting these concepts into practice, both locally and further afield. 

Stockport-based Starting Point Community Learning Partnership led a session on digital inclusion, Shared Future CIC ran a “bluffer’s guide” to citizens’ assemblies and Manchester Disabled People Against Cuts hosted a presentation about the campaigning work they are doing, as well as a panel discussion and afterparty. 

Elsewhere in the programme, Curators of Change hosted a moving session on mental health services and learning from lived experiences, while the Empathy Museum provided opportunities for people to leave a message at the ‘Ear of Britain’ and (literally) walk a mile in someone else’s shoes while listening to their story.

And this is just a fraction of what went on over the four days. Poetry, performed on-stage and co-created on cardboard; music, from bass culture to community choirs; and visual art, in the form of banners and placards, filled the space, making clear the connection between art and activism.

Hard Art, the team behind the Fête of Britain, is a collective of creatives with connections to climate and democracy movements. Their work aims to “psychically prepare people to live in a radically different future, and to popularise alternative forms of democracy (such as citizen’s assemblies) that we desperately need to upgrade our broken politics”. 

“We all know the world is in crisis,” said Clare Farrell, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion and member of Hard Art.

“We’re great believers in empowering and enabling people to know that together we can deal with it. The Fête of Britain is all about showing that we have faith in people, that when we come together we make better decisions than politicians.” 

So what next for the Fête of Britain?

Alex Lockwood, one of the event’s organisers and member of Hard Art collective, told The Meteor:

“The Fête of Britain was the launch of something that we hope is going to be massive over the next year or two, in terms of really transforming our relationship as a community of British people to politics – not waiting for politicians to give us permission to take control of our communities and fix things, repair things, provide things, but actually getting on with it ourselves.”

Alex says that the intention is for the Fête of Britain to spread across the country, though it’s unknown exactly what this will look like.  

“It may be in other festivals, it might be through tours, it may be through connecting local grassroots communities with cultural figures to think about, talk about, experience what the fate of Britain needs to be, and how we get to decide it.”

A key theme running through the festival was participation, and that ‘if we can do it, so can you’.

One of Hard Art’s central conveners, musician and activist Brian Eno, closed the Fête of Britain by urging those present to “cancel your sodding Netflix account” and “start doing things together”. 

“We don’t need all this super-polished shit from Hollywood. Get into the mess of real life, of doing things with your friends – sometimes making a mess of it, and sometimes producing something beautiful.”

Above all, says Alex, this event, and whatever comes out of it next, intends to show people that “the future is in our hands – the fate of Britain is in our hands.”

You can download Hard Art’s manifesto, ‘The Work WE Need to Do’, here, and sign up to hear more from them here.

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All images: Alice Toomer-McAlpine

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  • Alice Toomer-McAlpine

    Co-founder and Co-editor of The Meteor, Alice is a community worker and journalist from Manchester who works across a range of roles including youth work, community organising, video production and creative documentation of non-profit projects. Alice is interested in how the stories we create and share shape the world we live in, and how communities can take ownership of their stories and build trust with local independent media to build collective power.


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