a magical mystery tour of modern Britain

One of the weirder aspects of lockdown for me was what I considered to be “defragmenting” my brain. With so much less to do, so much fewer fresh memories to process, some sort of mental disk utility seemed to spool up, intent on sorting through the inefficient chunks of data scattered around my skull. My nights began to be populated by faces I hadn’t seen in years; Long-buried side memories reappeared at random. My dreams took on a kaleidoscopic quality of reflection and recomposition, especially in the half-asleep morning. Trapped in stasis, my mind decided to create its own novelty: flow and blink through old files to transform the familiar contents of my memory into strange new matter.

I had forgotten about the defragmentation process until Will Ashon’s uncategorizable The Passengers brought it back to me. Part oral history, part found poetry, his book uses the voices of ordinary Britons to paint a picture of the nation in a time with a unique perspective. It is both a deeply mundane book – the mundane, as you hear it in the words of people you meet at every bus stop, pub or supermarket – and an extraordinary one. Choral, polyphonic, symphonic, its evocation of present-day Britain had, for me, the particular flavor of those lockdown dreams: an endlessly odd journey through the familiar.

The closest to Ashon’s methodology in contemporary writing is the form of oral history developed by Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievitch. Like the Belarusian’s stories of Soviet and post-Soviet life, Passengers is formed, edited and arranged from other people’s words. Unlike Alexievitch, however, Ashon does not create a story of a specific moment or phenomenon, but rather a record of the unfocused normal in all its randomness.

With Agnès Varda’s statement that ‘chance has always been my best assistant’, The Passengers is inherently random, its interviews were won by hitchhiking, word of mouth and sending letters to random addresses between October 2018 and March 2021. The result is a shattered mirror : 180 fragments, ranging from a single line to a few pages, which together form a multi-faceted reflection of contemporary life on these islands.

“It’s almost like a jigsaw puzzle,” one interviewee suggests, “it doesn’t say anything about a specific time in history, but it’s like a construction of that time.” Another more colloquially puts the finger on the mosaic quality: “It looks looks like it’s wobbly. The ground looks like it’s shaking.”

The risk of describing the architecture of The Passengers in this way is making it sound aloof. It really isn’t. Ashon – with a background in music journalism and two novels and a book about the ‘strange labyrinth’ of the Eppingen Forest – has created a book that is as readable as it is strange. And as the founder of underground label Big Dada, he has a keen ear for a writing process that has as much in common with hip-hop sampling as it does with Eliotean high modernity. In just a few hundred words we hear his correspondents insane strands of thought that no author could invent.

Beginning with his decision not to fly home from New York a day early, on September 10, 2001, you go through the “car crash in slow motion” of British politics before discussing an alternative life as a bodybuilder with “a replica Tudor -semi-trailer” fantasizes somewhere and lots of medals in mint condition [… and] a body oil endorsement”. By the end of the next page, he’s covered the poop sizes of dogs big and small, the mildness of Ikea, and his fear of neutrality before proclaiming, “I still feel hope in my heart.”

While Ashon refuses to soften reality, that hope is an ongoing theme. Although the interviewees describe the darkness of their lives – from poverty, homelessness and drug abuse to police violence and the brutal purgatory in migrant detention centers – this is at last a hopeful and compassionate book. It seems to be all about the kind of compassion that comes from seeing normality through other people’s eyes. We could be, as the immigrant who gave Ashon his title put it, “passengers” in our own lives: always passing through. But as the sentence that opens and closes the book suggests, we too have good reasons to “stay and stay and never want to leave.”


Passengers is published by Faber for £14.99. To order your copy for £12.99, call or visit us telegraph books

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