I should write something on the radio play Borderland, by Sarah Woods, while British readers still have the chance to listen to it on iPlayer (until Friday 2nd March). Borderland is set in a dystopian future Britain (or “Greater Britain” as it has been renamed following the independence of both Scotland and Northern Ireland). It tells the story of a woman, Layla, and her child, on the run heading for Ireland after she has been blacklisted at work.
The play won the Tinniswood Award this year for the best original audio drama. I had contributed to a previous production of Sarah’s, and had a tiny part in the development of her script; we met over coffee one morning to chat about the sorts of things that might happen in a dystopian future Britain. The world she paints in the play feels like Britain as Rees-Moggland; a near-to-medium term Conservative ‘hard Brexit’ future, on steroids.
Good futures work should make the present strange, and in practice Borderland probably only makes the present truly strange for people who haven’t been refugees. Layla is a refugee in her own country, with the same constraints that refugees always face: constant danger, continual exploitation, flaring random violence, vast fees paid to middlemen, being snooped on through your phone, the desperation of hope. And also: occasional shafts of humanity shining through the unremitting gloom.
There are, all the same, flashes of dystopia throughout. The world of work (“three strikes and you are fired”) sounds like an Amazon warehouse, only worse (Amazon always denies that its contract workers face this type of work regime, in a non-denial denial sort of a way). The rail line between England and Wales has been closed because neither side would agree to police it for refugees. The automated phone script to access health care is chilling:
“Please key in the Resident number for the person requiring immediate assistance. This is a 12-digit code beginning NMP.”
One detail that conveys the collapse of Britain is the autonomous zone in the Marches near the Welsh border, which has declared independence and issues its own passports. “The Edge” sounds like a cross between Passport to Pimlico and The Death of Grass, but it is one of the few safe spaces in the story.
One of the reasons the play achieves the impact it does is through the rich sound design of the production, which conveys brilliantly the sense of being on the run, often exposed to the elements, having to do things that are unimaginable in ordinary quotidian life. The passage where she is taken through the former rail tunnel, now flooded, to get into Wales from England, is visceral.