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Square People

Dr Kara McKechnie

Part of the Invisible Diaries series:

Week 3 / Day 4


I keep comparing ‘now’ with ‘a year ago’. A year ago, I was at the University of Braunschweig, giving a guest lecture about Brexit and performativity: I was applying the thoughts of Ulrich Beck, Zygmunt Bauman, Richard Schechner and others to Brexit, against which I had spent three years furiously protesting. Fast forward by a year, and I am out delivering food bags in Holbeck and Beeston with Malcolm, my Yorkshireman. We did a big shop with Morrison’s vouchers (shout out to our biggest supermarket supporter!) and sorted someone’s electricity credit at Dewsbury Road Community Hub. We always come home feeling good after the volunteering days – people will eat, people will have electricity, people will be receiving a ‘lonely chat’, and it’s not cost us much time or complex thinking.

Our first few deliveries are to families today: a young mother of a toddler, and a mother of four (2, 4, 8 and 10 years old) in a tiny house. They seem exhausted and I feel for them. We also bring food to an elderly man who is hearing- and speech-impaired and has kidney problems. We go to a neighbour who knows how to get his attention (by sending his very cuddly dog in to fetch him), and she then signs to him that we’re bringing him food – our high-vis vests are nothing to worry about.

Meanwhile, another neighbour across the road calls us over to flag his concerns about an elderly man whom we see standing on his doorstep. He is waiting for an operation on his spine, meaning he cannot go upstairs to where his bathroom is, and is vulnerable in other ways too. I go over to speak to him, and we later bring him some food.

We live in North Leeds, and around here ‘community spirit’ mostly includes clapping for our valued NHS and key workers, looking out for each other, helping out with little things. In the middle of Holbeck back-to-backs, community spirit has not seen a sudden surge: neighbours already look out for neighbours, because there’s often nobody else who can or will do so; we witness a non-demonstrative, non-ostentatious, well-rehearsed quality to the way the infrastructure in these streets plays out.

This is not how it feels in our leafy, rainbow-adorned street in North Leeds.

Of course, we had a WhatsApp group before all this – and of course we take each others’ bins out, or each others’ parcels in, and we have gatherings sometimes. We enjoy Thursday clapping, the whole street sings happy birthday for neighbours (two so far), and it feels lovely – but the effort and stamina required just cannot be compared to people who are struggling, and who get on with helping people who are struggling more than they are, without expecting plaudits.

I keep thinking of Zygmunt Bauman’s definition of ‘Square People’, something that seemed to fit so well into the description of Remainers, that determined and incoherent group, and all the stamina and creativity that was put into protesting Brexit last year (which seems a lifetime ago). According to Bauman, ‘Square People’ are joined in opposition against the thing they oppose; they are not united by the model of life they desire. They share communal space on a public square, protest, feel united, and then return to their highly individual lives and choices. Largely, Bauman states, our communities have been replaced by networks: we feel solidarity, but it is very specific to issues and situations; when we do come together, we are “short-term brothers & sisters”.

I felt at the time that this certainly applied to Brexit, and I am now trying to work out whether Covid-19 is a stronger common denominator for us to re-learn solidarity after it has been undermined by neo-liberal marginalisation for so long, as being of ‘no economic value’. Covid-19 might force us to rebuild community alongside specialised networks which had replaced them. Bauman’s well-known term ‘liquid modernity’ also springs to mind here:

the contemporary state in which solid social structures and institutions seem to have melted away […] where the old has vanished; the new has not yet finished forming. *

As dramaturgs, we’re familiar with that ‘in-between’ stage in a creative process – magical, wide open, but also frightening – and we might find we have many ideas to contribute to what will emerge.

Being Square People! The community cast of short film The Good Book (Slung Low / Brett Chapman, 2020) being filmed in a protest scene outside Leeds Town Hall. (Photo: Malcolm Johnson.) The Good Book is released online on 1 May, and the trailer is here.

* Simon Tabet, “Interview with Zygmunt Bauman: From the Modern Project to the Liquid World”, Theory, Culture & Society, Volume: 34, Issue: 7-8, Page(s): 131-146. December 1, 2017.


Dr Kara McKechnie is a German-Scottish hybrid. Born in London and educated in Germany, she worked for Opera Stuttgart, Opera Karlsruhe, Heidelberg Theatre et al. Her academic career started at Heidelberg University and continued at De Montfort University (PhD thesis on Alan Bennett; monograph 2007).

She has worked as a Lecturer in Dramaturgy at Bretton Hall, then University of Leeds, since 2000 and teaches and supervises for the School of Performance & Cultural Industries and the School of Music. She has worked with Opera North and Leeds Playhouse on many projects, has published a monograph on Opera North (2014) and regularly collaborates with opera director Alessandro Talevi in the UK and Italy.

Kara is resident dramaturg for Slung Low (Leeds), funded by the Gulbenkian Foundation. Slung Low have ‘repurposed’ as a hub for food bank referrals. Their short film, The Good Book, is released online on 1 May.

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