Home Economics

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BBC Radio 4, 6 February 2016, 7pm.

BBC Radio 4 has a semi-regular slot called From Fact to Fiction, in which writers are asked to respond to a topical news item. You choose the topic on Monday, write it Tuesday to Thursday, record it on Friday morning, mix it on Friday afternoon,  and it goes out on Saturday. It's a 14-minute slot.

I've always fancied the idea of this, though the high-wire act is hoping  that you'll come up with a decent idea for whatever topical issue seems important. They seem to have relaxed the immediacy of it, somewhat; in previous years, writers had to meet with the news team and get briefed on the latest news (because writers don't read the papers?) and pick something particular to that week. That doesn't happen now. I decided to look at austerity economics. It's not, I guess, particular to this week, though it's not exactly un-topical. If Cameron had unveiled his EU agreement a day or two earlier, I might have been tempted to do something about that.

Because it's only 14 minutes long, I was able to take it through four and a bit drafts, and the piece evolved quite a bit, We (me and Polly Thomas, my producer) started by spending a brilliant hour with Professor Steve Keen of Kingston University, one of the great debunkers of neoclassical economics. Polly and I discussed ways to approach it and then I started writing.

My first thought was something that has bugged me for a while: the tendency of economics and politicians to defend austerity economics – that is, the belief that the duty of governments is to balance the books – by analogy with household budgets. Despite this being a technical and ideological economic theory, they love homely and folksy analogies: 'you have to fix the roof while the sun is shining', 'every prudent housewife knows…' and so on. In fact, of course, the analogy is ridiculous because households can't raise taxes and they can't print money; they don't have a central bank. The comparison is entirely illegitimate but it seems to worl because of course households in general probably should avoid deficits. Governments, on the other hand, can run deficits for many years and for good reasons.

My initial thought was to try to imagine a household actually applying austerity economics to itself. I had imagined it could become absurdist at the point where they introduce what are clearly macroeconomic policies - like quantitative easing - to their own domestic microeconomies. What I got more interested in, however, was avoiding what might seem to be rather technical and economic debates and instead of thinking more about the odd moralism that exists around austerity: that belief that lowering public spending is in itself a moral good, whatever appear to be the manifest immoral consequences. I thought it might be interesting to pursue ways in which they could reduce their spending, sell-off surplus assets, at whatever cost, all the while telling themselves that what they were doing was doing them good.

Writing at some speed, as I've been doing this week, perhaps my influences are slightly more to the fore than usual. I can certainly see in this more than slight shades of Caryl Churchill and Martin Crimp. Crimp in the way much of the dialogue realistically but satirically mocks a certain kind of gentle middle-class brutality. Churchill, meanwhile, is in the slow breakdown of the language of the play. It starts very friendly, open, overlapping, supportive: a living, warm relationship. As the play goes on, their ability to communicate deteriorates until one member of the couple suggests they apply cutbacks to their own language. In the last scene they begin uttering five-word fragments of sentences, But the word count slowly reduces until, by the end, they are merely exchanging monosyllables. I wrote the first draft of that scene in the Royal Court bar on Wednesday before seeing Churchill's Escaped Alone and I think I absorbed her influence osmotically from the walls.

And that is more or less where the play has got. I've called it Home Economics. I think the reasons for that are obvious. It is a two-hander featuring one of my favourite actors Frances Grey (see Cavalry, My Life is a Series of People Saying Goodbye and Negative Signs of Progress) and Sion Pritchard who I've not worked with before but is a lovely lovely actor. They're both beautifully precise and intelligent and funny and they worked so well together.

If you want to read it, the script is here: