Jerusalem: Synecdoches of modern England? Adam Johnson and the EU referendum in Butterworth’s Jerusalem

I accept that the title of this stimulus owes much to my wish to get students to stop and have a look, but there is reason in my madness…  (NB in no way a model essay for regurgitation – food for thought and discussion.).


In the new OCR English Literature paper 2, the focus is on contexts. In a play which poses a moral maze around the relationship between the drug dealing “troll at the end of your garden” and the 15 year old “fairy”, Phaedra Cox, the search for contextual comment treads paths that are well covered. I want to be sure that students engage with the text as a living document, so recent context must be considered.


On the question of the paedophilic relationship perceived by the villagers between Johnny and Phaedra, Mr Johnson’s recent court case gives an interesting shade and a resonance more recent and closer to the students than that of Jimmy Saville and other shocking cases of abuse from the past. Students will often recognize the fact that in the 21st Century, the perception of society is likely to see abusive behavior in many situations where none exists. It is hard to imagine the beautiful innocence of Goodnight Mr Tom occurring in the 21st century without someone, or some group raising the issue of the appropriateness of the relationship in the first place. In many cases the fear is justified, but the perception of guilt is tangible and is probably being used by Troy to cover the fact that, as in most cases the abuser is well known to his victim and is often a family member. We should not overlook this when investigating the nature of the abusive relationship which encircles Phaedra.

The play can be said to present an image of modern England. The image is not comfortable, however – the Dark Satanic Mills of our new Jerusalem seem to be comprised of drug, alcohol and sexual abuse. The villagers are retreating into the Little England network of NIMBYISM and suspicion. Against this, Johnny is seen as the outsider, the scapegoat and a convenient carrier for the prejudices and fears of the village. In the Adam Johnson case we see similarities with Butterworth’s fiction: both girls are 15 and victims of a predator in a position of power. The attraction for the predator is made clear in the Werewolf song which Butterworth uses in Act 2: the idea is clear –the predator knows he is in the wrong and hates himself for passions which he cannot control. Whether or not students then relate this idea to Johnny or Troy, there is no doubt in my mind that the predatory figure should be charismatic and allow the victim a perverted sense of self-worth, albeit for a short period. It is not that Johnson is a better example than Harris or Saville or numerous other predatory abusers who have preyed on young girls in recent times, he is the latest example – an example which shows the endless unfolding of relevance of a play such as this.

Whilst I expect it will be quite a time before anyone challenges Mark Rylance’s portrayal of Byron on the West End stage , the play must be allowed to continue to develop its own contextual worth – for students confused by this, imagine a situation in a few years which sees the legalization of cannabis. Once this is the norm, a major strand of Johnny’s terror fr the village is diuted. Yes his drugs are harder than this (assuming they aren’t the toilet soap of which he is accused by Wesley) , but the fear of drugs per se will have been eroded somewhat by this action. Times change and plays are seen in new and often revelatory lights as they grow.


When this play was performed in London, the Dale Farm evictions were the major news story which allowed a point of connection between the audience and the idea of the persecuted traveller in his pastoral glade who faced a violent eviction by a small army of police led by the self-important jobsworth: Fawcett.


Today’s students can learn about this, but I suspect the major relevance in many minds is the situation relating to asylum seekers, particularly those being evicted from the Calais Jungle this week. From this, I want to suggest a useful contextual synecdoche in the Points West discussion in Act 2 of the play. Davey introduces the idea that leaving North Wiltshire makes him unwell – the Berkshire county boundary becomes almost as physical a boundary as the English Channel. Inspired humour is than derived from a discussion of the nature of local news and local disasters. For these young people, the world ends at a notional boundary around 40 miles from Flintock. Anything else has no relevance for them and should be ignored – a genuine disaster in Cardiff has no relevance since it is not local. I suggest that this attitude reflects in a small way, the much larger xenophobia envinced by many who wish to rush to leave the EU and even, seen in a letter in the Telegraph, to close the Channel Tunnel as a means of raising the drawbridge of Castle England and to keep undesirables out of our country. The inhabitants of Flintock/England do not look beyond their boundaries. Today the question is raised in the press about refugees currently held in France as part of the arrangements between UK and France under which France allows the UK border to begin on their sovereign soil. Remove this arrangement – and why would France wish to keep it if we withdraw from the EU and the refugees will not be stopped until they arrive in the UK itself. Once on our island, the problem becomes peculiarly English. The hypocrisy becomes clear when we see spokesmen seeking both to leave the EU and to retain the arrangement by which the refugees are France’s problem. Our band of “lost boys” want to withdraw into their world and not be bothered by matters from outside their realm. In the village, the villagers clamour to remove the unwanted eyesore who reminds them of their own hypocrisy and their moral weaknesses, much as many in Europe wish to turn away from those in real need not only in our country but travelling from distant lands.


England has a long history of Xenophobia and a pugnacious approach to diplomacy. This is seen clearly in the attitude of the Kennet and Avon council and their “puritan” attitude to difference and obstruction to financial gain. They have laid claim to the forest much as their forebears claimed swathes of the globe in the pursuit of financial reward over the centuries and one obstacle stands in their way.  He will be removed unless… I hope his final prayer brings him reward.



Filed under ks5, OCR A level, OCR NEW English Literature, Uncategorized

4 responses to “Jerusalem: Synecdoches of modern England? Adam Johnson and the EU referendum in Butterworth’s Jerusalem

  1. Harpal Khambay

    I think this article well highlights the importance of context in the play. The situation between Johnny and Phaedra can be seen as similar to the unnerving stories we hear in the press, certainly as parallels are drawn. It is clear that Johnny has a position of power (although this does not mean he is famous and on the television) he is famous in the town of Flintock and has a powerful presence. It is also reasonable to think that problems only become problems for English people when they are on our doorstep, like Johnny and the EU migrants. The play managed to reduce the scale of the problems of Britain (and indeed the world) and concentrate on the most pressing ones, in the ways in which they are most commonly portrayed in the media.

  2. Lami Mabifa

    I agree with Harpal, this article does indeed highlight the importance of context in the play and understanding the context allows us to truly appreciate the piece of literature. Context allows us to appreciate the microcosm of modern England that is Flintock. Given the context of the play, perhaps a question to consider is if Johnny Byron is representative of people of high position and status within our society, who have abused their power. His sphere of influence, particularly among adolescents, is great. We witness Ginger attempt to emulate him and Lee imitate him. He is extremely charismatic which ensures most importantly Johnny is also likable, all traits seen in the high-profile people we saw abuse their positions of power. Perhaps it is a reflection of the times, especially due to the similarities seen in other high-profile cases this decade, that we might be more inclined to believe Phaedra’s abuser is Johnny and hasty to assume guilt, or perhaps Johnny might be an illustration of how abuser’s in this era are the people we least suspect and also the people we don’t want it to be.

  3. Karan Dave

    I think that the idea of child abuse, especially when concerning celebrities, is quite fascinating. Like we discussed today in class, before the girl ‘associated’ with Adam Johnson revealed of the abuse, she was boasting about it. Meaning she wanted to be there. The teenagers in the play want to be around Johnny for the same reason, they like him. Of course the relationship is conceivably a non-sexual one when concerning Pea and Tanya, it still plants a seed of doubt in the readers mind when remembering Phaedra. The fact that people assume the worst when an older man has become acquainted with a teenage girl says a lot about society. Perhaps because Johnny doesn’t live within society and their constraints, he does not see this a problem. Maybe to him, his protection of Phaedra is something to be encouraged. To an extent, I can understand this idea. If a fifty year old makes friends with a sixteen year old, who is to say whether it is acceptable to spend time together? Of course when sexual abuse and child abuse comes in the question, it is absolutely unforgivable and inappropriate. Johnny is seen as a celebrity in Flintlock, and this is why the teenagers spend time with him. They idolise him.

    • Sebastian Langdon

      I think Karan makes a valid point. The child being abused doesn’t immediately think that in reality they are being abused, they might not see it as abusive but rather exciting and daring yet they consciously know they shouldn’t really be doing it (like Karan said, the girl in the Adam Johnson case boasting about her time with her abuser). This brings me to another point that Mr Peel has mentioned before about how young teenagers crave off danger and thrill which applies here as the teenagers in the play and also the girl in the case are spending their time with someone older them trying to gain something out of there company but knowing that what they are doing could be frowned upon but choose to take the risk anyway. In the case of ‘Jerusalem’ where Johhny might be grooming or abusing the teenagers, specifically Phaedra who is missing, we’re not entirely sure if he is due to the close relationship (of a sort) he has with the kids. It is also perfectly valid to view the relationship between the teenagers and Johhny as a type of patriarchal relationship where Johhny does to a degree try to care/look out for the teenagers but they also simply see Johnny as an idol and think he is ‘cool’. Johhny’s personality and his wit in the way he speaks (not to mention his supply of drugs and alcohol to the kids) makes the kids want to hand around him wether it be for better or for worse. Once again linking to Karan’s point, the fact that there is an assumption that because the teenagers like to spend their time with Johnny that it means they are being abused shows how people tend to think; that negatives are the first things people look towards. This mentality may be brought about however by media attention to the seriousness of cases like the Johnson case where there has been an occasion where a young teenage girl has spent time with someone a lot older than her resulting in a horrible outcome which could be the cause of why people nowadays are so precautionary and presumptuous.

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