What does the future look like? It’s a question we’ve all put to ourselves in recent months, with varying degrees of intensity. Some will have simply been concerned with what the next day holds. Others will have stretched their thought potential far into the distance over the uncomfortable contours of the unknown.
But, what happens when a vision of the future derails, elements of a collective idea pulled off course? Should our imagination work to put it back on the same track, or, alternatively, draw tracks anew?
In the initial phases of lockdown, the former will have presented itself as the simplest option to retain a status quo. In 2008 it’s exactly what occurred following worldwide financial ruin; those wielding the most strength quickly reset the course. No other thought process was considered by those with hands on the levers of power. But, 11 weeks on, a similar eventuality looks increasingly unattainable as we pick through the ruins of another global crisis. And so, it’s within our homes where the blueprints for the world outside are being redrafted. Our imagination is now the core material for a rebuild.
For screenwriter and children’s author FRANK COTTRELL-BOYCE, these future-facing demands on the imagination aren’t unusual. Nor is the requirement to stay at home and dream of the world beyond it. “I yearn to be at home writing,” he puts it to me over the phone as we talk about the power of imagination to construct a new world in the face of adversity. But what does the future look like when it’s your occupation to imagine things, to coax possibilities in from the ether and present them as alluring experience?
A vision of the future owes much to the imagination and creativity. The future, in essence, is a blank canvas: it requires collective imagination to shape its potential and offer an attainable realism. If there’s been any positive to this pandemic, it’s that it has brought greater clarity to see what works and what doesn’t. There’s been more space to think. The future remains a societal playscript in its most basic form. And this very playscript is currently open for rewriting. There’s space for each one of us, each community, to receive a credit.
Over the course of a career spanning three decades, Cottrell-Boyce’s writing has served as a fitness trainer of the imagination glands, a creativity coach for the minds who’ll be writing about the future of tomorrow. Since lockdown was implemented, Cottrell-Boyce has continued his efforts to tune the imaginations of the future in an entirely new role, that of of teacher. Much of his work since March has been in running online creative writing workshops via his Instagram while schools remained shut. “I angled all of the lessons towards mental resilience,” he says. “Thinking of adventures that can still happen when you’re in the house; secret worlds, unexpected visitors.”
In the initial days of lockdown, a common reaction would have been momentary stasis, creativity and artistry falling to the wayside. Flexing the imagination didn’t yet seem to fall under the essential category. But Cottrell-Boyce instead saw the opposite. “I think there’s a truism in the arts and drama that in situations like this, you arrive at societal breakdown, people eat each other and it’s all Lord Of The Flies,” he says, referring back to the anxieties delivered by the most palpable change in the British way of life since the second world war.
“What we actually saw was community bonds getting stronger, celebrations of kindness, a recognition of who keeps society going, those who really keep it ticking over,” he replies. “The macro picture was positive even though there were large amounts of death. The story for me was people rising to the challenge.” It’s this reaction which the writer says owes much to creative thinking.
“A real bugbear of mine is talking about creativity as though it is something artists do,” Cottrell-Boyce continues. “I think creativity is important across the board. It’s important to have creative engineers. Creative people within medicine. Above all, creative parents.”
With tangible social existence limited by lockdown conditions, the coal fires of the imagination undoubtedly rested heavily on the digital sphere. But, in turn, these limitations led to discoveries within our own homes, Cottrell-Boyce argues. Similarly within our postcodes.
“People slept where they live, but during the lockdown, they’ve rediscovered where they live,” he says when asked about ways to draw on the imagination as means of expanding the contours of the present. “[A key part of imagination] is exploring the things under your feet that you’ve often ignored and left.”
“Life in front of you is amazing,” he adds. “That’s a very strengthening way of looking at things. It gives you resilience. They’re the things that are going to stop you falling apart in times like this.”
Cottrell-Boyce’s fascination with the immediate world will be one shared by many through the stricter weeks of lockdown. With curbs on social gatherings, roving outdoors offered the most palpable freedoms from homes-turned-workplaces. Even the simplest walk around the neighbourhood suddenly became exotic, like being on holiday in another country. Senses were heightened, familiar sounds and sights presenting themselves sharper and more vibrant.
As Cottrell-Boyce points out, training the imagination to build potential locally is no less enriching. With globalised ideas hampered for the coming year, it is locally where we’ll form the foundations of an adapted vision of the future. “When you talk about imagination and creativity, we have a huge challenge in front of us,” he says. “We have to reimagine how to live in cities, how to do culture, how to do live performance. Everything is up for grabs.”
“We have a great British tradition of eccentric, explosive creativity that we often don’t count as creativity. Things like the industrial revolution,” he continues. “We’re good at rising to these challenges. We’ve got to reimagine everything. How to do food, community – all these things need to be revised. And I think we are capable of doing that.”
Cottrell-Boyce has form in drawing positivity from the imagination when the nation is in a state of upheaval. The 2012 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony, for which he was one of the lead writers, offered a spirited glimpse of Britishness through the ages. What’s more, it was delivered at a time when national confidence was at its lowest. The coalition had been in government only two years and the country was in the strangle-hold of austerity. Prior to the rare moments of sporting unity, the ceremony brought the world’s attention on the NHS and the marvel of its existence in a world increasingly driven by individualisation.
“As a nation, there’s a lot we can point to that’s good. There’s been a huge amount of neighbourliness, a huge amount of good humour – many of the things that we celebrated in 2012 are definitely still there,” Cottrell-Boyce says when asked if he sees any parallels eight summers apart. “In spite of a fairly sustained campaign over the last five years to sow division and to get political power by creating binary choices and pitting one group against another, if we were to [hypothetically] do another ceremony this summer, I think the content would be different, but the feel would be the same.”
“One think that’s crystallised is looking back and knowing we were absolutely right to put the NHS front and centre stage,” he adds. “It is [the NHS] that brings us together and unites us.”
For Cottrell-Boyce, prior to the Dominic Cummings scandal – where Boris Johnson’s disrupter-in-chief flouted lockdown rules at the peak of the pandemic – there was a feeling of national unity that hadn’t been apparent since before the “referendum took place in 2016”. But the saga, waged in tabloids and Downing Street’s back garden, “completely broke the mood,” he says. But he is adamant that the reality of the lockdown, and its creative community self-determination, shouldn’t be forgotten.
“For me, walking on the beach in the morning in Crosby, built on the rubble of the Blitz, has been a fortifying metaphor,” he says. “[Prior to lockdown] I’d go on a big walk or run and look away from the rubble. But, when what you’ve got in front of you is all there is, you look at it a lot more closely.”
“Those people who were caught up in the Blitz,” he continues, “they’re the people who built the National Health Service. They came out of that war, that pain, saying ‘this needs to have been for something’.”
Creativity, imagination and community self-determination are the tools to change our social make up and build a future form apparent rubble. As Cottrell-Boyce says himself, everything is up for grabs, everything is up for change – politics, culture, social standing, the very way we live and connect with one another, who the systems of power are working for. It’s up to our collective imaginations to ensure the devastation of the past three months has been “for something”, a future worth celebrating generations down the line.
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