The Passengers by Will Ashon review – voices of a nation

Anonymous testimonies collected from people across the UK create a snapshot of dreams and frustrations, pain and joy

From October 2018 to March 2021, the English novelist and nonfiction writer Will Ashon spent 30 months in a state of deep listening. He spoke to 100 people from across the UK by phone, online, or while hitchhiking. Like the men and women sporting cardboard confessions in a Gillian Wearing photograph, they told him secrets. They dug up half-forgotten memories, revealed hopes and dreams. He filleted those testimonies for vivid details, and juxtaposed them to hint at strange echoes and shared frequencies. Each is presented anonymously – no headings, no timestamps, no coordinates. In this way a nation’s psyche comes to the surface. The Passengers is not just an oral history of the contemporary moment but, drenched in mood and texture, renders the country itself as a sonic collage.

Politics, at least the Westminster version of it, is barely mentioned. (An exception is the interviewee who mentions being bought a Priti Patel doll as a dog chew.) But long memories often inform social critiques – not least in the case of the respondent who observes that many of his friends were imprisoned in the early 1990s for possessing weed. “‘Oh, we think we smelt marijuana on you.’ There’s Black men in jail, and there’s dispensaries and CBD oil and lip balms and hair treatments made out of hemp.” The language of someone who seems to be a traumatised immigrant is gaspy, fragmented, as if from a Samuel Beckett play – “I cried, too much cry. Yeah. Dream, dream. And then, wake up, I see my cry. Oh, too much.”

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