The Passengers by Will Ashon review – voices of a nation

<span>Photograph: Adrian Sherratt/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Adrian Sherratt/Alamy

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.”

Many of the conversations took place during the pandemic. Perhaps they were meant to serve as distractions from the longueurs of lockdown? In practice, a single mother bemoans the challenges of home-schooling her son and of getting him an appointment for a special educational needs diagnosis. Another, suffering from endometriosis, has had her bladder-removal operation cancelled and, desperate to start a family, is in a state of limbo. Another still, admitting her obsessive-compulsive mother never liked her very much, sighs: “I wish so much that the pandemic has not exacerbated her utter fear of being infected by the world.”

Crescendo, diminuendo: the book’s earliest and final sections are short, sometimes they’re just a sentence or paragraph long. The middle sections are the longest and, perhaps like middle age itself, sad and self-flagellating. A thirtysomething woman thinks, at her age, she should be “technically an adult. But I am a child. I like nicer wine now but I’m still a fucking baby.” Depression struck a man in his late 20s and now he feels stuck in a box – “Not even a box, a raft, just going with the current of life.” A Tony Hancock-soundalike announces: “I’ve got a migraine which I’ve had for five and a half years now.”

It would be wrong to suggest The Passengers is merely a chronicle of collective downturn and drifting. There’s a chap who exults in the decades he’s spent making wooden jigsaws, a blacksmith who rescued the horns of his grandfather’s bull (name: Mozart) and strapped them to the front of his car, a coach driver who enthuses about taking a school party to Crocodiles of the World (“Full of crocodiles, really! Fifteen species of crocodile, yeah”). An interviewee who managed to swallow a nail while putting up a shelf likes the idea of it “having a nice journey on the inside of me” and “fantasised about fishing it out and saving it, cos it’s like, You’ve been through me.”

The Passengers can be read in any order or in one big swig. Prefaced by an epigraph from the film-maker Agnès Varda – “Chance has always been my best assistant” – it doesn’t try to present a unified theory of Britain today. (Although surely few readers would disagree with the interviewee who, bemoaning a bad date, cries: “I could not think of anything worse than to fucking go to Laser Quest.”) Its most revealing section – in terms of technique and spirit – involves an unnamed detectorist who talks about his love of archaeology, the happy times he’s spent combing the beaches of Dover and Margate, a gold ring he once found. The kicker comes at the end: “I’ve been here since 2003. Just after the war in Iraq. We’re from Mosul. The city called Mosul.”

The Passengers by Will Ashon is published by Faber (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.