Civic Violence: Grappling with Life in the UK

Broderick D.V. Chow, with Joshua Abrams, Melissa Blanco Borelli, Bryce Lease, Royona Mitra, Jennifer Parker-Starbuck, and Grant Peterson

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Tap-Out (experiment), Text: Edwardian wrestler George Hackenschmidt’s lecture at Trinity College, Cambridge University (1934). Former wrestler Bedwell applies an arm bar until Broderick Chow taps out. Filmed at Applecart Arts, Upton Park, East London, 10 July 2017

The words spoken in the videos above are taken from a lecture that George Hackenschmidt, a German-speaking Estonian with French citizenship who lived most of his life in London, England, delivered at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1934. In the video, filmed in an old rehearsal room at Applecart Arts in Upton Park, East London, I attempt to read Hackenschmidt’s lecture while Philip Bedwell, a performance artist and former professional wrestler, applies a variety of submission holds until I tap out. Between our two bodies, the performance forms a kind of practice-thinking that explores an ethic of relation and care, submission and freedom, the same ideas rehearsed in Hackenschmidt’s philosophy, which was concerned overall with the relation of the organism (‘Entity’) to its environment.

George Hackenschmidt (standing). From the George Hackenschmidt Collection, H.J. Lutcher Stark Centre for Physical Culture and Sports, University of Texas at Austin (no reuse permitted).

George Hackenschmidt training to fight Frank Gotch. Via

George Hackenschmidt was not a trained philosopher, though his thinking about the body, authenticity, and freedom reflects intellectual trends at the turn of the century, particularly the concept of élan vital articulated by Henri Bergson. Although he wrote six books in both German and English, his philosophical career was really a victory lap after an amazingly successful career in the ring; by which I mean, Hackenschmidt was first and foremost a wrestler.

In 1877, in the Governorate of Livonia in the Russian Empire, now called Tartu, Estonia, Hackenschmidt is born to a Baltic German father and an Estonian Swedish mother. After abandoning an apprenticeship in blacksmithing to train as a wrestler at the home of Dr Vladislav von Krajewski in St. Petersburg, Hackenschmidt becomes a European champion. In 1903 he travels to London, the city where he would spend most of his adult life. One night at the Alhambra Theatre, Leicester Square, Hackenschmidt announces himself to the British public in a most spectacular manner. The Cornish-American wrestler Jack Carkeek is headlining, and as usual, he concludes his act by challenging any man in the audience to go 15 minutes with him in the ring. As the audience laughs and titters among themselves—for who would be so foolish—Hackenschmidt arose from the audience wearing white ties and tails. He accepts the challenge and strips off his clothes to reveal a pair of wrestling trunks.

No match took place that night, because Carkeek recognised that Hackenschmidt was no British amateur but a ‘famous foreign professional.’ Despite this, Hackenschmidt became one of the most well-known artists in 20th century British popular theatre. His manager was the impresario Sir Charles Blake Cochran, who promoted his wrestling shows across the country (and according to certain accounts, taught Hackenschmidt to go easy on his opponents to boost the entertainment value of a match). In the 1930s, Hackenschmidt became an advisor on physical fitness to the House of Lords. He met and corresponded with George Bernard Shaw and Harry Houdini. The German-Swedish Estonian who called himself The Russian Lion became a French citizen just before the Second World War (through his French wife, Rachel) and finally a British subject in 1946. When he died in 1968 at the age of 90 he was cremated at West Norwood Cemetery, South London.

Hackenschmidt’s philosophy is marked by migration, movement, and borders, because he embodied so many contesting and contested national narratives. At first glance, his thinking seems at odds with a life lived as a physical culturist, one who prescribed physical training for the public, and lectured on its values for both bodily and spiritual development in his international tours. As Hackenschmidt’s philosophy developed, he came to see training (or at least certain forms of it) as an impediment to the ideal, which is well summarized by Terry Todd and Spencer Maxcy: ‘to live each moment with all of one’s total life force, free from historic consciousness, free from the dead weight of memory and remembrance.’1 For Hackenschmidt, the individual organism is assailed by pressures of the environment but must nonetheless express itself in an authentic way. Any attempt to determine the movements and actions of the Entity is ‘dictation’, and was a form of violence against the Entity’s authentic being. Hackenschmidt was especially suspicious should such attempts at dictation originate from the state or an institution.

I have been thinking about George Hackenschmidt a lot over the past few weeks, not only as a key figure in my current research on physical culture and the performance of masculinities, but as someone who embodies (in multiple ways) ideas of migration and movement. You see, I’ve just been granted Indefinite Leave to Remain in the United Kingdom, and the navigation of this civic institution strikes me as a deeply embodied process, one deeply at odds with any idea of authentic freedom, presence, or life force.

Hackenschmidt was especially suspicious of ‘drill’, or rote-learning, be that physical or mental. In 1937, he wrote: ‘for a human being to have been drilled and disciplined into such a state of body that he functions as an automaton, all his individuality and personality must have been suppressed.’2 But ‘drill’ best encapsulates the process of studying for the Life in the UK test, a requirement for anyone applying to ‘settle.’ There are multiple ways to study for this test of 24 questions; some make flash cards, others bring a sheaf of notes to the waiting room. For me, it was the official practice test smartphone app, which I would ‘play’ relentlessly on the tube, in bed, while making dinner, eyes glazed over, thumb clicking across the multiple-choice answers.

‘Which of the following is a British overseas territory?’ (C).

‘Of which product did the UK produce over half the world’s supply in the 19th century?’ (A).

‘Is the statement below TRUE or FALSE? In the UK, you are expected to treat others with fairness.’ (B).

Eventually, I begin to see only the question and not the information being tested, like a dog performing a trick for a treat, without any understanding of the trick itself. It becomes about beating my previous time: 4 minutes, 3 minutes. (In the ‘real thing’, I finish the test in two and a half minutes).

Life in the UK Pass Notification Letter, via

Immigration policy is an attempt to curtail movement, in the broad sense of movement across borders. But unless once has attended an appointment at a Premium Service Centre, it is impossible to know just how much the UK’s immigration policy is about the micromanagement of the body, down to the smallest gesture and movement on one floor of a 1970s-style office block in Croydon.

Sign for Lunar House, Croydon. Photo by author.

I have been to the Croydon Premium Service centre at Lunar House, 40 Wellesley Road three times over the course of my twelve years in the UK. The UKVI Premium Service is a way of having one’s application processed on the same day (rather than waiting weeks, if not months via post) but this process of being processed also reminds us of the incursion of the state into the body. For it is essentially a series of checkpoints that the subject moves through, the self reduced to a number (in my case, 166).

Queue for your number.

Wait for your number to be called.

Appear before an agent who will check your documents.

Wait for your number to be called.

Appear before an agent who will take your biometrics (photo and fingerprint).

Wait for your number to be called.

Wait for your number to be called.

Wait for your number to be called.

Wait for your number to be called.

Wait for your number to be called.

Appear before a caseworker who will give you the result of your application.

Leave, ideally.

It is mostly waiting, six hours in total. Six hours of sitting in the café and waiting room, the definition of Marc Augé’s concept of ‘non-place.’ Six hours of shuffling to the bathroom or simply to stretch your legs. The café provides caffeine and sugary snacks. The experience of boredom is thick, like an international flight with no destination, and layered with anxiety, a horror in the gut at the discussions that might be taking place on the other side of the wall. Immobility is punctuated with periods of intense activity. Run to the agent in the other room, quickly, quickly, lest your place be lost and your number fall away from the monitors entirely. Shoulders back, good posture, speak good English. I become intensely conscious of the way I am limiting my own physical expression for another. And then I go back to waiting. Eventually my phone battery runs out, and I discover that the Home Office has blocked off the top hole of every accessible electrical socket, so that no migrant may charge an electrical device (though, with the hole blocked, nor can anyone). How do they vacuum? I think.

And then, suddenly, it’s over, and I flee the building via the stairwell, a permanent resident of the UK. I had anticipated feeling different, but the experience is entirely anti-climactic. I am mostly aware of the tension in my shoulders that has spread to my jaw and threatens to erupt in a headache.

For Sophie Nield, ‘the border, like the theatre, is a place where you have to appear. The border is a space in which identity can be doubled; in which it is possible, indeed necessary, to be “here” in more than one way; a person must be there as themselves and their representation.’3 In this logic, the body itself becomes ‘supplementary’ to the representations of the border-apparatus (biometrics, photographs, passports, and so on). Though I was entirely aware of my own body at Lunar House, it was as a kind of shadow to the journey of my passport, my papers, my number (166). I suggest that this is what is ‘violent’ about bureaucracy: the fact that the present, living, real body is not only not the primary focus of a bureaucratic interaction, but not even second or third—the interaction can carry on entirely without you. Thus, an apparatus intended to smooth and facilitate interactions becomes a form of structural violence, even more harmful because it appears to lack an agent, and therefore any meaningful way to stop it.

It is on this question of violence that my thoughts return to George Hackenschmidt, the 26-year-old Eastern European immigrant who practiced violence in the ring all his life. When I consider his philosophy and his disdain for people and institutions who attempt to curtail the free being of others, his practice of violence doesn’t seem like violence at all. In wrestling, though the Entity is manipulated by the other, it is authentically living with all its life force. This kind of presence, might perhaps be thought of as a radically ethical way of relating to the other. The video above, then, documents a practice of friendship, a greater lesson in civics than any 24-question multiple choice test.

What follows is a series of short responses by other theatre and performance academics who have migrated to Britain and have gone through the process of being granted Indefinite Leave to Remain. Academics in UK Higher Education have a relative privilege in being able to achieve ILR status (in terms of education, income, and exempt status of PhD-level jobs from the overall pool of Tier 2 visas), and several respondents reflect on this privilege. But even this privilege is relative and precarious, as recent cases have proven. The critical reflections that follow are intended reflect on a process that often goes unmarked, as a starting point for thinking in solidarity with other migrants and bodies who cross borders.

“A different sense of place…”

Melissa Blanco Borelli, Royal Holloway, University of London

Currently, I am preoccupied with thoughts about place, space, mobility, and privilege. Perhaps it is because I am living between three cities – Berlin, Athens, and London—with three languages and three different forms of ID: my US passport, my UK residence permit, and my German residence permit. Katherine McKittrick’s provocative turn of phrase, “a different sense of place,” constantly reminds me of my citizenship privileges every time I cross borders. McKittrick suggests that this “different sense of place” becomes a zone of possibility despite the histories of displacement and dislocation for black women specifically. Part of making a sense of place “different” is through the active work of imagination: imagining being somewhere other than where you are, or imagining the place where you are as something other than what it is or what it could be.

I took my Life in the UK Test on 24 June 2016… the day after the Brexit referendum. That day, I entered a dark room in a Stratford office building. There were several other people there, but I noticed one woman in particular. She was a woman of colour (from where I cannot say) who had been sitting there before I entered, and was still sitting there when I finished my exam and left. She barely moved as she stared at the screen. Maybe she was being extra careful as she read and reviewed the questions and the possible answers presented in multiple choice. When I turned to leave, she was in the same position, with the same focused expression.

Did we all get the same exam?

Why is she taking so long?

Maybe I should have taken my time?

I hope I passed. I really hope she passed.

I had imagined UK residency (and then citizenship) as a borderless existence, yet the legacies of colonialism and American imperialism make both of my citizenships sites of ideological contention within me, especially on days when I am cynical about the state of the world. What sense of place do I imagine for myself despite and because of my citizenships? Black feminist thought often evokes futurity as a strategy for endurance, survival and world-making. I think of that woman, sitting there quietly taking her exam. I imagine what future she was creating for herself as she answered questions about a country as foreign to her as the US was for my immigrant parents in the 1960s. I wonder what life in the UK is for her now and how she makes it bearable when necessary? How does she evoke a “different sense of place?”

“Who composed The Planets?”

Bryce Lease, Royal Holloway, University of London

There was one question I kept answering incorrectly on the practice test. Who composed The Planets? The answer is Gustav Holst. The composer was of mixed British, Swedish, Latvian and German ancestry. He composed the score, which was heavily influenced by his exposure to the Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg, as result of a trip to Majorca and a knack for reading horoscopes. The Planets is not merely about global relations (indeed the earth is not included in the score), it is about astrological impact. How do the planets affect our psychic states? It is on the Life in the UK test as an example of high culture that attracted the popular imagination. What the practice test does not explain is that Holst wrote the orchestral suite during the First World War, after being rejected as unfit for military service. Had he been able to enlist, it is very likely he would not have survived the war. In 1918, Holst wished to serve as a volunteer for the music section of the YMCA’s education department, working with British troops stationed in Europe awaiting demobilization. There was one major dilemma: the YMCA felt that his surname sounded too German. He formally changed “von Holst” to “Holst”. I was taking my Life in the UK test as a result of my entitlement to British citizenship through my relationship with my German partner. Our grandfathers fought on opposing sides in the Second World War. Sadly, neither of us has much use for astrology.

A Test that Both Fixes and Mobilises

Royona Mitra, Brunel University London

I’ve not really relaxed for the entire flight across the pond. I know my ninety-minute layover at JFK is not enough time to make my connecting flight to Columbus. I’ve researched my course of actions thoroughly online to make my transfer as smooth as possible. I’ll need to clear immigration and customs at Terminal 4, and then I’ll need to hand over my baggage at Delta’s transfer check-in counter, before taking the Air Train over to Terminal 2, where I’ll need to clear security and then run onto my flight as its gate is about to close, before landing in a heap onto my seat. I shall then order a glass of wine and weep with relief. I reason with myself that despite JFK’s notoriously long passport control queues, surely Delta wouldn’t have let me buy this ticket if the transfer wasn’t feasible. And so, my faith in human reason keeps me going through my flight from London to New York. I also watch Wonder Woman for the second time.

Much to my utter relief my flight arrives thirty minutes early. I am out of the aircraft in ten minutes, leg it over to passport control and am waved into the queue for ‘returning ESTA travelers’, which is moving quickly towards the automated machines. I am hopeful this will be quick as the machines have always worked for me during past visits to the US. Alas, this time, like everyone else at the machines, my printed slip appears with a huge cross over it. I now must join the queue that is snaking across the entire terminal and moving e-v-e-r-s-o-s-s-l-o-w-l-y, what feels like a centimeter every 15 minute or so. A cynical British man behind me in the queue tells me ‘that’s it, I think you’re fucked.’ I stand in this queue texting my daughter in the UK, who keeps me grounded and consoled. But I am also feeling increasingly nauseous. I see an immigration officer walk by, an American South Asian man, who is performing his maintenance of bodily order in the queues at this nation’s border control with much care. I walk up to him and explain my circumstances. He spots my UK passport and see a flicker of change in his eyes. He decides to help me after checking my boarding pass for the next flight. He moves me to the front of the queue. I wait for another twenty minutes, but then I am through. I have been allowed to enter the land of the free. The rest follows exactly as I have rehearsed it in my head, and due to the continued kindness of a series of JFK personnel, all people of colour, I make my Columbus flight with five minutes to spare before the gate closes.

I buy myself that glass of wine to calm my adrenaline on this final leg of my journey. I can’t help but accept the mobility and credibility lent by my red British passport, and am certain that my hairy transfer would not even have transpired on my previous blue Indian passport. Ten years ago, as part of naturalising as a UK citizen, I sat the Life in the UK test to demonstrate my understanding of constitutes living within British borders. Ten years later, it is only when I am sitting on that flight to Columbus, exhausted and relieved at once to have made it, that the test’s actual relevance strikes me. It seems that it wasn’t so much about demonstrating my knowledge of constitutes life within the UK, as it was about granting me the license to cross borders beyond the UK, aided by the credibility of the red British passport. While I have always theoretically known this, almost a decade later on this occassion I experience the realisation that alongside granting me a permanent Life in the UK, passing that test sanctioned me the mobility to move across borders in ways than I had never been allowed to before as an Indian citizen. I experience this in an intrinsically embodied way. Life in the UK has thus simultaneously enabled me a Life Beyond the UK in ways that I both benefit from and feel extreme discomfort about, every time I travel.

Transparently Present

Grant Tyler Peterson, Brunel University London

When I was diagnosed with stage IV cancer in 2006 while living in England, I decided to return to the United States for treatment. In the UK, I had faced months of delays and misdiagnoses and learned later that the NHS’s support for sarcoma, a set of rare and often highly aggressive cancers, was sorely underdeveloped at that time, particularly in regions outside London. In the US, I was incredibly fortunate to receive treatments that saved my life, helped me beat the odds, and more than a year later, return to England. Once back, I relied on doctors in both countries, world experts in sarcoma no less, working together across London to California to monitor my recovery.

When applying for citizenship jointly with my US civil partner in 2011, I naively assumed my circumstances would be considered under ‘special circumstances’ of the otherwise strict ‘residential qualifying period’. This is the requirement of not being outside the country for more than a total of 450 days in the past five years. Surely, I thought, my near-perfect score on the UK Life Test and demonstration of ‘commitment to the UK’ and ‘good character’ would be considered alongside the medical evidence justifying my extensive travel history that totalled 465 days abroad. The representative, however, explained that medical treatment was not an exception.  I respectfully challenged her, and she called the London Home Office to nominate my case for consideration, only to be denied.  My cancer-recovering body needed to be on germane UK shores for longer. After years of struggling with the internal borders of my highly medicalised body, I now found myself struggling through the specificities of my body’s highly politicised cross-border geo-historiography. With Foucault’s idea of a ‘plurality of resistances’ in my mind, I wondered if one solitary miscalculation of 15 days on my application would have been actually caught by the Home Office.

My civil partner did not need to commit such an offence, and earned his citizenship because he had stayed in the UK while I was treated in the US.  Not long after, I re-applied as a dependent – where my body’s geo-historiographical presence was recognised under different criteria. When I uttered the Austinian speech act that is the UK’s Oath of Allegiance, sang ‘God Save the Queen’ in my camp musical theatre voice, and grabbed a blurry picture with the Queen’s portrait, I queerly and self-consciously celebrated my new status.

Grant Peterson with the Queen’s portrait. Photo provided by author.

The glass paperweight given to me by the city of Bath as a token of my citizenship spoke all too well to the discomforting transparency expected of human bodies to articulate their geographical historical presence. Not ignorant of my privileged position as a white man from the United States, I held the paperweight and shuddered as I contemplated how such procedures are likely to be disproportionately enacted on and against bodies of colour, disability, HIV sero-status, or bodies from the southern hemisphere, or countries associated with fundamental extremism – to name a few. Living in a body habituated by border-piercing transparencies of MRIs, CTs, PET and X-rays, the procedures of the naturalisation highlighted for me the externalised geographical transparencies of in-border presence expected of UK-compliant bodies, or citizens-to-be – a weight I walk around with to this day.

becoming—not British

Jen Parker-Starbuck, Royal Holloway, University of London and Joshua Abrams, Royal Central School of Speech and Drama

We mostly studied for the Life in the UK test on one long car journey, driving back and forth from London to southern France, where we were traveling to a joint birthday party for friends from France and Belgium, a couple whom we knew from our time in Northern England. The weekend-long house party, held at one of their parents’ house in the mountains, brought together friends new and old, many from across Europe. We met people from Spain, Italy, Germany, France, each of whom was asked to bring a gift of their own specialist practice—these included dance lessons, academic talks, cooking, a soundscape under the stars. There and back Jen read the content and asked the test prep questions aloud, while Josh drove. That trip marked a clear sense for us of becoming—not British, but part of a larger European project. We had been in the UK for just under five years, and had seen this as exciting for us and Zeena, Jen’s then 9 year-old daughter. We took the test with the hopes that the recently discretionary decision to grant children citizenship with a parent would also allow Zeena access.

Writing this today, roughly halfway between 23 June 2016 and 29 March 2019, it is difficult to avoid thinking about the importance of Europe to our decision to gain dual citizenship, key to our own privilege—both before and after taking the test. The 2017 rankings from Passport Index show the UK passport slipping in ‘power’ (measured through visa-free travel), from joint first place in 2015 to joint fourth in 2017. (If all else remains the same post-Brexit, but EU countries choose to require visas for UK passport holders, the UK would slip to 29th, currently shared between the UAE and Uruguay.)

In fact, one clear memory is of taking the test itself, in the Brixton town hall. It was packed with people and a nervous energy filled the room.  When Jen finished and checked over her answers, she looked around and Josh was gone.  She delivered her paper to the front desk clerk and asked if he’d seen where Josh went, “the guy with the long plait?” The clerk said, “you mean the one who finished in 4 minutes?  That was the fastest I had ever seen anyone take the test.” Josh got a perfect score and Jen only missed a couple.

We realized then, and through the process of the emotional Citizenship ceremony, that as white-identified academics from an Anglophone culture, the test wasn’t really designed for us. Many of the questions and topics were about things with which we had also grown up, such as names and dates of holidays, or sports references. Others we had learned by doing, such as questions about childrens’ schooling, or pub culture. Living both in the north and in London helped us understand basic population statistics, and while we didn’t know all of the details, with our backgrounds and our academic training, raising a child, (and for Josh, driving), meant that the test didn’t feel like that much of a challenge.  In the end, understanding our privilege (and Zeena was granted citizenship with us), was truly humbling.  We attended the ceremony with three of Zeena’s school friends as our guests, all children of immigrants themselves, and we all were moved by the different range of ceremonial dress, recitation (either swearing or affirmation) of the oath, and the tone of the room—it was a proud and important day for so many of the people beside us, and we were particularly awed by the range of people being welcomed that day in Lambeth Town Hall.



Broderick Chow is Senior Lecturer in Theatre at Brunel University London. His current research concerns physical culture and the performance of masculinities. He was born at St. Paul’s Hospital in Downtown Vancouver, and has lived in London, England since 2005.

Royona Mitra is a Senior Lecturer in Theatre at Brunel University London. Her current research examines the choreographic languages of  contact improvisation and partnering through the lenses of intercultural politics of touch and critical race theory . She was born in South Kolkata in India, has lived in several parts of the UK, and is currently settled outside of London in rural Buckinghamshire.

Grant Tyler Peterson is a lecturer in Theatre at Brunel University currently researching British alternative theatre history, outdoor performance, and gender and sexuality. He was born at Long Beach Memorial Hospital California, raised and schooled in southern California, lived for a year in New York City, then moved to England in 2005 residing in locations in the south west and south east.

Joshua Abrams is Deputy Dean, Academic at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London. His current research focuses on the theatricality of the restaurant and chef cultures. He was born in French Polyclinic Hospital on the Upper West Side of New York City–in the US, he has lived in New York City, San Diego, Albany, Westchester County, Los Angeles, Boston, and Providence, before moving to the UK–first in Scarborough and then in London, the latter since 2005.

Jen Parker-Starbuck is Professor and Head of Department at Royal Holloway University of London. Her current research investigates forms of multimedia performance and also animality and performance. She was born in Montpelier, Vermont in the U.S. (lived there for only 2 months), and has also lived in: Connecticut, Kentucky, Alaska, Maryland, New York State, Arizona, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City, in the U.S., before moving to Scarborough UK in 2004 and then to London in 2005. Phew.

Bryce Lease is Senior Lecturer in Drama & Theatre at Royal Holloway, University of London. Overarching themes that frame his research interests are the interconnections between cultural memory, difficult histories, politics, nascent democracies, nationalism, counterpublics, gender, sexuality and cultural geography. He has lived in many countries, with and without visas.

Melissa Blanco Borelli is Senior Lecturer in Dance at Royal Holloway University of London. Her current research is on embodied decolonial aesthetics. Born in New York City, she has lived in various cities in the USA (LA, Providence, Miami, Washington DC), London (since 2008) and currently splits her time between Athens and Berlin.

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  1. Terry Todd and Spencer Maxcy, ‘Muscle, Memory: And George Hackenschmidt’, Iron Game History, 2.3 (1992), 10-13 (p. 13).
  2. George Hackenschmidt, Fitness and Your Self (ed. Harold Kelly) (London: Athletic Publications, 1937), p. 13.
  3. Sophie Nield, ‘On the border as theatrical space: Appearance, dis-location and the production of the refugee’, in Contemporary Theatres in Europe: A Critical Companion, ed. by Joe Kelleher and Nick Ridout (Oxford and New York: Routledge, 2006), pp. 61-72.

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