How Are We Doing?
IT’S THE 30th of November 2005 – St Edmund’s Day – and I am in the small Suffolk market town of Bury St Edmunds. Something very strange is about to happen.
It is late evening, it is freezing cold, and outside St Edmundsbury cathedral a small crowd of people is gathered, waiting expectantly. At precisely 7.30pm, a silent procession emerges from behind the cathedral: six men dressed as medieval knights, in plastic helmets and chain mail, and five monks who have clearly rented their habits for the duration. Some carry banners, others carry flaming torches.
For the next fifteen minutes, we follow this curious procession as it winds its slow and silent way through the streets. It is followed by supporters with lanterns and flaming torches. Eventually, the knights and monks reach their destination – an old car park in the town centre. A car park which was once the medieval cattle market and which will soon, if the local council has its way, be a vast new shopping complex, containing acres of corporate chainstores, expensive ‘executive apartments’ and, at its heart, a vast new branch of Debenhams.
The knights and monks assembled here tonight do not like this plan. They say it will tear the heart out of this ancient place, turning it into just another ‘clone town’ addicted to shopping; a place that looks, feels and acts just like any other. They are here tonight to make a last-ditch stand against it: everything else having failed, they are about to unleash an ancient biblical curse on the developers. The “curse of St Edmund”, they say will bring down the wrath of the town’s patron saint on “those who would despoil his town”. Debenhams, they say, will never be the same again.
Three years on, and Debenhams is still around – though the Knights of St Edmund insist that the curse they unleashed that night is having an impact on its share prices. But what I witnessed that night in Bury St Edmunds, while strange and certainly unusual, was in many ways nothing special: just one example – albeit a colourful one – of how communities all over England are fighting back, at local level, against the corporate encroachment of their places, their cultures and their communities.
For over a decade I’ve been writing about globalisation and its impact on communities all over the world – about how it is bearing down on diverse people and places, cutting away what makes them different and distinctive, independent and real, and replacing it with a plastic consumer culture that looks the same from Berlin to Bali. It’s only recently, though, that I have started to look properly at what effect this process is having on my own culture, and on the country I live in – England.
When I started to look around me, I noticed that this country – one of the richest, most ‘developed’ and in some ways most aggressive in the world – is as much a victim of the global corporate machine as any other. The global market, which England unleashed upon the world, has come back to bite us.
The problem is that this global market requires a global identity: not just goods, but landscapes and cultures must be branded and made safe for the universal act of consumption. A global market also requires global tastes – it needs us to want the same things, feel the same things, like or dislike the same things, see in the same way. Only that way can demand cross, and break down, cultural boundaries.
In order for this global consumer economy to progress we must therefore cease to be people who belong to neighbourhoods, communities, localities. We must cease to value the distinctiveness of where we are. We must become consumers, bargain-hunters, dealers on a faceless, placeless international trading floor.
The effect of this process at local level in England, as elsewhere in the world, is to suck the meaning from our communities and our localities: to homogenise the nation, to ensure that it ends up just like everywhere else: a characterless temple of commerce. Whether England, for you, is represented best by the local newsagent or the local church, the thatched cottage or the city terrace, the hardware store that clings on in your high street, the struggling street-corner pub, the patch of overlooked waste ground, the chaotic street market, the hedgerows or the downlands, an old farm or an urban canal, you can be sure that if it is not sufficiently profitable or obedient, then it is not safe from the accelerating forces of homogenisation and control.
Wherever you are, you can probably look out of your window anywhere in the country and see the results of this process. Try it now. Perhaps you can see chainstores in your high street that would be familiar anywhere in the world; a ring-road superstore; a branded pub chain; an executive housing estate of the kind that looks the same from Cornwall to Northumberland; boarded-up local shops; second homes. Globalisation is tearing the heart from our communities, and replacing it with money. As it does so, it is destroying the very meaning of English history and culture.
The good news is that many people across the nation know this – and are fighting back. Over the last two years I have travelled the length and breadth of the country, collecting their stories for my new book, Real England. And I have discovered that the strange goings-on in Bury St Edmunds are just the tip of an iceberg: all over the nation, people who know the meaning – and the importance – of place, history, culture and community are fighting back.
There are the local shopkeepers in Sheringham, Norfolk – one of the last towns in England without a superstore – waging a fierce and so far successful battle to prevent the arrival of a giant Tesco, designed to serve 40,000 customers in a town of just 8,000. There are farmers in Devon and Lincolnshire, battling agribusiness and fighting the corner of small farms. There are villagers in Kent standing in the way of new homes on their green fields, and ethnic-minority communities in inner-city London resisting corporate encroachment on their public spaces by developers.
But tales of resistance are only the half of it – positive solutions are springing up everywhere too. The villagers in Northamptonshire who set up and now run their own successful community shop, defying predictions of the death of their community. Drinkers in the Lake District who saved their local pub from closure and now run it – and own it – as the nation’s first co-operative boozer. Community-supported orchards in Herefordshire; schemes designed to save both wildlife and farmers in Cambridgeshire; councillors in Chester promoting locally distinctive architecture; boat-dwellers in Oxford battling to create a community boatyard on a canalside site threatened by executive flats.
All over the nation, communities are standing up for what – and who – they are. Standing up for their identity and independence in the face of the corporate machine. In doing so they are acknowledging, though unconsciously, the truth of the lines written by the great American farmer-poet Wendell Berry over two decades ago: “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.” Conversely, if you do know where you are – if you know it and value it and stand up for it in the face of the forces of corporate blandness – then who you are often becomes suddenly, strikingly clear. You are a community again. All over England, people are discovering just that. •