The Psychogeography Of Everyday Life (In East Yorkshire). Or, How The Homogeneity Of British Towns In The Late 20th Century Created A Crisis In Identity Politics.

This post is about how I think the culture of the world you are born into shapes your adult life and continues to affect the way that you view the world as it inevitably changes around.  I say ‘you‘ but I mean ‘me‘, really.

The very early 1970s.  Middlerabbit is born.  A time when the prevailing fashion was for shades of brown and orange.   A period of time when popular culture drew its juice from what has been known for some years now as ‘Hauntology‘, a play on Haunt and Ontology, which is metaphysical for the study of being.  If I try to recall my very early childhood, what comes to mind are the illustrations in Judith Kerr’s classic, ‘The Tiger Who Came To Tea’, especially the bit where they go out for their tea to a cafe.

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Judith Kerr’s fantastic illustrations for her own The Tiger Who Came To Tea book.

The Tiger Who Came To Tea was first published in 1968 and, to all intents and purposes, nothing much changed in terms of how everything looked up until I was in my teens.

It’s said that the technology of a time influences the culture to a great degree and, in terms of the retrospective genre of hauntology, I think that’s true.  The early 1970s were the last days of analogue.  Meaning the last days of the amateur.  The end of the Arts and Crafts movement.  My mother knitted quite a lot of my clothes and I wasn’t unusual in that regard.  The breakfast cereal Frosties had a promotion to send in for a knitting pattern for a Tony The Tiger jumper.  Of the kids at my primary school, probably seven or eight of us had Tony The Tiger jumpers and none of them were identical.  They were basically the same thing but the homemade nature of the things inevitably lead to some of them looking a bit elongated, some a bit compressed.  And that’s what everything was like: similar but still different.

As the 1980s rolled in, digital technology had begun to take over and what that lead to was a certain creeping homogeneity that became the new fashion until, I suppose, we ended up where we are today, living in towns with the same shops, the same shop fronts, the same things on the same shelves in the same shops in the different towns that might as well be the same places.

Not quite everywhere though.

On the outskirts of town centres – most of them – you’ll still find the odd independent retailer ploughing their own furrow.   The village shops were I live are pretty much the same as you’d find in any similar size village in Britain in 2019.  A Sainsbury’s local, a Boots The Chemist, local Estate Agents that you find all over this region, Couplands – a sandwich shop chain.  There are a couple of independent shops: a newsagent, a gift/card shop, a sweetshop that changes owners every six months and a hairdressers.

Most shops were indies when I was little – I didn’t set foot in a national chain supermarket until I was at secondary school – the early 1980s.  Not because we avoided them on principle, there just weren’t any where we lived.   People did their shopping in specialist shops, which were all independent and thus different, depending on where you lived.  The identity of towns was everywhere, including in the dialects.  Hull’s dialect remains the subject of mild derision to people who visit although that’s on its way out too.  For instance, nobody from Hull called sherbet, ‘sherbet’.  It was called Kaileye.  Prams were Tansads.  Bread rolls are still breadcakes.

What that meant was going to visit another town was a bit more exciting because they had their own little variations on themes, in the same sort of way that our playground had its variations on the Tony The Tiger knitted jumpers.  I remember seeing a sandwich shop in Leeds advertising Cheese Rolls on a whitewashed sign in its window and being disappointed that it was just a cheese sandwich, as opposed to any sign of cheese being rolled into bread.  I’m not saying it was all great, but I am saying that different places had their own identities which the locals bought into and, I suppose, identified as being part of them.

While you could be dropped into pretty much any town centre in Britain in 2019 and have no idea which one, the countryside is a different matter and that’s what this post is about.  That and the fact that I feel ambivalent about where I live.

I live in a village on the outskirts of Hull, East Yorkshire.  I was born here.  Actually, I was born in Hull which is different, but I’ve lived here for a long time.  People around here, like most places, are quite proud of where they live.  They like it, you know.  I like it too.  I do.  I like the quietness and I like the fact that it’s not too lairy and that if people don’t like you, they’ll keep quiet about it and just bitch about you behind your back.

Diversion – North Hull.

I work in north Hull, on an estate that currently has no buses running through it because gangs of kids have been chucking bricks at them on an hour basis.  The most recent development in public transport there is that taxis are also refusing to go there for the same reason.  The local paper’s making a big deal about it, like it’s a new thing, even though it’s not.  It makes a change from Brexit, I suppose.  Anyway, on north Hull, the kids regularly tell me that the thing they hate the most is people talking behind their backs.  “If they don’t like me, they should tell me to my face,” is something I hear pretty much every day.  I tell them that’s not likely to happen, because it’s not what people do but I’m wrong about that, because that’s exactly what people do on north Hull, which is why there’re always people getting stabbed and glassed, and all the rest of it which mainly comprises a lot of shouting.  It’s like an explosion in a Jeremy Kyle factory, school in north Hull.

I suppose I’ve developed a bit of a middle class, phoney attitude towards confrontation.  What’s the point of telling people that you think they’re a dick?  They’re hardly likely to give the matter consideration and decide to agree to differ.  In fairness to them, I used to think very much like they did until I just got sick of shouting and being shouted at.  I realised that – ultimately – I don’t give that much of a shit what people thought about me, although I’d prefer them to mutter behind my back because it’s easier to ignore, given the choice.  As it is, I spend a fair amount of time ignoring north Hull kids telling me about their opinions of me, so they can say they’re not two faced.  Well done them, eh?  I’ve tried telling them that my reaction’s not likely to be one that they witness very often in future because telling teachers that they’re this, that or the other is like playing video games with the cheats on.  You know, nothing bad’s going to happen.  You can’t die if you tell your English teacher that he’s a skinny arsed paedo cunt because he’s asked you to take your coat off.  Honestly, I don’t think a schoolday’s gone by in the past five years that some schoolchild hasn’t told me to at least fuck off.

Ironically, the other thing kids are always telling me is that they don’t care what anybody thinks about them.  Often in the same breath that they tell me that people ought to say things to their faces.  I find that a bit odd and I try to point out that people are always going to have their own opinions, but it never makes any difference.  I’ve also tried saying that people who tell you that they don’t care what anybody thinks about them actually care that people think that they don’t care what people think about them, but I’ve not really had a lot of success in that area.

End of Diversion.

Anyway, this post isn’t about why Jeremy Kyle is never going to run out of people to make money out of, it’s not about people at all, it’s about the land.  The land that people say is lovely and beautiful.  Which I can understand: it’s got a lot of green, a lot of trees and hedges and things instead of concrete and tower blocks.  I’ll give them that.

However, being picky which I am a bit, the East Riding – mainly The Wolds, but Holderness is exactly the same – if you ask me, well there’s something wrong with it.

It’s bleak.  Not bleak like the moors are bleak – I don’t think the moors are bleak, particularly.   I think the moors are beautiful.  I can dig it that places such as Saddleworth Moor have a bleakness to them, but that’s not the land’s fault, that’s through association with the moors murderers.  In any case, it’s not the same sort of bleakness that the East Riding has.   The East Riding’s bordering on empty and places like Saddleworth well, they’re not exactly bustling with people or buildings, but there’s colour there.

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Left: Saddleworth Moor.  Right: East Riding.  It’s not just that I’ve picked an autumnal/wintry photograph to make it look more dismal that it actually is, I don’t think it matters.  The photograph on the right is from the ‘Hockney Trail’ website which apparently encourages people to come and see what David Hockney painted on his fucking iPad.  I thought they were crap and I really like some David Hockney paintings.

The bleakness of the East Riding goes deeper and further back than that.  If I believed in witches and wicked spirits that emanated from the earth, I would fully expect the witching and wicked spirit centre of Britain to be firmly centred in and around the East Riding.  As things stand, I don’t believe in such things but maybe it doesn’t make any difference anyway.  There’s something not right about the landscape of the East Riding, like it’s scarred by what it’s witnessed and I pick up on that.

Diversion – Crete

Years ago, prior to the arrival of any of our kids, the current Mrs Middlerabbit and I went on holiday to Crete with our friends Moggy and Marie.  Moggy and I were in a band that was doing pretty well and it looked for a bit like we were going to make it, as they say.  We were getting given expensive inducements by various companies and the horizon looked rosy.  Naturally it all went tits up but at the point when we decided to go on holiday together, the world looked like it was going to be our oyster, so we were in a good frame of mind.

I’d never really been on a beach holiday abroad before and I liked it.  It was hot, the sea was warm and the food was nice.  After a couple of days of that though, Moggy and I were keen to see something else.  We hired a car and went driving around the island, specifically up this mountain on an increasingly precarious dirt track.  The hire car was a Fiat Panda that I had to hold the roof on as Moggy negotiated our way upwards.  It was the highest up I’d ever been, you could see clouds beneath us.  It grew colder and the air became thinner.  At the summit was a museum: The Museum of Humanity, but it was shut, which seemed appropriate.

Since we’d arrived there, I knew something was different but I hadn’t been able to put my finger on what it was. Looking out over Crete from this mountain top, the thought struck me, where are all the birds?  I don’t mean ‘birds’ like girls, I mean avian creatures.    I realised I’d not seen a bird since we got there.

I spent the remainder of the holiday mildly irritating everybody else because whenever we went anywhere and spoke to any locals, I’d ask them, “Where are the birds?”  The locals just shrugged like they didn’t know what I was talking about.  You know, “Birds, what are they?  Never heard of them.  Have you made them up.”  Not literally, but that was the impression I got from their shrugs.  Maybe I read too much into it.  It’s a possibility.

Anyway, I spent the next week or so pretty much digging everything, apart from Knossos palace which had been ruined by Victorian archaeologists who’d decided that constructing relics out of concrete was a better idea than preserving the original stuff, but with a vague feeling of unease due to not being able to get rid of the feeling that something wasn’t quite right due to the absence of birds anywhere.

End of Diversion.

So, even though I don’t believe in it, I quite like the idea of it.  I mean witches and the eldritch in general.

When I was a kid and finding books and stories I could get myself into, I liked ghost stories.  The supernatural, I suppose.  Hands of glory,  Gytrash, the legend of Semerwater, Devil’s bridges, Redcaps and that sort of thing.

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Clockwise from top left: Hand of Glory, as seen in The Wicker Man, a pickled and dried left hand of a hanged man.  The idea being, depending on whose version you believe, that you make a candle from the fat and, once lit, it renders everyone around it paralysed, or only give light to the holder, or unlock any doors.  The flame could only be extinguished with milk; Semerwater, the legend being that a traveller came and asked everyone in the village of Semerwater for a bit of spare food and everyone told him where he could stick it, so he climbed the hill around it and announced, “Semerwater rise!” and the once small lake engulfed the town and its miserable, uncharitable inhabitants.  It turns out that there is a settlement beneath it; a redcap, which is a nasty sort of goblin that supposedly roamed the Yorkshire countryside, murdering lonely travellers and soaking their caps in their victims’ blood.  Maybe Semerwater was the place where all the redcaps lived which would explain why you don’t see them around anymore; Gytrash – a spectral black dog with glowing red eyes as featured in Jane Eyre -that lead travellers to harm – a recurring theme in these stories, even if the message seems to be somewhat mixed; Devil’s Bridge, Kirby Lonsdale.  Another great story: prior to the bridge being built, a woman’s cow wandered over to the other side of the river and she couldn’t get across to bring it home.  The Devil offered to build a bridge for the woman to cross but told her that the first thing that crossed it would belong to him.  The devil knew the woman’s husband was returning and he wanted him but the woman threw a stick for her dog who was the first to cross the bridge.  A bit harsh on the dog, I thought.  Still, a great story.

I suppose there are stories like that from pretty much everywhere except Milton Keynes and Stevenage I suppose, which probably doesn’t help with the soullessness of such places.

Mind you, I was lucky because I had somebody to tell me these stories when we went places.  My dad’s good like that and I count my blessings that he not only had the inclination to take me to places but that he also tells a good story.  Otherwise some of those places might have been a bit staid to a little kid.   The other thing, of course, is that a lot of the popular culture aimed at children in the era into which I was born related to a lot of those things.

Rediversion – Back to North Hull again.

Going back to north Hull briefly, what I’ve found is that the kids there generally haven’t been as lucky as I was in terms of their upbringing.  At least my old man gave a shit about me.  Not that nobody’s old man on north Hull gives a shit about any of their kids but, frankly, plenty don’t.  Not that that’s exclusive to the poorer places all over the world, no, but the rich tend to pay somebody else to entertain their kids and the poorer ones don’t enjoy that particular luxury.  Anyway back in north Hull, where the behaviour is sometimes described as ‘challenging’, I couldn’t say that I’ve found the magic bullet that modern education wastes most of its time looking for, but more often than not what I’ve found is that the kids there, like everywhere, enjoy people telling them stories.   Fortunately, being the son of my father, I know plenty of stories and, after all these years, while I might not have the touch of my old man, I can do a half decent job.  It’s a bit like the harpies in His Dark Materials, who tormented all the dead souls until Lyra made the deal with them that if the dead told them their stories, they’d show them the way to end their eternal torment of being dead.  Everyone likes stories don’t they?  That’s why I used to struggle with the idea that some people don’t like reading books.   I hear it quite a lot: “Reading’s boring.”  The glib answer to which is you’re not doing it right, then.  Kids might get taught how to read, how to decode the letters, but there’s a lot more to reading than that.  Plus, there are a lot of pretty boring books.  Especially in schools.  I think if the only books I’d ever read in my formative years were those that most of my teachers told me to read, I might think that reading was boring too.  Anyway…

End of rediversion.

What I’m getting at is that, over the years, people came up with stories to explain why things are as they are, why things are where they are, why they look like what they look like and all that.  And those stories tend towards the supernatural.  Probably for a couple of reasons.  First because it’s more exciting, and second because people just didn’t know why things were as they were.  There’s something to be said for a lack of scientific precision, at least in terms of encouraging a bit of creativity.  There’s a downside too, but that’s life isn’t it?  There’s a downside to everything but then again, I’m dead northern and gritty…

The culture of the early 1970s in Britain, at least in terms of children’s television and books was cute deeply entrenched in the folk tradition.  Toni Arthur, a Play School and Play Away presenter was embroiled in some minor tabloid scandal due to her putting out an folk music album with her husband entitled, Hearken To The Witches’ Rune.  Pogles’ Wood was on the television.  A little later, when I was old enough to realise what was going on, Children Of The Stones was on telly.  The Owl Service, developed from the children’s book by Alan Garner – who wrote quite a few stories that dealt with modernity and the folk horror of the past colliding, especially Raven.    Play for Today featured a number of films relating to country ways that were quite scary – Penda’s Fen by Alan Clarke is still mentioned, but also lesser known gems such as Robin Redbreast, and my favourite, A Photograph.  The Shout deals in the same sort of area.  TV series such as Beasts, Supernatural, and Dead Of Night were all a indebted to horror, but a very specific strain of horror that dealt not with maniacs with knives, not even with haunted houses so much as a past that would not be buried under the countryside it had so evidently left its mark on.  Obviously and famously, The Wicker Man, Blood On Satan’s Claw and Witchfinder General were released in the early 1970s.  Something was in the air, possibly on a broomstick.

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Top row: The witch from Pogles’ Wood, initially deemed too frightening for pre-schoolers in Britain; The Owl Service, groovy kids in the countryside discover a possessed set of crockery; Toni Arthur (and her then husband’s apparently satanic folk music album.  Second Row: Children Of The Stones, a kids TV series – heady stuff; Raven, starring Phil Daniels as a borstal boy who gets involved with King Arthur; Penda’s Fen, an Alan Clarke Play For Today.  Third Row: The Play For Today ‘A Photograph’ – still on YouTube, it’s fantastic; The Shout, off its tits and amazing.  Fourth Row: ‘Baby’, the episode from Beasts.  Nobody comes out of that one well; Supernatural, which is what it sounds like; Dead Of Night, which is similar to Supernatural in a few ways.  Fifth Row: Robin Redbreast, in which the old ways never really go away; Blood On Satan’s Claw, a classic, if a bit dubious in some ways; The Wicker Man, probably the most obvious of the lot.

I’m by no means the first person to have looked back at my childhood and wondered what the hell was going on.  It’s tempting to think that the 1970s were all about Star Wars and The Exorcist and Glam Rock – and they were to an extent – but these things seemed like they were happening elsewhere.  The Folk Horror was just around the corner, if not under your feet.  There have been some excellent books written about Folk Horror.  I recommend “We Don’t Go Back” by Howard David Ingham and “Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange” by Adam Scovell in particular for a far more thorough consideration of such things.

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Kids who grew up around the same time as I did have made their own films.  Ben Wheatley’s Kill List and A Field In England both deal very much in the same genre of those influences.

In fact, the influences are so all pervasive, all I’m doing here is listing examples as if anyone needed evidence that what I’m saying actually happened.  In some ways, I can barely believe it myself.  It was everywhere.

What I’m trying to get over is the effect on ordinary people, like me, that growing up at such a time had and how it’s affected what I’ve grown into and how I view Britain, or at least how I view the part of it in which I live – East Yorkshire.

I’m not convinced that young kids now are likely to have the same, rather suspicious view of the flat, barren fields of this corner of England that I have because they weren’t raised in a culture that rammed it down their throats.  Even by the 1980s, the digital technology and culture it brought with it, along with the homogenised towns and even villages meant that local traditions began to be forgotten.  If everywhere’s the same, there’s nowhere that can be particularly idiosyncratic.  If every town has the same shops with the same things on the same shelves, in the same order, where can the peculiarities be found?

I miss it.  I don’t mind admitting it.  I appreciate it makes me a bit of an old fuddy duddy who sounds like my grandparents, probably but it feels a bit like identity theft.

Take Lincoln Cathedral.  The best bit of Lincoln Cathedral is the Lincoln Imp.  It’s the best bit because nowhere else has anything like that.  Beverley Minster has its rabbit messenger.

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Left: The Lincoln imp.  Right: The Beverly Rabbit Messenger.

At the moment, 2019, there are a lot of things going on in the world – as there always are, even if those things change.  Brexit, gender equality rights, LGBT rights, things like that.  Things that are important to people.  What I think is that, at heart, they’re all about the same thing, which is identity politics.

Brexit, whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, seems to relate to how people want to identify themselves – British, English, Irish, European, or whatever.  Gender rights, treating people the same, regardless of their gender and LGBT rights, doing the same thing, but in terms of how individuals identify in terms of the sexuality or gender, if that’s the right word.  It might not be.  I’m not trying to upset anybody.

To my mind, the focus on identity politics is an almost direct result of globalisation.  The landscape of towns and cities might have changed in recent years but I’m not sure that people have, in so much as they need something to identify with, even if they don’t particularly like it and they’ve had it stripped from them, necessitating other ways of carving out their own identity.

I’m not denying that people ought to be paid the same for doing the same job: of course they should.  I’m not denying that people should have the right to fall in love with whoever they want, regardless of whether they’re male or female.  In all honesty, I am denying that some people want to identify as neither male or female a bit, because, fuddy duddy old fart that I am, I tend to think that in almost all cases (not hermaphrodites) you’re either one or the other and it sounds a bit like Eric Idle in The Life Of Brian, wanting the right to have babies, even though he doesn’t have a womb.  When it comes down to it, I don’t really care that much.  I’m not about to go on a march protesting about it.  I just think some people are terminally indecisive and want everything all ways.

But it’s still about identity.  I do believe that, as Britain’s shops and houses all became pretty much the same no matter where you go, that took something away from the people who lived in those places.  Maybe it added something too.  You know, I like curry and it’s not like that sprang forth out of Goole or somewhere, is it?  I’d be missing out on curry.  Again, there’s a downside to everything.

Maybe it makes me some sort of little Englander.  I’m not under the impression that everything was great in 1971 and that we should all go back to living like that because so much has improved since then, but I do think we lost something and I think it left a hole in people’s hearts – their identities –  that we’re still trying to fill.

Take me.  I’ve said how I feel ambivalent about the East Riding of Yorkshire – and I do.  When I used to take the train anywhere – when it was affordable to ordinary people – and I caught one home, I sort of hated it that as it sped along the north bank of the Humber, I felt like I was home again.  I suppose I felt ambivalent about it, because it’s nice to have a home, even if you don’t especially like it.  And I don’t.  But I’m sort of glad it’s here and I’m very glad that the prevalent culture of my upbringing celebrated it, even though it made it frightening and mysterious, I’d rather it was that than what all towns everywhere have turned into.

At least the countryside around us has an identity, even if it scares the shit out of me.

 

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