The British Myth of the Local Community

By Deakin, Quentin | Contemporary Review, Autumn 2009 | Go to article overview

The British Myth of the Local Community


Deakin, Quentin, Contemporary Review


WITH pubs and churches, post offices and local shops throughout Britain closing, the decline of the local community is often proclaimed as an undeniable fact and a matter of deep regret. Speaking in 2007 Sir Menzies Campbell MP, the then leader of the Liberal Democrats, talked about a 'shocking decline of local community--Ghost Town Britain'. Whilst not disputing the symptoms of the crisis, my purpose is to challenge some assumptions surrounding the phenomenon and to look beyond the effect on the local economy. What else are we in danger of losing?

We need only to recall the tight-knit local communities of fiction-writers: the creation of an inter-active community is the scaffolding of many such works. What could provide a better crucible for a manageably small number of characters than the village? Arthur Miller said that this is why he chose the title The Crucible for his play about witch-hunting. His choice of a seventeenth-century village (Salem) rather than a 1950s' American city, enhanced the dramatic conflict. In soap operas and situation comedies a small number of well-defined characters are regularly brought together in a public place. Here they fall in love, argue, fight and declare their feelings to all. This meeting place may be a cafe, school or church-hall, but more often than not it is a pub.

Traditionally the heart of the local community, in Britain the nearest pub is known as one's 'local'. (1) I suggest that the community of the 'local' is something of a fiction. When was the last time you visited yours? The only time in my life I've regularly visited mine was as a student, when some of us chose to identify with 'the locals' in a rejection of the cloying hold of college life. We were transients, as were navvies, commercial travellers and hikers, but they too kept many a 'local' in business. No doubt they were eyed with a similar mixture of hostility, bemusement and suspicion. Perhaps the typical fictional projection of the local community as a fixed set of people familiar with each other is no more than a convenient invention.

Community is one of those words invested with emotional depth, producing a warm, comfortable feeling, encompassing more than the geographer's clinical 'body of people living in the same locality'. It embodies a sense of belonging and pride often keenly felt at village, town or county level. Transcending gender and social class, politics, even religion, local patriotism sets place against place in friendly rivalry. Long before its institutionalisation in the form of the biggest and best town hall, the football and cricket league, local papers, local radio and television, the rivalry of local place was evident in medieval artisan guilds. The earliest writers of local history and geography (an amalgam known as chorography) were provincial worthies living in Tudor England, their urge to share the wonders of their home-land frequently inspired by a powerful local patriotism. In part too by a crude desire to show off their often substantial share in it! In their town and county histories, they were among the first in print to push the buttons of identity and belonging. Centuries later, faced with the uncomfortable claims of Marx and Engels that the only sense of community the working man should feel was with fellow 'proletariat' workers ('Workers of the world unite'), the German political economist and sociologist Weber countered that their true ties were always vertical, loyal worker to caring boss, just as in medieval times, he claimed, peasant and retainer had paid loyal homage to their lord. Like all propaganda, the cosy image this evokes was, in part at least, as fictional as the Christmas pantomime or party in Ambridge or Walford. (2)

Those of varied political persuasion have promoted the village community as an idyll, from early Utopian socialists to modern Greens, a bizarre convergence in the beliefs of Robert Owen, Adolf Hitler and Prince Charles! …

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