A young colleague of mine is from the pleasant Devon town of Totnes and I wanted to write a precautionary future history of the place to show my colleague what changes her right-on liberal views might inflict on her beloved town.
One Monday morning at the start of the weekly meeting of the Totnes Council, Sally James (Liberal), leader of the council, unburdoned herself of the following thoughts:
“Things are pretty good for us here. We are all well-off and lead comfortable lives, even though none of us has done much to deserve our good fortune. We were just fortunate enough to be born into middle class privilege in a nice Devon town. Yet others are not so lucky. Take the unfortunate people born on those dreadful housing estates up in the north of England. Violence is endemic, academic achievement is low and the children eat McDonald’s meals day and night. Young girls get pregnant at 15 and most of the children live in single-parent families. None of these people chose to be born where they were, nor did they choose the families they were born into. They are all victims of circumstance. There but for the grace of God go you and I.
“I have been looking into the root causes of their problems and feel that at least some of the blame attaches to us. For centuries the south of England, of which we are a part, used the north as its engine, plundering its resources and forcing poor northerners into miserable factory work. We are the exploiters and they the exploited, we have all we want and they are dispossessed. It’s no wonder those poor wretches have turned out as they have, watching X-Factor, drinking and gambling all day. I can’t say I blame them if they resent us a little.
“So I’ve been thinking. Maybe there’s a way to redeem ourselves and use our unearned privilege to good ends. Why don’t we build a new housing estate of 300 houses on the edge of Totnes for these poor northerners? We can afford it. As soon as they breathe the Devon air and live among us for a while they will join our reading circles, become doctors and architects and shop at Waitrose rather than Lidl. In a years’ time, once the first group of northerners is properly integrated, we can perhaps think about building another housing estate and invite more of the unfortunates to come and live with us.
“All of this makes perfect sense. Totnes has an ageing population and these newcomers will bring vibrancy to our communities. And when all is said and done, Totnes has always changed with the times and was never fixed in amber. One of the most famous incidents in our local history is when, in the 17th century, seven Huguenot families came to live among us. Their descendants are now an integral part of town life. I would even go so far as to say that Totnes is a town of immigrants. After all, none of our ancestors was here during the last Ice Age so we must have come from somewhere else. We too, at some point in our history, were newcomers to this place.”
The Conservative Councillor, Mrs. Marjory Smith, a widower, pointed out that taking in seven families of well-educated French Protestant artisans was a little different to taking in three hundred areligious, barely literate, unemployable families of chavs from Rochdale, a bigotted opinion for which she was upbraided by Sally. Marjorie speculated that the newcomers might bring some of their problems with them and change the town for the worse.
‘Might it not be possible’, she said, ‘that rather than us changing them, they will change us? It might be like in schools where mixing the different streams results in everyone being dragged down rather than the unintelligent being pulled up.’
Apart from this objection, she didn’t see why the people of Totnes, or anyone else for that matter, had anything to apologise for:
“None of us was alive when the northerners were allegedly being ‘exploited’, as you put it. Everyone in England used to work in the fields and then when factories opened in the north people chose to work there instead. So unless you believe that living in the south of England is a crime in itself or that alleged crimes can be passed down through the generations, let’s stop all grandstanding and halo-polishing and move on to what is to be done about the proposed bench for the Oakfield Avenue bus shelter.”
Yet Sally had no intention of moving on to such mundane topics as topics as bus shelters and insisted that the people of Totnes must do something for their brothers and sisters up north. Finally Mrs. Smith suggested the issue be put to the people of Totnes in a local referendum so that they could decide. She was pretty sure that most people would feel as she did. Sally though, suspecting the bourgeois and often uneducated people of Totnes might vote the wrong way in such a referendum, said that as elected leader of the council she had the people’s mandate, knew what they wanted, and that work would begin on Monday on her – excuse me, on the town’s project. It would be called the Project for Inclusion and Generosity, or PIG for short, and the first northerners would start arriving once the first houses were completed.
A few days after this council meeting Mrs. Smith got together with some of her elderly friends over tea and cakes and talked about what they could do about the proposed new estate. The following morning her house was raided by the police and her computer seized. The police were amazed to find that Marjorie was still using Windows 95 and that her antivirus was last updated four years previously. During a separate database check it was discovered that she had an outstanding library charge from the early 1990’s and under a rarely-used 18th century law could have gone to prison for 5 years. However, sanity prevailed and Marjorie got off with a warning on the proviso that she drop her campaign of hate against outsiders. The local police officer, Laura Dingle, who also occupied the newly created position of Community Outreach and Diversity Integration Officer, and who just happened to be a friend of Councillor James, said that this would send a strong message to other members of the far-right hate group calling itself ‘Please Don’t Change Totnes’, that bigotry would not be tolerated in the town. The other two attendees of the afternoon tea sessions, Mr. George Crabtree and his wife Elsie, were persuaded by their daughter, Karen Sandford, to drop their protest. Mrs. Sandford said she was worried about ‘mum’s ailing health’. To her friends Marjorie claimed she had no memory of ever having borrowed a book with the title The Wicked Marquis by Barbara Cartland from the local library. In fact she hated Barbara Cartland. Yet the threat of being taken to court, either for her ‘hate’ protests or overdue library books, persuaded her to resign from her position as Totnes Councillor and to stop her tea and cake afternoons. She also took back her library books and never borrowed any again.
Over the ensuing years the northerners were brought in. The first batch showed mild bemusement, which swiftly turned to indifference and then finally contempt. The crime rate went up and police figures showed that the newcomers were overwhelmingly the cause of the rise. The police therefore sensibly decided to cease keeping statistics on where a criminal came from. After all, a crime was crime, regardless of where the perpetrator hailed from. Such divisive information could only serve the purposes of right-wing propagandists and ‘haters’ unhealthily interested in bogus ‘patterns of crime’.
In the local schools a ‘more realistic’ history curriculum was introduced. There would be no more jingoistic stories of Captain Cook sailing the ocean blue or the Charge of the Light Brigade. Instead the children would learn how the people of the north were systematically exploited by the people of the south in a relentless program of oppression. It was felt this would help heel historic wounds and allow for an atmosphere of reconciliation. Some small-minded people claimed it was more likely to cause rancour and resentment among the newcomers, who until then were blissfully unaware that any injustice had been done to them.
Over the years, through a combination of the original inhabitants dying or moving out and further influxes of northerners with higher fertility rates than the locals, the demographic make-up of Totnes changed until one fine day it was found that the northerners and their progeny were now in a majority. Sally James suggested some kind of celebration to mark the historic milestone. A celebration was duly held, which sadly only Sally and Laura Dingle attended.
30 years after the fateful council meeting.
Mrs. Marjorie Smith has since gone to that great council office in the sky, her later years on earth punctuated by the occasional brick through her front window and abusive chants from gangs of schoolboys as she made her way to the shops. Her adult children all moved away. They said they had nothing against the newcomers, it was just too painful to be constantly reminded of the way their hometown had been changed forever.
Totnes is now a vibrant place and like all such towns has its challenges: the crime rate is similar to that of Rochdale, as is the school rating and the percentage of single parent families. The community events that were once a feature of town life have now largely died out due to lack of interest. When old locals meet in the street they talk nostalgically of the old days and moan that things aren’t what they once were. Sally always takes the opportunity to remind these sad figures that no one can hold back change, things must move along and anyway, the Golden Age that these oldsters think they remember never actually existed.
Tourists stopped coming to Totnes many years ago and most of the hotels, guest houses and souvenir shops have closed down. Instead the tourists go to nearby Downton, where they mistakenly believe they will find Downton Abbey, Yorkshire, itself a fictional place.
On the bright side, house prices are now affordable since there is a plentiful supply of properties on the market and demand is low.