18/04/2011

For What Is Chatteris


 

The other side of the coin from being in the sticks and dreaming of the bright lights, big city or making it on Broadway is being in the fast lane of the city and dreaming of the sticks, or more likely the countryside – finding something like the title of David Ackle’s 1969 song, Subway to the Country. That view from the other end of the telescope, of course, has often been a pretty idealised one of rural life, a picture postcard view of a cottage with roses and ivy looking out across a rolling landscape. The desire to get back to nature and a simpler way of life has been a common theme in literature for the past 200 years or so and something similar happened musically in the late sixties, with a string of artists - Bob Dylan, The Band, Stevie Winwood and Traffic, Jethro Tull - suddenly wanting to get it together in the country with a more pastoral hue to their music. The arrival of pop groups in the countryside to discover themselves was not always welcomed. One former resident of the Berkshire village where Traffic recorded their 1967 Mr Fantasy album recalled: “They were a strange looking lot. We'd never seen anything like it. My dad reckoned they were a sweaty, smelly lot. He warned me to keep away from them because of the sex and drugs and that.".

I am not sure who was first. Cliff Richard and The Shadows could possibly lay claim, with their In the Country hit dating to 1966, though the sound here did conjure up the notion of a Sunday drive in a Ford Cortina to have a picnic of hard boiled eggs and jam sandwiches in a field somewhere more than aduki beans and dope in a rural commune. Whoever it was, it set in train several years of British and American artists finding their historical rural roots. Take the Small Faces, the mid-sixties epitome of urban East End mods whose idea of something rural was the bit of waste ground of Itchycoo Park: by 1974 former member Ronnie Lane could bring out the bucolic The Poacher – “Was fresh and bright and early, I went towards the river, but nothing still has altered just the seasons ring a change”. Some songs went for a mystical, magical approach to the countryside, as in Carolanne Pegg’s Witch's Guide to the Underground; some for the whimsical, as with Stackridge and Pinafore Days; some for the comical, as with the Wurzels and I’ve Got a Brand New Combine Harvester.

Most of these painted, in different ways, a rose-coloured picture, though some did point out that life in the countryside could actually be pretty miserable. Recently, Billy Bragg and the Imagined Village band updated the traditional Hard Times of Old England to incorporate the Countryside Alliance and the impact on rural life of the encroachment of Tesco and the closure of post offices.

What is striking, however, is that the view was usually of the deep countryside of cottages and farms. The large village/small market town hardly figured as a vision of escape, yet to a resident of London or Manchester these were just as much ‘the countryside’.

The song here from 2005, then, For What Is Chatteris by Birkenhead indie band Half Man Half Biscuit, redresses that with a double-edged commentary, like much of their work over the past 25 years. A seemingly anonymous small market town in the Fenlands of Cambridgeshire is presented with a blend of witty irony and poignancy, not as a dullsville to escape from to the big city but a gentle idyll which has only lost its charms after a girlfriend upped and left. (Note: there is an extensive internet debate on some of the lyrics and whether the words near the end  say ‘prick’ or ‘crick’ barriers at both ends. Either seem plausible!). I must admit that I have only passed through Chatteris once but it was on a cross-country route to visit my father in a very similar place some 70 miles away, North Walsham in Norfolk. Like Chatteris ,it is a rural market town with some 10,000 inhabitants where the worries are out- of - town supermarkets closing down the local shops, teenagers pulling up the floral display in the park and the odd ‘drive by shouting’.

I often wondered why my father chose to retire there after 40+ years of working in London and the South Coast, as we never went on holiday there or even passed through Norfolk at all to my knowledge. Many years later I found a black and white photograph of a far distant summer, my father as a teenager but looking grown up as though the world was at his feet, standing with his own father on Cromer beach, the seaside town adjoining North Walsham where one stormy evening once I saw Alan Price play at the end of the pier as the waves buffeted the structure. What had pulled my father back there perhaps was the North Norfolk coast shimmering in a remembered golden summer holiday  of a lifetime ago shortly before his father died and his life changed for ever.

Perhaps too it was the predictable nature of life that was attractive. Over the visits there I sometimes thought about the families in the small park down the road from his house. The children went there to play on the swings and roundabout and eat ice - creams; a few years later they were back with their school or college friends, hanging about the park and War Memorial drinking cider and smoking; a few years after that they were back with their own children playing on the swings, whilst around them the town changed little. I was reminded of the Little Bear books by Else Minarik. Only small things happen in these stories: Little Bear puts a box on his head as a space helmet, climbs up a little mound to pretend he has flown to the moon and eventually jumps off again to have his tea. But young children love them because of the safe reassurance of the stories: like North Walsham and Chatteris, you look to enter a small but complete world protected from change. Life there is not being on Broadway, true, but then Broadway -either in reality or the imagination - hasn’t got three good butchers, two fine chandlers, an indoor pool and a first class cake shop.

Link to song

56 comments:

  1. That updated version by Bragg is really great - thanks for posting it, and thanks for the column, really great to have one up, I was about to go into withdrawal.... :)

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  2. I would LOVE to witness the horrors of a drive by shouting in a sleepy English market town:)

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  3. Oh Geoff, your last line made me smile, imagining broadway with 3 butcher shops and a cake shop too.....

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  4. It is definitely 'crick' barriers.....

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  5. Apparently local politicians just heard about the song and presumed it was positive, announced it was great for the town.... Presumably changed their mind after hearing it......

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  6. No, it is clearly 'prick'!!

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  7. I think it is "brick", actually.

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  8. Wow I wonder if the chatteris museum is worth a visit.... http://www.chatterismuseum.org.uk/

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  9. And there is a whole Facebook group about changing a particular speed bump on a road in chatteris..... http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=14949106414

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  10. Oooooooh I have waiting for the songs about suburbia week! Here are a few more:
    Sparks' Suburban Homeboy
    Beatles' Penny Lane
    Kinks' Shangri-La
    Pet Shop Boys' suburbia
    MC Solaar's Comme Dans un Film
    Talking Heads' The Big Country
    Descendents' Suburban Home
    Slits' New Town.

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  11. Chatteris is about 7 miles away from us.

    Wonder if anyone has written a song about Somersham?
    :)

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  12. Yes Alan there is a song with the line "Troubled times had come to Somersham" and a whole chorus about your town in 1965......

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  13. Here are the great lyrics


    One way system – smooth and commendable
    Go by bus – they’re highly dependable
    The swings in the park for the kids have won awards
    The clean streets acknowledged in the Lords
    But what’s a park if you can’t see a linnet?
    A timetable if your journey’s infinite?
    My bag’s packed and I’m leaving in a minute
    For what is Chatteris without you in it?
    Car crime’s low, the gun crime’s lower
    The town hall band CD, it’s a grower
    You never hear of folk getting knocked on the bonce
    Although there was a drive-by shouting once
    But there’s a brass band everywhere
    And I don’t drive, so I don’t care
    And as a nightingale sang in Berkeley Square
    What’s Chatteris if you’re not there?
    Like a game-bird reserve short on pheasants
    Weavers’ cottages devoid of tenants
    A market town that lacks quintessence
    That’s Chatteris without your presence
    Three good butchers, two fine chandlers
    An indoor pool and a first class cake shop
    Ofsted plaudits, envy of the Fens
    Prick barriers at both ends
    But what’s Chatteris if you’re not there?
    What’s Chatteris if you’re not there?
    What’s Chatteris if you’re not there?
    What’s Chatteris if you’re not there?
    What’s Chatteris if you’re not there?
    What’s Chatteris if you’re not there?
    I may as well be in Ely or St.Ives…

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  14. Cheers! I'd say another eg of this songwriting ability probably comes in Keeping Two Chevrons Apart - "They say 'Plenty more fish' / I say 'Amoco Cadiz'" is just one of the most wonderfully concise and apt lyrics I've ever heard...

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  15. I also loved that you saw beyond the mockery in this song. even those who actually have a lot of time for Nigel Blackwell's unique blend of biting satire, pop culture references, canny wordplay, Thomas Hardy quoting and guides to hillwalking can find ourselves surprised, on occasion, by the hidden depths he's able to demonstrate. Case in point - For What Is Chatteris. A charming little love song, Chatteris has a sweet yet sad - and, crucially, sharp - premise at its core. Describing the idyllic, timeless and markedly English countryside beauty and perfection of the titular village ("The swings in the park for the kids have won awards / The clean streets, acknowledged in the Lords"), Blackwell goes on to lament that all of it is ultimately meaningless if it can't be shared with an unnamed (presumed departed) love. A heartbreaking song really.

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  16. This song actually displays quite an extensive knowledge of Cambridgeshire......

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  17. And for more reasons to like north Walsham:
    1. Church of St Nicholas. North Walsham was quite a metropolis in medieval times, when it got rich on the proceed of the wool trade, and its church of St Nicholas is the largest parish church in Norfolk, with a vast roodscreen that would have filled the width of the building, though now only the bottom painted panels of this survive. The interior is impressive for its sheer size, although sadly the once-grand tower is a ruin.
    2. The Olive Tree. Located in a rather humdrum caravan and chalet park on the edge of town, the stylish Olive Tree isn’t the sort of place you pass by accident. But the food is great and its airy modern restaurant opens out onto a patio and pool in summer, so you can take a dip before enjoying one of their all-day summer barbecues. At any time, though, the food is great, with a deliberately simple lunch menu – burgers, shepherds pie, pasta dishes, etc – and a heavier dinner menu that features pan-fried sea bass, rib-eye steak and lots of pasta and risotto dishes for veggies.
    3. Beechwood Hotel This boutique hotel restaurant, right in the centre of town, serves a ‘ten-mile’ dinner menu, using ingredients sourced no more than ten miles from the hotel – think Walsingham cheese tart with mustard and bacon, followed by loin of Norfolk lamb on dauphinois potatoes.

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  18. Seems like the North Walsham graffiti artist is a cut above most..... http://northwalshamguide.blogspot.com/2011/02/north-walsham-graffiti-artist.html

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  19. Murder in north Walsham ..... Only of pigeons though http://www.edp24.co.uk/news/north_walsham_pigeons_to_be_culled_1_854776

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  20. After careful listening I have to come down on the side of crick barriers, which I imagine are a sort of chicane..

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  21. I love how your columns have a progression - for example, the theme of yearning for Broadway adventure followed by the theme of yearning for its opposite in a place like Chatteris........... I'm not sure if you plan it like that, but it's wonderful!

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  22. I really like the Subway to the Country song that Geoff mentioned - here it is - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p-6zfFiUUjA

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  23. I do love the image of this lot turning up in a tiny village to the consternation of respectable and terrified locals: http://static.ulike.net/img/01_Traffic_%28Band%29.jpg

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  24. Awesomeness! Reading this week's column was like watching a British film that I occasionally feel needs captions explaining things. For example: "a Sunday drive in a Ford Cortina to have a picnic of hard boiled eggs and jam sandwiches in a field." From this single sentence, I learned that
    a) there is such a practice in England as a "Sunday Drive"
    b) Ford Cortinas are some kind of quintessential middleclass family vehicle
    c) the British eat picnics that consist of hard boiled eggs (really? I bet you also eat egg sandwiches, come to think of it, don't you?:)
    d) there is such a thing as a "jam sandwich" which seems to be a bit like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (PB&J) but without the peanut butter.

    Now, aduki beans and dope in a rural commune, THAT'S a recognizable scene:)

    Thanks for the wonderful column Geoff!

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  25. Enjoyed your column very much! And I'm very impressed by your reference to "Witch's Guide" - it is absolutely unknown, currently unavailable and very hard to find. I'm an ethnomusicologist now, researching into the roots music of Inner Asia. I have begun writing songs again though, a bit - drawing on raws on a few different periods of my life: early years in my hometown, Nottingham, the Mr Fox folk-rock years, the Suffolk years of writing my Cambridge PhD, mainly spent playing in pub tune-ups with traditional East Suffolk music greats such as melodeon player Oscar Woods, fiddler and singer Fred ‘Pip’ Whiting, dulcimer player Reg Reeder, singers Percy and Geoff Ling, and step-dancers ‘Font’ Whatling and Kensor Diaper; and my time with Magus (the band I formed with Graham Bond).

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  26. But for those who are interested, here's a version of "Witch's Guide" - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GFtPIw84heQ

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  27. We're still wurzeling too, mate, 'ave a listen to our latest album 'A Load More Bullocks'
    Cheers me babbers!

    Lang mae yer lum reek!

    Yours Aye,
    Tommy

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  28. I really liked the Hard Times of Old England version, a great protest song about empty holiday homes and closing post offices - thanks for posting that as a way to point out the dark side of all the romanticisation of rural life by city dwellers, where rich people buy a second home as a holiday place and drive up home prices so that locals can't afford them.

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  29. Strange and FABULOUS - "Pinafore Days": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ySh9MJHe74Q

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  30. Thanks for the Witches Guide link. I can't remmember where I heard it fairly recently-but its on my ipod! Mr Fox were a much under-rated group.

    re Martha's comments, Ford Cortinas were a fairly typical car to have a Sunday drive-not to see anywhere in particular, just to tootle along. Hard boiled eggs were best eaten with Smiths crisps!

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  31. And its nice to hear the Wurzels are still about!

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  32. This was a really poignant and true description Geoff: "The children went there to play on the swings and roundabout and eat ice - creams; a few years later they were back with their school or college friends, hanging about the park and War Memorial drinking cider and smoking; a few years after that they were back with their own children playing on the swings, whilst around them the town changed little."

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  33. Nooooooooooooo! Tootling along with Smiths crisps????? That was a serious undertaking, googling that. For anyone else wondering, it means: "to amble aimlessly with Lays chips"!!!

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  34. Geoff - I was moved by this paragraph: "What had pulled my father back there perhaps was the North Norfolk coast shimmering in a remembered golden summer holiday of a lifetime ago shortly before his father died and his life changed for ever". It's a marvellous autobiography, your column.

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  35. I still have The Poacher on vinyl:) Here is is for anyone else who wants to hear it....... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s_qWbMl03As

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  36. Geoff! Seeing as you mentioned the Cliff Richard song "In the Country," here's a video clip where you can see me in the audience.... www.youtube.com/watch?v=X7i7ajweZXw - I'm there at 2.28 mins, the young man in the tie clapping along, in the middle row. With the grumpy looking woman next to me, arms folded, scowling. (My girlfriend at the time, and she wasn't a fan of Cliff, for reasons I don't remember!). But it was a great performance.

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  37. You are right, she does look grumpy. And everyone looks so cleancut!
    The thing about Smiths crisps, Martha, is that the salt came separately in a little blue bag-so you could also put it on your hard bolied egg!

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  38. I mean boiled -dont try googling bolied egg!

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  39. It all sounds very exotic - chips with blue bags of salt that you can also use for your eggs. It's a shame these things got lost when the colonists had their revolution over here:)

    Although actually, it's all British all the time over here at the moment because of the Royal Wedding. I wonder if they will serve Smiths crisps, jam sandwiches and hard boiled eggs at the wedding dinner.

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  40. And actually, sorry, it's not 2.28 minutes, that is the length of the whole video. It is at 0.28 minutes. But I'm glad you spotted her being grumpy:) And yes, it was definitely a pretty cleancut crowd.

    The Farmer's Boys did a cover of this song in 1980s: it's a funny video - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uy_47WBfI1Y - with sheep singing along. And a tank attacking the happy people in the country.

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  41. I saw Alan Price too, maybe around the same time - it was with the Alan Price Set, at St George's Hall in Exeter, sometime in late 1967. Less picturesque than the Cromer pier though!

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  42. I think it was the early 90's I saw him in Cromer- no Set any more but brilliant musician.

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  43. Thank you for your kind words about my book series. I wrote them when my own daughter needed more books to read.

    I think I must surely be the oldest person to write on your website. I am 33093 days old.

    Else

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  44. The English countryside is under threat from development with Government proposals to meet fresh housing targets initiated under a Labour government. The new Coalition government intends to relax planning rules further. All these beautiful villages I love so much, where the weary traveller will find hospitality and refreshment, are to be engulfed by vast new housing developments.

    One of my favourite causes is the Weald of Kent Protection Society. Its events calendar reads like a rustic community’s traditional fare from a Wealden Ploughman's Lunch, an annual Summer Party, to volunteers for making log piles in Cole Wood (a 12 acre semi-ancient wood dominated by sycamore with ash, oak and beech supporting a mixed vegetative community left to the Society). Inviolable and so precious.

    The Weald of Kent Protection Society exists for one of the noblest causes you will find in this England of ours — to resist the urbanisation of the Weald and to preserve the green belt for posterity. In their own words: “The society’s aim is now, and always has been, to protect and enhance the rural character of our Wealden villages and countryside”.

    I am a great believer in rural communities maintaining a certain continuity, forever close to the land from generation to generation. They are the custodians of the land in the same way as the old established peasant families were on the continent of Europe before the Second World War, now sadly replaced by an industrialisation of agriculture.

    Even for the outsider, the ‘townie’, our rural areas are a source of escape from the greyness of our concrete towns, from the modernism of new office blocks and the asphalt of roads and supermarket car parks.

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  45. Half Man Half Biscuit are playing London this summer - in June (http://www.o2shepherdsbushempire.co.uk/event/26096/half-man-half-biscuit-tickets), definitely worth seeing I reckon.

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  46. To really understand Half Man Half Biscuit’s music you need a wide knowledge of many music forms, the history of English literature, obscure sporting trivia, daytime TV and to have preferably spent part of Margaret Thatcher’s reign of terror on the dole. They are clever chaps, and I’m sure they must find it annoying as I do that they often get lightly dismissed as a comedy band.

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  47. Thanks for this column Geoff! I've been curious about this band since Eliza Carthy picked the band's song "A Country Practice" as the song that best defines Englishness: "The song seems over-clever and flippant, but it's bitter and very funny, which is very English: pathos disguised by wit and emotional detachment. It's like a camera flying over the country, zooming in and out; like watching a film of England". - http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2008/feb/15/popandrock2

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  48. Agreed on this current tour being worth seeing - saw them in Sheffield in February, they did a mammoth 31 song setlist, a fair balance between the older mid-1980s material and more contemporary works. Everyone should go to at least one Half Man Half Biscuit gig in their life. Anywhere. You wouldn’t regret it.

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  49. What a co-incidence -Eliza Carthy is playing the violin in the Billy Bragg video shown.

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  50. Geoff, I found this column very provocative, and I suppose I feel very differently than you about all such small towns - whether in England, the U.S. or mainland European countries. It all seems to be a quite dangerous nostalgia and idealisation of the past, to seek out and move to places like North Walsham and Chatteris - to find that lost golden summer in the past that you describe your father perhaps seeking. Just visiting those places fills me with a rising terror about the social attitudes, sexism, homophobia and racism there. It all seems far too much like the very recent novel “Major Pettigrew's Last Stand” by Helen Simonson, about life in a small and conservative English village - respectability, duty and a properly brewed cup of tea.

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  51. Geoff, I really loved this column, it made me smile and laugh. Last autumn you wrote about the song "Driving Away from Home", about how for the industrial city dweller, the countryside or even the suburbs, have always seemed a healthy escape. And that helped push me toward finally leaving Birmingham, where I had felt trapped for years. But last month I finally bought my small house in the country and I played that song, "Driving Away from Home" as I drove out of Birmingham for the last time. I didn't head North in the end, as I had expected, but West to Presteigne, Powys. It straddles the border between England and Wales and is spectacularly remote. Small streets and small shops, lots of people who - like me - wanted to live outside of the mainstream and be gardeners and artists. We have an arts festival coming up in August, there is no evidence of any assault of new money at all, and we too have a good butchers and a first class cake shop (although no indoor pool). I have never been happier.

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  52. I haven't read that book -I must look it out. I do think there is a difference, though, in the sort of deliberate nostalgia/conservatism of the Midsomer Murders type of community that is there to keep change out and the individual nostalgia of trying to recapture something in the past by going back to a place. The two can co-incide but need not necessarily.

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  53. Thats great news, Tiffanye!I have never been there but it sounds a wonderful change from Birmingham.

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  54. I see what you mean about the difference between social and individual nostalgia, but your description of "a small but complete world protected from change" - which beautifully summarises what a site of nostalgia really is - still suggests people who seek to oppose change, which means anti-progressives, which could mean something good on the one hand (they oppose capitalism sweeping through and leaving 2 McDonalds in its wake) but could also mean something bad on the other hand (they oppose racial and ethnic diversity in their communities, different roles for women, the EU, etc).

    But anyway, I do think you would enjoy the book Major Pettigrew's Last Stand - here is a good review: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/03/02/AR2010030203491.html. The writer reminds me of HG Wells actually, it's as though she is writing his lost novels!

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  55. Thank you Geoff:) Well, stop by next time you're nearby and I'll show you the town - maybe it will even turn into a column about Presteigne!

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  56. Thank you, Tiffanye -I will.

    Thanks for the book link, Laura, I will definitely get hold of it. I wonder if the place of the small community as described is rather different in England from the USA and perhaps Europe. There is a strand of English radicalism -which I suppose Billy Bragg represents and which can be traced back through Orwell, the Independent Labour Party, Chartists, William Cobbett and the Diggers - that see such communities as the driver of socialism. In 1906, the small mill town of Burnley in Lancashire came within 350 votes of electing a Marxist MP. It was this strand, which can be seen from some perspectives as nostalgic and backward looking, that New Labour sought to bury with its managerialism and neo-liberal economics and heralding of 1997 as Year Zero of Labour history. I guess that 'change' itelf is neutral - it depends on what change is being resisted or promoted.

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