Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Cream tea, Nick Berry and anomie on the Yorkshire Moors

It was as if I'd stepped into a pageant of the rural past when we left the car park at Goathland. There were Morris dancers on the village green and a Ford Anglia parked outside the souvenir shop. The tea-room played second-string sixties hits. Steam trains ran on the railway line thronged by spotters and snappers.

History was repeating itself as the worst possible kind of kitsch.

Goathland is also well on its way to becoming Aidenfield, home of TV retro-fest Heartbeat, which is mainly filmed there. Every shop is full of souvenirs and the pub proclaims its dual identity as the Aidenfield Arms. Nick Berry's face stares out of tea-towels in windows like a benign Big Brother. 

Why does a village deny its own identity to become a living fiction? The obvious answer here is money. There are plenty of pretty (if austere) villages in the moors like Goathland, but Aidenfield is its unique selling point. And the absence of any actual services and shops for the residents underlines the point that this is less a functioning community, more a rural tourism retail centre.

It suits Goathland to sink beneath its fictional alter ego.

So what? What does it matter if indulging ourselves in an imaginary Sixties provides a momentary distraction for middle-class tourists and a living in a hard-pressed Moors village?

Channeling my outer hard-headed economist (I've not managed to locate an inner economist, but count several among my good friends), I'd suggest the Aidenfielding of the countryside is a false solution to a viable rural society. If we're serious about jobs, about food security, about villages that work as places of local commerce and community, then we have to offer more than cream teas and Heartbeat paraphenalia, even if there's no dishonour in the tourist trade.

On a more personal note, I also find something distubing about the senility of cultural memory on display in Goathland/Aidenfield, itself a debased version of the slick sixties nostalgia peddled by Heartbeat. In Heartbeatland, we can gloss over the social conflict and politics of the period, never mind the present, and return to an imagined era when everyone knew their place. When threat, change or conflict is resolved or reconciled with the whole by the end of each episode. Where everyone is white – I saw not a single exception in my visit, and the souvenir shop sold gollywogs. 

Yep. Gollywogs. There are no words...

And what does it say about us that we're seduced by this imagined village? Nostalgia has always been with us, but it needs to be offset by a vision of the future, a prospect of hope, in order for us be psycho-culturally viable and equal to the challenges of the present. I bear Goathland no ill will, but as a microcosm of the way we live now, it feels like part of the problem rather than part of the solution.


  1. A few points:

    I can't believe they sell gollywogs. I went there some years ago but didn't look in any of the shops - Goathland happened to be the destination of the steam engine journey (North Yorkshire Moors Railway) and none of us watched the TV series.

    H & E are Morris dancers and having been to some of their practice sessions and dance outs, I disagree with your sentiment. Morris dancers use email and mobile phones, GPS when travelling to dance outs, and they watch and learn dances and music on iPods and computers - they are very much engaged with the modern world. Morris dancing is as valid as Shakespeare and Bach, and Morris groups are far more actively engaged in the rural economy than you realise, providing entertainment (and custom) at pubs, country fairs and markets. It's only snobbery and prejudice that seeks to condemn them to the fires of a dead past but I think your distaste for Morris dancing is a key to why viable, rural societies are failing, and why Goathland is popular. Rural societies have depended on continuity and community and Morris dancers are one group who are keeping these connections going. A village where everyone keeps to themselves, communicating with friends through Facebook and working from home through VPNs or commuting to the city is not a working village - it's a suburb surrounded by countryside. Perhaps you could visit the Lichfield Folk Festival (should be close to you) and investigate the role folk traditions play in rural communities? Lichfield Folk Festival

    Of course, it could be that there need to be more DJs maxing out the beats on the village green, but I don't think their demographic is any greater than that of Morris dancers (or Yorkshire traditional sword dancers, as the Goathland Plough Stots may attest).

    As for the popularity of steam engines, nostalgia is not the only reason people like them. I think they are amazing and impressive machines and just as impressive as the Hängebahn in Dusseldorf Airport, tallships and the Spitfire, but for different reasons.

    As a disclaimer, I think the idea of a viable rural community has been waning since the mediaeval period and the bankrupcy of the British Empire hastened the process. Maybe that's why gollywog is smiling...

  2. Hey Chris,

    I didn't see your comment until now, so apologies for the belated response.

    I'm not anti-morris and I agree that dancers can be as plugged into the modern world as anyone else and contribute like other clubs to social cohesion.

    I was interested in seeing them there as yet another signifier of tradition.

    It was slightly unfair of me though to lump them in with the real and present kitsch on display in Goathland, and I'd hate to see that undermine my real case against the dangers implicit in nostalgia without correspondingly inspiring visions of the future.

    And steam engines are awesome too.