Saturday, 6 October 2012

Preserving a Sense of Place.

I'm back in rural Oxfordshire for the weekend spending time at my childhood home in Appleford. The village has seen many changes over the last few years, and since my last visit at the end of summer has sadly lost it's last pub, the old Carpenter's Arms, which was unsuccessfully re branded a year or so ago has finally closed down after serving thirsty villagers continuously since 1891.

Just over fifty years ago there was a thriving community here. A small primary school had 25 on the roll, a small shop doubled up as a post office and opposite The Carpenter's Arms stood The Black Horse giving the agricultural workers, who made up the majority of the village's population a choice of sawdust strewn drinking holes in which to wet their whistle after a long day in the fields.

The Black Horse was the choice of Appleford's most famous son, grand national jockey John Faulkner, who lived until a 104 years old and sired 32 children. When he wasn't riding one thing or another he spent most evenings in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century with a pint and a pipe in his favourite seat in the snug.

By the time I was born in 1970 the school and The Black Horse had gone and although the main work in Appleford was still on the three farms that lie to the South, West and North there was already the sense that a new kind of village was developing, a slight expansion had begun to attract city dwellers out of their urban environment into bucolic bliss.

Still, on Friday nights a fish and chip van came round and on Sunday mornings a bus shop stopped by. There were regular visits form mobile libraries and ice cream vans.

In the eighties and early nineties, the old farm cottages were converted, new barns were built and the sense of an interdependent community had started to wane.

New priorities developed, the desire to increase property prices drove the council to rename the village Appleford upon Thames, ironically in the same month as the local farmer closed off his fields denying legal access to the river.

The post office hung on until the end of the eighties, but out of town supermarkets at Didcot and Abingdon meant that it couldn't compete. It became essential to have a car.

More recently the church has been struggling to pay its heating bills, meaning the fortnightly services are increasingly being held in the village hall. Another certainty of village life threatened.

The closure of the pub brings to an end a process that has been squeezing the village for half a century. It's a pattern that's being repeated all over the country.

I often think the theatre has a disinterested view of the countryside. State of the Nation plays seem to me to predominantly be set in the big city or the housing estate. With the exception of Jez Butterworth's brilliant Jerusalem and Richard Bean's underrated Harvest there has been a real dearth of great rural plays over the past couple of decades and that's a real shame.

Other forms of theatre, such as the celebratory work done in the seventies and eighties by Welfare State and explored in a Spanish comtext by Chris and our friends at Spiral, might offer a different way to encourage and reconfirm local identity, but in general, in an increasingly affluent, but fearful world the idea of sharing time and space with your neighbours seems to be suffering a lingering death. In its place we have self-protective family groups, commuting far away to work and returning home to collapse anonymously in front of the plasma TV screen. The self contained private culture of the city has successfully invaded the countryside.

There's an irony in as much that one of the great middle class aspirations of modern urbanites is to live in a village like community. And so you  hear ridiculous claims from residents in Stoke Newington and Blackheath, Camberwell and Clapham that village life is thriving in the inner suburbs. These villages have little in common with their rural counterparts, where everybody knows everybody else, where children feel safe and neighbours can be relied upon to give you a lift or lend you their stuff.

Theatre can still make a difference. It's a simple form that brings people together to share stories and concerns. It takes an initial act of courage and investment to introduce yourself to a room full of strangers, but even with a minimal amount of resources, amazing results can be achieved. Time does change the feel and function of a place, but if we meet and tell each other what we think, through poetry, action and performance, we have a chance to recognise this change and structure the future that we want, making sure nothing of real value is lost along the way. It might be counter intuitive in a technological age to suggest it's a physical coming together of people that will make the difference, but sometimes you have to rehearse the community you want to build and the creative act of telling a shared story contains in it's form as well as it's final content the seeds of a more generous social structure. As Boal so often reminds us - Theatre is the rehearsal for revolution.

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