Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Bent double…

…it’s impossible to argue that people should be forced to stay where they were born – certainly not Belgium or Aldershot – so it follows that we’re allowed to move about. Isn’t that really the point?

I went to see – or rather, listen to (although there was some wonderful mime…) – Jeremy Hardy (one of the funniest, most profound people on the planet) present his “restrained burlesque show… where Shakespeare danced” at Stratford ArtsHouse, on Saturday night. This is the third time I’ve seen him do what he describes as his “real job” – stand-up – although, as defined by Hardy’s impromptu hands-up, I was amongst a minority of those who had seen him perform live before.

In the second half (of a two-and-half hour show: with “two intervals” – the second one of infinite length: during which time he headed down the M40 towards home…), this prompted ponderings on his demographic. As he says, he’s mostly known for his appearances on Radio 4, “whose audience is mainly made up of Telegraph readers”; and, although this brought a big laugh, and a light ripple of applause – because the first half (as is his wont) was a wonderfully funny dissection of current politics, from Hardy’s slightly self-mocking, but longstanding and truly-felt viewpoint quite far out to the left of the continuum – some of the hilarity (I felt) was tinged with nervous self-recognition. (There’s a reason Bart sells so few copies of The Guardian – but that’s exaggerated, I would surmise, by our rural isolation.)

Hardy had started the show lightly pointing out how – although he was only basing his assumptions on a sample of one: Stratford’s most famous son – we were all racist and misogynistic (a theme he brilliantly returned to, later, when discussing gender identity). But, looking around, when the lights went up, it was startling – and somewhat discomfiting for someone who grew up amongst the satanic mills of East Lancashire, where there is a large (and mostly integrated) Asian population – to discover that every single face there was white. For a town whose economy relies utterly on tourism, this seems somewhat ironic: as if we are happy, as a population, to accept Johnny Foreigner as a temporary visitor, but not as a resident.

In the twenty-first century the economic benefits of tourism to the area are well known. A report released in July 2013 by the Heritage Lottery Fund revealed that heritage tourism’s importance to the UK was increasing. Robin Tjolle, Destination Manager for Shakespeare’s England commented, “We estimate that 4.9m people a year visit the Stratford-on-Avon district and our wide variety of tourism businesses help to generate more than £335 million of spend per year into the local economy which supports over 8000 jobs.”
– Sylvia Morris: The Shakespeare Blog

Now it may be that Stratford holds no attraction as a permanent home for immigrants of any generation – but I find that difficult to believe, being one (by Hardy’s definition, anyway: even though my face is a becoming shade of Pantone 91-8 C…); and not forgetting that we have, of course, an Iraqi-born MP. It may also be the case that Hardy holds no attraction for them, either: but, at previous performances (even in Cheltenham: the spiritual homeland of the Telegraph reader), audiences were a bit more varied.

Hardy himself lives in Streatham – “next door to Brixton” – and, the night after his appearance in Stratford, was taking part in a benefit gig in Bloomsbury for the Kurdish Red Crescent… – so I don’t think the problem lies there.

According to the Office for National Statistics, however you measure it, Stratford-on-Avon district just has less immigrants living here than either the rest of the West Midlands, or the whole of the UK. For example, if you compare Age of Arrival in the UK (QS802EW), only 6.2% of Stratford’s residents were born ‘abroad’, measured at the last census (2011); compared to 11.2% for the West Midlands; and 13.8% for the UK. It’s even more marked when you compare people’s stated Ethnic Group (KS201EW) – with only 6.4% of Stratford’s population classing themselves as non-white (English/Welsh/Scottish/Northern Irish/British); versus 20.8% in the West Midlands; and 20.2% overall.

So what on earth is going on? Is it to do with Stratford’s less-affordable housing, compared to the rest of the region? Or is there some other factor?

Well, if you delve deeper into the census statistics, it turns out that not only does “Stratford-upon-Avon [have] 20% more Higher and Intermediate managerial, administrative or professional households than the national average”; but we also have fewer people on benefits (7.7%, compared to the UK’s 13.5%) – whether that be incapacity benefits (Employment Support Allowance: 1.5%/2.4%) or Jobseekers Allowance (1.0%/3.3%) – and this in an almost entirely service-based, somewhat seasonal economy. Our population’s median age is also high (46, vs. 39 for the UK): but that could just mean that we’re healthier (which is hinted at in the numbers) because of all the wonderful countryside, fresh air, and culture – not just that people like to retire here (which they do appear to…).

In conversations with other incomers – especially those who live or work in Stratford itself – it seems that these skewed figures do manifest themselves as subtle, mostly-lingering-beneath-the-surface, airs and graces. But this is both hard to quantify and to find evidence of… – although I did stumble across this:

There is plenty to do in this town. We are no different from any other town in England. I think the Stratford upon Avon snobbery and sense of entitlement is filtering down to the younger generations. Oh dear.

If there is a basis to (and for) such superciliousness (or is it smugness…?), then maybe it stems from some form of protective jealoushood regarding “Stratford’s most famous son”, and our perceived ‘ownership’ of him? Or at least a fear that if he was found to be some sort of ‘fake’ – not just a characteristically undocumented Jacobethan figure – that the local, tourism-based, financial system would collapse (which it might well…)?

I only suggest this because, when the ‘anti-Stratfordian’ (and surely that word says it all?) film Anonymous was released – as part of a growing campaign ‘proving’ that Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, was posh enough to write Shakespeare’s works (under a pseudonym, of course); but that grain merchant “Shaxper” himself was just an ill-educated Warwickshire oik who couldn’t rub two braincells together – the town was at the heart of an exercise (defensive, maybe; ludicrous, certainly) to redact every public reference to my hero: blacking out every sign with his name on; and even draping the Gower Memorial statue with a black cloth…! (Surely it would have been better just to promote (and read) James Shapiro’s entertaining and erudite Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?)

I understand such defensiveness when faced with such trolling. (I only call it this because I do not see what the anti-Stratfordians have to gain. It just seems to me the equivalent of microwaving your pet rabbit.) But I’m still not convinced that this then readily translates into the uppishness I sense. Perhaps it is, after all, just a consequence of our demographics; coupled with the feeling that Stratford-upon-Avon – seen as the home of English literature as we know it – is a special (and therefore more expensive) place to live.

Anyway, after rambling, and leaving behind the subject I started with (not an uncommon trait – which I blame on my grammar school English teacher, Eric ‘gild the lily’ Whittle: who always prompted us to “begin on a wing and a prayer”), I leave the final word to Jeremy Hardy – one of my favourite “apes with broadband” – who prompted the whole shebang:

For me, ancestry is just one thing that connects us to people, and feeling connected to other people is generally a good thing, as long as one kind of connection does not have primacy over all the others. Heredity, race and nationhood are not the best criteria by which to judge our fellow humans.

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