Monday, 15 October 2012

Forward to the Past!

Uncertain times, such as the one we live in now, have a curious tendency to produce nostalgic social movements, a yearning for a return to an often mythical better yesterday. In these straightened, post crash times, I want to have a brief look at the history of these movements, and see what it can tell us about things which are happening today.

Strangely, the 1920’s are remembered as a time of plenty, when flappers danced the Charleston as the good times rolled. They weren’t really like that at all. Churchill’s disastrous decision to peg Britain to the gold standard caused a manufacturing slump in a country that had never recovered from the economic upheaval of the First World War. For a great many people, it appeared that capitalism was failing as a system long before the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

In to this difficult era was born a movement called the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift. They aimed, in their own words, to encourage open air education for the children, craft training groups and craft guilds, local folk moots (sic) and cultural development, and a brotherhood of man through the disarmament of nations. In reality this meant that they went camping in homemade costumes that resembled the clothes worn by Anglo-Saxons, and danced around elaborately painted tents. In the words of the founder, John Hargrave, the movement was based on the idea that “our great disorganised civilisation has failed” and that recovery necessitated a return to a more simple way of living. The movement petered out in during the more absolute time of the Second World War.

In a similar sort of way, the movement towards self sufficiency in the 1970’s, epitomised by the saccharine sitcom ‘The Good Life’, should really be understood against the backdrop of economic crisis, strikes and the painfully obvious absence of effective political leadership that characterised that era. Once again, as things appeared to fall apart, people wistfully yearned to be transported back to an imagined happier, simpler time.

Well, let’s face it; we live in uncertain times today. Can we see modern equivalents of the Kibbo Kift emerging? I would contend that we do. Consider the campaign to save traditional high streets. The idea behind it seems to be that faceless multinational corporations are forcing small, independent retailers out of business and homogenising all of our town centres, an argument summed up, inevitably, in The Guardian here. This basic contention is accurate. Small shops are disappearing, and we do buy most of our food from the big four supermarkets. So what? Supermarkets are cheap, and money is tight. The idea that people shop in Tesco because they choose to, rather than because they are somehow forced to is not even considered. Even more bizarre is the campaign in Totnes to prevent a large coffee shop chain opening a store in the town. If people don’t like mass-produced coffee they won’t drink it. Why is it right to stop them? Why is it even important?

All these campaigners claim to be progressives, fighting the march of the evil corporations. In reality they represent nothing so much as the howl of the petit-bourgeois shopkeeper, unable to comprehend that people other than themselves can exercise free choice, and that that choice may not coincide with their desire for merry England to remain unsullied by the modern world. There are plenty of good causes worth donating time and effort to. I cannot for the life of me see why this is one of them.      

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