Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Save The High Street - Get The Hippies In

I think my friend Ian Marchant (polymath and wit and read 'Parallel Lines' and 'The Longest Crawl' for the evidence) said it first and said it best, but I'm saying it again because it bears repeating over and over - if you want to save the High Street you don't need Mary Portas - you need hippies.

Those towns that have been saved from a depressing sameness often follow a recognisable arc that starts with industrial or economic decline which means cheap houses. The hippies buy the houses, do them up using salvaged materials because hippies are often educated and practical.

The, having first saved the houses, they take on the High Street, breathing a wholemeal life into it by setting up wholefood cafes, delis, bakeries, acupuncturists. Reviving trade in the pubs, demanding real beer, decent grub, live music. Bookshops. Setting up touring theatre companies. And I'm not being cynical or facetious. It's these things that do actually save a town. They're not knitting yoghurt those bearded types with the nuclear power no thanks stickers (in welsh) in the windows of their camper vans - they're knitting your depressed small town a safety net.

And then they have kids. And the hippies - being bolshy as well as educated - are on now on the PTA raising cash and Taking An Interest. (often much to the discomfort of the school authorities).Raising standards. And now they're also agitating for better kids services, better libraries, arts events.

And once the schools start improving, well now things become safe for the professionals. Here come the  teachers, the local authority middle managers, the doctors. This next wave usually comes from the public sector (the sector the Tories boss class hate with a rage that's all the more inexplicable given that they rarely use public services if they can avoid it. From public transport to public hospitals they insulate themselves from the people they rule wherever possible). So now you'll find more cafes, more nice shops. Clothes even! Shoes! Comedy clubs! (and probably wife-swapping parties too - though it's hard to find people to talk about that in the playground)

And so now it's finally the kind of place here down-sizing London lawyers, commuting bankers and people with regular columns in the sunday papers might want to move to to. The town is officially saved. Unique, different, desirable. And it's at that moment of course that the hippies - or their children - have to move on. It's got too pricey and, probably, too claustrophobic for them. They're off mate. Off to have a go at rescuing save Rochdale or Crewe or Bedford or A Scruffy Town Near You - if people will let them.

Of course there's only a certain number of hippies. Never enough to go round. Certainly not with the levels of blight that are being visited on us at the moment. And you're probably in a hurry  in which case the only answer is to lobby the government to give councils back the power to set rents for businesses in a bespoke way.

And good luck with that. People power doesn't seem to be quite the force here that it is in other places.

They used to do this though. A blindingly simple way to keep the individual character of communities. A council was free to charge Marks and Spencers one rate per square foot, and the Yorkshire Home-made Eco-Cake Croc and Bike Emporium another. Big business - your Nexts, your Wilkinsons, your Boots and - especially - your Tescos and your Sainsburys, they didn't like this. It meant they were kept out of some nice towns. So their loyal servants in the Thatcher government scrapped this discretion and their almost as loyal servants in the New Labour party never restored it.

So until the time comes when this power is given back to the voters you'll have to rely on Mary Portas. Or wait for your houses to be worth buttons so that the hippies can come and save you.


  1. YAY, Stephen, well said - as an unreconstructed and as-yet-unrecycled hippy - I second all that...

  2. Having spent time in squats here and abroad, especially those that turn into autonomous social centres, and felt the life, optimism, respect, self-respect, creativity, worth, dedication, resourcefulness, responsibility, freedom, solidarity and, above all, joy bristling from every crumbling inch of them, I can wholeheartedly agree that hippies, punks, weirdos, outcasts, dreamers and anarchists will be the saviours of humanity, (humane-ity even).

    The only thing is, that when the 'professionals' move in, the cycle of debasement starts again and slowly the life is crushed out of these communities until any semblance of character is token at best. but wherever there's a hippy, there's hope...

    I'm reminded of the Durrutti quote from the Spanish Revolution in the 30's when challenged that the Anarchists would leave Spain in ruins in their fight against authoritarians from all sides:

    "We are not in the least afraid of ruins.
    We are going to inherit the earth, there is not the slightest doubt about that.
    The bourgeosie may blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world, here in our hearts.
    That world is growing this minute."