My home these days is found in a small North Yorkshire village which for several decades had as its joiner and funeral director a local man who had also been a teacher, was a decent artist and played a deal of cricket. He was well into his eighties and still sharp as a brad when he orally recorded his many memories of life here from the 1940s onward. I bought the recordings and was astonished and enraptured, as I listened, to be hearing not simply of times past but narrated in the cadences of a local Yorkshire accent so strong as to have been parody in other mouths. “School”, “hall” and “coal” rhymed with “foil”; “pounds” were “pŭnds”; “there” really was “theer”. “Thursday neet”. “We’d dŭn weel”. “Ah weer bŭt a lad”, as he spoke of himself. It was like (sorry, “It weer laike”) dropping back to the time of Thomas Hardy but with Freddie Trueman or Brian Close as hero in place of Sergeant Troy or Gabriel Oak. I taught languages all my life, but I had to concentrate intensely to pick up maybe 80% of what he was saying and translate it into Standard English – the one that YOU speak.
The events themselves were equally as unlike our modern world as could be. Snow six feet thick, so he used the coffin board he had with him to lay out a dead woman at the distant end of the village as a sledge to get to her house. Knock-down Ginger was set up in as fine and complex a style as you’d find, to be defeated by the Village Policeman knocking the transgressing kids flat with his cape. A four-roller cast-iron mangle bought at auction, sitting on those little casters, was towed home on these along the road to the village end. An eating (aitin’) contest between the village champion and that of the next with each contestant having to eat a stone (stowen) of broth. The six mills in the village each had its own chorus, once a year its own cricket team, and there were several occasions for carnivals. Yet come a bad winter and folk would have barely enough to eat, with a party of men going to poach pheasants one night in order not to starve, and being met and badly beaten by gamekeepers with cudgels when they went back a second time.
The point these tales show, one the narrator was repeatedly proud of, was that there was a great spirit within the village. It’s a mile long straggly one designed to illustrate the word “linear” in a geography textbook. In the 50s and beyond, despite the general lack of cars and decent roads, folk at one end nonetheless knew folk at t’other. (That’s enough faux Yorkshire. Ed.). Business was largely transacted within the village – and the village itself was full of tradespeople and shops galore. It’s noticeable through the narratives that scarce mention’s made of anyone leaving the village, though occasionally, for something to do of a Sunday afternoon, folk would walk over the moors seven miles to the nearest town and catch the bus home.
Bustle, bustle, bustle. Now there are cars and buses, now there are the mobile phone and tablets and the internet and Amazon, and now the village is dying. And this is by no means hyperbole. So much of the woof and weft of the thriving village – of any village – has disappeared this past decade.
We’d a Post Office. It closed. We’d a youth club. It stopped. We’d a dramatic group. It stopped. We’d a website. It died. We’d a chemist for 2½ years who wouldn’t take plastic. He closed. We’d a florist who lasted one week. We’d an ok restaurant which suddenly closed as the owners flitted leaving vast unpaid bills, and whose successors haven’t lasted more than a couple of years each. We’d a takeaway Indian, which became a pizzeria, became Indian again. Mostly closed. The better of the two village pubs closed in 2004, leaving a scruffy dump patronised by extremely unpleasant young bingers, offering stomach-churning beer, violently loud music and service you’d normally scrape off your plate into a bin.
The latest casualty to village indifference is the Gala, which can no longer find the funds or the volunteers to make it the annual success it was ten years ago. No more opening parade. Just the funfair. And for how long, I wonder? Longer, at least, than the Christmas lights, shamefully few in cheery celebration, which are on only between around 5pm and 10pm. Presumably after ten, over Christmas, passers-through can sod off.
We still have a chippie and a corner shop and the latest versions of the restaurant and the pub. We also have a gun shop which doesn’t sell guns. And a corner shop selling baths. And that’s it. And nobody seems to care.
The shameful refusal by the creator of the village’s website to allow anyone else to run “his” dead website, allied to the mental torpor and unoriginality of the decade’s run of parish councillors can’t alone be held responsible for the distancing of villagers from each other. Neighbouring villages prove what can still be done together. But those anecdotes of carnivals, village choirs, eating contests, and dances in the village hall, even given the still playing football and cricket teams, sadly just emphasise the spiralling emptiness and isolation that lie at the heart of a once thriving community.
And the tumbleweed rolls on along the main street….