In the North of England the “celebration” of Mischief Night still endures. When I was a youngster it was a far bigger deal than the American Hallowe’en. On the 4th of November young miscreants would forget the Treat and spend the evening Tricking. Generally these were harmless pranks but in some places it became knock-a-door-run and even mindless vandalism.
I’d not thought about it for years and I assumed that Hallowe’en had replaced it in the British psyche. I’ve had to have second thoughts in the light of recent events. I think we may have some mischief makers in our midst… or maybe there is no smoke without fire.
Fear is a terrible, disabling force. Where fear is justified it keeps us from danger or from being disadvantaged by the unexpected. Irrational fear is paralysing however. It brings out the worst in people and causes them to make the most dangerous and disruptive decisions. Recently the example of Kaci Hickox was in the news: the brave nurse who had spent some time in West Africa helping to treat Ebola patients. Her reward, when she returned home, wasn’t the ticker-tape reception she perhaps deserved. Rather she was quarantined by order of the Governor of New Jersey where she landed. She had been tested and found to be clear of the disease and so, as a medical person knowing there was no risk, she ignored the ruling and returned to her home in Maine and walked into a media storm. Rather than vilify the reactionary Governor the vast majority of Americans feel Kaci should have abided by the curfew. The fear of Ebola was outweighing the medical evidence and the strength of feeling was both damaging and unstoppable.
Ashbourne is over 3,300 miles away from New Jersey but there are some comparisons. I was shocked when, out of the blue at a Neighbourhood Plan meeting a couple of weeks ago, a member of the audience asked a question about a rumour they had heard. The story is rife in QEGS that part of Ashbourne has been earmarked for a 200-house ‘ethnic’ community complete with a new place of worship. Nothing more specific than that. Two District Councillors and at least three Town Councillors looked at each other in surprise and confusion. They hadn’t heard anything to that effect. This sounded like a scare story – I don’t even know what kind of entity this community would be or how it could be legally established.
That this comes from QEGS is neither here nor there. It is the largest aggregation of people in Ashbourne on any given day and so, just like Ebola, it’s the place which is most likely to start the rumour mill and spread it quickly. In this case the story had clearly been in circulation for some time before the issue was raised in a public forum. As with Ebola, what happens next is crucial. If nothing is done the stories will be elaborated and through retelling will become ‘fact’. Personally, I found it so far-fetched that it was slightly amusing and I thought nothing more. These things start with a little xenophobia and those with a vested interest can manipulate the situation to their advantage. If there was a by-election in Ashbourne right now this is a story which could be used to stir up support through fear.
Imagine my surprise when a conversation recently with someone in the construction industry who has no connection to the town, and who lives over 40 miles away, mentioned that they had heard of planned new housing for ‘immigrants’ here with no further detail.
In my mind, these two disparate branches come from the same rumour tree and possibly relate to the requirement for affordable housing. I was at one of the early Consultation meetings where someone stood up and said words to the effect of “affordable housing? We don’t want those people here”. Breaking news: we already have affordable housing with the Waterside and Auction Close with no ill-effect.
The red-top newspapers make a business out of playing on people’s fears. Sadly it sells newspapers in the current climate and it’s also why people flock to watch horror films. The same papers never tell the story of the young people who want to have a family of their own in the town where they were born. Even though they are working and paying their taxes they can’t imagine a time when they can afford to raise the deposit to buy the kind of houses developers have been building in their town. The houses sprouting up at St Oswald’s and Willow Meadow Farm are not for local families; they are targeted at immigrants (by which I mean nothing more than non-Ashburnians like me) because they are the only people who can afford to buy them. The outline planning permissions all talk about affordable housing but by the time the detailed plans appear they have been replaced by Section 106 money for Derbyshire Dales to fund affordable housing projects elsewhere. There are lots of people born and raised in Ashbourne who can tell the story of why we need affordable housing here and who would love to occupy it. They would be outraged at the way the term is spun and disappointed that it is a basis for fear.
Of course I could be wrong and maybe this isn’t about mischief. Maybe there really are ghosts in the Town Hall and maybe the tests for Ebola aren’t as foolproof as it seems. I’m just a bloke who writes a blog and so I certainly can’t control who buys affordable housing in Ashbourne. Maybe at some high level in Government there are some mandarins who are creating new policy to parachute some form of ghetto into our town. Maybe it’s time to turn the questions back on those people who tell us the story. What exactly have they heard and from whom? Until then it remains damaging at a very sensitive time in the development of a small market town. There’s enough mischief and vagueness in the planning applications without adding to it.