All is Not Always Pleasant in England’s Green Land
Many of Glastonbury’s residents and visitors are feeling intimidated, or at the very least irritated, while ‘running the gauntlet’ of the town centre. The benches outside St John’s Church and other areas in town are increasingly populated by large numbers of street drinkers, addicts and the generally troubled, shouting fighting and carrying out other nefarious activities in full view of everyone. I recently attended the meeting on Anti Social Behaviour in the Town Hall, the building was packed with people, all insisting that ‘something must be done’. Those who’ve put their money and their passion into setting up local shops and businesses are concerned about the effect that daily drunken arguments and brawls may be having on visitor numbers, while everyone else would just like to walk down the High Street in peace.
When I arrived here 25 years ago we had what were then known (rather more affectionately in those days) as ‘hedgers’. A little later, due to their fondness for congregating on the benches in the High Street they became known as the ‘Benchers’. Opinion was generally divided, many of us got to know them, heard their life stories (which often served to explain at least in part their more visible problems) and felt able to be straight with them when their antics crossed the line from eccentric and occasionally entertaining to bloody annoying. Others simply wanted them to disappear and saw any initiatives which saw them fed, or counselled or accommodated as ‘just encouraging them’.
Now I find myself harking back fondly to the days when Pagan would insist on reading me his poetry (he had a witty and clever turn of phrase even when quite drunk) and Steve Reeves would show me his latest artwork. I am sure if he hadn’t been so prey to alcohol Steve would have been a successful illustrator, rather than dead from drink in his early thirties. Nowadays it is hard to deny that the atmosphere on the street has become less friendly, harsher and more threatening.
Anti Social Behaviour – not just in Glastonbury
I feel that the visible problems we are seeing on the High Street are symptomatic of a much wider problem in the country as a whole, caused by increasing poverty, cut-backs to support services, the ever-rising cost of accommodation and consequent increase in homelessness. These are problems in virtually every town in the UK. Also, there’s no funding for community projects, art, music, sport, that connect people in a meaningful way and alleviate their feelings of powerlessness and disenfranchisement.
Some people, due to difficult childhood circumstances, mental health problems, poor education, lack of opportunity, etc, need a lot of one on one support in order to discover their own worth and desire to, and be able to be, ‘valuable’ members of a community. If they’ve consistently slipped through the net, or that help has not been available (largely due to funding cuts in the name of ‘austerity’) they eventually band together in a smaller, different kind of community. The community of the disenfranchised, the outcast, the addicted. This community doesn’t have the same rules as the wider community, because it doesn’t see how those rules benefit them. Its members often view themselves as victims and use that to justify the kind of behaviour that the wider community has a problem with. The more they feel cast out the worse that behaviour becomes. Compounding this, there are simply more vulnerable people around, who in turn provide easy prey for this handful of those who have become so screwed up, that they see no reason not to exploit others in even more difficult circumstances. It is believed by many that those causing the most problems are not incomers attracted by Glastonbury’s alternative culture, but homegrown Somerset locals, such as you might find in most of our local large towns.
Baa Baa Black Sheep
I think it’s a particular problem in Glastonbury because, to a certain extent, the wider community is composed of ‘black sheep’ – the misunderstood, the bullied, the not neuro-typical, those who came here precisely because they felt uncomfortable in the communities in which they were brought up. In many ways this is Glastonbury’s strength. It creates an atmosphere of tolerance and acceptance, but it also makes it harder for us to agree a common set of standards of behaviour.
Speaking personally: I was generally regarded as a ‘weirdo’ by other kids, I didn’t know how to fit in, during my childhood the conventions of acceptable behaviour (or at least the kind of behaviour that would make me ‘popular’) seemed arbitrary and meaningless, and connected to things like my gender and class in ways which were restrictive and unhelpful. I sought out other outcasts, people who defied convention in their dress and behaviour. Then I discovered Glastonbury and for the first time felt at home.
Fortunately I got raised with a few basic rules to do with honesty, integrity and respect for others. However, I have a problem setting boundaries. I don’t like being dictated to and I don’t like dictating to others. If someone else’s behaviour upsets me I find myself examining that, to see if my upset is a result of my own unacknowledged prejudice, or lack of understanding, or cultural bias. Also, even when that behaviour is clearly intimidating others I wonder how I can most usefully respond, so as to help, rather than exacerbate the problem. I suspect a lot of ‘the alternative community’ have this dilemma and so we end up doing nothing, because we simply don’t know what the best thing to do is.
What to do?
Local traders are considering employing the services of a private security firm. There was even a call at the meeting for a ‘zero tolerance approach’ which I quite honestly found chilling. I am proud to live in a town in which tolerance is largely seen as a virtue. I fear the authoritarian approach to ‘cleaning up Glastonbury’ would be rather heavy-handed, perhaps involving clamping down on the kinds of things that in other towns are seen as ‘Anti-social behaviour’ but here are viewed more as entertaining and mildly eccentric. Busking and drumming for instance or colourful graffiti like that produced by the Krumble Empire. How long before brightly coloured processions, gatherings on the Tor and labyrinths in the Churchyard are seen as encouraging anti-social behaviour?
Personally. I am not in favour of private security. The police, who are after all under oath to serve the people, are increasingly underfunded and short staffed. It is no great secret that members of the establishment would like to see us paying private firms to patrol the streets of our towns, firms in which they often have a very significant financial interest. Security firms may impress by statistics, but they have no long-term interest in improving the town.
It’s not always easy to discriminate between that which is contributing to the atmosphere in the town, and that which detracts from it. It generally comes down to your perspective and even then you have the choice to tolerate it, or not. For instance, I enjoy Lee’s drumming, he’s a consummate musician, but IMO bad djembe players on the Market Cross are the pits. I can’t imagine a security guard sent to impose some order on the High Street is likely to be able to tell the difference, or realise how much many of our visitors enjoy listening to some well-formed beats while they are eating their ice creams. A less tolerant attitude might lead to the eccentrically dressed and dreadlocked tourists ordered to turn out their pockets for a bit of pot, while hoodie wearing short haired drug dealers are able to pass by anonymously. They’ll still be able to claim they are dealing with Glastonbury’s drug problem, but Glastonbury will be no safer as a result.
Some people in the meeting clearly had a more robust answer to the problem – I heard mutterings about bundling people into vans and taking them away, some would like to see the return of big lads sorting the issue out with fists and kicks. I get it, and in moments of frustration I occasionally find myself thinking perhaps it’s not such a bad idea, answering violence and bullying with more of the same. However, I think this solution is rather antithetical in a town that prides itself on the fact we have over 70 religious groups living in peace and harmony. Violence and bullying doesn’t seem to be making the world a safer place in general, I really don’t see how it can be an answer here. Besides, in my experience, those who deal with problems with force tend to get bored when the troublemakers are gone and look elsewhere for their adrenalin fix, becoming troublemakers in turn. Also, I feel that when we call for violent solutions it’s a measure of our own frustration and powerlessness, a sign that we have given up even considering more creative and imaginative approaches.
We might get tainted by association, and so we become less understanding and less tolerant by degrees.
Over the years travelling folk and penniless dreamers have contributed greatly to Glastonbury’s creativity, colour and vibrancy. It’s become a hub for festival crew, gardeners, carpenters, musicians, artists, poets and writers. Those of an entrepreneurial bent have established successful businesses, been able to buy property and are now seen as valuable members of the community. However, many active, hard-working residents are finding it nearly impossible to keep a roof over their heads. It all feels rather precarious, many of us are so near to homelessness ourselves, we no longer have the time or inclination to sit and listen to the stories of those on the benches. After all we might get tainted by association, and so we become less understanding and less tolerant by degrees.
The only way we are ever going to find an answer to these problems is by treating people as individuals. There is no one sure-fire way to help everyone find purpose in their lives, to build their own self-respect to the point that they respect those around them, to give up the addictions, anger and behaviours that are making their lives (and others) a misery. Surely, in a community that prides itself on being free-thinking, we should be better placed to at least try and find creative solutions? Or perhaps we could bring back the support systems that helped in the past, as banishing them has clearly not magically made the problem go away.
The Robert Barton Trust
Following the death of a young homeless man in the town, the Robert Barton Trust opened in 1996 and helped people in need access vital services that got them ‘back on their feet’. The RBT also acted as an interface between those who had settled in the town and it’s more itinerant, and sometimes more troubled, visitors. The staff and other service users did a sterling job ‘self-policing’ more difficult behaviour, setting boundaries which defined what was, and wasn’t OK. The RBT was a friendly place, great for a cup of tea and a cheap meal, anyone could pop in, which fostered tolerance and respect all round.
Some argued that the RBT encouraged people to stay in Glastonbury who otherwise would simply have moved on, it seems to me that the situation since the RBT’s closure in 2011 has proved this theory wrong. Rather than moving on, the benchers are now gathering in even greater numbers, showing very little inclination to contribute to the town in any useful way and those amongst them who do want help sorting their lives out are unable to easily access it. When an addict has a tenner in their pocket they are more likely to use it to alleviate their immediate suffering with a beer or a bag than on the bus fare to the Elim Connect Centre in Wells to access Drug and Alcohol services.
There are other approaches too, check out the work of Windsor Hill Wood in Shepton Mallet for example, who provide a retreat for those in crisis, and in recovery. I worked there for a while and saw how community, kindness, routine and responsibility could help stop chaotic lives spiralling out of control.
It has often been remarked that for a town with so many healers there seems to be a lot of unwell people here. If there is anyone working in alternative approaches to mental health or addiction with any practical ideas I think we need to hear about them, as it seems there is very little funding for conventional treatment nowadays, and it may be that a more holistic approach is needed.
We also need to really appreciate and defend those things that make our High Street special and unique – like the buskers, glittery litter bins, Gaz’s chalk mandalas and processions of people doing weird stuff that we don’t necessarily understand. We need to support all those local artists, musicians, writers, town bloggers(!) and other creatives, so they can earn enough to stay here and continue to contribute meaningfully to the community. The same goes for the local businesses, local food growers, cider makers, herbalists and acupuncturists, yoga teachers and chainsaw carvers. We need a diverse and thriving community to be able to creatively and kindly, but effectively, deal with the problem of anti-social behaviour in our town.
If you are a visitor to Glastonbury please don’t be put off, the media seem to be delighted at this opportunity to paint Glastonbury in a bad light, but it’s still a safe place to visit. The troublemakers are more of a danger to themselves and each other than anyone else. This post follows on from Dora’s guest post about bad behaviour on the benches.
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