Community Relations

Newton Abbot – December 2020

Yesterday I read that one of the first people in the United Kingdom, indeed the world, to receive the new Pfizer coronavirus vaccine, was a man named William Shakespeare. 

No relative, of course, as the famous bard left no descendants. 

The new vaccine has been a hot topic on Facebook and in our household. It always amazes me how trusting some of us are of big corporations, big government and those who decide what is best for us plebs.

I would prefer it if we were allowed to register the least bit of scepticism about what is being injected into our arms in the name of saving the economy and the NHS without being shouted down as a conspiracy theorist or dismissed as mad anti-vaxxer. It doesn’t seem terribly scientific to me and trust is hard to earn and is easily lost.

I recently watched a Netflix film, Dark Waters, based on a true story abut the environmental attorney, Rob Bilott’s long legal battle against chemical giant, DuPont, on behalf of the residents of West Virginia. I spent a bit of time doing some research on it afterwards. 

Interestingly Bilott started out defending chemical companies but now fits the cliche of poacher turned gamekeepeper.

He has spent over twenty years fighting for justice for those worst affected, after the company dumped chemicals, abbreviated as PFOA and PFOS, and are known as carcinogenic ‘forever chemicals’ which found their way in high concentrations into the water supplies of six water districts. The company allegedly knew of the dangers to human and animal health but put profit before people and set about hushing the whole thing up.

This family of 4,500 chemicals is now found in everything from Teflon pans to tea-bags and make-up; from food packaging to face-masks, and in the bodies of ninety-nine percent of human beings on the planet. Rob continues to litigate on our behalf and for those suffering from a variety of different cancers and serious conditions, even now in 2020.

The moral of this story needs no further explanation.

Had this new vaccine not arrived at lightning speed with immunity from civil litigation and legal action, my usually reliable antennae might not have wobbled so violently.

That this news also coincides with a great wash of propaganda to which we have all been subjected over recent months: the ritual kneeling to BLM by footballers (see the predictable booing when supporters returned to the stands), the review of colonialism by the National Trust, the renaming of highways (Birmingham city council has gone with Equality Road, Respect Way and Diversity Grove among others), the anti-scientific assertions concerning the immutability of sex, and the constant barrage on our Television screens, should make even the dullest mind begin to suspect something is afoot.

With our thoughts turning to Christmas, and taking advantage of our tier-two status, we decided to take a rare trip into Newton Abbot. We needed only wrapping paper, having bought most presents online but wanted to support local business. 

Isn’t it odd how big business like Amazon, Netflix and Zoom turned out to be the greatest beneficiaries of the coronavirus. The little guys have simply been crushed. Pubs and churches, focal points for community, shut.

Newton Abbot was created in the 13th century from two districts, called Manors.

In 1220 the Abbot founded a new town south of the river and was granted the right to hold weekly markets. In the Middle Ages, there were few shops and if you wished to buy or sell anything you had to go to a market. The Abbot was also allowed to hold an annual fair. In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year and attracted buyers and sellers from a wide area. The little town flourished and it became known as Newton Abbot  (new town of the Abbot).

This year, however, there is no Christmas market; no hustling and bustling or busking or buying, or very little of it.

It was a sad, cold and grey day. The few fellow shoppers shuffled by with bowed heads. I was alarmed to see many wearing face masks outside, their shoulders yoked like the beasts of burden that once carried goods to market; their eyes ploughed straight furrows along the near-empty pavements.

Above the windows of once thriving shops, I saw blank and broken boards, now a roost for feral pigeons. 

A barber, wearing a face mask and visor cut the hair of a single customer.

I couldn’t help but feel sad. 

You can always tell the wealth of a town by the quality and proliferation of its charity shops. 

In Dartmouth, for instance, you might find a nice Harris Tweed or designer shirt. Perhaps a rare hardback book. 

In Newton Abbot you’re more likely to find a wooden reindeer, a torn copy of Mills and Boon, a cheap crystal swan figurine or a baggy farmers shirt. The charity shops here abound like fungi on rotten logs.

Probably attracted by the newness and cleanliness of its exterior- between the closed shoe shops and travel agents-and the warm lights that glowed from within, I  stopped to browse the main window of Waterstones book shop, then immediately wished I hadn’t. 

Being part of a large chain, It was the one shop that seemed to have been unaffected by government lockdowns and endless rumours of a fatal pestilence. 

‘American Dreamer’ by Evan Osnos was there. 

‘Winner of the National book award’ it said, under a picture of former Vice President, ‘sleepy’ Joe Biden, staring presidentially, or vacantly, into the middle distance; I couldn’t tell which.

A whole window was devoted to his former President, Barack Obama’s book, ‘A Promised Land.’ 

I tutted in disgust and turned to the Children’s section to see what was being served up there for the kiddy winks.

‘Black and British’ by David Olusoga. 

The cover informed me that Macmillan Children’s books will donate fifty pence of every copy sold to The Black Curriculum. 

Next to it ‘Little Leaders- Bold Women in Black History’ by Vashti Harrison. 

Given that, according to Devon County Council’s own statistics, the 25,000 or so population of Newton Abbot is 98.2% white, I did wonder whether the people at Waterstones had pitched their market research in the right direction.

It felt like some sort of accusation- a condemnation even-of the poor white townsfolk of Newton Abbott. 

Ironically, most of those lame and shuffling souls I saw did not strike me as avid readers, and certainly required no lectures on their white privilege- least of all their children and grandchildren.

My thoughts drifted back to the real William Shakespeare as I regarded the glittering display:

“They have been at a great feast of languages, and stol’n the scraps,’ I thought.

My mood darkened with the skies overhead and turned to anger. Of all the places to try out your unsubtle psychological experiments, don’t do it here, not to these poor people.

As we all know, “Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall”

(William Shakespeare- Measure for Measure)

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