The small town of Farnham in Surrey: a documentary
In 1929 Jean Vigo made the documentary film ‘A propos de Nice‘ in which he depicted the contrast between a monied leisure class and the underclass upon which it depended. In an introduction to his work Vigo stated: “In this film, by showing certain basic aspects of a city, a way of life is put on trial…” I liked the idea of putting ‘a way of life’ up for scrutiny – and I thought that it might be possible to do this with Farnham: I wanted to document the town in an attempt to raise critical questions about its identity and ethos – as well as hinting at the way of life of its inhabitants. I was also influenced by Joan Didion’s more recent examination of life-and-place in her elegant investigation of California. Didion’s work, ‘Where I was from‘ brilliantly exposes the way certain narratives dominate how California is perceived. However, she shows that these narratives are often inaccurate or misleading and fail to reflect certain basic realities. Farnham, too, is not immune to certain narratives that make claims about its identity and these may be convenient ways of masking some unsettling truths.
I began this documentary study ten years ago and the following photographs can be read as tiny case studies that profile the nature of an historic West Surrey town. One aspect of the apparent ordinariness of the photographs is that they suggest a contrast between the external world (which is familiar and often unexciting) and the inner psychological world of Farnham’s residents – a world that is full of images, dynamic emotions and problems-to-be-solved. At present the photographs serve as a summary statement of a work in progress. (See the Appendix for an extended introduction to the work.) I should note that a significantly different idea of Farnham is provided by Waverley Borough Council in its document titled ‘Farnham Neighbourhood Final Plan‘. This lengthy work benefiting from charming drawings and photographs includes the observation that:
“Farnham is often quoted as the finest Georgian town in the country and it has at its heart a number of tightly knit streets lined with listed buildings.”
But although this is true I think it’s worth considering other and often harsher realities. Even the ‘heart’ of Farnham is in decline; and the rest has become over-developed and often unattractive. Now life is lived through the allure and the deceptions of ‘screen culture.’ (So, Please don’t look too closely at the world beyond …)
Title: Small town – a documentary
Oh so pretty – you’re so pretty
So, let’s have a look if it’s all true …
1. Farnham lies in the valley of the river Wey. It has many interesting institutions, an influential ‘Farnham society’ and a place called ‘The Maltings’ which is a community cultural centre. It also has an art college and each year the students have final degree shows or exhibitions. Not many of the townspeople go to see the shows. If they did they would see the way that some of the exhibitors point towards the future: the words ‘Never forget this moment‘ are taken from a film about a night-time drive in Farnham. I think it’s a good way to begin this documentary because it is not clear how Farnham will respond to the various pressures for change: certain moments (certain experiences) may be lost forever. Overall Farnham does not want to transform itself: it does not want to escape from its history. But younger people no longer have much of a stake in the past: theirs is a screen-culture and a search for the good times …
2. The Memorial Hall is there to remind the citizens of Farnham of its debt to history. It sometimes serves as a polling station when people are supposed to vote for this or that political party or candidate. Some years ago a distinguished labour politician was invited to address the local people. Her name was Barbara Castle. She spoke with verve and passion – but only ten people were present to hear her.
3. Farnham used to have ‘The Castle Theatre’. The tiny theatre was sited in a converted 16th century barn off Castle Street. So tiny was it that the stage was actually bigger than the 180-seater auditorium. During the 1960s and early 1970s the Castle Theatre was renowned for both its character and the plays that it staged. ‘Journey’s End’ was one of its most memorable. Even now, contemporary blogs still refer to visits to the Castle Theatre; For example, one writer tells us that, back in 1972, she saw ‘The merchant of Venice’. She thought that it was an ‘extraordinary production’. She remembers the theatre ‘with fondness and gratitude as the place where something magical once happened’ and she adds: ‘I carry its legacy with me to this day.’
The Castle Theatre was replaced by the larger Redgrave Theatre. The Music Hall and Theatre website notes that: ‘The Redgrave Theatre, in East Street, was opened by Princess Margaret on the 29th of May 1974 with a production of “Romeo & Juliet.” This was a modern, purpose-built Theatre, built to replace the Castle Theatre, and named after the actor Sir Michael Redgrave.’ However, The Redgrave Theatre has been closed since 1998; despite some campaigning by local residents, it has not managed to survive.
The photograph above shows the south facing aspect of the dead Redgrave Theatre.
4. A small demonstration had taken place. The fields (one of which was originally used to grow hops) are close to the heart of the town. They are under threat from developers because there is a demand for new houses. But many of the existing residents want to prevent any further development. They wish to preserve the status quo and continue enjoying both the benefits of town-centre living as well as the beauty of the adjacent countryside. Farnham clearly runs the risk of being degraded because of over-development. Some of the residents are so angered by the failure of local government (the Waverley Borough Council) to preserve the charm of the town that they are hoping to petition the Queen with a view to securing a form of self-governance. In fact, the fields are going to be built on. It isn’t really such a good idea …
5. The photo shows two of the demonstrators who took part in the ‘Save our Fields‘ campaign and their two dogs. Dog and master, Dog and mistress – they go well together. The dogs are expensive pedigrees and the people seem well-suited to their dogs. I think the lady on the right is emblematic of the small town. She might well be referred to as a ‘Farnham lady’.
6. This is a kind of antithesis: the photograph shows a building in the centre of Farnham. It is not the sort of building that anyone ever seems to care about; it is not the sort of building that fits in with the official essence and ethos of the town. The building lies in a curious semi-modernist development that includes a number of shops, a café, some building societies and offices; as usual, I have no idea what people do in the offices. Atop the building in the photograph are a number of metallic structures. They resemble modern sculptures and it is possible to get a glimpse of them from a number of vantage points close to the town centre. On sunny days they sparkle and shine.
(And before long the whole of this development is going to be demolished. It’s rather a shame because it signalled something ‘other.’)
In many ways this building and its rectangular sharp-edged surroundings serve to define Farnham because they are its antithesis; if Englishness was once defined as that which was not French then Farnham defines itself as that which is not like this building. In consequence, the future promises to be a real challenge. It will be a challenge because technology determines so much of how we live and what aesthetically we come to value. The new technologies now dazzle – and generate pixel-people; the comforting and comfortable old red-brick of Farnham may come to look all rather quaint and conservative. Farnham, its predominant image, is really ‘nice’ but it rarely quickens the pulse.
7. Once upon a time a factory called Crosby Doors used to stand on the site shown in the photograph. Crosby Doors actually made things. (Doors – for example). But the whole process of globalisation gradually made its business operation unsustainable and the factory closed down before the millennium. A new kind of building and a new kind of visual environment was then created on the original site of Crosby Doors. The new businesses have names that owe much to semiotics and design – and the spaces around the buildings are watched over by surveillance cameras.
The spaces are strangely empty. They are bleak and almost desolate.
8. Every small town has a history and a raison d’etre. Farnham is no exception. Its existence has much to do with its geographical location in relation to London: it was, we are told, well-situated to host a corn market; apparently, in those far-off times, the wagons would arrive from the western reaches laden with their golden cargo and business would be done in the market place. London was another day’s drive away … Farnham also turned its hand to beer-making and all about the centre were situated taverns and public houses – a number of which still remain; others have fallen by the wayside and become ‘locations’ for estate agents or snazzy wine bars. Hop-fields flourished close to the town centre and it is still possible to find hops growing splendidly in the hedges that line the fringes of the footpaths of an old park. Farnham has since seen the emergence of ‘business parks’ and industrial estates some of which lower disconsolately on its outer edges.
Right on the periphery of one business park/industrial estate there is a remnant of Farnham’s past: it’s a disused granary. In front of the granary a specialist timber merchant has established his business. And a man working near to the old granary said: ‘No one goes in there now; you know, health and safety. But if you’re careful you can go and explore it.’
The photo was taken of a piece of the town’s economic history on a hot day in May.
9. This is a photograph of a block of flats on the eastern edge of the town. One of the large black waste disposal bins has been painted with the imperative: ‘Do not nick again‘.
10. Farnham has gone in for lots of compact high-density dwellings that are designed to be walled-off from the rest of the world. These developments vary in terms of their client groups; some are retirement homes, some are for the well-heeled, some are more modest and may even attract a first-time buyer or two. It’s all part of the new demographics that define people in more and more specific terms such that they can be targeted with more and more effective marketing strategies. Buy or die as it were.
But, who knows what people do inside these walled-off gated mini-communities? Who knows if they are not busy creating the psyche of La Zona? The film, La Zona depicts the homes of the most privileged citizens in Mexico, but with all of the gates and the closed circuit cameras it ends up feeling more like a million-dollar prison than a typical neighbourhood …
The photograph shows the entrance to one of these new micro-communities that is situated close to the town centre. It is called Blenheim Mews. The properties in Blenheim Mews were advertised as ‘superior’ – and so the pretentious name seems fitting enough. The people who live there arrive in swish German cars and use some sort of device to make the gates open. The cars pass through the open gates – which then swing shut again – and no one on the outside catches sight of the life within.
11. The caravans in the field belong to a travellers’ community. The field lies unexpectedly close to the centre of the town – and is immediately adjacent to the Art College. The travellers suddenly arrived at the height of summer; they promptly installed their caravans and parked their robust 4X4 vehicles in a formation that had faint echoes of the circle adopted by wagon trains in fear of hostilities from Native American people. Dogs – in large numbers – were deployed to deter people from approaching the travellers’ territory.
The arrival of the travellers raised very basic questions about styles of life – and the deep issue of cultural relativism. More immediately, the local residents saw the value of their houses plummet like falling stones; the dog-walkers amongst them were no longer able to enjoy free and easy access to ‘their’ field; the travellers (and their dogs) made much more noise than the residents were used to. The residents were most disquieted. [Some even re-visited fascist ideas.] How long would the travellers stay? This was the big question.
In fact, the farmer who rented the fields (from the owner – a man who lives in Canada) had agreed to let the travellers stay for one week. One week seemed fair enough. It seemed like a good compromise. Yet no one was sure if they would go away. But the travellers did move on when one week had elapsed. However, they did leave a lot of unpleasant rubbish and other horrible waste material behind. This did not endear them to the cultural mainstream. Oddly enough some of the local residents waited for the Council to clear the rubbish away. How strange it is to rely on bureaucracy: it might have taken months to resolve! Others just spent a happy day or two cleaning up the field.
12. Farnham has a football team. If you happen to be walking close by when a match is taking place you can hear the frantic shouts and angry or despairing groans from both the players and supporters alike. In summer the pitch is left to recover from the wear and tear of the football season. The grass grows long – but if you pause and listen hard you can hear the lines from Kevin Hall’s ‘A poem for football lovers‘. Then look upwards: the grey gathering clouds of summer hint of the forthcoming months and suddenly you hear Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Autumn‘: Football matches will have started again – when, as Larkin wrote, ‘the air deals blows: surely too hard, too often …’
13. It’s the month of May – and the photogpah shows the cricket pitch that is situated close to Farnham Castle. The white sight-screen, the old pavilion, the huge horse chestnut trees and the soft pale green grass of the newly-mown cricket pitch: the ensemble creates a strangely meditative atmosphere.
Someone once said that cricket defines the English character: one man at the crease against eleven adversaries. And superimposed on the resolute bravery is a mythic code outlined in Sir Henry Newbolt’s poem, ‘There’s a breathless hush‘. On Friday evenings the youngsters assemble for their cricket practice. They learn to play with a straight bat. They may even be coached to ‘play up and play the game.’
14. Thank goodness the weather wasn’t too bad on the day the circus came to town. It had been one of the wettest Aprils on record and May hadn’t been that much better. But the circus arrived and set up shop in the park. The huge lorries that transported the equipment as well as all the animals had made deep tyre tracks in the sodden grass. Green grass quickly turned to mud.
On the day this photograph was taken it seemed as if some sort of talent show was taking place in the big top. It was mid-afternoon. A girl was singing a rock song; raw and basic: it reminded me of one-act plays like Edward Albee’s ‘The zoo story’.
It’s strange to see these relics from the past. Later, when the weather became damp and drizzly the bright lights inside the circus must have delighted the children and dazzled away the real world.
15. Just to underline the attraction of the past that is very much a part of the ethos of Farnham, this photograph shows a scene that is being filmed for a TV programme. It’s not clear whether the jacket potato van is a fake or not. But the setting is in the ‘Lion and Lamb’ yard which is in the very centre of Farnham: and, although a newish development, it is suffused with the echoes of the past. (Post-modern or post post-modern or neo-romantic?)
16. Even if Farnham wants to resist the ‘new’ it can’t. Even if it is nostalgic for a golden age – that never was – it cannot withstand the appeal of other cultures and it is increasingly permeated by ‘difference’ and diversity. Tango lessons take place on Sundays in the Memorial hall.
17. Farnham is very proud of its history and some of its (important) citizens go to great lengths to conserve and promote the town’s heritage. The Blower Foundation is one expression of this concern. At a recent exhibition the foundation used an easel upon which was placed a design board to tell us about itself. It read: ‘The Blower Foundation (for cultural connection)’ was set up in 2004 to support projects that connect people to their cultural heritage which the Trustees believe is an empowering and necessary endeavour in the fragmented world we live in today.’
But all this raises a number of unsettling questions: ‘Which cultural heritage?’ ‘Whose cultural heritage?’ ‘What of the disempowering effects of cultural heritage?’ ‘What is really meant by the sentence ‘the fragmented world [in which’] we live today’?’ I was even moved to ask: ‘Who gets to set up a Foundation and who gets to be a Trustee?’
The exhibition featured (prominently) the work of three architects who had been responsible for designing some of the ‘most important’ buildings in the area. The material on display was taken from the archives of those architects; it showed plans and drawings that, in themselves, beguiled the viewer with their charm. This is typical of the work of architects: they show us surfaces; we see things from the outside. BUT the world is not like that. Drawings have edges; reality does not. The exhibition also featured contributions made by both university students and school children to the idea of ‘cultural connections’. Perhaps most significantly one student had defined Farnham as lying somewhere ‘between tradition and modernity.’ [So, 1932 sounds about right.]
18. This old brick wall – along with the age-ing post box and the weathered sign – confer certain signs of Englishness on Farnham. In fact, Farnham can be read as an expression of the English psyche. (That psyche is strange because it melds a real sense of superiority (‘we’re the best in the world’) with a sense of self-deprecation and an admission that ‘we’ simply aren’t as good as all that: our roads are pothole-heaven.)
19. The record store in Farnham used to be called Ben’s Collectors’ Records. Ben had another record store in the nearby city of Guildford in which he spent most of his time; since his business was increasingly conducted through the ‘net there came a time when he no longer needed two shops. And so he sold his business to someone else. The record store was re-named 101 Collectors’ Records. There is a wide range of music in the record store and the 33 rpm vinyl records are supplemented by shelves full of the cassettes people used to put into ghetto blasters or car stereo systems. If you go into the record store you can easily get hooked on nostalgia.
Behind the counter, the new owner has installed an old Dansette record player. It’s still working. It can take up to 8 single 45 rpm records placed one on top of each other. (The Japanese girl – a student at the art college who helps out on Saturdays – was absolutely fascinated by the mechanism of the old Dansette record player. She’d never seen anything like it.)
Once a year the record store participates in National Record Store Day. Modest A4 sized posters appear in the town telling of the forthcoming event. The photograph shows a post-card sized advertisement drawing our attention to the fact that on Saturday 21 April doors will open at 8 a.m. at the beginning of Record Store Day.
20. It would have been easy to overlook this very small poster and not know anything of the event that it was promoting. It tells us about the findings of two human rights observers who spent three months experiencing village life under occupation in the West Bank. These quiet and thoughtful events are not uncommon in Farnham.
21: Front gardens are both public and private spaces: a photographer called Lauren decided to explore the nature of private-public spaces in Farnham. She focused her inquiry on front gardens. She then staged an exhibition that drew attention to the often-dismal quality of those front gardens. Overall, her work was very confronting: some of the gardens she chose to display were given over to nothing much more than concrete or some sort of paving; they were places to park cars and wheelie bins; many were almost devoid of any real care and attention. The front garden (even in Farnham) has achieved a kind of non-place status.
How has it come to this? Apart from a few streets that have prized the appearance of their front gardens, why have so many fallen into desuetude? There are bound to be a number of reasons: one of them consists in the fact that people don’t know who may be passing; fear and suspicion lead people to pass quickly into the more protected spaces inside their home or into their back garden. And, related to this is the problem of theft and vandalism; no one quite knows if whatever they have placed in the front garden will still be there in the morning.
The photograph also suggests another reason: it shows a satellite tv dish attached (reasonably discretely) to a Victorian house; the amazing number of tv channels and programmes provide a continuous distraction, a vector serving to locate people close to the tv screen. Gawping negates gardening. AND the satellite dish is another sign of the times. Its gradual appearance in the small town of Farnham might even contradict Farnham’s brand image as an arts-and-crafts Mecca.
22. In many ways the relative proximity of the big city – the city state of London – has made Farnham both a place of refuge and a place from which to escape. London is only 54 minutes away by train …
23 .The photograph shows a large police van parked outside a brick-built detached house. The house is unremarkable and, although pleasant enough, has no particular architectural merit. BUT because it is situated in the heart of Farnham (on a level walk to the shops and cafes, the library, the post office, the Arts centre etc. etc.) and because Farnham has a certain cachet it would cost more than £600,000 to buy.
The road in which the house is situated is decidedly middle-class (although it must have a slightly unusual character because not one single resident displayed a Union Jack flag during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations). There’s a primary school playground that takes up some of the space at one end of the road and a converted kiln full of designer flats at the other end. The rest of the road enjoys a couple of ‘gated developments’ and a number of sedate Victorian semi-detached houses. All this makes it slightly surprising to discover that the unremarkable but rather ‘sought after’ house in the photograph was the site of a cannabis factory. The police discovered the factory after being alerted by a neighbour of the house in question. After keeping the house under surveillance for a few days they raided the place and made a small dent in the supply chain. The local newspaper seemed quietly delighted to report on the drama: it made front-page news along with the usual kind of headline that will have got people saying: ‘Well, fancy that.’
24. The photograph shows ash caught in a spider’s web. It looked beautiful. The ash had floated upwards when someone had set fire to a super-market trolley in an underpass in the town centre.
25. The foxes are out; the cats too. An owl moves silently across the sky. What will tomorrow hold? And, is Farnham dreaming?
Appendix: An extended introduction to the documentary
The town of Farnham in Surrey could easily be chosen to symbolise some of the typical and enduring features of Englishness. It has a style and manner that is apparently traditional and somewhat restrained. It reflects class divisions but it also expresses aspects of a new classlessness. It is the kind of town that the presenters of TV property programmes say ‘has it all’; The town is thought to have ‘everything going for it’: it has good schools, a variety of pubs, trendy cafes, delightful restaurants and some of the best architecture in the south of England. It is within easy reach of both London and the south coast and, because of its geographical location, it has a relatively benign climate. In fact, in March 2013 Farnham was named as one of Britain’s ‘nirvanas’ in the Sunday Times’ guide to the ‘best places to live’ in South East England.
The town has been the subject of a number of works of literature including one entitled ‘Townscape with figures – portrait of an English town’ written by the sophisticated and probing Richard Hoggart. Other books take pleasure in picturing Farnham’s history and, overall, Farnham emerges as a quietly pleasant town, embracing a conservative ethos. It provides a stage upon which a seemingly benign version of Englishness is enacted.
However, over the years I increasingly felt that the ways in which the town has been documented were inadequate. Accounts of Farnham either seemed too nostalgic in tone or too uncritical – or both. And I thought that if the most interesting history is yet to come then the official or dominant ways of talking about the town always seemed inclined to deny this in deference to a narrative based on an earlier era of ‘market towns’ or the ‘historic’ traditions of arts and crafts. But I knew that Farnham was not really all that the marketeers and image managers made it out to be: it had, for example, poor people who occasionally bumped up against a self-interested and often self-satisfied middle-class. And this contrast between the rich and poor reminded me of Jean Vigo’s documentary film of the French city of Nice entitled ‘A propos de Nice‘. Filmed in 1929 Vigo captured the contrast between the monied leisure class and the ‘underclass’ upon which they depended. In an introduction to his A propos de Nice, Vigo stated: “In this film, by showing certain basic aspects of a city, a way of life is put on trial…”
I liked Vigo’s idea of putting a way of life up for critical scrutiny – and I thought that it might be possible to document Farnham in ways that might go some way towards raising critical questions about its identity and ethos and which begin to hint at the way of life of its inhabitants. [One crude and overly obvious way of doing this would be to photograph the expensive cars and their personalised number plates in the Waitrose car-park and place these alongside images of the down-at-heel people who linger at bus-stops or eke out their days in one or two of the town’s down-market cafes; or, the same point would be made by photographing the have-it-all mansions in the area known as South Farnham in contrast to some of the terraced houses on housing estates to the North or West of the town. This probably needs to be done if I were to remain faithful to Vigo’s remark.]
So, in response to my dissatisfactions with the narratives about Farnham, four years ago I began an inquiry in which I set out to make sense of the town. I tried to follow Jan Morris’s advice that the best way to understand an urban environment is to be ‘present’ and alert to the data of the senses. I used a relatively simple camera and made a few notes in the search to discover a way of presenting Farnham as a small town that would do justice to its character, to its contradictions and tensions and its moods and values. I wanted to be critical too. (Some of the text which accompanies the photographs has an undisguised critical tone.) I also wanted to draw from theory – and to recognise that it is largely through developments in technology that the broad aspects of social and individual change are wrought. Nothing is immune to technological development. (One of the reasons that people rarely appear in the photographs is that, because of the new technologies, they are often ‘somewhere else’.) The following 25 black-and-white photographs represent 25 tiny case studies that, taken together, tell a descriptive story of this West Surrey town. One aspect of their apparent ordinariness is that they suggest a contrast between the external world (familiar and unexciting) and the inner psychological world of Farnham’s residents – a world that is full of images, currents of emotions and problems to be solved. At present the photographs serve as a summary statement of a work in progress.