Diana White

  Agatha Christie would give a grim smile of ‘told you so’ were she alive. This most famous of  detective writers, whose sleuths have caught innumerable murderers and unravelled seemingly perfect crimes, would not be surprised at the news that a poison pen writer is alive and well and wreaking misery in a hamlet in North Yorkshire. Stainforth, with a population of just two hundred souls, is a hotbed of vengeful ire. The reason: a young family from Lancashire arrived there to find themselves a rural idyll in a village. Except they didn’t; as ‘incomers,’ they found themselves and their idyll unwelcome.



The trouble started when the family built a house for the wife’s parents on a plot of land adjoining their property. The land already had outline planning permission but the locals were unimpressed. Undeterred, the interlopers then took it upon themselves to turn a public footpath into a driveway and make use of a small strip of grass outside their house. Stainforth was incandescent. You can see their point, public footpaths are a sensitive issue in Blighty; many a landowner has found himself persona non grata with the rambling community for fencing off a footpath; and pleading the protection of animals and crops generally falls on deaf ears. Ramblers are responsible… allegedly.

We now come to where Agatha Christie’s fiction becomes fact. One of the outraged Stainforth residents is waging a relentless campaign to drive out the incomers with a vicious series of poison pen letters, promising death amongst other things; the question is, will we actually have a dead body? We would if it were a Christie plot.

The local policeman is doing his best to find the culprit, but without an Hercule Poirot or a Miss Marple, stands little chance against the solid partisanship of the North Yorkshire folk. They know who’s behind the lethal letters, but they aren’t saying: well, they wouldn’t, it’s history repeating itself. Back in the fifteenth century, there was a power struggle between the Lancastrians and the Yorkists. The rival factions, battling it out for England’s crown, apparently picked roses to declare their loyalty. White for Yorkists, red for Lancastrians. After decades of conflict and many a foul deed, the War of the Roses ended with victory for the Lancastrians; the Yorkists have never forgotten their humiliation. You can now see why this Lancastrian family was on a losing wicket from the start.

However, whilst one cannot possibly condone the behaviour of the Yorkists, or one of their number at any rate, one can have a certain sympathy for them. There they are, a tiny community who all know each other and, doubtless, have roots extending back centuries. To become part of a village like this requires skill and diplomacy. Barging in with brand new buildings and appropriating pieces of common land is insensitive to say the least, and in that kind of neighbourhood, will not win you friends.

The attitude of the Yorkists is, alas, not uncommon. Based on fear, resentful that their peace is being disturbed and their way of life challenged, the residents of an area, particularly a small one, are generally suspicious of new arrivals. Sixty years ago it used to be at least a year before a member of the resident population would officially visit the newcomers. A year was just long enough to judge of their suitability of acceptance. If they proved unworthy they would be ignored. Stainforth is doing what small communities across the country have always done, without the poison pen letters, naturally.

There is another aspect to this form of protectionism. Historically, we have always provided sanctuary for diverse populations seeking safety and prosperity. This is something we understand; as recent political events involving the BNP have shown, the average Brit disapproves of racism and discrimination meaning the BNP is not flavour of the month; furthermore, their rules insisting on white membership only are  being re-written. Why, then, given our ongoing tolerance, do some people still view newcomers with suspicion? Perhaps, like the ancient tribes of hunter-gatherers, they are fearful that provisions will be insufficient; and for provisions include the entire support system of a community.

Government directives insist towns nationwide have to provide new housing, but houses require essential services. The impact thousands of new homes will have on fragile infrastructures fuels anger as residents see their green belt disappearing and wonder about doctors waiting lists and transport. Our atavistic instinct for survival in times of crisis generates anxieties that prompt uncharacteristic behaviour, behaviour that can be traced back to an insensitive, greedy and corrupt government. As Agatha Christie pointed out in Murder in Mesopotamia, troubles begin at the top of the tree: a pity MPs don’t recognize this and keep the interests of those they are supposed to serve foremost in the policies they instigate. When those who rule us cannot be trusted, the ordinary man in the street feels less obliged to be an upright and tolerant citizen.

The hate campaign from the villagers of Stainforth is an extreme reaction to outsiders who have effected change without, apparently, consulting those who may be affected by it. The footpath and the stretch of grass are unessential to the villagers, but they represent something valued which has been hi-jacked. The new house is probably unassuming, and I cannot believe two extra on the local GP’s list will make much difference; but those Lancastrians, like government ministers, have failed to take into account the feelings and expectations of those who matter, in Stainforth’s case the Yorkists, in the government’s case, us, the people.  

It would seem the white roses need some lessons in good manners and the red roses a few moral values, rather like most government members. I wonder if the local Bobby will point this out to them? In today’s political correctness, I doubt it, it would probably infringe their human rights!

 In: kulturissimo 82, Novwmber 2009