1. Please do be forewarned: here there be spoilers, although I’ve tended far more towards the general rather than the specific in what follows.
2. This isn’t going to be a short review, it really isn’t, so if you’d rather just cut to the chase, here’s what my conclusion’s going to be; I genuinely enjoyed Stagdale and I’d definitely recommend it to you.
Years, like decades, can be shorter or longer than the calendar insists. Somewhere near the true and tragic end of 2001, which began with complacent sneering about the Millennium Dome’s closing and ended with the cataclysm of the Twin Towers’ destruction, I hauled myself up from West London to a small rural village lying a few dozen miles away from East Anglia’s county town, Norwich. Absurdly hopeful and excited, I believed that I was travelling towards a cosy corner of the 21st century, a comfortable and safe bolthole offering all of the new age’s promise with few of its woes. But in many ways, I was heading in the opposite direction. Traumatically premature, 2002 kicked off almost four months earlier than tradition demanded, and the terrifying, atavistic nature of the future it brought with it bore slight resemblance to any that I’d expected. In many ways, it wasn’t The Future at all.
I can’t say I’m sure that 2002 has ever truly ended. It seems to have dragged on and on and on, its essential character appallingly intact, forever.
It took a while for a few of my new neighbours, and a few more still of my new colleagues, to begin to relax their apparently determined and seemingly surly coldness towards me. A handful never would. Having survived, and often enjoyed, four years residency in the Republic of Yorkshire during the early Eighties, I thought little could surprise me about somewhat insular communities and their taken-for-granted distrust of outsiders. Anyway, can’t one culture’s definition of rudeness overlap pretty much precisely with another’s quietly respectful way of granting privacy while insisting on the same? Don’t most new neighbourhoods and workplaces take a while to adapt to? And isn’t it true that I’m hardly the easiest person to read and warm to, being by nature sorely shy and socially awkward while, as I fear I’ve often been told, radiating an adamantine degree of self-confidence? Isn’t settling in mostly just a matter of perspective and patience?
Yet it felt as if a different order of patience was being demanded. How long would I have to live here before I wasn’t regarded by some, to a lesser or greater degree, as an interloper? As not just a newcomer, bad as that clearly was, but an out-and-out trespasser? The sense radiating out from a small number of the older locals in particular was that I had, at the very least, been irritatingly inconsiderate in the fact of being born beyond the local parish boundaries. And if I had to have made such a catastrophically irreversible blunder, then why would I want to make the shameful deed obvious by turning up in their neck of the woods? There were those whose tone of voice and manners would be transformed, and not for the better, when confronted with my London accent. No degree of politeness, or even its lack, could ameliorate the situation. Similarly, befuddling flashes of exasperation from entrenched locals could be sparked over the most minor of matters. Who gives way to who when entering or leaving a room? Who is it right and proper to ignore as the days, the weeks, the months limp on? Is a cast-iron emergency ever a justification for intruding on another’s well-rehearsed and comfortable routine? Is an attempt to foster cooperation ever anything but a sly and despicable attempt to erode the age-old privilege of effort-free inertia? If such dilemmas can trigger conflict and underscore exclusion anywhere, here it all felt disproportionately excessive.
Until more recent decades, this world on the edge of the world had contentedly persisted as a small, isolated and largely unchanging backwater. If a great number of its people, of all ages, were as friendly and approachable as any, the traces of a far more inward-looking and unthinkingly excluding community could, it often seemed, be frequently perceived. Change may have been eroding it, but its existence, and the shadow it threw, was still there to be seen. The truth of that culture, active even as it remained hidden, sometimes briefly surfaced in rare, less-guarded exchanges, trace elements of a deeply private local worldview rarely shared with anyone not born and bred into it. An elderly neighbour, for example, damned an unwelcome acquaintance as a “Norwicher!” to my wife after he’d dared to offer an opinion about garden boundaries. It was a phrase expounded with considerable conviction and feeling, and yet, the minute she’d spat out the word, the woman looked profoundly uncomfortable. Pushed gently to explain the term, she hesitated and then hesitated again, as if a taboo that was not to be shared with outsiders had shamefully escaped her lips.
Who and what was a Norwicher then? The answer emerged, eventually, with no little reluctance. The man with the temerity to offer his neighbours advice over a minor spat about an overgrowing hedge wasn’t simply one birthed and raised in Norwich. He was a Norwicher. Although only thirty minutes away by train, Norwich was clearly regarded as a noxious city whose population was by its very nature composed of arrogant, know-it-all, meddling upstarts. Norwichers are, it seems, people with opinions and questions, smug and superficially educated and indecently incapable of understanding the way in which things ought to be done, the way in which they had, as far as memory might tell, always been done. There are, it seems, no good, local, antique words to describe an inhabitant of far-off Norwich. Such a thing was never thought necessary. Norwicher only ever had one meaning, and a Norwicher was what the target of her loathing had always been, and, it appeared, always would be. Norwich was, by any calculation I’d ever considered rational, only a few miles away. What hope then for me?
I’m not sure how many people still know and use that word Norwicher around here. Fewer and fewer every year, I suspect, which is a melancholic as well as a gratifying thought. Even in my few decades camped out here in the windswept East, things have changed, and, in some ways, changed considerably. (Others, in these new dark ages of ours, rather ominously haven’t.) But for all the good, and the good folks of every generation, that I’ve encountered, I can still recognise the presence of the kind of bounded and reactionary world described and evoked by Frances Castle in Stagdale Part 1. When, for example, the comic’s 12 year old narrator Kathy, unwillingly exiled from mid-Seventies London and newly arrived in rural Stagdale, is introduced to a townswoman serving in the local shop, the sense of an insular culture’s passive-aggressive objection to the very presence of outsiders is deftly and disturbingly expressed. (See the scan above.) There are indeed innumerable ways in which the undesirability of the inadvertent immigrant can be emphasised, and many of the most painful rely on nothing more than a deceptively sparse and restrained vocabulary. A few timeworn gestures to express scorn and distrust. A few words cruelly accentuating an unbridgeable divide between us and, well, everyone else. That’s all it takes, and Castle’s patient, deliberate storytelling evocatively succeeds in spelling out where the power lies in Stagdale’s everyday dealings. Wherever that may be, it isn’t ever in the reach of Kathy, no matter how quiet and respectful she might be.
Or to put it another way, Stagdale is, yes, a tale about the late Thirties and the mid-Seventies too. But most of all, or so it seems to me, it’s a story about you and I, about in-groups and out-groups, in 2019.
Our despairing, angry and profoundly divided 2019-cum-2002.
Continued Stagdale review part 2;