Home Page Torch has the potential to put our town in a new light 11/11/11

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Hart of the Matter

So Haverhill has finally gained acceptance as part of the real world, betokened by the promise of the Olympic Torch visiting us, among the other 1,000-odd places on the map announced this week.


In fact, after the numerous efforts of everyone to get the torch brought here, it would have been rather pointed if it had not been included on the route. Bury and Newmarket have also received the same accolade, but Sudbury, Mildenhall and Brandon have missed out.


It’s easy to be cynical about promotions of whatever kind, but such things really do matter and the benefits to the town could be significant. They could be even more significant if we manage to do something on the day which raises the town’s profile above the welter of competing claims on the route and gains some national publicity out of it at a time when the entertainment value of the torch’s progress may have begun to wear thin (we don’t know the route yet).


But there was another acknowledgement on the wider stage of Haverhill’s existence last week which, sadly, was of a rather more familiar kind.


If you were listening to Radio Four’s consumer affairs programme You And Yours yesterday (Thursday), you may have been startled from your lunchtime siesta or, as I was, roused from droning drearily down the A1, by hearing an interview with ‘Tracey from Haverhill’.


I don’t know which of Haverhill’s numerous Traceys this was as no surname was provided. But what was it that had finally allowed a voice from our town to break through the seemingly unbreachable cloak of invisibility which surrounds it with regard to the national media? Had Tracey become an astronaut? Had she discovered a cure for some agonising disease? Had she created a momentous work of art?


No, the truth was rather more prosaic. She was an example of someone who had become so poor they had needed to avail themselves of a food bank.


The item was about the phenomenon of food banks, and the directive or aspiration (I’m not sure which) of someone in authority (I don’t know who, very likely the Astronomer Royal, to quote Gilbert and Sullivan), that there should be a food bank in every town as soon as possible.


It seems the national media, or the BBC at any rate, has only just become aware of food banks. There was a programme the previous week in which the subject came up and the glorious Edwina Currie made some offensive remarks to the effect that it was inconceivable anyone in Britain should go hungry, and if they did they must be spending their cash on lottery tickets or cigarettes instead of food, which would be their own fault. One was reminded of Scrooge’s question to the charity collectors: "Are there no workhouses?”


Anyway, this had prompted You And Yours to investigate the food bank issue, a phenomenon which, we were told, was coming over here from America.


Well, Haverhill may not be a world leader in many things, but here, it seems, we were on our home ground, as we have had a well-used and much-appreciated food bank in the town for some years, thanks to Christians Against Poverty, and the support of all the churches.


Whether some researcher at the BBC knew this, or whether, as soon as the word ‘poverty’ was mentioned the name of Haverhill just floated into their minds and they followed it up, I have no idea. But it is part of that stereotype by which Haverhill rarely gets into the East Anglian or the Cambridge News unless it is about an alleged rape or a street brawl.


It’s the old idea of that dog and his bad name. News is based on stereotypes – Islington, Wootton Bassett,  Brixton, the list is endless. We saw it in action the other week when Michael Gove visited Haverhill’s senior schools.


TV wanted to interview him in a traditional classroom, with desks etc, so that viewers would know it was a school. The fact that schools don’t generally have those sort of classrooms much any more was immaterial. That’s what ‘viewers’ - older people who watch the news - who rarely go into schools, think that schools look like, so the stereotype must be fed. And ‘viewers’ think schools look like that because the only time they see inside them is on TV.


TV believes ‘viewers’ are uncomfortable if their stereotypes are roughly overturned. Thus, older residents of other towns are reassured by hearing the sort of news they expect to hear about Haverhill, and that is generally the sort of news they heard 30 years ago.


If the arrival of the Olympic Torch can help to dispel this stubborn impression, then it will do more for Haverhill in a day than hundreds of big events have done in the past four decades. That is, unless TV wants to have a say in who is filmed carrying it and which window they are throwing it through....

David Hart
David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.
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