“When I first started drinking here, the bottom half of town was out of bounds. That’s where the squaddie bars were.” My new friend pointed out the regimental cap-badges lined up behind the spirit bottles in the nearly empty pub. These days, those knocking back shots are not soldiers, but students. And Winchester’s undergraduates, it seems, don’t buy their beer here.
You can see the same shift in the architecture. In the centre of the city sits the old brick barracks. While some spots have been retained for regimental memorabilia – I have in my pocket a crumpled leaflet for the Winchester Military Museums – most are now luxury flats: three bedrooms will set you back £700,000.
In their place, a short walk up the road, are a new set of brick blocks, designed for a new wave of teenagers moving to the city. Their design is more modern than military: student halls.
Where once this was a garrison town, now, it’s a student city. Where once, young people flooded to Winchester to be uniformed and regimented and learn to fight and to follow orders, now, they come to study. These days, around one in six of the residents of Hampshire capital is a student at the university here – which was awarded degree granting powers in 2005.
Wandering round Winchester on a worryingly warm autumn day, it was hard not to think that perhaps this change might be shaping the country more than we normally talk about. And so I looked up the stats.
In 1920, there were 597,700 full time members of the armed forces. In 1952, there were 872,000; in 1990, 305,000. By 2010, that was 191,070, and the latest statistics, September 2017, show that figure at just 142,000.
In 1920, 4,357 students were awarded an undergraduate degree in the UK. 1950, it was 17,000. In 1990, the figure was around 80,000. By 2010 it was 350,000 and last year, it was 400,000. The total number of students at UK higher education institutions stood at 2,280,830 in 2015/16.
It’s worth noting the final two numbers in each of those sequences: this decade so far has seen a fall in the number of armed personnel of around 50,000, and an increase in the number of people graduating of 50,000.
I put the stats on a graph here. The number university degrees each year is precise, the student figures are estimates, but they give you a good sense of how things are moving.
I suspect we could all list potential causes of these changes: peace in Europe, the automation of war and the shrinking of the empire; the rush to a knowledge economy in the wake of deindustrialisation and successful movements demanding education….
Likewise, there are obviously huge national implications from this big shift in how young people spend the years immediately after they leave school: from cultures of hierarchy to cultures of conversation, from organised violence to organised learning. A delve into data on elections – and, profoundly, the European referendum – shows the deep difference between those whose generation of school-leavers were more likely to go to the army and those who were more likely to go to university… and between those areas which still sit either side of that divide…
The situation is complex, though. On recent trips to the old mining and mill towns of Shirebrook and Oldham, I saw regimental flags outside houses. I was told Armistice day parades are growing each year while other events shrink. Militarised cultures never seemed far away – seemed, if anything, to be resurgent even as the armed forces shrink. Whether this is the result of backlash – of the need for a group which feels it is culturally threatened to fly its standard, or ongoing reverberations of Iraq and Afghanistan, or something else entirely, we can all speculate.
But back in Winchester, the thing which was probably most striking was the economic implication. When you think of the importance of students to the economy of any university town – or of the lack of them in a place like Mansfield, where I was similarly chatting to people a few months ago – it’s hard not to think of universities as playing a key role in shaping how the economies of places fare in the modern world.
The Hampshire Chronicle headline screamed about fears of students taking over. The “Winchester rants” Facebook group (which, with 5,528 members, is about 10% as populous as the city itself) is full of arguments about the growing student population. On the one hand, there are complaints about late night noise. On the other, one man argues that the university brings wealth and cheap, zero-hour contracted workers to the city: “if you owned a bar in town, you wouldn’t be complaining”.
And it’s pretty clear that student work is a key part of the local economy. Many of the people I spoke to in the street were students, and among those, it wasn’t unusual to work three eight-hour shifts a week on top of studying for a degree. The result, of course, was that almost none of them could name any extra-curricular activity – club, society, or hobby – they were involved in.
The previous day, I’d been interviewing people at a workshop for youth organisations in the South East of England. While the organisations’ staff gave a whole range of answers to my questions about the challenges facing young people in the coming years, the young people themselves who I spoke to had been almost unanimous: the biggest problem they were facing was an epidemic of mental health challenges. When I asked what they thought was causing that, they talked about pressure: the pressure to get good grades at school, to get a well paid job and, ultimately, as one teenager who’s working to become a professional footballer put it, ‘to get an initial house’.
According to NCVO, the demographic with the highest rates of monthly volunteering is 16 to 25 year olds, at 32%. But if Britain’s potent mix of stagnant wages and rising house prices continues, will that really hold up? And what does that mean for the thousands of organisations which rely on the time and enthusiasm of those increasingly stressed-out young people?
From military chapels to luxury cinemas
Sat at an outdoor trestle table and eating lunch bought in the bustling market, I got chatting to a Dutch theologist. She was over with her choir, singing in the cathedral for a week, and commented on how the Church of England plays more of an active role in English life than the church does in the Netherlands. Specifically, she pointed out, this plays out through music, and the role that church choirs play in England’s musical tradition.
This was reflected by a number of people I spoke to that day, who talked about Winchester as a musical hub – not just for the Anglican choral tradition, but for classical and jazz music too.
A short walk away, I stumbled on other kinds of cultural expression built around another ancient English institution. At the bottom of the hill is Winchester College – the oldest public school in the country. On gate posts, church doors and windows were neat arrangements of posters for teenagers’ performances: a house play called “The Strike”, (“based on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata”), “Classical society presents, The Scholia on Homer”; and a performance of Mozart, Finzi and Poulenc.
I couldn’t help but think about how, in Shirebrook, where I was in the summer they struggle to raise money to replace the instruments they need for their brass band.
At the top of the hill, though, was an icon to a different kind of culture. The former army chapel – a listed building – has been converted into a luxury cinema. It is, the manager told me, a ‘hub for the community’. It reminded me of a recent visit to Oldham, where the old Town Hall has been turned into an Odeon, after significant council investment: in both cases, formalised, hierarchical and state-linked spaces at the centre of their respective communities have been transformed into hyper-commercialised alters to Holywood consumerism. The curators of mass culture have shifted from church and state to the handful of production companies who get to determine what makes it onto our screens.
Trisha and Mandy: sketching the changes
Trisha and Mandy tell a different, more hopeful, story about cultural changes. I found them squatting on stools in a narrow street, painting a particularly pretty alleyway. I sat down on the pavement between them, and we had a wee chat while they painted away.
They are members of the global group “urban sketches”, which started in New York. The Winchester branch meets in a café every Wednesday morning.
“There were eight of us to start with, there’s over thirty now. The lady that organises it put out an invitation on social media, and we all trotted along. There’s a group in Southampton. There are groups all over the country. And all over the world. They post their drawings online.”
“So, if you went online – urbansketchers.org – you can see the Philippines, or Japan, or anywhere. They’re all doing this sort of thing.
Trisha and Mandy were both artists before, but “I think I got myself into a bit of a rut, I was looking for something that was different. I’ve always sketched, but to be in a group is good fun, because you meet up afterwards. We’ll meet up in half an hour to show each other what we’ve done, and, you know, you learn a lot from each other.” One of the things they both emphsised was that sketches record how the town is changing, fast.
As with brass bands in the East Midlands using Facebook to find stand-ins when players can’t make key gigs, the internet has facilitated an explosion of real-life, in person gatherings of communities of interest. People who used to create alone, finding others with their niche interest more easily than ever.
But it’s not just Trisha and Mandy who give hope. There’s the woman I meet hobbling on crutches from a riding accident, whose social life is shaped around stables. “You don’t have to be wealthy”, she insists. “You can hire a horse”. There’s the teenager who spends his weekends playing football. There’s the two young buskers wooing the high street. There’s the guy in the pub who used to play semi-professional rugby, and now volunteers the odd Saturday with his old team when a younger player can’t make it. There’s the woman whose social life is, she says, built around the Twyford social club, a not-for profit community centre which meets every week and has around 200 members, with sport and entertainment and afternoon tea.
Culture may be co-opted by the powerful. But ultimately, it doesn’t come down from above. It isn’t only experienced by those standing or sitting in neat rows. It rises up from below. It is, as someone else famously wrote, ordinary.
Chemtrails and end times
Bruce and Cassandra often sit on a bench on the main pedestrianised high street and natter – attempting to convince each other of their unconventional views.
She spends all of her spare time – and more besides – campaigning to raise awareness of chemtrails: the proposition that “That sky up there is fake, by the way. If you look at the sky up there, behind you now, it’s just a chemical haze. And we’re breathing it in. And it’s making people ill. And it’s a covert government programme that they’re not telling you about.”
The idea that the government is intentionally controlling the weather and all of us through a secret chemtrails project is a widely believed conspiracy theory originating on web forums and talk radio in the USA in the 1990s and triggered by a US military pamphlet published in 1996 entitled “Weather as a force multiplier: owning the weather in 2025”.
Cassandra has a small group in town that she organises with, but she says that the people who were running the main organisations promoting these ideas have had to take a step back. “They lost their life… they didn’t have time to give to their families, so I think some of them have taken a step back”. She planned to go, the following Sunday, to Speakers’ Corner in London to make her case, and hands me a couple of leaflets to read.
Bruce, on the other hand, is a member of the Open Brethren – “a fundamental, bible believing, not happy-clappy – Christian, with a strong emphasis on escatology, which means end times prophecy”, as he puts it.
He explains, at length and in detail, how it is that the Rapture and the time of the Great Tribulation will, according to his faith, play out – breaking the seven years of rapture into two periods of three and a half years each. There is a lot of emphasis on a “harlot” riding on “the beast”.
I asked both of them how it feels to live lives so shaped by beliefs that most people don’t share.
Cassandra says she isn’t worried: “I’m fine with it. I find a lot of people are waking up to what’s really going on in the world. So, it gives me hope that people do actually know what’s happening. Those that are belligerent, or not interested, or not open minded, fine. Forget it. It doesn’t matter… People will be open to this when they’re ready to be open to it…
“There’s been a huge, huge change in the last few years. A huge change. Especially people your sort of age and younger (I’m 32). Checking things out online and thinking ‘yeah, there is something in this’. So yeah, I’m heartened by it, and I just keep banging the drum. I’m a warrior.”
“I would be regarded as a religious crank. I understand that” says Bruce, “but I got saved on the 4th of March 1981 at five past nine on a Wednesday night”. In the south of England, though, he’s not quite such a ‘crank’, as he put it: it’s not unusual to find members of The Open Brethren and the related Plymouth Brethren, in this corner of the south of England (to the extent that one friend reports, on moving to a new house in a neighbouring county, the first question a new neighbour asked, upon seeing her dark coat and pram, was whether she was a member of the denomination).
These conversations – and particularly Cassandra’s fears – reflect an academic conference I attended at Cambridge a couple of years ago (see openDemocracy’s coverage and my write-up). One of the key conclusions of the research on conspiracy theories is that they thrive in places and times when there is least trust in formal institutions. As Cambridge academic David Runciman said, on the back of his careful study of the subject, “we are living through a golden age for conspiracy theories”.
If the Edelman research is accurate – and trust in major institutions in Britain really is continuing to fall – then it seems likely we’ll see more and more conspiracy-minded politics, and more and more organising around conspiracy theories – just as Cassandra reports.
A number of people I stumbled across were white Southern Africans, including a woman, who had moved to England ten years after the fall of apartheid because things were “going downhill” there; the old man at the military museums who told me he was from Rhodesia, and that Ian Smith (the former white-minority ruler) was a ‘great man’. In the Winchester rants Facebook group, someone with a profile picture declaring “South African whites also have human rights” has posted a petition to the UN about farm murders. A local South African woman confirms “there is a big South African population here.”
South Africa is the eighth most common country of birth for immigrants in the UK, according to the latest ONS data, and the number of South Africans in the UK doubled in the decade after the fall of apartheid and the end of white rule, with, according to the BBC, anecdotal evidence that these people moved largely to wealthier corners of the UK. According to the South African, this process is continuing, with South Africans (largely, white South Africans) ‘hot footing it abroad in their droves’, and with the UK as their most common destination after Australia.
The British/South African company Sable International, who “manage the accounting, wealth, financial and nationality needs of our clients” has argued that EU workers leaving the UK as a result of Brexit means there will be demand for high-skill labour, creating opportunities for South Africans.
More generally, it seems likely that Brexit will change not just the quantity, but also the profile of migrants to the UK – with significant and long term cultural implications for the country. And it seems likely that white South Africans will be front of the queue.
This isn’t, though, the only example of white-Anglo-fragility I came across. A woman I met at the market lives in West Wales, where she chairs a local charity for visually impaired people. She told me proudly about how hard she has worked to avoid learning Welsh.
Car crash economics
As I wandered down the polished, estate-agent-lined high street, examining tasteful photos of million-pound houses, I watched as a van pulled out from an alley and a car smashed into its side. A shoal of immaculate sales negotiators shot from behind their spotless white desks, extracted the driver and passengers from under their airbags, and sat them, shaken, in a comfortable customer area usually used for mumbled arguments between couples about whether it really is sensible to pay an extra £30,000 for two square feet of patio.
The whole episode epitomised what the guys in the pub the night before had complained about: that “they’re building more and more houses no one can afford, without the infrastructure to support it”. There is, they said, therefore, endless traffic, endless jams.
In an economy built on a housing bubble with a government determined to drive down public spending, this is, of course, inevitable. But in Winchester, the effect is more severe than elsewhere: it’s seen the highest rise in house prices over the last decade and is now, after Oxford, the second least affordable place to live in the UK, according to Lloyds.
When I got back, I had a chat on Facebook with Rhian Dolby, who I met when I was invited to an event her union organised in Winchester in 2013. She said “We have two children who go to excellent schools but we can’t afford to take them on holiday. Yes, it’s nice to go to my son’s school (Kings’) carol service at the cathedral and show visitors around the sights BUT there is nowhere family friendly in Winchester anymore. My kids are normal. They want pizza and ice cream not oysters and olives. We are in a holding pattern here until the kids are through school then we will be forced to sell up and move somewhere else. No chance of paying off our interest only mortgage. So my kids won’t be able to afford to live where they were born and brought up. Last time I took my boys to the cinema in Winchester it was hideously pretentious. Over priced sweets in glass jars and people drinking claret. Fair enough but where do the real people of Winchester go? The people that keep the local infrastructure running? Winchester is so exclusive it denies young families any sense of belonging to it.”
“I have a degree from a Russell Group university, I am Chairman of my local parish council and I work in the heritage sector. My husband is a governor at Kings’ (school) and works at Southampton University. Yet we aren’t Winchester enough for Winchester.”
It’s a good question. The overwhelming sense of the place is wealth. Winchester was once the capital of Wessex, the kingdom which came to conquer England, and thence the world. It’s here that Alfred the Great lived, here that Edward I’s mock-up of Arthur’s ro
und table hangs on the wall, here that the earliest rumbles of the British Empire stirred.
In the market, there was Greek souvlaki and Thai curry and Sicilian pasta and German sausage; a stall with octopodes, oysters, cockles, crabs, snappers, salmon and scallops; there was papaya and peppers; biltong, buskers and bustle. A cockney flower seller was chatting in Thai with the chef from the stall opposite, and the buildings glinted with the wealth of a millennium of plunder.
 I couldn’t find total student numbers, so I’ve multiplied the number of degrees awarded by three to give a rough estimate for each year. Likewise, enrolment figures for Polytechnics are hard to find. If they were added in, then the line would increase more smoothly from 1960-1992, rather than jumping suddenly when the Polytechnics became universities. But the trend would be the same.