What can you do with a toxic brew?


It’s only a cup of coffee, you might say, but I’ve seen people physically shaking with anxiety from Kidderminster town centre’s toxic mix of social problems, excessive caffeine, status anxiety and status envy, concentrated in a small patch of commercial land in my hometown.  It’s linked to what beats the heart of my county of Worcestershire, the British class system, which is a huge factor cross-county, and which manifests itself in numerous ways, from people internalising the dominant ideology of the area to the desire to be ‘posh’ to an almost obsessive desire at times to get one over the other person at varying levels of intensity with a hierarchy based on criteria which would find a better home in a pantomime.  Territoriality also factors into it all as people lacking a home worth living in become obsessed with a commercial area that has so little to offer.  It is, if you’re fortunate enough to be able to see it, quite simply the strangest place in the most backward of counties you can imagine.

Kidderminster is a former market town – an insular town, a town where its reactionary politics are made to look apolitical to the point that people think they’re natural and have no need for an alternative, which would only be seen as a threat, anyway.  The status quo never had it so good.  The local Conservative association had (or still has) its offices in a building called ‘Margaret Thatcher House’.  During a crisis brought about by deregulated bankers, they elected a hedge fund manager to power: a Conservative, not a member of an extreme far-right party, only because that isn’t thought ‘posh’ around here, though the core ideas and way of life betray the diversion.  You get the picture, even though most of the locals don’t.

So, in the context of a politics that likes to individualise rather than see broader issues, there is, of course, no point in trying to help those with shell shock after they’ve been exposed to the place.  There is no problem, they’ll instinctively insist, to any problem they clearly have which you may highlight, having unwittingly learned to erect any defence (partly, again, in the interests of one-upmanship and, well, psychological survival) against the reality that setting up an alternative home in Kidderminster’s town centre represents a significant admission of failure in a great many aspects of life, all the while spilling their lattes all over the place – hands beyond control, minds too easily drawn towards hysteria, all the while almost constantly desperate for something – anything – to prove that maybe hints that they have value beyond the superficial commercial relationships they have there.

I was once close to becoming one of those people until I rediscovered that life was worth living.  That said, revisiting the town centre over the past fortnight has already had an impact.  Years ago, a pretty decent, very likeable fella came to work in the area.  This year he left, widely disliked.  I had tried to warn him in his early days there, but it’s natural not to listen to such things when the reality seems so different to the uninitiated.  In my last vlog, the effects of the place were evident in the video even when merely describing it, the danger being how, like quicksand, the area can submerge you into its ways and the social scene of its bizarre ‘community’ of tragicomic regulars.

Making vlogs can be interesting, not least in a therapeutic sense, so long as you can summon up the right frame of mind for assessing your own work, and it was on first viewing of ‘This Toxic Spill’ that I realised the impact the town centre was having on me even after so short a space of time.  The world seemed smaller, restricted, narrow.   The air of possibility that I usually carry around with me had vanished.  I could feel the lack of enthusiasm for things that really matter as things that don’t came into the foreground.But gone are the days where I’d spend almost all my daytime in town, almost camped out, so I lacked the level of stress that involved which would obscure my way out.

As with many psychiatric patients, you can generally gauge the unresolved psychosocial issues the regulars have by the size of the bags they carry for their big day out at the coffee shops in the town.  Mine was occasionally indicative of the trials I was going through, though never as bad as many I’d seen.  But now is not then and, even though I’ve taken my man bag there, it’s been pretty half-heartedly, yearning to get back to my home routine, which is enjoyably productive, rewarding and fulfilling, as are other areas of my life, leading (the hope is) to something interesting further down the line.

Just as importantly, though, I don’t want to lose the defamiliarization I have of the town centre as that process did what it can do at its best, demystifying it and, in so doing, opening up a fresh, perceptive and acute perspective of the place, the county and, beyond that, even the country itself.  There is something to be said about seeing the area you’ve mainly lived in with a fresh pair of eyes, in ways you’d been obscured from seeing in the past, which develops you and your approach to things.  Defamiliarization with my hometown and the majority of the people who inhabit it has led to greater reflection on many things beyond the geographic and cultural, which has led to a degree of personal development I could barely have hoped for.

But what about the place itself?  Trying to address the problems of the area from within the area will probably always result in a fruitless conclusion.  The instinctive tendency here is to deflect it all and say that the area is little different and no worse than anywhere else, despite the evidence, the professionals and key lay people strongly suggesting otherwise.  While appreciating how tragic it is that the regulars’ defences against self-awareness and awareness of the culture that does them so much damage is beyond resolution, I can’t help feeling that life here and elsewhere could be so much better for far more people, but that the extant issues – too often internalised by people who know little better – should be tackled by people who should know better.  It can’t be acceptable that you can drive within 20 miles to the urban landscape of Birmingham and be presented with people, despite that areas issues, whose personalities are as if from another planet, they tend to be so personable and lacking in the superficial charm, hostilities and paranoid approach of Kidderminster’s majority.

But this is not for me to resolve.  The type of tragic figures who haunt the town centre and speak volumes for the county and even the country aren’t yet on the radar of organisations who are currently more likely to target pub dwellers, drug addicts and people as psychologically damaged as the coffee regulars, but without seeing the similarities and the needs these people have.  State institutions won’t touch the place because that would be to admit that the area and its culture has deep-rooted problems, as many professionals and lay people would willingly tell me during my initial spell frequenting the place.  The local press is more interested in tittle-tattle for the local gossips and in promotion for tourism, though let’s hope the tourists always manage to get out before it’s too late.  The locals themselves are so familiarized with what should always be kept at arms length that they can’t ever really be hoped to see the issues.  All that’s left, then, is for social and psychiatric services to pick up the pieces of those for whom the defences are eventually breached.  Surely that’s wrong, but that’s the way the system currently works.

As for me, I went there today at the close of business, even though I didn’t want to.  I’ve got enough to do at home, a decent coffee machine and non-commercial relationships to attend to.  But it’s that witnessing a car crash thing, isn’t it.  The trick is to keep it like that though, as you’ve probably figured out by now, that’s far easier said than done.  And as for it only being about a cup of coffee, I wish someone would tell the powers that be because, ideally, that’s all it really should be.

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