Knowing your place

TIME was when “know your place” was a condescending comment by people who assumed a degree of superiority that entitled them to put others down. It is a sense of entitlement that you still encounter and that is satirised in the new film The Riot Club, based on Laura Wade’s hit play Posh, which was inspired by the Bullingdon Club – current famous former members include Boris Johnson (who has tried to distance himself from its reputation), Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne.

But in recent years, the idea of knowing your place has taken on a very different and much more interesting meaning, linked to the concept of “local distinctiveness,” a term coined by Common Ground, the Dorset-based environmental arts charity founded by Sue Clifford and Angela King.

If you put the words “local distinctiveness” into Google you will find references from a wide range of public authorities, organisations and companies (usually trying to reinforce the credentials of their “brand”). But for the real meaning you need to go back to basics, back to Common Ground, and their website where you will find an elegantly written description that sets the scene and offers examples and illustrations …

“Often it is the commonplace things, the locally abundant, the places and the wildlife on our very doorstep that we take for granted, that slip through our fingers … Local implies neighbourhood or parish; Distinctiveness is about particularity in the buildings and land shapes, the brooks and birds, trees and cheeses, places of worship and pieces of literature. It is about history and nature jostling with each other, layers and fragments, old and new. The ephemeral and invisible are important too: customs, dialects, celebrations, names, recipes, spoken history, myths, legends and symbols.”

The founder-directors of Common Ground have now retired and their massive and important archive has gone to Exeter University but their legacy will live on, not only in their projects such as Apple Day, Parish Maps, Field Names and their great encyclopaedia of local distinctiveness, England In Particular, but around the country, in communities, universities, village halls, arts centres, makers co-operatives and among the countless people who have been inspired “to protect and promote whatever is distinctive about a place.”

You can see this ethos in operation over the next few weeks, not only in October’s Apple Day festivities, but in the Home Ground exhibition at the Devon Guild of Craftsmen, Inside Out Dorset’s Ridgeway Responses to the heritage, history and landscape of the South Dorset Ridgeway, Somerset Art Weeks’ invitation to meet artists in their own place, their workshop or studio, Arts By The Sea’s recognition of Bournemouth’s history and its contemporary place at the cutting edge of the creative media and film and Screen Bites Food Film Festival, in its 10th anniversary year, celebrating local food and world cinema – itself often a celebration of the local distinctiveness of place, from Mumbai to allotments in Lancashire.

Common Ground’s work and the concept of local distinctiveness are not sentimental or nostalgic – it was always rigorous and recognised the need for change and reinvigoration.

Change and reinvigoration are inevitably in the minds of us all this week, with the Scottish referendum polls closing as I write and the tellers preparing for a long night counting votes which will determine not only the future of Scotland but of the “United Kingdom.”

The result – too close to call, say the pollsters – might not have been in doubt if successive English politicians had not been so keen to tell the Scots to “know their place.”

They do.

Fanny Charles