What is it with the ‘old people’ myth?

My new friends

Three new chums from the Adriatic. Don’t expect to see them outside the Co-op soon

Right folks. I have spent a week enjoying the sun, rain and fish in Venice, a place that truly is dying on its feet, albeit in a wonderfully entertaining fashion. And what do I find you lot have done while I was away? Only written Wye off as a geriatric home that’s pegging it moment by moment too.

Paul Webster, in a contribution I thought brave, well considered and highly articulate, slipped in this warning, ‘The community begins to consist largely of retirees, commuters and second-homers, without local shops and without local work. We end up as a “museum’ village”.’

Then we get the eminently sensible Alan Paterson dusting off his Zimmer frame, at an extraordinarily early age it seems to me, to declare, ‘My own view is that we should be striving to rejuvenate the village which is in danger of becoming a geriatric and dormitory settlement.’

As a mere trainee geriatric may I ask a simple question: what the hell are you old guys on?

Consider a few salient points. The average age of the population of Wye is rising at a modest rate. Er… I don’t know how to break this to you all out there, but the population of this entire country is getting older. It’s because we’ve adopted this awkward habit of living longer. Perhaps sneezing chickens will change things, but an ageing demographic is a fact of life for every community in the land. I see no evidence whatsoever that Wye is any different to any other large village/very small town anywhere in rural or semi-rural England in this respect.

Still not convinced? How about this. Seven years ago when the youngest of my offspring left Joanna Thornhill for Highworth the village primary had one class per year. Now it has two. Let me put that more directly: the school has effectively doubled in size in less than a decade. Yes, a good number of those kids come from outside Wye. But stop and talk to any of their parents in the street and ask them a simple question: would you like to move to the village if you could? I know what the answer will be nine times out of ten. They’d love to live in Wye. They don’t see it as a dying village at all. They see it as a lovely place to bring up a family, not some desiccated old folks’ home where the council come in to sweep the corpses off the street whenever the first cold blast of winter strikes.

What else can I add? Oh, traffic. Dying towns tend to have diminishing amounts of it. We’re increasingly short of somewhere to park. And house prices. They’ve been falling of late in Venice, because so many local want to flee the place and pass on their heritage to holiday let foreigners. Even with the Wye Park nonsense, I am unaware of any such trend in our neck of the woods.

The ‘geriatric dying community’ idea is a myth that doesn’t stand up to the slightest analysis. Worse it tries to paint us into the corner beloved of planners and sociologists and all those other people who think communities don’t count for anything unless they can be tagged and enumerated, labelled and stuck into some strange socio-economic grouping. In the years to come more and more people will work in disparate ways, often from home, self employed or contracted, sitting at a desk in the study or third bedroom that’s just as connected with the office as one in the office (and a site cheaper and more convenient for both the employee and the employer). All it needs is decent broadband, and that’s come to Wye (the village, if not we poor suckers up the hill) already. Building a faster digital highway into Wye is a far better guarantee of future prosperity, jobs and secure family lives than driving through an army of bulldozers from Junction 10. Although it will, naturally, make some people a lot less money.

Still not convinced? Then think of this. The planners have already had their way hereabouts. They built Park Farm and Orchard Heights, and look what happened. The centre of Ashford continues to wither away, and the queues for Tesco and Asda get longer and longer. And the traffic? How many times do we have to make the same mistake before someone, somewhere accepts the truth: the more roads you build, the more cars and jams you get, with precious little in return. You could erect ten thousand new homes on the flood plain between the Surgery and Brook and I still doubt you’d get a village greengrocer and deli back. We don’t live that way any more.

There’s only one big thing missing from Wye at the moment: a vibrant, forward-looking academic heart. And that’s missing because Imperial, under Richard Sykes, have killed it. Let’s not look to ourselves to apportion the blame for that. Of course I’d happily see the existing Wye campus renewed and proportionately redeveloped to get that back in the village. But that is a million miles away from the new town Imperial is proposing in its place.

What matters in the end isn’t some supposedly magical demographic formula to do with age profiles and a hazy outdated notion that villages only count as villages if they have the correct proportion of young to old, commuter to local, and sufficient gourmets to keep the local store in foreign cheeses. What matters in the end is something very simple and easily understood: quality of life. Young or old, we’re rather spoiled in that regard right now. We ought to keep it that way.

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About David Hewson

Professional novelist, published in more than 20 languages. Creator of the Nic Costa series set in modern Rome. Most recent book the novel of the Danish TV series, The Killing.
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9 Responses to What is it with the ‘old people’ myth?

  1. Cliff Whitbourn says:

    Good to see you home and relaxed David!

  2. David Hewson says:

    You will see me relaxed later, Cliff. Promise!

  3. John Walters says:

    Welcome back David! In a few paragraphs, you have painted a picture that I believe accurately reflects what is happening to towns and villages, across the coutry. Tesco and the rest have killed the village shops and there is no likelihood of turning the clock back. But more importantly, you have captured, in a few words, what we would all welcome – “a vibrant, forward looking academic heart. ….Wye campus renewed ….proportionately redeveloped”. I’m sure its in there, somewhere, buried in the monstrously overblown dream (or nightmare!) that Imperial seems to have about Wye.The question is, can it be teased out without dragging in all the other baggage?

  4. jack woodford says:

    having spent yesterday afternoon, putting up neighbourhood watch signs, around the approaches to wye, with one of the older residents of wye, and myself being not so young anymore….i would certainly question the geriatic nature of wye….the small group of people who clean up, tidy up gardens, put up signs, and contribute to the well being of wye, are not in the first flush of youth! we would welcome younger members of wye and surrounding districts to come and join us, to keep wye looking attractive, safe, and a generally nice place to live in!

  5. Bright Young Thing says:

    We would, if we weren’t all out at work paying for your pensions and losing our own! 😉

  6. P.A.Thetic says:

    Bright Young Thing.. May I suggest that you take a stand on this issue and at least try to stop this undemocratic outrageous event taking place and help us old folk protect the environment and our natural heritage for you and your kids (if you are brave enough to have any or will you whine about us taking to much cash for you to have kids as well). I surpose you think we are doing it for ourselves.. well, rather wet behind the ears I say,.. most of us OLD folk will be sharing bread and wine with our favourite maker before Imperial complete their destruction of our countryside around Wye , As for your pension, blame this government for doubling our taxes and throwing it down the drain and they ain’t done yet.

  7. Bright Young Thing says:

    Actually, I have been, under my real name. I was trying to be humorous.

  8. David Hewson says:

    Indeed Bright Young thing is one of our most helpful and practical of supporters, as I can happily confirm. One thing I have learnt about the internet though: it can be horribly hard to make it clear when you’re joking. The late Bernard Levin once suggested newspapers needed a new form of punctuation mark he dubbed ‘ironics’ to surround jokes for this very purpose. We need them now more than ever (and no, before you ask, we don’t have them).

  9. jack woodford says:

    To ‘Bright Young Thing’, just a reply that I’am not yet a pensioner…I still try to work a small farm, produce items for the economy, and put some time in combating the ‘Imperial Vision Project’…we are up against large forces who plan to errect hundred of homes, without any real prospect of quality jobs to go with them!We now have Digby-Jones (ex CBI Chief), Alaistair Campbell(Brown’s man), not to mention as always the ODPM planning the onward march of new housing , more roads etc.Thanks to P.A.Thetic for some moral support in this matter…

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