There’s a special energy to Totnes. This little South Devon town is said to be the birthplace of modern Britain; the arrival of Brutus the Trojan marked by an unassuming granite stone in the high street.
It was the first town to create its own currency – the Totnes Pound – and one of the first in Britain to become a Transition Town, aiming to increase local resilience and reduce its impact on the environment.
Lovingly ‘twinned with Narnia’, Totnesians celebrate the town’s eccentricities, have a fiercely independent spirit and prioritise localism over government policy.
But that does not make it a town full of Covid deniers, conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers, as an article last week in The Guardian would have had people believe.
The journalist seized upon Totnes’ well-documented low take up of the MMR vaccine among five-year-olds and used this as a hook to focus on some of the more extreme beliefs held by local folk.
It introduced us to David, who sees the pandemic as a secret plot by world governments to control us; to Steve, who believes masks are used to maintain fear; and to the leaflet droppers and anti 5G campaigners who are often on the high street, where I live.
But the narrative just played into a one dimensional stereotype of Totnes.
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The article rightly pointed out that there has been heated debate over the closure of the high street to traffic for four hours on a Saturday to facilitate social distancing during the pandemic. But the objections are not from people who believe the pandemic is a hoax – they’re from retailers who claim pedestrianisation will negatively impact their business.
As Mayor Jacqi Hodgson said in her interview for the piece, there are plenty of people who question the mainstream narrative here.
It’s a town that attracts hippies and liberalists. It’s a town where anti-authoritarianism thrives. And it’s a place where unverified misinformation on social media can often gain traction.
But equally many people in Totnes are well read and raise valid questions about the aspects of government that others take for granted.
I have friends who don’t agree with vaccination. I see people daily in my local shop refusing to wear a mask and I’ve had leaflets through my door denouncing the pandemic as a hoax. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to anti-5G campaigners in Totnes about their fears over the health risks of the new technology.
These all stem from liberal ideas and values – that nothing should be imposed on us that curtails our human rights or our freedom.
That libertarianism has a hugely positive impact on the town. It makes it a positive and welcoming environment for just about anyone, regardless of their class, colour or creed.
It means the community and local values are put ahead of everything else. And it makes for an incredibly diverse yet cohesive community.
Not everyone agrees and of course, there are arguments on social media, as The Guardian piece pointed out.
But that’s evidence of healthy debate in a town that passionately engages with issues around politics, place and ‘proper’ coffee.
To reduce this cosmopolitan community to the sum of its outlying voices not only panders to cliche, but actively undermines cohesion at a time in its history when cohesion is more important than ever.