Telling the Local: Storytelling and Localism

In the Warwick Commission’s Report on Mayors, the authors emphasised the importance of being able to tell a story about a place:

‘Mayors will be powerful if they can tell a strong story on behalf of their place that creates a sense of shared endeavour amongst their communities and is attractive to external audiences including central government and inward investors’ (p. 10).

The literature on place-making is huge, with geographers in particular concerned to integrate social, economic and spatial strands and explanations. One recurring theme is the relationship between place as a site, a place that is concrete, local and territorialized and ‘relational places’ that recognise and reflect the networks and trans-scalar politics and processes that go into place-making (for one recent working of these debates see Pierce et al).

Yet there are many other places to look when answering these questions about cities and localities are constructed, connected and conceived. Geographers, political scientists and economists do not necessarily have all the best lines.

For how places are made, the connections with other places, locales, lands and kingdoms has long been the province of storytellers and it is this rich practice that a project, Localism, Narrative & Myth, funded by the AHRC is investigating. This is working with storytellers, at the all equally fabulous – but different – Beyond the Borders Festival, the Bristol Storytelling Festival and Durham Book Festival – to consider how stories of the local and local governance, in terms of kinship, ties, connections human and ecological, spiritual and political can help us understand different perspectives of ‘the local’ that the Localism Act is so busily trying to regulate (or de-regulate, or re-regulate at a different scale, all depending on your point of view).

Knitting together the stories (which will be recorded and posted here) and interviews with the storytellers with geographic and legal literatures on the local will be the work of academics working in partnership (and this is crucial) with storytellers. It’s a creative project, which aims to investigate an arts and humanities perspectives on the local, perspectives that are perhaps too often seen to be firmly located in the social sciences.

While we are working on this project, the wonderful Wiltshire Voices project is empowering locals to tell their own stories, in this case through communities of interest. Here Army wives, stroke victims and young people are telling their stories, without mediation or translation. This is part of an empowerment project, reaching out to those people who do not always engage in democratic processes, enabling their voices to be heard. These voices are recorded on film and are meant to inspire empathy and action.

This is intentional, as Steve Milton, Head of Community Governance at Wiltshire Council, explains. He asks:

‘how do we make room for sentiment, empathy and sympathy in an empirical world – a world where what matters is the stuff we can count, measure, codify, meta-analyse, evaluate and interpret in a logical, rational, scientific quest for irrefutable truths?’

What role for narrative in a world of social science?

As well as considering how we construct the local, these stories engage us with the important question of ‘the other’, inherent to the regulation of the local, which draws a boundary that includes but also excludes. While this is well recognised in the context of infrastructure and economic development, including by the Warwick Commission, the social (lyrical, narrative) construction of localism continues to require thought.

As Martin Maudsley, the super-talented lynchpin of the Bristol Storytelling Festival, has said (over coffee, in the Canteen, a very special, local site) there is an important role for storytellers here. Just as monarchs once employed court jesters to ask the awkward questions under the guise of entertainment, storytellers may tell us some uncomfortable tales about place-making and local decisions. These projects may be unusual in a political arena driven by facts and figures but they present perspectives neither academics nor policymakers should feel too comfortable to ignore.

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1 Response to Telling the Local: Storytelling and Localism

  1. Yes, I agree. Three cheers for storytelling! People ‘write’ places through their actions and their recollections: walking + talking = place. Michel de Certeau springs to mind (and – modestly – a recent blog of mine about hilltops, individual meaning making and civic infrastructure of communication, law and water supply…

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