From milk to eggs | Sally Taylor [ANVIL vol 36 issue 1]

A lesson in belonging, identity, culture, power and forgiveness in Somerset

Context

By Sally Taylor

In this article I recall my seven-year seven-month experiences of living in a rank of former miners’ cottages in a small Somerset town from 2005 to 2012. I explore the realities of communal living in an unknown and unfamiliar community. I attempt to examine the feeling of being the alien, the outsider, and the effects this had on my sense of identity and self. I aim to look at how the everyday experiences of life, family, friends and neighbours all weave into a pattern of life that enabled me to examine my identity, mission and calling.

Milk started our first conversation with our new neighbours. And eggs ended it. “We get milk delivered ’ere,” said Betty, our new neighbour – matriarch of the rank of former miners’ terraced cottages that we had just moved into that morning in April 2005. “I have already got you a form to fill in for the milkman if you like,” she said. So, our new adventure into the hierarchy and cultural intensity and community living within a small Somerset town began.

We moved in a very warm April. And our first venture into our garden really put down the marker of how things were around there. Len, the husband of Betty (the milk instigator), greeted me with the unbeknownst-to-us classic local area greeting of “Alright?” with an intonational rise at the end. Not knowing the cultural lingo and etiquette, I replied, “Well, thanks.” What came next was the response that typified our experience in the next few years of our habitation in that road – “Oo not from round ’ere!”

I should have replied “Alright?” in the same intonation but I didn’t yet know that this was the correct way to reply. This rebuttal by Len was significant. We realised then, and realise so much more now, that this summed up how differently we were perceived, and to some extent were, to the residents of that road. This kind of interaction initially and continually kept us on the back foot in terms of fitting in and being seen as a true part of that community. Looking back, it is interesting how power is manifested by people from the beginning when a new person comes in and potentially threatens to disrupt the cultural makeup of an area. “All cultures have a social hierarchy and methods of signalling social status.” [1]

I found that moving into a new area required a time of adjustment. In our naivety, however, we didn’t realise we were venturing into a different culture with different norms, expectations and dialects. “Alright?” was then followed in the next encounter with Len with “Albeyon?”, which I learned sometime later from a friend who had grown up locally means “How are you getting on?” We gradually learned and negotiated our way around these new encounters.

We also soon realised that there was a distinct hierarchy in the road. Len and Betty ruled the street from the old foreman’s cottage, exercising considerable control over the residents. This mining inheritance lived on in their mindset and expectations. Mining was what most people’s relatives had done since the fifteenth century, with the pit in the town closing in 1973. Mining was in the blood even to the point of local names such as Shearn – meaning someone who comes from a dirty, mining area – making up large swathes of the local phone directory. In culture there is a sense that history is part of us, pumped around our bodies like blood through our veins. It is so integral to the way a place functions yet it is rarely spoken of or even acknowledged.

Something that started as meaning one thing in a specific time becomes a symbol of the past and its power carries on conveying “a meaning, not just about itself but about all kinds of relationships”. [2] This is what happened with the foreman’s cottage that Len and Betty lived in. It was a bit bigger than the rest of the houses in the terrace, thus in the past was seen as a symbol of power, “born” in response “to the subjective needs of people and their experience of life”. [3] But this symbol kept its power with Len and Betty adopting, by historical osmosis, the foreman role. The symbolic power they exercised we realised more fully after the dog encounter (which I will come onto presently) as it demonstrated that the residents in the road still subconsciously adhered to it. The residents didn’t therefore stand up to Len and Betty about the dog, even though they would moan about it to us on the quiet – and even when the dog bit a neighbour, they were afraid to say anything to anyone, as if they were still miners and living in fear of the foreman. The control of the contemporary foreman in the flesh and blood of Len and Betty was further aided by the layout of the gardens in the road.

The gardens of those cottages, being ex-miners’ dwellings, had a twitton – a local name for a passageway or wide path that ran along all of the back of the cottages. This separated people’s houses from the start of their gardens so that, in the mining days, free coal could be delivered easily on carts to all the miner residents. The gardens therefore started away from your house, so you generally always saw someone else when you ventured outside your back door. This also meant other people had a closer and more intimate awareness of what was going on in your house and garden. This way of living wasn’t something I was used to. Having been brought up in middle-class rural Sussex village life, a sense of privacy was something I took for granted. Even when I started going to the village church, which contained a lot of our neighbours, people kept themselves to themselves and didn’t talk to me even though our gardens were adjacent to each other. Kate Fox’s analysis of Englishness places this love of privacy high on what makes us English. [4] She says this is typified in the notion that an Englishman’s home is his castle. This certainly fitted my experiences of habitation up to this point. So, my class shaped me for an uncomfortable experience of this new way of more communal working-class living. “Class in England is so pervasive”; [5] with hindsight I can see that this was a norm that was deeply embedded in my bone and sinew and which consequently contributed to the culture shock of twitton-based living.

Learning to negotiate this new culture but also remaining true to myself was therefore key for my survival there. I believe “we have to fully grasp the implications of our own cultural traits and values…. before we begin to understand, appreciate and identify with a foreign culture”. [6] I had to therefore stay in touch with who I fundamentally was by having familiar cultural artefacts with which I engaged with daily as symbols of my own culture and personhood, and I also continued to do things that were integral to my identity.

These included my home decor and belongings, my clothes choice and the music I played. Without this, I think when we enter different culture we can taste “the shock of chaos”. [7] I am reminded of the repeated experience that Israel underwent throughout the Hebrew scriptures. They found that there is always a tension between being at home and not being at home, between rootedness and the sense of being in exile. They found and made home in a place that wasn’t naturally home. This can be seen as a useful analogy and lesson for inculturation. [8]

A few years into our time there, Len and Betty started to look after their daughter’s dog – a massive American Rottweiler. It was chained up daily by their house in the twitton, so anyone who walked past it had to dice with death as it lunged out at passers-by. We listened to our neighbours’ complaints and worries about the dog. No one was prepared to stand up to Len and Betty about it. The historic symbolism and mythology of the foreman retained its power.

During the time we lived there many people in the street moved out, and this was mainly due to the daily niggling and moaning of Len and Betty about the state of people’s houses, gardens, pets and children! When you live in community like that, there is nowhere to hide or to get away. People got fed up with this and moved on. We tried to, but our house sale fell through. We sensed that God had more to teach us before we could go.

The dog saga rumbled on. Forgiveness and loving your neighbour rumbled on. It was challenging to constantly forgive and to be kind. To stand your ground but in love. I learned so much about how hard forgiveness is but also how hard it is on us if we hold onto bitterness and anger towards others. So, the dog issue came to a head. We decided, after much talking and trying to suggest to Len and Betty various solutions about the dog, we had to put a gate up. It was an openable gate so the neighbours could easily come through to their houses via the twitton but it would stop the dog if it ever got loose and threatened to harm our small children or others in the rank.

In the putting up of the gate, we became public enemy number one. Looking back, this was not only because we hadn’t submitted to the mythical authority of the foreman but also we were seen to have destroyed the communal access to the back of all the houses. We had disrupted a relic of local mining history – inadvertently standing and stamping on the toes of their mining fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers.

The twitton symbolically represented the mining community, and by putting a gate up that, for obvious reasons, symbolised privatisation and division, we interfered “with a symbol and myth without involving the people concerned”. This “leads inevitably to unnecessary messiness, pain, and grief or chaos”. [9] We returned to our initial status as foreigners. Any gains we had made in terms of being part of the local culture and being accepted dwindled. We were ignored, not invited to street gatherings and made to feel bad by all the overheard loud conversations they had repeatedly in their garden about us.

Again, I wanted to move, but we didn’t. I had to continue to learn how to love my neighbours who treated us like enemies – to actively pray blessings upon them and seek God about ways to rebuild and to not give up in negotiating local culture and follow God into it. I was praying for ways to reconcile with Len and Betty, and eggs were the answer to prayer God gave me! I sensed God saying, “Take round some of the eggs from your chickens.” So that’s what I did and gradually friendship started to happen again. I began to realise the need for deeper dependence on God’s wisdom and guidance from the Holy Spirit in order to find creative ways towards reconciliation. I realise more now that wind of the Holy Spirit transcends all cultural difference and challenge and thus enables and emboldens us when we follow his lead. Kim suggests therefore that mission needs always to be spirit-shaped as he cuts through all human endeavour and lack of wisdom to the heart of the situation and the people. [10] Taylor similarly observes that “the relationship of the Spirit to the Christian believer… is without precedent and this fact must be central to our understanding of Christian mission”. [11]

This milk-to-eggs story showed so much to me about intercultural mission. It showed me that cultural difference matters. With each move to somewhere new and in order for me to live missionally, I had to learn and explore without judgement a culture that is not familiar. I have learned it takes time to work out how things work in a different and unknown place. It takes time to integrate, and it was only towards the end of our time there that I felt part of the row of cottages and understood a lot of its culture, symbols and mythical hierarchy.

Conclusion

My story offers a reflection on the challenges we face as we seek to live missionally in new and diverse cultural contexts. It also shows me the way of intercultural negotiation: to meet and make friends, to know and own your identity, but be open to become an accepted outsider to the inside people.

The distinct insight gained from living in a rank of former miners’ cottages in a small Somerset town changed me. I was not the same person who moved in on that warm April day in 2005 when I left seven years and seven months later. There were “things we lost in the fire” [12] of refinement – in the challenges and self-deconstruction of miner-cottage life. But I gained so much. As we have journeyed on to another part of Somerset with another set of cultural and hierarchical norms, I have been able to put into practice this miner-cottage life learning. I learned the value of observation – in taking time to see how the culture works and in trying to learn the rules and expectations of it while remaining true to myself. I learned the need for atoneness in myself – that to know what we are about is crucial to enabling ourselves to accept and love others in their difference to us. I gained an understanding of the importance of being at home, in being the outsider and to own it.

I learned that the challenge of not fitting in, the challenge of being the alien is a gift, precisely because this feeling, this discomfort, this uncertainty weighs on God’s heart – in his love for the outsider. By experiencing this we can crucially understand how it feels to be an outsider; to be one not on the inside, not “in the know”, not knowing the language, the etiquette, the symbols and culture. If we can consequently grasp this and hold this feeling close to our hearts in mission, if we can use these cultural shocks and disorientations as an ideal environment to learn about what it means to be an alien, then we can start to understand more of the heart of God for the stranger and the outsider.

Sally Taylor is a final year ordinand at Sarum College and about to undertake a Pioneer curacy in Bournemouth. Presently, she is enabling a Fresh Expression to grow and flourish in the Hamp estate in Bridgwater, Somerset, where her husband, James, is a curate. She has three wonderful children and an extremely lively spaniel.

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Notes

[1] Kate Fox’s observation arises from her research into the world of Englishness through her ethnographical participant observational research. She has examined the world of what makes us English in terms of habits, etiquette and hidden social rules. Kate Fox, Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2014), 114.
[2] Gerald A. Arbuckle, in Culture, Inculturation, & Theologians: A Postmodern Critique (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2010), 20, journeys into the world of and stresses the importance of symbols and myths in understanding and defining culture. His work deconstructs the nature of cultural assumptions and decodes surroundings. Our ability to grasp deeply and profoundly the nature of culture has a massive impact on the nature and effectiveness of Christian mission. For further reading on this see Anthony J. Gittens, Living Mission Interculturally: Faith, Culture, and the Renewal of Praxis, (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2015), chapters 32–45.
[3] Arbuckle, Culture, Inculturation, & Theologians, 20.
[4] Kate Fox (ibid.) identifies privacy as a key rule of Englishness and suggests that “the English all want to live in their own private little box with their own private little green bit” (185).
[5] Nigel Rooms, in The Faith of The English: Integrating Christ and Culture (London: SCPK, 2011), 42, dissects our identity as English people and suggests that to get to the heart of Englishness we either look at the emphasis on “ancestry, birth and bloodline”, “emphasize legal and political constructs” or go down “the more elusive route of myth, values and customs” (27). In reality he says that in engaging with Englishness, we need to interweave and overlap all these aspects to get to its heart.
[6] David Sitton, To Every Tribe with Jesus: Understanding and Reaching Tribal Peoples for Christ (Sand Springs, OK: Grace and Truth Books, 2005), 12.
[7] Arbuckle (ibid., 20) writes that when we enter different culture we can taste “the shock of chaos” resulting from a culture that disintegrates us and distances us from our own identity and self.
[8] Walter Brueggemann, Reverberations of Faith: A Theological Handbook of Old Testament Themes (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 70, suggests “the exile, taken theologically, is presented in the Old Testament as the death of everything that gave identity to the life of Israel”. Yet continually throughout the Old Testament, the Hebrew prophets spoke of the encouragement of God’s hope and the fact their identity needed to be based upon him and not their surroundings. This enabled, at times, the Jewish community to be one “of hope” and one “that believed and trusted that the God who willed Israel’s deportation is the God who will faithfully enact Israel’s restoration to safety and well-being of its own proper place in Jerusalem and Judah” (71). This key prophetic message that runs through the life of God’s people can be encouraging today. When I feel in the exile of mission (like I did in the miners’ cottage life) in a foreign land of cultural assumption, I need to find and reconnect to God and to my identity in him and surround myself in the symbolic memory of what makes me, me and what testifies to the memory of God’s prior faithfulness.
[9] Arbuckle, Culture, Inculturation, & Theologians, 36.
[10] Kirsteen Kim, Joining in with the Spirit: Connecting World Church and Local Mission (London: SCM Press, 2012), 12, Kim explores “how the unbound nature and unpredictability of the Spirit’s presence and activity (John 3.8) cuts across human expectations and confounds our sense of geography” (1). She goes onto explore how local mission in this context links to wider worldwide mission in a sense of how what God is doing opens up into a wider more wonderful picture of activity worldwide. She doesn’t lessen the importance of knowing and adapting to context but makes the point that “it is in the wider movement of the Spirit that” the church and we operate in and that the “missio Dei… spills over, crosses boundaries and is carried across the world by the wind of the Spirit” (284).
[11] John V. Taylor, in The Go-Between God: The Holy Spirit & the Christian Mission (London: SCM Press, 1972), 6, draws our attention to the activity of God’s Holy Spirit within missio Dei. He suggests that all of our life experiences can be found in the direction and leading of the Spirit and that “the breath of life, the hovering wings, the unpredictable winds, the fire in the mouth – for all this and far more is included in the gift that should be ours” (7).
[12] Lyrics from the band Bastille and their song “Things We Lost in the Fire” from the album “Bad Blood”, released 4 March 2013 by Virgin EMI Records UK.

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