The Mayor
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Inside the extreme Facebook fandom for old rental VHS tapes

Featuring a £360 Jaws tape, four rooms full of 10,000 videos, and a man known only as “The Mayor”.

On a sunny September day in 2016, Scott Bates stood in a Doncaster parking lot, waiting for a delivery of 1,250 VHS tapes.

“It was £250 including delivery, so I think I got a pretty good deal there,” Bates tells me over the phone. He had ordered the videos from eBay while living at home during his university holidays, but his mother didn’t want them all in the house. Instead, the Bateses rented out a self-storage unit and waited in the parking lot for the 27 boxes of video tapes that were about to arrive in a large van.

“I spent a couple of days sorting through them,” says Bates, who brought 300 of the tapes back to London, where the 20-year-old is a student. In total, his flat is now home to 450 videos.

Bates is one of 1,063 members of “The Video Club. This Facebook group is home to people who buy, sell, and collect old video tapes. More specifically, ex-rental video tapes – VHS that were once homed in video rental shops like Blockbuster or ChoicesUK.

Bates does buy ex-rentals, but his passion is for obscure foreign and independent films, which sometimes didn’t make it into rental stores. We speak for 43 minutes about his love of VHS tapes, and he describes his impressively large collection. Before we hang up, I ask if there’s anything else I should know about the online video tape community.

“Have you been made aware of…” he begins, before pausing slightly. “Have you been told about The Mayor?”

***

The Mayor wears a white plastic mask that covers the entirety of his face.

A grey hoodie obscures the top of the mask, and its strings are pulled tight under his chin. On top of his hood sits a Christmas hat emblazoned with the words “Text Santa” – the name of an ITV charity telethon that has been running since 2011.

“And then I found a stethoscope so I thought I’d put a stethoscope on and all,” The Mayor tells me over the phone. He speaks in a lilting accent, which sounds to me slightly West Country-esque (The Mayor is not willing to disclose his name, age, nor location).

Three rooms in The Mayor’s home are currently covered, floor to ceiling, with ex-rental video tapes. In one room, the only part of the wall not obscured by videos features a glowing yellow and blue electrical sign shaped like a ripped movie ticket. It cost £40 and once sat atop a since-demolished Blockbuster.

“There will be a fourth, well it will be a hallway really, the fourth room,” explains The Mayor, who is currently redecorating his rooms as he moves into his girlfriend’s house. He estimates he has nearly 10,000 ex-rental VHS tapes on which has spent “thousands, absolute thousands” of pounds collecting since 1993.

“I always wanted a video shop but in 1998 DVDs came out and sort of ruined me. I was like: well that’s the end of that dream,” he says. Still, he kept collecting, and is happy with his videos, which are arranged like a shop on shelves from old rental stores. “I hate them,” he says of DVDs, “I call them ‘soulless discs of hate’.”

In the online video collector community, The Mayor is infamous. He runs a YouTube channel (mayorip) with 1,200 subscribers, and his videos range from eccentric to undeniably unnerving. “The Mayor can be quite rude and very bizarre on times at YouTube,” he admits on the phone, going on to describe the channel as a “persona”. He also runs a rival Facebook group to The Video Club, called “The UK’s Best VHS Collectors Group”.

“I've only got 523 [members] in there, I have blocked about 400 people because they just don't do anything in the group,” he says. According to The Mayor, The Video Club Facebook group was an offshoot of his Facebook group. He and one of the administrators of the Facebook group fell out over some tapes, each claiming the other ripped them off.

“Yeah there’s a lot of rivalry,” laughs The Mayor. “There’s a lot that goes on in the VHS community, there’s a bit of tension here and there, sometimes… but it’s all good fun in the end.”

***

On 2 July 2017, an old rental video tape of the movie Jaws sold for £360.00 on the online auction site eBay. The tape is also a “pre-cert” – meaning it was released before the British Board of Film Classification began age-restricting videos in 1984. This video is one of many ex-rentals that an eBay seller known only as “harrymonk-uk” is selling for anywhere between one and four-hundred pounds.

But just what is the appeal of an ex-rental tape?

“I think there is definitely a huge element of nostalgia,” explains Bates, who says renting videos was a huge part of his childhood growing up. One member of the video club tells me he likes old rental videos because trailers play before they begin. For others, ex-rentals (or “big boxes” as they’re colloquially known) are better because they are rarer, have superior artwork, and are higher quality. Rental tapes are often superior because they were designed to be viewed over and over again, whereas normal tapes (or “sell-throughs”) can only be watched a few times before the video quality degrades.

“I think that's the best way, to actually hold the thing and look at the thing and actually own it,” says The Mayor. “I mean who wants a bloody collection of music or videos on their bloody computer? ‘Oh look at my collection of videos!’ ‘Oh great it's on a computer!’ I mean what the hell is that about? I’ve got no idea.”

For Bates, The Mayor, and many others, the internet has allowed them to keep their niche hobby alive. Will Cawkwell is a 31-year-old student from Withernsea who is a member of The Video Club. “It’s a 33 mile round trip to get to Hull and back just to go to the only [charity shop] around that sells tapes,” he says. Many in the community are frustrated by the fact that charity shops now throw away video tapes and refuse to sell them on, deeming them worthless or a fire hazard. 

 

The internet also allows collectors to find and bid on tapes for their collection – although since I joined The Video Club for this story, there has been a fierce debate about whether users should share eBay links with each other. “It drives up the prices insanely and pretty much pisses a lot of people off,” wrote one commenter. Although the group is exceptionally friendly, and its mostly-male membership share plenty of in-jokes, there can be fierce rivalry when it comes to certain tapes. “Congrats to the sad fucker that won that!” reads one comment about an auction.

“Unfortunately from time to time there is the odd bad egg and kook but this is something that happens in any other group out there on any platform,” says Scott Kellaway, the founder of The Video Club and a photographer by trade. “One of The Video Club’s mottos is ‘Be kind, Unwind’ and we try to stick by that. We like every member to feel equal and involved; we do not stand for things like bullying or trolling.”

***

Charlie Glennerster is a 39-year-old from Essex who is an active member of The Video Club. He once made a Christmas tree out of his VHS tapes and he can – or at least, did – throw a video tape backwards so that it lands behind him on a shelf.

“I just love VHS,” says Glennerster – who met his wife on another video tape related Facebook group and wore video-tape-shaped cufflinks at his wedding. “I measured my son against a video the day he came home.”

Glennerster is now a father of three, and has less and less time and money for collecting new videos. The Video Club is therefore invaluable, as it allows him to trade videos and interact socially with other collectors. “I've made a lot of friends through our group, some of which I have met,” he tells me. Last year, he went to a VHS gathering in Scotland where enthusiasts could trade and buy tapes. “After the event we handed out videos to strangers on the streets of Glasgow… Sadly, those tapes were later found in a puddle.”

Glennerster’s passion is at the heart of the video club, and other Facebook groups like it. Yet the VHS favoured by these collectors aren’t the white-edged Walt Disney classics that you may remember fondly from your childhood. Some of the most valuable tapes are “video nasties”, 72 violent videos that were banned in the Eighties for violating the Obscene Publications Act 1959. One, named Love Camp 7, features a sadistic Nazi camp commandant abusing female prisoners. It is rated 3.6 out of Ten stars on IMDb.

Many in the group also collect classic horror films – believing that this genre is naturally best on VHS.

Still, despite the occasionally obscene nature of the tapes, video collecting seems to have many charms. One of Glennerster’s fondest memories is the time he found a dumpster full of old video tapes. “I was walking home from my job at the hospital late one evening and passed a charity shop, outside were 16 boxes of VHS tapes,” he says. “The next day on my lunch hour I went back to the shop and asked if I could look through the tapes, but to my horror the owner said that he had thrown them all in the skip at the back of the shop… after pleading to him he let me go and pick through them.

“So I got inside a dumpster full of videos, like Scrooge McDuck diving into all his gold.

“It was boiling hot and I had limited time so I took the best ones – around 80. It was all I could carry so I staggered the one mile walk back to work.”

***

Facebook groups like The Video Club and The UK’s Best VHS Collectors Group allow a (somewhat intense) fandom to thrive online. Without buy-and-sell websites or social media, video collectors would have been unable to carry on with their hobby, and the VHS format would have truly died.

“The last two years have seen a huge rise in collectors all coming out saying they thought they were the only ones buying tapes,” says Thomas Paul Wilson, a 28-year-old engineer from Nottingham, who is an admin on The Video Club.

“Video collecting pretty much is the internet now to be honest,” agrees Bates. “The charity shops round here just don’t have any at all.

“I am glad that the whole collecting scene has moved online rather than...” Bates tails off before saying the last word. Were it not for the internet, VHS tapes and VHS collectors might have been lost forever.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
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Lexit: the EU is a neoliberal project, so let's do something different when we leave it

Brexit affords the British left a historic opportunity for a decisive break with EU market liberalism.

The Brexit vote to leave the European Union has many parents, but "Lexit" – the argument for exiting the EU from the left – remains an orphan. A third of Labour voters backed Leave, but they did so without any significant leadership from the Labour Party. Left-of-centre votes proved decisive in determining the outcome of a referendum that was otherwise framed, shaped, and presented almost exclusively by the right. A proper left discussion of the issues has been, if not entirely absent, then decidedly marginal – part of a more general malaise when it comes to developing left alternatives that has begun to be corrected only recently, under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.

Ceding Brexit to the right was very nearly the most serious strategic mistake by the British left since the ‘70s. Under successive leaders Labour became so incorporated into the ideology of Europeanism as to preclude any clear-eyed critical analysis of the actually existing EU as a regulatory and trade regime pursuing deep economic integration. The same political journey that carried Labour into its technocratic embrace of the EU also resulted in the abandonment of any form of distinctive economics separate from the orthodoxies of market liberalism.

It’s been astounding to witness so many left-wingers, in meltdown over Brexit, resort to parroting liberal economics. Thus we hear that factor mobility isn’t about labour arbitrage, that public services aren’t under pressure, that we must prioritise foreign direct investment and trade. It’s little wonder Labour became so detached from its base. Such claims do not match the lived experience of ordinary people in regions of the country devastated by deindustrialisation and disinvestment.

Nor should concerns about wage stagnation and bargaining power be met with finger-wagging accusations of racism, as if the manner in which capitalism pits workers against each other hasn’t long been understood. Instead, we should be offering real solutions – including a willingness to rethink capital mobility and trade. This places us in direct conflict with the constitutionalised neoliberalism of the EU.

Only the political savvy of the leadership has enabled Labour to recover from its disastrous positioning post-referendum. Incredibly, what seemed an unbeatable electoral bloc around Theresa May has been deftly prized apart in the course of an extraordinary General Election campaign. To consolidate the political project they have initiated, Corbyn and McDonnell must now follow through with a truly radical economic programme. The place to look for inspiration is precisely the range of instruments and policy options discouraged or outright forbidden by the EU.

A neoliberal project

The fact that right-wing arguments for Leave predominated during the referendum says far more about today’s left than it does about the European Union. There has been a great deal of myth-making concerning the latter –much of it funded, directly or indirectly, by the EU itself.

From its inception, the EU has been a top-down project driven by political and administrative elites, "a protected sphere", in the judgment of the late Peter Mair, "in which policy-making can evade the constraints imposed by representative democracy". To complain about the EU’s "democratic deficit" is to have misunderstood its purpose. The main thrust of European economic policy has been to extend and deepen the market through liberalisation, privatisation, and flexiblisation, subordinating employment and social protection to goals of low inflation, debt reduction, and increased competitiveness.

Prospects for Keynesian reflationary policies, or even for pan-European economic planning – never great – soon gave way to more Hayekian conceptions. Hayek’s original insight, in The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism, was that free movement of capital, goods, and labour – a "single market" – among a federation of nations would severely and necessarily restrict the economic policy space available to individual members. Pro-European socialists, whose aim had been to acquire new supranational options for the regulation of capital, found themselves surrendering the tools they already possessed at home. The national road to socialism, or even to social democracy, was closed.

The direction of travel has been singular and unrelenting. To take one example, workers’ rights – a supposed EU strength – are steadily being eroded, as can be seen in landmark judgments by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the Viking and Laval cases, among others. In both instances, workers attempting to strike in protest at plans to replace workers from one EU country with lower-wage workers from another, were told their right to strike could not infringe upon the "four freedoms" – free movement of capital, labour, goods, and services – established by the treaties.

More broadly, on trade, financial regulation, state aid, government purchasing, public service delivery, and more, any attempt to create a different kind of economy from inside the EU has largely been forestalled by competition policy or single market regulation.

A new political economy

Given that the UK will soon be escaping the EU, what opportunities might this afford? Three policy directions immediately stand out: public ownership, industrial strategy, and procurement. In each case, EU regulation previously stood in the way of promising left strategies. In each case, the political and economic returns from bold departures from neoliberal orthodoxy after Brexit could be substantial.

While not banned outright by EU law, public ownership is severely discouraged and disadvantaged by it. ECJ interpretation of Article 106 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) has steadily eroded public ownership options. "The ECJ", argues law professor Danny Nicol, "appears to have constructed a one-way street in favour of private-sector provision: nationalised services are prima facie suspect and must be analysed for their necessity". Sure enough, the EU has been a significant driver of privatisation, functioning like a ratchet. It’s much easier for a member state to pursue the liberalisation of sectors than to secure their (re)nationalisation. Article 59 (TFEU) specifically allows the European Council and Parliament to liberalise services. Since the ‘80s, there have been single market programmes in energy, transport, postal services, telecommunications, education, and health.

Britain has long been an extreme outlier on privatisation, responsible for 40 per cent of the total assets privatised across the OECD between 1980 and 1996. Today, however, increasing inequality, poverty, environmental degradation and the general sense of an impoverished public sphere are leading to growing calls for renewed public ownership (albeit in new, more democratic forms). Soon to be free of EU constraints, it’s time to explore an expanded and fundamentally reimagined UK public sector.

Next, Britain’s industrial production has been virtually flat since the late 1990s, with a yawning trade deficit in industrial goods. Any serious industrial strategy to address the structural weaknesses of UK manufacturing will rely on "state aid" – the nurturing of a next generation of companies through grants, interest and tax relief, guarantees, government holdings, and the provision of goods and services on a preferential basis.

Article 107 TFEU allows for state aid only if it is compatible with the internal market and does not distort competition, laying out the specific circumstances in which it could be lawful. Whether or not state aid meets these criteria is at the sole discretion of the Commission – and courts in member states are obligated to enforce the commission’s decisions. The Commission has adopted an approach that considers, among other things, the existence of market failure, the effectiveness of other options, and the impact on the market and competition, thereby allowing state aid only in exceptional circumstances.

For many parts of the UK, the challenges of industrial decline remain starkly present – entire communities are thrown on the scrap heap, with all the associated capital and carbon costs and wasted lives. It’s high time the left returned to the possibilities inherent in a proactive industrial strategy. A true community-sustaining industrial strategy would consist of the deliberate direction of capital to sectors, localities, and regions, so as to balance out market trends and prevent communities from falling into decay, while also ensuring the investment in research and development necessary to maintain a highly productive economy. Policy, in this vision, would function to re-deploy infrastructure, production facilities, and workers left unemployed because of a shutdown or increased automation.

In some cases, this might mean assistance to workers or localities to buy up facilities and keep them running under worker or community ownership. In other cases it might involve re-training workers for new skills and re-fitting facilities. A regional approach might help launch new enterprises that would eventually be spun off as worker or local community-owned firms, supporting the development of strong and vibrant network economies, perhaps on the basis of a Green New Deal. All of this will be possible post-Brexit, under a Corbyn government.

Lastly, there is procurement. Under EU law, explicitly linking public procurement to local entities or social needs is difficult. The ECJ has ruled that, even if there is no specific legislation, procurement activity must "comply with the fundamental rules of the Treaty, in particular the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality". This means that all procurement contracts must be open to all bidders across the EU, and public authorities must advertise contracts widely in other EU countries. In 2004, the European Parliament and Council issued two directives establishing the criteria governing such contracts: "lowest price only" and "most economically advantageous tender".

Unleashed from EU constraints, there are major opportunities for targeting large-scale public procurement to rebuild and transform communities, cities, and regions. The vision behind the celebrated Preston Model of community wealth building – inspired by the work of our own organisation, The Democracy Collaborative, in Cleveland, Ohio – leverages public procurement and the stabilising power of place-based anchor institutions (governments, hospitals, universities) to support rooted, participatory, democratic local economies built around multipliers. In this way, public funds can be made to do "double duty"; anchoring jobs and building community wealth, reversing long-term economic decline. This suggests the viability of a very different economic approach and potential for a winning political coalition, building support for a new socialist economics from the ground up.

With the prospect of a Corbyn government now tantalisingly close, it’s imperative that Labour reconciles its policy objectives in the Brexit negotiations with its plans for a radical economic transformation and redistribution of power and wealth. Only by pursuing strategies capable of re-establishing broad control over the national economy can Labour hope to manage the coming period of pain and dislocation following Brexit. Based on new institutions and approaches and the centrality of ownership and control, democracy, and participation, we should be busy assembling the tools and strategies that will allow departure from the EU to open up new political-economic horizons in Britain and bring about the profound transformation the country so desperately wants and needs.

Joe Guinan is executive director of the Next System Project at The Democracy Collaborative. Thomas M. Hanna is research director at The Democracy Collaborative.

This is an extract from a longer essay which appears in the inaugural edition of the IPPR Progressive Review.