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.

Picture: Bridgeman Images
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The people is sublime: the long history of populism, from Robespierre to Trump

If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide of populism will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

A spectre of populism is haunting the world’s liberal democracies. Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, the narrow Leave majority in the EU referendum, Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election – breaking the spirit of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act passed by the government of which she was a member – and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory in the recent Turkish referendum all testify to the strength of the populist tide that is sweeping through the North Atlantic world. The consequences have been calamitous: a shrunken public realm, a demeaned civic culture, threatened minorities, contempt for the rule of law and an increasingly ugly public mood. If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

The first essential is to understand the nature of the beast. This is more difficult than it sounds. Most democratic politicians seek popularity, but populism and popularity are not the same. Today’s populism is the descendant of a long line of ancestors. The first unmistakably populist movement in history appeared well over two centuries ago during the later stages of the French Revolution. It was led by Robespierre (Thomas Carlyle’s “sea-green incorruptible”) and the Jacobins who promised a reign of “virtue”. They were inspired by the cloudy prose of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that mere individuals should be subject to the general will of the social whole and – if necessary – “forced to be free”. As the revolution gathered pace and foreign armies mustered on France’s frontiers, the Jacobins launched the first organised, state-led and ideologically legitimised Terror in history. Chillingly, Robespierre declared, “The people is sublime, but individuals are weak.” That is the cry of populists through the ages. Appropriately, the Terror ended with Robespierre lying on a plank, screaming with pain before he was executed by guillotine.

The French Revolution – which began with the storming of the Bastille and ended with Napoleon’s ascent to an ersatz imperial throne – has an epic quality about it missing from later chapters in the populist story. Ironically, the second chapter, which opened half a century later, was the work of Louis Bonaparte, nephew of the great Napoleon. In 1848 came a second revolution and a second Republic; Louis Bonaparte was elected president by a huge majority. He tried and failed to amend the constitution to make it possible for him to have a second term; and then seized power in a coup d’état. Soon afterwards he became emperor as Napoleon III. (“Napoleon le petit”, in Victor Hugo’s savage phrase.) The whole story provoked one of Karl Marx’s best aphorisms: “History repeats itself; the first time as tragedy and the second as farce.”

There have been plenty of tragedies since – and plenty of farces, too. Trump’s victory was a tragedy, but farcical elements are already in evidence. Erdogan’s victory was even more tragic than Trump’s, but farce is conspicuously absent. The Leave victory in the referendum was tragic: arguably, the greatest tragedy in the three-century history of Britain’s union state. As with Trump, farce is already in evidence – the agitated comings and goings that have followed Theresa May’s loss of her Commons majority; the inane debate over the nature of the Brexit that Britain should seek; and the preposterous suggestion that, freed of the “Brussels” incubus, Britain will be able to conclude costless trade deals with the state-capitalist dictatorship of China and the “America First” neo-isolationists in Washington, DC. Unlike the French farce of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, however, the British farce now in progress is more likely to provoke tears than laughter.


Picture: André Carrilho

Populism is not a doctrine or a governing philosophy, still less an ideology. It is a disposition, perhaps a mood, a set of attitudes and above all a style. The People’s Party, which played a significant part in American politics in the late 19th century, is a case in point. The farmers whose grievances inspired the People’s Party wanted cheaper credit and transport to carry their products to markets in the eastern states. Hence the party’s two main proposals. One was the nationalisation of the railways, to cheapen transport costs; the other was “free silver” – the use of silver as well as gold as currency, supposedly to cheapen credit. Even then, this was not a particularly radical programme. It was designed to reform capitalism, not to replace it, as the largely Marxist social-democratic parties of Europe were seeking to do.

Rhetoric was a different matter. Mary Elizabeth Lease, a prominent member of the People’s Party, declared that America’s was no longer a government of the people by the people and for the people, but “a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street”. The common people of America, she added, “are slaves and monopoly is the master”.

The Georgian populist Tom Watson once asked if Thomas Jefferson had dreamed that the party he founded would be “prostituted to the vilest purposes of monopoly” or that it would be led by “red-eyed Jewish millionaires”. The People’s Party’s constitutive Omaha Platform accused the two main parties of proposing “to sacrifice our homes, lives and children on the altar of Mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires”. The party’s aim was “to restore the government of the Republic to the hands of ‘the plain people’ with which class it originated”. Theodore Roosevelt promised “to walk softly and carry a big stick”. The People’s Party walked noisily and carried a small stick. Jeremy Corbyn would have been at home in it.

Almost without exception, populists promise national regeneration in place of decline, decay and the vacillations and tergiversations of a corrupt establishment and the enervated elites that belong to it. Trump’s call to “make America great again” is an obvious recent case. His attacks on “crooked Hillary”, on the courts that have impeded his proposed ban on Muslim immigrants from capriciously chosen Middle Eastern and African countries, on the “fake news” of journalists seeking to hold his administration to account, and, most of all, his attack on the constitutional checks and balances that have been fundamental to US governance for more than 200 years, are the most alarming examples of populist practice, not just in American history but in the history of most of the North Atlantic world.

There are intriguing parallels between Trump’s regime and Erdogan’s. Indeed, Trump went out of his way to congratulate Erdogan on Turkey’s referendum result in April – which gives him the right to lengthen his term of office to ten years, to strengthen his control over the judiciary and to decide when to impose a state of emergency. Even before the referendum, he had dismissed more than 100,000 public servants, including teachers, prosecutors, judges and army officers; 4,000 were imprisoned. The Kurdish minority was – and is – repressed. True, none of this applies to Trump. But the rhetoric of the thin-skinned, paranoid US president and his equally thin-skinned and paranoid Turkish counterpart comes from the same repertoire. In the Turkish referendum Erdogan declared: “My nation stood upright and undivided.” It might have been Trump clamorously insisting that the crowd at his inauguration was bigger than it was.

***

The best-known modern British populists – Margaret Thatcher, Nigel Farage and David Owen – form a kind of counterpoint. In some ways, all three have harked back to the themes of the 19th-century American populists. Thatcher insisted that she was “a plain, straightforward provincial”, adding that her “Bloomsbury” was Grantham – “Methodism, the grocer’s shop, Rotary and all the serious, sober virtues, cultivated and esteemed in that environment”. Farage declared that the EU referendum was “a victory for ‘the real people’ of Britain” – implying, none too subtly, that the 48 per cent who voted Remain were somehow unreal or, indeed, un-British.

On a holiday job on a building site during the Suez War, Owen experienced a kind of epiphany. Hugh Gaitskell was criticising Anthony Eden, the prime minister, on television and in the House of Commons, but Owen’s workmates were solidly in favour of Eden. That experience, he said, made him suspicious of “the kind of attitude which splits the difference on everything. The rather defeatist, even traitorous attitude reflected in the pre-war Apostles at Cambridge.” (Owen voted for Brexit in 2016.)

Did he really believe that Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes and George Moore were traitorous? Did he not know that they were Apostles? Or was he simply lashing out, Trump-like, at an elite that disdained him – and to which he yearned to belong?

Thatcher’s Grantham, Farage’s real people and David Owen’s workmates came from the same rhetorical stable as the American populists’ Omaha Platform. But the American populists really were plain, in their sense of the word, whereas Thatcher, Farage and Owen could hardly have been less so. Thatcher (at that stage Roberts) left Grantham as soon as she could and never looked back. She went to Somerville College, Oxford, where she was a pupil of the Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin. She married the dashing and wealthy Denis Thatcher and abandoned science to qualify as a barrister before being elected to parliament and eventually becoming prime minister. Farage worked as a metals trader in the City before becoming leader of the UK Independence Party. Owen went to the private Bradfield College before going up to Cambridge to read medicine. Despite his Welsh antecedents, he looks and sounds like a well-brought-up English public school boy. He was elected to parliament in 1966 at the age of 28 and was appointed under-secretary for the navy at 30. He then served briefly as foreign secretary in James Callaghan’s miserable Labour government in the 1970s.

Much the same is true of Marine Le Pen in France. She is a hereditary populist – something that seems self-contradictory. The Front National (FN) she heads was founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen – Holocaust denier, anti-Semite, former street brawler and sometime Poujadist. In the jargon of public relations, she has worked hard to “de-toxify” the FN brand. But the Front is still the Front; it appeals most strongly to the ageing and insecure in the de-industrialised areas of the north-east. Marine Le Pen applauded the Leave victory in Britain’s referendum – she seeks to limit immigration, just as Ukip did in the referendum and as the May government does now.

Above all, the Front National appeals to a mythologised past, symbolised by the figure of Joan of Arc. Joan was a simple, illiterate peasant from an obscure village in north-eastern France, who led the French king’s forces to a decisive victory over the English in the later stages of the Hundred Years War. She was captured by England’s Burgundian allies, and the English burned her at the stake at the age of 19. She was beatified in 1909 and canonised in 1920. For well over a century, she has been a heroine for the Catholic French right, for whom the revolutionary triad of liberté, egalité, fraternité is either vacuous or menacing.

***

The past to which the FN appeals is uniquely French. It is also contentious. A struggle over the ownership of the French past has been a theme of French politics ever since the French Revolution. But other mythologised pasts have figured again and again in populist rhetoric and still do. Mussolini talked of returning to the time of the Roman empire when the Mediterranean was Mare Nostrum. Trump’s “Make America great again” presupposes a past when America was great, and from which present-day Americans have strayed, thanks to Clintonesque crooks and the pedlars of fake news. “Take back control” – the mantra of the Brexiteers in the referendum – presupposes a past in which the British had control; Owen’s bizarre pre-referendum claim that, if Britain left the EU, she would be free to “rediscover the skills of blue water diplomacy” presupposed a time when she practised those skills. Vladimir Putin, another populist of sorts, is patently trying to harness memories of tsarist glory to his chariot wheels. Margaret Thatcher, the “plain, straightforward provincial” woman, sought to revive the “vigorous virtues” of her Grantham childhood and the “Victorian values” that underpinned them.

As well as mythologising the past, populists mythologise the people. Those for whom they claim to speak are undifferentiated, homogeneous and inert. Populists have nothing but contempt for de Tocqueville’s insight that the ever-present threat of majority tyranny can be kept at bay only by a rich array of intermediate institutions, including townships, law courts and a free press, underpinned by the separation of powers.

For populists, the threat of majority tyranny is a phantom, invented by out-of-touch and craven elitists. Law courts that stand in the way of the unmediated popular will are “enemies of the people”, as the Daily Mail put it. There is no need to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority: minorities are either part of the whole, in which case they don’t need protection, or self-excluded from it, in which case they don’t deserve to be protected.

Apparent differences of interest or value that cut across the body of the people, that divide the collective sovereign against itself, are products of elite manipulation or, in Thatcher’s notorious phrase, of “the enemy within”. For there is a strong paranoid streak in the populist mentality. Against the pure, virtuous people stand corrupt, privileged elites and sinister, conspiratorial subversives. The latter are forever plotting to do down the former.

Like pigs searching for truffles, populists search for subversives. Inevitably, they find what they are looking for. Joe McCarthy was one of the most squalid examples of the populist breed: for years, McCarthyism was a baneful presence in Hollywood, in American universities, newspaper offices and in the public service, ruining lives, restricting free expression and making it harder for the United States to win the trust of its European allies. The barrage of hatred and contempt that the tabloid press unleashed on opponents of Theresa May’s pursuit of a “hard” Brexit is another example. Her astounding claim that a mysterious entity known as “Brussels” was seeking to interfere in the British general election is a third.

As the Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller argues, all of this strikes at the heart of democratic governance. Democracy depends on open debate, on dialogue between the bearers of different values, in which the protagonists learn from each other and from which they emerge as different people. For the Nobel laureate, philosopher and economist Amartya Sen, democracy is, above all, “public reasoning”; and that is impossible without social spaces in which reasoning can take place. Populism is singular; democracy is plural. The great question for non-populists is how to respond to the populist threat.

Two answers are in contention. The first is Theresa May’s. It amounts to appeasement. May’s purported reason for calling a snap general election was that the politicians were divided, whereas the people were united. It is hard to think of a better – or more frightening – summary of the spirit of populism. The second answer is Emmanuel Macron’s. For the moment, at least, he is astonishingly popular in France. More important, his victory over Le Pen has shown that, given intelligence, courage and generosity of spirit, the noxious populist tide can be resisted and, perhaps, turned back. 

David Marquand’s most recent book is “Mammon’s Kingdom”: an Essay on Britain Now” (Allen Lane)