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.

Photo: STEFAN BONESS/PANOS
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What Britain needs to understand about the profound and ancient divisions in Germany

As Angela Merkel campaigns for re-election, the balance of power in Europe is changing.

On 24 September, Angela Merkel will be re-elected chancellor of Germany and that, we might think, will be that. With Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron in control of the European project, populism will surely be vanquished and the old Franco-German core of the EU restored. Yet things are changing, and if western Europe wants Germany to keep singing “Ode to Joy” as enthusiastically as “Deutschlandlied”, it will have some work to do. Our Brexit negotiators need to see how important this is to Macron, to other European leaders and, above all, to thinking Germans.

For we may all soon miss the old, self-effacing Germany. Despite having such economic power, it always seemed to have no greater wish than to exist as part of a larger whole. Konrad Adenauer, its first postwar chancellor and founding father, made Westbindung (“binding to the West”) the heart of West German politics. Adenauer came from the deeply Catholic Rhineland, “amid the vineyards” as he put it, “where Germany’s windows are open to the West”. His instinctive cultural sympathy was with France, but he knew that West Germany’s existence depended on keeping America in Europe. France he courted out of profound conviction, the US out of clear-eyed necessity, and he was worried that after him this twin course might be abandoned. His demands for reassurance during his final year in office led to John F Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech of 1963. Every West German knew about that, and about the Berlin Airlift: these became locations of national memory from which West Germany triangulated its sense of self.

There were some Germans for whom this was too much. Anti-Americanism was ingrained among West Germany’s hard left, the early Green Party and the tiny hard right. But even Germans who were suspicious of America had no fear of tying themselves closer to Europe. On the contrary, that was exactly what they wanted. The standard explanation of this is guilt. West Germans, in this argument, felt so remorseful about the horrors of the Second World War that they wanted to make amends. This idea fitted with others’ belief that Germany did indeed have much to feel guilty about.

A nuanced version of this held that the western Germans thought they had somehow “got away with it”, compared with their brethren in the east, who had felt the weight of Soviet vengeance: rape, pillage, occupation. Accordingly, Germany’s willingness to subsume itself so thoroughly, even as it footed the bills for the European Economic Community and later the European Union, was accepted with little gratitude, almost as an ongoing war debt repayment.

This guilt thesis is based on a misunderstanding of German history, especially of the experience of western Germans. The most graphic illustration of this comes from Adenauer. In 1955, he privately informed the British that while he was obliged to act in public as though he wished for reunification, he intended to devote his remaining years to blocking it. In 1961, he secretly proposed to the Americans that they offer the Russians a swap: they and he should, he said, give up West Berlin in return for Thuringia (the region containing Leipzig and Weimar). He wanted, in effect, to make the River Elbe the eastern border of Germany.

Why did Adenauer dislike the eastern Germans, think Berlin was expendable and consider the River Elbe to be the natural frontier? Simple: he knew that the Elbe was Germany’s Mason-Dixon line. Beyond it lay the flat, grim Prussian heartlands, which until 1945 stretched into present-day Russia. This vast region was known to Germans as “Ostelbien” – East Elbia. Adenauer viewed the “unification” of Germany in 1871 as East Elbia’s annexation of the west. That’s why in 1919, as mayor of Cologne, and again in 1923, he tried to get Britain and France to back a breakaway western German state. Having failed, he is said to have muttered, “Here we go, Asia again,” and closed the blinds every time his train crossed east over the Elbe.

Prussia was a different country. The victorious Allies agreed. On 25 February 1947, they declared: “The Prussian state, which from early days has been a bearer of militarism and reaction in Germany… together with its central government and all its agencies are abolished.” The name Prussia was eradicated. The Prussian hegemony of 1871-1945, an anomaly in the two millennia of German history, was over.

If we understand this, we understand what West Germany really was and why it acted as it did; why the “reunification” of 1990 – or, at least, the way it was handled – was such a mistake; why we may all have to stop taking Germany quite so much for granted now that East Elbia is back; and why our Brexit negotiators are on a hiding to nothing if they believe that the Germans have no more urgent business to consider than their car exports to us. Far more important to liberal Germans is keeping safe the western soul of Germany.

***

West Germany was anything but an artificial construct. It was the historical Germany, being almost geographically identical to what was, for almost 1,200 years, the only Germany. Julius Caesar named the land, together with its people, in 58 BC; 49 years later, Drusus, the greatest commander of the infant Roman empire, is said to have been supernaturally advised that after defeating every tribe he met in Germania, he should halt at the River Elbe. By 100 AD, Roman rule was shown by a fortified border, the Limes Germanicus. You can still walk large stretches of it; it encompasses most of the richest land in modern Germany and all of the great cities except Hamburg, Berlin and the 19th-century industrial monocultures of the Ruhr. Even these last were born as trading posts or forward bases within what archaeologists call the “market region” of Germania – the lands beyond the limes where commerce with the Roman empire defined the whole culture. Southern and western Germany’s cultural roots are almost as Roman as France’s.

But what about 9 AD and the destruction of three Roman legions by the German tribes under Arminius? There is a popular myth that this kept all Germany free and different. We owe this idea to Martin Luther and his supporters: Luther claimed from 1520 onwards to be a German, anti-Roman hero and identified himself with the newly rediscovered tale of Arminius. More decisively, the events of 9 AD were an obsession of later Prussian historians, who had an interest in claiming that the real Germany was one that was pure and un-Romanised. Yet the reverse is true. Under the Romans, then the Merovingians, then the Franks, the Rhine/Danube super-region of Germany remained politically and culturally a part of western Europe. After Charlemagne, a Rhineland German, “restored the Roman empire” (as his seals put it) in 800 AD, western Germany was the very centre of things. It was never a nation state, but always the key part of a greater whole, the Holy Roman empire.

Along the Elbe, things were different. Charlemagne extracted tribute from the pagan Slavs across the river, and his successors tried to build on this, but the German conquest and settlement of East Elbia only really began with the Wendish Crusade of 1147, the northern arm of the Second Crusade. Three centuries later, the entire region was still hotly disputed by Balts and Slavs, with German supremacy threatened by major defeats at Tannenberg (1410) and in the Hussite Wars (1419-34).

Long-contested frontier lands breed a special kind of society. The German incomers cowed the natives, such as the pagan Pruscie from whom they ultimately borrowed their name, through brute force. Where they couldn’t, they had to make armed deals with local elites. In this new sort-of-Germany, the Junkers, an aggressive landowning caste, lorded it over the Slavs and Balts – as well as poorer Germans, who knew that the locals would cut their throats if the Junker castles fell, so were loyal and subservient to their masters. East Prussia remained like this within living memory.

In 1525, Prussia named itself and declared itself the first Protestant state. From then on, it had absolute rulers, the Hohenzollern dynasty, backed by a quiescent Lutheran state church. The Junkers swore loyalty in return for exclusive access to all officer-level jobs in the army and the administration. By the mid-18th century, Voltaire quipped that while other states had armies, the Prussian army had a state. The overriding strategic concern of Prussia was always with the east. In his 1758-59 campaigns, Frederick the Great was shocked to find the Russians extremely hard to beat. He bequeathed to his successors a policy of keeping the tsars onside. Partitioning Poland between them was the sticking plaster that masked this Russian-Prussian rivalry, right until 1941.

This thoroughly east-facing power was, by the normal standards of European statehood – history, social structures, religion, geography – a different country from the Rhineland, Swabia or Bavaria. It defeated them all in 1866, laying the ground for the “unification” of 1871. The Prussian empire (for that is what it was) could now enlist the wealth, industry and manpower of Germany in pursuit of its ancient goal: hegemony over north-eastern Europe. By 1887, the future imperial chancellor Bernhard von Bülow was already musing on how to destroy Russia “for a generation”, cleanse Prussia of its Poles, set up a puppet Ukrainian state and take the Prussian armies to the banks of the Volga. This is the bloody Prussian – not German – thread that leads directly to the Nazi onslaught of 1941. In 1945, that centuries-long struggle was settled, in almost inconceivable violence. Half of East Elbia was ruthlessly stripped of Germans and handed over to Poles or Russians; the rump became the German Democratic Republic (GDR), a mere satrap of the Red Army.

So while it is easy and comfortable to say that the otherness of eastern Germany today is the result of that 40-year Soviet occupation, history says otherwise. East Elbia has always been different. Take the voting patterns: from 1871 to 1933, East Elbia outside Berlin (always a left-liberal political island) was the main electoral reservoir for the authoritarian right. The Prussian Conservative Party under the empire, the Deutschnationale Volkspartei until 1928 and the Nazis from 1930 depended on rural and small-town East Elbian voters. It was they who (just) swung things in 1933, by going 50-60 per cent for the “Hitler coalition”. Had all Germany voted like the Rhineland or Bavaria, Hitler and his Junker allies would have got nowhere close to a majority. Small wonder that Adenauer didn’t want East Elbia back and was secretly delighted to have it safely fenced off behind the Iron Curtain.

***

West Germany (1949-90) – Germany shorn of Prussia – was, then, no historical fluke, and nor was the supra­national way it acted. This was the real Germany. But the hasty reunification of 1990 (there was no referendum or election on the issue) changed things. Why should the inhabitants of the former GDR, rather than Poles and Czechs, get immediate access to the wealth and benefits of the West? Because they were Germans. With that, the chancellor Helmut Kohl embraced the notion that being German overrode all considerations of social, economic or historical difference. He also subliminally revived the idea, common to the Second Empire and the Third Reich, that East Elbia was special and needed subsidising by the rich west of Germany. The director of the Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank, resigned in 1991 over this abandoning of economic sanity for political nationalism.

Since 1990, the former East Germany has received more than €2trn from the old West Germany, for a fast-ageing, shrinking and disproportionately male population of only 16 million, including Berlin. That’s the equivalent of a Greek bailout every year since 1990, and as a straight gift, not a loan. This represents a huge shift in financial priorities, overshadowing Germany’s annual net EU budget contribution (currently €15.5bn). In 1990, Kohl promised that western German aid would soon turn the new states into “blooming” areas, but they have become, instead, proof that age-old differences resist even the most gigantic subsidies.

Between 30 and 40 per cent of voters in East Elbia have declared over the past two years that at the general election, they intend to support either Alternative für Deutschland (Germany’s Ukip), Die Linke (heirs to the old East German Communist Party) or the all but openly neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (the NPD, currently represented in the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern state parliament). Though theoretical enemies, these three parties are united by cultural affinities: all despise economic liberalism, oppose Nato and the EU and want closer relations with Russia.

East Elbia no longer has the population to swing the entire German electorate of more than 61 million but many liberal western Germans are nervous. They recoil at the sight of anti-asylum-seeker attacks, which are proportionally far more common in East Elbia than in the west, or when they see Merkel heckled by right-wingers. They call East Elbia Dunkeldeutschland (“Dark Germany”) and joke bitterly that if Britain can have a Brexit, why can’t the old East Germans, whom they lump together under the name of Saxons, have a “Säxit”? But it’s no laughing matter. They know there are those only too aware of any anti-western drift in Germany and eager to give succour to it.

Alexander Saldostanov, the rabid leader of Russia’s “Night Wolves” bikers and a public friend of Vladimir Putin, recently told Germany’s bestselling daily, Bild, that he dreams of a grand union between Germany and Russia: “We have so much in common. You simply have to free yourself at last from America, that scourge of humanity. Together, we can, should and must take power.”

There’s no danger of that, but there is a sense in which eastern Europe is, to Germans, no longer “the other”. It’s the place whence natural gas flows from Russia, where labour is cheap but skilled and where the people are keen to work with Germany on setting up new sites of joint national memory. From Kaliningrad to Prague, museums and projects are springing up in which the horrors of the past are neither denied nor used as ammunition in today’s negotiations. In eastern Europe, perhaps because Russia is so close, the Germans are rarely made to feel guilty for their grandfathers’ sins. Meanwhile in the west, from Greece to Britain, people can’t resist mentioning the war whenever the Germans don’t act as desired.

***

Germany’s resources are not infinite. Nor is the patience of the 40 per cent of Germans who “have net worths of essentially zero”, as Die Welt reported last year – largely because German home ownership rates are the lowest in the EU. They are disproportionately concentrated in the old east, the region that never had supranational, western European connections. From them come ever-louder voices saying that Germany’s EU contribution is too high. And with Britain out, the maths will look even worse to such voters. If south-western Germany’s taxes have to keep bailing out the country’s east, while also helping out the old and new EU lands, what is left for, say, the post-industrial Ruhr, which has financial and social problems of its own? There are tough choices ahead, and it’s not hard to imagine a day when Germany decides to aim its subsidies and investments where they seem most welcome. The old idea of Mitteleuropa – a multi-ethnic, German-centred Middle Europe, neither of the West nor of the East – no longer seems so antiquarian. Nothing would gladden Putin’s heart more.

So, yes, Merkel will win the election and will have a chance to revive the EU’s Franco-­German core. Yet the relative strengths of France and Germany are different now. As for their leaders, while Adenauer was a devoted Catholic Rhinelander, Merkel is a Lutheran vicar’s daughter from the east. Bonn was physically close to Paris, Brussels, The Hague, even London; Berlin is closer to Prague and Warsaw.

With Donald Trump’s wavering on Nato and his noisy anti-German protectionism, along with Brexit, the West may no longer seem vital to Germany’s future. During Merkel’s election debate with her main challenger, Martin Schulz, on 3 September, Brexit was not even mentioned. The old EU core will have to work to keep Germany anchored, resisting any new call from the east. Macron and German liberals know that; that’s why there will be no Franco-German split over Brexit just to sell us a few more Audis. The sooner David Davis and Liam Fox realise that the Germans have far bigger issues to deal with, the better.

James Hawes is the author of “The Shortest History of Germany” (Old Street Publishing)