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: Getty
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The gay Syrian refugees still living in limbo two years after making it to the UK

They still have no right to live and work in the UK, no permanent accommodation or means of financially supporting themselves. 

31-year-old Ahmed and his boyfriend Said* fled Syria in 2013, after the civil war intensified. They both headed to Turkey – where they first met – then moved on through Greece, Croatia and Western Europe. In December 2015, they completed their 4,500km, two-year journey and arrived in the UK.

When Ahmed and Said shared their story with the New Statesman two months later, the Home Office was still deliberating on whether to accept responsibility for their asylum claim. At the time, their lawyer feared plans were being made to deport the couple back to Croatia, where they’d previously been registered while incarcerated in a refugee camp. 

Eventually though, in November 2016, the Home Office officially agreed to process their claim. The decision to do so is one of the few positive developments in their situation since they arrived in the UK more than two years ago. Little else has changed.

They still have no right to live and work in the UK, no permanent accommodation or means of financially supporting themselves. They’re unable to engage in basic day-to-day functions, from owning a bank account to booking a cab through an app. They still have to keep their identity and status as a gay couple anonymous – a precaution in case they are made to return to Syria, or outed to intolerant family members. They continue to live in fear that they could be summoned and deported at any moment. It’s been two years in limbo.

“For everything here you need documents or a bank account,” says Ahmed. “We don't have an address because you need income. So the minimum of life requirements we cannot get. We're not asking for much. We're not asking for financial support, we're not asking for accommodation. Just give us the right and we will depend on ourselves. We will work. We will study. We will find accommodation. We will pay tax.”

Shortly after the couple arrived, they were given temporary accommodation in Rochdale and a weekly allowance of £35. With no right to legally work in the UK, this was all they had to survive on. And while the flat in Rochdale was the first place they had space to themselves, they were isolated from the reason they came to the UK in the first place: to be with the only friends they knew in Europe.  

“We couldn't stay there, we tried really hard,” says Ahmed. “At that time we were alone, completely alone, in Rochdale. We were living separately there was no one around us… we got depressed. We got stressed there. So we decided to move to come to London because we have a friend here who can support us, who can be with us.”

In May 2016 the couple moved in to the spare room of their friend’s Mayfair apartment. She had arrived from Syria six years ago on a student visa. In the time they’ve been in London they’ve tried, in vain, to prepare for work, readying themselves in case they are actually granted asylum. After another friend loaned them some money, Ahmed, a trained architect, took an animation course, while Said, a chef, took a course to improve his English. Said finished the first level, but wasn’t allowed back to complete the next module without a passport. Ahmed stopped the animation course after running out of money from their friend’s loan.

Moving in with their friend may have bettered their living conditions, but it proved detrimental to their financial situation. The small sum they received from the Home Office stopped when they moved out of the accommodation in Rochdale. The Home Office claims this was due to the fact they were no longer classed as destitute.  The few friends they do now have in London have often had to loan them money or lend them essentials, like clothes. With no money and little to keep them occupied during the day, the limbo they’ve found themselves in has taken its toll on their mental health.

“Most of the time we get depressed because we don't have money to do anything,” says Ahmed. “You can't work, you can't study…you can't imagine how you feel when you spend your days doing nothing. Just nothing. Nothing useful in your life. Nothing. Can you imagine the depression you get?”

Though their friend has helped over the last year or so – giving them the place rent-free and providing them with food – she is now selling the apartment. They have four weeks to find new accommodation. If they don’t they’ll be homeless. The stress has caused Said’s hair to start falling out and he now has a plum-sized bald patch on the back of his head.

“If any country can accept us we would go back,” says Said. “But Turkey can't accept us. Syria can't accept us. Croatia can't accept us. So no one needs us. Where we can go? What are the options we have?”

The Home Office officially began processing the couple’s asylum claim in November 2016, and stated it aimed to make a decision by 27th May 2017. According to its own guidelines, claims should be processed within six months. Ahmed and Said have been waiting more than a year.

On 11 September 2017 they received a letter from the Home Office via their legal representatives at the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit, an organisation which provides free advice and representation predominantly through the legal aid scheme. The letter apologised for the fact their asylum claim had taken longer than six months to process. It went on to say that they would be invited for a “substantive asylum interview within 14-18 weeks with a decision to follow 8 to 12 weeks after.” More than 22 weeks later, the couple are still waiting an invitation.

“When they didn't [invite them to an asylum interview], we threatened them with a judicial review again,” says Ryan Bestford, an immigration lawyer at the unit, who has been working with the couple. In Ahmad’s case, the judicial review – an application to a higher court which seeks a review of a government decision - would look for an order forcing the Home Office to interview him. “In response to our [judicial review] threat, they then claimed that they will interview Ahmed within 10 weeks.”

The letter to their lawyers also states that there are many reasons why a claim may take longer than six months. According to the Home Office “further internal enquiries in relation to your client’s asylum claim were being made,” hence the delay in Ahmed and Said’s case. No additional information for the delay was provided.

According to a recent report in the Guardian, claims are often classified as complicated or non-standard by the Home Office to excuse the UK Visa and Immigration Unit from processing claims within six months. Ahmed and Said’s lawyer scoffs at the notion their case is complex.

"This case is not complicated," says Bestford. "They are from Syria and even the UK government accepts that the situation in that country is so bad that all Syrians are entitled to refugee status. In addition they are gay. This case is straightforward."

Bestford has been working with the couple since January 2016, when the Home Office wanted to return them to Croatia, despite the fact the Croatian government had made it clear that they did not want them. As LGBT asylum seekers, Ahmed and Said are an especially vulnerable group. Said is also HIV positive, and when the Home Office consider his application to asylum they’ll need to consider his ability to access treatment.

Such vulnerabilities are no guarantee of asylum. According to a Home Office report published in November 2017, 3,535 asylum applications were made on the basis of sexual orientation, 2,379 of which were rejected. Just 838 were approved.

"They should have been granted refugee status a long time ago," says Bestford. "I have no idea what the reason for the delay is. But it certainly cannot be the complexity of the case. If the Home office are saying that it is because of the complexity of the case – they are not fit for purpose."

As well as support from the few friends they have in the UK, they’ve also found an ally in Lord Paul Scriven, the Lords spokesperson for international LGBT rights. He highlighted the plight of the couple in July last year, in a speech which raised concerns about the detention of LGBT asylum seekers and the systemic delays in processing asylum claims.

“I am both bewildered and surprised that [Ahmed] and [Said]* are still waiting for their case to be dealt with and them been granted right to stay,” says Scriven. “I have written to the Home Office and made it clear it is totally unacceptable and needs now to be dealt with as a matter of urgency.

“As in many cases the reason for this delay lies at the door of the Home Office and the way in which they deal with cases of asylum for people claiming on the grounds of their sexuality or gender identity.  In many cases this slow and cold approach is all too common by the Home Office.”

Ahmed has contacted the UK Visa and Immigration Unit helpline to try and seek temporary accommodation. He is still waiting to hear back from them. For now the couple’s situation is no clearer; but with impending homelessness it’s certainly more desperate.

They arrived in the UK eager to work and excited about the possibility of living openly as two gay men. They arrived brimming with ideas for what a new start could look like. The last two years have taught them to abandon any forward planning and to avoid imagining a life where they have been granted asylum.

“I can't plan anymore,” says Ahmed. “All our plans have disappeared…we thought we escaped from the war…we thought we're gonna start again. We thought there's justice here. We thought there are human rights. But nothing exists. There's no justice. There's no fair. There are no human rights. They treat us like animals. The dogs live better than us here.”

Close to defeat, Ahmed and Said have discussed one final alternative. “Or I go back to Syria,” says Ahmed. He swiftly disregards any concerns about the conflict and his identity as a gay man. “I prefer to die there at least with my family in my country. Better than dying here alone. “

In a statement provided to the New Statesman, a Home Office spokesperson said:

“The UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need our protection.

“An asylum case that does not get decided within 6 months is usually one classed as a non-straightforward asylum case. These cases are usually not possible to decide within 6 months for reasons outside of our control.

“Asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute are supported with free accommodation and a weekly cash allowance for each person in the household. This is available until their asylum claims and  any appeals are finally determined or they decide they do not require Government support.”

*names have been changed