Monday, 08 June 2020 10:17

Bait movie - Nautical gentrification

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The British film Bait, released in 2019, should be of interest to planners and urbanists internationally for the issues it raises about community and economic development.

Bait is set in a fishing village in Cornwall, one of the poorest regions in England. After 20 years of regional development funding from the EU, GDP per capita remains only 68% of the EU average . It suffers from poor connectivity to more prosperous UK regions, yet for those seeking to “escape” from the pressures of big city life, this remoteness, combined with the extensive coast, are the area’s main attractions. Bait focuses on how space is contested between locals and summer tourists, both on land and at sea. Mark Jenkin,  a Cornishman, wrote, directed, edited and did the cinematography for the film.

Contestation of Space

From the opening shots you know trouble is brewing. A sound like a small explosion introduces the image of Martin Ward (played by Edward Rowe) thudding down the village street, big and bushy bearded like one of the extras in a wild west saloon, anger in his eyes, as he strides with purpose and menace towards his truck, which has been clamped for parking in front of what was once his family home. Nothing so succinctly captures the contestation of space by Britain’s urban middle class than car parking spaces. The London family who bought the old cottage have now managed to claim the street outside, and a firm has been contracted to enforce their command by clamping and fining. Control of space creates business opportunities.

Martin no longer has a fishing boat, but hangs on to his trade by a complex process of laying nets from the beach or sinking lobster pots in a creek. His brother Steven has come to more of an accommodation with his diminished lot. He uses his boat to give visitors a 30 minute “coastal cruise”, though with winter coming, his own livelihood is also precarious. The village pub is busy now, but will close once the warm days pass and holiday makers have returned to the metropolis.

The issues are catalysed in a dramatic montage sequence midway through the film. In the empty pub, Tim (Simon Shepherd) the owner of the cottage, confronts Martin, initially about parking his battered truck in the forbidden space alongside Tim's shiny Land Rover. The pace of the editing picks up to counterpoise their irreconcilable positions on the future of the village. The face-off starts with Martin: he says with burning resentment “Your lot going to be in charge of everything, ain’t you?”

“You can’t just park where you like. You live in this community” says Tim, in forcefully measured tones. “Oh, the community?” replies Martin, raising his eyebrows.

“Yes, the community”.

Your community.”

Our community.” Martin continues, “As a resident…,

The pace goes into overdrive. “Tourist”, interjects Martin.

“As a homeowner…”

“As a Tourist”

“As a business owner...”

“As a tourist.”

By now they are talking over each other. “Someone who spends a lot of time”, “For two months!” “Investing a great deal of money…” “In your tourist business.” “In supporting local industry.” “What fucking industry?” “The tourism industry!” Martin laughs derisively: “Where is the industry?” “All around!” responds a now very agitated Tim. “There is no industry… We don’t see a penny. You fuckers bring everything down with you and take it home again. You pay slave wages and spend the profit in the Maldives.”

Constructing and reconstructing community

This heated interchange demonstrates a central theme of the film, the construction and re-construction of community. Fishermen’s boots and waterproofs confront flip-flops and lycra shorts. The director is on the side of the traditional community represented by Martin. Against the odds this fisherman who can't afford a boat tries to sustain and nourish the old ties. Skilful and painstaking, he mends his nets, extracts fish from them, forces one of the delinquent incomer youths to learn how to mend a lobster pot, and trains his nephew Neil (Isaac Woodvine) in the arts of his trade. He shares his catch with neighbours, and pays the £100 taxi fare for his teenage barmaid friend (played by Chloe Endean) as she returns home from police custody. Knots and a well-worn anchor are recurrent motifs, holding the nets, but also Martin, in place.

In contrast, the tourists are moulding what to Tim is “Our community”. The house that he and his family use is now “Skipper’s Cottage”, a winsome presentation that simultaneously appropriates its past, references Martin’s leadership position in the village, while also marketing the property for holiday rentals. He has indeed invested in restoring a run-down property and has replaced an old out-house with another holiday apartment. As for Martin, community for Tim is constructed through practice and economic endeavour. The newcomers also have their anchor, a twee, symbolic one adorns the front door of Skippers Cottage, which also has a porthole inside, along with replica sea-faring items bought online. Their Land Rover proudly occupies the street outside. Their son uses the sea for snorkelling. All this is not just a patina of consumerism, but a cultural take-over that is integral to the social and economic re-making of place and space. It represents a sub-category of gentrification, which I will call nautical gentrification. You find it in other port areas, where white collar professionals live at addresses that echo a maritime past.

What futures lie ahead? The teenagers with their posh accents (so posh the locals, whose own accents are strong, can hardly understand them) will return to their private schools or universities and progress to careers in finance, or maybe its close cousin, development. But what of the barmaid and Neil, young persons whose action are affirmative of the values of the traditional community, but living there doing cash-in-hand work? Seasonal economies build precarious livelihoods. Planning has usually failed to protect the stock of housing that is affordable on local wages.

The film has some resemblance to those wartime Ministry of Information films celebrating working lives (e.g. Humphrey Jennings’ Fires Were Started (1943) which also made much use of montage), showing how hard those lives can be. Yet it elides some key aspects of the fishing industry. The industry has been criticised for depletion of stocks, and for sexism – a barmaid going out on a fishing boat, as shown in the film, is not the norm in a traditionally macho workplace culture. There is substantial use of foreign crews, dominance by a few operators, and the issue of EU fishing quotas and the pro-Brexit backlash this created in fishing communities: Cornwall voted 56.5% for Leave in the 2016 EU Referendum. Idealisation of fishing communities, like any other community, is something to be guarded against.


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