Sometimes it is not always obvious where our inspirations come from. We arrive at ourselves as a result, not only of our own journeys, but of the landscapes we traverse. Some might say that is all we are.
We pick up bits of our collective history, tangled up in our language and our stories. To a greater or lesser extent they become a part of the story that we describe ourselves as – the story that we can end up believing ourselves to be.
When you think about the world in this way, the world you grew up in, what aspects of it do you carry with you to this day? What aspects of it do you accept without question?
Some of the time I spent growing up was around Cuckfield.
We didn’t live there but my Nan did, and my father had grown up there, and the school I (sometimes) attended was there. Most of my friends lived there too. When ever I had the chance that was where I would find myself. That was where felt the most like home.
Cuckfield had two stories that set it apart from other towns. The first I was told explicitly, the second was just there.
ONE: It was that it was NOT on the London to Brighton Railway. You will see by the map below that there is kink in the line thanks to Cuckfield. The story has it that the local Landowners refused to sell off their land because they believed that the Railway would change the village forever. If you ever have the chance to visit Haywards Heath and you’ll see they had a point. That was why the railway was diverted. Because people stood up for what they believed in. What I took from this was that the people of Cuckfield had the capacity to resist the will of authority when that will was not in the service of the people.
Or at least that was my interpretation.
TWO: It is an Independent State.
From 1951 until 1965 Cuckfield held an annual Donkey Race on the August Bank Holiday. Money raised from the event was spent on local concerns: It was donated to nursing homes, the disabled, elderly local residents in financial hardship and other worthy community causes.
Each year the ‘internationally’ recognised ‘Donkey Grand National’ would attract some 10,000 people and a score of bookmakers.
Then, in 1966, the race day was thrown into turmoil when Urban Council, the local municipal authority, compulsorily acquired the traditional venue, a group of fields at Mill Hill Farm, and refused the organising committee permission to make further use of them.
The organisers, thrown into disarray and frustrated by the lack of vision or concern shown by the council, went into revolt. Led by Peter Bowring, a resident and organiser of the event, they decided, somewhat tongue-in-cheek to declare their Independence from the Urban Council, and elect their own Mayor.
Candidates were to be chosen from amongst the “Publicans and Sinners of the community”. There is some confusion as to how the elections were conducted. Reports vary from the winner being the candidate prepared to pay the highest price for the honour at a public auction to some reports suggesting that each vote cost a sixpence to cast. Either way the process was described as The process was described as “the most unfair election in the world”.
And so it was that in 1966, Joe Mitchell, Landlord of the White Hart, became Cuckfield’s first elected Mayor. Following in the footsteps of Rhodesia, which had recently declared U.D.I., Cuckfield followed suit and the Independent State of Cuckfield was born.
So successful was the idea that it supplanted the Donkey races as the community’s main annual charity fundraising event. In addition to the “election”, funds were raised via the sale of Cuckfield passports, stamps (which were used to deliver mail during a postal strike) and currency of “Cuckoos” – which was accepted in Cuckfield pubs and shops but mostly kept as souvenirs.
Initially a playful distraction the role has held some traction when it comes to local affairs with the Mayor acting as an advocate and voice for local concerns in County Council affairs.
Whilst playful in nature the Independent State of Cuckfield exists to ensure the welfare of all Cuckfield’s citizens young and old and to protect it’s local surroundings. Aims that were set out in it’s inception.
Over the years money has been raised for many projects that have enhance the village and supported it’s more underprivileged residents, from repairs and renovations of local amenities and housing for elderly residents to sponsorship for development and education of younger members of the community from supporting them to join expeditions to helping with college fees. Not forgetting the annual Christmas Dinner for any OAP in Cuckfield who would like to attend.
The only firm rule is that money raised must be used for Cuckfield. Anyone living within its boundaries has only to ask and the Independent State will try and help.
To my mind there is something to be learnt from this approach to local politics. We can’t deny that Cuckfield is well situated for this, but remember, this began in the mid sixties, before the fishmongers and the greengroceers and the butchers and the bakers and the blacksmith and the newsagents and the barber were replaced by the antique shops, the boutiques, the tea rooms and the exclusive restaurants that arrived only a decade or so later.
What I remember is that people can empower people. That communities can be like this, that they can take some responsibility back, they can to empower and support, and perhaps, most importantly of all, they can make the whole thing absurd and fun in the process.