Tree’s company

Alan Edwards enjoys the analogies in a pre-Christmas civic struggle

UN peacekeeping troops have become a familiar sight in many areas of our war-torn world in recent years. Yet a month ago the boys in blue berets were poised to fly to a feuding part of the UK.

Where was the flash-point that nearly became Britain’s Balkans? The shocking truth lies in a small town no more than sixty miles from London and the heart of government – Whitstable, Kent. The cause of the dispute? A battle over Christmas trees that caused the local paper The Whitstable Times to cry ‘Wood You Believe It?’ Whitstable? Surely shellfish not shellfire. Or, if you’ve ever swapped Sunday Sudoko for the trendier Travel sections, ‘Islington-on-Sea.’ An old-fashioned Thames Estuary town whose harbour area has recently been given a makeover as Tracey Emin wannabees moved in as part of the retro revolution.

Traditionalist locals (‘Whitstable Natives’) are often suspicious of the boutique-owning, bistro-frequenting incomers. Somerset Maugham, who spent part of his childhood in the town, disliked the inward-looking character of the townsfolk of his day and cast the town as ‘Blackstable’ in Of Human Bondage.

The simmering hostility burst into flames over the siting of the town Christmas tree. The trigger was the request by the churchwardens of the town centre church that, for once, the church forecourt should not be used to site the town Christmas tree. In past years crowds flocking to see a celeb from the panto at Canterbury perform the switch on were too large. Health and Safety, the modern mantra, was called into play.

The Council agreed, and the fuse began to burn. Whitstable is governed by Canterbury City Council, viewed by some natives with the same suspicion that Bostonians displayed to Geo. III. A desire for independence from government, ecclesiastical as well as civil, goes back a long way. Two centuries before Sandy Millar, a long serving vicar, Thomas Patten, proclaimed himself ‘Bishop of Seasalter’ (the ecclesiastical district covering part of the town). In Tom’s case TEA was a commodity he joined with his flock in smuggling ashore.

The Council decided that the new site for the tree and its companion Santa was to be in the trendified harbour area, hard by a new arts centre and in front of an up-market pizza restaurant. This in a town where fish and chips or oysters are the staple foods. Traders at the end of the town furthest from the harbour rejected this Single Claus Measure.

Their reply? An alternative Christmas tree erected in a free province by a restaurant in the shadow of a railway bridge. An alternative Santa and switch-on by a glamorous celeb of their own choosing was timed to coincide with the official event. That the actress chosen had apparently only recently arrived in the town was overlooked in the heat of the dispute, though as she was in the cast of ‘Corrie’ that was probably all right.

The outcome? A Structural Solution! The Council erected a third official Christmas tree half-way between the two rival trees. FiF’s influence in Canterbury diocese is obviously stronger than we thought.

Peace was still in the balance until a fourth official tree was erected in the demilitarised zone at a point further from the Trendies’ tree than from the Alternative tree. In the end all switch-ons occurred peacefully. Truce observers sent by the Bishop of Guildford, are now rumoured to be in the town assessing whether what is being called ‘The Whitstable Way’ could provide Tea and Sympathy in other troublespots.

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