Category Archives: Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

Mortgaged lives: when lives become numbers

By Melissa García-Lamarca and María Kaika, University of Manchester, UK

shutterstock_306279413

Eviction Foreclosure Mortgage Poverty Vector Design. Image Credit: iluistrator via Shutterstock

In early May 2014, the Bank of England issued a warning: the increase in gross mortgage lending combined with a rise in UK housing prices place the country’s financial stability under serious threat. Indeed, the running figure for mortgage debt in the UK is alarming, sitting at over £1 trillion, as mortgage lending only continues to expand.

But the UK is not alone. While data from the European Mortgage Federation from 2014 reported the ratio of outstanding residential loans to disposable income for the UK at 116.4%, this figure was even higher in other advanced European economies: 237.4% in Denmark; 197,3% in the Netherlands; and 135% in Sweden.

At the aftermath of the US subprime mortgage crisis, the risk that escalating mortgage debt poses on the global economy has received increasing attention. However, the risk at the household level – the ‘lived’ dimension of the financialisation of housing – remains largely off the radar of both academic research and policy making (with a few notable exceptions like Desmond 2012).

In our recent paper titled “Mortgaged lives”*: the biopolitics of debt and housing financialisation, we consider mortgages as a tool that engineers an intimate relationship between global financial markets, and the bodies and lives of the workforce. Drawing upon ethnographic research and in-depth interviews with people affected by mortgage debt defaults in Spain, we show how mortgage contracts connect not only a person’s current and future income into global speculative financial strategies, but also tie the practices of everyday life into the very heart of financial markets. In other words, as housing becomes financialised, so does life itself. This process affects not only access to housing, but also the ability to care for oneself and others, perceptions of self-esteem, social status, class, citizenship and belonging in society.

By linking the changes in macro-economic processes that made mortgage credit broadly available to the experience of living a “Mortgaged Life”, our work explains how interest rates, the fluctuation of real estate prices and currency exchange rates became factors determining not only access to housing, but the very conditions and (im)possibilities of life. It shows how people begin to realise that they had never really been homeowners or middle class. Just a proletariat indebted for life to their creditors.

As the impact of mortgage debt defaults cuts across borders, educational, income, status, gender and age groups, there is urgent need to focus beyond the macro-economics of mortgage lending and into their personal, family, health and community impacts. This is of particular importance as products like 100% mortgages are reappearing on the market in the UK, and mortgaged homeownership continues to extend across the world as an increasingly common way to access housing.

For the time being, a continuous rise in housing prices, relative economic stability, low interest rates and relatively low unemployment keep mortgage defaults at bay in the European north. However, the combination of escalating housing prices, rock-bottom interest rates and extensive mortgage lending is a potentially explosive mixture not only financially, but also socially. Our paper seeks to highlight this reality, and to call for deeper attention and action.

*The paper (and blog post) borrows its title from the title of Ada Colau and Adrià Alemany’s (2012) book Mortgaged lives: From the housing bubble to the right to housing.

About the authors: Melissa García-Lamarca is a PhD candidate in Human Geography at the University of Manchester and María Kaika is Professor of Human Geography at the same university.

books_icon Colau A and Alemany A 2012 Mortaged lives: From the housing bubble to the right to housing available online https://libcom.org/files/mortgagedlives.pdf [open access]

60-world2 Council of mortgage lenders 2016 Market commentary May 2016. available online at: http://www.hypo.org/Content/Default.asp?PageID=524

60-world2 Cunliffe J 2014 Speech: Momentum in the housing market: affordability, indebtedness and risks Bank of England Available online at: www.bankofengland.co.uk/publications/Pages/speeches/default.aspx

60-world2 Jamei M 2016 European mortgage federation: the voice of the European Mortgage Industry. Available online at: https://www.cml.org.uk/news/news-and-views/market-commentary-may-2016/

books_icon García-Lamarca, M. and Kaika, M. (2016), ‘Mortgaged lives’: the biopolitics of debt and housing financialisation. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 41: 313–327. doi: 10.1111/tran.12126 [open access]

60-world2 Osborne H 2016 Barclays 100% mortgage: how much does it really help homebuyers? Available online at:  http://www.theguardian.com/money/2016/may/04/barclays-100-per-cent-mortgage-how-much-does-it-really-help-homebuyers

Mapping forest futures together: the Great Bear to the Congo

By Amita Bhakta, Loughborough University

Pachyelasma_tessmannii00

Photo credit: Burt Wursten available via CC-BY-SA-3.0

The world’s forests are arguably among the most precious natural resources we have. Forests help our efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change and are often referred to as a marker of sustainability. When we think of sustainability, the symbolism of the tree itself as a giver of oxygen, life, and the planting of trees often spring to mind. But, a question we continue to ask ourselves, is who should bear the responsibility of protecting and sustaining our forests, and how best should we do it as a diverse world of different peoples, all with different beliefs, values and understandings of nature (which on many occasions, come into conflict)?

For one such example, Clapp et al (2016) take us into the realms of British Colombia’s Great Bear Forest in Canada. They explain how by bringing together aboriginal peoples of the forest and their local knowledges and environmental interests, and mapping these with the interests of governments of different levels and environmental groups, can be a way forward for promoting sustainability. But, they argue, there remains a lot of work to be done to bind these interests together more coherently.

The BBC recently gave an account that illustrates the gap remaining in forest conservation by bringing people together. Over in the Congo, the BBC report, tensions have arisen between armed ‘eco-guards’ brought into the basin, and the local indigenous peoples seeking to live their lives in the way they wish to, and according to their values of the forest as their home. As eco-guards wade in and take the role of the indigenous peoples as ‘custodians’ of the forest, we must acknowledge but also question the fact that the conflicting interests of the two parties. For example, indigenous people’s homes can become lost to the conservation activities of other groups such as NGO’s and governmental bodies. As Clapp et al (2016) explain, resource remapping remains to be experimental; and it looks like for the forests across the globe, they will continue to do so until we all, as a population of different people, come together to find mutual values for our trees, forests, and planet as a whole.

References

books_icon Clapp A, Hayter R, Affolderbach J and Guzman L (2016) ‘Institutional thickening and innovation: reflections on the remapping of the Great Bear Rainforest’  Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers doi: 10.1111/tran.12119

60-world2 Kinver M 2016 ‘Conservation efforts ‘failing African rainforests’’ BBC Online

The Helping Hand Through History

By Morag Rose, University of Sheffield

Samuel_Crompton_memorial_statue,_Bolton_-_geograph.org.uk_-_980458 (3)

Samuel Crompton memorial statue, Bolton. Image Credit: Kenneth Allen CC BY-SA 2.0  via Wikimedia Commons

The impact of austerity, welfare cuts and the retreat of the state means voluntary organisations play an increasingly important role in the lives of many people. For example, The Trussell Trust have reported that use of food banks is at a record levels and the recently published UK Civil Society Almanac 2016 provides further evidence of the impact of the third sector. There are many important questions raised by this but in this post I will focus on volunteers. Individuals volunteer for many reasons, including altruism, and in turn often benefit from the experience of volunteering.

Francesca Moore offers a fascinating historical insight with  ‘” A Band of Public-Spirited Women”: Middle-Class Female Philanthropy and Citizenship in Bolton, Lancashire before 1918’, a paper recently published in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers.  Archive material contributes to her group biography of the eponymous women. Moore uses a Foucauldian analysis of power to consider what voluntary work meant for them and wider society. Philanthropy has moral, political, spiritual, philosophical, social and cultural dimensions, and she also explores what citizenship can mean for those without a vote or other legal rights.

The philanthropists Moore studies primarily focused on ‘poverty, child welfare, infant health, prostitution and drunkenness. These social issues were often understood at the time as a form of personal inadequacy, or moral failure, which rendered them solvable by behavioural change’ (2016: 153). This resonates with many current debates about entrenched inequality, unemployment and obesity amongst others.  After the Boer War (1899-1902) there were widespread concerns about falling birth rates and an unfit population so philanthropists fought for moral and physical health. A focus on children’s welfare illustrates a concern for the future not just of individuals but of the nation. Moore suggests ‘women philanthropists engaged in what could be termed race work through infant welfare clinics, improving the quality and vitality of the population…. Biopolitical concerns were addressed in a bottom-up fashion… (as) a biopolitical patriotism’. (2016:157). As a disabled person I am deeply concerned eugenics still lurks behind much contemporary rhetoric about welfare and we must beware of its pernicious influence.

It is clear class was an important constituent of the philanthropic relationship. The work the women engaged in was also profoundly gendered, being considered maternal and caring.  Such endeavours were one of many ways women challenged and transcended the divide between private and public spheres. The divide between “citizen” and “other” is also blurred and complex. Philanthropy demonstrated an ability to contribute to civic society and staked a claim for full citizenship. These women campaigned for, and influenced, social policy in many areas. Many of Moore’s sample were active in the Suffrage movement and their philanthropy was, at least in part, a way of demonstrating they had earned the vote. Moore’s study ends in 1918 when the First World War had changed the landscape and The Representation of The People Act gave women over 30 the right to vote. Today in Bolton something of the legacy of those “public-spirited women” lives on.  The Greater Manchester for Voluntary Organisation (GMCVO) profiles a thriving and diverse voluntary sector which continues to provide valuable support services to many people.

References

60-world2 GMCVO online at https://www.gmcvo.org.uk/

books_icon Moore, F. 2016 “A band of public-spirited women:” middle-class female philanthropy and citizenship in Bolton, Lancashire before 1918 in Transactions of The Institute of British Geographers 41 pp 149-162. doi: 10.1111/tran.12114

60-world2 NCVO 2016 UK Civic Society Almanac  online at https://data.ncvo.org.uk/

60-world2 The Trussell Trust online at https://www.trusselltrust.org/2016/04/15/foodbank-use-remains-record-high/

Babies made in Mexico: Understanding the rise and fall of surrogacy markets

By Carolin Schurr, University of St. Gallen, Switzerland and Martin Müller, University of Zürich, Switzerland

Fig 1

Fig. 1: The global baby business of surrogacy. Image credit © Carolin Schurr

Surrogacy – the term brings to mind stories from the yellow press. Images of celebrities such as Nicole Kidman, Sarah Jessica Parker, Elton John and Ricky Martin who smile into the camera with their cute babies. They have all become parents thanks to surrogate mothers.

While media focus on the individual stories of joy or drama surrounding surrogacy, we know very little about the networks of people, technology, money, and infrastructure that make reproduction work at a distance in transnational surrogacy markets. In short, what holds the market of surrogacy together and why does it fall apart?

When Latour and Deleuze meet in a Mexican fertility clinic
Based on Carolin Schurr’s long term ethnographic research on the surrogacy industry, our paper ‘Assemblage thinking and actor-network theory: conjunctions, disjunctions, cross-fertilisations’, published in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, engages with this question. The paper argues that bringing assemblage thinking and actor-network theory (ANT) into dialogue offers novel ways to understand how (surrogacy) markets are assembled across space and why the complex networks of human and non-human actors constituting (surrogacy) markets may fall apart, only to reassemble in new ways. Suggesting three cross-fertilizations between assemblage thinking and actor-network theory, the paper exemplifies along the empirical case study of the transnational surrogacy market how geographers’ work can benefit from differentiating between the two approaches more carefully and thinking systematically in what ways they complement each other.

First, we argue that the empirical toolbox of ANT helps explain how the socio-technical networks of surrogacy markets are stabilized. Or in other words, how surrogacy agencies such as ‘My Baby’ manage that Manuel and Rodrigo from Spain, who want a baby and have the money, meet the oocyte of Anita – an egg donor in Sweden –, the womb of Benita – a young mother of two from Chiapas – and Dr. José in Cancún – whose clinic is equipped with the state-of-the-art medical technology from the United States. But not only do they need to meet, they need to meet at the right time, under the right circumstances. But how does ‘My Baby’ manage to control this global enterprise? It manages to govern at a distance by enrolling the necessary elements in relations and holding them stable for a while with the help of technological devices that facilitate the control and surveillance of the different actors involved.

Second, the paper shows that ANT has increasingly embraced multiplicities and fluidities – central to assemblage thinking – as constitutive elements characterising networks. Surrogacy agencies such as ‘My Baby’ could not survive in the constantly changing legal landscape without network fluidity. ‘My Baby’ foresaw the dramatic changes in India’s surrogacy business when the government passed a new bill in 2012 that restricted surrogacy to heterosexual, married couples. Opening up a new branch in Thailand just in time made it possible for them to continue to respond to the demand of their gay clientele. When the military government in Thailand shut down surrogacy businesses after the Baby Gammy scandal, ‘My Baby’ had just set up a new fertility clinic and surrogacy agency in Mexico (Fig. 2) that has since turned into the latest hotspot for gay surrogacy. The final outcome – the baby – needs to be held constant, but the associations that bring it about have shifted all the time.

 

Fig 2

Fig. 1: The global baby business of surrogacy. Image credit © Carolin Schurr

Third, we suggest that ANT can benefit from the attention to affect in bringing socio-material relations into being, which is so central in assemblage thinking. The role of desire is key here. Deleuze and Guattari understand it as much more than an individualised feeling of wanting to have something. For them, desire is the distributed production of wishes in an arrangement of humans and things. So it is not only the intended parents’ desire for a baby that is central for the global assisted reproduction assemblage to emerge. This assemblage is produced as much by the hetero-normative imperative of the ‘happy family’ that pervades most societies as it is by the pictures that agencies such as ‘My Baby’ and clinics use to visualize the ‘little prince’ as the crowning glory at the end of parents’ travails (Fig. 3). The desire for profit is the key rationale for agencies and clinics to become enrolled in the assemblage. The desire for wealth and a better life for themselves and their children enroll egg donors and surrogate mothers. In short, desire, in multiple forms, is the central force binding the human and non-human elements of surrogacy together: intended parents, egg donors, surrogates, IVF professionals, airplanes, time schedules, petri-dishes, hormonal drugs and so on.

fig 3

Fig. 1: The global baby business of surrogacy. Image credit © Carolin Schurr

Cross-fertilizations: ANT and assemblage thinking
For geographers engaged in empirical work, a cross-fertilisation between ANT and assemblage thinking offers the best of both worlds. It brings the tried-and-tested ANT toolbox of concepts to the study of the emergence of order and disorder in a more-than-human world. It sharpens our sense of different kinds of change in socio-material relations that is central to the new fragile markets of bodily commodification. And it does so in a mode that is attentive to the distributed, bodily capacities of humans and non-humans alike.

The price we need to pay for this is a small one, we think. Just as transnational surrogacy markets have challenged the national boundaries of traditional forms of kinship and family-making, cross-fertilizing ANT and assemblage thinking challenges us to leave behind some cherished certainties as we abandon the safe territories of our conceptual homelands.

About the authors:

Carolin Schurr is Assistant Professor of Transcultural Studies at the University of St Gallen, Switzerland and Martin Müller is Swiss National Science Foundation Professor at the University of Zurich.

60-world2 BBC 2015 Thailand bans commercial surrogacy for foreigners

60-world2 Bhowmick N 2013 Why people are angry about India’s new surrogacy rules Time

60-world2 Daily Mail 2011 Nicole Kidman reveals why she kept surrogacy baby a secret at Screen Actors Guild Awards

60-world2 Groskop V 2009 What is the truth behind Sarah Jessica Parker’s use of a surrogate?  The Guardian

books_icon Müller M 2015 Assemblages and actor-networks: Rethinking socio-material power, politics and space Geography Compass 9 27-41  (open access)

books_icon Müller M and Schurr C 2016 Assemblage thinking and actor-network theory: conjunctions, disjunctions and cross-fertilisations Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers  doi: 10.1111/tran.12117 (open access)

60-world2 Pidd H 2010 Elton John and David Furnish have Christmas baby The Guardian 

books_icon Schurr C 2014 Leaps and bounds in Mexico’s reproductive tourism international Journal of Media Travel 

High-flying research: Geographies of air transportation

Kate Whiston, University of Nottingham

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

This weekend marked the fifty-eighth anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster, so what better time than to take a look at some of the work being done by human geographers into the social and cultural dimensions of air space and air transportation. February 6th 1958 was the darkest day in Manchester United F.C.’s history. Following their European Cup quarter final win in Belgrade, the ‘Busby Babes’ – so-called after their illustrious manager Matt Busby – were involved in one of the most documented plane crashes in history, in which twenty-three of the forty-four passengers were killed, including eight of the players, when their plane crashed after trying to take-off amidst a devastating snow storm in Munich. Memories of the victims are still today as poignant as ever, in an age when air transportation has been completely transformed, and has come to signify the complex networks of social, political, and economic relationships in our contemporary mobile world.

‘Aeromobilities’, as Adey (2008) calls it, started to become the subject of geographical enquiry in the twenty-first century, with geographers looking to trace the economic and political links that air transport creates between places. Adey’s (2008) paper provides a useful summary of some of the work within geography about air transportation, research which has drawn on the ‘mobile turn’, a shift towards investigating how spaces are travelled through.

‘Identity’ being a key theme in geography due to the influence of feminism, the airport and the airplane have themselves been unravelled as sites of identity creation and performance. Adey (2008) explains how both airports and airplanes have become important geographical sites for the formation and suppression of identities. For some, airports are sites of alienation and inequality, whilst for others they are happy, homely places, a stepping stone between important places in their lives. Nowhere better is this evidenced than the film ‘Terminal’, in which Tom Hanks plays an eastern immigrant whose country suffers from the collapse of its government whilst he is in the air, leaving his papers no longer valid when he lands in America. Forced to stay in the airport for weeks, he feels the brunt of the airport’s hostility and exclusive power, but starts to enjoy and embrace his time there, making many friends, as well as enemies. Today, Adey (2008) argues, borders are shifting even further, spatially and temporally, with your entry into a country being variously permitted or denied from a distance, before you have left your airport of departure. Thus, the ways in which we imagine our place in relation to the rest of the world have changed, air transportation building notions of national identity and citizenship, and variously connecting and disconnecting people and places.

Modern spaces of air travel, as spaces for international border-crossing as well as state and terrorist violence, have triggered increasing regulation of societies. As Adey (2008) states, air-travel has become one of the most closely-monitored and highly-segregated spaces in modern society. Security screening in airports today has reached very intense levels, which redefine both bodies and belongings as ‘threats’. Full-body searches and X-ray machines mean that it is not only international boundaries that are crossed at airports, but also, as Adey (2008) claims, our personal boundaries. All this is part of a new culture of ‘anticipation’, in which our vision has become so accelerated that it has overtaken time (Adey, 2008). The threat of terrorism is, today, pre-empted, an imaginative geography of disaster created before it has even happened, evoking fear and panic.

Air transportation has also had more fatal effects on societies, playing a major part in wars since the turn of the twentieth century. Aerial warfare has come a long way since the air raids of World War Two, with new unmanned aircraft causing terror and destruction to contemporary society. The aerial view – or as Adey (2008) calls it the ‘cosmic view’ – has, since the early days of landscape surveys and the invention of aerial photography, been associated with a powerful total gaze of the world, with limitless capacity for knowledge and control. This total observation is seen, for example, in Israeli-occupied Palestine, where Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are used for aerial surveillance of military and civilian targets (Adey, 2008).

The performance of gender relations within the space of the plane has also, Adey (2008) claims, captured the imaginations of geographers; cockpit and cabin gender roles being fascinating examples of gender relations. A recent paper by Lin (2015) has explored this in relation to air hostesses on a Singapore airline. Feminisation and sexualisation of air hostesses’ bodies on planes has been long been practised by most airlines. In Lin’s (2015) example in Singapore, the design of air hostesses’ uniforms was evocative yet graceful and traditional, whilst interview candidates were carefully screened for flaws or disfigurement, their body shape, beauty, and complexion being important. Even successful candidates underwent various aesthetic ‘corrections’, such as speech therapy, and were prescribed precise shades of make-up to make them appear uniformly ‘beautiful’. Lin (2015) frames the cabin – a ‘mobile atmosphere’, as she calls it – as an important social space, in which geographers have explored the multi-sensorial interactions between passengers and their environment. The plane and its crew provide a ‘service’, passengers’ bodies forming active consumers during their flight. Air hostesses create a comfortable and professional environment for passengers. These women perform a version of femininity whereby they are a friendly, affectionate, reassuring, approachable, helpful, polite, and glamorous aid to passengers’ journeys.

A lot has changed, therefore, in the fifty-eight years since the Munich Air Disaster. There is a vast range of research being done by geographers into the spaces of air travel, research which can help us better understand the social, cultural, and political experiences of airports and air transportation. The looming threat of terrorism means that geographers have a lot to contribute to understanding ways in which different nations engage with air space. However, it is a testament to the continual improvements to passenger safety being made that today geographers are talking about passenger ‘comfort’ rather threats to their ‘safety’.

 

books_icon Adey, P. (2008). “Aeromobilities: Geographies, Subjects and Vision”, Geography Compass, 2(5):1318-1336.

books_iconLin, W. (2015). “’Cabin pressure’: designing affective atmospheres in airline travel”, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 40:287-299.

60-world2http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/football/teams/manchester-united/11394795/Manchester-United-Munich-Air-Disaster-anniversary-emphasises-the-magnitude-of-footballs-loss.html

60-world2http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/sport/football/football-news/manchester-united-players-fans-remember-10826494

Colonial Memories Re-Ignited: In Producing the Streets and Rhodes, One Stone Remains Unturned

By Julian Shaw, King’s College London

Oriel College bird’s eye view from University church. Image Credit: Arnaud Malon

Every day people walking past Oriel College on High Street in Oxford are confronted with a statue of Cecil Rhodes; a man heavily involved in the creation of enforced racial segregation in South Africa. As part of a global protest movement called ‘Rhodes Must Fall’, which began in South Africa in March 2015, a group of students at Oxford University have mobilised, calling for the statue to be removed. Toppling the stone Rhodes, they feel, would indicate that the seeds of progress are being sown in a battle against continuing racial inequality at Oxford university (The Guardian, 2015). However, despite this cause, on 29th January 2016 it was announced by Oxford University that the statue shall remain (The Guardian, 2016).

Benwell (2016), in his recent article for Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, turned his attention on how everyday memories form geopolitical subjectivity. His specific empirical case was young people living on the Falkland Islands, and their engagement with memories etched into the social and physical landscape. Using this discourse when looking at Oriel college, one is able to ponder the presence of the Cecil Rhodes statue and consider how it plays a continually evolving role in the geopolitical memories of those who encounter it.

The statue in Oriel College is not new; it was erected with the construction of the Rhodes Building in 1911 from funds left to the college by Cecil Rhodes himself. Therefore we can assume that in the past the statue was probably missed or completely ignored by the majority of people who passed it – indeed no one is claiming that until last year all people walking along High Street silently condoned the statue’s existence. However the success of the Rhodes Must Fall movement, bringing the issues of an ongoing racist colonial history to international consciousness, has meant that the presence of the statue has been elevated. This elevation has enabled the revival of memories of a horrific colonial past to be found; engaging new geopolitical subjectivities. But now that the University has made its decision to keep the statue, what does this mean for the Rhodes Must Fall movement?

Arguing about whether it was right or wrong for the University to keep the statue will not help develop this narrative. Instead we should consider; what is revealed by the decision of the University to keep it? Lefebvre (1991) indicated in his work The Production of Space that all spaces are always actively produced by those who either perceive, conceive, or live the space. Here we have, on one side, a University controlling the space through its decision to keep the statue – creating the representation of space – and on the other side a movement of students who are occupying this space on High Street – making it representational space. The inability of the Rhodes Must Fall movement to remove the statue, indicates that despite appearing in the space they are fundamentally alienated from the construction of this space. Those controlling the space on the other hand, are able to impose upon these users their own representations of the space. Lefebvre warns that such impositions, by the controlling force of the University, will make “permanent transgression inevitable” (Lefebvre, 1991: 23) if the lived enactment of the space continues to be occupied by those alienated from its control.

The question is therefore; what future transgressions will we witness in the ongoing narrative of this statue? And importantly, will these transgressions establish a spatial legacy for the Rhodes Must Fall movement? A legacy memorialised with a permanence equivalent to a statue maybe? Removing the statue was never seen as an end to the discussion by any side in the debate. The story of this space is not finished.

References

books_icon Benwell, M. C., (2016) Encountering geopolitical pasts in the present: young people’s everyday engagements with memory in the Falkland Islands, Transaction of the Institute of British Geographers, Early View, DOI: 10.1111/tran.12109

books_icon Lefebvre, H., (1991) The Production of Space, London: Wiley-Blackwell

60-world2 The Guardian (2015) Oxford students step up campaign to remove Cecil Rhodes statue, Online Article (Accessed on 2nd February 2016)

60-world2 The Guardian (2016) Cecil Rhodes statue to remain at Oxford after ‘overwhelming support’, Online Article (Accessed on 2nd February 2016)

 

 

Whatever takes your fancy: pigeon shows as geographical inquiry

Kate Whiston, University of Nottingham

The British Homing World Show of the Year, 2015 Source: own photo

The main hall of pigeons at the British Homing World Show of the Year, 2015
Source: Own photo

The British Homing World Show of the Year; not heard of it? I’ll forgive you. This little-known affair is, for pigeon fanciers across the country, the event of the year. Taking place over the second weekend of January in Blackpool’s Winter Gardens, it is the largest annual gathering of pigeon fanciers in the UK; on average, around 20,000 people flock from all over the world – as far away as China – to exhibit, buy, sell, and admire pigeons. The Show, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary (BBC News, 2012a [online]), is also becoming increasingly popular with the media, making the BBC News in past years and Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch just yesterday morning. Last year, it even made the news in America (NY Post, 2015 [online])! The weekend of the Show, during the bleak English winter, sees thousands of visitors descend upon Blackpool, contributing an estimated £10 million to Blackpool’s economy (BBC News, 2012b [online]).

‘But where’s the geography?’, I hear you say. Pigeon racing, with its careful calculations of distance, and vigilant observation of weather conditions may seem to lend itself more explicitly to the discipline. However, as an animal geographer, I want to bring to light a paper that, whilst over a decade old, is key in revealing how animal showing is inherently geographical. Having visited this and other pigeon shows – not as a fancier but as a researcher – I aim to highlight some of the striking similarities between the British Homing World Show and Anderson’s (2003) paper on Sydney’s Royal Agricultural Show.

More than 3,000 domestic pigeons will be on display at the British Homing World Show this coming weekend, which has been described as the ‘Crufts of the pigeon world’. The main attraction is the exhibition of racing pigeons. To the untrained eye they all look the same – well-groomed city-centre pigeons – but it is the subtleties of this hobby that make it so fascinating. The birds are judged on their aesthetic qualities denoting their ability to win races. The whole of the bird is scrutinised, from its wing feathers to its eye colouring. Also on display will be the perhaps lesser-known fancy pigeons. Whilst racing pigeons are athletes bred for functional reasons, fancy pigeons are bred for their aesthetics, many unable to fly long distances. These wonderful birds are all the same species, differing in appearance due to selective breeding and reinforcement of mutations (similar to different pedigree dog breeds). There are over 350 breeds of fancy pigeons, varying in characteristics such as beak, feathering, tail, and body. Is it any wonder that Charles Darwin chose this incredibly diverse bird to aid him in his study of inheritance and variation in The Origin of Species? Like animals on display at a zoo, or specimens in a museum, pigeons are displayed in rows of cages to be objectified, admired, and judged. Some are even removed from their cages, poked and prodded, or made to walk about in their cages, like models in a feathered catwalk.

A fancy pigeon Source: own photo

A successful fancy pigeon at last year’s Show
Source: own photo

In Anderson’s (2003) historical study of Sydney’s Royal Agricultural Show, she argues that the animals on display reflected human ingenuity and control over nature. The Show – which was deeply underpinned by colonialist thinking – was a celebration of human superiority and performance of civilisation and domestication, which reinforced the nature-culture and human-animal binaries. The same could be said of pigeon shows; the pigeons on display are products of careful selective breeding by fanciers. They emphasise the distinction between man and nature, but, they simultaneously blur it. Animal exhibits – in this case pigeons – become hybrids of human skill, scientific knowledge and ‘nature’. Such displays, Anderson (2003) argues, should be read as texts, in which a subject-object relationship is developed through an anthropocentric gaze. They also, she argues, can be seen as embodied performances. The pigeons on display at this weekend’s British Homing World Show will be both text and performance. The birds are cultural constructions, products of human intervention, but develop into much more than mere objects. Successful pigeon fanciers at this prestigious show win not only a rosettes, trophies, and money, but also prestige. For fanciers, their birds are a ticket to a better social standing among their peers, a reputation dependent on the aesthetic performances of their feathered co-workers.

A fancy pigeon Source: own photo

A successful fancy pigeon at last year’s Show
Source: Own photo

Of course, exhibitions and sales of machinery are also prominent features at agricultural shows. Anderson (2003) argues that those at the Sydney Agricultural Show reflected strong notions of modernity and advancement, further stressing human mastery over nature. The British Homing World Show of the Year also features exhibitions of pigeon appliances and trade stands. There are stands selling everything from £20,000 pigeon lofts and high-tech race timing technology, to nest boxes, food, and vitamin supplements. Birds are also on sale, transported rather indignantly in cardboard boxes marked ‘LIVE BIRDS’. Whilst there are stands selling birds at ‘affordable’ prices (maybe as much as £40 per bird), at the auction birds are sold for thousands of pounds! Both academic and activist would have a field day with the ethical and moral issues raised by such judgements of animal value.

Stalls at the British Homing World Show, 2015 Source: own photo

Stalls at the British Homing World Show, 2015
Source: Own photo

So that’s the British Homing World Show of the Year and a snapshot into the subculture of pigeon fancying. Yet more proof that geography is lurking in everything. If only more people knew about this fascinating pastime, it would surely go a long way towards alleviating that tiresome ‘rats with wings’ metaphor that burdens the domestic pigeon’s feral cousins.

 

books_iconAnderson, K. (2003). “White Natures: Sydney’s Royal Agricultural Show in Post-Humanist Perspective” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 28(4): 422-441.

60-world2BBC News (2012a) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-lancashire-16665137

60-world2BBC News (2012b) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-lancashire-16751398

60-world2NY Post (2015) http://nypost.com/2015/01/21/pigeon-enthusiasts-flock-to-england-for-international-homing-show/

60-world2http://www.rpra.org/bhw-show-of-the-year-2016/