Once upon a time there were six families who lived in neighbouring farms. Every now and then one of them would try to steal some of the land belonging to one of the other families: the other families would spring to the defence of the one who had lost the land, and there would be a noisy dispute and a bare-knuckle brawl between some of the menfolk, egged on by the rest. During these disputes the farms did not get tended, the cattle strayed, the crops were trampled and the chickens were eaten by foxes. Eventually, after several years the brawl would end and the participants would be shipped off to hospital, leaving those less injured to restore the farms and resume food production. It was all very unedifying.
After the last and most vicious of these brawls, the families agreed that this was not a sensible way to behave and they really should try to get on with each other better. So they decided to merge their farms. Instead of being six independent farms, there would now be one Community: the farms would still be distinct, and the families would retain their names, but there would be no boundaries and therefore no boundary disputes. Bare-knuckle fights would become a thing of the past.
It worked amazingly well. The Community's cooperative approach quickly made them prosperous. So prosperous, in fact, that other farms and villages in the area wanted to join. The little village of Britham, just across the river, expressed an interest, but the head of one of the original six families refused to allow it to join. He suspected that Britham would not like what the families were planning.
You see, not satisfied with the prosperity that cooperation had brought, and still fearful that the distinct identities of the farms could mean future disputes over land and damaging bare-knuckle fights, the families had decided to create a completely New Town.
The town would be built close to the coast, on a beautiful plain perched on a cliff above a sandy beach. Those who chose to move to the new town would relinquish their names, and their farms would be run from the new town. But the farms would still be owned by their original owners (even though everyone now had the same name), and the income from them would go to those owners - as would the responsibility for servicing any debts. It seemed the best of all possible arrangements. After all, people with the same name don't fight, do they?
Britham, which was eventually allowed to join the Community on the third attempt, was sceptical. It didn't like the idea of relinquishing its name, and it didn't want to give up control of its farm. However, it agreed to try out the new location. Some of its people camped out in a tent on the plain for a few months, until a severe storm blew down their tent and forced them to return to the village, somewhat battered and bruised. Their surveyor, Walter, reported that the whole area was unstable and building a town there was a very bad idea. The other families disputed this, but reluctantly agreed that Britham would not be forced to move to the new town. One or two other Community members were also concerned: Switham's Mayor agreed that Switham would move to the new town "when the time was right" (while privately vowing to make sure the time was never right), while the neighbouring farmer Mark Denn said that the closest he would go to the new town would be a holiday home on the outskirts.
Meanwhile, the Community was growing. Reports of bears in the hills to the east of the Community had frightened farmers and villagers in the vicinity, and increasing numbers of them were joining the Community in the hope that it would protect their livestock. Many of these new members, anxious to prove that they weren't just after protection (and money), decided to move to the new town.
Despite Britham's misgivings, New Town was duly built and many Community members moved in. The town council was not unaware of the risks from wind and sea, so warned those building homes there to keep their houses low profile and surrounded by protective walls. But for several years there were no serious storms and the sea was calm, so everyone started to ignore the rules. Their families were expanding, so they needed bigger and higher houses....and walls were ugly and expensive. One lady, Helen, had a particularly flamboyant taste in architecture, building closer to the sea than anyone else and adding decorative awnings and pinnacles that flouted the rules but looked pretty. She was often to be seen lounging in a bikini on the balcony. The other residents scratched their heads - Helen's farm was one of the smallest and not the best tended, so it wasn't clear how she could afford this edifice - but they said nothing.
One autumn there was a massive storm and the O'Sullivan house was severely damaged. Other houses were also damaged, but not as badly. Seumas O'Sullivan appealed to the town council for support, on the grounds that this was an exceptional event for which his family could not be held responsible. And he issued a warning. "The plain is unstable", he said. "Look!" And he pointed to the back garden of his house - which was now half the length it had been before the storm, the rest having fallen down the cliff.
The town council members were unimpressed. "If you had built according to our rules", they said, "your house wouldn't have been so badly damaged and the wall would have stopped your garden falling down the cliff". They told Seumas he had to find the money to repair his house and build a new wall according to their rules. Grumbling about the cost, Seumas reluctantly agreed. That winter, his family scavenged for driftwood on the beach because they couldn't afford coal, and ate kelp because they couldn't afford food. But the town council agreed that the family's deprivation was only just, since they had not obeyed the rules.
The following summer, there was another severe storm. This time, Helen's house was badly damaged. As the other residents suspected, she didn't have the money to repair it. And that wasn't all. Her farm wasn't just poorly tended. It turned out that she had concealed an outbreak of foot-and-mouth on her farm in order to be allowed into the Community.
The others were furious. Some wanted to force her to leave the Community. But a couple of the families had lent Helen the money to build her house, and were worried that they might not get their money back if she left. So the town council reluctantly agreed to lend Helen the money to repair her house and build the necessary wall on condition that she changed her ways. No more lounging around in a bikini - she had to work on her farm, and the income from it had first and foremost to go to her creditors. Soon she too was scavenging for driftwood and eating kelp.
But the storms were getting more frequent. And each time there was a storm, another house was damaged - and a bit more of the coastline was washed away. The town council tightened the building rules and supervised families to ensure that they complied with them. Building became increasingly expensive, as did repairing the damage caused by the storms. The families that suffered the worst damage spent less and less time tending their farms and more and more time doing repairs - and scavenging on the beach for driftwood. Their unrelieved diet of kelp started to make them ill. And meanwhile, the cliff edge drew ever closer......
One winter there was a reprieve. A cargo ship was wrecked nearby, and the goods from its hold found their way on to the beach. The goods included coal and food. Suddenly, families didn't need to spend so much time scavenging: they could keep warm, and a better diet meant that they had more energy. They started to tend their farms again. The improved income from their farms enabled them to pay their debts more easily and even to buy some food. Suddenly everyone started to cheer up. "Maybe this is the turning point. Maybe things will get better now", they said.
But the town council had other ideas. It demanded that families who had borrowed money paid it back faster, because as they now had more food and better heating they could do more work and therefore could afford to pay their debts more quickly. Knowing that the cargo ship's goods were only a temporary improvement to their situation, and demoralised by the prospect of working even harder only to see their income go straight to creditors, some of the Community started to think seriously about leaving. Helen was quite vocal about it. "Unless they agree to cancel my debts, I'm going back to my village", she said.
Soon the cargo ship's goods were all gone, and the families were scavenging for kelp and driftwood again - only now they had higher debt repayments to meet, so had less time for scavenging and less money for repairs. The whole place started to look dilapidated and the people in the poorest houses became increasingly thin and tired.
One night, there was a terrible storm. Helen's house fell off the cliff and landed on the beach. Fortunately she survived, but the following day she left the Community and returned to her original village, never to return. The other families, privately relieved, raided the ruins of her house for wood and food. It wasn't quite as good as another cargo ship - she didn't have much, really - but it made life easier for a while.
But it didn't end there. Helen's house, closest to the cliff edge, had protected the other houses. Once it was gone, the rest of the town was exposed to the full force of the storm. More houses started to wash away. Seumas's house was among the first to go.
The last house standing was the large, solid-looking construction belonging to Angela and her family. She was immensely proud of this house: it complied with all the rules (now) and was defended by an exceptionally high and imposing wall. No storm could possibly knock it over, could it?
How wrong she was. You see, although her house was large and solid, and the wall high and imposing, they were actually no more substantial than the rest of the town. The town council's rules specified how high houses and walls should be, but not how deep their foundations should be.....nor indeed whether a coastal plain subject to serious erosion is a good place to build a town at all.
In a storm on a January night, Angela's house was finally washed away. The New Town was no more.
And if you think this can't happen, read this.
The shoebox swindle
The shoebox shortage