The Polden hills are a long and narrow ridge to the north, they are not high, a couple of hundred feet at the most, but they are sufficient to obscure sight of the towns of Street and Glastonbury. The invisibility of the towns themselves does not mean their presence is not noticeable – the streetlights throw a glow into the sky, as if a great fire were burning on the far side of Walton windmill. The light in the sky is easily explicable, though it wasn’t always so amenable to rational explanation.
One night in the 1960s, visitors were leaving and one noticed the glow. “What’s going on in the sky over there?”
“Probably the hippies doing black magic,” came a reply.
It created an impression of hippies as extraordinarily powerful people who could achieve strange phenomena with special spells.
Of course, it was a nonsensical comment. The hippy movement would have been delighted at such powers, if they could light up the sky, they might also have changed the world in favour of the ways of love and peace. While some of the hippies might have had a fascination with the esoteric, the suggestion they engaged with “black magic” ran counter to the gentle paganism they favoured. Had “black magic” been capable of illuminating the night sky, then it would have been an item worthy of news reports and not just something noticed by a departing visitor.
The comment, still memorable after five decades, reflected the tendency to blame that with which we are unfamiliar for those things which we do not understand. There has always been a tendency for people to blame newcomers, foreigners, or just people who are unconventional, for things which are not readily explained; particularly those things which bring misfortune or danger to a community. Populist politics depends almost exclusively on scapegoating certain groups, holding them responsible for the ills of a society; immigrants, especially those who have not easily assimilated to local ways, have always provided an easily identifiable focus for issues that may have entirely different explanations.
The blaming of strangers for domestic problems is as logical as suggesting the newly-arrived hippies were responsible for lights in the sky, but illogical reasoning sometimes has a reassuring quality about it. It is much easier to attribute economic problems to immigrants, or to the European Union, or to nameless benefits recipients, than it is to accept that it is the deep flaws within the economic system that caused the crash and the ensuing years of austerity. The habit of blaming unfamiliar people for one’s own problems has continued for millennia, and has never been honest.