The subtext of YouTuber Richard Vobes’ journeys around England is that what is old, what has stood the test of time, deserves our veneration. In a throw-away culture when we are too distracted, too mesmerized by our technological gadgets to be able to engage in real wonder, Mr. Vobes provides us a means to move beyond the modern conviction of the all-sufficient self and out into the wonder…
The modern person, unfettered by religion, family, history, or tradition, has little incentive to attend to anything but himself. It is from within himself, after all, that all meaning, direction, and pleasure must come. The modern man need not pay attention to his surroundings, to nature, to the past, or to the claims made on him by religion, family, or nation to know what is significant in the world. As the sole source of meaning, it is enough for him to attend to his own will and feelings.
For this reason, those with a less modern sensibility tend to find themselves attending closely to what most neglect. It is a hallmark of those less in sync with the modern mind to pay attention. Those with more romantic, even conservative, inclinations tend to find themselves meditating in awe on some aspect of the natural world, some detail of an old building, some forgotten byway once trod by pilgrim and vagabond alike.
YouTuber Richard Vobes appears to be one of these souls out of place. Mr. Vobes has been publishing material on the Internet for years. He was one of the first to begin podcasting when the medium sprang to life in 2005. Since then, he has written novels and produced a number of documentaries chronicling his journeys around England. In the summer of 2017, Mr. Vobes took his vision in a new direction.
Almost every day for the last year, the tirelessly industrious Mr. Vobes has posted a video to his YouTube channel in which he takes the viewer, sometimes alone, sometimes with a companion, on a short walk to explore some small place in his native England, usually in Sussex, the southern county where he lives. Mr. Vobes, who is both hairless and intrepid, does all this under the brand moniker “The Bald Explorer.”
Though he is generally quiet about his politics, his artistic work betrays a commitment to a localist and conservative vision. He advocates no overt cultural or political agenda, but his work focuses on what should be the central concern of all conservatives: conserving. Mr. Vobes’ work encourages such conserving through a set of implicit values, most notably an appreciation of the concrete in an age of abstraction, of the lasting in an era of disposability, and a love of home in a homeless time.
Valuing the Concrete in an Age of Abstraction
In an age of abstraction, the Bald Explorer invites us to attend to the concrete. Part of his videos’ appeal is that they direct the viewer to notice small, definite things. Rather than being, like so much on the Internet, another theoretical diatribe or pitch to a disembodied consumer, Mr. Vobes’ walks insist that we look closely at specific objects: the beams in the exterior of a home, the grooves in the bark of a tree, the hair on a pig’s snout.
Attending to things leads to loving things, to taking them as given, and this love naturally gives rise to the impulse to conserve. When we know something well, we appreciate it. That appreciation creates in us the desire to keep it viable, to protect it. This impulse is at the heart of conservatism. By asking the viewer to get to know some small and specific place, Mr. Vobes invites him to commit to its preservation, its conservation.
Perhaps this would not be so noticeable in a less globalized world. In a world where ties to nature, culture, and place were not cast invariably as threats to the individual’s sovereignty, a YouTube channel devoted to producing simple videos emphasizing just such ties might not stand out as unusual.
But that is not where we live. We live in an age where the ideal place to be is nowhere specific. The goal of modern urban planners has been to eradicate the uniqueness of any given area and to substitute for it the universal hellscape of the commercial strip and the office park.
In light of this, the highest possible outcome of a project like Mr. Vobes’ is that viewers might see the environments in which they live against the backdrop of what he explores. Because YouTube, global in its reach, is available to nearly everyone, we can only hope that a man working in his cubicle inside an office park along some desolate commercial strip, sandwiched between a T.G.I. Fridays and a Dick’s Sporting Goods might find diversion from his labor in joining the Bald Explorer on a walk around some small place in Sussex and see another option. He might see another possibility for the built environment, for his own locale, and for life in general.
Valuing What Lasts in an Era of Disposability
As our age has become more abstract, it has also become more disposable. By emphasizing what lasts, Mr. Vobes counters this bit of the modern condition as well. His walks to see a 600-year-old tree or historic home are, in fact, calls to embrace what endures through history and to renounce the disposability of modern life.
On many of his walks, Mr. Vobes is a man in search of what remains from past eras. Whether that is a medieval tower or a centuries-old cottage, the subtext of his journey is that what is old, what has stood the test of time, deserves our veneration. In a throw-away culture, that is a revolutionary message.
The conservatism that comes across in Mr. Vobes’ videos goes deeper than politics. It is instead a conservative vision rooted in an understanding of human continuity. In all his perambulations, it is not merely the odd tree or historical artifact Mr. Vobes is hunting. He is searching for what connects our age with those that came before it, the link that creates a continuity between their time and ours.
Modern people find history itself disposable. The past is at best irrelevant to modern people, and at worst, an encumbrance preventing us from realizing the shining goodness of our individual wills.
Mr. Vobes is searching for a way around this attitude, trying to show his audience the continuity between them and those who came before. This is not an easy task. The number of people who want to see this connection are few, but, like all custodians of lasting things in our time, Mr. Vobes is working to strengthen the remnant.
It may seem odd that the tools he has chosen for this job are part of the digital media onslaught. YouTube, perhaps the world’s greatest repository of disposable content, has, for Mr. Vobes, become a platform for a mission to undermine the very idea of disposability. Here, Mr. Vobes’ work is not merely conservative, but subversive as well.
In Search of a Home in the World
Lying behind the attempt to call into question both the abstraction and disposability of our age in Mr. Vobes’ videos is the search for a sense of home. This lack of home, more than anything else, typifies the modern condition. By turning our attention to the details of his home, Mr. Vobes directs us toward our own, encouraging us to rediscover those places and things that make a home in this world possible.
The union of concretion and conservation make home possible. No one who has a home thinks of it merely as an abstraction. No one who has a home has no desire to conserve it. Much of modern ‘unhomedness’ is a result of forgetting: forgetting the history of the places we dwell, forgetting to notice the natural world around us, forgetting what it means to belong. Through his walks, Mr. Vobes is seeking a means of remembering. When he gallops off to visit some small lane in a rarely heard-of village in the south of England, he is working to overturn the modern inclination to forget.
In one video, for example, he explores Caer Caradoc, a high hill in Shropshire; in the next, he visits an old Quaker meeting house; in still another, a long disused prison. What binds all this together is a sense of both memory and wonder. Mr. Vobes captures both the importance of a sense of being part of history and the ability to stand apart from it and see it afresh.
Wonder is, in the modern age, in short supply. We are too distracted, too mesmerized by our technological gadgets, to be able to engage in real wonder. Wonder necessarily involves us with something beyond our moment, beyond ourselves. And, for the modern, nothing of value exists beyond the self. This is the service Mr. Vobes is ultimately seeking to provide: a means to move beyond the modern conviction of the all-sufficient self and out into the wonder.
The world needs an army of Vobeses: people who have opened their eyes to the world, who see the wonder in their environment and, through it, find a sense of belonging. We need these people as a counterweight against all those forces of modernity which have left us bereft of any sense of meaning, of purpose, of the very joy of living. Only through raising an army of explorers like Mr. Vobes do we have any chance of being led through the bland modern jungle to find once again a home.
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