What does Parminster signify?
April 14, 2019 10:10 AM   Subscribe

I am curious about the assumed meanings and implicit cultural coding of the fictional town of Parminster in Dr. Foster.

I'm from the U.S. I have spent time in the U.K. but not enough to understand what kind of world this fictional town refers to. If this were in the U.S. it would not make sense. Here are some key features:
1. It is a small town, the kind of place where you alternately know everyone's business and keep secrets, and always run into people in the street and the square, the kind where people have lived their whole lives and return to after university to live as adults. Usually, in urbane U.S. suburbia, there's a ton of movement, people don't tend to live their whole lives in the town from birth to death; after living in a place like this in the U.S. for 14 years, especially as a parent, you'd no longer be known as an outsider.
2. Yet despite its provincialism two people (Gemma and Neil) can go out to dinner in public with extra-marital-affair vibes, evidently without worrying they'll be seen.
3. It has one medical practice that everyone in town goes to.
4. There is a lot of money, mansions, and then even the older houses have become elegant homes with fashionably renovated interiors. Yet as "an outsider" Gemma is disliked because she seems to think she's "better than we are," a kind of resentment which smacks of class resentment that doesn't seem to fit the town as it's portrayed.

What kind of town is this? What would be the London suburbian equivalent in the U.S. -- something like Montclair NJ or Hastings-on-Hudson NY, suburbs of NYC? In these U.S. communities, though, there would not be a prevailing resentment that an outsider thought she was "above" the local people, the local people in these U.S. towns are plenty culturally secure, and they'd just find her unpleasant (and probably BPD).
I'd like to understand what this town means. It's a silly show but I'm hooked.
posted by nantucket to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
PS I suppose it could really refer to a kind of soap-opera version of a rich small town like the Monterey California of Big Little Lies... but again, the privilege here is confusing to me because certainly in the fictional version of Monterey there is not a sense of small town cultural insecurity.
posted by nantucket at 10:12 AM on April 14


In one sense it is what it is: a Home Counties market town with medieval origins that is surrounded by bigger, newer towns but hasn't itself been swallowed up by suburbia. It's a place where one could commute to London on the train (not the Tube) or live as if London didn't exist.

In another, more important sense, it's an imaginary place with a well-defined function in a certain strand of British drama and fiction. It's an instantiation of Deep England, which is simultaneously idealised and sentimentalised but is also the place where secrets hide behind lace curtains, the place for middle-class crimes of passion.

Mapping that to the US is hard because Deep America -- however you might try to define it -- isn't the same as Deep England.
posted by holgate at 11:41 AM on April 14 [12 favorites]


It's filmed in Home Counties commuter towns (mainly Hitchin). People move to those towns from elsewhere, but lots of people who grow up in those towns return to live in them after university, because you can easily commute to good jobs, and then later on they are good places to bring up children (and you probably find a job nearer home because the commute is long). That means people still have the friendship groups from school, and those are tough crowds to break into as an outsider. Also, you're far enough from London to be provincial and think you are being looked down upon by fashionable Londoners, but not far enough to have your own solid identity.

In terms of geographic location, it's not part of contiguous suburbia, it's a town surrounded by green fields and farmland. My suggestion for a US equivalent is maybe a New England town that's less than an hour from Boston?
posted by plonkee at 11:42 AM on April 14 [5 favorites]


Ooh, can I play? With the disclaimer I only ever watched the climactic dinner party scene, I'm reading a lot of clues from your description and pardon me, I'd really like to see if my nose for reading English cultural things has any accuracy to it, so here goes. If I'm completely off the wall I'm sure later comments will put it all straight.

The name, Parminster, hints that it was a place found to be strategically important enough post-conquest to warrant a monastery, an abbot and a cathedral (Minster.) A town would have grown up around the monastery to support the monks, men-at-arms and scholars. If the monastery lands would have supported say, sheep, the town might have grown to play an important part in the wool trade, leading to roads, infrastructure, more trade, foreign visitors, proper money. In the middle ages, the place would have been booming. Then Henry VIII comes along and boom! No more monastery and the only people who don't leave are the major landowners, as long as they've curried enough favour with the king, the new landowners (people the king owed something to) and people who couldn't leave at all. The town muddles along for centuries on farming, rents and as a place to stop on the way to somewhere else (all those roads from the boom years) with it's population steadily decreasing. By the 20's (the Great War + flu depopulated the place of ordinary people even more) there's a few farms, a stately home, several manor houses, a ruined abby and one high street with two tea shops. There are four or five pubs/hotels though, which used to be coaching houses. The owners of the stately homes are starting to find they can't afford repairs.

The houses are beautiful and picturesque, apart from the ones actively falling down, because there's been no new building since the industrial revolution passed this place by - not even enough people to staff a factory. Whoever lives here, rich and poor, can genuinely trace their family roots here back some centuries. Nobody you know, and nobody I know, would dream of coming to live here because it would be no fun. At all. Plus, there are no jobs except the forelock-tugging ones, and people and circumstances have been changing enough since 1918 that they have other choices.

Starting from the late 40's, 50's through to the 60's and 70's, things start getting better, maybe a factory or two opens, or the County Council relocates its offices here, while the government is on a tear building affordable housing all over the place. With increased prosperity comes a nice fillip in the tourist trade what with all those pretty cottages and ruined abbies. Hey presto, a small town, with beautiful ancient buildings, a small but growing population and an entirely too self-involved old guard who think that anyone who has been in the area less than 300 years is some kind of johnny-just-come. The influx of new people will have fairly different attitudes from the old guard, who will be buttoned-up, stiff-upper-lip types.

A new doctor would learn early on to listen to everything, and say nothing.

So that's my very biased take on it, though actually there should be material differences between North and South - I believe Doctor Foster is Northern? More industry up there, mills and mines. Maybe what I've just fantasised matches Midsomer Norton better. But a really small, old town with outsider issues even though it's quite modern now doesn't seem very incongruous to me.
posted by glasseyes at 11:47 AM on April 14 [5 favorites]


Should have previewed but I think holgate and plonkee have it absolutely right.
posted by glasseyes at 11:49 AM on April 14


Then Henry VIII comes along and boom! No more monastery and the only people who don't leave are the major landowners, as long as they've curried enough favour with the king, the new landowners (people the king owed something to) and people who couldn't leave at all.

This is a strange view of Reformation changes. Laypeople wouldn't flee an area because an abbey was dissolved. You'd get a new landowner or two to take over the leases. The economy would not radically change; most of the work performed on abbey lands would just go on, with a different family or three reaping the major benefits instead of the abbot. The dislocations involved in the introduction of the new draperies and the bad famine years of the Elizabethan era would be more important, and then I suppose if the town was a net loser in the Industrial Revolution.
posted by praemunire at 12:02 PM on April 14


I'm not familiar enough with England to say, and I've never seen the show in question. But I dispute your characterization that it doesn't exist in the US. Small towns geographically proximate to a major city but seemingly light years away, people who have lived their entire lives except college in the same place, extreme cultural insecurity and hostility to outsiders? This is Massachusetts outside the 128.
posted by kevinbelt at 1:05 PM on April 14 [4 favorites]


This is Massachusetts outside the 128.

Yeah, I can see that, and also the little colonial towns in Connecticut that often take their names from... English market towns.

[As Patrick White notes in his Proms lecture [pdf], there's an aspect of Deep England that's coded to whiteness, even when nonwhite characters are cast.]
posted by holgate at 2:10 PM on April 14


I grew up just outside Lewes (East Sussex) and there were definitely some similarities.

The “you think you’re better than us” is not about being financially better off - it’s just an insular “how dare you do things differently to us, what an insult to the proud Parminster tradition” thing. The mere act of being different is seen as a direct slight.
posted by tinkletown at 4:51 PM on April 14 [3 favorites]


I'm not familiar enough with England to say, and I've never seen the show in question. But I dispute your characterization that it doesn't exist in the US. Small towns geographically proximate to a major city but seemingly light years away, people who have lived their entire lives except college in the same place, extreme cultural insecurity and hostility to outsiders? This is Massachusetts outside the 128.

If you see the show you''ll see I'm not talking about small towns geographically proximate to a major city in general. I'm talking about wealthy, so-called culturally sophisticated small towns similar to that portrayed in this show. I'm talking Newton Mass, if you want to think of Massachusetts, not other small towns nearby. Even in this kind of suburb there are people who never go to Boston etc., but that's not what's here, they do go to London. Yet for a wealthy person in this town to sound class-resentful of an "outsider" has a different note than it does in the U.S. I'm actually very familar with the United States half-rhyme to this show and I am appreciating the insights into UK culture.
posted by nantucket at 4:57 PM on April 14


(Because in the US version of this trope for this kind of fictional setting, the outsider coming in is less sophisticated, often taken on as a project or a naif -- not the "big city" person coming in with their nose in the air.)
posted by nantucket at 5:04 PM on April 14


Heh, I was about to suggest Cape Cod, and then I saw your username.
posted by Rock Steady at 9:38 AM on April 15


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