I joined a Facebook group called ‘History of Hartlepool in Images’ … it has well over six thousand members and rising rapidly. It’s a great resource, started by a guy called Patrick Casey last September, and I have been fascinated looking at all the pics people have been posting up.

So far so good. My big mistake is that I asked a member if I could use a photo she had put up there of the Benny Nelson Big Band as I hadn’t seen it before. No problem she said “I will get my son to scan it for you and email it over”.

Then it all started.

I shall refrain from using names in order to protect the innocent (and the not too innocent), but a gentleman I shall call ‘D’ popped up (it was his original thread so fair enough). He warned the lady off;
‘Be very careful about giving anything to this man – he is not what he seems’ was the gist of it. I was apparently a businessman from Leeds who had been brought in by the local council, and was appropriating images from people in order to make a fat profit for myself.

Then the gates of wrath and vitriol did open up.
“Denounce this imposter” came the call – “expel him from the group.. it’s outrageous how people like this are exploiting the poor folk of Hartlepool once again” etc. etc.
I watched the comments coming in thick and fast. If there had been a switchboard it would have been jammed.
” Erm.. you’ve kind of mistaken me for someone else” I proffered. It was like standing on the steps of the Coliseum and appealing to the crowd. They were having none of it.

Gradually my bemusement turned to irritation. Under normal circumstances I would have taken a deep breath and waited a day or so before replying, but this was all moving so quickly – hundreds of comments coming in – that I needed to explain my position very clearly. I composed a comprehensive reply explaining that I was not stealing work from ‘local people’ (yes someone did post the league of gentlemen sketch up there
YouTube link in disbelief). I covered pretty much every point that had been brought up, particularly pointing out that I was not funded by Hartlepool Council (this seemed to be a particularly odious thing to have happen to you) and that the funding I had been able to secure came from Arts Council England and that anyone, including ‘D’ was welcome to make their case for similar support.

That didn’t go down well. Faced with indisputable facts ‘D’ decided to remove the entire history of the debate. Patrick, the group initiator was also coming in for flack, as his even handed interventions had led to him be similarly shouted at. Patrick invited me to explain my project again and posted up a link to this blog, in order to show people what it was really about. He was accused of allowing ‘advertising’ on the site by doing that… and so it raged on.

The good part was that I began getting mails of support and encouragement from the less partisan members.

The following day the debate showed no signs of letting up. I kept checking throughout the day, until a new strand started to appear – “I will in-box you” D was now saying, so that it wasn’t possible for me to see what was being said. I started to think this could really have a negative effect on my piece so I demanded D show me what he was saying to others as I had no recourse to reply.

Surprisingly he agreed to do that. He explained his history of disappointing dealings with the local Council. I put him straight on my position.

We agreed on something at last.

It could all have been so simple. I announced to the crowd that peace had been declared. It was all a bit bizarre.

The lady who I originally requested the photograph from eventually got back to me;
“phew she said – here’s the photo you wanted, is it safe to come out from behind the sofa yet?”

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