Thursday, 6 November 2008

On Coming From Stevenage

In this week of Barack Obama's triumph, we should spare a thought for the overshadowed achievement of another handsome young man of mixed parentage: Lewis Hamilton, who -- amongst other lesser things -- has become the first person from Stevenage to become a household name. I can't tell you how proud this makes me feel. We even grew up in the same street.

We Brits have always admired the American gift for mythologizing the names of towns. As a lot of these names are identical to British names, it clearly has more to do with how we feel about our towns and who lives there, than the way they sound. It's always been an easy target for comedy. "Straight outta Compton" is instantly amusing, if Compton is relocated from a tough neighbourhood in Los Angeles to rural Britain, and the two-edged bathos of "Straight outta Trumpton" is pure satiric Sterling.

It's not that we don't mythologize some of our towns (perhaps "stereotype" would be a better word). Just think Liverpool, Glasgow, Norwich ... But we always fall victim to our urge to belittle, to poke fun and to deflate. It's one of our most annoying characteristics which, characteristically, we think of as one of our most endearing. "We may not be much in the world, these days, but our snippy sarcasm is second to none."

Why am I bothered? Because -- have I mentioned this? -- I too was born and brought up in Stevenage.

If there is any town more stereotyped as London-lite working-class, white-van-driving, know-nothing, nothing-to-do, going-nowhere, council-estate, shopping-mall, bottom-of-the-range Britain, then I don't want to know where it is, and certainly don't want to live there. Some other New Town, no doubt, has that distinction. Stevenage may be no joke, but it does make an easy punch-line for lazy comedians.

It wasn't always like that, however.

Once, Stevenage was a Vision of the Future. It was part of England's Dreaming, the same one that produced the National Health Service, council housing, nationalised industries, free education, university grants, smoke-free zones, public libraries, motorways, full employment, Everyman's Library and Penguin Books, the BBC, Blue Peter and the Cycling Proficiency Test. Remember all that?

Well, all of that was literally made concrete after WW2, in the form of a New Town thirty miles north of London on the Great North Road, and populated with displaced East Enders and other folk looking for a better life. Defined as: good jobs in light industry, a council house with a garden at a fair rent, plus good schools, fresh air and safe places to play for the kids. For about 20 years it worked, too. I grew up in the closest thing Britain has ever had to a socialist utopia.

Of course, it was all just an experiment by well-meaning chaps with posh voices and tweed jackets in the last days of the Monochrome World (you know, that immense period of human evolution when, on the evidence of the surviving films and photos, everything was the colour of mud) -- presumably a different bunch of chaps from the ones who insisted that tower blocks were an efficient, modern, prize-winning way of warehousing working-class families. It's a bit spooky, reading the academic literature on New Towns today: "Hey, that's me they're talking about!"

It all started to go wrong in the 1970s, with the rise of what would become the Thatcher Nightmare. Council housing was sold off cheap. Jobs started to vanish. Public services -- schools and libraries, for example -- suddenly became expensive luxuries, grudgingly underfunded. The taxpayer's wallet became the measure of everything. My father was made redundant when Tube Investments took over the firm where he had worked for 30 years, and -- just because they could -- they even stole his pension. It was as if an evil spirit was abroad in the land. Nothing was ever the same again.

And so it has gone on. Stevenage is a kind of gauge, where you can read off the measure of Britain's decline into a post-imperial sulk. By any measure, it is no longer a socialist utopia.

Me and Lewis, we've made good our escape. But "World Champion's Home Town Is Nowhere" still makes good copy. Check out today's Times, 6/11/08:
After dinner and before the film, Britain's ninth Formula One world champion, whose career earnings could top £500 million, drove Scherzinger slowly around his old Stevenage stamping ground, the streets of the Shephall council estate where he was brought up and where he first raced go-karts. They stopped by the church where he was baptised, the local shopping mall, his primary school and the small end-of-terrace council house at No. 57, Peartree Way, where Hamilton spent his childhood. “To go back there and visit it was like, ‘This is where we started and this is where we are now,'” said Hamilton.
Yes, this is indeed where we started, and this is where we are now. I'm really quite impressed that a hyper-jock like Lewis would paraphrase T.S. Eliot ("We shall not cease from exploration", etc.); despite everything, it appears that Peartree Spring Junior is still doing the business.

Once, there was a brief time when nothing was too good for Britain's heroic workers, returning from yet another war. The likes of Harold Macmillan and Clem Attlee knew that we were still owed from 1914-18, and that "they" had still not delivered.
You talk o' better food for us, an' schools, an' fires, an' all:
We'll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.
Don't mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face
The Widow's Uniform is not the soldier-man's disgrace.
For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Chuck him out, the brute!"
But it's "Saviour of 'is country" when the guns begin to shoot;
An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please;
An' Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool -- you bet that Tommy sees!

Rudyard Kipling, Tommy
Places like Stevenage were intended to settle that bill; a big deposit up front on a brighter future. Unfortunately, "they" seem to have forgotten that this kind of bill has to be paid not only in full, but also in perpetuity.

But well done, Lewis: I like to think of you scooting up Peartree Way, thirty years after and a hell of a lot faster than me.

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