My hometown is regularly voted in among the UK’s top ten Most Boring towns, largely because it contains all the usual high street brands, cinema chains and national supermarkets, and no longer has any kind of bohemian section. In other words, it has been homogenised and sanitised through town-planning and gentrification, and that’s the way the people like it, I guess. What’s more, it has become something of a dormitory town for those who work in the capital but can barely afford the cost of living in such a grand metropolis, thus removing the heart from ordinary daily activities.
I’m not saying those who vote are unfair, but it is to neglect that the town still contains the arcaded Guild Hall and similarly fashioned Corn Exchange at the end of its High Street, and a series of lovely old pubs from the Three Tuns at one end to the Antelope and Falcon by the aforementioned buildings – albeit the latter is now a bloody Wetherspoons. The Red Lion statute remains standing proudly atop the columned white portico halfway along.
At the time of my grandad, they still drove sheep up through the town, and are still permitted to do so by right – though I have never seen this actually happen.
The street market still operates but is a shadow of its former existence, with no stalls selling everyday fresh vegetables, meat or fish – unless your diet contains yams and green bananas. And you can eat great Turkish and Asian street food; otherwise, it’s all bongs and travel bags.
On the Saturday street market used to be a stall beneath the Guild Hall which sold cheap jewellery and we regularly walked the four miles from our village down through the fields and by way of the cemetery across the railway bridge to the centre of town in order to peruse what they had on display. One particular ring caught my fancy, a painted shiny black and chromium skull ring with clasps so that it could fit nearly any finger. That went straight on my left-hand middle digit, at a cost of two bob, sixpence less than the half-crown I saved by pocketing my dinner money. Plus, I had a paper round which paid 7s/6d. So, quids in.
Another stall sold little bottles of scented oils, like musk and strawberry. My favourite was patchouli, which I applied liberally to my neck and wrists (and even my Afghan coat later), enjoying the gloriously woody aroma wafting about my being as I went round the town. That scent has never been reproduced, not even during a recent trip to India where much of the prized oil is still manufactured. Also on that stall, apart from king-size Rizla, they sold little patches of woven cotton with simple designs and words like LOVE and PEACE or KEEP ON TRUCKIN’. Many a Sunday evening was passed with me rooting through mum’s Quality Street sewing tin, seeking out needles and the right-coloured thread before sewing the patches onto my jeans or denim jacket.
Metal studs were sold at the same jewellery stall under the Guild Hall, and were pushed through the material of the clothing – usually denim or leather – to ornament the shoulders, sleeves or cuffs, sometimes with a pattern on the back or placed strategically round the pockets of denim jeans.
A shop across the way by the Corn Exchange named Fosters quaintly displayed women’s clothing in one window and men’s the other side. There we espied matching pale-green brushed denim jackets and jeans and someone came up with the idea of us each buying a set and forming a uniformed gang. The Polecats was the name agreed upon until it was discovered that the animal was a kind of tree-climbing skunk and not the vicious land-based predatory feline of our imaginations. The gang was never officially formed, but we continued to hang around in each other’s company for a good while after and I did in fact buy the aforementioned clothes. I didn’t much like them on, though. They looked a bit sickly.
Driving back the other day with dad from town and cutting across at Four Ashes (where he and his brothers had seen a ghost) and along the lane overlooking Hughenden Valley as far as St Michael and All Angels church, seen beneath billowing white clouds, we stopped to look at the development taking place at the old Uplands conference centre. A purpose-built and modernist structure of glass and metal added to the original EB Lamb building, it never really caught on as a destination and has been lying disused for some years now. Typically, it is being converted into apartments, which I suppose will retail at something near half-a-million pounds apiece, what with the view and all. The same kind of development is occurring at the factory where I had my first proper job near Saunderton in the Aylesbury Vale, producing the contraceptive pill along with medical castration tablets and acne cream, in a grand-looking building which resembles the American White House. I’m not sure these apartments will fetch as much, however, given their non-elevated location.
Up at the disused conference centre, dad remarked how the land had belonged to Lady Murray, in connection with a conversation we’d been having about how local dignitaries used to visit the nearby schools and the children all had to stand up behind their desks in admiration of the personage now in their presence. What they were supposed to be admiring was never made perfectly clear, just simply understood as such. Most likely the visitor was being admired for their social station and wealth. I asked him if that would be the same Murray family which gave their name to the town’s only department store back in the sixties. When the time came to build the UK’s first shopping mall – called the Octagon for obvious reasons – the main entrance came by way of access through the store, which must have been a scheme cooked up by the local councillors and representatives of the land-owning family back then, in much the same way the Dashwoods – under the auspice of the Lord himself – have made a mint through selling off their land for more recent developments by the council.
Actually, it was from the development of the Octagon that the town centre grew into the near-sterile commercial wasteland that is currently always voted into the top ten Most Boring towns. The monetary die of mind-numbing affluence was cast with that decision, along with the one taken to concrete-over the Wye, which is formed by fresh water emerging from chalk streams beneath the Chiltern Hills at West Wycombe, joined with streams from Hughenden and Wycombe Marsh, and flows through the valley along a ten-mile stretch which used to incorporate several mills up to its confluence with the Thames at Bourne End. Two man-made mini-disasters based on money-making leading to a concrete desert where the only Eden to be found is the tunnel-like shopping project which is more or less an extension of the original sixties mall. Boring, in other words.
Still, maybe next year the town will not be voted onto the list on account of its football team being promoted to the EFL Championship after beating its nearby M40 rivals Oxford United in the play-offs. The raw vibe of that success may carry across to resuscitate the heart of the town. Especially since they play their football to a rock n roll rhythm (their manager fronts a rock band and they are sponsored by a music label). Certainly when I used to watch Wycombe Wanderers beneath the floodlights on midweek evenings at Loakes Park as a boy, I very much felt the quiver of life within me as I stood in the surrounding darkness of the terraces – but then I felt it all the time back then, pretty much as I do to this day.
As a result of being on a covid-restricted twenty-four hour ferry crossing, and in the spirit of my proposed novel P, I composed this prose poem, called Wandering and Wondering – or
P is for the Mask you wear
P is for Plenty.
P is for Penury.
We should have got the former, but instead we got the latter.
Should not could.
Privatisation took it all away – from us.
Privat-I-sation paved the way for a few exalted Is of Plenty and many, many more Is of Penury.
Public-I-sation will save the day.
If privat-eye-sation hasn’t saturated the entire nation and now at last when we can see it is too late for public-eye-sation and honest conversation to provide true radicalisation without prison for a penalty.
They – the Is of Plenty – are throwing the radicals into OUR gaols.
Too late, then, as I head for the Land of My Forebears on a ship – no Black Star Liner – from the Basque Country into isolation.
My nation requires isolation for a solution to the ultimate failed state intrusion.
Who would a thunk it: Penury in place of Plenty, even when back then when the police were battering the public in the land of their forebears into submission at the behest of the state?
And yet it was clear.
We should have got the latter, but instead we got the former when the private Is took precedence above the public eye space.
Think about that next time you pull on your mask.