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Belonging

“Ourness”

Cultural sociologists devote considerable attention to “otherness” – the sense of being alien, different or excluded from the norm. “Country” and “countryside” both descend linguistically from the Latin equivalent of otherness. There is much less attention given to the sense of “ourness” which relates individuals to populations and places. What follows here are personal reflections on my/our relationship with places where there is a sense of belonging. Insofar as this is like a sense of property it is one of mutual ownership. It belongs to you, but you also belong to it. It is a mysterious sense, but also clear in certain respects. There is no question of confusing a list of the places you belong to with a list of places you like or love and the symptoms of belonging are often clear. You know when you’re in your place and it’s your place whether you like it or not and you resent criticism of it far more deeply than you resent criticism of a place that you merely like. Not everybody has this sense of belonging. I once interrogated a friend from who had spent at least as much of his childhood and youth in Essex as I had spent mine in Lancashire, but he had no sense of belonging to the county at all. I merely report this as an important observation; no criticism is implied or required of either side of the dichotomy.

What follows is a discussion of four places which feel like “mine” or “ours”. Of course the easiest way of making the point about mutual ownership is usually made about football clubs. Melchester Rovers may be owned, at any given time, by wealthy Americans or Russians or Arabs, but there is a sense in which, if you are a lifelong Rovers’ fan, it will always be yours and you its.

The Beach

There were six of us in Cape Cod: Ann and I, our three sons and Ann’s brother, Joe. We had walked from the car park through a wood to a sandy beach where we were making camp. Ann was, of course, busily making sure that everything was well organised, especially in the matter of adequate protection from the sun. Then she noticed that our eldest son, Jim, was staring out to sea, his right elbow in his left hand and his chin in his right hand, a body language of despondency.

“What is the matter with you?”, she asked.

“I thought you said we were coming to the seaside.”

“This is the seaside: there’s the sand, there’s the sea.”

At this point the young man, nicknamed “Monosyllabic Jim” and known for his dry wit and economy with words offered us a kind of venomous poetry:

This is not the seaside.

There’s nowhere to buy a mars bar

Or even an ice cream.

It doesn’t smell of chips.

There are no amusements

And no coal on the beach.

The sand is unsuitable for cricket

And there isn’t even

A nuclear power station.

And we all knew what he was talking about – our beach, Seaton Carew. When the tide is out there is beach from the mouth of the Tees to the Hartlepool Marina, a distance of about five miles. When the tide is in the beach is much shorter and confined to the resort of Seaton. (What imaginative names there are, incidentally, for coastal dwellings in North East England: Seaton, Seaham, Seahouses . . . ) Whereas the view from Cape Cod was pristine, that from Seaton is cluttered and eclectic. If you look due south from the beach the horizon is bounded by the Cleveland Hills which meet the sea on your left (which is east) in steep cliffs. But below those is a tangled mass of the pipes and chimneys created by the metal and chemical industries, usually with two or three topped by flames as they burn off gases. Your eyes move left and there is a large off-shore wind farm, the vast propellors still or turning depending on conditions. Out to sea there are boats large and small. But not medium-sized because they are either tankers or container vessels or fishing boats. The northern horizon is bounded by the Hartlepool Headland, a peninsula of solid stone houses topped by the squat tower of St. Hilda’s church. (Cue Ann either singing or reciting about “blessed Hilda, saintly abbess”, quoting her school song which refers to the abbey on the headland being a beleaguered beacon of Christianity in the “Dark Ages”.) Turn you eyes inland (west) there is an attractive, if muddled, array of Victorian and Edwardian buildings with the complement of quite a large Art Deco ensemble which serves as a bus station.

Inland from the Old Hartlepool headland is West Hartlepool, the birthplace of both myself and my mother. In its heyday it was distinctly more upmarket than the headland, the residence of the professionals associated with shipping. My grandfather was a certified “Master Mariner” – a ship’s captain, in other words. Thus my mother always referred to her place of birth as simply “West” and it was normal to refer to the two places collectively as “the Hartlepools”, though this is long gone and the agglomeration of over 100,000 people is now just known as Hartlepool. My grandparents’ house, in which I was born, was in Granville Avenue and was bought for £750 in 1910. Ann was born at the other end of the beach in Haverton Hill which was later declared to be the most polluted place in Britain. My birthplace is still standing there, more or less unchanged, whereas hers has disappeared.

Thus we go back a long was with Seaton. I was (so I was told) taken to that beach in the hard winter of 1946-47 and Ann would have been on it about seven years later. Their family photoes show the extended McDonnell family encamped there in the 1950s with windbreaks and pic-nics and even tents. In 2018 I slipped away from the making of arrangements for my very elderly mother-in-law and took my granddaughters, Lily and Ellie, to Seaton. They insisted on going in the sea in their underwear. It was February! It was the North Sea! As they squealed and cavorted in temperatures close to zero a large local man diverted while walking his dogs to address me. “My, they’re brave little lasses,” he said. Could a man feel prouder?

The image of the North Sea suggests wild and grey waters. Actually, it is not usually like that. The north east coastline is a relatively dry part of the country and the big-picture prevailing wind, from inland, the west, is often contradicted by a breeze coming off the sea so the overall effect is calm and blue – Mediterranean until you feel the temperature.

I have a recurring fantasy about Seaton. It is that I am on the run (for reasons unknown) and that I head to Seaton where no-one will notice me. I quietly live out my life eating fish and chips and ice cream and honing my skills on the various games in the Amusements to the point where I can make a profit on them. But this has actually been done. In 2002 John Darwin faked his own death by being supposedly washed out to sea while canoeing. He then returned to live in and around the marital home spending the life insurance payout his wife had claimed until they were caught out in 2007. They were then gaoled for fraud. In the small world that lies between the headland and the hills Ann Darwin was at school with my wife.

Somewhere along the promenade where you may take a long and bracing stroll admiring the eclecticism of the view, there is a plaque with a poem about Seaton. It was written in 1812 when the fishing village was just beginning to develop pretensions as a “bathing station” by a local vicar called William Tate. Here is its conclusion:

By nature this devoted vill

Is so adapted, that you will

Your attestation bring;

And in support of truth declare

That Seaton and Elysium are

One and the self-same thing.

It is surely a serious candidate for the worst poem ever written, but it’s the only one about Seaton I’ve ever seen.

The Hill

From the east, somewhere beyond Blubberhouses and outside Skipton you catch a first glance of a long, looming ridge, higher than anything else for forty miles around, topped by a gesture of a peak and you say, “there it is” with affection, a touch of surprise and a the perverse excitement of the familiar. Of course it’s there! But often it isn’t – visible, that is, but lost in combinations of cloud, mist and rain. From the south, the Manchester direction, on a decent day it dominates the landscape completely and coming from the west, on the M65, it suddenly looms up on your left. Pendle Hill. Pen Dull Hill. From its various linguistic roots it means only Hill Hill Hill. So good they named it thrice.

Two related theories about identity. The first is the Jesuit idea that if they get you before the age of seven you are theirs for life and the second is that an item of landscape can become part of you. I wasn’t born in East Lancashire and I haven’t lived there for sixty years, but I was there for from the age of four to ten and it was there that I learned about the good things of life, like sport and the countryside. When I walked back from school down Priestfield Avenue I was facing Pendle half a dozen miles away. Sometimes it was visible, sometimes not. It could loom over you or seem distant. It was pale green in spring, combinations of grey, brown and purple at other times, sometimes like a blob of vanilla ice cream in winter and even, during clear winter sunsets, like a blob of strawberry ice cream. It entered the soul. By comparison there is a hill in Herault in Languedoc called Mt. Liausson which is very similar to Pendle in size and shape and also has vast views – this time of the Mediterranean, the Cevennes, the Pyrenees and the Lac du Salagou. I love Liausson and have climbed it many times, but it’s not mine; Pendle is. And though they are the same height, well over 500 metres, Pendle proudly resists grade inflation: it is always a hill, never a mountain.

I never actually climbed it until I was sixteen. Hardly anybody did in those days and I’m sure the thought of doing so never crossed my parents’ minds. In order to do so I had to consult the local ramblers in the avenue, an old Communist couple who had adopted an orphan refugee from the Spanish Civil War. They told me how to find the way and when I asked if it was hard I was told, “It’ll tek breath out on thee,” and it has done so to different degrees ever since. Finding one’s way was pretty rough and ready that first time, but since the 1980s it has been well signed and has had a firm stone path up the steep part. I must have climbed it hundreds of times and in very different circumstances: on a training run (for rugby), in a fit of spiritual need when driving past, as part of a day out, as part of my birthday party, on a field trip with students and, most recently, with four granddaughters who all made it to the top with ease.

Naturally, the view varies greatly. You can normally see the towns to the south – Burnley, Nelson and Colne – and the “Bronte Country” to the east as well as the Forest of Bowland and the three peaks of the Yorkshire Dales (Whernside, Pen-Y-Ghent and Ingleborough) to the north. On a really clear day you can also see the Fylde Coast with Blackpool Tower sticking up like a pencil and the mountains of the Lake District to the north west.

The area is associated by most people with the “Pendle” witch trials of 1612 and it’s impossible to ignore that association even if you wanted to because of, for example, little witch symbols on the footpath signs and even a “Beware of Witches” notice as you begin the steep part of the ascent. But a great deal of ink (including half a dozen and more fictionalised versions) has been spilt on that subject so I will instead draw the reader’s attention to a song written about Pendle, music by Ted Edwards and words by Milton and Allen Lambert. It was written in the 1950s, but was best known in the 1970s when the folk group, the Spinners, broadened its appeal on their television show. The chorus is pure geography:

Pendle, Old Pendle, thou standest alone

Twixt Burnley and Clitheroe, Whalley and Colne

Where Hodder and Ribble’s fair waters do meet

With Barley and Downham content at thy feet.

But I am particularly fond of the first verse:

Pendle, Old Pendle, majestic, sublime

Thy praises shall ring till the end of all time

Thy beauty eternal, thy banner unfurled

Th’art dearest and grandest old hill in the world.

It is not objectively the dearest and grandest old hill in the world, but if you spend your formative years in East Lancashire you are bound to believe that it is so.

The Ground

Three old northerners in a London pub; we were discussing the opening of the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in 2019, said to be the best equipped and most modern stadium in England, if not the world. I made a remark which included a phrase along the lines of, “Compared with our stadium . . . ” at which point the worldly Geordie broke in, without rancour and with only a hint of scorn, “You don’t have a stadium. You have a ground.”

Fair comment! Functionally and, perhaps, legally, Turf Moor, the home of Burnley Football Club, is a stadium, but the word doesn’t fit. A stadium is a purpose-built, bowl-like sports venue, a designed unity of a thing. Turf Moor, taken as a whole is a pair of fields on which cricket has been played since 1833 and football since 1883. I have been going there since 1953 and owned a tiny slice of what goes on since I bought shares in 1999.

The physical reality of the place is like Theseus’s ship – or Trigger’s brush if you prefer a more modern version. The artifacts have changed innumerable times and, so far as I know, there is nothing standing from when I first knew the place. As a “ground” it has four separate stands, two built in the 1970s and two in the 1990s. But there is no question of the identity of the place, that this is still Turf Moor and that, however many times you rebuild (bits of) it, it is still the same place. The James Hargreaves Stand occupies the place once occupied by the Long Side terrace, where I was taken to watch matches by my father and by neighbours in the 1950s. It is slightly bizarre to call one side of a rectangular football ground the “Long Side”, but there you go.

If you sit high in the James Hargreaves there is a tremendous view south. In order there is the pitch, the diminutive Bob Lord Stand, six rows of terrace houses, a parkland complete with stately home (Towneley Hall) and then the moors and hills beyond. With good vision you can see sheep grazing. It is a unique view for a top level football ground and the starting point of a catalogue of uniqueness especially when you consider that Burnley currently play in the richest league in the world, the English Premier League. It is the smallest town in the league and has the highest ratio of spectators to population. It is the only one left with a cricket ground adjoining and the only one with wooden seats on two sides. It was the first football ground to be visited by a member of the royal family and it is certainly the only one where you can buy a Benedictine and potato pie combo (£5). At the moment it is the only club in the league which has both an English chairman and an English manager and the only one which is a private company with a widespread shareholding.

You get the picture! It’s really, really old style and the amazing thing is that it works brilliantly. Thirty years ago the club played in the fourth tier of football (which was actually called “Division 4″ in those days, before grade inflation took hold) and its survival was in doubt. But now it is one of the most profitable sports clubs in the world and in 2018-19 played in European competition while former stars of the European firmament like Nottingham Forest, Leeds United and Aston Villa languished in lower divisions. All of this was achieved by a level of common sense which amounts to genius, at least when compared to the fantasies and idiocies of other clubs. Hiring staff? No headhunting, no secret meetings in the lavatories of motorway service stations, no finding yourself on the wrong end of a desperate negotiation. No – advertise the job and interview applicants then choose the best. That way you get someone who actually wants the job. Don’t sack them just because things go badly for a while. Spend less than you earn.

I live a life of great consistency. For instance, I’ve been married to the same woman for forty four years and lived in the same house for forty two. When I had a job I had it for thirty five years and I’ve had some sort of rank or position at the same university for fifty years. But my connection with Burnley is way older than any of that and older than any connection I have with anyone still living. I have experienced all the ups and downs including seven relegations and championships at every different level. I’m rather proud of the fact that the most games I ever watched was in 1991-2 when the club turned round a disastrous start to win the Division Four championship and start the climb to the truly vertiginous heights that it currently occupies. I’m a loyal chap and I’m sure I would have continued to support the club if we’d acquired a Russian oligarch owner and moved out to a purpose-built “stadium” on the M65. But the continuation in the same place with the same traditions, a chairman born within a furlong of the ground and a manager who looks like the sergeant-major who taught me to drive an armoured car makes loyalty very easy and very special. There are many sports grounds to which I am related by fond memory and affection, but Turf Moor is something else, a sense of belonging stretching back to the mists of childhood.

The Town

TOWN LIFE

The words “town” and “city” in the English language as a whole are used with ridiculous inconsistency, as if designed to confuse. Possible rule: cities are bigger than towns. But places with names like Pine Acres in the Rocky Mountains are incorporated cities despite being so spread out they barely seem to exist whereas we talk about going “up to town” and to dear old “London Town” in referring to one of the world’s great metropolises. At least in England, where we know that there can be small cities and very large towns, we know what we are talking about because a cathedral defines a city, right? But this ancient piece of lore isn’t much use when you then discover not only that there are eighteen cities which have no cathedral, there are also thirteen towns which do have a cathedral, but which are not properly called cities.

But to talk about what I want to talk about I have to cut through all of this and characterise what a proper town is like. Such a place is not so big that you cannot see and easily reach the countryside from it. It is not of regional importance, not an administrative capital nor a financial one. Preferably, though a desirable place to live, it is not inundated with tourists. It is not like a village where “everybody knows everybody”, but if you live in it and you walk its streets you are bound to meet people you know. Town life is such that around half the time you know that you know people, but you don’t know how or why. That woman who is smiling so nicely at me: did I play her at tennis? do my grandchildren play with hers? did I once buy a car from her? or teach her at an evening class? No! She is actually the ex-wife of a man I used to play cricket with.

Town life is misunderstood and underestimated by people in England. The culture contains an established aspiration that you have a “town house” and a “country house” where the former means London and the latter fairly deep country. This was the aristocratic way since the beginning of modern times, but it has proved quite persistent and it remains the lifestyle of my more successful contemporaries. Television programmes are devoted to the rural aspect of this, at least, to the “dream” of “a place in the country”. The argument for town life, for a place so self-contained that you barely need a car, but can lead a full and varied life within the distances commanded by foot and bicycle, is much less commonly heard. As it happens, our town seems as good an example as any.

Our Town

. . . may not be a city, but it has two other titles: it’s not just a Spa, but a royal one: Royal Leamington Spa. More than either of those things it is the real deal as a town. It’s not for commuters; there are plenty of jobs and the net commute is inward. It’s not for tourists; all the other towns in the area such as Warwick, Stratford-upon-Avon and Kenilworth have more tourists – two of them have mighty castles, Stratford has its bard and even Coventry has two cathedrals. It’s not for local people either: unlike the town I grew up in where half the surnames in my class were the same as those on the roster for the battle of Flodden in 1513 people in Leamington come from anywhere in the world you could name. The place is barely two centuries old, a stylish business venture dreamed up to different degrees by a squire, Edward Willes, a postmaster, Benjamin Satchwell, and a doctor, Henry Jephson. Like the United States we have founding fathers. The town doesn’t have the cathedral or the ancient market or county hall or the castle which was once the locus of power – they all belong in Warwick or Coventry. Instead it has a kind of self-sufficiency and a long-term devotion to the good life. But it feels like a city because the grandness of the regency buildings is designed to make you think you are somewhere much bigger and important than a town of sixty thousand people.

So what’s wrong with Leamington? Let’s get that out of the way. My main complaint is symbolised by a tree, the “Midland Oak”, which stands in one of the town’s innumerable parks, quite close to the cricket club. It is a descendant of the original tree of the same name and is said to mark the centre of England. Something as randomly shaped as England naturally cannot have a precise “centre” and there are, of course, rival claimants, but what can’t be disputed is that the town is as far away from the sea as it’s possible to be. I have read guidebooks which say that nowhere in England is more than two hours from the seaside, but I would bet you that you can’t get to the beach from a standing start outside our house in under three hours and I’d win nearly every time whether you set off for the coasts of Lancashire, Lincolnshire, Hampshire or Wales. That’s actually the worst thing about Leamington.

A hostile witness might say that the town is a place of fakes and facades. The original “Regency” style of buildings was cheaply constructed of brick with stucco plastered onto it. It looks good when it’s well maintained and shabby when not. Behind the facade there was no pretence: cheap bricks held together by cheap lime mortar. The buildings often decayed so badly that, by the 1980s, when it had become policy fashion to maintain the “Regency character” the were in many cases rebuilt with breeze blocks covered with stucco. Fakes, in other words, giving rise to visual tricks and jokes such as chimneys immediately above windows. But 99% of people don’t notice; they see the whole lovely charade as “elegant”. Whereas I glory in it: life is a thing of fakes, facades and frontages and here we do it particularly well.

On reflection, the greatest advantage of town life is transport. If you live in a big city you have to negotiate tube, tram, bus, taxi or whatever for most expeditions. If you live in the country it’s the car every time – and worrying about whether to have a drink – unless you are lucky enough to live within walking distance of a pub; the same is generally true of suburbs. But in town it’s just put on the outdoor shoes or hop on the bike. My journey times by bike: supermarket and tennis club, two to three minutes; open countryside and railway station, five minutes; other attractions (more later), one to ten minutes. We have a car, but it sometimes doesn’t move for ten days or more.

This is particularly important at the stage of life when you have children growing up. Not for you the tedious taxiing and the wait outside the “club”. Just let them loose on the town. When he was sixteen our eldest son went out at least once a week and got drunk, but he soon learned that that way of spending an evening costs money and gives you a headache and after that first six weeks I’ve never seen him drunk since. It also applies to visitors. We once swapped houses with a family in Amherst, Massachusetts. Although Amherst has half the population of Leamington we discovered that it was a round trip of ten miles from their large suburban house to buy milk and they discovered that milk and newspapers are things that appear on doorsteps in the early morning. They also discovered that they could do almost anything, from jogging in the countryside to taking their children to the cinema, without getting in a car.

This claim about the ease of transport wouldn’t amount to much unless there were things worth going to. At this point I must admit to being an anomaly because most people who visit Leamington do so for one of four reasons: shops, restaurants, pubs and night clubs. My shopping is minimalistic and I can’t stand the noise in night clubs and spend far less time in pubs than I used to. I’m not even all that keen on restaurants; because we are away a lot and have to eat in them and we both fancy ourselves as cooks we tend to prefer home cooking. But, as the economists say, option value counts. At the last count Tripadvisor lists 283 restaurants in the town; this is a highly inflated figure because it includes anything that sells a sandwich, but even a much stricter definition would allow many dozens offering a huge variety. There are, for example, seventeen “Indian” restaurants though we Spa sophisticates tend not to use that term, but instead are more specific, classifying restaurants as “Keralan”, “Punjabi”, “Anglo-Indian” etc.

All of this might lead you to believe that the town is a bit wasted on me, but not so. I love strolling about the place and looking at the grand buildings and the splendidly varied parks. In the league of spas we may be a long way behind Bath architecturally and even a clear margin behind Cheltenham, but we need defer to nowhere when it comes to parks. These vary from the formal splendour of Jephson Gardens which is an arboretum and a place of passagiata to the vastness of Newbold Comyn, a park which even contains its own range of hills, the Campion Hills. Admittedly, they are not very big, but they offer tremendous views and are very exciting when it snows: most people who grew up in the town have happy memories of winter days sledging and sliding on the Comyn when schools were subject to emergency closure. Our local park, simply called “The Dell” and saved from becoming a road by a vigorous political campaign in the 1970s has been much loved by three generations of our family and lately has offered the bonus of a certain amount of celeb-spotting.

Northerners often offer the rather ambiguous boast that their town is “very easy to get out of” and this is certainly true of Leamington, particularly by train from the elegant art deco railway station. One test of how good the connections are arises from my current status as a Premier League football fan: I can get to the vast majority of grounds quite directly from Leamington. But not all because at the time of writing Norwich (pronounced Naarge by fans of rival clubs) have just rejoined the League and East Anglia is the region which you can’t access by train. Moreover if you are old and can travel at less busy hours and possess a “Senior Rail Card” the costs of getting to all these places comes tumbling down.

But the supreme delight of the town is the range of things you can do in the evening either free or at very low cost. Like most “nice” towns it has a great range of amateur activity, including a theatre company with its own theatre and a chamber orchestra that plays in the town hall. But there are extras of which my favourite are the concerts held in the music shop, Presto, about once a month. They are in the early evening so you can “go on somewhere” and there is a glass of wine and no charge, though you are expected to give something for the local hospice. The audience faces outward, with the shop window and the street beyond the ensemble and one of the charms of this event, at least in summer when the concerts take place in daylight, is to see the faces of passers-by when they glance into what they think is an after-hours shop and see, perhaps, a piano quintet complete with capacity audience. One of the places I have sometimes gone on to is the skittles night at the cricket club where I often find myself competing against the same people I played rugby or cricket or football against any number of decades earlier. Another would be the auberge night at Oscar’s, a long established provencal restaurant nearby. This is a rather clever combination of ancient and modern because it is like being in a traditional French inn insofar as there are no menu choices. The modern bit is that you can look online to see what is being served and then go or not go depending on whether you fancy it; I like it because I find menu choices annoying and like to know in advance what I’m going to be eating. It is priced at not much over half the price you would pay for the same food normally. We were once sitting in there with a couple of friends and a student contemporary of my wife telephoned the restaurant from Australia and paid (by credit card) for a bottle of champagne for us; he had hoped to be with us, but circumstances had intervened.

As a gesture it was extravagant, eccentric and, perhaps, a bit flash – perfectly appropriate for Leamington, in fact. This is a town which exists not for the reasons that normal towns exist, but because three men thought they could build a town which would attract the rich after which, they would attract each other. Opulence and eccentricity are what suit such a place and there are many historical examples, but I will cite three. First, most of the houses in the centre of the town were originally built without kitchens. People came for only six weeks and the town was full of hotels including the Regent, then the biggest purpose-built hotel in the world (and, of course, named for a plump, lecherous playboy). So if you ate at home the servants would bring the food from the hotel to the house; I like the image of liveried silver service bustling through the streets. That makes Leamington a world heritage site for takeaway food, doesn’t it?

Second, when parliament introduced compulsory education in 1870 the Borough of Leamington petitioned for exclusion from the act arguing that they could fully understand why reading and writing were useful for those in the manufacturing districts they were not necessary for boot-blacks and the bearers of carry-outs. Parliament was not impressed. Thirdly, the town is deeply associated with elephants. This was because Sam Lockhart (1851-1933), arguably the leading elephant trainer of the day, based himself in the town and elephants could be seen bathing in the River Leam. Three of them, Haddie, Trilby and Wilhelmina, were famous for the tricks they could do and became something of a legend. For a long time this aspect of the town’s history was mostly forgotten, but one of our neighbours, Janet Storrie, who is the sister of the novelist Michael Ondaatje and the philanthropist Christopher Ondaatje, wrote a book about the episode (the family have strong Sri Lankan connections). There are no live elephants in Leamington now, but there are statues of elephants and many names which reflect the connection: you can walk down an elephant walk to the river and even order a pizza called after an elephant. The town’s children, including four of our grandchildren, are taught the story of the elephants.

During the twentieth century the town became more ordinary. It was an industrial town with car-related factories, most notably Lockheed (later Automotive Products) and one of Ford’s two engine factories in the UK which relocated from Cork during the Second World War; this complemented older forms of iron working which included the manufacture of ovens and railings. The centre of town and the “Spa” function fell into a genteel decline, best known because of John Betjeman’s poem “Death in Leamington”:

Do you know that the stucco is peeling?

Do you know that the heart will stop?

From those yellow Italianate arches

Do you hear the plaster drop?

Which brings me to my own arrival in Leamington exactly fifty years ago when my newly acquired and very nice girlfriend, Margaret, suggested that we get in my even more newly acquired motor car and drive to the Star & Garter in Leamington Spa. We both had gammon, egg and chips which cost seven shillings and sixpence each; I have no idea why I remember the price. Fifty years on and the Star is our local pub and emails me every day; the food and beer are very good, but we don’t go very often because of the canned music. The year after that I spent most of the summer in the town and the year after that moved here; it has been home ever since. Our three sons were born here, but the four granddaughters who live here weren’t because it had ceased to have any kind of hospital, let alone one with a maternity facility.

So I’ve been here for a quarter of the town’s history and my wife only slightly less. Almost immediately when we arrived a great series of battles were fought and won for the town’s “character”. The Regency style was maintained and even enhanced despite scorn from architects and housing officers (“they’re literally rotten buildings and I’d demolish the lot” – I was there when he said it) and some short-sighted business interests. What happened, post-industrially, now looks like common sense: you create and/or preserve (the two mesh into each other) a distinctive and attractive environment so people want to live there. So the employers of highly qualified modern labour, who can invest anywhere they want, invest in your town and the virtuous spiral grinds into motion. The town fills with well paid and well educated people and then with restaurants and the means of entertainment and even more people want to come. The stucco no longer peals, the plaster no longer drops. If the late, great Sir John were still here he could write a poem about a moneyed young couple in discussion with a bright-eyed builder (“Specialist in Regency and Heritage” on the van) and insisting that the stucco be done exactly in the proper character.

“Gentrification” Ruth Glass called it and everybody talks about it now. Our original neighbours were a baker, a retired vicar, a railway worker and some Irish labourers. Our current neighbours are an F1 race manager, the CEO of a major hotel chain, a stockbroker &c. The town’s main sources of well paid employment are computers, computer games, car design and market research. But there are a fair few celebrities as well, mainly sportsmen and women and actors. My wife takes communion next to a football manager with a Champions’ League win under his belt, the granddaughters play with the children of a rugby star in the Dell, the current James Bond is seen in a local pub and my friends and I have the dilemma as to whether to congratulate the man at the next table on his century against Australia (we do and he doesn’t seem to mind). In a sense Leamington has become again what it was intended to be.

But it also retains a remarkable diversity for a town of sixty thousand people. One dimension of this is ethnic. The principal “minority” groups have always been the Punjabi Sikhs and the Irish, with Cork the dominant Irish connection. But there are lots of others. There was a massive Czech connection during the war and the assassins of Heydrich set off from Leamington; this is now part of many people’s family history rather than a “community”. The Poles were so numerous at one point that their club was one of the grandest buildings in the town, the former town hall. They also merged into the whole, but a more distinct Polish community has now re-emerged since Poland joined the European Union. The Portuguese are the latest immigrants with a strong connection to the nearby service station on the M40. The Sicilians, mostly coming in the 1950s from the Western Sicilian town of Ciminna have had their own shops and clubs. The strength of this connection can be judged by my wife’s reaction to the names on the war memorial in Ciminna: ” . . . taught one of those . . . taught one of those . . “. But in general I would exemplify the diversity of the town by observing that in the singles competition of the town’s Lawn Tennis Club, the world’s oldest, I have played opponents of more than thirty nationalities.

Class diversity is well acknowledged in the town. North of the river: “Regency”, retail, prosperous, CV32. South of the river: twentieth century, industrial, poorer – though not poor by most standards, CV31. There is no great animosity, but there is a kind of institutional apartheid. Few people in the south of the town could find their way to the Real (Court) Tennis Club or the Presto concert whereas in the north there is a lamentable ignorance of the football club (home of “The Brakes” in tribute to the atomobile part manufacture which was the club’s origin).

It takes a very long time to belong to a place if you are not there in childhood, but it has been a long time.

Lincoln Allison