The main square on a sunny day
Driving into town along dual carriageways forming a ring road. Then through streets and past cul de sacs of housing built in the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s following the passing of The Town Planning Act in 1946 that designated Stevenage as a ‘new town’. Street names like Hydean Way or Cannick Chase alluded to a bucolic past of ancient history and pastoral countryside. In amongst the ground hugging houses were a few apartment blocks that punctuated the skyline almost leaving scratch marks in the grey clouds overhead.
All the houses and apartment blocks looked tired. Wheelie bins that weren’t tucked in beside houses were randomly placed where they had been left or where the wind had taken them. Laybys were crowded with parked cars that overflowed on to grass verges. The town had been ‘modernised’ during an era when the family car was a luxury that only Dad could drive. The street designs had not allowed for the current necessity for cars nor for the fact that now Mum, Dad and the stay at home children have at least one car each.
The weather really did not do anything to prevent the mobilization of my bias negatively towards Stevenage. There was cloud cover from horizon to horizon that was shielding the town from just the slightest ray of sunshine that could brighten the ageing concrete or bounce off the shallow water of the civic pond. It was cold and the cold was made worse by a chill wind coming in from the north. At least that is what the weather forecast said, ‘there will be a cold northerly wind’. It did not seem to matter what they said as every direction I walked it was always into a headwind.
Despite being a ‘new town’ Stevenage was not built on a green field site. Somewhere under the glacial sheets of concrete will be traces of a Roman settlement from nearly 2000 years ago, a Saxon camp and of course reference to the manor the town grew around in the Domesday Book of the late 11th century.
When I left the ring road, parked the car and started walking into the town centre I could not help thinking of George Orwell’s ‘1984’ and what a town on Airtstrip One that Winston Smith would have lived in would be like. The shopping centre looked cold, drab and not a blade of grass to be seen. Not even a weed piercing the tarmac of a back alley leading to the market set up permanently on the ground floor of a multi-story car park to continue the tradition of a market started in the late 13th century.
The town centre is just one huge swathe of concrete created as an altar to capitalism where consumers of the town could contribute to the circular flow of money in the economy by shopping for consumer goods. Winston Smith would have been able to buy a pad of paper and a pen in the town’s one office stationery shop. That is if he could escape the watchful eye of Big Brother as he ducked into the shop. Near the centre of the shopping precinct were the big named retailers that you would expect to find in any British High Street. As you walked away from the centre past the betting shops, charity or thrift shops, the retail outlets became progressively independent. Small cafes, a takeaway kebab shop, Polish delicatessen and a bargain grocery store.
I was welcomed as I entered the shopping centre by:
‘Good morning shoppers of Stevenage. We hope you have a pleasant day supporting our local retailers. We are here representing the Labour Party and want your vote on 7th May in the General Election. If you have any questions please feel free to come and see us’.
I was tempted to ask if they knew where the nearest public toilet and library were but thought better of it and found my own way around.
I left them behind me and headed towards the library going past a street guitarist playing Norwegian Wood. Next to him was a very elderly man selling garishly coloured snaky toys on sticks that squeaked when they moved. He had a bubble machine on the go as well whose bubbles wandered off in the wind and bursting before they could escape from the confines of the precinct. He did not appear to be selling very much.
Lunch was a cup of coffee and a sausage roll in a bakers.
While I was waiting for my order to be made up an elderly lady came up beside me at the counter and asked if there was any bread left over from yesterday that she could have but the assistant said that there wasn’t any for her to have.
I am sure the bread was not going to be for the ducks as there was nowhere nearby where they could live. Yes, there is a civic pond but it is a cubist structure with a fountain and only about an inch of flowing water in it unsuitable for any wildfowl. Optimistically I thought she might have wanted the bread to make the breadcrumbs for a treacle tart. Harsh reality hit me when I caught a glance of her leaving the shop wearing shabby clothes, very old shoes and pushing a high mileage shopping trolley. She had made her request out of desperation.
Where I sat I was joined by an Irish lady and the three adults she was escorting. Each one of them had Down’s syndrome. One man sat next to me called Michael.
‘Would ya be after havin’ a tea with your sausage roll Michael?’ the Irish lady asked.
Michael mumbled something that sounded affirmative.
The Irish lady then went to the drinks fridge and came back with a bottle of Coca Cola and a bottle of a blackberry drink.
‘Ya like blackberry drink Michael’ she declared.
Michael grunted another affirmative sound and the lady went to pay for them.
Why bother asking Michael what he wanted if she knew Michael was going to get something else regardless? Poor Michael was probably looking forward to a hot mug of tea with his hot sausage roll for his Saturday treat.
On the way to the library I went past the UKIP pitch where all the men were dressed like they had borrowed clothes from Nigel Farrage’s wardrobe. Green wax coats and corduroy trousers of various colours. Their purple and yellow balloons bounced around in the wind on the ends of string desperate to break free.
The last shop on the right was a cash converter shop where people can sell all sorts of consumer goods for cash. The windows in these shops, to my mind anyway, are always imbued with a degree of sadness wondering why people had sold their goods there in the first place. Right outside the cash converter shop were four people trying to get the message of God across by handing out leaflets to passers-by. A rich vein of irony with the scene of the money changers outside the temple from the Bible. This time the money changers were inside their own temple and the messengers of God were outside. I veered away from them and accelerated towards the library.
At this end of the precinct is a tower block of flats built in British 1960’s utilitarian style which is actually no style at all. Just a box. The nameplate on the wall was as creatively inspired as the design and bore the name ‘The Tower’. And then there was the library situated on the fringe of the main part of the town and housed in a building that looked like the first two floors of ‘The Tower’.
I found a desk in the reference section near a window overlooking the ring road and where I sat with my back to the rest of the room. Next to me was a leaflet rack and in the top section was a booklet ‘The Redundancy Handbook’. Directly underneath was another booklet on how to manage leisure time. Oh well, get over one traumatic experience as quickly as possible and enjoy what spare time is available between job searches and interviews as much as possible.
It was quiet apart from the clattering of keyboards and the background turning of pages. After an hour or so I packed up my bits and pieces and went for a walk. At the big table behind me two men wearing hoodies and carrying their worldly goods in tattered old sports bags. One of them was working away at a keyboard and looking at a screen while his companion slumped in the chair and slept. I found my way to a corner seat and started to read a book from the shelf near me. Then the snoring from the slumped hoodie man started. Softly at first and then building to a full crescendo that reverberated around the room. He was obviously very cold and tired and warmth of the room was just what he needed to send him off to sleep. I found a smaller room in the local history section and settled there away from the nasal and throat cacophony.
Time to leave came around very quickly and the librarians were giving subtle body language that it was time to close the place. I packed up my books and went outside. There in the space outside the cash converter shop where the religious pitch had been earlier were the two men from the library. Each with a cigarette and a can of cheap cider. I wondered where the missionaries had gone with their message.
I retraced my steps to the car park. UKIP was still trying to buttonhole passers-by. A man with an entourage of two walked and carrying enough weight for three walked past the UKIP pitch. ‘You’ve got my vote mate………Tories came in five years ago…been out of work since…..shouldn’t allow them immigrants in’. The bakery where I had my quick lunch was being closed up for the day. The elderly man was still trying to sell his toys. The guitarist was playing the opening chords of Norwegian Wood and the Labour Party were still welcoming shoppers to Stevenage while I left. They did not say ‘thank you for visiting Stevenage’.