Friday, 22 July 2016

Poor Northampton

I've been in Northampton all day today, feeling more depressed with every corner that I turned. Much as I was horrified that the good folk of my home county opted so brutally to leave Europe, when you see what used to be a bustling, thriving market town in such plain trouble, you begin to understand why there's so much anger out there and why people needed to use Brexit as a way of punishing the ruling elite. Many of the shops in the town centre are now boarded over. Even the shops like Oliver Adams, which, in my view, are part of the very essence of this place, are now closing down. I went into BHS to buy a T-shirt. As I entered, an old man explained to me that this particular branch was closing at the weekend, and the place looked like it had been hit by a bomb, or probably more accurately, cleared by locusts. Clothes were strewn everywhere. The only things left for sale were over-sized garments. I found a pair of trousers so voluminous I wondered if they'd be more useful as a pair of black out blinds!

I stood for some time on the market square, holding a Slush Puppy for old time's sake, looking around at the emptiness, hoping that, come Saturday, there would be scores of stalls and hundreds of shoppers milling around. It somehow doesn't seem likely.

Sadly, I also don't think it's likely that the fortunes of the town will perk up when we pull out of Europe. In fact, I'm quite convinced that the very opposite will happen. After Brexit, the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer and we'll spend any spare money we have making sure the baby boomers are treated even better than they've been treated all their cosseted lives. On that note Ben told me a rather lovely story last night. His grandfather apparently 'phoned up all of his grandchildren and asked them how they would like him to vote in the referendum. His reasoning was that he wouldn't be about for long enough to see how things panned out and that his grandchildren were the ones who'd need to deal with the fall out of the vote. I thought that was a rather lovely gesture.

The train station in Northampton has been done up, but its new shiny facade and floor to ceiling glass windows over-looking scrub land merely serve as a reminder that you can't polish a turd. I used to quite like the decaying, brutalist sixties vibe of the old station, but, as seems to be the want of modern architects, the place was ripped down just before it came into fashion again! The same thing routinely happens with service stations, which are regularly done up cheaply, with anything remotely cool, quirky, or original being coated with yet another layer of flimsy plastic. Imagine a service station with all of those original Formica booths and self-service dining halls? Now that would draw the crowds... If you're in any doubt about how iconic those original service stations were, take a look at the film Charlie Bubbles and the scene where Liza Minelli (why WAS she in that film?) and Albert Finney take a road trip up the M1.

So all in all, I felt a little sad in Northampton. This was the place I used to come to when I wanted to buy something special. It's where the bowling alley was. Where the music school was. And where we'd come to the theatre every few months and sit up on the benches in the Gods eating Malteesers whilst watching the latest play by Alan Aykbourn.

Speaking of trips to the theatres in Northampton, the purpose of today's trip wasn't actually to depress myself, but to say hello to James Dacre, who is the incredibly charming artistic director of the Derngate and Royal Theatres. He seemed genuinely pleased to meet a writer with such strong links to the town. I was simply pleased to sit in a cafe outside a theatre which had seemed so glamorous to me as a young lad. I got a little misty-eyed. I could have gone on for hours about the concerts I'd performed at the Derngate as a young lad.

James spoke about how well-respected the Northampton music school still is and puts its success down to the legacy of figures like composer Malcolm Arnold who very much put the town onto the cultural map. I think he was very surprised when I told him Malcolm Arnold had come into my school specifically to sit in a room with me and listen to a recording of the 'cello concerto I wrote for my A-level music. He was so gracious: "my dear boy. One day your star will shine more brightly than you will ever imagine..." Still waiting.

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