Stevenage in Hertfordshire
By Alan Russell
I developed a deep vein of negative bias against Stevenage in Hertfordshire on a visit there on 3rd April 2015.
The weather really did not do anything to prevent the mobilisation of this negative bias. It was one of those days of unrelenting cloud cover that did not lift or break to allow even the smallest shaft of pure sunlight to breakthrough and lighten the mood by brightening the concrete or reflecting off of the water in the civic pond. It was a cold day made worse by a wind from the north that channelled itself through every single part of the huge shopping centre. The wind was allegedly from the north but I do not think where it comes from when it hits Stevenage, it will always be cold.
To get into town I had to drive along a dual carriageway that formed the ring road. On either side of this road in parts were residential roads leading off that lead to cul de sacs all of which were filled with housing built in the 1960’s 1970’s and 1980’s. There were even a couple of high rise apartment blocks whose roofs almost left scratch marks in the clouds scudding overhead. All this building activity took place following the Town Planning Act of 1946 that designated Stevenage as a ‘new town’. How could it be called a ‘new town’ as somewhere under the impermeable sheet of glacial concrete are Roman remains dating back from 2000 years ago? And Stevenage was mentioned as ‘Stigenace’ in the Domesday Book of 1086
All the housing that I saw from the ring road looked tired. Some places had windows boarded up with sheets of chipboard to keep squatters out and to prevent any human tragedies that led to their abandonment escaping and contaminating other parts of the town. Wheelie bins were dotted about the pavements and laybys in random positions indicating that they had either been blown around by a strong wind or that their owners just didn’t care until they were needed until the day of the next refuse collection. Laybys and driveways were crowded with cars and vans in areas that were originally designed for the era when the concept of a family car was that each family just had one car. Oh how things have changed to now when Mum, Dad and each of the grown up children who cannot afford to move from home all have cars or vans that have to be parked somewhere.
Once I had penetrated into the inner town from the ring road like a hypodermic needle injecting through a membrane of skin the town felt familiar yet I had never been there before in my life. Trying to work out how this feeling came about my mind took me back to my school days and our English literature lessons. One of the books we had to read was ‘1984’ by George Orwell. The town that Winston Smith lived was called ‘Airstrip One’. The description of that town in the book conveyed coldness, anonymity, drabness and without a blade of grass.
The town centre is one huge concrete platform with rows and rows of shops parked on top of it dedicated to meeting the demands of consumers hurrying about their Saturday shopping bent into the now bitingly cold wind coming in from all directions. Winston Smith could have bought a pad of paper and some pens at one of the national chains of stationery and office supply shops dotted amongst hardware, clothes shops, pharmacists, banks and £1 shops. It was the usual range of high street names that can be seen on any British High Street.
As I entered the main part of the shopping centre I was greeted with:
‘Welcome to Stevenage where there are shops for everyone’ coming from a megaphone and echoing off of the concrete walls.
As the last echo of the first message died it was followed by:
‘We are here representing the Labour Party. We want your vote on 7th May in the General Election. If you have any questions we would be pleased to answer them’.
I nearly walked up to their pitch that was bedecked in helium filled balloons as I was tempted to ask if they knew where the nearest public toilet was. Knowing my luck, the microphone for the megaphone would still be on and the whole of the town centre would have learnt my plight. I could have asked them where the library was but there was a sign showing clearly which way to go.
As I left the Labour Party I walked past a man sitting on a stool with an electric guitar playing chords from Norwegian Wood by Lennon and McCartney. A little further on from him was an elderly man selling garishly coloured snakes attached to sticks with strings that could be made to dance like Chinese lions only they were not as big or designed to celebrate the year of the dog or monkey.
I went into a small bakers, stood in the line-up and when my turn came I ordered a mug of coffee and a hot sausage roll. Not a balanced diet I know but it was something hot. While I was waiting to be served I noticed an elderly lady come up beside me. When the staff were making my coffee I heard her ask if there was any bread left over from yesterday that she could have. There wasn’t any and so she walked from the warmth of the shop back out to the windswept shopping mall. As I watched her leave I could see that her clothes were as tired as the surrounding buildings and her shoes were sad. Had she been asking for yesterday’s bread to feed the ducks or was it through sheer desperation just to get some bread on the table for Saturday night? I have a feeling it was for the latter as in my travels around and into the town I had not seen anywhere that would be suitable for ducks to live.
While I was eating my lunch an Irish lady came in with a young man who had downs syndrome. His name was Michael.
‘Would ya be after havin some tea with your sausage roll?’
Michael mumbled in the affirmative and sat at the table next to me.
The Irish lady went to the cold drinks cabinet carrying a bottle of Coca Cola in one hand and fruit drink in the other.
‘You like Coca Cola Michael, I’ll be getting you that, OK?’
Michael mumbled something as the Irish lady went back to the counter. I am certain it was not an affirmative.
Why tell Michael he was going to have tea with his sausage roll which would have been perfect for him on a cold day and then get him something cold and a lot less healthy for him?
Outside the bakers was the ‘modern’ geometric town clock towering over a fountain and very shallow pond which consisted of a sheet of water about two inches deep. Under this sheet of water were the public toilets I nearly asked the Labour party about and my powers of retention kicked in big time.
On my way to the library I passed the UKIP campaigning stand. Both men running it were in full Nigel Farrage uniform. Long tweed coats with velvet collars that made them look vaguely like second hand car salesmen. Their purple and yellow balloons, unlike the Labour balloons, were only filled with air and were only lifted by the wind when it was strong enough. Further on outside Cash Converters were people trying to get the message of God across to passers-by.
At the end of this part of the precinct was the library overshadowed by a tower block of flats. The lift entrance for the apartments opened on to the precinct and it was not a great leap of imagination needed to see Winston Smith getting into the lift hiding his pens and paper inside his great coat.
Once inside the library I found a secluded corner in the reference section next to a radiator. I was facing the window looking out on to the tower block and the clouds whizzing past to get away from Stevenage as quickly as possible. Behind me was another table where there were two men wearing hoodies surrounded by their kit bags. One of them was busy tapping away on a keyboard while the other one was slumped into the chair sleeping heavily. Both of them looked like they were living rough and had come in from the cold.
Next to my table was a rack of leaflets and pamphlets on domestic violence, drug addiction, alcoholism and how to cope with redundancy. Ironically next to pamphlet on redundancy was another one about how to enjoy your leisure time.
While I was reading my book I was aware of movement behind me and without turning around to look worked out that the two men with kit bags were on their way out. Hopefully to somewhere warm for the night where they could get a hot meal and a bed.
It was time for me to leave so I packed up my books and left the library. Back out to the cold precinct and past Winston Smith’s tower block which imaginatively had been named ‘Tower Block’. God’s messengers were still plying their message outside Cash Converters where people were selling their gadgets perhaps to pay for a night out, repay a debt or buy some bread to put on the table for Saturday night. A little further on the two men who had been in the library had only progressed a hundred yards to the nearest bench where they were drinking from cans of extra strong lager. They were in for a very cold night. UKIP were still trying to button hole passers-by from a rapidly diminishing crowd of shoppers. The man with the electric guitar had not progressed from Norwegian Wood. He had either gone through his full repertoire while I was in the library and was starting it again or he only knew one tune. It was too cold to stay to find out. The elderly man selling snakes had gone home. Perhaps he had gone home to the lady who had been asking for yesterday’s bread in the bakers earlier. The Labour Party obviously felt confident about the forthcoming election and had packed up their stand.
Perhaps I went to Stevenage on a bad day when the mood of the town and my mood were both synchronised into a depressive cycle. Perhaps Stevenage was not depressed and it was my depression? Or, I could have been happy and it was the town that was depressed. Whatever the combinations of our moods were I can safely say that I have been to Stevenage, I didn’t get a T shirt, send a postcard, buy a baseball cap and will not put the town on a bucket list of must see places.