“Wycombe in the running to be named ‘Britain’s Crappest Town’” went the headline. Well that’s a red flag to a bull isn’t it? To make it worse the local media implored the local population to “stand-up” to defend the town or say why it is crap. There is nothing we like more in High Wycombe than a good scrap. The irony here is that the list of top 100 crap towns is nominated by the general public & the guy who nominated High Wycombe actually blamed the town’s culture of Saturday Night violence. The word “introspection” is not one for the pages of the Bucks Free Press. Can we do better?
My first reaction was “yup – a bit crap” – but no more crap than anywhere else. However it isn’t violence that was topmost in my mind. Let’s be frank for a second; there is no point getting all indignant, aggressive or defensive about this. The healthiest attitude is simply to laugh at it whilst recognising a germ of truth. We should embrace our crapness without being proud of it. At the very least we can talk about it like grown-ups. Otherwise how else will we “uncrappify” ourselves?
The best place to start this conversation is with the original nomination which you can read here: www.craptownsreturns.co.uk/2013/03/11/high-wycombe. I quote the pertinent section where the nominator Chris Smith blames:
“The complete ghettoisation of Wycombe that splits the urban area upon almost purely racial lines (when was the last time you saw an Asian face in Tylers Green, and how many white people linger on the streets of Castlefield?) has resulted in ever-brewing racial tension that gets worse year on year.”
Personally I agree that there is a split but it isn’t along racial lines. We do enjoy two vastly different cultures and everything in between. It is written large in the split between the High Street and the Eden Centre. One is often frequented by Mr & Mrs Tattoo whilst the other by Mr & Mrs Waterstones. One takes their kids to the Pound Shop to swear at them, the other is looking for a good signal on their IPhone in the Eden Centre in order to setup a play date for the kids. You know what I mean. Remove race from this equation and you have something far less vile. If there is violence then it is fuelled by alcohol and if no worse than anywhere else. You can’t put your finger on it – it is a feeling.
So what makes High Wycombe FEEL so crap?
“Wycombe takes all the good things in life and distorts them, decays them, mutilates them beyond all recognition. The sun never seems to shine in Wycombe; the birds drag themselves through the sky; the young girls are all dowdy.”
You simply don’t feel the same way about, say, Windsor or Cheltenham. I contend that what we have is something far simpler: a lack of pride. We’re good but we don’t know it.
On Sunday 21st July on Channel 4 the program “The Plane That Saved Britain” was broadcast in which…
“Paralympics presenter, former Royal Marines Commando and qualified pilot Arthur Williams presents this love letter to the World War II aeroplane he believes history has unjustly forgotten.”
What was the plane? The De Havilland Mosquito of course. And which town built the plane that “saved Britain”? High Wycombe did. The story of the “wooden wonder” and High Wycombe is told in the book “High Wycombe’s Contribution to Aviation” (ISBN 978-0-9558241-1-1 published by the authors David Scott and Ian Simmons 2008). I still meet Ian of regular occasions as he is a familiar face at Pann Mill open days. He was one of this town’s earliest adopters of solar panels on his bungalow to the south of the town. But I digress. The book was printed by Wycombe District Council and to find a copy you will need to go to the town museum.
High Wycombe is the town that saved Britain because it built the plane that saved Britain. What makes us crap? Nobody today remembers what the furniture builders of High Wycombe did for this nation.The fact is nobody gives a damn. That makes us crap. It isn’t racial violence or Daily Mail readers. It’s our fault. We don’t care enough to even remember our own heritage. In the 1940s an army of furniture builders gave up building chairs and wardrobes in order to build a wonderful wooden fighter plane. Only they could do it. Only they had the skills. It was our own little miracle. And it destroyed us.
By the end of the war the manufacture of war planes and chronic lack of investment meant the machine tools of High Wycombe were worn out never to be replaced. High Wycombe sacrificed itself to the British war effort. We destroyed ourselves to save Britain. We ended the war a shadow of ourselves and we never recovered. Today this sacrifice is forgotten.
So, as Arthur Williams wheeled himself through desolate & abandoned furniture factories he told the TV viewers how chair-makers built the Mosquito. Did he mention High Wycombe? Did he heck. Not a mention. Do you know the difference between High Wycombe and Swindon? People know where Swindon is. People don’t know the story of High Wycombe because we have forgotten it ourselves. There are a few references to it in the Wycombe Museum but, other than that, there are no statues, no artworks and no great poems or songs written in ode to these achievements. Somehow we think we are all about chairs. How dull. It is the story we tell about ourselves ABOUT OURSELVES that is so important. We need our own narrative, our own legends, our own myths, our own Battle of High Wycombe to inspire us.
The necessary statues and rememberances of the heroic furniture builders of High Wycombe would come as a consequence of civic pride. Attempting these things now would be nothing more than a sticking plaster over old wounds. We cannot make civic pride happen. But Sheffield KNOWS its a Steel Town like Portsmouth knows it’s a Naval Town. What do we know?
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can rise above this mediocrity. The folks at WDC have worked hard to realise a dream that Wycombe should become a special place. A place to visit. A location. They dream of café society and purple flags. Most of all they dream of taking the A40 out of town and pushing it to the south. This would remove the Abbey Way flyover and graft the High Street on the end of the Eden Centre. Mr & Mrs Waterstones may yet soon rub shoulders with Mr & Mrs Tattoo. What then? The trouble is that when WDC talk about High Wycombe as a “destination” they can talk about café society but they will deliver just another retail park. it won’t be a society, it will be some shops. That is a conceptual barrier we have to overcome. There is more to life than shopping.
Just go to a place like Bath and marvel at the row upon row of small independent shops. In High Wycombe we push these ‘undesirable elements’ out to Easton Street and preserve the top spots for Gambling outlets, Pawnbrokers, Pay Day Lenders Pound Stores and Charity shops. In this respect we are no different from any other clone town in Britain. This is the perfect result of the endless pursuit of monetary growth in communities of declining ‘social capital’. “Social Capital” is our ability to get on with each other, our ability to organise, our ability to raise funds, our ability to network, our ability to rise above day-to-day concerns and consider the future of the community. It is the social nature in our local economy driven by social entrepreneurs in small local business as well as an army of volunteers. Transition Towns rely upon deeply-concerned ‘social capital’ to provide the voluntary forces that build that local economy and its resilient community.
But there is social capital in High Wycombe. Local schools hum in the evening with kids involved in Scouting or keeping fit in a Judo class. But it lacks direction. There is no lack of things to do in High Wycombe but we don’t look much beyond the next pay packet hence community resilience is somebody else’s problem – if we think about it at all. Transition probably ends up being perceived as a luxury discretionary item – the preserve of wealthy white folk – or, in our case, Mr & Mrs Waterstones.
By coincidence Waterstones stocked its very first Transition book at the weekend when Rob Hopkins’ “The Power of Just Doing Stuff” nudged its way onto one of their bookshelves. For those of you who prefer the free offerings in the Library – there are at least four different Transition Books in circulation locally since 2010. So there is no excuse for that for that sector of the cultural divide. However, I have always said it; Wycombe is a town of extremes – a wealthy minority too rich to care, a poor majority too poor to know anything about it. This diversity is inequality, and inequality has its own problems – for it is also in Waterstons where you can pick up a copy of “The Spirit Level” by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. There you will find a mountain of evidence that extreme inequality is corrosive to social cohesion. Not only is it bad for poor people but it also diminishes the wellbeing of the wealthy. Yup, whilst in Waterstones you may want to pick up a copy of Oliver James’s “Affluenza” too. Money will kill you as effectively as poverty.
Of course this is a controversial topic and a thesis almost completely rejected by the ideology of the political right. Any mention of the very idea that ‘inequality’ is damaging to society seems to be a promotion of socialism – which it definitely is not. The concept of ‘social capital’ entered economic texts under Margaret Thatcher – the idea being that the ingenuity of the people would replace the meddling of the state. A grand idea – if it was not for some unintended consequences of the ideology. Rather than a nation of home-owning shareholders we ended up with generations of disenfranchised people. The modern economy makes these people “unpeople” and they will be the last to crowd-fund a local business. This will always be somebody else’s problem until we learn that it is our problem.
Thus it is that High Wycombe lost its soul. In that respect it is no different from any other London satellite. Seriously, have you been to Watford or Hemel recently? It isn’t that we are particularly crap. It is just easier to try and look for the few places that are not crap. That is not a target-rich environment.
To move forward the very essence of what will make us un-crap is not where we are; it is where we are going. It is not only that destination by the journey we choose. There are no simple solutions and no politics (let alone Westminster) is going to solve this for us. It is up to us to build the community we want. To do that we have to stop thinking of ourselves as an endless series of ghettoes clinging to the mountain-sides. Even the poorest barrios (shanty towns aka “favelas”) of Brazil has greater community than we do.
WE MUST REMEMBER we are the town that saved Britain, a town of many little villages, each of equal worth to those posher cousins out in the country. We are a valley people – a proud peoples and we can define ourselves by so much more than the ups-and-downs of a football team. And we cannot give in to hate.
Until we can find who-the-heck-we-are we’ll be as crap as everyone else.