Public Life in a Provincial Town

After 8 years, the imminent departure from Swindon by the end of the summer now looms on the horizon. This blog has been very much shaped by the experience of living in this non-University town, and while here, living in a very Respectable Street, I’ve written a book, acquired a second child, lost a second parent, been promoted, got a new job, but not quite turned 50.

Swindon, of course, has a certain sort of reputation as ‘a dump’, which is not quite fair, and even if it is, given the representative significance of Swindon in the history of British society, it’s no more of a dump than the rest of the country. Aroundaboutz, of course, in the surrounding countryside populated by plenty of Generals and Majors, there are all sorts of attractions, if you like White Horses and stones circles and if you can survive on a Farmboy’s Wages. And it’s not too far away from the Towers of London, if you fancy a day trip. But that’s still underselling Swindon itself, which has quite a few treasures all of its own. It’s a good place to visit if you like railway museums, odd art deco treasures, or want to trace the origins of the NHS. In the time I have lived here, one can trace the diminution of the public realm under the pressure of austerity, felt in the absence of Sure Start centres, libraries, bus services, and nurseries that were the elements of our daily life when we first moved here. But actually, a life here isn’t just the privatised experience of a New Town Animal in a Furnished Cage. There are things worth getting out and about for. You could even spend half a day on a self-made Diana Dors walking tour, culminating perhaps at Swindon’s very own answer to the Statue of Liberty.

So should you ever find yourself stuck here and in need of entertainment, or indeed if you find yourself Making Plans to pass close by, here is my personal guide to the best 10 things that public life in Swindon offers to you:

1). Top of the list is the Swindon Museum and Art Gallery. A quite extraordinary place, mainly for the art collection (not to the mention the crocodile or the Mummy).

2). Town Gardens. A place for kids to play, the site of the best annual(ish) South Asian festival I’ve ever been to, and a place where sometimes, if you look carefully, you can catch a glimpse of the Mayor of Simpleton wandering around.

3). No public sphere is possible, as old uncle Habermas reminds us, without a thriving commercial life to sustain it. The Swindon Designer Outlet shopping centre might not sound much, but even if you don’t like shopping, go there – it’s in the remaining part of the Great Western railways works, so it’s like walking through a portal into the historical geography of the town.

4). And, still with Habermas, you need coffee shops too – visit Baila, a little slice of cosmopolitanism in Old Town. At nighttime, it might well be true that Life Begins at the Hop, but it should end here, in a Crowded Room full of discerning gin drinkers. By day, it’s a haven for home-workers happy to listen to acid jazz and not-so-obvious Motown.

5). Los Gatos, or just ‘the Spanish’, a small slice of authentic British ex-pat Tapas in Wiltshire, this was the ONLY nice place when we moved here, but now it is like a trusted old friend you know will always be there when other things disappoint. Great coffee.

6). The Arts Centre. Swindon has a proper, big theatre, The Wyvern, which is also worth a visit (especially for Jon Richardson’s ‘returning home’ gigs), but the Arts Centre is another little hidden gem, a place to see Am-Dram performances of The Crucible or watch Mark Thomas or see foreign films or listen to Thea Gilmore.

7). Swindon is a very sporty town, with a disappointing football team embedded in the community in all sorts of commendable ways, Speedway, and best of all, Ice Hockey. Go Wildcats! It’s just like Canada.

8). There are various things to do at Coate Water park, but the best one is to take a ride on the miniature railway – because it’s Swindon, so you have to find a way of riding on a steam train.

9). The Old Town Railway Path. Yes, yes, I know, it turns out that almost everything on the list is related to railways, but if you need a walk, this is great – this is another bit of historical geography, a disused railway cutting that overlooks the ‘The Front Garden’ between Swindon and the M4, now the site of a major new housing development, and gives you a view in the distance of the Science Museum‘s large-object store at Wroughton, and if you like Rock, you can even see some exposed Upper Jurassic geological formations (apparently). Certainly a place to get your Senses Working Overtime.

10). Oh, and then there is the musical heritage – you don’t even have to come here to experience any of this, but all of it makes so much more sense if you’ve lived here. This is Pop.

 

 

Swindon Studies: Social Science in Simpleton

carfaxOne of the recurring features of academic life is the way in which particular intellectual traditions of thought are associated with particular places, as in multiple Chicago Schools, for example, but also in the way in which particular places come to stand as vectors for general theoretical claims – Paris and modernism, obviously, but more prosaically, certain places, like Baltimore or Vancouver or Columbus, Ohio, come to serve as the empirical reference points for the working through of theoretical ideas about capitalist urbanization, neoliberalism, governance and scale, and the like (this is not quite the same, but not unrelated either, to the ways in which towns and cities are presented as sites for experimentation).

When I was an undergraduate and postgraduate, the so-called ‘locality debates‘ were the focus of much of the most interesting discussion of the relations between social theory and spatiality. The very question of how to think about the relation between places, on the one hand, and knowledge of general trends, on the other, was at the centre of these debates. A whole set of issues – the relations between the abstract and the concrete, the empirical and the theoretical, the nature of case analysis, the relations between different axes of social differentiation, questions of ‘scale’ – were worked through in these debates. In the early 1990s, they ended up being supplanted by debates about ‘postmodernism’, which had all the appearance of intellectual pluralism and philosophical weight, but were often rather simplistic by comparison.

Swindon has a small part to play in this lineage of spatial theory in the social sciences. Of course, since 1988 a lot of social science has been commissioned, managed, and audited in Swindon, under the auspices of the ESRC most obviously, and more recently the AHRC and EPSRC too – including a succession of urban-oriented research programmes (Ian Gordon has analysed four decades of urban research programmes in the UK from the 1960s onwards, and it would be interesting to update this in light of more recent initiatives around Urban Transformations, Connected Communities, Urban Living Partnerships, the GCRF and the like). But as an object of urban and/or place-based social science research, Swindon also has a minor claim to significance. I mentioned in my last post Mike Savage’s account of the way in which post-1945 British social science evolved through a distinctive form of effacement of place, typified by the affluent worker studies which were not-necessarily-famously undertaken in Luton but were emphatically not studies of Luton. Swindon doesn’t merit a mention in Savage’s reconstruction of a ‘landscaped’ conception of social inquiry. But Swindon’s status as an object of social science illustrates some of the different ways in which specific places come to play a synecdochical role of one form or other in shaping images of the social.

mouldingsMichael Harloe’s Town in Transition, published in 1975, is the most important contribution of ‘Swindon Studies’ to urban theory more generally, I think it’s fair to say. Harloe had worked for the Borough during the town’s expansion in the late 1960s, and the book was one product of the Centre for Environmental Studies, the think tank that served an important medium for spatial thinking in the 1960s and 1970s whose alumni included Doreen Massey (somebody should really be writing a geneaology of the institutional worlds that generated spatial thought in this period). Harloe’s book is a fantastic account of the politics of post-war planning, where politics is understood as a matter of compromising, lobbying, building alliances, strategising across scales. Intellectually, the book stands at the cusp of the theoretical transformation of urban studies in the 1970s (not least through the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, of which Harloe was a founding editor in 1977) – there is not much trace of the sorts of Marxist political economy or state theory in it, but that’s OK, it has weathered well precisely because of its resolutely organisational and strategic sense of the political.

screen-shot-2017-03-02-at-13-00-09By the 1980s, Swindon had become one of the places used to make sense of the reconfiguration of cities and regions, centres and peripheries, that was a central focus of intellectual debate in the so-called ‘spatialization’ of social science that was inaugurated by the theoretical transformations that are not yet evident in Town in Transition (it is of course slap-bang in the middle of the then much-talked about high-tech, ‘sunbelt’ ‘M4 Corridor’). Swindon was the site for one of the locality studies funded under the ESRC’s Changing Urban and Regional System initiative (which was originally conceived and proposed by Doreen Massey). In this guise, it was made into the test-case for assessing whether theories of “growth coalitions“, originally developed in the context of North American urban politics and policy, could be usefully applied in the UK (the answer was ‘sort of’, in so far as Swindon might once have had something like a stable, consensual civic coalition promoting expansion and diversification through to the 1980s, but then it didn’t). Then, in 1997, Swindon was presented as the very epitome of ‘the city for twenty-first century‘, in a book that gathers together and synthesises the findings of a succession of ESRC projects on the town and the region of which it is part (the 20ish year gap between the Harloe book and the Boddy et al book in 1997 suggests that the next book-length academic study of Swindon is due to be written just about now….). More interestingly, perhaps, Phil Pinch used Swindon as one model of ‘ordinary places‘ (the other one was Reading), places that presented challenges to the tendency of radical political theory to take rather special places as the models for general claims about political possibilities. More recently, Sophie Bowlby chose Swindon as the site for her research on the changing nature of women’s friendship networks across the lifecourse because of its typicality (she told me that when I bumped into on a train from Paddington, as you do). And in the research of Linda McDowell and her colleagues on the intersections of class, ethnicity, masculinity and labour market dynamics in the UK, Swindon again functions as an interestingly ordinary place (compared to Luton, these days), one which they use, amongst other things, to complicate narratives of politics and anti-politics.

It should also be said that all of these examples of social science research on Swindon are pursued by academics based in other places – in places like Reading, Oxford, or Bristol, University towns all of them, of different sorts. Swindon still struggles to build any significant higher education presence of its own (it’s surpassed by Luton in that respect). But perhaps this has something to do with why Swindon gets to be the place where you can learn about the value of ordinary things.

In fact, when you take the trouble to look at the social science about Swindon, you begin to see that it might have a small claim to be the exemplary ordinary place, if such a thing makes sense. But you can also see Swindon as an example of the different ways in which places are figured in social science (of the different forms of ‘geographical reasoning’ to which life-in-places is subjected) – sometimes the town is seen as representative of wider trends and patterns (in this sense, Swindon gets to be what Luton was for social science in the 1960s), even “a starkly exaggerated example” of national trends; sometimes it is framed in comparison with, or even counterpoint to other places (this is how Harloe presents the lessons of the ‘local’ and ‘national’ politics of Swindon’s growth); sometimes as the focus of forms of conjunctural analysis (as in the locality studies research). These don’t quite exhaust the ways in place and/or the local get framed in social analysis, but they do cover three important versions – if you had the time and inclination, you could even imagine writing a piece in which “Swindon Studies’ gets to enact the different conceptual operations through which geographical specificity is translated into theoretical generality. Mind you, I’m not saying ‘It all comes together in Swindon’. It doesn’t (in fact, in more ways than one, a lot of ‘it’ just passes by).

Local Politics: A University for Swindon?

stDespite now being the home to one of the largest collections of scholarly books in the world, Swindon remains very much not-a-University town – there has been a long-standing civic ambition which goes back at least to the 1940s to get one. Recent years have seen initiatives to snag some bit of an expanding existing University, such as Bath, but these have come to naught. It does, though, now have a BPP University College, so that’s good. In a way. Maybe. Maybe not.

Swindon claims, not proudly, that it is the only major urban area in England and Wales without a University, or the biggest one, or some variation on this (though I think Milton Keynes might also qualify for this distinction, depending on what it is that this sort of claim is getting at – it’s about relatively low levels of participation in higher education in these places). Even Cirencester up the road is now set to be a proper University town.

Allan Cochrane and others at the OU have been researching the place of Universities in their localities and regions, looking at the changing rationales of economic growth and public engagement shaping this relationship. Swindon is interesting because here the story isn’t how established institutions now seek to engage with the places of which they are a part, but how and why local actors think it’s a good idea to have a local University in the first place. Via Twitter, I came across the latest round of discussions on this issue of the Borough Council earlier this month, including a consultancy report, A University for Swindon, which provides a profile of the current participation in HE of people living in Swindon. The report is shaped by the aim of establishing levels of potential demand for Higher Education in the town and round-abouts (ha!).

The report, and the wider strategizing over the last couple of years, indicates some of the assumptions about the potential benefits of having a higher education presence (of any sort, we’re not fussy), assumptions shared broadly across the political spectrum (as I think I have mentioned before, Swindon’s civic boosterism has a long history of attracting academic scrutiny of one sort of another, from Michael Harloe in the ’60s through to the 1980s localities debates. Phil Pinch even dubbed Swindon an archetypal ‘ordinary place’ twenty years or so ago. Trust me, it’s certainly a lot more ordinary than Johannesburg or Rio de Janeiro).

Anyway, the current strategy is an incremental one. A University Technical College (UCT) is set to open in 2014, with Oxford Brookes as its University sponsor and a locally-based ‘international high-tech’ company as its business sponsor. It will specialize in providing in engineering courses for 14-19 year olds. This is meant to be the first step towards realizing the dream of a University for the town, a dream which is seen as central to local economic development and growth, and which is strongly  supported by Influence, the organization representing the business community in Swindon.

The report commissioned by the Council has some interesting stuff in it. For a start, Swindon has relatively low rates of participation in HE, and they are not improving. This, in fact, is central to the strategy for attracting or building an HE presence locally. There is an assumption that the skills base is central to future economic development, and that a University is one way of dealing with the supply side challenges facing the town. It turns out, and this is what first attracted my attention, that 15% of Swindonians in higher education study with the Open University, which is above the national average. The report takes this as proof of ‘latent demand’ for a local University, along with the fact that a third of all Swindonians enrolled in HE are at UWE in Bristol, Bath Spa, Oxford Brookes, or the University of Gloucester – all about an hours drive away, but none technically ‘local’ according to the way these things are officially defined. But the report is careful to point out that levels of participation in HE are not straightforwardly linked to the presence or absence of a local University: “The availability of local HE provision is just one factor influencing learning patterns, other factors include levels of attainment prior to 19; deprivation and aspirations.” Swindon does not score well at all in those other factors, which is the real story behind the report.

Region

So there are interesting geographies revealed by this report – geographies of absence, and geographies of ambition, and imagined geographies too. In one section, for example, it is noted that “The impetus for a university stems in part from the knowledge that Swindon is one of the few major settlements in the country without an HE institution”. Then, with the help of a rather busy map, it is claimed that “Swindon lies in a swathe of country without a university which stretches from Stratford on Avon in the north to Weymouth in the south. Whilst this research has focused on demand from Swindon; this gap underlines the point that any new university would also be likely to attract students from nearby Wiltshire and Gloucestershire.” I’m not sure this ‘swathe’ actually adds up to a real region – it’s basically anywhere West of the M40 if you swing round Oxford on the A34, east of the M5 as long as you don’t stop at Bristol, Gloucester, or Cheltenham, and a large part of this empty swathe south of the M4 consists of Salisbury Plain. And I rather doubt whether rates of HE participation in Wiltshire towns like Marlborough or Salisbury will be significantly affected by any new University of Swindon (Swindon is in Wiltshire, but not necessarily of Wiltshire). And of course that statistic about the level of enrolment with the OU might not be best read as an index of the absence of alternatives either – but as further indication of the fact that local levels of HE participation are only tangentially related to local provision.

But keep your eye on Swindon – the future of non-elite higher education, shaped by assumptions about skills, the knowledge economy, and business partnerships might be slowly revealed here. Meanwhile, I have the sense of the town having all the component parts of a proper University without quite having composed them properly into one: loads of potential students, as well as already having all the books and even all the research money. What could be easier?

Local Politics VIII: School Daze

There has been plenty of news coverage recently about the progress of education reform in England, partly coinciding with teachers’ unions conferences threatening action in response to various policies introduced by Tory education secretary, Michael Gove. Not least, of course, the move to systematically transform the structure of public schooling via the Academies Act of 2010, through which schools have been bribed and/or bullied into converting to Academy status. The not-so-stealthy stealthy transformation of the governance of schooling is based on sheer theoretical and ideological prejudice, and is busily realising one of the longest standing aims of right-wing politics in UK, which is the removal of schooling from Local Authority jurisdiction.  

One aspect of the reporting of this process has been the repeated line about how Gove’s project has not attracted the same sort of attention, or opposition, as changes to the NHS. There might be many reasons for this, but one aspect of it might be to do with the ways in which different public services, through the very ‘materiality’ of the services involved, constitute the subjects of public services in very different ways – a theme of the work of my OU colleagues John Clarke and Janet Newman, for example. I wonder if school education, as a public service, doesn’t constitute it’s publics in very different ways from health services?

One of the lesser reported features of the Academy-led transformation of schools is the conversion of primary schools – only 5% of primaries currently have or are seeking Academy status, but that is likely to increase. The school our eldest child goes to, since last Autumn, is one of these Academy primaries. In Swindon, as elsewhere, you apply for a place in local authority schools about 9 months before your child is due to start. So we applied back in January 2011, for a place one of three local authority run primary schools. The closest one, the preferred one, is about 500 yards outside the back gate, is a resolutely middle-class school in a middle-class area, not great Ofsted report last time round. In between applying and being informed of the successful outcome, sometime this time last year, around Easter, the school actually decided, however these things work, to apply for Academy status, in tandem with (and thereby bolstering) the Academy application of the secondary school which is in the next road over from ours, the one-time Grammar school for Swindon. We only found this out sometime in the summer, when we began to attend the induction meetings for parents of new starters. I remember being told in a conversation with one of the Governors that this application did, indeed, amount to accepting a bribe, since the offer on the table at that point from the Government was that schools which applied would get lots more money, which would not be on offer if they delayed. As of 1st August, the school has been an Academy. It’s not clear, yet, what difference this makes – it hasn’t changed its admissions policies, for example, the most obvious change that the Academy policy now allows. But it’s early days.  

So, we find ourselves enrolled into a new form of public schooling, without being consulted, right in the middle of being involved in the process of, nominally at least, exercising a bit of school ‘choice’.

Meanwhile… the decision by the local council, Tory-led, to build another primary Academy not so far from where we live in the Old Town part of Swindon (the ‘old town’ bit refers to what Swindon was before the railway arrived, down the hill, in what became ‘new town), has become the focus of very intense local opposition.

The opposition to this decision has been led by residents of the immediate area around the site of the new school – located next to a local authority sports centre, opposite our local SureStart centre, on local council land. The campaign against the school focussed on issues of procedure around planning decisions, and took a while to catch the attention of local news or politicians. But it has now become a staple item in the Adver, and the local Labour party also caught on too. Despite letters and petitions opposing the new school, it received the go ahead before Xmas, and work has started on the site.

As a news story, however, the new school continues to generate news – it’s due to open in September 2012, so is likely to remain a news item until then, at least. On March 24th, the only news item in the Adver of any significance which was not related to Swindon Town’s day-out at Wembley the next day (oops…) was about the continuing opposition to the new school by local residents. One of the leading figures in the campaign is now challenging the leader of the Tory council in the upcoming elections.

The thing is… the central issue in the debate about the school, beyond the procedural issues involved in the decision, have revolved around the concerns of residents that the new school will create traffic gridlock and reduce green space. This is, then, a very local campaign, focussed on the concerns of people living in the immediate vicinity of the new school. These are not to be dismissed lightly – what has kept the campaign has going, and made it more than a merely local story, is the fact that it is another example of a pattern of cavalier decisions by the Tory council that appear to circumvent democratic norms, such as they are at local government level. But the fact that the new school is an Academy school, and as such is part of the wider Gove-revolution, this has not been much commented upon. This isn’t the issue, in this case of local politics.

The company setting up the new school, which also runs other schools in town already, is also the same company that runs the private nursery which we send our other child to – very good, very nice people (when we only had the one child, pre-school, she went to the Council-run nursery down the hill, also very good, very nice). Our decisions about school and nursery ‘choice’ have been based primarily, I think, on issues of convenience, constrained of course by a fairly limited set of options to actually choose from – nothing unusual there (although, surprise surprise, higher income level groups benefit more from proximity effects in school choice than others).  It turns out, of course, that the sorts of information that parents are meant to use to inform their choices on such matters might well be close to ‘meaningless‘ – according to academic research at least.  

The point of all this is to try to clarify something about how the constituencies of a public service like schooling are constituted. Our relationship to this issue is inevitably partial, mediated by our children; a while back, I knew very little about these things. The relationship of those opposed to the school is somewhat different, although it might overlap in some cases, but is primarily shaped by a very local ‘community of affected interest’, as they say. In neither case are the long-term, structural changes involved in transforming the governance and funding of primary schools, much less secondary schools, with all the attendant issues about inequality and social mobility, a felt concern of those people most immediately affected by these decisions to build new schools, or to convert the status of existing ones. Those changes are, literally, rather abstract, not only for those parents swept along by them like us, but also it seems for those involved in the real politics around school building in this area. In certain respects, education seems to me to constitute its public subjects very differently than do those public services associated with health care, for example – at once more partial, more selective, more inflexible, and more choosy than the subjects of health care, perhaps?

Local Politics VII: Coming soon to a place near you

Swindon is suddenly at the centre of a concerted right-wing attack on trade union rights in the public sector. The Tory-led council intends to put into practice the changes demanded by a concerted campaign orchestrated by the Taxpayer’s Alliance, and the newly formed Trade Union Reform Campaign, to attack ‘facility time’, on the grounds that this is a ‘scandalous’ subsidy by taxpayer’s of union activity. The TUC provides a corrective to the claims behind the campaign, and a nation-wide campaign to oppose these moves is quickly being galvanised, apparently.

And they say nothing ever happens here – just remember, they got rid of speed cameras first in Swindon, well before the idea caught on at national government level. What happens in Swindon…

Local Culture I: Life in a Museum

Should anyone out there be stuck for something to do in Swindon in the next couple of months, you might try a newly opened exhibition at the Swindon Museum and Art GalleryBack to Black… and White is the product of a project that involved local schoolkids, working in a dialogue with an archive of photos of the town from the 1940s to 1970s. The details and background to the project are here.

I have to say that it was a complete accident that I found out about this. The Museum is just down the road from where we live, and it has recently come in handy as a place to spend half an hour with a 5-year-old and an almost-1 year old. But today I managed to drag the 37 year-old (oops) in, rather reluctantly. The Museum is in fact a terrible space – no lift, in a nineteenth-century house with multiple floors, which is no good for the pram-connected. You have to get the little one out and carry her – and she’s getting heavier by the day.

But, anyway, I didn’t know this ’til we (me and the two non-reluctant ones) wandered in just before Xmas, but it turns out that the Museum houses what is meant to be one of the best collections of twentieth-century British art outside of London. Who knew? It actually consists of one piece by just about anyone you might have heard of – a Lowry here, a Freud over there, an important Ben Nicholson, apparently. Another aspect of the town’s weird legacy of mid-century civic mindedness.

The art collection and the town’s public art (statues of Diana Dors, that sort of thing) have been the focus of projects by the local public-ish-private-ish booster organisation, Forward Swindon, to make more of these cultural assets – as I said, an effort that has to address the fact that the museum and art gallery is actually such a rubbish space.

The art gallery is not very big – the size of about three squash courts, so you don’t get to see the whole collection all at once. And this new exhibition is the first time I’ve seen them showing a range of the photos that they apparently hold – a few are pasted on the walls. The Council’s full collection is on Flickr. I’m not sure why old photos of Swindon are as fascinating as they are to me – I didn’t grow up here (lucky escape). I think it might be because Swindon is quite small, so that many photos of the town are of places vaguely familiar, already. It’s also that the historical geography of the place is quite transparent, ‘cos it’s not very old, so you can see ‘layers of investment’ quite easily as you walk/drive/ride (I have a new bike!) around. Whatever it is, it’s another worrying sign of a growing attachment I seem to be developing, at least to the idea of Swindon.

Local Politics VI: Where is the University of Christminster?

Bodleian Library, Keypoint, Swindon (Brian Robert Marshall) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Part of the history of civic boosterism in Swindon is a long and largely unsuccessful story of attempts to establish a University presence in the town – in the last decade, schemes involving both UWE and Bath have fallen through; Oxford Brookes has a small presence, and BPP has a pilot scheme with a local FE college to roll-out low cost degree programmes (in Law). The efforts to establish a University go back to the 1940s at least – it’s why the Borough Council own a big old stately home just off Junction 16 of the M4, with a great kids play area, an annual firework display, but no University. And these efforts continue – Swindon will be bidding for a University Technical College any time soon.

I have previously expounded on the frustrations of living in a town which is so poorly served by book shops. This has something to do with the absence of a higher education presence in the town, no doubt. But actually, Swindon does have a huge book store, opened a year ago. The only problem is, it’s a book store, not a bookstore – a Book Storage Facility, to be precise. And not just any old Book Storage Facility.

Should a University ever arrive, it will open in a town that is host to more than 8 million books deposited in the Bodleian’s shiny new warehouse, located just off the A420, round the corner from Honda. The Book Storage Facility is Oxford University’s solution to the fact that the Bodleian’s collection grows by about 170,000 volumes a year, and they had run out of space in Oxford to house them all.  It was opened a year ago, and the books have been transferred over the last year. It is home to mostly ‘low demand’ books – the one’s no one ever borrows.

The ‘BSF’ has been described as a ‘tin shed’, but it continues in a line of high quality industrial architecture in the town – it is that kind of town.

Local politicians got very excited when it was announced that the University 30 miles up the road was going to store it’s unwanted books here. This is actually quite sad – there was a rather fanciful suggestion that the new Central Library would be able to hook up with the Bodleian collection. Not happened. Perhaps the Borough Council should just appropriate the BSF, declare it to be the public property of the people of Swindon, and set up its own University on the back of one of the world’s best collections of scholarly materials. Call it the University of Christminster. It could work.

I actually find this all a bit cruel – they close the Borders a few weeks after we move here, then open a huge warehouse full of books down the road, which you cannot actually access. I used to take an annual visit to the Bookbarn in Somerset, south of Bristol on the way to Wells – a place where old books go to die, I think of it as. Two agricultural warehouses full of musty old books, I very rarely bought anything – these really are the books no one wants to read anymore (you could, though, buy the entire collection of Enoch Powell’s speeches from the 1960s and 1970s, if you were looking for an archive for a PhD thesis). My daughter cried the one time I took her there (what do you do on the days when you have to look after a toddler?). It was probably the smell. But at least you get to go in this warehouse full of books, to wonder round, sit down for a coffee.

Never mind. I console myself with the thought that as I drive up and down the A420, to and from Milton Keynes, some of those white vans might be transporting rare manuscripts to eager scholars waiting in the Radcliffe Camera or the Map Room. Who knows, one of them might even be transporting that rarest of rare ‘low demand’ items – one of my books.

Local Politics V: ‘Boffins get grant to investigate sex entertainment’

That’s the front page story in today’s Adver, Swindon’s local paper. It’s a wonderful example of badly written local journalism, trying to suggest an element of controversy where there isn’t any. The story refers to an award by the made by ‘the Swindon-based’ ESRC to Phil Hubbard and Rachela Colosi, to study the impact of ‘sex entertainment’ (i.e. lap dancing clubs) on local communities. The hook for the story is a claim that this is a waste of money (although the project seems to have quite ‘respectable’ objectives, of course). 

In principle, of course, every single research award made by RCUK could count as a local story, in so far as they are all made by ‘Swindon-based’ organisations. Every so often, one of these sorts of stories does crop up in the Adver. Not the sort of ‘impact’ one suspects the ESRC is primarly seeking to generate. Swindon actually has a long history of trying and failing to establish a University presence of some sort, which is still seen as a key element in future local economic development strategy. There are not enough ‘boffins’ actually living here, it seems.

And what else makes this a ‘local’ story? Might have something to do with the fact that Swindon seems to have a thriving ‘Gentlemen’s Club’ sector all of its own. At least two, in fact, one of which has opened since we have been here, bucking the downward economic trend in the midst of recession. And in fact, I think the imaginary geography of nighttime Swindon  would stand as a good case study for the project reported in today’s paper – there is a clear divide between the town centre and ‘Old Town’ as nightlife destinations, based on age certainly, class too – the latter area has seen three or four Bars and Gastro Pubs open in the last two years as it consolidates it’s reputation as the ‘safe’ and ‘nice’ part of town to go out in. 

So I’m told. I haven’t had a night out in ages.