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).

What did happen to Peter Pumpkinhead?

My three favourite books on the Kennedy assassination:

William Manchester’s The Death of a President.  Utterly compelling, minute-by-minute account, I read this in one sitting at a cricket ground in Eastbourne in the summer of 1985. It may or may not be good history, in fact it’s really part of what the event became subsequently as history, but it’s a great read.

Don DeLillo’s Libra. The book the film of which didn’t get made because of Oliver Stone, apparently, according to some stories, which is a shame. One of the few novels I’ve ever read more than once (actually, the only other one is Less than Zero). Has something in it for everyone, conspiracists and Warrenistas (I just made those terms up).

Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History. The book for grown-ups.

If I had the time, I would try to make a case for why reading lots about this is actually quite significant philosophically – conspiracy theories raise interesting epistemological issues you know. But I don’t have the time. And it would be a bit embarrassing to do so. If you don’t have time to read those books today, then you might always listen to The Wedding Present’s Kennedy, The Human League’s Seconds, or The Fall’s Oswald Defence Lawyer (there are other relevant pop songs, I’m sure, but between them, these three just about cover it all). Or try to find a recording of Lenny Bruce’s shtick on Jackie Kennedy ‘hauling ass’.

Local Politics I: Take This Town

Two years into the Swindon stage of my life-long ethnography of the M4 corridor (eight years in Reading, eight in Bristol; where next?), and I’m growing fonder of the place. There is in fact, as my OU colleague Allan Cochrane reminded me before we moved here, a venerable tradition of urban studies research on Swindon – by Michael Harloe in the 1970s (a ‘town in transition’ then, an aspiring transition town now); subject of one of the ESRC Locality projects in the 1980s (Swindon really did have a proper ‘growth coalition’, once upon a time, apparently; and also an active Communist Party); and further work by Martin Boddy and others, who went so far as to suggest that Swindon might be the ‘city for the twenty-first century’. Not quite a ‘school’ like LA or Chicago’, not even the sustained history of case work that exists on places like Vancouver, or Columbus Ohio, or even Durban; in fact, Swindon is not even an ‘ordinary city’. It’s not a city. It’s a town. Very much so, a town.

It’s not a ‘post-political’ town, mind.

There is lots of politics here. And it’s not hidden, it’s quite open, and very much part of a vibrant little local public sphere.

One story rumbling through the local press (OK, the one local paper, the Swindon Advertiser, or ‘the Adver’) is about the plan for the Honda plant on the outskirts of town, one of the main employers and key to the economic success of the town over the last two decades, to build wind turbines on its site. This has aroused opposition from residents living close by to the plant. But the plan is supported both by the controlling Tory group on the Borough Council, and also by the opposition Labour group, on the grounds that it’s important to keep the Honda plant competitive (the Swindon plant lags behind other Honda plants on renewable energy targets, apparently).

None of this is necessarily is out of the ordinary (it fits with the image of local policy and political elites that emerges from those academic analyses of Swindon’s post-war development), it’s the sort of issue one can find all over the place (and it’s likely to become more common if and when proposed changes to planning regulations are introduced).

There is another story running alongside this one, which revolves around Honda’s relationships with UNITE, the union which represents some 1000 ‘associates’ at the plant. For some months, there has been noises about Honda seeking to de-recognise or minimize the influence of the Union at the plant.

The union story in particular has been very publicly sustained by reporting in the Adver, very sympathetic reporting one should say, that led in turn to a story with a slightly different inflection on BBC’s Points West yesterday.

As I say, none of this is terribly novel, although the juxtaposition of the wind turbines story and the union story is revealing of some of the ordinary political tensions that revolve around this kind of locally embedded link in a ‘global’ production system. I have been struck by the quality of the reporting on these sorts of issues in the local paper – which retains a much more obvious ‘civic’ orientation than I remember being the case with the equivalent daily papers in Bristol or Reading.

So, local politics, for local people only perhaps, but lots of it, and you don’t even have to look that hard to find it. No sign of the post-political, not here.