pointed me in the direction of this wonderful piece
on the unknown pleasures of circling Luton at 4am in the passenger seat of a probably decrepit car. As much as I recognised the idea of this kind of England, the England of concentric circles of disinterest and disintegration emanating from London along ring roads thick with cars, I know it's not the England I grew up in.
Southampton, uncompromisingly bland, without even the navy scuzz of Portsmouth to set it apart in the imagination, remarkable for what? Crumbling Roman City walls, gradually being left behind by the city itself as it crawls in the direction of the latest expansion of shops-under-one-roof. In two decades, three separate shopping centre developments, each larger than the last, each consuming the other, sucking out the marrow of convenience starved shoppers until only a few bored shoe-polished kids kick around the Bargate centre, and only customers seeking the grail of bargain-priced homewares stalk the halls of the Marlands centre. But these buildings refuse to crumble, they may gleam less brightly, their surfaces turning off-white like aging plastic, but they refuse to become brittle. Like polyethylene landfill, Southampton is a city that refuses to fall apart even under the strain of neglect and indifference.
The city tower blocks barely deserved the name, and the few concrete promenades stretching underneath them were probably as full of litter and crap as anywhere else you care to name, but they were few and far between, and zoned in such a way that I can't tell you if they were empty of hope or not because I never visited them. Southampton's suburbs were dark at night, and if boredom, hedonism or anger caused anyone to roam the streets flashing headlights I never heard about it. But I was also separated one step further from the city, living on the river, with only the mast-head of Fawley, steady red in the distance linking me with Southampton's modest bulk.
My memories of being driven around the city after dark are not soundtracked by Joy Division, but by the gentle routines of local radio. The 3am slot where the phone in features the same people night after night. The soft voiced host talking down his regular after dark callers from their ledges of sadness, lunacy or racism to a soundtrack of occasional bursts of 50s big band or 10CC if you're lucky. The branch-hung roads connecting Botley, Curdridge, Hedge End empty but for a white Ford Fiesta, rabbits and foxes fleeing from the frosty growl of a small engine.
I remember tuning in on the radio to find what sounded like a conversation in mid-flow. The two voices calling each other by name, warm with familiarity until the older one started denouncing a group of asylum seekers housed near his home, his voice rich with bitterness until the other man cut him off and suggested he'd feel silly about that in the morning and why don't they cool off to some Elvis. This is another England, caught between the stasis of rurality and the churn of the city, only here all that happens is the news agents change hands and people focus on the unerring ability of things to stay the same.
Towns like these are wrapped in plastic, vacuum packed. There's no decay, only renewal - the old stays old, and the new merely has some of its shine taken off. We were in a holding pattern all that time, though without knowing, circling the wrong place.