It’s dawned on a number of us Lutonian lifers that Luton may well be the hippest place outside of Shoreditch, quite without intending to be. Local friend Grumbly Bob (who not only works in Shoreditch but owns a number of checked shirts) put it succinctly with respect to local favourite, the Scandinavia Restaurant and Café: ‘The Scandi is hipster without even trying. In east London, people work really hard to design cafés that look exactly like the Scandi.’
This is true. The Scandinavia Café, with its formica tables, American memorabilia and 55p mugs of tea is so achingly hip – entirely without meaning to be – that it hurts. Both the gloriousness and irony of this situation was not lost for example, on Berlin filmmaker and photographer Julia Elger, former student at the University of Bedfordshire, who even took up a part-time job at the Scandi in 2007 so that she could get to know the patrons and secure their permission to make a photographic study of the place. It was also the venue for 2012’s Pre-Christmas Not Unreasonably Priced Arts and Crafts Fair.
The Scandi is, moreover, no lone inadvertent hipster enclave in High Town. Anyone who’s handed over good money for a cocktail at trendy Hoxton joint Dream Bags Jaguar Shoes (its name drawn from the distinctive signage of the two former shops which make up its premises) will recognise the potential of the shop whose name serves both as inspiration and perennial provocation for the Yoga World & Pesto blog: I refer, of course, to none other than the High Town icon that is Wallpaper World & Paints.
The Scandinavia Café is unfailingly friendly and a great place to read and work. I’d spend more time and money there, however, if I knew that their delicious omelettes were made from free-range eggs and the tea was fair trade, and if they offered the option of what is currently deemed ‘posh bread’: if, in short, they were prepared to make a couple of concessions to those of us who care about the provenance and quality of what we eat, or have special diets, or whatever. Home-made cake or soup, perhaps; with a dash of free wifi.
Whilst we’re at it, a note about ‘posh bread’, just so we’re clear: the everyday sliced white beloved of the ‘working classes’ is the mechanised production loaf forced on us by monied industrialists; the true ‘bread of the people’ is hand-crafted, artisanal bread made with fewer additives (and a good deal more love), with profits from small-scale production flowing back into the local community and creating meaningful, skilled jobs. So don’t give me that yack about ‘classist-ness’. I’ve no desire that the place become so gentrified that we put off the pensioners and the regulars. But it does seem that places like the Scandi are missing a trick by failing to extend and update their offer. That place should be buzzing with custom and making the most of its inadvertent hipsterish charm, and often times, it isn’t.
What else? Bearded man’s pub that serves decent real ale (and is unequivocally also woman-friendly, bearded or no)? Look no further than the Bricklayers Arms. Scuzzy but reliable and inexpensive taxi firm? All The Fives, at your service (the fare to anywhere is almost always £3.50 to £4.00), except for Friday Mosque times, when it can suddenly become quite difficult to find a taxi anywhere in Luton during that crucial half hour window you have to get to the airport. And the wonderful Starwash launderette:
In all of this I am reminded of a conversation I had with the managing director of a superlatively hip publishing company, based in east London, a few years ago. We were about to sign a big contract with them, and they had bravely trekked up on the Thameslink to see the sights and get to know us. At the time there were a number of posters in Luton train station reminding travellers that Luton was not an Oyster card fare zone, which seemed overly optimistic, to say the least. With my trademark facetiousness, I joked that Luton might be mistaken for the outer reaches of trendy north London. He looked aghast. But then added, slowly and thoughtfully, ‘I suppose you’re right. North London is a state of mind, after all.’