While April may be the cruellest month, I can’t say that I see much tenderness in supply this March. Mornings like today are the hardest of all. It’s cold, grey, raining: in short, an entirely typical day in the year-long omniseason that we like to call the British Weather. Those of you who know me in person may recall that I periodically bust out a theory of the British temperament – a certain stoicism, world-weariness, a sense that things will not much change (cf. the French, striking endlessly in revolt at the insults of politicians) – that I cannot say is caused by, but which seems at least to resonate with the character of our temperate, if inclement, weather. We British, we are used to being disappointed.
Is it any worse to spend such a day here in Luton?
I don’t imagine that the weather is much better in London today, or Brighton. All is uniformly bleak. But these days, I must say, are the hardest for me in Luton, when I encounter a town sometimes described as ‘the northern town of the south’, all terraced houses (in themselves rather charming) and what remains of Luton’s ‘traditional’ industry of car-making (there are not many hat-makers among us these days, but there are some).
I live in Round Green, about a mile north of the train station, marking the boundary with High Town. Responding to an earlier comment on this blog, I had used the term ‘psychogeography’ to describe the way that our personal maps mark out a different terrain to the ones suggested by geographical maps. As someone who doesn’t drive, for instance, I rarely see the many, apparently charming villages of south Bedfordshire and north Hertfordshire, but London, while so much further away, feels easily at hand. In a similar way, my personal map of Luton is heavily marked by one route that I take almost every day, to go wherever I need within the town or beyond. From my house, the most direct route – into town, to the train station, to the shops, to the gym, to my new favourite café, and formerly, to my place of work – is via High Town Road as far as the train station and by necessity via the Arndale Centre for much anywhere beyond.
So let’s talk briefly about the Arndale, or, less authentically, ‘The Mall Luton’, as the PR people would have it (it is universally called ‘the Arndale’ by anyone who lives here). Built in 1972, it was one of the first, then ‘futuristic’, shopping centres that came up in the late 60s and early 70s. Many out-of-towners assume that the Arndale was named after the Manchester shopping centre of the same name, but I am informed, perhaps unreliably, that the Luton Arndale was originally the ‘largest covered shopping centre in Europe’, and only later ousted from this position by the Arndale in Manchester. That seems difficult to believe now.While I wasn’t around in 1972, I do remember the Arndale when I first lived in the town as a child, in around 1984. I especially remember its Flamingos: I am no local historian, but I understand that a part of Luton’s town centre was simply demolished to make way for this boxy monstrosity; the names of former roads retained with grim irony to mark out its strip-lit corridors. While I am clearly no fan of the Arndale, it has its uses, and in recent months we have at last seen the faint possibility that some of the more ‘upmarket’ chain stores are beginning to see potential in this town of over 200k residents: the opening of a branch of H&M, and – remarkably – a new Apple reseller called ‘Stormfront’, which seems, well, an unfortunate choice of name, to say the least.
The thing about the Arndale that I want to highlight today is that it is almost unavoidable if you need to walk from one side of the town to the other. There are ways round, but they make my route longer. On a day like today, the experience of going suddenly from the bleak and the wet into the ever-bright noise and bustle of the Arndale, and then out again, recalls the existential path of a single sparrow (rather than a flamingo) through the banqueting hall described by the Venerable Bede:
“It seems to me that the life of man on earth is like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your captains and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall. Outside, the storms of winter rain and snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one window of the hall and out through another. While he is inside, the bird is safe from the winter storms, but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. So man appears on earth for a little while – but of what went before this life, or what follows, we know nothing.”
So there: the words of a 7th century English monk brought to bear not unfruitfully on the Luton Arndale. Never let it be said that this blog is not a site of great cultural depth.