The Buddha taught us that change is the only constant in life. Now there’s a man who never lived in Luton. Here in Lutopia, change teases and torments us like a chorus of pug-nosed Satyroi casting seductive backward glances from the Hertfordshire horizon.
Like any new resident of Luton, I was initially beguiled by the prospect of imminent improvements to the town when I arrived in 2006, and couldn’t understand why my new colleagues were laughing at me. ‘But there’s a poster in the train station that redevelopment is about to start!’ I offered. ‘Oh, did they finally replace the poster that was there when we first arrived?’ they replied. You see, they too had previously seen Luton’s potential and assumed that the Lutonaissance must be round the corner, but years of waiting wear a body down.
But lo, 2013 has been a bumper year of change for Luton and High Town, so much so that I thought I’d inadvertently caught the wave of a regenerational Zeitgeist that might render my little blog redundant. There has been change – and finally, some quite significant change in respect of the station interchange, the re-routing of Midland Road and the long-awaited, much-maligned Guided Busway – that leads me again to hope that Luton may be quivering on the pre-climactic plateau of a magnificent resurgence.
If that is the case, we should assume that it will be led in greater part by Lutonian residents themselves. This year we saw a first round of guerrilla gentrification in the town centre as vigilante do-gooders set themselves to doing some of the cleaning and clearing work for which the Borough Council evidently has less heart. The Friends of High Town, meanwhile, have continued to coordinate efforts to clear and replant areas around High Town and it’s paid off: People’s Park and Pope’s Meadow have been awarded a Green Flag Award.
The Luton Foodbank, launched earlier this year, is addressing growing food poverty in the town by harnessing goodwill across all sections of the community, and a new charity, the Level Trust, aims to ‘level the playing field’ for local children in poverty. They’re aiming to raise £5000 in their Christmas Appeal, and will be holding a Fundraising Dinner on 19th December 2013. Tickets are £35 a head (see their website for details).
In High Town, both Marjorie’s and High Hats rely on the generosity of volunteer staff and private landlords for their continued existence.
So here’s the Yoga World & Pesto round-up of the things that have changed in the Luton I know in 2013:
- Heaven knows it took them a while, but the Station Road entrance to the train station was finally completed, as was the Guided Busway. Dunstable awaits.
- The pedestrian crossing on Midland Road was slightly – but delightfully! – repositioned to sit flush with the corner of High Town Road so as not to ruin our pedestrian flow on our way down to the station. That’s five more seconds in bed, Team High Town.
- NOAH has moved into the former premises of the Welbeck Youth Centre, meaning that I can finally go in and measure up for the yoga studio I fully intend to open there one day, since I can’t see myself stumping up the suggested £60k for the disused toilet block in the High Town Road car park. And what of NOAH’s former premises, across the road? There was talk of a supermarket moving in earlier this year, and mixed views among the Friends of High Town. On behalf of myself, I’d like to invite Waitrose to High Town with open arms. Just imagine. Is that so wrong?
- Marjorie’s (“Marjorie’s”) has brought real coffee, a small quantity of bread home-made by the august Martyn and a soupçon of café culture to High Town at last. (And only last night, High Town’s first spoken word gig.)
- 2013 has certainly been the High Town Year of Hats. Heck, there’s no end of hats now on High Town Road: in High Hats, in “Marjorie’s” and in Shop 33. Is anyone buying all these hats? Not really, no, though hats off to Luton’s own Marie-Louise for her concerted efforts to promote hat-wearing in High Town. Props as well to the people at Luton Culture and Caroline Wallace for bringing what would otherwise be a vacant shopfront back into use (thanks go also to the landlord for making it available), but it would be great to know what will happen after the initial project funding runs out (around February, I believe). Meanwhile, I’d love to see someone make the connection between the hat-wearing of the past and the new kinds of head-covering and hat-wearing that are associated with Luton: the Muslim hijab, the Jewish Yarmulke, Sunday hat-wearing among the Christian Afro-Caribbean community: we have a long tradition of people wearing things on their heads, no? (Thanks to David of FoHT for extending my thoughts on this.)
- Free wifi is now available in two places on High Town Road (Marjorie’s and the Brickies) and at least two places south of the tracks, at the Kitchen in the Hat Factory, and the Coffee House.
- EFC Food Court has slowly removed nearly all of the dark cellophane across its windows, meaning that it is actually now possible to see inside. Might a menu on the door be forthcoming in 2014?
- In a similar vein, the Bricklayers Arms recently invested in a new set of curtains, though the impossibility of seeing in means that the place remains a little forbidding to newcomers (at least from the outside). But those who venture in are sure of a warm welcome, and a selection of real ales.
- Art exploded onto the High Town scene earlier this year with the arrival of Shop 33, even if no-one seems to have bought those cute cu*t cards yet. Meanwhile ‘This is it’ (aka The Experiment) and Back in Time went head-to-head on antiques and house clearances. Go on, give the gift of ART this Yuletide.
- The slightly desolate paved area between the French Coffee Shop and the inexplicably viable electrical goods shop was christened ‘Welbeck Square’, at least in the minds of the Friends of High Town. All we need now is a bench and a maypole, and civic life will be restored.
- The Freeholder
pubBar and Eatery opened in the former premises of the Empress curry house, offering such headily upmarket fare as a full English breakfast with a pint of beer; boiled bacon and cabbage, and deals on Jäger bombs. And occasional jazz. Less cabbage and more jazz, please.
- Best-One supermarket introduced its innovative ‘different-tills-for-different-items-of-food’ mechanism to make your shop needlessly slower and more confusing, and hired a number of young lads whose job it appears to be to chase you round the store should you dare to transact, say, a courgette and a packet of nuts at the same till. Sometimes I do a full tour of the shop with an unpaid-for tomato just to annoy them.
- The oxymoronic Caffeine Lounge at the station breathed its jittery-cum-chillaxed last at the train station, leaving the way open for another initiative to part commuters from their remotely-earned cash. (Though I spy a yoga studio. A yoga studio or maybe a Pret.)
- The ‘tri-street area’ of Guildford Street, Cheapside and Bute Street was renamed LoHo by the trendy types at Made in Luton, and the safety railings at the corner of Guildford Street and Bute Street have been removed. No one has died as a result of this more minimalist approach to ‘street furnishings’. A Small Good Thing, no?
- The commemorative hat press on Guildford Street was repainted by local Rotarians in a thoughtfully self-reflexive naïf style cleverly designed to evoke the irony of obsolete industrial-age machine recast as civic artwork.
- Food culture in Luton town centre moved up a gear, or performed a handbrake turn, or something like that, with the recent opening of a branch of Sizzalls, serving sizzling Chinese food and blowing all our minds with its life-size mirrorball horse, which presumably doesn’t hint at the food on offer.
- The whirligig entrance to the Luton Arndale car park has also been repainted in a delicate dove grey, and the other multi-storey car park behind the Library has been demolished to make way for a single-storey car park. Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose.
I know, I know. The heady pace of change this year in Luton has been enough to make us all reel in giddy delight. Thank goodness, then, for those Lutonian stalwarts committed to preserving the status quo:
- The curator of Grandior Furnishings continues to enact a magnificent détournement of consumerism by confounding our expectations of a ‘shop’ in favour of a ‘private storage facility’. Dear Mr Grandior, we salute you. You’re like a one-man anti-capitalist crusader, giving us moment to pause at the door of your shop-cum-junk-cupboard where we would otherwise dizzily launch ourselves on yet another spending spree.
- Regular Luton on Sunday ‘contributors’ Ron Turvey and John Tucker continue to splutter with striking frequency and near-professional rhetorical flourish on any number of troll-baiting social issues. Dear LoS staffers, we see you. We know your game. Did you really get into local journalism for this?
- Tea at the Scandi is still only 55p. You can’t say fairer than that (though the tea at Hatters Café further up the road is both 5p cheaper, and stronger).
- The fare for a journey to almost anywhere with Luton Fives remains £3.50. They’re pretty reliable, are All the Fives, except for Friday lunchtimes, when you can’t get a taxi anywhere in town for love (nor £3.50).
- While talk of Luton’s first Starbucks reached fever pitch over the summer (in the formerly colourful premises of Jean’s of Luton, recently repainted), we are still blessedly Starbucks-free at the end of 2013 (the one at the airport doesn’t count). The original proprietor at the Coffee House has moved on, but the Coffee House has survived its first year and even has plans for expansion (into the basement).
- There are still no free cash machines down High Town Road, though the station is now very well provisioned. Any chance of installing a lift to and from the platforms in Luton station? Or replacing the broken windows in the walkway over to platforms 1 and 2? Come on, Tim O’Toole, the residents of Luton (and especially those of us with restricted mobility, with prams and with luggage) deserve a station fit for the UK’s third-largest town? Don’t we?
- Sadly, and despite the very best efforts by the ABC Savoy restoration trust and promising fundraising plans, the project to restore the old ABC Savoy cinema on George Street ended in failure this year with the discovery that asbestos used in the original construction had been disturbed by previous owners during asset-stripping. Originally opened in 1938, the ABC Savoy (which was incidentally the very cinema I ever visited, in 1985) is still an imposing and elegant building that has been woefully mistreated and neglected over many years. We can neither return to the status quo ante nor progress to the hopeful future that was envisioned for it. Does it stand now only waiting to be demolished, or as a memorial to the abiding damage wrought by civic neglect?
So what have I missed? Comments welcome.