#lutonhappy: On Ambivalence

Yoga World and Pesto is one year old.  Happy birthday, dearest blog: I wish I could bring you metaphorical cake and candles – um, candle. 27 posts, 125 comments, and, to me, a staggering 7352 page views (I know that isn’t a lot in the greater scheme of things, but I never thought it would do as well as it has).

I didn’t set out with any clear idea of what my Luton blog (or High Town blog, as it often seems to be) could or should be. In fact, for ages I resisted a certain friend and fellow blogger’s suggestion that I write a Luton blog, because I anticipated that in order to write something remotely entertaining and readable it would need to be both honest and positive (you see what I did there), and I knew that a long litany of Lutonian laments would need more to redeem it than my comedic touch alone.

Initially I thought the blog could be written truly anonymously, giving me licence for unlimited scathing as necessary, but the reality is that I’ve promoted my blog mainly via my own networks and social media, and that – whoever else may be reading this (hello!) – the strong chances are that you, dear reader, know me in the greater round of my other online and real world utterances, and are probably just glad that I’ve found a place where I am not only continuously talking about Wilfred Bion or Rolfing. You’ll also intuit, perhaps, that there is more of me in the blog than I signpost, and that the tone I take in writing about Luton – dubbed ‘lightly ironic’ by a good friend of mine – goes to the heart of what is difficult for me in writing about this town where I spent two years of my childhood, and to which I returned, in 2006.

Let’s talk about being happy in Luton, then, or #lutonhappy, as the Museum Makers of Luton Culture would have it:

That’s great, isn’t it? It made me smile. Heck, it made me cry just a very little bit, but then again I’m notoriously hormonal. Now: I’m not a straightforwardly ‘happy’ person; I’m not straightforwardly ‘winning’ at life (which phrase reminds me of an awful someone I worked for, many years ago, who would ask, ‘Are you winning?’), and here in Luton it is not always easy to promote the town wholeheartedly except in ways which – funny as they are – betray a certain municipal self-loathing (the ‘it’s easy to leave’ line of thinking) and a look-out towards a wider horizon in which London figures predominantly.

In a recent conversation with someone who is thinking of moving to Luton (from London) to save money, the line: ‘Luton doesn’t have even one example of the kind of things that I love about London – not one bookshop, a theatre, a good restaurant.’ But… Papa J’s, I spluttered, and that surprisingly good shop in Stopsley that sells fairly-traded everything, and our rather good pubs, and, uh, the Hat Factory, and – oh, um, the small selection of Sudoku books and Official Driving Test Questions that you can buy downstairs at W.H. Smith in the Arndale?

He’s right, of course. I can buy nary a jar of organic pesto in any convenience store this side of the train station and one could walk for days without finding a fairly-traded cappuccino (maybe at the university or the Carnival Arts Centre? Or Wardown Park Museum? The caff upstairs in Marks & Spencer’s doesn’t quite count).  I am reminded of my slightly neglected list of blog ideas and half-written drafts: there’s one about our (in)convenience stores, all trying to undercut each other on the cost of a six-pack of lager sooner than win any of the local custom that’s currently going to the Hitchin branch of Waitrose, and yet another of my Luton Café Capital reviews in which I gamely order omelette and chips and think better of returning. It’s been important to me that Yoga World and Pesto aim to be something other than a merely pitiful cry for gentrification – oh, woe is the world in which I cannot buy pesto! – since I readily recognise the ways in which an argument for more yoga and better pesto runs parallel with creeping house prices, rent rises and social exclusion. (As someone who benefits from being able to use High Town’s very own pop-up shop, High Hats, as a makeshift yoga studio on Wednesday mornings, I read this article, about the scourge of the pop-up shop, with interest: I take the author’s point quite seriously; I don’t entirely agree.)

Relatedly, I also had an interesting conversation at the Luton Quaker meeting this weekend with an older couple who are looking to retire here, much to the confusion of non-Lutonian friends who have taken it upon themselves to bring them to speed with the current state of Luton steoretypy. One of the Friends replied with the sagacious comment that much Luton-hating can be boiled down to a pernicious mix of closet racism and classism. I think he’s right, and it’s worth taking each of those points in turn, while noting that immigration and poverty very often go hand in hand.

I have previously written in defence of Luton’s ethnically and culturally mixed population in reply to prolific Luton on Sunday contributor, Ron Turvey. I value Luton both for its ‘hideous diversity’ and history of both white and non-white immigration (Irish, Afro-Caribbean, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Eastern European, and white Brits like myself not originally from Luton) and for its working class histories – of hat-making and car production, as two notable examples alongside all of the other things that make a town: hospitals and schools and retail and construction – though I recognise that my own relation to this latter aspect is more conflicted. As the first person in my family to go to university, I purposely set out to become someone with different ambitions and tastes from those of my immediate family, to stride briskly through the world with a broadsheet under my arm and a cup of posh coffee, to take on unheard-of debt in the interests of imitating a lifestyle that came naturally to some of my friends and to embark on achieving postgraduate qualifications in subjects which I have never yet succeeded in explaining to my mother.

I’ve precisely the kind of background, therefore, liable to induce a level and consistency of pesto-zealotry that can easily outdo the enthusiasms of the native middle classes, and I am very much in sympathy with my friend who despairs of finding the background dynamism of places such as Hackney at the other end of the Lea. I didn’t want to write a blog too narrowly proselytising for the kind of gentrification that results in all-white, all middle-class, unaffordable neighbourhoods, and at the same time, I didn’t want to say that things in Luton could not be better.

Not least, because as someone who was not born into the middle classes, I take offence at the notion that an interest in art, or the built environment, or locally-sourced food, or a desire for retail choices that do not rely on the exploitation of poor people in hot countries, are of no concern to people who earn less, who work in manual trades, who don’t have degrees; or people who are first-, second- or third-generation immigrants. Perhaps naïvely, I insist on the possibility of an argument for ‘gentrification’ that is something other than an argument for ‘nice things for the middle classes, and fewer black/brown faces’.

Thus, if the tone of Yoga World and Pesto is irredeemably ‘lightly ironic’, it may come from trying too hard to say both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to Luton at the same time; to express both love, and frustration: to say ‘I love this place and for that precise reason wish it was better’ and to recognise that if people like me are committed to Luton, we do not serve its future if we never shop locally, buy our cappuccinos at St Pancras and hit up Ocado for carciofi sott’olio.

So here’s to a first year of lightly-ironic Luton blogging and to a second in which my training commitments will continue to clash (for a further few months) with all the interesting and important Luton happenings that I would otherwise tell you about. In case I forget, a couple of dates for your diary: the next Luton Clean-Up Day (this time concentrating both on LOHO and High Town) is on Saturday, 26 April, followed by a ‘a new festival within our wonderful area, which will include an ‘open studio/business’ day’ on Saturday, 10 May (I know nothing more than this, but both are organised by Gav at Made in Luton, or see here for their Facebook page).

Yoga World and Pesto has a little more life in it yet, I think. Thank you for reading.

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5 thoughts on “#lutonhappy: On Ambivalence

  1. Happy blogiversary and thank you for your postings, ambivalent or otherwise, on Luton.
    I agree on the closet racism/classism. I tell people I live in Luton and it often provokes an incredulous “Why?” or furrowed brows (thought bubble: “That’s a bit grim, isn’t it?”).

    Gentrification is a very difficult one. Luton contains large numbers of people who are poor and ill-educated, not necessarily through their own fault. Nonetheless, this brings with it problems, not least a lowest common denominator feedback loop in terms of shops, cultural offerings and lack of aspiration that can be depressing, if you let it get to you. I’ve read plenty of stuff on urban decline and renewal from The Life and Death of Great American Cities to, recently, The Last Days of Detroit – I never get the sense that any of the Komrades on the council, with their grand projets, have any sensibilities in this regard – but I’ve not yet come across a model for attracting just enough change but not too much. Thoughts?

    On the prolific and perpetually angry Ron Turvey (he wants to watch it, I reckon you can get a stroke through being hacked off like that all the time), it occurs to me that in righteous world the name would be adopted by cultural activists a la Luther Blissett:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luther_Blissett_%28nom_de_plume%29

    (Disagree on Papa J’s, though – the food is ok but a restaurant with huge TVs? Bleh.)

  2. Gentrification is a hot potato word isn’t it. Whole sections of society have been gentrified the hell out of where they were bought up across this land through the rise in property prices, unaffordability etc that it often brings. That doesn’t mean that ‘middle classing’ up is the only answer for deprived areas (we seem to value the worst aspects of middle class culture in this country-social snobbery, sharp elbowed ladder climbing, owning property above all else and a selective neighbourliness to name just a few) but then neither is filling the high street with poundlands ,betting shops and fast food shops the best that deprived areas deserve. As the very recent Grant Schapps budget gaff has proved, crude class setereotypes and expectations that go with them are alive and well.
    Love the video. Not sure it would stand up to the 24 hour treatment (see there I go now *smacks own wrist*).

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