Things Can Only Get Better?
You might not call Luton a lucky place. Its name used to be synonymous with the making of hats – straw hats and then felt hats dominated the thriving life of the town. But think of those old sepia photographs in which everyone, men and women, has a covered head; and then think of how all that changed. After World War I fashions underwent an irreversible alteration, and the industry suffered terribly.
Later it seemed as if car manufacture might be the town’s new economic salvation. I grew up not far from Luton, and in the 1950s many neighbours and school-friends’ fathers went to work at the Vauxhall plant, the biggest in the country. At one time it gave employment to thirty thousand people. It was noisy and huge and stifling in summer but it brought prosperity. Hundreds of thousands of people all over the UK drove Vauxhall Vivas. But car production ceased there just over a dozen years ago.
Even Luton’s leisure seems to have been tinged with disappointment. The football team –the Hatters – were big once; they were FA Cup finalists when I was ten. But not even Eric Morecambe’s well-publicised support – he used to call out ‘Luton for the Cup’ on impromptu occasions on television – could save them from sliding downwards until they were relegated from the Football League. And in the old 1970s Campari advert, Lorraine Chase replied to the romantic question, ‘Were you truly wafted here from paradise?’ with a scornful estuarial:‘Nah, Luton Airport’. It was as if Luton couldn’t even pretend to lay claim to anything classy. And as if all that weren’t enough, the July 7th bombers all set off to London from – yes -Luton.
Perhaps poetry has offered consolation for these woes? Well, I’m sorry, but readers of a sensitive disposition should look away now.ASJ Tessimond, one of the ‘lost voices’ of twentieth-century English poetry, wrote a curt verse letter to his agent:
Bored, malevolent and mute on
A wet park seat, I look at life and Luton
And think of spittle, slaughterhouses, double
Pneumonia, schizophrenia, kidney trouble,
Piles, paranoia, gallstones in the bladder,
Manic depressive madness growing madder,
Cretins with hideous tropical diseases
And red-eyed necrophiles – while on the breezes
From Luton Gasworks comes a stench that closes
Like a damp frigid hand on my neuroses,
And Time (arthritic deaf-mute) stumbles on
And on and on and on.
A few years ago, John Hartley Williams published a poem in the London Review of Books called Near Luton Airport. I grit my teeth and quote three stanzas:
‘…Taking refuge in a middle stall of three
where silence magnifies my urination
I piddle like a monk and think about my nation,
my thoughts entranced by liberating pee.
‘What’s that mean Squire?’ It’s what it means –
no more no less. Sorry if my words compose
involuntary ordnance of the brain that blows
your shoddy camaraderie to smithereens
as a mighty flushing of the whole urinal
provokes a backward leap, though much too late.
Do thoughts deploy the legs of fate?
With dampened trouser-cuffs, I go to face my wall….’
Enough already. I’ve known fine people in Luton and I’m aware of excellent things that happen there.
Poetry Parliament on March 20th ought to be one of them.
Let’s listen to the Lutonian litotes: ‘I am a citizen of no mean city.’
Tom Deveson, March 2016