I visited my home town recently, for the first time in about four or five years, and was pleasantly surprised at the various attempts to introduce a touch of class to the place. What was once, long ago, a thriving seaside resort had declined steadily over the years to become a grubby tourist trap for visitors from Birmingham and a second home for recovering heroin addicts. It’s happened to a lot of the smaller coastal resorts as the typical British holiday now takes place abroad, depriving British towns of the much-needed tourist revenue (and presumably also forcing Ken Dodd to seek other work, so it’s not all bad).
I assume that the town has some sort of council overseeing the development, and God Bless ’em, they’re doing their best. In the place of seedy arcades, we now have trendy wine bars. Nightclubs appear to be replacing the nicotine-stained, chipped-tile pool halls, there’s a branch of Costa Coffee attached to the largest bookstore in town, and alongside the old, grease-stained fish and chip bars you can now find little Italian sandwich shops. There’s a Toni & Guy. There’s no Starbucks, yet, but it’s surely only a matter of time. I’m looking forward to the arrival of a Starbucks, not because I like their horrible, horrible coffee, but so that I can deride this place as being “a one-Starbucks town”
It’s evidently been a slow process. A new wine bar still faces an old arcade, packed with slot machines and reeking of desperation, but clearly profitable enough to hang on to its space. The Toni & Guy is squashed uncomfortably between a crumbling Spar and an equally-crumbling Carphone Warhouse, and new shops can only get a foothold on the valuable high street real estate via dead man’s shoes — with limited room for development (what with the sea on one side and thousands of houses on the other), you have to wait for an existing store to go bankrupt or sell up before you can move in.
I’ve seen attempts such as these before here, but they’ve never lasted. About ten years ago, there was a brief flurry of internet cafés that died off after the locals demonstrated a complete indifference to the whole concept. Nobody ever seemed entirely sure what they were supposed to be; a café with a separate section for computers, or a room full of computers that you were allowed to eat muffins at? There was even an attempt to create a cross between a hairdressers and an internet café; you could go in for a short back and sides, or you could surf the web whilst sipping coffee and pretending not to notice the stray hairs around the rim of the cup, or the faint smell of hair gel that permeated all the baked goods. There was a branch of Tower Records that bought a job-lot of coloured iMacs and offered internet access, which was nice for a while, but when you finish writing an e-mail and turn your head to find local yokels peering through the window, reading over your shoulder, it can make you a little cold to the idea.
We, the English masses, struggle with these new ideas. Outside of the larger cultural centres — London, Liverpool, Hull — there’s a much greater sense of inertia, of a need to drag the unwilling population into the modern world. New concepts have to be introduced slowly, and patiently, and you can see when it’s been rushed by the number of hastily-written signs stuck everywhere. A trendy wine bar or nightclub with glass doors now have signs reading “WARNING — GLASS DOOR” stuck with sellotape onto both sides of the panes. The Italian sandwich shop that proclaims on its door “Freshly-made Paninis” has an addendum attached after the word ‘panini’ reading “(made of bread)”, and the Costa Coffee bookstore has to remind customers that before they pick a book off the shelves, crack the spine and start dripping coffee and crumbs all over it, that they should buy the book first.
Whether this current cultural initiative succeeds is still open. I’d like to think that it will succeed, but I’d like to think even more that I’ll be well out of here before finding out.