In 1988 my mother took the bus to Stevenage town centre to do the weekly shop, came home and died in her sleep. She was forty-four; I was nineteen. Her passing was a matter of some civic note.
In the twenty years and more that she’d lived in the town my mother had been a nurse, schoolteacher, English teacher to Indian women, literacy teacher to adults, office bearer with the Stevenage West Indian Sports and Social Club and voluntary youth worker. She was deeply involved in the community. When she shopped she saw people she knew and when she saw people she knew she stopped and chatted. A single mother with three ravenous sons to feed on a tight budget, my mother had elevated bargain hunting to something of a science. She would team up with Mrs Provencal, a Ghanaian woman whose daughter was one of five black kids in my year at school. They worked the aisles of Sainsbury’s and Tesco separately. Hovering around the breads and fruits on a Saturday afternoon until the goods were reduced to clear (stores didn’t open on a Sunday back then), they would send word to each other of the price and ask how many loaves/buns/tomatoes were wanted. I know this because throughout my teens I was the messenger. Sprinting between stores with orders and prices through the drizzle and dusk like a human text message.
My mother’s death made the front page of the Stevenage Gazette. For months afterwards former students and friends wrote touching letters to the paper in her memory. As news of the tragedy spread, a large number of people said how shocked they were, since they had seen her in the town centre just a few days before – as though anyone who goes shopping on Saturday could not possibly be dead by Sunday.
All of this meeting, greeting and shuttling, which – for my mother – were as integral to shopping as buying the groceries, did not happen by accident. Since the war, almost nothing about Stevenage had happened by accident. The new town was the product of two powerful forces: extensive planning and massive public investment. From the colour of the street signs to the layout of the town centre, everything was deliberate. As the first child of the New Towns Act, passed by the post-war Labour government, its conception was trumpeted with considerable fanfare. ‘Stevenage will in a short time become world-famous,’ said Lewis Silkin, the minister for Town and Country Planning, in 1946. ‘People from all over the world will come to Stevenage to see how we, here in this country, are building for the new way of life.’
The same conditions responsible for bringing Stevenage New Town into existence – a state-led effort to rebuild the country – had brought my mother to Britain from Barbados. She arrived to work as a nurse in the NHS, which was founded two years after Stevenage was built. It was 1961, and she was eighteen and in possession of A levels in British Constitution, English Literature and European History and a British passport. The British government paid her fare so that she could work for the NHS and my mother paid them back once her training was complete and she had started earning. It was probably the only part of the transaction that did not involve a mutual deception. She thought she was coming to save money for a few years before returning ‘home’. Instead she stayed for twenty-six years, raised a family and went back in a box (though she died suddenly, she had long insisted that she did not want to be buried in England). The government thought they were importing a worker, but a person came.
After training as a nurse, she reconnected with my father, a man she had known in Barbados and who had grown up in the same parish. They settled initially in Dulwich, south-east London, where my two older brothers were born. Then in the late sixties, after the wine company my father worked for relocated, they moved thirty miles north to Stevenage. My parents liked Stevenage for the same reason most people did – more space, good council housing, decent schools. The choice of house was more or less made for them by Nell Stilling, the woman who would become our neighbour and family friend. Most drew their curtains and looked askance at the prospect of a black family moving next door. Mrs Stilling, who read the Mail and adored the Queen, offered to warm the milk for my brother, who was then a baby. A couple of years later I was born and fifteen months after that my dad left.
While for my entire childhood Stevenage was the only place I really knew, it was not a place I would claim until I was much older. In Gender and Nation, Nira Yuval-Davis describes how Palestinian children in Lebanese refugee camps would call ‘home’ a village which may not have even existed for several decades but from which their parents were exiled. Stevenage was no refugee camp and my mother was no exile. Yet that sense of displacement, the rift between where you happen to be and where you understand you are from, was always familiar to me.
Until I was seventeen if anyone asked me where I was from I told them Barbados – a country I’d spent just six weeks in as a four-year-old. My mother was from elsewhere and proud of it. There was a flag of Barbados on our door and a map on our wall. The mantra was that when we walked into the house we were in Barbados.
My personal story certainly intensified these feelings of geographical ambivalence, but it didn’t create them. Indeed, I think they were generally shared by my peers, regardless of their race and heritage. Beneath its concrete functionality, Stevenage may have hidden a number of idiosyncrasies; but for all that made it different, during the seventies and eighties being from Stevenage felt as though you weren’t really from anywhere in particular. It was a place people passed on the train on their way up north or studied in town planning. Otherwise it didn’t feel obvious that anyone knew we were there. Our accent could best be described as ‘not quite London’ and no one could ever really place it on a map, not even another person from Stevenage if you met them elsewhere.
For most of my childhood the town did not have a football team. My friends were likely to support West Ham, Tottenham or Arsenal – the teams their parents had grown up with. The town’s topography was completely unremarkable. When foreign exchange students came and asked what there was to see in town we would take them to London or Cambridge. To my knowledge only one of my friends’ parents had actually gone to school in Stevenage.
For those raised amid natural beauty, Stevenage doubtless appeared hideous. During my first week as a student in Edinburgh I remember crossing George IV Bridge, looking to my left and seeing the upper ridge of Arthur’s Seat over the Gothic masonry and wondering how such a thing – a huge hill in the middle of an old city – was possible. Then I looked to my right, saw the castle and realized that such imposing scenery was not just for school trips. People could actually live in it.
I’ve also always felt envious of people who feel a deep sense of affinity to where they live, whether it’s beautiful or not. Liverpudlians, Glaswegians, Alabamians or Dubliners, whose sense of self is intimately connected to their sense of place. Stevenage could never quite provide that.
I don’t think it’s happenstance that for most of the last decade both of my brothers and I have lived outside the country (two of us in the US and one in Ireland) – there was little attachment to the soil to begin with and when it came to Stevenage there was precious little soil to attach yourself to.
But alongside the indifference to our immediate surroundings there was also the stubborn stain of the planners’ Magic Marker. The town felt planned. It was colour-coded, with each neighbourhood assigned a specific shade so that you always knew where you were. In Bedwell, for example, where my mother had taught, all the street signs were blue; in Broadwater, where I grew up, they were brown. Designed to promote a sense of community, each area had its own smaller shopping centres with butchers, greengrocers, launderettes, newsagents and chip shops. The street names were also themed. One area paid tribute to great British women: Brontë Paths, Pankhurst Crescent, Eliot Road, Austen Paths, Siddons Road. Another was named for castles and stately homes: Blenheim Way, Balmoral Close, Ranworth Avenue, Petworth Close.
The town planners had given considerable thought to the traffic, too. The town was stitched together by almost a dozen roundabouts. Directions to my house from London were simple: exit the A1, go straight over six roundabouts and then turn right.
A lot of this worked. The way the town was built did make a sense of community possible. The local greengrocers and newsagents were run by my friends’ dads; Mrs Stilling’s son was the butcher. Mr Grix, who ran the hardware store, would cash Mum’s cheques when there was more month left than money. And I don’t remember seeing a single traffic jam, let alone a rush hour (although, since we didn’t have a car, I can’t say I was looking too hard).
So whatever sense of alienation we felt was environmental rather than social and had nothing to do with deprivation. As far as facilities were concerned it was a great place to grow up. It’s just that we had no more reason to be there than anywhere else. The physical space we inhabited was shaped not by family ties, cultural affiliation or group identity but by some random, indifferent and entirely elusive force.
The town was literally built around us, with new developments perennially snacking on green space. By the age of eight, my eldest brother could legitimately look out from the bottom of our street and say: ‘When I was growing up all this was fields.’ It was only later that I would realize the obvious fact that those fields had once belonged to others. That the cows who used to graze at the very end of our street were part of some pre-municipal existence. Stevenage had at one stage been a quiet market town. In 1861 Charles Dickens described the high street as being ‘like most other village streets: wide for its height, silent for its size, and drowsy in the dullest degree. The quietest little dwellings with the largest of window-shutters (to shut up nothing as if it were the Mint or the Bank of England . . .)’.
When Labour ordered the compulsory purchase of several thousand acres of land and started turfing people off their property after the war, there was considerable opposition. When Silkin came to town to explain his decision to dump 60,000 newcomers on their doorstep, he was roundly heckled. ‘It’s no good your jeering,’ he told them. ‘It’s going to be done.’ And done it was. One morning, in a final act of symbolic opposition, all the signposts to and from the town, as well as at the train station, were changed from Stevenage to Silkingrad.
In 1801 the population was 1,430; by 1901 it had almost trebled; by 2001 it had grown almost twentyfold to 79,724. In the end only the area around the Old Town high street remained unchanged. Within a generation, Stevenage’s creation story had largely been expunged of these tales of imposition, resentment, displacement and conflict. Not, I think, because anyone thought we shouldn’t know, but because few really cared.
My secondary school, Heathcote, was situated on the edge of Shephall Green. Every weekday, without ever knowing it, I walked through the only old hamlet in the New Town that had not been razed to the ground. Most of the Old Town did remain with Tudor-looking buildings, narrow alleyways and pubs aplenty. A huge flyover connected it to the New Town. As a teenager I went there to play chess and drink illegally with my mates. But I never had any sense, as I crossed over the dual carriageway, that I was a settler heading into indigenous territory. If I did then the racially charged order that I should ‘go back to where I came from’ would have been far easier to counter. We – the settlers – were all from somewhere else. And, at the outset at least, very few people wanted us there.
For better and for worse Stevenage came to exhibit most of the dreams, foibles, errors and successes of the post-war period. The brutality of war had made the political class utopian. The war’s technological advances and social upheaval made it bold. Alongside a zeal for planning came a confidence that the state had not only a primary role in the rebuilding of the country but also a duty to shape the human environment. The town made no sense without government because, in its modern form, it would not exist without government. It was utilitarian to a fault, but the sting of ridicule recedes once one acknowledges both what it achieved and what it replaced. I remember seeing one of the final episodes of Shine on Harvey Moon, a TV series screened in the mid-eighties and set during the war. The family is huddled around a table in a cramped London flat when they get a letter telling them they’ve been accepted for a house in Stevenage. They’re overjoyed. It’s like they just got a green card or passed the Bar exam: it’s a way in, out and up.
And as time went on there was plenty to be happy about. Stevenage boasted great amenities. A bowling alley, swimming pool, cinema, adventure playgrounds and youth clubs. In the mid-seventies a huge leisure centre with a theatre was completed. In the summer there were play schemes, where you could try table tennis, learn chess and do artwork, all funded by the local council. These became something of a family affair. My mother ran one in Shephalbury Park for several years, which my brothers and I attended as children. When we were old enough we worked in other play centres and then finally ran Shephalbury ourselves. As prizes for sports and good behaviour, we would hand out tokens for free admission to the bowling alley and the swimming pool, since all were council-run.
But primarily, particularly in light of the devastation to London’s homes during and after the war, Stevenage’s big draw was housing. In 2010 I came back to Stevenage to report on the general election. The town had become an electoral weathervane, voting for the winning side in every election since 1974. In 1979 it went from Labour to Tory, an event of particular importance because the MP at that time was Education Secretary Shirley Williams. In 1997 it went back to Labour, electing Barbara Follett, in many ways the personification of New Labour. In 2010, with the economy in collapse and public spending under scrutiny, the role of government was central to the debate. Stevenage in that context seemed the logical place to be. It voted Conservative.
I was surprised then, when interviewing people on my street where I’d grown up and others of my mother’s generation, to discover how many professionals had been drawn in the sixties and seventies by the offer of good council housing with gardens front and back, three bedrooms and central heating. No one needed to tell you where the toilet was in any of the houses on our street because they were all in the same place. It was essentially the same house built over and over. The same was true elsewhere in town. But that degree of uniformity hadn’t seemed to bother people back then, and social housing had yet to bear the stigma it holds now.
There was no sense of incongruity in Stevenage between being a young professional and living in social housing. That didn’t make the town classless, but it certainly allowed for a diversity of aspiration and a population that ranged all the way from the fuck-ups to the foremen and from the uncivil to the civil servant. Among the fourteen or so families who lived on our row there was a policeman, a dinner lady, a contractor, a couple of painters and decorators, a couple of pensioners and an unemployed couple.
The predominance of council housing took both the shame and shine out of residency since there was nothing useful you could assume about anybody’s status from where they lived, so long as they lived in Stevenage. There were poor people, us among them. But there were no ‘no-go’ areas. Stevenage was a working-class town, not as a euphemism for an area that was down-at-heel but in the sense that it was a town where people could find work. Combined with affordable housing, that was a great leveller. Throughout my junior-school years there were never more than three of us in my class who were on free dinners. People who lived there tended to work there. There was plenty to choose from: Kodak, Bowaters, Geo. W. King’s – industry light and heavy, employment skilled and unskilled. Much of that work was deadly. The biggest employer in town was British Aerospace (BAe) which, among other things, made weapons. And while it did not quite reach the level of becoming a company town, it came close to feeling that way. The plant dominated the industrial area and absorbed school-leavers for apprenticeships. At one stage about an eighth of the town’s workforce relied on it.
The residential mix and need for skilled labour made for good schools. The teachers were dedicated; the classes well resourced. It was all there if you wanted it. Growing up under a Bajan matriarchy that valued education above all else, my mother wanted it enough for all her children. There was never a time when I didn’t think I had to go to university; there was never a time when I didn’t think it was possible; and there was never anyone who suggested otherwise.
I recall one hot childhood summer, during lunch break at play scheme, sitting under a tree in Shephalbury Park talking with my brother and some friends about what we wanted to do when we grew up. Among us there were aspiring mechanics, models, footballers and hairdressers, all of whose pre-teen dreams were greeted with interest. My plans alone provoked screeches of derision: I said I wanted to go to university and be a doctor.
They laughed, in part because it was a square ambition for someone with a glamorous future to fantasize about. But also because it was so completely alien to any of our experiences. None of us at the time knew anyone who had been to university – apart from teachers, who, at that age, were an alien species anyway. I might as well have said I wanted to be Governor of the Bank of England, live underwater or become a centaur, since we didn’t know anyone who had done those things either.
We worked hard and our mother sacrificed a great deal. But that would never have been sufficient by itself. Part of the answer as to how three black boys raised by a single mother made it to university does come down to government. Broke as we were, we never lived in an area that had been written off or went to schools that were written off, which means we were never written off. The county council gave stipends to the children of low-income families who stayed on until sixth form. All of us took free night classes at Stevenage College at O and A level. When I couldn’t do all my options at school I did French there, falling asleep aged thirteen next to the heater after football practice, and being prodded by my nurturing teacher, Pierre. I went on to do A level with him. Most of the others in the college class were older folk with good French who wanted to keep it up so they could make good conversation with the locals on their holidays. It was not until I got to university where I studied to be a translator that I realized I’d learned pensioner French, with the words for things such as hip replacement and thermal underwear coming just a little too easily to me.
If the schools in Stevenage were good then education was, generally speaking, undervalued. Around 150 kids started my year in secondary school. It’s my guess that around thirty stayed on after sixteen for sixth form, of whom around half went on to university. Many more could have done. Probably twice that number got decent O levels and could have easily pursued further education. But most didn’t see the point. There was money to be made and the fruits of young adulthood to be tasted and to delay all that for more qualifications seemed pointless to them. Friends every bit as smart and smarter left at sixteen to work for the Gas Board, the railways and, of course, BAe. When I saw them again they would often lecture me about how my studying was a drain on their taxes. In the era of full grants and no tuition fees, other friends who wanted to go to university were discouraged from doing so by their parents. One friend’s older brother, who worked at BAe, sat me down and calculated precisely, taking into account likely promotions, how much I would lose in wages if I was stupid enough to go to university. ‘And that’s not including overtime,’ he added.
It was the eighties. Thatcher had our number; the Sun understood our impulses. Not greedy or venal necessarily – although Harry Enfield’s ‘Loadsamoney’ character certainly struck a chord. But, in the wake of the ideological, electoral and organizational decline of the Labour Party, the labour movement and the Eastern bloc, the notion of public goods and the public good – the very concepts on which the town had been built – could not compete with the attractions of private materialism. The very creation of Stevenage New Town was underpinned by the notion that there was indeed such a thing as society, that it thrived through community and that government had a role in nurturing and sustaining both. Thatcherism was guided by the opposite.
The collapse of the political model that built Stevenage was not imposed against our will. Indeed, in many ways, the mood guiding its demise was far more consensual than that governing its invention. People rushed to it willingly and with open wallets. While it was a working-class town it was not particularly politically class-conscious and certainly not militant. Those who did not like Thatcher would talk, in broad terms, about her representing the rich. But that did not translate into any reflexive identification with trade union struggles or international solidarity campaigns.
During moments of patriotic fervour like the Falklands War, the royal wedding, the Queen’s Jubilee or in the wake of an IRA attack, the town would rally dutifully to the flag. The devastation being wrought elsewhere, particularly up north and in the inner cities, felt like news from another country. Stevenage, during the early eighties, was doing fine – well, even. Those who weren’t antagonistic towards the struggles of the miners, the GLC, teachers or the nurses, were, broadly speaking, ambivalent.
Outwardly, certainly, the biggest transformation came with the Housing Act in 1980. The legislation gave council tenants the right to buy their council house at a discount – the price depending on how long they’d been living in it – and forbade councils from spending the receipts until they had cleared their debts. In a town like Stevenage where most housing was originally of council stock, the effect was dramatic. With relatively little effort people immediately felt wealthier while the town – as an entity in itself – simultaneously became poorer. People started to customize their homes with small front porches and paved garage ways.
House prices were soaring, and Stevenage became more of a commuter town. The boom meant more painting, more decorating, roofing and tiling – more reasons to leave school and make money. The building continued apace, but holistic planning was now a thing of the past. Big superstores started popping up on the outskirts of town, rendering the original pedestrianized shopping centre somewhat obsolete, since more people drove. Because people were less likely to get on the bus and go to town shopping, they were less likely to meet each other. Queensway was in the centre of town, but it was no longer a town centre in the way that it had been. If my mother had died in the same way ten years later, far fewer people would have seen her last hurrah in town.
When the housing market collapsed, house prices fell even as the porches remained. Some of my school friends had been through their first redundancy before their twenty-first birthday. As the council retreated from the housing market, so inequalities emerged between different parts of the town. With the council-housing stock depleted, the children of those who had bought were left to fend for themselves. Soon there were no-go areas. Gradually Stevenage gained a reputation for being a rough, even violent town. A few years back, while visiting Luton, I’d introduced myself to a couple of youngsters as someone from Stevenage. They sucked in hard as though I’d told them I’d grown up in the South Bronx.
Stevenage would have changed without Thatcherism. As young as my mother was when she died, Stevenage New Town was even younger and still developing. And it was not an island. Mr Grix, the local hardware store owner, could never have competed with B&Q; the end of the Cold War presented BAe with tough challenges and a town built with the traffic flow of 1946 in mind would always have had to re-evaluate its options. Thatcherism wasn’t the only thing that happened to Stevenage, and some of what did happen was good. Central to the flowering of an organic identity, as opposed to one invented by the planners, was the emergence of a decent football team that finally made it to the league. Even that, however, would have been impossible without local government planning. In the seventies, the stadium had been bought by a private contractor who was so determined to use the land for something other than football that he dug the pitch up with JCB trucks and left it to rot. The council bought the land back, restored it, refurbished the stadium and the team went on to great things.
Queensway, once a hub, is now peppered with boarded-up shopfronts, charity stores, amusement arcades and loan shops. The bowling alley is now a car park; almost everything that was locally run has now been replaced by a chain, but the toilets are still free. The fountain and the clock tower are still standing, with the bronzed impression of Silkin somewhat tarnished with age. The years have not ravaged Stevenage but they have not been kind either. Mostly, though, it just feels empty – lacking the bustle of the social hub it once was.
In 2004, after thirty years of underperformance, my junior school ‘rebranded’ and changed its name. My secondary school, vamped up as a specialist engineering college, recently had its last intake and will close this year. In between the two schools is Shephalbury Park, where we used to spend summers at the play scheme. Portakabins now stand to one side as changing rooms for the footballers and cricketers who use the park. The pavilion has been burned down. You can walk across the still-paved floor, as though over a full-scale architect’s floor plan, from the space where we played table tennis, to the arts room, and to the storage area where the balls, hoops and bats were kept. All that remains now are the concrete foundations; strong and grey, with small tufts of grass poking through the cracks.
Photograph © Alamy