The New Statesman Profile - Swindon

A wannabe city full of company headquarters and shopping malls, but with no cathedral or university.

In the visitors' gallery of the National Monuments Record Centre in Swindon, there are four fat volumes of black-and-white photographs depicting examples of England's architectural and archaeological heritage. I am flicking through them - hundreds of images of past and present glories: Iron Age hill forts and stone circles; cathedrals and corn exchanges; the odd cemetery; a power station; someone's home. It is a strangely uplifting, rather poignant experience. But there seems to be something missing, and it's not just the £14 that I am invited to stump up for one of the stunning photographic prints on offer.

Eventually, I realise what it is. While Wiltshire is reasonably well represented in the collection, its largest town doesn't get a look-in. "Haven't you got any prints of Swindon I can buy?" I ask the woman at the desk, briskly. "Afraid not," she replies, sheepishly. "That's a shame," I say, and she agrees that it is, indeed, an omission. We eye each other suspiciously for a moment. Then I step back out into the afternoon sunshine, ready to hit the Great Western Designer Outlet Village over the way, where you can buy a pair of blue jeans and a great Gap top, and still get change from a tenner.

Swindon has been missing, and widely presumed dead, for some time now. Buried in the vast no-man's land stretching between the Marlborough Downs, the Cotswolds and the Vale of the White Horse, Swindon feels to me like a lost civilisation waiting to be unearthed, rescued or even just graced with an occasional kind word from a passer-by.

The trouble is that Swindon is just too clever by half - or, more accurately, too successful. Economic success has gone to its head, at least to the heads of its civic leaders. Flushed by an endless stream of impressive statistics about its huge GDP, the spending power of its inhabitants and its sheer magnetism to international companies relocating alongside the "Silicone Gorge" flanking the M4, Swindon Borough Council has decided that being a mere town no longer befits its station in life. It has puffed out its chest, drawn itself up to its full height and declared that it must become a city.

Now, I have lived most of my life in cities. I recognise a city when I see, feel, hear, touch and smell one. There is dignity and vibrancy, a bit of an edge, a sense of danger and excitement, and a smattering of sumptuous old buildings that have been cherished, saved by obsessional volunteers and eccentric visionaries, renovated and put to good new uses. I have to say, having spent a few days pounding its silicone-paved streets, negotiating its baffling signposting and absurd sponsored roundabouts, trying to absorb its essence and make sense of its unique selling points: Swindon, you are no city.

Indeed, new Labour seems already to have concluded that one of its own, most solid and loyal electoral bedrocks simply isn't up to the task. The government would not even put Swindon on its shortlist for New Cities for the New Millennium. A Home Office document leaked last March demonstrated beyond all doubt that it was not even amused by the town's presumption. A review of the 39 town bids for city status dismissed Swindon's out of hand as "poorly constructed" and giving the impression of a "particularly materialistic town, rather than a rounded community".

Relentlessly mocked and unloved for years by outsiders, image-makers and journalists, Swindon, quite understandably, went ballistic at this fresh, humiliating put-down. In a letter to Jack Straw, council chief executive Paul Doherty positively foamed at the offence that this judgement had caused to decent, hard-working Swindonians.

"We have the highest number of national and international company headquarters of any town or city in the UK except London," he wrote. "The list includes Nationwide, the world's largest building society, Intel, Motorola, Burmah Castrol, Honda UK, WHSmith, Allied Dunbar and many more - 38, in fact.

"And the main point is that this is really no accident. Swindon really has reinvented itself from a declining railway town into a city with a world-class economy. All this has been based on the skills of local people and the far-sightedness of Swindon's civic leaders over the past two generations."

On and on he went, extolling the 1,000 community and voluntary organisations, the low crime rate "and our very successful community safety partnership". Good for him. But were the grounds of his loquacious appeal justified? We are still waiting to find out. There is no cathedral or university in Swindon, and its delights do take some determined searching out.

I live in a village that calls itself a town, roughly halfway between a real city - Bath (population around 84,000) - and a wannabe city - Swindon (population around 200,000). Over the three years since I moved here, I have veered towards Bath whenever I want a quick escape from the desk, phone, piles of ironing or bindweed-pulling duties in my garden - that kind of thing. Bath is inspiring, beautiful and restorative, provided that I go on a weekday, off- season. Otherwise, it is packed with tourists, jammed with coaches, open-air buses wired for sound and motor cars.

It is every bit as ghastly an incarnation of Mad Max's Barter Town as is Swindon. And while we're on the subject of Bath's downside, there is also its tangibly smug self-satisfaction, its monocultural middle-classness and its obsession with correctness. Few appear to leave their homes, even to post a letter, unless they are neatly dressed and wearing brogues or court shoes.

Swindon, by contrast, has a rather perky "take-us-as-you-find-us-or-sod-off" quality. Consider, for example, the Link Centre in west Swindon, which aims to provide a mix of cultural, leisure and civic amenities. It looks as though it is shrouded in permanent scaffolding, but that's actually an integral part of the structure. It is enveloped by a rusting array of abandoned shopping trolleys, a dank still stream, incomprehensible signposts and a depressing outpost of Asda.

I can only describe its architecture as post-Brunel ante-brutalist. However, inside is a perfectly good municipal swimming pool, no trimmings, none of your imported palm trees, fake sand and wave machines nonsense. You're there to swim, right? So kindly get on with it, please.

Swindon's central lending library is a Nissen hut, with peeling paint and rotting timber framing. It looks as though it was constructed from papier mache, or wattle and daub, with brown paint slapped haphazardly over the cracks. There is no internet facility for users of the central library in this would-be city. My friendly, helpful local library in Malmesbury (population 4,000) seems positively of British Library standard, by comparison.

I go to Swindon's Shaw Ridge Leisure Centre across Whitehall Way. So many attractions - the toytown red-bricked, red-pantiled hotel; the fast-food outlets; the UGC cinema. There is also a bronze statue of Diana Dors, balanced on a purple-brick plinth, surrounded by weeds, thin parched soil and empty Coke cans.

I get back in the car and drive to the Brunel Centre, little more than yet another Swindon shopping experience, but allegedly the centre of town. Recently, it hosted an alleged Swindon City Festival, which culminated in a dancing display outside Debenhams. There is not a lot else to enjoy or feel enriched by.

Undaunted, I plod hopefully up the steep hill to Swindon's Old Town. This was pretty much all Swindon was, apart from the canal, when Brunel was planning the Great Western Railway, trotting back and forth on horseback between London and Bristol, and later, in his spare moments, pitching in designs for the railway village. I make a beeline for Swindon's Art Gallery and Museum. Here, surely, I will be knocked out by Swindon's "wow factor". The town claims to have the biggest collection of 20th-century art outside the Tate Gallery. I dare say it does, but most of it is locked away in storage, out of sight. The "gallery" is the size of a typical village hall, poorly lit, and the works on show when I visited were unremarkable, aside from one small and lovely painting by L S Lowry, and a suitably dark, nihilistic work by Ben Nicholson.

Oh well. At least the display is changed every two months, so you might get to see everything eventually, if you live long enough. Such is the gist of the information that I glean from the man behind the desk when he looks up from his book. He and I are the only people in the art gallery and museum at this point on the Saturday of my visit.

By the time I get to the Wyvern Theatre, landbanked by a J G Ballardesque concrete wilderness, bridges, linkways and whooshing traffic, I must admit that I have pretty well lost the will to live.

I manage to call in at the Tourist Information Centre on the way back to the car, to pick up a "Short Breaks in Swindon" brochure and armfuls of literature about the new Steam museum, Lydiard Park and the Wroughton Airfield, all of which sound riveting. But I am too knackered and dispirited to read any of it.

As a postscript, I should add that I have since visited the Steam museum, and it is fabulous. Trains are not my thing at all, but the social history of the railway is fascinating. Perhaps it was the knowledge that my grandfather was a signalman on the Great Western Railway in Wales that made me linger at every exhibit, trying to extract clues to the features and influences that may have shaped his life.

What most moved me - to tears, in fact - was the huge wall of individual plaques naming the men who made the GWR. Hundreds of names, as far as the eye could see, put forward by their families and descendants in and around Swindon, loyal and proud of their heritage.

These people, and their ancestors, deserve better than the overweaning ambition of their current civic fathers, their boastful rants, their eyes fixed greedily on international rankings and corporate investment opportunities. To me, Swindon's great tragedy is not that it has so conspicuously failed to reinvent itself as a go-ahead, culturally rich and vibrant city after the final collapse of its railway industry in the 1980s, but simply that its elected leaders have barely started bothering to try.