The New Statesman Essay - Goodbye to provincial life

They were snobbish, repressive, dull. Yet provincial towns once gave people a sense of identity and

Provincial life has become extinct; now there is only the life of the global suburb. This is why the idea of devolving power to the regions is institutionalised nostalgia. It is all too late. The temper and sensibility of the provinces have withered away. The distinctive characteristics of the regions of Britain have been melted down into common patterns of consumption and identical town centres, with a sculpture or mural being the only reminder of their decayed function or the reason for their existence.

Within living memory, every place was associated with the manufacture of some indispensable item in daily use, even if behind each one lay a vast epic of extractive colonialism, the prototype of globalisation: jute from Dundee, cotton from Manchester and Bolton, linen from Belfast, cups and lavatory pans from Stoke on Trent, ships from Glasgow, coal from the pit villages of the Midlands and South Wales, knives and forks from Sheffield, hosiery and lace from Nottingham, footwear from Leicester, metal goods from Birmingham.

Undistinguished provincial towns consoled themselves that they were sites of a gritty "real life": they produced the goods that made the money. But no longer. Their claim to fame now rests on the celebrities they have produced - and who have departed: the football hero born and bred in West Bromwich; the business tycoon who grew up in Blackburn; the music group that originated in Sunderland. The once despised, soft south is now the generator of wealth, the engine of growth; even the vicarious compensation of necessary labour has been withdrawn from the provinces.

The shape of work once gave intelligibility to the country, and taught people their place (in every sense) within it. It stamped recognisable characteristics on the people - army towns supported king and country, while the shoemakers of Northampton, my home town, were dour, radical dissenters. The hinterland of slavery of Liverpool and Bristol created a different temper from the introspective pre-industrial fierceness of the Black Country; mining taught the critical importance of collective endeavour, so that the miners of the early 20th century formed the bedrock of the labour movement. The melancholy of the South Wales chapels contrasted with the wit of Liverpool. The East End of London - a curiously metropolitan province - received, not always warmly, its cosmopolitan refugees, while the old country sensibility took several generations to die in the barracks of industry, lingering in allotments and pigeon-racing, leek-growing and the poaching of game.

The life of the provinces was often predictable and stultifying, but it blended into a single, comprehensible entity. If it was narrow, it was deep; human affections and relationships were no less intense for not having the opportunity to compare themselves with others elsewhere.

Provincial life played itself out in a distinctive accent and dialect. In Northampton, a clergyman's wife produced two volumes of dialect words and phrases that she had collected in the county during the 1950s. The dialect was inflected by its industrial function and modified by geography. It was still influenced by rural psychic structures - albeit disturbed, but not destroyed, by the growth of the town. Northampton was not exceptional: the physical fabric of most towns remained Victorian well into the Fifties.

How to evoke now the languor and eventless ennui of the heyday of provincialism? Early-closing day in the sunlit streets; the faded holland blinds of family butchers; drapers' emporia, where papier-mache models with marcelled hair displayed camisoles and corsets, and a packet of pins was given instead of a halfpenny change; local shops in the front rooms of terraced houses offering liquorice wood, sherbet, Woodbines, while a tabby cat slept in a box of dolly mixtures; the little vortex of excitement on market day, when growers from the countryside brought in their produce of windfallen apples, dewy cucumbers, hard pears and misshapen tomatoes; Sundays, with the melancholy bells in the wet streets and smoke from the chimney pots carried away by the wind; children walking hand in hand to hear of a reassuring Jesus in a Sunday school taught by missionaries just back from Africa; allotments, where families spent whole summer days with a flask of tea and some sandwiches, picking the first runner beans, the hands of children purpled with blackcurrant or raspberry juice; cheerless houses with bare lino, rag rug, no stair-carpet, Windsor chairs and deal tables scored with knife marks; pubs emptying out in the green summer twilight; pianos in front rooms unused except at Christmas and funerals; the seaside week in summer, when you discovered that the people at the next table in the frugal boarding house came from your town, so you spent the whole time in their familiar company. These were towns small enough for everyone to keep track of a vast network of acquaintances, who had worked in the same factories, danced the veleta in the same palais de danse, and lay in the same cemetery on the outskirts.

Even the dozen or so cinemas in an average town, with their twice-weekly change of programme, where you came and went at will, were places for a dreaming that remained apart from daily industrial reality - if people cried over The Garden of Allah or cheered the heroic beauty of Valentino, they still emerged to a town centre where, at 10.30 every evening, a whistle was blown before the last buses departed, a kind of industrial curfew to recall people to the morrow's duties. My mother believed that anybody out after 9.30 at night was "either thieving or whore-hopping". In our town, there was a militaristic conformity in the tread of boots on the pavement at 7.30 in the morning, the clang of cycle bells by men on their way to the factories, and the feral smell of leather they left behind them.

In the daytime, the only people seen in the town centre were the retired, the survivors of industry; women shoppers, pearls at their neck, a wicker basket on their arm; amputees from the First World War selling matches or bootlaces. A few idlers drank tea and ate vanilla slices with synthetic cream in cafes whose decor mimicked the interior of an airliner or a tropical terrace, which few in our town had ever seen.

Even the suburbs were a product of the town, defining themselves against the rows of industrial housing, with their hydrangeas, bay windows, lace curtains, crazy paving and striped sunblinds to prevent the front doors from blistering between May and September. Decorous women in straw hats and men who took to wearing alpaca jackets in the spring patronised the superior shops of the one thoroughfare catering to the middle class and county - fresh coffee and fine-cut marmalade, doilies and antimacassars, furniture shops that provided interiors with cretonne covers, nests of tables, glass cabinets for Lowestoft china.

A self-conscious middle class cultivated vowels that distinguished them from those they considered "common": a dropped aitch in the wrong company could mean self-betrayal and perpetual shame. Members of the town council were somebodies in society with walrus moustaches and gold watch-chains. Their wives would challenge insubordinate employees with an imperious "Do you know who I am?" and a "This will cost you your job". In the caste system of provincial society, everyone knew his or her precise position between the lower-middle class and the gentry; County families still spoke about "breeding" and enunciated oracular proprieties: "At luncheon, a lady may remove her gloves, but never her hat." The big houses on the western outskirts, with names in Gothic script on the gateposts, situated behind laurels and privet, with crystal conservatories, pampas grass and yuccas that flowered only once in seven years, were the homes of those who had made it and who, to prove it, sent their children away to school.

Provincial towns, unprepossessing and grimy, boasted of the municipal park with its blazing geraniums and bandstand, the house and grounds donated in perpetuity by a Victorian manufacturer. There, at the summer show on a rainy August Monday, people exhibited giant dahlias and vegetable marrows on china plates, with a grand display of dressage in the enclosure.

The local newspaper advertised the births, marriages and deaths of everyone you knew; a really popular grandmother might receive 20 death notices, each saying that she was asleep in God's beautiful garden. The paper also chronicled the wrongdoings in the town: who was caught riding a cycle without lights; who was divorced; who had been observed changing his seat in the cinema 19 times. The information was stored in public memory, which was long and deep, and never allowed offenders to forget the slightest misdemeanour.

The lives of children responded to the changing skies - they lived outdoors from April to October, scrumping apples or plums, solemnly telling each other in the hen-coop how babies popped out of the belly button, or competing to see who could push a stem of grass furthest up the urinary tract. They were never consulted over what they wanted to eat, but were served bland meals of suet pudding with meat at one end and jam at the other, and tinned fruit on Sundays. If the buckle-end of the strap or the stair-rod were rarely used to chastise them, they nevertheless remained to scare them, as did the job in the factory at the end of the term in which they celebrated their 14th or 15th birthday.

Provincial life is dead. We should celebrate the end of its repressive conformity. It confined women to domestic tasks of numbing monotony, and men to the only slightly wider circuit of factory, pub and football ground. It denied sexual minorities and couldn't accommodate the unfamiliar: one night, a neighbour spent the evening crying to my mother because her son had been arrested for taking underwear from a clothes line. Unimaginative and self-policing, it stifled with curiously somnolent violence.

But we can still regret the passing of rootedness, security and self-reliance. The global suburb that has replaced it has nothing to do with popular images of "suburbia": this is an outpost of nowhere, with its anonymous freedoms, its striving for identity, its aggressive restlessness. Things don't get better or worse: old taboos and repressions decay and are reconfigured in different ways. If there is something to mourn, there is much to rejoice over in the end of the tyrannical snobberies of provincial life. It is now another place, anchored for ever in unvisited decades of an effaced industrial era.