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18 December 2018

No, Stevenage isn’t a slum. But it is a bit dull

Let’s be honest, most commuter towns are. 

By Jonn Elledge

The impressive thing about Lewis Hamilton is that he can drive so well with his foot in his mouth. Last December, an Instagram video in which he yelled at a nephew for his taste in Christmas presents (“Boys don’t wear princess dresses!”) caused a medium-sized social media uproar. This year, it’s Middle England he’s offended, by describing his home town of Stevenage as “the slums”. At this rate he’ll soon have alienated everyone, and have nothing except for his mind-blowing wealth for comfort.

Watching the video of his speech at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards, it’s fairly obvious that Hamilton does not literally believe Hertfordshire is comparable to the favelas of Rio. “It was really a dream for us all as a family to do something to different,” he says. “For us to get out of the slums, we would say – it’s not the slums, but just come out from somewhere and do something.”

That to me sounds like a figure of speech: a jokey way of saying “the crap town I grew up in”. We’ve all done it, describing a perfectly decent flat as a shoebox, or a mildly boring home town as a shithole. It’s less a description of objective reality than a comment on its failure to match up to our dreams.

Most of us will never realise those dreams; Hamilton actually has, living the life in Monaco like a cross between James Bond and Scrooge McDuck. Perhaps that’s why the good people of Stevenage have bristled so at his betrayal. “The people of our town, many of whom admire and support him, felt very offended,” says council leader Sharon Taylor. One of those people, the para-badminton player Gobi Ranganathan, agreed, tweeting in reply: “It has a lot to offer if people just open their eyes.”

I’m sure it does, on the grounds that pretty much everywhere does, if you’re minded to look for it. Nearly 90,000 people live in Stevenage, and many of them paid a fair whack (average house price: £300,000) to be there. They can’t all have made a terrible mistake. I’m sure there are attractions to living in Stevenage, just as there are to St Albans or Sevenoaks or Southend-on-Sea.

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But here’s the thing: a place can have plenty to offer and still be the sort of place any ambitious teenager would climb over their own grandmother to get away from. And for every one of those towns – whatever their history, or cosy pubs, or shopping centres with plenty of parking – the biggest attraction by far is something that’s not about the town itself at all. It’s the mainline to London.

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There’s a ring of towns around the capital to which people move not so much because of what they have, as because of where they are: they’re dormitory suburbs, which happen to be separated from the capital by a few fields, rather than independent communities entire unto themselves. That’s all the more true of Stevenage which, as a New Town, literally only exists because in 1946 London needed a place to put more housing.

This symbiotic existence does all sorts of things to a town. It tends to mean there’s money there, as people with jobs in the capital move out in search of homes with gardens, bidding up house prices but bringing disposable income, too. But it also makes them a bit – I’m just going to come out and say it – dull. Property is expensive, but the market for any commercial venture is smaller than it looks, because anyone looking for an art gallery or a theatre or a good night out is within easy reach of things much bigger and better.

So it’s hard to take risks, in a way it wouldn’t be in a university town or further from London, or even in the capital itself. The result is identikit shopping centres, with the same chain restaurants and the same chain pubs and the same ghastly, cheesy night clubs. Growing up in the suburbs, you’re constantly aware that the good stuff is always happening just over the horizon. Those railway lines don’t just carry commuters to London: they drain towns of their life.

Of course, this falls under the heading of good problems to have: if you’re worried about suburban tedium, you’re not worrying about crippling poverty or what will happen when the town’s single major employer decides to shut up shop. And of course the great and the good of Stevenage would bristle when its most famous son publicly slagged it off. Lord knows I’ve spent enough time complaining about Romford, and I left as soon as I could, yet I still feel my hackles rise whenever anyone else joins in.

But I don’t for a moment believe that Hamilton was literally comparing his hometown to the rubbish tips of Mumbai. The teenagers of Stevenage today, I suspect, understand exactly what he meant.