Friday, March 17, 2006

Luton


I have led a somewhat nomadic life and never lived in one place longer than ten years. I have lived on both the East and West Coast of the United States since 1979 and even my native England seems like a foreign country to me now because I visit there so infrequently. So where do I call home? I was born in Surrey, England but left there as a baby and have never been back, but there is one place were I lived between 1949 and 1959; I was 13 when I moved there and 23 when I left.

The town is Luton; about thirty miles roughly due north of London. This is where I spent my teen years, where I grew from a boy to a man. So if I have a place I can call my home town it is Luton. This was the town where I was given a second chance. I had failed an exam at age eleven which would have enabled me to go for a higher education. I failed because my schooling was disrupted when we moved three times that year because my father kept losing his job. But at aged fourteen I passed an exam to attend Luton Technical School, which later led to and apprenticeship in engineering. I also learned to build racing bicycle frames; a skill which eventually led to my moving to the US and a successful bicycle manufacturing business in Southern California through the 1980s.

Luton is where I lost my virginity (Standing up in some alley between rows of terraced houses.) We were the first generation of teens after WWII and we wanted to be noticed. We were known as “Teddy Boys.” We wore narrow tight trousers when everyone else wore big wide bottom pants. We went dancing at the George Hotel or the Cresta Ballroom. Luton was the town where I was arrested for punching a police officer. (After he punched me.) My plea of “He started it.” Was not accepted by the magistrate and I was put on probation.

I haven’t been back to Luton for many years. They have a website and a message board where ex Lutonians like me post messages from time to time. Sometimes people are unkind to Luton and I have seen it described as “The worst shit-hole in England.” So what happened? As I remember it was a great town.

The 1960s came right after I left; the boom years when money was being made and being spent just as fast. The Luton Town Council, the politicians, decided in their wisdom to tear down many of the beautiful old buildings and rebuild. A good example is the old library building right across from the Town Hall. (Pictured above.) This building was a gift to Luton donated in 1910 by Andrew Carnegie the American philanthropist.

It was a beautiful old building with great character where I would often stand on its steps and wait for a date to show up. We had no cell phones; heck few of us even had phones at home and we had no cars; we used public transport. So if we made a date we would have to arrange to meet somewhere. The Town Council replaced the library with a soulless glass faced monstrosity.

Like the unscrupulous surgeon who will operate on you whether you need it or not just to take your money, the Town Council in cahoots with the big developers ripped the heart out of Luton. They made it a less desirable place to live so people started moving out. And immigrant population moved in.

Luton today has a huge Moslem population and I have even seen it featured on the TV news here in the US because of some links to the terrorist bombings in London. I’m sure the majority of Luton’s citizens today are law abiding but there always a few who drag down the reputation of a place. Not that I am suggesting you put Luton on your list of must see places if you visit England.

Large Towns and Cities have a soul; it is I believe the collective souls of all the people who live there. New York City for example has a special energy that you feel when you are there. San Francisco and London have it also. Luton definitely had a soul when I lived there, and if it doesn’t have one now maybe it’s because the people who live there don’t have a sense of belonging there. They are nomads like me.

I will probably not go back to Luton I prefer to remember it fondly as it once was and for any ex-Lutonians out there,  and it seems we are scattered all over the world; take comfort in the fact that Luton is a very good place to be from.

1 comment:

Michael Burgoyne said...

David,

You ask, somewhat rhetorically, what happened to Luton, but I contend that you really answered that question yourself later in your piece. I agree that the Council in the 60's and later, have to bear a lot of the blame, largely for going about things in a slipshod way. You gave the example of the old library (the Grand Dame of George Street, as I once heard it called) - who can forget that wonderful 'scent' of old musty books, the oak(?) panelling, the Dewey file cards, etc.

Another example I might quote would be the old Grand Theatre. The decision was made that the street (was it Waller Street? I must be getting old) needed to be widened (a few years later it was subsequently written off the map to make roonm for the Arndale (another monstrosity designed by a mindless architect). In order to widen the street, they decided to demolish the theatre, and only after the wrecking crews had begun their awful work, did they discover that the theatre had a false front, the simple removal of which would have allowed the widening of the street and the retention of that lovely old theatre. Whatever happened to the principle of "check it out first"?

In contrast to you, David, I have been back several times after leaving to come to Canada in 1964, and in fact will be back their in April/May 2006. Every time I return, I find it more and more difficult to find my way around - things just seem to be in a constant state of change, but I suppose some would consider that a euphemism for 'progress'.

Hope you continue to use the Guestbook on "Luton Today". I check it on a daily basis when I am home, and revel in the nostalgia it generates.