Many of us – me included – would equate the word ‘normal’ with the word ‘boring’, but there is an accolade for which normality is rewarded in terms of a town or city. Following one of those endless statistical surveys that often seem to be undertaken by men without girlfriends, Didcot in Oxfordshire has been named ‘the most normal town in England’. Didcot has few claims to fame, which one suspects aids its qualification for this dubious title. Radiohead didn’t form in Didcot, but formed in nearby Abingdon (former Parliamentary constituency of Colditz survivor and terrorist victim, Airey Neave). It says everything about a town’s cultural landscape that one of the world’s biggest bands didn’t emanate from it, but formed ‘nearby’.
So, what put Didcot on the map? Well, not its glamorous old power station, which closed after 43 years of service in 2013. Okay, so what, then? Well, perhaps it makes sense to name the rest of the contenders for this award. To the strains of the ‘Pick of the Pops’ theme, here’s the top five: At No.5, it’s East Leake in Nottinghamshire; No.4 is Southwick, West Sussex; up to No.3, Worcester’s very own Bath Road area; a non-mover at No.2 for Droitwich Spa in Worcestershire; and straight in at No.1 goes Didcot – not ‘arf!
Chances are, unless you were either born in or reside in these locations, you’ve never heard of them; and I guess that’s the point. Didcot fits the bill more than any other town in England because it apparently embodies all the contemporary statistics of the nation’s averages – age, income, house prices, property ownership, marital status, ethnicity, employment, and (of course) Euro-scepticism. I suppose if an Ealing comedy about a dull suburban settlement was made today, Didcot would be the ideal location.
David Bowie once reflected on his time growing up in Bromley, the archetypal cultural wasteland of a Greater London suburb, by holding it responsible for his desperate desire to make his mark; despite Bowie’s discernible despair over the absence of excitement in his formative playground, his comments suggest it was the perfect place for him to be, in that it gave him a reason to escape. His parents obviously regarded it as a step-up from his birthplace of Brixton, and for them it was.
The suburbs meant something different for those who had fought the war, of course; for them, they represented progress and social-climbing, symbolic of how far they’d come – the ‘Shangri-La’ Ray Davies wrote of. A yearning for the quiet life was understandable after 1945 and all the elements that constituted such an existence for many with an eye on simple pleasures could be found in suburban living. I guess cleaning one’s car on a Sunday morning, followed by the ritual mowing of the lawn, was preferable to the beaches of Dunkirk or Normandy, though the children who didn’t have that experience to measure their own lives by could find their parents’ pebble-dashed Nirvana a stifling and repressive environment lacking the exotic allure of Hollywood or rock ‘n’ roll.
If the appeal of the suburbs for the wartime generation can therefore be explained, one wonders what their appeal remains for the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of that generation. Perhaps the ‘Broken Britain’ narrative of the Conservative Party in recent years, coupled with the horror stories of urban living as pedalled by the party’s Fleet Street representatives, has played its part in the rebirth of the suburbs as the preferred destination for those who can actually afford to purchase property there. The suburbs are seen as a safe place to raise children, and raising children is of course the patriotic duty of every Englishman and woman, lest the economy crashes for lack of future consumers.
A town such as Didcot appears to represent this ideal, and being awarded the title of ‘the most normal town in England’ has been greeted with euphoria by people whose job it is to promote the place. Steve Connel, the Mayor of Didcot, has referred to the conclusions of the survey as ‘tremendous’. In response to the findings, he said: ‘We have a very diverse group in Didcot…people who work hard, get on with their lives, and do everything they can to advance the community, and if the spirit represented in Didcot is considered normal across Britain, then I think we’re in tremendous shape.’ It sounds as if Nick Clegg’s ‘Alarm Clock Britain’ has its synchronised heartbeat in Didcot.
The suburbs tend to spawn some of our greatest creative mavericks and artistic innovators because the unique dullness of the suburbs provides rebels with something to kick against and get away from ASAP. It’s no great coincidence that another generation from the same location Bowie broke out of underwent the same sensations a decade-and-a bit later, including Siouxsie Sioux, Billy Idol and Poly Styrene. Much earlier, HG Wells had such contempt for his own suburban upbringing that he inflicted the ultimate revenge upon Woking by making it the site where the Martian invaders land in ‘The War of the Worlds’ and do their first damage to the planet.
Nevertheless, if it’s a quiet and uneventful life you crave and if you have the cash to fund it, why not head for Didcot? As long as friendly bombs are still falling on Slough alone, you should be alright.
© The Editor