19th August 2015
The ugliest town in England? Really?
2021: At the time of writing, this post Swindon was submitting a bid to the Heritage Lottery fund for a fancy-pants new building to house the Museum and Art gallery.
That bid failed – but that’s by the by. When the news emerged of Swindon’s designs on a new building, two broadsheet newspapers covered the story with quite the laziest, insulting and unnecessary journalism. What follows is my response to it at the time.
Swindon hits the headlines of the nationals – and yet again it’s an insult.
Beauty is only skin deep – and it lies in the eye of the beholder. You may have to dig but it’s there. Okay. There can’t be many of us by now that have missed the recent press coverage by The Telegraph and the Independent of Swindon’s bid to ‘become Britain’s new cultural magnet’ (The Telegraph.)
In covering this story they’ve managed to turn what should have been a positive story about the town’s impressive and unsung art collection into a damning portrait of an ugly and soulless town.
FYI the two articles:
Buildings destroyed and heritage lost
Yes – I KNOW that Swindon has destroyed some perfectly fine buildings. I don’t why – I wasn’t here then. I know too that there are areas that could be better in all sorts of ways. But – do we really think that this isn’t true throughout the country? Of course it is. But nevertheless, Swindon has a healthy heart of culture and creativity and it’s far, far from ugly.
Swindon has hit the headlines once again. And once again the media has dug deep into their hidden shallows to insult a town that many people love and choose to live in. Yes. CHOOSE.
The Independent headlined what could and indeed should have been a positive story about Swindon’s art collection and proposed new art gallery and museum thus: ‘The “ugliest town in England” is getting a makeover’
A big claim – and an unfounded one
Ugliest town? That’s a big claim and a strong insult Independent. Just what yardstick have you used exactly? Why is it necessary to be so rude? I must be in the running to be Swindon’s number one fan but I’ll own that Swindon is dispiriting in places – the bottom end of the town is not exactly salubrious for a start.
However there’s a yawning great chasm between that and ‘ugly’. I hail from a part of the country left economically devastated by the 1980s pit closures. I know rough when I see it. And Swindon isn’t it.
Some years ago I started this blog, in part, as a kick-back against this constant drip drip drip of attacks against the town. I’ve written hundreds of posts of positive stories about the cornucopia of art, culture, creativity and fantastic people that love to live and work and create in this ‘ugly’ town with no heart. Allegedly
What’s it got in the way of art?
The Independent posed the question of Swindon, ‘‘What’s it got in the way of art?’ Well dear Independent article writer, you already know that Swindon has one of the most important collections of 20th century British art outside the Tate. You also know we have a statue of Diana Dors.
But had you done a bit more research you might have discovered that Swindon is home to many pieces of public art scattered all over the town. Notably the wonderful and unsung West Swindon sculpture trail but many more besides. Read the blog – I’ve posted about much of it here.
Art for art’s sake
You might also have discovered that Swindon is home to not one but two world-class artists. Ken White famed for his murals and the Virgin Red Lady emblem (alongside a fabulous and renowned body of work centred around his experiences working in the railway works) and David Bent, aviation artist and artist in residence to the Red Arrows:
Ken White is Swindon born and bred and David Bent came to live here. Yes CHOSE to live in Swindon and play a full part in the life and heart of the community.
But the creativity doesn’t end there. There’s Artsite and the Post Modern, the literature festival and the poetry festival. And so, so much more.
I’m so, so tired of all this carrying on as if Swindon were the only town in the land to have demolished good buildings and put in concrete. It’s not. Move on please.
And on the subject of architecture we have some points of great interest. The David Murray John building is described by Jonathan Meades (architecture writer) on his list of five extraordinary buildings thus:
‘Designed by Douglas Stephen and built in the Seventies, this tower is a sleek, slick return to the smooth white grace of Twenties and Thirties Modernism. It’s a mixed-use building, incorporating social housing, offices and retail, which is rare in Britain. Stephen was a communist and believed in architecture as a power for social good.”
We also have the Spectrum or Renault building designed by Norman Foster, the Wyvern Theatre designed by Hugh Casson and Villets House beloved of John Betjemen.
But that aside, Swindon is a mostly a working-class town founded on industry so it’s hardly likely to be stuffed to the gills with Palladian columns and Georgian windows now is it? What’s wrong with being proud of the town’s fantastically rich industrial heritage that is so much broader and deeper than the GWR – albeit that’s the one that put Swindon on the map.
But you know what? Those that know – know. We know that Palladian columns don’t make a community. What does make a community is all of the things I’ve mentioned here and all the elements of Swindon life and people that I haven’t mentioned here because frankly it would take all day. But it’s all here on this blog.’