Bill Totten's Weblog

Monday, September 25, 2006

March of the clone towns

by Mark Lynas

New Statesman (September 25 2006)

I had the great misfortune, on returning from a public meeting in Abergavenny this past week, to pass through Hereford. With an hour to kill before catching my connecting train back to Oxford, I was in high spirits as I left the station. The meeting had been packed, and MPs from all three main parties had agreed on the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions. The world finally seemed to be coming to its senses.

Then Hereford brought me up short. The quickest route into the town centre involved negotiating the pavement-less exit ramp of a Morrisons car park, after which I spent several long minutes marooned between six lanes of traffic, waiting for rescue by a reluctant green man. Between Morrisons and the BP garage was a small apple tree festooned with bright-red fruit. I hesitated as the traffic roared by, and then - like everyone else - left it well alone.

The pedestrianised town centre seemed like an oasis at first - until I passed Waterstone's, Starbucks, McDonald's, Fat Face, Coffee Republic and countless other chain stores on what passes for Hereford's high street. After a good half-hour searching in vain for an independent food shop of any description, I ended up queuing for a limp pasty at a fast-food outlet called JB's (or BB's, I forget) while young Polish staff in identical blue uniforms struggled to work the colour-coded till and understand customers' shouted requests against the thump of background music.

Outside, consumers shuffled miserably from one homogeneous retail outlet to another, as if directed by some unseen higher power to have the latest jeans, mobile-phone handsets, computer game consoles and sportswear. Clutching my limp pasty, I joined the solemn procession, only to find that I was hopelessly lost in the trackless corporate wasteland of a town with nothing to distinguish it from any other.

Perhaps I had passed through a warp in the space-time continuum at the air-conditioned door of JB's, and been mysteriously transported to an identical town in another part of the country. Perhaps I was in Darlington, or Dundee, or Guildford (or Rockville, Utah, for that matter). It's all the same - the same shop names; the same shuffling crowds; the same alienating uniformity, divorced from time and place, where landscape and history are bulldozed, and the only identity that counts is the brand.

This is "clone-town Britain" - where, according to a little-noticed report of this name released by the New Economics Foundation in June last year, a full 42 per cent of our population centres are already fully converted clones, with a further 26 per cent threatened by the march of sameness. The report says: "A generation grew up in the 1970s and 1980s with the spectre of dreary state-centrally planned east European economies. Now that generation is waking up to realise they've been replaced by equally dreary economies, centrally planned by corporations."

I reorient myself at Argos, where shoppers pore over plasticised catalogues with the peculiar intensity that people in less developed countries reserve for their sacred religious texts. Youths with pinched white faces sit munching on their McDonald's in the doorway of Virgin Records. As I walk, I wonder what the town councillors thought they were doing when they invited the grim reaper of global capitalism to scythe his way through all the independent businesses of what was once a thriving and distinctive market town. Perhaps they felt they were doing the right thing, much as today's council in still-thriving Abergavenny seems to think it is doing the right thing by granting a prime town-centre development site to Asda/Wal-Mart, which will blow like a neutron bomb through independent retailers. I am reminded of the Cybermen from Doctor Who, who bleat mechanically: "You are incompatible. You will be upgraded!" as the rhythmic stomp of robotic boots grows ever louder.

In need of some spiritual replenishment, I duck into Waterstone's (oh, the irony) and buy a small anthology of John Betjeman's poems. Would that the Bard of Middle England were still around to show us how properly to rage at the march of the modernity, which is turning our towns into clones. He might have hoped, as do I, that the need to regulate carbon emissions will throw a spanner in the works of runaway consumerism. Or he might have simply amended his classic poem:

"Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough!
And Hereford, and Exeter

And Reading, and Dumfries, and Middlesbrough

And Leicester, and Glasgow ... "

Copyright (c) New Statesman 1913 - 2006

Bill Totten


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