Saturday 23 September 2023



I could steal that bag.

The thought popped into my head, entirely unbidden, even surprising me.  I was stood in the doorway of a train as it slid into the station at Penkridge.  Two women, early fifties, probably on their way back from a very drunken holiday somewhere hot, had got on at Crewe and left their suitcases in the vestibule while they crashed into their seats.  They were pink, plastic, shell suitcases, the MAN luggage tag dangling from the handle, and not too big.  

I realised that they couldn't see their bags.  They could only see the top half of me because of the seat backs.  I could grab one of the suitcases and simply step onto the platform.  The doors would close behind me, the train would take off, and if they were lucky, they'd spot me with the big neon suitcase on their way past.  If they were unlucky, they wouldn't notice until they got to Birmingham and tried to gather their bits together at the terminus.

I could steal that bag.

I didn't, of course.  I'm not a thief.  I don't get any thrill from danger or risk; in fact it fills me with anxiety and makes me shiver.  Also, there was nothing to be gained from stealing a load of dirty underwear and half-empty toiletries.  Maybe a bit of duty free if I was lucky but I didn't particularly fancy rooting through some soiled bras to find it.  Still: I could steal that bag.  A single, clear thought registering in my brain.

I realised I was in an odd mood.

Penkridge was always going to be a one off trip.  It's a small market town in Staffordshire, a strange stop for the Liverpool-Birmingham service; if there were any other trains passing through I'm certain London North Western would scrub it from its calling list.  It's neither a commuter town nor a destination in its own right; it's simply somewhere that had the good fortune to get its railway station on a route between two of the biggest cities in the country.

It has some very fancy LED next train indicators.  I've not seen ones like this before, with actual colours and different fonts; I was impressed, which shows you what a low bar you need to cross to impress me.  I am not Shania Twain.  I got off the train behind a tired looking mum and her two kids.  She looked like she was absolutely desperate for them to go back to school; halfway down the ramp to the car park she suddenly yelled "well why don't you ASK HIM?" in response to their incessant chatter.  She was not having a fun day out.

I headed down to the car park from the viaduct, past the boarded up station building.  You can stick as many fancy shutters on it as you like folks, it won't make this into a Swiss cottage.  As usual I sighed that the building wasn't being used for anything at all.  If you really don't want to put a ticket office in it, rent it out as a pub, or a community centre, or turn it into a house.  A boarded up shell benefits nobody.  I took my spot under the sign, next to a Slimming World a-board (Yes you can!), and did the selfie.

My hair is reaching "background artist on the planet Vulcan" levels now.  I need to get it cut.

September was being September.  We'd come out of the heatwave, that unbearable week of sweaty sheets and still air, and the rain had finally come, but it was in fits and starts.  It struggled to be anything longer than a shower.  And it was still sticky; the rain wasn't enough to take the edge off.  People were wearing shorts with anoraks, light summer dresses under umbrellas, t-shirts and jeans.  Nobody knew how to dress.  

I'd risked it and come out in shorts and a shirt.  There was a jacket in my bag, a little light one, but I really didn't want to wear it.  I could feel the heat sliding over me and I wanted as much cool breeze and moisture there to offset it.

I crossed the main road through the town, the A449, past the farming supply store with straightforward low prices.  There's something about that straightforward I don't like, something a bit Brexity, a bit common sense and silent majority, but that may just be me the uncultured townie not knowing the country ways.  I also gritted my teeth at a run of tweeness - Golden Oldies antique furniture next to Dickens of A Tea Shoppe next to Trudie's Sweet Shop - and hoped that Penkridge wasn't a market town theme park, built for tourists and not real people.

In fairness, it was a real, proper town with a narrow high street adorned with pubs and grocers.  A butcher on the corner was "Celebrating 40 Years - 2015", while a beauty salon was "Celebrating 10 Years - 2014" and really guys, I think it's time to take the signs down now.  The Co-op had closed, to relocate to a larger store out of the town centre, but beyond that it seemed in pretty good shape, with a nice mix and few empty spots.  I crossed over to the church hall so I could have a good look at the noticeboard, something I always do in a strange town.  It gives you a little glimpse of the community.

Slimmer's World were here too, plus Zumba and social mornings.  There was a whist drive every Saturday and a brass band performance and Senior Boogie-Fit With Claire on Wednesday mornings.  And there was... oh dear.

If you're not terminally online, you might be thinking, "oh, Matt le Tissier, that nice footballer for Southampton.  How lovely."  If you've dipped into the cesspit of human depravity that is Twitter, however, you'll know that Matt is a Covid sceptic, anti-vaxxer, CBD hawker, and general GB News favourite.  The other day he retweeted Laurence Fox protesting Russell Brand's video rants being demonetised so... that's a lot.  And here he was in Penkridge - guests of the Round Table no less.  I did wonder if they knew what they were booking.  They were hoping for nice anecdotes about the FA Cup and instead they got a Powerpoint presentation on why the 15 Minute City is one step away from the Government locking you in a box and throwing you in a river.

At the end of the road was the Market Place, bounded by a primary school, a pub, and some delightful cottages and houses.  The actual markets relocated to a purpose built space by the river, so they naturally turned the square into a car park.  You could've had a nice open plaza here, bit of cobbling, some outdoor seating for the pub, but then where would people put their Mondeos when they wanted to pick up a Chinese?  You don't need nice open spaces really, they don't turn a profit.

I passed the community library - "community" because it's run by volunteers, rather than trained professionals demanding a living wage to provide a service, and I'm sorry, these last few paragraphs are making me quite depressed - and got caught up in a knot of sixth form boys noisily heading into town.  They had new haircuts and all wore suits and I thanked the lord that I hadn't had to do my A-levels while strapped into a collar and tie.  I went to a Sixth Form College, and so we were treated like mini adults and allowed to wear whatever we wanted; this being the early nineties, I wore nothing but flannel over band t-shirts, jeans, and Dr Martens boots.  So did everyone else, in fact.  We'd created our own uniform.

I turned off the road at The Boat pub and descended to the canalside.  There wasn't really much to retain me in Penkridge - the pubs weren't even open - and I didn't fancy getting on the next train home.  Instead I decided to walk north to Stafford along the Staffordshire and Worcester Canal.  It was a fair old walk, about six miles, but I figured this would be my last opportunity for a proper stroll before the really bad weather set in.  I wasn't going to be able to mince down a towpath in driving October storms.  

The homes along the canal addressed it in two ways.  Across the river, where there wasn't a path, a mobile home park embraced the waterside living.  Every caravan had a terrace, or a patio, or a wooden seating area, as close as it could get to the canal.

On the side I was walking, however, the homeowners hid behind high fences and walls.  They guarded their privacy and their yards from prying eyes.  You caught a snatch of grass, a hint of tree between the slats of the fence, then there was a locked gate.  I can imagine it feels less than secure, having a publicly accessible path running at the rear of your home, but it was a shame that the only way they could take in the watery view was to go into an upstairs bedroom.  One house bucked the trend.  They had put out a bench by the towpath, with a sign inviting you to take a rest, a lovely little touch of humanity.  It was too early in the walk for me to sit down but I gave it an approving tap as I passed.

For a while, there were moored barges, their owners starting the day lazily.  A woman sat on the open back with a cigarette and a cup of tea.  A man mopping the roof from the path.  Another jumping down with his dog, ready for the first walk.  A lock closed off the section of canal and separated it from the next.  Now I was on my own.

I'll admit it now: I wanted to be alone.  Sometimes I get the urge.  The need to be away from everyone.  It's hard to do, in this tiny packed island we live in, but sometimes I need to escape.  To walk without any thoughts.  To stroll without a deadline or an obligation.  To escape.

I was soon passing under the M6.  It's remarkable how many times I've walked under motorways since I started collecting this map.  The Midlands are a knot of highways and we're all forced to submit to them.  I feel like eighty per cent of my blog posts have involved the phrase "viaduct" or "underpass" or "concrete".  The strangest part is that I'm following public transport the whole time, and yet I keep encountering huge road projects.  Beneath the motorway everything went dark.  There weren't any lights to help guide the pedestrians or the boat users.  It was a slash of black, a walk through a void, with distant sunlight burning at either end in pockets of hope.

I kicked a wayward stone into the canal and delighted in the satisfying "plop" as it entered the water.  The grass tickled my ankles, made them wet; the sun hadn't dried off the morning's dew.  It began to rain.  Slow, lazy rain, half-arsed, soaking into my shirt, but it was still too warm for a coat and I didn't feel like stopping.  It only looked like a shower anyway.

A boatyard promised canal tours and boat building; they'd buy your boat for cash.  A man emerged from one moored alongside the towpath.  He was rough and dirty, his hair a mess, a scraggly beard and a thick grey jumper with a hole in the stomach.  He was carrying a shower tray and looked surprised to see someone walking here.  Then it was another lock, with the towpath descending alongside, its cobbles slick with the rain.  I walked gingerly, to try and avoid a fall, but no, of course there was a skid.  The one time there was a person to see me and I slipped.

For a while, the path was shadowed by the road, separated from the carriageway by a low fence.  They split apart again and the traffic returned to being a sound.  Trees curled down over me, some of them bright with berries.  Autumn was coming in and they were offering up their seeds for next year.  I squashed them under my boots.

Acton Trussel - which sounds like a 1930s gentlemen's outfitters - appeared across the canal.  There were a few houses on my side, mostly farm house looking buildings, but across the way there were 1970s detached houses.  I could see the odd BMW on the drive and conservatories giving an all-weather view of the water. 

I paused under a bridge to wipe down my glasses and the lens of the camera.  The rain had become a fine mist.  The air was wet, a general clinging moisture, so that I seemed to be getting drenched from every side.  It wasn't worth wearing my jacket now.  All it would do was be another wet layer.  I stood on the bank and took a few breaths.  It was an hour since I'd left Penkridge and my mind was starting to turn in on itself.  The canal views weren't captivating enough to distract me; it was a single path without deviation.  My brain whispered to me.

Fortunately, I found a way to concentrate my mind shortly afterwards.  A grey boat pulled away from the bank about ten yards ahead of me and I realised, to my horror, that he was going the same way as me.  We were going to accompany one another - him never going fast enough to leave me behind, me never slow enough to fall back.

I burned with hatred for that boat.  It was ruining my day.  I couldn't relax or enjoy the scenery because of that boat.  I couldn't be alone with my thoughts because they were soundtracked by a ugga-ugga-ugga of a diesel engine.  A few minutes before, my thoughts had been going to some wildly dangerous places, so in a way the noise was doing me a favour by drowning them out.  That wasn't the point.  I raged inside, absolutely livid with the boat and its pilot.

After a good mile of me muttering insults at the oblivious boater, we reached Deptmore Lock, and I realised I'd be free of him.  I strode past as he moored up to wait his turn, my nose high in the air, revelling in the victory in this competition he'd had no idea he was in.  On the other side of the lock though: dammit.  A boat was again pulling away, this one crewed by a pair of retiree couples, noisy and boisterous and having a whale of a time.  Absolute bastards.  I couldn't face being accompanied again so I broke into a record breaking stride.  I pushed myself as far as I could to get away from them.  I concentrated so hard on burning away, I didn't notice I'd left them behind a long time ago.  I paused for breath after a while and realised I was quite alone again.

I was on a part of the canal where few walkers ever came.  The path was overgrown and my bare legs were stroked and stung by nettles.  I tried to remember; is it better to walk forcefully through them or to try and edge round them?  There's that phrase, grabbing the nettle; does that mean if I go quickly the stings won't work?  Whatever I did, it didn't matter.  Soon my shins were numbed from the onslaught.  

Once again, my side of the canal was wild and unkempt while across the way it had been civilised.  Stafford Boat Club, a marina of barges and a discreet clubhouse behind tended hedges, was followed by a public park.  I could see dog walkers through the trees and empty playgrounds.  On my side, an information board informed me that I was by the Radford Meadows, a wetland where the River Penk flooded and provided breeding grounds for birds and wildlife.  I'd noticed the gap in Stafford on the map, a pause separating the town into two dumbbells of population, and it was interesting to see the reason developers hadn't swept in and colonised the land.

Humans were making themself known in other ways.  There was a neat pile of beer cans and a pair of boxer shorts tucked into the long grass, writing a story I'm not sure I wanted to read, and then the muddy track became concrete.  It felt unsafe after the rough walk of the last miles; slick with rain and slightly angled towards the water.  I pictured myself tipping into it and vanishing under the brown surface, and the dark thoughts swelled up again.  I was glad to spot a car showroom and then, beyond that, steps to take me up to the road.

I appeared on the A34 beside a large pub and I was suddenly acutely aware of what a mess I looked.  Soaking wet, covered in filth below the knees, my hair slicked against my head.  I looked like I'd actually been in the canal and had pulled myself out.  I paused in a bus shelter, trying to see if there was a way to make myself look half decent but no: I was a lost cause.  I pressed on into town.

The main road was lined with 1930s houses, interspersed with newer developments.  I had to take a major detour around a roundabout because it had been built to access a retail park and the developers weren't really interested in pedestrians coming in.  The number of spaces on the sign that were unoccupied by shop names made me think they shouldn't be quite so fussy.

Beyond the railway was a building site.  This had been the home of General Electric for many years, a large factory just off the Lichfield Road.  However, in 2019, GE's parent entity the Sheinhardt Wig Company consolidated its manufacturing to one site in Rugby, and now this is going to be 350 new homes in a development called "Victoria Gate".  I'm not sure why it's going to be called Victoria Gate, but if you want to live between an A road and a mainline railway this is the spot for you.  I don't know where you'll work, though.  

Perhaps you could work in a shop, as I passed a second out of town retail park, and wondered if Stafford Council actually wanted its town centre to survive.  There was a run of small hotels and B&Bs and then a convent nursing home.  I'm not sure if this means it's a nursing home for elderly nuns, or if the nuns do the caring; I hope it's the former, because from what I know about nuns (i.e. I have seen The Blues Brothers) they're not the most empathetic sorts. 

I crossed over a gyratory - sorry, island - and marvelled at the distinctive spire of the Stafford Baptist Church.  Rather than being a simple tower, it was made of exposed beams, as though the tiles had been stripped away.  It was very distinctive and modern, so I was surprised to learn that it's original to the building, and dates from 1896.  The architect was from Birmingham, Ewan Harper, and I was impressed by his style.

I'd reached the town centre proper now.  A 1930s cinema stood empty.  The posters on the outside - Jungle Cruise and Candyman - showed it had been open relatively recently, but I guessed that Covid destroyed its business.  I must admit, I've only seen three films at the cinema since lockdown: Barbie (once), See How They Run (once, because my mum wanted to see it) and No Time To Die (seven times).  Admittedly this is partly because as I've got older I've developed an intense dislike for other human beings and being crammed in a room full of them as they laugh and talk and eat and breathe is intolerable to me now.  I passed Stafford's Civic Centre - I love a Civic Centre - but I skirted the town proper.

I was in a bad mood.  I was wet and miserable and I wanted to go home.  I passed the town's old mill wheel and entered Victoria Park which was, I will admit, lovely.  On a summer's day it must be absolutely wonderful, with its lawns falling down to the river, and its bowling greens, and even an aviary full of cockatoos and budgies.  On that miserable day, however, the shelters were mainly occupied with students from the nearby college eating their lunch, and the paths were empty.

The last time I was in Stafford, with Ian and Robert a whole eleven years ago, I was extremely uncharitable about the station.  In fact I called it a shithole.  That was too harsh.  Admittedly, it's no St Pancras - but what is?  It has some nice lines and shapes.  The porte-cochere has that pleasing upward curve - even if it's now inaccessible to vehicles, therefore losing its entire purpose - and who doesn't love a massive Double Arrow on a tower?

It is, effectively, Coventry on a budget.  The interior isn't great - it's been "modernised", so a Starbucks has been wedged in one side, and there are signs and screens cluttering up the space.  On one side was a "customer information" desk - a small standee like they have in supermarkets to give out free samples, staffed by two women in uniform.  The refurb was done when Virgin Trains ran the station so of course that means there's red and grey everywhere, completely inappropriately.  Richard Branson should be punished for many reasons - he unleashed Tubular Bells on the world, let's not forget - but his insistence on splashing that brash red all over stations where it absolutely didn't work is pretty high up the list.  

It distracted from some of the parts of the station that were pleasing - the dark wood ceilings, the broad staircases with their concrete walls, the sheer efficiency of the place.  You could easily get around from one spot to the next. 

I really, really hate children's artwork in public places.  Save that shit for your mum's fridge.  

I paused in the toilets to swap my soaking wet shirt for a dry t-shirt I'd thought to pack.  Instantly my mood lightened.  Never underestimate the power of the weather to affect your mood.  Well, the weather, and a generally gloomy disposition that doesn't need much provoking to go down a dark alley.  

I think my hair might actually look better there than it did in the first photo.

Thursday 7 September 2023

DART to the Past


When the Borough of Luton decided to build an airport in the 1930s, they had the perfect spot for it.  To the south east of the town was a large, flat plateau, raised above the Lea valley, which would be ideal for a runway.  They opened an airport there in 1938, and for seventy-odd years London Luton Airport has operated out of this spot.

The problem with this location is: it's a large flat plateau raised above the Lea valley.  Road and railway engineers choose the path of least resistance when building transport links and so they'd sent their connections through the valley.  It meant that even though a busy railway line with fast connections to the capital passed less than a kilometre from the terminal building, getting it onto the airport estate would've meant huge amounts of tunnelling and bridges to overcome that massive height difference.

A station was built in the 1990s, Luton Airport Parkway, but that was still a mile away from the airport proper, and so shuttle buses had to be laid on.  Until, finally, they built a dedicated people mover: the Luton DART.  

The airport station is, weirdly, entirely separate from the terminal.  I'd have thought the logical thing would be to integrate the two - have an exit directly into arrivals - but instead you leave the terminal building and walk through the outdoors to the station.  It's not, technically, an underground station; although there is an overarching roof, it's open to the elements at the sides, meaning it looks more like a pavilion.  

I'd bought my ticket before I'd even arrived, using one of my many railway apps.  This is where I need to inform you that a ticket from Luton Airport to Luton Airport Parkway station costs four pounds and ninety pence.  This is on top of any railway ticket you'll buy to go onto another destination and is for a trip that will take less than four minutes.  It is, of course, an outrage and a con.  An all areas Day Saver on Merseyrail is £5.95 and lets you run amok across the whole network for a day.  Also, the ticket gates absolutely refused to recognise the QR code on my e-ticket at either end of the trip, so it's not only expensive, it doesn't work properly.

Still, you can't help feeling impressed as you descend into the station hall.  A huge wide concourse, platform edge doors, rotating LED screens.  It's what you'd want from an airport station - easy to use and efficient.  The station only opened in March this year and it still had a glow of newness about it.  Mind, this was in July, before it started getting a proper hammering over the summer holidays; it's probably a little worse for wear now.  

These aren't trains, technically.  The DART is a cable railway, with two separate cars and systems; there's no way to move one to the other side.  Since all they're doing is going back and forth between two points this makes sense.  (There is passive provision for an intermediate station, serving the car parks, plus the potential to extend to a future terminal two).  

As I waited for my train, two workers came out of a locked door and onto the platform.  A small elderly lady pounced on them and asked in a heavily accented voice, "which side is the train to London?"

The two men sighed.  Clearly this wasn't the first time they'd been asked this.  They explained this was the shuttle to the station, and that was where you'd get the train from.

On board they explained to her that this confusion happened all the time, and another man joined in with the discussion.  The confusion comes from the information in the airport.  According to one of the men, it tells you the times of trains to London, Bedford and so on, from Parkway station, and fails to mention the little shuttle you have to take to get there.  "They need to sort it out!" he concluded, exasperated.

On board it's what you'd expect - longitudinal seating, grab rails, plenty of room for luggage.  The doors closed and we slid out of the station, through tunnels at first, then crossing the Airport Way on one of those bridges that I 100% guarantee you was referred to as both "iconic" and a "gateway" in the PR blurb.  

The DART station at the far end is an extension to the existing station and on something called "Bartlett Square".  This is where I was firmly reminded that it's been a long time since I came back to Luton.  That side of the station had once been Vauxhall Motors.  Now it was "Napier Park", an entirely new district of apartment blocks built for people who were priced out of the capital.  Although a two bedroom flat in "Chevette Court" is £333,000, so you still need a fair amount of cash for it.

Through the ticket gates is a large concourse and a new footbridge down to the railway.  It's all efficient and gleaming and works brilliantly, but still: four pound ninety.

I was heading north, into Luton, for a small nostalgia trip.  The BF's plane from Berlin wasn't due for another couple of hours, so I thought I'd take the opportunity to wallow in my past.  I no longer have any close family in the town, so I've no reason to go back any more, and even when I did visit I rarely ventured into the centre.  It was an opportunity to see what had changed.

One thing that hadn't changed was the overwhelming crappiness of Luton station.  They seemed to have fixed the roof that was leaking last time I visited, in 2011, but the travel centre had vanished, and it was still dark and miserable and badly laid out.  They had at least removed the piss-scented footbridge that carried you into the town centre, though the reason they'd managed this was they'd torn up a working railway line.  There used to be a freight route between Luton and Dunstable that stopped having trains on it, but was still in perfect working order; the local transport geniuses tore this up and replaced it with a guided busway between the two towns, meaning the exterior of the station is now a bus exchange.  It's not great.

I had a dream involving me and Russell Tovey and Paul Rudd last night, Inspirational Wall, but I think if I tried to make it happen I'd probably get arrested.

Luton has pedestrianised the roads between the station and the shopping centre too, to try and make it more of a destination and welcoming environment.  It certainly made me smile, though perhaps not for the same reason as people who didn't grow up in the town.

Some old buildings have been demolished to create an open space leading down to the River Lea.  Even though it rises in the town, the Lea has always been hidden away in culverts and under buildings.  They're clearly trying to make a feature of it now with this amphitheatre and then, floating above it on sticks, pink, fibreglass flamingos.  

I actually laughed out loud, utterly delighted.  When the Luton Arndale Centre was first built in the 1970s, its centrepiece was an indoor fountain.  Not just any fountain: a fountain filled with giant, oversized, pink, fibreglass flamingos.  

They were kitsch, they were tacky, they were vulgar.  They were also, it has to be said, home.  The flamingos were there for twenty years until a 90s refurb of the Arndale saw them rudely evicted.  At the time, everyone was glad to see the back of them, but over the years, nostalgia has taken over.  The council even launched a hunt for the statue last year.  Seeing those new flamingos, flying over the river, seemed like the town embracing its identity at last.  Yes, Luton's a bit terrible.  But let's be proud of it!

The Arndale is now technically "The Mall Luton", but I refuse to call it that, and so does any right minded person.  It's been radically rebuilt since I was growing up.  The big brown plastic seating has gone; there are glass panels in the ceiling to let in natural light; the mix of shops is radically different.  Like most town centres Luton has suffered over the last decade but it felt particularly pointed when I was operating with a 1980s filter overlaid over everything.  Debenhams (famously firebombed by animal rights activists) was closed and shuttered; Woolworth's was now a Lidl; there was no Marks and Spencer at all.  There had been two separate HMVs, and now there was none, while other stores had downgraded in size.  Tesco's upstairs, where I used to buy my Lego, was now a Sports Direct.  And WH Smith, my beloved WH Smith, a place where I spent literally hours as a child, was like all their stores these days - thoroughly disappointing, little more than a newsagent with a post office wedged in the back.  .

I had decided I was going to treat myself to an experience long denied to me.  Smith Square has an upper gallery round it, which in my day was how you got to the top floors of Debenhams and Woolworths.  Also on that top floor was a restaurant called Greenfields.  This was, to my mind, quite clearly the most glamorous place one could eat in the Western Hemisphere.  Just the fact that it was upstairs in the Arndale was giddying.  It had stained glass, and cascading ivy, and it seemed to glow on that balcony, calling to me.  And now, finally, I could go.

For the benefit of younger readers, I should explain.  In the old days - and by old, I mean the seventies and eighties - working class people didn't eat out.  We just didn't.  Why would we go to a coffee shop when there was coffee at home?  Why would we spend our own money on food and drink that was more expensive?  Why would we pay to have a sit down?  Around my teens, we started going to a Beefeater on our birthdays (the Warden Tavern, still there folks) but this was very much a special occasion.  There was absolutely no way on earth my mum and dad would spontaneously drop into a restaurant for a meal.  We'd have to dress up a bit.

What was especially delightful about eating in Greenfields in 2023 was it was almost exactly what it must have been like eating in Greenfields in 1983.  I don't think anything had changed in that time.  Perhaps the chairs and tables were a bit more contemporary, but there was still the faux-Tiffany stained glass, the trailing ivy (which turned out to be plastic), the lino.  The manageress who showed me to my table was a fearsome woman who smiled cheerily at me and the other customers then unleashed hell on her tiny teenage waiting staff.  I expect she started out as a tiny teenage waitress herself and was regurgitating her traumas on a new generation.

My full English probably hadn't changed for forty years either.  There were no artisan sausages or hand reared eggs - everything was extremely processed.  It was overdone and a little gristly.  I forgave everything, however, because (a) this was Greenfields and (b) they served it with fried bread, and nobody gives you fried bread any more.  I guzzled it all, trying not to think about my blood pressure, and wondered how much longer it would be here for.  The clientele were all pensioners, and the scary lady boss knew them by name; apart from the waiters, I was the youngest one there.  When they die I expect Greenfields will die too.

I paid up (£9.45; the prices have definitely not remained in the Thatcher years) and went out onto George Street, Luton's main thoroughfare.  This was always a little sadder than the Arndale, a bit more down at heel.  The Arndale demolished half a dozen streets when it was built and now blocks off the entire town.  It also created a situation where if you weren't in the Arndale, you may as well not exist.  The only big shop outside of it was the British Home Stores and, well, we all know how that turned out.  The Cannon cinema where I saw many a film growing up - reeling, horrified, out of Superman IV; queuing up George Street West for Batman; going to see Problem Child with a gang for my mate Sanjay's 14th birthday and feeling incredibly mature eating in Pizza Hut afterwards without a single adult chaperone - was still empty, a beautiful listed building rendered obsolete by a multiplex down the road, searching for a purpose in the 21st century.

At the end of the street is Luton's Town Hall, which is actually the second on the site.  The first town hall was burnt down by an angry mob of unemployed ex-soldiers on, and this is not a joke, Peace Day 1919.  I'm perversely proud of the fact that Luton managed to turn a commemoration of peace into a riot.  Yup, those are my people: trash.

St George's Square has also had a makeover; they've made it more of an open gathering space, removing the low bedding, putting in new lights.  They've also got rid of the staircase up to the Arndale where the druggies used to hang out, the staircase that had John Carlisle Is A Cunt graffitied on it, one of those political protest messages that for some reason the council workers never felt the need to scrub off.  (Going to John Carlisle's Wikipedia page for that link informed me that the rampant homophobe, supporter of apartheid, and and advocate for both the gun and tobacco lobbies, has been dead for four years, and I must say by way of tribute: good).  

I was headed for the library.  Most people, on returning to their home town, will look up old pubs and nightspots; I headed for the place where I spent most of my youth.  I would spend hours in Luton Central Library, reading entire books while sat there.  My mum would take me into town and leave me in there while she shopped, safe in the knowledge that I wouldn't cause any mischief and would still be there when she got back.  

Luton Central Library was a gleaming piece of modernism, opened in 1962, and when I was visiting as a boy it still had a distinctive Festival of Britain afterglow.  Its entrance hall was cool marble, and dark floors, with a small waterfall in the corner by the stairs.  The main library hall - just past the record library - was gleaming glass and polished tiles, with heavy wooden desks arranged around a balcony.  Above that was the reference section, separated from the rest of the room by a glass wall, its microfiche machines humming and its card catalogues begging to be fingered.  

The library has, I'm afraid to say, been modernised.  Carpet covers that slippy marble floor.  The furniture is simpler and off the peg.  The waterfall has gone.  It's also lost an awful lot of its books.  Where there used to be walls of them, bay after bay - I could still remember what section was where: film and television there, foreign language there - now there was at most half the volume, with desks and computers everywhere else.  The reference section was mainly computers now.  The microfiches were probably in a skip.

I found the local history section and thumbed a few choice books.  A history of Luton's pubs had a few I'd visited; the book dated from the early 90s, and noted that a Yates' Wine House was a recent stylish addition to the town.  (When I moved to the north I discovered that only in Luton was Yatesies anything approaching "stylish").  I found a copy of The Story of Luton, written by my dad's old history teacher, and which I would read every few months.  (I should really get round to buying my own copy some day).  I also found a reminder that Luton's more recent history is a lot less pleasant.

Tommy Robinson, head of the English Defence League and massive, massive arsehole, is from Luton - in fact, he grew up in Farley Hill, like my dad's side of the family.  Other Lutonians include sex trafficker Andrew Tate, hideous transphobe and homosexual embarrassment Dennis Noel Kavanagh, and "Britain's most notorious prisoner" Charles Bronson; on the plus side, there's national treasure Nadiya Hussein, Strictly winner Stacey Dooley and me, so we're not all bad.  It is a little bit embarrassing that the town only ever seems to turn up on the news when another extremist or racist claims it as their home.  Mind you, I haven't lived there full-time since 1995 so I'm fast approaching calling myself an Honorary (Plastic) Scouser.

After a while I needed a drink and a wee so I crossed Bridge Street to the Galaxy Centre.  When I was very young, this was the Co-op Department Store; my nana worked there, and we'd go to the grotto at Christmas.  It was knocked down in the 1980s and then the site sat vacant for twenty years while everyone tried to work out what to do with it.  After a while, they got desperate for someone, anyone to build on it, which is presumably the only reason they gave permission for the Galaxy Centre.

Incorporating a cinema, bowling alley, gym and various chain restaurants, the Galaxy is utterly without merit, the architectural equivalent of a Tesco carrier bag, bland and covered in ads and somehow worse than a big patch of empty ground.  It is astonishingly hideous and badly designed - its main entrance faces away from the town, towards the back of a car park that has since been demolished.  It somehow makes the Arndale look subtle and characterful.

I had a Pepsi Max in the (huge, ugly) Wetherspoons, used their toilet, then exited onto Manchester Street.  I had one last nostalgia trip to make, what we'll call the Rainbow Tour of Luton.  The realisation that I was gay was a slow, drawn out process, marked by denial, then assuming it was a phase, then waiting for the phase to end, then realising oh shit I'm stuck with this.  In my late teens, there were some small, incremental spots in the town that will always be markers on my route to fabulousness.

This newsagent, for example, which was the first place I ever bought a homosexual publication - Gay Times.  I decided that this newsagent was sufficiently out of the way so that I wouldn't be recognised, and then I never had to go back there either.  The small Asian lady behind the counter put it in a brown paper bag to hide my shameful purchase and I stuffed it in my backpack to read furtively in the park.  Round the corner, there was Shirley's Temple, Luton's only gay bar, notable for being the place that made me realise, yep, I was gay, and I liked it.  I'd been on my one and only date with a girl - whose name I can't remember, embarrassingly - and we'd been to see Casper.  (SEXY).  Afterwards we were walking round town in the hot summer air and we passed Shirley's.  The door was open, because it was so warm, and I could see inside where men were laughing and dancing and chatting.  And I remember very distinctly thinking, I wish I was in there instead of out here.  That poor girl.

Shirley's is now, like a lot of old pubs in Luton, a block of flats.  The Coliseum on Gordon Street, where I celebrated my 17th birthday, is apartments; so is the Inkerman Arms, a couple of streets away, which also tried to be a gay bar.  I went there during the holidays after I'd officially come out as A Homo and was au fait with this kind of establishment; I copped off with a bloke there, and he introduced me to his mate, and a week later I copped off with that same mate in Shirley's.  Common.

The BF was back now, and he picked me up for the drive back up to Birkenhead.  Before that though, he wanted to see a landmark.  Luton Town FC had just been promoted to the Premier League, and he'd been agog when I'd told him about Kenilworth Road, their tiny ground tucked down the back streets of Bury Park.  He wanted to see it for himself.

It was a hive of activity that day as the workmen tried to bring it up to a decent standard before the start of the new season.  Luton have been trying to leave Kenilworth Road for about forty years, but have never had the money for a new ground; there was the infamous Kohlerdome proposal by the motorway, and suggestions of moving to Milton Keynes until they bought Wimbledon, and now there was a plan for a new ground on what used to be Power Court by the parish church, but nothing has ever actually happened.  Suffice to say, the BF was astonished to see the tiny little ground, with its tin roofs and its access via narrow alleyways behind terraced houses.  We went round to Oak Road so he could see the most famous part, the access to the Away end via an entrance that's actually under people's houses.  

When Luton hosted its first Premier League match last week, I noticed that this is now called the Dominos Oak Stand.  I would also like to register my objection to the commentator constantly calling the ground "the Kenny"; that's not a thing, nobody calls it that, it's Kenilworth Road.  It looks like Luton won't be around in the top flight for long, judging by their early performance, but I hope they make an awful lot of money over the course of the season.  Maybe they'll finally be able to move out and the people of Bury Park will get a bit of peace of a Saturday afternoon.

We drove out of town, to the motorway, and I realised that this was probably the last time I'd ever go to Luton.  I couldn't see another reason to visit.  It's not what it was.  It's kind of a dump.  But it'll always be home.