No place like home?

09 +00002015-03-27T12:09:22+00:0031 2012 § 12 Comments

Sheep Market, Spalding

Sheep Market, Spalding

My son called me yesterday evening to gloat because of the outcome for him of a BBC quiz he’d just completed, entitled ‘Where would you be happiest in Britain?’ (The quiz can be found here, if you’re interested. I assume, for readers of this blog who live outside Britain, that it will guide your choice should you wish to emigrate from your country. 😉  I should add that, since the way into it is by selection of a miserable three photographic choices, I rather suspect that it has an equal paucity of possible places to put participants!) It told him that the place in which he’d be happiest is Lewes, in East Sussex (also its choice for my husband – QED my point about the limitations of the quiz), but his reason for calling was to let me know it also forecast the place in which he’d be most miserable. The prediction for him was ….Spalding! Where, apparently, the inhabitants are bereft of several character traits that those of other places have in spades, including friendliness. My son was delighted because he’s always affirmed that I, a native of Spalding, was born among bog-dwellers with webbed feet (and, in point of fact, my paternal aunt did have webbed feet!), whereas he is one of God’s Yorkshiremen.

Not willing to take this lying down, I decided to complete the quiz myself. It told me quite firmly that the place I’d be happiest living in would be Oxford (where there is, allegedly, a very high ratio of ‘cultured, conscientious and’ … ahem… ‘neurotic ’ people, just like me, apparently). And the place in which I’d be least happy? You may have guessed it already: Spalding!

Now, apart from pointing out the obvious – that the BBC must have a real down on my home town; so much so, that I wonder if the quiz might have been compiled by Jeremy Clarkson after he found out that all the restaurants serving food (hot or cold!) there are closed by 10 p.m. – I’d like to take issue with this.

First of all, I know Oxford well and have never considered it to be my idea of residential heaven. It’s pleasant enough and I’ve been to some good concerts there and eaten some excellent food in its (largely overpriced) restaurants. I have a significant number of friends and acquaintances who live or work there, most of whom are cultured and conscientious and some of whom are undoubtedly neurotic.

But, over the years, I’ve also had some pretty duff experiences in Oxford. Here are a couple of examples:

When I was working for a Scottish library supplier, I was once booked into a hotel (called Green Gables, but there, its resemblance to the home of L.M.Montgomery’s heroine ended), a turn-of-the-twentieth-century building that sat right in the middle of a run-down housing estate containing a maze of roads through which feral dogs and glue sniffers roamed at large. The hotel didn’t serve food and I didn’t dare to go out after dark in search of any, so I dined on a cereal bar that I had in my brief case and a glass of tap water. My room looked as if it hadn’t been decorated since 1930 (the décor was bottle green and cream) and the ‘en suite shower’ (cunningly concealed behind a clear plastic curtain) was fitted with a rubber mat which, when lifted, revealed a thriving family of wood lice. Not very Oxford as Oxford conceives of itself!

My second example, however, is quintessentially Oxonian. I was visiting a publisher who persuaded me to attend an evening soirée featuring a ‘traditional African music ensemble’. Intrigued, I changed my train ticket and turned up at the event, hoping to feast on some of the exotic music and dancing I’d seen executed by a visiting troupe from Zimbabwe when I worked in Huddersfield (another awful town, according to the BBC). Imagine my chagrin when the ensemble turned out to consist of a quartet of upper middle class white Oxford ladies of a certain age playing its own arrangement of ‘native’ music on some very European instruments! I couldn’t capture my idea of Oxford better than by telling this tale, which does indeed demonstrate that Oxford is conscientious (if self-consciously so), cultured (in its own inimitable way) and neurotic (possibly).

When I think of places which have made me miserable, therefore, I’d have to include Oxford in the list. There are more deserving candidates, however. Among these, I’d cite Rotherham, a town that seems to have had nothing going for it since its magical (definitely, then, before the Industrial Revolution snapped it into its jaws!) ‘merry England’ manifestation, described by Sir Walter Scott in Ivanhoe; Solihull, for several years home of the HQ of Dillons and Waterstones, a place which never seemed to have anything to recommend it except a larger-than-average number of dress shops catering for ‘the fuller figure’; its much bigger and uglier sister, Birmingham (though I admit the canal system there is superb and worth a visit); Bridgnorth, a place so benighted that even the local copper didn’t know where the library was; and, last but not least in the misery-making-for-me stakes, Middlesbrough, which I’ve visited twice and where I had my car broken into on both occasions.

And places where I’ve been happiest? Sometimes in London, spending delightful evenings with friends, though I’d hate to live there; often in Surbiton or Mawdesley, basking in special friends’ wonderful hospitality; at my God’s-own-Yorkshireman son’s various homes over time, both entertained and amused by him and his wife; and – yes – in Spalding; certainly, in Spalding, that sink of human baseness by BBC reckoning. I spent the first seventeen years of my life there, so I’d have experienced a childhood of Dickensian deprivation if I hadn’t been very happy some of that time, and an unusual teenager if I hadn’t also sometimes felt melodramatically sad. Finally, I do actually like the place I live in now – otherwise, why would I have chosen it? – even though the BBC thinks it is only 54% suitable for a person with my character traits.

Which brings me to my final point. Supposing that I do exhibit more than average conscientiousness, cultural awareness and neuroticism, why should I want to ghettoise myself with a massive bunch of people just like me? My immediate neighbours are as unlike me as possible. They include a racehorse trainer, a physiotherapist, a lawyer, a doctor and several businessmen, as well as a number of retired people. Their passions include horseracing, greyhound racing, playing the harp, planting rare snowdrops and keeping bees, in none of which I have more than a passing interest. Some are bluff, hearty, hail-fellow-well-met and extrovert; others are quieter, more reserved, but fascinating once engaged in conversation. Some take three holidays a year; one lives in the South of France for six months out of the twelve; others never have a holiday and hardly leave the village at all. We all appreciate the surrounding countryside. We all like being within a short drive of several major cities and towns. Other than these common points of consensus, mutual variety is the spice of our lives in so far as we share them.

So there you are, BBC. Mood and character createth the individual woman… or man; but not the place. In my book, anyway.

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§ 12 Responses to No place like home?

  • j welling says:

    Ah, nothing like the breeze off a bog in late November. Bracing.

    Your description of Spalding makes it sound a bit like the eccentric hermit colony – and what a delightful place to live.

    I live adjacent to one of our own Oxford towns here in the states (Cambridge, Ann Arbor, Boulder, Berkeley ) which share the same characteristics you describe. My neighboring town has the highest percentage of population with doctorates in North America. probably comes in second or third to oxford. Much the same I suspect. Alas, we all have too many degrees and not one working toaster in the land.

    I pity you the Yorkshireman. One of these fellows worked with me in the end-of-the-world-business which seemed to suit his outlook terribly well. Scots took dour lessons from the fellow and his speech made the project director (From Waycross, Georgia int he deep south no less) impatient. Words came out of the fellow at a rate of three an hour. The other guttural utterances accompanying his intelligible syllables not one in hundred could discern.

    I’m told he was an anomaly by his sparkling bride. She said he was “a dairyman’s son” and it was a professional sort of outlook.

    Dairymen here – and I milked for five years when in public school – just tend to talk to themselves. Probably comes from talking to the cows and then when they’re gone … meh.

    I do recall a BBC radio program on the shortwave in ’87 and ’88 about the eccentrics in the U.K. The “barking Vicar” was a personal favorite.

    Does anyone in Spalding let go with a good bay once in a while? Might add local color. Louis the foxhound put me up to that one.

    • :))))))) Thanks, Jack, for giving your inimitable take on the matter! Oh, dear, the academic v. the practical: I’m sure the manual trades do very well in Ann Arbor with such a cerebral clientele to supply them with work! 😉 Step up, please, the university professor with the DIY skills, who mends her own toaster and can put up a shelf level and true: you will be very welcome here!
      Perhaps, Jack, you have generalised and stereotyped from one example in the case of Yorkshiremen, who are, in my experience, garrulous (if blunt) and blessed with a fund of common sense. You must have been unlucky with yours, but then, he was a dairy farmer, too! Step up, please, the Yorkshire farmer with a positive and extrovert outlook on life, who recites verse from memory as she ploughs the spring acres and sluices out the milking parlour: you, too, will be most welcome here. And while I’m about it, a well-balanced vicar and a sane denizen of Spalding ought to make an appearance, or Louis the foxhound will be baying at the moon and putting fear into the readers of this blog.
      Thank you, Jack! 😉

  • vallypee says:

    I will have to do this quiz too, Christina, although at the same time, I know the results will be just more of these over generalised answers like all the nonsensical Facebook quizzes that circulate. You can spot the question that will determine the outcome and it’s more fun doing that than really answering honestly.

    Wonderful to read about where you’ve been happy (and not). For myself, I’ve never really stopped looking for another Dorset.

    • vallypee says:

      Just an update here: I have to laugh! I gave my old postcode in Dorset as where I currently live (only 57% satisfaction). It says I’d be happiest in Oxford too (never lived there, but I do like it), but now’s the wammer – the place I’d be least happy is….drumroll…South Holland!! Is there such a place in England, and if not, how does the quiz know? IP address perhaps?? A bit too much of a coincidence, I think…

      • vallypee says:

        Ah, now I see it does exist and Spalding is part of South Holland… well, well, well… 🙂 I actually loved living in Lincolnshire for the 18 months I was there!

      • You got there in the end! Spalding is the heart of South Holland, and is the exact location for the D.I. Yates books! Dutch farmers came to settle in this area and brought with them their bulb-growing expertise, but, before that, Dutch engineers (particularly Vernatt) were responsible for draining the Fens. ‘Sausage Hall’ deals with one of the descendants of the Dutch farmers. Thank you for your account of your quiz experience; clearly, I’ve got the right spot for crime fiction – the place must now be full of unfriendly villains… 😉

  • jomcarroll says:

    I had a quick go at this and I told me to move to Clackmananshire! Which is probably beautiful, but actually I’m very happy in deepest Wiltshire.

    But I do wonder who thinks these questionnaires are a good idea? A focus group who have escaped from The Apprentice, maybe?

  • and judging by the comments above and your own findings I think it was developed by the Oxford Tourist Board…just saying 😀

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