It is the fifth time in a row that the Bee Gee’s track, Jive Talking is being played in the Plum Tree in Swindon as I sit down to write. Nobody seems notice. An old man smiles and taps his foot whilst tucking into a fried egg breakfast.
It’s been 14 years since my favourite comedian, Eddie Izzard, described the Wiltshire town of Swindon as “knackered”. A Bristolian by birth, it felt good to sneer at our less attractive west-country cousin. Known to me only as “a bit of a railway town,” last month I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days in Swindon to see for myself.
As I have done in Basra and Islamabad, I arrived in the dead of night. Lost, I wondered with my luggage around a black and white town centre void of almost all people. Those I came across – hotel workers and chip shop owners – helpfully pointed me in the right direction, some walking with me for part of my journey.
In the morning I ventured along the same streets, now bathed in colourful sunlight. It was early and everyone was busy going about their business. One figure stood out from the rest – a middle aged white man with a huge grin on his face was walking towards me. As he grew close I was able to read the words on his T-shirt: I’m so broke I don’t even pay attention. The message combined with his happy disposition was a wonderful defiant opening to what would prove to be a very positive few days.
“It’s a working town” said a taxi driver, “we have no airs and graces, we just enjoy living and working here”. Swindon’s lack of pretension was the number one thing that people I asked said they loved about the town. Another thing that made Swindonian’s proud was “the people”. Combine the two and you get a very welcoming, down-to-earth place to be: The receptionist at the Holiday Inn Express who “sneaked me a youghurt” when I arrived at midnight. The guy in the corner shop who offered to make me a cup of tea when I asked where a good café was. The smiles in response to a cheeky girl who ran into a shop and turned up the volume on their speakers. A smile and a wave from a highly decorated octogenarian war veteran on a mobility scooter – in fact people saying hello to each other all over the place. There was also a genuine excitement in the air about “future Swindon” – the coming regeneration of the town centre, the potential of a ski slope at the Oasis, and new life breathed into the old corn exchange building in Old Town.
I am glad to have my perception of Swindon changed by the people who live there. I had thought it was a relatively new town – yet it has a history going back as far as a The Domesday book. I knew it was famous for building railways – but I never knew it was where Isambard Kingdom Brunel chose to build. Nor did I know that the railway workers health scheme was used as a blue-print for our National Health Service. In 1844 a revolutionary co-operative organisation known as The New Swindon Improvement Company transformed the railway’s workforce into some of the country’s best-educated manual workers. The legacy of this history with people at it’s heart, is clear.
This travel blog has been home to my thoughts about my travels in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq – and each time I am keen to show that their perception of a place is not necessarily accurate. Swindon is just the same.
I asked the Landlord at the Plum Tree if he liked Jive Talking. “Has it been on more than once, darling?” he asked. I nodded. It was taken off. For those who don’t know, Jive Talking is slang for bullshit. It’s time for less Jive Talking about Swindon.