The County Town

I’m sat in my car, in Royal Wootton Bassett, watching people walk by – doing the people-watching thing. The town gained its Royal prefix as the notorious site of an organic ceremony; the repatriation of dead Iraq veterans on their way from Lyneham airfield. Pub owners and their patrons would gather outside to raise a pint to the hearses; bikers would pull up and pledge homage from their peculiar position of ‘wishing to be outside the culture yet firmly aligned with its centre’. This town was once a Britain-in-Bloom, and still the hanging baskets metrically line the streets, and a few borders dug with regiment marigolds remain, capturing that odd tendency of post-war men to take to horticulture with a military approach: the post-traumatic wrangling of nature into order, the carpet-bombing of weeds.

Everything in this town is one of two things. It is either a remnant of the past five decades (the shopping arcade that still smells of cigarettes owing to the millions smoked in its windowless canteen; the shoe repairman with no sense of order or public image in his cluttered shop, with packets of plastic-packaged laces manufactured in the eighties still on sale; the hardware-cum-pet-cum-baking-supplies-shop, which had to add new markets to survive as their original clientele – the local farmer – died off or sold fields as horse paddocks; the usual amenities of Boots and Superdrug, the opticians, the estate agent, the post office; even America found its way here, with Subway) or it is something of the culture of the Now, an attempt at a Trend (a hipster barber; an emporium for deliberately distressed furniture and country-chic, where drawings of chickens sit next to the word ‘Love’; a whole-foods store for pets; a deli with irreverent hand-written signs).

These latter are late to the game. They are never the thing they want to be; they are knock-offs. Like the light that left the star and hits us a long time after, their original influence trickled down to them slowly from America and London. But now that it has been arranged and formed, its shape has lost the nuance, impact and compositional skill wrought by the originals, which have too long since died and been replaced by something new, yet to trickle like water running through the mountain to hit the spring of the masses. After all, whatever is new in London or New York or Los Angeles cannot be translated to the small town of either the US or the UK: the relevance and purpose is lost, it appears alien. It must be massaged through the geography and the culture, through successively smaller populations.

Nobody who could successfully achieve the Trend – who had the Eye for it – would open anything in this town anyway, which has no capacity to absorb and hide the badly-designed. So it’s left to the imitators and their Chinese-whisper version of something instigated a decade earlier. This town, like so many others, is where the dust settles now, well distanced from the true cultural centre of the Now, attached to the Past through denial, pastiche and nostalgia. Occasionally, like the family butchers’, a genuine thread survives. But the people are all exiles, unknowingly excommunicated, as the strands either point backwards in time or outwards in space, and never form a fabric in and of itself.

Opposite me is Boots, and an overweight man in his sixties enters. He is limping on both legs: a slow, rolling side-to-side gait. He is extremely pale and his hair is thin. His trousers are grey, almost black, and synthetic, like a schoolboy’s; he wears a tatty black and purely functional jacket, with piping, reminding me of a football manager’s rain-proof wear, though an own-brand from an extinct store like C&A. He wears a dual-valve painter’s mask because of Covid, and reminds me of a villain from Batman. A skinny woman walks by, in her fifties, trying hard to live the fantasy of youth in skintight leather trousers and black heels, Chanel handbag, dyed black hair and pink satin facemask. She looks and moves like dried wood, and her designer pretensions don’t fit in here: in fact they fit in nowhere, save perhaps Cheltenham racecourse. There’s withered and sun-shrivelled bunting everywhere: red, white and blue, which ironically conjures up the thought of the French flag. An electric car whirrs past behind me in a brief moment of quiet, portentously pointing at the first real New in this place for many years. It’s an ominous moment. Several indistinguishable old ladies (rain-mac, loose beige trousers and deck-shoes to remind them of a time on a cruise or holiday in Spain) are in and out of Boots in minutes, efficiently picking up hair-dye and a range of medication for their old-age ailments. More elderly men appear, one on crutches shakily inching into the shop, while two girls poised to perform for TikTok hold the door for him; they fight through a kind of pitying disgust to do so, while he emits a flustering at the presentation of this moment of Kantian help. Everyone looks vacant, frowning. All the trees are pollarded. Another old-age pensioner, who can barely walk in a straight line, pauses to catch his breath and look at the advert for Nivea sun cream in the Boots window. The weather is chromatic grey, and spitting.

Written by Andrew11.

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