Let's be honest: Most London commuter towns are unbelievably dull

Stevenage, such as it is. Image: Traveler100/Wikimedia Commons.

The impressive thing about Lewis Hamilton is that he can drive so well with his foot in his mouth. Last December, an Instagram video in which he yelled at a nephew for his taste in Christmas presents (“Boys don’t wear princess dresses!”) caused a medium-sized social media uproar. This year, it’s Middle England he’s offended, by describing his home town of Stevenage as “the slums”. At this rate he’ll soon have alienated everyone, and have nothing except for his mind-blowing wealth for comfort.

Watching the video of his speech at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards, it’s fairly obvious that Hamilton does not literally believe Hertfordshire is comparable to the favelas of Rio. “It was really a dream for us all as a family to do something to different,” he says. “For us to get out of the slums, we would say – it’s not the slums, but just come out from somewhere and do something.”

That to me sounds like a figure of speech: a jokey way of saying “the crap town I grew up in”. We’ve all done it, describing a perfectly decent flat as a shoebox, or a mildly boring home town as a shithole. It’s less a description of objective reality than a comment on its failure to match up to our dreams.

Most of us will never realise those dreams; Hamilton actually has, living the life in Monaco like a cross between James Bond and Scrooge McDuck. Perhaps that’s why the good people of Stevenage have bristled so at his betrayal. “The people of our town, many of whom admire and support him, felt very offended,” says council leader Sharon Taylor. One of those people, the para-badminton player Gobi Ranganathan, agreed, tweeting in reply: “It has a lot to offer if people just open their eyes.”

I’m sure it does, on the grounds that pretty much everywhere does, if you’re minded to look for it. Nearly 90,000 people live in Stevenage, and many of them paid a fair whack (average house price: £300,000) to be there. They can’t all have made a terrible mistake. I’m sure there are attractions to living in Stevenage, just as there are to St Albans or Sevenoaks or Southend-on-Sea.


But here’s the thing: a place can have plenty to offer and still be the sort of place any ambitious teenager would climb over their own grandmother to get away from. And for every one of those towns – whatever their history, or cosy pubs, or shopping centres with plenty of parking – the biggest attraction by far is something that’s not about the town itself at all. It’s the mainline to London.

There’s a ring of towns around the capital to which people move not so much because of what they have, as because of where they are: they’re dormitory suburbs, which happen to be separated from the capital by a few fields, rather than independent communities entire unto themselves. That’s all the more true of Stevenage which, as a New Town, literally only exists because in 1946 London needed a place to put more housing.

This symbiotic existence does all sorts of things to a town. It tends to mean there’s money there, as people with jobs in the capital move out in search of homes with gardens, bidding up house prices but bringing disposable income, too. But it also makes them a bit – I’m just going to come out and say it – dull. Property is expensive, but the market for any commercial venture is smaller than it looks, because anyone looking for an art gallery or a theatre or a good night out is within easy reach of things much bigger and better.

So it’s hard to take risks, in a way it wouldn’t be in a university town or further from London, or even in the capital itself. The result is identikit shopping centres, with the same chain restaurants and the same chain pubs and the same ghastly, cheesy night clubs. Growing up in the suburbs, you’re constantly aware that the good stuff is always happening just over the horizon. Those railway lines don’t just carry commuters to London: they drain towns of their life.

Of course, this falls under the heading of good problems to have: if you’re worried about suburban tedium, you’re not worrying about crippling poverty or what will happen when the town’s single major employer decides to shut up shop. And of course the great and the good of Stevenage would bristle when its most famous son publicly slagged it off. Lord knows I’ve spent enough time complaining about Romford, and I left as soon as I could, yet I still feel my hackles rise whenever anyone else joins in.

But I don’t for a moment believe that Hamilton was literally comparing his hometown to the rubbish tips of Mumbai. The teenagers of Stevenage today, I suspect, understand exactly what he meant.

This article first appeared on our sister site, the New Statesman.

 
 
 
 

What’s behind the rise of the ornamental restaurant toilet?

Toilets at Sketch restaurant, London. Image: Nik Stanbridge/Flickr.

A few weeks ago, I found myself in the toilets of a zeitgeisty new Italian restaurant in east London called Gloria. As with so many contemporary restaurant toilets, those in question were an aesthetic extension of the establishment’s soul. The inventive menu was matched by two-way mirrored toilet doors.

The setup was this: cubicle occupants could see out while the unisex crowd milling around the taps could check their outfits on the exterior mirrors. All fun and games, I thought. But then I found myself mid toilet with a guy peering into my door to change his contact lens. Either he had spectacularly bad manners or he was unaware of the two-way door thing. (Let’s hope it’s the latter.)

Gloria’s toilets aren’t unique in their attempt to be distinctive. The loos at nearby Mr Fogg’s Maritime Club & Distillery are adorned with specimen boards of dead spiders. Meanwhile, Edinburgh’s The Sun Inn invites patrons to pee in buckets, and trumpets double as urinals in The Bell Inn in East Sussex. Men can wee into the vista if they’re dining in the Shard. And Sketch’s ovum shaped loos are the stuff of urban legend.

Further afield, transparent doors become frosted only after they’re locked at Brussels’ Belga Queen. In Otto’s Bierhalle in Toronto, diners can press a button to activate their own private rave. And the toilets in Robot Restaurant in Tokyo have gold-plated interiors and dancing robots.

What’s behind this trend? Are quirky toilets just a bit of fun – or an unnecessary complication to the simple act of going for a wee and checking you don’t have tomato sauce on your chin?

Yotam Ottolenghi’s London flagship restaurant Nopi crops up often in conversations about restaurant bathrooms. A hall of mirrors glitters enticingly ahead of loo-bound diners. “The bathroom needs to be the nicest part [of] the whole place because that’s where you’re on your own,” says Alex Meitlis, the designer behind the space.

But no one is truly alone in 2019. If surveys are to be believed, nearly 65 per cent of millennials take their phone to the bathroom with them. Mike Gibson, who edits the London food and drink magazine Foodism agrees that the bathroom selfie – searches for which, incidentally, yield over 1.5m results on Instagram – is part of the reason that contemporary lavatory design is so attention seeking.


“Any new venue that's opening will be super aware that there's probably not an inch of their restaurant that won't be photographed or filmed at some point”, he says. But bathrooms like Nopi’s predate this trend. Indeed, Meitlis believes he has created a haven from the smartphone obsession; Nopi’s mirrors are angled in such a way that means you have to seek out your reflection. “You can choose whether to look for yourself in the mirror or not.”

Another driving force is the increasingly competitive restaurant landscape. “It’s almost like there’s some sort of ever-escalating competition going on amongst new openings, which makes every visit a faintly terrifying experience”, says food writer and New Statesman contributor Felicity Cloake. Gibson agrees. “Restaurants want an edge wherever possible, and design definitely comes into that.”

So novelty bathrooms get you noticed, promote social media engagement and entertain diners who are momentarily without the distraction of company. (Although, it must be said, quirky bathrooms tend to make the loo trip a more sociable experience; a Gloria spokesperson described the restaurant’s toilets as somewhere you can “have a good laugh and meet people along the way.”)

Nevertheless, I’m not the only one who finds bathroom surprises disconcerting.  One TripAdvisor user thought the Belga Queen loos were “scary”. And a friend reports that her wonderment at the Nopi bathroom was laced with mirror maze induced nausea – and mild panic when she realised she didn’t know the way out. Should restaurants save the thrills for the food?

“I think it's important not to be too snarky about these things – restaurants are meant to playful,” says Gibson. Cloake agrees that novelty is fine, but adds: “my favourite are places like Zelman Meats in Soho that have somewhere in the dining room where you can easily wash your hands before sitting down and tucking in.”

So perhaps we should leave toilets unadorned and instead ramp up the ornamentation elsewhere. Until then, I’ll be erecting a makeshift curtain in all mirrored toilets I encounter in future. An extreme reaction, you might say. But, as I wish I could have told the rogue contact lens inserter, it’s not nice to pry into someone else’s business.