It is 10am on a bright, brisk market day morning in March in a town in the south of England. I order a decaffeinated skinny latté from an eager young man in the one cafe that does not reek of grease, and take a seat outside.
On his way out to me the trainee barista trips over a discarded beer can and spills the coffee over the pavement. He apologises and returns to mop it up, but fails to offer me another cup, and then is visibly irritated when, wholly unreasonably, I request a fresh one. That said, he brings a prompt replacement, seasoned with a further apology.
From the doubtful comfort of my three and a half legged plastic chair I scan the establishments around me – “Nails Palace – Professional Nail Care for Ladies and Gentlemen”, “Cash Generator – the Buy, Sell and Loan Store”, “Tanning Heaven”, “Tattoo xxxxxx Ltd”, “Cheques Cashed”, “We buy Gold – any Condition”, “Residential lettings”, “Betfred” bookmakers and the “Community Store”, run by the Salvation Army and offering “Heart to God, Hand to Man”.
“Eel Pie Island”, which specialises in all day breakfasts, announces itself in large, yellow lettering to be a “Caf’e” (I doubt the apostrophe police saw that one coming). Upstairs is a dental surgery which, somehow, seems appropriate.
The “Hot 4 U Pizza, Chicken and Kebab” shop is closed, victim of too much competition in the fast food field, proof that you can have too much of a good thing. Breakfast for those not crammed into McDonald’s consists of sausage and bacon rolls and fresh cream puffs. Obesity seems a badge of honour.
The traditional gentleman’s barber shop is missing his iconic red and white striped pole. Nothing for the weekend here.
The local pub is also boarded up. A ragged, handwritten paper sign flaps in the light breeze. Somebody has inserted an “i” between the words “to” and “let”.
The compensation culture is in full swing. The frontage of the “Claim Shop” is emblazoned with a huge sign proclaiming “have you been involved in an ACCIDENT or suffered an INJURY through no fault of your own!!!”.
A council street cleaner fights a losing battle with bottles, cans, and food packaging, strewn over benches and pavement. On the opposite side of the road a modern day Steptoe proceeds in stiff but stately fashion along the pedestrianised street, peering professionally in all directions for unwanted morsels.
The air reverberates in a veritable Babel. English is spoken, or rather shouted, liberally infused with swear words, but it is no more heard than is Polish, Russian, Arabic, Turkish or Punjabi.
Young gap-toothed men wearing baseball caps or hoods and gripping cans of super strength, but astonishingly cheap, lager, swagger past, trailed by tattooed teenage mothers already carrying their next child, barking at their toddlers who are committing the heinous crime of being ……………….. children.
As the weather is uncommonly mild, plain white vests, accompanied by sometimes matching sweat pants, appear to be the dress code of choice, at least for the men. Whilst this might be an attractive look on a young man with taut muscles in the right places, it does not sit well with balding, unshaven, middle aged men, stomachs bursting from a diet of gassy beer and burgers. Bare arms are bedecked with body art depicting snakes, eagles and pseudo-oriental slogans.
Their Staffordshire bull terriers, acquired for menace, encircle each other, doing nothing more threatening than sniffing at each other’s private parts.
And yet, I am observed quizzically, even suspiciously, by passers-by with my fancy coffee, book for reading and, especially, notebook and pen desperately trying to capture the vivid images around me.
The young mums congregate outside Gregg’s and Iceland to share a cigarette, compare frilly pram and buggy decorations and show off the clothes they have just bought for Bailey and Madison in Primark. As the conversation turns to X Factor and piercings, their progeny become increasingly testy, provoking screeching admonitions to “shut up…… now”.
Shoppers seek bargains in the many charity shops, notably Scope, Cancer Research, Oxfam, British Heart Foundation and Demelza (for children in hospice care), but the upstart 97p conv£nience store has recently closed, sent packing by the more established and cavernous 99p emporium.
In the bustling market the stalls selling inexpensive imitation leather jackets, shell suits and sweatshirts are doing a good trade. Following close behind are those offering household goods and toys, jewelry, watches, mobile phones, rugs and carpets, curtains, handbags, purses and luggage – the selling point in every category being cheapness.
Country crooners from the fifties dominate the airwaves from the two stalls specialising in CDs and DVDs. A local driving school and the RAC try to rein in passers by, but most people here do not drive. Surrounded by fast food outlets, the centrally positioned greengrocer is still highly popular, as is the plant stall.
The meat wagon man is not so successful despite his saucy entreaties to “come on girls, don’t be shy, give my lovely meat a try”. A further invitation to feel his pork loins goes similarly unheeded. Despite his impressive discounts, a middle aged couple try to barter with him to no avail – another sale lost.
An octogenarian sea dog (this is a naval town, after all), dressed in a tweed jacket and waistcoat that displays several medals, shuffles past pushing a shopping trolley. Woe betide anyone who gets in his way, for a wheezy verbal volley and a clip from his walking stick will befall them. He sports a flourishing white beard reminiscent of Uncle Albert’s in the TV sitcom, Only Fools and Horses.
A slowly warming sun glints through the trees as I drain my latté and head for The Works in the hope of picking up a bargain book to add to the already overstocked shelves at home.
Florence this is not. Nor is it Bath or Edinburgh. But it is a area of contrasts. Despite having some of the worst school exam results in the country it boasts four universities, and the local sports centre has been refurbished and rebranded as an Olympic training venue.
If the picture I have portrayed here only depicts one side of that, it is because that is what I see on this March Monday morning.
And, as someone infinitely more eloquent than I said “it’s alright ma – it’s life and life only”.