Nice 'ere, innit? Luton goes literary in a bid to drop the 'crap town' label

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As a cradle of artistic inspiration, Luton has - so far - failed to make a huge impression on the world's creative stage. Wordsworth may be inextricably linked with the Lake District, but Luton finds itself forever twinned in the public's imagination with its budget holiday airport, and a three-decade-old advertisement for Campari, starring Lorraine Chase and the catchphrase: "Nice, 'ere, innit?"

As a cradle of artistic inspiration, Luton has - so far - failed to make a huge impression on the world's creative stage. Wordsworth may be inextricably linked with the Lake District, but Luton finds itself forever twinned in the public's imagination with its budget holiday airport, and a three-decade-old advertisement for Campari, starring Lorraine Chase and the catchphrase: "Nice, 'ere, innit?"

Watch out, though, for all that may be about to change. With the accolade of "Britain's crappest town" ringing in their ears, Luton's residents are determined to prove that their community is as capable of stoking literary genius as any other.

Aspiring novelists have been invited to take a tour of Luton in the hope that it will inspire them to write a short story for a proposed paperback whose working title is Junction 10. (This is the point of departure from the M1 for the Bedfordshire town.)

Last month, Luton suffered the indignity of being voted top of the 50 most awful places in the country. The results were revealed in a book called Crap Towns II, and ever since, the town has been attempting to claw back some credibility. Sponsored by Luton First, a promotional consortium that includes the council and the airport, it is hoped that stories about the town by formerly unpublished authors will raise its flagging profile after years of negative publicity.

The writers who send in the 20 most promising one-page synopses will be invited to take part, and 10 of the best will be featured in a compendium published next year. Its proceeds will be donated to charity. Tony Edwards, of Luton First, said the initiative would offer a rare opportunity for writers struggling to get their work published. The catch? They have to mention the town in a positive light.

Mr Edwards said: "We will allow total freedom of style, topic, characterisation and plot, with the one proviso that stories should touch on a key aspect of the town in a positive way, with particular reference to Luton as a great place to live, work, learn and have fun."

Though the town may not be the most obvious crucible for literary talent, it has produced a string of successful writers, including the screenwriter David Renwick, who wrote One Foot in the Grave, and the poet John Hegley, who last month wrote a poem about the town which cited it as a place of literary inspiration. Arthur Hailey, author of Hotel and, erm, Airport, was born and bred in Luton; while John Bunyan, the 17th-century author of Pilgrim's Progress, was born nearby. So there is something of a literary tradition, after all.

Mr Hegley, a Luton enthusiast, said yesterday there was a "healthy craziness" in the town that he found energising, as well as a good cosmopolitan mix. One quarter of the 185,000 population is from an ethnic minority and there are more than 100 languages spoken in Luton.

"I am biased as I have had so many formative experiences in Luton. But a good budding author will find inspiration there. It is all in the looking and I have found it conducive to contemplation," he said.

The town's university offers a popular degree course in creative writing and last year it relaunched the Hat Factory, an arts and multi-media centre.

But Sam Jordison, who co-edited Crap Towns II, was not quite as confident about the town's bid to rebrand itself. "I visited Luton this week and attended a debate in the town library about whether it's crap or not. To an extent, I have revised my opinion but I still stand by what the book said. Luton is hideously ugly and taken over by the chain shops like many towns are, but I hope that in the future, it might be an inspiring place to live," he said.

Ironically, he felt that the "terrible feeling of despondency" in the town might actually serve a literary purpose. "Particularly miserable places can be inspiring," he said. "It's to do with a fascination with an abomination. It's definitely inspiring to regard the ugliness and wonder whether it's really worth dwelling in. It sounds like a great scheme."

LUTON REMEMBERED

BY JOHN HEGLEY

I remember Luton,

For fifteen years my home,

They've been sticking the boot in;

Rome you aren't,

But you weren't built in an afternoon and a morning, either.

There's certain of your turn-of-the-century terraces

Where I sense the tradesman's hand,

And I feel the tread of the long-time fled

On your ancient common land.

A punter backs a horsie,

The bridges back your rail and roadways and the River Lea,

Which whispers its faith that there is an ocean to me.

Your earth, I've found, is fertile.

When I was asked to help encourage poetry production,

Brought in as a manure,

I left your chalky Chiltern children

Knowing they were naturals

And poetry's secure, here.

Perhaps it's just my nostrils,

But there is something in your air,

The perfume of the muse perhaps

Co-mingled with the flare for spicy cookery.

When I was a Luton child, I sang, 'Dear Angel ever at my side',

And now in later, London years

I'm grateful for the angels in your skies.

I remember Luton,

You had the love of the man who was one with Ernie Wise.

Written by John Hegley for The Independent

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