A town waits for its citizens' intimate confessions

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The Independent Online

You could not call it excitement; it is nothing as pulsating as that. Nor could you properly say there was a frisson because that would suggest associations of a kiss-and-tell nature, which are not there.

But in the small Oxfordshire town of Wantage, which proudly claims to be the birthplace of King Alfred, there is certainly something fizzing about. In the end you would probably have to describe it simply as a sense of anticipation - mixed with a dash of doubt, anxiety and oh-my-God-why-did-I-do-that.

The source of such mixed emotions is the imminent publication of a book about the lives of 46 local residents. Written by the daughter of a local GP, Secrets and Lives: Middle England revealed is aimed at being anything but sensationalist. Rather, its author, Mary Loudon, has chosen to focus on the experiences of ordinary people in this market town. "I don't think there is any such thing as an ordinary life," Ms Loudon said. "All lives have their dramatic aspects."

But her ambition is greater than that. Ms Loudon, 33, a left-leaning liberal who has previously written about nuns and the clergy, is also seeking to destroy the very thing that serves as her title: the myth of Middle England.

She could not have chosen a more suitable battleground. Should you draw a vertical line through the centre of the country, your pen would pass very close to Wantage, situated on the Berkshire Downs south of Oxford, and just five miles from the famous white horse, which is carved into the soft chalk hills at Uffington.

But it is not just geographically that Wantage marks Middle England, that world and lifestyle so loved and pursued by advertisers, politicians and newspaper editors. The town is neat and clean, there is a twice-weekly market in the square, there is little graffiti, and a 12th-century church sits close to a museum where the cafe is packed at lunchtime with clean, decent folk eating clean, decent lunches.

"This of course is a ridiculous cliché," Ms Loudon writes in the book's introduction. "Middle England is a place and a disposition as bleak for some as it is privileged for others." She explains later that she uses the term "ironically".

Her battle plan has been to try to show that the experiences and emotions of the residents of somewhere like "Middle English" Wantage can be as rich and diverse as those one encountered anywhere.

Among the characters featured are a gay policeman, a leather-clad motorbike-riding priest who wears an ear-ring and reads feminist authors but remains opposed to the ordination of women and a working-class mother who is tattooed and thinks "society sucks". At times it seems that all life is here, telling the most intimate secrets, fears, hopes and tragedies.

Ms Loudon gathered the information by interviewing each of her subjects at length before editing the material down. Everyone had the right to see the finished version and could veto anything they were strongly opposed to.

Yet as the publication date of 19 May approaches, some of the willing subjects are beginning to voice doubts. "When I saw my quotes in black and white for the first time my initial reaction was 'Oh my God. What have I done'," said Andrew Huddison, 30, a gay nurse who worked for the Formula One manager Frank Williams, and who reveals in the book his - ultimately successful - search for love, happiness and a quiet life. "I do wonder how some people will react. But then again, if they are my friends, it should not bother them. If it does, then they are not my friends."

Father John Salter, whose pride and joy is a gleaming purple Virago motorbike, said he had ensured he was careful when he was interviewed by Ms Loudon. "I was very cautious. I knew I should not take any risks," he said. "I do worry what some of the others have said and whether there will be any repercussions amongst the community."

Others clearly found taking part a useful, almost cathartic, experience. One of the most moving stories is that of Pamela Elder, 58, whose 19-year-old daughter, Kate, was killed when she slipped stepping off a bus and was hit by a number of cars.

Mrs Elder's account of the pain she and her family suffered and how they eventually managed to carry on their lives is dignified, raw and insightful. Presented, as are all the others, in the first person, it is terribly painful to read.

Yet Mrs Elder has no regrets. She said that she would be glad "if I can get across that everybody's grief is individual... that you are not funny... don't think that your experience is not valid because it is".

Ms Loudon insists no one has been exploited and her book has been written out of pride in the town where she spent the first 18 years of her life - a place she much prefers to the "insular, fashion-obsessed media world of London". "I wouldn't know what a Prada bag is and I am proud of that," she said.

Typically enough, every other person you meet in Wantage is talking about the book and trying to guess what secrets it contains. Theresa Lonergan, a shop assistant at Millers Books, said: "We have taken a number of orders. There is quite a lot of interest."

All will be revealed next Friday. The following day, Ms Loudon will be signing copies of the book at Wantage's museum. The organisers are anticipating considerable interest in this collection of extraordinary stories of ordinary people. Middle England may never be the same again.