The Man Who Pays His Way: Why suburban South Australians shouldn't throw stones at Staines
Saturday 09 February 2008
Reaching Paradise is easy – so long as you start from Grenfell Street in Adelaide. Bus 104 will get you from the centre of the South Australian capital to the north-western suburb of Paradise in 16 minutes. The price of Paradise, or at least a one-way ticket there: A$4.10, under £2.
Tracking down Staines, as I did on Thursday, proved trickier. The fast train from London Waterloo was mysteriously erased from existence (if, indeed, it ever truly existed in the Sartrean sense). The stopping version did exist, but took nearly an hour to stutter through 17 miles of south-west London suburbia to Staines.
It's enough to make you want to emigrate – which is exactly what the South Australians have in mind. The state government in Adelaide has launched an advertising campaign to lure Brits away from our damp and dreary existence. South Australia seeks to seduce with a promise of Paradise – not to mention the suburbs of Happy Valley and Hope Valley – for as little as a week or as long as a lifetime.
"Screw working in Staines," announces the first in a series of ads that disparage southern England: "Hello Adelaide." The ad then lists the attractions of South Australia's largest city: fine wine, fine weather, fine jobs, fine beaches, fine universities and fine houses.
How does Staines compare? That was what I set out to find.
The Romans bridged the Thames here two millennia ago, but there is little evidence of what they bequeathed to Staines. What Staines gave the world, though, is very evident. On the high street, outside WHSmith, stands a dramatic sculpture of two men hauling a huge cylinder. It turns out, on closer inspection, to be a celebration of linoleum.
The linseed-based floor covering was first manufactured here in 1864, though the trade took the lino-clad stairway to corporate heaven decades ago. The outlook is hardly blooming, either, for a florist's on Church Street named Open All Flowers, now closed down.
Very much open for business are Staines' world-class car parks. I began at the aesthetically pleasing Riverside (89 spaces, including five devoted to families with young and ended at the Tothill Multi-Storey, a temple for traffic with 600 spaces for stationary saloons. But when Staines is not providing parking solutions, does it spend its spare time as a metaphor for misery?
Well, no. Migrants from Szczecin and Sofia have come to Staines because it is a pleasant, prosperous place. Motorists are benign towards cyclists, while on the riverside path, kind people walking well-bred dogs bid strangers "good morning". On the far shore, Thames barges have been converted to the most comfortably mobile of homes, with names such as Anna, Atlas and Albertina. Europe's busiest airport is just two miles away, but a chirruping chorus of Thames birdlife drowns out the jets. I did not stick around to sample Staines' nightlife, though I noted the handsome Town Hall has been reborn as a pub. Its name: Town Hall.
Now, mediocrity is a subject close to my heart: I have supported Crawley Town FC for more than 40 years. Staines is as easy a target as the Sussex new town for mockery, which is why the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen chose it as the fictional home of his character Ali G. But for a destination to try to attract tourists by disparaging the suburbs in which they live and work is risky, because people may peer into your own version of Paradise.
British Airways erased Adelaide from its network 12 years ago. Perhaps the city was simply too suburban. According to Wikipedia, the city has no fewer than 275 suburbs of its own; presumably some suburbs have their own suburbs. Further investigation reveals a certain nostalgia for London: from Mile End to Mitcham and Highbury to Highgate, Adelaide has many suburban alternatives to Paradise.
The ad suggests that South Australians are even more fixated in the weather than the British. Before you abandon these temperate climes, bear in mind that it is the driest state on the driest continent. Good news if you want to avoid the drizzle, but not so ideal if you hope to dodge bush fires. The Foreign Office warns of "seasonal natural disasters".
Curiously, the ad fails to mention some key advantages that Adelaide has over Staines. Adelaide's airport is just as convenient for the city centre as Heathrow is for Staines, and has the additional edge that you can get from arrivals hall to beach in five minutes flat.
Both Staines and Adelaide are railway junctions. But while the destination screens at Staines station whisper of Weybridge and Wokingham (existentialist difficulties permitting). Adelaide is at the hub of an entire continent's railway network, with departures to both Indian and Pacific oceans (about 40 hours to Perth or 24 to Sydney, aboard the Indian-Pacific, since you ask). Another service, the Ghan, slices north via Al ice Springs across to Darwin, deep in the tropics.
Quite rightly, the ad exalts South Australian wine. But guess what: you can buy it in Staines as easily (though perhaps more expensively) as in Adelaide. Try a 2005 McLaren Vale shiraz, £14.99 from Marks & Spencer on the high street.
Last word to Jane Lomax-Smith, the state's tourism minister – born in Walthamstow. The north-east London suburb was originally chosen for the ad, but its ample name was too long. Thus Walthamstow remained unstained.
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