Alison Shepherd: My Preston, the Paris of the North

Our writer is thrilled by her home town's racy new image

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Poor old Mark Owen – he just can't keep it zipped up. But at least he falls back on the age-old booze excuse. He's not come so far from his Oldham roots that he feels able to blame that fancy dan, new-fangled sex addiction stuff.

While others digest the shock that the twinkliest light in the world's campest pop group had affairs with women, or girls, if you prefer The Sun's terminology, I'm still reeling from the discovery that the longest non-marital liaison began on Preston railway station.

Now, I'm very proud of my home town. I consider myself a Lancashire lass, which no amount of the "fur coat and no knickers" London highlife will be able to erase. But gradely as it is, Preston is not high on the list of the world's rock'n'roll cities.

True, Karl Marx did compare it with St Petersburg, obviously not because of the beauty of its architecture, although the Harris Museum, the Corn Exchange and the tall-spired St Walburge's church are models of their kind, but because its wretched mill workers would surely lead a British revolution.

And it was after a brief glimpse of the town and its huddled oppressed masses from the platform of that same station, followed by a draught in the still-thriving Bull and Royal pub, that Charles Dickens created Coke Town, the dark satanic setting of Hard Times.

If only Owen's dalliance on Platform 4 had sparked such genius, maybe Emma, his wife and mother of his two children, could have been persuaded to forgive him.

Preston, having shaken off most of the external vestiges of it industrial past, has more recent claims to fame: its promotion to a millennium city, thereby losing a church and gaining a minster, and the rise of the cricketer Andrew Flintoff, freeman of the city and previously well acquainted with the aforementioned Bull and Royal.

But search as you may through the annals, there is a lacuna in the file marked Pop. There was the Radio 1 Big Weekend in 2007, which was held on Moor Park; this became the world's oldest public park in 1833, and is one of the city's forefathers' many outdoor legacies.

But beyond the Big Weekend, the last musical luminary to have graced Proud Preston's streets, for more than one night at the Guildhall or the poly, oops sorry, the University of Central Lancashire, was George Formby, who is rumoured to have filmed scenes from Turned Out Nice Again on Fishergate's cobbles in 1941.

What the city lacks in musical gravitas befitting a Take That star, it makes up in social conscience. It has a fine tradition of working-class folk trying to improve their collective lot: trade unionism and the Labour Party, which included my millworker Gran as one of its first women councillors, grew up in the noise and heat of its looms, and the Co-op flourished there. It's just a shame for Owen's family that Neva Hanley found another more modern way to improve her life, via The Sun's chequebook, or, more likely, its BACs transfer system.

Another important strand of Prestonian history that Owen would do well to study, if the celibacy implied in its "priest town" etymology is too dull for a Celebrity Big Brother winner, is John Livesey's Temperance Movement. The first time anyone uttered the world teetotal was in an 1832 speech to encourage Preston workers to take the pledge. I'm sure you could find a transcript on t'internet, Mark; it may help you keep your kecks on.

But for all its historic resonances, I'm not surprised that Owen, after forging his lust for Neva Hanley in a city that cannot boast a single luxury hotel within its centre, very quickly whisked her away to Los Angeles. There's nothing like a dank autumn day on the banks of the Ribble to deaden anyone's libido, however rampant.

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