Mark Steel: The significance of a concrete hippo in Walsall

In a desire to retain their identities, towns are reaching for new symbols

Share
Related Topics

Each year, if you travel round the country, you see every town becoming more depressingly impersonal and identical. You could be in Inverness, Plymouth or Norwich and guarantee the shopping precinct consisted of a Body Shop, H&M, Clinton Cards, a shut-down Woolworths, a Wetherspoon, a fake Irish pub, a Nando's, a Pizza Hut with yawning teenager and glass screw-top jar of stuck-together parmesan cheese, River Island, Boots, Vodafone, a student in plastic bib overly keen to sign you up for Amnesty International and a bunch of Peruvians playing "I just Called To Say I Love You" on the poxy pan-pipes.

And the marvellous bit is a few years ago, if you told someone you were a socialist, the most likely response was: "Oh I see – well, if you have YOUR way everything will end up the SAME I suppose."

Now it's not just the shopping precincts. There'll be a road past Tesco and the Big Yellow Storage Company, past the station where you can buy Upper Crust Brie and Sugar Puff baguettes for £8, to the retail park with World of Leather and people pushing trollies holding one huge box, and then a Jury's Inn and a speed camera and a ring road and an Esso garage with one remaining sausage roll and a broken cashpoint.

Soon the town planners will arrange that in every town beggars are confined to one area of concrete known as "Trampland", which will turn out to be a subsidiary of ASDA, and children will be deemed too unpredictable and confined to "World of Infantility", made of polystyrene in a former gasworks.

But the opposition to this process can seem as if it revolves around the types who can afford a lifestyle choice by sitting in the organic cafe purring: "The apples here are EXQUISITE, they're £9 each but they have been individually naturally pecked by crows."

But one tiny incident might suggest there's a more potent desire to retain the identity of each town. As part of a radio show I've been travelling to apparently non-glamourous areas of the country, and this week I went to Walsall, a town that's been buried under countless layers of destructive planning. There seems to be no place you can stand without being in sight of at least two motorways, so I imagine if you're round someone's house and ask where the toilet is, they'd say, "You go down the M5 and take junction 29".

The writer Theodore Dalrymple said recently it's "the ugliest town in the world, like Ceausescu's Romania with fast food outlets". Boy George appears to be from there, but now denies this, which isn't complimentary – he is saying: "Yes, I was a heroin addict, fair enough. And I do accept I invited a stranger back for sex and beat him with a chain. But I did NOT come from Walsall."

But even in the identi-town precinct are symbols of resistance. In the town centre is a statue of Sister Dora, who everyone in the town seems proud of, although few people outside Walsall can have heard of her. It turns out she was a Victorian nurse, who transformed the profession locally by prioritising the poor, the drunks, and prostitutes for healthcare, ignoring the unease of her religious employers. She also discovered the filth of the hospital was causing disease to spread at a ferocious rate. So she began a thorough cleansing regime that saved dozens of lives, changing the practice so that no hospitals have been so moronic as to spread disease through being too dirty ever ever again.

But even more spectacular is the most popular object of the precinct, beloved of almost everyone in the town, a concrete hippo. Everyone speaks of it with bewildering affection, and it has a Facebook page with nearly 2,000 fans. So I walked through the precinct with a tinge of expectation, the way you might head out of Cairo for your first glimpse of the pyramids. But instead of the awesome structure I was imagining, the thing's about 4ft long and from a few yards away could be mistaken for a bin.

It is loved – it's the town's most famous meeting point, and there was an outcry recently simply because it was moved. The reason is because it is now, defiantly, a feature of Walsall and the battle to retain a distinct identity in the face of the local authority's efforts to wipe it out. This seems to have made it a star – until Wal-Mart patent it and every town has "House of Hippo – the concrete hippo wonderland" in an oblong warehouse behind PC World.

Mark Steel's In Town begins tonight at 6.30pm on BBC Radio 4

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Uncapped Commission, 1st yr OTE £30-£40k : SThree:...

Middleware Support Analyst

£45000 - £50000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Senior Java Developer/Designer

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: My client are looking fo...

Domino Developer and Administrator

£40000 - £45000 Per Annum + benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Domino ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Medical staff members burn clothes belonging to patients suffering from Ebola, at the French medical NGO Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in Monrovia  

The reality of Ebola: Buckets of chlorine in the streets, and no one shakes hands any more

Patrick Jamiru
Good2Go is the sexual consent app  

Good2Go: It's proper Sex and Relationships Education that will help end assault, not an iPhone app

Sian Norris
Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

An app for the amorous

Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

She's having a laugh

Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

Let there be light

Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

A look to the future

It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
The 10 best bedspreads

The 10 best bedspreads

Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

Arsenal vs Galatasaray

Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?