Sinister forces are eating away our local quirks

It's almost certain that the iceberg that's broken away from Antarctica has already got a Costa Coffee and a Wetherspoon's pub
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The Independent Online

I'm not qualified to comment on anything topical at the moment, as for some reason I seem to have missed the news entirely for the last three days. But I've been on a live tour, mostly in smallish towns, and have been reminded there is something highly endearing about Britain, which is that everywhere is genuinely slightly different. For example, last week I went to Shrewsbury, to discover it's full of quaint streets, a castle and the public school that Michael Heseltine attended, but in the middle of the poshest bit is its football ground. Shrewsbury supporters must be the only fans that chant in Latin. I suppose they rile the away fans by yelling "You're turdius and you know you are."

I'm not qualified to comment on anything topical at the moment, as for some reason I seem to have missed the news entirely for the last three days. But I've been on a live tour, mostly in smallish towns, and have been reminded there is something highly endearing about Britain, which is that everywhere is genuinely slightly different. For example, last week I went to Shrewsbury, to discover it's full of quaint streets, a castle and the public school that Michael Heseltine attended, but in the middle of the poshest bit is its football ground. Shrewsbury supporters must be the only fans that chant in Latin. I suppose they rile the away fans by yelling "You're turdius and you know you are."

Or can there be anywhere in the world like Hebden Bridge? This tiny town in the Pennines became a haven for alternative lifestyle followers in the Seventies. The community then grew so that now the place is half gritty Yorkshire and half hippy commune. For example, the wall in the chip shop is covered with local business cards. The first half are for firms such as "Terry's the builders – roofs are our speciality". Then comes another section for "quantum healing" and "humanistic counselling". So I bet sometimes Terry arrives to fix a roof and is told "Oh, we didn't realise you used slates, we were hoping you were going to mend it homeopathically."

There was a notice in one window saying "Opening soon – late night deli". Perhaps some of the old Yorkshire boys will tell stories of how they got a lock-in down the deli 'til half past three – "I must have had six jars of sun-dried tomatoes, then started on the stuffed olive chasers."

And up until recently I had no idea that Colchester had a Dutch quarter, called "Little Holland". They should advertise this in the tourist brochures. "After a fascinating day perusing the glorious sites and monuments of this historic town, why not spend the evening relaxing at one of our Dutch quarter's many outlets offering Essex's top line hard-core porn?"

Most people in these places are impressively proud of their local idiosyncrasies. Accents can be so specific that if you try to imitate the dialect, they'll scream, "That's nowt like it mate, that's Pontefract you're doing, three and half miles away." They go potty if you pronounce a place name wrong, such as saying "Altrincham" instead of "Altringam". So you apologise and it's not until you get home you realise it would be perfectly reasonable to reply "Then why don't you spell it 'Altringam', you illiterate idiots?"

They're immensely proud of local celebrities, spilling with enthusiasm as they point out the wood yard where that bloke works who won a heat as Nat King Cole in Stars in their Eyes. This pride is misjudged sometimes by local papers, who make a bigger issue out of it than anyone cares about, so that almost every town as big as Shepton Mallet now has a campaign to be reclassified as a city. In Bradford there's a campaign to make the place the official city of culture in 2008. On the day I was there the local paper had a whole page telling its readers the council had taken the campaign to the capital by "advertising in one of London's famous black taxis." One taxi. Which is wonderfully heartening in a patronising sort of way, the idea that Bradford council have thought "if we stick a notice int' taxi, it'll get all over town. Better than a billboard, that's in one place. And if we've owt left int' budget we can put summat ont' skateboard as well."

But every journey across Britain also reveals forces eating into these local quirks, with pedestrianised precincts springing up like bindweed, so it's almost certain that the iceberg that's broken away from Antarctic has already got a Wetherspoon's pub, a Costa Coffee, and a bored teenager in a red costume giving out Pizza Hut leaflets to the penguins. Hotels pride themselves in being identical – you could be in Borneo, but the hair conditioner is in the same basket it would be in if you were in Croydon. You'd think they'd offer some local flavour, so that in London a bloke came round at breakfast screeching "Come along now, let's be having your toast, finish up now it's well past closing." Or in Norfolk, there were sheep in the gym.

Instead, the process the left were once accused of wanting, whereby everything becomes the same, is being carried out by the free market. However, occasionally local behaviour can combine with this drive to mass cloning. In High Wycombe, the Bucks Herald told me the Queen Mother always held a special regard for Buckinghamshire because, and I haven't made this up, "she came to Aylesbury in 1936". Not only that but "she also came to Waddesdon Manor in 1994". So apart from the odd 58-year gap, she could hardly bear to leave the place. A heartwarming example of how local attitudes can be applied to a national mood, in which everyone appears to have gone round the twist.

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