Mark Steel: The significance of a concrete hippo in Walsall

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

Wednesday 18 March 2009 01:00

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

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