Old stuff in a New Town: does growing up in a new town mean you love old things more?
Something that has come up in my interviews, and in my own reflective thinking has been whether the love of the old, the vintage, the second-hand appeals particularly to some of us who grew up in a New Town. Now I have to admit to being the perpetual imposter here: I was born in Shrewsbury, a market town in Shropshire but moved to California USA with my family when I was eight weeks old. We lived in Pine Mountain and Fraser Park * and then when I was three-ish we moved to Santa Monica. When I was nearly nine we moved back the UK, to Shropshire but this time in the New Town of Telford in which my mother had a large family, living in the older estates. So whenever I make the claim of having ‘grown up’ in Telford I feel a little fake, and when I make a claim to having ‘spent half my childhood’ in Santa Monica with my now thoroughly British accent, I feel like an asshole. More on this another time.
But after the initial excitement about how old and proper England was, I was struck by how plastic living in a New Town felt. This wasn’t how I expected England to be. Now I don’t think I can blame this on my own second-hand shopping habits as I have several friends growing up who felt similarly, and I interviewed someone from a New Town in Essex who echoed many of the same things. There was a feeling of same-ness which some of us wanted to get away from, a feeling that our world was a replica of many other worlds. That each house was the copy of another and that each shop was the branch of a large network of the same.
Telford seemed to be mapped out by a series of roundabouts, off of which sprouted various estates spanning 1950s to the freshly built (1990s). You couldn’t see them though, they were hidden by banks and trees. Then once on them they, ill-served by public transport, and often connected either by solely pedestrian or solely vehicular access, were confusing, labyrinthine and very indifferent: you felt a bit scared and very lonely. There were either large groups of teenagers or no one at all. (See Lindsey Hanley for more on the feeling of growing up on an estate.).
My friends and I cherished whatever gem of individuality we could find. There was the tucked away, slightly mawkish Hippy Shop in Wellington. There was the awesome record store Langlands. There was the market, which held one of the best vintage clothing stalls I have come across,, which we just called Melissa’s: packed out with rails of colourful velvety slivers of glamour. Friends and I would take the train to Shrewsbury and seek out the two or three hippy shops there. And then the charity shops, which were far superior to their Wellington counterparts: especially the Oxfam opposite the army surplus store. On big days the metropolitan wonders of Wolverhampton or Birmingham beckoned.
But the best things came from Melissa’s. We didn’t call it Vintage then, it was just second-hand or retro. I still own a lot of the stuff I bought there – a t-shirt that says ‘skateboarding champion 1978’ with a picture of a muscly skateboarder – a pair of ridiculously painful brown platforms. Melissa used to customize the greebo velvet jacket with bleach for a Cyndy Lauper-ish look: both mocked and admired once I went to Goldsmiths. The woman who ran it was a little intimidating: I don’t know whether she thought we were awful taste-devoid idiots or was just really shy.
Two things seem to mean that some of us New-Townies love Vintage and the second-hand: the blinding newness and sameness of everything, and the fact that to consume it took some work, some research, some knowledge and some sifting. We made our own taste, we made our own fashion decisions: secondhand shopping gave us a sense of power and a sense of continuity in an environment made for shopping and watching TV. Now I live in an old city I love to look out for the signs of age: old weathered and defunct shop signs, grave stones, weathered bricks with old graffiti. But the changes wrought through time are bittersweet: great than an old mill is now an art gallery and flats, but strange how the current generations can’t get work or find their place. Living in an old place helps me enjoy the old too, but I can’t really imagine that oldness as better either.