My local Twitter feed has been buzzing this week over the opening of a new branch of Prêt A Manger in Tunbridge Wells. With items like “Posh Cheddar & Pickle on Artisan” and “Wild Crayfish & Avocado Bloomers” on their menu they are certainly going to augment the increasing number of Middle-Class McDonalds’ already lining our Middle-England streets, but in these days of austerity is this really what we need in a town that already has, metaphorically speaking if not as the crow flies, a north-south divide bigger than the grand canyon? The answer for many Tunbridge Wells residents, obviously, is yes (or if no it’s for a set of reasons that have little to do with catering for the needs of the entire local community and everything to do with sweeping prejudices against ‘chains’ generally and/or particular blends of overpriced coffee and tea), but for some the location of the new “Pret”, alongside a landmark generally patronised by surly school kids during the day and drunk homeless people by night, is already proving enough to dampen initial enthusiasm.
One of my own objections to Pret – i.e. that have/have-not north-south divide I mentioned earlier – was somewhat tempered when I read that they give all their unsold stock at the end of the day to local charities offering food and shelter to the homeless, but I suspect this information will have been less well received by some, who will begrudge giving even their leftovers to people worse off than themselves. It could be that they see free food as “encouraging” vagrancy, or possibly that they find the idea of destitute people eating posh cheddar and crayfish like wot they eat offensive, but personally I find the irony of that as delicious as an Italian Mozzarella & Pesto Toastie and hope that Pret’s stock controller turns out to be a bit over-optimistic and heavy-handed.The only other downside I can see is that really selfish people could come to see eating in Pret as a justification for their lack of charitable goodwill elsewhere, sailing straight past collectors rattling charity tins for the homeless with a casual “No thanks, I’ve already given” on the basis that they’ve just snarfed down an overpriced baguette and a cup of frothy coffee. I know it seems unlikely, but to be honest nothing would surprise me in Tunbridge Wells these days and it could turn out that Pret’s goodwill will prove something of a double-edged sword.
Of course, the fact that Pret gives away its leftovers is not just down to goodwill and it does undoubtedly represent another variation on the “charity wank” (as discussed in some of my earlier posts if you’re unsure about the nature of charity wanking), but as charity wanks go it’s quite a good one, and while I couldn’t actually bring myself to endorse it I can, in these austere times, look upon it semi-favourably as a necessary evil.
So please, good (hem hem) people of Tunbridge Wells dooooo flock to Pret in droves, but do so at the expense of all the other overpriced cake and coffee emporiums which do bugger-all for the less fortunate in our community rather than trying to accommodate both sets of businesses. Which is not to say, of course, that I wish those other emporiums any ill will: I just think there are other sectors of the community that could be better catered for, and that by so doing we could create a more inclusive town. Which would be nice.
Another drawback of living in a town with a major economic fault line running through it is the fact that shopping for clothing is equally problematic. If you want to buy a ridiculously expensive “Vintage” designer dress that some micro-entrepreneur has liberated from one of the many charity shops ironically lining our high streets in Tunbridge Wells then you’ll be spoilt for choice, but if you’re on a budget and need a new pair of school shoes for your eleven year old you’re fucked. There’s now an Asda stocking a small range of “George” items on the industrial estate, but unless you live on top of the place it might as well be in the Outer Hebrides, as access by car or bus is pretty much a non-starter given the daily twelve hour gridlock between 8:30am and 8:30pm. And with Nandos opening there in a month or so I suspect we’ll also be able to write off that remaining tiny little window of opportunity between 8:30pm and midnight…
Of course, Tunbridge Wells is not the only town with an economic divide and it would be wrong of me to suggest otherwise. That said, though, it does seem to be fairly unique in that the town centre caters pretty much exclusively for only one small but disposable income rich sector of the community. Elitist label Twinkies spending more on a casual lunch than some in other areas of TW get to live on for a week can afford (if you’ll excuse the pun) to indulge themselves, as can the yummy mummies and designer daddies stocking up on artisan breads and organic asparagus at the farmer’s market, but if you’ve got three kids to clothe on a budget you’d better jump on a bus and try your luck in Maidstone or Tonbridge, ‘cos the fact is you just ain’t welcome around here.
Those defending the town will talk about “market forces” (as you can imagine there are lots of marketing types living in Tunbridge Wells), but if you look at the pattern over the past few decades it does seem more a case of social engineering rather than social evolution. Tunbridge Wells has always had its share of commuters and it has always had more than its fair share of loaded upper-class twits, but the former were a different type of commuter who were largely commuting to earn money to pay their mortgages and feed their kids, and the upper-class twits have always, then and now, pretty much kept themselves to themselves.
By contrast, the New Tunbridge Wellians seem a different breed entirely, and seem intent on turning the town into a cut-price version of the leafy London suburbs they aspire to (but presumably can’t quite afford without compromising on their designer cupcakes and astronomically expensive gastro pubs), and they don’t appear to give a flying toss what that means to the town as a whole. And while I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest the local council are doing anything “bent” it does seem that political will in the town leans increasingly in their favour, whether it be decisions regarding who gets planning permission to develop what, or where local authority funding for leisure is directed.
In a nutshell, the poor of Tunbridge Wells (and there are, contrary to popular perception, many of them) do not use their town centre purely and simply because there are no amenities whatsoever there they can afford to access. You can call that market forces, if you like, but it’s also a chicken and egg equation, and as someone who has lived in Tunbridge Wells all my life (give or take the odd few year’s absence) I can tell you that this chicken sees it more as a determined pricing out policy rather than the natural evolution of a rather snobby little township that has increasingly come to resemble the cliché it has long been associated with. And that’s sad.
In closing, I’d just like to say that individually the people of Tunbridge Wells are mostly very nice. I’ve met very few people, since re-launching myself socially after over a decade in the single parenting wilderness, I actively dislike and some I’ve met (no names, no pack drill, but you know who you are) are absolutely lovely. There’s also a reassuring undercurrent of social goodwill from people who really do seem to realise how fortunate they are and to have some empathy and compassion for those who are less fortunate. I don’t know where that falls down, or whether it’s just a case of the mean-spirited outweighing the rest, but it saddens me to see a town I really do care about failing so miserably when viewed collectively. It’s still a lovely place to live, but it has, in my opinion, seen lovelier and better days and I hope one day that it’ll come to its senses and see them again.
IN OTHER NEWS: The other day, for a bit of fun on Facebook, I started fannying around with the idea of merchandise for a Tunbridge Wells Gift Shop. I got as far as (casually and inaccurately) photo-shopping a few images, but haven’t written full catalogue descriptions of the items yet. This may well be, if I don’t get bored in the meantime, the theme of next week’s blog, so do look back if you’re looking for a special something for a loved one’s birthday or whatever. Here, as a taster, is one of the t-shirt designs: