The following article was commissioned by Trowbridge Town Hall, in response to a residency there by me and Boff Whalley in June this year. It was published in the most recent edition of the Trowbridge Community Newspaper.
You should check out Trowbridge Town Hall. They're a brilliant organisation. Their upcoming Christmas show Miracle on 34 Seymour Street was made through a similar process to the one described below. I'd go.
Some things just won’t resist turning into metaphor.
We spent our first morning in Trowbridge clearing scum off a pond. The sensory garden out the back of the town hall is a peaceful oasis, at least on days when there isn’t a stonecutter at work twenty feet away. But the garden only stays beautiful thanks to the indefatigable efforts of a team of volunteers. In Trowbridge, such efforts are a theme.
Yet despite the beauty of the spot and the huge good will we were met with by the volunteers, pond scum just keeps insisting on becoming a metaphor. For reasons that entirely escape me, Trowbridge is not widely regarded as a great place to be, visit, or live. Even many of the people of Trowbridge to whom we spoke were at best mealy-mouthed about the place. So consistently is it done down that, as a visitor, you start looking for things that confirm this reputation, which begins to obscure the fact that this is an incredibly handsome town. You have to clear the scum of reputation in order to see the water clearly.
That same evening we visited an allotment run by Trowbridge Environmental Community Organisation (TECO). For weeks they’ve been planting radishes only to have them eaten by slugs. So they plant more radishes, and they’re eaten by slugs too. And so on. The persistence of the TECO team is Sisyphean, it’s heroic, and again it’s an irresistible metaphor for all for work done by volunteers across the town to keep clearing away the pond scum and make it beautiful. Mel Jacobs, whose community garden in the park filled with local plant varieties had just been substantially vandalised and who, with a heavy heart, set about starting again. The team brought together by Wiltshire Wildlife Trust with whom we spent a morning in galoshes picking rubbish from Paxcroft stream. Layla in the plastic-free shop, whose business exists because plastic – plenty of which we picked out of that stream – is choking the planet, but who hadn’t served a customer for two hours before we came in to talk to her. I bought a huge quantity of nuts, enough to last the whole week, but it didn’t cover two hours of costs. As we left another customer came in.
We were brought to Trowbridge by the good folk of the Town Hall, to meet people who give up their time to make Trowbridge a better place to live, who get their hands dirty in order to transform the environment, or to preserve it. It wasn’t just environmental issues, either. We spent a fascinating and enormously enjoyable evening with the change-ringers in the church tower, geeking out on the minutiae of peals. Like so many pursuits you’re aware of but haven’t ever tried, bell-ringing is a lot more complex than you think, a whole secret world of knowledge and skill. And now whenever I hear that beautiful sound ringing out across any town, I know a little bit more about the nature of the work the ringers are putting in to creating the space I’m moving through.
Even a semi-wild place like Biss Meadows hides an incredible amount of invisible work, which we were introduced to by Jenny Fowers when she took us on a tour. Like so many people we met, she was refreshingly un-NIMBYish, celebrating the graffiti under the bridge and offering support to a homeless man taking shelter there. Some people want their beauty spots to represent a kind of perfection that’s only possible if you exclude basically all people. And as soon as you start making decisions about which people are most desirable in your beauty spots, you start excluding the kinds of people – the young, the homeless, the too-loudly-enjoying-themselves – who might have most to gain from access to places like this. Another bit of reputational scum wiped away, there.
With Gill Cooper we did a circuit of Courtfield Orchard, which despite being a historic woodland with several rare or unique trees, is under threat of development. Because of that, we couldn’t actually go into the orchard, we could only peer through the fence. The security guard came over and I was braced for a confrontation. But she was incredibly lovely and supportive, and just as keen that the orchard – and the house – be restored to use for the people of the town. It meant a lot to Gill, to save this place – she was full of memories of drama rehearsals in the house, and more – but she’s not sentimental about it. Things, times, places, they all change. Let’s just make sure it’s for the better, eh?
The change about which people most complain in Trowbridge is not unique to Trowbridge, it’s a national one, perhaps international. The gradual desertification of the town centre is a problem everywhere you go, and everyone knows it’s because of Amazon and because out-of-town shopping centres have better parking. But no individual can hold back that tide. So people pass blame to local councils, but in many cases there’s little they can do to promote local upstarts in the face of global behemoths. Their budgets are so tight that it’s hardly surprising they struggle even to offer rate relief – and plenty of that rate relief would mostly benefit landlords who themselves aren’t local either.
But what are you going to do? All you can do. Open a plastic-free shop, a small art gallery, an independent café. The slugs will come and eat some of it, so you plant it again. Pick plastic out of the water. Ring bells. People who care are the only thing that ever made a difference in this world, and they’re making a difference in Trowbridge every day.
On a personal note (and this is the paragraph that I expect might get cut from this article), I found our week in Trowbridge incredibly moving and inspiring. It resolved me to get involved in some of the kinds of activity we saw in Trowbridge in my own home town. Like a lot of people I spend a lot of time complaining, and there’s a degree to which the art I make is an extension of that complaining. I’ve been quite politically active in the past but have found the energy required impossible to sustain under the daily pressure of life when the pace of change is so slow. But the radishes I planted in Trowbridge, they grew, and now I know that you can beat the slugs anywhere.
Running with an idea
Running commentary on: