I grew up near Swindon, a humble town about 120km west of London in the UK. Actually, I grew up in Wroughton, a village just out of Swindon but when you live on the other side of the world – as I have since the early 1980s – and people ask what part of England you’re from you say Swindon. (If that draws a blank you zoom out a bit and go for “sort of near Stonehenge”).
Even as a child I suspected there was something fairly unspectacular about Swindon. I don’t mean that in a nasty way – I just knew it didn’t have the exoticism or historical monuments or tourist drawcards of other parts of the world. For example, for a long time the most interesting things I knew about it were
- The town’s most favoured son is19th century engineer and railway man Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Isambard was important enough to have the shopping centre named after him.
- There is a crazy ‘multiple roundabouts’ roundabout in Swindon that locals call The Magic Roundabout. Family lore has it that my Nanna used to take the long way around town to avoid it. It was apparently voted ‘the fourth scariest junction in Britain’ in 2009 (putting it’s tagline in the same class as The Flight of the Conchords’ ‘fourth most popular folk duo’).
- Kind of well-know 50s and 60s actress Diana Dors was from Swindon
- Something crazy and complicated happened with Swindon Town Football Club in the 1990s that saw them move up and down the divisions in the league.
In recent years however this has all changed. It seems that no matter where I look in popular culture Swindon’s there, giving me a “and you thought I wasn’t cool” kind of glance.
One: The Office
It started with comic masterpiece The Office. In the Season One veiled references were made to the Swindon branch. In Season Two the branches are merged and the Swindoners become part of the team. Neil Godwin who becomes David Brent’s superior is heaps cooler than Brent. (That’s Swindon blood for you).
Two: Jasper Fforde and Thursday Next
Not long after this I started reading Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series of novels. For those who are unfamiliar the five six novel series (The Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book, The Well of Lost Plots, Something Rotten and First Among Sequels and One of Our Thursdays is Missing) are a bizarre mix of comedy and fantasy peppered with literary and other high- and low-culture references. They’re set in an alternate history version of today’s world. No prizes for guessing where most of the action takes place – the books are full of locations in and around the big S. Like Fforde’s books his website thursdaynext.com is a world unto itself, and includes a section called The Seven Wonders of Swindon.
Three: The Curious Incident
My third random brush with Swindon in an unexpected context – and the inspiration for me writing this post – came when I read Mark Haddon’s excellent 2003 novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time a few weeks back. Yep, set in Swindon. In a pop will eat itself bonus the main character Christopher even discusses another literary reference to Swindon to add to the list – in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Boscombe Valley Mystery Sherlock Holmes lunches in Swindon.
Where it all happens.