Stevenage, by Gary Young. Listen before it’s gone.

I’d seen via Twitter that Gary Younge had written an essay about Stevenage, but it’s published by Granta and not available online unless you subscribe. So I was pleased to hear today that an abridged version has just been broadcast on Radio 4 in two fifteen minute chunks. It’s an interesting listen; Gary Younge is the same age as me, and grew up in the same town. His Mum, a main character in the essay, was (I think) one of the teachers at my school for a while.

From the BBC Website:

Gary Younge was brought up in Stevenage, a place which even his fellow residents were hard pushed to locate on a map. It was an engineered community but one in which he and his brothers and their single parent mum participated in whole-heartedly. Nonetheless despite having only spent six weeks there as a four year old, whenever he was asked where he was from, ‘home’ was Barbados. Gary Younge explores his relationship to the new town of Stevenage and how the place he grew up in has evolved.

Many of his recollections are similar to mine. You can listen to the two broadcasts on iPlayer here: episode one and episode two. But be quick about it: iPlayer only has them available for a few days.

[Update five years later – looks like they’re now available to listen to again.]

His comments towards the end about how Stevenage is now paint a worse picture than the one I see. I understand what he’s trying to say, but it’s not as hopeless as this extract makes it sound. Well, not in my experience anyway.



39 thoughts on “Stevenage, by Gary Young. Listen before it’s gone.

  1. myfavouritesweets

    Trevor, Reba Younge was my maths teacher at Bedwell, she was an amazing and freasome character! I struggled with maths and she gave up her lunch hours to give pupils like me extra tuition for the exams.

    1. Trevor Post author

      Yes, I’m glad you’ve confirmed that. Don’t think she ever actually taught me, but she was indeed a dominant character.

  2. John Murrill

    Reba taught me at Collenswood for a short time. She was a wonderful character who made her pupils feel comfortable with what she was teaching. She always had patience if we struggled with anything and was also game for a laugh with us when we were being mischievous. Gary was in my school year and went to Heathcote.

  3. Gary Younge

    Thanks for this Trevor and for all the fond memories of my mum from your other posters – it means a great deal to me to know that she lives on so vividly in peoples’ recollections. If she was that deadly with a blackboard in the class you can imagine what a tight ship she ran at home. As for the piece: my aim wasn’t to describe Stevenage as hopeless although I can see why you might reach that conclusion. It was to contrast the idealism with which it was built – at time when people thought government could and should make a positive difference – with the way it developed since the mid-eighties after local councils were hammered and government retreated.

    1. Trevor Post author

      Thanks for commenting, Gary.

      Like you I was born in 1969 and brought up in Stevenage. Unlike you, I didn’t leave for university, but stayed put – and am still here. (Even opting to stay when my parents moved away.) It may be looking very tired in places, it may desperately need major investment and redevelopment, but it’s home, and it’s done me proud.

  4. Gary Younge

    Trevor, that’s great. But it doesn’t contradict anything I wrote. Staying or leaving is neither a virtue nor a vice. And contrasting the town’s idealist beginnings with the subsequent lack of investment and planning isn’t a sleight on the people who live there. It’s a commentary on what happened when the utopian vision of government intervention that created the town became politically unfashionable. I’ve never felt that being proud about something and giving an honest assessment of it are mutually exclusive – in fact quite the opposite.

    1. Sharon Taylor

      Dear Gary & Trevor
      This is such an interesting debate. Gary, I was delighted to hear you talking about your wonderful experience of growing up in Stevenage. I grew up here too, for me it felt exciting, ambitious, safe, free and I was never aware of the class divisions that friends have told me existed elsewhere. I also agree that what the Thatcher government did to jobs in the aerospace industry and in decimating the housing base that was the Town’s raisin d’être caused fundamental changes from which we are yet to emerge. However, the community in Stevenage is very resilient, we still have hundreds of small associations, groups and charities that make the town a better place. The environment is still clean and green compared to many places, Fairlands Valley being the jewel in the crown. Our football team, still supported by the people of Stevenage (over 20,000 attended Trophy finals) and the Council. We still have great adventure playgrounds & playschemes and have added 6 children’s centres to this provision for our younger residents. So while there is plenty to do, rebuilding the Town Centre being one of the most costly examples, I see Stevenage as having a promising future. Recording our history is an important part of that and Gary’s contribution is vital to that. The vision our founders and pioneers had is evolving and changing. Those of us who care about Stevenage will continue to strive to keep that vision alive and relevant for today.

      1. Trevor Post author

        Thanks for Joining in, Sharon.

        For those who don’t know, Sharon is a Labour Councillor in the town (for my own Ward, as it happens) the current leader of Stevenage Borough Council.

    2. Trevor Post author

      I don’t think I was really disagreeing with anything you’d said, Gary. Just when I listened I imagined the impression people might get who had no experience of the town. It *could* come across as a desolate wasteland out of context. Maybe, just maybe, parts of it do feel a little like this when contested with the initial hopes and your vivid childhood memories. But I wouldn’t want people to think the whole place is like that. And I don’t really get the impression that you would either.

    3. LizR

      My father, Donald P. Reay, was the chief architect for Stevenage. He planned and helped build multiple new cities after WWII. After becoming a professor of city planning at UC Berkeley, he would still go home every couple of years to see how the towns he designed after the War were faring. He was really disheartened and even appalled to see the small community broken up by satellite developments of big box stores in the 80’s. He knew this sort of course could ruin the town eventually. Hopefully the town can overcome the damage to its’ center and regain some of the original small town feel.

  5. Gary Younge

    Sharon, Thanks for your response. I have no doubt that the council is doing great work or that there are still resilient communities in Stevenage. I don’t think the piece gave anyone cause to think otherwise. They are important things for you, as the leader of the council to point out. But my piece focused on a description and analysis of “the fundamental changes from which [the town] is yet to emerge” you refer to in your comment; things that make things tougher for those communities to thrive and for the council to do its job. Whether you agree with the assessment or not I doubt there was much in there that, as a local councillor, you hadn’t heard before because they were the kind of things many people – including the local MP – said to me in the many times I’ve come back to visit, report, do readings and visit schools there over the years. Next time I’m in town I’d love to break bread and talk about it more. Best, Gary

  6. Gary Younge

    Trevor, The impressions might people get from my work – any work actually – often say more about them than the work. That doesn’t mean writers don’t have responsibilities. But they can’t take responsibility for others’ interpretations. Anyone who heard or read the piece and thought Stevenage was “a desolate wasteland” just wasn’t listening. True, there are unflattering descriptions of the town centre, the burned pavilion in Shephalbury and the newfound reputation for being a ‘rough town’. There’s also these:
    “Thatcherism wasn’t the only thing that happened to Stevenage, and some of what did happen was good.”
    “The years have not ravaged Stevenage but they have not been kind either.”
    “Big superstores started popping up on the outskirts of town”
    “Central to the flowering of an organic identity was the emergence of a decent football team.”
    I could go on. But I maintain anyone who comes away from it with “desolate wasteland” went in with an agenda. There are as many impressions of how Stevenage has changed as there are people who have a connection to the town. My own observations weren’t just the product of nostalgia but of visiting often over the years in various capacities – talks at schools, friends, readings, reporting, Twitter and facebook are fairly unforgiving places and most of the responses I’ve seen don’t suggest that the impression you describe is has much currency let alone being widespread.

    1. Trevor Post author

      Oh, yes, Gary, I fully appreciate that any writing has many interpretations – from what the writer intended to say, through what they actually said, and what the reader read, to what the reader finally understood. And in the case of this broadcast there was a third party doing the abridging, and a fourth recording it: even the narrator’s intonation can affect the meaning somewhere along the way.

      It really was just the very last sentence in the broadcast (and I don’t know if that’s how your original essay finishes as I’ve not read it) that I felt left a poor impression. So often it is just the ending that people remember. That’s why entertainers finish with their best act; that’s the one the audience goes out talking about.

  7. Alex Monaghan

    It did come across as a bit negative about the town, especially the 2nd part, however, I’d see it as a bit more of a social commentary than specific criticism of a specific town. The vandalised buildings, empty shops and general lack of interest & respect for people & property seem to be common place wherever you go these days, not just the new towns.

    Having lived near to Bracknell and Basildon, worked in Basildon and Harlow and looked at setting up home in Harlow, Cwmbran and Stevenage, I’d suggest there are common faults in the way many “New Towns” have evolved. The common theme in all the new towns I’ve been to / involved in seemed to be that those who’d moved in the the early days loved the place, those who’d grown up there hated the place and those who moved in in later days had mixed opinion. My own experience of Stevenage is positive and we’ve remained here for 18 years so far.

    1. Gary Younge

      Alex, the primary aim beyond the memoire element was to be a commentary about a time as much as the place. The time being the period between the end of the war and the end of the eighties when the post-war consensus that built the town collapsed. If I knew more about the NHS and had more of a personal connection to it I might have written a similar thing about it.
      In writing it this bit was intended to tie it up: “The notion of public goods and the public good – the very concepts on which the town had been built – could not compete with the attractions of private materialism. The very creation of Stevenage new town was underpinned by the notion that there was indeed such a thing as society, that it thrived through community and that government had a role in nurturing and sustaining both. Thatcherism was guided by the opposite.”
      So while it’s true that some of the criticisms might have been written about anywhere the point about Stevenage was that it was designed to avoid them. But I grew up there and loved it.

      1. Alex Monaghan


        This is why I mentioned the other new towns I have experience of, they were built to the same blueprint as Stevenage, in the same time window as Stevenage and suffer the same design issues as Stevenage. (Stevenage 1946, Harlow 1947, Basildon, Bracknell and Cwmbran 1949) They all have the same issues as we do in Stevenage.

        When a town is dependant on the local industry and that industry dies you have a problem, just look at the closure of the steel works at Corby (another new town in the same phase as Stevenage) or the mass closure of the coal mines or car plants or any of the many other large industries closed down in the last 20 or so years.

        A town is a community and once the community breaks down, then it goes wrong whether you have a designed community such as a new town or a traditional town that has evolved over hundreds of years. The Thatcher years impacted many types of town (including the nice Tory commuter town I spent my teenage years in), not just the idealistic new towns.

        The mention of Stevenage by name in my opinion detracts from the political message you suggest. I’ve not read the whole thing as I’ve not subscribed so this detraction of course may be the editing of the extracts.

  8. Lord Daz

    I got out as soon as I could, the place is a dump and getting worse. I think the problem with Stevenage is that for years most of its inhabitants had, like me connections with other cities or towns and this I believe led to sense of having to look after the place because it wasn’t totally yours, a kind of visiting respect. Now the town is pretty much in the hands of third generation Stevenageites who although having some civic pride kind of warp this into a hatred of outsiders that pretty much duplicates what already happens across the country. It’s funny that when I was growing up we used to look down on the surrounding towns but in reality they were probably looking down on us. I love in letchworth now, a much more civilised place.

    I also remember Mrs Young. She was my maths teacher a heathcote, a poor school. She was a very hard teacher and you never messed about in her class but at the same time she was very approachable and helpful and one of the few decent teachers at that school. I remember when she passed away, I’m sure it was around this time of year. I had been away in Germany with Bedwell Rangers FC during the school holidays and my dad told me when I arrived back, I was quite saddened because she was a good teacher. One incident I can vividly remember is that she had a picture of Nelson Mandela behind jail bars on her brief case. I think it was his birthday and she told us all about him and about the situation in South Africa. She finished by saying that it was against the law to talk about politics to pupils but in this she went on it was ok to break the law, in my book she was right!

  9. myfavouritesweets

    I think it’s an interesting debate. I loved growing up in Stevenage, it was clean, safe and we had so much freedom compared to my cousins in North London. But that feeling was also indicative of the time. I moved away in 1992, and came back to work, but not live, in the area ten years later. I was sad to see the decimation of the industry on which the town was built, but this was not unique to Stevenage, or any other town, new or old. Having moved away, I feel less of an affinity with the town, although still retain my affection for the old days and what it gave me and my family. I have read Gary’s book, ‘Who are we- and should it matter in the 21st century’ and found it interesting that when asked he said he was from Barbados, rather than Stevenage. I guess it all comes down to where we identify as being ‘home’. Although I have happy memories of growing up in Stevenage, I identify with London as being ‘where I am from’, and home is wherever I happened to be based.

  10. Scott Hawkins

    The street lights has polycarbonate lenses, the roundabouts had non-slip tarmac, the cycle track network was corporeal, linking all homes in the town, a precursor to the internet perhaps, around which you had to pedal to move. There was trees and grass there, not many hills and a small lake for sailing on. How many other innovations do you think Stevenage made, had or contributed to? How did that urban, suburban, post-rural environment shape us? At the company I worked and studied in at Stevenage, we one day received ‘the smallest drill in the world’… right, who were the kiddin’, we proudly drilled a hole in the end and sent it back. We had two skateparks, Vincent motorcycles came from there and so did E.M. Forster, our heritage? Stevenage was wired and we were wired in… kind of.

    Of course we can all be selective about our experiences or perceptions but I really enjoyed Gary’s story and it’s amazing how many clever and talented people I’ve met from Stevenage as I have lived my life, edgy, inquisitive, driven types. We who grew up there were products of a social engineering / political experiment, no escaping that but as I’ve said before, growing-up there provided one single and unexpected benefit or advantage, when you left you were intrinsically objective, no other way, because Stevenage could hardly compare, though Sheffield and north england housing schemes and Nigerian model towns shared similar ideas, for me Stevenage was an incubator, let’s call it a Womb Town, it prolonged my gestation, let me grow a little further.

    Hmmm, so what is Stevenage today? Well, not a tree, no city or town can claim that. A parallel development perhaps, yes, I think so. Not a show case or great exhibition and not a failure, Stevenage is a good example of an alternative, no bad thing. Other new towns, Milton Keynes and in North England have different stories, I’m sure. Drop City, near Alberqerque, different again. I make no point.

      1. Scott Hawkins

        Thanks.. in 1981 in Stevenage I was helping design and shape the first big wind turbine / wind power generator’s composite blade / sail, totally prescient, later I heped reverse engineer exocet missiles… hmmm. What i’d like to have seen in Stevenage is a workers’ take over of Birtish Aerospace similar to that proposed by Lucas etc. and some Socially Useful Production kicking off in our town. We had the capacity and resources, Stevenage was fertile, but the Government wanted a streamlined and profitable army weapons biz instead. So, actually I realise I live in regret, not for Stevenage but how a great idea like Stevenage is or has been compromised, yes, that’s my point, the squandering of north sea oil resources aside, short-termism and lack of ability or will to understand true cost, intrinsic wealth… ahhh,
        Stevenage could have been as great as the likes of Mondragon today, a collective / co-op in Basque region supporting 85,000 workers… hmmm? But can it still be? No. I make an abstract point.

  11. Scott Hawkins

    Oh, yeah, then there was my friend who did a council housing swap, her place in Stevenage for a place bang opposite Islington station, top of Upper Street, London. By the end of Yuppie boom she’d bought it, sold it and semi-retired on the profits. Think she’s a journalist now or something. Not bitter, just bored, aren’t you also?

  12. Trevor Post author

    This from my brother:

    “I listened to the programmes last night – (well, half listened as I was busy doing stuff of course) and thought they were great. His perception of Stevenage matched my own. On the whole I felt his reflection was positive despite the negativ…e comments in the second half. I wondered whether this pattern on positivity at the start developing into a jaded view later on was not just a natural process. I certainly loved growing up in Stevenage, but then I was a kid and it’s only in retrospect that I cast my adult eye over the past and see how the social idealism might have been knitted into my feelings back then, when actually I was just enjoying running through the trees. Perhaps this has influenced Younge’s view too.”

    Thanks, Cliff.

    If you’ve been invloved in this discussion you may also be interested in this video report Gary made a couple of years ago – “Stevenage, Home Truths”:

  13. Ru_Anderson

    I nliked Garys programes the few bits id seen anyhow. but to return to the discussion above – I agree that the stevenage is but ne example of an idealisim that has for many become an anacronisim.
    Russia built its new cities and towns as did capitalist democrtic Europe. Italy redesigned the tower block council house – and in the UK the poured concreet of stevenage was the new answer to earlier attempts in Hertfordshire of designing an idealistic town. From Letchworth through Wellyn garden to Stevenage – and milton keynes – the changes reflect the movement in expectations and the state view of what society should look like.
    Stevenage also differes in that as well as being politically symbolic as an example of how the state could look after its working classes, (it was christened Silkengrad by the original residents) – it was supported by the provision of Factories to an extent that should have been enough to make it a wealthy thriving centre. We might view Stevenage very differently today if the manufacturing industry in Britian not collapsed quite so spectacularly.
    I would love to see Gary contrast the ideals with which Stevenage and say Letchworth were built – with some of the larger comercial developments that have happened more recently. Particularly in the regeneration of city centres – again with the same “corporate” ownership of the finished product but with significantly different ideals behind the motivation. Even though the comercial backing was equally strong in allowng any of these BIG developments – its control and the corporate motivation for involvement was markedly different and perhaps visably so in the finished physical results?

  14. Vincent J.Doherty

    Some very interesting points here especially the contrasting of Stevenage with other Hertfordshire new towns i.e. Letchworth and Welwyn. Bob Mullan’s book, ‘Stevenage Ltd – Aspects of the Planning and Politics of Stevenage New Town 1945-78’ is an essential read in looking at the historical background of the new town’s development. Published by Routledge & Kegan Paul in 1980

    1. Tracey

      Wow what interesting view points. Having moved away from Stevenage in the nineties, it has been wonderful reading our often similar memories growing up in Stevenage. I can still remember being quite upset when the planners started to break away for the original blueprint. On one visit several years ago I was quite shocked to see the deterioration of a playground, many might not notice but the playgrounds are a prominent childhood memory. Some London friends keen followers of Gary Younge were impressed that I knew of him (first husband friend of Patrick and lived near the Younges growing up, Mrs Younge hugs and laughter never forgotten – I was a good girl!) and were very interested my hometown was Stevenage. It does sadden me to see parts of Stevnage now remembering what they were once like, but I am still proud to call it my hometown and most of my family still live there. Thank you Trevor

      1. Trevor Post author

        It must be said that over the last couple of years lots of the playgrounds have had huge improvements. Council have been doing great work updating and improving many of them.

        1. Scott Hawkins

          Another one of the great assets of Stevenage was and perhaps still is (?) the great informal play areas that surrounded us. I mean those equipment free grass-lands, dykes, water meadows and field boundaries, hedges, bridelway, footpaths etc. that bordered the developing town. Man, I discovered something of myself in those undeveloped ‘nature areas’ , hiding out in my country seat or refuge… ha, ha, dens and tree-dwellings… and when the day came, not unlike Bilbo Baggins, I guess it was down and along those winding roads I departed, from Broadwater, past Wychdell, Bragbury End, Watton at Stone, through the ‘cake decoration’ towns and villages… to well, Brixton as I remember, with it’s own currency, the Brixton Pound and transition town status. Come on Stevenage… for a greater love 🙂

        2. Ru_Andrson

          your twitter link to Jonestheplanner website and its artical on stevenage and Hattfiled is very interesting. one comment that is perhaps off post but of national relevence is perhaps teh following quote:-
          “In any event the town centre developers, ING and Stanhope, having spent 5 years securing planning permission, have now pulled out of the redevelopment scheme. Bastards. Should be done for wasting planning time.”
          There is merrit in this – currently its no wonder that councils avoid opposing big developers – the consultation process is crippiling financially. Surely the person applying for permission should have to pay something for the consultation costs – based on the commercial value of the development and the likely consultation costs?

          In any event thanks for the twitter link!

  15. pat younge

    Pat Younge here, Gary’s brother. An interesting debate, so here’s my tuppence.

    I left Stevenage in 1982 but I’ve come back occaisonally for events and to see friends and family, and so i have seen it change. I see roadsides turned to parking spaces, my school (Nobel) has taken over Chells and the old site is a housing estate. The countryside that used to flank the town has been covered with houses and Shephallbury park pavillion (where i spend many weekends training for Longmeadow athletic and at the summer playscheme) has been replaced by a shipping container because of arson; but I still love Stevenage for what it was, what it stood for and I believe in what it can still be.

    At its core Stevenage was a pioneers town, in as much it was new and everyone had come there from somewhere else, so we all had to rub along together and make it work. These are really tough times, especially for a town like Stevenage and it needs to go back to that pioneering spirit. IMHO it needs a new vision for what it can and should be.

    One small example, the town centre, which in my youth was a model pioneering pedestrianisation, simply makes no sense in an age of near universal car provision and home delivery. So, what could/should that become and how can that major redevelopment be part of a bigger vision for what Stevenage can be? Maybe Stanhope pulling out is a good thing……

  16. Scott Hawkins

    Yes a pioneering town with an uncharacteristical ‘un-stubborn’ populus as I recall, so different from what you might expect, I mean it’s not like the town was ‘won’ just settled. A future vision for Stevenage should indulge or reflect on the ‘peace’ it created, I don’t think I’m being too abstract here, it was a sanctuary for many. So I say look to itself for ideas and inspirations, do not seek permissions… and if unstubborn by nature, so be it. Lets make Stevenage a ‘free town’, what’s that? and have a great festival, bring in some new settlers, occupy that pedestrain centre and spread out from there… man this could be exciting… i’ll start drawing. Oh, my other advice, be sure to make the paths where the people walk 🙂

  17. Scott Hawkins

    In short because my last comment or was it a reply seems to have gone else where, maybe to Pat? Sorry.

    With Stevenage I felt we were ‘unstubborn’ pioneers, a subtle difference but important to acknowledge in a future vision. How could we now consider Stevenage as a model of sanctuary? Can anyone really appreciate what that’d mean and how it would be… today? Very interesting, I sense doors of perception opening.

    1. Trevor Post author


      Your comments are safe and sound: I’ve recently switched on comment moderation so they don’t appear straight away, that’s all.


  18. ru_anderson

    Id love to see the publicly accesible space in stevenage reclaimed and owned by locals. I have been trying for ages to get a really good set of actors to do open air plays in one of the bigger pedestrian roundabouts . And id love to see a formal debate but i suspect that may well be a bridge too far!

    Its a big town and civic standards dont seem to streach very high. the council is more interested in avoiding liability than in encouraging owership and innovation.

  19. Scott Hawkins

    And it’s hard and sad to imagine or see Stevenage as a Monopoly Board. Perhaps the town was the last (but not lasting) good example of the material, social and spiritual sciences at work / play in a higher cooperative order? Perhaps we, the generation that grew up there, have some responsibility for it’s message to the world. Or perhaps we don’t care, safe in our middle-class ghettos on a payroll, or we are just too unskilled or abstractly skilled to change anything? “Let’s build a town”… crazy idealists 🙂

    1. Scott Hawkins

      Dear All, I”l be bringing Aerospace back to Stevenage!!! Well, that’s to say, I have decided that on Thursday 7th February 2013, around 10.00am in St. Georges Playing Field, near Stevenage Old Town, i’ll be throwing and catching some boomerangs i’ve designed and made. Just a small part of a ‘Flight-Form’ residency I’m making in Northern Europe. So come join me, I’ll be traveling all the way from Texas to Stevenage! Why and how… well, for all the things and reasons mentioned in the above thread, especially the pioneering spirit and it feels right. Maybe we can chat and enjoy some refreshments at a local cafe or similar establishment after, or have a go at throwing a Boomerang! Yours sincerely, Scott Hawkins.


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