Hart of the Matter
All right, own up! Who has sat there in our new(ish) Prezzo, taking in the pleasant ambience, the enjoyable environment and agreeable conversation of friends or family, and has either leant back and said, or heard someone else lean back and say: “This isn’t like Haverhill at all”?
Judging from the number of people I have spoken to who have had this experience, it is pretty much widespread. Some find it funny, some find it curious and some are frankly embarrassed to admit having felt such a thing, particularly if, like me, they have been banging on for years about what a nice place Haverhill is.
But once having identified this reaction, and how common it seems to be, one is faced with the question: “Why?”
Do we not think Haverhill is worthy of such style and luxury? If so, it is a pretty poor indictment of how we have seen our town, because Prezzo, although very nice, is just another national chain. It is hardly Carlucci’s or the Fat Duck.
Have we subliminally, or even quite openly, always sought comfort, relaxation and a modicum of sophistication elsewhere? If we were going out for a special evening, perhaps we have automatically thought of an out-of-town venue, even if it meant the extra expense of a taxi.
Or maybe we don’t expect anything modish or faintly in vogue to appear in Haverhill until it is quite obsolete elsewhere? The town is perhaps seen by many incomers as a backwater, a little creek of cultural anachronism, where everything is pathetically vieux jeu.
Whatever the dynamic behind this reaction – this surprise at almost miraculously finding oneself in an acceptable locale within Haverhill – it is sad and ingenuously raw in what it says about Haverhill and its relationship to the community who live within it and, more particularly, around it.
The term used most frequently about this issue is ‘self-perception’. If Haverhill were a person, you would likely say self-esteem. This may seem odd, because the Haverhill community often appears to those in far-flung places who deal with its service provision to have rather too much self-esteem.
It expects to have all the same services as other towns, and in particular, the same as Bury St Edmunds, which to those who live in and govern that venerable town, often seems just plain unrealistic.
But it is often the case with individuals that those who shout the loudest conceal the lowest self-esteem. It is only on small, private occasions that one sometimes surprises the truth from them.
I was hearing from someone not long ago that they had actually had a conversation with Waitrose about a site in Haverhill. That’s all it was, so don’t start imagining anything will come of it.
But when you mention that to people, the same reaction pops up – ‘Oh Haverhill’s not really a Waitrose town, is it?’
Why not? Shoppers will tell you to look at which of their many possible ranges of fruit Sainsbury’s bother to stock in their Haverhill store. Or maybe ask Paul Firman why he doesn’t always carry the extraordinary range of exotic veg on his stall you would find on, say, Sudbury market. Or ask the market fish traders why their stall has a narrower range than Saffron Walden’s. Or ask the variety of people who have tried their olive stalls on Haverhill market why they don’t come again.
The answer is simple. These people know what the demand is and they supply it – very well, as it happens.
But which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Do other customers go to other towns because they can’t get what they want here, therefore we see little demand here. You’ll never find that out without trying – and that is a risky, costly and long-term experiment – look at The Fox.
And that is why, for all that I applaud St Edmundsbury’s efforts in getting Cineworld and Tesco up and running in the town, there will still be a long, slow mountain to climb until Haverhill attracts the sort of retailer that will make people sit up and take notice.
I doubt if anyone has walked into Tesco, or sat down in Cineworld, and thought: “This isn’t like Haverhill at all.” These are the sort of operators everyone would expect to see here – it is just annoying that it has taken so long to get them.
And that is why I still say that a Waitrose, an ice rink, a Marks and Spencer or such like, is the only thing that will effect any quick changes in self-perception. And if they need a big bribe to look at a small town, that is what the local authorities must look to.