Home Page Young people always get the worst publicity - but they have a future 12/07/13

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Matthew Hancock
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Hart of the Matter

You can make a little bet that any time Haverhill hits the regional or national headlines it will be for the wrong reasons, because nobody has ever yet managed to unlock the puzzle of how we can get into the limelight for the right ones.


There is a reason for that and it has nothing to do with whether or not Haverhill is a pleasant or successful community to live in. It is to do with image and stereotyping, two of the great evils of the age.


As I have propounded many times before, Haverhillís image problem is not so much one of negativity but of deficit. It actually has no image at all in the national public mind, because an extraordinarily high percentage of people have never heard of it, considering its size.


They donít even know how to pronounce the name and, as we saw when Any Questions? visited last year, even those at the BBC, who nominally have two radio stations which cover Haverhill if anyone could receive their signal here, know so little about it they have to raid their old research to produce a profile which incenses the local populace.


So Haverhill does not conjure up a negative image in the mind, justified or not, as do, say, Swindon, Basingstoke, Basildon, Brixton or Dunblane. It merely conjures up no image at all, particularly when compared with its neighbours such as Cambridge (university), Newmarket (horses), Sudbury (Gainsborough), Saffron Walden (Lovejoy), Bury St Edmunds (abbey) or even Mildenhall (airfield).


At a regional level, unfortunately, it did manage to fill this void in the 1960s and 1970s with a reputation for London overspill and associated gang-style violence. This has stuck to this day in some quarters and, since the birth of the Internet, where information is sourced from the unreliable and often ignorant public rather than from people who actually know things, these myths find their way into history.


People considering moving here, or taking a job here, look at something on line which purports to provide real information and is in fact a farrago of gossip and Chinese whispers from 40 years ago, and are easily put off.


The myth is compounded by people who live in the villages surrounding Haverhill and who retain their childhood image of the town, as some sort of Wild West frontier settlement which the law has not yet reached.


This ridiculous fantasy results in them eschewing the town centre shops, even during daylight hours, let alone at night when they are convinced Jack the Ripper walks every street here. The domino effect of that is that footfall fails to justify many decent retailers coming here, despite the huge catchment area, and the night-time economy is so limited and enclosed as to deter even our own residents.


It came as little surprise, therefore, to discover this week that Haverhill features on a long list of the Ď100 crappest towns in Britainí on yet another unsavoury website which presents a heap of wild and subjective opinion as having some sort of validity.


There is, for instance, no distinction between different negative elements about the communities selected. Is this about the people, the architecture, the infrastructure, the culture, the crime or the climate?


There will, no doubt, be speculation. But if you look at the list you will find Haverhill has some curious bedfellows, not normally associated with negative image Ė London, Liverpool, Bury St Edmunds, Derby, Brighton, Glastonbury, Haworth, Ilfracombe, Lewes, Lincoln, Oxford, Scarborough, Stratford-upon-Avon, York.


Many of these have some of the strongest positive images in the world, let alone Britain Ė Glastonbury, Haworth, Oxford and Stratford-upon-Avon are scarcely in need of anything to make them better known.


A lot of ignorance goes into this sort of thing Ė witness the list also including Gibraltar and Calais. But it does show that towns are not always viewed from within in the same way as they are viewed from without, as many of those who make these sorts of nominations will be the disaffected among a townís own residents.


However, communities are like people, and the more confident they are the more easily they can throw such trivial whingeings aside. I donít suppose anyone in Bury St Edmunds will lose any sleep about it being on the list. They will just dismiss the whole thing as a load of tommy rot.


But in Haverhill, like a teenager with low self-esteem, we will be thrown into another five minutes of navel-gazing. Why donít people like us? Why arenít we successful? Why does no one think we are beautiful? Why have we never done anything remotely famous? And so on.


I suspect the answer is simple enough. We are still young, as a community. Old Haverhill was small and remote so, unsurprisingly, left little mark. It never produced a king, a hero, an author or a playwright. So what? Itís a pity but there it is.


New Haverhill is still finding its feet. It is much bigger - and sometimes a bit gawky because of it. But its Unique Selling Point is that it has a promising future, and that is not the angle which hits you first about many of the other towns on that list. Probably, it just needs a bit more confidence.


There is no doubt that a big positive national achievement here would help. And by that I mean something concrete and lasting, not a £148million lottery win which, by all accounts, has not brought with it an entirely smooth road.


But while we wait for that, we continue to grow up. Like any teenager, we long to have more control over our own destiny and not be told what to do by outsiders. It is in our hands to achieve that, but we have to realise the importance of taking responsibility within the democratic system ourselves, and not continue leaving it to others.

David Hart
David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.
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