I come from a town called Luton.
It isn’t very nice.
Luton is a sprawl of houses dropped across a valley in the East of England, along the meandering River Lea. It's home to about 210,962 people, and it occasionally makes the headlines because a lot of those people aren’t white.
Whenever there's an editorial, list or poll ranking the worst places in the UK, Luton invariably shows up somewhere near the rancid top. It has a high crime rate, an ugly look, and a tendency to be used as a lens for discussions on the failure of multiculturalism. After all, it's a working class town with a high migrant population, notorious for birthing religious radicals and extremist hate-groups like the English Defence League.
A recent article in The Sun went so far as to dub Luton: "The Town At the End Of Humanity," based on the studious musings of a reddit thread.
Which, if you ask me, is a waste of a perfectly good book title.
Luton is famous for its international airport.
The local economy used to be based around manufacturing straw hats, and after that trade died off, around a Vauxhall car factory. But now the straw hats are gone, and while Vauxhall's head office remains in town, the factory has closed. Luton touts its a raucous annual carnival and a university popular with foreign students (possibly because they don't know the town's reputation), but the airport is what it's known for.
Pointedly, the airport is called London/Luton Airport, emphasis on the London. Tourists don't come to visit Luton; they pass through it on their way to other points.
A cruel joke about Luton is this:
The town's primary export is people who are desperate to be somewhere else.
It's the little things you remember.
I'm sixteen years old and covered in spots, talking to a pair of Muslim girls in Luton's Arndale Shopping Centre. They're each cradling an enormous tub of Pick-N-Mix. It's Ramadan, they explain to me, the time of fasting. They're saving the sweets for sunset, at which point they will scoff them all for a gigantic sugar rush. Quick relief from the fast.
I'm thirteen, and sitting in a high school classroom that stinks of deodorant and apathy. A substitute Maths teacher is trying to keep things in order, but the kids have deliberately decided to find his name unpronounceable. Balls of screwed-up paper are flying from desk to desk. Occasionally someone will mock the teacher's thick South African accent.
I'm twenty-two and home from university. A handful of Polish supermarkets have opened in the town, thanks to a recent wave of new arrivals from Eastern Europe. I'm standing in one, staring blankly at boxes of breakfast cereal, wondering if I might find pierogi elsewhere in the store. I've been to Poland, I think to myself. I ought to recognize more of these words.
Luton's multiculturalism is a complicated thing; a diverse population in a poor area inevitably leads to tensions and conflicts. But it also exposes young people like myself to a greater variety of worldviews than they might otherwise get. Without it, my home town would be even less remarkable; just poverty and luggage rushing to the airport. Instead, I grew up in a seething mess of different peoples, jostling together and apart. Colour on the brick and concrete--for, I hope, more good than ill.
I've always been surrounded by different cultures. I've never been allowed to think of mine as the only one. I've always wanted to go out and see more.
It may be The Town At The End Of Humanity.
But it at least gave me a place to start.
For anyone curious, here's a breakdown of the town's demography. Luton has a 54.6% white majority, though that includes both the town's Irish population (3%) and White Others (7%).
Overall, Luton considered a White-British minority town; one of three in the UK, including Leicester and Slough. Nevertheless, 81% of the population identifies as British regardless of ethnic background--so it can still be safely described as overwhelmingly British, if not overwhelmingly white.
...Though as someone who has to tick the "Any Other/Mixed," box on forms, I'm a little wary of these kind of statistics. They always make me feel like I'm some kind of ethnic cocktail.