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Rob Campbell: Why Chippenham made the news

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: March 20, 2014

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Poor old Chippenham, singled out for national media attention last week after a cat-poo spat between neighbours ended up in court and all over the papers.

It wasn't really about the fact that one neighbour had thrown the other's pet droppings over his fence. Or that two apparently civilised middle-aged men ended up grappling and one accidentally head-butting the other. It was the sheer Chippenham-ness about it all. Behind the headlines, it was a chance to peep at the pent-up rage that we fear lurks within the least likely of places. They were not fighting where we might expect it – on Benefits Street or in Kiev – but in the most middling bit of middle-England.

People occasionally remember the town is there and have a go at it, as journalist Jeremy Smith, writing for the Oxford Mail, did a few weeks ago, in a piece that tried to describe the unbearable dullness of Denmark. He claimed to be an expert on tedious places, "having once lived in the world's most boring town – Chippenham".

The town sometimes gets on the telly, but even then it's a celebration of everyday-ness, such as the big thumbs up from for the Pit Stop Café from a cooking celebrity. In other news there have recently been record entries for the pancake race, the museum won an award, and there's been a petition about a skate park. Back in January, there was even a plea for residents' views on bus shelters.

It's rare for the town to hit the national headlines, and sometimes it's best forgotten, such as when its residents found a flying saucer in 1967. It looked real enough, and the Army blew it up to be on the safe side, only to discover later that it was part of a student prank and actually made of bread dough. The hoaxers scattered a few of these saucers around the country, including one in Clevedon, but it's the Chippenham one that sticks – because of the absurdity of an alien coming all that way and ending up there. Why not Bath? Or Salisbury?

Then it's back to normal for Chippenham, until perhaps someone throws the leylandii clippings in next door's garden and their pent-up suburban anger explodes on the doorsteps.

In the meantime, if you live there, good luck, because you'll know that the peace and security that comes with living in the middle lane is in fact very hard to beat.

I grew up in a house just like those in the great cat poo saga, in a town not unlike it. Built around the middle of the last century, those homes were brighter than the gloomy Victorian terraces of my parents' generation, and altogether healthier than the concrete tower blocks being raised by planners who wouldn't dream of living in such things.

There was space enough that one could feel king of one's castle, and the roads quiet enough that you might just meet your neighbours (normally to chat rather than fight) but didn't have to breathe the same air as them. No riots, muggings, all-night raves, and no estate agents selling parking spaces for £400,000 (in Kensington, as reported last month).

There's even a book about such a life in such a place, called Where Did It All Go Right: Growing up Normal in the 1970s. I once read about half of it, fell asleep, and took it to a charity shop – which is fine, because it was all about the beauty of being ordinary (and the fact that, behind the suburban doors, people are actually far more interesting.) I think it was set in Northampton, but it sounded like almost everywhere including Chippenham.

All of this real life, it's worth adding, is reported by the local press which continues to thrive best in the country's small and medium sized towns – covering events from just down the road, helping to feed the need for story-telling about one's community that every sociology student knows comes just after the need for food and a roof over one's head.

It's local newspaper week coming up in a few weeks' time, which provides a few days to reflect on the relationship between real towns and the press that serves them. The theme this year from the Newspaper Society, which organises it on behalf of the press nationwide, is Making a Difference. Long live the printed word, and while we're at it, Chippenham too, even when it's not doing anything different from usual except fighting over cat poo.

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