I met a man from Whitton the other day. “Where,” you say. Well just hang on moment. He didn’t actually say he was from Whitton, at first. Initially, he only confided that he was from somewhere near Twickenham, whereupon noticing an imperceptible shift in my demeanor (a slight inquisitive tilt of my head perhaps) he confessed to hailing from the next stop down the track; Whitton.
Having spilled the beans, he then leant back to get a clearer view of my expression. Like a man who has just admitted to secretly wearing his wife’s clothes he looked to see my reaction, his apprehension, and a hint of embarrassment, writ large.
In fact, I was thrilled by his admission. In over 50 years he is the first person I have met who comes from the town I grew up in. Not one person, in all that time, had heard of Whitton; my town. It was as if Whitton didn’t exist. Until now.
“Whitton? Where? Never heard of it.” It’s like a mantra that you get so sick of hearing you stop dealing with facts and delve into fiction. “Me, oh, I’m from Twickenham, or really it’s Richmond, not far from Isleworth. You know, near a place called Whitton, that nobody has ever heard of. Then giving a sort of knowing laugh.
People from Hammersmith, Portsmouth, Manhattan, St.Michel, Milan, Katmandu, even Neasden or Little Rock, places with real names and identities, cannot imagine quite how deflating it is to set foot in the world, armed with a rucksack, passport and unbridled enthusiasm, to be universally met with blank puzzlement.
Bending geographical boundaries is not exclusive to Middlesex and the hinterlands of west London. I’ve met those who, in an effort to impress, used to say they came from South Chelsea, when in fact they were from Battersea. I met an artist who claimed to be from Los Angeles, when his home was in Bakersfield. And Shoreham-By-Sea is full of folk who seem to think they live in Brighton. But until that day I’d never met anyone who came from Whitton. I’d begun to think I’d imagined my childhood.
Nobody beyond the eastern flightpath into Heathrow has ever heard of it. I’ve met people in Richmond, ten minutes by car, or three stops back up the line by train, who haven’t. My father hadn’t heard of it in the 50s when an estate agent called Hammond, to my mother’s eternal shame, insisted they take a look.
That’s the reason why the man, of whom I write, was reluctant to name his town; it was the fear of having to excuse himself, once again, and explain how he hails from an unknown 1930s suburb, just off the A316, that comprises a high street, a modern brick built church, a big white pub called the Winning Post (famous for a concert by Osibisa the Afro/rock band, and lesser so for barring me) and streets of semi-detached homes, many with roof extensions, and nearly all with paved car parking in front of the bay windows where gardens used to be. There is one pub in the high street, The Nelson. The local petrol station and cinema both closed down when television was still black and white.
I lived in Whitton for 20 years, and even I cannot say, with any authority where the town begins and ends. Beyond the high street, with its railway bridge and architecturally underplayed station (see photograph), Whitton dissolves into a patchwork of streets. A thin, and peaceful, nature reserve follows the course of the River Crane, skirting the town’s southern flank on its serpentine course to Isleworth and The Thames. Kneller Hall, the home of the Royal School of Military Music, is a grand mock Tudor confection, on the other side of town, just a few hundred yards from the reason many people come across Whitton in the first place; as somewhere to park their cars if they are attending a rugby match at Twickenham Stadium, the monumental home of English rugby. The stadium has grown out of all proportion from the municipal green four stand stadium I competed in as a schoolboy. Today it is a looming extraterrestrial inferno of passion.
But that’s Twickenham Stadium. It might be on ‘our’ side of the A316, but it’s named after Whitton’s bigger neighbour, as if the town on which it stands (just) doesn’t exist.
And that’s the rub; I grew up in a town that doesn’t exist. So on behalf all those blighted by hereditary anonymity, cast into the mists of non existence, I want to thank that man, on the Riverside Terrace of Fulham Football Club, for standing tall and proud, and proclaiming – albeit in hushed tones – that like myself, he is from Whitton; a town where ordinariness matters.