I grew up in the Suffolk countryside, first in Fressingfield, near Diss, and then after I was eight years old, just outside Debenham, in the little village of Winston. I remember, when I was very little, going to Norwich with my family for Christmas shopping but my real memories as a boy are of Ipswich, which was our local town. We shopped in Ipswich, went to church in Ipswich, and all of us seemed constantly to be at Ipswich Hospital, with some broken bone or tending on an ailing ageing relative. I sat for hours in the car park of the old County Hall, waiting for my father to finish meetings, counting the ramparts that run along the roofline. I first went clubbing in Ipswich – something I remember not too well, and I had my first date in Ipswich – at the Odeon – an experience that I can recall as clearly as if it were yesterday. Ipswich has been a place of my growing-up, therefore, and I felt emotionally attached to the town long before it consumed much of my waking day.
So, it struck me, long before I was duty-bound to give a reaction, strange and upsetting that people in Suffolk outside Ipswich could be so irrationally unpleasant about our county town. Let’s be blunt: many of those who live in villages near us seem happy to insult Ipswich and have for some time. Now, I think, people are careful what they say in my presence, as they know they will get a sharp response. But I know it goes on, as do you: you only need to hear what people say on BBC Radio Suffolk when Mark Murphy periodically decides to stir the pot and get people talking about their county town.
What’s this all about? Well, I think the roots of this run deep. Ipswich has never had a cathedral and it was, until within living memory, a manufacturing town. It was not a ‘normal’ capital of a southern shire, therefore. We need not apologise for that: our character is unique, something I explain to everyone who asks me about my constituency, and something also that newcomers remark on within weeks of arriving in the town.
But some of the criticisms that are levelled by outsiders are also made by people who have lived in Ipswich all their life: the quality and range of shops is not what it used to be; the planners have made a mess of large parts of the town; parking is expensive; and so on.
I’ve written about all these problems before, at length, so will not talk about them here – save to say that I know they exist and am doing what I can, even though I have few powers to do anything, to fix them.
But what I do want to say is that whilst I feel fiercely defensive about Ipswich, I feel sadder still for the Suffolk people who criticise our town. Because they are missing out on a town centre that could, with some love, be one of the most beautiful in the country, parks and museums beyond compare in any similarly sized county town, and restaurants and boutiques that are increasingly good and increasingly numerous. That is their loss. What is more, if they do not support us, then they will never get the county town that they and everyone else wants. So: stop carping and come here instead. Everyone I know who has done so comes away wishing they had ever said a bad word about us in the past.