“When I used to play cricket and people would ask me where I was from, I’d say Bedford.”
Growing up, former England cricketer Monty Panesar would not always admit he came from Luton.
“I was literally thinking I need to get out of Luton; it’s dull, it’s grey, nothing is there apart from the Vauxhall plant and the airport,” he said.
But in the past few years, Panesar, 37, has changed his mind about his home town. He said he believed Luton was on the up and he was fed up with the criticism it gets.
In a special report for BBC Radio 5 live, the left-arm spinner, who played 50 Tests for England between 2006 and 2013, wanted to show why Luton no longer deserved its bad reputation.
One reason for Luton’s bad reputation was its history of extremism.
In March 2009, the Islamic extremist group Al-Muhajiroun staged a demonstration as 200 soldiers paraded through Luton after returning from Iraq. They called the soldiers “murderers and baby killers”.
That fuelled anger in the local community, and led to the formation of the English Defence League (EDL) by Stephen Yaxley-Lennon – aka Tommy Robinson.
Panesar asked Darren Carroll – Tommy Robinson’s uncle and EDL co-founder – why he thought extremism took root in Luton.
“Luton was going through its doldrums. People were generally feeling disaffected,” said Mr Carroll.
“Vauxhall had closed down in 2002 and Luton was going through a barren patch, work-wise and prospect-wise. Communities weren’t getting on great.”
Mr Carroll turned away from the EDL and has since campaigned against extremism with the organisation Small Steps. He said it was a demonstration in Birmingham that made him question which side he was on.
“Two ladies spat in my face and called me ‘Nazi scum, get out of Brum’. They looked like my mum,” he said.
“They made me look more closely at the circle I was with. I had to be honest and see that there were white supremacists turning up.”
Mr Carroll said communities on all sides had come together to beat the extremism in their town.
“Luton is going to be a blueprint on how to deal with extremism,” he said.
“It’s not big headlines. No one should get the glory for it. It’s just normal people interacting, across communities. Doing the work that doesn’t hit the newspapers.”
Panesar shared his memories of growing up in Luton with his brother Isher.
“We used to wrestle together,” he said. “I used to be The Undertaker, [Isher] was Jake the Snake – we had very good matches together.”
Isher Panesar said he thought the media was to blame for ruining the town’s reputation.
“The biggest one that everyone speaks about is that it’s been voted one of the worst towns. I think that’s more the media bringing that out,” he said.
“It’s a community town more than anything, people interact really well.”
He said the increase in house prices was also proof the city was improving. Research from Post Office Money suggested Luton saw a property price growth of nearly 10% in 2017.
“There are not many towns out there that can boast an airport, three train stations as well as the football stadium. I’m pretty proud of that,” said Isher Panesar.
Monty Panesar believes the rise of the town’s football club is another reason for Luton’s renaissance.
The Hatters spent five seasons in non-league football before winning the Conference Premier in 2014.
Thanks to two successive promotions, they have started the 2019-20 season back in the Championship.
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Meanwhile, plans have been approved for a new 23,000-seat stadium to replace the current Kenilworth Road ground.
“As the football kept on getting promoted, I think Luton’s reputation kept on going up,” said Panesar.
Luton International Carnival is an annual celebration of the town’s Caribbean community and attracts about 25,000 visitors each year.
“Carnival is one of my favourite weekends of the year. It really gets all the community together,” said Panesar. “You could be in the Caribbean, India, Pakistan and it’s all in one.”
The former England bowler said he hoped his report would make people think differently about towns that are derided in the media.
“Never judge a book by its cover,” he said. “You don’t really know a place until you live there.”
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