How it was: Wakefield Station in 1927. Photo: Getty
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All-you-can-eat buffets, affordable housing: I quickly adjusted to life in Wakefield

Will Self: On Location. 

I arrived in Wakefield at what I assumed to be Westgate Station. It had been a null journey, the train leadenly clunking over the flatlands in the faint autumnal sunshine. The franchise on this route seems to have been acquired by East Coast, but the carriage I was in had that absurd Grand Central livery: the blown-up photos of Marilyn Monroe, the chessboards painted on to the tables. Really, the last thing you want when you’re heading for West Yorkshire is to be reminded of the existence of Manhattan. Not, I hasten to add, because there is anything wrong with Wakefield – it’s just that the Grand Central decor is decentring: it makes you wonder where the hell you are.

Anyway, on this trip I had no intention of being where I was. Travel for work is like that. Sometimes you find out about the locale, you sally out from the hotel having asked the locals where there’s a good place to eat, or you visit some artisanal undertaking, ancient structure, or beauty spot. If you’re going to be there for a while you might try to pick up the local lingo, take part in a game or pastime peculiar to the region, and congratulate yourself as you begin to find your way around. But other times you make a decision: it’s too much effort orienting yourself in space as well as time, you’re too tired and harassed to care about the cheese-rolling festival, all you want to do is get the job done and go home.

The station seemed to be largely wrapped in plastic sheeting and the approach road swarmed with bollards. A friendly man saw me doing what people do when they have decided not to be where they actually are – footling with Google Maps on my iPhone – and took me in hand. It transpired I’d arrived not at Westgate Station, but at Kirkgate; luckily, though, Pete was heading the same way as me and he became my Virgil, guiding me through the hellish circles of pound shops, payday loan businesses and balti houses clustered along the arterial road. We headed up Kirkgate, which seamlessly elided into Ings Road and the sought-after Westgate, then past the cathedral. Pete had been living in Stroud for the past 25 years, but he was about to move to Wakefield. “For work?” I asked, and he replied, laughing, “No, for a woman.”

Pete said that although the town centre was pretty run-down there was a new shopping mall, the Trinity Walk, and that’s where all the moneyed folk were, consuming pizzas and enlarging their pectorals. I made a mental note to give it the swerve. He dropped me at my hotel, the York House on Drury Lane, just down from the Theatre Royal. I could see immediately that York House was an odd establishment – aspirational, certainly, what with its electronic locks, halting lift and motion-sensing corridor lighting, but, for all that, the spirit of the old provincial railway hotel smarmed along the brown-painted wainscots. My room featured a quarter-acre of tufted, puke-coloured carpeting and a large four-poster bed without canopy or curtains. In lieu of a bedside lamp, there was a standard one, comprising a fasces of aluminium rods topped off by diodes. Cosy. On the wall was a large photograph of Paris by night. Disorientating.

Later that evening the people I was working with began talking about the area – try as I might to steer the conversation on to less topographical matters. They spoke of the decline of the coal industry, and how it was that while Wakefield was graced with two railway stations, nearby Ossett had none. Then they spoke of how Ossett had grown rich by recycling the leavings from the wool industry to make material known as mungo and shoddy, the latter giving rise to the slang term. I tried to suppress this knowledge, just as I blanked the location of the Hepworth Gallery and the intelligence that it had been designed by David Chipperfield with a view to creating a “sculptural experience”. I wanted to scream at these friendly folk: “Shut up! I’m not here!”

Still later the same evening I ate alone at a Chinese buffet restaurant in the Trinity Walk shopping centre. It was empty except for me, the staff and a portly couple who returned again and again to the chocolate fountain, where they slathered mini-donuts in sickly brown goo. Rain spittled the plate-glass windows; through them I saw more plate-glass windows, and behind these a man was oscillating on a fitness machine.

I paid my bill and strolled back through town. Blue light flooded from a nightclub called Qudos; I could see a single young woman in a red cocktail dress jerking to the drum machine. I looked in an estate agent’s window. A nicely spraunced-up, two-up, two-down terraced house was going for £80,000, chump change down south.

I began to fantasise about my new life in Wakefield: suppers at the Chinese buffet, canoodling at Qudos, weekend bicycle rides on the shoddy trail to Ossett. I was sitting smoking on the balcony of York House when a legless man in a wheelchair joined me. He said something incomprehensible, I grunted a reply. It was as if I’d always been there – or, should I say, here.

Next week: Real Meals

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, ISIS vs The World

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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.