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

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.