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

Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons
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Donald Trump brings home his dark vision of America at the Republican convention

The Presidential nominee pledged: "Safety must be restored."

Donald Trump brought home the Republican convention Thursday night with a dark vision of contemporary America – a darkness he claimed only his leadership could lift. It was a lengthy, tightly-scripted speech framed around polarities – insiders and outsiders, criminals and victims, the United States and the rest of the world – and infused with righteous anger. And yet against the darkness, he offered not lightness but “greatness” – a bombastic, personalistic vision of how through sheer force of will he could right the American ship before it plunged irretrievably into the depths. “I alone can solve,” he famously tweeted earlier in the campaign. This was the 80-minute version.

Any presidential challenger, of course, has to lay out a set of problems they believe need fixing and a case for why their leadership might make a difference. It was the breathtaking scale and intensity of Trump’s diagnosis, and the lack of optimistic alternative to counterbalance it, that was notable compared to other acceptance speeches. He portrayed the United States as a country riddled with crime and corruption, a “rigged system” in which politicians like Hillary Clinton can evade justice, while police officers trying to protect its citizens become targets; a fearful country, its economy sluggish, its infrastructure crumbling, its security an illusion, and its international stature in freefall

For a candidate who has mocked the soaring rhetoric of President Obama (the “hopey-changey stuff,” as Sarah Palin once called it), it was perhaps not surprising that Trump’s speech would be short on uplift. It was at least more disciplined than his other campaign speeches, if in keeping with their tone and content – the much-maligned teleprompter rolling a script to which he largely stuck. (“He sounds presidential,” a lady behind me remarked, though his press conference Friday morning marked a reversion to free-wheeling form).

It was short on substance too, though acceptance speeches aren’t designed to be policy laundry lists like a State of the Union. Still, there were few specifics, beyond a pledge to revise tax laws which inhibit religious groups from political advocacy, and a newfound concern with student loans. It was daughter Ivanka’s speech that had the greater substantive heft, promising her father would push for new labour laws to help working mothers, and for affordable childcare in the US. Neither are traditional Republican positions, but the crowd seemed on board for anything Trump might offer.

He even had them cheering for LGBTQ rights, after recalling the tragedy in Florida last month, and the need to protect gay Americans from a “hateful foreign ideology” in radical Islam. “It is so nice as a Republican to hear you cheering for what I just said,” he commended the delegates in an unscripted moment. But whether they had really embraced this unexpected message – or if it was the anti-terror chaser that really got them on their feet – remains to be seen. In either case, it was a rare grace note in an otherwise bruising speech.

Presenting himself repeatedly as the candidate of “law and order,” Trump evoked Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign. At a time when American cities were erupting in race riots and protests over the Vietnam War, Nixon had pitched himself as the face of stability and security. Likewise Trump has reacted to the simmering racial tensions and terrorist attacks this summer with a hard-line stance on “lawlessness.” “Safety must be restored,” Trump said, in one of the eerier lines he delivered. Yet in his convention speech, Nixon had balanced his tough talk with a positive message – speaking of love, courage, and lighting a “lamp of hope” in partnership with the American people. 

Trump channeled another president in his speech, too, when he promised to give voice to “the forgotten men and women of our country” – drawing on the language of Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt had promised to aid “the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid” during the 1932 campaign. But Roosevelt’s solution to the forgotten man’s distress was economic internationalism – tearing down tariff walls and trading freely with the world – which the Republican Party then opposed. Trump’s solution is the protectionist policies Roosevelt had railed against.

Trump’s economic and security philosophy is encapsulated in another, more notorious phrase associated with that era: “America First.” A rallying cry for isolationists seeking to avoid US entanglement in World War II, it acquired an anti-Semitic taint. But Trump has employed it nonetheless, capturing as it does his core argument that America must do more to protect its own citizens against threats from within and without – from illegal immigrants, from radicalized Islamic terrorists, from the downsides of free international trade. Little wonder that former George W.

Bush staffer Nicolle Wallace announced that the Republican party she knew “died in this room tonight.” In embracing elements of isolationism, protectionism, and nativism, however, it is perhaps truer to say that Trump’s Republican party reverted to an earlier form.

Often disconcerting, at times mesmerizing, the question remains how effective this speech will be. The delegates responded enthusiastically to Trump’s fierce rhetoric, but many prominent Republicans had stayed away from the convention altogether. Combined with Senator Ted Cruz’s non-endorsement, Trump goes into the general election campaign without a fully united party behind him. For both partisans and the public, Trump’s speech offered a cast of villains to rally against, but no positive, unifying vision to rally behind – beyond the much-touted yet elusive “greatness,” of course. In a typical election year, that would seem a critical flaw in a campaign – but Trump loves to confound the naysayers. As his convention speech showed, he thinks the formula that got him this far - showcasing his fame and fanning Americans’ fears – can land him in the White House.