Crap Towns: We can't fix our problems if we refuse to see them

Editor Sam Jordison says his book is not "an exercise in laughing at neglect" but a tough look at the nasty side of British capitalism written by the victims - for the victims.

A question I’m often asked about my books about Crap Towns is whether I worry that they’re too negative. The glib answer is that I worry they aren’t negative enough. The new book is about the 50 worst places to live in the UK and is primarily intended to make people laugh. What do you expect? It comes both to bury and to slag off places like Banbury, Boston and Bacup with their boarded up high streets, weekend violence and daily boredom. Why not? Are we supposed to pretend that  (to continue mangling Shakespeare) there’s nothing rotten in our state? That these places are making people happy? That to me is far more negative. We’re never going to fix the problems in this country if we refuse to even see them.

Another question I’m frequently asked is whether I’m a smug posh git. It’s probably not for me to answer that except to say that even if I were, it wouldn’t disqualify me from having valid opinions. Bertrand Russell was posh and smug, but also very often right about some pretty important stuff.

But the line that generally follows this accusation worries me more. Recently, for instance, the New Statesman ran an article by Daniel Gray asserting that Crap Towns is “nothing but an exercise in laughing at neglect” and claiming that the book “hides its disdain for ‘lesser’ people in ‘lesser’ places behind its format.”

For a start, Crap Towns isn’t simply about laughing at neglect. Yes, it uses comedy to point out how ridiculous things have become in plenty of places, but humour is a very good way of telling the truth. What’s more, there are plenty of topics besides neglect. It’s an equal opportunities shit-sprayer. Mayfair is just as worthy of contempt as Mansfield, and when you dig down to it, for pretty similar reasons: British capitalism is often cruel and unfair.

Which brings me to the next point. I’ve never believed in “lesser” people, or “lesser” places and I deny that there’s any disdain. Crap Towns is supposed to be on the side of the victims. What’s more it’s generally written by them. The thing I forgot to say about the validity of my own opinion is that it’s immaterial anyway. The book is largely based on information that has been sent to me from within the towns themselves. That’s to say those so-called “lesser people”. There’s no class barrier to inclusion in the book. The only criteria are to land a few home truths and a few good jokes. I’m pretty sure that the commentary on poverty in Bacup comes from someone who knows it well. Just as the hilarious entries about Chipping Norton almost certainly come from people with far bigger cars than I’ll ever drive.

That’s enough of that. I’m confident that anyone who reads Crap Towns Returns will be able to draw their own conclusions about who it speaks for, and whose side it’s on. The New Statesman article came out out before the book was distributed for review and I’m hoping that now Daniel Gray has had a chance to read the book, he’ll have changed his mind. Not least because I emailed him in the aftermath and it turns out we share quite a few of the same opinions. I even ended up buying his own book about Britain. (It’s good!)

But much as I enjoyed corresponding with Daniel, there was one new thing that worried me. He asked what I thought about the damage that inclusion in Crap Towns can do to a place’s reputation. Here, I have to admit I have more qualms. Personally, I’m fascinated by messed up road systems, lame graffiti and ruined buildings. It’s the kind of book I’d want to use as a travel guide. But I can understand why Crap Towns Returns might not be at the front of local tourist information offices.

I do have some defence. I’d question how much damage Crap Towns does. Does it change a town’s reputation - or simply point out an uncomfortable truth? Did anyone think Hull was a paradise before the first book came out? Will anyone read this ten year anniversary volume and think: “Oh, I didn’t know there were billionaire tossers hanging out in Mayfair.” I doubt it.

To go back to Hull, what Crap Towns did was give voice to a truth that was widely known, even if few people had articulated it and broadcast it before. I don’t want to take things too far. Obviously it’s the kind of book people enjoy reading in the smallest room and it is intended primarily to make people laugh. It’s also a pretty blunt instrument. But plenty of people from places I’ve revisited in the last ten years have given that first book some credit in getting people moving - even if its primary method was to annoy them so much they wanted to prove it wrong. There are five towns in the back of this new volume that have changed for the better since they featured in Crap Towns first time around. Crap Towns hasn’t held them back. Far from it.

So, I’m prepared to admit that just as the book takes shots at those on the top, it also kicks a few towns when they’re down. But it kicks them in the right direction. And that has to be positive.

Crap Towns Returns by Sam Jordison and Dan Kieran is published by Quercus, out on 10 October (£10)

Not so amusing: Life in a Crap Town. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Is Danny Baker a “bona fide genius”? Not in his new show

The clichéd decade: Cradle to Grave and Danny and the Human Zoo reviewed.

I’m not qualified to rule on whether or not Danny Baker is, as the newspapers insist, a “bona fide genius”; I gave up listening to the ever more blokeish BBC Radio 5 Live a while ago, and I’m too young to remember the supposedly fantastic pieces he delivered to the NME back in the day (I read that they were even more amazing than those of Tony Parsons, which is saying something, isn’t it?). But I can tell you this: his new autobiographical comedy series, Cradle to Grave (Thursdays, BBC2, 9pm), displays no evidence at all of his talents, brilliant or otherwise. Anecdotes that just peter out. Jokes that fail to hit home. Misplaced nostalgia. Honestly, what’s the point? If you want 1974 – and quite a lot of us seem to, if the performance of Jeremy Corbyn is anything to judge by – you’d be better off treating yourself to a box set of the eternally satisfying Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?.

The series, co-written with Jeff Pope, is based on Baker’s memoir Going to Sea in a Sieve. It’s 1974, and Danny (Laurie Kynaston) is a randy teenager who still lives at home in good old Bermondsey with his ducking and diving docker dad, Fred, aka Spud (Peter Kay), his kindly mum, Bet (Lucy Speed), and his older sister, Sharon (Alice Sykes). A voice-over tells us, in effect, to forget all about the nasty old three-day week and to consider instead the warmth of lovely south-east London. How decent its people are, how eager to try out newfangled consumer goods such as the continental quilts Spud has pilfered and which now fill the hall of his tiny house like clouds. (Correct: he’s basically Del Boy, minus the Robin Reliant, the cocktail bar and, fatally, the workmanlike jokes.)

The denizens of Bermondsey are not, you understand, quite ready for the new world. In this part of London, bomb sites remain, merrily sprouting buddleia and pink willow herb; men are men and women are women. Spud is horrified to discover that his daughter’s new boyfriend wears – wait for it – white plimsolls, though not quite so horrified as Danny is to find a stranger’s ­penis flapping exuberantly against his cheek when he goes up west to see Hair (needless to say, our Danny was in search of naked girls, not sweaty blokes). If you find this kind of thing funny and (I can hardly bear to write the words) “heart-warming”, then you have seven weeks of bliss ahead. Who knows? Perhaps the characters will go on to debate the virtues of the various flavours of Old English Spangles. But I can’t believe that many people will be so easily pleased. Those who are old enough to remember the Seventies will know that the best of the decade’s own comedy was ten times more sophisticated than this, and those who aren’t – those who have never had anything other than a duvet on their bed, and can locate a naked female or even a flapping male member with just one tap of their mobile – will simply watch something altogether more grown-up on Netflix.

Kascion Franklin (centre) on BBC1. Photo: BBC/RED

Unfathomable BBC scheduling (is it having some kind of John Whittingdale-induced nervous breakdown?) treated us to two doses of 1974 as the summer limped to an end. The second loving spoonful came in the form of Danny and the Human Zoo (31 August, BBC1, 9pm), an almost-biopic drama in which Lenny Henry told the story of his painful start in comedy.

My TV critic colleagues have all been most respectful but, lovely as Kascion Franklin’s performance in the lead role was, I couldn’t altogether get with the show. Unlike Baker, Henry certainly wiped the Vaseline from the lens: his version of the Seventies was clear-eyed, particularly in the matter of racism. But his tendency as a writer is to tell rather than show, which becomes wearying, and the narrative he offered us – success on the New Faces talent show, followed by the self-loathing that came of joining the Black and White Minstrels – wasn’t exactly unfamiliar. An unscrupulous manager with bad hair; parents who think their son should get a “proper” job but are secretly oh-so-proud; Mud’s “Tiger Feet” and Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” on the soundtrack: such TV clichés really should be illegal by now.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses