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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“I see the world in rectangles”: Life as a Lego Master Builder

Nathan Sawaya stunned colleagues when he quit his job as a lawyer to play with Lego full-time. Now everyone from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama’s a fan.

Nathan Sawaya is describing his favourite Lego brick, shiny-eyed and grinning at the thought of it. But he’s not a child proudly displaying a beloved toy. He’s a 43-year-old former corporate lawyer, and well over six foot tall. The brick he is evangelising about is a small 1x2 socket plate with a stud in the centre of its top. He calls this a “Jumper”.

“You know your Lego lingo?” he asks, looking crestfallen when I shake my head. “It has only one stud instead of two, and it allows you to do even more detail because you can offset the brick a little bit. But in general, I focus on the rectangular pieces.”


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Sawaya is one of the world’s eight Lego Master Builders, having left his job at a New York law firm when he was 32 to dedicate his life to building Lego constructions full-time. His most striking works include a torso of a man ripping his chest open with bricks spilling out, called Yellow, a lifesize T-Rex skeleton, a two-metre long model of Brooklyn Bridge, and replicas of famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, and Edvard Munch’s Scream.

I meet him in a dark exhibition space in a tent on London’s Southbank, where his works are lit up around us. His latest constructions consist of a series of DC Comics superheroes, so we are surrounded by expressionless Supermen flying around us, capes realistically rippling, and a full-size Batmobile with glistening batwings. His boyish eagerness aside, Sawaya himself looks like a comic book villain – a hulking figure dressed in black from top to toe, with a long black overcoat, piercing eyes and thick dark hair.


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Back in his early thirties when he was a lawyer, he would come home after a punishing day at work and do something creative – drawing, painting, sculpting with clay and wire. He soon began to experiment with Lego, constructing models out of sets he had lying around the house. His son, now 17, was never particularly interested in playing with it himself.

“Eventually I made the choice to leave the law firm behind and become a full-time artist who plays with toys,” he beams.

His family was supportive, his colleagues jealous, and his bosses confused – but it wasn’t long until Sawaya found success as a Lego artist. He has had exhibitions of his work on every continent but Antarctica, and gained some high-profile fans. When he was US President, Barack Obama posed with one of his installations – monochrome life-size men sitting on park benches in Washington – and Bill Clinton has a sculpture in his office, as does Lady Gaga in a music video.

“That is the magic of Lego,” he says of his popularity. “It has become a universal language in a way.”


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Sawaya’s Master Builder status means he can buy all his bricks directly from Lego in bulk – not possible for us Lego civilians. He used to buy sets in toy shops and on eBay when starting out; now he can email asking for 500,000 red 2x4 bricks, say, and Lego ships them to him on wooden pallets. He has six million bricks on hand at his studio in Los Angeles. “Millions of each colour and shape and size,” he says. “And they’re all organised by shape and colour.”

He works away for hours at a time in his studio, with his dogs obediently at his feet, in what he describes as a “trance”. He plans designs on special “brick paper” like graph paper, but sometimes he free-builds from his imagination. “I do often see the world in rectangles,” he says, and sometimes he even dreams in bricks.

Just like children do with Lego sets, he simply snaps the bricks together – though he does dab glue between each brick, which triples the time it takes. He describes it as “therapeutic”, but says making a mistake can be “heartbreaking” – he can lose days and weeks of work at a time. “There may be times where I start questioning my choices in life,” he smiles.


Photos: Copyright Jane Hobson

Sawaya faced snobbery from the art world when he first began approaching galleries as a Lego artist. “Oh, is that cars and trucks and little castles?” was the response. He feels it’s now a more acceptable medium. “It makes art accessible,” he says. “And in doing that, it democratises the art world a bit. It allows people to relate to the art. Everyone has snapped a brick together at one point, every child has played a little bit with Lego.

“As an artist, my role is to inspire. And what better way to do it than through a medium everyone is familiar with? If someone sees a marble statue, they can appreciate it, but very few people have marble at home they can chip away at.”

The first Lego creation Sawaya can remember making was a little house, when he was first given the toy at the age of five. He then made a city that grew to 36 square feet. When he was ten, he was desperate for a dog. His parents refused, so he tore all his creations down and built a lifesize one. “It was blocky and very multi-coloured, of course,” he says. “But it was that ‘Aha!’ moment – when I realised it doesn’t have to be on the front of the box. It can be whatever I want.”

The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes is on at Upper Ground, Southbank, London, until 3 September 2017.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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