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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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear