Crap Towns is nothing but an exercise in laughing at neglect

Why don't we love our neglected towns? When he returned to England to research his latest book, author Daniel Gray found the country's towns a haven of the beautiful and bizarre.

The man in a Mr Bean mask threw a punch. Its intended recipient, without mask, was pulled away by his girlfriend just in time. Mr Bean’s own partner screamed: "Leave it Paul, don’t ruin my night." Bean pointed at his foe. "Watch it next time I see yer, yer clown."

Behind them, where I was standing, a late-teen girl was oblivious. She danced slowly across the water feature outside the town hall, her face turned to the moon. This civic pond was so shallow that she seemed to be walking on water. Her boyfriend sat on the wall around the edge, holding her shoes. Eleven cathedral bells rang and I went back to my hotel.

Bradford was one of thirteen English towns I spent a weekend in over the course of a year. I travelled in search of words, the result being my book Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters, a fond look at neglected England via, loosely, the prism of football. I set out from my home in Scotland to find out what the country of my birth now looked and felt like. I had just turned thirty and was losing sight of my identity and of England as she and Scotland drifted apart. You think a midlife crisis is bad? My quarter-life version compelled me to visit Luton, Hinckley and Crewe.

That last line of cynicism was played for cheap laughs. You see, I liked Luton, Hinckley and Crewe. And Bradford, Burnley and Watford. Someone has to, the cheap laugh might continue, so it might as well be me. I wanted to stand up for them, to point out their good parts, laugh with them and show how their stories made England’s history. I also wanted to reject the "chavtowns", Crap Towns ethos that infested British culture in the first part of this century.

Now, I learn, there is to be another Crap Towns book.

Four of the places I visited are on the longlist for the new edition (Bradford, Luton, Newquay and Sheffield). So too is the one in which I was born (Stockton-on-Tees) and the one in which I grew up (well, older), York (a city, but who’s splitting hairs when you’ve got toilet reading to push). Crap Towns hides its disdain for ‘lesser’ people in ‘lesser’ places behind its format. It is pomposity via photos of re-badged Arndale Centres, sneering via rankings that set the inhabitants of, say, Coventry against those of Nuneaton when they should be uniting in the face of an elite that knows nothing about their lives. It deigns to tell the whole stories of place and people in a couple of quarter-pages, writing them and their Britain off. A bit of fun? Reading Crap Towns is the modern equivalent of watching a good old hanging.

The editors of Crap Towns Returns are of a similar age to me. We’ve grown up in the same times though, given the Oxbridge whiff of their works (The Idler, anyone?), not necessarily the same England. I find their worldview puzzling, and choose not to believe in a society that stands taking the piss from the sides, accepting its lot and looking down on that of others. That’s just no fun. I like an England that celebrates what it has and looks to change for the better what it hasn’t. It laughs along, not at. It is progressive, not hopeless. 

The England I wish to take readers to looks at Stockton-on-Tees and its neighbour Middlesbrough and sees places that changed the world. That Middlesbrough – in 2009 Channel Four’s ‘Worst Place to Live’ – is one of steel that coiled the globe like a writhing nest of serpents. As a poem on a wall near the football stadium recounts, Every metropolis / Came from Ironopolis. Today, Middlesbrough and Stockton are scarred by things done to them in the decade me and the Crap Towns editors grew up. It is for rightly-defensive local MPs to list these towns’ modern assets, and for me to add that when you walk by a bar in Henley-on-Thames, you don’t hear an avalanche of laughter as you do on Teesside (that might be unfair to Henley-on-Thames. I’ve never been. I’m just adopting Crap Towns editorial principles for this article).

It sees in Bradford, as well as the comedy and romance of a Saturday night by the town hall, a civilising city, the home of the Independent Labour Party and one of the first places on earth to school all of its children, and provide its citizens with water and electricity. Moreover, this Bradford in this England, if you open your eyes, is at times wistfully beautiful: the Werther’s Original packet-coloured stone of its buildings, the Flat Iron contours of Little Germany, Asian and white teenagers giggling together as the rain ping-pongs all around them. 

Luton is the mesmeric buzz of Bury Park, with its unidentifiable vegetables that look like pock-marked comets and the old man in the Conservative Club who waved a walking stick at me for forgetting to pay my 50p entrance fee. It is the sign on a tree in gorgeous Wardown Park which reads "Budgie Found ... please phone", the creaking floorboards and proud displays of the town museum. There, a case contains charred artefacts from the night locals burnt down the town hall in protest at the treatment of WWI troops and bereaved families. And it is not the English Defence League, nor those who distort Islam: it is the white man in that museum telling me "immigration and racism are only a problem when they decide to turn up" and the Asian taxi driver eyeballing me in the rearview mirror and saying "the likes of the EDL or the mad mosques, they don’t speak for the town."

When I take readers to Sheffield, it is to show them the First City of Rebellion, and the home of kicking and dreaming; football’s granddad. It is to take them uphill on a tram to Jarvis’ house, then back into town via synth pop and for a pint of good ale by the coal fire in the pub where the Arctic Monkeys first spellbound an audience. I want readers to switch off Bravo TV, which has us thinking that every Saturday night in every town and city is a riot of people being sick on each other’s tattoos. I want them to sit watching with me, watching the handsome young indie boy helping the old lady onto the tram, watching the police get kisses.

Let the readers finish at the end of England, in Newquay, as I did. There, I sat with my back to the country. Everything was perfect: the sun slid into a gluey ocean and waves smashed cliffs like foamy wrecking balls.

‘YOU WANT A CRISP, MATE?’ A voice from behind startled me. An accompanying hand then appeared over my shoulder, its scales and divots pointing to a life lived wholeheartedly. Its fingers were clasping a cheesy Quaver.

Beauty and the bizarre. That’s my England.

Reading Crap Towns is the modern equivalent of watching a hanging. Photograph: Getty Images.
Daniel Gray’s newest book is Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters: Travels through England’s Football Provinces. It is published by Bloomsbury in August 2013.
Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder