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.
GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt