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.
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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser