“You know, go see Broken Britain, ha ha!” – good man in pub, Corby
Let’s play a game of English suburban house bingo. Heads down! So, with the next house you pass by, do you see…
- A rose-bush at the front with all leaves removed
- An aggressive handwritten sign about parking, dog-fouling or similar
- A rustic yet mass-produced house name stuck on its side, e.g. ‘Riverdene’ or ‘Oak cottage’
- A beware the dog or CCTV warning
- A large front garden with nothing in it except pebbles
- A bird-feeder that’s never been used
- A four by four or other very large car
- Mock-Tudor windows or frames
- A St. George’s flag fluttering or stickered at the front
- A satellite TV dish
- Chintzy ornaments on the front window-sill, like plastic frogs, gnomes, teddies, ceramic plates.
To get a full house, tell me: does this building look so similar to every other house you pass that, were you blindfolded, driven in a car for many hours and then dropped of this very building you’ve just scrutinised, you would have no way of knowing which part of Britain you were in?
This may seem like some characteristic London snobbery, but that’s not what I mean. I’ve lived in suburbs of London that look exactly like the suburbs of every other town. From Penge to Peterborough, Perth to Port Talbot, things look similar. Though I’m from south London, I’ve lived for most of my adult life in a down-at-heel suburb where cultural life is pretty much anti-London, geared round shopping in large retail centres, buying unhealthy snacks from the local supermarkets and watching lots of TV. I don’t have a problem with it.
I’m increasingly coming across a code that seems distinctive to Britain and applies to town and country. It’s in a common style of housing, just as it’s in a common style of clothing: men and women wear blue jeans and sports jackets, with gendered variants of shoes and hairstyle. It reflects on the one hand the basic social desire to fit in and look like others, to not be ostracised.
But it also reflects the choices given to us. Houses will look the same, and be decorated in similar ways, in the ways that are available from the out-of-town retail park or local superstores. People seek objects that will express their identity, but with the narrow amount of made-in-China choices, things inevitably look similar. Being a country where the vast majority of wealth is still owned by a distant rural-based elite, most people I come across are relatively poor, struggling on low-incomes and therefore dependent on buying whatever’s cheapest.
It doesn’t strike me as a choice at all.
But an economic view of human nature is also pretty myopic. It indicates something else too: not simply a desire for privacy, common to most peoples, for an expression of a peculiarly British kind of privacy. And you know what else? It indicates that culturally, our forms of expression are limited to the rural. Despite mostly living in cities, people seem to want to bring as much of the country into their suburban semis. Curiously, Britain has produced no major poet or visionary of the city I can think of, say compared to Baudelaire or Walter Benjamin. Our school curricula are full of rustic romantics or the fusty, smartarse logorrhea of much late 20th century poetry.
The weather’s been bad here the last few days, and I’ve been staying in youth hostels in order to keep out of the rain at night. I wake up in Thurlby, a small village near Bourne in Lincolnshire, in a well-kept but old-fashioned hostel. It’s a lovely place.
Henry Garwood Sneath donated his family in 1979 to the Youth Hostels Association, along with a good sum to renovate it. He wanted to ‘leave something for the youth of the area’. It’s a fine act of goodwill. I talk to a volunteer at the hostel, Brenda, who has given her time away for free for the last ten years to help the YHA, running the hostel for a week at a time. I ask her what motivates her to do it, and she’s modest, simply to help an organisation she’s used in past.
These volunteers and this culture of volunteering are to be lauded. Things like the YHA, which so far on this trip has provided me with bed, shower and kitchen for only £12 a night, (far less than even the average city rent), are powered by the goodwill and generosity of largely retired people. It’s true also of people I’ve so far met and enjoyed talking to at the National Trust. Were these things sold off by the current government, as no doubt they wish, the forests and ancient buildings would be either Disneyfied or ransacked whilst sleeping G4S or Serco guards dozed away in some CCTV office miles away. These organisations and volunteering itself deserve immense praise. I’ve been lucky enough to meet and work with many volunteers during my past life working in charities, and they are some of the kindest and interesting people one could hope to meet.
After sitting for a while and listening to the wind whistle through the trees, I snake out to Peterborough, passing Baston, Langtoft, Market Deeping, and skirting by Helpston, home of John Clare, our man wandering through Essex fields last week. The country villages seem not to have altered in the last hundred years. These places are so secret and wonderful that I have no truck with their insularity. Let them remain unknown! John Clare has some fine words which remain true today:
‘True as the church clock hand the hour pursues
He plods about his toils and reads the news,
And at the blacksmith’s shop his hour will stand
To talk of ‘Lunun’ as a foreign land,
For from his cottage door in peace or strife
He ne’er went fifty miles in all his life.’
Clare’s clearly writing about this neck of the woods, from the isolated churches with their clock-towers, ‘croodling’ across flooded fords and fields of ‘mire and sludge’, past ‘fluskering’ songbirds, or the gipsy camps that he passes, whose descendants live today around towns like Spalding. It’s in the accent too. I greet a Tata steel truck driver as I pass and he replies, without vowels, ’w’t m’t. See if you can make it out.
I soon find myself in the suburbs of Peterborough, entering a county, Cambridgeshire.
The town’s a curiously modern place: Conservative voting despite being overwhelmingly working class, two thirds of population live outside the town in these bloody massive suburbs like Werrington, where I pass. It is a city characterised by immigration, by some very successful multicultural integration. From the 1950s on the town attracted a great number of southern Italians through its Fletton brick trade, which boomed from the 19th century, turning the sleep town into a bustling city. There are migrants from India and Pakistan here too, and of course, more recently through farming, a great number of eastern Europeans here too. For the first time on my trip, I see no signals of flag-beating tribalism.
I won’t lose the thread, but let me quickly develop an observation from yesterday, where I discussed immigration as a problem of low pay. Farming has historically paid extraordinarily low wages to labourers (remember the riots in north Norfolk?), far less than is possible to live on in Britain. The engineered boom in ‘self-employment’ since Thatcher has created a race to the bottom in terms of pay that largely, sadly, most British have unwillingly acquiesced in.
From cheaper care homes for elderly parents to building and plumbing, people have been have to underpay people who seemingly didn’t mind. We get quotes for the best deal, in an unregulated market where temporary visitors, often living in overcrowded houses with other fellow-nationals, can afford to work for. The ‘hard-working Polish plumber’ has become a cliché which tells us more about low pay than it does the interest of Warszawa in Wimbledon or Wythenshawe. The kinds of nationalism and mild racism I’ve so far encountered are a failure to grasp this.
In the meantime, it has become much harder for local young people to get trained or supported in any skilled trade. The shops, supermarkets, McDonalds and pubs I pass today are full of young local people of a similar age to me. One bar-girl laughs when I tell her I’ve written a book. But you’re the same age as me?
There’s little opportunity for anything round here. National pride, just like football, provides an outlet to ‘win’ or succeed in a life-route where any kind of opportunity is near impossible.
Of these rustic semis and bought council flats I pass, their residents are largely the descendants of very poor, often migrant, farm labourers and factory workers. Today they vote for political parties that one hundred and fifty years ago would happily have them in a kind of slavery, without literacy, fair pay or free healthcare. Their ancestors fought for equal rights and got them through long violent struggles. Today, the ‘British’ want to deny these rights or equal status of citizenship to eastern Europeans, or young Muslims. A big problem is the lack of integration or inclusion of these new groups. There are no community centres or projects, no education or outreach programmes. Due to local cuts, English language classes are shutting down. How can they learn our society when the majority if us, as polls go, won’t even consider them valid equals, fellow English?
There are no native British. This is a distant and cold island where countless waves of migrants have come and struggled. Let us not be hypocrites, and deny to people the few rights we enjoy.
Peterborough was designated a New Town in the 60s, so that means having to pass countless underpasses and overpasses, model roundabouts, and endless retail parks full of Argos, Asda and the usual brands. I can tell I’m entering a town because the roads start to become broken-up and full of pot-holes, compared to the smooth surfaces of country roads. Mean-spirited councils, construction backhanders, bad municipal munificence. A man was murdered in one underpass the night before I arrive by a group of teens. There are so many concrete walls here that any potential graffiti has been snuffed out, the sheer surfeit of surfaces making any kind of graffiti rivalry too exhausting to contemplate.
I make it to the pretty centre. The town is defined by a unique kind of yellow brick, and is full of bustling high-street shops and people wandering about. Compared to Kings Lynn, people here are more jovial and better-heeled. This is a city on the up, making money through its surrounding industries (British Sugar is sweetly based up the road), shopping and finance, the alchemy of money. Peterborough has yet another British Town Centre, where we can all buy stuff made in China.
But the place is interesting! I wander round the paths, passing the shops and absorbing conversations, til I reach a great public square with a fountain where kids play. It’s a lively and diverse place, I’m one of many people out watching the crowds. In the middle is a bigoted Christian preacher shouting about hell and sin. I do hope the city gives equal platform to other beliefs, so the public has a choice of who they ignore.
Nearby is the grand cathedral with an impressive entrance. I find etchings in the wall, names that mean ‘I exist’, once. Some call it graffiti, I call it a cheeky act of existential self-affirmation.
I potter around and find out more. It was ransacked during the English Civil War, with its cloister and medieval records destroyed by puritanical (or drunk) parliamentarians. These instances of a violent erasure of history keep recurring, from Saxons building over Roman ruins to the destruction if monasteries in the Reformation, or the wider iconoclasm thereafter. It occurs in the destruction of Victorian buildings and terraces after WW2, creating these bland suburban landscapes, warehouse zones and retail parks that define the modern landscape. Historians take great pains to reproduce what many wanted to be forgotten. Perhaps it would’ve better not to list the Shard, Canary Wharf or Lloyd’s building at all, but put them to some new and socially useful purpose?
I like Peterborough but must move on. I cycle out of the town, past flooded streets and another of Britain’s twenty million railway museums.
Damn. I soon realise I’m making a terrible but irreversible error. I follow a cycle route instead of a major road. These routes are so poorly labelled and maintained that I spend more time getting lost than being on them (it was on one where my pannier flew off), and frequently parts of the bike break whilst on them.
I follow route-whatever out of town towards the village of Haddon, where the road has been removed. For fuck’s sake! These cycle routes… I take a risk, riding up the road’s foundation, when more misfortune strikes. What appears to be a yellow mud is actually a very sticky and deep yellow clay, with the consistency of jelly mixed with superglue. The bike and my shoes quickly start submerging in the quicksand-like clay. I manage to pull myself onto a dirt track but it takes about half an hour to pick off the clods of mud when, lo, the rain starts to fall heavy.
There is no shelter, nothing here. I put on the poncho and am forced to break the only rule of my trip so far: no cycling in the rain! Instead, I cycle for about two hours in a tough attempt to find a new path west, over a mix of busy roads, broken byways and silent lanes. Eventually I reach Warmington where there is a bus-shelter to take refuge in. A little later I make it to my next destination, Corby.
The question of Scottish independence is largely mute here: Corby is already an independent Scottish state in the East Midlands.
Defined by its huge steelworks and massive Scots community, it’s a grubby and tough town, and perhaps one of my favourite places so far. I cycle round the town, past its 1960s shopping parades and retail parks, before homing in on a fish and chip shop. I want to test the Scottishness of the place? ‘You do a battered mars bar mate?’
Sadly at Schooners they do not. The owner tells me it ruins the oil and isn’t worth the cost, and doesn’t seem to think anywhere else will. They do haggis and black pudding, but being a veggie I settle for chips and a can of Irn Bru. I stand outside and observe. I hear a lot of Glaswegian accents, and I also here the ‘Corby’ accent on a fair few people, a mixture of Midlands with Scots inflections, usually appearing at the end of a phrase or when pronouncing ‘O’ sounds.
I pop into the Corby candle for a half and soon get talking to an absolutely sound bloke. He buys me a drink and we talk about the area. He’s a similar age to me and works in the pub’s kitchen, but tells me that he spends most of his time on the other side of the bar drinking, talking to people and smoking outside. Born in Kettering, he moved up with family to Stranraer (full of junkies) after his stepdad was pretty horrifically murdered. He has connections to Kilmarnock, Glasgow, and Ireland, as do I.
We joke about the Irish towns where we can both trace descent from, where everyone’s related and ‘the vicar is your grandad’. I get talking to other punters in the bar. Some say the area’s ‘overrun’ with eastern Europeans, but there’s little malice. ‘Let them get on with it’, ‘I just don’t like the one’s claiming’. The welfare claiming is a myth of the modern press. But there’s a lack of integration that I saw more markedly in Lincolnshire.
This feller offers to put me up, buys me a drink, helps me take out my bags and, as a parting gift, offers a cheeky line of coke (this is why I won’t name him, but if he reads this, and I think he will, then I hope to see you again brother!). The hospitality here is superb. I politely decline the proffered energy powder, but I’d love to come back here, float around the pubs.
This is how one becomes local, through drinking in pubs, lurking around town centres, starting conversations, being open and friendly with people. Everyone knows each other here, it’s a community, is what people keep telling me. He cheekily jokes that he can even help me get a better bike by paying a tramp to nick a better one. ‘You can get anything here for £20’. Is he joking? Corby is a suburb of Glasgow wrongly-situated in the Midlands.
I’m given directions to a big estate on the edge of town on Beanfield avenue, the one place where I should be able to get my mars bar. The hint comes good. I pass through shabby housing estates where people are tough yet very polite, and reach an ugly 1960s shopping parade. At the Viking fish bar I ask the friendly girl. It’s not on the menu, and she gives a cheeky smile, lurks around the back for a bit, then takes payment. So, how does it taste? Well, like a delicious chocolate ice cream in batter. It’s really nice. I wash it down with another can of Irn Bru and head out of town.
I don’t know what they put in these things, but in a quick blur I seem to have done seven miles. Hills are appearing on the landscape, but I race up in my highest gear, singing The Fall to fields full of dozy cattle and sheep. Who needs blood banks or laboratory-engineered protein bars?
I pass Kibworth and join the A6 for the final leg to Leicester. I’m bored with trying to find cycle paths and find that A-roads offer a more accurate panorama of the modern landscape. In an earlier post, I talked about letting nature get on with it. Beyond the coastline, this is however a misplaced fantasy. Every aspect of the landscape shows the mark of humankind, from the hedgerows and roads to the irrigated fields and canals. The crops in the fields and the livestock are products of human societies. There is no pure nature, nor has there ever been, except that human beings are parts of nature.
The weather has been terrible today, and wetter summers are predicted for this island as a result of climate change. But the history of Britain also indicates that there has been immense fluctuations in the climate regardless of human activity.
Whilst there is a problem with industrialisation, it is a vain idea that human societies are capable of altering it. America, China or India cannot cease increasing their pollution without some immense societal collapse. Governments are incapable of agreeing any sufficient regulations. There is no capitalist conspiracy here, just another instance of climate change in a long history of weather fluctuations. As things of nature, populations are blooming with new needs and new effects on the landscape. I wonder if scientists and ecologists would be better purposed abandoning this idea of nature as a harmonious, pantheistic equilibrium, and start planning for ways to adapt to climate change.
To my mind, environmental collapse is just another opportunity for us to express fears about apocalypse which define any era, and for a certain kind of middle-class green moralising to raise its head over the ‘pikeys with their pushchairs’, as one woman said yesterday, of that hatred of council flats with massive TVs.
Perhaps the heavy industry and fried foods of the East Midlands are getting to my head, but I’m finding a people here who I love.
I arrive into Leicester, a large and bustling town with a rich variety of buildings. I plan to look around tomorrow, so I swerve into the ‘Creative Quarter’, and find my place for the night, a lovely flat, where my friend Laura has offered a sofa and dinner. I meet her partner Ben and flatmate Caitlin, who makes a delicious dinner, and over the course of a few dinners we talk about identity, travel, Quebecois terrorism and I get some fine hints for Leicester. Let’s see what they reveal.
* Quick note: I have a new section up, ‘Get Involved’. If you’ve read this and like what I’m doing, please take a look.