“It’s nice around here, peaceful. You should see the castle.”
“Have you been?
“No, no, ha ha”. – me talking to an elderly Jamaican lady in St. Ann’s, Nottingham
Does history begin with a set of stories we tell ourselves about our place in the world? I’m increasingly thinking so, and it’s leading me to wonder how certain historical narratives get set in place.
I’ve been surprised by the frequency of St. George’s flags fluttering, usually in working-class suburban estates surrounding larger towns. Seeing them makes me feel uncomfortable and embarrassed, in the way similar to being out with a friend who unreasonably loses their temper and lashes out at some hapless victim. Yet as people have suggested to me, we don’t feel the same way when we see a Cornish flag in Truro, or a Jamaican flag, and so on. These don’t carry the same suggestions of aggression, parochialism and defensiveness. The model of Englishness on offer here doesn’t tally with the values many of us feel we hold.
These flags are distinctly urban or suburban. They’re not meant to suggest cricket on village greens, fish and chips in newspaper or milky tea on a near-derelict seaside pier, the classic English clichés. Like the popularity of tribal tattoos, they suggest hardness and pride, or xenophobia and insecurity, depending on your take on it. But these are feelings that people experience and share, and define themselves by.
I’ve been naïve in the past to discount them as the effect of delusion. No matter what your take is, they’re lived feelings and experiences.
I see a number of these flags on the way to Nottingham the previous night, particularly in Draycott, and they will return again today. I’m unsure what to expect when I wake up in the morning at David’s. I’m also a little tired, and it takes me until 2pm to write up yesterday’s notes and get started. My conversations have given me a wealth of great tips and, as I will find, this is another rewarding city for the open-minded traveller.
Before I leave, David notices that my front brake has been dragging against the wheel. I’m unsure how long this has been happening, but it’s pretty frustrating that I’ve been effectively riding with the brake on for so long, up Warwickshire’s bumpy hills and through Norfolk’s rugged paths. He manages to make a fix and helps adjust a few other things, and I’m much grateful. Alas, all does not end well.
I wish to reunite my orphan bicycle with its home.
I head out from Forest Fields first to the site of the old Raleigh factory, just west of Lenten. It was here that a young Albert Finney represented a new kind of working class anger and existential frustration. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), based on local man Alan Sillitoe’s novel two years earlier. At first Arthur Seaton, played by Finney, is determined to escape a life trapped to a dead-end job factory job. His parents are interested in little more than gossip and watching TV, ‘dead from the neck up’. Finney finds a nihilistic escape through heavy drinking and relationships with two women. Abortion and adultery come up, but in the end Seaton is trapped, facing marriage and a new home with a younger woman who doesn’t quite understand him.
Types like Arthur Seaton still exist round here, but these days they’re more likely to be found working in shopping malls or call centres than factories, many of which have closed.
Albert Finney’s factory job was filmed at the old Raleigh factory. As I approach, there is no sign of it whatsoever. I find a derelict John Player’s factory on the appropriately named Triumph Road and ask a security guard where it might be. He directs me back to Faraday road across the railway, where a few bland yellow-brick student flats have been built. I can’t get clear agreement from people I meet on its former location, giving it a mythical status. I pull over in front of the Jubilee Campus of Nottingham University, full of Thunderbirds-lookalike overstyled university buildings clad in silver and red, and check the internet. As it turns out, this is it. Just as Raleigh factory jobs have mostly shifted to the Far East, today the university caters especially for Chinese engineering and business students. It’s a very curious cultural and economic exchange.
Disappointed, I head over a canal and next reach Lenten Flats, in the process of demolition. After the frustrations of Sillitoe, I’m seeking out another Nottingham visionary with a more ambivalent and contemporary take on the town. Though Shane Meadows hails originally from nearby Uttoxeter in Staffordshire, he’s used parts of Nottingham for much of filming and casting.
Lenten Flats is immediately recognisable from This is England, one of the best TV/film dramatisations of a group of young people’s frustrations and lack of escape from the confines of a small town blighted with unemployment, set during the 1980s. It captures the subcultures and scenery of that era very well, if chillingly, and Meadows’ films often come with a dark menace or emotional wounding in the background. Scenes from Anton Corbijn’s Control (2007), about the tragic life of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, were also filmed here. The sharp and austere grey blocks still cut chillingly against the distant horizon.
The blocks are now however being pulled down, and the local council promises ‘homes that people want to live in’. It’s hard to gather if local people were consulted in any of this. Perhaps fitting the unruliness of the place in the films, as I approach I see a gang of policemen attempt to arrest a shouty woman outside a school. Her face is overblanched like a geisha’s, yet her accent is thick Notts, a truly surreal scene and fine tribute to Meadows’ realism.
There’s a scene from This is England that sticks with me, and which resonates with some of these issues of identity I’ve been stumbling against. Combo, the traumatised skinhead and bully of the film is talking to Milky, a younger mixed race man who is increasingly being ostracised from the group for his appearance. Combo asks him, ‘do you consider yourself English, or Jamaican’. After a painfully long silence, he replies with some uncertainty, ‘English’. Combo’s reply might well be heard today in some places I pass:
‘Lovely, lovely, love you for that, that’s fucking great. A proud man, learn from him … That’s what we need, man. That’s what this nation has been built on, proud men. Proud fucking warriors. Two thousand years this little tiny fucking island has been raped and pillaged, by people who have come here wand wanted a piece of it. Two fucking world wars! Men have laid down their lives for this. For this, and for what? So people can stick their fucking flag in the ground and say, “yeah, this is England. And this is England, and this is England.”’
I weave on, cycling through the very affluent private estate of The Park, set just by Lenton in a typically English juxtaposition of wealth and want ignoring each other side by side. The Park is a pretty place and people sit relaxing in one little square. Passing through, it leads me to ask, what are the signs of a good community?
Is it in having cultivated and well-maintained green spaces, with places to exercise and play sport? Is it in having ornamental street features, like pretty lamp-posts, bins, and red telephone boxes? Or in sufficient trees to attract songbirds and add a leafy rustic feel to a place?
I feel we carry assumptions that tend to favour these, that make Lenten Flats appear so cold and ugly (not a place people want to live, as the council implies) against somewhere like The Park. But Nottingham challenges such a simple view.
I weave up the steep hills of the town, and next pop into the Castle, situated on a gargantuan hulk of rock filled with little caves. It’s an imposing natural feature, but the little mansion on top is somewhat dull and has more function today as a local museum. As I scrutinise it from afar, I begin talking to a local man about the history of the place.
The place is a little blighted with misfortune. It first appears on the historical landscape in the 1100s, during a civil war of sorts between Stephen and Matilda. Parliaments used to meet here during the 13th century. I wonder why an English confederacy of regionally self-governing states, with a travelling parliament, has never been attempted since.
Later, our dead man in Leicester left this castle to fight Henry VII at the Battle of Bosworth of 1485, where his life and the side of Lancashire is lost. King Charles I declared war on parliament here at this castle, marking the start of the English Civil War. Nottingham’s little bothered with royalism, and the castle is soon lost to the Parliamentarians. It’s later burnt down by local leader Colonel John Hutchison out of fear that Cromwell might come here and declare himself King Oliver I. It was finally burnt to the ground in 1831 by angry democratic protestors demanding the right to vote. Molten lead drips through the streets and mutilated bodies are later found. This town is angry.
I wander down, passing a statue to perhaps Nottingham’s best-known rebel, Robin Hood. Robs from the rich, gives to the poor, Robin Hood, Robin Hood! I think of the old song as I wander about, and feel a stirring of pride that on this island we find perhaps the most famous militant for social justice and the redistribution of wealth. There’s uncertainty about who Robin Hood or his merry men really were, but it seems that the actual Robin was a south Yorkshire man from Loxley or Wakefield around the 13th-14th centuries – he first appears in William Langland’s poem Piers Plowman. Either way, Sherwood Forest once stretched across a huge area incorporating Nottingham, reaching Leicester. Here we have a hero worth lauding: a romantic and respectful lover, a skilled archer, a man who loathed all kinds of religious or political authority, and believed that the wealth of the land should be distributed equally in common, based on people’s needs.
I’m stirred by this, and continue the festivities in the Ye Olde Jerusalem Inn, built in 1189. Much of it still survives, and it claims to be the oldest inn (but not pub) in England. Here men gathered to join the armies of the Crusades, to a life of disease and slaughter in the Middle East where few returned. I sup on a local brew, Nottingham Extra Pale Ale, which is pretty good, and wander about upstairs, where ancient caves in the roof once were used to bring barrels of beer from the pub to the castle. I’m surrounded by odd and chintzy artefacts, including a picture of our fat man in Leicester, Daniel Lambert.
I head out and circle round the town centre. There are some superb public spaces here, especially the old market square. The town has a good tram service and its inner centre is entirely pedestrianized, creating a relaxed and friendly public feel to the place. Other cities should visit here and learn about effective urban planning. As well as the typical British Town Centre stores, there are some interesting local places and bars. The town’s copious amount of students give a vibrancy to the place. I spot Chinese students posing in front of graffiti in immaculately curated and clean early-90s grunge fashions, and I pass by the independent Broadway cinema, where Ken Loach courses and James Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause is shown alongside Postman Pat: The Movie! I enjoy passing through the Lace quarter, the city’s former trade, where once 130 factories crammed in one area. I can barely fathom the cramped conditions and poor pay they endured, and a strung-out junkie crashed out next to one former factory, converted into luxury flats, is the only indicator of the kinds of poverty that this city also once knew.
Nottingham is a rebellious place. It is here I stumble across another myth, that of King Ludd and the Luddites. These people were textile artisans who smashed up new textile machinery between 1811 and 1817, fearing that these labour-saving devices would plunge them into low-paid poverty. It was a fair prognosis. The Luddites were an organised band of rebels, destroying machines and assassinating mill owners. More British army soldiers were sent out to quell them than went out to fight Napoleon, so deep was the threat to the growing capitalist establishment. They took their name from a mythical figure of King Ludd who lived in Sherwood Forest, another atavistic folk hero to fight and beat the establishment. Sadly they do not succeed, and two hundred years later we can see the effects everywhere of low-pay, low-skilled work and its highly demoralising effects. Remember Arthur Seaton?
Today this kind of empty rage is reflected in the music of Sleaford Mods, a new double-act defined by a nihilistic rage and boredom with the modern world. Their songs are about everyday pettiness and ugliness, drink and drugs, being on the dole, fuck all. In Jobseeker, Jason Williamson wryly rants about a recent experience with the jobcentre:
‘So Mr Williamson, what you have done in order to find gainful employment since your last visit?’
‘Fuck all, I just sit around the house wanking all day.’
Williamson expresses what can’t be said aloud, an anger with the hypocrisy and emptiness of much of contemporary Notts and Leicestershire. Small towns with nothing to do when you’re skint, except… But like Arthur Seaton, Williamson never considers any bigger escape from it. The anger in the songs is tragic, and their outlook could be simplified to: things are shit, they have been shit, and they will remain shit. From London wankers to shit estates, everything’s been fucked up.
I head out to the suburbs again, this time to Sneinton in the east, where an active windmill still makes bread. I’m searching for the boxing club where the late Bob Hoskins starred in Shane Meadows’ first major film, Twenty Four Seven, was filmed. I struggle to find it, but enjoy passing through the multicultural suburban estates, red-brick and a mixture of terraces with semis. The style of building here is very similar to places I will later pass on the other side of town: Aspley, Broxtowe, and Cinderhill. Clearly Nottingham made a concerted effort at building good quality homes for the poor to relieve the dire overcrowded slums people were previously crammed into. Built in a typical 1920s-30s Tudor-Parker style semi-detached red-brick, and with quaintly rustic names like ‘Skipton Circus’, they give the impression of good quality communities. But I’ll hold back on my argument a while longer.
I then pass a mucky path and reach St. Ann’s. I’ve come here because Nottingham has a bad reputation for violent gun crime particularly associated with this neighbourhood. It seems pretty mythical and, somewhat typically, such violent crime is over-associated with largely Afro-Caribbean neighbourhoods, a residue of the semi-racialised mugger moral panic of the 80s. I don’t know anyone here, so I began to ask people what the neighbourhood is like. I get the slightly bemused conversation that starts this entry, and people seem largely positive about the place. Nearby, a local women working with refugees in the area tells me about the place, and about an Anarchist library and its publishing imprint, Loaf on a Stick Press. Apparently whenever a protest or strike was going to happen, this very sign would be raised and rebellion begin! She tells me that Nottingham is a home office dispersal area, but one that is well-integrated, not like Heath Town in Wolverhampton. She helps me fix my bike along the road. People here are very friendly, giving advice and what not. Even among groups of lads lurking round bored I get no aggression or hostility whatsoever.
I like what I see, and move on, back towards the centre, threading through to the western suburbs of Aspley, Broxtowe and Cinderhill. These were originally built as a large Garden City, in a place of fresh air but close to industry. Over 17,500 houses were built in the city during the 1920s and 30s, in places like here and nearby Strelley. These red-brick council houses gave new tenants a huge advance in living standards, with running water, toilets, gas and electricity and neat little gardens all provided – things we take for granted today but which, a hundred years ago, were rare privileges for the working poor. Nearby were many collieries and pit-heads, particularly that at the aptly-named Cinderhill. Today these are all gone, and there are few signs of the sootening industries or the miners.
Nottinghamshire miners have a particularly poisoned place in the final struggle of the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5. They rejected Arthur Scargill’s warnings that the government planned to close all collieries, and fell for the false hope that their pits could be kept open because they had deeper reserves. It was a scandalous moment where the greed, opportunism and possible government complicity of local miners’ leader George Spencer left the NUM and formed a breakway union, a moment where values of solidarity and cooperation collapsed. The area has paid dearly in terms of unemployment and in a scarred reputation as scabs and strike-breakers.
As I pass through this garden city, the semis are now in poor condition. Drives are broken up, roads in disrepair, and bored kids wander round aimlessly. There is absolutely nothing to do here. A takeaway and a local shop, a school, but no major pub or youth club that I can find. No large exercise ground or playing fields kept in good condition. These are the features good communities need. The area is multicultural but St. George’s flags flap out from first floor windows.
It makes me realise that it is not urban design which creates or alleviates poverty, a conclusion that I think at times Lynsey Hanley and others on the left sometimes reach. It is material poverty which turns even fine houses, places that would sell for millions in Hampstead or Fulham in London, into self-contained and insular ghettos of poverty. This is further compounded by the inward-facing circular arrangements of the buildings, by the difficulty of finding one’s way around them, and the very few roads that go in and out. Like Heath Town and St. Matthews, a ghettoization is also built in. But it is low pay and unemployment which reduces these places first of all, and we mustn’t forget this. Decent employment opportunities, alongside schemes to train young people in high-paid and high-skilled engineering roles would help this place. Although I have no problem with the kinds of democratically co-operatively run estates Hanley argues for, they won’t get very far when most people in a local area are too skint, too out of time or too demotivated to take part. They first need a community centre, a crèche, and much else. Let’s not neglect material conditions first.
Speaking of bad circumstances, as I head out I notice that the front brake is dragging against the wheel again. I attempt a fix and carry on. Problem recurs again later as I start to leave Nottingham. As I refit the brake on, I tighten the screw and prepare for the next leg of my route. But lo, the screw head snaps off entirely. For the next 25 miles, I have no working front brake. Darkness is starting to set.
I am quite frustrated and low in mood by now. Heavy drinking and eating mainly chocolate bars and chips have also sapped my energies. It is some miles ahead. I think of my partner, and crack on.
David earlier put this kind of anxiety in better terms than I can. He said that when he once cycled up the Pyrenees, he refused to give up until he got to the edge of the horizon. It seems like a fitting image for the powerful motivation of absurd, impossible but wonderful illusions. I aim to reach the edge of the horizon, stopping off in the run-down suburb of Kimberley for some chips. I’m a little saddened that none of the local lads outside have Raleigh bikes.
‘Fear preserves the order of things’, says Steve, earlier in the day, quoting Daniel Day-Lewis in a recent film. I had asked him about Eastwood, home of D.H. Lawrence, our local man who once worked in Haywoods factory in the city centre. He has family here, and has little esteem for the place today. Closures of collieries have ruined the place. ‘They had their whole way of life transplanted, gone. There’s nothing’.
I see one pretty strung out person but the ‘skag town’ I’m warned about is no doubt hidden behind net curtains, in estates and cul-de-sacs far off the main road. I consider the pretty view of the rolling countryside that D.H. Lawrence might once have gazed out at, and at the homely surroundings of a working-class upstart writer whose works were once so scandalous they were censored until 1959. A prophet is never loved in his town they say, and the persecution his experimental works suffered earned him a ‘savage pilgrimage’ of exile. The son of an illiterate miner, Lawrence struggled hard through manual trades, guided by a love of books that eventually brought him into teacher training and a writing career. His situation reminds me of the social ambivalence of writers, teachers and other professionals from working-class backgrounds, of being distinctly formed by a place but one which one must also escape. The ambivalence of not quite being one class or another, two-faced.
I pass through Codnor and Ripley, places that were once BNP strongholds. Flags flutter again, images of aggression and frustration. With no working brake and darkness on its way, I don’t stop for too long. The towns here are small and ugly with very little to do besides go to the pub or off-licence. Drink and forget.
Things change once I reach Ambergate. Have I entered a new land? It would seem so, and I guess the border with Derbyshire is here. The road takes me along a beautiful route, surrounded by steep rock-cliffs and dark forests. Water trickles nearby, and as well as staggering dales I pass large derelict factories cut into the terrain. I am tired out but elated, and I keep up my motivation by making up songs and singing them with full lungs. I pass through Whatstandswell, a perfect name for an English place, and enter Matlock Bath. It’s a curious village, a piece of the British seaside in the heart of the Peak District, full of fish and chip shops and amusement arcades. Overhanging is a cable car, and during the world wars this little place became popularised as ‘little Switzerland’, a piece of the European continent in the heart of Britain. Today it is more popular with bikers who like to socialise here at weekends and zoom about on the hills.
I reach Matlock at last, where Jamie and his partner Paul have very kindly offered to put me up for the night. They live up perhaps the steepest hill I have ever come across, and I struggle to drag my bike and load up the 45 degree angles. I am so glad to be here though. All around me are the great white-peaked hills of the area, giving the impression that the outside world and the transient concerns of one’s self are so far away. It is a very peaceful and friendly town. As I arrive, a local man offers to take a photo of me with my bike, the first time to happen on my trip. People wave and tell me how many miles to get to so and so. This would be a perfect place for a week away, to wander through the steep hills before resting in the pretty market town and its cosy cafes and pubs.
It’s Jamie’s birthday, and as he shares his birthday cake out, we discuss energy, the landscape, and what identity and collective belonging mean. It’s another deeply stimulating conversation. I ask him a question raised by Spinoza: why do people fight for their servitude as if for their salvation? He gives a good reply:
‘Everyone can be happy, if they’re free to express themselves as they want.’ As Jamie persuasively argues, power operates within us, in the stories and categories we use to tell ourselves about the world. Many people acting as anti-authoritarian or radical often express a resentment or fear that ends up reinforces these feelings rather than overcoming them. It leads me to wonder about the need for new solutions, rather than complaints about the present. Jamie and Paul tell me about forest gardening, a new technique to easily develop community orchards with little effort that can bring together communities, produce tasty fruit and make areas more pleasant places to live.
There are some wonderful ecological alternatives being proposed: permaculture and transition towns, new forms of energy production. Jamie tells me that Germany recently was able to draw 75% of its energy from renewable sources. Major investment made this possible.
I present to him some difficulties. Many community schemes fail because people aren’t interested in what others, often outsiders, think is best for them. Whilst it takes up far more energy to power fifty homes, with fifty isolated families each watching their own TV, driving their own cars, cooking their own meals rather than meeting together to enjoy these things in common, thus reducing energy, expenses, isolation, etc.! – many people would probably prefer the pleasures of this privacy! We are not always dupes. People enjoy being on their own. Allowing people socialised in a society like ours to opt into new social forms seems like a recipe for indifference at present. How are people led towards a more equal and sustainable world?
I give the examples of mass literacy and the abolition of the death penalty, of the successes of multicultural integration during a time of popular casual racism. What is at one point unpopular, being new, can through its proposed solution and the power of the benefits it brings, become normal.
Paul later tells me about a curious example from the natural world that might aid this optimistic view of mine. He paraphrases Susan Greenfield’s recent book, Journey to the Centre of the Mind. As I understand it, it argues that decisions are made in the brain collectively by groups of neurones. One part will opt for one kind of view or bit of information, often versus another part. One part eventually becomes more popular and dominant, and in the end, all agree. Nature is full of instances of symbiosis and cooperation, yet the story we tell ourselves is ‘survival of the fittest’, that each of us ought to be like aggressive tigers in the jungle, because deep down, our drives make us this way. It’s an abstraction of course. We are more likely to help each other in the street than strike each other down. From lichen, or the huge frequency of group societies in nature, or like even these neurones, perhaps we should start telling a new story about nature, and about the capabilities of ourselves.
I’ll end with a quote from Lord Byron, another local writer and rebel of Nottinghamshire, perhaps one of the most interesting places I’ve come across on my journey:
‘Those who will not reason, are bigots, those who cannot, are fools, and those who dare not, are slaves.’
What makes us begin to dare?