“You’re fuckin mad, you are.”
“Yeah mate, I know!” – me and Gary, Middlesbrough.
Along these journeys I’ve written about values and experiences I’ve come across as they’ve been reported to me. But it’s not hard to trace a line between what people believe about themselves or their social world (or what they want a stranger to believe), and what they go about doing themselves. For instance, presenting values like equality, toleration and upholding the law will rarely provoke disagreement. It all depends on what subtler positions they are pushed towards. Does it mean reinforcing the current establishment, or completely transforming it?
Allow me to pose a hypothesis: most people I encounter seem broadly unhappy with the current status quo but unwilling to change it; but were something to change that benefitted them, they would quietly if grumblingly adapt to it. From the removal of a hereditary monarchy to an increase on taxing large properties, businesses and income-earners, the arrival of new funds to build housing and schools would over time overcome any earlier resistance, with a similar effect to the introduction of compulsory schooling or free healthcare.
In recent news, the current prime minister has argued that schools should actively promote ‘British values’, such as freedom, tolerance, responsibility and the law. Ok, well there’s nothing particularly British about these: most modern countries do ‘av em. But in terms of values, these seem fair enough, right? We need to scratch a bit here. He argues that they are ‘as British as the Union Flag, as football, as fish and chips’, and says it is “not an option” for anyone living in this country not to obey them.
In themselves, these claims are wrong. The Union Jack pre-existed the formation of the United Kingdom and still retains the red saltire of St. Patrick of Ireland, something which I’m surprised doesn’t irk Irish republicans. Fish and chips, like the cup of tea or tikka masala, are all the products of international imports and immigration. Football was played across the ancient and medieval world and was only later codified here. Ok, perhaps I’m being pedantic. What’s the subtle point? It’s part of a move to demonise Islam. The prime minister is presenting British values as opposed to Islam in an attempt to project discontent against a small part of the population. “They are not like us, they do not share the same values, they seek to destroy us from within”: much of this was presented against similarly-demonised, largely impoverished Jewish communities in Britain a century ago.
Any statement about ‘Englishness’ or ‘Britain’ is a political expression towards a certain position. There’s no sitting on the fence. Nationalism is so commonly used to justify the excesses of the rich or to attack the vulnerable and poor. What can be done to use these same values for a new kind of republic, without racist violence, bedroom taxes or all the insecurity, malnutrition and depression that characterises life for so many?
So, I awake in Middlesbrough, where I’ve stayed at the place of Joe’s family, a mate and former work colleague, who are all away. It’s a comfortable terraced house situated on a large council estate, and I take some time to have a long bath, the first on this trip and, oh man, absolutely wonderful. The place is situated in Acklam Garden City, or just ‘Acklam’, a suburb to the south-west with long low-level terraces and the occasional square stretching into the distance. One nearby has been decorated with St. George flags to celebrate the World Cup that’s about to start.
I hear about two local brothers, Paul and Jack, who have gone over to Brazil ahead of the football tournament in order to set up a Football Beyond Borders world cup in the favelas. They came across a good deal of opposition and hostility from local Brazilians about the World Cup. They cannot even dream of affording tickets and feel angered that it’s just a show for the rich. One of the lad’s wishes is a little more modest: ‘It’s still my dream to find Juninho here and buy him a parmo’. I’ll explain that in a moment.
The design of the properties is dignified and attractive, and uses a different kind of masonry and brick to most of the 1920s-30s Tudor Walters or ‘Homes Fit for Heroes’ often seen on the suburbs of major towns. It doesn’t look totally bland and it doesn’t seem like a container of poverty, and this is refreshing. Comedian Bob Mortimer and football manager Brian Clough even hail from round here. It seems like a pleasant enough place, but I’m warned by people about the area.
‘Be careful around the shops, there’s lots of dodgy people about’.
It’s hard to judge in the course of a day and a night, and so I ask people. I meet Gary, a man of a similar age to me, walking from the shops with his young son. He flicks his head up proudly and says ‘it’s marvellous!’ He’s keen to tell a more balanced story. ‘Some bits are good round ere, some bits are bad, like everywhere.’ He tells me that his mum and sister live around the corner, and he’s happy enough here. Indeed it seems unusually common, to my mind, for people on this estate to live in communities with other family members nearby, and this is such a valuable thing. Jan also has siblings living in nearby streets, and her parents once lived nearby.
This seems so unusual to me, and I immediately see all the benefits of having the support of an extended family close by. I haven’t really come across this in London, and I wonder why.
Slum clearances and new council estates also occurred, but was there less of a priority in relocating the same communities in new blocks? It would seem so. But the possibility of buying one’s own council home granted by Thatcher also destroyed these. Homes in well-connected, well-built or just generally desirable locations were more often bought, leaving behind a rump of estates where people became stuck, either unable to afford to buy the property or unwilling to, dispersing communities and creating continual waves of transitory tenants. Deindustrialisation in the capital and rising rents has sent many Londoners out into the suburbs or surrounding counties, creating a city of strangers at its heart. It makes me think of Sam Selvon’s 1956 novel, The Lonely Londoners:
‘Is a kind of place where hate and disgust and avarice and malice and sympathy and sorrow and pity all mix up. Is a place where everyone is your enemy and your friend.”
Strange to be thinking about London on a Middlesbrough estate. I cycle on, and weave a little about the town. The town is small and feels a little depopulated. I pass grated up old Victorian terraces, condemned needlessly by the Pathfinder programme of John Prescott which has blighted communities in the north. The town centre is a little underwhelming, and I pass a sooty town hall occasionally graced by a passing Bonjovi tribute act, and a few quiet bars and boarded-up 1960s monstrosities. It seems like things are being built and happening, just not yet. Victoria Park is a nice enough space in the heart of the town where people can go and relax, but on the whole the town feels purposed towards work.
It rapidly developed during the 19th century on the back of ship-building, metal-work, and later chemicals, like those of the ICI company we came across yesterday. William Gladstone once called it an ‘infant Hercules’, and the emptiness of the town centre is no doubt the consequence of it being an after-thought to the construction of these great industries around the Teesside docks. Much of the employment this work provided has now gone, but the houses and communities built for these workers, like at Acklam, remains, creating a town where finding meaningful employment is pretty difficult. The town’s mighty-sounding motto is erimus, we will grow. Middlesbrough is now beyond the cusp of growth, but no political administration has thought about a responsible shrinking, a ‘de-growth’ of such places. This is a recurring problem in the north east, and I have so far found no answer, just more call centres and the occasional unskilled factory.
That said, Middlesbrough does have its own modern art gallery, with a large collection of Picassos and other Surrealists. To the outsider, it gives the town a much-needed sense of attraction and buzz, and such galleries ought to be encouraged. Like in Wakefield, they benefit tourism, but they also contribute to a wider civic pride and help introduce the arts to young people. But I’d be deceiving you if I were to emphasise its importance. In Middlesbrough, the most important cultural activities happen at the Riverside Stadium, home of Middlesbrough FC. Don’t seek out fine-dining: Middlesbrough’s best food export is the Parmo, a piece of breaded and deep-fried chicken topped with béchamel sauce and cheese. It’s things like this that I love more than any tourist or heritage claptrap. In the local Evening Gazette I read about a woman from the area who has just reached 100. Asked about the secret to long life, she says:
‘Fish and chips, and plenty of pork dripping.’
Go easy on the Parmos then. The previous day I passed through the suburb of South Bank on the way into town. The cycle route disappeared, and so I followed up a busy main road full of freight trucks. South Bank’s eeriness seemed to indicate something about the place. Here was a council estate surrounded by thick roads, a little disconnected from amenities: a common feature of leper-colony estates, as I’ve found. But there was nothing particularly bad about the place. The eeriness came from the great CCTV camera post lurking above the nearby green, and in a policemen who circled about the area on a bicycle. Sight of him brought children indoors. Fear hung over the place.
I start to connect the dots. Many people living on these council estates have been told, indirectly, that where they live is dangerous, full of crime and dodgy people. This is the conditioning effect of decades of demonization of the poor. Without overegging the point, let me just list some recent moral panics in the media: muggers, scroungers, Harry Enfield’s ‘Wayne and Waynetta’, single mothers, chavs, Jeremy Kyle, Benefits Street, filmed in Birmingham (or consider The Scheme in Scotland).
To call it ‘poverty porn’ is inaccurate and crass. In the long-running war against the poor, the desperate and needy have become a freakshow entertainment to either be laughed at, villanised or reformed. Local news-rags across the country are full of tales of unprovoked violence, robbery and sexual assault in low-income areas. National tabloids frequently publicise the stories of benefits cheats or other misdemeanours, usually with a chav or ethnic or religious minority slant. People have come to believe the lies about their communities, that they are bad places filled with bad people, places to escape. Opportunities for solidarity, cooperation or collective struggle disappear down the gutter. People believe these stereotypes and come to despise and distrust their own communities. The effects of such division are devastating, and this is the political intention.
Gary has given me perfect directions to my next destination. I am always getting perfect directions in the north, and have started to give up relying on my phone’s map. The north-east deserves credit here! Earlier, I’ve been led along some strange old routes by well-meaning people further south who just wanted to be helpful. This can be a common problem for the traveller. Celia Fiennes was often given terrible directions when travelling across England by horse over 300 years ago. As she puts it,
‘the people here are able to give so bad a direction that passengers are at a loss what aime to take, they know scarce 3 mile from their home, and meete them where you will, enquire how farre to such a place, they mind not where they are then but tell you so farre which is the distance from their own houses to that place.’
Typically I’m told even which exit to take from which roundabout. I leave Middlesbrough to the north, and head out towards Billingham, diverting from the sanctioned cycle route to take a look at some of the extraordinary factories about the place. As I pass along these heavy industrial roads my nose is greeted with all manner of odd smells. Most of these factories have esoteric purposes, but their vats, chimneys and towers jut out over the flat landscape and contribute to the machinic nature of the place. It is less majestic than Immingham and more dirty. Quorn has a huge factory nearby, and in at least one of these towers their strange meat-free product is fermenting, but what of the others?
The area was once even more impressive. Aldous Huxley passed through here and was overawed by the sterile and overwhelming plants of the Brunner Mond chemicals factory that he composed his moving dystopia, Brave New World. The plant was later bought by ICI, but waves of deindustrialisation and asset-stripping takeovers have seen the company, and strange legacy, mostly gone. Nearby Wilton also inspired Ridley Scott – the looming towers and chimneys, neon-lit and with permanent flares – to produce a similar dark vision of the future in Blade Runner. Perhaps night is the best time to see these places, as during the day I find them less impressive than areas passed in previous days.
I travel on, passing through the blandest of bland suburbs, low red-brick semis that, were one blind-folded, one could easily surmise one was in any small British town. I reach a small and ugly town centre which some closed-up stores. There’s evidence of some 1960s futurism in the ugly town centre construction – what Owen Hatherley has called ‘a space age coated in pigeon shit’ – but it’s a dull place and I carry on. I weave through more suburbs like Bewley, disorientatingly similar from one another, and eventually find myself on a pedestrianized track that pulls through a large country park. The trail eventually leads to Seaton Carew.
I find myself in another ultra-bland landscape of low-level suburban housing of a kind documented enough on this trip. There is a desperate need for distinction in building these environments, but the damage was done fifty and ninety years before to the most part. Seaton Carew consists of a large set of suburbs that then leads to a small beach resort with long and pretty golden sands. It has the unlikely claim to fame of being the home of John Darwin, a former teacher and prison officer who tried to fake his own death.
His plan was a little far-fetched: one calm day he paddled out from Seaton Carew in a canoe and then ‘disappeared’. His wife claimed a generous life assurance payment, while John lived in a bedsit next door to the family home. After a year he began to get a bit cocky, travelling to Cyprus, Penzance and other places and at times being recognised by people. After four years of being dead, John had wild schemes of living as a rich man in Panama. Sadly he needed a visa verified by UK police, so he returned to London and claimed to have lost all memory of the last five years. The rest is history. It’s a brilliantly daft and piss-poor get-rich scheme which only the most dozy and docile of suburbs could produce.
I travel up the coast, and in a momentary blur Seaton Carew seems to become one with Hartlepool. It’s a small and somewhat bizarre town. Taxis drive around in New York style cars. Nothing and no-one seems to be here. I circle about and eventually cross a bridge towards the harbour. Besides the ‘historic quay’ and the HMS Trincomalee are retail parks, fast food chains, poundstores, bingo halls and newly-built hotels on every side. It is everywhere and nowhere, any kind of character seemingly annihilated. I look out onto the deserted marina, largely empty of people and boats, and wonder about the place.
At last a couple pass, and I ask them a bit about the place. Yvonne and Eddie tell me that ‘it’s alright round ere’, really. In summer the marina can be nice. I ask them about why the town is so empty and quiet. They tell me that there’s a ‘lot of poor’, and that unemployment is a major problem. There were once steelworks here and a big marina where ships were built. Alas, alas. They have a distinctively local accent I can’t place, and quickly our conversation becomes cheery, despite the surroundings.
Eddie points to an empty though modern-looking marina hall opposite where we’re placed. It’s now owned by the council and there are no plans to do anything with it. Eddie tells me that
‘I’d turn it into a big sports centre, with football, tennis, badminton and cricket’.
I pose to them that many young people aren’t anywhere near as active as previous generations. I describe a local football scheme run in my area as a kid by Crystal Palace FC, a relatively cheap football summer camp where local lads would play matches all day. It was a great way to have fun with others your own age. Sadly the scheme was stopped some years ago when funds ran out. They agree it’s a generational problem.
‘Kids today sit at home in their rooms on the computer’, Yvonne tells me, describing their grandchildren. ‘They come down to the dinner table with their phones, it’s like they’re not listening. We ban them. Put them in a basket! But it’s just the age.’
Their children all played football and cricket, and today remain physically active. How can all this be reversed? They’re unsure. They tell me of Hartlepool’s relatively underused green spaces, and of the pretty moors to the west, great for walking. We wish each other well and head in different directions. As we leave, they tell me that ‘everyone in the north east is very friendly’. They’re not wrong.
I head west and detour up to the Headland, the historic centre of Hartlepool. A group of terraced communities are bunched together on this spurt of land, and I pass by peaceful houses and boarded up remainders of Victorian philanthropy. I see a pub with perhaps the best name so far, the Harbour of Refuge, and even stumble across an Andy Capp statue! Andy Capp’s an absurd and somewhat offensive comic character, and the strips that have appeared in the Daily Mirror since 1957 have never made me laugh. He’s a lazy, stereotypically working-class man from Hartlepool who rarely works, gets angry about sports, is often drunk and, until recently, beat his wife. It neatly confirms many of the negative clichés about the north that people in the south might like to believe: fecklessness, poverty, idleness, intemperance, and the rest. But the character’s produced with love too, and people seem to have no truck with the ridiculousness of his exploits. It’s grey, and so is the randomly-placed statuette here.
I travel further north. At first I pass one holiday caravan park after another. Prices are cheap, from £9 000 onwards for a cheap second home overlooking a tranquil sea vista. I picture retired couples sat inside these homes watching Doctors and pondering over crosswords. But the nature of places starts to change a little after.
I start to enter County Durham, and pass through a series of isolated former mining communities that are each deeply run-down. I first reach Blackhall, little more than a long industrial village that follows the main road then disappears. I see a few takeaways and a shop. At first I wonder if people still cook? But it relates back to malnutrition. Being unemployed in a geographically-remote ex-mining town, one doesn’t have the money to drive or travel to a larger town for fresh supplies. So one depends on the local shop, but pop inside these and lo, they are little more than off-licences with few food choices. Takeaways often provide the cheapest form of food round here.
I mean to stop in a pub but very few are open. I leave Blackhall and its bands of bored teens lurking about, and after a while reach Horden, where the story is much similar. I ask one old woman if there used to be a mine round here.
‘Yeah, but they’re all gone. Shut in 85.’
‘What happened to the people?’
She’s in her 60s and looks like she may have been a miner’s wife, but doesn’t volunteer any other information and marches off. I ask another man the same question.
‘Yes, they were all closed. They went six miles out to sea. They reckoned it cost too much money.’
‘Did you know any miners?’
‘No, I was a school-teacher. I must go now.’
There are few people around, and those that are do not want to talk (to me?) about the collieries. Again in Horden there are a couple of takeaways and shut down pubs but not a lot. At Easington the effect is most devastating. Here everything is closed: schools are boarded up and full of broken windows. A former council office is barricaded. Every pub seems to be closed, though I’m told by one local that when Thatcher died people came from far and wide to celebrate here. Today it’s a ghost town. Even the neat red-brick terraces built for miners are, in places, boarded up.
One man with a broken lawn-mower shouts over to me: ‘You’re not supposed to stop!’ I look around and see a humour and signs of community live on here, in the younger men who chat to the older man (‘you’re not doing my lawn with that!’), and in the children playing about in the streets. But the decay is evident. When the mines closed, what could have been done? Unless some great catastrophe or technological innovation forces us, it seems that individuals and governments are unable to reverse the immense ecological damage caused by our existence. Given this is so, shouldn’t coal be used? Shouldn’t we return to a commitment to full employment as a social priority? Should we governed with social harmony and well-being being itself the most important priority, and not all these economic priorities about balancing the deficit and free enterprise?
I watch a group of lads starting a small fight on each other in the street, which quickly recedes into humour. Aggression is part of our nature, and needs an outlet. Boxing clubs linked to local youth centres might be one measure. This relates to coal and full employment in that we socially need full employment, and we socially need cheap energy. Coal is better than nothing.
I leave grim old Easington, and cycle west towards my final destination. The hills are steep but the journey today has been pretty fair, and I make it without too much trouble. The weather has been nicely sunny too. After a time I reach Sherburn, and suddenly the hills give way to a rapid series of drops into a rich valley. The town of Durham appears almost from nowhere. I weave about the pretty cobbles of the town centre before heading out towards Langley Moor, where I am staying with Clarissa. I’m a little late as ever, but Clarissa is a wonderfully kind host, helping load my clothes into a washing machine and putting a fresh beer on the table. It’s a wonderful end to a wonderful day.
As I recount to her some of the sights and stories I’ve encountered, she tells me that the somewhat quiet suburb we’re in, surrounded by little warehouses, light industry, and a nearby sports centre, was once awash with coal mines.
‘There used to be a slag heap there, a colliery down there, even a little railway bringing the coal.’
The pits, mines, and two-up two-down terraced houses of the miners have all been pulled down and disappeared. Unemployment is, to no surprise, also a major problem in county Durham since the 1980s. But Clarissa’s even more concerned for the future. ‘I do think it is as bad now as the 80s’, she tells me. With communities dispersed or divided, stable forms of employment all but gone, and public infrastructure collapsing, what can be done? Will the North-east present an answer to the set of politically-engineered traumas that have been inflicted on it by Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberalism and international capitalism?