‘And then I came back to Wrexham. And the streets were clean! And the buildings weren’t falling down. And there were no lepers on the street corners, taken out by organised criminals and left there all day without water.’ – Sandra, Chirk.
Fear makes us feel alive. Think about that little daily dose of terror provided by newspaper headlines. The terrorists, global epidemics, sex criminals and looming military invasions that each day are reported as immediate dangers to our comfortable lives. There’s a surge of adrenaline, a threatening figure on the horizon with malevolent intentions. Teeth start to bare, the mind races with tenuous analogies to ‘jungle warfare’ and ‘survival of the fittest’. Turns out social mobility, welfare or the right to a fair trial were luxuries that this nameless, faceless horror might steal from us: let’s remove them ourselves. It’s as if we’re supposed to enjoy this ‘pure’ or ‘natural’ state. Nature’s had such different meanings in different eras, and its status now makes me uncomfortable. I myself prefer the soppy and gushing lyrics of the Romantics. The Ancient Mariner, Ozymandias or Endymion didn’t harangue us with shrill terrors about benefits cheats, travellers or irresponsible single mothers.
‘I remember, we came down to the docks, and it’d been given over to pigeons.’ – Dermot, Liverpool.
It takes a while to get up this morning in Liverpool. Mind and body are aching from too many drinks taken at a local lock-in the night before. Over the course of talking with Dermot, a friend from the North End of Liverpool, I’ve learned three things:
- There’s a very important divide between the ‘North End’ and the ‘South End’ in Liverpool. People speak different, look different, and probably have lesser or greater incomes depending on which part you’re in.
- Don’t confuse Liverpudlians with either people from the Wirral (these are in fact ‘plastic Scousers’) or from St. Helens (they are ‘woolly-backs’).
- There’s been a decades-long practice of blacklisting workers and activists in the UK, the scale of which is only starting to come out. It is probably continuing.
‘Appearances can be deceiving’ – Sandra, Wavertree.
I’m up and about on the top floor of a rather grand house in Longridge, a place that sits between town and village in the heart of Lancashire. There’s not much that particularly characterises the place except a kind of low-level, ambient normality – it feels like the suburb to a larger city, and yet it’s self-contained. This could be entertaining territory for a playful study of the dark sides of human boredom, conducted by J.G. Ballard or Sigmund Freud: what goes on behind those privet hedges or Laura Ashley curtains? Our interest in maintaining our own privacy is at times coupled to a gossipy fascination in the lives of others. It’s no surprise that England gave birth to the peeping Tom.
There’s a kind of suburban war taking place here. Upon entry to Longridge one is greeted with a barrage of high-quality banners exclaiming ‘Save Longridge from mass development’, producing in the colours of a nuclear radiation warning sign and with a similar sense of urgency. The short-line of the campaign’s address is ‘save Longridge’. But save the place from what?
‘Everybody’s called John at some point in their lives” – Towneley arms, Longridge.
By the law of averages alone, there ought to be at least one nice dry and sunny day in England. Just the odd one to balance out these rainy showers and moody clouds. A peek outside at the steep hills of Luddenden Foot suggests my number’s come up. Over porridge, Kirsty tells me about the histories and landscapes of this area where she’s lived for some twenty years after being priced out of her native Harrogate. There’s much here to explore in these former mill villages on the border of Lancashire and Yorkshire, in an area called Calderdale after the river that flows through it, and so together we venture out in her, off to explore.
At the ‘Foot’ is the Rochdale canal, where once two large mill buildings were situated. One made the velvet covers of bus seats and the like until it was recently demolished. The hills are airy, light, gentle, but at their time of operation this was a ‘dark and gloomy’ landscape. Such pretty properties like these were cheap for a reason, marked in soot, housing families of workers whose vision and hearing were progressively ground away by the nature of textile work.
‘This might be a strange question, but tell me, what’s the one political change you would like to see in your lifetime?’
‘Get rid of all the Conservatives, all the corrupt politicians. Have a new lot. Ordinary people.’
‘Shoot the lot of em’.
– talking to two young people, Halifax.
I awake in Malham after a fine night’s sleep. All around me is peace. This is a quiet, teeny little village nestled in the south-west of the Yorkshire Dales. A stream trickles under an old stony bridge, pursuing the desire of its flow out into the tranquillity of wispy fields and cattle drunk on grass and rainwater. The St. George’s flag flutters on the outside of a pub, an unnecessary marker of a scene that could only be England: this village, this lawn, these dozy river verges, a newsagent who gazes out from his store at the morning rush, a postal van that struggles to navigate the gnarled and twisty roads. This is England, and nowhere is England like this. Here is the England of the chocolate boxes and packets of fudge, of the I heart London stores and the Jeremy Paxmans with their delusional national biographies. I rub my eyes to check the view, then prepare to depart the youth hostel.
‘That’s what I hate about the modern world. You see kids out on their mobile phones, and they’re not talking to each other. And their parents are doing the same. And we’re all guilty of it, together.’ – Lady in pub, Malham.
Hail the morning that arrived too soon. Farewell the night that never finished, misspent in writing, and thinking, and talking too late. Tiredness and fatigue, my companions. They decorate this stage-set called ‘reality’ in the tones of grey. Everything with a tired mind feels that little bit unhinged, as if someone’s whispered into one’s ear that tomorrow probably won’t roll around. Just look at these people, with their fancy hats and shoes, their long words and their urgent obligations. Why on earth are they all bothering, don’t they know that reality’s a joke at their expense?
‘I was in a world of my own.’ – young man outside Tesco, Piccadilly Gardens.
The morning light slithers under the curtains and into my eyelids, rousing me from a good night’s rest on the most comfortable of beds. I’m being hosted by Jacqui in Trafford in the south of Manchester. We drink coffee and make plans for the day.
The previous night we’d plotted some places to explore together, Jacqui having the day of work and looking forward to venturing across a city she’s still not entirely familiar with. After stopping by her workplace, Siemens, a lego-brick creation on Princess Avenue, we jump on Manchester’s tram system and head towards Salford Quays.