Sunday, September 18, 2005

Grim Up North

The draft of a piece that appeared in the Torygraph on May 27 2005.


Britain is no longer crap - at least according to the new guide to the country from Lonely Planet. Anyone who believes “it’s grim up North” should think again, according to the backpackers’ Bible. The authors even say that they like the UK so much that they’ve now added the word “Great” to the title of their tome about the place for the first time.

Leeds, we learn, is “the Knightsbridge of the North”. Glasgow, meanwhile, has “a contagious energy”, Birmingham “is new and improved”; even Liverpool has thrown off its reputation as a city “full of smart-arse scallies who would as soon nick your car as tell you a joke”.

I just don’t agree.

Before proceeding, however, I should perhaps nail my colours to the mast. As the editor of two books about Crap Towns that contained entirely contradictory entries for all these places, I have a vested interest in proving the Lonely Planet wrong. I’d hate people to think that Leeds, Glasgow, Birmingham and Liverpool aren’t a “city of random shouting and violence”, “a dreadful shite-hole”, “menacing, intolerant and highly strung” and “ruined.” That would ruin my books sales and destroy my credibility!

But, even when I factor in my obvious bias and try as hard as I can to “think again” about the North I just can’t see it. Nope. The North’s still grim. And I’m not writing this as a ferret-fearing “Southern git”. I was born and brought up in the North of England, I love it, and I’d prefer to live there still. However, doing so would effectively end my career. There’s no work that I could do around my way. (Unless, of course, one of the faux glamorous chrome and glass bars that’s taken over Leeds were to open and I could serve beer to professionals with real jobs escaping London for the weekend… )

I do at least partially agree with David Else, the Lonely Planet guidebook’s co-ordinating author, when he says that “when it comes to great destinations, the North-South divide is a myth” - but only because they’re both equally crap. If you like a country where every high street looks exactly the same and contains the same bland selection of brands and corporations, the same bored teenagers (who are only outside anyway because they’ve been banned from all the malls for wearing ‘hoodies’) and the same fake heritage black iron dustbins and street lights - then, yes, visit Britain. It’s especially “great” if you’re the kind of traveller that gets anxious about missing important sites. All such anxieties disappear here, because, if you’ve seen one town outside of London nowadays, you’ve pretty much seen them all - give or take a castle or two.

It’s only when you get out of the centres and into the suburbs, slums and industrial wastelands of the North that you can really tell how much inequality there still is. John Prescott, who few would credit with knowing anything more than the painfully obvious, is fully aware of this geographical disparity. That’s why he’s planning to demolish upwards of 200,000 perfectly good homes in Northern cities (20,000 of which are in Lonely Planet fave Liverpool - including, tragically, the terrace that ex-Beatle Ringo Starr grew up in). This divide also explains why big John P’s megalomaniac schemes to burden the country with vast unsustainable estates of new houses are all based in the South.

Still! Enough of this relentless of negativity. I’d heartily recommend that anyone takes a Lonely Planet with them when they go on holiday. I had one with me in Italy last summer and it helped me have a far better time than I would have had kicking around at home. Besides, I don’t disagree with everything in the new Great Britain guide. There are a few things that seem to me to be spot on. I concur that London can feel "dirty, polluted and overcrowded", that the English Riviera is a "rather optimistic" term to describe the Devon resorts of Torquay and Paignton and that the Yorkshire spa resort of Harrogate “has not changed much since Agatha Christie fled there in 1926.”

I especially liked the description of John O’Groats:

“If [John O’Groats] were a person, he’d be a second-hand car salesman or a gerrymandering politician. How else to explain the seedy tourist trap that has grown around the lie that it is the most northerly place in Britain? It’s not — that title goes to Dunnet Head, further west.”

Now that’s what I call travel writing. Maybe I should buy the book after all. I’m due a holiday.



Sam Jordison said...

Here's a similar piece from the Sunday Times:

Why are the worst places to live in Britain deemed the most desirable, asks Sam Jordison
Last summer I visited St Andrews. I’d been told it was one of the finest towns in Scotland. One of the most desirable (and correspondingly expensive) places in the whole lovely country. I hated it.

The streets were lifeless. The beach was grey and slick with wet sand. The dark stone college buildings were all locked up. I could make out only small amounts of the ruined cathedral through the driving rain. I suppose it was romantic enough, in an austere kind of way, but I couldn’t get past the fence because of exorbitant entry fees.

Within half an hour I was thoroughly bored. There was nothing to do except play golf, and even if I could have afforded a game I was told I’d have to wait at least two aeons before the exclusive clubhouses would even begin to consider granting me membership. After I’d paid £3 for a virtually inedible sandwich, and almost started a fight by inadvertently getting in the way of a large American tourist as he tried to take a photo, I was miserable.

“Great,” I thought, genuinely pleased. It was just the kind of experience I’d been hoping for. St Andrews pretty much epitomised everything I’d been investigating for the past couple of years. The snobbery, aggression, inflated prices and soul-crushing tedium made it as near as damn it the ultimate Crap Town.

Crap Towns was a project I’d started with a friend a year or so earlier when I worked as a freelance writer for the Idler magazine. Inspired by the many depressing afternoons I’d spent as a teenager in Morecambe, I wrote a piece about “the seaside town they should never have opened”.

Readers were soon inundating the magazine’s website with news of equally crappy towns. The idea quickly expanded, thanks largely to a concerted campaign from local newspapers who drew attention to crap towns by writing outraged articles about the terrible opinions I was promoting.

In fact, the publicity was such that I was able to write a book identifying the grimmest places in Britain. Or to be more precise, the crappiest. Crap Towns, as it was imaginatively called, named and shamed the worst places to live. Hull came out top, closely followed by Cumbernauld, Morecambe and Hythe.

But what really got people angry was that we’d dared to include a few smart places such as Ascot (21), Aldeburgh (23), St Albans (50) and London’s St John’s Wood (14). The local worthies in Winchester, Oxford and Bath, all of them included too, between them have declared that I’m “mad”, “brainless”, “downright rude” and “an inverted snob”. Which is why, of course, I am now working on a second volume, Crap Towns II — for which the nominations are already rolling in.

I don’t really mind the criticism. In fact, I guess I have to admit that the charges laid against me are more or less true.

Especially the inverted snobbery. But I’d rather be an inverted snob than a nauseating toff. Especially if being a nauseating toff involves living somewhere like Chester, or Bath, or heaven forbid, Kew. I know that all these towns are superficially attractive, and I’m not denying their rich history or the splendour of places like the orchid houses in Kew Gardens. I’m convinced, however, that most people just wouldn’t enjoy living in them.

If I get my way, all will feature in Crap Towns II. Kew has been described by my correspondents as “the sticky cherry on top of affluent Richmond’s already calorie-filled cake”, where “gangs of middle-aged women harangue each other with loud, nasal accents”.

Bath seems to be plagued with “silver-haired lotharios” trying to impress twentysomething blonde women with their Jaguars, while Chester, the northwest’s upper-crust ghetto, is just “vile”.

Why anyone would pay the ridiculously inflated house prices and subsequent daily tax on coffee, sandwiches (sorry, panini) and all life’s little essentials just to live in these sterile places is quite frankly beyond me. The last time I was in Bath I bought two pints of lager and a packet of crisps and didn’t get change from a £10 note.

(Actually, if I’m honest, that was probably more due to a heightened state of gullibility brought on by a heavy drinking session. But it doesn’t make me like the place any more. Or mean that anything interesting has happened there since Jane Austen wrote her last dreary romance.)

Anyhow, as several of my more perceptive correspondents have pointed out, the baffling attitude of the locals in these so-called desirable locations is most neatly exemplified in the pride they take in their postcodes. They really do seem to think that a random string of letters and numbers speaks volumes about the splendour of their own personalities. The exception that proves the rule is the Royal Borough of Windsor, where the well-heeled denizens share an SL postcode with their less fortunate neighbours across the river in Slough. This has upset some of them so much that they’ve organised a campaign to get the offending letters taken off and replaced with WM.

So, you can imagine my delight that Windsor is also in hot contention to make it into Crap Towns II. In fact, it looks like it will not only make it into the top 50, but also storm into the top 10.

Windsor’s ascendancy is partly thanks to the backlash from the proud residents of Slough, but also because of the wonderful eloquence of the residents of the royal borough itself. One resident, for instance, recently sent me an e-mail beginning: “The big thing about Windsor is that its townsfolk believe that by living near the castle, they are more or less royalty themselves. Indeed, once Windsor women pass the age of 60, they seem to lose the plot altogether and convince themselves they actually are the Queen.”

The trouble with all these e-mails I’m getting from people in Windsor is that they keep making me laugh. With all those funny writers living there, I’m beginning to wonder. Maybe it isn’t such a bad place to live after all.

Crap Towns II: The Nation Decides edited by Sam Jordison and Dan Kieran will be published by Boxtree in October.

John Rose said...

Are you going to do a third book?

If so, you have to include the following:

Rhyl (the most decaying and vulgar place on the planet)

Swindon (YUK)

Merthyr Tydfil (more violent than Baghdad)

It beggars belief that you have missed these out so far!

Sam Jordison said...

Maybe one day...