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.