This is an edited extract from JD Taylor‘s forthcoming book, Island Story: Journeying Through Unfamiliar Britain
Morning on the Acklam Garden City Estate, Middlesbrough, surrounded by cheery red-brick terraces, patriotic flags and, a little beyond, row after row of boarded-up houses, many habitable.
By the local estate parade, where I’d been warned of ‘dodgy people’ who might despoil a traveller of their possessions, Gary’s out with his young son. ‘Yer fucken mad, you are’, he says, laughing at my alibi for asking. He flicks his head up proudly. ‘It’s marvellous. Some bits are good round ere, some bits are bad, like everywhere’. His mum and sister live round the corner. It’s a community, he presses. Like Jan, surrounded by her sisters in the nearby streets, in spite of Middlesbrough’s decline it’s still kept together families and communities, and this is what people love about it, something impossible in most growing English towns.
But how does one live? Within the 19th century, Middlesbrough exploded from a dozy hamlet to an ‘infant Hercules’ town of a hundred thousand, producing ships, metals and chemicals. Its Teesside docks and port were live-wired into global trade. But all this was another history lesson, and the last of those industries, ICI’s chemical works at Wilton and Billingham, had been wiped out in the 90s, with a rump of smaller firms operating in its place. Middlesbrough’s population has been plummeting, but there was no serious discussion about a responsible shrinking or ungrowing. Instead there were more retail parks, malls and call-centres promised, and receding memories of a future that had failed to arrive.
The sentiment wasn’t merely melancholic. Riding through Billingham among its belching chimneys and swerving juggernauts, air funked with astringent fumes, the Brunner Mond chemical-works later taken over by ICI had inspired Aldous Huxley to imagine his Brave New World. Likewise, the neon-lit towers and flares I’d passed last night at Wilton had inspired Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Both dystopic visions of the future, tagged to the Tees. A ‘space age coated in pigeon shit’ is how Owen Hatherley describes its town centre today, a 60s New Town built by ICI, now marked by its dereliction, a description given with a hint of deserving affection.
Bewley and Seaton Carew follow, disorientatingly bland suburbs, all cul-de-sacs, palisade gates and paved driveways, Sky dishes and CCTV pointed out to the world. Places one could fake one’s death and live untroubled in… as John Darwin almost proved. This was the future that had taken its place, one which, despite its ugliness, had succeeded in offering what more people wanted most, instead of needed. I press on into Hartlepool. Beside the deserted marina and ‘historic quay’, site of ye goodly ol’ HMS Trincomalee, is a binge of retail parks, fast-food drive-thrus, bingo halls and budget hotel chains. The effect is truly bizarre, compounded by its New York-style yellow taxis and the sheer emptiness of the place, as if a millenarian religious cult had massed in the town, built these totems and trophies to the consumer gods, then quietly disbanded after the Credit Crunch apocalypse failed to arrive.
An older couple drift by in the distance. Yvonne and Eddie struggle to explain the town’s present condition. A massive steelworks and harbour have closed, leaving behind a ‘lot of poor’ and unemployment. The retail-glut reflected the magical thinking of the Blair era, that wealth could be simply be magicked into creation, ex nihilo, just as if one could ‘create’ energy into being, rather than harness or redistribute it from elsewhere. One needed credit for these places, now that the jobs were gone, but even that was harder to come by. Eddie points to the empty but modern-looking marina opposite, now owned by the council. There are no plans to use it. ‘I’d turn it into a big sports centre, with football, tennis, badminton’. ‘Kids today sit at home in their rooms on the computer’, Yvonne adds, describing their grandchildren. ‘It’s just the age’.
County Durham. The relatively flat scene is akin to the Cleveland towns, gelded by the closure of the mines. The takeaway and off-licence constitute communal life. After Blackhall, I pull over in Horden for clues. A woman old enough to have been a miner’s wife during the Strike struggles to articulate its story. ‘They’re all gone, shut in 85’. What happened to the people here? She shrugs. ‘Nothing’. Another man of similar age repeats the same. ‘They went out six miles to sea. They reckoned it cost too much money’. He hurries off.
At (another) Easington, the village’s school and council offices are boarded up, their windows smashed through. The pubs are closed, even the neat red-brick miners’ terraces barricaded in places. One might expect this in Detroit or Chernobyl, but on our doorstep? The damage done is plain to see. An old boy pushes a broken lawn-mower down a back-terrace, and we chat. When Thatcher died, he recalls, people came from miles around to party. Some hadn’t returned for at least a decade. When the collieries closed, some miners were sent on computer courses, for certificates ‘not worth’t paper printed on’.
The terrain begins to steepen, then at Sherburn it collapses down again. Durham appears almost from nowhere, secluded from sight in a deep valley. The town is remarkably affluent in contrast to its neighbours, populated by aspirational student bars and luxury homeware shops, its cobbled lanes threading over a gushing river and up a hillock towards its vast, austerely-adorned Norman cathedral and castle. Young Americans babble loudly, and someone busks with a violin.
I pedal on to Langley Moor, an ex-mining village on its outskirts. Clarissa, a friend of my partner’s, lives out here. As we drink beer and wine in her back garden, surrounded by light industrial warehouses and a sports centre, she reflects.
‘There used to be a slag heap there, a colliery down there, even a little railway bringing the coal’. The pits and two-up two-down terraces have almost all been pulled down and eradicated, unlike Easington. ‘I do think it is as bad now as the 80s’ she adds. I wonder how, still struggling to mentally connect up these scenes, past and present. ‘Lots of unemployment’, her late-teen daughter says, her and her mate joining us. Lads join the army. The suicide rate is particularly high.
Perhaps it’s in the collapsing infrastructure, the true, hidden extent of poverty and unemployment. But as they talk, this sense of 80s-scale defeat is in something else. It’s at the level of desire and feeling. Since York, the towns have all been deserted. There are no pricks to kick against, just the stony silence and shame that comes with robbing Peter to pay Paul, of heavy drinking and anti-depressants to salve the pain. The local miners’ gala is now a formalised piss-up, as sheer hedonism blunts the boredom with special occasions for off-the-leash Saturnalia. We hear the radio news from the other room, distant headlines of London and a political elite rattling on about economic growth and employment, but it made no sense out here.[…]
I’d been told that Ashington had been the biggest pit village in the world, a century ago, employing ten thousand miners in five collieries. Then Thatcher waged war on the organised miners, and the productive mines were closed. The town’s other product, aluminium, had also recently ceased, leaving Ashington cut adrift. A young man’s tip in a newsagent directs me to the Woodhorn Colliery, the last of the mines still standing, open as a museum to this lost way of life.
‘Close the door on past dreariness’. ‘The will to work is the way to prosperity’. ‘Nationalisation 1947. The New Era: Welfare Education Mechanisation’. Queen blue and claret banners hang inside, produced by local branches of the NUM, like Ellington, Seghill and Sleekburn A, all nearby. They are defined by their headline fonts, their sentimental and often heraldry-like use of borders and scrolls, and their emotive depictions of grey and miserable slum terraces, like those of Middlesbrough and Gateshead, a past they wished to put behind.
Their progressive, mechanised future is that which failed to arrive, but there is a specifically working class English modernism to these banners which I hadn’t anticipated. Rather than seeking to defend an unproductive and dangerous form of work, they sought to improve it. The banners were produced in the late 40s, at a time when much still felt possible. Rather than appearing as things back in time, they seem like the artefacts of ghosts of the future. What would demands for welfare, mechanisation, education or nationalisation look like today?
The scenes of the ‘Pitmen Painters’ collected here present a way of life gone, perhaps mercifully too. There are blinkered pit ponies, wandering underground; a Friday fish supper; a Labour man addressing a packed-out pub of menfolk; a woman alone, the drudgery of domestic work before the era of cheap appliances; the death of a wife by tuberculosis. One image captures in cartoon-format the life of a 14 year old miner, who wakes up at two each morning to put in a long shift on an unproductive seam, often where new miners would start until an older relative could negotiate something better. Returning home, he’s too tired to bathe, eat, or see his friends. He falls asleep as soon as he gets in, only to be woken by his mam to go back to the pit. ‘Slept it through’ is the title.
But the paintings are intriguing also in how they were produced. The group began meeting through a branch of the WEA in 1927 in an old hut, and by 1934 they worked with Robert Lyon to develop their paintings, which were then exhibited to the world. Harry Wilson was one miner involved. ‘Here I found an outlet for other things than earning my living’, he said. ‘There is a feeling of being my own boss for a change and with it comes a sense of freedom’.
Their hut was pulled down in 1983, and the last mine in the area shut in 2005, Howard tells me, one of the museum’s volunteers, as I quiz him on the legacy beyond the exhibits. ‘Coal not dole’, the striking miners demanded. Today even the latter’s hard to come by. Paul had spoken of the local foodbanks struggling to meet demand, as numbers of people too poor to even eat were soaring, victims of four-to-thirteen week benefit sanctions, some caused by DWP cruelty, others mere incompetence. That basic right to freedom, to live and to live well, are not expensive or unrealistic demands. Far more is spent on housing benefit to private landlords than on building new social housing; far more is lost in loose tax regulations and tax-breaks for the rich over benefit fraud.
People in London or the South might think that I’m being too negative, ‘playing politics’ over the veracity of the narrative. Come up to Easington and Ashington, if you dare, and spend some time here, seeing, listening, talking with locals. Take a look at just how needlessly ravaged these places are, and think about the past and present political events that are causing this. Consider whether it is morally right that a person should freeze or go without food, or be punished for the crime of being poor and having a spare bedroom, or that they should be coerced into working without a wage, in a country presently the fifth richest in the world. If that is fine with you, continue voting Conservative. You may wish to close the book here.
For those of you who feel, like me, wearied and stunned by it all, then a position of sceptical impartiality or knowing inaction’s no good either, for these things will continue, whether we choose to look elsewhere or not. Trading our grumbles won’t interrupt the processes that protect bankers and billionaires whilst consigning the vast majority of young and old to insecure, low-paid and drudgerous jobs. ‘Close the door on past dreariness’ said the Ellington miners back in 1950. What does a brighter future look like, and how will it work for us all?