Back to the scene of the grime: The man behind Crap Towns revisits Morecambe
Sam Jordison first identified Britain's ‘Crap Towns’ 10 years ago. Could time improve them? He revisits previously dull and decrepit Morecambe to find out.
In the summer of 2003, I took my girlfriend Elly to Morecambe. I'd told her my theory that the place was the inspiration for the Morrissey song "Everyday Is Like Sunday", but that afternoon, as the rain fell down, I started to feel that the singer had seriously exaggerated the local attractions. This wasn't the coastal town they forgot to close down, it was the one they should never have opened. It felt as if the place had had its last legs kicked from under it. Most of the buildings on the seafront were boarded up and, when we found a pub that was still open, there was still no shelter from the rain because water was gushing in through the ceiling.
It only got worse when we approached the Midland Hotel. This art deco masterpiece had once been a hotel so confident of its own superiority that (according to local legend at least) when Paul McCartney and Wings tried to visit in the 1970s, they were refused entry because their clothes were too scruffy. Now it was empty, but for a colony of seagulls. Its windows were smashed, its paintwork peeling off.
"Oh Jesus Christ," said Elly. On the steps leading up to the once proud entrance hall she had found a plump, wet turd. It was undeniably human – there was a bum-soiled bar towel lying beside it. Elly was looking sick – but I was triumphant. Morecambe had produced the goods once again. The seaside town where I had spent much of my youth had been the inspiration for a book I was putting together – Crap Towns – and now it had supplied the final image.
Discovering that poo had been the culmination of a year of hard work and laughter. Twelve months earlier (almost exactly 10 years ago, as I write this article), I'd posted a small piece about Morecambe on the website of a magazine I used to work for called The Idler. My colleague Dan Kieran wrote a funny piece about his home town of Alresford: "purgatory with hanging baskets". And then people from all over the UK began to write in about their unhappy homes. In Croydon, we were told "the floor is littered with KFC chicken bones, like some ancient caveman dwelling". Portsmouth's architecture represented "the triumph of the idiocy of the human spirit". Aldeburgh was just plain "terrible".
Soon, Crap Towns was being reported in faux-outraged local papers everywhere and turning into an online phenomenon. A publishing deal followed, and a few weeks after that rainy visit to Morecambe, the book was flying off the shelves. I hoped it might even help to make a difference. One of the (many) criticisms made of Crap Towns was that it kicked places when they were already down, but at least it was kicking them in the right direction.
That was the hope anyway, and in 2002, it didn't seem vain. In those days, before the Great Recession, regeneration seemed like a distinct possibility rather than a bitter joke. Morecambe was a case in point. In 2005, the North West Regional Development Agency stumped up £4 million pounds towards a £7 million restoration of the Midland Hotel. Work finished in 2008 and it was beautiful. The white streamlined building looked again like a place of national importance. The Regional Development Agency also started an ambitious 10-year plan to revive the town's West End, a virtual ghetto that had long been the dumping ground for the homeless and hopeless from around the north-west and where streets of once gorgeous guesthouses had gone to ruin, looking like Victorian slums – only with additional smashed-up cars. Now the builders were moving in – and if they could fix the West End, they could fix the whole town.
For a while, it seemed as if it was working. Newspapers started describing Morecambe as the "Brighton of the North" and produced reams of property porn about the seven-bedroom palaces you could buy for less than £50,000. But then came the economic crash and the Tories. Almost as soon as the Coalition came to power in 2010, the North West Regional Development Agency disappeared. Three years into the 10-year plan, building work stopped in the West End, and I read with sadness reports of half completed streets, mess and confusion. Town-centre shops were also disappearing at an alarming rate, leaving Morecambe with the most boarded up retail spaces of any town its size – more than 30 per cent are closed.
Not coincidentally, as Morecambe's fortunes fell again, alongside hundreds of other towns and cities in the country, interest in Crap Towns began to grow. Gary Barlow, of all the unlikely people, wrote a tweet about his interest in the books and once again I found myself in the middle of an internet storm. A 2004 Independent article about Crap Towns became one of the most visited on independent.co.uk, I kept getting asked on to local radio stations to talk about the recession and received dozens of puzzled tweets about why the original books didn't mention places like Solihull (a simple oversight) or, at the other end of the scale, Chipping Norton (10 years ago it hadn't yet achieved its tabloid infamy).
Towns that were crap were back in the national consciousness. I began to wonder how things had moved on since I last wrote about them. Morecambe seemed the ideal place to revisit, its story of hope and disappointment encapsulating the fate of so many other places in the last decade of boom and bust.
When I arrived in late April, the sun was shining. The sea glistened, the promenade looked bright and clean and there was a bracing salt tang in the air. So bracing that I was surprised to see a man on the beach wearing only a pair of shorts. He was walking up and down a small patch of sand beneath the promenade, smiling and holding on to a giant, insulated plastic cup. Something about the painstaking way in which he was putting one foot in front of another told me that he wasn't drinking coffee.
"It's all right here when the sun's shining," he told me. "But when it's bad, it's bad." He was proud of something though. A local band, The Heartbreaks, who, a few days earlier, had filmed a video, right where he was on the sand. "Drums and all. They're good," he said. "Right good."
As I walked on, there were joggers pounding up and down the seafront, dogs playing in the waves and old couples resting on benches. It was, in short, a lovely day. A lovely day in Morecambe. But it didn't take long for the clouds to return. Things began to look grim as soon as I turned off into the streets behind the prom. It wasn't just the fact that so many shops were boarded up. It was that most of those that remained were pawn shops, bookmakers, pound shops and charity shops. This was a place where Primark looked positively upmarket.
It was a similar story in the West End. Here, entire streets were boarded up. But, there were a few splashes of sunshine. The houses that had been done up before the cash ran out looked solid, smart, and even a little imposing. If they had been in Islington they would be worth millions. There were also fewer obvious signs of problematic drug use – far fewer hollowed-out faces, no needles on the street. People were out and about getting things done, cleaning windows, painting houses, cooking barbecues. It felt safer than I ever remembered. For once it was hunger that drove me back out onto the promenade, rather than fear of imminent death.
I got lunch at the Midland Hotel, sitting at what has to be one of the best tables in the world, with panoramic views over the bay and the hills beyond, the sleek curves of the hotel bar in the foreground, and a plate of exquisite local cheeses under my nose. It felt great – right up until the moment I got my bill.
More bad news came when I met Darren Clifford, a local Labour councillor. He started by telling me about the positive things happening in the town, but soon he was on to the depressing details: unemployment, people doing two jobs just to pay the rent, shops closing. Meanwhile, the building of a third nuclear reactor at nearby Heysham had been put on ice, forestalling a potential jobs bonanza: a story of smashed hope that has parallels in dozens of (especially northern) towns at the moment.
I'd have heard similar stories in Middlesbrough (which made the Crap Towns top 10) where the Corus steel plant recently failed to secure a 10-year investment, or Sheffield (which narrowly missed Crap Town status despite several nominations) where an £80 million loan to steel production company, Forgemasters, was famously axed right after the election, or any number of places where these grand projects haven't quite come about.
When I asked about the West End, meanwhile, Darren made a kind of 'oofing' noise and shut his eyes. The money had gone, and it wasn't likely to come back soon. The bright spot on the horizon was the fact that the BBC was about to film a series of Turn Back Time set in the 1970s, in the West End, but then again "they probably chose Morecambe because they didn't have to do much work. Some of those houses haven't been touched since before Maggie was in power."
Naturally, you'd expect a Labour councillor to have an axe to grind with the Coalition, but Darren's anger went deeper. He, too, has been out of work for six months. Government claims that there are plenty of jobs for those willing to look ring hollow in Morecambe and similar towns throughout the North where state spending has dried up and nothing has come into replace it. "The guys in the job centre do their best, but they can't knit jobs. And there just isn't work out there."
So Darren told me, anyway. David Morris, the local Tory MP had a different take. "Unemployment," he told me when I met him later, "is going down. There are real opportunities here." Morris is an unusual man: a guitarist who once appeared on Top of the Pops with Rick Astley, a close friend of David Hasselhoff and one-time owner of a chain of hairdressing salons. He is also that most confusing thing, a likable Member of Parliament. Even local rival Darren Clifford says he enjoys Morris's company: "We just try not to talk too much politics".
But, of course, I was there to talk about that very thing, and soon Morris was regaling me with stories that flatly contradicted his friend Darren. He was full of sunny optimism about the future of the town and the magic benefits that "private finance" will bring. Everything was just a few weeks away. He even claimed that money was soon coming back to the West End. "Funding hasn't dried up. We're just spending it more efficiently now." He also said that work building the nuclear power station at Heysham would start by 2015 and that all the contractors would live in the town, flooding it with money.
"So do you live in Morecambe?" I asked.
"Yes I do," he replied without blinking. "I live in Caton."
Having grown up near Morecambe, I have a good idea where Caton is. Ten miles away. We both knew it. After a painful silence, he began to bluster on about how Caton is still in his constituency, but the spell was broken. I began to wonder about his other claims. It took five minutes of subsequent research to realise that Heysham wasn't arriving anytime soon. Time will tell about the regeneration money, meanwhile. But I wouldn't advise anyone in Morecambe to bet their house on it.
Not that they would. No one is counting on the Government to wave a magic wand any more. Or as the lead singer of The Heartbreaks told me: "People here have realised that they aren't going to be saved."
I'd spotted the band out on the promenade, and knew who they were right away. They had the hair, they had the cheekbones and most importantly, they were standing in a row making a film for NME's website.
We chatted as they wrapped up the shoot. They knew who I was, too. They said that people kept asking them about Morecambe and whether it really was the "third crappest town in the world" as decided by public vote before the first book of Crap Towns.
They insisted that Morecambe was a "good place", full of humour and colour, and that young people like them were determined to make the most of it. But when they told me about people that keep nicking the lead from the roof of the Winter Gardens, they summed up the town's central problem: "It's shitting on your own doorstep, isn't it?".
When I got home, I listened to The Heartbreaks album. The music is bursting with energy, love and poison. Best of all, just about every song is about Morecambe. They have looked behind the grime and decline and found poetry. Suddenly, the town seems cool. The Heartbreaks point the way to a brighter future. It's even starting to seem like Morecambe's status as a Crap Town could be a thing of the past.
I'd be depressed about being out-dated if the Coalition hadn't provided so many other new things to write about. I'm also taking heart from a YouTube interview I saw with The Heartbreaks. "How important is Morecambe to your music," they were asked. "It's everything," replied, bass player Deaks. "I mean, imagine if we came from Milton Keynes. We'd be rubbish."
Sam Jordison, with Dan Kieran, is the co-author of 'Crap Towns: The 50 Worst Places to Live in the UK' and the sequel, 'Crap Towns II: The Nation Decides' (Boxtree)
What's become of some of the other Crap Towns?
I lived in Hackney when I was working on the original Crap Towns book, and it provided endless ammunition. Doctors announced that the local A&E was "worse than Soweto", burglaries were 11 times higher than the national average, the council's fraud department came under investigation for corruption and the council was declared the worst in the country. Since then, hipsters have taken over and it's become much easier to buy over-priced coffee and fixed-wheel bikes. Creeping gentrification didn't stop the borough erupting during the 2011 riots, however. The last time I saw the street I used to live on, it was on the BBC News and on fire.
Hull was the original number one Crap Town, primarily because it smelt "of death", thanks to the potent aroma produced when the emissions with the local chocolate factory combined with nearby fish docks. Since the book was published, hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent on regeneration in Hull and steel and plate-glass buildings now dominate large parts of the flat, local skyline. Some are even finished, although dozens more projects have ground to a halt thanks to funding cuts.
Luton triumphed in the second book of Crap Towns because so many locals called it "shite", thanks to its concrete sprawl and people at the tourist information service meeting enquiries with the question: "Are you stuck here for the day?". In recent years, the city centre has had a much needed facelift, but on the fringes, trouble remains. The 7 July bomb plots were linked to houses in Luton.
Originally nominated for being too posh for its own good, Bath continues to be a beautiful, but over-crowded tourist trap, over-run by chuggers and tat shops and impossible to navigate in summer. Its Unesco World Heritage status was recently threatened by development work that the body considered too "dense" and also because the city isn't attracting world-class architecture for its new buildings.
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