Man about towns: Comedian Mark Steel reveals why British towns are anything but boring

They might have identikit chain stores and car parks – but every town in Britain has a distinct character. So argues comedian Mark Steel, who has made provincial pilgrimages from Basingstoke to Wigan

Click to follow
The Independent Online

What's the point in going anywhere if the place you're going to is the same as the one you left? Who'd bother going on a holiday that was advertised as: "Visit the magic of the Seychelles, it's IDENTICAL to your own house"?

Imagine if in Tunisia, instead of the background of the call to prayers, the mosques played Magic FM. Or if Paris didn't have that slightly exotic drainy smell, because EU regulations had compelled the place to be cleaned with Jif. Once, in the New York subway, a huge woman barged into me and yelled, "Hey, out my way asshole!". And it was marvellous, because that's exactly what's supposed to happen in New York. It was as exciting as when I was 19 and went to Amsterdam and bought a lump of dope off a man in a woolly hat but it turned out to be a lump of mud.

After taking the trouble to go to the Lake District, you want it to smell of cow pats, and at Blackpool you want everything to look as if it should be in a Carry On film. Having toured Britain plenty of times, usually to talk to an audience for the evening, I find these local quirks compelling.

For example, on the way to Skipton, in North Yorkshire, I noticed a road sign to a town called Keighley. Later, during the show, I asked the audience, "Is Keighley your rival town?". And the room went chillingly quiet, until one woman called out with understated menace, "Keighley is a sink of evil". There was something delightful about this, because it was an expression of specifically Skipton malevolence.

Similarly, I went to Merthyr Tydfil, a blighted town at the top of the Rhondda Valley that's been shut down bit by bit. After the show, the manager of the theatre told me, "People often come in and ask what time a performance is starting, so I'll tell them, 'It starts at 7.30', and they'll say, 'Oh, that's a pity. I won't be able to come to that, as I'll be drunk by then'." And somehow there was a warmth to hearing that, because it was a story of distinctly Merthyr despair.

Before appearing in Stockton-on-Tees, in the north-east, I was sent a message on Twitter by a local resident that said: "This town is where Joseph Walker invented the safety match in 1834. Before that, when we wanted to set fire to upturned stolen cars we had to rub two sticks together."

And before my visit to Cambridge, someone sent me a message about the town saying, "This place is Hogwarts for wankers". It was a cosy thought, because it could only apply to Cambridge, and ought to be the slogan on the masthead of the local paper.

The elements of a town that make it unique are what make it worth visiting. But also, any expression of local interest or eccentricity is becoming a yell of defiance. Because the aim of society now seems to be to make every city centre so depressingly identical that if our town planners were put in charge of Athens, they'd knock down the Parthenon and replace it with a shopping mall called 'The Acropolis Centre'.

You could be dropped blindfolded into a British city centre you'd never been to before, and guess correctly that there'd be a Clinton Cards just there, then a Vodafone, Carphone Warehouse, Boots, Specsavers and Next just there, with the anti-vivisection stall there, and on a Saturday you'd hear a lilting 'pheep' and know the Peruvians were about to start on the pan pipes just there, and within the hour they'd have pheeped their way through "Mull of Kintyre" and "I Just Called to Say I Love You" and "Ob-la-di Ob-la-fucking-da", as I believe it's now officially called.

With equal confidence you could predict that just out of town there'd be a concrete expanse containing a giant Tesco, PC World, Majestic Wine Warehouse, Comet, Dreams, and an unfathomable junction filled with traffic lights facing in every direction that makes no difference anyway, as every turning seems to force you into the car park at Iceland.

Somewhere in this world there must be someone who is immensely proud of having invented the multi-storey car park, which is often the introduction to a new town, as you sink into the trance that allows you to endure the shuffle through traffic towards this disturbing dungeon, where you descend and descend through a chilling gloom that would make Richard Dawkins say, "Bollocks to that, I'm sure there are ghosts down here," to level 5, where you think you spot a space but it turns out to be an illusion created by a snugly placed Fiat Uno, past levels 5a and 5b, so you've now forgotten what natural sunlight could ever be, until you find a gap by a leaking pipe that leads to a line of green slime. At which point you're unlikely to take a deep breath, like a 19th-century traveller, and exclaim, "Aha, and this is Taunton."

It's not the ugliness of modern towns, in a Prince Charles sense, that makes them so dispiriting; it's the soullessness. You know they've been plonked there as a result of some regional coordinating business advisory committee that's copied the model of what's been built in 3,000 other towns. It's as if they're part of a new world, of call centres and chain pubs and clubs, in which the faceless corporation dictates how a town looks and lives and even, with its scripts for the staff of restaurants and call centres, speaks.

So the shops, the customs, the traditions and accents, the hip-hop lyrics, the football chants, the absurd rivalries that apply to one area are preserved almost as an act of rebellion, in place because the people who live with them have kept them going, and not because they've been placed there following a board meeting.

While making a series for BBC radio about small towns, I discovered some of the glorious human differences that comprise the heart of each one. Sometimes I'm asked how I select the towns I've visited, but I'm not sure of the answer.

I did feel a twinge of power when a butcher told me he'd gone to Skipton with his wife for a weekend after hearing one of the shows – for a moment I knew how Nigella Lawson must feel when she mentions that she sometimes has a gherkin with cheese on toast, and by 10 o'clock the next morning some idiot's bought the world's supply of gherkins.

But as far as I'm aware I choose them fairly randomly, because the main point is that you can look at anywhere at all, and within a day discover enough history, grubbiness, madness and inspiration to realise that it is a distinct and unique cauldron of humanity.

For example, one drizzly dark February afternoon as I came out of the station at Scunthorpe, I got in a minicab, and the driver didn't even look at me, but kept staring straight ahead as he said, "I don't know what you've come here for, it's a fucking shithole". And that's made me remember Scunthorpe ever since.

Mark Steel's guide to Britain's towns

Basingstoke

Basingstoke is a new town, plonked somewhere in the south, though no one seems exactly sure where to say it is, even if they live there. It's renowned as the classic modern commuter town, strangled by regional headquarters for insurance companies and hundreds and hundreds of roundabouts.

The centre of Basingstoke is the Festival Shopping Mall. As you leave the train station, it seems there's nowhere to go except be poured through the Festival Mall's automatic doors, into a city of New Look, H&M and Monsoon units in which you try to keep moving forward in the belief that eventually you must come out into open Basingstoke. After a while it occurs to you that perhaps this is open Basingstoke, and that when you finally reach the other side you'll pass one last WH Smith and emerge into countryside and past a sign that says "Thank you for visiting Basingstoke".

Bristol

The difficulty for poor Bristol is, no matter how well it maintains its waterways and pretty Victorian ships, and displays its bridge and its association with Isambard Kingdom Brunel, it's hard to skirt round the embarrassment that the modern city was built on slavery.

It tries its best to ignore it. In 1996, it held a Festival of the Sea, but made no mention of the slave issue at all. This must have made for some entertaining exchanges between inquisitive tourists and the guides, such as, "So where did these ships go then?"

"Well they went to Africa, and then across the Atlantic."

"What did they take?"

"Oh, this and that, but the main thing is, isn't that mast a beauty?"

The 'Visit Bristol' tourist site mentions all the glory of the city, while slavery passes it by. But there is a section called 'Bristol History'. One sentence refers to the issue. It goes: "Bristol's strong links with the ocean, and its key role in the profitable trades of slavery and tobacco, inevitably led to the city's involvement with piracy, and Britain's most famous pirate, Blackbeard, was allegedly born in the city".

It might be fascinating to see whoever wrote that delivering a lecture at a conference on the history of black people and the slave trade, as they say, "I found the Reverend Jesse Jackson's lecture on the long-term impact of slavery most informative, and thank you for that, Jesse. But I feel the main thing is that slavery led to piracy, and Blackbeard, which is rather jolly..."

Didcot

If you're travelling to the Midlands by road or rail, you might casually glance west and note a power station. That will be Didcot. If you're going to Bristol, you might at some point turn towards the north and see a power station. Didcot. Even when you're used to this you get caught out, and think, "That power station can't possibly be Didcot," but it will be, because it's on wheels and they must move it to comply with regulations regarding smoke limits in one area.

Didcot owes its modern existence to Lord Abingdon, who refused to allow a railway to pass through Abingdon village; Didcot was chosen instead. Now it has around 20,000 people, and a sense that the landscape might not be something to put on a tin of biscuits.

But the town has developed a stoical sense of pride. Everyone I spoke to there was aware of the Cornerhouse Theatre, which they told me with great satisfaction had been built with money originally scheduled for Reading. And everyone was shocked, shocked, that I wasn't familiar with William Bradbery, who came from Didcot and was the first person to cultivate watercress.

Dorking

I went to Dorking one Saturday afternoon, and in the centre of the shopping area, where you would normally expect the Christian group and a bloke sent by the Job Centre to sell balloons, there was a poetry stall, a performance by the Dorking Folk Club, a belly dancer, a gardening club and a Rachmaninov stall, staffed by the local Rachmaninov Society. If you wanted to stage a massive celebrity moment in Dorking, you wouldn't get Britney Spears or George Clooney, you'd book the panel from Gardeners' Question Time. People would push feverishly forward for a glimpse, throwing gladioli and screaming with hysteria until they all hyperventilated.

There's a skateboarding shop in the High Street, and even that's called 'The Boardroom'. There's a road called West Street that consists of one antique shop after another, and they're not the sort of places where you barter for a second-hand chest of drawers that might be handy for keeping your parking fines in one place. They're full of old globes and strange curvy upholstered things that turn out to be something like a chaise longue specially built by Prince Albert for his mistress who was a midget.

I found a quote from a Louis J Jennings, who wrote of Dorking in 1877: "Who could stand the weary strain of the small and narrow tone and depressing social atmosphere of such a spot? A man who came to live in Dorking would perish miserably of utter boredom and dry rot. The town is at all seasons one of the dullest in England, and for young people it must be intolerable. Life is altogether stagnant." Which seems a little harsh for a place that within 125 years would have its own Rachmaninov stall.

The centre of Dorking presents itself as proudly Victorian, so even the branch of Millets is in an elegant building, as you can still make out if you look above the display of hiking boots. After a few hours there you find yourself thinking, "It's actually delightful. The posh, endearingly tactile women in the upmarket charity shops, the delicate cafés, the cosy ambience, the abundance of community projects – it's all thoroughly pleasant. For Christ's sake, let's go before it drives us nuts."

Dumfries

There's a Facebook page for teenagers to discuss Dumfries, called "I know Dumfries is wank but it deserves a page on Facebook". It includes a lively discussion about the facilities there, that goes: "There's nothing to do except kick the seagulls," to which someone has replied, "Hee hee, that reminds me of when I was with my young son by the side of the road and a lorry ran over a seagull".

One of the main forms of entertainment in Dumfries seems to be watching seagulls suffer. Mike Russell, the Scottish Environment Minister, even announced a plan of action in Parliament, saying, "Dumfries has a problem with seagulls, with regular reports of divebombing".

The centre of the town is yet another predictable row of familiar outlets, with a lost-looking building called the Midsteeple sat in the middle, and an 18th-century tollbooth and jail whose elegant clockface and delicate brickwork seem to be saying, "Do you want to hear my story again about when the Jacobite Rebellion came through here?" to a bored Vodafone and Boots the Chemist.

The website called 'Information Britain' says, "The long history of Dumfries isn't all murder and bloodshed, wars and treachery. There were also hangings, witch trials and executions". Yet it's now a chatty town. Not only do people talk to you in the pubs, they come out of the pub to talk to you if you're walking past. "Hey, come in here. This is the best pub in Dumfries," I was advised by drinkers from three pubs, a local version of the waiters who ask you to come and eat in their restaurant when you're in a holiday resort, except that in one case the man shouting erupted into a coughing fit halfway through, so his plea went, "Best pub in achremaha, best pub, aHEEYUGH, best, ahawAAAKKKKhrem ikkk aHOO".

Gateshead

Gateshead is renowned for being the smaller, less notable, almost insignificant, forgettable other side of the river from Newcastle. Its image worked in its favour only once, as it made it the perfect setting for the 1970s film Get Carter, in which Michael Caine trudges through two hours of relentless grime and misery, and when they finished filming, the producer probably said to the mayor, "Thanks so much for making the place absolutely perfect for our requirements. It must have taken a huge effort making everything so shit. I hope it doesn't take you too long to get the place back habitable for your citizens".

The regeneration scheme in Gateshead has created a series of buildings alongside water that have won architectural prizes and have open-plan cafés where you can buy mushroom soup for eight quid a bowl. For example, the Sage Centre, the new waterside venue for theatre and concerts, is shaped like the back of a snail.

But a minute's walk from there towards the centre of Gateshead is the start of the unregenerated tower blocks, boarded-up pubs and very old women struggling with bags full of shopping past places with "We change your cheques" above the door and off-licences in which the staff sit behind reinforced glass as if they're awaiting a nuclear attack. Some pubs are still open, including the Metropole, though to get in I had to clamber across two men slumped in the doorway, each holding one crutch, as if Gateshead runs a crutch-pooling system so the disabled of the town don't waste energy.

In Gateshead, the pubs of the High Street are considered tourist attractions. The council website boasts: "It is often claimed it's not possible to walk the length of the High Street drinking half a pint in each pub." This is followed by: "Well excuse me, but there are 32 pubs so that's only 16 pints!".

Milton Keynes

The theory that all towns, however corporatised, retain an underlying soul, is stretched to the limit in Milton Keynes. There can be few places that try so hard to live up to their image. The first sign that something's not healthy comes as you drift through the Buckinghamshire countryside towards the town, and pass the first roundabout, which has a grid number. So a sign will tell you this is H4 or V5 roundabout, as if you're a Lilliputian moving through a giant game of Battleships.

What's more disconcerting is that, apart from these grid numbers, the roundabouts all look identical. The view in every direction from each of them is of a highway with trees perfectly spaced on each side, and a giant rectangular warehouse behind the trees, so you've no idea if you've been past this bit already or not.

In Milton Keynes, you're entrapped in this grid with no way of working out what direction you're going. With no churches or pubs or graffiti or bridges or landmarks to plot your position you find yourself not only lost, as you can easily be in any town, but unsure where you are in relation to the rest of the world, as if you were stranded in a rowing boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

The grid numbers only make it more confusing, as you pull over and try to calculate that if you've just passed H5, and the one before that was V6, then H7 must be to the right, which, as H9 cancels out V3 over 5 divided by x, the angle of the line H2-V8 must be equal to the sum of V1 squared.

Defenders of the town point out that it's a pleasant environment, with open spaces and lakes and a low crime rate and efficient schools and all sorts of activities, but the qualities advanced as positive aspects are all top-down, as if arranged by a happiness committee.

They've been organised by the people who produce brochures that say: "And if ballooning is your preferred leisure activity, then it's up, up and away with the Milton Keynes Hot Air Ballooning Association. Yes, whether it's double-word scores at the Indoor Scrabble Centre on H3 or artificial shark fishing at the hexagonal lake on the corner of V7 and H5, you'll find all your desires are catered for here in Milton Keynes".

Norwich

The accents of East Anglia are possibly the most expressive in Britain. They destroy self-importance: it's impossible to be pompous in reply to an East Anglian accent. When an actor is throwing a backstage tantrum, screaming, "How can I possibly work in these conditions?" there should be an East Anglian nearby to say, "Calm you down. You can't carry on playen' Widow Twankey if you's all het up and carryen' awn".

When a contestant on The Apprentice says, "I can taste success in my spit," the Norfolk woman should be on hand to reply, "That's a rum ol' do. Yew wan' see doctor 'bout that, yew do".

When I asked on Twitter if anyone had a comment to make about Norwich, someone sent me the message: "I heard a woman in the market with an umbrella with a push-button thing say, 'Do it do that? It do'."

And the true adventurer to East Anglia goes to Norwich, which is one of the few places where the main central shopping mall has one unit that gives away the identity of the town it's in. Because opposite H&M and behind Waterstone's is the Colman's Mustard Shop.

Apparently, the Norwich mustard industry was started by Jeremiah Colman at a water mill in the village of Bawburgh. The Mustard Shop is magnificently dedicated to mustard, with normal jars of Colman's mustard, jars of powder for you to make your own mustard, mustard pots, mustard recipe books and industrial-sized tubs of mustard that could only be used to terrify inmates at Guantanamo Bay, or for strongman events that air on Sky Sports 3 in the middle of the night.

It was outside this mustard shop that I heard a woman of about 50, from somewhere south, say to her friend as they gazed in the door at 103 mustard-related objects for sale, "I wonder if this is the mustard shop".

Wigan

Outside its market is the pedestrianised centre of Wigan, indistinguishable from the centre of anywhere else. The building societies, WH Smith and anti-vivisection campaigners are all there in their designated places, and it's by a door opposite Clinton Cards that you pass through a magical vortex into the market, a world that hasn't so much resisted modern corporate life as remained unaware that it even exists. Maybe that's because for a century or more, Wigan fitted the notion of what was considered a working-class town better than anywhere else, so that when George Orwell wrote his study of working-class life, it was Wigan he went to live in, to see what the proles get up to.

The pier that provides the title of Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier is a slightly raised step, about two feet long, on one side of the Leeds-Liverpool canal, from where coal was once tipped into the barges. The area alongside the canal used to be packed with one of the greatest concentrations of mills in the country.

One of those mills, just behind the pier, became a mill museum, but now that's shut down as well. You can't get more working class than that. Presumably the actors who had to walk round dressed as Victorian loom operators went home one day and said, "Bad news I'm afraid. There's trouble at Mill Experience".

Extracted from 'Mark Steel's In Town' by Mark Steel, published in paperback by Fourth Estate. The show of the same name returns for its third series for BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday 6 December at 6.30pm

Comments