98. Monstrous carbuncles revisited.

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People had been working on measures of social deprivation for decades before Donald Trump invented the shithole scale.

Sadly, the Donald didn’t colour in the broad canvas between Haiti on one end and Norway on  the other. Africa and El Salvador were reported somewhere in between, but where for instance would he place Mexborough? 

In the UK people love to write satirical articles slagging off their towns, including architecture, town planning, the appearance of the inhabitants and their behaviour. There are a few reasons for this, beyond what Jeremy Corbyn might call ‘english irony’.

The project ‘Crap Towns’ was an attempt to say something about urban deprivation in the UK. Crap towns featured in a series of publications associated with The Idler.

Most of the crap towns identified  would also rate as deprived on scales of social deprivation such as Townsend or Jarman, but Crap Towns is more subjective and much more fun. 

People nominate their towns and surveys are carried out. The process has not been tightened up or ‘operationalised’ as much as social scientists might like. As a result the essential notion of the crap town has been far-fetched to include entities like London, York and Chipping Norton. These places are not face-valid as crap, even though some of their inhabitants know better. There are plenty of aspects to criticise, even in affluent towns. Try walking past the Grafton Centre, Cambridge late on a Friday evening, where the cast of Mad Max has reassembled.

In another survey  conducted by iLivehere.com, Peterborough came out as the worst town. Runners up to Peterborough include traditional favourites like Halifax, Doncaster, Rochdale and Rotherham. ILiveHere self-identifies as satirical but its findings seem broadly valid. In most of those towns over a quarter of general practice patients are depressed and taking cheap generic fluoxetine.

Most of the Crap towns voted Leave in the referendum, and in general the Leave vote was closely correlated with the CQ (crap quotient). Crap towns are all about self-flagellation.

I lived in crap towns, including Peterborough, most of my life and I enjoyed them greatly. I have to say Peterborough is not a proper crap town. It has a John Lewis store which may reopen one day and a fine cathedral, not to mention an excellent road system. It does not have a branch of Boyes (the nearest one is in March) though it does have three B & M stores. There is a large suburb called Eastern Industry, telling it like it is. 

For me, in a proper crap town the shops will include Boyes, B and M, Superdrug (not a proper Superdrug, but its poor relation, Savers) and at least 5 charity shops. The charity shops will have hundreds of DVDs and Jack Reacher books. There will always be a CD copy of Misplaced Childhood, by Marillion. There may be a branch of Heron Foods, which is a portal to a Waitrose in a parallel universe.

Greenwood menswear, Weigh and Save and Bargain Booze are now boarded up, having teetered off the top end of the CQ scale. 

There are often shops that specialise in outdated food items. You don’t have to be a food scientist to know that cream sherry will never deteriorate during your lifetime.

The post office has usually been transplanted to the corner of a Spar Shop. People tend to travel by electric scooter. These move silently along the pavements catching unwary people lumbering out of Martin McColl’s scratching lottery cards.

If it’s a particularly cold and windswept day, four TalkTalk reps will be in the market square, trying to make you feel sorry enough for them to engage in light banter. One of them is usually nice looking enough to have attracted the attention of two big girls with prams. There’s a hairdressers that charges £4.99 for a cut and the barber looks like Liberace.

Crap towns should have poor Air Quality. Crap towns to the West have less pollution, with the exception of Port Talbot, which has the worst air in the UK. Crap towns to the east have less rain, but what rain there is gets more acidic. Scunthorpe is an Industrial Garden Town, or so it says on the signpost, telling it like it isn’t. Scunthorpe has the worst air quality in England. It might be worth spraypainting over the word Garden if you’re passing the town sign. 

I don’t go there now, although I can thoroughly recommend the colonoscopy department. I don’t imagine there’s a better colon imaging experience anywhere in the world – I still treasure those intimate photos – which goes to show, there is much more to a town’s amenity than its deteriorated retail area. Many facilities that we used to think we needed are now obsolete, following the harsh judgement of the Covid crisis: 

Pubs – like your living room, but with more infectious particles, and drinks three times the price you pay in Lidl.

Cinemas – like your living room, only someone is sitting behind you crunching popcorn and someone in front of you is staring at a very bright phone screen, scrolling down ebay items. You can’t skip the trailers by pressing a button.

Shops – like  your living room (using Amazon) but you have to drive, park, pay and display and not find the thing you want.

Cafes – like your living room but tea is 200 times as expensive and you need a code for the toilets.

Libraries – like Amazon but without the book you wanted 

Schools – like your living room but without proper IT or chocolate biscuits.

This change toward online living is another reason for shrugging off some of the aesthetic limitations of one’s town centre. Since most retail and many services went online, does it matter any more where you live, providing you have robust lungs, a smartphone and noise cancelling headphones?

For instance, when you’re asleep – does it matter then where you live ? Or when you’re watching TV, does it matter then? Or staring at a computer screen?

What about the neighbourhood, what about crime, what about those yobbos on mopeds? What about those hot hatchbacks parked window to window, exchanging little packets of not very legal substances in the leisure centre car park?

Granted, some areas are a bit too clockwork orange to feel comfortable, but in general, the real risk of violence is far lower than the subjective risk. Even in a crap town, you are far more likely to fall down stairs texting or get hit by a scooter than get knifed in the subway.

There are many more subjective accounts of terrible environments, such as featured in Failed Architecture and the long running Private Eye column Nooks and Corners. Everyone has their own ideas about which towns truly suck. After a while it becomes obvious that none of the towns are as bad as people make out. Writing about crap towns has become a genre. The writers more often love their towns than hate them. Rather than paint the towns ‘warts and all’ this genre just paints the warts. Finally The Telegraph runs an article called ‘Crap towns and why we love them’. Most people get the joke. We learned to live with concrete and steel. Prince Charles never did. That thing he called a monstrous carbuncle was an art gallery extension, something we’d have celebrated if they’d built it in Stirchley.

Which is surprising. Charles came from one of the most privileged families in the world and yet was sent to a prison-like boarding school where the dormitory windows were always kept open and he was systematically bullied. He should have written the definitive textbook on family sabotage, a book called ‘how and why we make rods for our own backs’.  Instead he went on to attack modern buildings, usually ones that were made of concrete, forgetting that they were often very useful, warm and nice inside, like the crap towns they formed.