Jasmine Andersson 4th December 2017
Hull was declared the crappest town in England in a book named Idler’s Guides to Crappest Towns in the UK in 2003. Although the authors didn’t seem to think about what their words would mean to the people the Very Worst Town, there wasn’t a fold of the city not in the know about its new, bastardised title.
The book cover, which features a murky-coloured car on the brink of backfiring, was on sale in the local Waterstones. The small book, written by a lot of Big Names in journalism, nestled like a loaded gun in the “3 for 2” section of the shop. I picked it up, and wondered what to do with it. I had always trusted books. If someone writes something in a book, shouldn’t you believe it?
If Hull was crap, then we were crap
A lot of people in Hull, people like me, did exactly that. It was a name that slept on our shoulders, an insult shouted out as a joke at despondent teachers in the classroom, a filler to regurgitate to friends when we swigged from a can as we avoided yet another PE lesson. If Hull was crap, then we were crap. If the city was flat and grey, then we were too. We either got out, or put up with it. There didn’t seem much point in arguing with the rest of the world when we didn’t know how to shout back.
“Living in Hull for the first 18 years of my life, I just got used to the whole ‘crap town’ stigma, which stemmed from lazy journalism more than anything,” says former Hull resident Greg Whitaker.
“I always thought it was unfair.”
It’s easy to attack those who are left with so little ammunition, they cannot defend themselves, for Hull had bigger problems to sort out, with no-one to sort them out with. With soaring unemployment figures, and a dwindling economy post-WWII (for it was the second most-bombed city after London during the Blitz), Hull had never fully recovered. It was pushed to the brink when Iceland took victory over disputed fishing lands in the Cod Wars, leaving it ignored, bereft, and ostracised as someone else’s problem. Pot holes lined the city’s main roads, and shops shut down as quickly as they opened. And with only Spurn Point beyond it, the city was literally and metaphorically at the tail-end of existence.
Campaigner Stuart Watkins, who comes from the “crap town” of Carlisle, believes that the double bind of economic decline and a lack of central government intervention has led to small towns losing confidence.
There’s been quite a strong community spirit in more deprived areas
“There is a big class divide here, I’d say. It always has been in my mind. There’s a lack of things to do when you’re a kid and as you grow up the only things available to you are pubs. Newcastle would be the nearest city to us that has substantial services. Cumberland Infirmary is one of the worst in deficit and I know a number of people in the NHS who are seeing more and more patients having to be relocated to Newcastle. We’ve got an MP who is invisible,” he says.
For former St Helens resident Ste Topping, smaller towns have fought their depravity by drawing on a community spirit that helped them fight for their rights back in the 70s.
“We have some big pockets of deprivation as so many other places do, and I think St Helens is a place where people will try not to leave those who are worse off be cast adrift,” says Ste.
“There’s been quite a strong community spirit in more deprived areas in the past – although I’m not sure if that’s a hangover from the mining industry/pre-Thatcher and Thatcher era. As time moves on, I don’t know if that spirit will be as strong,” he adds.
Yet there wasn’t a single person I spoke to who didn’t have a difficult relationship with their own crap town.
“It is love hate. It is a crap town, but it is my crap town, so I’m always inexplicably offended when other people have a pop at it,” says former Blackpool resident Sam King.
“I know that Carlisle was deemed the “happiest place in the UK” a few years back,” says Stuart.
“I’d say it’s conflicted. We’ve got a rich history, something I’m very interested in and proud of to some extent… but Carlisle today is just not a modern town in any sense.”
Editor of Crap Towns, Sam Jordison, believes that critics miss out one pertinent fact when they lambast the Crap Towns book: it’s the people from those cities that voted them in it.
“The other thing that is often forgotten and is important to say is that it was mainly people who lived in the towns who voted for them,” he says.
“It was people from Hull who kept on nominating it and got it to number one. They wanted people to listen to them and wanted things to change. So they deserved to be taken seriously,” he adds.
Jordison says that it was his own upbringing in self-defined crap town Morecambe that inspired the book.
I always had this feeling that no one was telling the truth about British towns
“Morecambe was a beautiful place, but it had been destroyed by neglect, bad planning decisions and associated social problems. I wanted to highlight the problems there and try to do something about it,” he says.
“I also always had this feeling that no one was telling the truth about British towns. If you read most local papers back in 2002 when I had the idea, they were generally about how great things were in their area. I wanted to give people a chance to say what they were really seeing around them, and also to be funny about it,” he adds.
What voters had failed to realise, it appeared, was how that label would translate to the outside world. At university, seven years later, I was presented with two options: either chime in with the critics or operate as one of the city’s translators. The difference was that I was no longer in the city. Yet it’s difficult to communicate your city’s quirks to people you don’t quite understand. Asking someone where to ski was as commonplace as asking what your parents did for a living, and people would announce that they lived ‘near London’ if they were as far away as Hertfordshire. But I couldn’t escape Hull, even if I tried. It sat in my vowels, my u’s, and especially my o’s, making even the smallest of introductions at university a little bit more complicated. Being from Hull wasn’t just a town issue, it was a class issue.
“Where’s that accent from?” one guy asked me at house party.
“Hull,” I said.
“Isn’t that the shittest town in the UK?” he replied. He smirked, and took a swig, but this time, the can wasn’t resting in the hands of another friend from the same place. It was from someone who thought that it was okay to tell me that where I came from was shit like it was polite conversation, or even worse, a skilfully deployed seduction technique.
Hull’s history would only become my history when I accepted that I was part of it
It was then, I started to get angry. My accent got heavier, unforgiving, unyielding, and if anyone had to ask pardon more than once, it was their problem, not mine. I started to map out what I loved from where I came from, because there was no-one else there to do it for me. I brought tubs of chip spice from home to make my poor cooking a little bit better, and used words and places that belonged to the city and that meant something to me, even if it didn’t to them. Hull’s history would only become my history when I accepted that I was part of it, an active body that could change how it was spoken about in the wider world in present tense, to make some difference to the future for people like me, who didn’t quite understand where they came from because they are the ones tasked to validate it. It became clear that the word crap was used as a synonym for smaller.
It’s at this juncture that smaller town residents end up in fight or flight mode: do they defend their city or vent their frustrations to the outside world?
“I think that there can be huge fundamental discrepancies between people who live in cities and people who live in small towns. Social and economic values – for the most part – just don’t match up,” says former Tamfield resident Caitlin Doherty.
“Growing up in North Devon, you got the sense of community and friendliness, so to me, Barnstaple wasn’t a crap town,” says former Barnstaple resident Sam Neve.
“We had the beach, we had shops, buses and trains and all my family were near by. So I had no reason to think that it was crap.
“But when people from London ask where I’m from, I can see the pity in their face when I tell them I’m from Barnstaple. I’m proud to have come from there to now be working in the city. But I feel that was because of my own sheer ambition to get out of Barnstaple,” he adds.
For former Worcester resident Catrin O’Neill, she found that she “bought into the stereotype” before she found her feet.
“At uni, people were so rude about the West Midlands in general, but particularly places that they’d never heard of, or even knew existed. I think they’d deflect their own ignorance but just saying ‘eurgh’ when I said the words Worcester.
“As I’ve got older I realise how snobby and metropolitan their attitudes were,” she adds.
Now, Hull goes by a different epithet. Replacing the word crap with “culture”, the city’s definition has shifted so dramatically that even the Crap Towns editor congratulated it on its success.
But Hull, although not quite like anywhere else, belongs to a patch of idiosyncratic cities that thrive thanks to their essence, not their economic value.
There is a real lack of opportunities for careers that don’t involve becoming a tribute act or selling candyfloss
Sam, who now works in London, doesn’t see herself going back.
‘‘It’s home and I love it, but there is a real lack of opportunities for careers that don’t involve becoming a tribute act or selling candyfloss. So no, I wouldn’t move back.”
Ste agrees: “I know it’s not brilliant but I love it in its own way, the people are down to earth and I can’t imagine really being from anywhere else.”
“That said I’ve left it so I’m a bit of a hypocrite.”
And while, thanks to the activism of its former residents, small-town definitions are slowly changing in the public eye, those who once called their city home are left to chase their ambitions elsewhere while keeping their home in sight.
Jasmine Andersson 4th December 2017