Distractions, reflections

David Ing, at large … Sometimes, my mind wanders

Crap towns: British humour?

Posted on April 14, 2006 by daviding

On my usual pre-travel preparations to somewhere that I’ve never been before, I thought I’d search the Toronto Public Library for some tour books on the UK. I was intrigued by the title Crap Towns: The 50 Worst Places To Live In The UK, published by The Idler.

I’m scheduled to fly from Helsinki into Manchester on the morning of May 6. My friend Martin will be flying from Madrid to Manchester on the evening before, and will stay overnight in an airport hotel. The plan is for Martin to meeting me in the airport arrivals area, and we’ll take the train down to his, in Nottingham. I haven’t been anywhere in the UK except for London, so I asked Martin if there was anything worth seeing in Manchester. His reply was that he thought Manchester was “pretty grim”.

Without a frame of reference, I note that Manchester is listed on the Crap Towns list. Moreover, the comments on Hull aren’t too positive, either. In fact, the publication of the book was noted by the BBC in 2003, provoking some response from Hull as the place selected at the worst on the list. It’s possible that impressions on Hull are outdated — there seems to have been a lot of progress over the past 10 years — or else the development has been localized to the tourist areas. In either case, an update of the list in 2004 moved Hull from the position as worst to become the 19th. Manchester wasn’t on the 2003 list, but made position 40 on the 2004 list.

I take these ratings with a grain of salt, because it seems that only the British would write a book where they would publicize the worst. I assume that this has something to do with their sense of humour. Browsing the list some more, I did note one other place that both Diana and I have been: Slough. We used some frequent stay points, some years ago, for a week at the Slough/Windsor Marriott, which was the nearest hotel available to London when we tried to book. Most days, we would take the shuttle bus from the hotel to Heathrow, and catch the tube for an hour to ride into central London. We did go into Slough one day, to catch a train for a day at Oxford. It wasn’t a bad experience, probably just unremarkable.
I’m visiting the UK to visit at the University of Hull Business School, not primarily for tourism. The university appears to be away from the Hull, i.e. away from the harbour, which may mean something or nothing at all. As an urbanist, I’m interested in cities, both good and bad. Of course, I don’t have to live permanently in any of these places!

2 to “Crap towns: British humour?”

  1. Martin says:

    Hmmm, I am the Martin referred to. I stand by my assessment of Manchester under conditions of anonymity! There certainly is a strain of British humour that glories in disparaging places. Sometimes it is used to express cultural snobbery (search ‘Chav’ in Google for the most recent and expressive form of this) and sometimes to express alienation with one’s own environment. Usually by teenagers who have ‘nothing to do’. There is a common formula which says, ‘The most exciting thing to come out of — ‘insert town here’ — is — ‘insert name of main trunk road here’. The earliest one I remember was ‘The most exciting thing to come out of Grantham is the A1’. This when Margaret Thatcher was in power and the Grocers shop she grew up in was (and still is) present and correct. Maybe ‘exciting’ isn’t the right word to describe her.

    You also mention Slough. Now Slough is very famous in this context. John Betjamin the poet laureate (The person occupying this post is responsible for writing poems to commemorate national life) wrote a poem entitled ‘Slough’. It contains the memorable line ‘Come friendly bombs fall on Slough’ precisely because it is so unremarkable. Here it is –

    John Betjeman

    Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough
    It isn’t fit for humans now,
    There isn’t grass to graze a cow
    Swarm over, Death!

    Come, bombs, and blow to smithereens
    Those air-conditioned, bright canteens,
    Tinned fruit, tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned beans
    Tinned minds, tinned breath.

    Mess up the mess they call a town —
    A house for ninety-seven down
    And once a week for half-a-crown
    For twenty years,

    And get that man with double chin
    Who’ll always cheat and always win,
    Who washes his repulsive skin
    In women’s tears,

    And smash his desk of polished oak
    And smash his hands so used to stroke
    And stop his boring dirty joke
    And make him yell.

    But spare the bald young clerks who add
    The profits of the stinking cad;
    It’s not their fault that they are mad,
    They’ve tasted Hell.

    It’s not their fault they do not know
    The birdsong from the radio,
    It’s not their fault they often go
    To Maidenhead

    And talk of sports and makes of cars
    In various bogus Tudor bars
    And daren’t look up and see the stars
    But belch instead.

    In labour-saving homes, with care
    Their wives frizz out peroxide hair
    And dry it in synthetic air
    And paint their nails.

    Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough
    To get it ready for the plough.
    The cabbages are coming now;
    The earth exhales.

  2. szaleniec says:

    It has been said that only the British could not only publish a bestselling book called “Crap Towns”, but then release Crap Towns II because so many people complained that their own town wasn’t in the original book.

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