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The town where I grew up is never going to win any beauty contests. It’s not chocolate-box cute, and the landscape is nothing to write home about. It’s the sort of place where – if you were driving through on your way from one beautiful place to another – you wouldn’t see any particular need to linger. You’d see a sprawl of warehouses and factories on the featureless plateau just past Birmingham, a web of industrial estates and motorways, and roads which are a patchwork of repairs, and you’d probably put your foot down and keep going.
Growing up there taught me to find beauty in unexpected places, to revel in plants growing out of the walls of ageing factories, frost sparkling on rusting cars in a scrapyard. It showed me the glory of a sunset seen through the lattice of pylons, and the wonder of the bustle of a town on market day when its people have money in their pockets. Because when I was a kid, my town was thriving. I went to sleep to the sound of freight trains running through the night, and I woke to the smell of metal being heated and stamped and pressed, to the dull thump of drop forges and the whine of lathes.
Then Thatcher happened – I went away to university, came back nine months later, and it seemed as though the whole town had fallen silent. When I hitched a lift out, back up north to Leeds, the businessman from Essex in a bright red Merc who’d picked me up told me that the unemployed were simply bone-idle. Tebbit was right. They should just get on their bikes and go and find work. Unemployment in my hometown had just shot up to 21%. How would he like it if they all turned up on his doorstep, I asked. He didn’t have an answer. His sort never do.
Historically, my hometown had moved to the heartbeat of heavy industry, sung a song rich with the music of creation, invention, and graft. Overnight that was taken away, and the words which replaced it were part of a language of loss: decline, high unemployment, economic deprivation. But those words tell only a part of the story of my town – there’s always been beauty and hope there too.
I still go back there, even now. Every few weeks I catch the train – then a bus, then another – to see my dad, and to catch up with my oldest friends. The town is the same as ever, and yet every time I’m there it’s changed. There are more street drinkers. There are apostolic churches and charity shops, houses where they knocked the factories down. There’s less money than there used to be. The air is cleaner than it was when I was a kid, and when I walk the dog we go along what was once a railway line and through a nature reserve which was spoil heaps from the mines when my dad was a boy. I sit with him and ask him the names of factories and pubs I barely knew, all of which are ghosts now, and I write it down so I’ll always remember.
It’s Spring. The hawthorn blossom is out, and the bushes are alive with birdsong. The local council – like a lot of local councils – is running out of money, and cutting services and jobs. I think we’ll see a lot more of that, and I don’t doubt that the jobs and the services that go will be the ones used by the poor, and that today’s businessman in the red Merc will say they brought it on themselves, and drive on somewhere else, to another part of the world less obviously industrial, where the poor won’t spoil his view.
But in a place whose history was built upon men and women forging the nuts and bolts which held together our industrial past, and the keys which gave it a future, people are doing what they’ve always done. Getting on with it. Making the best of things. Having a laugh and a joke, and working with what money comes to hand. Their resourcefulness, their pride, and their humour is part of a new language, their resilience is older than the hills. Maybe that’s what life among the ruins will be like. I don’t know. But I know that going back there feeds my soul.
Home is where the heart is, after all.