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Spatial Awareness

Andrew Stevens interviews Crap Towns co-editor Sam Jordison.


3:AM: What lay behind your decision to do Crap Towns?

SJ: Growing up near Morecambe is the short answer.

The long answer is, well, longer.

I remember being furious when the book came out because The Guardian wrote one of those stories about how it was a pub conversation that had inspired the idea, which was complete balls. It was growing up at the fag-end of Thatcher’s Britain that inspired it. This feeling that so many people evidently shared that our towns and cities were letting us down and weren’t as good as they could and should be.

It was the culmination of my teenage years spent listening to Morrissey, wanting excitement desperately, but the only place to go out in the evening being Morecambe. I spent horrible evenings there, always waiting, it seemed, waiting for taxis, waiting to be let into dreadful nightclubs, looking out over that desolate promenade, battered by the wind, scared that I was going to be beaten up…

The saddest thing about Morecambe was that it should have been beautiful. It has one of the most beautiful views in the country out over a wide bay to the Lake District hills and is full of fantastic old buildings: a wonderful ornate theatre and winter gardens, one of the best examples of art-deco architecture in the country in the form of the Midland Hotel… But it had been neglected for years. When I was starting to write Crap Towns, all the windows in the Midland Hotel were smashed, the Winter Gardens was boarded up, there was a huge empty, rusting amusment park at one end of the prom, called Frontierland, with a Wild West theme that had only become appropriate when the place turned into a ghost town…

I’m banging on, but the point is — and was — that Morecambe could and should have been so much better and that bad governence had brought it to ruin – and it in turn was destroying the lives of everyone that lived there. It was sad, maddening, but also in a grim way, very funny. It was the Morrissey song ‘Everyday Is Like Sunday’ in physical form, for a start… I had this very vivid memory too of a French exchange group coming to my school in Lancaster and being taken for a day out in Morecambe and them just laughing at how naff and decrepit it all was. And completely agreeing with them. It was an affront to my pride, but they had a point… and I guess the idea started formenting at the back of my mind then.

There were other inspirations too.

When I started the project, I lived in Hackney. Which was shit. I could navigate my way home using the police helicopter that hovered over the estate opposite my flat. Someone got shot in the shop next door to me. There was litter everywhere. I was within shooting distance of Murder Mile. There was all this human suffering and yet the local council was one of the most corrupt in the country, siphoning off money that could have done real good for ridiculous and nefarious purposes…

Hackney was where I saw the cover image for the book too… Everyday for months I used to cycle past this wrecked car on the way to work. It came to symbolise the state of the place for me, because it never got taken away. It also, I realised, looked quite cool. Like a broken face with its smashed lights and shattered windscreen. So I took my camera one day and snapped it.

So, there was all this stuff going on, plus a few practical influences. The opportunity to run my pet project arose arose because I was working on the website of The Idler at the time and they were looking for ways to expand their website… I’d already run something about Crap Jobs so Towns was the natural follow-on — It was something that had been brewing in my mind for years, but there was a lovely synchronicity there. The Idler also had this pretty select readership of wannabe writers and poets, back then, so even though there weren’t many readers at first, they did tend to be good writers. Once I’d put up the entry about Morecambe people quickly cottoned on with their own tales of woe from their home-towns… And then, pretty quickly, it became one of those internet memes…

3:AM: It obviously struck a chord with other readers leading similar angst-ridden lives oppressed by geography. What were your favourite entries?

SJ: Yes, it was one of those things. It seemed strange that it hadn’t been done years before in fact, since so many people had clearly been thinking along the same lines…

The short answer to the next entry is that my favourites were the ones that tended to make it into the book… And there was so much variety that it would be hard to single any out really. In fact it was the variety that I really liked. I loved the fact that people would write in about really deprived areas and stiflingly posh places with the same wit and venom… The ability of all kinds of members of the Great British Public to laugh at themselves and their surroundings made my job as compiler a real pleasure… And much easier than it could have been.

There were some that were almost poetic in the way they revelled in the misery. Others that were straightforward angry and some plain funny.

Okay, I’m rambling, so I’ll contradict myself and try and single one out: I guess it was especially lucky for the site that some of the best entries was written about Hull. It quickly became the number one crap town because so many people responded to it… And the whole thing went better than it could ever have been planned. Especially since the main entry was written by someone who gloried in the name of Finlay Coutts-Britton… Who the Hull Daily Mail invited up to look around the town naturally dubbed, “posho” and won the site some priceless early publicity.


3:AM: You apportion blame on local councils for towns being ‘crap’ in the book and there’s well-documented umbrage that was taken by those who made the grade, not only by councils but local media, even though local papers generally take every other opportunity to bash the local council. Which examples of this surprised and amused you the most? Why are councils and not residents to blame for the state of their towns?

SJ: The example that most surprised me came from Michael Howard who was the MP for Hythe at the time. When I’d been growing up he was a real hate-figure — a repressive home secretary responsible for the no-fun Criminal Justice Bill and a Tory bastard to-boot. I’d never imagined him having a sense of humour, but his response to the provocative letter we sent him about how crap Hythe was was suave and really quite funny. The sod. I realised I’d been disliking an ogre rather than the real man. Hythe’s still pretty dull though, no matter what he says.

Not sure I completely agree that just councils are to blame. They are responsible for most of the dreadful planning decisions that have blighted our towns. The way cars have been given priority over people, the destruction of interesting old buildings, dreadful planning decisions (read: they’ve taken big bribes, the bastards) that have allowed supermarkets to kill high streets, the installation of ugly municipal art, inadequate provision of services, a disgraceful over use of “-ing” words and the proliferation of pointless slogans about “working together with you and making” whatever awful town a “ready for a brighter future”… All those things and many more can be blamed on councils. But I think residents are to blame to an extent. Partly because of the mess they make, partly because of the ugliness of some of their personalities, partly because of the addiction to a kind of brand-led consumer capitalism that has made all our high streets so uniform and drab. Mainly, however, because so few people take an active role in local politics. Few even vote, or when they do vote think properly about who they are voting for, meaning that councils can be fantastically corrupt and useless, but still remain in power for years. Hey! Voters! If you don’t like what your council are doing, don’t just mutter about it. Shout. Complain. Cause trouble. Protest. Vote the bastards out.

3:AM: To what extent do you think Crap Towns was a ‘British’ phenomenon? The negative facets of urban settlement are global, there’s probably ‘crapper’ towns in, say, South Africa or Russia, but the process behind the website and the publication of the book and the umbrage in the various reactions just strikes me as very British.

SJ: I’m not sure. I think there is a cynical sense of humour in Britain that the books tapped into… And there’s that cliche in Britain of amateurs almost stumbling across ideas that take on a life of their own, work strangely well and become much bigger than them: which certainly described me.

But then again, I’m sure you’d find people who feel the same way about their towns around the world. I still have a fond dream of doing international editions of the books… Maybe one day.

Having said that, If I’m honest, I think part of the reason that the books worked here is because, although quite crap, things aren’t desperately sad in much of the UK. They wouldn’t have been half so amusing if they were just catalogues of people living in their own shit, getting shot, working for less than 20p a day… Things are bad, but generally not eye-bleedingly so.

3:AM: I particularly enjoyed the press reaction to my entry in the book about where I grew up. Could it not be the case however that the book is an act celebrating dreary and mundane provincial Britain, in the same way that Boring Postcards was a few years earlier?

SJ: That article is very good. Haha. In a sense, the kind local pride it demonstrates and that the books provoked was one of the most pleasing things about them. Even if it might have been slightly mis-directed at times. I can kind of understand the way people reacted against The Idler as public school wankers… But it’s unfair to many of the people who wrote the articles who were definitely 4 real and speaking from experience. Like you!

And yes! That’s true. I think that subconsciously Boring Postcards was a big influence on the book as well. Certainly I wanted a similar look and feel to the photos that went in it and it did prove first of all that there is something to celebrate in the provincial and mundane. I should really buy a copy of that book in fact. I don’t have one, although I spent a lot of the time admiring it in bookshops when it came out….

3:AM: We both went to Goldsmiths, which is situated in New Cross, an area not exactly known for its beauty. Were you surprised it wasn’t nominated?

SJ: I always quite liked New Cross. There was certainly quite an interesting mix of people there and a few pretty bracing boozers/fried breakfast opportunities. But it was ugly, as you say. And not without its share of problems. And such a painful part of London to get to. As I remember it, it’s always raining, and I’m always late for my lessons having spent hours stuck on the East London Line…

3:AM: After Crap Towns there was the deluge, including Clarkson’s effort. As someone who writes such books to make a living, how angry were you about that on a scale of one to ten?

SJ: Erm, three, I’d say. Naturally I’d have liked some of the cash Crap Cars made from basically pilfering my idea… Ditto all the other books. But such is life. And I saw it as quite flattering in a way. At that time I was more angry about a few others, who shall remain nameless, who had ripped me off.

3:AM: Is Hackney really as crap as you make out? Does this make you the anti-Iain Sinclair?

SJ: Every inch as crap. Especially when it comes to crime and – hand in hand with that – council corruption, epic money wasting and failure to even pick up the litter… But that’s not to say that it isn’t a fascinating place; both historically and as a vibrant contemporary melting pot. So when I lived in Hackney I actually adored Iain Sinclair and saw him as some kind of oracle… I used to really enjoy following his footsteps around the Lea Valley and similar, seeing all those ghosts he brought to life…

But still, I’m damn glad to have moved away. I hated feeling scared every time I walked out my front door. And hated feeling scared for my girlfriend when she was out there, all the more.

Sam Jordison is the author of Crap Towns, Crap Towns II, The Joy Of Sects and Bad Dates. He is a part-time film reviewer and occasional goatherd, and lives in Norwich with his girlfriend, the novelist Eloise Millar.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, December 10th, 2008.