Since the Brexit vote, the metropolitan bubbles – the urban centres, entirely distinct from the territories that border them – have been trying to understand the rest of the country. The strange lands that encompass and conspire against them, the dilapidated mining towns, the decommissioned shipyards, and vertiginous tower blocks. The real Britain; the one with honest van drivers, snarling staffies, and neon-streaked takeaway windows. The estates left to peel and decay, the vacant pubs that used to bristle with life. The Sun-readers, the confused former-Labour voters, the unemployed factory workers. The land that time forgot.
This scramble to understand, over the past few years, has given birth to a new genre of reportage. Melancholic, grayscale accounts of the new political frontline – shots of community halls and racing tracks, interviews with retirees who no longer know their neighbours' names. And it seems, approaching two years since the EU referendum, we still haven’t had enough of these scenes. This week, Will Self’s “Great British Bus Journey” began on Radio 4. Billed as “a 1,000-mile tour of the UK by bus and coach, exploring urban Britain and British identity at a time of flux,” the series is the latest heartland safari to examine our confused and ruptured national psyche.
Infatuations with "ordinary people" are nothing new – the recent spate can trace its roots back to Gillian Duffy who became a celebrity after a wearied Gordon Brown called her a "bigoted woman" into a hot-mic – but Brexit, and the over-talked chasm between the metropole and the provinces, have seen this particular strand of reporting explode.
Newsnight have done much the same, whether hosted by Nick Clegg or the residents of a street in Middlesbrough – the cocktail of rain-lashed tarmac and hurriedly spilt political opinions has proven irresistible time and again. VICE, it should be acknowledged, has played its part in the boom, as in 2015 when we ran a series of reports on “UKIP Country”, or after the referendum when VICE News made this report titled “Why did England's North vote to leave the European Union?” I did something similar when I went to Romford in 2016.
Nowadays, the auteur of the Broken Britain tour is John Harris, whose Anywhere but Westminster series has been running on the Guardian since 2010, but spiked in relevance in the last two years. His videos range in effectiveness; many of them do offer compassionate portrayals of places largely ignored by the media, and lend a voice to people who’ve otherwise been silenced. All the same they still rely on the same style: turn up, ask people questions, get miserable responses, make a judgement, go home.
The form is even big in America. Donald Trump’s election offered the USA its Brexit moment – and in doing so an opportunity for journalists to go in search of its own left-behind areas. Pieces like this profile of white-nationalist welder from Ohio, painting the rise of the populist right in rural American in broad brush-strokes. The Guardian even made an Anywhere but Washington series to celebrate the occasion.
For his Great British Bus Journey, Self has attempted to intellectualise the heartland safari in the tradition of Daniel Defoe, William Cobbett and other writers of note who sought to understand the state of the nation by traveling up and down the country. Describing himself as a flâneur, Self certainly sees urban observation as a noble pursuit, a nobility he imposes on the characters he encounters on his travels. His fascination with the working class and low-brow borders on a sort of deification – literally in his 2005 novel The Book of Dave, in which the scribbled rantings of a bigoted taxi driver become the foundation of a future civilisation. It’s a romanticism he brings to this project in spades, as he sets out to “capture Britain’s unseen lives and interrogate them.”
Until now, however, his observations have been largely confined to London, as in his regular Psychogeography column in the Independent. Naturally, in the post-Brexit universe, he’s had to stretch his legs further afield, eschewing his leisurely strolls around the capital for the steamed windows of the nation’s public transport network. The first episode sees him travel to Plymouth, where he meets the residents of Devonport, a recently regenerated area that is no longer recognisable to the local community. Once great naval town now full of shopping centres; once busy pubs now silent – you know the drill.
The subtext of these field reports is a search for realness, a cultural authenticity that’s been lost in the glittering cities. These accounts manage to simultaneously romanticise and patronise their subjects; admiring them for their honesty, pitying them for their poverty. Crucially though, the drive-thru report rarely tells us anything beyond the fact there are people in the Midlands, or that a pub landlord in Skegness is thinking about voting Tory. Writing and filmmaking that lionises the act of leaving London, as though that alone were an achievement, falls at the first hurdle. The existence of Wigan is not a story, and presenting it as one only serves to distance it further – giving airtime to “real Englanders” in order to assuage some liberal media guilt.
The backlash has been felt. The Guardian recently made a series called Made in Stoke-on-Trent , triggered by Stoke residents unhappy with how their city had been represented by the newspaper’s coverage during the 2017 by-election. The new series shadows individuals and city-projects far more closely. Each episode takes the time to invest in an actual story, some distinct to that city, as told through interviews that are considerable longer than the usual 40-second curbside Q&A. The result is a version of the place that is far more meaningful and ultimately insightful.
What it shows, is that just as we talk about decentralised power, we need to decentralised storytelling. In part that means people from places other than London telling the stories in the first place, offering platforms to people from different parts of the UK (without demanding they move to London to work, where the only regional insight they can offer is an accent). In comparison to America, which has influential powerhouse newspapers in a range of different states and cities – as do many European countries – the UK has a markedly concentrated media. The speedy decline of local newspapers, many of which are being bought up by conglomerates and turned into clickbait farms, has facilitated this further. Channel 4 might be reticent to move to Birmingham, but is it really so unreasonable to spread our major outlets across the landscape?
Beyond that, the real aim should be telling regional stories that are free from pre-ordained narratives, stories that can’t be filmed in a day, straight off a train (or a bus). We need journalists who are being led by the people they interview, and not just arriving with a checklist of vox-pops that need to be collected – “too many immigrants”, “this used to be full of people”, “what’s the point in voting?” We need stories that are actual stories, unique to their places of origin. Projects like the Bureau Local, a non-for-profit organisation providing local reporters with the resources to tell their stories and hold power to account, point towards the potential future.
Credit where it’s due, Self took notice of the tectonic drift that was occuring between the capital and everywhere else a good four years before Brexit, but his new series falls into the same traps all heartland safaris do. Before the first episode of his new series has reached the five minute mark, he's already describing the burnt out cars and mothers with pushchairs he's spied on the edges of the motorway. Before long he's in a guesthouse, describing the "empty and hollowed" town centre as sombre piano plinks under his words. In seeking to explore an identity in flux, work like this also seeks to define what Britain's new identity is – a job we need to stop trusting to day-tripping journalists from London.
None of this is to say you have to be from somewhere in order to write about it. Great journalism often, if not always, benefits from the birdseye perspective that coming from out of town brings with it. There is also a place for the flâneur – the travelling diarist, rambling over tarmac – but we need to stop tasking these writers with uncovering British identity, understanding the real England, or any number of other profound political purposes. If we want to understand what’s really going in, we need to do more than pass through.