Few train journeys provide a more revealing picture of England than the TransPennine Express. Depending on which direction you're travelling, the timetable can read like a ranking of either the country's nastiest shit-holes, or the best locations for football league away days. Riding high on both of those lists is the route's penultimate destination, my hometown: Grimsby. This week, Shortlist magazine is reportedly going to crown it "the worst place to be a man in the UK".
Grimsby, as much as I love it, has the dubious honour of being the most appropriately named place in the world. As kids, we were taught that the town was named after "Grim", the Viking fisherman who founded it, but it may as well have been named after what immediately comes to mind: the synonym for "bleak".
Described by its former MP as "a tough, taciturn and unemotional town, inured to suffering because of the death of fishing and the inadequate level of support and spending it gets from government", Grimsby is the sort of place where you'll leave the train station and be instantly confronted by a flock of pigeons pecking away at dog shit.
Plenty of towns across England have suffered from the decline of industry; rising poverty (the town's East Marsh ward is one of the poorest in the country and was the subject of Channel 4's Skint); lack of investment; and the resulting drug, alcohol and crime problems – but few others seem to attract the same kind of derision as Grimsby. It feels like the town is the punchline of a relentless national joke. A town unable to catch a break. A town whose beauty and softness has been sand-blasted away by a never-ending chorus of Nelson Muntz "hahas" from the outside world, leaving nothing but the stern interior of passion, pain and loyalty.
The town's woes began with the fall of the fishing industry. The Cod Wars of the 1970s – and further EU-driven quotas – combined with dwindling fish stocks signalled the end of a working class culture that was ingrained in the town's identity.
My friends and I never experienced those North Sea glory years ourselves, but growing up there were constant reminders. We sang about fish at football matches, bands practised in old warehouses on the docks, and tales of adventures were recounted in corners of pubs. School trips were swimming and The National Fishing Heritage Centre.
We knew Grimsby wasn't the best place to live – visiting family members as far away as Skegness confirmed this – but we all just got on with it, because that's what you do when you're a child. We made the most of trips to the nearby seaside resort Cleethorpes; we made the most of the Fair World arcade, with regular visits to ensure our Silent Scope high scores were still intact. We made the most of it because that's all we had; nobody famous wrote poetry about our town, it never inspired any notable paintings and nobody "big" came from the local area, bar national anti-treasures Roy Chubby Brown and Ian Huntley.
It wasn't until Tommy Turgoose made Shane Meadows give him a fiver to audition for the lead in This Is England that the town got a taste of positive cultural exposure. Turgoose's sunken-eyed, glazed-over childhood stare provided a window into the psyche of the town he had come from.
As Turgoose so often points out in interviews, there has never been much going on in Grimsby – but, again, you make the most of it. Kasabian played the auditorium once, which felt huge, as did Pete Doherty. The Pigeon Detectives were on the receiving end of a barrage of piss-filled cups when they played the town in 2008 after announcing it was "great to be back in Yorkshire" (Grimsby is not in Yorkshire).
The auditorium bills have since been monopolised by tribute acts, pantomimes starring forgotten SMTV: Live presenters and the odd touring 8 Out of 10 Cats panel member. Local cult band Orphan Boy's lyrics paint the perfect picture of a pocket of the country a million miles away from the nearest A&R man: "Got a daytime job in a night-time bar / Got no money and he won't get far / But there's no one here and there's no family / And there's no pocket money but he likes it like that."
If the residents of Grimsby are proud of anything, it's our football team. Grimsby Town Football Club is a microcosm of everything resilient and humorous about the town, while also acting as a convenient parallel of its decline. Once modest second-tier relegation avoiders and cup run specialists, the "Mariners", like many other football league clubs, fell victim to the ITV Digital collapse and plummeted season after season into the slippery confines of the Vanarama Conference. While fierce local rivals Hull City's Premier League fortunes coincided with a reinvigoration of their city, Grimsby's downturn played out on its streets and football pitches.
Despite its fall from grace, the fans continue to sing week in, week out; home and away. "WE. PISS. ON. YOUR. FISH. (YES WE DO)!" and "LENELL JOHN-LEWIS, HIS NAME IS A SHOP!" (John-Lewis has since moved on to the greener pastures of Newport County) are just a few of the Town battle cries, swept up in the biting North Sea wind and carried around the stadium.
Blundell Park, the team's home ground, is actually situated in Cleethorpes on the bank of the Humber Estuary coastline. While most home spectators are limited to a view of the crunching muddy tackles and hoof-it mentality of Conference away sides, those in the second tier of the Findus Stand are treated to a panoramic view of the late afternoon North Sea traffic. Tankers crawl along, specks in the distance, before being snuffed out by the horizon. Henry Kissinger once sat through a defeat to Gillingham at Blundell Park after an invitation from the then-foreign secretary and MP for Great Grimsby, Tony Crosland.
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The Mariners' supporters, like the town, find it difficult to catch a break. Known for their passionate and boisterous away support, the lads of Blundell Park enjoy fierce local rivalries, and, according to government figures for the 2013/2014 season, Grimsby Town had more banning orders than any other team in the Vanarama Conference and League 2. These antics have caught the eye of Sacha Baron Cohen, who is currently making a film that looks set to raise the profile of the town from post-industrial globalisation casualty to pop-culture joke, instilling it with the same international credibility awarded on post-Borat Kazakhstan.
The general election in Grimsby, a moment for the town to potentially dust down its tired news-fodder stereotype, played out as a similarly embarrassing real-life mockumentary. The UKIP candidate Victoria Ayling, having got the traditional xenophobic quip out of the way early on, asked the hard questions about renewable energy, while the outgoing Labour MP made things difficult by complacently joking in an interview that Labour would win the seat even if they selected "a raving sex paedophile". Nigel Farage also briefly turned up and, as punishment, the media made him go on a boat trip to see offshore wind turbines with Joey Essex.
The one-step-forward, two-steps-back politics the town has been subjected to for years is not limited to parliamentary proceedings. The local council has form for futile attempts at improving things, most recently pouring money into a geometric paving pattern that is so hypnotically mesmerising that it nearly killed somebody. On a much more promising note, the constituency of Great Grimsby can now boast a female Labour MP brought up on a local council estate, giving her a major insight into the plight local people are facing and answering the calls for "real people" in Westminster.
Grimsby is unfortunate, not just because of its circumstances, but because of an endless comical repetition of them. It's a place long-forgotten by politicians and in desperate need of help. The people are resilient, humorous and aware of their far from perfect surroundings, but they're at the mercy of macro-economic factors way beyond them. Grimsby isn't perfect, but it's not the one-dimensional shit-hole it's often made out to be.
(Thumbnail image via Channel 4)
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