In the second instalment of this four-part series, Tim Burrows looks at England's misunderstood eastern side, continuing here with Boston, Skegness and Grimsby. Part one, which looks at Margate and Dover, is here.
Looking for England? Get in a car and drive from one town to another and you will find it. It's there, look, in the ragged polythene drooping from trees and hedgerows on A-road after A-road. You'll see it in those muddy fields turned into quasi militaristic play parks and populated by over-buff blokes huffing and puffing during the pre-lash section of their stag weekend. The village pub converted into a quirky looking Italian restaurant – that's it, too.
England is also to be found in the scene of migrant workers picking daffodils that we encounter just outside Boston, Lincolnshire. It is not an England that everybody in Boston is particularly enamoured of right now. It seems a thriving town, but some mention an undercurrent that has fostered. Those born overseas make up 15 percent of the town's population of 75,000, mostly from eastern Europe (Poland, Lithuania, Latvia). A respectable Bostonian man who works as an engineer in the local hospital tells us that no one goes down West Street. It's "their" area. "They" sometimes come into "our shops", he says, but it's fine. "They" even have their own nightclub. There is no malice in his voice when uttering these words that seem pretty divisive written down on the page. He is merely telling us the situation the way he sees it.
Among the skleps of West Street is Diva's Cakes, owned and run by Daiva Razguniene. She moved here a decade ago from Lithuania, working in factories with her husband, working her way up to the role of manager until she left to start her cake shop. She calls West Street "East Street" for its concentration of businesses run by east European-born. "English people use the marketplace more but it is £1600, £1700 per month [to rent a shop there]." Daiva pays a third of that for the rent of her shop, hence East Street. She and her husband have a kid and will probably stay in Boston now and she sees the future as more integrated than seems credible to some. "More and more when my customers come in and order a wedding cake or to buy some cakes, it is an English man, Lithuanian lady, or an English lady and a Polish man for example – there's lots of mixtures now."
Boston is five miles inland and almost 40 minutes drive from Skegness. Like most of the east, the constituency of Boston and Skegness has been comfortably Conservative since it was the two separate constituencies, Holland with Boston and East Lindsey, but there is talk of a young challenger in town, the 22-year-old UKIP local hopeful Robin Hunter Clarke (who doesn't want to talk to VICE).
Seaside towns such as Skegness have the air of the film set, a temporality reflected in its architecture of fun that masks a certain emptiness. In the Waterhole pub round the back of the promenade at Skegness, Middlesbrough are spanking Ipswich 3-1 on wall-to-wall flatscreens. "It's so flat round here," says Dave, who's come in for a midday pint after finishing for the day. "If you've got a motor scooter, you're all right."
Jagged horizons charge Dave up; 52 years old, he has lived near the Pennines and goes cliff fishing in Scotland from time to time, but he stays because of the work and seems to enjoy the irony that his job is selling and building flat-pack furniture. He doesn't vote but has a lot to say about what's wrong, particularly about the windmills. Between here and Cleethorpes by the Humber river there are another 200 wind turbines going up, he says. Renewable energy is painted as the future of this part of the east of England, but it's ruined the fishing according to Dave. You don't get no cod no more, he says, just the crabs and lobsters (creatures known to be attracted to the base of the huge turbines) that migrate across the Wash from Cromer.
Skeggy is perhaps best known for being the birthplace of the Butlins holiday camp, when Billy Butlin expanded on his fairground in 1936, and it is still a well-used seaside town. Off-season Butlins exists for the eternal English party crowd, the stag and hen dos. Theme weekends dominate, which brings temporary migrants to the town: 8,000 for the recent 80s night.
It speaks to England's goodtime side – the endless celebration of the nothing in particular, which could be said to define us. But there's a feeling that it's slipping. Outside Skegness working men's club, I strike up a conversation as pints are ferried out to help get Saturday moving along nicely. "Yeah, I like Skegness," says Steve, a pensioner in a leather jacket who has the cheeky smile of a man who knows you've screwed his wife and is looking forward to an elaborate revenge. "But it needs entertainment clubs, where people can have a dance and a bit of a sing along, that sort of thing. Comedians singers ... But you haven't got that here so you're either drinking or you're in the bookies."
Last hurrah of a dead horizon. As flat as a fish finger, or a Findus crispy pancake.
Both are applicable. A whole stand at Grimsby Town's ground Blundell Park is named after the fish and food processing company Findus, and Grimsby was indeed once considered the home of the fish finger.
If there is a foodstuff that could be claimed by the east of England to an almost metaphoric degree, it is the fish finger, first produced in the UK for Birds Eye in Great Yarmouth in the 1950s.
People round here still talk of the Cod Wars with Iceland in the 1970s as the tipping point that punctured Grimsby's proud role as one of the major European fishing ports. After skirmishes off the coast of Iceland over the amount of cod that boats from the UK were catching, a 13- then a 50-mile limit was imposed around Icelandic waters. By the mid-80s, the number of fishermen working out of Grimsby was a sixth of what it was at its height. Yet in the mid 90s, Grimsby was still the centre of a fish finger market worth £293million and which sent out 952million orange sticks a year – back then, 27 percent of the total catch landed by British fleets ended up in a fish finger. The Birds Eye factory left in 2005 and the factory was burned to the ground by arsonists in 2007. The fish finger has since declined but it is still reckoned that three quarters of the fish eaten in the UK is processed in Grimsby.
Youngs in particular still thrives. It sponsors Cleethorpes's carnival which even features people dressed up as fish fingers in a nod to its processed fish heritage. But much of the work places like this offers is via agencies. I talk to Liam, a mate who's from Grimsby but now lives in London. He can't remember which of the food factories he worked at every time he needed 50 quid, but he knows he hated it. And this is the thing. So much rhetoric today is about how the feckless English are too lazy or too superior to take the work that is offered to them. But what if it is simply the case that it's too mind-numbing and badly paid to be considered. Liam felt he couldn't fit within the narrow "village-like" parameters of what Grimsby expected of him. He had to travel out of town to get the records he wanted. In the end he, like many, chose the opportunity, the anonymity, of London.
A Labour stronghold since 1945, Great Grimsby is a marginal seat today. Austin Mitchell only beat the Conservatives by 714 votes last time. East Marsh, the second most deprived ward in the country, is the emblem of Grimsby-as-industrial cavity. And while politics offers nothing in the way of change for lives that have flatlined, some TV shows luxuriate in such abandonment. The Channel Four documentary series, Skint, was filmed in the area, which provoked a public fightback thought of as the moment poverty porn was called out in public here.
The port of Grimsby rose in the mid 19th century and peaked a century later when it proudly boasted more fishermen and trawlers than their rivals on the other side of the Humber, Hull. These days, the town languishes in Hull's shadow. Hull is a city, Grimsby's a town. Hull City Football Club play in the Premier League and made the FA Cup final last year; Grimsby Town languish in the Conference, their supporters among the longest-suffering in the country. Grimsby has a population of almost 90,000; Hull has around three times that at around 330, 000. Hull is capital of culture 2017; Grimsby's most recent cultural highlight was Sacha Baron Cohen depicting the town as a slag-ridden shell for the entertainment of a global audience (except he didn't deign to film it in Grimsby).
Trade union affiliated party TUSC's candidate Val O'Flynn puts the relationship succinctly: "We don't get the steam off Hull's piss." The £310m Siemens wind turbine factory that was promised for Grimsby somehow ended up at Hull. "We've been training people to do those jobs. but it's still not certain how many we're going to get now. Where the money's been spent has been at one end of the seafront, in Cleethorpes. The other end, Grimsby, has been left to deteriorate."
TUSC is an umbrella organisation attempting to unite a disparate left under one political banner. Val joined as a representative of the Socialist Party after years spoiling her ballot to reflect her feeling of betrayal by Labour. In this way, TUSC is the worker's rights-focused, pro-Europe, anti-fascist UKIP.
Great Grimsby has been targeted by UKIP. The party installed Victoria Ayling as their candidate, but Val feels this might have been a miscalculation, owing to Ayling's overt hostility to immigrants and National Front affiliation, which has led to local infighting. Aside from that niggling NF thing, Ayling is noted for asking the paradoxical question "what happens when the renewables run out?", and last week it was her dear leader Farage's turn to pour scorn on wind farms when he visited, saying "in ten years time there won't be a renewables industry", to much local consternation. Immigration is being pitched as a concern here, although the amount of migrants who have come to Grimsby is less than Boston (where Ayling lives nearby). Most I talk to know that it's the failure of politicians to confront the problem fishing industry that has been the issue, but UKIP's blustering stance on wind farms shows they're not ready to engage with Grimsby's present in a meaningful way – only its past.
Surprisingly for a socialist candidate, Val is engaged to UKIP council candidate Chris Osborne, who is standing for the ward of Croft Baker and who was quoted in the press saying of Ayling that he "can't endorse or support a candidate who I genuinely believe ... is racist". But she reckons UKIP in Grimsby is very different prospect to elsewhere: "A lot of them are Labour Party members who became totally disgusted with the party and so decided to join UKIP in order to fight for the community." It points to the flux in UK politics at the moment. Surely if better grassroots parties spring up in England, UKIP will capitulate?
"Oh England you're fair, but there's none to compare with my Grimsby," sang Elton John in his ode to the port town from his numb-gummed pomp in 1974. It was written by lifelong collaborator Bernie Taupin, who grew up in villages between Sleaford and Grimsby, and who also wrote "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" about the rambunctious, everyone's-a-friend-until-they-fucking-deserved-it intensity of a proper weekend tear-up.
Saturday Night still happens in Grimsby town centre, but not in the same way it once did. The train conductor was genuinely surprised when we asked for two return tickets to Grimsby as we pulled away from Cleethorpes, as most people go the other way, towards the more tourist-ready resort.
Outside the Barge, an alt pub housed in a converted canalboat on the river Freshney, Stephen and Dave, both 27-year-old post-grads, reminisce about the good times ten years ago when this place would be heaving before everyone went to snakebite-pushing Gulliver's nightclub over the road. "It's a world away from what it used to be," says Stephen, who mentions the decline of Freeman Street, which thrived during the 1960s but is now an archetype of English main-drag desolation. "Grimsby has almost become the Margate of the North – a backwater. The big problem islocation; in terms of connections, you're almost at the end of the road ... business hasn't come here. While this government has concentrated on London, almost everywhere else has gone to ruin."
But the craic is alive and well in Cleethorpes. When we return, everyone not asleep is bladdered. In a pub-club hybrid I strike up a pissed conversation with a bloke from Cornwall who's had so much lager he looks like he's trying to snog himself at times. He tells me he travels here to work on the wind farms, but doesn't like the place much. He's happy not to engage with it, showing me a video of the rugby on his iPhone and talks about the boys back home. It's this detachment that defines Grimsby, says Val, who points to the hotels built for skilled workers to stay in as if to emphasise that there is not enough quality work and training for people who grew up here. But the party doesn't stop. This is England, after all, and "Uptown Funk" has just come on.
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