When Are We Going to Stop Laughing at 'Shit Britain'?

Sacha Baron Cohen's <i>Grimsby</i> is evidence that, in today's culture, working-class toughness is something to be mocked. Why have we turned poor people into punchlines?

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Jan 27 2015, 11:00am

All photography by Hayley Hatton

Last summer, Tilbury, Essex became Grimsby, North Lincolnshire. Detritus was strewn across the streets to affect the temporal change. Caricatures of slags and obese scroungers marauded up and down the road. Across one of the pulled-down shop shutters was scrawled "HULL R WANKERS", a rivalry that might have made sense a four-hour drive north.

Tilbury's usage by the artist formerly known as Ali G, Sacha Baron Cohen, in his football hooligan spy spoof Grimsby now scheduled for next year, follows the tradition of dilapidated or neglected parts of Britain being used as ready-made locations for poverty porn: Channel 4 documentaries like Benefits Street or Skint, and the music videos made by trust funders making day trips to areas of urban or suburban blight.

Tilbury is a small port town with a big name. It's most often talked about in terms of its illustrious past – Elizabeth I's speech before the Spanish Armada, Daniel Defoe's business dealings, the docking of the Windrush as shorthand for Britain's postwar immigration policy. Its exotic past is reflected by the road names – Calcutta Road, Adelaide Road, Malta Road – and its illustrious history can often lead one to believe that what happens now doesn't matter.

The charity-shop-kebab-shop scruffiness of Tilbury – whose first streets and dwellings were largely built by the Irish working classes who came here to work – is typical of a neglected town in UK 2014. We walk down Calcutta Road, the street that was devolved into a pastiche of Grimsby, stopping off at the offie that changed its sign to Grimsby Wines. "People were actively offended at the state of the street during the filming," says the Labour candidate for Thurrock, Polly Billington, who has offices just off Calcutta Road. "Some came into our office. They thought that the set itself was making Tilbury look worse than it was. It may be that it was depicting somewhere else, but people from Tilbury are really proud of where they're from, and rightly so."

Tilbury resides in the beaten-down borough of Thurrock, a collection of village-like clusters between industrial pockmarks, wild marshland and huge, infrastructural developments such as the docks themselves and the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge. Thurrock is frequently exposed as one of the worst places to live in Britain. It's the least happy and the most toxic, following the WHO's findings that it has the highest average readings of toxic particles known as PM2.5s than anywhere else in the country.

Some of the pollution comes from emissions from vehicles traveling along the M25 in the area of the QE2 Bridge and the motorway's adjoining roads, and some from the factories along the Thames. Fly-tipping sites can stretch for miles. It has always acted as a kind of dumping ground for the ills of London, bearing the brunt of smog-producing industry, landfill sites and, latterly, vehicle access to the capital.

Yet away from the acrid, sickly sweet smell of the factories along the Thames by Purfleet and Grays, and the lorries slamming down roads to and from Tilbury Docks, there are some areas that haven't changed for centuries, like the pleasantly pastoral West Tilbury and Fobbing.

Last year, the Economist claimed Tilbury "Must be saved." The article characterised locals as sad sack proles, banished into the economic doldrums by cruel circumstance. In its standfirst, the piece claimed the town "stands for Britain's white working class", and asked why this poor, disaffected group has "failed to adapt".

This line is, of course, a favourite of our coalition government: there is no reason the striving working-class can't get on in our society. So why do they feel like they've been left behind?

Though Grimsby is officially in Humberside and exempt from pub bore credentials of what constitutes "The North", it is considerably further north than what most people would think of as Essex. But Tilbury defies the slick Essex myth of the City-sucking loadsamoney. The industrial Thames Estuary area of Essex's metropolitan borderlands has long been considered more akin to our shared perceptions of the grimacing North than the charmed South. At a time when the gulf between this North and this South is reportedly ever-widening, it's worth remembering there are norths to be found all over.

The town's brass band accentuates this. The Tilbury Band has been a community hub since it was founded by the National Union of Railwaymen in 1919. The band is a stoic anomaly in the received logic of a place like Tilbury, its lightly-worn communal spirit alleviating the prevailing cynicism of England. Members are fiercely proud of the Tilbury, while acknowledging its reputation. Horn player Paul Carver has been mugged on his way to practice, but he says it could have happened when the town was thriving. The band no longer parade around the town before Christmas. "The local kids worked out if they were at the other end of the street to us, they'd knock on the door and get the money that was meant for charity," says Paul.

Rehearsals are housed in an unsuspecting building on Dock Road that runs parallel to the flow of the river. Cardboard egg boxes line the ceiling of the hall – Paul's dad put them there in the 80s to improve the room's acoustics. His granddad joined in 1933, and he followed his father when he picked up the French horn with the band in 1978. "When I was a kid there were six or seven working men's clubs in Tilbury and the majority of the band worked on Tilbury Docks," says Paul. "You'd be lucky if there are two operating now."

The problem is exacerbated by technological advancement, the automation of new ports such as the one downriver built by Dubai: London Gateway. "When Dad started in the 60s, the docks directly employed thousands of men," Paul continues. "Now, it's only 800. As time has gone on, band members have moved further and further out. Maybe half still live in Thurrock – but it still carries on."

Last year, Grimsby and Thurrock were both included on Ukip's 12-strong hit list for potential seats in the forthcoming general election, along with other coastal or port constituencies such as Nigel Farage's South Thanet, neighbouring North Thanet the Isle of Sheppey, East Worthing and Shoreham in West Sussex, Great Yarmouth, Portsmouth South and Boston – the latter which, along with Grimsby and Skegness, completes a Lincolnshire triumvirate.

"The whole thing about immigration being peddled by Ukip is that, if you actually live in an area, it's different," says Brian, chairman and tuba player in the Tilbury Band and resident in the area for nearly four decades. "The people who stir up that kind of thing are always from outside. In one of the local schools I'm governor of, 57 percent of kids have English as their second language. Last year, they got 'good to outstanding' in an Ofsted inspection. You hear all sorts of languages at the school gate. But once you get inside, no one thinks, 'Well, he's an Albanian, he's a Sri Lankan' – there is still a good community in the area."

Port towns reflect Britain's problem more starkly than most places. Global trade built the Empire, and Tilbury was the entry and exit point. The majority of British trade still comes through ports. Yet, in the advent of globalisation, there isn't a great deal of work to be found there. Port traffic increased by 35 percent between the early 80s and the turn of the Millennium, but in the same time, the workforce was decimated.

Forth Ports owns Tilbury and the Port of London authority runs the waterways. The narrative is always that industrial decline begat the suffering of local people, but it's not that simple. That a country with one of the largest GDPs in the world can also house such dilapidation and seek to naturalise it is scandalous. Myths of economic austerity and decline have been perpetuated since the Thatcher years, to mask the fact that it's globalisation and wealth distribution – not lack of wealth in itself – that is the issue.

The Port of Tilbury

In some respects, Tilbury might as well be as far away from London as Grimsby is. It's just outside the zone covered by the Oyster Card and it costs £11.50 to make the short journey to London every day, making commuting an expensive luxury for those seeking unskilled, minimum-wage employment. Tilbury has brought up its people to believe in the working class ethic of a job for life. If your dad was a docker, then so would you be.

"The fact that the trade unions managed to organise so that people were protected were hard-fought rights in a community like Tilbury," says Billington. "These rights are undermined very easily by globalisation, when somebody says we are going to put you all on flexitime, have agency workers and put you all on standby. That's when we have to say, 'No, we can't have that,' because that's when we start to go backwards."

The woes of a place like Tilbury – benefit mums, drunk slags, overweight scroungers – have become punchlines for a global audience that is encouraged to laugh at provincial poverty.

Billington sees "skilling people up" as the answer. She points to the logistics park that's developing on the marshland as you just enter the town, while also conceding that more trucks might not be the best thing for a place that tops the chart for toxic air. "You can't just have a hook in your back pocket any more, as the dockers once did. You've got to have a logistics qualification, which is why we have a logistics academy being developed. If people know they're going to be a travel crane driver, if they've got a skill, they also need to be thinking about how they're going to be able to develop in this industry, so that when it becomes more automated, they can be the ones doing the automating."

Working-class toughness is mocked in today's culture. Respect is a joke. The woes of a place like Tilbury – benefit mums, drunk slags, overweight scroungers – have become punchlines for a global audience that is encouraged to laugh at provincial poverty. If Tilbury can be replaced by Grimsby and vice versa, it is because those in poverty are interchangeable.

"The biggest risk is when people feel left behind and they haven't got a belief that they can change things themselves," says Billington. "If they don't think things can change then you are in a vortex of despair. Ukip doesn't offer any hope to change things in a way that is meaningful, and a lot of the measures that they offer would actually be disastrous rather than good for the people they claim to represent. That's why I'm fighting so hard, so that people feel they've got some skin in the game and they've got some opportunity to change things."

Billington says some admirable things I want to get behind, but you just wonder what she can do, what any government can do, against the triumph of globalisation. Last year, Tilbury Docks became a symbol for the savagery of international capitalism. 35 men, women and children were found in a shipping container transported by a P&O ferry from Zeebrugge to the Port of Tilbury. They had been trafficked from Afghanistan, in search of a liveable life. One man was declared dead at the scene and many others were taken to hospitals in London and Essex, suffering from hypothermia.

The primary coloured containers stacked up behind fences in Tilbury betray the globalised world that defines the problems of the working poor. The working men's clubs and seafarer hotels are now largely absent from the landscape. Cargo was once unloaded by hand, so sailors would stop over at port for a few days. By 2001, it was a few hours. Civic life drains away with the closure of each building and the opening of each fenced-off logistic park. It accounts for the ennui I feel at the sheer volume of graceless depictions of Shit Britain and trite Hogarthian grotesqueries, stacked up and fed to us through box-like screens.

Grimsby might well be hilarious, and we shouldn't discount Britain's position in the international GSOH chart. But more and more, comic depictions of the regional blight exacerbate the hardening callouses of division that characterise island life today. In thinking it is laughing at itself, Britain finds itself laughing at the put-upon other.

@timburrows

Trying to Fit a Number to a Name: The Essex Estuary by Tim Burrows and Lee Rourke is published by Influx Press

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