This weekend I decided to visit somewhere I haven’t been for a while: Matthew Parris’s column in the Times – which, on Saturday, was all about Clacton and the sort of people who live there.
It isn’t very easy to get to, I must say. For a start you have to negotiate a formidable (but excellent value-for-money) paywall – and then, once aboard and underway, whizz past a number of more fashionable stopping-off points, such as the columns of Caitlin Moran and the up-and-coming Tim Montgomerie. Some of the more obscure contributors are well worth a visit too – and one in particular, I feel, deserves a higher profile.
Finally, at the end of the line, we get to our intended destination. To be honest, it’s seen better days – but some shocking developments have attracted a lot of attention, so let’s explore.
This is “not a dirty or un-self-respecting” column. Evidence of writerly pride and literary effort is everywhere. Flashes of the old Parris charm “struggle gamely on” – and some entertaining turns-of-phrase also feature.
Unfortunately, the more salubrious parts don’t stretch very far and before long we find ourselves deep in dismal territory. Looking around, one can only conclude that this column is “going nowhere”.
Consider the claim that a town can be judged by its shops. Up to a point this is true, but not the most original of observations – posher places have posher shops, wouldn’t-you-know. Things get even sillier when Parris takes the local Burton’s to task for promoting cheap suits and the Holland & Barrett for selling large containers of “Serious Mass Muscle Gainer”.
I’d imagine the author is more of an Austin Reed man and a stranger to protein supplements, but Burton’s and H & B sell much the same gear in outlets from Tyneside to Tunbridge Wells – which therefore tells us nothing about Clacton in particular.
Sadly, that’s all there is to find in this column – ten condescending asides and no real social insight. Nevertheless, it is on this basis that Parris hands down his verdict on the capital of Carswell country: “This is Britain on crutches. This is tracksuit-and-trainers Britain, tattoo-parlour Britain, all-our-yesterdays Britain.”
He’s wrong. Away from the playgrounds of the prosperous, “tattoo-parlour Britain” is very much today’s Britain – not just in out-of-the-way seaside towns, but in urban centres across the country. And, yes, that includes sophisticated, multi-cultural London, which is not, in fact, exclusively composed of galleries and pop-up restaurants, but also heavily larded with nail bars, pound shops, fast-food outlets and sportswear retailers.
That doesn’t mean that’s how things ought to be or should always be, but the people of “tattoo-parlour Britain” deserve to have their hopes, fears, values and potential taken as seriously as anywhere else.
According to the Inequality Briefing website, nine of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe are in the United Kingdom:
“In the UK we think of ourselves as having similar standards of living to other countries in Northern Europe like France, Germany, Belgium, Holland and the Nordic Countries. These are our nearest neighbours. They share a similar economic history to us, and have experienced similar political stability since the second world war…
“However, the poorest UK regions are by far the poorest in Northern Europe. This is because the UK is much more unequal than other countries, where there is nowhere as rich as London, but nowhere as poor as our poorest regions.”
In this case, “London” means Inner London and “region” means sub-region, but the Eurostat data does have the UK taking all but one of the bottom ten places – specifically: West Wales, Cornwall, Durham and Tees Valley, Lincolnshire, South Yorkshire, Shropshire and Staffordshire, Lancashire, Northern Ireland and East Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire.
Do those who want us to turn our backs on Clacton think we should turn our backs on much of the North and the Midlands too, not to mention Ulster, Wales and Cornwall? Or is Clacton to be singled out because its people have the temerity to bite back?