Beeston! Nottingham! Where the hell are we?

I was unable to fulfil my promise to write an article of exactly 500 words on every day I’m in isolation: two days were missed as I returned to my job and realised I had to get my head around remembering what I do for a living after months of furlough. That, and the fact isolation is really biting now: I’m a creature of the outdoors and while I love my garden, it’s not quite the same. I feel a clammy claustrophobia. One more full day left.

Having some unexpected time on my hands, I took the decision to write 500 words today, and cast out the request to send me topics. There were several replies stating ‘writer’s block’ which was probably a hope rather than a topic. I received several DM’s, including from one of my writing heroes who I’d previously never had any contact with, but the one that spurred me to my keyboard was from a local MP, who asked me the mildly gnomic question “What’s the North, what’s the Midlands and what’s Nottingham?’.

Here’s my response. It’s divided into three pieces, each exactly 500 words.

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I ask this question in all seriousness as I suspect that you, like me, have something of an identity crisis, which on the surface looks cosmetic but has quite far-reaching implications.

I used to work in a pub in Tonbridge, Kent, a town on the banks on the Medway that serves as the rough older brother to its dandified near-neighbour / near-namesake Tunbridge Wells. There, the regulars knew me as ‘Northern Matt’. I would point out that in fact, I was a Midlander, to which they’d shrug and tell me ‘It’s all North after the Watford Gap innit?”

Similarly, I lived for a while in Newcastle Upon Tyne. My Geordie friends made much of my southernness equating it with the cliches we give to such folk: crap beer, an effete nature, and a habit of voting Tory. Similar protestations to the veracity of this would lead to shrugs and “It’s all South after Washington Services”.

Jokers to the North of us, fools to the South, here we are, stuck in the middle. 

I once heard a story that I assumed to be apocryphal, of how newspaper/ magazine critics would shun Nottingham as they only received overnight expense payments if they were, as the crow flies, 120 miles or more from London. Nottingham is 109 miles from London: therefore no Travelodge for journos. If only Nottingham relocated to Mansfield (122 miles) then our excellent cultural industries would have had more exposure in those pre-digital days. Many years after dismissing this as chippy excuse-making, a London journo friend, and member of the Critic’s Circle, confessed it had some truth to it “Why go see a band at Rock City and have to rush for the last train back to London, when you could see the same band at the (Sheffield) Leadmill and a bed for the night?” 

Asking people who aren’t from the East Midlands where Nottingham is on a map usually elicits wildly inaccurate stabs at patches of land from the Scottish Borders to the Norfolk Broads. Without a coastline, or any estuarine proximity; sans anything but a flat bit of green to locate it on your average atlas (more generous ones may show a ridge of brown for the Pennines; we’re just to the right of it). We are indistinct, floating in the imaginations of most other British people somewhere around Birmingham, perhaps near Leeds. As someone who regularly has to redirect press releases telling me of great events happening in Beeston, Leeds, the latter particularly rankles. 

To many, this might seem trivial, and people’s lack of geography is forgivable. After all, I’d struggle to locate the small cities of a country like, say, Spain ( I once flew to the wrong airport there, after not realising there might be more than one San Pablo). If it was just that, then fine. But it is about more than that, and this lack of geographic clarity can have profound effects on how we are treated by an increasingly centralised, heavily London based Government.

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What is ‘the North’? Stuart Maconie, in his travelogue-cum-boreal meditation Pies and Prejudice, gives precision in his interpretation: accents harden and flat-caps doffed at all points above Crewe Station. Jeremy Paxman, in The English, imagined a line drawn along the Severn and then the Trent (sorry Clifton, but you’ll have to hand your whippets in). The Government, via the Office for National Statistics, defines it as all counties inclusive of and above Merseyside, South Yorkshire and Cheshire. This invisible dividing line that cleaves the country translates into spending when the Government loosens its purse strings. 

This past week, Nottingham has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. The sheer incompetence of failing to swiftly track and trace thousands of many positive Covid cases mean that Nottingham’s middling case rate soared five-fold  to 668.1 /100,000, the highest in the UK. As a news junkie, it’s rather strange seeing and hearing people I’m familiar with on the local scene: Notts City Council David Mellen, local journos such as Kit Sandeman and Hugh Casswell on the national stage. The Today programme on Radio 4 broadcast a vox pop from Derby Road. Channel 4 News is seen prowling Lenton Abbey. The spotlight is on us.

Yet all seem to struggle with exactly where we are. I’ve heard the phrase ‘Midland city’,  ‘Northern city’ and ‘Northern Cities – and Nottingham..’. We’re an awkward outlier to the idea that the surge in Covid is a Northern phenomenon.  Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle: all easy to define. Nottingham? Well, it’s near Birmingham, isn’t it?

A very Beeston-centric aside. When Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais conceived the sit-com Porridge, they wanted Slade Prison to feel like a limbo of no fixed identity. It was in the North East, but was inhabited by Scots (Mr Mackay) Northerners (Mr Barrowclough) and Southerners, with Ronnie Barker starring as the confident, bright and likable cockney Norman Stanley Fletcher. To get the balance right, a Midlander was sought, and Beestonian Richard Beckinsale was the obvious choice: his acting career was booming, he had vast appeal to younger viewers with a luxuriant thatch of brown hair and puppy-dog handsome face, well known to all Beestonians as it looks out from Bird’s wall. He was signed up, expanding the prison-slang work- in- progress name of ‘LAG’ into Lenny Arthur Godber. 

The chemistry between Barker and Beckinsale was instantaneous and obvious: they’d later become great friends, and Barker was devastated by his pal’s early demise. Yet there was an issue. To the producers, his Notts accent was too northern, and threatened to upset the show’s balance. To counter this, Beckinsale played the part with a defined Brummie accent. If ‘70s sitcoms are a measure of England’s hemispheric divide, we very much sit in the North. 

Will we be ‘levelled up’ (although right now it seems closer to William I’s harrying than levelling?). When the government speak of investing in the North, do they mean us? Are we even noticed, outside of despatches from a crisis?

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The Notts of old is long gone. The lace factories are bouji flats; the bike factory long razed and replaced with halls of residence. Sherwood Forest is more an arboreal archipelago than a contiguous continent of trees. The collieries closed, and with it the air is cleaner, Wollaton Hall returning to its original beautiful Ancaster stone, no longer cloaked in the sooty dirt, a by-product of the same wealth that created it.

As heavy industry shuts, others open. The two universities have expanded across the city and into nearby suburbs over the past couple of decades: and with it, wealth. It is assumed that the benefits of the presence of these institutions comes chiefly from throwing seventy thousand plus young people into an area, where they’ll be obliged to spend, but the true economic boost comes from the bits of the University undergraduates obscure: the vast amounts of support staff and academics that keep the place running, and the often ground-breaking research that goes on within and without the campus: ibuprofen and MRI machines both were dreamt up and made reality in Nottingham through this. 

This also provides fertile ground for creativity in the arts to develop: not just through the available academic courses but also by having a vast amount of young people wanting entertainment, wanting culture. This creates a sustainable eco-system for the arts to thrive, and I’m lucky enough to have had a front row seat of what feels like an exponential rise in Good Stuff Happening for the last couple of decades. Even London occasionally pricks its ears up and ventures up to check the rumours are true (before scurrying back to St Pancras before midnight, of course).

Covid 19 threatens both of these elements oif Notts. Our Universities may be in a pretty good state, but the uncertainty of lockdown and the nightmare many students – particularly freshers – have had over the past few months is a threat. With much of the venue-based entertainment network very likely to be closed down, with little in the way of government support, in the next couple of days, that vibrant scene looks in a perilous position. 

We need to do what we can to support them both. It is becoming clear that they are our future, just as lace and coal, bikes and ciggies, were our past. Through this crisis, perhaps this will become more apparent, and begin to solidify not just in local, but national imaginations. This broth of creative talent, bubbling along in the middle of England, no mere ill-defined hinterland, but a place with a unique, enviable and fiery, intelligent temperament.

A place that is knowable by its very unknowability: a city that writhes from definition, a place that is in constant flux, as rushing forward as the Trent in spate. 

If this seems paradoxical, then good. Our slogan should be paraphrased from the words Alan Sillitoe used to breathe life into Arthur Seaton:  Whatever You Think We Are, That’s What We’re Not. Welcome to Notts.