As coffee table books go, Crap Towns is unusual – featuring, as it does, the unloveliest corners of our nation. The first edition came out in 2003 and was a publishing sensation – not only because it sold so well, but because it attracted a storm of controversy, not least from the places it so unflatteringly portrayed.
Ten years on, there is to be an anniversary sequel, Crap Towns Returns – “back by unpopular demand” with, we are promised, “new decay! new misery!”
Writing for the New Statesman, Daniel Gray is less than thrilled:
“Crap Towns hides its disdain for ‘lesser’ people in ‘lesser’ places behind its format. It is pomposity via photos of re-badged Arndale Centres, sneering via rankings that set the inhabitants of, say, Coventry against those of Nuneaton when they should be uniting in the face of an elite that knows nothing about their lives. It deigns to tell the whole stories of place and people in a couple of quarter-pages, writing them and their Britain off. A bit of fun? Reading Crap Towns is the modern equivalent of watching a good old hanging.”
Does he have a point? Certainly, there’s something pretty low in laughing at the real life misfortunes of others – especially when they’re poorer and less educated than you are. Perhaps we should be looking for the best our country has to offer – even in the least promising of locations:
“I like an England that celebrates what it has and looks to change for the better what it hasn’t. It laughs along, not at. It is progressive, not hopeless.
“The England I wish to take readers to looks at Stockton-on-Tees and its neighbour Middlesbrough and sees places that changed the world. That Middlesbrough – in 2009 Channel Four’s ‘Worst Place to Live’ – is one of steel that coiled the globe like a writhing nest of serpents. As a poem on a wall near the football stadium recounts, Every metropolis / Came from Ironopolis.”
As Daniel Gray argues, there is charm and character to be found everywhere:
“…Bradford in this England, if you open your eyes, is at times wistfully beautiful: the Werther’s Original packet-coloured stone of its buildings, the Flat Iron contours of Little Germany, Asian and white teenagers giggling together as the rain ping-pongs all around them.
“Luton is the mesmeric buzz of Bury Park, with its unidentifiable vegetables that look like pock-marked comets and the old man in the Conservative Club who waved a walking stick at me for forgetting to pay my 50p entrance fee.”
Affectionate humour can be insightful, but isn’t there also room for anger in comedy? Despite its world-weary cynicism, Crap Towns is an angry book – its fury directed not at ordinary people, but at the town planners and architects that have, since the war, willfully and needlessly disfigured so much of our country. Though it might not say so directly, Crap Towns is, in fact, a plea for beauty – as something that should be present everywhere, not just in the enclaves of the rich.
Like almost every other social problem, architectural ugliness is often explained away as a symptom of economic disadvantage. However, Crap Towns provides ample evidence that prosperous southern commuter towns can be ugly too.
It is a reminder that, in a modern society, bad architecture is not the inevitable consequence of poverty – nor the unintended consequence of misconceived policy. Rather it is a deliberate choice and all the more unforgivable for being so.