A Church of England primary school in Richmond, London, has junked Sir Winston Churchill and J.K. Rowling as names for two of its houses and replaced them with the names of the footballer Marcus Rashford and the lady who helped out in the Crimean war, Mary Seacole. This was done, the school said, in order to be ‘more diverse’. Poor old Mary. She is always being roped in, because so many schoolteachers are devoid of imagination as well as being a bit ignorant. Seacole may be regarded as a ‘great Black Briton’, yet she did not consider herself black but Creole and Scottish. A somewhat sharp-tongued woman, she disparaged both black and Creole people, referring to them as, among other things, ‘grinning’, ‘excited’, ‘indolent’ and ‘good-for-noughts’. She also bandied the ‘N-word’ about with a certain abandon and not in an equivocal sense, either.
I daresay there were very good reasons as to why Mrs Seacole should disavow the quarter of herself that was of African descent. She was a creature of her times, after all. But this is the problem when you tear down idols and hastily erect new ones: the grounds upon which those old heroes were defenestrated almost always apply to the new heroes as well, whether it be Martin Luther King’s ‘homophobia’ or Gandhi’s not wholly admiring view of Africans. In a sense I suppose it doesn’t matter now. The schools and other institutions which do this kind of thing do not care much about the facts; they are simply genuflecting towards an idiotically fashionable modernity in which the appearance is more important than the reality.
Sometimes the appearance ismore important than the reality, mind. I thought about this verisimilitude while listening to the furore that greeted the government’s decision to scrap its various expensive rail projects in the north of England. The first thing which struck me was that Boris and co had made a fairly shrewd political decision. As well as a north-south divide, this country also has an east-west one, politically as well as financially. There were not terribly many ‘red wall’ seats west of the Pennines captured by the Tories in 2019. Manchester and, particularly, Liverpool remain Labour strongholds. Leeds, too, returned five Labour MPs at the last election and still suffers under a particularly useless Labour-run council.
This is far less true of the north-east of England, from Middlesbrough up to Newcastle. The greatest breaches in that red wall came on Teesside and in Durham — and we, the people who live there, had absolutely nothing to gain from HS2 or HS3 and rather resented it. What we want is a regular direct link from King’s Cross to Middlesbrough or Redcar (which is supposedly coming) and greatly improved local transport between the big towns and cities of the region. I recently moved back here from Kent, where I lived in a village between Ashford and Canterbury. I could get a train which covered the 60 miles to London in 37 minutes. The rail service for the 40-mile trip between Middlesbrough and Newcastle usually involves a change and takes no less than one hour and two minutes and often one hour and 24. You see the stark difference?
More than that, though, is the appearance of the train. A businessman considering investing in Teesside will clamber off the perfectly decent East Coast mainline service at Darlington and be directed to a diesel multiple unit which looks as if it were constructed in Czechoslovakia in 1952. It will chug and wheeze the 18 miles to Middlesbrough in about half an hour, stopping almost every-where in between except at the bleak and still fairly deserted Teesside airport. It is an immediate disincentive to placing your business in the area and, in truth, it is as much the look of the train as the journey time which is the problem.
I do not doubt for a second that this area needs investment in industry and infrastructure. But what it also needs, in order to attract that investment, is the verisimilitude of affluence, if not affluence itself. You may remember a phenomenon from the last decade called the ‘Waitrose Effect’: put crudely, the poshest postcodes in the country are all within spitting distance of a Waitrose store. When the residents of the extremely wealthy Sandbanks, in Dorset, protested long and loud in 2012 about Tesco’s plan to set up shop nearby, the fury was not occasioned by a visceral opposition to supermarkets per se, but by the fact that the supermarket in question wasn’t a Waitrose.
The nearest Waitrose to where I live now is 54 miles distant. If I were running the local council, I would bribe Waitrose to build a store in the area — hell, quite a lot of the people are flush with disposable cash because houses are so cheap. Waitrose will not bring affluence, of course, but it will give the impression of affluence.
Similarly, those houses… There is a dearth of property at the top end of the market, the kind of houses which businessmen might wish to live in — but only in one smallish area of Teesside are those sorts of properties being built. Instead much of the rather beautiful countryside around our towns is being paved to make way for brick’n’plasterboard two-beds with a tiny strip of forlorn grass masquerading as a garden. Yet unless we are simply to become a dumping ground for refugees, there seems to be no great demand for this cheap new housing stock.
Appearances matter. Two little streets in Middlesbrough have been tarted up and shoved full of cute bars, dinky independent restaurants and arty shops. It’s where I take newcomers to the town — and they like it. It is for a while a Potemkin village, a façade, until eventually people move here and it suddenly becomes actually affluent. That’s the theory, anyway.
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