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Not much matches Mansfield

07/27/2012

“Not much matches Mansfield” was the slightly tongue in cheek tagline for an advert for Mansfield bitter in the 1980s. I used to like Mansfield bitter, it was the first pint I ever had in a pub. For ages, I thought there must be something wrong with pints that weren’t served with the half inch of creamy head that you always seemed to get with a pint of Mansfield. It was only when I started travelling further afield that I realised this was a peculiarly northern thing. Remember that Tetley’s advert a few years’ later that suggested that southerners should wear flat caps as they’re the ones with flat heads? Anyway, enough about alcoholic advertising slogans, that’s not what this piece is about. It’s meant to be a eulogy to two of the most unfashionable towns in England.

Whenever you see one of those lists of “crap towns” or “the worst places to live in the UK” you can be pretty sure that Mansfield and Scunthorpe will be in there somewhere. They are two of the usual suspects along with the likes of Luton, Hull and Rotherham. “Shitholes” is the delightful term used by many on the interweb. I’ve no idea who compiles these lists or what evidence they carefully evaluate before attaching a label to a town and its people. Presumably it must be quite a task involving many thousands of people being asked a detailed set of questions. Or is it a bit simpler than that? Maybe a spot of Daily Mail-type spitefulness cast in the direction of a town that has perhaps a few too many pound shops.

As an itinerant NHS bean counter, I lived and worked in Scunthorpe for three and a half years in the late 1990s and later worked in Mansfield for more than six years in the noughties. The towns have many similarities and both had the heart ripped out of them by the Thatcher government in the 1980s. A period that saw the decline of industries like coal and steel on which they were built. You can still see the damage today in the towns and their hinterlands. We had a large substance misuse service at Scunthorpe Community Healthcare Trust that provided clients with regular doses of diamorphine (heroin) or methadone. These were people who needed a regular fix to be able to hold down a job and maintain some sense of order in their otherwise chaotic lives. Imagine that, eh, your taxes paying for someone’s heroin addiction. It was a human consequence of economic policies pursued for short term financial gain at the expense of entire communities. Many towns fell on hard times and never truly recovered.

I grew up in Chesterfield, a dozen miles north-west of Mansfield, and, by rights, shouldn’t be too enamoured with Mansfield and its people. But then I do have a tendency to be a bit of a tree hugger. The towns have more in common than people prefer to admit. Chesterfield probably edges it with its proximity to the Peak District and famous crooked spire church instantly recognisable as you approach the town by road or rail. But it’s the miners’ strike that soured relations. Whilst most of Derbyshire and Yorkshire supported the 1984-85 strike solidly, many in North Nottinghamshire returned to work early and were labelled as “scabs”. A generation later and the scars still run deep. But who’s to say that many of us wouldn’t have behaved similarly in the same desperate circumstances? I was proud to strike with fellow public sector workers on 30th November last year but that was only one day. Imagine being on strike for weeks and months on end and someone offering you pots of cash to return to work.

Anyway what gives people the right to take a cheap shot at towns that are struggling? And what makes a town or city? Posh shops? Architecturally interesting buildings? Museums and art galleries? Leisure facilities? A decent football team? Or the people? For me, it’s the latter, and the main reason why I’ll defend the likes of Mansfield and Scunthorpe. They deserve better. I’ve got plenty of good friends from my time working at King’s Mill Hospital in Mansfield. Wonderful folk who wouldn’t think twice about helping you out in difficult circumstances. Scunthorpe was the same and, without doubt, the friendliest place I have ever lived. The town grew on the back of the steel industry following the discovery of iron ore in the mid-19th century. We lived in Rowland Road close to the town centre, named after Rowland Winn who discovered the iron ore. At the other end of the road the remaining steelworks hissed, clanked and rattled round the clock. It’s still the largest steelworks in Britain.

Since moving down south it’s saddened, but not surprised, me how little people know about towns like these. Towns with proud industrial histories that have contributed so much to Britain over the last two hundred years. Often folk are no more able to locate Mansfield or Scunthorpe on a map than they are to name the moons of Jupiter. But people will generally have an image of what they think the towns are like even if they’ve never been anywhere near them. And invariably it’s not particularly positive. Let’s face it; it’s rare you hear an upbeat story in the national media about either Mansfield or Scunthorpe. If they’re in the news it’s usually not good news. The coverage of Rebecca Adlington’s success in the 2008 Olympics was an exception.

The typical outsider view of towns like these was starkly illustrated for me during the visit to King’s Mill Hospital of a group of management consultants from the global firm McKinsey. They were with us for several weeks to show us how to manage the finances of the NHS in a more business-like fashion. And McKinsey being a worldwide company many of them had flown in from other assignments in the likes of Stockholm, New York and Singapore. They stopped in a hotel in the centre of Mansfield and got taxis to and from the hospital. I think the culture shock was a bit too much for some of them. “What do people in Mansfield do at night?” and “where is the Starbuck’s?” one of them asked me after a couple of days. The look of bewilderment said it all.

The likes of Mansfield and Scunthorpe may not possess Florentine beauty, Parisian chic or the cosmopolitan air of London or New York but they radiate a warmth and friendliness that can be infectious. The nightlife may not incorporate lavish nightclubs, frothy coffee and £8 bottles of Japanese lager but I have fond memories of many nights in Scunthonian venues; lock-ins at the Honest Lawyer, games of pool at the hospital social club, late night drinking and dancing at the Blarney.

Since moving to London, my journey to work that has changed immeasurably. The commute to King’s Mill Hospital culminated in parking in a car park next door to Morrison’s supermarket and wandering across the hospital site to an office in a portacabin. Now, it’s the tube to Sloane Square and a half hour stroll to offices in Chelsea Harbour via some of the most expensive real estate in the world. The streets of the older bits of Chelsea by the river remind you that London is an amalgam of many different villages. The surroundings may be poles apart from the likes of Mansfield and Scunthorpe but that doesn’t mean that the people who live in those streets are in any sense superior. Far from it.

The other morning I took a small detour from my usual route down the King’s Road. Outside one of the five floor mansions on a quiet street close to Sloane Square stood two police officers. This is the house where the body of Eva Rausing, one of the richest women in Britain, was found decomposing under a pile of bedding, clothes and bin bags a few days earlier. You may have glimpsed the story on the television news. Her husband and multi-millionaire Hans Rausing has been charged with preventing the lawful and decent burial of his wife. The couple were drug addicts and according to neighbours were “battling their demons”. Indeed, Eva Rausing was arrested after trying to take 52g of drugs to a party at the US embassy in 2008. Usually, being caught in possession of that amount of drugs would result in a prison sentence. But not for multi-millionaires.

Now, consider how this story would have been reported if it had happened on a council estate in Mansfield or Scunthorpe. Imagine the body of a female drug addict was found in the bedroom of a council house rotting under a pile of clothes, bedding and bin bags. And her husband, also a drug addict, is subsequently charged with denying his wife a decent burial. I suspect we would see a media scrum on the street outside the house with reporters providing regular updates for the rolling news channels. Surely, there would be a chance for the prime minister to dust off one of his favourite soundbites about “broken Britain”? And more pages of analysis of the dangers of drug abuse and the moral decay of the nation in the likes of the Daily Mail. Not to mention even more sanctimonious drivel about “chavs” and the perils of the “underclass”. Maybe even a chance to trot out that word that only gets used for folk who live on council estates. What is it? Ah, yes, “dysfunctional”.

This government is systematically putting the boot into some of the most vulnerable people in our society; the poor, the unemployed, recipients of welfare, single parents, people with disabilities and asylum seekers. Please don’t encourage them by insulting a town or city just because their high street looks a bit tatty. Let’s not do their dirty work for them.

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