By Kenn Taylor
Where can we find this powerhouse then? The concrete cooling towers of coal fired power, as they switch off one by one, are now more likely to be found in coffee table books than looming over the Northern landscape. Reverence only for our everyday once it becomes something safe and of the past.
Travelling transpennine isn’t just going through the peaks and troughs of the mountain range that divides east and west, it’s also a journey though the sites of the birth and death of Industrial Empire Britain. Those battles may have been sketched on the playing fields of Eton, but the cannon, and the cannon fodder, came from here, not down near Slough.
Northern clichés are ten a penny and mainly now something for clips on beer pumps and museums of social history. Silk union banners, pigeon racers, brass bands. All still there, but increasingly cultures of the past kept going not thriving. This of course is still much of what academia and the media want to pick over, as its easier than dealing with the contemporary cultures of hip hop from Hull or boy racers from Burnley.
Culture and place rarely stay still. Even in the rural spots that can seem idyllic from the trains that grumble through the landscape, the agrarian was often long ago replaced by the Range Rover commuter and the loft conversion firm owner. Things shift even faster in the cities. In Manchester and Leeds, you pass through clean modern stations, see towers and tower cranes soaring, all looking VIBRANT for CONTEMPORARY LIVING.
Yet on our route, where once a variety of specialised economies brewed particular cultures, now a few graduates are concentrated into the biggest conurbations, while the places they left struggle ever more. While culture rarely stays still, in some places it stops being renewed and begins to fall back in on itself. Looking always to the better times of the past, even if they weren’t that much better for most, because of the lack of a coherent present.
You cannot explain to someone who has not experienced it, the collective psychological damage to the people of a place when you remove from them its reason to exist. When the new replaces the old and gradually becomes the way of life, agrarian to commuter village, industrial city to financial one, someone always loses in those shifts. But as people are born and die and the social and physical landscape changes, leaving traces of the past to be wondered at, there is at least a sense of moving forward. In many places though and definitely as we move transpennine, there’s a sense not of change, but of growing wreck and continued loss that has hit many places.
Transpennine is a landscape you struggle not fly through and so much of it is suffering from being in the wrong part of a country with a logjammed imagination. The Pacer trains, lest we forget just bus bodies fastened to freight wagon frames, may finally be shuffling off, but the gulf between rich and poor, North and South remains as crude and uncomfortable as those trains. Fractured transport links take us through fractured locations. Places which once thrived, but at the stroke of many faraway pens over many years, have been rendered down. Once it seemed that the grim post-industrial tide could be contained. Single out the few places which had ‘failed to adapt’. An odd city, a few towns, all those mining villages swiped for the Thatcherite victory. Too bad for them. It couldn’t happen here. Yet, one by one, more places were hit. Write them all off, don’t include them in the glossy proclamations of the future, then the bitterness grows and grows.
The people in these places can see the future too. The arse end version of it. The Digital HQ in Manchester, the Digital Warehouse in Doncaster. The chosen and the not chosen. In the cities flush with capital, anti-capitalism grows. Too much money, too much petrol poured on the bonfire of development. All those deals signed in fauxthentic bars with big lightbulbs. Each handshake another nail in somewhere that doesn’t light up on investors radars. While those left on the other side of the glass, nursing broken promises of education on a Deliveroo bike, are driven by the need for change. In these cities there’s so much power and wealth, it can seem like all you need to think about is how to seize it.
Outside the chosen places though, capitalism might mean the one last shiny factory which pays well. Controlled by a faraway head office and let’s say it makes something to do with war or pollution or both, but what if there is nothing else left? Try telling the people who live there it should be abolished. When so much else has been hollowed out, fallen into malign decay after years of broken promises. Football teams struggling to survive outside of the Premier League elite. The boarded pub, the empty shops, all those building societies liquidated for the benefit of The City, and the civic, the long, poor battered civic. No longer the proud striding constructors of fine buildings all pushing to a better tomorrow. Now desperate for Government aid to even keep the streetlights on. And when everything is in decline, trying to believe in a more equitable and brighter future is hard. Especially when your young people often leave. Even in the cities of glass they head for though, the disquiet increases. They grew the middle class but didn’t lift up the left behind. The homeless an ever-constant reminder you cannot hide from the poverty in this country. Even for the middle class, the DESIREABLE suburbs are increasingly out of reach, along with the permanent contract and the final salary pension. The university fees, the good schools. The fear grows. The anxiety never leaves.
Yet despite all that weighs down, there is still a beauty ever under-appreciated and unacknowledged. From the immense flat vastness of East Riding, like Kansas made Yorkshire, bits of it crumbling away every day trying to find the lost link to the Netherlands. To the West, the arrival in Liverpool, cathedrals soaring out of the density of terraces before the descent into the dramatic dark cutting in and out of shafts out of light towards Lime Street. In between the two, all those mills that built the place and then left them. Cotton and wool. Wool and cotton. Cloth, like many things, something we actually still need but decided that we no longer needed to make. The mills fate too, divided between places chosen and not chosen. In the bright spots converted into startup complex No.32 or Urban Luxury Living. Elsewhere though LOW DEMAND FOR PROPERTY and LIMITED RETURN ON INVESTMENT means being left rotting or crudely subdivided MOTOR REPAIRS UNIT TO LET DANCING STUDIO LABELS WHILE U WAIT. But mostly TO LET.
What was formed on this route from the land and how we shaped the land itself too. From the expansive shires, their land-owning gentry going back Yea, even unto the Middle Ages. The rain of Manchester to stop the breaking of the thread. Yorkshire mills on hills next to river courses. The vast estuary ports feeding all those needs. Poets cried as industry scared the landscape, the extraction of coal, the rising of those dark satanic mills and squalid cities. Yet from that darkness rose everything we know and the fragments of which we still hold dear, the grand buildings, the railways and avenues. Yet it was all built on the belief of endless growth and the exploitation of faraway colonies. They thought the landscape was being destroyed by the mills, now we mourn their loss. The industrial terrain reduced to ruins like all those Yorkshire abbeys painted by Turner. Yet the postmodern shopping cathedrals built to replace the factories now too are running empty. Even shorter lived, crumbling visions of our once new consumer future. Arcadia it seems never really existed. An easy lie, the corruption and iniquity of the past forgotten as we absorb only the positive images of what has gone before. Passing still through our civic centres though, even if cuts have left their scars from endlessly deferred maintenance and damp in the walls, you can still see where we tried to build Jerusalem. Now we’re told, who will pay for Jerusalem, son?
Step off the train. Where to from here? Become a London satellite or a forgotten corner? Things get worse, things fall apart? Is there an alternative, some threat to the Capital’s status quo, like when industry thundered from the North like a sonic boom? A Wind Turbine Factory for every town? Maybe, but not likely. One day perhaps they will build a fast train for us to cross this landscape, see all this and each other that much quicker, that much easier. Yet it is not enough. If we are to thrive again it is down to us. If we want to live, if we want to be heard, if we want to be different then we must build our own future across this post-industrial land. All of us, not just the chosen few. Our way. Across this spine. Transpennine.
This piece was published in Issue 5 of Lune Journal in July 2021.
By Kenn Taylor