1. Newcastle upon Tyne. Five hours to get there on a slow train. It’s the coldest place I’ve ever been. Icy wind whips off the North Sea across the Tyne and the five bridges. Nevertheless the lasses all have skirts up to their bums and the lads walk around with no tops on. They all drink Newcastle Brown Ale, a beverage to blow your hat off. Mercifully the natives are friendly though you can’t understand a word they say. Lose the match 0-3. Five hours home on the slow train. A day of my life I’ll never get back and I’m not going to risk another.
2. Sheldon (Birmingham), Warwickshire. OK this one pains me as I lived there for more than 20 years. It sits astride the old London – Birmingham coaching road and used to have a little character. Now it is cheap and depressed. Where once there were butchers and bakers there are Aldis and Tescos. Warehouses have sprung up purveying cheap carpets, furniture and DIY supplies. You risk your life crossing the main highway either by dodging the speeding traffic or the lowlifes (real or imaginary) in the subways. Pound shops, bargain rails, sales, booze at wholesale prices. The inhabitants shuffle to and fro hopelessly. The only café shuts just after 2pm. The nearby housing is 1930s and uniformly depressing. The pubs are community barns with food, quiz nights and not a single drop of drinkable ale.
Sadly the foregoing is true of so many dormitories of English cities. The inner cities retain life and purpose with their multi-ethnic communities but the satellite districts are dead in the water.
Best thing in Sheldon – La Caverna, a restaurant that has shouted quality for 40 years or more amidst the mediocrity.
3. Lowestoft, Suffolk. The ideal place to polish off my last book. Not for a minute was I distracted by anything the town has to offer. Clearly the ancient High Street, climbing above the bay, was once bustling and thriving. Now shops are empty or hang on grimly. Some magnificent old Victorian buildings, former pubs, are boarded up. Few people seem to venture up that way. And why? A brash new traffic-free shopping centre further down identical to another hundred up and down the country. Soulless, windswept and dreary – though in fairness I only ventured down there after dark. Lowestoft, a place that has a great location and history and which ought to be thriving even in these hard times. Don’t send me back there unless…
…I can spend my days and nights in the only redeeming feature, the magnificent Triangle Tavern, wholly at odds with the rest of the town.
4. Coventry, Warwickshire. OK it wasn’t the city’s fault that the Luftwaffe bombed the place flat in November 1940. And I confess to having avoided the place for years. But what I recall was an utter mess of traffic-clogged city streets with few redeeming features. ‘Getting sent to Coventry’ was what used to happen to misbehaving monks and it must have been the ultimate deterrent to temptation.
5. London (all of it). We Brummies have a chip on our shoulder when it comes to London, as Corkonians have with Dublin. There it sits, the capital of England, refusing to acknowledge that anywhere else exists. A sparrow can fart in Shoreditch and the ‘national’ Press will write about it. Yet if Lowestoft were to be carried off by aliens (yes please) it would not rate a mention.
Everything is self-importance and bustle. Must go somewhere, must do something. The poor tourists are fleeced of their money and hurried through Madame Tussauds, then the Tower of London with its wingless ravens without whom the Crown and England will fall.
It’s nasty and cheap, somewhere to pass through on the way to somewhere else. Its too big, too busy, too threatening. Don’t like it.
The best thing to come out of London? The road leading to Birmingham.