Tuesday 19 August 2008

On the whole, I'd rather be in Sunderland

I wonder whether pictures of the last Grand Central trainload of evacuees from Sunderland in 2010 will ever conjure up such poignant feelings as the images of the final inhabitants of St Kilda being taken off the island by HMS Harebell in 1930.

St Kildans apparently developed unusually thick and strong ankles by climbing the sheer cliffs of the outlying sea stacks in pursuit of seabirds and their eggs. Makems (as they were never called when I was a lad) presumably once had immensely strong arms as a result of all those years hammering rivets into ships. Though one imagines that these must have withered a bit since the yards closed, and the principal manual activities have become signing on, lifting pints and making obscene gestures at visiting Tory politicians and think tank researchers.

As a Northumbrian, I can think of few places I would less like to live than Sunderland. Though, funnily enough, one of them is a place that Policy Exchange suggested as a suitable receiving centre for the pitiful refugees from the north: Cambridge.

I lived in Cambridge for six years in the 1970s, while nominally pursuing my education, and it was without doubt the most miserable time of my life. Not only because of the embarrassing lack of sophistication resulting from my grammar school education; or the distressing lack of, er, social opportunities in what were still almost entirely single sex colleges; or the poverty engendered by the Heath-Barber hyperinflation of the mid-1970s, capped by the candle-lit misery of the Three Day Week.

It was a time when the country really did appear to be going to hell in a handcart. There was even bizarre talk of a military takeover under the leadership of Lord Mountbatten. But it was undoubtedly made worse by experiencing it all in the midst of the flat, dull fenlands, where the winter winds sweep in directly from Siberia, with a viciousness I had never experienced in the North East.

There is a small area of central Cambridge which is duly famed throughout the world for its beauty. But the bulk of the town has nothing whatsoever to recommend it. The average resident of Southwick would feel justifiably short changed if compelled to move there.

Similarly, Cambridge undoubtedly houses a small number of very bright people. At least half of the greatest advances in human knowledge since the birth of Christ were made within a mile of King’s College Chapel, from the formulation of the law of gravity via the splitting of the atom to the discovery of DNA. But the bulk of the population, at least in my day, comprised hereditary college servants of preternatural slowness, as splendidly captured in Tom Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue.

Of course, I write of distant times. Cambridge is now a “science city”, prospering from the commercial spin-offs of its academic research. The isolated small town I knew is also well linked into the broader South East economy via the M11 and fast electric trains, which take a mere 45 minutes non-stop to King’s Cross.

Indeed the main blight on this earthly paradise seems to be the overwhelming pressure of tourist numbers on the tiny historic centre. Could there be more a effective way of dealing with this problem than the construction of some unsightly pigeon crees and the dumping of a load of old fridges and mattresses on the college lawns, while filling the streets with whippet-walking, chain-smoking, wife-beating, flat-hat-wearing Andy Capp lookalikes, wrapped in red and white mufflers and burbling incomprehensibly about the Black Cats?

Bring it on, I say. And as New Sunderland withers by the Cam, we can redevelop the old one with a splendid combination of landfill, nuclear power plants and wind turbines. Box ticked, problem solved. Another British gold for blue sky thinking.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne. After being ever so slightly censored to make it less offensive to their esteemed readers in Sunderland.

No comments: