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Bolton Town Hall

It was going up for nine on a bitter winter’s night, with snow on the car-park and a frost already settling. I’d been in college since eight thirty that morning, the last lecture commencing around seven, by which time not a lot was going in. You just had to keep up with your notes, and hope it made sense when you read them back in the week.

When I got to the car, the door was ajar. I wondered if I’d not shut it properly, a careless thing to have done, this being Bolton, rumoured by then to be the car crime capital of the UK. I couldn’t get the key in the ignition because there was already a bit of a key in there. Someone had broken in and tried to take the car – Ford Cortinas were notoriously easy – but the good luck fairy had seen to it the key had snapped. The thief made do with a pair of cheap driving gloves from the dash, then legged it. I was also lucky in having a toolbox – lucky again that wasn’t nicked as well – but anyway I had a pair of snout-nosed pliers in there and managed to winkle the key out. Then I drove home along snowy roads. Had my car been nicked, that would really have spoiled my day.

It sums up my acquaintanceship with Bolton. It was a place of hard work, and not always worth it, though the place also possessed a rough protective charm, one that allowed me to pass unscathed through the worst it had to offer. So, in spite of its occasionally firm hand, I still have an affection for the place.

I did two years as a day release student at the Institute of Technology. The company was paying, so it made sense to see if I could hack it. The course had a low pass rate, even among star students, and anyone with any sense did a degree instead. But degrees were full time, and you had to catch that boat earlier on in life, via the sixth forms, not as a guy already working, post apprenticeship. Your course in life was set by then, and you were lucky if you had an employer who’d let you out for study a day a week. Nowadays, there’s no chance. They want blood from the get-go.

Those were the Thatcher years, too, of course, and the slow death of the social contract. But the svengalis had sweetened it all with a veneer of easy credit that had everyone thinking they were rich, when they weren’t. Also, unknown to me as I studied to be a what I suppose you’d call an industrialist, the tide had turned, and the UK had begun shedding its industries. My timing, as always, was a bit off.

So the big manufactories were calling in the likes of Price Watermouse, who had these flip charts that showed us how you got higher returns investing your money in the City than you did from investing in manufactories, so the manufactories dwindled to piles of old brick, while the money went south to the Citadel. There, it got invested in things with no shape to them, things you couldn’t hold, or wear or eat, and which appeared only as a jiggly line on a computer graph.

If you never left London, you might be forgiven for thinking everything was fine, because the shine didn’t come off that place until it was revealed how much of its wealth had come not just from our defunct industries, but those of the recently plundered Soviet Union as well. But we didn’t know about any of that. The north just felt hollow from the early nineties onwards, and it grew increasingly obvious nothing great would ever come out of our industries again. Anything that did would be bought up by foreign money and shipped out. For those of us still working, much of the work was about managing decline amid dwindling budgets.

Anyway, driving through Bolton this morning, I have the sense of entering a parallel universe. I used to know the town well, but as I drive past the college, I don’t recognise anything. The car park where I nearly lost my car that night looks like it’s home to a huge modern building, part of the smart, new University campus, and there are students everywhere. Meanwhile, the rest of town looks like every other in the north: wrecked, and no reason for people to go there any more. The Civic buildings look as grand as ever, but radiating out from them is an earthquake of ruin, as far as the eye can see. And the impressively ingenious security for getting into the Octagon carpark, also suggests there’s still a problem with car-thievery.

I’m here for a wedding, and pleasant though that is in these unremittingly downbeat times, I cannot help but wonder at the direction of travel since I last walked these streets. In 1985, if you had an engineering degree, you were a rare individual, and respected for it. You rose with some justification above the rest, and got yourself fast tracked into the officer class, but there was still plenty of work, and good work, if you’d not got a degree in you, indeed even if you’d little in you by way of IQ at all. All you needed was confidence and drive. God knows what you’re supposed to do now.

The credit boom ignited by Thatcher and Reagan crashed to earth in 2008, and no one saw it coming. We’ve been limping along ever since, the industrial towns sinking into the crazed tarmac and buckled pavements, at an ever faster rate, while paradoxically, a new form of debt raises these glossy degree factories from the old polytechnics. This is an astonishing funding wheeze our kids will be paying off for the rest of their lives. So now the vast student populations flood these new university towns where the spivs snap up all the cheaper housing stock for rent, thus squeezing out the ordinary people, so the primary schools dwindle for want of children and the soul of the town dies.

There’s a new documentary by Adam Curtis – seemingly the last of the renegade BBC voices – that seems curiously prescient. It takes us not to Bolton, but to Moscow. The wealth of Russia was stolen from under Yeltzin’s nose by a form of hyper-capitalism, one that went off like a vacuum bomb, leaving the ordinary citizen with nothing. It meant a small number of rich people could hold preposterously luxurious parties, leaving the rest to scramble around for the basics. The extent of the crisis is neatly summed up in one memorable line in which bewildered shoppers were told: there are no potatoes in Moscow.

When I look at the shock tactics of our own governing class in recent weeks, I refuse to believe it is the result of a crass incompetence. Indeed, I feel a similar devil is at work, and sense one day soon the possibility we will go to Tesco’s to find they have no potatoes either. And, as inevitable as all that will have seemed – at least in retrospect – no one will have seen it coming.

But in a parallel world, my car did indeed get nicked that night. I remember I was a heartbeat from quitting the job anyway, because I’d a hankering after being a writer, and poet instead, and I was having a hard time suppressing that side of me for fear of a lonely life and starving to death. But I also had a novel doing the rounds of the London publishers, and I’d nearly enough money saved to buy a house outright, up in the West of Scotland, where they were dirt cheap, at least back then, before anyone had thought of Air B+B. I was thinking about taking a chance the book would come good, that I’d somehow scrape by on luck, even though I’d heard nothing from the publishers in six months. Then a Bolton car thief kicked me in the nuts, and made up my mind for me, set me on the train for Glasgow and the Fort.

I most likely starved to death some time in the later nineties, living out in the wilds of Ardnamurchan. By then, I had a reputation for being a recluse, and just one more eccentric Sassenach who’d found himself unsuited to the rat race. I never married, never had kids, and my life’s worth amounted to a pile of poems that never sold, and a collection of grainy black and white photographs of lonely loch and mountain. There would still come a time when there were no potatoes in Tescos, but that wasn’t something I’d live to see and be writing poems about.

Or maybe it wasn’t like that at all. Maybe the miners gave the cops a bloody nose at Orgreave that day in ’84, and Maggie called the army in, so then we all had to pick our sides instead of just watching it on the telly. And the poets, and the Romantics of the soft left won over hearts and minds to the social contract, which was patched up and made fit for the twenty-first century. Now no one’s scared to switch on the lights, and there are always plenty of potatoes. It’s something to ponder anyway.

Thanks for listening.

Header photo adapted from an image by Stephen McKay, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9044236

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