Town in Steel (or some such pun that doesn’t quite work)

One joy of making the In Town series is experiencing the immense, sometimes ridiculous sense of pride in each place we visit, especially when there’s nothing obvious to show off about. Anyone can be proud of New York or Venice but it takes guts, talent, determination and an iron will to be proud of Corby.

No one there boasts about the panoramic views, because the most prominent view is of a 1970s concrete shopping centre that looks like a giant jumble sale, that’s infuriatingly complicated to find your way out of, so in desperation you head up some steps that lead to the sort of locked rusty gates you clamber over when being chased by Bruce Willis, then back past Greggs the bakers for the sixth time, when you become reconciled to setting up home in Poundland until you can persuade air rescue to send a helicopter.

It wouldn’t be easy to sell Corby as a tourist resort. The Holiday Inn franchise, bless them, gives it a go, and we stayed at the Corby branch of their franchise. I wonder how truthful that name is, and how many people decide that, for a change, instead of the beach they’re going for two weeks to a spot by a breaker’s yard on an industrial estate in Corby.

So the pride doesn’t revolve around its grand buildings or celebrities or restaurants, it stems from its ability to emerge from adversity.

The book Corby Works informs you humbly “Today Corby prospers again: a Phoenix risen from the ashes of its once proud heritage. A town that refused to die has, against all the odds, survived to see the dawning of a new age. A monument to its own endeavours and a shining example to others.”

It’s a speech that I think has been borrowed from Alexander the Great following his invasion of Egypt, but can easily be adapted to suit the re-opening of a fitness centre in Corby.

A project called Our Corby collated interviews and poems to create a film and a book, and found pride in unexpected areas, such as the history of the football team. For example there’s this magnificent piece –

“The unmistakable roar of a crowd, a goalmouth in silhouette,

The thud of a pass, the smell of grass, macassar oil and sweat.

This is a field where hearts are won, where names are muddied or made,

Where myths are born and chances torn and games like this one are played.

A lofted shot that clears the bar and leaves the keeper stretching up.

Yes that’s right, it’s the Inter-Village Graham Fraser Memorial Cup.”

But mostly the pride comes from its unique and brief history. It was built in the nineteen-thirties, in Northamptonshire, around the new steelworks, attracting unemployed steelworkers, many of which walked from Glasgow or Aberdeen for a job. So many came that the town retains a Scottish accent, even amongst people who’ve never been to Scotland.

Corby boasts the biggest Glasgow Rangers supporters Club outside Glasgow in the world. It hosts a Highland Games, and has the greatest sales of Irn-Bru outside Scotland, a fact cheered by the audience, in the way a Liverpool crowd might cheer if you mentioned they were five times winners of the European Cup.

I met Don and Irene, both in their seventies, at the Grampian Club. Don’s father had walked from Larkhall, near Glasgow to Corby in 1932, and though Don had hardly ever been to Scotland he had a smooth Scottish borders accent. He wore a jacket and tie to the club, and smiled as his wife told of the shows she’d seen at The Cube theatre, where I’d be doing the recording the next night. “The harmonies were glorious”, Irene said, “And I felt lifted, truly lifted.”

“I didn’t go”, said Don, “I was happier at The Grampian with a pint.”

Don did tell me an old steelworkers’ poem his dad often quoted, which also revealed the importance of the Golden Wonder crisp factory in the town. It went

‘I’m doon at the steel works, I work day and night

My wife’s making crisps, we have never a fight,

The reason we’re happy is clear de ye ken

My shift’s six to two and my wife’s two to ten’.

I mentioned the national steel strike of 1980 to Don, which he must have been involved with, but he giggled and gestured as if it had somehow passed him by.

Instead he and Irene talked of the times they went fishing, and swimming in the river that’s now blocked off as it’s too dangerous, and how the steelworks dominated every aspect of the town; the soot that ruined your washing if the wind blew the wrong way, the giant flame known as the Corby Candle you could see from near Peterborough. And Don grinned at almost everything Irene said, and as I left she told me she was looking forward to the show, and Don said “I won’t be there myself, I’m happier here at the Grampian with a pint.”

Don had been one of 14,000 people employed at the steelworks, until 1979 when Margaret Thatcher, having become Prime Minister, announced a series of closures at British Steel, including the plant at Corby, and the union responded by calling a national strike.

It began in 1980, while I was far away in Kent, a teenager new to the world of political activism, so I was excited at the idea of the strike, because somehow I might collect money for it or something and maybe even meet a steelworker, or at least meet someone from the north.

At one point two steelworkers even slept in the living room, which was a shock to my mum when she found them. To be fair to her, it must be confusing when a story you only expect to see on the news makes its way into your living room. It was probably as unlikely as coming home during the war with Iraq and seeing Saddam Hussein boiling an egg in the kitchen.

I spent three exciting months with the steel strikers, so I felt a connection with Corby. Because its story revolves around the opening and closing of that steelworks, and the strike consumed the whole town. There were sure to be a host of anecdotes and stories, hilarious and chaotic and inspiring, to use for the show.

Louise, an effervescent woman who delighted in how she shocked her grandchildren by entering swimming races in open rivers, had worked in the canteen at the steelworks. She bubbled with pride at the new poets and playwrights in Corby, but seemed unable to remember many stories from the strike.

Iain, who’d made tubes, and whose father moved there in 1933, living for the first few months under a bush, was enthusiastic about the kids’ art project he’d helped to set up, but couldn’t remember much about the days of the closure.

And that was the pattern. They’d enthuse about the new library and leisure centre, and joyfully explain how every human attribute; intelligence, common courtesy, the ability to pole vault, will be done far better in Corby than by the filthy inhabitants of Kettering, which has the sheer nerve to be another town, eight miles away.

But ask about stories from the strike and the closure and you’d hear “Hmm, can’t remember.”

During the recording, I asked the audience if anyone had a story to tell from those days. “I have, I was on strike”, called a tall middle-aged man, and he got up to speak.

“Well, it was just, you know, we travelled about and went on marches, and well, huh, that was it really.”

“How many of you went?” I asked. “How did you get there?” “Who was the wildest person you met?”

But every answer was “Don’t know really”, and everyone shuffled a bit, until it felt as if the whole audience collectively passed a motion that went “I think you’d best move onto another subject, Mark.”

So I talked about the characters I’d met in the Working Men’s Club and their Cold War with Kettering, and they all chirped up again.

Afterwards in the bar, Irene told me how much she’d enjoyed the show, and said “We weren’t being rude, love, when we didn’t have a lot to say about the strike and the closure. But it wasn’t an easy time. Don marched from Corby to London with a banner. It made him angry about everything, we split up for a year because it was too much to live with. But we were lucky, two of our closes friends committed suicide in the months after the closure. So people would rather forget about those times really. But there are so many people helping each other out now, it’s making the town recover, and we’re very proud of that. Don’t get me wrong though, we loved the show. Don would have loved it too, but he does enjoy his pint at The Grampian.”

PS We hoped to go for a post-show swim in the open river, but it’s been blocked off for being too dangerous. So we had to make do with the disappointingly miserably comfortable one in the Holiday Inn.

After each show we raise a drink to the next destination, with a tipple apt for where we’re heading. As the next recording was in Chipping Norton, we asked the waiter in a curry house if they sold champagne. “Yes”, he gulped, excitedly, “Yes I think we have some.” He’d clearly never been asked this before and came back to say “We have this one, for ninety-five pounds.” So we had a brandy instead. It’s the thought that counts.