The most exciting part about travelling, you would think, is things are different. This is even better when a place behaves exactly as it’s meant to. I was overwhelmed with joy on my first ever morning in New York, when a stranger in a cafe yelled ‘Fuck you asshole’ at me for no apparent reason. It was glorious, like arriving in Brazil and being immediately dragged into a carnival by a woman with fruit in her hair.
And within Britain I find it thrilling that you get out at Birmingham New Street station, after a ninety minute rail journey from London, and they’re all talking like that, different. And in Oldham they eat pie and red cabbage and in St. Helens they play rugby league, and everywhere has slightly difference reference points, creating that warm feeling of slight discomfort, as you’re not quite sure what’s going on, which makes a journey exciting. Which is why if you went to the South Pole and it was quite warm you’d want your money back.
So that, I suppose, is the premise for my radio show ‘Mark Steel’s In Town’. We started in the North Yorkshire town of Skipton because I did a show there last year, and thge place excelled itself at living up to a comically dour Yorkshire stereotype. I did one line that I’d done that week on television, and about twenty people yelled “You did that ont’ telly.” Then a woman called out “We don’t like yer jacket – it’s RED.” So I retaliated with “I was just trying to bring a bit of colour to your otherwise grey miserable agricultural lives,” and they liked that, before launching into more and more insults. Then, when I said I’d seen a road sign for Keighley and wondered whether that was their rival town, it went all quiet and in a chilling voice one woman said clearly “Keighley – is a sink of evil.”
And yet the whole place looks like the sort of town where they film dramas for Sunday nights on ITV. So even at the curry house, you expect a farmer to come in and say “Ee I’ll have a steaming hot bowl of your finest dopiaza please Betty love. And with extra chillies, I shall need warming up after inseminating that ewe.” And at the brothels of Skipton they must go “Not the full session tonight Elsie love, I have to be up at dawn to take calf to vets at Otley, just ‘and relief if that’s a’right wit’ thee love.”
Then, after choosing Skipton for this reason, it won the award for High Street of the Year, largely, it seems, for resisting the tsunami of chain shops that have engulfed almost every town centre. And to allay any fears that it might not be the right place to start the series, when I arrived at the theatre, which is in fact the cattle market, a farmer was stood by the door in a thick green jumper and very muddy boots. “I like yer bag, love” he said to the producer.
“Thanks,” she smiled.
“Now all yer need to make it perfect is to fill it wit’ bricks an’ chuck it at Prime Minister,” he said, and walked off.
Looking through the history of the place it’s clearly been dominated by cattle. The mist and perennial damp made the land unsuitable for much vegetation so early settlers relied on livestock, and this distinction has driven the place ever since.
In the eighteenth century there was a famous market every Monday, in the High Street. According to W.H. Dawson, editor of the Craven Pioneer “The filth and odours of massed animals could be almost unbearable, so dangerous to public health.”
Around the same time there was a circus, which advertised “For the first time in Britain come and see Tipster, the world’s first clairvoyant educated talking horse.”
That’s how hard to please they are in North Yorkshire – it has to be an educated talking horse – otherwise they’d go “I shan’t trouble myself with going to see stupid talking horse. Albert went down and asked it if he’d read much Russian literature, he said ‘I can’t say as I have, just snippets of Dostoyevsky’, well I don’t call that conversation, I shan’t bother going.”
Skipton is a funny place, I think, because it’s different. But every time I allow myself to think these shows will make sense to most listeners, I remember a night in Winchester. It was while I was doing a show about the French Revolution, and I tried to find some way in which the town I was in was connected to those events. In Winchester, it seemed, the town was transformed because hundreds of wealthy priests fled France, and came to England as posh refugees, and many of them were put up in Winchester Cathedral.
So I did this thing about how locals probably complained “Bloody Catholic priests coming over here, you don’t hear English round here no more, it’s all bleedin’ Latin. And they get straight out of the back of their lorry, go down the Town Hall and get given transubstantiation for free. My daughter’s been on a waiting list three years, not been given so much as a fucking wafer…” And I did a bit about this ugly statue of Alfred the Great they’ve got there, and about the twee shops near the theatre, and the people queuing up at the cathedral. And as I was leaving a middle-aged man approached me and said “Mark – lucky you were in Winchester tonight ay, seeing as you’ve got all that material about Winchester.”
And he must have believed, that the next night I’d do all that again, while the audience muttered “Why does this mean anything to us, given that we’re in Belfast?”, on account of how I hadn’t noticed that places are different.